Friday, September 12, 2014

How to prevent the messy estate: the fight over pots and pans

More and more, I have clients who come to me and simply ask for "help." The scenario usually is
something like this:


Older (parent/relative) passes away. You and another (sibling/family member) are the sole beneficiaries of their estate. You live two states away, and the other person lives close by. After the funeral, you go by the house to check on things. Its ransacked, anything of value is gone, and the other beneficiary won't answer their phone. What to do?


This is a big problem in modest estates, where the bulk of the value is in tangible personal property. Is there any recourse? Sure, you can try and sue for the return of the diamond necklace, grandpa's cowboy boots, or the coin collection, but it will be very, very difficult for you to prove who took what, and even with a victory in court, good luck collecting.

The best course of action is to keep communication lines open. If you are someone who wants certain items to go to certain people, write that down. I commonly encourage estate planning clients to include with their wills and important papers a list or binder of certain tangible personal property they want to go to certain individuals. I don't put this list in the actual will because people change their mind too often, and items can be lost, sold, etc., which causes problems if it is in the will. If you suspect this might happen to you, your best bet is to try and maintain a close relationship with your family and develop trust.  Just because you are named as someones beneficiary, doesn't mean property is yours for the taking. This can be a difficult lesson to learn, if you are the person who feels entitled or the person who ends up with nothing after someone else cleaned out all your inheritance.


While the above referenced scenario is more common in modest estates, some of the fiercest estate fights I have seen have been in estates of great wealth, but heirs fight over sentimental items like china or a belt buckle. We want to remember our lost loved ones, but the best way to prevent these disputes in through planning. If you foresee your heirs having a dispute, give it away now, or put someone else in charge. If you foresee a dispute down the line with other beneficiaries, start talking now.

At the end of the day, remember its just stuff. Stuff can be replaced. Family and relationships are much more difficult to mend. 

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