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May 10, 2016

Who Will Get Your Stuff?

My mother inherited a lovely set of sterling silver flatware from her mother. One day we were discussing her huge accumulation of possessions passed down through several generations, and she told me about the silverware. It happened to be the same pattern as a set owned by her cousin, and Mom wanted me to make sure that her set would go to the cousin after her (Mom's) death.

I wasn't sure this was possible. As her executor, I would have a fiduciary duty to dispose of her property in accordance with the law and the provisions of her will. I couldn't just give valuable things to people, even if I thought that was what she wanted, especially since I couldn't be sure that Mom's heirs would all agree.

My suggestion was that she give the silverware to the cousin now. That way, Mom could guarantee that the item would go to the right person, and she would get the pleasure of handing the gift to someone who would greatly appreciate and enjoy it.

So, Mom had lunch with the cousin and surprised her with the silverware. Everyone was happy.

Unlike many people, my parents created an estate plan, which includes their wills. While it doesn't cover every detail (like the silverware), it is clear about how their assets will eventually be distributed.

Without a will, the law decides what will happen to a deceased person's property. Often this means that things are not handled the way we would prefer. Few of us will leave estates as large and complicated as Prince's, but even modest estates may end up subjected to family feuds, exorbitant probate costs, and tragic, unintended consequences.

In one sad case that made the news several years ago, a man died, no doubt assuming that everything would go to his widow. Instead, investigators tracked down some distant cousins who had been completely unknown to the man. Because of the way inheritance laws worked in that state, the cousins got a large portion of the estate, forcing the elderly widow to sell her home. The cousins, who had never heard of the man until they were located by the investigators, could have refused to take the money, but they were greedy and felt no remorse for impoverishing a woman who had expected to remain in her own home and keep whatever she and her husband had managed to save. Because the law allowed it, they considered themselves entitled.

Not only is it possible for your property to go to relatives you'd rather ignore, if an appropriate heir cannot be found, your property will go to the state. Very few people would make that choice.

No matter how young you are, if you have a spouse and/or children, you need a will to protect their interests. In many states, you may also want to create a trust, which can make it easier and less expensive for your trustee or executor to distribute your property according to your wishes. Make sure you work with a qualified attorney, especially if your situation is complicated or if you plan to do something unusual, such as disinheriting someone, since unusual provisions often trigger challenges.

People sometimes shy away from estate planning, because thinking about their own mortality is uncomfortable. It's actually a painless process, just a matter of making a few decisions and doing a little paperwork, much of which is standardized. My husband and I took care of this several years ago, leaving us with one less important thing to worry about.

2 fabulous comments:

  1. This is a fantastic and, I think, tremendously important post. I agree wholeheartedly that everyone (regardless of marital status and age, once they're adults) should have a will and if a prearranged funeral is not possible, at least a letter of preferences regarding funeral arrangements.

    When my father died (long after Mom), I was 'fortunate' in the sense that as an only child with no extended family, I was the sole legal heir to his estate. Not only had he not left a will (a situation which would have caused legal if not emotional grief if I had any siblings or family), he had left no indication of which friends or charities should benefit from gifts of his belongings or money. During a very painful time (I had found my father deceased at his home), I struggled to think who he would have wanted to receive which belongings (his records to one friend, his tools to another).

    I've learned an important lesson from this: we can continue to demonstrate our love for our family and friends upon our passing by making our wishes known. Life is a blessing and death naturally follows for all of us; it's unavoidable. What we can avoid is adding to our loved ones' grief by leaving legal and funereal matters unresolved.

    1. Great comment, Aliyah. Let our love and caring continue beyond our lives.


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