Vexations and Conundrums

By Katina Pontikes

The Big Grab

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Boy was I ever naïve! I used to wonder why probate attorneys existed. In my mind, people wrote wills and any lawyer could execute them as they were written, respecting the desires of the deceased, neatly spelled out in black and white. Who needed a probate lawyer?

Years rolled by, and friends experienced the dividing of estates. I too went through the ghastly aftermath of the loss of a parent. And I listened in astonishment as tales of woe occurred when survivors of family or friends of those who had passed experienced the attacks that followed if there was anything at all to divide.

Wills be damned! It is as if a cannon is fired and all interested parties begin a race to see who can get to the spoils the fastest. The first common occurrence is what I’ll call the Burglar Effect. Family members manage home access before the body is even in the ground. If they have keys, all the better. Excuses abound. Perhaps they have left something at Mom’s house, or they need to be sure the lights were turned off. Then, while they are on their humanitarian mission, they load some beloved object in their car while no one is there to witness.

These objects can be as benign as the family bible, a beloved iron pot used by Grandma, or a hand-stitched quilt by great-aunt Cora. Other times the desired loot is as significant as the family china (perhaps they have the only daughter in the family, or some other seemingly rational justification for the action. “No one else will want this Limoges!”).

Once, I heard about a helpful relative who spotted a rug that was perfect for their home. The individual rolled it up right there on the spot and carted it off. This was before any inventory of family goods had been conducted, of course. And that is pretty much how the early stage begins.

After a will is introduced, relatives and friends process the news. I’ve heard of a friend claiming to be owed a personal debt of X amount, undocumented, of course. Or a sister, estranged from the deceased, who feels a blood entitlement to something from the estate, “for family reasons.” Challenges abound, and they usually result in some monetary settlement, for “nuisance value.” This means it’s cheaper than paying the legal fees to buy them off with a payment.

Heaven forbid if the deceased was gay or unmarried and lived with a partner. Those tales are the cruelest. The beloved is told to vacate the premises, leave the car, skedaddle. Recently, gay marriage helped stem the tide on these stories. But even then, without good wills, protections are limited.  I knew of one case where a gay couple lived together for decades, only to have the surviving partner become homeless at an old age, because he didn’t prevail in an estate dispute. Living partners who were told, “The family will take care of you, don’t worry,” are screwed.

A whole different area for potential danger lies with the executor. The executor may like wiggling room in handling legal matters. If negotiations are attempted in writing and get somewhat conflicted, attempts may be made to “talk things over,” thereby leaving no paper trail. Beware. Or, record keeping is so much trouble that transparency is lost.

Family members all look at estates through their own prism of needs. Half-full glasses are almost empty. Perspective is rock solid, whether it makes sense or not. And emotions run high as competing camps are formed and the Hatfields and McCoys come to mind. Politics in families is just like politics in government. All sides think they are right.

So, after all these bleak observations on estates, what have I learned? Get thee to a qualified specialist on estates, draft a tight will, and update it frequently, as life changes occur (which is constantly!). Run, make your appointment now!

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