The phone rings. At the other end is a distraught person. Ever since grandpa died, the family has been in constant conflict. As a personal property appraiser, I quickly discover that what everyone thought was a close-knit family has suddenly fallen apart. The fight over the estate causes heartache. The reason is obvious: once money is introduced into the family equation, fault lines appear. Each person mentions that grandpa promised something, that his car is mine, or that somehow the sterling silverware has disappeared. The combination of heirs and discussions about who gets what prompts civil war. Tears are shed. Lawyers are contacted.
The Risk of Elder Abuse
In one such case, a son was living with his wealthy and elderly father. The son was a drug addict with an expensive habit. I was called by a daughter who asked if I could have the estate appraised. I made arrangements for my real estate appraiser to go to the home. What should have been a straightforward appraisal turned into a nightmare. When the appraiser arrived, a neighbor reported that he often heard moans coming from the house. The son refused to let the appraiser enter. Then, the appraiser called me. I quickly contacted the lawyer, who informed the daughter about what the neighbor heard. The daughter went to the house immediately, but also was refused entry.
So, the lawyer called the police. To make a long story short, the police found the father tied to the bed posts and his adult diapers had not been changed for several days. The son was arrested and charged with elder abuse. The father was taken to an assisted nursing facility where he recovered from his son’s torture. Once the daughter took over the estate, we worked closely with her, not only for the real estate appraisal but we also appraised the contents of the residence and audited the financial records.
Avoiding Family Disputes
These and too many similar stories are more common than we would like to believe, but there are ways to minimize and even avoid family in-fighting. First and foremost, both a will and a trust must be established. Generally, these show how the owner of the estate wants the estate to be distributed. Second, a detailed plan drawn up by an estate and trust lawyer avoids the lengthy and expensive route of probate. When a person dies intestate (that is, without a will), the estate can get caught up in a morass of red tape. When this happens, the courts may make decisions about the distribution of the estate in a manner that no one wants.
After the will and trust have been completed, copies should be distributed to each person mentioned. Each person should sign a receipt for the document so no one can claim they never got a copy. When an estate is large enough to require the payment of federal estate tax, the law requires an appraisal of the estate’s property to be completed (and a tax return filed) within nine months of the date of death. If property within the estate is located in more than one state, heirs should check with their attorneys to see if probate proceedings (known as ancillary proceedings) will need to be commenced in each state.
Bear in mind that different states have different laws concerning how estates are settled. For example, the four states that border Mexico (California, Arizona, New Mexico and Texas) have community property laws that go back to their Mexican heritage. Therefore, it is important to have a comprehensive estate plan that clearly spells out the details of who gets what property. Unfortunately, when the estate is settled, bitterness within families often lingers, especially if careful estate planning does not take place.