Law News and Tips
Fred L. Vilbig © 2019
Mary’s husband Joe died over a year ago. They had a simple estate. Everything was owned jointly. They had done some estate planning by signing “I-Love-You” wills, durable powers-of-attorney, and medical directives. An “I-Love-You” will is one that says everything goes to the surviving spouse, but if they’re not alive, then everything gets divided equally among the kids and distributed outright. Nothing fancy, but it covers the bases.
Since everything was held jointly, Mary didn’t bother to file the will with the Probate Court. She didn’t think it was necessary. Although it’s not important to our story, the law does say that if you have a decedent’s will, you are supposed to file it. If you don’t, the court can order you to file it. It’s kind of serious business. Now back to our story. As I said, Mary didn’t file the will.
Time passed. Mary had a hard time going through Joe’s stuff. They had been married for a long time, and Mary missed him terribly. But after almost 2 years, she started going through all of his papers to sort through them and throw out things she didn’t need or want. And as sometimes happens, she found an old life insurance policy. Joe had been in the military before they had married, and he had taken out a paid-up life insurance policy. He named his parents as the beneficiaries, but they had died a long time ago. There wasn’t a backup beneficiary, so the life insurance proceeds would have to be paid to Joe’s probate estate. But that was the problem.
Since Mary didn’t file Joe’s will within a year of his death, the will could not be filed. To be valid in Missouri, a will must be filed within a year of a person’s death. In addition, without a filed a will, you can only open an intestate estate (an estate without a will) within one year of the person’s death. So even though Mary had Joe’s will and the insurance proceeds were payable to Joe’s “estate,” Mary couldn’t get to the insurance proceeds … at least not that way. So what to do?
When a person has been dead for over a year and no will was filed, in order to “probate” a decedent’s assets, you have to petition the court for a determination of heirship. To determine heirship, you have to petition the court to determine who are the heirs entitled to the assets. It’s a little more involved than probate in some ways, and it requires a hearing with a court appearance. Most people dread court appearances for some reason.
So for Mary, we had to proceed with a determination of heirship. Not the worst thing, but then I won’t be the one on the witness stand.
The moral of the story is that if a person dies with a will, you need to file the will with the Probate Court. If you discover an asset more than a year after their death, you can probate it. Believe it or not, under these circumstances, probate is probably the preferred solution. Who’d of thunk it?
Without a plan in place things fall apart.
Fred L. Vilbig © 2019
Life is short. The older I get, the more evident that becomes. When I was young, 30 seemed so old; 60 seemed like forever away and 70 was an eternity, and 80 or 90 was just incomprehensible nonsense. And then suddenly, it’s here. We don’t necessarily feel that old. In fact, in our heads, we’re still 25 or 30, but the mirror tells us something entirely different. How can all of that happen?
And when you start to think about the brevity of life, you can start to think about what your life has meant. We take ourselves entirely too seriously (and probably rightfully so) to just see ourselves as some passing mist – here today and gone and forgotten tomorrow. Many people start to think about their legacy – when we’re gone, how will people remember us?
That was brought home to me recently when working with some business owners. They had spent most of their adult years nurturing and growing a business, and now time was catching up. They wanted to plan what to do carefully so there wasn’t a train wreck when they died, but they were having trouble letting go. This is very common.
One of the business owners had a child involved in the business and two others who weren’t. He really wanted things to end harmoniously for the family as a whole, protect the son in the business because of the grandchildren, and also protect the employees, some of whom had been with him for years. It was sort of complex calculus.
Another business owner didn’t have any family active in the business, but the business was the principal asset of his estate. The most likely successors to his business were some key employees. So he wanted to plan a fair transition that protected employees while also providing an inheritance for his family.
Although there may be similarities in different business plans like this, I have found that subtle differences in focuses can have major impacts on the resulting plan. The dynamic relations between family members can result in vastly varying solutions. The complex politics of a business can require a carefully finessed plan that makes individuals feel valued without undermining the operation of the business. And then there’s the question of getting it all financed.
And I’ve seen many times where business owners just run out of time. Once a fifty-year-old trial attorney I knew dropped dead on the beach because he was so stressed out about his partners forcing him to take a vacation. Several times we have had healthy people simply go to sleep never again to wake up. And without a plan in place (sure they had thought about it), things fell apart: the business was sold to outsiders at a discount and the surviving family got shortchanged.
So what is your legacy? Will you be soon forgotten for lack of a plan, or will you be fondly remembered through the continuation of the business you have (almost miraculously) grown into a success? I’d love to have a chance to talk with you about this.