Law News and Tips
Disturbing the Dead
DISTURBING THE DEAD
Fred L. Vilbig © 2017
As I mentioned in my last column, a good estate plan is where the kids are still celebrating the holidays five years after mom and
dad have died. A bad plan is where they’re not even talking to one another soon after the funeral. Sometimes the fights are enough to wake the dead.What
a good topic for Halloween!
I run into that family every once in a while where the parents haven’t planned their estate carefully or implemented the plan correctly. Many times when mom and dad are getting older, they become more and more dependent on one child as opposed to the others. Sometimes it’s to the complete exclusion of the others. And sometimes it’s that child who is isolating the parents.
We have a case like that now. There are four children in the family. When mom and dad were younger, three of the kids clearly remember both mom and dad saying everything would be split into four equal shares when they died. The mom and dad also set up a trust. The trust said that when mom and dad became incompetent, one of the sons could step in to pay the bills. On their death, the trust provided that everything was supposed to be split four ways just like the three kids remembered.
But for whatever reason, mom left her bank accounts out of the trust. She even had a power of attorney authorizing one of the kids to take care of the non-trust accounts. But that was not the daughter who moved in with her. After dad died and mom was growing more feeble, that daughter convinced mom that since she was living with her, mom should just “put her name on the accounts.” That way she could pay her mother’s bills and make her life easier.
There are a couple of ways you can “add someone’s name to an account,” but the daughter marched mom down to the bank and had mom add her name as a joint owner.
One of the characteristics of a joint bank account is that when a joint owner dies, the entire account passes over to the surviving joint owner(s). In the case of a husband and wife, that is usually a good thing. In our case, it wasn’t.When someone is added to a bank account as a joint owner, all other planning becomes meaningless. On the death of one joint owner, the entire amount in the account belongs entirely to the surviving joint owner(s), no matter what a will or trust might say.Once its theirs, they can do whatever they want with it.
Soon after the funeral, the funeral home wanted to be paid. The son who was the successor trustee under the trust went to check how much money was in the trust to pay these bills. He found mom’s checkbook. According to the ledger, there was plenty of money in it. However, he thought it was curious that the checks had his sister’s name on them but said nothing about the trust. He called the bank only to be told that they couldn’t talk to them. They couldn’t even tell him who owned the account now. His blood pressure began to rise.
It occurred to him that since his sister’s name was on the account, he should ask her, so he did. When he asked what happened to their mom’s checking account, he was told it was none of his business. His blood pressure rose a little more.
When he pressed the question, his sister told him that mom wanted her to have that money, and she deserved it. She had been the one taking care of mom all these years (a slight exaggeration), and this was mom’s way of paying her back. The son asked when mom had said this, and the sister told him. The son knew mom had been pretty ill at about that time. His blood pressure was getting sky high.
When the brother told the other siblings about this, they were furious. They called a family meeting, and the one sister came. The three other kids told her that mom and dad had wanted them to split those accounts equally, but the sister stuck to her position. Tempers flared, voices got harsh, the meeting ended in chaos, and litigation will follow.
It’s such a sad ending to what had been a very happy family life. It’s not at all what mom or dad would’ve wanted. I’m sure it’s enough to make them turn over in their graves.
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