I was contacted by a young woman in her early 30s after the passing of her beloved grandmother. She described herself as grandma’s favorite and the only member of her family that grandma would trust to administer her estate. Grandma had left a car, an apartment complex and a home full of possessions. And while grandma has no minor children, she is the sole means of financial support for two minor grandchildren who have lost their parents. The young woman searched high and low but cannot find grandma’s Will. The young woman believed that the Will may be in a safe deposit box, but until she is appointed administrator, the bank will not allow her access to the box.
We commenced a probate proceeding only to discover that the young woman’s cousin has filed a competing petition. The young woman confided in me that her cousin was ‘troubled’ and probably stole many of grandma’s possessions. But the cousin has filed a competing petition for probate and to the young woman’s surprise she was being wrongly accused of improper conduct. She returned to grandma’s residence only to discover that the locks have been changed and the car was gone. The tenants refused to pay rent because they didn’t know who was in charge, the support payments to the minor child stopped and chaos ensues.
After several hearings the court appointed a professional special administrator to open the safe-deposit box but unfortunately, it contained no estate planning documents. Without a Will, the two relatives had equal standing and the probate court was forced to sort through the competing allegations of misconduct. In the end, neither the young woman nor her cousin were allowed to serve and the court appoints a stranger—an independent attorney who served as a professional fiduciary. The battle between the relatives had resulted in months of delay, thousands of dollars in legal fees and probable financial losses associated with the disrupted tenants.
Much of these problems could have been avoided if grandma had simply taken the proper steps to protect her Will. As explained in a recent Wall Street Journal story, survivors can face numerous problems when a deceased family member fails to organize her affairs and leave them in a manner that can be readily accessed by the survivors. In addition to lost Wills, heirs can lose financial accounts if they are not located and timely claimed. I have seen thousands of dollars in stock certificates stuffed in drawers which could have easily been discarded but for the actions of an alert administrator.
The lesson learned from these tales is timeless: don’t leave a mess!