Saturday, January 17, 2009

Wills and Personal Momentos

The following letter appeared in today's edition of Dear Margo. It illustrates several points I try to make to clients and seminar attendees about the dynamics of doing a will:

01/16/2009 – DEAR MARGO: My family is at their wits' end with a major upset, courtesy of my grandparents. They have decided to leave everything (down to the dust on the floor) to their church, where my uncle is the pastor. My family is not upset about the money (there really isn't that much). It is more the personal items that have sentimental value. We cannot be 100 percent certain, but we think that my uncle had this planned all along and was just waiting for the right time to manipulate my grandparents. He will receive it all, and he has power of attorney, as well as being the executer. He has yet to face the family and explain why he felt the need to have it all, and my grandparents are so convinced this is the right thing to do that they can't see how this is tearing everyone up. My mother is a wreck, as her parents have left her nothing to remember them by. She was promised personal trinkets (worth nothing to anyone else, but worth the world to her because of the memories). I am only a granddaughter, but I was promised my grandmother's button collection, which will probably be sold at an estate sale for a few bucks. My grandparents refuse to discuss it. I live out of state and am hearing everything by phone, but I'm trying hard to keep it together for my mom. She is not angry but hurt. Is there a way we can still receive these items? Is it wrong to pursue this? Is it wrong to ask for some small mementos?


DEAR LONG: In some situations, not all the children pay attention to elderly parents, so the attentive one is favored in the will. I don't get the idea this is the case in your family. Whether or not your clergyman uncle made it his project to inherit everything we do not know. In addition, you don't say whether or not your grandparents are of sound mind. Because the old folks are not interested in discussing this, my only suggestion would be to ask your uncle, when there is an actual estate to be divided, if he'd consider letting various family have mementos that were promised. Perhaps he could be reminded of tthe Good Book's dictum that it's better to give than to receive.

After reading this letter and response, I'd like to offer the following:

  • One, many people think they don't need a will because they have little money. However, as I tell clients or people attending a seminar, it is often the little personal items that mean the most to family members....and trigger disputes. I encourage them to think about who should have their wedding bands, family photo albums, or Grandpa's hunting rifle.
  • Two, this article points out that no one has a right to inherit from another person (with the exception of a spouse in states with marital property laws). The letter and response do not mention the fact that the grandparents may be close to their church or son, and somewhat estranged from the other family members.
  • Third, the letter says that the "church gets everything" and that the pastor uncle is the power of attorney and personal representative. It is very common for these two roles to be filled by people who live in the same area, it just makes life easier. And if the church receives everything, that is different from the uncle receiving anything, it is a charitable donation. The idea may be to sell all of their personal items to generate cash for the church.
  • Fourth, the family is free to purchase items they would like to keep. Yes, this may seem cold, but it may be the easiest way for the grandparents to distribute items....there would be no obvious favorites.
  • And fifth, most likely a lawyer was involved in drafting the will. An attorney should take care to make sure that the grandparents were of sound mind and not being influenced by the pastor uncle.
The tension expressed in the letter is not isolated to a few families, but is rather rampant in society. I encourage people who struggle with the emotional side of estate planning (i.e. which daughter should be my power of attorney?) to read the book Creating the Good Will, by Elizabeth Arnold.

1 comment:

CJ said...

I don't understand the idea that the pastor uncle planned to deny the rest of the family personal mementos. Why would he do that?

If the grandparents are of sound mind, I suppose survivors are morally obligated to carry out their wishes. I wholeheartedly agree, BTW, that sense a church has no need for buttons, they should be able to buy them at an auction. It doesn't even seem that cold to me. Money goes to the church, in that case, just as the grandparents wanted.

When I read this story, these people sound stupid. The grandparents could just hand over the button collection right now to make this simple. I suspect, though, that they're not stupid, and that this is just what the high emotions of the topic of wills and death brings out. It's probably another reason to have a will. To make sure your survivors, who are not stupid, are not driven by emotions to act stupid.