The Death Bed Thief

Exploitation can raise its ugly head in the midst of unsuspecting situations.  Such was the case with the Garvey family (not real name).  Mom and Dad Garvey were about the nicest people you’d ever wish to meet.  Their three adult children lived nearby; they loved to have all the grandchildren over for Sunday dinners.  All of the children were successful, and the family often took vacations together.  As Mom Garvey shared with me, she could not recall one moment of discord between her kids. 

Dad Garvey was diagnosed with cancer at age 73, and the disease progressed rapidly.  He had lived a good life, and faced his illness with grace and courage.  Even as his strength waned, he loved having his family visit.  But soon death was imminent and hospice was called in to assist him and his family.  That’s when strange things began to happen.

One of his daughters became uncharacteristically possessive.  She wanted to be at Dad’s bedside around the clock.  Normally a sweet and accomodating person, she would snap at her mother over the smallest thing.  She accused her siblings of not caring enough for their dad, even as she tried to prevent them from being with him during his final days.

Eventually Dad Garvey passed away, with his wife and children at his bedside.  But as the funeral director’s hearse pulled up to take the body to the funeral home, the same daughter disappeared into the basement, while the others comforted one another in their grief. 

It was a few days later that they discovered what the daughter had been doing.  Apparently, while she was keeping vigil by her father’s bedside, she was also surveying his belongings.  When he died, she quickly grabbed the things she had stashed in the final couple weeks of his life.  Mysteriously, even though Dad Garvey had prepared a will, it was never found.

This is a scary story, no doubt.  But imagine, for just a moment, how different this story would have gone if the parents had given serious consideration to dividing their estate prior to infirmity or death.  At the very least, they should have distributed a master list of what they wanted each child or heir to have, making sure that each child received a copy.  The will should have been given to the executor or another trusted professional, so it would have been available upon death. 

If every child knows the plan in advance, it will be much harder for one child to take the lion’s share.  Unfortunately, this scenario occurs every single day, because no one planned ahead!

© 2010 Julie Hall

King Solomon’s Approach: Will It Work for Dividing Estate Contents?

King Solomon was known for his wisdom and ability to make sound decisions.  The most famous incident happened when two women came to him with a baby each woman claimed as her own.  Solomon’s response was literally to divide the baby so that each woman could have half.  This decision did not seem to bother the first woman, but the second woman begged the King to give the baby to the first woman, so the baby could live.  Solomon then knew the second woman was the real mother and granted her the child.  Will this approach work for families when they are in the midst of grief and making difficult decisions regarding their parents’ possessions?

The “divide and conquer” method is used most often, without knowing the values of estate items.  Resentments and rivalries can and will stem from this method.  One heir will feel that he or she got gypped.  Heirs often begin the process of breaking down the estate and dividing the contents prematurely.  First, know what you have and understand its current market value by hiring a personal property appraiser.  Second, not all possessions can be divided, so Plan B must be ready to go.

Try to divide possessions equitably.  But what if there is one item, say a $7,000 grandfather clock, that 5 children each want to have?  As a personal property expert, I have seen two viable options work best.

First, when parents are still living, they should make the decision of who gets the clock.  Let all heirs know what is your decision.  To minimize some of the upset, if financially feasible, offer cash assets or other physical assets  in the appraised amount of the clock to the other heirs.  This decision may ruffle feathers, but you may have just prevented a lifelong rift between your children.

If you can’t bear the thought of choosing one heir for the clock, my suggestion might surprise you.  Sell the clock and split the proceeds among your heirs.  It is equitable, and no one has “the prize”, but all have equal cash assets.

We spend a lifetime collecting and caring for our favorite possessions.  Shouldn’t we take the time to make a sound plan for passing them on to heirs?  No material possession is worth ripping the family apart!

© 2010 Julie Hall

Leaving a Legacy of Love

Anne and Bill are a wonderful example of parents being prepared.  Both are in their mid-seventies, in relatively good health, have two children, several grandchildren, and are geographically remote from their family.  They knew that if, or when, something happens to them, their children would have to journey to get there and assist.  Wanting to make life easier for their kids, they decided to make sure their children understood their wishes.

This couple has been married 52 years, very hard working middle class, who saved a great deal of their money, invested it, and wanted their assets protected.  When it came time to downsize their home to move into a smaller one, they de-cluttered their home, sold most of their belongings, and lived comfortably on what they needed.  Anne no longer has a need for all the silver plate, china, etc. and preferred the space to the clutter.

They hired a financial advisor to assist them with decisions, an estate planning attorney to create a revocable trust, and told their children that everything is in writing and gave them each a copy.  The trust clearly states who is the executor, and who is the health care power of attorney.  Both children were clear on their part of the responsibility.  It was very difficult for their children to listen to what their parents’ last wishes were.  Yet, they knew they owed that to their parents.

Each child has a file containing all the vital information of their parents’ estate and guidelines within, even down to funeral arrangements, music to be played, and how many death certificates to order.  This file remains in their file cabinets, hopefully for many years to come, but is easily accessible if (and when) the fateful phone call comes.

Do you see the ease with which the children have already been prepared, thanks to this wonderful set of parents?  For parents to give this much thought into their own mortality cannot be easy from anyone’s perspective.  Their actions toward their children were kind, generous, accepting, and loving.  Their only wish was to ease their children’s burdens, when they were in the midst of grief, estate dissolution, selling the home, travel, etc.

These are two very fortunate children to have everything spelled out for them when a time of crisis occurs.  I should know, as Anne and Bill are my parents!  Thanks, Mom and Dad, for loving us that much!

© 2009 Julie Hall

Seniors, their children, stuff, and grief

In my work of helping seniors appraise the worth of their personal property, or liquidating it, I have seen examples of unsavory human behavior during the process.  This comes from family, friends, neighbors, or strangers. 

In dealing with a lifetime accumulation of stuff, seniors are often at a vulnerable place in their lives and daunted by the task.  That’s when predators appear, driven by insensitive greed and persuasive powers.  These unscrupulous mischief makers could be stopped in their tracks if only the senior had the knowledge of how much their personal property was worth.   They should also proactively create a master list of what they perceive to be treasures – either sentimental or financial.

When seniors have avoided making these choices by doing nothing for their estate planning and distribution, they are actually making a decision with dire consequences.  I always recommend that seniors distribute their treasures personally now, or in writing for distribution at death.  When the gift is personally made, however, they have the satisfaction of seeing the joy on the face of the recipient!

If a personal transaction is not done, then the next best thing is to write down who gets what on a master list.  This master list should be kept safely with the will.  Both documents will almost always minimize family disputes and exploitation.

Problems generate when the children or close relatives are burdened with dealing with the death of the senior, the pressure of dealing with the estate, and the overwhelming task of disposing of the personal property.  Seniors who recognize their own responsibility in this matter and make the decisions themselves are practicing the best defense against family quarrels or exploitation in any guise!

© 2009 Julie Hall