How do you say goodbye to family or loved ones? Goodbyes are hard. We simply don’t want to say goodbye to the people we love. It can feel like an impossible task. Of all the ways we might want to say goodbye, doing it by leaving our loved ones a total mess would be last on the list. But that’s what so many of us do when we don’t spend the time getting our finances and personal affairs in order.
Here's how those messages might look like:
“Honey, I love you – I’ve left you in the complete lurch by never sharing details of our finances with you. Good luck!”
“My family was the most important thing in my life. But not important enough for me to prepare a Will. You figure it out.”
“I loved the times we spent together playing games. I left you a final game to play – find my assets!”
Losing you is difficult for your friends and family. Don’t make it that much more difficult by leaving a tangled mess. Here are some real-life stories of messes left for loved ones. Please don’t let any of these be your story.
The Messes You Leave For Your Spouse
Steve & Janet
Janet’s husband Steve died when she was 64 years old. They had no children together but Steve had three children to a prior marriage. They lived in a house in Steve’s name only. Steve also had a bank account titled to him alone. Steve died without a Will. By failing to prepare a Will or to jointly title his assets, whether Steve realized it or not, he was relying on the government’s Will to take care of Janet after he died.
The government’s Will for Steve provides that Janet is required to divide his assets 50-50 with Steve’s children. His most valuable asset by far was their home. Janet will need to either sell the house or take out a loan to pay Steve’s children their share of the house. She may not qualify for a mortgage on her social security income. If she can’t borrow the money, she’ll be forced to sell the house and find a new home. Steve’s children will have to pay inheritance tax on their share of his estate.
Janet needs the money in Steve’s checking account to pay the bills. The bank will not give her any information or access to the account. Janet will need to open an Estate for Steve and ask the bank to close out that account and transfer the money to her. She’ll need to split the money with Steve’s children 50-50. That process took a lot of time, causing Janet to miss several of the due dates on the bills. In addition, it cost her probate and attorneys fees to open the probate proceeding.
Katie & Don
Katie and Don found happiness later in life after prior marriages. Don had gone through a bitter divorce several years ago. Katie was widowed just a few years ago. Katie sold her home and moved into Don’s place after their marriage, and they worked to make it “their” home. They were living their best life when Don had a sudden health problem that resulted in his untimely death. He left Katie as well as his two adult children. Don did have a will prepared following his earlier divorce, leaving everything to his two children. Unfortunately Don did not revise his will to include Katie. This meant that her new home was now no longer her home: Don’s will left it to his kids. Katie was faced with the possibility of having to move out of their home and having none of Don’s assets for support.
Pennsylvania does have what’s referred to as an “elective share” law that provides some protection to a surviving spouse in Katie’s situation. Also referred to as the “forced” share, the elective share means that despite what Don’s will says, Katie can take a share of most of his assets. The actual elective share is one-third of Don’s estate. In our experience this is not representative of what someone in Don’s position would want. They typically want their home and assets either to go to their surviving spouse entirely or at least to be available to support the surviving spouse during their lifetime with the remainder going to their kids when the surviving spouse passes away.
Katie’s problem is that her elective share may not entitle her to the home. She’ll have to rely upon the good graces of Don’s kids to allow her to have the home or at least continue living there until she passes away or is able to find other arrangements. This surely is not what Don would have wanted: to leave Katie with a legacy of stress, anxiety and financial uncertainty.
The Estranged Child
Rita and Ted had a long and loving relationship together – over 40 years. They only recently married in the last 5 years. They have a daughter together and Ted had a son from a prior relationship. Ted had no relationship with that child and Rita has never even met him.
Ted had been ill for the last 3 years of his life and eventually perished due to his illness. Ted did not have a will or trust. He also had some retirement accounts but Rita was unsure whether Ted made her a beneficiary of those accounts. Ted owned two properties but Rita’s name was never placed on the deeds. Rita is hoping to continue living in one of those properties and rent the other for extra income.
Rita’s left in a bit of a panic. Ted never really shared the details of his finances with Rita beyond their joint bank accounts. What Rita will come to discover is that without a will leaving everything to her, she’ll be forced to divide Ted’s assets with their daughter and Ted’s son whom she’s never met in the 40 years she’s known Ted. How will she find him? Will there be enough left over for Rita’s comfortable support during the remainder of her life? These are questions that Rita should never have had to worry about. But, because their estate planning wasn’t taken care of – she has that worry now.
The Messes You Leave For Your Siblings
Randolph died suddenly, much to the surprise of his family. He wasn’t married and did not have any children. However, he was survived by three siblings who never got along very well. Randolph owned a townhome in Philadelphia.
Randolph died without a Will. In doing so, he waived his right to decide to whom and under what terms his assets would be divided among his family, friends, church or otherwise. Now the government gets to decide how Randolph’s assets get divided. The government’s plan is to divide it among his siblings, some of whom he did not have a good relationship. His siblings all have the right to serve as executor of his estate but they couldn’t agree among themselves who would do it. They didn’t trust one another.
After months of wrangling, during which Randolph’s bills became seriously delinquent, one of his siblings hired an attorney at great expense to file a petition with the register of wills to be appointed as executor. One of Randolph’s other siblings opposed the petition, necessitating a hearing. The siblings longtime grudges and disputes came out during the hearing but one was finally awarded the job by the register. It was the one with whom Randolph had the worst relationship.
The Messes You Leave By Mistake
Arlene’s DIY Will Modification Mistake
Arlene lived a great life. Although she had never married, she was blessed with many close relationships with nieces, nephews, and friends. She honored those relationships in her Will, dividing much of her estate among these loving relationships. Her Will was completed in 2018 with the assistance of a skilled estate planning attorney. Between that date and here death in 2021, a few things changed in her life. One of her beneficiaries preceded her in death. In addition, a few of those relationships turned out to not be quite what Arlene thought they were and she changed her mind about who she wanted to be beneficiaries in of her estate. Arlene decided that some changes were needed.
Rather than call her attorney to have her Will revised, Arlene took matters into her own hands. She took her original Will and scratched out the names of two beneficiaries and wrote different names in their places in ink. She didn’t initial the changes or sign them. That’s not surprising – why would Arlene know about the legal formalities of making changes to her Will? Arlene never told her attorney what she had done. What seemed so simple and sensible to Arlene at the time turned out to be a bit of a disaster.
The general rule is that alterations or interlineations (fancy word for hand-written changes to a typed document) made by the testator of the Will have no effect. Thus, the changes Arlene thought she made accomplished nothing. Additionally, by scratching out portions of her Will, Arlene ran the risk of making it impossible to determine the original terms of her Will. If that was the case, the probate court may refuse to admit the Will to probate, rendering her intestate and invalidating her entire estate plan.
Fortunately, Arlene’s Will was admitted to Probate notwithstanding her markings on the Will. However, the beneficiaries who she sought to remove from her Will saw that their names were scratched out by Arlene. Certainly not something Arlene would have likely preferred. In addition, the attorney handling the Arlene’s estate had to tell those whom she added to the Will that despite Arlene’s markings, they were legally not entitled to any portion of the Estate. All told, it’s a disastrous legacy that Arlene left.