AUGUST 25, 2014 VOLUME 21 NUMBER 30
Some people really don’t like city traffic, and will go out of their way to get on the freeway whenever possible. Of course, that approach can backfire — freeway traffic is sometimes snarled, and sometimes in unpredictable ways (and at unpredictable times). Avoidance of surface traffic can be a good practice, but of course isn’t itself the end goal: the real point is to get where you’re going quickly and efficiently, with a minimum of frustration along the way.
We’ve been looking for a good metaphor to explain our view of “probate”, that often vilified court process that often (though much less often than you probably think) has to be undertaken upon a family member’s death. Maybe the freeway/city street metaphor isn’t perfect, but we think it might be suggestive of the real goal. You probably want to make administration of your estate as simple as possible, while minimizing cost and aggravation for your family. You also want your wishes carried out, and you might add “no squabbling” to your list of goals. Those are your goals; “avoid probate” is no more the goal than “get on the freeway” is a goal in driving.
Why the extended traffic metaphor? Because of a case we read this month from the Missouri Court of Appeals. We thought it was a good case study in how probate avoidance sometimes is ineffective (and, in the reported case, probably even drove up the cost and complication).
Susan McCauley (not her real name) had a modest estate. In fact, her debts apparently exceeded the value of her assets. She had three children, a home, a commercial rental property, a brokerage account and three bank accounts. She and her late husband had borrowed money against the commercial property and also had a signature loan with the bank; the amount of those two loans exceeded the value of the property itself.
Whether avoidance of probate was Susan’s primary goal or not, she took several steps to accomplish that result. She made her bank accounts “payable on death” to her three children. She put a “transfer on death” titling on her brokerage account, again naming her three children. She executed beneficiary deeds naming the children as beneficiaries for all of her real estate (Missouri, like Arizona, is one of the minority of states that recognize a “beneficiary deed” or “revocable transfer on death deed” on real estate).
When Susan died in 2008, her son filed a simplified probate proceeding allowed under Missouri law, in which he recited that her probate assets consisted only of her personal property with a value of about $16,000. Since that amount was well under the Missouri limit of $40,000, he sought an order allowing transfer of all of her remaining personal property to the three children.
Not so fast, argued the bank which held Susan’s two notes. The bank claimed that Susan owed over $370,000, and asked the probate court to order her son to bring all of those non-probate transfers (the beneficiary deeds, the POD and TOD accounts) back into the probate proceeding to satisfy their claim. Meanwhile, the bank went ahead and foreclosed on the one property it had most direct control over — the commercial real estate, which secured one of its loans.
After sale of the rental building, the bank’s remaining claim was a little over $164,000. It continued to insist that it should be able to get her house, bank and brokerage accounts to defray the remaining debt.
Susan’s son explained to the probate court that there really hadn’t been all that much left in her estate. After payment of about $22,000 in other debts (presumably, but not clearly, including her final medical and funeral/burial expenses), the three children had split the house and about $60,000 — including about $30,000 in equity in Susan’s house. The bank asked for judgment against the three children for the $60,000.
The probate court disagreed about the equity in the house, noting that the children had borrowed $50,000 against the house in order to pay those last expenses and that values were lower than the bank thought (remember that all this was taking place in 2008/2009). It ordered that the house be listed and sold, and that any net proceeds after repayment of the loan taken out after Susan’s death should be given to the bank. The probate court also removed Susan’s son as personal representative and appointed a new, neutral personal representative.
The bank appealed, arguing that (a) the probate court should have entered a judgment against Susan’s children and ordered them to repay the estate, rather than ordering sale of the house for whatever it might raise, and (b) the proper valuation of damages should be based on the value of the house on the date it was transferred (that is, on the date of Susan’s death), not months later as property values slid. The Missouri Court of Appeals agreed on both points.
The result: the probate court was directed to calculate and enter a judgment against Susan’s three children for the amount they received (up to the bank’s debt, which clearly exceeded any valuation of the amount they received). Rather than ordering sale of the house and distribution of any net proceeds, the children would be liable for the value of everything they got — and that valuation would be as of the date of their mother’s death, not based on what they held at the time of resolution. Merriott v. Merriott, August 19, 2014.
Would the same result have occurred if Susan had lived and died in Arizona? Probably. Missouri’s statutes on bringing assets back into an estate to satisfy creditors are very similar.
In hindsight, Susan would have made a better plan by simply writing a will leaving her estate to her three children and keeping all of her assets in her name alone. Her son could have been appointed personal representative, listed her home and sold it for what it would have actually fetched on the market, identified the priority of claims against her estate (paying funeral and last-illness expenses first, plus his own — and his lawyer’s — fees for administration) and simply paid any remaining balance to the bank (and other creditors, if there were any). He (and his siblings) would not have borne the risk of a falling real estate market, would not have incurred additional administrative expenses, would not have suffered the indignity of being removed as personal representative of his mother’s estate, and would not have had a money judgment leveled against him (and his siblings). But sometimes you don’t know what traffic is going to look like until you’re already on the on-ramp.