Posts Tagged ‘stepfather’

Step-Children and Disinherited Children Might Have Rights — It Depends

NOVEMBER 12, 2012 VOLUME 19 NUMBER 41
A prospective client asks: “Can my mother cut me out of her will after my father dies? His will leaves everything to the children after her death.” That deceptively simple question comes in a number of variations (like: “My mother’s will left everything to her children, but her estate was not probated. After her husband, my stepfather, died, we learned that everything went to his children from a prior marriage. Can we do anything about that?” Or: “Our father and stepmother had a joint trust leaving everything to all of their children — my siblings and my step-siblings — when the second one of them died. After my father’s death, my stepmother changed the trust to go only to her children. What rights do I have?”

To each of those questions the answer is almost certainly the same: “It depends.” That’s the classic lawyer’s answer, but it reflects a reality that we deal with whenever we talk to a new client or prospective client. We almost never have enough information to give a definitive answer after the initial consultation, and that is particularly true with these questions.

What does it depend on? State law, sometimes. The actual wording of documents, in most cases. Titling of the property, pretty often. The cost of pursuing the issue weighed against the value of the “lost” inheritance, almost every time.

Please remember that what we describe here is based on Arizona law. It’s what we know; we don’t know enough about other states’ laws to do more than speculate about whether the same answer would be true in another state. Heck, sometimes we don’t know enough to determine whether Arizona or some other state’s laws even apply to the question. So check these answers with a qualified lawyer in your state (or the state where your parent(s)/step-parent lived and died).

Disclaimers aside, let’s look at some of the more-common scenarios:

1. Herb and Vonda signed identical wills, leaving everything to one another and, on the second death, to their three children in equal shares. Herb died. No probate was even filed, since everything was owned as joint tenants with right of survivorship. All Vonda had to do was distribute Herb’s death certificate and everything was transferred to her name. Five years later Vonda changed her will to leave everything to one of the three children.

Vonda’s will might be subject to challenge based on undue influence or lack of testamentary capacity, but it is unlikely to be set aside based on Herb’s intention that his property be divided equally among his children. He left everything to Vonda — both in his will and by the joint tenancy designations. She was probably free to do what she wanted with what then became her own property.

Herb and Vonda might have signed an agreement to keep their wills the same. Their wills might have even included a provision that promised the survivor would not change her will after the first spouse died. But such a provision would be rare (not unheard of, but rare). Even if there was such a provision it’s not completely clear that it would apply in these circumstances, since Vonda did not acquire Herb’s interest in the jointly held property by his will — she got it by operation of the joint tenancy arrangement.

2. Richard and Fern signed a joint revocable trust. It provided that on the first spouse’s death, the survivor would have complete control over the trust and the property in the trust — including the right to amend the trust. If the trust was not amended, it would leave everything to Richard and Fern’s only son, Ralph. All their assets were transferred into the trust.

After Fern died, Richard amended the trust to leave everything to a neighbor. At least that’s what Ralph suspects. The neighbor is named as trustee and refuses to even give Ralph a copy of the amended trust. Ralph wants to know if he has a right to at least Fern’s half of the joint estate, and how he can find out about the circumstances of any amendment. He has a copy of the old trust showing him as beneficiary (though the copy he has does not show that it was actually signed). The lawyer who prepared that draft trust won’t return his phone calls.

Can Ralph get a copy of the new trust? Not necessarily. If he has been completely eliminated from the trust, the trustee is under no obligation to give him anything. How does he know if that’s the case? He doesn’t. He could bring a court case to have the Judge interpret the validity of the suspected amendment, but if it is as the neighbor says he will probably lose — he probably won’t get a copy of the trust document and he may end up paying the neighbor’s legal fees in addition to his own.

To be clear, if the neighbor consulted us we would advise that it’s easier to show Ralph the amended trust and be done with it. But we would also tell him (assuming Ralph has been excluded and the document appears to have been properly prepared) that he is not obligated to do so. Ralph is likely to get further by being reasonable and friendly than by being confrontational. Oh, and he is probably not entitled to any portion of “Fern’s estate,” since she appears to have left it all to Richard.

3. Grant and Julia were each married once before they got together. Grant has two children from the first marriage, Julia has three and the two of them had one child together. They signed a joint revocable living trust and transferred all their assets into the trust’s name. It provided that on the death of one of them, the entire trust estate was to be divided into two shares — with half of the combined assets assigned to each share.

One share of the trust would continue to be completely under the control of the surviving spouse (the trust refers to this as the “Survivor’s Trust Share”). The other (the “Decedent’s Trust Share”) is held in trust for the benefit of the surviving spouse (he or she is entitled to all the income and, if he or she needs it, principal of this trust share). On the death of the second spouse, according to the trust document, the “Decedent’s Trust Share” is to be divided equally among all six children. The surviving spouse is named as trustee of the Decedent’s Trust Share, but has no power to modify or amend it.

After Grant died, Julia continued to administer both halves of the trust. She never provided any accountings to any of the children, though her oldest daughter did help her keep bank records and took documents to the accountant for tax preparation every year. None of the children wanted to confront her about how she was handling the money, and so no one every challenged her.

When Julia died (more than a decade after Grant’s death), it turned out that the Decedent’s Trust Share was empty. Julia had withdrawn most of the money in the last five years of her life, and had used it to fix up her house (it was titled to the Survivor’s Trust Share) and to make substantial gifts to two of her children (including the one helping out with the accounting). She had also incurred significant medical bills, and had even paid for in-home care for most of her last two years. Most of the children — and especially Grant’s children — felt like she should have moved into an assisted living facility to save money during that period.

When Grant’s oldest son asked for more information, Julia’s daughter (who, it turned out, had been named as successor Trustee) blew up at him and accused him of just being about the money — not caring what his father would want or what his step-mother needed. He wants to know now what he is entitled to.

Can he get account information? Almost certainly — especially for the Decedent’s Trust Share. Is he entitled to information about the Survivor’s Trust Share? Maybe, if he is still a beneficiary (or if the finances of the Survivor’s Trust Share would affect what Julia had needed from the Decedent’s Trust Share).

We always encourage clients to ask themselves one more question, though: will Grant’s son be happy with any likely outcome? Probably not. The cost of pursuing his step-mother’s estate and his step-sister will likely be high, and the resolution will not give him everything he is entitled to receive. Depending on the size of the estate and the portion at issue, it might be financially worth pursuing. Basically: “it depends.”

Trustee Is Not Required To Create Special Needs Sub-Trust

DECEMBER 27, 2010 VOLUME 17 NUMBER 40
Kenneth Boyd established a revocable living trust in 2002. He named his daughter Carol Boyd as trustee, and directed that the trust be divided, upon his death, into three shares. One share each was to go to Carol, to Kenneth’s mother Elizabeth Boyd, and to Carol’s son Ben Scott. So far nothing is remarkable or unusual about Mr. Boyd’s trust arrangements.

Elizabeth Boyd entered a nursing home in November, 2007. Kenneth Boyd died a month later. When it came time to divide the trust estate among the three beneficiaries, Carol Boyd simply wrote checks to each one, and sent Elizabeth Boyd’s share to her in care of the agent under her durable power of attorney.

The agent refused to cash the checks. Putting the money into an account in Elizabeth Boyd’s name, she argued, would simply make her ineligible for Medicaid assistance with her nursing home costs, and assure that a third of Kenneth Boyd’s estate would go to nursing home care for Elizabeth. If Elizabeth Boyd’s share could stay in trust, it could benefit her during her life, allow her to remain eligible for Medicaid, and assure that there would be something to pass on to her heirs on her later death.

It seemed obvious to Elizabeth Boyd’s attorney-in-fact that the continued trust would be in her best interest. Language in the trust could be construed to permit Carol Boyd to do just that — to turn the distribution from the trust into a “third-party” special needs trust. Elizabeth, through her attorney-in-fact, ultimately filed suit in California, asking the court to compel Carol to continue to hold the funds in trust for Elizabeth but not distribute any proceeds outright to her.

Carol Boyd pointed to the language of the trust, which gave her the power to do what was asked but did not direct her to do so. She insisted that her father would have wanted his money to support his mother until her death (or until the money ran out), and she declined to establish a special needs trust. So the legal question became whether Carol had an obligation to do so.

In an unpublished opinion, the California Court of Appeals ruled that Carol did not breach her duty to Elizabeth by failing to segregate her trust distributions into a separate, third-party special needs trust. It was not completely clear to the appellate judges whether such an action would even be effective; in any event, the opinion makes clear that Kenneth Boyd’s trust gave Carol the power, but not the duty, to modify the distribution terms. Boyd v. Boyd, December 16, 2010.

As is so often the case, there were a number of complicating issues in the Boyd case. They help point up the importance of communicating clearly with the lawyer who prepares your estate planning documents, and keeping those documents updated. Among the complications:

  1. Kenneth Boyd’s trust actually left a larger share to his brother, James, who was scheduled to receive 40% of the remaining funds on Kenneth’s death. James, however, died just a year before Kenneth did, and the trust did not provide that his share would pass either to his surviving wife or his step-daughter. Despite the fact that James’ marriage was of long standing, he had never adopted his step-daughter — if he had, she would have taken his share of the trust as his child. Since he died without any legal “issue,” his share lapsed and was divided equally among the other three beneficiaries (Carol, Elizabeth and Ben).
  2. Carol Boyd was actually the adopted daughter of Kenneth Boyd. That makes no legal difference, and probably was explained to the lawyer who drafted the trust at the time. But the adoption had been completed when Carol was 32 years old, and she had never met Kenneth’s mother Elizabeth, his brother James or his wife.
  3. Kenneth and Carol lived in California. Elizabeth, James and his wife lived in New York. Consequently, the California courts had jurisdiction over the trust interpretation — but they had to consider the effect on New York Medicaid eligibility and trust law. Interstate proceedings often create additional confusion and difficulty.

It is extremely hard to know what Kenneth actually would have wanted in the facts as they developed. That is why estate planning lawyers go through the almost ghoulish routine of asking clients to imagine unusual sequences of family deaths and disability. The reality is that Kenneth Boyd died just a year after his brother’s death, and a month after his mother entered the nursing home (and qualified for Medicaid). If he had discussed the family situation with his lawyer during the year after his brother died, he might have made changes in his trust language. At least he might have clarified his wishes, so that the issue would not have to be decided by court proceedings.

Reciprocal Wills Enforceable After Death of One Spouse

JULY 26, 2010 VOLUME 17, NUMBER 23
Imagine a couple, each married for the second time. Perhaps each has children from a first marriage. Perhaps the couple has been married for years — even decades. They think of all the children as “their” children, even though they fully understand that the other spouse’s children are stepchildren.

One of the spouses — let us say the husband — dies. He leaves his interest in the family home, together with all the couple’s accumulated wealth, to his widow; his will specifies that on the second death all of the children share the estate equally. His children remain in contact with their stepmother for the next decade, though that contact lessens over time. When she dies, what happens to the home, the bank accounts and the remaining wealth?

This scenario plays out again and again. Most often, the deceased husband’s will is irrelevant. If the property all passed to the wife without restrictions, she is free to change her will, to transfer the property into trust, to spend it or even to give it away. But that is not always the case.

Ralph and Elaine Lawson married in 1971. They owned 12 acres of Iowa land as “joint tenants with right of survivorship.” They had three children between them: Ralph’s son and daughter Roger and Le Ann, and Elaine’s son Lonnie. Just to complicate things further, Ralph later adopted Lonnie.

In 1987 Ralph and Elaine signed identical wills. Each left everything to the other. On the second death, the wills provided that fifty percent of the combined estate would go to Lonnie, twenty percent each to Roger and Le Ann, and ten percent to the couple’s church. The wills contained an unusual provision: each included language that indicated the couple had agreed “that neither will change our will” without the other’s consent.

Ralph died first. The property passed to Elaine automatically because of the joint tenancy title, so Ralph’s will was not filed with the Iowa probate courts.

A few years later Elaine changed her estate plan. First she transferred the acreage to her son Lonnie, reserving a life estate for herself. Then she signed a new will, leaving the same proportions of her estate to Lonnie (50%), Roger (20%) and Le Ann (20%), but changing the church which would receive the remaining 10%. Shortly after that, Elaine died.

Roger and Le Ann sued to enforce the terms of their father’s and stepmother’s original wills. They alleged that the wills amounted to a contract, that Elaine’s transfer of the property to Lonnie violated that contract, and that the court should impose a trust upon the property to secure its return to the original beneficiaries. The trial judge reviewed the two wills and agreed with Roger and Le Ann.

The Iowa Court of Appeals upheld that ruling, ordering the imposition of a trust on the 12 acres. The language of Ralph’s and Elaine’s wills made it clear, according to the appellate judges, that their intent was to prevent the survivor from changing the estate plan by a new will or by transferring property during lifetime.

Lonnie argued, unsuccessfully, that the reciprocal wills should not prevent transfers of the acreage because it did not come into Elaine’s estate by virtue of Ralph’s will. The court dismissed that objection, noting that the language of the wills was broad enough to encompass any estate planning technique, whether it might be a will, a gift, or a living trust. The appellate judges also rejected Lonnie’s argument that his parents’ wills should not have been admitted to the court proceeding; the wills were not being admitted to probate, said the judges, but were being admitted to prove a contract. Consequently, the standards and requirements for admission were those governing contract documents rather than wills. Cunningham v. Lawson, July 14, 2010.

Would Arizona courts reach the same result? It is not completely clear, since the law of reciprocal wills (sometimes called mutual or contractual wills) is not well developed. What is clear in Arizona law is that reciprocal wills can be enforceable; what is less clear is whether they might prevent lifetime transfers of property by the surviving spouse.

One reason that the law is less than clear is that truly reciprocal wills are uncommon. Arizona’s probate code makes clear that the mere fact that wills are identical does not mean they embody a contract not to change the terms; in order to make the agreement binding it must be expressly stated in the wills or in a contractual document. Because that is uncommon, there is little law interpreting such terms.

What is more clear is that the question we hear so often is usually easy to answer. “Does my stepmother [or stepfather] have the right to leave the house she inherited from my dad [or mom] to her kids from her prior marriage?” Absent a clear contract not to change the will, or a trust provision prohibiting the transfer, the answer is likely to be: “I’m sorry, but yes.”

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