Estates: Don't wait to have the difficult conversations
Friends, there are too many things in life that people do not discuss. With the steady stream of polished pictures, pithy captions, and catchy reels filling email inboxes and social media feeds, you may disagree. But let's set aside social media. Why?
Because life is scary, painful, and challenging. So, we need to be able to discuss the scary, painful, and challenging events that social media cannot bundle into aesthetically pleasing nuggets for viewing, liking, and sharing. When hard discussions are not had, they remain just that, hard.
Please understand I am not anti-technology. Rather, I am anti-silence about hard conversations. Why? Because silence guarantees truculence when individuals, families, partners, spouses, and business owners do not discuss profits, succession, incapacity, death, property protection, and who-gets-what. Know what else is guaranteed? Stress, confusion, and heartache, probably coupled with asset loss and taxes.
Therefore, let's turn up the volume on a hard conversation -- estate planning. If you do not have an estate plan that matches your needs, the needs of your family, your business partners, and your property, get one.
If you have an estate plan, I have a challenge for you too. Find your estate plan, read it, and figure out what updates are needed. As to the latter, updates are needed. A recent situation illustrates why.
In December 2019, our office received a call from Anne, whose uncle died in Illinois a month earlier. Anne lives in Colorado and works full-time. Uncle had no children and his wife had died 10 years prior. Uncle's only sibling, a brother, also already had passed. So did Uncle's two sisters-in-law, two brothers-in-law, and three cousins.
We asked Anne what she knew about Uncle's assets, his estate plan, and financial well-being. She knew Uncle owned his home, that his wife a had a trust, and that he paid for nursing home care 3 weeks before he died. Uncle prepaid for his burial and a plot. Fortuitously, Anne kept a box of family papers she had received years ago that included Uncle's original trust and will.
Finding Uncle's estate plan was critical. Anne confirmed she was a beneficiary because her parents were no longer living. Anne also confirmed Uncle outlived every trustee, executor, and beneficiary and never updated his estate plan accordingly. Why does this matter?
It matters because Uncle's failure to update his estate plan commenced a national treasure hunt in the depths of COVID-19 quarantine for Anne. Anne knew that before any banks, life insurance companies, pension holders, or government agencies would speak to her, she needed to be named trustee of Uncle's Trust and the executor of his estate.
Anne started with three states' vital records departments to obtain death certificates for trustees, executors, and beneficiaries. Anne had to satisfy three states' officials that her document requests were legit. Then Anne had to obtain and pay for certified copies of the death certificates.
With death certificates, Anne was positioned to locate beneficiaries. Anne leaned hard into her family genealogy and internet skills to find the more remote beneficiaries who would inherit. When Anne could not find everyone, she hired a private investigator.
Once located, Anne contacted all the beneficiaries and finally was able to request that they sign a document to name her trustee and executor.
With Uncle's two-year anniversary approaching, Anne has forward progress. She is identifying assets, communicating with beneficiaries, signing unfinished tax returns for Uncle, and selling the home. She is reimbursing herself for the expenses she paid out of pocket until gaining access to Uncle's accounts:
• Village fines related to the house's condition
• Real estate taxes for the house
• Property manager to watch over the house
• Snow removal
• Private investigator
• Certified document copy fees
• Attorney's time
Anne knows she is lucky: She saved a box of papers that had Uncle's trust and will. She also was lucky that none of the beneficiaries was under a legal disability or incapacity, which meant Anne was saved trips to court with a conservator or guardian. Anne was also lucky that the beneficiaries, some of whom had attorneys, spoke to her. Most importantly, the beneficiaries did not take Anne to court to prove Anne was fit to be trustee and executor.
Social media could not have done justice to the highs and lows of Anne's two-year treasure hunt. Please review your estate plan and tackle updates now, no matter how hard. Even though there is always help for "Anne," it is still a ton of work.
• Corinne Cantwell Heggie is a principal of the Wochner Law Firm LLC in Northbrook. Corinne helps people avoid asset loss, court battles and taxes, with wills, trusts and powers of attorney. Corinne lives in Glenview with her husband and law partner where her family is active in sports, ministries that support women and children in crisis, and Boy Scouts.