It was in Carmichael a couple of years ago. An unexpected heart attack (not that they are ever really expected), left two adult children to deal with their mother’s estate. Their father had passed away several years earlier, and the mother lived alone. Her son was local, but her daughter lived out of state with a family of her own. The daughter flew in to help with the funeral and to go through things, and that’s when they realized a very important fact: Their mother had left no will. Now the two of them (we’ll call them Jill and Joe so as to protect their privacy) didn’t figure this was such a big deal. After all, things seemed pretty simple. Their mom didn’t have any debt to speak of, a small bit of stocks and bonds, and a meager savings account. Jill and Joe said she also collected Social Security, but that their father’s life insurance had taken care of her the remainder of her life. And then there was the house. The house and all its contents. So will or not, it should be pretty cut and dry, right? That’s what they thought too.
The truth of the matter was, no will is no way to leave your heirs.
Even though their mother didn’t have debt, she did own a home that still carried a loan on it– not a big one, but still, that counts. Now I’m not going to pull out my Perry Mason hat and pretend to be an attorney because I am not. However, I do know from my many years in real estate that if you die without a will, you are not only prolonging the heartache and hassle for your heirs, but you are effectively giving a hunk of their inheritance to those you likely wouldn’t want to. You can learn more about the importance of the legal eagle parts of this by listening to a recent interview I had with a local estate attorney, which I’ll refer to later, but for now let’s continue the story.
You see, Jill had to get back to her family in Colorado and hadn’t anticipated that there was no will, or that the lack of said will would be such a big deal. It was just her and her baby brother who would, presumably, split any proceeds right down the middle. In fact, Jill was a little miffed when she learned that Joe had actually gone into their mother’s bank account to pay for the funeral, but after all, he was a signer on the account. By the time they called me, at the suggestion of one of Joe’s friends, communications were beginning to get a little tense.
“I don’t know why we just can’t sell the house and split the difference,” Jill said to me, her brother nodding in agreement. Both of them looked tired and overwhelmed, and based on all the paperwork scattered along the kitchen counters, it appeared they’d been trying to discover what they could–or were supposed–to do, in the case of their mother’s death.
I explained to them that when there isn’t a will, the estate has to go through probate and that it can take a long time and get expensive. Naturally, this wasn’t what they wanted to hear.
“Well, what if we just sell the house and never tell the court she died?”
“How can you sell a house you don’t own?” I asked him. “The only way you can list and sell the home is if you’re on the deed, and according to my research, neither of you are.
I proceeded to explain the typical process as I knew it, and that I could refer them to a great probate attorney. Jill flew back to her family, not very thrilled with the fact that there was so much unfinished business. Joe, who was single and didn’t live far, came over nearly every day after work to sort through things. The attorney got to work right away, and Joe called me when it was time to get the house listed. He had managed to get all his mother’s possessions somewhat organized and said he’d thrown bags and bags of garbage and useless things away. Joe agreed to an estate sale, so I share a couple of my resources with him. I advised him to speak to at least two so that he could be sure he was working with the one that best met his needs. This is when the next symptom of trouble between the siblings surfaced.
“My sister thinks I’m keeping things from her,” he said, obviously offended and exhausted. “Here I am busting my ass after work almost everyday so we can get this place sold, and she’s asking me to find old photo albums and things I don’t think are even still here. Since she’s being like that, I have half a mind to tell her that I should get compensated for all this extra time that I’m putting in that she isn’t.”
And that’s where I’ll end this story. Why? Because it’s typical. How it ended doesn’t matter, but if you must know, the estate sale went fine, I was able to get a bidding war going once I listed the house, and what was left after the attorney fees and closing costs was fairly split between the siblings. In this case, it was a pretty significant amount of money (it isn’t always), but the point is, it could have been much more if the whole court and attorney part could have been avoided (and it easily could have through a Living Trust). The money wasn’t the most important thing in my mind. Instead, it was the fractured relationship between Joe and Jill. Him feeling accused and under appreciated and her being concerned about fairness and efficiency. These are thing money cannot fix and sometimes they can last forever. While some parents may think their kids would never behave like that, I find it is more common than not. Being in real estate for so long, I have seen people act completely unlike they otherwise would when money,property, and emotions are involved. We have to remember that the loss of a loved one is emotional enough and only exasperated by the threat of being cheated in some way.
If you’re able to read this, it’s not too late to save your life-long assets (making sure they go where you want them to go) and the stress between your heirs by simply having a Living Trust drawn up. It’s hard enough to lose someone you love, let alone having to deal with all the things that should have already been dealt with. Listen to this show with Sacramento Attorney, Colleen Watters to learn more about why you need a Living Trust and how Probate works.
I hope this all too common story saves at least one family a little less stress when that inevitable ending occurs.
Thanks for reading,
Tamara Dorris, MA is a Sacramento-Based Realtor who specializes in helping family members sell their loved one’s home when needed. Her full-service real estate business can refer you to local attorneys, estate selling and donation resources, as well as cleaning crews before and/or after the sale of the home. She can be contacted at 916.482.5834 or [email protected]