We all face times when we suddenly, necessarily have to become experts on a topic we'd previously given little consideration. Some, like pregnancy, accompany positive changes in our lives. Others, like dealing with funeral planning and estate issues, are entirely the opposite. Yet, there's a pretty good chance you'll have to deal with these issues eventually, one way or another.
I want to share what I'm learning as my family deals with estate issues — wills and trusts — to give you a preview of what to expect. I'll add the usual disclaimer on a piece like this: I am not an estate attorney. That's kind of the point — I'm just a person, one who knows a bit about personal finance, who has gotten thrown into the estate-settling process and has found myself frequently surprised and confounded.
My dad's passing
My father died in March in Florida. He lived to be 79, an impressive accomplishment after surviving lung cancer 30 years earlier. In some ways, his passing was slow — although he survived cancer and avoided recurrences, he had lingering health issues that made him more reliant on oxygen tanks in the last years of his life. Still, he was surprised by the news in early March that he was terminal.
After that, his passing was, I guess you could say, fast.
My dad left behind four adult children and his wife, our stepmother.
He also — bless him — left behind what at the outset appears to be competently produced estate-planning documents: a will and a revocable trust. A bank is serving as the trustee, with a law firm representing the bank. So far, everything seems to be in order.
That doesn't make it simple.
Stats on inheritances
Last year, I wrote a piece for SavingsAccounts.com covering what to do with an inheritance. MetLife had released a survey that found that two-thirds of Baby Boomers may expect some type of inheritance over their lifetimes, with the average amount being $64,000 (a boon for headline writers who remember old game shows, as you can tell).
Of course, those numbers are buoyed by large windfalls from sizable estates. You may have heard in May about Prince William's inheritance. He'll get $16 million from his mother's estate when he turns 30 on June 21st. An enviable amount, certainly, though — as with everything estate-related — tied up with all the negative emotions over loss.
Get ready for horror stories
Earlier, I compared learning about the estate settlement process to discovering everything there is to know about pregnancy. Here's an unpleasant reason why: You'll hear other people's horror stories constantly. Instead of birth horrors, it's frustrated stories about delays. A coworker pointed to her older child, noting that the estate process had started when he was born — and, while everything recently was closed out, her son is now in grade school.
Even more worrying are the tales of family conflict. One friend told me about family members slipping into the deceased parent's unmonitored house to remove the prized gun collection. (Yes, it's Texas!)
It's fair to say that when money and family meet, the strain will start to show. Immediately. And especially when combined with a significant loss. Estate probate really won't be put on hold, which means you'll be interacting with lawyers and signing heaven-knows-what while you're still receiving condolence cards in the mail.
Keeping your own counsel
One of the first choices you'll be faced is whether to retain an attorney. In some cases, you really may have no choice, based on how complicated your situation is and the role you have to play. In others, you'll walk the line that I do — knowing that it may be in my best interest to have my own representation, but struggling with affordability. It's hard to prioritize paying (possibly optional) legal fees when my house needs repairs now.
Additionally, the estate laws vary from state to state, so an attorney in Texas probably won't have expertise in Florida law. One lawyer I spoke with offered to help in the short term but indicated she'd refer me to a Florida attorney pretty quickly.
“You want me to sign what, now?”
The first communication my siblings and I received from the attorneys representing the trustee was an email letting us know to expect a waiver in the mail. If we signed the waiver, the message indicated, the process would go much faster. Mind you: The process wouldn't start until we either signed or returned the unsigned waiver. So “ignore it and it'll go away” wasn't a valid choice.
The waiver was mercifully short for a legal document, and all the experienced folks I talked to indicated “it's pretty standard.” But it had some worrisome language in it, binding us to agree, for example, not to contest the validity of the will in probate and to give up rights to formal service of documents.
In the end, I took the cheapskate's way out: I talked to a friend of a friend, a local estate attorney who was willing to eyeball the document as a favor and give me a cursory recommendation. She had her own disclaimer about Florida estate laws being different from those in Texas (her area of expertise), but, after listening to my concerns, she agreed the language was unexpectedly broad and I had no compelling reason to sign it.
I opted not to sign.
Find some answers online
In the meantime, I went online for basic information and definitions. You'll find some good resources on the Web for basic information. Since my dad's estate is in Florida, I read the Florida Bar Association's consumer information on probate in Florida. It assuaged my concerns about how long the process was going to take — and, by “assuaged,” I mean it pretty much confirmed my coworker's multiyear estimate.
What's next? Reading the will — which turns out to be nothing like every movie scene you can imagine.
…to be continued…