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.”