Everyone wants to believe that things will eventually work themselves out given enough time. Whether it’s as simple as that achy back feeling better or as complicated as the economy recovering from a recession, people always want to believe that the best is going to happen. But there’s always the chance it will not be better, that something goes wrong and there’s no fixing it. In estate planning, there are a lot of situations exactly like this, and when that happens it can be a mistake worth millions of dollars, as happened to an elderly California man who passed away with no will and a fortune.
Eugene Brown passed away in August, 2015. He lived alone for decades and had very little to no contact with any family members. When he passed, he was a millionaire several times over thanks to his frugal lifestyle and obsession with tracking the stock market. He had prepared a will in the weeks running up to his death but had never signed it, meaning it was invalid. His death sparked an investigation by a private administrator firm to track down and find any heirs, for a fee of course. Once those heirs had been identified, using public records, legal firms stepped in to secure any potential heirs’ claims, for a percentage of the possible inheritance.
In the end, over the course of several years afterwards, the total amount of the estate, the millions that represented the meticulous saving and investing of one man, paid out in the hundreds of thousands split between a niece and three nephews who he had either never met or had not talked to since they were children. Only one heir spoke about what happened to the inheritance, saying that much of it had been squandered on high end motor vehicles and gambling.
Was this how Mr. Brown had intended on having his life savings distributed after his death? No one can be entirely certain, but his unsigned will and unsigned beneficiary forms indicated that he had intended to leave all his savings and investments to the Catholic Relief Services, an international aid group. However, since these forms were unsigned, they were not legally binding. Nothing went to the Catholic Relief Services, nor to the only family member he regularly kept in contact with and visited, a cousin he regularly wrote and talked to.
How did this happen? How could a man who spent so many years scrimping and saving while wisely investing allow his money to be distributed to people he did not even know well enough to keep in touch with? In the end, it all happened this way because Mr. Brown did not have the most basic of estate planning documents or any legally binding way to distribute those assets after he had passed on. If he had had a valid will and up to date, signed and filed beneficiaries on his investment accounts, Mr. Brown could have ensured his lifetime of saving went to where he had intended it to go.
Many people choose to put off making a will or reviewing their estate. A 2016 Gallup poll found that 56 percent of American do not have a will. Without a will, the state is the one who decides who gets what and how much. No matter what the deceased wants, no matter what they worked for or desired, those wishes mean nothing if it is not properly recorded. Everyone needs a will before it is too late and your family members or those you leave behind find out everything will not work itself out. Contact Steciuch Law at 219-476-3870 or at firstname.lastname@example.org for a free estate planning consultation and to discuss whether or not a trust may be useful for your estate plan.