Probate Posts, Halfway Through 2017

We’re halfway through 2017 and have covered a lot of probate issues on our blog. We thought this would be a good time to look back and review the themes and issues we’ve been writing about for the last six months.

Fortunately for us – and very unfortunately for the executors, trustees, administrators, and heirs – two high profile probate cases have dominated the news this year. Prince and Alan Thicke’s estates have been faced with the kind of problems we see every day … just at somewhat smaller dollar amounts.

As we just recently posted, Alan Thicke’s (the dad on TV’s Growing Pains, and so much more) probate issues revolve around a stepmother and a prenuptial agreement.  

Thicke’s unexpected, sudden death eleven years after remarrying for the third time has led to some very real, very public issues between his widow and the children from his first marriage – now in their forties and pretty well off themselves.

The kids received the bulk of Thicke’s estate, the widow received life insurance, pensions (which regular readers of our blog know pass outside probate), 25% of the furnishings of a ranch in California and the right to live there for life, as long as she ‘maintains the property and pays all expenses.’  By itself, that last part is an issue.

Speaking of step-parents, we ran a post back in April that started:  “Here’s a quick story. A father runs a successful farm. He and his wife have two children, both boys, a couple of years apart. The boys grow up, go to college, go on to solid careers. Mom dies, dad remarries. The boys, now in their late forties are not happy. Dad, though, is. The boys never accept the marriage.” 

The sons contested their father’s will despite the fact that (1) his estate plan was very well thought out and he was clearly competent; (2) their father’s widow quit a very lucrative job as an eye surgeon to take care of him when he was ravished by Parkinson’s. The ‘boys’ not only lost their case, they lost their inheritances when the judge ordered that they pay their step-mother’s legal bills, noting in his opinion that the sons appeared motivated purely by the dislike of their step-mother. That they ‘getting back at her’ by putting her through the trial.

Which brings us to another frequent theme of our posts – emotions. All our cases are different, of course, sometimes wildly so. They do share, however, one characteristic – they are fraught with emotion. Emotions that run the gamut from hurt and rejection to acceptance and closure. A big part of our job, especially in the early stages of a matter, is managing emotions and expectations. Actually, they tend to overlap. Often.

This story was about a well-off mother, her estranged daughter, and charities. If you missed it the first time around, check it out now, it’s powerful 

We wrote back-to-back posts about what it was like to be a probate lawyer … well, at least a little bit. One was about how we frequently have to, in effect, stand in for the deceased. To talk about and explain things that the deceased never got around to doing with their loved ones during their lifetime. It’s not an easy thing to do. Sometimes, it’s not an easy thing to hear.

The other was a reflection of a standard truth in probate work – even if the money is all anyone is talking about, the real issue is seldom that. It’s what the money, or house, or business, or jewelry, or painting, or stamp collection, or … represented to the heir.

The value of an item or items in the probate process almost never stand apart from what they represent. Either because an heir treasured something far more than the heir who stands to receive, or the distribution of the assets of an estate are almost irretrievably tangled with love, hate, fairness, and the hundred or so other emotions wrapped up in every interpersonal endeavor.

But, of course, valuing assets is an immensely important part of probate work. Figuring out what something is worth at any given time can be tricky. A rare baseball card in 1991 would probably have been highly valued. A baseball card collection, very highly. Baseball card values have dropped precipitously over the years, in 2017 a baseball card collection might not have an impact on an estate valuation at all. Yet, a lot of people still think baseball cards are a hot commodity. Then, there is the IRS. 

We made several posts about Prince’s estate. A probate matter that promises only to provide even more gist for future posts. It’s all about untangling a myriad of business interests and ongoing income from a variety of sources. Before anyone thinks that, “Well, it’s Prince’s estate, of course it’s complicated,” just remember that many – many – estates have business interests, still ongoing. Forget the big numbers, the principles and problems extend to many estates. It can be an administrative nightmare. 

Lastly, we posted two very different pretty solid pieces of advice. Things to consider if you’re asked to sign a testamentary document as a witness and what ‘Yearly Support’ (a very old legal concept) really means (and if it applies to you).

That’s it so far this year. We’re looking forward to the rest of 2017 and lot more posts – fun and informative. If anyone wants us to cover an issue, just drop us a quick note and we’ll check it out. Thanks for reading!