Q&A: How to pursue money owed to heirs

Dear Liz: My stepmother passed away in December 2006, and her executor, who was her financial planner, distributed the estate according to her trust. A while after this, I discovered that she had a life insurance policy that hadn’t been addressed. The executor pursued this and found that $80,000 was due to the three primary heirs. However, he kept saying things were “in process.” At least a couple of years later, he said he had the check but didn’t know how to proceed because the estate was settled and also the insurance company had been taken over by another company. I finally saw the actual check (in April 2016) that he had. He claims he’s pursuing this but keeps going silent on us for extended periods of time. What can we do?

Answer: One possibility is that he showed you a phony check after pocketing the money. The other possibility is that he’s stunningly incompetent. It’s not clear which option is more disturbing.

Any estate planning attorney, or financial planner who has taken an estate-planning class, could tell him that life insurance proceeds typically pass outside the probate process, which means the estate wouldn’t necessarily have to be reopened. (Even if the estate did need to be reopened, every state has procedures for doing so.)

“I would think that the executor could merely endorse the check over to the three heirs,” Los Angeles estate planning attorney Burton Mitchell said. “Or he could open an estate bank account, deposit the check, write a check to the beneficiaries and then close the account.”

At this point, of course, the check may too stale to cash, but that’s not an insurmountable problem either. The current insurer would be able to reissue the check if the assets haven’t been turned over to the state or “escheated.” If the money was escheated, the executor can file a claim with the state to get it back.

Blaming his inaction on the insurance company takeover is absurd. All he needed to do was to call the new insurer, which has all the records of the old one.

The heirs have a number of options. They can petition the probate court to order the executor to distribute the life insurance proceeds. They can hire an attorney to help them do so or to contact the executor to demand he act, or both. They also can file a complaint with the company that employs him (assuming he’s not self-employed), with the regulator that oversees him and with the entity that issued his credentials, assuming he has any.

What they shouldn’t do is wait any longer. The executor’s inaction has already cost them years of lost potential investment returns.

Q&A: Social Security survivor’s benefit

Dear Liz: My husband will retire next spring but has wisely decided to not collect Social Security until he is 70. I have been retired for several years and have been collecting my Social Security benefits, which are significantly less than what his will be because he was the higher wage earner. Should he die before age 70, would I still be able to claim, as his surviving spouse, his larger benefit, even though he would not have started collecting it yet? The information I read only talks in terms of the higher wage earner already collecting Social Security benefits before his or her demise.

Answer: Even if your husband dies before starting Social Security, you can collect the larger benefit he’s earned, including any delayed retirement credits from putting off his application.

Those delayed retirement credits increase his benefit, and yours as the surviving spouse, by 8% each year between his full retirement age of 66 and age 70. That can make a huge difference in the quality of life of the surviving spouse, who has to get by on a single check after the other partner dies.

Q&A: Changing the executor of a will

Dear Liz: You recently wrote about a stepmom who dismissed her deceased husband’s son as an executor. Sometimes a will provides that someone such as the surviving spouse can alter the executor pattern. This is done to keep the children in line.

Answer: That’s certainly a possibility. But if that’s the case, the stepmother could simply show at least that portion of the will to the other children to allay their fears. The fact that she hasn’t shared the will, which should be a public record at some point, is reason for concern.

Q&A: Stepmom alters terms of dad’s will

Dear Liz: My father recently passed away and his will named my stepmom’s daughter as executor along with my brother. My stepmother just informed my brother that she removed him from that role, telling him it’s easier to just leave her daughter as the executor as she lives much closer. Is this legal to remove him after my father’s death? The rest of his five children have not been able to see that will.

Answer: Your stepmother doesn’t get to alter the terms of your dad’s will after his death. As mentioned in a previous column, a probate case should be opened in the county where your dad died and the will is among the paperwork that should be included in that case. It would become public record at that point so you would all be able to read it.

Your stepmother’s unwillingness to play by the rules indicates that you may need some legal help to make sure your dad’s wishes are carried out. The five of you should consult a probate attorney.

Q&A: Naming co-executers

Dear Liz: Is it legal for my parents to appoint me co-executer of their estate, along with my sister, without asking me first if I was okay with this, and keeping me as co-executer after I told them I do not want the responsibility? My sister is more intelligent and competent than I am and would do a better job of this by herself.

Answer: Your parents can name pretty much anyone they want, but that doesn’t mean you’re legally obligated to accept the role when they die. You’ll have the right to decline.

If your parents don’t name an alternate, your sister may be allowed to serve on her own or another executor may be appointed by the court, depending on how the will is written.

Obviously, your parents are being short-sighted by trying to force you to serve when you’ve made your feelings clear. Being an executor can be a time-consuming, complex and often thankless task that shouldn’t be foisted on anyone who’s not willing. If they don’t trust your sister to function alone, they should name someone else—and get that person’s permission before they do. It’s smart to name an alternate or two besides, in case their choices also decide they don’t want to serve.

Q&A: Amending a living trust

Dear Liz: My husband and I had a lawyer draw up a revocable living trust and a pour-over will six years ago. We need to amend a couple of areas, and I found it could be done with a form from a self-help legal site. Also, we need to add our home into the trust. My husband doesn’t want to use a lawyer. Can we legally do the amendment and addition of the home without a lawyer?

Answer: Sure. But your heirs may pay for any mistakes you make.

The big red flag is that you haven’t transferred your home to the living trust, even though you’ve had six years to do so. If it’s not in the trust, it will be subject to probate, the court process that the trust is meant to avoid. You need to be extremely diligent if you’re going to try to create a do-it-yourself estate plan, and you’ve already proved that you aren’t. All you’ve done is undermine the estate plan you paid for years ago.

Amending the trust, and having a lawyer help you transfer your home into it, probably will cost a fraction of what you paid originally. It also would give your attorney an opportunity a chance to review the documents in case other changes need to be addressed. A relatively small investment could pay off in peace of mind that the job has finally been done right.

Q&A: Clash over the state of their mother’s estate

Dear Liz: My husband’s mother passed away in January. His younger sister was executor of the estate. His mother had investments of close to $1 million prior to 2008. She supposedly lost half her investments with the downturn. When she passed away, my husband’s sister said that there was nothing left in the estate. What documents can he ask to see in order to make sure the estate is totally depleted? There wasn’t even a will shown to him.

Answer: If your mother-in-law had a will, or if she died “intestate” — without any estate planning documents — the sister would be required to open a probate case to settle the estate. Probate proceedings are public so your husband would be able to see an accounting of what’s left.

If your mother-in-law had a living trust, the sister wouldn’t have to open a probate case but she may be required to provide trust documents and an accounting of the estate to beneficiaries and heirs. The exact rules depend on the state where your mother-in-law died.

If the sister balks at providing this information, your husband may need to take her to court. He’d be smart to consult an attorney familiar with the relevant state’s laws.

Q&A: How to make sure your money-distribution wishes are followed after you die

Dear Liz: My first husband died when my oldest child was 1. I remarried and had another child (they’re 5 and 3 now). My husband and I prepared a trust in which I have him and my sister as beneficiaries of my assets. But my husband regrets that he is not the only beneficiary.

My argument is that if I pass away and he remarries, I want my oldest son (not his biological son, nor has my husband adopted him yet) to get what I saved for him, and that my sister will make sure this happens. What would you recommend? Should I have him as the only beneficiary?

Answer: No. But your sister probably shouldn’t be a beneficiary either, given your aims.

Any parent who wants to get money to a child should do so with a properly drafted trust, rather than trusting someone else — even another parent — to “do the right thing” by the child. All too often, they don’t. A new spouse, a change in financial circumstances, ill will or basic selfishness can tempt people to justify raiding funds intended for others.

A better way to benefit your children is to set up trusts to receive the money. You can name your husband as the trustee for the younger child and name your sister as the trustee for the elder. Trustees have the legal responsibility to act as fiduciaries, which means they have to put the beneficiaries’ interests first.

You can either create these trusts with your will or they can be part of your living trust if you live in a state with high probate costs, such as California. The advantage of probate is that the court can provide some oversight of the trustee, but that typically involves some additional costs. Your estate-planning attorney can offer guidance about which approach may be best for you.

Q&A: Fiduciaries can help with estate trusts

Dear Liz: I enjoyed your recent column about spendthrift trusts. You’re right that when parents assign the job of trustee to one sibling for the benefit of another sibling, it creates a hazardous situation that often results in a court battle. The appointed professional trustee should be a neutral party. You recommended a bank or trust company to fill the bill.

However, there is a third and often better option: a licensed professional fiduciary. There are about 600 in California. We are independent fiduciaries licensed by the state to manage clients’ assets in trusts and estates.

Professional fiduciaries will take the smaller trusts and estates, since banks and trust companies usually require a minimum of $1 million to $2 million under management before accepting a trust or remainder estate. Banks and trust companies also typically charge fees based on the amount of money under management, whereas California Licensed Professional Fiduciaries normally charge on a time-incurred basis.

Fiduciaries also give the beneficiary an annual accounting. A case I have now came to me when the sibling trustee failed to account for money spent for nine years.

Answer: Thanks for highlighting this option. Licensed professional fiduciaries aren’t available everywhere, but certified public accountants also can serve this function. The attorney who drafts the trust may have recommendations.

Q&A: How long should you keep paperwork about an estate?

Dear Liz: My mother-in-law died 11 years ago and had money everywhere. Thus, I have five drawers full of paperwork. With the exception of the IRS documents, I would love to throw everything out (shredded, of course). How long do I need the paperwork?

Answer: Two of the biggest risks to a settled estate are an IRS audit and challenges from unhappy heirs or creditors.

State laws limiting such challenges differ quite a bit, so you might want to talk to the attorney who helped you handle the estate to make sure you’re out of the woods. If there’s any doubt, you can always scan documents before you shred them so that you have an electronic record.

If it has been more than seven years since the estate and final income tax returns were filed, an audit is highly unlikely. It’s not a bad idea to hang onto tax returns indefinitely, though. Again, supporting documentation can be shredded, although you may want to scan a copy first if you’re nervous about discarding anything.

All this assumes that the estate was properly settled — that your mother-in-law’s property was inventoried, creditors paid and distributions made according to her will if there was one or state law if there wasn’t. If the proper steps weren’t taken to legally close the estate, you’ll want to talk to an attorney immediately about how to set things right.