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Getting on the Will for Helping Now

Nov 13, 2006 | | Comments Comments Off

Dear Liz: A distant relative who is 75, single and blind asked me to help with her financial affairs because she trusts me and no one else. After a year, I realized that taking care of her required more time than I originally anticipated. Recently, I asked her 40-year-old son to take over because I wanted out. The son said he did not want anything to do with his mother because she is an obnoxious person, and no relative can get along with her. However, he does want to inherit her assets, including three properties: a house and two condominiums.


It’s true that she is obnoxious and cheap she gave me a check for $100 for all the hours I put in for her last year; I gave the check back to her. I don’t want any of her money while she is alive. Is there a legal way for me to ensure that I will inherit one of the properties after she dies? I’m worried that if she writes me into her will she could always change her mind.


Is there a legal document other than transferring ownership right now that guarantees I will take ownership of one of the properties after she dies? I wouldn’t want her to be able to sell, give that property away or borrow against it during her lifetime. I am willing to keep helping her, but only if I am assured that I will inherit one of the properties. If that is not possible, then I really do not want to be involved in her life any longer.


Answer: The only way for you to get what you want, said Pasadena elder law attorney Ruth Phelps, is to persuade her to place the real estate in an irrevocable trust with you as the beneficiary.


There are a few problems with this scheme. Given that she’s not exactly the trusting type, she most likely will not agree to this. If she did, the transfer could be considered taxable income to you, Phelps said, since you’re receiving the property in return for services rendered.


After her death, you might well face a claim of “undue influence” from the son, who could argue that you forced her into this transfer. Of course, you might be able to discourage a court fight if she included a “strong, comprehensive no-contest clause,” Phelps said, that would cause the son to lose any inheritance if he disputes yours.


You have a couple of other options. You could keep track of your hours and expenses, Phelps said, and make a claim against her estate after she dies. You have no guarantee your claim will be honored; if it’s rejected, you’ll have to decide whether to sue.


You can also charge your relative a reasonable hourly fee for the work you do for her. You say you don’t want to take her money during her lifetime, but it’s hard to see how scrambling after an inheritance is a better or a more honorable  option. Family members really should help each other without demanding a condo.


And don’t forget that you can just back out now. If this woman can’t handle her own affairs and her son refuses to step in, the court can appoint a conservator to take care of her. In most families, there are better courses of action than to involve strangers, but that might not be true in yours.

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