Q&A: The gift of organization

Dear Liz: You recently responded to a widow whose pension income stopped on her husband’s death. She was told the company had no record that he had chosen a “joint and survivor” option that would have continued the pension for her lifetime. This is outright fraud and elder abuse. My mother was given the same answer by an insurance company when my father died after collecting his pension for 25 years. If someone signs up for a “single life” pension that ends at death, the company will always have a record.

If you select the surviving spouse option, their standard operating procedure is to say they have no record. They prey on the elderly hoping the surviving spouse has dementia or lost their contract. Before my father died, other surviving spouses told my parents and me about this practice, so my parents kept all their retirement papers in a safe place. When I told the insurance company representative that I had the contract in front of me, her attitude changed from combative to helpful. She said, “I will mail you the paperwork to sign, and include a copy of the contract when you mail it back.”

Answer: Having a copy of the contract seems to be key in getting such conflicts resolved. Let’s hope the original letter writer still has this essential document that can prove her case.

Many people hang on to way too much paperwork because most of it will never be needed or can be retrieved or re-created. Documents relating to pension choices are among the exceptions. To be useful, though, important documents must be not only kept but also accessible. A contract buried in a pile of utility bills may never be found. Having an organized filing system and keeping it maintained can be a gift to yourself and your family.

This year’s natural disasters, including hurricanes and fires, remind us that just having paper versions of documents isn’t enough. It’s a good idea to scan important documents and store copies at another site, on a secure internet site or (preferably) both.

Q&A: What to consider before becoming an estate executor

Dear Liz: A lifelong friend has made me executor of his will. He has one brother who is named in the will only to be told that he is not included. My friend’s estate is left to two other lifelong friends. If his brother protests the will, what are my duties or liabilities? Can I be pulled into court at my own expense and time? Should I tell my friend that I don’t want the role?

Answer: Being an executor can be a huge hassle, but it’s also an honor and a way to offer a final, loving gesture to your friend. Learn as much as you can about the situation before deciding whether to refuse.

If the brother does contest the will, typically your friend’s estate will pay the legal fees and other expenses. Executors also can be compensated, with the amount determined by the will. If there’s no mention of a fee in the will, state law determines how much the executor can be paid. The fee would be taxable income to the executor. It’s certainly worth discussing the potential costs and fees with your friend before you decide whether to take on this role.

Family members and friends often waive the executor’s fee as a gesture of goodwill, but there’s no requirement to do so. The job typically requires considerable time and effort, even when unhappy relatives aren’t threatening lawsuits. Also, executors can be held legally and financially liable for mistakes. If you do take on this role, consider hiring an attorney to guide you through the process. The attorney’s fees also can be paid by the estate.

Q&A: Can an executor withhold a copy of a will?

Dear Liz: What rights does a sibling survivor have to get a copy of a mother’s will, if the sibling is not the executor?

Answer: From the way you phrased your question, it sounds as if your sibling is serving as executor of your late mother’s estate and refusing to let you see her will. That’s unfortunate. In many states, the executor is required to give you notice of the probate proceedings, and some states also require that you receive a copy of the will if you’re named in it or the guardian of a minor child who’s a named beneficiary, said Jennifer Sawday, an estate planning attorney in Long Beach.

If you’re not a beneficiary, you could still get a copy if the estate is probated. Probate is the court-supervised process of distributing someone’s estate. Rules vary by state, but small estates may bypass probate or qualify for a streamlined version. If formal probate is required, the case is typically opened in the county where the person died and the will becomes public record. Some county courthouses make records available online, while others require you to show up in person to request a copy of the public record.

If the executor fails to file the will or open a probate case when one is required, you can go to court to force the issue. You’ll want to discuss this option with an attorney.

The rules are different if your mother created a living trust rather than a will. Beneficiaries typically receive copies after the creator’s death, but living trusts are designed to avoid probate and don’t become public documents.

If she didn’t actually have a will or living trust, the laws of your state determine who gets what. Surviving spouses and children are usually first in line.

Q&A: The value of a special needs trust

Dear Liz: You recently answered an inquiry from a lady who was furious about the lack of estate planning provided by her brother-in-law for his disabled daughter. As the father of a special needs child, I read the synopsis hoping that a special needs trust was created and maybe was just not known by the sister-in-law. This would explain why the father had, in essence, disowned his own daughter. I hope you will make an addendum to your answer highlighting this very important tool for others like us to ensure our loved ones are cared for after our passing.

Answer: A special needs trust is an estate planning tool that can help disabled people continue to qualify for government benefits such as Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid. The money can’t be given directly to the disabled person but can be spent on her behalf in a variety of ways such as paying out-of-pocket medical expenses or providing vacations. Anyone thinking of leaving a bequest to a disabled person should be aware that the money could disqualify the recipient from essential resources and consider a special needs trust instead.

If the attorneys were aware of the father’s disabled daughter, as the writer suggested, they most likely would have mentioned the possibility of creating such a trust. The sister-in-law said everything had been left to the surviving spouse, so presumably she had seen a copy of the will or trust. If not, she could ask the attorneys for the document on behalf of the daughter.

Remember, though, that the 29-year-old daughter hadn’t been signed up for disability or medical benefits until the sister-in-law intervened. The young woman had not seen a doctor since her mother died more than a decade earlier. She also was kicked out of her childhood home by the man’s surviving spouse. This does not paint a picture of a caring father who wanted to provide for his daughter.

Q&A: Providing for a disabled child

Dear Liz: The letter about the disabled daughter was horrifying, but the father isn’t the only villain here. Surely the mother knew what kind of man she married. Shouldn’t she have made provisions for her daughter in her own estate plans?

Answer: Ideally, yes. No parent should assume a spouse will “do the right thing” for their kids. Even if the surviving spouse doesn’t marry the proverbial wicked stepparent who walks off with the whole estate, the survivor could be defrauded or compromised by dementia or other cognitive problems. Estate planning attorneys phrase it this way: You may trust your spouse, but do you trust your spouse’s next spouse?

Parents who have disabled children, or who hope to preserve a portion of their estate for their kids, should discuss their situation with a qualified estate planning attorney and make the appropriate provisions in their wills or living trusts.

Q&A: Disabled daughter left out of will

Dear Liz: When my husband’s brother passed away last year, he left a sizable estate to his second wife of five years (the mother of his children died 10 years ago). He left nothing to his two adult sons or young grandchildren. But the most troubling part was that he left no provision for his 29-year-old daughter who has disabilities and was still living in her childhood home.

Within months, the wife demanded that this young woman leave the property. The stepmother’s comment was, “Not my child, not my problem.”

We helped our niece move to our home and apply for Social Security disability and Medicare. She now is able to see doctors about her condition. She couldn’t remember the last time she had seen a doctor, which was probably in her teens when her mother was still alive.

A wheelchair has been ordered that will enable her to go out. She has a bank account and had to be taught how to use a credit card at the store and ATM. She started classes in early September to get her high school diploma. Her brothers are stunned that she is able to do all of these things.

I am thrilled for her and the progress she’s making, but I am furious with my late brother-in-law and the attorneys who completed his will. The attorneys were aware of this young woman and her needs, yet did not counsel her father to make provisions for her.

Answer: Your fury is understandable, but it’s not a given your brother-in-law got bad advice. It could well be that the attorneys counseled him about his options for caring for his special-needs daughter, and he simply ignored them. Given his long history of ignoring his daughter and her needs, that wouldn’t be surprising.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How not to inherit Mom’s timeshare. Also in the news: Why bundling insurance doesn’t automatically mean savings, why your financial advisor has a financial advisor, and 12 documents to prepare now for your heirs.

How Not to Inherit Mom’s Timeshare
Limiting liability.

Will You Save Money Bundling Insurance? Not Always
When bundling isn’t saving.

Why Your Financial Advisor Has a Financial Advisor
Even experts need experts.

12 Documents to Prepare Now for Your Heirs
Making a difficult time easier.

How not to inherit mom’s timeshare

Timeshare owners James and Barbara Ruh enjoy their annual vacations in Hawaii, but they don’t want their daughters to be obligated to take over the contracts when they die. So the Ruhs, who are attorneys with offices in Santa Barbara, California, and Edwards, Colorado, created a trust to hold their timeshare interests.

The daughters, who are co-trustees with their parents, can keep the timeshares, sell them or abandon them after the parents’ deaths, Barbara Ruh says. The trust is designed to prevent the timeshare resort developer from going after their daughters for any unpaid or ongoing costs.

“If our daughters do not want the timeshares, they will not be liable individually for any fees,” Ruh says.

In my latest for the Associated Press, a variety of options to assure nobody’s getting an obligation they don’t want.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: How to write a will that won’t trigger a family feud. Also in the news: Bundling insurance doesn’t always save money, Millennials are doing just fine with their finances, and deciding if you can afford to have kids.

How to Write a Will That Won’t Trigger a Family Feud
Keeping the peace during a difficult time.

Will You Save Money Bundling Insurance? Not Always
The pros and cons of bundles.

Don’t Believe the Hype About Millennials and Money
They’re doing just fine.

Are You Too Broke to Be a Parent?
Making important financial decisions.

How to write a will that won’t trigger a family feud

Creating an estate plan is a gift to the people you leave behind. By expressing your wishes, you’re trying to guide your loved ones at a difficult, emotional time.

All too often, though, well-meaning people do things destined to create discord, rancor and resentment among their heirs. What looks good on paper may play out disastrously in real life, says estate and trust attorney Marve Ann Alaimo, partner at Porter Wright Morris & Arthur in Naples, Florida.

“People want to think everybody will be nice and do right,” Alaimo says. “Human nature is not always that way.”

In my latest for the Associated Press, four things you can do to reduce the chances of family discord.