Q&A: Pitfalls of unequal will distributions

Dear Liz: You’ve written that when writing their wills, parents should be careful about leaving unequal distributions to their children. What wasn’t mentioned was that a person could have a “good” child and a “bad” one. The “bad one” has never done a thing for the parent, such as inviting her to the child’s home at Thanksgiving or Christmas, and only visits the parent in the summer when the parent just happens to live at the beach. The “good” one is very attentive and visits the parent even in winter, and so on. What is your thinking in inheritance in this case?

Answer: It’s your money, and there’s no one right way to divide an estate. However, it’s disturbing that your assessment of your children seems to be based solely on how much attention you get.

It’s possible one child acts more selfishly or thoughtlessly than the other. It’s also possible that you are difficult to please, and one child understandably limits the time she spends trying to do so.

Q&A: When an executor doesn’t heed the will

Dear Liz: My dad’s will clearly divided his estate equally between his two sons. By the time Dad died, my brother had two kids. After the funeral, my sister-in-law sat me down and told me that everything will be divided into three parts. I would get one-third and they get two-thirds, because they had the kids. This was not a request; it was, “That’s the way it’s going to be and there’s nothing you can do about it.” My brother, who was the executor, was nowhere to be seen — a pattern when dealing with money issues. This was many years ago. I was a student at the time. I went along with it but wonder to this day about the fairness of the situation.

Answer: Wonder no more. If the situation was as you describe and your brother ignored your father’s will, then he wasn’t just unfair to you. He violated the law.

Executors are supposed to follow the will’s directions to the best of their ability. If they don’t, they can be held personally responsible. But each state has statutes of limitation that give you only a certain amount of time to file a civil lawsuit in these situations. You may have a bit more time if you were a minor when all this happened, but you’d want to consult an attorney to discuss your options.

You wouldn’t be the first person done out of an inheritance by a self-dealing sibling, unfortunately. This should be a reminder to parents not to reflexively choose the oldest child, or indeed any child, to fill this role without thinking about the child’s character.

Thursday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: Writing a will? How to stop stalling and get it done. Also in the news: Hidden financing traps in car shopping, how to protect yourself in the Words with Friends data breach, and the big wedding expense nearly half of married couples regret.

Writing a Will? How to Stop Stalling and Get It Done
Make things easier for your loved ones.

Car Shopping? Don’t Fall for These Hidden Financing Traps
Avoiding the extended warranty trap.

How to Protect Yourself in the ‘Words with Friends’ Data Breach
200 million users are affected.

Nearly half of married couples regret this big wedding expense
This one might surprise you.

How to quit stalling and write your will

You know you should have a will, but you keep stalling. No one likes to think about dying or about someone else raising their children. But if you get no further than scribbling notes or thinking about which lawyer to hire, you risk dying “intestate” — without a will that could guide your loved ones, head off family feuds and potentially save your family thousands of dollars.

Financial planners say getting people to stop procrastinating on this important money chore can be tough. In my latest for the Associated Press, several advisors offer their best strategies for getting this done.

Who gets your digital assets – heirs or hackers?

A bank or brokerage can’t just take your money when you die. If you don’t have a will or other estate plan, the laws of your state determine who gets the value in those accounts.

Your digital assets are a different story. Your online photos and videos, frequent flyer miles, cryptocurrency and other digitally stored files may well disappear without a trace if you don’t make a plan to pass them along.

In my latest for the Associated Press, steps you can take to secure and protect your digital information.

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.

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.

Q&A: How to ensure that assets end up with an heir — not that person’s spouse

Dear Liz: What would be the ownership status of assets covered in our will and our retirement accounts when our heirs and beneficiaries receive them? In the case of married heirs, do the asset ownership laws of their state of residence dictate whether inheritance proceeds get held individually or jointly? In addition to having a candid conversation with our kids, we are debating the need for and risk associated with a revocable living trust to provide some assurance that our wishes be honored for our direct descendants to receive and manage any proceeds.

Answer: Inherited assets can be kept as separate property, even in community property states where assets acquired during marriage are typically considered jointly owned. Keeping property separate requires some vigilance, however. If an inheritance is deposited in a joint account, or joint funds are used to improve a separately owned house, those assets could become marital property.

Even if your heirs are scrupulous about keeping property separate, their spouses may ultimately inherit should your heirs die first. If those spouses remarry, the assets could wind up with another family, rather than with your grandkids.

If you want your assets to ultimately get to your grandchildren, there are a few ways to do that, such as bequeathing assets directly to them or through generation-skipping trusts. You can use either a will or a revocable living trust.

You’d be smart to talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about what you want and the best way to achieve those ends.

Tuesday’s need-to-know money news

Today’s top story: A credit check-up for new grads. Also in the news: How couples can marry clashing investment styles, how your credit history can impact your life insurance rate, and ten steps to writing a will.

New Grads, Unlock Your Future With a Credit Check-Up
Your new world requires good credit.

How Couples Can Marry Clashing Investment Styles
Finding a happy medium.

Your Credit History’s Role in Your Life Insurance Rate
It’s all about reliability.

10 Steps to Writing a Will
Making your intentions known.

When your parents die broke

Blogger John Schmoll’s father left a financial mess when he died: a house that was worth far less than the mortgage, credit card bills in excess of $20,000_and debt collector s who insisted the son was legally obligated to pay what his father owed.

Fortunately, Schmoll knew better.

“I’ve been working in financial services for two decades,” says Schmoll, an Omaha, Nebraska, resident who was a stockbroker before starting his site, Frugal Rules. “I knew that I wasn’t responsible.”

Baby boomers are expected to transfer trillions to their heirs in coming years. But many people will inherit little more than a pile of bills. In my latest for the Associated Press, what to do when your parents leave behind debt.