Southwest Florida

Estate Planning Horror Stories

Just in time for Halloween, I thought I’d share a couple of real life estate planning horror stories. These are true stories about real people – the names and some minor details have been changed to protect their privacy.

Horror stories

Too little, too late.

One Monday morning I saw an email sent Saturday afternoon from a person I knew, Bill. A neighbor of his, Fred, was in “immediate need” of estate planning documents. While only 66 years old, he’d been diagnosed with cancer, had fought it for several months, but now appeared to be nearing the end of his life. He’d never married and had no children. His relationship with his only sibling, Alice, had been strained for years, and he wanted everything to go to his adult nieces and nephew.

I called Bill immediately and discovered that Fred would be moved to hospice later that day. And, as if COVID visitation restrictions weren’t enough of a problem, Fred was essentially unable to speak due to the damage the radiation had done to his throat and lungs. While very weak, he could still respond to email. So Fred and I communicated back and forth on Monday so I could gather the information I needed to draft his documents – especially his Will – as quickly as possible. By the end of the day, I still lacked some vital information.

Tuesday morning I received a phone call from Bill; Fred had died during the night. Without a Will.

So, while Fred had wanted his assets to go to his nieces and nephew, since he died without a Will, Florida law dictated that it would all go to his sister, Alice. If Fred had called me when he was first diagnosed with cancer, this could have easily been avoided.

Unfinished business.

Jim came to me shortly after he was diagnosed with cancer. He was divorced, had a son, Chris, a granddaughter, Chloe, and a life partner, Amy. Jim’s relationship with Chris was strained, as was Chris’s relationship with Amy. Chris lived in CA. Amy had never married and had no children and very modest assets, so Jim wanted to leave something to all three of the people in his life.

He decided to create a revocable living trust so his assets would avoid probate and things would go as smoothly as possible when he died. He named Amy as his successor Trustee and also as Personal Representative of his Will, in case something went wrong and a probate was needed. He named Chris as Amy’s backup.

Jim fought his cancer for years. He came back to me shortly before he died and made some changes to his documents. Once again, we discussed the importance of making sure every single asset either had a joint owner, a named beneficiary, or was in the name of his trust. He assured me every asset was taken care of.

Unfortunately, he was wrong. A couple of months after he died, Amy discovered an investment account that was still in his name – no joint owner or named beneficiary. So, while some assets were able to be distributed under the trust, we had to open a probate for this straggler. And, while Amy was a sweet, kind person, she was also a procrastinator. The trust administration dragged on and on. Even after the probate was done, one thing or another prevented her from getting that account transferred into an estate account and distributed. And Jim’s tax returns were hanging in limbo longer than necessary.

I assisted Amy as much as I could. And she kept saying, “I really need to find the time to get with you to do my own estate planning documents.” But she never seemed to find the time.

Then one Tuesday morning, about ten months after Jim’s death, I received a raspy call I could barely understand. It was Amy, calling from Sarasota Memorial Hospital. She’d been diagnosed with cancer, and had a yet undetermined amount of time to live since she was refusing treatment. She was concerned about the fact that she hadn’t finished up Jim’s trust administration. She couldn’t stand the thought that Chris would have control if she couldn’t get back home. Most of the call was about finding a way for her to finish up Jim’s estate so Chris couldn’t. Oh, and as an aside, she’d never gotten around to doing a Will and she wanted to make sure that her sister, Mary, who’d sold her own house up north and moved in with Amy a few months earlier, would get the house when Amy died.

I was unable to go to the hospital to help her due to other obligations, but I gave Amy and Mary the name of an elder law firm close to the hospital who had several attorneys and could likely get there quickly. I crossed my fingers and hoped for the best.

The lawyer from the other firm was able to prepare documents for Amy according to her instructions, but when she arrived a couple of days later to have them executed, Amy was too weak to sign and unable to understand what was going on. She died a couple of day later, with Jim’s estate unfinished and her sister potentially homeless. Since Amy died single, childless, and without a Will, Florida law dictated that the property would go to ALL of her siblings. The last I heard, Mary was hoping to be able to buy out the other siblings.

We never know what’s behind that door; please don’t wait until it’s too late to prepare.

Other articles you may find interesting:

New Confiscatory Tax Laws in Congress May Affect You

Common Myths about Your Estate When You Die

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