Monday, February 19, 2018

Mixer Feelings

While a great deal of an attorney’s responsibility attaches to understanding the law, in the area of estate planning an experienced attorney will also serve as a guide, counselor and mediator, assisting client's designees as they navigate complex family dynamics. It is important to communicate to beneficiaries left behind after a client has died the wishes of the client as laid out in the estate planning documents. While a beneficiary may disagree or be unhappy with the terms of the documents and what has been left for them, it is important that all beneficiaries understand the intent of the client and that arguing against it can cost all parties significant time delays and expense. Despite this process, a may still act against their own best interest and the best interest of the other beneficiaries.

Ramona was a lovely woman who had strong, but different, relationships with her two daughters, Samantha and Tammy. Ramona's relationships with her daughters reflected different hobbies that each enjoyed, and because of differences in Samantha and Tammy’s personalities, Ramona's relationships with her daughters rarely overlapped. Unfortunately, while Samantha and Tammy's different personalities allowed Ramona to enjoy time with each of her daughters, those personality differences also created deep-seated tension between the sisters.
Following Ramona's death, Tammy and Samantha were named as co-trustees to administer their mother's Trust, but unfortunately almost immediately problems began to arise. Shortly after Ramona's death Tammy went to Ramona's home and removed a number of items of personal property. In response, Samantha took steps to secure Ramona's estate planning documents, which led to rapidly escalating retaliatory actions between the women until both realized that they would be unable to continue the administration of their mother's Trust without some sort of mediator. We had represented Ramona in preparing her estate plan and, thankfully, her daughters trusted us to act as impartial arbitrators and guide them through the administration process.
Tammy and Samantha divided the administrative efforts so that their contact would be minimal and for the most part occur using us as intermediaries, which worked well until it came time to address the division of the remaining personal property. This portion of the administration grew increasingly acrimonious as Samantha and Tammy continued to argue. The argument came to a head in our offices where we met with the two women in separate conference rooms and attempted to sort out the cause of their fighting. After much discussion, it became clear that Samantha was particularly incensed by Tammy's initial removal of items from Ramona's house, including a KitchenAid stand mixer. That mixer was a particular sticking point because Samantha knew that Tammy already owned a stand mixer and therefore likely had no need for Ramona's mixer.
When we broached the subject of the mixer with Tammy, she shared with us a number of wonderful memories of her time speaking with her mother and recollected how impressed Ramona always was that the mixer she received as a wedding present held up so well over many decades of use. Tammy indicated that she hoped her mother's mixer would continue to serve her just as well and help her to remember her mother every time she baked. As Tammy shared the story, it became clear that her initial action had not been malicious, but that she never considered how Samantha might feel about the situation. The idea of a compromise began to form and we returned to speak with Samantha.
After confirming that Samantha did not share Tammy's sentimental feelings about the mixer we brought the two women together and asked Tammy to share the memories of baking with Ramona with her sister. After Tammy recounted all the years that she baked with her mother, we were able to work out an arrangement where Samantha received Tammy's mixer, Tammy kept Ramona's mixer, and the two sisters began the process of healing their relationship. While I cannot say that we created lasting peace in our time, we did at least enable the family to effectively administer their loved one's affairs.
While not all conflicts are as simple to resolve as swapping small appliances is important to recognize that often what seemed like insurmountable conflicts have their roots in relatively small transgressions and with proper assistance, it is possible to begin the healing process. An experienced estate planning attorney will do more for the family than prepare documents or go to the Probate Court. They can also help strengthen family bonds in the face of emotional difficulties.

Matt and Al

Friday, February 16, 2018

What are Will Substitutes?

A good estate plan makes the transition of assets desired by the decedent an easy process. Even in the absence of good planning, the Probate Court will attempt to follow the wishes of the deceased if it is possible to establish by clear evidence what the decease wanted to happen. Establishing that by clear evidence, when potential beneficiaries disagree about intent can be very time consuming. 

Jan had two sons, Ken and Luke. Ken has three children, while Luke never married and has no children. While Jan lived comfortably and was generally well organized but never saw the need to work with an attorney to prepare an estate plan. Instead, she made lists of items in her home that she wanted distributed to her sons, daughters-in-law, and grandchildren, and prior to her death wrote a letter to Ken and two of her grandchildren telling them what she wanted to happen to her home and money after she passed away.
While Jan had good relationships with all of her family members, she was particularly close to two of her grandchildren who lived close to her in her later years. These two grandchildren provided helped Jan a great deal so in her letter Jan indicated that, with the exception of the items she listed for each of the other family members to receive from her home, she wanted these two grandchildren to inherit her remaining assets. Following Jan's death, Ken and his family engaged our firm to assist them with the probate of Jan's estate and the enforcement of her wishes.
Since Jan never created a will it was necessary to petition the Probate Court to appoint a Personal Representative (the “PR”) for her estate and to grant that person the authority to follow Jan's wishes. Normally when a decedent lacks a formal Will the intestacy statutes control the appointment of the PR and the distribution of an estate. Michigan law also allows the submission of other writings to the probate court, including letters, as evidence of the decedent’s testamentary intent (their wishes regarding the distribution of assets after their death) for the Court to rule that those writings are to be treated as a "Will Substitute." In our Petition to the Probate Court we included copies of the letters written to Ken and both grandchildren, requesting that the Probate Court appoint Ken as the PR and authorize him to distribute Jan's assets pursuant to the wishes articulated in her letter.
While under the best of circumstances it is possible to establish a document as a Will Substitute with only a single Hearing, in this case the process was complicated by Luke's desire to have his mother's assets distributed pursuant to intestacy statutes. Under the intestacy statutes Ken and Luke, as Jan's surviving children, were entitled to divide Jan's property equally between them. Since the proposed Will Substitute would result in Luke inheriting only a small number of family photos and other personal items he had substantial incentive to question and challenge the use of that document.
As a result, in order achieve the Probate Court’s permission to make distributions pursuant to Jan's letters, we undertook a lengthy process of litigation. This process required a number of hearings and delays in the administration caused by Luke's need to represent himself after the attorney he initially hired to pursue the matter requested the court's permission to stop representing Luke. While self-representation is not uncommon in probate matters, it has the potential to increase significantly the amount of time needed to resolve the matter because the self represented party may not fully understand the actions they need to take but also because in any family conflict the emotions involved may result in parties pursuing a matter well after it is clear that they lack a chance of prevailing.
Fortunately for Jan's grandchildren, Michigan law encourages judges to consider any form of a person's expressed wishes to serve as a Will Substitute. Despite our success in achieving Jan's stated goals, it is important to note that much of the complication here could have been avoided with a small amount of proper planning. While there are few barriers to a disgruntled heir, like Luke, attempting to challenge the validity of a Will or Will Substitute, it is much easier to achieve the desired results with the proper documentation. In those circumstances, being able to present Luke with a Will articulating his mother's wishes likely would have ended his efforts to overturn Jan's wishes with significantly less effort.

Matt and Al