On the radio yesterday, I heard the morning hosts discussing the deceased American Top 40 host Casey Kasem, and how his kids are trying to get a death certificate to go after the life insurance money coming to them. In response, one of the hosts commented “That’s awful!” But I argued back (into the radio speaker), “Hey, if Kasem’s kids were my clients, I might have advised them to do just that!” Kasem’s kids have been in legal battles with his spouse for the last year or more, and unfortunately, probate battles almost never go smoothly, and can happen in any family, not just with celebrities.
Generally, probate (the distribution of a deceased person’s assets) is a highly emotional time, when all the built-up disagreements and annoyances rise right to the surface in many families. Even the tightest family relationships can suddenly unravel when, for example, the kids and the wife don’t see eye to eye on how to proceed. Of course, many people assume it won’t happen in their family, and sometimes it never does, but in many of these cases, the family members never saw the probate battle coming until the day their loved one passed away and everything suddenly changed.
In fact, I have seen two cases like this in my practice in the past couple months. One case involved an executor who had billed his father’s estate tens of thousands of dollars more than he should have, without even going to court to admit the will; his other relatives had amicably trusted him to handle everything on the side, but that changed once they saw the final accounting and the pittance that was left to them. In the second case, the executor openly told all his siblings that they were never going to get one penny, and then proceeded to use up 100% of their mother’s estate property as “necessary expenses.” Apparently his long-held grudge against his family was kept bottled up within himself until mom passed away.
The question that remains is: how do I avoid this with my own family? Generally, most of this can be strategically resolved through a carefully drafted estate plan. This may mean naming beneficiaries on non-probate assets (life insurance policies, investment accounts, transfer-on-death deeds, etc.) or creating a probate game plan with a will and/or trust that sets out what happens when three sisters all want the same heirloom diamond ring from their grandmother’s wedding. Or, for a smaller estate, a simple will and power of attorney for health care may accomplish everything at a low cost.
All in all, Casey Kasem’s family is a good example of a common scenario, in which family members disagree and the dormant volcano suddenly erupts. Sitting down with an estate planning attorney and planning out a comprehensive strategy well in advance can greatly ease these pressures and set out a just procedure. While it may not please everyone, it will carry out your wishes efficiently and fairly, and severely lessen the chances of going from the funeral home straight into a two-year probate battle.
DISCLAIMER: Please do not prepare your own documents / filings after reading this blog, without consulting an attorney first about your specific situation. I make no representations or guarantees here as to the applicability of any claim in your specific situation. This blog is ADVERTISING MATERIAL only, and should not be relied upon as legal advice, especially if you are not an Illinois resident. Please contact me if you have a legal question or concern, as no attorney-client agreement will exist between myself and any readers of this blog unless it is signed in writing.
Photo by Alan Light / attribution license from Wikipedia