There’s a popular saying attributed to Benjamin Franklin that goes, “Failing to plan is planning to fail”. The truth of this adage is well illustrated by two recent Massachusetts cases that highlight some of the unfortunate consequences of poor Estate Planning.
In the first case, a man (Raymond) who married for the second time late in life failed to properly take the trust and estate planning steps to ensure that his wishes for the disposition of his property between his second wife (Susan) and his four children from a prior marriage were achieved. The result of Raymond’s failure to plan was contentious (and no doubt expensive) ligation between Susan and the four children after his death. The issue in the case of Ciani v. McGrath arose out of a Massachusetts law that effectively prevents someone from disinheriting his or her spouse if that spouse does not want to be disinherited. Because Raymond failed to properly plan, this law gave Susan the ability to force a sale of Raymond’s real estate when he passed away and to take one-third of the sale proceeds for herself. It did not matter that Raymond had owned the property for many years before his marriage to Susan (he bought it with his first, late wife) or that Susan and Raymond had only been married for two years when Raymond passed away.
This result could have been avoided if Raymond and Susan had entered into a prenuptial agreement before their marriage in which they had agreed upon the disposition of their assets at death. Even without a prenuptial agreement, Raymond could have avoided this result by, for example, leaving assets in trust for Susan during her lifetime. A properly planned Trust can avoid these type of issues. The Trust could have provided that upon Susan’s death, the Trust assets would be distributed to Raymond’s children. Instead, Raymond’s intentions for the distribution of his estate were not carried out (if you assume his Will represented his wishes) and his family was left with an acrimonious lawsuit. One-third of the property that Raymond intended pass to his children will instead be distributed to Susan, and to her beneficiaries at her death.
The second situation is even sadder. When Richlene married Noel Aimes she already had a daughter, Marcelle. In 1980, Richlene and Noel bought a house together in Somerville for $23,000 where they lived with Marcelle and other of Richlene’s family members until Richlene, then Noel died. Noel never had children of his own. When Richlene died, Noel became the sole owner of the home since they took title to the property as husband and wife, tenants by the entirety. When Noel died two years later without a Will, the Somerville property, now worth $1 million, passed to his heirs-at-law as determined under the Massachusetts intestate statute which does not recognize step-children as heirs. As such, Marcelle, who has lived in the property for almost 30 years, has no legal right to ownership or occupancy. Instead title to the house passes to Noel’s nieces and nephews with whom he apparently had no relationship. Had Noel made a Will or added Marcelle’s name to the title of the property, the property would have passed in accordance with what everyone believes would have been Noels’ wishes – to Marcelle.
Here’s another pearl of wisdom from our pal Ben, “Well done is better than well said.” Plan now to speak with an attorney for wills and trusts to make sure your family isn’t sorry later.