Dear Len & Rosie,
My mother-in-law passed away recently. She added her daughter, my sister-in-law, to her bank account and mutual funds when she could no longer manage things on her own. After her death, my sister-in-law withdrew all of the money out of the accounts even though her mother had a will splitting her estate fifty-fifty with her children.
Please warn your readers about this happening to them. Our case is in court now, but we have to prove my mother-in-law’s intention that everything was be divided equally. Our case looks really weak, but if at least I can spread the word. You never know what a sibling might do when a death occurs. Parents need to know to be very specific when making out their wills.
Experience has lead us to expect the worst from people when a parent or other relative whose estate they have an interest in dies. In most cases, children get along well with one another and are happy to cooperate to make things fair. But more often than we would like to acknowledge, otherwise normal, kind and caring people become crazed and turn on their siblings like wolves fighting over a bone.
It is unfortunate that we cannot assume the good intentions of our children. The best way to make sure our assets are divided the way we want upon our deaths is to create an estate plan, either a revocable trust or a will, that clearly and concisely spells it out. Your mother-in-law did this, but she threw her estate plan out the window when she made the mistake of adding her daughter to her accounts as a joint tenant. Joint tenancy property does not pass through probate, no matter what the will says. Your husband has an uphill battle. To win he has to prove your mother put his sister on the accounts for convenience only.
How could this have been avoided? The easiest way would have been for your mother-in-law to have put both children on her accounts instead of just her daughter. Or, she could have added her daughter to her bank accounts using the bank’s power-of-attorney forms. This would have allowed your sister-in-law to pay her mother’s bills without becoming a joint owner of her mother’s bank accounts. If your mother-in-law owned enough assets that avoiding probate was important to her, then she should have created a trust.
Adding children to your accounts as a joint tenant is a cheap and easy way to avoid probate. But in your case, it backfired. You can be sure that your lawyers will earn more money in this lawsuit than they would have earned in probate fees if the estate had been subject to probate. Its a hard lesson to learn, Sharon, but maybe you’ll get lucky and win in court. Good luck.
Len & Rosie
Dear Len & Rosie,