My Grandmother died last month. For purposes of remaining somewhat anonymous, I'll call her Grandma here, although I did not call her that while she lived.
I feel bad about not writing sooner of her death, and my feelings about it. After all, I wrote of my Grandpa's death the day I learned of it, which is to say the morning after he died. And I'm not writing about her today, either, because I have something I have to get off my chest first.
My Grandpa died with a will, and with a spouse. This vastly simplifies things. He left everything to his spouse under his will, and it was not a large estate, so there were no probate issues, no estate to settle, no taxes to be figured and paid... everything was just... easy.
My Grandma, however, died with no spouse and no will. She also never re-titled some of the assets from my Grandpa (car, bank accounts...) into her name. This vastly complicates things. First, you have to figure out who the heirs are. Because one of her sons killed himself years ago, his "children" (they're adults, now, actually) are entitled to share in the estate. They share the portion of the estate that he would have taken, had he lived.
Plus, there is no executor designated in a will, so you have to get the siblings to agree on who should be the personal representative of the estate.
And you have to figure out what, exactly, constitutes the "estate." There are insurance policies that pass outside the probate estate. There are bank accounts with POD designations that pass outside the estate. There are bank accounts with co-owners named on the account itself, that pass outside the estate to the co-owners of the account. At least, this is what I am learning about the law of the state she died in. Please don't take this as good legal advice for every state or every situation.
That pretty much left the furniture, for my Grandma's estate, and a couple of insurance policies she held on the lives of others, payable to her, which may have some sort of cash-out value and will be payable to the estate. Oh, and the car, too -- which has to be retitled to someone and it can't be my Grandma since she's no longer living, so then you have to decide who must handle that and what should happen to the car. Will it be sold? Will someone just keep it?
And then you have to try to figure out what the furniture, car, and other assets are "worth," and how to dispose of them.
The siblings end up disagreeing over this. Some want to have some furniture and/or the car, others want to simply auction it all off and split the proceeds. And if some people take items of sentimental value, does the "value" of those items (and what about shipping costs?) come out of that person's share of the proceeds? If so, how do you value it?
And if you're going to auction it, who pays for the costs of transportation to the auction house? If the estate is paying to transport things to the auction house, should it also pay to transport things to any sibling who wants to have them? And if it takes time to pack and transport the things to the siblings who want them, or to the auction house, who pays for the extra storage costs (rent at the home where the items are located, or transportation to and storage costs at a storage facility) while you wait for the auction, or transportation to the siblings, to occur?
And if some siblings go to the house and help sort and pack items, while others claim they are too busy or live too far away to assist, do the siblings who help get reimbursed for their travel expenses from the estate? What about lost income? See, if a personal representative were appointed, they would be entitled to some sort of compensation by statute, but what about when one hasn't been appointed yet?
And will there even be enough money to pay the tax accountant after all the expenses are paid? If not, who will pay that?
And what about the fact that Grandma left money in IRA accounts to three of four siblings, but not the other? Was that intentional? Or not? Should the siblings try to "equalize" the estate by giving more proceeds of any sales to the fourth living sibling? If so, does that sibling get more of a say in what happens to the furniture / household items? Can that person "demand" -- or can others demand on his behalf -- that everything be auctioned to maximize his cash? And what about the children of the fifth (dead) sibling? Do the siblings try to equalize their inheritance, too? Or do they just accept that Grandma maybe didn't want those heirs to have the same amount of cash as the others?
And so the siblings end up disagreeing over these things, and even though none of them are particularly money-hungry, and none of them want to leave the others without an inheritance, and it's not a lot of money anyway, the disagreements over the details leave everyone having the same fights they, as siblings, have had all their lives. Fights over whether this or that person is "too controlling" or "doesn't care about anything but money" or "isn't stepping up to be responsible and help with the work, or the decision-making."
Feelings are hurt, usually unintentionally. Relationships, never perfect among these siblings to begin with, are damaged further.
It is hard to watch. These are all people I love -- my Mother, my uncles.... and it's not that anyone is saying "it's all mine you shouldn't have it." Nothing that extreme. Just minor disagreements over how to handle things, and who gets to decide, and what is the best way to maximize this minimal estate, combined with 40+ years of sibling rivalries and personality conflicts.
Please, people, don't put your children through this. Write a will. If you have significant assets, contact a good estate planning attorney and set up living trusts and pourover trusts and whatever else you need to protect your assets while also making sure they go where you want them to go after you die. Tell people what you want to happen to your stuff, and direct that the expenses should be paid from the estate if possible, and/or direct that anyone who wants what has been left to them should pay for their own transportation costs or costs of sale or other disposal. Your choice. But make a decision!
If you've raised your kids well, they'll appreciate the direction. Some feelings may be hurt, and some of your kids might be mad at you for giving the silverware to someone else -- but most likely they'll work it out or accept that you handled it the way you thought was best. At least they won't be ruining their relationships with each other just trying to decide what you would think is "best" or what "should" happen.
Well, I can't guarantee they won't. Sometimes people's feelings are hurt, or they're money-hungry and so they challenge the will. But at least they have a chance to avoid the fight, by simply following your directions.
Without a will, it appears there's almost no chance of avoiding conflict, even when all involved have good intentions.