I’m sure you have heard the expression “don’t count your chickens before they’re hatched”. This expression is used to warn someone to wait until the good thing they are expecting to happen actually happens before they make a lot of plans. In the world of inheritances, this is a cardinal rule.
Perhaps you remember the sensational case of the young Menendez brothers whose parents were murdered in a grisly manner. Upon their parents’ deaths, the brothers spent the next six months living quite lavishly – buying expensive cars and other toys, jewelry, clothes, traveling the world, etc. They were eventually convicted of the murders. Their motivation? To get at their inheritance! They were each sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.
While it is rare for people to go so far as murder to get their inheritance early, the potential to inherit assets can be a source of fantasy, just like that experienced by Lotto players. While the fantasy of Lotto players is usually all in their minds, people make decisions and take chances that they wouldn’t ordinarily do when the possibility of a windfall seems pretty concrete. They go into debt or live way beyond their means, figuring that all will be settled when they get their inheritance. In fact, people have taken out loans using an anticipated inheritance as collateral!
Aside from community property rights of a spouse, no one else has an enforceable right to an inheritance. Individual liberty and personal property rights trump whatever imaginations a relative, friend or lover might have concerning one’s estate so long as the owner is in control of his or her faculties and not the subject of duress or undue influence. Where a person is written in as the beneficiary of an estate plan, that plan can be rewritten by its creator without notice to the prior beneficiary. Even if it is pretty clear that a person is in line for an inheritance, they might be surprised to learn that the size of the estate they thought they would inherit has dwindled to an insignificant sum.
I’m always surprised when one of my clients dies and I get a call asking when I am planning to “read the will”. While this ceremony has been depicted in many movies, this is not the practice followed today. Most of my clients have living trusts and the law requires the successor trustee to send a copy of the trust to the beneficiaries named in the trust and the deceased person’s next of kin. Since a trust is a private document, many times this is the first time the deceased person’s plan for distribution of his or her estate becomes known. Upon reading the trust some beneficiaries are shocked to learn that there are restrictions on the receipt of their inheritance. Someone creating a trust can stipulate that money will be distributed incrementally over a period of time, many times as long as 10 years! The plan may also state that a person has to reach a certain age before receiving any funds or that the funds have to be used for a certain purpose, such as education. Where someone receives less than other beneficiaries or is omitted altogether, they sometimes get upset and tie up the estate for years in unfounded legal proceedings. They become estranged from the person(s) that got what they thought they should have received and the once close family is torn asunder.
© 2020 by Marlene S. Cooper. All rights reserved.
(You may obtain further information at the website www.marlenecooperlaw.com, by e-mail at MarleneCooperLaw@gmail.com, by phone at (626) 791-7530 or toll free at (866) 702-7600. The information in this article is of a general nature and not intended as legal advice. Seek the advice of an attorney before acting or relying upon any information in