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Three Truly Terrifying Estate Planning Horror Stories

Oct 20, 2021

Paul Labiner, Esq.

Paul Labiner, Esq.

Managing Partner

There are many horror stories in the estate planning world, but there are some stories that are particularly spine-tingling and terrifying. Fortunately, unlike the clueless teenagers in a slasher film, you can avoid being a victim.

Below are just three of the estate planning horror stories that keep me awake at night. The details of the stories are all fictional, but the situations described are quite real and their consequences dire. The hope is that by knowing the dangers that lie ahead you can better protect yourself.

The Terrible Tale of the Disinherited Stepchild

Once upon a time there was a man and a woman who fell in love and got married. The woman had a son from a previous marriage, and the couple had two daughters of their own.

Over the next 20 years, the couple started and grew a successful chain of local cafes. When the time was right, the couple sold off their businesses and retired. The wife passed away some years later, and a few years after that the husband died as well.

The woman’s estate had transferred to her husband when she passed away. Upon his death, the family presumed the estate would pass to them. But when the three children—the two daughters and the wife’s son from a previous marriage—gathered to administer the estate, they learned that the father had written his stepson of the will.

Despite his vociferous protests that it went against his mother’s wishes, the estate was split evenly between the couple’s two daughters.

The Frightening Fable of the Unofficial Husband

There once was a woman. When she was 19, she married her high-school sweetheart, with whom she had two sons. The marriage ended in a particularly contentious divorce, and the woman swore that she would never marry again.

When she was in her mid-30s, she met a wonderful man with whom she fell in love. The two moved in together shortly thereafter, but because of her previous experiences, the two never officially married.

When she was 55 the woman was killed in a drunk driving accident, leaving behind no will or other estate planning documents.

On top of dealing with the trauma of her untimely death, the woman’s partner was devasted to learn that, because they lived in Florida—which does not recognize common law marriage—her estate would pass to her two adult sons. In other words, despite living together for two decades as partners, he would get nothing.

Even if he were to successfully challenge the administration in court, he would likely have to pay estate taxes on the portion he received because the estate tax exemption is unavailable to unmarried couples.

Pro Tip: This horror story is adapted from the estate planning mistakes of famed actor William Seymour Hoffman, who fathered three children with, but never married, his girlfriend of 30 years. Read More.

The Spooky Story of the Outdated Will

A long time ago, in a land far, far away, there was a man who drafted a will. The will was great: It accurately reflected his financial status, family circumstances, and many other issues.

Years go by and the man gains a measure of success and notoriety in his field. His personal life fares much worse and is plagued by a considerable amount of turmoil: He divorces and remarries twice and now has children from two separate marriages.

Despite being relatively young, the man passes away after having a stroke. When his family consults his will to determine how to administer his now sizeable estate, they realize that the document is the original will the man created prior to his success and first marriage.

There is fierce disagreement among the family members about how best to distribute the assets and what the man would have wanted. The first wife argues she and her children should receive the majority of the estate since the will was written when they were dating. The second wife argues that she is entitled to the assets as his most recent wife.

The infighting quickly escalates to lawsuits and protracted litigation. And because there is only the will, no trusts, all of these assets must go through the public probate process, which pours salts on the family’s open wounds.

Eventually, the courts decide the issue, but the vicious dispute has irreparably driven the family apart and drained the estate of nearly all of its value. Had the man taken the time to update his estate planning documents so they continued to reflect his wishes, much of this harm could have been avoided.

Pro Tip: This story is loosely based on the ongoing mayhem surrounding the estate of John Singleton, filmmaker and director of Boyz in the Hood. Read more.

Protection for All Situations

Everyone believes that these horrific scenarios won’t happen to them, but the reality is that they can and do. Family dynamics are messy, life is long, and no one has the exclusive rights to tragedy.

If you’re thinking to yourself, “none of these situations applies to me,” you may be right. Perhaps none of these specific fact patterns maps directly onto your circumstances. But we can add, remove, or tweak numerous aspects without changing the underlying issues.

The good news is that all of these horror stories can have happy endings with the proper planning strategies. This is precisely why you should work with an estate planning attorney. Professional advisors will help you identify the trust and estate planning options that are right for your unique situation, create comprehensive estate plans that address an array of future scenarios, and update your documents to ensure they continue to match your financial goals.

Contact us now so we can help you avoid the fate of so many horror film extras.

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