A man recently came into our Walnut Creek office with a Probate case. His father and stepmother had owned the family home as joint tenants. When his father died a few years earlier, his stepmother became the property owner. But now the stepmother had died and the ownership of the estate was in question because neither the father nor the stepmother had created a Living Trust.
Our client’s father had married his stepmother when he was just 14, and this kind woman with no children of her own had helped raise him. They remained close through the years, and after his father died, he became her caregiver, running errands, taking her to doctor appointments and making her final years as comfortable as possible.
There were four children in this family, and though their children all encouraged him, their father had never created a Living Trust. Their stepmother often spoke about how the home should go to these siblings when she died, but along with her husband, she failed to put anything into writing. When she died, her only blood relative was her sister, who lived in France. According to the law, if someone dies without a Living Trust to identify the distribution of assets, the estate goes into Probate.
The stepson took the case to Probate court
This was an emotional case for our client, as the bulk of the estate was the family home in which they had grown up. This was the place where they had gathered to celebrate holidays and family events. This wasn’t just a house to this family, there was a lifetime of memories living within its walls. In addition, he and his siblings had all been very close to their stepmother—they had lost their own mother at an early age, and they were all delighted when their father remarried. They also knew that their stepmother had a strained relationship with her sister, and they’d not seen each other for many years.
While they understood that there were laws governing the distribution of assets when someone dies without a Living Trust, they were hoping there could be compromise, such as splitting the estate between the families—the four siblings would receive half of the estate and the sister would get the other half.
The judge made his ruling based on the letter of the law—not emotions
The Probate judge well may have been sympathetic to our client’s situation—the logic of this scenario is very compelling. The father and stepmother had been happily married for more than 40 years and would surely have wanted their children to be their beneficiaries. Unfortunately, neither the father nor the stepmother had created a Will or Living Trust, so the court was forced to make a decision based on the law, which is that the estate goes to the next of kin, based on bloodlines—in this case, the sister in France, who ended up with 100% of an estate valued at an estimated $600,000.
This is a situation that we see all too often . . .