When parents die suddenly, in this case due to COVID-19, and there is no will and no discussions have taken place, siblings are placed in an awkward, expensive and emotionally fraught situation. The article titled “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?” from MarketWatch sums up the situation, but the answer is complicated.
When there is no will, or “intestacy,” there aren’t a lot of choices.
These parents had a few bank accounts, owned their home outright and left no debts. They had six adult children, including one that died and is survived by two living sons. None of the siblings agrees upon anything, so nothing has been done.
One of the siblings lives in the house rent free. Another brother was loaned $35,000 for a down payment on a mobile home. He now claims that the loan was a gift and does not have to pay it back. There are receipts, but the money was paid directly to the escrow company from the mother’s bank account.
How do you determine if this brother received a loan or a gift? What do you do about the brother who lives rent-free in the family home? How does the family now move the estate into probate without losing the house and the bank accounts, while maintaining a sense of family?
For starters, an administrator needs to be appointed to begin the probate process and act as a mediator among the siblings. In some states, the administrator also requires a family tree, so they can know who the descendants are. This is the only option to administer and distribute the assets in California.
If the parents failed to name a personal representative and the siblings cannot agree on who should serve, a professional fiduciary (or independent third party) is the sensible choice if there is concern about possible conflicts of interests or the rights of creditors or other beneficiaries. All children have equal priority to serve as administrator in California so another option is that one or more of them serve. Be careful not to get too many cooks in the kitchen though!
A warning to all concerned about how the appointment of an administrator works, or sometimes, does not work. Working with an estate planning attorney that the siblings can agree upon is better, as the attorney has a fiduciary and ethical obligation to the estate. While state laws usually hold the administrator responsible to the standard of care of a “reasonable, prudent” individual, not all will agree what is reasonable and prudent.
One note about the loan/gift: if the mother helped a brother to qualify for a mortgage, it is possible that a “Gift Letter” was created to satisfy the bank or the resident’s association. Assuming this was not a notarized loan agreement, the administrator may rule that the $35,000 was a gift. Personal loans should always be recorded in a notarized agreement.
This family’s disaster serves as a good lesson for anyone who does not have an estate plan. Siblings rarely agree, and a properly prepared estate plan protects more than your assets. It also protects your children from losing each other in a fight over your property.
One of the main goals of our law practice is to help families like your plan for safe, problem free, and successful transfer of assets to the next generation. Call our office today to schedule a time for us to review your estate plan and identify the best strategies for you and your family to ensure your legacy of love and financial security. Our office is located in Santa Ana, CA but we serve all of California including Irvine, Orange, Tustin, Newport Beach, and Anaheim.
Reference: MarketWatch (April 4, 2021) “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?”