ARTICLES / General /
Don’t Be a Joe or Helen! /
By Susan Piette, JD
Consider Joe and Helen. They met just after
he was discharged from the Army. They married,
raised two boys and a girl, worked hard their
entire lives, retired with a nice nest egg of
funds and looked forward to time with their
daughter’s children, who they loved deeply and
lived a few hours away. Their first son lived
out of state, had a well-paying job and was
married with no children, but separated from his
wife whom Helen was never very fond of. Their
second son had never quite “launched,” was not
married, had a hard time holding a job and was
currently on governmental low-income assistance.
Joe managed the family assets and finances. Their
home and a small checking account were held in Joe
and Helen’s name, but all investment accounts were
in his name alone. Joe did fairly well in the stock
market and he was certain that the assets would not
only provide for Helen and himself, but provide a
nice inheritance for their children and especially
their beloved grandchildren.
Helen’s memory had been on the decline for some
time but the children didn’t realize how bad it was
until Joe slipped while shoveling snow, broke his
hip and had to stay in a rehabilitation facility.
Helen could not be left alone and was not going to
be able to care for Joe when he came home. Helen
came to stay with her daughter who temporarily
reduced her full-time employment to part- time so
that she and Helen could visit Joe three to four
times a week. The daughter had to hire home
healthcare aides to be with Helen when she had to be
at work. Joe was recovering well, but suddenly
developed a blood clot and died.
Neither Joe or Helen had executed a will, a power
of attorney or an advance healthcare directive. None
of the children ever wanted to talk about the “what
ifs” and now the family was in crisis. They had
failed to plan.
Joe and Helen’s house and bank account are titled
jointly, but the assets in the investment accounts
were held in Joe’s name alone. With no will in place
providing direction on who should receive these
assets, how will they be distributed?
Answer: When a loved one dies
without leaving a will, he or she is said to have
died intestate. When this happens, any assets held
in the decedent’s name alone will be distributed
according to the intestate laws of the state where
the decedent lived. Warning: such distribution may
or may not accord with that person’s wishes.
Unintended result: Helen will
only inherit a portion of the investment assets
(under Pennsylvania law: $30,000 plus ½ of the
balance of the funds) and the children will receive
equal shares of the remainder of funds.
Should the son that is separated get divorced,
the daughter-in-law, who Helen doesn’t care for,
could receive a portion of Joe’s estate in the