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Don’t Be a Joe or Helen!

By Susan Piette, JD

(Page 1 of 3)

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.

1. Fact/Question:

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 divorce settlement.


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