The Will, Part I: Let Him Eat Cake

Author’s Note: This is the true story of my inheritance experience. In The Will, Part I: Let Him Eat Cake, I offer a narrative of events, and in The Will, Part II: An Unending Sense of Loss, I talk about emotional challenges and material loss, and offer tips that might help other people avoid losing their inheritances.

I have changed the names of two people in the story: I refer to my sister as “Louise” and I call my sister’s lawyer “Ms. Dean”. I use the real name of Ms. Dean’s law firm, Winburn, Mano, Schrader & Shram, PLLC, of Little Rock, Arkansas.

Photo by Michael Evans

When I visited my parents in the latter years of their lives, they always pulled out their financial documents to discuss the fine details with me. They lived in Southaven, Mississippi — a bedroom community of Memphis, Tennessee — and I lived in California. My mother typed financial statements for me on an old IBM Selectric, and always wrote notes in the margins to explain matters she forgot to type. Sometimes she would get ahead of herself and make notes in shorthand, which she would have to decipher for me.

During those sessions, we would sit in the kitchen, with financial documents spread all over the table. There were certificates of deposit, checking and savings accounts, a house, and personal possessions. Compared to some people, my parents’ assets were modest, but I was proud of what they had accomplished. Before they retired, my father headed the maintenance division of a school district and my mother worked as an executive secretary. They worked hard and struggled financially throughout my childhood, but by the end of their lives, they had paid off their credit cards and personal loans, and enjoyed a financially secure retirement.

My parents always said that I would inherit half of their estate, and in one of our conversations my father talked about the importance of inheritance. He said mine would probably come when I was in my 40s or 50s and would be a financial push to send me into the second half of my life. Another time, he pulled out his calculator to estimate the value of what he thought I would inherit. From the time my sister Louise and I were born, our parents planned for what they would leave behind for us when they died.

Late in their lives, my parents expressed regrets for not participating much in my adult life. My mother once said she had neglected me, and my father said they had shortchanged me. My father thought of giving in monetary terms, while my mother considered time and attention most important. My mother’s view most closely matched mine, because I often felt sad about their absence in my life. They always cited the demands of Louise and her family for what my father referred to as an imbalance in their contributions. Louise, who lived in Memphis, had children and regularly called on our parents for help with babysitting, collecting the kids from school, or running errands that she could not accomplish on her own. On the other hand, I do not have children and have always lived a more independent life.

After our father died in 2003, Louise and I encouraged our mother to get her legal house in order. She made a last will and testament and living will, and assigned power of attorney. My mother’s will reflected the simplicity of her affairs — directing an equal division of her assets to Louise and me — and assigned Louise as her primary personal representative (executor) and me her secondary representative.

My parents were married for more than 50 years, but after my father died, my mother adapted well to independence and began to thrive. She talked of spending the rest of her healthy years traveling to places she had only dreamed about before. She took a senior’s trip to New England and later talked about going on an Alaskan cruise, to Europe, and the Holy Land.

Two years after my father died, Louise and her family sold their Memphis house and moved to Hot Springs, Arkansas, where they lived in a huge lakefront dwelling, with an estimated market value of nearly three-quarters of a million dollars. When a lifestyle magazine published a story about Louise and her home, she bragged to the writer about her art collections, frequent trips to the Caribbean, and hosting gatherings for 100 or more guests on her terraced patios.

Louise urged our mother to move to Arkansas, too, saying her and her husband were winding down their businesses for early retirement, and that they needed to live close to each other in case our mother’s health declined. Three years after my father died, my mother sold her house in Southaven and moved to Hot Springs, where she rented a condominium owned by Louise and her husband.

A few weeks after my mother moved, she called me complaining that she suspected Louise and her husband were overcharging her on the rent. She had been asking people all over town what their landlords charged and found that they paid substantially less than she did for comparable homes. When I researched the Hot Springs market online, I came to the same conclusion. She was paying around 166% of market value; an 80% increase in her base housing cost, compared to the house she had owned in Southaven.

When my mother questioned the high rent, Louise said that her rent payment did not even cover the mortgage. Years after she moved to Hot Springs, my mother ask me to research the financial details of the condominium through public records. I found the mortgage documents and discovered that her rent payment actually was enough to cover the mortgage payment, the association fee, insurance, and taxes, and appeared to leave Louise and her husband with a small monthly profit.

A few weeks after my mother moved to Hot Springs, Louise and her husband bought a condominium back in Memphis, and Louise began saying she did not like Hot Springs. Citing business concerns, Louise and her husband spent alternating weeks in Memphis. At times, both of them were in Memphis at the same time, leaving my mother alone in Hot Springs with Louise’s teenage daughter.

A year after my mother moved to Arkansas, I packed up my life in San Francisco — where I had lived for more than 10 years — and moved to Hot Springs, too. My mother liked Hot Springs, but I could tell she was lonely and missed her old life. She often traveled to Southaven to visit with friends, see her doctors, and attend her church, where she had been a member for more than 50 years. From the time I arrived in Hot Springs, I played an increasingly active role in my mother’s life — cleaning her house, washing clothes, cooking, running errands, maintaining her car, and chauffeuring her around town.

A few months after I moved to Hot Springs, Louise asked me to come to her house for a talk. Without warning, Louise told me to leave town. She claimed that my presence was causing our mother to become depressed, which Louise said was interfering with her own life. The message felt like a punch in the stomach — I was speechless. Louise began crying, telling me about the difficulties of her life. The moment seemed surreal; first, she dropped a bombshell that would upend my life, and then she wanted me to console her. Within weeks I landed a contract job in another state and left Arkansas.

In the years that followed, my mother talked openly with me about issues she had not revealed to me before. She was concerned about a joint checking account she opened with Louise after our father died. Louise had insisted on the account, my mother explained, saying it would be easier for her to handle my mother’s affairs if she fell ill. She was not able to articulate specific fears, and at the time and I did not understand the dangers of joint checking accounts.

She also worried about her estate documents. She originally wanted a lawyer from her church to write her will, but Louise insisted that our mother use her lawyer. She feared Louise was monitoring how she spent her money and that after she died Louise would find a way to take her entire estate and leave me with nothing. I had experience in other financial areas, but knew nothing about estate planning, so I was not able to advise her.

She complained that the high rent made it impossible for her to save money and travel. She even talked about getting a part-time job, because the rent payment devoured nearly one-third of her income. I often talked to her about getting out of the condominium. She wanted to go back to Southaven, where she still had a large support network, but that move seemed daunting to her. She settled on the idea of moving into an independent living facility in Hot Springs. Unfortunately, that plan never became a reality.

In 2012, my mother had a stroke that left her unable to speak or walk. After a hospital stay, Louise moved her to a nursing home, where she would receive physical and speech therapy in hopes of recovering her motor skills. She made minimal progress in therapy, which she eventually discontinued.

By that time, I was living in South America, where I had married, was working as a writer and was setting up a travel business. My mother’s care fell entirely upon Louise’s shoulders, so the day of the stroke I suggested that I would deal with any issue I could handle over the phone or online such as health insurance, pension, social security benefits, and Medicare matters. Louise declined that offer and all subsequent offers of help.

Early in our mother’s illness, Louise said that her pension and social security income covered most of her nursing home and medical expenses, and she qualified for a Veterans Affairs benefit that likely would cover the balance. Before the stroke, my mother had $35,000 in investments and a five-figure sum in her bank account, so I felt certain she could retain most of her assets. Louise expressed the same confidence.

Days after my mother’s stroke, Louise told me that she and her husband wanted to give our mother’s car to their adult son. I objected, and within a few weeks Louise said that her husband’s employer wanted to buy the car. Months later, Louise told me that she was selling our mother’s household possessions with the condominium my mother rented from her and her husband. She had never asked me about property I wanted to keep after our mother died, and it was the first time she had mentioned selling the belongings. It was one day before the closing, so it was pointless for me to try to stop the sale.

In January 2014, Louise abruptly moved our mother to a new nursing home. I spoke with Louise weekly, but she had never mentioned the impending move. In fact, she notified me by voice mail after the move happened. A few months before, my mother had developed a bedsore that escalated into a near-fatal infection, which Louise blamed on the nursing home staff. She even accused them of falsifying my mother’s medical records. Even so, at the time of the move, my mother was recovering and seemed happy in her environment. Louise told me that she moved our mother in order to file a lawsuit against the first nursing home. But, she insisted, making money was not her main objective. She had already filed two complaints against the nursing home with the Arkansas Department of Human Services, which they ruled were unfounded.

My mother died in 2015. The day after her burial, Louise and I visited the cemetery, where she briefly mentioned distribution of the estate. She said our mother’s money had dwindled to almost nothing, but we would receive money from two life insurance policies. After I returned to South America, I sent an email to Louise asking her three questions:

1. How much money did she raise by selling our mother’s household possessions with her condominium, and what happened to that money?

2. What happened to our mother’s car?

3. Did she use any of our mother’s money to pay condominium expenses after our mother fell ill and before she and her husband sold the property?

“I have NO time for your nitpicking,” she wrote back. I reminded her that I was an equal beneficiary in the estate and I had a right to ask questions of the executor — her. I suggested that, if she was unwilling to answer my questions, she should hire a lawyer to handle the estate distribution.

Months before my mother passed away, I sought legal referrals in case I ran into estate problems after she died. I chose a Little Rock lawyer with a prestigious background that included stints as the editor-in-chief of the Arkansas Law Review and president of the American Bar Association. After reviewing my mother’s legal documents, he noticed potential problems if we had to go to court, because my mother’s will was 10 years old. I feared costly litigation, which I could not afford, so I did not retain his services.

Louise hired a lawyer, Ms. Dean, not to represent our mother’s estate, but to represent her interests. Ms. Dean identified herself to me as an elder law attorney with the Little Rock firm Winburn, Mano, Schrader & Shram, PLLC, which markets itself as an estate-planning firm. According to Louise, Ms. Dean already had been working on my mother’s estate issues for two years. Foolishly, since she had already dealt with my mother’s affairs, I believed Ms. Dean would serve as a fair intermediary and that she would respond to my questions truthfully and thoroughly.

Ms. Dean began her conversation with me by saying she had advised Louise that, because of the right of survivorship, Louise owned all of the money in the joint checking account and did not have to share any of it with me (click to see document). But, Ms. Dean said, Louise had graciously decided to give me a portion of the money anyway. I felt stunned, because I realized the account probably held a wealth of secrets I would never be able to uncover.

Ms. Dean said she would have answers to my three questions by the end of the week; she finally responded by letter six weeks later. She did not answer my question about Louise using our mother’s money to pay Louise’s condominium expenses. She said an unnamed person or company bought my mother’s car and paid for it in three installments. She claimed that a used furniture store appraised my mother’s home furnishings and made a low offer; it would have cost more money than the offer to transport the furniture to the store — located four miles away — so Louise sold our mother’s belongings with the condominium. The furnishings did not increase the sale price of the condominium, Ms. Dean claimed. Essentially, Louise gave away all of our mother’s home furnishings to a stranger, according to Ms. Dean.

Ms. Dean’s greatest revelation involved the joint checking account, as I had feared. She said Louise deposited funds from the car sale and all of our mother’s $35,000 in investments into the joint checking account, of which she was the sole co-owner (click to see document), rather than open a living trust designated for our mother’s needs.

Ms. Dean provided monthly average costs of my mother’s nursing home expenses, but her figures did not account for the use or whereabouts of more than 50% of my mother’s money. She refused to answer my follow-up questions about the missing money, or anything else, and eventually told me I would have to hire a lawyer to continue dealing with her. She and Louise never provided any billing or financial statements and refused to give me copies of other documents, including the bill of sale for the car and my mother’s last tax return. The information in Ms. Dean’s two-page letter was all they would give me.

One year after the supposed sale of the car, Louise’s son posted videos on his social media page of himself driving what appeared to be my mother’s car (click to see photo). When I contacted the real estate agent that sold the condominium and the owner of the used furniture store, I learned that Ms. Dean’s story about my mother’s home furnishings was untrue (click to see document). The furniture store owner never appraised the items and the real estate agent did not sell the condominium furnished. I still do not know what happened to my mother’s household effects, which were part of the estate. I confronted Louise and Ms. Dean about the discrepancies, but they did not respond.

In the end, I received $1,000 from one life insurance company and a little less than $4,000 from the checking account. Repeatedly, I asked Ms. Dean about my portion of the second life insurance policy, which had a substantially larger benefit than the other one, but she never responded. When I contacted the insurance company about the second policy, I learned that my mother listed Louise as the primary beneficiary and me as the secondary. From our conversations and the financial statements she made for me, I knew my mother expected Louise and me to equally divide all of her assets, including the two life insurance policies. Instead, Louise kept all the money from the largest policy for herself.

Months before I published this article, I told Louise and Ms. Dean that I was writing it, and gave them ample opportunity to clarify or change statements they had made about my mother’s estate. They never responded.

Continue to The Will, Part II: An Unending Sense of Loss.