My mom recently died and her landlord let family members go in and pack up her apartment after I told her not to let anyone in there. Can I sue her?

You can spend thousands of dollars on an estate plan that fails to account for the fact that some unhappy person — possibly an emotional wreck — is going to have to execute it someday. It is like spending top dollar on a supercar but the driver doesn’t how to drive a manual shift and, worse, no one knows where it is parked. Your estate plan isn’t done until you are confident that your administrator can find and follow it.

Often family members don’t understand the law and think they are entitled to just come in and grab what they want when a family member dies. I don’t do probate law and I don’t know where you live, but I skimmed through a dozen or so answers that didn’t seem very helpful, and there are some general principles that apply.

Most importantly, the estate survives the decedent and owns all of the property that belonged to her. Anything removed from the control of the estate without permission is stolen property. It’s important to get an administrator for the estate as soon as possible after someone dies to secure all of the property so that it can be inventoried.

Assuming that your mother died without a will, someone with standing would have to go into court and initiate probate proceedings to have someone appointed to administer the estate. As the son or daughter, you would probably have standing to do this. You would need a lawyer.

Once someone is appointed administrator, that person would be responsible for securing the estate’s assets. That includes contacting all of the relatives who took things and requesting that they return them, or suing or reporting them to the police if they don’t. The administrator may also be able to sue the landlord for any items that could not be recovered or for the expense the administrator incurred retrieving all of the property that was stolen from the estate.

The administrator has a legal duty to protect the estate assets and insure that they are distributed according to the will or the law. That means the administrator needs to be someone who is tough and fair and will not be squeamish about using any legal means necessary to return the property.


What Can Frog Gigging Teach Us About Marriage and Estate Planning?

What Can Frog Gigging Teach Us About Marriage and Estate Planning?

I was looking to try some new outdoor activities when I stumbled across frog gigging. Frog gigging, for those who don’t know, involves using a long pole with prongs on the end to spear frogs for food. I have never done it before – I am still waiting for an invitation, but I did watch some videos of it online and thought, Frog gigging is a great analogy for wedding vows.

It starts with focus.

Getting married is like gigging a frog. Working backward, before gigging the frog you were focusing all of your attention on it. You didn’t notice the leaves rustling, the dogs barking, or the airplane flying overhead. You only perceive the frog that is the focus of your concentration and the drifting of the boat that causes you to automatically adjust your aim. Before that, you had to get the light on the frog. To do that you had to gather your equipment, get on the boat, make sure you had a bag with you. All sorts of things lead up to that final moment.

A good, holistic estate plan will help you focus on gigging the frog as well as gathering all of the equipment you need.

You don’t consciously ignore all of the distractions around you. You decide to focus your attention on gigging the frog and your brain figures out what information is important to pay attention to.

In your wedding vows, instead of gigging a frog you are gigging “until death do us part.” People don’t like to focus on that because we are uncomfortable thinking about death. 

We tend to travel in the direction our head is facing.

However, our brains have a big, powerful subconscious that we can get working for us. If you focus your concentration on “until death do us part” that will instruct your subconscious to put energy into finding things that will help make that happen and filter out distractions that will get in the way. You do this all of the time:

  • “I am going to remember where I parked my car.”
  • “I am going to get an A in my spelunking class.”

That’s why we call it, “Setting your mind on something.”

A good, holistic estate plan will help you focus on gigging the frog as well as gathering all of the equipment you need. I had an epiphany one day when talking to Ginger, who was seeking a divorce. All her problems could be traced back to her and her husband not being intentional about their finances. Ginger wanted to retire and her husband had expensive hobbies. They argued over money and the arguments got so vicious that she didn’t want to be married to him anymore — especially since her husband’s spending was putting her retirement at risk. 

It occurred to me that most of Ginger’s problems would have never materialized if she had marital property agreements, a financial plan, and an estate plan early in her marriage. 

A plan doesn’t make itself.

Working backward, a holistic estate plan not only covers how your spouse will be taken care of when you die but also how your estate will be managed while you are alive. Property allocated into separate estates held in trust gives maximum control over how it is distributed on death. Moreover, with the help of financial planners, the family’s trust assets can be managed so that Fred’s expensive boat restoration hobby doesn’t put stress on Ginger’s retirement goals. A major source of discord gets intentionally managed because everyone gets his own pond to gig in.

We don’t do estate plans because you are going to die. We do estate plans because you will always be together.


An Estate Plan for a Cancer Patient

The most vivid image I have of May in my mind is her sitting up in her hospital bed, proudly signing her will. She was smiling, proud, and regal. She was the queen, and all of us participating in her signing ceremony were her subjects.

Years later, after I became an attorney, I redesigned her estate plan based on my experience probating her will and what I knew about her, her family situation, and her values. The most important thing the experience taught me is that you are the king or queen of your estate, and your survivors are your loyal subjects. They will still look to you for guidance after you are gone and deeply want their decisions to please you.

As a good king or queen, you love your subjects and want to make it easy for them to please you. You won’t leave them with forms that you filled out and expect them to perform their duties. You will think about all of the decisions they will have to make and decide ahead of time so they don’t have to. Moreover, you will leave them with stories and share your values so that they can more easily make those decisions that you can’t make for them. Finally, you will anticipate problems they will have executing your will and give them any tools that you can to help your subjects resolve them.

Estate Planning isn’t a democracy. You want to minimize factions, fighting, and decision making by giving as many specific instructions as you can. Get the advice you need from your advisors and then go and be king or queen. It will free your loved ones’ minds to think on better things.