Preface: If you know you are named as an executor for someone, consider sitting down with them while they are still alive to talk through their expectations and desires.
A Lesson Learned By An Executor—The Hard Way
Credit: Nevin Beiler, Attorney
In this article I will tell you the story of Mark, who was named as the executor for his deceased mother. This story is inspired by various true life accounts, but it (like all of my written stories) has been changed and adapted to protect people’s confidentiality and to provide a better lesson to learn from.
Mark was the oldest of six children. His parents were dairy farmers all their lives. When Mark came of age and got married he stayed on the family farm and helped his father. He also worked away some to help pay the bills. His father passed away unexpectedly when Mark was 48 years old, and Mark began working full time on the farm. Mark’s father and mother owned everything jointly, so when Mark’s father died there was no need to open a probate estate or to file in inheritance tax return.
The family discussed having Mark purchase the farm before their mother died. However, they decided as a family that to avoid disruption during their mother’s life, and to avoid capital gains tax, the farm transfer should wait until their mother died.
Mark’s mother continued to own and live on the farm for the next 5 years, and she drew an income from the farm. Mark eventually purchased all of the equipment and cows, but not the real estate. Mark and his wife also provided a significant amount of care for his mother in the later years of her life, which saved her from needing to enter a nursing home. The family discussed having Mark purchase the farm before their mother died. However, they decided as a family that to avoid disruption during their mother’s life, and to avoid capital gains tax, the farm transfer should wait until their mother died. Later, Mark’s mother and siblings also all agreed that since Mark had worked on the farm all his life and provided extensive care for his mother that he should receive the farm for a very low price, or perhaps for free.
When Mark’s mother died she owned two assets in addition to the farm: (1) an investment account with a balance of about $300,000 and (2) a checking account containing about $50,000. The investment account had a transfer-on-death designation that left the account equally to her six children. Her checking account contained an “In Trust For” (ITF) designation naming Mark as the beneficiary of the account. This meant that the bank was supposed transfer the checking account directly to Mark after his mother’s death (this is sometimes done so an account can avoid probate). Mark’s mother left a will naming Mark as the executor and stating that the farm should be given to Mark. The will also stated that all her other assets should be split equally among her other five children (not including Mark).
Mark recognized that the will and the way his mother’s financial accounts were titled contradicted each other. The will indicated that, because he was receiving the farm for free, only the other five children should get the investment account. However, the transfer-on-death instructions on the investment account gave him 1/6th of the account. Also, the will indicated that the other five children should equally share the checking account, but the bank told him that all the money in the account was legally his because it was titled “In Trust For” his benefit. (In cases like these, how accounts are titled and their transfer-on-death instructions or beneficiary designations override the directions of a person’s will.)
To be continued….
Disclaimer: This article is general in nature and is not intended to provide specific legal or tax advice. Please contact Nevin or another attorney licensed in your state to discuss your specific legal questions. In order to protect confidentiality and provide a better illustration, names in the above story have been changed and some facts may have been changed or added.