My stepfather had inoperable brain cancer and died. He has three daughters from previous marriages and two daughters – my sister and me. He said my mother should live in the house he owned until she died, at which point the proceeds would be divided between our five daughters and the stepdaughters.
I had an argument with my sister two years before our stepfather died, and began manipulating my mother into making her the executor of the trust.
A year after my stepfather died, I received legal papers proving that one of my sisters had hired a lawyer. Apparently my stepfather, on the same day he died of brain cancer, signed an addendum to his trust leaving everything to my sister, and dispensing with his three stepdaughters. My sister personally witnessed this document, which was not notarized. My stepsister later stopped her lawsuit after realizing how expensive and time consuming it was.
They denied me a copy of the family trust. My mother's lawyer said I should be the beneficiary. My mother and sister removed me as a beneficiary when I believe they forged my stepfather's signature. Do I have any solution other than hiring a lawyer?
Will karma get them in the end?
Sister, sister and daughter
Related: “I feel insulted”: My husband and I are in our 70s. We got married 3 years ago. He is leaving his $1.8 million home to a 10-year-old relative. Is that normal?
If your mother is still alive, you may have to rely on karma, if that is what you believe is necessary to right something you believe is wrong. If your mother inherits everything, including the house that your stepfather previously said he intended to divide among his three children and two stepchildren, your mother can still divide the estate according to her own wishes.
However, the timing and circumstances would look bad in any courtroom. You can usually contest a will or trust for the following reasons: lack of testamentary capacity, undue influence of a family member and improper execution. Given the nature of your stepfather's illness, what happened seems highly inappropriate. In some cases, the trust may also need to be documented.
The facts described here are certainly troubling but unfortunately not uncommon, says Benazir “Penny” Roshan, Partner and Head of the Litigation and Probate Group at Greenberg Glusker. “Changes to an estate plan are inherently suspicious, especially when they overturn the dispositional provisions of the previous estate plan such as beneficiary designations,” she says.
“Most jurisdictions have laws that allow an heir or beneficiary to challenge a subsequent change or modification [described as an addendum in your letter] “This negates their beneficial interest in the will or trust,” she adds. The legal action that formally challenges an estate plan is known as a trust or “challenge.”
Legal procedures are expensive. “Individuals whose beneficial interests in an estate have been eliminated by deathbed changes should consult attorneys and explore the costs versus benefits of taking formal action,” says Roshan. “They should realize that most jurisdictions have time limits on bringing a claim, If you think about it, time may be of the essence.
A complex legal issue
Daniel McKenzie, an attorney at McKenzie Law Firm in Centennial, Colorado, says he doesn't know if karma will eventually get to anyone. In short, he says the only way to address your concerns will be through agreement between the parties involved, which seems unlikely, or by court order. “Can this be done without a lawyer?” He says. “Sure, but that would be a terrible idea.”
The law varies by state and by Mackenzie The analysis is based on California law, although most states share similar laws regarding estate plan challenges. He also doesn't address the part of your letter about lack of documentation, because, he says, there is not always a formal requirement to notarize a trust or amend a trust, even though they are common best practices that allow a trust to be registered.
McKenzie thought you had a case, based on how difficult it would be for someone with late-stage brain cancer to sign a document, let alone understand what they were doing. But your question was, do you need a lawyer? “Unfortunately, this is a very complex issue, requiring sophisticated expert testimony and careful legal arguments,” he says.
“Assuming the mother is also deceased and the assets passed to the sister outside of the will, the writer would likely file a civil suit, alleging lack of capacity and undue influence,” he adds. “The fact that the father prepared the document very late in life when he was likely to be in a very dangerous condition would support both claims.”
This reader recently wrote me a similar situation: His uncle convinced his sick grandmother to cut off the family trust from everyone. The reader likened it to a bitter Shakespearean tragedy. As his story indicates, such events at the eleventh hour were unheard of. People do dramatic and poorly judged things when there is a sick relative and a lot of money.
More from Quentin Futrell:
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My husband bought our house by inheritance. I signed a demand to resign. He said I could live there after he died, but he changed his mind. What now?
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