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Estate Planning Disasters: The Form Beneficiary Deed

Estate Planning Disasters: The Form Beneficiary Deed

ESTATE PLANNING DISASTERS:  THE FORM BENEFICIARY DEED

Whether people fail to create an estate plan or sometimes even when they do, there a host of reasons why the plan or lack thereof can be a disaster.  This article will provide an example of an actual estate planning disaster.  As a beneficiary deed lawyer St. Peters, Missouri, I have seen plenty of them.

STORY

Aunt has a piece of property in a historic part of St. Charles County.  She has no children and is a widow.  She does however have a grown niece and a grown nephew and she loves both of them.  Aunt and their mother were super close as sisters and Aunt especially doted on niece and nephew as they were growing up.

In 2002, Aunt finds a form beneficiary deed at an office supply store.  The form automatically includes the language per stirpes typed in after the people listed to inherit the property after her death.  She writes in that she wants her nephew and niece to inherit the property equally when she dies and, as listed on the deed already, per stirpes.  The deed is correctly recorded.

In 2012, niece passes away.  Aunt is now in her late 80’s and unable to create a new beneficiary deed because she is not competent.  In the intervening ten years, niece’s son, her only child has grown from a well adjusted ten year old to a 20 year old with an awful drug addiction and several arrests for theft and burglary.

Aunt passes away in 2015.  Nephew is referred to my office for help, since he lives on the West Coast.  He wants to know how to put the property just in his name since his sister passed away.  After review of the 2002 beneficiary deed, I have to tell nephew that he is only entitled to one-half of the property and, unfortunately, has to share the property with niece’s son (his nephew).  Nephew immediately tells me that his Aunt said many times that she only wanted niece or nephew to inherit the property because she knew they would take care of it.  However, her intent as indicated by nephew is not displayed on the form beneficiary deed.

Meanwhile, soon after Aunt’s death, niece’s son, has already broken into the house and taken almost everything of value, including rare jewelry and antiques.  He has also stripped all of the copper and apparently looking for hidden items, tore up the flooring throughout the first floor and the vents in the basement.

I was able to put the property in nephew and son of niece’s name, but I had to refer nephew to a civil litigation attorney to pursue damages against the son of niece.  Nephew received a judgment for thousands of dollars and eventually the share of the house belonging to niece’s son was used to collect on that judgment, but the actual damages to the house and the costs of filing suit severely reduced the value of the inheritance.

So how could all of this been avoided?

Hindsight is of course 20/20 but a consultation with an estate planning attorney would have allowed Aunt to be informed that her true intent, to give the property 50/50 to nephew and niece, per capita, would have resulted in the property passing only to nephew at Aunt’s death because niece had predeceased in 2012.

Bottomline:  Two Latin words, per stirpes, meant all the difference in this case. 

Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita Distribution…

Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita Distribution…

Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita Distribution in a Will

                One of the obvious benefits of having a will is you get to name the beneficiaries of your estate.  When I sit down as an estate planning lawyer St. Peters to meet people, they almost always have an idea of who is going to be their beneficiaries.

However, one thing that they often struggle to decide is how to divide their estate if one or more of their beneficiaries die before they do.

There are two options.  The first is called “per stirpes” distribution and it means that if a beneficiary predeceases, their share goes to their survivors equally.  The other option is called “per capita” distribution and it means that if a named beneficiary predeceases their share is then split only between the other name beneficiaries.

Let’s look at an example:

Sam and Sally have three children, Samuel, Sarah and Samantha.  They each create wills that leave everything to the other spouse and then to the children in equal 1/3 shares, per stirpes. Sam passes away and then Sarah passes away five years later.  Five years after that Sally dies.  Her will controls the distribution of her estate and because she chose per stirpes distribution, Samuel will get 1/3, Samantha will get 1/3 and Sarah’s two children, will each split Sarah’s 1/3 share and each will get 1/6.

With a per capita distribution scheme, under the same example Sarah’s 1/3 would be split between her brother Samuel and sister Samantha.  Sarah’s children would therefore receive nothing and Samuel and Samantha would each split the estate, ½ each.

You can see how the slightest change in one word (“stirpes” or “capita”) can result in a big change.  Therefore, when I counsel clients I discuss these different options thoroughly and ask about their relationship with grandchildren, the health of their children and any potential problems that could develop within the family (which we want to avoid) if one scheme is chosen over the others.

There’s not really a right or wrong way to choose which distribution you want in your will or living trust.  Based on my years of practice, I would say per stirpes is the choice of 90% of clients over per capita.  Most people think that’s the fairest way and are concerned about beneficiaries getting more due to someone else’s death.

On the other hand, per capita can be a better choice if we’re worried about a distribution to grandchildren going to an unpopular daughter or son-in-law.  That can happen when the distribution is made to the grandchild but taken improperly or used unnecessarily by their mother or father.  That’s something to consider if you find yourself with an in-law that you don’t like.

In the end, careful consideration of all circumstances and preferences has to be examined and peace of mind is ultimately the goal with any estate plan.