A recent article in the Omaha World Herald outlined the life of a man named Jack. The title of the article: Omahan went to his grave with a secret: He was a millionaire. As the article reports, Jack was a very private person who “drove old cars, drank cheap beer and kept his wife on a strict allowance.” Jack had no close family when he died. The funeral home director wanted to be paid his cremation bill, so he applied to the Court and was appointed personal representative of Jack’s estate. This allowed the funeral director access to Jack’s home, where more than $5.28 Million was found. A law firm was hired to find Jack’s heirs and after a legal battle with the law firm and Jack’s distant relatives, the firm received $25,000 in legal fees from Jack’s estate, with the County receiving nearly $603,000 in taxes.
While the financial implications are difficult to swallow, the most disturbing part of this story, in my opinion, is the invasion of Jack’s privacy. According to the Omaha World Herald, Jack was a very private person, and no one, not even Jack’s distant relatives, knew of Jack’s wealth because that’s the way he wanted it. Yet, Jack’s life and wealth eventually became public, so much so that his story made the local newspaper and inspired articles such as this.
Unfortunately, due to a lack of proper estate planning, Jack’s preference for privacy was not respected at his death. The story reports Jack actually had a Will, although it was 18 years old and the majority of heirs named had died. The World Herald wouldn’t have this story if only Jack had done a few other things to protect his privacy after death.
First, at the very least, leave a “roadmap” of all property owned, and all professional advisors (attorney, accountant, financial and insurance representatives) so that the executor / personal representative knows who to contact to ensure all assets are captured. If there’s no record of the asset, it just sits there and will be overlooked perhaps indefinitely. With current technology, it is also advisable to leave a list of passwords and usernames for all accounts.
Second, it’s important to name beneficiaries of financial accounts and life insurance policies. Even if a person does not need or does not desire to establish a trust, naming beneficiaries of financial accounts can simplify the estate’s administration.
Third, review the Will every five years, and update it as needed. Keep the Will in a fireproof safe or safe deposit box at a bank to ensure it is located. Ideally, also leave the current addresses and phone numbers for the beneficiaries so they may be easily found and contacted.
Finally, if a person, like Jack, owns real estate and values privacy, he should put his real estate in a living trust. In doing so, the estate administration known as “probate” – which publicizes the decedent’s Last Will and Testament or entire intestate estate if there is no Will – may be avoided entirely.
Following these simple steps not only ensures your property gets where you intend, but can minimize legal costs and taxes, prevent family conflict, and perhaps most importantly, keep your business out of the public eye.
The information contained herein is for informational purposes only, and is not legal advice or a substitute for legal counsel. You should not act or rely on any information herein.