4 minute read

Probate Horror Stories: Don’t Let Probate Haunt You!

Probate is complicated and a lot can go wrong during the process, but we’re here to help! This guide breaks down three Probate horror stories and how to avoid them.

Mitch Mitchell

Mitch Mitchell, @MitchMitchell

Product Counsel, Legal, Trust & Will

If this time of year brings scary stories to mind, you’re not alone. Spooky scenarios and ghoulish tales seem to be everywhere around Halloween time. But ghosts, haunted houses, and things that go bump in the night aren’t the only things that can be downright terrifying. There’s another scenario that can give you a shock and make it hard for you to sleep at night: Probate horror stories. 

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Like those scary stories where someone who was wronged returns as a ghost to haunt the living, improper estate planning can also wreak havoc on many lives. It’s been said that in those stories, ghosts often have unfinished business. And a lack of estate planning is just that, unfinished business. You see, something has to happen to everyone’s possessions when they die. Usually that means passing property and belongings on to a spouse, children, other family members or friends. But without an Estate Plan in place, those left behind are faced with a lot of decisions, uncertainty, and can be vulnerable to scammers and potentially years in the court system. 

Now, that’s scary! While accidents, murder, mayhem, and revenge can all make for a frightening campfire story, don’t underestimate the real-life nightmare that dragging an Estate through Probate can become for many families. Grab the popcorn and read on to hear three scary Probate stories.  

There Was No Will

What can happen when you die without a Will? That’s what one man’s family had to find out the hard way. A wealthy man who lived in California was never the most responsible guy. He liked to live for the moment and have fun with his finances. When he died unexpectedly, the phone call was a surprise to his second-wife and adult children. But once lawyers got involved, there was another surprise: there was no Will. 

A Will can be easy and inexpensive to make, and everyone should have one, but not everyone does. And though the man had told his wife and children they wouldn’t have to worry about it, they assumed he had created a Will to take care of financial matters. But he had put it off each year, thinking he wasn’t old enough to need a Will yet. So, without a single Estate-Planning measure in place, his entire Estate – a home, a vacation home, bank accounts, shares of stock, cars, etc. – had to go into Probate. This legal process determines what the assets of a deceased person include, what debts may be owed, and who the heirs to the Estate will be. The average Probate process can take at least 6 months, but often it takes longer than that. And, as this family learned, as they each hired individual lawyers and fought in court over rightful shares of inheritance and what their loved one would have wanted, the process can last years. 

Debts had been uncovered, property had to be sold, legal fees and court costs mounted. At the end of a two-and-a-half-year Probate battle, they were all angrier -- and poorer. It cost them much more time and money than it could have, had the proper Estate-Planning documents been in place to begin with. 

How to Prevent this from happening to you: Making a Will is important. It declares who will make your medical and financial decisions if you aren’t able to, and how your Estate will be distributed among your heirs. Depending on what your Estate includes, you may want to transfer property to beneficiaries via a Trust or Annuity as well. Avoiding some fees and taxes, court costs, debtors, and family infighting are just a few of the reasons to create a Will and other estate planning documents. 

The Greedy Executor

She said she would look after everything. They could trust her. So, when the family’s elderly grandparent made this woman the Executor of her Estate, no one questioned it. They had been friends for years. But once the grandparent had passed, things got strange. 

The Executor had some weird ideas about how the money should be used and what should happen to the prized family heirlooms. There was a medical bill that went unpaid. The Executor said she didn’t think she had to pay it. The car had already been ‘gifted’ to the Executor, so that part of the Will didn’t count, she said. There was less money in the bank than the family had thought. A diamond ring was missing. Someone had scratched out a few lines of the Will and written in the Executor’s name instead. Was that legitimate? They’d have to go in front of a judge to find out. Could the Executor do that? She told the family she did everything just the way their grandparent wanted. But it didn’t sit right with any of them. 

An Executor of an Estate is supposed to be someone who is honest and trustworthy. And many Executors are. But in this case, a greedy trickster had everyone fooled. Putting an unqualified or untrustworthy person in charge of an Estate is a risky move, to say the least – and it can turn into a horror story for family members and other heirs. 

Can it happen to your loved ones? Having an unscrupulous person in charge of your family’s inheritance can be as scary as any ghost story. That’s why creating the right estate planning documents AND appointing the right Executor is something you should take charge of now. Only you know who will make a good Executor for your Estate, but sometimes using an unbiased professional third-party, creating a Trust with a professional Trustee, or making sure that the responsibility is divided among family members or other beneficiaries can be a good idea.    

The Mysterious Handwritten Document

After the funeral, it turned up. Someone claimed they found it in box at the back of the closet. What was it? It was a letter, written on a piece of legal paper, detailing the last wishes of the recently-departed. 

There had been a Will, created by a Lawyer, years earlier. But now this yellow piece of paper turned up – and it was written in blue ink, dated five years later than the Will was, and changed some of the conditions of the Will. It cut out one son and left more of the Estate to the other son. Was it a cruel trick? Was it a sign from beyond the grave? Was it signed, notarized, and legally binding in terms of the family Estate? 

A handwritten Will can be a tricky area when it comes to Estate matters. Usually, the most recent Will is the one that applies. There also has to be reasonable belief that the Will was created by the Estate-holder and that they were of sound mind and body when they created the Will. When it comes to a handwritten Will, some states will accept them and some won't. Some states require that they be signed, witnessed, and notarized, others only require a signature. 

Leaving the validity of a Will up for question though, can leave your loved ones in jeopardy. A handwritten Will can be used in some cases, and rarely may be the only option a person has for getting their affairs in order – but a typed, official state-specific document is generally the better bet. 

Spooky season doesn’t have to extend to your Estate. Here at Trust & Will, we have the online, customizable Estate-Planning documents you need to avoid scary scenarios like the ones above. Don’t take any chances – get the Will, the Trust, and all the documents you need to ensure your assets are secure from Trust & Will.


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