Friday, October 26, 2018

Per Stirpes

Per Stirpes is a Latin phrase meaning that should a beneficiary predecease the testator, the beneficiary's share of the inheritance goes to his heirs.

A reader writes: "My Grandfather recently died, and all my cousins got nice checks from his Estate. How come I didn't get anything? Are they stealing my inheritance from me?"

The short answer is, no they are not stealing from you. There can be a number of reasons why you didn't receive anything, including being written out of the will - as my Dad did to me (as George Carlin put is, "Hell is full of Dads" and I am sure Dad is down there right now, screaming up at us). But the reason our reader didn't get bubkis has to do with per stirpes, not with being written out of the will.

Again, as I noted before, you should never count on an inheritance. Family members do all sorts of weird things when money is on the table. My late Uncle tried to have my Grandmother sign a new will that basically took my Mother's share of the estate and put it in a trust he would control. My Dad went down to Texas and got Grandma to sign a new will. And that is just one example of the sort of hi-jinks you run into.

By the way, in response to that posting, I received an angry e-mail, from a law student, no less, claiming that none of the scenarios in my posting (which are based on actual events) could ever have happened because "they are against the law!" That made me very sad, as even law students should realize that laws are indeed broken all the time, and justice occurs less than half the time. This is indeed why we have lawyers. What the hell are they teaching in law school these days? That laws are never broken because they exist? How sad.

So right off the bat, our reader shouldn't concern themselves with this sort of thing. If you were written out of the will, move on with life. You have no real "right" to other people's money. Of course, there are ways to throw a wrench in the works, if you really wanted to. For example, in my Father's will, which was suspiciously written two months before he died, he left no mention of me, not even to leave a dollar. This was a mistake on the part of the draftsman of the document, as it generally is a good idea to at least mention the relative you want to stiff.

When Joan Crawford famously wrote her adopted children out of her will, she explicitly put in that she was leaving them nothing, "for reasons of which they are fully aware." Of course, her daughter, Christina, got even by writing Mommy Dearest, which was made into a movie that could have been a documentary about my family. Seriously. Faye Dunaway refuses to talk about her portrayal of Crawford, claiming that it was "over the top" acting. Actually, I thought her performance was restrained - I too, was subject to "night raids" during my childhood. It was all very authentic to me. No wire coat hangers!

But I digress.

If you don't mention a near relative by name, the excluded person has grounds to sue on the legal fiction that the decedent "forgot" to mention them in the will. That gets your foot in the door in court, allowing you to raise other issues as well. For example, I could have also alleged undue influence (the rewriting of the will so close to death could be argued as suspect) and tied up the whole thing for months or even years. The estate could be wiped out just by legal fees. And that is what happens in some estates - a relative who felt they were owed more will sue, tie up the estate in litigation, and the estate later settles the lawsuit, usually with some compromise reached. But usually there has to be millions on the table to justify the legal fees. My father's estate was not nearly that large.

In the case of our reader, her Grandfather left his estate to his four sons in his will, with the stipulation that the legacy be divided per stirpes among the descendants of the sons, if one or more of them should predecease grandpa. And in this case, one of the sons did die, leaving behind three children of his own. Thus, the estate was divided equally into four parts, three of these four parts going to the three surviving sons, and the remaining fourth being divided yet again - this time into three sub-parts - for the three children of the deceased son.

Now, to the children of the other sons, this may seem like a raw deal. Their cousins got nice checks from Grandpa's estate, but they got bubkis. Of course, the cousins who did inherit don't have a Dad anymore - which to me seems like an additional bonus in some respects. The parents of the cousins who did not inherit, got nice checks, and maybe someday - many years in the future - these children might get a share of this, or not. Probably not, as from what I understand, the parents needed the money to fund their own retirement. Nevertheless, it "seems" unfair to one grandchild that her cousin ends up with a nice five-figure payout, while she gets nothing.

That's the way it works, unfortunately. Life isn't fair. And that is one reason why you should not count on an inheritance. If you plan your life - or retirement - around one, it may not ever happen, and then you are stuck. Save your own money, and if you inherit from someone else, that's great. If not, well, you still have something to fall back on.

I realize to the reader, this doesn't seem like a satisfactory answer, particularly when her cousins have all picked out their new Camaros.

By the way, this may seem like a nice motive to commit patricide - you end up getting a per stirpes share of your parent's inheritance when grandpa dies. But sadly, they have laws about this sort of thing, and if you get caught, well, you go to jail and you also don't get the inheritance.

Of course, as I noted above, laws get broken all the time. And not everyone gets caught.

On the whole, though, murder is a pretty shitty financial plan.