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Without specific estate instructions concerning distribution of tangible personal assets, such as household furnishings, jewelry, artwork, china and silver, tools, collections etc., family members can be left guessing what a deceased person would want – or decide to do it themselves. In one case, a Michigan probate court had to step in and resolve bitter disputes by distributing numerous items. The court called it “a textbook example of the headaches, heartaches and expense that can result from inadequate estate planning. (Waters, Probate Court for the County of Marquette, No. 10-31879-DE)

Facts of the case:  According to court documents, Barbara Waters was divorced and living with Kevin Goethe when she died. She had three children from a previous marriage and he had one son. Goethe built and furnished the house. When the couple moved in together, they combined household furnishings and purchased items together and individually. Goethe proposed and purchased an engagement ring but the couple never married. “Ms. Waters was diagnosed with cancer and told Mr. Goethe it would be unfair of her to marry him because of her illness”, according to court documents.

Waters made out a handwritten (holographic) will and signed it “Mom”. Upon review, the court stated that the document did not meet the state’s legal requirements and was therefore invalid.

Weeks after Waters’ death, her children moved out of Goethe’s home. He packed some belongings and left them on the front porch for the children to pick up. He was not home when they arrived. The children gained entry to the house through another relative. They removed “almost everything they thought was their mother’s.” Goethe testified the house was “ransacked”. Family photographs were removed. One photo was ripped in two, with Goethe’s image returned to the frame and Waters’ image taken.

The Probate Court called the children’s actions “offensive”. It then made decisions to divide the items, including:  a jewelry chest and small kitchenware had to be returned to the estate by Goethe. However, some jewelry items were determined to be gifts from Waters so Goethe got to keep them; Photos were ordered returned or duplicated at estate expense; a family pet was claimed by both sides. Goethe was awarded the Maltese Terrier “in lieu of compensation for items which either disappeared from his house or items to which he might have had a reasonable claim.”

The judge stated that the court could not adopt either “extreme position” – that everything in the house belonged to Goethe or that the children were entitled to anything connected to their mother.  He added:  “there is a difference between saying or writing down what you hope will happen and taking the proper legal steps to assure that a court will enforce your intentions.”

If you have any questions on estate planning, please call Karen L. Stewart, Attorney and Counselor at (248) 735-0900.

For more information, please see my website, www.customestateplans.com.

Excerpts taken from an article in the EHTC newsletter dated February 7, 2018.