Unique squabbles of the modern family


I received a call today from a nice woman who was reasonably concerned about what was going to happen to her late father’s home once it was sold. Here are the basics:

Dad died about ten years ago, with a will, leaving a wife and five children behind. His wife was not the mother of his five children. Dad’s will appointed his wife to be the executor of Dad’s estate. The will was submitted for probate and his wife was appointed executor of the estate.

The will directed that the father’s property be split six ways evenly – one-sixth to his wife and one-sixth each to his five children. So far, so good (there may have been an elective share issue with the will such that the wife could have contested it, but that’s a topic for another blog post).

Dad had two items of value in his estate – a bank account worth about $120,000 and a house in Queens that is owned free and clear of any liens. Everything is still OK here.

Then there was a problem. When some of the children started asking for their $20,000 share of Dad’s bank account, Dad’s wife said that the money was gone. It’s assumed that Dad’s wife just spent it.

It’s totally reasonable that now the children are worried about their share of the house in Queens. The house has been listed for sale, which is good, but the children are worried that their stepmother is just going to take the money and run. After all, $100,000 that didn’t belong to their stepmother disappeared over the last ten years.

So what to do now? Some lawyers might have you come in for a consultation and tell you that you need to plunk down a $5,000 retainer to protect your interest in the property.

Here was my idea. I went onto the New York City Register’s website and found that the property was still in Dad’s name. The nice woman who called confirmed that she had a copy of the will. As long as the broker is keeping everyone in the loop, everything should work out. Once an offer is accepted, I recommended that the children retain separate counsel from their stepmother for the closing, if for no other reason than to ensure that the proceeds are distributed according to the contents of the will. It may not be necessary, and if it is, it will probably be an inexpensive cost for piece of mind.

It’s another example of how intra-family disputes play out when there is property and money on the line. It doesn’t have to be a costly dispute, though. If you contact the right attorney, everything can work out the way it’s supposed to.

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