A recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek is a poignant reminder that there are laws dictating what will happen if you fail to make an estate plan. The story explains how government officials and heir hunters tracked down the estranged family of a frugal millionaire and passed on his fortune to the next generation. It is a stark look at the current intestacy system, and a reminder that without an estate plan in place, you have no say over anything that happens after you are gone.
A Portrait Of A Millionaire
The millionaire in question is not someone who you would have read about in the society pages or saw on reality TV. No, Eugene Brown, was a quiet man who kept mostly to himself.
The police discovered he had died after the mail carrier reported that he had not greeted her at the door for the previous week like he typically did. Brown was found dead in his bathroom in a pool a dried blood. He had suffered a stroke and broke his nose falling to the ground.
Representatives from the local office of the public administrator were called in after an initial sweep of the house failed to reveal the names or contact information for any surviving relatives. They began their search, but were surprised by what they were and were not finding around Brown’s home.
Brown had no TV, no radio, no computer, and no cell phone. He had little to no furniture, not even a bed. What they did find was a military uniform, lots of religious books, and a file cabinet full of financial records revealing Mr. Brown was a multi-millionaire.
Where Do You Go From There?
The public administrators also found a box of index cards with names and addresses on them. One indicated it was an emergency contact. The administrators reached out and learned Brown had kept in contact with this person, his cousin, over the years.
Other relatives were harder to locate. In fact, it was only after an heir-hunting firm saw the court record generated when the public administrator filed Brown’s probate case that any other blood relatives came forward. The heir-hunting firm re-constructed Brown’s family tree by combing through public records and found a niece and three nephews, his sister’s children. One of them admitted they did not know their uncle was still alive.
Although they did not grieve his death, these four are the people who ended up inheriting Brown’s estate under California’s intestacy laws. These laws, which dictate what happens to a deceased person’s property if the person did not make an estate plan, pass everything on to the nearest blood relatives. Texas law works the same way.
The person who seemed most upset by Brown’s death was his financial advisor, who wept when he learned of Brown’s passing. He and Brown had spoken on the phone each day for years. He claims they frequently discussed Brown’s religious views — he was a devout Catholic.
In fact, tucked into the file cabinet with all the financial information was a brochure from Catholic Relief Services titled “Making Your Will: A Good Steward’s Guide” and an unsigned estate planning form from Merrill Lynch designating that charity as the sole beneficiary of his investments.
Is What Happened Right?
The article leaves you wondering… is what happened right?
From a legal perspective, the answer, as far as we can tell, is yes. Everything happened by the books. This is how things are supposed to work when someone dies without an estate plan in place — the closest relatives split everything.
From a moral perspective, this question is harder to answer. Would Mr. Brown have preferred to leave his fortune to Catholic Relief Services? If so, why didn’t he sign the form that would have made that happen? Would he rather his money pass to the relative he kept in touch with instead of people who thought he was dead? Maybe, but it doesn’t matter now.
After someone has died without an estate plan in place we can’t guess what they would have done in an alternate universe where they executed an estate plan. This is why it is critical to do more than talk to your family about your end of life wishes, or half-way DIY some documents.
If you are ready to make sure your estate planning wishes are respected, we are here to help. Please contact our Houston area firm to schedule a reduced fee consultation.