Author’s Note: The following article is part two of a two-part series. In part one, The Will, Part I: Let Him Eat Cake, I provided a narrative of my inheritance experience, and in this installment, The Will, Part II: An Unending Sense of Loss, I talk about emotional harm and the impact the estate struggle has had on grieving my mother’s death. I also offer advice for people facing similar inheritance complications. Click here if you have not read part one, The Will, Part I: Let Him Eat Cake.
I have changed the names of two people in the story; I refer to my sister as “Louise” and I call my sister’s lawyer “Ms. Dean”. I use the real name of Ms. Dean’s law firm, Winburn, Mano, Schrader & Shram, PLLC, of Little Rock, Arkansas.
This is a true story
I do not have anything that belonged to my parents. Nothing. Louise, my sister, cleared out my mother’s house without telling me in advance and without giving me a chance to claim anything. I sent Ms. Dean, Louise’s lawyer, a list of eight things I wanted, which included my father’s Army medals and a small sculpture I gave to my mother. She claimed that the most important items were not found and could not confirm the existence of the others. So, I am left with nothing.
But that is not all I lost. Some of my childhood belongings never left my parents’ home. I lost all my school yearbooks and my high school diploma. I do not know the whereabouts of paintings, drawings, and pottery I made in high school. I do not know what happened to my childhood teddy bear or locks of my hair that my mother saved when I was a child. I have no photos to attach to the family genealogy I started after my mother died. I do not know what happened to my collection of sentimental items that belonged to my grandparents. I do not know what happened to the collection of letters my parents wrote to each other when my father served in the Korean War, or the 48-star flag that draped my grandfather’s coffin.
In the months following my mother’s death, I spoke only with Ms. Dean, as Louise requested. After the estate settlement, Louise sent me a scathing email. Although she was the executor of the estate, she considered my questions and my insistence on the truth as an attack on her and her family. She said I was toxic, an unfit person for her and her family to have a relationship with, and accused me of abusing my mother, a claim she had never made before.
More than a year passed before we communicated further, again through email. Once again she accused me of multiple instances of unspecified abuse against my mother; her accusations were evolving. She claimed a psychiatrist once treated me for anger issues, which was a lie. She said she was praying for me and that I needed to see a priest. It sounded as though she was suggesting I needed an exorcism.
My normal grief process took an unfamiliar route, which I knew related to the unresolved estate issues. Emotionally, I sometimes felt stuck at Boardwalk, unable to pass Go. I still miss talking with my mother several times a week. I miss receiving her call on my birthday. I grieve the time I lost with her before she fell ill, time that was fruitful for our relationship when I lived in Arkansas. I wish she had lived longer to meet my spouse and my South American family. I wish she was here today to meet my cat, Cyndi Lou, who came into my life shortly after my mother died, and whom my mother would undoubtedly call “fuzzy britches” as I often do.
I sometimes ponder Ms. Dean’s role in the estate battle and the duality of her professional conduct. I question the ethics of her working on behalf of my mother’s estate when she was alive, and then working on behalf of Louise’s personal interests in the estate after my mother died. When I perused her firm’s website, I found a library of articles that warned clients of the types of pitfalls that undermined my inheritance. In spite of that, Ms. Dean helped Louise exploit the shortcomings of my mother’s estate plan. For me, the estate experience felt like a sadistic scavenger hunt, rather than the respectful sharing of assets that my mother deserved and expected.
Nevertheless, I persist.
In hindsight, I see a multitude of red flags that I did not respond to in time. I am not a lawyer or an estate specialist, and the homegrown suggestions I offer here are not comprehensive. These suggestions reflect my personal experience, which I hope will help other beneficiaries avoid the problems I encountered.
Demand inclusion in end-of-life duties. Offering to help a caregiver will relieve their burden, but it also ensures that you are kept abreast of health and financial details. If a caregiver refuses your help, they might later use your lack of participation to bolster a claim that they are entitled to part or all of your share of the estate.
Document everything. Document everything that crosses your path, if you suspect self-dealing by an executor or caregiver. If the wrongdoer makes contradictory statements, consider recording your phone calls with them. Call recording laws vary by state, so you should make sure your actions are legal.
Save all emails and text messages and made backup PDF copies. Pay attention to the social media pages of the offender. As time passes, people get sloppy and may post messages or photos that reveal property they have taken.
People who take more than their fair share sometimes make incriminating statements along the way. Documentation can prove critical if an estate battle goes to court.
Do not hide abuse. If someone has stolen part or all of your inheritance, talk about the theft with people close to your family. By speaking up you increase your chances of recovering what is rightfully yours. For instance, if someone has taken property from an estate of which you a beneficiary, post pictures of the property on your social media page and ask friends and family members to help you locate it.
Seek legal help early. The earlier you seek legal help, the more likely you can prevent depletion of the estate or outright theft. Depletion of an estate can begin long before a loved one dies, or even before they become incapacitated. Examples of estate depletion or theft include misappropriating funds in a joint checking account, fraudulent real estate deals, or taking the belongings of an incapacitated person. It is common and normal to feel hesitant about bringing legal action against someone you love, but if you do not, you stand to lose.
Guilt and gaslighting. Do not let guilt stop you from taking a demanding stance about an estate from which you stand to inherit. You have the right to ask questions about the estate’s assets and to expect thorough, truthful answers.
If you confront someone who has overreached, expect negative blowback. Gaslighting is a common response from someone guilty of wrongdoing. The purpose of gaslighting it to make you the guilty party. In many cases, the gaslighter will try to blame you for their actions. Gaslighting is manipulation, do not fall for it.
Forgive. First, you must forgive yourself for suffering a loss. My inaction resulted in the loss of money and property. This series of articles is one way I am forgiving myself, because in sharing my story, I hope to help other people avoid the problems I have faced.
Forgive the deceased loved one whose inaction or inadequate planning caused you to suffer a loss. Such failures are water under the bridge once the person becomes incapacitated or dies.
Consider forgiving the person who wronged you. Forgiving them must depend on factors such as the quality of the relationship before the offense happened. Forgiveness does not require you to continue a relationship with that person. You should avoid forgiving them before they admit their wrongdoing, make amends by repaying you, and ask you for forgiveness.
I informed Ms. Dean and Louise that I was writing and planning to publish these articles. I gave them plenty of time to correct, change, or clarify the statements they have made about my mother’s estate, but they never responded.
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