Newspaper coverage this week of the alleged deplorable living conditions thrust upon philanthropist Brooke Astor until her grandson filed a complaint against his father, sole executor of his mother's affairs, should be a warning to everyone: Large or small, do not to leave your estate in the hands of a single beneficiary of your estate. You invite trouble. A much more common event than anyone would care to believe.
My siblings and I learned that 22 years ago. Within a month of Mother's death, my sister urged me to retain an attorney. Our older half-brother refused to answer any legitimate questions about the estate. (When I called him with a question one Sunday, he told me that, like a bank, he is not open on Sundays and hung up).
Two days before my mother died, my half-brother, with whom I once was very close, flew up to visit me. In answer to my question his first night here, he said, "She is fine. Just her usual demanding self."
So when his wife called the following night to say that Mother had just died, my stunned silence elicited, "When I was there this morning, I knew there was something terribly wrong."
She knew but she did not call?
That December, I suggested an article on inheritance to Town & Country editor Frank Zachary who eventually wondered when it would arrive. In the preface to "Heir Tight: the unauthorized destruction of a family constellation," I wrote "Inheritance. The word has light. Its many facets dazzle. Drop it into conversation and you are assured an audience. We consign the dark side of inheritance to pages of fiction. Only when we find ourselves caught in its shadow do we learn the pain that inheritance can bring. And nothing has prepared us for it."
I never finished the article (or the book proposal) because I could not move beyond my rage over the lies alleged by our attorneys.
The most egregious deceit of all came from her doctor who told me that my half-brother promised to let us know at once that Mother's death was days away. Instead, he never said a word. Mother died alone, without anyone at her side.
Our half-brother could not afford to have us discover (and reverse) what he, with help from his wife, orchestrated. Six days before my very weakened mother died, she did what she had vowed never to do. She signed a codicil to her will that removed the bank as co-executor and left her child by her first husband in sole charge.
Dr. B. later told me that seconds after Mother put down her pen, she screamed at her son, "Now you've got what you always wanted. Now you've got my money," ordered him out of her room, and gave instructions never to allow him in again.
We always had known that we four children would share equally in Mother's estate and copies of the will that [we] received after she died confirmed that. When the estate tax was filed a year later, my half-brother's wife (who was not mentioned in the will) was listed as a beneficiary of cash and of personal property. A deception that gave my half-brother 80 percent instead of 25 percent of the estate.
Four years into our lawsuit, our attorney told us we could win in court but the expenses would be outrageous. Estate monies would cover the sole executor's legal fees and bleed our shares even further.
In closing, tips to testators: Mother forgot to note in her will her change of address and record a few distributions she made of her personal property. And, as I learned in researching the article, regardless of an estate's size, be specific in your will, right down to who gets a pair of earrings.
NANCY HYDEN WOODWARD
August 08, 2006