I am renting a house from friends that I have known for decades. My landlord/friend tells me that his father buried a box with $50,000 in the backyard (REALLY BAD IDEA, I know) in the presence of my landlord, and his brother back in the 1970s. The father told his sons that he wanted the money to be equally divided among his grandchildren. Each son received half of their father’s assets when he passed away as a regular inheritance.
Over the years, the box has never been dug up and it is still in the ground. In the meantime, my friend has had 2 sons and each son had one child, so 2 grandchildren. The brother never had any children and, thus, never had any grandchildren. My friend has been a careful saver and has a modest, but stable, retirement income. The brother has been an extravagant spendthrift and is tens of thousands of dollars in debt.
My friend wants to dig up the money when the grandchildren turn 18 in a few years. His brother is strongly objecting, saying it isn’t fair that my friend’s two grandchildren will get the $50,000 while he gets nothing. Given that he did not have any children or grandchildren, he reasons that he is entitled to a share of the money anyway. My friend says both he and his brother have already been given a generous inheritance 30 years ago, and his father’s express wish was for the grandchildren only to have the $50,000.
So what would be the best approach for handling this situation? Also, since this is a cash inheritance, are there any taxes or other fees that need to be paid?
Tenant and friend
My late father had an expression about people who believe they are as silent as the grave: “I can keep secrets. It’s the people I tell who can’t.”
If your friend’s father told one person about the $50,000, and your friend and his brother told one person over the last 50 years, and those three outsiders told one person, the chances are I heard about it too. First port of call: Make sure the money is still there. It could have been dug up by any number of people, including the brother. If he already opened the box, arguing over how it should be split would be a perfect ploy, ripped from the pages of “Murder, She Wrote,” or “Columbo.” Also, are you sure your friend’s father wasn’t a practical joker and didn’t bury Monopoly money instead?
Americans inherited an estimated $764 billion in 2020. The average tax rate is 2.1%, according to Lily Batchelder, a New York University law professor and author of this Brookings Institution paper published earlier this year. Comparatively, income from work and savings has an average tax rate of 15.8%. Currently, the estate tax rate is 40% for the sum of lifetime gifts over $11.58 million for a single individual or $23.16 million for a married couple. One in three Americans say their future will rely on inheritance from loved ones, according to a 2018 Merrill Edge survey.
Legally, if this money is not accounted for in your friend’s father’s will, it should be split between his two direct descendants. The legal/ethical conundrum are intertwined. If I was your friend, I’d say, “Stick to our father’s wishes.” If I was the spendthrift brother, I’d say, “Stick to the law. Our father can’t allocate money to his grandchildren without a will.” Let’s assume the box has been lying dormant for nearly half a century full of greenbacks. Is this your friend’s garden or do they co-own the property? If your friend is now the sole owner of this property, the box and its contents likely belongs to him.
And how many neighbors or previous tenants went on midnight treasure hunt? Let’s find out. Consider me officially intrigued.
Quentin Fottrell is MarketWatch’s Moneyist columnist. You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions at email@example.com. By emailing your questions, you agree to having them published anonymously on MarketWatch.