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My wife’s father left her a home and money in a trust. This subsidizes our lifestyle. What happens to me if she dies?

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Dear Quentin,

I live in Pennsylvania. Four years ago, my father-in-law died, leaving a trust for my wife and her two sisters. They each received a vacation home in a trust under will. My wife and I rent our home out, and the income is used toward paying for our current home and expenses. We up-sized after receiving the trust rental.

My wife has no will, and has not named me as her successor trustee in the event of her death. Neither of us has children. The income has been used jointly since receipt of the trust property. The funds go into a joint account, and I handle all the financial transactions on our home and the rental property.

She says everything will go to me, as we’ve been married for 30 years. Although there have never been issues with her sisters, I am concerned that if something happened, her sisters might try to claim it as family property and say I’m not entitled to it. I would need that continued income to maintain my current residence, as there is no life insurance or substantial savings.

Am I concerned for no reason, or should I be trying to convince her of the need for a will again?

Paranoid in PA

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com

Dear Paranoid,

Most things are good in moderation, even paranoia.

You are correct that, if your wife owns the home outright, it would be considered marital property under the law. You are your wife’s direct heir and, given that you have no children, you would inherit her entire estate. Of course, what happens to any funds in the trust would depend on the terms of that trust. From what you say, the income from your rental home appears to be safe.

But…

It’s always recommended to have a will, even if you have no children, and especially if you are dealing with matters involving inheritances and trusts. Avoiding probate is one way of keeping your affairs private. You also want to consider setting up a financial power of attorney and a medical directive, should one of you become incapacitated and unable to handle your own affairs.


‘Avoiding probate is one way of keeping your affairs private.’

“Couples without children that can serve as an alternate agent should consider appointing others that they have an established relationship with that are trustworthy and have the experience and capability of handling the responsibilities of being an agent under a financial power of attorney and/or a medical directive,” according to the law firm McNamee Hosea.

“Furthermore, as part of their estate plan, they should consider maximizing their bequests by minimizing the income tax implications of retirement benefits,” the law firm adds. “For example, to the extent they have charitable intentions, they could designate a charity as a beneficiary of part or all of a retirement account and give other nontaxable assets to other beneficiaries.”

As you can see, there are so many other reasons to commit your intentions to paper. If you have a complicated estate, probate can be held up for months or even longer, especially if there are people who decide they are entitled to a slice of the pie. There is no accounting for peace of mind — and, it seems, a second conversation with your wife would help give you that.

The Moneyist: ‘I cut his hair because he won’t pay for a haircut’: My multimillionaire husband is 90. I’ve looked after him for 41 years, but he won’t help my son

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My parents made my sister executor of their $4 million estate, and joint owner of their bank accounts. Should I be worried?

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Dear Quentin,

I just found out that my parents (who are in their mid 80s) have named my sister as their successor trustee, and executor of their estate and wills. They have also put her name on all their financial accounts “in case something happens to us.”

I have no reason to suspect my sister of any nefarious motives, but having her name as joint owner on their accounts seems potentially problematic to me in case of their passing. What are the pros and cons of this arrangement?

Their estate is probably worth about $4 million. We have five other siblings who are currently unaware of this arrangement. Can you provide any resources or articles I could show my parents regarding better ways to accomplish their goal of having someone in charge of their finances?

Concerned Son

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com.

Dear Son,

People often don’t do anything nefarious, until they have the opportunity to do so and/or run into financial difficulty of their own. That may not be the case with your sister, of course, but your parents should absolutely know the meaning of making one of their children a co-owner on their bank accounts, if their intention is to merely have your sister assist with bills.

Is she a co-owner of this account, or is she a co-signer? If it’s the former, your sister is a joint owner and can spend the money as she wishes. She would likely be liable for debts on that account after your parents’ death. If it’s the latter, your sister has the right to sign checks on your parents’ behalf. To complicate matters, not all banks have the same definitions for “co-owner” and “co-signer.”

Many people don’t understand the difference between being a co-signer and a co-owner. There are many cases of children listed as co-owners (rather than authorized signers) on those accounts who have emptied their parents’ bank account before and after they died. Sometimes, they did not keep enough (or any) receipts, and have been wrongly accused of emptying a parent’s account.


Many people don’t understand the difference between being a co-signer and a co-owner.

In the letters I have received on this issue,the damage was often already done, typically caused by a combination of the three “Gs” — grief, gripes and greed — when long-simmering sibling rivalries boil over. People do things that they may not otherwise do if their parents were there to witness it. You are correct to ensure your parents’ action is in accordance with their wishes.

There are other ”what ifs”: What if your sister dies first? The account would likely become part of her estate too, with a share to be distributed to her children, which could then involve paying a state inheritance tax. Your parents’ accounts could also be “paid on death” or “transferred on death,” avoiding the public and often time-consuming probate process. Read more here.

The Moneyist: ‘I cut his hair because he won’t pay for a haircut’: My multimillionaire husband is 90. I’ve looked after him for 41 years, but he won’t help my son

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S.E.C. Commissioner Hester Peirce on the outlook for crypto regulation, and whether this will finally be the year we see a Bitcoin ETF.





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My husband doesn’t get along with my son. I brought most of the wealth into our marriage. How do I split my estate?

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Dear Quentin,

How do couples typically handle their estates in a second marriage? My husband and I have been married for seven years, and it is the second marriage for both of us. I have one adult child from my previous marriage; he has no children.

I brought the majority of our wealth to our marriage, including almost $1 million in my 401(k) and a nice home that is almost paid off; otherwise, we have no debt. My husband and I bought a second home together. We work hard to fund our new 401(k)s, and own a successful business together.

I am turning 65 this year, so estate planning is long overdue. My husband is five years younger than me, and we are both in very good health. We have two issues facing us: I see our retirement as living very comfortably on the monthly income generated by our 401(k)s, pension, Social Security, etc., and leaving whatever may be left to my son.


‘The other issue is that my husband no longer gets along with my dear son at all, and feels no obligation to get along with him.’

I am not interested in scrimping, but I want to be able to have enough money to last us until age 90 (or beyond) by not touching the principal. My husband is more interested in dipping deep into our savings, and living it up in retirement while we are young enough to enjoy it.

The other issue is that my husband no longer gets along with my dear son at all, and feels no obligation to get along with him, to the point that neither one wants anything to do with the other. As far as he is concerned, my son doesn’t meet his expectations, and so deserves nothing from me and certainly nothing from him.

I want my estate planning to be fair to both my new husband and my son. How do people typically handle this type of quandary? I think that I need to create some type of trust to pass on my share of our estate to my son. My pre-marriage assets involved my son as I pursued my graduate degree through night school and worked long hours throughout his childhood.

Second Wife

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at qfottrell@marketwatch.com.

Dear Second Wife,

Don’t allow your husband’s feelings toward your son to influence your estate planning.

Your relationships with your husband and your son and your own plans for retirement are all fair game when making decisions about your estate, but your husband and son’s fractured relationship is their business, not yours. You worked hard for this money, and your son is your legal heir. Any effort by your husband to spend all of your savings and fritter away any inheritance that you intended to leave to your son should be resisted at all costs.

You have worked too hard your entire life to compromise your plans for a comfortable retirement where you have money set aside for long-term medical care insurance, unforeseen emergencies and/or your son. If you jointly own your home, you can leave your half to your son in your will, and specify it can only be sold after your husband passes away.

If you own the home, you can give your husband a life estate. Your son would pay capital-gains tax on the value of your home when he sells it, and not when you bought it. You could also make your son the beneficiary on your life-insurance policy, and/or gift him a certain amount of money per year to see how he manages and spends that money.

Figure out what is fair to yourself first before moving on to what is fair to your husband and your son. It’s OK to put your needs first. I caution against your dipping into savings at a rate that is beyond your own risk tolerance.

Ultimately, you are entitled to leave all other separate property to your son when you die — and, along with a financial adviser, set up a trust with that in mind for you, your husband and your son. Not necessarily in that order.

The Moneyist: ‘I cut his hair because he won’t pay for a haircut’: My multimillionaire husband is 90. I’ve looked after him for 41 years, but he won’t help my son

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