- The Washington Times - Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Tom Nolan recently broke the bad news to one of his clients about a deceased relative’s estate.

Sixteen of the man’s heirs were competing for property rights to his house and other assets after he died without a well-crafted will.

“It’s going to be next to impossible to get those people to agree,” said Mr. Nolan, a Virginia probate lawyer.

What could have been a simple distribution of the estate, instead would require a “partition” lawsuit and $25,000 in legal fees to sell the house and give each relative a share of the proceeds.

A typical will prepared by a lawyer costs about $1,000.

As the baby-boom generation reaches retirement age, business is good for probate lawyers as they help some clients plan estates — and help others clean up fiascoes that divide families forever.

“The No. 1 thing I try to do in my estate-planning work is achieve family harmony,” Mr. Nolan said.

In 2002, one in eight, or almost 35 million, Americans was more than 65 years old, according to AARP, an advocacy group for older Americans. By 2030, the figure is expected to double to more than 71 million. People older than 50 control 70 percent of the nation’s wealth.

Most of them will die without a last will and testament.

For many of them, the difficulty of their deaths will be compounded for their families by the lack of estate planning.

“For most people, they don’t know what can go wrong,” Mr. Nolan said.

In one case, the owner of a corporation died without a will, leaving his second wife and three children from a prior marriage to sort out his estate.

“All of them disliked each other,” he said.

Virginia law made the deceased man’s second wife executor of his estate, but not before the children tried to intervene with a lawsuit and a “vexatious attorney,” Mr. Nolan said. “It was a horrible three-year experience to try to settle the estate.”

Gary Altman, a Rockville probate lawyer, described a case in which an estate plan averted a family fight.

A client wanted his two children to receive income from his estate, but was concerned how they would spend the money if they received it in a lump sum. He also wanted to avoid arguments between the brother and sister if one was appointed executor of the estate.

The man willed his estate to a trust account and made his local bank the trustee.

“He and his sister are getting along great,” Mr. Altman said. “Clear documents, the right trustee, have helped to avoid a family fight and discord between two siblings.”

Some probate lawyers warn against inexpensive wills that can be purchased at retail stores or over the Internet.

“Many of these Internet will kits purport to be applicable in every state when, in fact, in examining most of the Internet will packages, they are not tailored to nuances under state law or unique family situations,” said Leigh-Alexandra Basha, a Washington probate lawyer.

Differences in state law can have a significant effect on how an estate is distributed, she said.

“For example, in Virginia there is the Small Estates Act for smaller estates whose threshold is constantly rising,” Mrs. Basha said. “Maryland offers a modified administration, and Washington offers unsupervised administration.”

She also noted that the District, Maryland and Virginia require different kinds and amounts of documents to resolve an estate.

A failure to have a legally correct will can result in state courts getting authority over an estate and creditors seizing the assets.

“These may seem like simple things to you,” said Judy Redpath, president of the Financial Planning Association of the National Capital Area. “I promise you, in the middle of a crisis, they are not.”


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