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The Dean Law Firm Blog

Friday, November 18, 2022

Don’t Have a Will? Your Estate Might Go to a Lucky Turkey!

It’s a common plot line in soap operas and movies – the main character receives a phone call letter from an attorney’s office saying that they’ve inherited a fortune from some distant relative. While seemingly improbable in real life, this situation occurs more often than you think. If you don’t have a contingency plan in your estate, or if you do not have a Will, then your estate could be distributed to distant relatives.

This person who inherits the fortune is called a laughing heir. A “laughing heir” is an heir of the estate whose relation is so remote to the decedent that they feel no grief over the death, and “laugh all the way to the bank” to collect their inheritance.

In one of my recent probates, “Jerry” (all names are changed) provided in his Will that his estate shall be distributed between his children, or their descendants. One daughter, “Lily”, gave up her child “Ben” for adoption in another state when Ben was a baby. Lily died before Jerry, and when Jerry’s Will was probated, it was discovered that Lily’s share would be given not to her surviving siblings, but to Ben. In Texas, inheritance rights are not severed by giving up a child for adoption. At the time of probate, Ben was living in another state and never had contact with Lily’s family. Imagine Ben’s surprise when I informed him that he was receiving a large portion of the Estate!

If you do not have a Will, the inheritance distribution is even more complicated. In another probate, the decedent “Fred” was unmarried, had no children, and did not sign a Will. Fred believed that his estate would transfer easily to his sole surviving brother “Sam”. However, Fred had ten siblings, nine of whom predeceased him. Texas’s heirship laws provided that the Fred’s estate goes to both Sam and the children (and grandchildren!) of Fred’s deceased brothers and sisters. There are now eighteen heirs of Fred’s estate instead of one, and many of Fred’s distant second cousins are inheriting Fred’s estate despite Fred’s original wishes.

If you do not have a Will, or if your Will does not include a contingency plan, then your estate could be given to a distant “lucky turkey”. You should consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to plan for contingencies in your Will. Your family will be very thankful if you do so!

Julia “Jules” Pullin is an attorney at The Dean Law Firm, PLLC, a boutique law firm practicing in estate planning, probate, guardianships, and elder law. Julia Dean, the managing attorney, has been recognized as a Top Attorney and Leading Advisor by Acquisition International, Forbes, Newsweek, H Texas, Houstonia, and the Sugar Land Sun, and has earned Martindale-Hubbell’s Client Distinction Award. The Dean Law Firm, PLLC, has been named in the Top Five Top Estate Planning Firms by the Houston Chronicle, Reader’s Choice by Living Magazine, “Texas’ Most Outstanding Estate Planning Boutique” by Acquisition International and “Best Law Firm of the Year” by Lawyer International Legal 100.

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