Help! My Father Refuses to Make a Will.

Advice on manners and morals.
Sept. 5 2013 6:15 AM

No Will, No Way

My father refuses to plan his estate. Is he just being selfish?

Emily Yoffe.
Emily Yoffe

Photo by Teresa Castracane.

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Dear Prudence,
My father is 65 years old and in outstanding health. He has a small real estate empire of 30 or so multifamily residential homes. He built the business himself and runs it as a one-man band. Toilet clogged? My old man fixes it so as not to have to pay someone else. The legal structure of my dad's business is a jumble. Some homes are owned by him and my stepmother, others are held by an LLC he formed. He also has unwritten deals with half a dozen friends and family members. My mother lives in another state in a house owned by my father and possibly his wife. My father is a generous and caring person, but is disorganized and his "office" is a bunch of piles of paper in his basement. Recently, my sister and brother-in-law quit their jobs and sold their house to relocate with their two small children to work in and maybe take over this business. My father has no will or succession plan and if he were to die or become incapacitated he would leave behind a complicated legal mess. My sister and I would have to work with our stepmom, with whom neither of us are close. I find it cruel, irresponsible, and selfish for my dad not to create an estate plan. I am well-off financially, have no direct interest in his estate, and live far away, although I speak to my father regularly. My dad keeps promising me that he will take care of this but he never does. I’ve brought this up so much that he’s tuning me out. What’s the most effective way to persuade him to address the issue?

—Where There’s No Will

Dear Will,
Form a family book club and make the opening selection Charles Dickens’ Bleak House. There you could read about the fictional case of Jarndyce v. Jarndyce, the dispute over an inheritance that goes on for so long the entire estate is consumed in legal fees. For advice on your situation I turned to an expert, attorney A. Stephen McDaniel, former president of the National Association of Estate Planners and Councils. This gave McDaniel a chance to repeat the mantra of estate planners everywhere: Those who fail to plan, plan to fail. As you are aware, your father’s inability to address the inevitable will leave his heirs with an unholy mess. If he dies intestate, he will have designated the state legislature to decide what happens to the “empire” he built. Though laws vary among states, McDaniel said likely the business will be divided among your father’s wife and children, and probably your stepmother will be named executor. She has a built-in conflict of interest as regards you and your sister—not to mention your mother, her husband’s previous wife, who might find her living situation rather precarious. McDaniel said that figuring out who inherits multiple parcels of land of different value is so complicated that the whole enterprise might have to be sold. If that happens, let’s hope it’s in a rising market.

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McDaniel says that he believes children are not entitled to inherit from their parents, but conversely they don’t deserve to be handed a posthumous calamity that will generate legal bills and emotional strife. Instead of continuing to nag your father about this, I think you should take action. Tell him you’re going to interview some estate planners in his area (you can start with the NAEPC referral list), and when you’ve identified one or two you like, tell your father you’re coming for a visit and during it you want to go with him to the lawyers’ offices to get the process started. Stay long enough to see that he retains a firm and either help your father gather the appropriate paperwork to bring to the attorney, or see that he hires someone who can assist. Yes, this will take some time out of your life. But you know if you don’t do this now, when your father is gone you will be consumed with sorting out the needs of family members who aren’t independent like you and whose worlds have just collapsed.

—Prudie

Dear Prudence: Middle-Aged Twilight Fanboy

Dear Prudence, 
My best friend and I are in our late 20s and have known each other almost all our lives. We’re roommates and I think of him like a brother. He's been dating a girl for a little more than a year, and he's talking about getting her a ring. She’s always been cool to me, if also a little flirty, but I guessed that was just her personality. Then last week out of the blue she emailed me a crazy explicit video of her naked and touching herself and propositioned me. I swear I haven't done anything to lead this girl on, but I don’t know what to do because of two extenuating circumstances. My best friend was depressed a while back and tried to commit suicide. This girl seemed to bring him out of that funk. Also, a few years ago I committed the worst best-friend sin there is: I messed with his then girlfriend. I was drunk (and have since quit drinking entirely) and I know it was a horrible mistake. But because of this history I'm afraid if I tell him about what his girlfriend just did, he'll think I lead her on. So what do I do? Tell him about the video? Don’t tell him, but tell her to get away from me (and hope she doesn't go after anyone else)?

—Afraid to Check My Phone

Dear Afraid,
Let’s try to imagine the best-case scenario. Maybe you and your friend have email addresses that begin with the same letter, and she thought she was sending a sexy video to her boyfriend, but instead it auto-completed to you. I acknowledge this is unlikely (and if she addressed you by name, impossible). But in any case, you should call her and say you are taken aback to have gotten an X-rated video from her. Maybe she’ll say it was a technical glitch and she’s mortified. Maybe she’ll ask what you fail to understand about a pornographic come on. If it’s the former, then mutually agree to forget it happened. If it’s the latter, then you need to tell her not only has she got the wrong guy, she is also dating the wrong guy because your friend deserves better. I understand your fears about your friend’s mental health, but protecting him will only harm him in the long run. Think how devastating it would be if he married this woman, then found out her true character. So you need to tell him. When your friend confronts her, if this woman knows about your previous violation she might say you were the one who initiated things. But even if she makes such a false accusation, she's still indicted herself by revealing that her response was not to turn her back but open her legs.

—Prudie

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