An Expensive Family Fight Over an Item Worth $100

A 2014 Maine court case illustrates how some families can get into significant arguments over what seems to outside observers to be fairly insignificant things. See Estate of Greenblatt, 86 A.3d 1215 (Me. 2014). In 2008 Ada Greenblatt died childless. Her will provided for specific monetary amounts to two charities and 14 nieces and nephews, to be followed by the distribution of the remaining property in her estate in “equal shares” amongst her siblings and sister-in-law (or the surviving heirs of any of her predeceased siblings). Her probate estate consisted primarily of real property and some items of personal property that had little value to third parties but great sentimental value to family members. The will provided her personal representative with no instructions on how they ought to distribute specific items of personal property.

Not unreasonably, the personal representatives chose to create a list of items of personal property to circulate amongst the beneficiaries in order to give each the opportunity to indicate if they would like to receive a particular item as part of that beneficiary’s respective share of the estate residuary. One item in question was a “mizrah,” an ornamental religious print that was worth approximately $100. One of the decedent’s brothers who was also serving as a co-personal representative reviewed the list and indicated he would like the mizrah. However, when the list was later circulated to another beneficiary, the mizrah was inadvertently noted as still available. When the nephew requested the mizrah and was later informed the item was no longer available, acrimony ensued. The personal representatives nonetheless proceeded with distributing the mizrah to the sibling who first requested the item.

In order to sell the real estate, the personal representatives needed the nephew’s acquiescence and participation in the sale. The nephew refused to cooperate or to consent to the sale of the real estate. The representatives were then forced to initiate an expensive court-monitored “partition action” to force the sale of the property. After the partition sale was ordered and completed, the nephew attempted to put up further impediments to the settlement process by opposing the personal representatives’ petition for a decree concluding the probate process and their request to be reimbursed for their costs from estate funds.

After the nephew lost each and every argument at the probate court level, he proceeded with filing an appeal. He lost on appeal as well, with the appellate court sustaining the probate court’s acceptance of all of the personal representative’s actions as fiduciaries, including their exercise of discretion in distributing items of property to the beneficiaries. As noted by the probate court, the nephew’s numerous actions to hinder, delay and prevent the orderly conclusion of the settlement process was for the most part pointless and only succeeded in driving up the costs and expenses for all parties involved. From what we see, the settlement process should have taken a mere 12 to 18 months to conclude, not the five (5) years is actually took when considering the appeal process.

So what can we learn from Greenblatt from a planning perspective? One thing that is clear is that intra-family disputes are often not really about monetary value. Here the fight was over the $100 religious item, not the far more valuable real estate. Whether there is a lot of liquid assets or little, it is easy for fiduciaries to divide up and distribute money. When an item cannot be divided, such as the mizrah in Greenblatt, the personal representatives should be provided clear direction on how to distribute all of the personal property and resolve any disputes over the property. This could’ve been addressed by Ada Greenblatt stating in her will which beneficiary was to receive which particular item. Alternatively, Ms. Greenblatt could have provided that in the event of a disagreement, the contested asset would simply be sold to a third party and the proceeds divided among the beneficiaries.

While it is impossible to anticipate each and every problem that might arise in settling an estate, issues such as disagreements over items of personal property are frequent and should be addressed as much as possible in advance, both in the documents that comprise the estate plan and in conversation with family members about your wishes and intentions for distribution of your property upon your death.

Please call us at 860-769-6938 if you have any questions about the issues presented above or if you care to discuss any other planning issues with us.

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