Beneficiaries: none?
February 10, 2015 9:44 AM   Subscribe

There is no one in my life… so who benefits from my death? Not a request for legal estate advice. I need to sort out my limited beneficiary options given my dismal family situation. Help?

Here goes: I’m around 50. I have no children and no romantic partner. I am estranged from my immediate family (below). I have no other family and no really close friends.

Stipulate that none of this will change before I die because – well, it just won’t.

I grew up poor but worked hard and lived simply. For this question, assume that I will die within a few years and that my "estate" = $150,000 cash at death (no property). I don’t want to see it squandered or stolen. It’s all that I have to show for my life.

Immediate family:

My father is a decent guy but elderly and in poor health, unlikely to outlive me. If he did – well, long story, he lost a devastating court battle, now his assets and income go directly to a vile person. I’d rather cremate my cash. The court case ruined him emotionally too, he’s withdrawn and drinks every night, hasn’t seen me in 2+ years.

My mother: not an option. Endless, agonizing spiral of alcoholism, mental illness, destructive behaviors – plus she’s a liar, a thief, and generally judgmental and nasty. I haven’t seen her in years, it hurts too much. Elderly, in poor health, with the mental capacity of a sloshed teenager, she couldn't manage any amount of money.

My younger brother: most obvious option. 45, single, no kids. But he's a carbon copy of my mother: mental break downs, crippling alcoholism, never-ending rotation of hospital, rehab, psych ward and jail. He hasn't been able to work in years (lives with parents); he has a warrant out for his arrest and debts of $200k.

I feel so sorry for him and wish I could help (he's made bad life choices, but he's also saddled with addiction and depression that he didn't choose). Inheriting would give him a fresh start, right? But he’s so far gone, I fear I would just finance his self destruction. All the money he scrapes up now goes to alcohol binges. Also – he hates me. I can easily see him throwing my life savings into the furnace as one last “F you”. (I didn't do anything to cause this hatred, if that's relevant - we've barely seen each other in 20 years. No big falling out, I think he's just embarrassed and resentful. Last time we spoke, he confronted me about childhood squabbles from 40 years ago.)

Extended family: never close, and all driven off by my parents, decades ago. I considered making an eccentric bequest to some unmet distant cousin’s grandchild – surprise! But that branch of the family is better educated and much wealthier than I am. It’d just be embarrassing and weird.

My sole responsibility is my much-loved cat. But she’s 16, so no “Area Cat Inherits Spinster’s Fortune” headlines for us.

So who else? No old childhood or school friends. “Work friends” who moved on and lost touch. No church. Not active in community groups or charities. I could start looking for charities, but don't know how to choose or how to ensure that the money does real good.

Maybe a random act of kindness - pick names out of the phone book?

Before leaving it to strangers, I probably should leave it to my brother, for better or worse. I like to imagine helping him... but if you've seen what 20 years of addiction and mental illness do to someone, you understand why I have trouble believing that there's any way I can help. Do I still try? If not... what else should I do with what I leave behind?

Thanks for your thoughts!
posted by falldownpaul to Human Relations (28 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
Donate it to a charity that helps people struggling with addiction and mental illness.
posted by phunniemee at 9:47 AM on February 10, 2015 [69 favorites]

Is there a charity or other non-profit organization whose mission is one you believe in? I'm in a similar position, and my estate will be going to the Southern Poverty Law Center.

(obviously posted at the same time as phunniemee)
posted by Dolley at 9:48 AM on February 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

Seconding a charity, or establish a scholarship at a school you enjoyed.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 9:50 AM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

How about an organization that assists people with circumstances like what you expect your brother to be dealing with? I think good things about our local homeless services organization, and they're exactly the sort of organization that could end up picking up your brother when he hits bottom.
posted by straw at 9:50 AM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

To get at least some idea of whether a charity would make good use of your money, you could go and volunteer with one, or several. This would also have the shorter-term benefit of putting more people into your life.
posted by jessicapierce at 9:51 AM on February 10, 2015 [18 favorites]

I was delighted to recently discover I could leave my financial accounts to a charity of my choice. I'm mostly just commenting here to assure you it's not all that uncommon to do this. My financial planner didn't even blink when I asked about it.
posted by mochapickle at 9:52 AM on February 10, 2015 [8 favorites]

If not your specific cat, perhaps the organization from which you adopted her? (Or if they have since dissolved, perhaps explore local foster and stray organizations and see which ones seem to be well-run and best suited for a windfall? Lord knows all but the very biggest animal organizations run on a shoestring.
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:53 AM on February 10, 2015 [18 favorites]

(the bonus of visiting or volunteering with the animal rescue groups would be having a chance to meet wonderful people and pet tons of kitty cats)
posted by We put our faith in Blast Hardcheese at 9:54 AM on February 10, 2015 [9 favorites]

If you're asking because you have some paperwork to fill out requesting beneficiary information, you should know that you don't have to put down for a person if you don't want to. You can put the FIN of a 501(c)3 nonprofit down instead. If you don't have a special connection to one in particular, connect with your local Community Foundation. If you bequest to them, they will make data-driven decisions about where to pass along your money after you're gone. Let me know if you need some help locating your local community foundation, I'm happy to assist.
posted by juniperesque at 10:01 AM on February 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

Once you're gone, it won't matter to you what happens with the money.

Frankly, you should spend it on yourself now. If you have no one to leave it to, figure out how to liquidate whatever so that you can use it as you see fit. Don't buy life insurance through your job or separately.

And don't worry so much about how a charity uses the money. No one charity will be perfect, but many will be perfectly fiscally responsible.
posted by Ruthless Bunny at 10:02 AM on February 10, 2015 [25 favorites]

IANAL, and I don't know what it would cost, but you should be able to set up a trust for your brother that would involve someone else in monitoring his spending. At the less intrusive (to him) end, the trust could specify no more than $x/month in disbursal, which would limit the damage he could do at once. At the more intrusive end (but remembering IANAL), you might be able to empower the trust administrators to control what your brother spent the $$$ on.
posted by alittleknowledge at 10:04 AM on February 10, 2015 [15 favorites]

I came to say much what Ruthless Bunny just did -- spend it on yourself. Travel, take up hobbies, enjoy your time. After that, yes, a charity -- you've had fine suggestions in that regard already -- or a school you attended (or would like to fund).
posted by Gelatin at 10:05 AM on February 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

If you do nothing, it will (likely) go first to any creditors of your estate and then to one or more of the people you listed. Look up intestate succession in your state.

There are options you may want to consider for leaving money to your brother, including a spendthrift trust for his health, welfare, and education.

I'd probably go with some sort of animal-related charity.

I apologize if this is way off base, but on the chance it's not, I'm going to leave this here.
posted by melissasaurus at 10:05 AM on February 10, 2015 [14 favorites]

Unless you're completely sure it would cause net harm to your brother (which it sounds like you aren't quite), I say leave it to him, with or without the strategies outlined by alittleknowledge.

It could do him good.
posted by paper chromatographologist at 10:08 AM on February 10, 2015 [1 favorite]

I could start looking for charities, but don't know how to choose or how to ensure that the money does real good.

This is why you see people giving big chunks of money to their library or some other institutional-ish non-profit that helps out your immediate community and are generally known to be legit. If you want to help your brother but not aid his addictions further, a trust of the kind melissasaurus mentions would work. You could also give assistance to something really local with very little money like the food shelf or the volunteer fire department or something.

Some of this depends on your values but some of it just depends on the choices that you want to make regarding your possessions and, if possible, your legacy such as it is. I would peek into intestate succession in order to help you make a decision because if you don't make some sort of a decision your items may wind up sort of exactly where you don't want them to be (with parents) so that might light a fire under you. I wish you good luck making these important decisions.
posted by jessamyn at 10:12 AM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

If you want to find a charity that "does real good", you could pick one of GiveWell's recommended charities. Or, better, arrange with them to donate the amount spread among whatever their currently recommended charities are on your death. They're generally recognized as doing careful research into how to do the most good with charity money, and they write a lot about how they go about their thinking and research.
posted by triscuit at 10:20 AM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

It is really a sign of how charities have failed to make their case to society for their value if anyone could think that giving their estate to a random person from the phone book might do just as much good as leaving it to charity (that might have been a joke or exaggeration on your part, I wasn't sure). This makes me sad, as I am heavily involved in a charity myself.

My experience working with this charity and networking/collaborating with others is that there is a league of charities that are large, multi-national, have name brand recognition, have a lot of people working for them on marketing and publicity/fundraising. There is also a league of charities comprised of small groups of mostly volunteers, operating on a shoestring budget, with only volunteers doing minimal marketing and publicity/fundraising for them, and these charities are mainly known of and supported by friends and family of the volunteers. I like GiveWell as a concept but I really, truly don't think you need to give only to charities that are endorsed by GiveWell to do good - they only vet a tiny percentage of the world's charitable organizations. I think you could give to any charity whose mission speaks to you after conducting a brief review on GuideStar of their latest Form 990s that go over the money they spend on salaries/administration and programs.

I am certainly biased but I honestly believe your estate could make a positive impact on the lives of others if you leave it to either one of these types of charities, both of which I believe do a great deal of good and have many passionate, idealistic and wonderful people working within them. Good for you for thinking of estate planning ahead of time!
posted by treehorn+bunny at 10:29 AM on February 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

And there's no reason to commit to only one of the above suggestions. In the short term, I invite you to consider visiting an estate planning lawyer and setting up a trust for your brother (with whatever conditions you think would help support him).

In the longer term, I agree with much of the advice listed above, especially RuthlessBunny's idea to spend some money on yourself!

Generally, I think you should think of your will, trusts, etc. as instructions for whatever money you end up not using before you die, not as a rigid commitments you're obligated to prioritize above funding your present-day plans, life, ambitions.

Are you happy with your level of education? Perhaps you'd like to take classes at a college with a programs for older or non-traditional students. Consider paying for time with a quality therapist. You may not experience them this way, but some of your family relationships and isolation sound painful. You have the financial resources and the time to get a smart outsider's take on them. Have you considered traveling? After you buy the time of a good pet-sitter, you could participate in a travel group, tour, or cruise, one with an orderly itinerary and a built-in crew of travel companions.

Lastly, I think donating part of your money to a nonprofit is a smart idea. But, I'd suggest spending a few months connecting yourself to different organizations, maybe just as a visitor or short term volunteer, so that you can get an accurate sense of the personalities and programs involved. It can be easy to be swayed by slick videos, websites, or statistics on charity review sites, but in my time working in nonprofits (7 years), I haven't found those resources to be reliable indicators of high-quality work.
posted by newtonstreet at 10:43 AM on February 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

If you want to look out for your family, you might look into setting up some kind of trust that will manage the money for them but give them the benefit of the money spread out over time.

You can split it up, too. Maybe 1/4 goes to a local charity or organization you like, 1/4 goes to dad, 1/4 goes to mom, and 1/4 goes to brother. Then you're looking out for your brother and, say, animal welfare.
posted by J. Wilson at 10:45 AM on February 10, 2015 [2 favorites]

You can leave a small percentage (10%) to your brother, so you don't feel like you have slighted your brother and/or so that he feels acknowledged by you. If he has issues you can stipulate it any way you want - that it goes to a mortgage or is given out in yearly installments or whatever.

You can leave some amount to a cat shelter, since you clearly love animals.

If you are in Canada, the Kids Help Phone is one way to help out. Basically kids facing difficult situations like you have in your family can call in and have an anonymous ear listen to them.

Finally of course donations to mental health and addiction centres.
posted by St. Peepsburg at 10:51 AM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

By the way-- you don't have to be bereft of beneficiaries to have to think this through; When I sat down with a lawyer to draft a will, the lawyer walked me through the 'parade of horrors.' In other words, my assets go to my wife, and if she's dead, then to my kids, and if they're dead, then to my brother, and if he's dead, well... to the local public radio station.
posted by u2604ab at 10:59 AM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

I could start looking for charities

Yes, do this.

but don't know how to choose

What causes speak to you? In what way do you want to see the world made a better place? Start looking at charities that support those goals. Don't worry that you haven't selected the Most Worthy Cause. Is (to select two examples) adult literacy more or less important than air quality? Who can say? That's comparing apples and oranges. Don't try to find the cause which is, objectively, most important, because there is none. Find the cause which is important to you.

Once you have identified the goals you want to support, you can likely find many charities supporting those goals. Others in the thread have made many suggestions about how to identify a good charity within those parameters.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 11:12 AM on February 10, 2015 [3 favorites]

I'm a similar age and also won't be giving any money to relatives. You don't have to have any reasons to exclude people related to you; it's your money to do with what you will. Sharing DNA with someone doesn't make you responsible for them and doesn't make them any more deserving of your life savings than a stranger on the street.

Instead, **you** deserve to find someone who will respect all the work and determination that went into building your savings.

I agree with the suggestions to choose a charity or bunch of charities, after researching them. I second the suggestion to use GiveWell. A big chunk of my money, if not all of it, will go to Give Directly because I support their transparency and their commitment to finding what really works. I've been following them for some time and currently donate every month on an automatic plan.

You'll need to create a will to make sure the money doesn't go to a relative. You might also want to write up a "living will" or whatever it's officially called to make sure that no family member has a say in how you spend your final moments. If there's doubt about whether you should be unplugged, doctors will ask a relative. Instead, you can name a friend or, if I remember correctly, a legal firm to make the "unplug her" decision based on criteria you stipulate. I did this and added probably unnecessary wording that explicitly excluded my relative from any care decisions, just to make it very clear.
posted by ceiba at 11:15 AM on February 10, 2015 [6 favorites]

Whatever you decide, make a will; and unless you decide you don't care what happens to your estate, make sure to specify both who gets what and who is the executor of that estate. Gotta agree with the various charitable suggestions; the shelter you got your cat from, for instance, or a rescue group that cares for older unadoptable animals for the rest of their lives; scholarships at your alma mater; the local library; a homeless shelter for families; a food bank; a group that helps get ex-prisoners back on track; the list of good causes that need money is endless.

When you make that will, you can and should name your executor: name the lawyer who draws up your will or a friend or a random cousin, but if you don't specify an executor then the probate court will probably ask your next-of-kin (in your case, your parents and/or brother); if they say no, then the court's next option would be a random lawyer from their own list --- and since it sounds like your next-of-kin would be your personal last choice, you'll be happier if you name someone ahead of time. (If you don't make a will in the first place, again the probate court will automatically turn to your next-of-kin: it won't make any difference to them if you've been estranged, legally your parents and brother are your nearest & dearest. Ditto a 'living will' aka a 'medical power of attorny')
posted by easily confused at 11:17 AM on February 10, 2015 [5 favorites]

Echoing mental health/addiction charities. $150K is a significant amount of money.

Or, as suggested, endow a scholarship. Perhaps a scholarship for someone going into the mental health/addictions field. I'd say not medical school, something at the MSW/BA Psych level. $150K ought to provide a pretty perpetual annual return of say $5K to be disbursed according to whatever requirements you see fit. The Falldownpaul Memorial Scholarship has a nice ring to it, no?

Contact schools and ask them how to set this up.
posted by feckless fecal fear mongering at 11:23 AM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Your local college will have a charitable giving arm that would basically do almost all the work for you to set up an endowed scholarship, or an endowed library fund, or something -- or you could ask them to set it up as an emergency fund for poor students who need a little cash for car repairs so they don't drop out, or are flying home for a grandparent's funeral, or need a minor medical procedure. (These are becoming more common, and are usually at the discretion of residence life, to help out kids who just need a couple hundred bucks to survive a shitty life situation.)

Larger public school systems (K-12) also often have an organized charitable giving foundation, that works on projects from "funding more field trips" to "end of year pizza parties" to "funerals for students whose parents can't afford a coffin when their 7-year-old dies" to "warm winter coats." Again, they can help you get it all organized to your satisfaction and you can direct what sorts of projects you want to fund.

Just a couple more options that could more directly help out kids who are poor but hardworking, and need a little assistance in life.
posted by Eyebrows McGee at 11:53 AM on February 10, 2015 [4 favorites]

Is there a school or a class that you really liked? A library that you could leave you money towards a specific collection for? Something that you feel strongly about, like GMO's or some other issue? A botanical garden that you really appreciate? Habitat for Humanity? If it has given you some measure of pleasure in your life, perhaps an influx of cash could help others discover it.
posted by vignettist at 3:44 PM on February 10, 2015

" But that branch of the family is better educated and much wealthier than I am. It’d just be embarrassing and weird."

Are you sure this isn't just you? I come from a really large family, all of whom I'm estranged from (I will likely be just like you in a few years) for reasons different than yours, but I happen to come from the 'better educated and wealthier' part of the family. You giving that money to one of your young cousins or something to help pay for their college will make it so that they always remember you- even if they didn't even know you. Furthermore, if they currently have the idea that your side of the family is the messy side that couldn't get it's act together, this will prove that they were wrong about at least one of you.

Of course I acknowledge that not every family reacts the same to things, but there's a good chance this is how they'll react, even if they are the snobbish type.
posted by rancher at 8:11 PM on February 11, 2015 [2 favorites]

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