What do I need to know about future partial inheritance?
June 2, 2015 5:24 AM   Subscribe

I may inherit 1/3 of a large parcel of property with a home on it valued at well over 1 million today (not including all its contents). What do I need to know about this possible future inheritance on this property which is not yet paid off?

My mother is still living in the home and appears hale and hearty. However, she's been pretty cagey about the property and her debt load on it. She is partial to one of my other siblings who is currently paying part of the mortgage. I recently discussed also paying into the property but my mom was having a hard time with me asking so many questions. The property is currently held in a trust.

I would feel better about this possible windfall if the property was paid off before it came to me and my siblings. I'm possibly willing to help in this endeavor but I don't know what that would entail with the trust or the legal/tax issues. I asked my mom to look into this as well just to see if it made any sense.

But, what else do I need to know? My mom insists that since it could be years and years before this happens (ahem) that it doesn't make sense to worry about this now. Honestly, I feel like she considers this a private matter between her and the other sibling which is also frustrating to me. I am a planner, though, and I think both she and the sibling are being fairly optimistic about how this transaction will go down. I worry about being able to make the right decisions or position myself financially in the right way so that I can take full advantage of the options with the property (keep a stake in it and share ownership, sell my stake to a sibling, or ???).

She has a trusted accountant who she has been working with for many years, should I contact that person? Should I contact my own professional? What do I need to know or can I know in advance of this possible bequest? Is this how inheritances are typically done? Just wait and see how the chips fall?

Truly there are so many scenarios to consider depending on how her health goes and how the wealth of myself and siblings go that maybe it really is impossible to plan ahead but I'd love some perspectives on this. Help me learn what questions I should be asking and how to answer them!
posted by anonymous to Law & Government (12 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
Your answer is largely in your question -- "I feel like she considers this a private matter between her and the other sibling," and in re. "Is this how inheritances are typically done? Just wait and see how the chips fall?" -- sometimes, yes.

You have inquired and made offers and been rebuffed. Do not ask further questions and do not contact her accountant. It is not reasonable to try to structure one's parent's estate to better one's own financial picture without the parent being enthusiastically on board.

Is it possible your mother and sibling are "optimistic" solely over: if mom's health declines and she is infirm for an extended period, mom is positioned well to deal with that financially? "There are so many scenarios to consider depending on how her health goes" is pretty accurate. It sounds like at least there is unlikely to be any burden to you; I would bank on no more than that with things as they are.
posted by kmennie at 5:50 AM on June 2, 2015 [4 favorites]

[A couple of comments deleted. Please just answer the question if you have helpful advice. Do not make assumptions / judgments about the OP, and do base suggestions on the stated goal, which is to plan ahead.]
posted by taz (staff) at 6:11 AM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Help me learn what questions I should be asking and how to answer them!

Hi, I inherited a property in tandem with my sibling that had a mortgage on it. I'm unclear exactly what the issue is here. With me it went like this....

- parent died, I was the executor, estate took forever to close
- we paid the mortgage on it the entire time the estate was open, with estate money
- when the estate closed, we started paying the mortgage with our own money (which included some inherited money)
- we contemplated putting the house into a trust (it was not in a trust) but decided against it. We're still looking into a real estate LLC for it. Note: this is only possible because me and my sibling who jointly own this house are in total agreement with what we want for it

If the house is in a trust it will most likely (consult trust documents) pass to whoever it's passing to without getting held up in the estate which is one of the great advantages of trusts for wealthy people. There will be a year or two of ugly confusing taxes. However this is likely to be true no matter how or when this all happens. And yes to your question people just mostly play the "Let the chips fall" game with this sort of thing. There are really only a few options

- house becomes jointly owned by you and siblings (there are two major ways to do this - tenants in common and joint tenancy, you can read up on these)
- house is split into shares and some siblings buy others out (this sounds complex but it's super normal in estate situations so there are lawyers who walk you through it)
- house is sold, money minus expenses is split between siblings
- house stays in trust, siblings get to use it but not own it, blabitybla consult trust documents

My read on what you are saying is that you are concerned about potentially inheriting something that comes with a lot of debt and are looking to mitigate that by doing things now to address that. It's also looking like, from what you said, that your mom is being less than forthcoming about some of this. And possibly you are concerned that there are arrangements with the other sibling that exclude you.

I think if it were me I'd back things up here. I'd talk to your mom generally about estate planning stuff (including wills but also powers of attorney and health care proxy stuff) because that's just good planning. It's not totally clear from your question if your mom has a will but just hasn't talked to you about it or if she doesn't have one. And then I'd look at your own financial situation with your own person to make some plans for you. Because at some level your concerns about what might happen with this property and this situation are possibly not ones you're going to get a lot more clarity on if your mom doesn't want to discuss them with you. So to be clear: the only thing I think it's appropriate for you to really push on is that your mom have an estate plan/will. The rest of it is stuff that will happen when it happens and you're better off making sure you have a good relationship with your mom and your siblings in the short term than having absolute transparency about whatever is going on now.
posted by jessamyn at 6:53 AM on June 2, 2015 [10 favorites]

Why not just start saving what you would contribute in a separate account? Paying down someone else's debt is never a good idea. If things go bad, and they may, then you have in fact just lost even more money in the process.

Start saving, if/when your mom passes or needs your help - you will have the funds in place and ready to go.

If things go badly, you can re-provision this account without loss.
posted by NoDef at 7:09 AM on June 2, 2015 [5 favorites]

I'm living in a house my partner and his sibling inherited that had a mortgage. We basically re-mortgaged and paid his sibling for her share. That was a dumb financial decision on our part; we should have just sold. But it wasn't any more onerous than other business to do with estates. I don't think it should be too worrisome for you unless, and this is a big unless, you have serious differences with your siblings over things. That is essentially why we jumped into a decision-- to make disagreements with the other sibling go away faster.

In the wake of a few family deaths and some inheritance problems, I would say doing whatever is best for those relationships is better for its own sake and also for the sake of getting over any bumps with regard to inheritance. I don't mean necessarily buttering everyone up and trying to get on their good side, but rather doing what you can to ensure good communication on all kinds of matters. It's good to know if there is a will, but otherwise there is only so much information that's going to be useful; things change all the time. It's vexing to me how often wills and inheritance make things fraught between siblings. If I had kids, and money, I wouldn't tell them what amounts of money to expect but I would certainly tell them how they were being treated in the will and, if differently, why. But you can't force everyone to do that.
posted by BibiRose at 7:17 AM on June 2, 2015

I may inherit 1/3 of a large parcel of property....
she's been pretty cagey about the property and her debt load....
she considers this a private matter between her and the other sibling....

Or, frankly, you might not inherit 1/3 of the property, you might not inherit a share equal to your siblings --- heck, let's be honest here: you might not inherit anything at all. I could easily see your mom giving a larger share to the sibling who's been helping her financially, if only to 'refund' what that sibling has already put into the estate. Wanting to pre-plan your assumed eventual inheritance is all well and good, but your mom isn't required to share any info with you, either about what's in her will or what her current financial situation is. And I'm sorry, but to an awful lot of people (especially parents who are, as you say, 'hale and hearty'), asking what their debt load is would sound very intrusive.

However, assuming you do inherit 1/3 of the property: first off, any mortgage would be paid off through the estate --- that could come through either her other cash reserves or even an insurance policy that pays off the house in the event of her death. Either way, any estate debts are paid by the estate, not by the inheritors; the worst that would happen for you is that any prospective amount you'd inherit would be reduced. And if the property is currently in a trust, we really can't say for sure what'll happen: it might be set up so one or more of you inherit joint ownership, or it might require the property to be sold at her death and the proceeds dispursed to her heir(s). Too many options to say, basically.

The best thing you can do is to simply assume you will not be inheriting anything, not one red cent. Conduct your financial life based on what your current situation is, not on any potential inheritance.
posted by easily confused at 8:17 AM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

Some things you'd need to know:
-what type of entity owns the house
-if a trust, what are the terms of the trust (current, future, contingent beneficiaries; duration; funding; tax status)
-who holds the mortgage
-what are the terms of the mortgage (remaining term, interest rate, balance)
-potentially: how much was the house purchased for; what was the value when transferred to the trust
-what does the will, if any, state
-what is the amount of and who pays the other property bills (mom/sib, trust, escrow account, etc) - property taxes, water/sewer taxes/fees, etc (anything that may put a lien on the property if unpaid)
-is there any possibility she will need to qualify for medicaid long-term care coverage in the future

Perhaps frame your requests with your anxiety -- "I'm really anxious about this and, while it might work out fine, it would make me feel a lot better to have this information." The CPA would be a good resource, but they'll probably want the go-ahead from your mom before disclosing information to you.
posted by melissasaurus at 8:25 AM on June 2, 2015

I feel like there are two sides to this question, one is the side about legal, tax, and financial advice related to property inheritance, but the other side is that you've included a lot of details about the human relations aspect of this situation, and that seems extremely relevant as well. After all, you say the reason why you're asking is that you're spending a lot of time worrying about the potential inheritance, but you don't even know that you're getting this inheritance at all (on preview: as easily confused points out). And if you're not, any time, money, or energy you spend on this situation is wasted.

There are a number of things you mention that suggest there is more to this situation than what you know, or that there might be something going on here behind your back, or at least that you're not aware of yet (to be as charitable as possible). Your mother is being cagey when you discuss the property with her. Your sibling is helping her pay the mortgage. Your mother acts as if this is a private matter between herself and your sibling - maybe because it is. What if she's leaving this property to your sibling? I don't want to get way into speculation about this, but if I were you and I was actually losing sleep over this issue, I would consider asking her directly about it, although I'm very close with my mom so I'd be totally comfortable asking her what's in her will. I think jessamyn's point is an important one - it's fair to ask her if she has a will or to encourage her to go ahead with estate planning, because if she doesn't, it will create a huge headache for everyone involved. Naturally, when you discuss this, bringing up anything about what you think she should do with her estate would be very tacky and not recommended. You could fib a bit and say you were reading an article or talking to a friend about estate planning and realized that for anyone with sizable assets, settling the estate could be really stressful and take many years, and that made you wonder if she had looked into it. Anyway, I think you need to tread carefully with your mom, because if you're asking specifics about the financial side of the property, it may sound like you're motivated by greed. Even asking her if you can help pay her mortgage kind of seems sketchy to me, like you're worried that if you don't start paying on it too, your sibling is going to 'look better' than you or that if you can start making payments on it then she'll be obligated to leave it to you. But you're absolutely right that your mom should have her affairs in order - it "could" be many years before this becomes an issue, but as you could counter, she could also die in a car accident tomorrow. Being prepared is the right thing to do, but you can't force her to do it, only point out that it doesn't make sense to wait, since no one knows how long we have left in this life and many people do die or decline very suddenly and unexpectedly, so waiting to get your affairs in order until you think you're about to die is just foolhardy (you can say it more politely to her!).

I am in absolute agreement with easily confused that you should just assume you are inheriting nothing. If you do inherit something it will then be a welcome surprise. At that point, you can consult an attorney and/or accountant to discuss the best way to move forward.
posted by treehorn+bunny at 8:36 AM on June 2, 2015

Unfortunately most Trust documents can be held privately until after the death of the primary trustee, and then may only be made available to heirs after a year. If the property is in a Living Trust you may be able to get hold of the trust documents and see how it is set up. Laws vary by state, and some states allow you to see the documents at any time provided you are listed as an Heir. There are just too many factors to say how you should react/prepare. For example the Trust may be set up to sell the property upon death, and the trust documents would dictate how the proceeds, if any, are to be distributed. Another option is the Trust is set up to donate the entire estate to a charity... Unless your Mom lets you look at the documents you may have to Lawyer up.
posted by Gungho at 10:21 AM on June 2, 2015

It sounds like there is not enough information available to plan ahead for a single contingency. The possibilities seem to be: 1. You get nothing, which as stated above is possible, maybe even expected, depending on the degree and duration of the support from your sibling. 2. You get a share in the will but the property is so encumbered by debt that it's not worth anything. It is possible to disclaim an inheritance, to avoid being stuck with a white elephant, though you'll want some minor legal help in that case.

If there's any value left in the property, then there are some problematic possibilities: 3. You want to sell, the others don't. 4. You want to keep the property (for sentimental reasons, etc.) but the others don't. Either of those is going to depend on the details of the trust and title, which it sounds like you don't have, and people change their minds anyway, so even if you had access to all the documents and perfect legal counsel, it could change entirely.

Reading between the lines, it sounds like you're split between hoping for a windfall and being worried about stuck with a mortgage on a money-losing property. I'm not a lawyer, but as I understand it, you can't get stuck unless you let yourself get stuck by accepting the inheritance against your own interests.
posted by wnissen at 11:46 AM on June 2, 2015

In terms of planning, I would make plans with the assumption that you will not inherit. There are so many unknowns here...she could die with owing quite a bit on the house, she could decide not to leave a third of the property to you (especially since it sounds like someone else is paying the mortgage at this point), and she could end up needing to do a reverse mortgage or sell the property to pay for health care or living expenses later in life. This is what happened with my grandmother -- she and my grandpa owned a fairly valuable property, but she lived for over a decade after his death while she wasn't working and was in declining health, so the whole value of that (plus some) ended up being used to pay for her care. Quality elder care isn't cheap! If it does turn out that you end up inheriting a nice sum, that's great, but I wouldn't plan on it just because there are too many unknowns and it would suck to end up feeling bitter that "your inheritance" is being used up in medical expenses...much better to stop thinking of it as yours at all and instead be grateful that your mom does have resources to rely on before needing to turn to you for financial help (which could still happen, honestly).

I agree that making sure there is some estate planning/will writing happening is good, but I would check with your sibling first. In my experience, the main people that end up getting drawn into annoying things with inheritances are a) where there was no will at all and b) the person who's the executor, if it was set up poorly. If a will exists but you're not the executor, then you may or may not inherit but it's probably not going to become some endlessly annoying thing you have to deal with. You can probably get this info from the sibling who is more involved in your mom's finances, without unnecessarily upsetting her. Of course, IF you are the executor, it is important to have a meeting with the accountant/lawyer to make sure everything is set up properly and to make sure you're fully aware of all the details so there's not headache down the line. But it does not sound like that is the case here.

Finally, in terms of contributing toward paying off the house now, I would recommend against it unless your mother is actively seeking out your help (and even then, not without a serious consultation with a professional). The property might need to be sold to pay for her expenses, as discussed above, and even if you help her pay for the mortgage there's no guarantee you will inherit as much as you invest. As investments go, I would see this as more emotional (if it's personally important to you and/or Mom that you're giving her this financial help) rather than necessarily as a smart financial move on your part.
posted by rainbowbrite at 1:00 PM on June 2, 2015 [1 favorite]

Honestly, I feel like she considers this a private matter between her and the other sibling which is also frustrating to me.

Dude, there's your answer. Your question makes it very very clear that you are already considering [part of] this property yours. It's not, and it may never be. But literally not one but of it is yours now, it's your mum's and it's entirely up to her what she does with it now, and how she distributes it after her death.

Speaking solely for myself - and I'm not saying this is what you're thinking, but this is how I'd feel - if I was your mum, your repeated questions about my house (which I presumably live in), and my finances, which I manage myself, would come off as intrusive, calculating, possibly greedy, and very jealous of sibling - and not the money, but the relationship. I would feel like you were ignoring my explicit wishes to pursue your own needs.

I can't help wonder, OP, if you've captured everything in your question. Do you have financial issues that make the sense of this intangible/tangible inheritance especially acute? Or anxiety around finances in general? Is there a relationship issue here with jealousy or weirdness with your sibling and/or mother? I feel like what you really want to know is: a) how much am I getting and b) how can I maximise that amount? To which I would answer: a) if you're mum hasn't told you, she won't, and b) you probably can't and I feel like it's skirting a line to try.

Many, possibly even most, properties have some kind of debt on them when the owner dies - if the don't, they will incur debt during the sale. It's not a big deal, the process is very commonplace.

Have you spoken to your sibling? What do they think about this? I would urge you to talk it out with some others you trust before approaching your mum again, if at all. Best of luck,
posted by smoke at 9:21 PM on June 2, 2015 [2 favorites]

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