What to do when a parent squanders inheritance designated for both of you?
December 24, 2007 6:27 AM   Subscribe

Inheritance question: what can you do when a parent backs away from a signed agreement to distribute funds?

My grandmother passed in June; I was a lot more devastated about that than I was worried about inheritance. But I knew what was coming, and my father had for a year before she died made clear how he'd split the funds: 200k for him, 150k for me. Her will made it clear that her grandchildren receive funds, but was not explicit because when it was written she wasn't aware of the exact numbers. So, throughout the process, my father committed time and time again to that split, and in August the first 100k came, which helped me buy a house. The remaining 50k would arrive once bank accounts were closed out, etc.

As a part of the mortgage, the bank requested a signed document from my father indicating the split, and since my credit was absolutely abysmal, the 150 number was critically important to the underwriters so I could pay off debts. He signed it, and has repeatedly been reminded by myself and my uncle [executor] of how to make the split, since he's an alcoholic and appears to be aloof most of the time. The reminders were needed because there was no way to avoid the checks being made out to him, and it was his responsibility that he distribute as agreed.

Well, yesterday he said the checks were coming, and that he'd give me 1k. When I asked about the timing of the remainder, he scoffed and said I was daydreaming. He said he'd never said anything of the sort and that he needed it all for his retirement (he wants to retire to the Bahamas and is already getting a huge package from his company). I told him about the agreement he signed and he blew it off and hung up on me.

My family has documented that he twice has absorbed inheritance from other relatives designated to me, both of which were before I was 18 and of which no traces were left behind. Now, I'm in my 30somethings and despite the rough past we've had we have a decent relationship. My grandmother and I were very close and she made it clear that I was to be included. This certainly confounds things.

I don't know what to do... I've called my uncle, and most of the time there is no way to reason with my father. My uncle is aligned toward me since he knows about my father's past squandering and, of course, the drinking. His alcoholism ensures that he lives in a tightly controlled reality bubble and he's famously dissociative. Do I get a lawyer (ugly option)? Do I try to reason with him in person with my uncle there?

Because of the withholding, I'm beginning to tank financially. I can't afford my car payments and mortgage together, and with student loans looming and lots of medical debt, this new twist is scaring the bejeezus out of me.

Thanks in advance for your help; I can be reached at anonymous.mofo@gmail.com for follow up.
posted by anonymous to Human Relations (32 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
posted by electroboy at 6:41 AM on December 24, 2007

This is precisely the kind of situation lawyers are for. Why are you worried about using an "ugly option"? I'd say when it comes to ugly behavior, stealing from your own children is pretty high on the list.
posted by MegoSteve at 6:43 AM on December 24, 2007

You've excluded reasoning with him. After that, the way that you make people follow signed agreements is with an attorney and court order.
posted by a robot made out of meat at 6:48 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

his signed representation to your lender is enforceable by you under the principle of promissory estoppel. the more interesting question is whether it's also enforceable by the lenders. there's a lot of buzz now about fraudulent mortgage apps leading to the current subprime problems. i know it's against the law to make a false representation to a federally insured lender to induce it to loan money; you might remind him that his golden leisure in the bahamas could be put on hold by mortgage fraud prosecution.
posted by bruce at 6:56 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Lawyer up. Unless you can make this all legal, there's no way you're ever going to see that money.
posted by Phoenix42 at 7:10 AM on December 24, 2007

[If You Can't Answer The Question Without Calling the OP Names Do Not Answer The Question. Thank You.]
posted by jessamyn (staff) at 7:24 AM on December 24, 2007

Your father already stole money from you in the past. He is now stealing more. I doubt that your uncle can convince him to change his ways, after all your father has been doing this for years.

Lawyer up. You might think it's an "ugly" option, but how much uglier would it be to get nothing of that $50k that was promised and even signed on, and then have to declare bankruptcy while your father uses that money to live the large life in the Bahamas?

Were it me, I would start treating him as I would any jerk who steals thousands from me over the years and doesn't give a crap about it, and the first step in that would be to hire a lawyer and get my damn money so I can actually pay my debts.
posted by splice at 7:42 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Nthing the lawyer. Your father seems to be attempting to renege on a legal agreement, and frankly, he sounds like a thief. As to the relationship thing; once you lawyer up on this, don't discuss it with him. Be civil to him but say, "I can't discuss this with you; talk to my lawyer".
posted by baggers at 8:00 AM on December 24, 2007

Another opinion that you need a lawyer. You're out of other options. Go get him.
posted by Malor at 8:26 AM on December 24, 2007

Another vote for "Lawyer Up Now." Yes, I know the man is your father, but think: what sort of lowlife steals from his own child? If he weren't your father, you'd probably want him tossed into jail. Father or no father, the man has no right to steal from you. Lawyer. Right Now. This Minute.
posted by Rosie M. Banks at 8:40 AM on December 24, 2007

Do you know whether he was drunk when you had the latest conversation with him? Drunks say all kinds of things they don't mean or even remember later. I would try to repeat this conversation with your uncle and a copy of the signed document present, at a time when your father was sober.

50K is about the break even point where it starts making sense to get a lawyer involved. But bear in mind the lawyer will probably walk away with as much of it as you will, never mind the extra months that process would entail. So you have a strong incentive to take care of this yourself.
posted by ikkyu2 at 9:29 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

I'll give you a little more nuanced answer. Yes, consult a lawyer. But first talk to your father. If you have a good relationship, as you say you do, explain that you'd really like to avoid calling a lawyer to enforce the agreement that he signed. But explain that you have no qualms about doing it to enforce your prior agreement. Hopefully, he'll see that the deck is stacked against him and he'll reconsider.
posted by greekphilosophy at 9:29 AM on December 24, 2007

Be willing to spend a decent amount of money for a good probate lawyer. Don't balk at spending, say, $5000 or more to defend your $50,000.
posted by jayder at 9:40 AM on December 24, 2007

lawyer. you need one. i'm so sorry.
posted by thinkingwoman at 10:19 AM on December 24, 2007

Although I agree that a lawyer should be consulted, I have to observe that the premises of the question make no sense. A gift under a will would go directly to you, not to your father. There would be no need for him to sign any agreement on how the money would be "split".

If you were to receive money under the will, you would have been notified and given a copy of the will. Even if you were not, if an estate was opened, you could go the court and review the will.

It is very common for a person to designate her own children as her only beneficiaries, without any provision for her grandchildren.

If she gave the money to him, in the belief or expectation that he would pass it on to you, then the money is his. There is no enforceable obligation for him to pass in on to you. But I could not envision any reason that she would do that. If she intended that her grandchildren receive money, then she would have so provided in the will.

If the money was to be held by him, in trust, then this might make sense. In that case, in my state, you could get the probate court involved to enforce his obligations under the trust. Again, you should receive formal notice of the trust, if you are in fact a beneficiary.
posted by megatherium at 10:40 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Lawyer. You may not actually have to take him all the way to court if you act as if you are perfectly willing to do it. Part of the function of getting a lawyer is about looking serious.

Your father needs to understand that his actions will have consequences, and right now he doesn't get that. Given that you call it an "ugly option", I'd venture to guess that he doesn't think you have the nerve to lawyer up. He's taking advantage of your mild nature.

I've had my share of experience with alcoholics, and IME, they generally need people to maintain some limits. "Don't steal from me," is a kind of limit, and right now I don't see that you have any other workable option but to get a lawyer to enforce that limit. It might be tempting to try to compromise with him on the amount, but please don't. In my opinion, allowing him to steal from you isn't doing him a kindness.
posted by sculpin at 10:41 AM on December 24, 2007

You may or may not be able to get the money out of your father. Before getting a lawyer involved, you should try another conversation with him where you present a copy of the document he signed, make sure he is sober first.

In the meantime, you should see if you can restructure your current debts to avoid getting into a deeper hole. That, and start finding ways to deal with the fact that alcoholic fathers will always find a way to be deeply disappointing, and find a way to contain the damage when the inevitable happens.
posted by Good Brain at 11:04 AM on December 24, 2007

I have to observe that the premises of the question make no sense.

They make perfect sense to me.

Grandma writes a will. In it, she says that grandchildren should receive money, but does not specify specific dollar amounts because she does not know how large her estate will end up being. In other conversations, she does specify some amounts as far as Father and Child go. None of this seems very mysterious to me.

On the basis of this taken together, Father promises $150,000 to Child.

On the basis of this taken together, Father signs loan documents stating that he will give $150,000 to Child upon finalizing Grandma's estate.

On the basis of these promises, some of which are well-documented enough for banks to rely on, Child gets a mortgage with certain terms.

Only after all of this has happened does Father renege on his previous, well-documented promises. Child seeks enforcement of the previous, well-documented promises that both he and the bank relied upon.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 11:12 AM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Since you've summed it up so nicely, ROU, there's only one thing left to say: lawyer up, and while they're drafting the paperwork, go visit him with your uncle -- but don't mention the lawyer.

The thing you need to avoid is him somehow spending or otherwise squandering the assets before you can get hold of them; as your father, he has tremendous value, but as a retiring alcoholic he's not likely to be able to earn back the money he owes you no matter what the law might tell him, if he's already spent or hidden it.

Meanwhile, as to your personal finances: proceed as if you'll never see that money, so that you're prepared for the worst case. And I'm really sorry to hear you're going through this. At least you have it in writing, which is a lot more than most people have in your situation, so you do have legal recourse. Good luck.
posted by davejay at 11:36 AM on December 24, 2007

One more thought, anonymous, in case you're not an AskMe regular: I've never seen a question that's gathered such absolute unanimity about lawyering up before. Even the people telling you to talk to him are telling you to consult an attorney immediately.

Pay attention to this advice. It's important.
posted by Malor at 12:27 PM on December 24, 2007

Surely, the fact that an amount was not specified in the will is relevant. If the exact amount is not known, a percentage is easily allocated. Failing that, one might say x gets $n,000, y gets $n,000 and z gets what's left. Unless you are specifically left ana amounbt in the will, it might be down to how legally binding is the signed document the bank has.

Despite the unenviable situation you find yourself in, you might learn through this experience not to spend money before you have it in your hand and to be a little more appreciative of the $101,000 you have got rather than focussing on the $49,000 you haven't.
posted by hmca at 12:33 PM on December 24, 2007

Lawyers are not evil people. The exist precisely to aid in situations such as these. Good luck.
posted by emd3737 at 1:03 PM on December 24, 2007

ROU's scenario is:

"Grandma writes a will. In it, she says that grandchildren should receive money, but does not specify specific dollar amounts because she does not know how large her estate will end up being. In other conversations, she does specify some amounts as far as Father and Child go."

In that scenario, the money belongs to Father. He has no obligation to give any of it to Child. That is the legal conclusion, but that is the only one on which lawyers will advise and take action. A statement by Grandma made outside the will is non-testamentary and non-binding. The probate court will not use it to make any decision in favor of Child.

Grandma could have specified that Child should get x dollars, or y percentage of her assets. If she says that Child should get some money, but does not specify in one manner or another how much, there is no legally enforceable provision in his favor.
posted by megatherium at 1:28 PM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Get thee to a lawyer, to be honest I'm guessing the second your father realizes you aren't going to just take this, he'll magically have an attack of conscious and do the right thing. Oh and document, document, document, make sure you've saved everything.
posted by whoaali at 3:08 PM on December 24, 2007

megatherium, doesn't promising the money in front of witnesses, and especially in writing to a bank (to secure a mortgage), mean anything?

OP, don't be dissuaded, please get a lawyer. It is not the mean option. Try not to act ugly, and if there is ugliness, it will come from his side, and that would just be sad and pathetic. You have to try to look at it that way. Getting a lawyer isn't making it "ugly", it's making this as decent as you can. Sure, you can have a talk with your uncle there, and it would be great if the two of you were able to get him to agree and get that in writing. I agree with jayder about not mentioning any lawyer if you're still going to try to work this out with your uncle's help, one last time.

Please get a lawyer soon. You indicate that your father is likely to receive another large sum of money soon from his employer. So you need to try to work this out with neutral parties now, before he's a "broke drunk".
posted by Danila at 3:12 PM on December 24, 2007 [1 favorite]

Yeah, lawyer. Also, if he asserted anything to the bank directly (even verbally), they may wish to have a talk with him as well.

May also want to try to get the funds moved to an escrow account, until this can be resolved. Lawyer, lawyer, lawyer.
posted by effugas at 3:50 PM on December 24, 2007

Honestly, no one can know if the OP has a case or not, testate law varies from state to state and we would need to know exactly what was written down, what the grandmother said, what the father said, etc etc to have any idea, but I don't think the OP would be wasting money getting a lawyer to figure it out.
posted by whoaali at 4:58 PM on December 24, 2007

Danila, I was trying to address the question of whether he gets anything from Grandma, not the effect of Father's promise. That issue varies more by state, but some of the common principles, applicable in most states, are:

1. A gift is only a gift once it has been delivered and completed.
2. A promise to make a gift is often unenforceable.
3. Any promise, to be binding as a contract and thus enforceable, must be supported by consideration - the person to whom the promise is made must give something, or refrain from doing something, in return. That is the reason for item 2 above.
4. The exception based on detrimental reliance, or promissory estoppel, may well be applicable under the facts as the OP has identified them.

This is why OP needs to see a lawyer in his area. And he can probably get advice (as opposed to representation) for a few hundred bucks at most.
posted by megatherium at 6:41 PM on December 24, 2007

Actually, I think the key is the signed document to the bank -- they can go after him, for intentionally misrepresenting your assets. In that context, you're protecting him. If you foreclose, they might prosecute him, criminally, for fraud.
posted by effugas at 12:31 AM on December 25, 2007

Start doing all your communication in writing. My mother stole 4000 from me and I quit talking to her on the phone. At all. Everything in writing. And tell him in no uncertain terms in writing that this is theft.

See a therapist or a support group (like alanon). Take care of your mental health. Good luck.
posted by sondrialiac at 10:33 AM on December 25, 2007

If someone said this, I missed it, but you might also consider trading in the car on a much, much cheaper model. You say you can't afford the car and the house -- the house, I think, is the one you want to prioritize. Get rid of those car payments if at all possible. Then lawyer up (but as some have said, talk to your dad one more time, with witnesses, and remind him of his signed promise).
posted by litlnemo at 3:01 PM on December 25, 2007

Follow-up from the OP

"the OP has taken the case to a lawyer and they believe there is a case, and the OP thanks everyone for their thoughtful advice."
posted by jessamyn at 7:21 AM on December 28, 2007

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