Law Office of Patricia A. Mayer Blog

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

How To Avoid Your Own Personal S-Town

[Spoiler Alert! If you haven’t listened to the podcast S-Town yet, do so before you read this. The program is excellent and I don’t want to ruin it for you.] 

Death can bring out the worst in people. When it comes to the assets left behind, it may be human nature for people to fight for what they think should be theirs. Money can make people crazy.

Serial, a radio podcast from the creators of This American Life, has just released all seven episodes of its new season, called S-Town. Based on a true story, the plot is filled with twists and eccentric, all-too-realistic characters. There is even a hedge maze in the middle of the woods with removable doors and 64 possible solutions, including a null option.

There are many valuable take-aways from this program, but, from my prospective, the most important one illustrates the disastrous and all-too-common consequences of failing to do that essential part of estate planning – making a will.

Without giving too much away, let’s just say that a single man with no children — call him Joe—dies without a will. Even though he’s told his lawyer and friends how he wants his assets distributed upon his death, Joe puts off doing the only thing that will make his plans a reality – drawing up a will.

Joe dies and things turn ugly fast. A distant cousin arrives at Joe’s front door from out of state, claiming that she is in charge. She instructs local police to bar others from entering, and despite the fact that Joe was an atheist, she plans a religious funeral. Joe’s best friend, having been told by Joe that he could take whatever he wants from the house, does just that— at night, with extra key to the back door.

In S-Town, rumor has it that Joe was wealthy and had stashed gold somewhere on his property.  The cousin empties out the house. The best friend gets a metal detector and starts digging holes all over the property. Both are suspicious of the other, suspecting they are motivated primarily by greed. And they are.   

Because Joe had been his mentor, his best friend considers himself a part of Joe’s family. Joe had even told his friend that he was going to leave his house and property to him and his children. But because Joe and his friend are not related by blood or marriage, the only way he could have done that legally was to write his intent down in a will. And that he put off until it was too late. Instead, under probate law, Joe’s assets pass to his blood relative, and his friend gets nothing.

Worse yet, the cousin insists that S-Town police conduct aerial surveillance of the property. When tapes show the friend driving two vehicles he claims are rightfully his off Joe’s property, the cousin files criminal charges. The friend faces trial for felony theft.

Estate planning – creating a will and/or trust that directs how you want your assets to be distributed when you die – greatly reduces the chance of family warfare. If Joe had just sat down with his lawyer and drawn up a will, spelling out what he wanted to leave to his best friend, that friend would not now be sitting in jail facing criminal charges, and the distant cousin would not be laughing all the way to the bank.

Patricia A. Mayer, Attorney at Law (formerly known as Patricia M. Doyle) has offices located in San Rafael, San Francisco, Walnut Creek, and Lafayette. She serves Marin, San Francisco, Sonoma, Alameda, and Contra Costa Counties and the surrounding areas.

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| Phone: 415-482-7525 | 415-482-7555

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