Pot of Gold … NOT

April 9, 2014 § 1 Comment

Tom Freeland posted this on his blog not too long ago:

Over the years, I’ve seen several estate cases where some family members were claiming the deceased had a lock box with hundreds of thousands of dollars in cash in it, and even were willing to swear under oath to its existence.

But I’ve never seen one with a shred of actual tangible evidence of the existence of the lock box.

I can second that. His post brough to mind some experiences I have had in that vein.

  • When I took the bench I inherited a case in which my predecessor had authorized the administrator to hire a professional treasure hunter to search the decedent’s property for the buried pelf that all of the heirs were convinced was there. Successive authorizations for further excavations were granted until, in the words of one of the attorneys involved, the decedent’s home was perched on a ten-foot pedestal of red-clay dirt with devastation of strip mining all about. It took a ladder to climb onto the front porch. After the heirs exhausted their savings in their quixotic, unsuccessful quest, I authorized them to dig on their own, until at length they gave out. The case took a bizarre turn when I was asked to order that the body of the decedent be dug up and autopsied. No.
  • A woman hired me to recover money in her mother’s intestate estate. Her mother had squirrelled money away each month from her meager Social Security payments in a safe deposit box. She and her sister took turns accompanying momma to the bank, so both knew of the cash. Both sisters were on the card authorizing access. After momma’s death they met at the bank and went through the safe deposit box contents. There was $18,000 there. They decided to leave the money in the box and not tell their husbands. It would be their own little trove of mad money. A couple of days later, my client claimed she had a pang of worry about the money, so she drove to the bank. Her heart sunk when she went to sign the access card and saw that her sister had been there without her the day before. All the money was gone. Her sister denied getting the money. I explained to my client all of the problems in proving her claims, and set out all the lies the sister could spin to cover her tracks. We filed a petition with the court and, to make a long story short, were able to recoup the funds because the sister made the miscalculation of revealing to an honest lawyer what she had done, and he made her do the right thing. The worst aspect for the sisters, aside from the attorney’s fees, was that when all the dust cleared their husbands knew about the money.
  • Some grandchildren of an old woman in Kemper County came in to my law office one day with a cardboard box filled with rusty tin cans. That’s where grandma would stash her money over the years, depositing the cans under the concrete steps up to the front porch. She would sit on the porch all day with a switch to ward off anyone who tried to get at her riches. When we tried to count it, we discovered that the money was wet, mildewed, worm-eaten, and stuck together. The family had to get a consultant with the Treasury Department to advise how to restore the bills, mostly ones. They followed the instructions and got a Treasury check in return for the currency in the grand total of $3,000. A little more than the expenses of administration.  
  • In an estate my former law partner handled decades ago, the decedent left a will giving his eldest son his diamond ring and his bank accounts, and his daughter his home. The youngest son, somewhat of a n’er-do-well, got the decedent’s briefcase, hat and cane, all of which were handed over to him unceremoniously. The young man came back later and told my partner that the briefcase was full of US savings bonds. If that were true, and he found a way to cash them in, he came out pretty well.

Before you leap into that estate with stars in your eyes, step back and be skeptical about tales of untold wealth that needs to be dug up. Most people don’t handle their business that way. In many estates, you would do well to make sure your fees and the expenses of adminstration can be paid.


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