INVESTMENT RESPONSIBILITIES OF FIDUCIARIES

July 30, 2012 § 4 Comments

Executors, administrators, guardians and conservators have a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries or wards (trustees have their own, separate body of law, although they are fiduciaries also). The fiduciary’s duty (in the absence of explicit directions in a will) …

” … is to provide honest, intelligent management … [h]owever it might be more accurate to think of the [fiduciary] as a co-manager (and perhaps a junior co-manager at that) with the court being the other manager. The [fiduciary] can do very little without the prior approval of the court. The [fiduciary’s] responsibility is to be knowledgeable about the estate, to anticipate problems and dangers, as well as opportunities, to decide upon the intelligent and prudent thing to do, and then to go to the Chancellor to try to get the authority to do it.” Weems, Wills and Administration of Estates in Mississippi, 3rd Ed., §2.34, p. 65.

Absent directions in a will or court authorization, or specific authority by statute, the fiduciary has no authority to: bind the estate by contract such as a lease or note; purchase or sell real estate or any other asset; warrant title on behalf of the estate; borrow money for the estate; mortgage property of the estate; or even to continue a decedent’s business except to wind it up or as provided in MCA 91-7-173.

MCA §93-13-38 requires the guardian or conservator to improve the estate of the ward, and to “apply so much of the income, profit or body thereof as may be necessary for the comfortable maintenance and support of the ward and his family, if he have any, after obtaining an order of the court fixing the amount.” The duty of the fiduciary is to employ the funds in their hands profitably, and they may be liable on their bonds for failure to improve the estate.

Does that duty to improve the estate mean that there is a duty to invest?

The answer to that question, of course, is that every case is different, and several factors come into play, including:

  1. Whether the the amount of funds in excess of those needed in the immediate future to pay claims and administration expenses, and in the case of wards, the necessary, authorized expenses, make investment practical;
  2. The economic conditions in the markeplace;
  3. Whether in the case of a decedent’s estate that it will be open for a length of time that would make investment practical.

In the case of McNeil v. Hester, 753 So.2d 1075 (Miss. 2000), the court held that the fiduciary has no duty to invest because MCA 91-13-3 because that statute uses the permissive may rather than the mandatory shall.

But simply because there is no explicit statutory duty does not mean that not investing would be prudent. The fiduciary is under a duty to deal prudently with the estate, and in a given circumstance non-investment may be judged imprudent. MCA 91-13-3 says that the ” … fiduciary shall exercise the judgment and care under the circumstances then prevailing which men of prudence, discretion, and intelligence exercise in the management of their own affairs, not in regard to speculation, but in regard to the permanent disposition of their funds, considering the probable income as well as the probable safety of the capital.”

MCA 91-13-3 and -5 allow certain investments to be made without specific authority of the court, giving the fiduciary some flexibility to park funds until a more prudent investment, if any, can be made. Those investments, unless prohibited by court order, include: time certificates of deposit; savings or other interest-bearing accounts of any state or national bank whose main office is located in Mississippi, and whose deposits are FDIC-insured; any state or federal savings and loan association whose main office is located in Mississippi, and the deposits of which are FSLIC-insured. Not included are credit union accounts, online banks, e-trade, Schwab or Fidelity, or the mayonnaise jar buried in the back yard.

Whether a given investment is prudent was the issue in the COA case of In re Estate of McGee, 982 So.2d 428 (Miss.App. 2007)in which the court held that, where the decedent had invested in the stock market for many years and the fiduciary had received his portfolio, which he put in the control of a reputable broker pursuant to court order, the fiduciary was not liable to the heirs when the portfolio declined in value after 9-11-01. The court pointed out that “administrators are not insurers or guarantors of the estate’s assets.” Citing Harper v. Harper, 491 So.2d 189, 198 (Miss. 1986).

So what exactly is and is not prudent? For guidance in addition to particular case law you might want to look at the Mississippi Uniform Prudent Investor Act, MCA 91-9-601- et seq., which actually applies to trustees, but would certainly be persuasive authority for any court to consider in weighing the prudence of any other fiduciary. Section 603 sets out factors for the court to consider as a standard of care. Other sections in the law address the duties of diversification, loyalty, impartiality, reasonability of cost, and care in delegation of management responsibility.

The attorney representing a fiduciary has a duty to advise him or her of the responsibilities involved, and to make sure that the fiduciary is acting prudently and in compliance with the law. The subject is more complex than the scope of this post, so consider this an introduction and prompt to study it in adequate depth to be of service to your clients.

[Much of the information here is derived from a presentation by Bob Williford, Esq. to the chancery judges last April]

UPDATED CHECKLIST OF CHECKLISTS

May 27, 2011 § 5 Comments

Proving your case by proving certain factors is a fact of legal life in Mississippi.  I’ve referred to it as trial by checklist.  If you’re not putting on proof of the factors when they apply in your case, you are wasting your and the court’s time, as well as your client’s money, and you are committing malpractice to boot. 

Many lawyers have told me that they print out these checklists and use them at trial.  I encourage you to copy these checklists and use them in your trial notebooks.  And while you’re at it, you’re free to copy any post for your own personal use, but not for commercial use.  Lawyers have told me that they are building notebooks tabbed with various subjects and inserting copies of my posts (along with other useful material, I imagine).  Good.  If it improves practice and makes your (and my) job easier and more effective, I’m all for it. 

Here is an updated list of links to the checklists I’ve posted:

Attorney’s fees.

Attorney’s fees in an estate.

Adverse possession.

Child custody.

Closing an estate.

Doing an accounting in a probate matter.

Grandparent visitation.

Equitable distribution.

Income tax dependency exemption.

Modification of child support.

Periodic and rehabilitative alimony.

Lump sum alimony.

Separate maintenance.

FIVE TIPS TO IMPROVE YOUR PROBATE PRACTICE

April 19, 2011 § 7 Comments

  • Always accompany the executor, administrator, guardian or conservator to the bank or other financial institution to open the estate account.  That way you can make sure that the funds are properly deposited into a restricted account, and that the fiduciary does what she is supposed to do. 
  • Always ask that a duplicate bank statement be sent to you for the estate account.  If the bank balks, direct that the bank statement be sent to you and not the fiduciary.  Review each bank statement promptly when you receive it to make sure that no unauthorized disbursements are being made.  Also, when the next accounting comes due — Voila! — you have a complete set of bank statements.
  • Have your secretary or paralegal call the fiduciary every couple of months to inquire how things are going, to remind of upcoming deadlines, and to ensure that the address and telephone info in your file is accurate.  This is not only great client relations, it’s one of the best means possible to discover and address problems in their early stages.
  • Accompany your fiduciary to inventory that safe deposit box, and, if possible, bring a witness.  It seems that there is often someone lurking in the wings ready to allege that there were all sorts of valuable items in there that the fiduciary is not accounting for.
  • Do an inventory even when one is not required.  Inventory establishes the baseline for accounting.  It also can help neutralize the claims of many disgruntled heirs and sideline-sitters.

ATTORNEY’S FEES IN AN ESTATE

January 19, 2011 § 2 Comments

Every administrator or executor is required by Uniform Chancery Court Rule (UCCR) 6.10 to have an attorney to represent him or her in connection with administration of the estate. 

The attorney’s fees of the administrator or executor are not the obligation of the estate, but are the personal obligation of the fiduciary, but they may be allowed by the court as part of the administration expenses.  Scott v. Hollingsworth, 487 So.2d 811, 813 (Miss. 1986).  In order to be properly allowed by the court as administration expense, the attorney’s fees must benefit the estate, and fees which do not benefit the estate are properly disallowed.  Estate of Collins v. Collins, 742 So.2d 147, 149 (Miss. App. 1999).     

In making his determination of an attorney fee award, the chancellor must weigh several factors:

“The factors which the chancery court considers in fixing the amount of reasonable compensation are varied.  Among those factors, however, are the following:  time, skill, the responsibility, the monetary value of the estate administered and its liquidity, the speedy disposition of the business, the services of the attorney, the practice of attorneys in that court and the charging of fees for similar services, the complexity of the issues, and the necessity of litigation concerning the estate business.”  Scott at 814.

I disallowed a claim of more than $20,000 for attorney’s fees in an estate where no action had been taken in 18 months after the qualification of the fiduciary, the fiduciary and not the attorneys had done most of the work, the attorneys were charging more than $350 an hour, the reasonable hourly rate in this district is $185, the estate was fairly simple and should have been closed in less than a year, and a substantial portion of the fees were attributable to the fiduciary resisting the sole beneficiary’s efforts to have him ousted for inaction.   

If you want to get paid for your services to the fiduciary, you had better become very familiar with UCCR 6.11 and 6.12. 

This judge will require that an itemized statement of services rendered by filed in the court file and, preferably, be attached as an exhibit signed and sworn by the fiduciary.  The old practice of filing a broad, general statement of services without showing the time expended, is no longer acceptable.  The purpose of an itemized statement is to disclose to all interested parties what services were rendered for the benefit of the estate, and to allow them an opportunity to be heard, pro or con.  The best practice in a final account is to attach the attorney fee statement as an exhibit to the petition to close so that all interested parties will have notice and opportunity to agree by joining in the petition or to contest it.      

If the petition for fees is based on recovery of damages for wrongful death, UCCR 6.12 imposes some specific and stringent requirements.  The fee allowed ” … will be fixed by the chancellor at such sum as will be reasonable compensation for the service rendered and expense incurred without being bound by any contract made with any unauthorized persons.”  Any agreement for a contingent fee must be approved in advance by the chancellor.  In other words, if you don not get your contract approved in advance, you will be working on a quantum meruit basis rather than on a contingency.

INSOLVENT ESTATES

January 13, 2011 § 5 Comments

When the debts and expenses of the estate exceed the value of its assets, the estate is said to be insolvent, and there is a procedure for adjudication of insolvency, satisfaction of creditors, and payment of administration expenses that is spelled out in MCA § 91-7-261 through -268.

The estate is insolvent when its debts and the expenses of administration exceed the value of the real property and the other property that is not exempt.  You can find out more about exempt property here.

Either the administrator or a creditor may petition the court to adjudicate its insolvency.

MCA § 91-7-261 sets out the procedure to determine insolvency.  The administrator is required to “take proper steps speedily to ascertain whether the estate be solvent or insolvent.”  If the administrator finds that the estate is insolvent, she files a “true account” itemizing all of the personal estate, assets of every description, the land of the deceased, and all of the deceased’s debts.  Notice is given to the devisees or heirs, and the matter is presented to the court for hearing.  If the court determines from the account that the estate is indeed insolvent, the chancellor will order that the assets be sold and that the expenses of ” … the last sickness, the funeral, and the administration, including the commissions …” are first paid out of the proceeds,” and that any remaining proceeds be divided among the creditors ” … in proportion to the sums due and owing them respectively …” 

The procedure for distribution of remaining proceeds among the creditors is provided in MCA § 91-7-269.  After the time to probate claims has elapsed, a notice is published for three consecutive weekss in a newspaper published in the county that the claims against the estate will be taken up by the court on a day and at a time certain, that any and all claims not required by law to be probated shall be filed with the clerk by a stated date, and that all creditors may attend.  A hearing is held at which the administrator may object to any claim, evidence is presented pro and con, and the court may either allow it in whole or in part, or reject it in whole or in part.  The administrator may file a verified application to be reimbursed for claims paid peior to the adjudication of insolvency, and the court shall treat them as if they had been properly probated.       

MCA § 91-7-271 provides that the allowed claims shall be paid pro rata, and any creditor not paid within ten day of the court’s order shall have execution against the executor or administrator and the sureties on his bond. 

Any suit pending against the executor or administrator at the time of insolvency does not abate, but may be prosecuted to final judgment, according to MCA § 91-7-273, but -274 bars suits from being filed after the estate is declared insolvent.  You should read -273 carefully for the effect of and payment of a judgment against the estate for suits that were pending when the insolvency is determined.

LOST WILLS

January 5, 2011 § 5 Comments

Does it ever happen to you that an heir shows up in your office and says something to the effect that “Mom says you kept the original of dad’s will. All we have is this [dogeared, coffee-stained, footprinted] copy,” and hands you a bedraggled handful of papyrus?  Well, if it hasn’t, it will.

Of course, you did not retain the original [for you younger attorneys: NEVER keep the original of your client’s will]. So what will you do with this forlorn sheaf? 

You will probate it. Yes, probate it.  But it’s only a copy, you say; and the original will is required to be produced (See, MCA § 91-7-5, -7 and -31).  True.  But it is possible to probate a lost or destroyed will.

In the case of Estate of Mitchell, 623 So.2d 274, 275 (Miss. 1993), the court said:   

The law regarding admission into probate of a lost will is discussed at length in Warren v. Sidney’s Estate, 183 Miss. 669, 184 So. 806 (1938). Sidney’s Estate sets forth the elements necessary to probate a copy of a lost will are: (1) the proof of the existence of the will; (2) evidence of its loss or destruction; and (3) proof of its contents. Sidney’s Estate, 183 Miss. at 675-76, 184 So. at 807. A fourth element has been added: (4) that the testator did not destroy the will with the intent to revoke it. Robert A. Weems, Wills and Estates § 7-17, p. 216 (1983). This last element, which is most central to this case, arose from the theory that when a will cannot be found following the death of a testator and it can be shown that the testator was the last person in possession of the will, there arises a rebuttable presumption of revocation.

Where a will which cannot be found following the death of the testator is shown to have been in his possession when last seen, the presumption is, in the absence of other evidence, that he destroyed it animo revocandi … 57 Am.Jur., Wills, § 551.  Adams v. Davis, 233 Miss. 228, 237, 102 So.2d 190, 193 (1958); Phinizee v. Alexander, 210 Miss. 196, 200, 49 So.2d 250, 252 (1950); Horner, Probate Prac. & Est. § 79 (4th ed.). This presumption extends to all duplicate copies, even executed duplicates. Adams, 233 Miss. at 237, 102 So.2d at 194; Phinizee, 210 Miss. at 199, 49 So.2d at 252; Horner § 79. 

The proponent of the will must prove each of these elements by clear and convincing evidence. See Estate of Leggett v. Smith, 584 So.2d 400, 403 (Miss.1991); Estate of Willis v. Willis, 207 So.2d 348, 349 (Miss.1968); Adams, 233 Miss. at 237-38, 102 So.2d at 194. (“The intent to revoke must appear clearly and unequivocally.” Sidney’s Estate, 183 Miss. at 676, 184 So. at 807. “The policy of the law requires such contents to be established by the clearest, most convincing and satisfactory proof.” Robert A. Weems, Wills and Estates § 7-17, p. 216 (1983).

Your petition will have to recite on personal knowledge of the petitioner, or supported by affidavits on personal knowledge, all four of the required factors. 

You should probate the lost or destroyed will in solemn form.  To do otherwise gives an unfair advantage to the proponent of the missing document.  Probate in solemn form also seals off the protests of other interested parties and, as a practical matter, takes you directly to the hearing with notice that you will likely wind up in anyway.   

At hearing, you will need to prove your four elements by clear and convincing evidence. 

  • Proving the existence of the will is not usually much of a problem.  You will have that copy, or, if no copy is available, someone with personal knowledge can testify that the will did exist.  MRE 1001-1008 would appear to govern the issue.  As Rule 1008 states, the issue is for the trier of fact to determine.
  • Loss of the will can be proven by testimony that the decedent kept his or her papers in a particular place and that an exhaustive search has not turned it up, or that the cabinet where the will was kept was destroyed by fire, or that it was in a repository that has now vanished. 
  • The “Dead Man’s Statute” has been supplanted by MRE 803(3), so proof of its contents should not be a major obstacle, so long as there is a witness with personal knowledge.
  • And the same hearsay exception would apply to the testator’s destruction or intended revocation.      

An interesting wrinkle appears in an ancient case, Vining v. Hall, 40 Miss. 83 (Miss. Err. & App. 1866), that is still good law.  In Vining, there was conflicting and inconclusive testimony about the contents of the lost or destroyed will, but no disagreement that it included a revocation clause expressly revoking all prior wills.  The court held that the revocation clause was effective despite the fact that the dispositive terms of the will could not be determined.  See, Weems, Wills and Administration of Estates in Mississippi, Third Ed., § 7.15.

DO I NEED TO OPEN AN ESTATE TO DO THAT?

January 4, 2011 § 4 Comments

Seated in your office are the decedent’s adult children, asking your advice about daddy’s estate, which consisted of $5,000 in a bank account, a high-mileage car, and his last paycheck from Lockheed, which they have yet to receive.  They candidly tell you that they don’t have a lot of money to pay to probate an estate. 

I know what you’re thinking:  “Oh, well.  One more low-to-no fee estate won’t kill me.”

But hold on a minute.  Take time out to check out these statutes:  MCA §§ 91-7-322 and 323, and 81-5-63 and 81-12-143.  You’ll see that they allow you with some simple paperwork to get your clients the money and title to the car without the necessity of opening an estate.

MCA § 91-7-322 and 81-5-63 allows the bank to pay up to $12,500 to the decedent’s “successors” as defined in the statute, with the filing of a simple affidavit.  The same section would authorize issuance of title to the car. 

MCA § 91-7-323 allows the former employer to pay any outstanding wages directly to the successors. 

MCA § 81-12 143 authorizes a savings and loan to pay a savings account to successors without an administration, provided that they execute a bond.

TRANSFER OR DISMISS?

December 8, 2010 § 5 Comments

It was long the law in Mississippi divorce cases that venue is jurisdictional, and that an action filed in the wrong county had to be dismissed, and could not be transferred to the appropriate county.  See, Carter v. Carter, 278 So.2d 394, 396 (Miss. 1973).  Venue in a Mississippi divorce is said to be “exclusive” because the divorce statutes define where venue lays.  The action must be brough exclusively in the county specified.  Where venue is exclusive, it is jurisdictional.    

Against this backdrop, the Mississippi Supreme Court decided the case of National Heritage Realty, Inc. v. Estate of Boles, 947 So.2d 238 (Miss. 2006), reh. den. February 8, 2007.  The case involved an estate opened in Tallahatchie County, which was the county where the decedent formerly lived before relocating to a nursing home in Leflore County, where she subsequently died.  The chancellor found that venue for the estate was properly in Leflore County, and had ordered that the estate be transferred from Tallahatchie County to Leflore.  The Supreme Court, by Justice Easley, ruled that the venue statute for estates is exclusive, and, therefore, jurisdictional.  In the absence of jurisdiction, the chancellor was without authority to take any action, even a transfer.  In the absence of jurisdiction, his action was void and not merely voidable.  Justice Easley at page 248 based his reasoning on the established divorce venue law, to which he analogized the estate venue statutes. 

The only problem is that the divorce venue statute, MCA § 93-5-11, had been amended in 2005, a year before the Boles decision, to add the following sentence:  “Transfer of venue shall be governed by Rule 82(d) of the Mississippi Rules of Civil Procedure.”  MRCP 82(d) reads, in part:

“When an action is filed laying venue in the wrong county, the action shall not be dismissed, but the court, on timely motion, shall transfer the action to the court in which it might properly have been filed and the case shall proceed as if originally filed therein … “

Justice Easley’s opinion makes no mention of the amendment.

From time to time I get requests from lawyers to transfer a case, usually from Lauderdale to Clarke County, although I have been requested to transfer to other counties.  This occurs primarly with out-of-district lawyers who are unfamiliar with the fact that some people with a 39301 zip code and a Meridian address actually reside in Clarke County, or some folks with Collinsville addresses actually reside in Newton or Neshoba, or with Daleville or Lauderdale addresses actually residing in Kemper.  The predominant type of case lawyers want transferred involves the Structured Settlement Protection Act, MCA § 11-57-1, et seq.  I presume they prefer transfer over dismissal because dismissal requires filing a new petition and starts over the law’s technical notice and time requirements. 

So how can we reconcile Boles and MCA § 93-5-11 and MRCP 82(d)?

In the absence of any definitive guidance from the appellate courts, here is my interpretation:

  1. If the case is not a divorce and venue is exclusive (i.e., defined in the statute upon which your action is based), then the case can not be transferred.  It must be dismissed and refiled. 
  2. If venue in the case arises under MCA § 11-11-3, the general venue statute (which has been held to be applicable to actions in chancery court where there is no exclusive venue statute), the case may be transferred per MRCP 82(d).
  3. If the case is a divorce, it may be transferred per MCA § 93-5-11, but see the caveat below.

Some observations based on the above:

Cases under the Structured Settlement Protection Act may not be transferred because MCA § 11-57-11 includes an exclusive venue provision.

An action solely for an injunction is under the general venue statute because MRCP 65 does not define venue for the action.  A Rule 65 action may be transferred.

Although the statute expressly authorizes transfer of a divorce, consider the ramifications before you do it.  The divorce statutes include an exclusive venue provision.  Under Boles, an action filed in the wrong venue in  an exclusive venue case is void ab initio, meaning that the chancellor has no authority to take any action other than to dismiss.  The court lacks subject matter jurisdiction.  Price v. Price, 32 So.2d 124 (Miss. 1947).  Lack of subject matter jurisdiction is a defect that may be raised at any time, even years after the fact, because the action of the court lacking jurisdiction is void, and not merely voidable.  Would you want to risk having your client’s divorce set aside somewhere down the road by the other party who is disgruntled with the outcome?  If I were the attorney, my preference would be to take the safe path and dismiss the case with improper venue rather than transfer it.

[I hope this is a helpful starting point for Frankie and colleagues at MC Law]

ONE WAY TO PUT $50,000 IN THE POCKET OF YOUR CLIENTS

December 3, 2010 § 5 Comments

You are representing the executrix who is one of three siblings who are the legatees of the decedent.  They have come to you because their dad’s only asset of any real value, other than his furniture and an old car, was a life insurance policy with a face value of $50,000 that he had made payable to his executor for the estate, and the estate needs to be probated to receive the insurance proceeds.

The catch is that the creditors have claims that exceed the proceeds of the life insurance policy:  $17,000 to various credit cards; $8,000 to a loan company; and $36,000 to doctors and hospitals for the final illness.  Pretty bleak. 

The furniture and car are exempt property, as we know.  Is there anything else you can do?

Look at MCA § 85-3-13.  Here’s what it says:

The proceeds of a life insurance policy not exceeding Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000.00) payable to the executor, or administrator, of the insured, shall inure to the heirs or legatees, freed from all liability for the debts of the decedent, except premiums paid on the policy by any one other than the insured, for debts due for expenses of last illness and for burial; but if the life of the deceased be otherwise insured for the benefit of his heirs or legatees at the time of his death, and they shall collect the same, the sum collected shall be deducted from the Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000.00) and the excess of the latter only shall be exempt. No fee shall be paid or allowed by the court to the executor or administrator for handling same.

Under this section, the first $50,000 in life insurance proceeds is exempt from the claims of creditors, although that amount would be reduced by the amount of any other life insurance proceeds that the legatees receive from policies on the decedent’s life.  The only exceptions to the exemption would be:  Any claim made for payment of life insurance premiums made on the policy by someone other than the insured; and any claims for the burial and administrator’s or executor’s attorney’s fees for administering the estate, since those are not debts of the decedent, but rather are debts of his estate.  Dobbs v. Chandler, 36 So. 388 (Miss. 1904).  But attorney’s fees incurred in recovering insurance proceeds are not an administrative expense chargeable against the proceeds.  Abernethy v. Savage, 132 So. 553, 554 (Miss. 1931).   

The exemption is not limited to the spouse and children, but inures to the benefit of the heirs or legatees, and must be liberally construed in their favor.  Coates v. Worthy, 17 So. 606; on suggestion of error, 18 So. 916 (Miss. 1895).

The exempt proceeds are divided among the heirs or legatees on a pro rata basis.  Magee v. Bank of Hattiesburg & Trust Co., 98 So. 541 (Miss. 1923). 

The insurance proceeds must be payable to the executor or administrator of the estate.  In Rice v. Smith, 16 So. 417 (Miss. 1894), the court found the proceeds not to be exempt where the insured had named himself, his executors, administrators and assigns as beneficiaries.  Held that the decedent himself was the true beneficiary, and that his administrator held the proceeds just as if the decedent himself had held them.  This is a curious result, since it seems to presuppose that one may somehow collect one’s own life insurance proceeds.  But the significance of this case is that the statute requires the beneficiary to be the executor or administrator.   

Caveat:  MCA § 85-3-11 disallows the exemption where the decedent can be proven to have used life insurance to defraud creditors. 

Note:  The cases cited are ancient, but I believe them to be good law and I found no negative history.               

EXEMPT PROPERTY AND ESTATES

October 28, 2010 § 14 Comments

You’re handling an estate of a decedent whose spouse predeceased him.  The decedent was a man of modest means with a two-bedroom home in town, some furniture and appliances, an older car, some savings and $6,000 in a 401(k) account.  There’s not enough cash to  pay all the creditors’ claims.  The surviving children and grandchildren want you to close the estate as soon as possible.  Do you advise them to sell the furniture at an estate sale to muster up enough cash to satisfy the creditors?  Or should you get court approval to sell the house, pay the debts, and distribute what’s left?

Not so fast.  All that property may not even belong in the estate in the first place.  It may not be subject to the creditors’ claims at all.

MCA § 91-1-19 provides in part:

 The property, real and personal, exempted by law from sale under execution or attachment shall, on the death of the husband or wife owning it, descend to the survivor of them and the children and grandchildren of the decedent, as tenants in common, grandchildren inheriting their deceased parent’s share; and if there be no children or grandchildren of the decedent, to the surviving wife or husband; and if there be no such survivor, to the children and grandchildren of the deceased owner.”

What this language means is that the property that is exempted by Mississippi law from sale under execution or attachment descends automatically, not through any estate, as stated in the statute.  You would be shortchanging the statutory survivors considerably by not pursuing the exemptions. 

It’s important to know what are the exemptions.  MCA § 85-3-1 sets out the personal property and financial assets that are exempt:

There shall be exempt from seizure under execution or attachment:

(a) Tangible personal property of the following kinds selected by the debtor, not exceeding Ten Thousand Dollars ($10,000.00) in cumulative value:

(i) Household goods, wearing apparel, books, animals or crops;

(ii) Motor vehicles;

(iii) Implements, professional books or tools of the trade;

(iv) Cash on hand;

(v) Professionally prescribed health aids;

(vi) Any items of tangible personal property worth less than Two Hundred Dollars ($200.00) each.

Household goods, as used in this paragraph (a), means clothing, furniture, appliances, one (1) radio and one (1) television, one (1) firearm, one (1) lawnmower, linens, china, crockery, kitchenware, and personal effects (including wedding rings) of the debtor and his dependents; however, works of art, electronic entertainment equipment (except one (1) television and one (1) radio), jewelry (other than wedding rings), and items acquired as antiques are not included within the scope of the term “household goods.” This paragraph (a) shall not apply to distress warrants issued for collection of taxes due the state or to wages described in Section 85-3-4.

(b)(i) The proceeds of insurance on property, real and personal, exempt from execution or attachment, and the proceeds of the sale of such property.

(ii) Income from disability insurance.

(c) All property in this state, real, personal and mixed, for the satisfaction of a judgment or claim in favor of another state or political subdivision of another state for failure to pay that state’s or that political subdivision’s income tax on benefits received from a pension or other retirement plan. As used in this paragraph (c), “pension or other retirement plan” includes:

(i) An annuity, pension, or profit-sharing or stock bonus or similar plan established to provide retirement benefits for an officer or employee of a public or private employer or for a self-employed individual;

(ii) An annuity, pension, or military retirement pay plan or other retirement plan administered by the United States; and

(iii) An individual retirement account.

(d) One (1) mobile home, trailer, manufactured housing, or similar type dwelling owned and occupied as the primary residence by the debtor, not exceeding a value of Thirty Thousand Dollars ($30,000.00); in determining this value, existing encumbrances on the dwelling, including taxes and all other liens, shall first be deducted from the actual value of the dwelling. A debtor is not entitled to the exemption of a mobile home as personal property who claims a homestead exemption under Section 85-3-21, and the exemption shall not apply to collection of delinquent taxes under Sections 27-41-101 through 27-41-109.

(e) Assets held in, or monies payable to the participant or beneficiary from, whether vested or not, (i) a pension, profit-sharing, stock bonus or similar plan or contract established to provide retirement benefits for the participant or beneficiary and qualified under Section 401(a), 403(a), or 403(b) of the Internal Revenue Code (or corresponding provisions of any successor law), including a retirement plan for self-employed individuals qualified under one of such enumerated sections, (ii) an eligible deferred compensation plan described in Section 457(b) of the Internal Revenue Code (or corresponding provisions of any successor law), or (iii) an individual retirement account or an individual retirement annuity within the meaning of Section 408 of the Internal Revenue Code (or corresponding provisions of any successor law), including a simplified employee pension plan.

(f) Monies paid into or, to the extent payments out are applied to tuition or other qualified higher education expenses at eligible educational institutions, as defined in Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code or corresponding provisions of any successor law, monies paid out of the assets of and the income from any validly existing qualified tuition program authorized under Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code or corresponding provisions of any successor law, including, but not limited to, the Mississippi Prepaid Affordable College Tuition (MPACT) Program established under Sections 37-155-1 through 37-155-27 and the Mississippi Affordable College Savings (MACS) Program established under Sections 37-155-101 through 37-155-125.

(g) The assets of a health savings account, including any interest accrued thereon, established pursuant to a health savings account program as provided in the Health Savings Accounts Act (Sections 83-62-1 through 83-62-9).

(h) In addition to all other exemptions listed in this section, there shall be an additional exemption of property having a value of Fifty Thousand Dollars ($50,000.00) of whatever type, whether real, personal or mixed, tangible or intangible, including deposits of money, available to any Mississippi resident who is seventy (70) years of age or older.

(i) An amount not to exceed Five Thousand Dollars ($5,000.00) of earned income tax credit proceeds.

(j) An amount not to exceed Five Thousand Dollars ($5,000.00) of federal tax refund proceeds.

(k) An amount not to exceed Five Thousand Dollars ($5,000.00) of state tax refund proceeds.

(l) Nothing in this section shall in any way affect the rights or remedies of the holder or owner of a statutory lien or voluntary security interest.

MCA § 85-3-21 establishes the homestead exemption. 

There are other exemptions that are set out in the cross-references to the code sections cited.

MCA § 91-7-117 requires the appraisers to set apart the exempt property.

As attorney for the estate, you have a duty to determine what assets need to be declared exempt and not included in it.  In moderate estates it could mean the difference between survivors getting nothing and the survivors getting something.

Now re-read the first paragraph above.  Do you see it differently?

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing entries tagged with estates and administration at The Better Chancery Practice Blog.