Reality Check: Family wants you to avoid their estate-planning disaster

Chuck Root is working to get his stepdaughters what their late mother intended.  (Courtesy: WLOS)

Who will get your money and possessions if you unexpectedly pass away? It's a grim thought, but a local family shares its story to encourage you to plan early.

Numbers matter. Just ask sisters Michele Dubay and Angela Swift.

"She's obviously older," joked Dublay. "She really is older," pointed Angela.

Michele is 18 months older, but the most important number here is four. A year ago their mother Connie learned she had lung cancer, and it was Stage Four.

"She was an active, active lady who was very health conscientious," said Swift.

Connie was an architect. The terminal illness allowed her time to lay out plans for what would go to her daughters, specifically money from a family farm.

The plans didn't work out.

"One account didn't have a Payable On Death, and another account also didn't have a payable on death, because the POD form had one account listed twice," said Dubay.

Connie's will listed the farm as going to her daughters. She didn't update the will after selling the property. So the money from the sale transferred to Chuck Root.

"It belongs to me if I want it to, or I can disperse it any way I want," said Root.

A typical financial story would include the person with Michele and Angela's money, but this isn't like a typical financial story.

"Because of my love for them, and God gave me a conscience, I couldn't keep the money no matter how much, or how little it was," said Root.

Six years ago, Chuck married Connie. Through marriage, he became Michele and Angela's father.

"The family was not in agreeance at first, because they didn't know me. They had never met. But we ended up being in love with each other, at least I believe we have," said Root.

Connie passed away in late June at the age of 68.

"It's hard. It's very hard. As a matter of fact I just started taking some medication to help me with my emotional rollercoaster," said Chuck.

The bank accounts containing the money from the land sale were supposed to transfer to Connie's daughters when she died, but they didn't get this in writing from the bank.

"I would've caught it had I asked for the printout," explained Michelle, who is an accountant, "Even though I asked the representative, who should've told me that there was no POD."

A local financial planner preaches the mantra: Update and review.

"People make mistakes, absolutely, but if you're reviewing it regularly and you catch those mistakes, they can be fixed a whole lot easier when everybody's still alive than if something were to happen, and somebody dies," said Richard Stiles, a partner in Hansen Stiles at Prospera Financial.

Chuck needs to go through probate court to close out the estate for his stepdaughters, but he also needs to worry about the number four.

"He's sick himself, and he's having to go to the courthouse for hours," said Dubay.

Chuck also has cancer, and it's Stage Four.

"I've been fighting prostate cancer that had metastasized in my bones before they found it," said Root.

Resolving the financial matter will take time, which Chuck doesn't necessarily have.

"I'm three-and-a-half years into the two to five years they told me. My next visit, I'm going to ask the doctor, 'How much time do you think I really have?'" he explained.

However much time remains, Chuck and his stepdaughters won't let money divide their bond.

They believe they're in this position because of the bank; however, they didn't share the story to blame the bank. They shared it for you to learn from.

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