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TRUTH IS STRANGER THAN FICTION – a real-life story about dying without a Will

Mark Twain’s quote that truth is stranger than fiction bears out routinely in the world of estate planning, but some cases stand out more than others. One unusual case recently presented itself when a local entrepreneur (we’ll call him Ray) hired us to assist him with a probate matter.

A couple of years ago, Ray’s family noticed their neighbor (we’ll call him Doug) struggling to get in and out of his car, so Ray’s wife encouraged Ray to offer his assistance.  Doug willingly accepted Ray’s help, and over the course of a year, or so, they got to know one another, and Doug became increasingly dependent on daily help from Ray.

During that time, Ray learned some important details about Doug’s life – that he had moved to the Atlanta metro area to take a job, where he stayed for more than twenty years, and, more importantly, that he didn’t have any immediate family still living. He told Ray that Ray was the only person he could count on, anywhere.  This made Ray really uncomfortable, and he worked to get Doug to contact any relatives he could recall, without success.

Aware that his health was failing, Doug disclosed that when he passed away, he wanted to be buried out of state, in the cemetery where his mother was buried.  He also disclosed where he wanted his money and other assets to go.  All of this made Ray even more anxious.  After all, Doug was just a neighbor who needed a little help.  Ray encouraged Doug to meet with an estate planning attorney who could draft an advanced health care directive, a power of attorney, and a Will for Ray.  He went so far as to set up an appointment with an attorney for Doug to handle it. However, like many people, Doug delayed. His health declined further and dementia set in, to the point where he no longer had legal capacity to execute these documents.

What Happened Next:

  • By spring, Doug ended up in the hospital and, from there, was sent directly to a memory-care facility. Without any authority to advocate on Doug’s behalf, Ray felt helpless and frustrated each time he visited and found Doug sedated and unable to speak.
  • At the memory care facility, Doug developed pneumonia and was sent back to the hospital, where, once again, Ray could only watch as Doug lay day after day on life support. Even though Doug had listed Ray as next-of-kin, without a legally binding directive in place, Ray had no authority to assist with any decision-making or ensure Doug’s wishes were carried out.
  • Two weeks passed, and Doug died at the hospital. There his body would stay – for more than 3 months! During that time, the hospital was desperate to dispose of Doug’s body, because without sufficient refrigeration, it was steadily decomposing. The hospital staff repeatedly called Ray, hoping that he could direct them on how and where to dispose of Doug’s body.  Once again, Ray had no legal authority to do so. (Read on to find out more about what happened.)

Obtaining this kind of authority might sound simple, but Georgia’s laws of intestacy, which come into play when someone dies without a will, are anything but.  In fact, they are numerous AND costly.  Georgia’s Probate Courts require that any person petitioning the Court for authority over a deceased person’s body and/or belongings (in this case for Letters of Administration) complete a long list of requirements.

How Things Unfolded:

  • One task the Court requires is that the deceased person’s relatives, known as heirs-at-law, are located and advised that there is a petitioner, in this case, Ray, who planned to petition the Court for authority to administer Doug’s estate. Ray had little information to go on, so to assist him, our firm ran multiple background checks on family names in cities where Doug’s parents had lived, and we made nearly 100 phone calls to people all over the country.  Over the course of a month, we were able to locate seven heirs (cousins) on one side of Doug’s family and could confirm that we had found them all. Once that happened, they had to be served with Ray’s petition and sign sworn statements showing their consent to his appointment, which they did.
  • Unfortunately, we were unable to find any heirs on the other side of Doug’s family, and when this happens, Ray had to swear to the Court, via an affidavit and supporting proof, that he had done a “diligent search.”

Be Careful What You Wish For:

  • Fortunately, the Court accepted the petition, but required the appointment of a “guardian ad litem”, who could answer on behalf of any unknown heirs. The guardian ad litem reviewed the case and supporting proof, interviewed Ray, and agreed that a diligent search had been performed and recommended Ray’s appointment – providing that he do the following:
  • Request publication of notice to all unknown heirs in the local newspaper for four weeks, after which heirs had more time to come forward
  • Post a bond, annually;
  • File an inventory and an annual return for Doug’s assets; and
  • File another petition with the Court for permission to sell Doug’s condo and car.

From Bad To Worse:

  • Sadly, due to the amount of time that had passed and the condition of Doug’s body by that time, the hospital could not wait any longer and was forced to bury him in an undisclosed location.
  • The amount of money it will cost the estate by the time Doug’s assets are distributed to his heirs will be more than ten times what it would have cost if he simply had a Will.
  • Courts are busy places, and each case has to wait its turn. Almost four months have passed since Doug’s body was buried, and the Court has yet to issue Ray’s Letters of Administration, which means that Doug’s car, condo, and all of his other possessions sit waiting.

Doug was lucky to have a good neighbor in Ray.  But without the proper documents to direct medical staff and courts, even the best-intentioned people can be rendered helpless.  To avoid a story like this for yourself or loved ones, be sure to get basic estate planning documents handled.  Hoffman & Associates will be glad to assist.