by Vicki Radcliff, Attorney
One could say that this story started a little over 2 years ago when Vincent* approached me about an heirship determination regarding his deceased sister, Sherrie. When Sherrie died, she had one financial account with a value in excess of $75,000 on which she had named a beneficiary.
Unfortunately, the beneficiary she named died before Sherrie did and Sherrie never got around to updating her beneficiary designation. That meant that the account would pass to the beneficiaries Sherrie named in her Will. Alas, Sherrie didn’t leave a Will either. In order for her family to be able to get the funds, the probate court would have to determine who Sherrie’s heirs were based on the laws of intestacy. For the court to make that determination, we had to provide the proof.
When I started looking into Sherrie’s marital and family history, I learned that Sherrie was single when she died having never had children. Both of her parents were deceased. So, we needed to figure out who Sherrie’s siblings were by tracing all of the children born to Sherrie’s mother as well as all the children born to Sherrie’s father. Diane was Sherrie’s mother. But who was her daddy? At this point, I realized that the story actually started in 1939 with Billy Joe and Bobby Sue.
Billy Joe and Bobby Sue had their first child in 1939 and then they got married after which they went on to have 4 more children before separating in the late 1950s. Billy Joe had met Diane, and well, Billy Joe and Diane got together at that point.
Diane had one child when she was a teenager and as yet unwed. Later, Diane married Jack in 1955. During that marriage, five children were born, including two sets of twins. (The law looks at delivery dates not gestation!) Jack divorced Diane in 1957. Sherrie was born to Diane during Diane’s marriage to Jack which statutorily created the presumption that Jack was Sherrie’s daddy. But Vincent was adamant that Billy Joe was Sherrie’s daddy as well as his, not Jack. What to do?!
Fortunately, Sherrie was a twin and was survived by her twin brother, Gary. Vincent and Gary submitted to DNA testing which came back conclusive that Vincent and Gary shared the same father. But who was that? Since Sherrie and Gary were born during the marriage of Jack and Diane and Vincent was born to Diane after she and Jack divorced but before Diane married Billy Joe, how could we prove that Billy Joe was actually their daddy?
It took some maneuvering, a lot of time, money, and research, certified copies of marriage licenses, divorce decrees and birth certificates, and disinterested witness testimony, which is hard to find when dealing with events that took place decades ago. (Disinterested witnesses are required by the court to corroborate what you are claiming since we’re talking about money.)
Finally, after over two years, we were able to prove to the court’s satisfaction that Sherrie’s heirs were 2 full siblings (Gary and Vincent), 7 half siblings who survived Sherrie, and 6 nieces and nephews, the children of Sherrie’s two half siblings that predeceased her! Vincent found family that he never knew existed.
Was the result what Sherrie would have wanted or expected? Probably not. She didn’t even know some of the heirs who will now benefit from her estate. But in this case, the family seems to have grown close and is enjoying meeting some relatives for the first time with a big reunion currently being planned to which I am going to be invited!
You can avoid a situation like this by simply making sure that you review your beneficiary designations and your Will on a regular basis to ensure that the people you have named as beneficiaries in the past are still alive and are still the people that you want to benefit from your estate. And, if you don’t have a Will, you might want to look into getting one in place. I may even be able to help with that!
*Based on true events. The names have been changed for privacy reasons