Share This Post
What is Family Malpractice™, and Have You Committed It?
Have you committed Family Malpractice™?
If you’ve neglected your legal responsibilities regarding your family, then yes, you have.
What is Family Malpractice™?
You’ve heard of attorney malpractice, where an attorney’s misconduct causes problems for a client, and you’ve heard of medical malpractice, where a doctor’s error or negligence causes problems for a patient. Similarly, Family Malpractice™ is when an individual causes problems for his/her family members, usually because of failure to take action on a legal matter.
Problems that are created can be legal, financial, and/or familial in nature. I’ve seen a decedent’s heirs have to go through years of expensive and stressful legal battles over how to divide up assets. I’ve seen people take a huge financial hit because of how property was handled after the owner’s death. I’ve seen families torn apart and relationships permanently ruined due to Family Malpractice™.
While it’s not something you can be prosecuted for, Family Malpractice™ is something to avoid. You can easily do so by knowing some of the common pitfalls that put your family in peril legally and financially, and how to avoid these easily avoidable situations yourself.
When You Have Children but Have No Will, That’s Family Malpractice™
Do you know what happens in South Carolina if you die without a will, leaving behind a spouse and children? When I ask this question in consultations or at live, in-person seminars, most people believe that 100% of the deceased’s probate estate goes to the spouse. This is incorrect. By state statute, the deceased’s probate estate is divided evenly between the spouse, who gets 50%, and the children, who share the remaining 50% among themselves.
This sounds reasonable and fair. But, as straightforward as it sounds, this simple arrangement can cause a lot of problems, usually for the spouse. For instance, if a husband and father dies intestate (without a will), his half of the house is divided equally between his surviving wife and children. So his wife now owns 75% of the house and the children own the other 25%. If she’s not able to keep up with the house payments and wants to downsize, she can’t sell unless her children agree. They then have leverage and can demand more than the 25% of the sales price of the home, or else simply refuse to sell.
Who would do this to their own mother, you ask? Plenty of people, unfortunately. I’ve seen scenarios like these play out many times in my 30+ years of being an attorney. Situations like these can ruin a person financially in their later years and destroy family relationships irrevocably.
The situation becomes even more complicated in blended families where one or both spouses have children from a previous marriage. Imagine then, the surviving spouse may own 75% of the house and the children from a previous marriage own the other 25%. The children from the previous marriage are not required to cooperate with the surviving spouse. They can veto a sale, refinance, etc. They essentially control the property. That is not what the decedent wanted, and that decedent committed Family Malpractice™ with regards to the surviving spouse.
In short, the way an estate is passed along and divided up according to South Carolina law may not be what an individual wants, but if they die intestate, they don’t get a choice – and their heirs have to live with the consequences.
The solution: Have a will drawn up. This is vital if you have a family and especially if you have anything other than a small estate. Dying without a will can potentially create a lot of problems for your heirs that could have been avoided with a current estate plan.
When You Don’t Probate Your Deceased Mom or Dad’s Estate, That’s Family Malpractice™
The idea of a family home being passed down from generation to generation is something many people aspire to. Passing on wealth in the form of real property to your children, and to their children in turn, and so on, is a wonderful gift.
At least, it can be. It’s not uncommon for property passed on after death to become “heirs property,” which can cause a lot of problems for the heirs. This can happen when the surviving children of the original, now-deceased homeowner continue to live in the home but don’t go through the proper legal process to put the property in the new owners’ names. That is going through the probate process. If the same situation repeats for a few generations in a row, you can end up with literally dozens of people (typically, the grandchildren or great-grandchildren of the original owner) who all have legal claims to the property, all while the property is still technically in the original owner’s name.
Why is this such a problem? Because it’s very difficult to sell a house like this, when there are so many owners and a cloudy title. A buyer interested in the property risks having the deal fall through if one of the many owners decides they want more than their proportional share of the sales price or refuses to sell altogether. Getting the title cleared takes extra time and money. Meanwhile, the family members who own the house cannot sell and take the equity in the house, and they may be barred from accessing things that require clear title of ownership, like mortgages, loans, and government programs.
The solution: Ensure your deceased parent’s estate goes through probate. The probate process does not happen automatically; it’s something the executor named in the will must carry out. If there is no will, the probate court names an executor, usually a child or close relative of the deceased.
There are a few roadblocks keeping people from ensuring a deceased parent’s estate goes through probate. One is simply not knowing that it’s needed; they may incorrectly assume that the ownership of the house legally passes from the parent to the child(ren) without having to do anything. Another reason is an aversion to having to pay a lot to probate the estate. But in SC, probate fees are not very high. For instance, probate fees on an estate worth $1 million is just $1,845, which is paid out of the estate, as are attorney’s fees. Finally, some people want to avoid dealing with the government altogether. While this may be understandable, it’s not a good reason to avoid probate. Working with an experienced probate attorney you trust can help you and ensure that your estate is handled legally and fairly.
Read more about probate here on our blog.
When You Don’t Take the 1014(e) Step-Up in Basis, That’s Family Malpractice™
A step-up in basis occurs when the cost basis of an asset, like a home, is adjusted from the original cost basis to the current fair market value upon the death of the owner.
Let’s say your parents bought a house 20 years ago for $150,000, and when you inherited it upon their deaths, it was worth $350,000. If you don’t take the step-up in basis and proceed to sell it, you’ll have to pay capital gains tax on the difference, which is $200,000. If instead you do take the step-up in basis, and have the cost basis of the house increased to $350,000 (the fair market value at the time of your parents’ deaths), then you’ll only pay capital gains tax on the difference between $350,000 and whatever you sell it for in the future.
Depending on the value of the house, and how much that value has grown over time, that can mean saving a lot of money in taxes. When someone does not take this step-up in basis, it can lead to very large tax bills when the time comes to sell the property. There are a few reasons a person may fail to do so; they may not even know that the option exists, or they may mistakenly assume that it happens automatically.
The solution: Take the step-up in basis on property in an estate that you are executor of, or ensure that the executor of your parents’ estate does so. The probate attorney handling the estate can help you. As a probate attorney, my goal is to get the largest step-up in basis possible for my clients in order to reduce their tax liability in the future.
Work with Estate Planning Attorney Gem McDowell
Wills, probate, and step-up in basis are things that most people don’t think about because it’s outside the scope of daily life. But failing to take care of these matters is what I call Family Malpractice™, and it can lead to major legal and financial hassles in the future. Even more devastating, it can cause rifts between family members as they fight over assets in and out of court. Fortunately, these issues are completely avoidable. Work with an estate planning attorney and probate attorney to ensure your estate plan is solid and current and that you’re handling your deceased relatives’ estates correctly.
If you have questions about creating or revising your own estate plan in South Carolina, or you want advice or assistance handling the estate of a deceased relative, contact Gem McDowell at the Gem McDowell Law Group today. Gem has over 30 years of experience as an attorney and has helped countless families in South Carolina create estate plans, avoid mistakes, and fix problems. He and his team can help you understand and avoid committing Family Malpractice™ that can harm your family. Call him at his Mount Pleasant office today at 843-284-1021 to schedule a free consultation.