Financial mistakes can haunt estate executors

Two chores that most people will gladly put off are writing a will and keeping it up to date to reflect changed circumstances. However, when you do get around to writing and revising your will, consider carefully when you select or replace an executor—the legal term for the person who is the key figure in the settlement of your estate.

The executor’s job is a potentially time-consuming and demanding position that requires a lot more work than many people realize. An executor has to perform four major functions.

The first chore is to assemble and value assets. It can be a formidable task to put together records of such assets as bank accounts and automobiles; loans to family members or others; traditional and Roth IRAs, 401(k)s and other retirement plans at work; brokerage accounts; mutual funds; insurance policies; and other property like real estate, jewelry or artworks. Add to that list gathering information about mortgages and other debts, tax returns and the location of safe-deposit boxes.

The next responsibility for executors is to pay all bills and charges, a task that often requires professional help, as it includes the timely filing of returns for federal estate taxes and state inheritance taxes, final income taxes for the deceased and current income taxes for the estate, as well as payment of those levies.

After executors have valued assets and paid bills, they are able to distribute what is left of the property in accordance with the will.

Their final responsibility is to submit an accounting to the court (usually designated probate and sometimes called orphan’s or surrogate’s) for everything that they have done.

Many executors have learned the hard way that they are not off the hook for mistakes just because they rely on the counsel of attorneys, accountants or other professional advisers. When something goes wrong with, say, federal taxes, the IRS bills the executors, because they are personally responsible when assets are distributed and taxes remain unpaid or forms are filed late.

The need to obtain proper tax advice was made expensively clear to the son and daughter-in-law of Henry Lammerts, who had designated them as his executors. On Lammerts’  death, his son took over leadership in settling the estate. Although under the impression that a tax return had to be filed for his father, the son was unaware that it was also necessary to file an income-tax return for the estate. This is where matters stood until his accountant discovered that no return had been filed reporting income received by the estate. The filing was eventually made seven months after the due date.

The IRS assessed a sizable late-filing penalty and the usual interest charges. The executors argued that they were new at this sort of thing and had relied on their accountant and the estate’s lawyer to do whatever was necessary.

But the accountant, in his own defense, testified that there was nothing in his past services to the family to suggest that, on his own initiative, he would have to file an income-tax return for the estate. Similarly, the estate’s lawyer pointed out that neither of the executors had asked him for a rundown of the responsibilities attached to being an executor. Consequently, the Second Circuit Court of Appeals upheld imposition of the penalty.

Julian Block is a syndicated columnist, attorney and former IRS investigator. He is on the Web at

The emotional landmines of family caregiving

Most families squabble. After a short cooling-off period, relatives tend to resolve spats and go on with their individual lives. But there are situations that make it difficult to restore harmony. For example, when an elderly loved one breaks a hip, suffers from dementia, a stroke or other disabling illness, spouses and adult children can become unglued. The frailty and dependence of a loved one often ignites emotional landmines, stirs up old family issues and uncovers personality traits best left buried.

Sibling Rivalry

A common situation goes like this: Sis worries that increasing forgetfulness threatens her mother’s safety. Her brother, on the other hand, argues that a few Post-It note reminders placed around mom’s home will remedy any “senior moments” she may have.

Sis replies, “You haven’t seen the burnt pots and pans left unattended on the stove.”

He comes back with “You are overreacting.”

Both want the best for their mother, but their competitiveness gets in the way of their ability to execute a plan. Each one is trying to prove that they are the smartest, most reasonable and the supreme problem-solver. Sibling rivalry never dies.

The siblings’ time would be better spent asking their mother what she prefers. Does mom want to remain in her home in the face of growing difficulties? Most seniors do. An assessment by a professional geriatric care manager (who is not a relative) would lay the groundwork for a plan to keep mom safe in her own home or, if that’s not wise, help the family find a more suitable living arrangement. For an explanation of what a geriatric care manager does and the location of one near you, visit

The Golden-Haired Child

A painful situation for the primary caregiver occurs when another close relative does little or nothing to help, but they are adored and praised by the senior anyway. This frequently triggers resentment in the mentally and physically exhausted primary caregiver.

Keeping uninvolved relatives in the loop about medical conditions, treatments and finances increases the likelihood of their involvement. At the very least, it prevents later complaints that “nobody told me” or “I’d have never agreed to that had I’d known.”

It’s infuriating when others don’t do their share, but ultimately you can’t force people to do anything they don’t want to do. In the long run, you are better off not spending time stewing, a practice that results in more anger, bitterness and family feuds.

Before throwing in the towel, get together a family conference where the topic for discussion is “sharing the caring.” Generally, people are more willing to participate when they can contribute in a way that’s comfortable for them. Not everyone is willing or able to do hands-on care. Some relatives might have the know-how to help with figuring out and managing health benefits or home repairs or be willing to accompany the elder to doctor appointments.

The Scrooge

The Scrooge is the family member who skimps on or neglects care. I recall a daughter who petitioned the court and was granted the conservatorship of her severely demented mother. The siblings welcomed the newfound kindness of their previously self-centered sister. Then the daughter moved their mother to an unlicensed, below-standard “cheap” facility far away from other family members. Soon, she began to mishandle her mother’s finances.

Most Scrooges simply want to preserve their inheritance or “get it early.”

If the older woman (when she was still well) had executed a living will or designated an ethical person to be her durable power of attorney for health care and for financial decisions, the Scrooge may never have been able to take over her mother’s care for her own gain.

These documents can be downloaded and are explained online at

The Long-Distance Denier

Some relatives are well-meaning, but distance is an obstacle. In this group there are also a large number of deniers who insist that nothing is wrong with mom or pop. Almost as bad are the bossy long-distance relatives who issue inappropriate and unsolicited “advice.”

Two solutions come to mind. First, discover what the distant person is willing to do from their own home. For example, research medications, health conditions, locate resources online, or provide emotional support via telephone or even financial support. Second, invite a denier to eldersit so the caregiver can take a break. A few days of duty may open their eyes to the “true picture.”

The Sandwiched Caregiver

Some caregivers are squeezed between caring for an elderly parent and parenting a teenager. Every hour spent on eldercare represents an hour unavailable for children. The bane of the sandwiched caregiver is guilt. No matter how much they have done, they always feel they could have done more. Even worse is the guilt experienced when their frustration and exhaustion result in angry words directed at their spouse, teenager or even the older family member.

One solution is to include the entire family in eldercare. For instance, children usually love assisting with grandpa’s exercise. They can count the repetitions and cheer grandpa on. Teenage girls may get a kick out of doing grandma’s nails. Such activities lighten the caregiving load and help young people develop compassion.

Joining a support group is an ideal way to cope. To find a support group near you, start with the Alzheimer’s Association at (800) 272-3900 or

The Overburdened

The overburdened are easily identified because the people they are caring for look better than they do. Overburdened caregivers are more inclined to have depressive illness, flare-ups of their own medical conditions and a higher mortality rate than those who are not caregivers.

The good news is that caregivers who choose their battles wisely, recognize that eldercare does not have to be perfect, and tend to their own health needs are able to provide better and longer care of their loved ones. While eldercare is often a thankless job, many caregivers report tremendous satisfaction when they reflect on the care they provided during the last years or months of their loved one’s life.

The Super Caregiver

The classic “Super Caregiver” is an adult child or spouse who refuses offers of help, saying, “No one can do it better than I can.”

Cutting someone out of will can leave a legacy of pain

Steve Kaplan had just finished sitting shiva for his mother when he was dealt another blow: He had been written out of her will.

No written explanation. Not a word.

He was shocked, having believed his entire life that he and his mother were close. Kaplan (not his real name) was left to grapple with the implications of his exclusion.

Had he done something wrong? Did he offend her in some way she wouldn’t — and now couldn’t — reveal to him?

His mother’s estate passed exclusively to his brother, his mother’s sole caretaker, Kaplan said.

The betrayal left Kaplan with an open wound that would be difficult to heal. “It’s not the money,” said Kaplan, who is still haunted by his mother’s omission.

While some might find Kaplan’s experience shocking, it’s not entirely uncommon. A last will and testament often brings closure to familial points of contention. But when someone makes dramatic changes to a will or trust, like deleting mention of a person entirely, it can leave deep, lasting scars when the final document is officially read.

Often, such an alienated relative is befuddled, questioning past memories of good times. Families can be ripped apart by revived sibling rivalries and jealousies.

“These people feel immense hurt and rejection,” said Dr. David Falk, a clinical psychologist who specializes in bereavement issues. “It can create a sense of bitterness … and can hurt families for generations.”

Falk said that when a child is written out of a parent’s will, it implies either a lack of trust in that child or insinuates some other kind of personality problem in a person. That leaves someone vulnerable to be hurt even deeper, he said, generating shame and anger.

“To blindside somebody with a swipe at the end of life leaves a legacy of pain,” Falk said.

He urges families to work through disputes while everybody is still available to be angry about it, talk it out, reason with it and come to an understanding.

Rabbi Andrew Rosenblatt of Schara Tzedeck Congregation, an Orthodox synagogue in Vancouver, Canada, pointed out that while it is not technically a violation of Jewish law to show favoritism to one child over another, it is considered unwise.

“The general principle is gadol hashalom, drawing from Yaakov, that ill fate awaits a family that favors one child,” said Rosenblatt, alluding to the story of Yaakov’s son, Joseph, who was favored by his father, thus causing great enmity between the brothers.

Rosenblatt believes that it is improper to write out a close family member from a will and urges people to heal their problems so that they don’t get passed on through legal documents.

“Those who have disputes with their children that are so intense as to want to disinherit the child that was fed and nursed from birth, might want to find a good counselor who can help them work through their dispute,” he said.

Rosenblatt added that when drawing up such documents, family relationships should be considered first, because relationships cannot be salvaged after death. Money, he said, should be secondary.

Kaplan said he’ll likely never know why his 62-year relationship with his mother ended without closure. Instead, he urges others who intend to write someone out of a will or trust to at least provide an explanation in the document.

“This way, the person understands why and isn’t just dangling with many different thoughts,” Kaplan said.

Soriya Daniels is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia.

‘Undue influence’ is dangerous form of elder abuse

A woman in her 70s has a sizable estate acquired from a lifetime of hard work and smart investments. Lonely and overly trusting, she falls prey to a much younger man who persuades her to sign over her assets to him.

A frail widower hires an attractive housekeeper to help him with various household tasks. She eventually sweet talks him into giving her large gifts of money to pay for nursing school, clear her debts and pay for her mother’s operation.

The elders in these scenarios do not have dementia. Most courts would find them competent. How then are they bamboozled into losing what has taken a lifetime to accumulate? These examples of financial abuse (a form of elder abuse) occurred because of an insidious process called undue influence.

The perpetrators use various techniques and manipulations to gain power and compliance, exploiting the trust, dependency and fear of older adults. Over time, the perpetrators gain control over the decision making of their unwitting victims.

Anyone can be unduly influenced, including the stressed, ill, sleep deprived, lonely or frightened of any age, but the elderly are particularly at risk because of failing health, isolation and a tendency to trust. Margaret Singer, an expert on cults, brainwashing and persuasion, pinpointed several factors that perpetrators commonly use to groom potential victims.

These include:

  • Isolation from others. Telling the victim she was abandoned by her relatives and cutting off outside communication by telling visitors or callers that the senior does not want to see or talk to them.
  • Building a siege mentality. Making the victim believe that enemies (including health care providers and family members) are lurking everywhere. They convince their victims that these “enemies” are going to take away their houses, pensions and Social Security, and that they are going to put them in nursing homes.
  • Fostering dependency. They create the fiction that the influencer is the only trustworthy person and the only one who cares about the older person.
  • Creating a sense of powerlessness. Slowly but surely, the influencer persuades the senior that only they have the power to do anything to help the elder.
  • Making the senior fearful by exaggerating their illnesses and disabilities.

The perpetrator treats the elder more and more fragilely, exaggerating their ailments.

Who Are the Perpetrators?

Unfortunately, individuals who prey on vulnerable seniors are often the proverbial wolf in sheep’s clothing. They may appear to be warm, sympathetic and selfless friends, caregivers and even family members, but they are not. Their numbers include:

  • Psychopaths or sociopaths, who get wind of the money, resolve to go after it and have no conscience about committing financial abuse.
  • Individuals with character defects whose greed is an overriding motivation.
  • People who perceive themselves as entitled to the money. They feel that they deserve to have the elder’s money or assets because their own lives have been fraught with hardship or because the older person wasn’t as appreciative of them as they should be.

What Can You Do?

Family, neighbors, friends and professionals who come in contact with older people can help in the following ways:

  • Check that the elder’s health and nutritional needs are being taken care of. A perpetrator may try to weaken an elder’s will by getting the senior to discontinue medications, neglect their health and eat poorly.
  • Keep the elder socially involved. The best insurance is for the older person to stay connected to relatives and people who they have known for a long time. Senior centers and social service programs are also excellent resources.
  • Provide the elder with information about undue influence and unscrupulous people who prey on senior citizens. Urge them to be careful.
  • Advise anyone who has contact with seniors to be on the lookout for signs that someone is attempting to control the elderly person for their own gain.

Should you suspect that an elder is a victim of undue influence, as soon as possible put every detail and all dates down in writing. States vary on abuse reporting requirements and procedures. However, each state has a service designated to receive and investigate allegations of elder abuse. The Eldercare Locator is a federal agency that will provide a referral to the proper agency for the area that the elder lives in.

Reporting suspicions of financial abuse via undue influence to the appropriate authority will begin an investigation and may prevent financial ruin or at least bring a halt to the elder’s suffering.

For more information, call (800) 677-1116 or visit

Spectator – The Theme Park Without a Prayer

Bible Storyland must have a guardian angel. Dissolution by the clergy, dormancy for 45 years and a fatal fire were not powerful enough to erase the plans for this Bible-based theme park from history.

And now, art collector Harvey Jordan is working to inform Californians about this piece of their past in a new exhibition at the University of Judaism titled, “Dream Parks: Artwork From the Bible Storyland Theme Park.”

Nearly five decades have elapsed since Nat Winecoff, former Disney promoter and theme park developer, conceived of a $15 million Bible story-based Disneyland-esque place, which he planned to build on 220 acres of land in Cucamonga (now Rancho Cucamonga). Investors included actor Jack Haley and Donald Duncan of Yo-Yo and modern-day parking meter fame. However, the clergy allegedly quashed the idea and Bible Storyland was never erected.

More than 200 drawings and watercolor paintings of Winecoff’s brainchild, created by former Disney artist Bruce Bushman and a handful of other artists, remained after the deal went sour. Another art collector purchased the artwork from Winecoff’s estate and kept it holed up in his apartment until he and his possessions perished in a fire. Miraculously, 50 paintings of Bible Storyland survived the blaze.

Bible Storyland was a unique concept that mingled Disneyland-type family-oriented rides and attractions with biblical stories. A press release issued in 1960 described the plans at length.

To be constructed in the shape of a heart, Bible Storyland would have included different “lands,” each with its own theme, tied to either pre-Christian times, the Bible or the New Testament. Parkgoers would arrive at a Star of David garden and could then saunter through the Garden of Eden and visit Adam and Eve. Visitors could also venture to Israel and ride animals through Noah’s Ark Carousel, explore the inside of the whale with Jonah and watch Moses on Mount Sinai. Other locales would have included ancient Egypt, Babylon and Rome, as well as Ur, where Abraham began his journey to the Promised Land.

Jordan has assumed the role of promoter and savior of the history of Bible Storyland.

“I am now the holder of Bible Storyland,” he said. “From what I understand, I have the rest of the drawings and nobody else has kept them alive or written about it.”

The art can be seen at the Borstein Gallery at the University of Judaism through Aug. 20. 15600 Mulholland Drive, Bel Air. For more information, call (310) 440-1201 or visit

A School or a Shul?

Administrators at Yeshivat Yavneh knew that the “No Trespassing” signs wouldn’t go over well with neighbors, especially the ones who used to run their dogs on the plush green stretch that fronts the Third Street main entrance to the Orthodox day school.

But about two years ago they felt they had no choice.

Neighbors had been seen standing outside of Yavneh on Shabbat videotaping everyone who entered, to see whether Yavneh was violating permit stipulations limiting who can pray there on Saturdays. The videotaping was an affront both to the school’s religious sensibilities and to its sense of security.

To neighbors, the “No Trespassing” signs are yet another indication that the school has no desire to fit in.

Yavneh moved into the Tudor estate, which formerly housed the Whittier Law School, in 1999. The school has about 400 students in preschool through eighth grade, and insists it has worked hard to foster a good relationship with neighbors. But things have soured in the last few years, as Yavneh tests the strict limitations of its conditional-use permit.

One clause in that permit states that Yavneh may hold prayer services for its students as part of their religious education. Yavneh interpreted that to mean that the school could hold Shabbat services, on the weekend, for students and their families.

Neighbors say Yavneh has, in effect, established a full-service congregation — one that serves more than just students and their immediate families.

Yavneh maintains that nearly all of the 100-150 people who attend services on a regular Shabbat are students and their family members. At the same time, however, the school plans to request a permit change also allowing board members, alumni and others associated with Yavneh to daven there, but to cap the total number at 300. The current permit does not stipulate a limit. In addition, Yavneh will ask the Zoning Board to approve an 8-foot perimeter fence for general security in this post-Sept./11 world.

The Hancock Park Homeowners Association has come out against these requests, asking that Yavneh meet the original permit conditions.

Meanwhile, Rabbi Daniel Korobkin, the head of Yavneh, is meeting regularly with neighbors, part of a conciliation effort by both sides.


Thinking Ahead

My attorney, Irwin Goldring, is a wise man. Never pushy, never alarming. Fifty years in estate planning, you learn something about people.

"Hey, for me this is just a questionnaire," he tells me. "For you, it’s something more."

I’ll say. Irwin has sent me two legal forms stating when and who can act on my behalf, if need be. All I have to do is make choices, name names. I call these "thinking ahead" forms, a way of facing now what I might not later on. Five times he tells me, "May these forms never be needed."

Still, even hypothetically, it’s not so simple. How do I feel about life-sustaining technology? At what point, if ever, would food and water be a form of futile prolonging of life?

And what about hope? For loved ones, does it ever end? But would I want them to wait forever? Under what circumstances would I stop hoping to be "healed" and desire only kindness and care?

"I want to live my life with dignity and for my loved ones to have pleasant memories of my final days," reads the form called "advanced health care directive." Yes, indeed.

It’s not lung cancer, or at least not cancer alone, which gives these matters their urgency. It’s living. You’d think that as a middle-aged woman, I’d have faced it before: life’s a crapshoot. But reading Irwin’s forms, I try to imagine the potential decisions my legal designees might have to make on my behalf, and my heart is filled with gratitude, well in advance. May their judgment never be needed.

Can we talk about death? It sure is asking a lot. It’s easier to discuss sex, or money, or God — all famous sources of argument, disagreement and despair, but whose province lies squarely in life.

My husband, whose 15th yarhzeit I mark this week, denied the possibility of death, even from his hospital room. Never once uttered the word. Macho, maybe. Self-contained, perhaps. Fearful, certainly.

He continued to practice law from his bedside briefcase, between bouts of heart failure. He made out a will for his personal property. But he protested all the way. The subject was depressing, he said. It implied a lack of confidence in his immortality.

Now it’s my turn. My husband’s choice is not mine. I have my motives for talking about death here and now.

First, maybe I can be like the biblical Isaac, who grabs hold of his terrors of dying, prematurely blesses his sons and then lives a good, long time. Isaac knew that one way to get beyond anxiety is to deal with it.

Second, I want you, dear readers, to talk to each other about the Big D.

We are living in such a high-tech age, in which confusion over end-of-life issues grows by the day. Ignoring the challenge does not help. Yet vulnerability keeps us silent. Facing end-of-life issues, we know exactly how little we know.

These forms are important insurance against fate. The ancients feared death, as the Psalmist writes, "on that day his plans come to nothing." But we moderns rightly fear death in the midst of life. We cannot solve this by denial, and must be ready with surrogates to protect us against life on a tube.

For Jews across the denominational spectrum, the spiritual challenge can become intense. What is God’s will? Have I a right to prolong or shorten life by providing an antibiotic or refusing a respirator? Where there is no right and wrong, an open heart and clear thinking can go a long way.

I am sitting in the park with my friend, Dr. Ken Leeds. For 10 years, Leeds was on a Cedars-Sinai bioethics committee, applying Jewish values to end-of-life issues.

"Where things go wrong," Leeds tells me, "is when people don’t talk to each other. If there’s a disagreement in understanding what the patient wants, it leads to trouble." In the absence of agreement, the doctor is often put in the middle, opting to maintain life against the patient’s desire. It can turn ugly.

None of us should be alone in these difficult decisions. End the death taboo. Do not expect to have all the answers at once, but do get started. Get your forms in order. Talk to a rabbi. Talk to your children. Start the conversation. Discussion brings light.

And may your plans, once resolved, never be needed.