I’ve been scared to write this post. It could paint me a bit of a negative light depending on your stance on the issue. This post also touches on a legal case I was involved in. If I seem slightly vague at times, that’s why. This is the 100% real story of how I ended up taking home $100,000 that – by all accounts – I should not have had.
On my about page, in The Minimal Investor course and in a number of other places I refer back to my personal story of how I inherited $100,000 when my mom passed. It happened 3 months after I graduated college at age 23 just as I was starting life on my own. That influx of money led me down the road to investing and to where I am today.
Without that money, it’s unclear when I would have started taking investing seriously – if at all. What I haven’t mentioned is that it only happened due to a clerical error made by a financial institute. This wasn’t an accidental deposit into my account that I kept, but something a lot more complex.
To understand exactly what happened, you need a little more background about how estates work here in the United States when someone dies.
How Estates Work
The death of a family member is a tremendously trying time. I remember sobbing on the floor of my apartment bathroom when I received the call my mom had passed away. Without a doubt that was the saddest moment of my life. After spending weeks coming to terms with what happened, spending time with family and celebrating her life, I moved on to learning about the legalities of what happens next. As a 23-year-old with only a bank account and a 2-month 401k to my name, this was all new to me.
My mom was divorced and my dad lived out of state. I was an only child too – leaving the bulk of the work in my hands. Luckily my mom was a lawyer, after going to law school in her 40s. We had some lawyer friends who were able to help me handle the details.
All estates will appoint an executor to manage the distribution of funds from it. This is the person who will be handling the details, and be the point of contact for the estate. You can pay an expert to do this role, or take it on yourself with the help of a lawyer. I took this role on myself but heavily leaned on a lawyer with a flood of questions.
It turns out a lot needs to happen when someone passes away. After getting a death certificate, I was able to access her safety deposit box to get her will. After getting the will, I was able to set myself up as her representative. After setting myself up as her representative I was able to create a new entity, “Estate of Adam’s Mom”, with an EIN number and everything. Each of these steps took days and more time on the phone than I’d like to remember.
At that point, I was able to start acting “as her” and working through her existing finances.
How Debt Works When Someone Passes
This is a subject I didn’t know much about before. I started writing down every account my mom had – credit cards, loans, mortgages, savings, retirement, checking – everything. By creating an estate, the idea is that every debt would be paid from the estate, then whatever is left over would be passed on to heirs (which was just me in this case).
Debt Isn’t Passed On
Heirs are not liable for the debt – which is an extremely important thing to remember. If a person passes away with more debt than their assets can pay off, then that debt is not passed to their heirs. However, if the estate is managed negligently, they may be able to come after the heirs by claiming that the estate was mismanaged. This is why it’s important to work very closely with a lawyer to make sure everything is legal.
Debt itself does not get passed on – it stops with the person who accumulated the debt. Unless your name is on the account, you won’t liable for it. None of my mom’s debt was in my name, so as long as I followed the law, and did everything through the estate there would be no way for these creditors to come after me – they could only go after her estate.
Estates Include All Assets and Debt
An “estate” is a combination of all of the assets and all of the liabilities owned before death. A primary house itself does not qualify for this, and my mom was smart enough to list me as a co-owner of the house on top of that – which made the process even easier. It would include her car, jewelry and anything else inside the house that could be liquidated though.
The total liquid assets of the estate ended up being about $130,000, with debts of around $130,000 (not including the mortgage). If every creditor was to be paid, it would mean selling her car and paying every cent of debt she had.
It was somewhat a unique and unusual position that she had this much cash and this much debt. After going to law school, she racked up a ton of liabilities. When my grandma passed away, my mom inherited a tidy sum. Rather than putting it all straight to the debt, she started going on more vacations and otherwise enjoying life. The weekend before she passed, she was on a beach staycation enjoying herself.
What Happens When Debt Exceeds Funds?
This wasn’t the case for me, but if debt exceeds funds available (after liquidation), then each debt would be paid back with a proportion of the assets.
For example, assume someone passes away with $100,000 in total assets. Somehow they managed to rack up two large debts – $900,000 and $100,000. Obviously, you would not be able to pay off a $900,000 debt given the $100k in assets.
Instead, you would proportionally pay off the two debts – the $900k debt would get $90k and the $100k debt would get $10k. Neither would get paid back in full, but each would get a proportion of the estate based on their debt.
Notice to Creditors
How do creditors know when someone dies though? Is it the responsibility of the estate to notify every creditor? Luckily no. That wouldn’t be the best system. There could be other creditors who have a stake in the estate who aren’t known by the executor, and they wouldn’t get anything.
Instead, there’s a public wire called the “notice to creditors”. This is a broadcast that a person has passed and their estate is currently being reconciled. All creditors have a set amount of days from that moment to file a claim with the estate or forever hold their peace. Investopedia defines a notice to creditors as follows:
A public notice to the creditors and debtors of an estate. The notice to creditors is usually posted in the public newspaper. The notice requests all interested parties to appear in court and either present their claim or make their payment.
When my moms notice to creditors went out, we anxiously awaited which of her debts would contact us. We had previously notified all of the known creditors in order to try to work with them to lower the amount they requested from the estate. Most of them got back to us, but the largest one didn’t. We started the clock and waited for them to get back to us. And waited. And waited. Then time was up, and they hadn’t gotten back to us.
Closing An Estate
After that date had passed, I called to talk with my lawyer about the situation. I was completely dumbfounded. Had they really not gotten back to us on a $100,000 loan? Does that mean what I think it means? They confirmed my highest hopes – they missed their chance (!). The estate could be closed now, paying off debts to all creditors who had dutifully filed their responses.
Anyone who didn’t file in that window had no legal recourse against me, or the estate. We paid off the debt that was on the estate, and eventually dissolved the estate with all proceeds coming back to me.
It felt a little like I’d accidentally robbed a bank and was trying to quietly get away before anyone noticed. This happened 12 years ago now and is long past any statute of limitations, which gives me the confidence to finally write about it.
Things worked out in the end. I didn’t have to sell her car (which was a bright red Mini Cooper S by the way), I got to keep the money, and I learned how to invest it. Without this single failure by a financial institute, I doubt I’d be pursuing FI, and there would be no Minafi.
What’s Not Included Here
This was without a doubt the hardest year of my life. In addition to all of this estate crap, I was dealing with a deadbeat tenant who was taking this opportunity to not pay his rent. I was also driving 90 minutes home every weekend to sort through every possession of my mom’s life and decide which I wanted to keep. All this while trying to get the house up to code to be able to sell it.
This was a rough year. It took about 8 months to close the estate before I ever saw a $1 from it. During those 8 months, at age 24, I was paying my rent, my moms house, a lawyer and supporting a deadbeat tenant. I’m just lucky I had a decent paying job out of college.
So What Was the $100,000 Loan?
I’m going to skip writing about that one – except to say it would make a great Dee-1 song. I like to think my mom would’ve been happy with the way things worked out. 😉
All photos in this post (and many many more of my mom) were scanned in using my handy new scanner.