When the Inheritance You Left Isn’t Wanted

Janet Reno’s home/photo source: Miami Dade College

Janet Reno, the nation’s first-ever female attorney general, died a little over three years ago (on November 7, 2016) following a long battle with Parkinson’s disease. Ms. Reno was born and raised in a small cottage home her mother built with her own hands in the 1940’s in Miami, Florida. She spent much of her life there, including her last years with family and friends, and her home had special meaning to her. Little did Ms. Reno know that her childhood home would not be wanted by the university she left it to and her lack of a documented “plan b” would be the cause of family tension in the years following her death.

A Home with Historical Significance and Special Meaning

Janet’s modest family cottage sits on wooded property on the edge of the Everglades. The site, which covers around four acres, and the home at its center, can be reached by a dirt road, and is completely screened off from view by thickets of trees and vegetation. Janet had memories from growing up with her two journalist parents, her two younger brothers, and her younger sister. She cherished her memories and learned a great deal of life lessons there, describing the house as the “launching pad for her career” and “her emotional touchstone.”

Janet Planned Ahead for Her Beloved Home

Janet Reno had Parkinson’s Disease, an irreversible degenerative disease, for 20 years before she died. Parkinson’s currently affects 930,000 Americans and causes shakiness, slowness of movement, and limb rigidity, seriously affecting a person’s quality of life. There is no cure for Parkinson’s and it only gets worse, robbing those affected of their motor skills, such as their ability to speak clearly, to walk, and to swallow. Janet wisely had her estate planning documents in order well before her disease progressed and she passed away.

What Janet Specified in her Estate Planning

Janet never married or had any children. Her revocable trust listed her brothers first as beneficiaries for her assets (they both predeceased her), followed by her seven nieces and nephews. She named her nephew, James Hurchalla, as her successor trustee. Her estate plan specifically bequeathed the above-mentioned property to the University of Miami, on the condition that it would preserve the property and keep it as-is and undeveloped. The will describes the property as a “unique parcel of real estate with historical importance.” The problem was that the University of Miami did not want the house and was unwilling to make the preservation commitment, due to the projected cost to maintain the property. Yet, Janet had failed to include any alternative arrangements for the property in her Will.

Another Institution Was Chosen for the Property

As successor trustee, James Hurchalla took it upon himself to identify another even closer charitable, educational institution, Miami Dade College, which accepted the property and Ms. Reno’s conditions. The change was brought to court, and the court ruled that “(t)he University of Miami’s declination to accept the charitable transfer made the original disposition impossible to achieve.” The judge stated that “(t)he successor trustee identified an even closer charitable, educational institution to accept the gift and to comply fully with Ms. Reno’s conditions ‘in perpetuity,’ respecting the ‘unique character’ and ‘historical importance’ of the Reno homestead.” The court approved his request to gift the property to Miami-Dade University.

Janet Reno’s Relative Appeals Decision

One of Ms. Reno’s nieces, Janet M. Reno, disagreed with Hurchalla’s choice to gift the property to another institution and appealed the decision of the court, disputing the court’s interpretation of language in the trust. Since the Will didn’t specifically say that the home and the land could be donated to a different university, she thought it should be sold and the proceeds be divided among all the nieces and nephews, as was the case with the other assets. She lost her case when the appeals court ruled that “(w)hen her (Janet Reno’s) originally designated charitable donee [the University of Miami] for the Reno homestead rejected the terms of the bequest after Ms. Reno’s death, the successor trustee and other family members sought to effectuate Ms. Reno’s charitable intent through the transfer of the Reno homestead to nearby Miami Dade College instead of the University of Miami. We affirm the final judgment authorizing that transfer.”

What We Can Learn from Ms. Reno’s Situation

Considerable trouble and expense might have been spared if Ms. Reno and her attorneys checked with the University of Miami first to see if they would want the property and/or specify in the documents what should happen if the university declined the property. Reno should have also updated the estate planning documents after her brothers passed away, to avoid any confusion that may have caused.

If you want to be sure your wishes are carried out with a minimum of family strife and court intervention, remember to include a plan B and update your estate planning documents at least every five years, or sooner if a change such as those listed below has occurred with you, your spouse, or anyone else named in your documents:

• Serious illness, disability or incapacity, or death;
• Marriage or divorce;
• Birth of a child or grandchild;
• Divorce or separation.

Other events that should cause you to re-examine your documents include:

• One of your beneficiaries develops a drug or alcohol problem;
• The value of your assets has significantly increased or decreased;
• You acquire property in a different state;
• You move to a different state;
• You retire or change employment;
• One of your beneficiaries shows signs of being financially irresponsible;
• There have been changes in the law that may affect the language of your documents.

Make Sure Your Estate Planning Documents Are Always Up-to-Date

If you have already had your estate planning documents completed by our firm, call us and be sure to ask about the Farr Law Firm’s Lifetime Protection Program®, which ensures that your documents are properly reviewed and updated as needed, so that they will always have the proper effect under the law.
If you or members of your family have not done Incapacity Planning or Estate Planning, or if a loved one needs nursing home care or even if your loved one is already in a nursing home, please contact us as soon as possible to make an appointment for a no-cost initial consultation:

Estate Planning Fairfax: 703-691-1888
Estate Planning Fredericksburg: 540-479-1435
Estate Planning Rockville: 301-519-8041
Estate Planning DC: 202-587-2797

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