Q: My mother was recently diagnosed with late stage cancer. Two years ago, she divorced her husband and remarried. Before remarrying, she placed her divorce settlement in a savings account with me (her only child) as the sole beneficiary. My mother’s new husband is not named on the account and the money was all hers before they married. My mother wants me to get all the money in this account. Does she need a will to state this or is me being the sole beneficiary enough? Does her new husband have any claim to the money? How does she make sure that her wishes are carried out? (Greentree, PA)
A: I am sorry to hear about your mother’s diagnosis. If you are a named beneficiary, the money passes to you upon the death of your mother and does not become estate/probate property and therefore does not pass to the heirs in her will. In Pennsylvania, her estate or you, depending on how the will reads, would pay inheritance tax on this. In Pennsylvania, a spouse who believes he or she was disinherited by the will, or not left enough money by the will, can challenge the will by “electing” to take against the will. This election must be filed in the Register of Wills within 6 months of death or 6 months of probate. This means the disgruntled surviving spouse who elects to do so, may choose to not inherit through the will but instead take a percentage, one-third, of certain non-probate assets. The PA statute on this is arcane and convoluted and difficult to understand. If you think it is a possibility that your stepfather would challenge your mother’s will, you may want to consult with an attorney now. The attorney would need to know the extent of your mother’s present assets and do the math on what potentially her husband would be entitled to under PA law. Keep in mind that as your mother owns this account, you have no right to it while she is alive, and she may liquidate it as needed to pay for her care as her needs increase with age.