A few years ago, Belgian urban explorer and photographer, Maikal Goossens, released haunting images of the abandoned Chȃteau de la Forȇt. His pictures showed the elegant but decaying skeleton of a once-stately home, cluttered with ruined and broken furniture. According to many on the internet, the Chȃteau now rests unoccupied because the last title holder, the Count d’Ursel Aymard, left the sprawling country estate to multiple beneficiaries. And that now, they who stood to inherit cannot decide who will take residence in the Chȃteau.
Regardless of whether this telling of history holds a single grain of truth, it stands to warn of a potential estate planning pitfall: the danger of leaving bequests of real property to multiple beneficiaries.
A parental or familial bequest of real property to children may seem like a generous inheritance gift; the inherent value of bricks and mortar can represent a significant transfer of wealth from one generation to another. However, beneficiaries of different ages, financial fitness, and personality may want to treat a property differently. The idea of leaving the family home or cottage to multiple beneficiaries should conjure up the same image as asking two sisters to share grandmother’s pearls – the thing can be worn by only one at any given time. A recipe for hardship.
When real property is left to multiple beneficiaries, those beneficiaries must decide together how to treat the property. Maybe the beneficiaries can decide that the property should be sold and proceeds split, or retained and used for shared personal use or rental income. In any event, they all must decide what to do.
Testators should consider whether or not this is the type of situation they want their Wills to spawn. If it is the testator’s intention that a piece of real property be kept within the family, maybe a trust is the appropriate vehicle to provide for future generations. In the alternative, the property may be of more sentimental value to one beneficiary than others and the estate could be better balanced with a mixture of cash and real property bequests to different beneficiaries.
Estate planning is a highly personalized endeavor, and plans can be tailored to take advantage of tax considerations and to trump family politics. There is no reason to let a well-intentioned gift turn into the apple of discord. If you do not think ahead, you risk creating your own Chȃteau de la Forȇt.
The author would like to thank Doug Letto for his contribution to this blog.