Question: My mom just died.  Her will leaves everything equally to my sister and me. But, my Mom and I held a joint account together.  This sizable account does not pass through her will.  I am being told the account is now mine.  I don’t know if this was Mom’s intention, or if she wanted me to split this with my sister.  How should I proceed?

Answer: Parents often hold assets jointly with one child as a matter of convenience.  Joint ownership allowed you to help Mom with her accounts while she was alive, and creates a probate avoidance situation.  You have direct access to the money regardless of your Mom’s death.  But, ask yourself: did your Mom intend for things to stop there, or did she want you to split them with your sister?

You may not have an immediate legal obligation to share your assets with your sister.  But, she may be able to file a lawsuit, seeking half of the jointly held account.  Her argument will rely upon limited provable evidence, such as written language in her will or elsewhere.  Clauses are often used in a will to confirm a parent’s intentions regarding jointly held assets.

This clause may not be enforceable on its own, but is valuable as evidence in a larger lawsuit.  Obviously, your Mom is not available as the key witness to determine her intentions.  Many folks resolve these issues on a moral basis – vs. a legal one.

You know your Mom, and your sister, better than most.  You and your sister will need to live with each other for years to come.  If holding the funds to yourself creates a lifelong rift with your sister, assess your personal losses against your financial gains.  Also, consider the cost of defending against a potential lawsuit from your sister.

Attorney James Haroutunian practices real-estate law, estate planning and probate at 790 Boston Road, Billerica. He gladly invites questions at james@hlawoffice.com or by phone at 978-671-0711. His website blog is found at www.hlawoffice.com and prioritylaw.com.

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