The importance of fact-finding and naming heirs

My client was a business owner in his 80s with four children. After he died and we were going through probate, the attorney took me by surprise when he said the client actually had five children. There was another child born outside the marriage who had to be included.

When you name specific children as beneficiaries, it’s easy. But when you simply put, as it was in this case, that half goes to the wife and the rest is split among “the children,” you have to research if there are more children than the ones you know about.

This is actually the second time this has happened to me. Almost 20 years ago, a client who was married with three children, all minors, passed away at an early age due to a heart attack. We found out in the claim process there was a fourth minor child, born of an affair, and by Louisiana law, that child was entitled to a share of the assets. It took quite a few years in court before it was finally settled.

When you’re filling out a beneficiary form, you should not just put “the children.” You should list all the children by name, or it could have unintended consequences.

What I do now is make sure we have updated beneficiary information and not name a general class like “the children,” unless it’s specifically what the client wants.

It’s tough to ask a married couple while they’re both sitting there, “Are there any children out there your spouse doesn’t know about?” The chance of you getting an answer at that point is slim.

Now I usually say, “Are there any other children from a previous marriage or any other family members we should be concerned about?” Sometimes it has to be asked in private. Try to ask as many open-ended questions as possible and if a situation does come up, hopefully the client will bring it up to you.

Michael Austin has been an MDRT member since 1994 and is from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, USA. He’s also a Court of the Table qualifier.

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