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It’s Only Money

David Gartland

MY FATHER DIED WHEN I was 15 years old. My mother didn’t work outside the house, so we now had no money coming in. She eventually got a job as a receptionist in the local hospital’s X-ray department, but she only worked weekends and holidays. Meanwhile, by then, my older brother was married and out of the house, so he wasn’t affected by this change in our family’s financial circumstances.

As I saw it, no money coming in—or relatively little—meant poverty, and I considered us poor. I didn’t want to live in poverty, so wealth became my overriding goal. But my view of our family’s financial circumstances wasn’t shared by my mother or brother. While my mother often used the phrase “we can’t afford that,” she didn’t mean that we had no money and she didn’t behave as though we were poor. Rather, she just didn’t want to spend money on the item in question.

It wasn’t until years later that I found out why my mother and brother didn’t consider us poor. As it turns out, my father had purchased a group life insurance policy with a $500,000 death benefit.

Why was this kept from me? I don’t know, but it was. Through my teenage and early adult years, I felt I needed to help out as best I could. I got part-time jobs in high school and college. My goal was to never be a financial burden to my mother.

Fast forward to 2007. My mother died. My brother and I were co-executors and co-beneficiaries of my mother’s estate. My status as executor was only established two years earlier, when my brother had my mother’s will rewritten while she was in the hospital.

At the time of my mother’s death, my 64-year-old brother, his 63-year-old wife and his 35-year-old son were living in my mother’s house. None of them was employed and, at that point, there was a lien on my brother’s assets. My brother was the agent under my mother’s power of attorney, and had access to all of her finances and paperwork. None of this was disclosed to me prior to her passing nor afterwards.

My mother’s estate consisted of her house, 50% ownership of a summer home in West Virginia, and some stocks and oil well royalties. The value of these items wasn’t disclosed to me. But by reviewing my mother’s prior income tax returns, I determined that my brother and I weren’t set to receive some great family fortune.

My thought was to liquidate everything and divide by two. That wasn’t my brother’s thought. Because of the dismal state of the housing market in 2007, my brother believed it best to wait for the market to improve. That made sense to me.

But my brother also thought that—if I put up some money to make improvements to the house—it would increase the home’s value and I’d recover my investment when the house was sold. This wasn’t the first time that my brother had wanted me to finance one of his plans. The house strategy might have made sense for someone who’d demonstrated an ability to make money by flipping homes. But my brother hadn’t demonstrated any such skill. In fact, he hadn’t owned a home since 1987, so I didn’t see this as a sensible investment for me.

From that point on, the settlement of the estate went from bad to worse. My mother’s house and all her records were on Long Island, New York, and I lived with my wife and son in New Jersey. Handling any financial matters was difficult. On top of that, my brother wasn’t sharing information with me.

Early on, I received some advice from an estate attorney I hired when it became apparent that it would be my brother versus me. The attorney’s advice was to work it out with my brother. He knew of numerous costly court settlements that would have been avoided if the parties had just agreed to settle on their own. But my brother wasn’t willing to negotiate. He had his plan and was going to proceed.

I loved my brother. I also love money. But luckily, by this point, I had money. I would love to have more, but that wasn’t necessary, so I decided the estate was just money. I wouldn’t spend money on attorney’s fees to chase the money that was potentially available to me. This made decisions easy. I would only spend money on necessary expenses.

The result was that I received 50% of the house’s sale price after putting up no money of my own, except required county fees. The value had diminished after a large oak tree fell on the roof in 2012 when Hurricane Sandy hit the New York area. My brother and his family were living in the house at the time, but were uninjured. They were forced to move out, however, when the town condemned the house. We eventually sold the house in 2021 for far less than we could have received.

The problem: My brother hadn’t kept up the homeowner’s insurance—which meant the tree sat on top of the leaky roof for many years because money from the estate wasn’t available to remove it. When my mother was 90 years old, my brother had convinced her to take out a home-equity loan on her mortgage-free house. (Don’t ask.) The only homeowner’s insurance on the house was the policy required by the bank who held the loan and it was only for the loan amount.

My brother negotiated with the bank to accept the insurance as full payment for the loan. After that, the estate owned the house free and clear, except for the unpaid property taxes. Meanwhile, the West Virginia property was taken away by the other 50% owner—my cousin—after the estate failed to pay our share of the property’s upkeep. This was fine by me. I had planned to give my share to my cousin after we settled the estate.

My brother died on Christmas 2022. The estate still hasn’t been formally settled.

My advice to others who find themselves in a similar situation: Decide how much the estate is worth and how important the money is. Peace with family is also important—and much easier when money is removed from the equation.

David Gartland was born and raised on Long Island, New York, and has lived in central New Jersey since 1987. He earned a bachelor’s degree in math from the State University of New York at Cortland and holds various professional insurance designations. Dave’s property and casualty insurance career with different companies lasted 42 years. He’s been married 36 years, and has a son with special needs. Dave has identified three areas of interest that he focuses on to enjoy retirement: exploring, learning and accomplishing. Pursuing any one of these leads to contentment. His previous articles were My Unemployed Life and Failure Is Not Final.

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