Settling Estate Disputes – Babci Style

by Sandy L on October 3, 2010

My dad died when I was 14 and it wasn’t without it’s drama.  You see, he had recurring chest pains and stopped working for good when I was about 9.  When I was 12 and his health insurance ran out, he emptied our bank accounts and went back to Poland.  He never liked America from day 1.  When his disability insurance ran out, he decided it was finally time to go back to the mother country.  Back in the 80’s, you could build a pretty amazing house on a nice plot of land for a few thousand dollars.

The Years Before Dad’s Death

For 2 years after that, my mother literally sent over every extra penny she had to him.  Anytime her bank account hit $500, she emptied it and sent it to him. Now, when he emptied the bank accounts the first time, he also took anything of value as well. For example, I had some gold jewelry that my godparents gave me when I was born and he took it. In fact, I’m surprised he didn’t take my mom’s gold wedding ring from her.  The money he took back with him was enough cash to live comfortably in Poland for over 10 years (a dollar went a long way back then), let alone the thousands she was sending him.  Well, we soon learned that he was gambling and drinking it all away.

It was tough love time. I told my mother she had to stop sending him money. She told me she didn’t care about the money. She just wanted him to stay in Poland and for her to stay in America. It was worth it to her to send him the money so he wouldn’t come back. We had no emergency fund. We were already below poverty level and to squeeze out an extra $500 every few months was tough.  Well, at that point I did something mean, not because I meant it, but because I knew it was the only way she’d stop.  I told her that she loved him more than me and she’d rather make him happy than take care of her own daughter.  It worked.

Desperation

My father had been cut off from all communication and money. He started writing other family members for money. He told them that he didn’t understand why his wife didn’t love him anymore. When that didn’t work, he tried to sell the house we were living in right from under us.  He wrote a letter to a neighbor telling him that if he sold our house on his behalf, he would give him 10% of the proceeds. The neighbor delivered the letter to my mother.

I advised my mother that it was his right to sell the house if he wanted to and the only way to stop it is to file for divorce.  Divorce is unheard of to people of her generation, but thank god, she did it.   When my father got the divorce papers, he somehow got the money to come back to the states.  He came to the house and demanded to be let in “his house.”   I had to fight my mother not to let him in. He called me a wh*re and told my mother it was her fault that I turned out that way.  I called the cops to have him taken away.

He went back to Poland and died shortly thereafter.  We didn’t find out for 4 months.  His family kept it a secret so they could raid his stuff and try to take over his estate.  Is it terrible to say that I felt relieved when I found out he died?

The Aftermath

The divorce never happened, so when he died, the estate should have been a simple transition of assets to my mother.  His family was connected though, so they produced an unsigned will that said he left his estate to a few of his siblings.  For 5 years, my mom spent money on lawyers trying to get the estate settled and his family kept  pulling strings to postpone the hearings.  I actually had one uncle who stood up for us and I appreciate that, but he was one against many.  One day, she announced that it was no longer worth her health to worry about it and let it go.  She said the following:

  • I don’t need the money.
  • I don’t ever want to live in that town or go back to that place.
  • She shook her fist in the air and said “No good will ever come of  that place.”

Well, I can’t think of a better example of Karma than this cursed house.  The house eventually went to 2 other siblings. One of them died shortly after getting the house.  The other sibling bought him out.  She was quite well off due to having a little grocery store but then a big box chain moved in and virtually put her out of business. They rented the place for a while and then her daughter moved in with her husband and children. Not long after they moved in,  her husband contracted a rare disease and died before he hit 30.  Life’s not been so swell for that side of the family, so my mom was indeed right. If it were me, I wouldn’t touch that place with a 10 foot pole.

You know, as a teenager, I didn’t really understand any of this. I thought she was a quitter and she was letting them win. I think the only reason she fought as long as she did was to make me happy.  I’m so glad I can see her perspective now.  I was such a dumb teenager.  Sometimes it’s not worth it to fight over the principal of a thing.

As an aside, this is the second house my mom gave away.  The first she gave to her twin sister when she left for America. She was the old maid and inherited her family’s cabin.

How to Let Go – What Babci Taught Me

Now, I’m sure we all have a story or two about 2 feuding relatives who haven’t spoken in 20 years because of a fight over a hope chest or something equally silly.  So here are my final thoughts and what I’ve learned from Babci on this whole experience:

  1. Be Happy With What You Have – I think the key to my mother being able to let go is that she had everything she wanted. She had a home, rental income, a job, her health, a garden and her family. She was never cold and never hungry.  What did she need a second home for? Why was she continuing to let something she didn’t need get her so upset?
  2. Let Go of the Entitlement – Many children feel a sense of ownership to their parent’s estates…like they earned it or something.  It’s not your money, even if you think it is.
  3. Be Independent – The most gruesome and heartless estate battles I’ve seen were from individuals who needed the money badly.  (I’ll go into my uncle’s story someday).   If you’re over 30 and have never been able to live without mom and dad’s assistance (disabled people excluded), look in the mirror.  Are you going to be that person that someday can’t wait for their parents to die so that you can get their inheritance and assume their identity? Let’s hope not.
  4. Stuff Does Not Replace Memories – My house is filled with old furniture from my husband’s family. It has a ton of sentimental value to him and we love it.  If it all burned down tomorrow, I think we could still be happy as long as we were all safe and fully insured.  People tend to tie memories to objects and it sometimes makes it hard to let go. It’s especially hard when 2 or more  people want the same object. If you think you might be that person then practice a little with some de-cluttering.
  5. Doing something out of Principal is not always the right way to go. Sometimes the best solution isn’t always the correct one.
  6. Don’t Forget You’re Grieving - It’s a very emotional time for some. Cut yourself a little slack if you’re acting a little coo coo.  If you’re not thinking clearly, pull in a mediator to help.  They can look at things rationally without all the extra emotions.

So there it is, another piece of Babci Lore. Babci stories are always the best aren’t they? Thank God our life isn’t nearly as interesting these days.

So what crazy estate nightmares do you have to share? Am I missing any lessons? Oh and if you have a dad that’s still alive and super cool, call him and thank him for being the best dad in the world.

I loved my father in law so much. He really was like the dad I never had. The irony was that he was an orphan. When he died, countless people said the same thing of him.  “He treated me better than my own dad. He was like the dad I never had. He was always there for me.” It was a big loss when he passed. 

{ 11 comments… read them below or add one }

Nicole October 3, 2010 at 9:24 AM

Wow. That’s a really powerful story.

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Crystal October 3, 2010 at 11:02 PM

Your dad sucked, your mom is a survivor, and you are amazing proof that the past does not have to dictate a future.

My grandparents are in their mid-80s right now and I see major estate issues when they do pass on. 8 kids (and more than 20 grandkids) all wanting overlapping things that memories are attached to for all of them – plus they have at least 15 acres of solid land in the middle of a nice forest.

I will be trying to stay as far out of everything as possible. I agree with Babci (and you too now), no need for that extra stress…

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Sandy L October 4, 2010 at 5:48 AM

Crystal – yeah, I’d treat anything you get as “windfall”, not “I got jipped.” Hopefully your grandparents have things spelled out pretty clearly. Maybe they can just pull numbers out of a hat like during yankee swaps and people can take turns picking the things they want to take from the home. I’m sure there is a civil way to handle it. Hopefully your family will find it.

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Everyday Tips October 4, 2010 at 10:50 AM

Yikes, you had to be an adult almost at birth. The advice you had to give your mom as an adolescent is shocking. How sad you lost your childhood, or at least pieces of it.

Babci is a very wise woman. You were learning lessons and you didn’t even know it. I am sorry your dad was so awful, nobody deserves that. It is great that you took away some wisdom from it, that is the only silver lining. I cannot imagine the bond you share with your mom.

I don’t have any exciting estate stories to share. I do know several people though that have been torn about by money- especially when it comes to divorce.

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Invest It Wisely October 4, 2010 at 1:51 PM

Agreed, I was personally moved by this story, especially since I can relate to some of it. I am sorry that you had the misfortune of having family members like that… I’m with Everyday Tips, nobody deserves that. I have also have my negative experiences in that regard.

You have learned a lot from the experience though, and yes, the most important part is that your past may influence you, but it does not have to define who you are. You are not where you came from, you are where you are going. Having a troubled past may be just the impetus to make your future all that brighter, and to treat your descendants all that better.

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Squirrelers October 4, 2010 at 3:49 PM

What a compelling story, Sandy. As a reader, I feel bad that you had to go through such nonsense as a younger person, and see this happen in your family. It seems as though you saw and dealt with more than enough unpleasant experiences.

That said, I’m glad you’re sharing, and commend you for coming out of it the perspective you have and the wisdom you shared. You have learned from the experience, it would seem, and made a very positive life out of it.

I have seen some very unfortunate things as well, and perhaps I’ll share them sometime.

Anyway, I like your lessons learned. Very wise, and I think you’re putting forth some important lessons that people should really think about, instead of just giving passing thought to them. These are perspectives that, if not followed or understood, could lead folks to make poor decisions and/or find themselves in situations that they’re not equipped to handle. Really strong advice that’s very good. Hopefully this post of yours gets good exposure, as it deserves it!

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Molly On Money October 4, 2010 at 4:07 PM

I love Babci stories! This post is so moving (you gotta write a book). I just kept scrolling down hoping for more.

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Sandy L October 4, 2010 at 5:40 PM

All, the intent of the stories is never for you to feel bad or sorry for me. I want them to be stories of hope and survival. People really are very resilient. If you’re in a tough spot, keep thinking of what you can do next to make your situation better. Eventually it will be.

Squirreler – these stories are easy to tell because they are so far back in the past that it’s almost like I’m talking about another person, not myself. They don’t hurt anymore. I’m just hoping someone out there can learn something from them as well.

Invest it says it best. The past does not have to define your future. It’s your choice to pull the lessons out and apply them to your future self or wallow in self pity about the raw deal life has dealt you.

Everyday Tips – My husband gets great joy out of seeing me do fun things with my kids. He knows that I’m reliving the childhood I never had. It’s a really a great and unexpected benefit of having children of my own.

Molly, I’m glad you like Babci stories. I would love to write a book. I think my writing has a long way to go before it’s page turner quality though.

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Christa February 17, 2011 at 12:15 PM

Wow — you and Babci went through so much, so young. This is a supremely powerful story, and I love Babci’s wisdom in letting go. My mom went through a similar battle with in-laws after my step-father passed away, and she eventually let go of the battle as well.

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Sandy L February 17, 2011 at 4:22 PM

Christa – the most powerful thing is having all you need so that when an estate needs to be settled, you have the choice to walk away if things get ugly. I’m glad your mom was in a position where she could walk away. I’m sure she’s better off for it.

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Sandy @ Journey To Our Home March 11, 2011 at 10:59 PM

I completely agree with Babci— Sometimes it just isn’t worth fighting over the principal of the thing. It takes too much time and stress fighting over something you might not ever get. In some aspects why drag out the inevitable? Some things are definitely worth fighting for though- the key is to figure out which is which and do what you have to do to get on with your own life. But the key is that deciding between what is worth it and what isn’t- is sometimes a very personal journey.

My Dad’s family is a bunch of greedy people. Nothing he has will go to his kids. It will be picked over by the vultures- and I for one, am totally fine with staying as far away from that mess as possible! Never seeing those people again will be worth whatever I MIGHT have gotten.

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