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Stewardship of Sisterhood

By: Attorney Katherine S. Breckenridge, Esq.

Published May 8, 2019 – INSIDENOVA / Culpeper Times

Elder Law : Stewardship of Sisterhood

She leaned slightly towards the glass encased rows of chocolate art; a gleam of wonderment in her eyes. The smile of anticipation was not hidden by the contemplative stance of hand to chin. The careful selection began. I was witness to the beginning of a birthday weekend celebration – local, and perfect.

Fast forward two months. Unbeknownst to me, this same precious daughter was making yet another selection in the same spot – this time to begin my birthday weekend celebration with chocolate magic. As my daughter began selecting favorites, she overheard a customer on the phone asking if the clerk would fill a box with chocolates and deliver them to his daughter at her business down-the-street since he and his wife were in Georgia. My daughter – guessing it was her grandpa, offered to make the personal delivery.

Later that day, during lunch at a local restaurant, my daughter presented me with a beautiful box filled with hand-selected chocolates – a love message from parents who live a full day’s drive away, a birthday message delivered in the very finest of fashions. Yes, the chocolates made for the perfect gift; however, what made the gift unforgettable were how they were a conduit for shared joy from across the miles, to perfect timing between grandparents and granddaughter thru one’s shopping and a well-placed phone call by another, and then mother and daughter closing the door to the rest of the world – sharing chocolate truffles on the office floor, if but for a moment.

With the celebration of Mother’s Day this week, certainly a tribute that is memorialized in other fashions throughout the year, stories often come to the forefront of one’s mind that speak to the special bond shared between many a mother and daughter.

The celebration may also entail the bond between other family members, friends, and colleagues – sisters, ones who are like sisters, aunts, confidants, role models, and mentors. Some have many, some have a few – hopefully, you have at least one. That person who no matter what time of day or night, or how many hours, days, or weeks have passed – they know you, they see you.

The one, or for some – the many, are trusted counsel. It is manifested in many forms. Often no words need to be said. A simple holding of one’s hand during the church service speaks volumes.

There is a legacy in the communications – in the support. It could be termed the stewardship of sisterhood. It is not monetary; it is something so much more. It is a caretaking that presents itself as a resilient fabric.

I have seen a non-relative step into such a role when daughters would not or sisters were no longer able. When the older adult needed a trusted friend, and she was able to rely on another for conversation, transportation, and care.

To be a good steward means just that – to be a good steward, to have one’s best interests at heart. It is not the equivalent of having one’s eye on the money or assets of another. That being said, it could mean agreeing to take on a fiduciary role, like a trustee of a trust or an agent under a power of attorney, in order to make sure that a “sister’s” intents are followed, are respected.

It is sad that money, or the idea that there may be money, often changes how people act. The relative who appeared disinterested for years is, upon receiving news that a parent may have “updated” her estate planning documents, now the “frequent caller.”

When does the disrespect end? When does grace show up? That brings to mind a recent comment made on social media about the age of a political candidate. The commentator suggested that the candidate was not viable because he was, “old as mold.” Wait!!! What?!!! When did our social discourse, or thought process, become so disrespectful?

As an estate planning and elder law attorney, I am so thankful for the knowledge imparted – mostly shared by those with wisdom gained from years of practice. Often a combination of knowing the law and what some may call “street smarts.” There is no substitution.

The fact that one has many years is not in and of itself at all equivalent with not being able to make sound decisions or give solid advice. I learn from those who have years of experience.

I venture that most estate planning attorneys have received many a call exclaiming an alleged injustice – that a parent has been influenced by an adult child, caretaker, or friend to change the parent’s estate planning documents, naming the adult child, caretaker, or friend as an agent under the parent’s power of attorney and executrix under the parent’s last will and testament. The allegations may even extend to the adult child having influenced the parent to leave most or all assets to the adult child. The words, “undue influence” are often laced thru such a phone call.

Attending a recent conference, one of the speakers referenced a case that I often use when I teach seminars. The case is Weedon v. Weedon, 283 Va. 241 (2012). This is one of my favorite cases to use, as it helps bring alive the concept to attendees that the existence of “undue influence” is very challenging to prove.

Weedon v. Weedon involved a mom, five children, and three wills. There was an obvious attrition in each new will executed by the mother, leaving out adult children as each new will was executed, and in the last will conveying assets to just one adult child. The one adult child who was conveyed the assets through the last will was the daughter who gave up her job, was the caregiver for the mother, and was by her side towards the end of the mother’s life.

According to the Supreme Court of Virginia, the lesson presented by Weedon v. Weedon is, “The undue influence which will vitiate a will must be of such a character as to control the mind and direct the action of the testator” and it must be “sufficient to destroy free agency . . . ; it must amount to coercion – practically duress.” This would mean that the testator signed a will knowing it is not what she wants; however, she is under so much control from another that she feels that she has no choice and must sign the will.

Perhaps there are those who are of senior years, who have come to understand the intricacies of life in a manner that is meant only for those with such vast experience. Their estate planning documents are theirs – to be utilized to memorialize their intents; the care of their person, the use of their assets for their care, and the administration and distribution of their assets upon passing.

The decision is theirs to make. Their assets are just that – their assets. The stewardship of sisterhood takes on many different forms. It is a celebration both to offer such a gift to another, as well as to be the recipient of something so precious. Often one’s estate planning documents may reflect such a stewardship – a celebration of a lifelong relationship, a recognition of a bond late in life, or a thank you for a rescue when none other existed.