Dear Liz: Our mom did a wonderful job of preparing her estate, but she made a mistake in that she started giving away her real estate holdings to her two children a few months before her untimely death. She died before she had the chance to equalize these transactions. As her son and executor, I equalized the real estate after her death. My sister is now protesting this because she said "legally" what was given away before death is not part of the estate, but I say that our mom would have wanted this equalized because she was very firm in her belief that her assets be divided equally. What's your experience?
Answer: You just provided an excellent example of why it can be problematic to have an executor who has a personal stake in how an estate is settled.
You wouldn't be the first executor to decide that what Mom really wanted was for you to reap a larger benefit than your sibling, despite the explicit terms of a will or trust. Even if the estate documents gave you some discretion, you should have consulted an estate-planning attorney before deciding to help yourself to a bigger portion of your mother's assets.
This is more than an ethical issue. Executors have a legal responsibility known as a fiduciary duty to the estate and all its beneficiaries. Basically, that means acting with the utmost integrity and putting the interests of the estate and beneficiaries ahead of your own.
Your sister may be able to file a lawsuit against you or ask a court to remove you as executor. You shouldn't let it come to that. Talk to an attorney now about the best way to resolve this situation amicably.
Social Security Disability Insurance survivor benefits
Dear Liz: My first wife died six years ago at age 60. I was 52 and we had been married 27 years. My wife was on Social Security disability for 15 years before her death. My only dealing with Social Security after her death was to cancel her payments. I received no benefits of any kind. I am now remarried. Were there any Social Security benefits that I failed to request? Is there any effect on my future retirement?
Answer: You may have been eligible for a one-time payment of $255, but that's likely all.
We'll assume your wife was receiving Social Security Disability Insurance payments, which are disability checks paid to workers who have enough work credits in the Social Security system. SSDI is different from Supplemental Security Income, or SSI, a need-based federal program for low-income individuals who are disabled, blind or over the age of 65. Survivor benefits aren't available under SSI, but they are under SSDI.
The rules for SSDI survivor benefits are similar to those under regular Social Security. Survivor benefits typically are available starting at age 60. Survivors who are disabled can begin receiving the benefits starting at 50, and survivors at any age can qualify if they're caring for the deceased person's child who is under 16. When you remarry before age 60, you can't claim survivor benefits based on your first wife's Social Security record unless the subsequent marriage ends in death or divorce.
Renovation projects that pay off the most
Dear Liz: What renovation projects reap the most return when selling? Replacing windows and carpeting is what I had in mind.
Answer: Remodeling magazine's latest Cost vs. Value report puts window replacement near the top of renovation projects that pay off, but none of the projects the survey tracked recouped more than they cost.
In 2014, a homeowner could expect to recoup about 79% of the cost of window replacements, assuming the home was sold soon after the improvement. Major kitchen remodels offered a 74% return on a mid-range project that cost about $55,000, or 64% of a high-end project that cost about $110,000. The amount you can expect to recoup usually declines over time as the improvements start to get dated or suffer wear and tear.
The survey doesn't track projects that are typically considered more maintenance than improvement, such as replacing carpeting or painting. Those projects may, however, get a home sold faster if done just before the house is put up for sale.