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The Moneyist: I’ve taken care of my mother, 94, for 23 years. Her handwritten will says she wants me to inherit her home. Is that enough?

Dear Quentin,

My mother’s home is in her four children’s names. But I’m her caregiver, and have been the only one who has done all of her work, repairs and updates, and taken care of her medical business. My mother has been in the nursing home four times now — I’m the only one responsible for her affairs, and I pay all of her bills and take care of her home-health care, with health providers coming to her home to help with her care. 

My siblings have not been involved with anything. Because I’m single and retired, they feel that I should do everything. My mother is 94, and I keep her in her own home instead of a nursing home. My mother now has memory issues. Two years ago, she told me that she was going to give me her home as a reward for taking care of her, for 23 years of doing all of her work, and for taking care of all of her affairs. 

No one else knows this. My mother did write down these wishes, so do I have any claim to her home?

The Caregiver

You can email The Moneyist with any financial and ethical questions related to coronavirus at [email protected], and follow Quentin Fottrell on Twitter.

Dear Caregiver,

I understand that you have sacrificed a lot for your mother, and have taken care of her while your siblings have carried on with their lives, knowing you are there to pick up the pieces should anything go wrong.

But it would be a mistake to rely on their generosity or understanding when your mother passes. People are unpredictable, and without a last will and testament signed by a person who has the legal capacity to do so, anything could happen.

The laws regarding the validity of a will vary from state to state, but handwritten notes are unlikely to be upheld as valid in court. In most states, wills must be signed and dated by the decedent — in this case, your mother — and signed by at least two witnesses. Those witnesses, in most cases, must not include the beneficiary. Aretha Franklin, for instance, left three handwritten wills, creating a complex legal quagmire.

Even a legal will that is notarized should be updated regularly, according to MarketWatch tax columnist Bill Bischoff.

“Once you have a will in place, don’t forget to update it regularly,” he writes. “You’ll need to amend it whenever there is a big change in your family’s circumstances — a birth, a death or marriage, or even if you move out of state. A will might seem like a hassle, but that’s nothing compared with the hassles your heirs will experience if you die without one.”

This is good advice for anyone, regardless of assets. “But wills aren’t just vehicles for the wealthy or the morbid. If you’ve got a family and a home — not to mention a savings account — you should definitely have one,” Bischoff writes. “Cost is no excuse. While the average will drawn up by a lawyer typically runs from $500 to $1,000, you can get a simple will at a legal clinic for as little as $75 or create your own with an online vendor for even less.”

From what little you say, your mother’s handwritten will is not enough. They are notoriously unreliable and could be difficult to read and even more impossible to amend, assuming all other legal standards are met.

Enlist a lawyer and a doctor to both ensure that any will is legal and that your mother has the legal capacity to sign a will, given her impaired mental condition. Keep the will in a safe place: a copy with your family attorney, and in a safe deposit box at your bank. 

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