We’ve previously discussed the types of property ownership, but in this post I’d like to talk about how the value of joint property is included (or not) in a person’s estate at death.
Generally speaking, if a decedent owned property as joint tenants, the entire value of the property is included in his estate. There are a couple exceptions to this rule.
Contribution. The amount included is limited by the contribution made by the deceased joint tenant. Thus, if it can be shown that a joint tenant made a contribution to the principal of the property, then only that percentage of the property’s value will be included in the decedent’s estate. For example, if Abel and Cain each contributed $1,000 to buy some property to buy $2,000 worth of stock. The stock appreciates and is worth $5,000 at Abel’s untimely death. Only 50% of the value of that property ($2,500) will be included in Abel’s estate. This concept may be better understood with this equation:
Contribution by decedent/Total contribution by all tenants x value of joint property = Amount included in decedent’s estate
Any consideration by the surviving co-tenant does not include amounts that were originally gifted to the surviving co-tenant by the decedent. For example, Abel gave Cain $5,000 and Cain deposited it into an account and added Abel as a joint tenant. If Abel dies before Cain, the entire $5,000 would be included in Abel’s estate.
Tenancy by the Entirety (husband and wife as joint tenants): When two people are married and hold property either as joint tenants or as tenants by the entirety, exactly one-half of the value of the property is included in the decedent’s estate. The amount contributed by either spouse does not matter.
It's difficult to accurately capture the scope of financial abuse suffered by the elderly because it's often underreported. However, it's estimated that every year over 7 million people over the age of 65 fall victim to financial scams. And the amount pilfered? Nearly $3 billion annually. Simply staggering.
But what makes the elderly more susceptible to scams that, to a reasonable person, are obviously fraudulent? An NPR article titled "Why It's Easier to Scam the Elderly", explains that research has recently suggested that a reason may be that senior citizens may have a harder time reading facial cues that are associated with untrustworthiness. The elderly study subjects also underwent brain scans that revealed they had less activity in the region of the brain that processes risk and danger. Another theory is that the elderly had a "positivity bias", meaning that they make a greater effort to look on the bright side of life and, therefore, may believe that outlandish claims could be true.
Whatever the reason, the question remains: How do we help prevent our parents and grandparents from falling victim to unscrupulous people? Unfortunately, there is no magic answer. We can't control a person's actions and it'd be unreasonable to have our loved ones under 24/7 surveillance. Protection lies in being vigilant, remaining involved in our loved one's life, and minimizing risk.
A recent AARP survey found that elderly victims of financial scams put themselves in sales situations or open physical junk mail more often than the general population. In other words, they are their own worse enemies. Therefore, we can, as caretakers, do the following to help reduce the opportunities for scams:
If you suspect a senior citizen is or has been a victim of financial abuse, call 911 to report the crime to police, call the prosecutor's office (phone number 768-6452) and call Adult Protective Services at the following numbers:
Make the case known to the police, prosecutor's and Adult Protective Services. Getting a record of the abuse into the system is the first step. Though they're at the back end of the process, the prosecutor's office will help guide the case along and coordinate with the police and Adult Protective Services. You can learn more about financial elder abuse and elder abuse in general at the Honolulu Prosecuting Attorney's Elder Abuse Unit webpage. We all need to make an effort and take responsibility to help protect our kupuna.
Samuel K.L. Suen is an attorney based in Honolulu, Hawaii specializing in estate planning, probate, conservatorship and guardianship matters.
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