Daughter's estate advice helps father find peace

by Grace Reid

Lawyers are often asked about their proudest moments as a lawyer. The responses generally involve tales of glorious victories in legal combat. Here is a tale that will bring forth no drum rolls or blares of trumpets. Just simple truths, simply told, of how an old man maintained the dignity and independence that he wanted for his lifetime.

We were an Italian immigrant family. My father, the old world patriarch, staunchly believed and rigidly maintained the old Italian ways, one being that girls did not need an education.

In 1940, I accepted a scholarship to Michigan State University. My father’s anger knew no bounds. He lamented that I had brought scorn and shame upon him. What will the “paisanos” think of his daughter going to college? His anger persisted and he never contributed a cent for my education.

Now fast forward to a time when I was 57 years of age and in the midst of taking the Michigan Bar exam (I had started law school at age 53), when my mother suffered a stroke and died a few days later. My father was devastated. She was 15 years younger than he, a vibrant and youthful woman. Not once had he considered that she would die before he died.

My three siblings told him that he must put the property of his modest estate in the children’s names so as to save them the bother and expense of transferring the property at his death. My father was reluctant, but found it hard to stand up to them.

Old people’s sense of control over their circumstances is vital to their autonomy and emotional well-being. At 92 years of age, time had eroded my father’s control over his circumstances. He had lost his wife of 59 years. He no longer had the dignity of a job. His health in decline, most of his friends and relatives were gone. He no longer had the strength and energy to maintain a large vegetable garden and several fruit trees.

His pride was an Italian fig tree. Each fall, he laboriously bent it to the ground, covered it with leaves, old rags, and plywood, to enable it to withstand the Michigan winter, alien to its survival. All that was left to his exclusive control was the ownership of his property. And now, that was threatened.

I talked with my father in private. He vehemently objected to giving his children his property. I explained to him that there were no laws requiring him to give up control of his property before he wished to do so, and that it was his hard work alone that had acquired what he owned. He had no obligation to do as his children demanded. As we talked, the strain and anxiety left his face. His back straightened, as though a load had lifted. A smile and sense of peace became apparent.

He said “no” to the demands of his children, and retained the sole ownership of his property until his death at 99 years of age, a few months before his 100th birthday.

Though he never said so, I hope that the dignity and independence he retained vindicated my defiance in getting an education.

Ironically, had he placed his property in the children’s names, they would have owed capital gains taxes. Because he kept his property in his sole name, the children inherited “at date of death” value, and owed no capital gains taxes.

There is much to ponder here by those that deal with old people, their property, and those with a yen to inherit.

Grace Sidoti Reid, 93, is an attorney at law in Lansing and a member of the Master Lawyers Section of the State Bar of Michigan.