Legal Question in Wills and Trusts in Pennsylvania

So here is my story,

I was divorced from my first wife back in 1996. We had two daughters together. Through the course of the years, there have been threats, button pushing, and numerous strings pulled on her part. Moved the kids to the other side of the country and cut all contact I had with them. This is just some history. Fast forward to last year, by this time I had re-established communications with my oldest daughter – but not my youngest, who still lived with her mother. My 21 year old daughter was the passenger in a fatal car crash. I went to her funeral, where the mother told me she had insurance for the funeral and did not need/want anything from me. The other girl in the car (the underage driver – 17 I believe) was/is in a coma – and there are several stories as to what really happened that early morning in the car. Everything from the girls returning home from work and didn’t see the curve, to they were following boys home from a bar and speeding badly. My ex, it bears mentioning, is a sue happy person. I believe that she is trying to sue the poor girl’s family for our daughter’s death.

Ok, now to the issue. I have received a communication from my ex’s lawyer, asking me to sign a renunciation letter so that my ex “can be sole executer to the estate”. There is no estate, she had no assets. The letter from the lawyer said that I was “in no way renouncing” my claim to anything I am entitled to from the estate. I have no desire for anything financial or otherwise from her estate. However, I would like anything that would come to me, to go to my remaining daughter instead. I sent an email to the lawyer asking for time to look over the document. Very reasonable I thought.

Less than 24 hours later I received a threatening email directly from my ex, saying that if I refuse to sign that letter I will be responsible for ½ the funeral (which insurance covered and I had NO say in the what/when/where/how of it – which I do not complain about, just fact) and ½ her attorney fees to boot… She is estimating some bs number of about 20k. If I sign, then I give up my half of the proceeds from her lawsuit right? Then I cannot give that to my daughter?

I do not wish to hire an attorney myself, but I also do not want to be hit with a ridiculous bill either. What exactly is she able to legally compel me to do or pay? What are my legal responsibilities with regards to this? And am I able to at least make sure that any legal action on her part (suing the family or insurance company) that results in monetary gain, goes to my surviving daughter?

Asked on 1/25/13, 11:11 am

2 Answers from Attorneys

John Davidson Law Office of John A. Davidson

Really. How do you get to be responsible for debts you didn't incur?

Sounds like she is a money grubbing person. Depending on the state where she died determine who inherits as she died without a will. In PA you and her mother are heirs at law. That is you and your ex are entitled split the estate assuming it's not insolvent. What the law is where she died I have no idea. Based on her actions they probably are a lot like Pa's.

Good luck!


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Answered on 1/25/13, 11:25 am

A probate attorney who practices in the county/state where the estate will be pending (its where your daughter lived at the time of her death) needs to review the document but generally just agreeing to the appointment of a personal representative does not equate with a renunciation of any rights of inheritance. To renounce an inheritance, you have to file a disclaimer that has to be in the proper format (it has to comply with federal and state law).

There is no way for you to direct that proceeds go to your younger daughter. You either accept the inheritance and then make a gift to your younger daughter or you renounce your right to inherit and your ex-wife gets it all.

You have another issue - the ex-wife may be able to argue that you somehow forfeited any right of inheritance by abandoning the children.

And you are not quite correct about there being no estate. People while alive may have nothing but can end up being dead millionaires. If your daughter was a passenger in a car being driven by someone else, your daughter would have a claim against the driver and any other driver (if applicable) for wrongful death. Since your daughter died (my condolences for your loss), then the only way any type of claim can be brought would be by the personal representative of the estate. The at fault driver's parents may have owned the car and had liability insurance. You do not indicate how much the insurance was, but since we have a young person who died, we are looking at a nice chunk of change, even if there are only the policy limits. And we know nothing about the at-fault driver's situation and whether there are assets or not there.

I know you don't want to be put to the expense, but I strongly recommend that you pay a probate attorney to review this document and advise you as to whether there can be any type of argument by the ex-wife that you "abandoned" your daughter. Perhaps the lawyer also could agree, for a fee, to monitor the progress of the estate and wrongful death cases. Given what you say about your ex-wife, she sounds like quite a piece of work and if nothing else you can tell your ex-wife to talk only to your attorney and let all correspondence be through the attorney. Its more expensive that way, but your ex-wife is a piece of work and I would not trust her.

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Answered on 1/25/13, 4:00 pm

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