Mom and Dad have passed away, leaving the behind the family cabin. Now that summer has finally arrived, the cabin on Round Lake is ready for fishing, waterskiing and canoeing.
But there’s a problem.
Your stepsister, Marilyn, who is personal representative (executor) of Mom’s estate and her family are using the cabin and not letting other siblings use it.
When you call your stepsister to complain, she says you and your kids can use it for a week when she’s through using it for the month of July. You tell your spouse and you are both very angry with your stepsister. What can be done?
In the short run, your stepsister Marilyn is serving as personal representative for the estate left behind by your deceased Mom and Dad. Marilyn what we call a fiduciary for you and your brothers and sisters. This means that she must administer the assets (including the lake cabin) for the best interests of the beneficiaries (this means you and your siblings). As a general matter, while the family cabin is a part of the estate, it should be administered for the benefit of all the heirs.
Reasonably that should mean that the family members should have equal opportunity to use the cabin, the boat and other equipment. However, this can be easier said than done. If it comes to enforcement of the fiduciary obligations of the personal representative where a peaceful agreement between the siblings comes apart, a court hearing and order may be necessary.
All right, once the use of the cabin for the summer is worked out, more questions need to be answered:
- Will the cabin be sold?
- Will it be put in the name of all the heirs?
- How will you determine who gets to use the cabin for particular weeks or weekends during the summer and fall?
- Who will pay the taxes, insurance or repairs such as a new roof?
- What if one of the heirs can’t or won’t pay his share?
- What if sister Mary divorces deadbeat Fred? Will Fred have use of the cabin?
- What if brother Tom has credit problems? Will Tom’s creditors get a share of the cabin?
These and many more issues can face the family when all you want to do is to see the grandkids and great grandchildren enjoy the family cabin just like Mom and Dad did when they were kids.
To preserve family harmony and keep the cabin in the family, you may want to think about setting up a legal organization of family members for these purposes.
You could sell it to a family member who signs a contract to make it available to family members.
You may sign it over to all family members as tenants in common. This is a single step but may not give you the protection you want.
You may want to set up a Family Limited Partnership or Limited Liability Company. These two choices are similar and can provide the greatest level of protection to keep the cabin in the family and be sure that expense and upkeep matters are taken care of.