Many people do not bother to create a will because they don’t have much property. Why go to the trouble and expense when you own so little? But a will-and estate planning in general-isn’t just about what you own today, but what you might own in the future, and failing to leave a will can lead to legal complications, even years after your death. That’s especially true when your heirs discover property interests that were not obvious at the time of your death.
Estate of Huston v. Huston
A recent case from North Dakota illustrates the problems associated with not making a proper will. The case involved a Wyoming man, Virgil Huston, who died 14 years earlier. Huston’s heirs included his wife, Wilma Russell, and three adult children from a prior marriage. At the time of his death in 2000, the family believed Huston owned nothing except a car worth about $200. Not surprisingly, he left no will.
At the time, there was seemingly no need to open an estate. But years later, Russell learned her late husband owned some mineral rights in McKenzie County, North Dakota. “Mineral rights” refer to a property interest in raw materials-such as oil or gold-beneath the surface of the land. In many cases, different owners may control the surface and mineral rights to a given parcel. Typically, mineral rights are leased to companies that actually extract the raw materials; the mineral rights’ owner then receives a royalty in addition to the lease payment.
In 2005, Russell and her stepson, James Huston, leased the mineral rights to the McKenzie County property, to an oil and gas company. Seven years later, the company struck oil. Russell then moved to open a probate estate in North Dakota, as the mineral rights remained her late husband’s property.
As Virgil Huston left no will, the ultimate distribution of the mineral rights royalties will be decided by North Dakota’s intestate succession law. This has already led to litigation between Russell and her stepson. James Huston claims his stepmother is trying to cheat Virgil Huston’s children out of their share of the mineral rights proceeds. So far, the courts have sided with Russell. In North Dakota, the spouse of a person who dies with no will is entitled to the first $100,000 of the estate. It has yet to be conclusively determined if there is more than $100,000 in royalties at issue.
Planning for Future Success
Of course, at the time of Virgil Huston’s death, the mineral rights were valued at about $160. There was no way to know if the rights would ever amount to anything. But Huston’s failure to make a will means that at least some of the oil fortune recovered from the North Dakota site will go to lawyers rather than his family.
None of us can ever know what our financial futures will be. Regardless of your present situation, it’s always important to consult with an experienced California estate planning attorney who can help you provide for the future. Contact the Law Office of Scott C. Soady in San Diego today if you have any questions.