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Question: My brother recently died. His domestic partner of 15-17 years has employed a lawyer who has sent me and my other 3 siblings a letter asking us to renounce all claims to his estate. We feel that our brother may have left some financial parts of his estate to us as beneficiaries of those parts (i.e. life insurance or 401k’s). His domestic partner (not legally married) has told us that she can’t establish any legal claim to his estate unless we totally renounce all claims to his estate. We only want to receive whatever my brother intended us to have. We are happy to let the rest of his estate be claimed by his partner. We want to know if we must renounce all claims in order for her to proceed and what is the best way for us to proceed to resolve this issue.

Answer provided by: Ellen S. Fischer, Esq. from the law firm of Fenningham Dempster & Coval LLP

Ellen S. Fischer, Esq. -  Fenningham Dempster & Coval LLP Collaborative Law Divorce Montgomery County, PA

I am so sorry to hear that your brother died, but I also commend you and your siblings for considering his partner’s loss as well.

Your brother has obviously died without having prepared a Last Will and Testament. This is known as dying “intestate”. Under the intestate laws, when the decedent is not married, his estate passes first to his children and if no children, then to his parents, and if no parents, then to his siblings. I assume, then, that your brother has no children and that your parents have predeceased him.  

You received a letter asking that you renounce all claims, because if you do not renounce, then his estate (his assets) passes to you and your siblings by virtue of the laws of intestate. In addition, you and your siblings (or any one of you) are entitled to be the Administrator of his Estate, so you are also being asked to renounce this right. 

The question you pose regarding a renunciation of your right to inherit your brother’s estate requires an understanding of just what is included in someone’s estate.

Ordinarily, a life insurance policy names a beneficiary as does a 401k. If your brother’s life insurance policy and 401k names a beneficiary, then these assets are not part of the estate, but rather are distributed to the person(s) your brother named as beneficiaries. The naming of a beneficiary is evidence of your brother’s intention to have these assets distributed directly to the named beneficiary.

On the other hand, if your brother did not name a beneficiary, particularly on his 401k, then this asset will become a part of his estate.

Before you renounce anything, I would suggest you ask his partner’s lawyer to let you know what his estate includes. You should not be asked to renounce without knowing just what you are renouncing. If there are no named beneficiaries on his life insurance and 401k, then I would suggest that your brother evidenced an intention that these be a part of his estate which you have indicated you are willing to renounce so that his partner can be his sole beneficiary. And, yes, she cannot move forward with the administration of his estate until you and your siblings renounce your rights to be the Administrator, which is the person who is responsible for gathering all of his assets and debts, “probating” his estate and preparing all necessary legal documents. She is apparently also asking that you renounce your right to receive estate assets. 

To arrange a free consultation with attorney Ellen S. Fischer, Esq., one of several member attorneys in Montgomery County who is experienced in collaborative law, click here to email a Montgomery Bar Association LRS advisor now (LRS@montgomerybar.org), or call 610-994-3656 during regular business hours (Monday-Friday, 9 AM-4PM). If contacting us by phone, please be sure to mention this attorney's name and how you heard.about us. Automated referrals to other Montgomery Bar Association member-attorneys in your area offering free or deeply discounted collaborative divorce consultations through our service are available Online anytime at RealLawyers.org.

More about this Montgomery Bar Association member-panelist (bio provided by this attorney prior to publication):

I am a caring, compassionate and knowledgeable family law attorney with a philosophy of the power of amicable settlement, collaboration and mediation.  My years of practice have taught me the benefits of staying out of court and resolving divorce in a peaceful and respectful manner.  Staying out of court relieves the children of the emotional conflict faced by separating families and allows families to focus on the benefits of having a healthy post-divorce relationship.  But not all cases can resolve without going to court and when necessary, I am a zealous trial advocate.   

I handle all areas of family law including divorce, custody, relocation, spousal and child support, equitable distribution, alimony, pre and post nuptial agreements, cohabitation agreements, paternity, name change, domestic abuse, post-divorce issues, and grandparent and third-party custody.

Throughout my career, I have advocated for and supported the LGBTQ community and was invited to join the Family Law Institute of the National LGBT Bar Association, a select group of international attorneys dedicated to pursuing the rights of LGBTQ individuals and families. 

I have also learned the importance of helping those who lack the funds necessary to hire an attorney.  I am a volunteer attorney with the Montgomery County Child Advocacy Program (MCAP), the Montgomery County Court on Protection from Abuse Days, the Philadelphia Volunteers for the Indigent Program (VIP) and the Mazzoni Center in Philadelphia. 

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