Dear Liz: My mother died two years ago, and I am trying to figure out how to get any of her things that are family heirlooms. Her husband refuses to part with anything, including her clothing, saying he isn't ready yet and that only when he is ready will he give us anything. Well, he is already remarried. I see items such as my great grandmother's 200-year-old wicker basket that came from Germany and through Ellis Island sitting in their living room being scratched by a cat and used as a piece of everyday furniture. I have it in writing that the basket should be mine, but he won't let any of us have anything. My mother told me she was making a list. He states she never did it. Everyone else is afraid to go to an attorney. My mother's sisters want me to not rock the boat, but I feel two years and a new wife who is younger than me means someone has moved on.
Answer: Perhaps he has moved on, but there may not be much you can do about it.
If your mother had a will, it typically would have been filed with the probate court in the county where she lived. It would be a public record, so you could see how she wanted her estate divided. If the executor (presumably your stepfather) wasn't following her wishes, you could hire an attorney to pressure him or ask the probate court for help.
In the more likely case that your mother didn't have a will, then her husband would typically inherit everything and would be free to dispose of her property as he chooses. Lists or other written instructions would only matter if they actually existed and if he chose to honor them.
If there was no will, in other words, the ball is entirely in his court. You can't demand he cough up anything, and hiring a lawyer probably would do nothing other than cost you money.
You may find a change in attitude and approach is more effective. Instead of demanding items that you feel are yours, acknowledge to yourself that they are legally his. Apologize if you've given offense, and then let him know you'd appreciate having something by which to remember your mother.
Whether or not you're given the basket, be sure to use this experience to prevent a similar situation from befalling your own family. If you care about who receives what, then make the appropriate arrangements. Have a will drawn up and pick an executor who will abide by your wishes. Or, better yet, give heirlooms and other possessions to the recipients while you're still alive so you can enjoy their appreciation.
Wait 7 years to shred tax documents
Dear Liz: With tax time coming up, I have an important question. For years I have been told that the IRS has three years to audit you and after three years, supporting documentation can be shredded. But I read from other sources (including you) that we should wait seven years. So, which is it?
Answer: Your biggest risk of audit is definitely in the first three years after your tax return is due or the date it was filed, whichever deadline is later. But the IRS has another three years to audit you if it suspects you have underreported your income by 25% or more. (There's no limit if it suspects you deliberately committed fraud.) The seven-year recommendation stems from how we file tax returns — our 2011 return will be filed by April 2012, for example. Adding seven years to the year on the tax return should help most law-abiding taxpayers remember how long they need to hang on to supporting documentation.
Consult with your tax pro, but you may be able to save time and space by scanning your documents and keeping electronic, rather than physical, copies. The IRS accepts digital data as long as it can't be altered.
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