But I haven’t spoken to my parents in 20 years, a cautionary tale

Updated: Sep 6

Bob was just 19 when he left home never to return. He put himself through college, went on to have a successful career and had lived for over a decade with a lovely woman named Sally. Bob never fully explained his estrangement from his parents to Sally but hinted at an abusive relationship. Sally had some kids from a previous marriage and was reluctant to formally marry Bob for fear of alienating her children. They spoke about marriage but never got around to formalizing their relationship even though they called each other husband and wife. What difference did a piece of paper make anyway? After all, they had a house together, which they bought as tenants in common, joint bank accounts, and did everything together already. Bob’s parents had made some recent overtures to him via Facebook, but Bob wasn’t ready yet to let them back into his life.

Then, on the way home from work, Bob was injured by a truck that lost control on black ice. The hospital called Sally as her number was first on his cell phone list of recent calls. She introduced herself as his wife and soon arrived at the hospital. Meeting her there were Bob’s parents who had heard about the accident on the news and recognized their son being put into the ambulance. Sally hastily explained the situation to the desk attendant including her belief that Bob had been abused by his parents. Sadly, the desk attendant informed Sally that Sally has no say in Bob’s care unless she goes to court and the court agrees to name Sally guardian or conservator over Bob. Instead, by law, Bob’s parent’s whom he hasn’t spoken to in 20 years, are now in charge at the hospital and the first thing they do is order that Sally not be permitted to see Bob and Sally isn’t even permitted to know what Bob’s condition is. Bob’s parents do not approve of their living together without being married. Sally doesn’t have the money for a court fight with Bob’s parents and so hopes Bob will recover. Bob’s injuries are severe. Although he expressed to Sally his desire to be taken off life support if in a permanent coma, his parents do not want to let him go again so they have him moved from the hospital into a rehab center. Bob dies a few months later without Sally being allowed to see him, or even attend his funeral as Bob’s parents have his remains shipped off to Bob’s father’s hometown halfway across the US.

Bob had no will and no children. Sally goes on with her life as best she can without Bob. A few months later, she receives a petition for partition from a deputy sheriff. The next day, she receives a lien on Bob’s half of their assets from the hospital and rehab centers. That is when Sally learns by putting the house in their names as tenants in common (neither of them even knew what that meant when they signed the closing paperwork), Bob’s parents inherit half of her house. The parents that didn’t speak to Bob for 20 years and refused to let Sally see him while he was dying, own half the house and are determined to force it to be sold leaving her without a place to live. Sally also has to hire an attorney to fight off the creditors from Bob’s medical bills from the months he spent in a coma.

A health care power of attorney could have been crafted to give Sally control over Bob’s healthcare decisions. A living will would have expressed his desire not to remain in a coma. A power of attorney over finances would have given Sally control over Bob’s finances. Having a will or living trust and properly titling the house could have avoided the situation with Bob’s parents forcing sale of Sally’s residence. In other words, if Bob and Sally had some planning in place, Sally wouldn’t be in the unenviable position she is now.