Your Inheritance May Be a Strange Experience

Posted: Mar 15, 2015 12:01 AM

A theme that dramas and soap operas have dwelled on is the spats people can have over what their ancestors may leave for them. Life imitates art has been my experience seeing relatives squabble over the dead carcasses, but some have taken the issue to heart in a new television series on the Fox Business Network (FBN) called Strange Inheritance.

The episodes I watched did not involve fisticuffs, but they incorporate many of the same decisions that one has to confront upon the death of a loved one. First, there are the wishes of the dear departed. What did the departed want done with earthly valuables? Can the surviving family members afford to keep whatever assets they are bequeathed? And then there are always the tax considerations.

The difference here is that so far the show has focused on the kind of assets that you and I do not have to deal with upon someone’s death. Unlike selling a condo, disposing of stocks or disbursing of pension plans, these folks have to decide to sell or keep unique items.

For example, what if your father was a world-class cellist and had as his main asset a Stradivarius (yes, he made cellos also.) Bernard Greenhouse was the cellist in the Beaux Arts Trio, a world famous musical group. He lived to be 95 years old and became so attached to his cello that at the end he slept with it. The episodic adventure takes you through the decision to sell the instrument and then the efforts made to place the world-class instrument in the correct hands upon selling. The story was so engaging that when my 24-year-old daughter came in the room, she ended up watching the entire story and told me she found it quite captivating.

The episode does not address the issue of how the family would have to deal with death taxes. As you know, a few years back the Congress came to a deal with President Obama and agreed to a new lifetime exemption that in 2015 has been increased (the deal includes an annual cost-of-living increase in the exemption) to $5.43 million per person. The cello was destined to sell for an amount far north of that. How the family would have dealt with the death taxes if they kept the instrument would have been fascinating. They would have probably been forced to sell the beloved instrument to pay the government for the one thing their father treasured. You have to watch the episode to find out what happens with the cello.

I had an opportunity to interview the host of Strange Inheritance, Jamie Colby. Ms. Colby had been working with Fox Business Network for over a decade after graduating from law school and becoming an adjunct professor of law. The network came to her with the idea for the show and she told me she found it quite fascinating on many levels.

Colby’s team has put together 26 episodes from Internet research and court filings on what they considered strange items that people had been left by deceased relatives. Colby has now crisscrossed the nation, visiting 25 states and meeting with the families. She learned of their challenges dealing with not only the magnitude of what was left, but the wishes of the deceased. The show has become the most successful launch of any new show on the network.

Colby spoke of an upcoming episode where the family was left a fleet of old tractors. Some had to be sold and the family was bewildered as to which ones had to go. Fortunately, they were able to get guidance from their deceased relative and resolved the matter to where everyone was comfortable.

Colby told me what she has seen is that the show “has really caused people to think about their own inheritance.” I mentioned recently setting up a meeting for a very successful attorney who had told me that despite his knowledge of law and being over 70 years old he was not properly prepared for his own demise. Colby reminded that many people avoid the subject because they just are uncomfortable confronting death. Colby stated “The show raises awareness for families of what might confront them in the future.”

Watching the show can give you impetus to tend to your own affairs and at the same time entertain you with stories of a lost Roy Orbison song, a movie theater that a family needed to save, or a world-class insect collection that Walt Disney attempted to buy. You may have your own strange items that someone will inherit one day.