Dash for cash: Informal funding of inheritance has hidden dangers

Several years ago I had a probate consultation with three very nice people whose great-aunt had recently died. They apologized for their somewhat disheveled appearance and explained that they had spent the day dismantling furniture, prying up floorboards and digging up the backyard of their great-aunt’s residence. It seems that their great-aunt did not believe in banks, so she kept her savings in cash and hid it in odd places around her house. By the time my clients made it to my office, they had recovered over $40,000 and they still had four rooms, two closets and an attic to go.

They were lucky. They thought their relative had been destitute and discovered the first cash envelope, taped to the back of a dresser, by sheer accident.

It turns out that hiding cash and valuables is a well-known phenomenon, especially for older folks who have gone through the Great Depression or who have dementia. There are all sorts of helpful internet articles about the usual hiding places: inside the mattress, between the wall boards, behind a loose brick in the chimney, under the floorboard, tucked into clothing, buried under the tree, or taped inside the piano.

If those hiding spots are too mundane, then consider putting it in an envelope taped to the bottom of your cat’s litter box, or in a watertight plastic jar in the toilet tank, or in the ice cream container in your freezer.

So is hiding your life savings in your home a good idea? In a word, no.

Having a houseful of cash could be dangerous. Consider the case of Hee Haw comedian David “Stringbean” Akeman and his wife who were murdered in 1973 after returning home from the Grand Ole Opry. The villains were two thieves who had heard that Akeman had thousands of dollars hidden in his house because he did not trust banks. The thieves did not find the money, but they had been right; decades later thousands of dollars were discovered hidden in the couple’s chimney and clothing.

Your cash may never be found. Your house and/or its contents could burn up, get sold in an estate sale or be blown apart by a tornado. The dog could eat it. It could turn into a block of moldy and unrecognizable paper.

The dash for cash could leave lasting hard feelings among your friends and relatives – siblings racing past the gurney carting your dead body out the front door so they can start the search, an estranged child bravely volunteering to house-sit alone during the funeral, a caring neighbor thoughtfully boxing up personal items for donating to the charity. All it takes is a bit of uninterrupted time in the homestead and the ability to look innocent when questioned by suspicious relatives.

You could be setting your loved one up for a criminal investigation. Say your brother actually found the $40,000. What do you think the IRS and the FBI are going to conclude when your brother deposits that much cash into his bank account?

When you are doing your estate planning, do not forget to make a plan for distributing your cash.

Virginia Hammerle is a Texas attorney whose practice includes estate planning, guardianship and probate. Sign up for her newsletter at [email protected]. Contact Hammerle Finley Law Firm to schedule a consultation at This column does not constitute legal advice.

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