Discussion 8: Is this Really an Asset?
Robert Sweingart died during July 2014 at the age of 101. He had outlived many of his relatives,
including the person named in his will as executor of his estate. Thus, the probate court selected the decedent’s nephew Timothy J. Lee, as administrator. Lee promptly began his duties including reading the will and taking an inventory of Sweingart’s properties. Although the will had been written in
1979, Lee could see that most of the provisions would be easy to follow. Sweingart had made a number of specific and demonstrative legacies that could simply be conveyed to the beneficiaries. The will also included a $20,000 general legacy to a local church with a residual legacy to a well-known
charity. Unfortunately, after all other legacies were distributed, the estate would have only about $14,000 cash.
One item in the will concerned the administrator. Sweingart had made the following specific legacy:
“I leave my collection of my grandfather’s letters which are priceless to me, to my cousin, William.” Lee discovered the letters in a wall safe in Sweingart’s home. About 40 letters existed, all in excellent condition. They were written by Sweingart’s grandfather during the Civil War and described in vivid detail
the Second Battle of Bull Run and the Battle of Gettysburg. Unfortunately, Lee could find no trace of a cousin named William. He apparently had died or vanished during the 35-five year period since the will was written. Lee took the letters to two different antique dealers. One stated, “A museum that
maintains a Civil War collection would love to have these. They do a wonderful job of explaining history. But a museum would not pay for them. They have no real value since many letters written during this period still exist. I would recommend donating them to a museum.”
The second dealer took a different position: “I think if you can find individuals who specialize
in collecting Civil War memorabilia they might be willing to pay a handsome price especially if these letters help to fill out their collections. A lot of people in this country are fascinated by the Civil War. The number seems to grow each day. The letters are in great condition. It would take some
investigation on your part, but they could be worth a small fortune.” Lee now has to
prepare an inventory of his uncle’s property for probate purposes.
How should he report these letters? What should Lee do next with the letters in order to meet his
fiduciary obligation(s) to the estate and the beneficiaries?