Some Thoughts About Summer Cottages

cottageI like practicing elder law because, among other things, my elder clients think that I’m still young at 62. As a relatively elderly elder law lawyer (quite a mouthful) I also find myself identifying more with my clients than I do with their kids. Age changes your perspective.

For many years, I have taken some time on Sunday to reflect on what I learned the previous week. As part of the Mirick O’Connell blog, I’ll be posting those reflections, sometimes about elder law, sometimes about elder life, sometimes about both.

I recently got back from a few weeks on Martha’s Vineyard, a trip that I tried to convince the other lawyers here was really a lot of work, because while I was there I did seminar presentations at the Oak Bluffs Council on Aging and at the Tabernacle where the owners of all those Victorian-era houses on the old Methodist campground live. The Campground was actually there before Oak Bluffs was founded, and the Campground Association continues to own the land beneath all those gingerbread “cottages”, big and small. Some of the cottages (over 30 out of the over 300 cottages on the Campground property) have been in the same family since the cottages were built over 150 years ago. For these families as well as later owners, spending the summer at the Campground with children, grandchildren, and their families is very desirable.  Keeping the cottage in the family is an important element in their estate plans. It is also, typically, the most potentially complicated part of their estate plan.

I met with perhaps a dozen Campground property owners while I was there. I spoke to parents who said they simply wanted to leave the cottage to their children in equal shares, despite the fact that some children came every year with the grandkids, while others never did. So I’d ask them uncomfortable questions, the kind that they may not have considered or had thought about but put out of their minds.

After the parents had died, how would the children figure out which family could use the cottage when? Who would decide what repairs were necessary? What if the son in California who never used the cottage, or the daughter from Gardner who loved coming but was a single mom and couldn’t afford her share, didn’t pay?   What if the California son wanted the cottage to be sold, or at least wanted to cash out his share? Who would figure out the price and how would it get paid? Did the grandchildren ever get any right to use the cottage?

I also talked to the children who might inherit these cottages. A child told me his parents wanted to leave the cottage to the two children equally. One of the parents, though, is showing early signs of dementia. What if mom needs nursing home care? Will the cottage need to be sold   to pay the bills?  And what if the two children inherit the cottage together?  The child told me that his sister, who just went through a divorce and started working for the first time in 20 years, could not possible afford to shoulder 50% of the cottage costs. Then what?

I spoke to a young woman who, with her siblings, inherited the cottage several years ago. They’re all from out-of-state. The one I spoke to does all the maintenance and bears more of the financial burden because the others can’t afford it, although they all want to continue using the cottage, and they all own it jointly. What can she do?

Do you own a summer cottage? Do you want it to stay “in the family” for generations to come? Then you owe it to your children and their children to protect the cottage while you are alive and competent. Probably with their input, you should answer those questions now, before you die and the family cottage, that wonderful place invested with so many wonderful memories, becomes instead a source of family friction and sadness.



About Arthur Bergeron

Art has been practicing law in Massachusetts for over 30 years. He focuses his practice on elder law, estate planning, probate and trust administration, and land use matters. Art counsels senior citizens and their loved ones regarding elder law and special needs planning, asset protection and Medicaid planning. He works with individuals in all areas of estate planning, including wills, trusts, durable powers of attorney, health care proxies and living wills.
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