When Kerrville’s Carol Hemenover got a call inviting her to a meeting about the estate of her late cousin, she was skeptical, and almost dismissive.
After all, Hemenover barely knew Anna Faye Bausch, a third cousin, who died in 2017 after battling Alzheimer’s disease.
It took two years, but Hemenover — much to her surprise — received a check for more than $30,000 from a $2.5 million estate left behind by Bausch.
“This is like a dream,” said Hemenover. “I don’t have a lot of money. I couldn’t cash the check at first, I just looked at it.”
It can also be a nightmare, which is what Hemenover sort of expected at first, because so many Americans haven’t updated their wills, or have a will at all.
An estimated 60% of Americans, according to the AARP, do not have a will or some instrument to disperse their assets after their death.
In this case, Bausch had willed her estate to her aunt, who died three years before Bausch. It was a reciprocal move, because her aunt, Louise Vincent, had left her estate to Bausch.
These mirrored wills set off a mountain of paperwork, sleuthing and lawyering in order find 243 heirs eligible to receive a portion of Bausch’s estate.
“I think we got 95% of them,” said Kerrville attorney John Carlson, who handled the legal aspects of the probate. “There’s a few we haven’t been able to find.”
While handling the legal affairs of estate planning is one of Carlson’s primary areas of focus, this case’s complexity and size was almost overwhelming. Working with retired accountant Peggy Braun, who was the guardian of the estate, the team had to track down all of the heirs.
“I’ve never done anything at this level,” said Carlson, adding it was Braun’s tenacious research that helped track down the heirs. “The management of an estate with 243 heirs is quite onerous.”
Most of the assets were related to a ranch Bausch owned in Bandera. While Bausch was married for 57 years, she never had children but remained close with her aunt — who never married or had children.
Hemenover said she has no recollection of ever meeting Vincent, but does remember meeting Bausch when the two were teenagers. Hemenover said some of her cousins have no recollection of ever meeting the women.
Through the experience, Hemenover has been connected to numerous cousins — most still in the Hill Country — along with many across the country.
“It’s really unbelievable,” she said.
Hemenover was one of the first to be contacted because she knew Braun. However, she scoffed at the idea that she would get money.
“I had a cousin who told me she thought it was a hoax,” Hemenover said. “I would get all of these documents from the lawyer, and I would get excited, but my cousin said she wasn’t going to get excited about anything.”
What makes the situation unique is that Texas state law allows shares of an estate to be divided up among heirs based on their familial relationship to the deceased. In this case, the living relatives of Louise Vincent were determined to be the heirs, but there was no established line of succession.
That led to the complex task of tracking down more than 200 people to let them know they had some amount of money due, Carlson said.
Nearing 80, Hemenover has long planned her estate and has been fascinated by the two-year journey of being identified as an heir. She, however, said the experience reinforces the need for good estate planning.
“It’s extremely important,” Carlson said of planning. “Especially when you get into a situation like this, where you don’t have a lot of heirs. I always encourage people to have someone — a friend or a charity — so you don’t get into this.”
Carlson said the will and power of attorney are two key areas he recommends for any of his clients.
For Hemenover, the story has been unbelievable, but the lesson learned is also important.
“People don’t realize the complications (from not having a will),” Hemenover said.