Estate Planning—Where Are the Coin Collectibles?

During the early 1980s, one of my favorite clients was the owner of an antiques shop who also owned a restaurant and bar with several pool tables. The client was rather elderly but quite alert and worked long hours seven days a week. During the 1930s, ’40s and ’50s, his restaurant supplied area service clubs with fried chicken and fried fish (known as a chicken fry or fish fry). He was a prime contractor for the service clubs in their fund-raising activities such as carnivals, fairs, Fourth of July fireworks etc. His wife and children managed the antiques shop.

I had been in the client’s small office several times and noted that a countertop was supported by three 55-gallon barrels. On one occasion, the client was chatty, and I asked him about the barrels. He explained that they had been there since the late ’50s when he “gave up my one-armed bandits.” I stared at him.

He explained that at a fish fry or chicken fry from the 1920s through the 1950s, the service clubs and churches let him bring a horse-drawn flatbed wagon with slot machines attached so gamblers could stand shoulder to shoulder dropping in coins. He told me he had slot machines that played 1 cent or 5 cent or 10 cent or 25 cent and “hog dollars.” He shared the winnings with the sponsor. Again, I asked why the barrels. He stated, “Jim, they are full of coins—been there since the ’50s!”

Hidden treasure

The client and I took the countertop off the barrels, and I thought I was looking at Long John Silver’s treasure. I remember seeing very old 50-cent pieces, Buffalo 5-cent pieces, old dimes, silver dollars with 1800 dates. I was shocked, and he belly-laughed at me for five minutes. Each barrel was so heavy that I could not even budge it. I told him he should put the old coins in the bank or do something to protect them. He was not worried and would get around to it soon. We never talked about the coins again because that was his choice.

My client died three years later. I assumed he had taken care of the coins properly. The only professional responsibility I had with his estate was to prepare its income-tax return. In doing so, I noted that the coins were not on the probate-court documents. When I inquired about the coins, I was informed “Dad had a gambling problem and had converted the coins to paper money and lost it at the track.” At that point, I was dismissed as the accountant. I do know that my old client did not gamble unless he held “house odds,” and he told me the “ponies don’t pay.”

Should a similar situation occur today, I have WorthPoint and the Worthologists to consult. Proper identification of antiques of all sorts and reporting their value on estate-tax returns is required by the IRS. Tax evasion is a felony.

—Jim Sturgill is a director of WorthPoint and founding partner of Sturgill & Associates LLP, a DC and Baltimore area CPA firm.


Jim Sturgill’s Dollar & Sense Column

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