How Do I Write a Will?

You should get the basic estate planning documents in order and revisit them regularly. Everyone should have a will, but it’s only one of several significant estate planning documents in a comprehensive plan.

US News’ recent article entitled “10 Steps to Writing a Will” says that many of a typical household’s assets, such as retirement accounts, can be transferred outside of a will by naming beneficiaries. Documents, like financial and medical powers of attorney, can also be more powerful in determining the outcome of an estate.

Find an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney. Most situations will require an estate planning attorney, especially when you have a large estate, a blended family, or other complex situations.

Select Beneficiaries. A common mistake people make when planning their estate is failing to name or update beneficiaries on key accounts that work with the plans outlined in their wills. The beneficiary listed on bank accounts, life insurance and other financial accounts will have control over the will.

Choose the Executor. The executor of your will has the task of carrying out your wishes detailed in the will.

Choose a Guardian for Your Minor Children. If you have minor children, you must designate a guardian in your will. That way you can name the person you want to care for your children, in the event you die while they are yet minors.

Be Specific About Who Gets What. One of the most time-consuming aspects of creating a will may be deciding which assets to include and determining who will receive what. Consider the types of assets being allocated to heirs to help with decision-making and management.

Be Clear About Who Gets What. Think practically about how your property will be distributed. A big reason children stop speaking after a parent’s death is because there’s boilerplate language directing tangible assets, such as artwork, collectibles, or jewelry, to be divided equally among children.

Attach a Letter. You can attach an explanatory letter to your will. This letter may provide additional detail about certain wishes. This is also called a “Letter of Last Instruction.”

Sign the Will Properly. If you fail to execute your will properly, it may result in the document being deemed invalid. An experienced estate planning attorney will know precisely what is required as far as witnesses and notarization.

Find a Place for Your Will. Inform a person you trust about the location of your will as well as any other important legal papers and passwords to financial institutions. In addition, it’s wise to store the original copy somewhere secure, such as in a fireproof safe.

Review and Update Your Will. A will should be updated every few years.

Reference: US News (May 31, 2021) “10 Steps to Writing a Will”

How Is a Notary Used in Estate Planning?

After the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the virus spread continued to surge throughout 2021, the methods of getting a document quickly and safely notarized evolved, reports WTOP’s article entitled “What Is a Notarized Document — and Where Can I Get Something Notarized?”

“Notaries have bent over backwards to accommodate the varying needs during the pandemic,” says Bill Anderson, vice president of government affairs at the National Notary Association. “The pandemic didn’t stop business. Even though we’ve been working from home, and it’s been harder than usual to get work done, the types of documents that required notarization before the pandemic continue to require notarization during the pandemic.”

A notary is appointed by the state to serve as an impartial witness to protect against fraud. They act as gatekeepers during the signing of important documents. Moreover, they’re required to follow specific rules in accordance with state laws and regulations. Notarization is an official process in which the parties of a transaction make certain that a document is authentic and legitimate.

Notarization entails the verification of a signer’s identity, their willingness to sign without duress or intimidation, along with their awareness of the document’s contents.

Notarizations can also be called “notarial acts.”

There are three common types of notarial acts:

  • Acknowledgments, where a signer declares the signature on the document is his or her own, made willingly, for documents, such as real property deeds, powers of attorney, and trusts.
  • Jurats which verifies that paperwork is truthful. This typically involves documents associated with criminal or civil justice systems.
  • Certified copies include certifying the copying or reproduction of certain papers.

A notary will ask to see a current ID that has a photo, physical description and signature. He or she will also record the details of the notarization in a chronological journal of notarial acts.

If a document fails any of the criteria, the notary will refuse to validate the document.

The process is complete when the notary affixes his or her signature and seal of office on a notarial certificate. Most experienced estate planning attorneys are also Notary Publics.

Reference: WTOP (Aug. 26, 2021) “What Is a Notarized Document — and Where Can I Get Something Notarized?”

What Should Small Business Owners Know about Estate Planning?

Not having an estate plan can place business owners and entrepreneurs in jeopardy because they may face difficulties in keeping the business running, if they have to withdraw from the business at any point in time.

Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “What Small Business Owners Should Know about Doing Estate Planning” explains that estate planning is necessary to ensure business continuity. Think about who can take control when you’re no longer around to have the business continue according to your wishes contained in your estate plan. An experienced estate planning attorney can help business owners create a comprehensive estate plan, so things do not become chaotic for their family in the event of premature death or any permanent disability. Consider these steps when it comes to good estate planning for business owners.

Create an estate plan if you haven’t got one. A will is designed to detail your wishes about how you want the business to run and the manner of sharing your property at your death. A power of attorney allows an entrusted individual to undertake your business transactions and manage your finances, if you are incapacitated by injury or illness. A healthcare directive permits a trusted agent to make medical decisions on your behalf when you can’t do so yourself.

Plan for taxes. Tax planning is a major component of estate planning. Our tax laws keep changing frequently, so you have to stay in constant touch with your attorney to develop strategies for decreasing your tax liability, as well as creating a strategy for minimizing inheritance/estate taxes.

Buy life and disability insurance. Small business owners should think about purchasing life insurance, so their families can have a source of income after their death.

Create a succession plan. In addition to estate planning, a business owner should have a succession plan that specifies exactly how your company, and your family will prepare for a transition of ownership. The purpose of a well thought out succession plan is to keep the business operating or to take steps to sell it. This plan also includes the organizational structure of the business in case of maintaining business continuity.

Finally, you should keep everyone impacted by your decisions apprised of your estate plan and your business succession plan.

Reference: Legal Reader (Aug. 26, 2021) “What Small Business Owners Should Know about Doing Estate Planning”

When Should You Update Your Estate Plan?

Updating an estate plan is not usually the first thing on one’s mind when large life events occur. However, if you fail to update your estate plan, over time the plan may not work—for you or your loved ones. Reviewing estate plans at least once every three or four years will help to reach your goals and protect your family, explains the article “Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?” from Arkansas Business.

Two key documents are used to distribute your assets: your last will and testament and trusts. As your children and other family members mature, those documents should change as may be needed.

If you have a revocable trust, you need to review the dispositive provisions and the trust funding. One of the biggest mistakes in estate planning, after failing to have an estate plan, is failing to fund or manage the funds in a trust.

Trusts are created to avoid probate and establish a process for distributing assets in case of disability or death. However, if assets are not retitled to be owned by the trust, or if the assets don’t have an appropriate beneficiary designation to transfer assets to the trust at the time of your death, they won’t perform as intended. As new assets are purchased, they also need to be incorporated into your estate plan.

Relationships you have with people who have responsibilities for your estate plan may change over time. Those need to be updated, including the following:

Trustee—The person or institution administering and managing a revocable trust, when you can no longer do so.

Guardian—The individual who will have legal authority and responsibility to raise your minor child(ren).

Executor—The person who is in charge of administering and managing your estate.

Health Care Agent—The person you authorize to make medical decisions in the event of incapacity.

Another common point of failure for estate plans: neglecting to update beneficiary designations for assets like life insurance, retirement plans and any asset that customarily passes to an heir through a beneficiary designation.

A regular review of your estate plan with your estate planning attorney also allows your plan to incorporate changes in tax laws. The last few years have seen many significant changes in tax laws, and more changes are likely in the future. Strategies that may have been extremely effective five or ten years ago are probably outdated and might create costs for your heirs. A review with an experienced estate planning attorney can prevent unnecessary tax liabilities, unexpected inheritances and family feuds.

Reference: Arkansas Business (Sep. 2021) “Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?”

Estate Planning and Cryptocurrency

The increase of people investing in digital assets has not been matched by an increase in the number of people preparing to pass on these assets, which can be of considerable value. This new class of assets requires a new kind of estate planning, according to the article “Cryptocurrency and Estate Planning: What Digital Investors Should Know” from Forbes.

Cryptocurrency is digital currency used to buy online goods and services and traded in several markets. Cryptocurrency is not issued by any government. Instead, it’s created and managed through blockchain, a technology comprised of decentralized computers used to record and manage transactions. Users claim cryptocurrency is extremely secure. Sometimes, cryptocurrency is so secure that a lost password can cause the owner to lose millions.

The most popular cryptocurrencies are Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin and Binance Coin, although there are many others, and it seems like a new cryptocurrency is always being introduced. The total value is estimated at $1.35 trillion.

Another digital asset class gaining in popularity is the NFT, or non-fungible token, used to buy and sell digital art. Each NFT, which is also supported by blockchain technology, can be anything digital, like music or artwork files. The buyer of an NFT owns the exclusive original and the artist, in some cases, retains proprietary rights to feature the artwork or make copies of it. Numerous NFTs have already sold for millions.

Owning digital assets without a plan for passing them along to the next generation, could leave heirs empty handed.

Even if your family knows you own cryptocurrency, and even if they know your passwords or have access to the digital wallet where you keep your passwords, they still may not be able to access your accounts. Probate for digital assets is still very new to the courts, and if you can avoid probate for this asset class, you should.

Blockchain technology, the system behind cryptocurrency and NFTs, requires a private key to access each account, typically in the form of a long passcode. Just as you would not put account numbers into a will, you should never put passcodes or usernames in a last will and testament to prevent them from becoming part of the public record. However, only by understanding how each currency works after the original owner dies and preparing to provide the information to your executor, can your heirs receive these assets.

The nature of cryptocurrency is decentralization. There is no governing body that oversees or regulates cryptocurrency. Laws around cryptocurrency are still evolving, so your estate plan may benefit from a trust to protect digital assets.

Don’t neglect to have the necessary discussion with your heirs, including a knowledge transfer of the step-by-step process they’ll need to know to access your digital assets. An estate planning attorney with experience with digital assets and your state’s laws about digital assets will help protect these assets and ensure they are passed to the next generation without evaporating into cyberspace.

Reference: Forbes (July 21, 2021) “Cryptocurrency and Estate Planning: What Digital Investors Should Know”

If I Have a Will, Do I Have an Estate Plan?

Estate planning and writing a will are entirely different terms.

An estate plan is a broader plan of action for your assets that may apply during your life, as well as after your death.

However, a will states the way in which your assets will go after you die.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning vs. Will: What’s the Difference?” explains that a will is a legal document that states the way in which you’d like your assets to be distributed after you die.

A will can also detail your wishes about how your minor children will be cared after your death, and it names an executor who’s in charge of carrying out the actions in your will. Without a will, the state’s probate laws determine how your property is divided.

Estate planning is a lot broader and more complex than writing a will. A will is a single tool. An estate plan involves multiple tools, such as powers of attorney, advance directives and trusts.

Again, a will is a legal document, and an estate plan is a collection of legal documents. An estate plan can also handle other estate planning matters that can’t be addressed in a will.

A will is a good place to start, but you’ll want to create an estate plan to ensure that your family is fully covered in the event of your death.

While having a will is important, it’s only the first step when it comes to creating an estate plan.

To leave your heirs and loved ones in the best position after your death, you should talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a comprehensive estate plan, so your assets can end up where you want them.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Aug. 10, 2021) “Estate Planning vs. Will: What’s the Difference?”

Estate Planning for Special Needs Children

Part of providing comprehensive estate planning for families includes being prepared to address the needs of family members with special needs. Some of the tools used are trusts, guardianship and tax planning, according to the article “How to Help Clients With Special Needs Children” from Accounting Web. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan for the future that addresses both legal and financial protections.

A survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that 12.8 percent of children in our country have special health care needs, while 20 percent of all American households include a child with special needs. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) estimates that 26% of adults in America have some type of disability. In other words, some 61 million Americans have some kind of disability.

Providing for a child with special needs can be expensive, depending upon the severity of the disability. The first step for families is to have a special needs trust created through an estate planning attorney with experience in this area. The goal is to have money for the support and care of the child available, but for it not to be in the child’s name. While there are benefits available to the child through the federal government, almost all programs are means-tested, that is, the child or adult with special needs may not have assets of their own.

For many parents, a good option is a substantial life insurance policy, with the beneficiary of the policy being the special needs trust. Depending on the family’s situation, a “second to die” policy may make sense. Both parents are listed as the insured, but the policy does not pay until both parents have passed. Premiums may be lower because of this option.

It is imperative for parents of a child with special needs to have their will created to direct their assets to go to the special needs trust and not to the child directly. This is done to protect the child’s eligibility to receive government benefits.

Parents of a child with special needs also need to consider who will care for their child after they have died. A guardian needs to be named as early as possible in the child’s life, in case something should occur to the parents. The guardianship may end at age 18 for most children, but for an individual with special needs, more protection is needed. The guardian and their role need to be spelled out in documents. It is a grave mistake for parents to assume a family member or sibling will care for their child with special needs. The need to prepare for guardianship cannot be overstated.

The special needs trust will also require a trustee and a secondary trustee, if at some point the primary trustee cannot or does not want to serve.

It may seem easier to name the same person as the trustee and the guardian, but this could lead to difficult situations. A better way to go is to have one person paying the bills and keeping an eye on costs and a second person taking care of the individual.

Planning for the child’s long-term care needs to be done as soon as possible. A special needs trust should be established and funded early on, wills need to be created and/or updated, and qualified professionals become part of the family’s care for their loved one.

Having a child with special needs is a different kind of parenting. A commonly used analogy is for a person who expected to be taking a trip to Paris but finds themselves in Holland. The trip is not what they expected, but still a wonderful and rewarding experience.

Reference: Accounting Web (Sep. 13, 2021) “How to Help Clients With Special Needs Children”

Is My Will Void If I Get Divorced?

If you neglect to update your estate plan after a divorce, everything you gave to your ex in your original will could very well add up to a nice post-divorce inheritance. Even in the most amicable divorces, it’s probably not what you had intended. Yet, as reported in the article “Rewriting Your Will After Divorce” from Investopedia, people do this.

Depending on where you live, there might be a law that automatically revokes gifts to a former spouse listed in a will. In Florida, there is a statute addressing this. In Texas, a law revokes gifts to the former spouse and their relatives. However, unless you know the laws of your state as well as an estate planning attorney, it’s best to let the estate planning attorney protect your estate.

What happens if you die before you are legally divorced?

If your will leaves everything to your surviving spouse and you are currently in the process of separating and divorcing, it’s time for a new will, as soon as possible.

Don’t forget assets passing outside of the will. Assets with beneficiary designations, like life insurance, investment accounts and some retirement plans, go directly to the beneficiary listed on the account. If the beneficiary is your ex, you should also make those changes as soon as possible.

Your estate plan must also update any property gained or lost during the divorce. If any assets are specifically identified in your will, be sure to update them.

The executor (the person named in your will to oversee the distribution of assets) probably has to be changed as well. If you had previously named your ex-spouse, it’s time to name a new executor.

Your will is also used to name a guardian for minor children. If you have children with your ex, you will want to appoint a guardian in case both you and your ex are not alive to raise them. If you die unexpectedly, your spouse will raise them, but you should still name a guardian. If a surviving parent has a serious problem, like addiction, child abuse or incarceration, naming a guardian in your will and documenting the reasons you believe your ex is an unfit parent may be a deciding factor in how a judge awards custody.

A will can be updated by writing a codicil, which is an amendment to a previous or a prior will. However, since there may be many changes to a will in a divorce, it is better to tear up the old one—literally—and start over. A prior will is revoked by physically tearing up and destroying the original and including language in the new will that it will revokes all prior wills. Your attorney will know how to do this properly.

Your ex may have the legal right to challenge your will. This is why an estate planning attorney is so necessary to create a new will. There are provisions in some states that may give your ex more rights than in other states. In a divorce situation, the use of an experienced estate planning attorney can make the difference in your ex receiving a windfall and your new spouse or children receiving their rightful inheritance.

Reference: Investopedia (September 14, 2021) “Rewriting Your Will After Divorce”

What is the Difference between Conservatorship and Guardianship?

Just as different states have different laws and use different legal terms in estate planning, each state has their own laws and terms about guardianship and conservatorship, explains a recent article from Real Simple, “Everything You Need to Know About Guardianship, Conservatorship, and Legal Dependents.”

Guardianship and Conservatorship mean different things in different states, but both refer to legal proceedings used to make one person, guardian or conservator, responsible and in charge of another person, often known as a ward. In some states, guardianship concerns a ward who is a minor and conservatorship concerns a ward who is an adult. Your estate planning attorney will be able to clarify the rules of your state.

In general, guardianship is not something we like to think about. Who wants to consider two parents dying and leaving a child or children utterly alone? However, if you have children, you must protect them, and you do so by naming a guardian in your will. In this way, your children will be raised by someone you know and trust.

If no guardian is named, the court names a person to raise your children, and there are no requirements for the court to pick a family member.

Guardianship can be contested. People who want to become guardians of children may file a petition in court to become the child’s legal guardian. However, it is easier for all concerned when parents do this in their will or other means allowed by state law.

Conservatorship of an adult is necessary when an adult becomes incapacitated and cannot make informed decisions about medical care, financial or legal matters, or manage daily living. This may occur because of an accident, illness, stroke, or having a mental illness or disability.

An estate planning or elder law attorney files papers with the court to attain the status of conservatorship. Only a court may grant conservatorship after hearing evidence that an adult lacks mental capacity and needs this level of help.

If someone has filed for conservatorship for you, you have the right to retain an attorney and object to the petition or take action to select a different person to act as your conservator.

We also hear the term “legal dependent” used for a few different situations. A legal dependent is a qualifying child or relative who is claimed by a taxpayer on their taxes. They must be under 19 or under 24 if a full-time student. Someone who is legally deemed permanently disabled may be a legal dependent regardless of their age and they don’t have to live with you to qualify. Let’s say you have a parent who has little, or no income and you provide them with more than half (50%) of their total support. You may claim them as a dependent on your taxes.

There are many different situations and rules for guardianship, conservatorship and legal dependents. Meet with a local estate planning attorney to navigate these complex matters correctly, so you may focus on caring for loved ones.

Reference: Real Simple (Sep. 20, 2021) “Everything You Need to Know About Guardianship, Conservatorship, and Legal Dependents”

Is It Better Not to Have a Will?

When a person dies, estate and probate law govern how assets are distributed. If the person who has died has a properly prepared will, they have set up a “testate inheritance.” Their last will and testament will guide the distribution of their assets. If they die without a legitimate will, they have an “intestate estate,” as explained in a recent article titled “Testate vs. Intestate: Estate Planning” from Yahoo! Finance.

In an “intestate estate,” assets are distributed according to the laws of inheritance in the specific legal jurisdiction. The decedent’s wishes, or the wishes of their spouse or children, are not considered. The law is the sole determining power. You have no control over what happens to your assets.

Having a will prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney who is familiar with the law and your family’s situation is the best solution. The will must follow certain guidelines, including how many witnesses must be present for it to be executed property. A probate court reviews the will to ensure that it was prepared properly and if there are any doubts, the will can be deemed invalid.

Having a will drafted by an attorney makes it more likely to be deemed valid and enforced by the probate court. It also minimizes the likelihood of illegal or unenforceable provisions in the will.

Debts become problematic. If you owned a home and had unpaid property taxes or a mortgage and gave the house to someone in your will, they must pay the property taxes and either take over the mortgage or get a new mortgage and pay off the prior mortgage before taking ownership of the property. Otherwise, the executor may sell the home, pay the debts and give any remaining money to the heir.

Liabilities reduce inheritances. If someone has a $50,000 debt and very kindly left you $100,000, you’ll only receive $50,000 because the debt must be satisfied before assets are distributed. If the debt is higher than the value of the estate, heirs receive nothing.

Note that a person may use their will to distribute debts in any way they wish. Family members erroneously believe they are “entitled” by their blood relationship to receive an inheritance. This is not true. Anything you own is yours to give in any manner you wish—if you have a will prepared.

Another common problem: estates having fewer assets than expected. Let’s say someone gives a donation of $500,000 to a local charity, but their entire estate is only worth $100,000. In that case, the $100,000 is distributed in a pro-rata basis according to the terms of the will. The generous gift will not be so generous.

If there is no will, the probate code governs distribution of assets, usually based on kinship. Close relatives inherit before distant relatives. The order is typically (but not always, local laws vary) the spouse, children, parents of the decedent, siblings of the decedent, grandparents of the decedent, then nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles and first cousins.

Another reason to have a will: estranged or unidentified heirs. Settling an estate includes notifying all and any potential heirs of a death and they may have legal rights to an inheritance even if they have never met the decedent. Lacking a will, an estate is more vulnerable to challenges from relatives. Relying on state probate law to distribute assets is hurtful to those you love, since it creates a world of trouble for them.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Sep. 22, 2021) “Testate vs. Intestate: Estate Planning”