How Much Power Does an Executor Have?

The Pauls Valley Daily Democrat’s recent article entitled “It doesn’t end with the will” explains that there’s constant confusion about wills. This misunderstanding involves the scope of power of those named in the will as the personal representative (or executor) of the decedent’s estate. Let’s try to straighten out some of these myths or pieces of bad information about wills and probate.

The Executor Doesn’t Need Court Permission. False. An estate executor or personal representative can’t distribute a decedent’s assets to themselves or to any heirs until the court has approved it. Many people think that a will provides immediate authorization to distribute the assets of an estate.

If He had a Will, We Don’t need Probate. Another incorrect belief is that if a person dies with a will, probate isn’t needed or required. If a person has a will, the will and the distributions named in it can only be made valid by the probate court. There are ways to avoid the probate process. However, the fact that a person had a will doesn’t do it.

The Executor Can Start Giving Away Stuff ASAP. This is also false. Some people think that as soon as a person receives appointment as the personal representative or executor from the probate court, they can begin distributing assets from the decedent’s estate. Nope. If this were true, it would defeat the objectives of probate which is court oversight and control.

The Court Doesn’t Monitor the Executor’s Actions. This statement is also incorrect. The entire probate process is structured to provide a court monitored coordination of a decedent’s estate to make certain that his or her wishes are followed. This also helps to prevent unauthorized distributions or “raids” on a decedent’s assets by improper persons.  Remember, the executor’s Letters Testamentary authorize that person to act for the estate—they don’t permit any distributions before court approval or final probate court order.

What Does Probate Do? Probate fulfills these purposes:

  • At death, the deceased’s property is subject to control and monitoring by the court.
  • The court then starts to see what the decedent’s wishes were for distribution and who was named to administer the estate.
  • The court must also review the scope of the estate, define all assets in the estate and determine all debts of the estate.
  • Probate requires a notice to creditors, so the executor has a complete list of debts of the estate and to give each creditor the opportunity to be paid.
  • The court watches any transfers, sales of assets or payments during probate.
  • The executor is authorized to receive money and manage the assets of the estate, but he can’t withdraw or transfer assets from the estate.
  • At a final hearing and after notice to interested parties, the court determines who should get distributions.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the probate process and how to devise a complete estate plan.

Reference: Pauls Valley Daily Democrat (Oct. 1, 2020) “It doesn’t end with the will”

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Can I Leave My Pet Some of My Estate?

The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s article entitled “Who will take care of Fido when you’re gone? Minnesotans put trust in trusts reports that Minnesotans are setting up trusts to care for their pets in the event they survive them.

This is a fairly new law in Minnesota. Since it was enacted in 2016, Minnesotans have been setting aside money to guarantee the care of their animals after they die or are incapacitated. With a pet trust, there’s a guarantee that the money earmarked to care for the animal will be there for the animal as intended. A trust can designate a separate caretaker, trustee and a trust enforcer to care for the animal, manage the money and make certain the care is being provided as instructed in the trust.

A pet trust can contain instructions on the type of food, medical care, exercise and housing the pet will get, as well as the pet’s end of life and burial or cremation directions.

When the pet trust law was being debated in the Minnesota Legislature, there was the idea that pet trusts are frivolous, an option only for wealthy eccentrics like New York real estate and hotel tycoon Leona Helmsley. She died in 2007 leaving $12 million for the care of her dog, Trouble. The courts later reduced that amount to $2 million.

In the North Star State, the amount of money put into a trust to care for a pet can’t be excessive or a judge might decrease the amount.

A pet trust can be used to care for an animal before the owner dies but is disabled or incapacitated. When the pet dies, depending on how the trust was created, the money left in the trust would be distributed to heirs or could go to another designated person or charity.

In states where pet trusts are not available, a person could write in their will that a relative will inherit a pet, and the pet owner could also leave the person money to pay for the animal’s care. However, because pets are legally considered personal property, they cannot own property or inherit assets themselves. As a result, there’s nothing that would prevent the relative designated to care for the animal to take it to the pound after you die and spend the cash on themselves.

A pet trust can provide a plan for animal lovers who want to own pets late in life but may be concerned the pet might outlive them. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about pet trusts in your state.

Reference: StarTribune (Sep. 23, 2020) “Who will take care of Fido when you’re gone? Minnesotans put trust in trusts”

 

What Does an Estate Planning Attorney Actually Do?

It’s critical to understand what will happen to your estate after your death. That’s where the help of an experienced estate planning attorney comes in, says VENTS Magazine’s recent article entitled “What Does an Estate Lawyer Do Exactly?”

An experienced estate planning attorney is a legal professional, upon whom you can rely to help protect your estate after your death or in the event that you become incapacitated.  He or she will make certain that your assets and property are handled correctly.

In addition to assisting you with your estate, an estate planning attorney can help handle any family members trying to get involved in your legal affairs.  It may be difficult to please everyone when creating your will. Having an estate planning attorney will help you make the best decisions, when it comes to distributing your wealth.

Estate planning is critical—especially if you’re older, experiencing chronic illness, or just want to be smart about protecting your assets.  As we grow older, we can accumulate a long list of stressful issues and responsibilities. You may worry that your estate will be gobbled up by creditors once you pass away, or that your children will fail to distribute your assets as you intended.

Much of this stress is eliminated with the guidance and counsel of an experienced estate planning attorney. Having an estate plan allows you to enjoy a better quality of life, once you’re older. You won’t have to live every day with worry or stress about the future after you’re gone.  An experienced estate planning attorney is a valuable resource for your family, in the event someone tries to contest the will after your death.

Estate planning attorneys also aid in distributing the wealth, protecting your property from creditors and lowering estate taxes.

Reference: VENTS Magazine (Sep. 28, 2020) “What Does an Estate Lawyer Do Exactly?”

 

What are Attorney’s Obligations after You Die?

One of the hardest parts of an estate planning attorney’s jobs is managing the death of a client. Estate planning attorneys are highly skilled at creating plans while clients are living and at administering the plans after their client passes. However, most attorneys become friendly with their clients and they do grieve when clients pass.

Attorneys can provide the best counsel to their clients, when they are completely honest and upfront with them, explains the article “Attorney-client privilege after a client dies” from LimaOhio.com. While there are some things the attorney doesn’t need to know—like the client’s neighbor’s recent divorce—the more information a client provides their attorney, the better the attorney can help the client and their family.  To encourage a high degree of honesty, there are ethics rules that attorneys are required to follow, including the well-known doctrine of attorney-client privilege.

The attorney-client privilege requires that attorneys keep any confidences and secrets from their clients to themselves. This includes sensitive topics about the clients which the attorney learns from someone other than their client. In other words, the attorney may not share any secrets from the client and about the client.  The attorney-client privilege is designed to protect all aspects of the client’s life, even those parts they may not be proud of.

In some cases, the client’s very identity needs to be kept confidential. If a client wishes to pass an asset on to another person but does not want that person to know who their benefactor was, that secret must not be revealed. If a client has won a multi-million-dollar lottery and wishes to remain private, the attorney is required to keep their identity secret. This attorney-client privilege applies to the staff in the attorney’s practice also. Something shared with an attorney’s paralegal or secretary must remain confidential, as something that was told directly to the attorney.

To strengthen this privilege further, the attorney-client privilege survives the client’s death. When a client passes, the attorney may not share those secrets.

There are a few exceptions to the rule of the attorney-client privilege that survive a client’s death. Attorneys may discuss their client’s competency to sign documents. The executor of a deceased client’s estate or the spouse of a deceased client has the right to waive this privilege. However, if the client’s secret concerns their spouse or the executor, the attorney may not share that secret in order to allow the executor or spouse to waive that privilege.

Reference: LimaOhio.com (Oct. 3, 2020) “Attorney-client privilege after a client dies”

 

How Important Is Avoiding Probate?

Estate planning attorneys are often asked if one of the goals of an estate plan is to avoid probate, regardless of the cost. The answer to that question is no, but a better question is the more even-tempered “Should I try to avoid probate?” In that case, the answer is “It depends.” A closer look at this question is provided in the recent article from The Daily Sentinel, “Estate Planning: Is Probate Something to Avoid at All Costs?”

Probate is not always a nightmare depending upon where a decedent lived. Probate is a court process conducted by judges, who usually understand the difficulty executors and families are facing and their support staff who genuinely care about the families involved. This is not everywhere but your estate planning attorney will know what your local probate court is like. With that in mind, there are certain pitfalls to probate and there are situations where avoiding probate does make sense for your family.

In the case where it makes sense to avoid probate, whatever planning strategy is being used to avoid probate must be carefully evaluated. Does it make sense, or does it create further issues? Here’s an example of how this can backfire. A person provided their estate planning attorney with a copy of a beneficiary deed which is a deed that transfers property to a designated person (called a “grantee”) immediately upon the death of the person who signed the deed (called a “grantor”).

The deed had been signed and recorded properly with the recorder’s office just as a typical deed would be during the sale of a home. Note that a beneficiary deed does not transfer the title of ownership, until the grantor dies.

Here’s where things went bad. No one knew about the beneficiary deed, except for the grantor and the grantee. The remainder of the estate plan did not mention anything about the beneficiary deed. When the grantor died, ownership of the property was transferred to the grantee. However, the will contained conflicting instructions about the property and who was to inherit it.

Instead of avoiding probate, the grantor’s estate was tied up in court for more than a year. The family was torn apart, and the costs to resolve the matter were substantial.  Had the deceased simply relied upon the probate process or coordinated the transfer of ownership with his estate planning attorney, the intended person would have received the property and the family would have been spared the cost and stress. Sticking with the use of a last will and testament and the probate process would have protected everyone involved.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help determine the best approach for the family, with or without probate.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Oct. 3, 2020) “Estate Planning: Is Probate Something to Avoid at All Costs?”

 

Estate Planning for a Second Marriage and Blended Family

It takes a certain kind of courage to embark on second, third or even fourth marriages, even when there are no children from prior marriages. Regardless of how many times you walk down the aisle, the recent article “Establishing assets, goals when planning for a second marriage” from the Times Herald-Record advises couples to take care of the business side of their lives before saying “I do” again.

Full disclosure of each other’s assets, overall estate planning goals and plans for protecting assets from the cost of long-term care should happen before getting married. The discussion may not be easy, but it’s necessary: are they leaving assets to each other, or to children from a prior marriage? What if one wants to leave a substantial portion of their wealth to a charitable organization?

The first step recommended with remarriage is a prenuptial or prenup, a contract that the couple signs before getting married, to clarify what happens if they should divorce and what happens on death. The prenup typically lists all of each spouses’ assets and often a “Waiver of the Right of Election,” meaning they willingly give up any inheritance rights.

If the couple does not wish to have a prenup, they can use a Postnuptial Agreement (postnup). This document has the same intent and provisions as a prenup but is signed after they are legally wed. Over time, spouses may decide to leave assets to each other through trusts, owning assets together or naming each other as beneficiaries on various assets including life insurance or investment accounts.  Without a pre-or postnup, assets will go to the surviving spouse upon death, with little or possibly nothing going to the children.

The couple should also talk about long-term care costs which can decimate a family’s finances. Plan A is to have long-term care insurance. If either of the spouses has not secured this insurance and cannot get a policy an alternate is to have their estate planning attorney create a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT). Once assets have been inside the trust for five years for nursing home costs and two-and-a-half years for home care paid by Medicaid, they are protected from long-term care costs.  When applying for Medicaid, the assets of both spouses are at risk regardless of pre- or postnup documents.

Discuss the use of trusts with your estate planning attorney. A will conveys property but assets must go through probate, which can be costly, time-consuming and leave your assets open to court battles between heirs. Trusts avoid probate, maintain privacy and deflect family squabbles.

Creating a trust and placing the joint home and any assets including cash and investments inside the trust is a common estate planning strategy. When the first spouse dies, a co-trustee who serves with the surviving spouse can prevent the surviving spouse from changing the trust and by doing so, protect the children’s inheritance. Let’s say one of the couple suffers from dementia, remarries or is influenced by others—a new will could leave the children of the deceased spouse with nothing.

Many things can very easily go wrong in second marriages. Prior planning with an experienced estate planning attorney can protect the couple and their children and provide peace of mind for all concerned.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Sep. 21, 2020) “Establishing assets, goals when planning for a second marriage”

 

Why Everyone Needs an Estate Plan

Many people think you have to be a millionaire to need an estate plan and investing in an estate plan is too costly for an average American. Not true! People of modest means actually need an estate plan more than the wealthy to protect what they have. A recent article from TAPinto.net explains the basics in “Estate Planning–Getting Your Affairs in Order Does Not Need to be Complicated or Expensive.”

Everyone needs an estate plan consisting of the following documents: a Last Will and Testament, a General Durable Power of Attorney and an Advance Medical Directive or Living Will.

Unless your estate is valued at more than $11.58 million, you may not be as concerned about federal estate taxes right now, but this may change in the near future. Some states, like New Jersey, don’t have any state estate tax at all. There are states, like Pennsylvania, which have an “inheritance” tax determined based on the relationship the person has with the decedent. However, taxes aren’t the only reason to have an estate plan.

If you have young children, your will is the legal document used to tell your executor and the court who you want to care for your minor children by naming their guardian. The will is also used to explain how your minor children’s inheritance should be managed by naming trustees.

Why do you need a General Power of Attorney? This is the document that you need to name a person to be in charge of your affairs, if you become incapacitated and can’t make or communicate decisions. Without a POA in place, no one, not even your spouse, has the legal authority to manage your financial and legal affairs. Your family would have to go to court and file a guardianship action, which can be expensive, take time to complete and create unnecessary stress for the family.

An Advance Medical Directive, also known as a Living Will, is used to let a person of your choice make medical decisions, if you are unable to do so. This is a very important document to have, especially if you have strong feelings about being kept alive by artificial means. The Advance Medical Directive gives you an opportunity to express your wishes for end of life care, as well as giving another person the legal right to make medical decisions on your behalf. Without it, a guardianship may need to be established, wasting critical time if an emergency situation occurs.

Most people of modest means need only these three documents, but they can make a big difference to protect the family. If the family includes disabled children or individuals, owns a business or real estate, there are other documents needed to address these more complex situations. However, simple or complex, your estate and your family deserve the protection of an estate plan.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to create your estate planning package.

Reference: TAPinto.net (Sep. 23, 2020) “Estate Planning–Getting Your Affairs in Order Does Not Need to be Complicated or Expensive”

 

What Estate Planning Documents Do I Need for a Happy Retirement?

Estate planning documents are made to help you and your family, in the event of your untimely demise or incapacitation.  These documents will give your family specific instructions on how to proceed.

The Winston-Salem Journal’s recent article entitled “4 Must-Have Documents for a Peaceful Retirement” looks at these critical documents in constructing an effective estate plan.

  1. Power of Attorney (POA). If you become incapacitated or become unable to make your own financial decisions, a POA will permit a trusted agent to manage your affairs. Have an estate planning attorney review your POA before it’s executed. You can give someone a limited POA that restricts their authority to specific transactions. You can also create a springing POA, which takes effect only at the time of your incapacitation.
  2. Will. About 40% of Americans actually have a will. Creating a valid will prevents you from leaving a mess for your heirs to address after you die. A will appoints an executor who will manage your affairs in a fiduciary manner. The will also details your plan for the distribution of your property. Make certain that your will is also in agreement with other documents you’ve set up, so it doesn’t create any questions.
  3. TOD/POD Designation Forms. A Transfer-on-Death (TOD) or Payable-on-Death (POD) designation lets you to assign your investment accounts to a named beneficiary. The big benefit here is that accounts with a named TOD/POD beneficiary pass directly to that person when you die. Any accounts without a TOD/POD beneficiary will be subject to the terms of your will and will be required to go through the probate process.
  4. Healthcare POA/Advance Directives. These are significant health-related documents. A healthcare POA allows your named agent to communicate your wishes to medical professionals, if you are unable. They also include instructions as to whether you want to have life-saving measures performed, if you have a cardiac or respiratory arrest. These healthcare documents also remove the need for your family to make difficult decisions for you.  Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to get your affairs in order.

Reference: Winston-Salem Journal (Sep. 20, 2020) “4 Must-Have Documents for a Peaceful Retirement”

 

Reviewing Your Estate Plan Protects Goals, Family

Transferring the management of assets if and when you are unable to manage them yourself because of disability or death is the basic reason for an estate plan. This goes for people with $100 or $100 million. You already have an estate plan, because every state has laws addressing how assets are managed and who will inherit your assets, known as the Laws of Intestacy. However, the estate plan created by your state’s laws might not be what you want, explains the article “Auditing Your Estate Plan” appearing in Forbes.

To take more control over your estate, you’ll want to have an estate planning attorney create an estate plan drafted to achieve your goals. To do so, you’ll need to start by defining your estate planning objectives. What are you trying to accomplish?

  • Provide for a surviving spouse or family
  • Save on income taxes now
  • Save on estate and gift taxes later
  • Provide for children later
  • Bequeath assets to a charity
  • Provide for retirement income, and/or
  • Protect assets and beneficiaries from creditors.

A review of your estate plan, especially if you haven’t done so in more than three years, will show whether any of your goals have changed. You’ll need to review wills, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms, insurance policies and joint accounts.

Preparing for incapacity is just as important as distributing assets. Who should manage your medical, financial and legal affairs? Designating someone, or more than one person, to act on your behalf, and making your wishes clear and enforceable with estate planning documents, will give you and your loved ones security. You are ready, and they will be ready to help you, if something unexpected occurs.

There are a few more steps, if your estate plan needs to be revised:

  • Make the plan, based on your goals,
  • Engage the people, including an estate planning attorney, to execute the plan,
  • Have a will updated and executed, along with other necessary documents,
  • Re-title assets as needed and complete any changes to beneficiary designations, and
  • Schedule a review of your estate plan every few years with your estate planning attorney and more frequently if there are large changes to tax laws or your life circumstances.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 23, 2020) “Auditing Your Estate Plan”

 

What Does It Mean to Be an Executor?

Being named an executor can be a big deal, undertaking confidence and trust that someone is appointing you to manage their estate after they’ve died. An executor has a long to-do list, according to The Cleveland Jewish News’ recent article entitled “Role of executor comes with many responsibilities.”

First, the executor must find the signed will and file it at the probate court to officially be appointed.  Next, the executor must collect all of the estate’s assets, as well as track down any debts like mortgages, credit card bills, car payments and the like.  Once the bills are paid, the executor will distribute the assets to the beneficiaries.  Finally, the executor is tasked with going to the probate court and state that the bills were paid, so all of the assets can be distributed. At that point, the executor is discharged.

Any adult can be named an executor as an executor of an estate. However, in some circumstances, a bond is required. The bonding company will decide if the executor is financially sound. If a person dies without a will, an individual can apply to be an administrator of the estate.  When naming an executor, before death, the estate owners should discuss the role and responsibilities of their named executor to have a smooth transition with no surprises for those left behind.  In addition, an alternate executor should be named in the event the first person is unwilling or unable to serve.

Executors should consult an estate planning attorney throughout the process. This legal assistance is important to guide the executor through all the required steps, so he or she can fulfill the fiduciary responsibilities.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help review the will with the executor, so he or she understands what it means. The attorney can also review the steps of being appointed and what their role of the executor is as far as collecting the assets and debts, along with the details about which the average non-attorney might not consider.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (Sep. 23, 2020) “Role of executor comes with many responsibilities”