Can Family Members Contest a Will?

Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”

 

Does Executor have to Be a Family Member?

Executor, executrix or personal representative, whatever name you use, is the person who will be in charge of your estate and follow the directions in your last will and testament. The first thing clarified in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: Non-family member personal representatives” from nwi.com, is that the person does not have to be a family member.

This is often a surprise to people, who think an adult child or sibling is the only person who can take on this responsibility. This is not true. There is no requirement that a relative be named—it can be anyone you wish.  There are some requirements which vary from state to state. However, for the most part include the following: the person has to be a legal adult, must not be incapacitated, and cannot be a felon or an “undesirable” person. As long as they are an upstanding member of the community, they may serve.  What are your choices? Some people prefer a family member, even if it is a distant relative or someone with whom they do not have a great relationship. It may take some digging to identify distant relatives. You may also have no idea how someone you don’t know will manage your estate. You should also contact them to be sure they will accept the responsibility. Without having an established relationship, they may decline.  An alternative is a trusted friend, as long as they meet the criteria noted above.

Another option is an institution that holds trust powers, such as a bank’s trust department. Community banks and some national banks do offer traditional trust services, including estate administration. There will be fees, but the experienced and impartial management of your estate may make this a better choice.

Some estate planning law firms serve clients in this role. Talk with your estate planning attorney to see if this is a service the firm offers. If the firm does not do this, they may have relationships with other professionals or institutions that can help.  One final note: don’t delay creating an estate plan because you cannot decide who should be your executor. Selecting someone for this role is not always an easy or obvious choice, but your estate planning attorney will be able to help you make the decision. Not having an estate plan is far worse than not knowing who to name as your executor.

Reference: nwi.com (April 18, 2021) “Estate Planning: Non-family member personal representatives”

 

What Paperwork Is Needed after Someone Dies?

Tax return issues, family matters, business associates, partners, trustees, bankers, investment advisors and tax collectors from the IRS to state and local taxing authorities all require attention after someone has died. There is a lot of work, and often a grieving family member finds it helpful to enlist the aid of a professional to lighten the load. A recent article, “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate” from Accounting Web, contains a list of the tasks to be completed.

General administration and legal tasks. At the very earliest, the executor should create a timetable with the known tasks. If you’ve never done this before, there’s no shame in enlisting help from a qualified professional. Be realistic about your familiarity with tax and legal issues and your organizational skills.

Determine with your estate planning attorney whether probate is necessary. Is the estate small enough for your state’s laws to allow you to expedite the process? Some jurisdictions can do this, others do not.

If an estate plan was created and executed properly, many assets may not need to go through probate. Assets like IRAs, joint tenancies, accounts that are POD, or Payable on Death and any assets with named beneficiaries do not require probate.

Gather information about family owners or others who may have a claim to the estate and who may have useful information about the assets. You’ll need to locate and notify heirs of the decedent’s passing.

Others who need to be notified, include charities named in the will. You’ll need to identify prior transfers to charities that were partial transfers, such as Charitable Remainder Trusts. If there is a charitable remainder trust with a retained lifetime income interest, it will need to be in the estate tax return, albeit with an offsetting estate tax charitable deduction.

Locate the important documents, including the will, any correspondence relating to the will, any letters explaining the decedent’s wishes, deeds, trusts, bank and brokerage statements, partnership agreements, prior tax returns, federal and state tax forms and any gift tax returns.

An estate planning attorney will be able to help determine ownership issues, including identifying assets and liabilities. This includes deeds, vehicle titles, club memberships, personal possessions and business assets, including copyrights and patents.

Social Security will need to be notified, as will Medicare, pension administrators, Department of Veteran Affairs, the post office, trustees, and any service providers.

Filing taxes for the last year of the person’s life and their estate tax filing needs to happen on a timely basis. Even if an estate tax return may not be required, it is useful to file to establish date of death values for assets. It is important to resolve income tax statute of limitation issues and any IRS or state examination issues.

Estate administration is a big job, especially if you’ve never done it before. Having the help of an experienced estate lawyer can alleviate much of the worry that comes with settling an estate.

Reference: Accounting Web (March 19, 2021) “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate”

 

An Estate Plan Directs Assets According to Your Wishes

Anyone who has any assets they want distributed should have an estate plan, regardless of the size of their estate. Having a will and an estate plan created by an experienced estate planning attorney is the easiest place to start, says the Observer-Reporter in the article “Set up an estate plan so your assets go where you want.” Without a will, the state will decide what happens to your assets, and it may not be what you wanted.

If your will was done more than four years ago and was never updated, it may lead to some unwanted results. If people you named as beneficiaries or executors have died, or if there were divorces in your family, these are examples of changes that should be addressed in the estate plan.

Many people don’t know that insurance policies, annuities, 401(k), or IRA accounts that have a designated beneficiary are going to the designated beneficiary, regardless of what is in the will. If the will says everything in the estate should be divided equally between children, but one child was named the beneficiary on the life insurance policy, then only the named child will inherit the insurance policy.

Another part of an estate plan that is needed to ensure that your wishes are followed, is a financial power of attorney and a health care power of attorney. The financial power of attorney gives the person you name the legal ability to make financial decisions for you, if you are incapacitated. The health care power of attorney, similarly, gives the person you name the power to make health care decisions for you, if you cannot do so for yourself. A living will is another part of planning for incapacity that is a part of a comprehensive estate plan. The living will lets your wishes for end of life care be known to others.

Assets that pass to heirs through beneficiary designations do not go through the probate process. However, assets distributed through your will do so. Probate administration of an estate takes some time to complete, depending upon where you live. In some states, probate is more involved and time consuming than in others.

Another reason why people like to avoid probate is that documents, including your will, are filed with the court and become part of the public record. That’s why many people who lose a family member find themselves receiving direct mail and phone calls about buying insurance policy or selling their home.

There are ways to minimize the number of assets that pass through probate, which your estate planning attorney will be able to explain. Trusts are used for this purpose. There are a variety of trusts that can be used, depending upon your circumstances. Some are used to protect inheritances, if a person has an opiate addiction or cannot manage her own affairs. Others are used, so individuals with special needs do not receive inheritances that would make them ineligible for government benefits.

An experienced estate planning attorney can advise you in creating an estate plan that fits your unique circumstances.

Reference: Observer-Reporter (April 19, 2019) “Set up an estate plan so your assets go where you want”

 

Do I Need a Living Trust or a Will? Or Both?

This is just one of the reasons people think they want a trust: to ensure that the value of their overall estate will not decrease, because of the cost of probate. Will, Living Trust, Inter Vivos, Revocable, Trustee, Executor, Retirement Accounts, Beneficiaries, Funding, Assets, Administration, Probate, Incapacity, says The Houston Chronicle in the article “Elder Law: Which should I have—A Living trust or a will?”

In some states, probate is not an expensive or overly time-consuming issue. Texas, for example, has what is called an independent administration. Executors handle the tasks involved in settling an estate and distributing assets to beneficiaries. As a result, there’s very little court involvement. However, that’s not the case everywhere. An estate planning attorney in your area will be able to explain the details of your state’s procedures and discuss whether a trust is right for your estate. They’ll also explain the difference between different types of trusts.

The trust most frequently used to avoid probate, is known as a revocable management trust, living trust or an “inter vivos” trust.

Selecting the best type of trust for each situation is different. Here are some advantages of living trusts:

Avoiding probate. The cost of probate alone is not reason enough to use a trust. However, if your assets are in trusts, you may not need to file an inventory listing your assets with the court. That’s not always required in every jurisdiction, but if it is required where you live, a trust can help keep your asset list private, by ensuring that it is only seen by beneficiaries.

Asset management for incapacity. A living trust goes into effect, while you are alive. If you become incapacitated, an alternate trustee can step in to manage assets, pay bills and ensure that finances are taken care of.

Avoiding probate in another state. If you own out-of-state property, your estate may need to be probated in your home state and in the other state. If you have a living trust, out-of-state parcels of land can be deeded into the trust during your lifetime, thus avoiding the need for probate in another state. After your passing, your trustee can handle the out-of-state property in the living trust.

Administrative ease. There are, unfortunately, instances when Power of Attorney can be challenged by financial institutions. The authority of a trustee is more likely to be recognized, by banks, investment companies, etc.

There are some questions about whether it’s better to have a living trust or a will. The most complex part of having a living trust, is the process of funding the trust. It is imperative for the trust to work, that every asset you own is either transferred into the trust or retitled into the name of the trust. If assets are left out or incorrectly funded, then probate will probably be necessary. This can occur, even if only one single asset is left out.

If an asset is controlled by beneficiary designation, then the trust may not need to be named a beneficiary, should you want it to pass directly to one or more beneficiaries.

Funding the trust becomes complicated, when retirement accounts are involved. Consult with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you want to make the trust a designated beneficiary of a retirement account. This is because very specific and complex rules may limit the ability to “stretch” the distributions form the account.

Using a trust instead of a will-based plan is growing in popularity, but it should never be an automatic decision. An estate planning attorney will be able to explain the pros and cons of each strategy and help you and your family decide which is better for you.

Reference: The Houston Chronicle (Feb. 15, 2019) “Elder Law: Which should I have—A Living trust or a will?”

y,