What Is Probate and How Does It Work?

Probate is a legal process created long ago to protect the interests of a person after their death. It establishes a documented, validated, formal court procedure to establish title (ownership) and transfer ownership of a deceased person’s assets, as described in a recent article “Probate still gets lots of questions” from the Pauls Valley Democrat.

Probate accomplishes several goals. One is to fulfill the intentions of the decedent and follow the directions expressed in a written valid will. Another is to prevent the improper acquisition of assets by self-serving heirs or claimants. It provides a formal process to capture and control assets and document them. It also provides for the distribution of all assets in the estate, as directed by the decedent.

A petition is typically filed with the local district court in the county where the person resided at death. It confirms the jurisdiction of the court and defines the scope of the estate. This includes:

  • Fact of death and name of the decedent, included in the original copy of the death certificate
  • Residency of the decedent
  • Whether there was a will (original will is filed with the court)
  • Name of the executor or personal representative
  • Names of all potential heirs
  • The approximate size and scope of the estate

After documents are filed, a hearing takes place and formal notice is provided to all known heirs and to the public. This is where probate becomes problematic. Any known heirs who are notified may not always be named in the will and could bring claims against the estate. Any person who wishes to find out the size and scope of the estate may do so. This often brings creditors and predators into the process. Many scammers rely on probate notices to find fresh victims.

While the traditional goals of providing an open and fair opportunity to gain notice of the person’s death may have worked well in the past, today they often provide an opportunity for disgruntled relatives and thieves.

For this reason, many families prefer to take some or all assets from the estate and place them within the protection of a revocable living trust. Assets placed in a trust do not go through probate and will not be mentioned in a will. The trustee is charged with administering and distributing assets in a trust. There is no court involvement. Trusts may also be used during a person’s lifetime, as well as after they have died.

Other assets not governed by probate are those with beneficiary designations. Insurance policies, retirement accounts and investment accounts are among the types of assets distributed directly to the beneficiary without court involvement.

An estate planning attorney takes the best of these old English laws and blends them with our modern realities and current tax laws.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (June 3, 2021) “Probate still gets lots of questions”

 

Reviewing Estate Plans Matters

If your estate plan or your parent’s estate plan hasn’t been reviewed in the last four years—or the last forty years—it’s time for an estate plan check-up—sooner, not later. Besides the potential for costing a lot to correct, says a recent article in Forbes entitled “5 Reasons To Have Your Parents’ Estate Plan Reviewed,” the documents may no longer work to achieve your parent’s wishes.

Rather than fix a messy situation after death, have an experienced estate planning attorney review the documents now. Here’s why.

Stale documents are anathema to financial institutions. If a power of attorney is more than twenty years old, don’t expect it to be received well by a bank or brokerage house. The financial institution will probably want to get an affidavit from the attorney who originally created the document to attest to its validity. Start with a hunt to find said attorney, and then hope that nothing occurs between the time that you request the affidavit and the time it arrives. For one client, the unexpected death of a parent during this process created all kinds of headaches. A regular review and refresh of estate documents would have prevented this issue.

State laws change. Changes to state laws change how estates are handled. They may be positive changes that could benefit your parents and your family. Let’s say your mother’s will leaves all of the contents of her home to numerous people. Locating all of these people becomes costly, especially if the will needs to be probated. Many states now allow for a separate document that lets personal items be disposed of, without being part of the probated estate. However, if the will has not been reviewed in ten or twenty years, you won’t know about this option.

Languages in estate planning documents change. In addition to changes in the law, there are changes to language that may have a big impact on the estate. Many attorneys have changed the language they use for trusts based on the SECURE Act. If your parent has a retirement account payable to a trust, it is critical that this language be modified, so that it complies with the new law. Lacking these updates, your parent’s estate may be subject to an increase in taxes, fees, or penalties.

Estate laws change over time. Recent years have seen major changes to estate law, from the aforementioned SECURE Act to changes in federal exclusions and gift taxes. Is your parent’s estate plan (or yours) in compliance with the new laws? If assets have changed since the last estate plan was done, there may be tax law changes to be incorporated. Are there enough assets available to pay the taxes from the estate or the trusts? If many accounts pass by beneficiary designation, getting beneficiaries to come up with the cash to pay the tax bill may be problematic.

The decedent’s wishes may not be followed, if documents are not updated. Here’s an example. A man came to an estate planning attorney’s office with his father’s will, which had not been updated. His father died, having been predeceased by the father’s sister. The man was the only living child. He and his father had a mutual understanding that the son would inherit the entire estate on the death of his father. However, his father’s sister had also died, and the will stated that her children would receive the sister’s share. The man had to share his inheritance with estranged nieces and nephews. Had the will been reviewed with an attorney, this mishap could have been prevented very easily.

Reference: Forbes (May 25, 2021) “5 Reasons To Have Your Parents’ Estate Plan Reviewed”

 

Do We Need Estate Planning?

Estate planning is not just about making a will, nor is it just for people who live in mansions. Estate planning is best described in the title of this article “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan” from Business Insider. Estate planning is a plan for the future, for you, your spouse and those you love.

There are a number of reasons for estate planning:

  • Avoiding paying more federal and state taxes than necessary
  • Ensuring that assets are distributed as you want
  • Naming the people you choose for your own care, if you become incapacitated; and/or
  • Naming the people you choose to care for your minor children, if you and your spouse left them orphaned.

If that sounds like a lot to accomplish, it is. However, with the help of a trusted estate planning attorney, an estate plan can provide you with the peace of mind that comes with having all of the above.

If those decisions and designations are not made by you while you are alive and legally competent, the state law and the courts will determine who will get your assets, raise your children and how much your estate will pay in death taxes to state and federal governments. You can avoid that with an estate plan.

Here are the five key things about estate planning:

It’s more than a will. The estate plan includes creating Durable Powers of Attorney to appoint individuals who will make medical and/or financial decisions, if you are not able to do so. The estate plan also contains Medical Directives to communicate your wishes about what kind of care you do or do not want, if you are so sick you cannot do so for yourself. The estate plan is where you can create Trusts to control how property passes from one person or one generation to the next.

Estate planning saves time, money, and angst. If you have a surviving spouse, they are usually the ones who serve as your executor. However, if you do not and if you do not have an estate plan, the court names a public administrator to distribute assets according to state law. While this is happening, no one can access your assets. There’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of legal fees. With a will, you name an executor who will take care of and gain access to most, if not all, of your assets and administer them according to your instructions.

Estate planning includes being sure that investment and retirement accounts with a beneficiary designation have been completed. If you don’t name a beneficiary, the asset goes through the probate court. If you fail to update your beneficiary designations, your ex or a person from your past may end up with your biggest assets.

Estate planning is also tax planning. While federal taxes only impact the very wealthy right now, that is likely to change in the future. States also have estate taxes and inheritance taxes of their own, at considerably lower exemption levels than federal taxes. If you wish your heirs to receive more of your money than the government, tax planning should be part of your estate plan.

The estate plan is also used to protect minor children. No one expects to die prematurely, and no one expects that two spouses with young children will die. However, it does happen, and if there is no will in place, then the court makes all the decisions: who will raise your children, and where, how their upbringing will be financed, or, if there are no available family members, if the children should become wards of the state and enter the foster care system. That’s probably not what you want.

The estate plan includes the identification of the person(s) you want to raise your children, and who will be in charge of the assets left in trust for the children, like proceeds from a life insurance policy. This can be the same person, but often the financial and child-rearing roles are divided between two trustworthy people. Naming an alternate for each position is also a good idea, just in case the primary people cannot serve.

Estate planning, finally, also takes care of you while you are living, with a power of attorney and healthcare proxy. That way someone you know, and trust can step in, if you are unable to take care of your legal and financial affairs.

Once your estate plan is in place, remember that it is like your home: it needs to be updated every three or four years, or when there are big changes to tax law or in your life. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you.

Reference: Business Insider (Jan. 14, 2021) “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan”

 

What You Should Never, Ever, Include in Your Will

A last will and testament is a straightforward estate planning tool, used to determine the beneficiaries of your assets when you die, and, if you have minor children, nominating a guardian who will raise your children. Wills can be very specific but can’t enforce all of your wishes. For example, if you want to leave your niece your car, but only if she uses it to attend college classes, there won’t be a way to enforce those terms in a will, says the article “Things you should never put in your will” from MSN Money.

If you have certain terms you want met by beneficiaries, your best bet is to use a trust, where you can state the terms under which your beneficiaries will receive distributions or assets.

Leaving things out of your will can actually benefit your heirs, because in most cases, they will get their inheritance faster. Here’s why: when you die, your will must be validated in a court of law before any property is distributed. The process, called probate, takes a certain amount of time, and if there are issues, it might be delayed. If someone challenges the will, it can take even longer.  However, property that is in a trust or in payable-on-death (POD) titled accounts pass directly to your beneficiaries outside of a will.

Don’t put any property or assets in a will that you don’t own outright. If you own any property jointly, upon your death the other owner will become the sole owner. This is usually done by married couples in community property states.

A trust may be the solution for more control. When you put assets in a trust, title is held by the trust. Property that is titled as owned by the trust becomes subject to the rules of the trust and is completely separate from the will. Since the trust operates independently, it is very important to make sure the property you want to be held by the trust is titled properly and to not include anything in your will that is owned by the trust. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss this.

Certain assets are paid out to beneficiaries because they feature a beneficiary designation. They also should not be mentioned in the will. You should check to ensure that your beneficiary designations are up to date every few years, so the right people will own these assets upon your death.

Here are a few accounts that are typically passed through beneficiary designations:

  • Bank accounts
  • Investments and brokerage accounts
  • Life insurance polices
  • Retirement accounts and pension plans.

Another way to pass property outside of the will, is to own it jointly. If you and a sibling co-own stocks in a jointly owned brokerage account and you die, your sibling will continue to own the account and its investments. This is known as joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Business interests can pass through a will, but that is not your best option. An estate planning attorney can help you create a succession plan that will take the business out of your personal estate and create a far more efficient way to pass the business along to family members, if that is your intent. If a partner or other owners will be taking on your share of the business after death, an estate planning attorney can be instrumental in creating that plan.

Funeral instructions don’t belong in a will. Family members may not get to see that information until long after the funeral. You may want to create a letter of instruction, a less formal document that can be used to relay these details.

Your account numbers, including passwords and usernames for online accounts, do not belong in a will. Remember a will becomes a public document, so anything you don’t want the general public to know after you have passed should not be in your will.

Reference: MSN Money (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

 

Retirement Account Beneficiary Choices and Your Estate

Even if you have done all the right estate planning, mistakes with beneficiaries can happen. Just remember this very simple fact: your will does not control your retirement accounts and it may not control any accounts where you have been asked to name the person who inherits the asset, like a life insurance policy.

A designated beneficiary is the person named on a retirement or investment account to inherit the asset if you die. That’s the simple part. What gets complicated is when people don’t think it’s such a big deal, says a recent article “5 Mistakes To Avoid With Retirement Account Beneficiary Selections” from Forbes. Mistakes made about beneficiaries can be costly and sometimes, unfixable. You could accidently disinherit a child or leave money to an ex-spouse.

A will can also push your estate into the probate process which can have some significant pitfalls. If you have a living trust but neglect to fund it, the assets left outside of the trust might also have to go through probate. The best way for most people to pass assets like retirement accounts is to have them go directly to a beneficiary.

Other accounts that pass via beneficiary designation are usually 401(k)s, IRAs, Roth IRAs, life insurance, annuities, and investment accounts that have Transfer on Death (TOD) options. Using beneficiary designations may allow your heirs to receive assets in a tax-efficient and fast manner.

What are the top five mistakes people make for beneficiary designations?

Forgetting to name a beneficiary. This happens very commonly when people are young adults. It’s hard to imagine needing to name an heir when you are young and healthy, but not naming anyone creates headaches.

Ignoring special circumstances. When you have an heir with an addiction problem, one who has trouble managing money or who is preparing to leave a marriage, leaving them a large sum of money can create more problems. If your loved one has special needs and receives benefits from the government, an inheritance could put all their aid at risk. An estate planning attorney can help create a Special Needs Trust and plan for their future.

Using the wrong name. It sounds silly, but it happens often. If your loved one’s name is Jane Doe, or there are family members with very similar names, you’ll need to use more information to identify them, like birthdates, Social Security numbers and even details about their relationship to you. Not providing enough clear information, could send your asset into the wrong hands.

Neglecting to update your beneficiaries. The person you name as your beneficiary when you are in your 30s, may not be the same person you want to inherit your assets in your 60s. If you have remarried, you must change all beneficiary designations to protect your current spouse. If you have had children or additional children since you first purchased a life insurance policy, you’ll need to be sure that all your children are named on that policy. Every few years, just as you need to review your estate plan, you need to update your beneficiaries.

Failing to discuss your beneficiaries with your estate planning attorney, tax, and financial advisor. There are complications that can occur with an inheritance. Being pushed into a higher bracket sounds like a nice problem to have, until the tax bill comes due. Your estate planning attorney will be able to work with you and your loved ones to protect your legacy and their future.

Reference: Forbes (Oct. 25, 2020) “5 Mistakes To Avoid With Retirement Account Beneficiary Selections”

 

What’s Involved in the Probate Process?

SWAAY’s recent article entitled “What is the Probate Process in Florida?” says that while every state has its own laws, the probate process can be fairly similar. Here are the basic steps in the probate process:

The family consults with an experienced probate attorney. Those mentioned in the decedent’s will should meet with a probate lawyer. During the meeting, all relevant documentation like the list of debts, life insurance policies, financial statements, real estate title deeds, and the will should be available.

Filing the petition. The process would be in initiated by the executor or personal representative named in the will. He or she is in charge of distributing the estate’s assets. If there’s no will, you can ask an estate planning attorney to petition a court to appoint an executor. When the court approves the estate representative, the Letters of Administration are issued as evidence of legal authority to act as the executor. The executor will pay state taxes, funeral costs, and creditor claims on behalf of the decedent. He or she will also notice creditors and beneficiaries, coordinate the asset distribution and then close the probate estate.

Noticing beneficiaries and creditors. The executor must notify all beneficiaries of trust estates and the surviving spouse and all parties that have the rights of inheritance. Creditors of the deceased will also want to be paid and will make a claim on the estate.

Obtaining the letters of administration (letters testamentary) obtained from the probate court. After the executor obtains the letter, he or she will open the estate account at a bank. Statements and assets that were in the deceased name will be liquidated and sold if there’s a need. Proceeds obtained from the sale of property are kept in the estate account and are later distributed.

Settling all expenses, taxes, and estate debts. By law, the decedent’s debts must typically be settled prior to any distributions to the heirs. The executor will also prepare a final income tax return for the estate. Note that life insurance policies and retirement savings are distributed to heirs despite the debts owed, as they transfer by beneficiary designation outside of the will and probate.

Conducting an inventory of the estate. The executor will have conducted a final account of the remaining estate. This accounting will include the fees paid to the executor, probate expenses, cost of assets and the charges incurred when settling debts.

Distributing the assets. After the creditor claims have been settled, the executor will ask the court to transfer all assets to successors in compliance with state law or the provisions of the will. The court will issue an order to move the assets. If there’s no will, the state probate succession laws will decide who is entitled to receive a share of the property.

Finalizing the probate estate. The last step is for the executor to formally close the estate. The includes payment to creditors and distribution of assets, preparing a final distribution document and a closing affidavit that states that the assets were adequately distributed to all heirs.

We suggest that you contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you in the probate process.

Reference: SWAAY (Aug. 24, 2020) “What is the Probate Process in Florida?”

 

More Reasons to Review Your Estate Plan

Every estate planning attorney will tell you that they meet with people every day who sheepishly admit that they’ve been meaning to review their estate plan but just haven’t gotten to it. Let the guilt go.

Attorneys know that no one wants to talk about death, taxes or illness, says Wicked Local in the article “Five Reasons to Review Your Estate Plan.” However, there are five times when even an appearance before the Queen of England has to come second to reviewing your estate plan.

You have minor children. An estate plan for a couple with young children must do two very important things: address the care and custody of minor children should both parents die and address the management and distribution of the assets that the children will inherit. The will is the estate planning document used to name a guardian for minor children. The guardian is the person who will determine where your children will live and go to school, what kind of health care they receive and make all daily decisions about their care and upbringing.

If you don’t have a will, the court will name a guardian. You may not like the court’s decision. Your children might not like it at all. Having a will takes care of this important decision.

Your estate is worth more than $1 million. While the federal estate plan exemptions currently are at levels that remove federal tax from most people’s estate planning concerns, there are still state estate taxes. Some states have inheritance taxes. Whether you are married or single, if your assets are significant, you need an estate plan that maps out how assets will be left to your heirs and to plan for taxes.

Your last estate plan was created before 2012. There have been numerous changes in state estate tax laws regarding wills, probate and trusts in Massachusetts. This is not the only state that has seen major changes. There have been big changes in federal estate taxes. Strategies that were perfect in the past, may no longer be necessary or as productive because of these changes. While you’re making these changes, don’t forget to deal with digital assets. That includes email accounts, social media, online banking, etc. This will protect your fiduciaries from breaking federal hacking laws that are meant to protect online accounts, even when the person has your username and password.

You have robust retirement plans. Your will and trust do not control all the assets you own at the time of death. The first and foremost controlling element in your asset distribution is the beneficiary designation. Life insurance policies, annuities, and retirement accounts will be paid to the beneficiary named on the account, regardless of what your will says. Part of a comprehensive will review is to review beneficiary designations on each account.

You are worried about long-term care costs. Estate planning does not take place in a vacuum. Your estate plan needs to address issues like your plan, if you or your spouse need care. Do you intend to stay in your home? Are you going to move to live closer to your children, or to a Continuing Care Retirement Community? Do you have long-term insurance in place? Do you want to plan for Medicaid eligibility?

All of these issues need to be considered when reviewing and updating your estate plan. If you’ve never had an estate plan created, this is the time. Put your mind at ease, by getting this off your “to do” list and contact an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Wicked Local (Aug. 29, 2019) “Five Reasons to Review Your Estate Plan”

 

How Do I Title My Property Correctly for My Estate Plan?

The way by which you title your real and personal property and who you name as your beneficiaries is just as important in your estate planning as your will or trust, says The Black Hills Pioneer’s recent article, “Titling of property is just as important as your Will or Trust.”

There are some kinds of property that, depending on how they are titled or who’s the named beneficiary, will flow outside your will or trust.

For instance, if you designate a beneficiary to your life insurance policy or on your retirement account, that money goes directly to the named beneficiary at your death—not in accordance with your will or trust (provided you haven’t named your estate or trust as the beneficiary).

In addition, you could designate another person on your investment account or your bank account. These types of accounts also transfer automatically to the named designee and not with any regard to your will or trust (unless you named your estate or trust as the beneficiary).

Any jointly owned real estate will typically flow to the surviving joint owner, not pursuant to your will or trust. However, the fact that two people own one piece of real estate doesn’t mean the property will flow automatically to the survivor. It depends on how the property is titled. For example, in South Dakota, language needs to be included in the deed conveying that real estate to both individuals as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship.”

You can, therefore, see how critical it is that you discuss these issues with your estate planning attorney. In addition to questions about wills and trusts, you should also be discussing the titling of your property and the beneficiaries you’ve named on your life insurance and retirement accounts, along with named designees on your investment accounts or bank accounts.

If you don’t, you create problems for you family and loved ones. It is important that you contact an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Black Hills Pioneer (August 5, 2019) “Titling of property is just as important as your Will or Trust”

 

Your Will Isn’t the End of Your Estate Planning

Even if your financial life is pretty simple, you should have a will. However, there’s more work to be done. Assets must be properly titled, so that assets are distributed as intended upon death.

Forbes’ recent article, “For Estate Plan To Work As Intended, Assets Must Be Properly Titled” notes that with the exception of the choice of potential guardians for children, the most important function of a will is to make certain that the transfer of assets to beneficiaries is the way you intended.

However, not all assets are disposed of by a will—they pass to beneficiaries regardless of the intentions stated in the will. Your will only controls the disposition of assets that fall within your probated estate.

An example of when a designated beneficiary controls the disposition of a financial asset is life insurance. Other examples are retirement accounts, such as a 401(k) or an IRA. When there’s a named beneficiary, assets will be distributed accordingly, which may be different than the intentions stated in a will.

The title of real estate controls its disposition. When property is jointly owned, how it is titled determines if the decedent’s interest in the property passes to the surviving partner, becomes part of the decedent’s estate, or passes to a third party. Titling of jointly owned property can be complicated in community property states.

In the same light, a revocable trust is an inter vivos or living trust that’s created during the grantor’s life, as part of an estate plan.

Such a trust can be used to ensure privacy, avoid the expenses and delays in the probate process and provide for continuity of asset management. A critical part of the planning is that the grantor must transfer (or retitle) assets to the trust.

Wills are very important in estate planning. To ensure that your estate plan fulfills your intentions, talk to an estate planning attorney about the proper titling of your assets.

Reference: Forbes (May 20, 2019) “For Estate Plan To Work As Intended, Assets Must Be Properly Titled”

 

Communicate Your Wishes and Have the Documents in Place

Without a will or other estate planning documents, your property is distributed according to the law of intestate succession in the state where you live at the time of your death. That means any wishes you might have as to how your assets are distributed will not be considered, says the article “Make Your Wishes Known” from the Concord Monitor.

If you want to have a say in what happens to your property, including financial accounts and personal items, you need a will. However, that’s not the only document you need. Here’s a list of the documents that are part of an estate plan.

Last will and testament. This transfers property through the probate process. It ensures that you get to tell others how you want your assets distributed. It may include naming a guardian to be responsible for a minor or incapacitated heir’s personal care and assets.

If you have minor children, you may wish to include a testamentary trust so assets can be managed, and their distribution controlled. If your family includes an individual with special needs, you’ll want a Special Needs Trust (SNT), so they do not lose their eligibility for government benefits.

There are many different types of trusts, and they serve different purposes.

Revocable Trust. This can distribute property without going through probate. It also preserves privacy, since documents do not become public. To avoid probate, the trust must be funded during your lifetime, by changing the title on assets from your name to the name of your revocable trust. That may include bank and investment accounts, personal property and real estate. Income, dividends, gains and losses continue to be reported on your tax returns, while you are living.

If you own a business, talk with your estate planning attorney about whether the ownership of the business should be transferred to a trust.

Married couples should speak with their estate planning attorney about having a joint trust together, or if they should each have separate trusts for estate tax planning, creditor protection, protecting children from prior marriages, or ensuring the continuation of a family business.

You may need a pour-over will with your revocable trust, so assets may be transferred into the revocable trust that are outside of the trust at the time of your death. Your estate planning attorney will be able to discuss this in detail, to see if it is a good option.

Joint ownership. If assets are owned in joint tenancy, property automatically transfers upon death to the surviving joint owner. It is not affected by your will and is a way to avoid probate. However, there may be a loss of control and there may be gift, estate, or income tax consequences.

Beneficiary designations. Life insurance, retirement assets, annuities and other Pay on Death accounts all have a person named to receive the asset upon the death of the owner. Every asset you own with a beneficiary designation should be checked every few years to make sure the right person is set to receive the asset. The beneficiary designation supersedes anything written in your will. There should always be a primary and a secondary beneficiary named, just in case the primary predeceases you or does not want to accept the asset.

Power of Attorney. Everyone should have a Power of Attorney, in the event of incapacity. This permits someone to act as your agent in any financial matters. There is also the Health Care Power of Attorney, which gives another person the authority to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are not able to communicate your wishes.

All these documents should be the foundation of your estate plan. Each person’s situation is different, but an experienced estate planning attorney will help determine what you need.

Reference: Concord Monitor (April 22, 2019) “Make Your Wishes Known”