Why a Will Is the Foundation of an Estate Plan

An estate planning lawyer has many different tools to achieve clients’ estate planning goals. However, at the heart of any plan is the will, also known as the “last will and testament.” Even people who are young or who have modest levels of assets should have a will—one that is legally valid and up to date. For parents of young children, this is especially important, says the article “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan” from the Sparta Independent. Why? Because in most states, a will is the only way that parents can name guardians for their children.

Having a will means that your estate will avoid being “intestate,” that is, having your assets distributed according to the laws of your state. With a will, you get to determine who is to receive your property. That includes your home, car, bank and investment accounts and any other assets, including those with sentimental value.

Without a will, your property will be distributed to your closest blood relatives, depending upon how closely related they are to you. Few individuals want to have the state making these decisions for their property. Most people would rather make these decisions for themselves.

Property can be left to anyone you choose—including a spouse, children, charities, a trust, other relatives, a college or university, or anyone you want. There are some limits imposed by law that you should know about: a spouse has certain rights to your property, and they cannot be reversed based on your will.

For parents of young children, the will is used to name a legal guardian for children. A personal guardian, who takes personal custody of the children, can be named, as well as a property guardian, who is in charge of the children’s assets. This can be the same person, but is often two different people. You may also want to ask your estate planning attorney about using trusts to fund children’s college educations.

The will is also a means of naming an executor. This is the person who acts as your legal representative after your death. This person will be in charge of carrying out all of your estate settlement tasks so they need to be someone you trust who is skilled with managing property and the many tasks that go into settling an estate. The executor must be approved by the probate court before they can start taking action for you.

There are also taxes and expenses that need to be managed. Unless the will provides directions, these are determined by state law. To be sure that gifts you wanted to give to family and loved ones are not consumed by taxes, the will needs to indicate that taxes and expenses are to be paid from the residuary estate.

A will can be used to create a “testamentary trust,” which comes into existence when your will is probated. It has a trustee, beneficiaries and directions on how distributions should be made. The use of trusts is especially important if you have young children who are not able to manage assets or property.

Note that any assets distributed through a will are subject to probate, the court-supervised process of administering and proving a will. Probate can be costly and time-consuming, and the records are available to the public which means anyone can see them. Many people chose to distribute their assets through trusts to avoid having large assets pass through probate.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a will and the many different functions that the will plays in settling your estate. You’ll also want to explore planning for incapacity, which includes having a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Medical Directives. Estate planning attorneys also work on tax issues to minimize the taxes paid by the estate.

Reference: Sparta Independent (Dec. 19, 2019) “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan”

 

What Estate Planning Documents Do You Need?

Wouldn’t your children be relieved to learn that you’ve done all the necessary advance planning so that if you should become incapacitated, someone has been properly appointed to help with health care and financial decisions? The Tennessean suggests that you “Give your loved ones peace of mind with legal documents” so that your spouse and your family will be able to take the necessary steps to give you the care and dignity you (and they) deserve.

Here’s a checklist of the documents that everyone should have in place:

Power of Attorney for Health Care. When you have mental capacity, you can make your own decisions. When you do not, you need someone to be appointed who knows your beliefs and wishes and has the ability to advocate for you. Ideally, you should name one person to be your agent to minimize arguments. Talk with your family to explain who has been named your power of attorney for health care, and if need be, explain why that person was chosen.

Power of Attorney for Finances. There are different kinds of POA for finances. The goal of the POA for finances is so they can make decisions on your behalf, when you become incapacitated. Some states use “springing” POA—but that may mean your family has to go through a process to prove you are incapacitated. Check with an estate planning elder law attorney in your state to see what the laws are.

Advance Directive. This describes what kind of life sustaining treatment you do or do not want if you are in a coma, are terminally ill or have dementia. You can direct whether you want CPR, tube feeding, and other life-sustaining procedures to be withheld, if your quality of life is diminished and there is no hope of improvement. This will help your family to know what you want in a time when emotions are running high.

Last Will and Testament. Have a will created, if you don’t already have one. This directs distribution of your assets to your wishes and does not leave them to the laws of your state. Not having a will means your family will have to go through many more court proceedings and people you may not want to receive your worldly possessions may get them.

Trusts. Talk with your estate planning attorney about placing assets in trust, so they are not subject to the public process of probate. Your wishes will be followed, and they will remain private.

Reference: Tennessean (Nov. 16, 2019) “Give your loved ones peace of mind with legal documents”

Blended Families Need More Thoughtful Estate Plans

Estate planning for blended families is like playing chess in three dimensions: even those who are very good at chess can struggle with so many moving parts in so many dimensions. Preparing an estate plan requires careful consideration of family dynamics, and those are multiplied in blended families. This is another reason why estate plans need to be tailored for each family’s circumstances, as described in the article “Blended families have unique considerations in estate planning” from The News Enterprise.

The last will and testament is often considered the key document in an estate plan. But while the will is very important, it has certain limitations and a few commonly used estate planning strategies can result in unpleasant endings, if this is the only document used.

Spouses often leave everything to each other as the primary beneficiary on death with all of their children as contingent beneficiaries. This is based on the assumption that the second spouse will remain in the family home, then will distribute any proceeds equally between the children, if and when they move or die. However, the will can be changed at any time before death as long as the person making the will has mental capacity. If when the first spouse dies, the relationship with the surviving children is not strong it is possible that the surviving spouse may have their will changed.

If stepchildren don’t have a strong connection with the surviving spouse, which occurs frequently when the second marriage occurs after the children are adults things can go wrong. Their mutual grief at the passing of the first spouse does not always draw stepchildren and stepparents together. Often, it divides them.

The couple may also select different successor beneficiaries. The husband may name his wife first, then only his children in his will, while the wife may name her husband and then her children in her will. This creates a “survival race.” The surviving spouse receives the property and the children of the spouse who passed won’t know when or if they will receive any assets.

Some couples plan on using trusts for property distribution upon death. This can be more successful, if planned properly. It can also be just as bad as a will.

Trust provisions can be categorized according to the level of control the surviving spouse has after the death of the first spouse. A trust can be structured to lock down half of the trust assets on the death of the first spouse. The surviving spouse remains as a beneficiary but does not have the ability to change the ultimate distribution of the decedent’s portion. This allows the survivor the financial support they need, giving flexibility for the survivor to change their beneficiaries for their remaining share.

Not all blended families actually “blend,” but for those who do, a candid discussion with all, possibly in the office of the estate planning attorney, to plan for the future, is one way to ensure that the family remains a family, when both parents are gone.

Reference: The News Enterprise (November 4, 2019) “Blended families have unique considerations in estate planning”

 

Estate Planning, Simplified

Estate planning attorneys hear it all the time: “My children will have to figure it out,” “Everything will go to my spouse, right?” and “It’s just not a priority right now.” But then we read about famous people who don’t plan, and the family court battles that go on for years. Regular families also have this happen. We just don’t read about it.

A useful article from The Mercury titled “Estate planning basics and an estate attorney meeting preparation” reviews the basics of estate planning and explains how following the advice of an experienced estate planning attorney can protect families from the financial and emotional pain of an estate battle.

Estate planning is not just concerned with passing property and assets along to heirs. Estate planning also concerns itself with planning for incapacity, or the inability to act or speak on one’s own behalf. This is what happens when someone becomes too ill or is injured, although we usually think of incapacity as having to do with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.

Lacking an estate plan, all the assets you have worked to accumulate are subject to being distributed by a court-ordered executor, who likely doesn’t know you or your family. Having an estate plan in place protects you and your family.

Living Will or Advanced Directive. A living will provides directions from a patient to their doctor, concerning their wishes regarding life support. This alleviates the family from having to make a painful and permanent decision. They will know what their loved one wanted.

Springing Durable Power of Attorney. This document will allow someone you choose to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf if you are not able to. Some attorneys prefer to use the Durable Power of Attorney, rather than the Springing POA, since the Springing event may need a physician to state that the individual has become incapacitated, and it may require the court becoming involved. Powers of attorney can be drafted to be very limited in nature (i.e., to let one single task be accomplished), or very broad, allowing the POA to handle everything on your behalf.

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. This lets a person you name make health care decisions for you, if you are not able to do so. The decision-making power is limited to health care only.

Should Your Health Care POA and Your Financial/Legal POA be the Same Person? Deciding who to give these powers to can be difficult. Is the person you are considering equally skilled with health care as they are with finances? Someone who is very emotional may not be able to make health care decisions although they may be good with money. Think carefully about your decision. Just remember it’s better that you make this decision rather than leaving it for the court to decide.

Last Will and Testament: This is the document people think of when they think about estate planning. It is a document that allows the person to transfer specific property after they die in the way they want. It also allows the person to name a guardian for any minor children and an executor who will be in charge of administering the estate. It is far better that you name a guardian and an executor than having the court select someone to take on these roles.

The estate planning process will be smoother if you spend some time speaking with your spouse and family members to discuss some of the key decisions discussed above. Talk with your loved ones about your thoughts on death and what you’d like to have happen. Think about what kind of legacy you want to leave and then contact an experienced estate planning attorney to put your plan into action.

Estate battles often leave families estranged during a time when they need each other most. Spend the time and resources creating an estate plan with a qualified estate planning attorney. Leaving your family intact and loving may be the best legacy of all.

Reference: The Mercury (Oct. 27, 2019) “Estate planning basics and an estate attorney meeting preparation”

 

Be Prepared, Because The Future Comes Sooner Than You Think

When children are born, many people make sure to have their wills prepared so they can name a guardian in the event both parents die. Usually those documents are not reviewed, says the article “Preparations for the Future” from the Montevideo American-News, and this can lead to problems.

Legal and medical experts encourage people to review their estate planning documents from time to time to be sure that their wishes have not changed.

When people are diagnosed with a serious illness, they are also encouraged to examine their legal and healthcare documents. It’s also important to have plans in place for people diagnosed with dementia as soon as possible as long as that person is still deemed mentally competent to make these decisions for themselves.

According to the National Institute on Aging, advance planning should take place immediately after a diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s, while the person can participate in discussions. People with early stage disease can often understand many aspects and consequences of legal decision making. However, as the disease progresses the ability to make decisions becomes difficult and the validity of the document may come into question.

Advance directives for healthcare documents that communicate healthcare wishes are just part of the legal documents that need to be created. Other documents include a Living Will, which records a person’s wishes for medical treatment, a Health Care Proxy for Healthcare, which designates a person to make healthcare decisions on your behalf and a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order.

Estate planning also needs to be done. An estate planning attorney can help the individual and the family create their plan for the future. There will need to be a Last Will and Testament created, as well as a Power of Attorney for finances, so someone can handle the financial aspect of their life.

A Living Trust may need to be created, to provide instructions about the person’s estate and appoint someone to hold title and property for the beneficiaries. It may be necessary for trusts to be created and funded to protect the family’s assets.

Having an estate planning attorney who has worked with patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia will allow the family to focus on caregiving.

Reference: Montevideo American-News (September 25, 2019) “Preparations for the Future”

 

A Will is the Way to Have Your Wishes Followed

A will, also known as a last will and testament, is one of three documents that make up the foundation of an estate plan, according to The News Enterprises’ article “To ensure your wishes are followed, prepare a will.” As any estate planning attorney will tell you, the other two documents are the Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These three documents all serve different purposes and work together to protect an individual and their family.

There are a few situations where people may think they don’t need a will, but not having one can create complications for the survivors.

First, when spouses with jointly owned property don’t have a will, it is because they know that when the first spouse dies, the surviving spouse will continue to own the property. However, with no will, the spouse might not be the first person to receive any property that is not jointly owned, like a car.  Even when all property is jointly owned—that means the title or deed to all and any property is in both person’s names –upon the death of the second spouse, a case will have to be brought to court through probate to transfer property to heirs.

Secondly, any individuals with beneficiary designations on accounts transfer to the beneficiaries on the owner’s death, with no court involvement. However, the same does not always work for POD, or payable on death accounts. A POD account only transfers the specific account or asset.

Other types of assets, such as real estate and vehicles not jointly owned will have to go through probate. If the beneficiary named on any accounts has passed, their share will go into the estate forcing distribution through probate.

Third, people who do not have a large amount of assets often believe they don’t need to have a will because there isn’t much to transfer. Here’s a problem: with no will, nothing can be transferred without court approval. Let’s say your estate brings a wrongful death lawsuit and wins several hundred thousand dollars in a settlement. The settlement goes to your estate, which now has to go through probate.

Fourth, there is a belief that having a power of attorney means that they can continue to pay the expenses of property and distribute property after the grantor dies. This is not so. A power of attorney expires on the death of the grantor. An agent under a power of attorney has no power, after the person dies.

Fifth, if a trust is created to transfer ownership of property outside of the estate, a will is necessary to funnel unfunded property into the trust upon the death of the grantor. Trusts are created individually for any number of purposes. They don’t all hold the same type of assets. Property that is never properly retitled, for instance, is not in the trust. This is a common error in estate planning. A will provides a way for property to get into the trust upon the death of the grantor.

With no will and no estate plan, property may pass unintentionally to someone you never intended to give your life’s work to. Having a will lets the court know who should receive your property. The laws of your state will be used to determine who gets what in the absence of a will and most are based on the laws of kinship. Speak with an estate planning attorney to create a will that reflects your wishes, and don’t wait to do so. Leaving yourself and your loved ones unprotected by a will, is not a welcome legacy for anyone.

Reference: The News Enterprise (September 22, 2019) “To ensure your wishes are followed, prepare a will.”

 

Understanding Why a Will is Important

These questions presented by The Westerly Sun in the article “Making a will is an important legal step,” may seem very basic but many people don’t really understand how wills work and why they are such an important part of estate planning. Let’s go through these fundamentals about wills.

A will is a legal document that must be prepared under very strict standards to explain your wishes about how you want your estate–that is, your property, money, tangible possessions, and real estate—distributed after you die. A will also does more than that. A will, which is sometimes referred to as a “Last Will and Testament,” also makes clear who you want to be in charge of your minor children, if both parents should die. It also is how you name a person to be in charge of your affairs after death, by naming them as executor of your estate.

A complete estate plan includes a will, and several other documents, including a power of attorney, trusts and a health care proxy. The goal of all of these documents is to make it easier for your surviving spouse or loved ones to take care of you and your possessions, if you become too ill to speak on your own behalf, or when you die.

Your will provides instructions about what happens to your estate. Who should receive your money and property? These instructions must be followed by the person you choose as your executor. The local probate court must give its approval, and then the estate can be distributed.

If you have a valid will, it is admitted to probate (a court process) upon your death, and then your wishes are followed. If you don’t have a will, you are said to have died “intestate.” The laws of the state will decide what will happen to everything you own that is subject to probate. Usually this means that assets are distributed to family members based on their degree of kinship with you.  This may not be what you wanted. If you have children, and especially if you have children with special needs, the court will appoint a guardian for those children. You may not want Aunt Jennifer raising your daughters, but that may end up happening.

Properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney, a will is a binding legal document that carries great significance. No one likes to think about dying, or becoming incapacitated, but by planning ahead, you can determine what you want to happen, and protect those you love.

Reference: The Westerly Sun (August 18, 2019) “Making a will is an important legal step”

 

When Does a No Contest Clause Make Sense?

It’s an emotionally charged decision. Parents who sit down with an estate planning attorney would much rather talk about their grandchildren and how much they are looking forward to retirement.

However, then the discussion turns to how they want to distribute their assets, as reported in the article “Why is it called a ‘No Contest’ clause?” from The Daily Sentinel, and a problem is revealed.

The parents share that there is a family member, an adult child, who has never been part of the family. Usually they have had a troubled past, pushed others in the family out of their lives and it’s heartbreaking for all concerned.

The discussion then moves to determining how to handle that individual with respect to their estate plan. “Do you want her to be part of your estate plan?” is the least judgmental question the estate planning attorney can ask. In many cases, the parents say “yes” and say they will keep trying to foster some kind of relationship no matter how limited. In other cases, the answer is “no”.

In both cases, however, the concern is that the difficult child will fight with their siblings and take the battle to court. That’s one of the reasons to include a no contest clause.

As long as estate planning documents are prepared correctly and signed, they will survive a legal contest. However, putting in a “no contest” clause creates another barrier to an estate battle. The “no contest clause” is intended to act as a strong deterrent for those individuals who believe they are entitled to more of the estate. It makes it clear that any challenges will result in a smaller portion of the estate and possibly no inheritance at all, depending upon how it is written. Both parents need to have a no contest provision included in their wills. The message is clear and consistent: these are the estate plans that we decided to create. Don’t try to change them.

For families with litigious family members or spouses who married into the family and feel that they are not being treated fairly, a no contest clause makes sense to protect the wishes of the parents.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about how a no contest provision might work in your situation. If your family doesn’t need such a clause count your blessings!

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Aug. 10, 2019) “Why is it called a ‘No Contest’ clause?”

 

Your Estate Plan Decides or the State Decides

It’s something that everyone needs, but often gets overlooked. Estate planning makes some people downright uncomfortable. There’s no law that says you must have an estate plan—just laws that will impact how your property is distributed and who will raise your children, if you don’t have a will. Planning is important, says WMUR 9 in a recent article “Money Matters: Estate planning,” if you want to be the one making those decisions.

An estate plan can be simple if you only own a few assets, or complicated if you have significant assets, more than one home and multiple investments. Some strategies are easier to implement like a last will and testament. Others can be simple or complex like trusts. Whatever your needs, an estate planning attorney will be able to give you the guidance that your unique situation requires. Your estate planning attorney may work with your financial advisor and accountant to be sure that your financial and legal plans work together to benefit you and your family.

There are circumstances that require special estate planning:

  • If your estate is valued at more than the federal gift and/or estate tax exclusion, which is $11.4 million per person in 2019
  • You have minor children
  • There are family members with special needs who rely on your support
  • You own a business
  • You own property in more than one state
  • You want to leave a charitable legacy
  • Your property includes artwork or other valuable collectables
  • You have opinions about end-of-life healthcare
  • You want privacy for your family

The first step for any estate plan is a thorough review of the family finances, dynamics and assets. Who are your family members? How do you want to help them? What do they need? What is your tax picture like? How old are you, and how good is your health? These are just a few of the things an estate planning attorney will discuss with you. Once you are clear on your situation, you’ll discuss overall goals and objectives. The attorney will be able to outline your options, whether you are concerned with passing wealth to the next generation, avoiding family disputes, preparing for a disability or transferring ownership of a business.

A last will and testament will provide clear, legal direction as to how your assets should be distributed and who will care for any minor children.

A trust is used to address more complex planning concerns. A trust is a legal entity that holds assets to be used for the benefit of one or more individuals. It is overseen by a trustee or trustees, who can be individuals you name or professionals.

If you create trusts, it is important that assets be retitled so the trust owns the assets and not you personally. If the assets are not retitled the trust will not achieve your goals.

Some property typically has its own beneficiary designations, like IRAs, retirement accounts and life insurance. These assets pass directly to heirs according to the designation, but only if you make the designations on the appropriate forms.

Once you’re done with your estate plan, make a note on your calendar. Estate plans and beneficiary designations need to be reviewed every three or four years. Lives change, laws change and your estate plan needs to keep pace.

Reference: WMUR 9 (Aug. 1, 2019) “Money Matters: Estate planning”