What are Responsibilities of Trustees and Executors?

Being a fiduciary requires putting the interest of the beneficiary over your own interests, no matter what. The person in charge of managing a trust, the trustee, has a fiduciary duty to the beneficiary, which is described by the terms of the trust. This is explained in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: Executors, executrix and personal representatives” from nwitimes.com.

Understanding the responsibilities of the trust requires a review of the trust documents, which can be long and complicated. An estate planning attorney will be able to review documents and explain the directions if the trust is a particularly complex one.

If the trust is a basic revocable living trust used to avoid having assets in the estate go through probate, duties are likely to be similar to those of a personal representative, also known as the executor. This is the person in charge of carrying out the directions in a last will.

A simple explanation of executor responsibilities is gathering the assets, filing tax returns, and paying creditors. The executor files for an EIN number, which functions like a Social Security number for the estate. The executor opens an estate bank account to hold assets that are not transferred directly to named beneficiaries. And the executor files the last tax returns for the decedent for the last year in which he or she was living, and an estate tax return. There’s more to it, but those are the basic tasks.

A person tasked with administering a trust for the benefit of another person must give great attention to detail. The instructions and terms of the trust must be followed to the letter, with no room for interpretation. Thinking you know what someone else wanted, despite what was written in the trust, is asking for trouble.

If there are investment duties involved, which is common when a trust contains significant assets managed in an investment portfolio, it will be best to work with a professional advisor. Investment duties may be subject to the Prudent Investor Act, or they may include the name of a specific advisor who was managing the accounts before the person died.

If there is room for any discretion whatsoever in the trust, be careful to document every decision. If the trust says you can distribute principal based on the needs of the beneficiary, document why you did or did not make the distribution. Don’t just hand over funds because the beneficiary asked for them. Make decisions based on sound reasoning and document your reasons.

Being asked to serve as a trustee reflects trust. It is also a serious responsibility, and one to be performed with great care. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney if you have any questions about your responsibility as an executor or trustee.

Reference: nwitimes.com (July 18, 2021) “Estate Planning: Executors, executrix and personal representatives”

 

Does Your Estate Have to Go Through Probate?

Probate is a court-supervised process intended to ensure the validity of a lasts will and to protect the distribution of assets after a person has died. If there is no last will, probate still takes place, according to the article “Probate—Courts protecting you after death” from Pauls Valley Democrat.

Every estate that owns property must be probated, unless the title or ownership of the property has been transferred before the person died by gift, if the property is owned jointly with another person, or if it passes by direct beneficiary designation. If a person died without a last will, probate still takes place, but the guidelines used are those of the state law where the person died.

In all cases, it’s better to have a last will and to decide for yourself how you want your assets distributed. For all you know, your state law may give everything you own to an estranged third cousin and her children, who are perfect strangers to you.

If you don’t have a last will, which is referred to as dying “intestate,” the court decides who is going to serve as your administrator. This person will be in charge of distributing all of your worldly goods and taking care of the business part of settling your estate, like paying taxes, selling your home, etc. Without a last will, the court picks a person, and it might not be the person you would have wanted.

Here are the basic steps in probating an estate, once the probate petition is filed:

Initial hearing. This is where the court affirms its jurisdiction and identifies all known heirs, and the personal representative is identified.

Letters Testamentary. This document is issued to the personal representative. This is a judge signed document proving to others, like banks and investment custodians, that the personal representative is legally permitted to handle your property and act on behalf of your estate. It’s similar to a Power of Attorney.

Probate. This court process collects, identifies, and accounts for all assets of a decedent. The representative must be mindful to document any money going in and out of the estate during the administrative process.

Written notice must be given to all and any known heirs. This can lead to relatives and others believing they have a claim on your estate and to then challenge the provisions of your last will with the court.

Notice is also provided to creditors, who have at least 60 days after notice is provided to make a claim on the estate. This timeframe varies by jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, these notices are published in local newspapers, once a week for two or more consecutive weeks. Once they receive fair notice, general creditors who fail to file a claim lose their right to ever file a claim on the estate.

An estate plan is created with an eye to minimizing taxes, maximizing privacy for the family and heirs, and transferring ownership of assets with as little red tape as possible. Failing to properly plan can lead to a probate taking months, and in some cases, years.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your estate plan and avoid probate.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (July 1, 2021) “Probate—Courts protecting you after death”

 

Does Estate Planning Vary by State?

Estate planning varies from state to state and understanding the difference could have a significant impact on whether your estate plan is valid. It is best to get this straight shortly after moving, says The National Law Review in the recent article “Updating Your Estate Plan: What Michigan Residents Need to Know When Moving to Florida.”

It’s not just people from Michigan who move to Florida who need to have their estate plans reviewed, if they are snowbirds or making a full-time move—it’s anyone who moves to another state, from any state. However, Florida’s popularity makes it a good example to use.

Florida restricts who is permitted to serve as a Personal Representatives under a will. The personal representative, also known as an executor, must be a descendent or ancestor of the decedent, a spouse, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, nephew, niece or descendant or ancestor of any such person or a Florida resident.

Florida doesn’t recognize “no contest” clauses in trusts or wills. It also does not recognize unwitnessed testamentary documents, which are handwritten documents even if they are in your own handwriting. Michigan may accept them, but Florida courts do not.

Florida also has a special set of laws, known as the Homestead laws, designed to protect a decedent’s surviving spouse and children. You may have had other plans for your Florida home, but they may not be passed to the people you have designated in your non-Florida will, if they don’t follow the Sunshine State’s guidelines.

Power of Attorney laws differ from state to state, and this can create huge headaches for families. In Michigan, the Durable Power of Attorney can be “springing,” that is, it is effective only upon incapacity. In Florida, once a Durable Power of Attorney is signed, it is effective. Florida may accept a DPA from another state, but Florida law will be applied to the agent’s actions, and restrictions will be based on Florida law, not that of another state.

As for estate planning documents concerning medical and financial decisions while you are living, these are also different. A living will names a person, known as a “Patient Advocate” in Michigan or a “Health Care Surrogate” in Florida, who is authorized to make decisions regarding end of life care, including providing, withholding, or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment. In Michigan, you need two doctors to certify a patient’s incapacity for non-life-or-death decisions. In Florida, only one doctor is needed.

Whether you are traveling north for a cooler summer or planning to leave a northern home before the winter arrives, meet with your estate planning attorney to understand how any and all of your estate planning documents will work—or not—when you are in another state.

Reference: The National Law Review (June 30, 2021) “Updating Your Estate Plan: What Michigan Residents Need to Know When Moving to Florida”

 

Can I Set Up a Trust for an Adult Child?

If you are the parent or guardian of an adult who depends upon you financially, estate planning is critical. When you can’t care for your child, an estate plan which includes funding and guidance protects your dependent and ensures that they will receive the care they need, reports Parents in the article “Wills and Trusts for Adult Dependents.”

First, you need a will. This fundamental estate planning document lets you be very specific about what you want to happen after your death. It also nominates guardians for minor and adult children and pets. Wills can be used to manage decisions that apply to everyone. If there is no will, the laws of your state and a court make all of the decisions, not you.

If you have dependents, the will lets you choose who you want to serve as a guardian for your children. If you are already the legal guardian of a dependent adult, the will can be used to name the person to take over for you. Choose guardians who are up to the responsibilities that come with caring for a dependent adult.

The will is used to manage assets after your death. However, in the case of a dependent adult, you may also need a Special Needs Trust. If you pass assets directly to a dependent adult and they are receiving certain government benefits, the inheritance may make them ineligible for benefits and services.

A Special Needs Trust allows you to earmark a certain amount of money for their care. An estate planning elder lawyer will be familiar with this type of trust and help you create it.

If your dependent adult does not receive any means-tested benefits but is not able to manage an inheritance, then a trust can be used to hold assets to be controlled by a trustee, who might also be a guardian or caretaker.

A will and trusts are central to a well-prepared estate plan. Working with an estate planning attorney will give you the opportunity to consider how you want to distribute assets while you are living and after you have died. It also gives you the opportunity to name a personal representative, or executor, who will manage your estate after your death and be in charge of making sure that your wishes, as expressed in your will, are followed.

Trusts are more complex than wills and allow for a greater degree of control over assets. The trust is a legal entity to benefit others, and a trustee is the person named to be in charge of the trust.

Bear in mind that anything passed through a will has to go through a court process known as probate. The will has to be validated and the executor has to be approved by the court. Any assets in the trust are already outside of your estate and do not go through probate.

Reference: Parents (July 7, 2021) “Wills and Trusts for Adult Dependents.”

 

Can I Write a Perfect Will?

The Good Men Project’s recent article entitled “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will” says that writing a perfect will is hard but not impossible. The article provides some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Include Everything. If you have items that are very important to you, make sure they are in the right hands after your death.
  2. Consult an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney. It is a challenge to write a will, especially when you do not know all the legal processes that will take place after your death. An estate planning lawyer can educate you on how your estate is being distributed after your death and how to address specific circumstances.
  3. Name an Executor. An executor will manage and distribute your assets after you die. Select a trustworthy person and be sure it is someone who will respect you and your will.
  4. Name the Beneficiaries. These people will get your assets after you pass away. Name them all and include their full names, so there is no confusion.
  5. Say Where Everything Can Be Found. Your executor should know where all of your property and assets can be found. If there is any safe place where you keep things, add it to your will.
  6. Describe Residual Legacies. This is what remains in your estate, once all the other legacies and bequests are completed. If you fail to do this, it will be a partial intestacy. No matter that the legacies would be distributed according to the will, the intestacy laws will control the residue, which may not be to your liking.
  7. Name Guardians for Your Minor Children. Appoint a guardian to take care of any minor children or the court will appoint their guardians, again this may not be to your liking.
  8. Be Specific. An ambiguous will creates issues for the executor and may require court intervention. Be specific and include heirs’ full names. Account numbers, security boxes and anything of the sort should also be included in your will for easy access.
  9. Keep it Updated. If you experience a major life event, update your will accordingly.
  10. Get Signatures from Witnesses. Once your will is completed, you need witnesses who are at least 18 and are not beneficiaries. Sign and date the will in front of these witnesses, and then ask them to date and sign it too.

If you have any questions about wills, speak to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: The Good Men Project (May 28, 2021) “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will”

 

Can I Create a Stress-free Asset Transfer?

We can all agree that end-of-life planning is a sensitive topic. Nonetheless, taking the time to consider a loved one’s estate and distribution of wealth can set the family at ease and also make certain that there is a smooth transition of assets, without unnecessary legal hurdles or headaches.

MarketWatch’s article entitled “3 tips for navigating estate planning with loved ones” explains that, if you’re thinking about starting the process of estate planning with a close family member, like an elderly parent or a new spouse, read these recommendations:

  1. Stress the ultimate benefit of peace of mind. Estate planning helps the transfer of assets in an efficient and less stressful manner. It also minimizes estate tax liability of your assets when you die. Most of all, your loved ones will benefit with the peace of mind.
  2. Be as open as you can. Be honest and communicate openly about your loved one’s wishes on how they would like to distribute their estate and wealth either during life or death. Many assumptions can be made about end-of-life financial planning, like parents who assume their children will not fight when dividing their assets. This can put a lot of stress on surviving siblings, so communicate clear expectations during the planning process. It is also important to take some time to consider trustees and executors, and to encourage your parent or spouse to name an executor who is organized and thorough. Once this individual is named, be sure he or she understands the location of all of your loved one’s assets.
  3. Use care with beneficiary selections. Naming beneficiaries can have important tax implications. It is common to name a trust as the beneficiary of an IRA account, when your children are young. However, as they grow up, this can be an issue. When an IRA is distributed to a trust, it triggers taxes. The assets will be taxed immediately before being distributed to beneficiaries. Name children as direct beneficiaries of their IRA, so that they have other options available to them. Many of these may provide significant tax savings.

One more thought: using “transfer on death” designations for individual accounts is similar to a beneficiary designation for a retirement account. However, it permits your parent or spouse to name beneficiaries when they pass and prevents their money from going through a lengthy and expensive probate.

The best time to discuss estate planning with your parents is now. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to guide you through this process.

Reference: MarketWatch (June 5, 2021) “3 tips for navigating estate planning with loved ones”

 

What Is a Fiduciary and Why Is It Important?

If you do not choose a fiduciary, a guardian appointed by a court may end up making financial and medical decisions for you and the intestate statutes of your state will determine who will administer your estate when you have passed. If you’d rather have some control over your life, doing some estate planning now will prevent these scenarios later, according to the article “Fiduciary Agents have power to make decisions you’d prefer to make yourself” from the Pocono Record.

A financial fiduciary is the person you designate under your general durable power of attorney, last will and testament, or trust.

The fiduciary under a power of attorney has the power to make decisions, while you are living, for your financial and legal affairs. The person is named in a legal document called an agent or attorney in fact. This document can be broad, allowing the person to determine how to spend or invest your money, to buy and/or sell your home, etc., or it can permit someone to act on your behalf solely for a specific transaction. You and your estate planning attorney determine what is best.

An agent under a healthcare proxy can make healthcare decisions on your behalf, when you are unable to communicate for yourself because of a severe illness or an injury, or a cognitive condition. It is very important to understand that if you are already incapacitated, you cannot sign documents giving anyone else these powers. They must be prepared before they are needed!

Some people prefer to have one person serve as both their agent for finances and for healthcare. This allows one person who understands your physical and mental needs to make decisions about home care, assisted living or a skilled nursing facility and have access to the resources to pay for these services. This also means that one person is applying for any government benefits to help pay for this care.

There are times when designating two different agents creates conflict, if the two people don’t agree on the appropriate type of care. One may be more concerned with spending down resources, while another may wish you to receive 24/7 care.

If you appointed someone to serve as your fiduciary many years ago, it is so important that your documents be reviewed and updated. Do you still want that same person to make critical decisions on your behalf? Are they still able or willing to serve? If the person you have chosen lives in another state and wants you to be moved to where they live, will that work for you and your family?

If you have not reviewed your estate plan and your power of attorney documents in recent years, it is strongly recommended you do so now. Many families are now grappling with the results of outdated planning, or no planning at all. Having an updated estate plan and all of the related documents provides peace of mind for you and your loved ones. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to update or even begin your estate planning documents.

Reference: Pocono Record (June 1, 2021) “Fiduciary Agents have power to make decisions you’d prefer to make yourself”

 

Why Is Estate Planning So Important?

“Estate planning” will be your family’s guidebook once you have passed away. The Big Easy Magazine’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning Is Essential and Here’s Whyexplains that estate planning is similar to writing a last will. HOwever, writing one is not limited to what happens to your house, car, possessions, or other assets after you pass away. It also entails the question of who will take care of your minor children, if they are left without a parent, as well as your instructions for burial and other items.

If you fail to leave specific instructions, the state’s intestacy laws will apply at your death, meaning that the court will decide who gets what. There is no guarantee this will be in your best interest. Let’s look at the consequences of not writing your will:

  • If you prefer cremation or a traditional burial, your family may not know and decide based on their preferences or convenience.
  • Your properties will be managed by someone you do not necessarily trust, if you do not name an executor to your will.
  • Some of your loved ones may not get an inheritance if there is no will. State law may not carry out your intentions, and some people may be left out.
  • Your favorite charity may not receive donations. For those committed to leaving a legacy, your organization of choice should be listed in the will.
  • The court will assign guardians for your minor children, and social services will appoint a guardian. You can avoid this, by naming a trusted person in your will.

Aside from avoiding these consequences, estate planning can also save your family a lot of headaches and expense. A detailed will with your instructions will alleviate the stress and provide them with comfort, while they recover emotionally from their loss. Here are the top reasons why you need to plan these things:

  • You can avoid inheritance taxes and federal estate taxes with proper estate planning.
  • You can name who will care for you, if you are unable to make your own decisions because of illnesses, infirmity, or old age. With a power of attorney, you can name someone you trust to manage your finances.
  • If your minor children are orphaned, you can name someone you trust to be their guardian in your will.
  • Some family members are greedy, so you can exclude them from your will. With an estate plan created by an experienced estate planning attorney, you can ensure that the people you love will receive what you intend.

Estate planning is essential to securing a comfortable life for your loved ones. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to set things up correctly.

Reference: The Big Easy Magazine (May 17, 2021) “Estate Planning Is Essential and Here’s Why”

 

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”

 

What Does the Executor Do?

The executor of an estate is the person who manages all the decedent’s financial affairs. If the person wants to have more than one person manage their affairs, like naming two children instead of one, then the term “co-executors” is used, as explained in a recent article “Executor of Estate: What Do They Do?” from Forbes

The most important characteristic that the executor should have, is integrity and good judgment. They are legally required to act in the estate’s best interest, which is called acting as a fiduciary. This is important, especially if an heir serves as an executor. They also need to be wise enough to know when they need help from a skilled professional like an experienced estate planning attorney.

The executor follows the directions that are included in the person’s will, including distributing assets to beneficiaries. They also manage the many tasks associated with wrapping up the decedent’s life, including paying creditors, issuing notices of death, filing tax returns and overseeing the sale of homes and automobiles.

In some states, the executor is called a “personal representative.” The word “executrix” is an old, out-of-date term used when a woman serves as the executor, not commonly used today.

When a proper estate plan is in place, the executor of the estate is named in the decedent’s last will and testament. In cases where the decedent (sometimes referred to as the testator) did not have a will, or the will has been deemed invalid, the probate court judge names someone to serve as executor. This is not always someone who the executor would have named, but when there is no will, the court makes this decision.

If you have been named the executor of an estate and don’t wish to serve, you may decline. If the decedent anticipated that and named an alternative or contingent executor, then the secondary person will serve, or the probate court judge will name someone to serve in this role. The judge can also override the decedent’s choice of an executor, if the person they named has a criminal history, is not of legal age, has a mental disability or a substance abuse problem. The court is not allowed to change the executor simply because the heirs don’t want a person to serve.

The executor has a long list of tasks to accomplish, from obtaining death certificates and securing the home to filing the will with the probate court in the decedent’s county of residence and petitioning the court for probate. Many executors bring in an estate attorney to assist with the legal portion of administering the estate, as an estate and trusts attorney will be familiar with the processes and the deadlines.

The executor must notify the Social Security administration and Medicare, if the person was enrolled in either of these federal programs. The Department of Motor Vehicles, Veterans Affairs and insurance companies must also be notified. The executor is also responsible for filing the person’s final income tax returns and if necessary, filing the state and federal estate tax returns. This is just a partial listing of the many different tasks that must be accomplished. The estate planning attorney may have a checklist to help the executor on track.

Reference: Forbes (May 3, 2021) “Executor of Estate: What Do They Do?”