What Must Be Done when a Loved One Dies?

When a member of a family dies, it falls to the people left behind to pick up the pieces. Someone has to find out if the person left a last will, get the bills paid, stop Social Security or other automatic payments and file final tax returns. This is a hard time, but these tasks are among many that need to be done, according to the article “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die” from Business Insider.

This year, more families than usual are faced with the challenge of taking care of the business of a loved one’s life while grieving a loss. When death comes suddenly, there isn’t always time to prepare.

The first step is to determine who will be in charge. If there is a will, then it contains the name of the person selected to be the executor. When a married person dies, usually the surviving spouse has been named as the executor. Otherwise, the family will need to work together to pick one person, usually the one who lives closest to the person who died. That person may need to keep an eye on the house and obtain documents, so proximity is a plus. In a perfect world, the person would have an estate plan, so these decisions would have been made in advance.

Don’t procrastinate. It is hard, but time is an issue. After the funeral and mourning period, it’s time to get to work. Obtain death certificates, and make sure to get enough certified copies—most people get ten or twelve. They’ll be needed for banks, brokerage houses and utility service providers. You’ll also need death certificates for taking control of some digital assets, like the person’s Facebook page.

The first agency to notify is Social Security. If there are other recurring payments, like VA benefits or a pension, those organizations also need to be notified. Contact banks, insurance companies, and financial advisors.

Get the person’s credit cards into your possession and call the credit card companies immediately. Fraud on the deceased is common. Scammers look at death notices and then go onto the dark web to find the person’s Social Security number, credit card and other personal identification info. The sooner the cards are shut down, the better.

Physical assets need to be secured. Locks on a house may be changed to prevent relatives or strangers from walking into the house and taking out property. Remove any possessions that are of value, both sentimental or financial. You should also take a complete inventory of what is in the house. Take pictures of everything and be prepared to keep the house well-maintained. If there are tenants or housemates, make arrangements to get them out of the house as soon as possible.

Accounts with beneficiaries are distributed directly to those beneficiaries, like payable-on-death (POD) accounts, 401(k)s, joint bank accounts and real property held in joint tenancy. The executor’s role is to notify the institutions of the death, but not to distribute funds to beneficiaries.

The executor must also file a final tax return. The final federal tax return is due on April 15 of the year after death. Any taxes that weren’t filed for any prior years, also need to be completed.

This is a big job, which is made harder by grief. Your estate planning attorney may have some suggestions for who might be qualified to help you. An attorney or a fiduciary will take a fee, either based on an hourly rate for services performed or a percentage of the entire value of the estate. If no one in the family is able to manage the tasks, it may be worth the investment.

Reference: Business Insider (May 2, 2020) “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die”

 

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.”

 

Why You—and Everyone—Needs an Estate Plan

At its essence, estate planning is any decision you make concerning your property if you die or if you become incapacitated. There are a number of things to keep in mind when creating an estate plan, says KTUU in the article “Estate planning dos and don’ts.”

The first task is not what most people think. It’s very basic: making a list of all of your assets and how they are titled. Remember, the estate plan is dealing with the distribution of your assets—so you have to first know what those assets are. If you are old enough to have lived through the sale of several different financial institutions, do you know where your accounts are? Not everyone does!

Next, you need to be clear on how the assets are titled. If they are joint with a spouse, Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD), jointly with a child or owned by a trust, they may be treated differently in your estate plan than if you owned them outright.

Roughly fifty percent of all adults don’t make a plan for their estate. That becomes a huge headache for their loved ones. If you don’t have an estate plan, your property will be distributed according to the laws of your state. What you do or don’t want to have happen to your property won’t matter, and in some instances, your family may be passed over for a long-lost sibling. It’s a risk.

In addition, if you don’t have an estate plan, chances are you haven’t done any tax planning. Some states have inheritance taxes, others have estate taxes, and some have both. Even if your estate’s value doesn’t come anywhere close to the very high federal estate tax level ($11.4 million per person for 2019), your heirs could inherit far less if state and inheritance taxes take a bite out of the assets.

For a blended family, there are a number of rules in different states that divide your assets. In Alaska, for instance, if some of the children of one spouse are not the children of the other spouse, there is a statutory formula that depends on how many children there are and which of them are living. Different percentages of money are awarded to the children which becomes complicated.

Another reason to have an estate plan has to do with incapacity. This is perhaps harder to discuss than death for some families. Estate planning includes preparing for what the individual would want to happen if they were injured or too sick to convey their wishes to others. Decisions about health care treatments and end-of-life care are documented with a Living Will (sometimes called an Advanced Care Directive), so your loved ones are not left wondering what you would have wanted and hoping that they got it right.

One last point about an estate plan: be sure to check beneficiary designations while you are doing your estate plan. If you own retirement accounts, life insurance policies, or other assets with named beneficiaries, the assets will pass directly to the named beneficiary regardless of the instructions in your will. If you opened an IRA when you had one child and have had other children since then, make sure to include all of those children and the proportion of their shares. There may be tax implications if only one child receives the assets and there may also be family fights if assets are not distributed equally.

If you have not created an estate plan for yourself, you need to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to help you.

Reference: KTUU (August 14, 2019) “Estate planning dos and don’ts”

 

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”