Should I agree to Be an Executor of an Estate?

If you are asked to be an executor, you should understand some of the duties it entails before saying yes. An executor is the person named to distribute a deceased person’s property that passes under his or her last will and arranges for the payment of debts and expenses.

WMUR’s article entitled “Settling an estate” explains that if the executor isn’t willing or able to perform the role, there’s usually an alternative person named as executor in the will. If there isn’t, then a judge will name an executor for the estate.

Depending on the size and complexity of the estate, settling the affairs may be a difficult and time-consuming task. In some cases, the deceased may have left a letter of instruction or letter of last instruction to help make the process run more smoothly. This letter may set out a list of documents and their locations, contact info for attorneys and accountants, a list of creditors, login information for important websites and final burial wishes.

One of these documents is usually a last will. The executor will need to obtain the original and talk to an estate planning attorney to determine what type of probating is necessary. Probate is the process of getting a court to approve the validity of the last will. The executor will take inventory of the assets of the deceased. This may be required by the probate court. Some assets may also need to be appraised. Once the probate process is finished, assets then may be sold or gifted according to the decedent’s wishes.

An executor must also protect these assets. This could include changing the locks on properties. The executor may also be required to pay mortgages, utility bills and maintenance costs on property. Final expenses also need to be paid. The funeral home or coroner will provide death certificates that will be needed for things, such as filing life insurance claims. Other debts and taxes will require payment. Medical bills, credit card debt and taxes should be paid out of the estate.

If the deceased was collecting benefits, such as Social Security, this will need to be stopped. The executor is responsible for filing a final federal and state tax return for the deceased. An estate and gift tax return may also be necessary.

An executor has many duties. He or she must be honest, impartial and financially responsible. Estate assets need to be managed properly, and the executor has what is called a “fiduciary duty.”

All of this can be made easier with the help an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: WMUR (Aug. 12, 2021) “Settling an estate”

 

What Should Same-Sex Couples Know about Estate Planning?

Proper estate planning can help ensure that your wishes are carried out exactly as intended in the event of a death or a serious illness, says Insurance Net News’ recent article entitled “What Same-Sex Partners Need to Know About Estate Planning.” Having a clearly stated plan in place can give clear instructions and potentially avoid any fights that otherwise might occur. For same-sex couples, this may be even more crucial.

Your estate plan should include a will or trust, beneficiary forms, powers of attorney, a living will and a letter of intent. It’s also smart to include a secure document with a list of your accounts, debts, assets and contact info for any key people involved in those accounts. This list should contain passwords for locked accounts and any other relevant information.

A will is a central component of an estate plan which ensures that your wishes are followed after you pass away. This alleviates your family from the responsibility of determining how to divide your property and takes the guessing and stress out of how to pass along belongings. A will or trust might also state the way in which to transfer your financial assets to your children. You should also make sure your beneficiary forms are up to date with your spouse for life insurance policies, bank accounts and retirement accounts.

For same-sex couples, it is particularly important to create a clear medical power of attorney and create a living will that states your medical directives, if you aren’t able to make those decisions on your own. If you aren’t married, this will give your partner the legal protection he or she needs to make those decisions. It is important for you to take time to have those conversations with your partner, so the plans and directives are clear. You can also draft a letter of intent, which is a written, personal note that can be included to help detail your wishes and provide reasoning for the decisions.

Protecting Your Minor Children. Name a legal guardian for them in your will, in the event both parents die. Same-sex couples must make sure that both parents have equal rights, especially in a case where one parent is the biological parent. If the surviving spouse or partner isn’t the biological parent and hasn’t legally adopted the children, don’t assume they’ll automatically be named guardian.  These laws vary from state to state.

Dissolve Old Unions. There could be challenges, if you entered into a civil union or domestic partnership before your marriage was legalized. Prior to the 2015 marriage equality ruling, some same-sex couples married in states where it was legal but resided in states where the marriage wasn’t recognized. If you and your partner broke up, but didn’t legally dissolve the union, it may still be legally binding. Moreover, some states converted civil unions and domestic partnerships to legal marriages, so you and a former partner could be legally married without knowing it. If a former union wasn’t with your current partner, make certain that you legally unbind yourself to avoid any future disputes on your estate.

Review Your Real Estate Documents. Check your real estate documents to confirm that both partners are listed and have equal rights to home ownership, especially if the home was purchased prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage or if you aren’t married. There are a few ways to split ownership of their property. This includes tenants in common, where both partners share ownership of the property, but allows each individual to leave their shares to another person in their will. There’s also joint tenants with rights to survivorship. This is when both partners are property owners but if one dies, the remaining partner retains sole ownership.

Estate planning can be a complex process, and same-sex couples may have more stress to make certain that they have a legally binding plan. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the estate planning process to put a solid plan to help provide peace of mind knowing your family is protected.

Reference: Insurance Net News (June 30, 2021) “What Same-Sex Partners Need to Know About Estate Planning”

 

What Exactly Is a Trust?

MSN Money’s recent article entitled “What is a trust?” explains that many people create trusts to minimize issues and costs for their families or to create a legacy of charitable giving. Trusts can be used in conjunction with a last will to instruct where your assets should go after you die. However, trusts offer several great estate planning benefits that you don’t get in a last will, like letting your heirs to see a relatively speedy conclusion to settling your estate.

Working with an experienced estate planning attorney, you can create a trust to minimize taxes, protect assets and spare your family from going through the lengthy probate process to divide up your assets after you pass away. A trust can also let you control to whom your assets will be disbursed, as well as how the money will be paid out. That’s a major point if the beneficiary is a child or a family member who doesn’t have the ability to handle money wisely. You can name a trustee to execute your wishes stated in the trust document. When you draft a trust, you can:

  • Say where your assets go and when your beneficiaries have access to them
  • Save your beneficiaries from paying estate taxes and court fees
  • Shield your assets from your beneficiaries’ creditors or from loss through divorce settlements
  • Instruct where your remaining assets should go if a beneficiary dies, which can be helpful in a family that includes second marriages and stepchildren; and
  • Avoid a long probate court process.

One of the most common trusts is called a living or revocable trust, which lets you put assets in a trust while you’re alive. The control of the trust is transferred after you die to beneficiaries that you named. You might want to ask an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a living trust for several reasons, such as:

  • If you’d like someone else to take on the management responsibilities for some or all of your property
  • If you have a business and want to be certain that it operates smoothly with no interruption of income flow, if you die or become disabled
  • If you want to shield assets from the incompetency or incapacity of yourself or your beneficiaries; or
  • If you want to decrease the chances that your will may be contested.

A living trust can be a smart move for those with even relatively modest estates. The downside is that while a revocable trust will usually keep your assets out of probate if you were to die, there still will be estate taxes if you hit the threshold.

By contrast, an irrevocable trust can’t be changed once it’s been created. You also relinquish control of the assets you put into the trust. However, an irrevocable trust has a key advantage in that it can protect beneficiaries from probate and estate taxes.

In addition, there are many types of specialty trusts you can create. Each is structured to accomplish different goals. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about these.

Reference: MSN Money (July 9, 2021) “What is a trust?

Why Do I Need a Will, Like Yesterday?

A recent Gallup poll found that fewer than half of Americans (46%) have a last will that states the way in which their assets are to be handled after their death.

Surprisingly, the results of this survey have been nearly unchanged since 1990 at between 44% and 51%.

Real Simple’s recent article “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now” says that one of the most common myths is that a last will isn’t needed if you want all of your assets to go to your family.

  1. While the state has laws on what happens if you die without a last will, what if that’s not exactly how you want your estate to be distributed?
  2. Another major reason for creating a last will is to make certain that someone is named to care for your minor children.
  3. A last will lets you designate guardians to care for your children after your death. Without a guardian in a last will, a judge will decide who raises your children if you pass away. That judge likely would be someone who does not know you or your children or your family and friends. Without a last will, you will be allowing this “stranger” to make this life-changing decision for your children.
  4. Also, there are taxes. If you have a last will in place, it will minimize estate taxes your family may have to deal with. A comprehensive estate plan created with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney can reduce tax exposure by as much as 40%. This move alone can help avoid having to pay taxes on your income a second time.
  5. A last will isn’t just for your benefit. Your family will ultimately be most impacted by whether you took the time to draft up this important document. Creating a last will can give them some peace and comfort during a difficult time. In contrast, not having a last will leaves them with no guidance as to your wishes and can add to their burdens and stress during their grieving.
  6. Care and maintenance of pets. The law says that pets are just property. If you regard your pets as members of the family, then you can leave money to an individual whom you designate as the caregiver for your pet if it survives you. A last will lets you to give your pet to a chosen loved one. This simple step alone can help prevent your pet from going to a shelter.
  7. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your will.

Reference: Real Simple (June 25, 2021) “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now”

 

What are My Best Estate Planning Moves?

Tickertape’s recent article “5 Estate Planning Tips That Aren’t Just for the Wealthy” explains that a common misconception is that estate planning isn’t necessary if your estate assets amount to less than the 2021 federal estate tax exemption of $11.7 million per individual.

But most of us can benefit from estate planning. This can help protect your assets for your heirs. Estate planning includes creating a last will or revocable living trust, making certain that you have the right beneficiaries, and creating a health care directive. Creating a solid estate plan can decrease the odds that your family will have to deal with a problematic probate and reduce the amount of money because of unneeded taxes.

Create a Will. A last will is one way to let people know how you want your assets taken care of after you die. Plus, a last will should include information about who should act as guardians for minor children and care for any pets. Talk to an estate planning attorney about the specific laws for probate to make sure you do it correctly.

Name Your Beneficiaries. Review your beneficiary designations and make sure they’re up to date. When there’s a major life change, you should look at your beneficiary designations (e.g., life insurance and retirement funds), update your last will, and make sure everything matches. This includes charities as well as individuals. There are estate planning strategies designed to help you pass your assets on, but none of these will help if you don’t have your beneficiaries properly designated and assets aligned with your estate plan.

Ask Your Attorney About a Trust. A fully funded revocable living trust can be great tool to pass your assets on while potentially helping your heirs avoid probate. There are many different types of trusts that can be used to provide a variety of benefits. Much depends on your situation, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Power of Attorney. Estate planning also includes documents in the event you become incapacitated. Signing a power of attorney allows an agent to make decisions on your behalf if you’re incapacitated. Find a person you trust to handle these decisions and have an estate planning attorney prepare the legal documents to ensure that everything is correct.

Think About Giving Now. You don’t need to wait until you’re gone to provide resources to your family. In 2021, you can give up to $15,000 to each recipient without paying the gift tax. If you’re married, each spouse can give $15,000. When you give to charity now, instead of waiting until you pass, you may claim a tax deduction, whether you donate directly, give stock, or set up a donor-advised fund. This allows you to benefit now—along with your beneficiaries.

Reference: Tickertape (June 25, 2021) “5 Estate Planning Tips That Aren’t Just for the Wealthy”

 

Do Singles Need Estate Planning?

Pauls Valley Democrat’s recent article entitled “Even ‘singles’ need estate plans” tells us what might happen if you die intestate (without a last will and testament). In that case, your any assets without a surviving joint owner or designated beneficiary or titled in a revocable living trust may be required to pass through the probate process. As a result, they’ll be distributed by the court, according to the state’s intestate succession laws.

Even if you don’t have children, you may have nephews or nieces, or even children of cousins or friends, to whom you’d like to leave some of your assets. However, if everything you own goes through probate, there’s no guarantee that these people will get what you wanted them to have. Therefore, if you want to leave something to family members or close friends, state this in your last will and testament.

However, you may also want to provide support to some charities. You can just name these charities in your will. However, there may be options that could provide you with additional benefits. One such possibility is a charitable remainder trust. With this trust, you’d transfer appreciated assets, such as stocks, mutual funds or other securities, into an irrevocable trust. Your named trustee could then sell the assets at full market value, avoiding the capital gains taxes you’d have to pay if you sold them yourself, outside a trust.

Moreover, if you itemize, you may be able to claim a charitable deduction on your taxes. With the proceeds, the trust can purchase income-producing assets and provide you with an income stream for the rest of your life. At your death, the remaining trust assets will go to the charities that you’ve named.

A single person also should have as part of his or her estate planning, a durable power of attorney and a health care proxy. A durable power of attorney allows you to designate an individual to manage your finances, if you become incapacitated. This is really important, if you don’t have a spouse to step in.

If you become incapacitated, your health care proxy – also known as a health care surrogate or medical power of attorney – allows you to name another person to legally make health care decisions for you, if you are unable to do so yourself.

Estate planning can be complex, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (June 24, 2021) “Even ‘singles’ need estate plans”

 

Disney Grandson Loses Appeal of Probate Court’s Decision

Bradford Lund, Walt Disney’s adult grandson, lost an appeal in a battle with a Los Angeles probate judge who appointed a guardian ad litem without a hearing and rejected a proposed settlement that would have given Lund a $200 million inheritance, says this recent article “Walt Disney’s Grandson Loses Appeal in Fight for $200M Inheritance” from The Hollywood Reporter. Despite its decision, the appellate court described the probate court’s behavior as “troubling.”

In 2020, Lund filed a lawsuit in California federal court arguing that his due process was violated when a County Superior Court judge rejected a settlement reached by family members and trustees. The judge appointed a guardian ad litem, even though an Arizona judge had determined that Lund was not incapacitated and another judge in California stated that Lund had the capacity to choose new trustees.

The lawsuit was later amended to include a claim under the Americans With Disabilities Act because in the 2019 settlement, Judge Cowan had stated that he would not give 200 million dollars to someone who may suffer, at some level, from Down syndrome.

Six months later, a U.S. District judge dismissed the matter. During the appeals process, the Superior Court discharged the guardian ad litem and granted Lund’s request for a new judge.

The 9th Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the dismissal, finding that most of Lund’s claims had become moot, as a result of the judge recusing himself and removing the guardian ad litem. The panel also held that, while the judge’s statements were inappropriate and without factual basis, they were protected by judicial immunity.

It may be small comfort to Lund, but the 9th Circuit judge criticized the probate court and acknowledged his frustration with the system. The district judge no longer serves in probate court, although no connection between his departure and the Lund matter was recognized by the 9th District. Always be sure to speak with a qualified Estate Attorney to make sure court processes are followed at every step.

Regarding the ADA claim, the panel of 9th Circuit judges says that judges must remain completely independent, and subjecting judges to liability for grievances of litigants would compromise that.

Reference: The Hollywood Reporter (July 16, 2021) “Walt Disney’s Grandson Loses Appeal in Fight for $200M Inheritance”

What Is a Testamentary Trust?

Trusts are created to hold assets, and money in a trust is managed according to the instructions of the person who created it. A testamentary trust is a trust that’s created by a will after death, explains WTOP’s article entitled “What Is a Testamentary Trust and How Do I Create One?” Once the trust has been created, assets are placed into it and then distributed, as designated by its legal documentation.

There is also something called a revocable trust, which is a living trust created prior to a person’s death. A revocable trust is created outside of probate, which means that the heirs do not have to go through probate to receive assets from a living trust. Instead, a trustee can distribute funds directly to beneficiaries. Both testamentary trusts and living trusts are used for estate planning. However, a living trust allows for more flexibility and can have lower long-term costs. Living trusts are not only created outside probate but managed outside the court system as well. In contrast, testamentary trusts are administered through probate for as long as they are in effect.

A testamentary trust is frequently used to manage money for minor children, but it can protect assets in other situations too. The good thing is that there is a lot more court oversight. The bad part is court oversight is not cheap.

For example, a testamentary trust could be used to manage money for an 8-year-old beneficiary until age 25. But that means 17 years of probate. So, while testamentary trusts may be less expensive than living trusts to set up, they could cost more in the long run. These trusts are rare, and the one time a testamentary trust may have an advantage over a living trust is if someone involved in the estate is prone to taking legal action, in which case court management may be the better option.

You should ask an attorney to draft the documents. It should be an attorney who specializes in trusts and estates. Having an experienced estate planning attorney draw up will and trust documents will make certain that they meet the state’s requirements and are written so that your assets are distributed according to your instructions.

When the creator of the trust dies, the testamentary trust will be created, and assets moved into it as stipulated in the deceased’s will. Distributions will then occur from the trust, as instructed in the trust documents.

Reference: WTOP (July 19, 2021) “What Is a Testamentary Trust and How Do I Create One?”

 

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”