Dissolving the Mystery of Probate

Probate can be avoided with proper estate planning.

The Street’s recent article on this subject asks “What Is Probate and How Can You Avoid It?” The article looks at the probate process and tries to put it in real-life terms.

Probate is an estate planning process that works within a probate court with a probate judge presiding over the proceedings. Usually, surviving families and other interested parties (with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney) initiate a probate process, to address issues relating to the deceased individual’s estate settlement. These include:

  • The handling of the deceased’s valid will;
  • Properly citing and categorizing the deceased’s assets;
  • Appraising the deceased’s estate and property;
  • Paying off any of the deceased’s existing debts; and
  • Distributing the deceased’s property to those directed by the will (or, if there’s no will, the probate court will direct the distribution of estate assets,according to the laws of intestacy).

The executor handling the deceased’s estate will typically start the process. Here are the basic steps:

File a Petition. The estate’s executor will file a request for probate where the deceased resided.  The court will then assign a date to confirm the executor and, once that is done, the probate judge will officially open the probate case.

Notice. The executor must send a notice that the deceased’s estate is officially in probate to all applicable beneficiaries, heirs, debtors and creditors.

Inventory Assets. The executor will then collect, list and present a value for all of the deceased’s assets and supply this to the probate court.

Pay the Bills. The executor will need to pay all outstanding debts owed by the estate.

Complete Any Tax Returns. The estate may also have existing tax returns that need to be filed. An accountant can be hired by the estate to work on this, or the executor may choose to file the taxes on his or her own.

Pay the Heirs. The executor can now distribute the remainder of the estate to any heirs, according to the will’s instructions.

Close the Estate. Finally, the executor will file paperwork with the court and file to close the estate.

An experienced estate planning attorney licensed to practice in your state will be able to explain what strategies are used to avoid probate, how to remove certain assets from the process, or whether it needs to be avoided at all. In some regions, probate is swift, while in others it is long and tiresome. A local estate planning attorney is your best resource.

Reference: The Street (July 29, 2019) “What Is Probate and How Can You Avoid It?”

 

Should I Get Attorney to Write My Will?

Drafting a will is an essential part of estate planning. Even though it’s vitally important, a recent survey from AARP revealed that two out of five Americans over the age of 45 don’t have one.

The Reflector’s recent article, “Things people should know about creating wills,” says that writing your wishes down on paper helps avoid unnecessary work and stress when you die. Signing a will allows heirs to act with the decedent’s wishes in mind and also will make certain that assets and possessions go to the right people.

Estate planning can be complicated, and that’s the reason why many folks turn to estate planning attorneys to make sure this important task is done correctly and legally. Here are some of the estate planning topics to discuss with your lawyer:

List of Your Assets. Create a list of your assets and determine the ones covered by the will and those that will have to be passed through joint tenancy on a deed or a living trust. For instance, life insurance policies or retirement plan proceeds will be distributed by the beneficiaries you named in each account.

Naming a Guardian. Parents with minor children should definitely designate the person or persons whom they want to become guardians if they were to die unexpectantly. They can also use their will to name a person who will be in charge of the finances for the children.

Remembering Your Pets. It’s common for pet owners to use their will to detail guardianship for their pets and to leave money or property to defray the cost of their care.  A pet trust is legal in most states and is the best way to leave money and name a caretaker for your pets.

Stating Your Funeral Instructions. Settling probate won’t occur until after the funeral. As a result, any funeral wishes in a will frequently aren’t read until after the fact.

Designate an Executor. This is a trusted individual who will execute the terms of the will. He or she should be willing to serve and be capable of executing the will.

Those who die without a valid will become intestate. This will result in their estate being settled based on the laws of where that person lived. A court-appointed administrator will have the authority to transfer the assets and property. This administrator is bound by the state’s intestacy laws and may make decisions that go against the decedent’s wishes. To avoid this, work with an experienced estate planning attorney to draft a will and other estate planning documents.

Reference: The Reflector (July 15, 2019) “Things people should know about creating wills”

 

How Can Dads Make Sure Their Families are Protected?

Forbes’ recent article, “How Fathers Can Make Sure Their Families Are Financially Protected” suggests that fathers consider taking the following steps to ensure their families are protected. The same advice applies to mothers too.

Do you have enough life insurance? Be sure you’re adequately insured, so your family won’t struggle to pay the bills without your income. Many employees only have enough life insurance from work to cover a year’s worth of salary, which may be enough for some families. However, if your spouse can’t make the mortgage payment on their own, and if they would be unwilling or unable to sell the home, you might want to at least make sure you have enough life insurance to pay off the mortgage. Once you know how much you need, buy a low-cost term policy for the maximum length of time you might need the coverage.

Are your beneficiaries updated on retirement accounts, annuities and life insurance policies? This is an often overlooked issue. An outdated beneficiary designation could result in your ex-spouse inheriting most of your assets, your latest child being disinherited, or your family having to pay higher taxes and probate fees than is necessary.

Is your will drafted?  You need a will to name a guardian for your minor children in most states. It’s a good idea to have an experienced estate planning attorney  help you.

Are you organized? Keep a record of where everything and everyone is. You can draft an “In Case of Emergency” folder that has copies of your will, revocable trust, life insurance policy and a summary of brokerage and bank accounts. Let your family know where to find it. You should also share your passwords to your digital accounts.

As a parent, you have an obligation to care for the financial well-being of your family. Part of this is making sure they’ll be protected, even if you’re not around.

Reference: Forbes (June 16, 2019) “How Fathers Can Make Sure Their Families Are Financially Protected”

 

How Do I Talk About Money with My Elderly Parents?

Many experts say that you should have your affairs in order, before you turn 50. However, only half of us have a will by that age, according to a recent report by Merrill Lynch and Age Wave.

More than 50% said their lack of proper planning could leave a problem for their families.

CNBC’s recent article, “How to have ‘the (money) talk’ with your parents,” explains that, according to the study, just 18% of those 55 and older have the estate planning recommended essentials: a will, a health-care directive and a power of attorney.

To start, get a general feel for your aging parents’ financial standing.

This should include where they bank, and whether there’s enough savings to cover their retirement and long-term care. If they don’t have enough saved, they’ll lean on you for support.

Next, start a list of the legal documents they do have, such as a power of attorney, a document that designates an agent to make financial decisions on their behalf and a health-care directive that states who has the authority to make health decisions for them.

You should include information on bank accounts and other assets. You should also list their passwords to online accounts and Social Security numbers.

Next, your parents should create an estate plan, if they don’t already have one. When you put a plan in place for how financial accounts, real estate and other assets will be distributed, it helps the family during what’s already a difficult time. Having an estate plan in place keeps the courts from determining where these assets go.

While you’re at it, talk to your own children about your financial picture.

Many people think they don’t need to yet have the talk. However, the perfect time to have the conversation, is when you are healthy. This is the time when you should speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your assets and how to preserve them and not when you are ill or at the last minute say before surgery.

Here’s an encouraging fact: young adults who discuss money with their parents are more likely to have their own finances under control. They are also more likely to have a budget, an emergency fund, to put 10% or more of their income toward savings and have a retirement account. That’s all according to a separate parents, children and money survey from T. Rowe Price.

Having routine conversations about money and estate planning alleviates many expensive and stressful problems for families. An estate planning attorney can work with grandparents, parents and adult children to make sure that all of their family members are protected with an estate plan for each generation.

Reference: CNBC (June 30, 2019) “How to have ‘the (money) talk’ with your parents”

 

How to Design an Estate Plan with a Blended Family?

There are several things that blended families need to consider when updating their estate plans, says The University Herald in the article “The Challenges and Complexities of Estate Planning for Blended Families.”

Estate plans should be reviewed and updated, whenever there’s a major life event, like a divorce, marriage or the birth or adoption of a child. If you don’t do this, it can lead to disastrous consequences after your death, like giving all your assets to an ex-spouse.

If you have children from previous marriages, make sure they inherit the assets you desire after your death. When new spouses are named as sole beneficiaries on retirement accounts, life insurance policies, and other accounts, they aren’t legally required to share any assets with the children.

Take time to review and update your estate plan. It will save you and your family a lot of stress in the future.

Your estate planning attorney can help you with this process.

You may need more than a simple will to protect your biological children’s ability to inherit. If you draft a will that leaves everything to your new spouse, he or she can cut out the children from your previous marriage altogether. Ask your attorney about a trust for those children. There are many options.

You can create a trust that will leave assets to your new spouse during his or her lifetime, and then pass those assets to your children, upon your spouse’s death. This is known as an AB trust. There is also a trust known as an ABC trust. Various assets are allocated to each trust, and while this type of trust can be a little complicated, the trusts will ensure that wishes are met, and everyone inherits as you want.

Be sure you that select your trustee wisely. It’s not uncommon to have tension between your spouse and your children. The trustee may need to serve as a referee between them, so name a person who will carry out your wishes as intended and who respects both your children and your spouse.

Another option is to simply leave assets to your biological children upon your death. The only problem here, is if your spouse is depending upon you to provide a means of support after you have passed.

An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to help you map out a plan so that no one is left behind. The earlier in your second (or subsequent) married life you start this process, the better.

Reference: University Herald (June 29, 2019) “The Challenges and Complexities of Estate Planning for Blended Families”

 

Is Estate Planning Really Such a Big Deal?

Delaying your estate planning is never a good idea, says The South Florida Reporter, in the new article entitled “Why Estate Planning Is So Important.” That’s because life can be full of unexpected moments and before you know it, it’s too late. Estate planning is for everyone, regardless of financial status, and especially if they have a family that is very dependent on them.

Estate planning is designed to protect your family from complications concerning your assets when you die. Many people believe that they don’t require estate planning. However, that’s not true. Estate planning is a way of making sure that all your assets will be properly taken care of by your family, if you’re no longer able to make your decisions due to incapacity or death.

Without estate planning, a court will name a person—usually a stranger—to handle your assets and finances when you die. This makes the probate process lengthy and stressful. To protect your assets after you die, you need to have an estate plan in advance. You also need to address possible state and federal taxes. Your estate plan is a way to decrease your tax burdens.

With a proper estate plan, your final wishes for your assets will be set out in a legal document. With a will or trust, all of your assets will be distributed to your beneficiaries, according to your final wishes.

This will also save your family from having to deal with the distribution of your assets, which can become very complicated without a will. There can also be family fights from the process of distributing assets without a will.

It is also important to remember that if you do create an estate plan, you’ll need to update it every once in a while—especially if there’s a significant event that happened in your life, like a birth, a death, or a move. Your estate plan should be ever-changing, since your assets and your life can also change.

It’s vital that you work with an experienced estate planning attorney, who can help you draft the legal documents that will make certain your family is taken care of after you pass away.

Reference: South Florida Reporter (June 12, 2019) “Why Estate Planning Is So Important”

 

Why is an Advance Directive so Important with Dementia?

The Roanoke Times advises in the recent article “What to do in absence of advance directive” to talk to an experienced elder care attorney to coordinate the necessary legal issues, when dementia may be at issue with a parent or other loved one. Next, ask your physician for a geriatric evaluation consultation for your loved one with a board-certified geriatrician and a referral to a social worker to assist in navigating the medical system.

It’s wise for anyone older than 55 to have advance directives in place, should they become incapacitated, so a trusted agent can fulfill the patient’s wishes in a dignified manner. Think ahead and plan ahead.

As a family’s planning starts, the issue of competence must be defined. A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s disease doesn’t necessarily indicate incompetence or a lack of capacity. At this point, a patient still has the right to make a decision—despite family members disagreeing with it. A patient’s competency should be evaluated after a number of poor choices or an especially serious choice that puts a patient or others at risk.

An evaluation will determine the patient’s factual understanding of concepts, decision-making and cogent expression of choices, the possible consequences of their choices and reasoning of the decision’s pros and cons. Healthcare professionals make the final determination, and these results are provided to the court.

If a patient passes the evaluation, she is deemed to have the mental capacity to make choices on her own. If she cannot demonstrate competency, an experienced elder law or estate planning attorney can petition the court for a Guardianship hearing, after which a trustee may be appointed to oversee her affairs.

The time to address these types of issues is before the patient becomes incapacitated. The family should clearly define and explore the topics of living wills, health care proxies, estate planning and powers of attorney now with an experienced elder law attorney.

Taking these proactive actions can be one of the greatest gifts a person can bestow upon herself and her loved ones. It can give a family peace of mind. If you put an advance directive in place, it can provide that gift when it’s needed the most.

Reference: Roanoke Times (June 17, 2019) “What to do in absence of advance directive”

 

What Do I Need to Know About Trusts?

A trust is a fiduciary arrangement that lets a third party (the “trustee”) hold assets on the behalf of a beneficiary. Trusts can be drafted in a variety of ways and can specify exactly how and when the assets pass to the beneficiaries.

Because trusts usually avoid probate, the beneficiaries can get access to these assets more quickly than they might if the assets were transferred using a will. If it’s an irrevocable trust, it may not be considered part of the taxable estate, which means there will be fewer taxes due at your death.

FedWeek’s recent article, “The Basics of Trusts,” explains some of the benefits of having a trust in your estate plan. Trusts can offer the following:

  • Protection for possible incompetency. You can form a trust and transfer your assets into it. You can be the trustee, and you’ll have control of the trust assets and keep the income. A successor trustee will assume control, if you’re incapacitated.
  • Avoiding probate. The assets held in trust avoid probate, which can be expensive and time-consuming. In the trust documents, you can direct the trust and provide how the trust assets will be distributed at your death.
  • Protection for heirs. After death, a trustee can keep trust assets from being spent all at once or lost in a divorce, with specific instructions in the trust document.

A trust can be revocable or irrevocable. A revocable trust has to be created during your lifetime. If you change your mind, you can cancel the trust and reclaim the assets. With a revocable trust you can enjoy incapacity protection and probate avoidance—but not tax reduction. In contrast, an irrevocable trust can be created while you’re alive or at your death (a revocable trust becomes irrevocable at your death).

Assets transferred to an irrevocable trust during your lifetime may be shielded from creditors and divorce settlements. The same is true for the assets put into an irrevocable trust at your death.

Your heirs can be the beneficiaries of an irrevocable trust. The trustee you’ve designated will be tasked with distributing funds to the beneficiaries. The trustee will be responsible for protecting trust assets.

Contact an experienced trust attorney with your questions about possibly creating a trust for your situation.

Reference: FedWeek (May 9, 2019) “The Basics of Trusts”

 

Your Will Isn’t the End of Your Estate Planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

What Should I Keep in Mind in Estate Planning as a Single Parent?

Every estate planning conversation eventually comes to center upon the children, regardless of whether they’re still young or adults.

Talk to a qualified estate planning attorney and let him or her know your overall perspective about your children, and what you see as their capabilities and limitations. This information can frequently determine whether you restrict their access to funds and how long those limitations should be in place, in the event you’re no longer around.

Kiplinger’s recent article, “Estate Planning for Single Parents” explains that when one parent dies, the children typically don’t have to leave their home, school and community. However, when a single parent passes, a child may be required to move from that location to live with a relative or ex-spouse.

After looking at your children’s situation with your estate planning attorney to understand your approach to those relationships, you should then discuss your support network to see if there’s anyone who could serve in a formal capacity, if necessary. A big factor in planning decisions is the parent’s relationship with their ex. Most people think that their child’s other parent is the best person to take over full custody, in the event of incapacity or death. For others, this isn’t the case. As a result, their estate plan must be designed with great care. These parents should have a supportive network ready to advocate for the child.

Your estate planning attorney may suggest a trust with a trustee. This fund can accept funds from your estate, a retirement plan, IRA and life insurance settlement. This trust should be set up, so that any court that may be involved will have sound instructions to determine your wishes and expectations for your kids. The trust tells the court who you want to carry out your wishes and who should continue to be an advocate and influence in your child’s life.

Your will should also designate the child’s intended guardian, as well as an alternate, in case the surviving parent can’t serve for some reason. The trust should detail how funds should be spent, as well as the amount of discretion the child may be given and when, and who should be involved in the child’s life.

Your trust should state who has authorized visitation rights, including the right to keep the child for extended visits or for vacation. It should also name the persons who are permitted to advise or consent on major decisions in the child’s life, on issues about education, healthcare and activities.

A trust can be drafted in many ways, but a single parent should discuss all of their questions with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 20, 2019) “Estate Planning for Single Parents”