An Estate Plan Is Necessary for the Unthinkable

An estate plan is necessary considering the recent death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others. This reminds us that we never know what fate has in store for us. A recent article from The Press Enterprise titled Yes, you must go there: Think about the unthinkable, plan for the worst” explains the steps.

Put an appointment in your schedule. Make an appointment with a qualified estate planning attorney. If you make the call and have an actual appointment, you have a deadline and that’s a start. The attorney may have a planning worksheet or organizer that he or she can send to you to guide you.

Start getting organized. If this seems overwhelming, break it out into separate parts. Begin with the easy part: a list of names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses for family members. Include any other people who you intend to include in your estate plan.

Next, list your assets and an estimated value of each. It doesn’t have to be to the penny. Include the account numbers, name of the institution, phone number and, if you have a personal contact, a name. Include bank accounts, real estate holdings, timeshares, stocks, bonds, personal property, vehicles, RVs, any collectibles of value (attach appraisals if you have them), life insurance and retirement accounts. List the professionals who you rely on—your estate planning lawyer, CPA, financial advisor, etc.

If you own a firearm, include your license and make sure your spouse is aware of the information. In certain states, having possession of a firearm without being the licensed owner is against the law.

Name an executor or personal representative. Estate planning is not just for death. It is also for incapacity. Who will act on your behalf, if you are not able to do so? Many people name their spouse, a long-time trusted friend or a family member. Be certain that person will be willing to act on your behalf. Have a second person also named, in case something occurs, and your first choice cannot serve.

If you have minor children, your estate plan will include a guardian who will be responsible for raising them. Talk about that with your spouse and that person to make sure they are willing to serve. You can also name a second person to be in charge of finances for the children. Your estate planning lawyer will talk with you about the role of trusts to provide for the children.

Think about your overall goals. How do you see your legacy? Do you want to leave some funds for a charity that has meaning to you and your family? Do you want your children to receive equal shares of your entire estate? Does one child require special needs planning or are you concerned that one of your children may not be able to manage an inheritance? These are all topics to discuss with your estate planning attorney. Their experience will help clarify your goals and create a plan.

Reference: The Press Enterprise (Feb. 2, 2020) Yes, you must go there: Think about the unthinkable, plan for the worst”

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Common Myths about Your Estate When You Die

There are many misconceptions about your estate when you die and the law in general and about estate planning in particular. There are also many opportunities to use the law to protect those we love when it comes to helping families navigate life and the legal processes that happen after the death or disability of a loved one. The best option is to plan ahead, reports the article “I’m dead, now what? Myths about deaths in Georgia” from the Cherokee Tribune & Ledger-News. Here are the top four myths about what happens when someone dies.

A Will. If there’s no will, my spouse gets everything. Well, no. While you are a team and you may want your spouse to get everything, if there’s no will, the laws of your state will determine who gets what. Your spouse in some states will split your possessions with your children. Your spouse in some states will get no less than a third of your assets. If you want your spouse to inherit everything, you need a will.

You also need a will if you want your spouse to receive everything so they can take care of your children. Without a will, your spouse will have to create a budget for your children’s needs and present that to the court before they can spend any of the children’s money. That’s how it works in Georgia. Check with a local estate planning attorney to make sure that’s what you’re prepared to leave for your spouse to do or what your state’s laws say. Having a will allows you to determine who you want to inherit what.

A will means there’s no need for probate court. Wrong again! Having a will does not mean you avoid probate court and the legal process known as probate. A will is not legally effective until the nominated executor presents your will to the probate court and the court accepts the will and declares it to be valid. This is a longer process in some jurisdictions. However, there are potential problems. If there’s a disgruntled family member or a need for privacy, the probate process creates a public record and information can and often is obtained by family members. To avoid making your life a public matter, you need an estate plan that includes trusts, which do not go through the probate process and do not become public records. You need to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to create an estate plan for you.

If I don’t have a will, the state will take it all. It’s very rare that any state will take everything even if there is no will. The state only does that if absolutely no family members can be found or if the state’s Medicaid program has an aggressive claw back policy that seeks to recover the cost of nursing home care provided to the decedent. If the person who died did not need Medicaid services, then it’s unlikely that the state will take the assets. More likely, a family member determined by degree of kinship will be entitled to inherit. Again, the law varies by state so check with an experienced estate planning lawyer in your state.

The family gets stuck with the debts. That’s a yes and no answer. The debts of family members do not have to be paid by the family. However, they are paid by the deceased’s estate which will be decreased by the amount of debt owed. Therefore, the family members will inherit less but it’s not coming out of their own pockets. The debts of the deceased are to be paid by whatever assets he or she owned at the time of death. If there’s not enough in the estate, the family is not obligated to pay the debt. The exception is if the spouse was a joint borrower or otherwise legally obligated to pay the debt.

What you know and don’t know about estate planning can hurt you and your family. An easy way to address this: meet with an experienced estate planning attorney and make a plan that will distribute your assets according to your wishes.

Reference: Cherokee Tribune & Ledger-News (Feb. 1, 2020) “I’m dead, now what? Myths about deaths in Georgia”

 

Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples

For some couples, getting married just doesn’t feel necessary. However, they don’t enjoy the automatic legal rights and protections that legally wed spouses do especially when it comes to death. There are many spousal rights that come with a marriage certificate, reports CNBC in the article “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die.” Without the benefit of marriage extra planning is necessary to protect each other.

Taxes are a non-starter. There’s no federal or state income tax form that will permit a non-married couple to file jointly. If one of the couple’s employers is the source of health insurance for both, the amount that the company contributes is taxable to the employee. A spouse doesn’t have to pay taxes on health insurance.

More important, however, is what happens when one of the partners dies or becomes incapacitated. A number of documents need to be created so should one become incapacitated the other is able to act on their behalf. Preparations also need to be made so the surviving partner is protected and can manage the deceased’s estate.

In order to be prepared, an estate plan is necessary. Creating a plan for what happens to you and your estate is critical for unmarried couples who want their commitment to each other to be protected at death. The general default for a married couple is that everything goes to the surviving spouse. However, for unmarried couples the default may be a sibling, children, parents or other relatives. It won’t be the unmarried partner.

This is especially true if a person dies with no will. The courts in the state of residence will decide who gets what depending upon the law of that state. If there are multiple heirs who have conflicting interests, it could become nasty—and expensive.

However, a will isn’t all that is needed. Most tax-advantaged accounts—Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs, 401(k) plans, etc.—have beneficiaries named. That person receives the assets upon death of the owner. The same is true for investment accounts, annuities, life insurance and any financial product that has a beneficiary named. The beneficiary receives the asset regardless of what is in the will. Therefore, checking beneficiaries need to be part of the estate plan. Checking, savings and investment accounts that are in both partner’s names will become the property of the surviving person, but accounts with only one person’s name on them will not.

Unmarried couples who own a home together need to check how the deed is titled, regardless who is on the mortgage. The legal owner is the person whose name is on the deed. If the house is only in one person’s name, it won’t become part of the estate. Change the deed so both names are on the deed with rights of survivorship, so both are entitled to assume full ownership upon the death of the other.

To prepare for incapacity, an estate planning attorney can help create a durable power of attorney for health care, so partners will be able to make medical decisions on each other’s behalf. A living will should also be created for both people which states wishes for end of life decisions. For financial matters, a durable power of attorney will allow each partner to have control over each other’s financial affairs. It takes a little extra planning for unmarried couples, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you have prepared to care for each other, until death do you part, is priceless.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 16, 2019) “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die”

 

Seriously, Why Do I Need a Will?

The Times Herald-Record’s article “55 Plus: Four Reasons to Create a Will” provides some tips and important reasons for why you should make a will.

When you create a will with the help of an estate planning attorney, you are able to decide who will execute your estate.

Creating a will and appointing a trusted executor will help make certain that your estate is managed in accordance with your wishes and instructions. If you have a will, you help the people you leave behind. A legally valid will can avoid added costs of legal dealings. If you pass away without a will, the state will decide how your estate is divided.

Creating a will allows you to determine who inherits your estate. Your estate will include your home, motor vehicles, financial accounts and any other personal property you want to pass on to your loved ones. The great thing about a will is that it clearly states the persons or organizations that will receive all or part of your estate after your death.

Consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney to help understand your state laws and probate procedures is a wise move.

In your will, you can also decide and designate the person(s) who will care for your minor children. Creating a will gives you the opportunity to appoint a guardian for your minor children, in the event of your death. If you don’t have a will stating a guardianship, a court can make the issue its own and appoint a guardian in your absence. It could be someone you don’t like or someone you hardly know.

By creating a will, you provide several benefits for yourself and your family. A will offers peace of mind that your loved ones will be cared for as you intend, after you’re no longer around.

Finally, a reminder for those with wills and estate plans: review these documents every year or three to be certain that everything is up to date. You want to be sure that your estate plan includes any new spouse, birth or adoption of a child or grandchild, death of a relative and change in your financial situation.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Jan. 6, 2020) “55 Plus: Four Reasons to Create a Will”

 

Am I Too Young to Remain in House Inherited from Mom?

Can the house be listed to the deceased on a deed forever? What if the deceased was 70 years old and living in a 55-and-over community with his 40-year-old son?

Her will left everything, including the house, to her adult son. The son is now wondering if and for how long he can stay in his home in the senior community. Can he stay put, or will he have to sell the house and move?

lehighvalleyhigh.com recently published an article entitled “Can son remain in 55-and-over community after parent dies?” The article explains that the deceased individual’s name can stay on the deed indefinitely. However, when the mother dies, the property passes “by operation of law,” regardless of what the deed says.

For example, if the deed was titled as husband and wife, the surviving spouse would become the sole owner by operation of law at the death of the first spouse, no matter if there was a new deed filed.

Another important issue with this scenario involves the details in the by-laws of the 55-and over community.

It would be rare that the 40-year-old son could stay in the home in the 55-and-over senior community.

It is doubtful that the decedent owned the right to convey his/her property interest to a non-senior.

In addition, the mother’s will also should be reviewed thoroughly to determine whether the will leaves the residuary estate to the son, or if it specifically leaves the home to the son.

If the son inherits the residuary estate, then the home will be liquidated, and the proceeds are inherited by the son. If the mom’s will specifically leaves the home to the son, the bequest will most likely fail. In that case, the home would be liquidated, and the proceeds would pass as part of the residuary estate.

Finally, there’s also a good chance that the son may not have been living there with the approval of the by-laws, but there could be an exception to the by-laws for someone who is disabled. Speak with your estate planning attorney if you have questions or concerns.

Reference: lehighvalleyhigh.com (Jan. 13, 2020) “Can son remain in 55-and-over community after parent dies?”

Failure to Act on a Will Can Lead to a Loss of an Estate

Here’s a cautionary tale for family members who don’t know what to do when a parent or uncle dies. A man and his sister have an uncle, let’s call him George, who has no children. Uncle George had two siblings—the father of the man and his sister (who died before Uncle George made out his will)—and a brother. Let’s call the brother Jim. Uncle Jim lived in Uncle George’s house. Uncle George died, and the siblings didn’t do anything.

Five years went by and the siblings decided they wanted to sell the house to pay off some loans. When they told Uncle George their plans, he announced that he would not leave the house. As explained in the article “Wills are not self-enacting” from mySanAntonio.com, the nephew and niece have overlooked more than a few salient details.

The most important fact: wills are not self-enacting. Next, there is a legal time limit upon which an executor or an heir must take legal action and finally, state law for each state has a default inheritance plan, when there is no will in the public record after someone has died.

What does it mean for a will to not be “self-enacting”? While Uncle George may have had a will with instructions to leave his house to the siblings, they did not do anything to probate the will. The only people who knew about the will were the uncle, the attorney who prepared the will and maybe a few other family members. When a home is bought and sold, the transaction must be recorded in the county’s public records to inform the public of the change of ownership.

Not taking action on a will is a disservice to the decedent and their heirs. The will needs to go through probate, for the will to be deemed valid by the court and to allow the named executor to distribute assets, according to the terms of the will.

There are legal limits to when the will must be presented to the courts. A local estate planning attorney will know what those limits are, as they are different in each state. In Texas, where this took place, the will must be filed for probate within four years of the date that the will’s maker passed. After four years, the court is not allowed to appoint the named executor. The court may not recognize the will either, unless those who are late in presenting the will can explain the delay, the heirs agree that the will can be recognized and the will is limited to passing title to the named devisees.

Every state has a plan for how assets are distributed in the absence of a will. When the owner of something dies, the ownership passes to someone else. When there is no will, heirs-at-law receive the property. Each state has a statute that determines who the heirs are.

In this case, the will was not timely probated so the law defaults to giving ownership to the heirs-at-law. In Texas, when there is no surviving spouse and no descendants, the siblings of the deceased person are the heirs-at-law. That would be Uncle George, since the nephew and niece failed to file the will for probate in a timely manner.

When a family member passes, someone in the family must take steps to ensure that the will is probated, and the estate is properly settled. Failing to do so cost this brother and sister the inheritance that their uncle wanted them to have. Had they contacted a qualified estate planning attorney, the entire process would have been handled correctly, and they would have had ownership of their uncle’s home.

Reference: mySanAntonio.com (Dec. 23, 2019) “Wills are not self-enacting”

 

Ex-Girlfriend Could Own Your Family Home

The friend and the girlfriend agreed when they split that she would quitclaim her interest in the house to the friend, in exchange for the amount she contributed to the home. She signed a document conveying her ownership in the home to the friend, released her interest in the property and agreed not to claim any future right to the property, as described in the article “Cautionary tale involving claims on deceased owner’s home illustrates importance of estate planning” from The Washington Post.

When the friend died, it was learned that he had never changed his will and the ex-girlfriend now wants the house. This is a textbook example of why it is so important to review and update estate plans regularly in general and especially when a major life change occurs, like a breakup for divorce.

An estate plan typically includes a will, a living will, powers of attorney for financial matters, powers of attorney for healthcare and if appropriate, trusts. All of these documents need to be kept up to date to avoid this kind of nightmare situation.  The will is used to direct what happens to a person’s assets at the time the document was finalized. The will is the “last word” in what that person wanted to happen. Creating a legally binding will takes some time and requires a number of steps. It starts with an estate planning attorney creating the will, discussing the person’s wishes, getting details on what the person owns and then going through a series of legal procedures.

The will must be signed before a notary and witnesses, with the number of witnesses varying by state. In some cases, each page of the will must be initialed, and the last page of the will gets a notary’s stamp and the signature of the witnesses. The purpose is to make sure the document truly reflects the person’s wishes and to ensure that the person who signs it is of sound mind—that is, they have legal capacity to determine their wishes and sign the document.

The seriousness of the will is why it prevails over almost everything (except for beneficiary designations). When couples divorce and neglect to change their wills, depending on state law, the will may supersede their divorce agreement, and an ex-spouse could end up with everything.

In this case, the ex-girlfriend signed a document giving up her claim to the home, but the court cannot tell from that document whether the friend truly wished her not to get the house. There’s no way to know if he intentionally did not change his will, or if he just forgot. The will is the final word, and it is likely the ex-girlfriend has a legal right to the home. Contact an estate planning attorney to create an estate planning package so that things are in order.

There are some wrinkles: if the friend put his children on the title as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, the court will have to consider this in making a decision. It’s not usually recommended to do this but if this step were taken, it would give the court another factor to consider.

Reference: The Washington Post (Nov. 23, 2020) “Cautionary tale involving claims on deceased owner’s home illustrates importance of estate planning”

 

Death Is Very Taxing — What you Need to Know

When a person dies, their assets are gathered, their debts are paid, business affairs are settled and assets are distributed, as directed by their will. If there is no will, the intestate laws of their state will be used to determine how to distribute their assets. A big part of the process of settling an estate is dealing with taxes. A recent article from Wicked Local Westwood, titled “Five things to know about taxes after death,” explains the key things an executor or personal representative needs to know.

The Deceased Final Income Tax Returns. Yes, the dead pay taxes. The personal representative is responsible for filing the deceased final income tax return for both the year of death and prior year, if those returns have not been filed. The final income tax return includes any income earned or received by the decedent from January 1 of the year of death through the date of death. It’s common for a deceased person who is ill during the last months or year of their life to fail to file tax returns, so the executor needs to find out about the decedent’s tax status. Failure to do so, could lead to the representative being personally liable for paying those taxes.

Filing a Federal Estate Tax Return. The personal representative must file a federal estate tax return, if the value of the estate assets exceeds the federal estate tax exemption, which is $11.4 million in 2019. Even if the value of the estate does not exceed the federal estate tax exemption amount, a federal estate tax return should be filed if the decedent is survived by a spouse. This way, the deceased’s unused exemption can be used by the spouse at their death. Note that the filing deadline for the federal estate tax return is nine months after the date of death. An estate planning attorney can help with this.

Fiduciary income tax returns. A personal representative and trustee may have to file fiduciary income tax returns for an estate or a trust. The estate is a taxpayer and the representative must get a tax identification number and file a fiduciary income tax return for the estate, if income is earned on estate assets or received during the administration of the estate. A revocable trust becomes irrevocable after the death of the trust creator. A tax identification number must be obtained, and a fiduciary income tax return must be filed for any income earned by trust assets.

Estate taxes and trust taxes can become complex and confusing for people who don’t do this on a regular basis. An estate planning attorney can be a valuable resource, so that taxes are properly paid and to make the most of any tax planning opportunities for estates, trusts and their beneficiaries.

Reference: Wicked Local Westwood (Nov. 5, 2019) “Five things to know about taxes after death”

Have an Estate Plan, for Your Heir’s Sake

Few people want to leave their heirs with a paperwork disaster but that’s what happens when there’s no estate plan. According to the article “The importance of creating an estate road map for your heirs” from Grand Rapids Business Journal, an estate plan usually involves a will, a durable power of attorney for financial decisions, a health care power of attorney (sometimes known as a health care proxy) for medical decisions, and often, a trust.

An estate plan also involves making sure assets are titled correctly and beneficiary designations for assets are coordinated with these documents so assets pass to the people of your choosing in an efficient manner.  It’s always better if this information is gathered together and put in a location that is known to trusted family members.

Another step to consider is leaving a personalized letter of instructions to your spouse or other family members. The letter can be used to explain why you distributed your assets the way you did or guide them on what you’d like them to do with your estate regarding the assets. This is not a legally enforceable document but it may provide your family members with a level of understanding not otherwise explained in your will.

For most people, retirement accounts, real estate, bank and investment accounts, cars and maybe pensions are the total sum of their estate. If your estate is larger or more complex, i.e., you own a business or a large real estate portfolio, your estate plan may be more complex.

Step-by-step instructions regarding each asset may be helpful for your heirs, including contact information for each asset. They will also find it helpful to have a list of your professional team: your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and accountant.

For certain accounts, instructions may need to be very specific. For a retirement plan, if your spouse survives you, they’ll need to know about rolling the funds into an inherited spousal IRA and naming beneficiaries. Your estate planning attorney can help your surviving spouse avoid any expensive mistakes.

If you own a business, there will be need for more guidance. A succession plan should be set up long in advance of your retirement so that family members who are active in the business will be able to see it continue, if that is your goal. If the family does not want to run the business, they’ll need to know who to contact to ensure that it maintains its value after your passing, so it can be sold for a healthy profit.

Attorneys and accountants will definitely be able to help your family after your passing but if you own a business, you know it better than anyone else. Just as you have a business plan for various contingencies, you need to have a plan in the event of your untimely passing. This is lacking for many family-owned businesses, and it often does not end well for the family or the business.

The more detailed the directions you can leave for your family, the better off everyone will be. Having a good estate plan is an act of great kindness to those you love.

Reference: Grand Rapids Business Journal (October 31, 2019) “The importance of creating an estate road map for your heirs”

 

What’s Better, A Living Trust or a Will?

Everyone knows what a Last Will and Testament is however, a Will is not always the best way to distribute your assets, explains the Times Herald-Record in the article “Living trusts are better choice than wills.” Most people think that by having a will alone, they will make it clear who they want to receive their assets when they die. However, wills are used by the court in a proceeding called “probate” if the only estate plan you have is a will. The court proceeding is to establish that the will is valid. Depending upon where you live, probate can take a year before assets are distributed to beneficiaries.

Certain family members must receive notifications when a will is submitted to probate. Some people will receive notices even if they are not mentioned in the will. This can lead to all kinds of awkward situations especially from estranged or unknown relatives. The person who is the Executor of the will is required to locate these relatives and until they are found and notified, the probate process comes to a standstill.

There are instances where a judge will allow a legal notice to be published in a local newspaper after valid attempts to find relatives aren’t successful. If there is a disabled beneficiary, a minor beneficiary, a relative or beneficiary who can’t be located or a relative who has been incarcerated, the judge often appoints lawyers to represent these parties’ interests and the estate pays for the attorney’s fees.

Depending on the situation, the Executor may be required to furnish a family tree, or a friend of the decedent must sign an affidavit attesting that the person never had any children.

Thinking of disinheriting a child? Anyone who is disinherited in a will, receives a notice about that and is legally permitted to contest the will. That can lead to years of expensive litigation, including discovery demands, depositions, motions and possibly a trial. Like most litigation, will contests usually end in a settlement. The disinherited relative often gets a share of the inheritance even when the decedent didn’t want them to get anything.

For many families, a living trust is a better alternative. They also serve as disability planning naming people who will manage the assets of the trust in case of incapacity. They are private documents so their information does not become public knowledge like the details of a will.

A qualified estate planning attorney will help you determine what estate planning tools will work best to achieve your goals while maintaining your privacy and ensuring that assets pass to heirs in a discrete manner.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Oct. 26, 2019) “Living trusts are better choice than wills”