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?”

 

How Should Couples Begin the Estate Planning Process?

About 17% of adults don’t think they need a will, believing that estate planning is only for the very wealthy. However, no matter how few assets it seems someone owns, completing a few documents can make a huge difference in the future.

valuewalk.com’s recent article, “Couples: Here’s How To Start The Estate Planning Process” notes that although estate planning can seem overwhelming, taking inventory of assets is a terrific place to start.

Make a list of all your belongings of $100 or more in value, both inside and outside of the home. After that, think about how these assets should be divided among family, friends, churches or charities.

Drafting a will may be the most critical step in the estate planning process. A will serves as the directions for how assets are to be distributed, which can avoid unpleasant disputes.

A will can simplify the distribution of assets at your death, and it also provides instructions to your family and heirs.

A will can also set out directions for childcare, pet care, or any additional instructions or specifications.

Without a will in place, your assets will be distributed according to state law, rather than according to your wishes. Creating a will keeps the state from making decisions about how your estate is divvied up—decisions you may not have intended.

Once you have your assets and beneficiaries set, see an experienced estate planning attorney and have your will, durable power of attorney and health care proxy drafted immediately. Hey, life is unpredictable.

Another important part of the process is to have a discussion with everyone involved to prevent any legal or familial disputes regarding the estate.

Failure to start the estate planning process can lead to family fighting, misappropriated assets, court litigation and unneeded expenses. Get going!

Reference: valuewalk.com (July 22, 2019) “Couples: Here’s How To Start The Estate Planning Process”

 

Elder Law Estate Planning for the Future

Seniors who are parents of adult children can make their children’s lives easier, by making the effort to button down major goals in elder law estate planning, advises Times Herald-Record in the article “Three ways for seniors to make things easier for their kids.” Those tasks are planning for disability, protecting assets from long-term care or nursing home costs and minimizing costs and stress in passing assets to the next generation. Here’s what you need to do, and how to do it.

Disability planning includes signing advance directives. These are legal documents that are created while you still have all of your mental faculties. Naming people who will make decisions on your behalf, if and when you become incapacitated, gives those you love the ability to take care of you without having to apply for guardianship or other legal proceedings. Advance directives include powers of attorney, health care proxies, durable powers of attorney and living wills.

Your power of attorney will make all and any legal and financial decisions on your behalf.  With a health care proxy, a person is named who can make medical decisions. In a living will, you have the ability to convey your wishes for end-of-life care, including resuscitation and artificial feeding.

When advance directives are in place, you spare your family the need to have a judge appoint a legal guardian to manage your affairs. That saves time, money and keeps the judiciary out of your life. Your children can act on your behalf when they need to, during what will already be a very difficult time.

Goal number two is protecting assets from the cost of long-term care. Losing the family home and retirement savings to unexpected nursing costs is devasting and may be avoided with the right planning. The first and best option is to purchase long-term care insurance. If you don’t have or can’t obtain a policy, the next best is the Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT) that is used to protect assets in the trust from nursing home costs after the assets have been in the trust for five years.

The third thing that will make your adult children’s lives easier is to have a will. This lets you leave assets to the family as you want, with the least amount of court costs, legal fees, taxes and family battles over inheritances. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will created.  If your attorney advises it, you can also consider having trusts created so your assets can be placed into the trusts and avoid probate (which is a public process). A trust can be easier for children because estates settle more quickly.

Think of estate planning as part of your legacy of taking care of your family ensuring that your hard-earned assets are passed to the next generation. You can’t avoid your own death, or that of your spouse, but you can prepare so those you love are helped by thoughtful and proper planning.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (July 13, 2019) “Three ways for seniors to make things easier for their kids”

 

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”

 

Is My Spouse Responsible for My Auto Lease When I Die?

A recent nj.com article asks “What happens to my car lease when I die?” According to the article, in New Jersey the laws are not on the side of the wife. She may be at the mercy of the car dealership and its financing company.

Remember that a vehicle lease is a contract, so if you’re the executor who’s managing the deceased person’s affairs, you should review the terms of the vehicle lease. In some instances, death may be classified as an “early termination” of the lease, and payment obligations may continue.

If there is a co-signer on the lease, such as the deceased’s spouse, he or she may be liable for future payments. If not, typically they’re likely to be the responsibility of the deceased’s estate.

In 2017, the New Jersey Assembly passed a bill that would permit early termination of an auto lease upon the death of the lessee and prohibit the imposition of fees as a result. However, that piece of legislation didn’t make it out of the state Senate. There are plans to reintroduce the bill this session, but nothing has been done as of this date.

As a result, there is no law in New Jersey that keeps a car company from charging fees for early termination upon the death of the lessor.

While some car companies have policies allowing for early termination upon death, in many instances, because a lease is a contract, it continues. The deceased lessee’s estate is liable for making the payments. Therefore, if the written lease doesn’t have a clause dealing with early termination without fees, the lessee’s estate may be required to continue making the payments.

California and New York laws say the same thing: leasing companies can legally claim unpaid obligations from the estate of the deceased.

The car dealer isn’t required to, but it’s not unheard of for a sympathetic car company to be compassionate and just put the car up for sale, so actual losses would be minimal.

The executor should speak to an experienced estate planning attorney to see what options they might have in their specific situation.

Reference: nj.com (May 24, 2019) “What happens to my car lease when I die?”

 

Here’s Why a Basic Form Doesn’t Work for Estate Planning

It’s true that an effective estate plan should be simple and straightforward, if your life is simple and straightforward. However, few of us have those kinds of lives. For many families, the discovery that a will that was created using a basic form is invalid leads to all kinds of expenses and problems, says The Daily Sentinel in an article that asks “What is wrong with using a form for my will or trust?”

If the cost of an estate plan is measured only by the cost of a document, a basic form will, of course, be the least expensive option — on the front end. On the surface, it seems simple enough. What would be wrong with using a form?

Actually, a lot is wrong. The same things that make a do-it-yourself, basic form seem to be attractive, are also the things that make it very dangerous for your family. A form does not take into account the special circumstances of your life. If your estate is worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars, that form could end up putting your estate in the wrong hands. That’s not what you had intended.

Another issue: any form that is valid in all 50 states is probably not going to serve your purposes. If it works in all 50 states (and that’s highly unlikely), then it is extremely general, so much so that it won’t reflect your personal situation. It’s a great sales strategy, but it’s not good for an estate plan.

If you take into consideration the amount of money to be spent on the back end after you’ve passed, that $100 will becomes a lot more expensive than what you would have invested in having a proper estate plan created by an estate planning attorney.

What you can’t put into dollars and cents, is the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your estate plan, including a will, power of attorney, and health care power of attorney, has been properly prepared, that your assets will go to the individuals or charities that you want them to go to, and that your family is protected from the stress, cost and struggle that can result when wills are deemed invalid.

Here’s one of many examples of how the basic, inexpensive form created chaos for one family. After the father died, the will was unclear, because it was not prepared by a professional. The father had properly filled in the blanks but used language that one of his sons felt left him the right to significant assets. The family became embroiled in expensive litigation, and became divided. The litigation has ended, but the family is still fractured. This was not what their father had intended.

Other issues that are created when forms are used: naming the proper executor, guardians and conservators, caring for companion animals, dealing with blended families, addressing Payable-on-Death (POD) accounts and end-of-life instructions, to name just a few.

Avoid the “repair” costs and meet with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state to create an estate plan that will suit your needs.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (May 25, 2019) “What is wrong with using a form for my will or trust?”