There Is a Difference between Probate and Trust Administration

Many people get these two things confused. A recent article, “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration,” from Lake County News clarifies the distinctions.

Let’s start with probate, which is a court-supervised process. To begin the probate process, a legal notice must be published in a newspaper and court appearances are needed. However, to start trust administration, a letter of notice is mailed to the decedent’s heirs and beneficiaries. Trust administration is far more private, which is why many people chose this path.

In the probate process, the last will and testament and any documents in the court file are available to the public. While the general public may not have any specific interest in your will, estranged relatives, relatives you never knew you had, creditors and scammers have easy and completely legal access to this information.

If there is no will, the court documents that are created in intestacy (the heirs inherit according to state law), are also available to anyone who wants to see them.

In trust administration, the only people who can see trust documents are the heirs and beneficiaries.

There are cost differences. In probate, a court filing fee must be paid for each petition. There are also at least two petitions from start to finish in probate, plus the newspaper publication fee. The fees vary, depending upon the jurisdiction. Add to that the attorney’s and personal representative’s fees, which also vary by jurisdiction. Some are on an hourly basis, while others are computed as a sliding scale percentage of the value of the estate under management. For example, each may be paid 4% of the first $100,000, 3% of the next $100,000 and 2% of any excess value of the estate under management. The court also has the discretion to add fees, if the estate is more time consuming and complex than the average estate.

For trust administration, the trustee and the estate planning attorney are typically paid on an hourly basis, or however the attorney sets their fee structure. Expenses are likely to be far lower, since there is no court involvement.

There are similarities between probate and trust administration. Both require that the decedent’s assets be collected, safeguarded, inventoried and appraised for tax and/or distribution purposes. Both also require that the decedent’s creditors be notified, and debts be paid. Tax obligations must be fulfilled, and the debts and administration expenses must be paid. Finally, the decedent’s beneficiaries must be informed about the estate and its administration.

The use of trusts in estate planning can be a means of minimizing taxes and planning for family assets to be passed to future generations in a private and controlled fashion. This is the reason for the popularity of trusts in estate planning.

It should be noted that a higher level of competency—mental comprehension—must be possessed by an individual to execute a trust than to execute a will. A person whose capacity may be questionable because of Alzheimer’s or another illness may not be legally competent enough to execute a trust. Their heirs may face challenges to the estate plan in that case.

Reference: Lake County News (July 4, 2020) “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration”

Still Procrastinating about Your Estate Plan?

The continuing escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to finalize estate planning documents, even as their estate planning attorneys are working from home. People are coming to terms with the stark reality: they could be struck by the disease and need to have a plan in place, reports the article “Estate Planning In The Age Of Covid” from Financial Advisor.

Everyone should review their estate planning documents, including their wills, trusts and gifting techniques, to ensure that they are in line with their goals and the numerous tax law changes that have occurred in the last six months. The review of these estate planning documents is especially critical during these unpredictable times.

Here are the documents that may need to be updated:

Power of Attorney—This legal document gives a person you name the authority to handle financial affairs and protect property by acting on your behalf, if you become incapacitated.  Some of the typical tasks of your “agent” are paying bills, writing checks, selling or purchasing assets or signing tax returns.

You may name any competent adult you like. However, be certain to choose someone trusted who will put your interests above theirs. This person should possess common sense, ethics and financial acumen. Someone who lives near you, will be able to handle matters more expeditiously. Someone who is far away, may not be as effective. You should also name a back-up or secondary agent.

With no power of attorney, no one will be authorized to act on your behalf and your family will need to have the court appoint a conservator, which will take time and money.

Health-Care Proxy—This legal document gives an agent authority to make health-care decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so. Without one, the family of anyone over the age of 18 will need to go to court and have a guardian appointed.

Last Will and Testament—Your last will is the legal document that gives directions to how you want your property to be distributed after you die. It is used to appoint an executor to oversee the distribution of your assets. For parents of minor children, this is the document used to name a guardian to raise your children. If you don’t have a last will, the court will choose who will raise your child, who will distribute your assets and who will oversee your estate. It is much better to handle this in advance, so you are in control of these important decisions.

Living Trust—A revocable trust is a legal contract that creates an entity to hold title to your assets. As the grantor or creator of the trust, you can change it at any time. You can also set it to outlive you. If you become incapacitated, a successor trustee then steps in and manages your affairs without any court intervention. A trust also gives you privacy, since it avoids the probate process.

There are many estate planning tools that may be used to pass wealth to the next generation, minimize taxe, and ensure that your legacy continues, even during these unprecedented times.

Reference: Financial Advisor (June 16, 2020) “Estate Planning In The Age Of Covid”

The Second Most Powerful Estate Planning Document: Power of Attorney

All too often, people wait until it’s too late to execute a power of attorney. It’s uncomfortable to think about giving someone full access to our finances, while we are still competent. However, a power of attorney can be created that is fully exercisable only when needed, according to a useful article “Power of attorney can be tailored to circumstances” from The News-Enterprise. Some estate planning attorneys believe that the power of attorney, or POA, is actually the second most important estate planning document after a will. Here’s what a POA can do for you.

The term POA is a reference to the document, but it also is used to refer to the person named as the agent in the document.

Generally speaking, any POA creates a fiduciary relationship, for either legal or financial purposes. A Medical or Healthcare POA creates a relationship for healthcare decisions. Sometimes these are for a specific purpose or for a specific period of time. However, a Durable POA is created to last until death or until it is revoked. It can be created to cover a wide array of needs.

Here’s the critical fact: a POA of any kind needs to be executed, that is, agreed to and signed by a person who is competent to make legal decisions. The problem occurs when family members or spouse do not realize they need a POA, until their loved one is not legally competent and does not understand what they are signing.

Incompetent or incapacitated individuals may not sign legal documents. Further, the law protects people from improperly signing, by requiring two witnesses to observe the individual signing.

The law does allow those with limited competency to sign estate planning documents, so long as they are in a moment of lucidity at the time of the signing. However, this is tricky and can be dangerous, as legal issues may be raised for all involved, if capacity is challenged later on.

If someone has become incompetent and has not executed a valid power of attorney, a loved one will need to apply for guardianship. This is a court process that is expensive, takes several months and leads to the court being involved in many aspects of the person’s life. The basics of this process: three professionals are needed to personally assess the “respondent,” the person who is said to be incompetent. The respondent loses all rights to make decisions of any kind for themselves. They also lose the right to vote.

A power of attorney can be executed quickly and does not require the person to lose any rights.

The biggest concern to executing a power of attorney, is that the person is giving an agent the control of their money and property. This is true, but the POA can be created so that it does not hand over this control immediately.

This is where the “springing” power of attorney comes in. Springing POA means that the document, while executed immediately, does not become effective for use by the agent, until a certain condition is met. The document can be written that the POA becomes in effect, if the person is deemed mentally incompetent by a doctor. The springing clause gives the agent the power to act if and when it is necessary for someone else to take over the individual’s affairs.

Having an estate planning attorney create the power of attorney that is best suited for each individual’s situation is the most sensible way to provide the protection of a POA, without worrying about giving up control while one is competent.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 24, 2020) “Power of attorney can be tailored to circumstances”