Is It Better Not to Have a Will?

When a person dies, estate and probate law govern how assets are distributed. If the person who has died has a properly prepared will, they have set up a “testate inheritance.” Their last will and testament will guide the distribution of their assets. If they die without a legitimate will, they have an “intestate estate,” as explained in a recent article titled “Testate vs. Intestate: Estate Planning” from Yahoo! Finance.

In an “intestate estate,” assets are distributed according to the laws of inheritance in the specific legal jurisdiction. The decedent’s wishes, or the wishes of their spouse or children, are not considered. The law is the sole determining power. You have no control over what happens to your assets.

Having a will prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney who is familiar with the law and your family’s situation is the best solution. The will must follow certain guidelines, including how many witnesses must be present for it to be executed property. A probate court reviews the will to ensure that it was prepared properly and if there are any doubts, the will can be deemed invalid.

Having a will drafted by an attorney makes it more likely to be deemed valid and enforced by the probate court. It also minimizes the likelihood of illegal or unenforceable provisions in the will.

Debts become problematic. If you owned a home and had unpaid property taxes or a mortgage and gave the house to someone in your will, they must pay the property taxes and either take over the mortgage or get a new mortgage and pay off the prior mortgage before taking ownership of the property. Otherwise, the executor may sell the home, pay the debts and give any remaining money to the heir.

Liabilities reduce inheritances. If someone has a $50,000 debt and very kindly left you $100,000, you’ll only receive $50,000 because the debt must be satisfied before assets are distributed. If the debt is higher than the value of the estate, heirs receive nothing.

Note that a person may use their will to distribute debts in any way they wish. Family members erroneously believe they are “entitled” by their blood relationship to receive an inheritance. This is not true. Anything you own is yours to give in any manner you wish—if you have a will prepared.

Another common problem: estates having fewer assets than expected. Let’s say someone gives a donation of $500,000 to a local charity, but their entire estate is only worth $100,000. In that case, the $100,000 is distributed in a pro-rata basis according to the terms of the will. The generous gift will not be so generous.

If there is no will, the probate code governs distribution of assets, usually based on kinship. Close relatives inherit before distant relatives. The order is typically (but not always, local laws vary) the spouse, children, parents of the decedent, siblings of the decedent, grandparents of the decedent, then nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles and first cousins.

Another reason to have a will: estranged or unidentified heirs. Settling an estate includes notifying all and any potential heirs of a death and they may have legal rights to an inheritance even if they have never met the decedent. Lacking a will, an estate is more vulnerable to challenges from relatives. Relying on state probate law to distribute assets is hurtful to those you love, since it creates a world of trouble for them.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Sep. 22, 2021) “Testate vs. Intestate: Estate Planning”

What are Responsibilities of Trustees and Executors?

Being a fiduciary requires putting the interest of the beneficiary over your own interests, no matter what. The person in charge of managing a trust, the trustee, has a fiduciary duty to the beneficiary, which is described by the terms of the trust. This is explained in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: Executors, executrix and personal representatives” from nwitimes.com.

Understanding the responsibilities of the trust requires a review of the trust documents, which can be long and complicated. An estate planning attorney will be able to review documents and explain the directions if the trust is a particularly complex one.

If the trust is a basic revocable living trust used to avoid having assets in the estate go through probate, duties are likely to be similar to those of a personal representative, also known as the executor. This is the person in charge of carrying out the directions in a last will.

A simple explanation of executor responsibilities is gathering the assets, filing tax returns, and paying creditors. The executor files for an EIN number, which functions like a Social Security number for the estate. The executor opens an estate bank account to hold assets that are not transferred directly to named beneficiaries. And the executor files the last tax returns for the decedent for the last year in which he or she was living, and an estate tax return. There’s more to it, but those are the basic tasks.

A person tasked with administering a trust for the benefit of another person must give great attention to detail. The instructions and terms of the trust must be followed to the letter, with no room for interpretation. Thinking you know what someone else wanted, despite what was written in the trust, is asking for trouble.

If there are investment duties involved, which is common when a trust contains significant assets managed in an investment portfolio, it will be best to work with a professional advisor. Investment duties may be subject to the Prudent Investor Act, or they may include the name of a specific advisor who was managing the accounts before the person died.

If there is room for any discretion whatsoever in the trust, be careful to document every decision. If the trust says you can distribute principal based on the needs of the beneficiary, document why you did or did not make the distribution. Don’t just hand over funds because the beneficiary asked for them. Make decisions based on sound reasoning and document your reasons.

Being asked to serve as a trustee reflects trust. It is also a serious responsibility, and one to be performed with great care.

Reference: nwitimes.com (July 18, 2021) “Estate Planning: Executors, executrix and personal representatives”

Estate Battles Over Personal Property Distribution

Creating and probating a last will and testament is rarely a simple task, but one of the most challenging aspects is the distribution of personal property, warns the article “Be clear about personal property distribution in your will” from The News-Enterprise. The nature of personal property—that it is relatively low in market value but high in sentimental value—is just part of the problem.

You’d be surprised how many families fight over a favorite ceramic dish or an inexpensive oil painting. However, those fights slow down the process of settling the estate and can create unnecessary costs.

The distribution of personal property is usually part of the residual estate, that which is left over when other assets, like a home, bank accounts, etc., have been distributed. Some families don’t even have a chance to select items, and instead find themselves in irrational bidding wars at estate sales.

This issue may be avoided by having precise language in the last will and testament about these items. First, the testator, the person who is creating the will, should outline the specific items they want to be given to specific people. Promised items should be listed and removed from the general pool of personal property.

Next, the testator names who should be included in the distribution of remaining personal property. While some people list the same recipients of the full estate, this is not always the case, particularly if there are no children or if property is being left to charity. One option is to limit the beneficiaries of personal items to only close family members.

Third, provide clear directions for how the remaining items will be distributed. Will beneficiaries take turns in a defined order? Should the property be appraised, and values being divided equally by the executor? Be as specific as possible.

If there are any unclaimed items, provide instructions for those as well. Do you want a collection of expensive cookware to be sent to a charitable organization? Clothing, furniture, and other items should be either donated to charity or sold at an estate sale, with the proceeds distributed between the beneficiaries.

Another way to avoid conflicts over personal property is to give away items, while you are living. Sentimental gifts are a good alternative for holiday gifts, especially for seniors on a fixed budget. This way the items are clearly out of the estate.

A warning for those who are thinking about taking the “sticky note” system: it rarely goes off without a hitch. Attaching stickers to items with the name of the person who you want to receive them is vulnerable to someone else removing the stickers. Similarly, naming one person to distribute all personal items could lead to strife between family members. There’s no legally enforceable way to ensure that they will follow your wishes.

Address the issue of personal property with your estate planning attorney. They will be able to help determine the least acrimonious means of ensuring that the people you want will end up with the things you want.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Sep. 29, 2020) “Be clear about personal property distribution in your will”

Elder Financial Abuse Fraud Occurs, When No One’s Watching

The case of Nice vs. U.S. is a dramatic example of what can happen when there are no professionals involved in an elderly person’s finances and one person has the power to make transactions without supervision. In the article “Tax case reveals possible intrafamily fraud” from Financial Planning, a trusted son allegedly decimated his mother’s IRA and left her estate with $500,000 tax bill.

Mrs. Nice and her husband had been married for more than 60 years. Before he died in 2002, her husband arranged to leave significant assets for his wife’s care. Their son Chip was named executor of the husband’s estate and moved in with his mother. In 2007, she was diagnosed with dementia. As her condition deteriorated, Chip allegedly began fraudulent activities. He gained access to her IRAs, causing distributions to be made from the IRAs and then allegedly taking the funds for his own use.

Chip also filed federal income tax returns for his mother, causing her to execute a fraudulent power of attorney. The federal tax returns treated the IRA distributions as taxable income to Mrs. Nice. She not only lost the money in her IRA but got hit with a whopping tax bill.

In 2014, Mrs. Nice’s daughter Julianne applied for and received a temporary injunction against Chip, removing him from her mother’s home and taking away control of her finances. Chip died in 2015. A court found that Mrs. Nice was not able to manage her own affairs and Mary Ellen was appointed as a guardian. Julianne filed amended tax returns on behalf of her mother, claiming a refund for tax years 2006-07 and 2009-13. The IRS accepted the claim for 2009 but denied the claims for 2006 and 2010-2013. The appeal for 2009 was accepted, but the IRS never responded to the claim for 2007. Julianne appealed the denials, but each appeal was denied.

By then, Mrs. Nice had died. Julianne brought a lawsuit against the IRS seeking a refund of $519,502 in federal income taxes plus interest and penalties. The suit contended that because of her brother’s alleged fraudulent acts, Mrs. Nice never received the IRA distributions. Her tax returns for 2011-2014 overstated her actual income, the suit maintained, and she was owed a refund for overpayment. The court did not agree, stating that Julianne failed to show that her mother did not receive the IRA funds and denied the claim.

There are a number of harsh lessons to be learned from this family’s unhappy saga.

When IRA funds are mishandled or misappropriated, it may be possible for the amounts taken to be rolled over to an IRA, if a lawsuit to recover the losses occurs in a timely manner. In 2004, the IRS issued 11 private-letter rulings that allow lawsuit settlements to be rolled over to IRAs. The IRS allowed the rollovers and gave owners 60 days from the receipt of settlement money to complete the rollover.

Leaving one family member in charge of family wealth with no oversight from anyone else—a trustee, an estate planning attorney, or a financial planner—is a recipe for elder financial abuse. Even if the funds had remained in the IRA, a fiduciary would have kept an eye on the funds and any distributions that seemed out of order.

One of the goals of an estate plan is to protect the family’s assets, even from members of their own family. An estate plan can be devised to arrange for the care of a loved one, at the same time it protects their financial interests.

Reference: Financial Planning (March 6, 2020) “Tax case reveals possible intrafamily fraud”