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”

How Does Probate Work?

Probate is a court-directed process to examine the last will and testament, authorize the executor named in the last will and give the “all clear” to the executor to go ahead and carry out all of the directions in the last will. However, it’s not always that simple—and sometimes, it can get extremely complicated.

A probate judge also oversees cases when there is no last will, explains the article “How Do Probate Judges Administer Estates?” from Yahoo! Finance. If there is no last will, the estate is considered “intestate,” and the court appoints an administrator to manage the estate.

Most probate cases are decided using the laws of the state. The probate judge may also be involved in guardianship and mental competency cases. In some states, the probate court oversees adoption cases instead of a family court. However, the main responsibility of the probate judge is overseeing estates.

Probate includes the process of determining the last will’s validity, ensuring that bills and taxes are paid and property is distributed according to the deceased’s wishes. However, if there is no last will and no family member petitions the court to contest the last will, the probate judge’s involvement in the estate (and the family’s life) becomes far more extensive.

Here’s how it works.

The executor of the estate files the last will with the probate court. The probate court has to be sure there are no objections to the last will, like a possibility that someone may claim that the last will was not knowing and voluntarily made by the decedent. In the most intense cases, the judge may have to declare the need for litigation. However, if there are no objections, the executor is approved. The next step is for the executor to get a tax ID number from the IRS and open an estate bank account.

The executor next notifies all interested parties about the last will. This is done by placing classified ads in local newspapers. All possible heirs must be notified, whether they are mentioned in the last will or not, and if they can be found. Creditors have a specific time period to submit claims against the estate through the probate court.

Inventory of all assets must be done, and a total value assigned to the estate on the date of death. The inventory is filed with the probate court and provided to heirs. This is a lot of work, and the executor must be diligent. It may be necessary to hire professionals to value assets, like real estate. Many people work with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the estate is properly valued.

If the last will is contested, the probate judge reviews evidence and hears arguments. The process can take years, depending on the complexity of the estate. The probate judge issues rulings and opinions.

If there is no last will, the judge appoints an administrator of the estate to conduct the duties of the executor as described above. With no last will, the probate judge invokes the law of intestate succession, which in most states, means that the order of inheritance is based on the relationship between the deceased and the next of kin. If there are estranged family members, they may end up inheriting most of the estate, regardless of their relationship with the decedent.

Having a last will prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney permits you to make the decisions about your property, spares your family from potentially losing everything you have worked to attain and saves your loved one’s time, money and emotional hardship.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Aug. 31, 2021) “How Do Probate Judges Administer Estates?”

When Should an Estate Plan Be Reviewed?
Businessman looking through a magnifying glass to documents

When Should an Estate Plan Be Reviewed?

If your parents don’t remember when they last reviewed their estate plan, then chances are it’s time for a review. Over the years, wishes, relationships and circumstances change, advises the recent article, “5 Reasons To Have Your Parents’ Estate Plan Reviewed,” from Forbes. An out-of-date estate plan may not achieve your parent’s wishes, or be declared invalid by the court. Having an estate planning attorney review the estate plan may save you money in the long run, not to mention the stress and worry created by an estate disaster. If you need reasons, here are five to consider.

Financial institutions are wary of dated documents. Banks and other financial institutions look twice at documents that are not recent. Trying to use a Power of Attorney that was created twenty years ago is bound to create problems. One person tried to use a document, but the bank insisted on getting an affidavit from the attorney who prepared it to be certain it was valid. While the son was trying to solve this, his mother died, and the account had to be probated. A “fresh” power of attorney would have solved the problem.

State laws change. Things that seem small become burdensome in a hurry. For example, if someone wants to leave a variety of personal effects to many different people, each and every one of the people listed would need to be located and notified. Many states now allow a separate writing to dispose of personal items, making the process far easier. However, if the will is out of date, you may be stuck with a house-sized task.

Legal document language changes. The SECURE Act changed many aspects of estate planning, particularly with regard to retirement accounts. If your parents have retirement accounts that are payable to a trust, the trust language must be changed to comply with the law. Not having these updates in the estate plan could result in an increase in income taxes or costly fees to fix the situation.

Estate tax laws change. In recent years, there have been many changes to federal tax laws. If your parents have not updated their estate plan within the last five years, they have missed many changes and many opportunities. It is likely that your parents’ assets have also changed over the years, and the documents need to reflect how the estate taxes will be paid. Are their assets titled so that there are enough funds in the estate or trust to cover the cost of any liability? Here’s another one—if all of the assets pass directly to beneficiaries via beneficiary designations, who is going to pay for the tax bills –and with what funds?

Older estate plans may contain wishes from decades ago. For one family, an old will led to a situation where a son did not inherit his father’s entire estate. His late sister’s children, who had been estranged from him for decades, received their mother’s share. If the father and son had reviewed the will earlier, a new will could have been created and signed that would have given the son what the father intended.

These types of problems are seen daily in your estate planning attorney’s office. Take the time to get a proper review of your parent’s estate plan, to prevent stress and unnecessary costs in the future.

Reference: Forbes (May 25, 2021) “5 Reasons To Have Your Parents’ Estate Plan Reviewed”