Remind Me Why I Need a Will

There are a number of reasons to draft a will as soon as possible. If you die without a will (intestate), you leave decisions up to your state of residence according to its probate and intestacy laws. Without a will, you have no say as to who receives your assets or properties. Not having a will could also make it difficult for your family.

Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “Top 7 Reasons to Fill Out a Will” reminds us that, before it is too late, consider these reasons why a will is essential.

Avoid Family Disputes. This process occasionally will lead to disagreements among family members, if there’s no will or your wishes aren’t clear. A contested will can be damaging to relationships within your family and can be costly.

Avoid Costly and Lengthy Probate. A will expedites the probate process and tells the court the way in which you want your estate to be divided. Without a will, the court will decide how your estate will be divided, which can lead to unnecessary delays.

Deciding What Happens to Your Assets. A will is the only way you can state exactly to whom you want your assets to be given. Without a will, the court will decide.

Designating a Guardian for Your Children. Without a will, the court will determine who will take care of your minor children.

Eliminate Stress for Your Family. Most estates must go to probate court to start the process. However, if you have no will, the process can be complicated. The court must name personal representatives to administer your estate.

Protect Your Business. A will allows you to pass your business to your co-owners or heirs.

Provide A Home For Your Pets. If you have a will, you can make certain that someone will care for your pets if you die. The law considers pets as properties, so you are prohibited from leaving assets to your pets in your will. However, you can name beneficiaries for your pets, leaving them to a trusted person, and you can name people to serve as guardians of your pets and leave them funds to meet their needs.

Drafting a will with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney can give you and your family peace of mind and convenience in the future.

Reference: Legal Reader (Jan. 28, 2021) “Top 7 Reasons to Fill Out a Will”

What are the Stages of Probate?

Probate is a court-supervised process occurring after your death. It takes place in the state where you were a resident at the time of your death and addresses your estate—all of your financial assets, real estate, personal belongings, debts and unpaid taxes. If you have an estate plan, your last will names an executor, the person who takes charge of your estate and settles your affairs, explains the article “Understanding Probate” from Pike County Courier. How exactly does the probate process work?

If your estate is subject to probate, your estate planning attorney files an application for the probate of your last will with the local court. The application, known as a petition, is brought to the probate court, along with the last will. That is also usually when the petitioner files an application for the appointment of the executor of your estate.

First, the court must rule on the validity of the last will. Does it meet all of the state’s requirements? Was it witnessed properly? If the last will meets the state’s requirements, then the court deems it valid and addresses the application for the executor. That person must also meet the legal requirements of your state. If the court agrees that the person is fit to serve, it approves the application.

The executor plays a very important role in settling your estate. The executor is usually a spouse or a close family member. However, there are situations when naming an attorney or a bank is a better option. The person needs to be completely trustworthy. Your fiduciary will have a legal responsibility to be honest, impartial and put your estate’s well-being above the fiduciary’s own. If they do not have a good grasp of financial matters, the fiduciary must have the common sense to ask for expert help when needed.

Here are some of the tasks the fiduciary must address:

  • Finding and gathering assets and liabilities
  • Inventorying and appraising assets
  • Filing the estate tax return and your last tax return
  • Paying debts, managing creditors and paying taxes
  • Distributing assets
  • Providing a detailed report of the estate settlement to the court and any other parties

What is the probate court’s role in this part of the process? It depends upon the state. The probate court is more involved in some states than in others. If the state allows for a less formal process, it’s simpler and faster. If the estate is complicated with multiple properties, significant assets and multiple heirs, probate can take years.

If there is no executor named in your last will, the court will appoint an administrator. If you do not have a last will, the court will also appoint an administrator to settle your estate following the laws of the state. This is the worst possible scenario, since your assets may be distributed in ways you never wished.

Does all of your estate go through the probate process? With proper estate planning, many assets can be taken out of your probate estate, allowing them to be distributed faster and easier. How assets are titled determines whether they go through probate. Any assets with named beneficiaries pass directly to those beneficiaries and are outside of the estate. That includes life insurance policies and retirement plans with named beneficiaries. It also includes assets titled “jointly with rights of survivorship,” which is how most people own their homes.

Your estate planning attorney will discuss how the probate process works in your state and how to prepare a last will and any needed trusts to distribute your assets as efficiently as possible.

Reference: Pike County Courier (March 4, 2021) “Understanding Probate”

Just What Does an Executor Do?

Spending the least amount of time possible contemplating your death is what most people try to do. However, one part of the estate planning process needs time and reflection: deciding who should serve in important roles, including executor. Whatever the size of your estate, the people you name have jobs that will impact your life and your family’s future, says a recent article “How to get it right when naming an executor and filling other key roles in your estate plan” from CNBC. A quick decision now might have a bad outcome later.

First, let’s look at the executor. They are responsible for everything from filing your last will with the court to paying off debts, closing accounts and making sure that assets in your probate estate are distributed according to the directions in your last will. They need to be trustworthy, organized and able to manage financial decisions. They also need to be available to handle your estate, in addition to their other responsibilities.

Note that some of your assets, including retirement tax deferred accounts, life insurance proceeds and any other assets with a named beneficiary, will pass outside of your probate estate. These assets need to be identified and the custodian needs to be notified so the heir can receive the asset.

Settling an estate takes an average of 16 months, with smaller estates being settled more quickly. Larger estates, worth more than $5 million and up, can take as long as four years to settle.

Some people prefer to name co-executors as a means of spreading out the responsibilities. That ix fine, unless the two people have a history of not getting along, as is the case with many siblings. Sharing the duties sounds like a good idea, but it can lead to delays if the two don’t agree or can’t coordinate their estate tasks. Many estate planning attorneys recommend naming one person as the executor and a second as the contingency executor, in case the first cannot serve or decides he or she does not want to take on the responsibilities. The same applies to any trustees, if your estate plan includes a trust.

Make sure the people you are considering as executor, contingent executor, trustee or success or trustee are willing to take on these roles. If there is no one in your life who can take on these tasks, an option is to name an estate planning attorney, accountant, or trust company.

Another important role in your estate plan is the Power of Attorney. You’ll want one for financial decisions and another for healthcare decisions. They can be the same person or different people. Understand that the financial Power of Attorney will have complete control over your assets, including accounts, real estate, and personal property, if you are too incapacitated to make decisions or to communicate your wishes.

The healthcare Power of Attorney will be making medical decisions on your behalf. You will want to name a person you trust to carry out your wishes—even if they are not the same ones they would want, or if your family opposes your wishes. It’s not an easy task, so be sure to create a Living Will to express your wishes, if you are placed on life support or suffer from a terminal condition. This will help your healthcare Power of Attorney follow your wishes.

Finally, revisit your estate plan every three to five years. Life changes, laws change and your estate plan should continue to reflect your wishes. The lives of the people in key roles change, so the same person who was ready to serve as your executor today may not be five years from now. Confirm their willingness to serve every time you review your last will, just to be sure.

Reference: CNBC (March 5, 2021) “How to get it right when naming an executor and filling other key roles in your estate plan”

Preparing for an Estate Planning Meeting

Preparing to meet with an estate planning attorney for the first time is an opportunity to get organized and think about your wishes for the future. If you meet with your accountant every year to prepare tax returns, this may be a familiar process. It’s a chance to step away from day-to-day activities and focus on your life, as described in a recent article “Preparing for an Estate Planning Consultation: 10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney” from The National Law Journal.

Minor Children Need Guardians and Conservators. In most states, families with minor children need a last will to designate one or more guardians to raise the children in the event both parents die. A successor should be named in case the first named guardian is unable or unwilling to serve. Discuss your decision with the people you are naming; don’t leave this as a surprise. Choosing these people is a hard decision. However, don’t let it be a reason to delay creating your estate plan. It’s better that you name a guardian, rather than let the court make that decision.

Agents, Trustees, and Power of Attorney. With a Durable Power of Attorney, your assets can be managed by a named agent, if you become incapacitated. The person who manages your estate after death is the executor. They are named in your last will. If you have trusts, the documents that create the trust also name the trustees. It is possible for one person to act as a fiduciary for all of these roles, although the tasks can be divided.

Living Will and Patient Advocate Designation. If you are incapacitated, a Patient Advocate can make medical decisions on your behalf, including following the instructions of your Living Will.

Personal Property. Any items of personal property, whether their value is sentimental or monetary, should be specified in the will. A list of items and who you want to receive what, may spare your heirs from squabbles over your personal effects, large or small. If you own a business or real estate, they also need to be addressed in your will.

Charitable Donations. If you are charitably minded, your will is one way to make bequests and build a lasting legacy. Charitable donations can also be made to gain tax benefits for heirs.

Beneficiary Distributions. The beneficiary designation is the unsung hero of the estate plan. By managing beneficiary designations while you are living—updating beneficiary designations, assigning beneficiary designations to all accounts possible—you take assets out of your probate estate and smooth the asset distribution process. However, there are some wrinkles to consider.

Minor children may not receive assets until they become of age—18 in most cases. Do you want your children (or nieces or grandchildren) to receive an inheritance, while they are still in their teens? Proper estate planning includes trusts created, so a responsible adult can manage the trust on their behalf. Your trust can also be structured so the money may only be used for college expenses, or when the children reach certain ages.

Surviving Pets. You can plan for your pet’s care, if you pass away or become incapacitated before they die. Most states permit the creation of a pet trust, an enforceable means of providing assets to be used for the care and well-being of your pet.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide you with a list of the documents she will need to get started on your estate plan, but these are the major issues that you will be discussing at your first meeting.

Reference: The National Law Journal (Feb. 23, 2021) “Preparing for an Estate Planning Consultation: 10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney”

How Do I Talk to the Children about My Estate Planning?
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How Do I Talk to the Children about My Estate Planning?

Some $68 trillion will move between generations in the next two decades, reports U.S. News & World Report in the article “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children.” Having this conversation with your adult children, especially if they are members of Generation X, could have a profound impact on the quality of your relationship and your legacy.

Staying on top of your estate plan and having candid discussions with your children will also have an impact on how much of your estate is consumed by estate taxes. The historically high federal exemptions are not going to last forever—even without any federal legislation, they sunset in 2025, which isn’t far away.

One of the purposes of your estate plan is to transfer money as you wish. What most people do is talk with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan. They create trusts, naming their child as the trustee, or simple wills naming their child as the executor. Then, the parents drop the ball.

Talk with your children about the role of trustee and/or executor. Help them understand the responsibilities that these roles require and ask if they will be comfortable handling the decision making, as well as the money. Include the Power of Attorney role in your discussion.

What most parents refuse to discuss with their children is money, plain and simple. Children will be better equipped, if they know what financial institutions hold your accounts and are introduced to your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor.

You might at some point forget about some investments, or the location of some accounts as you age. If your children have a working understanding of your finances, estate plan and your wishes, they will be able to get going and you will have spared them an estate scavenger hunt.

If possible, hold a family meeting with your advisors, so everyone is comfortable and up to speed.

Most adult children do not have the same experience with taxes as parents who have acquired wealth over their lifetimes. They may not understand the concepts of qualified and non-qualified accounts, step-up in cost basis, life insurance proceeds, or a probate asset versus a non-probate asset. It is critical that they understand how taxes impact estates and investments. By explaining things like tax-free distributions from a Roth IRA, for instance, you will increase the likelihood that your life savings aren’t battered by taxes.

Even if your adult children work in finance, do not assume they understand your investments, your tax-planning, or your estate. Even the smartest people make expensive mistakes, when handling family estates.

Having these discussions is another way to show your children that you care enough to set your own ego aside and are thinking about their future. It’s a way to connect not just about your money or your taxes, but about their futures. Knowing that you purchased a life insurance policy specifically to provide them with money for a home purchase, or to fund a grandchild’s college education, sends a clear message. Don’t miss the opportunity to share that with them, while you are living.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Feb. 17, 2021) “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children”

How Do You Handle Probate?

While you are living, you have the right to give anyone any property of your choosing. If you give your power to gift your property to another person, typically through a Power of Attorney, then that person is your agent and may give away your property, according to an article “Explaining the basic aspects probate” from The News-Enterprise. When you die, the Power of Attorney you gave to an agent ends, and they are no longer in control of your estate. Your “estate” is not a big fancy house, but a legal term used to define the total of everything you own.

Property that you owned while living, unless it was owned jointly with another person, or had a beneficiary designation giving the property to another person upon your death, is distributed through a court order. However, the court order requires a series of steps.

First, you need to have had created a will while you were living. Unlike most legal documents (including the Power of Attorney mentioned above), a will is valid when it is properly signed. However, it can’t be used until a probate case is opened at the local District Court. If the Court deems the will to be valid, the probate proceeding is called “testate” and the executor named in the will may go forward with settling the estate (paying legitimate debts, taxes and expenses), before distributing assets upon court permission.

If you did not have a will, or if the will was not prepared correctly and is deemed invalid by the court, the probate is called “intestate” and the court appoints an administrator to follow the state’s laws concerning how property is to be distributed. You may not agree with how the state law directs property distribution. Your spouse or your family may not like it either, but the law itself decides who gets what.

After opening a probate case, the court will appoint a fiduciary (executor or administrator) and may have a legal notice published in the local newspaper, so any creditors can file a claim against the estate.

The executor or administrator will create a list of all of the property and the claims submitted by any creditors. It is their job to ensure that claims are valid and have been submitted within the correct timeframe. They will also be in charge of cleaning out your home, securing your home and other possessions, then selling the house and distributing your personal furnishings.

Depending on the size of the estate, the executor or administrator’s job may be time consuming and complex. If you left good documentation and lists of assets, a clean file system or, best of all, an estate binder with all your documents and information in one place, it can alleviate a lot of stress for your executor. Estate fiduciaries who are left with little information or a disorganized mess must undertake an expensive and burdensome scavenger hunt.

The executor or administrator is entitled to a fiduciary fee for their work, which is usually a percentage of the estate.

Probate ends when all of the property has been gathered, creditors have been paid and beneficiaries have received their distributions.

With a properly prepared estate plan, your property will be distributed according to your wishes, versus hoping the state’s laws will serve your family. You can also use the estate planning process to create the necessary documents to protect you during life, including a Power of Attorney, Advance Medical Directive and Healthcare proxy.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 2, 2021) “Explaining the basic aspects probate”

Get Estate Plan in Order, If Spouse Is Dying from a Terminal Illness

Thousands of people are still dying from COVID-19 complications every day, and others are dealing with life-threatening illnesses like cancer, heart attack and stroke. If your spouse is ill, the pain is intensified by the anticipated loss of your life partner.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Your Spouse Is Dying: 5 Ways To Get Your Estate In Order Now,” says that it’s frequently the attending physician who suggests that your spouse get his affairs in order.

Your spouse’s current prognosis and whether he or she’s at home or in a hospital will determine whether updates can be made to your estate plan. If it has been some time since the two of you last updated your estate plan, you should review the planning with your elder law attorney or estate planning attorney to be certain that you understand it and to see if there are any changes that can and should be made. There are five issues on which to focus your attention:

A Fiduciary Review. See who’s named in your estate planning documents to serve as executor and trustee of your spouse’s estate. They will have important roles after your spouse dies. Be sure you are comfortable with the selected fiduciaries, and they’re still a good fit. If your spouse has been sick, you’ve likely reviewed his or her health care proxy and power of attorney. If not, see who’s named in those documents as well.

An Asset Analysis. Determine the effect on your assets when your partner dies. Get an updated list of all your assets and see if there are assets that are held jointly which will automatically pass to you on your spouse’s death or if there are assets in your spouse’s name alone with no transfer on death beneficiary provided. See if any assets have been transferred to a trust. These answers will determine how easily you can access the assets after your spouse’s passing.

A Trust Assessment. Any assets that are currently in a trust or will pass into a trust at death will be controlled by the trust document. See who the beneficiaries are, how distributions are made and who will control the assets.

Probate Prep. If there’s property solely in your spouse’s name with no transfer on death beneficiary, those assets will pass according to his or her will. Review the will to make sure you understand it and whether probate will be needed to settle the estate.

Beneficiary Designation Check. Make certain that beneficiaries of your retirement accounts and life insurance policies are current.

If changes need to be made, an experienced elder law or estate planning attorney can counsel you on how to best do this.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 26, 2021) “Your Spouse Is Dying: 5 Ways To Get Your Estate In Order Now”

Who Can Witness Wills?

For a will to be binding, there are a number of requirements that must be met. While state laws on wills vary, most require you to be of legal adult age to make a will and have testamentary capacity (i.e., that you be “of sound mind”).

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Who Can and Cannot Witness a Will?” explains that you usually must have your will witnessed.

Witnesses to your will are significant in the event that someone disputes its validity later or if there is a will contest. If one of your heirs challenges the terms of your will, a witness may be asked by the probate court to attest that they watched you sign the will and that you appeared to be of sound mind when you did so. Witnesses provide you with another layer of validity to a will, and it makes it more difficult for someone to dispute its legality.

When drafting a will, it’s important to understand several requirements, including who can serve as a witness. Generally, but depending on applicable state law, anyone can witness a will, as long as they meet two requirements: (i) they are of legal adult age; and (ii) they do not have a direct interest in the will. Therefore, the types of people who could witness a will for you include your friends who aren’t to receive anything from your estate, a neighbor, co-workers and any of your relatives who aren’t included in your will.

If you’ve hired an experienced estate planning attorney to help you draft your will, he or she can also act as a witness, provided they’re not named as a beneficiary. An attorney who’s also acting as the executor of the will (the person who oversees the process of distributing your assets and paying off any outstanding debts owed by your estate) can also witness a will.

Most states don’t allow you to select individuals who will benefit from your will as witnesses. If you are drafting a will that leaves assets to your spouse, children, siblings, or parents, then none of those individuals can serve as witnesses to the will’s signing because they all have an interest in the will’s terms. The same is true for relatives or spouses of any of the beneficiaries.

The witnesses to your will do not need to review the entire will document in order to sign it. They only need to be able to verify that the document exists, that you have signed it in their presence and that they have signed it in front of you.

When you sign the will, get both witnesses together at the same time. You’ll need to sign, initial and date the will in ink, then have your witnesses do the same. Some states require you to attach a self-proving affidavit or have the will notarized in front of the witnesses.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Dec. 28, 2020) “Who Can and Cannot Witness a Will?”

Can an Executor be Replaced?

The executor of a last will and testament is the person responsible for carrying out the instructions in a will. Giving a person this role is giving them the authority to handle many tasks concerning an estate, as explained in the article “How to Change the Executor of a Will” from KAKE.com. The person you name can be anyone you wish, from a spouse to a trusted family member, an adult child or even an estate planning attorney. Minor children may not serve as executors and some states do not permit convicted felons from serving as executors.

What does the executor do?

A beneficiary, a person who receives an inheritance from the estate, is permitted to serve as an executor, but the executor who is a beneficiary may not witness the will if they have a direct interest in it. The executor usually is in charge of:

  • Getting death certificates
  • Creating an inventory of the decedent’s assets, unless one exists already
  • Contacting an attorney to begin the probate process
  • Notifying financial institutions, including banks and investment firms of the person’s death
  • Obtaining a tax ID number for the estate and opening an estate account
  • Distributing assets to the persons named in the will.

The executor may not change the terms of the will, only carry out the instructions. They may collect a fee for their services, usually a percentage of the estate’s value. Regardless, whether they collect their fee is an individual decision.

Can you change the name of the executor on your estate?

There are many reasons why you might wish to change the person you originally named as executor to your estate. This is an important task, and if there have been changes in your life, then your estate plan and will should reflect those changes. Some of the reasons for changing your executor:

  • If the original executor dies, or becomes seriously ill and cannot fulfill their duties
  • If your spouse was the executor, but is now your ex-spouse
  • The person originally named as executor does not want the responsibility
  • Your original executor now lives many miles away.

There are two different ways to change the executor of your will. It is recommended that you discuss which of these two ways are better for your unique situation. Simple solutions often turn into estate planning nightmares.

How is a Codicil Used to Change the Executor?

A codicil is an amendment to a will that changes the terms, without changing the entire will. You specify the changes you want to make to your will, the name of the person who you now want to serve as executor from now on and the date the change needs to take effect. Estate laws are different in every state, so check with your estate planning attorney on the best way to do this. In some states, you’ll need at least two witnesses to be present when you sign and date the codicil. Remember that beneficiaries may not witness the codicil. Be careful to keep your will and the codicil in a safe place.

Why Change the Entire Will to Change Only the Executor’s Name?

The reasons for your changing your executor’s name may have occurred in combination with other changes in your life that warrant a review of your entire estate plan. This should be done every three or four years, or every time there are big life changes or big changes to tax laws. If you don’t review your estate plan, you can miss out on new opportunities to protect more of your estate for your family.

What If I Don’t Name an Executor?

Not having an executor is similar to not having a will. If you do not have either, the court will assign an executor to be in charge of distributing your estate, according to the laws of your state. You may not like how the law distributes your assets, but you will have given up any control. It’s much better for all concerned for you to have a will and make certain to have an executor.

Reference: KAKE.com (Dec. 29, 2020) “How to Change the Executor of a Will”

Should I Add that to My Will?

In general, a last will and testament is an easy and straightforward way to state who gets what when you die and designate a guardian for your minor children, if you (and your spouse) die unexpectedly.

MSN’s recent article entitled “Things you should never put in your will” explains that you can be specific about who receives what. However, attaching strings or conditions may not work because there’s no one to legally enforce the terms. If you have specific details about how a person should use their inheritance, whether they are a spendthrift or someone with special needs, a trust may be a better option because you’ll have more control, even from beyond the grave.

Keeping some assets out of your will can actually benefit your future heirs because they’ll get their inheritance faster. When you pass on, your will must be “proven” and validated in a probate court prior to distribution of your property. This process takes some time and effort, if there are issues—including something in your will that doesn’t need to be there. For example, property in a trust and payable-on-death accounts are two types of assets that can be distributed to your beneficiaries without a will.

Don’t put anything in a will that you don’t own outright. If you jointly own assets with someone, they will likely become the new owner. For example, this applies to a property acquired by married couples in community property states.

Property in a revocable living trust. This is a separate entity that you can use to distribute your assets which avoids probate. When you title property into the trust, it is subject to the trust’s rules.  Because a trust operates independently, you must avoid inconsistencies and not include anything in your will that the trust addresses.

Assets with named beneficiaries. Some financial accounts are payable-on-death or transferable-on-death. They are distributed or paid out directly to the named beneficiaries. That makes putting them in a will unnecessary (and potentially troublesome, if you’re inconsistent). However, you can add information about these assets in your letter of instruction (see below). As far as bank accounts, brokerage or investment accounts, retirement accounts and pension plans and life insurance policies, assign a beneficiary rather than putting these assets in your will.

Jointly owned property. Property you jointly own with someone else will almost always directly pass to the co-owner when you die, so do not put it in your will. A common arrangement is joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Other things you may not want to put in a will. Businesses can be given away in a will, but it’s not the best plan. Wills must be probated in court and that can create a rough transition after you die. Instead, work with an experienced estate planning attorney on a succession plan for your business and discuss any estate tax issues you may have as a business owner.

Adding your funeral instructions in your will isn’t optimal. This is because the family may not be able to read the will before making arrangements. Instead, leave a letter of instruction with any personal wishes and desires.

Reference: MSN (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”