Where Do You Score on Estate Planning Checklist?

Make sure that you review your estate plan at least once every few years to be certain that all the information is accurate and updated. It’s even more necessary if you experienced a significant change, such as marriage, divorce, children, a move, or a new child or grandchild. If laws have changed, or if your wishes have changed and you need to make substantial changes to the documents, you should visit an experienced estate planning attorney.

Kiplinger’s recent article “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?” gives us a few things to keep in mind when updating your estate plan:

Moving to Another State. Note that if you’ve recently moved to a new state, the estate laws vary in different states. Therefore, it’s wise to review your estate plan to make sure it complies with local laws and regulations.

Changes in Probate or Tax Laws. Review your estate plan with an experienced estate planning attorney to see if it’s been impacted by changes to any state or federal laws.

Powers of Attorney. A power of attorney is a document in which you authorize an agent to act on your behalf to make business, personal, legal, or financial decisions, if you become incapacitated.  It must be accurate and up to date. You should also review and update your health care power of attorney. Make your wishes clear about do-not-resuscitate (DNR) provisions and tell your health care providers about your decisions. It is also important to affirm any clearly expressed wishes as to your end-of-life treatment options.

A Will. Review the details of your will, including your executor, the allocation of your estate and the potential estate tax burden. If you have minor children, you should also designate guardians for them.

Trusts. If you have a revocable living trust, look at the trustee and successor appointments. You should also check your estate and inheritance tax burden with an estate planning attorney. If you have an irrevocable trust, confirm that the trustee properly carries out the trustee duties like administration, management and annual tax returns.

Gifting Opportunities. The laws concerning gifts can change over time, so you should review any gifts and update them accordingly. You may also want to change specific gifts or recipients.

Regularly updating your estate plan can help you to avoid simple estate planning mistakes. You can also ensure that your estate plan is entirely up to date and in compliance with any state and federal laws.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 28, 2021) “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?”

What are Biggest Mistakes in Estate Planning?

Bankrate’s recent article entitled “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan” talks about five things to watch out for with an estate plan. Therefore, as you’re making your estate plan, carefully consider everything, and that means it may take some time to complete your plan. Let’s look at five things to watch out for in that process:

  1. Plan your estate now. Of course, it’s not just the old and infirm who need an estate plan. Everyone needs a last will so that their last wishes are respected, knowing that the unexpected can happen at any time.
  2. Say who will take care of your minor children. While last wills may typically focus on what happens to your financial assets, you’ll also want to specify what happens to any minor children on your passing, namely who takes care of them. If you have underage children, you must state who would be a guardian for that child and where that child will live. Without a last will, a judge will decide who will take care of your children. That could be a family member or a state-appointed guardian.
  3. 3. Ask executors if they’re willing and able to take on the task. An executor carries out the instructions in your last will. This may be a complicated and time-consuming task. It involves distributing money in accordance with the stipulations of the document and ensuring that the estate is moved properly through the legal system. Make sure you designate an executor who’s up to the task. That means you’ll need to speak with them and make certain that he or she is willing and able to act.
  4. Consider if you want to leave it all to your children. Many young families simply give all their assets to their children when they die. However, if the parents pass away when the children are young, and they don’t establish a trust, they have access to all of the money when they reach the age of majority. This could be a great sum of money for a young adult to inherit with no rules on how to use it.
  5. Keep your estate plan up to date. You should review your estate plan regularly, at least every five years to be sure that everything is still how you intend it and that tax laws haven’t changed in the interim. Your plan could be vastly out of date, depending on changes since you first drafted it.

Estate planning can be a process where you demonstrate to your friends and family how much you care about them and how you’ve remembered them with certain assets or property.

TI’s a way to ensure that your loved ones don’t have months of work trying to handle your estate.

Reference: Bankrate (July 23, 2021) “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan”

No Kids? What Happens to My Estate?

Just because you don’t have children or heirs doesn’t mean you should not write a will. If you decide to have children later on, a will can help protect their financial future. However, even if you die with no children, a will can help you ensure that your assets will go to the people, institutions, or organizations of your own choosing. As a result, estate planning is necessary for everyone.

Claremont Portside’s recent article entitled “What Happens to Your Estate If You Die With No Children” says that your estate will go to your spouse or common-law partner, unless stated otherwise in your will. If you don’t have any children or a spouse or common-law partner, your estate will go to your living parents. Typically, your estate will be divided equally between them. If you don’t have children, a spouse, or living parents, your estate will go to your siblings. If there are any deceased siblings, their share will go to their children.

The best way to make certain your estate goes to the right people, and that your loved ones can divide your assets as easily as possible, is to write a will. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you. As part of this process, you must name an executor. This is a person you appoint who will have the responsibility of administering your estate after you die.

It’s not uncommon for people to appoint one of their children as the executor of their will. But if you don’t have children, you can appoint another family member or a friend. Select someone who’s trustworthy, responsible, impartial and has the mental and emotional resources to take on this responsibility while mourning your death.

You should also be sure to update your will after every major event in your life, like a marriage, the death of one of your intended beneficiaries and divorce. In addition, specifically designating beneficiaries and indicating what they will receive from your estate will help prevent any disputes or contests after your death. If you have no children, you might leave a part (or your entire) estate to friends, and you can also name charities and other organizations as beneficiaries.

It’s important to name who should receive items of sentimental value, such as family heirlooms, and it’s a good idea to discuss this with your loved ones, in case there are any disputes in the future.

Even without children, estate planning can be complicated, so plan your estate well in advance. That way, when something happens to you, your assets will pass to the right people and your last wishes will be carried out. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney for assistance in creating a comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: Claremont Portside “What Happens to Your Estate If You Die with No Children”

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”

Does Your Estate Have to Go Through Probate?

Probate is a court-supervised process intended to ensure the validity of a lasts will and to protect the distribution of assets after a person has died. If there is no last will, probate still takes place, according to the article “Probate—Courts protecting you after death” from Pauls Valley Democrat.

Every estate that owns property must be probated, unless the title or ownership of the property has been transferred before the person died by gift, if the property is owned jointly with another person, or if it passes by direct beneficiary designation. If a person died without a last will, probate still takes place, but the guidelines used are those of the state law where the person died.

In all cases, it’s better to have a last will and to decide for yourself how you want your assets distributed. For all you know, your state law may give everything you own to an estranged third cousin and her children, who are perfect strangers to you.

If you don’t have a last will, which is referred to as dying “intestate,” the court decides who is going to serve as your administrator. This person will be in charge of distributing all of your worldly goods and taking care of the business part of settling your estate, like paying taxes, selling your home, etc. Without a last will, the court picks a person, and it might not be the person you would have wanted.

Here are the basic steps in probating an estate, once the probate petition is filed:

Initial hearing. This is where the court affirms its jurisdiction and identifies all known heirs, and the personal representative is identified.

Letters Testamentary. This document is issued to the personal representative. This is a judge signed document proving to others, like banks and investment custodians, that the personal representative is legally permitted to handle your property and act on behalf of your estate. It’s similar to a Power of Attorney.

Probate. This court process collects, identifies, and accounts for all assets of a decedent. The representative must be mindful to document any money going in and out of the estate during the administrative process.

Written notice must be given to all and any known heirs. This can lead to relatives and others believing they have a claim on your estate and to then challenge the provisions of your last will with the court.

Notice is also provided to creditors, who have at least 60 days after notice is provided to make a claim on the estate. This timeframe varies by jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, these notices are published in local newspapers, once a week for two or more consecutive weeks. Once they receive fair notice, general creditors who fail to file a claim lose their right to ever file a claim on the estate.

An estate plan is created with an eye to minimizing taxes, maximizing privacy for the family and heirs, and transferring ownership of assets with as little red tape as possible. Failing to properly plan can lead to a probate taking months, and in some cases, years.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (July 1, 2021) “Probate—Courts protecting you after death”

Does Estate Planning Vary by State?

Estate planning laws vary greatly from state to state and understanding the difference could have a significant impact on whether your estate plan is valid. It is best to get this straight shortly after moving, says The National Law Review in the recent article “Updating Your Estate Plan: What Michigan Residents Need to Know When Moving to Florida.”

It’s not just people from Michigan who move to Florida who need to have their estate plans reviewed, if they are snowbirds or making a full-time move—it’s anyone who moves to another state, from any state. However, Florida’s popularity makes it a good example to use.

Florida restricts who is permitted to serve as a Personal Representatives under a will. The personal representative, also known as an executor, must be a descendent or ancestor of the decedent, a spouse, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, nephew, niece or descendant or ancestor of any such person or a Florida resident.

Florida doesn’t recognize “no contest” clauses in trusts or wills. It also does not recognize unwitnessed testamentary documents, which are handwritten documents even if they are in your own handwriting. Michigan may accept them, but Florida courts do not.

Florida also has a special set of laws, known as the Homestead laws, designed to protect a decedent’s surviving spouse and children. You may have had other plans for your Florida home, but they may not be passed to the people you have designated in your non-Florida will, if they don’t follow the Sunshine State’s guidelines.

Power of Attorney laws differ from state to state, and this can create huge headaches for families. In Michigan, the Durable Power of Attorney can be “springing,” that is, it is effective only upon incapacity. In Florida, once a Durable Power of Attorney is signed, it is effective. Florida may accept a DPA from another state, but Florida law will be applied to the agent’s actions, and restrictions will be based on Florida law, not that of another state.

As for estate planning documents concerning medical and financial decisions while you are living, these are also different. A living will names a person, known as a “Patient Advocate” in Michigan or a “Health Care Surrogate” in Florida, who is authorized to make decisions regarding end of life care, including providing, withholding, or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment. In Michigan, you need two doctors to certify a patient’s incapacity for non-life-or-death decisions. In Florida, only one doctor is needed.

Whether you are traveling north for a cooler summer or planning to leave a northern home before the winter arrives, meet with your estate planning attorney to understand how any and all of your estate planning documents will work—or not—when you are in another state.

Reference: The National Law Review (June 30, 2021) “Updating Your Estate Plan: What Michigan Residents Need to Know When Moving to Florida”

Can I Set Up a Trust for an Adult Child?

If you are the parent or guardian of an adult who depends upon you financially, estate planning is critical. When you can’t care for your child, an estate plan which includes funding and guidance protects your dependent and ensures that they will receive the care they need, reports Parents in the article “Wills and Trusts for Adult Dependents.”

First, you need a will. This fundamental estate planning document lets you be very specific about what you want to happen after your death. It also nominates guardians for minor and adult children and pets. Wills can be used to manage decisions that apply to everyone. If there is no will, the laws of your state and a court make all of the decisions, not you.

If you have dependents, the will lets you choose who you want to serve as a guardian for your children. If you are already the legal guardian of a dependent adult, the will can be used to name the person to take over for you. Choose guardians who are up to the responsibilities that come with caring for a dependent adult.

The will is used to manage assets after your death. However, in the case of a dependent adult, you may also need a Special Needs Trust. If you pass assets directly to a dependent adult and they are receiving certain government benefits, the inheritance may make them ineligible for benefits and services.

A Special Needs Trust allows you to earmark a certain amount of money for their care. An estate planning elder lawyer will be familiar with this type of trust and help you create it.

If your dependent adult does not receive any means-tested benefits but is not able to manage an inheritance, then a trust can be used to hold assets to be controlled by a trustee, who might also be a guardian or caretaker.

A will and trusts are central to a well-prepared estate plan. Working with an estate planning attorney will give you the opportunity to consider how you want to distribute assets while you are living and after you have died. It also gives you the opportunity to name a personal representative, or executor, who will manage your estate after your death and be in charge of making sure that your wishes, as expressed in your will, are followed.

Trusts are more complex than wills and allow for a greater degree of control over assets. The trust is a legal entity to benefit others, and a trustee is the person named to be in charge of the trust.

Bear in mind that anything passed through a will has to go through a court process known as probate. The will has to be validated and the executor has to be approved by the court. Any assets in the trust are already outside of your estate and do not go through probate.

Reference: Parents (July 7, 2021) “Wills and Trusts for Adult Dependents.”

What to Do with Estate Plan when Loved One Dies

There are a few things a family needs to address immediately after a death, says Cleveland Jewish News’ recent article entitled “Funeral arrangements, estate planning take education.”

It is important that the decedent have a last will and testament to say to how their assets will be distributed. In addition, a trust in combination with a will can give the creator more control over how, when and where the assets go. A fully-funded revocable living trust does not go through probate, like a testamentary trust created under a will to administer the inheritance. A trust can help to avoid probate.

As for funeral arrangements, this can be challenging, if families have not started the planning process quickly. Trying to make decisions on a cemetery, a casket, a funeral home and a service can be daunting. There are a number of decisions to be made in a short amount of time.

As far as reviewing the documents and assets the decedent left behind, do this one at a time and organize as you go to avoid some stress. A family that is grieving can be overwhelmed very quickly.

When a family and loved ones have too much on their plates, nothing will get done because it is too much. Instead, look at one asset at a time, go through it and see how it is titled and if they think the beneficiary designation is appropriate.

Review each asset and make sure you have covered each one, especially if your goal is to avoid probate.

While still living, a person should make a list of where everything is located, details on their accounts and the account numbers and their estate planning attorney. This will ease the family’s burden when going through your assets and other documents, after you pass away.

Although it is not necessary that a parent disclose everything about his or her finances, a parent should have that information available somewhere. That way children will know where all the assets and important documents are located when needed.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (June 22, 2021) “Funeral arrangements, estate planning take education”

Can I Write a Perfect Will?

The Good Men Project’s recent article entitled “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will” says that writing a perfect will is hard but not impossible. The article provides some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Include Everything. If you have items that are very important to you, make sure they are in the right hands after your death.
  2. Consult an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney. It is a challenge to write a will, especially when you do not know all the legal processes that will take place after your death. An estate planning lawyer can educate you on how your estate is being distributed after your death and how to address specific circumstances.
  3. Name an Executor. An executor will manage and distribute your assets after you die. Select a trustworthy person and be sure it is someone who will respect you and your will.
  4. Name the Beneficiaries. These people will get your assets after you pass away. Name them all and include their full names, so there is no confusion.
  5. Say Where Everything Can Be Found. Your executor should know where all of your property and assets can be found. If there is any safe place where you keep things, add it to your will.
  6. Describe Residual Legacies. This is what remains in your estate, once all the other legacies and bequests are completed. If you fail to do this, it will be a partial intestacy. No matter that the legacies would be distributed according to the will, the intestacy laws will control the residue, which may not be to your liking.
  7. Name Guardians for Your Minor Children. Appoint a guardian to take care of any minor children or the court will appoint their guardians, again this may not be to your liking.
  8. Be Specific. An ambiguous will creates issues for the executor and may require court intervention. Be specific and include heirs’ full names. Account numbers, security boxes and anything of the sort should also be included in your will for easy access.
  9. Keep it Updated. If you experience a major life event, update your will accordingly.
  10. Get Signatures from Witnesses. Once your will is completed, you need witnesses who are at least 18 and are not beneficiaries. Sign and date the will in front of these witnesses, and then ask them to date and sign it too.

If you have any questions about wills, speak to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: The Good Men Project (May 28, 2021) “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will”

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”