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”

When Should You Fund a Trust?

If your estate plan includes a revocable trust, sometimes called a “living trust,” you need to be certain the trust is funded. When created by an experienced estate planning attorney, revocable trusts provide many benefits, from avoiding having assets owned by the trust pass through probate to facilitating asset management in case of incapacity. However, it doesn’t happen automatically, according to a recent article from mondaq.com, “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

For the trust to work, it must be funded. Assets must be transferred to the trust, or beneficiary accounts must have the trust named as the designated beneficiary. The SECURE Act changed many rules concerning distribution of retirement account to trusts and not all beneficiary accounts permit a trust to be the owner, so you’ll need to verify this.

The revocable trust works well to avoid probate, and as the “grantor,” or creator of the trust, you may instruct trustees how and when to distribute trust assets. You may also revoke the trust at any time. However, to effectively avoid probate, you must transfer title to virtually all your assets. It includes those you own now and in the future. Any assets owned by you and not the trust will be subject to probate. This may include life insurance, annuities and retirement plans, if you have not designated a beneficiary or secondary beneficiary for each account.

What happens when the trust is not funded? The assets are subject to probate, and they will not be subject to any of the controls in the trust, if you become incapacitated. One way to avoid this is to take inventory of your assets and ensure they are properly titled on a regular basis.

Another reason to fund a trust: maximizing protection from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance coverage. Most of us enjoy this protection in our bank accounts on deposits up to $250,000. However, a properly structured revocable trust account can increase protection up to $250,000 per beneficiary, up to five beneficiaries, regardless of the dollar amount or percentage.

If your revocable trust names five beneficiaries, a bank account in the name of the trust is eligible for FDIC insurance coverage up to $250,000 per beneficiary, or $1.25 million (or $2.5 million for jointly owned accounts). For informal revocable trust accounts, the bank’s records (although not the account name) must include all beneficiaries who are to be covered. FDIC insurance is on a per-institution basis, so coverage can be multiplied by opening similarly structured accounts at several different banks.

One last note: FDIC rules regarding revocable trust accounts are complex, especially if a revocable trust has multiple beneficiaries. Speak with your estate planning attorney to maximize insurance coverage.

Reference: mondaq.com (Sep. 10, 2021) “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

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?”

How to Protect an Estate from a Rotten Son-in-Law

If you’ve been working for a while, you have an estate. If you’ve been working for a long time, you may even have a sizable estate, and between your home, insurance and growing retirement funds, your estate may reach the million dollar mark. That’s the good news. But the bad news might be an adult child with a drug or drinking problem, or a child who married a person who doesn’t deserve to inherit any part of your estate. Not to mention an ex-spouse or two. What will happen when you aren’t there to protect your estate?

There are steps to protect your estate and your family members, as described in the recent article “Is your son-in-law a jerk? Armor plate your estate” from Federal News Network.

Don’t overlook beneficiary designations. Most employer-sponsored retirement and savings accounts have beneficiary designations to identify the people you wish to receive these assets when you die. Here’s an important fact to know: the beneficiary designation overrides any language in your last will and testament. If your beneficiary designation on an account names a child but your will gives your estate to your spouse, your child will receive assets in the account, and your spouse will not receive any proceeds from the account.

Don’t try to sell a property for below-market value. The same goes for trying to remove assets from your ownership to qualify for Medicaid to cover long-term care costs. Selling your home to an adult child for $1 will not pass unnoticed. Estate taxes, gift taxes, income taxes and eligibility for government benefits can’t be avoided by this tactic.

A common estate planning mistake is to name specific investments in a will. A will becomes part of the public record when it is probated. Providing details in a will is asking for trouble, especially if a nefarious family member is looking for assets. And if the sale or other disposition of the named asset before your death impacts bequests, your estate may be vulnerable to litigation.

How will you leave real estate assets to heirs? Real estate assets can be problematic and need special consideration. Are you leaving shares to a vacation home or the family home? If kids or their spouses don’t get along, or one person wants to live in the home while others want to sell it, this could cause years of family fights.

Making a bequest to a grandchild instead of to a troubled adult child. Minor children may not legally inherit property, so leaving assets to a grandchild does not avoid giving assets to an adult child. The most likely guardian will be their parent, undoing the attempt to keep assets out of the parent’s control.

Include a residuary clause in a will or trust. Residuary clauses are used to dispose of assets not specifically mentioned in a will or trust. Your estate planning attorney will create the residuary clauses most appropriate for your unique situations.

Prepare for the unexpected. Your estate plan can be designed to address the unexpected. If a primary beneficiary like a daughter or son divorces their spouse, a trust could prevent the ex from gaining access to your assets.

An effective estate plan, prepared with an experienced estate planning attorney, can plan for all of the “what ifs” to protect loved ones after you have passed.

Reference: Federal News Network (Sep. 1, 2021) “Is your son-in-law a jerk? Armor plate your estate”

What Kind of Trust Is Right for You?

Everyone wins when estate planning attorneys, financial advisors and accounting professionals work together on a comprehensive estate plan. Each of these professionals can provide their insights when helping you make decisions in their area. Guiding you to the best possible options tends to happen when everyone is on the same page, says a recent article “Choosing Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts” from U.S. News & World Report.

What is a trust and what do trusts accomplish? Trusts are not just for the wealthy. Many families use trusts to serve different goals, from controlling distributions of assets over generations to protecting family wealth from estate and inheritance taxes.

There are two basic kinds of trust. There are also many specialized trusts in each of the two categories: the revocable trust and the irrevocable trust. The first can be revoked or changed by the trust’s creator, known as the “grantor.” The second is difficult and in some instances and impossible to change, without the complete consent of the trust’s beneficiaries.

There are pros and cons for each type of trust.

Let’s start with the revocable trust, which is also referred to as a living trust. The grantor can make changes to the trust at any time, from removing assets or beneficiaries to shutting down the trust entirely. When the grantor dies, the trust becomes irrevocable. Revocable trusts are often used to pass assets to adult children, with a trustee named to manage the trust’s assets until the trust documents direct the trustee to distribute assets. Some people use a revocable trust to prevent their children from accessing wealth too early in their lives, or to protect assets from spendthrift children with creditor problems.

Irrevocable trusts are just as they sound: they can’t be amended once established. The terms of the trust cannot be changed, and the grantor gives up any control or legal right to the assets, which are owned by the trust.

Giving up control comes with the benefit that assets placed in the trust are no longer part of the grantor’s estate and are not subject to estate taxes. Creditors, including nursing homes and Medicaid, are also prevented from accessing assets in an irrevocable trust.

Irrevocable trusts were once used by people in high-risk professions to protect their assets from lawsuits. Irrevocable trusts are used to divest assets from estates, so people can become eligible for Medicaid or veteran benefits.

The revocable trust protects the grantor’s wishes, if the grantor becomes incapacitated. It also avoids probate, since the trust becomes irrevocable upon death and assets are outside of the probated estate. The revocable trust may include qualified assets, like IRAs, 401(k)s and 403(b)s.

However, there are drawbacks. The revocable trust does not provide tax benefits or creditor protection while the grantor is living.

Your estate planning attorney will know which type of trust is best for your situation, and working with your financial advisor and accountant, will be able to create the plan that minimizes taxes and maximizes wealth transfers for your heirs.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Aug. 26, 2021) “Choosing Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts”

How Does Probate Work?

Having a good understanding of how wills are used, how probate works and what other documents are needed to protect yourself and loved ones is key to creating an effective estate plan, explains the article “Understanding probate helps when drafting will” from The News Enterprise.

A last will and testament expresses wishes for property distribution after death. It’s different from a living will, which formalizes choices for end-of-life decisions. The last will and testament also includes provisions for care of minor children, disabled dependents and sometimes, for animal companions.

The will does not become effective until after death. However, before death, it is a useful tool in helping family members understand your goals and wishes, if you are ever incapacitated by illness or injury.

The will has roles for specific people. The “testator” is the person creating the will. “Beneficiaries” are heirs receiving assets after the testator has died. The “executor” is the person who oversees the estate, ensuring that directions in the will are followed.

If there is no will, the court will appoint someone to manage the estate, usually referred to as the “administrator.” There is no guarantee the court will appoint a family member or relative, even if there are willing and qualified candidates in the family. Having a will precludes a court appointing a stranger to make serious decisions about a treasured possession and the future of your loved ones.

A will is usually not filed with the court until after the testator dies and the executor takes the will to the court in the county where the testator lived to open a probate case. If the person owned real estate in other counties or states, probate must take place in all other such locations. The will is recorded by the county clerk’s office and becomes part of the public record for anyone to see.

Assets with named beneficiaries, like life insurance proceeds, retirement funds and property owned jointly are distributed to beneficiaries outside of probate. However, any property owned solely by the decedent is part of the probate action and is vulnerable to creditors and anyone who wishes to make a claim against the estate.

The best way to protect your family and your assets is to have a complete estate plan that includes a will and a thorough review of how assets are titled so they can, if possible, go directly to beneficiaries and not be subject to probate.

Reference: The News Enterprise (Aug. 17, 2021) “Understanding probate helps when drafting will”

What Not to Do when Creating an Estate Plan

Having a good estate plan is critical to ensure that your family is well taken care of after you are gone. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney remains the best way to be sure that your assets are distributed as you want and in the most tax-efficient way possible. A recent article titled “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid” from Urology Times looks at the fine points.

An out-of-date estate plan. Life is all about change. Your estate plan needs to reflect those changes. Just as you prepare taxes every year, your estate plan should be reviewed every year. Here are trigger events that should also spur a review:

  • Parents die and can no longer be beneficiaries or guardians of minor children.
  • Children marry or divorce or have children of their own.
  • Your own remarriage or divorce.
  • A significant change in your asset levels, good or bad.
  • Buying or selling real estate or other large transactions.

Neglecting to update an estate plan correctly. Scratching out a provision in a will and initialing it does not make the change valid. This never works, no matter what your know-it-all brother-in-law says. If you want to make a change, visit an estate planning attorney.

Relying on joint tenancy to avoid probate. When you bought your home, someone probably advised you to title the home using joint tenancy to avoid probate. That only works when the first spouse dies. When the surviving spouse dies, they own the home entirely. The home goes through probate.

Failing to coordinate your will and trusts. All your wills and trusts and any other estate planning documents need to be reviewed to be sure they work together. If you create a trust and transfer assets to it, but your will states that the asset now held in the trust should be gifted to a nephew, then you’ve opened the door to delays, family dissent and possibly litigation.

Not titling assets correctly. How assets are titled reflects their ownership. If your home, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, vehicles and other properties are titled properly, you’ve done your homework. Next, check on beneficiary designations for any asset. Beneficiary designations allow assets to pass directly to the beneficiary. Review these designations annually. If your will says one thing and the beneficiary designation says another, the beneficiary designation wins.

Not naming successor or contingent beneficiaries. If you’ve named a beneficiary on an account—such as your life insurance—and the beneficiary dies, the proceeds could go to your estate and become taxable. Naming an alternate and successor for all the key roles in your estate plan, including beneficiaries, trustees and guardians, offers another layer of certainty to your estate plan.

Neglecting to address health care directives. It may be easier to decide who gets the family vacation home than who will decide to keep you on or take you off life-support systems. However, this is necessary to protect your wishes and prevent family disasters. Health care proxy, advance care directive and end-of-life planning documents tell your loved ones what your wishes are. Without them, the family may be left guessing what to do.

Forgetting to update Power of Attorney. Review this critical document to be sure of two things: the person you named to manage your affairs is still the person you want, and the documents are relatively recent. Some financial institutions balk at older POA forms, and others will outright refuse to accept them. Some states, like New York, have changed POA rules to make it harder for POAs to be denied, but in other states there still can be problems, if the POA is old.

Reference: Urology Times (July 29, 2021) “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid”

What You Need to Know about Probate

We often read about celebrities who die without an estate and how everything they own must go through probate. The article titled “What to know about probate” from wmur.com explains what that means, and what you need to understand about wills, probate and estate planning.

Probate is a process used to prove that a person’s will is valid and to supervise how their estate is handled. It involves a court that focuses on this area. Much about the process depends upon the state in which it’s taking place, since these laws vary from state to state.

When someone dies without a will, they have failed to provide instructions for the distribution of their property. Their assets will still be distributed, but the laws of the state will determine what happens next. The state follows intestacy laws, which outline pre-set patterns of distributing property. In one state, property will go to the spouse and children. In others, the spouse may get everything.

Other decisions are made for your family when there is no will. If you have not named an executor, the court will appoint someone to oversee your estate. The court will also appoint a person to raise your children, if no guardian has been named for minor children. A family member may be chosen, but it may not be the family member you wanted to raise your kids, or it may be a stranger in a foster home.

Another reason to have a will is that probate can take a few months, or, depending on where you live, a few years, to complete. If there is litigation, and not having a will makes that more likely, it would take longer and will undoubtedly cost more. While this is going on, assets may lose value and heirs may suffer from not having access to assets.

Probate is also costly. There are legal notices to be published, court fees, executor fees and bond premiums, appraisal fees and attorney expenses.

Having an estate plan also means tax planning. While the federal estate tax as of this writing is $11.7 million per individual, it will not be that high forever. If the proposals to lower the federal estate tax to $3.5 million per person come to pass, will your estate escape estate taxes? What about your state’s estate or inheritance taxes?

Probate is also a very public process. Once a will is admitted as valid by the court, it becomes a public document. Anyone and everyone can view it and learn about your net worth and who got what.

With all these drawbacks, are there good reasons to allow your estate to go through probate? In some cases, yes. If multiple wills have been found, probate will be needed to establish which will is the correct one. If the will is confusing or complex, probate could provide the clarity needed to settle the estate. If beneficiaries are litigious, probate may be the voice of authority to quell some (but not all) disputes. And if the estate has no money and a lot of debt, it may be the probate court that sorts out the situation.

Every estate is different. Therefore, it is important to speak with an estate planning attorney to have a will, power of attorney and any health care directives created and properly executed. Every few years, these documents should be reviewed and revised to keep up with changes in the law and in your personal life.

Reference: wmur.com (July 29, 2021) “What to know about probate”

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”