What Happens When Property Is Owned Jointly and an Owner Dies?

When property is owned jointly, the property may pass automatically to the other owner, passing without going through probate, according to a recent article titled “Everything you need to know about jointly owned property and wills” from TBR News Media

Your will only concerns assets in your name alone without a designated beneficiary. Let’s say you have a joint checking account with another person. On your death, the account automatically becomes the property of the surviving owner. This is outside of probate, and any directions in your will won’t apply.

Real estate is most commonly owned jointly, in several different ways and each with its own set of laws.

Joint Tenancy or Joint Tenancy with Rights of Survivorship. On the death of a joint owner, the owner’s share goes to the surviving joint owner. Simple. The main advantage is the avoidance of probate, which can be costly and take months to complete.

Tenancy by the Entirety. This type of joint ownership is only available between spouses and is not used in all states. A local estate planning attorney will be able to tell you if you have this option. As with Joint Tenancy, when the first spouse passes, their interest automatically passes to the surviving spouse outside of probate.

There are additional protections in Tenancy by the Entirety making it an attractive means of ownership. One spouse may not mortgage or sell the property without the consent of the other spouse, and the creditor of one spouse can’t place a lien or enforce a judgment against property held as tenants by the entirety.

Tenancy in Common. This form of ownership has no right of survivorship and each owner’s share of the property passes to their chosen beneficiary upon the owner’s death. Tenants in Common may have unequal interests in the property, and when one owner dies, their beneficiaries will inherit their share and become co-owners with other Tenants.

The Tenant in Common share passes the persons designated according to their will, assuming they have one. This means the decedent’s executor must “probate” the will and file a petition with the court. However, a Tenant in Common may be able to avoid probate if their share of the property is held in trust, in which case the terms of the trust and not their will controls how the property passes at death. In this case, there’s no need for any court involvement.

There may be capital gains consequences when transferring ownership interests during and after life. Such gifts should never be made without speaking with an estate planning attorney. One of the more common errors occurs when the testator fails to account for the different types of ownership and how assets pass through the will. A comprehensive estate plan, created by an experienced estate planning attorney, ensures that both probate and non-probate assets work together.

Reference: TBR News Media (Dec. 27, 2022) “Everything you need to know about jointly owned property and wills”

These Celebrities Didn’t have Wills…But You Should

Rapper Coolio died at age 59 after being found unresponsive on the floor at a friend’s house. His real name was Artis Leon Ivey Jr., and his former manager, Jared Posey, recently filed a probate case to appraise the value of his estate, according to a recent article “What Coolio, Prince and Picasso didn’t have that you should” from MarketWatch.

The filing names Coolio’s seven adult children, who are reported to wear his ashes in necklaces, as his next of kin and likely beneficiaries of his estate. There are also three other children who are under legal age.

The estimated value of the estate is more than $300,000, including personal property, demand deposit accounts, financial accounts, insurance policies and royalties.

Coolio is far from alone in failing to have a will. A 2021 Gallup poll revealed that fewer than half adults in the U.S. have a will outlining how they want their estate to be handed upon their death. It’s a recipe for disaster for their families.

Dying without a will—known as dying intestate—means a local probate court has to decide how to distribute property according to state law, which can take months or even years. What finally occurs may not be what you intended. However, it will be too late.

A will is only one of many tools in the estate planning toolbox. You also need an updated Medical Power of Attorney, a Financial Power of Attorney and to have beneficiary designations on all of your accounts. The beneficiary designations override your will, which is often news to loved ones.

If you have a beneficiary listed on your 401(k) plan, the person listed will receive the assets in the 401(k), regardless of what is in your will. You want to make sure beneficiaries and secondary beneficiaries are all up to date on all of your accounts.

Another important consideration: if a spouse is cut out of a will who would normally receive an inheritance, they have legal standing to challenge the will in court.

For a complete estate plan, you need a Durable Power of Attorney, which states who can make financial decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated. A Medical Power of Attorney names a person to make medical decisions for you if you are unable to make them yourself, and guardianship designations if you have minor children.

Every few years or after any big life changes, these documents, including beneficiary designations, need to be reviewed and updated with your estate planning attorney.

Other accounts, like brokerage accounts or bank accounts, may have “Pay on Death” or “Transfer on Death” designations which would immediately put the assets into the named person’s hands upon your death.

Another item to consider is a letter of intent, in which you describe for the executor of your estate your final wishes regarding burial or funeral. This document is not legally binding but can be used to share your wishes. The will may not be reviewed until after the funeral, so final directions for funerals, cremations, memorial services, etc., should not be in the will.

You can create a list to be appended to your will listing who will receive certain tangible items, like the family silver or your mother’s pearls. One good thing about having such a list is that it gives you an opportunity to update beneficiaries of your tangible personal property without needing to update your will itself. Be sure the list doesn’t contradict anything in your will and describe the items with great detail. You might also want to include contact information, so your executor can easily locate the person and make sure the items find their desired home.

Better yet—give the items away before you die. You won’t have to worry if they won’t get to the right person, and you’ll get to share the person’s enjoyment when they receive the gifts.

Reference: MarketWatch (Dec. 31, 2022) “What Coolio, Prince and Picasso didn’t have that you should”

How Does a Trust Work?

You’ve worked hard to accumulate financial assets. You’ll need them to support your retirement. However, what if you also want to pass them on to loved ones? Trusts are used to pass assets to the next generation and have many benefits, says a recent article titled “Passing assets through a trust—What to know” from the Daily Bulldog.

“Funded” trusts don’t go through probate, which can be time-consuming, costly, and public. Your last will and testament becomes a public document when it is filed in the courthouse. Anyone can see it, from people wanting to sell your home to thieves looking for victims. Trust documents are not public, so no one outside of the grantor and the trustee knows what is in the trust and when distributions will be made. A trust also gives you the ability to be very specific about who will inherit assets in the trust, and when.

An estate planning attorney will help establish trusts, ensuring they are compliant with state law. There are three key questions to address during the trust creation process.

Who will serve as a trustee? There are several key roles in trusts. The person who creates the trust is the grantor of the trust. They name the trustee—the person or company charged with managing the trust’s assets and carrying out the instructions in the trust. You might choose a loved one. However, if they don’t have the knowledge or experience to manage the responsibilities, you could also name a corporate fiduciary, such as a bank or trust company. These entities charge for their services and usually require a minimum.

When will distributions be made? As the grantor, you get to decide when assets will be distributed and the amount of the distribution. You might want to keep the assets in the trust until the beneficiary reaches legal age. You could also structure the trust to make distributions at specific ages, i.e., at 30, 35 and 40. The trust could even hold the assets for the lifetime of the beneficiary and only distribute earned income. A large part of this decision has to do with how responsible you feel the beneficiaries will be with their inheritance.

What is the purpose of the trust? The grantor also gets to decide how trust assets should be used. The trust could designate broad categories, such as health, education, maintenance and support. The trust can be structured so the beneficiary needs to ask the trustee for a certain amount of assets. Other options are to structure the trust to provide mandatory income, once or twice a year, or tie distributions to incentives, such as finishing a college degree or purchasing a first home.

An estate planning attorney will explain the different types of trusts and which one is best for your unique situation. There are many different types of trusts. You’ll want to be sure to choose the right one to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Reference: Daily Bulldog (Dec. 24, 202) “Passing assets through a trust—What to know”

What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?

The executor’s job includes gathering all of the assets, determining the value and ownership of real estate, securities, bank accounts and any other assets and filing a formal inventory with the probate court. Every state has its own rules, forms and deadline for the process, says a recent article from yahoo! Finance titled “What Do I Need to Do to Prepare an Estate Inventory for Probate,” which recommends contacting a local estate planning attorney to get it right.

The inventory is used to determine the overall value of the estate. It’s also used to determine whether the estate is solvent, when compared to any claims of creditors for taxes, mortgages, or other debts. The inventory will also be used to calculate any estate or inheritance taxes owed by the estate to the state or federal government.

What is an estate asset? Anything anyone owned at the time of their death is the short answer. This includes:

  • Real estate: houses, condos, apartments, investment properties
  • Financial accounts: checking, savings, money market accounts
  • Investments: brokerage accounts, certificates of deposits, stocks, bonds
  • Retirement accounts: 401(k)s, HSAs, traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, pensions
  • Wages: Unpaid wages, unpaid commissions, un-exercised stock options
  • Insurance policies: life insurance or annuities
  • Vehicles: cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats
  • Business interests: any business holdings or partnerships
  • Debts/judgments: any personal loans to people or money received through court judgments

Preparing an inventory for probate may take some time. If the decedent hasn’t created an inventory and shared it with the executor, which would be the ideal situation, the executor may spend a great deal of time searching through desk drawers and filing cabinets and going through the mail for paper financial statements, if they exist.

If the estate includes real property owned in several states, this process becomes even more complex, as each state will require a separate probate process.

The court will not accept a simple list of items. For example, an inventory entry for real property will need to include the address, legal description of the property, copy of the deed and a fair market appraisal of the property by a professional appraiser.

Once all the assets are identified, the executor may need to use a state-specific inventory form for probate inventories. When completed, the executor files it with the probate court. An experienced estate planning attorney will be familiar with the process and be able to speed the process along without the learning curve needed by an inexperienced layperson.

Deadlines for filing the inventory also vary by state. Some probate judges may allow extensions, while other may not.

The executor has a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of the estate to file the inventory without delay. The executor is also responsible for paying off any debts or taxes and overseeing the distribution of any remaining assets to beneficiaries. It’s a large task, and one that will benefit from the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: yahoo! finance (Dec. 3, 2022) “What Do I Need to Do to Prepare an Estate Inventory for Probate”

Why Professionals and High Net Worth Families Need Estate Planning

Even those whose daily tasks bring them close to death on a daily basis can be reluctant to consider having an estate plan done. However, any high-income earner needs to plan their estate to protect assets and prepare for incapacity. Estate planning also makes matters easier for loved ones, explains a recent article titled “Physician estate planning guide” from Medical Economics. An estate plan gets your wishes honored, minimizes court expenses and maintains family harmony.

Having an estate plan is needed by anyone, at any age or stage of life. A younger professional may be less inclined to consider estate planning. However, it’s a mistake to put it off.

Start by meeting with an experienced estate planning attorney in your home state. Have a power of attorney drafted to give a trusted person the ability to make decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated. Not having this legal relationship leads to big problems. Your family will need to go to court to have a conservatorship or guardianship established to do something as simple as make a mortgage payment. Having a POA is a far better solution.

Next, talk with your estate planning attorney about a last will and testament and any trusts you might need. A will is a simpler method. However, if you have substantial assets, you may benefit from the protection a trust affords.

A will names your executor and expresses your wishes for property distribution. The will doesn’t become effective until after death when it’s reviewed by the court and verified during probate. The executor named in the will is then appointed to act on the directions in the will.

Most states don’t require an executor to be notified in advance. However, people should discuss this role with the person who they want to appoint. It’s not always a welcome surprise, and there’s no requirement for the named person to serve.

A trust is created to own property outside of the estate. It’s created and becomes effective while the person is still living and is often described as “kinder” to beneficiaries, especially if the grantor owns their practice and has complex business arrangements.

Trusts are useful for people who own assets in more than one state. In some cases, deeds to properties can be added into one trust, streamlining and consolidating assets and making it simpler to redirect after death.

Irrevocable trusts are especially useful to any doctor concerned about being sued for malpractice. An irrevocable trust helps protect assets from creditors seeking to recover assets.

Not being prepared with an estate plan addressing incapacity and death leads to a huge burden for loved ones. Once the plan is created, it should be updated every three to five years. Updating the plan is far easier than the initial creation and reflects changes in one’s life and in the law.

Reference: Medical Economics (Nov. 30, 2022) “Physician estate planning guide”

Is an Estate Plan Battle Looming?

Some people don’t create an estate plan before they die. Or, if they do, they failed to have an estate plan created with an experienced estate planning attorney and their will is unclear, or even invalid. They might die with debts conflicting with their wishes. These and other situations can lead to a long and expensive probate period, as described in the article “In-fighting Families, Wills, Laws & Other Things That Could Hold Up Probate” from yahoo!.

How long does it take for an estate to move through the probate process? It depends upon the complexity of the estate and how well—or poorly—the estate plan was created.

What is probate? Probate is the process where the court oversees the settlement of an estate after the owner dies. If there is a will, the court authenticates the will and accepts or denies the executor named in the will to carry out its instructions. The executor is usually the decedent’s spouse or closest living relative.

How does probate work? Probate is governed by state law, so different states have slightly different processes. The first thing is authenticating the will and appointing an executor. The court then locates and accesses all of the property owned by the decedent. If there are any debts, the estate must first pay off the debts. When the debts have been paid, the court can distribute the remaining assets in the estate to heirs.

If there is no will, the person is said to have died intestate. The court may then appoint an administrator to carry out the necessary tasks of paying debts and distributing assets. The administrator is paid from the estate.

How long does it take? It depends. If the decedent had placed most of their assets in trust, those assets are not subject to probate and are distributed according to the terms of the trust. If there are multiple properties in multiple states, probate has to be conducted in all states where property is owned. In other words, probate could be six months or three years.

Estate size matters. Certain states use the total value of the estate to determine its size, rather than examine individual properties. Possessions subject to probate usually include personal property, cash and cash accounts, transferable accounts with no named beneficiaries, assets with shared ownership or tenancy in common and real estate.

Possessions not typically subject to probate include insurance proceeds, accounts owned as Joint Tenant with Rights of Survivorship, accounts with a beneficiary designation and assets owned in trusts.

Probate varies from state to state. Probate is not nationally regulated, and state-level laws vary. An estate could be swiftly completed in one state and take a few months in another. Some states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), designed to streamline the probate process by creating standardized laws. However, only 18 states have adopted this code to date.

Fighting among heirs makes probate take longer. Even small disputes can extend the probate process. If there are estranged family members, or someone feels they deserve a larger share of the estate, conflicts can lead to probate coming to a full stop.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help structure an estate plan to minimize the amount of assets passing through probate, while ensuring that your wishes are followed and loved ones are protected.

Reference: yahoo! (Nov. 21, 2022) “In-fighting Families, Wills, Laws & Other Things That Could Hold Up Probate”

Do I Need a Trust, or a Last Will and Testament?

Whether to have a will or a trust or both is often discussed when embarking on the estate planning process. Arriving at the answer, as discussed in a recent article, “Personal needs, preferences drive estate planning,” from The News-Enterprise, requires a closer look at each individual’s situation.

The last will and testament doesn’t take effect until two events occur: the person who created the will, the testator, has died, and the will has been filed with the local court. The will is used to distribute assets owned solely by the testator. Jointly owned property, property with a named beneficiary and trust-owned property passes to new owners outside of the will.

After the probate case is opened in the court, the will becomes a public record and is accessible in person and online. Other documents from the estate, which might include inventories of assets and information about property values, is also available to the public.

If it’s unsettling to think about strangers and scammers looking at these documents after you die, remember your estate planning attorney can explain your options, including trusts and beneficiary designations.

The executor is the person named in the will to distribute the estate. There are certain time restrictions to be aware of, depending on your state. All the necessary tasks, from distributing assets to selling a home and whatever instructions are in the will, need to be accomplished by a certain time. An estate planning attorney will help you map out a timeline.

A revocable will is not a purely testamentary document. It takes effect once it is established. A revocable trust can be thought of as in-between a will and a power of attorney. Trusts are not filed with the court, during life or after death, so their contents remain private.

The trustee—the person named to manage the trust—follows the directions in the trust documents to manage the property. If the trust directs that property be distributed immediately after death, the trustee does not have to wait for the will to be probated. The beneficiaries receive their inheritance as per the terms of the trust.

A grantor who is leaving property to children may find the advantages of a trust make it a better tool than a will. Funds can be allocated solely for college expenses or distributed only when certain milestones are reached. Note, however, that an inheritance trust can be created under a will, too. It is known as a “testamentary trust” in that case.

Estate planning is not a one-size-fits-all process. The best approach for one person may be completely wrong for another. An experienced estate planning attorney walks clients through the process, so they are able to make informed decisions and create an estate plan to work best for themselves and their loved ones.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Nov. 12, 2022) “Personal needs, preferences drive estate planning”

Can You Plan for Probate?

What can you do to help heirs have a smooth transition and avoid probate when settling your estate? A recent article from The Community Voice, “Managing probate when setting up your estate,” provides some recommendations.

Joint accounts. Married couples can own property as joint tenancy, which includes a right of survivorship. When one of the spouses dies, the other becomes the owner and the asset doesn’t have to go through probate. In some states, this is called tenancy by the entirety, in which married spouses each own an undivided interest in the whole property with the right of survivorship. They need content from the other spouse to transfer their ownership interest in the property. Some states allow community property with right of survivorship.

There are some vulnerabilities to joint ownership. A potential heir could claim the account is not a “true” joint account, but a “convenience” account whereby the second account owner was added solely for financial expediency. The joint account arrangement with right of survivorship may also not align with the estate plan.

Payment on Death (POD) and Transfer on Death (TOD) accounts. These types of accounts allow for easy transfer of bank accounts and securities. If the original owner lives, the named beneficiary has no right to claim account funds. When the original owner dies, all the named beneficiary need do is bring proper identification and proof of the owner’s death to claim the assets. This also needs to align with the estate plan to ensure that it achieves the testator’s wishes.

Gifting strategies. In 2022, taxpayers may gift up to $16,000 to as many people as you wish before owing taxes. This is a straight-forward way to reduce the taxable estate. Gifts over $ 16,000 may be subject to federal gift tax and count against your lifetime gift tax exclusion. The lifetime individual gift tax exemption is currently at $12.06 million, although few Americans need worry about this level.

Revocable living trusts. Trusts are used to take assets out of the taxable estate and place them in a separate legal entity having specific directions for asset distributions. A living trust, established during your lifetime, can hold whatever assets you want. A “pour-over will” may be used to add additional assets to the trust at death, although the assets “poured over” into the trust at death are still subject to probate.

The trust owns the assets. However, with a revocable living trust, the grantor (the person who created the trust) has full control of the assets. When the grantor dies, the trust becomes an irrevocable trust and assets are distributed by a successor trustee without being probated. This provides privacy and saves on court costs.

Trusts are not for do-it-yourselfers. An experienced estate planning attorney is needed to create the trust and ensure that it follows complex tax rules and regulations.

Reference: The Community Voice (Nov. 11, 2022) “Managing probate when setting up your estate”

Planning for Crypto and NFT Assets in Estate Plan

People generally don’t like to deal with their own mortality. However, assets need the protection of an estate plan. If they are digital assets, planning is even more important. According to a recent article from nft.now titled “What Happens to Your Crypto and NFTs When You Die?”, Bitcoin’s total circulation is unlikely to reach its stated limit of 21 million due to early adopters who either died without an estate plan or lost their private keys and access to their bitcoin permanently.

The challenge of digital asset distributions is built into the decentralized nature of the blockchain. The core of the Web3 security is not to give away private keys, even to friends or loved ones, since there’s no centralized authority to address any wrongdoing. Striking a balance between security and accessibility about crypto asset management and inheritance is still an evolving process.

Estate planning attorneys know doing nothing is the worst thing to do. While state laws account for intestacy (what happens when there’s no will), and state law will be applied by the court to distribute assets if there’s no will, one option is to put digital assets into a will. However, there are potential pitfalls.

A will becomes a public document during probate. If the purpose of owning crypto is to keep the existence of the crypto wealth private, a will is not the best option. Wills are useful for many assets, but in the eyes of many, trusts are the preferred means of transferring crypto assets.

Managing digital inheritances with trusts offers many benefits, since the trusts bypass the courts and do not become public documents. Trusts are managed by a trustee, during life and after death.  Therefore, the trustee can act quickly if managing NFTs or crypto. The volatile nature of cryptocurrencies makes speed and easy access a necessity to protect digital fortunes.

When setting up a trust to manage cryptocurrency or NTFs, be sure that the trustee is well-versed in digital assets. If they don’t know how to manage your wallet, the assets could be lost. One means of overcoming this is to add a provision in the trust to allow the trustee to hire someone who has expertise with cryptocurrency and NFTs, so they will be properly managed.

Trusts do have some vulnerabilities. Estate planning for crypto requires some sharing of private keys or transferring digital assets. However, the typical crypto investor is usually loathe to hand over this information. It may be more acceptable for them to leave behind instructions on where the trustee can find the information. However, this creates another layer of vulnerability.

Solutions to the issue of digital asset dispersal in the event of incapacity or death are still evolving. There are a number of commercial solutions, some of which are as technical to the layperson as cryptocurrency is to the non-user.

An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to guide you in planning for digital and traditional assets, so they are not lost in the real world or in cyberspace. Prior planning is needed to protect wealth, whatever form it takes.

Reference: ntf.now (Oct. 27,2022) “What Happens to Your Crypto and NFTs When You Die?”

How Can I Minimize My Probate Estate?

Having a properly prepared estate plan is especially important if you have minor children who would need a guardian, are part of a blended family, are unmarried in a committed relationship or have complicated family dynamics—especially those with drama. There are things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones, as described in the article “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate” from the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Probate is the process through which debts are paid and assets are divided after a person passes away. There will be probate of an estate whether or not a will and estate plan was done, but with no careful planning, there will be added emotional strain, costs and challenges left to your family.

Dying with no will, known as “intestacy,” means the state’s laws will determine who inherits your possessions subject to probate. Depending on where you live, your spouse could inherit everything, or half of everything, with the rest equally divided among your children. If you have no children and no spouse, your parents may inherit everything. If you have no children, spouse or living parents, the next of kin might be your heir. An estate planning attorney can make sure your will directs the distribution of your property.

Probate is the process giving someone you designate in your will—the executor—the authority to inventory your assets, pay debts and taxes and eventually transfer assets to heirs. In an estate, there are two types of assets—probate and non-probate. Only assets subject to the probate process need go through probate. All other assets pass directly to new owners, without involvement of the court or becoming part of the public record.

Many people embark on estate planning to avoid having their assets pass through probate. This may be because they don’t want anyone to know what they own, they don’t want creditors or estranged family members to know what they own, or they simply want to enhance their privacy. An estate plan is used to take assets out of the estate and place them under ownership to retain privacy.

Some of the ways to remove assets from the probate process are:

Living trusts. Assets are moved into the trust, which means the title of ownership must change. There are pros and cons to using a living trust, which your estate planning attorney can review with you.

Beneficiary designations. Retirement accounts, investment accounts and insurance policies are among the assets with a named beneficiary. These assets can go directly to beneficiaries upon your death. Make sure your named beneficiaries are current.

Payable on Death (POD) or Transferable on Death (TOD) accounts. It sounds like a simple solution to own many accounts and assets jointly. However, it has its own challenges. If you wished any of the assets in a POD or TOD account to go to anyone else but the co-owner, there’s no way to enforce your wishes.

An experienced, local estate planning attorney will be the best resource to prepare your estate for probate. If there is no estate plan, an administrator may be appointed by the court and the entire distribution of your assets will be done under court supervision. This takes longer and will include higher court costs.

Reference: Indianapolis Business Journal (Aug. 26,2022) “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate”