What is not Covered by a Will?

A last will and testament is one part of a holistic estate plan used to direct the distribution of property after a person has died. A recent article titled “What you can’t do with a will” from Ponte Vedra Recorder explains how wills work, and the types of property not distributed through a will.

Wills are used to inform the probate court regarding your choice of guardians for any minor children and the executor of your estate. Without a will, both of those decisions will be made by the court. It’s better to make those decisions yourself and to make them legally binding with a will.

Lacking a will, an estate will be distributed according to the laws of the state, which creates extra expenses and sometimes, leads to life-long fights between family members.

Property distributed through a will necessarily must be processed through a probate, a formal process involving a court. However, some assets do not pass through probate. Here’s how non-probate assets are distributed:

Jointly Held Property. When one of the “joint tenants” dies, their interest in the property ends and the other joint tenant owns the entire property.

Property in Trust. Assets owned by a trust pass to the beneficiaries under the terms of the trust, with the guidance of the trustee.

Life Insurance. Proceeds from life insurance policies are distributed directly to the named beneficiaries. Whatever a will says about life insurance proceeds does not matter—the beneficiary designation is what controls this distribution, unless there is no beneficiary designated.

Retirement Accounts. IRAs, 401(k) and similar assets pass to named beneficiaries. In most cases, under federal law, the surviving spouse is the automatic beneficiary of a 401(k), although there are always exceptions. The owner of an IRA may name a preferred beneficiary.

Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts. Some investment accounts have the ability to name a designated beneficiary who receives the assets upon the death of the original owner. They transfer outside of probate.

Here are some things that should NOT be included in your will:

Funeral instructions might not be read until days or even weeks after death. Create a separate letter of instructions and make sure family members know where it is.

Provisions for a special needs family member need to be made separately from a will. A special needs trust is used to ensure that the family member can inherit assets but does not become ineligible for government benefits. Talk to an elder law estate planning attorney about how this is best handled.

Conditions on gifts should not be addressed in a will. Certain conditions are not permitted by law. If you want to control how and when assets are distributed, you want to create a trust. The trust can set conditions, like reaching a certain age or being fully employed, etc., for a trustee to release funds.

Reference: Ponte Vedra Recorder (April 15, 2021) “What you can’t do with a will”

Trusts can Work for ‘Regular’ People

A trust fund is an estate planning tool that can be used by anyone who wishes to pass their property to individuals, family members or nonprofits. They are used by wealthy people because they solve a number of wealth transfer problems and are equally applicable to people who aren’t mega-rich, explains this recent article from Forbes titled “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy.”

A trust is a legal entity in the same way that a corporation is a legal entity. A trust is used in estate planning to own assets, as instructed by the terms of the trust. Terms commonly used in discussing trusts include:

  • Grantor—the person who creates the trust and places assets into the trust.
  • Beneficiary—the person or organization who will receive the assets, as directed by the trust documents.
  • Trustee—the person who ensures that the assets in the trust are properly managed and distributed to beneficiaries.

Trusts may contain a variety of property, from real estate to personal property, stocks, bonds and even entire businesses.

Certain assets should not be placed in a trust, and an estate planning attorney will know how and why to make these decisions. Retirement accounts and other accounts with named beneficiaries don’t need to be placed inside a trust, since the asset will go to the named beneficiaries upon death. They do not pass through probate, which is the process of the court validating the will and how assets are passed as directed by the will. However, there may be reasons to designate such accounts to pass to the trust and your attorney will advise you accordingly.

Assets are transferred into trusts in two main ways: the grantor transfers assets into the trust while living, often by retitling the asset, or by using their estate plan to stipulate that a trust will be created and retain certain assets upon their death.

Trusts are used extensively because they work. Some benefits of using a trust as part of an estate plan include:

Avoiding probate. Assets placed in a trust pass to beneficiaries outside of the probate process.

Protecting beneficiaries from themselves. Young adults may be legally able to inherit but that doesn’t mean they are capable of handling large amounts of money or property. Trusts can be structured to pass along assets at certain ages or when they reach particular milestones in life.

Protecting assets. Trusts can be created to protect inheritances for beneficiaries from creditors and divorces. A trust can be created to ensure a former spouse has no legal claim to the assets in the trust.

Tax liabilities. Transferring assets into an irrevocable trust means they are owned and controlled by the trust. For example, with a non-grantor irrevocable trust, the former owner of the assets does not pay taxes on assets in the trust during his or her life, and they are not part of the taxable estate upon death.

Caring for a Special Needs beneficiary. Disabled individuals who receive government benefits may lose those benefits, if they inherit directly. If you want to provide income to someone with special needs when you have passed, a Special Needs Trust (sometimes known as a Supplemental Needs trust) can be created. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to do this properly.

Reference: Forbes (March 15, 2021) “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy”