Should I Let The State Write My Will?

It’s a common question asked of estate planning attorneys: “Do I Really Need A Will?” This article in The Sun explains that the answer is “yes.” If you die without a will or “intestate,” the probate laws of the state will determine who will receive the assets in your estate. Of course, that may not be how you wanted things to go. That’s why you need a will.

When you die, your assets (i.e., your “estate”) are distributed to family and loved ones in your estate plan, if there is no surviving joint owner or designated beneficiary (e.g., life insurance, annuities, and retirement plans). No matter the complexity, a will is a key component of the plan.

A will allows you make decisions about the distribution of your assets, such as your real estate, personal property, investments and any businesses. You can make donations to your favorite charities or a religious organization. Your will is also important, if you have minor children: it’s where you nominate a guardian to care for them if you die.

Of course, you can write your own will or pay for a program on the Internet, but it’s better to have one prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney. Prior to sitting down with an attorney, make a listing of all your assets (your home, real estate, bank accounts, retirement plans, personal property and life insurance policies). If you have prized possessions or family heirlooms, be sure to also detail these.

Make a list of all debts, such as your mortgage, auto loans and credit cards. You should also collect contact information for all immediate living family members, detailing their addresses and birth dates.

When meeting with an attorney, ask about other components of an estate plan, such as a power of attorney and medical directive.

The originals of these documents should be kept in a safe place, where they can be easily accessed by your estate administrator or executor.

You should also review your estate plan every few years and at significant points in your life, like marriage, divorce, the adoption or birth of a child, death of a beneficiary and divorce.

Do your homework, then visit an experienced estate planning attorney to receive important planning insights from their experience working with estate plans and families.

Reference: The (Jonesboro, AR) Sun (July 15, 2020) “Do I Really Need A Will?”

Why Should I Think about My Death?

Planning for the end of life isn’t about you, says NPR’s recent article entitled “End-Of-Life Planning Is A ‘Lifetime Gift’ To Your Loved Ones.” As the owner of the estate, you really don’t get to see the benefit of your estate planning. The NPR article gives us some easy and practical steps to planning for the end of life.

Name your executor. If you’re an adult, you should have a last will. This is because estate planning isn’t just for the rich. With a last will, you name an individual you trust to take care of everything when you die. That is the executor or personal representative. It’s a good idea to choose someone from your family or a person with whom you have a good relationship. This person also should have a good attention to detail, because an executor would have to locate all your financial assets and communicate with everyone you’ve named in your last will.

Conduct an inventory. Create a list of everything you own. This includes financial assets—such as bank accounts, retirement savings or car—as well as things that have sentimental value, like jewelry, furniture and mementos. Once this is done, specify in writing those persons you want to have these items. If you have young children, designate a guardian for their care, in case you and your spouse are no longer alive. This person will be responsible for your child’s schooling, health care decisions and value system. Digital accounts are also part of your property, such as your social media accounts, online photos, and whatever is in your Google Drive or iCloud. This also includes any online subscriptions and airline or credit card rewards. Create a secure list of all those accounts and the login and password details. Let your executor know where to find it. Make specific instructions about what you’d like to have happen with your online information.

Your decisions will change over time, so review and update your last will.

Think about your health care decisions. Your last will addresses what happens after you die. However, an advance directive is a legal document that addresses your health care and protects your wishes at the end of your life. There are two parts to an advance directive: a medical power of attorney, which is granted to someone to make decisions for you if you’re incapacitated; and a living will, in which you detail how you should be cared for by healthcare professionals.

Remember the emotional and spiritual aspects of death. The way in which you want to die is personal and about much more than just the medical aspect. It may be about being at peace with God or having your pets nearby.

Plan ahead to give you and your family peace of mind.

Reference: NPR (June 30, 2020) “End-Of-Life Planning Is A ‘Lifetime Gift’ To Your Loved Ones”

When Exactly Do I Need to Update My Will?

Many people say that they’ve been meaning to update their last will and testament for years but never got around to doing it.

Kiplinger’s article entitled “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will” gives us a dozen times you should think about changing your last will:

  1. You’re expecting your first child. The birth or adoption of a first child is typically when many people draft their first last will. Designate a guardian for your child and who will be the trustee for any trust created for that child by the last will.
  2. You may divorce. Update your last will before you file for divorce, because once you file for divorce, you may not be permitted to modify your last will until the divorce is finalized. Doing this before you file for divorce ensures that your spouse won’t get all of your money, if you die before the divorce is final.
  3. You just divorced. After your divorce, your ex no longer has any rights to your estate (unless it’s part of the terms of the divorce). However, even if you don’t change your last will, most states have laws that invalidate any distributive provisions to your ex-spouse in that old last will. Nonetheless, update your last will as soon as you can, so your new beneficiaries are clearly identified.
  4. Your child gets married. Your current last will may speak to issues that applied when your child was a minor, so it may not address your child’s possible divorce. You may be able to ease the lack of a prenuptial agreement, by creating a trust in your last will and including post-nuptial requirements before you child can receive any estate assets.
  5. A beneficiary has issues. Last wills frequently leave money directly to a beneficiary. However, if that person has an addiction or credit issues, update your last will to include a trust that allows a trustee to only distribute funds under specific circumstances.
  6. Your executor or a beneficiary die. If your estate plan named individuals to manage your estate or receive any remaining funds, but they’re no longer alive, you should update your last will.
  7. Your child turns 18. Your current last will may designate your spouse or a parent as your executor, but years later, these people may be gone. Consider naming a younger family member to handle your estate affairs.
  8. A new tax or probate law is enacted. Congress may pass a bill that wrecks your estate plan. Review your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney every few years to see if there have been any new laws relevant to your estate planning.
  9. You come into a chunk of change. If you finally get a big lottery win or inherit money from a distant relative, update your last will so you can address the right tax planning. You also may want to change when and the amount of money you leave to certain individuals or charities.
  10. You can’t find your original last will. If you can’t locate your last will, be sure that you replace the last will with a new, original one that explicitly states it invalidated all prior last wills.
  11. You purchase property in another country or move overseas. Many countries have treaties with the U.S. that permit reciprocity of last wills. However, transferring property in one country may be delayed, if the last will must be probated in the other country first. Ask your estate planning attorney about having a different last will for each country in which you own property.
  12. Your feelings change for a family member. If there’s animosity between people named in your last will, you may want to disinherit someone. You might ask your estate planning attorney about a No Contest Clause that will disinherit the aggressive family member, if he or she attempts to question your intentions in the last will.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 26, 2020) “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will”

What Does My Estate Plan Look Like after Divorce?

Planning an estate after a divorce involves adopting a different type of arithmetic. Without a spouse to anchor an estate plan, the executors, trustees, guardians or agents under a power of attorney and health care proxies will have to be chosen from a more diverse pool of those that are connected to you.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “How to Revise Your Estate Plan After Divorce” explains that beneficiary forms tied to an IRA, 401(k), 403(b) and life insurance will need to be updated to show the dissolution of the marriage.

There are usually estate planning terms that are included in agreements created during the separation and divorce. These may call for the removal of both spouses from each other’s estate planning documents and retirement accounts. For example, in New York, bequests to an ex-spouse in a will prepared during the marriage are voided after the divorce. Even though the old will is still valid, a new will has the benefit of realigning the estate assets with the intended recipients.

However, any trust created while married is treated differently. Revocable trusts can be revoked, and the assets held by those trusts can be part of the divorce. Irrevocable trusts involving marital property are less likely to be dissolved, and after the death of the grantor, distributions may be made to an ex-spouse as directed by the trust.

A big task in the post-divorce estate planning process is changing beneficiaries. Ask for a change of beneficiary forms for all retirement accounts. Without a stipulation in the divorce decree ending their interest, an ex-spouse still listed as beneficiary of an IRA or life insurance policy may still receive the proceeds at your death.

Divorce makes children assume responsibility at an earlier age. Adult children in their 20s or early 30s typically assume the place of the ex-spouse as fiduciaries and health care proxies, as well as agents under powers of attorney, executors and trustees.

If the divorcing parents have minor children, they must choose a guardian in their wills to care for the children, in the event that both parents pass away.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you with the issues that are involved in estate planning after a divorce.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (July 7, 2020) “How to Revise Your Estate Plan After Divorce”

What Is a Will Codicil?

There are a number of reasons for adding a codicil to an existing will. KAKE.com’s recent article entitled “Using a Codicil to Modify a Will” says it’s good to know when you might need one and how to add it.

A codicil is a way to change the terms of an existing will. A codicil allows you to modify a term in your will, without the need to rewrite the whole will. A codicil is used in cases where you only need to make relatively minor changes.

There are different situations that might require a codicil to be added to your will. Here are some examples:

  • You want to add or remove an heir
  • You’ve acquired or disposed of property you need to update in your will
  • You need to change the executor of your will
  • You want to change the person designated as a legal guardian for your minor children
  • You recently were married or divorced and need to change how your assets or property will be distributed; or
  • You want to make changes to how your assets and property will be divided for other reasons.

Adding a codicil to a will make certain that the will is current, as you go through different life events or if your financial circumstances change. This can help eliminate the chance that your will may be challenged after you die, because those named as beneficiaries disagree with the will’s terms. It can also help to avoid lengthy delays in probate associated with property you no longer own or property you haven’t addressed in the will.

Remember that a codicil allows you to change your will. However, revoking a will terminates it completely. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the laws for revoking a will in your state. Some states let you simply physically destroy the will, and in others, you may need to draft a written declaration stating that your will has been revoked or draft a new replacement.

If you need to make substantial changes to the terms of your will, then revoking it and creating a new will may be the better plan. A new will in place can avoid confusion during probate, if there are conflicting terms. You may also need to write a new will, if all copies of your existing will are unintentionally lost or destroyed.

Drafting a codicil to a will, is like writing a will itself. The codicil needs to follow the legal guidelines established in your state. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney for help.

Reference: KAKE.com (June 17, 2020) “Using a Codicil to Modify a Will”

Should I Write My Will During the Pandemic?

Writing a will allows you to instruct your executor how you want your property to be distributed, when you die. If you have minor children, your will says who will raise them if you die and their other parent is deceased.

The Oakland Press’s article entitled Writing a will today is more important than ever” says that if you pass away without a will, the state will make these critical decisions for you. What the state decides may not reflect your wishes. This may create conflict and stress within your family and cause financial troubles for those you leave behind.

In addition, none of your assets will go to your favorite charities.

A will, and other estate planning documents, are critical because this gives you control over how your affairs are handled when you die. This includes the way in which your assets are distributed and who will take care of your children, if they’re minors.

When you draft your will, it’s important that it’s legally valid. There’s no guarantee that a will prepared without an estate planning lawyer will meet the criteria. If the probate judge doesn’t accept your will, it’s as if you died without one.

As a result, it’s very important that you work with a qualified estate planning attorney to prepare your estate plan. If you don’t, it is possible that your will or other estate documents you purchased online might not meet the state requirements.

Therefore, you’ve wasted money, and your instructions may not be followed. This can mean uncertainty in how your estate is eventually administered, and it can make an already stressful situation even worse for your family.

An experienced estate planning attorney can make sure your will meets the state’s requirements, decreases hard feelings within your family and keeps your family from challenging its validity in court.

If you have a will, consider updating it, especially if a beneficiary listed on the document has died, if you’ve sold your home and bought another, given away some of your possessions, your financial circumstances or the value of your property has changed, or your charity relationships have changed.

You may want to change your estate plan, when your children become adults or if others that were provided for in the estate plan are no longer living.

Reference: Oakland Press (May 16, 2020) Writing a will today is more important than ever”

Some Estate Planning Actions for 2020

Many of us set New Year’s resolutions to improve our quality of life. While it’s often a goal to exercise more or eat more healthily, you can also resolve to improve your financial well-being. It’s a great time to review your estate plan to make sure your legacy is protected.

The Tennessean’s recent article entitled “Five estate-planning steps to take in the new year” gives us some common updates for your estate planning.

Schedule a meeting with your estate planning attorney to discuss your situation and to help the attorney create your estate plan.

You should also regularly review and update all your estate planning documents.

Goals and priorities change, so review your estate documents annually to make certain that your plan continues to reflect your present circumstances and intent. You may have changes to family or friendship dynamics or a change in assets that may impact your estate plan. It could be a divorce or remarriage; a family member or a loved one with a disability diagnosis, mental illness, or addiction; a move to a new state; or a change in a family business. If there’s a change in your circumstances, get in touch with your estate planning attorney to update your documents as soon as possible.

Federal and state tax and estate laws change, so ask your attorney to look at your estate planning documents every few years in light of any new legislation.

Review retirement, investment, and trust accounts to make certain that they achieve your long-term financial goals.

A frequent estate planning error is forgetting to update the beneficiary designations on your retirement and investment accounts. Thoroughly review your accounts every year to ensure everything is up to snuff in your estate plan.

Communicate your intent to your heirs, who may include family, friends, and charities. It is important to engage in a frank discussion with your heirs about your legacy and estate plan. Because this can be an emotional conversation, begin with the basics.

Having this type of conversation now, can prevent conflict and hard feelings later.

Reference: Tennessean (Jan. 3, 2020) “Five estate-planning steps to take in the new year”

How Can I Make Amendments to an Estate Plan?

If you want to make changes to your estate plan, don’t think you can just scratch out a line or two and add your initials. For most people, it’s not that simple, says the Lake County Record-Bee’s recent article “Amending estate planning documents.” If documents are not amended correctly, the resulting disappointment and costs can add up quickly.

If you live in California, for example, a trust can be amended using the method that is stated in the trust, or alternatively by using a document—but not the will—that is signed both by the settlor or the other person holding the power to revoke the trust and then delivered to the trustee. If the trust states that this method is not acceptable, then it cannot be used.

In a recent case, the deceased settlor made handwritten notes—he crossed out existing trust language and hand wrote his revisions to a recently executive amendment to his trust. Then he mailed this document, along with a signed post-it note stuck on the top of the document, to his attorney, requesting that his attorney draft an amendment.

Unfortunately, he died before the new revision could be signed. His close friend, the one he wanted to be the beneficiary of the change, argued that his handwritten comments, known as “interlineations,” were as effective as if his attorney had actually completed the revision and the document had been signed properly. He further argued that the post-it note that had a signature on it, satisfied the requirement for a signature.

The court did not agree, not surprisingly. A trust document may not be changed, just by scribbling out a few lines and adding a few new lines without a signature. A post-it note signature is also not a legal document.

Had he signed and dated an attachment affirming each of his specific changes made to the trust, that might have been considered a legally binding amendment to his trust.

A better option would be going to the attorney’s office and having the documents prepared and executed.

What about changes to a will? Changing a will is done either through executing a codicil or creating and executing a new will that revokes the old will. A codicil is executed just the same way as a will: it is signed by the testator with at least two witnesses, although this varies from state to state. Your estate planning attorney will make sure that the law of your state is taken into consideration, when preparing your estate plan.

If you live in a state where handwritten or holographic wills are accepted, no witnesses are required and changes to the will can be made by the testator directly onto the original without a new signature or date. Be careful about a will like this. Even if legal, it can lead to estate challenges and family battles.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you decide that your will needs to be changed. Having the documents properly executed in a timely manner ensures that your wishes will be followed.

Reference: Lake County Record-Bee (October 5, 2019) “Amending estate planning documents.”

Don’t Forget to Update Your Estate Plan

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There are some people who sign their will once in their life and never change it. They may have executed their estate plan late in life, or after they were diagnosed with a serious disease. However, even if your family life and finances are pretty basic, there are still changes in the law that you may need to incorporate into your estate plan.  Some of the people that you named in your will could also have died or moved away.

Forbes’ recent article, “Why You Should Change Your Will Now,” warns us that if you’ve taken the “one and done” approach to your estate plan, think again. In addition to the reasons already mentioned, your assets may have changed dramatically since you signed your will. The plan you put in place years ago, may not have considered new federal and state estate taxes. Now that you’ve accumulated significant wealth that will be passed on to your children, you might need to review your plans for that wealth for your children.

You may want to include grandchildren to help pay for their college education.

It is also not uncommon for parents to want to protect their children from themselves. This can be because of addiction issues or a lack of financial literacy. If that’s an issue, some parents elect to hold monies in trust for adult children, as a way to ensure that the funds will be there throughout the child’s lifetime.

A person’s estate plan should grow with them over time. An estate plan for a twenty-something may be very basic, but a newly-married couple will want to include provisions for their spouse. Parents need to think about providing for and protecting their children. Adult children have another set of concerns and you need prepare for the possibility of divorcing spouses, poor life choices, addiction issues and just poor money management. There are many stages in life when you may need to readjust the provisions for your children in your estate planning documents.

If you haven’t looked at your will in a while, do it now.

Reference: Forbes (August 27, 2019) “Why You Should Change Your Will Now”