Why Is It Important to have a Will?

A Gallup poll released in June showed that slightly less than half of all Americans have a will to tell loved ones what they want to happen with their estate after they die. What’s surprising is that the results of this survey have been almost the same since 1990, explains the article “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now” from Real Simple. The survey also showed that upper-income Americans are more likely than lower-income Americans to have a will, and the younger people are, the less likely they are to have a will.

One of the lessons from the pandemic, is how fragile our lives are. It’s never too early to start planning and properly document your wishes. If you need more reasons to begin estate planning, here are six:

No will often leads to unwanted consequences. A major misconception is the idea that you don’t need a will because everything you own will go to your family. Not necessarily. Each state has its own laws about what happens if you have no will, and those laws are usually based on bloodlines or kinship. Most states leave two-thirds of your assets to your children and one-third to your spouse. Will your spouse be able to maintain the same standard of living, or even remain in the family home if this is how assets are distributed? A no-will situation is a no-win situation and can fracture even the best families.

Wills are used to name guardians for minor children. No parent, especially young parents, thinks that anything will happen to them, or even more unlikely, to both parents. However, it does. Creating a will offers the opportunity to name guardians to care for your children after death. If you don’t designate a guardian, a judge will. The judge will have never met your children, nor understand your family’s dynamics, and might even determine that the children should be raised by strangers.

Wills and pet trusts can protect pets after your demise. If you have beloved animal companions, it’s important to understand what can happen to them after you die. The law considers pets to be property, so you can’t leave money to your pet. However, you can create a pet trust and name a person to be the caregiver for your pet, if it survives you. The trust is enforceable, and the pet’s care can be detailed. Otherwise, there is no guarantee your pet will avoid being euthanized.

Taxes are part of death. Creating an estate plan with an experienced estate planning attorney who is knowledgeable about estate taxes, could save your heirs from losing a significant part of their inheritance. There are many tools and strategies to minimize taxes, including making charitable gifts. Plans for large estates can be structured in a way to avoid as much as 40% of tax exposure. It’s even more important to protect a smaller estate from being lost to taxes.

Peace of mind. Remember, wills and estate plans are not just for the benefit of the person who creates them. They are for the family, the surviving spouse, children, and grandchildren. If you did not take the time and make the effort to create an estate plan, they are the ones who will live with the consequences. In many cases, it could change their lives—and not for the better.

Putting it off never ends well. When you’re young and healthy, it seems like nothing can ever go wrong. However, live long enough, and you learn life has ups and downs and unexpected events—like death and serious illness—happen to everyone. Creating an estate plan won’t make you die sooner but having one can provide you and your loved ones with security, so you can focus on living.

Reference: Real Simple (June 25, 2021) “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now”

Can I Write a Perfect Will?

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

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

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

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

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tell Me again Why Estate Planning Is So Important

The Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “The Importance of Estate Planning” explains that estate planning is not just for the rich.

If you don’t have a comprehensive estate plan, it could mean headaches for your family left to manage things after you die, and it can be expensive and have long-lasting impact.

Here are four reasons why estate planning is critical, and you need the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Estate plan beneficiaries. Middle-class families must plan in the event something happens to the bread earner. You might be only leaving behind one second home, but if you don’t decide who is to receive it, things might become complicated. The main purpose of estate planning is to allocate heirs to the assets. If you have no estate plan when you die, the court decides who gets the assets.

Protection for minor children. If you have small children, you must prepare for the worst. To be certain that your children receive proper care if they are orphaned, you must name their guardians in your last will. If you don’t, the court will do it!

It can save on taxes. Estate planning can protect your loved ones from the IRS. A critical aspect of estate planning is the process of transferring assets to the heirs to generate the smallest tax burden for them. Estate planning can minimize estate taxes and state inheritance taxes.

Avoid fighting and headaches in the family. No one wants fighting when a loved one dies. There might be siblings who might think they deserve much more than the other children. The other siblings might also believe that they should be given the charge for financial matters, despite the fact that they aren’t good with debts and finances. These types of disagreements can get ugly and lead to court. Estate planning will help in creating individualized plans.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney and see how estate planning can help your specific situation.

Reference: The Legal Reader (May 10, 2021) “The Importance of Estate Planning”

If I Buy a House, Should I have an Estate Plan?

There’s been an unprecedented surge in home sales during the pandemic. A recent National Association of Realtors report revealed that since July, existing home sales have increased year over year reaching a pandemic high of over 25% in October. Forbes’s recent article entitled “Pandemic Home Buyers: Have You Set Up Your Estate Plan?” asks the important question: How has this past year’s surge in home sales impacted estate planning?

Estate planning is a way to protect your assets and your loved ones, no matter your age or income level. If you place your home into a trust, you ensure that the ownership of your home will be properly and efficiently transferred to a loved one, if anything happens to you unexpectedly. If your home isn’t included in your estate plan, it will go through probate. However, consider the potential pitfalls of a trust:

  1. Creating a trust, when you really only need a will. If you have less than $150,000 in assets and you don’t own a home, a trust likely isn’t really needed.
  2. Thinking that you automatically have asset protection. A trust can help to avoid probate. So, an irrevocable trust may be the right option for people who really need true asset protection.
  3. Not taking trust administration into account. The trustee must do many tasks when the creator of the trust dies. These aren’t much different from what an executor does, but it can be extra work.

If you already have an estate plan, you should review your estate planning documents every three to five years. Moreover, purchasing a home should also make you revisit your documents. When doing a review, take a look at the terms of the trust. Make certain that you have your house referenced by address and that you transfer the house to your spouse by name.

Most mortgages have a “due on sale” clause. This means if you terminate your ownership of your home, you have to immediately pay back the mortgage proceeds to the bank. If you place your home in a revocable trust, it lets you smoothly transfer ownership to your beneficiary. This prevents the bank from demanding payment, and your beneficiary would keep making the mortgage payments after you’re gone. However, it may be prudent to contact the lender in advance of the transfer, if you want to be sure.

If you bought a home in the pandemic and have not placed it in a trust yet, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney sooner rather than later.

Reference: Forbes (June 2, 2021) “Pandemic Home Buyers: Have You Set Up Your Estate Plan?”

Does a Prenup Make Sense?

Take the time to think about your financial plans before you get married to help set you on the right path. chase.com’s recent article entitled “How to prepare your finances for marriage” explains that a prenuptial agreement sets out each prospective spouse’s rights and responsibilities, if one spouse dies or the couple gets divorced.

This is a guide for dividing and distributing assets. A prenuptial agreement can also be a valuable tool for planning since it will take priority over presumptions about what’s deemed community property, separate property, and marital property. A prenup can also prevent one spouse from being responsible for premarital debts of the other in the event of death or divorce.

A prenup is used frequently when one spouse or one spouse’s family is significantly wealthier than the other; or when one family owns a business and wants to make sure only family members can own and manage it.

Negotiate a prenuptial agreement early. If you know that you want to have your fiancé to sign a prenuptial agreement, do it ASAP because some courts have found a prenup invalid because it was entered into under duress and signed and negotiated right before the wedding.

Examine employee benefits. Make certain that you understand know how marriage will impact your employee benefits, especially if you and your spouse are working. See what would be less expensive, and if one offers significantly better coverage. Marriage almost always is a life event that permits you to modify your benefits elections outside of annual open enrollment.

Review beneficiary designations and estate planning documents. It’s common for young people prior to marriage to name their parents or siblings as beneficiary of accounts, like IRAs, 401(k)s, life insurance and transfer on death (TOD) and payable on death (POD) accounts. Review these designations and accounts and, if needed, change your beneficiary to your new spouse after the wedding. You should also be sure you to update your estate planning documents, including wills, health care designations, powers of attorneys and others, to reflect your new situation.

Communication is critical. Start your marriage with strong communication to help you better face future challenges together.

Reference: chase.com (May 25, 2021) “How to prepare your finances for marriage”

What are Top ‘To-Dos’ in Estate Planning?

Spotlight News’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning To-Dos” says that with the potential for substantial changes to estate and gift tax rules under the Biden administration, this may be an opportune time to create or review our estate plan. If you are not sure where to begin, look at these to-dos for an estate plan.

See an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your plans. The biggest estate planning mistake is having no plan whatsoever. The top triggers for estate planning conversations can be life-altering events, such as a car accident or health crisis. If you already have a plan in place, visit your estate planning attorney and keep it up to date with the changes in your life.

Draft financial and healthcare powers of attorney. Estate plans contain multiple pieces that may overlap, including long-term care plans and powers of attorney. These say who has decision-making power in the event of a medical emergency.

Draft a healthcare directive. Living wills and other advance directives are written to provide legal instructions describing your preferences for medical care, if you are unable to make decisions for yourself. Advance care planning is a process that includes quality of life decisions and palliative and hospice care.

Make a will. A will is one of the foundational aspects of estate planning, However, this is frequently the only thing people do when estate planning. A huge misconception about estate planning is that a will can oversee the distribution of all assets. A will is a necessity, but you should think about estate plans holistically—as more than just a will. For example, a modern aspect of financial planning that can be overlooked in wills and estate plans is digital assets.  It is also recommended that you ask an experienced estate planning attorney about whether a trust fits into your circumstances, and to help you with the other parts of a complete estate plan.

Review beneficiary designations. Retirement plans, life insurance, pensions and annuities are independent of the will and require beneficiary designations. One of the biggest estate planning mistakes is having outdated beneficiary designations, which only supports the need to review estate plans and designated beneficiaries with an experienced estate planning attorney on a regular basis.

Reference: Spotlight News (May 19, 2021) “Estate Planning To-Dos”

How to Simplify Estate Planning

For most people, estate planning and preparation doesn’t rank very high on their “to do” list. There are a number of reasons, but frequently it comes down these three: (i) cost; (ii) they believe it’s just for the rich; and (iii) it’s too complicated.

Fort Worth’s recent article entitled “3 Tips to Help Simplify Estate Planning,” explains that an estate plan really is not about you. It’s about taking care of your loved ones and charities.

Without an estate plan or last will, state intestacy law determines who gets your assets. You lose control of how your wealth will be distributed.

Let’s look at three tips to make it easier and to help you prepare for the future:

  1. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney. Estate planning is not something you ask your buddy to do. “Hey, Jimmy, help me write my will.” No way. Partner with an experienced estate planning attorney, so you are confident your documents comply with state law and that the plan’s language clearly details how your wealth should be managed.
  2. Review your estate planning documents regularly. We all have planned and unexpected events in our lives, like new grandchildren, illnesses, or significant increases or decreases in your net worth that could impact wealth and how it should be distributed. Meet regularly with your estate planning attorney and review your plan to make sure it still meets your needs and intentions.
  3. Organize important documents. Make certain important documents have been created and can be located quickly, if something happens to you. Here is a list of documents you should have on file that can be accessed by your spouse or family members in case of an emergency:
  • Wills, trusts, and other important estate planning documents
  • A list of tangible and intangible property
  • A list of financial accounts and insurance policies; and
  • Email accounts, logins, or other log-in information to your PC and phone.

Estate planning is not a DIY project. You need the expertise of an experienced estate planning attorney to make certain that your wishes are carried out and that your estate plan can withstand any legal challenge.

Reference: Fort Worth (May 6, 2021) “3 Tips To Help Simplify Estate Planning”

Your Will and Estate Planning Checklist

Dying without a last will creates additional costs and eliminates any chance your wishes for loved ones will be followed after your death. Typically, people think about last wills when they marry or have children, and then do not think about last wills or estate plans until they retire. While a last will is important, there are other estate planning documents that are just as important, says the recent article “10 Steps to Writing a Will” from U.S. News & World Report.

Most assets, including retirement accounts and insurance policy proceeds, can be transferred to heirs outside of a will, if they have designated beneficiaries. However, the outcome of an estate may be more impacted by Power of Attorney for financial matters and Medical Power of Attorney documents.

Here are ten specific tasks that need to be completed for your last will to be effective. Remember, if the will does not comply with your state’s estate law, it can be declared invalid.

  1. Find an estate planning attorney who is experienced with the laws of your state.
  2. Select beneficiaries for your last will.
  3. Check beneficiaries on non-probate assets to make sure they are current.
  4. Decide who will be the executor of your last will.
  5. Name a guardian for minor children, if yours are still young.
  6. Make a letter describing possessions and who you want to receive them. Be very specific.

There are also tasks for your own care while you are living, in case of incapacity:

  1. Name a person for the Power of Attorney role. They will be your representative for legal and financial matters, but only while you are living.
  2. Name a person for the Medical Power of Attorney to make decisions on your behalf, if you cannot.
  3. Create an Advance Directive, also known as a Living Will, to explain your wishes for medical care, particularly concerning end-of-life care.
  4. Discuss these roles and their responsibilities with the people you have chosen, and make sure they are willing to serve.

Be realistic about the people you are naming to receive your property. If you have a child who is not good with managing money, a trust can be set up to distribute assets according to your wishes: by age or accomplishments, like finishing college, going to rehab, or maintaining a steady work history.

Do not forget to tell family members where they can find your last will and other estate documents. You should also talk with them about your digital assets. If accounts are protected by passwords or facial recognition, find out if the digital platform has a process for your executor to legally obtain access to your digital assets.

Finally, do not neglect updating your last will every three to four years or anytime you have a major life event. An estate plan is like a house: it needs regular maintenance. Old last wills can disinherit family members or lead to the wrong person being in charge of your estate. An experienced estate planning attorney will make the process easier and straightforward for you and your loved ones.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (May 13, 2021) “10 Steps to Writing a Will”