Will a No-Contest Clause Protect Your Estate from Squabbling Kids?

We may enjoy watching courtroom drama in movies, TV and on stage, but when it comes to our own lives, most people will do just about anything to avoid an estate battle. A “No Contest” provision is an attempt to preclude this and to give anyone who might be thinking about an estate battle a clear message, according to the article “Why courts enforce a ‘No Contest’ clause from The Daily Sentinel.

The simple answer to the question of “why would a court enforce a No Contest clause” is pretty straightforward. If that’s what you put in the will, that’s what the court wants to have happen.

An estate planning attorney will know the correct wording for your state, but the fundamental message in a No Contest clause is that anyone who attempts to contest or oppose the document will give up their share, lose any right or interest to the estate and will be treated as if they have died before the person who is signing the will.

You can have a will created without a No Contest clause, but if you want to make it very clear how you feel about anyone challenging your will, this is a good way to do it.

As you might imagine, it’s not always so cut and dried. There are limitations that courts need to consider, when they are being asked to enforce this type of clause. The red flag is whether there is “probable cause” to challenge provisions of the will or trust. Simply put, if there is language that either is against the law or against public policy, meaning it encourages behavior that is not legal or desired by our general society, then the court may accept a challenge to the will.

For instance, a provision of a will or trust that would result in discrimination or encourage deceitfulness could be challenged. If the language in the No Contest clause differs markedly from the language in the rest of the document, it could be open to challenge.

For the most part, courts are required to let people decide how they want their assets distributed. For someone who is considering making a statement with their will that may be a bit unconventional or that may not be received well by family members, a No Contest clause will enforce their wishes. It is highly recommended that if this is what someone has in mind, they consult with an estate planning attorney to be sure that their wish will be deemed valid by the court.

As with every part of your estate plan, it’s far better to have an estate plan in place with all your wishes carefully outlined, than to hope that your personal executive has the ability to handle your requests. If your will creates a mutiny, then the executor will bear the brunt of the plan. They’ll need to be fully supported by the law, if controversial wishes are going to stand firm.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (August 24, 2019) “Why courts enforce a ‘No Contest’ clause

Can I Keep a Loved One’s Inheritance From Their Spouse?

A recent nj.com article asks, “How do I protect my niece’s inheritance from her husband?” The article says that in a scenario where someone plans to leave most of her estate to her niece but doesn’t want her estranged husband to get his hands on the money, she must be proactive to make sure the funds go where she intends them to go.

If this happens in New Jersey, the niece’s inheritance will be subject to the New Jersey inheritance tax. The tax is levied based on the relationship of the deceased to the beneficiary. In this case, the niece’s inheritance would be subject to an inheritance tax of 15 to 16%.

This inheritance tax is assessed, because the aunt is a New Jersey resident. It doesn’t matter where the beneficiary resides.

One option is for the aunt to leave the assets to the niece outright or in trust.

The laws in many states, like Missouri, South Carolina, and New Jersey, say that unless the parties otherwise agree, upon divorce there will be equitable distribution of their marital property. Marital property generally doesn’t include the property received by gift or inheritance, as long as that person didn’t co-mingle it with the marital property.

Therefore, the most economical way to transfer property to the niece, is to leave it to her in the testator’s will, with instructions for her to keep it separate and apart from her marital property.

An outright bequest may not be the best way to leave property to the niece, even though it’s probably the most economical method for the aunt.

However, if the aunt leaves the inheritance in trust, she’ll make certain the property isn’t commingled with marital assets.

Further, if the trust is properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney, the income from the trust will likely not be used to decrease any support to which the niece may otherwise be entitled from her spouse, in the event that they divorce down the road. The trust can also protect against other events, by instructing to whom funds should be paid upon the premature death of the niece. That would further prevent her estranged husband from ever being able to make a claim against the funds.

Reference: nj.com (August 21, 2019) “How do I protect my niece’s inheritance from her husband?”

Where Should I Keep My Estate Plan?

Many people ask their attorney to hold the original documents of their estate plan. This prevents the plan from being misplaced at home and keeps it away from prying family members.

Forbes’ recent article, “Keeping Your Estate Planning Documents Safe,” explains that because of the expense of storage and the move to paperless offices, some estate planning attorneys are now having their clients hold the original documents.

This saves money for the attorney, but it leaves the client with the problem of where to put the originals.

If you need a safe and secure place for them, here are some options.

No safe deposit boxes. Avoid placing the original documents in a safe deposit box, because the authority to get into the box is inside the box! If you pass away or are incapacitated—and nobody has access to the safe deposit box—they’ll need a court order to get access. For them to get the court order, they need the documents inside the box. It’s like the chicken and the egg.

Get a fireproof safe. A fireproof safe is a great place to keep these important documents.

Make copies. Get a set of hard copies in another location that is easily accessible. You can now use the safe deposit box to hold a set of copies of your documents. Your attorney should also have a set of hard copies.

E-records. Your estate planning attorney should also have an electronic copy of your estate plan and should send you an electronic version of the documents to keep with your e-records.

Don’t lose it, if the originals are misplaced or destroyed. If the original documents somehow vanish, your family may still be able to use a set of copies. For instance, a photocopy of a will can be probated, once the executor has attested that she has made a diligent search to find the original which hasn’t turned up.

Remember that this isn’t a “one and done” task. You should review your documents every few years to make certain the people you’ve named in them are still alive and your intentions haven’t changed.

Reference: Forbes (August 16, 2019) “Keeping Your Estate Planning Documents Safe”

How Do I Title My Property Correctly for My Estate Plan?

The way by which you title your real and personal property and who you name as your beneficiaries is just as important in your estate planning as your will or trust, says The Black Hills Pioneer’s recent article, “Titling of property is just as important as your Will or Trust.”

There are some kinds of property that, depending on how they are titled or who’s the named beneficiary, will flow outside your will or trust.

For instance, if you designate a beneficiary to your life insurance policy or on your retirement account, that money goes directly to the named beneficiary at your death—not in accordance with your will or trust (provided you haven’t named your estate or trust as the beneficiary).

In addition, you could designate another person as payable on death (POD) designee or transfer on death (TOD) designee on your investment account or your bank account. These types of accounts also transfer automatically to the named designee and not with any regard to your will or trust (unless you named your estate or trust as the beneficiary).

Any jointly owned real estate will typically flow to the surviving joint owner, not pursuant to your will or trust. However, the fact that two people own one piece of real estate doesn’t mean the property will flow automatically to the survivor. It depends on how the property is titled. For example, in South Dakota, language needs to be included in the deed conveying that real estate to both individuals as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship.”

You can, therefore, see how critical it is that you discuss these issues with your estate planning attorney. In addition to questions about wills and trusts, you should also be discussing the titling of your property and the beneficiaries you’ve named on your life insurance and retirement accounts, along with any POD and TOD designees you’ve named on your investment accounts or bank accounts.

If you don’t, you create problems for you family and loved ones.

Reference: Black Hills Pioneer (August 5, 2019) “Titling of property is just as important as your Will or Trust”

What Do I Need to Know Before Becoming an Estate Executor?

An executor steps in for the person who wrote the will and makes sure that all the final arrangements are carried out. When you agree to be named the executor or personal representative of an estate, it’s a big decision. It is far more significant than most people realize. There are many responsibilities to think about, before agreeing to take on the role. Investopedia’s recent article, “5 Things to Consider Before Becoming an Estate Executor” lists five things to consider before saying yes.

Last Will

  1. Complexity of the Estate. Typically, the larger the estate—which can be in terms of property, possessions, assets or the number of beneficiaries—the harder and more time consuming it will be. The best way to see how difficult the job will be, is to request to see a copy of the current will. If there are obvious red flags, like unequal distributions to children or trusts or annuities, it may be best to say no.
  2. Time Commitment. This job takes time and energy, and requires a lot of attention to detail. Truth be told, almost all has to do with the details. Before you agree to execute a will, you should be sure that you have the time to do the job. It’s also important to review your decision to serve as an executor every time your situation changes, like when you get married, have children or change locations. It’s not unusual for a testator to change executors throughout a lifetime.
  3. Immediate Responsibilities. You may agree to be an executor, thinking that it’ll be years before you have to do any work. However, that’s not always the case. You should be sure the testator is keeping a list of assets and debts and knows where the original will, and the asset list are being held and how to access them. You should also have a list of the contact info for attorneys or agents named by the testator. You can also discuss the testator’s wishes for a funeral or memorial service, including instructions for burial or cremation.
  4. Duties After the Testator Dies. This is when the executor must make funeral arrangements, locate the will, initiate probate, manage assets, pay all debts, submit tax returns and more. This can be a snap, if you’re organized and detail oriented.
  5. How You’ll Be Paid. Each state has laws on how an executor is paid. An executor is also entitled to be compensated for expenses incurred, as they carry out their responsibilities. Executors can also refuse compensation, which is common if you’re doing this for a member of your family.

It’s an honor to be asked to be an executor. It means the testator trusts you to carry out their final wishes and to see to their legacy. However, be sure that you’re up to the task.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2019) “5 Things to Consider Before Becoming an Estate Executor” 

Dissolving the Mystery of Probate

Probate can be avoided with proper estate planning, or certain assets can be placed outside of the probate process.

The Street’s recent article on this subject asks “What Is Probate and How Can You Avoid It?” The article looks at the probate process and tries to put it in real-life terms.

Probate is an estate planning process that works within a probate court with a probate judge presiding over the proceedings. Usually, surviving families and other interested parties initiate a probate process, to address issues relating to the deceased individual’s estate settlement. These include:

  • The handling of the deceased’s valid will;
  • Properly citing and categorizing the deceased’s assets;
  • Appraising the deceased’s estate and property;
  • Paying off any of the deceased’s existing debts; and
  • Distributing the deceased’s property to those directed by the will (or, if there’s no will, the probate court will direct the distribution of estate assets, according to the laws of intestacy).

The executor handling the deceased’s estate will typically start the process. Here are the basic steps:

File a Petition. The estate’s executor will file a request for probate where the deceased resided.  The court will then assign a date to confirm the executor and, once that is done, the probate judge will officially open the probate case.

Notice. The executor must send a notice that the deceased’s estate is officially in probate to all applicable beneficiaries, heirs, debtors and creditors.

Inventory Assets. The executor will then collect, list and present a value for all of the deceased’s assets and supply this to the probate court.

Pay the Bills. The executor will need to pay all outstanding debts owed by the estate.

Complete Any Tax Returns. The estate may also have existing tax returns that need to be filed. An accountant can be hired by the estate to work on this, or the executor may choose to file the taxes on his or her own.

Pay the Heirs. The executor can now distribute the remainder of the estate to any heirs, according to the will’s instructions.

Close the Estate. Finally, the executor will file paperwork with the court and file to close the estate.

An experienced estate planning attorney licensed to practice in your state will be able to explain what strategies are used to avoid probate, how to remove certain assets from the process, or whether it needs to be avoided at all. In some regions, probate is swift, while in others it is long and tiresome. A local estate planning attorney is your best resource.

Reference: The Street (July 29, 2019) “What Is Probate and How Can You Avoid It?”

How to Design an Estate Plan with a Blended Family?

There are several things that blended families need to consider when updating their estate plans, says The University Herald in the article “The Challenges and Complexities of Estate Planning for Blended Families.”

Estate plans should be reviewed and updated, whenever there’s a major life event, like a divorce, marriage or the birth or adoption of a child. If you don’t do this, it can lead to disastrous consequences after your death, like giving all your assets to an ex-spouse.

If you have children from previous marriages, make sure they inherit the assets you desire after your death. When new spouses are named as sole beneficiaries on retirement accounts, life insurance policies, and other accounts, they aren’t legally required to share any assets with the children.

Take time to review and update your estate plan. It will save you and your family a lot of stress in the future.

Your estate planning attorney can help you with this process.

You may need more than a simple will to protect your biological children’s ability to inherit. If you draft a will that leaves everything to your new spouse, he or she can cut out the children from your previous marriage altogether. Ask your attorney about a trust for those children. There are many options.

You can create a trust that will leave assets to your new spouse during his or her lifetime, and then pass those assets to your children, upon your spouse’s death. This is known as an AB trust. There is also a trust known as an ABC trust. Various assets are allocated to each trust, and while this type of trust can be a little complicated, the trusts will ensure that wishes are met, and everyone inherits as you want.

Be sure you that select your trustee wisely. It’s not uncommon to have tension between your spouse and your children. The trustee may need to serve as a referee between them, so name a person who will carry out your wishes as intended and who respects both your children and your spouse.

Another option is to simply leave assets to your biological children upon your death. The only problem here, is if your spouse is depending upon you to provide a means of support after you have passed.

An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to help you map out a plan so that no one is left behind. The earlier in your second (or subsequent) married life you start this process, the better.

Reference: University Herald (June 29, 2019) “The Challenges and Complexities of Estate Planning for Blended Families”

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What Are the Basics About Trusts?

Forbes’s recent article, “A Beginner’s Guide To Reading A Trust,” says that as much as attorneys have tried to simplify documents, there’s some legalese that is still hanging around. Let’s look at a few tips in reviewing your trust.

First, familiarize yourself with the terms. There are basic terms of the trust that you’ll need to know. Most of this can be found on its first page, such as the person who created the trust. He or she is frequently referred to as the donor, grantor or settlor. It is also necessary to identify the trustee, who will hold the trust assets and administer them for the benefit of the beneficiaries and any successor trustees.

You should next see who the beneficiaries are and then look at the important provisions. See if the trustee is required to distribute the assets all at once to a specific beneficiary, or if she can give the money out in installments over time.

It is also important to determine if the distributions are completely left to the discretion of the trustee, so the beneficiary doesn’t have a right to withdraw the trust assets.  See if the trustee can distribute both income and principal.

The next step is to see when the trust ends. Trusts will end at the death of a beneficiary.

Other important provisions include whether the beneficiaries can remove and replace a trustee, if the trustee must provide the beneficiaries with accountings and whether the trust is revocable or irrevocable. If the trust is revocable and you’re the donor, you can change it.

If the trust is irrevocable, you won’t be able to make any changes. If your uncle was the donor and he passed away, the trust is most likely now irrevocable.

In addition, you should review the boilerplate language, as well as the tax provisions.

Talk to an estate planning attorney about any questions you may have and to help you interpret the trust terms.

Reference: Forbes (June 17, 2019) “A Beginner’s Guide To Reading A Trust”

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What Do I Need to Know About Trusts?

A trust is a fiduciary arrangement that lets a third party (the “trustee”) hold assets on the behalf of a beneficiary. Trusts can be drafted in a variety of ways and can specify exactly how and when the assets pass to the beneficiaries.

Because trusts usually avoid probate, the beneficiaries can get access to these assets more quickly than they might if the assets were transferred using a will. If it’s an irrevocable trust, it may not be considered part of the taxable estate, which means there will be fewer taxes due at your death.

FedWeek’s recent article, “The Basics of Trusts,” explains some of the benefits of having a trust in your estate plan. Trusts can offer the following:

  • Protection for possible incompetency. You can form a trust and transfer your assets into it. You can be the trustee, and you’ll have control of the trust assets and keep the income. A successor trustee will assume control, if you’re incapacitated.
  • Avoiding probate. The assets held in trust avoid probate, which can be expensive and time-consuming. In the trust documents, you can direct the trust and provide how the trust assets will be distributed at your death.
  • Protection for heirs. After death, a trustee can keep trust assets from being spent all at once or lost in a divorce, with specific instructions in the trust document.

A trust can be revocable or irrevocable. A revocable trust has to be created during your lifetime. If you change your mind, you can cancel the trust and reclaim the assets. With a revocable trust you can enjoy incapacity protection and probate avoidance—but not tax reduction. In contrast, an irrevocable trust can be created while you’re alive or at your death (a revocable trust becomes irrevocable at your death).

Assets transferred to an irrevocable trust during your lifetime may be shielded from creditors and divorce settlements. The same is true for the assets put into an irrevocable trust at your death.

Your heirs can be the beneficiaries of an irrevocable trust. The trustee you’ve designated will be tasked with distributing funds to the beneficiaries. The trustee will be responsible for protecting trust assets.

Contact an experienced trust attorney with your questions about possibly creating a trust for your situation.

Reference: FedWeek (May 9, 2019) “The Basics of Trusts”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Trustee, Revocable Living Trust, Irrevocable Trust, Asset Protection, Probate Court, Inheritance, Estate Tax

What Should I Look for in a Trustee?

Selecting a trustee to manage your estate after you pass away is an important decision. Depending on the type of trust you’re creating, the trustee will be in charge of overseeing your assets and the assets of your family. It’s common for people to choose either a friend or family member, a professional trustee or a trust company or corporate trustee for this critical role.

Forbes’s recent article, “How To Choose A Trustee,” helps you identify what you should look for in a trustee.

If you go with a family member or friend, she should be financially savvy and good with money. You want someone who is knows something about investing, and preferably someone who has assets of their own that they are investing with an investment advisor.

A good thing about selecting a friend or family member as trustee, is that they’re going to be most familiar with you and your family. They will also understand your family’s dynamics.  Family members also usually don’t charge a trustee fee (although they are entitled to do so).

However, your family may be better off with a professional trustee or trust company that has expertise with trust administration. This may eliminate some potentially hard feelings in the family. Another negative is that your family member may be too close to the family and may get caught up in the drama.They may also have a power trip and like having total control of your beneficiary’s finances.

The advantage of an attorney serving as a trustee, is that they have familiarity with your family, if you’ve worked together for some time. There will, however, be a charge for their time spent serving as trustee.

Trust companies will have more structure and oversight to the trust administration, including a trust department that oversees the administration. This will be more expensive, but it may be money well spent. A trust company can make the tough decisions and tell beneficiaries “no” when needed. It’s common to use a trust company, when the beneficiaries don’t get along, when there is a problem beneficiary or when it’s a large sum of money. A drawback is that a trust company may be difficult to remove or become inflexible. They also may be stingy about distributions, if it will reduce the assets under management that they’re investing. You can solve this by giving a neutral third party, like a trusted family member, the ability to remove and replace the trustee.

Talk to your estate planning attorney and go through your concerns to find a solution that works for you and your family.

Reference: Forbes (May 31, 2019) “How To Choose A Trustee”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Trusts, Trustee, Asset Protection, Inheritance, Beneficiary Designations

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