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”

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?”

A Trust can Protect Inheritance from Relatives

It’s always exciting to watch adult children build their lives and select spouses. However, even if we adore the person they love, it’s wise to prepare to protect our children, says a recent article titled “Worried about Your Child’s Inheritance If They Divorce? A Trust Can Be Your Answer” from Kiplinger.

After all, why would you want the assets and money that you accumulated over a lifetime to pass to any ex-spouse, if a divorce happens?

With the current federal estate tax exemptions still historically high (although that may change in the near future), setting up a trust to protect wealth from federal estate taxes isn’t the driving force in many estate plans. The bigger concern is how well your children will do, if and when they receive their inheritance.

Some people recognize that their children are simply not up to the task. They worry about potential divorces, or a spendthrift spouse. The answer is estate planning in general, and more specifically, a well-designed trust. By establishing a trust as part of an estate plan, these assets can be protected.

If an adult child receives an inheritance and commingles it with assets owned jointly with their spouse—like a joint bank account—depending upon the state where they live, the inheritance may become a marital asset and subject to marital property division, if the couple divorces.

If the inheritance remains in a trust account, or if the trust funds are used to pay for assets that are only owned in the child’s name, the inherited wealth can be protected. This permits the child to have assets as a financial cushion, if a divorce should happen.

Placing an inheritance in a trust is often done after a first divorce, when the family learns the hard way how combined assets are treated. Wiser still is to have a trust created when the child marries. In that way, there’s less of a learning curve (not to mention more assets to preserve).

Here are three typical situations:

Minor children. Children who are 18 or younger cannot inherit assets. However, when they reach the age of majority, they can. A sudden and large inheritance is best placed in the hands of a trustee, who can guide them to make smart decisions and has the ability to deny requests that may seem entirely reasonable to an 18-year-old, but ridiculous to a more mature adult.

Newlyweds. Most couples are divinely happy in the early years of a marriage. However, when life becomes more complicated, as it inevitably does, the marriage may be tested and might not work out. Setting up a trust after the couple has been together for five or ten years is an option.

Marriage moves into the middle years. After five or ten years, it’s likely you’ll have a clearer understanding of your child’s spouse and how their marriage is faring. If you have any doubts, talk with an estate planning attorney, and set up a trust for your child.

Estate plans should be reviewed every four or five years, as circumstances, relationships and tax laws change. A periodic review with your estate planning attorney allows you to ensure that your estate plan reflects your wishes.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 16, 2021) “Worried about Your Child’s Inheritance If They Divorce? A Trust Can Be Your Answer”

How can I Revoke an Irrevocable Trust?

Is there a way to get a house deed out of the trust?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I dissolve an irrevocable trust to get my house out?” says that prior to finalizing legal documents, it is important to know the purpose and consequences of the plan.

An experienced estate planning attorney will tell you there are a variety of trust types that are used to achieve different objectives.

There are revocable trusts that can be created to avoid probate, and others trusts placed in a will to provide for minor children or loved ones with special needs.

Irrevocable trusts are often created to shield assets, including the home, in the event long-term nursing care is required.

Conveying assets to an irrevocable trust typically starts the five-year “look back” period for Medicaid purposes, if the trust is restricted from using the assets for, or returning assets to, the individual who created the trust (known as the “grantor”).

When you transfer assets to a trust, control of the assets is given to another person (the ‘trustee”).

This arrangement may protect assets in the event long-term care is required. However it comes with the risk that the trustee may not always act how the grantor intended.

For instance, the grantor can’t independently sell the house owned by the trust or compel the trustee to purchase a replacement residence, which may cause a conflict between the grantor and trustee. Because the trust is irrevocable, it could be difficult and expensive to unwind.

In light of this, it’s important to designate a trustee who will work with and honor the wishes of the grantor.

An experienced estate planning attorney retained for estate and asset planning should provide clear, understandable and thoughtful advice, so the client has the information needed to make an informed decision how to proceed.

Reference: nj.com (April 6, 2021) “Can I dissolve an irrevocable trust to get my house out?”

What Is the Main Purpose of a Trust?

There are advantages and disadvantages of an irrevocable trust, and you’ll want to be fully informed before taking steps that may be costly to undo, explains the article “Understanding your trust” from The Sentinel. Once your home is deeded to an irrevocable trust, you won’t be able to make any changes without getting permission from the beneficiary or beneficiaries named in the trust. Your rights of ownership are transferred to the trust, when you deed it to the trust.

A separate legal agreement with the trustee, the person in charge of the trust, will be needed to give you a legal right to occupy the home also. Any changes could be made but will take time and could be costly. Changes can also only be made, if the beneficiaries agree.

There was a time when lenders inserted clauses into mortgages that any time a sale or transfer of the deed occurred, full payment of the mortgage would be due. This changed, and today the mortgage is not due just because of a change in the deed. However, it may be a challenge to refinance, if the home is held in an irrevocable trust.

For most people, the reason to put a home into an irrevocable trust is to prevent the home from being lost to a creditor, including protecting the home’s equity from the cost of nursing home care, during life or after death. In some states, like Pennsylvania, the state will initiate a collection action against the estate to recover the amount paid for the deceased homeowner’s nursing care costs.

The move to put a home into an irrevocable trust can work as long as the trust remains intact, and the homeowner does not apply for financial assistance for nursing home care for at least five years from the date that the deed was transferred as recorded in the courthouse.

If long-term care needs arise before that time, putting the home into an irrevocable trust may not serve its intended purpose.

There are some tax benefits from an irrevocable trust. If the homeowner lives at least one year after the home is deeded to the trust, in some states no inheritance taxes will be due on the home. Check with a local estate planning attorney to learn what the rules are in your state.

If the trust is prepared by an experienced elder law attorney, it is likely that the capital gain on the sale of the home by the trust after the homeowner’s death will be taxed based on the home’s value at the time of sale, rather than the value at the time it is placed into the trust or on the day of death.

If the home is the only asset in the trust, the taxpayer ID of the trust will be the homeowner’s Social Security number, and no annual tax return is required. If, however, other assets, particularly income-producing assets, are placed in the trust, then the trust needs to have its own EIN (a federal tax identification number) and annual tax returns will need to be paid. Taxes on a trust are normally at a higher rate than individual income rates.

Your estate planning attorney will explain the numerous strategies that can be used to protect your assets and your home from the high cost of long-term care. There are many Medicaid compliant techniques and tools, depending upon the situation of the individual and the family.

Reference: The Sentinel (April 23, 2021) “Understanding your trust”

What Is the Purpose of an Estate Plan?

No one wants to think about becoming seriously ill or dying, but scrambling to get an estate plan and healthcare documents done while in the hospital or nursing home is a bad alternative, says a recent article titled “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan” from Kiplinger. Not having an estate plan in place can create enormous costs for the estate, including taxes, and delay the transfer of assets to heirs.

If you would like to avoid the cost, stress and possibility of your spouse or children having to go to court to get all of this done while you are incapacitated, it is time to have an estate plan created. Here are the basics:

A Will, a Living Will, Power of Attorney and a Beneficiary Check-Up. People think of a will when they think of an estate plan, but that’s only part of the plan. The will gives instructions for what you want to happen to assets, who will be in charge of your estate—the executor—and who will be in charge of any minor children—the guardian. No will? This is known as dying intestate, and probate courts will make all of these decisions for you, based on state law.

However, a will is not enough. Beneficiary designations determine who receives assets from certain types of property. This includes life insurance policies, qualified retirement accounts, annuities, and any account that provides the opportunity to name a beneficiary. These instructions supersede the will, so make sure that they are up to date. If you fail to name a beneficiary, then the asset is considered part of your estate. If you fail to update your beneficiaries, then the person you may have wanted to receive the assets forty years ago will receive it.

Some banks and brokerage accounts may have an option of a Transfer on Death (TOD) agreement. This allows you to plan out asset distribution outside of the will, speeding the distribution of assets.

A Living Will or Advance Directive is used to communicate in advance what you would want to happen if you are alive but unable to make decisions for yourself. It names an agent to make serious medical decisions on your behalf, like being kept on life support or having surgery. Not having the right to make medical decisions for a loved one requires petitioning the court.

Financial Power of Attorney names an attorney in fact to manage finances, paying bills and overseeing investments. Without a POA, your family can’t take action on your financial matters, like paying bills, overseeing the maintenance of your home, etc. If the court appoints a non-family member to manage this task, the family may see the estate evaporate.

Creating a trust is part of most people’s estate plan. A trust is a means of leaving assets for a minor child, or someone who cannot be trusted to manage money. The trust is a legal entity that inherits money when you pass, and a trustee, who you name in the trust documents, manages everything, according to the terms of the trust.

Today’s estate plan needs to include digital assets. You need to give someone legal authority to manage social media accounts, websites, email and any other digital property you own.

The time to create an estate plan, or review and update an existing estate plan, is now. COVID has awakened many people to the inevitability of severe illness and death. Planning for the future today protects the ones you love tomorrow.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 21, 2021) “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan”

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”

I am Concerned That My Son-in-Law will get My Estate

A frequently question people have when updating their wills with an experienced estate planning attorney, is whether they still need a trust for an adult child. The child has graduated college, is on her second well-paying job, is married and has children of her own. The child is a responsible young adult. However, an issue may arise with the adult child’s spouse and the potential for divorce.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Worried about Your Child’s Inheritance If They Divorce? A Trust Can Be Your Answer” says that people do not want money they have worked hard for to be directed to their son’s or daughter’s ex-spouse, if a divorce occurs.

The current federal estate tax exemption in 2021 is $11.7 million per person or $23.4 million for married couples, so creating a trust to save taxes upon death isn’t as big a factor as it used to be. The larger question is how well we think our children will handle receiving a large sum of money. Some parents want a trust because they worry about their adult child losing thousands of dollars of their inheritance as a result of a failed marriage. By creating a trust as part of their estate plan, these parents can help protect their child’s assets in a divorce settlement.

In many situations, if a child receives an inheritance and combines it with assets they own jointly with their spouse, like a bank account, car or house, depending on where they live, the inheritance may become subject to marital property division, if the adult child and spouse later divorce. However, if the child’s inheritance is in a trust account, or they use trust funds to pay for assets only in their name, the inherited wealth can further be protected from a divorce.

Trusts can be complicated and require more administrative work and costs, which may cost more than just leaving assets outright to your children. This is worth it for those who want to protect their child’s wealth. If your child is under 18, you’re not thinking about divorce, but because of their youth, leaving assets in trust for them is often a good idea. A trustee will oversee the child’s assets and will be able to guide them to make sound decisions with any inherited funds. If your child is newly married, rather than creating a trust right after your child’s marriage, see how the marriage goes over the next five to 10 years. Then ask yourself how comfortable you are with your child’s relationship and how you feel about your son-in-law or daughter-in-law.

Consider your estate plan as a five-year plan. Review your will, trust and other estate planning documents every five years. This can help you carefully evaluate relationships, finances and the emotional dynamics of your family. An experienced estate planning attorney can also adjust or cancel the trust during your life, as your family situation changes.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 16, 2021) “Worried about Your Child’s Inheritance If They Divorce? A Trust Can Be Your Answer”

Should Young Families have an Estate Plan?

Young families are always on the go. New parents are busy with diapers, feeding schedules and trying to get a good night’s sleep. As a result, it’s hard to think about the future when you’re so focused on the present. Even so, young parents should think about estate planning.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled, “Why Young Families Should Consider an Estate Plan,” explains that the word “estate” might sound upscale, but estate planning isn’t just for the wealthy. Your estate is simply all the assets you have when you die. This includes bank accounts, 401(k) plan, a home and cars. An estate plan helps to make certain that your property goes to the right people, that your debts are paid and your family is cared for. Without an estate plan, your estate must go through probate, which is a potentially lengthy court process that settles the debts and distributes the assets of the decedent.

Estate planning is valuable for young families, even if they don’t have extensive assets. Consider these key estate planning actions that every parent needs to take to make certain they’ve protected their child, no matter what the future has in store.

Purchase Life Insurance. Raising children is costly, and if a parent dies, life insurance provides funds to continue providing for surviving children. For most, term life insurance is a good move because the premiums are affordable, and the coverage will be in effect until the children grow to adulthood and are no longer financially dependent.

Make a Will and Name a Guardian for your Children. For parents, the most important reason to make a will is to designate a guardian for your children. If you fail to do this, the courts will decide and may place your children with a relative with whom you have not spoken in years. However, if you name a guardian, you choose a person or couple you know has the same values and who will raise your kids as you would have.

Review Your Beneficiaries. You probably already have a 401(k) or IRA that makes you identify who will inherit it if you die. You’ll need to update these accounts, if you want your children to inherit these assets.

Consider a Trust. If you die before your children turn 18, your children can’t directly assume control of an inheritance, which can be an issue. The probate court could name an individual to manage the assets you leave to your child. However, if you want to specify who will manage assets, how your money and property should be used for your children and when your children should directly receive a transfer of wealth, consider asking an experienced estate planning attorney about a trust. With a trust, you can name a designated person to manage money on behalf of your children and provide direction regarding how the trustee can use the money to help care for your children as they grow. Trusts aren’t just for the very well-to-do. Anyone may be able to benefit from a trust.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (April 13, 2021) “Why Young Families Should Consider an Estate Plan”

What Is a Living Trust Estate Plan?

Living trusts are one of the most popular estate planning tools. However, a living trust accomplishes several goals, explains the article “Living trusts allow estates to avoid probate” from The Record Courier. A living trust allows for the management of a beneficiary’s inheritance and may also reduce estate taxes. A person with many heirs or who owns real estate should consider including a living trust in their estate plan.

A trust is a fiduciary relationship, where the person who creates the trust, known as the “grantor,” “settlor,” “trustor” or “trustmaker,” gives the “trustee” the right to hold title to assets to benefit another person. This third person is usually an heir, a beneficiary, or a charity.

With a living trust, the grantor, trustee and beneficiary may be one and the same person. A living trust may be created by one person for that person’s benefit. When the grantor dies, or becomes incapacitated, another person designated by the trust becomes the successor trustee and manages the trust for the benefit of the beneficiary or heir. All of these roles are defined in the trust documents.

The living trust, which is sometimes referred to as an “inter vivos” trust, is created to benefit the grantor while they are living. A grantor can make any and all changes they wish while they are living to their trust (within the law, of course). A testamentary trust is created through a person’s will, and assets are transferred to the trust only when the grantor dies. A testamentary trust is an “irrevocable” trust, and no changes can be made to an irrevocable trust.

There are numerous other trusts used to manage the distribution of wealth and protect assets from taxes. Any trust agreement must identify the name of the trust, the initial trustee and the beneficiaries, as well as the terms of the trust and the name of a successor trustee.

For the trust to achieve its desired outcome, assets must be transferred from the individual to the trust. This is called “funding the trust.” The trust creator typically holds title to assets, but to fund the trust, titled property, like bank and investment accounts, real property or vehicles, are transferred to the trust by changing the name on the title. Personal property that does not have a title is transferred by an assignment of all tangible property to the trustee. An estate planning attorney will be able to help with this process, which can be cumbersome but is completely necessary for the trust to work.

Some assets, like life insurance or retirement accounts, do not need to be transferred to the trust. They use a beneficiary designation, naming a person who will become the owner upon the death of the original owner. These assets do not belong in a trust, unless there are special circumstances.

Reference: The Record Courier (April 3, 2021) “Living trusts allow estates to avoid probate”