Estate Planning Blog Articles

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What Is Needed in Estate Plan Besides a Will?

Having a will is especially important if you have young children, says FedWeek’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning Doesn’t Stop with Making a Will.”  In your will, you can nominate guardians, who would raise your children in the event neither you nor your spouse is able to do so.

When designating a guardian, try to be practical.

Remember, your closest relatives—like your brother and his wife—may not necessarily be the best choice.

And keep in mind that you’re acting in the best interests of your children.

Be sure to obtain the consent of your guardians before nominating them in your will.

Also make sure there’s sufficient life insurance in place, so the guardians can comfortably afford to raise your children.

Your estate planning isn’t complete at this point. Here are some of the other components to consider:

  • Placing assets in trust will help your heirs avoid the hassle and expense of probate.
  • Power of Attorney. This lets a person you name act on your behalf. A “durable” power will remain in effect, even if you become incompetent.
  • Life insurance, retirement accounts and payable-on-death bank accounts will pass to the people you designate on beneficiary forms and won’t pass through probate.
  • Health care proxy. This authorizes a designated agent to make medical decisions for you, if you can’t make them yourself.
  • Living will. This document says whether you want life-sustaining efforts at life’s end.

Be sure to review all of these documents every few years to make certain they’re up to date and reflect your current wishes.

Reference: FedWeek (Dec. 28, 2022) “Estate Planning Doesn’t Stop with Making a Will”

What Happens When Property Is Owned Jointly and an Owner Dies?

When property is owned jointly, the property may pass automatically to the other owner, passing without going through probate, according to a recent article titled “Everything you need to know about jointly owned property and wills” from TBR News Media

Your will only concerns assets in your name alone without a designated beneficiary. Let’s say you have a joint checking account with another person. On your death, the account automatically becomes the property of the surviving owner. This is outside of probate, and any directions in your will won’t apply.

Real estate is most commonly owned jointly, in several different ways and each with its own set of laws.

Joint Tenancy or Joint Tenancy with Rights of Survivorship. On the death of a joint owner, the owner’s share goes to the surviving joint owner. Simple. The main advantage is the avoidance of probate, which can be costly and take months to complete.

Tenancy by the Entirety. This type of joint ownership is only available between spouses and is not used in all states. A local estate planning attorney will be able to tell you if you have this option. As with Joint Tenancy, when the first spouse passes, their interest automatically passes to the surviving spouse outside of probate.

There are additional protections in Tenancy by the Entirety making it an attractive means of ownership. One spouse may not mortgage or sell the property without the consent of the other spouse, and the creditor of one spouse can’t place a lien or enforce a judgment against property held as tenants by the entirety.

Tenancy in Common. This form of ownership has no right of survivorship and each owner’s share of the property passes to their chosen beneficiary upon the owner’s death. Tenants in Common may have unequal interests in the property, and when one owner dies, their beneficiaries will inherit their share and become co-owners with other Tenants.

The Tenant in Common share passes the persons designated according to their will, assuming they have one. This means the decedent’s executor must “probate” the will and file a petition with the court. However, a Tenant in Common may be able to avoid probate if their share of the property is held in trust, in which case the terms of the trust and not their will controls how the property passes at death. In this case, there’s no need for any court involvement.

There may be capital gains consequences when transferring ownership interests during and after life. Such gifts should never be made without speaking with an estate planning attorney. One of the more common errors occurs when the testator fails to account for the different types of ownership and how assets pass through the will. A comprehensive estate plan, created by an experienced estate planning attorney, ensures that both probate and non-probate assets work together.

Reference: TBR News Media (Dec. 27, 2022) “Everything you need to know about jointly owned property and wills”

Is Estate Planning and Writing Will the Same Thing?

An estate plan is a broader plan for your assets that may apply during your life as well as after your death. A will states where your assets will pass after you die, who will be the guardian of your minor children and other directions. A will is often part of an estate plan, but an estate plan covers much more.

Yahoo’s recent article entitled “How Is Estate Planning Different From Will Planning?” says that if you’re thinking about writing your will or creating an estate plan, it can be a good idea to speak with an experienced estate planning attorney.

A will is a legal document that describes the way you want your assets transferred after your death. It can also state your wishes when it comes to how your minor children will be cared after your death. Wills also nominate an executor who’s in charge of carrying out the actions in your will.

Without a will, your heirs may spend significant time, money and energy trying to determine how to divide up your assets through the probate court. When you die intestate, the succession laws where you reside determine how your property is divided.

Estate planning is much broader and more complex than writing a will. A will is a single tool, and an estate plan involves multiple tools, such as powers of attorney, advance directives and trusts.

Estate planning may include thinking through topics even beyond legal documents, like deciding who has the power to make healthcare decisions on your behalf while you’re alive, in addition to deciding how your assets will be distributed after your death.

Therefore, wills are part of an estate plan. However, an estate plan is more than just a will.

A will is just a first step when it comes to creating an estate plan. To leave your family in the best position after your death, create a comprehensive estate plan, so your assets can end up where you want them.

Reference: Yahoo (Oct. 20, 2022) “How Is Estate Planning Different From Will Planning?”

Should Each Child Get Equal Inheritance?

Every estate planning attorney has conversations with their clients about how adult children should inherit. While most people assume siblings should all inherit equally, in many situations, equal is not always appropriate. There are many situations where an equal inheritance might be unfair, says a recent article, “How Should Your Children Inherit? 4 Scenarios Where ‘Equal’ Is Not Appropriate,” from Kiplinger.

The Caretaker Child Lives With the Parent. When one of the children lives with the parent and has taken on most, if not all, of the responsibilities, it may be fair to treat the child differently than siblings who are not involved with the parent’s care. Taking care of paying bills, coordinating health care appointments, driving the parent to appointments and being involved with end-of-life care is a lot of responsibility. It may be fair to leave this child the family home or leave the home to a trust for the child for their lifetime. The parent may wish to leave the caretaking child a larger portion of the inheritance to recognize the additional help they provided.

A Special Needs Child. If the parent has been the primary caregiver for a special needs child, the estate plan must take this into consideration to ensure the child will be properly cared for after the parents die or are unable to care for the child. Depending on what government benefits the child receives, this usually means the parents need to have a Special Needs Trust or Supplemental Needs Trust created. Most government benefits are means-tested. To remain eligible, recipients may not have more than a certain amount of personal assets. The Special Needs or Supplemental Needs trust could receive more or less than an equal amount of the estate the child would have inherited.

In this scenario, siblings are generally understanding. The siblings often know they will be the ones caring for the family member with special needs when the parents can no longer provide care and welcome the help of an elder law estate planning attorney to plan for their sibling’s future.

An Adult Child With Problems. It’s usually not a good idea to leave an equal portion of an inheritance to an adult child who suffers from mental illness, substance abuse, is going through a divorce or has a life-long history of making bad choices. Putting the money into a trust with a non-family member serving as a trustee and strict directions for when and how much money may be distributed may be a better option. In some cases, disinheriting a child is the unpleasant but only realistic alternative.

Wealth Disparities Among the Siblings. When one child has been financially successful and another struggles, it’s fair to bequeath different amounts. However, wealth can change over a lifetime, so review the estate plan and the wealth distribution on a regular basis.

How To Decide What Will Work For Your Family? Every family is different, and every family has different dynamics. Have open and honest discussions with your estate planning attorney, so they can help you plan for your family’s situation. If possible, the same frank discussion should take place with adult children, so no one is taken by surprise at a time when they will be grieving a loss.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 18, 2022) “How Should Your Children Inherit? 4 Scenarios Where ‘Equal’ Is Not Appropriate”

What Does a Last Will and Testament Do?

Your will is the foundation of an estate plan, used to instruct your executor on distributing property, naming a guardian for minor children, creating a legacy and ensuring that your beneficiaries receive what you want. The will can also serve to disinherit a family member, as explained in the recent article “Last will can both include and exclude heirs” from The Record-Courier.

The process of cutting someone out of a will is known as “disinheriting.” Hurt feelings and tension among family members are inevitable when someone is disinherited. However, if the goal is to avoid litigation between family members, an experienced estate planning attorney will be needed. It takes careful planning to avoid creating a will contest. Disinheriting adult children increases the likelihood of them contesting the validity of the will.

Laws concerning inheritance rights vary. In Nevada, for instance, unless there is a prenuptial agreement, you cannot completely disinherit a spouse. Even if your will attempts to disinherit a spouse, in some cases the law will actually override the instructions in the will or trust and award a portion of the estate, known as the elective share, to a surviving spouse. If this is a concern, check with your estate planning attorney.

Adult children can be disinherited. However, minor children are often protected against disinheritance.

Parents can be disinherited if they outlive the decedent, since they are not always legally entitled to a share of their children’s estate.

Extended relatives can also be disinherited. Some estate planning attorneys will conduct a search for missing heirs or beneficiaries while preparing an estate plan to be sure there are no unknown legal heirs who might make themselves known to a decedent’s surviving spouse or other heirs.

Estranged biological children can be disinherited. However, the last will and testament must be properly prepared.

The reasons for disinheritance very from estrangement to the decedent believing their family member is financially secure and doesn’t need the inheritance. It is not necessary for the last will and testament to explain the reason for the disinheritance. However, it is advised to use a disinheritance clause to ensure the heir or beneficiary is removed and will not inherit under the will.

To protect the integrity of the will, it is also advised to include a no-contest clause in the will. This is a provision expressing a directive to eliminate the share allocated to any beneficiary who takes action to contest the testator’s intents as expressed in the will.

The last will and testament is the person’s last communication with loved ones. There is no further opportunity for clarification once they have passed. This is why it’s so important to have a will and for the will to explicitly state the names of the beneficiaries and the names of any disinherited persons.

When you meet with your estate planning attorney to create or update your last will and testament, be prepared to tell them if there are any family members who you want to disinherit, so they can create a last will and testament and an estate plan designed to withstand challenges.

Reference: The Record-Courier (Dec. 17, 2022) “Last will can both include and exclude heirs”

What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?

The executor’s job includes gathering all of the assets, determining the value and ownership of real estate, securities, bank accounts and any other assets and filing a formal inventory with the probate court. Every state has its own rules, forms and deadline for the process, says a recent article from yahoo! Finance titled “What Do I Need to Do to Prepare an Estate Inventory for Probate,” which recommends contacting a local estate planning attorney to get it right.

The inventory is used to determine the overall value of the estate. It’s also used to determine whether the estate is solvent, when compared to any claims of creditors for taxes, mortgages, or other debts. The inventory will also be used to calculate any estate or inheritance taxes owed by the estate to the state or federal government.

What is an estate asset? Anything anyone owned at the time of their death is the short answer. This includes:

  • Real estate: houses, condos, apartments, investment properties
  • Financial accounts: checking, savings, money market accounts
  • Investments: brokerage accounts, certificates of deposits, stocks, bonds
  • Retirement accounts: 401(k)s, HSAs, traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, pensions
  • Wages: Unpaid wages, unpaid commissions, un-exercised stock options
  • Insurance policies: life insurance or annuities
  • Vehicles: cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats
  • Business interests: any business holdings or partnerships
  • Debts/judgments: any personal loans to people or money received through court judgments

Preparing an inventory for probate may take some time. If the decedent hasn’t created an inventory and shared it with the executor, which would be the ideal situation, the executor may spend a great deal of time searching through desk drawers and filing cabinets and going through the mail for paper financial statements, if they exist.

If the estate includes real property owned in several states, this process becomes even more complex, as each state will require a separate probate process.

The court will not accept a simple list of items. For example, an inventory entry for real property will need to include the address, legal description of the property, copy of the deed and a fair market appraisal of the property by a professional appraiser.

Once all the assets are identified, the executor may need to use a state-specific inventory form for probate inventories. When completed, the executor files it with the probate court. An experienced estate planning attorney will be familiar with the process and be able to speed the process along without the learning curve needed by an inexperienced layperson.

Deadlines for filing the inventory also vary by state. Some probate judges may allow extensions, while other may not.

The executor has a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of the estate to file the inventory without delay. The executor is also responsible for paying off any debts or taxes and overseeing the distribution of any remaining assets to beneficiaries. It’s a large task, and one that will benefit from the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: yahoo! finance (Dec. 3, 2022) “What Do I Need to Do to Prepare an Estate Inventory for Probate”

Can I Contest Dad’s Will While He’s Still Living?

The Maryland Daily Record’s recent article entitled “Wills cannot be challenged until testator dies, Md. appeals court says” explains the Court of Special Appeals said a will or revocable trust is only a draft document until its drafter, or testator, has died.

As a result, those challenging a living person’s will or trust would be merely “presumptive heirs” who have no legal standing to challenge a legal document that’s not yet final.

“Pre-death challenges to wills may be a waste of time – the testator might replace the will with a new one, die without property, or the challenger might die before the testator,” Judge Andrea M. Leahy wrote for the Court of Special Appeals.

The appellate court’s decision was the second defeat for Amy Silverstone, whose legal challenge to her mother Andrea Jacobson’s will was dismissed by a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge for lack of standing.

Silverstone argued that the will should be declared void based on her claim that her aunt unduly influenced her mother. The mother suffers from dementia and memory impairment.

This undue influence led Silverstone’s mother, Andrea Jacobson, to change her will in 2018 to expressly “disinherit” Silverstone and her son, Silverstone alleged.

The mother’s new will stated that Silverstone and her son shall not “in any way be a beneficiary of or receive any portion of the trust or the grantor’s estate.”

The disinheritance came amid a falling out between mother and daughter, according to court documents.

Silverstone’s challenge to the will and related trust is premature while her mother is alive, the court held.

Reference: The Maryland Daily Record (Dec. 12, 2022) “Wills cannot be challenged until testator dies, Md. appeals court says”

Does My Estate Plan Need an ‘ePlan’?

Modern estate plans should include what’s known as an “ePlan” to manage online accounts and online data. There are four specific steps to creating an effective ePlan, says American Legion’s recent article entitled “Estate planning and online accounts.”

  1. Create a List of Accounts and How to Access Them. Your list should specify the username, password account number and a description of what’s included in each account. Make sure to keep this list up to date.
  2. Store and Protect Your Info. Develop a plan for storing information, including saving the list you compiled and backing up important data files and account information. Since an ePlan account list contains sensitive information, such as usernames and passwords, it’s important to maintain the security and confidentiality of this list.
  3. Designate a Digital Executor. The laws of many states give access to online accounts to the executor of an estate. However, in some cases, state law may restrict access, if the executor doesn’t have the password or an estate plan does not clearly grant powers to the executor to access these accounts.
  4. Give Your Executor “Digital Directions.” Draft a letter of instruction to the digital executor and tell him or her how to manage your online accounts and digital assets. It may also include suggestions on the distribution of accounts, assets, files and information to family.

Note that Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and other companies have policies for when an account holder dies. These policies may permit an account holder to designate a “Legacy Contact” to manage the account; require specific documentation before a deceased person’s account can be closed, such as a copy of a death certificate; or automatically close an account after an extended period of inactivity, such as three months.

Digital estate planning is a new and dynamic field. By adding an ePlan to your estate plan, you can be certain your executor will take the right steps to preserve and protect these accounts and that valuable and sentimental data can be passed on to family and loved ones.

Reference: American Legion (Dec. 13, 2022) “Estate planning and online accounts”

How to Talk to Parents about Estate Planning

Research from the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP shows that more than 50 million Americans currently serve as unpaid caregivers. This number has increased by nearly 25% since 2015. Statistically, baby boomers and women take on the biggest caregiving burden when it comes to providing care for aging family members. As life expectancy increases, and baby boomers advance well into senior years of their own, the need for caregiving will only continue to rise.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Holiday Season Tips For Caregivers” says that as the number of seniors in America continues to grow, we find ourselves on the verge of the largest transfer of wealth in history. It is estimated that 45 million Americans will transfer some $68 trillion over the next 25 years.

As a result, having estate planning conversations has become more important than ever.

Discussions about money and mortality can be challenging and emotional. Here are some tips on how to broach this sensitive subject with family and loved ones.

Schedule a time: This can be an overwhelming topic, but don’t ignore it. Scheduling dedicated time to open the dialogue and creating a timeline to complete the basic estate planning documents can make the process more manageable and keep everyone involved accountable.

Share your wealth of knowledge: Share your knowledge about what the documents mean, how and when they come into play, as well as what happens if there’s no estate plan in place. Remind them that this is their chance to ensure that their wishes are carried out.

Ask questions: Provided the person is in a sound state of mind, they’re in a position to be involved in the decision-making. Ask open-ended questions like what steps have already been taken and document as much as possible without judgment.

Share your plan: Sharing your ideas and discussing your own plans can ease tension and help eliminate fears. It shows others that they’re not alone in the planning process.

Leave the conversation open-ended: The key to these planning conversations is empathy because many seniors are experiencing a variety of emotions. Reassure them that you’re available for future conversations and will plan to check back in at the times set forth in the timeline you created together.

You should also ask an experienced estate planning attorney for assistance.

Reference: Forbes (Nov. 29, 2022) “Holiday Season Tips For Caregivers”

Are My Children Entitled to My Money?

Let’s say that one of your children hasn’t had contact with you since COVID in 2019. She’s been off the radar and never calls. You may not feel obligated to give them an inheritance.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “We want to cut one child out of our will. Can we?” says that adult children aren’t legally entitled to an inheritance.

Unfortunately, will contests generally happen where a child who’s left less, or disinherited, thinks that a sibling has wrongly influenced a parent to leave more to him or her.

This is particularly problematic if the parent is elderly and/or in ill health and completely reliant on that child for assistance.

A will contest is a probate proceeding where interested parties dispute the validity of a will.

The most common legal grounds for disputing the validity of a will are undue influence, duress, mistake and the decedent’s lack of capacity when they signed the will.

To properly avoid a will contest, you should work with a qualified estate planning attorney who will document his or her file and prepare a will for you with appropriate language.

Note that it isn’t necessary or advisable to provide an explanation as to why you’re disinheriting a child. That’s because if you give a reason, that reason may cause controversy.

If avoiding litigation is a priority, as an alternative to totally disinheriting a child, your attorney can also talk with you about the different forms of “no-contest” clauses that can be placed in a will.

This clause, also called an `in terrorem’ clause, indicates that if a beneficiary raises a claim with respect to the will, he or she will lose his or her inheritance.

There’s also typically a time limit to contesting a will. For example, in Minnesota, those with standing who want to contest a will must do so within a year after the death of the deceased person.

For a no-contest clause to be effective, a child must be a beneficiary of some amount in your will.

The courts will uphold this clause, unless it finds there is probable cause for bringing a court action.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 2, 2022) “We want to cut one child out of our will. Can we?”