Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Don’t Follow Queen of Soul: Think about Estate Planning

The Albuquerque Journal’s recent article entitled “Learn from Aretha’s estate mess and ‘Think’” talks about the new bio pic called “Respect” that traces 20 years of the life of Aretha Franklin, the Queen of Soul and the number one singer of all time in a Rolling Stone ranking from 2010.

Aretha died in 2018. She had four sons from either three or four fathers. Their ages spanned 15 years. The oldest, born when Aretha was 12, has special needs and lives in a group home. When she passed, all evidence pointed to the fact that she had no will. The sons – in birth order, Clarence, Edward, Ted, and Kecalf – agreed to a friendly and equal split of the estate. Michigan law supported this. They designated a cousin, Sabrina, as the executor.

This was good, until Sabrina started finding wills. There were two from 2010 and one from 2014. They were all in Aretha’s handwriting, the last one in a spiral notebook found under cushions of a sofa.

Michigan law permits an entirely handwritten will and even allows a will to be unsigned, if it clearly shows the decedent’s wishes. Her 2014 will first named the three younger sons as co-executors.  Aretha then crossed out all names but Kecalf. Ted and an attorney appointed to represent Clarence challenged Kecalf’s competence to serve as Aretha’s executor.

But wait! A fourth will was found. That one was actually typed and established a trust for Clarence. Aretha initialed some pages, but she didn’t sign it.

At that point, Sabrina gave up and resigned as Aretha’s executor.

The probating of Aretha’s estate went from a friendly division of assets to a hot mess.

The sons were now “playing games that they can score,” and wondering if Aretha stopped to think what she was trying to do to them.

The Probate Court judge appointed Aretha’s friend Reginald Turner, who recently was named President of the American Bar Association, as temporary estate representative.

The sons’ fighting is ongoing.

Aretha’s estate has a lot of issues. Don’t be like the Queen. Get your estate plan set and revise it, as needed, with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Albuquerque Journal (Sep. 12, 2021) “Learn from Aretha’s estate mess and ‘Think’

How Do I Write a Will?

You should get the basic estate planning documents in order and revisit them regularly. Everyone should have a will, but it’s only one of several significant estate planning documents in a comprehensive plan.

US News’ recent article entitled “10 Steps to Writing a Will” says that many of a typical household’s assets, such as retirement accounts, can be transferred outside of a will by naming beneficiaries. Documents, like financial and medical powers of attorney, can also be more powerful in determining the outcome of an estate.

Find an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney. Most situations will require an estate planning attorney, especially when you have a large estate, a blended family, or other complex situations.

Select Beneficiaries. A common mistake people make when planning their estate is failing to name or update beneficiaries on key accounts that work with the plans outlined in their wills. The beneficiary listed on bank accounts, life insurance and other financial accounts will have control over the will.

Choose the Executor. The executor of your will has the task of carrying out your wishes detailed in the will.

Choose a Guardian for Your Minor Children. If you have minor children, you must designate a guardian in your will. That way you can name the person you want to care for your children, in the event you die while they are yet minors.

Be Specific About Who Gets What. One of the most time-consuming aspects of creating a will may be deciding which assets to include and determining who will receive what. Consider the types of assets being allocated to heirs to help with decision-making and management.

Be Clear About Who Gets What. Think practically about how your property will be distributed. A big reason children stop speaking after a parent’s death is because there’s boilerplate language directing tangible assets, such as artwork, collectibles, or jewelry, to be divided equally among children.

Attach a Letter. You can attach an explanatory letter to your will. This letter may provide additional detail about certain wishes. This is also called a “Letter of Last Instruction.”

Sign the Will Properly. If you fail to execute your will properly, it may result in the document being deemed invalid. An experienced estate planning attorney will know precisely what is required as far as witnesses and notarization.

Find a Place for Your Will. Inform a person you trust about the location of your will as well as any other important legal papers and passwords to financial institutions. In addition, it’s wise to store the original copy somewhere secure, such as in a fireproof safe.

Review and Update Your Will. A will should be updated every few years.

Reference: US News (May 31, 2021) “10 Steps to Writing a Will”

Where Do You Score on Estate Planning Checklist?

Make sure that you review your estate plan at least once every few years to be certain that all the information is accurate and updated. It’s even more necessary if you experienced a significant change, such as marriage, divorce, children, a move, or a new child or grandchild. If laws have changed, or if your wishes have changed and you need to make substantial changes to the documents, you should visit an experienced estate planning attorney.

Kiplinger’s recent article “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?” gives us a few things to keep in mind when updating your estate plan:

Moving to Another State. Note that if you’ve recently moved to a new state, the estate laws vary in different states. Therefore, it’s wise to review your estate plan to make sure it complies with local laws and regulations.

Changes in Probate or Tax Laws. Review your estate plan with an experienced estate planning attorney to see if it’s been impacted by changes to any state or federal laws.

Powers of Attorney. A power of attorney is a document in which you authorize an agent to act on your behalf to make business, personal, legal, or financial decisions, if you become incapacitated.  It must be accurate and up to date. You should also review and update your health care power of attorney. Make your wishes clear about do-not-resuscitate (DNR) provisions and tell your health care providers about your decisions. It is also important to affirm any clearly expressed wishes as to your end-of-life treatment options.

A Will. Review the details of your will, including your executor, the allocation of your estate and the potential estate tax burden. If you have minor children, you should also designate guardians for them.

Trusts. If you have a revocable living trust, look at the trustee and successor appointments. You should also check your estate and inheritance tax burden with an estate planning attorney. If you have an irrevocable trust, confirm that the trustee properly carries out the trustee duties like administration, management and annual tax returns.

Gifting Opportunities. The laws concerning gifts can change over time, so you should review any gifts and update them accordingly. You may also want to change specific gifts or recipients.

Regularly updating your estate plan can help you to avoid simple estate planning mistakes. You can also ensure that your estate plan is entirely up to date and in compliance with any state and federal laws.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 28, 2021) “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?”

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”

What Emergency Documents Do I Need in Pandemic?

With the threat of COVID-19, we’ve all come face-to-face with our mortality. However, are you prepared for the worst?, asks KSAT in its January 23 article entitled, “Important documents you need to have handy in case of an emergency.”

A consumer report recently found that just 7% of those ages 19 to 29 have an advance directive for health care emergencies, and even fewer have a will. Estate planning is one of the most worthwhile things we could do for ourselves or our loved ones.

The article explains that your estate is everything you own, and if it’s not protected, it could be taken away from your loved ones.

An extremely important document to have, in addition to a will, is a living will and a healthcare proxy or power of attorney. These documents let you designate the individual who will make decisions on your behalf, if you cannot speak for yourself.

In addition, a HIPAA authorization permits an individual you trust to speak with your healthcare staff and receive your personal medical information.

Another key document is a financial power of attorney. This empowers you to designate an agent to handle your debts, contracts and assets. A financial power of attorney must be signed and notarized.

You should also consider payable on death and transfer on death designations, which transfer assets to designated beneficiaries without probate.

It is important to conduct a digital asset inventory to list your entire online presence and include all accounts, logins, passwords, social media, and professional profiles, and most importantly, a list of everything you have on autopay.

Last, you need a last will and testament. This lets you to name an executor or personal representative to handle your postmortem affairs. However, a last will does not keep assets out of probate.

One last note: you can prepare a personal property memorandum to list the beneficiaries of any sentimental, non-monetary items.

Reference: KSAT (San Antonio) (Jan. 23, 2021) “Important documents you need to have handy in case of an emergency”

What Happens when Homeowner Dies without Will?

When parents die suddenly, in this case due to COVID-19, and there is no will and no discussions have taken place, siblings are placed in an awkward, expensive and emotionally fraught situation. The article titled “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?” from MarketWatch sums up the situation, but the answer is complicated.

When there is no will, or “intestacy,” there aren’t a lot of choices.

These parents had a few bank accounts, owned their home outright and left no debts. They had six adult children, including one that died and is survived by two living sons. None of the siblings agrees upon anything, so nothing has been done.

One of the siblings lives in the house rent free. Another brother was loaned $35,000 for a down payment on a mobile home. He now claims that the loan was a gift and does not have to pay it back. There are receipts, but the money was paid directly to the escrow company from the mother’s bank account.

How do you determine if this brother received a loan or a gift? What do you do about the brother who lives rent-free in the family home? How does the family now move the estate into probate without losing the house and the bank accounts, while maintaining a sense of family?

For starters, an administrator needs to be appointed to begin the probate process and act as a mediator among the siblings. In some states, the administrator also requires a family tree, so they can know who the descendants are. Barring some huge change of heart among the siblings, this is the only option.

If the parents failed to name a personal representative and the siblings cannot agree on who should serve, an estate administration lawyer is the sensible choice. The court may name someone, if there is concern about possible conflicts of interests or the rights of creditors or other beneficiaries.

A warning to all concerned about how the appointment of an administrator works, or sometimes, does not work. Working with an estate planning attorney that the siblings can agree upon is better, as the attorney has a fiduciary and ethical obligation to the estate. While state laws usually hold the administrator responsible to the standard of care of a “reasonable, prudent” individual, not all will agree what is reasonable and prudent.

One note about the loan/gift: if the mother helped a brother to qualify for a mortgage, it is possible that a “Gift Letter” was created to satisfy the bank or the resident’s association. Assuming this was not a notarized loan agreement, the administrator may rule that the $35,000 was a gift. Personal loans should always be recorded in a notarized agreement.

This family’s disaster serves as a good lesson for anyone who does not have an estate plan. Siblings rarely agree, and a properly prepared estate plan protects more than your assets. It also protects your children from losing each other in a fight over your property.

Reference: MarketWatch (April 4, 2021) “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?”

Should I Discuss Estate Planning with My Children?

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children” says that staying up-to-date with your estate plan and sharing your plans with your children could make a big impact on your legacy and what you’ll pay in estate taxes. Let’s look at why you should consider talking to your children about estate planning.

People frequently create an estate plan and name their child as the trustee or executor. However, they fail to discuss the role and what’s involved with them. Ask your kids if they’re comfortable acting as the executor, trustee, or power of attorney. Review what each of the roles involves and explain the responsibilities. The estate documents state some critical responsibilities but don’t provide all the details. Having your children involved in the process and getting their buy-in will be a big benefit in the future.

Share information about valuables stored in a fireproof safe or add their name to the safety deposit box. Tell them about your accounts at financial institutions and the titling of the various accounts, so that these accounts aren’t forgotten, and bills get paid when you’re not around.

Parents can get children involved with a meeting with their estate planning attorney to review the estate plan and pertinent duties of each child. If they have questions, an experienced estate planning attorney can answer them in the context of the overall estate plan.

If children are minors, invite the successor trustee to also be part of the meeting.

Explain what you own, what type of accounts you have and how they’re treated from a tax perspective.

Discussing your estate plan with your children provides a valuable opportunity to connect with your loved ones, even after you are gone. An individual’s attitudes about money says much about his or her values.

Sharing with your children what your money means to you, and why you are speaking with them about it, will help guide them in honoring your memory.

There are many personal reasons to discuss your estate plans with your children. While it’s a simple step, it’s not easy to have this conversation. However, the pandemic emphasized the need to not procrastinate when it comes to estate planning. It’s also provided an opportunity to discuss these estate plans with your children.

Reference: US News & World Report (Feb. 17, 2021) “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children”

executor selection

How Does Court Choose an Executor if a Will Isn’t Available?

An executor is the person who’ll manage your estate by protecting your assets, paying your debts and distributing the remaining property according to the terms in the will. But Programming Insider’s recent article, “Role of the Court When There is No Will For an Estate, asks “what would happen if someone dies without a will and, therefore, without appointing a personal representative?”

This is known as dying “intestate.” When it happens, the probate court must decide who will act as the estate’s administrator or personal representative. The judge’s decision will be based on state law, which will say how to prioritize potential fiduciaries in an administrator’s appointment. Every state has a prioritized list of preferred executors, and some states offer detailed guidance, like Oklahoma, which has a prioritized list. If more than one person is equally entitled to be appointed, a court has the option to appoint one or more executors.

The probate court has the final decision as to who will serve as the estate’s administrator or personal representative, even including a person who is named as executor in a will or is entitled to be chosen as a valid executor. The court will award authority to an administrator and will issue letters of administration or letters of testamentary. This authorizes the person to serve as an estate’s personal representative. Some people who might otherwise be entitled to serve as an executor may be disqualified based on state law. Here are some of the factors that a judge may consider when disqualifying a potential executor:

  • An executor must be an adult, who is at least 18 years old. However, some states require the minimum age of 21.
  • Criminal History. Some states don’t permit someone who’s been convicted of a serious crime to serve as the fiduciary representative of a decedent’s estate. Other states only require a potential executor to notify the court of any felony convictions.
  • Residency. This may be a factor in a person’s ability to serve as a personal representative. Some states let nonresidents serve in some circumstances. Some let nonresidents serve, if it’s a close relative. Finally, some other states require a nonresident executor to post a bond or use an agent within the state to process services and the court’s communication.
  • Business Relationship. There may be state laws as to who may be an executor if the decedent was an active member of a partnership; and
  • It also may be difficult for a noncitizen to serve as an estate’s personal representative.

Generally, probate judges have a lot of latitude and discretion on this selection.

Reference: Programming Insider (Nov. 9, 2020) “Role of the Court When There is No Will For an Estate