Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Who Inherited from the Painter Bob Ross?

Like many painters before him, Bob Ross’s image only took hold after his untimely death. He’s now a pop culture icon, and is featured as bobbleheads, Chia pets and has his own cereal.

However, there’s a reason why we see so much more of the gentle painter than ever before. That’s because of a legal battle for ownership of Ross’s name. That was the only item of value in his estate, which is rare for celebrities of his caliber.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Here’s Who Inherited Bob Ross’ Estate, And Where They Are Now” reports about what happened to his estate, who controls it and where they are today.

The Daily Beast wrote that Ross is “a smash hit on social media, where he feels more like a Gen-Z influencer than a once semi-obscure PBS celebrity who rose to fame in the 1980s on the back of his bouffant hairdo, hypnotic singsong baritone and a timeless message about the beauty of the world around us.”

However, he wouldn’t have become a household name, if not for Bob Ross Inc. The battle began when the artist met Bill Alexander, a celebrity painter who had a show on PBS, in 1978. Alexander gave him a job as a traveling art instructor. Ross met Annette and Walt Kowalski at a class, who recently lost their son, and who wanted to learn how to paint.

The Kowalskis convinced him to come to Washington, D.C. to teach. They eventually made a deal: they’d give him a stipend and room and board, if he’d teach more classes that they’d arrange in the area. PBS then asked Ross to do a show like Alexander’s, and Dennis Kapp, the owner and CEO of the art-supply company Martin F. Weber, wanted to develop a line of supplies with him too. Soon, The Joy of Painting was born. However, to look after the supply company with Kapp, Ross and his wife Jane, and Annette and Walt signed documents to create Bob Ross Inc., with all four of them being equal partners.

At the end of the 1980s, all four partners were making $85,000, and in the early ’90s, Ross made around $120,000. However, he wanted to branch out, and when he did, the happy days were at an end. When Ross’s health started to decline, Walt “declared war” and sent Ross documents saying the Kowalskis owned everything, but they’d agreed that Ross and his heirs would get 1% of the revenues for the next decade. Ross never signed anything, and in fact, he quickly changed his last will to make it harder for the Kowalskis to steal his name and likeness.

Those changes to his last will included “a clause specifically addressing his name, likeness and the rest of his intellectual property. All of those rights were to go to Steve and one of Bob’s half-brothers.” His third wife replaced Annette as the administrator of his estate. In July 1995, the painter lost his battle to cancer.

When Ross died, Bob Ross Inc. was totally owned by the Kowalskis. However, they wanted it all, including his name and likeness. Then what one of Ross’s good friends calls “Grand Theft Bob” began.

Steve did not know about the final amendment until 20 years later when his uncle Jimmie, the estate’s executor, informed him. When Ross died, he was worth $1.3 million. Half of that was his third part of Bob Ross Inc., and there was also cash, stocks and property to divide.

The Kowalskis went after Ross’s art supplies and artwork and made “claims against the estate for business and personal reimbursements,” charging Ross’s widow with hefty lawsuits and suing PBS and the children’s show Ross guest-starred on. In 1997, Jimmie, Ross’s brother, settled the lawsuit, practically handing over everything to the Kowalskis. In 2012, their daughter Joan took over, opening up the realm of merchandising for the company.

However, there was still a “grey zone” in how Bob Ross Inc. could truly own Ross’s name and likeness. After learning about that amendment in Ross’s will, Steve went after Bob Ross Inc. but didn’t win his case against Bob Ross Inc.

Joan did strike a deal with him: if he surrendered his rights to Ross’s name and likeness, he could print his name on anything he wanted.

The good news was that Steve was able to return as an art instructor, and thanks to Bob Ross Inc., Ross was bigger than ever. That helped class sizes, and students came in masses to learn the iconic style. Steve gets to run his father’s estate, and fans welcomed him back to the painting world. Despite the fact that the Kowalskis got everything, they were the only ones who could have kept Ross’s name from disappearing.

As for all of Ross’s paintings the Kowalskis seized, they ended up in an unprotected warehouse until the Smithsonian took a collection of them.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (June 28, 2021) “Here’s Who Inherited Bob Ross’ Estate, And Where They Are Now”

Have You Considered Estate Planning for Fido?

In Montana, a pet is “any domesticated animal normally maintained in or near the household of its owner.” In Kansas, the statutes define an “animal” as “any live dog, cat, rabbit, rodent, nonhuman primate, bird or other warm blooded vertebrate or any fish, snake, or other cold-blooded vertebrate.”

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning For Pets” explains that a pet is tangible personal property—just like guns, cars, or jewelry. When a pet owner passes away, pets pass to beneficiaries by provisions in an owner’s will, by directives in an owner’s trust document, or by a priority list of heirs contained in the state probate laws, if an owner does not have a will or a trust.

Pet owners should select a willing care giver and make a care plan for their pet that will lower the pet’s stress in the first days after you are gone. Writing down your wishes can help your heirs avoid potential problems, if there is a need to cover expenses for food, medical requirements and transportation of the pet to the beneficiary.

For example, in Montana, an honorary trust for pets is valid for only 21 years, no matter if a pet owner writes a longer term in the trust document. As a result, the trust terminates the earlier of 21 years or when the pet dies. Unless indicated in the trust document, the trustee may not use any portion of the principal or income from the trust for any other use than for the pet’s care.

Pet owners have options, when funding a pet trust. Funds could come from a payable on death (POD) designation on financial accounts to the pet trust. Another option is a transfer on death (TOD) registration with the pet trust as beneficiary for stocks, bonds, mutual funds and annuities. The pet owner could also direct the trustee in the pet trust document to sell assets, like a vehicle, house, or  boat, and place those funds in the trust for the care of the pet.

Life insurance is perhaps another option for funding for a pet’s care. States typically do not consider a pet to be a “person,” so Puffball cannot be a beneficiary of a life insurance policy. A pet owner can fund a living or testamentary pet trust, by naming the trustee of the trust as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. As an alternative, a pet owner may have a certain percentage of an existing policy payable to the pet trust.

Pet owners should talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the best way of naming the trustee of a pet trust as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (June 14, 2021) “Estate Planning For Pets”

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”

What are the Most Popular Estate Planning Scams?

The Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Beware of These Common Estate Planning Scams” advises you to avoid these common estate planning scams.

  1. Cold Calls Offering to Prepare Estate Plans. Scammers call and email purporting to be long lost relatives who’ve had their wallets stolen and are stranded in a foreign country. Seniors fall prey to this and will pay for estate planning documents. Any cold call from someone asking that money be wired to a bank account, in exchange for estate planning documents should be approached with great skepticism.
  2. Paying for Estate Planning Templates. For a one-time fee, some scammers will offer estate planning documents that may be downloaded and modified by an individual. While this may look like a great deal, avoid using these pro forma templates to draft individual estate plans. Such templates are rarely tailored to meet state-specific requirements and often fail to incorporate contingencies that are necessary for a comprehensive and complete estate plan. Instead, work with an experienced estate planning attorney.
  3. Not Requiring an Estate Plan. Although less of a scheme, somepeople think they do not need an estate plan. However, proper estate planning entails deciding who can make health care and financial decisions during life, in the event of incapacity. These documents help to minimize the need for family members to petition the Probate Court in certain situations.
  4. Paying High Legal Fees. Like many things in life, with an estate plan, you may get what you pay for. Paying money upfront to have your intentions memorialized in writing can minimize the expense. Heirs should be on guard if an attorney hired to administer an estate is charging exorbitant fees for what looks to be a well-prepared estate plan. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion in these situations.
  5. Signing Estate Planning Documents You Don’t Understand. Estate planning documents are designed to prepare for potential incapacity and for death. It is critical that your estate planning documents represent your intentions. However, if you don’t read them or don’t understand what you’ve read, you will have no idea if your goals are accomplished. Make certain that you understand what you’re signing. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to explain these documents to you clearly and will make sure that you understand each of them before you sign.

You can avoid these common scams, by establishing a relationship with an experienced attorney you trust.

Reference: The Wealth Advisor (June 7, 2021) “Beware of These Common Estate Planning Scams”

What Taxes are Due When Children Inherit Home?

The first issue to address is whether the will addresses how inheritance taxes will be paid, says nj.com recent article entitled “My adult kids inherited a home. What taxes are due?” The mortgage may say the estate itself will pay it before anything is paid out to beneficiaries, or it may not mention anything.

Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are the only states that impose an inheritance tax, which is a tax on what you receive as the beneficiary of an estate.

Maryland is the one state that has both an inheritance tax and an estate tax. Its inheritance tax is up to 10%. As to the others, Nebraska’s inheritance tax can be as high as 18%. Kentucky and New Jersey both taxes inheritances at up to 16%. Iowa’s inheritance tax is up to 15%, as is Pennsylvania’s.

Spouses and certain other heirs are usually excluded by the state from paying inheritance taxes.

A child may have an issue if there’s not enough liquidity in the estate, separate from the house to pay the taxes. If the beneficiaries plan to keep the home, they’d need to take an additional mortgage.  They’d also need to find enough cash to pay the inheritance taxes due.

In the example above, if the deed is transferred to a niece and nephew, the executor should hire a licensed real estate appraiser and pay for a date of death appraisal on the property. That appraisal will determine how much capital gains was exempted at the sister’s passing. It will also establish a new basis for capital gains purposes for the niece and nephew.

If the heirs simply do nothing and move into the house, the inheritance tax will come due. In New Jersey, it’s due eight months from the date of death.

If the inheritance tax isn’t paid, liability for the unpaid tax will attach to the executor personally, often in the form of a certificate of debt attached to some asset belonging to the executor, like his or her house.

To make sure this is handled correctly, consider speaking to an experienced estate planning attorney, who can walk you through the process.

Reference: nj.com (June 14, 2021) “My adult kids inherited a home. What taxes are due?”

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?”

Tell Me again Why Estate Planning Is So Important

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”

How to Simplify Estate Planning

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

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

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

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

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

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

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