Executor

How Does a Probate Proceeding Work?

A Will, also known as Last Will and Testament, is a legal document that is used in probate court.  It’s used when a person dies with assets that are in their name alone without a surviving joint owner or beneficiary designated, says the Record Online in the article “Anatomy of a probate proceeding.”

So, how does a probate proceeding work?

How does a probate proceeding work
Probate has been referred to as the law suit you file against yourself after you pass away.

Probate is a judicial or court proceeding, where the probate court has jurisdiction over the assets of the person who has died. The court oversees the personal representative’s payment of debts, taxes and probate fees, in addition to supervising distribution of assets to the person’s beneficiaries. The personal representative of the will has to manage the probate assets and then report to the court.

Without a will, things can get messy. A similar court proceeding takes place, but it is known as intestate succession, and the assets are distributed according to state law.

To start the probate proceeding, the personal representative completes and submits a Petition for Administration with the probate court. Most personal representatives hire an estate planning attorney to help with this. The attorney knows the process, which keeps things moving along.

The probate petition lists the beneficiaries named in the will, plus certain relatives who must, by law, receive legal notice in the mail. Let’s say that someone disinherits a child in their will. That child receives notice and learns they have been disinherited. Beneficiaries and relatives alike must return paperwork to the court stating that they either consent or object to the provisions of the will.

A disinherited child has the right to file objections with the court, and then begin a battle for inheritance that is known as a will contest. This can become protracted and expensive, drawing out the probate process for years. A will contest places all of the assets in the will in limbo. They cannot be distributed unless the court says they can, which may not occur until the will contest is completed.

In addition to the expense and time that probate takes, while the process is going on, assets are frozen. Only when the court gives the all clear does the judge issue what are called Letters of Administration, or “Letters Testamentary,” which allows the executor to start the process of distributing funds. They must open an estate account, apply for a taxpayer ID for the account, collect the assets and ultimately, distribute them, as directed in the will to the beneficiaries.

Now that you know a little about how a probate proceeding works you’re probably asking whether a will contest, or probate be avoided? Avoiding probate, or having selected assets taken out of the estate, is one reason that people use trusts as part of their estate plan. Assets can also be placed in joint ownership, and beneficiaries can be added to accounts, so that the asset goes directly to the beneficiary.

By working closely with an estate planning attorney, you’ll have the opportunity to prepare an estate plan that addresses how you want assets to be distributed, which assets may be placed outside of your estate for an easier transfer to beneficiaries and what you can do to avoid a will contest, if there is a disinheritance situation looming.

Reference: Record Online (August 24, 2019) “Anatomy of a probate proceeding”

What Happens to Credit Card Debts After You Die?

Can you imagine what people would do, if they knew that credit card debt ended when they passed away? Run up enormous balances, pay for grandchildren’s college costs and buy luxury cars, even if they couldn’t drive! However, that’s not how it works, says U.S. News & World Report in the article that asks “What Happens to Credit Card Debt When You Die?” 

What Happens to Credit Card Debt When You Die?
A common misconception is that your debts are wiped out when you die.

The personal representative of your estate, the person you name in your last will and testament, is in charge of distributing your assets and paying off your debts. If your credit card debt is so big that it depletes all of your assets, your heirs may be left with little or no inheritance.

If you’re concerned about loved ones being left holding the credit card bag, here are a few things you’ll need to know. (Note that some of these steps require the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.)

Who pays for those credit card debts after you die? Relatives don’t usually have to pay for the debts directly, unless they are entwined in your finances. Some examples:

  • Co-signer for a credit card or a loan
  • Jointly own property or a business
  • Lives in a community property state (Alaska, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin)
  • Are required by state law to pay a debt, such as health care costs, or to resolve the estate.

A spouse who has a joint credit card account must continue to make on-time payments. A surviving spouse does not need the shock of learning that their spouse was carrying a massive credit card debt, since they are liable for the payments. A kinder approach would be to clear up the debt.

How do debts get paid? The probate process addresses debts, unless you have a living trust or make other arrangements. The probate court will determine the state of your financial affairs, and the personal representative named in your will (or if you die without a valid will, the administrator named by the court), will be responsible for clearing up your estate.

An unmarried person who dies with debt and no assets, is usually a loss for the credit card company, if there’s no source of assets.

If you have assets and they are left unprotected, they may be attached by the creditor. For instance, if there is a life insurance policy, proceeds will go to beneficiaries, before debts are repaid. However, with most other types of assets, the bills get paid first, and then the beneficiaries can be awarded their inheritance.

How can you protect loved ones? A good estate plan that prepares for this situation is the best strategy. Having assets placed in trusts protects them from probate. A trust also allows beneficiaries to save time and money that might otherwise be devoted to the probate process. It also puts them in a better position, if the personal representative needs to negotiate with the credit card company.

Talk candidly with your estate planning attorney and your loved ones about your debts, so that a plan can be put into place to protect everyone.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (August 19, 2019) “What Happens to Credit Card Debt When You Die?”

Will the State Decide Who Gets Your Assets?

It’s something that everyone needs, but often gets overlooked. Estate planning makes some people downright uncomfortable. There’s no law that says you must have an estate plan—just laws that will determine how your property is distributed and who will raise your children if you don’t have a will.  So, will the state decide who gets your assets?

Will the state decide who gets your assets?
If you don’t have a will when you pass away, state laws will determine who gets your assets.

If you don’t at least have a last will and testament, state statutes will decide who gets your assets after you pass away.  Thats one of the biggest reasons planning is important, says WMUR 9 in a recent article “Money Matters: Estate planning,” if you want to be the one making those decisions.

An estate plan can be simple if you only own a few assets, or complicated if you have significant assets, more than one home or multiple investments. Some strategies are easier to implement, like a last will and testament. Others can be more complex, like trusts. Whatever your needs, an estate planning attorney will be able to give you the guidance that your unique situation requires. Your estate planning attorney may work with your financial advisor and accountant to be sure that your financial and legal plans work together to benefit you and your family.

The first step for any estate plan is to review your family finances, dynamics and assets.

  • Who are your family members?
  • How do you want to help them?
  • What do they need?
  • What is your tax picture like?
  • How old are you, and how good is your health?
  • Do you have minor children?  If so, who will care for them?

These are just a few of the things an estate planning attorney will discuss with you. Once you are clear on your situation, you’ll discuss overall goals and objectives. The attorney will be able to outline your options, whether you are concerned with passing wealth to the next generation, avoiding family disputes, preparing for a disability or transferring ownership of a business.

A last will and testament will provide clear, legal direction as to how your assets should be distributed and who will care for your minor children.

A trust is used to address more complex planning concerns. A trust is a legal entity that holds assets to be used for the benefit of one or more individuals. It is overseen by a trustee or trustees, who can be individuals you name or professionals.

If you create trusts, it is important that assets be retitled so the trust owns the assets and not you personally. If the assets are not retitled, the trust will not achieve your goals.

Some property typically has its own beneficiary designations, like IRAs, retirement accounts and life insurance. These assets pass directly to heirs according to the designation, but only if you make the designations on the appropriate forms.

Once you’re done with your estate plan, make a note on your calendar. Estate plans and beneficiary designations need to be reviewed every three to five years. Lives change, laws change and your estate plan needs to keep pace.

Don’t be left asking yourself whether the state will decide who gets your assets.  Take charge and work with an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure you are the one deciding who gets your assets and who will raise your children.

Reference: WMUR 9 (Aug. 1, 2019) “Money Matters: Estate planning”

Why Would I Need to Update My Will?

OK, great!! You’ve created your will! Now you can it stow away and check off a very important item on your to-do list. Well, that’s mostly correct.  You’ll still need to update your will from time-to-time.

Update your will
Your will should be reviewed every 3 to 5 years and updated as your life changes.

Thrive Global’s recent article, “7 Reasons Why You Need to Review your Will Right Now,” says it’s extremely important that you regularly update your will to avoid any potential confusion and extra stress for your family at a very emotional time. As circumstances change and major life events take place (like the birth of a child or grandchild, the purchase of a home, or retirement, to name just a few), you need to update your will reflect changes in your life. As time passes and your situation changes, your will may become outdated, obsolete or even create confusion when the time comes for your will to be administered.

New people in your life. If you do have more children after you’ve created your will, review your estate plan to make certain that the wording accounts for your new children. You may also marry or re-marry, and grandchildren may be born that you want to include. Make a formal update to your estate plan to include the new people who play an important part in your life and to remove those with whom you lose touch.

A beneficiary or other person passes away. If a person you had designated as a beneficiary or personal representative of your will has died, you must make a change or it could result in confusion, when the time comes for your estate to be distributed. You need to update your will, if an individual named in your estate passes away before you.

Divorce. If your will was created prior to a divorce, and you want to remove your ex from your estate plan, talk to an estate planning attorney about the changes you need to make.

Your spouse dies. Wills should be written in such a way as to always have a backup plan in place. For example, if your husband or wife dies before you do, their portion of your estate might go to another family member or another named individual. If this happens, you may want to redistribute your assets to other people.

A child becomes an adult. When a child turns 18 and comes of age, she is no longer a dependent.  Therefore, you may need to update your will in any areas that provided additional funds for any dependents.

You experience a change in your financial situation. This is a great opportunity to update your will to protect your new financial situation.

You change your mind. It’s your will, and you can change your mind whenever you like.

Reference: Thrive Global (June 17, 2019) “7 Reasons Why You Need to Review your Will Right Now”

Which Debts Must Be Paid Before and After Probate?

Everything that has to be addressed in settling an estate becomes more complicated when there is no will and no estate planning has taken place before someone passes away. Debts are a particular area of concern for the estate and the personal representative. What has to be paid, and who gets paid first? These are explained in the article “Dealing with Debts and Mortgages in Probate” from The Balance.

probate
Knowing which debts have to be paid before and after probate is important.

Probate is the process of gaining court approval of the estate and paying off final bills and expenses, before property can be transferred to beneficiaries. The process of paying the debts of a deceased person can typically begin before probate officially starts.

Making a list of all of the decedent’s liabilities and looking for the following bills or statements is the best way to begin:

  • Mortgages (and reverse mortgages)
  • Home equity loans
  • Lines of credit
  • Condo fees
  • Property taxes
  • Federal and state income taxes
  • Car and boat loans
  • Personal loans
  • Loans against life insurance policies
  • Loans against retirement accounts
  • Credit card bills
  • Utility bills
  • Cell phone bills

Next, divide those items into two categories: those that will be ongoing during probate—consider them administrative expenses—and those that can be paid off after the probate estate is opened. These are considered “final bills.” Administrative bills include things like mortgages, condo fees, property taxes and utility bills. They must be kept current. Final bills include income taxes, personal loans, credit card bills, cell phone bills and loans against retirement accounts and/or life insurance policies.

The personal representative and heirs should not pay any bills out of their own pockets. The personal representative deals with all of these liabilities in the process of settling the estate.

For some of the liabilities, heirs may have a decision to make about whether to keep the assets with loans. If the beneficiary wants to keep the house or a car, they may, but they have to keep paying down the debt. Otherwise, these payments should be made only by the estate.

The personal representative decides which bills to pay and which assets should be liquidated to pay final bills.

A far better plan for your beneficiaries, is to create a comprehensive estate plan that includes a will that details how you want your assets distributed and addresses what your wishes are. If you want to leave a house to a loved one, your estate planning attorney will be able to explain how to make that happen, while minimizing taxes on your estate.

Reference: The Balance (March 21, 2019) “Dealing with Debts and Mortgages in Probate”

Here’s Why a Basic Form Doesn’t Work for Estate Planning

It’s true that an effective estate plan should be simple and straightforward, if your life is simple and straightforward. However, few of us have those kinds of lives. For many families, the discovery that a will that was created using a basic form is invalid leads to all kinds of expenses and problems, says The Daily Sentinel in an article that asks “What is wrong with using a form for my will or trust?”  

Basic Estate Planning Forms
Online estate planning forms often lead to more problems and expense that they’re worth.

If the cost of an estate plan is measured only by the cost of a document, a basic form will, of course, be the least expensive option — on the front end. On the surface, it seems simple enough. What would be wrong with using a basic estate planning form like a will or a power of attorney?

Actually, a lot is wrong. The same things that make a do-it-yourself, basic form seem to be attractive, are also the things that make it very dangerous for your family. A basic estate planning form does not take into account the special circumstances of your life. If your estate is worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars, that form could end up putting your estate in the wrong hands. That’s not what you had intended.

Another issue: any form that is valid in all 50 states is probably not going to serve your purposes. If it works in all 50 states (and that’s highly unlikely), then it is extremely general, so much so that it won’t reflect your personal situation. It’s a great sales strategy, but it’s not good for an estate plan.

If you take into consideration the amount of money to be spent on the back end after you’ve passed, that $100 will becomes a lot more expensive than what you would have invested in having a proper estate plan created by an estate planning attorney.

What you can’t put into dollars and cents, is the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your estate plan, including a will, power of attorney, and health care power of attorney, has been properly prepared, that your assets will go to the individuals or charities that you want them to go to, and that your family is protected from the stress, cost and struggle that can result when wills are deemed invalid.

Here’s one of many examples of how the basic, inexpensive estate planning form created chaos for one family. After the father died, the will was unclear, because it was not prepared by a professional. The father had properly filled in the blanks but used language that one of his beneficiaries felt left him the right to significant assets. The family became embroiled in expensive litigation, and became divided. The litigation has ended, but the family is still fractured. This couldn’t have been what their father had intended.

Other issues that are created when basic estate planning forms are used: naming the proper executor, guardians and conservators, caring for companion animals, dealing with blended families, addressing Payable-on-Death (POD) accounts and end-of-life instructions, to name just a few.

Avoid the “repair” costs and meet with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state to create an estate plan that will suit your needs.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (May 25, 2019) “What is wrong with using a form for my will or trust?”

Why Do I Need an Executor?

What would happen if someone you were close to, asked you to be the Executor of their estate plan? Would you be honored, or would you be uncomfortable with the responsibility? What do you need to do, when do you need to handle these tasks and how much time will it take?

executor of an estate plan
The executor of your estate will work with an attorney to settle your debts and distribute your assets.

These are the questions often asked about the role of an Executor, as reported in The Huntsville Item in the article “Role of an executor.”

A person having a will prepared is called the “Testator” if male and a “Testatrix” if female. The person they appoint to take care of distributing their assets and carrying out the instructions in their will is called the “Executor” if male and the “Executrix” if female. That person also pays the estate’s debts and taxes. Note that the debts and taxes are not paid from the Executor’s personal accounts, but from the proceeds of the estate.

The Executor of an estate plan has several responsibilities and powers. Therefore, it’s important to choose an individual who is organized, good with finances and knows how to get things done. An Executor could be a person or an institution, like a bank. Here are some things to consider when selecting an Executor for your estate plan:

  • Are they good with handling their own personal business?
  • Do they have some familiarity with your business, finances and property?
  • Are they willing and able to act as your Executor?
  • Do they have the time to devote to serving as Executor?
  • Can they work with your estate planning attorney and your accountant?
  • If you own a business, will they be able to keep it going during a transition period?

There should always be a “Plan B” and perhaps even a “Plan C,” if the first person you wish either cannot or will not serve as Executor of your estate plan. If you do not have a Plan “B” or “C,” the court may name an Executor for you. That could be a person you don’t know, who does not know you, your family or your business.

The Executor’s tasks vary, depending upon the laws of the state. However, in general, these are the Executor’s tasks. Note that an estate planning attorney usually assists with this process.

  • The will is probated, which requires filing a petition with the probate court in the decedent’s jurisdiction.
  • The court issues Letters of Administration to the individual designated in the will to serve as the Executor of the estate.
  • A general notice is given to unsecured creditors giving them a limited amount of time to file a claim with the estate.
  • Notice is given to each secured creditor, by certified or registered mail.
  • Documents need to be gathered, including insurance policies, bank statements, income tax returns, car titles, leases, home deeds, home titles, mortgage paperwork, property tax bills, birth, death and marriage certificates and unpaid bills.
  • The post office, relatives, friends, employers, insurance agents, religious, fraternal, veterans’ organizations, unions, etc., all need to be notified.
  • The personal property of the estate needs to be collected, preserved and appraised.
  • The residence needs to be secured and maintained, including a review of insurance coverage.
  • An inventory of the estate’s assets needs to be prepared.
  • The Executor needs to apply for  an employee identification number (EIN) for the estate’s bank account.
  • Once the EIN number has been created, open a bank account on behalf of the estate and pay all valid debts from the estate account.
  • Determine any tax liability and prepare for a final tax return to be filed.
  • Distribute the assets and property of the estate, according to the directions in the will.

Usually the estate planning attorney handles many of these tasks and works closely with the Executor of the estate. Some Executors are compensated by the estate for their time and effort, but that is not always the case. Talk with your estate planning attorney in advance, about any compensation for your Executor.

Reference: The Huntsville Item (April 13, 2019) “Role of an executor”

What If My Beneficiary Isn’t Ready to Handle an Inheritance?

A recent Kiplinger article asks: “Is Your Beneficiary Ready to Receive Money?” In fact, not everyone will be mentally or emotionally prepared for the money you wish to leave them. Here are some things estate planning attorney’s suggest you consider:

inheritance
Even the most responsible young adults aren’t likely ready to handle an inheritance.

The Beneficiary’s Age. Children under 18 years old cannot sign legal contracts. Without some planning, the court will take custody of the funds on the child’s behalf. This could occur via custody accounts, protective orders or conservatorships. If this happens, there’s little control over how the money will be used. The conservatorship will usually end and the funds be paid to the child, when they become an adult. Giving significant financial resources to a young adult who’s not ready for the responsibility, often ends in disaster. Work with an estate planning attorney to find a solution to avoid this result.

The Beneficiary’s Lifestyle. There are many other circumstances for which you need to consider and plan. These include the following:

  • A beneficiary with a substance abuse or gambling problem;
  • A beneficiary and her inheritance winds up in an abusive relationship;
  • A beneficiary is sued;
  • A beneficiary is going through a divorce;
  • A beneficiary has a disability; and
  • A beneficiary who’s unable to manage assets.

All of these issues can be addressed, with the aid of an estate planning attorney. A testamentary trust can be created to make certain that minors (and adults who just may not be ready) don’t get money too soon, while also making sure they have funds available to help with school, health care and life expenses.

Who Will Manage the Trust? Every trust must have a trustee. Find a person who is willing to do the work. You can also engage a professional trust company for larger trusts. The trustee will distribute funds, only in the ways you’ve instructed. Conditions can include getting an education, or using the money for a home or for substance abuse rehab.

Estate Plan Review. Review your estate plan after major life events or every few years. Talk to a qualified estate planning attorney to make the process easier and to be certain that your money goes to the right people at the right time.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 1, 2019) “Is Your Beneficiary Ready to Receive Money?”

When Should I Review My Estate Plan?

As life changes, you need to periodically review your estate-planning documents and discuss your situation with your estate planning attorney.

WMUR’s recent article, “Money Matters: Reviewing your estate plan,” says a common question is “When should I review my documents?”

Estate Plan Review
You should review your estate plan each time a major life event occurs or every 5 years, whichever comes first.

Every few years is the quick answer, but a change in your life may also necessitate a review. Major life events can be related to a marriage, divorce, or death in the family; a substantial change in estate size; a move to another state and/or acquisition of property in another state; the death of an executor, trustee or guardian; the birth or adoption of children or grandchildren; retirement; and a significant change in health, to name just a handful.

When you conduct your review, consider these questions:

  • Does anyone in your family have special needs?
  • Do you have any children from a previous marriage?
  • Is your choice of executor, guardian, or trustee still okay?
  • Do you have a valid living will, durable power of attorney for health care, or a do-not-resuscitate to manage your health care, if you’re not able to do so?
  • Do you need to plan for Medicaid?
  • Are your beneficiary designations up to date on your retirement plans, annuities, payable-on-death bank accounts and life insurance?
  • Do you have charitable intentions and if so, are they mentioned in your documents?
  • Do you own sufficient life insurance?

In addition, review your digital presence and take the necessary efforts to protect your online information, after your death or if you’re no longer able to act.

It may take a little time, effort, and money to review your documents, but doing so helps ensure your intentions are properly executed. Your planning will help to protect your family during a difficult time.

Reference: WMUR (January 24, 2019) “Money Matters: Reviewing your estate plan”

As a New Parent, Have You Updated (or Created) Your Estate Plan?

You just had a baby. As a new parent you’re sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, and frazzled. Having a child dramatically changes one’s legacy and makes having an estate plan all the more necessary, says ThinkAdvisor’s recent article, “5 Legacy Planning Basics for New Parents.”

If you have a baby, estate planning is a must
After you have a baby, putting an estate plan in place is one of the most important and effective things you can do to protect your child.

Take time to talk through two high-priority items. Create a staggered checklist—starting with today—and set attainable dates to complete the rest of the tasks. Here are five things to put on that list:

  1. Will. This gives the probate court your instructions on who will care for your children, if something happens to both you and your spouse. A will also should name a guardian to be responsible for the children. Parents also should think about how they want to share their personal belongings and financial assets. Without a will, the state decides what goes to whom. Lastly, a will must name an executor.
  2. Beneficiaries. Review your beneficiary designations when you create your will, because you don’t want your will and designations (on life insurance policies and investments) telling two different stories. If there’s an issue, the beneficiary designation overrides the will. All accounts with a beneficiary listed automatically avoid probate court.
  3. Trust. Created by an experienced estate planning attorney, a trust has some excellent benefits, particularly if you have young children. Everything in a trust is shielded from probate court, including property. This avoids court fees and hassle. A trust also provides some flexibility and customization to your plan. You can instruct that your children get a sum of money at 18, 25 or 30, and you can say that the money is for school, among other conditions. The trustee will distribute funds, according to your instructions.
  4. Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy. These are two separate documents, but they’re both used in the event of incapacitation. Their power of attorney and health care proxy designees can make important financial and medical decisions, when you’re incapable of doing so.
  5. Life Insurance. Most people don’t think about purchasing life insurance, until they have children. Therefore, if you haven’t thought about it, you’re not alone. If you are among the few who bought a policy pre-child, consider increasing the amount so your child is covered, if something should happen.

Reference: ThinkAdvisor (March 7, 2019) “5 Legacy Planning Basics for New Parents”

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