Personal Representative

How Do You Handle Probate?

While you are living, you have the right to give anyone any property of your choosing. If you give your power to gift your property to another person, typically through a Power of Attorney, then that person is your agent and may also give away your property, according to an article “Explaining the basic aspects probate” from The News-Enterprise. When you die, the Power of Attorney you gave to an agent ends, and they are no longer in control of your estate. Your “estate” is not a big fancy house, but a legal term used to define the total of everything you own.

What's involved in the probate process in Florida
The basic steps involved in the probate process are similar in most states.

Property that you owned while living, unless it was owned jointly with another person, or had a beneficiary designation giving the property to another person upon your death, is distributed through a court order during the probate process. However, the court order requires a series of steps.

First, you need to have created a will while you were living. Like most legal documents, a will is valid when it is properly signed. However, it can’t be used until a probate case is opened at the local District Court. If the Court deems the will to be valid, the probate proceeding is called “testate” and the executor named in the will may go forward with settling the estate (paying legitimate debts, taxes and expenses), before distributing assets upon court permission.

If you did not have a will, or if the will was not executed correctly and is deemed invalid by the court, the probate is called “intestate” and the court appoints an administrator to follow the state’s laws concerning how property is to be distributed. You may not agree with how the state law directs property distribution. Your spouse or your family may not like it either, but the law itself decides who gets what.

After opening a probate case, the court will appoint a fiduciary (executor or personal representative) and may have a legal notice published in the local newspaper, so any creditors can file a claim against the estate.

The executor or personal representative will create a list of all the property and the claims submitted by any creditors. It is their job to ensure that claims are valid and have been submitted within the correct timeframe. They will also be in charge of cleaning out your home, securing your home and other possessions, then selling the house and distributing your personal furnishings.

Depending on the size of the estate, the executor or personal representative’s job may be time consuming and complex. If you left good documentation and lists of assets, a clean file system or, best of all, an estate binder with all your documents and information in one place, it can alleviate a lot of stress for your executor. Estate fiduciaries who are left with little information or a disorganized mess must undertake an expensive and burdensome scavenger hunt.

The executor or personal representative is entitled to a fiduciary fee for their work, which is usually a percentage of the estate.

Probate ends when all of the property has been gathered, creditors have been paid and beneficiaries have received their distributions.

With a properly prepared estate plan, your property will be distributed according to your wishes, versus hoping the state’s laws will serve your family. You can also use the estate planning process to create the necessary documents to protect you during life, including a Power of Attorney, Advance Medical Directive and Healthcare proxy.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 2, 2021) “Explaining the basic aspects probate”

How do I Settle an Estate if I’m Named Executor?

If you are the named executor of an estate, you should learn some of the basics of the job before any work will need to be completed. An executor is the individual named to distribute a decedent’s property that passes under his or her will. The executor also arranges for the payment of debts and expenses.

named executor
Working with an experienced probate attorney makes the job of a named executor much easier

WMUR’s recent article entitled “Settling an estate” explains that if the named executor is not willing or able to do the job, there’s usually an alternate executor appointed in the will. If there’s no alternate, the court will designate an executor for the estate.

Depending on the estate, it can be a consuming and stressful task to address all of the issues. Sometimes, a decedent will leave a letter of instruction which can make the process easier. This letter may address things like the decedent’s important documents, contact info, a list of creditors, login information for important web sites and final burial wishes.

One of the key documents is a will. The executor must get a hold of a copy and review it. You can work with an estate planning attorney to determine the type of probate (a process that begins with getting a court to approve the validity of the will) is needed.

The named executor should conduct an inventory of the decedent’s assets, some of which may need to be appraised. If the decedent had a safe deposit box, the contents must be secured. Once the inventory of assets has been compiled, assets then may be sold or distributed according to the will.

Asset protection is critical and may mean changing the locks on property. The named executor may be required to pay mortgages, utility bills and maintenance costs on any property. Any brokerage accounts will need to be re-titled. The final expenses also need to be paid.

The funeral home or coroner will provide death certificates that will be needed in the probate process, and for filing life insurance claims.

If the decedent was collecting benefits, such as Social Security, the named executor will need to notify the agency of the decedent’s death so they can stop benefits. Any checks received after death must be returned. The executor will file a final federal and state tax return for the decedent, if necessary. There also may be an estate and gift tax return to be filed.

There’s a lot for a named executor to do. It can be made easier with the help an estate planning attorney.

Reference: WMUR (Dec. 23, 2020) “Settling an estate”

What’s Involved in the Probate Process in Florida?

SWAAY’s recent article entitled “What involved in the Probate Process in Florida?” says that while every state has its own laws, the probate process can be fairly similar. Here are the basic steps in the probate process:

What's involved in the probate process in Florida
The basic steps involved in the probate process are similar in most states.

The family consults with an experienced probate attorney. Those mentioned in the decedent’s will should meet with a probate lawyer. During the meeting, all relevant documentation like the list of debts, life insurance policies, financial statements, real estate title deeds, and the will should be available.

Filing the petition. The process would be in initiated by the executor or personal representative named in the will. He or she is in charge of distributing the estate’s assets. If there’s no will, you can ask an estate planning attorney to petition a court to appoint an executor. When the court approves the personal representative, the Letters of Administration are issued as evidence of legal authority to act as the executor. The executor will pay state taxes, funeral costs, and creditor claims on behalf of the decedent. He or she will also notice creditors and beneficiaries, coordinate the asset distribution and then close the probate estate.

Noticing beneficiaries and creditors. The executor must notify all beneficiaries of trust estates, the surviving spouse and all parties that have the rights of inheritance. Creditors of the deceased will also want to be paid and will make a claim on the estate.

Obtaining the letters of administration (letters testamentary) obtained from the probate court. After the executor obtains the letter, he or she will open the estate account at a bank. Statements and assets that were in the deceased name will be liquidated and sold, if there’s a need. Proceeds obtained from the sale of property are kept in the estate account and are later distributed.

Settling all expenses, taxes, and estate debts. By law, the decedent’s debts must typically be settled prior to any distributions to the heirs. The executor will also prepare a final income tax return for the estate. Note that life insurance policies and retirement savings are distributed to heirs despite the debts owed, as they transfer by beneficiary designation outside of the will and probate.

Conducting an inventory of the estate. The executor will have conducted a final account of the remaining estate. This accounting will include the fees paid to the executor, probate expenses, cost of assets and the charges incurred when settling debts.

Distributing the assets. After the creditor claims have been settled, the executor will ask the court to transfer all assets to successors in compliance with state law or the provisions of the will. The court will issue an order to move the assets. If there’s no will, the state probate succession laws will decide who is entitled to receive a share of the property.

Finalizing the probate estate. The last step is for the executor to formally close the estate. The includes payment to creditors and distribution of assets, preparing a final distribution document and a closing affidavit that states that the assets were adequately distributed to all heirs.

Reference: SWAAY (Aug. 24, 2020) “What is the Probate Process in Florida?”

How Do the Children Divide Up Mom’s Tangible Property?

What should you do if you’ve been given the task to be in charge of dividing up a parent’s estate that includes assorted tangible items?

Minneapolis Tribune’s article entitled “A clever way to divvy up items after a parent’s death” says that some families do it, by taking turns selecting which items each will keep.

The article discusses how a family decided to divide things up their mom’s grand estate and how the method the family used to divvy up the tangible items could be one that other families with much smaller estates could use.

After their mom’s death at 93, the brother and sister co-executors created an inventory of 724 items in her estate that had monetary or sentimental value. These included things like furniture, artwork, oriental rugs, cutlery, china, a piano and a car. They didn’t include their mom’s jewelry, books or linens, or her silver, gold and collectible coins. The four siblings all agreed to sell the coins and to deal with the many books, linens, and jewelry more informally, after the more significant items had been distributed.

The family didn’t use the common way of disbursing tangible items of an estate, in which family members take turns choosing items. With over 700 items, that could take a while. They felt that system wouldn’t maximize the value received by the four children and seven grandchildren. Instead, their process for dividing the intangible items used the following steps:

  1. The inventory was given to all four siblings and asked each one to state the items that they were interested in. This divided the 724 items into three groups: (a) stuff in which no one had an interest; (b) stuff in which only one person had an interest; and (c) those in which two or more were interested. Things in which no one had an interest, were set aside to be sold or given away, and those who were the only siblings to want certain items got them.
  2. They then made lists of items in which more than one sibling expressed an interest. Each received a list of those items. They were not given information on ones in which they weren’t interested—one of two ways the system wasn’t transparent.
  3. Each person was then “given” 500 virtual poker chips that he or she could use to bid for contested items. However, prior to the bidding deadline, they could talk with one another about their intentions. The result was that many had bid for several similar items, like family pictures, bookcases and oriental rugs — when they really only wanted one from each category. Thus, they agreed among themselves who would receive each one, without wasting too many chips. This also avoided two siblings using a lot of tokens to bid for a particular item, and no one bidding on another similar one.
  4. After the bids were in, the co-executors announced the results, without revealing the bids, to avoid a silent auction where bidders can see what others are bidding and readjust their bids up to the deadline. This was the second part of the system that wasn’t transparent.
  5. Finally, when all the allocations were determined, the co-executors tabulated the monetary value of all the items and readjusted the estate monetary distributions to ensure that everyone came out at the same place financially. The most valuable items were a 1919 Steinway drawing room grand piano valued at $25,000; a 2005 Toyota Camry valued at $4,500; and some oriental rugs with a total value of $13,975. Those who got the big-ticket items had to pay their siblings something for them, with a total of $17,500 trading hands.

It was time-consuming and took several months, but the siblings thought that their system was very fair and the process, unlike what is done in some other family estates, relieved tensions and brought the siblings closer together.

Reference: Minneapolis Tribune (Feb. 25, 2020) “A clever way to divvy up items after a parent’s death”

 

 

How Do I Change My Will?

Many people have wills that were drafted years ago. Now they want to leave some specific items to someone who was not included when their original will was drafted. Making changes to a will doesn’t have to be complicated says nj.com’s recent article, “Does my dad need to pay money to get a new will?” However, making changes on your own can cause trouble for the executor if not done correctly.

How do I change my will?
Making simple changes to a will isn’t difficult as long as the correct procedure is followed.

Many times making changes to a will is as simple as creating a written list that disposes of tangible personal property, not otherwise identified and directly disposed of in the original will.

The list must either be in the testator’s handwriting or it can be typewritten, but it must be signed and dated by the testator. This list also must describe the item and the recipient clearly.

This list can be amended or revoked. It should be kept with the will or given to the executor, so he or she knows about it and can ensure it is followed.

It would not be in the interest of the executor and may be perceived as a breach of fiduciary duty to honor such a list and make such a distribution, if the beneficiaries named in the will object. No one wants to cause a fight over the items on the list, after the parent is gone.

Although this kind of change to your will can be done on your own, it would be much wiser to invest in having the items added to a revised will to protect your wishes. If some of the beneficiaries got into a quarrel over the items on the list, it could result in a family fight that a properly drafted and executed revision or amendment could easily prevent.

Reference: nj.com (October 14, 2019) “Does my dad need to pay money to get a new will?”

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?”

What Goes into an Estate Plan?

The thought of creating an estate plan can be intimidating, but this article from Brainerd Dispatch, “Navigating your estate plan,” wisely advises breaking down the process into smaller pieces, making it more manageable. By taking it step by step, it’s more likely that you’ll be comfortable getting started with the process.  The first step is understanding what goes into an estate plan.

What goes into an estate plan?
Deciding what goes into an estate plan that fits your life and accomplishes your goals should be done with the help of an estate planning attorney.

Start with Beneficiaries. This may be the easiest way to start. If you have retirement accounts, like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s or other retirement accounts, chances are you have already written down the name of the people you want to receive your assets after you pass away. The same goes for life insurance policies. The beneficiary designation tells who receives the assets on your death. You should also note that there are tax ramifications, if you don’t have a beneficiary. Your assets could become taxable five years after you die, without a named beneficiary.

Be aware that no matter what your will says, the name on your beneficiary designations on these accounts determines who gets those assets. You need to check on these from time-to-time to be sure the people you have named are still the people who you want to receive your accounts. You should review the designations every time you review your estate plan, which should be every three or four years.

You should also name a contingent beneficiary on all accounts that allow it.  The contingent beneficiary is the person who will receive the asset is the primary beneficiary is unable to receive it for any reason.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way. The will is a key ingredient that goes into an estate plan. It can be used to ensure that your family has the management assistance they need, and, if you have minor children, establish who will raise them is you’re unable to (in fact, a will is the only way you can name a guardian for your children.)

Not having a will leaves your family in a terrible position, where they will have to endure unnecessary expenses and added stress. Your assets will be distributed according to the laws of your state, and not according to your own wishes.

Directives for Difficult Times. Health care directives give your loved ones direction when a difficult situation occurs. If you become incapacitated, through an accident or serious illness, the health care directive tells your family members what kind of care you want—or do not want. You should also name a health care surrogate, so that a person can make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re unable to speak for yourself. Working with an estate planning attorney who is licensed in your state is is important for this item because different states have different laws concerning naming a healthcare surrogate and the decisions they can make.

In addition, you’ll need a financial power of attorney. This allows you to designate someone to step in and manage your finances in the case of incapacity. This is especially important if you are single, because otherwise a court may have to name someone to be your financial guardian.

What About Trusts? If you own a lot of assets or if your estate is complicated, a trust may be helpful. Trusts are legal entities that hold assets on behalf of your beneficiaries. There are many different types of trusts that are used to serve different purposes, from Special Needs Trusts that are designed to help families plan for an individual with special needs, to revocable trusts used to avoid probate and testamentary trusts, which are created only when you die. An estate planning attorney will know which trusts are appropriate for your individual situation.

Working with a qualified and experienced estate planning attorney will help you understand what goes into an estate plan that makes the most sense for you and accomplishes your goals.

Reference: Brainerd Dispatch (Aug. 11, 2019) “Navigating your estate plan”

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”

Scroll to Top