Probate

Am I Named in a Will? How Would I Know?

Imagine a scenario where three brothers’ biological father passed away a decade ago. The father wasn’t married to their mother, and, he had another family with three children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. The father never publicly acknowledged that the three boys were his children. They’ve now heard rumors that he left them something in his will—which may or may not exist. The father’s wife has also passed away.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “How can we find out if our father left us something in his will?” explains that a parent isn’t required to leave his or her adult children an inheritance.

If a person doesn’t leave a will when they die, the intestacy laws of the state in which he or she dies will dictate how the decedent’s property is divided.

For example, if you die without a will in Kansas, your assets will go to your closest relatives. If there were children but no spouse, the children inherit everything. If there is a spouse and children, the spouse inherits one-half of your intestate property, and your children inherit the other one-half of your property.

In Illinois, if you’re married and you pass away without a will, the portion given to your spouse is based upon whether you have living descendants, such as children and grandchildren.

In New Jersey, if the decedent is survived by a spouse and children—this includes any children who are not children of the surviving spouse—the surviving spouse gets the first 25% of the intestate estate, but not less than $50,000 nor more than $200,000, plus one-half of the balance of the intestate estate. In that state, the descendants of the decedent would receive the remainder.

Note that an intestate estate doesn’t include property that’s in the joint name of the decedent and another person with rights of survivorship or payable upon death to another beneficiary. In our problem above, the issue would be whether the three boys would’ve been entitled to a percentage of the property permitted under the state intestacy statute, or under a will if you could prove there was one.

However, the time for the three boys to make a claim against their father’s estate would have been at his death. A 10-year delay is a problem. It may prevent a recovery because there are time limitations for bringing legal actions. However, they may have other claims, and there may be reasons you are not too late.

Litigation is very fact-specific, and the rules are state-specific. The boys should talk to an estate litigation attorney, if they think there are enough assets to make at it worth their while.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 29, 2020) “How can we find out if our father left us something in his will?”

Who Can Witness a Will?

For a will to be binding, there are a number of requirements that must be met, including having a qualified person witness the will. While state laws on wills vary, most require you to be of legal adult age to make a will and have testamentary capacity (i.e., that you be “of sound mind”).

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Who Can and Cannot Witness a Will?” explains that you usually must have your will witnessed.

witness a will
Knowing who can (and can’t) witness a will is critically important

Witnesses to your will are significant in the event that someone disputes its validity later or if there is a will contest. If one of your heirs challenges the terms of your will, a witness may be asked by the probate court to attest that they watched you sign the will and that you appeared to be of sound mind when you did so. Witnesses provide you with another layer of validity to a will, and it makes it more difficult for someone to dispute its legality.

When drafting a will, it’s important to understand several requirements, including who can witness a will. Generally, but depending on applicable state law, anyone can witness a will, as long as they meet two requirements: (i) they are of legal adult age; and (ii) they have the mental capacity to sign the will. Therefore, the types of people who could act on your behalf include your friends, a neighbor, co-workers and any of your relatives.  Some states also require that witnesses are not receiving anything in the will.

If you’ve hired an experienced estate planning attorney to help you draft your will, he or she can also act as a witness, provided they’re not named as a beneficiary.

Witnesses don’t need to review the entire will document in order to sign it. They only need to be able to verify that the document exists, that you have signed it in their presence and that they have signed it in front of you.

When you sign the will, get both witnesses together at the same time. You’ll need to sign, initial and date the will in ink, then have your witnesses do the same. Some states require you to attach a self-proving affidavit or have the will notarized.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Dec. 28, 2020) “Who Can and Cannot Witness a Will?”

Do We Need Estate Planning?

Estate planning is not just about making a will, nor is it just for people who live in mansions. Estate planning is best described in the title of this article “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan” from Business Insider. Estate planning is a plan for the future, for you, your spouse and those you love.

There are a number of reasons for estate planning:

  • Avoiding paying more federal and state taxes than necessary
  • Ensuring that assets are distributed as you want
  • Naming the people you choose for your own care, if you become incapacitated; and/or
  • Naming the people you choose to care for your minor children, if something should happen to you and your spouse.

If that sounds like a lot to accomplish, you’re right. However, with the help of a trusted estate planning attorney, an estate plan can provide you with the peace of mind that comes with having all of the above.

If those decisions and designations are not made by you while you are alive and legally competent, the state law and the courts will determine who will get your assets, raise your children and how much your estate will pay in death taxes to the government. You can avoid that with an estate plan.

Here are the five key things about estate planning:

It’s more than a will. The estate plan includes creating Durable Powers of Attorney to appoint individuals who will make medical and/or financial decisions, if you are not able to do so. The estate plan also contains Medical Directives to communicate your wishes about what kind of care you do or do not want, if you are so sick you cannot do so for yourself. The estate plan is where you can create Trusts to control how property passes from one person or one generation to the next.

Estate planning saves time, money, and angst. If you have a surviving spouse, they are usually the ones who serve as your executor. However, if you do not and if you do not have an estate plan, the court names a public administrator to distribute assets according to state law. While this is happening, no one can access your assets. There’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of legal fees. With a will, you name an executor who will take care of and gain access to most, if not all, of your assets and administer them according to your instructions.

Estate planning includes being sure that investment and retirement accounts with a beneficiary designation have been completed. If you don’t name a beneficiary, the asset goes through the probate court. If you fail to update your beneficiary designations, your ex or a person from your past may end up with your biggest assets.

Estate planning is also tax planning. While federal taxes only impact the very wealthy right now, that is likely to change in the future. States also have estate taxes and inheritance taxes of their own, at considerably lower exemption levels than federal taxes. If you wish your heirs to receive more of your money than the government, tax planning should be part of your estate plan.

The estate plan is also used to protect minor children. No one expects to die prematurely, and no one expects that two spouses with young children will die. However, it does happen, and if there is no will in place, then the court makes all the decisions: who will raise your children, and where, how their upbringing will be financed, or, if there are no available family members, if the children should become wards of the state and enter the foster care system. That’s probably not what you want.

The estate plan includes the identification of the person(s) you want to raise your children, and who will be in charge of the assets left in trust for the children, like proceeds from a life insurance policy. This can be the same person, but often the financial and child-rearing roles are divided between two trustworthy people. Naming an alternate for each position is also a good idea, just in case the primary people cannot serve.

Estate planning, finally, also takes care of you while you are living, with a power of attorney and healthcare proxy. That way someone you know, and trust can step in, if you are unable to take care of your legal and financial affairs.

Once your estate plan is in place, remember that it is like your home: it needs to be updated every three or four years, or when there are big changes to tax law or in your life.

Reference: Business Insider (Jan. 14, 2021) “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan”

Do I Assume My Parents’ Timeshare when They Die?

Ridding yourself of a timeshare can be difficult. Frequently, heirs of a timeshare owner don’t want to take on the liability and the responsibility.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I leave a timeshare to the timeshare company in my will?” explains that as a general rule, unless it’s in an attempt to defraud creditors, a beneficiary may always renounce or disclaim a bequest made to him or her in a will.

However, if you write a provision in your will, it doesn’t mean that it’s legal, needs to be followed, or can be carried out.

As an example, a beneficiary designation on a bank account or certificate of deposit (CD) to your brother Dirk would take precedence over a specific bequest in your will that the same account or CD goes to your brother Chris. In that instant, the bank will pay the bank account or CD to your brother Dirk—no matter what your will says.

Likewise, with shares in a closely held business. If there is a contract between the shareholders dictating what happens to shares of the business if someone dies, that agreement will also override a provision in your will.

A timeshare is a contract. That means the terms of that contract control what happens. Your will doesn’t.

If the will doesn’t contradict the contract, like bequeathing the timeshare to a third-party who will continue to pay the contract obligations, both documents can co-exist.

A timeshare owner can’t avoid contractual obligations by just giving back the unit back to the corporation, unless that’s permitted in the contract.

The timeshare corporation isn’t required to take back a timeshare unit whether it is returned by the terms of the will or by the executor in administrating the estate, unless the signed timeshare agreement provides for this, or terms of the return are negotiated.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 24, 2020) “Can I leave a timeshare to the timeshare company in my will?”

Taking a Look at the Estate of Late Soccer Star Diego Maradona

Similar to soccer star Diego Maradona’s life, the inheritance process is likely to be a mess with his big family that includes eight children from six different partners as heirs to his assets, plus his intangible heritage.

Reuters’ recent article entitled “Image rights, fast cars and a ‘tank’: Maradona’s death triggers complex inheritance” explains that Maradona, who died recently at 60 from cardiac arrest, had four children in Argentina, one in Italy, and three in Cuba, when he went there for treatment to recover from his addictions, his lawyer Matías Morla said.

02 July 1982 – FIFA World Cup – Argentina v Brazil (photo by Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images)

“In the specific case of Maradona, he is divorced and has eight children, so the estate is divided by eight in an inheritance trial,” Buenos Aires-based soccer lawyer Martín Apolo told Reuters. “It will be a complex process.”

The probate process can last 90 days in a normal case. However, Apolo said it could be much longer with the prospect of “internal disputes” and opportunists seeking a payout from Maradona’s estate. The estate of the World Cup champion, who at the time of his death was coach of the Argentine club Gimnasia y Esgrima, includes properties, cars, investments and jewels that he was given throughout his career. He played and coached in Argentina, Spain, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Belarus and Mexico.

There is no established value of Diego Maradona’s fortune. Celebrity Net Worth estimates his net worth at the time of his death at $500,000 but said he had earned millions during his career from contracts with the different teams and sponsorship with brands, such as Coca-Cola.

Called “Dios” for his godlike skills on the soccer pitch and “Pelusa” for his prominent mane of hair. Maradona will be valuable for his image, even after death.

“The most important patrimony here could be the image rights, and also all his shirts,” said Apolo. “How much is the one he used in the World Cup final worth? How much could you pay at auction?”

The soccer star’s family has been through several legal battles in recent years, including a trial with his ex-partner Claudia Villafañe for tax evasion, procedural fraud and misappropriation of 458 objects from his past as a soccer player. However, Maradona’s family has asked for unity in the recent weeks before his death, after he underwent brain surgery to remove a blood clot, from which he was recovering when he died.

Reference: Reuters (Nov. 27, 2020) “Image rights, fast cars and a ‘tank’: Maradona’s death triggers complex inheritance”

What Do I Need to Know about Creating a Will?

Creating a will is a simple way to lay out the way in which you want your assets to be distributed among your beneficiaries after your death. This can be a good starting point for creating a comprehensive estate plan because you may need more than just a basic will. Creating a Will

KAKE’s recent article entitled “What Is a Simple Will and How Do You Make One?” explains that a last will and testament is a legal document that states what you want to happen to your property and “worldly goods” when you die. A simple will can be used to designate an executor for the will and a legal guardian for minor children and specify who (or which organizations) should inherit your assets when you die.

A will must be approved in the probate process when you pass away. After the probate court reviews the will to make sure it’s valid, your executor will take care of the collection and distribution of assets listed in the will. Your executor would also be responsible for paying any debts owed by your estate.

Creating a will can be a good starting point for estate planning. However, deciding if it should be simple or complex can depend on a number of factors, such as:

  • The size of your estate
  • The amount of estate tax you expect to owe
  • The type of assets and property you own
  • Whether you own a business
  • The number of beneficiaries you want to name
  • Whether the beneficiaries are individuals or organizations (like charities)
  • Any significant life changes you anticipate, like marriages, divorces, or having more children; and
  • Whether any of your children or beneficiaries have special needs.

With these situations, you may need a more detailed will to plan how you want your assets to be distributed. In any event, work with an experienced estate planning attorney. With life or financial changes, you may need to create a more complex will or consider a trust. It is smart to speak with an estate planning attorney, who can help you determine which components to include in your plan and help you keep it updated.

Reference: KAKE (Nov. 23, 2020) “What Is a Simple Will and How Do You Make One?”

How to Use Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations

A will is a very important part of your estate plan, but it’s not the only tool in your estate planning toolbox, explains the article “Protecting Your Assets: Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations” from The Street. Because the will goes through probate, wills control assets that are in your name only, and if you don’t have a will, the laws of your state will determine who receives your assets. Beneficiary Designations

As an alternative to a will and probate, some people name their children as beneficiaries for assets. Sometimes this can work, but it’s not always the best solution.

Here’s an example. A family includes two spouses and three children. They own a house, a bank account, IRAs and life insurance policies. The spouses have individual wills, leaving everything to each other and equally to their children upon both of their deaths.

The wills also state that, if a child predeceases them, that child’s share goes to the child’s children. This is known as “per stirpes,” and means that the child’s share of the parent’s estate is passed to the next generation. The spouses also list each other as joint owners and beneficiaries and then their children as contingent beneficiaries on all of their financial accounts. Then the husband dies.

His will does not come into play, because his wife was listed on everything as a joint owner, so all of the assets pass to her. Then the wife dies. The will won’t come into play here either, since all of her living children were named as beneficiaries. If the wife had signed a quit claim deed, giving the children ownership of the family home, before she died, the will and probate are bypassed altogether.

However, it’s never so simple. What if the adult daughter was on the bank account and she is sued? The assets are now vulnerable to the party suing her. If she files for bankruptcy, the assets could be attached by the bankruptcy court. If she gets divorced, they are marital assets and could be taken by her spouse.

This arrangement becomes more complicated when people attempt workarounds, like putting the good son who isn’t yet married and takes excellent care of his finances as the sole beneficiary. If the parents die and the son is the only beneficiary, there’s no law that says he has to share his inheritance with his siblings. This scenario is likely to lead to litigation and lasting family discord.

If you need another situation to convince you of the perils of alternatives to using a will, try remarriage.

If the wife dies and the husband remarries, he may want to leave his assets to his new wife. However, then when she dies, he wants his estate to go to his children. What if he dies and she decides she doesn’t want to name his children as beneficiaries on the accounts that she now owns? She is well within her legal rights to put her own children on the accounts, and when she dies, the husband’s children will get nothing.

People with the best intentions often create terrible financial and legal situations for loved ones that could easily be avoided, by simply working with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan and making sure beneficiary designations have not been overlooked.

Reference: The Street (Oct. 30, 2020) “Protecting Your Assets: Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations”

Zappos CEO had No Will and That Is a Mistake

Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who built the giant online retailer Zappos based on “delivering happiness,” died at age 46 from complications of smoke inhalation from a house fire. He left an estate worth an estimated $840 million and no will, according to the article “Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died without a will, reports say. Here’s why you should plan for your own death” from CNBC. Zappos CEO

Without a will or an estate plan, his family will never know exactly how he wanted his estate to be distributed. The family has asked a judge to name Hsieh’s father and brother as special administrators of his estate.

How can someone with so much wealth not have an estate plan? Hsieh probably thought he had plenty of time to “get around to it.” However, we never know when we are going to pass away, and unexpected accidents and illnesses happen all the time.

Why would someone who is not wealthy need to have an estate plan? It is even more important when there are fewer assets to be distributed. When a person dies with no will, the family may be faced with unexpected and overwhelming expenses.

Putting an estate plan in place, including a will, power of attorney and health care proxy, makes it far easier for a family that might otherwise become ensnared in fights about what their loved one might have wanted.

An estate plan is about making things easier for your loved ones, as much as it is about distributing your assets.

What Does a Will Do? A will is the document that explains who you want to receive your assets when you die. It can be extremely specific, detailing what items you wish to leave to an individual, or more general, saying that your surviving spouse should get everything.

If you have no will, state statutes determine who receives your assets, and if you have minor children, the court will decide who will be appointed as the guardian to raise your children.

Some assets pass outside the will, including accounts with beneficiary designations. That can include tax deferred retirement accounts, life insurance policies and property owned jointly. The person named as the beneficiary will receive the assets in the accounts, regardless of what your will says. The law requires your current spouse to receive the assets in your 401(k) account, unless your spouse has signed a document that agrees otherwise.

If there are no beneficiaries listed on these non-will items, or if the beneficiary is deceased and there is no contingent beneficiary, then those assets automatically go into probate. The process can take months or a year or more under state law, depending on how complicated your estate is.

Naming an Executor. Part of making a will includes selecting a person who will carry out your instructions—the executor. This can be a big responsibility, depending upon the size and complexity of the estate. They are in charge of making sure assets go to beneficiaries, paying outstanding debts, paying taxes for you and your estate and even selling your home if necessary. Select someone who is trustworthy, reliable and good with finances.

Your estate plan should also include a power of attorney for someone to handle financial and legal affairs, if you become incapacitated. An advance health-care directive, or living will, is used to explain your wishes, if you are being kept alive by life support. Otherwise, your loved ones will not know if you want to be kept alive or if you would prefer to be allowed to pass away.

Having an estate plan is a kindness to your family. Don’t wait until it’s too late to take care of it.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 3, 2020) “Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died without a will, reports say. Here’s why you should plan for your own death”

Is Probate Required If There Is a Surviving Spouse?

Probate, also called “estate administration,” is the management and final settlement of a person’s estate after they pass away. It is conducted by an executor, also known as a personal representative, who is nominated in the will and approved by the court. Estate administration needs to be done when there are assets subject to probate, regardless of whether there is a will, says the article “Probating your spouse’s will” from The Huntsville Item.

Probate is the formal process of administering a person’s estate. In the absence of a will, probate also establishes heirship. In some regions, this is a quick and easy process, while in others it is a lengthy, complex and expensive process. The complexity depends upon the size and value of the estate, whether a proper estate plan was prepared by the decedent prior to death and if there are family members or others who might contest the will.

Family dynamics can cause a tremendous amount of complications and delays, especially if the family has blended children from prior marriages or if a child has predeceased their parents.

There are some exceptions, when the estate is extremely small and when probate is not required. However, in most cases, it is required.

A recent District Court case ruled that a will not admitted to probate is not effective for proving title and thereby ownership, to real estate. A title company was sued for defamation after the title company issued a title report that included the statement that the decedent had died intestate, that is, without a will.

The decedent’s son, who was her executor, sued the title company because his mother did indeed have a will and the title report was defamatory. The court rejected this theory, and the case was brought to the Appellate Court to seek relief for the family. The Appellate Court ruled that until a will has been admitted to probate, it is not effective for the purpose of proving title to real property.

If a person owns real estate, they must have an estate plan to ensure that their property can be successfully transferred to heirs. When there is no estate plan, heirs find out how big a problem this can be when someone decides they want to sell the property or divide it up among family members.

Problems also arise when the family finds that they must pay taxes on the property or that there are expenses that must be paid to maintain the property. Without a will, the disposition of the property is determined by the state’s estate law. Things can become complicated quickly, when there is no will.

If the deceased spouse has children from outside the most recent marriage, those children may have rights to the property and end up owning a portion of the property along with the surviving spouse. However, neither the children nor the surviving spouse can sell the property without each other’s approval. This is a common occurrence.

An estate planning attorney can help the family move through the probate process more efficiently when there is no will. A better situation would be for the family to speak with their parents about having a will and estate plan created before it’s too late.

Reference: The Huntsville Item (Nov. 22, 2020) “Probating your spouse’s will”

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