Probate

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”

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 Do I Need an Attorney to Help Me with Estate Planning?

Your estate plan can be simple or complicated. The New Hampshire Union Leader’s recent article, “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional,” says that some strategies are definitely easier to implement—like having a will, for example. Others are more complex, like creating a trust. Whatever your needs, most strategies will probably necessitate that you hire a qualified attorney to help with your estate planning.

do i need an attorney to help me with my estate planning
There is a range of legal issues that should be considered when putting your estate plan together.

Here are some situations that may require special planning attention that an attorney can help you with:

  • Your estate is valued at more than the federal gift and/or estate tax applicable exclusion amount ($11.4 million per person in 2019);
  • You have minor children;
  • You have loved ones with special needs who depend on you;
  • You own a business;
  • You have property in more than one state;
  • You want to donate to charities;
  • You own valuable artwork or collectibles;
  • You have specific thoughts concerning your own health care; or
  • You want privacy and want to avoid the probate process.

First, you need to understand your situation, and that includes factors like your age, health and wealth. Your thoughts about benefitting family members and taxes also need to be considered. You’ll also want to have plans in place should you become incapacitated.

Next, think about your goals and objectives. Some common goals are:

  • Making sure your family is taken care of when the time comes;
  • Providing financial security for your family;
  • Avoiding disputes among family members or business partners;
  • Giving to a charity;
  • Managing your affairs, if you become disabled;
  • Having sufficient liquidity to pay the expenses of your estate; and
  • Transferring ownership of your property or business interests.

Ask your attorney about a will. If you have minor children, you must have a will to name a guardian to raise your children if you can’t be there for them, unless your state provides an alternative legal means to do so. Some people many need a trust to properly address their planning concerns. Some of your assets will also have their own beneficiary designations. Once you have you a plan, review it every few years or when there’s a birth, adoption, death, or divorce in the family.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (July 27, 2019) “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional”

Do I Need a Will?

Yahoo Finance’s recent article on this subject asks “Do You Really Need a Will?” As the article explains, without a will, you’ll be “intestate”—which means you’ll have no say in what happens to your assets and belongings once you pass away.

Do I need a will?
If you don’t have a will your assets will be distributed according to state law.

Many people ask the question, “Do I need a will?” Each state has its laws concerning the distribution of a person’s assets if they die without a will. These laws most likely won’t mesh with your personal wishes. If you don’t have a will, ask yourself why you don’t. Perhaps you think you don’t need one. However, more than likely you do. If you’re putting off starting this important estate planning task, here are some things to consider.

Just about everybody needs a will, but you definitely should have one if you’re married, you have minor children, you have real estate, or you have investments in the stock market. You should also have a will if you have possessions, such as cars, furniture, jewelry, paintings, and computers?

As far as your money and possessions, you probably have some thoughts as to who gets what. You may want to chip in on the education of some younger relatives or give specific pieces of jewelry to those who you know will appreciate them. If you have minor children, you probably have very definite ideas about who should be their guardians if you die.

With a will, you have control. Without a will, the state in which you live will distribute your assets according to its laws, regardless of your wishes.

After you pass away, there could be surprise money coming to you, and without a will, you have no control over where these funds go. Your estate could get some cash from returned security deposits, medical reimbursements, or refunds from utility companies. Furthermore, if you die in a car accident and there’s an insurance settlement, you have no say who gets those funds, which could be substantial.

You also need to think about your pets, and who would be the best person to care for your animals.

So, the answer to the question, “Do I need a will”, is almost certainly, yes.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (July 21, 2019) “Do You Really Need a Will?”

How Do Transfer on Death Accounts Work?

Almost all estates with wills go to probate court. This is not a major issue in some states and an expensive headache in others. By learning how Transfer on Death accounts work, and using them as an additional estate planning tool, you can avoid some assets going through probate, says Yahoo! Finance in the article “Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts for Estate Planning.”  

How Do Transfer on Death Accounts Work
Assets in a Transfer on Death account avoid probate court in Florida.

So, how do Transfer on Death accounts work?

A TOD account automatically transfers the assets to a named beneficiary, when the account holder dies. Let’s say you have a savings account with $100,000 in it. Your son is the beneficiary for the TOD account. When you die, the account’s assets are transferred directly to him without having to go through probate.

A more formal definition: a TOD is a provision of an account that allows the assets to pass directly to an intended beneficiary.  This is the equivalent of a beneficiary designation. (Note that the laws that govern estate planning vary from state to state, but most banks, investment accounts and even real estate deeds can become TOD accounts.)  If you own part of a TOD property, only your ownership share will be transferred.

TOD account holders can name multiple beneficiaries and split up assets any way they wish. You can open a TOD account to be split between two children, for instance, and they’ll each receive 50% of the holdings, when you pass away.

A couple of additional benefits to keep in mind: the beneficiaries have no right or access to the TOD account, while the owner is living. And the beneficiaries can be changed at any time, as long as the TOD account owner is mentally competent. Just as assets in a will can’t be accessed by heirs until you die, beneficiaries on a TOD account have no rights or access to a TOD account, until the original owner dies.

Simplicity is one reason why people like to use the TOD account. When you have a properly prepared will and estate plan, the process is far easier for your family members and beneficiaries. The will includes an executor, who is the person who takes care of distributing your assets and a guardian to take care of any minor children. Absent a will, the probate court will determine who the next of kin is and distribute your property, according to the laws of your state.

A TOD account usually requires only that a death certificate be sent to an agent at the account’s bank or brokerage house. The account is then re-registered in the beneficiary’s name.

Whatever is in your will does not impact how the Transfer on Death account works. If your will instructs your executor to give all of your money to your sister, but the TOD account names your brother as a beneficiary, any money in that account is going to your brother. Your sister will get any other assets.

Speak with an estate planning attorney about how a Transfer on Death account works and whether one might be useful for your purposes.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (June 26, 2019) “Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts for Estate Planning”

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?”

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