Probate

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?”

Your Will Isn’t the End of Your Estate Planning

Even if your financial life is pretty simple, you should have a will. And once you have a will, that’s not the end of your estate planning.  There’s still some work to be done to make sure your family isn’t left with an expensive mess to clean up.  Assets must be properly titled, so that assets are distributed as intended upon death.

Your Will is only one piece of your estate planning.

Forbes’ recent article, “For Estate Plan To Work As Intended, Assets Must Be Properly Titled” notes that with the exception of the choice of potential guardians for children, the most important function of a will is to make certain that the transfer of assets to beneficiaries is the way you intended.

However, not all assets are disposed of by a will—they pass to beneficiaries regardless of the intentions stated in the will. Your will only controls the disposition of assets that fall within your probated estate.

An example of when a designated beneficiary controls the disposition of a financial asset is life insurance. Other examples are retirement accounts, such as a 401(k) or an IRA. When there’s a named beneficiary, assets will be distributed accordingly, which may be different than the intentions stated in a will.

The title of real estate controls its disposition. When property is jointly owned, how it is titled determines if the decedent’s interest in the property passes to the surviving partner, becomes part of the decedent’s estate, or passes to a third party. Titling of jointly owned property can be complicated in community property states.

In the same light, a revocable trust is an inter vivos or living trust that’s created during the grantor’s life, as part of an estate plan.

Such a trust can be used to ensure privacy, avoid the expenses and delays in the probate process and provide for continuity of asset management. A critical part of the planning is that the grantor must transfer (or retitle) assets to the trust.

Wills are very important in estate planning. To ensure that your estate plan fulfills your intentions, talk to an estate planning attorney about the proper titling of your assets.

Reference: Forbes (May 20, 2019) “For Estate Plan To Work As Intended, Assets Must Be Properly Titled”

Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan if I Relocate for Retirement?

Update my estate plan when I relocate
Anytime you relocate to another state you should have your estate planning documents reviewed to make sure they comply with the law in the state you’ve moved to.

Anyone who moves to another state, for retirement, a new job or to be closer to family, needs to have a look at their estate plan to make sure it is valid in their new state, advises the Boca Newspaper in the recent article “I’ve Relocated To Florida…Should I Update My Estate Plan?”  

If an estate plan hasn’t been created, a relocation is the perfect opportunity to get this important task done. Think of it as preparation for your new life in your new home.

Because so many retirees do relocate to Florida, there are some general rules that make this easier. For one thing, most wills that are valid in another state are recognized in Florida. There’s a specific law in the Florida statutes that confirms that “other than a holographic or nuncupative will, executed by a nonresident of Florida… is valid as a will in this state if valid under the laws of the state or country where the will was executed.”

In other words, if the estate plan was prepared by an estate planning attorney and is legally valid in the prior state, it will be valid in Florida. Exceptions are a holographic will, which is a handwritten will that is signed by the person with no witnesses, or a nuncupative will, which is a verbal statement made in front of witnesses.

However, just because your will is recognized in Florida, does not mean that it doesn’t need a review.

There are distinctions in Florida law that may make certain provisions invalid or change their meaning. In one well-known case, a will was missing one sentence—known as a “residual clause,” a catch-all that distributes assets that are otherwise not specified. The maker of the will wanted everything to go to her brother. However, without that one clause, property acquired after the will was created was not included. The court determined that the property that was acquired after the will was created, would go to other relatives, despite the wishes of the decedent.

Little details mean a lot when it comes to estate plans.

It’s important to ensure that the last will and testament properly expresses intentions under the laws of your new home state. As you review or begin the process, this might be the time to speak with your estate planning attorney about whether any trusts are applicable to your estate. A revocable living trust, for example, would avoid the assets placed in the trust having to go through probate.

This is also the time to review your Durable Power of Attorney, designation of a Health Care Surrogate, Living Will and nomination of a pre-need Guardian.

Estate planning gives peace of mind, knowing that the legal side of your life is all taken care of. It avoids stress and unnecessary costs and delays to your family. It should be reviewed and updated, if needed, at big events in your life, including a relocation, the sale or purchase of a home or when you retire.

Reference: Boca Newspaper (May 1, 2019) “I’ve Relocated To Florida…Should I Update My Estate Plan?”

Should I Use a DIY Will?

Sure, many of us would prefer to fill in the blanks on our computer at home, than have to talk to anyone about our questions. However, it’s better to get professional advice instead of using an online DIY will.

DIY Will
DIY estate planning packages often cause more trouble than they’re worth.

MarketWatch’s recent article, “Online wills may save you money, but they can lay these estate-planning traps,” says that if you prepare your taxes yourself and you make a mistake, you may need to meet with the IRS. However, you may never know the results of your work when it comes to a DIY will. Who will be the ones to find out if you made any mistakes, and need to pay the price? Your family.

You can find many DIY options for completing your own estate plan. With the ease and availability of these programs, along with lower prices, one would think more people would have an up-to-date estate plan. According to the AARP article, Haven’t Done a Will Yet?, only 4 in 10 American adults have a will or living trust.

The four basic estate planning documents are a will, a trust, power of attorney for financial matters and an advance health care directive. If you try to produce any or all of them through a DIY site, expect to be offered a fill-in-the-blank approach. However, each state has its own probate code and the program you use may have different names for the documents. They also may not address state-specific questions.

Some DIY sites have all these documents, but you must buy their higher-end packages to access them. Others offer what they call a “limited attorney consultation” in the form of a drop-down menu of questions with pre-written responses, not an actual conversation with an attorney.

The range of DIY services also has a range of prices. Some claim it’s $69 for just a will, and others charge hundreds of dollars for what may be described as a “complete plan.” Some sites have more information than others about their options, so you must dig through the website to be certain you’re getting a legally binding will or other estate planning document. It is important to read the fine print with care.

Most of these websites presume you already know what you want, but most people have no idea what they want or need. When you get into the complexities of family dynamics and trust language specific to your state and situation, these DIY estate planning packages can cause more challenges than working with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Remember: you don’t know what you don’t know. You may not know the case law and legislation that have evolved into your state’s probate code.

Play it safe and use an attorney who specializes in estate planning. Your family will be grateful that you did.

Reference: MarketWatch (May 3, 2019) “Online wills may save you money, but they can lay these estate-planning traps”

Entertainer Prince’s Estate Battle May Take Decades to Resolve

Three years later and the “Purple Rain’s” estate remains as unsettled as it was on the day he died in his beloved Paisley Park mansion, located just outside of Minneapolis, says the New York Post’s Page Six in the article “Fight over Prince’s $200 M estate could go on for years.”

The estate, which includes a 10,000 square foot Caribbean villa in addition to Paisley Park and master tapes of his recordings, has been estimated by some to be worth in the neighborhood of $200 million. But what will be left after all the battles between heirs and the consultants (whose fees are adding up)?

The heirs are now in a court-battle with the estate’s administrator, which has already blown through $45 million in administrative expenses. That’s from a probate-court petition filed by Prince’s heirs. They’ve asked the court for a transition plan and a new administrator, which is scheduled for the end of June.

One observer noted that this estate may take decades to resolve, all because there was no will.

A judge had to determine who Prince’s heirs were. More than 45 people stepped up to claim inheritance rights, when the Purple One died in 2016. Some said they were wives, others said they were siblings and one said he was the artist’s son. DNA testing debunked that claim.

The list of heirs has been narrowed down to six: his full sister, Tyka Nelson, and half siblings Norrine Nelson, Sharon Nelson, John Nelson, Alfred Jackson and Omarr Baker.

Until fairly recently, the heirs were divided and quarrelling among themselves. For now, they have come together to challenge the court appointed bank that became the estate’s administrator, Comerica. The estate was being run by Bremer Trust at first, but that was a temporary appointment.

The statement said they don’t agree with Comerica’s cash flow projections, accounting, or inventory of estate assets. They also claim that Comerica is not being responsive to their concerns. What is even worse, they say that Comerica is the reason that the estate is $31 million behind on estate taxes, which are continuing to accumulate interest.

The company stated that it was the best possible administrator of the estate and insisted it is making all tax payments necessary to settle the estate.

Everyone needs to have a will (even with a small estate), so that heirs are not left battling over assets. While Prince may have thought of himself as too young to die, a will and a plan for his estate would have preserved his assets for his heirs and let him determine what happens to his music and his artistic legacy.

Reference: New York Post’s Page Six (April 19, 2019) “Fight over Prince’s $200 M estate could go on for years.”

Why Do Singles Need These Two Estate Planning Tools?

Morningstar’s article, “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider” explains that a living will, or advance medical directive, is a legal document that details your wishes for life-sustaining treatment. It’s a document that you sign when you’re of sound mind and says you want to be removed from life supporting measures, if you become terminally ill and incapacitated.

Powers of Attorney for healthcare and finances are often overlooked as critical estate planning documents for singles.

If you’re on life support with no chance of getting better, you’d choose to have your family avoid the expense and stress of keeping you alive artificially.

Like a living will, a durable power of attorney for healthcare is a legal document that names an agent to make healthcare decisions for you, if you are unable to make them yourself.

A durable power of attorney for healthcare can provide your instructions in circumstances in which you’re not necessarily terminally ill, but you are incapacitated.

When selecting an agent, find a person you trust enough to act on your behalf when you’re unable. Let this person know exactly how you feel about blood transfusions, organ transplants, disclosure of your medical information and other sensitive topics that may arise, if you’re incapacitated.

A power of attorney eliminates any confusion, especially if this person is someone other than your spouse. Your doctors will know exactly who the decision-maker is among your relatives and friends.

These two documents aren’t all that comprise a fully comprehensive estate plan. Singles should regularly make certain that the beneficiary designations on their checking and retirement accounts are up to date.

You should also consider your life insurance needs, especially if you have children and/or a mortgage.

It is also important to understand that a living will doesn’t address the issues of a will. A will ensures that your property is distributed after your death, in accordance with your wishes. Ask for help from an experienced estate planning attorney.

These two documents—a living will and a durable power of attorney—can help ensure that in a healthcare emergency, any medical and financial decisions made on your behalf are in accordance with what you really want. Speak with to an estate-planning attorney in your state to get definitive answers to your questions.

Reference: Morningstar (April 23, 2019) “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider”

What Are the Six Most Frequent Estate Planning Mistakes?

It’s a grim topic, but it is an important one. Without a legal will in place, your loved ones may spend years stuck in court proceedings and spend a lot on legal fees and court costs to settle your estate.

The San Diego Tribune writes in its recent article, 6 estate-planning mistakes to avoid, that without a plan, everything is more stressful and expensive. Let’s look at the top six estate-planning mistakes that people need to avoid:

Estate Planning Mistakes
Estate planning is tricky to get right without the help of a trained professional.

No Plan. Regardless of your age or financial status, it’s critical to have a basic estate plan. This includes crafting powers of attorney for both healthcare and finances and a living will.

No Discussion. Once you create your plan, tell your family. Those you’ve named to take care of you, need to know what you’ve decided and where to find your plan.

Focusing Only on Taxes. Estate planning can be much more than just about tax avoidance. There are many other reasons to create an estate plan that have nothing to do with taxes, like charitable giving, special needs planning for a family member, succession planning in the event of incapacity and planning for children of a prior marriage, to name just a few.

Leaving Assets Directly to Children. If you leave assets directly to your children or grandchildren under age 18, it can cause unintended custodian or guardianship issues. Minors can’t own legal property, so a guardian will be appointed by the court to manage the property for them, until they reach age 18. If you don’t name a guardian, the court will appoint one for you and that person may have very different ideas about how your children should be raised.

Making Mistakes with Ownership and Property Titles. With many blended families, you may want to preserve assets from an inheritance as your own separate property or from a prior marriage for your children. There are many tax consequences and control issues in blended families about which you may not be aware.

Messing Up Your Trust. Many people don’t properly fund or update their trusts. An unfunded trust doesn’t do anyone any good. Assets that aren’t titled in the name of the trust don’t avoid probate.

Finally, the easiest way to avoid these frequent estate planning mistakes is by reviewing your estate plan regularly, as your circumstances change.

Reference: San Diego Tribune (April 18, 2019) “6 estate-planning mistakes to avoid”

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