Wills

What You Need to Do after a Loved One Dies?

The Dallas Morning News’ recent article entitled “Three things to do on the death of a loved one” explains the steps you should take, if you are responsible for a family member’s assets after they die.

Be sure the property is secured. A deceased person’s property becomes a risk in some instances. Friends and family will help themselves to what they think they should get, including the deceased’s personal property. Once it is gone, it is hard to get it back and into the hands of the individual who’s legally entitled to receive it.

Criminals also look at the obituaries, and while everyone is at the funeral or otherwise unoccupied, burglars can break into the house and steal property. Assign security or ask someone to stay at the house to protect the property. You can also change the locks. Credit cards, debit cards, and checks need to be protected. The deceased’s mail must be collected, and cars should be locked up.

Make funeral plans. If you’re lucky, the deceased left a written Appointment of Burial Agent with detailed instructions, which can make your job much easier.

For example, Texas law lets a person appoint an agent to be in charge of funeral arrangements and to describe the arrangements. An estate planning attorney can draft this document as part of an estate plan. You should see if this document was included. If you’re listed as the agent, present the paper to the funeral home and follow the instructions. If there are no written instructions, the law will say who has the authority to make arrangements for the disposition of the body and to plan the funeral.

Talk to an experienced attorney. When a person dies, there is often a lapse in authority. The decedent’s power of attorney is no longer in effect, and the executor designated in the will doesn’t have any authority to act, until the will is admitted to probate and the executor is appointed by the probate judge and qualifies by taking the oath of office and filing a bond, if required. Direction is needed earlier rather than later, on what you’re permitted to do. The probate of a will takes time.

It is best to get started promptly, so that there’s an executor in place with power to handle the affairs of the decedent.

Reference: Dallas Morning News (April 10, 2020) “Three things to do on the death of a loved one”

How Does a Spendthrift Trust Protect Heirs from Themselves?

This is not an unusual question for most estate planning lawyers—and in most cases, the children aren’t bad. They just lack self-control or have a history of making poor decisions. Fortunately, there are solutions, as described in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift” from NWI.com.

What needs to happen? Plan to provide for the child’s well-being but keep the actual assets out of their control. The best way to do this is through the use of a trust. By leaving money to a child in a trust, a responsible party can be in charge of the money. That person is known as the “trustee.”

People sometimes get nervous when they hear the word trust, because they think that a trust is only for wealthy people or that creating a trust must be very expensive. Not necessarily. In many states, a trust can be created to benefit an heir in the last will and testament. The will may be a little longer, but a trust can be created without the expense of an additional document. Your estate planning attorney will know how to create a trust, in accordance with the laws of your state.

In this scenario, the trust is created in the will, known as a testamentary trust. Instead of leaving money to Joe Smith directly, the money (or other asset) is left to the John Smith Testamentary Trust for the benefit of Joe Smith.

The terms of the trust are defined in the appropriate article in the will and can be created to suit your wishes. For instance, you can decide to distribute the money over a period of years. Funds could be distributed monthly, to create an income stream. They could also be distributed only when certain benchmarks are reached, such as after a full year of employment has occurred. This is known as an incentive trust.

The opposite can be true: distributions can be withheld, if the heir is engaged in behavior you want to discourage, like gambling or using drugs.

Reference: NWI.com (May 17, 2020) “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift”

What Happens when Mom Refuses to Create an Estate Plan?

This is a tough scenario. It happens more often than you’d think. Someone owns a home, investment accounts and an inheritance, but doesn’t want to have an estate plan. They know they need to do something, but keep putting it off—until they die, and the family is left with an expensive and stressful mess. A recent article titled “How to Get a Loved One to Visit an Estate Planning Attorney Before It’s Too Late” from Kiplinger, explains how to help make things right.

Most people put off seeing an estate planning attorney, because they are afraid of death. They may also be overwhelmed by the thought of how much work is involved. They are also worried about what it all might cost. owever, if there is no estate plan, the costs will be far higher for the family.

How do you get the person to understand that they need to move forward?

Talk with the financial professionals the person already uses and trusts, like a CPA or financial advisor. Ask them for a referral to an estate planning attorney they think would be a good fit with the person who doesn’t have an estate plan. It may be easier to hear this message from a CPA, than from an adult child.

Work with that professional to promote the person, usually an older family member, to get comfortable with the idea to talk about their wishes and values with the estate planning attorney. Offer to attend the meeting, or to facilitate the video conference, to make the person feel more comfortable.

An experienced estate planning attorney will have worked with reluctant people before. They’ll know how to put the older person at ease and explore their concerns. When the conversation is pleasant and productive, the person may understand that the process will not be as challenging and that there will be a lot of help along the way.

If there is no trusted team of professionals, then offer to be a part of any conversations with the estate planning attorney to make the introductory discussion easier. Share your own experience in estate planning, and tread lightly.

Trying to force a person to engage in estate planning with a heavy hand, almost always ends up in a stubborn refusal. A gentle approach will always be more successful. Explain how part of the estate plan includes planning for medical decisions while the person is living and is not just about distributing their assets. You should be firm, consistent and kind.

Explaining what their family members will need to go through if there is no will, may or may not have an impact. Some people don’t care, and may simply shrug and say, “It’ll be their problem, not mine.” Consider what or who matters to the person. What if they could leave assets for a favorite grandchild to go to college? That might be more motivating.

One other thing to consider: if the person has an estate plan and it is out of date, that may be just as bad as not having an estate plan at all, especially when the person has been divorced and remarried. Just as many people refuse to have an estate plan, many people fail to update important documents, when they remarry. More than a few spouses come to estate planning attorney’s offices, when a loved one’s life insurance policy is going to their prior spouse. It’s too late to make any changes. A health care directive could also name a former brother-in-law to make important medical decisions. During a time of great duress, it is a bad time to learn that the formerly close in-law, who is now a sworn enemy, is the only one who can speak with doctors. Don’t procrastinate, if any of these issues are present.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 11, 2020) “How to Get a Loved One to Visit an Estate Planning Attorney Before It’s Too Late”

When Should I Update My Estate Plan?

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Do You Need A Trust? 8 Important Goals A Trust Can Help You Achieve” discusses eight ways a trust can help you achieve specific legacy planning goals. The first step is to meet with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Everybody needs a will, but not everyone requires a trust. A trust provides greater flexibility and control over how your property and assets are distributed. Many people create a trust to avoid probate. As a result, it’s faster and easier for your named trustee(s) to distribute your assets to your heirs. There are a many different types of trusts with advantages and disadvantages. Talk about what will be best for you with your estate planning attorney.

  1. No probate. This process can take months or more to complete, and it can be very expensive. A trust is designed to settle your estate in a timely and relatively inexpensive manner.
  2. Privacy and confidentiality. Probate is public, so your will and other private financial and business info is available to everyone. However, a trust maintains privacy and confidentiality.
  3. Protection for beneficiaries. A trust can shield beneficiaries from lawsuits, creditors, or divorce. A trust can also protect the interests of a minor, by including direction for when distributions are made.
  4. Provide for children. This type of trust provides for the health care and personal needs of a minor child.
  5. Flexibility. As the creator of the trust, you determine the terms of the trust, and can put restrictions on how trust assets are managed. For instance, the trust could state that assets may only be used by the beneficiary to purchase a home or to pay medical bills but may not be distributed directly to the beneficiary.
  6. Preserve family wealth. Divorce and remarriage can result in assets that were supposed to stay in the family wind up leaving with the ex-spouse. A trust can make certain that your estate is preserved for grandchildren.
  7. Family values. A trust can be a wonderful way to pass down family values concerning education, home ownership, land conservation, community service, religious beliefs and other topics.
  8. Lessening family conflict. Challenging a trust is difficult and costly. Having a trust in place that clearly articulates your wishes for your family, reduces the potential for misunderstanding.

Whether you have a trust in place or are thinking about creating one, it’s important to meet regularly with your estate planning attorney to be certain your strategy and estate planning documents reflect any new state and federal tax laws, as well as any changes in your goals and circumstances.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 24, 2020) “Do You Need A Trust? 8 Important Goals A Trust Can Help You Achieve”

Do I Need an Estate Plan with a New Child in the Family?

When a child is born or adopted, the parents are excited to think about what lies ahead. However, in addition to all the other new-parent tasks on the list, parents must also address a more depressing task: making an estate plan.

When a child comes into the picture, it’s important for new parents to take the responsible step of making a plan, says Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “As a New Parent, I Took These 3 Estate Planning Steps.”

Life insurance. To be certain that there’s money available for your child’s care and to fund a college education, parents can buy life insurance. You can purchase a term life insurance policy that’s less expensive than a whole-life policy and you’ll only need the coverage until the child is grown.

Create a will. A will does more than just let you direct who should inherit if you die. It gives you control over what happens to the money you leave to your child. If you were to pass and he wasn’t yet an adult, someone would need to manage the money left to him or her. If you don’t have a will, the court may name a guardian for the funds, and the child might inherit with no strings attached at 18. How many 18-year-olds are capable of managing money that’s designed to help them in the future?

Speak to an experienced lawyer to get help making sure your will is valid and that you’re taking a smart approach to protecting your child’s inheritance.

Designate a guardian. If you don’t name an individual to serve as your child’s guardian, a custody fight could happen. As a result, a judge may decide who will raise your children. Be sure that you name someone, so your child is cared for by people you’ve selected, not someone a judge assigns. Have your attorney make provisions in your will to name a guardian, in case something should happen. This is one step as a new parent that’s critical. Be sure to speak with whomever you’re asking to be your child’s guardian and make sure he or she is okay with raising your children if you can’t.

Estate planning may not be exciting, but it’s essential for parents.

Contact a qualified estate planning attorney to create a complete estate plan to help your new family.

Reference: Motley Fool (Feb. 23, 2020) “As a New Parent, I Took These 3 Estate Planning Steps”

Five Common Mistakes with “DIY” Estate Plans

In light of the current pandemic, many Americans are becoming aware of the importance of creating or updating their estate planning documents. With the extension of some states’ stay in place orders, it may be tempting to create your own documents all on your own. Whether you are considering writing your own will or using an online “do it yourself” (DIY) document creator, there are many reasons why this is one project you shouldn’t undertake without the help of a professional.

Below are five common mistakes associated with DIY estate plans.

1.    DIY estate plans may not conform to state law

Forms that can be found on the internet may claim to conform to your state’s law, but this may not always be the case. The laws that apply to estate planning are determined by each state—and there can be wide variations in the law from state to state. In addition, if you own property in another state or country, the laws in those jurisdictions may differ significantly, and your DIY estate plan may not adequately account for them.

2.    A DIY estate plan could contain inaccurate, incomplete, or contradictory information

If you attempt to create a will using an online questionnaire, there is the possibility that you may select the wrong option or leave out important information that could prevent your will from accomplishing your goals. Potential problems could be made even worse when do-it-yourself services allow users to insert additional information not addressed by the service’s preset questionnaire: the information added by a DIYer could contradict other parts of the automated will.

3.    Your DIY estate plan may not account for changing life circumstances

For example, if you create a will in which you leave everything to your two children, what happens if one of those children dies before you? Will that child’s share go entirely to his or her sibling—or will it go to the child’s offspring? What if one of your children accumulates a lot of debt? Is it okay with you if the money or property the indebted child inherits is vulnerable to claims of the child’s creditors? What if your will states your daughter will receive the family home as her only inheritance, but it is sold shortly before you die? Will she inherit nothing? As opposed to a computer program, an experienced estate planning attorney will help you think through the potential changes and contingencies that could have an impact on your estate plan– and help you design a plan that prevents unintended results that could frustrate your estate planning goals.

4.    Mistakes in executing the plan can be easily made

Under the law, there are certain requirements that must be met for wills and other estate planning documents to be legally valid. For example, a will typically requires the signatures of two witnesses, but state law differs regarding what is necessary for a will to be validly witnessed. Some states require not only that the will be signed by the will-maker and the witnesses, but also that they all sign the will in each other’s presence. In other states, witnesses are not required to be in the same room when the will-maker signs the will, and they can even sign it later if the will-maker tells them his or her signature is valid.

Similarly, for a valid power of attorney, some states require only the signature of the principal (the person who is granting the power of attorney) to be notarized, but some states require the signatures of both the principal and the agent (the person who will act on behalf of the principal) to be notarized. In other states, one or more witnesses are required—and these requirements may also differ depending upon the type of power of attorney (financial vs. medical) you are trying to execute. If you seek the help of an estate planning attorney, you can rest assured that all of the “i’s” are dotted and the “t’s” are crossed, and that your intentions will not be defeated because of mistakes made during the execution of your documents.

5.    Assets may be left out of your estate plan

Many people do not realize that a trust is frequently a better estate planning tool than a will because it avoids expensive, time-consuming, and public court proceedings that would otherwise be necessary to transfer your money and property to your heirs after you pass away. Even if you have created a DIY trust, if you do not “fund it” (i.e., transfer title of your money and property into the name of the trust) it will be ineffective and your loved ones will still have to endure the probate process to finish what you started.

Further, if you do initially transfer the title of all your assets to the trust, it is likely you will acquire additional property or financial accounts over the years that must go through probate if the titles are not transferred to the trust. Regular meetings with an estate planning attorney can help ensure that your plan accomplishes your goals and that your grieving family members are not left with major headaches after you die.

If Not Now, When? It is the Time for Estate Planning

What else could possibly go wrong? You might not want to ask that question, given recent events. A global pandemic, markets in what feels like free fall, schools closed for an extended period of time—these are just a few of the challenges facing our communities, our nation and our world. The time is now, in other words, to be sure that everyone has their estate planning completed, advises Kiplinger in the article “Coronavirus Legal Advice: Get Your Business and Estate in Order Now.”  

Business owners from large and small sized companies are contacting estate planning attorney’s offices to get their plans done. People who have delayed having their estate plans done or never finalized their plans are now getting their affairs in order.

Because the virus is recognized as being especially dangerous for people who are over age 60 or have underlying medical issues, which includes many business owners and CEOs, the question of “What if I get it?” needs to be addressed. Not having a succession plan or an estate plan, could lead to havoc for the company and the family.

Establishing a Power of Attorney is a key part of the estate plan, in case key decision makers are incapacitated, or if the head of the household can’t take care of paying bills, taxes or taking care of family or business matters. For that, you need a Durable Power of Attorney.

Another document needed now, more than ever: is an Advance Health Care Directive. This explains how you want medical decisions to be made, if you are too sick to make these decisions on your own behalf. It tells your health care team and family members what kind of care you want, what kind of care you don’t want and who should make these decisions for you.

This is especially important for people who are living together without the legal protection that being married provides. While some states may recognize registered domestic partners, in other states, medical personnel will not permit someone who is not legally married to another person to be involved in their health care decisions unless they are appointed in an Advanced Health Care Directive.

Personal information that lives only online is also at risk. Many bills today don’t arrive in the mail, but in your email inbox. What happens if the person who pays the bill is in a hospital, on a ventilator? Just as you make sure that your spouse or children know where your estate plan documents are, they also need to know how to access your online accounts, who your estate planning attorney is, where your insurance policies, financial records and legal documents are and your contact list of key friends and family members.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 16, 2020) “Coronavirus Legal Advice: Get Your Business and Estate in Order Now.”

Requests for Estate Plans Reflect Fears about Coronavirus

Estate planning lawyers have always known that estate planning is not about “if,” but about “when.” The current health pandemic has given many people a wake-up call. They realize there’s no time to procrastinate, reports the article “Surge on wills: Fearing death by coronavirus, people ask lawyers to write their last wishes” from InsuranceNews.net. Legal professionals urge everyone, not just the elderly or the wealthy, to put their end-of-life plans in writing.

The last time estate planning attorneys saw this type of surge was in 2012, when wealthy people were worried that Congress was about to lower the threshold of the estate tax. Today, everyone is worried.

Top priorities are creating a living will stating your wishes if you become incapacitated, designating a surrogate or a proxy to make medical decisions on your behalf and granting power of attorney to someone who can make legal and financial decisions.

An estate plan, including a last will and testament (and often trusts) that detail what you want to happen to assets and who will be guardian to minor children upon your death, spares your family legal costs, family disagreements and hours in court that can result when there is no estate plan.

The coronavirus has created a new problem for families. In the past, a health care surrogate would be in the hospital with you, talking to healthcare providers and making decisions on your behalf. However, now there are no visitors allowed in hospitals and patients are completely isolated. Estate planning attorneys are recommending that specific language be added to any end of life documents that authorize a surrogate to give instructions by phone, email or during an online conference.

Any prior documents that may have prohibited intubation need to be revised, since intubation is part of treatment for COVID-19 and not necessarily just an end-of-life stage.

Attorneys are finding ways to ensure that documents are properly witnessed and signed. In some states, remote signings are being permitted, while other states, Florida in particular, still require two in-person witnesses, when a will or other estate planning documents are being signed.

There are many stories of people who have put off having their wills prepared, figuring out succession plans that usually take years to plan and people coming to terms with what they want to happen to their assets.

Equally concerning are seniors in nursing homes who have not reviewed their wills in many years and are not able to make changes now. Older adults and relatives are struggling with awkward and urgent circumstances, when they are confined to nursing homes or senior communities with no visitors.

Reference: InsuranceNews.net (April 3, 2020) “Surge on wills: Fearing death by coronavirus, people ask lawyers to write their last wishes”

C19 UPDATE: Beware the Rush to Make Your Own Will Online

With COVID-19 affecting more and more Americans, people across the country are scrambling to set up wills and end-of-life directives. Over the last two weeks, online will companies have seen an explosion in users, according to the article, “Coronavirus Pandemic Triggers Rush by Americans to Make Online Wills,” published by CNBC.com.

However, as online wills grow in popularity, estate and elder lawyers increasingly caution against using them, for several reasons.

  • Will the documents be legally valid? Since most of these do-it-yourself wills are created and executed without any oversight from an attorney, a larger number of wills may not be executed in compliance with the proper will formalities, and that could end up invalidating the will.
  • Do you fully understand the questions and consequences of your answers? There are many nuances in estate planning, as well as a good bit of legal jargon. Confusion over the question or the consequences of a decision can result in costly mistakes … and could even mean your will won’t hold up to a challenge in court.
  • What about asset protection? There is more to estate planning than just giving your stuff away after you die. How you transfer ownership of your assets can mean the difference between a protected inheritance and legacy for many generations or the squandering or loss of a person’s life’s work within a few years … or months after they pass away.

As COVID-19 keeps people home, meeting with a lawyer to create a will could not be easier. In most states, a lawyer’s services have been deemed “essential,” even during stay-at-home orders. We are doing everything we can to make our services as easy and convenient for you as possible, including meeting over telephone, online video services and other innovative ways to ensure you get the planning you need while complying with all safety measures.

Resource: Coronavirus Pandemic Triggers Rush by Americans to Make Online Wills, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/25/coronavirus-pandemic-triggers-rush-by-americans-to-make-online-wills.html

How Long Do You Have to Settle an Estate?

The beneficiaries of an estate are typically eager to receive their inheritance. In a common scenario, a trust was left instead of a will. All the parties received their respective shares, except for the two brothers and a sister who is the executor. The trust instructed the brothers to divide the real estate property in half for each of them. The sister was to get $15,000.

However, one of the brothers lives in the home.

As you may know, the administrator or executor of an estate has the job of collecting the decedent’s assets, paying debts, making distributions to the beneficiaries and finally closing the estate in an expeditious manner.

nj.com’s recent article entitled “How long does it take to pay out a family trust?” tries to sort out what the siblings need to do to settle the estate. The key factor in this scenario is the wording of the trust.

There are situations in which a trust is used as a substitute for a will. In that case, a person’s assets are placed in trust. The trustee pays all the liabilities and administers the assets in the trust in accordance with the instructions of the trust during the individual’s life and after death.

Even when trusts are used as will substitutes, they aren’t always designed to be closed with distribution to happen immediately after the debts are paid, as in the case of the estate. The terms of the trust dictate the trustee’s duties as to the distribution of trust assets.

If you’re a beneficiary of a trust and think that the trustee is breaching his fiduciary duties, you should inform the trustee of the nature of the suspected breach. If nothing is done to remedy this, you may ask the court for help.

One option is that you can request the court to order the trustee to take actions, which you state in your complaint filed with the probate court. Another option is to request that the court direct the trustee to stop taking specific actions that you detail in your complaint.

A third choice is to ask the court to remove the trustee due to breach of fiduciary duties that you set forth in your complaint filed with the court.

However, such court intervention can be expensive. Another thing to consider is that the trustee may petition the court to have his legal fees paid from the trust funds—which will deplete the money in the trust. Because of this, it is usually best to attempt and resolve these issues before getting the court involved.

Reference: nj.com (Feb. 12, 2020) “How long does it take to pay out a family trust?

Scroll to Top