Wills

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?”

When Should a No Contest Clause Be Included in My Will?

Deciding whether a no contest clause should be included in your will is an emotionally charged decision. Parents who sit down with an estate planning attorney would much rather talk about their grandchildren and how much they are looking forward to retirement.

When should a no contest clause be used in my will?
One of the main reasons to use a no contest clause is to deter a family member from challenging the distributions in your will.

But, when the discussion turns to how they want to distribute their assets, as reported in the article “Why is it called a ‘No Contest’ clause?” from The Daily Sentinel, the problem is revealed.

The parents share that there is a family member, an adult child, who has never been part of the family. Usually they have had a troubled past, pushed others in the family out of their lives and it’s heartbreaking for all concerned.

The discussion then moves to determining how to handle that family member with respect to their estate plan. “Do you want her to be part of your estate plan?” is the least judgmental question the attorney can ask. In many cases, the parents say yes and say they’ll keep trying to foster some kind of relationship, no matter how limited. In other cases, the answer is no.

In both cases, however, the concern is that the difficult child will fight with their siblings over their inheritance (or lack thereof) and take the battle to court. That’s one of the primary reasons a no contest clause should be included in a will.

As long as estate planning documents are prepared and executed correctly, they will survive a legal contest. However, putting in a no contest clause creates another barrier to an estate battle.

The no contest clause is intended to act as a strong deterrent for those individuals who believe they are entitled to more of the estate. It makes it clear that any challenges will result in a smaller portion of the estate, and possibly no inheritance at all, depending upon how it is written.

Both parents need to have a no contest provision included in their wills. The message is clear and consistent: these are the estate plans that we decided to create. Don’t try to change them.

For families with litigious family members or spouses who married into the family and feel that they are not being treated fairly, a no contest clause makes sense to protect the wishes of the parents.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about how a no contest provision might work in your situation. If your family doesn’t need such a clause, count your blessings!

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Aug. 10, 2019) “Why is it called a ‘No Contest’ clause?”

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”

Planning for the Unexpected

Sadly, this is not an unusual situation. The daughter spoke with her mother once or twice a week, and the fall happened just after their last conversation. She dropped what she was doing and drove to the hospital, according to the article “Parents” in BusinessWest.com. At the hospital, she was worried that her mother was suffering from more than fractures, as her mother was disoriented because of the pain medications.  She had no idea whether her mother had done any planning for unexpected events such as this.

planning for the unexpected
Without taking time to plan for unexpected events, things can get complicated…quick.

The conversation with her brother and mother about why she wasn’t notified immediately was frustrating. They “didn’t want to worry her.” She was worried, and not just about her mother’s well-being, but about her finances, and whether any plans were in place for this situation.

Her brother was a retired comptroller, and she thought that as a former financial professional, he would have taken care of everything. That was not the case.

Despite his professional career, the brother had never had “the talk” with his mother about money. No one knew if she had an estate plan, and if she did, where the documents were located.

All too often, families discover during an emergency that no planning for unexpected events has taken place.

The conversation took place in the hospital, when the siblings learned that documents had never been updated after their father had passed—more than 20 years earlier! The attorney who prepared the documents had retired long ago. Where the original estate planning documents were, mom had no idea.

For this family, the story had a happy ending. Once the mother got out of the hospital, the family made an appointment to meet with an estate planning attorney to get all of her estate planning completed. In addition, the family updated beneficiaries on life insurance and retirement accounts, which are now set to avoid probate.

Both siblings have a list of their mother’s assets, account numbers, credit card information and what’s more, they are tracking the accounts to ensure that any sort of questionable transactions are reviewed quickly. They finally have a clear picture of their mother’s expenses, assets and income.

If your family’s situation is closer to the start of the story than the end, it’s time to contact a qualified estate planning attorney who is licensed to practice in your state and have all the necessary preparation done. Don’t wait until you’re uncovering family mysteries in the hospital.

Reference: BusinessWest.com (Aug. 1, 2019) “Parents”

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 Should Couples Begin the Process of Estate Planning?

About 17% of adults don’t think they need a will, believing that estate planning is only for the very wealthy. However, no matter how few assets it seems someone owns, completing a few documents can make a huge difference in the future.  Here’s how couples can begin the process of estate planning.

What should couples know about the estate planning process
Often, just getting started with the estate planning process is the most difficult part.

valuewalk.com’s recent article, “Couples: Here’s How To Start The Estate Planning Process” notes that although estate planning can seem overwhelming, taking inventory of assets is a great place to start.

Make a list of all your belongings valued at $100 or more, both inside and outside of the home. After that, think about how these assets should be divided among family, friends, churches or charities.

Drafting a will may be the most critical step in the estate planning process. A will serves as the directions for how assets are to be distributed, which can avoid unpleasant disputes.

A will can simplify the distribution of assets at your death, and it also provides instructions to your family and heirs.

A will can also set out directions for childcare, pet care, or any additional instructions or specifications.

Without a will in place, your assets will be distributed according to state law, rather than according to your wishes. Creating a will keeps the state from making decisions about how your estate is divided up—decisions you may not have intended.

Once you have your assets and beneficiaries set, see an experienced estate planning attorney and have your will drafted immediately. Hey, life is unpredictable.

Another important part of the process is to have a discussion with everyone involved to prevent any legal or familial disputes regarding the estate.

Failure of couples to start the estate planning process can lead to family fighting, misappropriated assets, court litigation and unneeded expenses. Get going!

Reference: valuewalk.com (July 22, 2019) “Couples: Here’s How To Start The Estate Planning Process”

Estate Planning Basics Everyone Should Know

The discomfort most people have with the knowledge of their own mortality makes it challenging for some people to do the estate planning that needs to take place before an emergency occurs. However, according to the Gettysburg Times’ recent article “Essentials necessary for estate planning,” the best course of action is to take care of the estate planning basics now, when there is no urgency. Having detailed plans in place to protect loved ones from possible complications, costs and added stress in the future, is a gift you can give to those you love.

Estate Planning Basics
Taking care of the estate planning basics is a simple but important step for everyone to take.

There are any number of legal documents and strategies used to accommodate the varied situations of life, including family dynamics and asset levels. An estate planning attorney licensed in your state will have the ability to create a plan and the documents that suit your personal situation. The three documents discussed in the following section are generally considered to be the most important for anyone to have.

Power of Attorney or POA—This document gives legal authority to another person or entity, referred to as your “Agent”, to perform certain acts on your behalf, when you cannot do so because of illness, injury or incapacity. There are many different types of POA, from a “full” POA with no limitations, to a “limited” POA that is created solely for a specific purpose. This document comes into action, when you are incapacitated and becomes void upon your death.

Living Will—This is a detailed health care directive that allows you to list your wishes regarding several medical procedures and life-sustaining treatments. These treatments include resuscitations, breathing assistance, feeding tubes and similar medical matters. You want to have this in place to spare your loved ones the emotional anguish of trying to decide what you would have wanted. They’ll know, because you specifically told them in this document.

Last Will and Testament—When prepared correctly, and that includes signed, witnessed, and notarized, a will is used by the “testator” (the person making the will) to provide the legal wishes regarding what should happen to their minor children (if any) and assets upon death.

What happens if you don’t have these documents? It is likely that your loved ones will need to go to court to have someone named as your agent or executor, which is the person who is in charge of your estate. Depending upon the laws of your state, that person may be a family member, or it may end up being a family member who you haven’t spoken to in decades. It is far better to take the time to have these estate planning basics taken care of by an estate planning attorney, so your family is protected, and your wishes are fulfilled.

The best time to do this, is when there is no crisis. Estate plans also require regular monitoring and updating. Life circumstances change, estate and tax laws change, and new opportunities may present themselves. Speak with your estate planning attorney now and create your plan for the future.

Reference: Gettysburg Times (July 27, 2019) “Essentials necessary for estate planning”

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