Wills

Should Unmarried Couples have an Estate Plan?

For unmarried couples, having an estate plan might be even more important than for married couples, especially if there are children in the family. The unmarried couple does not enjoy all of the legal protection afforded by marriage, but many of these protections can be had through a well-prepared estate plan. unmarried couple estate plan

A recent article “Planning for unmarried couples” from nwi.com explains that in states that do not recognize common law marriages, like Florida, the state will not recognize the couple as being married. However, even if you learn that your state does recognize a common law marriage, you still want to have an estate plan.

A will is the starting point of an estate plan, and for an unmarried couple, having it professionally prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney is very important. An agreement between two people as to how they want their assets distributed after death sounds simple, but there are many laws. Each state has its own laws, and if the document is not prepared correctly, it could very easily be invalid. That would make the couple’s agreement useless.

There are also things that need to be prepared, so an unmarried couple can take care of each other while they are living, which they cannot legally do without being married.

A cohabitating couple has no right to direct medical care for each other, including speaking with the healthcare provider or even seeing their partner as a visitor in a healthcare facility. If a decision needs to be made by one partner because the other partner is incapacitated, their partner will not have the legal right to make any medical decisions or even speak with a healthcare provider.

If the couple owns vehicles separately, the vehicles have their own titles. If they want to add their partner’s name to the vehicle, the title needs to be reissued by the state to reflect that change.

If the couple owns a home together, they need to confirm how the home is titled. If they are joint tenants with rights of survivorship or tenants in common, that might be appropriate for their circumstances. However, if one person bought the home before they lived together or was solely responsible for paying the mortgage and for upkeep, they will need to make sure the title and their will establishes ownership and what the owner wants to happen with they die.

If the wish is for the surviving partner to remain in the home, that needs to be properly and legally documented. An estate planning attorney will help the couple create a plan that addresses this large asset and reflect the couple’s wishes for the future.

Unmarried cohabitating adults need to protect each other while they are living and after they pass. A local estate planning attorney will be able to help accomplish this.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 24, 2021) “Planning for unmarried couples”

Who Can Witness a Will?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How do I Settle an Estate if I’m Named Executor?

If you are the named executor of an estate, you should learn some of the basics of the job before any work will need to be completed. An executor is the individual named to distribute a decedent’s property that passes under his or her will. The executor also arranges for the payment of debts and expenses.

named executor
Working with an experienced probate attorney makes the job of a named executor much easier

WMUR’s recent article entitled “Settling an estate” explains that if the named executor is not willing or able to do the job, there’s usually an alternate executor appointed in the will. If there’s no alternate, the court will designate an executor for the estate.

Depending on the estate, it can be a consuming and stressful task to address all of the issues. Sometimes, a decedent will leave a letter of instruction which can make the process easier. This letter may address things like the decedent’s important documents, contact info, a list of creditors, login information for important web sites and final burial wishes.

One of the key documents is a will. The executor must get a hold of a copy and review it. You can work with an estate planning attorney to determine the type of probate (a process that begins with getting a court to approve the validity of the will) is needed.

The named executor should conduct an inventory of the decedent’s assets, some of which may need to be appraised. If the decedent had a safe deposit box, the contents must be secured. Once the inventory of assets has been compiled, assets then may be sold or distributed according to the will.

Asset protection is critical and may mean changing the locks on property. The named executor may be required to pay mortgages, utility bills and maintenance costs on any property. Any brokerage accounts will need to be re-titled. The final expenses also need to be paid.

The funeral home or coroner will provide death certificates that will be needed in the probate process, and for filing life insurance claims.

If the decedent was collecting benefits, such as Social Security, the named executor will need to notify the agency of the decedent’s death so they can stop benefits. Any checks received after death must be returned. The executor will file a final federal and state tax return for the decedent, if necessary. There also may be an estate and gift tax return to be filed.

There’s a lot for a named executor to do. It can be made easier with the help an estate planning attorney.

Reference: WMUR (Dec. 23, 2020) “Settling an estate”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do I Need to Know about Creating a Will?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to Use Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Zappos CEO had No Will and That Is a Mistake

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Did You Inherit a House with a Mortgage?

When a loved one dies, there are always questions about wills, inheritances and how to manage all of their legal and financial affairs. It’s worse if there’s no will and no estate planning has been done. This recent Bankrate article, “Does the home you inherited include a mortgage?,” says that things can get even more complicated when you inherit a house with a mortgage.

inherit a house with a mortgage
There are several options available to anyone who inherits a house with a mortgage.

Heirs often inherit the family home. However, if it comes with a mortgage, you’ll want to work with an estate planning attorney. If there are family members who could become troublesome, if houses are located in different states or if there’s a lot of money in the estate, it’s better to have the help of an experienced professional.

Death does not mean the mortgage goes away. Heirs need to decide how to manage the loan payments, even if their plan is to sell the house. If there are missing payments, there may be penalties added onto the late payment. Worse, you may not know about the mortgage until after a few payments have gone unpaid.

Heirs who inherit a house with a mortgage have several options:

If the plan is for the heirs to move into the home, they may be able to assume the mortgage and continue paying it. There may also be an option to do a cash-out refinance and pay that way.

If the plan is to sell the home, which might make it easier if no one in the family wants to live in the home, paying off the mortgage by using the proceeds from the sale is usually the way to go. If there is enough money in the estate account to pay the mortgage while the home is on the market, that money will come out of everyone’s share. Here again, the help of an estate planning attorney will be valuable.

Heirs who inherit a house with a mortgage also have certain leverage when dealing with a mortgage bank in an estate situation. There are protections available that will provide some leeway as the estate is settling. More good news—the chance of owing federal estate taxes right now is pretty small. An estate must be worth at least $11.58 million, before the federal estate tax is due.

There are still 17 states and Washington D.C. that will want payment of a state estate tax, an inheritance tax or both (Florida is not one of them). There also might be capital gains tax liability from the sale of the home.

If you decide to take over the loan, the lender should be willing to work with you. The law allows heirs who inherit a house with a mortgage to assume a loan, especially when the transfer of property is to a relative. Surviving spouses have special protections to ensure that they can keep an inherited home, as long as they can afford it. In many states, this is done by holding title by “tenancy by the entireties” or “joint tenants with right of survivorship.”

When there is a reverse mortgage on the property, options include paying off or refinancing the balance and keeping the home, selling the home for at least 95% of the appraised value, or agreeing to a deed in lieu of foreclosure. There is a window of time for the balance to be repaid, which may be extended, if the heir is actively engaged with the lender to pay the debt. However, if a year goes by and the reverse mortgage is not paid off, the lender must begin the foreclosure process.

Nothing changes if the heir is a surviving spouse, but if the borrower who dies had an unmarried partner, they have limited options, unless they are on the loan.

What if you inherit a house with a mortgage that is “underwater,” meaning that the value of the inherited home is less than the outstanding mortgage debt? If the mortgage is a non-recourse loan, meaning the borrower does not have to pay more than the value of the home, then the lender has few options outside of foreclosure. This is also true with a reverse mortgage. Heirs are fully protected, if the home isn’t worth enough to pay off the entire balance.

If there is no will, things get extremely complicated. Contact an estate planning attorney as soon as possible.

Reference: Bankrate (Oct. 22, 2020) “Does the home you inherited include a mortgage?”

Do I Need to Name a Guardian for My Children in the Will?

Many young couples with children and bills, when asked about estate planning and say, “what estate?”  However, a critical part of having a will—one frequently overlooked—is naming a guardian for minor children. If you don’t name a guardian, it could result in issues for your children after your death.

Naming a Guardian
Naming a guardian for your children can only be done through your estate planning documents.

For a young family, naming a guardian is one of the most important reasons to draft a will. If you and your spouse die together with no guardian designated in a will, the guardian will be chosen by the court.

In a worst-case scenario, if you have no close family or no one in your family who can take your child, the court could even send them to foster care until a permanent guardian can be named.

The judge will collect as much information as possible about your children and family circumstances to name a guardian for your children.

However, the judge won’t have any intimate knowledge of who you know or which of your relatives would be good guardians. This could result in a choice of one of the last people you might pick to raise your children.

Try to find common ground by agreeing to a set of criteria you want in a guardian. This could include:

  • The potential guardian’s willingness to be a guardian
  • The potential guardian’s financial situation
  • Where the child might live with that person
  • The potential guardian’s values, religion, or political beliefs
  • The potential guardian’s parenting skills; and
  • The potential guardian’s age and health.

Next, make a decision, get the chosen guardian’s consent, write it all down, and then set out to create a will so you can legally name a guardian.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you do it correctly.

Reference: Lifehacker (Oct. 27, 2020) “Why You Should Name a Guardian for Your Kids Right Away”

Can I Leave My Pet Some of My Estate?

Pet Trusts
Pet trusts are a great option for making sure your four-legged family members are cared for if something happens to you.

The Minneapolis Star Tribune’s article entitled “Who will take care of Fido when you’re gone? Minnesotans put trust in trusts reports that Minnesotans are setting up trusts to care for their pets in the event they survive them.  Floridians can do the same.

With a pet trust, there’s a guarantee that the money earmarked to care for the animal will be there for the animal as intended. A trust can designate a separate caretaker and trustee to care for the animal, manage the money, and make certain the care is being provided as instructed in the trust.

A pet trust can contain instructions on the type of food, medical care, exercise and housing the pet will get, as well as the pet’s end of life and burial or cremation directions.

A pet trust can also be used to care for an animal before the owner dies but is disabled or incapacitated. When the pet dies, depending on how the trust was created, the money left in the trust would be distributed to heirs or could go to another designated person or charity.

In states where this is not an estate planning option, a person could write in their will that a relative will inherit a pet, and the pet owner could also leave the person money to pay for the animal’s care. However, because pets are legally considered personal property, they cannot own property or inherit assets themselves. As a result, you’ll want to choose a person who will abide by your wishes and not spend the cash on themselves.

A pet trust can provide a plan for animal lovers who want to own pets late in life but may be concerned the pet might outlive them. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about pet trusts in your state.

Reference: StarTribune (Sep. 23, 2020) “Who will take care of Fido when you’re gone? Minnesotans put trust in trusts”

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