Wills

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?

Electronic Wills Are Here—But Should You Have One?

Florida is one of the early states permitting residents to have electronic wills, along with some other types of estate planning documents, signed and completed entirely online. This will require remote notarizations and witnesses to appear via certain approved secure video chat services, reports News Chief in the article “Electronic wills are coming, but are they a good idea?” 

Electronic Wills
Make sure you’re fully informed before executing any electronic estate planning documents.

A movement to pass a similar law failed in 2017, as the result of a veto by then Governor Scott. However, a revised and approved version of the bill passed this summer and has already been signed into law by Governor DeSantis.

Under the new law, notaries will be required to undergo new training in order to be able to conduct executions of electronic wills. Certain qualified and state-approved custodians will oversee maintaining and storing the completed electronic wills for safekeeping, until the creator of the will dies, at which time the electronic wills may be electronically filed with the appropriate probate court.

Florida is only the fourth state to implement laws related to the execution and storage requirements for electronic wills. One concern is whether other states will honor these documents.

If other states will not accept the electronic wills, then a deceased person’s assets that are subject to probate administration in other states may not go to the person’s intended beneficiaries. Traditional, hard copy will executions typically occur in an attorney’s office, with proper procedures and safeguards put into place by a licensed attorney who practices in this area of the law. Many of these same procedures and safeguards will not be in place for electronic execution of electronic wills.

There is concern that these wills present an enticing target and that many family members will argue that the will is not valid, because of undue influence or a lack of capacity.

The 2019 version of the law has safeguards, that were not in the 2017 law, to protect vulnerable adults. However, until these electronic laws go through probate contests, there won’t be much clarity for estate planning attorneys.

One last concern—if the documents can be executed electronically, there are greater opportunities for criminals or people with bad intentions to more easily take advantage of vulnerable seniors.

Whether you agree that electronic wills are the future, this is still a very new process that has yet to be tried and tested. There will likely be more questions raised in the next few years about their safety and includes cases that will be taken to court to resolve issues and challenges.

For most people, this is the time to wait and see how the scenario works out. It may take a few years before the bumps are ironed out. In the meantime, meet with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan that is on paper and follows a traditional process.

Reference: News Chief (August 23, 2019) “Electronic wills are coming, but are they a good idea?”

Is it Wise to Name Three Co-Executors of Your Will?

Is it wise to name co-executors of your will? This is a question that many people ask because the don’t want one of their children to feel “left out” or under appreciated.  This may get somewhat confusing when probating a will, if there are multiple executors.

There are pros and cons to naming co-executors of your will.

What are the pros and cons to choosing one child to act as your executor, instead of selecting all three of your children to act together?

nj.com’s recent article asks “I’m planning my will. Is it bad to have more than one executor?”

The article explains that the duty of the executor is to gather all the decedent’s assets, pay any outstanding debts and liabilities and then account for and distribute the remaining estate to the beneficiaries, according to the instructions in the decedent’s will.

The executor is allowed to hire professionals and others to help with tasks, like completing a decedent’s final income tax return or preparing the home for sale.

When you have multiple executors appointed, these tasks can be assigned to each person to lessen the burden of the many duties and responsibilities that an executor has.

On the downside, if those appointed can’t work together easily and without strife, appointing multiple siblings can make the administration of an estate much more difficult due to arguments, conflicts of interest, one sibling taking the lead to the resentment of the others or one executor undermining another executor’s actions.

The problem is, in situations where the siblings don’t get along, designating one of them as executor can cause hard feelings and conflict. It’s not uncommon for those siblings who aren’t named as executor, to complain about every decision made by the named executor or delay in the administration of the estate.

If there are multiple executors, the majority rules. That can avoid deadlock. Simple math in this case says that you want to avoid naming an even number of executors or name a person who can act as the tiebreaker.

Even with a “majority rules” agreement among the executors, there are some financial institutions and other entities that may require all the executors to sign documents and/or checks on behalf of the estate. This can become burdensome and inefficient, if there are multiple executors.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about your family dynamics and get their opinion about what would be best in your personal situation.

Reference: nj.com (May 22, 2019) “I’m planning my will. Is it bad to have more than one executor?”

Fixing an Estate Plan Mistake

When an issue arises, you need to seek the assistance of a qualified and experienced estate planning attorney, who knows to fix the problems or find the strategy moving forward.

For example, an irrevocable trust can’t be revoked. However, in some circumstances it can be modified. The trust may have been drafted to allow its trustees and beneficiaries the authority to make certain changes in specific circumstances, like a change in the tax law.

Those kinds of changes usually require the signatures from all trustees and beneficiaries, explains The Wilmington Business Journal’s recent article entitled “Repairing Estate Planning Mistakes: There Are Ways To Clean Up A Mess.”

Another change to an irrevocable trust may be contemplated, if the trust’s purpose has become outdated or its administration is too expensive. An estate planning attorney can petition a judge to modify the trust in these circumstances when the trust’s purposes can’t be achieved without the requested change. Remember that trusts are complex, and you really need the advice of an experienced trust attorney.

Another option is to create the trust to allow for a “trust protector.” This is a third party who’s appointed by the trustees, the beneficiaries, or a judge. The trust protector can decide if the proposed change to the trust is warranted. However, this is only available if the original trust was written to specify the trust protector.

A term can also be added to the trust to provide “power of appointment” to trustees or beneficiaries. This makes it easier to change the trust for the benefit of current or future beneficiaries.

There’s also decanting. This is when the assets of an existing trust are “poured” into a new trust with different terms. This can include extending the trust’s life, changing trustees, fixing errors or ambiguities in the original language, and changing the legal jurisdiction. State trust laws vary, and some allow much more flexibility in how trusts are structured and administered.

The most drastic option is to end the trust. The assets would be distributed to the beneficiaries, and the trust would be dissolved. Approval must be obtained from all trustees and all beneficiaries. A frequent reason for “premature termination” is that a trust’s assets have diminished in value to the extent that administering it isn’t feasible or economical.

Again, be sure your estate plan is in good shape from the start. Anticipating problems with the help of your lawyer, instead of trying to solve issues later is the best plan.

Reference: Wilmington Business Journal (Jan. 3, 2020) “Repairing Estate Planning Mistakes: There Are Ways To Clean Up A Mess”

How Do I Incorporate My Business into My Estate Plan?

When people think about estate planning, many just think about their personal property and their children’s future. If you have a successful business, you may want to think about having it continue after you retire or pass away.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later” says that many business owners believe that estate planning and getting their affairs in order happens when they’re older. While that’s true for the most part, it’s only because that’s the stage of life when many people begin pondering their mortality and worrying about what will happen when they’re gone. The day-to-day concerns and running of a business is also more than enough to worry about, let alone adding one’s mortality to the worry list at the earlier stages in your life.

Business continuity is a big concern for many entrepreneurs. This can be a touchy subject, both personally and professionally, so it’s better to have this addressed while you’re in charge rather than leaving the company’s future in the hands of others who are emotionally invested in you or in your work. One option is to create a living trust and will that outs parameters in place for a trustee to carry out. With these decisions in place, you’ll avoid a lot of stress and conflict for those you leave behind.

Let them be upset with you, rather than with each other. This will give them a higher probability of working things out amicably at your death. The smart move is to create a business succession plan that names a successor to be in charge of operating the business, if you should become incapacitated or when you pass away.

A power of attorney document will nominate an agent to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated, but you should also ask your estate planning attorney about creating a trust to provide for the seamless transition of your business at your death to your successor trustees. The transfer of the company to your trust will avoid the hassle of probate and will ensure that your business assets are passed on to your chosen beneficiaries.

Estate planning may not be on tomorrow’s to do list for young entrepreneurs and business owners. Nonetheless, it’s vital to plan for all that life may bring.

Reference: Forbes (Dec. 30, 2019) “Why Business Owners Should Think About Estate Planning Sooner Than Later”

Turning 65 in 2020? Some Pointers for a Special Year

Many things change when celebrating your 65th birthday. For one thing, if you haven’t already retired, chances are good that you’ve set a retirement date and it’s not too far away. There are a number of things to be considered, advises the article “Points to ponder before turning 65” from Knox News.

The year you turn 65 is the year that you enroll in Medicare. Coverage begins at age 65, and the initial window to enroll opens three months before your 65th birthday and ends three months after. Miss that deadline, and there may be penalties when you do at last sign up for Medicare.

You can sign up for Medicare, whether you are working or not. If you are turning 65 and already collecting Social Security, you’ll automatically be enrolled in Medicare Parts A and B. You’ll need to sign up for Part D to avoid penalties, unless you have coverage through a spouse’s employer.

Here are some details:

  • Part A covers hospital care and is generally free for enrollees.
  • Part B covers diagnostic and preventive care. You pay for it with a monthly premium.
  • If you’re still working at age 66 and have health insurance through your employer, you may choose not to enroll in Part B. You can sign up for Part A, at no cost, and delay Parts B and D.
  • If you’re still working past 65 and have creditable coverage through your employer or your spouse’s employer, then you can defer Medicare.

Note that you may not get a full monthly benefit, if you claim Social Security right away. You can begin collecting Social Security at the young age of 62, but you won’t get the full monthly benefit that you otherwise would get unless you wait until you reach full retirement age. That date depends upon your date of birth. For most people turning 65 in 2020, that means full retirement age is 66 plus two months. Is it worth the wait? Your monthly benefit shrinks by 7.8%, if you file for benefits at age 65.

This is the time to check on your estate planning documents. If you don’t have these already, speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure that you and your family are protected by the following:

  • General Durable Power of Attorney for Finances
  • Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare
  • HIPAA release
  • Revocable Living Trust
  • Advanced Health Care Directive
  • Last Will and Testament

It’s a great birthday to celebrate but be certain that you take care of the estate planning, Medicare and Social Security aspects of your life, as you prepare for this milestone.

Reference: Knox News (December 26, 2019) “Points to ponder before turning 65”Social Security, Medicare, Part A, Part B, Estate Planning Attorney, Power of Attorney, Revocable Living Trust, Health Care Directive, Last Will and Testament

The Downside of an Inheritance

As many as 1.7 million American households inherit assets every year. However, almost seventy-five percent of all heirs lose their inheritance within a few years. More than a third see no change or even a decline in their economic standing, says Canyon News in the article “Three Setbacks Associated With Receiving An Inheritance.” Receiving an inheritance should be a positive event, but that’s often not the case. What goes wrong?

Problems with inheritance
Inheritances can be great, but they can have a downside too.

Family battles. A survey of lawyers, trust officers, and accountants conducted by TD Wealth found that at 44 percent of all inheritance setbacks are caused by family disagreements. Conflicts often arise, when individuals die without a properly executed estate plan. Without a will, asset distributions are left to the law of the state and the probate court.

However, there are also times when even the best of plans are created and problems occur. This can happen when there are issues with trustees. Trusts are commonly used estate planning tools, a legal device that includes directions on how and when assets are to be distributed to beneficiaries. Many people use them to shield assets from estate taxes, which is all well and good. However, if a trustee is named who is adverse to the interests of the family members, or not capable of properly managing the trust, lengthy and expensive estate battles can occur. Filing a claim against an adversarial trustee can lead to divisions among beneficiaries and take a bite out of the inheritance.

Poor tax planning. Depending upon the inheritance and the beneficiaries, there could be tax consequences including:

  • Estate Taxes. This is the tax applied to the value of a decedent’s assets, properties and financial accounts. The federal estate tax exemption as of this writing is very high—$11.4 million per individual—but there are also state estate taxes. Although the executor of the estate and not the beneficiary is typically responsible for the estate taxes, it may also impact the beneficiaries.
  • Inheritance Taxes. Some states have inheritance taxes, which are based upon the kinship between the decedent and the heir, their state of residence and the value of the inheritance. These are paid by the beneficiary, and not the estate. Six states collect inheritance taxes: Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Spouses do not pay inheritance taxes, when their spouse’s die. Beneficiaries who are not related to decedents will usually pay higher inheritance taxes.
  • Capital Gains Tax. In certain circumstances, heirs pay capital gains taxes. Recipients may be subject to capital gains taxes, if they make a profit selling the assets that they inherited. For instance, if someone inherits $300,000 in stocks and the beneficiary sells them a few years later for $500,000, the beneficiary may have to pay capital gains taxes on the $200,000 profit.

Impacts on Government Benefits. If an heir is receiving government benefits like Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI), Supplemental Social Security (SSS) or Medicaid, receiving an inheritance could make them ineligible for the government benefit. These programs are generally needs-based, and recipients are bound to strict income and asset levels. An estate planning attorney will usually plan for this with the use of a Special Needs Trust, where the trust inherits the assets, which can then be used by the heir without losing their eligibility. A trustee is in charge of the assets and their distributions.

An estate planning attorney can work with the entire family, planning for the transfer of wealth and helping educate the family, so that the efforts of a lifetime of work are not lost in a few years’ time.

Reference: Canyon News (October 15, 2019) “Three Setbacks Associated With Receiving An Inheritance”

How Do I Change My Will?

Many people have wills that were drafted years ago. Now they want to leave some specific items to someone who was not included when their original will was drafted. Making changes to a will doesn’t have to be complicated says nj.com’s recent article, “Does my dad need to pay money to get a new will?” However, making changes on your own can cause trouble for the executor if not done correctly.

How do I change my will?
Making simple changes to a will isn’t difficult as long as the correct procedure is followed.

Many times making changes to a will is as simple as creating a written list that disposes of tangible personal property, not otherwise identified and directly disposed of in the original will.

The list must either be in the testator’s handwriting or it can be typewritten, but it must be signed and dated by the testator. This list also must describe the item and the recipient clearly.

This list can be amended or revoked. It should be kept with the will or given to the executor, so he or she knows about it and can ensure it is followed.

It would not be in the interest of the executor and may be perceived as a breach of fiduciary duty to honor such a list and make such a distribution, if the beneficiaries named in the will object. No one wants to cause a fight over the items on the list, after the parent is gone.

Although this kind of change to your will can be done on your own, it would be much wiser to invest in having the items added to a revised will to protect your wishes. If some of the beneficiaries got into a quarrel over the items on the list, it could result in a family fight that a properly drafted and executed revision or amendment could easily prevent.

Reference: nj.com (October 14, 2019) “Does my dad need to pay money to get a new will?”

What Estate Planning Do I Need With a New Baby?

Congratulations, you’re a new mom or dad. There’s a lot to think about, and there is one vital task that should be a priority. That is making an estate plan. People usually don’t worry about estate planning, when they’re young, healthy and starting a new family. However, your new baby is depending on you to make decisions that will set him or her up for a secure future.

What estate planning do I need with a new baby
Having an estate plan is the only way to legally name a guardian for your child.

Motley Fool’s recent article, “If You’re a New Parent, Take These 4 Estate Planning Steps” says there are a few key estate planning steps that every parent should take to make certain they’ve protected their child, no matter what the future holds.

  1. Purchase Life Insurance. If a parent passes away, life insurance will make sure there are funds available for the other spouse to keep providing for the children. If both parents pass away, life insurance can be used to raise the child or to fund the cost of college. For most parents, term life insurance is used because the premiums are affordable, and the coverage will be in effect long enough for your child to grow to an adult.
  2. Draft a Will and Name a Guardian for your Children. For parents of minor children, the most important reason to make a will, is to name a guardian for your children. When you designate a guardian, select a person who shares your values and who will do a good job raising your children. By being proactive and naming a guardian to raise your children, it’s not left to a judge to make that selection. Do this as soon as your children are born.
  3. Update Beneficiaries. Your will should say what happens to most of your assets, but you probably have some accounts with a designated beneficiary, like a 401(k), and IRA, or life insurance. When you have children, you’ll need to update the beneficiaries on these accounts for your children to inherit these assets as secondary beneficiaries, so they will inherit them in the event of your and your spouse’s passing.
  4. Look at a Trust. If you pass away prior to your children turning 18, they can’t directly take control of any inheritance you leave for them. This means that a judge may need to appoint someone to manage assets that you leave to your child. Your child could also wind up inheriting a lot of money and property free and clear at age 18. To have more control, like who will manage assets, how your money and property should be used for your children and when your children should directly receive a transfer of wealth, ask your estate planning attorney about creating a trust. With a trust, you can designate an individual who will manage money on behalf of your children and provide instructions for how the trustee can use the money to help care for your children, as they age. You can also create conditions on your children receiving a direct transfer of assets, such as requiring your children to reach age 21 or requiring them to use the money to cover college costs. Trusts are for anyone who wants more control over how their property will help their children, after they’ve passed away.

When you have a new baby, working on your estate planning probably isn’t a big priority. However, it’s worth taking the time to talk to an attorney for the security of knowing your bundle of joy can still be provided for, in the event that the worst happens to you.

Reference: Motley Fool (September 28, 2019) “If You’re a New Parent, Take These 4 Estate Planning Steps”

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