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Intestate Succession: Should I Let The State Write My Will?

It’s a common question to ask an estate planning attorneys: “I’m not wealthy, Do I Really Need A Will?” A recent article in The Sun explains that the answer is “yes.” If you die without a will you are said to die “intestate,” state probate laws will determine who will receive the assets in your estate. This is is known as “Intestate Succession.” Of course, that may not be how you wanted things to go. That’s why you need a will.

Intestate Succession
If you don’t have a will the state will decide who will receive your assets.

When you die, your assets (i.e., your “estate”) are distributed to family members and loved ones in your estate plan, if there is no surviving joint owner or designated beneficiary (e.g., life insurance, annuities, and retirement plans). No matter the complexity, a will is a key component of any basic plan.

A will allows you make decisions about the distribution of your assets, such as your real estate, personal property, family heirlooms, investments and businesses. You can make donations to your favorite charities or a religious organization. Your will is also important, if you have minor children: it’s where you nominate a guardian to care for them if you die.

Of course, you can avoid intestate succession by writing your own will or paying for a program on the Internet, but it’s better to have one prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney. Prior to sitting down with an attorney, make a listing of all your assets (your home, real estate, bank accounts, retirement plans, personal property and life insurance policies). If you have prized possessions or family heirlooms, be sure to also detail these.

Make a list of all debts, such as your mortgage, auto loans and credit cards. You should also collect contact information for all immediate living family members, detailing their addresses and birth dates.

When meeting with an attorney, ask about other components of an estate plan, such as a power of attorney and medical directive.

The originals of these documents should be kept in a safe place, where they can be easily accessed by your estate administrator or executor.

You should also review your estate plan every few years and at significant points in your life, like marriage, divorce, the adoption or birth of a child, death of a beneficiary and divorce.

Do your homework, then visit an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure you avoid intestate succession and receive important planning insights from their experience working with estate plans and families.

Reference: The (Jonesboro, AR) Sun (July 15, 2020) “Do I Really Need A Will?”

What Basic Estate Planning Documents Do I Need?

AARP’s recent article entitled “Sign These Papers” suggests that the following documents will give you and your family financial protection, as well as peace of mind.

Advance Directive. This document gives your family, loved ones and medical professionals your instructions for your health care. A living will, which is a kind of advance directive, details the treatment you’d like to have in the event you’re unable to speak for yourself. It covers things like when you would want doctors to stop treatment, pain relief and life support. Providing these instructions helps your family deal with these issues later.

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. This document, regularly included in a comprehensive estate plan, lets you name a trusted person (plus a backup or two) to make medical decisions on your behalf, when you’re unable to do so.

Revocable Living Trust. Drawn up correctly by an experienced estate planning attorney, this makes it easy to keep track of your finances, allow a trusted person step in, if necessary, and make certain that there are fewer problems for your heirs when you pass away. A revocable living trust is a powerful document that allows you to stay in control of all your finances as long as you want. You can also make changes to your trust as often as you like.

When you pass away, your family will have a much easiest task of distributing the assets in the trust to your beneficiaries. Without this, they’ll have to go through the probate process.  It can be a long and possibly costly process, if you die with only a will or intestate (i.e., without a will).

Will. Drafting a will with the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney lets you avoid potential family fighting over what you’ve left behind. Your will can describe in succinct language whom you want to inherit items that might not be in your trust — your home or car, or specific keepsakes, such as your baseball card collection and your Hummel Figurines.

Durable Financial Power of Attorney. If you’re alive but incapacitated, the only way a trusted person, acting on your behalf, can access an IRA, pension or other financial account in your name is with a durable financial power of attorney. Many brokerages and other financial institutions have their own power of attorney forms, so make sure you ask about this.

These five documents (sometimes four, if your advance directive and health care power of attorney are combined) help you enjoy a happier, less stressful life.

With these documents you know that you’ve taken the steps to make navigating the future as smooth as possible. By making your intentions clear and easing the inheritance process as much as you possibly can, you’re taking care of your family. They will be grateful that you did.

Reference: AARP (August/September 2018) “Sign These Papers”

Why Is Trust Funding Important in Estate Planning?

Trust funding is a crucial part of estate planning that many people forget to do. If done properly with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney, trust funding will avoid probate, provide for you in the event of your incapacity and save on estate taxes, says Forbes’ recent article entitled “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding.”  

If you have a revocable trust, you have control over the trust and you can modify it during your lifetime. You should also fund the trust while you’re alive. This will save your family time and aggravation after your death.

You can also protect yourself and your family, if you become incapacitated. Your revocable trust likely provides for you and your family during your lifetime. You are able to manage your assets yourself, while you are alive and in good health. However, who will manage the assets in your place, if your health declines or if you are incapacitated?

If you go ahead and fund the trust now, your successor trustee will be able to manage the assets for you and your family if you’re not able. However, if a successor trustee doesn’t have access to the assets to manage on your behalf, a conservator may need to be appointed by the court to oversee your assets, which can be expensive and time consuming.

If you’re married, you may have created a trust that has terms for maximizing estate tax savings. These provisions will often defer estate taxes until the death of the second spouse, by providing income to the surviving spouse and access to principal during her lifetime. The ultimate beneficiaries are your children.

You’ll need to fund your trust to make certain that these estate tax provisions work properly.

Any asset transfer will need to be consistent with your estate plan. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about transferring taxable brokerage accounts, bank accounts and real estate to the trust.

You may also want to think about transferring tangible items to the trust and a closely held business interests, like stock in a family business or an interest in a limited liability company (LLC).

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”

What are the Estate Planning Basics?

Estate planning is an all-encompassing term that refers to the process of organizing, inventorying and making plans for the proper handling of your affairs during incapacity and after you die. This typically involves writing a will, setting up a power of attorney and healthcare directives with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

CNET’s article entitled “Estate planning 101: Your guide to wills, trusts and all your end-of-life documents” provides us with some of the key steps in getting started with estate planning.

Create an Inventory. Your estate includes all of the things you own, such as your car and other valuable possessions, plus “intangible assets” like investments and savings. If you own a company, that’s also part of your estate. Everything you own should be given a valuation. Have your home and other valuables appraised.

Evaluate your family’s needs. A big reason for estate planning is to make certain that your family is cared for, in the case of your death or incapacitation. If you’re a breadwinner for your family, the loss of your income could be devastating financially. Consider a life insurance policy to help provide a financial cushion that can be used to cover living expenses, college tuition cost, and mortgage payments. You may also need to designate a guardian, if you have children under the age of 18.

Make job assignments. Dividing up a person’s property can be a tough and emotional task. Make it easier by ensuring that all of your assets have been assigned a beneficiary. You’ll also name a few people to coordinate the process of dividing up your belongings. List your beneficiaries, so they know who gets what.

Create a Will. You should have a legally binding document setting everything out in as much detail as possible. A will is a legal document that directs the way in which you want your assets and affairs handled after you die. This includes naming an executor, who is someone to manage how your will is executed and take care of the distribution of your assets.

Help your family if you’re incapacitated. A living will (also known as a medical care or health care directive) states your healthcare preferences, in case you’re unable to communicate or make those decisions on your own. If you need life support, a living will states your preferences.

Start estate planning sooner rather than later. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney today.

Reference: CNET (June 8, 2020) “Estate planning 101: Your guide to wills, trusts and all your end-of-life documents”

What Do I Need to Know About Powers of Attorney?

Powers of attorney typically grant the agent specific powers to conduct financial matters for the principal. A healthcare power of attorney grants the agent the authority to make specific medical decisions for the principal, typically at a time with the principal is unable to do so, due to medical incapacity.

what you need to know about powers of attorney
There are several different types of powers of attorney. Each is used for a specific purpose.

The Aitken (SC) Standard’s recent article, “The durable power of attorney,” explains that there are three different types of powers of attorney: nondurable, springing and durable.

A nondurable power becomes operative right away, when executed by the principal. It remains in effect until it’s revoked by the principal, or until the principal becomes mentally incapacitated or dies.

The durable power of attorney states that it is to be revoked neither by the subsequent incapacitation of the principal, nor by the passage of time. The principal can change or revoke a durable power of attorney at any time, before the onset of mental or physical incapacity. Death of the principal terminates a durable power of attorney.

Springing powers of attorney are effective at a future date: the power “springs up” into existence when a specific event happens, like the illness or disability of the principal. An issue with springing powers that take effect when the principal is disabled, is that it may be hard to prove conclusively that the disability has actually happened.

The big advantage of the durable power of attorney is that it stays in effect after the principal has become impaired. The agent can act without court approval. It’s a good idea (and in some states the law) that you draft a different power of attorney document for financial matters and another, separate one for those powers pertaining to healthcare decisions.

Have this document in place long before a person begins having trouble handling certain aspects of life. Without a durable power of attorney, family would be precluded from making many important financial decisions or important healthcare decisions on behalf of the loved one.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about all types of powers of attorney.

Reference: Aitken (SC) Standard (August 24, 2019) “The durable power of attorney”

When Do I Need a Power of Attorney?

Without a valid durable power of attorney, the answer to the question of “When do I need a Power of Attorney”, really depends on what documents need to be signed.

when do I need a Power of Attorney
One of the most common misconceptions in estate planning is that a power of attorney remains in effect after the principal passes away.

A power of attorney is a legal document signed by the “Principal,” granting the authority to another individual to make decisions on the Principal’s behalf. This document is only in effect during the lifetime of the Principal.

nj.com’s recent article on this topic asks “Who can sign for an incapacitated person if there’s no power of attorney?” The article noted that to have the authority to conduct financial transactions concerning the assets solely owned by the incapacitated person who failed to execute a power of attorney, a guardian will have to be appointed by the court.

A guardianship is a legal relationship established by the court, in which an individual is given legal authority over another when that person is unable to make safe and sound decisions regarding his or her person, or property.

If it’s not an emergency, a guardian also will need to be appointed to make medical decisions for an incapacitated person who hasn’t signed a health care proxy. This is a legal document that gives a surrogate the authority to make health care decisions for an incapacitated person. It will take effect, if the principal is incapacitated or unable to communicate. The agent will make decisions that reflect the wishes of the incapacitated individual.

It’s typically not necessary to be appointed as an agent under a power of attorney or health care proxy or legal guardian for another person to sign an assisted living or nursing home admissions contract or a Medicaid application.

However, prior to signing another person’s admissions contract, read the fine print to be certain that you don’t become responsible for the bills!

Talk with a qualified estate planning attorney to find out more about the power of attorney requirements in your state and to add this important document to your estate plan.

Reference: nj.com (July 22, 2019) “Who can sign for an incapacitated person if there’s no power of attorney?”

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”

Why Do Singles Need These Two Estate Planning Tools?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Are the Six Most Frequent Estate Planning Mistakes?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Do I Need a Revocable Trust?

A will is a legal document that states how your property should be distributed when you die.  It also names guardians for any minor children. Whatever the size of your estate, without a will, there’s no guarantee that your assets will be distributed, according to your wishes. For those with a desire to simplify asset transfers after death and avoid probate, those with substantial assets, more complicated situations, or concerns of diminished capacity in later years, a revocable trust might also be considered, in addition to a will.

Revocable trusts have many benefits
A revocable trust is useful for anyone who wants to simplify the transfer of their assets or avoid probate.

Forbes’ recent article, “Revocable Trusts And Why Should You Consider One,” explains that a revocable trust, also called a “living trust” or an inter vivos trust, is created during your lifetime. On the other hand, a “testamentary trust” is created at death through a will. A revocable trust, like a will, details dispositive provisions upon death, successor and co-trustees, and other instructions. Upon the grantor’s passing, the revocable trust functions in a similar manner to a will.

A revocable trust is a flexible vehicle with few restrictions during your lifetime.  You usually designate yourself as the trustee and maintain control over the trust’s assets. You can move assets into or out of the trust, by retitling them. This movement has no income or estate tax consequences, nor is it a problem to distribute income or assets from the trust to fund your current lifestyle.

A living trust has some advantages over having your entire estate flow through probate. The primary advantages of having the majority of your assets avoid probate, is the ease of asset transfer and the lower costs. Another advantage of a trust is privacy, because a probated will is a public document that anyone can view.

Even with a revocable trust, you still need a will. A “pour over will” controls the decedent’s assets that haven’t been titled to the revocable trust, intentionally or by oversight. These assets may include personal property. This pour-over will generally names the revocable trust—which at death becomes irrevocable—as the beneficiary.

Another reason for creating a revocable trust is the possibility of future diminished legal capacity, when it may be better for another person, like a spouse or child, to help with your financial affairs. A co-trustee can pay bills and otherwise control the trust’s assets. This can also give you financial protection, by obviating the need for a court-ordered guardianship.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the best options for your situation to protect your estate and provide the peace of mind that your family will receive what you intended for them to inherit, with the least possible costs and stress.

Reference: Forbes (March 11, 2019) “Revocable Trusts And Why Should You Consider One”

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