Estate Planning Attorney

Which Debts Must Be Paid Before and After Probate?

Everything that has to be addressed in settling an estate becomes more complicated when there is no will and no estate planning has taken place before someone passes away. Debts are a particular area of concern for the estate and the personal representative. What has to be paid, and who gets paid first? These are explained in the article “Dealing with Debts and Mortgages in Probate” from The Balance.

probate
Knowing which debts have to be paid before and after probate is important.

Probate is the process of gaining court approval of the estate and paying off final bills and expenses, before property can be transferred to beneficiaries. The process of paying the debts of a deceased person can typically begin before probate officially starts.

Making a list of all of the decedent’s liabilities and looking for the following bills or statements is the best way to begin:

  • Mortgages (and reverse mortgages)
  • Home equity loans
  • Lines of credit
  • Condo fees
  • Property taxes
  • Federal and state income taxes
  • Car and boat loans
  • Personal loans
  • Loans against life insurance policies
  • Loans against retirement accounts
  • Credit card bills
  • Utility bills
  • Cell phone bills

Next, divide those items into two categories: those that will be ongoing during probate—consider them administrative expenses—and those that can be paid off after the probate estate is opened. These are considered “final bills.” Administrative bills include things like mortgages, condo fees, property taxes and utility bills. They must be kept current. Final bills include income taxes, personal loans, credit card bills, cell phone bills and loans against retirement accounts and/or life insurance policies.

The personal representative and heirs should not pay any bills out of their own pockets. The personal representative deals with all of these liabilities in the process of settling the estate.

For some of the liabilities, heirs may have a decision to make about whether to keep the assets with loans. If the beneficiary wants to keep the house or a car, they may, but they have to keep paying down the debt. Otherwise, these payments should be made only by the estate.

The personal representative decides which bills to pay and which assets should be liquidated to pay final bills.

A far better plan for your beneficiaries, is to create a comprehensive estate plan that includes a will that details how you want your assets distributed and addresses what your wishes are. If you want to leave a house to a loved one, your estate planning attorney will be able to explain how to make that happen, while minimizing taxes on your estate.

Reference: The Balance (March 21, 2019) “Dealing with Debts and Mortgages in Probate”

What Happens If I Write a Handwritten Will?

Aretha Franklin died last August, and it was first reported that she didn’t have a will.

However, recent news reports from Detroit say that, as her estate is being thoroughly reviewed, relatives have discovered a total of three different wills—one of which was located under some seat cushions!

Each of Aretha’s wills is handwritten. The three documents have been submitted as part of the probate process to have the court determine if any of them will have legal standing.

Aretha Franklin’s actions—or her lack of the right actions—may could cost her heirs a considerable amount of money in legal fees. It also will make the probate process longer and more stressful. In addition, the ultimate court decision concerning her estate may not be consistent with her wishes.

Fox Business’ recent article, “Aretha Franklin’s handwritten wills found: Big estate planning no-no,” asks what can we learn from the Queen of Soul’s Estate Planning blunders?

First, do it right and ask an estate planning attorney to help you draft your will. He or she will make sure that your will and estate plan comply with the laws on your state. Probate and estate laws may be slightly different in every state, so be certain your will reflects your location and circumstances to be valid.

Don’t make a handwritten or “holographic” will. A handwritten will is valid in a surprisingly large number of states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. However, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney in your state, if you have questions about a holographic will.

Spend the money and do it right. Hire a qualified estate planning attorney to make certain that everything is done correctly, so it’s the way you want it, and it will be upheld if questioned in court after you’re gone. That includes having the will witnessed and/or notarized.

Of course, while you can download a free form from the internet or pay $50 to buy a package, you should invest the extra funds to hire a legal professional to help can save your family a big expense in future extra legal fees.

Further, you should review your will at least every few years to make sure it accurately reflects your current wishes and to be certain that everything is consistent between the will and other documents, like beneficiaries listed on your insurance policies or investment accounts.

You also need to make sure your heirs can find the will. Hiding it in the sofa isn’t the recommended procedure, because who’s to say that Franklin didn’t stash a fourth or fifth handwritten will in a wardrobe or in the food pantry!

Lastly, be sure you let your family and loved ones know your wishes as you prepare these documents. Be proactive about estate planning and do it right.

Reference: Fox Business (May 22, 2019) “Aretha Franklin’s handwritten wills found: Big estate planning no-no”

How Do I Choose a Guardian in My Estate Plan?

Selecting a guardian to care for your minor child after you die isn’t a lot of fun. Who wants to think about a situation where their young children are left without their parents and live with friends or relatives? However, choosing a guardian in your estate plan to raise your children and manage their inheritance is crucial. If you don’t do it, the courts will make the decision for you.

choose a guardian in my estate plan
Choosing a guardian for your children is one of the most important decisions a parent will ever make.

U.S. News and World Report’s recent article “How to Choose a Guardian for Your Child” says that, at worst, forgetting to name a guardian can mean a long court proceeding. This can be expensive, cause stress in family relationships and put your children in guardianship limbo.

There are two types of guardianship to consider when deciding who will care for your children: guardian of the estate and guardian of the person.  The guardian of the estate is a person who’ll manage the minor child’s inheritance on their behalf. It’s a fiduciary responsibility, and this guardian must make sure he or she carefully and appropriately manages accounts, keeps receipts, reports back to the court and doesn’t comingle the child’s assets with his or her own. Another option is for a parent is to set up a trust and have a trustee manage the funds for the child. This can allow the parent more control over how and when money is distributed, especially if you anticipate leaving a substantial inheritance.

The guardian of the person is the daily caretaker who’ll make sure your child gets health care, educational, housing and has all other needs met.

These two guardians can be the same person or different people, depending on the skills and abilities of your family members and friends. A separate person managing the estate can provide a series of checks and balances that can help, if you are concerned about the misuse of your child’s funds.

You may want the guardian of the estate to have good money-management skills. The guardian of the person may be someone who shares your same values, has the energy to raise a child, and is close by so that your child doesn’t have to lose the familiar comforts of their school and neighborhood.

You should also name backup guardians, in the event that the primary guardian is unable or unwilling to take on the responsibility. You should also be sure to speak with your guardians ahead of time and make certain they understand the responsibility and are willing to take on the task of helping care for your children, if you pass away.

In most states, you’ll need to name your guardian or guardians as part of your will.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney with any questions and draft a legal will with the terms of guardianship included, along with a power of attorney and health care proxy. If you need to create a trust for your child(ren), don’t forget to fund it.

Reference: U.S. News and World Report (June 4, 2019) “How to Choose a Guardian for Your Child”

What You Need to Know about Trusts for Estate Planning

There are many different kinds of trusts used to accomplish a wide variety of purposes in creating an estate plan. Some are created by the operation of a will, and they are known as testamentary trusts—meaning that they came to be via the last will and testament. That’s just the start of a thorough look at trusts for estate planning offered in the article “ON THE MONEY: A look at different types of trusts” from the Aiken Standard.

trusts for estate planning
The two most common types of trusts for estate planning are revocable trusts and irrevocable trusts.

Another way to view trusts for estate planning is in two categories: revocable or irrevocable. As the names imply, the revocable trust can be changed, amended or revoked entirely, and the irrevocable trust usually cannot be changed.

A testamentary trust is a type of revocable trust, since it may be changed during the life of the testator. However, upon the death of the testator, it becomes irrevocable.

In most instances, a revocable trust is managed for the benefit of the grantor, although the grantor also retains important rights over the trust during her or his lifetime. The rights of the grantor include the ability to instruct the trustee to distribute any of the assets in the trust to someone, the right to make changes to the trust and the right to terminate the trust at any time.

If the grantor becomes incapacitated, however, and cannot manage her or his finances, then the provisions in the trust document usually give the trustee the power to make discretionary distributions of income and principal to the grantor and, depending upon how the trust is created, to the grantor’s family.

Note that distributions from a revocable trust to a beneficiary other than the grantor, may be subject to gift taxes. Those are paid by the grantor. In 2019, the annual gift tax exclusion is $15,000. Therefore, if the distribution is under that level, no gift taxes need to be filed or paid.

When the grantor dies, the trust property is distributed to beneficiaries, as directed by the trust agreement.

Irrevocable trusts are established by a grantor and cannot be amended without the approval of the trustee and the beneficiaries of the trust. The major reason for creating such a trust in the past was to create estate and income tax advantages. However, the increase in the federal estate tax exemption means that a single individual’s estate won’t have to pay taxes, if the value of their assets is less than $11.4 million ($22.8 million for a married couple).

Once an irrevocable trust is established and assets are placed in it, those assets are not part of the grantor’s taxable estate, and trust earnings are not reported as income to the grantor.

The downside of using irrevocable trusts for estate planning is that the transfer of assets into the trust may be subject to gift taxes, if the amount that is transferred is greater than $15,000 multiplied by the number of trust beneficiaries. However, depending upon the size of the grantor’s estate, larger amounts may be transferred into an irrevocable trust without any gift tax liability to the grantor, if the synchronization between gift taxes and estate taxes is properly done. This is a complex strategy that requires an experienced trust and estate attorney.

Trusts for estate planning are also used to address charitable giving and generating current income. These trusts are known as Charitable Remainder Trusts and are irrevocable in nature. In this type of trust there is a current beneficiary who is either the donor or another named individual and a remainder beneficiary, which is a qualified charitable organization. The trust document provides that the named beneficiary receives an income stream from the income produced by the trust assets during the grantor’s lifetime, and when the grantor dies, the remaining assets of the trust pass to the charity.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about how trusts might be a valuable part of your estate plan. If your estate plan has not been reviewed since the new tax law was passed, there may be certain opportunities that you are missing.

Reference: Aiken Standard (May 17, 2019) “ON THE MONEY: A look at different types of trusts”

Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan if I Relocate for Retirement?

Update my estate plan when I relocate
Anytime you relocate to another state you should have your estate planning documents reviewed to make sure they comply with the law in the state you’ve moved to.

Anyone who moves to another state, for retirement, a new job or to be closer to family, needs to have a look at their estate plan to make sure it is valid in their new state, advises the Boca Newspaper in the recent article “I’ve Relocated To Florida…Should I Update My Estate Plan?”  

If an estate plan hasn’t been created, a relocation is the perfect opportunity to get this important task done. Think of it as preparation for your new life in your new home.

Because so many retirees do relocate to Florida, there are some general rules that make this easier. For one thing, most wills that are valid in another state are recognized in Florida. There’s a specific law in the Florida statutes that confirms that “other than a holographic or nuncupative will, executed by a nonresident of Florida… is valid as a will in this state if valid under the laws of the state or country where the will was executed.”

In other words, if the estate plan was prepared by an estate planning attorney and is legally valid in the prior state, it will be valid in Florida. Exceptions are a holographic will, which is a handwritten will that is signed by the person with no witnesses, or a nuncupative will, which is a verbal statement made in front of witnesses.

However, just because your will is recognized in Florida, does not mean that it doesn’t need a review.

There are distinctions in Florida law that may make certain provisions invalid or change their meaning. In one well-known case, a will was missing one sentence—known as a “residual clause,” a catch-all that distributes assets that are otherwise not specified. The maker of the will wanted everything to go to her brother. However, without that one clause, property acquired after the will was created was not included. The court determined that the property that was acquired after the will was created, would go to other relatives, despite the wishes of the decedent.

Little details mean a lot when it comes to estate plans.

It’s important to ensure that the last will and testament properly expresses intentions under the laws of your new home state. As you review or begin the process, this might be the time to speak with your estate planning attorney about whether any trusts are applicable to your estate. A revocable living trust, for example, would avoid the assets placed in the trust having to go through probate.

This is also the time to review your Durable Power of Attorney, designation of a Health Care Surrogate, Living Will and nomination of a pre-need Guardian.

Estate planning gives peace of mind, knowing that the legal side of your life is all taken care of. It avoids stress and unnecessary costs and delays to your family. It should be reviewed and updated, if needed, at big events in your life, including a relocation, the sale or purchase of a home or when you retire.

Reference: Boca Newspaper (May 1, 2019) “I’ve Relocated To Florida…Should I Update My Estate Plan?”

Singles Need Two Key Estate Planning Documents

eA woman is shopping, when suddenly she is struck by abdominal pains that are so severe she passes out in the store. When she comes to, an EMT is asking her questions. One of those questions is “Do you have a living will or a medical power of attorney?” That was a wake-up call for her that she needs these key estate planning documents, and should be for other singles too, says Morningstar in the article “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider.” 

Key estate planning documents
There are two key estate planning documents that all single adults need to have.

People who are unmarried and don’t have children often think they don’t need any kind of estate plan. However, the truth is, they do. For singles, power of attorney, medical power of attorney and a living will are especially important.

What is a Living Will? A living will is sometimes called an advance medical directive. It details your wishes, if you are in a situation where life-sustaining treatment is the only way to keep you alive. Would you want to remain on a respirator, have a feeding tube or have other extreme measures used? It’s not pleasant to think about. However, this is an opportunity for you to make this decision on your own behalf, for a possible future date when you won’t be able to convey your wishes. Some people want to stay alive, no matter what. Others would prefer to turn off any artificial means of life support and be allowed to pass away naturally.

Having a Living Will spares your loved ones from having to guess about what you might want to happen.

A Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare? This is a legal estate planning document that gives a person you name the ability to make healthcare decisions for you, if you can’t speak for yourself. To some people, this matters more than a living will, because the durable power of attorney for healthcare can convey your wishes in situations, where you are not terminally ill, but incapacitated.

Find someone you trust, whose judgment you respect and have a long, serious talk with them. Talk about your preferences for blood transfusions, organ transplants, disclosure about your medical records and more. Doctors have a hard time when a group of relatives and friends are all trying to help, if there is no one person who has been named as your power of attorney for healthcare.

What else does a single person need? The documents listed above are just part of an estate plan, not the whole thing. A single person should have a will, so that they can determine who they want to receive their assets upon death. They should also check on their beneficiary designations from time to time, so any insurance policies, investment accounts, retirement accounts, and any other assets that allow beneficiary designations are going to the correct person. Some accounts also do not permit non-spouses as beneficiaries. As unfair as this is, it does exist.

The takeaway here is that to protect yourself in a health care emergency situation, you should have these key estate planning documents in place. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney. This is not a complicated matter, but it is an important one.

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

Estate Planning Documents and Medicaid Planning

The conversation that you have with an estate planning attorney, when you are in your thirties with a new house, young children, and many years ahead of you is different than the one you’ll have when you are much older, maybe just before you retire. The estate planning attorney will know that you are about to enter a time in your life, when the legal documents you prepare are more likely to be used, says the article “Learn about legal documents and Medicaid” from the Houston Chronicle.

The need for long term care increases as we age.

It should be noted that everyone needs an estate plan at any time of life, so they can state their wishes for how assets are distributed and name a person who will speak on their behalf in the event of incapacity because of an illness or injury.

An estate plan also includes a power of attorney, so someone you chose can serve as your agent to transact business and handle your financial matters. There should also be a declaration of guardian, in the event of later incapacity and a HIPAA medical authorization document. In some instances, a designation of remains is prepared in order to name an individual who will be the appointed agent to care for the body at the time of death.

However, there’s another reason why you’ll need to meet with an attorney at this time. As we get older, the need to address long term care becomes more important. Making the right decisions now, could have a big impact on the quality of your retirement and your later in life medical care.

If you have not updated your will or your powers of attorney, specifically a durable power of attorney for property, it would be wise to do so now. You will need a document to clearly authorize your agent to deal with assets. Any documents that are out of date, or in which named agents have predeceased you, won’t be effective, leading to problems for you and your heirs.

The document may also need to include a broad gifting power for your named agent, so assets can be transferred out of the estate. If this detail is overlooked, the agent may not be able to protect your assets.

This is the time when you may want to take steps to protect your children upon your death or upon the death of the second parent. If your goal is to eliminate assets to be eligible for Medicaid coverage, this planning needs to be done well in advance. In numerous states, there are state administered programs that pursue recovery of assets when a person has received Medicaid benefits.

Your attorney will be able to work with you and your family to address your specific situation. It may be that your estate plan will include trusts, or that certain assets need to be retitled. Meet with an estate planning attorney who is familiar with your state’s laws. And don’t procrastinate.

Reference: The Houston Chronicle (April 19, 2019) “Learn about legal documents and Medicaid”

Property Transfers and Gift Taxes: Estate Planning Basics

As we age, our needs change. That includes our needs for the property that we own. For one person, the family home was rented to the daughter and her spouse as a “rent-to-own” property. This is generous, since it gives the daughter an opportunity to build equity in a home. The parent had questions about what kind of a deed would be needed for this transaction, and if any gift taxes need to be paid on the gift of the house and a separate parcel of land. The answers to these estate planning basics are presented in the article “Dealing with property transfers and gift taxes” from Chicago Tribune.

Estate Planning Basics
Property transfers and gift taxes are basic components of estate planning that everyone should consider.

For starters, there are tax advantages while the person is living, since the home is an investment for the owner, as described above. On the day that the home is deeded over to the daughter, she will own the home at the cost basis of the parent. Here is why. The IRS defines the “cost basis” of a real estate property as the price that the owner paid for it, plus the cost of purchase and any fees associated with the sale plus the cost of any new materials or structural improvements.

When you give someone a home, they receive it at the price that was paid for it plus these costs.

Let’s say this person paid $50,000 for the family home, and it’s now worth $100,000. If you give the home to a family member, it’s as if she paid $50,000 for it, not $100,000. There may be tax consequences when she goes to sell it, but that’s in the distant future.

It’s different if the home is inherited. In that case, if the house was valued at $100,000 on the date that the owner died, the heir’s cost basis would be $100,000. However, if the heir sold the property on the exact same day (this is an unlikely scenario), there would be no tax owed on the sale for the heir.

This is a very simplified explanation of how a home can be passed from one generation to the next. It would be best to speak with a good estate attorney, who can evaluate all the factors, since every situation is different. One simple suggestion might be to put the property into a living trust, in which case the daughter will still pay rent to the parent, but then would inherit the property when the parent died.

The estate planning attorney could use the same living trust for the separate parcel of land. Once the home and the land are deeded into the living trust, the owner can state her wishes for how the properties are to be used.

As for the basic estate planning question of gift taxes, anyone can give anyone else $15,000 per year, with no need to file any forms with the IRS or pay any taxes. If you give someone more than $15,000 in one year, the IRS requires a gift tax form with the federal income tax return.

A meeting with an estate planning attorney is the best way to ensure that the transfer of a family home to a family member is handled correctly and that there are no surprises.

Reference: Chicago Tribune (April 23, 2019) “Dealing with property transfers and gift taxes”

What is an Advance Directive and Do I Need One?

These are difficult questions to think about. However, as every estate planning attorney knows, the questions “What is an Advance Directive?” and “Do I need one?” are very important. Should you ever become unable to speak for yourself, reports the Enid News & Eagle in the article “Veteran Connection: What you should know about advance directives,” there is a way to make a plan, so your wishes are known to others and by legally conveying them in advance, making sure you have a say, even when you don’t have a voice.

Everyone needs Advance Directives
Everyone over the age of 18 should have an Advance Directive so family and doctors know your wishes.

The advance directive helps family members and your doctors understand your wishes about medical care. The wishes you express through these two documents described below, require reflection on values, beliefs, views on medical treatments, quality of life during intense medical care and may even touch on spiritual beliefs.

The goal is to prepare so your wishes are followed, when you are no longer able to express them. This can include situations like end-of-life care, the use of a respirator to breathe for you, or who you want to be in the room with you, when you are near death.

It should be noted that an advance directive also includes a mental health component, that extends to making decisions on your behalf when there are mental health issues, not just physical issues.

There are two types of documents: a durable power of attorney for health care and a living will.

The durable power of attorney for health care lets you name a person you trust to make health care decisions when you cannot make them for yourself. This person is called your health care agent or surrogate and will have the legal right to make these decisions. If you don’t have this in place, your doctor will decide who should speak for you. They may rely on order of relationships: a legal guardian, spouse, adult child, parent, sibling, grandparent, grandchild or a close friend.

A living will is the document that communicates what kind of end of life health care you want, if you become ill and cannot communicate with your doctors. This helps your named person and your doctor make decisions about your care that align with your own wishes.

Another very important part of this issue: the conversation with the people who you want to be on hand when these decisions have to be made. Are they willing to serve in this capacity? Can they make the hard decisions, especially if it’s what you wanted and not what they would want? Do you want a spouse to make these decisions on your behalf? Many people do that, but you may have a trusted family member or friend you would prefer, if you feel that your spouse will be too overwhelmed to follow your wishes.

For additional information about Advance Directives and estate planning, download our free books and reports.

Reference: Enid News & Eagle (March 13, 2019) “Veteran Connection: What you should know about advance directives”

Smart Women Protect Themselves with Estate Planning

The reason to have an estate plan is two-fold: to protect yourself, while you are living and to protect those you love, after you have passed. If you have an estate plan, says the Boca Newspaper in the article titled “Smart Tips for Women: Estate Planning,” your wishes for the distribution of your assets are more likely to be carried out, tax liabilities can be minimized and your loved ones will not be faced with an extended and expensive process of settling your estate.

Smart Women have Estate Plans
Smart women protect themselves and their families by making sure they have an estate plan in place.

Here are some action items every woman should consider when putting your estate plan in place:

If you have an estate plan but aren’t really sure what’s in it, it’s time to get those questions answered. Make sure that you understand everything. Don’t be intimidated by the legal language: ask questions and keep asking until you fully understand the documents.

If you have not reviewed your estate plan in three or four years, it’s time for a review. There have been new tax laws that may have changed the outcomes from your estate plan. Anytime there is a big change in the law or in your life, it’s time for a review. Triggering events include births, deaths, marriages, and divorces, purchases of a home or a business or a major change in financial status, good or bad.

If you don’t have an estate plan, stop postponing and make an appointment with an estate planning attorney, as soon as possible.

Your estate plan should include advance directives, including a Durable Power of Attorney, Health Care Surrogate (and HIPAA Release), and a Living Will. You may not be capable of executing these documents during a health emergency and having them in place will make it possible for those you name to make decisions on your behalf.

Anyone who is over the age of 18, needs to have these same documents in place. Parents do not have a legal right to make any decisions or obtain medical information about their children, or even review their healthcare documents, once they celebrate their 18th birthday.

Make a list of your trusted professionals: your estate planning attorney, CPA, financial advisor, your insurance agent and anyone else your executor will need to contact.

Tell your family where this list is located. Don’t ask them to go on a scavenger hunt, while they are grieving your loss.

List all your assets. You don’t have to include every single item you own, but you large and expensive items, as well as family heirlooms and those items with sentimental value.  You should include where they are located, account numbers, contact phone numbers, etc. Tell your family that this list exists and where to find it.

If you have assets with primary beneficiaries, make sure that they also have contingent beneficiaries.

If you have assets from a first marriage and remarry, be smart and have a prenuptial agreement drafted that aligns with a new estate plan.

If you have children and assets from a first marriage and want to make sure that they continue to be your heirs, work with an estate planning attorney to determine the best way to make this happen. You may need a will, or you may simply need to have your children become the primary beneficiaries on certain accounts. A trust may be needed. Your estate planning attorney will know the best strategy for your situation.

If you own a business, make sure you have a plan for what will happen to that business, if you become incapacitated or die unexpectedly. Who will run the business, who will own it and should it be sold? Consider what you’d like to happen for long-standing employees and clients.

Smart women make plans for themselves and their loved ones. An estate planning attorney will be able to help you navigate through an estate plan. Remember that an estate plan needs upkeep on a regular basis.

Reference: Boca Newspaper (March 4, 2019) “Smart Tips for Women: Estate Planning”

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