Executor

A Will is an Essential Component of Estate Planning

Drafting a will is a fundamental and essential component of estate planning.

Drafting a will with an experienced estate planning attorney helps avoid unnecessary work and perhaps some stress, when a family member passes away. A will permits the heirs to act with the decedent’s wishes in mind and can make certain that assets and possessions are passed to the correct individuals or organizations.

The Delaware County Daily Times’ recent article, “Senior Life: Things people should know about creating wills,” says that estate planning can be complicated. That’s the reason why many people use an experienced attorney to get the job done right. Attorneys who specialize in estate planning will typically discuss the following topics with their clients.

  • Assets: Create a list of known assets and determine which of those are covered by the will and which have to be passed on according to other estate laws, such as through joint tenancy or a beneficiary designation, like life insurance policies or retirement plan proceeds. A will also can dispose of other assets, such as photographs, mementos and jewelry.
  • Guardianship: Parents with minor children should include a clause regarding whom they want to become the guardians for their underage children or dependents. (For more about this, download Mastry Law’s FREE report A Parent’s Guide to Protecting Your Children Through Estate Planning.
  • Pets: Some people use their will to instruct the guardianship of pets and to leave assets for their care. However, remember that pets don’t have the legal capacity to own property, so don’t give money directly to pets in a will.
  • Funeral instructions: Finalizing probate won’t occur until after the funeral, so wishes may go unheeded.
  • Executor: This individual is a trusted person who will carry out the terms of the will. She should be willing to serve and be capable of executing the will.

Those who die without a valid will become intestate. This results in the estate being settled based upon the laws where that person lived. A court-appointed administrator will serve in the capacity to transfer property. This administrator will be bound by the laws of the state and may make decisions that go against the decedent’s wishes.

To avoid this, a will and other estate planning documents are critical. Talk to an estate planning attorney or download a FREE copy of our estate planning book, Failing to Plan is Planning to Fail.

Reference: The Delaware County Daily Times (January 7, 2019) “Senior Life: Things people should know about creating wills”

Get These Three Estate Planning Documents In 2019

These may not be the first things you are thinking about as we launch into a brand-new year, but the idea is not to wait until you’re not thinking clearly or when it’s too late and you don’t have what you need to protect yourself, your family and your property. The details, from the Fox Business news article, “3 financial documents everyone needs,” are straightforward. Put this on your to-do list today.

A Will. The essential function of a will is to ensure that your wishes are carried out, when you are no longer alive. It’s not just for rich people. Everyone should have a will. It can include everything from your financial assets to life insurance, family heirlooms, artwork and any real estate property.

A will can also be used to protect your business, provide for charities and ensure lifelong care for your pets.

If you have children, a will is especially important. Your will is used to name a guardian for your minor children. Otherwise, the state will decide who should raise your children.

Your will is also used to name your executor (referred to as the Personal Representative in Florida). That is the person who has the legal responsibility for making sure your financial obligations are honored and your assets are distributed according to your wishes. Without an executor, the state will appoint a person to handle those tasks.

An Advanced Medical Directive. What would happen if you became ill or injured and could not make medical decisions for yourself? An advanced medical directive and health care proxy are the documents you need to assign the people you want to make decisions on your behalf. The advanced medical directive, also called a living will, explains your wishes for care, including end-of-life care. The healthcare proxy appoints a person to make healthcare decisions for you. As long as you have legal capacity, these documents aren’t used, but once they are needed, you and your family will be glad they are in place.

A Durable Power of Attorney. This document is used to name someone who will make financial decisions if you are not able to do so. Be careful to name a person you trust implicitly to make good decisions on your behalf. That may be a family member, an adult child or an attorney.

Once you’ve had these documents prepared as part of your estate plan they documents should be reviewed and updated every now and then. Life changes, laws change and what was a great tax strategy at one point may not be effective, if there’s a change to the law. Your estate planning attorney will help create and update your estate plan.

Reference: Fox Business (Dec. 19, 2018) “3 financial documents everyone needs”

Where Do I Start as an Executor if There’s a House in the Estate?

Handling an estate can be a monumental task. The Greater Baton Rouge Business Report explains the details in its article that asks “So you inherited a house … now what?

For instance, an executor’s immediate worry might be the safety of the house. One of the first questions an heir might ask, is whether there’s a security company involved that has a contract for monitoring. If so, contact the company to see where to call should there be a security breach and change the security passwords. Another suggestion is to change the locks on the house, because who knows who has been given keys to the home over the years. Siblings might want to place valuable items in safety deposit boxes or remove them from the house, as soon as they can.

The key to this entire process among heirs is communication. Keep everyone up-to-date. This alone will reduce the risk of misunderstanding, mistrust and frustration in the family.

Different interests among siblings often creates tensions after inheriting a house. A house may have sentimental value to the heirs, but the executor must stay objective about the situation. Reducing the house to cash by selling it and dividing the proceeds, typically makes the most financial sense.

It’s costly to maintain a house in an estate and insurance and court proceedings can also be expensive. Come to an up-front agreement on terms of the sale, when drafting an estate plan, because disagreements among siblings can sometimes lead to costly and lengthy court proceedings.

Heirs might decide to keep a house, especially if it’s a beach house or mountain retreat. You’ll then need someone to be the manager. One way to accomplish this is to establish a limited liability company (an LLC) with the other heirs. This gives the heirs a more stable, corporate management structure, while allowing for more flexibility. Place a year’s worth of cash to cover of expenses into the LLC and sign an agreement between heirs that states what happens with repairs, renting the property and other scenarios.

If you do sell, the sooner you sell it and the closer to the time of death, the less likely you’ll have to pay taxes on any appreciation since the time of death and have to worry about what the value was at the date of death. Inherited assets get a new tax basis, known as the date-of-death value. Use a qualified real estate appraiser to value the property, because the beneficiaries need to know the house’s most recent value to calculate capital gains tax later, should they choose to sell it.

Reference: Greater Baton Rouge Business Report (November 13, 2018) “So you inherited a house … now what? Here’s some advice

I Was Left Out of a Will—What Can I Do?

It’s a stinging feeling. To be left out of a will feels like a rebuke from beyond the grave. You’ll need to set aside your emotions and consider your options, which may be limited.

Contested wills are not an easy battle. There are time limits to taking action. An estate planning attorney will be able to advise you on the requirements of your state. Investopedia’s article, “What To Do When You're Left Out Of A Will,” explains that you’ll need to be able to prove outright fraud, diminished mental capacity or coercion to have a will's terms dismissed.

GavelBefore making a federal case out of it, cool down for a few days and think things through. If you aren’t a family member and were never named in a previous will, you can’t contest the will. If the deceased talked to you about an inheritance before, write down as much as you can remember and estimate the dollar value (whether in money or possessions). If it was never discussed but was implied, you’ll need to give a high and a low estimate on what you could have reasonably received based on your knowledge of the estate. If this amount doesn’t cover your legal fees, forget it. You may even walk away, if it’s twice as much as the retainer because some estate battles cost more in legal fees than the inheritance. Again, consider this carefully.

The person who creates the will has the final word on who is and who is not in the will. If you have reason to believe that the will has changed, maybe because the person was under duress or suffering from diminished mental capacity, you can try to find out the details. You can ask the executor for the current will, any previous versions and a list of assets.

A sharp executor will compare copies of the will and note any significant changes. Therefore, it’s possible that a notice from the executor will be your first signal that you were removed from the will. If you aren’t told before the will goes to probate, you’ll be able to get a copy from the probate court. In addition, you’ll be told how long you have to contest the will. Each state has different rules and time limits, so ask a local estate planning attorney to help you get the copy and file the contest.

To contest the will, you need a valid reason. You need to reasonably prove that the testator lacked the mental capacity to understand what he was doing when the current will was signed, was pressured into changing it or that the will fails to meet state requirements and isn’t legal.

Your attorney will honestly tell you if you have a winnable case on these grounds. If you don't have grounds, there’s still a chance you can make a claim on the estate. For instance, if you did unpaid work for the testator, you may be able to claim costs. Again, look at the value of the claim versus the costs of moving forward.

With sufficient grounds, your attorney will file a contest against the will with the objective of invalidating the current will and enforcing a previous will that lists you as a beneficiary. If you’ve been left out of several revisions of the will, your chances of winning the dispute will be less because multiple wills must be invalidated. The burden of proof is on you, so be ready for a tough fight.

Instead of a court battle that will deplete your finances and those of the estate in legal costs, your attorney may be able to get the estate to agree to mediation. Mediation may be a better and faster resolution than a lengthy court battle.

Keep in mind that an estate contest comes with a great deal of emotional stress and could have a big impact on your relationship with family members or friends of the deceased. It is not easy to be left out of a will, but a realistic look at the financial and emotional cost of a battle that you may or may not win should be considered before throwing yourself into an estate contest.

Reference: Investopedia(May 31, 2018) “What To Do When You're Left Out Of A Will”

What Will Happen to Paul Allen’s Vast Fortune?

The co-founder of Microsoft serves as an excellent example of advance planning, maintaining privacy and creating a legacy.

Though a trust established years ago and several companies, Paul Allen began building his legacy of philanthropy long before his death. His last will and testament was a simple six-page document, according to an article from The Seattle Times, “Paul Allen’s will sheds little light on what will happen to estate.”

Paul_allen_bhudlnThe will was filed with King County on October 24—the same day his sister Jody announced she was named the executor and trustee of his estate.

Allen died on October 15 at age 65, from complications of non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

He was a Microsoft co-founder, who operated a long list of business and philanthropic initiatives that helped shape the Puget Sound region. His business concerns included owning the Seattle Seahawks, donating significantly to the arts community and scientific research, and running the multifaceted Vulcan Inc., which reshaped the real-estate landscape of South Lake Union.

Allen’s will places his assets into a 25-year-old living trust, where their disposition is not expected to be made public. It is important to remember that wills are public records, but trusts are not.

Forbes estimated his wealth at roughly $20 billion.

The will also sets out a list of successors, if Jody Allen declines or is unable to serve as executor.

Jody can appoint someone, or it would next fall to Nancy Peretsman, the managing director of investment firm Allen & Co., which is not connected to Allen. After him, the duty would fall to lawyers Allen Israel and Nicholas Saggese.

Jody Allen said in October that she “will do all that I can to ensure that Paul’s vision is realized, not just for years, but for generations.”

Many tributes to Allen have taken place since his passing. In early November, buildings in Seattle and throughout the state were lit up in blue, his favorite color and the color of the Seattle Seahawks, the football team he owned.

Reference: The Seattle Times (November 8, 2018) “Paul Allen’s will sheds little light on what will happen to estate”

Spiderman Creator Stan Lee’s Estate Needs Untangling

It’s going to take more than a super hero to unravel the mess that Stan Lee left behind.

The passing of Stan Lee, famed Marvel Comics publisher and chairman, was sad for his legions of fans. For his 68-year-old daughter J.C., there’s grief and a challenging estate to be settled. His last years were hard, with ill health, the passing of his wife of nearly 70 years and accusations of sexual harassment from nurses and home aides.

Stan-leeIn addition, Lee reportedly said that $1.4 million dollars was missing from his bank accounts and that a large chunk of the money had been used to purchase a condo.

MarketWatch’srecent article, “Stan Lee’s tangled web of estate planning and how to avoid it in your own life,”reports that Lee had also hired and fired several business managers and attorneys in this time.

“I learned later on in life, you need advisors, if you’re making any money at all,” he told the Daily Beastin a 2018 interview. He also remarked that he’d done much of his own money management at the start of his career.

“But then, a little money started coming in, and I realized I needed help. And I needed people I could trust. And I had made some big mistakes. And my first bunch of people were people that I shouldn’t have trusted.”

It’s not known at this point, if Lee had a will or any trusts in place. If he did not, then he’s joining other late celebrities like performers Aretha Franklin and Prince who failed to draft these documents. As a result, their heirs and potential beneficiaries have had to go to court to straighten things out.

Keeping track of an estate plan can become harder as a person ages, because he or she could suffer cognitive decline, or a professional or family member may think he or she is suffering from this. Stan Lee was the subject of this type of inquiry: in February, he signed a document declaring that his daughter spent too much money, yelled at him, and befriended three men who wanted to take advantage of him, the Hollywood Reporterreported. However, a few days later, Lee took it back.

Seniors can become get less confident in what they’re doing, and they are more susceptible to the influence of others who may not have the best of intentions. However, you can easily create an estate plan with which you’re comfortable, with the help of an experienced estate panning attorney.

A big rat’s nest that will need to be addressed by Lee’s daughter will be dealing with the many business documents that may be floating around from his current and past business managers and attorneys. To avoid this, work with an estate planning attorney and ask some specific questions, such as:

  • How do we organize and simplify my assets?
  • Will we need a trust, and how will they be managed?
  • How will you coordinate with my executor and/or attorney-in-fact while I’m well, and after I’m sick or gone?
  • How do you determine cognitive decline in an individual? What would you do, if you believed my ability to answer questions and manage my funds was diminished? What would you do once you’ve made this decision?
  • How often will we review my beneficiary designations and estate planning documents?
  • How should we coordinate a team of financial and legal professionals to make sure all are working towards the same goals?
  • How much or how little information about my estate should be discussed with family members?

Reference: MarketWatch(November 17, 2018) “Stan Lee’s tangled web of estate planning and how to avoid it in your own life”

When a Sibling Executor Goes Rogue

It’s one thing to fight with a sibling over toys when you are young. However, as adults, and more to the point, as an executor, there’s no room for tantrums or not acting in the best interests of the beneficiaries.

An executor who refuses to sell an inherited home, is opening themselves up to legal actions. Beneficiaries have rights, and one of those is to have an executor fulfill his or her legal obligations.

Bigstock-Young-man-holding-a-trash-bin--26453660nj.com’s recent article, “What happens when siblings can't agree about selling parents' home” explains that even though an executor has some discretion in administering the estate, she has a duty to settle and distribute the estate expeditiously and efficiently for the best interest of the beneficiaries.

Unless the parent’s will has specific instructions for the home, the executor—at her discretion—has two choices. She may sell it and distribute the net proceeds. The other option is to distribute the home "in kind" to the beneficiaries. That means retitling a deed from the estate to the beneficiaries as tenants in common. If the property is distributed in kind, the beneficiaries will then own the property jointly and will be jointly obligated on the home equity loan. State law may dictate that this loan isn’t not paid off with other estate assets, unless specifically instructed in the will.

Creditors have a specific time period in which to present a claim to the executor. As a result, many executors won’t make distributions before that time has concluded. At that point, like in New Jersey, if there are any beneficiaries who aren’t Class A beneficiaries (grandparents, parents, children, stepchildren, grandchildren, spouses, or domestic partners) or if there is a trust, then a New Jersey Inheritance Tax Return must be filed within eight months of death. Thus, many executors won’t make distribution before a Notice of Assessment (showing that no additional tax is due) is received from the Division of Taxation.

If the parents passed away in 2017 in New Jersey, and if either estate exceeded $2 million, there may have been a state estate tax return to be filed and possibly taxes owed. There is now no New Jersey estate tax for decedents dying after 2017. Even if there is no tax and all the beneficiaries are Class A beneficiaries, the state requires that a waiver be obtained from the Division of Taxation to release its lien on the property of a decedent.

 However, if an estate has been open for a very long period of time, and family members think that the executor isn’t fulfilling her obligations, they may sue to have the executor discharged and a new one appointed. The court may discharge an executor for not obeying a court order, like filing an accounting or an inventory of estate assets.

Once the court gets involved, things can turn ugly for the family. Heirs can ask the court to direct the executor to perform specific actions, and the hope is that the executor will wake up and take the court’s order seriously. It’s a terrible legacy for a family, but unfortunately one that does occur often enough.

Reference: nj.com(October 4, 2018) “What happens when siblings can't agree about selling parents' home”

One Dozen Must-Have Documents

To make sure that your wishes are carried out, you’ll have to do your homework. Make sure that you cover these most important documents.

The last thing you want to do, is leave a bureaucratic mess for your loved ones when you die. Not only will it cause the family stress during a difficult time, it could change how your family thinks of you. That should be more than enough reason to get this done in advance!

MP900398819US News & World Report’s recent article, “12 Documents to Prepare Now for Your Heirs,” says that when people don't have their paperwork ready, it can be a huge headache for the family. A family can be left with all kinds of paperwork to sort out while dealing with grief. Even worse, heirs may forfeit life insurance proceeds and tax deductions or overlook accounts they don't know exist. That's why it's critical to have important documents ready for loved ones. Here are the documents you should start preparing right away:

A will. This is a legal document in which you name an executor to carry out your wishes, heirs to receive your assets and a guardian if you have minor children.

A letter of explanation. Your will stipulates how assets are to be divided. However, a letter of explanation can provide the reasons for these decisions. This can be helpful, if the estate is to be divided unevenly between children.

List of financial accounts and beneficiaries. Keep a list of all your finances, such as bank and retirement accounts and brokerage funds. Each may have a designated beneficiary or transfer on death provision, known as a TOD. A person who’s named as a beneficiary or TOD designee automatically will receive ownership of the asset after you die. Make sure you keep these beneficiary designations up-to-date.

Personal inventory. Most wills distribute personal property in vague terms, like designating jewelry to one person and household goods to another. To be certain that nothing significant is overlooked, create an inventory of personal items. This inventory can also list items that may be stored in another location, unbeknownst to your family.

Power of attorney. This form is an important document for your family, if you become incapacitated because of an illness or accident. A power of attorney allows a designated person to make decisions on your behalf. One form is for financial decisions, and another is for health care.

Life insurance policies. Your family can miss significant life insurance benefits, if they don't know you have a policy, or it’s been lost or misplaced. Keep records of your life insurance plans and place it with your financial records.

Real estate records. Add deeds, assessments, mortgage statements and property tax information to the documents you've prepared for your heirs. Collecting the records for them in advance will make their lives easier.

Tax returns. List the name of your CPA or tax preparer, if you have your taxes professionally done. He or she can help your family with filing final tax returns for your estate. If you file your own returns, print a copy for your files and record any login information for online tax preparation services.

Logins for accounts. Create a list of your usernames and passwords for financial accounts, email, and social media and keep it where heirs can access the information.

A digital estate plan. Some states recognize digital estate plans as legally binding. However, even if it isn’t, it can be a great resource for your family. A digital estate plan states what will happen to your digital assets, like your social media accounts, websites, digital photos, intellectual property and other files and documents. Within your plan, you can name a digital executor and list those you've named as legacy contacts on specific platforms, such as Facebook and Twitter.

An ethical will. This letter describes what you'd like remembered as your legacy, such as passing down values. An ethical will can be used to share memories or to impart wisdom.

Your final wishes. If you've made prearrangements for your funeral or cremation, place that information with your will and other end-of-life documents. Your final wishes should also include information about organ donation, pet care and who should be notified of your passing.

Distilling a lifetime into a dozen documents is not an easy task, but it is necessary. Your loved ones will appreciate your doing the heavy lifting, and it will give them the room they need to grieve their loss.

Reference: US News & World Report (October 4, 2018) “12 Documents to Prepare Now for Your Heirs”

The Executor is Making a Mess of the Estate: What Now?

Estate litigation is never pleasant, but heirs have rights, and, in some situations, they have to fight back, when an executor is not acting in the best interest of the beneficiaries.

When siblings are able to work together to settle their parent’s estate, it may take a little time and there may be some negotiating.  However, the details are worked out. Sometimes the family bonds become even stronger. There are also ugly stories where families are fractured.

MP900400332This occurs when the executor acts with some (or a great deal of) self-interest, especially when it’s one of the siblings. That daughter may feel entitled to more than an equal share, because of the care she’s given the parent or because she resents her siblings’ successes, or any of a number of reasons.

What if the eldest sister gets her siblings to sign away their rights to everything? Perhaps some do, but when one sibling says no, this evil executor gets the will probated anyways. Subsequently, the lone hold-out finds out there was a testamentary trust created because she didn't sign away her rights, and—you guessed it—the eldest sister is the trustee. That’s dirty pool!

When the hold-out beneficiary requested an accounting of the trust, the evil executor/trustee refused. When an executor or trustee tries to keep the deceased parent’s estate and trust a secret, it’s not appropriate or acceptable, and she’s breaching her fiduciary duty.

nj.com’s recent article, “Your rights when family fights over a will,” explains that executors and trustees serve in a fiduciary capacity.  It means they have a legal obligation to act for another (the beneficiaries) in a fair, honest, and transparent manner. While executors and trustees have the legal authority to manage the affairs of an estate or trust, she’s accountable to the beneficiaries and must inform them of what she’s doing.

When a person dies, the executor must notify, in writing, all beneficiaries named in the will (and all heirs at law, like those entitled to inherit by intestacy) that a will has been probated. This must be done within a specific number of days of the will being probated. The executor must also provide a copy of the will upon request. After receiving the notice of probate, individuals may contest the will within a specific timeframe.

When the will is reviewed, beneficiaries can see that a testamentary trust was created. Once appointed, an executor must settle and distribute the estate as quickly and efficiently as possible. Both executors and trustees have a duty to collect and preserve assets, deal impartially with beneficiaries and act at all times with the best interests of the estate and trust in mindto be certain that the estate and trust are distributed, according to the decedent's wishes.

A fiduciary also has a duty to account to the beneficiaries.  Therefore, in the event a beneficiary has questions about how an estate or trust is being handled, he can request an accounting and copies of supporting documents. Likewise, a trustee is required to keep beneficiaries reasonably informed about the administration of the trust and information necessary for the beneficiaries to protect their interests. The trustee must promptly respond to the beneficiary's request for info on the administration of a trust. If a fiduciary willfully neglects or refuses to render an accounting or breaches her fiduciary duties, you can ask the court to remove her as the executor or trustee.

In this particular scenario, the older sister is legally bound to provide an accounting of the estate. If that shows that anything was done wrongfully, she may be personally liable for misconduct. She may even be liable to pay the legal fees incurred by other family members.

This can get messy, and it can be a tough time for everyone in the family. If it sounds all too familiar, you’ll want to speak with an attorney with experience in estate litigation.

Reference: nj.com (September 28, 2018) “Your rights when family fights over a will”

Another Celebrity Death, Another Estate Mess

With less than half of Americans having an estate plan in place, we are in the same boat as celebrities, like Aretha Franklin or Prince. While our estates may not match their assets, the messes left behind are just as painful to family members.

A recent survey from caring.com found that only 42% of adults have estate planning documents, including a will. That means that almost 60% of Americans are going to leave our families a mess after we die. Here’s what’s even scarier: a recent article from the Chicago Tribune, “Don't leave a mess for your heirs,”reports that only a third of Americans with children under age 18 have an end-of-life plan. They have not named guardians for their own children, in the event of their own deaths.

MP900178564Many of those who haven’t done any estate planning, say they just haven't gotten around to it. That’s understandable, but it’s important that you conquer your anxieties associated with this emotional subject and take control.

For Aretha Franklin's estate, Michigan (her state of residence) will decide who will get what. The local probate court will oversee everything from property, retirement accounts and the residuals that flow from her music catalog. It’s possible that her assets will be split among her four children. However, as many parents know, some kids are more prepared to manage financial distributions than others—a big reason why estate planning is so important.

If you have property you want to go to specific individuals, you should create a document with instructions as to who gets what.

Some people think that because they don't have a high net worth, they don’t need to worry about such things. However, estate planning isn’t just about money—anyone with young children should have a will, because a will names the guardians of minor children. You want to be certain that you, and not the courts, designate your children’s guardians.

When you’re ready to start or revisit the planning process, talk to a qualified estate attorney (yes, pay for a lawyer and don’t do it yourself), here are the basic documents to consider:

  • Will: A document that makes certain your assets are passed to designated beneficiaries in accordance with your instructions. The will designates an executor who will oversee the distribution of your assets. If you have minor children, you must name a guardian for them.
  • Letter of Instruction:This may include the appointment of someone who will ensure the proper disposition of your remains. That can be important, if you’re choosing a method that’s contrary to your family's traditions.
  • Power of Attorney: This gives a person you select the authority to act as your agent, in certain circumstances.
  • Health Care Proxy:This gives a person you select, the power to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you lose the ability to do so.
  • Trusts: Revocable (changeable) or irrevocable (not-changeable) trusts may be useful, depending on family and tax situations. You need an experienced trust attorney to help you decide, if this is a sound strategy and to properly prepare the documents.

Even if your funeral plan does not include a gold-plated coffin (like Aretha) or a multi-million estate (like Prince), sit down with an estate planning attorney and prepare these documents to protect your family sooner, not later.

Reference: Chicago Tribune (August 30, 2018) “Don't leave a mess for your heirs”

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