Inheritance

Can I Leave My Pet Some of My Estate?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How Can Siblings Settle Disputes over an Estate?

disputes over an estate
It’s best to avoid future disputes over an estate by giving clear direction in your estate planning documents.

When a parent passes away, their assets are often divided between their children. However, if there’s no will to answer any legal questions and disputes over the estate, siblings can argue over the assets. Some even take the matter to court. It would be great to avoid disputes over the estate because, in many cases, a fight between the siblings can end their good relationship and enrich attorneys, instead of family members.

The Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “Tips to Help Siblings Avoid or Resolve an Estate Battle” says that the following tips can help people avoid disputes over an estate or assist them in preventing the fight entirely.

Use a Family Auction. With a family auction, siblings use agreed upon “tokens” to bid for the estate items they want.

Get an Appraisal. The division of an estate between the siblings can get complicated and end in a fight if the siblings want different pieces of the estate and have to work out the value difference. If, for example, the siblings decide to split the estate unevenly, and one gets a car and another a house, it’s worthwhile to engage the services of an appraiser to calculate the value of these assets. That way, those pieces of smaller value can be deducted from ones of higher value for fairer distribution.

Mediation. If siblings historically don’t get along, they may battle over every trinket left as an inheritance, no matter how immaterial. In that case, you should use a mediator to help divide the estate fairly without a court battle.

Take Turns! Sometimes, if there are several siblings involved in the division of assets, they can take turns in claiming the items within the estate. All siblings naturally have to agree to the idea with no hard feelings involved. Just like Mom would have wanted!

Asset Liquidation. If everything else fails, the easiest way to divide the assets and the estate between the siblings is to go through asset liquidation and split the proceeds.

As you can see, there are a number of ways to deal with the division of the estate and assets and prevent the legal battle between the siblings. To avoid hard feelings, stay calm, be reasonable and ask your siblings to act the same way.

Reference: The Legal Reader (Aug. 24, 2020) “Tips to Help Siblings Avoid or Resolve an Estate Battle”

What Does an Executor Do?

Being asked to serve as the executor of a loved one’s estate is flattering, but it is also a big responsibility and a lot of work. So, what does an executor do? As the executor, you are responsible for taking care of all of the financial and legal matters of the estate, explains the article “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate” from Review Times. The job will require a lot of time and, depending upon the complexity of the estate and the family situation, could be challenging.

What does an executor do
The job of being an executor has many aspects.

Some of the tasks include:

  • Filing court papers to start the probate process to determine whether the will is valid.
  • Making a complete inventory of everything in the estate.
  • Obtaining an estate tax ID number, opening an estate bank account and using the estate funds to pay bills, including funeral costs and medical bills.
  • If the estate includes a home, maintaining the home and paying the mortgage, taxes, etc.
  • Terminating credit cards, notifying banks and government agencies—including Social Security—and the post office.
  • Preparing and filing income tax returns for the last year of the person’s life, unless they filed them already, and for the estate.
  • Distributing assets, as directed by the will.

Your first task is to locate the will and any important documents and financial information. You will need the will, deeds, titles, brokerage statements, insurance policies, etc.

If the estate is complicated, you will want to work with an estate planning attorney, who can guide you through the process. The estate pays for the attorney, and you work closely with them. Every state has its own laws and timetables for the executor’s responsibilities, which the attorney will be familiar with.

If possible, find out if there are any family conflicts, before the loved one passes. If there are potential problems, it may be better for the loved one to tell who will be inheriting what before they die. If there is no plan for asset distribution, the person who is asking you to be the executor needs to meet with an estate planning attorney as soon as possible and have a plan created, with all of the documents necessary for your state.

The executor is entitled to be paid a fee, which is paid by the estate. In most states, that fee is set at a percentage of the estate’s value, depending on the size and complexity of the estate. If you are both an executor and a beneficiary, you may want to forgo the fee, because fees are taxable, but in most states, inheritances are not.

Reference: Review Times (Sep. 6, 2020) “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate”

Is an Ex-Wife Entitled to an Inheritance from Her Former Husband?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “My brother died of COVID-19. Should his ex-wife get an inheritance?” says that it’s unlikely that an ex-wife is entitled to an inheritance from her former husband’s estate.  However, the answer is highly dependent on state law.

There are three main ways property can transfer at death. They each have different rules.

ex-wife entitled to inheritance from her husband
It is not likely that an ex-wife is entitled to an inheritance from her former husband’s estate.

Joint assets. When property is held as Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship (JTWROS), the surviving joint owner automatically becomes the sole owner of the property. Usually, jointly owned property is retitled into individually owned property after the divorce. If this was never done, some states automatically change JTWROS property to a different form of joint ownership, called Tenancy In Common when a divorce is finalized. As a result, with tenants in common property, when one owner dies, his or her 50% ownership interest becomes a probate asset and passes pursuant to his or her will (or the state’s intestacy laws, if they didn’t have a will).

This means that even if the husband in this scenario still owned JTWROS property with his ex-wife when he passed away, she wouldn’t automatically inherit his share. She still has her own 50% share that she owned all along.

Beneficiary designations.  Property can also pass by beneficiary designation, like with life insurance or retirement accounts.

Beneficiary designations are typically updated after a divorce. However, again, ask an experienced estate planning attorney about your state laws. For example, some state’s laws revoke a divorced spouse as beneficiary, even if the beneficiary designation was never updated.

In this situation, even if the husband named his wife as a beneficiary on an insurance policy or retirement accounts and never changed it, she wouldn’t be able to collect.

Probate.  Finally, the third way that property can pass, is through the probate process. This means there’s a will.  If there was no will, it would be pursuant to the state’s intestacy laws.

An ex-spouse is never entitled to inherit property under state intestate statutes.

There’s an important caveats for these rules. They can be superseded by a divorce decree. Therefore, review the divorce decree to see whether it has any relevant language.

Reference: nj.com (Aug. 4, 2020) “My brother died of COVID-19. Should his ex-wife get an inheritance?”

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?”

Per Stirpes or Per Capita: Two Words That Could Undo Your Estate Plan

No one relishes the idea of planning for their own death, but the alternative of not planning and leaving your family members to sort out a mess is a poor way to be remembered. According to a recent article from Kiplinger, titled These 2 Words Could Send Your Retirement Money to the Wrong Beneficiary,” knowing the difference between per stirpes or per capita could save you from accidentally cutting someone out of your will.

per stripes vs per capita
Understanding the difference between per stirpes and per capita could make all the difference.

First, always be sure the beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts, insurance accounts and any other accounts that allow you to have a named beneficiary, match up with your will and your wishes. Property and assets outside of your retirement accounts will be distributed by other estate planning tools, like trusts, or TODs (Transfer on Death) for jointly held assets. If you don’t make plans, most of your estate will go through probate. It’s can be expensive and time consuming, but with the right planning, it can be avoided.

Most people name their spouse as the primary beneficiary on their retirement account. If you don’t wish to do this, you may have to fill out paperwork and have your spouse sign a waiver agreeing to your plan. State and Federal laws protect spouses, when it comes to certain types of retirement accounts, unless waived. After naming your primary beneficiary, you name contingent beneficiaries. If you are married and have children, it’s likely that your children will be your contingent beneficiaries. No children? In that case, a niece or nephew or other family member is usually named. By the way, if you want to give to charity, then retirement funds are the perfect asset to give.

The next decision to make is the key one: per stirpes or per capita. This step is often missed, because it’s not used on every asset form. Per stirpes is a Latin legal term that simply means if your primary beneficiary dies before you die, their next of kin inherits your assets. The alternative is per capita. By choosing per capita, your money only goes to your other primary beneficiaries.

Here’s an example of how per capita might work.

Imagine a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter. The daughter is the primary beneficiary on the grandmother’s retirement account, but the grandmother forgets to name a contingent beneficiary.

If the daughter dies before the grandmother and the daughter is still listed as the primary beneficiary when the grandmother dies, the money won’t go the granddaughter. The money will go through probate and the court would decide who receives the money. Had the grandmother selected per stirpes, the money would have gone straight to the granddaughter, even if she were not listed as a contingent beneficiary. When you choose per stirpes, the next of kin to your primary beneficiary (or your heir’s heirs) receive their share of your property.

Per capita ensures that your money goes to your primary beneficiaries only. Per capita is also typically the default option most retirement savers have in place right now.

Depending on how you want your inheritance handled, it’s easy to see how not knowing when to use per stirpes or per capita could be a costly estate planning mistake.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 30, 2020)These 2 Words Could Send Your Retirement Money to the Wrong Beneficiary

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What Happens If I Don’t Fund My Trust?

Trust funding is a crucial step in estate planning that many people forget to do.

However, if it’s done properly, funding will avoid probate, provide for you in the event of your incapacity and save on estate taxes.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” looks at some of the benefits of trusts.

Avoiding probate and problems with your estate. If you’ve created a revocable trust, you have control over the trust and can modify it during your lifetime. You are also able to fund it, while you are alive. You can fund the trust now or on your death. If you don’t transfer assets to the trust during your lifetime, then your last will must be probated, and an executor of your estate should be appointed. The executor will then have the authority to transfer the assets to your trust. This may take time and will involve court. You can avoid this by transferring assets to your trust now, saving your family time and aggravation after your death.

Protecting you and your family in the event that you become incapacitated. Funding the trust now will let the successor trustee manage the assets for you and your family, if your become incapacitated. 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.

Taking advantage of estate tax savings. If you’re married, you may have created a trust that contains terms for estate tax savings. This will often delay estate taxes until the death of the second spouse, by providing income to the surviving spouse and access to principal during his or her lifetime while the ultimate beneficiaries are your children. Depending where you live, the trust can also reduce state estate taxes. You must fund your trust to make certain that these estate tax provisions work properly.

Remember that any asset transfer will need to be consistent with your estate plan. Your beneficiary designations on life insurance policies should be examined to determine if the beneficiary can be updated to the trust.

You may also want to move tangible items to the trust, as well as any closely held business interests, such as stock in a family business or an interest in a limited liability company (LLC). Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the assets to transfer to your trust.

Fund your trust now to maximize your updated estate planning documents.

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

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”

Is It Easy to Change My Home’s Title from Tenants in Common to Joint Tenants?

Many couples may have purchased a home years ago with the original deed titled as “William Smith and Wilhelmina Smith”. In most states this defaults to tenants in common. With Wilhelmina being William’s wife for decades, they thought it was time to think about changing the title to William Smith and Wilhelmina Smith, joint tenants with right of survivorship. Joint Tenants

The Washington Post’s recent article entitled “Changing a home title from ‘tenants in common’ to ‘joint tenants’” looks at whether this would result in any adverse consequences, such as issues with the title insurance or taxes issues.

When you own a home in joint tenancy, should either of the owners die, that owner’s interest automatically goes to the surviving joint tenant. However, when people own a home as tenants in common, each person owns a specific share of that home. Therefore, our hypothetical couple William and Wilhelmina Smith each owns a 50% interest in the home. If either of them were to die, his or her 50% interest in the home would be distributed, as provided in his or her will or as provided by state probate statute.

If people purchase a home but don’t specify how they want to own the property, in most situations, the state law will say how the parties take title to the property when the deed is silent.

You can typically record a new document that puts both William Smith and Wilhelmina Smith on the title to the home, as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. When it’s a simple change in the title from tenants in common to joint tenants, most state tax authorities will ignore that change.

To be sure you should ask an experienced estate planning attorney or the office that collects or assesses values in your location for more information. However, it’s a pretty safe bet that the change won’t affect a home’s value.

As far as the title insurance policy, after so many years, it would be doubtful there would be any problems. That’s because the original title insurance policy named William Smith and Wilhelmina Smith as the insured. If they change the ownership from tenants in common to joint tenants, the Smiths are still the owners of the home and still named on that policy.

Reference: Washington Post (July 6, 2020) “Changing a home title from ‘tenants in common’ to ‘joint tenants’”

How Can I Avoid Family Fighting in My Estate Planning?

It’s not uncommon for parents to modify their first estate plans, when their children become adults. At that point, many parents’ estate plans are designed to help efficiently transfer assets to the surviving spouse and ultimately to the adult children. However, this process can encounter a number of hiccups and headaches.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Three Steps To Estate Planning Without The Family Friction” explains that there are a number of reasons for sibling animosity in the inheritance process. Frequently there are issues that stem from a lack of communication between siblings, which causes doubts as to how things are being done. In addition, siblings may not agree if and how property should be sold and maintained. To help avoid these problems, use this three-step process for estate planning.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney. Hire an estate attorney who has many years of working in this practice area. This will mean that they’ve seen and, more importantly, resolved most types of family conflicts and problems that can arise in the estate planning process. That’s the know-how that you’re really paying for, in addition to his or her legal expertise in wills and trusts.

Create a financial overview. This will help your beneficiaries see what you own. A financial overview can simplify the inheritance process for your executor, and it can help to serve as the foundation for you and your executor to clearly communicate with future beneficiaries to reduce any lingering doubts or questions that they may have, when they’re not in the loop. Your inventory should at least include the following items:

  • A list of all assets, liabilities and insurance policies you have and their beneficiaries
  • Contact information for all financial, insurance and legal professionals with whom you partner;
  • Access information for any websites your beneficiaries may need for your online accounts; and
  • A legacy letter that discusses non-financial items for your children.

Hold a family meeting. This is the most important one.  Conduct a family meeting that includes the parents and the children who will be inheriting assets. Let them hear directly from you exactly what your plans are.  Some topics for this meeting include:

  • The basics of your estate intentions
  • Verify that a trusted person knows the location of your important estate documents
  • State who your executor and other involved people will be and your rationale
  • Make certain that all parties value communication and transparency during this process; and
  • Discuss non-financial legacy items that are important for you to give to your children.

This three-step process can help keep your children’s relationships intact after you are gone. Hiring an experienced estate planning attorney, creating a clear financial overview and communicating what’s important to you are critical steps in helping to keep your family together.

Reference: Forbes (July 2, 2020) “Three Steps To Estate Planning Without The Family Friction”

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