Last Will and Testament

How Does a Probate Proceeding Work?

A Will, also known as Last Will and Testament, is a legal document that is used in probate court.  It’s used when a person dies with assets that are in their name alone without a surviving joint owner or beneficiary designated, says the Record Online in the article “Anatomy of a probate proceeding.”

So, how does a probate proceeding work?

How does a probate proceeding work
Probate has been referred to as the law suit you file against yourself after you pass away.

Probate is a judicial or court proceeding, where the probate court has jurisdiction over the assets of the person who has died. The court oversees the personal representative’s payment of debts, taxes and probate fees, in addition to supervising distribution of assets to the person’s beneficiaries. The personal representative of the will has to manage the probate assets and then report to the court.

Without a will, things can get messy. A similar court proceeding takes place, but it is known as intestate succession, and the assets are distributed according to state law.

To start the probate proceeding, the personal representative completes and submits a Petition for Administration with the probate court. Most personal representatives hire an estate planning attorney to help with this. The attorney knows the process, which keeps things moving along.

The probate petition lists the beneficiaries named in the will, plus certain relatives who must, by law, receive legal notice in the mail. Let’s say that someone disinherits a child in their will. That child receives notice and learns they have been disinherited. Beneficiaries and relatives alike must return paperwork to the court stating that they either consent or object to the provisions of the will.

A disinherited child has the right to file objections with the court, and then begin a battle for inheritance that is known as a will contest. This can become protracted and expensive, drawing out the probate process for years. A will contest places all of the assets in the will in limbo. They cannot be distributed unless the court says they can, which may not occur until the will contest is completed.

In addition to the expense and time that probate takes, while the process is going on, assets are frozen. Only when the court gives the all clear does the judge issue what are called Letters of Administration, or “Letters Testamentary,” which allows the executor to start the process of distributing funds. They must open an estate account, apply for a taxpayer ID for the account, collect the assets and ultimately, distribute them, as directed in the will to the beneficiaries.

Now that you know a little about how a probate proceeding works you’re probably asking whether a will contest, or probate be avoided? Avoiding probate, or having selected assets taken out of the estate, is one reason that people use trusts as part of their estate plan. Assets can also be placed in joint ownership, and beneficiaries can be added to accounts, so that the asset goes directly to the beneficiary.

By working closely with an estate planning attorney, you’ll have the opportunity to prepare an estate plan that addresses how you want assets to be distributed, which assets may be placed outside of your estate for an easier transfer to beneficiaries and what you can do to avoid a will contest, if there is a disinheritance situation looming.

Reference: Record Online (August 24, 2019) “Anatomy of a probate proceeding”

When Should a No Contest Clause Be Included in My Will?

Deciding whether a no contest clause should be included in your will is an emotionally charged decision. Parents who sit down with an estate planning attorney would much rather talk about their grandchildren and how much they are looking forward to retirement.

When should a no contest clause be used in my will?
One of the main reasons to use a no contest clause is to deter a family member from challenging the distributions in your will.

But, when the discussion turns to how they want to distribute their assets, as reported in the article “Why is it called a ‘No Contest’ clause?” from The Daily Sentinel, the problem is revealed.

The parents share that there is a family member, an adult child, who has never been part of the family. Usually they have had a troubled past, pushed others in the family out of their lives and it’s heartbreaking for all concerned.

The discussion then moves to determining how to handle that family member with respect to their estate plan. “Do you want her to be part of your estate plan?” is the least judgmental question the attorney can ask. In many cases, the parents say yes and say they’ll keep trying to foster some kind of relationship, no matter how limited. In other cases, the answer is no.

In both cases, however, the concern is that the difficult child will fight with their siblings over their inheritance (or lack thereof) and take the battle to court. That’s one of the primary reasons a no contest clause should be included in a will.

As long as estate planning documents are prepared and executed correctly, they will survive a legal contest. However, putting in a no contest clause creates another barrier to an estate battle.

The no contest clause is intended to act as a strong deterrent for those individuals who believe they are entitled to more of the estate. It makes it clear that any challenges will result in a smaller portion of the estate, and possibly no inheritance at all, depending upon how it is written.

Both parents need to have a no contest provision included in their wills. The message is clear and consistent: these are the estate plans that we decided to create. Don’t try to change them.

For families with litigious family members or spouses who married into the family and feel that they are not being treated fairly, a no contest clause makes sense to protect the wishes of the parents.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about how a no contest provision might work in your situation. If your family doesn’t need such a clause, count your blessings!

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Aug. 10, 2019) “Why is it called a ‘No Contest’ clause?”

Will the State Decide Who Gets Your Assets?

It’s something that everyone needs, but often gets overlooked. Estate planning makes some people downright uncomfortable. There’s no law that says you must have an estate plan—just laws that will determine how your property is distributed and who will raise your children if you don’t have a will.  So, will the state decide who gets your assets?

Will the state decide who gets your assets?
If you don’t have a will when you pass away, state laws will determine who gets your assets.

If you don’t at least have a last will and testament, state statutes will decide who gets your assets after you pass away.  Thats one of the biggest reasons planning is important, says WMUR 9 in a recent article “Money Matters: Estate planning,” if you want to be the one making those decisions.

An estate plan can be simple if you only own a few assets, or complicated if you have significant assets, more than one home or multiple investments. Some strategies are easier to implement, like a last will and testament. Others can be more complex, like trusts. Whatever your needs, an estate planning attorney will be able to give you the guidance that your unique situation requires. Your estate planning attorney may work with your financial advisor and accountant to be sure that your financial and legal plans work together to benefit you and your family.

The first step for any estate plan is to review your family finances, dynamics and assets.

  • Who are your family members?
  • How do you want to help them?
  • What do they need?
  • What is your tax picture like?
  • How old are you, and how good is your health?
  • Do you have minor children?  If so, who will care for them?

These are just a few of the things an estate planning attorney will discuss with you. Once you are clear on your situation, you’ll discuss overall goals and objectives. The attorney will be able to outline your options, whether you are concerned with passing wealth to the next generation, avoiding family disputes, preparing for a disability or transferring ownership of a business.

A last will and testament will provide clear, legal direction as to how your assets should be distributed and who will care for your minor children.

A trust is used to address more complex planning concerns. A trust is a legal entity that holds assets to be used for the benefit of one or more individuals. It is overseen by a trustee or trustees, who can be individuals you name or professionals.

If you create trusts, it is important that assets be retitled so the trust owns the assets and not you personally. If the assets are not retitled, the trust will not achieve your goals.

Some property typically has its own beneficiary designations, like IRAs, retirement accounts and life insurance. These assets pass directly to heirs according to the designation, but only if you make the designations on the appropriate forms.

Once you’re done with your estate plan, make a note on your calendar. Estate plans and beneficiary designations need to be reviewed every three to five years. Lives change, laws change and your estate plan needs to keep pace.

Don’t be left asking yourself whether the state will decide who gets your assets.  Take charge and work with an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure you are the one deciding who gets your assets and who will raise your children.

Reference: WMUR 9 (Aug. 1, 2019) “Money Matters: Estate planning”

Estate Planning Basics Everyone Should Know

The discomfort most people have with the knowledge of their own mortality makes it challenging for some people to do the estate planning that needs to take place before an emergency occurs. However, according to the Gettysburg Times’ recent article “Essentials necessary for estate planning,” the best course of action is to take care of the estate planning basics now, when there is no urgency. Having detailed plans in place to protect loved ones from possible complications, costs and added stress in the future, is a gift you can give to those you love.

Estate Planning Basics
Taking care of the estate planning basics is a simple but important step for everyone to take.

There are any number of legal documents and strategies used to accommodate the varied situations of life, including family dynamics and asset levels. An estate planning attorney licensed in your state will have the ability to create a plan and the documents that suit your personal situation. The three documents discussed in the following section are generally considered to be the most important for anyone to have.

Power of Attorney or POA—This document gives legal authority to another person or entity, referred to as your “Agent”, to perform certain acts on your behalf, when you cannot do so because of illness, injury or incapacity. There are many different types of POA, from a “full” POA with no limitations, to a “limited” POA that is created solely for a specific purpose. This document comes into action, when you are incapacitated and becomes void upon your death.

Living Will—This is a detailed health care directive that allows you to list your wishes regarding several medical procedures and life-sustaining treatments. These treatments include resuscitations, breathing assistance, feeding tubes and similar medical matters. You want to have this in place to spare your loved ones the emotional anguish of trying to decide what you would have wanted. They’ll know, because you specifically told them in this document.

Last Will and Testament—When prepared correctly, and that includes signed, witnessed, and notarized, a will is used by the “testator” (the person making the will) to provide the legal wishes regarding what should happen to their minor children (if any) and assets upon death.

What happens if you don’t have these documents? It is likely that your loved ones will need to go to court to have someone named as your agent or executor, which is the person who is in charge of your estate. Depending upon the laws of your state, that person may be a family member, or it may end up being a family member who you haven’t spoken to in decades. It is far better to take the time to have these estate planning basics taken care of by an estate planning attorney, so your family is protected, and your wishes are fulfilled.

The best time to do this, is when there is no crisis. Estate plans also require regular monitoring and updating. Life circumstances change, estate and tax laws change, and new opportunities may present themselves. Speak with your estate planning attorney now and create your plan for the future.

Reference: Gettysburg Times (July 27, 2019) “Essentials necessary for estate planning”

Prior Planning is Always a Better Alternative

None of us knows what kind of unexpected surprises will occur in our lives. We’d like to believe they will all be happy events, like winning the big Power Ball jackpot. However, unpleasant things like illness or a flood or fire often occur. We never think it will happen to us, says The Dalles Chronicle’s article “Prepare now for emergencies.” Unfortunately, these things do happen, and when they do, being prepared can make all the difference between a stressful situation and a really awful situation that could have been made, well, less awful.

For starters, have you met with an estate planning attorney to create a comprehensive estate plan that includes a last will and testament, a financial power of attorney and a health care power of attorney? The will concerns distribution of your possessions and property, the power of attorney gives a trusted person the ability to take financial and legal actions on your behalf, in the event that you become incapacitated and the medical power of attorney allows someone to make health care decisions for you, also if you become incapacitated. There are also many other tools that an estate planning attorney can help you with, such as a Special Needs Trust, if your family includes a family member with special needs, or other trusts, if they are needed.

Next, your emergency preparations should include having important documents assembled in a notebook, on a memory stick and/or a safe location. Imagine there was an emergency evacuation and you had to leave your home immediately. What documents would you need? Here’s a checklist:

  • Contact information for family members, doctors, attorneys, dentist, insurance broker, financial advisor.
  • Cash, so if ATMs are not working, you will have cash on hand.
  • Identification documents, including originals of your birth certificate, marriage license, divorce papers, passport, Social Security card, health insurance cards (or Medicare or Medicaid cards).
  • A video of your home and all of your possessions on your mobile phone. Consider emailing it to a family member or friend who lives in a different location.
  • Insurance policies for home, auto, disability, long-term care, etc. Include contact information for either 800-numbers or your local agent, if you need to file a claim.
  • A copy of recent financial statements for credit cards, banks, brokerage firms, retirement accounts, car loans, mortgage and similar types of accounts.
  • Copies of the last three years of tax returns. If you work with a CPA, they should have them on a secure portal, but a hard copy will be useful to have.
  • Legal documents for your estate plan, including the will, power of attorney and health care power of attorney, as described above.
  • Other legal documents, including car registration, car title and property deed to your home.

These documents should all be organized in a folder that is placed in your home where you and your spouse know where it is and can grab it on your way out the door.

One more item that should be noted in this digital age: if you use a laptop or tablet that contains websites that you use frequently for personal finance, investments, etc., be mindful of its location in the house, so you can grab it and a charger cable quickly. If you have passwords for accounts—and most of us do—you should print them out and include them in your file folder for easy access. You can almost always re-set a password, but how much easier will rebuilding your life be if you have them on hand?

If you do ever face a catastrophic emergency, having these materials will save you hours of time and stress.

Reference: The Dalles Chronicle (July 16, 2019) “Prepare now for emergencies”

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”

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