Probate Attorney

Am I Named in a Will? How Would I Know?

Imagine a scenario where three brothers’ biological father passed away a decade ago. The father wasn’t married to their mother, and, he had another family with three children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. The father never publicly acknowledged that the three boys were his children. They’ve now heard rumors that he left them something in his will—which may or may not exist. The father’s wife has also passed away.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “How can we find out if our father left us something in his will?” explains that a parent isn’t required to leave his or her adult children an inheritance.

If a person doesn’t leave a will when they die, the intestacy laws of the state in which he or she dies will dictate how the decedent’s property is divided.

For example, if you die without a will in Kansas, your assets will go to your closest relatives. If there were children but no spouse, the children inherit everything. If there is a spouse and children, the spouse inherits one-half of your intestate property, and your children inherit the other one-half of your property.

In Illinois, if you’re married and you pass away without a will, the portion given to your spouse is based upon whether you have living descendants, such as children and grandchildren.

In New Jersey, if the decedent is survived by a spouse and children—this includes any children who are not children of the surviving spouse—the surviving spouse gets the first 25% of the intestate estate, but not less than $50,000 nor more than $200,000, plus one-half of the balance of the intestate estate. In that state, the descendants of the decedent would receive the remainder.

Note that an intestate estate doesn’t include property that’s in the joint name of the decedent and another person with rights of survivorship or payable upon death to another beneficiary. In our problem above, the issue would be whether the three boys would’ve been entitled to a percentage of the property permitted under the state intestacy statute, or under a will if you could prove there was one.

However, the time for the three boys to make a claim against their father’s estate would have been at his death. A 10-year delay is a problem. It may prevent a recovery because there are time limitations for bringing legal actions. However, they may have other claims, and there may be reasons you are not too late.

Litigation is very fact-specific, and the rules are state-specific. The boys should talk to an estate litigation attorney, if they think there are enough assets to make at it worth their while.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 29, 2020) “How can we find out if our father left us something in his will?”

Who Can Witness a Will?

For a will to be binding, there are a number of requirements that must be met, including having a qualified person witness the will. While state laws on wills vary, most require you to be of legal adult age to make a will and have testamentary capacity (i.e., that you be “of sound mind”).

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Who Can and Cannot Witness a Will?” explains that you usually must have your will witnessed.

witness a will
Knowing who can (and can’t) witness a will is critically important

Witnesses to your will are significant in the event that someone disputes its validity later or if there is a will contest. If one of your heirs challenges the terms of your will, a witness may be asked by the probate court to attest that they watched you sign the will and that you appeared to be of sound mind when you did so. Witnesses provide you with another layer of validity to a will, and it makes it more difficult for someone to dispute its legality.

When drafting a will, it’s important to understand several requirements, including who can witness a will. Generally, but depending on applicable state law, anyone can witness a will, as long as they meet two requirements: (i) they are of legal adult age; and (ii) they have the mental capacity to sign the will. Therefore, the types of people who could act on your behalf include your friends, a neighbor, co-workers and any of your relatives.  Some states also require that witnesses are not receiving anything in the will.

If you’ve hired an experienced estate planning attorney to help you draft your will, he or she can also act as a witness, provided they’re not named as a beneficiary.

Witnesses don’t need to review the entire will document in order to sign it. They only need to be able to verify that the document exists, that you have signed it in their presence and that they have signed it in front of you.

When you sign the will, get both witnesses together at the same time. You’ll need to sign, initial and date the will in ink, then have your witnesses do the same. Some states require you to attach a self-proving affidavit or have the will notarized.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Dec. 28, 2020) “Who Can and Cannot Witness a Will?”

Do I Assume My Parents’ Timeshare when They Die?

Ridding yourself of a timeshare can be difficult. Frequently, heirs of a timeshare owner don’t want to take on the liability and the responsibility.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I leave a timeshare to the timeshare company in my will?” explains that as a general rule, unless it’s in an attempt to defraud creditors, a beneficiary may always renounce or disclaim a bequest made to him or her in a will.

However, if you write a provision in your will, it doesn’t mean that it’s legal, needs to be followed, or can be carried out.

As an example, a beneficiary designation on a bank account or certificate of deposit (CD) to your brother Dirk would take precedence over a specific bequest in your will that the same account or CD goes to your brother Chris. In that instant, the bank will pay the bank account or CD to your brother Dirk—no matter what your will says.

Likewise, with shares in a closely held business. If there is a contract between the shareholders dictating what happens to shares of the business if someone dies, that agreement will also override a provision in your will.

A timeshare is a contract. That means the terms of that contract control what happens. Your will doesn’t.

If the will doesn’t contradict the contract, like bequeathing the timeshare to a third-party who will continue to pay the contract obligations, both documents can co-exist.

A timeshare owner can’t avoid contractual obligations by just giving back the unit back to the corporation, unless that’s permitted in the contract.

The timeshare corporation isn’t required to take back a timeshare unit whether it is returned by the terms of the will or by the executor in administrating the estate, unless the signed timeshare agreement provides for this, or terms of the return are negotiated.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 24, 2020) “Can I leave a timeshare to the timeshare company in my will?”

Taking a Look at the Estate of Late Soccer Star Diego Maradona

Similar to soccer star Diego Maradona’s life, the inheritance process is likely to be a mess with his big family that includes eight children from six different partners as heirs to his assets, plus his intangible heritage.

Reuters’ recent article entitled “Image rights, fast cars and a ‘tank’: Maradona’s death triggers complex inheritance” explains that Maradona, who died recently at 60 from cardiac arrest, had four children in Argentina, one in Italy, and three in Cuba, when he went there for treatment to recover from his addictions, his lawyer Matías Morla said.

02 July 1982 – FIFA World Cup – Argentina v Brazil (photo by Mark Leech/Offside/Getty Images)

“In the specific case of Maradona, he is divorced and has eight children, so the estate is divided by eight in an inheritance trial,” Buenos Aires-based soccer lawyer Martín Apolo told Reuters. “It will be a complex process.”

The probate process can last 90 days in a normal case. However, Apolo said it could be much longer with the prospect of “internal disputes” and opportunists seeking a payout from Maradona’s estate. The estate of the World Cup champion, who at the time of his death was coach of the Argentine club Gimnasia y Esgrima, includes properties, cars, investments and jewels that he was given throughout his career. He played and coached in Argentina, Spain, Italy, the United Arab Emirates, Belarus and Mexico.

There is no established value of Diego Maradona’s fortune. Celebrity Net Worth estimates his net worth at the time of his death at $500,000 but said he had earned millions during his career from contracts with the different teams and sponsorship with brands, such as Coca-Cola.

Called “Dios” for his godlike skills on the soccer pitch and “Pelusa” for his prominent mane of hair. Maradona will be valuable for his image, even after death.

“The most important patrimony here could be the image rights, and also all his shirts,” said Apolo. “How much is the one he used in the World Cup final worth? How much could you pay at auction?”

The soccer star’s family has been through several legal battles in recent years, including a trial with his ex-partner Claudia Villafañe for tax evasion, procedural fraud and misappropriation of 458 objects from his past as a soccer player. However, Maradona’s family has asked for unity in the recent weeks before his death, after he underwent brain surgery to remove a blood clot, from which he was recovering when he died.

Reference: Reuters (Nov. 27, 2020) “Image rights, fast cars and a ‘tank’: Maradona’s death triggers complex inheritance”

Do I Need to Name a Guardian for My Children in the Will?

Many young couples with children and bills, when asked about estate planning and say, “what estate?”  However, a critical part of having a will—one frequently overlooked—is naming a guardian for minor children. If you don’t name a guardian, it could result in issues for your children after your death.

Naming a Guardian
Naming a guardian for your children can only be done through your estate planning documents.

For a young family, naming a guardian is one of the most important reasons to draft a will. If you and your spouse die together with no guardian designated in a will, the guardian will be chosen by the court.

In a worst-case scenario, if you have no close family or no one in your family who can take your child, the court could even send them to foster care until a permanent guardian can be named.

The judge will collect as much information as possible about your children and family circumstances to name a guardian for your children.

However, the judge won’t have any intimate knowledge of who you know or which of your relatives would be good guardians. This could result in a choice of one of the last people you might pick to raise your children.

Try to find common ground by agreeing to a set of criteria you want in a guardian. This could include:

  • The potential guardian’s willingness to be a guardian
  • The potential guardian’s financial situation
  • Where the child might live with that person
  • The potential guardian’s values, religion, or political beliefs
  • The potential guardian’s parenting skills; and
  • The potential guardian’s age and health.

Next, make a decision, get the chosen guardian’s consent, write it all down, and then set out to create a will so you can legally name a guardian.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you do it correctly.

Reference: Lifehacker (Oct. 27, 2020) “Why You Should Name a Guardian for Your Kids Right Away”

What Does Tenancy by the Entirety Mean in Estate Planning?

Choosing an ownership structure for real estate is is an important decision. As a result, it is crucial to understand the options. Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “What is Tenancy by the Entirety?” explains that the only owners of the property must be both spouses of a legally married couple. The couple must be a married couple, not just two people in a relationship or two otherwise unmarried individuals. The owners also can’t be a married couple that co-owns the property with another.

tenancy by the entirety
Tenancy by the entirety is limited to married couples.

With a tenancy by the entirety, both spouses have an equal ownership interest in the entire property.  It doesn’t matter what portion of the purchase price came from each joint owner. Both spouses also have equal rights, when it comes to actions involving the property, like whether to sell the property. If one of the spouses or owners dies while the property is owned under a tenancy by the entirety, the surviving spouse automatically becomes the sole owner of the home, even if the will of the decedent spouse distributes the property to somebody else.

If there’s a divorce, a tenancy by the entirety can be cancelled. If the divorced spouses continue to own the property, the arrangement will revert to tenants in common. This lets each owner sell or transfer their interest in the property to whomever they want. The property’s ownership structure could also be changed from tenancy by the entirety to another type, if both spouses agree to it.

Tenancy by the entirety has two main advantages for married couples: asset protection and estate planning. Tenancy by the entirety helps protect the property from the debts of one spouse. Creditors can’t attach a lien on a house owned as tenancy by the entirety, unless the debt is in the names of both spouses. TBE makes the owner of the house a separate legal entity from either spouse. It also avoids a costly and lengthy probate process because title to the home transfers automatically to the surviving spouse upon one spouse’s death.

However, TBE isn’t available in all states. Some owners also don’t like the fact that each spouse owns a 50% share, even if one spouse paid the entire cost of acquiring the home. Tenancy by the entirety is only used in certain states. They include AK, AR, DE, DC, FL, HI, IL (for some types of homestead property), IN, KY, MD, MA, MI, MS, MO, NJ, NY, NC, OK, OR, PA, RI, TN, VT, VA, and WY. Some of these states allow tenancy by the entirety for a number of types of property, while others allow TBE arrangements for just real estate.

There are a few other ways to own property. Here are some of the most commonly used methods for properties purchased for more than one adult tenant to live in:

Tenants in Common. It is an ownership structure similar to tenancy by the entirety, but it applies to non-married couples. Like tenancy by the entirety, tenants in common share an equal ownership interest in the property, but at the death of one owner, their share of the property passes to their heirs, not to the surviving owner. Tenants in common is the default ownership structure, unless another form of ownership is specifically chosen with an asset owned equally by two or more people.

Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship (JTWROS).  This is similar to tenancy by the entirety. Like tenancy by the entirety, JTWROS-held properties also pass to the survivor in the event of one spouse’s death. However, JTWROS isn’t limited to married couples, and there can be two or more owners. Each one has an equal interest in the property, but unlike TBE property, each owner has the right to sell or transfer their ownership interest to another. Another difference is that JTWROS owners aren’t considered to be a separate and single legal entity—each owner’s creditors can go after the property, even for debts that are owned by a single debtor spouse.

Sole Ownership. With sole ownership, just one person holds title to a property. It is often used when a single individual purchases a home. However, it can also be used if a married couple buys a home, but only one spouse will legally own it. A big advantage of sole ownership is its simplicity—the owner is able to make any decisions about the property on their own. However, transfer of ownership when a sole owner dies can be more complicated than any of the other ownership structures above.

Joint Tenancy. This is typically what happens when two people are listed on a deed, and there’s no other ownership structure designated. Here, both owners have equal ownership rights to a property, and in the event of a deceased spouse or owner, the property passes to the surviving joint tenant. However, joint tenancy doesn’t protect the property from creditors of one of the owners.

Tenancy by the entirety has several key benefits for married couples, in states where it’s permitted. Review these with an experienced estate planning attorney before deciding.

Reference: Motley Fool (Aug. 23, 2020) “What is Tenancy by the Entirety?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Basic Estate Planning Documents Do I Need?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What are the Estate Planning Basics?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do I Do If I’m Named Financial Power of Attorney?

A financial power of attorney (POA) is a document in which the “principal” appoints a trusted someone known as the “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” to act on behalf of the principal, especially when the principal is incapacitated. It typically permits the attorney-in-fact to pay the principal’s bills, access his accounts, pay his taxes and buy and sell investments or even real estate. In effect, the agent steps into the shoes of the principal and is able to act for him or her in all matters, as described in the POA document.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?” points out that these responsibilities may sound overwhelming, and it’s only natural to feel this way initially. Let’s look at the steps to take to do this important job:

  1. Start by reading the document. Review the POA document to determine precisely what the principal has given you power to do on their behalf. A POA typically includes information addressed to the agent that explains the legal duties he or she owes to the principal.
  2. See what you have to handle for the principal. Ask for a list of the principal’s assets and liabilities. If the principle is organized, it’ll be easy. If not, you will want to find about their brokerage and bank accounts, 401(k)s/IRAs/403(b)s, the mortgage, taxes, insurance and other monthly or recurring bills (like utilities, phone, cable and internet).
  3. Protect the principal’s property. Be sure the principal’s home is secure.  It’s often helpful to make a video to inventory the home. If it looks like the principal will be incapacitated for an extended period of time, you may cancel the phone and newspaper subscriptions. If you have control of the principal’s investments and their incapacitation may continue for a long time, review their brokerage statements for high-risk positions that you don’t understand, like options, puts and calls, or commodities. Get advice on any assets you don’t know how to handle.
  4. Pay all bills, as necessary. Review the principal’s bills and credit card statements, as you would your own, for potential fraud. Note that they may have bills automatically paid by credit card and plan accordingly.
  5. Pay taxes. Many powers of attorney give the agent the power to pay the principal’s taxes and deal with the IRS. If so, you’ll be responsible for filing and paying taxes on behalf of the principal. If the principal passes away, the executor or personal representative of the principal’s last will is responsible for preparing any final taxes.
  6. Keep meticulous records. Track every expenditure you make and every action you take on the principal’s behalf. You’ll be asked to demonstrate that you have upheld your duties and acted in the principal’s best interests. It will also be important for you to receive reimbursement for expenses, and (if the power of attorney provides for it) the time you spent acting as agent.

Finally, it’s important to know that your powers and obligations as the principal’s agent end when the principal passes away.  At that point, all powers conferred under the POA are extinguished and the person named as executor or personal representative in the principal’s will take over all duties.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 22, 2020) “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?”

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