Probate Court

Why Do I Need Estate Planning If I’m Not Rich?

Most people spend more time planning a vacation than they do thinking about who will inherit their assets after they pass away. Although estate planning isn’t the most enjoyable activity, without it, you don’t get to direct who gets the things you’ve worked so hard for after you pass away.

Estate Planning isn't only for the rich
An Estate Plan will protect your assets and your loved ones

Investopedia asks you to consider these four reasons why you should have an estate plan to avoid potentially devastating results for your heirs in its article “4 Reasons Estate Planning Is So Important.”

Wealth Won’t Go to Unintended Beneficiaries. Estate planning may have been once considered something only rich people needed, but that’s changed. Everyone now needs to plan for when something happens to a family’s breadwinner(s). The primary part of estate planning is naming heirs for your assets and a guardian for your minor children. Without an estate plan, the courts will decide who will receive your property and raise your kids.

Protection for Families With Young Children. If you are the parent of small children, you need to have a will to ensure that your children are taken care of. You can designate their guardians, if both parents die before the children turn 18. Without a will with a guardianship clause, a judge will decide this important issue, and the results may not be what you would have wanted.

Avoid Taxes. Estate planning is also about protecting your loved ones from the IRS. Estate planning is transferring assets to your family, with an attempt to create the smallest tax burden for them as possible. A little estate planning can reduce much or even all of their federal and state estate taxes or state inheritance taxes. There are also ways to reduce the income tax that beneficiaries might have to pay. However, without an estate plan, the amount your heirs will owe the government could be substantial.

No Family Fighting (or Very Little). One sibling may believe he or she deserves more than another. This type of fighting happens all the time, and it can turn ugly and end up in court, pitting family members against each other. However, an estate plan enables you to choose who controls your finances and assets, if you’re unable to manage your own assets or after you die. It also will go a long way towards settling any family conflict and ensuring that your assets are handled in the way you wanted.

To protect your assets and your loved ones when you no longer can do it, you’ll need an estate plan. Without one, your family could see large tax burdens, and the courts could say how your assets are divided, or even who will care for your children.

Reference: Investopedia (May 25, 2018) “4 Reasons Estate Planning Is So Important”

Estate Planning for Blended Families: The Importance of Updating Your Estate Plan

A recent Massachusetts case highlights the importance of estate planning for blended families, especially the need to update an estate plan after remarriage.

Estate Planning for Blended Families
An outdated will could wreak havoc in estate planning for blended families.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently unanimously ruled for the second wife of a man who demanded her share of the real estate her husband had willed to his four adult children. The Boston Globe reports in the article “SJC says spouses are entitled to part of significant other’s estate when they are left out of will” that the ruling written by Justice Elspeth B. Cypher says that widow Susan Ciani was protected by the law and has the right to cancel out the estate plan her husband approved before he died. The court held that the law was clear that “the Legislature intended for the surviving spouse to have an ownership interest in the real property for life, not merely an interest in the income produced by the real property.”

The husband, Raymond Ciani, created a will in 2000 that left his estate to his first wife, Mary. Under the will, after her death, his four children were to be sole beneficiaries of the estate, which was worth an estimated $675,000. But Mary died before her husband. Raymond then married Susan in 2013 and died in 2015 without changing his will.

After her husband’s death, Susan challenged the will in court and remained in the family home. Both Susan and the children went into Probate and Family Court and agreed to sell the family home and other assets, while judges decide who gets what.

The attorney for the four children, Maria L. Remillard, said the Court has created what could become a legal problem for blended families, because the law is obscure.

“It’s a rude awakening for a lot of people,’’ Remillard said of the law and the SJC’s endorsement of it. “It isn’t until someone passes away that the parties and surviving spouses realize the impact . . . After a second marriage, the second spouse could, in fact, totally disrupt the estate plan.”

The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision allows Susan to get one-third of the value of her husband’s real estate holdings and a similar share in the estate. If both sides had not agreed to sell the family home, Susan also would have been allowed to live there for the rest of her life.

Some states adhere to community property laws that permit a spouse to keep half ownership of all property in a marriage. However, Massachusetts follows an elective share law to protect spouses against disinheritance.

The decision emphasizes the importance of keeping your estate plan up to date, especially if you have remarried.

Reference: The Boston Globe (January 8, 2019) “SJC says spouses are entitled to part of significant other’s estate when they are left out of will”

Theft Reported in Aretha Franklin’s Estate

Careful estate planning can prevent heirs from stealing assets from your estate. Aretha Franklin’s estate is a sad example.

Careful Estate Planning
Aretha Franklin’s estate woes highlight the need for careful estate planning.,

Detroit area police told the Free Press that an active theft investigation was ongoing, involving Aretha Franklin’s suburban mansion. However, the investigation began prior to her death.

The 76-year-old Queen of Soul passed away from pancreatic cancer in August in her Detroit riverfront apartment. When she died, she still owned her 4,100-square-foot Colonial-style home in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, which is in the sights of the IRS.

Wealth Advisor says in its article, “Police investigate theft from Aretha Franklin’s estate,” that the theft investigation was first reported by The Blast, a celebrity news website claiming Franklin’s estate is fighting with Franklin’s 61-year-old son, Edward, who was born when Aretha was only 14.

Her son Edward has been attempting to get a court order to force the estate to provide monthly financial documents to his mother’s heirs. However, the estate won’t turn over the information because it contends such information could negatively impact the criminal investigation involving stolen estate property.

Late last year, the IRS filed a claim in the County Probate Court, alleging that the Franklin estate owed millions in back taxes and penalties. An attorney for the estate stated that it had repaid more than $3 million in back taxes, since Franklin’s death. It’s believed that Franklin owed more than $6.3 million in back taxes from 2012 to 2018 and $1.5 million in penalties.

The Oakland County court documents did not state the exact value of her estate, which is believed to be in the tens of millions.

Immediately after her death, Franklin’s mansion, which is part of a gated community, was listed for sale at $800,000. However, it was then taken off the market. The custom-built home features six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, white marble floors and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking two small ponds and a lap pool. The mansion also sports a sauna, a three-car garage and a jetted tub.

Franklin is said to have purchased the mansion for $1.2 million in 1997, according to The Detroit News. The home was built in 1990 and remodeled in 2002.

You can read more about asset protection on our website.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (January 11, 2019) “Police investigate theft from Aretha Franklin’s estate”

Should I Use an Online Will Service?

More than 50% of Americans don’t have a will, according to a 2017 survey by Caring.com. Spelling out how your assets should be divided, is an essential start to estate planning that can be easily overlooked.

A U.S. News & World Report’s article asks “Should You Make a Free Will Online?” According to the article, before writing your will or using an online service, you need to know the legal requirements in your area. In many instances, this is best left to a legal professional in your state.

There are plenty of online tools that will help you create a will. However, before clicking on a website’s promise, you need to evaluate the available options. There are three main ways to write a will:

  1. Do it yourself;
  2. Use a do-it-yourself program; or
  3. Get help from a qualified estate planning attorney.

If you draft a will on your own, you’ll need to be absolutely certain you understand all of the applicable probate, tax and property laws in your state.

If you use an online service, you’ll have access to software that walks you through the process. In this case, you’ll need to be sure that the software company has all the applicable laws covered, as required for your state. You also want a program that lets you make updates later, if your situation changes.

However, if you engage the assistance of an experienced estate planning attorney, you’ll have the opportunity to have an expert help you think through the details. The result will be a well-drafted will. Yes, it will cost a bit more, but for many situations—like those with blended families, families with minor children, complex investments, or property in several states—it’s worth it.

Remember that the probate laws can vary widely from state to state. For example, the basic form requirements may allow a handwritten will in some states, but in other states the will must be typewritten. Some states require only two witnesses, and others require that the will be witnessed, notarized and typed.

If you have a larger estate or heirs with medical conditions, it may be wise to work with an attorney who can counsel you on the best solutions for your situation. For example, if you have a child with special needs receiving government benefits, you should have an attorney create a trust so their inheritance doesn’t negatively impact their benefits.

You should also use an attorney if you want to reduce your exposure to probate fees. Some people transfer their assets into a revocable living trust, so they are not subject to probate fees. An online service can’t give you this type of attention or personalized service.

If you have a complex situation, you may end up paying less by using an attorney. An experienced estate planning attorney has helped numerous families. He or she can offer insight into setting up guardians for minor children or appointing an individual to be in charge of the distribution of the estate. There are frequently estate and gift tax considerations about which the average person doesn’t know or monitor.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (January 9, 2019) “Should You Make a Free Will Online?”

Here’s Why You Need an Estate Plan

It’s always the right time to do your estate planning, but it’s most critical when you have beneficiaries who are minors or have special needs, says the Capital Press in the recent article, “Ag Finance: Why you need to do estate planning.”

While it’s likely that most adult children can work things out, even if it’s costly and time-consuming in probate, minor young children must have protections in place. Wills are frequently written, so the estate goes to the child when he reaches age 18. However, few teens can manage big property at that age. A trust can help, by directing that the property will be held for him by a trustee or executor until a set age, like 25 or 30.

Probate is the default process to administer an estate after someone’s death, when a will or other documents are presented in court and an executor is appointed to manage it. It also gives creditors a chance to present claims for money owed to them. Distribution of assets will occur only after all proper notices have been issued, and all outstanding bills have been paid.

Probate can be expensive. However, wise estate planning can help most families avoid this and ensure the transition of wealth and property in a smooth manner. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about establishing a trust. Individuals can name themselves as the beneficiaries during their lifetime, and instruct to whom it will pass after their death. A living trust can be amended or revoked at any time, if circumstances change.

With a trust, it makes it easier to avoid probate because nothing’s in an individual’s name, and the property can transition to the beneficiaries without having to go to court. Living trusts also help in the event of incapacity or a disease, like Alzheimer’s, to avoid conservatorship (guardianship of an adult who loses capacity). It can also help to decrease capital gains taxes, since the property transfers before their death.

If you have minor children, an attorney can help you with how to pass on your assets and protect your kids.

For more information about how to best protect your minor children, download a copy of Mastry Law’s FREE report, A Parent’s Guide to Protecting Your Children Through Estate Planning.

Reference: Capital Press (December 20, 2018) “Ag Finance: Why you need to do estate planning”

Avoid These Three Big Estate Planning Mistakes

The Street lists the “3 Worst Estate Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them.” These are issues that frequently derail an estate plan:

Lack of Information. Unwinding the various pieces of your estate can be a monumental task. Some folks leave this all to chance. They fail to leave their personal representative and loved ones with a complete and updated list of where everything is located and how to get to it.

Think about all the assets you’ve accumulated in a lifetime: real property, brokerage accounts, bank accounts, mutual fund holdings, IRAs, pensions and others. They’re hopefully all protected by a host of user names and passwords and maybe even by the answers to questions, like your first pet’s name.

While things like insurance policies are likely online, some of your holdings are not available electronically. In addition, other possessions are totally digital, and you should guard against cyber-theft and hacking. Create a list of all your user names and passwords for investment accounts and other financial holdings.

Beneficiary Designations Issues. It’s not uncommon for people to forget that they’re required to name beneficiaries for their retirement accounts, annuity contracts and insurance policies. Messing this up is a guarantee that your assets will wind up in probate. It can be an expensive and time-consuming legal process, where your wishes may be disregarded.

Outdated Plans. Sometimes, decades pass after estate documents are signed and put away. In the meantime, divorces and other life events happen, radically impacting the original estate planning objectives. In addition, changes in tax laws might impact your initial intentions. It’s smart to periodically review what is in your will and your beneficiary designations.

Reference: The Street (November 29, 2018) “3 Worst Estate Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them”

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”

Can Beneficiary Designations Help Simplify the Estate Planning Process?

Often overlooked, the beneficiary designation can be one of the easiest ways to move assets directly to heirs without going through the probate process.

Many accounts and financial products will allow you to designate a beneficiary.  The beneficiary is the person who will receive the asset directly when the owner passes away. This is something that most of us encounter when we open a bank account, purchase an insurance policy or start a retirement savings plan, according to the article, “A simple way to simplify estate planning,” appearing in the Tupelo (MS) Daily Journal.

MP900442211The type of assets that allow beneficiary designations also include annuities, transfer-on-death investment accounts, pay-on-death bank accounts, stock options and executive deferred compensation plans.

Remembering who the beneficiary is on these accounts can be difficult. However, when you consider the consequences of having the incorrect person named on the asset, it’s well worth the effort. Due to the importance of the beneficiary designation, note these reminders:

  • Designate beneficiaries. Without this, assets can be tied up in probate court, resulting in delays, costs and unfavorable tax treatment.
  • List a primary and contingent beneficiary. It is common to have a spouse as primary beneficiary, and a child as contingent, which lets the asset pass to the child if the spouse has also passed away. You can also name a charity you support to be the contingent.
  • Keep things up-to-date. Any time there’s a birth, adoption, death, marriage or divorce, you should review your accounts and polices.
  • Go through the instructions on the form before signing it. Beneficiary forms can vary, so review each one.
  • Coordinate your beneficiary designations with your will or trust documents. If they don’t, it could cause the probate process to be delayed.
  • Work with an estate planning attorney before naming a trust as a beneficiary. Tax consequences may be different for a trust than for an individual, so some situations make a trust a wise option.
  • Know the tax consequences of naming a beneficiary of a particular asset. That’s because every asset does not have the same tax treatment.

Far too many people learn the hard way, that whatever is on the beneficiary designation determines who receives the asset, no matter what is in your will. Make a list of all of assets that have a beneficiary designation and review it when you review your estate plan. If you don’t have a contingency beneficiary, add that as well. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you if you run into any questions and to ensure that your beneficiary designations align with your overall estate planning goals.

Reference: Tupelo Daily Journal (November 2, 2018) “A simple way to simplify estate planning”

Do I Have All the Beneficiaries Set Up Correctly on My Assets?

The typical example is an ex-spouse getting all your retirement savings. However, what if you have a child with an opioid addition, you die, and he or she inherits hundreds of thousands of dollars—that vanish in less than a year?

The assets that you own can be passed to your family members in three basic ways: title of ownership is transferred, you name them to inherit assets in your will, or they are the designated beneficiaries named on your various banking and investment accounts and insurance policies.

Many of our assets are transferred through this beneficiary designation, yet we don’t spend enough time tracking and updating these names.

When’s the last time you’ve reviewed your beneficiaries? This question was explored in a recent InsideNoVa article, “Naming Beneficiaries: A Quick Tip to Reduce the Surprise Factor.”

For example, if your checking account is titled in your spouse’s and your name “with rights of survivorship” (WROS), you effectively co-own the account. That one should be all set, at least until the surviving spouse dies.

Your will instructs your executor on the transfer of any assets that aren’t transferred by title or contract. That’s probably at least some of your estate. Therefore, if you don’t have a will, make an appointment with an estate planning attorney to make sure you have this important document.

Next, the beneficiary designation contacts for assets like your retirement accounts, pension plans and insurance policies should be reviewed whenever there’s a major life event, like a birth or adoption of a child, a divorce, or a marriage.

Bigstock-Financial-consultant-presents--14508974Start the process by identifying all the accounts you own, including life insurance policies, annuities, investments, etc. that will pass by beneficiary designation. You should then see who the primary and secondary beneficiaries are for each. You can usually assign percentages to your beneficiaries. Therefore, you could name your spouse as primary beneficiary, 100%. Your children could then be secondary beneficiaries in equal shares.

Some contracts allow you to have your funds be distributed “per stirpes.” In that case, if you name your three children as primary beneficiaries, they each would receive a third. However, if your eldest son dies with you, with per stirpes, his share will go to his children.

In addition, there may be situations when you might designate a trust as a beneficiary. This can get complicated, so work with an experienced trust and estate attorney.

Don’t overlook this detail, as it can have a very big impact, and not always for the good, on your family and loved ones.

Reference: InsideNoVa (October 26, 2018) “Naming Beneficiaries: A Quick Tip to Reduce the Surprise Factor”

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”

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