Probate Court

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?”

How do I Settle an Estate if I’m Named Executor?

If you are the named executor of an estate, you should learn some of the basics of the job before any work will need to be completed. An executor is the individual named to distribute a decedent’s property that passes under his or her will. The executor also arranges for the payment of debts and expenses.

named executor
Working with an experienced probate attorney makes the job of a named executor much easier

WMUR’s recent article entitled “Settling an estate” explains that if the named executor is not willing or able to do the job, there’s usually an alternate executor appointed in the will. If there’s no alternate, the court will designate an executor for the estate.

Depending on the estate, it can be a consuming and stressful task to address all of the issues. Sometimes, a decedent will leave a letter of instruction which can make the process easier. This letter may address things like the decedent’s important documents, contact info, a list of creditors, login information for important web sites and final burial wishes.

One of the key documents is a will. The executor must get a hold of a copy and review it. You can work with an estate planning attorney to determine the type of probate (a process that begins with getting a court to approve the validity of the will) is needed.

The named executor should conduct an inventory of the decedent’s assets, some of which may need to be appraised. If the decedent had a safe deposit box, the contents must be secured. Once the inventory of assets has been compiled, assets then may be sold or distributed according to the will.

Asset protection is critical and may mean changing the locks on property. The named executor may be required to pay mortgages, utility bills and maintenance costs on any property. Any brokerage accounts will need to be re-titled. The final expenses also need to be paid.

The funeral home or coroner will provide death certificates that will be needed in the probate process, and for filing life insurance claims.

If the decedent was collecting benefits, such as Social Security, the named executor will need to notify the agency of the decedent’s death so they can stop benefits. Any checks received after death must be returned. The executor will file a final federal and state tax return for the decedent, if necessary. There also may be an estate and gift tax return to be filed.

There’s a lot for a named executor to do. It can be made easier with the help an estate planning attorney.

Reference: WMUR (Dec. 23, 2020) “Settling an estate”

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”

What Do I Need to Know about Creating a Will?

Creating a will is a simple way to lay out the way in which you want your assets to be distributed among your beneficiaries after your death. This can be a good starting point for creating a comprehensive estate plan because you may need more than just a basic will. Creating a Will

KAKE’s recent article entitled “What Is a Simple Will and How Do You Make One?” explains that a last will and testament is a legal document that states what you want to happen to your property and “worldly goods” when you die. A simple will can be used to designate an executor for the will and a legal guardian for minor children and specify who (or which organizations) should inherit your assets when you die.

A will must be approved in the probate process when you pass away. After the probate court reviews the will to make sure it’s valid, your executor will take care of the collection and distribution of assets listed in the will. Your executor would also be responsible for paying any debts owed by your estate.

Creating a will can be a good starting point for estate planning. However, deciding if it should be simple or complex can depend on a number of factors, such as:

  • The size of your estate
  • The amount of estate tax you expect to owe
  • The type of assets and property you own
  • Whether you own a business
  • The number of beneficiaries you want to name
  • Whether the beneficiaries are individuals or organizations (like charities)
  • Any significant life changes you anticipate, like marriages, divorces, or having more children; and
  • Whether any of your children or beneficiaries have special needs.

With these situations, you may need a more detailed will to plan how you want your assets to be distributed. In any event, work with an experienced estate planning attorney. With life or financial changes, you may need to create a more complex will or consider a trust. It is smart to speak with an estate planning attorney, who can help you determine which components to include in your plan and help you keep it updated.

Reference: KAKE (Nov. 23, 2020) “What Is a Simple Will and How Do You Make One?”

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”

What’s Involved in the Probate Process in Florida?

SWAAY’s recent article entitled “What involved in the Probate Process in Florida?” says that while every state has its own laws, the probate process can be fairly similar. Here are the basic steps in the probate process:

What's involved in the probate process in Florida
The basic steps involved in the probate process are similar in most states.

The family consults with an experienced probate attorney. Those mentioned in the decedent’s will should meet with a probate lawyer. During the meeting, all relevant documentation like the list of debts, life insurance policies, financial statements, real estate title deeds, and the will should be available.

Filing the petition. The process would be in initiated by the executor or personal representative named in the will. He or she is in charge of distributing the estate’s assets. If there’s no will, you can ask an estate planning attorney to petition a court to appoint an executor. When the court approves the personal representative, the Letters of Administration are issued as evidence of legal authority to act as the executor. The executor will pay state taxes, funeral costs, and creditor claims on behalf of the decedent. He or she will also notice creditors and beneficiaries, coordinate the asset distribution and then close the probate estate.

Noticing beneficiaries and creditors. The executor must notify all beneficiaries of trust estates, the surviving spouse and all parties that have the rights of inheritance. Creditors of the deceased will also want to be paid and will make a claim on the estate.

Obtaining the letters of administration (letters testamentary) obtained from the probate court. After the executor obtains the letter, he or she will open the estate account at a bank. Statements and assets that were in the deceased name will be liquidated and sold, if there’s a need. Proceeds obtained from the sale of property are kept in the estate account and are later distributed.

Settling all expenses, taxes, and estate debts. By law, the decedent’s debts must typically be settled prior to any distributions to the heirs. The executor will also prepare a final income tax return for the estate. Note that life insurance policies and retirement savings are distributed to heirs despite the debts owed, as they transfer by beneficiary designation outside of the will and probate.

Conducting an inventory of the estate. The executor will have conducted a final account of the remaining estate. This accounting will include the fees paid to the executor, probate expenses, cost of assets and the charges incurred when settling debts.

Distributing the assets. After the creditor claims have been settled, the executor will ask the court to transfer all assets to successors in compliance with state law or the provisions of the will. The court will issue an order to move the assets. If there’s no will, the state probate succession laws will decide who is entitled to receive a share of the property.

Finalizing the probate estate. The last step is for the executor to formally close the estate. The includes payment to creditors and distribution of assets, preparing a final distribution document and a closing affidavit that states that the assets were adequately distributed to all heirs.

Reference: SWAAY (Aug. 24, 2020) “What is the Probate Process in Florida?”

Dividing Pablo Picasso’s Estate, a Disaster

When he died, Pablo Picasso’s estate contained 1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 7,089 drawings, as well as tens of thousands of prints, thousands of ceramic works and 150 sketchbooks when he passed away in 1973. He owned five homes and a large portfolio of stocks and bonds. “The Master” fathered four children with three women. He was also thought to have had $4.5 million in cash and $1.3 million in gold in his possession when he died. Once again, Picasso did not leave a will. Distributing his assets took six years of contentious negotiations between his children and other heirs, such as his wives, mistresses, legitimate children and his illegitimate ones.

Pablo Picasso's Estate
Picasso left behind 1,885 paintings, 1,228 sculptures, 7,089 drawings.

Celebrity Net Worth’s recent article entitled “When Pablo Picasso Died He Left Behind Billions Of Dollars Worth Of Art … Yet He Left No Will” explains that Picasso was creating art up until his death. Unlike most artists who die broke, he had been famous in his lifetime. However, when he died without a will, people came out of the woodwork to claim a piece of his valuable estate. Only one of Picasso’s four children was born to a woman who was his wife. One of his mistresses had been living with him for decades. She had a direct and well-documented influence on his work. However, Picasso had no children with her. Dividing his estate was a disaster.

A court-appointed auditor who evaluated Picasso’s assets after his death said that he was worth between $100-$250 million (about $530 million to $1.3 billion today, after adjusting for inflation). In addition to his art, his heirs were fighting over the rights to license his image rights. The six-year court battle cost $30 million in legal fees to settle. But it didn’t settle for long, as the heirs began fighting over the rights to Picasso’s name and image. In 1989, his son Claude sold the name and the image of Picasso’s signature to French carmaker Peugeot-Citroen for $20 million. They wanted to release a sedan called the “Citroen Xsara Picasso.” However, one of Picasso’s grandchildren tried to halt the sale because she disagreed with the commission paid to the agent who brokered the deal—but oddly enough, the consulting company was owned by her cousin, another Picasso.

Claude created the Picasso Administration in Paris in the mid-90s. This entity manages the heirs’ jointly owned property, controls the rights to exhibitions and reproductions of the master’s works, and authorizes merchandising licenses for his work, name and image. The administration also investigates forgeries, illegal use of the Picasso name and stolen works of art. In the 47 years since his death, Picasso has been the most reproduced, most exhibited, most stolen and most faked artist of all time.

Pablo Picasso’s heirs are all very well off as a result of his art. His youngest daughter, Paloma Picasso, is the richest, with $600 million. She’s had a successful career as a jewelry designer.  She also enjoys her share of her father’s estate.

Reference: Celebrity Net Worth (Sep, 13, 2020) “When Pablo Picasso Died He Left Behind Billions Of Dollars Worth Of Art … Yet He Left No Will”

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?”

How Do I Keep My Son-in-Law from Getting the Money I Give my Daughter in My Estate?

Say that you were to name your daughter as the beneficiary on your Roth IRA and 401(k) accounts, as well as your house and other investments. Her husband would not be a beneficiary.

His only source of income is a monthly stipend that he receives from a trust and income he earns from being a rideshare driver.

Can you use a trust to prevent her son-in-law from inheriting or getting her money when she dies?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I protect my daughter’s inheritance from her husband?” explains that trusts are very effective at accomplishing this goal.

Note first that retirement assets can’t be re-titled to a trust. However, a home can be, and investments can be, if they’re not tax deferred.

For assets that can’t be re-titled to the bloodline trust during your lifetime, you can name the trust as the payable-on-death (POD) beneficiary of those assets.

You also should take care in deciding on who you choose as a trustee.

In the situation above, depending on applicable law for your state, your daughter may not be the sole trustee and the sole beneficiary under this form of trust arrangement. However, in all instances, a bank or attorney can be a co-trustee.

This trust arrangement ensures that assets distributed to your daughter aren’t commingled with the assets of her husband with extravagant tastes and an open checkbook. In addition, those assets would not be subject to equitable distribution in the event of a divorce.

If the daughter is the sole trustee over a trust, then all the planning will be out the window, if the daughter does not agree to this set-up.

For example, if she takes distributions from the trust and deposits them in a joint account with her husband, the money is available for equitable distribution.

This means the daughter arguably has indicated that she does not think of her inheritance as a non-marital asset.

A divorce court would see it the same way and award a portion to the husband in a break-up.

Reference: nj.com (July 21, 2020) “Can I protect my daughter’s inheritance from her husband?”

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