Probate

How Does a Spendthrift Trust Protect Heirs from Themselves?

This is not an unusual question for most estate planning lawyers—and in most cases, the children aren’t bad. They just lack self-control or have a history of making poor decisions. Fortunately, there are solutions, as described in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift” from NWI.com.

What needs to happen? Plan to provide for the child’s well-being but keep the actual assets out of their control. The best way to do this is through the use of a trust. By leaving money to a child in a trust, a responsible party can be in charge of the money. That person is known as the “trustee.”

People sometimes get nervous when they hear the word trust, because they think that a trust is only for wealthy people or that creating a trust must be very expensive. Not necessarily. In many states, a trust can be created to benefit an heir in the last will and testament. The will may be a little longer, but a trust can be created without the expense of an additional document. Your estate planning attorney will know how to create a trust, in accordance with the laws of your state.

In this scenario, the trust is created in the will, known as a testamentary trust. Instead of leaving money to Joe Smith directly, the money (or other asset) is left to the John Smith Testamentary Trust for the benefit of Joe Smith.

The terms of the trust are defined in the appropriate article in the will and can be created to suit your wishes. For instance, you can decide to distribute the money over a period of years. Funds could be distributed monthly, to create an income stream. They could also be distributed only when certain benchmarks are reached, such as after a full year of employment has occurred. This is known as an incentive trust.

The opposite can be true: distributions can be withheld, if the heir is engaged in behavior you want to discourage, like gambling or using drugs.

Reference: NWI.com (May 17, 2020) “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift”

What Is a ‘Survivorship’ Period?

A survivorship clause in a will or a trust says that beneficiaries can inherit, only if they live a certain number of days after the person who made the will or trust dies. The goal is to avoid situations where assets pass under your beneficiary’s estate plan, and not yours, if they outlive you only by a short period of time. While these situations are rare, they do occur, according to the article “How Survivorship Periods Work” from kake.com.

Many wills and trusts contain a survivorship period. Most estates won’t rise to the level of today’s very high federal estate tax exemption ($11.58 million for an individual), so a long survivorship period is not necessary. However, if the surviving spouse must wait too long to receive property under the will—six months or more—it might harm their eligibility for the marital deduction, even if they are made in a qualifying trust or an outright gift.

Even if a will does not contain a survivorship clause, many states require one. Some states require at least a five-day or 120-hour survivorship period. That law might apply to beneficiaries who inherit property under a will, trust or, if there is no will, under state law. This usually does not apply to those who are beneficiaries of an insurance policy, a POD bank account (Payable on Death), or a surviving co-owner of property held in joint tenancy. To learn what states have a set of laws, known as the Uniform Probate Code or the revised version of the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act, speak with a local estate planning lawyer.

Survivorship requirements are put into place in case of simultaneous or close to simultaneous deaths of the estate owners and the estate beneficiaries. This is to avoid having the distribution of assets from an estate owner’s estate distributed according to the beneficiary’s estate plan, and not the estate owner’s plan.

For an example, let’s say Jeff dies and leaves his estate to his sister Judy. Jeff has named his favorite charity as an alternative beneficiary. Jeff’s assets would normally go to his sister Judy. They would only go to his favorite charity, if Judy were not alive at the time of his death. However, if Jeff dies and then Judy dies 14 days later, Jeff’s assets could go to Judy’s beneficiaries under the terms of her will. The charity, Jeff’s intended beneficiary, would receive nothing.

The family would also have the burden of dealing with not one but two probate proceedings at the same time.

However, if a 30-day survivorship clause was in place, the assets would pass to his favorite charity, as originally intended. Jeff’s estate plan would be carried out, according to his wishes.

These are the types of details that make estate planning succeed as the estate owner wishes. Having a complete and secure—and properly prepared—estate plan in place is worth the effort.

Reference: kake.com (March 31, 2020) “How Survivorship Periods Work”

Grandson of Walt Disney in Longstanding Inheritance Battle

Even visionary Walt Disney could not have imagined the struggle his grandson Bradford Lund has endured trying to claim his share of the Disney family fortune, reports the Daily Bulletin in a recent article titled “Walt Disney’s grandson locked in legal battle for personal freedom, millions in inheritance.”  

It’s been fifteen years since the start of Lund’s estate battle with estranged family members, probate and courts to prove that he is mentally able to manage an inheritance of hundreds of millions of dollars. He’s had to repeatedly prove that he does not have Down syndrome and can manage this kind of money.

He is now fighting for his freedom. A Superior Court judge from Los Angeles County has appointed a temporary guardian ad litem to make legal decisions on his behalf.

Judge David Cowan said he was not going to give $200 million to someone who may suffer, on some level, from Down syndrome. Even after he was given evidence that Lund does not have Down syndrome, the judge refused to retract his statement.

Lund is fighting against a probate system with high profile attorneys–the former White House counsel Lanny Davis is one of three on his legal team. They have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit accusing Judge Cowan of appointing the guardian ad litem without due process. Suing a judge is almost never done, but the complaint alleges that a judgment was rendered that left them no choice but to take action.

One of Lund’s main opponents is his twin sister, Michelle Lund. The twins attended special-needs schools as children, reportedly for learning impairments. When Lund was 19, his mother created a trust fund now valued at $400 million for him, his sister and another sister, Victoria. She appointed four trustees. The grandchildren were to receive part of their shares at ages 35, 40 and 45, with the remainder kept in trust and then given to them gradually over time.

Lund’s mother died, as did his sister Victoria. Some of the trustees resigned, with others who did not know the family taking their places.

When Brad turned 35, the trustees voted against paying him part of his inheritance, saying they did not believe he was financially or mentally competent. Four years later, sister Michelle suffered a brain aneurysm, but she received her share as scheduled. In 2009, Michelle and her two half-sisters sought an order in an Arizona court that would place Brad under a guardianship for his legal decisions. They claimed that he had chronic deficits and mental disorders. The case went on for seven years and ended with a judge declaring Brad able to make his own decisions.

While the Arizona case was still underway, Lund filed a court petition in Los Angeles County to remove his trustees for various violations. That is when Judge Cowan entered the picture. The judge was presented with a settlement agreement between Lund and his trustees, in which he would pay them $14.5 million, in exchange for their removal and replacement.

The monetary exchange was approved, but Cowan would not agree to letting Lund replace the trustees. That’s when the temporary guardian ad litem was appointed.

While the size of the assets involved is larger than life, estate battles among siblings and half siblings are not unusual. When the family includes an individual whose capacity may be challenged, extra steps are needed in estate planning to protect their interests.

Reference: Daily Bulletin (March 22, 2020) “Walt Disney’s grandson locked in legal battle for personal freedom, millions in inheritance”

What Is a Pour-Over Will?

If the goal of estate planning is to avoid probate, it seems counterintuitive that one would sign a will, but the pour-over will is an essential part of some estate plans, reports the Times Herald-Record’s article “Pour-over will a safety net for a living trust.”  So, what is a pour-over will?

What is a pour-over will
A pour-over will works in conjunction with your trust to make sure all your assets are distributed according to your wishes.

If you pass away with assets in your name alone, those assets will have to go through probate. The pour-over will names a trust as the beneficiary of probate assets, so the trust controls who receives the inheritance. The pour-over will works as a backup plan to the trust, and it also revokes past wills and codicils.

Living trusts became very common, and widely used after a 1991 AARP study concluded that families should be using trusts rather than wills, and that wills were obsolete. Trusts were suddenly not just for the wealthy. Middle class people started using trusts rather than wills, to save time and money and avoid estate battles among family members. Trusts also serve to keep your financial and personal affairs private. Wills that are probated are public documents that anyone can review.

Even a simple probate lasts about a year, before beneficiaries receive inheritances. A trust can be settled in months. Regarding the cost of probate, it is estimated that between 2—4% of the cost of settling an estate can be saved by using a trust instead of a will.

When a will is probated, family members receive a notice, which allows them to contest the will. When assets are in a trust, there is no notification. This avoids delay, costs and the aggravation of a will contest.

Wills are not a bad thing, and they do serve a purpose. However, this specific legal document comes with certain legal requirements.

The will was actually invented more than 500 years ago, by King Henry VIII of England. Many people still think that wills are the best estate planning document, but they may be unaware of the government oversight and potential complications when a will is probated.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss how probate may impact your heirs and see if you agree that the use of a trust and a pour-over will would make the most sense for your family.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Sep. 13, 2019) “Pour-over will a safety net for a living trust.”

How Do Transfer on Death Accounts Work?

Almost all estates with wills go to probate court. This is not a major issue in some states and an expensive headache in others. By learning how Transfer on Death accounts work, and using them as an additional estate planning tool, you can avoid some assets going through probate, says Yahoo! Finance in the article “Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts for Estate Planning.”  

How Do Transfer on Death Accounts Work
Assets in a Transfer on Death account avoid probate court in Florida.

So, how do Transfer on Death accounts work?

A TOD account automatically transfers the assets to a named beneficiary, when the account holder dies. Let’s say you have a savings account with $100,000 in it. Your son is the beneficiary for the TOD account. When you die, the account’s assets are transferred directly to him without having to go through probate.

A more formal definition: a TOD is a provision of an account that allows the assets to pass directly to an intended beneficiary.  This is the equivalent of a beneficiary designation. (Note that the laws that govern estate planning vary from state to state, but most banks, investment accounts and even real estate deeds can become TOD accounts.)  If you own part of a TOD property, only your ownership share will be transferred.

TOD account holders can name multiple beneficiaries and split up assets any way they wish. You can open a TOD account to be split between two children, for instance, and they’ll each receive 50% of the holdings, when you pass away.

A couple of additional benefits to keep in mind: the beneficiaries have no right or access to the TOD account, while the owner is living. And the beneficiaries can be changed at any time, as long as the TOD account owner is mentally competent. Just as assets in a will can’t be accessed by heirs until you die, beneficiaries on a TOD account have no rights or access to a TOD account, until the original owner dies.

Simplicity is one reason why people like to use the TOD account. When you have a properly prepared will and estate plan, the process is far easier for your family members and beneficiaries. The will includes an executor, who is the person who takes care of distributing your assets and a guardian to take care of any minor children. Absent a will, the probate court will determine who the next of kin is and distribute your property, according to the laws of your state.

A TOD account usually requires only that a death certificate be sent to an agent at the account’s bank or brokerage house. The account is then re-registered in the beneficiary’s name.

Whatever is in your will does not impact how the Transfer on Death account works. If your will instructs your executor to give all of your money to your sister, but the TOD account names your brother as a beneficiary, any money in that account is going to your brother. Your sister will get any other assets.

Speak with an estate planning attorney about how a Transfer on Death account works and whether one might be useful for your purposes.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (June 26, 2019) “Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts for Estate Planning”

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”

Entertainer Prince’s Estate Battle May Take Decades to Resolve

Three years later and the “Purple Rain’s” estate remains as unsettled as it was on the day he died in his beloved Paisley Park mansion, located just outside of Minneapolis, says the New York Post’s Page Six in the article “Fight over Prince’s $200 M estate could go on for years.”

The estate, which includes a 10,000 square foot Caribbean villa in addition to Paisley Park and master tapes of his recordings, has been estimated by some to be worth in the neighborhood of $200 million. But what will be left after all the battles between heirs and the consultants (whose fees are adding up)?

The heirs are now in a court-battle with the estate’s administrator, which has already blown through $45 million in administrative expenses. That’s from a probate-court petition filed by Prince’s heirs. They’ve asked the court for a transition plan and a new administrator, which is scheduled for the end of June.

One observer noted that this estate may take decades to resolve, all because there was no will.

A judge had to determine who Prince’s heirs were. More than 45 people stepped up to claim inheritance rights, when the Purple One died in 2016. Some said they were wives, others said they were siblings and one said he was the artist’s son. DNA testing debunked that claim.

The list of heirs has been narrowed down to six: his full sister, Tyka Nelson, and half siblings Norrine Nelson, Sharon Nelson, John Nelson, Alfred Jackson and Omarr Baker.

Until fairly recently, the heirs were divided and quarrelling among themselves. For now, they have come together to challenge the court appointed bank that became the estate’s administrator, Comerica. The estate was being run by Bremer Trust at first, but that was a temporary appointment.

The statement said they don’t agree with Comerica’s cash flow projections, accounting, or inventory of estate assets. They also claim that Comerica is not being responsive to their concerns. What is even worse, they say that Comerica is the reason that the estate is $31 million behind on estate taxes, which are continuing to accumulate interest.

The company stated that it was the best possible administrator of the estate and insisted it is making all tax payments necessary to settle the estate.

Everyone needs to have a will (even with a small estate), so that heirs are not left battling over assets. While Prince may have thought of himself as too young to die, a will and a plan for his estate would have preserved his assets for his heirs and let him determine what happens to his music and his artistic legacy.

Reference: New York Post’s Page Six (April 19, 2019) “Fight over Prince’s $200 M estate could go on for years.”

Why Do I Need an Executor?

What would happen if someone you were close to, asked you to be the Executor of their estate plan? Would you be honored, or would you be uncomfortable with the responsibility? What do you need to do, when do you need to handle these tasks and how much time will it take?

executor of an estate plan
The executor of your estate will work with an attorney to settle your debts and distribute your assets.

These are the questions often asked about the role of an Executor, as reported in The Huntsville Item in the article “Role of an executor.”

A person having a will prepared is called the “Testator” if male and a “Testatrix” if female. The person they appoint to take care of distributing their assets and carrying out the instructions in their will is called the “Executor” if male and the “Executrix” if female. That person also pays the estate’s debts and taxes. Note that the debts and taxes are not paid from the Executor’s personal accounts, but from the proceeds of the estate.

The Executor of an estate plan has several responsibilities and powers. Therefore, it’s important to choose an individual who is organized, good with finances and knows how to get things done. An Executor could be a person or an institution, like a bank. Here are some things to consider when selecting an Executor for your estate plan:

  • Are they good with handling their own personal business?
  • Do they have some familiarity with your business, finances and property?
  • Are they willing and able to act as your Executor?
  • Do they have the time to devote to serving as Executor?
  • Can they work with your estate planning attorney and your accountant?
  • If you own a business, will they be able to keep it going during a transition period?

There should always be a “Plan B” and perhaps even a “Plan C,” if the first person you wish either cannot or will not serve as Executor of your estate plan. If you do not have a Plan “B” or “C,” the court may name an Executor for you. That could be a person you don’t know, who does not know you, your family or your business.

The Executor’s tasks vary, depending upon the laws of the state. However, in general, these are the Executor’s tasks. Note that an estate planning attorney usually assists with this process.

  • The will is probated, which requires filing a petition with the probate court in the decedent’s jurisdiction.
  • The court issues Letters of Administration to the individual designated in the will to serve as the Executor of the estate.
  • A general notice is given to unsecured creditors giving them a limited amount of time to file a claim with the estate.
  • Notice is given to each secured creditor, by certified or registered mail.
  • Documents need to be gathered, including insurance policies, bank statements, income tax returns, car titles, leases, home deeds, home titles, mortgage paperwork, property tax bills, birth, death and marriage certificates and unpaid bills.
  • The post office, relatives, friends, employers, insurance agents, religious, fraternal, veterans’ organizations, unions, etc., all need to be notified.
  • The personal property of the estate needs to be collected, preserved and appraised.
  • The residence needs to be secured and maintained, including a review of insurance coverage.
  • An inventory of the estate’s assets needs to be prepared.
  • The Executor needs to apply for  an employee identification number (EIN) for the estate’s bank account.
  • Once the EIN number has been created, open a bank account on behalf of the estate and pay all valid debts from the estate account.
  • Determine any tax liability and prepare for a final tax return to be filed.
  • Distribute the assets and property of the estate, according to the directions in the will.

Usually the estate planning attorney handles many of these tasks and works closely with the Executor of the estate. Some Executors are compensated by the estate for their time and effort, but that is not always the case. Talk with your estate planning attorney in advance, about any compensation for your Executor.

Reference: The Huntsville Item (April 13, 2019) “Role of an executor”

What Happens When Unmarried Couples Don’t Have Wills?

Estate planning for unmarried couples is even more important than for married couples.

There can be serious problems when people live together without the benefit of marriage. One is that they don’t have any legal right to make medical decisions for each other. Another is that without any will or estate plan in place, the surviving partner has no legal right to any of the decedent’s property. That’s just for starters, explains the article “Longtime unmarried couple hasn’t planned for future” from the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

The unmarried couple may be pleased with their decision to live on their own terms.  However, by not creating an estate plan an unmarried couple is creating unnecessary difficulty for their loved ones. The children and grandchildren of the couple are likely going to end up having to sort out the mess, after one of the couple dies. They may end up in court, battling over the house or other assets.

If the couple wants their property to end up in the hands of their children when they pass away, having no estate plan is not the way to make that happen. When one spouse dies, any assets they own in joint tenancy will go to the surviving partner. When the surviving partner passes, those assets will go to their children, and nothing will be passed to the other family.

The surviving partner will have no legal right to the assets of the deceased partner, other than any that have been titled to joint tenancy. There is no community property between cohabitating couples, unless they have registered as domestic partners. This is how the law works in California, and every state has its own rules. Assets owned by the deceased partner that are titled in his or her name only, belong to the decedent’s probate estate and will pass to their children. If the gentleman dies first, in this example, will his companion be left homeless?

This is a situation that can be easily remedied with thoughtful estate planning for unmarried couples by creating wills and trusts that clearly spell out how they want their assets to be distributed upon death. There are many different ways to make this happen, but they will need to work with an estate planning attorney. Where the surviving non-homeowner will live after the homeowner dies is a serious issue, unless other plans have been made. One way to do this is to leave a life estate in the home in his will, or by creating a trust that holds the home for her use. When the survivor passes away, the home can then pass to the homeowner’s children. In that case, a series of agreements about how the home will be maintained may need to be created.

Taking the time and making the investment in an estate plan, is for the benefit of the individual and the family. An indifferent attitude about the future is hurtful to those who are left behind.

Reference: Santa Cruz Sentinel (April 7, 2019) “Longtime unmarried couple hasn’t planned for future”

Should My Estate Plan Include a Trust?

There are as many types of trusts, as there are reasons to have trusts. They all have benefits and drawbacks. What type of trust is best for you? The answer is best discussed in person with an estate planning attorney. However, an article from U.S. News & World Report titled “8 Things to Know About Trusts,” gives a good overview.

Estate Plan
Determining whether your estate plan should include a trust is best done by consulting with an estate planning attorney.

Revocable or Irrevocable? Revocable trusts are usually established for a person (the grantor) during their lifetime, and then pass assets to the named beneficiaries, when the grantor dies. The revocable trust allows for a fair amount of flexibility during the grantor’s lifetime. An irrevocable trust is harder to change, and in some cases cannot be changed or amended. Some states do allow the option of “decanting” trusts, that is, pouring over assets from one trust to another. You’ll want to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to be sure trusts are set up correctly and achieve the goals you want.

Trusts can protect assets. Irrevocable trusts are often used, when a grantor must go into a nursing home and the goal is to protect assets. However, this means that the grantor no longer has access to the money and has fundamentally given it away to the trust. Putting assets into an irrevocable trust is commonly done to preserve assets, when a person will need to become eligible for Medicaid.  The trust must be created and funded five years before applying for benefits. Irrevocable trusts can also be used to obtain veteran’s benefits, if they are asset-based. VA benefits have a three-year look-back period, as compared to Medicaid’s five-year look-back period.

Trusts can’t own retirement accounts. Trusts can own non-retirement bank accounts, life insurance policies, property and securities. However, retirement accounts become taxable immediately, if they are owned by a trust.

Trusts help avoid probate after the grantor’s death. Most people think of trusts for this purpose. Assets in a trust do not pass through probate, which is the process of settling an estate through the courts. Having someone named as a trustee, a trusted family member, friend or a financial institution, means that the assets can be managed for the beneficiaries, if they are not deemed able to manage the assets. Another good part about trusts: you can direct how and when the funds are to be distributed.

Trusts offer privacy. When a will is filed in the courthouse, it becomes part of the public record. Trusts are not, and that keeps assets and distribution plans private. A grantor could put real estate and other personal property into a trust and title of ownership would remain private.

Tax savings. Before the federal estate tax exemptions became so high, people would put assets into trusts to avoid taxation. However, state taxes may still be avoided, if the assets don’t reach state tax levels. You can also transfer funds into an irrevocable trust to transfer it to others, without making it become part of a taxable estate. This is something to discuss in detail with an estate planning attorney.

Irrevocable Trusts can be expensive. If you are considering an irrevocable trust as a means of controlling the cost of an estate, this is not the solution you are looking for. Trusts require careful administration, annual tax filings and other fees. You may also lose the advantage of long-term capital gains by putting assets into trusts, since they are taxed upon withdrawal, and usually based upon current market value. The marginal rates for trust income of all kinds apply at much lower levels, so that the highest marginal taxes will be paid on very low levels of income.

Work with an experienced trusts and estates lawyer. Trusts and their administration can be complex. Seek the help of a trusts and estates attorney, who will be able to factor in tax liability and the impact of the trusts on the rest of your estate plan. Remember that every state has its own laws about trusts. Finally, an estate plan needs to be updated every few years. For example, trusts that were set up for a far lower federal estate tax exemption several years ago are now out of date, and may not work to achieve their intended goal. The laws changes, and the role of trusts also changes.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (March 29, 2019) “8 Things to Know About Trusts”

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