Wills

Do I Need a Will?

Yahoo Finance’s recent article on this subject asks “Do You Really Need a Will?” As the article explains, without a will, you’ll be “intestate”—which means you’ll have no say in what happens to your assets and belongings once you pass away.

Do I need a will?
If you don’t have a will your assets will be distributed according to state law.

Many people ask the question, “Do I need a will?” Each state has its laws concerning the distribution of a person’s assets if they die without a will. These laws most likely won’t mesh with your personal wishes. If you don’t have a will, ask yourself why you don’t. Perhaps you think you don’t need one. However, more than likely you do. If you’re putting off starting this important estate planning task, here are some things to consider.

Just about everybody needs a will, but you definitely should have one if you’re married, you have minor children, you have real estate, or you have investments in the stock market. You should also have a will if you have possessions, such as cars, furniture, jewelry, paintings, and computers?

As far as your money and possessions, you probably have some thoughts as to who gets what. You may want to chip in on the education of some younger relatives or give specific pieces of jewelry to those who you know will appreciate them. If you have minor children, you probably have very definite ideas about who should be their guardians if you die.

With a will, you have control. Without a will, the state in which you live will distribute your assets according to its laws, regardless of your wishes.

After you pass away, there could be surprise money coming to you, and without a will, you have no control over where these funds go. Your estate could get some cash from returned security deposits, medical reimbursements, or refunds from utility companies. Furthermore, if you die in a car accident and there’s an insurance settlement, you have no say who gets those funds, which could be substantial.

You also need to think about your pets, and who would be the best person to care for your animals.

So, the answer to the question, “Do I need a will”, is almost certainly, yes.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (July 21, 2019) “Do You Really Need a Will?”

How Should Couples Begin the Process of Estate Planning?

About 17% of adults don’t think they need a will, believing that estate planning is only for the very wealthy. However, no matter how few assets it seems someone owns, completing a few documents can make a huge difference in the future.  Here’s how couples can begin the process of estate planning.

What should couples know about the estate planning process
Often, just getting started with the estate planning process is the most difficult part.

valuewalk.com’s recent article, “Couples: Here’s How To Start The Estate Planning Process” notes that although estate planning can seem overwhelming, taking inventory of assets is a great place to start.

Make a list of all your belongings valued at $100 or more, both inside and outside of the home. After that, think about how these assets should be divided among family, friends, churches or charities.

Drafting a will may be the most critical step in the estate planning process. A will serves as the directions for how assets are to be distributed, which can avoid unpleasant disputes.

A will can simplify the distribution of assets at your death, and it also provides instructions to your family and heirs.

A will can also set out directions for childcare, pet care, or any additional instructions or specifications.

Without a will in place, your assets will be distributed according to state law, rather than according to your wishes. Creating a will keeps the state from making decisions about how your estate is divided up—decisions you may not have intended.

Once you have your assets and beneficiaries set, see an experienced estate planning attorney and have your will drafted immediately. Hey, life is unpredictable.

Another important part of the process is to have a discussion with everyone involved to prevent any legal or familial disputes regarding the estate.

Failure of couples to start the estate planning process can lead to family fighting, misappropriated assets, court litigation and unneeded expenses. Get going!

Reference: valuewalk.com (July 22, 2019) “Couples: Here’s How To Start The Estate Planning Process”

Do I Need a Medical Power of Attorney?

A medical power of attorney is a legal document, also called a healthcare power of attorney or durable power of attorney for healthcare. This document lets you designate an agent to make medical decisions on your behalf. This can give you peace of mind, even if you don’t think you’ll need it, says SmartAsset in the recent article “How to Set Up Medical Power of Attorney.”  

Do I need a medical power of attorney
A medical power of attorney allows you to name another person to make medical decisions on your behalf if you can’t speak for yourself.

A medical power of attorney isn’t the same as a living will. A living will is a document that directs what you’d want healthcare professionals to do if you become incapacitated. This could include the implementation of life support and tube feeding, resuscitation attempts and organ donations.

A medical power of attorney doesn’t simply record your wishes as a living will does. It appoints a specific person to make medical decisions for you if you can’t speak for yourself. You might have both a living will and a medical power of attorney. If decisions need to be made about resuscitation and life support, recording those wishes in a living will takes those difficult decisions out of your agent’s hands.

When you’re deciding on someone to serve as your healthcare agent, find a person with whom you’re comfortable talking about your health-related issues.  This person should be your advocate, follow your wishes and make sound decisions—even if family says otherwise.

The Commission on Law and Aging of the American Bar Association advises that you select an agent you truly trust. It also offers some general guidelines for agents that you should probably avoid. The ABA says don’t choose an agent:

  • Who owns a health or residential facility that is in charge of your care;
  • Who’s a spouse or employee of anyone that currently serves you medically, like a doctor or residential facility owner;
  • Whose job it is to medically evaluate you, like a doctor;
  • Who’s the same person as your court-approved guardian or conservator; or
  • Who is already a healthcare agent for more than 10 people.

Be sure to name a backup agent, in the event your medical power of attorney can’t make decisions on your behalf.

Talk to a qualified estate planning attorney to get help with this and other legal documents, and to be sure that your documents meet your state’s requirements.

Reference: SmartAsset (May 8, 2019) “How to Set Up Medical Power of Attorney”

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”

What Will Anderson Cooper Inherit From his Mother Gloria Vanderbilt?

The 95-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt was “a vestige of another era, reminiscent of Brooke Astor in her longevity and tangible connection to the Gilded Age of railroad and oil barons, who left their mark on New York society,” said Trust Advisor in its recent article, “Does A Long Island Landscaper (And Not Anderson Cooper) Inherit Gloria Vanderbilt’s Fortune?”  

However, unlike Brooke Astor, Vanderbilt was born in the limelight. Her long life started in the center of dynastic politics that got both messy and public. She and her trust fund became commodities in her parents’ divorce.

It’s reported that she had to sell off a few houses to pay the tax bills. Anything left behind is well-hidden in some estate planning documents. With her family fortune dwindling over time, Vanderbilt’s fashion empire came and went. However, the distributions kept coming to fill the holes. The old Vanderbilt fortune may be gone.

Her children and grandchildren built the careers they wanted, investing their inheritances into passion projects, with little or no immediate payday. Some are novelists, filmmakers and TV journalists. Gloria built a fashion empire of her own.

As the baby, Anderson was closest to his mother. He has probably accumulated the most personal wealth after years on CNN, so he doesn’t need his mom’s money. Her oldest son Stan probably doesn’t need the money either.

Stan has a successful landscaping business in Long Island. Any Vanderbilt money he inherited along the way, is probably well invested.

There’s also a third son, Stan’s brother Chris. He walked out years ago and never really came back, at least publicly. It’s assumed that he was disinherited at the time. Now, no one is sure if Gloria wrote him out of the will. She may have written him back in. There was allegedly a bit of a thaw in the last few years.

Reference: Trust Advisor (June 17, 2019) “Does A Long Island Landscaper (And Not Anderson Cooper) Inherit Gloria Vanderbilt’s Fortune?”

Here’s Why a Basic Form Doesn’t Work for Estate Planning

It’s true that an effective estate plan should be simple and straightforward, if your life is simple and straightforward. However, few of us have those kinds of lives. For many families, the discovery that a will that was created using a basic form is invalid leads to all kinds of expenses and problems, says The Daily Sentinel in an article that asks “What is wrong with using a form for my will or trust?”  

Basic Estate Planning Forms
Online estate planning forms often lead to more problems and expense that they’re worth.

If the cost of an estate plan is measured only by the cost of a document, a basic form will, of course, be the least expensive option — on the front end. On the surface, it seems simple enough. What would be wrong with using a basic estate planning form like a will or a power of attorney?

Actually, a lot is wrong. The same things that make a do-it-yourself, basic form seem to be attractive, are also the things that make it very dangerous for your family. A basic estate planning form does not take into account the special circumstances of your life. If your estate is worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars, that form could end up putting your estate in the wrong hands. That’s not what you had intended.

Another issue: any form that is valid in all 50 states is probably not going to serve your purposes. If it works in all 50 states (and that’s highly unlikely), then it is extremely general, so much so that it won’t reflect your personal situation. It’s a great sales strategy, but it’s not good for an estate plan.

If you take into consideration the amount of money to be spent on the back end after you’ve passed, that $100 will becomes a lot more expensive than what you would have invested in having a proper estate plan created by an estate planning attorney.

What you can’t put into dollars and cents, is the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your estate plan, including a will, power of attorney, and health care power of attorney, has been properly prepared, that your assets will go to the individuals or charities that you want them to go to, and that your family is protected from the stress, cost and struggle that can result when wills are deemed invalid.

Here’s one of many examples of how the basic, inexpensive estate planning form created chaos for one family. After the father died, the will was unclear, because it was not prepared by a professional. The father had properly filled in the blanks but used language that one of his beneficiaries felt left him the right to significant assets. The family became embroiled in expensive litigation, and became divided. The litigation has ended, but the family is still fractured. This couldn’t have been what their father had intended.

Other issues that are created when basic estate planning forms are used: naming the proper executor, guardians and conservators, caring for companion animals, dealing with blended families, addressing Payable-on-Death (POD) accounts and end-of-life instructions, to name just a few.

Avoid the “repair” costs and meet with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state to create an estate plan that will suit your needs.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (May 25, 2019) “What is wrong with using a form for my will or trust?”

What Should I Keep in Mind in Estate Planning as a Single Parent?

Most estate planning conversation eventually come to center upon the children, regardless of whether they’re still young or adults.  So what should you keep in mind in estate planning as a single parent?

Talk to a qualified estate planning attorney and let him or her know your overall perspective about your children, and what you see as their capabilities and limitations. This information can frequently determine whether you restrict their access to funds and how long those limitations should be in place, in the event you’re no longer around.

Kiplinger’s recent article, “Estate Planning for Single Parents” explains that when one parent dies, the children typically don’t have to leave their home, school and community. However, when a single parent passes, a child may be required to move from that location to live with a relative or ex-spouse.

After looking at your children’s situation with your estate planning attorney to understand your approach to those relationships, you should then discuss your support network to see if there’s anyone who could serve in a formal capacity, if necessary. A big factor in planning decisions is the parent’s relationship with their ex. Most people think that their child’s other parent is the best person to take over full custody, in the event of incapacity or death. For others, this isn’t the case. As a result, their estate plan must be designed with great care. These parents should have a supportive network ready to advocate for the child.

Your estate planning attorney may suggest a trust with a trustee. This fund can accept funds from your estate, a retirement plan, IRA and life insurance settlement. This trust should be set up, so that any court that may be involved will have sound instructions to determine your wishes and expectations for your kids. The trust tells the court who you want to carry out your wishes and who should continue to be an advocate and influence in your child’s life.

Your will should also designate the child’s intended guardian, as well as an alternate, in case the surviving parent can’t serve for some reason. The trust should detail how funds should be spent, as well as the amount of discretion the child may be given and when, and who should be involved in the child’s life.

A trust can be drafted in many ways, but a single parent should discuss all of their questions with an estate planning attorney.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 20, 2019) “Estate Planning for Single Parents”

Your Will Isn’t the End of Your Estate Planning

Even if your financial life is pretty simple, you should have a will. And once you have a will, that’s not the end of your estate planning.  There’s still some work to be done to make sure your family isn’t left with an expensive mess to clean up.  Assets must be properly titled, so that assets are distributed as intended upon death.

Your Will is only one piece of your estate planning.

Forbes’ recent article, “For Estate Plan To Work As Intended, Assets Must Be Properly Titled” notes that with the exception of the choice of potential guardians for children, the most important function of a will is to make certain that the transfer of assets to beneficiaries is the way you intended.

However, not all assets are disposed of by a will—they pass to beneficiaries regardless of the intentions stated in the will. Your will only controls the disposition of assets that fall within your probated estate.

An example of when a designated beneficiary controls the disposition of a financial asset is life insurance. Other examples are retirement accounts, such as a 401(k) or an IRA. When there’s a named beneficiary, assets will be distributed accordingly, which may be different than the intentions stated in a will.

The title of real estate controls its disposition. When property is jointly owned, how it is titled determines if the decedent’s interest in the property passes to the surviving partner, becomes part of the decedent’s estate, or passes to a third party. Titling of jointly owned property can be complicated in community property states.

In the same light, a revocable trust is an inter vivos or living trust that’s created during the grantor’s life, as part of an estate plan.

Such a trust can be used to ensure privacy, avoid the expenses and delays in the probate process and provide for continuity of asset management. A critical part of the planning is that the grantor must transfer (or retitle) assets to the trust.

Wills are very important in estate planning. To ensure that your estate plan fulfills your intentions, talk to an estate planning attorney about the proper titling of your assets.

Reference: Forbes (May 20, 2019) “For Estate Plan To Work As Intended, Assets Must Be Properly Titled”

Complete Your Financial Plan with Estate Planning

Here at Mastry Law we’ve always referred to estate planning as the final piece of your financial planning puzzle.  If you are among those who haven’t put together a basic estate plan, you should make every effort to accomplish this in 2019. Your family and friends will thank you.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s recent article, “No financial plan is complete without a basic estate plan” reports that, while Americans are living longer, it was emphasized in a session at the American Society on Aging’s 2019 conference in New Orleans that 56% of Americans don’t have a will.

Estate Planning is the final piece of your financial planning puzzle.

The basic list isn’t particularly daunting. Talk to an experienced estate planning lawyer to create a will to get your affairs in order.

You should also sign a health care directive and a durable power of attorney. It is also important to decide where you want to be buried or cremated.

You should discuss your late-life goals and desires with your family, relatives and close friends. This gives everyone a better idea about your values and thinking. An estate plan makes things much less stressful on your family.

Many people want to leave at least some money to their loved ones. However, instead of waiting for death to pass on assets, more people are now deciding to “give while living.”

For example, grandparents can help to fund their grandchildren’s education expenses. Nearly two-thirds of people 50 years and older are giving some financial support to family members, according to a survey by the financial services firm Merrill Lynch and demographic consulting firm Age Wave.

Since you are already thinking about your life while devising an estate plan, it is important to understand that far more valuable than your money and assets is your accumulated experience, knowledge and skills. You can tap into your experience later in life to help others succeed.  Your experience and judgment can help family members decide how to have both purpose and a paycheck.

Perhaps you can serve as a mentor for those in your community in areas where you have some expertise?

The desire to leave our families with a legacy is powerful. Don’t leave them without an estate plan.  Remember that giving of our experience can make a significant difference to the community around us.

Reference: Minneapolis Star-Tribune (May 4, 2019) “No financial plan is complete without a basic estate plan”

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