Wills

How Long Do You Have to Settle an Estate?

The beneficiaries of an estate are typically eager to receive their inheritance. In a common scenario, a trust was left instead of a will. All the parties received their respective shares, except for the two brothers and a sister who is the executor. The trust instructed the brothers to divide the real estate property in half for each of them. The sister was to get $15,000.

However, one of the brothers lives in the home.

As you may know, the administrator or executor of an estate has the job of collecting the decedent’s assets, paying debts, making distributions to the beneficiaries and finally closing the estate in an expeditious manner.

nj.com’s recent article entitled “How long does it take to pay out a family trust?” tries to sort out what the siblings need to do to settle the estate. The key factor in this scenario is the wording of the trust.

There are situations in which a trust is used as a substitute for a will. In that case, a person’s assets are placed in trust. The trustee pays all the liabilities and administers the assets in the trust in accordance with the instructions of the trust during the individual’s life and after death.

Even when trusts are used as will substitutes, they aren’t always designed to be closed with distribution to happen immediately after the debts are paid, as in the case of the estate. The terms of the trust dictate the trustee’s duties as to the distribution of trust assets.

If you’re a beneficiary of a trust and think that the trustee is breaching his fiduciary duties, you should inform the trustee of the nature of the suspected breach. If nothing is done to remedy this, you may ask the court for help.

One option is that you can request the court to order the trustee to take actions, which you state in your complaint filed with the probate court. Another option is to request that the court direct the trustee to stop taking specific actions that you detail in your complaint.

A third choice is to ask the court to remove the trustee due to breach of fiduciary duties that you set forth in your complaint filed with the court.

However, such court intervention can be expensive. Another thing to consider is that the trustee may petition the court to have his legal fees paid from the trust funds—which will deplete the money in the trust. Because of this, it is usually best to attempt and resolve these issues before getting the court involved.

Reference: nj.com (Feb. 12, 2020) “How long does it take to pay out a family trust?

Electronic Wills Are Here—But Should You Have One?

Florida is one of the early states permitting residents to have electronic wills, along with some other types of estate planning documents, signed and completed entirely online. This will require remote notarizations and witnesses to appear via certain approved secure video chat services, reports News Chief in the article “Electronic wills are coming, but are they a good idea?” 

Electronic Wills
Make sure you’re fully informed before executing any electronic estate planning documents.

A movement to pass a similar law failed in 2017, as the result of a veto by then Governor Scott. However, a revised and approved version of the bill passed this summer and has already been signed into law by Governor DeSantis.

Under the new law, notaries will be required to undergo new training in order to be able to conduct executions of electronic wills. Certain qualified and state-approved custodians will oversee maintaining and storing the completed electronic wills for safekeeping, until the creator of the will dies, at which time the electronic wills may be electronically filed with the appropriate probate court.

Florida is only the fourth state to implement laws related to the execution and storage requirements for electronic wills. One concern is whether other states will honor these documents.

If other states will not accept the electronic wills, then a deceased person’s assets that are subject to probate administration in other states may not go to the person’s intended beneficiaries. Traditional, hard copy will executions typically occur in an attorney’s office, with proper procedures and safeguards put into place by a licensed attorney who practices in this area of the law. Many of these same procedures and safeguards will not be in place for electronic execution of electronic wills.

There is concern that these wills present an enticing target and that many family members will argue that the will is not valid, because of undue influence or a lack of capacity.

The 2019 version of the law has safeguards, that were not in the 2017 law, to protect vulnerable adults. However, until these electronic laws go through probate contests, there won’t be much clarity for estate planning attorneys.

One last concern—if the documents can be executed electronically, there are greater opportunities for criminals or people with bad intentions to more easily take advantage of vulnerable seniors.

Whether you agree that electronic wills are the future, this is still a very new process that has yet to be tried and tested. There will likely be more questions raised in the next few years about their safety and includes cases that will be taken to court to resolve issues and challenges.

For most people, this is the time to wait and see how the scenario works out. It may take a few years before the bumps are ironed out. In the meantime, meet with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan that is on paper and follows a traditional process.

Reference: News Chief (August 23, 2019) “Electronic wills are coming, but are they a good idea?”

Is it Wise to Name Three Co-Executors of Your Will?

Is it wise to name co-executors of your will? This is a question that many people ask because the don’t want one of their children to feel “left out” or under appreciated.  This may get somewhat confusing when probating a will, if there are multiple executors.

There are pros and cons to naming co-executors of your will.

What are the pros and cons to choosing one child to act as your executor, instead of selecting all three of your children to act together?

nj.com’s recent article asks “I’m planning my will. Is it bad to have more than one executor?”

The article explains that the duty of the executor is to gather all the decedent’s assets, pay any outstanding debts and liabilities and then account for and distribute the remaining estate to the beneficiaries, according to the instructions in the decedent’s will.

The executor is allowed to hire professionals and others to help with tasks, like completing a decedent’s final income tax return or preparing the home for sale.

When you have multiple executors appointed, these tasks can be assigned to each person to lessen the burden of the many duties and responsibilities that an executor has.

On the downside, if those appointed can’t work together easily and without strife, appointing multiple siblings can make the administration of an estate much more difficult due to arguments, conflicts of interest, one sibling taking the lead to the resentment of the others or one executor undermining another executor’s actions.

The problem is, in situations where the siblings don’t get along, designating one of them as executor can cause hard feelings and conflict. It’s not uncommon for those siblings who aren’t named as executor, to complain about every decision made by the named executor or delay in the administration of the estate.

If there are multiple executors, the majority rules. That can avoid deadlock. Simple math in this case says that you want to avoid naming an even number of executors or name a person who can act as the tiebreaker.

Even with a “majority rules” agreement among the executors, there are some financial institutions and other entities that may require all the executors to sign documents and/or checks on behalf of the estate. This can become burdensome and inefficient, if there are multiple executors.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about your family dynamics and get their opinion about what would be best in your personal situation.

Reference: nj.com (May 22, 2019) “I’m planning my will. Is it bad to have more than one executor?”

What Estate Planning Do I Need With a New Baby?

Congratulations, you’re a new mom or dad. There’s a lot to think about, and there is one vital task that should be a priority. That is making an estate plan. People usually don’t worry about estate planning, when they’re young, healthy and starting a new family. However, your new baby is depending on you to make decisions that will set him or her up for a secure future.

What estate planning do I need with a new baby
Having an estate plan is the only way to legally name a guardian for your child.

Motley Fool’s recent article, “If You’re a New Parent, Take These 4 Estate Planning Steps” says there are a few key estate planning steps that every parent should take to make certain they’ve protected their child, no matter what the future holds.

  1. Purchase Life Insurance. If a parent passes away, life insurance will make sure there are funds available for the other spouse to keep providing for the children. If both parents pass away, life insurance can be used to raise the child or to fund the cost of college. For most parents, term life insurance is used because the premiums are affordable, and the coverage will be in effect long enough for your child to grow to an adult.
  2. Draft a Will and Name a Guardian for your Children. For parents of minor children, the most important reason to make a will, is to name a guardian for your children. When you designate a guardian, select a person who shares your values and who will do a good job raising your children. By being proactive and naming a guardian to raise your children, it’s not left to a judge to make that selection. Do this as soon as your children are born.
  3. Update Beneficiaries. Your will should say what happens to most of your assets, but you probably have some accounts with a designated beneficiary, like a 401(k), and IRA, or life insurance. When you have children, you’ll need to update the beneficiaries on these accounts for your children to inherit these assets as secondary beneficiaries, so they will inherit them in the event of your and your spouse’s passing.
  4. Look at a Trust. If you pass away prior to your children turning 18, they can’t directly take control of any inheritance you leave for them. This means that a judge may need to appoint someone to manage assets that you leave to your child. Your child could also wind up inheriting a lot of money and property free and clear at age 18. To have more control, like who will manage assets, how your money and property should be used for your children and when your children should directly receive a transfer of wealth, ask your estate planning attorney about creating a trust. With a trust, you can designate an individual who will manage money on behalf of your children and provide instructions for how the trustee can use the money to help care for your children, as they age. You can also create conditions on your children receiving a direct transfer of assets, such as requiring your children to reach age 21 or requiring them to use the money to cover college costs. Trusts are for anyone who wants more control over how their property will help their children, after they’ve passed away.

When you have a new baby, working on your estate planning probably isn’t a big priority. However, it’s worth taking the time to talk to an attorney for the security of knowing your bundle of joy can still be provided for, in the event that the worst happens to you.

Reference: Motley Fool (September 28, 2019) “If You’re a New Parent, Take These 4 Estate Planning Steps”

How Do I Transfer My Home into a Trust?

Say that a husband used his inheritance to purchase the family home outright. The wife signed a quitclaim deed to him to put the property into his living trust with the condition that if he died before his wife, she could live in the home until her death.

However, a common issue is that the husband or the creator of the trust never signed the living trust. So what would happen to the property if the husband were to die before the wife?

How do I transfer a home into my trust
Transferring your home into your trust isn’t a complicated matter as long as you know the pit-falls to lookout for.

This can be complicated if the couple lives out-of-state and it’s a second marriage for each of the spouses. They both also have adult children from prior marriages.

The Herald Tribune’s recent article, “Home ownership complications need guidance from estate planning attorney,” says that in this situation it’s important to know if the deed was to the husband personally or to his living trust. If the wife quitclaimed the home to her husband personally, he then owns her share of the home, subject to any marital interests she may still have in the home. However, if the wife quitclaimed the home to his living trust, and the trust was never created, the deed may be invalid. The wife may still own the husband’s interest in the home.

It’s common for a couple to own the home as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. This would have meant that if the wife died, her husband would own the entire property automatically. If he died, she’d own the entire home automatically. She then signed a quitclaim deed over to him or his trust.

First, the wife should see if the deed was even filed or recorded. If it wasn’t recorded or filed, she could simply destroy the document and keep the status of the title as it was. However, if the document was recorded and she transferred ownership to her husband, he would be the sole owner of the home, subject to her marital rights under state law.

If the trust doesn’t exist, her quitclaim deed transfer to an entity that doesn’t exist would create a situation, where she could claim that she still owned her interest in the home. However, the home may now be owned by the spouses as tenants in common, rather than joint tenants with rights of survivorship.

To complicate things further, if the husband now owns the home and the wife has marital rights in the home, upon his death, she may still be entitled to a share of the home under her husband’s will, if he has one, or by the laws of intestacy. However, the husband’s children would also own a share of his share of the home. At that point, the wife would co-own the home with his children.

You can see how crazy this can get. It’s best to seek the advice of a qualified estate planning attorney to guide you through the process and make sure that the proper documents get signed and filed or recorded.

Reference: The (Sarasota, FL) Herald Tribune (September 8, 2019) “Home ownership complications need guidance from estate planning attorney”

Estate Planning Is for Everyone

As we go through the many milestones of life, it’s important to plan for what’s coming, and also plan for the unexpected. An estate planning attorney works with individuals, families and businesses to plan for what lies ahead, says the Cincinnati Business Courier in the article “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.” For younger families, it’s important to remember that estate planning is for everyone, and having an estate plan is like having life insurance: it is hoped that the insurance is never needed, but having it in place is comforting.

Estate planning is for everyone
Estate planning is the most effective way to protect against life’s unforeseen events, no matter what stage of life you may be in.

For others, in different stages of life, an estate plan is needed to ensure a smooth transition for a business owner heading to retirement, protecting a spouse or children from creditors or minimizing tax liability for a family.

Here are some milestones in life when an estate plan is needed:

Becoming an adult. It is true, for most 18-year-olds, estate planning is the last thing on their minds. However, as proof that estate planning is for everyone, at 18 most states consider them legal adults, and their parents no longer control many things in their lives. If parents want or need to be involved with medical or financial matters, certain estate planning documents are needed. All young adults need a general power of attorney and health care directives to allow their parents to step in and help, if something happens.

That can be as minimal as a parent talking with a doctor during an office appointment or making medical decisions during a crisis. A HIPAA release should also be prepared. A simple will should also be considered, especially if assets are to pass directly to siblings or a significant person in their life, to whom they are not married.

Getting married. Marriage unites individuals and their assets. For newly married couples, estate planning documents should be updated for each spouse, so their estate plans may be merged, and the new spouse can become a joint owner, primary beneficiary and fiduciary. In addition to the wills, power of attorney, healthcare directive and beneficiary designations also need to be updated to name the new spouse or a trust. This is also a time to start keeping a list of assets, in case someone needs to access accounts.

When a child is born. When a new child joins the family, having an estate plan becomes especially important. Choosing guardians who will raise the children in the absence of their parents is the hardest thing to think about, but it is critical for the children’s well-being. A revocable trust may be a means of allowing the seamless transfer and ongoing administration of the family’s assets to benefit the children and other family members.

Part of business planning. Estate planning should be part of every business owner’s plan. If the unexpected occurs, the business and the owner’s family will also be better off, regardless of whether they are involved in the business. At the very least, business interests should be directed to transfer out of probate, allowing for an efficient transition of the business to the right people without the burden of probate estate administration.

If a divorce occurs. Divorce is a sad reality for about half of today’s married couples. The post-divorce period is the time to review the estate plan to remove the ex-spouse, change any beneficiary designations, and plan for new fiduciaries. It’s important to review all accounts to ensure that any beneficiary designations are updated. A careful review by an estate planning attorney is worth the time to make sure no assets are overlooked.

Upon retirement. Just before or after retirement is an important time to review an estate plan. Children may be grown and take on roles of fiduciaries or be in a position to help with medical or financial affairs. This is the time to plan for wealth transfer, minimizing estate taxes and planning for incapacity.

Reference: Cincinnati Business Courier (Sep. 4, 2019) “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.”

Does a Beneficiary of an Estate Need to Live in the U.S.?

When a person dies without a will, the distribution of his or her estate assets is governed by the state’s intestacy statute. All states have laws that instruct the court on how to disburse the intestate decedent’s property, usually according to how close in relationship they are to the person who passed away.  But what happens when a beneficiary of an estate doesn’t live in the U.S.?

Does a beneficiary of an estate have to live in the US?
Different states have different laws, but, in general, beneficiaries of an estate don’t have t live in the United States.

A recent nj.com article responded to the following question: “My ex’s new wife isn’t a citizen. Does she get an inheritance?” The article explains that under the intestacy laws of New Jersey, for example, if the deceased had children who aren’t the children of the surviving spouse, the surviving spouse is entitled to the first 25% of the estate but not less than $50,000 nor more than $200,000, plus one-half of the balance of the estate.

Also, under New Jersey law, aliens or those who are not citizens of the United States are eligible to inherit assets.

In California, if you die with children but no spouse, the children inherit everything. If you have a spouse but no children, parents, siblings, or nieces or nephews, the spouse inherits everything. If you have parents but no children, spouse, or siblings, your parents inherit everything. If you have siblings but no children, spouse, or parents, those siblings inherit everything.

Also in California, if you’re married and you die without a will, what property your spouse will receive, is based in part on how the two of you owned your property. Was it separate property or community property? California is a community property state, so your spouse will inherit your half of the community property.

In that case, an ex-husband’s wife who lives in and is a citizen of the Philippines doesn’t need to be physically present in the state to inherit assets from her husband.

If the deceased owned property in the Philippines, the distribution of those assets would be according to the laws of that country.

Reference: nj.com (August 28, 2019) “My ex’s new wife isn’t a citizen. Does she get an inheritance?”

How Does a Probate Proceeding Work?

A Will, also known as Last Will and Testament, is a legal document that is used in probate court.  It’s used when a person dies with assets that are in their name alone without a surviving joint owner or beneficiary designated, says the Record Online in the article “Anatomy of a probate proceeding.”

So, how does a probate proceeding work?

How does a probate proceeding work
Probate has been referred to as the law suit you file against yourself after you pass away.

Probate is a judicial or court proceeding, where the probate court has jurisdiction over the assets of the person who has died. The court oversees the personal representative’s payment of debts, taxes and probate fees, in addition to supervising distribution of assets to the person’s beneficiaries. The personal representative of the will has to manage the probate assets and then report to the court.

Without a will, things can get messy. A similar court proceeding takes place, but it is known as intestate succession, and the assets are distributed according to state law.

To start the probate proceeding, the personal representative completes and submits a Petition for Administration with the probate court. Most personal representatives hire an estate planning attorney to help with this. The attorney knows the process, which keeps things moving along.

The probate petition lists the beneficiaries named in the will, plus certain relatives who must, by law, receive legal notice in the mail. Let’s say that someone disinherits a child in their will. That child receives notice and learns they have been disinherited. Beneficiaries and relatives alike must return paperwork to the court stating that they either consent or object to the provisions of the will.

A disinherited child has the right to file objections with the court, and then begin a battle for inheritance that is known as a will contest. This can become protracted and expensive, drawing out the probate process for years. A will contest places all of the assets in the will in limbo. They cannot be distributed unless the court says they can, which may not occur until the will contest is completed.

In addition to the expense and time that probate takes, while the process is going on, assets are frozen. Only when the court gives the all clear does the judge issue what are called Letters of Administration, or “Letters Testamentary,” which allows the executor to start the process of distributing funds. They must open an estate account, apply for a taxpayer ID for the account, collect the assets and ultimately, distribute them, as directed in the will to the beneficiaries.

Now that you know a little about how a probate proceeding works you’re probably asking whether a will contest, or probate be avoided? Avoiding probate, or having selected assets taken out of the estate, is one reason that people use trusts as part of their estate plan. Assets can also be placed in joint ownership, and beneficiaries can be added to accounts, so that the asset goes directly to the beneficiary.

By working closely with an estate planning attorney, you’ll have the opportunity to prepare an estate plan that addresses how you want assets to be distributed, which assets may be placed outside of your estate for an easier transfer to beneficiaries and what you can do to avoid a will contest, if there is a disinheritance situation looming.

Reference: Record Online (August 24, 2019) “Anatomy of a probate proceeding”

When Should a No Contest Clause Be Included in My Will?

Deciding whether a no contest clause should be included in your will is an emotionally charged decision. Parents who sit down with an estate planning attorney would much rather talk about their grandchildren and how much they are looking forward to retirement.

When should a no contest clause be used in my will?
One of the main reasons to use a no contest clause is to deter a family member from challenging the distributions in your will.

But, when the discussion turns to how they want to distribute their assets, as reported in the article “Why is it called a ‘No Contest’ clause?” from The Daily Sentinel, the problem is revealed.

The parents share that there is a family member, an adult child, who has never been part of the family. Usually they have had a troubled past, pushed others in the family out of their lives and it’s heartbreaking for all concerned.

The discussion then moves to determining how to handle that family member with respect to their estate plan. “Do you want her to be part of your estate plan?” is the least judgmental question the attorney can ask. In many cases, the parents say yes and say they’ll keep trying to foster some kind of relationship, no matter how limited. In other cases, the answer is no.

In both cases, however, the concern is that the difficult child will fight with their siblings over their inheritance (or lack thereof) and take the battle to court. That’s one of the primary reasons a no contest clause should be included in a will.

As long as estate planning documents are prepared and executed correctly, they will survive a legal contest. However, putting in a no contest clause creates another barrier to an estate battle.

The no contest clause is intended to act as a strong deterrent for those individuals who believe they are entitled to more of the estate. It makes it clear that any challenges will result in a smaller portion of the estate, and possibly no inheritance at all, depending upon how it is written.

Both parents need to have a no contest provision included in their wills. The message is clear and consistent: these are the estate plans that we decided to create. Don’t try to change them.

For families with litigious family members or spouses who married into the family and feel that they are not being treated fairly, a no contest clause makes sense to protect the wishes of the parents.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about how a no contest provision might work in your situation. If your family doesn’t need such a clause, count your blessings!

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Aug. 10, 2019) “Why is it called a ‘No Contest’ clause?”

Why Do I Need an Attorney to Help Me with Estate Planning?

Your estate plan can be simple or complicated. The New Hampshire Union Leader’s recent article, “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional,” says that some strategies are definitely easier to implement—like having a will, for example. Others are more complex, like creating a trust. Whatever your needs, most strategies will probably necessitate that you hire a qualified attorney to help with your estate planning.

do i need an attorney to help me with my estate planning
There is a range of legal issues that should be considered when putting your estate plan together.

Here are some situations that may require special planning attention that an attorney can help you with:

  • Your estate is valued at more than the federal gift and/or estate tax applicable exclusion amount ($11.4 million per person in 2019);
  • You have minor children;
  • You have loved ones with special needs who depend on you;
  • You own a business;
  • You have property in more than one state;
  • You want to donate to charities;
  • You own valuable artwork or collectibles;
  • You have specific thoughts concerning your own health care; or
  • You want privacy and want to avoid the probate process.

First, you need to understand your situation, and that includes factors like your age, health and wealth. Your thoughts about benefitting family members and taxes also need to be considered. You’ll also want to have plans in place should you become incapacitated.

Next, think about your goals and objectives. Some common goals are:

  • Making sure your family is taken care of when the time comes;
  • Providing financial security for your family;
  • Avoiding disputes among family members or business partners;
  • Giving to a charity;
  • Managing your affairs, if you become disabled;
  • Having sufficient liquidity to pay the expenses of your estate; and
  • Transferring ownership of your property or business interests.

Ask your attorney about a will. If you have minor children, you must have a will to name a guardian to raise your children if you can’t be there for them, unless your state provides an alternative legal means to do so. Some people many need a trust to properly address their planning concerns. Some of your assets will also have their own beneficiary designations. Once you have you a plan, review it every few years or when there’s a birth, adoption, death, or divorce in the family.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (July 27, 2019) “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional”

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