Probate

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Helping clients plan for their family's future, by creating an efficient, thoughtful and comprehensive estate plan that preserves their legacy and gives them peace of mind.

Inheriting a Timeshare

Ask anyone who ever purchased a timeshare and changed their mind about it. Getting rid of a timeshare can be problematic. However, imagine if your parents purchased a timeshare and left it to you, with all the financial obligations? Some timeshare companies are now trying to make people continue to pay after they have died, warns a cautionary article “How to Avoid Inheriting a TImeshare You Don’t Want” from KSL-TV

One woman’s parents loved their timeshare. They travelled to one for skiing, another to relax in the sun, and others according to availability and their travel plans. The entire family went on trips and all enjoyed the flexibility. However, when both parents passed away just a few months apart, the timeshare company started sending letters demanding payment. The siblings didn’t want any part of it.  Inheriting a timeshare was not part of their plans.

There had not been any discussions with their parents about what would happen to the timeshare. One of the daughters decided to put the monthly fee onto her credit card to be paid automatically, thinking this would be a short-term issue. When the timeshare company did not respond to the children’s attempt to contact the company to shut down the account, she had the automatic payments stopped. A collection notice showed up and demanded payment immediately.

However, is the family legally obligated to pay for the parental timeshare?

If you die owning a timeshare, it does become part of your estate and obligations are indeed passed onto the next-of-kin or the estate’s beneficiaries. However, they do not have to accept it, in the same way that anyone has the right to refuse any part of an inheritance. No one is legally obligated to accept something just because it was bequeathed to them. This is known as the right to disclaim, but it’s not automatic.

A local estate planning attorney will know how your state governs the right to disclaim. Generally speaking, a disclaimer of interest must be filed with the probate court, stating that you reject inheriting a timeshare. There are time limits–in some states, you have only nine months after the death of a loved one to file.

When the next-of-kin rejects inheriting the timeshare, it may go to the next heir, and the next, and the next, etc. Every family member must file their own disclaimer. If the timeshare is disclaimed by all heirs, it is likely that the timeshare company will foreclose on the timeshare. There may be leftover debts for unpaid fees, and the estate may have to fork over those payments.

A few tips: if you are planning on refusing inheriting a timeshare, you cannot use it. Don’t try it out, let a friend use it or go one last time. If you wish to disclaim something, you cannot receive any benefit of the thing you are disclaiming. Once you receive a benefit, the opportunity to disclaim it is gone.

Unwanted timeshares usually sell for far less than the original purchase price. Selling a timeshare involves a market loaded with scammers who promise a quick sale, while charging thousands of dollars upfront.

If possible, speak with your parents and their estate planning attorney to head the problem off in advance.

Reference: KSL-TV (Jan. 25, 2021) “How to Avoid Inheriting a TImeshare You Don’t Want”

Changing Your Personal Representative

If you are wondering about changing your personal representative (or executor) of a will after the fact, KAKE.com’s recent article entitled “How to Change the Executor of a Will” says that the process is pretty simple. Even so, you should work with an experienced estate planning attorney to make certain that it is completed correctly, and it’s legal.

The personal representative (or PR) of a will is the individual you name to be responsible for carrying out the terms of your will. By designating a PR, you’re giving him or her the authority to handle certain tasks related to the distribution of your estate. In Florida, your personal representative must be a resident of Florida or related to you.

It’s okay to name a beneficiary of your will a personal representative. A personal representative must undertake certain tasks, such as the following:

  • Getting death certificates
  • Starting the probate process
  • Making an inventory of the decedent’s assets
  • Notifying the decedent’s creditors of his or her death
  • Paying any outstanding debts and closing bank accounts; and
  • Distributing assets to the beneficiaries named in the will.

The personal representative can’t change the terms of the will. They can only make sure that its terms are carried out.  A PR can be paid a fee for their services, which can be a percentage of the value of the estate or a reasonable hourly rate. State laws vary on this compensation approach.

There are a few reasons why changing your personal representatives may be necessary, such as if:

  • Your original PR dies or becomes seriously ill and can’t fulfill his or her duties
  • You named your spouse as PR but you divorce
  • The individual you originally designated as PR no longer wants the responsibility or is not a resident of Florida
  • Your relationship with your PR has deteriorated; and
  • You think someone else would be better equipped to administer your will.

Note that you don’t need to give a specific reason for changing your personal representative. There are two ways to do this: (i) add a codicil to an existing will; or (ii) draft a brand-new will. A codicil is a written amendment that you can use to change only the provisions of your will needing changes without having to write a new one. The codicil must be executed with the same formalities as your original will.

If you need to change more than just changing your personal representative, you might want to draft a new will, which entails the same process as the one you followed when making your original one. You should also destroy all copies of the original will to avoid confusion and potential challenges to the terms of the will after you die. It’s wise to use an experienced estate planning attorney to help you replace an existing will and when changing your personal representative.

Reference: KAKE.com (Dec. 29, 2020) “How to Change the Executor of a Will”

 

What is an Intestate Estate?

Intestate estates can make the administration of a probate estate very confusing.  Imagine a scenario where three brothers’ biological father passed away a decade ago. The father wasn’t married to the brothers’ mother, plus, 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 intestate (without a will) in Florida, there is a surviving spouse and the decedent has no living children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren (lineal descendants), then the surviving spouse gets the entire probate estate. If the decedent has lineal descendants, and all of them are also lineal descendants of the surviving spouse, then the surviving spouse gets the first $60,000 of the probate estate and half of the balance of the probate estate. The lineal descendants split the remaining half. If the decedent has lineal descendants, and one or more of them are not lineal descendants of the surviving spouse, then the surviving spouse gets one-half of the probate estate and the lineal descendants divide the other half equally among themselves.  You can see what happens in other situations at EstatePlanningInFlorida. com

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 intestate 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?”

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Wills Don’t Avoid Probate

Wills don’t avoid probate.  A last will and testament is a straightforward estate planning tool, used to determine the beneficiaries of your assets when you die, and, if you have minor children, nominating a guardian who will raise your children. Wills can be very specific but can’t enforce all of your wishes. For example, if you want to leave your niece your car, but only if she uses it to attend college classes, there won’t be a way to enforce those terms in a will, says the article “Things you should never put in your will” from MSN Money.

If you have certain terms you want met by beneficiaries, your best bet is to use a trust, where you can state the terms under which your beneficiaries will receive distributions or assets.

Leaving things out of your will can actually benefit your heirs, because in most cases, they will get their inheritance faster. Here’s why: when you die, your will must be probated in a court of law before any property is distributed.  Wills don’t avoid probate.  Probate takes a certain amount of time, and if there are issues, it might be delayed. If someone challenges the will, it can take even longer.

However, property that is in a trust or in payable-on-death (POD) titled accounts pass directly to your beneficiaries outside of a will.

Don’t put any property or assets in a will that you don’t own outright. If you own any property jointly, upon your death the other owner will become the sole owner. This is usually done by married couples in community property states.

A trust may be the solution for more control. When you put assets in a trust, title is held by the trust. Property that is titled as owned by the trust becomes subject to the rules of the trust and is completely separate from the will. Since the trust operates independently, it is very important to make sure the property you want to be held by the trust is titled properly and to not include anything in your will that is owned by the trust.  Any property titled in a trust will avoid probate.  Wills don’t avoid probate.

Certain assets are paid out to beneficiaries because they feature a beneficiary designation. They also should not be mentioned in the will. You should check to ensure that your beneficiary designations are up to date every few years, so the right people will own these assets upon your death.

Here are a few accounts that are typically passed through beneficiary designations:

  • Bank accounts
  • Investments and brokerage accounts
  • Life insurance polices
  • Retirement accounts and pension plans.

Another way to pass property outside of the will, is to own it jointly. If you and a sibling co-own stocks in a jointly owned brokerage account and you die, your sibling will continue to own the account and its investments. This is known as joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Business interests can pass through a will, but that is not your best option. An estate planning attorney can help you create a succession plan that will take the business out of your personal estate and create a far more efficient way to pass the business along to family members, if that is your intent. If a partner or other owners will be taking on your share of the business after death, an estate planning attorney can be instrumental in creating that plan.

Funeral instructions don’t belong in a will. Family members may not get to see that information until long after the funeral. You may want to create a letter of instruction, a less formal document that can be used to relay these details.

Your account numbers, including passwords and usernames for online accounts, do not belong in a will. Remember a will becomes a public document, so anything you don’t want the general public to know after you have passed should not be in your will.

Reference: MSN Money (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

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Probate Without a Will

Probate, also called “estate administration,” is the management and final settlement of a deceased person’s estate. It is conducted by an executor, also known as a personal representative, who is nominated in the will and approved by the court. Estate administration needs to be done when there are assets subject to probate, regardless of whether there is a will, says the article “Probating your spouse’s will” from The Huntsville Item.

Probate is the formal process of administering a person’s estate. Without a will, probate also establishes heirship. In some regions, this is a quick and easy process, while in others it is a lengthy, complex and expensive process. The complexity depends upon the size and value of the estate, whether a proper estate plan was prepared by the decedent prior to death and if there are family members or others who might contest the will.

Family dynamics can cause a tremendous amount of complications and delays, especially if the family has blended children from prior marriages or if a child has predeceased their parents.

There are some exceptions, when the estate is extremely small and when probate is not required. However, in most cases, it is required.

A recent District Court case ruled that a will not admitted to probate is not effective for proving title and thereby ownership, to real estate. A title company was sued for defamation after the title company issued a title report that included the statement that the decedent had died intestate, that is, without a will.

The decedent’s son, who was her executor, sued the title company because his mother did indeed have a will and the title report was defamatory. The court rejected this theory, and the case was brought to the Appellate Court to seek relief for the family. The Appellate Court ruled that until a will has been admitted to probate, it is not effective for the purpose of proving title to real property.

If a person owns real estate, they must have an estate plan to ensure that their property can be successfully transferred to heirs. When there is no estate plan, heirs find out how big a problem probate without a will can be when someone decides they want to sell the property or divide it up among family members.

Problems also arise when the family finds that they must pay taxes on the property or that there are expenses that must be paid to maintain the property. Without a will, the disposition of the property is determined by the state’s estate law. Things can become complicated quickly when probate without a will is required.

If the deceased spouse has children from outside the most recent marriage, those children may have rights to the property and end up owning a portion of the property along with the surviving spouse. However, neither the children nor the surviving spouse can sell the property without each other’s approval. This is a common occurrence.

There are also limitations as to how probate can be used to distribute and manage an estate. In some states, the time limit is four years from the date of death.

An estate planning attorney can help the family move through the probate process more efficiently when there is no will. A better situation would be for the family to speak with their parents about having a will and estate plan created before it’s too late.

Reference: The Huntsville Item (Nov. 22, 2020) “Probating your spouse’s will”

Suggested Key Terms: Probate, Last Will and Testament, Surviving Spouse, Estate Planning Attorney, Title

Probate and Real Estate

There as unique issues when dealing with probate and real estate. For a family whose 91-year-old mother lives in her home, has a will and has appointed two sisters as attorneys in fact under her Power of Attorney and personal representatives of her estate, the question of handling the transfer of the home is explored in a recent article from the Herald Tribune, “Transfer title now or go through probate in the future?”

The family wasn’t sure if it made more sense to transfer the title to her two daughters and son while she was still living, or let the children handle the transfer as part of the estate. The brother may wish to purchase the home after the mother passes, as he lives with his mother.

If nothing is done, the house will be part of the probate estate. An estate will have to be opened, a representative will be appointed by the court (usually the personal representative of the will) and then the personal representative can sell assets in the estate, close accounts and deal with the IRS and the Social Security Administration. The probate process can be time-consuming and expensive, depending on where the mother lives.

There are a number of steps that could be taken to simplify things and make sure that probate and real estate do not become an issue. The mom’s assets can be held jointly, so they pass to the surviving owner, an enhanced life estate deed can be created, under which the the children would acquire title automatically at her death, or a trust can be created, and her assets be titled to the trust, so they pass automatically to beneficiaries.

The issue of the house becomes a little more complicated because there are so many options. If the house has appreciated significantly over the years, keeping it in the estate will minimize taxes that have to be paid if and when it is sold.

For example, let’s say the house has increased in value by $250,000. Under current tax law, the mother can exclude up to $250,000 in profits from the sale of the home. This is the exclusion before the sale of a primary residence where the owner has lived in the home for two out of the last five years.

If she signs a quitclaim deed now to give the home to her three children, the IRS will consider this a gift to the three children. Her cost basis in the property (what she paid for the home, plus the cost of any material or structural improvements) will be transferred to the children. However, when the children go to sell the property, they won’t have that same $250,000 exclusion. The three siblings will have to pay federal income or capital gains tax on the same of the home.  The mother may also lose her Florida homestead exemption.

However, if the home remains in the mother’s estate when she passes, the siblings inherit the home at the stepped-up basis. In other words, the value of the house (for estate tax purposes) will rise to the current market value at the time of her death, and not the value when she paid for the house. If the children decide to sell the house immediately, there won’t be any profit and there won’t be any taxes.

In Florida, the children would be able to use an enhanced life estate deed that would let the property transfer automatically to heirs upon the mother’s death. The siblings then inherit the property at the stepped-up value and avoid the problems of probate and real estate.

Here’s another question to consider: how does the cost of setting up trusts and enhanced life estate deeds compare to the estimated cost of probating the estate?

This family, and others in the same situation, should speak with an estate planning attorney to evaluate their options. The siblings in this case need to clarify whether their brother wants to buy the house and if he is able to do so. The mom then needs to make a decision, while she is still able to do so, because after all, it’s still her home.

Reference: Herald-Tribune (Nov. 7, 2020) “Transfer title now or go through probate in the future?”

 

Personal Representatives When There Is No Will

A Personal Representative (or Executor) is the person who’ll manage your estate by protecting your assets, paying your debts and distributing the remaining property according to the terms in the will. But Programming Insider’s recent article, “Role of the Court When There is No Will For an Estate, asks “what would happen if someone dies without a will and, therefore, without appointing a personal representative?”

This is known as dying “intestate.” The probate court must decide who will act as the estate’s administrator or personal representative when there is no will. The judge’s decision will be based on state law, which will say how to prioritize potential fiduciaries in an administrator’s appointment. Every state has a prioritized list of preferred personal representatives, and some states offer detailed guidance, like Oklahoma, which has a prioritized list. If more than one person is equally entitled to be appointed, a court has the option to appoint one or more executors.

The probate court has the final decision as to who will serve as the estate’s administrator or personal representative, even including a person who is named as personal representative in a will or is entitled to be chosen as a valid executor. The court will award authority to an administrator and will issue letters of administration or letters of testamentary. This authorizes the person to serve as an estate’s personal representative. Some people who might otherwise be entitled to serve as an executor may be disqualified based on state law. Here are some of the factors that a judge may consider when disqualifying a potential executor:

  • An executor must be an adult, who is at least 18 years old. However, some states require the minimum age of 21.
  • Criminal History. Some states don’t permit someone who’s been convicted of a serious crime to serve as the personal representative of a decedent’s estate. Other states only require a potential executor to notify the court of any felony convictions.
  • Residency. This may be a factor in a person’s ability to serve as a personal representative. Some states let nonresidents serve in some circumstances. Some let nonresidents serve, if it’s a close relative. Finally, some other states require a nonresident executor to post a bond or use an agent within the state to process services and the court’s communication.
  • Business Relationship. There may be state laws as to who may be an executor if the decedent was an active member of a partnership; and
  • It also may be difficult for a noncitizen to serve as an estate’s personal representative.

Generally, probate judges have a lot of latitude and discretion on this selection.  Let us help you select a personal representative.

Reference: Programming Insider (Nov. 9, 2020) “Role of the Court When There is No Will For an Estate

 

The Death of a Spouse

It probably is the last thing on your mind, but there are tasks that must be accomplished after the death of a spouse. You might want to ask for help and advice from a trusted family member, friend, or adviser to sort things out and provide you with emotional guidance.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Checklist: Steps to Take after Your Spouse Dies” provides a checklist to help guide you through the most important tasks you need to complete:

Don’t make any big decisions. It’s not a good time to make any consequential financial decisions. You may wish to sell a home or other property that reminds you of your spouse, but you should wait. You should also refrain from making any additional investments or large purchases—especially if you weren’t actively involved in your family’s finances before the death.

Get certified copies of the death certificate. You’ll need certified copies of your spouse’s death certificate for any benefit claims or to switch over accounts into your name. Ask the funeral home for no fewer than 12 copies. You also may need certified marriage certificates to prove you were married to your late spouse.

Talk to your spouse’s employer. If your spouse was working when he or she passed, contact the employer to see if there are any benefits to which you are entitled, such as a 401(k) or employer-based insurance policy. If you and your dependents’ medical insurance was through your spouse’s job, find out how long the coverage will be in effect and begin making other arrangements.

Contact your spouse’s insurance company and file a claim.  After the death of a spouse, get the documentation in order prior to contacting the insurance company and make certain that you understand the benefit options to claim a life insurance benefit.

Probate the estate. Get a hold of the will. Contact the attorney for help in settling the estate. If your spouse didn’t have a will, it will be more complicated.  However, the death of a spouse may reveal that many if not all assets are held as tenants by the entireties which has rights of survivorship and doesn’t require probate. Reach out to an experienced estate planning attorney or elder law attorney for advice in this situation.

Collect all financial records. Begin collecting financial records, including bank records, bills, credit card statements, tax returns, insurance policies, mortgages, loans and retirement accounts. If your spouse wasn’t organized, this might take some time. You may be required to contact companies directly and provide proof of the death of a spouse, before being able to gain access to the accounts.

Transfer accounts and cancel credit cards. If your spouse was the only name on an account, like a utility, change the name if you want to keep the service or close the account. Get a copy of your spouse’s credit reports, so you’ll know of any debts in your spouse’s name. Request to have a notification in the credit report that says “Deceased — do not issue credit.” That way new credit won’t be taken out in the spouse’s name.

Contact government offices. Have your spouse’s Social Security number available and call the Social Security Administration office to determine what’s required to get survivor benefits. Do this as soon as possible to avoid long delays before you get your next Social Security payment. You may also qualify for a one-time death benefit of $255. If your spouse served in the armed forces, you may be eligible for additional benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Therefore, contact your local office.

Change your emergency contact information. Change any of your or your family members’ emergency contact info that had your spouse’s name or number listed as someone else’s primary point of contact.

This checklist is a good way to help with the pressing tasks. You can also contact an estate planning attorney or elder law attorney for help.

Reference: Kiplinger (Aug. 27, 2020) “Checklist: Steps to Take after Your Spouse Dies”

 

Inheriting a Mortgage

Many people are unprepared to address the issue of inheriting a mortgage.  When a loved one dies, there are always questions about wills, inheritances and how to manage all of their legal and financial affairs. It’s worse if there’s no will and no estate planning has been done. This recent Bankrate article, “Does the home you inherited include a mortgage?,” says that things can get even more complicated when there’s a mortgage on the inherited house.

Heirs often inherit the family home. However, if it comes with a mortgage, you’ll want to work with an estate planning attorney. If there are family members who could become troublesome, if houses are located in different states or if there’s a lot of money in the estate, it’s better to have the help of an experienced professional.

Death does not mean the mortgage goes away. Heirs need to decide how to manage the loan payments, even if their plan is to sell the house. If there are missing payments, there may be penalties added onto the late payment. Worse, you may not know about inheriting a mortgage until after a few payments have gone unpaid.

Heirs inheriting a mortgage do have several options:

If the plan is for the heirs to move into the home, they may be able to assume the mortgage and continue paying it. There is also the option to do a cash-out refinance and pay that way.

If you plan to sell the home, which might make it easier if no one in the family wants to live in the home, paying off the mortgage by using the proceeds from the sale is usually the way to go. If there is enough money in the estate account to pay the mortgage while the home is on the market, that money will come out of everyone’s share. Here again, the help of an estate planning attorney will be valuable.

Heirs have certain leverage, when dealing with a mortgage bank in an estate situation. There are certain protections available that will give you some leeway as the estate is settling. More good news—the chance of owing federal estate taxes right now is pretty small. An estate must be worth at least $11.58 million, before the federal estate tax is due.

There are still 17 states and Washington D.C. that will want payment of a state estate tax, an inheritance tax or both. There also might be capital gains tax liability from the sale of the home.

If you decide to take over the loan, the lender should be willing to work with you. The law allows heirs to assume a loan, especially when the transfer of property is to a relative, because the borrower has died. Surviving spouses have special protections to ensure that they can keep an inherited home, as long as they can afford it. In many states, this is done by holding title by “tenancy by the entireties.”

When there is a reverse mortgage on the property, options include paying off or refinancing the balance and keeping the home, selling the home for at least 95% of the appraised value, or agreeing to a deed in lieu of foreclosure. There is a window of time for the balance to be repaid, which may be extended, if the heir is actively engaged with the lender to pay the debt. However, if a year goes by and the reverse mortgage is not paid off, the lender must begin the foreclosure process.

Nothing changes if the heir inheriting a mortgage is a surviving spouse, but if the borrower who dies had an unmarried partner, they have limited options, unless they are on the loan.

What if the mortgage is “underwater,” meaning that the value of the inherited home is less than the outstanding mortgage debt? If the mortgage is a non-recourse loan, meaning the borrower does not have to pay more than the value of the home, then the lender has few options outside of foreclosure. This is also true with a reverse mortgage. Heirs are fully protected, if the home isn’t worth enough to pay off the entire balance.

If there is no will, things get extremely complicated. Contact an estate planning attorney as soon as possible.

Reference: Bankrate (Oct. 22, 2020) “Does the home you inherited include a mortgage?”