executor

Serving Southwest Florida

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.

Communicating Your Estate Plan

This post stresses the importance of communicating your estate plan with your children.  Some $68 trillion will move between generations in the next two decades, reports U.S. News & World Report in the article “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children.” Having this conversation with your adult children, especially if they are members of Generation X, could have a profound impact on the quality of your relationship and your legacy.

Staying on top of and communicating your estate plan with your children will also have an impact on how much of your estate is consumed by estate taxes. The historically high federal exemptions are not going to last forever—even without any federal legislation, they sunset in 2025, which isn’t far away.

One of the purposes of your estate plan is to transfer money as you wish. What most people do is talk with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan. They create trusts, naming their child as the trustee, or simple wills naming their child as the executor. Then, the parents drop the ball.

Talk with your children about the role of trustee and/or executor. Help them understand the responsibilities that these roles require and ask if they will be comfortable handling the decision making, as well as the money. Include the Power of Attorney role in communicating your estate plan.

What most parents refuse to discuss with their children is money, plain and simple. Children will be better equipped, if they know what financial institutions hold your accounts and are introduced to your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor.

You might at some point forget about some investments, or the location of some accounts as you age. If your children have a working understanding of your finances, estate plan and your wishes, they will be able to get going and you will have spared them an estate scavenger hunt.

If possible, hold a family meeting with your advisors, so everyone is comfortable and up to speed.  Advisors can help with communicating your estate plan.

Most adult children do not have the same experience with taxes as parents who have acquired wealth over their lifetimes. They may not understand the concepts of qualified and non-qualified accounts, step-up in cost basis, life insurance proceeds, or a probate asset versus a non-probate asset. It is critical that they understand how taxes impact estates and investments. By explaining things like tax-free distributions from a Roth IRA, for instance, you will increase the likelihood that your life savings aren’t battered by taxes.

Even if your adult children work in finance, do not assume they understand your investments, your tax-planning, or your estate. Even the smartest people make expensive mistakes, when handling family estates.

Communicating your estate plan is another way to show your children that you care enough to set your own ego aside and are thinking about their future. It’s a way to connect not just about your money or your taxes, but about their futures. Knowing that you purchased a life insurance policy specifically to provide them with money for a home purchase, or to fund a grandchild’s college education, sends a clear message. Don’t miss the opportunity to share that with them, while you are living.  Let us help you create and communicate your estate plan.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Feb. 17, 2021) “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children”

The Probate Process

How you handle your property when you are living determines if and how your estate is administered during the probate process.  While you are living, you have the right to give anyone any property of your choosing. If you give your power to gift your property to another person, typically through a Power of Attorney, then that person is your agent and may give away your property, according to an article “Explaining the basic aspects probate” from The News-Enterprise. When you die, the Power of Attorney you gave to an agent ends, and they are no longer in control of your estate. Your “estate” is not a big fancy house, but a legal term used to define the total of everything you own.

Property that you owned while living, unless it was owned jointly with another person, or had a beneficiary designation giving the property to another person upon your death, is distributed through the probate process. However, probate administration requires a series of steps.

First, you need to have had created a will while you were living. Unlike most legal documents (including the Power of Attorney mentioned above), a will is valid when it is properly signed. However, it can’t be used until a probate case is opened at the local probate court. If the Court deems the will to be valid, the probate process is called “testate” and the executor named in the will may go forward with settling the estate (paying legitimate debts, taxes and expenses), before distributing assets.

If you did not have a will, or if the will was not prepared correctly and is deemed invalid by the court, the probate process is called “intestate” and the court appoints an administrator to follow the state’s laws concerning how property is to be distributed. You may not agree with how the state law directs property distribution. Your spouse or your family may not like it either, but the law itself decides who gets what.

After opening a probate case, the court will appoint a personal representative (or executor) to administer the probate process. The personal representative will have a legal notice published in the local newspaper, so any creditors can file a claim against the estate.  In Florida, the claims period (the amount of time the creditors have to file a claim after publishing the notice) is three months.

The personal representative will create a list of all of the property and the claims submitted by any creditors. It is their job to ensure that claims are valid and have been submitted within the correct timeframe. They will also be in charge of cleaning out your home, securing your home and other possessions, then selling the house and distributing your personal furnishings.

Depending on the size of the estate, the personal representative’s job may be time consuming and complex. If you left good documentation and lists of assets, a clean file system or, best of all, an estate binder with all your documents and information in one place, it can alleviate a lot of stress for your executor and help simplify the probate process. Personal representatives who are left with little information or a disorganized mess must undertake an expensive and burdensome scavenger hunt.

The personal representative is entitled to a fee for their work, which is usually a percentage of the estate.

The probate process ends when all of the property has been gathered, creditors have been paid and beneficiaries have received their distributions.

With a properly prepared estate plan, your property will be distributed according to your wishes, versus hoping the state’s laws will serve your family. You can also use the estate planning process to create the necessary documents to protect you during life, including a Power of Attorney and Advance Medical Directive.  Let us help you plan to avoid the probate process.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 2, 2021) “Explaining the basic aspects probate”

Administering an Estate

When administering an estate, there are both similarities and differences between wills and trusts.  A last will and testament is used to point out the beneficiaries and trustees and the legal professionals you want to be involved with your estate when you have passed, explains this recent article What You Need To Know About Handling a Will and Trust from Your Dearly Departed Loved One” from North Forty News. If there are minor children in the picture, the last will is used to direct who will be their guardians.

A trust is different than the last will. A trust is a legal entity where one person places assets in the trust and names a trustee to be in charge of the assets in the trust on behalf of the beneficiaries. The assets are legally protected and must be distributed as per the instructions in the trust document. Trusts are a good way to reduce paperwork, save time and reduce estate taxes. It removes the estate from the probate process when administering an estate.

Don’t go it alone. If your loved one had a last will and trust, chances are they were prepared by an estate planning lawyer. The estate planning attorney can help you go through the legal process. The attorney also knows how to prepare for problems in administering an estate such as any possible disputes from relatives.

It may be more complicated than you expect. There are times when honoring the wishes of the deceased about how their property is distributed becomes difficult. Sometimes, there are issues between the beneficiaries and the last will and trust custodians. If you locate the attorney who was present at the time the last will was signed and the trusts created, she may be able to make the process easier.

Be prepared to get organized. There’s usually a lot of paperwork in administering an estate. First, gather all of the documents—an original last will, the death certificate, life insurance policies, marriage certificates, real estate titles, military discharge papers, divorce papers (if any) and any trust documents. Review the last will and trust with an estate planning attorney to understand what you will need to do.

Protect personal property and assets. Homes, boats, vehicles and other large assets will need to be secured to protect them from theft. Once the funeral has taken place, you’ll need to identify all of the property owned by the deceased and make sure they are property insured and valued. If a home is going to be empty, changing the locks is a reasonable precaution. You don’t know who has keys or feels entitled to its contents.

Distribution of assets. If there is a last will, it must be filed with the probate court and all beneficiaries—everyone mentioned in the last will has to be notified of the decedent’s passing. As the executor, you are responsible for ensuring that every person gets what they have been assigned. You will need to prepare a document that accounts for the distribution of all properties, which the court has to certify before the estate can be closed.

Taking on the responsibility of administering an estate is not without challenges. An estate planning attorney can help you through the process, making sure you are managing all the details according to the last will and the state’s laws. There may be personal liability attached to serving as the executor, so you’ll want to make sure to have good guidance on your side.

Reference: North Forty News (Feb. 3, 2021) What You Need To Know About Handling a Will and Trust from Your Dearly Departed Loved One”

 

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”

 

Letter of Last Instruction

It is important to know that a Letter of Last Instruction does not pass through a legal process. It’s an informal but organized method of providing your family with instructions on the decisions related to financial and personal matters that should be made when you die. This can also be an alternative way of ensuring that your family are cared for after your death and to prevent issues that could arise from not probating the will.

Qrius’ recent article entitled “How to Prepare a Letter of Last Instruction” explains that preparing it can relieve your relatives of added headaches and stress after your death because it can provide crucial information on personal, financial and funeral matters. Here are some ideas as to what to include in your Letter of Last Instruction:

Personal info. This is a basic information like your full name, date of birth, father’s name and mother’s maiden name, address, Social Security number and place of birth. Add information about significant people in your life, like family, friends, business partners, clergy and others you’d like to be notified about your death.

Business and Financial Contacts. List the contact info of your business and financial partners, as well as your accountant and investment adviser. Include information on your insurance policies, as well as your bank account details.

Legal Document Location. Make sure your executor can find important legal documents, such as your will, tax returns, marriage license, Social Security card, birth certificates, trust documents, deeds, veteran benefits info and contracts. State the location of those documents in your Letter of Last Instruction.

Loan and Debt Info. Make a list of creditors containing collateral and payment terms, along with any credit card account numbers and loan account numbers. Likewise, list the people who owe you money, including their contact info and collateral and payment terms.

Usernames and Passwords. Include a section with your usernames and passwords for your online banking accounts, social media email, computer, smartphone and other electronics, so your executor or someone responsible for overseeing your estate can be certain your accounts and financial information are not compromised after your death.

Beneficiaries. Make a list of the names and contact details of all your beneficiaries with additional information on specific instructions you may want to give to clarify your intentions on the distribution of the assets.

Funeral Arrangements. Include your desires as to your funeral arrangements, such as the type of flowers, pictures and service music. You can also state the clothes in which you wish to be buried, the type of service and location and other items that will help your family with this task.

Once you have the letter, be sure your executor or at least a close family member knows where it can be located after your death.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney for pointers on writing your Letter of Last Instruction and keep updating it regularly.  We can help.

Reference: Qrius (Dec. 8, 2020) “How to Prepare a Letter of Last Instruction”

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

 

Planning With Digital Assets

One of the challenges facing estate plans today is a new class of assets, known as digital property or digital assets. When a person dies, what happens to their digital lives? According to the article “Digital assets important part of modern estate planning” from the Cleveland Jewish News, digital property needs to be included in an estate plan, just like any other property.

What is a digital asset? There are many, but the basics include things like social media—Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat—as well as financial accounts, bank and investment accounts, blogs, photo sharing accounts, cloud storage, text messages, emails and more. If it has a username and a password and you access it on a digital device, consider it a digital asset.

Business and household files stored on a local computer or in the cloud should also be considered as digital property. The same goes for any cryptocurrency; Bitcoin is the most well-known type, and there are many others.

The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA) has been adopted by almost all states to provide legal guidance on rights to access digital property for four (4) different types of fiduciaries: executors, trustees, agents under a financial power of attorney and guardians. The law allows people the right to grant not only their digital property, but the contents of their communications. It establishes a three-tier system for the user, the most important part being if the person expresses permission in an online platform for a specific asset, directly with the custodian of a digital platform, that is the controlling law. If they have not done so, they can provide for permission to be granted in their estate planning documents. They can also allow or forbid people to gain access to their digital property.

If a person does not take either of these steps, the terms of service they agreed to with the platform custodian governs the rights to access or deny access to their digital property.

It’s important to discuss this new asset class with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your estate plan addresses your digital property. Having a list of your digital property is a first step, but it’s just the start. Leaving the family to fight with a tech giant to gain access to digital accounts is a stressful legacy to leave behind.

Let us help you address digital assets in your estate plan.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (Sep. 24, 2020) “Digital assets important part of modern estate planning”

 

You Need More than a Will for Estate Planning

As the coronavirus continues to sweep across through the U.S. and the death tolls continue to rise, many people are starting to put their estate plans in place, as reported by CNBC.com in the article “A will doesn’t cover all your bases when it comes to end-of-life decisions. Here’s what else you need.”

It’s true–your will, or last will and testament, is just one of several legal documents you need to help loved ones know what your wishes are. If there is no will, all kinds of problems are created. If you have minor children and no will, the court will decide who will care for them. With no will, the laws of your state determine who will receive your assets—even if it’s a relative you’ve never met—or one you’ve loathed for decades.

For those who have partners but are not married, no will means your assets won’t go to them. They also won’t have legal standing to fight back. The courts typically pass assets on to your closest blood relatives. That might not be what you want.

However, a will is only one part of your entire estate plan. You don’t need to live on “an estate” to have an estate. Actually, your estate refers to everything you own—financial accounts, possessions, real estate and digital assets. Putting a plan in place for those assets helps lessen the chances your family will fracture when you have died. Your assets will also go where you want them. It’s a kindness to your loved ones.

A will lets you convey your wishes about who gets what when you die, except for assets that pass outside of a will. These are accounts where you have named a beneficiary, like insurance policies, retirement accounts and jointly owned property. The beneficiary designations and joint ownership (with rights of survivorship) always supersede your will, which is where many people make big mistakes. If you don’t update your beneficiary designations as you move through life, the wrong person might inherit significant assets. There also won’t be anything your intended heirs can do about it.

Another big part of your will involves choosing a person to be in charge of carrying out your intentions—the personal representative (or executor). This is a job that requires someone who is responsible, reliable and comfortable with handling financial and legal matters.

You’ll also need a health care directives, sometimes called designation of health care surrogate and living will, to outline your wishes, if you become incapacitated because of illness or injury. This gives loved ones the instructions they need if, for example, you are on life support and a decision has to be made about whether to continue or to let you pass. Don’t forget a Durable Power of Attorney. This document allows a person of your choice to carry out all of your financial and legal affairs on your behalf. You want to pick someone who is smart and trustworthy. They might need to do everything from selling your home to managing your investments.

Estate planning also includes preparing all of the important documents in your life, so that your executor can find them easily, including your will itself, other legal documents, information about bank accounts, investment accounts and even your Social Security number. The more organized you can be, the more easily your loved ones will be able to administer your estate.

If you want your children to receive money from you but are concerned about their ability to manage an inheritance, you may want to add a trust to your estate plan. Your assets go into the trust, instead of directly into their hands. You also name a trustee who will oversee the trust. The trustee will decide when your children receive the money, according to your instructions. The distribution could be tied to achieving certain goals—like graduating from college or getting their first apartment. Further, if the trust is a revocable living trust, all assets titled in the trust will avoid probate.

One last point: many people today are downloading estate planning forms from the internet. The problem is, you don’t know if they are up-to-date, or even admissible in your state. Every state has its own estate laws, and no one document works in all states. Working with an estate planning attorney who knows the laws in your state eliminates the risk that a judge will toss out your will, because it does not comply with state law.

Reference: CNBC.com (July 27, 2020) “A will doesn’t cover all your bases when it comes to end-of-life decisions. Here’s what else you need.”

 

What Is a Fiduciary and a Fiduciary Duty?

First, a fiduciary duty is the requirement that certain professionals, like attorneys or financial advisors, work in the best financial interest of their clients. By law, members of some professions with clients are bound by fiduciary duty.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “What Is Fiduciary Duty?” explains that in a fiduciary relationship, the person who must prioritize their clients’ interests over their own is called the fiduciary. The person getting the services or assistance is called the beneficiary or principal.

You will frequently see a fiduciary relationship with certain types of professionals, like attorneys and financial advisors. A fiduciary duty is a serious obligation, and if a fiduciary doesn’t fulfill his or her duties, it’s known as a breach of fiduciary duty. Fiduciaries must act in a beneficiary’s best interest. They have two main duties: duty of care and duty of loyalty. Fiduciaries may have different or additional requirements, depending on their industry.

With the duty of care, fiduciaries must make informed business decisions after reviewing available information with a critical eye. Lawyers must act carefully in performing work for clients. Care is determined by the prevailing standards of professional competence in the relevant field of law and geographic region. To abide by the duty of loyalty, fiduciaries must not have any undisclosed economic or personal conflict of interest. They can’t use their positions to further their own private interests. For example, fiduciary financial advisors might adhere to the duty of loyalty by disclosing recommendations from which they’ll receive a commission.

Other common professions or positions that require fiduciary duties include directors of corporations and real estate agents, as well as those discussed below:

Trustee of a Trust. When you want your assets to transfer to someone after you die, you can put them into a trust. The trustee who’s in charge of the trust has a fiduciary duty to manage the trust and its assets in the best interests of the beneficiary who will one day inherit them.

Estate Personal Representative or Executor. The person who manages your estate and handles your affairs is your personal representative. He or she has a fiduciary responsibility to your heirs and next of kin to distribute the estate according to your wishes.

Lawyer. Your attorney must disclose any conflicts of interest and must work with your best interests in mind.

Financial Advisors. Financial advisors who are fiduciaries must act in the best interest of their clients and offer the lowest cost financial solutions to fit their clients’ needs. However, it important to note that not all financial advisors are fiduciaries.

Reference: Forbes (July 28, 2020) “What Is Fiduciary Duty?”

 

What Is Involved with Serving as a Personal Representative?

Serving as the personal representative (or executor) of a relative’s estate may seem like an honor, but it can also be a lot of work, says The (Fostoria, OH) Review Times’ recent article entitled “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate.”

As a personal representative of a will, you’re tasked with settling her affairs after she dies. This may sound rather easy, but you should be aware that the job can be time consuming and difficult, depending on the complexity of the decedent’s financial and family situation. Here are some of the required duties:

  • Filing court papers to initiate the probate process
  • Taking inventory of the decedent’s estate
  • Using the decedent’s estate funds to pay bills, taxes, and funeral costs
  • Taking care of canceling her credit cards and informing banks and government offices like Social Security and the post office of her death
  • Readying and filing her final income tax returns; and
  • Distributing assets to the beneficiaries named in the decedent’s will.

Every state has specific laws and deadlines for a personal representative’s responsibilities. To help you, work with an experienced estate planning attorney and take note of these reminders:

Get organized. Make certain that the decedent has an updated will and locate all her important documents and financial information. Quickly having access to her deeds, brokerage statements and insurance policies after she dies, will save you a lot of time and effort. With a complex estate, you may want to hire an experienced estate planning attorney to help you through the process. The estate will pay that expense.

Avoid conflicts. Investigate to see if there are any conflicts between the beneficiaries of the decedent’s estate. If there are some potential issues, you can make your job as personal representative much easier, if everyone knows in advance who’s getting what, and the decedent’s rationale for making those decisions. Ask your aunt to tell her beneficiaries what they can expect, even with her personal items because last wills often leave it up to the executor to distribute heirlooms. If there’s no distribution plan for personal property, she should write one.

Personal representative fees. You’re entitled to a personal representative fee paid by the estate. In Florida, personal representatives are allowed to take a percentage of the estate’s value, generally 3%, depending on the size of the estate. However, if you’re a beneficiary, it may make sense for you to forgo the fee because fees are taxable, and it could cause rancor among the other beneficiaries.

Reference: The (Fostoria, OH) Review Times (Aug. 19, 2020) “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate”