joint tenancy with right of survivorship

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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.

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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What is Tenancy by the Entirety?

Choosing an ownership structure for real estate is is an important decision. As a result, it is crucial to understand the options.  Among them, tenancy by the entirety is an ownership form unique to married couples.  Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “What is Tenancy by the Entirety?” explains that the only owners of the property must be both spouses of a legally married couple. To create a tenancy by the entirety, property would have to be acquired by both husband and wife at the same time.  It is important that they are married at the time of the acquisition.  If, for example, the two persons took title to property jointly and then were married a week later, the property would not be entireties property.

With a tenancy by the entirety, both spouses have an equal, undivided ownership interest in the entire property.  It doesn’t matter what portion of the purchase price came from each spouse. Both spouses also have equal rights, when it comes to actions involving the property, like whether to sell the property. If one of the spouses or owners dies while the property is owned under a tenancy by the entirety, the surviving spouse automatically becomes the sole owner of the home, even if the will of the decedent spouse distributes the property to somebody else.

If there’s a divorce, a tenancy by the entirety can be cancelled. If the divorced spouses continue to own the property, the arrangement will revert to tenants in common. This lets each owner sell or transfer their interest in the property to whomever they want. The property’s ownership structure could also be changed from tenancy by the entirety to another type, if both spouses agree to it.

Tenancy by the entirety has two main advantages for married couples: asset protection and survivorship. Tenancy by the entirety helps protect the property from the debts of one spouse. Creditors can’t attach a lien on a house owned as tenancy by the entirety, unless the debt is in the names of both spouses. Tenancy by the entirety makes the owner of the house a separate legal entity from either spouse. It also avoids a costly and lengthy probate process because title to the home transfers automatically to the surviving spouse upon one spouse’s death.

While tenancy by the entirety is available in Florida, it isn’t available in all states. Some owners also don’t like the fact that each spouse owns a 50% share, even if one spouse paid the entire cost of acquiring the home.

There are a few other ways to own property. Here are some of the most commonly used methods for properties purchased for more than one adult tenant to live in:

Tenants in Common.   This is a type of ownership in which two or more persons or entities owned an undivided interest in property. Unlike tenancy by the entirety, tenants in common do not have to own equal shares of the property, and upon one owner’s death, his or her ownership interest will be distributed pursuant to his will or intestate probate proceedings.

Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship (JTWROS).  This is similar to tenancy by the entirety. Like tenancy by the entirety, JTWROS-held properties also pass to the survivor in the event of one spouse’s death. However, JTWROS isn’t limited to married couples, and there can be two or more owners. Each one has an equal interest in the property, but unlike tenancy by the entirety property, each owner has the right to sell or transfer their ownership interest to another. Another difference is that JTWROS owners aren’t considered to be a separate and single legal entity—each owner’s creditors can go after the property, even for debts that are owned by a single debtor spouse.

Sole Ownership. With sole ownership, just one person holds title to a property. It is often used when a single individual purchases a home. However, it can also be used if a married couple buys a home, but only one spouse will legally own it. A big advantage of sole ownership is its simplicity—the owner is able to make any decisions about the property on their own. However, transfer of ownership when a sole owner dies can be more complicated than any of the other ownership structures above.

Tenancy by the entirety has several key benefits for married couples, in states where it’s permitted. Review these with an experienced estate planning attorney before deciding.

Reference: Motley Fool (Aug. 23, 2020) “What is Tenancy by the Entirety?”