probate

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.

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”

 

Fund Your Trust

Funding your trust is vital to the success of an estate plan. Thinking you have divided assets equally between children by creating a trust that names all as equal heirs, while placing only one child’s name on other assets is not an equally divided estate plan. Instead, as described in the article “Estate Planning: Fund the trust” from nwi.com, this arrangement is likely to lead to an estate battle.

One father did just that. He set up a trust with explicit instructions to divide everything equally among his heirs. However, only one brother was made a joint owner on his savings and checking accounts and the title of the family home.

Upon his death, ownership of the savings and checking accounts and the home would go directly to the brother. Assets in the trust, if there are any, will be divided equally between the children. That’s probably not what the father had in mind, but legally the other siblings will have no right to the non-trust assets.

This is an example of why creating a trust is only one part of an estate plan. You must also fund your trust or it will not work.

Many estate plans include what is called a “pour-over will” usually executed just after the trust is executed. It is a safety net that “catches” any assets not funded into the trust and transfers them into it. However, this transfer requires probate, and since probate avoidance is a goal of having a trust, it is not the best solution.

The situation as described above is confusing. Why would one brother be a joint owner of assets, if the father means for all of the children to share equally in the inheritance? When the father passes, the brother will own the assets. If the matter went to court, the court would very likely decide that the father’s intention was for the brother to inherit them. Whatever language is in the trust will be immaterial.

If the father’s intention is for the siblings to share the estate equally, the changes need to be made while he is living. The brother’s name needs to come off the accounts and the title to the home, and they all need to be funded (re-titled) in the name of the trust. The brother will need to sign off on removing his name. If he does not wish to do so, it’s going to be a legal challenge.

The family needs to address the situation as soon as possible with an experienced estate planning attorney. Even if the brother won’t sign off on changing the names of the assets, as long as the father is living there are options. Once he has passed, the family’s options will be limited. Estate battles can consume a fair amount of the estate’s value and destroy the family’s relationships.

We can help you fund your trust as part of a successful estate plan.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 17, 2021) “Estate Planning: Fund the trust”

 

D-I-Y Estate Planning

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning Mistakes” provides some issues that D-I-Y estate planners might encounter and why it is best to consult an experienced estate planning attorney.

What are the Right Questions to Ask?  Completing a simple and straightforward form—like a beneficiary designation for your IRA— is one thing, but what about tax consequences, probate law, new legislation and court procedures? Are you ready to take these on? The trick is that you may not know what you don’t know. D-I-Y estate planning could prove to be disastrous That’s why it’s money well-spent to employ the services of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Is My Situation Complex? Likewise, you may have property and assets all over the country (or world) that require expert advice. You must be certain that your planning, tax planning and financial planning all work together because they’re all interrelated. If you only work on one of these areas at a time, you may create complications in another area and unintentionally increase your expenses or taxes. It can also create headaches and expense for your heirs. If you have a child with special needs, a blended family, or want to control how and where a beneficiary spends your money, a D-I-Y estate planning approach won’t do. Instead, you should see an experienced estate planning attorney.

What are the Probate Laws in My State? Estate planning laws and taxes are different in each state.  Your state will have different rules and legal procedures for creating and administering an estate. There are many different state laws that govern inheritance taxes. There are 17 states plus DC that tax your estate, inheritance or both, and the tax laws can affect your situation when planning. Eleven states plus DC have only an inheritance tax. One state taxes both inheritances and estates.

If you mess up your D-Y-I estate planning documents, if could cause significant problems for your family. You best bet is to work with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state.

Reference: US News & World Report (Dec. 18, 2020) “Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning Mistakes”

 

Personalized Estate Planning

Just as a custom-tailored suit fits better than one off the rack, a custom-tailored, personalized estate plan works better for families. Making sure assets pass to the right person is more likely to occur when documents are created just for you, advises the article “Tailoring estate to specific needs leads to better plans” from the Cleveland Jewish News.

The most obvious example of personalized estate planning is a family with a special needs member. Generic estate planning documents typically will not suit that family’s estate planning.

Every state has its own laws about distributing property and money owned by a person at their death, in cases where people don’t have a will. Relying on state law instead of a will is a risky move that can lead to people you may not even know inheriting your entire estate.

In the absence of a personalized estate plan, the probate court makes decisions about who will administer the estate and the distribution of property. Without a named personal representative, the court may appoint a local attorney to take on this responsibility. An appointed attorney who has never met the decedent and doesn’t know the family won’t have the insights to follow the decedent’s wishes.

The same risks can occur with online will templates. Their use often results in families needing to retain an estate planning attorney to fix the mistakes caused by their use. Online wills may not be valid in your state or may lead to unintended consequences. Saving a few dollars now could end up costing your family thousands to clean up the mess.

Estate plans are different for each person because every person and every family are different. Estate plan templates may not account for any of your wishes.

Generic plans are very limited. A personalized estate plan custom created for you takes into consideration your family dynamics, how your individual beneficiaries will be treated and expresses your wishes for your family after you have passed.

Generic estate plans also don’t reflect the complicated families of today. Some people have family members they do not want to inherit anything. Disinheriting someone successfully is not as easy as leaving them out of the will or leaving them a small token amount.

Ensuring that your wishes are followed and that your will is not easily challenged takes the special skills of an experienced estate planning attorney.  Let us help you create a personalized estate plan.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (Dec. 9, 2020) “Tailoring estate to specific needs leads to better plans”

Suggested Key Terms: Inheritance, Estate Planning Attorney, Will, Probate Court, Executor, Beneficiaries, Special Needs Families, Disinheriting

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”

Let is help you plan your estate.

Estate Planning Disasters

The potential of estate planning disasters looms in the near future.  One of the largest wealth transfers our nation has ever seen is about to occur, since in the next 25 years, roughly $68 trillion of wealth will be passed to succeeding generations. This event has unique planning opportunities for those who are prepared, and also big challenges due to the ever-changing legal and tax world of estate planning.

Fox Business’ article “5 estate planning disasters you’ll want to avoid,” discusses the biggest estate planning disasters to avoid.

Failing to properly name beneficiaries. This common estate planning mistake is easily overlooked, when setting up a retirement plan for the first time or when switching investment companies. A big advantage of adding a beneficiary to your account, is that the account will avoid probate and pass directly to your beneficiaries.

Any account with a properly listed beneficiary designation will override what is written in your will or revocable living trust. Therefore, you should review your investment and bank accounts to make certain that your beneficiaries are accurate and match your intentions.

Naming a minor as a beneficiary. This can be an estate planning disaster, if they are still minors when you die. A minor won’t have the legal authority to take control of inheritance or investment accounts until they reach the age of 18 or 21 (depending on state law). When a minor receives an asset as a beneficiary, a court-appointed guardianship will be created to supervise and manage the assets on behalf of the minor. To avoid this mistake, you can name a guardian for the minor child in your will.

Forgetting to fund a trust. Creating a trust is the first step, but many people don’t properly fund their trust after it’s established.  If you don’t transfer your assets to the trust, they will have to go through probate – a serious estate planning disaster.

Making a tax mess for your heirs. A significant advantages of passing on real estate or other highly appreciated investments or property, is that your beneficiaries receive what is known as a “step-up” in basis, so that they aren’t responsible for any income taxes on the appreciated assets when they are received. The exception is when inheriting retirement accounts, such as 401k’s and traditional IRAs. Except for a surviving spouse, inheriting a traditional IRA or 401k means that you are now responsible for the taxes owed. With the recent passage of the SECURE Act, most non-spouse beneficiaries must totally withdraw a 401k or IRA within 10 years. It is deemed to be ordinary income for beneficiaries, which could result in a huge tax bill for your heirs. To avoid this, you can convert some or all of your retirement account assets to a Roth IRA during your lifetime, which lets you to pay the conversion taxes at your current income tax rate—a rate that may be much lower than your children or grandchildren’s tax rate. When you pass away, any money that is passed inside a Roth IRA goes tax-free to your heirs, avoiding an estate planning disaster.

Failing to create a comprehensive estate plan. Properly establishing your estate plan now, will care for your loved ones financially, and can also save them a lot of emotional stress after you’re gone.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about planning now. It can really affect your family for generations. It is one of the best gifts that you can leave your family.

Reference: Fox Business (Nov. 12, 2020) “5 estate planning disasters you’ll want to avoid”

Get Your Estate Plan Done!

It is important to stop procrastinating and to get your estate plan done.  While many people have had their wills updated or created in response to the pandemic, millions of Americans have yet to do so, reports the article “How to Stop Stalling On Getting a Will and Estate Plan” from AARP Magazine. The main reasons for the big stall? They haven’t “gotten around to it,” or, they think they don’t have enough assets to leave to anyone and don’t need a will. Neither reason is valid.

Estate Plans Protect Us During Life. A will is a legal document used to distribute assets after death. It saves families from unnecessary costs and stresses resulting from intestacy, which is what having no will is called. However, there are more documents to an estate plan than just a will. Two of them are health care directives, often called a living will and a Designation of Health Care Surrogate. These documents name someone of your choosing to make medical decisions for you if you are unable. It is also used to outline the kind of medical treatments you do or do not want.  These scenarios are vital reasons for getting your estate plan done.

Imagine your family faced with making the decision of keeping you on a heart and lung machine or pulling the plug and letting you die. Would they know what you want them to do? Without a living will, they have to make a decision, and hope it’s the one you would have wanted. That’s quite a burden to put on your loved ones, especially since there is a simple way for you to convey your wishes in a legally enforceable manner.

You also Need a Power of Attorney. A financial power of attorney appoints a person of your choosing to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated. This is an important document and can be created to be as broad or as narrow as you want. You can provide the direction for someone—a trusted, responsible adult—to manage finances, including paying bills, managing a portfolio, paying a mortgage and generally taking over the business of your life. Without it, your family will need to go to court to obtain a guardianship and/or conservatorship to take care of these matters.

Estate Planning Requires Hard Conversations. When people say they “haven’t gotten around” to doing their wills, what they are really thinking is “This is too unpleasant a topic for me” or “I can’t bring myself to have this conversation with my children.” Death and sickness are uncomfortable topics, and most people find it painful to discuss them with their spouses and their children, and result in not getting your estate plan done.

However, imagine the great relief you will feel when your loved ones know what your wishes are for sickness and death. You can also imagine the relief they will have in knowing that you took the time give them the tools needed to deal with whatever the future will bring.

Joint Wills are Never a Good Idea. A joint will can leave a surviving spouse in a terrible legal and financial situation. They are not even valid in certain states. They can restrict a surviving spouse from changing the instructions of the will, which could create all kinds of hardships. Circumstances change, and a joint will won’t allow for that. Most couples opt for a “Mirror” will, where they leave the estate to each other and/or their children.

Blended Families Need Special Treatment. If your family is made up of children from different parents, it is important to understand that stepchildren are not treated the same as children by the law. You may love your stepchildren as if they were your own, but unless you specifically name them in the will, they will not be included. Your estate planning attorney will know how to address this issue.

A few final thoughts: estate planning laws of each state are different, so you should meet with an estate planning attorney who practices in your state. The Power of Attorney and Health Care Directives should name the people who you feel will carry out your wishes and can be trusted to do as you want. The person does not have to be the oldest male child. They don’t even have to be related to you, as long as the person you choose is trustworthy, responsible and good with managing money and details. But most importantly, get your estate plan done.

Reference: AARP Magazine (Nov. 12, 2020) “How to Stop Stalling On Getting a Will and Estate Plan”

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

Transferring Your House

Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate. However, gifting a home also can mean a rather large and unnecessary tax bill. It also may place your house at risk, if your children get sued or file for bankruptcy.

You also could be making a mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being consumed by nursing home bills.

There are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since died, says Considerable’s recent article entitled “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

If a parent signs a quitclaim deed to transfer the house to her son and then dies, it can potentially mean a tax bill of thousands of dollars for the son.

Families who see this error in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

People will also transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, but any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for Medicaid can result in a penalty period when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.

In addition, transferring your home to another person can jeopardize your Florida homestead exemption.

Section 2036 of the Internal Revenue Code says that if the parent were to retain a “life interest” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift. However, there are rules for what constitutes a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills.

There are other ways to avoid probate. Florida permits “enhanced life estate” deeds that let homeowners transfer their house at death without probate.

Another option is transferring your house to a living trust, which can ensure that all assets avoid probate.

Many states also have simplified probate procedures for smaller estates.

We can help you with your estate planning.

Reference: Considerable (Sep. 18) “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

 

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?”