Will

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.

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”

 

Unmarried Couples and Planning

For unmarried couples, having an estate plan might be even more important than for married couples, especially if there are children in the family. The unmarried couple does not enjoy all of the legal protection afforded by marriage, but many of these protections can be had through a well-prepared estate plan.

A recent article “Planning for unmarried couples” from nwi.com explains that in states that do not recognize common law marriages, like Indiana, the state will not recognize the couple as being married. However, even if you learn that your state does recognize a common law marriage, you still want to have an estate plan.

A will is the starting point of an estate plan, as is a revocable trust, and for an unmarried couple, having it professionally prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney is very important. An agreement between two people as to how they want their assets distributed after death sounds simple, but there are many laws. Each state has its own laws, and if the document is not prepared correctly, it could very easily be invalid. That would make the couple’s agreement useless.

There are also things that need to be prepared, so an unmarried couple can take care of each other while they are living, which they cannot legally do without being married.

A cohabitating couple has no right to direct medical care for each other, including speaking with the healthcare provider or even seeing their partner as a visitor in a healthcare facility. If a decision needs to be made by one partner because the other partner is incapacitated, their partner will not have the legal right to make any medical decisions or even speak with a healthcare provider.

If the couple owns vehicles separately, the vehicles have their own titles (i.e., the legal document establishing ownership). If they want to add their partner’s name to the vehicle, the title needs to be reissued by the state to reflect that change.

If the couple owns a home together, they need to confirm how the home is titled. If they are joint tenants with rights of survivorship or tenants in common, that might be appropriate for their circumstances. However, if one person bought the home before they lived together or was solely responsible for paying the mortgage and for upkeep, they will need to make sure the title and their will or revocable trust establishes ownership and what the owner wants to happen with they die.

If the wish is for the surviving partner to remain in the home, that needs to be properly and legally documented. An estate planning attorney will help the couple create a plan that addresses this large asset and reflect the couple’s wishes for the future.

Unmarried cohabitating adults need to protect each other while they are living and after they pass. A local estate planning attorney will be able to help accomplish this.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 24, 2021) “Planning for unmarried couples”

 

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”

 

Beneficiary Forms

Beneficiary forms are important.  It’s a simple question: do you know who your retirement account beneficiaries are? These tax-deferred accounts are complex, with significant tax implications for heirs that become more challenging if key information is missing on beneficiary forms, which is often the case. According to this recent article from The Street, “Secure your IRA—Review Your Beneficiary Forms Now,” the SECURE Act was the biggest retirement law change in decades. As a result, there has never been a more important time to review beneficiary forms.

Start by requesting a copy of your beneficiary forms from all of the institutions that hold your IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, and any tax deferred savings accounts to check for errors and accuracy. Most people fill these forms out when the accounts are opened and never give them a second thought.

The courts see many cases where family dynamics changed, but beneficiary forms were never updated. The cost and stress of estranged or divorced spouses receiving a lifetime of retirement savings because no one thought to update the form cannot be overstated.

It is pretty easy for most of us to locate our wills, trusts and life insurance policies, but we tend not to keep copies of our retirement account beneficiary forms. This makes no sense, as these are the accounts where most people have saved the bulk of their wealth.

Account owners are generally unaware of how important the beneficiary form is, or the consequences of the information being out of date. These documents are more powerful than the will.

These assets pass outside of the will. No matter what your will says, the assets in the accounts pass to whoever is named on the beneficiary form.

If there is no beneficiary named on the form, the asset will likely be paid to your estate. When this happens, the account must be fully distributed within five years of the account owner’s death, if they died before their required beginning date of distributions. If there are no named beneficiaries and the account owner dies on or after the required beginning date, there may be less of a negative impact. An estate planning attorney will be able to help you and your heirs plan for this event.

The SECURE Act made this harder for anyone who dies after 2019. For retirement accounts inherited after December 31, 2019, there are classes of beneficiaries and each has their own distribution rules.

Many trusts named as beneficiaries of IRAs/retirement plans no longer work as planned. If your estate plan named a trust as a beneficiary for a tax-deferred account, speak with your estate planning attorney to make any necessary changes.

The SECURE Act eliminated the use of the “Stretch” IRA for most non-spouse beneficiaries. This means that most heirs will need to empty any inherited accounts within ten years of the death of the owner, rather than stretch the distributions over their own lifetimes. Failure to do so could lead to a 50% penalty of the amount not distributed plus taxes.

Your estate planning attorney may be able to create alternatives to the stretch IRA, but the first step to address this issue is to obtain your beneficiary forms. Once you have them in hand, you can make the necessary changes and begin to plan for the optimal distribution of your assets.  Let us help.

Reference: The Street (Dec. 28, 2020) “Secure your IRA—Review Your Beneficiary Forms Now”

 

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.

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

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 Importance of a Will

This year is the time to reflect on the importance of a will.  Even during a pandemic, few people want to spend time thinking about death. However, having an estate plan means having some of the most important documents you’ll ever create. Having a will is a gift that alleviates the burden placed on loved ones after we are gone, says this recent article “Why it’s important for every adult to get a will” from Bankrate. In a time of sorrow, the family and friends will be spared the stress that makes grieving more complicated when there is no will, no guidance and no path forward.

What is a will?

In its most simple form, a will is a legal document that serves to transfer property at your death to the people you choose. It is revocable, which means you have the legal ability to make changes to it, as long as you are alive and have the mental capacity to do so. However, wills do more than distribute property. The will is your chance to state your wishes for who will care for your children, what happens to your physical remains and who will take care of your pets.

Are Wills Pretty Much the Same?

There’s a good reason why the best wills are those created with an estate planning attorney: they are created to suit your specific needs. Just as every person is different, everyone’s will must reflect their life. Some people want to name a recipient for every single asset they have, while others prefer simply to give their entire estate to a spouse, their children, a trust, or a charity. However, there are also different kinds of wills which contribute to the importance of a will.

A Testamentary Will is a will signed in the presence of witnesses. It is the best choice to protect your family.

A Holographic Will is a handwritten will, which is not acceptable in Florida and many other states and could lead your family into all kinds of expensive and stressful battles, in and out of court.

An Oral Will is a verbal will that is declared in front of witnesses, but don’t count on anything you say being considered a legally valid will.

A Mutual Will is also known as a “I love you Will,” when partners create a joint will leaving everything to each other. There can be some tricky things about these wills, since when one person dies, the other is still legally bound to the terms of this will. If the surviving spouse remarries, it can become complicated.

A Pour Over Will is the ideal choice, when your plan is to pour assets into an established trust at your death.

What does a will do and not do?

Wills are used to determine guardianship for minor children and distribute assets and real property. Despite the importance of a will, it doesn’t control jointly owned assets, or contracts, like life insurance policies and retirement accounts. These are controlled by beneficiary designation forms. It won’t matter if your will says that your current spouse should inherit your retirement account and you never changed the beneficiary from your first spouse. This is why estate planning attorneys always tell clients to check on beneficiary designations when large life events, like divorce and remarriage, occur.

What happens if there is no will?

This is when your loved ones realize the importance of a will.  Without a will, the state’s intestate succession laws will determine what happens and your wishes don’t count. That includes who inherits your property, and even who raises your minor children. The court will make all of these decisions. The stress that this creates cannot be underestimated. When there is no will, the chances of litigation between family members and trouble from distant relatives seeking a claim against your estate rises.  Let us help you create an estate plan to provide for your needs.

Reference: Bankrate (Nov. 6, 2020) “Why it’s important for every adult to get a will”

 

Estate Planning in a Pandemic

What is unique about estate planning in a pandemic?  The fear of the unknown and a sense of loss of control is sending many people to estate planning attorney’s offices to have wills, advance directives and other documents prepared, reports the article “Legal lessons from a pandemic: What you can plan for” from The Press-Enterprise.

However, people are not just planning because they are worried about becoming incapacitated or dying because of COVID. High net-worth people are also planning because they are concerned about the changes the election may bring, changes to what are now historically advantageous estate tax laws and planning to take advantage of tax laws, as they stand pre-December 31, 2020.

Regardless of your income or assets, it is always good to take control of your future and protect yourself and your family, by having an up-to-date estate plan in place. Anyone who is over age 18 needs the following:

  • Health Care Directive
  • Power of Attorney
  • HIPPA Release Form
  • Last Will and Testament

Any assets without beneficiary designations should be considered for a trust, depending upon your overall estate. Trusts can be used to take assets out of a taxable estate, establish control over how the assets are distributed and to avoid probate. You don’t have to be wealthy to benefit from the use of trusts.

Preparing estate planning documents in a last-minute rush, is always a terrible idea.  Especially estate planning in a pandemic.

If you have more free time during the pandemic, consider using some of your free time to have your estate plan implemented or updated. This should be a top priority. The state of the world right now has all of us thinking more about our mortality, our values and the legacy we want to leave behind. Most estate planning attorneys encourage clients to think about the next three to five years. What would be important to you, if something were to happen in that time frame?

Estate planning is about more than distributing assets upon death. It addresses incapacity—what would happen if you became too ill or injured to care for yourself? Who would make medical decisions for you, such as what kind of medical care would you want, who will your doctors be and where will you live in the short-term and long-term? Incapacity planning is a big part of an estate plan.

When naming people to care for you in the event of incapacity, provide your estate planning attorney with three names, in case your first or second choices are not able to act on your behalf. Most people name their spouse, but what if you were both in an accident and could not help each other?

In recent months, Advance Health Care Directives have received a lot of attention, but they are not just about ventilator use and intubation. An Advance Health Care Directive is used to state your preferences concerning life-sustaining treatment, pain relief and organ donation. The agent named in your health care directive is also the person who will carry out post-death wishes, so provide as many details as you can about your wishes for cremation, burial, religious services, etc.

Trusts are a way to preserve a family legacy. A living trust gives you the ability to decide who you want involved, in case of your death or incapacity. You decide on your beneficiaries, and if you want your assets going directly to those beneficiaries or if they should be held in trust until certain goals are met, like finishing college or reaching a certain age or life milestone.

You can see that estate planning in a pandemic is not much different than during normal times.  The need is always there.

Your estate planning attorney will help you clarify family legacy goals, whether they include a beneficiary with special needs, a supplement for children who go into public service careers, etc.  Let us help you with your planning.

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (Oct. 18, 2020) “Legal lessons from a pandemic: What you can plan for”