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Probate

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

You've established an Estate Plan. Do You Know Where the Documents Are? Does Your Family?

 

You’ve Established an Estate Plan. Do You Know Where the Documents Are? Does Your Family?

For most people, finally establishing an estate plan is a big step that they have undertaken after years of delay. A second step is making decisions regarding the executor, trustees, beneficiaries, funeral costs and debt, and a third step is actually completing the will. There is, however, a fourth step that is often skipped: placing the original will and other critical documents in a place where it can be found when it is needed.

As far as wills are concerned, this step is more important than you might think, for two reasons:

  1. If your will can’t be found upon your death then, legally, you will have passed away intestate, i.e. without a will.
  2. If your loved ones can only locate a photocopy of your will, chances are the photocopy will be ruled invalid by the courts. This is because the courts assume that, if an original will can’t be located, the willmaker destroyed it with the intention of revoking it.


Options for Storing the Original Copy of Your Will

Because an original will is usually needed by the probate court, it makes sense to store it in a strategic location. Common locations recommended by estate planning attorneys include:

  • A fireproof safe or lock box
  • Stored at the local probate court, if such service is provided.
  • A safety deposit box in a bank

There are advantages to each choice. For many, a fireproof safe is simplest: it’s in the home, doesn’t need to leave the house and can be altered and replaced with maximum convenience. The probate court makes sense because it is the place where the last will and testament may end up when you pass away. A safety deposit box also makes sense, especially if you already have one for which you’re paying.  Just make sure that your executor can access it.

By making sure that your original will is safe and can be found when needed, you don’t just ensure that it can be used when the allocation of your assets and debt occurs. You also ensure that disputes, confusion and disappointment don’t occur years after your death; while uncommon, in some cases, by the time the will has been discovered, the assets of the decedent have long been distributed according to intestacy laws and not the decedent’s will. Intestacy laws are essentially the “default will” that the state establishes for individuals who do not have their own estate plan.

You’ve taken the trouble to protect your assets and loved ones by creating an estate plan. Don’t leave its discovery to chance. Ensure that your executor or trustee can easily and reliably find it when it comes time to put it into effect. 

 


Thursday, May 9, 2013

8 Reasons Young People Should Write a Last Will and Testament

 

8 Reasons Young People Should Write a Last Will and Testament

Imagine if writing a last will and testament were a pre-requisite to graduating from high school.  The graduate walks across the stage, hands the completed will to the principal, and gets the diploma in return.   It might sound strange because most 18 year olds have little in terms of assets but it’s a good idea for all adults to draft a last will and testament.

Graduation from college is another good milestone to use as a reminder to create an estate plan.  If you haven’t created a will by the time you marry – or are living with a partner in a committed relationship – then it’s fair to say you are overdue.

Think you don’t need an estate plan because you’re broke?  Not true.  Here are eight excellent reasons for young people to complete a last will and testament.  And they have very little to do with money.

You are entering the military.  Anyone entering the military, at 18 or any other age, should make sure his or her affairs are in order.  Even for an 18-year-old, that means creating a will and other basic estate planning documents like a health care directive and powers of attorney.

You received an inheritance.  You may not think of the inheritance as your asset, especially if it is held in trust for you.  But, without an estate plan, the disposition of that money will be a slow and complicated process for your surviving family members.

You own an animal.  It is common for people to include plans for their pets in their wills.  If the unthinkable were to happen and you died unexpectedly, what would happen to your beloved pet?  Better to plan ahead for your animals in the event of your death.  You can even direct the sale of specific assets, with the proceeds going to your pet’s new guardian for upkeep expenses.

You want to protect your family from red tape.  If you die without a will, your family will have to take your “estate” (whatever money and possessions you have at the time of your death) through a long court process known as probate. If you had life insurance, for example, your family would not be able to access those funds until the probate process was complete.  A couple of basic estate planning documents can keep your estate out of the probate court and get your assets into the hands of your chosen beneficiaries much more quickly.

You have social media accounts.  Many people spend a great deal of time online, conversing with friends, storing important photos and documents and even managing finances. Without instructions from you, will your family know what to do with your Facebook account, your LinkedIn account, and so forth?

You want to give money or possessions to friends or charities.  When someone dies without a will, there are laws that dictate who will receive any assets.  These recipients will include immediate family members like parents, siblings, and a spouse.  If you want to give assets to friends or to a charity, you must protect your wishes with a will.

You care about what happens to you if you are in a coma or persistent vegetative state.  We all see the stories on the news – ugly fights within families over the prostrate bodies of critically ill children or siblings or spouses.  When you write your will, write a health care directive (also called a living will) and a financial power of attorney as well.  This is especially important if you have a life partner to whom you are not married so they can make decisions on your behalf

 

 


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

2013 Changes to Federal Estate Tax Laws

 

2013 Changes to Federal Estate Tax Laws

Changes to income taxes grabbed the lion’s share of the attention as the President and Congress squabbled over how to halt the country’s journey towards the “fiscal cliff.”  However, negotiations over exemptions and tax rates for estate taxes, gift taxes and generation-skipping taxes also occurred on Capitol Hill, albeit with less fanfare.

The primary fear was that Congress would fail to act and the estate tax exemption would revert back down to $1 million.  This did not happen.  The ultimate legislation that was enacted, American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, maintains the $5 million exemption for estate taxes, gift taxes and generation-skipping taxes.  The actual amount of the exemption in 2013 is $5.25 million, due to adjustments for inflation.

The other fear was that the top estate tax rate would revert to 55 percent from the 2012 rate of 35 percent.  The top tax rate did rise, but only 5 percent from 35 percent to 40 percent.

The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 also makes permanent the portability provision of estate tax law.  Portability means that the unused portion of the first-to-die spouse’s estate tax exemption passes to the surviving spouse to be used in addition to the surviving spouse’s individual $5.25 million exemption.

Some Definitions and Additional Explanations
The federal estate tax is imposed when assets are transferred from a deceased individual to surviving heirs.  The federal estate tax does not apply to estates valued at less than $5.25 million.  It also does not apply to after-death transfers to a surviving spouse, as well as in a few other situations.  Many states also impose a separate estate tax.

 

The federal gift tax applies to any transfers of property from one individual to another for no return or for a return less than the full value of the property. The federal gift tax applies whether or not the giver intends the transfer to be a gift.  In 2013, the lifetime exemption amount is $5.25 million at a rate of 40 percent.  Gifts for tuition and for qualified medical expenses are exempt from the federal gift tax as are gifts under $14,000 per recipient per year.

The federal generation-skipping tax (GST) was created to ensure that multi-generational gifts and bequests do not escape federal taxation.  There are both direct and indirect generation-skipping transfers to which the GST may apply.  An example of a direct transfer is a grandmother bequeathing money to her granddaughter.  An example of an indirect transfer is a mother bequeathing a life estate for a house to her daughter, requiring that upon her death the house is to be transferred to the granddaughter.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

"The Sandwich Generation" -- Taking Care of Your Kids While Taking Care of Your Parents

The ‘Sandwich Generation’ – Taking Care of Your Kids While Taking Care of Your Parents

“The sandwich generation” is the term given to adults who are raising children and simultaneously caring for elderly or infirm parents.  Your children are one piece of “bread,” your parents are the other piece of “bread,” and you are “sandwiched” into the middle.

Caring for parents at the same time as you care for your children, your spouse and your job is exhausting and will stretch every resource you have.  And what about caring for yourself? Not surprisingly, most sandwich generation caregivers let self-care fall to the bottom of the priorities list which may impair your ability to care for others.

Following are several tips for sandwich generation caregivers.

  • Hold an all-family meeting regarding your parents. Involve your parents, your parents’ siblings, and your own siblings in a detailed conversation about the present and future.  If you can, make joint decisions about issues like who can physically care for your parents, who can contribute financially and how much, and who should have legal authority over your parents’ finances and health care decisions if they become unable to make decisions for themselves.  Your parents need to share all their financial and health care information with you in order for the family to make informed decisions.  Once you have that information, you can make a long-term financial plan.
  • Hold another all-family meeting with your children and your parents.  If you are physically or financially taking care of your parents, talk about this honestly with your children.  Involve your parents in the conversation as well.  Talk – in an age-appropriate way – about the changes that your children will experience, both positive and challenging.
  • Prioritize privacy.  With multiple family members living under one roof, privacy – for children, parents, and grandparents – is a must.  If it is not be feasible for every family member to have his or her own room, then find other ways to give everyone some guaranteed privacy.  “The living room is just for Grandma and Grandpa after dinner.”  “Our teenage daughter gets the downstairs bathroom for as long as she needs in the mornings.”
  • Make family plans.  There are joys associated with having three generations under one roof.  Make the effort to get everyone together for outings and meals.  Perhaps each generation can choose an outing once a month.
  • Make a financial plan, and don’t forget yourself.  Are your children headed to college?  Are you hoping to move your parents into an assisted living facility?  How does your retirement fund look?  If you are caring for your parents, your financial plan will almost certainly have to be revised.  Don’t leave yourself and your spouse out of the equation.  Make sure to set aside some funds for your own retirement while saving for college and elder health care.
  • Revise your estate plan documents as necessary.  If you had named your parents guardians of your children in case of your death, you may need to find other guardians.  You may need to set up trusts for your parents as well as for your children.  If your parent was your power of attorney, you may have to designate a different person to act on your behalf.
  • Seek out and accept help.  Help for the elderly is well organized in the United States.  Here are a few governmental and nonprofit resources:
    • www.benefitscheckup.org – Hosted by the National Council on Aging, this website is a one-stop shop for determining which federal, state and local benefits your parents may qualify for
    • www.eldercare.gov – Sponsored by the U.S. Administration on Aging
    • www.caremanager.org  -- National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers
    • www.nadsa.org – National Adult Day Services Association

Friday, January 11, 2013

Advance Planning Can Help Relieve the Worries of Alzheimer's Disease

Advance Planning Can Help Relieve the Worries of Alzheimer’s Disease

The “ostrich syndrome” is part of human nature; it’s unpleasant to observe that which frightens us.  However, pulling our heads from the sand and making preparations for frightening possibilities can provide significant emotional and psychological relief from fear.

When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, more Americans fear being unable to care for themselves and burdening others with their care than they fear the actual loss of memory.  This data comes from an October 2012 study by Home Instead Senior Care, in which 68 percent of 1,200 survey respondents ranked fear of incapacity higher than the fear of lost memories (32 percent).

Advance planning for incapacity is a legal process that can lessen the fear that you may become a burden to your loved ones later in life.

What is advance planning for incapacity?

Under the American legal system, competent adults can make their own legally binding arrangements for future health care and financial decisions.  Adults can also take steps to organize their finances to increase their likelihood of eligibility for federal aid programs in the event they become incapacitated due to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

The individual components of advance incapacity planning interconnect with one another, and most experts recommend seeking advice from a qualified estate planning or elder law attorney.

What are the steps of advance planning for incapacity?

Depending on your unique circumstances, planning for incapacity may include additional steps beyond those listed below.  This is one of the reasons experts recommend consulting a knowledgeable elder law lawyer with experience in your state.
 

  1. Write a health care directive, or living will.  Your living will describes your preferences regarding end of life care, resuscitation, and hospice care.  After you have written and signed the directive, make sure to file copies with your health care providers.
     
  2. Write a health care power of attorney.  A health care power of attorney form designates another person to make health care decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated and unable to make decisions for yourself.  You may be able to designate your health care power of attorney in your health care directive document, or you may need to complete a separate form.  File copies of this form with your doctors and hospitals, and give a copy to the person or persons whom you have designated.
     
  3. Write a financial power of attorney.  Like a health care power of attorney, a financial power of attorney assigns another person the right to make financial decisions on your behalf in the event of incapacity.  The power of attorney can be temporary or permanent, depending on your wishes.  File copies of this form with all your financial institutions and give copies to the people you designate to act on your behalf.
     
  4. Plan in advance for Medicaid eligibility.  Long-term care payment assistance is among the most important Medicaid benefits.  To qualify for Medicaid, you must have limited assets.  To reduce the likelihood of ineligibility, you can use certain legal procedures, like trusts, to distribute your assets in a way that they will not interfere with your eligibility.  The elder law attorney you consult with regarding Medicaid eligibility planning can also advise you on Medicaid copayment planning and Medicaid estate recovery planning.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Estate Planning: Leaving Assets to a "Troubled" Heir

Estate Planning: Leaving Assets to a ‘Troubled’ Heir

If you have a child who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, or who is financially irresponsible, you already know the heartbreak associated with trying to help that child make healthy decisions.  Perhaps your other adult children are living independent lives, but this child still turns to you to bail him out – either figuratively or literally – of trouble.

If these are your circumstances, you are probably already worrying about how to continue to help your child once you are gone.  You predict that your child will misuse any lump sum of money left to him or her via your will.  You don’t want to completely cut this child out of your estate plan, but at the same time, you don’t want to enable destructive behavior or throw good money after bad.

Trusts are an estate planning tool you can use to provide an inheritance to a worrisome heir while maintaining control over how, when, where, and why the heir accesses the funds.  This type of trust is sometimes called a spendthrift trust.  

As with all trusts, you designate a trustee who controls the funds that will be left to the heir.  This trustee can be an independent third party (there are companies that specialize in this type of work) or a member of the family.  It is often wise to opt for a third party as a trustee, to prevent accusations among family members about favoritism.

The trust can specify the exact circumstances under which money will be disbursed to the heir.  Or, more simply, the trust can specify that the trustee has complete and sole discretion to disburse funds when the heir applies for money.  Most parents in these circumstances discover that they wish to impose their own incentives and restrictions, rather than rely on the judgment of an unknown third party.

The types of conditions or incentives that can be used with a trust include:

  • Drug or alcohol testing before funds are released
  • Payments directly to landlords, colleges, etc., rather than payment to the heir
  • Disbursement of a specified lump sum if the heir graduates from university or keeps the same job for a certain time period
  • Payment only to a drug or alcohol rehab center if the child is in an active period of addiction
  • Disbursement of a lump sum if the child remains drug free
  • Payments that match the child’s earned income

If you are considering writing this type of complex trust, it is advisable to seek assistance from a qualified and experienced estate planning attorney who can help you devise a plan that best accomplishes your wishes with respect to your child.
 


Friday, September 7, 2012

Probate vs. Non-Probate Property

Planning Pitfall: Probate vs. Non-Probate Property

Transfer of property at death can be rather complex.  Many are under the impression that instructions provided in a valid will are sufficient to transfer their assets to the individuals named in the will.   However, there are a myriad of rules that affect how different types of assets transfer to heirs and beneficiaries, often in direct contradiction of what may be clearly stated in one’s will.

The legal process of administering property owned by someone who has passed away with a will is called probate.  Prior to his passing, a deceased person, or decedent, usually names an executor to oversee the process by which his wishes, outlined in his Will, are to be carried out. Probate property, generally consists of everything in a decedent’s estate that was directly in his name. For example, a house, vehicle, monies, stocks or any other asset in the decedent’s name is probate property. Any real or personal property that was in the decedent’s name can be defined as probate property.  

The difference between non-probate property and probate centers around whose name is listed as owner. Non-probate property consists of property that lists both the decedent and another as the joint owner (with right of survivorship) or where someone else has already been designated as a beneficiary, such as life insurance or a retirement account.  In these cases, the joint owners and designated beneficiaries supersede conflicting instructions in one’s will. Other examples of non-probate property include property owned by trusts, which also have beneficiaries designated. At the decedent’s passing, the non-probate items pass automatically to whoever is the joint owner or designated beneficiary.

Why do you need to know the difference? Simply put, the categories of probate and non-probate property will have a serious effect on how plan your estate.  If you own property jointly with right of survivorship with another individual, that individual will inherit your share, regardless of what it states in your will.  Estate and probate law can be different from state-to-state, so it’s best to have an attorney handle your estate plan and property ownership records to ensure that your assets go to the intended beneficiaries.


Wednesday, September 5, 2012

What's involved in serving as an executor?

What’s Involved in Serving as an Executor?

An executor is the person designated in a Will as the individual who is responsible for performing a number of tasks necessary to wind down the decedent’s affairs. Generally, the executor’s responsibilities involve taking charge of the deceased person’s assets, notifying beneficiaries and creditors, paying the estate’s debts and distributing the property to the beneficiaries. The executor may also be a beneficiary of the Will, though he or she must treat all beneficiaries fairly and in accordance with the provisions of the Will.

First and foremost, an executor must obtain the original, signed Will as well as other important documents such as certified copies of the Death Certificate.  The executor must notify all persons who have an interest in the estate or who are named as beneficiaries in the Will. A list of all assets must be compiled, including value at the date of death. The executor must take steps to secure all assets, whether by taking possession of them, or by obtaining adequate insurance. Assets of the estate include all real and personal property owned by the decedent; overlooked assets sometimes include stocks, bonds, pension funds, bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, annuity payments, holiday pay, and work-related life insurance or survivor benefits.

The executor is responsible for compiling a list of the decedent’s debts, as well. Debts can include credit card accounts, loan payments, mortgages, home utilities, tax arrears, alimony and outstanding leases. All of the decedent’s creditors must also be notified and given an opportunity to make a claim against the estate.

Whether the Will must be probated depends on a variety of factors, including size of the estate and how the decedent’s assets were titled. An experienced probate or estate planning attorney can help determine whether probate is required, and assist with carrying out the executor’s duties. If the estate must go through probate, the executor must file with the court to probate the Will and be appointed as the estate’s legal representative.  Once the executor has this legal authority, he or she must pay all of the decedent’s outstanding debts, provided there are sufficient assets in the estate. After debts have been paid, the executor must distribute the remaining real and personal property to the beneficiaries, in accordance with the wishes set forth in the Will. Because the executor is accountable to the beneficiaries of the estate, it is extremely important to keep complete, accurate records of all expenditures, correspondence, asset distribution, and filings with the court and government agencies.

The executor is also responsible for filing all tax returns for the deceased person including federal and state income tax returns and estate tax filings, if applicable. Additional tasks may include notifying carriers for homeowner’s and auto insurance policies and initiating claims on life insurance policies.

The executor is entitled to compensation for his or her services.  This fee varies according to the estate’s size and may be subject to review depending on the complexity as well as the time and effort expended by the executor.

In California, probate fees are statutorily set and are based on the fair market value of the probate estate, as determined under California Probate Code Section 10810.

The probate fees under California Probate Code section 10810 are as follows:

Four percent on the first one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000)

Three percent on the next one hundred thousand dollars ($100,000)
Two percent on the next eight hundred thousand dollars ($800,000)
One percent on the next nine million dollars ($9,000,000)
One-half of 1 percent on the next fifteen million dollars ($15,000,000)
For all amounts above twenty-five million dollars ($25,000,000), a reasonable amount to be determined by the court.
 
For example, if an estate is worth $200,000, then the executor would be entitled to $7,000 in executor fees.
 
Often times the beneficiaries of an estate find that it would have been much faster, easier and cheaper for the decedent to have created his or her living trust during life instead of subjecting the entire estate to the probate court's jurisdiction.

Monday, August 6, 2012

Living Trusts and Probate Avoidance

Living Trusts & Probate Avoidance

You want your money and property to go to your loved ones when you die, not to the courts, lawyers or the government. Unfortunately, unless you’ve taken proper estate planning, procedures, your heirs could lose a sizable portion of their inheritance to probate court fees and expenses. A properly-crafted and “funded” living trust is the ideal probate-avoidance tool which can save thousands in legal costs, enhance family privacy and avoid lengthy delays in distributing your property to your loved ones

What is probate, and why should you avoid it? Probate is a court proceeding during which the will is reviewed, executors are approved, heirs, beneficiaries, debtors and creditors are notified, assets are appraised, your debts and taxes are paid, and the remaining estate is distributed according to your will (or according to state law if you don’t have a will). Probate is costly, time-consuming and very public.

A living trust, on the other hand, allows your property to be transferred to your beneficiaries, quickly and privately, with little to no court intervention, maximizing the amount your loved ones end up with.

A basic living trust consists of a declaration of trust, a document that is similar to a will in its form and content, but very different in its legal effect. In the declaration, you name yourself as trustee, the person in charge of your property. If you are married, you and your spouse are co-trustees. Because you are trustee, you retain total control of the property you transfer into the trust. In the declaration, you must also name successor trustees to take over in the event of your death or incapacity.

Once the trust is established, you must transfer ownership of your property to yourself, as trustee of the living trust. This step is critical; the trust has no effect over any of your property unless you formally transfer ownership into the trust. The trust also enables you to name the beneficiaries you want to inherit your property when you die, including providing for alternate or conditional beneficiaries. You can amend your trust at any time, and can even revoke it entirely.

Even if you create a living trust and transfer all of your property into it, you should also create a back-up will, known as a “pour-over will”. This will ensure that any property you own – or may acquire in the future – will be distributed to whomever you want to receive it. Without a will, any property not included in your trust will be distributed according to state law.

After you die, the successor trustee you named in your living trust is immediately empowered to transfer ownership of the trust property according to your wishes. Generally, the successor trustee can efficiently settle your entire estate within a few weeks by filing relatively simple paperwork without court intervention and its associated expenses. The successor trustee can solicit the assistance of an attorney to help with the trust settlement process, though such legal fees are typically a fraction of those incurred during probate.
 

 

 


Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Do Heirs Have to Pay Off their Loved One's Debts?

Do Heirs Have to Pay Off Their Loved One’s Debts?

The recent economic recession, and staggering increases in health care costs have left millions of Americans facing incredible losses and mounting debt in their final years. Are you concerned that, rather than inheriting wealth from your parents, you will instead inherit bills? The good news is, you probably won’t have to pay them.

As you are dealing with the emotional loss, while also wrapping up your loved one’s affairs and closing the estate, the last thing you need to worry about is whether you will be on the hook for the debts your parents leave behind. Generally, heirs are not responsible for their parents’ outstanding bills. Creditors can go after the assets within the estate in an effort to satisfy the debt, but they cannot come after you personally. Nevertheless, assets within the estate may have to be sold to cover the decedent’s debts, or to provide for the living expenses of a surviving spouse or other dependents.

Heirs are not responsible for a decedent’s unsecured debts, such as credit cards, medical bills or personal loans, and many of these go unpaid or are settled for pennies on the dollar. However, there are some circumstances in which you may share liability for an unsecured debt, and therefore are fully responsible for future payments. For example, if you were a co-signer on a loan with the decedent, or if you were a joint account holder, you will bear ultimate financial responsibility for the debt.

Unsecured debts which were solely held by the deceased parent do not require you to reach into your own pocket to satisfy the outstanding obligation. Regardless, many aggressive collection agencies continue to pursue collection even after death, often implying that you are ultimately responsible to repay your loved one’s debts, or that you are morally obligated to do so. Both of these assertions are entirely untrue.

Secured debts, on the other hand, must be repaid or the lender can repossess the underlying asset. Common secured debts include home mortgages and vehicle loans. If your parents had any equity in their house or car, you should consider doing whatever is necessary to keep the payments current, so the equity is preserved until the property can be sold or transferred. But this must be weighed within the context of the overall estate.

Executors and estate administrators have a duty to locate and inventory all of the decedent’s assets and debts, and must notify creditors and financial institutions of the death. Avoid making the mistake of automatically paying off all of your loved one’s bills right away. If you rush to pay off debts, without a clear picture of your parents’ overall financial situation, you run the risk of coming up short on cash, within the estate, to cover higher priority bills, such as medical expenses, funeral costs or legal fees required to settle the estate.

 

 


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