Common Myths about Your Estate When You Die

There are many misconceptions about the law in general and about estate planning in particular. There are also many opportunities to use the law to protect those we love, when it comes to helping families navigate life and the legal processes that happen after the death or disability of a loved one. The best option is to plan ahead, reports the article “I’m dead, now what? Myths about deaths in Georgia” from the Cherokee Tribune & Ledger-News. Here are the top four myths about what happens when someone dies.

A Will. If there’s no will, my spouse gets everything. Well, no. While you are a team, and you may want your spouse to get everything, if there’s no will, the laws of your state will determine who gets what. Your spouse in some states will split your possessions with your children. Your spouse in some states will get no less than a third of your assets. If you want your spouse to inherit everything, you need a will.

You also need a will if you want your spouse to receive everything so they can take care of your children, if something unexpected happens to you. Without it, your spouse will have to create a budget for your children’s needs and present that to the court before they can spend any of the children’s money. That’s how it works in Georgia. Check with a local estate planning attorney to make sure that’s what you’re prepared to leave for your spouse to do, or what your state’s laws say.

Having a will allows you to determine who you want to inherit what.

A will means there’s no need for probate court. Wrong again! Having a will does not mean you avoid probate court and the legal process known as probate. A will is not legally effective, until the nominated executor presents your will to the probate court and the court accepts the will and declares it to be valid. This is a longer process in some jurisdictions. However, there are potential problems. If there’s a disgruntled family member or a need for privacy, the probate process creates a public record and information can and often is obtained by family members. To avoid making your life a public matter, you need an estate plan that includes trusts, which do not go through the probate process and do not become public records.

If I don’t have a will, the state will take it all. It’s very rare that any state will take everything, even if there is no will. The state only does that if absolutely no family members can be found, or if the state’s Medicaid program has an aggressive claw back policy that seeks to recover the cost of nursing home care provided to the decedent. If the person who died did not need Medicaid services, then it’s unlikely that the state will take the assets. More likely? A family member, determined by degree of kinship, will be entitled to inherit. Again, the law varies by state, so check with an experienced estate planning lawyer in your state.

The family gets stuck with the debts. That’s a yes and no answer. The debts of family members do not have to be paid by the family. However, they are paid by the deceased’s estate, which will be decreased by the amount of debt owed. Therefore, the family members will inherit less, but it’s not coming out of their own pockets. The debts of the deceased are to be paid by whatever assets he or she owned at the time of death. If there’s not enough in the estate, the family is not obligated to pay the debt. The exception is if the spouse was a joint borrower or otherwise legally obligated to pay the debt.

What you know and don’t know about estate planning can hurt you and your family. An easy way to address this: meet with an experienced estate planning attorney and make a plan that will distribute your assets according to your wishes.

Reference: Cherokee Tribune & Ledger-News (Feb. 1, 2020) “I’m dead, now what? Myths about deaths in Georgia”

How to Be Smart about an Inheritance

While there’s no one way that is right for everyone, there are some basic considerations about receiving a large inheritance that apply to almost anyone. According to the article “What should you do with an inheritance?” from The Rogersville Review, the size of the inheritance could make it possible for you to move up your retirement date. Just be mindful that it is very easy to spend large amounts of money very quickly, especially if this is a new experience.

Here are some ways to consider using an inheritance:

Get rid of your debt load. Car loans, credit cards and most school loans are at higher rates than you can get from any investments. Therefore, it makes sense to use at least some of your inheritance to get rid of this expensive debt. Some people believe that it’s best to not have a mortgage, since now there are limits to deductions. You may not want to pay off a mortgage, since you’ll have less flexibility if you need cash.

Contribute more to retirement accounts. If the inheritance gives you a little breathing room in your regular budget, it’s a good idea to increase your contributions to an employer-sponsored 401(k) or another plan, as well as to your personal IRA. Remember that this money grows tax-free and it is possible you’ll need it.

Start college funding. If your financial plan includes helping children or even grandchildren attend college, you could use an inheritance to open a 529 account. This gives you tax benefits and considerable flexibility in distributing the money. Every state has a 529 account program and it’s easy to open an account.

Create or reinforce an emergency fund. A recent survey found that most Americans don’t have emergency funds. Therefore, a bill for more than $400 would be difficult for them to pay. Use your inheritance to create an emergency fund, which should have six to 12 months’ worth of living expenses. Put the money into a liquid, low-risk account, so that you can access it easily if necessary. This way you don’t tap into long-term funds.

Review your estate plan. Anytime you have a large life event, like the death of a parent or an inheritance, it’s time to review your estate plan. Depending upon the size of the estate, there may be some tax liabilities you’ll need to deal with. You may also want to set some of the assets aside in trust for children or grandchildren. Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide you with experienced counsel on the use of the inheritance for you and future generations.

Reference: The Rogersville Review (March 21, 2019) “What should you do with an inheritance?”