Will Helps Avoid Problems and Expenses for Family

Having a will and an estate plan makes passing along assets much easier for the family. Having necessary documents like a power of attorney and a health care power of attorney lets the family make decisions for a loved one, who has become incapacitated. These are estate planning basics, as reported by WKBN 27 in the article “Attorney recommends everyone have a will in place to prevent avoidable issues.”

Think of the will as a way to speak for yourself, when you have passed away. It’s the instructions for what you want to happen to your property, when you die. If there’s a will, the executor is responsible for carrying out your requests. With no will, a court will have to make these decisions.

Many people believe that if they don’t have a will, their spouse will simply inherit everything, automatically. This is not true. There are some states where the surviving spouse receives 50% of a decedent’s assets and the children receive the rest. However, the children could be offspring from outside the marriage. Not having a will, makes your estate and your family vulnerable to unexpected claims.

A will must contain certain elements, which are determined by your state’s laws and must be signed in the presence of two witnesses. Without the correct formalities, the will could be deemed invalid.

Lawyers recommend that everyone have a will and an estate plan, regardless of the size of your estate.

Young parents, in particular, need to have a will, so they can name a person to be guardian of their child or children, if they should both die.

Details matter. In some states, if you make a list and neglect to name specifically who gets what, using the term “children” instead of someone’s name, your stepchildren may not be included. State laws vary, so a local estate planning attorney is your best resource.

You should also be sure to talk with your spouse and your children about what your intentions are, before putting your wishes in writing. You may not feel totally comfortable having the discussion. However, if your intention is to preserve the family, especially if it is a blended family, then everyone should have a chance to learn what to expect.

Wills do become binding, but they are not a one-time event. Just as your life changes, your estate plan and your will should change.

Don’t neglect to update your beneficiary designations. Those are the people you named to receive retirement accounts, bank accounts or other assets that can be transferred by beneficiary designations. The instructions in your will do not control the beneficiary designation. This is a big mistake that many people make. If your will says your current spouse should receive the balance of your IRA when you die but your IRA lists your first wife, your ex will receive everything.

Here are the four estate planning documents needed:

  • A will;
  • A living will, if you need to be placed on life support and decisions need to be made;
  • A healthcare power of attorney, if you cannot speak for yourself, when it comes to medical decisions;
  • A durable power of attorney to make financial decisions, if you are incapacitated.

A local estate planning attorney can help you create all of these documents and will also help you clarify your wishes. If you have an estate plan but have not reviewed it in years, you’ll want to do that soon. Laws and lives change, and you may need to make some changes.

Reference: WKBN 27 (March 14, 2019) “Attorney recommends everyone have a will in place to prevent avoidable issues.”

Wills v. Trusts: What’s Right for You?

It’s a good idea to take the time and make the effort to create an estate plan to take care of your estate — no matter if it’s a condo apartment and a housecat or a big house and lots of money in the bank — just in case something unexpected occurs tomorrow. That’s the advice from AZ Big Media in the article “The pros and cons of wills vs. trusts.”

Estate planning is the area of the law that focuses on the disposition of assets and expenses, when a person dies. The goal is to take care of the “business side” of life while you are living, so your family and loved ones don’t have to pick up the pieces after you are gone. It’s much more expensive, time-consuming and stressful for the survivors to do this after death, than it is if you plan in advance.

You have likely heard the words “trust” and “will” as part of estate planning. What are the differences between the two, and how do you know which one you need?

A will is the most commonly used legal document for leaving instructions about your property after you die. It is also used to name an executor — the person who will be in charge of your assets, their distribution, paying taxes and any estate expenses after you die. The will is very important, if you have minor children. This is how you will name guardians to raise your children, if something unexpected occurs to you and your partner, spouse or co-parent. The will is also the document you use to name the person who you would like to care for your pets, if you have any.

Burial instructions are not included in wills, since the will is not usually read for weeks or sometimes months after a person passes. It’s also not the right way to distribute funds that have been taken care of through the use of beneficiary designations or joint ownership on accounts or assets.

Another document used in estate planning is a trust. There are many different types of trusts, from revocable trusts, which you control as long as you are alive, and irrevocable trusts, which are controlled by trustees. There are too many to name in one article, but if there is something that needs to be accomplished in an estate plan, there’s a good chance there is a special trust designed to do it. An estate planning attorney will be able to tell you if you need a trust, and what purpose it will serve.

Trusts can be used by anyone with assets or property.

A will can be a very simple document. It requires proper formats and formalities to ensure that it is valid. If you try to do this on your own, your heirs will be the ones to find out if you have done it properly.  If it is not done correctly, the court will deem it invalid and your estate will be “intestate,” that is, without a will.

Many people believe that they should put all their assets into a trust to avoid probate. In some cases, this may be useful. However, there are many states where probate is not an onerous process, and this is not the reason for setting up trusts.

A trust won’t eliminate taxes completely, nor will it eliminate the need for any estate administration. However, it may make passing certain assets to another person or another generation easier. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you through this process.

Whether you use a will or a trust, or as is most common, a combination of the two, you need an estate plan that includes other documents, including power of attorney and health care power of attorney. These two particular documents are used while you are living, so that someone you name can make financial decisions (power of attorney) and medical health decisions (health care power of attorney) if you should become incapacitated, through illness or injury.

Speak with an estate planning attorney. Every person’s situation is a little different, and an estate planning attorney will create an estate plan that works for you and protects your family.

Reference: AZ Big Media (March 21, 2019) “The pros and cons of wills vs. trusts”

More Reasons Why You Need a Will

It doesn’t take very long for any newly-minted attorneys in the trusts and estates practice area to see what happens when there is no will, says the Daily Memphian in a to-the-point article titled “Five reasons you need a will (and one reason you don’t).” The stress on families, unnecessary expenses and assets going to the wrong people, can easily be prevented with an estate plan and a will. However, in case you still aren’t convinced, here are the top five reasons:

You have a family. For those who are married with children, the laws of intestacy take over, if you don’t have a will. Assets are divided between the surviving spouse and the children in most states (check with a local estate planning attorney for your state’s laws). In theory, that sounds fine. But there are three situations where not having a will can make a mess of things:

  • Minors and developmentally delayed heirs. Minors and individuals with special needs may not legally contract or represent themselves in court. Therefore, they cannot agree to the disposition of assets. When a minor or individual with special needs inherits assets directly, the court must appoint a neutral person, often an attorney, to oversee that person’s best interests. It may also require the appointment of a guardian, so the court can monitor the use of the assets in the child’s best interest, until they are of age.
  • Bad relationships between surviving spouse and children. Under intestate law, the spouse inheriting reduces the amount the children inherit. If the spouse is a second wife, this can make a bad situation worse. A will can plan out the distribution of assets to care for the spouse and ensure that the children receive the assets, as determined by their parent.
  • Extramarital children. Children who are not born to legally wed parents have the right to inherit, regardless of whether their parents were married. What if an unknown offspring shows up and demands his share? This does happen.

You hate your next-of-kin. Not every family is as happy as their Facebook photos. If you don’t want your lawful next of kin inheriting your assets, you need a will. Remember that as time passes and people enter and exit the family, through birth, death, marriage and divorce, the person who is your next-of-kin will likely change over time.

Do you want to give specific gifts? Under the intestacy laws, your relatives (next-of-kin) inherit your property in percentages that are based on their degree of relationship to you and the number of other relatives at that same degree. Outside of designating a beneficiary or joint owner of an assets, having a will that is properly prepared under the laws of your state, is the only way to ensure that you can determine who gets what.

You know how you want things to work after you die. If you want to have any control over what happens to your assets, how you want your funeral to be paid for, what you want to happen to personal property, etc., a will may be the best way to do this. The person named to be your executor is legally responsible to carrying out your wishes, unless it’s impossible, impractical or illegal for them to do so.

You have a living trust. If you took the trouble to have a living trust, then you should also have a will. You need, specifically, a “pour-over” will. This ensures that any assets not titled in the name of the trust at the time of your death, are transferred into the trust. Otherwise, your non-trust assets are subject to intestacy law.

The ONLY reason you may not need a will? If every single asset you own has either joint ownership or beneficiary designations. That’s very unusual, in part because it takes a lot of detail to make sure that every asset is titled correctly. You can leave real property to another person through a joint ownership deed, which establishes that person as the co-owner of the property. Accounts can be left to a person of choice, by naming a person as beneficiary.

Joint ownership and beneficiary designations do supersede the intestacy laws. However, what happens if a beneficiary dies before you do and you neglect to change the name on the asset? There are also gift and tax implications.

A will can be as complex or as simple as you want. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, who can make sure that your will and any other documents are prepared to achieve your wishes for your estate, protect your family, and don’t leave anything to chance.

Reference: Daily Memphian (March 8, 2019) “Five reasons you need a will (and one reason you don’t)”

Should Pets Be Part of Your Estate Plan?

Most of us don’t have the luxury (or the need) to leave our pets $12 million, but to make sure that our pets are cared for, having a legally enforceable trust for a pet, which is allowed in New York State, can provide peace of mind. That is part of the answer to the question posed by the Times Herald-Record in the article “Who’ll care for your pets when you’re gone?”

A will is a document used in a court proceeding called probate, if you die with assets that are only in your name. When the will goes through probate, it becomes a public document. A trust, on the other hand, is a document that does not become part of the public record, unless it was created under a will. Some people use trusts for their beloved pets, to pay for their care and maintain their lifestyle. Some pets lead fancier lives than others!

Most people leave the care of pets in the hands of friends or relatives and hope for the best. Visit any animal shelter and you’ll see the animals whose owners could not take care of them, or whose friends or family members intended to take care of them, but for whatever reasons, could not care for them. Putting a pet trust into your estate plan, is a better way to care for pets, if you outlive them.

The pet trust has several steps, and an estate planning attorney will be able to set it up for you. First, you need to appoint a trustee of the trust funds. This person is in charge of the financial aspect of the trust, from paying vet bills, making sure pet health insurance premiums are paid, to providing money for the caretaker to buy supplies. It’s a good idea to have a secondary trustee, just in case.

Next, you name a caretaker of the pet. This person can be the same as the trustee, although it may be better to name a different person, to create some checks and balances on the funds. You can, if you like, give the trustee the right to appoint a caregiver or a back-up caregiver. Make sure you discuss all of these details with the trustee and the caregiver and their back-ups to be sure that everyone understands their roles, and all are willing to take on these responsibilities. Some pets can live a long time, and you want to have everyone understand what they are undertaking.

Third, you’ll need to designate the amount of money to be held in trust for the pets for medical care, daily living costs and support until the pet dies. Don’t forget to include the cost of burial or cremation.

Finally, name the persons or organizations you wish to receive any remaining funds.

An informal letter of instruction to both the trustee and the caregiver would be very helpful. Provide details on the pet’s personality, quirky behavior, preferences for food, treats, play and any information that will help all the parties get along well. You should also provide information on your pet’s vet, any registration numbers for microchips, medical and dental records, medications, etc.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (March 9, 2019) “Who’ll care for your pets when you’re gone?”

Spare Your Family From a Feud: Make Sure You Have a Will

If for no other reason than to avoid fracturing the family, as they squabble over who gets Aunt Nina’s sideboard or Uncle Bruno’s collection of baseball cards, everyone needs a will. It is true that having an estate plan created does require us to consider what we want to happen after we have died, which most of us would rather not think about.

However, whether we want to think about it or not, having an estate plan in place, and that includes a will, is a gift of peace we give to our loved ones and ourselves. It’s peace of mind that our family is being told exactly what we want them to do after we pass, and peace of mind to ourselves that we’ve put our plan into place.

A recent article from Fatherly, “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know,” starts with the basic premise that a will prevents family squabbles. Families fight, when they don’t have clear direction of what the deceased wanted. That’s just one reason to have a last will and testament. However, there are other reasons.

A will is one way to ensure that your property is eventually distributed as you wish. Without a will, your estate is administered as an “intestate estate,” which means the state’s laws will determine who receives your assets after you pass. In some states, that means your spouse gets half of your estate, with your parents getting the rest (if there are no children). If the parents have died and there are no children, the rest of the estate may go to your siblings.

Most people—some studies say as many as 60% of Americans—don’t have a will. It’s hard to say why they don’t: maybe they don’t want to accept their own mortality, maybe they don’t understand what will happen when they die without a will, or perhaps they want to wreak havoc on their families. However, having a will is essential.

Don’t delay. If you don’t have a will in place, stop putting it off. Creating a will gives you the opportunity to effectuate your wishes, not that of the state. What if you don’t want your long-lost brother showing up just to receive a portion of your estate? If you don’t want someone to receive any of your assets, you need to have a will. Otherwise, there’s no way to know how the distribution will play out.

Be thoughtful about how you distribute your assets. If you have children and your will gives them your assets when they reach 18, will they be prepared to manage without blowing their inheritance in a month? A qualified estate planning attorney will be able to help you create a plan for distributing your wealth to children or other heirs in a sequence that will match their financial abilities. You may want to create a trust that will hold the assets, with a trustee who can ensure that assets are distributed in a wise and timely manner.

Every family is different, and today’s families, which often include children from prior marriages, require special planning. If you have remarried and have not legally adopted your spouse’s children from a previous marriage, they are not your legal heirs. If you want to make sure they inherit money or a specific asset, you’ll need to state that clearly in your will. If you are not married to your partner, they will not have any rights to your estate, unless a will is created that directs the assets you want them to inherit.

Parents of young children absolutely need a will. If you do not, and both parents pass away at the same time, their future will be determined by the court. They could end up in foster care, while awaiting a court decision. Battling grandparents may create a tumultuous situation. The court could also name a guardian who you would never have chosen. A will lets you decide.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure you have a will that is properly prepared and follows the laws of your state. You also want to have a power of attorney and a health care agent named. Having these plans made before you need them, gives you the ability to express your wishes in a way that can be legally enforced.

Reference: Fatherly (Feb. 6, 2019) “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know”

A Love Letter to Your Family
Senior couple meeting with an elder law attorney

A Love Letter to Your Family

Now, to the 70% of Americans who do not have an estate plan, the article “Senior Spotlight: Composing the ‘family love letter’” from the Lockport Journal should help you understand why this is so important. One reason why people don’t take care of this simple task, is because they don’t fully understand why estate planning is needed. They think it’s only for the wealthy, or that it’s only for old people, or even that it’s only about death and taxes.

Consider this idea: an estate plan is about protecting yourself while you are alive, protecting your family when you have passed and leaving a legacy for the living.

Some of the main elements of an estate plan are to create and execute documents that provide for incapacity and death, as well as provide information about your assets, liabilities and wishes.

You’ve spent a lifetime accumulating assets. It is now time to sit down with family members and have a heart-to-heart talk about the details of the estate and what your intentions are with respect to its distribution. The subject of death can be challenging for all. However, discussing your estate plan is vital, if you want to protect your family from what might come after you are gone. Each family has its own goals, so it’s a good idea to talk about it frankly, while you still can.

Without discussions and an estate, the chances of a family split, assets not going where you had intended and unnecessarily higher costs in taxes and legal fees, are a very real possibility.

If speaking about these topics is too hard, you may want to write your family a love letter. It would contain all the information that your family would need at the time of your death or if you become incapacitated because of illness or injury.

Your estate plan should also include the documents needed, so your family can make decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated. That includes a power of attorney, a health care directive and may include others specific to your situation.

Ideally, all this information will be located in one convenient place. Don’t put it on a computer where you use a password. If the family cannot access your computer, all your hard work will be useless to them. Put it in a folder or a notebook, that is clearly labeled and tell family members where it is.

They’ll need this information:

  • A list of your important contacts — your estate planning attorney, financial advisor, CPA, insurance broker and medical professionals.
  • Credit card information, frequent flier miles.
  • Insurance and benefits including all health, life, disability, long-term care, Medicare, property deeds, employment and any military benefits.
  • Documents including your will, power of attorney, birth certificates, military papers, divorce decrees and citizenship papers.

Think of these materials and discussions as your opportunity to make a statement for the future generation. If you don’t have an estate plan in place already or if you have not reviewed your estate plan in more than a few years, it’s time to make an appointment for a review. Your life may have not changed, but tax laws have, and you’ll want to be sure your estate is not entangled in old strategies that no longer benefit your family.

Reference: Lockport Journal (Feb. 16, 2019) “Senior Spotlight: Composing the ‘family love letter’”