What’s Better, A Living Trust or a Will?

Everyone knows what a last will and testament is. However, a will is not always the best way to distribute your assets, explains the Times Herald-Record in the article “Living trusts are better choice than wills.” Most people think that by having a will alone, they will make it clear who they want to receive their assets when they die. However, wills are used by the court in a proceeding called “probate,” if the only estate plan you have is a will. The court proceeding is to establish that the will is valid. Depending upon where you live, probate can take a year before assets are distributed to beneficiaries.

Certain family members must receive notifications, when a will is submitted to probate. Some people will receive notices, even if they are not mentioned in the will. This can lead to all kinds of awkward situations, especially from estranged or unknown relatives. The person who is the executor of the will is required to locate these relatives, and until they are found and notified, the probate process comes to a standstill.

There are instances where a judge will allow a legal notice to be published in a local newspaper, after valid attempts to find relatives aren’t successful. If there is a disabled beneficiary, a minor beneficiary, a relative or beneficiary who can’t be located, or a relative who has been incarcerated, the judge often appoints lawyers to represent these parties’ interests and the estate pays for the attorney’s fees.

Depending on the situation, the executor may be required to furnish a family tree, or a friend of the decedent must sign an affidavit attesting that the person never had any children.

Thinking of disinheriting a child? Anyone who is disinherited in a will, receives a notice about that and is legally permitted to contest the will. That can lead to years of expensive litigation, including discovery demands, depositions, motions and possibly a trial. Like most litigation, will contests usually end in a settlement. The disinherited relative often gets a share of the inheritance, even when the decedent didn’t want them to get anything.

For many families, a living trust is a better alternative. They also serve as disability planning, naming people who will manage the assets of the trust, in case of incapacity. They are private documents, so their information does not become public knowledge, like the details of a will.

A qualified estate planning attorney will help you determine what estate planning tools will work best to achieve your goals, while maintaining your privacy and ensuring that assets pass to heirs in a discrete manner.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Oct. 26, 2019) “Living trusts are better choice than wills”

Living Together Isn’t as Simple as You Think

One reason for the popularity of living together without marriage, is that many in this generation have experienced one or more difficult divorces, so they’re not always willing to remarry, says Next Avenue in the article “The Legal Dangers of Living Together.” However, like many aspects of estate planning, what seems like a simple solution can become quite complex. Unmarried couples can face a variety of problematic and emotionally challenging issues, because estate planning laws are written to favor married couples.

Consider what happens when an unmarried couple does not plan for the possibility of one partner losing the ability to manage his or her health care because of a serious health issue.

If a spouse is rushed to the hospital unconscious and there is no health care power of attorney giving the other spouse the right to make medical decisions on his or her behalf, a husband or wife will likely be permitted to make them anyway.

However, an unmarried couple will not have any right to make medical decisions on behalf of their partner. The hospital is not likely to bend the rules, because if a blood relative of the person challenged the medical facility’s decision, they are wide open to liability issues.

Money is also a problem in the absence of marriage. If one partner becomes incapacitated and estate planning has not been done, without both partners having power of attorney, an illness could upend their life together. If one partner became incapacitated, bank accounts will be frozen, and the well partner will have no right to access any assets. A court action might be required, but what if a family member objects?

Without appropriate advance planning, courts are generally forced to rely on blood kin to take both financial and medical decision-making roles. An unmarried partner would have no rights. If the home was owned by the ill partner, the unmarried partner may find themselves having to find new housing. If the well partner depended upon the ill partner for their support, then they will have also lost their financial security.

Unmarried couples need to execute key estate planning documents, while both are healthy and competent. These documents include a durable power of attorney, a medical power of attorney and a living will, which applies to end of life decisions. A living trust could be used to avoid the problem of finances for the well partner.

Another document needed for unmarried couples: a HIPAA release. HIPAA is a federal health privacy law that prevents medical facilities and health care professionals from sharing a patient’s medical information with anyone not designated on the person’s HIPAA release form. Unmarried couples should ask an estate planning attorney for these forms to be sure they are the most current.

If one of the partners dies, and if there is no will, the estate is known as intestate. Assets are distributed according to the laws of the state, and there is no legal recognition of an unmarried partner. They won’t be legally entitled to inherit any of the assets.

If a married partner dies without a will in a community property state, the surviving spouse is automatically entitled to inherit as much as half the value of the deceased assets.

Beneficiary designations usually control the distribution of assets including life insurance policies, retirement accounts and employer-sponsored group life insurance policies. If the partners have not named each other as beneficiary designations, then the surviving partner will be left with nothing.

The lesson for couples hoping to avoid any legal complications by not getting married, is that they may be creating far more problems than are solved as they age together. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to make sure that all the correct planning is in place to protect both partners, even without the benefit of marriage.

Reference: Next Avenue (Aug. 28, 2019) “The Legal Dangers of Living Together.”

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)”