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Probate

Monday, June 19, 2017

How to Leave Gifts to Step-Children

Today, blended families have become increasingly common, and many individuals have step-children, that is, children of a spouse or partner. In situations where step-children have not been legally adopted, however, they do not have a legal right to an inheritance from a step-parent. For those who wish to leave step-children part of their estate , it is necessary to include them in an estate plan.

The easiest way to leave gifts to step-children is to name them in a will. As with any other gift, they can be given a percentage of the estate, or specific gifts. If there are other children involved, it is important to avoid confusion by naming each child and step-child by using their individual names, rather than terms such as "descendants," "heirs," or "children."

There are also a number of estate planning tools that can be utilized to include step-children in an inheritance. If the objective is to avoid probate, for example, a revocable living trust can be established in which a step-child is named as a beneficiary. Moreover, it may be necessary to provide for a disabled step-child who is eligible for public benefits by establishing a special needs trust. Lastly, a step-child can also be named as a beneficiary in a life insurance policy or a pay-on-death financial account.

While there is no legal obligation to leave step-children an inheritance, it may be the best choice for those who have a close relationship, or played a significant role, in raising them. However, this will reduce the amount of assets available to other children and beneficiaries. Because blended family relationships are complex and subject to emotional challenges, it is important to explain these decisions with all family members.

By engaging in an open and honest dialogue, you can minimize the potential for strife and the possibility of a will contest. In particular, it is important to clarify why you gave each recipient a gift, the selection of your executor, and your thoughts about the family.  Lastly, you are well advised to engage the services of an estate planning attorney who can help ensure your wishes regarding step-children are carried out.


Monday, May 15, 2017

Top Five Estate Planning Mistakes

In spite of the vast amount of financial information that is currently available in the media and via the internet, many people either do not understand estate planning or underestimate its importance. Here's a look at the top five estate planning mistakes that need to be avoided.

1. Not Having an Estate Plan

The most common mistake is not having an estate plan, particularly not creating a will - as many as 64 percent of Americans don't have a will. This basic estate planning tool establishes how an individual's assets will be distributed upon death, and who will receive them. A will is especially important for parents with minor children in that it allows a guardian to be named to care for them if both parents were to die unexpectedly. Without a will, the courts will make decisions according to the state's probate laws, which may not agree with a person's wishes.

2. Failing to Update a Will

For those who have a will in place, a common mistake is to tuck it away in a drawer and be done with it. Creating a will is not a "once and done" matter as it needs to updated periodically, however. There are changes that occur during a person's lifetime, such as buying a home, getting married, having children, getting divorced - and remarried, that need to be accurately reflected in an updated will. Depending on the circumstances, a will should be reviewed every two years.

3. Not Planning for Disability

While no one likes to think about becoming ill or getting injured, an unexpected long-term disability can have devastating consequences on an individual's financial and personal affairs. It is essential to create a durable power of attorney to designate an individual to manage your finances if you are unable to do so. In addition, a power of attorney for healthcare  - or healthcare proxy, allows you to name a trusted relative or friend to make decisions about the type of care you prefer to receive when you cannot speak for yourself.

4. Naming Incapable Heirs

People often take for granted that their loved ones are capable of managing an inheritance. There are cases, however, when a beneficiary may not understand financial matters or be irresponsible with money. In these situations, a will can appoint an professional to supervise these assets, or in the alternative a "spendthrift trust" can be put in place.

5. Choosing the Wrong Executor

Many individuals designate a close relative or trusted friend to act as executor, but fail to consider whether he or she has the capacity and integrity to take on this role. By choosing the wrong executor, your will could be contested, leading to unnecessary delays, costs and lingering acrimony among surviving family members.

The Takeaway

In the end, estate planning is really about getting your affairs in order. By engaging the services of an experienced trusts and estates attorney, you can avoid these common mistakes, protect your assets and provide for your loved ones.

 


Monday, March 13, 2017

Refusing a Bequest

Most people develop an estate plan as a way to transfer wealth, property and their legacies on to loved ones upon their passing. This transfer, however, isn’t always as seamless as one may assume, even with all of the correct documents in place. What happens if your eldest son doesn’t want the family vacation home that you’ve gifted to him? Or your daughter decides that the classic car that was left to her isn’t worth the headache?

When a beneficiary rejects a bequest it is technically, or legally, referred to as a "disclaimer." This is the legal equivalent of simply saying "I don't want it." The person who rejects the bequest cannot direct where the bequest goes. Legally, it will pass as if the named beneficiary died before you. Thus, who it passes to depends upon what your estate planning documents, such as a will, trust, or beneficiary form, say will happen if the primary named beneficiary is not living.

Now you may be thinking why on earth would someone reject a generous sum of money or piece of real estate? There could be several reasons why a beneficiary might not want to accept such a bequest. Perhaps the beneficiary has a large and valuable estate of their own and they do not need the money. By rejecting or disclaiming the bequest it will not increase the size of their estate and thus, it may lessen the estate taxes due upon their later death.

Another reason may be that the beneficiary would prefer that the asset that was bequeathed pass to the next named beneficiary. Perhaps that is their own child and they decide they do not really need the asset but their child could make better use of it. Another possible reason might be that the asset needs a lot of upkeep or maintenance, as with a vacation home or classic car, and the person may decide taking on that responsibility is simply not something they want to do. By rejecting or disclaiming the asset, the named beneficiary will not inherit the "headache" of caring for, and being liable for, the property.

To avoid this scenario, you might consider sitting down with each one of your beneficiaries and discussing what you have in mind. This gives your loved ones the chance to voice their concerns and allows you to plan your gifts accordingly.


Monday, March 6, 2017

Common Types of Will Contests

The most basic estate planning tool is a will which establishes how an individual's property will be distributed and names beneficiaries to receive those assets. Unfortunately, there are circumstances when disputes arise among surviving family members that can lead to a will contest. This is a court proceeding in which the validity of the will is challenged.

In order to have standing to bring a will contest, a party must have a legitimate interest in the estate. Although the law in this regard varies from state to state, the proceeding can be brought by heirs, beneficiaries, and others who stand to inherit. While these disputes are often the result of changes to the distribution plan from a prior will, some common types of will contests are as follows.

Lack of testamentary capacity

The testator, that is the person making the will, must have the mental capacity and be of sound mind at the time the will is executed , modified or revoked. Further, being of sound mind means that the testator knows what property he or she owns and understands the effect of executing the will. Although these are considered to be low standards, claims that the deceased lacked the mental capacity when the will was executed are common.

Undue influence

If the deceased was coerced into executing the will, it may be considered invalid. In order to ensure that the testator is not subjected to undue influence, the will should be prepared by an attorney. Moreover, heirs and beneficiaries should not take part in meetings and discussions between the testator and his or her attorney.

Will improperly executed

There are certain formalities that must be followed in order for a will to be considered validly executed. While some states require a notarized signature, others insist on a certain number of witnesses being present when the will is executed. If these formalities are not strictly followed, the will may be found to be improperly executed.

Fraud

A will can also be considered invalid if a person is intentionally deceived when preparing and executing the document.

The Takeaway

If a will is successfully contested, it can be declared invalid by the court. This means that the assets will be distributed either according to the terms of a prior will or if no such will exists, the state's intestacy rules. Ultimately, engaging the services of an experienced estate planning an attorney can minimize the risk of a will contest.


Monday, February 13, 2017

What is an Estate Tax?

While the terms "estate tax" and "inheritance tax" are often used interchangeably, they are not synonymous. Let's try to clarify the difference.

Estate Tax

Estate tax is based on the net value of the deceased owner's property.  An estate tax is applied to these assets when they are transferred to the beneficiary. It is important to remember that an estate tax doesn't have anything to do with the beneficiary or that person's resources.

Federal estate tax only affects individuals who die with more than $5.45[s1]  million in assets and individuals with such large estates can leave that amount to their beneficiaries without being subjected to a  tax liability. Ninety-nine percent of the population will not owe federal estate tax upon their death.

In most circumstances, no federal estate tax is levied against spouses. As of the Supreme Court's recent ruling, this includes gay married couples as well as heterosexual couples. Federal estate taxes can, however, be charged if the spouse who is the beneficiary is not a citizen of the U.S. In such cases, though, a personal estate tax exemption can be used.  Even where remaining spouses have no liability for federal estate tax, they may be charged with state taxes in some states, taxes which cannot be avoided unless the couple relocates.

Inheritance Tax

Inheritance tax, as distinguished from estate tax, is imposed by state governments and the tax rate depends on the person receiving the property, and, in some locations, on how much that person receives. Inheritance tax can also vary depending upon the relationship between the testator and the benefactor. In Pennsylvania, for example, a spouse is not taxed at all; a lineal descendant (the child of the deceased) is taxed at 4.5 percent; a sibling is taxed at 12 percent, and anyone else must pay 15 percent.

Exemptions

There are exemptions that can reduce the amount of inheritance tax owed by significant amounts, but it is important that there be proper documentation of such exemptions for them to be applicable. Any part of the inheritance that is donated to charity does not require inheritance tax payment on the part of the beneficiary. Because of the inherent complexities of tax law and the variations from state to state, working with a tax attorney who has expertise with state tax laws s the best way to make sure you take advantage of any possible tax exemptions or avoidance.

 

Monday, January 16, 2017

Responsibilities and Obligations of the Executor/ Administrator


When a person dies with a will in place, an executor is named as the responsible individual for winding down the decedent's affairs. In situations in which a will has not been prepared, the probate court will appoint an administrator. Whether you have been named  as an executor or administrator, the role comes with certain responsibilities including taking charge of the decedent's assets, notifying beneficiaries and creditors, paying the estate's debts and distributing the property to the beneficiaries.

In some cases, an executor may also be a beneficiary of the will, however he or she must act fairly and in accordance with the provisions of the will. An executor is specifically responsible for:

  • Finding a copy of the will and filing it with the appropriate state court

  • Informing third parties, such as banks and other account holders, of the person’s death

  • Locating assets and identifying debts

  • Providing the court with an inventory of these assets and debts

  • Maintaining any assets until they are disposed of

  • Disposing of assets either through distribution or sale

  • Satisfying any debts

  • Appearing in court on behalf of the estate

Depending on the size of the estate and the way in which the decedent's assets were titled, the will may need to be probated.
Read more . . .


Monday, December 26, 2016

The Rule against Perpetuities

The law allows a person preparing a will to have almost complete control over his or her assets after the testator passes on, but there are limits to such power. A person can restrict a property from being sold, or make sure that it is used for a specific purpose. A property can be bequeathed to a family member as long on condition that the person maintains the family business in a specific city, or exercises daily, or places flowers on the deceased's grave every week, or engages in any other behavior the testator desires. This freedom, however, is not without limits. The time limit on this ability is called the rule against perpetuities. The rule is also referred to as the “dead man’s hand” statute.

The rule against perpetuities is complex and rarely utilized. At the time of the passing of the testator, the heirs of the estate are locked in. These heirs are referred to as “lives in being.” For the purposes of this rule, if a child is conceived but not yet born at the time of the testator’s death, it will be considered a life in being. Once the last living heir named in the will passes away, the restrictions on the property will continue in place as the testator desired for 21 years. The idea is that a testator may control his assets for a full generation after his or her death. The rule is notoriously difficult to apply properly. When it does apply, the conditions on the bequest are abandoned and the gift returns to the residual estate.

What makes this rule so confusing is that, when an individual writes a will, he or she may make gifts to potential children or grandchildren. These children and grandchildren, however, may not be born until years later. If a child has been born at the time the decedent passes away, he or she is subject to the restrictions on the bequest during his or her lifetime. If a grandchild is conceived and born after the decedent’s death, however, the child may avoid the restrictions 21 years after the death of the last heir alive at the time of the decedent’s death. There is no way to predict when this might occur. The rule is archaic and easily avoided. A knowledgeable attorney can help a person planning his or her estate set up an equitable trust. Similar to a will, a trust may impose conditions on the use of assets, but is not subject to the rule against perpetuities. There are other advantages to a trust, but one of the most important is avoiding this unpredictable and confusing rule.


Monday, December 5, 2016

The Revocable Living Trust

There are many benefits to a revocable living trust that are not available in a will.  An individual can choose to have one or both, and an attorney can best clarify the advantages of each.  If the person engaged in planning his or her estate wants to retain the ability to change or rescind the document, the living trust is probably the best option since it is revocable. 

The document is called a “living” trust because it is applicable throughout one's lifetime.  Another individual or entity, such as a bank, can be appointed as trustee to manage and protect assets and to distribute assets to beneficiaries upon one's death. 

A living trust will also protect assets if and when a person becomes sick or disabled.  The designated trustee will hold “legal title” of the assets in the trust.  If an individual wants to maintain full control over his or her property, he or she may also choose to remain the holder of the title as trustee. 

It should be noted, however, that the revocable power that comes with the trust may involve taxation. Usually, a trust is considered a part of the decedent’s estate, and therefore, an estate tax applies.  One cannot escape liability via a trust because the assets are still subject to debts upon death.  On the upside, the trust may not need to go through probate, which could save months of time and attorneys' fees. 

The revocable living trust is contrary to the irrevocable living trust, in that the latter cannot be rescinded or altered during one's lifetime.  It does, however, avoid the tax consequences of a revocable trust.  An attorney can explain the intricacies of other protections an irrevocable living trust provides. 

Anyone who wants to keep certain information or assets private, will likely want to create a living trust.  A trust is not normally made public, whereas a will is put into the public record once it passes through probate.   Consulting with an attorney can help determine the best methods to ensure protection of assets in individual cases.   


Monday, November 21, 2016

How to calculate estate tax

In order to predict how much your estate will have to pay in taxes, one must first determine the value of the estate. To determine this, many assets might have to be appraised at fair market value. The estate includes all assets including real estate, cash, securities, stocks, bonds, business interests, loans receivable, furnishings, jewelry, and other valuables.

Once your net worth is established, you can subtract liabilities like mortgages, credit cards, other legitimate debts, funeral expenses, medical bills, and the administrative cost to settle your estate including attorney, accounting and appraisal fees, storage and shipping fees, insurances, and court fees. The administrative expenses will likely total roughly 5% of the total estate. Any assets that is bequeathed to charity through a trust escapes taxation, and the value of those assets must be subtracted from the total. Any assets transferred to a surviving spouse are not subject to taxation as long as your spouse is a US citizen.

If the net worth of an estate is less than the Federal and state exemptions, no taxes must be paid. However, the value of assets over the exemptions will be taxed. The amount over the exemptions is referred to as the taxable estate. A testator’s assets are taxed by the state in which the will is probated. Taxes paid by the estate to the state may be deducted for Federal tax purposes. The Federal exemption was $5.43 million in 2015 and is slated to increase in 2016. The top Federal estate tax rate in 2015 was 40%.

If an estate earns money while it is being administered and distributed, for example, if real estate is rented or businesses continue to operate, it will be necessary for the estate to complete a tax return and pay taxes on the income it receives. The net income of the estate can be added to the taxable portion of the estate if it is over the federal or state exemption. It is important to be aware that the laws surrounding estate taxes change frequently and require seasoned professionals to navigate, and to notify you if changes in the laws will affect your estate plan. 


Monday, October 31, 2016

Disinheritance

Inheritance laws involve legal rights to property after a death and such laws differ from state-to-state.   Heirs usually consist of close family members and exclude estranged relatives.  Depending on the wording of a will, an individual can be intentionally, or even unintentionally, disinherited.

In most cases, spouses may not be legally disinherited.  Certain contracts, however, allow for a legitimate disinheritance, such as prenuptial agreements or postnuptial agreements.  These contracts are typically valid methods of disinheritance because the presumed-to-be inheriting spouse has agreed to the arrangement by signing the document.  

If there is no prenuptial arrangement, then the state’s elective share statute or “equitable distribution” laws protect the surviving spouse.  Pursuant to the elective share statute, he or she may collect a certain percentage of the estate. 

In states that follow “community property” or “common law” rules, however, the outcome may be different.   An attorney should be consulted for clarification of the differences in the law.  Divorces affect spousal inheritance rights.  Post-divorce, it is prudent to consult an attorney to draft a fresh will, in order to prevent confusion and unintentional dissemination of assets.

If the will is unambiguous, it is usually possible for a child to be disinherited.   It should be noted, however, that it is highly likely that close relatives will challenge or contest a will in which they have been disinherited.  Fighting such a lawsuit may put a great financial strain on the estate's assets.  Depending on how time-consuming and expensive it is to defend the will, less money may be available for distribution to the intended beneficiaries. 

There are ways to protect estate assets from such problems, for example through trusts.  It is essential for an individual to receive the counsel of a licensed lawyer in order to effectively protect his or her estate as inexpensively as possible.


Monday, October 10, 2016

Testamentary Substitutes

In states that have “elective share statutes,” a surviving spouse is legally entitled to a certain percentage of the deceased's estate, even if that spouse has attempted to disinherit or to provide a lesser bequest, or gift, under the will.  In “separate property” states, an elective share statute is likely to be in effect.  If the estate in question is valued at $50,000 or less, the elective share is likely to be the actual amount of the net estate.  

“Testamentary substitutes” are removed from particular assets that would otherwise pass to the surviving spouse.  Assets passing by will or through intestacy could cause a reduction in the elective share amount as well.  Totten trusts, such as Payable-On-Death Bank Accounts (PODs), Retirement or joint bank accounts, gifts causa mortis ("gifts made by the decedent in contemplation of death,”) U.S. savings bonds, jointly held property, and gifts or transfers that were made approximately one year prior to death, are some examples of testamentary substitutes. 

If a gift was made about one year prior to death, yet involves medical or educational expenses, then the gift may not qualify as a true testamentary substitute.  With regard to PODs, the spouse, offspring, or grandchildren will be named as beneficiaries.  The funds of a POD are only distributed upon the decedent’s death.   Testamentary Trusts are listed in the will until the designated property passes to the trust upon the testator’s death.  

Generally, a gift causa mortis is only active upon the decedent’s expected death and is typically revocable.  Moreover, certain elements must exist to create a valid gift causa mortis.  These include an intent to create “an immediate transfer of ownership,” valid delivery, acceptance of the gift by the donee, and the donor’s “anticipation of imminent death.”  There are also certain circumstances by which gifts causa mortis are not valid.  For example, if the donee passes away before the donor, it is unlikely that a property interest was transferred.  Gifts causa mortis are also taxed as if the testator had listed the gifts in his or her will. 

In such cases, testamentary substitutes are generally put back into the net estate total to determine the elective share amount that the surviving spouse will collect.  The aforementioned may vary if property is held jointly, as joint tenants or otherwise, because the spouse may have a right of survivorship in the property.  Estate planning attorneys are aware of all the ins and outs of testamentary substitutes and how they may affect the distribution of your assets.  It is useful, if not essential, to consult with a knowledgeable attorney when making arrangements regarding testamentary substitutes.


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