A Will is the Way to Have Your Wishes Followed

Individuals often do not make or appropriately update wills because they wrongly believe they aren’t necessary, but the will is the place for your wishes.

A will, also known as a last will and testament, is one of three documents that make up the foundation of an estate plan, according to The News Enterprises’ article “To ensure your wishes are followed, prepare a will.”  Two other very important documents are the Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These three documents all serve different purposes, and work together to protect an individual and their family.  Today I’ll focus on the will and its important for conveying your wishes for your assets.

In our practice, we often encounter situations where a person passes away either without a will or without updating their existing will, both of which can lead to tragic results.  Assets will often go to unintended beneficiaries with far greater cost, difficulty and time.

There are a few situations where people may think they don’t need a will, but not having a will or updating it properly can create complications for the survivors.  Here are a few instances where people mistakenly believe they do not need a will.

First, when spouses with jointly owned property don’t have a will, it is because they believe that when the first spouse dies, the surviving spouse will continue to own the property. However, with no will, the spouse might not be the first person to receive any property that is jointly held, and it is especially true that the spouse may not be the first person to receive individually jointly owned property, like a car.  Even when all property is jointly owned—that means the title or deed to all and any property is in both person’s names –upon the death of the second spouse, an intestate (meaning no will) proceeding may have to be brought to court through probate to transfer property to heirs.

We frequently encounter situations where an executor will say that the decedent told them what they want, and that it does not match the will.  Or even worse, a decedent will have an old will that no longer reflects their wishes, such as not updating a will after getting married. In these situations, the will controls the property, even though the wishes are now wrong. It is critical to update your will with changes to make sure that the will conveys your estate to the beneficiaries you want.

Secondly, any individuals with beneficiary designations on accounts transfer those accounts to the beneficiaries on the owner’s death, with no court involvement. The same may apply for POD, or payable on death accounts.  In Texas you can even go so far as to name a beneficiary specifically on your deed or car title.  If the beneficiary named on any accounts has passed, however, their share will go into your estate, forcing distribution through probate.  Beneficiary designations also don’t adequately plan for successors, incapacity of beneficiaries and sometimes don’t allow many beneficiaries.   Clients often try to avoid probate on their own by the use of beneficiary designations, but we often have to open estate administrations where they are incomplete or ineffective for the above reasons.

Third, people who do not have a large amount of assets often believe they don’t need to have a will because there isn’t much to transfer. Here’s a problem: with no will, nothing can be transferred without court involvement. Let’s say your estate brings a wrongful death lawsuit and wins several hundred thousand dollars in a settlement. The settlement goes to your estate, which now has to go through probate.

Fourth, there is a belief that having a power of attorney means that they can continue to pay the expenses of property and distribute property after the grantor dies. This is not so. A power of attorney expires on the death of the grantor. An agent under a power of attorney has no power, after the person dies.

Fifth, if a trust is created to transfer ownership of property outside of the estate, a will is necessary to funnel unfunded property into the trust upon the death of the grantor. Trusts are created individually for any number of purposes. They don’t all hold the same type of assets. Property that is never properly retitled, for instance, is not in the trust. This is a common error in estate planning. A will provides a way for property to get into the trust, upon the death of the grantor.  This is called a pour over will.  See here for more details.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/i-have-a-trust-so-why-do-i-need-a-pour-over-will/

With no will and no estate plan, property may pass unintentionally to someone you never intended to give your life’s work to. Or, having an out of date will that doesn’t reflect your wishes may direct property to someone you no longer wanted to benefit.  Having an up to date will lets the Executor know who should receive your property. The laws of your state will be used to determine who gets what in the absence of a will, and most are based on the laws of heirship. Speak with an estate planning attorney to create a will that reflects your wishes, and don’t wait to do so. Leaving yourself and your loved ones unprotected by an up to date will, is not a welcome legacy for anyone.

Reference: The News Enterprise (September 22, 2019) “To ensure your wishes are followed, prepare a will.”

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Everyone Needs an Estate Plan!

Everyone should have an estate plan
Every adult needs an estate plan, don’t wait until you have an “estate.”

Every adult, whether we have a lot of property or not, should have an estate plan.  A client once told me they didn’t need a Will because they didn’t have an “estate.”  They thought it meant substantial wealth, but estate planning is much more than that.

As we go through the many milestones of life, it’s important to plan for what’s coming, and also plan for the unexpected, even beyond the finances. An estate planning attorney works with individuals, families and businesses to plan for what lies ahead, says the Cincinnati Business Courier in the article “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.” For younger families, having an estate plan is like having life insurance: it is hoped that the insurance is never needed, but having it in place is comforting.

For others, in different stages of life, an estate plan is needed to ensure a smooth transition for a business owner heading to retirement, protecting a spouse or children from creditors or minimizing tax liability for a family.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, but here are some milestones in life when you need an estate plan:

Becoming an adult. It is true, for most 18-year-olds, estate planning is the last thing on their minds. However, at 18 most states consider them legal adults, and their parents no longer control many things in their lives. If parents want or need to be involved with medical or financial matters, certain estate planning documents are needed. All new adults need a general power of attorney and health care directives to allow someone else to step in, if something occurs.  Michael Galligan from our office gave a great presentation this summer on this topic.  See here for the video.  https://youtu.be/lZUaMVRRTms  

That can be as minimal as a parent talking with a doctor during an office appointment or making medical decisions during a crisis. A HIPAA release should also be prepared. A simple will should be considered, especially if assets are to pass directly to siblings or a significant person in their life, to whom they are not married.

Getting married. Marriage unites individuals and their assets. In community property states like Texas, it creates the new wrinkle of community property.  For newly married couples, estate planning documents should be updated for each spouse, so their estate plans may be coordinated and the new spouse can become a joint owner, primary beneficiary and fiduciary. In addition to the wills, power of attorney, healthcare directive and beneficiary designations also need to be updated to name the new spouse or a trust. This is also a time to start keeping a list of assets, in case someone needs to access accounts.

If this is not the first marriage, there is an even greater need for an estate plan because there may be children from the prior marriage to plan for.  Remember, your assets don’t go to a surviving spouse just because you are married, so you definitely need an estate plan.

When children join the family. Whether born or adopted, the entrance of children into the family makes an estate plan especially important. Choosing guardians who will raise the children in the absence of their parents is the hardest thing to think about, but it is critical for the children’s well-being. A revocable trust may be a means of allowing the seamless transfer and ongoing administration of the family’s assets to benefit the children and other family members.

Part of business planning. Estate planning should be part of every business owner’s plan. If the unexpected occurs, the business and the owner’s family will also be better off, regardless of whether they are involved in the business. At the very least, business interests should be directed to transfer out of probate, allowing for an efficient transition of the business to the right people without the burden of probate estate administration.  You also want to address these issues.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/the-importance-of-business-succession-planning/

If a divorce occurs. Divorce is a sad reality for more than half of today’s married couples. The post-divorce period is the time to review the estate plan to remove the ex-spouse, change any beneficiary designations, and plan for new fiduciaries. It’s important to review all accounts to ensure that any controlling-on-death accounts are updated. A careful review by an estate planning attorney is worth the time to make sure no assets are overlooked.

Upon retirement. Just before or after retirement is an important time to review an estate plan. Children may be grown and take on roles of fiduciaries or be in a position to help with medical or financial affairs. This is the time to plan for wealth transfer, minimizing estate taxes and planning for incapacity.

In sum, it is important to realize everyone needs to plan.  Don’t wait because you think you don’t need one.

Reference: Cincinnati Business Courier (Sep. 4, 2019) “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.”

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Probate: Dissolving the Mystery
It is important to understand the probate process before deciding whether and how to avoid it.

Probate: Dissolving the Mystery

probate and estate planning
If you want to avoid probate, work with an experienced attorney to coordinate your plan and assets.

Probate avoidance is a common concern for our clients.  They frequently seek ways to pass their assets to their loved ones without going through probate.  Although it can be avoided with proper estate planning, probate avoidance should be done carefully and at the advice of an attorney as using piecemeal strategies usually don’t work, and sometimes create bigger problems.  For example, consider using trusts in your estate planning.  See this article for more information.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/how-do-trusts-work-in-your-estate-plan/

Before considering whether you want to avoid probate, it is important to understand what the process is.  The Street’s recent article on this subject asks “What Is Probate and How Can You Avoid It?” The article looks at the probate process and tries to put it in real-life terms.

Probate is the process by which an Executor (person put in charge of the Will) goes to court to prove the validity of the Will and their authority to be in charge of the estate.  I find it helpful to remember that the word probate is essentially Latin for “prove it.”

Every state’s process is different, but in Texas, the Executor starts by filing the Will and an application to probate along with other documents necessary to that case.  Next, there is a hearing before a probate judge.  The Executor and her attorney ask the judge to admit the Will to probate as the valid Will of the decedent and ask that the Executor be empowered to handle the decedent’s affairs as directed in the Will.

Once the Will is admitted to probate and the Executor agrees to serve, there are many tasks for them to complete.  They include the following:

  • Giving notice to the beneficiaries in the Will;
  • Giving notice to potential creditors of the estate;
  • Gathering, valuing and categorizing the decedent’s assets;
  • Prepare an inventory of those assets;
  • Paying off any of the deceased’s existing valid debts or fighting invalid ones;
  • Paying final taxes or expenses of the estate; and
  • Distributing the deceased’s property to those directed by the Will

The above are just the basic responsibilities of the Executor.  The probate process becomes more complicated when a creditor appears, the family disagrees, assets are entangled or cumbersome, such as land or business interests, or the Will was written without the aid of an attorney.  Even worse, it is hard for an Executor to locate assets in the first place!  This can make estates drag on months or even years.  I recently spoke with a client whose family is still going through a probate 10 years after the decedent has passed.

With all of that uncertainty, it is worth discussing your wishes with an experienced estate planning attorney who will be able to explain what strategies are used to avoid probate, how to remove certain assets from the process, or whether it needs to be avoided at all.  The key, as with all estate plans, is to find the option that fits your goals for you and your family.

Reference: The Street (July 29, 2019) “What Is Probate and How Can You Avoid It?”

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