Common Estate Planning Terms

There is a current legal trend to avoid using legal terms and to make the language of law accessible for clients.  For example, lawyers use less Latin than they used to.  However, there are some terms that are unavoidable, and it helps to be familiar with them when considering your estate planning, a sentiment echoed by the recent article, “Learn lingo of estate planning to help ensure best outcome” from The News-Enterprise.

Accordingly, I wanted to define some common estate planning terms.  If you are on the fence about creating an estate plan but found this article to get started, you may also want to review this article on the important of having a will.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/understanding-why-a-will-is-important/  

Fiduciary – the person you named to a role in your estate plan and who acts with your best interest in mind.  They owe you a fiduciary duty to act with prudence and loyalty to you.

Principal – the person who creates the fiduciary relationship, especially in a power of attorney.

Agent or Attorney-in-Fact – this is the person named to act on your behalf under a power of attorney.  They aren’t your “power of attorney,” they are your agent.

Within a last will and testament, there are more: testator or testatrix, executor, administrator, beneficiary, specific bequest, residuary beneficiary, remote contingency and even more. There are also many variations on these terms based upon location and common practice.

Testator – (Testatrix is the feminine version of it) is the person who makes a will.

Executor – the person who is appointed in a will to administer an estate.  Note, in Texas you often see “Independent Executor” or references to an independent administration.  This is because Texas has grades of executors, and independent executors largely work free of court supervision.  Most states don’t have this distinction.

Administrator- generally stated, this is the person who administers an estate just like an executor, but who wasn’t named in the will.  So, for example, if you name John Smith, and if he can’t then Kevin Horner to be your executors, and neither serves after you pass away, a third person may be granted permission to administer your estate.  They will be an administrator, and not an executor, because you didn’t name them.

Beneficiaries are individuals who receive property from the estate or a trust. Contingent beneficiaries are “backup” beneficiaries, in case the original beneficiaries are unable to receive the inheritance for whatever reason.  Sometimes you see the phrase per stirpes or by representation or something similar.  These indicate who the contingent beneficiaries if the original beneficiary is deceased.  Generally speaking, these indicate the original beneficiary’s children.

Specific Bequest – these are clauses giving specific property to a beneficiary.  So, for example, “I leave the real property known as 123 Main Street to my daughter” is a specific bequest.  In most cases, it is distributed first.

Residuary beneficiary – these are beneficiaries of the “residuary” or the “residue.”  This means all of the property in an estate or trust that isn’t already distributed.  So, using my above example, if your will says 123 Main Street to daughter, but you also own stock, another house, a car, bank accounts and items in your home and don’t otherwise address those items in your will, then everything except for the 123 Main Street goes to the beneficiaries you list as a residuary beneficiary.  These are often dealt with by percentages or shares.  So for example, “all of the rest, residue and remainder of my estate to my children, by representation.”  If you have three children, they are splitting the residuary in thirds.

In the world of trusts, you often have trustor, trustee and then beneficiaries which are very similar to the beneficiaries described above.

Trustor – Many states have different names for this, we just happen to use trustor.  This is the person who creates the trust.  Other names for it are grantor, settlor or trustmaker.  I’ve even seen founder and originator in my career.  If the trust is created by will, which is often called a testamentary trust, then the trustor is the testator.

Trustee – this is the person who administers a trust.

There are more terms than this of course, but these are some of the most common estate planning terms. Getting comfortable with the terms will make the estate planning process easier and help you understand the different roles and responsibilities involved.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Jan. 18, 2022) “Learn lingo of estate planning to help ensure best outcome”

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Do You Need Power of Attorney If You Have a Joint Account?

Clients often, sometimes at the suggestion of their bankers, add names onto accounts to make money accessible upon the incapacity or death of a parent.  This often leads them to assume they don’t need a Power of Attorney (POA), and they don’t realize that Powers of Attorney are designed to permit access to accounts upon incapacity of a parent. There are some pros and cons of doing this in either way, as discussed in the article “POAs vs. joint ownership” from NWI.com.

The POA permits the agent to access their parent’s bank accounts, make deposits and write checks.  However, it doesn’t create any ownership interest in the bank accounts. It allows access and signing authority.  This is usually what individuals are thinking of when they create these accounts.

If the person’s parent wants to add them to the account, they become a joint owner of the account. When this happens, the person has the same authority as the parent, accessing the account and making deposits and withdrawals.

However, there are downsides. Once the person is added to the account as a joint owner, their relationship changes. As a POA, they are a fiduciary, which means they have a legally enforceable responsibility to put their parent’s benefits above their own.  As an owner, they can treat the accounts as if they were their own and there’s no requirement to be held to a higher standard of financial care.  You can see the following article for more on this point.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/effect-of-adding-someone-to-your-bank-account/

Because the POA does not create an ownership interest in the account, when the owner dies, the account may pass to the surviving joint owners, Payable on Death (POD) beneficiaries or beneficiaries under the parent’s estate plan.

It also avoids the creation of a gift, which may have estate tax or Medicaid ramifications.

If the account is owned jointly, when one of the joint owners dies, the other person becomes the sole owner.

Another issue to consider is that becoming a joint owner means the account could be vulnerable to creditors for all owners. If the adult child has any debt issues, the parent’s account could be attached by creditors, before or after their passing.  I worked closing on a case with the opposite scenario, a creditor a parent collected money that otherwise would have gone to the children.

Most estate planning attorneys recommend the use of a POA rather than adding an owner to a joint account. If the intent of the owners is to give the child the proceeds of the bank account, they can name the child a POD on the account for when they pass and use a POA, so the child can access the account while they are living.

One last point: while the parent is still living, the child should contact the bank and provide them with a copy of the POA. This, allows the bank to enter the POA into the system and add the child as a signatory on the account. If there are any issues, they are best resolved before while the parent is still living.

Reference: NWI.com (Aug. 15, 2021) “POAs vs. joint ownership”

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What Happens to Your Will if You Get Divorced?

It is especially important to review your estate plan in a divorce situation.
It is especially important to review your estate plan in a divorce situation.

Every time you experience a life changing event, including divorce, it’s time to revisit your Will to make sure there are no unpleasant surprises for you or your family. As reported in the article “Rewriting Your Will After Divorce” from Investopedia, failing to review your current estate plan when contemplating a divorce can lead to results that you never intended.

Texas Law Can Save You

Luckily, in Texas we have several laws that cover you if you forget or don’t get around to writing your ex spouse out of your Will. Texas law presumes that after a divorce you do not want a former spouse to be a beneficiary under your Will or to act as your executor or agent under a power of attorney to make financial or medical decisions for you.

In fact, if you do want your former spouse to be your executor or agent, you need to reappoint them in new estate planning documents you execute after the divorce.

One thing to remember is that if your ex is a parent of your children, you will not be able to eliminate him or her as a guardian of your children if something happens to you while they are minors. The only way the other parent will not be allowed to be guardian of his or her child is if the parent is found unsuitable.

But you should still execute a new designation of guardian for your minor children in case your ex who is the parent is deceased or is found to be unsuitable to be guardian.

So, Where’s the Problem?

What if you pass away before the divorce is final? The law only applies to a divorced spouse, not if you are only separated or waiting for the divorce to be final. That’s why it’s a good idea to change your estate planning documents when you’re contemplating a divorce.

Issues With Some Retirement Plans

Also, Texas law cannot override a very harsh US Supreme Court case holding that state law does not apply to employer related retirement plans, such as 401(k)’s and 403(b)’s. These kinds of retirement benefits are subject to federal law which supersedes state law.

This US Supreme Court case, Egelhoff v Egelhoff, was decided in 2001. Mr. Egelhoff, an employee of Boeing Company, had a pension and life insurance policy that was provided by his employer.

Mr. Egelhoff, died in a car accident two months after his divorce, but before he changed the beneficiaries on his retirement and company life insurance.  Though the company still listed Mr. Egelhoff’s ex-wife as beneficiary, Mr. Egelhoff’s children by a previous marriage claimed that he had every intention of removing their stepmother as beneficiary and naming them, his children, as beneficiaries. That would seem to make sense given the circumstances.

Mr. Egelhoff’s children sued their father’s ex-wife for the retirement benefits and the life insurance, claiming that there was no way their father wanted his ex-wife to have the benefits to the detriment of his children.

The Court said that, under federal law, the company’s plan documents control who the beneficiary is and that the benefits would be distributed to the person who was listed with the company as beneficiary at the time of death, even if the beneficiary had been recently divorced from the employee.

The moral of the story is to make sure that beneficiaries on company related benefits are changed immediately after divorce to avoid the unfair result that happened to the Egelhoff children. State law cannot save you in that situation.

What’s Our Takeaway from This?

Every time there is a major life event (divorce, death of a family member, marriage, increase or decrease in wealth, illness, etc.) it is time to review your estate plan to make sure that it reflects what you want and need now. If you wait too long, things may not work out the way you want them to for your family and yourself.

Reference: Investopedia (September 14, 2021) “Rewriting Your Will After Divorce”

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