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?”

Continue Reading
How Do Trusts Work in Your Estate Plan?
Trusts offer many benefits, so speak with your attorney on how to fit them in your estate plan.

How Do Trusts Work in Your Estate Plan?

Trusts offer many benefits including probate avoidance, tax and disability planning and protecting beneficiaries.
Trusts offer many benefits including probate avoidance, tax and disability planning and protecting beneficiaries.

Trusts can be useful tools for passing on assets, allowing them to be held by a responsible trustee for the benefit of the beneficiaries. However, determining which type of trust is best for each family’s situation and setting them up so they work with an estate plan can be complex. You’ll do better with the help of an estate planning attorney, says The Street in the article “How to Set Up a Trust Fund: What You Need to Know.”

There are lots of reasons to use trusts.  Many are used to avoid the time and difficulty involved with the probate process.  Others are used for estate tax planning and Medicaid planning.  Still others are used to pass financial assets to beneficiaries who might not be able to use them well or by themselves, such as with a disabled beneficiary, a beneficiary who wastes money or has creditors, or perhaps is struggling with addiction.  Many parents leave assets to their children in trusts so that the assets are excluded from their child’s potential divorce.  Trusts can even be used for your pets!  We have many blog posts on different reasons to use a trust, and here are a few:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/special-estate-planning-considerations-for-a-blended-family/ (blended families)  https://www.galliganmanning.com/do-you-need-a-pet-trust-in-your-estate-plan/ (pets) https://www.galliganmanning.com/some-common-estate-planning-mistakes-best-avoided/.    

If you are considering using a trust as part of your estate planning, you have to consider whether it will be revocable or irrevocable.  I’ll briefly describe both varieties.

Revocable Trusts are trusts that can be changed. They are often called Living Trusts.  This form of trust is typically used to avoid probate because assets properly owned or directed to the trust will not be probate assets.  Because of its flexibility, you can change beneficiaries, terminate it, or leave it as is. You have options, and it can change with you as your needs, wishes and plan change over time.  Once you die, the revocable trust becomes irrevocable and distributions and assets shift to the beneficiaries in the manner you chose. 

A revocable trust avoids probate for the assets it directs, but will be counted as part of your “estate” for estate tax purposes. They are includable in your estate, because you maintain control over them during your lifetime.  Under current law, very few people have an estate large enough to pay federal estate taxes, so having assets as part of your “estate” for estate tax purposes is actually a good thing.

Revocable Trusts are also used to help manage assets as you age, help you maintain control of assets if you don’t believe the trustees are ready to manage the funds, or to appoint other trustees in case you can no longer manage the assets yourself.

Irrevocable Trusts are called irrevocable because in theory you cannot change or revoke them.  However, most states have laws which permit revocation or change of irrevocable trusts in certain circumstances.  But, you should be careful about irrevocable trusts if you expect a need to change it in the future.

If estate taxes are a concern, it’s likely you’ll consider this type of trust. The assets are given to the trust, thus removing them from your taxable estate.  Irrevocable trusts of this type are less common than revocable trusts, but still can be a powerful weapon in your estate planning arsenal. 

These are just two of many different types of trusts. There are trusts set up for distributions to pay college expenses, providing for disabled individuals to preserve government benefits, charitable funds for philanthropic purposes, planning for pets after you are gone, leaving assets to a second spouse or children in a blended family and more.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to identify which types are most appropriate for your situation.  Here’s how to prepare for your meeting with an estate planning attorney when considering a trust:

Why do you want the Trust? Consider your goal.  Is it to avoid probate?  Is it for tax planning?  Is it because you know a beneficiary shouldn’t receive the assets but you still want to provide for them?

List beneficiaries. Include primary beneficiaries and have a plan for what happens when the primary beneficiary is deceased.

Map out the specifics. Who do you want to receive the assets? How much do you want to leave them? Why shouldn’t receive the assets immediately?  You should be as detailed as possible.

Choose a trustee. You’ll need to name someone who will respect your wishes, who understands your financial situation and who will be able to stand up to any beneficiaries who might not like how you’ve structured your plan. It can be a professional trustee as well.

Don’t forget to fund the it! This last step is very important. The trust does no good if it is not properly funded. You should speak with your estate planning attorney about how to fund the trust based upon the plan you selected.

Creating a trust can be a complex task. However, with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney, this strategy can yield a lifetime of benefits for you and your loved ones.

Reference: The Street (July 22, 2019) “How to Set Up a Trust Fund: What You Need to Know”

Continue Reading

Probate Lawyers Say Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning

Probate lawyers say it's important to talk to your parents about estate planning.
Probate lawyers say it’s important to talk to your parents about estate planning.

Probate lawyers often meet with adult children who are trying to settle their parents’ estates. Many times these children are surprised by their parents’ financial situation and the lack of estate planning that their parents have done. When little or no estate planning has been done, it can be expensive and time consuming to deal with all the unresolved issues that  result. That’s why probate lawyers strongly encourage adult children to talk to their aging parents about their finances, their feelings about health care decisions, and whether they have an estate plan in place. But this is easier said than done. How do you start a conversation that includes a discussion of a family member’s mortality?

Sometimes the way to ease into a conversation with aging parents about money and their estate plan, is to discuss your own. If you want to know about their will or estate plan, start by explaining your own estate plan, how you’ve decided to set up your estate and then ask what they’ve done for themselves.

The conversation may feel awkward the first time you start it, says the Daily Local News in the article “Ask your folks about their financial plans,” but you need to get to where everyone is comfortable having the conversation. Your parents’ plans might impact yours, and visa versa. So, it’s good to talk “early and often” not only about your parents’ estate plan, but how they are planning for the costs of retirement, including health care.

It’s important for aging parents to understand that, if something happens to them, their children are the most likely ones to step in and take charge. Your parents need to understand that the more you know in advance, the better equipped you’ll be to make sure that their wishes are followed.

A good opening is to talk about your plans to save for retirement. Ask your parents what they did, or do, about 401(k) contributions. This will give you insight into how well-prepared and knowledgeable they are about retirement savings. If you’re house hunting, that’s an excellent opportunity to get them talking about their furture plans for living arrangements. Do you need to buy a home with a possible “in-law” suite in mind? It’s not a bad question to ask. It shows that you are thinking about their future needs.

Probate lawyers have seen how untangling an estate when there’s no will and no advance planning has been done can tear a family apart. That’s the last thing you or your parents want. Talking openly with them about money, trusts, wills, life insurance and advance medical directives, will give you an idea of what they have or have not done to plan for the future. It may spur your parents on to move forward with their estate plan, if they have been procrastinating.

Even if you learn that they haven’t done any planning and don’t have a will, that is better than not knowing until it’s too late. If you learn that this is the case, you can start educating them about what will happen if they don’t meet with an estate planning attorney. You can offer to take them to meet your estate planning attorney or to give them a few names so that they can decide who they are most comfortable with. This could help them avoid some common estate planning mistakes.

Setting up your own estate plan is another opportunity to ask your parents what they did and what their thoughts are about your  estate plan. Their family may have never done any estate planning, and they might have more than a few family horror stories to share. In that case, you can help them change the family’s dynamic by encouraging them to take a different path.

Reference: Barchart (April 16, 2019) “Ask your folks about their financial plans”

Suggested Key Terms: 

Continue Reading