What If You Don’t have a Will?

Studies suggest that a majority of adults do not have an estate plan of any kind, even a will.  The issue of what happens when a person doesn’t have a will comes up frequently in our practice.  The answer to the question, which is what I’ll discuss here, provide lots of reasons to have one.  You can see a recent article entitled “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will” from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette for a bit more background, although state processes vary.

First, a will is a written document stating wishes and directions for dealing with the property you own after your death, also known as your “estate.” When someone dies without a will, property is distributed according to their state’s intestacy laws. If your next of kin is someone you loathe, or even just dislike, they may become an heir, whether you or the rest of your family likes it or not. If you are part of an unmarried couple, your partner has no legal rights, unless you’ve created a will and an estate plan to provide for them.

Intestacy rules vary greatly from state to state, especially in a community property state like Texas.  In general, intestacy laws distribute property to a surviving spouse or certain descendants. A very common exception, which many people don’t know and are surprised to learn, is that if you have children from outside of the current marriage, not everything goes to that spouse.

While practicing in Pennsylvania I actually had a situation in which one spouse died young without children and with living parents.  Not everything goes to the spouse in that situation, but instead, partially to spouse and the rest would have been divided between the surviving spouse and parents.  The surviving spouse was not pleased to learn that.

This may also lead to a difficult result for the beneficiary.  If they have disabilities and are using government benefits, receiving the inheritance may cause them to lose those benefits, which may be critical for that person’s care.  Wills and other estate planning documents can prevent that outcome.

If you don’t have a will, at least in Texas, it may be necessary to have a proceeding to determine who the heirs even are.  This is called an heirship proceeding and can be quite expensive as the court appoints another attorney (who you pay) to look for unknown heirs.  This whole process also adds time and uncertainty to a process which is already difficult due to the loss of a loved one.

Additionally, a will designates a person to handle the estate, often called an executor, and typically names successors should the first named person be unable or unwilling to serve.  In the absence of these directions, the heirs will have to figure it out among themselves, hopefully amicably and without litigation.

Many states also have limited proceedings that may or may not be helpful when a person doesn’t have a will.  For example, Texas has affidavits of heirship which can address retitling of land interests, such as the house.  However, that won’t help for bank accounts.  Pennsylvania actually has a rule permitting small bank accounts to be distributed to next of kin after the funeral is paid.  That too may help, unless the account is $10,000.  Many states have small estate proceedings that can work, but in practice are often cumbersome.

A much better solution: speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Start by determining your goals and speaking with family members. You may be surprised to learn an adult child doesn’t need or want what you want to leave them. If you have a vacation home you want to leave to the next generation, ask to see if they want it. It may reveal new information about your family and change how you distribute your estate. A grandchild who has already picked out a Ferrari, for instance, might make you consider setting up a trust with distributions over time, so they can’t blow their inheritance in one purchase.

Determining who will be your executor is another important decision for your will. They are a fiduciary, with a legal obligation to put the estate’s interest above their own. They need to be able to manage money, make sound decisions and equally important, stick to your wishes, even when your surviving loved ones have other opinions about “what you would have wanted.”  See this article for further ideas:  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-are-the-duties-of-an-executor/  

If there is no one suitable or willing, your estate planning attorney will have some suggestions. Depending on the size of the estate, a bank or trust company may be able to serve as executor.

The will is just the first step. An estate plan includes planning for incapacity. With a Will, a Power of Attorney, Medical Powers of Attorney and other documents appropriate for your state, you and your loved ones will be better positioned to address the inevitable events of life.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 24, 2022) “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will”

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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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What Is “Income in Respect of Decedent?”

Estate administrators file a decedent’s taxes, and often that means income in respect of a decedent, which is post-death income.

While in a consultation recently, an executor brought up a discussion with a prior attorney.  The executor was told that the estate was “too small” to worry about taxes.  Although that was true for one tax, i.e. the Federal estate tax, there are actually multiple death taxes for executors to consider in an estate administration, most of which apply in more cases than the estate tax and are often overlooked by executors.

For example, every executor, trustee or administrator should consider “income in respect of a decedent” or “IRD”.  This kind of income has its own tax rules and they may be complex, says Yahoo! Finance in a recent article simply titled “Income in Respect of a Decedent (IRD).”

Incidentally, if you were looking for information on the estate tax, here are the basics.  https://www.galliganmanning.com/what-exactly-is-the-estate-tax/

Income in respect of a decedent is any income received after a person has died, but not included in their final tax return. When the executor begins working on a decedent’s personal finances, things could become challenging, especially if the person owned a business, had many bank and investment accounts, or if they were unorganized.

What kinds of funds are considered IRDs?

  • Uncollected salary, wages, bonuses, commissions and vacation or sick pay.
  • Stock options exercised
  • Taxable distributions from retirement accounts
  • Distributions from deferred compensation
  • Bank account interest (very common one)
  • Dividends and capital gains from investments
  • Accounts receivable paid to a small business owned by the decedent (cash basis only)

As a side note, this should serve as a reminder of how important it is to create and update a detailed list of financial accounts, investments and income streams for executors to review in order to prevent possible losses and to correctly identify sources of income.

How is IRD taxed? IRD is income that would have been included in the decedent’s tax returns, if they were still living but wasn’t included in the final tax return. Where the IRD is reported depends upon who receives the income. If it is paid to the estate, it needs to be included on the fiduciary return. However, if IRD is paid directly to a beneficiary, then the beneficiary needs to include it in their own tax return.

If estate taxes are paid on the IRD, tax law does allow for an income tax deduction for estate taxes paid on the income. If the executor or beneficiaries missed the IRD, an estate planning attorney will be able to help amend tax returns to claim it.

Retirement accounts are also impacted by IRD. Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) must be taken from IRA, 401(k) and similar accounts as owners age. The RMDs for the year a person passes are also included in their estate. The combination of estate taxes and income taxes on taxable retirement accounts can reduce the size of the estate, and therefore, inheritances. Tax law allows for the deduction of estate taxes related to amounts reported as IRD to reduce the impact of this “double taxation.”

The key here is to work diligently with your tax preparer in an estate or trust administration to identify, report and pay for IRD.  Happily, estates have several costs which might be deductible to the IRD paid by the estate, such as funeral or administrative costs, meaning it is very possible no tax will be due even where there is substantial IRD.

In all events, if you are administering an estate you want to ensure IRD is addressed, and paid for if necessary.  One of the most important aspects of estate administration is providing a sense of finality, knowing that the legal and financial steps are finished so you can focus on your family in a difficult time.  Addressing the IRD ensures you don’t receive a letter from the IRS years later about unreported income.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Oct. 6, 2021) “Income in Respect of a Decedent (IRD)”

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