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 the 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.  Intestacy sets who your beneficiaries will be since you haven’t chosen them, and generally are next of kin (with some wrinkles). 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.  I frequently encounter families who assume spouse gets everything, regardless of family makeup, and this often leads to conflicts with family.

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 residence.  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 and is useless for land.  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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Estate Planning Mistakes by Famous People

Many estate planning mistakes by famous people illustrate on a grand scale what applies to all of us; the need for an up-to-date, quality estate plan.

The instructions for the disposition and management of one’s estate at death through the use of wills, trusts, and other devices can cover almost about any topic you can think of. While the majority of instructions in estate planning concern finances, wills and trusts frequently guide decisions regarding health care, guardianships, business, education and even which heir gets the entire Barry Manilow record collection.

Born2Invest’s recent article entitled “The biggest estate planning blunders of all time” looks at a few colossal estate planning mistakes by the rich and famous.  Estate planning mistakes by famous people show you what can go wrong in the worst of ways.

Estate planning usually conjures up thoughts of drafting a will by an attorney. Although the cost of drafting an estate plan varies significantly based on location and complexity, it can range from a few hundred dollars to several thousand. Regardless of the cost, hiring an experienced estate planning attorney will save your family time, money and anguish after your death.

With that said, let’s take a look at some estate planning mistakes by famous people who simply didn’t get around to this very important task.

Ted Williams (Baseball Legend). When Ted died in 2002, he had one will that said his body should be cremated, and another that instructed he should be cryogenically frozen. As you can imagine, there was a fight among his children. This resulted in Ted’s decapitation (postmortem). Therefore, the Splendid Splinter, the greatest baseball hitter of all time, had his body and head frozen in Arizona at Alcor Life Extension Foundation.

Sonny Bono (Singer and Congressman). Sonny didn’t create a will. As a result, he passed away intestate. A lawsuit was initiated by ex-wife and singing star, Cher, to collect $1.6 million in unpaid alimony, along with a fraudulent claim by an illegitimate child (disproven by DNA testing), and Sonny’s widow, Mary.

Heath Ledger (Actor). Heath failed to revise his will after the birth of his daughter. At his death in 2003, his entire estate was split between his parents and sisters, but they agreed to give all the money to his daughter.

Philip Seymour Hoffman (Actor). The Oscar-winning actor also never updated his will after the birth of his two daughters. Since he wasn’t married to his then girlfriend, there was an approximate $12 million estate tax that was owed.

Joe Robbie (the owner of the NFL Miami Dolphins). Robbie had a substandard estate plan that contained a pour-over will and revocable inter vivos trust. This was designed to defer estate taxes until after the death of his wife. However, it didn’t work as planned. She demanded her “elective share” as spouse, 30% of the husband’s illiquid estate, which created a $47 million tax bill that could only be settled by selling off his football team. His 11 children also went to court to fight over his estate.

James Brown (Singer). The “Godfather of Soul” wasn’t around to witness the 12-year epic legal battle among several blended families over his estate.

Barry White (Singer). White died in 2003 in the middle of divorce proceedings. Legally speaking, he was still only separated from his wife. As a result, she got it all, instead of his current girlfriend and mother of nine kids.

There are many more famous people who posthumously became members of this dubious club. Their eligibility for membership was poor estate planning that resulted in unintended—and in some cases, tragic—consequences. Although many Americans can’t really identify with these mega-wealthy or public icons, they do have assets and families and friends, and everyone should expect to need an estate plan.  See here for ideas on how to do it properly https://www.galliganmanning.com/a-will-is-the-way-to-have-your-wishes-followed/

The club of estate planning mistakes by famous people shows the rest of us the need for proactive professional planning. Be certain that you work with a qualified estate planning attorney, so that your estate plan doesn’t end up like the ones above.

Reference: Born2Invest (January 27, 2020) “The biggest estate planning blunders of all time”

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Estate Planning Without Children: Issues to Consider

Planning without kids
Estate planning without children is just as important, if not more important, then estate planning for couples who do have kids.

Estate planning without kids is very important and raises unique issues to address.  If you and your spouse don’t have children, the focus of your financial legacy may be quite different from what it would be if you were parents.  In fact, due to changing demographics, families often have less children than before or no children.  However, couples often ignore planning as they think they do not need to plan without kids.

Motley Fool’s article, “5 Estate-Planning Tips for Child-Free Couples,” suggests that you may want to leave some of your money to friends, family members, charitable organizations, or your college. No matter the beneficiaries you choose, these estate planning tips are vital for couples without children.

  1. A will. You need a will because couples without children don’t have natural heirs to inherit their wealth. If you die without a will, your assets also may not go to your spouse. The state intestacy laws determine which of your family members inherit from you, especially if neither of you have wills. The family of the first spouse to die may be disinherited.  All of this can be eliminated by having a will directing your inheritance to beneficiaries of your choosing.
  2. A power of attorney. Who will make financial decisions for you, if you and your spouse become incapacitated? You can select a person to do this with a power of attorney (POA). You can name a person to pay bills, manage your investments and handle property matters, if you’re unable to do so yourself.  Failing to do so may require an expensive guardianship.  You also very much need medical powers of attorney so that someone you know can make medical decisions for you if you and your spouse cannot.
  3. Up-to-date beneficiaries. If you have retirement accounts or life insurance policies, the distribution of the proceeds at your death is made by a beneficiary designation, not by your will. A frequent beneficiary error is not keeping those designations current.
  4. Give money to charity now. You may think about leaving your assets to organizations that have enriched your life. You can set up a trust to be sure that your money goes where you want. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to accomplish this.
  5. Remember the pets. If you have furry children, plan for their care when you’re not around to tend to them yourself. You can also put money into a trust specifically intended for the animal’s care or designate an organization that will provide lifetime care for your pet with money you earmark to that purpose as well as name a caretaker to care of the pet after you are both gone.

Remember that estate planning without children is needed just as much as planning for couples with children, and maybe even more.  Considering these issues will help ensure you are protecting in your own estate plan and your inheritance goes to the beneficiaries you choose.

Reference: Motley Fool (September 9, 2019) “5 Estate-Planning Tips for Child-Free Couples”

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