Unusual Things Happen Every Day…
August 25, 2011
In a recent article in the Huffington Post financial columnist Don McNay tells the frustrating, sad, and “unusual” story of how the greater part of his mother’s and his sister’s estates ended up in the hands of people they would never have chosen to receive it… all because neither of them had a will or estate plan when they died.
When McNay’s mother died unexpectedly in April 2006 neither he nor his sister really worried about her lack of a will. After all, “her only asset was our childhood home, and my sister and I were her only children. We would split the ownership of the house equally.” McNay paid for the funeral, and “advanced the estate money to pay delinquent property taxes, some outstanding bills, and the mortgage on Mom’s house,” and he and his sister worked out an informal deal to even things up financially once the estate was settled and the house was mortgaged.
Tragically, his sister fell down some steps and died in October 2006, also without a will, and this is when the real trouble began. Although his sister had left her husband years before, they had never formally divorced; which meant that McNay’s sister’s share of their mother’s estate now belonged to her ex-husband, her adult son, and her minor daughter—and none of it would be used to reimburse McNay for what he had lent the estate.
McNay writes honestly and persuasively about his experience, and we recommend reading the entire article, but the long and short of it is this: After several rounds in court, after the involvement of several attorneys, and after being forced to sell the family home for less than what it was worth, “the person who got the most money from my mother’s estate was my former brother-in-law.”
Unfortunately, McNay’s story is all too common. Situations such as this one could be easily (and inexpensively) avoided simply by consulting an attorney and drawing up a simple will; and yet more than 60 percent of Americans don’t have wills. Whether it’s because they’re uncomfortable thinking about their own death, think they’re too young to worry about it, or simply feel they don’t have enough assets to worry about it, more than half of Americans today refuse to take the one simple step that can protect their families from heartache and expense.
We suspect that most people believe (erroneously) that this kind of thing just won’t happen to them. After all, as McNay writes in his article, “My family’s series of events was unusual,” but then again, “unusual things happen every day.”
Understanding Your Last Will and Testament
April 19, 2011
Although recent news surrounding the estate tax—both its repeal and its reinstatement—has died down, many people are still talking about their estate plans. Most people recognize that now is the time to create their estate plan, or to review and update their existing plan if they have one. This means that many people are asking questions about the primary document in just about any estate plan: the Last Will and Testament.
What is a Will?
A will is, for many people, the cornerstone of their estate plan. In fact, if you only create one estate planning document (which we don’t recommend) that document is probably a will. A will is the document which details your wishes about how and to whom your property will be distributed upon your death. A will can list your property in great detail, or it can make a statement about “all my legal property” in general. Your will names an executor, the person who will carry out your wishes as detailed in the document. And if you have minor children your will can name guardians, the adults you choose to care for your children in your absence.
What is required to make a Will?
At its heart a will is very simple. Requirements will differ depending on your state of residence, but there are some basic requirements that will be the same across the board:
- A will must be created by a person who is of legal age, who is proven to be of sound mind and judgment, and who is under no duress.
- A will should revoke all previous wills and codicils.
- A will should be signed and dated.
- A will generally needs the signatures of disinterested witnesses, and in some states must also be notarized.
It is important to note that there is no requirement that a will must be created by or with an attorney; however, homemade wills have been frequently found to be invalid, or have been contested by disgruntled heirs or potential heirs, so having the help and advice of an attorney is highly recommended.
What happens if you don’t have a Will?
If you don’t have a will your property will be distributed according to the intestacy laws of your state. Property will generally be inherited by a spouse, or by a spouse and children. If there are no spouse or children, then property will generally go to living parents or siblings, then to nieces, nephews, or other living relatives who can be found. The state will choose an executor for your estate, as well as guardians for any minor children you have. Unfortunately, the people chosen by the state to serve in these roles may not be the people you would have chosen. Additionally, the probate process is likely to be even longer than usual as the extent of your estate, as well as any outside claims to it, are investigated.
Luckily, there is very little reason for anyone to die without a will. Although wills can be designed to be as comprehensive and intricate as you like, they are at heart very simple documents which can provide peace of mind for you and your family. Contact our office—or another attorney you trust—to help guide you through the process of creating your own last will and testament.
Jane Austen’s Will: It Used to Be So Easy
August 9, 2010
Many clients are shocked when they see the sheer volume of paper in a truly well-done estate plan. A trust by itself can be hundreds of pages, not to mention the other 6 to 16 documents you may or may not have—depending on your family situation. You may find that the “simple” estate plan you thought you were getting has turned into something of a size that would rival War and Peace!
It didn’t always used to be this way. The last will and testament of the great Jane Austen, for example, was only one paragraph long:
I Jane Austen of the Parish of Chawton do by this my last will I testament give and bequeath to my dearest sister Cassandra Elizabeth everything of which I may die possessed, or which may be hereafter due to me, subject to the payment of my Funeral expences, & to a Legacy of £50. to my Brother Henry, & £50 to Mde de Bigeon – which I request may be paid as soon as convenient. And I appoint my said dear sister the executrix of this my last will & testament.
April 27 1817
Although this simplicity may have worked in 1817 England, it isn’t practical in the here and now. Things just aren’t that simple anymore. First of all, although Austen appoints her sister Cassandra as the executrix of her will, the will itself neglects to specify what powers are included in that appointment, leaving Cassandra effectively unable to carry out Austen’s wishes. Secondly, the will neglects to make alternative provisions—what if Cassandra had unexpectedly died before Jane? Also notably lacking (from our contemporary perspective) are any provisions for estate taxes. And finally, discerning readers may notice that the will does not include the signatures of any witnesses, something which would have been required if her will had been type-written. Likely, it was only because her will was written entirely in her own hand, and her hand-writing was later authenticated by witnesses who authenticated her hand-writing, was the will upheld as valid. In California, a type-written will must always be signed by at least two witnesses; the only exception to this requirement is a “holographic” will, which is a will that is completely handwritten by the testator.
We all may long for simpler times, especially when it comes to something most people think will only benefit their heirs and not themselves; but many of the rules and regulations that are dismissively thought of as “hoops to jump through” are there for your best interest. They exist to protect your heirs and your legacy from fraud, misuse, greed and neglect. Far from being a chore, creating a thoughtful and legally valid will these days is actually an act of love… One might even say it’s a matter of sense and sensibility.
The Comfort That Comes With Planning Ahead
July 28, 2010
Everybody thinks it won’t happen to them. Or rather, everybody knows it’s going to happen to them eventually, but nobody thinks it’s going to happen tomorrow, or next week, or even next year. The “it” of which I speak is, of course, death. It is this perceived immortality that allows so many people to put off their estate planning until it is too late.
But today’s blog post is not a cautionary tale about a family who put off their planning and regretted it, today’s post is about the peace and relief that forethought and planning brings not just to your family, but to you as the person making the plan.
In this article in Market Watch Chuck Jaffe tells the moving story of his brother Rob, who insisted 2 years ago on creating an estate plan even though he and his wife were both healthy. As Jaffe puts it, “While not pleasant subject matter, it was not morbid… you’d rather be drinking lemonade on the veranda, but it wasn’t a sharp stick in the eye.” However, when Rob became unexpectedly ill in May of this year the estate plan turned out to be a comfort to Rob and his family—such a comfort, according to Jaffe, that Rob “made me [Chuck] promise that I would write about him… when his time was up, because his story would help others.”
“People need to understand… how big a blessing it is to know — when their time comes — that they have everything in order, that they don’t need to stress or worry about how things they worked their whole life for are going to turn out. … I would not want to waste a minute of my life now having to do estate planning or worrying that I live long enough to get documents filed or whatever garbage comes with it… Focusing on death and dying while you are living, that’s easy; having to focus on death when you are dying, that would be unimaginable.”
In our business we frequently see how much easier it is for people to create a plan when they’re healthy, as opposed to the stress that comes with creating a plan when they are sick. Thank you Mr. Jaffe for sharing your brother’s moving story. We hope that your (and your brother’s) words will help motivate others to take comfort in planning ahead.
It’s a Dog’s Life
June 25, 2010
There seems to be some confusion nowadays about whether “a dog’s life” refers to a life of ease or toil, but for these wealthy canine heirs life is definitely the former! Whether it’s a wealthy eccentric leaving millions to a dear canine companion or whether it’s a lover of animals leaving a portion of their estate to charity, more and more dogs (and other animals) are being included in wills and trusts.
Naming your pet in your will or trust may seem odd, but it’s perfectly legitimate. Unfortunately, disinherited family members may not always agree. When Leona Helmsley passed away in 2007 she left $12 million to her dog, Trouble, but that amount was reduced by Judge Renee Roth of the Manhattan Surrogate Court to a mere $2 million. The current canine court battle is over the will of Miami heiress Gail Posner, which leaves $3 million to her dog Conchita, as well as $26 million split between seven of her bodyguards, housekeepers and other personal aides.
Naming your pet in your will may be perfectly legitimate, but the truth is that there is nothing to stop disgruntled family members from contesting your wishes. If you choose to do something “unusual” in your will or trust, or if you know of family members who are likely to make trouble, it may be necessary to take extra precautions to ensure your wishes are followed. For example, California permits the creation of a Pet Trust, either as part of your “Living” Trust or as a stand-alone document. Inform your estate planning attorney of the potential conflict and discuss what steps can be taken to prevent it. In some cases “no contest clauses” can be added to a will or trust to discourage court battles. In other cases a simple meeting of all family members with your attorney to explain your wishes and reasoning will do the trick. Talk to your attorney to find out what can be done to keep the peace in your family—canine or human.
Do You Need A Will Or A Trust?
March 14, 2010
When it comes to estate planning there are two major vehicles for the distribution of property: A will and a trust. Both are very useful tools and can accomplish specific goals—but how do you know which one is best for your family? Which document you will need depends on a number of factors, some of which may seem completely irrelevant at first: the size of your estate, your goals for that estate, the age of your children, your marital status, your retirement account, and many, many more. But the first step to understanding which tool may be right for you is to understand what each document does.
A Will: A will is a formal declaration of your wishes. It is a document you create to declare the extent of your privately held property (it does not cover jointly owned property) and what your wishes are for the distribution of that property. You name an executor to carry out your wishes, and you can even include a nomination of guardian for young children in your will. A will does not go into effect until after you die; before then it is simply a piece of paper containing your private wishes. However, once you have passed away your will no longer remains private, it now becomes a matter of public record, available to anybody who would like to view it, and overseen by the court in a sometimes lengthy and expensive process called probate.
A Trust: A trust is a far more extensive tool than a will. In fact, there are many different kinds of trusts, each of which may be used for specific situations. Most trusts created for estate planning purposes are revocable living trusts (or RLTs.) An RLT is a document created not simply to distribute your property, but to own your property on your behalf, to be invested and spent for your benefit or the benefit of your named beneficiaries. As such, a trust takes effect as soon as you sign it and your property is protected by and subjected to the trust parameters as soon as you place them in the name of your trust. There is a lot of flexibility available with a trust, and yours can be created to fit your unique situation. Most RLTs name the trust creators as the initial trustees, nominating individuals or banks to take over as trustee when the creator becomes incapacitated or passes away. The benefit of a trust is that when the creator passes away, property is not merely distributed and that’s the end of it; the creator can instruct the trustee to distribute the money slowly and in any number of ways, even to the extent of creating new trusts for each beneficiary. Trusts can last for generations, as evidenced by the enduring Kennedy trusts.
Wills and trusts are necessary tools in estate planning, each one working in unique situations. Your attorney will be able to tell you which one is best for your family.
The Most Important Plan You’ll Make
March 2, 2010
Whether or not we do it regularly, all of us know how to plan ahead: We plan for travel and vacation, we plan weddings, and we plan for natural disasters, for retirement, or what to make for dinner tomorrow night. Why is it, then, that so few of us will create a plan to help our families and loved ones when we die, or –perhaps more importantly — when we become disabled or need care?
Part of the reason may certainly be fear and discomfort. Nobody likes to think about their own death, let alone talk about it with others; but neglecting to have this conversation now, while you are still alive and able to do so, means that you are leaving the conversation for your loved ones to have later, when they are hurt and grieving or burdened with care responsibilities. It also means that you are unfairly asking them to guess at what your wishes may have been, and make difficult decisions that should have been yours to make.
This article by Michael O’Mara lists 10 things to for your family before you die. 10 things may seem like a tall order, especially when the subject is “the great hereafter”; but it seems a whole lot easier when you consider that 7 of the things listed are generally addressed as part of your estate planning with our firm—and we can help you with the other 3 things if you so desire. We would actually add to that list a # 11 that is equally important: plan for the possibility of needing long term care. This could be by purchasing appropriate long term care insurance (if you can qualify and it is affordable) or by creating powers in your estate planning documents to enable you to qualify for a public benefits subsidy to both help defray those costs and preserve your assets for your family. Our firm is especially qualified to help with #11.
You wouldn’t leave it for your children to pack your suitcase after you’ve left on vacation—don’t leave it for them to make your difficult decisions after you’ve passed away or after you have become incapacitated. Take charge today.
The Question of Competence
February 15, 2010
One of the things estate planning attorneys have to deal with in their line of work (most often with elderly clients) is the question of whether or not a client is competent to sign their legal documents. Every principal (or person executing the documents) must be competent, and most attorneys—most people—can make this assessment based on observation, experience and instinct during the course of interaction; but every once in a while a situation arises that is not so clear, or a family member will express concern about the principal’s ability to understand and sign legal documents.
How can you tell if a person is competent? In her book Senior Moments author Jacqueline D. Byrd quotes law professor Peter Margulies’ six factors to determine capacity:
- Ability to articulate reasoning behind a decision
- Variability of the client’s state of mind
- Appreciation of the consequences of a decision
- Irreversibility of a decision
- Substantive fairness of a transaction
- Consistency with lifetime commitments
Byrd goes on to say that for the purposes of determining whether or not a person is competent to sign a will or trust, however, the requirements may be slightly different; more focused on whether or not the principal has a clear knowledge of his or her assets, has a full knowledge of the persons to whom the estate is being left, and is able to reasonably formulate and express a plan for the disposition of the estate.
The unfortunate truth about elderly illness is that competency in a person afflicted with the beginnings of Alzheimer’s or Dementia can often change from day to day or even hour to hour. If there will be any question at all about the competency of the principal the safest thing to do is to have mental examination performed by a doctor, and even perhaps include a video of the will signing. While the video is NOT a legal substitute for the Will or Trust, it can show mental competence at the time of signing if it is properly handled. Of course the very best way to ensure mental competence is to create your estate plan early, before age or dementia becomes a factor.