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Houston Estate Planning and Probate Blog

Monday, January 19, 2015

Role of the Successor Trustee

When creating a trust, it is common practice that the person doing the estate planning will name themselves as trustee and will appoint a successor trustee to handle matters once they pass on.  If you have been named successor trustee for a person that has died, it is important that you hire a wills, trusts and estates attorney to assist you in carrying out your duties. Although the attorney that originally created the estate plan would most likely be more familiar with the situation, you are not legally required to hire that same attorney. You can hire any attorney that you please in order to determine what your obligations are with respect to the trust.

 If the decedent had a will it is common that the successor trustee is also named as the executor.  Although the role of executor is similar to that of trustee, there are technical differences. If there was a will, you should consult with an attorney to determine if a court probate process will be required to administer the estate. If all assets were titled in the trust prior to the person’s death, or passed by beneficiary designation, such as in the case of life insurance and retirement plan assets (such as 401ks, IRAs, etc.), then a court probate may not be needed. However, if there were accounts or real estate in the person’s name alone that were not covered by the trust, a court probate may be necessary.

During the probate process, all of the deceased person’s assets must be collected and accounted for. This includes all bank accounts, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, investment accounts, retirement assets, life insurance, cars, personal belongings and real estate. All of these assets should be valued and listed on one or more inventories. Depending upon the value of the assets, an estate tax return may be needed. You should be aware of any final expenses, the person’s final income tax returns, and any creditors. Although this process is lengthy, once all of the appropriate steps are taken, the assets will be distributed and the estate will come to a close. 

If you have been named a successor trustee or an executor, an experienced estate planning attorney can help you through this process and make sure you carry out your legal duties as required.  Contact us for a consultation today.

 


Role of the Successor Trustee

When creating a trust, it is common practice that the person doing the estate planning will name themselves as trustee and will appoint a successor trustee to handle matters once they pass on.  If you have been named successor trustee for a person that has died, it is important that you hire a wills, trusts and estates attorney to assist you in carrying out your duties. Although the attorney that originally created the estate plan would most likely be more familiar with the situation, you are not legally required to hire that same attorney. You can hire any attorney that you please in order to determine what your obligations are with respect to the trust.

 If the decedent had a will it is common that the successor trustee is also named as the executor.  Although the role of executor is similar to that of trustee, there are technical differences. If there was a will, you should consult with an attorney to determine if a court probate process will be required to administer the estate. If all assets were titled in the trust prior to the person’s death, or passed by beneficiary designation, such as in the case of life insurance and retirement plan assets (such as 401ks, IRAs, etc.), then a court probate may not be needed. However, if there were accounts or real estate in the person’s name alone that were not covered by the trust, a court probate may be necessary.

During the probate process, all of the deceased person’s assets must be collected and accounted for. This includes all bank accounts, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, investment accounts, retirement assets, life insurance, cars, personal belongings and real estate. All of these assets should be valued and listed on one or more inventories. Depending upon the value of the assets, an estate tax return may be needed. You should be aware of any final expenses, the person’s final income tax returns, and any creditors. Although this process is lengthy, once all of the appropriate steps are taken, the assets will be distributed and the estate will come to a close. 

If you have been named a successor trustee or an executor, an experienced estate planning attorney can help you through this process and make sure you carry out your legal duties as required.  Contact us for a consultation today.

Role of the Successor Trustee

When creating a trust, it is common practice that the person doing the estate planning will name themselves as trustee and will appoint a successor trustee to handle matters once they pass on.  If you have been named successor trustee for a person that has died, it is important that you hire a wills, trusts and estates attorney to assist you in carrying out your duties. Although the attorney that originally created the estate plan would most likely be more familiar with the situation, you are not legally required to hire that same attorney. You can hire any attorney that you please in order to determine what your obligations are with respect to the trust.

 If the decedent had a will it is common that the successor trustee is also named as the executor.  Although the role of executor is similar to that of trustee, there are technical differences. If there was a will, you should consult with an attorney to determine if a court probate process will be required to administer the estate. If all assets were titled in the trust prior to the person’s death, or passed by beneficiary designation, such as in the case of life insurance and retirement plan assets (such as 401ks, IRAs, etc.), then a court probate may not be needed. However, if there were accounts or real estate in the person’s name alone that were not covered by the trust, a court probate may be necessary.

During the probate process, all of the deceased person’s assets must be collected and accounted for. This includes all bank accounts, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, investment accounts, retirement assets, life insurance, cars, personal belongings and real estate. All of these assets should be valued and listed on one or more inventories. Depending upon the value of the assets, an estate tax return may be needed. You should be aware of any final expenses, the person’s final income tax returns, and any creditors. Although this process is lengthy, once all of the appropriate steps are taken, the assets will be distributed and the estate will come to a close. 

If you have been named a successor trustee or an executor, an experienced estate planning attorney can help you through this process and make sure you carry out your legal duties as required.  Contact us for a consultation today.


Monday, January 12, 2015

First Party and Third Party Pooled Income Trusts, Explained

Generally, a "pooled trust" holds assets for people that have a disability, and/or elderly individuals. The trust is established and run by a not-for-profit organization, which will establish separate sub-accounts for each individual within their system. However, the money of all of the individuals served is added together (in other words, it is pooled together) for investment and management purposes.

There are typically two types of pooled trusts. The first type is sometimes referred to as a "first party" trust. In this type of trust the disabled person places his or her own assets into the trust. Doing so will cause those assets to be non-countable for government benefit programs, such as Medicaid. The trustee of the trust (the not-for-profit organization) can use that person's money to pay for things that Medicaid will not cover. So, the assets are still there for the benefit of the person but their use is restricted. In this type of "first party" trust, any assets that remain when the person dies must be paid to the state up to the amount that the state has paid out for the person's care under the Medicaid program.

The second type of pooled trust is referred to as a "third party" trust. This means that the money did not come from the disabled person. For example, a parent with a disabled child could leave that child's inheritance to a pooled trust for the benefit of the child. The benefit is that the money would still be there for the child but would not disqualify the child from receiving SSI or Medicaid because the money would not be counted for these government programs. Unlike the first party trust, upon the death of the disabled person (in this example, the child) any remaining assets do not have to go to the state but can pass to any other beneficiaries that the parent wanted to have them.

Whether a pooled trust would be of any benefit to you depends upon many factors. Seek the advice of a qualified estate planning attorney to determine your best course of action.


Monday, January 5, 2015

Top Ten Child Support Myths

Child support disputes can bring out the worst in many parents, conjuring images of greedy ex-spouses and children who are used as pawns in games of parental posturing and revenge. While there may be a certain degree of truth to some of the stereotypes, there are many myths that are prevalent in the context of children, support and divorce.

Myth: Child support payments are based on the needs of the children.
Fact: Support payments are based on the parent’s income and/or ability to earn income and have no basis in the actual costs to raise a child.

Myth: Child support payments must be spent on the child.
Fact: No state requires child support recipients to account for expenditures or prove they were necessary to meet the child’s needs, or even whether they were spent on the children at all. In fact, some states view the purpose of child support as protecting the standard of living of the custodial parent.

Myth: I can move out of state to dodge my child support obligations.
Fact: Each state has its own child support enforcement agency and these agencies all work together. You cannot escape this obligation.

Myth: I can quit my job in order to avoid making child support payments.
Fact: The courts are permitted to “impute” income to a parent who intentionally quits a job, whether or not that parent is currently earning a paycheck. Obligations will continue to accrue and payments must be made.

Myth: I have lost my job and can’t make my child support payments, so I will be sent to jail.
Fact: You can be incarcerated if you have the ability to pay but refuse to do so. If you have lost your income and do not have the ability to pay, you will most likely not be criminally liable for non-payment.

Myth: My ex-spouse uses child support payments for shopping, dining and to support a lavish lifestyle; therefore, my support payment should be reduced.
Fact: So long as the custodial parent pays expenses to feed, clothe and house the minor children, which is the ultimate purpose of child support payments, whatever else she spends money on is generally not scrutinized.

Myth: My living expenses are high and I cannot afford the child support payments; therefore, my support payment should be reduced.
Fact: Generally, expenses must be necessary and extreme in order to be considered as a basis for child support calculations.

Myth: Child support payments are deductible on my income taxes.
Fact: Child support payments are not deductible to the paying parent; nor are they considered “income” to the receiving parent.

Myth: If I have children with a new partner, my child support payments will decrease.
Fact: The birth of a new child will not reduce your obligations to make child support payments to a prior spouse. New children may affect the existing child support order if you get another divorce and must pay child support for the second set of children.

Myth: My ex-spouse claims she can modify the child support order and take my house, bank account or other assets.
Fact: A future child support modification can only address the amount of child support payments going forward. Assets cannot be seized and typically are not considered in modifications.
  


Monday, January 5, 2015

Choosing a Guardian for Minor Children

If you are a parent and you are considering estate planning, one of the most difficult decisions you will have to make is choosing a guardian, or “back-up parent” for your minor children.  It is not easy to think of anyone else, no matter how loving they may be, raising your child. Yet, you can make a tremendous difference in your child’s life by planning ahead. 

The younger your child, the more crucial this choice is, because very young children cannot form or express their own preferences about caregivers. Yet young children are not the only ones who benefit from careful parental attention to guardianship. Children close to 18 years old will be legal adults soon, but, as you well know, they may still need assistance of a parental figure well beyond their 18th birthday.

By naming and talking about your choice of guardian, you can encourage a lifelong bond with a caring family. The nomination of guardians is a straightforward aspect of any family’s estate plan. It can be as basic or detailed as you want. You can simply name the guardian who would act if both you and your spouse were unable to or you can provide detailed guidance about your children and the sort of experiences and family environment you would like for them. Your state court, then, can give strong weight to your expressed wishes and designations.

There are essentially four steps to this process. First, make a list of anyone you know that might be a candidate for guardian of your children.  It is important to think beyond your sisters and brothers and consider cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, child-care providers and business partners. You might also want to consider long-time friends and those you’ve gotten to know at parenting groups as they may share similar philosophies about child-rearing. Second, make a list of factors that are most important to you. Here are some to consider:

  • Maturity
  • Patience
  • Stamina
  • Age
  • Child-rearing philosophy
  • Presence of children in the home already
  • Interest in and relationship with your children
  • Integrity
  • Stability
  • Ability to meet the physical demands of child care
  • Presence of enough “free” time to raise children
  • Religion or spirituality
  • Marital or family status
  • Potential conflicts of interest with your children
  • Willingness to serve
  • Social and moral habits and values
  • Willingness to adopt your children

You might find that all or none of these factors are important to you or that there are others that make more sense in your particular situation.  The third step is to match people with priorities. Use the factors you chose in step two to narrow your list of candidates to a handful.

For many families, it is as easy as it looks. For others, however, these three steps are fraught with conflict. One common source of difficulty is disagreement between spouses. But, consensus is important. Explore the disagreements to see what information about values and people is important to one another and use all of your strongest communications skills to understand each other’s position before you try to find a solution that you can both feel good about. Step four is to discuss your ideas with your chosen guardians and then make it positive. For some parents, getting past this decision quickly is the best way to achieve peace of mind and happiness. For others, choosing a guardian can be the start of an intensive relationship-building process. An attorney who understands where you and your spouse fall on that spectrum can counsel you appropriately. 


Monday, January 5, 2015

Is there any way a disinherited child could receive an inheritance from an estate?

If your estate plan and related documents are properly and carefully drafted, it is highly unlikely that the court will disregard your wishes and award the excluded child an inheritance.  As unlikely as it may be, there are certain situations where this child could end up receiving an inheritance depending upon a variety of factors.

To understand how a disinherited child could benefit, you must understand how assets pass after death.  How a particular asset passes at death depends upon the type of asset and how it is titled. For example, a jointly titled asset with rights of survivorship will pass to the surviving joint owner regardless of what a will or a trust says. So, in the unlikely event that the disinherited child was a joint owner, that child would still inherit the asset because of how it was titled.

Similarly, if you left that disinherited child as a named beneficiary on a life insurance policy or retirement plan asset, such as an IRA or 401k, that child would still receive some of the benefits as the named beneficiary even if your Will stated they were to take nothing. Another way such a "disinherited" child might receive a benefit is if all other named beneficiaries died before you.

So, assume you have three children and you wish to disinherit one of them and you state you want all of your assets to go to the other two, and if they are not alive, then to their descendants.  If those other two children die before you and do not have any descendants, there may be a provision that in such a case your "heirs at law" are to take your entire estate and that would include the child you intended to disinherit. A carefully drafted Will or Trust can avoid that unintended result.

If you wish to disinherit a child, all of these issues can be addressed with proper and careful drafting by a qualified estate planning lawyer. 


Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Is a copy of a will sufficient?

Many people keep their important documents at home where they are easily accessible. It’s not at all uncommon to find people with a filing cabinet or even a shoe box containing passports, account statements, deeds, tax returns, birth certificates and social security cards. Wills are often added to these files once the estate planning process is completed. In choosing to store your important estate planning documents at home, however, you risk having the originals lost or destroyed in the case of fire, flooding or theft.

So what happens if the original version of your will is lost or ruined?

Generally when a person dies, state law determines what must happen in the state probate proceeding. In most cases, the "original" of the will must be submitted to the probate court in the county where the person resided. If the original of the will cannot be located and provided to the court, there likely is a provision in your state's probate code that would permit the submission of a photocopy of that signed will.

In many cases, the attorney who prepared the will maintains a copy of the estate planning documents. Assuming, that the copy your attorney has could be submitted to the probate court, additional steps may need to be taken, and additional pleadings prepared and/or proof presented in order to submit a copy.

Should you lose the original signed will, the best practice would be for you to execute a new will which would make things easier for your family and loved ones upon your death. In that case there would be better assurances that your wishes were followed and carried out. Preparing a new will should not take much time for your attorney. He or she likely still has the word processing file on his or her computer, and could easily modify it for you to execute again. If for some reason this is not done, you may wish to execute a document stating the original was destroyed in a flood or fire but that you did not intend to revoke it. However, it’s important to note that this may not be effective in every instance as many states have very strict requirements in terms of requiring originals and execution formalities.

To keep the originals of your estate planning documents safe, even in the face of disaster, you might consider purchasing a fireproof/waterproof safe for your home or rent a safe deposit box with a local bank where you can still easily access your documents but keep them secure off-site. If you choose to keep them in a safe deposit box, just make sure that your named Executors know where they are located and are authorized signers on the box so they can access the documents when needed.


Tuesday, December 2, 2014

Selecting An Executor Post Mortem

The death of a loved one is a difficult experience no matter the circumstances.  It can be especially difficult when a person dies without a will.  If a person dies without a will and there are assets that need to be distributed, the estate will be subject to the process of heirship and administration instead of typical probate proceedings.

In this case, the decedent’s heirs can select someone to manage the estate, called an administrator instead of executor.  State law will provide who has priority to be appointed as the administrator. Most states’ laws provide that a spouse will have priority and in the event that there is no spouse, the adult children are next in line to serve. However, those who have priority can decline to serve, and the heirs can sign appropriate affidavits or other pleadings to be filed with the court that nominate someone else as the administrator. Once the judge appoints the nominated person they will then have the authority to act and begin estate administration.

In certain circumstances, it may be necessary to change the initially appointed administrator during the administration process. Whether this is advisable depends on many factors. First, the initial administrator will have started the process and will be familiar with what remains to be done. The new administrator will likely be behind in many aspects of the case and may have to review what the prior administrator did. This can cause expenses and delays. Also, it is possible that the attorney representing the initial administrator may not be able to ethically represent the new one, again causing increased expenses and delays. However, if the first administrator is not doing his or her job, the heirs can petition the court to remove the individual and appoint a new one.

If you are currently involved in a situation where an estate needs to be administered, it is recommended that you speak with an estate planning attorney in your state.



Tuesday, November 4, 2014

(Grand)Parenting 2.0

According to the National Census Bureau, grandparent-headed homes are among the fastest growing household types in the United States. Grandparent-headed homes are defined as living arrangements where the primary financial and caregiving responsibilities are held by one or more grandparents rather than a parent. Though the reasons that lead to this type of arrangement vary, many speculate that a difficult job market and economy has led to an increase in the past few years.

At the height of the financial crisis, the Wall Street Journal published an article describing the financial strain placed on grandparent-headed households. For grandparents who have already retired, finding a job at an advanced age can be next to impossible. The unemployment rates for this demographic are disproportionately high as are levels of ‘discouragement,’ or the part of the population is so frustrated with trying to find work that they are driven from the workforce. The degree of financial hardship is exacerbated by the increase in the price of everyday goods and necessities, like food and clothing.

Beyond the financial strain, taking care of a young child can also have a significant impact on a grandparent’s mental and physical well-being. If an infant is placed in the grandparent’s care, he or she may have disrupted sleep due to nightly feedings. Grandparents raising young children are also frequently exposed to diseases and infections common in childhood. Depression and anxiety disorders are not uncommon and for children with developmental delays or behavioral problems, the demands placed on caregivers are that much greater.

In some cases, grandparents may become the head of a household even when parents are present. In situations where a parent has become unemployed or otherwise cannot care for the children, he or she may move the entire family into his or her parents’ home. In addition to grandparent-headed homes, other types of arrangements where the parent is not the primary caregiver are on the rise. These may include instances where an aunt or uncle takes responsibility for a nephew or niece.

Fortunately, many federal and state governments have started to recognize this trend and are putting resources in place to assist non-parent-headed homes. The American Association of Retired Persons has also created a comprehensive guide and resource center for grandparents parenting a child.



Thursday, October 30, 2014

What is a Pooled Income Trust and Do I Need One?

A Pooled Income Trust is a special type of trust that allows individuals of any age (typically over 65) to become financially eligible for public assistance benefits (such as Medicaid home care and Supplemental Security Income), while preserving their monthly income in trust for living expenses and supplemental needs. All income received by the beneficiary must be deposited into the Pooled Income Trust which is set up and managed by a not-for-profit organization.

In order to be eligible to deposit your income into a Pooled Income Trust, you must be disabled as defined by law. For purposes of the Trust, "disabled" typically includes age-related infirmities. The Trust may only be established by a parent, a grandparent, a legal guardian, the individual beneficiary (you), or by a court order.

Typical individuals who use a Pooled Income Trust are: (a) elderly persons living at home who would like to protect their income while accessing Medicaid home care; (2) recipients of public benefit programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid; (3) persons living in an Assisted Living Community under a Medicaid program who would like to protect their income while receiving Medicaid coverage.

Medicaid recipients who deposit their income into a Pooled Income Trust will not be subject to the rules that normally apply to "excess income," meaning that the Trust income will not be considered as available income to be spent down each month. Supplemental payments for the benefit of the Medicaid recipient may include: living expenses, including food and clothing; homeowner expenses including real estate taxes, utilities and insurance, rental expenses, supplemental home care services, geriatric care services, entertainment and travel expenses, medical procedures not provided through government assistance, attorney and guardian fees, and any other expense not provided by government assistance programs. Make sure to check the federal provisions and your state and local laws to determine applicability in any specific situation.

As with all long term care planning tools, it’s imperative that you consult a qualified estate planning attorney who can make sure that you are in compliance with all local and federal laws.


Monday, October 20, 2014

Testamentary vs Inter Vivos Trusts

The world of estate planning can be complex. If you have just started your research or are in the process of setting up your estate plan, you’ve likely encountered discussions of Wills and Trusts. While most people have a very basic understanding of a last Will and Testament, Trusts are often foreign concepts. Two of the most common types of trusts used in estate planning are testamentary trusts and inter vivos trusts.

A testamentary trust refers to a trust that is established after your death from instructions set forth in your Will. Because a Will only has legal effect upon your death, such a trust has no existence until that time. In other words, at your death your Will provides that the trusts be created for your loved ones whether that be a spouse, a child, a grandchild or someone else.

An inter vivos trust, also known as a revocable living trust, is created by you while you are living. It also may provide for ongoing trusts for your loved ones upon your death. One benefit of a revocable trust, versus simply using a Will, is that the revocable trust plan may allow your estate to avoid a court-administered probate process upon your death. However, to take advantage this benefit you must "fund" your revocable living trust with your non-retirement assets while you are still living. To do so, you would need to re-title most assets such as real estate, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, CDs, and other assets into the name of the trust.

Since one size doesn’t fit all in estate planning, you should contact a qualified estate planning attorney who can assess your goals and family situation, and work with you to devise a personalized strategy that helps to protect your loved ones, your wealth and your legacy.


Friday, October 10, 2014

How to Ask Your Partner for a Prenuptial Agreement

Discussing your desire to establish a prenuptial agreement with your future spouse has the potential to be a complete disaster, but approaching the topic with the comfort of your partner in mind can help alleviate much of the stress associated with the process of creating a premarital agreement.

A prenuptial agreement is a legal document drafted and signed before marriage that lays the groundwork for the distribution of assets should the marriage fail. Although these agreements aren't a requirement for engaged couples, many attorneys agree they are an important part of the pre-marriage process, as they provide a binding agreement that each partner must adhere to in the event of a divorce. Many are sensitive to the idea that signing an agreement of this kind means one partner thinks the marriage will fail, but prenuptial contracts are really just meant to serve as a contingency plan.  Think of a premarital agreement like homeowners’ insurance – you purchase it and then hope and plan to never need to use it. 

Below are three ways to make the discussion easier.

Know the basics of a prenuptial agreement.

You likely have an inkling as to how your partner will react to you bringing up the subject of a premarital agreement. Whether you think they will be neutral or get defensive at the very mention of the idea, explain that drafting the agreement as a couple gives you the ability to design it in a way that could financially protect both of you in the event that your marriage fails or one spouse passes before the other. Make sure your partner is aware that their feelings during this process are of the utmost importance to you. It's best to seek the guidance of an experienced family law attorney prior to discussing a prenuptial agreement with your future spouse in order to gather all the information you need to have a thorough discussion on the subject. These small preparations can help the conversation flow more smoothly between you and your partner, hopefully resulting in a relaxed and honest discussion about what you both expect from your marriage.

Don't wait until the last minute to tell your fiancé you want a premarital agreement.

Both of you should be involved in the process of drafting the prenuptial agreement. It shouldn't be one of you presenting the other with a contract at the rehearsal dinner right before the wedding. Not only are last-minute agreements on "shaky ground" legally speaking, but you're more likely to upset your partner if you expect them to read and sign this type of contract without any warning or independent legal advice. Prenups that are signed shortly before the wedding aren't necessarily lawfully invalid, but they are much more likely to be legally challenged than agreements that were signed well before a couple says "I do." In order to avoid inflicting massive pre-wedding jitters on your partner, talk about your desire to have a prenup as soon as possible following your engagement. Working together to draft the agreement provides both of you with a chance to state how you feel "work" will be divided throughout your marriage, which can make you more secure with your decision to marry. The prenuptial agreement takes the guesswork out of a divorce, as it determines who owns what property and how things will be divided.

Consider working with a mediator to draft your premarital agreement.

Working with a mediator allows you, the couple, to draft a contract that combines both of your best interests. Before meeting with a mediator, couples should come up with some issues they would like to address in their prenuptial agreement. Discussing what key points you want the agreement to include beforehand ensures that you are on the same page as a couple, and it will make the meeting with the mediator more productive. This method is a smart way to guarantee each spouse equal bargaining power. As a matter of protection and precaution, it is always a good idea for each spouse to hire their own independent attorney to advise them and to draft and/or review the agreement.

 


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