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Houston Estate Planning and Probate Blog

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.

 


Tuesday, September 30, 2014

When Will I Receive My Inheritance?

If you’ve been named a beneficiary in a loved one’s estate plan, you’ve likely wondered how long it will take to receive your share of the inheritance after his or her passing.  Unfortunately, there’s no hard or and fast rule that allows an estate planning attorney to answer this question. The length of time it takes to distribute assets in an estate can vary widely depending upon the particular situation.

Some of the factors that will be involved in determining how long it takes to fully administer an estate include whether the estate must be probated with the court, whether assets are difficult to value, whether the decedent had an ownership interest in real estate located in a state other than the state they resided in, whether your state has a state estate (or inheritance) tax, whether the estate must file a federal estate tax return, whether there are a number of creditors that must be dealt with, and of course, whether there are any disputes about the will or trust and if there may be disagreements among the beneficiaries about how things are being handled by the executor or trustee.

Before the distribution of assets to beneficiaries, the executor and trustee must also make certain to identify any creditors because they have an obligation to pay any legally enforceable debts of the decedent with those assets. If there must be a court filed probate action there may be certain waiting periods, or creditor periods, prescribed by state law that may delay things as well and which are out of the control of the executor of the estate.

In some cases, the executor or trustee may make a partial distribution to the beneficiaries during the pending administration but still hold back sufficient assets to cover any income or estate taxes and other administrative fees. That way the beneficiaries can get some benefit but the executor or trustee is assured there are assets still in his or her control to pay those final taxes and expenses. Then, once those are fully paid, a final distribution can be made. It is not unusual for the entire process to take 9 months to 18 months (sometime more) to fully complete.

If you’ve been named a beneficiary and are dealing with a trustee or executor who is not properly handling the estate and you have yet to receive your inheritance, you should contact a qualified estate planning attorney for knowledgeable legal counsel. 


Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Your Wishes in Your Words

During the estate planning process, your attorney will draft a number of legal documents such as a will, trust and power of attorney to help you accomplish your long-term goals. While these legal documents are required for effective planning, they may not sufficiently convey your thoughts and wishes to your loved ones in your own words. A letter of instruction is a great compliment to your “formal” estate plan, allowing you to outline your wishes with your own voice. 

This letter of instruction is typically written by you, not your attorney. Some attorneys may, however, provide you with forms or other documents that can be helpful in composing your letter of instruction. Whether your call this a "letter of instruction" or something else, such a document is a non-binding document that will be helpful to your family or other loved ones.

There is no set format as to what to include in this document, though there are a number of common themes.

First, you may wish to explain, in your own words, the reasoning for your personal preferences for medical care especially near the end of life. For example, you might explain why you prefer to pass on at home, if that is possible. Although this could be included in a medical power of attorney, learning about these wishes in a personalized letter as opposed to a sterile legal document may give your loved ones greater peace of mind that they are doing the right thing when they are charged with making decisions on your behalf. You might also detail your preferences regarding a funeral, burial or cremation. These letters often include a list of friends to contact upon your death and may even have an outline of your own obituary.

You may also want to make note of the following in your letter to your loved ones:

  • an updated list of your financial accounts with account numbers;
  • a list of online accounts with passwords;
  • a list of important legal documents and where to find them;
  • a list of your life insurance and where the actual policies are located;
  • where you have any safe deposit boxes and the location of any keys;
  • where all car titles are located; the
  • names of your CPA, attorney, banker, insurance advisor and financial advisor;
  • your birth certificate, marriage license and military discharge papers;
  • your social security number and card;
  • any divorce papers; copies of real estate deeds and mortgages;
  • names, addresses, and phone numbers of all children, grandchildren, or other named beneficiaries.

In drafting your letter, you simply need to think about what information might be important to those that will be in charge of your affairs upon your death. This document should be consistent with your legal documents and updated from time to time.

 


Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Family Businesses: Simple Steps to Avoid Common Pitfalls

If you have a family business or are thinking about starting one, kudos to you! There are few better ways to create tradition, meaning and bonds within a family, and a family business can be a gratifying way by which to build wealth.

Family enterprises, however, can bring conflict, legal challenges and financial distress when simple preventative steps are not taken. An experienced attorney can assist you with the following issues commonly faced by family businesses:

  • The absence of a succession plan. If the leader of a business dies, sells or becomes incapacitated, the business he or she leaves behind will appoint a leader, somehow, by necessity. The succession process at that point, however, will likely be complicated, and the result may not be optimal for the business or your family. An attorney can assist in identifying all of your options, and help you select one that works best for you and your business. For instance, if the business belongs exclusively to you, you can simply leave it to the person you feel should own and run it. If the business is professional in nature, such as a medical or legal practice, you can identify an outside buyer/successor and prepare him or her using a process agreeable to both of you. If the business belongs to two or more family members or other individuals, a contractual succession plan can be devised, lessening stress both now and at the time the succession occurs.

  • The lack of employment agreements. It’s rare that families who start businesses together are initially comfortable discussing the particulars of vacation and sick days, wages, raises and absenteeism. Yet these issues affect every business and will affect yours. The time for all parties to discuss expectations and rules is now, before issues arise, not later, when issues have already led to resentment and confusion.

  • The failure to acquire a business license. Often, small business start-ups skip the step of acquiring a business license that may be required in a particular industry, perhaps choosing instead to wait and see whether the business will succeed. It’s important, though, not to avoid this step. By not acquiring a business license and necessary zoning permits and by not meeting other legal requirements, you expose your business not only to penalties but also the possibility of being shut down with financial and reputational consequences that accompany an unexpected closing.

  • Mixing personal and business funds. The separation of personal and business funds isn’t just good business; it can save you money. When personal money “disappears” into a business owned by you and others, you’ve lost at least part of those funds regardless of how successfully they’re put to use by the business. An issue related to separating personal and business funds is that of separating personal liability from that of the business. By housing the business in a legal entity, such as a corporation or limited liability company, you can shield yourself from liabilities faced by the business.

Drafting contracts, obtaining needed licenses, negotiating with municipal entities and selecting and creating a business entity can involve complex legal issues. To ensure success and to protect your interests, contact a qualified attorney.


Tuesday, June 24, 2014

How Are Certificates of Shares Passed Down?

Certificates represent shares of a company. There are generally two types of company shares: those for a publicly traded company, and those for a privately held company, which is not traded on one of the stock exchanges.

Let's assume you hold the physical share certificates of a publicly held company and the shares are not held in a brokerage account. If, upon your death, you own shares of that company's stock in certificated form in your name, the first step is to have the court appoint an executor of your estate.

Once appointed, the executor would write to the transfer agent for the company, fill out some forms, present copies of the court documents showing their authority to act for your estate, and request that the stock certificates be re-issued to the estate beneficiaries.

There could also be an option to have the stock sold and then add the proceeds to the estate account that later would be divided among the beneficiaries. If the stock is in a privately held company there would still be the need for an executor to be appointed to have authority to act on behalf of the estate. However, the executor would then typically contact the secretary or other officers of the company to inquire about the existence of a shareholder agreement that specifies how a transfer is to take place after the death of a shareholder. Depending on the nature of the agreement, the company might reissue the stock in the name(s) of the beneficiaries, buy out the deceased shareholder’s shares (usually at some pre-determined formula) or other mechanism.

If you set up a revocable living trust while you are alive you could request the transfer agent to reissue the stock titled into the name of the trust. However, once you die, the "trustee" would still have to take similar steps to get the stock re-issued to the trust beneficiaries.

If you open a brokerage account with a financial advisor, the advisor could assist you in getting the account in the name of your trust, and the process after death would be easier than if you still held the actual stock certificate.


Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Paying for Your Grandchildren’s Education

The bond between a grandparent and grandchild is a very special one based on respect, trust and unconditional love. When preparing one’s estate plan, it’s not at all uncommon to find grandparents who want to leave much or all of their fortune to their grandchildren. With college tuition costs on the rise, many seniors are looking to ways to help their grandchildren with these costs long before they pass away. Fortunately, there are ways to “gift” an education with minimal consequences for your estate and your loved ones.

The options for your financial support of your heirs’ education may vary depending upon the age of the grandchild and how close they are to actually entering college. If your grandchild is still quite young, one of the best methods to save for college may be to make a gift into a 529 college savings plan. This type of plan was approved by the IRS in Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code. It functions much like an IRA in that the appreciation of the investments grows tax deferred within the 529 account. In fact, it is likely to be "tax free" if the money is eventually used to pay for the college expenses. Another possible bonus is that you may get a tax deduction or tax credit on your state income tax return for making such an investment. You should consult your own tax advisor and your state's rules and restrictions.

If your granddaughter or grandson is already in college, the best way to cover their expenses would be to make a payment directly to the college or university that your grandchild attends. Such a "gift" would not be subject to the annual gift tax exemption limits (currently $14,000) which would otherwise apply if you gave the money directly to the grandchild. Thus, as long as the gift is for education expenses such as tuition, and if the payment is made directly to the college or university, the annual gift tax limits will not apply.

As with all financial gifts, it’s important to consult with your estate planning attorney who can help you look at the big picture and identify strategies which will best serve your loved ones now and well into the future.

 


Tuesday, June 10, 2014

Advance Planning Can Help Relieve the Worries of Alzheimer’s Disease

The “ostrich syndrome” is part of human nature; it’s unpleasant to observe that which frightens us. However, pulling our heads from the sand and making preparations for frightening possibilities can provide significant emotional and psychological relief from fear.

When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, more Americans fear being unable to care for themselves and burdening others with their care than they fear the actual loss of memory. This data comes from an October 2012 study by Home Instead Senior Care, in which 68 percent of 1,200 survey respondents ranked fear of incapacity higher than the fear of lost memories (32 percent).

Advance planning for incapacity is a legal process that can lessen the fear that you may become a burden to your loved ones later in life.

What is advance planning for incapacity?

Under the American legal system, competent adults can make their own legally binding arrangements for future health care and financial decisions. Adults can also take steps to organize their finances to increase their likelihood of eligibility for federal aid programs in the event they become incapacitated due to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

The individual components of advance incapacity planning interconnect with one another, and most experts recommend seeking advice from a qualified estate planning or elder law attorney.

What are the steps of advance planning for incapacity?

Depending on your unique circumstances, planning for incapacity may include additional steps beyond those listed below. This is one of the reasons experts recommend consulting a knowledgeable elder law lawyer with experience in your state.

  1. Write a health care directive, sometimes called a directive to physicians and family or surrogates, or living will. Your living will describes your preferences regarding end of life care, resuscitation, and hospice care. After you have written and signed the directive, make sure to file copies with your health care providers.

  2. Write a health care or medical power of attorney. A health care or medical power of attorney form designates another person to make health care decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated and unable to make decisions for yourself. You may be able to designate your health care power of attorney in your health care directive document, or you may need to complete a separate form. File copies of this form with your doctors and hospitals, and give a copy to the person or persons whom you have designated.

  3. Write a financial power of attorney. Like a health care or medical power of attorney, a financial power of attorney, sometimes called a general durable power of attorney, assigns another person the right to make financial, legal and property decisions on your behalf in the event of incapacity. This power of attorney can be temporary or permanent, depending on your wishes and it can be effective upon your incapacity or immediately upon signing the document. File copies of this form with all your financial institutions and give copies to the people you designate to act on your behalf.

  4. Plan in advance for Medicaid eligibility. Long-term care payment assistance is among the most important Medicaid benefits. To qualify for Medicaid, you must have limited assets. To reduce the likelihood of ineligibility, you can use certain legal procedures, like trusts, to distribute your assets in a way that they will not interfere with your eligibility. The elder law attorney you consult with regarding Medicaid eligibility planning can also advise you on Medicaid copayment planning and Medicaid estate recovery planning.

 


Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Refusing a Bequest

Most people develop an estate plan as a way to transfer wealth, property and their legacies on to loved ones upon their passing. This transfer, however, isn’t always as seamless as one may assume, even with all of the correct documents in place. What happens if your eldest son doesn’t want the family vacation home that you’ve gifted to him? Or your daughter decides that the classic car that was left to her isn’t worth the headache?

When a beneficiary rejects a bequest it is technically, or legally, referred to as a "disclaimer." This is the legal equivalent of simply saying "I don't want it." The person who rejects the bequest cannot direct where the bequest goes. Legally, it will pass as if the named beneficiary died before you. Thus, who it passes to depends upon what your estate planning documents, such as a Will or trust, say will happen if the primary named beneficiary is not living.

Now you may be thinking why on earth would someone reject a generous sum of money or piece of real estate? There could be several reasons why a beneficiary might not want to accept such a bequest. Perhaps the beneficiary has a large and valuable estate of their own and they do not need the money. By rejecting or disclaiming the bequest it will not increase the size of their estate and thus, it may lessen the estate taxes due upon their later death.

Another reason may be that the beneficiary would prefer that the asset that was bequeathed pass to the next named beneficiary. Perhaps that is their own child and they decide they do not really need the asset but their child could make better use of it. Another possible reason might be that the asset needs a lot of upkeep or maintenance, as with a vacation home or classic car, and the person may decide taking on that responsibility is simply not something they want to do. By rejecting or disclaiming the asset, the named beneficiary will not inherit the "headache" of caring for, and being liable for, the property.

To avoid this scenario, you might consider sitting down with each one of your beneficiaries and discussing what you have in mind. This gives your loved ones the chance to voice their concerns and allows you to plan your gifts accordingly.


Thursday, April 17, 2014

When to Involve Adult Children in the Estate Planning Process

Individuals who are beginning the estate planning process may assume it's best to have their adult child(ren) join them in the initial meeting with an estate planning attorney, but this may cause more harm than good.

This issue comes up often in the estate planning and elder law field, and it's a matter of client confidentiality. The attorney must determine who their client is- the individual looking to draft an estate plan or their adult children- and they owe confidentiality to that particular client.

The client is the person whose interests are most at stake. In this case, it is the parent. The attorney must be certain that they understand your wishes, goals and objectives. Having your child in the meeting could cause a problem if your child is joining in on the conversation, which may make it difficult for the attorney to determine if the wishes are those of your child, or are really your wishes.

Especially when representing elderly clients, there may be concerns that the wishes and desires of a child may be in conflict with the best interests of the parent. For example, in a Medicaid and long-term care estate planning context, the attorney may explain various options and one of those may involve transferring, or gifting, assets to children. The child's interest (purely from a financial aspect) would be to receive this gift. However, that may not be what the parent wants, or feels comfortable with. The parent may be reluctant to express those concerns to the attorney if the child is sitting right next to the parent in the meeting.

Also, the attorney will need to make a determination concerning the client's competency. Attorneys are usually able to assess a client's ability to make decisions during the initial meeting. Having a child in the room may make it more difficult for the attorney to determine competency because the child may be "guiding" the parent and finishing the parents thoughts in an attempt to help.

The American Bar Association has published a pamphlet on these issues titled "Why Am I Left in the Waiting Room?" that may be helpful for you and your child to read prior to meeting with an attorney.


Tuesday, April 8, 2014

What Does the Term "Funding the Trust" Mean in Estate Planning?

If you are about to begin the estate planning process, and you are considering a revocable living trust as part of your plan, you have likely heard the term "funding the trust" thrown around a great deal. What does this mean? And what will happen if you fail to fund the trust?

The phrase, or term, "funding the trust" refers to the process of titling your non-retirement assets into the name of your revocable living trust. A revocable living trust is a common estate planning document and one which you may choose to incorporate into your own estate planning. Sometimes such a trust may be referred to as a "will substitute" because the dispositive terms of your estate plan will be contained within the trust instead of the Will. A properly funded revocable living trust will allow you to have your affairs bypass the probate court upon your death, and instead, be handled privately in your attorney’s office.

Upon your death, only assets titled in your name alone will have to pass through the court probate process. Therefore, if you create a revocable living trust, and if you take the steps necessary to title all of your non-retirement assets in the name of the trust, there would be no need for a court probate proceeding because no assets would remain in your name. This step is generally referred to as "funding the trust" and is often overlooked. Many people create the trust but yet they fail to take the step of re-titling assets in the trust name. If you do not title your non-retirement assets into the name of the trust, then your estate will still require a court probate proceeding upon your death.

A proper revocable living trust-based estate plan would still include a Will that is sometimes referred to as a "pour-over" Will. The Will acts as a backstop to the trust so that any asset that is in your name upon your death (instead of the trust) will still get transferred into the trust, by naming the trust as the beneficiary in the Will. So the assets “pour over” into the trust. It is not as efficient to do this because your estate will still require probate, but all assets would eventually flow into the trust.

Another option: You can also name your trust as beneficiary of life insurance and retirement assets. However, retirement assets are special in that there is an "income" tax issue. Be sure to seek competent tax and legal advice before deciding who to name as beneficiary on those retirement assets.


Monday, March 31, 2014

Removal of a Trustee

In creating a trust, the trustmaker must name a trustee who has the legal obligation to administer it in accordance with the trustmaker’s wishes and intentions. In some cases, after the passing of the trustmaker, loved ones or beneficiaries may want to remove the designated trustee.

The process to remove a trustee largely depends on two factors: 1) language contained with the trust and 2) state law. When determining your options, there are a number of issues and key considerations to keep in mind.

First, it is possible that the trust language grants you the specific right to remove the named trustee. If it does, it likely will also outline how you must do so and whether you must provide a reason you want to remove them. Second, if the trust does not grant you the right to remove the trustee, it may grant another person the right to remove. Sometimes that other person may serve in the role of what is known as a "trust protector" or "trust advisor." If that is in the trust document you should speak to that person and let them know why you want the trustee removed. They would need to decide if they should do so or not. Finally, if neither of those is an option, your state law may have provisions that permit you to remove a trustee. However, it may be that you will have to file a petition with a court and seek a court order. You should hire an attorney to research this for you and advise you of the likelihood of success.

Another option may be to simply ask the named trustee to resign. They may do so voluntarily.

Assuming the trustee is removed, whether by you, a trust protector, or by court order, or if the trustee resigns, the next issue is who is to serve as the successor trustee. Again, looking at the terms of the trust should answer that question. Perhaps a successor is specifically named or perhaps the trust provides the procedure to appoint the successor. Before proceeding, you will want to make certain you know who will step-in as the new trustee.


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