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Houston Estate Planning and Probate Blog

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

What happens if you are bequeathed a car that no longer exists? The ABC's of Ademption

If you’re involved in settling a loved one’s estate, you may come across the curious word “ademption”. Ademption describes what happens when something designated in a will no longer exists. Say, for example, your uncle dies and leaves for you in his will an old-school Harley Davidson motorcycle. However, if your uncle crashed the motorcycle two years before the will was probated and there’s nothing to leave, then that gift would be considered adeemed and you would receive nothing. This is why certain wills include language that says, “if owned by me at my death.”

However, it is important to realize that certain items cannot be adeemed. For instance, money. If your uncle died and left $7,000 for you in his will, but left a zero dollar balance in his accounts, your gift of cash would not be adeemed. Depending on your state’s laws, the estate could be responsible for satisfying that gift, say for example, through the sale of other such property.

There are exceptions to ademption, however. Some states make exceptions for cases where interest in a corporation that no longer exists because the shares were exchanged with that of an acquiring company.  Your state may tackle ademption differently based on its laws, so please consult a qualified real estate or probate lawyer if you want to learn more about ademption and its exceptions.

 

 


Friday, June 1, 2012

Do Heirs Have to Pay Off Their Loved One’s Debts?

The recent economic recession and staggering increases in health care costs have left millions of Americans facing incredible losses and mounting debt in their final years. Are you concerned that, rather than inheriting wealth from your parents, you will instead inherit bills? The good news is, you probably won’t have to pay them.

As you are dealing with the emotional loss, while also wrapping up your loved one’s affairs and closing the estate, the last thing you need to worry about is whether you will be on the hook for the debts your parents leave behind. Generally, heirs are not responsible for their parents’ outstanding bills. Creditors can go after the assets within the estate in an effort to satisfy the debt, but they cannot come after you personally. Nevertheless, assets within the estate may have to be sold to cover the decedent’s debts, or to provide for the living expenses of a surviving spouse or other dependents.

Heirs are not responsible for a decedent’s unsecured debts, such as credit cards, medical bills or personal loans, and depending on the financial situation of the deceased’s estate, many of these go unpaid or are settled for pennies on the dollar. However, there are some circumstances in which you may share liability for an unsecured debt, and therefore are fully responsible for future payments. For example, if you were a co-signer on a loan with the decedent, or if you were a joint account holder, you will probably bear ultimate financial responsibility for the debt.

Unsecured debts which were solely held by the deceased parent do not require you to reach into your own pocket to satisfy the outstanding obligation. Regardless, many aggressive collection agencies continue to pursue collection even after death, often implying that you are ultimately responsible to repay your loved one’s debts, or that you are morally obligated to do so. Both of these assertions are entirely untrue.

Secured debts, on the other hand, must be repaid or the lender can repossess the underlying asset. Common secured debts include home mortgages and vehicle loans. If your parents had any equity in their house or car, you should consider doing whatever is necessary to keep the payments current, so the equity is preserved until the property can be sold or transferred. But this must be weighed within the context of the overall estate.

Executors and estate administrators have a duty to locate and inventory all of the decedent’s assets and debts, and must notify creditors and financial institutions of the death. Avoid making the mistake of automatically paying off all of your loved one’s bills right away. If you rush to pay off debts, without a clear picture of your parents’ overall financial situation, you run the risk of coming up short on cash within the estate, to cover higher priority bills, such as medical expenses, funeral costs or legal fees required to settle the estate.

 

 


Monday, May 14, 2012

Living Trusts & Probate Avoidance

You want your money and property to go to your loved ones when you die, not to the courts, lawyers or the government. Unfortunately, unless you’ve taken proper steps and engaged in certain estate planning procedures, your beneficiaries could lose a sizable portion of their inheritance to probate fees and expenses. A properly-crafted and “funded” living trust is one ideal probate-avoidance tool which can save thousands in legal costs, enhance family privacy and avoid lengthy delays in distributing your property to your loved ones

What is probate, and why should you avoid it? Probate is a court proceeding during which the deceased’s Will is reviewed, executors are approved and appointed, beneficiaries, and creditors are notified, assets are gathered and valued, debts and taxes are paid, and the remaining estate is distributed according to your Will (or according to state law if you don’t have a will). Depending on your state’s procedures, Probate can be costly, time-consuming and very public.

A living trust on the other hand, allows your property to be transferred to your beneficiaries quickly and privately, with little to no court intervention, maximizing the amount your loved ones end up with.

A basic living trust is a document that is similar to a will in its form and content, but very different in its legal effect. In the trust, you name yourself as trustee, the person in charge of your property. If you are married, you and your spouse are typically co-trustees. Because you are trustee, you retain total control of the property you transfer into the trust. In the trust agreement, you must also name successor trustees to take over in the event of your death or incapacity.

Once the trust is established, you must transfer ownership of your non-retirement property to yourself, as trustee of the living trust. This step is critical; the trust has no effect over any of your property unless you formally transfer ownership into the trust. The trust also enables you to name the beneficiaries you want to inherit your property when you die, including providing for alternate or conditional beneficiaries. You can amend your trust at any time, and can even revoke it entirely.

Even if you create a living trust and transfer all of your property into it, you should also create a back-up will, known as a “pour-over will”, because the assets that are left out of your trust, will pour over into the trust after your death. This is a “belt” and “suspenders” approach because it will ensure that any property you own – or may acquire in the future – that you don’t get around to transferring to your trust while you are alive, will be distributed to your trust upon your death and then ultimately distributed according to the trust provisions. Without a pour over will, any property not included in your trust will be distributed according to state law.

After you die, the successor trustee you named in your living trust is immediately empowered to transfer ownership of the trust property according to your wishes. Generally, the successor trustee can efficiently settle your entire estate within a few weeks or months by completing relatively simple paperwork without court intervention and its associated expenses. The successor trustee can solicit the assistance of an attorney to help with the trust administration process, though such legal fees are typically a fraction of those incurred during probate.

 

 


Friday, May 4, 2012

Avoid Family Feuds through Proper Estate Planning

A family feud over an inheritance is not a game and there is no prize package at the end of the show. Rather, disputes over who gets your property after your death can drag on for years and deplete your entire estate. When most people are preparing their estate plans, they execute wills and living trusts that focus on minimizing taxes or avoiding probate. However, this process should also involve laying the groundwork for your estate to be settled amicably and according to your wishes. Communication with your loved ones is key to accomplishing this goal.

Feuds can erupt when parents fail to plan, or make assumptions that prove to be untrue. Such disputes may evolve out of a long-standing sibling rivalry; however, even the most agreeable family members can turn into green-eyed monsters when it comes time to divide up the family china or decide who gets the vacation home at the lake.

Avoid assumptions. Even the most loving of families can have problems and issues after a parent’s death. Do not presume that any of your children will look out for the interests of your other children. To ensure your property is distributed to the beneficiaries you select, and to protect the integrity of the family unit, you must establish a clear estate plan and communicate that plan – and the rationale behind certain decisions – to your loved ones.

In formulating your estate plan, you should have a conversation with your children or other loved ones to discuss who will be the executor or trustee of your estate, or who wants to inherit a specific personal item. Ask them who wants to be the executor or trustee, or consider the abilities of each child in selecting who will settle your estate, rather than just defaulting to the eldest child. This discussion should also include provisions for your potential incapacity, and address who has the power of attorney and as such, who will make medical, financial and legal decisions for you if you cannot.

Do not assume any of your children want to inherit specific items. Many heirs fight as much over sentimental value as they do monetary items. Cash and investments are easily divided, but how do you split up Mom’s engagement ring or the table Dad built in his woodshop? By establishing a will or trust that clearly states who is to receive such special items, you avoid the risk that your estate will be depleted through costly legal proceedings as your children fight over who is entitled to such items.

Take the following steps to ensure your wishes are carried out:

  • Discuss your estate planning with your family. Ask for their input and explain anything “unusual,” such as special gifts of property or if the beneficiaries are not inheriting an equal amount.    
  • Name guardians, as back-up parents, for your minor children, if both mom and dad should die while they are still minors.  
  • Write a letter, outside of your will or trust, that shares your thoughts, values, stories, love, dreams and hopes for your loved ones.  
  • Select a special, tangible gift for each heir that is meaningful to the recipient.  
  • Explain to your children why you have appointed a particular person to serve as your trustee, executor, agent or guardian of your children.  
  • If you are in a second marriage, make sure your children from a prior marriage and your current spouse know that you have established an estate plan that protects their interests.  
  • Seek the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney to help you establish your estate plan and make sure that you leave your intended legacy.

     

 

 


Thursday, April 19, 2012

How Much of Your Estate Will Be Left Out of Your Will? (It’s Probably More Than You Think)

You’ve hired an attorney to draft your will, inventoried all of your assets, and have given copies of important documents to your loved ones. But your estate planning shouldn’t stop there. Regardless of how well your will is drafted, if you do not take certain steps regarding your non-probate assets, you run the risk of unintentionally disinheriting your chosen beneficiaries from a significant portion of your estate.

A will has no effect on the distribution of certain types of property after your death. Such assets, known as “non-probate” assets are typically transferred upon your death either as a beneficiary designation or automatically, by operation of law.

For example, if your 401(k) plan indicates your spouse as a designated beneficiary, he or she automatically inherits the account upon your passing.  In fact, by law, your spouse is entitled to inherit the funds in your 401(k) account.  If you wish to leave your 401(k) retirement account to someone other than a surviving spouse, you must obtain a signed waiver from your spouse indicating her agreement to waive her rights to the assets in that account.

Other types of retirement accounts also transfer to your beneficiaries outside of a probate proceeding, and therefore are not subject to the provisions of your will.  An Individual Retirement Account (IRA) does not automatically transfer to your spouse by operation of law as is the case with 401(k) plans, so you  must complete the IRA’s beneficiary designation form, naming the heirs you want to inherit the account upon your death. Your will has no effect on who inherits your IRA; the beneficiary designation on file with the financial institution controls who will receive your property.

Similarly, you must name a beneficiary on your life insurance policy. Upon your death, the insurance proceeds are not subject to the terms of a will and will be paid directly to your named beneficiary.

Probate avoidance is a noble goal, saving your loved ones both time and money as they close your estate. In addition to the assets listed above, which must be handled through beneficiary designations, there are other types of assets that may be disposed of using a similar procedure.   These include assets such as bank accounts and brokerage accounts, including stocks and bonds, in which you have named a pay-on-death (POD) or transfer-on-death (TOD) beneficiary; upon your passing, the asset will be transferred directly to the named beneficiary, regardless of what provisions are in your will. Most such designations also allow for listing of alternate beneficiaries in case they predecease you.

Another non-probate asset is real estate that is co-owned with someone else where the deed has a survivorship provision in it.  For example, some deeds to real property owned by married couples or by two unmarried individuals are owned jointly by both people, with right of survivorship.  Upon the passing of either person, the interest of the passing person immediately passes to the surviving person by operation of law, irrespective of any conflicting instructions in your will.  Keep in mind that you need not be married for such a provision to be in effect; joint ownership of real property with right of survivorship can exist among any group of co-owners.  If you want your will to be controlling with regard to disposition of such property, you need to have a new deed prepared (and recorded) that does not have a right of survivorship provision among the co-owners.

You’ve spent a lifetime of hard work to accumulate your assets and it’s important that you take all necessary steps to ensure that your wishes regarding who will get your assets will be honored as you intend. Carve a few hours out of your busy schedule, a couple times a year, to review all of your assets and beneficiary designations to make certain that they remain consistent with your objectives.

When considering hiring an estate planning attorney, it’s important to hire someone who will take a holistic approach and help you in coordinating all your assets – your probate and non-probate assets as well as your non-financial assets (your values, hopes, dreams, etc) so that your overall estate plan will meet your goals and objectives and help you leave your intended legacy.

 

 


Monday, April 16, 2012

Retirement Accounts and Estate Planning

For many Americans, retirement accounts comprise a substantial portion of their wealth. When planning your estate, it is important to consider the ramifications of tax-deferred retirement accounts, such as 401(k) and 403(b) accounts and traditional IRAs. (Roth IRAs are not tax-deferred accounts and are therefore treated differently). One of the primary goals of any estate plan is to pass your assets to your beneficiaries in a way that enables them to pay the lowest possible tax.

Generally, receiving inherited property is not a transaction that is subject to income tax. However, that is not the case with tax-deferred retirement accounts, which represent income for which the government has not previously collected income tax. Money cannot be kept in an IRA indefinitely; it must be distributed according to federal regulations. The amount that must be distributed annually is known as the required minimum distribution (RMD). If the distributions do not equal the RMD, beneficiaries may be forced to pay a 50% excise tax on the amount that was not distributed as required.

After death, the beneficiaries typically will owe income tax on the amount withdrawn from the decedent’s retirement account. Beneficiaries must take distributions from the account based on the IRS’s life expectancy tables, and these distributions are taxed as ordinary income. If there is more than one beneficiary, the one with the shortest life expectancy is the designated beneficiary for distribution purposes. Proper estate planning techniques should afford the beneficiaries a way to defer this income tax for as long as possible by delaying withdrawals from the tax-deferred retirement account.

The most tax-favorable situation occurs when the decedent’s spouse is the named beneficiary of the account. The spouse is the only person who has the option to roll over the account into his or her own IRA. In doing so, the surviving spouse can defer withdrawals until he or she turns 70 ½; whereas any other beneficiary must start withdrawing money the year after the decedent’s death.

Generally, a revocable trust should not be the primary beneficiary of a tax-deferred retirement account, as this situation normally limits the potential for income tax deferral. However, a trust may be the preferred option under certain circumstances, such as if a life expectancy payout option or spousal rollover are unimportant or unavailable, or when it’s used as a contingent beneficiary designation after the surviving spouse’s death, but this should be discussed in detail with an experienced estate planning attorney. Additionally, there are situations where income tax deferral is not a consideration, such as when an IRA or 401(k) requires a lump-sum distribution upon death, when a beneficiary will liquidate the account upon the decedent’s death for an immediate need, or if the amount is so small that it will not result in a substantial amount of additional income tax.

The bottom line is that this is a complex area of law involving inheritance and tax implications that should be fully considered with the aid of an experienced estate planning lawyer.


Monday, March 26, 2012

Issues to Consider When Gifting to Grandchildren

Many grandparents who are financially stable love the idea of making gifts to their grandchildren. However, they are usually not aware of the myriad of issues that surround what they may consider to be a simple gift. If you are considering making a significant gift to a grandchild, you should consult with a qualified attorney to guide you through the myriad of legal and tax issues that are involved in making such gifts.

Making a Lifetime Gift or a Bequest:  Before making a gift, you should consider whether you want to make the gift during your lifetime or leave the gift to your grandchild in your will or living trust.  If you make the gift as a bequest in your will or living trust you will not experience the joy of seeing your grandchild’s appreciation and use of the gift. However, if you make the gift now, while you are still around to share in their joy, you are depleting your assets and there’s always the possibility that you will need the money to live on during your lifetime, and in reality, once a gift is made it cannot be taken back. Also, if you anticipate needing Medicaid or other government programs to pay for a nursing home or other benefits at some point in your life, if you have not done the proper planning ahead of time, any gifts you make in the prior five years can be considered as part of your assets when determining your eligibility.

What Form Should the Gift Take:  You may consider making a gift outright to a grandchild. However, once such a gift is made, you give up control over how the funds can be used. If your grandchild decides to purchase a brand-new sports car or take an extravagant vacation, you will have no legal right to stop the grandchild. The grandchild’s parents could also in some cases access the money without your approval.

You could consider making a gift under the Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) or the Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA), depending on which state you live in. The accounts are easy to open, but once the grandchild reaches the age of majority, he or she will have unfettered access to the funds. You could also consider depositing money into a 529 plan, which is specifically designed for education purposes. Finally, you could consider establishing a trust with an estate planning attorney, which can be more expensive to set up, but can be customized to fit your needs. Such a trust can provide for spendthrift, divorce and creditor protection while allowing for more flexibility for expenditures such as education or purchase of a first home.

Tax Consequences: If you have a large estate, giving gifts to grandchildren and other loved ones may be a great way to get money out of your estate in order to reduce your future estate tax liability. In 2012, a single person can pass $5 million at death free of estate tax, and a couple can pass a combined $10 million without paying estate taxes, if they should both pass away in 2012. In addition, a person can give up to $13,000 in 2012 to any number of individuals without incurring any gift taxes or need to file a gift tax return. A grandparent with 10 grandchildren could give $130,000 per year total to all grandchildren (and a married couple could give $260,000), thereby removing that property from his or her estate. There are some unique gifting options available in 2012 that may not be around in years to come. If this may be of interest to you, contact your attorney or this firm to discuss your options.
 

 

 


Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Family Business: Preserving Your Legacy for Generations to Come

Your family-owned business is not just one of your most significant assets, it is also your legacy. Both must be protected by implementing a transition plan to arrange for transfer to your children or other loved ones upon your retirement or death.

More than 70 percent of family businesses do not survive the transition to the next generation. Ensuring your family does not fall victim to the same fate requires a unique combination of proper estate and tax planning, business acumen and common-sense communication with those closest to you. Below are some steps you can take today to make sure your family business continues from generation to generation.

  • Meet with an estate planning attorney to develop a comprehensive plan that includes a will and/or living trust. Your estate plan should account for issues related to both the transfer of your assets, including the family business and estate taxes.
  • Communicate with all family members about their wishes concerning the business. Enlist their involvement in establishing a business succession plan to transfer ownership and control to the younger generation. Include in-laws or other non-blood relatives in these discussions. They offer a fresh perspective and may have talents and skills that will help the company.
  • Make sure your succession plan includes:  who will own the company, advisors who can aid the transition team and ensure continuity, who will oversee day-to-day operations, provisions for heirs who are not directly involved in the business, tax saving strategies, education and training of family members who will take over the company and key employees.
  • Discuss your estate plan and business succession plan with your family members and key employees. Make sure everyone shares the same basic understanding.
  • Plan for liquidity. Establish measures to ensure the business has enough cash flow to pay taxes or buy out a deceased owner’s share of the company. Estate taxes are based on the full value of your estate. If your estate is asset-rich and cash-poor, your heirs may be forced to liquidate assets in order to cover the taxes, thus removing your “family” from the business.
  • Implement a family employment plan to establish policies and procedures regarding when and how family members will be hired, who will supervise them, and how compensation will be determined.
  • Have a buy-sell agreement in place to govern the future sale or transfer of shares of stock held by employees or family members.
  • Add independent professionals to your board of directors.

You’ve worked very hard over your lifetime to build your family-owned enterprise. However, you should resist the temptation to retain total control of your business well into your golden years. There comes a time to retire and focus your priorities on ensuring a smooth transition that preserves your legacy – and your investment – for generations to come.

 

 


Friday, March 2, 2012

Do I Really Need Advance Directives for Health Care?

Many people are confused by advance directives. They are unsure what type of directives are out there, which ones are suitable for them, and whether they even need directives at all, especially if they are young. There are several types of advance directives. One is a living will, (which in Texas is called a Directive to Physicians and Family or Surrogates) which communicates your wishes about end of life choices and treatment and informs your doctors whether or not you want extraordinary medical measures taken under certain situations. Another type is called a health care or medical power of attorney. In a medical power of attorney, you give someone the power to make health care decisions for you in the event you are unable to do so for yourself. A third type of advance directive for health care is a do not resuscitate order. A DNR order is a request that you not receive CPR if your heart stops beating or you stop breathing. Depending on the laws in your state, the health care form you execute could include all three types of health care directives, but more typically, each document is prepared independently. Another important medical document is the HIPAA Authorization which allows certain persons to access your protected medical information and discuss your care with medical providers.

If you are 18 or over, it’s time to establish your health care directives. Although no one thinks they will be in a medical situation requiring a directive at such a young age, it happens every day in the United States. People of all ages are involved in tragic accidents that couldn’t be foreseen and could result in life support being used. If you plan in advance, you can make sure you receive the type of medical care you wish, and you can avoid a lot of heartache to your family, who may be forced to guess what you would want done.

Many people do not want to sign health care directives because they may believe some of the common misconceptions that exist about them. People are often frightened to name someone to make health care decisions for them, because they fear they will give up the right to make decisions for themselves. However, an individual always has the right, if he or she is competent, to revoke the directive or make his or her own decisions.  Some also fear they will not be treated if they have a health care directive. This is also a common myth – the medical power of attorney simply informs caregivers of the person you designate to make health care decisions and the type of treatment you’d like to receive in various situations.  Planning ahead can ensure that your treatment preferences are carried out while providing some peace of mind to your loved ones who are in a position to direct them.


Thursday, December 8, 2011

This Holiday Season an Estate Plan is the Perfect Gift

The holiday season is upon us, and as others rush about the malls and the internet looking for gifts, we can recommend a unique, useful and memorable gift that will be perfect for any loved one: An Estate Plan!

Before you roll your eyes at the idea, consider this: An estate plan is something every person needs, whether it’s your single younger nephew, your older sister with her two young children, or your retired, aging parents. Furthermore, although everyone needs an estate plan, many people (wrongly) consider it a luxury, and put off creating one—often until it’s too late.

You may be thinking, No, an estate plan is too personal (too expensive, too morbid) to give as a gift. But we can safely say that not one of these excuses is true. If you feel an estate plan is too personal a gift, we recommend giving a gift certificate good for the cost of a basic plan, which the recipient can then design and add to according to his or her needs. If you feel an entire estate plan is too expensive a gift, you may want to consider paying for a portion of the plan, or for the first consultation with an attorney, just to get your loved one started. And if it’s morbidity that you’re worried about, perhaps giving a “Loving Family Legacy Plan” sounds more appealing.

This year, don’t give a gift that will impress for a moment but be forgotten within a week; instead, give the gift that will protect your loved one—and their loved ones!—and will last for years to come. Give the gift of an estate plan.

 

 


Monday, November 28, 2011

How to Cope After the Death of a Spouse

Losing a spouse may be one of the most difficult life events that any of us have to deal with. A spouse is a parenting partner, a co-CFO, a best friend and a beloved soul mate. Losing the person who supports you in so many ways can create an emptiness which can be almost paralyzing.

This is why it’s so important after the death of a loved one to have the support you need to get through the detail-oriented and often emotionally draining probate process, which includes tasks such as sorting through a financial history, submitting legal documents to the probate court, contacting creditors and family members, and more. Some people have family or friends to help with these time-consuming tasks, others enlist the help of an estate planning or probate attorney, but one thing is clear: no one should do it alone.

Every family or couple will have a different experience with the probate process, but our firm would like to offer a basic list of universal “to-do” items to remember after the death of a spouse. We hope this will help give our readers a little bit of security during a very emotional and stressful time.

* Obtain multiple copies of the death certificate
* Gather any and all estate planning documents
* Contact an estate planning/probate attorney. Even if you don’t plan to retain an attorney, a brief initial consultation can help you understand the task ahead and prevent you from skipping important steps
* Notify the person named as executor or trustee
* Notify the necessary institutions or agencies (the deceased’s employer, social security administration, insurance company, creditors, post office, etc.)
* Discuss with your attorney before you remove spouse’s name from all joint accounts or ventures, such as bank accounts, utility companies, credit card accounts, etc.
* Discuss with your attorney before you pay final bills, and cancel accounts, subscriptions, etc.

Depending on your situation and location, there may be many more tasks to be done. Additionally, if you are serving as executor or trustee (as many spouse’s do) there will be a great number of administrative tasks to be performed in addition to the ones on this list. Under these circumstances even the strongest and most capable people can feel overwhelmed. Remember that you don’t have to go through the process alone.

 

 


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