Wednesday, June 06, 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 01, 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.
Thursday, August 11, 2011
Frequently Asked Questions About Probate
What is probate?
Probate is defined as “the legal process of administering the estate of a deceased person by resolving all claims and distributing the deceased person's property under the valid will. A probate interprets the instructions of the deceased, decides the executor as the personal representative of the estate, and adjudicates the interests of heirs and other parties who may have claims against the estate.”
The definition doesn’t sound too bad, but probate can be a very trying process. Even in the best of circumstances there are procedures that must be followed to the letter, and the actual process (depending on the size of the estate and the laws of the state in which the deceased lived and where the property is being probated) can take anywhere from a few months to a few years.
Do I need a lawyer to help probate an estate?
This depends on the state in which you live and sometimes on the local rules of the courts within the state. Some courts will not allow a party to probate a will without an attorney and some will. If you have been named as executor, probate can often become an overwhelming maze of deadlines, notifications and potential liabilities, and this is why most executors do choose to hire a probate lawyer to help them through the process.
Lawyers can very helpful under any of the following circumstances:
- There are a number of beneficiaries who are not on friendly terms, or are receiving varying sizes of inheritance.
- The decedent had large estate with many different assets, especially if the assets are not commonly held.
- The decedent was a resident in a different state than your own home state.
- A large number of creditors are making claims on the estate.
- There is a disagreement about the will, or if more than one will was found.
- The will is challenged or contested.
Do Life Insurance or Retirement Benefits Have to Go Through Probate?
The answer to the question above is generally “no”; life insurance and retirement benefits do not have to go through probate if the account has a named beneficiary. Benefits from life insurance accounts can be paid directly to the named beneficiary, and money from IRAs, Keoghs, and 401(k) accounts transfer automatically to the named beneficiaries of those accounts as well. The persons named as beneficiary, however, will most likely want to consult with a financial advisor to determine what needs to be done with the proceeds from these accounts. Other types of accounts that may not be subject to probate are survivorship accounts (JTWROS), pay on death (POD) accounts, or transfer on death (TOD) accounts, the money from which can pass directly to the named joint tenant or beneficiary upon the death of the owner.
Probate is a subject most people don’t want to spend much time considering, not only because the rules and requirements can be convoluted and confusing, but also because of the close association between probate and death. If you have any questions at all about the probate process, please don’t hesitate to contact our office—or your own local attorney who specializes in probate—for more information.
Friday, March 04, 2011
Tough Decisions Await Executors of 2010 Estates
If you are the executor of the estate of a decedent who died in 2010 you may think you’re in the clear. After all, there was no estate tax in 2010 right? Making distributions should be a piece of cake. Wrong. Because of the estate tax election available on the estates of 2010 decedents, administering those estates will actually be more work than you may think.
The repeal of the estate tax in 2010 also brought with it a repeal of the “step up in basis,” meaning that heirs selling inherited assets were taxed based on the original acquisition cost of the assets, not on their value as of the date of the taxpayer’s death. This generally resulted in a higher tax paid on assets than the normal estate tax rate—not good for taxpayers. But 2010 estates don’t have to go by these rules. The legislation passed in December of 2010 gave 2010 estates the opportunity to elect whether they wanted to use the 2010 estate tax laws, or the new laws for 2011. This article in Forbes explains what this means:
“The 2010 Tax Relief Act restored the estate tax for individuals dying in 2010 with a $5 million per person exemption and a maximum rate of 35%. It also repealed the modified carryover basis rules for property acquired from a decedent who died in 2010. However, estates of individuals dying in 2010 can elect zero estate tax and the modified carryover basis rules that would have applied before they were repealed. That means the basis of assets acquired from the decedent would be the lesser of the decedent’s adjusted basis (carryover basis) or the fair market value of the property on the date of the decedent’s death.”
In general this tax election is a good thing, it allows executors to choose which tax formula will cost the beneficiaries the least in taxes; but it does mean a lot more paperwork and a lot more attention to detail. If you are the executor of an estate of a decedent who died in 2010, don’t hesitate to call us. We can answer your questions and help you explore your options.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
5 Essential Tips for Executors or Trustees
Serving as executor or trustee of a will or a trust is an honor... but it’s also a job—a BIG job—and not one to be taken lightly. The role of executor or trustee can be one of great financial power, but it carries with it a heavy fiduciary obligation. Fiduciary obligation means that an executor or trustee must act in the best interests of the beneficiaries; it means that although the executor or trustee may be doing all the work, he or she may see very little return on that work, which is all for the benefit of the named beneficiaries.
If you have been nominated (or are currently serving) as an executor or trustee there are a few things you’ll want to remember as you go about your duties:
1. The will or trust is your guide, the mission statement by which you should operate; read and understand the document completely, and have an attorney help you, if necessary.
2. You need to be pro-active—to an extent. If you are managing a large amount of money or assets over a period of time it is probably not in the best interests of the beneficiary to let those funds sit in a savings account. Create (with an advisor, if necessary) a financial plan for the trust assets.
3. Although you may be handling the estate assets, you should not have any personal financial dealings with the trust. You should under no circumstances borrow from or lend money to the trust. Keep your finances separate!
4. Communication and transparency is key! Keep detailed records of all of your actions and transactions regarding the will or trust, and send regular reports to the beneficiaries. Regular communication prevents unhappy surprises or angry lawsuits in the future.
5. You don’t have to do it alone. If you were picked as a trustee because of your financial knowledge and experience—great! But if you were picked because you are the oldest, or the most responsible, or the favorite you may feel overwhelmed by the job ahead of you. Don’t try to muddle through alone, get the help and support of an experienced attorney or advisor.
Friday, October 15, 2010
What Is Probate?
With all the recent news about what will happen with estate taxes, the process of probate has come up quite a bit. Sometimes probate is mentioned in a low-key, matter-of-fact kind of way; at other times it is presented as something scary, and to be avoided at all costs. We know our readers have seen the term often enough here in our blog, but under the circumstances we thought it a good idea to go back to basics, and have a discussion of exactly what is probate, and what’s all the fuss?
Probate is the process by which the court determines the legal property of a person who has died, and facilitates the distribution of those assets.It sounds like it should be simple, but even in the best of circumstances there are procedures that must be followed to the letter, and the actual process (depending on the size of the estate and the laws of the state in which the property is being probated) can take anywhere from 6 months to a few years.
You may wonder why probate can take so long, especially if the deceased person has left a will making their wishes clear. A good will can certainly make the process easier, but even with a will, there are certain steps that must be followed to complete the probate process, some of which can be very time consuming. Some of these steps include:
· The appointment of an executor or personal representative
· Verification of the will
· Taking an inventory of assets belonging to the deceased
· Giving notice to creditors
· Paying valid claims against the estate
· Preparing and paying taxes
· Notifying beneficiaries
· Distributing the assets to the beneficiaries or heirs
If you think that just reading the above paragraph takes your breath away, imagine the confusion of having to actually go through all of those steps—and possibly more!
Whether or not your estate will eventually be subject to a lengthy or expensive probate often depends on a number of factors: the size of your estate, how your assets are held, and how cooperative your next of kin may be. But one way to increase your chances of avoiding probate is to have clear (and clearly valid) estate planning documents, including a will, power of attorney, and possibly a revocable living trust.
If you are concerned about probate, or would like to know more about how you can protect your assets and help your loved ones avoid a lengthy probate, contact our office—or a qualified estate planning attorney in your home state—to discuss your options.
Friday, October 08, 2010
10 Phone Calls to Make After the Death of a Loved One
Coping with the death of a loved one can be a crushing task. There are so many things to do and details to remember; all of this at a time when each small task can serve as a reminder of your loss. At such a time it can be helpful to know that you’re not going through this alone; there are a number of people who can help when you begin to feel overwhelmed. To relieve some of the stress, and help ensure that no important task is forgotten, we offer a list of people to call after the death of a loved one:
Funeral home - This will likely be your first call. The funeral home you or your loved one has selected will be able to help you with a lot of the immediate details and tasks. The funeral director will also be able to help you obtain copies of the death certificate - something you will need later. Many people order at least 10 or more copies for future needs.
Family and Friends - This probably goes without saying. Not only will you want to notify family and friends, but they can also help with a lot of the endless tasks and overwhelming details. Don’t be afraid to ask for help and delegate.
Veteran’s office (if deceased was a Vet.) - If the deceased was a Veteran you may have to stop benefit payments; you may also be able to get assistance with the funeral or memorial service.
The deceased’s employer - You will need to do this not only to inform the employer of the death, but also to terminate health insurance and to obtain information about any employee benefits that might be due and payable.
Attorney and Tax Professional - You will need to know what to do about probating the deceased’s estate, filing tax returns, dealing with bank accounts, etc. An attorney and a tax professional can help. It is especially important to find out if your loved one had any existing estate documents such as a will, or living trust or irrevocable trust.
Office of Social Security - If your loved one was receiving benefits you’ll need to stop payments. You will also want to find out if survivors are entitled to any benefits.
Insurance company of the deceased - If your loved one had life insurance, you will probably need to file a claim. This is something your attorney can help you with.
Local Newspaper - You may want to publish an obituary or notice of death, as well as information about the funeral or memorial service.
Credit card companies and utilities - Before you pay any debts or claims, discuss the claims procedure with your attorney.
Bank - Before you make any changes to bank accounts, discuss the procedure with your attorney. Do not close any accounts right away!
Although this list is a good starting point; a complete list of people to call and things to do will depend on where the deceased lived and the details of his or her estate. Contact your loved one’s estate planning attorney (or your own) to ensure that nothing is left to chance.
Friday, August 06, 2010
Jane Austen’s Will: It Used to Be So Easy
Many clients are shocked when they see the sheer volume of paper in a truly well-done estate plan. A trust by itself can be hundreds of pages, not to mention the other 6 to 16 documents you may or may not have—depending on your family situation. You may find that the “simple” estate plan you thought you were getting has turned into something of a size that would rival War and Peace!
It didn’t always used to be this way. The last will and testament of the great Jane Austen, for example, was only one paragraph long:
I Jane Austen of the Parish of Chawton do by this my last will I testament give and bequeath to my dearest sister Cassandra Elizabeth everything of which I may die possessed, or which may be hereafter due to me, subject to the payment of my Funeral expences, & to a Legacy of £50. to my Brother Henry, & £50 to Mde de Bigeon - which I request may be paid as soon as convenient. And I appoint my said dear sister the executrix of this my last will & testament.
April 27 1817
Although this simplicity may have worked in 1817 England, it isn’t practical in the here and now. Things just aren’t that simple anymore. First of all, although Austen appoints her sister Cassandra as the executrix of her will, the will itself neglects to specify what powers are included in that appointment, leaving Cassandra effectively unable to carry out Austen’s wishes. Secondly, the will neglects to make alternative provisions—what if Cassandra had unexpectedly died before Jane? Also notably lacking (from our contemporary perspective) are any provisions for estate taxes. And finally, discerning readers may notice that the will does not include the signatures of any witnesses, something which is absolutely necessary in order to execute a valid will today (with the exception of holographic wills, which are often created in emergency situations, are entirely hand written, and do not require the signatures of witnesses.)
We all may long for simpler times, especially when it comes to something most people think will only benefit their heirs and not themselves; but many of the rules and regulations that are dismissively thought of as “hoops to jump through” are there for your best interest. They exist to protect your heirs and your legacy from fraud, misuse, greed and neglect. Far from being a chore, creating a thoughtful and legally valid will these days is actually an act of love... One might even say it’s a matter of sense and sensibility.
Law Offices of Elyssa M. Schnurr focus their practice on Estate Planning, Wills and Trusts of all degrees of complexity, Probate, Estate Administration & Business Entity Formation. They are also available to assist with Uncontested Divorces and Mediation. They serve clients throughout the greater Houston area, including, but not limited to Houston, Bellaire, West University, Sugar Land, Missouri City, Richmond, Rosenberg, Katy, Cypress, The Woodlands, Kingwood, League City, Webster, Clear Lake, Pearland, Angleton, and throughout Harris County, Fort Bend County, Montgomery County, Brazoria County and Galveston County.