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Hampton Roads Estate Planning and Administration Law Blog

Monday, October 17, 2016

You’ve Established an Estate Plan. Do You Know Where the Documents Are? Does Your Family?

For most people, finally establishing an estate plan is a big step that they have undertaken after years of delay. A second step is making decisions regarding the executor, trustees, beneficiaries, funeral costs and debt, and a third step is actually completing the will. There is, however, a fourth step that is often skipped: placing the original will and other critical documents in a place where it can be found when it is needed


As far as wills are concerned, this step is more important than you might think, for two reasons:

  1. If your will can’t be found upon your death then, legally, you will have passed away intestate, i.e. without a will.
  2. If your loved ones can only locate a photocopy of your will, chances are the photocopy will be ruled invalid by the courts. This is because the courts assume that, if an original will can’t be located, the willmaker destroyed it with the intention of revoking it.


Options for Storing the Original Copy of Your Will


Because an original will is usually needed by the probate court, it makes sense to store it in a strategic location. Common locations recommended by estate planning attorneys include:

  • A fireproof safe or lock box
  • Stored at the local probate court, if such service is provided.
  • A safety deposit box in a bank

There are advantages to each choice. For many, a fireproof safe is simplest: it’s in the home, doesn’t need to leave the house and can be altered and replaced with maximum convenience. The probate court makes sense because it is the place where the last will and testament may end up when you pass away. A safety deposit box also makes sense, especially if you already have one for which you’re paying.  Just make sure that your executor can access it.

By making sure that your original will is safe and can be found when needed, you don’t just ensure that it can be used when the allocation of your assets and debt occurs. You also ensure that disputes, confusion and disappointment don’t occur years after your death; while uncommon, in some cases, by the time the will has been discovered, the assets of the decedent have long been distributed according to intestacy laws and not the decedent’s will. Intestacy laws are essentially the “default will” that the state establishes for individuals who do not have their own estate plan.

You’ve taken the trouble to protect your assets and loved ones by creating an estate plan. Don’t leave its discovery to chance. Ensure that your executor or trustee can easily and reliably find it when it comes time to put it into effect. 

 


Monday, October 10, 2016

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 in order to submit a copy.

Should you lose the original copy of your 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.


Monday, September 26, 2016

What to Do after a Loved One Passes Away

The loss of a loved one is a difficult time, often made more stressful when one has to handle the affairs of the deceased. This may be a great undertaking or rather minimal work, depending upon the level of estate planning done prior to death.

Tasks that have to be performed after the passing of a loved one will vary based on whether the departed individual had a will or not. In determining whether probate (a court-managed process where the assets of the deceased are managed and distributed) is needed, the assets owned by the individual, and whether these assets were titled, must be considered. It’s important to understand that assets titled jointly with another person are not probate assets and will normally pass to the surviving joint owner. Also, assets such as life insurance and retirement assets that name a beneficiary will pass to the named beneficiaries outside of the court probate process. If the deceased relative had formed a trust and during his life retitled his assets into that trust, those trust assets will also not pass through the probate process.

Each state’s rules may be slightly different so it is important to seek proper legal advice if you are charged with handling the affairs of a deceased family member or friend. Assuming probate is required, there will be a process that you must follow to either file the will and ask to be appointed as the executor (assuming you were named executor in the will) or file for probate of the estate without a will (this is referred to as dying "intestate" which simply means dying without a will). Also, there will be a process to publish notice to creditors and you may be required to send each creditor specific notice of the death. Those creditors will have a certain amount of time to file a claim against the estate assets. If a legitimate creditor files a claim, the claim can be paid out of the estate assets. Depending on your state's laws, there may also be state death taxes (sometimes referred to as "inheritance taxes") that have to be paid and, if the estate is large enough, a federal estate tax return may also have to be filed along with any taxes which may be due.

Only after the estate is fully administered, creditors paid, and tax returns filed and taxes paid, can the estate be fully distributed to the named beneficiaries or heirs. Given the many steps, and complexities of probate, you should seek legal counsel to help you through the process.


Monday, September 19, 2016

How to Keep Your Affluent Children From Turning Into … Well, … Brats

Congratulations are in order—you have accumulated enough wealth to be concerned about eventually passing it along to your children and grandchildren in a manner that will encourage them to lead positive and productive lives.  Like many, your objective is to allow your children to enjoy the rewards of wealth without becoming irresponsible, overindulgent or feeling entitled to anything money can buy.

When it comes to sharing one’s wealth with adult children, there are some general principles that may help you guide your children as they shape their values.  Two quotes about sharing wealth with children are an excellent starting point:

I wanted my children to have “enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.” – Warren Buffett

“It’s better to give with warm hands than with cold ones.” – Unknown

Establish Inter Vivos Trusts for Your Children, And Use Restrictions Creatively

You can establish inter vivos trusts (trusts that go into effect during your lifetime) and appoint professional trustees during your lifetime.  Consider some combination of the following restrictions on the trust funds to help your children develop into competent, capable adults:

  • Make receipt of funds dependent on employment
  • Use trust funds to match income from employment
  • Prohibit distribution of trust earnings until the child reaches a certain age (it is not unheard of to distribute trust earnings to children once they reach age 65)
  • Make attaining a certain level of education a prerequisite to distribution of trust income
  • Consider establishing a charitable trust or family foundation, with room for employment of your adult child in the foundation’s management

Consider a generation-skipping trust, so that your wealth is shared directly with grandchildren

Make Gifts or Loans During Your Lifetime—And Not Just Gifts of Money

This is the meaning behind the quotation above regarding warm hands and cold ones.  It is better, in so many ways, to give gifts during your lifetime rather than after your death.  In addition to gifts, consider making strategic, interest-free loans to your children to help them achieve certain goals without losing a lot of their own income to interest payments:

  • Interest-free loans for higher education
  • Interest-free loans for private education for grandchildren
  • Interest-free loans for home purchases

In addition to giving gifts of money or making strategic loans, there are other “gifts” you can give your children to help them learn to live with wealth.  Consider the following suggestions,:

  • Hire a professional to teach your children how to manage their money, instead of banking on your children listening to your own lessons.
  • Pay for family vacations that serve a philanthropic purpose, such as travel to Africa to deliver medical equipment to a remote town or travel to South America to help clean a national park.
  • Begin or continue a family tradition of local volunteer work with disadvantaged people in your own community to ensure that your children get firsthand knowledge of how fortunate they are to have the resources your family has accrued.

In general, experts agree that families fare better when their wealth is used to enrich their lives and to help others less fortunate.  Give your children opportunities to learn to use money in responsible ways, from as early in their lives as possible.  Show them the difference between buying a new sports car and donating the same amount of money to a program that sends food to people in need.  That isn’t to say a new sports car shouldn’t be on the shopping list – but perhaps it shouldn’t be the only thing on the shopping list.


Monday, September 5, 2016

A Simple Will Is Not Enough

A basic last will and testament cannot accomplish every goal of estate planning; in fact, it often cannot even accomplish the most common goals.  This fact often surprises people who are going through the estate planning process for the first time.  In addition to a last will and testament, there are other important planning tools which are necessary to ensure your estate planning wishes are honored.


Beneficiary Designations
Do you have a pension plan, 401(k), life insurance, a bank account with a pay-on-death directive, or investments in transfer-on-death (TOD) form?

When you established each of these accounts, you designated at least one beneficiary of the account in the event of your death.  You cannot use your will to change or override the beneficiary designations of such accounts.  Instead, you must change them directly with the bank or company that holds the account.

Special Needs Trusts
Do you have a child or other beneficiary with special needs?

Leaving money directly to a beneficiary who has long-term special medical needs may threaten his or her ability to qualify for government benefits and may also create an unnecessary tax burden.  A simple vehicle called a special needs trust is a more effective way to care for an adult child with special needs after your death.

Conditional Giving with Living or Testamentary Trusts
Do you want to place conditions on some of your bequests?

 

If you want your children or other beneficiaries to receive an inheritance only if they meet or continually meet certain prerequisites, you must utilize a trust, either one established during your lifetime (living trust) or one created through instructions provided in a will (testamentary trust).

Estate Tax Planning
Do you expect your estate to owe estate taxes?

A basic will cannot help you lower the estate tax burden on your assets after death.  If you think your estate will be liable to pay taxes, you can take steps during your lifetime to minimize that burden on your beneficiaries.  Certain trusts operate to minimize estate taxes, and you may choose to make some gifts during your lifetime for tax-related reasons.  

Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship
Do you own a house with someone “in joint tenancy”?

“Joint tenancy” is the most common form of house ownership with a spouse.  This form of ownership is also known as “joint tenancy with right of survivorship,” “tenancy in the entirety,” or “community property with right of survivorship.”  When you die, your ownership share in the house passes directly to your spouse (or the other co-owner).  A provision in your will bequeathing your ownership share to a third party will not have any effect.

Pet Trusts
Do you want to leave money to your pets or companion animals?

Pets are generally considered property, and you cannot use your will to leave property (money) to other property (pets).  Instead, you can use your will to name a caretaker for your animals and to leave a sum of money to that person for the animals’ care. 


Monday, August 29, 2016

Protecting Your Legacy with Estate Tax Planning

You spend your whole life building your legacy but sadly, that is not always enough. Without careful estate tax planning, much of it could be lost to taxes or misdirected. While a will or living trust is essential for dividing your estate as you wish, an estate tax plan ensures you pass on as much of your legacy as possible.

Understanding estate tax laws

For the past decade, estate tax laws have been a sort of political football with significant changes occurring every few years.  The good news is that the 2013 tax act made the basic $5 million estate tax exemption “permanent,” but at a higher rate of 40%, though the law continues to adjust the exemption level for inflation. With this adjustment the 2015 exclusion $5.43 million ($10.86 million per married couple). The law also retained exclusion “portability” which means that if one spouse dies in 2014 or 2015, the surviving spouse may pass on the unused portion of the deceased spouse’s exclusion. This portability is not automatic, however. The unused portion needs to be transferred by the executor to the surviving spouse, and a special tax return must be filed within nine months. The surviving spouse does not have to pay estate taxes at this time, they only become due after both spouses have died.

Optimizing your estate plan

One way to maximize the amount you can pass on is through annual gifting while you are alive. An individual is allowed to give $14,000 each year to another individual, tax-free. If you give more than that, it will reduce your basic lifetime exclusion. So, if you give a child $50,000 this year, your basic $5.43 million exclusion will be reduced by $36,000 at the time of your death. You can gift as much as your full $5.43 million exclusion before incurring taxes, although doing so would “exhaust” your estate tax exemption at death. Gift taxes are paid by the giver, not the recipient.

An experienced estate tax planning attorney can help minimize potential gift and estate taxes by:

  • Identifying taxable assets
  • Transforming your wishes into a will or living trust
  • Keeping you apprised of federal and state tax law changes
  • Establishing an annual gifting plan
  • Creating family and charitable trusts
  • Setting up IRA charitable rollovers
  • Setting up 529 education savings plans
  • Helping you create a succession plan for your family business

It’s never pleasant to consider the end of your life, but planning for it will help ensure that the things you care about are cared for. It is one of the greatest gifts you can give your loved ones.


Monday, August 15, 2016

Veteran’s Aid & Attendance Benefit: Avoid Scams and Get Trustworthy Advice

Many veterans are unaware of the Aid and Attendance benefit, a component of the Veteran’s Administration Improved Pension that was designed to provide much-needed financial help to elderly veterans and their spouses. Even veterans who know about this pension benefit, however, are frequently targeted by scam artists attempting to take advantage of elderly or infirm veterans and their families.


By educating yourself about the Aid and Attendance benefit and learning how to recognize a scam, you can ensure your family gets the help it deserves without falling prey to veteran’s pension fraud.

What is the Aid and Attendance benefit?

The Aid and Attendance benefit provides additional financial benefits to veterans and their surviving spouses, over and above any other veteran’s pension they receive.  The benefit is available if the veteran or spouse requires a regular attendant to accomplish daily living tasks such as eating, bathing, undressing, taking medications, and toileting.  The benefit is also available to veterans and their surviving spouses who are blind, who are patients in a nursing home due to physical or mental incapacity, or who are living in an assisted care facility.

The Aid and Attendance benefit is not limited to veterans with service-related injuries.  Furthermore, it provides assistance to a veteran who is independent but has a sick spouse.  In these situations, the pension benefit provides financial assistance to compensate for the income depletion caused by the care needs of the sick spouse.


How to avoid Aid and Attendance benefit scams

The most common scams target veterans through seminars and other types of outreach programs about the Aid and Attendance benefit.  Usually, they promise to file a claim with the Veteran’s Administration on behalf of the veteran, for a fee, but the claim is never filed or is filed incorrectly.  Not only does this type of scam harm the veteran financially, an incorrectly filed claim could damage the veteran’s ability to get approval of a correctly filed application.

Another type of scam targets homeless veterans.  The scam artist promises to file an Aid and Attendance benefit application for the veteran, in exchange for a monthly fee taken out of the veteran’s benefit check.  The veteran agrees to have the check mailed to the scam artist’s home or business address, and the scam artist takes the entire check or continues to take a monthly fee without performing any work for the vet.

If you or a family member has questions about the Aid and Attendance benefit or any other aspect of veteran’s pensions, find a qualified veteran’s pensions attorney or accredited service officer to give you the answers you and your family deserve. 

 


Monday, August 8, 2016

6 Events Which May Require a Change in Your Estate Plan

Creating a Will is not a one-time event. You should review your will periodically, to ensure it is up to date, and make necessary changes if your personal situation, or that of your executor or beneficiaries, has changed. There are a number of life-changing events that require your Will to be revised, including:

Change in Marital Status: If you have gotten married or divorced, it is imperative that you review and modify your Will. With a new marriage, you must determine which assets you want to pass to your new spouse or step-children, and how that may relate to the beneficiary interest of your own children. Following a divorce it is a good idea to revise your Will, to formally remove the ex-spouse as a beneficiary, and also change your beneficiary on any life insurance policies, pensions, or retirement accounts.

Estate planning is complicated when there are children from multiple marriages, and an attorney can help you ensure everyone is protected, which may include establishing a trust in addition to the revised Will. Depending on jurisdiction, this may also apply to couples who have established or revoked a registered domestic partnership. If one of your Will’s beneficiaries experiences a change in marital status, that may also trigger a need to revise your Will.

Births: Upon the birth of a new child, the parents should amend their Wills immediately, to include the names of the guardians who will care for the child if both parents die. Also, parents or grandparents may wish to modify the distribution of assets provided in their Wills, to include the new addition to the family.

Deaths or Incapacity: If any of the named executors or beneficiaries of a Will, or the named guardians for your children, pass away or become incapacitated, your Will should be revised accordingly.

Change in Assets: Your Will may need to be changed if the value of your assets has significantly increased or decreased, or if you dispose of an asset. You may want to modify the distribution of other assets in your estate, to account for the changed value or disposition of the asset.

Change in Employment: A change in the amount and/or source of income means your Will should be examined to see if any changes must be made to that document. Retirement or changing jobs could entail moving to another state, thus subjecting your estate to the laws of that state when you die. If the change in income modifies your investing, saving or spending habits, it may be time to review your Will and make sure the distribution to your beneficiaries will be as you intended.

Changes in Probate or Tax Laws: Wills should be drafted to maximize tax benefits, and to ensure the decedent’s wishes are carried out. If the laws regarding taxation of the estate, distribution of assets, or provisions for minor children have changed, you should have your Will reviewed by an estate planning attorney to ensure your family is fully protected and your wishes will be fully carried out.


Monday, July 25, 2016

Planning for Your Final Sendoff

Although most people don’t like to think about it, death is inevitable. It’s imperative that you have an estate plan in place that outlines your end of life wishes and how you would like your assets distributed upon your passing. As part of your planning, it’s important that you consider and make arrangements for your funeral. By planning this event before your passing, you can spare your family difficult decisions and ensure that your send off is exactly as you’d like it.

Here are a few things to consider:

Location
Funerals are not limited to churches or temples. If you’re not religious or if you want something different, you might ask that your relatives instead hold a memorial service in your honor at the park or even at the family vacation home.

Burial
Perhaps you hate the idea of being buried at the local cemetery and would prefer to be cremated. There are many options and having your relatives all agree upon one can be challenging. Be sure to make these wishes known as part of your funeral planning.  

Details    
You wouldn’t want someone picking the song for the first dance at your wedding so why would you want someone else deciding all of the details of an event to celebrate your life? As part of your funeral planning, list songs you might want played or poems which should be recited. If your favorite vacation was to Hawaii, you might want to brighten up the event with tropical flowers from Maui.

Obituary
It can be difficult to write about your life but for many writing their own obituary can help them reflect on the important things while giving them a chance to highlight their proudest moments. If you aren’t a writer or find this task daunting, consider writing a few bullet points for your loved ones so the information they share is accurate and provide a list of publications where it should be featured. Sure, your children may know that you belong to the church book group but they may have no idea that that same group has a newsletter which should share this information with fellow members.

Virtual Passwords
Traditionally when a person died, his or her children had the task of going through the old phone book and calling contacts to inform them of the news. Today, many of us connect with friends and relatives online. To help your heirs effectively communicate information about your passing, be sure to store your online passwords in a place where your relatives can find them and access the appropriate accounts accordingly.

Paying in Advance
Funerals can be very expensive and a huge burden for many families dealing with the loss of a loved one. Luckily, with the right planning, you can prepay for your funeral and save your family the expense. Generally an attorney or a funeral director can help you to determine how much money will be needed and help you to establish a trust where it will be stored until your passing.

While planning your funeral may seem to be a depressing thought at first, it is actually empowering—allowing you determine how you will say farewell to your loved ones and leaving you with peace of mind knowing that you’ve taken care of every last detail so your family can celebrate your life without the added stress of planning your funeral.  


Monday, July 18, 2016

Turning Over the Keys: Helping Older Drivers Make the Tough Decision

We all want to be in control, to go where we want at our leisure.  As we age, however, our senses and reaction times begin to slow which can make getting behind the wheel increasingly hazardous. It is important to be realistic about the driving abilities of loved ones as they reach a certain stage and to prepare accordingly. Not only will it keep seniors safe, but planning ahead will help them financially as they make other arrangements for transportation.

The first step is to reduce the need to drive. Find ways to bring the things they need right to them, like ordering groceries online for delivery and encouraging in-home appointments. Suggest that they invite friends and family over for regular visits instead of going out. They may be surprised by how many things are possible from the comfort of their own home.

For the times your loved ones need to, or want to, venture elsewhere, look into other transportation options. Although there is usually no need to quit driving all at once, look to family, friends, taxis, and public transportation when you can, especially for longer trips. Use the money you’ve been saving, along with what would have been spent on gas, on alternate modes of transportation. Their town may even have designated senior transportation services. 

The time to start making this transition may be sooner than you or your loved ones think. Don’t wait until an accident leaves them with no alternative. It may be time to start talking about limiting driving if they report noticing subtle difficulties, like trouble reading traffic signs or delayed breaking. Keep an eye out for small dings in your loved one’s car or surrounding items, like the mailbox or garage door, along with slower response time or difficulty finding their way around familiar territory. Ask them to watch for these things as well.

Asking a loved one to turn over their keys can be tough but with an open dialogue, the right support system and reasonable alternatives in place to ensure that they can continue to live an active lifestyle, a smooth transition is feasible.  


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