5 Essential Tips for Executors or Trustees

Estate Planning, Probate, Trust AdministrationNo Comments

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.

What Is Probate?

Estate Planning, ProbateNo Comments

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.

10 Phone Calls to Make After the Death of a Loved One

Probate, Trust AdministrationNo Comments

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 10-20 copies of the death certificate, something you will need later.

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 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 regarding termination of health insurance.

Attorney or 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 or tax professional can help. It is especially important to find out if your loved one had any existing estate documents.

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 – You will probably need to file a claim. This is something your attorney or accountant may be able to help with.

Local Newspaper - You’ll want to publish an obituary or notice of death, as well as information about the funeral or memorial service.

Credit card companies and utilities - Give notification of death and pay off any remaining balances.

Bank - Arrange to change any joint accounts or to open an account in your name. 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 their estate. Contact your loved one’s estate planning attorney (or your own) to ensure that nothing is left to chance.

Jane Austen’s Will: It Used to Be So Easy

Estate Planning, ProbateNo Comments

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.

Jane Austen

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.

How To Choose Your Executor or Personal Representative

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Serving as someone’s executor or personal representative is a HUGE job, and not for the faint of heart. Although it is commonly considered an honor, there is a lot of work involved, and an executor must have a great capacity for organization, attention to detail, meeting deadlines, and more. You may be tempted to name your favorite sibling or eldest child just to keep from hurting any feelings, but your family and heirs will not be well served if you choose your executor based on emotion rather than ability.

Keeping this in mind, here are 4 things to consider when choosing your executor or personal representative:

  1. Your executor should be trustworthy. Your executor will be privy to all of your financial secrets: reviewing estate assets, determining your liabilities and paying off creditors, settling outstanding debts, and making distributions to heirs. Chances are you don’t want all that information spread throughout the family or community.
  2. Your executor should be organized. The person you choose will be in charge of a number of detailed tasks, both large and small. He or she will be making lists of assets, meeting court deadlines, making timely distributions for estate taxes, and more. Missing or being late for one of these many steps can draw out the entire process, costing your heirs both time and money.
  3. Your executor should be financially savvy. One of the responsibilities of executor is to keep the estate viable (making sure the mortgage and fees continue to be paid) during the probate process. If you have investment accounts you’ll want to ensure they won’t languish and lose their value before they can be distributed to your heirs.
  4. Your executor should have heart. Although probate is a can be a difficult and detailed process, it is at its core about the people you love. Your executor should have the ability to be caring and compassionate during this emotional time.

If you don’t know anybody you would trust with all of these responsibilities don’t lose faith, there are other options. You can choose a bank or financial institution as your executor, or you can ask your estate planning attorney to partner with the person you choose as executor—helping them with the difficult tasks and ensuring a smooth probate for all involved.

Take Action in the Face of Estate Tax Uncertainty

Estate Planning, Probate, Trust AdministrationNo Comments

If you’ve been reading our blog regularly then you know that the 2010 estate tax repeal has caused no end of confusion and uncertainty; not only for those who have been dealing with probate and trust administration since the tax was first repealed, but also for those who are trying to think ahead and do the right thing for their spouses and children. Many people have come to the erroneous conclusion that they have no choice but to stand by and wait until the Washington politicians make up their minds about whether or not to restore the estate tax retroactively—but we’re here to tell you that you don’t have to wait to protect your assets and your family.

Forbes.com recently published an article entitled How to Protect Your Family From Estate Tax Uncertainty. This article suggests that there are a number of steps you can take right now to protect your heirs and your assets, even if you don’t know what changes lawmakers may enact tomorrow or 2 months from now. Their suggestions include everything from working with your estate planning attorney on contingency plans to account for anomalies such as no estate tax or minimum exemptions, to common sense action items such as taking the time now to track your cost basis for assets (to help your executor and heirs determine the change in value for tax purposes.) The Forbes article also suggests that some people may want to plan to save by giving—taking advantage of the gift tax exemption amounts.

There are always steps you can take to ensure that your estate plan is up to date, our firm can be your compass and your guide; we can help your family prepare for whatever the future may have in store.

Family Feuds: Your Estate Plan Can Save Your Kids’ Relationship

Estate Planning, ProbateNo Comments

Parents want to think the best of their children, but the fact is that many adult children lose their perspective in the wake of the death of a parent and end up permanently damaging their sibling relationships. When mom or dad dies the hurt and emotion takes over; insecurities come out, deep-seated rivalries make themselves known, and logic goes out the window. What all of this can lead to is years and years of brothers and sisters taking each other to court, spending thousands of dollars of your estate fighting over mementos and heirlooms, and lifetime relationships in shatters. . . Unless you have an estate plan.

A recent article by Scripps Howard News Service explains that the best way to prevent this from happening to your children is by creating a good estate plan. A good estate plan can be a great comfort to your children, and can save them thousands of dollars in probate and legal fees; and most importantly, a good estate plan is very clear about your intentions for your assets, leaving no room for court battles or ugly disagreements. But getting that good estate plan takes time and forethought—and the help of a professional.

A good estate plan takes into account the relationships and personalities of your heirs, as well as your own wishes. If one of your children has a problem with substance abuse, or if two of your children had a fight 10 years ago and still don’t speak, those things are considered in the creation of the plan. A good estate plan deals with small items and family heirlooms with emotional value, as well as real property and valuable liquid assets. A good estate plan is created with the idea of creating the best future for your heirs; it doesn’t leave the difficult decisions to be made by others when you’re gone.

If you would like to know more about how to smooth the way for your children and grandchildren, contact our office. We can help you create not just a good estate plan for your situation, but the best future for your family.

Defining Probate

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Probate: [from the Middle-English probat, from Latin probatum…] a : the action or process of proving before a competent judicial authority that a document offered for official recognition and registration as the last will and testament of a deceased person is genuine. b : the judicial determination of the validity of a will.

This Merriam-Webster definition of probate doesn’t make it sound so bad. Quite simply, it is the process by which the court determines the legal property of a person who has died, and decides to whom those assets will be distributed. It sounds like it should be simple… but somehow probate is hardly ever simple. 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!

A good will can go a long way toward keeping the probate process on the short and easy end of the spectrum; but even with a will, much of your probate experience will depend on elements outside your realm of control. There are certain steps that must be followed to complete the probate process, including:

  • the appointment of an executor or personal representative
  • verification of the will
  • taking an inventory of assets belonging to the deceased (which can be very difficult if good records have not been kept)
  • giving notice to creditors
  • paying valid claims against the estate
  • preparing and paying taxes
  • notifying beneficiaries (not all of whom will be easy to find)
  • and eventually distributing the assets to the beneficiaries or heirs

If just reading the above takes your breath away, imagine having to actually go through all of those steps—and possibly more! The good news is that you don’t have to go through it alone, our office can help you navigate the tangled probate maze from beginning to end—from filing the first court documents to protecting your eventual inheritance—ensuring that your probate experience goes as quickly and smoothly as possible.

The Receiving End of Estate Planning

Estate Planning, ProbateNo Comments

We publish a lot on this blog about preparing your estate plan: writing a will, setting up a trust, choosing beneficiaries and nominating guardians; but there is another side to estate planning, a fun side… the receiving end.

You may assume that the receiving end of estate planning is the fun and easy part, but that is not always the case. Coming into an inheritance presents its own questions and challenges; financial, logistical, and personal.

Financial

Receiving an inheritance always means you have to think about taxes. Estate taxes, income taxes, property taxes… The estate tax this year is not as clear as it has been in the past, and you will probably want to have an attorney or accountant help you with it. Whether or not you have help, you will absolutely want to keep paperwork on everything. This includes paperwork from any transfers of inherited property made by you, as well as any and all of the original paperwork you can find for the inherited assets.

Logistical

There is a lot more to an inheritance than simply getting money and spending it. Are you the nominated guardian of young children, holding those assets in trust for their benefit? Or perhaps you are the beneficiary of a trust, and your receipt of the assets is subject to the terms of that trust. Do you have to use the money for school? Do you need to approval of a trustee before you can spend it? Hopefully you are working with a trustee you know and trust, but if you and the trustee disagree you may need mediation or even your own attorney.

Personal

Inherited property is almost always very personal and fraught with emotion. Should you really sell the house grandma lived in for decades and use the money to take a cruise? (If so, wait until after taxes to buy the tickets.) Would your parents have wanted you to use the money to pay for a wedding, or save it for your retirement? Do you want to take the summer home that’s been in your family for generations and own it jointly with your new spouse, or keep the property on your side of the family?

Whatever you choose to do with your inheritance, it’s likely you’ll need some guidance from a knowledgeable and trustworthy professional. Your estate planning attorney can help. Our knowledge of the probate system, estate taxes, and creating vehicles to protect your assets can answer your questions regarding the receiving end of estate planning as well as the planning.

Do You Need A Will Or A Trust?

Estate Planning, ProbateNo Comments

When it comes to estate planning there are two major vehicles for the distribution of property: A will and a trust. Both are very useful tools and can accomplish specific goals—but how do you know which one is best for your family? Which document you will need depends on a number of factors, some of which may seem completely irrelevant at first: the size of your estate, your goals for that estate, the age of your children, your marital status, your retirement account, and many, many more. But the first step to understanding which tool may be right for you is to understand what each document does.

A Will: A will is a formal declaration of your wishes. It is a document you create to declare the extent of your privately held property (it does not cover jointly owned property) and what your wishes are for the distribution of that property. You name an executor to carry out your wishes, and you can even include a nomination of guardian for young children in your will. A will does not go into effect until after you die; before then it is simply a piece of paper containing your private wishes. However, once you have passed away your will no longer remains private, it now becomes a matter of public record, available to anybody who would like to view it, and overseen by the court in a sometimes lengthy and expensive process called probate.

A Trust: A trust is a far more extensive tool than a will. In fact, there are many different kinds of trusts, each of which may be used for specific situations. Most trusts created for estate planning purposes are revocable living trusts (or RLTs.) An RLT is a document created not simply to distribute your property, but to own your property on your behalf, to be invested and spent for your benefit or the benefit of your named beneficiaries. As such, a trust takes effect as soon as you sign it and your property is protected by and subjected to the trust parameters as soon as you place them in the name of your trust. There is a lot of flexibility available with a trust, and yours can be created to fit your unique situation. Most RLTs name the trust creators as the initial trustees, nominating individuals or banks to take over as trustee when the creator becomes incapacitated or passes away. The benefit of a trust is that when the creator passes away, property is not merely distributed and that’s the end of it; the creator can instruct the trustee to distribute the money slowly and in any number of ways, even to the extent of creating new trusts for each beneficiary. Trusts can last for generations, as evidenced by the enduring Kennedy trusts.

Wills and trusts are necessary tools in estate planning, each one working in unique situations. Your attorney will be able to tell you which one is best for your family.

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