Some Assets Better Left Outside of Will – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A will is a document of last resort to transfer assets. There are many ways to transfer assets that would preempt the terms of a will. AARP’s recent article entitled “The Legal Limits of Your Will” provides a list of some major assets that often fall outside a will’s scope, along with tips for getting them to the people or organizations you want.

Retirement accounts. Those named as beneficiaries will get those assets, no matter what the will says. That’s because a beneficiary designation already informed the plan administrator how to handle the asset after your death. There’s no need for probate court involvement.

Life insurance policies. A life insurance policy’s beneficiary listing, not the will, determines who gets the proceeds. However, some states automatically revoke the beneficiary designation of an ex-spouse on a life insurance policy.

Bank accounts. If an account is titled as transfer on death (TOD), payable on death (POD) or joint tenancy with right of survivorship (JTWROS), those designations generally override the will. The account’s signature card would show if any of these designations applies. Ask the bank to look up your card if you aren’t sure. For individual accounts titled TOD or POD, the beneficiary can go to the bank with a death certificate (or death certificates) and proof of identity to transfer or collect the funds. JTWROS accounts become the property of the surviving account holder, who will need to show the bank a death certificate for the other account holder.

Real estate. If two spouses own a home jointly with right of survivorship or as tenants by the entirety, the property automatically is transferred to the remaining spouse without a court’s involvement. Real estate can also be transferred outside a will in certain states through a TOD deed, in which you name the beneficiary on the property.

Trusts. Any asset in a trust isn’t governed by a will. Therefore, trusts are another tool for distributing assets outside of probate court. However, after a trust is created, you must retitle accounts, change beneficiaries, or take other measures so that each asset you want to put into the trust will actually end up there.

Reference: AARP (September 29, 2022) “The Legal Limits of Your Will”

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How Can I Minimize My Probate Estate? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Having a properly prepared estate plan is especially important if you have minor children who would need a guardian, are part of a blended family, are unmarried in a committed relationship or have complicated family dynamics—especially those with drama. There are things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones, as described in the article “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate” from the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Probate is the process through which debts are paid and assets are divided after a person passes away. There will be probate of an estate whether or not a will and estate plan was done, but with no careful planning, there will be added emotional strain, costs and challenges left to your family.

Dying with no will, known as “intestacy,” means the state’s laws will determine who inherits your possessions subject to probate. Depending on where you live, your spouse could inherit everything, or half of everything, with the rest equally divided among your children. If you have no children and no spouse, your parents may inherit everything. If you have no children, spouse or living parents, the next of kin might be your heir. An estate planning attorney can make sure your will directs the distribution of your property.

Probate is the process of giving someone you designate in your will—the executor—the authority to inventory your assets, pay debts and taxes and eventually transfer assets to heirs. In an estate, there are two types of assets—probate and non-probate. Only assets subject to the probate process need go through probate. All other assets pass directly to new owners, without involvement of the court or becoming part of the public record.

Many people embark on estate planning to avoid having their assets pass through probate. This may be because they don’t want anyone to know what they own, they don’t want creditors or estranged family members to know what they own, or they simply want to enhance their privacy. An estate plan is used to take assets out of the estate and place them under ownership to retain privacy.

Some of the ways to remove assets from the probate process are:

Living trusts. Assets are moved into the trust, which means the title of ownership must change. There are pros and cons to using a living trust, which your estate planning attorney can review with you.

Beneficiary designations. Retirement accounts, investment accounts and insurance policies are among the assets with a named beneficiary. These assets can go directly to beneficiaries upon your death. Make sure your named beneficiaries are current.

Payable on Death (POD) or Transferable on Death (TOD) accounts. It sounds like a simple solution to own many accounts and assets jointly. However, it has its own challenges. If you wished any of the assets in a POD or TOD account to go to anyone else but the co-owner, there’s no way to enforce your wishes.

Contact us to speak with one of our experienced estate planning attorneys.  An experienced, local estate planning attorney will be the best resource to prepare your estate for probate. If there is no estate plan, an administrator may be appointed by the court and the entire distribution of your assets will be done under court supervision. This takes longer and will include higher court costs.

Reference: Indianapolis Business Journal (Aug. 26,2022) “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate”

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What’s the Difference between Probate Assets and Non-Probate Assets? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Updating estate plans and reviewing beneficiary designations are both important estate planning tasks, more important than most people think. They are easy to fix while you are alive, but the problems created by ignoring these tasks occur after you have passed, when they cannot be easily fixed or, cannot be fixed at all. The article “Who gets the brokerage account?” from Glen Rose Reporter shares one family’s story.

The father of three children had an estate plan done when the children were in their twenties. His Last Will and Testament directed all assets in a substantial brokerage account to be equally divided between the three children.

His Last Will and Testament was never updated.

Thirty years later, his two sons are successful, affluent physicians with high incomes. His daughter is a retired educator who had raised two children as a single mom and struggled financially for many years.

When her father met with his investment advisor, he signed a beneficiary designation leaving the substantial brokerage account, including the substantial growth occurring over the years, to his daughter.

When he dies, the two brothers claim his Last Will and Testament, dividing all assets equally, must be the final word. They insist the brokerage account is to be divided equally among the three children.

Any assets held in an account with a beneficiary designation are considered non-probate assets. They do not pass through the probate process. Their disposition is not controlled by the Last Will and Testament. The contract between the institution and the individual is paramount.

Insurance policies, retirement accounts, bank and brokerage accounts usually have these designations. They often include a pay-on-death provision, and the person who is to receive the assets upon death of the owner is clearly named.

If the owner of the account fails to sign a right of survivorship, pay-on-death or to name a beneficiary designation before they die, then the assets are paid by the financial institution to the probate estate. This is to be avoided, however, since it complicates what could be a simple transaction.

The two sons were correctly advised by an estate planning attorney of their sister’s full and protected right to receive the investment account, despite their wishes. When the provisions in the Last Will and Testament conflict with a contract made between an owner and a financial institution, the contract prevails.

In this case, a less financially secure daughter and her family benefited from the wishes and foresight of her father.

Last Wills and Testament and beneficiary designations need to be reviewed and revised to ensure that they reflect the wishes of the parent as time goes by.

Reference: Glen Rose Reporter (Jan. 13, 2022) “Who gets the brokerage account?”

 

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What a Will Won’t Accomplish – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Everyone needs a will. A last will and testament is how an executor is named to manage your estate, how a guardian is named to care for any minor children and how you give directions for distribution of property. However, not all property passes via your will. You will want to know what a will can and cannot do, as well as how assets are distributed outside of a will. This was the topic of “The Legal Limits of Your Will” from AARP Magazine.

Retirement and Pension Accounts

The beneficiaries named on retirement accounts, including 401(k)s, pensions, and IRAs, receive these assets directly. Some states have laws about requiring spouses to receive some or all assets. However, if you do not keep these beneficiary names updated, the wrong person may receive the asset, like it or not. Do not expect anyone to willingly give up a surprise windfall. If a primary beneficiary has died and no contingency beneficiary was named, the recipient may also be determined by default terms, which may not be what you have in mind.

Life Insurance Policies.

The beneficiary designations on an insurance policy determine who will receive proceeds upon your death. Laws vary by state, so check with an estate planning attorney to learn what would happen if you died without updating life insurance policies. A simpler strategy is to create a list of all of your financial accounts, determine how they are distributed and update names as necessary.

Note there are exceptions to all rules. If your divorce agreement includes a provision naming your ex as the sole beneficiary, you may not have an option to make a change.

Financial Accounts

Adding another person to your bank account through various means—Payable on Death (POD), Transfer on Death (TOD), or Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship (JTWROS)—may generally override a will, but may not be acceptable for all accounts, or to all financial institutions. There are unanticipated consequences of transferring assets this way, including the simplest: once transferred, assets are immediately vulnerable to creditors, divorce proceedings, etc.

Trusts

Trusts are used in estate planning to remove assets from a personal estate and place them in safekeeping for beneficiaries. Once the assets are properly transferred into the trust, their distribution and use are defined by the trust document. The flexibility and variety of trusts makes this a key estate planning tool, regardless of the value of the assets in the estate.

Reference: AARP Magazine (Sep. 29, 2021) “The Legal Limits of Your Will”

 

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Does a Married Couple without Children Need a Will? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

While estate planning for couples with no children seems like it would be very simple, the opposite is almost always the case, according to this informative article titled “Three keys to estate planning for couples without children” from The News-Enterprise.

If there is no last will, intestate succession laws dictate who will receive property.

There are three relatively simple ways for couples to be sure their wishes will be followed, and property distributed as they want.

A secondary level of beneficiaries. Couples do not always die at the same time, although it does happen. For the most part, upon one spouse’s death, assets owned together, including Payable on Death, or POD accounts, remain in the possession of the surviving spouse. If all of the assets are owned jointly, the surviving spouse may be able to avoid probate altogether. However, they should check with an estate planning attorney to be sure their state will accept this.

There should be provisions in the last will, in case of a simultaneous death. This lets the more important provisions focus on the beneficiaries. While property may pass easily outside of probate to the survivor, the same will not be true if property is to pass to beneficiaries. The estate will go through probate.

If at all possible, couples should have the same designated beneficiaries. If the couple intends to leave everything to the surviving spouse, they will need to decide who will receive joint property after both have died.

Last wills for each spouse must be created to work together. Designating separate lists of beneficiaries in each spouse’s last will and testament ultimately results in the marital property being left only to one spouse’s loved ones. The result: the other spouse’s family can end up being disinherited.

One way to address this is to create marital shares of property. Couples generally divide marital property in equal shares, although couples in blended families may choose to use a different fractional share.

For each fractional share, each spouse should write out their own list of beneficiaries, being sure that the total ends up being 100%.

Another point to be determined: will survivors within the group receive a larger share pro rata, or will children of the deceased beneficiaries receive their shares? This needs to be clarified when the estate plan is created to avoid potential problems for beneficiaries.

Beneficiaries could potentially be changed after the death of the first spouse, so if the couple wants to prevent anyone from being disinherited, they can use a revocable living trust. This can lock up the deceased spouse’s shares in a manner to allow the property to remain available for the survivor, but the survivor cannot change beneficiaries for the deceased spouse’s share.

Estate planning for couples with no children can have its own pitfalls, so consult with an experienced estate planning attorney, who will know how to protect all members of the family.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (July 27, 2021) “Three keys to estate planning for couples without children”

 

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What is not Covered by a Will? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A Last Will and Testament is one part of a holistic estate plan used to direct the distribution of property after a person has died.  A recent article titled “What you can’t do with a will” from Ponte Vedra Recorder explains how Wills work, and the types of property not distributed through a Will.

Wills are used to inform the probate court regarding your choice of Guardians for any minor children and the Executor of your estate. Without a Will, both of those decisions will be made by the court.  It is better to make those decisions yourself and to make them legally binding with a will.

Lacking a Will, an estate will be distributed according to the laws of the state, which creates extra expenses and sometimes, leads to life-long fights between family members.

Property distributed through a Will necessarily must be processed through a probate, a formal process involving a court.  However, some assets do not pass through probate.  Here is how non-probate assets are distributed:

Jointly Held Property. When one of the “joint tenants” dies, their interest in the property ends and the other joint tenant owns the entire property.

Property in Trust. Assets owned by a trust pass to the beneficiaries under the terms of the trust, with the guidance of the Trustee.

Life Insurance. Proceeds from life insurance policies are distributed directly to the named beneficiaries.  Whatever a Will says about life insurance proceeds does not matter—the beneficiary designation is what controls this distribution, unless there is no beneficiary designated.

Retirement Accounts. IRAs, 401(k) and similar assets pass to named beneficiaries.  In most cases, under federal law, the surviving spouse is the automatic beneficiary of a 401(k), although there are always exceptions.  The owner of an IRA may name a preferred beneficiary.

Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts. Some investment accounts have the ability to name a designated beneficiary who receives the assets upon the death of the original owner.  They transfer outside of probate.

Here are some things that should NOT be included in your Will:

Funeral instructions might not be read until days or even weeks after death. Create a separate letter of instructions and make sure family members know where it is.

Provisions for a special needs family member need to be made separately from a Will.  A special needs trust is used to ensure that the family member can inherit assets but does not become ineligible for government benefits.  Talk to an elder law estate planning attorney about how this is best handled.

Conditions on gifts should not be addressed in a will. Certain conditions are not permitted by law.  If you want to control how and when assets are distributed, you want to create a trust. The trust can set conditions, like reaching a certain age or being fully employed, etc., for a Trustee to release funds.

Reference: Ponte Vedra Recorder (April 15, 2021) “What you can’t do with a will”

 

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What Must Be Done when a Loved One Dies? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

When a member of a family dies, it falls to the people left behind to pick up the pieces. Someone has to find out if the person left a last will, get the bills paid, stop Social Security or other automatic payments and file final tax returns. This is a hard time, but these tasks are among many that need to be done, according to the article “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die” from Business Insider.

This year, more families than usual are faced with the challenge of taking care of the business of a loved one’s life while grieving a loss. When death comes suddenly, there is not always time to prepare.

The first step is to determine who will be in charge. If there is a will, then it contains the name of the person selected to be the executor. When a married person dies, usually the surviving spouse has been named as the executor. Otherwise, the family will need to work together to pick one person, usually the one who lives closest to the person who died. That person may need to keep an eye on the house and obtain documents, so proximity is a plus. In a perfect world, the person would have an estate plan, so these decisions would have been made in advance.

Do not procrastinate. It is hard, but time is an issue. After the funeral and mourning period, it is time to get to work. Obtain death certificates, and make sure to get enough certified copies—most people get ten or twelve. They will be needed for banks, brokerage houses and utility service providers. You will also need death certificates for taking control of some digital assets, like the person’s Facebook page.

The first agency to notify is Social Security. If there are other recurring payments, like VA benefits or a pension, those organizations also need to be notified. Contact banks, insurance companie, and financial advisors.

Get the person’s credit cards into your possession and call the credit card companies immediately. Fraud on the deceased is common. Scammers look at death notices and then go onto the dark web to find the person’s Social Security number, credit card and other personal identification info. The sooner the cards are shut down, the better.

Physical assets need to be secured. Locks on a house may be changed to prevent relatives or strangers from walking into the house and taking out property. Remove any possessions that are of value, both sentimental or financial. You should also take a complete inventory of what is in the house. Take pictures of everything and be prepared to keep the house well-maintained. If there are tenants or housemates, make arrangements to get them out of the house as soon as possible.

Accounts with beneficiaries are distributed directly to those beneficiaries, like payable-on-death (POD) accounts, 401(k)s, joint bank accounts and real property held in joint tenancy. The executor’s role is to notify the institutions of the death, but not to distribute funds to beneficiaries.

The executor must also file a final tax return. The final federal tax return is due on April 15 of the year after death. Any taxes that were not filed for any prior years, also need to be completed.

This is a big job, which is made harder by grief. Your estate planning attorney may have some suggestions for who might be qualified to help you. An attorney or a fiduciary will take a fee, either based on an hourly rate for services performed or a percentage of the entire value of the estate. If no one in the family is able to manage the tasks, it may be worth the investment.

Reference: Business Insider (May 2, 2020) “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die”

 

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Do Beneficiaries of a Will Get Notified? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

In most instances, a will is required to go through probate to prove its validity.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “When the Beneficiaries of a Will Are Notified” explains that there are exceptions to the requirement for probate, if the assets of the diseased are below a set dollar amount. This dollar amount depends on state law.

For example, in Alabama, the threshold is $3,000, and in California, the cut-off is an estate with assets valued at less than $150,000. If the assets are valued below those limits, the family can divide any property as they want with court approval.

The beneficiaries of a will must be notified after the will is filed in the probate court, and in addition, probated wills are placed in the public record. As a result, anyone who wants to look, can find out the details. When the will is proved to be valid, anyone can look at the will at the courthouse where it was filed, including anyone who expects to be a beneficiary.

However, if the will is structured to avoid probate, there are no specific notification requirements.  This is pretty uncommon.

As a reminder, probate is a legal process that establishes the validity of a will. After examining the will, the probate judge collects the decedent’s assets with the help of the executor. When all of the assets and property are inventoried, they are then distributed to the heirs, as instructed in the will.

Once the probate court declares the will to be valid, all beneficiaries are required to be notified within a certain period established by state probate law.

There are devices to avoid probate, such as setting up joint tenancy or making an asset payable upon death. In these circumstances, there are no formal notification requirements, unless specifically stated in the terms of the will.

In addition, some types of assets are not required to go through probate. These assets include accounts, such as pension assets, life insurance proceeds and individual retirement accounts (IRAs).

The county courthouse will file its probated wills in a department, often called the Register of Wills.

A will is a wise plan for everyone. Ask a qualified estate planning attorney to help you draft yours today.

Reference: Investopedia (Nov. 21, 2019) “When the Beneficiaries of a Will Are Notified”

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What are the Main Estate Planning Blunders to Avoid? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

There are a few important mistakes that can make an estate plan defective—most of these can be easily avoided by reviewing your estate plan periodically and keeping it up to date.

Investopedia’s article from a few years ago entitled “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning” lists these common blunders:

Not Updating Your Beneficiaries. Big events like a marriage, divorce, birth, adoption and death can all have an effect on who will receive your assets. Be certain that those you want to inherit your property are clearly detailed as such on the proper forms. Whenever you have a life change, update your estate plan, as well as all your financial, retirement accounts and insurance policies.

Forgetting Important Legal Documents. Your will may be just fine, but it will not exempt your assets from the probate process in most states, if the dollar value of your estate exceeds a certain amount. Some assets are inherently exempt from probate by law, like life insurance, retirement plans and annuities and any financial account that has a transfer on death (TOD) beneficiary listed. You should also make sure that you nominate the guardians of minor children in your will, in the event that something should happen to you and/or your spouse or partner.

Lousy Recordkeeping. There are few things that your family will like less than having to spend a huge amount of time and effort finding, organizing and hunting down all of your assets and belongings without any directions from you on where to look. Create a detailed letter of instruction that tells your executor or executrix where everything is found, along with the names and contact information of everyone with whom they will have to work, like your banker, broker, insurance agent, financial planner, etc.. You should also list all of the financial websites you use with your login info, so that your accounts can be conveniently accessed.

Bad Communication. Telling your loved ones that you will do one thing with your money or possessions and then failing to make provisions in your plan for that to happen is a sure way to create hard feelings, broken relationships and perhaps litigation. It is a good idea to compose a letter of explanation that sets out your intentions or tells them why you changed your mind about something. This could help in providing closure or peace of mind (despite the fact that it has no legal authority).

No Estate Plan. While this is about the most obvious mistake in the list, it is also one of the most common. There are many tales of famous people who lost virtually all of their estates to court fees and legal costs, because they failed to plan.

These are just a few of the common estate planning errors that commonly happen. Make sure they do not happen to you: talk to a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (Sep. 30, 2018) “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning”

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Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

For some couples, getting married just does not feel necessary. However, they do not enjoy the automatic legal rights and protections that legally wed spouses do, especially when it comes to death. There are many spousal rights that come with a marriage certificate, reports CNBC in the article “Here is what happens to your partner if you are not married and you die.” Without the benefit of marriage, extra planning is necessary to protect each other.

Taxes are a non-starter. There is no federal or state income tax form that will permit a non-married couple to file jointly. If one of the couple’s employers is the source of health insurance for both, the amount that the company contributes is taxable to the employee. A spouse does not have to pay taxes on health insurance.

More important, however, is what happens when one of the partners dies or becomes incapacitated. A number of documents need to be created, so should one become incapacitated, the other is able to act on their behalf. Preparations also need to be made, so the surviving partner is protected and can manage the deceased’s estate.

In order to be prepared, an estate plan is necessary. Creating a plan for what happens to you and your estate is critical for unmarried couples who want their commitment to each other to be protected at death. The general default for a married couple is that everything goes to the surviving spouse. However, for unmarried couples, the default may be a sibling, children, parents or other relatives. It will not be the unmarried partner.

This is especially true, if a person dies with no will. The courts in the state of residence will decide who gets what, depending upon the law of that state. If there are multiple heirs who have conflicting interests, it could become nasty—and expensive.

However, a will is not all that is needed.

Most tax-advantaged accounts—Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs, 401(k) plans, etc.—have beneficiaries named. That person receives the assets upon death of the owner. The same is true for investment accounts, annuities, life insurance and any financial product that has a beneficiary named. The beneficiary receives the asset, regardless of what is in the will. Therefore, checking beneficiaries need to be part of the estate plan.

Checking, savings and investment accounts that are in both partner’s names will become the property of the surviving person, but accounts with only one person’s name on them will not. A Transfer on Death (TOD) or Payable on Death (POD) designation should be added to any single-name accounts.

Unmarried couples who own a home together need to check how the deed is titled, regardless who is on the mortgage. The legal owner is the person whose name is on the deed. If the house is only in one person’s name, it will not become part of the estate. Change the deed so both names are on the deed with rights of survivorship, so both are entitled to assume full ownership upon the death of the other.

To prepare for incapacity, an estate planning attorney can help create a durable power of attorney for health care, so partners will be able to make medical decisions on each other’s behalf. A living will should also be created for both people, which states wishes for end of life decisions. For financial matters, a durable power of attorney will allow each partner to have control over each other’s financial affairs.

It takes a little extra planning for unmarried couples, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you have prepared to care for each other, until death do you part, is priceless.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 16, 2019) “Here is what happens to your partner if you are not married and you die”

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