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”

 

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

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”

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

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”

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

Do I Need a Beneficiary for my Checking Account? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

When you open up most investment accounts, you’ll be asked to designate a beneficiary. This is an individual who you name to benefit from the account when you pass away. Does this include checking accounts?

Investopedia’s recent article asks “Do Checking Accounts Have Beneficiaries?” The article explains that unlike other accounts, banks don’t require checking account holders to name beneficiaries. However, even though they’re not needed, you should consider naming beneficiaries for your bank accounts if you want to protect your assets.

Banks usually offer their customers payable-on-death (POD) accounts. This type of account directs the bank to transfer the customer’s money to the beneficiary. The money in a POD bank account usually becomes part of a person’s estate when they die but is not included in probate when the account holder dies.

To claim the money, the beneficiary just has to present herself at the bank, prove her identity and show a certified copy of the account holder’s death certificate.

You should note that if you are married and have a checking account converted into a POD-account and live in a community property state, your spouse automatically will be entitled to half the money they contributed during the marriage—despite the fact that another beneficiary is named after the account holder passes away. Spouses in non-community property states have a right to dispute the distribution of the funds in probate court.

If you don’t have the option of a POD account, you could name a joint account holder on your checking account. This could be a spouse or a child. You can simply have your bank add another name on the account. Be sure to take that person with you because they’ll have to sign all their paperwork.

An advantage of having a joint account holder is that there’s no need to name a beneficiary because that person’s name is already on the account. He or she will have access and complete control over the balance. However, a big disadvantage is that you have to share the account with that person, who may be financially irresponsible and leave you in a bind.

Remember, even though you may name a beneficiary or name a joint account holder, you should still draft a will. Speak with a qualified estate planning attorney to make sure about all your affairs, even if your accounts already have beneficiaries.

Reference: Investopedia (August 4, 2019) “Do Checking Accounts Have Beneficiaries?”

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

How Can Beneficiary Designations Wreck My Estate Plan? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

It’s not uncommon for the intent of an individual’s will and trust to be overridden by beneficiary designations that weren’t chosen carefully.

Some people think that naming a beneficiary should be a simple job and they try to do it themselves. Others don’t want to bother their attorney with what seems like a straightforward issue. A well-intentioned financial advisor could also complete the change of beneficiary form incorrectly.

Beneficiary designations are often used for life insurance and retirement benefits, but more frequently, they’re also being used for brokerage and bank accounts. People trying to avoid probate may name a “payable on death” beneficiary of an account. However, they don’t know that doing this may undermine their existing estate plan. It’s best to consult with your attorney to make certain that your named beneficiaries are consistent with your estate planning documents.

Wealth Advisor’s “7 Ways That Beneficiary Designations Can Mess Up Your Estate Plan” lists seven issues you need to think about when making your beneficiary designations.

Cash. If your will leaves cash to various people or charities, you need to make certain that sufficient money comes into your estate so your executor can pay these gifts.

Estate tax liability. If assets do pass outside your estate to a named beneficiary, make certain there will be sufficient money in your estate and trust to pay your estate tax lability. If all your assets pass by beneficiary designation, your executor may not have enough money to pay the estate taxes that may be due at your death.

Protect your tax savings. If you have created trusts for estate tax purposes, make sure that sufficient assets flow into your trusts to maximize the estate tax savings. Designating individuals as beneficiaries instead of your trusts may defeat the purpose of your estate tax planning. If there aren’t enough assets in your trust, the estate tax provisions may not work. As a result, your heirs may eventually end up paying more in taxes.

Accurate records. Be sure the information you have on the change of beneficiary form is accurate. This is particularly important if the beneficiary is a trust—the trust name, trustee information and tax identification number all need to be right.

Spouses as beneficiaries. Many people name their spouse as the primary beneficiary of their life insurance policy, followed by their trust as the secondary beneficiary. However, this may defeat your estate planning, especially if you have children from a first marriage, or if you don’t want your spouse to control the assets. If your trust provides for your surviving spouse on your death, he or she will be taken care of from the trust.

No last minute changes. Some people change their beneficiary designations at the last minute because they’re nervous about assets flowing into a trust. This could lead to increased estate tax payments and litigation from heirs who were left out.

Qualified accounts. Don’t name a trust as the beneficiary of qualified accounts, like an IRA, without consulting with your attorney. Trusts that receive such qualified money need to contain special provisions for income tax purposes.

Be sure that your beneficiary designations work with your estate planning rather than against it.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (October 8, 2019) “7 Ways That Beneficiary Designations Can Mess Up Your Estate Plan”

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

A Will is the Way to Have Your Wishes Followed – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A will, also known as a last will and testament, is one of three documents that make up the foundation of an estate plan, according to The News Enterprises’ article “To ensure your wishes are followed, prepare a will.”

As any estate planning attorney will tell you, the other two documents are the Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These three documents all serve different purposes, and work together to protect an individual and their family.

There are a few situations where people may think they don’t need a will, but not having one can create complications for the survivors.

First, when spouses with jointly owned property don’t have a will, it is because they know that when the first spouse dies, the surviving spouse will continue to own the property. However, with no will, the spouse might not be the first person to receive any property that is not jointly owned, like a car.  Even when all property is jointly owned—that means the title or deed to all and any property is in both person’s names –upon the death of the second spouse, a case will have to be brought to court through probate to transfer property to heirs.

Secondly, any individuals with beneficiary designations on accounts transfer to the beneficiaries on the owner’s death, with no court involvement. However, the same does not always work for POD, or payable on death accounts. A POD account only transfers the specific account or asset.

Other types of assets, such as real estate and vehicles not jointly owned, will have to go through probate. If the beneficiary named on any accounts has passed, their share will go into the estate, forcing distribution through probate.

Third, people who do not have a large amount of assets often believe they don’t need to have a will because there isn’t much to transfer. Here’s a problem: with no will, nothing can be transferred without court approval. Let’s say your estate brings a wrongful death lawsuit and wins several hundred thousand dollars in a settlement. The settlement goes to your estate, which now has to go through probate.

Fourth, there is a belief that having a power of attorney means that they can continue to pay the expenses of property and distribute property after the grantor dies. This is not so. A power of attorney expires on the death of the grantor. An agent under a power of attorney has no power after the person dies.

Fifth, if a trust is created to transfer ownership of property outside of the estate, a will is necessary to funnel unfunded property into the trust upon the death of the grantor. Trusts are created individually for any number of purposes. They don’t all hold the same type of assets. Property that is never properly retitled, for instance, is not in the trust. This is a common error in estate planning. A will provides a way for property to get into the trust upon the death of the grantor.

With no will and no estate plan, property may pass to someone you never intended to give your life’s work to. Having a will lets the court know who should receive your property. The laws of your state will be used to determine who gets what in the absence of a will, and most are based on the laws of kinship. Speak with an estate planning attorney to create a will that reflects your wishes and don’t wait to do so. Leaving yourself and your loved ones unprotected by a will is not a welcome legacy for anyone.

Reference: The News Enterprise (September 22, 2019) “To ensure your wishes are followed, prepare a will.”

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

Make the Most of Beneficiary Designations – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

There’s an easy way for select assets to be passed to heirs, with no need for probate. It’s called the beneficiary designation.

Your will is a document that is used to pass property and assets to your heirs, but it’s not the only way.

Certain accounts or assets have beneficiary designations, where you provide instructions on who is to receive assets when you die. Most people don’t realize that the beneficiary designation is more powerful than the will, and directions in a will are overruled by the beneficiary designation.

Kiplinger’s recent article, “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid,” explains that assets including life insurance, annuities, and retirement accounts (think 401(k)s, IRAs, 403bs and similar accounts) all pass by beneficiary designation. Many financial companies also let you name beneficiaries on non-retirement accounts, known as TOD (transfer on death) or POD (pay on death) accounts.

Naming a beneficiary can be a good way to make certain your family will get assets directly. However, these beneficiary designations can also cause a host of problems. Make sure that your beneficiary designations are properly completed and given to the financial company, because mistakes can be costly. The article looks at five critical mistakes to avoid when dealing with your beneficiary designations:

  1. Failing to name a beneficiary. Many people never name a beneficiary for retirement accounts or life insurance. If you don’t name a beneficiary for life insurance or retirement accounts, the financial company has it owns rules about where the assets will go after you die. For life insurance, the proceeds will usually be paid to your estate. For retirement benefits, if you’re married, your spouse will most likely get the assets. If you’re single, the retirement account will likely be paid to your estate, which has negative tax ramifications. When an estate is the beneficiary of a retirement account, the assets must be paid out of the retirement account within five years of death. This means an acceleration of the deferred income tax—which must be paid earlier, than would have otherwise been necessary.
  2. Failing to consider special circumstances. Not every person should receive an asset directly. These are people like minors, those with specials needs, or people who can’t manage assets or who have creditor issues. Minor children aren’t legally competent, so they can’t claim the assets. A court-appointed conservator will claim and manage the money, until the minor turns 18. Those with special needs who get assets directly, will lose government benefits because once they receive the inheritance directly, they’ll own too many assets to qualify. People with financial issues or creditor problems can lose the asset through mismanagement or debts. Ask your attorney about creating a trust to be named as the beneficiary.
  3. Designating the wrong beneficiary. Sometimes a person will complete beneficiary designation forms incorrectly. For example, there can be multiple people in a family with similar names, and the beneficiary designation form may not be specific. People also change their names in marriage or divorce. Assets owners can also assume a person’s legal name that can later be incorrect. These mistakes can result in delays in payouts, and in a worst-case scenario of two people with similar names, can mean litigation.
  4. Failing to update your beneficiaries. Since there are life changes, make sure your beneficiary designations are updated on a regular basis.
  5. Failing to review beneficiary designations with your attorney. Beneficiary designations are part of your overall financial and estate plan. Speak with your estate planning attorney to determine the best approach for your specific situation.

Consider the beneficiary designation as part of your estate plan, and you’ll get the full picture of the power of a beneficiary designation. Just as you need to review and update your will to keep up with changes in your life and the law, you also need to update your beneficiary designations.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 5, 2019) “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid”

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys