Category Archives: Estate Planning Basics

My Aunt Just Died. Can I See the Will?

mourning-108781_150Dear Liza: My wife’s Aunt just died. We went to the funeral because they had been rather close and she wanted to represent her mother’s side of the family. While attending there was a passing reference to how she and some other members of her family were in the Will. What should we expect at this point? Whose obligation is it to notify us? Do we have specific rights in this matter? I’m sorry to hear about your Wife’s Aunt. And all of the questions you are asking are such good ones!  Rules vary a bit state to state, but the general idea is that the person who has custody of the Will is required to lodge that Will with the probate court in the county where your Wife’s Aunt lived.  In California, where I practice, this is supposed to be done within 30 days of the death.  Once the Will is lodged (which means filed with the court), it is a public document, so you, your Wife, and anyone else can get access to it.

If your Wife’s Aunt had sufficient assets to require a probate proceeding, again this amount varies from state to state,  the executor named in the Will would petition the court to open a probate proceeding. This will require publication in a newspaper in the town the Aunt lived in — the idea is that probate is a public proceeding and publication gives notice to creditors who may want to file a claim against the estate.  Also, all of the Aunt’s heirs and beneficiaries would be notified of the probate, and, if anyone objects to the appointment of the executor or the validity of the Will, they can file their objections with the court.

If the Aunt’s assets fell below the limit for a probate proceeding, and here’s a list of the limits for various states, then no probate proceeding needs to be opened, but the Will should still be filed.

Assets left by beneficiary designation are NOT part of the estate passing under your Grandmother’s Will

old-lady-107404_640Dear Liza: My grandmother passed away peacefully at 97 in February.  I am the executor of her will.  She had changed her will, legally, several times depending on who had made her mad at the time.  Instead of changing it again, she made me the sole beneficiary on some cd’s and mutual funds.  In her will, she left $15k or 15%, whichever was less to my half sister.  Do I have to count the funds that were left to me specifically as part of the estate? Your grandmother sounds like she was pretty sassy.  The assets that were left to you directly by beneficiary designation DO NOT count as part of the lesser of 15% or $15K gift your grandmother made to your half sister.

Only the assets that are governed by the Will count for that calculation and are considered to be part of the “estate.”  The assets left to you by beneficiary designation are separate from the assets that will pass to beneficiaries under your grandmother’s Will. If your grandmother’s Will has to go through probate, the assets that pass by beneficiary designation are not part of the probate estate, either.

Are Wills Drafted In Other States Valid?

arizonaDear Liza: I would like to know if my wife and I had a will drawn up in Colorado and now reside in Arzonia do we need to have it redone? If your Will was valid in Colorado, it will be valid in Arizona. Both states require that a Will be in writing, be written by someone over 18 years old, and be witnessed by two people.   Still, if you plan to stay in Arizona, you should consider doing a new Will in Arizona–certain provisions of state law differ and an estate planner in Arizona could tell you which ones.  Also, if you have moved to Arizona permanently, you should re-do your Durable Power of Attorney and Advance Health Care Directive–both documents name Agents to act on your behalf if you are incapacitated (one for health care and one for finance), and these documents tend to be state specific and you want them to be honored by state hospitals and banks without fuss. I’ve linked each document to a form that you can use in Arizona.

Annual Gifts and Lifetime Gifts

gift packageDear Liza, I would like to give my son $200k to upgrade homes.  Can me and my wife each give $13,000 to my son, daughter in law, and two grand children?  That would be $102,000, and then apply the remaining $98,000 to the unified tax credit.  Can I write it all in one check for the four of them? You can write one check for your son and daughter. You can now give $14,000 per person, so you and your wife can give, together, $56,000 to them, as an annual gift, and the remainder can be reported on your gift tax return, filed in April of the following year. If your grandchildren are minors, though, you have to give them a gift into a custodial account, a trust, or a 529 educational savings plan.  Children under the age of 18 can’t own property worth more than a nominal amount without a custodian to manage that money.

Your Mom May Need a Conservatorship

nursing homeDear Liza:  My mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, is completely mentally incompetent and living in a nursing home in Arkansas.  I have only recently learned – surprise! – that she does not have a will.  With my father and brother already deceased, I am her only legal heir, but I fear the difficulties in settling her estate upon her death.  Is there anything I can do now to ease that transition, or I am simply going to have to bite the bullet and hire an attorney?  I do hold her Power of Attorney, but I know that does not grant me the right to write a will on her behalf. I am sorry to hear that your mother is no longer able to manage her own affairs.  You are absolutely correct that, at this point, you don’t have many options in terms of putting a Will in place for her. She can’t write her own now that she doesn’t understand what she would be signing, even if she’s still capable of physically signing a document.

The only legal avenues available to you both involve working with the probate court in the county where your mother lives (and, unfortunately, this also probably involves working with an attorney). You could petition the court to be named your mother’s conservator.  If this petition is granted, you would then be  your mother’s legal guardian, and in a position to have a Will drafted for her, but conservatorship is a long and complex process which will require court hearings, proper notice, and an investigation to determine your mother’s competence and your suitability as her conservator. If you are her only  heir, you could also wait until she dies, then  inherit under your state’s intestacy statutes, which would require a probate proceeding upon your mother’s death, if her assets exceed the small estates limit in Arkansas, which is currently $100,000.

Can I See the Will?

Will being signedDear Liza: My adult son just passed away.  I would like to know whether, when his Will is probated, I will be able to see a copy?  My condolences on your loss.   Your son’s Will must be filed in the probate court in the county in which he died as part of the probate process. Once it is filed, it is public record and you can request a copy from that court. I don’t know where you live, but here’s how it works in the Santa Clara County Superior Court, where I live, and the process should be similar where you are.

What’s a Testamentary Trust?

IRA moneyDear Liza:  I’ve read that I could create a trust for my children in a Will, then name that trust as a beneficiary of my retirement account.  That way, as I understand it, my successor Trustee could manage those retirement assets for my children until they grow up. But if I do that, will my estate have to go through probate before that trust can be established? Yes, in order to establish a trust that’s created by a Will, your estate would have to go through probate first.  What you are describing is called a ‘testamentary trust’ because the trust is created by a Will. The order issued by the court at the end of the probate will incorporate the terms of that trust.

To avoid probate altogether, you should use a living trust to create a trust for the benefit of your children, and put your assets in that trust before you die. You can name that trust as a beneficiary of your retirement account, and, after your death, the successor Trustee will work with the plan administrator for that retirement account to transfer the assets into the trust for your children.  That being said, if your children are over eighteen, it’s easier to name them directly as beneficiaries, rather than work through the medium of a trust–which has a slightly different set of rules for how the required minimum distributions are calculated.

Should I fire my lawyer?

bad lawyerDear Liza:  My grandmother passed in May 2012 and left my mother and I as equal beneficiaries of her estate.  The lawyer that we’ve been working with hasn’t been responsive to our questions or concerns.   After eight months of working with him, it seems that not much has happened. My mother and I don’t feel that he is giving our case an appropriate amount of attention. Should we fire him? Probably. Certainly if you’re not happy with the care with which you have been treated you should at least have a candid discussion with your attorney about it. If you can’t come to a reasonable resolution of the issues, you absolutely have the right to seek other counsel.  Your attorney is, after all, your attorney–and owes you a duty of loyatly and a duty to communicate adequately and keep you updated on the progress of the trust administration. If you do seek other counsel, you have the right to your client file as well. Good luck.

Right of Survivorship

houseDear Liza: I have been wondering if my husband dies, do I have to be on the deed to our house to have right of survivorship?  We have been married 5 yrs., his name only is on the deed, he has no ex-wife or children.  Yes, if you want to inherit that house without a probate proceeding,  you do need to be on that deed in a way that provides you with right of survivorship–which means that upon your husband’s death, you are the sole owner by operation of law alone.  Property owned in this way passes to the surviving owner without any probate requirement.   Any two people can own property with right of survivorship as Joint Tenants.  But married couples have special ways of owning property together. In Alaska, Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas, and Wisconsin, they can own property as Community Property with Right of Survivorship–which combines right of survivorship with a special tax advantage available to surviving spouses who own community property. In many other states, married couples can own property in Tenancy by the Entirety, which combines right of survivorship with certain creditor protections.  Without such a form of property ownership, you would inherit the property as your husband’s surviving heir (if he has no kids), but that will require a probate proceeding, which will cost you both time and money.

Where the Gift Tax falls

Dear Liza: Currently, I own 1/3 of a condominium. My mom owns 1/3 and and brother owns 1/3.  My mom and brother (both alive) want to change the title to just my name.  Do my mom and brother have to pay gift tax or do I have to pay gift tax?   I read on IRS.gov that $5 million free of gift tax during my lifetime is only for estate tax and 13,000 is gift tax each year. Don’t you have to be dead to receive estate tax? So many good questions here.  I will answer, with this caveat: if Congress makes a deal with the President, some of what I have to say may change. As of RIGHT NOW (December 30th, 2012), the donor of the gift (your mother and your brother) are liable for any gift tax due on the transaction, not the donee (that’s you). But, unless that’s one pricey condo, they’re not likely to actually owe any gift tax at all.
Until tomorrow, each person is allowed to give up to $5.12 million, free of gift tax.  This ‘magic  number’ currently applies to all lifetime gifts, or gifts made at death. That number is scheduled to go down to $1 million on January 1, 2013–but still, what that means is your mother and brother would have to file a gift tax return by April of the year following the gift and report the value of the gift (this will require an appraisal to document that value).  If the value of the gift is less than the available magic number, no tax is actually due (but they’ll have used up some of their lifetime ability to give free of gift or estate tax).
That $13,000 gift is called an ‘annual exclusion gift’ and it can be made entirely free of tax, each year, and as long as no gift to any individual exceeds the annual exclusion, no gifts need to be reported at all. The annual exclusion is scheduled to increase to $14,000 in 2013.
I can’t tell from your question where you live. But in California, where I practice, the gift you describe will also result in a partial reassessment of your property taxes,  so please make sure that you also understand the property tax issues raised by the gift you contemplate.