Category Archives: Estate Planning Basics

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.

Transferring a house from a trust

 Dear Liza: My grandfather died in 2008. My mother is the first successor on the trust. We did all the post administration for the trust or so we thought. I recently read that my mother should have filed a deed to get the house placed into her name since that is what the trust called for. We have not done this. My question is the following…My mother wants the house to go to me, her son. What process would we have to do in order to get it from the trust to me? Your grandmother can file the deed she didn’t file after your grandfather died, getting the house into your grandmother’s name, as Trustee of the trust created by your grandfather. Once that’s done, her ability to give that house to you during her lifetime depends upon the terms of the trust your grandfather set up. She may be able to give it to you during her lifetime, in which case you will receive it at the value that it had in 2008, when your grandfather died.  She may only be able to transfer it to you at her death, in which case you will inherit it at the value the house has at her death.  She may not be able to give it to you at all, because, as you said, the terms of your grandfather’s trust became irrevocable at his death. I would advise you to see an estate planning attorney in your state to review your grandfather’s trust and advise your grandmother on the best strategy to accomplish her goals.

As for that mortgage, if you get the property transfer completed, you’ll have to request that the lender assume the loan in your own name, which they may or may not do, that depends on their calculations and your credit history.

How the Estate Tax Works

Dear Liza: My dad just received about $200,000 in cash from his recently passed-away friend’s trust.  I wonder how he should file his tax for 2012?  I found several documents discussing about inheritance tax exemption being $5 million.  Does that only apply to family members and spouses? I love getting questions with clear answers! Your father’s inherited gift from his generous friend does not affect his income tax return for 2012.  Gifts are not ‘ordinary income’ under the tax code.  He gets that money TAX FREE.  It doesn’t matter what his relationship was to the generous friend.  But, if his generous friend’s estate was over the applicable federal exclusion from the estate tax ($5.12 million in 2012), his estate would have had to pay estate tax due.  That’s why it’s called the ‘estate tax’ and not the ‘inheritance tax’–the tax, if over the amount excluded from federal estate tax,  falls on the estate of the decedent, not on those who inherit the assets.

Do I Need a Living Trust?

Dear Liza: I am a 61 single retiree who has a single family home, an IRA, life insurance and a small pension. With my siblings as beneficiaries to these instruments. Is a living trust/will needed anyway? So, it’s true that if you have named beneficiaries for your IRA, life insurance and pension, those assets will go to those beneficiaries and your Will or Living Trust would have nothing to say about that part of your estate plan.  But, here’s the thing–in most states you cannot name a beneficiary for a house.  In those states, the only way to leave your house to certain people and avoid having to go through probate to do it, is to set up a living trust and transfer your house to that trust.  Click here for a list of the states that do permit the transfer of a house by naming beneficiaries on a deed–called a transfer-on-death deed. Sadly, California is not one of them.

Planning for incapacity

Dear Liza: My dad recently passed away and he and my mom had no will.  I am the only child and we have had all the bank accounts changed to my moms name and me as beneficiary but I don’t really know where else or what else (will or power of attorney) I should get.  Now that your mother’s just got you to take care of her if she gets sick, you should absolutely get her to sign a Durable Power of Attorney for Property and an Advance Health Care Directive. Both documents can name you as her Agent, the person who can pay her bills or make medical decisions if she’s unable to do so.   You said that she’s healthy now, and that’s great, but all of us get sick now and then and accidents do happen.  A Will is also a good idea, since that will make it easier for her to leave you her assets without your having to go through probate. (When one spouse dies, probate’s not usually necessary.)  All of these documents can be done inexpensively at www.nolo.com. Here’s the link to the Durable Powers of Attorney forms.

Beneficiary Designations Rule

Dear Liza: I live in the state of Oklahoma, my mother passed away unexpectedly. There was a $9,000.00 burial policy and a $12,000.00 life insurance policy, both policies were paid for by her but in my brothers name. Does my brother get to keep the life insurance policy?  Yep. He does. Your mother named him as the beneficiary for those policies, so he gets to keep the money.  Beneficiary designations like this trump whatever your mother’s Will said about her other assets.  If you take this to the probate court, they’ll tell you the same thing. Sorry.