Category Archives: Probate

What to Do When One Parent Lacks Capacity

happy father and daughterDear Liza, my parents do not have a living trust in place. I need to help them set one up. My father and mother are 91 and 83 respectively. My father has a form of dementia that prevents him from making decision about his property. My Mother is fully capable. Does my Mother have the right to make decisions about a living trust for both of them? Does my father have to sign anything?  I’m sorry that your father is no longer capable of making decisions about his property. Because your father lacks the capacity to understand the nature and consequences of his decisions, he can no longer do any estate planning on his own, even if he’s physically capable of signing his name.

Here’s my  short answer as what kind of estate planning options are available now: your mother can only create an estate plan that includes your father’s property if your father already has a Durable Power of Attorney in place that authorizes her, as his Agent, to create a living trust on his behalf. Not all Durable Powers of Attorney authorize that power, many authorize an Agent to transfer assets into a trust that’s already been created, but not to create a new one.

If your father didn’t sign a Durable Power of Attorney authorizing the creation of a trust, then your mother has two choices:

1) She can create a living trust that holds her 1/2 of the community property. She can leave your father’s property out of that trust. If he dies first, she can have his property transferred to her via a Spousal Property Petition (this is a very simple probate procedure that a surviving spouse can do), and put his property into her trust at that point. This isn’t a perfect solution, because if your mother dies first, your father has no estate plan in place.

     2) She can go to court and have herself named as your father’s conservator – this is a court procedure that, essentially, strips your father of the ability to make legal decisions and allows someone else, a conservator, to do so for his benefit under the supervision of the court. This is expensive, public, and potentially adversarial, but it’s the only way to create a Will or a trust, for someone who now lacks the legal capacity to make their own decisions.

Sorry that I can’t offer you better news, or more options. Good luck.

Can the Executor Give Away Estate Assets?

historic houseDear Liza: My husband is the sole executor (and only child) of his mother’s Will.  There are no other beneficiaries listed in her Will.  The only asset she had was a home which is valued at about $300,000.  Does he need to probate her Will?  As the executor can he sell the home to one of our children for $1.00? Whether or not your husband has to probate the Will depends upon your state’s small estates limit. In most states, an estate that falls below a certain threshold doesn’t have to go through a formal probate. To find out about your state’s small estate limit, click here. But my guess, is yes, a piece of real property that’s worth $300,000 doesn’t fall below that limit in any state that I can think of.

Whether or not your husband can sell the house for a dollar raises a different issue. The short answer is “No.” Your husband, as the executor, has to follow the terms of the Will (as does the probate court). So, at the end of the probate proceeding, the Court will distribute that house to your husband, since you’ve said that he’s the beneficiary under the Will. At that point, if he wants to sell it for 1$ to your kids, he can do so, BUT, the IRS will consider that a gift of the fair market value of the house, minus that one dollar. Essentially, your husband is giving the house to your kids, and pretending that he sold it to them, right? The IRS gets that, they’ve seen it before.

I’d advise your husband to consult with an estate planning attorney. Depending upon the terms of the Will and the time that’s passed since his mother died, he may be able to disclaim the gift and have it pass directly to your children, as a gift from their grandmother directly. A disclaimer is a legal no-thank-you that must be properly executed within nine months of the date of death and before a person has accepted any benefit from that gift. The house would pass to your children only if the Will says that, if your husband died first, it would then pass to his issue. (Not all Wills would say that, so this depends on what it says.)

If he can’t disclaim, he’s absolutely free to make such a gift himself. He’ll have to file a gift tax return by April of the following year, reporting the gift, but he won’t owe any gift tax on the gift because your husband, like all of us, currently has the ability to give up to $5.34 million during life or at death without paying any gift or estate tax.  The gift of $299,999 will use up that much of his available exemption, leaving him with a bit over $5 million more to use.

You also need to find out whether or not your state imposes an inheritance or estate tax. You’ve told me that you live in Pennsylvania, which does impose such a tax. Click here for a general guide to state inheritance and estate taxes, including Pennsylvania.

Disinheriting a Child

Last WillDear Liza: My husband and I both have a will that states we are each other’s beneficiaries and executor’s and our son as 100% beneficiary of both of us died,. My husband has a daughter by a previous marriage.  If my husband dies before me does she have rights to our assets? I often tell my clients the sad irony of estate planning: You can pretty much do whatever you want to do, you just have to die first.  So, in your husband’s case, he is not legally required to leave any money to his daughter from a previous marriage. I am assuming that she is not a minor and he has no other obligations to provide for her via a divorce settlement or the like.

What he needs to do, though, is acknowledge his daughter as his child in the Will, and then to say, explicitly, that he is deliberately choosing NOT to leave her anything under his Will. That way, she (the excluded daughter) cannot make a claim that he simply forgot to include her and make a claim based on her relationship to him. Mind you, she may very well not be happy about this and she may try and challenge the Will as being invalid in some way, but that’s a pretty hard thing to prove: your husband would either have had to lack the legal capacity to understand what he was signing or have been placed under undue influence to execute that Will (i.e. forced to sign) .

But there’s no keeping unpleasant secrets forever.  She’s going to know that she’s been excluded, when the time comes. Notice requirements vary state to state, but generally speaking, upon your husband’s death, she, as his daughter, will be entitled to notice of the probate proceeding and will be able to see a copy of the Will, even though she doesn’t inherit anything under the Will.

The Right Plan for Now: Living Trust

living trustDear Liza,  I’m a young professional and would greatly appreciate your feedback on what type of trust, if any, would suit me well given my current financial and life position.  I’m single, 29 years old (30 later this year), with cash, stocks, and a stake in a high-growth company.  My goal is to protect my assets while maintaining control and flexibility over their allocation / disbursement over time, especially in the event of unexpectedly passing or a disabling event (transfer to immediate siblings and parents).  I’m single and have no plans for marriage or children within the next 5-8+ years, but I would like to protect these going into a marriage as well as the value will likely be a magnitude greater than they are today). Those are all good questions, and congratulations for asking them way before most people give estate planning any thought (including, to be honest, me!)
A revocable living trust will, combined with a pour-over Will and a Durable Power of Attorney for Property Management,  accomplish most of the goals you’ve listed above. An estate plan like that will provide flexibility for you during your lifetime, keep your property separate when you do marry (if you do marry), allow someone (your successor Trustee and Agent under a Durable Power of Attorney) to manage your assets for you if you are incapacitated and transfer your assets to your siblings and parents if you die an untimely death in an efficient and relatively quick manner.
Here’s what it won’t do: protect your assets from creditors.  Revocable trusts exist to avoid probate upon your death and to allow others to manage assets for your benefit if you’re incapacitated, but, because they can be revoked by you at any time, the assets in that kind of trust are available to your creditors.  Business folks create entities, like limited liability partnerships, and corporations, to shield their personal assets from business risks/creditors, but an estate plan doesn’t do that. Hope that helps. Good luck.

Getting Good Advice When You Are The Beneficiary

Will being signedDear Liza: After dealing with an unexpected death of my spouse my head is still spinning.. My spouse was very private after a divorce  and we kept our affairs separate. Now the Will, of which I was unaware, allows me to stay in our home and if I choose to leave or pass it goes to her children. The attorney who handled the will  said I have control of what happens;

1) I can stay in house till death and take 20% of non probate

2) I can take 1/3 of elective share and no house

3) Or I can select make children offer to buy house based on actuarial tables and 20% of non probate.

How do I get that info to make a good decision? Will says to maintain house in good repair, so does that mean I have to put another $20K for a new roof? I’m sorry that you have to make such important choices and were taken by surprise by them, on top of the grief that comes with losing a spouse. Here’s my advice: hire an attorney to represent you, as the beneficiary under the Will. You need someone who can advise you on your options and explain to you what the Will means — not just in regard to what “good repair” means, but also as to what your elective share rights are, for a start (these are determined by state law).
Please ask that attorney how a Will can offer you twenty-percent of “non-probate” assets, as these generally are assets that pass by beneficiary and are not controlled by a Will at all. If your spouse named you as the beneficiary of her retirement assets or if you owned property with her as a joint tenant, these assets would pass to you by virtue of that, not by the Will at all.

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.

Probate for U.S. Assets; Estate Tax for Non-Resident Aliens

pot of goldDear Liza: My brother and I are dual citizens (Japan and US).  We both reside in the US. Our Japanese mother recently passed away. She had some cash/ stock/ annuities/ mutual funds in the US, and some property in Japan that we will inherit jointly, with no disputes. She has a social security number and had a green card at one time, many years ago. She has not lived in the US for over 30 years. There was no will. Given that she was a non-resident foreign national, do we have to go through probate to distribute her US assets (around $650,000)?  Sorry about your Mom. To settle your Mom’s U.S.-based estate you are going to need a probate proceeding to transfer the assets because your mother didn’t leave a Will. This is not because she was a non-resident alien.  This is because she owned significant property in her own name.  That means that you and your brother are going to inherit her property as the intestate heirs (that’s state law for who inherits when someone dies without a Will). Because she owned property worth more than a minimal amount, you will need a court order to get those assets transferred to you, which is the end result of a probate proceeding.

The issues that relate to her citizenship status is this: your mother’s estate is going to have to pay U.S. estate tax.  The rules for non-resident, non-citizen owners of U.S.-based property are complex, but basically, her estate will be taxed on U.S. assets worth more than $60,000. Japan, though, has a taxation treaty with the U.S., so her estate won’t be subject to double estate taxation (in both the U.S. and Japan).   Click here for a link to an IRS summary of these rules.

Capital gains taxes on sale of house

Dear Liza: My daughter is on my deed as joint tenant with me.  If I die and she decides to sell the house,  will she have to pay capital gains taxes? When you die, your daughter will own the whole house, without having to go through probate.   If she then decides to sell the house, she will have to pay capital gains on the increase in value on the one-half of the house that she owned before your death.  The one-half of the house that she inherited from you will get a new tax basis for capital gains purposes, equal to the value of that one-half of the house when you died — this is called a ‘stepped-up’ basis.

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.

Recovering Stolen Property in Probate

Dear Liza: I have a sister who came into my father’s house after he passed away and took  the only valuable item in the house.  My grandmother gave it to my father over 30 years ago.  It was in the house as long as I can remember.  I strongly protested and requested for her to return it back to my father’s estate since.  No positive response as to date.  It has been now over 2 years and we are not on talking terms. I have just been appointed as the administrator of my father’s estate. What is the legal solution of resolving this situation? As the administrator of the estate, you have a fiduciary duty to collect all assets owned by the estate.  I don’t know what state you live in.  In California, where I practice, the Probate Code allows you to file a petition with the probate court that requests the court to issue an order to your sister requiring return of the valuable object to the estate.  If the court agrees with your petition, it can issue that Order.  Enforcing the Order, though, is another matter.  (Your sister may just return the object; but, than again, she may not!) I suggest you consult a probate attorney in your area about drafting such a petition.