Dear Liza: I’ve just completed my estate planning documents using the latest edition of WillMaker Plus, including the will, health care documents, power of attorney, final arrangements, etc. I think all totaled it comes to over 65 pages. I’d like to leave all the documents well-organized so they’re not just a pile of papers that would overwhelm the executor. I’d like to put the documents in a three-ring binder with a table of contents and tabbed for the different sections. Is it legal to hole-punch these documents, either before or after they’re singed and notarized? Would that vary by state? I have never heard of any law that would invalidate documents that were otherwise valid because there are physical holes in the paper. Sometimes my clients make a copy of their documents, hole punch those, and put the copy in a binder, then put the originals in a safe deposit box or safe in their house. It’s great that you are trying to make things easier on your loved ones. Here’s a few other things you could put in the binder: a list of your passwords to online accounts; a list of your accounts, life insurance policies, and other assets; contact information for your heirs and beneficiaries; and a list of people that you work with, if any, such as tax preparers and financial advisors.
Category Archives: Wills
Dear Liza My father wants to leave some of his assets to my brother and sister, however neither of them is particularly adept at handling money and he doesn’t want to hand them a large, lump sum. Can a Will stipulate that they receive payments on a predetermined basis, almost like an allowance? If not, can this be accomplished through another vehicle?
Your father isn’t the only parent worried about leaving money outright to kids. He has a few options. Your father can leave money in his Will to a trust for the benefit of your brother and sister, and specify how the money is to be distributed to them. The trust itself is a part of the Will. Leaving money in a trust by way of a Will is called a “testamentary trust,” because the trust is established after your father dies. This will require a probate proceeding in most states.
Alternatively, your father can create a trust now, and in that trust he can distribute assets to trusts for your siblings as well. This will accomplish the same result, but avoid a probate proceeding at your father’s death. Lastly, your father could, in a Will or a trust, instruct the executor or Trustee to purchase an annuity for your siblings upon his death, that pays out a certain amount of money over a certain period of time, or, he could purchase an annuity like that during his lifetime, to be paid upon his death.
Dear 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.
Dear 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.
Dear 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.
Dear Liza: I want to name my minor grandchildren as beneficiaries of my IRA account. How do I do that? Can I use my Will? It’s a smart idea to name minors as beneficiaries of your IRAs. Since they are young, they’ll be able to withdraw that money slowly over their life expectancy, and only pay taxes on the amounts withdrawn. But you are also correct in understanding that minors need some kind of property guardian or custodian named to manage those assets for them until they are 18–since minors can only own a minimal amount of property.
So, how do you do it?
Don’t try and name beneficiaries in your Will. It won’t work. Your Will is a legal document that governs the distribution of many of your assets, but NOT your retirement accounts. Those will pass only by the beneficiary designations on file with the plan administrator.
Here are the ways that I would advise you to let them know what you want them to do:
You can just name the minor as a beneficiary. Then, if you die while that child is a minor, their parent will need to ask the probate court in their county to name a Property Guardian to manage that account until the child is 18. (The property guardian could be the parent.) In some states, if the IRA is small enough, no property guardian need be appointed, but that will vary state to state. This isn’t ideal, since going to court takes time and some money for filing fees and it ends when the child turns 18 (at which point the money is theirs to manage and spend).
Alternatively, you can name a custodian under your state’s Uniform Transfer to Minor’s Act, which will make that person the custodian for those assets up to a certain age (21 in many states: 25 in others). A beneficiary designation like this would read, “Alan Smith, as custodian for Jane Smith, under ___’s Uniform Transfer to Minors Act to age 25.” Custodial accounts are inexpensive and easy to open at banks and brokerage accounts and end at 21 or 25 (usually), which is older than 18.
Finally, you can name a trust created for that minor as the beneficiary. That way, the trust will manage the money for that child and can last as long as you’d like it to last. A designation like this would read, “Trust created for the benefit of Jane Smith, under the SMITH FAMILY TRUST, under Agreement dated _______.” Trusts can have whatever terms you’d like to use and can last as long as you’d like them to last. IRA withdrawal rules are complicated when a trust has more than one beneficiary, so it’ s not a do-it-yourself project. Their main disadvantage is cost — you’ll have to work with an attorney to draft them.
If the plan administrator doesn’t have a form that makes it easy to name a custodian or a trust, you can do it anyway. Just attach a beneficiary designation form to their form, and make sure that they provide you with confirmation that your wishes have been properly received.
Dear 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.
Dear Liza: I am helping my friend make a Will. It’s very simple, with one heir. She wants to make sure her brother, who is her only living relative and from who she has been estranged from since they left home (she’s 75 ) is not able to challenge the Will. She wants to specifically exclude him in the Will. Is there wording for this and is it necessary? It is very nice of you to help your friend draft her Will. The best way to make sure that her brother can’t challenge the Will is for her to be explicit about excluding him. She can state simply that she is deliberately leaving nothing to her brother, for reasons know to him, or something to that effect.
As her brother (not her spouse or a child), he can’t make an argument that he has a legal claim to her estate simply by reason of their relationship to each other, however, it never hurts to make it QUITE clear that you are excluding someone if that is important to you. In addition, your friend should be careful to properly sign her Will before witnesses as required under her state’s laws. If she has no other legal heirs than her brother, the legal challenge that he might make is simply to invalidate her Will altogether (then inherit as her only legal heir since she would then have died without a Will at all)–so, she should be sure to have the witnesses be able to state that she had the mental capacity to make the Will and that she was under no duress to do so.
Dear Liza: My long term domestic partner of 30 years and I were registered domestic partners for a few years and then she decided she wanted to be totally financially independent of me so we terminated the agreement last year. We are still together as a couple and live five minutes away from each other. Our intention is to leave everything we own to each other and have named each other as executors in our wills. She owns a house that she may or may not be selling but in general our estates are pretty modest. I am wondering since we are still a couple is there is an advantage in terms of avoiding probate in getting married versus doing a living trust? First, can I just say I love being able to have this conversation! Now, down to business. There’s a lot packed into your question. I’m going to answer on a general level, but I think it would be worth it for you and your partner to sit down with an accountant and an attorney and see how my advice addresses your particular concerns.
There are three key estate planning advantages to getting married for same sex couples now, but I wouldn’t frame it as a living trust versus marriage. That’s kind of apples and oranges. A living trust will still allow you to transfer your assets to each other without probate, regardless of whether or not you marry. But being married has two key federal and one state TAX advantage, all of which you’d realize with or without a living trust.
1. Married couples get a step up in basis when one spouse dies on all community property assets. That means that the surviving spouse won’t have to pay capital gains on any appreciated assets that she sells after the first death, other than any gain that happened after the death of the first spouse. For example, if your partner’s house has appreciated a lot since she bought it, and you marry and make that house community property, when one of you dies, that house would be valued at its date of death value, not the original purchase price.
2. Married couples get an unlimited marital deduction from federal estate and gift tax. That means that you and your spouse can give an unlimited amount of assets to each other, at death or during life, and no federal estate or gift tax will be due for those gifts. For those with modest estates (which are most of us) this isn’t as big a concern now that the federal estate and gift tax exemption is $5.25 million, but that number may be reduced by Congress in the future, and it is a benefit that only spouses receive. This, in fact, was the basis for Edie Windsor’s challenge to DOMA.
3. Married couples can pass real property to each other in California without a change in property tax rates. A transfer between spouses is an exception to Proposition 13’s reassessment requirement. Since you and your partner terminated your Registered Domestic Partnership, and it sounds like she purchased the property alone, her transfer of the house to you via a Will would trigger a change of ownership and reassessment for at least 1/2, if not all, of the property, depending on how she holds title at her death.
Dear 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.