Category Archives: Wills
Dear Liza: My father recently died. My dad had a trust set up naming me as the trustee and my brother, sister, and I are to split my dad’s assets evenly. I have set up a trust account at his bank (B of A) and have funneled funds into that trust account from his other bank accounts. I mailed off claim forms to a few companies in regards to his stock and annuity assets. Met Life is saying that we need an “ESTATE” and it needs to list me as the executor of the estate. She said that an estate and a trust are two different things and they needed an estate not trust. What is she talking about? It sounds like you are doing a good job as Trustee. It also sounds like the annuity at Met Life may not have a named beneficiary, which would mean that is passes to your father’s estate (and not to the trust).
Here’s the overview: your father had certain assets in his trust. But he, like most people, also owned assets NOT held in the trust, most typically these are retirement accounts (like IRA’s and annuities) or life insurance policies which have named beneficiaries.
When a person dies, these assets go the named beneficiaries. But if a person didn’t name a beneficiary, or named a spouse who then died first and forgot to update the form, these assets then usually pass to a person’s estate (though that’s up to each company’s rules).
In California, where I practice, if that annuity is worth less than $150,000, there’s a simple way to get MetLife to transfer it to you, as Trustee of his trust using a Declaration allowed by the Probate Code. If that annuity is worth more than $150,000, though, you will either have to open a probate proceeding and be named as the executor and then work with MetLife to transfer the asset, or use a court Petition to transfer the asset to the trust via his Will (if it was what’s called a Pour-Over Will, which would be typical).
Each state has a similar threshold, called a Small Estates limit. To find out what your state’s limit is, visit Legal Consumer.com and go to the Inheritance Law Section, which I wrote. (Full disclosure). Enter your zip code and you can find out your state’s small estate limit.
The first step is to ask MetLife who the beneficiary of the policy is. Then, if your father didn’t name anyone, you should probably seek professional help to chart the next steps.
Dear Liza: My relative passed away and I am the only surviving close relative. She left a will that listed me as the beneficiary of her real property. Her only assets were a small house tax value, $37,500 and 2 joint bank accounts totaling $20,000.00 with right of survivorship. The property is in North Carolina. Will this have to go through probate? Based on what you’ve told me here (and with the caveat that I’m not licensed to practice law in North Carolina), yes, this estate will need to go through probate because the value of the house ($37,500) exceeds the North Carolina small estate’s limit of $20,000 and you are not the surviving spouse. The two joint bank accounts will pass to the surviving joint owner outside of probate, but to transfer the house you’re going to need a court order, which is what probate ends with: an order by the court transferring the property to you, as the beneficiary under the Will.
If the house was worth $20,000 or less, you could have avoided probate by using North Carolina’s small estates procedure, which lets you use an Affidavit to transfer small amounts of property. But, since the house is worth more than that, you’re going to need to go through probate.
Dear Liza: My husband and I married in our 60’s and managed our affairs as “yours, mine and ours”. He held his assets in accounts named as his trust. All combined assets were joint accounts, joint tenancy , etc. My accounts are either in my IRA or individual bank accounts in my name only. We contributed an equal amount to our joint accounts every month to pay living expenses. His daughters are trustees of his trust and sole beneficiaries. My husband died last week after a long illness. Do I need to go to probate for the assets NOT named by his trust? I’m sorry about your husband. You won’t need to open a probate if the total value of the assets in his name and not held by the trust are below your state’s small estate’s threshold. In California, where I practice, that limit is $150,000, but it differs state-by-state. To find out your state’s small estate threshold, click here. One important thing to remember is that this total doesn’t include the value of any assets that are held in joint tenancy, those assets pass to the surviving joint tenant automatically, because that’s what joint tenancy means–the surviving joint tenant owns the entire asset, whether that’s a house or a bank account. This total also doesn’t include any assets with a beneficiary designation, such as life insurance or a payable on death account. So, if your husband had only a few small accounts held in his own name that didn’t have a beneficiary or weren’t held in joint tenancy with you, you won’t have to open a probate to transfer them. You will, though, need to follow your state’s rules for small estates– in California, after 40 days, there’s a simple one-page declaration that the executor can sign to transfer these assets. If your husband had a pour-over Will in addition to his trust (which he should have had), these assets would pass to the trust’s beneficiaries, his daughters.
Dear Liza: My husband and I have one adult daughter – 20 years old. We are in our 60’s and want to set up a will or a trust to ensure that 100% of our property and investments goes to our daughter, and that she inherits the assets with the least amount of taxes/probate as possible. What’s better a Will or a Trust? I don’t know what state you live in, and that makes this a hard question to answer completely. Here’s why: the value of doing a living trust depends on the cost and inconvenience of probate in your state.
Both a Will and a trust can ensure that your property passes to your daughter. Both a Will and a trust can incorporate tax planning to minimize any estate taxes that might be due at the death of the second of you (though these days, you’d have to have more than $10 million before worrying about the estate tax, so let’s assume that this is not an issue for you). Really, the difference between which kind of an estate plan to create isn’t so much a “what” question; it’s really a “how” question, as in “how much” and “how long” will it take to settle your estates.
This is because a Will requires a probate proceeding before a distribution to your daughter, while a trust will allow you to bypass probate. This means that if you do a Will, and your estate exceeds the small estates threshold in your state, your daughter won’t inherit anything until the court issues an order for distribution, which is how a probate ends. If you do a trust, and the trust is properly funded at your death, holding title to your major assets, your daughter will be able to inherit those assets as soon as they’ve been identified, taxes and creditors have been paid, and all of the beneficiaries and heirs have been notified.
In states that have adopted the Uniform Probate Code, currently that is 18 states, click here for a list of these, probate has been streamlined and is relatively inexpensive. In states that have not adopted this code, like the one that I practice in, probate takes longer and costs far more than it costs to administer most living trusts. So, in order to sort out what’s the best estate plan for you, you need to find out the cost and delay in going through probate where you live. If you live in a state where probate is relatively easy and fast, you should be fine with just a Will. If you live in a state where probate is expensive and slow, a trust will be the better choice.
Dear Liza: My uncle just died and I and a cousin are co-executors and equal co-heirs. A will is known to exist in a safe deposit box, but we have neither keys nor legal permission to open the box. There are no disputes and the estate is certainly below the tax level.The Mexican authorities seem to want a Birth Certificate in order to issue a Death Cert. As a niece, I am not entitled to get one, and there is no closer relative. What do I do? While it is true that only close family members can order vital records, you, as the executor, are also entitled to order them. In addition, an attorney that is working with you can also order such vital records. In California, where I practice, you must submit a sworn statement saying that you are the executor, and many states have a similar system. You can contact the county vital records office where your uncle was born to request his birth certificate. Here’s a link to a commercial service that makes ordering such documents easy as well. Also, I would ask the bank what the rules are in your state for opening that safe deposit box. In my state, there’s a law that allows bank officials to open the box for the sole purpose of removing a Will, since there’s a certain chicken-and-egg problem if the executor must have the Will to be authorized to open that box.
Dear Liza: A friend of mine is considering a living trust. The only property he has is a coin collection maybe worth around $15,000. He has an adult daughter who he doesn’t communicate with and does not want her to get anything. He would like to leave the collection to me. Is a living trust a good way to go listing me as the trustee or the beneficiary? Or is doing a Will just as good? If the only property that your friend has is a coin collection, a simple Will should accomplish his goals. A Will allows your friend to clearly state who should receive that collection upon his death. Assuming that $15,000 falls below the probate threshold in his state (called the “Small Estates Limit”), no probate would be required upon his death to transfer the collection to you. A living trust is just a way to avoid probate, but really serves no purpose in an estate that’s below the probate limit anyway. To determine the probate threshold in your friend’s state, start here.
Dear Liza: My dad named his mother as his beneficiary, but she passed away in 2004. My dad died in 2013 but didn’t change his beneficiary. I am my father’s only child and he has no wife, so who gets the money ? When a person dies and there’s no surviving beneficiary named for an account, the assets would go that person’s “estate.” You don’t say what kind of account this is, but the most common kind of account with beneficiary designations would be a retirement account, so I’ll make that assumption (though most beneficiary accounts work the same way).
What that means is that, if your father left a Will, the assets in the account that you are describing would pass to the beneficiaries under that Will. If he had no Will, and you are his only child, you would be the beneficiary under the laws of the state that your father lived and died. (These are called “intestacy” laws, and they spell out who inherits if there’s no Will.)
But here’s the thing, your father’s estate may have to go through probate before the assets can be transferred to you. This depends on the size of your father’s estate, and where he lived and died. All states have what’s called a “small estates limit,” and if an estate falls below that limit, no probate is required. I can’t tell from your question how big or small your father’s estate was, or where he lived. But that’s the relevant question for you to ask. If you don’t need to go through probate, there’s a way for you to request that the account be transferred to you without a court order; if you do need to go through probate, you’ll need a court order (which is how probate ends) to have the assets transferred to your name. To find out the probate small estates limit in your father’s state, and how to transfer assets if his estate is under that limit, start here.
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.
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.