Category Archives: Wills

Using Disclaimers in Estate Planning

Dear Liza: I am the executor of my aunt’s estate in NJ.   She left a number of payable-on-deaht (POD) accounts to me  but her intention was that most of these funds/accounts be given to charity.  I am trying to avoid paying estate and inheritance tax on them, because then the charities will get less.  Is there a way I can redirect them to the charities before they come to me so as to avoid the taxes? When someone gives you something in a Will, or by beneficiary  designation,you can always say, “No Thank You” and not accept the assets, provided you don’t make use of the asset first, and that you do this within 9 months of the death. This is called ‘disclaiming’ the assets. Legally, it’s as if you died first — the asset is then given to whomever is named as the next beneficiary.  In that case, the gift is from the person who died, not from you.  What you can’t do, however, is direct where the assets go next. So, if your aunt left a Will that said everything in her estate was to go to you, then to charity if you did not survive her, your disclaimer would direct those assets to the charity, via that Will. However, if your aunt’s Will did not specify charities as the next beneficiaries, or did not have a Will and simply left those payable-on-death accounts directly to you, and named no second beneficiary, the only way you can give those assets to charity would be to do it directly as a gift from you. If you disclaimed those assets, they would pass to your aunt’s surviving heirs under New Jersey’s law of intestate succession, not to charity. You can give $13,000 per year to any beneficiary free of the gift tax, or $26,000 if you are married and your spouse agrees to make the same gift.

Stuff in the House: Tangible Personal Property

Dear Liza: My mother is 79 years old and is on social security.  She and her brother own a house together.  At this point, I really don’t care if her brother has control of the property.  But I do care if the contents of the house are legally given to him.  Does he have rights to the contents of the furniture in the house?   Does my mother need a Will and would that Will prevent her estate from going into probate?   Your mother’s furniture and furnishings are what’s called “tangible personal property.” This is lawyer-speak for all the stuff in her house: pots, pans, rubber bands, and the couch. That property will pass to you and your siblings if your mother executes a simple Will and gives her tangible personal property and any other assets she owns to her children.  If the house is owned in joint tenancy, the surviving joint tenant (your uncle) would own the property upon your mother’s death, by what’s called “right of survivorship.”  The house passes to him because of the way he and your mother owned it.  But the tangibles, and anything else your mother owned other than the house, would pass to her kids via her Will.  If all she really has at this point are those tangibles, no probate would be required because states exclude small estates from the necessity of a probate proceeding.  Nolo offers a simple Will that would do the trick.

What if there’s no Will?

Dear Liza: My father passed away last fall and I have not received any notification of a Will.  I am estranged from my family and my brothers have refused to tell me the name of any attorney or executor involved with the estate, and have refused to tell me if there is a Will.  Is there any way to demand this information?  There are state laws that require disclosure to you in certain circumstances, and if your family isn’t cooperating, those provide you the best chance to figure out what is going on.  If your father died and did have a Will, the Will is supposed to be lodged with (filed with) the superior court in the county in which your father died by the executor within a certain period of time (which varies from state to state, but is 30 days in California).  Once filed, the Will is a public record and you can get a copy by requesting it from the probate court.  If there is no Will and your father owned property worth more than a certain amount (this also varies state to state, in CA it is $100,000 now and will be $150,000 as of January 1, 2012) the estate has to go through probate before anything can be distributed, unless your father had a surviving spouse.  Probate is a court supervised settling of the estate: the Will is proven to be valid, the creditors are paid, the assets are appraised, and the estate is settled.  If a probate proceeding is opened, you are required to get notice of it, as a surviving heir.  Here’s a good summary of the California probate process.  But, if your father died without a Will, and had less than the minimum required for probate, I’m not aware of any state disclosure laws that would provide you with information about his assets.  If your father died without a Will,  even if there’s no probate, you would, as a surviving heir, be entitled to a share of his assets, but enforcing that without family cooperation will be difficult.

Do I Need a Will and a Trust?

Dear Liza, is it necessary to have both a last will and testament if you have a living trust? Yes, that’s the way it is usually done. There are two main reasons for this.  First, if you have minor children, the Will is where you nominate guardians for them.  But also the Will provides an important way to make sure your trust is the one set of instructions for who gets what and how it’s managed.

 Here’s why: your trust holds the property that you transfer into it during your lifetime. You do this by either recording a deed (for real property) that transfers ownership from you as an individual to you as Trustee, or, in the case of a brokerage or bank account, by filing out paperwork that states that the account is owned by you, as Trustee.  (These are called Change of Title Forms at most institutions; sometimes Trust Account Applications or something similar.) However, most people don’t actually transfer all of their assets into such a trust.  When they die, often there are everyday checking and savings accounts, cars, or other assets outside of that trust.  Sometimes they have simply forgotten to transfer accounts that should have gone into the trust or refinanced a house and taken that house out of the trust in the process, then forgotten to put it back in. So, that’s where the Will comes in–it’s usually a special kind of Will, called a ‘pour-over Will’–and it says that all such property should be poured into the trust/transferred into the trust after a person’s died. That way all of a person’s property will be distributed via the trust.  A note of caution: if too much property is held outside of the trust, you will need a probate proceeding before you can transfer ownership to the trust (the trigger amount varies from state to state). So, don’t rely on that Will to make things work–make sure that your major assets are held by the trust during your lifetime.

Getting a Copy of the Will

Dear Liza:  My mother in law passed away a couple of weeks ago, she lived in Nebraska.   But I am aware Mom had a will, and although we are on good terms, as the sister in law, I did not mention the reading of the will as it sounded like this would happen.  Do my daughters have a right to know what the will says and can we get a copy of the will from the court or where ever it was filed?  In movies there’s a dramatic reading of the Will. In real life, that doesn’t happen hardly ever. Instead, the Will is supposed to be filed in the probate court in the county where the person died. Once filed, that Will is a public record and anyone can get a copy. Here’s a link to information about Nebraska probate law. Good luck.

How Probate Works

Dear Liza:
I live in Massachusetts as well as my 3 other sisters and our parents who are in their 80s live in Florida. My father’s only  brother from South Carolina passed away 3 years ago (they were very close) We recently learned from a friend in SC of a CD in the amount of 67k that was my uncle’s. This CD was in a bank in Connecticut. We assumed this money belonged to my father being the only immediate family (next of kin). However since we did not have a will (the Will is lost) my father was not able to directly receive the money. So one of my sisters took it upon herself to take some legal action and moved that money into “an estate” checking account. She is the “owner” of this estate. I don’t have all the details from her as she is being very secret about it. I do know that she said she has to go to “probate court”? My dad is a vulnerable and passive type of person and unfortunately my dad and I are not fully clear on how this works and having a hard time understanding the process that my sister is doing. My dad being elderly is confused (I’m confused a little too) yet wants to trust my sister that she is doing the right thing and not spending that money.  Based on what you’ve outlined here, it sounds like your sister petitioned the probate court in South Carolina to be named the administrator of your uncle’s estate. (That’s like being the executor, but when there’s no Will; also called the Personal Representative).  And that would make sense, because you’d need a probate to transfer an asset that large.  If that’s what she did, and the court did appoint her administrator, she could take the paperwork issued by the court, and use it to open an estate account. But she’s NOT the owner of the money, she’s in charge of safeguarding it until the probate process is completed.  That process requires that all creditors be notified, all assets identified, all heirs be notified, and all debts paid.  At that point, the court will issue an order distributing that money to the appropriate people under that state’s law of intestacy.  What’s confusing is that your father, as the only living heir, should have received notice from the court of your sister’s petition to be named administrator.  To find out what’s actually happened, you should call the probate court in the county where your uncle died to find out about any proceedings there under his name.  Here’s a helpful article on settling an estate in South Carolina as well.

What’s Fair?

Dear Liza,
 My husband and I are both in our mid-60s and both retired. We want to put a living trust together.  My husband has two daughters (and two grandchildren) from his previous marriage.  I have no children of my own, but have a sister and nieces and nephews.  My husband feels that his daughters should receive two-thirds of our estate, and my family (nieces and nephews) should divide the remaining one-third.  In your opinion, do you think this is fair?  I feel that I have contributed as much as he has over the years and that it should be a 50/50 split.  I hope you are able to give your opinion.  I can, and I will: I’m on your side, if you feel that you’ve each contributed equally to the property you’ve accumulated together during your marriage.  If you lived in a community property state, that’s how you’d have to divide your assets: 50/50.    But it’s not easy to discuss equity with a spouse, and he may feel that his children ‘deserve’ more somehow than your nieces and siblings.  Still, it’s worth working it out together so that your estate plan reflects your wishes, rather than state default rules, which will kick in if you die without a plan at all.   Maybe if you work with a compassionate and wise attorney (honestly, there are some….) he or she can help you two to articulate your views and come to a fair resolution.

Two kinds of guardians for kids: custodial and financial

Dear Liza , My partner and I have each executed our wills, naming the person to be legally responsible for our minor son (age 12) and indicating that our assets would flow first to one another, then to our son in the event of our deaths.  We assumed that the person we have named guardian for our son would have control over these funds, but recently learned that may not be the case.  The person we have named guardian is not a blood relative, and there are blood relatives living who may not want the guardianship responsibility, but want to control the funds.  Also, we would not want our son to have access to all the funds upon attaining age 18, but would want funds to be able to be spent for college expenses, etc.  We completely trust the guardian named to make the right decisions, but need to know how to best make this happen from a legal perspective.  You, like any parent, have two different problems to solve. The first is, “Who is the best person to raise my son to age 18?”  The second is what’s the best way to manage the money my son will inherit and who is right person to take care of that money?” Nominating a guardian of your son in your Will solves problem number one. To solve problem number two, you need your Will to establish a trust for your son, to hold his money until he’s older, say 25 or 30, and name a Trustee of that trust to manage the money until that time. The alternative is to name a guardian of the estate, this person would manage the money for your son, but only until age 18, when he becomes a legal adult.  You can certainly name the same person to both roles, many people do. But, if the best person to raise your son would spend his college money on a pony, naming someone else is a better choice.

Amending or Restating A Living Trust

Hi Liza,  I have a living trust and I’m the trustee in the trust.  I have a will in the trust.  I wanted to make some changes to the will and I’ve been told by my lawyer that I would have to
make another trust if I want to change the people in my will.  If the will doesn’t have to go to probate why can’t I just make the changes in the will and have my designated
trustee distribute my estate after I’m dead?  One of the people in my will has died, one is in a nursing home and two I haven’t heard from in years.  This doesn’t make
any sense to me.  Can you explain this to me? Well, truthfully, now I’m a tiny bit confused. It sounds like you have a trust, and in that trust you leave assets to various people. (I think that’s what having a “will in the trust” means.) Assuming that you are the Grantor of that trust (the person who established it) and it’s a revocable trust, you can certainly amend the trust to reflect your current intentions. It is common that we lose touch with people over the years, or change our minds about what we want to do with our assets over time. To make a small change to an existing document you would have your lawyer draft a trust amendment for you to sign, changing whatever sections of the existing trust needs revising. If you are making a lot of changes, you’d do what’s called a Restatement of Trust, which is like having an all-new trust with all current terms, but with the same name as the old trust, so you don’t need to retitle assets that are already in it. Maybe that’s what your lawyer meant by a “new trust.”

What Happens if We All Die? The God-Forbid Clause

Dear Liza: I set up a living trust and back up will naming my 3 minor children as beneficiaries.  What if one day, me, my husband and all children die at the same time in an accident? 
Both my parents and in-laws do not live in US.  If none of me, my husband and children survives, I want our estate to pass to our families in Asia.  What is the best way to set this up in my will and living trust? Here’s what you do: put in a section that says that if you, your husband, and all of your children (and their issue–your grandchildren, great grandchildren, and so on…) don’t survive you, that you want your estate split equally between your husband’s surviving parents and siblings and your surviving parents and siblings. I call this the “God Forbid Clause” since it covers an unexpected, but not impossible, scenario.  You can leave your estate to anyone you choose to of course–family, friends, charities.  The important thing is to be specific if you have specific people that you want to benefit. If you don’t really know who to leave your assets to at this point, you  could be more lawyerly and less specific and say “your legal heirs” and this would then be determined under the laws of the state in which you executed your estate planning documents.  If you name specific people you would say where they presently live. And you would let your Trustee and Executor know how to find them by giving them a list of where your parents/siblings live and how to reach them. If your family lives abroad, the tax treatment of their inheritance will depend upon the laws in that jurisdiction.