Tag Archives: Wills

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.

Can Mom change the Trust after Dad dies?

Dear Liza: My father died several years ago, after my mother passes the children inherit equally per both their wills and the Family Trust.  Can my mother change the terms of the trust now?  The documents state that the estate will be equally shared by the surviving children when our mother passes.  She has decided this means that she can give everything in the homes to one sibling and that when she passes  the homes will be sold and divided between all of the surviving children.  It seems to me this is not what Dad wanted.  Hmm. So, here’s a not very satisfying answer: MAYBE. It all depends on what your parents set up before your father died.  Some family trusts do indeed leave everything in a revocable trust for the benefit of the surviving spouse. If that’s what your parents did, then, yes, your mother is free to change the terms of that trust and she is free to give things away during her lifetime as well because the trust assets are all hers. If, however, your parents set up what’s called an “A/B” trust, your mother’s assets would be in a revocable trust that she would be free to change, but your father’s assets (up to the limit of whatever the estate tax exemption was in the year that he died) would be held in an irrevocable trust, which your mother would not be able to change during her lifetime. In California, where I practice, state law requires that you and your siblings would have to be notified after your father died if such an irrevocable trust was established upon his death. Notice requirements differ from state to state, however. Best to find out what your state requires. Your father’s Will probably leaves his tangible personal property (such as clothes, books, etc) to your mother, and then pours whatever else he owned at death into the family trust. So that’s the document that matters in determining what your mother can, and can’t, do now.

Naming Kids as Beneficiaries

Dear Liza: Do you have any recommendations on naming children as secondary beneficiaries for life insurance/investments? Why, as a matter of fact, I do! If your children are minors (under 18 in most states), your estate plan should establish some way of managing money for them until they are old enough to handle money responsibly. This is usually accomplished by creating a trust for them until a certain age, say twenty-seven. Until then, you would name a trustee to manage and distribute the child’s assets for them; after that, the money’s theirs to manage and invest. If you have created a living trust, you would name that trust as the beneficiary for your life insurance and the secondary beneficiary for your retirement accounts — that way, the money will be available to your children, but be managed by your trustee.

You can instead use a Will as your main estate planning document and your Will can set up exactly the same structure of a trust for children managed by a trustee until the children reach a certain age. However, if you use a Will, your estate will go through probate BEFORE the trust for the kids can be funded (don’t worry, the kids will have access to your estate during the probate process). Think of this as two roads to the same place — one road (the living trust)  just gets you there faster.

If, however, you name minor children directly as beneficiaries on those forms, and you die while they are still minors, a guardian of the estate will have to appointed to manage these assets, and, when a child reaches the age of 18, they money will be all theirs.

If your children are adults, you can and should name them directly. It makes it easier for them to deal with these assets after your death and there are special advantages to doing this with respect to retirement accounts.

Estate Planning for Almost Here Babies

Hi Liza,
I am about to create my Will and Living Trust.  My son has two sons and his wife is pregnant with twin girls.  I would like to know if I can name the twins in my Will/Trust now although they are not due to be born until December? I’ve written Wills that name children soon-to-be born. You could say that you want to benefit all of your son’s children, including the twins girls due in December. Or you could just say all of the children of your son that are alive at your death (which, unless you die before December would certainly include the new twins). Good luck!