Breaking Down the Probate Process

Probate, quite simply, is the process by which the court determines the legal property of a person who has died, and decides to whom those assets will be distributed. It sounds like it should be simple, but somehow, unfortunately, probate is hardly ever simple. Even in the best of circumstances there are procedures that must be followed to the letter, and the actual process (depending on the size of the estate and the laws of the state in which the property is being probated) can take anywhere from 6 months to a few years!

A well-written and executed will can go a long way toward keeping the probate process on the short and easy end of the spectrum; but even with a will, much of your probate experience will depend on elements outside your realm of control. There are certain steps that must be followed to complete the probate process, including:

* The appointment of an executor or personal representative

* Verification of the will

* Taking an inventory of assets belonging to the deceased (which can be very difficult if good records have not been kept)

* Giving notice to creditors

* Paying valid claims against the estate

* Preparing and paying taxes

* Notifying beneficiaries (not all of whom will be easy to find)

* And eventually distributing the assets to the beneficiaries or heirs

If just reading the above takes your breath away, imagine having to organize and execute all of those steps—and possibly more! The good news is that if you find yourself serving as executor of a loved one’s will or estate, you don’t have to go through the process alone. Our office can help you navigate the tangled probate maze from beginning to end—from filing the first court documents to protecting your eventual inheritance—ensuring that your probate experience goes as quickly and smoothly as possible. Don’t hesitate to contact us and find out what your first (or next) steps should be.

How to Begin the Process of Choosing a Guardian for Your Child

Choosing a guardian for a child is one of the most difficult things a parent may ever have to do. From parenting style to living situation to your gut feeling about this or that person’s ability to love your children as well as you do—there are endless issues to consider before you make the final decision.

What follows is a list of only some of the important questions parents may want to ask themselves as they consider their options for guardian of their minor children:

1. Where does your potential guardian live? Will your child be able to stay in a familiar environment during the emotional transition, or will he or she have to move to another city or state?

2. How well does your child know the potential guardian? A familiar parenting style is important, but just as important is how well your child knows the potential guardian and what level of trust he or she feels. If you’re choosing a sibling who lives far away, you may want to make an effort to foster a close relationship between your child and the person you’re nominating as guardian.

3. Is your potential guardian emotionally, physically and financially prepared to care for your child or children? An aging grandparent may love your children without reservation, but may not by physically able to care for a high energy youngster. Likewise, a beloved aunt in her early twenties simply may not have the financial ability to provide for a young quartet of siblings.

4. Does one or more of your children have special needs that will require special knowledge or care? The sudden responsibilities of parenthood would be difficult for anyone, but sudden responsibility for a special-needs child can be overwhelmingly so. Make sure you’ve prepared your potential guardian, and provided for whatever your children may need.

5. Have you discussed your decision with your potential guardian? Before you name someone as your child’s guardian, you’ll want to have a frank and open discussion with them about your mutual hopes and concerns. Make sure your guardian knows that he or she can say no if they are unable to take on the responsibility for any reason—and ensure that you have a backup nomination (or two or three) just in case your first choice does have to decline.

Having children means always planning ahead and thinking about the future, even as you try to live in the present and appreciate the small moments in every day. Nominating a guardian for your children makes it that much easier to focus on the here and now, because in the back of your mind you’ll know that your children will be protected if something happens to you. Let our firm help you achieve that peace of mind.

One-of-a-Kind Families Need One-of-a-Kind Plans

According to statistics the average U.S. family size is 3.2 members. The median age of a man upon his first marriage is 28.1, 47% of women aged 75 or older live alone. Also according to statistics, approximately 60% of couples own their home, 70.7% of mothers with children under the age of 18 go back to work, 6% of men are likely to be unemployed, and approximately 485,000 grandparents aged 65 or more have the primary responsibility for their grandchildren.

Do these statistics accurately portray your family?

“Average,” “median,” and “approximately” may be fine for statistics, but it’s certainly not what you want from your estate plan. Your estate plan should represent your family; your hopes for the future as well as your current needs. This may include a nomination of guardian and education trust for young children, it may include a special needs trust for a disabled child or parent, or it may include incentive trusts for unambitious heirs. Alternatively, you may find that you need none of these, and that a will and simple ancillary documents will serve you just fine.

Whatever your family’s needs may be, you want them to be met by a keen, compassionate, and knowledgeable attorney; someone who will meet you face to face and listen to your concerns with an open mind, not a machine which will spit out a standard document based on numbers and averages. Estate planning may be a business, but it’s also an art, and as such it takes a real person to help create the plan that will provide for you and your family now and in the years to come. The members of our firm have our own families, we understand that you want the best for your family, and we want to help.

Don’t Fall Victim to These Common Estate Planning Myths

The following five myths continually frustrate estate planners. This is not only because we know that not only are they patently untrue, but because their continued circulation can be actually be harmful to your family and your estate.

1. Estate Planning is only for rich people. This is probably the single most common estate planning myth there is—and it is a myth. If you were to add up the value of your home, your life insurance, savings, retirement account, etc., etc., etc. you will likely find that you are much closer to being a “rich person” than you thought. Not only this, but as we’ll get into in more detail below, estate planning is not only about saving on estate taxes, it’s also about controlling your wealth and protecting your own needs when the unexpected occurs.

2. “I have plenty of time.” (AKA: Only old people need estate plans.) First of all, just because you’re young doesn’t mean bad things can’t happen to you. Unexpected tragedies aside, an estate plan is useful even when you’re young because an estate plan is not just about death. A good estate plan will include not only a will, but also a healthcare directive and HIPAA Authorization (both of which are useful if you find yourself facing a surprise stay in the hospital), Power of Attorney documents (which you may need if you ever travel outside the country or are otherwise unable to sign for yourself on financial or legal documents), and legal documents relating to minor children (such as medical authorizations—an essential document if you leave your minor child with a babysitter for any extended period of time.)

3. Married people don’t need estate plans. You may think you don’t need an estate plan because under normal circumstances, any jointly held property will pass automatically to your surviving spouse… But what happens if your surviving spouse gets re-married? What about the property you would specifically like to go to your children, or to your parents or siblings? And what if both you and your spouse die together? These are the reasons why even married people should consider drawing up a simple plan.

4. All I need is a quick will and I’m done. A quick will is certainly better than no will. But there is a saying that “anything worth doing is worth doing well,” and we believe that this goes for wills (or any other legal document) as well. If you want the basics you can have the basics. But if you want the best, you’re going to need to spend a little more time on it.

5. Estate Planning is only about money. While money is one of the main motivating factors behind the creation of an estate plan, money is absolutely not what estate planning is all about. Estate planning is about people. It’s about your family and doing what’s right for them. A well thought-out will or trust saves them from a lengthy probate process, and reassures siblings that they are doing what mom or dad really would have wanted. An estate plan is full of documents designed not just to save you or your heirs money, but to allow you to express your wishes and values even after your death. Estate Planning is about more than just money—it’s about family, legacy, and love.

Share Your Passions As Well As Your Assets

Do you have a hobby that you feel passionate about?

Do you love reading and collecting books? Are you a rabid coin or stamp collector? Do you find peace and tranquility out tending your garden?

Whatever it is that you love; you can bet the people who love you are aware of it. These are the people who join you on your wilderness hikes; the one who might give you a rare baseball card for your birthday; or the friend who goes with you to the antique car show because he knows hobbies are better when you have someone to share them with. These friendships last a lifetime, and yet these friendships are often forgotten when people create their wills and divvy up their estates.

Many people go to their estate planner with their descendents and their financial assets foremost in their minds, and that is as it should be; but your estate plan can be more than a just a way to distribute property to the next generation, it can also be an opportunity to say thank you to the people who have touched your life—by sharing with them the accoutrements and paraphernalia of your hobbies and passions.

You can express how much you appreciate your best chess opponent by leaving her your favorite chess board, or encourage the interest of a young philatelist nephew by bequeathing to him your extensive stamp collection. All you need is an estate plan which includes a personal property memorandum—and which is correctly designed to recognize and refer to that memorandum.

Our office can help you create an estate plan that not only ensures the protection of your heirs and property; it also helps you leave a meaningful ‘thank you’ to the people who matter most.

Four Steps to Creating Your Estate Plan

You’ve heard all the arguments in favor of estate planning, you know it’s the right thing to do, you want to get your planning done… you just aren’t sure how to get started. Estate planning can feel like an overwhelming endeavor when you’re presented with everything at once—the trick to getting started with your planning is to take it one step at a time:

1. Write down your goals. You may have a number of intertwined goals for your estate plan (this is especially true for blended and multigenerational families), or one simple-but-important goal such as “ensure my minor children have a place to go” or “keep the family business intact.” Knowing your goals from the outset will make all subsequent decisions much easier.

2. Make a list of the people you trust. Throughout your estate plan you’ll be nominating people to take over financial, healthcare, and guardianship responsibilities if something happens to you. Have a rough list of people you would trust in these roles. Begin with your initial goal and go from there. For example, if your initial goal was guardianship of minors, make a list of people you would trust with the care your child, and move from there to financial decision-makers, etc.

3. Know your assets. Make a list of all your assets and their approximate values. This will help your estate planner determine what kind of asset protection you need in your plan. Assets include: Your Home, Investment/Vacation Property, Bank Accounts, Savings/Investment Accounts, Retirement Accounts, Life Insurance, Family Owned Business, and others.

4. Bring In the Professionals. Estate planning is a very technical process, and the laws may frequently change, so you’ll definitely want professional help with the details of the process. The good news is that now that you’ve completed the beginning steps, the follow-through with your chosen professional advisor will be a snap! If you already have a relationship with a trusted attorney, insurance agent, financial advisor or CPA you’ll want to start there. Let that person know your goals and that you’re ready to begin planning in earnest; he or she will be able to guide you onto the next steps, or give you the name of an estate planning professional who will help you build your ideal plan.

Although it looks overwhelming from the outset, estate planning is really just a series of small steps, each of which leads you to the achievement of your ultimate goal: Preserving your assets and protecting your loved ones. Now that you know it’s so easy… what are you waiting for?

Why Women Need to Think About Estate Planning

Gender equality has come a long way in the past few decades and years, but still, when most people think of estate planning they think of wealthy older men along the lines of Joe Kennedy or John Rockefeller. The truth is, however, that estate planning is a subject which has a significant impact on women. Why? Here are just a few reasons:

* Older women (65+) outnumber older men by 22.4 million to 16.5 million.

* Poverty rates tend to be higher among older women than older men.

* On average, it is the woman of the family who will end up putting her career on hold for caregiving duties at various times in her life (either to care for young children or aging parents.)

* Not to mention that women’s longer life expectancy, combined with their tendency to marry older mates and their lower lifetime earnings means they are far more likely to see their living standards compromised in retirement if proper estate planning isn’t done.

How can women ensure that this doesn’t happen to them? The best answer is for every woman to take an active part in planning her estate—not just the typical “women’s issue” of guardianship of the children, but the financial issues as well. If you are married, talk to your partner about what will happen to your assets if your spouse passes away first, leaving you a widow.

Most modern women have some assets in their name only (and if you don’t have assets in your own name you will if your spouse is the first to pass away) and it’s important not only to create a will for these assets, but also to talk to your family about how these assets should be distributed upon your death. Because estate planning is all about the details, be sure to bring your estate planner into the conversation so you can discuss the issue in specifics, not just generalities.

There are many reasons for being reluctant to start planning your estate: You don’t have time, your partner or spouse generally takes care of the finances, you’re just not “a numbers person.” But there’s one overwhelming reason to take the plunge: to protect your assets and your future. This isn’t a job any woman should leave to someone else. Taking charge of your estate means taking charge of your life. If you can get the ball rolling, our firm can help with everything else.

What Does Back to School Have to do with Estate Planning?

As summer comes to an end and kids and parents both start getting ready for back-to-school week, estate planning may be the last thing on anybody’s mind; but the beginning of a new school year can actually be the perfect time to give your estate planner a call. Whether your baby is heading off to preschool or college, our office can help you plan for the future and ensure he or she is protected as the school year unwinds.

Any parent of a grade-, middle-, or high-school student knows that the first thing sent home during back-to-school week is the emergency contact forms. These are the forms on which you list who the school should call in case of an emergency when parents can’t be reached, and who might be authorized to make medical decisions for your child if the parents are unavailable. The names you put on these forms can be a perfect starting point for considering who you (and your children) love and trust enough to serve as guardians of your minor children should anything happen to you.

Parents of college-age students (currently or soon to be 18) have a whole different set of legal issues to consider. Although you may still think of your 18 year as your baby, he or she is looked upon as an adult under the law. This means that hospitals and medical personnel are no longer required to ask the parent’s permission before performing medical procedures. In fact, once your child is 18 health care providers are no longer required to share information with the parents at all.

Most college students (and parents) are unaware of this side-effect of turning 18, and parents and children alike can run into frustrating roadblocks should an accident occur. You can avoid these roadblocks by simply having your young adult execute two documents before heading off to school: a healthcare directive nominating you as his or her healthcare agent, and a HIPPA Authorization Form listing you as one of the people who have permission to receive information about his or her medical records and status.

Back-to-school is an exciting time for both parents and children. Taking care of legal and estate-planning business at this time can lift a heavy burden of stress from both parents and children, leaving you all free to enjoy the new year together.

To Tell or Not to Tell About Inheritance; Sharing Your Estate Plan with Your Heirs

Should you talk to your heirs about your estate plan?

The subject of inheritance is one that most people studiously avoid for a number of different reasons: superstition, fear, lack of knowledge, or a desire for secrecy. Many adults were raised to believe that money was a private affair, and that talking about it was inappropriate; but beyond that, many people simply fear that if they talk about their estate plan with their heirs they will meet with resistance, disagreement, or in a worst-case scenario—their heirs will try to counter the estate plan with legal action of their own.

While in some families and circumstances these fears are justified, in most circumstances being silent about your estate plan can have disastrous consequences. A refusal to talk about money or your estate plans with you children means that they will have a difficult time following your wishes in regards to your medical treatment or protection of your assets should disaster strike. Most adult children are actually eager to fulfill their parents’ last wishes, regardless of how it may or may not impact their own inheritance.

Furthermore, your plans for leaving a legacy for your children or grandchildren may clash with their own needs or plans. For example, you may want to leave extra money to a grandchild with special needs, but if that child is receiving government benefits, leaving a significant inheritance in their own name could disrupt that. Discussing your plans with your children ahead of time can prevent situations like this from occurring.

So the answer to the question above is yes, you should talk to your children or heirs about your estate plan if you can. Talking about it will not only make it easier for them to follow your wishes, it may even help you determine how you want to make the best difference in the lives of your heirs.

How a Trust Can Help Protect and Pass Real Estate to Your Heirs

You may think that trusts and estate plans are only for the wealthy, but if you own real estate (including the home you live in) then your family could benefit from the protection and direction a revocable living trust provides. When it comes to real estate, a revocable living trust provides a benefit to your family and heirs in a number of ways; not the least of which is giving you as the owner/grantor flexibility and options for the preservation or distribution of your valuable property.

A recent article in the U.S. News and World Report Money Section describes four different ways to use a revocable living trust to pass your real property on to your heirs. Which of these strategies you may choose to employ (or if you choose to employ a different strategy) will depend largely on the value of the property, the purpose of the property, and the legacy you want to leave to your heirs.

If your property is your primary residence you may choose to have your trustees sell the property and distribute the proceeds equally between your children. If your children are still minors the home can be kept in trust for them to live in with their guardians, or until they come of age and choose to sell the property and split the proceeds. Furthermore, if you are married or in a committed relationship, “It’s not uncommon… for bequests to include a provision allowing a surviving spouse to stay in the home until they die or move out, and then convey the home to children or sell it.”

If your property is a vacation home you can have the deed held by the trust itself, with your children as trustees. This gives your loved ones the opportunity to keep the property in the family for as long as they would choose to use it, with no one person having more ownership or responsibility than another. Alternatively, through a trust you can “give a named heir the option to purchase the home and, if he or she declines, this option is then conveyed to a second named heir and so on. ‘These options can keep going down to other children or descendants.’”

If your property has been in your family for generations you can use a trust to specify that ownership or trusteeship passes down through a family line, protecting the property from the effects of possible divorce or remarriage. “It could transfer the house to one or more family members, for example, with instructions that the home is never to be sold or must stay within the family under certain terms. Such a trust will continue to exist after your death and your appointed trustee will have continuing obligations.”

If your property is a second or third property you may wish to donate the property itself—or the proceeds from the sale of the property—to a favorite charity. A trust can be used to “convey the home or instruct the trustee to sell it and donate the proceeds to the named charity. The trust also could include provisions to allow a surviving spouse or other family members to use the residence for a period and then convey it to the charity.”