What Is a Testamentary Trust and Do You Need One?

Testamentary Trusts – A couple doing some retirement planning has an updated will and a medical power of attorney in place, prepared with the help of an estate planning attorney. They own some rental property, a small business and life insurance, but their estate is not large enough for them to worry about the federal estate tax.

Do they need or want a testamentary trust to be part of their estate plan? That’s question from a recent article titled “It’s the law: Testamentary trusts provide protection for assets” from the Post Register.

First, there are many different types of trusts. A living trust, also known as a revocable trust, irrevocable trusts and testamentary trusts are just three types. The testamentary trust only comes into effect at death under a last will and testament, and in some cases, depending on how they are structured, they may never come into effect, because they are designed for certain circumstances.

If you leave everything to your spouse in a will or through a revocable trust, your spouse will receive everything with no limitations. The problem is, those assets are subject to claims by your spouse’s creditors, such as business issues, a car accident, or bankruptcy. The surviving spouse may use the money any way he or she wishes, during their lifetime or through a will at death.

Consider if your spouse remarried after your death. What happens if they leave assets that they have inherited from you to a new spouse? If the new spouse dies, do the new spouses’ children inherit assets?

By using a testamentary trust, assets are available for the surviving spouse. At the death of the surviving spouse, assets in the trust must be distributed as directed in the language of the trust. This is especially important in blended families, where there may be children from other marriages.

Trusts are also valuable to distribute assets, if there are beneficiaries with an inability to manage money, undue spousal interference or a substance abuse problem.

Note that the trust only protects the decedent’s assets, that is, their separate property and half of the community property, if they live in a community property state.

The best solution to the issue of how to distribute assets, is to meet with an estate planning attorney and determine the goal of each spouse and the couple’s situation. People who own businesses need to protect their assets from litigation. It may make sense to have significant assets placed in trust to control how they pass to family members and shield them from possible lawsuits.

Reference: Post Register (April 26, 2020) “It’s the law: Testamentary trusts provide protection for assets”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning, Testamentary Trusts, Asset Protection, Decedent, Surviving Spouse, Beneficiaries

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Will or a Trust, Which Takes Priority in a Conflict?

A will or a trust are separate legal documents that usually have a common goal of coordinating a comprehensive estate plan. But which takes priority in a conflict? The two documents ideally work in tandem, but because they’re separate and distinct documents, they sometimes can conflict with one another. This conflict can be accidental or on purpose.

A revocable trust is a living trust established during the life of the grantor. It can be changed at any time, while the grantor is still alive. Which has priority ? Since revocable trusts become operative before the will takes effect at death, the trust takes precedence over the will, in the event that there are issues between the two.

An Investopedia article from 2019, “What Happens When a Will and a Revocable Trust Conflict?” reminds us that a will has no power to decide who receives a living trust’s assets, such as cash, equities, bonds, real estate and jewelry because a trust is a separate entity. It’s a separate entity from an individual. When the grantor dies, the assets in the trust don’t go into the probate process with a decedent’s personal assets. They remain trust property.

When a person dies, their will must be probated, and the deceased individual’s property is distributed according to the terms in the will. However, probate doesn’t apply to property held in a living trust, because those assets are not legally owned by the deceased. As such, the will has no authority over a trust’s assets, which may include cash, real estate, cars, jewelry, collectibles and other tangible items.

Let’s say that the family patriarch named Christopher Robin has two children named Pooh and Roo. Let’s also assume that Chris places his home into a living trust, which states that Pooh and Roo are to inherit the home. Several years later, Chris remarries and just before he dies, he executes a new will that purports to leave his house to his new wife, Kanga. In such an illustration, Chris would have needed to amend the trust to make the transfer to Kanga effective, because the house is trust property, and Chris no longer owns it to give away. That home becomes the property of the children, Pooh and Roo.

Which has priority ? This can be a complex and confusing area, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney to be sure you don’t end up like Kanga with nowhere to live.

Remember a revocable trust is a separate entity and doesn’t follow the provisions of a person’s will upon his or her death.  It is wise to seek the advice of a trust and estate planning attorney to make sure proceedings go as you intend.

While a revocable trust supersedes a will, the trust only controls those assets that have been placed into it. Therefore, if a revocable trust is formed, but assets aren’t moved into it, the trust provisions have no effect on those assets, at the time of the grantor’s death. If Christopher Robin created the trust but he failed to retitle the home as a trust asset, Kanga would have been able to take possession under the will. Oh bother!

Reference: Investopedia (August 5, 2019) “What Happens When a Will and a Revocable Trust Conflict?”

 

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Why a Last Will Is the Foundation of an Estate Plan

An estate planning lawyer has many different tools to achieve clients’ estate planning goals. However, at the heart of any plan is the Last Will, also known as the “last will and testament.” Even people who are young or who have modest levels of assets should have a will—one that is legally valid and up to date. For parents of young children, this is especially important, says the article “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan” from the Sparta Independent. Why? Because in most states, a will is the only way that parents can name guardians for their children.

Having a will means that your estate will avoid being “intestate,” that is, having your assets distributed according to the laws of your state. With a will, you get to determine who is to receive your property. That includes your home, car, bank and investment accounts and any other assets, including those with sentimental value.

Without a will, your property will be distributed to your closest blood relatives, depending upon how closely related they are to you. Few individuals want to have the state making these decisions for their property. Most people would rather make these decisions for themselves.

Property can be left to anyone you choose—including a spouse, children, charities, a trust, other relatives, a college or university, or anyone you want. There are some limits imposed by law that you should know about: a spouse has certain rights to your property, and they cannot be reversed based on your will.

For parents of young children, the will is used to name a legal guardian for children. A personal guardian, who takes personal custody of the children, can be named, as well as a property guardian, who is in charge of the children’s assets. This can be the same person, but is often two different people. You may also want to ask your estate planning attorney about using trusts to fund children’s college educations.

The will is also a means of naming an executor. This is the person who acts as your legal representative after your death. This person will be in charge of carrying out all of your estate settlement tasks, so they need to be someone you trust, who is skilled with managing property and the many tasks that go into settling an estate. The executor must be approved by the probate court, before they can start taking action for you.

There are also taxes and expenses that need to be managed. Unless the will provides directions, these are determined by state law. To be sure that gifts you wanted to give to family and loved ones are not consumed by taxes, the will needs to indicate that taxes and expenses are to be paid from the residuary estate.

A will can be used to create a “testamentary trust,” which comes into existence when your will is probated. It has a trustee, beneficiaries and directions on how distributions should be made. The use of trusts is especially important, if you have young children who are not able to manage assets or property.

Note that any assets distributed through a will are subject to probate, the court-supervised process of administering and proving a will. Probate can be costly and time-consuming, and the records are available to the public, which means anyone can see them. Many people chose to distribute their assets through trusts to avoid having large assets pass through probate.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a will and the many different functions that the will plays in settling your estate. You’ll also want to explore planning for incapacity, which includes having a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Medical Directives. Estate planning attorneys also work on tax issues to minimize the taxes paid by the estate.

Reference: Sparta Independent (Dec. 19, 2019) “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan”

Suggested Key Terms: Last Will and Testament, Guardian, Executor, Trusts, Power of Attorney, Probate Court, Testamentary Trust, Estate Planning Attorney

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What Happens If A Beneficiary Dies Before Receiving An Inheritance?

This beneficiary article is from California and deals with California Law. New York is different.

When the beneficiary of a deceased person’s probate estate or living trust dies during the course of administering the estate and before the full distribution of the inheritance has been made, things can get sticky.

Let’s say a mother dies and her estate is in the process of being probated when her son dies. The son’s estate can claim his inheritance, which it will in turn distribute to the beneficiaries of his estate, according to a recent article, “Beneficiary dies prior to receiving inheritance” from the Lake County Record-Bee.

This might require probating the deceased child’s estate. Whether or not probate is required, depends both on the value of the son’s own estate, which is increased by the amount of the unreceived inheritance. Another factor is whether all or some of the son’s estate passes to a surviving spouse or registered domestic partner.

In California, probate is required when the gross value of a deceased person’s estate exceeds $150,000 and passes to someone other than the decedent’s surviving spouse or registered domestic partner. Estate planning in California, as in other states, is important to lessen the impact of probate.

No probate is needed to transfer assets to a decedent’s surviving spouse or registered domestic partner. They are entitled to use a spousal property court petition to transfer title to real property and other assets held in the name of the deceased spouse into their partner’s name, as relevant.

If the estate is under $150,000, probate is not required and the estate can often be settled by affidavits, or, if the deceased owned real property worth more than $50,000, a small estate petition to confirm title to real and personal property. However, there are instances where probate of a small estate is necessary, because of the decedent’s debts or figuring out who is entitled to receive a portion of the estate.

This type of situation illustrates the benefits of holding assets in a living trust. This avoids probate, spousal property petitions and small estate petitions. Any time property is worth more than $50,000, it makes sense for the owner to hold title to the property in a trust.

Who will then, inherit the son’s estate? If he had a last will and testament, it is the governing document. If he had a revocable living trust, then he likely will also have a “pour-over will,” which “pours” everything over in the estate to the revocable living trust.

Either way, it’s likely the son’s heirs will need to be probated. With no will, the son’s heirs inherit according to the laws of intestate succession.

If the estate has been planned properly, even the complex situation described above will be more manageable. If neither the mother nor the son had an estate plan, it could take many years to unravel the estate. An estate planning attorney can create a plan that is designed with the laws of your state in mind and address many unexpected situations.

Reference: Lake County Record-Bee (December 7, 2019) “Beneficiary dies prior to receiving inheritance”

 

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Tips for Choosing a Fiduciary

One of the important tasks in creating a complete estate plan is selecting people (or financial institutions) to represent you, in case of incapacity or death. Most people think of naming an executor, but there are many more roles, advises the article “What to consider when appointing a fiduciary?” from The Ledger.

Here are the most common roles that an estate planning attorney will ask you to select a fiduciary:

  • Executor or personal representative, who is named in your will and appointed by the court to administer your estate.
  • Agent-in-fact (under a durable power of attorney) who manages your financial affairs while you are living, if you are unable to do so.
  • Health care surrogate who makes health care decisions on your behalf while you are living, if you are incapacitated.
  • Trustee of a trust document; administers the trust that you have created.
  • Guardian: a person who makes health care and financial decisions on your behalf, if the court determines that other roles, like health care surrogate or agent-in-fact, are not sufficient.
  • Guardian for minor children: person(s) who make decisions for your children, if you are not able to because of death or a loss of capacity before the children reach adulthood.

The individuals or financial institutions who take on financial roles are considered fiduciaries or a fiduciary; that is, they have a legal duty to put your well-being first. Their responsibilities may include applying for government benefits, managing and invest your assets and income, deciding where you will live and working with your attorneys, financial advisors and accountants.

Many people name their spouse or eldest child to take on these roles. However, that’s not the only option. A few questions to consider before making this important decision include:

  • Does this person have the experience, skill and maturity to manage my financial affairs?
  • Does this person have the time to serve as a fiduciary?
  • Would this person make the same health care decisions that I would make?
  • Can this person make a difficult decision for my health care?
  • Does this person live near enough to arrive quickly, if necessary?
  • How old is this person, and will they be living when I may need them?
  • What kind of response will my family have to this person being named?
  • Are my assets substantial enough to require a financial institution or accountant to manage?

These are just a few of the questions to consider when choosing a fiduciary or health care agents in your estate plan. Speak with your estate planning attorney to help determine the best decision for you and your family.

Reference: The Ledger (Oct. 16, 2019) “What to consider when appointing a fiduciary?”

 

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What Is a Pour-Over Will?

If the goal of estate planning is to avoid probate, it seems counterintuitive that one would sign a will, but the pour-over will is an essential part of some estate plans, reports the Times Herald-Record’s article “Pour-over will a safety net for a living trust.”

If a person dies with assets in their name alone, those assets go through probate. The pour-over will names the trust as the beneficiary of probate assets, so the trust controls who receives the inheritance. The pour-over will works as a backup plan to the trust, and it also revokes past wills and codicils.

Living trusts became more widely used after a 1991 AARP study concluded that families should be using trusts rather than wills, and that wills were obsolete. Trusts were suddenly not just for the wealthy. Middle class people started using trusts rather than wills, to save time and money and avoid estate battles among family members. Trusts also served to keep financial and personal affairs private. Wills that are probated are public documents that anyone can review.

Even a simple probate lasts about a year, before beneficiaries receive inheritances. A trust can be settled in months. Regarding the cost of probate, it is estimated that between 2—4% of the cost of settling an estate can be saved by using a trust instead of a will.

When a will is probated, family members receive a notice, which allows them to contest the will. When assets are in a trust, there is no notification. This avoids delay, costs and the aggravation of a will contest.

Wills are not a bad thing, and they do serve a purpose. However, this specific legal document comes with certain legal requirements.

The will was actually invented more than 500 years ago, by King Henry VIII of England. Many people still think that wills are the best estate planning document, but they may be unaware of the government oversight and potential complications when a will is probated.

There are other ways to avoid probate on death. First, when a beneficiary is added to assets like bank accounts, IRAs, life insurance policies, or stock funds, those assets transfer directly to the beneficiary upon the death of the owner. Second, when an asset is owned JTWROS, or as “joint tenants with the right of survivorship,” the ownership interest transfers to the surviving owners.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to talk about how probate may impact your heirs and see if they believe the use of a trust and a pour-over will would make the most sense for your family.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Sep. 13, 2019) “Pour-over will a safety net for a living trust.”

 

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What if a beneficiary is not a citizen?
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What if a beneficiary is not a citizen?

When a person dies without a will, the distribution of his or her estate assets is governed by the state’s intestacy statute and the question is what if a beneficiary is not a citizen. All states have laws that instruct the court on how to disburse the intestate decedent’s property, usually according to how close in relationship they are to the person who passed away.

A recent nj.com article responded to the following question: “My ex’s new wife isn’t a citizen. Does she get an inheritance?” The article explains that under the intestacy laws of New Jersey, for example, if the deceased had children who aren’t the children of the surviving spouse, the surviving spouse is entitled to the first 25% of the estate but not less than $50,000 nor more than $200,000, plus one-half of the balance of the estate.

Also, under New Jersey law, aliens or those who are not citizens of the United States are eligible to inherit assets.

In California, if you die with children but no spouse, the children inherit everything. If you have a spouse but no children, parents, siblings, or nieces or nephews, the spouse inherits everything. If you have parents but no children, spouse, or siblings, your parents inherit everything. If you have siblings but no children, spouse, or parents, those siblings inherit everything.

Also in California, if you’re married and you die without a will, what property your spouse will receive, is based in part on how the two of you owned your property. Was it separate property or community property? California is a community property state, so your spouse will inherit your half of the community property.

In that case, an ex-husband’s wife who lives in and is a citizen of the Philippines doesn’t need to be physically present in the state to inherit assets from her husband.

If the deceased owned property in the Philippines, the distribution of those assets would be according to the laws of that country.

Reference: nj.com (August 28, 2019) “My ex’s new wife isn’t a citizen. Does she get an inheritance?”

 

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What Will Happen to Jeffrey Epstein’s Will?

Jeffrey Epstein’s will was filed in the U.S. Virgin Islands. It’s a “pour-over will” that transfers all of his assets into a trust. The trust is secret, not open to the public, and is administered by trustees. Epstein’s will, which is a public document, claimed assets of more than $577 million.

However, none of that money can be moved into Epstein’s trust until a probate court decides what to do with the numerous claims made against the convicted sex offender and his estate.

CBS News’ recent article, “What we know about Jeffrey Epstein’s will, and what happens next with his estate,” provides a list of questions that can help explain what happens next with Epstein’s estate. His estate will be overseen by the two executors named in the will, attorneys Darren K. Indyke and Richard D. Kahn.

The terms of the trust are not public, because they’re not part of the will itself. Epstein’s creation of the trust is commonly done by those who desire privacy. Of course, there is some surprise because the will and the trust were created just two days before he died. One of the most intriguing parts of Epstein’s will is that it lists his domicile (his permanent residence) as the U.S. Virgin Islands. Domicile is important in determining which jurisdiction controls the estate. Domicile must be proven in a probate court, and is usually accomplished with tax returns, a driver’s license, or documented time spent in the jurisdiction.

Another question about Epstein’s will, is whether it will even be declared valid. His will, and thus his entire trust, can be held invalid, if the will wasn’t properly executed and if it wasn’t properly witnessed or signed. There can’t be any fraud, undue influence, or duress. Since the will was made right before his suicide, there’s no certainty of his mental capacity.

His testamentary capacity, which means his mental ability make a valid will or estate, will probably be decided by a probate judge. If his estate planning documents are voided, the assets would transfer to the beneficiary of the estate, which is his brother Mark Epstein. However, Mark would still be liable for creditors’ claims and any alleged victims’ lawsuits.

Epstein’s $577 million in assets will not pass from his estate into his private trust, until all creditors’ claims have been satisfied in a probate court.

Legal experts expect a long, drawn-out, and complex process for deciding the future of Epstein’s wealth.

Reference: CBS News (August 21, 2019) “What we know about Jeffrey Epstein’s will, and what happens next with his estate”

 

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How Do I Get an Executor to Sell My Mom’s Home?

It’s not uncommon for a parent to leave his or her home to their children in equal shares but getting the executor to sell the home is not always easy.

Let’s assume that two sisters are both equal beneficiaries of their mother’s estate in New Jersey. Each adult child has retained an attorney. The executor, who’s a family friend, is moving slowly with the probate process, and it’s been more than a year of waiting. The executor of estate is the individual who is specifically designated in the deceased’s will to manage the estate.

In this case, the glacier-like progress of the executor is causing a strain on the sisters’ relationship. This results in the sisters fighting over the estate. One sister is in no hurry to sell the house, and the other feels frustrated and may have to just give her everything and walk away to save her sanity.

nj.com’s recent article on this topic asks “My mom’s executor won’t sell the house. What can I do about it?” The article says that these sisters probably tried to negotiate a resolution. However, there’s no reason to think the only way to resolve this is for you to “give her everything and walk away.”

The executor should sell the home and distribute the proceeds to the sisters.

If one of the children, her attorney, or the executor object to the sale of the home, a judge may need to intervene.

If there’s no issue, and the executor won’t act, a beneficiary can apply to the court to remove the executor. The judge may then name the two sisters as co-executors, so they can sell the home.

Although there would be legal fees and costs to go to court to get some action, if the executor won’t move, there may not be any other choice.

In addition, the sisters could ask the judge to decrease any executor commission that would be owed to the original slow-moving executor to cover the legal fees, if the judge agrees that the executor was acting improperly.

Reference: nj.com (August 10, 2019) “My mom’s executor won’t sell the house. What can I do about it?”

 

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What to Know Before Becoming an Executor?

An executor steps in for the person who wrote the will and makes sure that all the final arrangements are carried out. When you agree to be named the executor or personal representative of an estate, it’s a big decision. It is far more significant than most people realize. There are many responsibilities to think about, before agreeing to take on the role. Investopedia’s recent article, “5 Things to Consider Before Becoming an Estate Executor” lists five things to consider before saying yes.

  1. Complexity of the Estate. Typically, the larger the estate—which can be in terms of property, possessions, assets or the number of beneficiaries—the harder and more time consuming it will be. The best way to see how difficult the job will be, is to request to see a copy of the current will. If there are obvious red flags, like unequal distributions to children or trusts or annuities, it may be best to say no.
  2. Time Commitment. This job takes time and energy, and requires a lot of attention to detail. Truth be told, almost all has to do with the details. Before you agree to execute a will, you should be sure that you have the time to do the job. It’s also important to review your decision to serve as an executor every time your situation changes, like when you get married, have children or change locations. It’s not unusual for a testator to change executors throughout a lifetime.
  3. Immediate Responsibilities. You may agree to be an executor, thinking that it’ll be years before you have to do any work. However, that’s not always the case. You should be sure the testator is keeping a list of assets and debts and knows where the original will, and the asset list are being held and how to access them. You should also have a list of the contact info for attorneys or agents named by the testator. You can also discuss the testator’s wishes for a funeral or memorial service, including instructions for burial or cremation.
  4. Duties After the Testator Dies. This is when the executor must make funeral arrangements, locate the will, initiate probate, manage assets, pay all debts, submit tax returns and more. This can be a snap, if you’re organized and detail oriented.
  5. How You’ll Be Paid. Each state has laws on how an executor is paid. An executor is also entitled to be compensated for expenses incurred, as they carry out their responsibilities. Executors can also refuse compensation, which is common if you’re doing this for a member of your family.

It’s an honor to be asked to be an executor. It means the testator trusts you to carry out their final wishes and to see to their legacy. However, be sure that you’re up to the task.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2019) “5 Things to Consider Before Becoming an Estate Executor”

 

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