How to Protect Loved Ones from Being Disinherited

Disinherited – Even if you’ve updated your wills, power of attorney, trusts and documented your end-of-life wishes, you haven’t finished with your estate plan, says a recent article, “On the Money: Do not disinherit your loved ones” from the Aiken Standard.

Forgetting to update beneficiary designations for retirement plans at work, IRAs, life insurance policies, mutual funds, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, annuities and 529 college savings plans can wreak havoc, with even the best estate plan.

It’s always a good idea to review these designations every few years and update them to reflect your current life. Each account with a beneficiary designation should also have a contingent or secondary beneficiary who will become the primary beneficiary, in case the primary beneficiary dies or declines to accept the asset.

One common occurrence: one child is placed as a beneficiary on an account, thereby invalidating the parents’ will and they disinherited their siblings.

When you name a beneficiary on an IRA account, designate the specific individual by name, rather than by class, such as “all my living children.” Be careful to use the correct legal name. Families where multiple people share names often lead to problems when distributions are being made.

There are other times to review beneficiary designations:

Divorce or remarriage. If a former spouse was listed as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy, you’ll need to get a beneficiary change form to the issuing insurer. Naming your new spouse in your will won’t work.

You’ve started a new job and have rolled over your old 401(k) to an IRA or your new employer’s 401(k). If you want to keep the same beneficiary designations, name them on the new account.

Your primary beneficiary passed away. If you have a secondary beneficiary, that person is now the primary, but you should make sure ongoing designations are in line with current wishes. You’ll also need to name a new secondary beneficiary.

The financial institution changes ownership. Check with the new company to be sure your beneficiary designations are still what you want them to be.

You have a new child or grandchild. Children can’t inherit until they are of legal age, so check with your estate planning attorney to understand how you can provide for your new child or grandchild. Leaving assets to a minor may require the use of a trust.

A beneficiary becomes disabled. Individuals who have special needs and receive federal support have limits on assets. If a beneficiary becomes disabled, an estate planning attorney can create a Special Needs Trust, naming the trust as a beneficiary and keeping any future assets from being countable and making them disinherited for benefits.

Reference: Aiken Standard (Jan. 7, 2023) “On the Money: Do not disinherit your loved ones”

 

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Is Handwritten Instruction in Bible Valid to Update a Will?

The Tennessee Court of Appeals held that a handwritten instruction in a Bible that included only the first name of the writer was a valid codicil that changed a will

The ABA Journal’s recent article entitled “Bible note changed writer’s will, Tennessee appeals court rules” reports that the case concerned the will of Micki D. Thompson and her instruction regarding a gift to Albert Read Lewin.

In a Bible owned by her executor, a close friend, she’d written below the date: “Albert Read Lewin—shall receive $3,000 per month for life—This is appreciation for his care and complete dedication to Micki and her welfare. He gave All in making her life.”

There wasn’t a separate signature beneath the instruction. The Bible was found with Thompson’s personal property.

The parties agreed that the handwriting was Thompson’s, and that she was of sound mind when she wrote the statement that referred to herself in the third person.

However, a trial judge ruled that the writing didn’t meet the Tennessee law’s requirement for a signature for holographic wills.

The law states: “No witness to a holographic will is necessary, but the signature and all its material provisions must be in the handwriting of the testator, and the testator’s handwriting must be proved by two (2) witnesses.”

However, the Tennessee Court of Appeals reversed and found that Thompson’s insertion of her first name within the body of the handwriting satisfies the signature requirement.

When a name is inserted at some point in a holographic will that is not signed by the testator, the presumption is that the writer didn’t intend the writing to be a will.  However,the presumption may be rebutted, the appeals court said.

A holographic will is a handwritten will and testator-signed document. It is not valid in New York.

In this case, the trial court had found that the inscription demonstrated Thompson’s intent. The facts overcame the rebuttable presumption, the Court of Appeals concluded.

Reference: ABA Journal (Oct. 28, 2021) “Bible note changed writer’s will, Tennessee appeals court rules”

 

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Can Executor Take the Money and Run?

What if your executor or trustee decides to run off to the Bahamas with all your assets, leaving heirs with nothing? Ohio Farmer’s recent article entitled “What if trustee runs off with assets?” says that safeguards should be in place to protect the heirs of an estate.

The most common way to protect against this possibility is a fiduciary bond. An executor, trustee, or guardian would get a bond early in a probate case and file it with the court. The bond would remain in place while the fiduciary is serving his or her role. If the fiduciary absconds with estate assets, the bond is there to help the beneficiaries.

This expense would be covered by the fiduciary, who would need to find a bond company willing to issue it. The bond amount is connected to the value of personal property, such as financial accounts, vehicles and personal effects.

Do you need a bond to cover the value of land? No. The primary difference is that land can’t be picked up easily and moved, making a bond unnecessary. It’s also very hard to transfer land without extensive safeguards. In some cases, court permission is required for a transfer. To sell a farm or ranch, a title company might raise suspicion. Real estate-related actions are also often public record. In some cases, a court action can correct issues or order damages.

It’s possible to waive the requirement of a bond. That’s a default setting for bonds with estates, trusts, or guardianships. Most estate planning documents waive the bond requirement, because family members often serve as fiduciaries.

State law may also describe several situations where a bond isn’t required. However, if a party motions the court, and the judge thinks there’s good cause for a bond, one can be required for a fiduciary.

While a bond can provide some important protections for heirs, the likelihood of a fiduciary running off with assets is low. As a result, most administrations view the bond as an unnecessary step and expense.

However, if a family is concerned about the trustworthiness of an executor, the bond requirement should be reinstated.

If an administration is pending, the family can petition the court to require a bond. Consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to determine the role of bonds for your estate plan.

Reference: Ohio Farmer (Nov. 22, 2022) “What if trustee runs off with assets?”

 

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How to Defend a Will Contest

Will Contest – Many famous and wealthy people made mistakes with their estate planning. For instance, Beatle John Lennon’s will failed to mention his first son, Julian Lennon. Railroad heiress Huguette Clark left two wills, 42 days apart, for her $400 million estate. The second will disinherited her family members named in the first. Singer James Brown left the bulk of his estate to charity and passed little to his wife and children.

MSN’s recent article entitled “Counterattack: Tips for Thwarting a Will Contest” says sophisticated planning by the wealthy elite doesn’t preclude disappointed family members from trying to change the results. Putting an in terrorem provision (no-contest clause) to a will or revocable trust is a traditional strategy to discourage attacks. This clause can cause the forfeiture of an inheritance, if someone objects to being excluded from a will.

However, because no-contest clauses are unenforceable in some states, you might ask an experienced estate planning attorney about other strategies like these:

Require mediation for disputes. Some states permit mediation, arbitration, or alternative dispute resolution (ADR) to resolve issues of interpretation or administration. A will could require a potential contestant to use an alternative to litigation.

Use a litigation holdback fund. Instead of forfeiting his or her total interest by filing a lawsuit, the beneficiary’s interest could be escrowed and its access restricted during a contest. The interest when eventually paid to the beneficiary would then be reduced by the expenses of litigation.

Address common grounds for contests in advance. You can anticipate a contest based on common attacks:

  • The testator was not of sound mind. Have the testator undergo an examination by two physicians for capacity issues. Provide the physicians’ signed statements as schedules to the will.
  • Forgery or manipulation. Include a statement of testator intent in the will about the estate plan.
  • Invalid execution. For charges of undue influence, or lack of valid execution, execute the will during filming of a video. Explain the dispositive scheme and name the beneficiaries. It is also important to get a signed statement from witnesses and the notary and have a third-party certify the video’s authenticity.
  • Later will or trust. Add a statement in a video about the documents being the most recent versions and that they haven’t been revoked.

Reference: MSN  (Nov. 9, 2022) “Counterattack: Tips for Thwarting a Will Contest”

 

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What Is Asset Protection Planning?

Yahoo’s recent article entitled “How to Protect Your Money, Even If You’re Not Rich” says that contrary to what many people believe, asset protection planning isn’t just for the wealthy. The estates of anyone, in any income group, can be sued or suffer from hefty taxation.

The following strategies can mitigate the effect of creditor claims and other issues on your wealth.

If you want and need to protect your assets, you should be proactive. However, if you have significant debt and few assets and you are subject to a lawsuit, it may be better to file for bankruptcy than to create an asset protection plan.

That’s because it’s only worth it if you have significant assets, although some events cannot be protected against. These include tax liens, mechanics liens, alimony judgments and child support claims.

A plan benefits these people the most:

  • Anyone with a significant amount of assets.
  • Anyone with a significant, recurring amount of credit card debt.
  • Homeowners underwater on their mortgage (your mortgage balance is greater than the value of your home).
  • Anyone whose profession carries with it a high probability of liability, such as doctors and attorneys.

Some assets aren’t subject to creditors, such as retirement accounts under the protection of the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974 (ERISA).

You may also legally preserve at least a portion of your home equity. Homes may be put in another individual’s name.

The goal of an asset protection plan is to set a level of legal separation between you and your assets. This allows you to legally shelter your assets from creditors without doing anything illegal.

Reference: Yahoo! (Nov. 6, 2022) “How to Protect Your Money, Even If You’re Not Rich”

 

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Can You Prevent Family Fights over Inheritance?

Inheritance battles can create new conflicts, inflame long-standing resentments and squander assets intended to make heir’s lives better. What can families do to prevent estate battles when a loved one’s intentions aren’t accepted is the question asked by the recent article, “Warning Signs Of Estate Disputes—And Ways to Avoid Them,” from mondaq.com.

Here are the more common scenarios leading to family estate battles over inheritance:

  • Siblings who are always fighting over something
  • Second or third marriages
  • Disparate treatment of children, whether real or perceived
  • Mental illness or additional issues
  • Isolation or estrangement
  • Economic hardship

There are steps to take to minimize, if not eliminate the likelihood of estate battles. The most important is to have an estate plan in place, including all the necessary documents to clearly indicate your wishes. You may want to include a letter of intent, which is not a legally enforceable document. However, it can support the wishes expressed in estate planning documents.

Update the Estate Plan. Does your estate plan still achieve the desired outcome? This is especially important if the family has experienced big changes to finances or relationships. An estate plan from ten years ago may not reflect current circumstances.

Make Distributions Now. For some families, giving with “warm hands” is a gratifying experience and can remove wealth from the estate to avoid battles as everything’s already been given away. The pleasure of seeing families enjoy the fruits of your labor is not to be underestimated, like a granddaughter who is able to buy a home of her own or an entrepreneurial loved one getting help in a business venture.

Appoint a Non-Family Member as a Trustee. Warring factions within a family are not likely to resolve things on their own, especially when cash is at stake. Appointing a family member as a trustee could cause them to become a lightning rod for all of the family’s tensions. Without the confidence of beneficiaries, accusations of self-dealing or an innocent mistake could lead to litigation. Removing the emotions by having a non-family member serve as a professional trustee can lessen suspicion and decrease the chances of legal disputes.

Communicate, with a facilitator, if necessary. Families with a history of disputes often do better when a professional is involved. Depending on the severity of the dynamics, this could range from annual meetings with an estate planning attorney to explain how the estate plan works and have discussions about the parent’s wishes to monthly meetings with a family counselor.

A No-Contest Clause. For some families, a no-contest clause in the will can head off any issues from the start. If people are especially litigious, however, this may not be enough to stop them from pursuing a case. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to recommend the use of this provision, based on knowing the family and how much wealth is involved.

Addressing the problem now. The biggest mistake is to sweep the issue under the proverbial rug and “let them fight over it when I’m gone.” A better legacy is to address the problem of the family squabbles and know you’ve done the right thing.

As we head into the holiday season, efforts to bring families together and prepare for the future will allow parents, children and grandchildren to enjoy their time together and not fight over inheritance.

Reference: mondaq.com (Nov. 4, 2022) “Warning Signs Of Estate Disputes—And Ways to Avoid Them”

 

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Can Loved One’s Funeral Expenses Be Deducted?

Many people ask if funeral expenses are tax-deductible. The answer depends on who is paying and what kind of estate is left behind, says MSN’s recent article entitled “10 Tax-Deductible Funeral Service Costs.”

Unfortunately, funeral expenses are not tax-deductible for individual taxpayers. This means that you can’t deduct the cost of a funeral from your individual tax returns. While individuals cannot deduct funeral expenses, eligible estates may be able to claim a deduction, if the estate paid these costs. However, if your estate is below the $12,060,000 federal estate tax exemption limit (2022 tax year), you can’t use this deduction.

If your estate is above the $12,060,000 federal estate tax exemption limit, you’ll want to claim eligible deductions to reduce taxes. To claim funeral expenses on the estate’s tax return, you’ll need to complete Schedule J of Form 706. All of the eligible expenses should be itemized to adequately describe the purpose of each expenditure. If the estate was reimbursed for any funeral costs, that reimbursement must be deducted from your total tax deduction. This includes payments from Social Security, Veterans Affairs, final expense insurance and other sources.

If you are eligible to deduct funeral expenses on your estate’s tax returns, note that not all funeral expenses are tax-deductible. The following expenses qualify for a tax deduction for eligible estates, as long as they are reasonable in nature:

  • Embalming or cremation
  • Casket or urn
  • Burial plot and burial (internment)
  • Green burial services
  • A tombstone, gravestone, or other grave marker
  • Funeral home facility costs and director fees
  • Funeral service arrangement costs, including floral and catering services
  • Transportation costs for the deceased and immediate family members
  • Religious leader service fees; and
  • Catering food at the reception.

Keep a copy of receipts for all expenses. This makes it easier to keep track of the total funeral cost.  You’ll also need them in the event of an audit.

Non-deductible funeral expenses include travel expenses for funeral guests and any costs paid by a burial or final expense insurance policy or any other life insurance policy.

Reference: MSN Oct. 6, 2022) “10 Tax-Deductible Funeral Service Costs”

 

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Is Spouse Automatically Your Beneficiary?

People make a grave error when they don’t have a will because they think their surviving spouse will automatically inherit all of their worldly goods. The laws of intestacy work differently, as explained in a recent article “Estate Planning: The spouse doesn’t always get everything” from nwi.com.

The surviving spouse rarely receives everything under the intestate laws. This often comes as a surprise to people. The usual response is “Oh, that can’t be right.” Oh, but it is!

In many states, one half of the decedent’s probate assets are distributed to the spouse and the other half are distributed to the decedent’s child or children.

If it’s a second or third marriage and the couple didn’t have children of their own, the surviving spouse ends up with even less.

Assets are divided between the spouse and biological children.

Bear in mind the intestate laws only apply to probate assets. Assets owned jointly will go to the other joint owner, as well as assets listing the surviving spouse as the beneficiary.

If you’d prefer to leave more to your spouse, you need a will. Intestacy literally translates to dying without a will. If you have a will and then die, you haven’t died intestate, and the provisions don’t apply.

However, there’s more to consider. Depending on your state’s laws, if you die and there are no living children, the spouse still doesn’t necessarily inherit everything. If your parents are living, they are also entitled to a portion of the estate.

This is another reason why it’s so important to have a complete estate plan, including a last will and testament, powers of attorney and health care power of attorney.

Trusts are used to control how assets are distributed, either during life or upon death. You can create a trust to be used by your spouse by creating the trust, funding it with assets and setting the terms of the distribution.

Each state has its own laws of intestacy, so an estate planning attorney who practices in your state needs to be contacted to determine what would happen to your spouse if you didn’t have a will. Your best recommendation is to meet with an experienced estate planning attorney and create a plan to protect your spouse and your children

Reference: nwi.com (Oct. 23, 2022) “Estate Planning: The spouse doesn’t always get everything”

 

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Can I Get My Co-Executor Sister to Abide by Father’s Will?

When both children are beneficiaries and both are co-executors, it should be a simple result. Sell the house and split the proceeds as the father instructed. However, if one child feels this to be unfair, it can cause issues, especially when no one lives in the house, no one wants to and it just costs the heirs money each month.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “I’m fighting with my sibling about an inheritance. What can I do?” says that this is an example of the estate planning issue of treating heirs equally rather than equitably.

An executor cannot to act in his or her own personal interest. Instead, the executor must act in the best interest of the estate. They have what’s called a “fiduciary duty.” Thus, as co-executors, the two children in this example owe a fiduciary duty to implement the terms laid out in their father’s will, unless the will is successfully contested.

When real estate is left to named heirs, the executor can either sell the property and divide the proceeds as specified in the will, or distribute the house “in kind,” which means that the beneficiaries would become co-owners. If the beneficiaries don’t want to be co-owners, the best solution is to sell the property.

While neither child wants to keep the home, it’s also possible for one of them to buy out the other’s share based on a fair market value of the house. If they can’t resolve the dispute amicably, the courts will need to be involved.

The dissatisfied child could file a lawsuit contesting the will. If deadline to do this has passed, the will should stand. Even if the child does contest the will within the required time period, it will be hard for her to succeed. The two most common grounds to contest a will are to show that the testator wasn’t competent to sign it, or to show that somebody exerted undue influence over the testator.

If dissatisfied child doesn’t contest the will — or if she does contest it but fails — she’s legally obligated to put aside her personal desires and comply with her fiduciary duty to implement the will.

If she refuses to do so, the other child can ask the court for help resolving the matter. This would involve filing a complaint seeking to remove the dissatisfied child as co-executor and name the other as the sole executor.

He would ask the court to enter an order, called an “order to show cause.” This order states deadlines for the dissatisfied child to defend her conduct and oppose the relief requested.

While you’re not required to have an attorney for this process, it will be difficult to navigate the process without one. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: nj.com (Aug. 9, 2022) “I’m fighting with my sibling about an inheritance. What can I do?”

 

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What Should I Know about Burial Insurance ?

Burial insurance—also called end-of-life insurance, final expense, or funeral insurance—is a whole life insurance policy that’s designed to pay for the costs of your burial. These costs may include a memorial service, cremation costs, a headstone for your grave or other expenses associated with end-of-life arrangements.

Bankrate’s recent article entitled “Burial insurance” explains that if you have your affairs in order, your family already knows what will happen when you die. You may have given instructions for how you’d like your body to be treated, as well as ideas for your memorial service or what you want written on a tombstone.

However, all of these things cost money. If you don’t want your family to be stuck paying those costs, you may want to consider a burial policy.

Because the payout for this insurance is small compared to many regular life insurance policies, the premiums can also be quite affordable. The policies are easy to purchase and don’t require a medical exam. However, there may be a waiting period and the policy may offer only limited benefits in the first two years.

Burial insurance policies cover all the normal costs incurred by someone’s death, such as:

  • Embalming
  • A casket
  • Flowers
  • Cremation costs
  • A burial plot
  • The cost of transporting the body and/or remains
  • A headstone; and
  • Payment to clergy.

One type of burial policy, called a guaranteed issue life insurance policy, is available without any medical or health questions. It’s designed for those who are seriously ill and can’t get a policy any other way.

If all the appropriate arrangements have been made, the process of filing a burial insurance claim should be fairly smooth.

Reference: Bankrate (March 5, 2021) “Burial insurance”

 

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