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Never write on your original estate planning documents

woman writing on a notebook beside teacup and tablet computer

I have many clients that come into my office that have written, scribbled, crossed-out, or marked all over their estate planning documents. This can be a big mistake with big consequences!

What should you do if you have a Will or a Trust that you wish to change, amend or revoke? One thing people frequently try to do when they want to amend a Will is to cross out whatever change they want, and write in new directions and initial next to their marking.

A thing to remember is that your Last Will and Testament and/or Revocable Trust typically serves as the foundation for a comprehensive estate plan. Similar to most legal documents, your Will or Trust should be reviewed and formally amended on a regular basis (usually every 3-5 years); however, this needs to be accomplished with the assistance of an attorney, and done in the formal matter required by statutes. For a Will, that includes two witnesses and a notary. For a Trust, that includes whatever way the Trust document prescribed (usually a notary). Your Will and Trust is not like other legal documents where simply marking or crossing something out and initialing the change will suffice. In fact, usually it revokes the entire document.

I recently had a client who did such a thing – she wanted to get rid of a beneficiary, and simply crossed out the beneficiary she wanted out and initialed and dated next to the marking. She then passed away before we could do a formal amendment. The problem with this action is, at least in Oklahoma, marking and changing any Will or Trust without the formal amendment process actually revokes the entire document! The small amendment my deceased client wanted actually completely changed her entire estate plan. Her intention was for a friend to receive the entire estate. However, due to her scribble on her Will, her estate went through the intestate probate process, which means her (distant) family inherited her entire estate, which was completely against her intention.

Wills and Trusts have formal statutory requirements to keep fraud and misunderstandings from happening in the important process of estate administration and probate. If there is a question as to the authenticity of a Will, the Will, with markings on it, would no longer be clear as to what the Testator’s intentions were. This is precisely why the execution of your Last Will and Testament must be witnessed by an uninterested witness and a notary authenticating the signatures. Requiring a Will to be witnessed and notarized is the only way to be sure the Testator actually signed the document. If, however, you write on the Will or Trust after the original signing, there is no sure way to determine if you actually wrote the words or if a third party took the liberty after your death. If the probate court declares the Will or Trust to be revoked , your estate may end up being distributed as an intestate estate which could have very different results than if the Will is used to probate your estate.

If you desire to amend your Will or Trust, or even revoke it entirely, don’t try to do it yourself by writing on the documents. Take the time to consult with your estate planning attorney and make the changes or the revocation the right way, in front of witnesses, to ensure that your estate doesn’t wind up in costly litigation after your death.

If you have additional questions or concerns about wills, trusts, or estate planning in general, contact the experienced Oklahoma estate planning attorney at the Skillern Law Firm by calling 918-805-2511 or email skillernlaw@gmail.com to schedule your appointment.

As your life changes, so should your estate plan.

agreement-businessman-close-up-872957.jpgMost of our clients come to us to help make their loved ones’ lives easier – not more difficult. Many people will come in wanting a very simple estate plan because of the cost or because they believe their estate is not large enough to cause anyone any issues. However, often, very simple estate plans can complicated matters and cost heirs and beneficiaries more time and money in the future.

In general, even with a perfect estate plan, heirs and beneficiaries have numerous tasks to attend to, including paying the death expenses, handling creditors and transferring ownership of assets. If the deceased person did not properly complete the estate planning process before his or her demise, or did not execute the right estate plan, complications could arise.

There are several issues and events that could make an estate plan less effective. One of the most common mistakes in estate planning is to never update your estate plan. Our attorney recommends reviewing or updating your estate plan after every major life event (death of a family member, marriage, divorce, inheritance, etc.). It is important to update your documents in case there is a significant change in the situation from when you drafted it. Also, it is good to have your estate plan reviewed by an estate planning attorney in case important updates are needed in your will/trusts/power of attorneys/advanced directives due to change in the law.

Furthermore, conflict could arise if a person did not provide enough detail about how his/her assets should be distributed. It is allowed for individuals to leave the distribution decisions up to surviving family or even state law, however, some individuals may not agree. This often leads to contention and conflict that could build to a point where costly and prolonged litigation is necessary. In order to have a more effective plan, parties need to consider their assets and make decisions themselves, and they should put specific directions and details inside their estate plan to ward off any future issues and conflicts.

Sometimes, people may start out with an estate plan that simply consists of a Will and Power of Attorney. While young and without a lot of assets, that may be enough for your beneficiaries and heirs to handle your estate efficiently. However, as we age and accumulate more property and our lives become more complex, a Trust is often better for more complex estates. This is another area in which people keep their estate plan stagnant, and yet reviewing their plan or even making an entirely new one would’ve been a better option for their particular situation.

Many people do not realize that having an estate plan is an ongoing process. Just as your life changes through the years, so should your estate plan.  It may seem inconvenient, but it can help ensure that your wishes and desires are known and executed correctly at the time of your passing. If any Oklahoma or Tulsa area residents are concerned about whether their plans cover all their needs and desires, they should review those plans and have their documents reviewed by a professional, including the attorney at the Skillern Law Firm. Gaining more information on planning tools and possible errors to avoid could also prove useful.

Reasons to Choose Going to Probate

Law: Gavel, books, wood

As an estate planning attorney, most of my clients are meeting with me to help avoid probate as much as possible. I have written previous posts all about how to avoid probate. However, sometimes, probate can be beneficial in certain circumstances.

A lot of estates go through probate, which is the court process to distribute assets and pay off debts when someone has passed. Unless there was planning ahead, when most people die where they leave behind real property and assets, their estate will typically go through the probate process. A Personal Representative will be appointed, and the Will will be filed with the court. If there is no will, the assets will be distributed through the state’s “will” – which is called intestate.

If you are a beneficiary of the estate, you may be surprised by the long, drawn-out court procedure which you are at the mercy of. In Oklahoma, a typical probate now lasts around 4-6 months unless it is contested or if selling real estate is involved (which can prolong the process). However, the probate proceeding serves several purposes and once you understand them, it can make it easier to accept the waiting period.

Once the will is validated, the next step in the probate process is to appoint an executor whose responsibility will be to collect the estate’s assets, appraise the assets value, pay creditors, file taxes (if necessary) and finally, distribute the property to the beneficiaries or heirs according to the Will or the state statutes. What is beneficial about Probate is that is a court-monitored proceeding in which the Personal Representative is not only supervised, but he or she must comply with specific procedures and legal requirements. For estates where there may not be a trustworthy person to take control, this is a huge benefit. Even for estates where everyone is honest, having a court oversee everything makes it to where there cannot even be the appearance of impropriety. The court won’t allow dishonorable or unethical conduct by personal representatives/executors.

There are more benefits to probate, though. Personal Representatives are required to provide accountings, unless waived by all the beneficiaries/heirs. The court requires all of the beneficaries’ names, ages and residences, and all the beneficiaries are legally required notice of the court proceedings and any and all court dates. Probate also allows any person interested in the estate to contest the Will.

One note about contesting a Will should be made, however. A beneficiary or heir can contest a Will for reasons which include: 1) mental incapacity of the decedent to make a will, 2) duress, 3) fraud, 4) undue influence, and 5) any other reasons questioning the validity of the will. Beneficiaries and heirs cannot contest based solely on that they do not like what the Will says, because will-makers are allowed to make a will that includes their wishes, but they can be contested based on that the will-maker was not in the right mind to make a Will.

For more information regarding the probate process and how it can protect the rights of beneficiaries, contact our attorney at the Skillern Law Firm, PLLC.

Estate Planning for Your New Expanded Family

child momThe attorney of Skillern Law Firm, PLLC, Penni Skillern, recently had a baby girl in January of 2015. Yes, that is why there was a lack of blog posts and updates on our website. The first thing she did when she was able to go back to work was update her estate plan to reflect her new expanded family. Not only is it important to set up guardianship in your will, but its important to look at structuring your estate plan distribution for your new infant.

We have previously written about how to handle a minor infant in your estate plan before. Please read the blog post here.

For this blog post, we are going to discuss what to get done for your estate plan once you have the new baby. Having a child or children complicates life in many ways, and your estate plan is no exception. If you had an estate plan written when you were childless, it is important to reflect the monumental change in your situation in life in your estate planning. Most likely, you would want to leave part or all of your estate to your new child(ren).  You do not have to have anything fancy like a revocable trust, however, it does need to be done. Here are four simple steps to take.

1. Write or Amend a Will or Trust

Even without children, having an estate plan in place is important. Generally, most young people do not think about getting an estate plan done until they have children. That is understandable, as most single young adults do not own a lot of assets to be distributed at their demise. However, once you have a child, it becomes not only important to write a will to discuss distribution, but also to name a guardian for your child(ren). Make sure to read a previous post about how to chose the right guardian for your child.

Once you have a will with a guardian appointed in place, if your children ever needed a guardian, the court would appoint the person you nominated in your will, absent a serious problem with that person. You can even name a separate guardian for different children if you wish. If you have not made plain in your will or estate plan who you wish to be the guardian of your children, and you pass away unexpectedly, the probate court will have no idea what your wishes were. That can cause fighting among the families of the two parents, each wanting the child. This can be stressful for the families, and especially the children left behind. The court would have no way of knowing which family member of friend who you wished to watch over your children if you were to pass.

The other main reason to write or update your will is that if you do not, and then you pass away, a portion of your estate may not go to your spouse, but may go to your children. If you pass away and have a young child, most people prefer that the money go to their spouse, who will use it to support their children.

Getting a will written and signed is easy, quick, and inexpensive. You can easily set up an appointment with an attorney and have one done and signed within a couple of weeks or a month. This important step can help your new family in unexpected ways and can alleviate an amazing amount of stress in the future if something unforeseen were to happen.

2. Buy Life Insurance

While our attorney was pregnant with her new daughter, she and her husband added new life insurance to their financial portfolio. The reason is simple: their lives were about to get more expensive. It’s not surprising to know that life with a child is more expensive than one without one. If you or your spouse were to pass away unexpectedly, are you prepared to take care of your child(ren) without the other person’s income? Life insurance is there as a safety net, to help take care of expenses that your deceased spouse would have helped with if they remained alive.

Obviously, this is more of a financial planning than legal planning. However, it is good to get both done when you are preparing or soon after you have a child. It’s best to have both your financial and legal plans in place, working together, when you have a child.

3. Write Durable Powers of Attorney and a Living Will

Even without children, Powers of Attorney and Living Wills are extremely important documents to have for every adult. If an accident or sudden illness strikes, these documents will make things much easier for your family.The Powers of Attorney (both financial and health), are documents that designate an individual to take care of matters if you are unable to. We have previously written about these documents, and you can read about Powers of Attorneys here.

Living Wills, or Advanced Directives, are also very important to have in your estate plan. If you have been to the hospital recently, you have probably been asked if you have one when you checked in. An Advanced Directive is a document that sets out your wishes for end-of-life choices and care. Oklahoma allows you to set our your end-of-life health care choices for three scenarios. Read about those here.

 

Even if you are young, childless, and healthy, these documents are important to have done. If you were seriously injured, these documents would let your family know what you wanted, sparing them very difficult decisions, court costs, and disagreements. There have been many famous young people whose families have gone through courts and disagreements because these documents were not in place. (Terri Schiavo was 26 when her illness began and she fell into a permanent vegetative state.)

4. Designate Beneficiaries on Accounts

One last simple (and completely free!) action to take is to name beneficiaries on your accounts, whether retirement, banks, life insurance, etc. All you need to do is fill out the beneficiary form provided by the account holding institution. By naming a beneficiary, you make it possible for the funds in the account to go directly to the person (or persons) you name, without probate. It is important to know the repercussions of naming minors as beneficiaries, however, so make sure you keep that in mind when you are planning for your new child.

If you do all of the above after you have a child, you are ready. Having a new child is a huge change in your life, and your estate plan needs to reflect that change. You are doing a disservice to your child if you do not plan ahead in case you are not there to take care of him/her. Your family would want to know your wishes for your child(ren) if you pass unexpectedly. Make an appointment with your local estate planning attorney today!

The Problems of Successor Co-Trustees in a Trust

trusteesA creator or grantor of a normal revocable living trust usually serves as the trustee of a trust until their incapacity or death. After one of those events, a successor trustee takes over the trust to manage and administer the trust assets. Some trust creators have two children or have two people they trust enough to make them successor co-trustees of their trust, which puts two people in charge of the trust simultaneously. This can create problems if the co-trustee duties are not clearly spelled out.

One common problem associated with co-trustees is if the two trustees have to act jointly with each other, meaning they need to sign deeds, checks, and other financial documents together. This can slow down the process, especially if one or both trustees do not live near one another or are not communicating with each other. This can also slow down or cause problems when one trustee goes out of town for vacation, is incapacitated, etc.  A well written trust agreement should provide for replacement of a co-trustee who cannot serve for some reason, or state that the remaining co-trustee can act alone in this scenario.

Another common problem with co-trustees is what happens if there is a disagreement between them about the administration of the trust.  It is amazing how many problems and family strife can occur when the matriarch or patriarch of the family passes away. If co-trustees do not trust one anther, do not get along, or just do not agree with the decision of the other co-trustee, it may require court intervention to break the disagreement. For example, if one trustee wants to sell some property and distribute cash and a co-trustee wants to retain the property, there is a stalemate. If there are three co-trustees, the majority prevails, so an odd number of co-trustees are not such an issue in regards to disagreement.  However, if co-trustees are assigned equal authority and responsibility in the trust agreement, some third-party intervention will be needed, and that can get costly.

A common way to avoid common co-trustee problems is to name a trust administrating institution, like a bank or trust company, as the principal trustee, with children or other beneficiaries as co-trustees. That essentially places control of trust with an independent third party, who can be an mediator if the co-trustees cannot agree. Another way is to just name one sole trustee, like your oldest or most responsible child or friend.

One of the best ways to avoid this problem is to talk to a qualified estate planning attorney who can help solve problems like this. Consider getting your estate planning done by the attorney at the Skillern Law Firm. She can help make sure your estate plan is well written and will not problems in the future that can be easily avoided.

(Minor) Children in Your Estate Planning

Travelers with Baby in StrollerWhen handling people’s estate plans, I am often asked how life insurance, retirement accounts, and other “beneficiary” property should be handled with regards to the young children. More often than not,  people with children want some or all of the proceeds of these accounts to go to their minor children.

For example, if a client has a $100,000 life insurance policy and has a minor child of 5 years old, she would most likely tell me or the insurance agent that she wants her child to be the beneficiary of the life insurance. The questions presented in this situation are:

  1. What happens to the money and any other property when her minor child inherits or receives it?
  2. Is there a better way to handle life insurance proceeds or other property that you want to leave to a child?

To answer the first question presented, let’s look at Oklahoma’s law on minors. Children or minors are legally incapable of holding and managing that property until the reach the age of majority, which, in Oklahoma, is the age 18. While they are still considered minors in Oklahoma, any property or money a minor owns must be managed by another person, such as a guardian or custodian. IMPORTANTLY, for the most part, the financial institutions will require the guardian to go to court and receive Letters of Guardianship  before the institution will release the funds into the guardian’s control. This applies to parents. Therefore, if a grandparent left a minor as a beneficiary of an account, the minor’s parent would have to go through the court process of Guardianship (which can be expensive), before the parent will gain control of the minor’s assets. This is an expensive complication to leaving an asset to a minor child, because court processes comes with attorney fees, accounting fees, filing fees, just to name a few.

In the above scenario, when the child turns 18, he or she can take over the management and control of the property or money. Oklahoma law generally does not require a specific level of financial literacy, planning, or common sense to manage or control your own property. Thus, the young teenager may squander the monies that was given to them very quickly, since they have full control of it once they turn 18. And how many 18 year old teenagers do you know that would know how to handle a lump sum of $100,000 responsibly?

THE GOOD NEWS is that there are other, more responsible approaches to leaving minors an inheritance. Rather than naming your child directly to receive the proceeds of a life insurance policy, or any other beneficiary account, you can set up a revocable or irrevocable trust that has your minor child as a beneficiary. This allows you to provide for appropriate use and management of the property with certain guidelines and control that will not let the minor child to squander their inheritance, and it won’t include any court process or fees. Unlike custodial arrangements discussed above, a trust does not necessarily terminate at age 18 and can continue to provide supervised management of the property into adulthood, including planning for education and other life-events. To read more about trusts, read a previous article by our attorney here.

The Trustee, or the person who manages the trust’s money and property, can also be empowered to use the Trust’s money for the benefit of the child, without the need and cost of court supervision. This can be helpful because it allows you to have more control over the types of expenses you want to provide for your child, including health, education, and general expenses one might occur as a young adult.

Remember, selecting a beneficiary for any type of monetary account is an important decision with potentially far-reaching consequences. There are important legal implications depending on your choice. Selecting a beneficiary is part of your overall estate plan, and the attorney at the Skillern Law Firm, PLLC can help plan for your minor children or grandchildren. Call our office at to speak to our attorney today!

Funding A Revocable Trust

funding trustWhenever an attorney creates a Revocable Living Trust for a client, the trust needs to be funded.  “What does it mean to fund a trust?” is a common question that our attorney at the Skillern Law Firm  gets from clients.  It is a very important step in the estate planning process. To see what a Revocable Living Trust can do for you, read our previous blog post about the types of trusts and their advantages. A trust, if funded correctly, will allow its creator(s) to avoid the probate process. An unfunded or partially funded trust does not allow your assets to avoid probate, because only the assets owned by the trust at your death or payable to the trust at your death avoid the probate process.

There are a few common misconceptions about the trust funding process.

Myth #1 – Since you formed a trust and have a Trust Agreement, the trust is complete and there is nothing else that needs to be done. 

When you sign or form a trust with an estate planning attorney, signing to document is only the first step in the trust-creating process.  The attorney, or the client, needs to make sure ALL of the assets held by the trust-creators (or “trustors”) are put in the trust’ss name, or has the trust as the listed beneficiary of the account. Otherwise, the Trust Agreement is an expensive pile of paper that will not help the creator’s avoid probate. The attorney at the Skillern Law Firm funds all of the trusts she helps create, taking this important step out of the client’s hands.

Myth # 2 – When the trust was created, there was a list of all the property on an Exhibit or Schedule that’s attached to my trust, so that transferred my assets to the trust… right?

Many trusts have an exhibit or schedule of property. This is a helpful document that helps a successor trustee in ascertaining what property they should be managing and accounting for. Updating this exhibit or schedule as the “big-ticket” items change is important so that the information on the exhibit is generally up to date. However, merely putting a description of the property on a schedule or property addendum does not legally transfer the ownership of the property into the trust. That needs to be done outside of these exhibits/schedules, most likely by property deeds and beneficiary designations.

How do you fund a trust?

To fund a trust, the attorney or client needs to file the property deeds with the county its located in, and put the trust as the beneficiary on all accounts.  To fund business interest, you will need to assign closely held business interests to your trust. Like all things in life, there can be tax consequences and benefits to each course of action. You should always seek tax advice prior to making a transfer of property, because once transfers are completed, there is often no undo button for tax purposes.  Whenever our attorney create a trust for a client, she makes sure she funds the trust at creation, but it is up to the client to keep the trust correctly funded after signing.

What are the benefits of a fully funded trust?

The biggest benefit of a correctly and fully funded trust is that it allows your beneficiaries to avoid probate. One more important benefit of a fully funded trust is that it allows for easier management of your property in the event of your incapacity. A truse can also can save on administration costs upon your death or incapacity, since your successor trustee and beneficiaries will not have to spend as much time and money locating your property.

Having a revocable trust in your estate planning portfolio is important for those who want to avoid probate and keep their estate administration as easy as possible. Funding your revocable trust is an absolute necessity if you want the benefits of avoiding probate and having management of your property in the event of your incapacity. Funding your revocable trust is a necessity that should be completed and worked on along with the creation of your trust. Call the Skillern Law Firm today to get your estate planning done today!

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