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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.

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.

Why Does My Will Need To Be Probated?

A lot of clients seem to be under the misconception that, if your will is valid, self-explanatory, and clear as to your intent, then it does not need to be probated. However, your Last Will and Testament is not effective until it goes through probate. It does not matter if it is clear and unambiguous! The deceased persons’ assets and liabilities cannot legally pass to the beneficiaries named in the will until after the Probate Court enters an Order that shows that the assets pass to the beneficiaries.

For example,many people that own a home in their name and may leave it to their children in a will. During the life of the owner, in order to be able to sell the home, they would need to sign a deed over to the new buyer in the closing process. After they pass away, a buyer will not accept a signed deed from the deceased children since there has been no legal determination or court order granting them the legal right to sign over the deed, since it is still in the deceased person’s name. It will not work to simply provide the buyer  with a copy of the will, since it does not solve ownership problem and they cannot be assured that the will is valid until the probate court has reviewed it. Therefore, only until an Oklahoma Probate Court has reviewed and decreed the will to be a valid Last Will and Testament of the deceased, and that the will legally passes the home onto the children, the children have no legal authority to sign a deed, sell the house, or have any ownership to the house. As a result, there is no will that is effective until it has been probated and through the probate process.

Many people are flustered and upset that their estate has to go through probate when they have a valid will, but they can solve this problem by establishing and funding a Revocable Living Trust. Let Skillern Law Firm help you in this process by calling the law office today.

Why Online Wills Can be Harmful to Your Estate Planning

In September of 2010, a non-lawyer wrote an article about her experience trying out four different will-making computer programs. This article appeared in the New York Times. After she got all four different wills drafted, she took the wills to an established estate planning lawyer in New York City, and had them reviewed. The results were poor, to say the least. The lawyer found that one of the Wills was so defective that it did not even identify which heirs got which of the author’s assets. Each of the other three wills had different problems, including problems that could harm the probate process.  The attorney stated,  “The thing that most surprised me is how different your will comes out depending on what program you pick.” Some of the more common problems with the online-made wills include:

Problems with Coordinating Probate and Non-Probate Assets.
Most people have property that your Will does not cover since it passes outside of probate. For example, many couples own a house in joint tenancy, that the house will pass to the surviving owners, and not to the beneficiaries named in your Will. While you can name contingent beneficiaries in the will, it’s not understanding which property passes through probate and which does not that can derail your estate plan.
Trouble Naming Contingent Beneficiaries.
If one or more of the beneficiaries you name in your Will passes away before you, and you haven’t named an alternate beneficiary to take that person’s place, then your property passes to your heirs-at-law. If you’re not a lawyer, chances are you don’t know who your heirs-at-law are, and you probably do not want your property going to them. A Will that does not name contingent beneficiaries may have the result of taking your property away from your control, and giving that control to the state through the state’s intestacy statutes. Most online websites forget or do not have a contingent beneficiary estate plan as part of their package, and this can cause all sorts of problems for people with relatively simple life situations. If your family’s situation is more complex than normal, say you are a blended family or you have complex estate, than contingent beneficiaries and similar provisions can make your estate planning problems even worse. Qualified estate planning attorneys know these problems and can work with you to figure out what is the best plan for your estate planning needs. An experienced attorney can adapt, and should will know what the appropriate questions to ask for your situation, and no computer estate planning model can do that.
Inability to Create Trusts for Minors.
When a person leaves anything to a minor, that minor cannot take legal control of the money or property he or she inherited or benefits from. An experienced estate planning attorney would put a clause that would put any of these assets in to a trust, with a named trustee, to manage the money or assets left to the minor until the child turns eighteen (18).  If your will has no minor’s trust clause, and your estate plan leaves money directly to a minor, then a person would have to start a court proceeding to appoint a guardian or conservator. Guardianships are expensive court proceedings, and having a clause in the will can avoid these complications and expense you did not expect.
If you are needing to get any estate planning done, please consult an attorney. The online wills and trusts market are booming, but that does not mean it is the best choice for your planning. Do you really want to save money when it comes to providing a future for your spouse, children, or grandchildren? Call the attorneys of Skillern Law today.

Simple Ways to Avoid Probate

Most people know that Revocable Living Trusts are a great way to avoid probate. And if you don’t, please read a previous blog about probate and how a trust can help here. On today’s blog post, Skillern Law Firm is going to discuss other ways to avoid probate if you already have a trust, or simple solutions if you have a small estate.

First of all, we’ll say it one more time for emphasis – Get A Revocable Living Trust. I know that you’ve already been told this by our attorneys, and possibly other attorneys, but it is a very simple way to avoid probate (and probate is generally much more expensive than a trust!). If you do not have a trust, and you own anything when you die, your estate will be probated, and your estate will have to hire a probate attorney. This includes if you die with a will or not. A will is a good idea if you absolutely cannot afford a trust, since it helps move the probate process move faster. However, if you want your family to avoid probate altogether, you need to set up a living trust.

After you get a trust, you will need to fund it. The offices of Skillern Law Firm help you fund your trust, so that you are not wasting your money.  A trust is only good if it is funded, otherwise a trust is just a pile of documents without any meaning. However, if you do not follow our instructions, or you get a trust done from an attorney who does not fund his/her client’s trust, then you will need to find your trust. Funding includes transferring all your real and personal property into the trust’s estate, or “corpus.” Essentially, it is making sure your bank accounts, financial accounts, home and land, and any other property is transferred into the trust. You can opt to transfer your property into the trust on your own, but our clients often rely on the services of our attorneys to be confident that all probate-able property is properly titled in the name of your trust.

Next, you will need to make sure that all your retirement accounts, life insurance, annuities, and any other assets have beneficiaries named. This can help you whether you have a trust or not. One thing to make sure, if you do not have a trust, is that you do not have your estate as your beneficiary. If you place your estate as your beneficiary, without a trust, that property will need to be probated, and if you just named  a person, the money would have passed outside of probate. Another thing to make sure that you have multiple contingent beneficiaries in case one of your beneficiaries dies before you do, and you forget to change it or are incapable of changing it. If you have your estate, no beneficiary, or a deceased beneficiary on any of these accounts, then your heirs will have to go through probate court (and all that’s involved with that) to gain access to these assets. One more small note is to make sure none of your beneficiaries are under the age of eighteen. Otherwise, the bank or institution will hold that account until they reach this age, or you will have to get a conservatorship over the minor to gain access to those funds before they reach 18.

Another thing you can do is to make sure nothing is payable to your “Estate,” as referenced above. Many families have to go through probate because the nursing home refused to write a refund check (after death of a resident) to anyone other than the “Estate of Resident.” Like said above, this would require this refund check get probated through the courts to get received by the heirs. To avoid probate, make sure the nursing or assisted living facility will make any refund check payable to a surviving heir or your trust account, if you have one.

One really important step that clients often forget is that they need to put the later acquired property into their trust. If you purchase a home or other asset later in life, you have to put it in the name of your trust. Or if you open a new bank account, open the account in the name of your trust . It’s steps like these that will make your estate get probated, even if you have a trust.

Some of these steps above can be done if you have a trust or not. For example, putting beneficiaries on accounts can be done by someone who does not have a trust, and can make their probate process move much quicker. Getting a will is also a good idea if you cannot afford a trust, since it will also speed up the probate process. Contact the offices of Skillern Law Firm to discuss your estate planning needs today.

The Problems with Handwritten Wills

Oklahoma allows the probate courts to admit holographic (or handwritten) wills. There are certain considerations that are very important to consider if you think a holographic will is right for you. Today on Tulsa Estate Planning BlogSkillern Law Firm, PLLC will help you figure out if its right for you.

First, there are important, strict formalities that Oklahoma requires for a holographic will to be valid. First, the will must be dated. Second, it must be signed by the testator. Third, it must be completely in the handwriting of the testator/testatrix. And lastly, it must be clear that the document is the intended last will and testament of the testator/testatrix.

These four requirements are very strict. Without all four, and with a variation on all four, Oklahoma courts have refused to admit certain holographic wills.

One such error is the belief that getting a holographic will notorized or witnessed is a great thing. This is not true. If you remember from above, the document must be entirely written by the testator/testatrix. A notory or a witness’s tesatament are not the same handwriting. There have been some Oklahoma courts that have held that in the event it is notarized or witnesses, that does not defeat the will since it is not required to be witnessed or notarized. If you do choose a holographic will, do not chance this, and avoid a notary or witness.

Many people insist they should save the money and create a holographic will. I remember in law school, someone asked the teacher in our estate planning course whether there were really any benefits to a formal, attorney-made will. Of course there is, she said, otherwise there would be no estate planning attorneys!

There are some very common problems with holographic wills. Here are some common mistakes:

  • Proving the authenticity of the will. Getting a handwriting expert, proving it was the intent, and making sure the entire document was written by the testator/testatrix is expensive, time-consuming, and doesn’t always result in probating of the holographic will. A formal, notarized, witnessed will is much easier to prove the authenticity, and many times, that is not even an issue with formal wills.
  • Testator/testatrix omits important features of a formally prepared will that can have a severe impact of your estate. For instance, not having a residuary clause, spend-thrift clause, or many other important clauses that attorneys know are necessary.
  • Vague/Confusing/Unmanageable instructions. Attorneys are good at using legal language that the probate court will be familiar with, and understand what the testator/testatrix desired. Many individuals are not. Furthermore, most holographic wills are vague and confusing, with different instructions concerning the same property, and avoiding discussing other property. For instance, leaving everything to “mother” does not exactly tell the court who you meant. Using vague terms, without using full names, and also using vague descriptions of property is a common mistake.
  • Failure to distribute the entire estate. A problem arises when the holographic will distributes less than all of the testator’s estate. If, for instance, the will gives away his house, car, and bank accounts, but neglects to mention furniture and other personal property, there is a partial intestacy as to the assets not covered by the will. These assets will then pass to surviving legal heirs as determined by the state intestacy statutes, the result of which may not be what the testator intended.
  • Many, many, more!

Just remember, all of these problems above (and the ones not listed) involve the probate trying to figure out what the testator/testatrix intended with their holographic will. This will eventually include probate attorneys charging hourly rates on your estate and beneficiaries. The cost of holographic wills may be free when they are made, but when they are probated, the cost is often much higher to the estate than a traditional, attorney-made will due to the probate costs.

Formal, Attorney-made wills is the best idea to make sure your estate is distributed as you desire, without the added probate costs of holographic wills. Let Skillern Law Firm, PLLC help you distribute your assets effectively, clearly, and easily through a will today. Please contact us to set up a free appointment today.

Your life is not static, so why is your estate plan?

It is important to periodically review your will and estate plan. Life changes often require that you reassess your estate plan.

Children

Most parents are concerned about how their children will be cared for in the event that one or both parents suffer an accident or are incapacitated. It is important to name a guardian for your minor children in your will. Also, parents should consider a trust if they wish to stagger financial inheritance distributions for their children, instead of having the kids receive the whole of the estate at the age of majority.

Divorce

In Oklahoma, a divorce makes any trust that you had with a former spouse void. You should also consider any power of attorney documents or health power of attorney documents so that the contents reflect your current intent.

Remarriage

You may consider signing a ante-nuptial agreement in the event of a remarriage so as to legally separate your estates during marriage. A trust may be helpful in addressing any inheritance issues to children that a second marriage can create.

Middle Age

As people age, their assets tend to increase. Make sure that your money is working for you by talking to a financial planner. In addition, you should make sure that any assets that you acquire are included in any will or trust that you have already created.

Death of Spouse

When a spouse dies, you probably will need to get new health care and financial power of attorney documents.

 

The offices of Skillern Law can assist you in making changes to any and all of your estate planning needs. Call our office today!

Why A Joint Will Is A Bad Idea.

One common question about wills and trusts is about joint or mutual wills. Many people ask attorneys why joint wills are never recommended by attorneys. The reason is not that attorneys want to get more of your money by drafting two wills instead of one.  Also, most people may see it as an extra expense that is unnecessary since a couple can just get a “joint will” or “mutual will.” Those assumptions, however, are incorrect. Today, the attorney of Skillern Law Firm and the  Tulsa Estate Planning Blog will explain why no (rational) attorney would recommend or even draft a joint will.

First, let’s go through the different types of Wills.

A Joint Will is one document that covers the Wills of two (or more) people, usually a husband and wife. When each of them passes away, the Will is probated and administered for the deceased spouse, and the Will is supposed to then serve as the Last Will and Testament of the surviving spouse. This can and most likely will be problematic for most people. One problem, for example, is what happens if the surviving spouse moves on with their life and has a change of circumstance or even a remarriage. What if a child, who was an angel during the lifetime of the deceased spouse, suddenly abandons their family? The surviving spouse’s right to disinherit the child, or even lower the child’s rights in the joint will is unclear. It is always ambiguous how strictly a surviving spouse is bound to the terms of an old Joint Will. This can be a bigger problem when the couple created a joint will while young. What if a young spouse unexpectedly dies, leaving the spouse with a will that may bind the surviving spouse for 40, 50, or 60 years? This is a risk easily (and cheaply) avoided by each spouse creating their own will.  Historically, Joint wills were common since they were regarded as a money-saving and labor-saving technique, but through all these complications and the use of computers, these concerns are now moot.

Mutual Will is another type of will sometimes used in Oklahoma. Mutual wills are two separate wills created with a legal agreement that neither will can be cancelled or altered after one of the spouses has died. This is a difficult situation to protect legally and attorneys often encourage spouses to make a moral obligation to each other, rather than a legal obligation.

The most common solution, and one that the attorney at Skillern Law Firm supports, if  for spouses to get Reciprocal Wills or Mirror Wills. In these wills, each spouse has their own document, and each name their other spouse and the main beneficiary, with maybe their children as alternative beneficiaries.  This is very common not only for married couples but also for civil partners or those in civil unions. Each reciprocal will is separate and there is no binding, legal agreement applied to the surviving partner who is perfectly entitled to amend this Will or prepare a brand new will in the future.

Skillern Law Firm does not support joint wills and we discourage them to clients and friends. We also do not support mutual wills for the preceding reasons.

We do however allow for people to create Reciprocal or Mirror Wills and this aligns with our philosophy that every single person needs to have a Last Will and Testament in place. If you are thinking about a will, or want to know why you may need one, please read another entitled, “Why Should I Get A Will Now?” Or, if you and your spouse has decided to get a will, feel free to contact us today to set up a free appointment.

Why Should I Get A Will Now?

The more clients and friends that we talk to, the more we see why so many people put off writing their will.  No one especially wants to think about their own future death, and no one really wants to plan for it. In reality, however, everyone needs to have a will prepared, even at a young age.  There are a multitude of reasons to consider, and any reputable wills and trusts lawyer should be able to go through the factors with you to make certain that you are protecting your assets as well as the people you love.

First off, it’s obvious people do not want to think about death. However, the reality is that it is inevitable. This does not only include your death, but your family members, such as your grandmother, daughter, son, and parents. If you, or your (especially older) family members have not prepared a will, then you are jeopardizing both your own wishes and the outcome for those you love.  This could be especially important for parents.

If you haven’t had a will prepared, then your children’s future can be in serious jeopardy.  For example, many assume that their property will pass automatically to their children, but the Oklahoma courts may have other ideas.  Other family members, like a new spouse or a child you gave for adoption, may go to the courts and inherit money and heirlooms that you intended for your children.

The most extreme and important factor to consider will likely be that of child guardianship. If you have children, or intend to have children, a will allows you to ensure that your children are raised by people you trust and in a way you deem appropriate. A will allows you to specify their guardians, should you die.  Without a will, the courts will decide who will take control of your children should you pass away, and who wants a court to decide the future of their children’s care?

Sadly, another case where a will is needed is when both spouses being killed at the same time.  In a circumstance like that, there is no surviving spouse to take care of the children, explain what should happen to them, nor have a say in the distribution of assets.  As expected, the courts will have more of a say in the distribution of your estate than you would probably want.

Creating a will doesn’t have to be a exasperating, complicated activity. A will is not generally very expensive, and a trustworthy wills and trust lawyer can tell you your exact benefits in creating a will.  Skillern Law Firm can help you create your will, and any other estate planning document you may need to ensure your family and assets are safe from court interference. Undoubtedly, it is not ideal to spend your time imagining what would happen to your family and assets after you have passed away, however, doing so now can make an incredible difference later.

If you are interested in other estate planning documents, or how they can help you, read other posts on Tulsa Estate Planning Blog.

Stepchildren, adopted children, and half-blood relatives: No Child Left Behind.

Oklahoma has some unusual laws when it comes to step-children and half-blood relatives, especially in the intestate inheritance laws. Just as a reminder, intestate merely means that the person who passed away died without a will, and so the state’s inheritance laws are in effect. Oklahoma’s statute, Okla. Stat. tit. 84, § 213 (1994), is the state’s Intestacy law/code, if you are interested in reading the statute yourself.

Stepchildren are not able to inherit through the intestate system in Oklahoma. Only blood children are able to take from the estate. It’s as simple as that. If you want your stepchildren to inherit part of your estate, you need to get estate planning in place (a will is a good place to start), so that they are able to. Otherwise, your blood children, spouse, and other blood relatives will take from the estate.

In Oklahoma, half-blood children have their own special rules, which can be viewed as harsh. Half-blood children/relatives are not be able to inherit “ancestral property,” but are able to inherit all other property and assets. “Ancestral property” is property that the decedent (half relative who passed away) acquired by gift, devise, or inheritance. In other words, half-blood children or relations will not be able to receive any intestate property that was given to the decedent by an ancestor who is not also an ancestor of the half-blood relation. Okla. Stat. tit. 84, §222. However, half-blood relatives are able to inherit ancestral property when full-blood relatives are more remotely decended. See In Re Estate of Robbs. Therefore, a half-blood would not be able to inherit ancestral property if there is whole-blood kindred of the same or closer degree of relative. For example, if A & B were full blood relatives, and B & C were half-blood relatives, A would receive the B’s entire ancestral estate, leaving C to receive 1/2 or whatever portion he was entitled to without ancestral property included. Half-blood intestate inheritance can be a little confusing, and is a major source of probate litigation in Oklahoma. If you have any questions, feel free to call us today for any explanation of the law and to see how you can avoid this problem with a will.

Adopted children in Oklahoma have an advantage not available in many states to them: double inheritance. In Oklahoma, an adopted child can inherit from and through his/her natural parents as well as their adopted parents. The converse is not available, however. The adopted parents cannot inherit through the child they gave up for adoption. Adopted children, therefore, will be able to inherit through intestacy just as if the child was a maternal or paternal child.

Skillern Law Firm can help craft all different types of wills, trusts, and other estate planning documents that allow your children (of all sorts) inherit your property without worrying about Oklahoma Intestate Law. Please call us today for more information.

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