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Estate Planning in time of COVID-19

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As most of you will be aware, the virus called COVID-19 or “coronavirus” has changed our everyday lives during this time. As of this post, more than 340,000 people in the United States have tested positive for the virus, and it has cause around 9500 deaths. Around the country, including in Oklahoma, courts are shut down due to the quarantine initiative of the governments. In Tulsa County, the courts are shut down, including court personnel, until May 15th, 2020 (which will likely be extended). Only emergency orders and hearings are being held, and usually via an electronic video stream.

In Oklahoma, all estate planning documents need to be signed “wet ink to paper.” This means that no electronic signatures are valid, and no video-stream witnessing is allowed. There is a new law in Oklahoma that allows for electronic notaries, but a Will is exempt from this new notary allowance. In Oklahoma, estate planning documents need to be signed in person, with the testator, witnesses, and notaries all together while the signing commences. This can be a problem in the time of COVID-19, but most estate planning attorneys are taking safety precautions during this time, including us at the Skillern Law Firm.

What does this all mean for you? This means, if you do not have some basic estate planning documents in place, you should do it sooner rather than later. If the government continues to become more restrictive about gatherings and work, the chances to get your estate plan done becomes harder and harder.  You should also review your beneficiary designations, and make sure they are all up-to-date.

What documents should you have done is a very common questions we receive. There are four basic documents, regardless of ones wealth or health, that everyone should have:

  • You should have a Last Will & Testament that tells the probate court what you want to do with your estate should you pass away.
  • You should have a power of attorney for finances. This would allow your agent to pay your bills, talk to your insurance, and make other time-sensitive decisions during a period of your incapacity.
  • You should have a healthcare power of attorney. This would allow your attorney-in-fact to make medical decisions for you, and also consult with your physicians, if you were unable to make those decisions for yourself.
  • You should also have an Advanced Directive in case you become so ill that end-of-life decisions need to be made.

One of the biggest reasons to get your estate plan done ASAP is the fact that the court systems are shut down in Oklahoma. If you do not have a power of attorney for finances or health, the usual way for people to be granted the authority to act would be through the guardianship process. However, since courts are shut down except for emergency situations, these guardianship proceedings are not being held.  Also, if this is an emergency situation and it does qualify to have a hearing, these hearings are hard to have and can be time consuming to set up (and very stressful). This means that if you are in a situation where you need to be taken care of, and you do not have documents in place, the changes of setting up a guardianship is unlikely.

Also, since hospitals and nursing homes are not allowing outside visitors due to safety precautions, the changes of you getting emergency documents done by your attorney is extremely improbable. You cannot wait til you are on your death bed to have your documents executed during this time. You can save a lot of hassle, heartbreak, and stress by being proactive and getting your documents in place immediately.

If you want to set a free consultation (right now being held via the phone), please call the Skillern Law Firm today!

Oklahoma Small Estate Affidavit

U.S. Coins and Paper Money

Oklahoma permits the distribution of a small estate without probate, if the estate is worth $50,000 or less in total. There are two ways to avoid probate using affidavits in Oklahoma – one for financial accounts, one for personal property.

The first type of “Small Estate Affidavit” allowed in Oklahoma is one for financial accounts worth a total of $50,000 or less. This affidavit is authorized by 6 OS § 906. Banks, credit unions and savings and loan associations are permitted under Oklahoma statutory law to pay out bank accounts under Fifty-Thousand Dollars ($50,000) upon affidavit. The account must be in the name of a sole individual (not two persons) and also have no beneficiary designated. An original certified death certificate must be presented along with an affidavit, and the affidavit must establish the time and place of death and residence of the decedent. Also, the affidavit must state that the decedent did not leave a will. If the decedent left a will, probate will be necessary. The affidavit must set out the names of the heirs of the decedent. The affidavit must be signed and sworn to by at least one of the known heirs of the decedent.

Oklahoma also allows an affidavit to take the place of probate for the distribution of tangible personal property (property other than money or land) or an instrument evidencing a debt, obligation, stock, chose in action, or stock brand belonging to the decedent upon the presentment of an affidavit. This form of affidavit is authorized by 58 OS § 393. The limit is also $50,000, so any debt or personal property worth more than that must go through probate. Any person indebted to the decedent is authorized to accept the affidavit and make the distribution, so this affidavit can also be used for creditors as well as heirs at law. Anyone who is a successor to the decedent may sign the affidavit. The affidavit must state (1) the fair market value of property located in this state owned by the decedent and subject to disposition by will or intestate succession at the time of the decedent’s death, less liens and encumbrances, does not exceed Twenty Thousand Dollars; (2) No application or petition for appointment of a personal representative is pending or has been granted in any jurisdiction; (3) Each claiming successor is entitled to payment or delivery of the property in the respective proportions set forth in the affidavit; and All taxes and debts of the decedent’s estate have been paid or otherwise provided for or are barred by the statute of limitations. Like the first affidavit mentioned, you must also present an original certified death certificate along with the affidavit. This affidavit would be useful for the transfer of household contents, a vehicle, a stock brokerage account or the transfer of private or public corporate stock which does not exceed $50,000.

The attorney at the Skillern Law Firm, PLLC can help you get these small assets out of probate by drafting a valid Small Estate Affidavit that can keep you out of probate. Call our office today!

The Importance of Placing Your Timeshares Into A Trust

timeshare postMost, if not all, timeshare owners will have to decide, at some point in their life, who they want to receive their timeshares after they pass away. Most timeshares are real property interests, that are deeded into the owner(s)’s name(s). If a timeshare is held in an individual’s name at death, just like any other piece of real property, it will have to go though probate. Most people, and some estate planning attorneys, do not realize that timeshares are a real property, and forget to put it into their Revocable Trust. The majority of  real estate owners want their children to avoid the cost and delays of Probate proceedings after they die, and to avoid this, a Revocable Trust is one of the easiest and cost-effective ways.

Having a Will does not avoid probate, and especially does not avoid probate when it comes to real estate interests like timeshares. Many people think putting two names on a deed avoids probate. That is not entirely true. It is better to say it delays probate. If two owners, such as husband and wife, own the timeshare as “Joint Tenants” or as “Tenants by the Entirety,” probate is avoided when one owner dies because the co-owner has automatic “rights of survivorship” and becomes the sole owner. This can defer probate, but not avoid it; when the surviving co-owner or sole owner dies, probate will follow.

Some timeshare owners try to avoid probate for the timeshare or other real estate property by conveying the property into one of their children’s names while the owner is still alive.  This can cause major headaches down the road though. First of all, there are gift-taxes associated with doing this. Also, if the child goes bankrupt, gets a divorce, or is sued, the timeshare or other real estate interest is included in their estate for these proceedings.

Not only does the timeshare or other real estate interest get included in those proceedings, but the original owner has lost full control of the timeshare. If the owner and their children disagree, they cannot act alone as they once were able to. The timeshare owner will need their child(ren)’s approval for all actions in relation to that timeshare. They could no longer sell, convey, change, or do anything without the child’s signature.

Our attorney encourages her client’s to use a Revocable Living Trust for estate planning purposes, probate avoidance and/or tax benefits. The problems of adding adult children on title to the timeshare are avoided with a trust. To read more about the benefits of a Trust, please read our previous post Living, Revocable, and Irrevocable. Let’s talk trusts.

If you have already created a trust, you need to make sure that you transfer your timeshare and other real property into the trust by way of properly prepared and recorded conveyance documents. Please feel free to call our office today and set an appointment to make sure your trust is funded correctly. If you do not have a trust but are interested in finding out if you need one, call our office today for a free consultation!

Avoiding the Terri Schaivo Case – The Oklahoma Advance Directive

???????????????????????????????????????????????One of the most prominent cases of Living Wills or Advance Directives was the Terri Schaivo case in the early 2000s. It is prominent for Living Wills, in that Terri Schaivo did not have one, and her situation caused a legal battle that lasted years and costed thousands of dollars for her family.

In this case, there was a emotional and nationally-known legal battle in Florida over whether a woman, Terri Schaivo, would be kept alive through treatment of artificial food and water, or would pass away from the disuse of the treatment.  If you remember, her husband, who was still legally married to her but estranged from her family, wanted her to pass away, but her family wanted her to remain alive through the artificial means.  Since Terri Schaivo did not have a Living Will that told her family and husband what her wishes were, her family and spouse went through ten years of litigation, one-hundred thousand ($100,000) of dollars in legal fees, and endless pain and frustration for everyone involved.  A Florida court ultimately decided Ms. Schaivo should be allowed to pass away.

Terri Schaivo and her family could have avoided the entire situation if she had a Living Will or Advance Directive in place. Our attorney highly recommends this document since it takes the heart-breaking and agonizing decision away from your family members, and allows you to get your end-of-life wishes. In Oklahoma, there are three situations that the state allows you  to make your end-of-life wishes known. See our previous post about those specific situations here. This document is inexpensive, easy to execute, and could save you and your family money, emotional stress, and it grants you all peace of mind.

If you already have a Living Will in place, see if you need to update it by reading a previous post here.

Call the office of The Skillern Law Firm, PLLC today to schedule a meeting to discuss this document as well as other your other estate planning needs today!

Edith Windsor’s Fight for Same-Sex Marriage Recognition

There is currently a legal battle in the federal courts regarding a Federal law mandating that marriage is between a man and a woman. EdiTh Windsor  challenged the federal law in DOMA (Defense Of Marriage Act) as unconstitutional on equal protection grounds. The U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York recently held that Section 3 of DOMA that created this mandate was unconstitutional. She is skipping the Circuit Court, and has petitioned for the United States Supreme Court to hear and review the case. Many legal experts expect the court to take up the case for their October term.

This legal case is important for Constitutional Law, in that it may finally rule on if gay marriage is a constitutional right or the U.S. Constitutional sees homosexuals as a protected class. However, it has further implications in the estate planning legal realm.

When Edith Windsor’s partner and wife died, she left her entire estate to Windsor. But since the Federal government does not recognize under DOMA, Windsor owed $363,000 in Federal estate tax. If Edith’s wife had been a man, and they were a heterosexual couple, there would have been no Federal estate tax. Usually a married heterosexual couple does not incur any taxes because they can use the Federal estate tax exemption. In 2012, this was up to $5,000,000. The Federal estate tax exemption, however, does not apply to same-sex couples. To many people’s surprise, Edith has managed to win the first battle at the New York Federal district court. Now, the Supreme Court is more than likely going to hear the case this fall. President Obama and his administration has stated that they will not defend the law, and so the Bipartisan Legal Advisory Group  took the position to defend the law. The legal argument for DOMA and the case against Edith is that the representatives in Congress  have Congressional decided that children should be raised by both a mother and a father. The legal argument against DOMA is that it is a violation of the Equal Protection Clause and Due Process.

As this legal case develops, Skillern Law Firm will continue to write about this important legal case. If you are a same-sex couple in Oklahoma, and you need your estate planning done, please feel free to call for a free consultation. We would love to help you. For more information on why estate planning is especially important for same-sex couples living in Oklahoma, please see our post Estate Planning for Everyone.

See Manuel Roig-Franzia, Edith Windsor’s Fight For Same-Sex Marriage Rights Continues, Even After Partner’s Death, Washington Post, July 19, 2012.

Do You Need to Update Your Advance Directive (Living Will)?

Many clients of the attorneys at Skillern Law Firm, PLLC believe they do not need a new Advance Directive since they had one drafted many years ago. Well, if you got your living will completed before 2006, you may need yours updated.

During the 2006 Legislative Session, the Oklahoma Legislature amended the Oklahoma Advance Directive Act (“the Act”) in response to an Attorney General Opinion.  It became effective on May 17, 2006.The Attorney General’s opinion argued that, in its then old form, the Oklahoma Advance Directive Act was unconstitutional.  Before May of 2006, individuals could only designate refusal of life-sustaining treatment only if they were persistently unconscious (in a vegetative state) or if they were diagnosed with a terminal condition. The old act had no provision to allow people to choose if they want treatment or not if they were diagnosed with an “End-stage Condition.”

The Oklahoma Legislature listened to the Attorney General, and added this category to the statute. Now, individuals can discuss what they would want in an “End-Stage Condition.” An “End-stage Condition” is a condition caused by injury, disease, or illness, which results in severe and permanent deterioration indicated by incompetency and complete physical dependency for which, to a reasonable degree of medical certainty, treatment of the irreversible condition would be medically ineffective.  Importantly, this includes Alzheimer’s disease in its late stages.

At the Skillern Law Firm, our updated Advance Directives forms allow you and your spouse to refuse life-sustaining treatment and/or artificial administration of nutrition and hydration, if you so choose. It will allow allow you to designate that you absolutely want all the treatment you can receive.  Whether you choose to refuse life-sustaining treatment or to continue all treatment options, executing a new advance directive should be on your priority list.

If you have not updated your Advance Directive, or have never had one drafted with your desires, contact the offices of Skillern Law Firm, PLLC today. For more reading on what an Advance Directive can do you for, please read a past post all about living wills here.

Special Needs Planning

It seems everyone knows at least someone with special needs, whether it be a family member, a church member, or a friend. When it come to estate and financial planning, the term “special needs” applies to family members who cannot, for some reason, take care of themselves. The reasons are varied, whether it be a child with a condition, such as Down’s syndrome, a teenager with mental problems, or an elderly person with a condition like dementia or Alzheimer. Another reason someone may need special needs planning can be someone with a physical disability, such as a quadriplegic, or many other disabilities.

Most of our clients who come to us wanting special needs are parents or grandparents that need special needs planning for their children or grandchildren.  Most clients are people who want to provide for their special needs family member through inheritance, however, leaving money as inheritance or life insurance to a special needs person will usually not improve their life, in fact, it generally has a detrimental effect on their financial well-being and stability.

One of the main reasons why leaving inheritance or life insurance benefits to a special needs person can be detrimental is that it can disqualify a special needs member from Supplemental Security Income (SSI). SSI is a federal financial support program that gives money to special needs individuals. Medicaid is another federal and state program that gives financial support to special needs individuals. Your inheritance can disqualify the special needs person from Medicaid support as well, since in order to qualify for Medicaid a person must have less than $2,000 in assets (which is really, really low for someone with special needs).

Special needs estate planning can help give your family member with special needs the ability to qualify for federal and state financial support programs, while also inheriting some money from your estate. Making sure your family member with special needs is left with enough money to support their health, care, and maintenance costs, while at the same time qualifying for federal programs, requires complex planning that is best done with the advice of a qualified attorney. Skillern Law Firm, PLLC is happy to explain the benefits and inter-workings of special needs estate planning. Please call today to schedule your free appointment.

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