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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!

Should I Get A More Complex Estate Plan?

Most people that come into our office expect to need a “simple” estate plan. Usually, they mean a will, power of attorneys, and a living will. No trust, no tax planning, and no trust provisions for their children or other family members.  Perhaps the initial motivator for this is the lower cost, but also the understandable desire to avoid taking the time and energy to understand the workings of a more complex estate plan.

First of all, of course simple plans are less expensive and easier to understand. However simple estate plans are usually for small, straight forward estates. Small usually meaning an entire estate worth less than 100-150 thousand, and straightforward meaning married couple with adult, healthy children with no complications. Most couples estates are worth more than the smaller, especially when you consider that your estate consists of EVERYTHING you own (Life insurance, real property/homes, cars, personal property, retirement accounts, bank accounts, etc. Also, if you have children, grandchildren, or others that you care about and wish to see benefit from your estate, a simple plan offers absolutely no assurance that that will happen.

Here’s a couple of brief examples:

  1. John dies and leaves all of his assets to his wife Jessica. They have one child, Joe.  A few years later, Jessica marries Jack, and they buy a house together with Jessica’s money, and she names Jack as the beneficiary of the IRA that she rolled over from John.  Jessica then dies, with a Will that names Joe as the sole beneficiary.  However, despite what the Will says, her second husband Jack gets the house, the IRA, and under Oklahoma law, one-half of all other property.  John and Jane’s son, Joe, is left with little of her estate.
  2. Lisse has three adult children, Larry, Louise, and Lisa.  Louise and Lonnie each have two children of their own. Lisse’s Will provides that each shall receive one-third of the estate.  Lisse dies, and each child receives $250,000.  Larry uses the money to buy a home with his wife.  They then divorce, and the judge awards her the house in the divorce settlement.  He is left with nothing of Lisse’s original estate.  Louise uses the money to start a business, risky since she has little business sense or experience.  The business fails, and she and her children are left with nothing. Lisa puts the money in a savings account in his name, but his Will provides that her husband gets everything.  Lisa dies, and a couple of years later her husband remarries.  Sometime after that he dies, and the new wife gets everything, and leaves nothing for Lisa’s children. After all of these events, Lisse’s children and grandchildren are left with nothing of the original estate.

These types of circumstances occur everyday and impact many, many families. Second marriages are very common, and as a consequence, children and grandchildren are unintentionally disinherited, and in-laws, spouses or ex-spouses, and creditors end up with the family legacy.

How do you prevent these types of things from happening? Call our office today about using a trust or multiple trusts as part of your overall estate plan.  It will cost a bit more (at this time, but do not forget it skips probate costs), and take some more time to implement, but the savings and peace of mind can be priceless.

It’s Important to Update your Estate Planning After A Divorce

Most couples, especially married couples, get their estate planning done together and draft them accordingly. Most of the time, married couples will get a Family Trust, rather than two individual Trusts, and all the beneficiaries/executors/trustees are listed as each other. After the unfortunate event of a divorce, it is extremely important to get your estate planning updated to reflect your life change. Most people’s wishes and ideas about who should receive and manage your property after your death changes after a divorce. The only way to effectively express that intent is to have a new estate plan drafted.

When you get divorced, you absolutely need to update your estate plan. Oklahoma law provides some safeguards for Wills, Trusts, and certain beneficiary designations. Under Oklahoma law, your former spouse does not benefit under your will or Trust, only if your Will or Trust follow the requirements of Oklahoma law. However, these few safeguards are incomplete and will not change your estate plan to exclude your ex-spouse in some situations. The default rule will not revoke any gifts to relatives of your ex-spouse, for example.

It is important to update your Will and/or Trust after a divorce, because the default Oklahoma rules that may or may not apply, and an experienced estate planning attorney will know which ones need updating. One of the best ways to express your new wishes after the divorce is to create or amend your estate plan. This way, you are able to accurately express your new intent with your estate, since divorce usually changes your intent (i.e. leaving the ex-spouse out), and this will ensure that your wishes are clearly communicated.

One important thing to update after a divorce is beneficiary designations on accounts. When you select beneficiaries for life insurance, retirement plans, or bank accounts, you are making a legally significant decision. After you pass away, the institution holding the account will look at your account information, including the death beneficiary, and distribute accordingly. Ex-spouses, if not changed on the account, have a strong chance of benefiting from the account.  Divorce has an very limited effect, if any, on these beneficiary type arrangements.

For example, most people hold a lot of assets in their IRA, 401(k), or other retirement plan. Most people do not realize that these retirement plans are governed by Federal law, and no state (including Oklahoma) can use a divorce decree/order to overcome the beneficiary designation on your retirement plan. This means your ex-spouse will benefit if the beneficiary is not changed. You absolutely have to change the beneficiaries after a divorce decree is final to express your new intent.

Most people have many other things on their minds if they have just gone through a divorce, but it is very important to contact an estate planning attorney, or be active in keeping your estate plan up-to-date. Please contact the Skillern Law Firm, PLLC if you need your estate plan updated or created.

Beneficiary Designations

One of the most common questions I receive from clients is the question of beneficiary designations and how they relate to their Will or Trust.

One important thing that must be said is that beneficiary designations, including IRA’s, life insurance, annuities, bank accounts, etc., go outside probate and the trust. What is said in the Will does not effect what is said in a beneficiary designation.

For instance, if you want to leave your two children 50/50 of your estate, and you put that in your Will or Trust, but leave only one as a beneficiary or joint owner of an account, that one child will receive the entire amount of the account, and the other child has no legal right to the other half. Beneficiary designations  trump whatever your Will says about the other assets.

This can also play a role in Guardianship designations in a Will or Trust. Some people believe that if they designate a guardian for their child in their Will or Trust, and then leave that Guardian as a beneficiary on an account, that the guardian will be obligated to use that money for the child’s use once they become legal guardian. This is not true. If the named beneficiary is left as a beneficiary on an account, then it is legally their money, not the child’s. You can leave the child as the beneficiary, and once the legal guardian is approved by the Court, they can access the account for the child’s use.

That being said, it is great to have beneficiaries on accounts, because it makes a lot of sense and allows the executor or trustee to focus on fewer assets to disburse. However, always keep in mind the distinction between beneficiary in a Will or Trust, and a beneficiary on an account.

If you do not have a Will or Trust set up, please contact our office today to set up an appointment!

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.
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