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Boca Raton Estate Planning & Probate Blog

Saturday, October 10, 2015

Five Common Reasons a Will Might Be Invalid

There are several reasons that a will may prove invalid. It is important for testators to be aware of these pitfalls in order to avoid them.

Improper Execution

The requirements vary from state to state, but most states require a valid will to be witnessed by two people not named in the will. Some jurisdictions require the document to be notarized as well. Although these restrictions may be relaxed if the will is holographic (handwritten), it is best to satisfy these requirements to ensure that the testamentary document will be honored by the probate court.

Lack of Testamentary Capacity

Anyone over the age of 18 is presumed to understand what a will is. At the end of life, individuals are often not in the best state of mind. If court finds that an individual is suffering from dementia, is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or is incapable of understanding the document being executed for some other reason, the court may invalidate the will on the grounds that the individual does  not have testamentary capacity.

Replacement by a Later Will

Whenever an individual writes a new will, it invalidates all wills made previously. This means that a will might be believed to be valid for months until a more recently executed document surfaces. The newest will always takes precedence, controlling how assets should be distributed.

Lack of Required Content

Every will is required to contain certain provisions to carry out its purpose. These provisions, ensure that the testator understands the reason for executing the document.  Although these provisions vary from state to  state, some are common to all jurisdictions. It should be clear that the document is intended to be a will. The document  should demonstrate an individual’s wishes in regard to what should happen to his or her property after death. A proper will should also include a provision to appoint an executor to act as an agent for the estate and enforce the terms of the will. If the document  lacks any of these provisions, the will may be declared invalid. 

Undue influence or fraud

A will that was executed under undue influence, coercion or fraud will be invalidated by a court. If a will has been presented to a testator for a signature as if it were any other document, like a power of attorney or a business contract, the court will find that the will was fraudulently obtained and will not honor it. If an individual providing end of life care with exclusive access to the testator threatens to stop care unless a will is modified, that modification is considered to be the result of undue influence and the court will not accept it.


Wednesday, September 30, 2015

A Glossary of Estate Planning Terms

Will - a written document specifying a person’s wishes concerning his or her property distribution upon his or her death.

In order to be enforced by a court of law, a will must be signed in accordance with the applicable wills act.

Testator/Testatrix - the person who signs the will.

Heirs - beneficiaries of an estate.

Executor/Executrix - the individual given authority by the testator to make decisions to put the testator’s written directions into effect.

Once the will is entered into probate, the executor’s signature is equivalent to the testator’s. The executor has a legal duty to the heirs of the estate to act in the best interest of the estate, and may collect a fee for performing such service.

Administrator/Administratrix - the person who assumes the role of the executor when a person dies without a will (intestate).

The Administrator must apply with the local probate office and may be required to provide a bond to be held in escrow as collateral for control over the assets of the estate.

Codicil - an amendment to a will.

In order to be valid, a codicil must comply with all the requirements of the applicable wills act.

Holographic Will- a handwritten will. 

Holographic wills are often exempt from requirements of the applicable wills act.

Bequest - a gift given by the testator to his or her heirs through a will.

Residual Estate - the balance of a testator’s belongings after debts have been paid and specific bequests have been distributed. 

Intestate - not having signed a will before one dies; a person who dies without having signed a will.

Life Estate - a bequest that gives an heir the right to have exclusive use of a property for the remainder of his or her life, but without the power to transfer such property upon the death of that heir.

The property will transfer to the heirs of the residual estate after the death of the beneficiary of the life estate.

Per stirpes - a Latin phrase precisely translated as “by the branch” meaning that, if an heir named in the will dies before the testator, that heir’s share will be divided equally among that beneficiary’s own heirs.

 An alternative to per capita, described below.

Per capita - a Latin phrase precisely translated as “by the head” meaning that, if an heir named in the will dies before the testator, that heir’s share will be divided among the testator’s remaining heirs.

 An alternative to per stirpes, described above.

While it is a good idea to have a basic understanding of fundamental estate planning vocabulary, this cannot serve as a substitute for the services of an experienced attorney.


Sunday, September 20, 2015

Should you Consider Medicaid Planning?

There are many factors to consider when deciding whether or not to implement Medicaid planning.  If you’re in good health, now would be the prime time to do this planning. The main reason is that any Medicaid planning may entail using an irrevocable trust, or perhaps gifts to your children, which would incur a five-year look back for Medicaid qualification purposes. The use of an irrevocable trust to receive these gifts would provide more protection and in some cases more control for you.

As an example, if you were to gift assets directly to a child, that child could be sued or could go through a divorce, and those assets could be lost to a creditor or a divorcing spouse even though the child had intended to hold those assets intact in case they needed to be returned to you. If instead, you had used an irrevocable trust to receive the gifted assets, those assets would not have been considered the child’s and therefore would not have been lost to the child’s creditor or a divorcing spouse. You need to understand that doing this type of planning, and using the irrevocable trust, may mean that those assets are not available to you and therefore you need to be comfortable with that structure.

Depending upon the size of your estate, and your sources of income, perhaps you have sufficient assets to pay for your own care for quite some time. You should work closely with an attorney knowledgeable about Medicaid planning as well as a financial planner that can help identify your sources of income should you need long-term care. Also, you should look into whether or not you could qualify for long-term care insurance, and how much the premiums would be on that type of insurance.


Thursday, September 10, 2015

8 Reasons Young People Should Write a Last Will and Testament

Imagine if writing a last will and testament were a pre-requisite to graduating from high school.  The graduate walks across the stage, hands the completed will to the principal, and gets the diploma in return.   It might sound strange because most 18 year olds have little in terms of assets but it’s a good idea for all adults to draft a last will and testament.

Graduation from college is another good milestone to use as a reminder to create an estate plan.  If you haven’t created a will by the time you marry – or are living with a partner in a committed relationship – then it’s fair to say you are overdue.

Think you don’t need an estate plan because you’re broke?  Not true.  Here are eight excellent reasons for young people to complete a last will and testament.  And they have very little to do with money.

You are entering the military
.  Anyone entering the military, at 18 or any other age, should make sure his or her affairs are in order.  Even for an 18-year-old, that means creating a will and other basic estate planning documents like a health care directive and powers of attorney.

You received an inheritance
.  You may not think of the inheritance as your asset, especially if it is held in trust for you.  But, without an estate plan, the disposition of that money will be a slow and complicated process for your surviving family members.

You own an animal
.  It is common for people to include plans for their pets in their wills.  If the unthinkable were to happen and you died unexpectedly, what would happen to your beloved pet?  Better to plan ahead for your animals in the event of your death.  You can even direct the sale of specific assets, with the proceeds going to your pet’s new guardian for upkeep expenses.

You want to protect your family from red tape.  If you die without a will, your family will have to take your “estate” (whatever money and possessions you have at the time of your death) through a long court process known as probate. If you had life insurance, for example, your family would not be able to access those funds until the probate process was complete.  A couple of basic estate planning documents can keep your estate out of the probate court and get your assets into the hands of your chosen beneficiaries much more quickly.

You have social media accounts.  Many people spend a great deal of time online, conversing with friends, storing important photos and documents and even managing finances. Without instructions from you, will your family know what to do with your Facebook account, your LinkedIn account, and so forth?

You want to give money or possessions to friends or charities
.  When someone dies without a will, there are laws that dictate who will receive any assets.  These recipients will include immediate family members like parents, siblings, and a spouse.  If you want to give assets to friends or to a charity, you must protect your wishes with a will.

You care about what happens to you if you are in a coma or persistent vegetative state.  We all see the stories on the news – ugly fights within families over the prostrate bodies of critically ill children or siblings or spouses.  When you write your will, write a health care directive (also called a living will) and a financial power of attorney as well.  This is especially important if you have a life partner to whom you are not married so they can make decisions on your behalf

 

 


Thursday, August 27, 2015

Controlling Estate Planning Through Trusts

How can I control my assets after death?

The practice of estate planning is dedicated to preserving an individual’s control over his or her assets after death. A simple will can control which individuals receive what assets, but a more thorough plan has the potential to do much more. Establishing a trust is the most common method used to exercise this kind of control. 

A trust can issue a bequest restricted by a condition; for example, a trust might be established to pay out $10,000.00 to a specific grandchild only once he or she has reached 18 years of age. Multiple payments can be made to the beneficiaries as long as the trust is funded. The trust can stipulate that the grandchild may have to graduate from college to receive the money, or even that he or she must graduate from a specific school with a minimum grade-point average or membership in a particular fraternity or sorority.

A trust can make the condition of payment as specific or as broad as the creator of the trust wishes. It may, for instance, bequeath benefits to a humanitarian organization on condition that the organization continues to provide food and shelter to the homeless. There is no limit to the number of conditions permissible in a trust document. Even when the conditions go against public policy and general norms and mores established by society, as long as the conditions may be met legally, they will be upheld by the court.

In order to create a trust, there must be a capital investment to fund it and a trustee must be named. The trustee is responsible for protecting the assets of the trust, investing them to the best of his or her ability, managing real estate and other long-term assets, interpreting the trust document, communicating regularly with the beneficiaries of the trust and performing all of these actions with a high level of integrity. Trust assets may be used to pay for expenses of managing the trust as well as to provide a stipend for the trustee if so provided for in the trust document.

If a trust document is not well written, it may be the target of a lawsuit seeking to dissolve the trust and disburse the assets held therein. Even if the trust is defended successfully, the costs of this challenge may deplete its coffers and frustrate the very reason for its creation. In order to avoid these possible pitfalls, it is imperative that a trust document be drafted by an attorney with a high degree of experience in estate planning law.


Thursday, August 20, 2015

Estate Planning for the Chronically Ill

There are certain considerations that should be kept in mind for those with chronic illnesses.   Before addressing this issue, there should be some clarification as to the definition of "chronically ill." There are at least two definitions of chronically ill. The first is likely the most common meaning, which is an illness that a person may live with for many years. Diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, hepatitis C and asthma are some of the more familiar chronic illnesses. Contrast that with a legal definition of chronic illness which usually means that the person is unable to perform at least two activities of daily living such as eating, toileting, transferring, bathing and dressing, or requires considerable supervision to protect from crisis relating to health and safety due to severe impairment concerning mind, or having a level of disability similar to that determined by the Social Security Administration for disability benefits. Having said all of that, the estate planning such a person may undertake will likely be similar to that of a healthy person, but there will likely be a higher sense of urgency and it will be much more "real" and less "hypothetical."

Most healthy individuals view the estate planning they establish as not having any applicability for years, perhaps even decades. Whereas a chronically ill person more acutely appreciates that the planning he or she does will have real consequences in his or her life and the life of loved ones. Some of the most important planning will center around who the person appoints as his or her health care decision maker and also who is appointed to handle financial affairs. a will and/or revocable living trust will play a central role in the person's planning as well.  Care should also be taken to address possible Medicaid planning benefits.  A consultation with an estate planning and elder law attorney is critical to ensuring all necessary planning steps are contemplated and eventually implemented. 


Monday, August 10, 2015

Avoiding Common Mistakes in Estate Planning

Estate planning is designed to fulfill the wishes of a person after his or her death. Problems can easily arise, however, if the estate plan contains unanswered questions that can no longer be resolved after the person's demise. This can, and frequently does, lead to costly litigation counter-productive to the goals of the estate. It is important that will be written in language that is clear and that the document has been well proofread because something as simple as a misplaced comma can significantly alter its meaning.

Planning for every possible contingency is a significant part of estate planning. Tragic scenarios in which an estate planner’s loved ones predecease him or her, though uncomfortable, must be considered during the preparation of a will to avoid otherwise unforeseen conflicts. 

Even trained professionals can make significant mistakes if they are not well versed in estate planning. An attorney who practices general law, while perfectly capable of preparing simple wills, may not understand the intricacies of trusts and guardianships. A great many attorneys, not aware of the tax consequences of bequests involving IRAs, may leave heirs with unnecessary financial obligations. If an attorney is not knowledgeable enough to ask the proper questions, he or she will be unable to prepare an estate plan that functions efficiently and ensures the proper distribution of the estate's assets.

In spite of the wealth of an individual, the estate may be cash deficient if that wealth is tied up in assets at the time of the individual's death. Problems can also result if an estate planner has distributed assets into joint bank accounts or accounts with pay on death provisions. If the executor of the estate does not have access to funds to pay the estate's bills or taxes, the heirs of the estate may run into trouble.

Even if estate planning is handled well from a logistical point of view, lack of communication with loved ones can interfere with a will's desired execution. A tragedy that incapacitates the testator can occur suddenly, so it is imperative that a savvy estate planner confers with loved ones as soon as possible, making them aware of any future obligations, such as life insurance premiums that must be paid and informing them of the location of any probate documents and inventories of assets. Such conversations ensure that the individual's wishes will be carried out without complications or delay in the event of an unexpected incapacity.

In addition to communicating logistical information, it is also essential to schedule a personal conversation with loved ones that makes clear any sentimental bequests or large gifts that require explanation. This avoids the shock or discomfort that may arise after one's death during which a well-thought-out decision is questioned as impulsive or irrational. Such direct communication of one's plans avoids unnecessary envy, arguments or rivalry among family and friends.

Consulting with attorneys who specialize in estate planning is the cornerstone of creating a plan to ensure that one's desires are carried out and that all the bases are covered. Estate planning attorneys serve as invaluable repositories of all information necessary to strategizing a plan that not only meets one's personal needs and desires, but is legally binding.


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Preventing a Will Contest and Preserving Peace in the Family

The purpose of writing a Last Will and Testament is to make sure that you – and not an anonymous probate court judge – have control over the distribution of your property after your death.  If one or more family members disputes the instructions in your will, however, then it is possible  that a probate court judge may decide how your assets will be distributed.


Protect yourself, your family members and your last wishes by taking steps to prevent a will contest after your death.  Will contests (this is the legal term used to describe a family member’s challenge to the contents of a will) can be based on one or more of these claims:

  • The will was not properly executed
  • The willmaker was under improper or undue influence from a beneficiary
  • The willmaker or another person committed fraud
  • The willmaker lacked the mental capacity to make the will

There are a number of steps that you can take to help prevent will contests based on any of those claims.  It is important to remember, though, that different states have different laws regarding wills and probate.  What is advisable in one state may be inadvisable in another, which is why the first suggestion for preventing a will contest is:

  1. Obtain qualified legal advice regarding your estate plan.  Estate planning has become a popular “do it yourself” legal task, but you should at least consider having your will reviewed – if not written – by a qualified estate planning lawyer.  Writing your will with the help of an estate planning attorney will also ensure that your will is a properly executed and valid legal document.
     
  2. Don’t delay estate planning.  Plan your estate while you are in good health – “of sound mind and body.”  If you create your will while your physical or mental health is failing, your will becomes vulnerable to claims that it is invalid due to your lack of mental capacity.

  3. Write your will independently.  To avoid claims of undue influence after your death, make sure you write your will in circumstances that are clearly free from interference by family members or other beneficiaries.  Avoid having beneficiaries serve as witnesses, for example, and don’t allow beneficiaries to attend your meetings with your estate planning attorney.  This is especially important if you are under the care of a family member who is also a beneficiary.
     
  4. Be of sound mind and body.  At the time you write and sign your will, you can ask your physician to perform a physical examination and certify that you are mentally competent to execute your will.  Another option is for your attorney to ask you a series of questions before you sign your will and document that the questions were asked and answered.  It may also be a good idea to make a video recording of the process of signing your will, as another way to prove mental competency.
     
  5. Answer your family’s questions.  Consider sharing your intentions with your family and other beneficiaries.  If you explain the reasons for the decisions you made regarding bequests, you may help prevent will contests after your death.  Instead or in addition, you may write a letter to your beneficiaries that will be read at the same time your will is read.
     
  6. Keep your will dust-free.  Once your Last Will and Testament and other estate planning documents are complete, don’t just file and forget them.  Review your will with an attorney at least once a year and make any necessary changes in a timely manner.
     

Friday, July 17, 2015

Will or Won’t? Things a Will Won’t (or Can’t) Do

Wills offer many benefits and are an important part of any estate plan, regardless of how much property you have. Your will can ensure that after death your property will be given to the loved ones you designate. If you have children, a will is necessary to designate a guardian for them. Without a will, the courts and probate laws will decide who inherits your property and who cares for your children. But there are certain things a will cannot accomplish.


A will has no effect on the distribution of certain types of property after your death. For example, if you own property in joint tenancy with another co-owner, your share of that property will automatically belong to the surviving joint tenant. Any contrary will provision would only be effective if all joint tenants died at the same time.

If you have named a beneficiary on your life insurance policy, those proceeds will not be subject to the terms of a will and will pass directly to your named beneficiary. Similarly, if you have named a beneficiary on your retirement accounts, including pension plans, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), 401(k) or 403(b) retirement plans, the money will be distributed directly to that named beneficiary when you pass on, regardless of any will provisions.

Brokerage accounts, including stocks and bonds, in which you have named a transfer-on-death (TOD) beneficiary will be transferred directly to the named beneficiary. Vehicles may also be titled with a TOD beneficiary, and would therefore transfer to your beneficiary, regardless of any provisions contained in your will. Similar to TODs, bank accounts may have a pay-on-death beneficiary named.

The will’s shortcomings are not limited to matters of inheritance. Generally, wills are not as well suited as trusts for putting conditions on a gift such as requiring someone to get married or divorced, or obtain a certain education level, as a prerequisite to inheriting a portion of your estate. A simple will cannot reduce estate taxes the way some kinds of trust plans can.

A trust, not a will, is also necessary to arrange for care for a beneficiary who has special needs. A will cannot provide for long-term care arrangements for a loved one. However, a special needs trust can provide financial support for a disabled beneficiary, without risking government disability benefits.

If you want to leave your estate to Fido, you’re out of luck in many states. Without a special pet trust, your will may not be able to provide for pets to inherit your assets. You can use your will to leave your pet to someone, and then leave money to that person in trust to help take care of your pet.

A will cannot help you avoid probate. Assets left through a will generally must be transferred through a court-supervised probate proceeding, which can take months, or longer, at significant expense to your estate. If it’s probate you want to avoid, consider establishing a living trust to hold your significant assets.

 

 


Monday, July 6, 2015

Overview of Life Estates

Establishing a Life Estate is a relatively simple process in which you transfer your property to your children, while retaining your right to use and live in the property. Life Estates are used to avoid probate, maximize tax benefits and protect the real property from potential long-term care expenses you may incur in your later years. Transferring property into a Life Estate avoids some of the disadvantages of making an outright gift of property to your heirs. However, it is not right for everyone and comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Life Estates establish two different categories of property owners: the Life Tenant Owner and the Remainder Owner. The Life Tenant Owner maintains the absolute and exclusive right to use the property during his or her lifetime. This can be a sole owner or joint Life Tenants. Life Tenant(s) maintain responsibility for property taxes, insurance and maintenance. Life Tenant(s) are also entitled to rent out the property and to receive all income generated by the property.

Remainder Owner(s) automatically take legal ownership of the property immediately upon the death of the last Life Tenant. Remainder Owners have no right to use the property or collect income generated by the property, and are not responsible for taxes, insurance or maintenance, as long as the Life Tenant is still alive.

Advantages

  • Life Estates are simple and inexpensive to establish; merely requiring that a new Deed be recorded.
  • Life Estates avoid probate; the property automatically transfers to your heirs upon the death of the last surviving Life Tenant.
  • Transferring title following your death is a simple, quick process.
  • Life Tenant’s right to use and occupy property is protected; a Remainder Owner’s problems (financial or otherwise) do not affect the Life Tenant’s absolute right to the property during your lifetime.
  • Favorable tax treatment upon the death of a Life Tenant; when property is titled this way, your heirs enjoy a stepped-up tax basis, as of the date of death, for capital gains purposes.
  • Property owned via a Life Estate is typically protected from Medicaid claims once 60 months have elapsed after the date of transfer into the Life Estate. After that five-year period, the property is protected against Medicaid liens to pay for end-of-life care.

Disadvantages

  • Medicaid; that 60-month waiting period referenced above also means that the Life Tenants are subject to a 60-month disqualification period for Medicaid purposes. This period begins on the date the property is transferred into the Life Estate.
  • Potential income tax consequences if the property is sold while the Life Tenant is still alive; Life Tenants do not receive the full income tax exemption normally available when a personal residence is sold. Remainder Owners receive no such exemption, so any capital gains tax would likely be due from the Remainder Owner’s proportionate share of proceeds from the sale.
  • In order to sell the property, all owners must agree and sign the Deed, including Life Tenants and Remainder Owners; Life Tenant’s lose the right of sole control over the property.
  • Transfer into a Life Estate is irrevocable; however if all Life Tenants and Remainder Owners agree, a change can be made but may be subject to negative tax or Medicaid consequences.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

A Simple Will Is Not Enough

A basic last will and testament cannot accomplish every goal of estate planning; in fact, it often cannot even accomplish the most common goals.  This fact often surprises people who are going through the estate planning process for the first time.  In addition to a last will and testament, there are other important planning tools which are necessary to ensure your estate planning wishes are honored.

Beneficiary Designations
Do you have a pension plan, 401(k), life insurance, a bank account with a pay-on-death directive, or investments in transfer-on-death (TOD) form?

When you established each of these accounts, you designated at least one beneficiary of the account in the event of your death.  You cannot use your will to change or override the beneficiary designations of such accounts.  Instead, you must change them directly with the bank or company that holds the account.

Special Needs Trusts
Do you have a child or other beneficiary with special needs?

Leaving money directly to a beneficiary who has long-term special medical needs may threaten his or her ability to qualify for government benefits and may also create an unnecessary tax burden.  A simple vehicle called a special needs trust is a more effective way to care for an adult child with special needs after your death.

Conditional Giving with Living or Testamentary Trusts
Do you want to place conditions on some of your bequests?

 

If you want your children or other beneficiaries to receive an inheritance only if they meet or continually meet certain prerequisites, you must utilize a trust, either one established during your lifetime (living trust) or one created through instructions provided in a will (testamentary trust).

Estate Tax Planning
Do you expect your estate to owe estate taxes?

A basic will cannot help you lower the estate tax burden on your assets after death.  If you think your estate will be liable to pay taxes, you can take steps during your lifetime to minimize that burden on your beneficiaries.  Certain trusts operate to minimize estate taxes, and you may choose to make some gifts during your lifetime for tax-related reasons.  

Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship
Do you own a house with someone “in joint tenancy”?

“Joint tenancy” is the most common form of house ownership with a spouse.  This form of ownership is also known as “joint tenancy with right of survivorship,” “tenancy in the entirety,” or “community property with right of survivorship.”  When you die, your ownership share in the house passes directly to your spouse (or the other co-owner).  A provision in your will bequeathing your ownership share to a third party will not have any effect.

Pet Trusts
Do you want to leave money to your pets or companion animals?

Pets are generally considered property, and you cannot use your will to leave property (money) to other property (pets).  Instead, you can use your will to name a caretaker for your animals and to leave a sum of money to that person for the animals’ care. 


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