Category: Beneficiaries

Who inherits IRA if the Beneficiary passes?

Who Inherits IRA if the Beneficiary Passes?

Retirement accounts need to have beneficiary designations to determine who inherits the funds when you pass. But who inherits an IRA if the beneficiary passes? Which estate would get the IRA when a non-spouse beneficiary inherits an IRA account but dies before the money is put in her name with no contingent beneficiaries can be complicated, says nj.com in the recent article entitled “Who gets this inherited IRA after the beneficiary dies?”

IRAs are usually transferred by a decedent through a beneficiary designation form.

As a review, a designated beneficiary is an individual who inherits an asset like the balance of an IRA after the death of the asset’s owner. The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act has restricted the rules for designated beneficiaries for required withdrawals from inherited retirement accounts.

Under the SECURE Act, a designated beneficiary is a person named as a beneficiary on a retirement account and who does not fall into one of five categories of individuals classified as an eligible designated beneficiary. The designated beneficiary must be a living person. While estates, most trusts, and charities can inherit retirement assets, they are considered to be a non-designated beneficiary for the purposes of determining required withdrawals.

Provided there is a named beneficiary, and the named beneficiary survived the owner of the IRA account, the named beneficiary inherits the account.

The executor or administrator of the beneficiary’s estate would be entitled to open an inherited IRA for the beneficiary because the beneficiary did not have the opportunity to open it before he or she passed away.

Next is the question of who inherits the IRA from the named beneficiary if she passes before naming her own beneficiary.

In that instance, the financial institution’s IRA plan documents would determine the beneficiary when no one is named. These rules usually say that it goes to the spouse or the estate of the deceased beneficiary.

If you are interested in learning more about beneficiary designations, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: nj.com (June 1, 2021) “Who gets this inherited IRA after the beneficiary dies?”

New Episode of The Estate of The Union Podcast

 

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A trust is a good option when your children are minors

A Trust is an Option when Children are Minors

Let’s say that there’s a young father with a wife and young son, who owns a home and a Roth IRA account, with a few stock investments. On the stock investments, he’s filled out the beneficiary designation forms passing all his assets to his wife and son, should anything happen to him. This father owns his home is joint tenancy with right of survivorship with his wife. Does he need to set up a separate trust, if most of his assets pass through beneficiary designations? A trust is a good option when your children are minors.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Do I need a trust in case something happens to me?” says that leaving assets outright to a minor is typically a bad move. The son’s guardian and/or the court would take custody of the assets, both of which require significant court oversight and involvement.

The minor would also receive the assets upon attaining the age of majority, which in most states is age 18.

No one can tell what a young child will be like at the age of 18, especially after suffering the loss of their parents. Even if there are no significant issues, such as drug addiction or special needs, parents should think about what they’d have done with that much money at that age.

The best option is to leave assets in trust for the benefit of the minor son.

The trustee can manage and use the assets for the benefit of the young boy with limited court involvement.

The terms of the trust can also delay the point at which the assets can be distributed and ultimately paid over to the beneficiary, if at all.

For example, it’s not uncommon for a trust to stipulate that the beneficiary gets a third of the assets at 25, half of the remaining assets at 30 and the rest at age 35. However, other trusts don’t provide for such mandatory distributions and can hold the assets for the beneficiary’s lifetime, which has its advantages.

In some instances, the terms of the trust are included in a will. This creates a trust account after death, which is also called a testamentary trust.

If you have minor children, it is a good option to create a Trust. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney, who can assess your specific situation and provide guidance in creating an estate plan. The attorney can also make certain that trust assets are correctly titled and that beneficiary designations of retirement accounts and life insurance are correctly prepared, so the trust under the will receives those assets and not the minor individually.

If you are interested in learning more about trusts and minor children, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: nj.com (June 14, 2021) “Do I need a trust in case something happens to me?”

 

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charitable options to reduce estate taxes

Charitable options to Reduce Estate Taxes

Increasing tax changes for the wealthy are coming, and motivation to find ways to protect the wealth is getting increased attention, according to a recent article from CNBC entitled “Here’s how to reduce exposure to tax increases with charitable contributions.” Charitable remainder trusts (CRTs) and Donor Advised Funds (DAFs) are options for people who are already charitably inclined to reduce estate taxes. The CRT is complicated, requiring estate planning attorneys to create them and accountants to maintain them. The DAF is simpler, less expensive and is growing in popularity.

Both enable income tax deductions, in the current year or carried forward for five years, on cash contributions of up to 60% of the donors’ AGI and up to 30% of AGI on contributed assets. These contributions also reduce the size of taxable estates.

CRTs funnel asset income into a tax-advantaged cash stream that goes to the donor or another designated non-charitable beneficiary. The income stream flows for a set term or, if desired, for the lifetime of the non-charitable beneficiary. The trusts must be designed, so that at the end of the term, at least 10% of the funds remain to be donated to a charity, which must be designated at the outset.

No tax is due on proceeds from the sale of trust assets, until the cash makes its way to the non-charitable beneficiary. When assets are held by individuals, their sale creates capital gains tax in the year they are sold.

CRT donors can fund the trusts with highly appreciated assets, then manage them for optimal returns while minimizing tax exposure by adjusting the income stream to spread the tax burden over an extended period of time. If capital gains tax rates are raised by Congress, this would be even better for high earners.

DAFs do not allow dispersals to non-charitable beneficiaries. All gains must ultimately be donated to charity. However, the DAF provides advantages. They are easy to create and can be set up with most large financial service companies. Their cost is lower than CRTs, which have recurring fees for handling required IRS filings and trust management. Charges from financial institutions typically range from 0.1% to 1% annually, depending upon the size, and a custodial fee for holding the account.

DAFs can be created and funded by individuals or a family and receive a deduction that very same year. There is no hurry to name the charitable beneficiaries or direct donations. With a CRT, donors must name a charitable beneficiary when the trust is created. These elections are difficult to change in the future, since the CRT is an irrevocable trust. The DAF allows ongoing review of giving goals.

Funding a DAF can be done with as little as $5,000. The DAF contribution can include shares of privately owned businesses, collectibles, even cryptocurrency, as long as the valuation methods used for the assets meet IRS rules. Donors can get tax deductions without having to use cash, since a wide range of assets may be used.

The DAF is a good way for less wealthy individuals and families to qualify for itemizing tax deductions, rather than taking the standard deduction. DAF donations are deductible the year they are made, so filers may consolidate what may be normally two years’ worth of donations into a single year for tax purposes. This is a way of meeting the IRS threshold to qualify for itemizing deductions.

Both charitable options are effective ways to reduce estate taxes. Which of these two works best depends upon your individual situation. With your estate planning attorney, you’ll want to determine how much of your wealth would benefit from this type of protection and how it would work with your overall estate plan.

If you would like to learn more about charitable contributions, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: CNBC (April 20, 201) “Here’s how to reduce exposure to tax increases with charitable contributions.”

 

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retirement assets to include in your planning

Retirement Assets to include in your Planning

You have spent a lifetime saving money for retirement, but which of those retirement assets do you include in your planning? Depending on your intentions for retirement accounts, they may need to be managed and used in distinctly different ways to reach the dual goals of enjoying retirement and leaving a legacy. It’s all explained in a helpful article from Kiplinger, “Planning for Retirement Assets in Your Estate Plan”.

Start by identifying goals and dig into the details. Do you want to leave most assets to your children or grandchildren? Has philanthropy always been important for you, and do you plan to leave large contributions to organizations or causes?

This is not a one-and-done matter. If your intentions, beneficiaries, or tax rules change, you’ll need to review everything to make sure your asset planning still works.

How accounts are titled and how assets will be passed can create efficient tax results or create tax liabilities. This needs to be aligned with your estate plan. Check on beneficiary designations, asset titles and other documents to make sure they all work together.

Review investments and income. If you’ve retired, pensions, annuities, Social Security and other steady sources of income may be supplemented from your taxable investments. Required minimum distributions (RMDs) from tax deferred accounts are also part of the mix. Make sure you have enough income to cover regular and unanticipated medical, long term care or other expenses.

Once your core income has been determined, it may be wise to segregate any excess capital you intend to use for wealth transfer or charitable giving. Without being set apart from other accounts, these assets may not be managed as effectively for tax planning and long-term goals.

Establish a plan for taxable assets. Children or individuals can be better off inheriting highly appreciable taxable investment accounts, rather than traditional IRAs. These types of accounts currently qualify for a step-up in cost basis. This step-up allows the beneficiary to sell the appreciated assets they receive as inheritance, without incurring capital gains.

Here’s an example: an heir receives 1,000 shares of a stock with a $20 per share cost basis valued at $120 per share at the time of the owner’s death. They will pay no capital gains taxes on the gain of $100 per share. However, if the same stock was sold while the retiree owner was living, the $100,000 gain in total would have been taxed. The post-death appreciation, if any, on such inherited retirement assets, would be subject to capital gains taxes.

Retirees often try to preserve traditional IRAs and qualified accounts, while spending taxable accounts to take advantage of lower capital gains taxes as they take distributions. However, this sets heirs up for a big tax bill. Another strategy is to convert a portion of those assets to a Roth IRA and pay taxes now, allowing the assets to grow tax free for you and your heirs.

Segregate assets earmarked for charitable donations. If a charity is named as a beneficiary for a traditional IRA, the charity receives the assets tax free and the estate may be eligible for an estate deduction for federal and state estate taxes.

Your estate planning attorney can help you understand how to structure your assets to meet goals for retirement, and to include in your planning. Saving your heirs from estate tax bills that could have been avoided with prior planning will add to their memories of you as someone who took care of the family.

If you would like to learn more about how to include retirement assets in your estate planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Kiplinger (May 21, 2021) “Planning for Retirement Assets in Your Estate Plan”

 

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Planning is critical for unmarried couples

Planning is Critical for Unmarried Couples

If you, like so many others, found yourself settling the affairs of a loved one in the last 18 months, you may be well aware of the challenges created when there is no estate plan. The lack of planning can create an enormous headache for loved ones, explains a recent article titled “3 Estate Planning Tips for Same-Sex Couples” from The Street. If this is true for married couples, then it’s even more important for unmarried couples. Planning is critical for unmarried couples.

Planning for incapacity and death is not fun, but unmarried couples in serious relationships need to plan for the unknown. Even married same-sex couples may face hostility from family members, including will contests and custody battles over children. There are three key issues to address: inheritance, incapacity and end-of-life care and beneficiary designations.

If a partner in an unmarried couple dies and there is no will, assets belonging to the decedent pass to their family, which could leave their partner with nothing. With no will, the estate is subject to the laws of intestacy. These laws almost always direct the court to distribute the property based on kinship.

A will establishes an unmarried partner’s right to inherit property from the decedent. It is also used to name a guardian for any minor children. Concern about the will being contested by family members is often addressed by the use of trusts. When property is transferred to a trust, it no longer belongs to the individual, but to the trust. A trustee is named to be in charge of the trust. If the surviving partner is the trustee, he or she has access and control of the trust.

A trust helps to avoid probate, as property does not go through probate. A will also only goes into effect after the person who created the will passes away. A revocable living trust is effective as soon as it is established. Trusts allow for more control of assets before and after you pass. The trustee is legally bound to carry out the precise intentions in the trust document.

Establishing a trust is step one—the next step is funding the trust. If the trust is established but not funded, there is no protection from probate for the assets.

Incapacity and end-of-life planning allows you to make decisions about your care, while you are living. Without it, your unmarried partner could be completely shut out of any decision-making process. Here are the documents needed to convey your wishes in an enforceable manner:

Healthcare power of attorney (proxy). This document allows you to name the person you wish to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. You may be very specific about what treatments and care you want—and those you don’t want.

Healthcare directive. The healthcare directive lets you designate your wishes for end-of-life care or any potentially lifesaving treatments. Do you want to be resuscitated, or to have CPR performed?

Durable financial power of attorney. By designating someone in a financial power of attorney, you give that person the right to conduct all financial and legal matters on your behalf. Note that every state has slightly different laws, and the POA must adhere to your state’s guidelines. You may also make the POA as broad or narrow as you wish. It can give someone the power to handle everything on your behalf or confine them to only one part of your financial life.

Beneficiary designations. Almost all tax-deferred retirement accounts and pensions permit a beneficiary to be named to inherit the assets on the death of the original owner. These accounts do not go through probate. Check on each and every retirement account, insurance policies and even bank accounts. Any account with a beneficiary designation should be reviewed every few years to be sure the correct party is named. Estranged ex-spouses have received more than their fair share of happy surprises, when people neglect to update their beneficiaries after divorce.

Some accounts that may not have a clear beneficiary designation may have the option for a Transfer on Death designation, which helps beneficiaries avoid probate.

Planning is critical for unmarried couples. Review these steps with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your partner and you have made proper plans to protect each other, even without the legal benefits that marriage bestows.

If you would like to learn more about planning for unmarried couples, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: The Street (June 2, 2021) “3 Estate Planning Tips for Same-Sex Couples”

 

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how to manage a special needs trust

How to Manage a Special Needs Trust

Special-needs trusts have been used for many years. However, there are two factors that are changing and parents need to be aware of them, says the article “Special-Needs Trusts: How They Work and What Has Changed” from The Wall Street Journal. For one thing, many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are leading much longer lives because of medical advances. As a result, they are often outliving their parents and primary caregivers. This makes planning for the long term more critical. Second, there have been significant changes in tax laws, specifically laws concerning inherited retirement accounts. With the changes that are occurring, it is important to understand how to manage a special needs trust.

Special needs planning has never been easy because of the many unknowns. How much care will be needed? How much will it cost? How long will the special needs individual live? Tax rules are complex and coordinating special needs planning with estate planning can be a challenge. A 2018 study from the University of Illinois found that less than 50% of parents of children with disabilities had planned for their children’s future. Parents who had not done any planning told researchers they were just overwhelmed.

Here are some of the basics:

A Special-Needs Trust, or SNT, is created to protect the assets of a person with a disability, including mental or physical conditions. The trust may be used to pay for various goods and services, including medical equipment, education, home furnishings, etc.

A trustee is appointed to manage all and any spending in the special needs trust . The beneficiary has no control over assets inside the trust. The assets are not owned by the beneficiary, so the beneficiary should continue to be eligible for government programs that limit assets, including Supplemental Security Income or Medicaid.

There are different types of Special Needs Trusts: pooled, first party and third party. They are not simple entities to create, so it’s important to work with an experienced estate elder law attorney who is familiar with these trusts.

To fund the trust after parents have passed, they could name the Special Needs Trust as the beneficiary of their IRA, so withdrawals from the account would be paid to the trust to benefit their child. There will be required minimum distributions (RMDs), because the IRA would become an Inherited IRA and the trust would need to take distributions.

The SECURE Act from 2019 ended the ability to stretch out RMDs for inherited traditional IRAs from lifetime to ten years. However, the SECURE Act created exceptions: individuals who are disabled or chronically ill are still permitted to take distributions over their lifetimes. This has to be done correctly, or it won’t work. However, done correctly, it could provide income over the special needs individual’s lifetime.

The strategy assumes that the SNT beneficiary is disabled or chronically ill, according to the terms of the tax code. The terms are defined very strictly and may not be the same as the requirements for SSI or Medicaid.

The traditional IRA may or may not be the best way to fund an SNT. It may create larger distributions than are permitted by the SNT or create large tax bills. Roth IRAs or life insurance may be the better options.

The goal is to exchange assets, like traditional IRAs, for more tax-efficient assets to reach post-death planning solutions for the special needs individual, long after their parents and caregivers have passed. Work closely with an Elder Law attorney who has experience educating clients on how to manage a special needs trust.

If you would like to learn more about special needs planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (June 3, 2021) “Special-Needs Trusts: How They Work and What Has Changed”

 

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Roth IRAs are an ideal planning tool

Roth IRAs are an ideal Planning Tool

Think Advisor’s recent article entitled “Secure Act 2.0, Biden Tax Hike Plans Make Roth IRAs a Crucial Tool” says that Roth IRAs are an ideal planning tool, and that the Secure Act 2.0 retirement bill (which is expected to pass) will create an even wider window for Roth IRA planning.

With President Biden’s proposed tax increases, it is wise to leverage Roth conversions and other strategies while tax rates are historically low—and the original Secure Act of 2019 made Roth IRAs particularly valuable for estate planning.

Roth Conversions and Low Tax Rates. Though tax rates for some individuals may increase under the Biden tax proposals, rates for 2021 are currently at historically low levels under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed at the end of 2017. This makes Roth IRA conversions attractive. You will pay less in taxes on the conversion of the same amount than you would have prior to the 2017 tax overhaul. It can be smart to make a conversion in an amount that will let you “fill up” your current federal tax bracket.

Reduce Future RMDs. The money in a Roth IRA is not subject to RMDs. Money contributed to a Roth IRA directly and money contributed to a Roth 401(k) and later rolled over to a Roth IRA can be allowed to grow beyond age 72 (when RMDs are currently required to start). For those who do not need the money and who prefer not to pay the taxes on RMDs, Roth IRAs have this flexibility. No RMD requirement also lets the Roth account to continue to grow tax-free, so this money can be passed on to a spouse or other beneficiaries at your death.

The Securing a Strong Retirement Act, known as the Secure Act 2.0, would gradually raise the age for RMDs to start to 75 by 2032. The first step would be effective January 1, 2022, moving the starting age to 73. If passed, this provision would provide extra time for Roth conversions and Roth contributions to help retirees permanently avoid RMDs.

Tax Diversification. Roth IRAs provide tax diversification. For those with a significant amount of their retirement assets in traditional IRA and 401(k) accounts, this can be an important planning tool as you approach retirement. The ability to withdraw funds on a tax-free basis from your Roth IRA can help provide tax planning options in the face of an uncertain future regarding tax rates.

Estate Planning and the Secure Act. Roth IRAs have long been a super estate planning vehicle because there is no RMD requirement. This lets the Roth assets continue to grow tax-free for the account holder’s beneficiaries. Moreover, this tax-free status has taken on another dimension with the inherited IRA rules under the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (Secure) Act. The legislation eliminates the stretch IRA for inherited IRAs for most non-spousal beneficiaries. As a result, these beneficiaries have to withdraw the entire amount in an inherited IRA within 10 years of inheriting the account. Inherited Roth IRAs are also subject to the 10-year rule, but the withdrawals can be made tax-free by account beneficiaries, if the original account owner had met the 5-year rule prior to his or her death. This makes Roth IRAs an ideal estate planning tool in situations where your beneficiaries are non-spouses who do not qualify as eligible designated beneficiaries.

If you would like to learn more about the role of retirement accounts play in estate planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Think Advisor (May 11, 2021) “Secure Act 2.0, Biden Tax Hike Plans Make Roth IRAs a Crucial Tool”

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529s are flexible estate planning tools

529s are Flexible Estate Planning Tools

Estate planning attorneys, accountants and CPAs say that 529s are more than good ways to save for college. 529s are flexible estate planning tools, useful far beyond education spending, that cost practically nothing to set up. In the very near future, the role of 529s could expand greatly, according to the article “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them” from Barron’s.

Most tactics to reduce the size of an estate are irrevocable and cannot be undone, but the 529 allows you to change the beneficiaries of a 529 account. Even the owners can be changed multiple times. Here’s how they work, and why they deserve more attention.

The 529 is funded with after tax dollars, and all money taken out of the account, including investment gains, is tax free as long as it is spent on qualified education expenses. That includes tuition, room and board and books. What about money used for non-qualified expenses? Income taxes are due, plus a 10% penalty. Only the original contribution is not taxed, if used for non-qualified expenses.

Most states have their own 529 plans, but you can use a plan from any state. Check to see if there are tax advantages from using your state’s plan and know the details before you open an account and start making contributions.

Each 529 account owner must designate a single beneficiary, but money can be moved between beneficiaries, as long as they are in the same family. You can move money that was in a child’s account into their own child’s account, with no taxes, as long as you don’t hit gift tax exclusion levels.

In most states, you can contribute up to $15,000 per beneficiary to a 529 plan. However, each account owner can also pay up to five years’ worth of contributions without triggering gift taxes. A couple together may contribute up to $150,000 per beneficiary, and they can do it for multiple people.

There are no limits to the number of 529s a person may own. If you’re blessed with ten grandchildren, you can open a 529 account for each one of them.

For one family with eight grandchildren, plus one child in graduate school, contributions were made of $1.35 million to various 529 plans. By doing this, their estate, valued at $13 million, was reduced below the federal tax exclusion limit of $11.7 million per person. This is an example of how 529s are flexible estate planning tools.

Think of the money as a family education endowment. If it’s needed for a crisis, it can be accessed, even though taxes will need to be paid.

To create a 529 for estate planning that will last for multiple generations, provisions need to be made to transfer ownership. Funding 529 plans for grandchildren’s education must be accompanied by designating their parents—the adult children—as successor owners, when the grandparents die or become incapacitated.

The use of 529s has changed over the years. Originally only for college tuition, room and board, today they can be used for private elementary school or high school. They can also be used to take cooking classes, language classes or career training at accredited institutions. Be mindful that some expenses will not qualify—including transportation costs, healthcare and personal expenses.

If you would like to learn more about various estate planning tools, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Barron’s (May 29, 2021) “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them”

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Probate and estate administration

How to Perform the role of Executor Efficiently

Executors are frequently relatives or friends designated in a last will as the final administrator of a deceased person’s estate. If you agreed to serve as an executor, you likely are aware of some of the tasks you will face, closing accounts, inventorying assets and distributing bequests. Even when it’s a relatively simple situation — one spouse dies and leaves everything to the other — there can be a lot of paperwork involved. It certainly can get more complicated when a widow dies, and there are several children and numerous assets. AARP’s recent article entitled “How to Be a Good Executor of a Will or Estate” says being an executor is a tough job. So, heed these steps to make certain that when the time comes for you to serve, you honor the decedent, serve his or her heirs and learn how to perform the role of executor efficiently.

Communicate. Be sure that you understand the last will writer’s wishes. You can request that he or she be specific about what he or she truly wants to happen with the estate after his or her death. The last will writer can give an explanation in a last letter of instruction. It’s an informal document to be read after he dies that explains his or her decisions.

Do the paperwork. When the person passes away, you must find the last will (the original, not a copy). The last will and the death certificate must be filed with the probate court to get letters testamentary. This authorizes the executor to take any actions required to administer the estate. Get at least a dozen extra certified copies of the death certificate because you’ll need these to cancel credit cards, sell a home, transfer title to a car and turn off the utilities.

Safeguard property. A vacant house may attract thieves who scan the obituaries, as well as relatives and neighbors who think they’re entitled to help themselves. After the death, lock up and secure the property. Move jewelry and other valuables to a safe place. Also, take pictures of the home’s interior to document its contents.

Get organized. The executor must maintain and sell an unoccupied house, stop Social Security payments, pay debts, close financial accounts and file taxes. Start a detailed to-do list, keep good records and create a list of assets and liabilities.

Get a thick skin. Closing out an estate entails managing the emotions of heirs. They also may be your siblings who are resentful of the authority you have been given. If so, give them regular updates to smooth bad feelings that may arise. Total transparency is best.

Distribute personal items. This can be a difficult process, so put a system in place to fairly divide the possessions. Even the most ordinary item may have deep sentimental value to an heir and could cause stress for the executor without your guidance.

Educate the heirs. Heirs and beneficiaries can’t be paid, until all taxes and debts of the estate are settled. Let them know that it may take many months before they’ll receive payment.

Final steps. Lastly, the executor must pay any debts and taxes owed by the estate, distribute the estate property and give an accounting for the estate to the beneficiaries.

If you have questions about how to perform the role of executor efficiently, ask an experienced estate planning attorney.

If you are interested in learning more about the role of Executor, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: AARP (May 7, 2021) “How to Be a Good Executor of a Will or Estate”

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Do You Have to Probate an Estate when Someone Dies?

Do You Have to Probate an Estate when Someone Dies?

Do You Have to Probate an Estate when Someone Dies? That is a question estate planning attorneys here almost every day. Probate is a Latin term meaning “to prove.” Legally, a deceased person may not own property, so the moment a person dies, the property they owned while living is in a legal state of limbo. The rightful owners must prove their ownership in court, explains the article “Wills and Probate” from Southlake Style. Probate refers to the legal process that recognizes a person’s death, proves whether or not a valid last will exists and who is entitled to assets the decedent owned while they were living.

The probate court oversees the payment of the decedent’s debts, as well as the distribution of their assets. The court’s role is to facilitate this process and protect the interests of all creditors and beneficiaries of the estate. The process is known as “probate administration.”

Having a last will does not automatically transfer property. The last will must be properly probated first. If there is a last will, the estate is described as “testate.” The last will must contain certain language and have been properly executed by the testator (the decedent) and the witnesses. Every state has its own estate laws. Therefore, to be valid, the last will must follow the rules of the person’s state. A last will that is valid in one state may be invalid in another.

The court must give its approval that the last will is valid and confirm the executor is suited to perform their duties. Texas is one of a few states that allow for independent administration, where the court appoints an administrator who submits an inventory of assets and liabilities. The administration goes on with no need for probate judge’s approval, as long as the last will contains the specific language to qualify.

If there was no last will, the estate is considered to be “intestate” and the laws of the state determine who inherits what assets. The laws rely on the relationship between the decedent and the genetic or bloodline family members. An estranged relative could end up with everything. The estate distribution is more likely to be challenged if there is no last will, causing additional family grief, stress and expenses.

The last will should name an executor or administrator to carry out the terms of the last will. The executor can be a family member or a trusted friend, as long as they are known to be honest and able to manage financial and legal transactions. Administering an estate takes time, depending upon the complexity of the estate and how the person managed the business side of their lives. The executor pays bills, may need to sell a home and also deals with any creditors.

The smart estate plan includes assets that are not transferrable by the last will. These are known as “non-probate” assets and go directly to the heirs, if the beneficiary designation is properly done. They can include life insurance proceeds, pensions, 401(k)s, bank accounts and any asset with a beneficiary designation. If all of the assets in an estate are non-probate assets, assets of the estate are easily and usually quickly distributed. Many people accomplish this through the use of a Living Trust.

Do You Have to Probate an Estate when Someone Dies? It depends on how your estate plan was created. Every person’s life is different, and so is their estate plan. Family dynamics, the amount of assets owned and how they are owned will impact how the estate is distributed. Start by meeting with an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare for the future.

If you are interested in learning more about probate and trust administration, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Southlake Style (May 17, 2021) “Wills and Probate”

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Information in our blogs is very general in nature and should not be acted upon without first consulting with an attorney. Please feel free to contact The Wiewel Law Firm to schedule a complimentary consultation.
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