Category: Wills

Less Restrictive Alternatives to Guardianship

Less Restrictive Alternatives to Guardianship

The benefit of less restrictive alternatives to guardianships is that they don’t require court approval or judicial oversight. They are also much easier to set up and end.

The standard for establishing incapacity is also less rigorous than the standard required for a guardianship, says Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort – Consider These Less Draconian Options First.”

Limited guardianships. A guardianship takes away an individual’s right to make decisions, just as full guardianships do, but they are specific to only some aspects of the person’s life. A limited guardianship can be established to manage an individual’s finances and estate or to control medical and health care decisions. These types of guardianships still require court approval and must be supported by a showing of incapacity.

Powers of attorney. Powers of attorney can be established for medical or for financial decisions. A second set of eyes ensures that financial decisions are well-considered and not harmful to the individual or his or her estate. A medical power of attorney can allow an agent to get an injunction to protect the health and well-being of the subject, including by seeking a determination of mental incapacity. A durable power of attorney for health care matters gives the agent the right to make medical decisions on behalf of the subject if or when they are unable to do so for themselves. Unlike a guardianship, powers of attorney can be canceled when they are no longer needed.

Assisted decision-making. This agreement establishes a surrogate decision-maker who has visibility to financial transactions. The bank is informed of the arrangement and alerts the surrogate when it identifies an unusual or suspicious transaction. While this arrangement doesn’t completely replace the primary account holder’s authority, it creates a safety mechanism to prevent exploitation or fraud. The bank is on notice that a second approval is required before an uncommon transaction can be completed.

Wills and trusts. These estate planning documents let people map out what will happen in the event they become incapacitated or otherwise incapable of managing their affairs. Trusts can avoid guardianship by appointing a friend or relative to manage money and other assets. A contingent trust will let the executor manage assets if necessary. For seniors, it may be wise to name a co-trustee who can oversee matters and step in should the trustor lose the capacity to make good decisions.

Speak with your estate planning attorney to explore if these less restrictive alternatives to guardianship work for your family’s situation. If you would like to learn more about guardianships, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Kiplinger (July 7, 2022) “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort – Consider These Less Draconian Options First”

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Options in Managing Unequal Inheritances

Options in Managing Unequal Inheritances

Estate planning attorneys aren’t often asked to create estate plans treating heirs unfairly. However, when they do it usually is because a parent is estranged from one child and wishes to leave him or her nothing. When it comes to estate planning, equal isn’t the same as fair, explains the article “Are Unequal Inheritances Fair?” from Advisor Perspectives. There are options in managing unequal inheritances in your estate planning.

An example of this can be seen in the case of a widow with four adult children who asked an estate planning attorney how to approach distributing her assets. Three of her children were high-income earners, already building substantial net worth. A fourth child had mental health issues, limited education, had been in and out of jail and was unable to hold a job.

She understood that her fourth child needed the financial stability the others did not. She wanted to provide some support for him, but knew any money left directly to him would be gone quickly. She was considering leaving money for him in a trust to provide a monthly income stream, but also wanted to be fair to the other three children.

The trust would be the best option. However, there were problems to consider. If the estate were to be divided in four equal parts, the fourth child’s share of the estate would be small, so trustee fees would take a significant amount of the trust. If she left her entire estate for him, it would be more likely he’d have funding for most, if not all, of his adult life.

The worst thing the mother could do was to leave all the funds for the fourth child in a trust without discussing it with the other three siblings. Unequal inheritances can lead to battles between siblings, sometimes bad enough to lead them into a court battle. This is often the case where one child is believed by others to have unduly influenced a parent, when they have inherited all or the lion’s share of the estate.

Sibling fights can occur even when the children know about and understand the need for the unequal distribution. The children may suppress their emotions while the parent is living. However, after the parent dies and the reality sets in, emotions may fire at full throttle. Logically, in this case the three successful siblings may well understand why their troubled sibling needs the funds. However, grief is a powerful emotion and can lead to illogical responses.

In this case, the woman made the decision to leave her estate in equal shares to each child and giving the three successful siblings the options to share part of their inheritance with their brother. She did this by having her estate planning attorney add language in the will stating if any child wanted to disclaim or refuse any of their inheritance, it would pass to a trust set up for the troubled sibling. This gave each child the opportunity to help or not.

Was it a perfect solution? Perhaps not, but it was the best possible solution given the specific circumstances for this family. Speak with your estate planning attorney about your options in managing unequal inheritances. If you would like to learn more about inheritances, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Advisor Perspectives (Aug. 22, 2022) “Are Unequal Inheritances Fair?”

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Ways to Minimize Your Probate Estate

Ways to Minimize Your Probate Estate

Having a properly prepared estate plan is especially important if you have minor children who would need a guardian, are part of a blended family, are unmarried in a committed relationship or have complicated family dynamics—especially those with drama. There are ways you can protect your loved ones, and minimize your probate estate, as described in the article “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate” from the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Probate is the process through which debts are paid and assets are divided after a person passes away. There will be probate of an estate whether or not a will and estate plan was done, but with no careful planning, there will be added emotional strain, costs and challenges left to your family.

Dying with no will, known as “intestacy,” means the state’s laws will determine who inherits your possessions subject to probate. Depending on where you live, your spouse could inherit everything, or half of everything, with the rest equally divided among your children. If you have no children and no spouse, your parents may inherit everything. If you have no children, spouse or living parents, the next of kin might be your heir. An estate planning attorney can make sure your will directs the distribution of your property.

Probate is the process giving someone you designate in your will—the executor—the authority to inventory your assets, pay debts and taxes and eventually transfer assets to heirs. In an estate, there are two types of assets—probate and non-probate. Only assets subject to the probate process need go through probate. All other assets pass directly to new owners, without involvement of the court or becoming part of the public record.

Many people embark on estate planning to avoid having their assets pass through probate. This may be because they don’t want anyone to know what they own, they don’t want creditors or estranged family members to know what they own, or they simply want to enhance their privacy. An estate plan is used to take assets out of the estate and place them under ownership to retain privacy.

Some of the ways to remove assets from the probate process are:

Living trusts. Assets are moved into the trust, which means the title of ownership must change. There are pros and cons to using a living trust, which your estate planning attorney can review with you.

Beneficiary designations. Retirement accounts, investment accounts and insurance policies are among the assets with a named beneficiary. These assets can go directly to beneficiaries upon your death. Make sure your named beneficiaries are current.

Payable on Death (POD) or Transferable on Death (TOD) accounts. It sounds like a simple solution to own many accounts and assets jointly. However, it has its own challenges. If you wished any of the assets in a POD or TOD account to go to anyone else but the co-owner, there’s no way to enforce your wishes.

An experienced, local estate planning attorney will be the best resource to minimize your probate estate. If there is no estate plan, an administrator may be appointed by the court and the entire distribution of your assets will be done under court supervision. This takes longer and will include higher court costs. If you are interested in learning more about the probate process, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Indianapolis Business Journal (Aug. 26,2022) “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate”

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Estate Planning is critical for Blended Families

Today, a blended family is more common than ever, with stepfamily members, half-siblings, former spouses, new spouses and every combination of parents, children and partners imaginable. Traditional estate planning, including wills and non-probate tools like transfer on death (TOD) documents, as valuable as they are, may not be enough for the blended family, advises a recent article titled “Legal-Ease: Hers, his and ours—blended family estate planning” from limaohio.com. Estate planning is critical for blended families.

Not too long ago, when most people didn’t take advantage of the power of trusts, couples often went for estate plans with “mirror” wills, even those with children from prior marriages. Their wills basically said each spouse would leave the other spouse everything. This will would be accompanied by a contract stating neither would change their will for the rest of their lives. If there was a subsequent marriage after one spouse passed, this led to problems for the new couple, since the surviving spouse was legally bound not to change their will.

As an illustration, Bob has three children from his first marriage and Sue has two kids from her first marriage. They marry and have two children of their own. Their wills stipulate they’ll leave each other everything when the first one dies. There may have been some specific language about what would happen to the children from the first marriages, but just as likely this would not have been addressed.

It sounds practical enough, but in this situation, the children from the first spouse to die were at risk of being disinherited, unless plans were made for them to inherit from their biological parent.

Todays’ blended family benefits from the use of trusts, which are designed to protect each spouse, their children and any child or children they have together. There are a number of different kinds of trusts for use by spouses only to protect children and surviving spouses.

Trust law requires the trustee—the person who is in charge of administering the trust—to give a copy of the trust to each beneficiary. The trustee is also required to provide updates to beneficiaries about the assets in the trust.

A surviving spouse will most likely serve as the trustee when the first spouse passes and will have a legal responsibility to honor the shared wishes of the first spouse to pass.

If you and your new spouse have created a blended family, it is critical to evaluate your estate planning. Your estate planning attorney will be able to explain the many different types of spousal trusts, and which is best for your situation. If you would like to learn more about estate planning for blended families, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: limaohio.com (Aug. 20, 2022) “Legal-Ease: Hers, his and ours—blended family estate planning”

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The Risks of Creating Your Own Estate Plan

The Risks of Creating Your Own Estate Plan

Everyone should have an estate plan and it is wise to consult an estate planning attorney to create your plan. But not everyone wants to take the time. Some even feel they can do it just fine themselves. We call it the brother-in-law syndrome: your brother-in-law knows everything, even though he doesn’t. He tells anyone who’ll listen how much money he’s saved by doing things himself. Sadly, it’s the family who has to make things right after the do-it-yourself estate plan fails. This is the message from a recent article titled “Dangers of Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning” from Coastal Breeze News. It is vital that you understand the risks of creating your own estate plan.

Online estate planning documents are dangerous for what they leave out. An estate plan prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney takes care of the individual while they are living, as well as taking care of distributing assets after they die. Many online forms are available. However, they are often limited to wills, and an estate plan is far more than a last will and testament.

An estate planning attorney knows you need a will, power of attorney, health care power of attorney, a living will and possibly trusts. These are essential protections needed but often overlooked by the do-it-yourselfer.

A Power of Attorney allows you to name a person to manage your personal affairs, if you are incapacitated. It allows your agent to handle your banking, investments, pay bills and take care of your property. There is no one-size-fits-all Power of Attorney. You may wish to give a spouse the power to take over most of your accounts. However, you might also want someone else to be in charge of selling your shares in a business. A Power of Attorney drafted by an estate planning attorney will be created to suit your unique needs. POAs also vary by state, so one purchased online may not be valid in your jurisdiction.

You also need a Health Care Power of Attorney or a Health Care Surrogate. This is a person named to make medical decisions for you, if you are too sick or injured to do so. These documents also vary by state,. There’s no guarantee that a general form will be accepted by a healthcare provider. An estate planning attorney will create a valid document.

A Living Will is, and should be, a very personalized document to reflect your wishes for end-of-life care. Some people don’t want any measures taken to keep them alive if they are in a vegetative state, for instance, while others want to be kept alive as long as there is evidence of brain activity. Using a standard form negates your ability to make your wishes known.

If the Power of Attorney, Health Care Power of Attorney or Living Will documents are not prepared properly, declared invalid or are missing, the family will need to go to court to obtain a guardianship, which is the legal right to make decisions on your behalf. Guardianships are expensive and intrusive. If your incapacity is temporary, you’ll need to undo the guardianship when you are recovered. Otherwise, you have no legal rights to conduct your own life.

DIYers are also fond of setting up property and accounts so they are Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) accounts. This only works if the beneficiaries outlive the original owner. If the beneficiary dies first, then the asset goes to the beneficiary’s children. Many financial institutions won’t actually allow certain accounts to be set up this way.

Another risk of creating your own estate plan: real estate. Putting children on the title as owners with rights of survivorship sounds like a reasonable solution. However, if the children predecease the original owner, their children will be rightful owners. If one grandchild doesn’t want to sell the property and another grandchild does, things can turn ugly and expensive. If heirs of any generation have creditors, liens may be placed on the property and no sale can happen until the liens are satisfied.

With all of these sleight of hand attempts at DIY estate planning comes the end all of all problems: taxes.

When children are added to a title, it is considered a gift and the children’s ownership interest is taxed as if they bought into the property for what the parent spent. When the parent dies and the estate is settled, the children have to pay income taxes on the difference between their basis and what the property sells for. It is better if the children inherit the property, as they’d get a step-up in basis and avoid the income tax problem.

Finally, there’s the business of putting all the assets into one child’s name, with the handshake agreement they’ll do the right thing when the time comes. There’s no legal recourse if the child decides not to share according to the parent’s verbal agreement.

Don’t take the risk of creating your own estate plan. A far easier, less complicated answer is to make an appointment with an estate planning attorney, have the correct documents created properly and walk away when your brother-in-law starts talking. If you would like to learn more about the risks of DIY planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Coastal Breeze News (Aug. 4, 2022) “Dangers of Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning”

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Key Documents Every College Kid Needs

Key Documents Every College Kid Needs

In the United States, as soon as a minor turns 18, they’re typically considered a legal adult. As a result, parents no longer have any authority to make decisions for their child, including financial and health care decisions. That is why there are key documents every college kid needs.

Yahoo’s recent article entitled “Don’t Let Your Child Leave for College Without Signing Three Critical Documents” asks what if your adult child becomes sick or is in an accident and ends up hospitalized?

Because of privacy laws, known as Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), you wouldn’t have any rights to get any information from the hospital regarding your child’s condition. Yes, we know you’re her mother. However, that’s the law!

You also wouldn’t have the ability to access his or her medical records or intercede on your child’s behalf regarding medical treatment and care.

If your child’s unable to communicate with doctors, you’d also have to ask a judge to appoint you as your child’s guardian before being able to be told of his or her condition and to make any healthcare decisions for them.

While this is hard when your child is still living at home, it’s a huge headache if your child is attending college away from home.

However, there’s a relatively easy fix to address this issue:

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about drafting three legal documents for your child to sign:

  • A Durable Power of Attorney (DPOA) for Health Care. This document designates the parent as your child’s patient advocate.
  • A HIPAA Authorization gives you access to your child’s medical records and lets you to discuss his or her health condition with doctors.
  • A DPOA for Financial Matters, designates the parent as your child’s agent, so that you can manage your child’s financial affairs, including things like banking and bill paying, in case your child becomes sick or injured, or is unable to act for any reason.

If you are a parent, it is imperative that you consider these key documents that every college kid needs. If you would like to read more about estate planning for young adults, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference:  Yahoo (Aug. 2, 2022) “Don’t Let Your Child Leave for College Without Signing Three Critical Documents”

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Grounds for Contesting a Will

Grounds for Contesting a Will

As a beneficiary of a will, if you don’t agree with how the assets are being distributed, you may have grounds for contesting the will. MSN’s recent article entitled “Contesting a Will? You Might Not Need a Lawyer” says to do this you must have a legitimate legal reason to challenge the will, such as one of the most common arguments:

  • Lack of mental capacity. If the person making the will (the “testator”) wasn’t “of sound mind,” he or she may not understand their decisions. The testator must be able to understand what they own, who their natural heirs are and what they are giving and to whom.
  • Fraud, undue influence, or forgery. Some people are tricked into signing a will, are forced to create a will under duress, or have their signature forged.
  • Multiple wills. In this situation, the one that was made most recently is often the one that the courts will decide is valid. However, wills created immediately before death may be contested due to undue influence, lack of mental capacity, or other reasons.
  • The state requirements aren’t met. Every state has specific requirements as to what must be in a will, the way in which it’s signed and the number of witnesses required. If these elements aren’t met, then the will may not be valid.
  • Location. Some states may not recognize wills created in another state.

To contest the will, you must have grounds, or legal standing, which means you must meet one of these requirements:

  • A prior will designates you as a beneficiary;
  • The current will designates you as a beneficiary;
  • You’re the beneficiary of a more recent will made after the one in question; or
  • You would be an heir if there was no will, and the state’s laws of intestacy were applied.

Your attorney will next file a petition in the state probate court where the estate is under probate. This tells the probate court that you are a beneficiary and the estate that you are contesting the will. If your case is not settled, it goes to court where you’ll make your argument as to why the will should be changed. The court will decide the outcome of your case.

A way to keep family members  from fighting over an estate is add a no-contest clause into the will. This disinherits any beneficiary who challenges a will, if their challenge fails. In order words, if you don’t win your challenge, you get nothing from the estate. If you would like to read more about wills and probate, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: MSN (May 30, 2022) “Contesting a Will? You Might Not Need a Lawyer”

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Even Young Adults Need a Will

Even Young Adults Need a Will

Even young adults need a will. Everyone, age 18 and older, needs at least some basic estate planning documents. That’s true even if you own very little. You still need an advance health care directive and a power of attorney. These documents designate agents to make decisions for you, in the event you become incapacitated.

The Los Angeles Daily News’ recent article entitled “Estate planning, often overwhelming, starts with the basics” reminds us that incapacity doesn’t just happen to the elderly. It can happen from an accident, a health crisis, or an injury. To have these documents in place, you just need to state the person you want to make decisions for you and generally what those decisions should be.

An experienced estate planning attorney will help you draft your will by using a questionnaire you complete before your initial meeting. This helps you to organize and list the information required. It also helps the attorney spot issues, such as taxes, blended families and special needs. You will list your assets — real property, business entities, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, stocks, bonds, cars, life insurance and anything else you may own. The estimated or actual value of each item should also be included. If you have life insurance or retirement plans, attach a copy of the beneficiary designation form.

An experienced estate planning attorney will discuss your financial and family situation and offer options for a plan that will fit your needs.

The attorney may have many different solutions for the issues that concern you and those you may not have considered. These might include a child with poor money habits, a blended family where you need to balance the needs of a surviving spouse with the expectations of the children from a prior marriage, a pet needing ongoing care, or your thoughts about who to choose as your trustee or power of attorney.

There are many possible solutions, and you aren’t required to know them before you move ahead with your estate planning.

Young adults need a will. If you are an adult, you know generally what you own, your name and address and the names of your spouse and children or any other beneficiaries you’d like to include in your plan. So, you’re ready to move ahead with your estate planning. The key is to do this now and not procrastinate. If you would like to learn more about estate planning for young adults, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Los Angeles Daily News (July 24, 2022) “Estate planning, often overwhelming, starts with the basics”

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Mistakes to Avoid with Beneficiary Designations

Many people don’t know that their will doesn’t control who inherits all of their assets when they die. Some assets pass by beneficiary designation. Assets like life insurance, annuities and retirement accounts all pass by beneficiary designation. There are mistakes to avoid with beneficiary designations.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid” lists five critical mistakes to avoid when dealing with your beneficiary designations:

  1. Failing to designate any beneficiary at all. Many people forget to name a beneficiary for retirement accounts or life insurance. They may forget, didn’t know they had to, or just never got around to filling out the forms. If you don’t name a beneficiary for life insurance or retirement accounts, the company will apply its rules about where the assets will go after you die. For life insurance, the proceeds will typically be paid to your probate estate. For retirement benefits, if you’re married, your spouse will most likely receive the assets. However, if you’re unmarried, the retirement account will likely be paid to your probate estate, which has negative income tax ramifications.
  2. Failing to consider special circumstances. Not every family member should get an asset directly. This includes minor children, those with specials needs and people who can’t manage assets or with creditor issues.
  3. Misspelling a beneficiary’s name. Beneficiary designation forms can be filled out incorrectly and the beneficiary designation form may not be specific. People also change their names through marriage or divorce, or assumptions can be made about a person’s legal name that later prove incorrect. Failing to have names match exactly can cause delays in payouts, and in a worst-case scenario of two people with similar names, it can result in a court case.
  4. Forgetting to update your beneficiaries. Your choice of beneficiary may likely change over time as circumstances change. Naming a beneficiary is part of an overall estate plan, and just as life changes, so should your estate plan. Beneficiary designations are an important part of that plan—make certain that they’re updated regularly.
  5. Failing to review beneficiary choices with legal and financial advisers. How beneficiary designations should be completed is a component of an overall financial and estate plan. Involve your legal and financial advisers to determine what’s best for your circumstances. Note that beneficiary designations are designed to guarantee that you have the ultimate say over who will get your assets when you pass away. Taking the time to carefully (and correctly) choose your beneficiaries and then periodically reviewing those choices and making any necessary updates will allow you to remain in control of your money.

Your estate planning attorney will help you avoid any mistakes with your beneficiary designations, and make sure your choices are in line with your overall estate plan. If you would like to learn more about beneficiary designations, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Kiplinger (June 6, 2022) “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid”

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Are Testamentary Trusts a Good Idea?

Are Testamentary Trusts a Good Idea?

Not everyone wants to leave everything to their heirs without restrictions. Some want to protect money inherited from their own parents for their children or want to keep an irresponsible child from squandering an inheritance. For people who want more control over their assets, a testamentary trust might be useful, according to the recent article “What Is a Testamentary Trust and How Do I Create One? from U.S. News & World Report. A testamentary trust can also be used to leave assets to minor children, who may not legally inherit wealth directly. Are testamentary trusts a good idea?

Your estate planning attorney may have some other, better tools for you.

A testamentary trust is a trust created to hold assets created in a last will and testament. It does not become active until after a person dies and the will has been validated by probate court. Once this has happened, the trust is activated and the decedent’s assets are placed into the trust. At this point, the trustee is in charge of the trust’s management and asset distribution.

A testamentary trust is different from a living trust. The living trust, also known as a revocable trust, is created while the grantor (the person making the trust) is still living. When the person dies, the trust doesn’t go through probate and assets are distributed according to the directions in the trust.

Both testamentary and living or revocable trusts are used in estate planning. However, the living trust may have far more flexibility and be easier to manage for a very simple reason: testamentary trusts are part of the probate process, administered through probate for as long as they are in effect.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both kinds of trusts. The testamentary trust is often used to manage assets for minor children. It’s also a good tool if you’re worried about an adult child getting divorced and keeping the family money in the family. The long-term court oversight is more protective, which may be desirable, but it can also be more expensive.

The best reason for a testamentary estate? When someone involved in the person’s estate loves to get tangled up in litigation. Having to deal with probate court in addition to civil court might make a litigious family member a little less likely to bring a lawsuit.

Your will must contain specific directions for what assets go into the testamentary trust. Assets with beneficiary designations, such as life insurance policies and retirement accounts, don’t go into any trusts, unless a trust is designated as the beneficiary of the policy or account. They are instead distributed directly to beneficiaries outside of the probate estate.

Changing or annulling a testamentary trust is relatively easy while you are living—simply update your will to reflect your new wishes.  However, once you have passed, the testamentary trust becomes irrevocable and may not be changed.

Are testamentary trusts a good idea for your situation? Your estate planning attorney will evaluate these and other estate planning tools to find the best solutions to protect you and your family. If you would like to read more about trusts in general, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (July 14, 2022) “What Is a Testamentary Trust and How Do I Create One?

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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 Texas Trust Law to schedule a complimentary consultation.
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