Austin – 512-480-8828 | *Georgetown – 512-869-1435 | *Highland Lakes – 830-598-1700 | *San Antonio – 210-510-4143 | *All other areas – 877-545-8828 | *By Appointment Only | Principal Office: 1601 Rio Grande, Suite 550, Austin, Texas 78701
The Wiewel Law Firm, an estate planning law firm in Austin, Texas
The Peace of Mind People®

Category: Wills

how the probate process works

How the Probate Process Works

Probate is a court-supervised process occurring after your death. It takes place in the state where you were a resident at the time of your death and addresses your estate—all of your financial assets, real estate, personal belongings, debts and unpaid taxes. If you have an estate plan, your last will names an executor, the person who takes charge of your estate and settles your affairs, explains the article “Understanding Probate” from Pike County Courier. It is important to have a firm understanding of how the probate process works.

If your estate is subject to probate, your estate planning attorney files an application for the probate of your last will with the local court. The application, known as a petition, is brought to the probate court, along with the last will. That is also usually when the petitioner files an application for the appointment of the executor of your estate.

First, the court must rule on the validity of the last will. Does it meet all of the state’s requirements? Was it witnessed properly? If the last will meets the state’s requirements, then the court deems it valid and addresses the application for the executor. That person must also meet the legal requirements of your state. If the court agrees that the person is fit to serve, it approves the application.

The executor plays a very important role in settling your estate. The executor is usually a spouse or a close family member. However, there are situations when naming an attorney or a bank is a better option. The person needs to be completely trustworthy. Your fiduciary will have a legal responsibility to be honest, impartial and put your estate’s well-being above the fiduciary’s own. If they do not have a good grasp of financial matters, the fiduciary must have the common sense to ask for expert help when needed.

Here are some of the tasks the fiduciary must address:

  • Finding and gathering assets and liabilities
  • Inventorying and appraising assets
  • Filing the estate tax return and your last tax return
  • Paying debts, managing creditors and paying taxes
  • Distributing assets
  • Providing a detailed report of the estate settlement to the court and any other parties

What is the probate court’s role in this part of the process? It depends upon the state. The probate court is more involved in some states than in others. If the state allows for a less formal process, it’s simpler and faster. If the estate is complicated with multiple properties, significant assets and multiple heirs, probate can take years.

If there is no executor named in your last will, the court will appoint an administrator. If you do not have a last will, the court will also appoint an administrator to settle your estate following the laws of the state. This is the worst possible scenario, since your assets may be distributed in ways you never wished.

Does all of your estate go through the probate process? With proper estate planning, many assets can be taken out of your probate estate, allowing them to be distributed faster and easier. How assets are titled determines whether they go through probate. Any assets with named beneficiaries pass directly to those beneficiaries and are outside of the estate. That includes life insurance policies and retirement plans with named beneficiaries. It also includes assets titled “jointly with rights of survivorship,” which is how most people own their homes.

Your estate planning attorney will discuss how the probate process works in your state and how to prepare a last will and any needed trusts to distribute your assets as efficiently as possible.

If you would like to learn more about probate and trust administration, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Pike County Courier (March 4, 2021) “Understanding Probate”

Read our books

 

It is not wise to leave your IRA to your estate

It is not Wise to Leave your IRA to your Estate

It is not wise to leave your IRA to your estate. The named beneficiary of an IRA can have important tax consequences, says nj.com’s recent article entitled “How is tax paid when an estate is the beneficiary of an IRA?”

If an estate is named the beneficiary of an IRA, or if there’s no designated beneficiary, the estate is usually designated beneficiary by default. In that case, the IRA must be paid to the estate. As a result, the account owner’s will or the state law (if there was no will and the owner died intestate) would determine who’d inherit the IRA.

An individual retirement account or “IRA” is a tax-advantaged account that people can use to save and invest for retirement.

There are several types of IRAs—Traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, SEP IRAs and SIMPLE IRAs. Each one of these has its own distinct rules regarding eligibility, taxation and withdrawals. However, with any, if you withdraw money from an IRA before age 59½, you’re usually subject to an early-withdrawal penalty of 10%.

A designated beneficiary is an individual who inherits the balance of an individual retirement account (IRA) or after the death of the asset’s owner.

However, if a “non-individual”, such as an estate, is the beneficiary of an IRA, the funds must be distributed within five years, if the account owner died before his/her required beginning date for distributions, which was changed to age 72 last year when Congress passed the SECURE Act.

If the owner dies after his/her required beginning date, the account must then be distributed over his/her remaining single life expectancy.

The income tax on these distributions is payable by the estate. A compressed tax bracket is used.

As such, the highest tax rate of 37% is paid on this income when total income of the estate reaches $12,950.

For individuals, the 37% tax bracket isn’t reached until income is above $518,400 or $622,050 if filing as married.

Therefore, you can see why it’s not wise to leave your IRA to your estate. It’s not tax-efficient and generally should be avoided.

If you would like to learn more about how to incorporate IRA distributions within your estate planning, please visit our post on Charitable Remainder Trusts.

Reference: nj.com (Feb. 26, 2021) “How is tax paid when an estate is the beneficiary of an IRA?”

Read our books

 

Preparing to meet with an estate planning attorney

Preparing to meet with an Estate Planning Attorney

Preparing to meet with an estate planning attorney for the first time is an opportunity to get organized and think about your wishes for the future. If you meet with your accountant every year to prepare tax returns, this may be a familiar process. It’s a chance to step away from day-to-day activities and focus on your life, as described in a recent article “10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney” from The National Law Journal.

Minor Children Need Guardians and Conservators. In most states, families with minor children need a last will to designate one or more guardians to raise the children in the event both parents die. A successor should be named in case the first named guardian is unable or unwilling to serve. Discuss your decision with the people you are naming; don’t leave this as a surprise. Choosing these people is a hard decision. However, don’t let it be a reason to delay creating your estate plan. It’s better that you name a guardian, rather than let the court make that decision. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you through this decision.

Agents, Trustees, and Power of Attorney. With a Durable Power of Attorney, your assets can be managed by a named agent, if you become incapacitated. The person who manages your estate after death is the executor. They are named in your last will. If you have trusts, the documents that create the trust also name the trustees. It is possible for one person to act as a fiduciary for all of these roles, although the tasks can be divided.

Living Will and Patient Advocate Designation. If you are incapacitated, a Patient Advocate can make medical decisions on your behalf, including following the instructions of your Living Will.

Personal Property. Any items of personal property, whether their value is sentimental or monetary, should be specified in the will. A list of items and who you want to receive what, may spare your heirs from squabbles over your personal effects, large or small. If you own a business or real estate, they also need to be addressed in your will.

Charitable Donations. If you are charitably minded, your will is one way to make bequests and build a lasting legacy. Charitable donations can also be made to gain tax benefits for heirs.

Beneficiary Distributions. The beneficiary designation is the unsung hero of the estate plan. By managing beneficiary designations while you are living—updating beneficiary designations, assigning beneficiary designations to all accounts possible—you take assets out of your probate estate and smooth the asset distribution process. However, there are some wrinkles to consider.

Minor children may not receive assets until they become of age—18 in most cases. Do you want your children (or nieces or grandchildren) to receive an inheritance, while they are still in their teens? Proper estate planning includes trusts created, so a responsible adult can manage the trust on their behalf. Your trust can also be structured so the money may only be used for college expenses, or when the children reach certain ages. An estate planning attorney will assist you in how best to structure a trust.

Surviving Pets. You can plan for your pet’s care, if you pass away or become incapacitated before they die. Most states permit the creation of a pet trust, an enforceable means of providing assets to be used for the care and well-being of your pet.

Preparing to meet with an estate planning attorney can be a daunting task, but addressing these issues will give you a head start. Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide you with a list of the documents she will need to get started on your estate plan, but these are the major issues that you will be discussing at your first meeting.

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

Reference: The National Law Journal (Feb. 23, 2021) “10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney”

Read our books

 

update your estate plan if you move to a new state

Update Your Estate Plan If You Move to a New State

You should update your estate plan if you move to a new state. The U.S. Constitution requires states to give “full faith and credit” to the laws of other states. As a result, your will, trust, power of attorney, and health care proxy executed in one state should be honored in every other state.

Although that’s the way it should work, the practical realities are different and depend on the document, says Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Moving to a New State? 

Your last will should still be legally valid in the new state. However, the new state may have different probate laws that make certain provisions of the will invalid. This can also happen with revocable trusts.

However, it’s not as common with powers of attorney and health care directives. These estate planning documents should be honored from state to state, but sometimes banks, medical professionals, and financial and health care institutions will refuse to accept the documents and forms. They may have their own, as is the case frequently with banks.

You should also know that the execution requirements of your estate planning documents may be different, depending on the state.

For example, there are some states that require witnesses on durable powers of attorney, and others that do not. A state that requires witnesses may not allow a power of attorney without witnesses to be used to convey real estate, even though the document is perfectly valid in the state where it was drafted and signed.

With health care proxies, other states may use different terms for the document, such as “durable power of attorney for health care” or “advance directive.”

When you move to a different state, it’s also a smart move to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to make certain that your estate plan in general is up to date. There are also other changes in circumstances—like a change in income or marital status—that can also have an impact on your estate plan. Moreover, there may be practical changes you may want to make. For example, you may want to change your trustee or agent under a power of attorney based on which family members will be closer in proximity.

For all these reasons, it’s wise to update your estate plan if you move to a new state. You have an experienced estate planning attorney in your new home state review your estate planning documents. If you would like to learn more about updating your plans to fit new life situations, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 26, 2021) “Moving to a New State? 

Read our books

Unmarried couples should have an estate plan

Unmarried Couples Should Have an Estate Plan

Unmarried couples should have an estate plan. Having an estate plan might be even more important than for married couples, especially if there are children in the family. The unmarried couple does not enjoy all of the legal protection afforded by marriage, but many of these protections can be had through a well-prepared estate plan.

A recent article “Planning for unmarried couples” from nwi.com explains that in states that do not recognize common law marriages, like Indiana, the state will not recognize the couple as being married. However, even if you learn that your state does recognize a common law marriage, you still want to have an estate plan.

A will is the starting point of an estate plan, and for an unmarried couple, having it professionally prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney is very important. An agreement between two people as to how they want their assets distributed after death sounds simple, but there are many laws. Each state has its own laws, and if the document is not prepared correctly, it could very easily be invalid. That would make the couple’s agreement useless.

There are also things that need to be prepared, so an unmarried couple can take care of each other while they are living, which they cannot legally do without being married.

A cohabitating couple has no right to direct medical care for each other, including speaking with the healthcare provider or even seeing their partner as a visitor in a healthcare facility. If a decision needs to be made by one partner because the other partner is incapacitated, their partner will not have the legal right to make any medical decisions or even speak with a healthcare provider.

If the couple owns vehicles separately, the vehicles have their own titles (i.e., the legal document establishing ownership). If they want to add their partner’s name to the vehicle, the title needs to be reissued by the state to reflect that change.

If the unmarried couple owns a home together, they need to confirm how the home is titled. If they are joint tenants with rights of survivorship or tenants in common, that might be appropriate for their circumstances. However, if one person bought the home before they lived together or was solely responsible for paying the mortgage and for upkeep, they will need to make sure the title and their will establishes ownership and what the owner wants to happen with they die.

If the wish is for the surviving partner to remain in the home, that needs to be properly and legally documented. An estate planning attorney will help the couple create a plan that addresses this large asset and reflect the couple’s wishes for the future.

Unmarried couples should have an estate plan to protect each other, while they are living and after they pass. A local estate planning attorney will be able to help accomplish this.

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

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 24, 2021) “Planning for unmarried couples”

https://www.texastrustlaw.com/read-our-books/

Is it better to have a Living Will or a Living Trust?

Extend IRA distributions with a Charitable Remainder Trust

Since the mid-1970s, saving in a tax-deferred employer-sponsored retirement plan has been a great way to save for retirement, while also deferring current income tax. Many workers put some of their paychecks into 401(k)s, which can later be transferred to a traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Others save directly in IRAs. You may also extend IRA distributions with a Charitable Remainder Trust.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Worried about Passing Down a Big IRA? Consider a CRT” says that taking lifetime IRA distributions can give a retiree a comfortable standard of living long after he or she gets their last paycheck. Another benefit of saving in an IRA is that the investor’s children can continue to take distributions taxed as ordinary income after his or her death, until the IRA is depleted.

Saving in a tax-deferred plan and letting a non-spouse beneficiary take an extended stretch payout using a beneficiary IRA has been a significant component of leaving a legacy for families. However, the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019 (the SECURE Act), which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, eliminated this.

Under the new law (with a few exceptions for minors, disabled beneficiaries, or the chronically ill), a beneficiary who isn’t the IRA owner’s spouse is required to withdraw all funds from a beneficiary IRA within 10 years. Therefore, the “stretch IRA” has been eliminated.

However, there is an option for extending IRA distributions to a child beyond the 10-year limit imposed by the SECURE Act: it’s a Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT). This trust provides for distributions of a fixed percentage or fixed amount to one or more beneficiaries for life or a term of less than 20 years. The remainder of the assets will then be paid to one or more charities at the end of the trust term.

Charitable Remainder Trusts can provide that a fixed percentage of the trust assets at the time of creation will be given to the current individual beneficiaries, with the remainder being given to charity, in the case of a Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust (CRAT). There is also a Charitable Remainder Unitrust (CRUT), where the amount distributed to the individual beneficiaries will vary from year to year, based on the changing value of the trust. With both trusts, the amount of the charity’s remainder interest must be at least 10% of the value of the trust at its inception.

Implementing a CRT to extend distributions from a traditional IRA can have tax advantages and can complement the rest of a comprehensive estate plan. It can be very effective when your current beneficiary has taxable income from other sources and resources, in addition to the beneficiary IRA.  It can also be effective in protecting the IRA assets from a beneficiary’s creditors or for planning with potential marital property, while providing the beneficiary a lengthy predictable income stream.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney, if one of these trusts might fit into your comprehensive estate plan. If you would like to learn more about Charitable Remainder Trusts, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Kiplinger (Feb. 8, 2021) “Worried about Passing Down a Big IRA? Consider a CRT”

Read our books

charitable contribution deductions from an estate

Distinguish between Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita

When creating an estate plan, one of the basic documents you need is a will. In estate planning, it’s important to distinguish between per stirpes vs per capita distributions. These are two terms you are likely to come across when creating your estate plan, says Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita in Estate Planning.”

Per stirpes is Latin and means “by branch” or “by class.” When this term is used in estate planning, it refers to the equal distribution of assets among the different branches of a family and their surviving descendants. This lets the descendants of a beneficiary keep inherited assets within that branch of their family, even if the original beneficiary passes away. The assets would be equally divided between the survivors. Per stirpes distributions essentially create a “trickle-down” effect: assets can be passed on to future generations if a primary beneficiary passes away.

In contrast, “per capita” is also a Latin term that means “by head.” When you use a per capita distribution method for estate planning, any assets you have would pass equally to the beneficiaries who are still living when you pass. The share portions would adjust accordingly, if one of your children or grandchildren were to die before you.

Whether it makes sense to use a per stirpes or per capita distribution in your estate plan can depend for the most part, the way in which you want your assets to be distributed after you’re gone.

Per stirpes allows you to keep asset distributions within the same branch of the family and eliminates the need to amend or update wills and trusts when a child is born to one of your beneficiaries or a beneficiary passes away. This method can also help to minimize the potential for infighting among beneficiaries, since asset distribution takes a linear approach. However, an unwanted person could take control of your assets.

With per capita, you can state precisely who you want to name as beneficiaries and receive part of your estate. The assets are distributed equally among beneficiaries, based on the value of your estate at the time you pass away.

It’s important to distinguish between per stirpes vs per capita distributions. It can help you determine how your assets are distributed after you die.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney to fully understand the implications of each one for your beneficiaries, including how they may be affected from a tax perspective.

If you would like to learn more about distributing assets in your estate plan, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Jan. 7, 2021) “Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita in Estate Planning”

 

how the probate process works

What to Do First when Your Spouse Dies

Forbes’ recent article entitled ‘Checklist for Handling the Death of a Spouse” tells us what to do first when your spouse dies:

Get Organized. Create a list of what you need to do. That way, you can tick off the things you have done and see what still needs to be done. Spending the time to get organized is critical.

Do an Inventory. Review your spouse’s will and estate plan, and then collect the documents you will need. Use a tax return to locate various types of financial assets.

Identify the Executor. The executor is the individual tasked with carrying out the terms of deceased’s will.

Get a Death Certificate. Request multiple copies of the death certificate, maybe at least a dozen because every entity will need that document.

Contact Your Professional Advisors. You will need to tell some professionals that your spouse has passed away. This may be your CPA, your estate planning attorney, financial advisors and perhaps bankers. These contacts will probably know nearly everything that is required to be done. You will also need to contact the Social Security Administration and report the death.

Take a Step Back. Take a breath. You should take the time to process your emotions and grieve with the other members of your family. Check on everyone and make sure the loved ones remaining are doing all right.

Avoid Making Any Major Decisions. Do not make any major financial decisions for a year. This includes things such as selling a house or making a lump sum investment. After the death of a spouse, you are emotional and looking for advice. It is easy to be pressured into making a decision that might not be in your best interests. Allow yourself permission to be emotional and not make any decision because you recognize you are grieving.

Make Certain Your Spouse’s Wishes Are Carried Out. The best way to honor your spouse is to make sure their requests and wishes are carried out. You are the only individual who can do that. So take the time to consider what to do first when your spouse dies. Your spouse expects you to take care of their last wishes the way they had intended.

If you are interested in learning more about planning after your loved one passes away, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 28, 2020) ‘Checklist for Handling the Death of a Spouse”

 

charitable contribution deductions from an estate

Some Fundamental Responsibilities of an Executor

If you are asked to be an executor, you should learn some of the basics of the job before agreeing to the task. An executor is the individual named to distribute a decedent’s property that passes under his or her will. The executor also arranges for the payment of debts and expenses. There are some fundamental responsibilities of an executor.

WMUR’s recent article entitled “Settling an estate” explains that if the executor is not willing or able to do the job, there’s usually an alternate executor named in the will. If there’s no alternate, the court will designate an executor for the estate.

Depending on the estate, it can be a consuming and stressful task to address all of the issues. Sometimes, a decedent will leave a letter of instruction which can make the process easier. This letter may address some of the responsibilities of an executor, like the decedent’s important documents, contact info, a list of creditors, login information for important web sites and final burial wishes.

One of the key documents is a will. The executor must get a hold of a copy and review it. You can work with an estate planning attorney to determine the type of probating (a process that begins with getting a court to approve the validity of the will) is needed.

The executor should conduct an inventory of the decedent’s assets, some of which may need to be appraised. If the decedent had a safe deposit box, the contents must be secured. Once the probate process is finished, assets then may be sold or distributed according to the will.

Asset protection is critical and may mean changing the locks on property. The executor may be required to pay mortgages, utility bills and maintenance costs on any property. He or she must change the name of the insurance on home and auto policies. Any brokerage accounts will need to be re-titled. The final expenses also need to be paid.

The funeral home or coroner will provide death certificates that will be needed in the probate process, and for filing life insurance claims.

If the decedent was collecting benefits, such as Social Security, the agency will need to know of the decedent’s death to stop benefits. Checks received after death must be returned. The executor will file a final federal and state tax return for the decedent, if necessary. There also may be an estate and gift tax return to be filed.

These are just some of the fundamental responsibilities of an executor. An executor’s task can be made easier with the help an estate planning attorney.

If you would like to learn more about being an executor, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: WMUR (Dec. 23, 2020) “Settling an estate”

 

charitable contribution deductions from an estate

Creating a Letter of Last Instruction

It is important to know that a Letter of Last Instruction does not pass through a legal process. It’s an informal but organized method of providing your family with instructions on the decisions related to financial and personal matters that should be made when you die. This can also be an alternative way of ensuring that your family are cared for after your death and to prevent issues that could arise from not probating the will. There are things you need to know when creating a letter of last instruction.

Qrius’ recent article entitled “How to Prepare a Letter of Last Instruction” explains that preparing it can relieve your relatives of added headaches and stress after your death because it can provide crucial information on personal, financial and funeral matters. Here are some ideas as to what to include when creating your letter of last instruction:

Personal info. This is a basic information like your full name, date of birth, father’s name and mother’s maiden name, address, Social Security number and place of birth. Add information about significant people in your life, like family, friends, business partners, clergy and others you’d like to be notified about your death.

Business and Financial Contacts. List the contact info of your business and financial partners, as well as your accountant and investment adviser. Include information on your insurance policies, as well as your bank account details.

Legal Document Location. Make sure your executor can find important legal documents, such as your will, tax returns, marriage license, Social Security card, birth certificates, trust documents, deeds, veteran benefits info and contracts. State the location of those documents in your Letter of Last Instruction.

Loan and Debt Info. Make a list of creditors containing collateral and payment terms, along with any credit card account numbers and loan account numbers. Likewise, list the people who owe you money, including their contact info and collateral and payment terms.

Usernames and Passwords. Include a section with your usernames and passwords for your online banking accounts, social media email, computer, smartphone and other electronics, so your executor or someone responsible for overseeing your estate can be certain your accounts and financial information are not compromised after your death.

Beneficiaries. Make a list of the names and contact details of all your beneficiaries with additional information on specific instructions you may want to give to clarify your intentions on the distribution of the assets.

Funeral Arrangements. Include your desires as to your funeral arrangements, such as the type of flowers, pictures and service music. You can also state the clothes in which you wish to be buried, the type of service and location and other items that will help your family with this task.

Once you have the letter, be sure your executor or at least a close family member knows where it can be located after your death.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney for pointers on creating your letter of last instruction and keep updating it regularly.

If you would like to learn more about letters of instruction, and other instruments in an estate plan, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Qrius (Dec. 8, 2020) “How to Prepare a Letter of Last Instruction”