What subjects in a will are interchangeable among all states? Is guardianship the same no matter where you live? How about real estate? If I move frequently due to my company, is there anything in my will I know will always be valid or do I have to make changes every time I move? What are the big topics that change when you move?
Due to the full faith and Credit clause of the U.S. Constitution, which reads "Full Faith and Credit shall be given in each State to the public Acts, Records, and judicial Proceedings of every other State," your will executed in one state will be honored if you move to another state. So you don't have to get a new will every time you move. This is also true of revocable trusts; they will be honored in all states.
This is less true of durable powers of attorney and health care directives. While they should be honored from state to state, sometimes banks, medical professionals, and financial and health care institutions don't accept documents and forms with which they are not familiar. In addition, for some purposes the execution requirements may be different. You ask about real estate. Some states require witnesses on durable powers of attorney and others don't. A state requiring witnesses may not allow a power of attorney without them to be used to convey real estate even though the document is perfectly valid in the state in which it was executed.
“Unlike personal property, real property–such as real estate or automobiles–is titled to convey ownership.”
Title to real property must be transferred, when the asset is sold and must be cleared (free of liens or encumbrances) for the transfer to occur. Unlike other real property assets, real estate ownership can take several forms. Each of these forms has implications on how ownership can be transferred and can affect how they can be financed, improved or used as collateral.
Joint Tenancy. This is when two or more people hold title to real estate jointly, with equal rights to enjoy the property during their lives. When one dies, their rights of ownership pass to the surviving tenant(s). The parties in the ownership need not be married or related, but any financing or use of the property for financial gain must be approved by all parties and cannot be transferred by will after one passes. Another disadvantage is that a creditor with a legal judgment to collect a debt from one of the owners, can also petition the court to divide the property and force a sale in order to collect on the judgment.
Tenancy In Common. In this situation, two or more persons hold title to real estate jointly with equal rights to enjoy the property during their lives. However, unlike joint tenancy, tenants in common hold title individually for their respective part of the property and can dispose of or encumber as they chose. Ownership can be willed to other parties, and in the event of death, ownership will transfer to that owner's heirs undivided. An owner can use the wealth created by their portion of the property, as collateral for financial transactions, and creditors can place liens only against one owner's specific portion of the property. Any liens must be cleared for a total transfer of ownership to take place.
Tenants by Entirety. This can only be used, when the owners are legally married. This is ownership in real estate under the assumption that the couple is one person for legal purposes. The title transfers to the other in entirety, if one of the couple dies. The advantage is that no legal action is required at the death of a spouse. There’s no need for a will, and probate or other legal action isn't necessary. Conveyance of the property must be done in total, and the property can’t be subdivided. In the case of divorce, the property converts to a tenancy in common, and one owner can transfer ownership of their respective part of the property to whomever they want.
Sole Ownership. This is ownership by an individual or entity legally capable of holding title. The main advantage to holding title as a sole owner, is the ease with which transactions can be accomplished, since no other party needs to authorize the transaction. The disadvantage is the potential for legal issues regarding the transfer of ownership, if the sole owner dies or become incapacitated. Unless there’s a will, the transfer of ownership upon death can be an issue.
Community Property. This form of ownership is by husband and wife during their marriage for property they intend to own together. Under community property, either spouse has the right to dispose of one half of the property or will it to another party. Anyone who’s lived with another person as a common-law spouse and doesn't specifically change title to the property as sole ownership (which is legally transacted with approval by the significant other) takes the risk of having to share ownership of the property, in the absence of a legal marriage.
Community Property With the Right of Survivorship. This is a way for married couples to hold title to property. However, it is only available in Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas, and Wisconsin. It lets one spouse's interest in community-property assets pass probate-free to the surviving spouse, in the event of death.
Entities other than individuals can hold title to real estate in its entirety. Ownership in real estate can be done as a corporation. The legal entity is a company owned by shareholders but regarded under the law as having an existence separate from those shareholders. Real estate can also be owned as a partnership, which is an association of two or more people to carry on business for profit as co-owners. Real estate also can be owned by a trust. These legal entities own the properties and are managed by a trustee on behalf of the beneficiaries. There are many benefits, such as managerial influence, financial and legal liability and tax considerations.
“Wicked stepmothers are the stuff of Grimm’s fairy tales. Widowed stepmothers are the root of real-life inheritance wars.”
The biggest issues in inheritance battles stem from Alzheimer’s disease, widowed stepmothers and estate crime. Certain issues, like signs of dementia, questionable asset transfers and sudden changes in investment risk profiles are sure signals that something is going on, reports Think Advisor in the article “What the Nastiest Celebrity Estate Battles Can Teach Advisors.”
If regular family fights feel like civil wars, then celebrity battles elevate the conflicts into global meltdowns. Showbiz legends like Tony Curtis, Mickey Rooney and Jerry Lee Lewis serve as perfect examples.
Rock and roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis’s seventh wife (yes, seventh) and his third wife’s daughter have been in court for nearly two years. The wife has charged her stepdaughter with financial and physically abusing the singer, who is now 83. The daughter countersued, alleging that her stepmother was drugging her father into an incoherent state. Lewis recently had a stroke, and he was admitted to a rehab facility.
What can families do about elder abuse, which the American Bar Association has called the “crime of the 21st century?”
Pay attention. Over the next 30 years, as much as $30 trillion in Baby Boomer assets will be transferred to the next generation. The number of people getting older is taking a huge leap and so will the number of people who suffer from cognitive-related diseases.
Know what an “estate crime” is. This is the term to describe the unauthorized, unlawful taking of someone’s assets, while they are alive. It’s what happens when a personal representative, such as a trustee, suppresses assets and takes them. It’s more likely to occur when an entrepreneur or business owner keeps a lot of cash in the safe. That money mysteriously vanishes at their death. Therefore, if anyone has a lot of cash around, they need to be able to prove it and give that documentation to someone they trust.
What happens when a person’s family is involved in litigation and they are incapacitated? Attorneys will look for transfers that occurred just prior to the time the person became incapacitated. Would they be the result of undue influence or pressure? What about their estate documents — were they changed near the time the person became seriously ill or when they were near to death? Medical records and doctors’ reports become important in these cases.
What happened to Tony Curtis, romantic and comic leading man? A year before he died, Tony Curtis wrote a new will and revised his trust. He disinherited his five surviving children and left his entire estate worth $46 million to his sixth wife. The children, who include actress Jamie Lee Curtis, filed a suit claiming that their father was mentally impaired, but the case was dropped. It’s possible that the suit was settled confidentially. Any time there’s such a big change before death, expect litigation.
Why do so many famous people seem to die without a will? People don’t like to think about death, so they procrastinate. It’s that way for celebrities and for regular people. However, we read more about celebrities. Estate planning attorneys are the ones who see what happens, every day, when people don’t have wills and the family is faced with estate battles.
What’s the solution? It’s not that complicated. Find an estate planning attorney that you are comfortable with and draw up an estate plan. Make sure you have a will, power of attorney and health care power of attorney. Talk with your family about your intentions for distribution of your property and make sure that every few years, when events occur in your life or when laws change, you update your estate plan. That would save many people, famous and otherwise, from devoting time and money to cleaning up after their loved ones.
“Wills are beneficial, whether you think you have assets or not.”
Having a will and an estate plan makes passing along assets much easier for the family. Having necessary documents like a power of attorney and a health care power of attorney lets the family make decisions for a loved one, who has become incapacitated. These are estate planning basics, as reported by WKBN 27 in the article “Attorney recommends everyone have a will in place to prevent avoidable issues.”
Think of the will as a way to speak for yourself, when you have passed away. It’s the instructions for what you want to happen to your property, when you die. If there’s a will, the executor is responsible for carrying out your requests. With no will, a court will have to make these decisions.
Many people believe that if they don’t have a will, their spouse will simply inherit everything, automatically. This is not true. There are some states where the surviving spouse receives 50% of a decedent’s assets and the children receive the rest. However, the children could be offspring from outside the marriage. Not having a will, makes your estate and your family vulnerable to unexpected claims.
A will must contain certain elements, which are determined by your state’s laws and must be signed in the presence of two witnesses. Without the correct formalities, the will could be deemed invalid.
Lawyers recommend that everyone have a will and an estate plan, regardless of the size of your estate.
Young parents, in particular, need to have a will, so they can name a person to be guardian of their child or children, if they should both die.
Details matter. In some states, if you make a list and neglect to name specifically who gets what, using the term “children” instead of someone’s name, your stepchildren may not be included. State laws vary, so a local estate planning attorney is your best resource.
You should also be sure to talk with your spouse and your children about what your intentions are, before putting your wishes in writing. You may not feel totally comfortable having the discussion. However, if your intention is to preserve the family, especially if it is a blended family, then everyone should have a chance to learn what to expect.
Wills do become binding, but they are not a one-time event. Just as your life changes, your estate plan and your will should change.
Don’t neglect to update your beneficiary designations. Those are the people you named to receive retirement accounts, bank accounts or other assets that can be transferred by beneficiary designations. The instructions in your will do not control the beneficiary designation. This is a big mistake that many people make. If your will says your current spouse should receive the balance of your IRA when you die but your IRA lists your first wife, your ex will receive everything.
Here are the four estate planning documents needed:
A living will, if you need to be placed on life support and decisions need to be made;
A healthcare power of attorney, if you cannot speak for yourself, when it comes to medical decisions;
A durable power of attorney to make financial decisions, if you are incapacitated.
A local estate planning attorney can help you create all of these documents and will also help you clarify your wishes. If you have an estate plan but have not reviewed it in years, you’ll want to do that soon. Laws and lives change, and you may need to make some changes.
“Often people are under the misconception that a will is only necessary if a person has a lot of assets, is wealthy, or has a complicated financial planning program in place.”
The plain truth is, everyone needs a will. The value of someone’s personal property has very little to do with the need for a will or estate plan. Without one, the process of settling an estate and having heirs receive their inheritance could be delayed for many months, or even years, says the article “Where there’s a will, there is a plan in place” from The Advertiser. For wills to be legally acceptable, there are certain things that need to be included:
Identification of the person making the will, also known as the testator. The will must contain the person’s name, address, state their intention to create a distribution process for assets and the statement that this will is intended to be their last will and testament and all other wills are revoked. The will must also be dated to be sure to know hold old it is, with regard to other wills.
Outstanding debt payment. The will needs to explain how any outstanding bills will be paid, including funeral costs, medical costs, taxes owed, and any other expenses that a person may have at the time of their death. This may vary by state, so speak with a local estate planning attorney to find out what your state’s laws are.
Name any heirs and what they are being given. You may give your property to whomever you want, or to a charity. The bequest needs to be carefully written, so it is very specific and there are no misunderstandings. Since it may be hard to know what will be left after final expenses are paid, it may be wise to give percentages of assets, rather than specific figures. An estate planning attorney will know how to best handle this aspect of a will.
Chose an executor and name them in the will. The executor is responsible for carrying out the wishes of the testator and is in charge of paying debts, taxes, distributing assets and any tasks assigned in the will. Choosing the right person for this task is very important. They need to be able to handle the responsibility and be able to execute your wishes, without being bullied by family members or friends. Always name a secondary executor, in case the first predeceases you, or if the person is unable or unwilling to serve.
Name a guardian for minor children. This is why parents of young children must have a will. If there is no will, the court will determine who should raise the children, following the laws of kinship of your state. You may not agree with the court’s decision. Select a person (or couple) you believe will raise the children, as close as possible to how you would raise the children.
Plan for your funeral. This is a kindness to your loved ones. If you don’t plan in advance, your loved ones may spend more than you would wish on an elaborate funeral. The opposite may also happen. A simple paragraph may do the job, or you could visit the local funeral home and prepay, selecting everything so that it will be done according to your own wishes.
In addition to a will, you’ll want a power of attorney and health care power of attorney in place to protect you, in case of incapacity. This way, someone will be able to take care of your finances and someone else will be able to make health care decisions, if you can’t.
An estate planning attorney can work with you to make sure that all these documents are properly prepared according to your state’s laws. They have worked with many others, know what kind of issues crop up and how to prepare for them. This is especially important with blended families or families where there are complicated histories. Think of the estate plan as a gift to your heirs, a chance to express your wishes and a way to create a legacy for your loved ones.
“Truly, nearly every legal question depends on a host of facts and circumstances that make it impossible to guarantee a particular outcome … except in the case of my favorite question: ‘Do I need a will?’”
It doesn’t take very long for any newly-minted attorneys in the trusts and estates practice area to see what happens when there is no will, says the Daily Memphian in a to-the-point article titled “Five reasons you need a will (and one reason you don’t).” The stress on families, unnecessary expenses and assets going to the wrong people, can easily be prevented with an estate plan and a will. However, in case you still aren’t convinced, here are the top five reasons:
You have a family. For those who are married with children, the laws of intestacy take over, if you don’t have a will. Assets are divided between the surviving spouse and the children in most states (check with a local estate planning attorney for your state’s laws). In theory, that sounds fine. But there are three situations where not having a will can make a mess of things:
Minors and developmentally delayed heirs. Minors and individuals with special needs may not legally contract or represent themselves in court. Therefore, they cannot agree to the disposition of assets. When a minor or individual with special needs inherits assets directly, the court must appoint a neutral person, often an attorney, to oversee that person’s best interests. It may also require the appointment of a guardian, so the court can monitor the use of the assets in the child’s best interest, until they are of age.
Bad relationships between surviving spouse and children. Under intestate law, the spouse inheriting reduces the amount the children inherit. If the spouse is a second wife, this can make a bad situation worse. A will can plan out the distribution of assets to care for the spouse and ensure that the children receive the assets, as determined by their parent.
Extramarital children. Children who are not born to legally wed parents have the right to inherit, regardless of whether their parents were married. What if an unknown offspring shows up and demands his share? This does happen.
You hate your next-of-kin. Not every family is as happy as their Facebook photos. If you don’t want your lawful next of kin inheriting your assets, you need a will. Remember that as time passes and people enter and exit the family, through birth, death, marriage and divorce, the person who is your next-of-kin will likely change over time.
Do you want to give specific gifts? Under the intestacy laws, your relatives (next-of-kin) inherit your property in percentages that are based on their degree of relationship to you and the number of other relatives at that same degree. Outside of designating a beneficiary or joint owner of an assets, having a will that is properly prepared under the laws of your state, is the only way to ensure that you can determine who gets what.
You know how you want things to work after you die. If you want to have any control over what happens to your assets, how you want your funeral to be paid for, what you want to happen to personal property, etc., a will may be the best way to do this. The person named to be your executor is legally responsible to carrying out your wishes, unless it’s impossible, impractical or illegal for them to do so.
You have a living trust. If you took the trouble to have a living trust, then you should also have a will. You need, specifically, a “pour-over” will. This ensures that any assets not titled in the name of the trust at the time of your death, are transferred into the trust. Otherwise, your non-trust assets are subject to intestacy law.
The ONLY reason you may not need a will? If every single asset you own has either joint ownership or beneficiary designations. That’s very unusual, in part because it takes a lot of detail to make sure that every asset is titled correctly. You can leave real property to another person through a joint ownership deed, which establishes that person as the co-owner of the property. Accounts can be left to a person of choice, by naming a person as beneficiary.
Joint ownership and beneficiary designations do supersede the intestacy laws. However, what happens if a beneficiary dies before you do and you neglect to change the name on the asset? There are also gift and tax implications.
A will can be as complex or as simple as you want. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, who can make sure that your will and any other documents are prepared to achieve your wishes for your estate, protect your family, and don’t leave anything to chance.
“Upon one’s death, there is no comprehensive service that finds every asset in the individual’s name. Sometimes the executor or family partakes in what seems to be a goose-chase, trying to find out where the decedent held her monies and property.”
It’s not unusual for a family member to find an old bank account or painting, years after someone has passed and the estate has been closed. If it’s not something of great value, says Above the Law in the article “Old Money, Same Issues: Lessons from the 5th Century in Organizing Your Estate,” it’s easy to handle. Contacting a few members of the family to see who wants a small item, can be a simple task.
However, if it’s of high value, the family may need to petition a bank, the probate court or even an unclaimed funds bureau for access to the asset, so it can be distributed to beneficiaries or heirs. The testator needs to appoint a meticulous administrator so no stone is left unturned, when the time comes for marshalling all of the assets, before the estate can be closed.
Israeli archeologists recently unearthed deeply buried stones related to the estate of an ancient Samaritan named Adios. The stone had an inscription that read “Only God help the beautiful property of Master Adios, amen.” The estate is reported to date back 1,600 years to the 5th century. The estate contained stone mechanisms for making wine, flour and oil, including a mill. It was fairly well organized.
We have now organized people who take care of their heirs and beneficiaries, by listing all of their assets and taking the time to have an estate plan created that includes a detailed will, among other important documents. We are centuries away from inscribed stones, but the game plan is the same: write down the assets, have a will that details what assets go to either people or charitable organizations and prepare for the future.
If there is no list of assets, there are ways to uncover them. However, it creates a lot of work for the executor and stress for the family, that could be avoided with an estate plan.
The best evidence of asset holdings are often a decedent’s tax returns. General supporting documentation can reveal useful information about a person’s financial status. A look at a decedent’s paper files can reveal bank accounts, investment accounts and insurance policies.
If the assets are not properly documented in an estate plan, the monies may end up in a state’s unclaimed funds depository. Real estate, if taxes are not paid, may be seized. Many of the concerns for unclaimed funds can be addressed, by taking the time to create a spreadsheet of information and sharing it with the executor.
Whether your assets include a stone mill or bank accounts, an estate plan that includes clear and organized information about your assets will increase the likelihood that your assets will be distributed and not disappear, until they are uncovered centuries later.