Wills

Wills are the most common way for people to state their preferences about how their estates should be handled after their deaths. Many people use their wills to express their deepest sentiments toward their loved ones. A well-written will eases the transition for survivors by transferring property quickly and avoiding many tax burdens.

Despite these advantages, many estimates figure that at least seventy percent of Americans do not have valid wills. While it is difficult to contemplate mortality, many people find that great peace of mind results from putting their affairs in order.

Wills vary from extremely simple single-page documents to elaborate volumes, depending on the estate size and preferences of the person making the will (the “testator”). Wills describe the estate, the people who will receive specific property (the “devisees”), and even special instructions about care of minor children, gifts to charity, and formation of posthumous trusts. Many people choose to disinherit people who might usually be expected to receive property. For all these examples, the testator must follow the legal rules for wills in order to make the document effective.

Will Requirements

Formal requirements for wills vary from state to state. Generally, the testator must be an adult of “sound mind,” meaning that the testator must be able to understand the full meaning of the document. Wills must be written. Some states allow a will to be in the testator’s own handwriting, but a better and more enforceable option is to use a typed or pre-printed document. A testator must sign his or her own will, unless he or she is unable to do so, in which case the testator must direct another person to sign the will in the presence of witnesses, and the signature must be witnessed and/or notarized. A valid will remains in force until revoked or superseded by a subsequent valid will. Some changes may be made by amendment (called a “codicil”) without requiring a complete rewrite.

Will Limitations

Some legal restrictions prevent a testator from giving full effect to his or her wishes. Some laws prohibit disinheritance of spouses or dependent children. A married person cannot completely disinherit a spouse without the spouse’s consent, usually in a pre-nuptial agreement. In most jurisdictions, a surviving spouse has a right of election, which allows the spouse to take a legally-determined percentage (up to one-half) of the estate when he or she is dissatisfied with the will. Non-dependent children may be disinherited, but this preference should be clearly stated in the will in order to avoid confusion and possible legal challenges.

Some property may not descend by will. Property owned in joint tenancy may only go to the surviving joint tenant. Also, pensions, bank accounts, insurance policies and similar contracts that name a beneficiary must go to the named party.

Appointing a Representative

A will usually appoints a personal representative (or “executor”) to perform the specific wishes of the testator after he or she passes on. The personal representative need not be a relative, although testators typically choose a family member or close friend, as well as an alternate choice. The chosen representative should be advised of his or her responsibilities before the testator dies, in order to ensure that he or she is willing to undertake these duties. The personal representative consolidates and manages the testator’s assets, collects any debts owed to the testator at death, sells property necessary to pay estate taxes or expenses, and files all necessary court and tax documents for the estate.

Choosing a Guardian

Testators who have minor or dependent children may use a will to name a guardian to care for their children if there is no surviving parent to do so. If a will does not name a guardian, a court may appoint someone who is not necessarily the person whom the testator would have chosen. Again, a testator usually chooses a family member or friend to perform this function, and often names an alternate. Potential guardians should know they have been chosen, and should fully understand what may be required of them. The choice of guardian often affects other will provisions, because the testator may want to provide financial support to the guardian in raising surviving children.

When No Valid Will Exists

If a person dies without a valid will and did not make alternative arrangements to distribute property, survivors may face a complicated, time-consuming, and expensive legal process. Dying without a will leaves an estate “intestate,” and a probate court must step in to divide up the estate using legal defaults that give property to surviving relatives. The court pays any unpaid debts and death expenses first, then follows the legal guidelines.

The rules vary depending on whether the deceased was married and had children, and whether the spouse and children are alive. If the intestate individual has no surviving spouse, children, or grandchildren, the estate is divided between various other relatives. Therefore, intestacy may mean that people who would never have been chosen to receive property will in fact be entitled to a portion of the estate. Additionally, state intestacy laws only recognize relatives, so close friends or charities that the deceased favored do not receive anything.

If no relatives are found, the estate typically goes to the state or local government. Intestacy also poses a heavy tax burden on estate assets. When made aware of the consequences of intestacy, most people prefer to leave instructions rather than subject their survivors and property to government-mandated division.

Get Legal Help with Your Will

Even if you’re not too concerned about what happens to your remains or your belongings after you die, keep in mind that your surviving family members will have to make these arrangements in your absence. Without a will, the process can be expensive and unnecessarily tedious. It makes sense to write a will while you’re relatively healthy and of sound mind.

Trusts

A trust is a legal document that can be created during a person’s lifetime and survive the person’s death. A trust can also be created by a will and formed after death. Common types of trusts are outlined in this article.

Once assets are put into the trust they belong to the trust itself (such as a bank account), not the trustee (person). They remain subject to the rules and instructions of the trust contract.

In essence, a trust is a right to money or property, which is held in a “fiduciary” relationship by one person or bank for the benefit of another. The trustee is the one who holds title to the trust property, and the beneficiary is the person who receives the benefits of the trust. While there are a number of different types of trusts, the basic types are revocable and irrevocable.

Revocable Trusts

Revocable trusts are created during the lifetime of the trustmaker and can be altered, changed, modified or revoked entirely. Often called a living trust, these are trusts in which the trustmaker:

  • Transfers the title of a property to a trust
  • Serves as the initial trustee
  • Has the ability to remove the property from the trust during his or her lifetime

Revocable trusts are extremely helpful in avoiding probate. If ownership of assets is transferred to a revocable trust during the lifetime of the trustmaker so that it is owned by the trust at the time of the trustmaker’s death, the assets will not be subject to probate.

Although useful to avoid probate, a revocable trust is not an asset protection technique as assets transferred to the trust during the trustmaker’s lifetime will remain available to the trustmaker’s creditors. It does make it more somewhat more difficult for creditors to access these assets since the creditor must petition a court for an order to enable the creditor to get to the assets held in the trust. Typically, a revocable trust evolves into an irrevocable trust upon the death of the trustmaker.

Irrevocable Trust

An irrevocable trust is one that cannot be altered, changed, modified or revoked after its creation. Once a property is transferred to an irrevocable trust, no one, including the trust maker, can take the property out of the trust. It is possible to purchase survivorship life insurance, the benefits of which can be held by an irrevocable trust.

This type of survivorship life insurance can be used for estate tax planning purposes in large estates, however, survivorship life insurance held in an irrevocable trust can have serious negative consequences.

Asset Protection Trust

An asset protection trust is a type of trust that is designed to protect a person’s assets from claims of future creditors. These types of trusts are often set up in countries outside of the United States, although the assets do not always need to be transferred to the foreign jurisdiction. The purpose of an asset protection trust is to insulate assets from creditor attack.

These trusts are normally structured so that they are irrevocable for a term of years and so that the trustmaker is not a current beneficiary. An asset protection trust is normally structured so that the undistributed assets of the trust are returned to the trustmaker upon the termination of the trust provided there is no current risk of creditor attack, thus permitting the trustmaker to regain complete control over the formerly protected assets.

Charitable Trust

Charitable trusts are trusts which benefit a particular charity or the public in general. Typically charitable trusts are established as part of an estate plan to lower or avoid the imposition of estate and gift tax.

A charitable remainder trust (CRT) funded during the grantor’s lifetime can be a financial planning tool, providing the trustmaker with valuable lifetime benefits. In addition to the financial benefits, there is the intangible benefit of rewarding the trustmaker’s altruism as charities usually immediately honor the donors who have named the charity as the beneficiary of a CRT.

Constructive Trust

A constructive trust is an implied trust. An implied trust is established by a court and is determined by certain facts and circumstances. The court may decide that, even though there was never a formal declaration of a trust, there was an intention on the part of the property owner that the property is used for a particular purpose or go to a particular person.

While a person may take legal title to a property, equitable considerations sometimes require that the equitable title of such property really belongs to someone else.

Special Needs Trust

A special needs trust is one that is set up for a person who receives government benefits so as not to disqualify the beneficiary from such government benefits. This is completely legal and permitted under the Social Security rules provided that the disabled beneficiary cannot control the amount or the frequency of trust distributions and cannot revoke the trust. Ordinarily, when a person is receiving government benefits, an inheritance or receipt of a gift could reduce or eliminate the person’s eligibility for such benefits.

By establishing a trust, which provides for luxuries or other benefits which otherwise could not be obtained by the beneficiary, the beneficiary can obtain the benefits from the trust without defeating his or her eligibility for government benefits. Usually, a special needs trust has a provision that terminates the trust in the event that it could be used to make the beneficiary ineligible for government benefits.

Special needs have a specific legal definition and are defined as the requisites for maintaining the comfort and happiness of a disabled person when such requisites are not being provided by any public or private agency. Special needs can include medical and dental expenses, equipment, education, treatment, rehabilitation, eyeglasses, transportation (including vehicle purchase), maintenance, insurance (including payment of premiums of insurance on the life of the beneficiary), essential dietary needs, spending money, electronic and computer equipment, vacations, athletic contests, movies, trips, money with which to purchase gifts, payments for a companion, and other items to enhance self-esteem. The list is quite extensive.

Parents of a disabled child can establish a special needs trust as part of their general estate plan and not worry that their child will be prevented from receiving benefits when they are not there to care for the child. Disabled persons who expect an inheritance or other large sum of money may establish a special needs trust themselves, provided that another person or entity is named as trustee.

Spendthrift Trust

A trust that is established for a beneficiary that does not allow the beneficiary to sell or pledge away interests in the trust is known as a spendthrift trust. It is protected from the beneficiaries’ creditors, until such time as the trust property is distributed out of the trust and given to the beneficiaries.

Tax By-Pass Trust

A tax by-pass trust is a type of trust that is created to allow one spouse to leave money to the other while limiting the amount of federal estate tax that would be payable on the death of the second spouse. While assets can pass to a spouse tax-free, when the surviving spouse dies, the remaining assets over and above the exempt limit would be taxable to the children of the couple, potentially at a rate of 55 percent. A tax by-pass trust avoids this situation and saves the children perhaps hundreds of thousands of dollars in federal taxes, depending upon the value of the estate.

Totten Trust

A Totten trust is one that is created during the lifetime of the grantor by depositing money into an account at a financial institution in his or her name as the trustee for another. This is a type of revocable trust in which the gift is not completed until the grantor’s death or an unequivocal act reflecting the gift during the grantor’s lifetime. An individual or an entity can be named as the beneficiary. Upon death, Totten trust assets avoid probate.

A Totten trust is used primarily with accounts and securities in financial institutions such as savings accounts, bank accounts, and certificates of deposit. A Totten trust cannot be used with real property. It provides a safer method to pass assets on to family than using joint ownership.

To create a Totten trust, the title on the account should include identifying language, such as “In Trust For,” “Payable on Death To,” “As Trustee For,” or the identifying initials for each, “IFF,” “POD,” “ATF.” If this language is not included, the beneficiary may not be identifiable. A Totten trust has been called a “poor man’s” trust because a written trust document is typically not involved and it often costs the trust maker nothing to establish.

Forming a trust is a great way to protect your family’s assets and to make sure loved ones are secure. You may decide that the complexity required for such a trust would benefit from the advice of an estate planning lawyer. Get ahead of the curve and get some peace of mind for your family by receiving your free consultation today!