How Does a Probate Proceeding Work?

Many people have heard of “probate,” but there are a lot of misconceptions floating out there about it. First and foremost, many people believe they can avoid going to court and going through probate if they have a Will.

In reality, a Will, also known as Last Will and Testament, is the legal document that is to be used in probate court if a person dies with assets that are in their name alone without a surviving joint owner or beneficiary designated, says the Record Online in the article “Anatomy of a probate proceeding.” The probate process proves the will is valid.

Probate is a judicial or court proceeding where the probate court has jurisdiction over the assets of the person who has died. The court oversees the payment of debts, taxes and probate fees, in addition to supervising the distribution of assets to the person’s beneficiaries. The executor of the will is the person responsible for managing the probate assets and then reporting the activities to the judge.

Without a will, things can get messy. A similar court proceeding takes place, but it is known as an administrative proceeding, and the manager of the estate is called an administrator, and not the executor.

To start the probate proceeding, the executor completes and submits a probate petition with the probate court. Some executors do this on their own, but most hire an estate planning attorney to help. The attorney knows the process, which keeps things moving along.

The probate petition lists the beneficiaries named in the will, plus certain relatives who must, by law, receive legal notice in the mail. Let’s say that someone disinherits a child in their will. That child must receive notice to learn he or she has been disinherited. Beneficiaries and relatives alike must return paperwork to the court stating that they either consent or object to the provisions of the will.

A disinherited child has the right to file objections with the court, and then begin a battle for inheritance that is known as a will contest. This can become protracted and expensive, drawing out the probate process for years. A will contest places all of the assets in the will in limbo. They cannot be distributed unless the court says they can, which may not occur until the will contest is completed.

The will contest can be resolved in two ways: with a settlement between the parties involved, or with a jury trial. It is always possible that the disinherited person could prevail and be awarded a certain amount of the inheritance, regardless of what the decedent said in their will.

In addition to the expense and time that probate takes, while the process is going on, assets are frozen. After the court is satisfied with who the executor should be, the judge will issue “Letters Testamentary”. Only then can the executor start doing anything with the property. They must open an estate account, apply for a taxpayer ID for the account, collect the assets and ultimately, distribute them, as directed in the will to the beneficiaries. Keep in mind, however, that distribution cannot happen until the court gives the all-clear.

Can a will contest or probate be avoided? Avoiding probate, or having selected assets taken out of the probate estate, is one reason that people use trusts as part of their estate plan. Assets can also be placed in joint ownership, and beneficiaries can be added to accounts so that the asset goes directly to the beneficiary.

By working closely with an estate planning attorney, you’ll have the opportunity to prepare an estate plan that addresses how you want assets to be distributed, which assets may be placed outside of your estate for an easier transfer to beneficiaries and what you can do to avoid a will contest, if there is a disinheritance situation looming.

Reference: Record Online (August 24, 2019) “Anatomy of a probate proceeding”

Advance Planning Key for Alzheimer’s Patients

A retired physician and his wife have allowed a local television station to report their family’s journey with Alzheimer’s over the course of the last four years. The series continues with WCCO CBS Minnesota’s article “All Lined Up Before You Need It’: Alzheimer’s Association Shares Steps for Estate Planning,” with four steps to take if you notice that a family member is having memory lapses or trouble with simple tasks.

The Quinn family—Dr. Paul Quinn and his wife Peg—had some tough conversations years ago. This was a period when Paul’s memory was better, and when he was able to be completely honest with his wife about his wishes and what the couple would need to do moving forward.

Peg Quinn said that getting everything lined up long before it’s needed is very important.

If there’s any sign of cognitive decline, there are legal and financial steps that must be pursued. Start with addressing the family budget and projected medical costs for long term care. If possible, gather all family members together for a planning session.

If they live in different parts of the state, or of the country, ask the family members to travel for a weekend family meeting. This is the kind of planning that is better when everyone is physically present.

Start by naming a power of attorney. It needs to be someone who is aware of the situation and will be able to make decisions on behalf of the diagnosed individual. An estate planning attorney can assist in making this decision.

Next, establish an advance health care directive with a focus on medical decisions. This may be the toughest part since it is impossible to know how long someone will live with Alzheimer’s, or what kind of lifestyle that person would be living. According to the Alzheimer’s Association, the average patient lives between four to eight years while suffering from Alzheimer’s. The cost of care can add up fast—as much as $5,000 to $7,000 a month in some cases.

That’s why the next step—selecting an elder law estate planning attorney is so important. Planning for long-term care, qualifying for Medicaid and other benefits, is a complex challenge.

Dr. Quinn expressed his wishes to stay in his home as long as possible. The familiarity of their home makes life much easier for both of them, so they agreed early on to have in-home care if it’s ever needed.

An estate planning attorney can help the family by drafting any necessary estate planning documents and creating a plan as early as possible. A trust must be created and executed before the person is legally incompetent. The same goes for a power of attorney and any health care power of attorney documents. Medicaid planning should be done as soon as possible since there is a five-year look-back period concerning transferring any assets.

Whether you or a family member just got a diagnosis or already in the throes of Alzheimer’s, consult an estate planning attorney to review any documents or arrangements to ensure that your affairs are in order and that you are prepared for the future.

Reference: WCCO CBS Minnesota (July 23, 2019) “’All Lined Up Before You Need It’ : Alzheimer’s Association Shares Steps for Estate Planning”

Prior Planning for Catasrophes

None of us know what kind of unexpected surprises will occur in our lives. We’d like to believe they will all be happy events, like winning the big Power Ball jackpot. However, unpleasant things like illness or a flood or fire often occur. We never think it will happen to us, says The Dalles Chronicle’s article “Prepare now for emergencies.” Unfortunately, these things do happen, and when they do, being prepared can make all the difference between a stressful situation and a really awful situation that could have been made, well, less awful.

For starters, have you met with an estate planning attorney to create a comprehensive estate plan that includes a will or trust, a financial power of attorney and a health care power of attorney? The will/trust concerns distribution of your possessions and property, the power of attorney gives a trusted person the ability to take financial and legal actions on your behalf in the event that you become incapacitated, and the medical power of attorney allows someone to make health care decisions for you if you become incapacitated. There are also many other tools that an estate planning attorney can help you with, such as a Special Needs Trust, if your family includes a family member with special needs, or other trusts if they are needed.

Next, your emergency preparations should include having important documents assembled in a notebook, on a memory stick and/or a safe location. Imagine there was an emergency evacuation and you had to leave your home immediately. What documents would you need? Here’s a helpful checklist to look at:

  • Contact information for family members, doctors, attorneys, dentist, insurance broker, financial advisor.
  • Cash, so if ATMs are not working, you will have cash on hand.
  • Identification documents, including originals of your birth certificate, marriage license, divorce papers, passport, Social Security card, health insurance cards (or Medicare or Medicaid cards).
  • A video of your home and all of your possessions on your mobile phone. Consider emailing it to a family member or friend who lives in a different location.
  • Insurance policies for home, auto, disability, long-term care, etc. Include contact information for either 800-numbers or your local agent, if you need to file a claim.
  • A copy of recent financial statements for credit cards, banks, brokerage firms, retirement accounts, car loans, mortgage and similar types of accounts.
  • Copies of the last three years of tax returns. If you work with a CPA, they should have them on a secure portal, but a hard copy will be useful to have.
  • Legal documents for your estate plan, including the will, power of attorney and health care power of attorney, as described above.
  • Other legal documents, including car registration, car title and property deed to your home.

These documents should all be organized in a folder that is placed in your home where you and your spouse know where it is and can grab it on your way out the door.

One more item that should be noted in this digital age: if you use a laptop or tablet that contains websites that you use frequently for personal finance, investments, etc., be mindful of its location in the house, so you can grab it (along with a charger cable) quickly. If you have passwords for accounts—and most of us do—you should print them out and include them in your file folder for easy access. You can almost always re-set a password, but how much easier will rebuilding your life be if you have them on hand?

If you do ever face a catastrophic emergency, having these materials will save you hours of time and stress.

Reference: The Dalles Chronicle (July 16, 2019) “Prepare now for emergencies”

What If Your Executor Doesn’t Want to Serve?

When you’ve finally come to determine who you trust enough to serve as your executor, you’ll need to take the next step. It involves having a conversation with the person about what you are asking them to do. You’ll need to ask if they are willing, says the Pocono Record in the article “Don’t assume person is willing to be your executor.” People are often flattered at first when they are asked about this role, but if they don’t fully understand the responsibilities, they may decide not to serve just when you need them the most.

Once your executor has agreed to act on your behalf and you have a last will and testament prepared by an estate attorney, tell your executor where your will is stored. Remember that they need to have access, in addition to knowing where the document is. If the will is kept at home in a fire-proof box or a document box that is locked, make sure to tell them where the key is located.

If you feel that the will would be safer in a bank’s safe deposit vault, you have a few additional tasks to complete. One is to make sure that your executor will be able to access the safe deposit box. That may mean adding them to the list of people who have access. They may be technically permitted to enter the box with a bank representative solely for the purpose of obtaining the last will and testament.  However, you should check with your local probate code or local attorney.

Once they have the last will and testament and it is filed for probate, the Court issues Letters Testamentary, which says that the executor has the authority to open the safe deposit box to inventory its contents, after proper notice is given to the state’s authorities. The executor must complete an inventory form for the authorities and any personal property in the safe deposit box must be appraised for fair market value as of the date of death. Inheritance tax will need to be paid on the value, if there is any due.

Communication is very important in the executor’s role. You may or may not want to allow them to see the will before you pass, but they will need to know where the original document can be found.

To make the next part of the executor’s job easier, create an inventory of your assets and include information they will need to complete their task. They’ll also need to know contact information and account numbers for homeowners and car insurance, veterans’ benefits, credit cards, mortgage, pensions, retirement accounts and any other assets.

Some people store their information on their computer. However, if the executor cannot access your computer or cannot get into the computer because they don’t have your password, you may want to create a hard copy document, as well as keeping information on your computer.

Taking on the role of an executor is a big job. You can show your appreciation, even after you are gone, by making all preparations for the information needed.

Reference: Pocono Record (May 1, 2019) “Don’t assume person is willing to be your executor”