The Classics: Fab Four of Estate Planning Mistakes

  1. “I’m not wealthy so I don’t have an estate: Everyone has an estate.  Estate planning is about what you own, not just what everything is worth.  If you have a car, a house, a bank account, or anything, you have an estate.  Estate planning encompasses how you plan for the distribution of your assets.  Estate planning can be a simple will, or it can be complicated trusts.
  2. Pets. Legally, pets are your personal property.  As with all property, you should plan for what will happen to them if you die.  Obviously this takes on critical importance with pets, since so many pets end up in cages in shelters when their owners become incapacitated or when they die.  Include instructions for the care of your pet in your will, or set up a pet trust.
  3. Designation of agents, naming of executors and trustees. Most clients do not want to “play favorites” with naming their children as agents to powers of attorney, executors in a will, trustees to a trust, so they want to name all three (or however many) children as “co-“ agents.  Under some states’ laws, co-agents can act independently of each other without requiring signatures on everything of, say, all three children.  This can still be a nightmare.  Financial institutions prefer one person for their own liability reasons.  Unless there’s an odd number to break a tie, disagreements can hamper efforts to care for an incapacitated parent or deal with estate matters.  If all three signatures are required, this can be burdensome if all three children live in separate states.  Choose one child—typically the closest geographically and most responsible financially—then list other children as successors.  (Choosing a guardian for your children is crucial also.  See this important post.)
  4. Buried or cremated? Where? Besides arguments over the distribution of belongings, the other main creator of arguments is decisions surrounding burial, cremation, and cemetery location.  Be absolutely clear in your estate plan about what you want.  Do you want buried?  If yes, in what cemetery?  Do you want cremated instead?  If yes, do you want your ashes scattered (and where), or stored in an urn (and with whom)?  Fights occur because of cemetery location first, since extended family want you in your hometown even if you’ve lived away for decades.  Disposition of your body is the second cause of fights, in my experience.  Some people are abhorrent to thinking of a loved one decomposing in a grave, or being reduced to ashes in an oven.  Finally, if you choose cremation and want your ashes scattered, be sure your wishes are legal.  The wish to “throw my ashes up in the air as you’re going down Space Mountain at Disney World” is not legal.

Contact me at julie@juliemillslaw.com to discuss your will or trust, or planning for your pet.

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August is #NationalMakeAWillMonth!

August is #NationalMakeAWillMonth.  What are you doing to celebrate—having a will prepared this month?  Instead of discussing what happens with a will, here’s what happens without one.

When you die and you have not prepared a will, you die intestate.  The laws of “descent and distribution” in your state kick in, and the court uses these laws to decide who gets what.  The court appoints a person to administer your estate.  The court decides who will care for your children.

Without a will:

  • You don’t decide who gets what assets you own
  • You don’t dictate who winds up your affairs
  • You don’t choose who will parent your children
  • You don’t decide where your pets will go
  • You don’t decide whether you’ll be buried or cremated, or where you’ll be buried

Celebrate #NationalMakeAWillMonth by having a will prepared this month.  Take control of what happens to your assets at death!

Letters of Intent–More Information

I received several inquiries after my recent post on Letters of Intent, or instructions for guardians or caretakers of your children or pets.  I have specific forms I have developed for children, pets, and children with special needs.  If you would like pricing for those, email me at julie@juliemillslaw.com, or message me through my law office’s Facebook page.

Letters of Intent can be created by you (versus an attorney), and many parents have done just that.  These can be in-depth, broad, more limited–it’s up to you.  To guide you, here are links to three examples, all from moms who were dying of cancer:

  1. A simple, specific, instructional Letter of Intent, “Mummy Manual”:  http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-346306/The-mummy-manual.html
  2. An in-depth, broad, far-reaching Letter of Intent with guidance:  http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/health/news/10084492/Dying-mother-leaves-20-point-plan-for-happiness-for-her-family.html
  3. Letters written to child to be given at certain life moments, a series of Letters of Intent:  http://metro.co.uk/2015/07/23/mum-terminally-ill-with-cancer-writes-letters-to-her-four-year-old-to-last-a-lifetime-5308613/

What will be most helpful to your guardian?  What information will help your child the most?  The links to the different letters could be used to guide you in adapting such letters to specific situations, such as pets.

Send any questions to julie@juliemillslaw.com

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Letters of Intent–why your child or pet needs you to complete one

If you have started the process of planning for the future of your loved ones if something should happen to you, then congratulations, you have taken responsible steps that many people—estate planning attorneys included—have avoided taking.  You are probably thinking most about who would care for your children, even pets, if you can’t.  So, you decide on a guardian, or caregiver for your pets, and hopefully two successors.  You name them in your will.  Don’t stop there.

Do your guardian or caregiver, and especially your children or pets, the favor of easing their transition to this new life without you by completing a “letter of intent,” or caregiver guide.  A “letter of intent” gives information and details to your guardian or caregiver about everything from daily routines to hopes for the future.  Everything from food likes and dislikes, doctor names and extracurricular activities, to hopes for education, thoughts on values and religion.

“Letters of intent” for pets (sometimes called Caregiver Guides) detail health history, food preferences, and allergies.  Explain how the pet lived (crated at night or not?  Walked on a leash or more accustomed to fenced-in yard?), thoughts on parameters with euthanasia, and other aspects of the pet’s life.

The most important subject for a “letter of intent,” however, might be a child with special needs.  For many children with special needs, routine and familiarity are critical.  Children on the autism spectrum can struggle with the most minor change (a subjective term) in their day or routine.  Replicating a child’s routine as much as possible might reduce stress for a child with disabilities in adjusting to a different house, different people, different sounds and surroundings.  A “letter of intent” would give a guardian a greater ability to provide the things necessary to help the child cope, particularly by continuing the child’s daily routine.

If you have any questions about preparing your own letter of intent for the care of your loved ones, email me at julie@juliemillslaw.com.

Five ways to make your survivors miserable

You have died, so your survivors are already grieving.  No one wants to “tie up loose ends” and take care of standard post-death things such as getting your death certificate, distributing your possessions, selling your house, etc.  These five ways will almost ensure that their job is made worse.

  1. Die without a will.  Dying without a will is called dying “intestate.”  Without a will directing what goes where, the person in charge of administering your estate needs to distribute according to statute.  This process could be easy, or could be difficult, but will almost definitely be more of a hassle.  If you have minor-age children, quadruple the “hassle quotient.”  Now the Court will need to determine who cares for your children (guardian) with no guidance from you–the person who knows best who the guardian should be.
  2. Have a trust prepared but do not fund it or put assets in it.  If you wisely have a revocable living trust prepared to, among other things, avoid probate, and you fail to re-title or deed the assets to your trust, then these assets will need to go through probate.  (This is not true if held in survivorship deed.)  I have seen probate estates opened just to probate a house or other deeded or titled property when the deceased had a trust prepared, but the trust was “empty”(unfunded).
  3. Fail to designate a point person to hold passwords to social media, email and other accounts.  Survivors might want access to your pictures, or to let others know you have passed.  At one point one company that stored pictures online would not let a surviving husband access his wife’s account.  Her account happened to contain almost all of their childrens’ pictures from birth.  For a professional with a LinkedIn account, notifying colleagues of your death might be critical to clients or matters.  In some circumstances a court order can lead to accessing the account.  Lessen the workload of your survivors by leaving a list of accounts and passwords in a secure place with a trusted person.
  4. Fail to leave instructions regarding cremation or burial.  This is one area that can turn amicable survivors into feuding adversaries.  Some people have strong feelings against being cremated while others have strong feelings against being buried.  Families often argue over which cemetery will be chosen, or where ashes are to be stored or scattered.  Do your family members a favor and specify these instructions.
  5. Neglect to provide for the care of pets.  Who will care for your dog, cat, horse, or other pets if you die?  Leaving a relative to distribute your assets and close your accounts is enough work without also leaving it up to him or her to find homes for your pets, or to be put in the heart-wrenching position of having to take them to the pound or shelter.  Leave provisions for pets in your will or have a pet trust prepared.

Pets: their fate if we die?

Pets are like family.  Pictured is my boy, Bill, who is definitely part of our family.  In fact, many of my friends call their pets their “furbabies.”  What happens to them if we die?

Historically, surviving family have been in charge of deciding the fate of a deceased person’s pet or pets.  And, historically, their fate often meant being surrendered at a shelter.  Before states adopted trust codes permitting pet trusts, some pet owners would leave their pet and a sum of money for the pet’s care in their will to a trusted friend or family member.  Unfortunately, less trustworthy people would accept the bequest, then dump the pet at the shelter.

Now, Ohio and many other states have adopted trust codes that permit creating a trust for the care of a pet.  You name a caregiver to physically care for the pet, name a trustee to manage funds in the trust and serve as checks and balances on caregiver, then name who inherits the funds left in the trust when the pet dies.  As Leona Helmsley’s heirs discovered, you cannot leave an overly large amount to a pet.  A judge will find that the amount is excessive and unreasonable, such as millions left to care for Mrs. Helmsley’s small dog, and will reduce the amount.

My clients are instructed to fund their pet trust with an amount of funds that is reasonable.  To determine reasonable, figure what it costs to care for your pet–medical care, grooming, food, toys, boarding, pet insurance, among other factors. Other considerations are your pet’s age, life expectancy, health.  This calculation will be very different for a dog expected to live 10-15 years as is the life expectancy of my beagle, compared to that of a horse that could live 30 years, compared to a parrot that could live 60 years.  Also, the amount of money you should leave for the care of two dogs will be different from the amount needed to properly maintain a stable of thoroughbred horses.

If you want to plan for your pet’s future without you, contact an attorney experienced in pet trusts.  Email me for help finding such an attorney in your state, or to help you if you are in Ohio at julie@juliemillslaw.com.