Before you die…

Or this post could have been titled “Ease the burden of loved ones.”  Because I’m an estate planning attorney, the “Before you die…” advice I’d typically give would be to have a will or living trust plan prepared.  I certainly always recommend that advice.  This post, however, is different.

I recently read an article I loved, “You Need to Make a ‘When I Die’ File–Before It’s Too Late.”  The article speaks to the side of estate planning that I rarely participate, and that’s the grieving family part of planning for what happens after you die.  I help my clients get all the documents they need, and advise on decisions that need made.  What struck me about the suggestions in this article though were actions to take that speak to people you love.  The article adds two items to the typical estate planning checklist, i.e., an ethical will and letters to loved ones: “[W]here a legal will transfers assets, an ethical will transfers immaterial things: your life lessons and values.”

An ethical will supplants a traditional will, and might be used to explain why you chose one child to serve as executor over the other child, or why you chose close friends as guardians for your child over your siblings.  “Letters to loved ones” is self-explanatory, and I highly recommend it if you have children who might have difficulty remembering you if you die when they are young.

As the author states:

The point of all this is to make a difficult thing like dying or loving someone who is dying less difficult. In that sense, creating a When I Die file is an act of love. It will always be too soon to tell your story and let people know how much they mean to you, until it is too late.

If you have any questions about estate planning, email me at julie@juliemillslaw.com.

Have you been named Executor? Trustee? Possibly both?

When clients have estate plans prepared, they must choose people they trust to fill certain roles in estate plan documents.  The biggest shoes to fill are the executor of a will, and the trustee of a trust (if the client is getting a trust).  The duties for both roles are different because the documents do different things.  Sometimes the same person fills both roles, if that’s what the client wants and if the person they choose agrees.

Executor

An “executor” is the person named in your Last Will and Testament to wrap up your affairs after you die.  You might be expected to:

  • Pay financial obligations including taxes of the decedent from estate assets
  • Manage the estate by possibly submitting a will for probate, gathering the decedent’s assets and holding them until they are sold or distributed
  • Contacting government institutions and agencies to stop benefit payments
  • Represent the estate in legal matters

The role of an executor typically lasts for 13 months or under in Ohio.   You are wrapping up someone’s affairs and distributing their assets as their will dictates.  Once bills are paid and assets are sold or distributed, your role ends.

Trustee

A “trustee” is the person named in your trust (often, a “revocable living trust”) to perform the duties stated in your trust.  You might be expected to:

  • Manage the assets in the trust, which might be monetary assets, a home, etc.
  • Distribute trust assets according to the terms of the trust.  Common terms include the trustee paying for a beneficiary’s college expenses, distributing portions of the assets of the trust at certain ages
  • Communicating with the beneficiaries

The role of a trustee lasts for the lifetime of the trust.  A trust ends once final distributions are made or assets are exhausted.  A trust can also be terminated, which mostly happens when the value of the assets of the trust make administering the trust impossible–the trust’s assets diminish in value to the point of the trust not being able to pay trustee fees or other expenses.

Both roles carry some amount of personal liability, impose fiduciary responsibility, and can be time consuming.  If you were named in either role, then the person creating the documents trusts you, your abilities and judgment.

If you have been named the executor or trustee in someone’s will or trust, and you have questions or need guidance, please email me at julie@juliemillslaw.com.

No will? The state has one for you and it might not accomplish what you want.

“Everyone has a will.  Either you prepared it, or your state did.”  It’s true–if you have not prepared your own last will and testament, then a state’s statute of descent and distribution (here is Ohio’s) kicks in when you die.  These state statutes prescribe who inherits your assets at your death.  So yes, everyone is covered by either their own will, or your state’s laws, for distributing your assets when you die.  The question becomes whether you want to decide who inherits your belongings, or whether you want the state to decide.

For example, in Ohio if you die intestate (with no will), here is how your assets are distributed.  My summary below doesn’t cover every situation possible–see the link above to the statute if your situation in Ohio is not included in scenarios below.  Note that children who are adopted are treated legally the same as biological children:

  • Spouse is alive:
    • all kids are yours and spouse’s: all to spouse
    • no kids with spouse or anyone: all to spouse
    • kids survive but none are with spouse: some to kids, some to spouse
    • kids survive but some with spouse, some not: some to kids, some to spouse
  • Spouse died before you:
    • kids survive: to kids or their lineal descendants (your grandkids, great grandkids, and on)
    • no kids or their lineal descendants survive: all to your parents or surviving parent
    • no kids/lineal descendants, no parents survive: to whole or half blood brothers and sisters, or to any of their lineal descendants
    • no kids/lineal descendants, no parents, no whole/half blood brothers and sisters or their lineal descendants survive: one-half to surviving maternal grandparents or survivor of them; one-half to paternal grandparents, or survivor of them
    • none of above are surviving: to lineal descendants of grandparents (e.g., your grandparents’ children and their descendants)
    • none of the above are surviving: to stepchildren, or to their lineal descendants.
  • If none of the above are surviving when you die, then your assets escheat (go to) the state.

If absolutely no one survives you, do you want the state to get your assets when they could have been donated to a charity, or to benefit a school program, or sold to provide funds for a food pantry?  Perhaps you have pets and would want your assets sold to provide for their care?  Perhaps you have a dear friend who you would want to receive your assets?  Designating something in a will accomplishes what you want to happen.  Assets escheating to the state is not as uncommon as people think.

Contact me at julie@juliemillslaw.com to discuss what you wish to happen to your assets at your death.

 

Misconceptions you might have with estate planning

I have heard all of these misconceptions mentioned, including just today.

  1.  The attorney who prepared my will must handle my probate.  No.  Many estate planning attorneys prepare wills with an eye toward being called upon to handle a probate if the client dies, but there is absolutely no requirement that the drafting attorney who prepared your will must handle your probate.  This includes if the attorney who prepared your will holds your original will for safekeeping.
  2. My will dispenses with all of my property. Some documents override a will.  If you have a will, and you leave all real (house, land) and personal property to John, yet you have a deed that is held somehow with Jane, Jane will get the house because she is on the deed, not John, even though your will gives it to John.  Generally, titled and deeded assets go to the person listed on the title, or beneficiary designation, or deed.  “I leave everything I own to Bob.”  At my death, I have a life insurance policy that lists Joanne on the beneficiary designation.  Who gets my life insurance?  Joanne.
  3. I had a trust prepared so I don’t have to worry about probate.  It is so frustrating to see clients come to me with trusts they had prepared (and paid a lot to have prepared), only to learn that the trusts are unfunded.  What the client has, then, is a stack of papers that likely will not do what was intended.  Funding your trust involves titling or deeding assets to your trust.  You can accomplish this by naming your trust on beneficiary designations so that asset goes into your trust at your death, or having a “transfer on death affidavit” prepared that puts your home into your trust at your death.  For example, you would have a deed prepared granting your home from Jenny Jones to “The Jenny Jones Revocable Living Trust.”   However you accomplish it, a discussion of “funding your trust” should be a critical part of planning from your attorney.  If you have a trust prepared and then never prepare a new deed putting your home into your trust, and you die, your home will likely require a probate to be opened, defeating one of the important reasons for having a trust prepared (avoiding probate, privacy).
  4. A will (last will and testament) is different than a “living will.”  A last will and testament is what we think of as a “will”–we state who is to inherit what, we name a guardian for our kids if they’re young, we name an executor.  On the other very different hand, a “living will” is a healthcare document stating whether we want artificial life support if (1) we are terminally ill and death is imminent, or (2) if we are in a permanently unconscious state (i.e., brain dead).  This is popularly known as “pulling the plug.”

Contact me at julie@juliemillslaw.com to discuss estate planning.

Barebones planning for life without you.

Some people plan for their death and the fate of loved ones, whether it’s by a will, trust, re-titling and re-deeding assets, or other ways.  These are my clients.  Other people do not do this planning, and the reasons are typically because 1) they don’t want to think about it, 2) they don’t have the time or money for it, 3) they think others will take care of everything if they die.  These are many of my family members and friends.

Frankly, people die, their loved ones do take care of everything, and life goes on.  But, if you practice probate and estate administration as I do, you see so many situations where loved ones are left trying to “take care of everything” in impossible or contentious situations, where families fight and relationships become extremely strained, or irreparably damaged.

What if you do not want to engage in any estate planning–for any number of reasons, you don’t want to have a will or a trust prepared.  At least not yet.  However, you do see the need to provide some guidance to loved ones should you die.  There are very basic steps you can take to provide this guidance.  It goes without saying that I always recommend a will or trust, but something–barebones planning–is better than nothing.  I guarantee you it would be appreciated.

The following is a list you can do, on your own, to make the lives of your loved ones easier if you die.  Some steps are specific to Ohio, where I’m licensed to practice.  Tailor to your own situation:

1.  Children: if you have children under 18 years old, write down 3 people in order of priority who you would choose to raise your children (guardian).  Sign it in front of two unrelated witnesses.

2.  Funeral: disagreements over your final disposition are common.  Write down whether you want buried or cremated.  If buried, name a cemetery.  If cremated, what happens to your ashes?  List two people in order of priority who will be in charge of decision-making and with making sure your wishes are followed.  Sign it in front of two unrelated witnesses, or have it notarized.

3.  Medical decision-making:  name a person and 2 successors to be in charge of decisions about your medical care if you cannot make them.  Explain your wishes about artificial life support–do you want kept alive by artificial means?  Sign it in front of two unrelated witnesses.

4.  Pets: please provide for their fate if you die.  Many family members take pets to shelters after their owner dies.  Who do you want to care for your pet?  List two successors after this person.  Will you leave them money to help with the care?  How much?  Sign it in front of two unrelated witnesses.

5.  Specific bequests:  do you have possessions that you want to go to specific people?  List the items, and to whom they go.  Sign it in front of two unrelated witnesses.

This list is not exhaustive, but it covers the areas where I see fighting among relatives.  Having guidance during a time of grief is a gift.

If you have any questions about this post, or about estate planning, contact me at julie@juliemillslaw.com.

 

When to say goodbye to pets

A sizable portion (surprising to some) of my law practice is pet estate planning.  Whether it’s preparing a will and designating someone in it to care for your pet if you die, or creating a pet trust for your pet (recommended), or adding provisions to an existing will or trust, people see pets as family and plan for them as they do their children or other beneficiaries.  People engage in pet estate planning for everything from one dog, to a stable of horses, to parrots who often live to age 60 or 70.  (Blatant plug–I was one of the first Ohio attorneys to publish an article on pet estate planning after the change in Ohio law that permitted it.  I wish everyone planned for their pets in this way, and I’m happy to help with documents and, or, letters of intent regarding their care.)

As difficult as it is to plan for a day when we might not be able to care for our pets, it is incredibly difficult to know when it is time to humanely let our pets die.  How do you know when it’s time to let them go?  That decision is fairly easy when there’s visible suffering, but the signs aren’t always so clear.

Veterinarian Alice Villalobos, DVM created a scale that can help guide pet owners in deciding whether euthanasia is appropriate.  If you score higher than 35 on the scale, then perhaps supportive care is appropriate instead of euthanasia.  Whatever your score is on this scale, my suggestion is to discuss everything with your veterinarian.

If I can help you plan for your pet should something happen to you, please email me at julie@juliemillslaw, or visit http://www.juliemillslaw.com for additional information.

What is a trust?

What is a “trust”?  What does it do?

There are three parties involved in a trust.  First is the person who makes the trust, called the settlor or grantor.  Second is the person who is to benefit from the trust, called the beneficiary (or beneficiaries).  Third is the person who manages the trust, called the trustee.  A trust is a contract, with terms determined by the grantor to govern how the trustee manages the trust, terms to decide how the assets in the trust are to be distributed to beneficiaries, terms to govern who is included in the class of “beneficiaries” if the beneficiaries are not clearly defined, terms to decide when the trust should terminate, among others.  Because a trust is a private contract, the settlor or grantor can decide upon whatever terms and conditions he or she wants in the trust, unless they are illegal or against public policy.

Essentially, a trust is a way for someone to control his or her assets “from the grave.”  For comparison, with a last will and testament, assets are distributed once the deceased’s debts are paid by his estate.  The administration timeframe with a will is usually no longer than thirteen months.  With a trust, the trust holds assets (typically by re-titling or re-deeding an asset) and the trustee makes distributions according to the terms of the trust, which could be at staggered ages (25, 30, 35), or to pay for college, etc., and could last for years.

There are several different types of trusts used for several different purposes.  Most of my clients use trusts to provide for children or grandchildren (pay for college, provide distributions at key ages in life), or they have a child or grandchild with a disability and they want to leave assets to their disabled loved one to maintain their quality of life, without jeopardizing government benefits.   Other common trusts include credit shelter trusts, life insurance trusts, domestic asset protection trusts, firearms (“gun”) trusts, pet trusts, IRA trusts, among many others.

Trusts have certain benefits that clients find attractive.  Unlike wills, which are public documents and can reveal private information including finances, a trust is not a public document.  Privacy can be a big concern for those wishing to keep certain things private, such as business owners and their finances.  Trusts, if properly funded, avoid the probate process.  In some situations, trusts can protect assets from creditors.  Particularly important for many of my clients (as mentioned above), trusts permit someone to control the distribution of their assets from the grave, often for years.

This blog post is a very general and condensed explanation of the benefits of a trust.  If you are interested in learning more about how a trust might benefit you, email me at julie@juliemillslaw.com or contact me via http://www.juliemillslaw.com.