Tag Archives: Basic Estate Planning. wills. trusts

Digital Asset Planning

Usually when you visit an estate planning attorney, there is a LONG form to fill out describing family, last wishes, assets and liabilities, and who should be your executor, trustee, or guardian of minor children.  There are often conversations about health care choices, nursing homes, and how the primary residence should be owned.

When was the last time your attorney asked you to write down your Facebook username?  Probably never.  In our rapidly changing relationship with technology, what we own and how we own it is also changing.  I heard on the radio this morning that 60% of bills are paid on-line now (this is why the U.S. Post Office needs to shrink).

Think about how that will affect the person who probates your estate…We used to hope that there would be an organized file with bills and account numbers, we’d count on the mail coming with statements and other account numbers.  How do we find the electronic accounts that “Aunt Edna” kept on her office computer?  How will we find the beautiful photo albums that mom kept in her Flickr account?  What about the software that has three years left on its license – who owns that, and what is it worth?  How on earth do you cancel the monthly Xbox Live account?  (Anyone who can provide this information to currently living mothers will also score some major points!)

Let’s get started on our digital asset planning.  I’ve got another long form that I’m happy to e-mail to anyone who requests one.  Please put “digital asset planning” in the subject line and send a request to bridget@bmurraylaw.com.

Share

Planning for Incompetence

One of the scariest scenarios we face is the prospect of no longer being able to make our own decisions and to think for ourselves.  Often this is a process of gradual decline, and either we, or those close to us, can see the changes and understand what is happening.  If you have not done advanced planning, that’s a good time to get moving.  There are some fairly straightforward documents that you can draft and execute which will allow those you love and trust to make important decisions. 

1.  Health Care Proxy:  this document names the person who can make medical decisions for you in the event that you are unable to make them yourself.  In Massachusetts, only one person can be named at a time, but you can have successor agents in case the first person is not available.  I recommend that everyone have a Health Care Proxy (including young adults so that doctors must listen to their parents, or to the person they have designated).

If you do not have a Health Care Proxy and there is a disagreement about your care, it is possible that a Guardian will have to be appointed by the probate court.  This is a process that can be time consuming, complex, and expensive.  In the end, the court decides who will make decisions about your care, not you.

2.  Durable Power of Attorney:  this document names a person who can sign documents on your behalf, and who can make financial and administrative decisions on your behalf.  This can be effective now, or it can come into effect upon your incapacity. 

Like a Health Care Proxy, if you do not have a Durable Power of Attorney, and become incompetent, a family member or caregiver will have to go to court to be named to represent you.  This person is called a Conservator, and this process, like naming a Guardian, requires court involvement and much expense.  It also means that the court makes the final decision about the person best suited to manage  your affairs.  Judges are wise and thoughtful, but they don’t know you or your family members the way that you do – don’t you think you’ll make a better decision?

Share

New Massachusetts Homestead Law

A homestead protects a person’s home from certain creditors.  In some states, this protection is automatic – when you purchase a home and live in it, you receive a certain amount of protection from creditors.  In Massachusetts, you needed to declare a homestead, and file it with the probate court — until recently.  On December 16th, 2010, Governor Patrick signed into law a bill containing a series of important amendments to the Homestead Act (Mass. General Laws, Ch. 188).  The new provisions will be effective on March 16, 2011. 

One important change is that homestead protection of $125,000 will be automatic; greater protection (up to $500,000) is available with the filing of a homestead declaration form.  Forms are available to download from salemdeeds.com or from other county registry websites. 

The other important change, particularly if you are doing estate planning (and really, why else would you be reading this blog?) is that a home held in a trust can now be protected by the homestead declaration.  This provides clarity which has been lacking, and it tis a welcome change for homeowners who have elected to place their homes in trust.  Next week I’ll talk about the benefits of putting your residence into a trust.

Share

Estate Administration

Probate is the process by which a deceased person’s property, known as the "estate," is passed to his or her heirs and legatees (people named in the will). The entire process, supervised by the probate court, usually takes about a year. However, substantial distributions from the estate can be made in the interim.

The emotional trauma brought on by the death of a close family member often is accompanied by bewilderment about the financial and legal steps the survivors must take. The spouse who passed away may have handled all of the couple’s finances. Or perhaps a child must begin taking care of probating an estate about which he or she knows little. And this task may come on top of commitments to family and work that can’t be set aside. Finally, the estate itself may be in disarray or scattered among many accounts, which is not unusual with a generation that saw banks collapse during the Depression.

Here we set out the steps the surviving family members should take. These responsibilities ultimately fall on whoever was appointed executor or personal representative in the deceased family member’s will. Matters can be a bit more complicated in the absence of a will, because it may not be clear who has the responsibility of carrying out these steps.

First, secure the tangible property. This means anything you can touch, such as silverware, dishes, furniture, or artwork. You will need to determine accurate values of each piece of property, which may require appraisals, and then distribute the property as the deceased directed. If property is passed around to family members before you have the opportunity to take an inventory, this will become a difficult, if not impossible, task. Of course, this does not apply to gifts the deceased may have made during life, which will not be part of his or her estate.

Second, take your time. You do not need to take any other steps immediately. While bills do need to be paid, they can wait a month or two without adverse repercussions. It’s more important that you and your family have time to grieve. Financial matters can wait. (One exception: Social Security should be notified within a month of death. If checks are issued following death, you could be in for a battle. For more on Social Security’s death procedures, click on http://www.ssa.gov/pubs/deathbenefits.htm)

When you’re ready, but not a day sooner, meet with an attorney to review the steps necessary to administer the deceased’s estate. Bring as much information as possible about finances, taxes and debts. Don’t worry about putting the papers in order first; the lawyer will have experience in organizing and understanding confusing financial statements.

Below are some of the steps in probate:

1. Filing the will and petition at the probate court in order to be appointed executor or personal representative. In the absence of a will, heirs must petition the court to be appointed "administrator" of the estate.

2. Marshaling, or collecting, the assets. This means that you have to find out everything the deceased owned. You need to file a list, known as an "inventory," with the probate court. It’s generally best to consolidate all the estate funds to the extent possible. Bills and bequests should be paid from a single checking account, either one you establish or one set up by your attorney, so that you can keep track of all expenditures.

3. Paying bills and taxes. If an estate tax return is needed—generally if the estate exceeds $1 million in value—it must be filed within nine months of the date of death. If you miss this deadline and the estate is taxable, severe penalties and interest may apply. If you do not have all the information available in time, you can file for an extension and pay your best estimate of the tax due.

4. Filing tax returns. You must also file a final income tax return for the decedent and, if the estate holds any assets and earns interest or dividends, an income tax return for the estate. If the estate does earn income during the administration process, it will have to obtain its own tax identification number in order to keep track of such earnings.

5. Distributing property to the heirs and legatees. Generally, executors do not pay out all of the estate assets until the period runs out for creditors to make claims, which is a year after the date of death. But once the executor understands the estate and the likely claims, he or she can distribute most of the assets, retaining a reserve for unanticipated claims and the costs of closing out the estate.

6. Filing a final account. The executor must file an account with the probate court listing any income to the estate since the date of death and all expenses and estate distributions. Once the court approves this final account, the executor can distribute whatever is left in the closing reserve, and finish his or her work.

Some of these steps can be eliminated by avoiding probate through joint ownership or trusts. But whoever is left in charge still has to pay all debts, file tax returns, and distribute the property to the rightful heirs. You can make it easier for your heirs by keeping good records of your assets and liabilities. This will shorten the process and reduce the legal bill.

Share