Trusts

Still Wondering Why You Need to Review Your Estate Plan?

One of the most common mistakes in estate planning is thinking of the estate plan, as being completed and never needing to be reviewed. That is similar to taking your car for an oil change and then simply never returning for another oil change. The years go by, your life changes and you need to review your estate plan.

The question posed by the New Hampshire Union Leader in the article “It’s important to periodically review your estate plan” is not if you need to have your estate plan reviewed, but when.

Most people get their original wills and other documents from their estate planning attorney, put them into their safe deposit box or a fire-safe file drawer and forget about them. There are no laws governing when these documents should be reviewed, so whether or when to review the estate is completely up to the individual. That often leads to unintended consequences that can cause the wrong person to inherit, fracture the family and leave heirs with a large tax liability.

A better idea: review your estate plan on a regular basis. For some people with complicated lives and assets, that means once a year. For others, every three or four years works. Some reviews are triggered by changes in life, including:

  • Marriage or divorce
  • Death
  • Large changes in the size of the estate
  • A significant increase in debt
  • The death of an executor, guardian or trustee
  • Birth or adoption of children or grandchildren
  • Change in career, good or bad
  • Retirement
  • Health crisis
  • Changes in tax laws
  • Changes in relationships to beneficiaries and heirs
  • Moving to another state or purchasing property in another state
  • Receiving a sizable inheritance

What should you be thinking about, as you review your estate plan? Here are some suggestions:

Have there been any changes to your relationships with family members?

Are any family members facing challenges or does anyone have special needs?

Are there children from a previous marriage and what do their lives look like?

Are the people you named for various roles—power of attorney, personal representative, guardian and trustees—still the people you want making decisions and acting on your behalf?

Does your estate plan include a durable power of attorney for healthcare, a valid living will, or if you want this, a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order?

Has your estate plan addressed the possible need for Medicaid?

Do you know who your beneficiary designations are for your accounts and are your beneficiary designations still correct? Your beneficiaries will receive assets outside of the will and nothing you put in the will can change the distribution of those assets.

Have you aligned your assets with your estate plan? Do certain accounts pass directly to a spouse or an heir? Have you funded any trusts?

Finally, have changes in the tax laws changed your estate plan? Your estate planning attorney should look at your state, as well as federal tax liability.

Just as you can’t plant a garden once and expect it to grow and bloom forever, your estate plan needs to be reviewed, so that it can protect your interests as your life and your family’s life changes over time. Our experienced estate planning attorneys can review your existing estate plan to determine if your goals are still being met.


Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (Jan. 12, 2019) “It’s important to periodically review your estate plan”

How Can Trusts Keep My Family From An Undesirable Lifestyle?

Some people are hesitant to use trusts in their estate planning. Some have the notion that if you leave money in trust, it will make “trust fund babies” of your children or grandchildren.

You may be afraid that they’ll become spoiled brats, who do nothing but spend money they haven’t earned, or invest foolishly.

FEDWeek’s recent story, “Using a Trust as an Incentive for Your Heirs” explains that trust distributions can be limited to modest amounts or left to the discretion of the trustee, who’ll manage the trust assets.

The article suggests that if you do leave money in trust, you should avoid the common practice of providing for mandatory distributions at certain ages rather than discretionary distributions.

That’s because, at those ages, most people are better off finishing their education and establishing their careers. Requiring them to take a bagful of money at that age, might decrease their drive to pursue a meaningful career.

One way to do this is what’s called an “incentive” trust. This type of trust offers rewards to trust beneficiaries who accomplish specific goals.

With an incentive trust, the beneficiaries might get a particular amount of money for getting higher education degrees, attaining certain levels of earned income or volunteering at a church or in the community. For instance, your trust could be drafted by your estate planning attorney to state that the trustee will distribute to each of your grandchildren a certain percentage (such as 25%) of earnings each year, up to a certain amount. This could be tied to a requirement that you make.

Another way to go about this trust is to leave the distributions to the discretion of the trustee. The trust might detail the types of activities that will be rewarded, then permit the trustee to make appropriate distributions.

When you’re going to depend so much on the judgment of the trustee, for this type of arrangement to work, it’s critical to choose a highly-qualified trustee.

The trustee could be a relative, friend, or professional advisor. He or she must be able to empathize with your beneficiaries but still make prudent decisions about distributions. In addition, add a plan for trustee succession, in case your first choice becomes unable or cannot serve.


Reference: FEDWeek (January 17, 2019) “Using a Trust as an Incentive for Your Heirs”

Should I Use an Online Will Service?

More than 50% of Americans don’t have a will, according to a 2017 survey by Caring.com. Spelling out how your assets should be divided, is an essential start to estate planning that can be easily overlooked. Many people turn to an online will service, thinking this choice is better than doing nothing.

A U.S. News & World Report’s article asks “Should You Make a Free Will Online?” According to the article, before writing your will or using an online service, you need to know the legal requirements in your area. In many instances, this is best left to a legal professional in your state.

There are plenty of online tools that will help you create a will. However, before clicking on a website’s promise, you need to evaluate the available options. There are three main ways to write a will:

  1. Do it yourself;
  2. Use a do-it-yourself program; or
  3. Get help from our qualified estate planning attorneys.

If you draft a will on your own, you’ll need to be absolutely certain you understand all of the applicable probate, tax and property laws. People who’ve written their own wills are usually those with very basic estates, like a person with a single piece of real estate and a small amount in investments.

If you use an online will service, you’ll have access to software that walks you through the process. In this case, you’ll need to be sure that the software company has all the applicable laws covered, as required for your state. You also want a program that lets you make updates later if your situation changes.

However, if you engage the assistance of our experienced estate planning attorneys, you’ll have the opportunity to have our experts help you think through the details. This result will be a well-drafted will. Yes, it will cost a bit more, but for many situations—like those with blended families, complex investments, or property in several states—it’s worth it.

Remember that the probate laws can vary widely from state to state. For example, the basic form requirements may allow a handwritten will in some states, but in other states, the will must be typewritten. Some states require only two witnesses, and others require that the will be witnessed, notarized and typed.

If you have a larger estate or heirs with medical conditions, it may be wise to work with our attorneys who will counsel you on the best solutions for your situation. For example, if you have a child with special needs receiving government benefits, you should have our attorneys create a trust so their inheritance doesn’t negatively impact their benefits.

You should also use an attorney if you want to reduce your exposure to probate fees. Some people transfer their assets into a revocable living trust, so they are not subject to probate fees. An online service can’t give you this type of attention or personalized service.

If you have a complex situation, you may end up paying less by using an attorney. Our experienced estate planning attorneys have helped numerous families. We can offer insight into setting up guardians for minor children or appointing an individual to be in charge of the distribution of the estate. There are frequently estate and gift tax considerations about which the average person doesn’t know or monitor.


Reference: U.S. News & World Report (January 9, 2019) “Should You Make a Free Will Online?”

Am I Too Young to Start Thinking About Estate Planning?

Many people believe they’re too young to begin thinking about estate planning. Others say they don’t have significant enough assets to make the process of planning worthwhile.

However, the truth is that everyone needs estate planning. If you have any assets, and you intend to give those assets to a loved one, you need to have a plan.

Forbes’s article, “Reviewing Your Financial And Estate Planning Checklist,” examines some important topics in estate planning.

The first of topic is a durable power of attorney for property, finances and health care. This document allows you to designate a trusted individual to make decisions and take action on your behalf with matters relating to each of the three areas above.

In addition to the importance of having all powers of attorney readily available, in case you become incapable of making decisions, beneficiary designations should also be looked at frequently to update any changes to family situations, like a birth or adoption, death, marriage or divorce.

Another topic to address is a living trust. A trust will give direction regarding where and how the assets are dispersed when you die. A great reason to use a living trust is that the assets in a trust do not pass through probate court, which can be an expensive and time-consuming process.

Another area is digital assets. It’s critical for your heirs to have access to digital files, passwords, and documents. Digital assets can be easy to overlook. Create a list of your digital assets, including social media accounts, online banking accounts and home utilities you manage online. Include all email and communications accounts, shopping accounts, photo and video sharing accounts, video gaming accounts, online storage accounts, and websites and blogs that you manage. This list should be clear and updated for your heirs to access.

If we fail to plan for these somewhat uncomfortable topics, the outcome will be stressful and expensive for our heirs. Our experienced estate planning attorneys can answer any questions you have and assist you with making sure your estate planning goals are met with positive outcomes.


Reference: Forbes (January 4, 2019) “Reviewing Your Financial And Estate Planning Checklist”

New Year’s Resolutions: Start With Your Estate Plan

Recent studies show that about half of Americans still make resolutions, but fewer than 10% of us are successful in maintaining them, says The Sentinel in “Elder Care: New Year’s resolutions.” This year, try making your resolutions simpler and more time-sensitive, and maybe you’ll have more luck maintaining them. Start with your estate plan. A call to our estate planning attorneys to make an appointment won’t take a lot of time, and it will get the process started.

Getting your estate plan in order in 2019 will prevent your family from unnecessary stress and costs in the future. Here are a few examples of what can happen to families who don’t plan properly.

A married couple owns a home and some investments. To protect their assets, they create a Revocable Living Trust and transfer all their assets into the trust. They believed that by doing so, they’ll avoid probate and preserve assets from long-term care costs. However, while a revocable trust can avoid probate, if properly created and funded, it has limited other benefits.

When the husband needed nursing care, the couple was surprised to learn that putting their largest asset—their primary residence—in a revocable trust resulted in a situation where the home was counted as an asset for Medical Assistance to pay for care.

As Wisconsin residents, their principal residence may be excluded for consideration for eligibility—if certain conditions are met. However, federal law specifically directs that real estate in a revocable trust is a countable resource. Had they placed the residence in an Irrevocable Asset Protection Trust five years prior, or even kept the residence out of a trust, they would have had more options.

Not having a will is never a good idea. A local musician had a successful career that resulted in him having a good deal of wealth. He had a son from his first marriage and when his son was born, he told his wife that he wanted his assets to pass to his wife upon his death. If she died before him, he wanted his assets to go to his son. However, he never had a will made.

The first marriage ended in divorce, and he became estranged from his son. He had a daughter with a new partner and planned to leave everything to his new partner. If she passed before him, he intended to leave everything to his daughter. However, once again, he failed to have a will made.

With no will, state law governs who receives his assets. In the musician’s case, assets pass in the following order:

  1. Surviving Spouse
  2. Children
  3. Parents
  4. Siblings
  5. Issue of Siblings
  6. Grandparents
  7. Uncles and Aunts
  8. Cousins
  9. The State of Wisconsin

Notice that none of these is his current partner. The only way she could have inherited his assets would have been for him to have a will. While he had told his partner that he did not want his son to get anything, under his state’s law, his assets are to be split equally between his children.

With an estate that included songs that were copyrighted, both of his children (and any individuals claiming to be his children), may receive income streams. The court must first determine who his legal children are before any assets can be distributed. A will would have prevented this entire mess.

These are just two examples of what happens when planning is not done correctly, or not at all. Make it one of your New Year’s resolutions to call your estate planning attorney.


Reference: The Sentinel (Jan. 4, 2019) “Elder Care: New Year’s resolutions”

Estate Planning: Here’s Why You Need To Do It

It’s always the right time to do your estate planning, but it’s most critical when you have beneficiaries who are minors or with special needs, says the Capital Press in the recent article, “Ag Finance: Why you need to do estate planning.”

While it’s likely that most adult children can work things out, even if it’s costly and time-consuming in probate, minor young children must have protections in place. Wills are frequently written, so the estate goes to the child when he reaches age 18. However, few teens can manage big property at that age. A trust can help, by directing that the property will be held for him by a trustee or executor until a set age, like 25 or 30.

Probate is the default process to administer an estate after someone’s death when a will or other documents are presented in court and an executor is appointed to manage it. It also gives creditors a chance to present claims for money owed to them. Distribution of assets will occur only after all proper notices have been issued, and all outstanding bills have been paid.

Probate can be expensive. However, the right estate planning can help most families avoid this and ensure the transition of wealth and property in a smooth manner. Talk to our experienced estate planning attorneys about establishing a trust. Farmers can name themselves as the beneficiaries during their lifetime, and instruct to whom it will pass after their death. A living trust can be amended or revoked at any time if circumstances change.

The title of the farm is transferred to the trust with the farm’s former owner as trustee. With a trust, it makes it easier to avoid probate because nothing’s in his name, and the property can transition to the beneficiaries without having to go to court. Living trusts also help in the event of incapacity or disease, like Alzheimer’s, to avoid guardianships. It can also help to decrease capital gains taxes, since the property transfers before their death.

If you have several children, but only two work with you on the farm, our attorneys can help you with how to divide an estate that is land rich and cash poor.


Reference: Capital Press (December 20, 2018) “Ag Finance: Why you need to do estate planning”

Estate Planning Review for 2019

Your estate plan has a big impact on your finances and should be considered as important as your investment portfolio, says Wealth Management in the recent article “Eight Simple Estate Planning Review Items for 2019.”

Here are the eight items that need your attention:

Beneficiary designations. When was the last time you checked these? Beneficiary designations are usually looked at when an account is opened, and often that’s the last time people see them. Look at beneficiary designations for tangible assets, like homes, cars or collectibles. Check legal documents, including bank accounts and insurance policies.

Digital asset designations. This is a relatively new area, but very important. Even if you don’t own any cryptocurrency, chances are good you have assets like photos, reward points, websites and more. Each social media platform has a different policy for how accounts are treated on the death of the owner. You’ll need an inventory and may want to use an online service for managing your digital assets after you die.

Trust funding. This is where many estate plans fall apart. Funding trusts often requires changing titles on bank accounts, homes, and other assets into the name of the trust. Major purchases, like a boat or second home, also need to have their titling corrected, so they correspond to trusts.

Documents for adult children. When your children turn 18, they are legally adults and you do not have the legal right to get information or make decisions on their behalf. If you don’t have HIPAA releases, Power of Attorney, and other documents, you may find yourself unable to help in an emergency.

Keep up with life changes. Review your estate plan with an eye to changes in your life: births, deaths, marriages, divorces, big purchases, etc. If you haven’t met with your estate planning attorney or had a phone conversation in a few years, make an appointment now for a review.

Secure photos and memories. How many times have we watched dramatic images of fires, floods, and earthquakes in 2018? Videos, photos, family heirlooms, and artifacts and other irreplaceable items should be stored in some digital format, or in the cloud. If the family includes artists, take photos of paintings or sculptures so at least you have an image of the item should it be destroyed.

Discuss wishes with loved ones. One of the biggest challenges after someone passes is knowing what they wanted to be done with personal possessions. If you have every Beatles album, unopened, what do you want to happen to your collection? Make inventories and then tell your family what you’d like to have happen with your possessions. You can create a “Legacy Letter” and put it down on paper. It’s not legally binding, but it will give your family some direction.

Prepare for incapacity. This is not everyone’s favorite task, but necessary. If you were conscious but not able to speak, what information would your family need? Work with our estate planning attorneys to create the necessary legal documents, including medical directives, and tell your family members where they are located. Some families keep certain documents (like a Do Not Resuscitate or lists of medications) on the refrigerator so that Emergency Responders can gain access to important medical information quickly in an emergency.

Yes, it’s a good-sized list of to-dos’, and you won’t get it all done in January. However, start your estate planning review in January 2019, so you and your loved ones enjoy the protection you need.


Reference: Wealth Management (Dec. 12, 2018) “Eight Simple Estate Planning Review Items for 2019”

Proper Estate Planning Can Prevent Family Fights

The (Washington, PA) Observer-Reporter’s recent article, “Improper estate planning can lead to familial conflict” explains that some of your possessions will pass through probate. If you own property in several states, the process could become more difficult for your loved ones. A way to simplify the process for them is by having an updated will.

Research shows that about 60% of U.S. adults don’t have a will.

However, not all of your possessions pass through a will. 401(k)s, life insurance proceeds, pensions, and annuities pass by beneficiary designation.

For instance, even if your will states that all of your possessions are to be split equally between your two children, this may not be what occurs. If your life insurance lists only Bob as the beneficiary, he’ll walk off with 100% of the death benefit. Your younger son Doug will receive only half of the assets that don’t have a beneficiary designation. Assets that pass by designation are not controlled by the will. That is why Bob gets all the money from the insurance. As you can see, it’s vital that you review your accounts’ beneficiary designations regularly, to make certain they’re up to date. Check on them every few years or when there’s a family divorce, birth, or death. Once you’re gone, changes cannot be made.

In addition, comprehensive estate planning should include two powers of attorney (POA). The first POA is to make health decisions. The second POA is to make financial decisions if you don’t have the capacity to do so. Your POA agent has your authority to make decisions, only when you do not have the capacity and she can only exercise it for your benefit. POAs end at the drafter’s death.

It’s common today for families to have blended elements. Many people were married before and may have had children. Here’s an example of a famous father who made his third wife executor of his estate, giving her control of his business. In this case, his equally famous son was the principal player in the father’s business. The son didn’t understand the implications of his father’s estate plan. When the father died, there was a long and expensive legal battle between the son and the third wife.

Who was it? It was Dale Earnhardt Jr.

Work with our experienced estate planning attorneys to draft a comprehensive estate plan that clearly indicates your goals and wishes. Having a straightforward estate plan will go a long way in preventing fighting amongst your family.


Reference: The (Washington, PA) Observer-Reporter (December 7, 2018) “Improper estate planning can lead to familial conflict”

Can I Disinherit a Family Member?

This is never a decision to be made lightly, but we do live in a world where families aren’t always as perfect as their holiday cards. Some blended families never really blend, opioid addictions create huge challenges for families and some individuals are a family in name only. In that case, says Next Avenue in the article “How to Disinherit a Family Member,” you may choose to disinherit someone.

The first step is to work with our experienced estate planning attorneys, who are well versed in how family dynamics can affect your estate plan. This is a complicated process, and if you don’t do it right, it’s entirely possible the person you want to disinherit can appeal your action in court after you’ve died—and win.

A living trust may work better than passing all your assets through a will when you want to disinherit someone. A will is easier to challenge. He or she may say you were being influenced by someone else when you had your will written, and, therefore, the disinheritance does not reflect your real wishes.  They could also claim that you signed the will without understanding what you were signing and that you were not mentally competent and could not make legal decisions at that time. This is a charge of fraud.

After you die, your will becomes a public document, and anyone can find out who you decided to disinherit. They may be angry or embarrassed and feel the need to set the record straight, challenging your will to prove their worth.

A living trust, when prepared correctly, remains a totally private document. In Wisconsin, the validity of a living trust can be challenged only under certain circumstances.

There can always be charges of fraud, as a result of your being mentally incompetent to sign the trust. However, most people who create living trusts do so several years before their death. Wills are often written or revised shortly before death. Therefore, the person who created the trust has likely opened accounts in the name of the trust, used the accounts, paid bills, etc. That activity makes it hard to prove incompetence.

What if you want to leave someone only a partial inheritance? Your best bet is to ensure that your estate includes a strong “No Contest” provision, technically termed “In Terrorem.” It’s a little harsh, but the general idea is that whoever challenges the will, gets nothing. Courts don’t always like it, but heirs may think twice about challenging your will.

Remember that many of your assets are in accounts with beneficiary designations: IRAs, SEPs, investment accounts, life insurance policies, etc. Review the names on your accounts to make sure the person you want to disinherit does not appear on those accounts. You can also use Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) on accounts to keep that “disinherited” person from knowing about assets moved to other heirs outside of your will.

Blended families face unique challenges. Friction between stepparents and stepchildren can explode when one parent dies and the second spouse is left without the other parent as a buffer. Tensions that were kept under the surface, may bubble up quickly. Make sure that all the children know what your plans are for your estate, to avoid breaking up the blended family.

Disinheriting someone, for whatever reason, can create hard feelings that remain for generations. If you feel you have no choice, speak with our estate planning attorneys to be sure it’s done correctly and lessen the chances of any challenges.


Reference: Next Avenue (Dec. 11, 2018) “How to Disinherit a Family Member”

Here’s a Happy Way to Start the New Year – A Gift of Estate Planning

If you think of estate planning as a gift to your loved ones, and not an obligation, then you will understand why the start of a new year is the perfect time to give your family the peace of mind that an estate plan can bring. The article “Give the gift of estate planning to loved ones this holiday season” from the Brainerd Dispatch describes how stress and guilt for the family can be alleviated just by having a good estate plan in place.

The gift of estate planning will provide your family with clear directions on where you want your assets to go when you have passed, but that’s just for starters. They will be dealing with many moving parts when you pass: funeral arrangements, notifying family members and grief, which can be overwhelming.

If you don’t have a will or trust or haven’t done any estate planning, the process for your family to gain access to your assets becomes extremely problematic. The process is called probate, and it can take months and cost a great deal to unlock real estate ownership, account information or other assets for your spouse, children and grandchildren.

There’s also no way to ensure that your assets will be distributed as you wanted, if you haven’t done any estate planning. Let’s say you have a non-traditional family. You’ve lived with your partner for decades, even raised children together, but never married. Your partner and your children may find themselves completely without any voice in your estate, and no right to any assets. Without a will or trust, the state’s laws will determine who receives your assets, and that may be a sibling or a parent, if still living.

Your estate plan becomes your legacy, and it’s not just for family members. If there are causes or organizations that have meaning for you, they can be included in your estate plan. Lifetime giving or giving “with warm hands” is rewarding, because you get to see the impact of your generosity. However, you can use an estate plan to make a gift to an organization, which serves a dual purpose. It decreases the value of your estate, and can lessen the tax burden of your estate, giving your family more money.

There are many ways to make planned giving part of your estate. Donor advised funds are increasingly popular, or you may want to use a charitable trust or fund a scholarship. Our estate planning attorneys will help you determine the best way to structure your giving.

Our experienced estate planning attorneys have worked with families of all different types and have the knowledge and skills to help you create an estate plan that works best for your family. Our attorneys encourage you to talk with your family members to make sure they know that you have put a plan into place. You may wish to involve your family members in your estate planning process with our attorneys. This ensures that everyone understands why you made the decisions you did and ensures that the family understands that your estate plan is a gift from the heart.


Reference: Brainerd Dispatch (Dec. 8, 2018) “Give the gift of estate planning to loved ones this holiday season”
Scroll to Top