Probate

Wills v. Trusts: What’s Right for Your Estate Planning Needs?

Wills and Trusts
Wills v. Trusts: How do you know which one you need?

While we are young, many of us neglect to consider what will happen to our family and property after we pass away. Youth gives us the illusion of invulnerability, but the truth is that tomorrow is not promised to anyone. It’s a good idea to take the time and make the effort to create an estate plan to take care of your estate — no matter if it’s a condo apartment and a housecat or a big house and lots of money in the bank — just in case something unexpected occurs tomorrow. That’s the advice from AZ Big Media in the article “The pros and cons of wills vs. trusts.”

Estate planning is the area of the law that focuses on the disposition of assets and expenses, when a person dies. The goal is to take care of the “business side” of life while you are living, so your family and loved ones don’t have to pick up the pieces after you are gone. It’s much more expensive, time-consuming and stressful for the survivors to do this after death, than it is if you plan in advance.

You have likely heard the words “trusts” and “wills” as part of estate planning. What are the differences between the two, and how do you know which one you need?

A will is the most commonly used legal document for leaving instructions about your property after you die. It is also used to name an executor or personal representative — the person who will be in charge of your assets, their distribution, paying taxes and any estate expenses after you die. The will is very important, if you have minor children. This is how you will name guardians to raise your children, if something unexpected occurs to you and your partner, spouse or co-parent. The will is also the document you use to name the person who you would like to care for your pets, if you have any.

Burial instructions are not included in wills, since the will is not usually read for weeks or sometimes months after a person passes. It’s also not the right way to distribute funds that have been taken care of through the use of beneficiary designations or joint ownership on accounts or assets.

Another document used in estate planning is a trust. There are many different types of trusts, from revocable trusts, which you control as long as you are alive, and irrevocable trusts, which are controlled by trustees. There are too many to name in one article, but if there is something that needs to be accomplished in an estate plan, there’s a good chance there is a special trust designed to do it. Our experienced estate planning attorneys can suggest a trust for you, if appropriate, and explain what purpose it will serve.

Trusts can be used by anyone with assets or property.

A will can be a very simple document. It requires proper formats and formalities to ensure that it is valid. If you try to do this on your own, your heirs will be the ones to find out if you have done it properly.  If it is not done correctly, the court will deem it invalid and your estate will be “intestate,” that is, without a will.

Many people believe that they should put all their assets into a trust to avoid probate. In some cases, this may be useful. However, there are many states where probate is not an onerous process, and this is not the reason for setting up trusts.

A trust won’t eliminate taxes completely, nor will it eliminate the need for any estate administration. However, it may make passing certain assets to another person or another generation easier. Our estate planning attorneys guide you through this process.

Whether you use a will or a trust, or as is most common, a combination of the two, you need an estate plan that includes other documents, including power of attorney and health care power of attorney. These two particular documents are used while you are living, so that someone you name can make financial decisions (power of attorney) and medical health decisions (health care power of attorney) if you should become incapacitated, through illness or injury.

Every person’s situation is a little different, and an estate planning attorney will create an estate plan that works for you and protects your family. You can request a consultation to speak with one of our experienced estate planning attorneys about your situation.

Reference: AZ Big Media (March 21, 2019) “The pros and cons of wills vs. trusts”

Estate Planning and Divorce: How Do I Make the Right Moves?

Divorce Estate Planning
Estate planning changes to make at the time of your divorce

Getting divorced is a complicated process, even for couples without any minor children. This is because it requires dividing up a partnership, so each individual can go his or her own way. While there are many details to iron out in terms of dividing assets, one thing that often gets overlooked, is how your estate plan will be affected. The Journal Enterprise explains in its recent article, “5 Estate Planning Moves If You Are Getting Divorced,” that the following tips will help you get your estate planning in order as you divorce, so your final wishes will be carried out later.

Medical Power of Attorney. This is also called a healthcare proxy. This person is named to make decisions on your medical care, if you’re ill or injured and can’t state your medical care decisions. Unless you make the change, your ex-spouse will have this right.

Financial Power of Attorney. Like a healthcare proxy, this is someone you select to take charge, if you become incapacitated. This person has authority over your financial decisions, and it means they have the authority to pay your bills, access your bank and investment accounts, collect and cash your paychecks and make financial decisions for you. You want to be certain that your assets are protected, and your financial obligations are met, while you’re unable to act on your own behalf. Most people name a spouse, but if you get divorced and don’t switch this designation, your spouse will still be your financial power of attorney and will retain access to your finances.

Create a List of Things to Change After Your Divorce. A divorce can freeze some assets and accounts, which remains in effect until it’s finalized. Therefore, you won’t be able to change the beneficiary on life insurance policies, pensions and other types of accounts. Ask our estate planning attorneys to find out exactly what accounts will be affected. Once you know which ones are frozen, you should make a list to ensure you won’t neglect to change them, when the divorce is finalized.

Modify Your Will. In some states, you may not be permitted to create a new will, but our experienced attorneys should still be able to help you make the necessary changes. You’ll want to review your heirs. If you do have minor children and you have sole custody, you may want to designate another person as their guardian. If you named your spouse as executor of your will, you may want to consider changing that.

Modify Your Trust. You may have a revocable living trust, in addition to a will. One of the advantages of a revocable trust is that it doesn’t go through probate, so your heirs get a bigger inheritance more quickly. If you have a revocable trust, talk to our Madison area estate planning attorneys about changing it after your divorce.

If you don’t make these estate planning changes at the time of your divorce, your assets may not go to the right beneficiaries, or your ex-spouse may end up with rights you didn’t intend. If you’re concerned about what happens to your estate plan after you’ve divorced, we invite you to request a consultation with one of our experienced estate planning attorneys who can guide you through the process.

Reference: Journal Enterprise (March 20, 2019) “5 Estate Planning Moves If You Are Getting Divorced”

How Do Family Relationships Mess Up Estate Planning?

Estate planning for blended families
Estate planning can help keep the peace in a blended family.

According to a recent Key Private Bank poll of financial advisors, 80% said that working through family issues is the most difficult aspect of estate planning.

With more and more blended families, the issues of equitable distributions among family members becomes even more complex. The interaction between parents, children, step-parents, and step-children can be tense in the estate-planning process—especially when a plan is put into action after a parent or step-parent’s death or disability.

Although these family dramas get in the way in many cases, there’s something you can do about it.

Having open family conversations about estate plans and wishes is the key. This can be hard because parents are afraid that sharing their wishes will cause conflict.

However, discussing your goals and how you’d like to share your wealth with your heirs, is only part of the story. You also have to update your documents to reflect your wishes. Review how your assets are titled and understand who is inheriting your wealth. From an estate planning perspective, you want to avoid probate and maintain control over the disbursement of your assets.

Probate is the process that states use to settle the estates of a deceased persons, who have not made arrangements to avoid probate. These proceedings are made a matter of public record, so there is no family privacy. It can also be expensive and time-consuming, and in some states can take a while, until beneficiaries get their shares.

Remember that retirement accounts like IRAs, 401(k)s and pension plans have named beneficiaries, so those assets pass directly outside of the probate process. The same is true for life insurance and annuities. These specific beneficiary designations—whether through “payable on death” or “transfer on death” accounts—will supersede any provisions in a will or trust. That’s why account holders and insurance policy owners should look at their beneficiary designations to be certain that the assets will transfer, according to their wishes.

Are you concerned that your family relationships will cause issues after you’ve passed? Our experienced, Madison area estate planning attorneys invite you to request a consultation to discuss how to keep peace in your family.

Reference: CNBC (March 18, 2019) “This is the No. 1 issue keeping you from inheriting that windfall”

A Surviving Spouse Needs An Estate Plan. Are You Prepared?

Surviving Spouse Estate Plan
As a surviving spouse, having an estate plan is important.

What’s going to happen when you die? If your husband died without a will, you probably don’t have an estate plan of your own. When one spouse dies after meticulously titling assets to pass through joint tenancy to the surviving spouse, estate planning attorneys flinch. There are occasions when everything works smoothly, but they are the exception. As this article from the Santa Cruz Sentinel warns “After husband’s death, wife needs to create revocable trust.” Actually, she needs more than a revocable trust: she needs an estate plan.

Most of the assets in the plan created by her husband, in this case, did pass to the wife outside of probate. However, there are a number of details that remain. She needs to obtain date-of-death values for any non-IRA securities the couple owned, and she should also have their home’s value determined, so that a new cost basis for the house will be established. She also needs an appointment with an estate planning attorney to create a will and an estate plan.

If she dies without a will, her children will inherit the estate in equal shares by intestate succession. However, if any of her children pass before she does, the estate could be distributed to her grandchildren. If they are of legal age, there is no control over how the assets will be managed.  Making matters worse, if a child or grandchild is disabled and receiving government benefits, an inheritance could make them ineligible for Social Security and Medicaid benefits, unless the inheritance is held within a Special Needs Trust.

Another reason for an estate plan: a will details exactly how assets are distributed, from the set of pearls that great aunt Sarah has kept in the family for decades to the family home. A durable power of attorney is also part of an estate plan, which lets a named family member or trusted friend make financial decisions on your behalf, if you become incapacitated. An estate plan also includes an advance health care directive, so a loved one can make medical decisions on your behalf if you are not able.

These are the basics of an estate plan. They protect loved ones from having to go to court to obtain the power to make decisions on your behalf, as well as protect your family from outsiders making claims on your estate.

A revocable trust is one way to avoid probate. Our experienced estate planning attorneys can evaluate your own unique situation and determine what the best type of trust would be for your situation, or if you even need a trust.

You may be thinking of putting your home, most families’ biggest asset, into joint tenancy with your children. What if one or more of your children have a divorce, lawsuit or bankruptcy? This will jeopardize your control of your home. A revocable trust will allow your assets to remain in your control.

The last piece in this estate is the IRA. If you are the surviving spouse, you’ll want to roll over your spouse’s IRA into your own. Make sure to update the beneficiary designation. If you neglect this step and the IRA pays into your estate when you pass, then the IRA has to be cashed in within five years of your death. Your children will lose the opportunity to stretch IRA distributions over their lifetimes.

Our Madison area estate planning attorneys can help guide you through this entire process, working through all the details. If your goal is to avoid probate, we can make that happen, while protecting you and your loved ones at the same time. We invite you to request a consultation to discuss your goals and the best way to achieve positive outcomes for you and those you love.

Reference: Santa Cruz Sentinel (March 24, 2019) “After husband’s death, wife needs to create revocable trust”


Estate Planning 101: Should I Create a Trust If I’m Not Rich?

Trust Lawyer Madison
Trust are a fantastic tool for the average person or couple, not just the rich.

It’s probably not high on your list of fun things to do, considering the way in which your assets will be distributed, when you pass away. However, consider the alternative without estate planning; family battles, unnecessary taxes, and an extended probate process. These issues and others can be avoided if you create a trust.

Barron’s recent article, “Why a Trust Is a Great Estate-Planning Tool — Even if You’re Not Rich,” explains that there are many types of trusts, but the most frequently used for these purposes is a revocable living trust. This trust allows you—the grantor—to specify exactly how your estate will be distributed to your beneficiaries when you die, and at the same time avoiding probate and stress for your loved ones.

When you speak with our Madison area estate planning attorneys about setting up a trust, we will also discuss your will, healthcare directives, a living will and powers of attorney.

Our attorneys will retitle your probatable assets to the trust. This includes brokerage accounts, real estate, jewelry, artwork, and other valuables. Your attorney can add a pour-over will to include any additional assets in the trust. Retirement accounts and insurance policies aren’t involved with probate, because a beneficiary is named.

While you’re still alive, you have control over the trust and can alter it any way you want. You can even revoke it altogether.

A revocable trust doesn’t require an additional tax return or other processing, except for updating it for a major life event or change in your circumstances. The downside is because the trust is part of your estate, it doesn’t give much in terms of tax benefits or asset protection. If that was your focus, you’d use an irrevocable trust. However, once you set up such a trust it can be difficult to change or cancel. The other benefits of a revocable trust are clarity and control— you get to detail exactly how your assets should be distributed. This can help protect the long-term financial interests of your family and avoid unnecessary conflict.

If you have younger children, a trust can also instruct the trustee on the ages and conditions under which they receive all or part of their inheritance. In second marriages and blended families, a trust removes some of the confusion about which assets should go to a surviving spouse versus the children or grandchildren from a previous marriage.

Trusts can have long-term legal, tax and financial implications, so it’s a good idea to work with our experienced Madison estate planning attorneys.

Reference: Barron’s (February 23, 2019) “Why a Trust Is a Great Estate-Planning Tool — Even if You’re Not Rich”

Estate Planning Attorneys Ask: Have You Accomplished This Critical Task?

Estate Planning Attorneys
Estate planning attorneys will help you and your family.

Motley Fool’s article, “Nearly Half of Americans 55 and Over Are Making This Huge Financial Planning Mistake,” notes that almost 50% of Americans 55 and older don’t have an estate plan. If you’re missing a plan, it’s critical to make the time to get these important documents written, before something tragic happens and heirs are left in the lurch.

While creating an estate plan might be uncomfortable, delaying won’t keep you from having to contemplate your own mortality. Not creating an estate plan places your family in a tough spot, if something happens and there’s no plan.

Another reason that people put off writing an estate plan, is that they don’t want to make their children uncomfortable by getting them involved in the process. Adult children are also frequently hesitant to start a dialog about parents’ estate planning. Nonetheless, those discussions are important to have.

Wills, trusts and estate plans are not just for wealthy people. If you own anything, including a home, a car and any bank accounts, you need an estate plan.

If you don’t have an estate plan, you won’t have the opportunity to direct the way in which your property is distributed. Instead, the laws of probate will instruct how your investments and belongings are disbursed after your death.

Once you have the documents created, keep them in a safe place—no, not in a shoebox under your bed. Instead, buy a fireproof safe and store them there. In addition, give your children or loved ones access, so they’re able to locate your plan in the event that it’s required.

It’s common to get advice that you should store your estate plan in a safe deposit box at your bank. That works if your children or other trusted people in your life are permitted access to it. However, if you’re the only account holder on that safe deposit box, your family may need to go through some legal machinations to get into it. When you enlist the help of an estate planning attorney to create your estate planning documents, she should also be informed of where you have stored the original documents. That’s another great benefit to having an attorney create your plan, rather than going it alone.

Creating a plan can be unpleasant business, but it’s not something you should put off. Having the documents in place will give you peace of mind—you’ll know that your wishes will be executed as you desire. That’s reason enough to stop delaying and get going. If you’re interested in speaking with one of our experienced Madison area estate planning attorneys, we invite you to request a consultation.

Reference: Motley Fool (February 16, 2019) “Nearly Half of Americans 55 and Over Are Making This Huge Financial Planning Mistake”

Can I Draft My Own Will?

A common question among people is “Can I write my own will?” or “Do I really need a lawyer to do my estate planning?”

The Frisky‘s recent article, “Why You Should Hire A Lawyer to Write Your Estate Plan,” says that writing your own estate plan can be a complicated thing—and one that a non-attorney may find very difficult.

It’s More Than a Will. Many people believe that a will and an estate plan are the same. This is not true. An estate plan is a legal strategy that prepares you for potential incapacity and eventual death. A will is a legal document that’s part of the estate plan.

Money, Time and Energy Savings. Creating your own estate plan will be more time-consuming than you may have thought. Hiring a lawyer to do this will cost you—but it will cost you more, if you decide to do it on your own. Hiring a lawyer for your estate plan will save you time, because he or she is trained in the law to do it the right way.

If you do finish your own estate plan and you realize that it really is a mess, you can hire a lawyer to do it over for you. However, calculate how much time, energy, and resources you’ve spent on making on your quick DIY estate plan. Work with our experienced estate planning attorneys and create a sound estate plan.

It’s Complicated. If you don’t fully understand what you’re doing, estate planning can drive you nuts. That’s because every word you write is crucial. Everything you write counts and may be interpreted differently. The law in this area also changes all the time. Agencies in the federal government, the IRS and the courts are always creating new regulations and decisions. Our estate planning attorneys monitor all of this, making sure your estate plan is in compliance and taking the best advantage of the current law.

Objectivity. Another thing our attorneys add to the mix—in addition to legal expertise—is objectivity. Our experienced estate planning attorneys will give you a clean, unbiased view of your current situation, along with a fair and honest assessment of your options.

Feel free to reach out to us to request an estate planning consultation. Our attorneys will take the time to listen to your goals and offer a strategy to create an estate plan that protects your legacy and cares for you and your loved ones.


Reference: The Frisky (February 6, 2019) “Why You Should Hire A Lawyer to Write Your Estate Plan”

This is the Year to Complete Your Estate Plan!

Your estate plan is an essential part of preparing for the future. It can have a dramatic effect on your family’s future financial situation. Estate planning can also have a significant impact on your tax liability immediately. Utah Business’s article, “5 Estate Planning Tips For 2019,” helps us with some tips.

Your Will. If you have a will, you’re ahead of more than half of the people in the U.S. Remember, however, that estate planning isn’t a one-time thing. It’s an ongoing process that requires making sure your plan reflects your current wishes and financial situation. You should review your will at least every few years. However, there are also some life events that should trigger a review, regardless of when the last review occurred. These include marriage, divorce, the birth or adoption of a child or grandchild, an inheritance, a large financial loss and the loss of a spouse.

A Trust. Anyone can create a trust, and it has real estate planning advantages. You can use a trust to pass assets to heirs and other beneficiaries, just like you could with a will. However, assets passed through a trust don’t need to go through probate. Using a trust to transfer assets provides privacy.

The Current Tax Breaks. The 2017 Tax Cuts and Jobs Act gives us some significant tax cuts in 2019, such as a temporary doubled lifetime exclusion for the gift and estate tax, temporary exemptions from the generation-skipping transfer tax, higher annual gift limits and charitable contribution deductions. To see if you can use of any of these tax benefits, speak to our experienced estate planning attorneys.

Talk to our Attorneys for a Review of Your Estate Plan. It’s important to remember that estate planning is complicated. You should, therefore, develop a comprehensive estate plan with the help of an experienced attorney. Don’t be tempted to use an online legal do-it-yourself service to save a few dollars, because any mistakes you make could have a big impact on you and your family’s financial future.

Every state has its own laws regarding the formalities required to create a valid will. If you fail to follow any of these, a court may declare your will invalid during probate. Your entire estate will then be distributed according to the laws of intestate succession. These laws may not reflect your wishes for the distribution of your estate. Meeting with one of our experienced attorneys will make certain that your estate planning documents are in order. It will also help you to identify your goals and ensure that your assets are protected and transferred in the most efficient way possible.


Reference: Utah Business (February 5, 2019) “5 Estate Planning Tips For 2019”

Why Do I Need Estate Planning If I’m Not Rich?

Many people spend more time planning a vacation than they do thinking about who will inherit their assets after they pass away. Although estate planning isn’t an enjoyable activity, without it, you don’t get to direct who gets everything for which you’ve worked so hard.

Investopedia asks you to consider these four reasons why you should have an estate plan to avoid potentially devastating results for your heirs in its article “4 Reasons Estate Planning Is So Important.”

Wealth Won’t Go to Unintended Beneficiaries. Having an estate plan may have been once considered something only rich people needed, but that’s changed. Everyone now needs to plan for when something happens to a family’s breadwinner(s). The primary part of your estate plan is naming heirs for your assets. Without an estate plan, the courts will decide who will receive your property.

Protection for Families With Young Children. If you are the parent of small children, you need to have a will to ensure that your children are taken care of. You can designate their guardians if both parents die before the children turn 18. Without a will and guardianship clause, a judge will decide this important issue.

Avoid Taxes. Having an estate plan is also about protecting your loved ones from the IRS. A comprehensive estate plan transfers assets to your family, with an attempt to create the smallest tax burden for them as possible. A little planning can reduce much or even all of their federal and state estate taxes or state inheritance taxes. There are also ways to reduce the income tax beneficiaries might have to pay. However, without an estate plan, the amount your heirs will owe the government could be substantial.

No Family Fighting (or Very Little). One sibling may believe she deserves more than another. This type of fighting can turn ugly and end up in court, pitting family members against each other. However, an estate plan enables you to choose who controls your finances and assets, if you become mentally incapacitated or after you die. It also will go a long way towards settling any family conflict and ensuring that your assets are handled in the way you wanted.

To protect your assets and your loved ones when you no longer can do it, you’ll need an estate plan. Without one, your family could see large tax burdens, and the courts could say how your assets are divided, or even who will care for your children. We invite you to request a consultation with one of our experienced attorneys.


Reference: Investopedia (May 25, 2018) “4 Reasons Estate Planning Is So Important”

Who Pays What Taxes on an Inherited IRA?

The executor of a person’s estate must take on the important responsibility of ensuring that the deceased person’s last wishes are carried out, concerning the disposition of their property and possessions. There are times when investments and savings are part of that estate.

An individual may have an IRA that designates the beneficiary or her estate as her heir. An inherited IRA is not like other assets. Executors must be aware of what to do when withdrawing the IRA into the estate account, particularly about how will these funds will be taxed.

nj.com’s recent article asks “Who pays taxes on this inherited IRA?” It explains that the distributions from an IRA are treated as ordinary income by the federal tax code.

The will must be probated, and it may stipulate that the money from the IRA is to be given to the deceased’s children.

These distributions to the children are taxed at their marginal tax rates. However, it is important to note that when an estate is an IRA beneficiary, the entire account must be withdrawn within five years.

If the executor moves the IRA directly into inherited IRAs for each of the beneficiary children, the beneficiaries would be responsible for paying the taxes.

If the executor withdraws the IRA assets, then the executor would pay the taxes from the estate assets.

You will need to speak with the custodian of the IRA to find out what is and is not permitted regarding distribution: are they allowed to roll the IRA into a beneficiary IRA, or can they divide the account into separate IRAs for the beneficiaries? The distribution must take place within five years, so keep that in mind when discussing options and goals for the IRA and the heirs. Our estate planning attorneys can help you determine your best tax options for the inherited IRA when settling the estate.


Reference: nj.com (January 7, 2019) “Who pays taxes on this inherited IRA?”
Scroll to Top