Wills

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”

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?”

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”

Here’s Why You Need a Will

Many celebrities die without wills. This past year saw a host of celebrity estate snafus. It’s as if they were sending a message from beyond that they didn’t care about how much turmoil and family fights would take place over their money and assets. Some of these battles go on for decades. However, as reported in Press Republican’s article “The Law and You: Important to make a will,” even if you think you don’t have enough property to make it necessary to have a will, you’re wrong. It’s not just wealthy or famous people who need wills.

Do you really want other people making those decisions on your behalf? Would you want the laws of your state making these decisions? Your family will do better if you have a will and an estate plan.

For example, in Wisconsin, if you don’t have a will, and since Wisconsin is a community property state, your surviving spouse will receive all of your property. However, if you have children from a previous relationship, then they will inherit an interest in some of your property.

If you have a spouse but no children, your spouse will inherit everything. If you have children and no spouse, then the children get everything, divided equally.

If you have no spouse, no children and your parents are living; then your parents will inherit everything you own.

If your parents are not alive, your siblings will get it all.

Adopted children are treated by the courts the same as biological children when there is no will. Stepchildren and foster children do not inherit unless they are explicitly named in the will.

If you have been in a long-term relationship with someone and never married, even if they qualify for health care benefits from your employer under the “domestic partner” provision, they are not considered a spouse when it comes to inheritance. At the same time, if you are not legally married and your partner dies, you have no legal right to inherit from your partner’s estate. No matter how long you have been together, how many children you have together if you are not legally married, you have no inheritance rights.

Wisconsin does not recognize “common law marriages;” as a legal union.

If you want someone who is not your legal spouse to receive your assets, you need to meet with our estate planning attorneys and, at the very minimum, have a will drawn up that meets the requirements of the laws of your state. Our estate planning attorneys can explain how state laws work and what provisions are and are not acceptable in your estate.

Our estate planning attorneys will also help you consider other issues. Do you want to leave anything to a charity that matters to you? Do you want anyone else besides your children to receive something after you pass? Is there anyone who needs a trust, because they are unable to manage their finances, or you are concerned about their marriage ending in divorce? Making these decisions in a properly prepared will, can protect your family and lessen the chances of your wishes being challenged.


Reference: Press Republican (Dec. 18, 2018) “The Law and You: Important to make a will”

How Do I Contest a Will?

The ways that children of a first marriage can contest a will fall into several scenarios. However, in order to do so, a person must have “standing.” Typically, a person has standing in two situations, explains nj.com in its recent article, “Can children from a first marriage contest a will?”

One way is when the individual is the decedent’s heir by law and would inherit under the laws of intestacy if the will were declared invalid. Another way a person could have standing is if there were a prior will in which the person is a named beneficiary, and the prior will would be reinstated, if the subsequent will were set aside.

For example, in New Jersey, probate laws take blended families into consideration. If a person dies without a will and has descendants, like children or grandchildren who are not descendants of the surviving spouse, then several things would happen. The surviving spouse would inherit 25% of the estate (not less than $50,000 nor more than $200,000), plus one-half of the remaining balance. The descendants from outside the marriage would then inherit the remainder of the estate.

Let’s say George and Gracie were married and had baby Benny. After George and Gracie divorce, George marries Phyllis. If George dies intestate—without a will—then Benny would inherit a portion of his estate. If George dies with a will, Benny has standing to challenge the validity of the will.

As a practical matter, Benny should only challenge the will, if he’d stand to inherit more under intestacy than under the will, and he has a valid challenge justifying that the will be set aside.

The four most common considerations to contest a will are lack of capacity, improper execution, fraud, and undue influence/duress.

It’s not uncommon for someone to successfully contest a will. However, it really depends on the facts and circumstances of each specific case. For example, Benny would have a much tougher time proving undue influence, if John and Phyllis were similar in age and married for 30 years prior to George’s death, than if Phyllis was 50 years younger than George, and he had some level of dementia.


Reference: nj.com (December 11, 2018) “Can children from a first marriage contest a will?”

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”

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”

Why Do I Need an Estate Plan?

Investopedia’s recent article, “4 Reasons Estate Planning Is So Important,” says you should think about the following four reasons you should have an estate plan. According to the article, doing so can help avoid potentially devastating consequences for your family.

  1. An Estate Plan Keeps Your Assets from Going to Unintended Beneficiaries. Families need to plan in the event something unfortunate happens to a family’s breadwinner(s). A primary part of estate planning is choosing heirs for your assets. Without an estate plan, a judge will decide who gets your assets. This process can take years and can get heated. There’s no guarantee the judge will automatically rule that the surviving spouse gets everything.
  2. An Estate Plan Protects Your Young Children. If you are the parent of minor children, you need to name their guardians, in the event that both parents die before the children turn 18. Without including this in your will (in most, but not all states), the courts will make this decision.
  3. An Estate Plan Eliminates a Large Tax Burden for Your Heirs. Estate planning means protecting your loved ones—that also entails providing them with protection from the IRS. Your estate plan should transfer assets to your heirs and create the smallest tax burden as possible for them. Without a plan, the amount your heirs will owe the government could be substantial.
  4. An Estate Plan Reduces Family Headaches After You’ve Passed. There are plenty of horror stories about how the family starts fighting after the death of a loved one. You can avoid this. One way is to carefully choose who controls your finances and assets, if you become mentally incapacitated or after you die. This goes a long way towards eliminating family strife and making certain that your assets are handled in the way you want.

If you want to protect your assets and your loved ones after you’re gone, you need an estate plan. Without one, your heirs could face large tax burdens and the courts could decide how your assets are divided or who will care for your children. Our estate planning attorneys can help you create an estate plan to take care of your loved ones.


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