“I need to avoid probate!”  I can’t tell you how many new estate planning consultations begin with questions relating to the belief that it is important to avoid the probate process.  Clients desiring to avoid probate often ask for a complex and costly estate plan.  When I first started practicing, I couldn’t figure out where this fear came from.  But a quick search of the internet provides some insight.  Countless articles, books, and lectures tout the importance of avoiding probate like it is some poison laced process that only the strong survive. Continue Reading Myth #5- I need to avoid probate!

If myths 1 through 3 haven’t convinced you that you need a Will, perhaps this one will.  At more than one networking event or social gathering, I’ve been cornered by someone who thinks they have found a way to “game the system.”  Often times, this master plan includes putting everything in joint names with their spouse, parents, or children in order to avoid inheritance tax and probate.  Unfortunately, this “solution” doesn’t accomplish the tax goals, and creates a lot of pitfalls that might not make avoiding probate worth it.

For more on inheritance tax and probate, stay tuned for myth 5 and 6.  If the solution is to put everything in joint names with your spouse, that will actually avoid probate and due to the 0% inheritance tax rate for a spouse, there is no inheritance tax due either.  But what happens when the surviving spouse dies or if you die in a joint accident?  This solution, if it works, will only work once.  I don’t know about you, but that is not good enough for me to consider this a viable solution.

Putting assets in joint names with your parents or children can create a Pandora’s box of problems.  Once you put an asset in joint names with someone else, you lose complete control over the asset.  You own your house free and clear.  You decide to put it in joint names with your son Billy.  When you put it in joint names, you tell Billy this is only for estate planning purposes and nothing else.  Billy may or may not decide to follow that.  The law doesn’t care why you put it in joint names, but now that you did, Billy is part owner of your house.  He has the same control over that you do.  Even if Billy agrees that the house in in joint names for estate planning purposes only, it opens the house up to Billy’s creditors.  If Billy runs up substantial debts, your house that you own free and clear can be considered an available resource to pay Billy’s debts now that you put it in joint names.

Still on the fence about whether putting assets in joint names without consulting an attorney is a good idea?  Let’s say you transfer your house into joint names with Billy and two years later you need to qualify for Medicaid benefits.  Your transfer of the house into joint names would be considered a transfer not for fair market value within the five year look back period.  This creates a penalty period during which you are ineligible for Medicaid benefits.  This applies to other assets as well.  If you are considering transfer assets for whatever reason and are even remotely close to needed to plan for Medicaid assistance, it is a good idea to consult an attorney to ensure you are not inadvertently making yourself ineligible for services.

Lindsay Schoeneberger is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Widener University School of Law and practices in a variety of areas, including Estate Planning.

This is a big one among couples with kids from previous relationships.  People come in and say they want to leave everything to their spouse and then their kids.  Often time people think they can control what happens to their belongings after their surviving spouse dies through a basic Will. Continue Reading Myth #3- When my spouse dies, my kids get what is left.

You might have read myth one and said, “Lindsay I don’t have kids and I’m married.  I don’t need a Will because everything will go to my spouse.”  You may be right.  Then again you may not be.  Do you really want to take that chance?  The intestate statute has limited circumstance where the spouse inherits your entire probate estate.  Many times people do not realize that still having living parents can prevent your spouse from inheriting everything.  Let’s put this into real terms.  You and your lovely bride are freshly married and own a business together.  You haven’t done any estate or business succession planning.  You own the business as individuals with no right of survivorship and the house you live in is in her name alone.  You wife dies without a Will while her parents are still living.  As a result of how your assets are titled, her house and her share of the business are probate assets.  You are entitled to the first $30,000 of her estate and then you must split the remaining estate 50/50 with her parents.  That’s right, you now own a house and a business with your in-laws.  I hope you have a good relationship.

Now you may be asking yourself, what if we had kids?  Well if you add kids into the equation above, instead of splitting the assets with your in-laws, you now own a house and business with your children.  If the children were your wife’s from a previous marriage, you don’t even get the first $30,000 of the estate.  The moral of the story is, if you don’t want to end up in business with someone you never intended to take as a business partner, make sure you and your spouse have a Will.  You probably want to speak with an attorney about business succession planning as well, but that is a different article.

Lindsay Schoeneberger is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Widener University School of Law and practices in a variety of areas, including Estate Planning.

I can’t tell you how many times I hear “Oh I don’t have anything but debt, why do I need to plan?” or “I’ll get around to it, besides it is not like I am rich or anything.”  People tend to think that estate planning is something only the wealthy need to worry about.  This probably comes from a lack of understanding as to what estate planning really is and what it can do for you and your family.  Estate planning for most people involves three documents – Will, Financial Power of Attorney, and a Healthcare Power of Attorney.  (For more on what each of these documents do, stay tuned to the Lancaster Law Blog.)  Estate planning is a comprehensive approach that covers needs during your lifetime, at the end of your life and after death.  If you have any assets and you want to control what happens to them, you need a Will.  If you have children and want to control who is caring for them after your death, you need a Will.

Several attorneys at Russell, Krafft & Gruber, LLP have written blog articles extolling the virtues of writing a Will.  Well allow me to throw my hat in the ring as well.  I have worked with too many clients who come to us with an estate that is subject to the Pennsylvania intestate succession rules because the decedent passed away without a Will.  Some of the conversations that follow with the person’s family and friends can be heartbreaking. It is hard to comprehend that all of the verbal promises Uncle Rick made every Christmas that you would get his prized 1932 Roadster on his death could be meaningless unless Uncle Rick wrote it down.  It won’t matter that this is the car the two of you worked on tirelessly for years to restore.  If Uncle Rick didn’t have a Will and you are not in line as an intestate heir, you are out of luck.  You better hope Aunt Sally wants to gift it to you. Continue Reading Myth #1 – I don’t have enough to warrant any estate planning.

What should I discuss with my family?

Discussing your eventual death is not a pleasant conversation to have, but it is a necessary one.  It is important to let your family know what your wishes are.  Depending on what your documents say, your family members may have some big decisions to make regarding your end of life care, burial, and dispositions of assets.  If you have never discussed any of this with them or told them where to look for your documents, they could be left in the dark during an already trying time.

I have many clients who come in to a meeting feeling like the weight of the world is on their shoulders, who visibly exhale with relief by the time we execute their documents.  Preparing and executing the proper document is crucial but take it a step farther.  Let someone know about your final decisions.  You took the first difficult step by having the documents drafted.  Now make sure someone knows where to find them and what to do with them.  This will provide peace of mind to you now and to your loved ones in the future. Continue Reading Commonly Asked Estate Planning Questions – Day Five

Do I really need a Power of Attorney?

There is no legal requirement that you execute a Power of Attorney, financial or otherwise.  You could go through life never having to give someone else authority to act on your behalf.  But, what are the chances that you will go through your whole life never needing someone to step in and act on your behalf even if it’s just for a short period of time?  That you will never find yourself in the hospital unable to transfer money to cover bills or unable to communicate your medical decisions?  That you will always maintain you mental faculties? Probably pretty remote.

So what happens if you never appointed an agent to act on your behalf?  The Court will have to intervene.  A petition will be prepared to have you declared incapacitated and a guardian will be appointed to make decisions on your behalf.  Once you are declared incapacitated, you can no longer make legally binding decisions for yourself.  The Court will now require your guardian to file annual reports of all of your assets and income.  This is an intrusion most people want to avoid.  Preparing a Power of Attorney and appointing someone to act as your agent for financial and medical decisions while you are competent avoids involving the Court in a guardianship process.  Continue Reading Commonly Asked Estate Planning Questions – Day Four

What happens to my pets when I die?

You can leave it up to your Executor to determine what happens to them.  But I suspect that, if you are looking for an answer to this question, letting someone else decide what happens to the four legged family members is not good enough for you.  Fortunately, the Legislature also didn’t think leaving it up to your Executor was a good enough option thus, in 2006, Pennsylvania became the 32nd state to adopt a pet trust law.  You can now create a trust to provide for the care and maintenance of your pets that were living at the time of your death.  The trust terminates when the animal dies or, if you are providing for the care of more than one pet, at the death of the last surviving animal.  Through this trust document you can set aside money for the specific purpose of caring for your pet.  You can also direct where the pet is to live and appoint a successor caregiver as you would for a guardian of children or an alternate executor.  Pet trusts are particularly useful when you have an animal with costly medical bills, or that requires some sort of special care.  You also know your pet better than anyone and are the best person to determine who can care for it.  Continue Reading Commonly Asked Estate Planning Questions – Day Three

What is Probate?

The formal definition is the process by which an estate is formally established for a decedent and representatives are appointed to handle the decedent’s affairs.  Probate is not always necessary.  Depending on the nature of the asset, some can transfer outside of the probate process.  These assets are generally assets that are jointly titled with right of survivorship or assets that contain beneficiary designations.  If you are unsure how your assets will transfer, it is important to speak with an attorney.  Check back on the Lancaster Law Blog in a few weeks for more information on the probate process and whether it is necessary to avoid it.

What happens if I lose my Will?

The short answer is DON’T!  But in all seriousness, life happens and accidents happen.  Wills can be misplaced, written on, or destroyed.  I try to emphasize to my clients the importance of keeping your documents in a safe place, see yesterday’s post for more.  But what happens if you have tried to keep it safe, and a freak asteroid comes along and destroys your Will?  Well if you were lucky enough to be standing anywhere other than where the asteroid hit and you have capacity, I highly suggest redrafting your Will.  Remember you can always redo your Will so long as you have capacity to do so.  If you happen to be holding your Will when the asteroid hit, well, you obviously won’t be redoing it. At that point, hopefully a copy of the Will exists.  That is the first hurdle.  I say hurdle because probating a copy is not an easy process. The person or people trying to submit the copy to probate must prove that the copy is the same as the lost Will.  This can be done with two competent witnesses attesting to the execution and contents of the Will.  This process can take a while and involves a hearing.

So do your best to keep your Will in a safe place, but if it is destroyed or misplaced, it’s not the end of the world.  As for the asteroid, I guess that will depend on the circumstances.

Lindsay Schoeneberger is an attorney at Russell, Krafft and Gruber, LLP in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She received her law degree from Widener University School of Law and practices in a variety of areas, including Estate Planning.

What is a Special Needs Trust and why would I need one?

A Special Needs Trust is a device that allows for those receiving public benefits for a disability to still be able to enjoy the benefit of inheritance, gifts, or other transfers of wealth.  Typically in order to receive Medical Assistance or Supplemental Security Income, a person must have less than $2,000.00 in assets.  So imagine this – you have three children, one of whom receives benefits due to a disability, making that child an equal beneficiary of your estate could disqualify the child from his or her benefits, which could be catastrophic depending on the nature of the benefits.  Without a special needs trust, your options are limited.  You either disinherit your child or you cause them to lose their benefits.  With a special needs trust, you can now treat them equally under your Will and allow them to maintain his or her benefits.  Special Needs Trusts are very technical and have various requirements that need to be followed.  If you or a family member believe a special needs trust is necessary, you should consult an experienced estate planning attorney. Continue Reading Commonly Asked Estate Planning Questions- Day One