How often have you heard the term “probate” estate or assets?  Do you know what that term means?  What about “non-probate” assets?

Upon your death, the assets of your estate are divided into two different categories; probate and non-probate assets.

Probate assets are typically those assets that are titled in your name alone that do not have beneficiary designations or some other transfer on death designations.  Probate assets are also those assets in which you have a divisible interest, such as a joint tenancy – not joint with rights of survivorship.

The distribution of probate assets upon your death is governed either by your Will or Pennsylvania intestacy laws (watch for future blog posts about intestacy).  When you die with a Will, you are said to have died testate (with a last will and testament) as your Will directs the distribution of your probate estate.  If you die without a Will, you are said to have died intestate (without a last will and testament), in which case the intestacy laws will govern and dictate to whom your estate is to be distributed.  Intestacy laws are the “default rules” that apply only if you never had a Will or do not have a valid Will or your Will does not effectively dispose of your probate estate.
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“I’m so confused!  The woman at the bank said I have to keep this account here.  The guy at the insurance company said I should really do this.  And my friend said she didn’t do any of this.  I don’t know what to do!”

The above is a general excerpt of conversations I have with Executors all the time.  The first few months of handling an estate can be tough.  You have just lost someone close to you and now you need to sort out what they left behind and are dealing with so many people on so many matters.  You will get advice from almost everyone you encounter.  You will hear stories about how the person you are interacting with handled it.  And you will most certainly interact with someone who will adamantly insist they know the law and what they are telling you is the exact opposite of what your attorney told you.  Or at least you think it is the exact opposite.  Come to think of it, now you are not so sure because you have heard so many different things from so many different people.
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We’ve noticed a pattern recently. It is often that I receive a call from a client or a relative of a client the day someone dies asking what they need to do. A person bereft with emotion, overwhelmed, and sometimes in a state of shock just trying to make sense of everything coming at them at once. My advice is always the same: Take a deep breath and take a moment to grieve. We’ll walk you through what you need to do and when.

My job is to make this process as painless as possible. In a majority of the estates I handle, the person tasked with handling the estate was close to the decedent and impacted by their death. It is completely understandable that this person would be overwhelmed by all of the new information and questions coming at them.
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When I started law school it felt like the professors were speaking a different language.  And in a way, they were.  The legal profession uses so many terms that have very particular meanings, that even though lawyers tend to be very well spoken, it can be hard to understand what we are saying. A word can mean so many different things in different contexts.  Take the word harbor for example.  As a noun it is a sheltered area of water that is deep enough to anchor a boat in and as a verb it means to provide shelter.  A person can harbor a criminal on their boat which is docked in the harbor.  Sometimes words that people use regularly have a popular definition and a legal definition.  For example, people often say someone is harassing them when they receive a few unwanted text messages or phone calls.  Sure that can be annoying, but the behavior doesn’t meet the legal definition of harassment, which calls for behavior that goes far beyond the behavior of your average Joe with a texting problem.  So how are you to know what means what?  And how does this relate to National Estate Planning Week?  The estate world is no different than the criminal or civil world.  We have a vernacular all our own.  Below is a quick reference guide for some commonly used terms and a non-legal speak definition; terms you might find in some of my other blog posts.
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This post is part of our ongoing series exploring the impact of technology on legal issues.  For an introduction to the series and a collection of the posts in the series, check out this post.

“Thank you.  We have received your automatic payment.”  “Sign up for automatic bill pay to reduce your student loan interest rate.”  “Ensure your payments are never late!  Sign up to automatically pay your bill.”  “Reminder, monthly payment scheduled.”

Those email subject lines are taken directly from my personal email account.  I receive regular inquiries trying to persuade me to switch to automatic payments for all of my monthly bills.  Clearly from some of the subject lines you can see that I do have some bills (the small ones) set for automatic bill pay and flatly refuse to set up others.  Why?  Well in my law school days it was more to prevent an inadvertent overdraft than anything else.  However, now, it is more to prevent a mess in the event of my death.  Horribly morbid.  I know.  But I have a very good reason.
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This post is part of our ongoing series exploring the impact of technology on legal issues.  For an introduction to the series and a collection of the posts in the series, check out this post.

A few years ago, I wrote a blog article about Facebook’s New Legacy Contact, wherein you can appoint someone to manage your account posthumously. When you fail to appoint someone, Facebook’s current policy allows your next of kin to only have partial access to the account in order to either turn it into an online memorial page or to delete it entirely.

It seems that the highest court in Germany has taken issue with this limited access for a legacy contact, having recently determined that a minor’s parents have the right to inherit their daughter’s Facebook account.  The parents of a 15 year old girl who passed away in 2012 sought access to her Facebook account in order to determine if her death was suicide.  Facebook refused, citing their Legacy Contact policy and concern for the privacy of the girl’s other contacts.  The Federal Court of Justice in Germany held that the account was similar to a person’s letters or private diary, both of which would pass on to a person’s heirs under German law.
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As an avid podcast listener, one of my favorite year-end activities is reading through the “best of” lists of the best podcasts and episodes of the year. Below are a few of my favorite lists of favorites (meta, right?) to get you started:

The Atlantic – The 50 Best Podcasts of 2017

Vulture – The 10 Best Podcasts of 2017

Vulture – The 10 Best Podcast Episodes of 2017

IndieWire – The 50 Best Podcast Episodes of 2017

My typical approach is to review the lists and their descriptions, then add episodes that sound interesting to a new playlist in my preferred podcast app, Overcast.

This year, I thought I’d share my own list of some of my favorite podcasts:
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By now, hopefully I have convinced you that you need a Will, Financial Power of Attorney, Health Care Power of Attorney, and that you need to consult with an attorney that focuses on estate planning in order to prepare these documents.

But my job is not done.  Having all of these documents prepared is only half the battle.  Making sure these documents are kept up to date, is the rest.  These documents are not once and done.  You should be reviewing these documents every few years and every time there is a major life change.

When someone in your family gets married or divorced you should review the documents.  When a new family member is born or a family member dies, you should review the documents.  When you start a new job or retire, you should review the documents.  Often times, reviewing the documents may not mean changing the documents.  If the documents still reflect your wishes, you probably don’t need to change them. 
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