Monday, September 30, 2013

Estate planning for stashes: communication (part 4 of 4)

So far, we've focused on the documents and court procedures for distributing assets. Perhaps even more important than these formal things, more important than anything a lawyer can do for you, is what you can do for  yourself: talk to your heirs.

By "heirs," I mean both the official ones that lawyers call "heirs at law," (the people who would inherit if you died without a will; basically, it's your closest family members, the people who have the right to contest your will) and anyone outside of the heirs at law who will actually either inherit your assets or will be the person distributing your assets.

It's important to let people know your wishes, and prepare them for any choices you make that they might disagree with. It's not possible to prevent all will contests, especially if the person contesting the will is acting maliciously, but you can head off problems that arise when a misguided but well-intentioned family member contests a will because she doesn't believe the will (or memo) expresses your actual wishes. By talking to the heirs ahead of time, you can make it clear that the will (or memo) really is what you want.

Communication is particularly important in situations where there's no need to get the probate court involved, and all of the assets are distributed without any court involvement. Technically, all wills should be probated, but in many cases, it's a pointless exercise, because there are no assets that are subject to the court's authority. While technically all assets need to be inventoried and distributed, in reality, the only assets that will trigger the need to probate an estate are the ones that a) are owned individually by the decedent, and b) have a paper trail, like bank accounts, vehicles and real estate. Once those assets need to be probated, then all of the assets are included in the estate's inventory, regardless of the paper trail, but if there are no assets with a paper trail, and the other assets are of nominal worth, then it's a waste of everyone's time to go through a probate action.

There are two situations where there aren't any assets that will trigger the need to file a probate: when the decedent had no significant assets, and when the decedent had no "probate assets."

The first situation is when the decedent simply didn't have any significant assets with a paper trail; they had no bank accounts, they rented instead of owned their home, and they didn't own a car. They might still own some furniture, of course, and a stash, which technically should be distributed according to any will, but virtually no one actually goes through the probate court to do it, or, at most, simply file a "voluntary" probate, which amounts to an affidavit that the estate was of nominal value, and all assets have been distributed according to the decedent's wishes.

The second, and more common, situation is when the decedent owned everything that has a paper trail jointly with someone else or in a form that has a named beneficiary (like life insurance policies and IRAs), who inherits the assets automatically, without any court involvement. Most married couples own their major assets jointly, so when one of them dies, there's really no point to doing a probate just to distribute the smaller items that might be owned solely by the decedent, like a stash.

So what happens if all your major assets are owned jointly with a spouse or partner, and you die before the joint owner? In that situation, it's not worth the expense of probating your estate, although, in theory, your will could require it. A better solution for most people is, again, to communicate with your heirs, giving them some guidance for handling the stash.

If you have significant assets jointly with another person, you can't predict which of you will die first, so you should have a will (and memorandum, if appropriate). If you don't have any assets that would be probated, regardless of who dies first, I would still recommend executing a will, especially if  you have minor children, so you can nominate a guardian, and also to cover any unexpected situations, like winning the lottery minutes before a fatal accident. Nevertheless, if you choose not to execute a will, but you would like to give your family some guidance with respect to your stash, you could use the basic format of the memorandum discussed previously in part 3. Just keep in mind that it will probably not have any legal enforceability, because there won't be any court overseeing the distribution of your assets. If you really, really, really want to be sure your stash is distributed according to your wishes, a will that mandates being probated is the best way to go, although even then it's not an absolute guarantee. (Lawyers never make guarantees, because it's just asking for trouble.)

Simply preparing a will (and/or memorandum, if appropriate) is only the first step, though. The documentation won't help if your family doesn't know it exists, can't find it or doesn't believe it reflects your actual wishes. I know it's a difficult conversation to have -- "when I die" is not an easy thing for us to think about, let alone say -- but it's a necessary one.

It doesn't have to be a long, dreary, tearful event. Just make sure that the anyone who owns your major assets jointly with you also knows that you care about your stash, and you would like it distributed according to your stated wishes in your will or memorandum or both. These are the basic steps you need to take with respect to communicating your wishes for your stash (which are also good steps to take with any type of estate planning):

1. Make sure your designated personal representative (or executor) knows where the estate planning documents are, and that you did indeed sign them voluntarily. You might even want to run through the terms of the will with the personal representative, if there's a clause that seems unlike you, such as disinheriting someone. For instance, if  you have a relative who loves the same craft that you do, and who would appear to be the most likely beneficiary of your stash, but you don't leave the stash to her, you might want to explain to your personal representative that you made that choice on purpose, and why you chose the other beneficiary.

2. For disinheritances, if it's done for reasons other than personal animosity, it can be a good idea to explain it to the disinherited heir. As an example, it's a common estate planning practice to disinherit the decedent's parents, not because the will-maker dislikes her parents, but because it doesn't make sense for a sixty-year-old person to leave assets to an eighty-something-year-old person, only to then have all the assets have to be re-probated a few years later.

3. Make sure that the beneficiaries know that the estate planning documents exist, and that they do reflect your wishes. You may even wish to share copies of the documents with your family, so that there aren't any unpleasant surprises later, when you won't be around to say, "Yes, that really is what I want."

4. As the documents are updated significantly (not necessarily every time you add to your stash, but when the terms of distribution are changed), you notify anyone who has copies of, or has read, the older versions.

So now you know: if you want to have a say in what happens to your stash after you're gone, you need to: 1) figure out what should happen to it, 2) express those wishes in a will, 3) expand on those wishes in a memorandum if your state recognizes and enforces them, and 4) make sure your family and representative or executor all know that the estate planning documents exist and accurately express your wishes.

Once you've done all that, go enjoy your stash and make something fabulous to go along with your fabulous estate planning work.

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