Archive for Wills
“UNDUE INFLUENCE” AND THE CARETAKER CHILD
We often see a middle-aged “child” becoming the caretaker for an elderly parent. Sometimes siblings are grateful that such care is being provided. However, many times those same siblings become very unhappy if the caretaker child is left with a bigger slice of the inheritance pie, or worse yet, has become joint owner with mom on a bank account before mom’s death, so that 100% of those funds go to the caretaker child rather than being split equally under mom’s will. A lawsuit invariably follows against the caregiver child.
The question is whether we have a “dutiful” child whose sacrifices to care for an elderly parent were rewarded by a voluntary gift from mom or a “scheming” child who utilizes the close relationship to “unduly influence” mom to get the bulk of her assets. Undue influence is presumed when (i) a person with a confidential (close) relationship with the decedent, (ii) is active in procuring or securing the preparation or execution of a devise (will or other gift) and (iii) is a substantial beneficiary of that devise.
The problem, as was recognized in the recent Florida case of Estate of Kester v. Rocco, is that any child who is truly caring for a frail, elderly parent will most likely (i) have a close relationship with mom; (ii) help mom choose an attorney, drive mom to the attorney, and discuss mom’s plan; and (iii) receive a large part of mom’s assets under her plan, therefore meeting the undue influence test. However, the court in Estate of Kester said that undue influence should not be presumed when the only evidence presented was that the caregiver child had a close relationship with and often assisted his aging parent.
Although the guidelines aren’t perfectly clear, this recent case provides help for all those dutiful, caring children who want to take care of their elderly parent without worrying that they will be a target for their ungrateful siblings.
LEGISLATIVE UPDATE: BETTER PROTECTION AGAINST UNETHICAL LAWYERS
Florida attorneys have long been prohibited by our ethical rules from soliciting or accepting gifts from clients, including drafting a will or trust that names the attorney (or his close relative) as a beneficiary. The concern is that an attorney who is asking for or receiving a gift from a client has a personal stake and thus will not be able to properly advise the client regarding the transaction (what we call a “conflict of interest”). There is also the possibility that an attorney could exploit his relationship as a trusted advisor to obtain a gift from his client.
In the past, case law enforced this ethical rule by allowing an improper gift to an attorney to be challenged and, if certain things were proved, voided. There is now a new statute, effective October 1, 2013, which makes such improper gifts automatically void. This should provide better protection for clients (and their families) by decreasing the amount of time and money necessary to contest an improper gift. The statute also provides that the winner of such a contest will recover the costs and fees paid to bring the lawsuit.
Of course, both the ethical rule and the new law make exceptions for a gift from an attorney’s spouse and other close family members. Additionally, even an unrelated client can make a gift to an attorney under the right conditions. To read the full text of the statute click here.
More Estate Administration Mistakes: 5.3 Million Dollar Verdict Against Trustee!
Just a few weeks ago, we cautioned our readers against do-it-yourself estate administration due to the great responsibility that comes with being a trustee or personal representative. A recent case confirming a judgment of more than $5.3 million against a trustee shows just how serious the courts are about the duties that come with these roles.
The trustee in that case was slammed by both the trial court and the appeals court for the mistakes he made. The most obvious error, and the one pointed out by the angry beneficiaries (the deceased trustmaker’s wife and children), was that the trustee paid himself $1.2 million in trustee fees … without telling the beneficiaries. However, the court also used the trial as an opportunity to examine all of the trustee’s past actions. It found other mistakes adding up to millions of dollars in damages to the beneficiaries. These included failure to fulfill basic trustee duties such as providing timely and accurate trust accountings.
The lesson to be learned is that it is crucial to be aware of, and properly perform, your duties as a trustee or personal representative. If not, you likely will not fare well in court. The trustee here could and should have avoided the lawsuit and enormous judgment by obeying the legal requirements placed on him as trustee. For the full appellate court opinion, click here.
Estate Administration: Another Do-It-Yourself Minefield
Hopefully our faithful readers all know by now that there are many hazards to do-it-yourself estate plans. What you may not know is that trying to administer your loved one’s estate without legal help is just as treacherous. It is a great honor to be named as a loved one’s personal representative (executor) or trustee, but these roles come with great responsibility and many legal duties.
Unfortunately, we recently have encountered several individuals and families who thought that they could simply read the will or trust and hand out assets without speaking to an attorney. Please do not make this mistake! If you are administering a will, you do not have the authority to handle the estate just because your name is in the document – you must be appointed by a probate court. Even if you are a trustee who manages to avoid probate court, Florida law imposes significant duties on you both when you start acting as trustee and every year thereafter. Both personal representatives and trustees may be removed and even held personally liable if they fail to perform their duties properly.
We have seen some serious legal messes created by good people who tried to do the right thing but just did not have the right advice. Don’t become one of them by trying to do it yourself – we are here for you and happy to help. For more information on do-it-yourself disasters, check out our past articles: Perils of Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning; Why Would You Risk Going to Jail Rather than Talk with a Lawyer?; IRS Gift Tax Audits: Yet Another Reason to Avoid Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning
ANOTHER ESTATE PLANNING HORROR STORY FROM THE REAL WORLD – SECOND MARRIAGE MISTAKE
We recently had a client inquire about challenging his stepmother’s will. Our first thought, and perhaps yours, was that the desire to challenge came from a history of animosity between the client and his stepparent, something we see all too frequently. However, in this case, the client was actually fond of his stepmother – that is, until she died with a will that left all of his father’s assets, including the family home, to her children.
Our client’s father (we’ll call him “Bill”) made a classic second marriage planning mistake: his only estate plan was a simple “I Love You” Will that left everything to his second wife, if she survived him, and then to his children. Bill’s intent, according to our client, was to take care of his wife first, and then his kids. His plan may have worked in a first marriage where Bill and his wife only had children with each other (but even then, only if the wife did not remarry before her death and had an identical will).
However, what actually happened is that when Bill died before his second wife, she received his assets with no strings attached. She could have made an estate plan that included Bill’s children as well as her own, but she was under no legal obligation to do so. Therefore, we had to advise our client that a will challenge would be fruitless because he and his siblings had no legal right to their family home or to any of the other property their stepmother received from their father.
We were truly sorry to have to deliver such bad news to our client. But what makes it worse is that Bill easily could have achieved his true objective of taking care of his wife for the rest of her life, and then leaving an inheritance for his children, with proper trust planning. Unfortunately, in second marriage situations, what an “I Love You” Will really says is: “I Don’t Care About My Kids.”
“I LOVE YOU” WILLS – THE PERFECT PLAN FOR COUPLES?
Still looking for that perfect gift for your valentine? If so, you may be thinking an “I Love You” Will – really anything with those three little words in it – might do the trick. But what exactly is an “I Love You” Will?
When wills and trusts lawyers talk about “I Love You” Wills, we are referring to a simple will that leaves everything first to your significant other and then to your children. The name comes from the fact that we usually design these wills in pairs for happy couples who love each other and the responsible adult children that they had together. If you are lucky enough to lead such an idyllic life, an “I Love You” Will might be a suitable estate plan for you.
However, there are many issues common to the rest of us that are not adequately addressed by an “I Love You” Will. For example, such a will does not make any plan for the possibility that your significant other or one of your children will be disabled and/or receiving government benefits at the time of your death. An “I Love You” Will also does not address who will care for your minor children, or how that care will be paid for, should something happen to you. In fact, it doesn’t even address how you would like to be taken care of if you were to become mentally disabled.
Planning your estate can be a wonderful gift to your loved ones – and yourself – but you should consult an attorney to make sure you are getting true peace of mind and not a false sense of security. If you would like more information on “I Love You” Wills or any other type of estate plan, we are here to help.
NEW ESTATE TAX LAW – TIME TO EXHALE?
So, it appears that we did not go off the first “Fiscal Cliff” and some momentary “permanence” has been given to the Estate Tax Law. In the just passed “American Taxpayer Relief of 2012,” Congress kept in place the 2010 estate tax law with its Five Million Dollar ($5,000,000.00) personal exemption, adjusted annually for inflation. The only thing the lawmakers actually changed is the gift and estate tax rate, which has gone up to a top rate of forty percent (40%) from a previous maximum of thirty-five percent (35%). The exemption amount in 2012 was 5.12 million dollars, per person. The 2013 exemption amount is reported to be 5.22 million dollars per person. This amount of money either can be given away during lifetime or after death; it also can be given or devised to grandchildren without occurring any additional generation skipping tax.
Congress also increased the gift tax annual exclusion to Fourteen Thousand Dollars ($14,000.00). Remember, you can give away $14,000.00, per year, per person, to any individual(s) you choose, without it counting against your 5.22 million dollar lifetime exemption.
Can we now exhale? Will we ever have to worry again about the personal exemption reverting back down to $1,000,000, per person, as was only hours away from happening on January 1? I must give you the typical lawyer answer, “it depends”, and here’s why: the estate tax has been around almost 100 years. Throughout that time, an average of about 2% of all adult deaths resulted in taxable estate tax returns being filed. Under the current law, it is estimated that only 0.2% of all adult deaths will result in taxable estate tax returns. In order for the estate tax to continue to generate taxable estates at its historic 2% average, the personal exemption would have to be reduced to about 1 million dollars ($1,000,000.00). Yes, we have the lowest estate tax rates ever and yes, Congress seems to have made those tax rates permanent. However, in looking at the historical perspective, coupled with upcoming “fiscal cliff” (automatic spending cut) deadlines and a growing federal deficit, you have to wonder how long these historically low rates can be sustained.
The best way to stay abreast of continuing congressional volatility and changes in the estate tax laws is to have an ongoing relationship with an estate planning attorney, such as we provide with our Annual Maintenance and Updating Program.
IT’S ESTATE PLANNING AWARENESS WEEK!!
Hopefully we do our part to increase awareness of the need for estate planning every week with our blogs and newsletters, but we just had to make sure you knew that this week is National Estate Planning Awareness Week. Congress officially designated the third full week of October as National Estate Planning Awareness Week in 2008, stating that:
“[I]t is estimated that over 120,000,000 Americans do not have up-to-date estate plans to protect themselves or their families in the event of sickness, accidents, or untimely death; …
[M]any Americans are unaware that lack of estate planning and `financial illiteracy’ may cause their assets to be disposed of to unintended parties by default through the complex process of probate; …
[C]areful planning can prevent family members or other beneficiaries from being subjected to complex legal and administrative processes requiring significant expenditure of time, and greatly reduce confusion or even animosity among family members or other heirs upon the death of a loved one; [and] …
[T]he implementation of an estate plan starts with sound education and planning, and then may require the proper drafting and execution of appropriate legal documents, including wills, trusts, and durable powers of attorney for health care; ….”
House Resolution 1499, 110th Congress (2008).
Although we are often disgruntled with what Congress does (or fails to do), we think that this time they got it right. Please feel free to share this information, or any of our other newsletters or blogs, with your loved ones. We also invite you to attend one of our Truth About Estate Planning workshops, “like” us on Facebook, or “follow” us on Twitter to increase your own awareness.
JOINT BANK ACCOUNTS
We constantly preach that how an asset is titled to is the most important factor in determining whether an estate plan will work. Many people do not give sufficient thought to coordinating the way their assets are titled with the way they want those assets to be handled in the event of a disability or after death. A glaring example is the “joint bank account.”
Florida law provides that any deposit or account made in the name of two persons who are husband and wife shall be considered a tenancy by the entireties unless otherwise specified in writing. One must be very careful when opening a bank account to review the bank’s form to make certain that the box checked “tenancy by the entireties” is checked, because if it is not, or if a different box is checked, then this presumption likely will disappear. What is important for married couples to understand is that bank accounts owned as tenancy by the entireties are owned by both spouses. This means that one spouse may not transfer money from such an account without the consent of the other spouse. On the other hand, if the accounts were joint tenancies with the right of survivorship, either spouse could terminate that joint tenancy by transferring the funds to another account or simply by withdrawing the funds altogether.
So, you can see that checking the right (or wrong) box on what appears to be a fairly harmless bank form can make a big difference in the respective rights of a husband and wife to the funds in that account.
PLANNING FOR SPECIAL ITEMS IS ESSENTIAL PART TWO – COLLECTIBLES
Last week, we wrote about a unique automobile that sparked a legal battle and ultimately fell into the wrong hands due to a lack of planning. We encouraged everyone who owns any kind of special item to plan now to avoid expense and stress later. This is especially true for collectible items, such as art, coins, stamps, antiques, etc.
Early planning for collections is crucial due to tax and valuation issues. When a collector passes away, the IRS wants to know how much his estate is worth, including collectibles. Although it can be difficult to determine the value of a collection, it is an important consideration for both lifetime and estate planning. If you have a good idea of what the IRS thinks your collectibles are worth, your estate planning attorney will be better able to advise you on estate and gift tax considerations. Depending on your situation, you may need to consider gifting or selling your collection during your lifetime.
Of course, many collectibles hold sentimental value for their owners, making tax and market value concerns secondary to the desire to keep the collection in the family or intact. When this is the case, timely planning is again the best solution. As a first step, we recommend evaluating your family’s appreciation of your collection and their willingness to maintain it. As with all other aspects of planning, knowing your family and sharing that knowledge with your lawyer will help you get the best plan possible.