The Three Biggest Obstacles To Completing An Estate Plan

Although everyone should have an estate plan, I am constantly amazed at how many people procrastinate about following through with this key responsibility.  When I was new to the practice of law, it was much easier for me to look at the planning that many people fail to do, and dismiss it as irresponsibility and selfishness, but nearly a decade and a half of practicing law has softened my perspective, and I have an empathy for people who haven’t yet executed documents that will make life easier for those they leave behind when they pass away.  This is due in large part to some of the things I have had clients tell me when they have come in to start the process.  There are many different reasons why estate planning is not a high priority for a lot of people, but they generally fall into one of three categories:  The fear of confronting one’s own mortality, fear about the cost, and struggles with family conflicts and/or a desire to be “fair” with all of the children.

The Fear of Confronting One’s Own Mortality

After witnessing how this obstacle affects people, I am convinced that for many of them, it is an unconscious and reflexive reaction.  The last thing that most twenty- or thirty-somethings want to think about is the idea that they could be dead tomorrow.  This may be because of busy lives, with jobs, and kids, and obligations, and hobbies.  It might be because they are still young, and healthy, or believe themselves to be healthy, and for many people, that patina of the invincibility of youth might not lose its luster until middle-age, and its aches and pains that don’t go away, or the sudden loss of former classmates and peers injecting the inevitability of death into the forefront of their thinking.  After talking with several long-time life insurance salespeople I know, I tend to believe that there is something to this perspective.

When middle-age comes, some react by retreating farther from the idea of estate planning, and always seem to find reasons to procrastinate and not make decisions, sometimes to the consternation of their spouse, who may have a newfound desire to address these issues, if only to find a measure of peace in knowing that there is a plan, and with it, the comfort of knowing that they will not be at the mercy of statutory schemes which might not reflect the promises and expectations underlying their relationship.

Others surrender to the knowledge that life always ends, and that sometimes, it is sudden, and unexpected.  I have observed that these people are often motivated a maturity and a deep enough love for their families to want to make that time as easy as possible, and perhaps also to leave a legacy for the future.

Fear About The Cost

As a now middle-aged person with two kids of my own, I understand the reluctance to agree to have an attorney sit down and prepare a set of documents at a cost of hundreds of dollars an hour with apparently no cap the eventual cost.  One of the wonderful contradictions about estate planning is that while every time I draft someone’s documents, those documents are unique, because they are tailored to their situation and their desired outcome.  But. in most cases, I also know exactly how much it should cost, because the means of getting there is often substantially similar to others I have drafted.  Still, it doesn’t really matter how you explain this to a client, because they understand that they might have the one set of documents that takes longer, and if you quoted a range, their memory will always gravitate toward the low end.  Recently, after years of consideration, I made the decision to offer flat fee estate planning documents for “simple” estates…a circumstance that I discuss thoroughly with clients after reviewing their particulars, because sometimes they believe their estates to be “simple”, when they really aren’t.  The fact is, after considering it, the fee structure works out to what the client probably could have expected to pay for me to prepare the documents on an hourly basis, but I also understand how the certainty of knowing exactly what they are going to pay can be a selling point.  Every now and then, I will get someone who believes that the cost for preparing “simple” or modest estate plans is still too much.  This is an objection that I understand, and it is why I often try to put it in perspective.  I recently had a brake job done on my car.  It was something that needed to be done, and I did it because it had a tangible benefit not only for myself, but for my wife and children.  Getting your estate planning done is something that you would do for the same reasons, and the cost was actually pretty close to being the same.

For people who have more complex estates, the costs will be greater, and flat fees aren’t necessarily an option.  But there is usually more at stake, and not planning accordingly can mean paying taxes that might have otherwise been avoided (and the need to sell assets in order to pay those taxes), and an end result that wasn’t what anyone wanted, along with the insult of greater than average probate costs incurred in the injury of that conclusion.  In these situations, I generally find that the clients understand that the cost is a legitimate expense of getting their affairs managed properly.

Struggles With Family Conflicts and/or A Desire To Be “Fair” With All of the Children

This is the obstacle that I have the most empathy for, probably because I have children of my own, and until I did, I couldn’t really understand the old saying “You love all your children equally, but you love each one of them differently.”  I have spent countless hours with parents who struggle with sussing out how to be fair with each child, while being keenly aware of the strengths and weaknesses of each.  This is a dilemma made more difficult for parents who own businesses, because often, there may be one of more of the children who have no interest in the business, but that is where the bulk of the wealth of the family is centered, and one or more of the children have an active interest and role in the day-to-day operations of the business.  These are situations which require the attorney to present several options to the parents, and to help the evaluate each one before deciding on one.

Sometimes, I see parents struggling with how a child is living their life.  It might be an issue with the child being a spendthrift.  It might be that the parents deeply disapprove of the child’s spouse.  It might be a history of conflict with the child, that may or may not include some violent episodes.  It might be alcoholism or drug use.  It might be the child’s sexual orientation.  Any one of these can cause a great deal of anguish for parents who are struggling to finalize estate plans.  I’ve heard the pain in a parent’s voice when they describe the reason why they are struggling with trying to treat a child equally with the rest of their children.  Sometimes, I can help them feel a little better about that burden, by offering an option whereby a more responsible sibling can be made trustee of the spendthrift’s share, or through the creation of a testamentary trust which will keep the addicted child from receiving a lump sum which will be lost in a binge which may also take their child’s life.  I have shared the agony of parents who have disinherited children because of conflicts or irreconcilable differences, which the parties have been unable or unwilling to resolve.  And I have come to understand that even for the ones who don’t appear to have struggled at all with such a decision carry the weight of that decision as a private wound.

One of the many lessons I have learned in years of practice is that everyone should have an estate plan, not only to deal with their own death, but to make sure that someone they trust has the ability to make medical and financial decisions on their behalf if they become temporarily or permanently disabled.  The nature of any of the contingencies that a decent estate plan would address are usually the kind for which people can find reasons to procrastinate, but if deciding for yourself isn’t reason enough to take care of this important task, providing the peace of mind of an actual plan for your loved ones should be.

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Will or Trust? A Decision, Not Dilemma.

When I am doing estate planning for clients, often my biggest obstacle is someone I’ve never met.  That person is “My Buddy…”

I’ve discussed this person with attorneys who practice in other areas of law, and surprisingly enough, “My Buddy…” has often contributed free advice to their clients as well.  And as with my clients, the advice given to their clients by “My Buddy…” is usually worth every penny.

That said, I don’t worry about it too much.  Sometimes it means having to take a few extra minutes to explain things, and maybe draw some diagrams outlining various options and outcomes, but I know that I’m lucky in this respect.  “My Buddy…” better hope that some of the family law attorneys I know never catch up to him, because his advice has made their jobs exponentially more difficult, especially since in the context of divorce cases, clients frequently put a lot more weight on the advice and counsel of “My Buddy…”  than they do on that provided by their own attorney.  In the context of estate planning, “My Buddy…” often has often told my clients that they need to have a trust, so they can “avoid probate”.  I don’t encounter this as much as I used to, but occasionally, I still take an appointment with someone swayed by “My Buddy…” and his bar stool lawyering, or worse yet, someone who was taken in by the smooth sales pitch of a “trust mill” in the 90’s, and has a nice looking binder full of tabs, separating various documents, which often fail to accomplish what the owner believes they were told they would when they hired a fly-by-night outfit to prepare a cookie-cutter set of documents, dress them up in a nice package, and then do zero follow-up, ensuring that an expensive package prepared to “avoid probate” ends up…going through probate.

Because of “My Buddy…” (or trust mills), I frequently meet with people who announce early on in the appointment that they need to have a trust, so they can avoid probate.  When this occurs, I usually put my pen down, look them in the eye, and ask them why that is.  Sometimes, they explain that they need to avoid probate because it is a horrible and time-consuming process.  Sometimes, they can’t tell me why, but they are certain that this is true.  And sometimes, they believe that it will result in a tax savings when they pass away.  Depending on the client’s response to the first question, my reply is some variation of the following:

I’m not sure what state you may have lived in prior to Washington, but here, probate is not a big deal.  The process is fairly streamlined, and if the heirs all get along, don’t burn the estate down fighting over it, and there aren’t any oddball assets creating valuation issues, or other items that are out of the ordinary, the estate can be wrapped up in 6 or 7 months, and it really can be done fairly inexpensively (at which point I quote a price range that is much less than the tale of lamentation relayed to them by “My Buddy…”. Probate also has certain statutory mechanisms that can allow you to legally cut off certain claims against the estate after a set period of time which are not available with trusts.

As for tax savings, if your estate is large enough to meet the state or federal estate tax thresholds, there may be some ways to achieve tax savings without bothering to prepare a full-fledged trust agreement, and going through all the effort necessary to complete transfers to the resulting trust so it accomplishes the goal of avoiding probate.

At this point, I ask them a series of questions to determine if there is a good reason, or a need for a trust agreement, rather than a Will.  If they own real estate outside the state of Washington, then they should consider a trust agreement, most likely a revocable living trust, to own that real property, in order to  avoid the need to go through probate in the state were the real estate is located, as well as in Washington.  If their estates are large enough to meet the state and or federal estate tax thresholds, then a trust agreement may be appropriate, although they may be able to achieve tax savings with a trust will.  If they have heirs who have disabilities and who receive state or federal assistance, then we may discuss a special needs trust or a supplemental needs trust in order to avoid disqualifying that heir for further assistance with an outright inheritance.  If they own a business, or several businesses, then there may be reasons to consider a trust agreement, especially if not all the intended heirs are interested in owning or running the business. And if they are just very private people, and they do not want the descent and distribution of their estate to be part of the public record (even through much of the financial data is no longer submitted into the court record), then a trust agreement of some type might be the best option for them.

That said, much of the value of working with an attorney to do your estate planning instead of relying on the dubious advice of “My Buddy…”, or worse yet, a form service like Legal Zoom, is that a good attorney should ask a lot of questions, so he or she can be certain of preparing the right documents in the correct manner to accomplish your intended goals, AND the attorney should then be following up, so that assets are properly transferred.  This helps to prevent a surviving spouse or heirs from facing the added burden of learning that documents were not correctly prepared, and they have to take actions they never intended.  And if your estate is complicated, or has a tax problem, a good attorney will also work with your accountant or CPA to make sure that the course of action you choose makes sense financially, and if it doesn’t, you are made aware so you can make an informed decision.  Working with an attorney on estate planning may end up costing a little bit more than just buying some forms, or drafting your own with the assistance of “My Buddy…”, but the peace of mind is worth every extra cent paid.

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Initiative 594’s Inheritance Trap

I-594 isn’t just a compounding of previous violations of the Second Amendment, it is also fraught with traps for the unwary, including one for those who inherit pistols. The language in question is as follows: (4) This section does not apply to: (g) A person who (i) acquired a firearm other than a pistol by the operation of law upon the death of the former owner of the firearm of (ii) acquired a pistol by operation by operation of law upon the death of the former owner of the pistol within the preceding sixty-day period, the person must either have lawfully transferred the pistol or must have contacted the department of licensing to notify the department that he or she has possession of the pistol and intends to retain possession of the pistol in compliance with all federal and state laws. This means that as part of the probate process, the Personal Representative/Administrator of the estate and the attorney need to determine as soon as possible if the deceased owned pistols.  If no one checks, and the designee or heir takes possession without following these steps, then they have broken the law…even if it is the spouse of the deceased.  What can make an error a travesty is that the transfer or notification to the Department of Licensing must take place for every pistol that is acquired, meaning that if someone inherits more than one pistol, and doesn’t follow these steps, they may now be convicted of a misdemeanor for the first pistol, and a felony for each subsequent one. As a practical matter, if you are actually planning ahead, and you want to leave your pistols to someone, you should probably discuss this requirement with the intended recipient, and put language in your Will requiring your Personal Representative to make sure that these steps are followed, and to name a backup recipient if your first choice cannot pass a background check, or has had their concealed weapons permit revoked.

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Avoiding Unnecessary Liability In Probates

One of the biggest mistakes I often see in probate matters is when a Personal Representative of an estate sells real estate and conveys it by Statutory Warranty Deed.

There are four deeds used to transfer real estate in the state of Washington: The Statutory Warranty Deed, the Bargain and Sale Deed, the Quit Claim Deed, and the Transfer on Death Deed.  The first two require the Grantor, who is the person authorized to convey title to the real property, to make warranties to the person or persons receiving title.  The Statutory Warranty Deed is the gold standard, and warrants the following:

1.  The Grantor owns in fee simple (owns all the rights of ownership) and has the right to convey;
2.  The Property is free of all encumbrances (including encroachments);
3.  That the Grantee will have quiet and peaceful possession (meaning no one will have a claim against their ownership and use of the property;
4.  The Grantor will defend the title against all lawful claims;
5.  The Grantor conveys any after-acquired title.

A Bargain and Sale Deed is one in which the Grantor makes the first 3 of the above warranties.   Conversely, no warranties are made with a quit claim deed, in which a Grantor conveys any right or title they may have.  (Transfer on Death Deeds are specialized devices used to designate beneficiaries and avoid probate in certain circumstances, and therefore would not be used by a Personal Representative in the context of probating an estate.)

In many probates, a Personal Representative is acting with non-intervention powers, which means that they do not have to get the Court’s permission to sell real property that is owned by the estate.  However, in most cases, the Personal Representative also has no idea of the real property has been encroached upon my a neighbor, or if there is a cloud on title, either due to lien or and old claim which has never been removed.  Because the Personal Representative often has no knowledge of such things, I often counsel them to convey the real property by means of a type of Quit Claim Deed called a Personal Representative’s Deed.  This will spare the estate the expense of having a piece of property surveyed and having to order a title report from a title company, which is often a step taken by a Buyer, who wants title insurance on their purchase anyway.

I have encountered some Buyers who want deeds with guarantees, and some practitioners will often counsel their clients to use a Bargain and Sale Deed in the context of a probate, but in a tight real estate market in which the seller has an advantage, it is easier for a Personal Representative to avoid unnecessary and potentially costly risks, and use a Quit Claim Deed, especially since such sales rarely get the absolute top dollar that a living and breathing property owner might hold out for.

Depending upon the estate, it is usually a good idea to have an attorney review the purchase and sale agreement as well, especially if the Personal Representative does not have non-intervention powers, because then the sale will be conditioned up on Court approval, and a number of other statutory requirements and factors will also govern the sale of the property.

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Filed under Contracts and Agreements, Pieces of the puzzle, Probates and Estates, Real Estate, Transfer on Death Deeds

The Newest Estate Planning Tool for Washington Attorneys: The Transfer on Death Deed

On June 12, 2014, Washington joined a growing number of states which now allow residents to transfer title to real estate by means of a “transfer on death” deed.  This deed allows the owner of a piece of real estate to execute and record a deed which will transfer title to the named beneficiary upon the owner’s death without having to transfer title after the owner’s death as part of a probate of the owner’s estate, much in the same way an owner of a bank account or brokerage account can execute a document naming a person or persons to be a beneficiary of the account so that title passes to the designated beneficiary upon death, making it unnecessary to probate such an account.

Like any such change in the law, this presents a number of new opportunities, and new potential pitfalls for the unaware and those who are unsophisticated about estate planning.   Nevertheless, for those with truly modest estates that do not meet Washington State or Federal Estate Tax thresholds, the new law is a tool that could help such property owners avoid a probate if they so desired, and I suspect that careful and considered use of these deeds might indeed reduce the number of probates that we as practitioners currently conduct essentially only for the purpose of transferring the title to the real estate of the deceased.  These deeds could also provide an additional means to make gifts from an estate as part of an integrated estate plan, but I cannot caution an owner of real estate enough about the need to consult with an attorney before making such a transfer, because doing so would reduce the number of assets available to pay estate taxes, which could become especially problematic in large taxable estates where other resources may also be turned into non-probate assets by means of payable on death beneficiary designations.

Using these deeds without proper planning and understanding of consequences may also create unintended consequences for those who are married or who are registered domestic partners due to the operation of community property law.  However, this may permit people to make gifts while they are alive, without triggering the need to file an informational federal gift tax return.

Another issue is the fact that there are potential situations that could involve this law in which the outcome is not necessarily clear.  One commenter has already observed that there is apparently no limitation on time in which DSHS could place a lien against the deeded property for services rendered to the deceased, and in the absence of a clear limitation on the time in which to do so in the statute, it would appear that DSHS will then have up to twenty-four months from the date of death to place a lien, which would lead the careful lawyer to advise the owner wishing to use this method of transfer that the beneficiary should not consider the gift to be “free and clear” until this two year window had passed.

I am excited that we have another option available in our estate planning tool kit.  I also see the potential for people to really screw up their estates if they don’t get help in reviewing the plan beforehand.  It will also change how we do probates, as we will have to clearly understand whether or not the real estate is a non-probate asset, or an asset of the estate.

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Filed under Planning, Probates and Estates, Real Estate, Transfer on Death Deeds

Organ Donations As Part of Estate Planning

For many years now, I have been asking estate planning clients if they would like to be organ donors.  The intent of the question is to find out if they would like to be general organ donors, donating whatever organs can be used for transplant at the time of their death.  When clients answer this question affirmatively, we will give them some instructions for getting in contact with the organ donor registry if they haven’t already marked their driver’s licenses as being organ donors.

However, a short time ago, we had a client ask us a question we had never been asked before:  “Can I make a specific bequest of an organ in my Will?”

It wasn’t a question that I could answer right away.  Because of the sensitive nature of organ donations, and the public interest in not wanting to foster a business in organ harvesting, I guessed that if it was permitted, there would likely be a whole host of rules to be followed as part of the process, and I was right.

However, as it turns out, the answer is “Maybe, under certain circumstances.”

The Washington Revised Uniform Anatomical Gift Act, RCW 68.64 sets forth the procedures for making anatomical gifts, including specific bequests of organs.  The statute does permit a donor to make a specific bequest of a specific organ to a specific person, provided that the rules set forth for doing so are followed, but if the named recipient is unable to make use of the organ, it will pass to the next appropriate organ or tissue bank, or organ procurement organization.

Because there are a number of formalities to be observed and steps to be taken in order to correctly make a specific bequest of an organ, and additional steps to be taken if the donor’s driver’s license or state issued identification card already denotes the donor as an organ donor, I cannot recommend enough meeting with an attorney to help make sure that the gift the donor wishes to make will be directed to the appointed person.  This is especially important as the statute exempts parties and organizations from liability for action taken in good faith attempts to comply with the statute.  This means if a donor registry is unaware of a specific bequest made in a donor’s Will, and it gives the donated organ to a person other than the named beneficiary, it is unlikely that it can be held liable, absent gross negligence or some other factor that would counter a good faith claim.

Now that I know the answer to this question, I’m looking forward to another client asking about this option in estate planning.

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Filed under Pieces of the puzzle, Planning, Probates and Estates, Uncategorized

Why It Is Important To Probate An Estate

Not every estate will require a probate in the state of Washington.   But if the deceased owned real property, unless they put it into a trust, or executed a Community Property Survivorship Agreement and died leaving a surviving spouse, it is necessary to probate the estate in order to transfer title to the real property.

It doesn’t happen often, but occasionally, I get a new client because they had tried to sell Mom or Dad’s, or Grandpa and Grandma’s real property, and had discovered that they didn’t have the authority to do so, because no one ever probated the estate…and now it is an emergency, because they have a buyer for the property.  When this happens, we do what we can, but I sometimes have to urge caution, because sometimes, there can also be outstanding debts, which can create other problems in the probate process, and these problems will take on a greater degree of difficulty if the property is disposed of, and the proceeds are not sufficient, or are distributed before the creditor’s notice period has expired.

While there are sometimes reasons for probates to be delayed, they should not be delayed indefinitely, because people die, people move, and sometimes, people become incapacitated.  If these people are nominated in the Will of the deceased to serve as the Personal Representative, or if there is no Will, and they are the surviving spouse, they may be favored by the Will or by statute to perform their duties in handling the deceased’s estate in ways that are less expensive than if someone else has to fulfill the role in their stead at a later date, if any other eligible person remains to do so at all.   Taking care of these matters when your mind is clear and memory is fresh will be doing your family and friends a great service and will minimize the cost of taking care of your loved one’s final affairs, so that when the time comes, your loved ones will not have to probate two (or more) estates to properly distribute your estate to your heirs and beneficiaries.

 

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Filed under Pieces of the puzzle, Planning, Probates and Estates