Procrastinating is a typical and normal response to having to deal difficult and uncomfortable tasks and situations. Everyone would prefer to delay dealing with the hard decisions related to setting up an estate plan. But, for far too many people, what begins as procrastination turns into inaction. Since no one can accurately predict when any part of an estate plan will need to be utilized, this inaction can have irreparable and unwanted harm on an individual, his or her assets and their family.
Without an estate plan in place, many decisions that should have been made by an individual are left to a series of statutes and rules related to the laws of intestacy. These laws and rules dictate how a person’s estate will be managed and administered if they did not leave a properly executed will or other testamentary device when they die. While those who have an estate plan will be able to make these choices, those without will have numerous choices made for them:
Who will benefit from your estate? The laws of intestacy determine who will benefit from your estate based on a specific line of familial succession. If you are married without children, your spouse receives everything. If you are married with children, the surviving spouse and the children split the estate 50-50. If no children or spouse are living, the line of succession continues down all the way to first cousins once removed if no previous class of relative is alive.
This poses several potential problems. First, the statutes do not differentiate minor children from adults, leaving a potential situation where a minor child will receive potentially large sums of money. How this money is held and the level of court control over this money becomes an issue as well (more on that later).
Second, for more complicated family structures, the statutes pose significant problems. Children born of wedlock or adopted children may face the need to prove their relationship with a deceased parent in court. Non-blood relatives who might have benefited from the deceased individual’s estate are not considered.
Finally, since New York does not recognize the concept of common law marriage, a non-married partner will be left out of the inheritance even if they had children with the deceased. It is especially important for persons in non-traditional relationships to have their wishes outlined in an estate plan if they wish to benefit persons other than their blood relatives.
Who will administer your estate? Without a will or other testamentary device, the Surrogate’s Court will look to the intestacy order of succession to determine who will be appointed the administrator of the estate. In addition to taking this decisions out of an individual’s hands, the lack of a clear choice to administer the estate may lead to higher costs, a longer administration and potential litigation from unhappy beneficiaries.
Who will care for your minor children? In the rare instances where both parents die with minor children, a will or other testamentary instrument will typically nominate person to serve as the guardian for any minor children. Without a will, the friends and relatives of the deceased may petition the court for the right to care for the children. It is then up to the judge to decide, based on his or her opinion, who the most qualified person is. The judge’s criteria may differ sharply from the parents’ criteria for choosing a guardian.
How will the assets of the estate be held and what involvement will the court have with the administration of the assets? It is often advisable to utilize one or more trusts under a will as the receptacle for the assets passing out of the estate. Asset protection, tax savings and avoidance of waste are common reasons why using trusts are preferred over outright bequests. A court is unlikely to create a trust for an individual who does not have a will or testamentary instrument. This failure to plan may expose assets to risks that a trust could easily avoid.
In addition, if a minor is a beneficiary of an estate, the court and their guardian will oversee their share of the estate until the minor reaches eighteen. The guardian will be required to petition the court for any distributions that a child may need and requests for distributions are not automatically granted.
How can I avoid, delay or reduce estate, gift and generation skipping transfer taxes? Beyond using an individual’s state and federal exemptions, coupled with the marital deduction if an individual is married at the time of their death, failure to have an estate plan in place will almost completely foreclose any tax planning for an estate’s assets. Post-mortem (after death) planning is an available option, but it may not be as effective as proactive planning.
Who will make decisions related to finances and medical care if I am unable to? The previous questions related to what happens after someone dies, but issues related to incapacity and disability are equally important. Along with a will, a durable power of attorney, health care proxy and living will are essential components of an estate plan. Without theses documents, decisions related to finances and medical decisions may not be made by the correct person or may require court intervention to authorize. In a worst-case scenario, a dispute may arise amongst family members about these decisions that could devolve into litigation.
It is impossible to predict when and how you will need to utilize an estate plan. However, for most people, it is clear that making the decisions that will affect themselves, their families and their assets is preferable than leaving these decisions to others.
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