Estate Planning Blog

Should I Get an Attorney if I Have to Fight Over my Mom’s Estate?
Should I get an attorney if I have to fight over my mom's estate

Should I Get an Attorney if I Have to Fight Over my Mom’s Estate?

Should I get an attorney if I have to fight over my mom’s estate?

Blended families are common these days. With blended families may come some estate planning issues. One of these is when a step-sister is appointed as executor of your mom’s will.’s recent article, “I’m fighting with my mom’s executor. What can I do?”, looks at this situation where there are two homes involved—one in which the executor sister lives and the executor’s other sister lives in the second house. The daughter here has been denied access to anything other than a few photos, she must share with her only full sister.

While many people believe they can’t afford an attorney, in a battle over an estate, you’re probably going to need one.

Let’s assume the daughter is an heir entitled to a portion of her mother’s estate.

While the daughter says she’s been denied access to the homes, an attorney will check to see if the will gives her a right to possession and/or ownership.

If the daughter doesn’t have a copy of the will, the executor must provide one to her.

She can also get a copy from the surrogate’s office or county court, where the will was probated.

The will likely describes what her rights are and the appropriate action the attorney can take on her behalf.

The will might provide her stepsisters with the right to live in the homes, it may provide them with ownership of the homes, or it may simply provide that the estate is to be divided between the beneficiaries in certain percentages or dollar amounts.

Should I get an attorney if I have to fight over my mom’s estate? Yes. The first step is to retain a qualified estate planning attorney and to take a look at the terms of the will.

Reference: (September 19, 2019) “I’m fighting with my mom’s executor. What can I do?”


What Can I Do with Unspent Money in a 529 Plan?
What Can I Do with Unspent Money in a 529 Plan?

What Can I Do with Unspent Money in a 529 Plan?

What Can I Do with Unspent Money in a 529 Plan? Here are some ideas for how to spend money saved in a 529 plan to avoid taxes and the 10% penalty.

Los Altos Online’s recent article, “How to use up leftover money in a 529 college savings plan,” says there several ways to use unspent money in a 529 plan, while avoiding the taxes and/or penalties. Here are some options to consider.

Graduate school. If your child is interested in an advanced degree, the money can be used tax free, just as it was for college. Any school that gets financial aid qualifies.

Another child. You can change the beneficiary of the 529 plan to another qualifying family member, without any tax implications. If you have other children, the funds can be used to pay for their qualified expenses—even if you have other 529 plans for them. Money in 529 plans can now also be used for elementary and secondary education.

Another relative. You can change the beneficiary to parents, aunts, uncles, nieces, nephews, stepparents and even first cousins. There’s no deadline for using the funds, so you can keep it as a gift for a future grandchild. However, avoid skipping a generation, because that could trigger a tax penalty.

Your own or your spouse’s career. If you’re interested in changing your career or just want to get a new degree in retirement, using leftover 529 funds will let you avoid using other savings.

Estate planning. You can choose to give a 529 account to an heir. You keep control of the account until you pass away and can continue to make annual tax-free contributions up to the gift-tax exclusion amount, provided the account value doesn’t exceed the state’s maximum limit. After you die, the value isn’t counted as part of your estate for estate taxes.

Offset any scholarships. You can withdraw any amount from the 529 plan, up to the value of all scholarships and the 10% penalty is waived, even if you apply years after the scholarship was earned. The earnings are taxable, but because distributions include both earnings and contributions, only part of this will be taxed.

Give the money to your child or spend it yourself. You could just pay the taxes and the 10% penalty and use the money as you please. The earnings are taxed at your child’s rate.

Reference: Los Altos Online (September 18, 2019) “How to use up leftover money in a 529 college savings plan”


When are You Done with Estate Planning?
When are You Done with Estate Planning?

When are You Done with Estate Planning?

When are You Done with Estate Planning?

A family has set up their estate plan. Two sons are already in the farming business and are thriving. Their daughter will receive the proceeds from a second-to-die life insurance policy and their considerable savings. The amounts are not equal in amount, but they are an equitable inheritance, and it seems like the couple has done its homework.

However, asks an article in The Courier, “The will is done, you’re sitting pretty—but are you?”

Estate planning is a lot like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Like farming, it gets put together over time, piece by piece. Each piece represents something that needs to be done. For instance, a key part of the puzzle is having a last will and testament. That functions like building the outside frame of the puzzle, for those who start their puzzles by building the perimeter first. It frames the rest of your estate plan.

Other pieces are included within the will, like naming a personal representative, or executor. This is the person who is in charge of distributing your assets and making sure that the directions in your will are followed, when you pass away.

Do you have a plan for what happens when you die? For instance, if a husband dies, is there a plan for the wife to maintain the farm, or will she sell machinery and other transitory assets?

When are You Done with Estate Planning? For the couple mentioned above who has the will, a transition spelled out in the will and a second-to-die policy in place to supplement the daughter’s inheritance, congratulations: they have many pieces of the puzzle in place. However, that’s not everything.

The other parts of the puzzle have to do with issues while the couple is still living. What happens if one or both are injured, or become ill? Who should take over the farming in the short or long term? Who will care for the spouse or spouses? Will they depend on each other for caretaking, or their daughter?

The number one worry for seniors is whether they have enough money to last until they die. However, by taking a portion of their savings and investing in a long-term care insurance policy, they can rest assured that they or their spouse will get the care they need—in a nursing home or at home—without burning through the family’s savings.

This piece of the estate planning puzzle—preparing for illness or disability—is often missing, and it can turn the rest of the estate plan into a pile of unattached pieces.

Speak with an estate planning attorney today to make sure your estate plan does not have any missing pieces. If you have not recently reviewed your estate plan in the last three or four years, schedule a review. Changes in the law and changes in your own life may make your old estate plan out of date and may no longer achieve the goals you had in mind.

Reference: The Courier (Sep. 4, 2019) “The will is done, you’re sitting pretty—but are you?”


What’s the Latest in the Former “Young and the Restless” Star’s Guardianship Case?
What’s the Latest in the Former "Young and the Restless" Star’s Guardians

What’s the Latest in the Former “Young and the Restless” Star’s Guardianship Case?

What’s the Latest in the Former “Young and the Restless” Star’s Guardianship case?

Former Young and the Restless star Kristoff St. John’s ex-wife’s Allana is asking a judge to make her guardian of their 14-year-old daughter Lola, so she can represent her in any issues concerning her father’s death.

Yahoo Entertainment’s recent article, “Kristoff St. John’s Ex-Wife Files Guardianship Case To Protect Daughter With Late Star,” reports that Alana appears to be saying that any life insurance paid out since St. John’s passing didn’t go to Lola. She believes Lola is entitled to compensation.

“Due to the untimely death of minor’s biological father on February 3, 2019, the minor will be receiving an inheritance. In order to secure her inheritance, she will need a to defend a will contest and bring claims for the recovery of life insurance proceeds that were wrongfully distributed to a third party. Minor should also be entitled to a family allowance from her father’s estate,” Alana argues in the court document.

Kristoff St. John’s eldest daughter Paris is already fighting the late soap star’s father, over who should control his estate.

The contest is over an alleged handwritten will, which Paris St. John says doesn’t qualify as a valid last will and testament.

Paris argues that the holographic will “was written inside a private diary and was not intended to be seen by third parties,” adding, “The document would never have been found, if someone had not opened the decedent’s private journal.”

Paris has filed court documents in Los Angeles requesting to become the executor of the Young & the Restless star’s estate, according to The Blast.

It looks like Alana thinks the ongoing estate battle may get bitter, and she wants to make certain that Lola will come out in the end with the rightful share of her father’s assets.

Kristoff St. John was found dead on February 3, 2019 in his home in the San Fernando Valley. He was 52.

Reference: Yahoo Entertainment (August 27, 2019) “Kristoff St. John’s Ex-Wife Files Guardianship Case To Protect Daughter With Late Star”

What’s the Latest in the Former “Young and the Restless” Star’s Guardianship case? His youngest child’s guardianship case is pending. This will allow her to participate in a will contest and make claim to life insurance proceeds distributed to a third party.


Don’t Make These Early Retirement Mistakes
Don’t Make These Early Retirement Mistakes

Don’t Make These Early Retirement Mistakes

Don’t Make These Early Retirement Mistakes. Starting retirement with a bang can make a big dent in your nest egg, no matter how big it is. However, there are ways to protect yourself, says CNBC in the article “Here’s what could take a big bite out of your retirement nest egg—and how you can control it.” A study from J.P. Morgan Asset Management looked at five million Chase accounts and found that people tend to spend more in the beginning years of retirement.

The transition into retirement is much bigger than even the experts expected. The surge in spending was greater than they had thought it would be. It’s big enough that the traditional measure of how much is needed during retirement may need some adjusting.

The early years of retirement are when big changes begin. People are adjusting to a new lifestyle that is very different. That’s likely to be the time when they go on “bucket list” trips, renovate their homes, or relocate. However, this is not the time to let spending go unchecked.

Once you move from an income-based budget to a fixed-income budget, inflation becomes more of a financial factor. If you neglect to factor it into your retirement spending, those middle to late years of retirement may become shaky.

A better solution is to consider changing needs over time and inflation on a category-by-category basis, like food, housing, transportation and travel.

Be mindful of how much equity risk you have in your portfolio when you reach retirement and as you move through your retirement years. You should also be aware of the tax consequences of the withdrawals that you do make.

Don’t Make These Early Retirement Mistakes. Spending will fluctuate throughout your lifetime. However, remember that medical costs could increase dramatically at any time, without warning. If you are still living in a single-family home, over time houses need expensive fixes, if they are to retain their market value.

One expense not to skimp on: having an estate plan in place. The cost of not having a will, power of attorney or health care power of attorney could take a big bite out of your retirement savings or take an even bigger bite out of your children’s inheritance. A health care power of attorney for you and your spouse will avoid your having to go to court for guardianship proceedings, if one or both of you become incapacitated.

A last will and testament must be properly created with the help of an estate planning attorney, so that your assets are distributed as you want when you pass. Estate planning also helps with preparing to minimize taxes and may include Medicaid planning, if one or both spouses may need long term care.

Reference: CNBC (Sep. 4, 2019) “Here’s what could take a big bite out of your retirement nest egg—and how you can control it”


How Do I Find a Great Estate Planning Attorney?
How Do I Find a Great Estate Planning Attorney?

How Do I Find a Great Estate Planning Attorney?

How Do I Find a Great Estate Planning Attorney?

Taking care of important estate planning tasks will limit the potential for family fighting and possible legal battles, in the event you become incapacitated, as well as after your death. An estate planning attorney can help you avoid mistakes and missteps and assist you in adjusting your plans as your individual situation and the laws change.

Next Avenue’s recent article “How to Find a Good Estate Planner” offers a few tips for finding one:

How Do I Find a Great Estate Planning Attorney? Ask for referrals from friends and family. Ask them questions about their attorney and the estate planning process. Were they satisfied with the communication they had with the attorney? Were their questions answered? Were there any concerns with the information, advice or length of time for the work to be produced?

Go with a Specialist. Not every lawyer specializes in estate planning, so look for one whose primary focus is estate and trust law in your area. After you’ve found a few possibilities, ask him or her for references. Speak to those clients to get a feel for what it will be like to work with this attorney, as well as the quality of his or her work. It is valuable to have an attorney that also handles related fields. It makes sense for an attorney that prepares wills to also handle will contests and litigation around will preparation. The litigation about preparing wills informs the internal office work and makes it more precise and more immune to family challenges.

Ask About Experience.  Ask about the attorney’s trusts-and-estates experience. Ask about the attorney’s estate planning practice and whether your situation is similar to past client experiences. Be sure your attorney can handle your situation, whether it is a complex business estate or a small businesses and family situation. If you have an aging parent, work with an elder law attorney.

Be Clear on Prices. The cost of your estate plan will depend on the complexity of your needs, your location and your attorney’s experience level. When interviewing potential candidates, ask them what they’d charge you and how you’d be charged. Some estate planning attorneys charge a flat fee. If you meet with a flat-fee attorney, ask exactly what the cost includes and ask if it’s based on a set number of visits or just a certain time period. You should also see which documents are covered by the fee and whether the fee includes the cost of any future updates. There are some estate-planning attorneys who charge by the hour.

It’s an Ongoing Relationship. See if you’re comfortable with the person you choose, because you’ll be sharing personal details of your life and concerns with them.

Ask for affiliations. Is your attorney part of the estate planning community? Your attorney should be active in the local and national estate planning scene. This way your attorney has the resources to interact with local colleagues about local issues and the ability to spot trends on a nationwide level.

Reference: Next Avenue (September 10, 2019) “How to Find a Good Estate Planner”


The Art of Being a Smart Snowbird
The Art of Being a Smart Snowbird

The Art of Being a Smart Snowbird

The Art of Being a Smart Snowbird. The interstates get busy in September, when retirees take to the highways to leave the north behind and head to their southern or southwestern homes, reports Next Avenue in “7 Tips for Being a Successful Snowbird.” Some snowbirds have a more enjoyable experience than others, in part because of their preparation.

Here are a few lessons from the experienced snowbirds:

The Art of Being a Smart Snowbird:

Choose a location that suits you. Don’t confuse a cold-weather home with a vacation spot. You’ll be living your daily life here. Therefore, you want to find the activities that you enjoy on a regular basis. If your regular life at home is busy and you like it that way, moving to a laid-back beach town or an isolated cabin in the woods may not be a good fit for more than a few days.

Look before you leap. Rent a place for a month or two, before committing to spending an entire winter there. You can’t know if you love a place before you live there for an extended period of time. If you’re not happy, you can try someplace else. Once you find the right spot, book the whole winter. Book the whole next winter as well. Good spots go fast.

Switch bills to be paid online. Before everything was online, it was tricky to take care of your home bills while living somewhere else. Make all your bills payable online or put them on autopay. If your bank doesn’t have a branch nearby, open an account in a nearby bank and link with your home bank, so you can easily move money between accounts.

Make new friends and new connections. One of the adjustments of snowbird life is leaving family and friends back up north. If you are in a community with lots of snowbirds, they are likely to be in the same position as you. Introduce yourself, join clubs and get active.

Don’t overbook your time with guests. You may love having friends come down, but being a frequent host takes a lot of time and energy. Don’t turn your winter residence into a bed and breakfast. Don’t be afraid to limit the number of nights for your houseguests. This is your home, not a hotel.

Make it a second home if you own it. If you buy rather than rent, it’s easier to keep some things there. Therefore, you are not lugging quite as much back and forth. However, even in a rental, you may be able to store some items, or rent a small storage unit nearby. Doing so will make travelling easier, and your snowbird nest will feel more like home.

Enjoy the ride back and forth. There’s no need to rush, if you’re going to be staying for a few months. If you’ve always travelled by interstate, maybe a side trip along local roads will break up the monotony and create some new memories. Stop by to visit with relatives along the way, or the national park that you’ve been meaning to experience. Make the ride an enjoyable part of your journey.

Reference: Next Avenue (Sep. 13, 2019)  “7 Tips for Being a Successful Snowbird.”


How Joint Tenancy Creates Problem for Seniors
How Joint Tenancy Creates Problem for Seniors

How Joint Tenancy Creates Problem for Seniors

How Joint Tenancy Creates Problem for Seniors. Parents putting children or other family members as joint owners of their assets. is another example of a simple solution for a complex problem. It doesn’t work, even though it seems as if it should.

As explained in the article “Beware the joint tenancy trap” from Monterey Herald, putting another person on an account, even a trusted child or life-long friend, can create serious problems for the individual, their estate and their heirs. Before going down that path, there are several issues to consider.

When another individual is placed as an owner on an account or on the title to real property, they have a legal ownership in that property equal to that of the original owner. This is called joint tenancy. If a child is made a joint tenant on a parent’s accounts, they would be entirely within their rights to withdraw every single asset from those accounts and do whatever they wanted with them. They would not need the original owner’s consent, counsel, or knowledge.

Giving anyone that power is a serious decision.

Making a child a joint owner of assets also exposes those assets to claims by the child’s creditors. If they file for bankruptcy, the original asset owner may have to buy back one-half of the asset at its current market value. Another example: if the child is in an accident and a judgment is recorded against the child, you may have to buy back one-half of your joint tenant property at its current market value to settle the claims.

There are other complications. If one joint owner of the asset dies, joint tenancy provides for the right of survivorship. The property transfers to the surviving joint tenant without going through probate and with no reference to a will. That’s what people focus on when they try this method as an end-run around estate planning. What they don’t realize, is that if the parent dies and the asset transfers directly to the joint tenant—let’s say a daughter—but the will says the assets are to be split between all of the children, her claim on the asset is “senior” to the rest of the children. That means she gets the assets and the four siblings split the remaining assets.

If there is any friction between siblings, not having equal inheritances could create a fracture in the family that can’t easily be resolved.

Tax exposure is another risk of joint tenancy. When someone is named a joint owner, they have an equal ownership interest in those assets, as the original owner’s cost basis. When one owner dies, the remaining owner gets a step up in basis on the proportion of the assets the deceased person owned at death.

Let’s say a son and father are joint owners on an account. When the father dies, the son gets a step up in basis on one-half of the assets—the assets that the father owned. His half of the assets retains the original basis. But if that account was owned solely by the father, all the heirs will get the full step up in basis on the father’s death.

Given the complexities that joint tenancy creates, parents need to think very carefully before putting children’s names on their assets and real property. Loo how Joint Tenancy Creates Problem for Seniors. A better plan is to make an appointment to speak with an estate planning attorney and find out how to protect the parent’s assets through other means, which may include trusts and other estate planning tools.

Reference: Monterey Herald (Sep. 11, 2019) “Beware the joint tenancy trap”


Why Advance Directives are Needed
Why Advance Directives are Needed

Why Advance Directives are Needed

Why Advance Directives are Needed and they should be accessible to the family.

There are two sad parts to this story. The first was that the family panicked and had a feeding tube put in, despite their mother’s wishes. The second, says WRAL in the article “Advance directives lift burden of tough decisions at end of life,” was that after the woman died several years later, her family found the advance directive.

Why Advance Directives are Needed: Without knowing about a loved one’s wishes for their end-of-life care, it’s hard to honor them. That’s why documentation, like advance directives, are so important. So is telling your family where your important legal documents are.

What is an advance directive?

An advance directive is a broad legal term that can include a few different documents, but mostly includes a Living Will and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These documents give a person the ability to express what medical care they want and don’t want.

Cases like the women mentioned earlier highlight the importance of this kind of document. While her advance directive was misplaced, many people don’t have them at all. These are important to address non-financial end-of-life issues, both for the person and for their families.

Most people would prefer not to have life-prolonging measures implemented. Without this document, the decision to remove a breathing machine or a heart machine can be even more difficult for a spouse or a child. The burdens are not just emotional.

If there is no decision maker named and family members disagree about what their loved one would have wanted, a battle may break out in the family that results in a court fight.

A few notes on advance directives:

  • They can be created at any time, but most people tend to consider them at midlife or close to retirement.
  • The document can be amended at any time and should be reassessed through the course of life.
  • One decision maker should be appointed to avoid arguments.

Health care agents, doctors and loved ones should all be provided with copies, and the originals should be accessible. Some people put them on the refrigerator, so first responders can find them quickly.

Talk with your estate planning attorney about including an advance directive and a health care power of attorney among your estate planning documents. This is a burden that you can make lighter for those you love.

Reference: WRAL (Sep. 18, 2019) “Advance directives lift burden of tough decisions at end of life”