Don’t Just Hope for an Inheritance; Get It in Writing

A Massachusetts case demonstrates the importance of getting any agreements about inheritance in writing. The Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled that rendering services to someone in the hope or expectation that it will result in payment from an estate is not sufficient to entitle an individual to a portion of the estate.

Suzanne M. Cheney performed many services for her stepfather, Anthony R. Turco, expecting to receive a share of his estate. However, to her great disappointment, upon his passing he left her nothing. Ms. Cheney subsequently sued James F. Flood, Jr., who was both her stepfather’s lawyer and administrator of her stepfather’s estate, alleging legal malpractice and that she was entitled to recovery from the estate for the reasonable value of the services she and her family performed for Mr. Turco during the last years of his life.

The trial court judge dismissed the legal malpractice claim because Ms. Cheney and Mr. Flood had no attorney-client relationship.  The judge then dismissed the claim that there had been an implied promise of payment for services, called quantum meruit under the law, because Ms. Cheney failed to allege that she performed services for Mr. Turco with the expectation that she would be paid for them.

Ms. Cheney appealed the decision regarding the quantum meruit claim, arguing that while there was no express agreement between her and Mr. Turco that she would provide services to him in exchange for being listed in his will as beneficiary, she had always hoped that he would pay her through his estate. Unfortunately for Ms. Cheney, the court found that this gave her no legal basis for payment without an underlying contract or agreement between the parties.  The court ruled that Ms. Cheney’s hope or expectation, even though well founded, is not equivalent to entitling her to reasonable value of services under the legal concept of quantum meruit.

It seems that Ms. Cheney’s mistake was relying on a hope or expectation of receiving an inheritance under her stepfather’s estate and neither discussing it with him nor documenting a contract or agreement between the two.

How to Make Changes to Your Will

As life circumstances change (births, marriages, divorces, and deaths), it may become necessary to make changes to your will.  If an estate plan is not kept up-to-date, it can become useless. The best way to make changes is either through a codicil — an amendment to the will — or by creating a new will.

While it may be tempting to just take out a pen and make changes by hand, this is not recommended. Changes will not be effective unless you use the same formalities as you did when drafting the will. And depending on state law, changes made by hand on the will may void the will altogether. If you sign your name to handwritten changes and have the changes witnessed, it is possible a court will find that the changes are valid, but there is no guarantee and there are likely to be delays with the court while your final wishes are sorted out.

If you have small changes to make to your will (e.g., changing your executor or updating a name that has changed), a codicil may be appropriate. The benefit of a codicil is that it is usually cheaper than redoing the entire will. The same rules for wills apply to codicils, which means the codicil should be dated, signed, and witnessed. Always keep a codicil with the will so your personal representative can find it easily.

If you have significant changes to make to your will (e.g., adding a spouse or removing a beneficiary) or have more than one change, it is generally better to update your will rather than write one or more codicils. The updated will should include a date and a clear statement that all other previous wills and codicils are revoked.

Before you make any changes to your will, you should consult with your attorney.

 

What You Can’t Do With a Will

While a will is one of the most important estate planning documents you can have, there are things that it won’t cover. A will is just one part of a comprehensive estate plan.

A will is a legally-binding statement directing who will receive your property at your death. It is also the way you appoint a legal representative to carry out your bequests and that you name a guardian for your children. Without a will, your estate is distributed according to state law, rather than your wishes. Property distributed via a will goes through probate, which is the formal process through which a court determines how to distribute your property.

Although a will is one main way to transfer property on death, it does not cover all property. The following are examples of property you can’t distribute through a will:

  • Jointly held property. Property that is co-owned with another person is not distributed through your will. Joint tenants each have an equal ownership interest in the property. If one joint tenant dies, his or her interest immediately ceases to exist and the other joint tenant owns the entire property.
  • Property in trust. If you place property into a trust, the property passes to the beneficiaries of the trust, not according to your will.
  • Pay on death accounts. With a pay on death account, the account owner names a beneficiary (or beneficiaries) to whom the account assets pass to automatically when the owner dies.
  • Life insurance. Life insurance passes to the beneficiary you name in the life insurance policy and isn’t affected by your will.
  • Retirement plan. Similar to life insurance, money in a retirement account (e.g., an IRA or 401(k)) passes to the named beneficiary. Under federal law, a surviving spouse is usually the automatic beneficiary of a 401(k), although there are some exceptions. With an IRA, you can name your preferred beneficiary.
  • Investments in transfer on death accounts. Some stocks and bonds are held in accounts that transfer on death to a named beneficiary. These accounts will bypass probate and go directly to the beneficiary.

In addition to not being able to transfer certain types of property with a will, there are other things that you cannot use a will for. The following are examples of items that should not be included in a will:

  • Funeral instructions. A will is not the best place to put your funeral instructions. Wills are often not found until days or weeks after death. It is better to leave a separate letter of instruction that is located in an easily accessible location.
  • A provision for a child with special needs. If you are leaving money to a child with special needs, a will is not the best instrument. Receiving an inheritance directly can make the child ineligible for benefits. It is usually better to set up a special needs trust to provide for the child.
  • A provision for a pet. You cannot leave money directly to a pet in a will. You can name a caregiver for a pet and provide money to them to care for the pet, but the caregiver is not legally obligated to use the money on the pet. A pet trust is the most secure way to provide for a pet.
  • Certain conditions on gifts. You may be tempted to make gifts conditional on the recipient’s behavior or actions. However, there are certain conditions that are not allowed. The condition cannot be illegal, and the gift cannot be contingent on the marriage, divorce, or change of religion of the heir.

A will is not the only component of an estate plan. To make sure your estate plan covers all your needs, talk to your attorney.

Five Reasons to Have a Will

Your will is a legally-binding statement directing who will receive your property at your death. It also appoints a legal representative to carry out your wishes. However, the will covers only probate property. (Probate is the court process by which a deceased person’s property is passed to his or her heirs and people named in the will.) Many types of property or forms of ownership pass outside of probate. Jointly-owned property, property in trust, life insurance proceeds and property with a named beneficiary, such as IRAs or 401(k) plans, all pass outside of probate

Why should you have a will? Here are some reasons:

  1. With a will you can direct where and to whom your estate (what you own) will go after your death. If you died intestate (without a will), your estate would be distributed according to your state’s law. Such distribution may or may not accord with your wishes. Many people try to avoid probate and the need for a will by holding all of their property jointly with their children. This can work, but often people spend unnecessary effort trying to make sure all the joint accounts remain equally distributed among their children. These efforts can be defeated by a long-term illness of the parent or the death of a child. A will can be a much simpler means of carrying out one’s wishes about how assets should be distributed.
  2. Wills make the administration of your estate run smoothly. Often the probate process can be completed more quickly and at less expense to your estate if there is a will. With a clear expression of your wishes, there are unlikely to be any costly, time-consuming disputes over who gets what.
  3. Your will is the only way to choose the person to administer your estate and distribute it according to your instructions. This person is called your “executor” (or “executrix” if you appoint a woman) or “personal representative,” depending on your state’s statute. If you do not have a will naming him or her, the court will make the choice for you. Usually the court appoints the first person to ask for the post, whoever that may be.
  4. For larger estates, a well-planned will can help reduce estate taxes.
  5. A will allows you to appoint who will take your place as guardian of your minor children should both you and their other parent both pass away.

Filling out a worksheet will help you make decisions about what to put in your will. Bring it and any additional notes to your lawyer and he or she will be able to efficiently prepare a will that meets your needs and desires.

Estate Planning Is Essential for Unmarried Couples

While estate planning is important for married couples, it is arguably even more necessary for couples that live together without getting married. Without an estate plan unmarried couples won’t be able to make end-of-life decisions or inherit from each other.

Estate planning serves two main functions: determining who can make decisions for you if you become incapacitated and who gets your assets when you die.  There are laws in place to protect spouses in couples that have failed to plan by governing the distribution of property in the event of death. If you do not have a will, property will pass to your spouse and children, or to parents if you die without a spouse or children.

But there are no laws in place to protect unmarried partners. Without a solid estate plan, your partner may be shut out of the decision making and the inheritance. The following are the essential estate planning steps that can help unmarried couples:

  • Joint Ownership. One way to make sure property passes to an unmarried partner is to own the property jointly, with right of survivorship. If one joint tenant dies, his or her interest immediately ceases to exist and the remaining joint tenants own the entire property. This is also a good way to avoid probate.
  • Beneficiary Designations. Make sure to review the beneficiary designations on bank accounts, retirement funds, and life insurance to make sure your partner is named as the beneficiary (if that is what you want). Your partner will not have access to any of those accounts without a specific beneficiary designation.
  • Durable Power of Attorney. This appoints one or more people to act for you on financial and legal matters in the event of your incapacity. Without it, if you become disabled or even unable to manage your affairs for a period of time, your finances could become disordered and your bills not paid, and this would place a greater burden on your partner. Your partner might have to go to court to seek the appointment of a conservator, which takes time and money, all of which can be avoided through a simple document.
  • Health Care Proxy. Similar to a durable power of attorney, a health care proxy appoints an agent to make health care decisions for you when you can’t do so for yourself, whether permanently or temporarily. Again, without this document in place, your partner might be shut out by other family members or forced to go to court to be appointed guardian. If it is important for all of your family members to be able to communicate with health care providers, a broad HIPAA release — named for the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996 — will permit medical personnel to share information with anyone and everyone you name, not limiting this function to your health care agent.
  • Will. Your will says who will get your property after your death. However, it’s increasingly irrelevant for this purpose as most property passes outside of probate through joint ownership, beneficiary designations, and trusts. Yet your will is still important for two other reasons. First, if you have minor children, it permits you to name their guardians in the event you are not there to continue your parental role. Second, it allows you to pick your personal representative (also called an executor or executrix) to take care of everything having to do with your estate, including distributing your possessions, paying your final bills, filing your final tax return, and closing out your accounts. It’s best that you choose who serves in this role.
  • Revocable Trust. A revocable trust can be especially important for unmarried couples. It permits the person or people you name to manage your financial affairs for you as well as to avoid probate. You can name one or more people to serve as co-trustee with you so that you can work together on your finances. This allows them to seamlessly take over in the event of your incapacity.

Your attorney can help you determine the estate plan that is right for you and your partner.

Preventing a Will Contest

Emotions can run high at the death of a family member. If a family member is unhappy with the amount they received (or didn’t receive) under a will, he or she may contest the will. Will contests can drag out for years, keeping all the heirs from getting what they are entitled to. It may be impossible to prevent relatives from fighting over your will entirely, but there are steps you can take to try to minimize squabbles and ensure your intentions are carried out.

Your will can be contested if a family member believes you did not have the requisite mental capacity to execute the will, someone exerted undue influence over you, someone committed fraud, or the will was not executed properly. (For more information on will contests, click here.)

The following are some steps that may make a will contest less likely to succeed:

  • Make sure your will is properly executed. The best way to do this is to have an experienced elder law or estate planning attorney assist you in drafting and executing the will. Wills need to be signed and witnessed, usually by two independent witnesses.
  • Explain your decision. If family members understand the reasoning behind the decisions in your will, they may be less likely to contest the will. It is a good idea to talk to family members at the time you draft the will and explain why someone is getting left out of the will or getting a reduced share. If you don’t discuss it in person, state the reason in the will. You may also want to include a letter with the will.
  • Use a no-contest clause. One of the most effective ways of preventing a challenge to your will is to include a no-contest clause (also called an “in terrorem clause”) in the will. This will only work if you are willing to leave something of value to the potentially disgruntled family member. A no-contest clause provides that if an heir challenges the will and loses, then he or she will get nothing. You must leave the heir enough so that a challenge is not worth the risk of losing the inheritance.
  • Prove competency. One common way of challenging a will is to argue that the deceased family member was not mentally competent at the time he or she signed the will. You can try to avoid this by making sure the attorney drafting the will tests you for competency. This could involve seeing a doctor or answering a series of questions.
  • Video record the will signing. A video recording of the will signing allows your family members and the court to see that you are freely signing the will and makes it more difficult to argue that you did not have the requisite mental capacity to agree to the will.
  • Remove the appearance of undue influence. Another common method of challenging a will is to argue that someone exerted undue influence over the deceased family member. For example, if you are planning on leaving everything to your daughter who is also your primary caregiver, your other children may argue that your daughter took advantage of her position to influence you. To avoid the appearance of undue influence, do not involve any family members who are inheriting under your will in drafting your will. Family members should not be present when you discuss the will with your attorney or when you sign it. To be totally safe, family members shouldn’t even drive you to the attorney.

Bear in mind that some of these strategies may not be advisable in certain states. Talk to your attorney about the best strategy for you. To find an experienced elder law attorney in your state, click here.

Is My Will Still Valid If I Move to Another State?

Among all the changes you must make when you move to a new state — driver’s license, voter registration — don’t forget your will.

While your will should still be valid in the new state, there may be differences in the new state’s laws that may make certain provisions of the will invalid. In addition, moving is a good excuse to consult an attorney to make sure your estate plan in general is up to date.

Property laws can vary from state to state. It is especially important to have your estate plan reviewed if you move from a common law state to a community property state (Arizona, California, Idaho, New Mexico, Louisiana, Washington, Nevada, Texas, Wisconsin, and Alaska) or vice versa. In a common law state each spouse’s property is owned individually, while in a community property state, property acquired during the marriage is considered community property. In addition, states may have different rules about when co-owned property may pass to the surviving owner and when it may pass under the will.

Other things to consider are whether there is any language you can add to the will to make it easier to probate in the new state and whether your executor still makes sense based on your new location. Other pieces of your estate plan may need updating as well. For example, the state may have different rules for powers of attorney or health care directives.

 

Make Sure Your Plan Beneficiary Choices Are Up to Date

Many people periodically update their wills or other estate plans, but don’t update who will receive distributions from their retirement plans (such as IRAs and 401(k)s) upon their deaths. Every year you should review your entire estate plan, and the review should include retirement plan “beneficiary designations” to make sure they aren’t outdated. The following are some tips for naming a retirement plan beneficiary:

  • It is important to name a beneficiary. Do not assume that your retirement plan will be distributed according to your will. If you don’t name a beneficiary, the distribution of benefits may be controlled by state or federal law or according to your particular retirement plan. Some plans automatically distribute money to a spouse or children. While others may leave it to the retirement plan holder’s estate, this could have negative tax consequences. The only way to control where the money goes is to name a beneficiary.
  • You may want to designate a trust as your beneficiary. If your estate is more than the current estate tax exclusion ($11.4 million for 2019) and a large portion of it consists of retirement plans, it may make sense to direct that the plans be payable to a trust rather than to the surviving spouse. The trust must be properly drafted to avoid tax consequences, so consult with your attorney before doing this. If you want your money to go into a trust for your children, be sure to designate the trust as the beneficiary. If you name your children, the money will go directly to them.
  • If you have major life changes, be sure to keep your retirement plan updated. If you get married or have children, you may want to change your beneficiary. Also, if your spouse was your beneficiary and you get divorced, your former spouse will still be the beneficiary — divorce does not automatically remove an ex-spouse as beneficiary. If you wish to remove a former spouse from the plan, you will have to fill out a new beneficiary designation form.
  • Even if you don’t have big changes, you should review your beneficiary designation periodically. Your beneficiary may not be who you remembered it to be or it may be outdated. For example, if you named a charity as beneficiary, you will want to make sure the charity still exists. A Change of Beneficiary form can often be downloaded from the Web site of the firm holding the plan assets.

Does Your Will Name an Alternate Beneficiary?

What will happen to your estate if your primary beneficiary does not survive you? If your will does not name an alternate beneficiary, your estate will be divided according to state law. The way the state divides your estate may not agree with your wishes. Your money may go to someone you don’t like or to someone who is unable to handle it.

For example, suppose your will divides your estate among your spouse and three children. If one child dies before you, do you want his or her portion of your estate to go to your grandchildren? To your other children? To your spouse? Or perhaps to a charitable organization or institution? Another issue to consider is whether the person who would inherit under the law is too young or has special needs. In that case, you may need a trust to protect the assets.

Double check your will to make sure it names an alternate beneficiary. And if you don’t already have a will, being able to name an alternate beneficiary is an important reason to create one.

Naming an alternate is a good idea for other provisions in your will as well. If you have young children, you should also consider naming an alternate guardian for your children in the event your first choice is unable to fulfill his or her obligation. In addition, you may want to appoint an alternate executor in case the first one cannot serve.

Contact your attorney to help you ensure you have considered all the possibilities.