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Meet Michelle Wheeler from our Probate Team

I essentially work with the executor/administrator/trustee and help them manage the assets and expenses of the decedent.  It’s like taking over a person’s financial life after they have passed.

If we need to probate, I prepare the court documents and set up the appointment to get the executor/administrator appointed.  Once that’s done there is estate/trust advertising, bank accounts to manage, securities (stocks, bonds, etc.) to sell or transfer, life insurance/annuity/retirement claim forms to file, an inheritance tax return needs to be filed 9 months from date of death (tax estimate paid within 3 months of death to get tax discount), bills to be paid, selling or transferring real estate, etc.  Once an appraisement letter is received from the Pennsylvania Department of Revenue for the inheritance tax (6-9 months or longer from the date the return was filed), we can make final distributions and close out the matter.  It is a lengthy and time-consuming process that can be frustrating.  I do my best to make the process as comfortable as I can.

Myths and Mysteries of the Probate Process:

  1. Even if all assets are in trust, joint name or have specific beneficiaries assigned, it’s the same process except for the estate administration. We still have to get date of death confirmation values on all assets, account for all debts and expenses paid and prepare a Pennsylvania Inheritance Tax return.  Unfortunately, it is not a quick process.
  2. Depending on the company the amount of paperwork needed to transfer, sell or claim assets can be overwhelming. Please be patient.  Once all claim forms are signed and filed, it can take 10 days to a few weeks for the claim to be reviewed once it is in the company’s computer system.  This is not usually a quick process.
  3. I need the following information to start working on a file: bank statements including decedent’s date of death, current deed on all real estate, investment/brokerage statements including decedent’s date of death, life insurance/annuity/retirement paperwork, copy of most recent personal income tax return, copies of bills paid and/or checks drawn.
  4. Stock certificates should be deposited with a broker or investment service. Stock certificates are like holding cash in your hand.  If the certificate is lost, there is a lost certificate fee to get it reissued.  Please keep your investment safe.
  5. If there is only a bank account with $10,000 or less in the decedent’s name alone on a date of death, a spouse, any child, father or mother, or any sister or brother (preference in that order) can close the account with a copy of the death certificate and the invoice showing the funeral is paid in full. No probate is necessary.

If you would like to learn more about avoiding the probate process, please give us a call at 717-845-5390.

 

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What is the Worst-Case Scenario if I Don’t Plan?

What is the worst-case scenario if I don’t plan?  

This is a question that was raised to me several years ago by a client, and I answered her question by walking her through what would happen if she did not have a plan, and she became incapacitated from a financial perspective as well as from a medical perspective.  I also answered the question about what would happen if she died.  My client was married with three children.  Her husband had two children of his own, and she certainly loved them and treated them like her own for all intents and purposes.  

Unfortunately, she did not see the need to do planning ahead of time, and the worst-case scenarios that I set forth to her are exactly what happened.  She became incapacitated a few years later and had a stroke. While she was in the hospital, her children and her husband were disagreeing about the healthcare decisions that should be made on her behalf.  To further complicate things, the stepchildren showed up at the hospital also arguing that they should be involved in the decision process. 

There is a healthcare statue in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania that does provide the next of kin and who would make healthcare decisions, but, ultimately, the hospital did not want the husband and his children along with the stepchildren to be fighting in the hospital, so they asked them to go to a guardianship hearing and have a judge adjudicate who would be the guardian of her healthcare decisions.  There were a decent amount of assets in her name alone, and, unfortunately, the husband was not able to access them because she did not have a financial power of attorney in place.  

He went to the bank trying to explain the situation but, ultimately, was told that he had to obtain a guardianship Order from the Court in order to be able to make decisions on behalf of his wife.  The husband ended up in court fighting with his children that he had with his wife along with his children to another relationship, fighting over who should be granted guardianship of her.  He ultimately won after having to hire an attorney and spent thousands of dollars in legal fees.  

She passed away and did not have a Will in place.  I think everybody, including her and him, incorrectly believed that the husband would get 100% of the assets.  I did explain to her the worst-case scenario under the Pennsylvania Intestate Succession Statute that the husband would be forced to get the first $30,000 and then have to split the remainder with the children that he had with his wife.  Because of all of the strained relationships that occurred under the fighting that they had in the hospital and in the Courtroom, tensions were high, and they did not get along.  The husband was devastated to learn that he only got the first $30,000 and one-half of the remainder.  He asked his kids to please gift the money back so that he could have it to live the rest of his life, and they laughed in his face and kept the money that they were entitled to under the statute.  

Unfortunately, this scenario is far too common.  As an estate planning and elder law attorney, I tend to live in the worst-case scenario world because that is what typically happens.  If you plan, you avoid all of these circumstances and situations from arising.  If you do not plan and you allow yourself to be subject to the government or the state’s rulebook, it may not go the way that you want it or the way that your family wants it.  
I think often about that day where I met with her and discussed the worst-case scenario.  Clearly, I didn’t scare her enough or do enough to make her realize how devastating that could be for her family.  I am saddened over the tension in the relationship now with the entire family and know that I could’ve easily eliminated all of those fights and arguments and the need to go to Court and spend thousands of dollars of money.  My goal now is to show the worst-case scenario and hope that it hits home with at least one person who will get their planning in place ahead of time so that this does not happen to them.  

If you would like to learn more about how you can plan properly to avoid these and many other complications, please give our office a call at 717-845-5390.

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When Avoiding Probate Wasn’t Necessary Or The Right Answer

We recently did a blog that talked about how national companies and mainstream media often talk about avoiding probate at all costs and the advantages with it.  I warned in that article that probate is not a bad thing in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  In fact, the process itself is very straightforward and fairly inexpensive.  Many of our national companies and spokespeople come from states where the rules are very difficult and expensive, and make it sound like every state follows the same process when, in reality, each state has different rules, and overall, Pennsylvania is a very easy state to go through probate and is overall fairly inexpensive.  

Several people have asked us to provide more in-depth answers as to what are the tools to avoid probate.  In the previous article, I avoided getting into that conversation because I simply wanted to address the fact that we don’t necessarily need to do that in the state of Pennsylvania and that we recommend that you seek counsel to advise you on the pros and cons of such decisions.  I will take a minute in this blog to discuss some of those options briefly but still recommend that you speak to an attorney to discuss whether it is applicable for you in your specific particular situation.

Here are a few options or ways that people can avoid probate:

Create a trust.

Joint ownership.

Outright gifts.

Beneficiary designated accounts.  

Trusts are certainly very viable options and can provide a lot of benefits.  Some of these benefits can include avoiding probate in several different states, as well as potentially asset protection.  In some rare instances, some people need advanced tax planning, in which case a trust can serve as a way to reduce the federal taxable estate to avoid paying higher taxes to the government.  Each particular trust certainly has pros and cons and the rules are different for each one.  Depending on whether you are doing a trust simply for probate avoidance, for asset protection, or for tax planning, each trust will have its own rules and will be governed by a different set of restrictions and limitations.  Fully understanding the restrictions and limitations and weighing that with whether or not the benefits outweigh the negatives is something that each person should do individually and should do with an experienced trust planning attorney. 

Joint ownership.  It is very easy to encourage people to add family members as joint owners on their accounts.  Oftentimes, people will say that they’re doing this for “convenience.”  I believe that it is important to understand some of the negatives that can come out of joint ownership – property ownership, such as if the child were to die first, there would be tax implications in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania to the parent for adding their child at a 4.5% tax rate.  It is a very difficult conversation to be the person who calls the parent who lost a loved one who has to tell them that they are very sorry for their loss and to remind them that they’re going to have to pay inheritance tax on the joint owned account when it was the parents’ money in the first place, and why do they have to pay tax on their own money?  Once you add a joint owner to an account, there are implications of that transfer that very few people discuss or are aware of.

If you would like to learn more about estate planning and elder law, please give our office a call at 717-845-5390.

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Planning For Retirement And Enjoying The Remaining Years

When it comes to planning for retirement, the most important person may, probably, be a financial planner or someone to make sure that you have enough money to enjoy those years the way that you want to.  However, equally as important is to make sure that you have completed your estate planning at the same time.  Oftentimes people think of estate planning as a death plan, but in reality estate planning is everything before that as well.  Incapacity can hit us at any time, and it’s imperative that you have your basic estate planning documents in place so that during those wonderful years, if you were unable to do something for yourself, somebody would be authorized to do it for you.  

Some basic items that we always recommend everybody to have in place is a Financial and a Medical Power of Attorney, as well as a Living Will.  These documents will allow you to make sure that your financial and medical decisions can be made for you if you are not able to make them.  It will avoid any fights with family members or anyone who you do not want to have access to your information and will also avoid the expense and the emotional heartbreak of a guardianship proceeding.  A Living Will will allow you to make your end of life decisions if you are “end stage medical”.  This is a period in time when two qualified physicians state in writing that there is no realistic hope of recovery, that a person will always remain vegetative, comatose, permanently unconscious, terminally ill.  If two doctors state this and that there is no realistic hope of recovery, a Living Will will allow you to decide whether you want heroic and lifesaving measures or whether you want them to withdraw treatment.  The most important piece is that the individual gets to decide for themselves, so that their loved ones don’t feel as though they had to make that difficult decision to pull the plug or to play “God”.  Finally, a Last Will and Testament will allow you to make the decisions about what will happen at your death and in the future, and along with your financial planner, who assisted you in making sure that you have enough money for retirement, they will, also, ensure that the assets are designated properly to go to the correct beneficiaries.  

Enjoying your time in retirement and enjoying those wonderful years will be much better knowing that you have protected yourself in case of an unforeseen incident or accident, et cetera.  The time to plan for that is now to allow you to enjoy each and every day to its fullest and not be worried about the worse-case scenario in case you didn’t plan. Enjoy those final years!

If you would like to learn more about this, please give us a call at 717-845-5390.

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Lawsuit Filed Against Estate of Driver in Vehicle Crash

Lawyer buried under paperworkBrian Rolando was killed on May 7, 2016 when his Hummer rear-ended a party bus about 3 AM in Paterson, New Jersey. His estate now faces some legal issues because of the circumstances surrounding his death.

Wealth Advisor notes in its June 26 article, “8 People Hurt In Party Bus Crash Sue Dead Driver's Estate,” that Rolando's father, Maurice, is also named as a defendant, because he owned the Hummer. The passengers are all under age 30.

In the complaint, the party bus passengers claim they suffered "serious and permanent injuries" from Rolando's alleged carelessness and recklessness. The passengers were leaving a party, when the crash occurred, says the office of the attorney who filed the lawsuit. Most of the plaintiffs’ injuries were to the neck and back, but some suffered head injuries.

In addition, the passengers have brought a claim against an unnamed business that’s thought to have served alcohol to Rolando before the crash. The passengers’ attorneys contend that Rolando was intoxicated. However, the specific business wasn’t named in the suit because attorneys have yet to determine the location where Rolando was allegedly drinking. In addition to Rolando, the suit names the party bus driver Tomasz Skorniewski. He worked for Gallery Limousine of New York, and is accused of recklessness, carelessness, and of maintaining or repairing the bus in a condition that contributed to the crash, the complaint states.

In addition to the drivers, the complaint names Philadelphia Indemnity, State Farm and GEICO insurance companies, claiming they failed to pay claims in the accident.

Brian Rolando was born in Wayne, NJ, and lived in West Milford for most of his life, before moving to Fair Lawn. His obituary said that he was a security guard who earned an associate's degree in criminal justice. He was studying biology/pre-med with honors at Montclair State University, with plans of becoming a cardiologist.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (June 26, 2017) “8 People Hurt In Party Bus Crash Sue Dead Driver's Estate”

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