Do-it-yourself estate planning tools are everywhere; whether we see a commercial for LegalZoom or a CD of legal forms at the local Office Depot, we are told that
Nol Nonsense Skeptical Judgelegal drafting is something we can do without outside help, for minimal cost, just by filling in a few blanks on a form.  Probably the biggest attraction to this idea is the issue of expense . . . if a will can be drafted online for minimal cost, why consider an alternative?

The simple answer is that the cost is minimal . . . today.  Talk to any experienced attorney who brings estate planning documents to probate court, and ask him or her what it’s like to probate a do-it-yourself will.  The answer will likely revolve around the thousands of dollars that attorney earns by unraveling ambiguous language and missed planning opportunities.  Both the money to pay for these services and the heartache that goes along with it lies squarely with the heirs to your estate.

Part One of this blog series discusses the over-arching problem with do-it-yourself planning: there are no do-overs.  By the time the mistakes are uncovered, it is too late.  Part Two discussed an all-to common problem with online document: improper execution.  Part Three deals with the common misconceptions about “simple wills;” unfortunately, there is no such thing, particularly for those with minor children.  This brings us to Part Four:

Misunderstanding Probate and Non-Probate Property

My clients are often surprised that a will always goes through probate, which is the court proceedings by which your debts are paid and your assets are distributed to those you specify in your will (or, absent a will, you assets are distributed according to your state’s intestacy statute).  A will is not a probate-avoidance tool; a properly drafted and executed will replaces your state’s intestacy statute and tells your personal representative and the probate court what to do with your probate property.

Note those last two words: probate property. Your will only controls probate property; it does not control non-probate property.  Probate property is property held in your name only (not jointly with another person), which does not have a beneficiary designation or other pay-on-death designation.  If you house is titled in your name alone, or titled as tenants in common, it is guided by your will.  Same for banking or investment accounts without beneficiary designations and your tangible personal property (your “stuff,” like furniture).

Assets that are held jointly with another person or that have beneficiary or other pay-on-death designations (such as most retirement accounts and life insurance policies) are non-probate property.  Not only do these assets skip the probate process (assuming the beneficiary designation is properly drafted), these assets are not controlled by your will unless you fail to provide a beneficiary designation or if you designate your estate as your beneficiary (the reasons to never do this are numerous).  If you name your spouse as your 401(k) beneficiary, then write in your will that your 401(k) goes to your church, your church is out of luck.  The beneficiary designation governs.  The same applies to jointly-owned property.

If you wanted to skip probate altogether, there are estate planning tools that would allow you to do so, such as a properly drafted and properly funded revocable trust (with special emphasis on “properly”).  A revocable trust takes your tangible property, real estate, cars, bank accounts, and anything else without a beneficiary designation and turns it into non-probate property.  Do not attempt this on your own.

An understanding of the different types of property and different types of property rights is inherently a key part of a proper estate plan. An estate planner can guide you through this process and will understand what the probate court will be looking for, and what will cause probate and non-probate property to pass correctly (and incorrectly).   Minor beneficiaries, for example, cannot inherit property because they cannot legally own it; consider how many people have named their minor children as the beneficiaries of their IRA and 401K plans.  This will create big problems because these non-probate assets have improper beneficiary designations; what would have been a non-probate asset will now likely go through the probate court system, and the attorney bills for this work will be paid from the assets.

Talk to an estate planning attorney about what is right for your family.  No two families are the same, and no two estate plans will be the same either.  An estate planner doesn’t just draft documents; he or she will also guide you through proper disposition of all property.  Let me know how I can help.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

Everyone has heard of some sort of do-it yourself estate planning software; whether it’s
Rocket Lawyer of LegalZoom, we’re lead to believe that writing your own will is a simple task that can be done online without any outside assistance.  Sadly, when these legal
Discussion between husband and wifedocuments are actually needed, it almost always results in financial and emotional headaches for family members.  In Part 1 of this blog series I discusses the nature of estate planning as it applies to “do-overs” (there are none).  In Part 2 I discussed one of the most common mistakes with do-it-yourself estate plans, which is the failure to follow your states laws for proper execution—improper signatures make your will as enforceable as a pile of scrap paper.  This week’s topic is the failure to understand the probate process, often dismissed with the following phrase:

It’s Just a Simple Will

I once heard an attorney say that “simple wills are for simple minds.” I don’t think that was meant to be as dismissive as it sounds . . . I think the message there may be if you think a will is a simple document, you may be lacking some imagination.  Consider this (absolutely true, non-hypothetical) example: An elderly mother has her basic plan in mind: she wants to divide her estate, which consists of a $300,000 house and a $300,000 bank account, evenly among her two adoring adult children.  She drafts a will where she leaves the house to her son (where he can live) and the bank account to her daughter.  That’s $300,000 each, which means things are completely equal, right?

Even if her estate plan were carried through properly, I would argue that an illiquid asset that requires maintenance and upkeep, taxes and utilities, and a real estate commission if sold is not an equal gift when compared to $300,000 in cash.  But even so, on its face, the math seems to work—it’s an even split between the two kids.  But what the mother did not take into account are the expenses she would require at the end of her life.  She spend the bank account down substantially.  At her death, the son wanted the house, and was entitled to it under the will.  The daughter believed her mother’s intent that the estate be divided equally had been defeated.

Imagine family members suing each other over a “simple” estate plan. That super-simple will became a super-awful lawsuit among family members.  It was a very easy mistake to make, a very common misconception among those trying to draft a do-it-yourself estate plan, and it’s a completely true story (Cf. Matter of Estate of Tateo, 338 N.J. Super. 121 (App. Div. 2001)).

A competent estate planning attorney will advise the client that there is no such thing as a “simple will.”  Even when a young couple comes to me and asks what I charge for a “simple will,” I have to make sure they understand that if they have minor children, they will need to appoint guardians, and they will need the will to create a testamentary trust that can accept property on their children’s behalf, since children can’t inherit property.  Add to that the desire to get favorable tax treatment for your kids from IRA and 401K plans, and you have already gone past what most consider to be a “simple will.”  There is no such thing.

An estate planning attorney will guide you and your family through what is a highly technical process.  Your intent, though simple on its face, is rarely so when it actually needs to be put into a legal document.  I love working with folks on their “simple” plans, and I promise to make the complex less so.  Let me know how I can help.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

Do-it-yourself estate planning and document drafting is something that’s gotten a lot of attention lately; it was one of the first things I wrote about on this blog.  I revisited the issue in Part 1 of this blog series, where I discussed the big problem with do-it-yourselfers ?????????????????when it comes to estate planning documents: there are no do-overs.  If you make a mistake with your plan, the obvious nature of estate planning is that you will not be around to fix it.  This can cause expensive court proceedings and put additional emotional and financial pressure on your family during a time when they are already under an enormous amount of stress.  It also can completely capsize your planning goals.  These mistakes are the rule, not the exception; most probate attorneys will have more stories about do-it-yourself catastrophes than successes.

So what are the big things that trip up a do-it-yourself plan?  Some are obvious, some less so. This week I’ll discuss one of the most common (and most obvious) problems with these documents:

Improper Execution

A frequently cited case about do-it-yourself estate planning kits is In Re Will of Feree (369 N.J. Super. 136).  In this case, a man created his will from a do-it-yourself kit he purchased, and signed the document.  After he died the will was presented to the probate court; because the will did not have proper witnesses, it was deemed invalid, and was set aside.  The family tried to appeal what seemed to them an obviously incorrect probate court outcome; tens of thousands of dollars later it was affirmed that an improperly witnessed will is less valuable than the paper it’s printed on.  This is a typical case, and you don’t have to do a lot of legal research to find similar situations.  If you take an hour to observe some probate proceedings in Hennepin County, you won’t have to wait long to see a judge set a will aside for not having the proper signatures (but I wouldn’t recommend this as an efficient use of your time).

If an estate planning document does not have the correct signatures and witnesses, it is not an estate planning document.  A will without witnesses is not a will.  Consider if I created a “contract” for services, the gist of which is that you owe me a million dollars.  Assuming you never signed such a thing, and I tried to enforce it against you, would I succeed?  Probably not.  Intricacies of contract law aside, if you haven’t agreed to the terms of the contract, the contract doesn’t exist, even though I am holding a piece of paper that says “contract” at the top of it.  The same applies for your will: you can call it a “will” if you want to, but without the right formalities, it’s just a pile of scrap paper.

Improper execution is probably one of the easier mistakes to avoid, yet is one of the most misunderstood and one of the most common reasons a will is set aside by the probate court.  After all, the logic goes, if I put my wishes in writing, that’s what my family will do, right?  But of course it’s not up to the family — the probate process is a legal one, and in our country of laws, the rules created by the legislature are what governs.

There are a few states that recognize “holographic” wills — these are wills that are typically hand written and don’t have any witnesses at all.  Minnesota is not one of these states.  If your will is not witnessed properly, then the probate court will set it aside and will apply the Minnesota intestacy statute.

Improper execution of estate planning documents is just one of the problems probate attorneys see every day, and is probably one of the easiest problems to avoid.  Of course, an estate plan with proper signatures is still only as strong as the plan itself, and most people who write their own will tend to confuse estate plan with estate document.  They are very different things; a properly executed document that represents a poorly conceived plan could actually cause more problems than no will at all.  I’ll discuss this further in my upcoming additions to this series.  Until then, please let me know if I can help.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

I’ve written before about the risks of do-it-yourself estate planning and document drafting.  Since then, as I’ve given more presentations and had more conversations with those who have either tried drafting their own documents or considered using a “document service” (such as Legalzoom or Rocket Lawyer), I’ve noticed a pattern of errors and misunderstandings when it comes to the basics.  Since these issues come up so often, I thought I would address them directly; this is part one of a five-part blog series on the risks of creating these complex documents without the assistance of an estate planning attorney.  The first problem on my list for do-it-yourselfers:

There Are No Do-Overs

Re-Do Red Button Redo Change Revision ImprovementI admit it, I’m a do-it-yourselfer when it comes to certain things.  As I’ve gotten a little older, I’ve learned some unfortunate truths about my handiwork.  I know, for example, that I don’t know how to put a new roof on my house.  I know that if I were to try, it would probably look ok, and it would probably mostly keep the water out.  But after one or two rains, I know I would grow frustrated and I would end up hiring someone who knows what they are doing to just re-do the whole project.  This means I would likely pay for this project twice . . . once on the cheap, and once for quality work after I realize it my own roof job didn’t turn out how I had hoped.

And who could blame me?  Why would I want to pay someone thousands of dollars to re-roof the house when I could just read a book and do it myself?  Why would I hire someone to build a fence around my yard when I can just rent the tools at Home Depot?  Why have someone sand and stain my floors when I can just do it over a summer on my own time?

The problem with this anecdote as it applies to estate planning is that once you or your family realizes the roof is leaking, it’s too late.  If you thought your health care directive would help someone make health care decisions for you, but it wasn’t executed properly, it’s too late to fix it by the time you need it.  If you draft a will and you leave money to your minor children, it’s too late to fix it once the will is probated and it’s pointed out that minors can’t own property, or that your IRA and 401K beneficiaries aren’t drafted to match the rest of your plan.  It’s too late when the probate court sets aside your documents because they had the wrong signatures (in Minnesota, if you don’t have two witnesses to your signature, your will becomes someone’s scrap paper).  It’s too late when your family realizes you didn’t update your will after your divorce, or after the birth of your new child, or after you had grandchildren.  It’s too late once it’s realized that your distribution plan has an ambiguity, and your family will be spending thousands of dollars on a formal probate proceeding, or that the person you appointed as a guardian for your children is unable to act, and you didn’t appoint a backup.

There are ways to make your estate planning goals a reality, but there is no getting around the fact that this area of law is highly technical and is fraught with ways to make things very, very difficult for your family.  Your family doesn’t need the added dose of confusion and heartache that bad legal documents will bring.  Consider carefully the benefits of having your estate planning “house” roofed properly the first time; your family will know the difference.

Stay tuned for Part Two of my blog series, where I’ll talk about the next big misunderstanding about do-it-yourself planning: Kids Can’t Own Property.  If you have any questions about your plan, I’m here to help.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

I’d like to think my wife and I are on pleasant enough terms where I am never going to ask
Marriage and money concept of high wedding cost and divorcemyself this question: can I disinherit my spouse?  But the decision to disinherit somebody doesn’t always come about because you don’t like each other; there can be other reasons why it makes sense to leave your assets to someone other than your spouse.

One such reason might be that your spouse simply has enough assets in his or her own name and you have both agreed that your assets are best used somewhere else . . . perhaps in a trust for the education of your grand kids, or maybe for a charity that you support.  Another reason could be estate taxes — by leaving assets to another person (or to a trust), you prevent your spouse’s estate from getting so large that estate taxes will be due on his or her passing.  Yet another reason may be a concern that your spouse will be taken advantage of when you are gone, and you want assets to be held for him or her by a trustee.  So: can I disinherit my spouse?

Spousal Rights

The most important part of this answer is this: in Minnesota, you cannot — ever — disinherit your spouse through your will or trust document (by itself).  In Minnesota your spouse has a guaranteed right to his or her spousal share.  This means that even if your will is drafted to give all of your money goes to charity, and you change all of the beneficiaries of you IRAs and life insurance (your “non-probate” assets) to the names of your children, your spouse still has certain rights including the right to live in the house for his or her life and for some monthly support from the estate.

According to Minnesota law, your spouse also has a right to a percentage of the augmented estate.  The augmented state is (simplified) the value of your stuff plus the value of your spouse’s stuff.  If you and your spouse have been married for only a year, your spouse has a guaranteed right to three percent of the augmented estate.  This percentage increases every year of marriage until year fifteen, in which your spouse has a guaranteed right to fifty percent of the augmented estate — regardless of what you’ve written in your will or other planning documents, and regardless of how you’ve written your beneficiary designation for your non-probate accounts.   It follows that if at the fifteen-year mark the surviving spouse has more than fifty percent of your combined assets in his or her name already, then those assets already exceed half of the augmented estate and there is no additional claim to a spousal share.

Waiver of Rights

So, your spouse has a guaranteed, inalienable right to get a portion of your estate, right?  Not so fast.  There are three ways your spouse can forfeit his or her share.

  1. Pre-nuptial agreement:  Properly drafted, a pre-nuptial agreement can allow you and your spouse to disinherit each other.
  2. Post-nuptial agreement:  Your spouse can agree after you are married to forfeit certain property rights. This includes the right to his or her spousal share.
  3. Consent to will:  Your spouse can sign an acceptance of the terms of your will, including a will that completely disinherits him or her.

You’ll notice that all three of these options involve your spouse affirmatively giving permission to you to give his or her share to someone else.  This makes sense, since the spousal share is at its core a property right, and we can give away our property as we choose.  Your attorney should use extreme caution when drafting any of these three documents: your spouse should have his or her own attorney review the terms of the document to make sure he or she understands what is being given up and any consequences of doing so.

Disinheriting anyone is a big decision that can carry big legal consequences.  Make sure you contact an attorney who is experienced in estate planning before making any major decision that affects your loved ones.  Done properly, there are ways your assets may better serve your family than if they are all left to your husband or wife.  Please contact me so I can help.

creates wills and trusts for families who want to feel secure that their loved ones are cared-for. Philip is a trust and estate attorney based in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Philip is the author of Trustee University: The Guidebook to Best Practices for Family Trustees. available at Amazon.com in paperback or Kindle edition (free chapter available here!) He also works with trustees and beneficiaries who need help with their trusts. You can contact him here.

Keywords: trusts and estates, Minnesota wills, revocable trusts, estate attorney, probate, estate planning