Do I Really Need a Divorce Lawyer?

divorce dictionary entry with two rings

Do I Need a Divorce Lawyer? | NOVAEstateLawyers.com

Divorce can be one of the most stressful events in your life, from an emotional, financial, and legal standpoint. For this reason, if you need to file for divorce in Virginia, it’s recommended that you do so with the help of an experienced divorce lawyer – especially if you and your spouse have minor children together.

There are some cases in which a DIY divorce could be possible, with a little DIY legal help. However, you may want to consider the benefits of retaining an attorney first. Here’s how to decide what’s right for your situation.

When should you hire a divorce attorney?

Though it’s always advisable to hire a divorce lawyer, it is especially important to do so when you’re in a complicated situation related to finances, custody of children, or other sensitive legal matters with your spouse.

Here’s when you should hire a divorce lawyer:

  • You own a business with your spouse: It can be difficult to figure out how to properly divide assets and ownership of a business, so a divorce attorney will be invaluable. You’ll also need appraisers to assess the business’ worth, and possibly consultants.
  • You expect a child custody battle: If you expect your spouse to challenge you on custody arrangements for your minor children, you’ll likely need a divorce lawyer to represent you in the case.
  • You have significant assets: It will be much harder to divide assets if you and your spouse have more than one bank account, properties, vehicles, and other assets that need to be fairly divided. An attorney can help represent you and your needs in court.
  • You were the victim of domestic abuse: A spouse who is verbally or physically abusive could intimidate or coerce you into a divorce deal that is unfavorable if you choose a DIY divorce. An attorney can be your voice and advocate.
  • You or your spouse are/were in the military: A military divorce can be much more complex. A lawyer can help with the division of military pension, benefits, and more.

If you’re at all unsure of the legal process involved for filing for divorce in Virginia, your best bet is to hire a divorce lawyer. The professional will be your guide throughout, including helping with paperwork, explaining the process, and helping you understand what you can expect at each stage.

When can you use DIY legal help for your divorce?

Not all divorces are bitter, nasty battles. Sometimes a mutual decision to split with a spouse can be amicable and both parties agree to work out the terms of their divorce on their own. If this is the case for you, you and your spouse may be able to represent yourselves (also known as appearing pro se) in your divorce case.

Here are a few scenarios in which a DIY divorce could be feasible:

  • You have no children, or no minor children: With no child custody and visitation issues at stake, the divorce process may be simpler for you and your spouse. You may be able to lean on the support of a mediator, who can help decide what’s fair for both parties
  • You expect an uncontested divorce: If you and your spouse can amicably divide your assets and debts, you may wish to create a divorce settlement agreement upon separating. Once you meet Virginia’s separation period criteria, you may then file for an uncontested divorce. If you go this route, a DIY legal coach can help you through the required paperwork and filing steps, so you can feel prepared to represent yourself in court..
  • You have limited funds: Not everyone can afford to retain a divorce lawyer throughout their case. However, DIY legal help can be an affordable option if you require assistance. You’ll get the help of an attorney, the paperwork you need to fill out, file, and document, and guidance.

Consult an experienced family law attorney

No one should have to go it alone in divorce proceedings. A divorce lawyer is meant to help you navigate a stressful and emotional situation. Even if you are unsure whether you need an attorney for your divorce case, it is always advisable to consult with a legal professional before filing any court paperwork.

Remember, a DIY divorce is possible in certain circumstances, but having the help of an attorney is indispensable. My Legal Case Coach, a division of the Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, makes it affordable to get the DIY legal assistance you need, so you can get through your divorce without creating additional hardship for yourself.

If you’re planning to file for divorce in Virginia and would like to hire an attorney, contact us to learn how we can help.

You’ve Been Named as Estate Executor – Now What?

last will and testament document

An Overview of the Virginia Probate Court Process – NOVAEstateLawyers.com

If you’ve been named as executor of your loved one’s estate, you will serve a key role in the probate court process, which is how assets of a deceased individual’s assets that pass through a will reach any named beneficiaries therein.

Probate is necessary to ensure, first, that a decedent’s final debts and expenses are paid, and, second, that the beneficiaries named in the will receive their inheritance. Under court-supervision, an executor is responsible for overseeing this process.

Executorship is a big responsibility, and it can seem especially overwhelming during this already difficult and painful time for you and your loved one’s other living relatives. This step-by-step guide will help you understand the probate court process in Commonwealth of Virginia, including the initial forms to file and how to prepare for your meeting with the probate court clerk.

Note: This guide covers the basic probate process when the decedent (deceased individual) left a valid last will and testament. If your loved one died intestate (without a valid will), you should consult with an experienced probate / estate planning attorney for specific guidance related to your particular matter to understand the probate process for an intestate estate.

1. Determine which court forms you’ll need and where to file them.

With a few exceptions, Virginia’s probate process is controlled by required PDF court forms issued by the Virginia Supreme Court.  Some Circuit Courts also have their own customized, specific forms for their local Court, so it is always smart to contact your local Circuit Court to ask for any specific website address that they may have to link you to their local forms.  In Virginia, Probate Matters are under the supervision of the Circuit Court in the city or county where the decedent resided at the time of his or her death, especially if they owned property in that city or county.  However, if they did not own any real estate and died in a hospital, then there may be grounds to file for probate in the city or county where they died. Each Circuit in Virginia has an arm of its court called a Commissioner of Accounts, who handles the ongoing supervision of the filings with the Court.

If your loved one owned more than one residence in Virginia, you’ll file in the local court of the city in which they last resided. You’ll also need to record a certified copy of the original will in the city or county where their other properties are located.  However, real estate itself does not go through Probate automatically in Virginia, and it is prudent to contact an experienced Probate attorney to determine how to handle any and all real estate of the decedent before you file anything with a local Circuit Court related to the probate process.

After you consult an attorney, to ensure you know the right next steps and what asserts will actually need to be reported to the Circuit Court, you (or your attorney) locate the applicable “Forms for Decedent’s Estate” on the appropriate local Circuit Court’s website needed to begin the qualification process to serve as Executor and prepare for the initial reporting process for the assets that will flow through your loved one’s Probate Estate.

While there are several optional forms you can file (including a waiver of executorship affidavit, if you wish to decline your duties), the most common forms you initially need to prepare are as follows:

  • Probate Information Form
  • List of Heirs
  • Notice Sent to Heirs and Beneficiaries
  • Probate Tax Return Form

You will need to prepare the forms above before your first meeting with the probate clerk at the Circuit Court where you are filing (see Step 2).  Some local Courts, like Fairfax Circuit Court’s Probate Division, will actually help you with all these forms as long as you call them to schedule an appointment with their office.  Appointments can take 2 months or longer to schedule as this Court is one of the busiest in the Commonwealth. This is why it is best to contact the local Probate Clerk of the Circuit Court where you believe you will be filing to ask them about their specific process and how soon you may schedule a qualification meeting with them.

2. Schedule a qualification meeting with the local probate clerk.

Once you have completed the forms from Step 1, you will attend an initial qualification meeting to be sworn in by the Probate Clerk to serve as Executor for the Estate.  You may also need to obtain a bond, if bond has not been waived in the Will or if you are not a resident of Virginia, so make sure you know what is expected of you by the Court before this meeting (see Step 3). You also must bring a valid driver’s license or passport as well as your checkbook to pay any applicable filing fees and initial probate taxes. Once you are qualified, you can then reimburse yourself from the Probate Assets that you will be located, depositing, and managing under a new bank account called a Probate Bank Account.

3. Apply for a probate bond and appoint a local registered agent (if you’re a non-Virginia resident).

If you plan to be the Executor of an estate but are not a resident of Virginia, you must apply for a probate bond, which is local insurance company that guarantees your services Executor.  You’ll also need to appoint a Virginia resident to serve as a local registered agent for you, using a Consent of Non-Resident Fiduciary form.  Sometimes, if you hire a local Virginia attorney to help you, they can agree to serve as your local agent in Virginia for this purpose.  Be aware that if you are a convicted felon or have filed for bankruptcy, you may not qualify for a bond and may also have to resign to serve as the Executor in favor of one of the alternate Executors named in your loved one’s Will.

4. Get a tax identification number from the IRS and set up a probate bank account.

At the end of your initial qualification meeting, the Court will issue you what is known as a Letter of Appointment (once known as Letters Testamentary).  You should obtain at least 6 certified copies of these in addition to the 2 free certified copies given to you by the Court, because you will need to provide them to banks, taxing authorities, and more during your service as Executor.  You will then be able to go to IRS.gov and obtain a tax identification number called an EIN that you will use to open up the Probate Bank Account in which to manage all the cash assets of the Probate Estate.  You cannot open such an account without the EIN.  This account will be used to pay debts and other estate-related expenses. Any remaining money will eventually be transferred to the beneficiaries from this account.

5. Determine whether you need to file additional forms based on the size of your loved one’s estate.

During Step 1, you may learn that the Estate you are handling qualifies for something called Expedited Probate (e.g., you are the sole beneficiary-surviving spouse and Executor, and assets passing to you thru the Will are $25,000 or less in value) or  Small Estate Treatment (e.g., asset involve only bank accounts valued at less than $50,000). If the decedent’s estate does qualify for such treatment, you will be done with Probate. You may simply need to fill out a special affidavit form to complete the court process.

If your loved one died with a larger estate, there will be several more steps and forms to file. At this point, we highly recommend speaking with an experienced estate planning attorney to help you complete the probate court process.

Your attorney can guide you through the remaining steps you’ll need to take as an estate executor and potentially help you reduce probate costs. He or she can also help you fill out the proper forms for your situation and keep the process moving to ensure your loved one’s estate distributions are handled efficiently.

Our law office can help with your probate court matter.

The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C. been serving the Estate Planning and Probate needs of Northern Virginia families for more than 15 years. Contact us today for guidance on honoring your loved one’s wishes as the executor of their estate.

How Do I Become a Minor Child’s Legal Guardian?

guardian holding a young child's hand

How Do I Become the Legal Guardian of a Minor Child? NOVAEstateLawyers.com

Legal guardianship is a very common family law topic in Virginia. When an individual is appointed as a legal guardian, they are recognized as having the legal authority and responsibility to act in another person’s best interests, on that person’s behalf.

While you may seek to become the legal guardian of an adult child or relative who is incapacitated or otherwise unable to make legal decisions for themselves, this post focuses on the process of seeking guardianship of a minor child. Here’s what you need to know about legal guardianship in the Commonwealth of Virginia.

What are the rights and responsibilities of a legal guardian?

As a legal guardian of a minor child, you are legally responsible for that child’s safety and well-being and must manage his or her personal affairs. This typically involves assuming physical custody of the child from their natural parents, and making important decisions regarding their education, care, health, discipline, finances, and more. In other words, a prospective legal guardian must be able to provide a suitable and safe permanent residence for the child in question, and be able to provide for his or her basic needs.

Legal guardianship is not the same as adopting a child. Assuming the child’s natural parents are still alive and consenting to the guardianship arrangements (i.e. not having custody revoked as an unfit parent), their parental rights are generally not terminated. They often still have the right to participate in the decisions made by a legal guardian on behalf of the child, even if they are not physically present. This being the case, the child’s natural parents may still be involved in his or her financial affairs, including management of the child’s estate.

If there are financial difficulties for the parents and/or the legal guardian in providing for the child, the Court may or may not approve a request for relief. For example, the Virginia Kinship Guardian Program (KinGap) offers eligible families financial assistance to guardians to facilitate the care and maintenance of a child in their extended family.

Common reasons to appoint a legal guardian for a minor child

In most cases of legal guardianship, a minor child’s natural parents select the guardian(s) to ensure continued care and safety of that child when they are unable to do so themselves. A few common reasons where a legal guardian may have to step in include:

  • The death of one or both natural parents (this is typically addressed in the parents’ will)
  • Long-term illness of one or both natural parents
  • Incarceration of one or both natural parents
  • Addiction recovery/rehabilitation of one or both natural parents
  • Other extenuating circumstances wherein the natural parents’ home is unsafe or unfit for the minor child (e.g. civil or political unrest in their home country)

If parents have not appointed a legal guardian for their minor child in these circumstances, it’s possible that the child could go into the foster system. Legal guardianship, particularly by a relative of the child, is generally preferred to foster parents: Research shows that children who live with relatives are more likely to enjoy their living situation and feel loved/cared for, and are less likely to have behavioral issues than children who are placed into the foster care system by the state with non-relatives.

How to petition for guardianship of a minor child

If you are petitioning to be appointed as the legal guardian of a minor child in Virginia, here are the steps you will need to take with your local Circuit Court for an uncontested case*:

  1. Complete, sign, and notarize a Petition for Appointment of Guardian(s) of a Minor. This form establishes your intent and reason(s) to assume guardianship of the minor child and confirms that you are a suitable caregiver. If natural parents are living, they should also sign and notarize this form. Minor children over the age of 14 may sign the Petition for their own guardianship appointment as well.
  2. Obtain completed Exhibits from the child’s natural parents, including a copy of the child’s birth certificate and a letter of consent from the natural parents supporting your Petition (or certified copies of the parents’ death certificates if deceased).
  3. Complete, sign, and notarize a Consent Order for Appointment of Guardian(s) of a Minor. Be sure to leave space for a judge to sign and date the order. Living natural parents and minors over the age of 14 should also sign and notarize this form.
  4. Complete a Cover Sheet for Filing Civil Actions (Form CC-1416). Also known as the Virginia Civil Cover Sheet, this form is required to file any civil case in a Circuit Court in the Commonwealth of Virginia.
  5. File all of the above forms in person with the Civil Court where the minor child currently decides, along with the Court filing fee. If the child is not yet a Virginia resident, you may need to first file a Petition in a court where the child resides, requesting permission to relocate them to Virginia.

*Uncontested guardianship cases mean that any living natural parents support the appointment of a legal guardian for their child. If the natural parents do not give their consent, there may be additional Court hearings and steps in the process. Please consult with a family law attorney to understand the steps in a contested guardianship case.

What if the child is not a U.S. citizen?

Assuming legal guardianship of a minor child whose parents who are living abroad is not an uncommon scenario here in Virginia. The Court documents and process are roughly the same. However, in your petition and in the natural parents’ letter of consent, you will need to specifically address the circumstances in the parents’ country of residence that render it unsafe or unfit for the minor child to live there. You may also need to submit additional Exhibits as required by the Court.

Ask an experienced family law attorney

While it is possible to represent yourself in court when seeking appointment as a child’s legal guardian, working with a family law attorney can ensure that you don’t miss any important steps in the legal process. Our law practice has been helping Northern Virginia families with guardianship cases since 2001, and we are dedicated to working toward the best possible outcome for the child, the parents, and the guardian.

Are you seeking guardianship of an incapacitated adult child or relative? We can help with that, too. Contact the Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor for more information.

How to Update Your Estate Plan After a Divorce

estate planning after divorce

Updating Your Estate Plans After a Divorce
NOVA Estate Lawyers – Leesburg, VA

The divorce process is often a very long and painful one. Although you may have already moved on emotionally, some legal aspects of your life can’t move forward until your divorce is finalized by the court.

When you do receive that long-awaited divorce decree, one of your first priorities should be updating your estate plans. If you didn’t enter into a settlement agreement or obtain a “divorce from bed and board” during your separation period, your spouse may still have been entitled to inherit as much as 50 percent of your estate if you die during that time. Once you’re no longer legally married, your ex cannot benefit from your estate unless you want them to.

One exception is retirement accounts and life insurance if governed by federal law. You must update your beneficiary designations to remove your ex’s name from them if you want to be certain they do not inherit from you (see more on this below).

Which estate planning documents should I update post-divorce?

Following your divorce, you’ll want to review all your essential estate planning documents to see where your spouse is named. Here are a few common items to address:

Your will. As mentioned above, an ex-spouse won’t inherit anything left to them in your pre-divorce will, nor will they be allowed to serve as your executor if you named them as such. But if you don’t appoint a new executor and beneficiaries for your estate, a probate court will decide that for you. To reduce time, frustration, and costs for your family, make sure your will gets a thorough revision after your divorce. It’s important to note that any bequests to an ex-spouse’s family members will still be valid, so considering changing those as well.

Trust arrangements. Unlike your will, spousal trust arrangements are not automatically voided upon divorce. If you named your spouse as a trustee or beneficiary in your revocable living trust, consult with an estate planning attorney to make the appropriate changes. Unfortunately, if your trust was irrevocable, you cannot change it to exclude your ex-spouse unless that trust contains administrative provisions at the time it was originally drafted that permit you to void the document if you and your ex ever divorce.  In addition,  if you never funded that irrevocable trust, then you could control what happens with it by simply choosing to create a new trust and never titling any assets into the old irrevocable trust created during your marriage.

Power of attorney agreements. In Virginia, a durable general power of attorney (for financial decisions) where a spouse is the agent is deemed invalid upon filing for divorce or separation. However, a durable medical power of attorney – which lets your agent make medical decisions for you if you’re incapacitated – still stands, even after a divorce. If your spouse is currently named as your POA agent, change these designations as soon as possible.  If you’re entering into a settlement agreement, make sure it contains provisions that revoke your spouse’s role under all powers of attorney executed by you during the marriage.

Legal guardianship designations. If you and your ex have minor children, you likely named a legal guardian together in your wills in the unlikely event you both died. While courts typically grant custody to a child’s other parent when one dies (unless they are deemed “unfit”), be sure that any other guardians named in your will are people you still feel comfortable with, such as an in-law.

Direct beneficiary accounts. Insurance policies, retirement plans, and other “payable on death” accounts have their own separate beneficiary paperwork. By law, certain policies will not pay out to an ex-spouse, but it’s still important to appoint new beneficiaries after your divorce to ensure your money goes where you want it to.

What if I want to keep my ex-spouse in my estate plan?

The Commonwealth of Virginia automatically negates any inheritance to an ex-spouse in wills written prior to a finalized divorce. However, there may be circumstances in which you still want your include your ex in your estate plan, particularly if you have minor children.

If you want to leave money or property to your ex-spouse specifically for the care for your children, the best way to do this is to create a revocable living trust. This allows you to title your property in the name of your trust and then appoint your ex as the trustee, who manages the assets on behalf of your children until they reach adulthood. If you don’t already have a trust, an attorney can help you create one.

If you have an amicable relationship with your now-ex and still want to leave property directly to them, all you have to do is write this into a valid post-divorce will.

Ask an estate planning attorney.

Even if you know exactly how you want to change your will, trust, power of attorney agreements, etc. post-divorce, you should still consult with an estate planning attorney to make sure your documents have the proper legal language and offer the maximum benefits for your loved ones.

Located in Northern Virginia, The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C. is experienced in both estate law and family law, so we are uniquely positioned to help with your estate planning needs after your divorce is final. Contact us today to get started.

Gifting as an Estate Planning Tool: What You Need to Know

lifetime gifting for estate planning

Gifting as an Estate Planning Tool
NOVA Estate Lawyers – Leesburg, VA

For many people, passing on money and property to their loved ones happens after they die. However, if you have a sizable estate, you may not want to wait until then to give your heirs their full inheritance.

Under current federal law, individual estates valued above $10 million or $20 million per couple (indexed for inflation each year through tax year 2025 – so for 2018, the amounts are $11.2 million and $22.4 million, respectively) are subject to a 40 percent federal estate tax at the top rate. Strategic lifetime or inter vivos gifting can reduce the size of your taxable estate before your death, and help your beneficiaries avoid this hefty financial burden.

Qualified gifting is the complete and irrevocable transfer of assets from one person to another, where the giver does not receive anything in return. Certain IRS exemptions allow you to make these gifts completely tax-free, provided their values fall within the federally allowed limits. Going above these allowable amounts means that you, as the giver, are obligated to report the gift to the IRS and pay a federal gift tax.

If you plan to use gifting as an estate planning tool, you’ll want to plan out your giving and time it properly, so you and your loved ones can avoid as much estate-related taxation as possible. Here is a basic overview of annual and lifetime gifting exemptions, and how you can make the most of them.

Annual Gift Tax Exclusion

For tax year 2018, the annual gift tax exclusion allows you to give any single individual up to $15,000 per calendar year, tax-free. That means if you have three children and give each of them $15,000 this year (or $30,000, if you are married and you and your spouse “split” the gift), you do not need to pay gift tax. However, if you give one child $16,000 in a single year, $1,000 of that is considered taxable, and counts against your allowable lifetime gift amount (see below).

By the same token, your recipient does not have to report annual gifts under $15,000 as income, but they must report any income or interest earned directly from that gift.

Lifetime Gift Tax Exemption

The lifetime gift tax exemption is connected to the estate tax exemption: The $10 million limit is the combined amount that you can give away prior to death and leave to others after death, without being subject to federal taxes. This means that if you give away $5 million in non-exempt gifts while you’re alive, only $5 million of your remaining estate is tax-exempt, and your estate must pay taxes on anything beyond that amount.

If you are married at the time of your death, your surviving spouse is entitled to their own individual exemption plus any of your unused exemption, if you properly invoke portability in your estate plans.

You must also consider that the estate tax exemption is currently set to return to its previous $5 million individual limit in 2026. If you are young and unlikely to pass away before then, you’ll want to adjust your gifting plans accordingly.

Exceptions to the rules

There are a few gifting scenarios that do not count toward the above limits:

  • Marital gifts. If both spouses as U.S. citizens, they can make unlimited lifetime gifts to one another without paying taxes on those gifts.
  • Medical and educational gifts. Payments made directly toward a dependent-beneficiary’s medical services or education (e.g. tuition expenses) is not included in your lifetime gifting amount.
  • Charitable gifts. You do not have to pay gift tax on gifts given to qualifying organizations like charities, religious or educational institutions, government agencies, and 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organizations.

You can learn more about gifting, including specific information about the state laws in Virginia, in our blog post.

Talk to an estate planning attorney about gifting.

If you’re considering making gifts to reduce your taxable estate, it’s important to speak with an experienced attorney who can educate you on federal gift tax laws and other implications of lifetime giving. You can also work with your estate planning lawyer to create a strategic gifting plan that reduces your taxable estate while leaving you enough to support yourself.

The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C. has been assisting Northern Virginia individuals with their estate plans since 2001, and we’d love to help you create the best strategy for your family’s future. Contact us today to talk about your unique estate planning needs.

The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C.
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(703) 669-6700

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