Estate Planning Documents: What Do I Need?

estate planning documents

Essential Estate Planning Documents
NOVA Estate Lawyers – Leesburg, VA

You probably know you need to write a will to distribute your property and financial assets following your death. This is a good start, but for a comprehensive, complete estate plan, you’ll need a few more essential documents.

Other estate planning tools, such as a living trust and a power of attorney (POA) agreement, work in conjunction with your last will and testament to make sure your intentions are honored on all fronts. Without these additional documents, a probate court may have the final say over what happens to parts of your estate, a process that is both costly and potentially heartbreaking for your loved ones.

Before concluding that your estate plan is complete, be sure that you’ve determined whether you actually need all or some of the following estate planning documents to achieve your specific goals for your plan:

1. Last will and testament

When drafted according to your home state’s laws, your will is a binding legal document that tells a probate court how to follow your final wishes. Every will needs an executor – whether it’s a family member, friend, or trusted professional like an attorney – to oversee the management of your assets after your death. This person will pay your final debts and expenses, file estate taxes, and make distributions to your named beneficiaries.  They will also distribute items from your tangible property list to named beneficiaries if you leave such a list.

2. Revocable living trust

While you still always need a will, many estate planning attorneys recommend distributing some property via a revocable living trust. A trustee of your choosing will manage the assets titled into the name of your trust (before and after your death) – without court interference – on behalf of the beneficiary you designate.  If you decide to add a living trust to your estate plan, then you can have a very simple will that functions as what’s called a “pour-over will,” to allow your executor to merely serve to transfer to the control of your trustee and your trust any assets that you did not title in the trust prior to your death, did not name the trust as the beneficiary of prior to your death, or did not name a living person to receive at your death.

3. Durable general power of attorney and durable medical power of attorney

The person(s) you name in your power of attorney agreements are the ones who have the legal right to make financial and healthcare decisions for you if you become incapacitated during your lifetime. Your POA agents should be individuals whom you trust to act in your best interest if you are mentally or physically unable to communicate your intentions.

4. Beneficiary designations:  Guidance on Non-Probate Planning

Most people know that for assets such as retirement plans and insurance policies, you need to fill out the beneficiary designation forms provided by the company that holds your account. Forms for such assets supersede your will instructions, so always keep them up-to-date, especially if you’ve had any recent major life changes.  However, you can do this with many other types of assets and are encouraged to seek guidance on doing so as part of a comprehensive estate plan.

5. Legal guardianship designation

If you have minor children, you’ll need to choose a trusted legal guardian to care for them if you become disabled or die before they are of age. It’s wise to have this discussion with your potential guardian before naming them in your estate plans. If you don’t, the process can be costly and stressful for the children and family members to deal with, including home visits, possible foster family care, and court appearance to have someone appointed guardian.

Optional: Letter of intent

Although it’s not considered a legally valid estate planning document, you may want to create a letter of intent to guide your estate executor with specific instructions to follow upon your death, including potential funeral arrangements.  Such letters could be a good way to communicate your final burial wishes or the reasons for making certain gifts to certain beneficiaries.   Lastly, such letters might also help a probate court interpret your will and intentions if any part of it is called into question.

Need estate planning forms? Speak with your attorney.

Not sure where to begin with your estate plan documentation? The The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C. can help. We have been assisting Northern Virginia families with their estate planning needs since 2001.

Contact us today to learn how we can help you create the best plan for your family’s future, and ensure that all the necessary forms are complete and legally sound.

The True Costs of Probate: How to Save Your Loved Ones Money

Probate costs and fees

How to Save on Probate Costs and Fees
NOVA Estate Lawyers – Leesburg, VA

You might think you can save on estate planning costs by skipping the lawyer and writing your own will, or forgoing a will altogether. While a good estate planning attorney does cost money, their fees pale in comparison to what your loved ones will have to pay if your assets get tied up in probate court.

Probate is the process through which a deceased person’s estate is divided and distributed among his or her named beneficiaries if there is a will or to the heirs, as defined by statute, if there is no will. If a person dies intestate (without a will), a probate court will approve an administrator to manage the distribution of the deceased person’s estate as well as the payment to the administrator for providing these management services under the court’s supervision.  Assets where no will exists or where a will is improperly drafted may pass to persons you might never have intended to benefit from your estate.  In addition, if there are not sufficient assets passing through the will, your beneficiaries therein may not (due to improper planning) receive all that you might have otherwise desired.

Even if you write a will and designate your beneficiaries, a probate court still needs to review and accept the document before your beneficiaries receive their inheritance – and you can be certain that the court will take a percentage of it before passing it on.

What are some common probate fees an estate has to pay?

Like any court proceeding, the probate process will incur certain fees that are taken out of your estate, thereby reducing the total value of assets received by your beneficiaries or heirs. Here are a few common probate costs your loved ones may have to deal with upon your death:

  • Court fees. The probate court takes its fees out of your estate’s total value, as dictated by state law.
  • Appraisal fees. To determine the value of your property (both real and personal) and any business interests you owned at the time of your death, your estate will need to pay an appraiser.
  • Executor/Administrator fees. The executor of your will, whether appointed by you or the court, is entitled to a “reasonable fee” paid by your estate for carrying out their responsibilities. However, it is common for executors to waive this fee if they are already receiving a substantial inheritance from your estate.
  • Attorney’s fees. Like your executor or administrator, the attorney representing your estate in the probate process is entitled to receive payment for their services consistent with their hourly rate.
  • Accountant fees. Depending on the value and complexity of your estate, your executor/administrator may need to hire someone to file the proper tax forms, if not prepared by the attorney.

Your estate will also likely be subject to the probate tax.  In Virginia, this tax is imposed on the probate of wills and grants of administration for estates worth more than $15,000.  The tax applies to most estate property in Virginia, except: jointly held property with rights of survivorship; payable-on-death bonds; insurance proceeds paid to a named beneficiary; and property passed through a trust (see below).

How to reduce probate costs

The easiest way to lessen the financial burden of probate is to create a living trust. This estate planning tool allows you to place certain property and financial assets in the care of a designated trustee. While you may be your own trustee during your lifetime, your successor – an appointed family member, friend, or corporate bank entity, for instance – will inherit the assets in your trust upon your death, and manage them on behalf of your beneficiaries (trust beneficiaries are often minor children or grandchildren). If it is a revocable living trust, the terms can be changed at any point during your life.

Because ownership of property held in a trust does not go through the probate process, your family will not have to pay the court fees to receive their inheritance. It’s also faster and more direct than passing property solely through a will, since the court will not challenge or interfere with your decisions. As an added bonus, a trust can even help your family save on estate taxes.

Speak with an estate planning attorney

An experienced estate planning attorney knows the ins and outs of probate law, and will be able to tell you the most cost-effective ways to distribute your assets based on your circumstances. Your lawyer will ensure that your trust is properly created and legally valid, so that when the time comes, your family can receive their inheritance efficiently, and with the least costs incurred.

For more than 15 years, The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C. has assisted Northern Virginia families with their estate planning needs. Contact us today to learn how we can help you create the best plan for your family’s future, and potentially reduce probate court costs for your loved ones.

How Do I Choose a Legal Guardian for My Child?

Choosing Your Child's Legal Guardian

Choosing Your Child’s Legal Guardian
NOVA Estate Lawyers – Leesburg, VA

It’s something no parent wants to think about, but eventually must ask themselves: Who would take care of your child if you passed away before they reach adulthood?

For most people, the answer is their spouse or partner. However, if you’re a single parent – or, if you’re considering the unlikely event that both you and your child’s other parent die – this decision can be an incredibly difficult and emotional one.

In order for someone to become the legal guardian of your child after your death, you must name that person (or people) as such in your will. If circumstances require your legal guardianship clause to be invoked, a probate court will then review and, almost invariably, approve the nomination(s). Failing to name a guardian in your will means your child’s caretaker will be appointed by the court – which could ultimately mean foster care if none of your loved ones step up.

Given the significance of this choice, you’ll want to make sure the guardian you choose is competent, financially stable, and trustworthy. Here are a few important factors to weigh when deciding who your child’s legal guardian should be.

Think about who would love and care for your child in the way you would.

People often choose close family members – parents, siblings, cousins, aunts and uncles, etc. – as legal guardians because there is already an existing bond between them and your child. If you have a loving, supportive relationship with your family and feel confident that they would extend that love to your child as a guardian, it makes sense to appoint one of them.

Depending on your dynamic, a family friend or other non-related trusted adult in your child’s life could also be a viable choice.

Consider your potential guardian’s background, values, and lifestyle.

You may think your sister would be the perfect guardian because she’d love your child as much as you do. But if she has children of her own and is struggling to make ends meet, you may not want to place that potential burden on her. Similarly, you may have a wealthy aunt who could easily provide for your child, but you’re concerned about how her political or religious views might impact your child’s development.

It’s important to strike the right balance between someone who is both emotionally and financially available to raise your child. Ideally, you’ll choose someone whose values and beliefs align well with your own, so your child’s transition into their care and household will be smoother.

Have a conversation with your potential guardian about raising your child.

Think you’ve found the perfect guardian? Make sure you give them a heads up. Although you do not legally have to obtain someone’s permission before naming them a guardian in your will, it is strongly advised that you speak with the person and give them the option to back out. That person has the right to refuse guardianship if asked by a court, so getting their permission is not only courteous, but crucial to ensuring that your wishes are honored. Ask your potential guardian if they feel comfortable filling that role in your child’s life, as well as shouldering the financial responsibility for your child until adulthood.

Made your choice? Make it official.

Once you’ve chosen your child’s legal guardians and spoken with them about taking on this responsibility, it’s time to add it to your will. Set up a meeting with your estate planning attorney to add this information your will and make the decision official. Remember, if circumstances change or if your original choice no longer feels comfortable being named a guardian, you’ll need to update your will with a new choice as soon as possible.

Deciding who you want to be responsible for your child if you die can be intimidating, but take your time and make this choice carefully – it’s one of the most important estate planning decisions you’ll make as a parent. Hopefully your legal guardians will never have to step up to the plate, but if they do, you’ll feel good knowing that you’ve made the best choice for your child’s future and well-being.

Need an estate planning attorney? The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C. is here to help. Contact us today to speak with one of our experienced, compassionate counselors about drafting or updating your will.

4 Common Estate Planning Mistakes You Can’t Afford to Make

Estate Planning

Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid
NOVA Estate Lawyers – Leesburg, VA

Estate planning can be a difficult and stressful process, and mistakes and oversights are common. After all, there’s a lot to consider when writing a will and naming beneficiaries, and it’s easy to miss a thing or two.

Unfortunately, the cost of these errors often falls on your loved ones when certain aspects of your will are not properly carried out.

Below are four frequent estate planning mistakes that could jeopardize the execution of your final wishes.

1. Only writing a will

A will is the most commonly discussed estate planning document, but it’s not the only one you need. You should also have a power of attorney – a legal agreement to give another person the authority to make important financial and medical decisions for you if you have lost the capacity to do so yourself while you’re alive. You can have separate POA agreements for financial versus medical decisions, but whoever you choose for the role(s) should be someone you trust to act in the best interest of you and your family. Without these documents, a court-appointed agent or a doctor could be the one making decisions about your assets and medical care.

2. Assigning responsibilities to the wrong individuals

Naming someone as an estate executor, a trustee, or a guardian to your minor children may seem like a great honor, but it also comes with a tremendous amount of responsibility. Think about whether the people you choose for these roles can handle the duties involved, as well as whether they might let family conflicts or greed get in the way of carrying out your intentions. Sometimes, it’s better to name an objective non-family member or hire a professional trustee who does not stand to benefit from your assets.

3. Never updating your will or beneficiaries

Estate planning is not a one-and-done activity. As you go through life, your circumstances and relationships will change, and you need to continually update your estate planning documents to reflect your current situation, especially if someone you’ve named as a beneficiary passes away or is otherwise no longer in your life.

Many experts recommend reviewing your will every three to five years, but at minimum, you should update it whenever you experience a major life event – marriage, divorce, the birth of a child, the death of a relative, etc. It’s also important to keep track of assets that are transferred outside the probate process – such as retirement accounts, life insurance, and joint property – and ensure your beneficiary designations are up-to-date.

4. Not making estate plans at all

A 2017 BMO Wealth Management survey found that a staggering 52 percent of Americans have not made a formal will. Verbally telling family members about your intentions or writing a letter for your children to open upon your passing does not constitute a legally valid last will and testament.

It can be scary to face your own mortality and procrastinate on estate planning, but it’s even scarier to think about the legal, financial, and emotional aggravation your children and surviving relatives will have to deal with if you don’t have a plan in place.

How to Avoid Estate Planning Mistakes

The best way to secure your family’s future is to work with a professional to create and update your estate planning documents. An experienced estate planning attorney will help you cover all your bases, and include the right legal language to ensure your wishes are honored. Even if you write your own will, you should still hire a lawyer to review and revise it.

Contact The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C. to speak with one of our counselors about your estate plans today.

Will Your Estate Plan Be Impacted by the New Tax Law?

Estate Planning Under the New Tax Law

Estate Planning Under the New Tax Law
NOVA Estate Lawyers – Leesburg, VA

When the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) was signed into law in December 2017, it brought numerous, significant changes for individuals and businesses alike.

With Tax Day 2018 behind us, many taxpayers have already felt the impact of this sweeping tax reform. Overall, the changes promise to benefit the average American – some of the provisions of the new law include:

– A lower top tax rate
– Increased standard deductions
– New or increased credits for qualifying children and dependents
– A deduction equal to 20 percent of “qualified” pass-through business income; and, beginning in 2019
– The repeal of the “individual mandate” for minimum essential health coverage and its associated penalty

One important change to the tax code under the TCJA is an increase to the estate and gift tax exemption. Previously, estates and lifetime gifts valued at $5 million (or $5.49 million, indexed for inflation) and higher were subject to federal estate taxes. The new limit, effective January 1, 2018 through December 31, 2025, is $11.2 million ($10 million base) for individuals and $22.4 million ($20 million base) for married couples. Put simply, the vast majority of American estates are now exempt from federal estate taxes.

It’s important to note that if you live in one of the 15 states with an estate or inheritance tax (or both), your estate may still be subject to state taxation if its exemption limits are not tied to the federal limits. Detailed information can be found on the Tax Foundation website.

Why Now is the Right Time to Review Your Estate Plans

Although your current assets may be nowhere near the new federal exemption limit, now is a good time to review your current will, trust, powers of attorney, or other estate planning documents. These new limits are only in place through the 2025 tax year, and will return to the previous $5 million limit afterward. The limit increase could even be reversed sooner, depending on congressional and presidential elections between now and then.

During this temporary increased exemption period, you can clarify your estate plan and ensure that your loved ones are set to reap the maximum benefits – with the least amount of taxes – when you pass away.

Of course, taking advantage of these exemptions requires estate planning documents with the proper legal language and specificity to make sure your wishes are honored. For example, married couples must invoke portability in their estate plan for the surviving spouse to avoid the estate tax on spousal inheritance that was within the exemption limits.

It’s also critical to customize your powers of attorney with specific instructions regarding the distribution and gifting of your financial assets. If your POA is too vague or general, your estate executor and/or financial agent now may not be able to distribute your estate plan to ensure the greatest tax savings to your estate or may have access to  a loophole to legally distribute your money as they see fit – and  not  in ways you intended.

Contact an Experienced Estate Planning Lawyer

Any time there is a change in tax law, life circumstances, or both, you’ll want to consult an experienced estate planning attorney who can help you navigate the complex and often emotional facets of planning for your family’s future. Contact The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C. to speak with one of our counselors about your estate planning needs today.

The Law Office of Patricia E. Tichenor, P.L.L.C.
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