2014 Most Read Wills & Estate Planning Articles May Surprise You

Welcome to my first post of 2015!  In case you’re curious, below are the top ten most read articles in 2014 over at my Wills & Estate Planning Guidesite on About.com:

  1. See How the Federal Estate Tax Exemption Has Changed Since 1997
  2. How to Find a Deceased Person’s Will
  3. See How the Gift Tax Annual Exclusion Has Changed Since 1997
  4. Will Your Inheritance Cost You in Taxes?
  5. State Estate Tax and Exemption Chart
  6. 2014 State Death Tax Exemption and Top Tax Rate Chart
  7. State Inheritance Tax Chart
  8. How to Locate Online Probate Court Dockets and Request Copies of Documents
  9. What is a Revocable Living Trust?
  10. What Are the Grounds for Contesting a Will?

If you’re interested in reading any of the articles, simply click on the article name.

Well, that is certainly a hodge podge of topics, isn’t it?  – estate, inheritance and gift taxes, wills, probate dockets, revocable living trusts, will contests – but then again, estate planning covers a hodge podge of topics, that’s why my Guidesite currently has 19 different categories!

The final count on page views for my Wills & Estate Planning Guidesite in 2014 topped 8.4 million, so thanks to all of my readers for reading and my newsletter subscribers for subscribing – if you’re not a newsletter subscriber yet, you can sign up here:  Weekly Wills & Estate Planning Newsletter.

Alaska Joins Growing Number of States That Recognize Transfer on Death Deeds

Alaska is the latest state to recognize deeds that transfer ownership of real estate after death without the need for probate.

Dubbed “transfer on death deeds” (or “TOD deeds” for short) in some states, or “beneficiary deeds” in others, the list of U.S. jurisdictions that accept this type of deed through state legislation has grown to 25:

  1. Alaska
  2. Arizona
  3. Arkansas
  4. Colorado
  5. District of Columbia
  6. Hawaii
  7. Illinois
  8. Indiana
  9. Kansas
  10. Minnesota
  11. Missouri
  12. Montana
  13. Nebraska
  14. Nevada
  15. New Mexico
  16. North Dakota
  17. Ohio
  18. Oklahoma
  19. Oregon
  20. South Dakota
  21. Virginia
  22. Washington
  23. West Virginia
  24. Wisconsin
  25. Wyoming

Aside from this, three states – Florida, Michigan, and Texas – recognize “enhanced life estate deeds,” also known as “Lady Bird deeds,” under state common law, which in essence accomplish the same thing as TOD deeds.

How Does a TOD Deed Work?

How does a TOD deed work?  While the logistics vary from state to state, in general the owner of the real estate will sign a new deed which lists the beneficiaries who will inherit the property after the owner dies.  The new deed is then recorded in the applicable public land records (this is usually done at the court house of the county where the real estate is located and costs between $10 and $50).  Then, after the owner dies, their death certificate is recorded in those same public land records, and voilà, the beneficiaries named in the deed become the new owners of the property.

What happens if the owner decides they want to change the beneficiaries of the property after the new deed is recorded?  Then the owner will have to sign and record another TOD deed.

Is a TOD Deed Right for You and Your Family?

While the use of a TOD deed to avoid probate may appear to be a simple process, it is certainly not a “one-size-fits-all” solution to avoid probate and it is certainly not something you should attempt to do on your own because there are so many things that can go wrong.

If you are interested in using a TOD type of deed to avoid probate of your real estate after you die, then consult with an estate planning attorney in the state where your real estate is located to determine if this is the right solution for you and your family.

Photo: Aerial view of Aghileen Pinnacles, Lefthand Valley, Wilderness Area, Alaska; U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Writer Tom Clancy’s Will Demonstrates Clear and Present Danger of Estate Planning for a Blended Family


OK, I admit it.  Back in the day I read all the Tom Clancy novels – The Hunt for Red October, Red Storm Rising, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, The Sum of All Fears – and saw all the movies (and yes, I read the books before I watched the movies).  How else would I have learned about Russian MiG 29s,  U.S. F-14 Tomcats, CENTCOM, and PACOM?  But while Mr. Clancy’s stories were full of international espionage and meticulously detailed military information, unfortunately his last will and testament and particularly his second codicil, drafted by a Baltimore estate planning attorney, lacked the precision of his own writing.

Mr. Clancy died from heart failure on October 1, 2013, at the age of 66.  He left behind his wife, Alexandra Clancy, a young daughter, and four adult children from his first marriage.

Mr. Clancy’s will and two codicils were filed for probate in Baltimore City, Maryland, on October 10, 2013.  The probate docket indicates that the author signed his 21-page will on June 11, 2007, and two short codicils totaling a mere three pages on September 18, 2007 and July 25, 2013.

According to a partial estate inventory filed in January 2014 and a supplemental inventory filed in September 2014, Mr. Clancy’s estate is estimated to be worth $83 million.  His largest asset was a 12% ownership interest in MLB’s Baltimore Orioles, estimated to be worth $65 million; he also had multiple real estate holdings (including a $7 million estate overlooking the Chesapeake Bay which went to his wife through joint ownership), $10 million in business interests, and, while it may seem odd it’s certainly not unexpected, a rare, operating World War II tank.

While several of the real estate holdings passed to Mr. Clancy’s wife through joint ownership with rights of survivorship (along with other jointly held investments which are not part of the probate estate), Mr. Clancy’s intent for the remainder of his property was for it to be divided among three distinct trust “buckets”:

  1. One-third in a marital trust for the benefit of his wife;
  2. One-third in a  family trust for the benefit of his wife and all his children; and,
  3. The balance in trusts for the benefit of his four adult children as well as grandchildren.

This sounds like a reasonable plan for the author’s blended family, doesn’t it?

But lurking in this type of plan for a blended family and a substantial $83 million estate is the impact of estate taxes – both federal and Maryland (when Mr. Clancy died, the federal estate tax exemption was $5.25 million and the Maryland estate tax exemption was a measly $1 million).  The total estate tax bill is estimated to be $16 million, and the Personal Representative of the estate, Baltimore estate planning attorney J.W. Webb (who drafted the July 2013 codicil – more on that below), has taken the position that trust bucket #2 (the family trust) should pay $6 million of the tax bill and trust bucket #3 (the children’s trusts) should pay $10 million of the tax bill (note that trust bucket #1, the marital trust, is designed to defer payment of estate taxes on its value until after Alexandra Clancy’s death).  But according to the “Petition for Declaratory Judgment, Construction of Will, and Removal of Personal Representative” filed in early September by Alexandra Clancy’s attorneys, the widow believes that the intent of the July 2013 codicil was to confirm that trust bucket #3 – the trusts for the benefit of Mr. Clancy’s four children from his first marriage – should pay the entire $16 million estate tax bill, thereby leaving trust bucket #2 completely intact.  Mr. Webb has so far declined to comment on the petition and has until October 17 to file his response.

International intrigue?  Not even close, just a typical day in probate court, and yet another example of celebrity estate planning gone wrong.  In addition to the questionable language in the July 2013 codicil, had Mr. Clancy created and funded a revocable living trust instead of relying on a will and some codicils as the governing documents of his estate plan, then the intimate details of the writer’s final wishes would have remained a private family matter.  In fact, this surprised me since 10 years ago I practiced as an estate planning attorney in Bethesda, Maryland, and my firm was (and still is) a firm believer in revocable living trusts.  And since this was (and still is) the case for other Maryland estate planning firms, why an estate planning attorney with a big Baltimore firm would use a will instead of a trust is beyond me.

Aside from this, the Clancy estate battle also demonstrates how tricky it is to plan for a blended family.  What was the author’s true intent?  Unfortunately we will never know, and after significant time and money have been spent, a probate judge will end up making the final decision.

3 Reasons It Takes So Long to Receive an Inheritance

Usually the first thing that the beneficiary of an estate or trust asks is when they can expect to get their inheritance check. Unfortunately sending out the inheritance checks is the very last item on the “to do” list of the personal representative or trustee.  Why?  Because the personal representative or trustee has to fulfill all of the duties and responsibilities that are required for settling an estate or trust before handing the assets over to the beneficiaries.  Otherwise,the personal representative or trustee can be held personally liable for any unpaid bills and taxes.

Even with a simple estate or trust, the duties and responsibilities of the personal representative or trustee can be tedious and will delay the final distribution of the assets.  What can be so time-consuming about settling an estate or trust that will cause the plans you have for your inheritance to be put on hold?  Consider the following:

  1. Probate takes time and money. Probate is necessary when a deceased person leaves behind assets that are titled solely in the individual’s name without any beneficiary designated.  This is true even if the deceased person created a revocable living trust provided that the trust was not fully funded at the time of death.  Probate is a state court process that takes time and money and will delay the delivery of your inheritance check.
  2. Tax returns have to be filed and taxes have to be paid.  The personal representative or trustee is responsible for filing the deceased person’s final income tax return(s) and paying any taxes that are due.  Aside from this, the estate or trust may owe state estate taxes or inheritance taxes or federal estate taxes, in which case these returns must be filed and these taxes must be paid.  Finalizing tax returns and paying any taxes due will delay the delivery of your inheritance check.
  3. Beneficiaries have their own agenda. Even though the beneficiaries of an estate or trust usually want to get their inheritance checks in their hands as soon as possible, they don’t always act quickly or follow instructions.  Inevitably there will be at least one beneficiary who drags their feet when asked to provide information or sign and return legal documents or who will skip a signature and require documents to be resent.  One disengaged beneficiary will spoil it for the rest and delay the delivery of your inheritance check.

For additional information about why settling an estate or trust takes so long and what to do with your inheritance, refer to the following:

Photo: © MCA Records

Keeping Your Estate Plan Private – A Lesson From Buffalo Bills Owner Ralph Wilson

It appears that Buffalo Bills owner Ralph C. Wilson, Jr. did his estate plan right because the public doesn’t have a clue about Mr. Wilson’s final wishes regarding the future of his football team.

Mr. Wilson, a long time resident of Detroit, died in March 2014 and just last month his last will and testament was filed for probate in Wayne County, Michigan.  Since wills are public court records, several reporters were quick to snatch up a copy of the will.  But much to their dismay, the will reveals very little about the late NFL owner’s estate because the will is a short “pour over will.”

A pour over will is a simple type of will that is used in conjunction with a revocable living trust.  It states that anything not transferred into the name of the revocable living trust prior to death gets “poured over” into the trust after death.  So it is the revocable living trust, not the pour over will, which spells out all of the details about who will get what and when they will get it.  And since revocable living trusts are private documents that only those mentioned in the trust – beneficiaries, trustees and their respective legal and tax representatives – are allowed to read, the public is left in the dark about all of the intimate details of the trustmaker’s final wishes.

Buffalo Bills fans were hoping that the filing of Mr. Wilson’s will for probate would give them a clue about the fate of their beloved team.  But even though multiple bids have been received for purchase of the Bills, including offers from Donald Trump, Terry Pegula (owner of NHL’s Buffalo Sabres), and a group headed by rock star Jon Bon Jovi, Mr. Wilson’s will does not reveal if those bidding must agree to keep the team in Buffalo.  Of course this is something that Mr. Wilson clearly wanted and may have included in his revocable living trust, but only the beneficiaries and trustees of the trust know for sure.  Having been born and raised in Pittsburgh I’m of course a lifelong Steelers fan, so I can certainly feel for Bills fans – if the Steelers ever left Pittsburgh it would be a catastrophe – and I’m actually pulling for the Bills to stay in Buffalo too.  But in the end money may talk and the team may walk and Bills fans won’t know for sure until after the deal is done.

What estate planning lesson can be learned from this situation?  Let’s contrast Mr. Wilson’s smart trust planning against the very public wills of actors James Gandolfini and Philip Seymour Hoffman.  In the latter two cases the public has been allowed to take a very close look at each actor’s final – and in both cases unusual – wishes and how much each beneficiary will get and when they will get it.  That’s the real beauty of using a revocable living trust and not a will as the governing document of your estate plan – it keeps all of the intimate details of your final wishes confidential.

Photo:  Bills Steelers joint training camp, August 14, 2014, Latrobe, PA