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.

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Estate Planning, Sam’s Club Style

Along with buying all of your favorite items in bulk (like a 36-can case of Diet Dr. Pepper!), you can now get your estate plan done at a discount at Sam’s Club.

Yes, you read that right, Sam’s Club is now offering estate planning as well as other legal services.  Well, OK, that’s not exactly accurate.  While the retail warehouse club that is owned by Walmart hasn’t gone out and hired itself a bunch of attorneys and stationed them in its 640+ stores, it has teamed up with LegalZoom to give its business members up to a 25% discount on LegalZoom products.  This includes things like incorporating a business, idea protection, and wills and trusts.

And that’s not all – Sam’s Club business members can also shop for personalized health care plans (in collaboration with Aenta) and payroll services (in collaboration with Execupay).  Who knows what will be next?

Actress Lauren Bacall’s Will Filed for Probate

Actress Lauren Bacall died on August 12, 2014, from an apparent stroke. She was 89. Although she won two Tony awards and an honorary Oscar, Ms. Bacall was probably best known for her marriage to actor Humphrey Bogart and the movies they filmed together (my favorite – Key Largo).

Ms. Bacall was survived by her two children with Humphrey Bogart, Stephen Humphrey Bogart and Leslie Bogart, and her son with actor Jason Robards, Sam Prideaux Robards.

As a native New Yorker (Ms. Bacall was born in Brooklyn) and a resident of Manhattan at the time of her death, it’s no surprise to me that like fellow actors and New Yorkers James Gandolfini (Tony Soprano) and Philip Seymour Hoffman, Ms. Bacall used a Last Will and Testament, not a Revocable Living Trust, as the governing document of her estate plan.  As we learned after Mr. Gandolfini’s death in June 2013 and Mr. Hoffman’s death in February 2014, wills are public records that anyone can read.  So as soon as Ms. Bacall’s will was filed for probate in Manhattan’s Surrogate Court on August 22, reporters snatched up a copy and revealed all of its intimate details to the world.

According to the New York Post, which reported that the will was filed for probate a mere ten days after Ms. Bacall’s death because the family wants to auction off her art work this fall, the 10-page will was signed in September 2013 and provides that the estate, estimated to be worth $26.6 million, will be distributed as follows:

  1. The sum of $10,000 is left to son Sam to care for the actress’ beloved dog, Sophie.
  2. The sum of $250,000 is left to each of Ms. Bacall’s grandsons, Calvin Robards and Justin Robards, with the request that they use the funds for their education.  They will receive the balance at age 30.
  3. Employee Ilsa Hernandez is left $15,000.
  4. Employee Maria Santos is left $20,000.
  5. The balance of her estate, consisting of her $9 million apartment at The Dakota on Central Park West (where Beatle John Lennon lived and died), her interest in a trust created for her benefit by Humphrey Bogart, cash, personal effects, and rights to her likeness and movie and book royalties, is left equally to her three children with one caveat.  The will states the following:  “I request that my children respect my wish to keep private certain personal letters, writings, diaries and other papers or memorabilia.”
  6. The three children are named as co-executors of the estate.

So there you have it, all of the intimate details of actress Lauren Bacall’s final wishes.  If you don’t want all of the intimate details of your final wishes available for the whole world to read, then do what actors Elizabeth Taylor and Paul Walker did – create and fund a revocable living trust.

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