Wills, Trusts & Estates Prof Blog

Editor: Gerry W. Beyer
Texas Tech Univ. School of Law

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Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Estate Planning Concerns For Singles


According to the Census Bureau, almost half of Americans ages 15 and older were single in 2013.  This compares with about one-third in 1970.  As there are more singles than ever before, these individuals end up facing some unique estate planning issues. 

A common concern among singles is distributions.  When a spouse dies intestate the surviving husband or wife generally inherits most assets.  However, if you are single and die intestate, your estate could be distributed in ways you may not like.  “A lot of single people are socially involved and philanthropically active in their communities and have charitable intent, but if they don’t have an estate plan in place all their work dies with them.” 

Thus, in order to prevent your assets being distributed in ways you do not deem adequate, create a will and/or revocable living trust that states specifically how you want your assets to be dispersed after you die.  Also name an executor and/or trustee to carry out those wishes. 

Singles can also encounter problems with beneficiary designations.  If you are divorced, make sure your beneficiaries are up-to-date on IRAs, payable-on-death bank accounts, and life insurance policies.  If you fail to do so, an ex-spouse could end up with your assets. 

See Glenn Ruffenach, What Happens When Single People Die? Market Watch, Dec. 9, 2014.

Special thanks to Jim Hillhouse (Professional Legal Marketing (PLM, Inc.)) for bringing this article to my attention.

December 10, 2014 in Estate Administration, Estate Planning - Generally, Estate Tax, Intestate Succession, Non-Probate Assets, Trusts, Wills | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 24, 2014

Estate of Boris Berezovsky Valued at Zero

EmptyAs I have previously discussed, attempts to settle the estate Boris Berezovsky, who at one time was the second richest man in Russia, have been entangled in complexity and confusion over finding a willing executor of his estate and whether there were even any assets left. According to probate records, Berezovsky died intestate and his UK estate was valued at nothing, though it is still unknown whether overseas trusts or other assets of value may exist.

Opinions are divided on whether Berezovsky's death was a suicide or somehow connected with his public criticism of Russian President Vladimir Putin. His family believes his death was not a suicide, but no evidence of murder was found by police, and the coroner's report includes an open verdict on cause of death.

See Stephanie Linning, Russian 'Billionaire' Boris Berezovsky Found Dead in Bath Last Year Left Nothing in His Will After Dying Penniless, Daily Mail, Nov. 22, 2014.

Special thanks to Brian Cohan (Attorney at Law, Law Offices of Brian J. Cohan, P.C.) for bringing this article to my attention.

November 24, 2014 in Current Affairs, Estate Administration, Intestate Succession | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Friday, November 21, 2014

Estate Planning Without Children

Couple doing paperwork

Married couples without children who may be nearing retirement or have already reached retirement have two main tasks: One is to decide what happens to your property after you die.  The other, perhaps trickier, task is to specify who will handle your medial and financial affairs if you become incapacitated. 

Without creating a will or trust, state law will dictate who inherits your assets.  Generally, your assets will go to your spouse if you have no children, then your spouse’s relatives after he or she dies.  “This leaves the family of the first spouse to die disinherited and out of luck.  The side that inherits depends on the random order of who dies last.” 

Thus, if you do not want to risk disinheriting your relatives, or if you rather leave something to friends or charity, it is best to have a plan.  The simplest approach is for you and your spouse to execute “sweetheart” wills, leaving everything to each other and outlining who gets what after you both die.  Another approach is to transfer your assets, during life or at death, to a joint revocable living trust, which would spell out how the assets are to be distributed.  This avoids probate, which can be expensive and time consuming. 

It is also important to sign general powers-of-attorney and health-care documents empowering someone to make financial and medical decisions on your behalf if you become incapacitated.  While parents oftentimes appoint adult children, “people without children struggle to find someone they trust.” 

Spouses can appoint each other, but it is recommended to have a “Plan B,” which involves naming another, younger, person to serve simultaneously or in succession. 

See Carolyn T. Geer, Estate Planning for Childless Couples, The Wall Street Journal, Nov. 8, 2014.

Special thanks to Jim Hillhouse (Professional Legal Marketing (PLM, Inc.)) for bringing this article to my attention.

November 21, 2014 in Estate Administration, Estate Planning - Generally, Intestate Succession, Trusts, Wills | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 17, 2014

Surviving Spouse More Than a Living Spouse Says Wisconsin

GavelIn a recent Wisconsin case, a defendant insurance company sought to dismiss a wrongful death action brought by the children of the deceased. The children's mother and estranged wife of the decedent was found to not be able to recover due to the length of time and facts surrounding her separation from the deceased. The defendant's argued that since Wisconsin's wrongful death statute only allows for recovery by children if there is no surviving spouse, the children could not recover. The children's case was dismissed by the circuit court for Waukesha County, and the children appealed.

In Force v. American Family Mutual Insurance Company, the Supreme Court of Wisconsin held that the children could recover. The court reasoned that this result was necessary to fulfill the legislature's intended purpose for the statute. Additionally, the court found that the estranged spouse was not a "surviving spouse" for purposes of the statute as the meaning of "surviving spouse" is not simply a spouse who is living. A dissenting opinion in the case questioned how this opinion will affect future intestate succession cases.

Special thanks to Joseph J. Welcenbach (Welcenbach Law Offices, S.C.) for bringing this case to my attention.

November 17, 2014 in Intestate Succession, New Cases | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Monday, November 10, 2014

New UK Intestacy Laws Change Treatment of Widows

LawAs I have previously discussed, new intestacy rules for intestate succession in the United Kingdom went into effect in early October. The new rules will affect many individuals since only one third of adults in the UK have a written will and one third of those are out dated or revoked, which can be caused by events such as marriage if the marriage is not expressly mentioned in the will. The rules effect estates that are valued over £250,000, which is lower than the average price of a home in the UK. The primary effect of the new rules is that they change the balance between how a spouse and children are treated in the intestacy process, with surviving spouse's now inheriting more and children less than under the previous statutory scheme.

See Adam Palin, More Rights for Widows in Intestacy Revamp, Financial Times, Sept. 26, 2014.

Special thanks to Joel Dobris (Professor of Law, UC Davis School of Law) for bringing this article to my attention.

November 10, 2014 in Intestate Succession, New Legislation | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Article on French and U.S. Inheritance Law

Ray MadoffRay D. Madoff (Boston College Law School) recently published an article entitled, A Tale of Two Countries: Comparing the Law of Inheritance in Two Seemingly Opposite Systems, 15 Minn. J. L. Sci. & Tech. 897-947 (2014). Provided below is the abstract of the article:

Although at first glance French and U.S. inheritance laws appear to be diametrically opposed, this paper provides a deeper analysis. In doing so, it explains that nuances within both systems have made the laws more similar than they initially appear. U.S. inheritance laws, explicitly characterized by freedom of testation, include numerous substantive limits on how a testator may dispose of her property at death. Courts often use doctrines such as mental capacity, undue influence, and fraud to void wills that do not provide for the decedent’s children. Also, because over one half of all Americans die intestate, or without a will, children are provided for in this way as well. French inheritance laws, which on their face appear to require everyone to leave at least half of their property to their children, similarly allow for significant deviation from this rule. Some techniques, such as life insurance, tontines, and usufruct interests have been around for a while. Since 2006, however, the law has given French parents even greater ability to control the distribution of their estates. This paper examines French and U.S. inheritance law, with an eye towards these initial differences, and deeper similarities.

October 15, 2014 in Articles, Estate Planning - Generally, Intestate Succession | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Global Search Revealed Long Lost Relatives of Intestate Man

DetectiveAfter John Floyd, a 75-year-old man from England who was described as a very private man, died without a will or any known family, a local law firm started a three year search for his closest relatives. After navigating the globe to find relatives in the UK, Europe, the US, and Australia, 39 relatives that Floyd had never met were located. The located beneficiaries received portions of Floyd's estate which was worth £750,000 at his death.

See Victoria Bull, Heir Hunt in Hemel! Search for Family of 'Private' Man Who Left Behind £750,000 Finds 39 Relatives, Hemel Today, Sept. 23, 2014.

Special thanks to Brian Cohan (Attorney at Law, Law Offices of Brian J. Cohan, P.C.) for bringing this article to my attention.

October 9, 2014 in Estate Planning - Generally, Intestate Succession | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Georgia Appeals Court Denies Legitimation Claims

GavelThe process of legitimation to have a man legally recognized as the father of a child born out of wed lock can be difficult under some state statutes, but has important implications when the man dies intestate. Yuvette Ridley found out how complicated the process can be when she faced a challenge in probate court to her being named as the administrator of her deceased boyfriend James Hawkins' estate and her son as his heir. Ridley and Hawkins had attempted to legitimate Ridley's son from a separate relationship as Hawkins' child.

In re Estate of James Andrews Hawkins, the Court of Appeals of Georgia affirmed the probate court''s ruling that Ridley's son was not the heir at law of Hawkins. The court found that Hawkins' attempt at legitimation was unsuccessful under state law because he was not under oath at the time he signed the paternity acknowledgment, and he did not sign the birth certificate even though his name was present.

See Luke Lantta, Administrative Legitimation Did Not Make Child an Heir at Law, Bryan Cave, Sept. 9, 2014.

September 23, 2014 in Estate Planning - Generally, Intestate Succession, New Cases | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Heir of Secret Photographer Surfaces

Vivian_MaierVivian Maier was a nanny that lived a secret life as a photographer in the 1950s, artistically capturing scenes of the life and times from the streets of Chicago and New York. It was not until she died at 83-years-old, in 2009, that her street photographs began to see acclaim and appreciation. However, a possible heir of Maier has surfaced and the ensuing legal battle has put the sale and display of her work on hold. The current owners of negatives and prints of her work may have to wait years to find out if they can continue selling and promoting Maier’s art.

See Randy Kennedy, The Heir’s Not Apparent: A Legal Battle Over Vivian Maier’s Work, The New York Times, Sept. 5, 2014.

Special thanks to Joel Dobris (Professor of Law, UC Davis School of Law) for bringing this article to my attention.

September 7, 2014 in Estate Planning - Generally, Intestate Succession | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)

Article on Eliminating the 890 Usufruct to Protect the Blended Family

CastleKatherine H. Dampf recently published a comment entitled, Happily Ever After: Eliminating the 890 Usufruct to Protect the Blended Family, 74 La. L. Rev. 899-935 (2014).  Provided below is the introduction of the comment:

Cinderella lived happily ever after,1 but what became of her wicked stepmother, the Lady Drizella Trumaine?2 Imagine that this classic tale was set in Louisiana and that in the years following Cinderella’s storybook wedding, Cinderella’s father and Drizella spent the remainder of their lives together. Though they were happy, they were not particularly wealthy, and Cinderella’s father never drafted a will. When Cinderella’s father died, Louisiana law granted Drizella an interest in his share of the marital property in the form of a usufruct.3 However, although Drizella was relieved to learn that she would be permitted to use and enjoy her husband’s property in the years following his death, she was dismayed when she learned that Louisiana law also granted Cinderella an interest in the same property, effectively forcing Drizella to share her former husband’s property with her ungrateful stepdaughter.4

One might imagine that this sharing of interests would not be the most optimal arrangement, considering that the two did not have the most natural and affectionate relationship.5 Drizella’s interest only allows her the right to use the property and collect its fruits.6 Consequently, she may encounter financial difficulties if the property does not generate income in the form of civil fruits—like rents or dividends—because she is precluded from selling the property to create liquid income. Given the tumultuous relationship between Cinderella and her wicked stepmother, Cinderella would feel no duty to come to Drizella’s aid. Indeed, Cinderella’s contempt for Drizella might only be exacerbated by a legal scheme that effectively deprives her of any right to her father’s estate while her stepmother is still living and unmarried.7 Louisiana’s default inheritance regime, designed both to approximate the will of the decedent and provide for those left behind, serves no one in this blended family.

A decedent who dies intestate—without a will—necessarily does not express desires regarding the property left behind. Instead, intestacy law imposes a “statutory will” on the decedent.8 Many states have had to rethink traditional intestacy rules to address the new social phenomenon of intestate succession involving a stepparent and a decedent’s children,9 referred to in this Comment as the “Cinderella Problem.”10 Louisiana Civil Code provisions governing intestacy were made with “the family of the Civil Code”11 in mind: a traditional, nuclear family that has become increasingly rare in modern society.12 An artifact from a departed era during which the traditional, nuclear family was bound by lifelong affection, Louisiana’s “statutory will” is out of sync with the modern family. Today, more than one-third of all Americans are members of stepfamilies,13 18% of American adults have a living stepparent,14 and most Americans die without wills.15 With a divorce and remarriage rate higher than the national average,16 Louisiana must do more to balance the competing interests of a blended family in intestacy.

Because Louisiana law fails to adequately address the combination of the stepfamily and intestacy, Louisiana law allows for the dynamic between Cinderella and Drizella to exist to their mutual detriment. Louisiana’s failure to address the needs of the stepfamily in intestacy is made even more apparent by the fact that other jurisdictions—both civil and common law—addressed stepfamily inheritance long ago.17 Louisiana should follow in the footsteps of its sister states and of France, its civilian predecessor, to better address the Cinderella Problem, recalibrating intestacy laws with today’s blended family in mind and preventing injustices like those suffered by Cinderella and Drizella from befalling others.

Accordingly, this Comment considers the failure of Louisiana’s current succession law in the context of the stepfamily. Part I of this Comment discusses the theories underlying succession law, highlighting the role of these theories in intestacy and arguing that they require a careful balancing of the interests of the children and the surviving spouse of the decedent. Part I also details the societal evolution of the family from nuclear to blended, illustrating how the implementation of the theories of succession has become even more problematic. Next, Part II overviews the approach taken by Louisiana to the stepfamily in intestacy, both in the past and in the present, and demonstrates that Louisiana’s current approach is inadequate in several critical respects. Part III then evaluates the merits of approaches to the Cinderella Problem taken by France and other jurisdictions. Finally, in order to solve the predicament facing Cinderella and Drizella, Part IV proposes that a lump-sum-plus-afraction, rather than a usufruct, be allotted to Drizella. A revision of Civil Code article 890 in the context of the stepfamily is long overdue; Louisiana needs to do more for Cinderella and Drizella.

September 7, 2014 in Articles, Estate Planning - Generally, Intestate Succession | Permalink | Comments (0) | TrackBack (0)