How to Avoid Challenges in Your Will or Trust

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Safe Harbor Law Firm

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Sep 11, 2023

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Florida - Southwest

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Although you may have taken the time to create well structed wills and trusts, there are some common challenges which may present themselves upon your passing. Disputes amongst beneficiaries can result in bitter family relations, costly court proceedings and financial devastation. The following are some proactive measures you can take to avoid common challenges and ensure your documents accomplish your intended goals.

Treat children equally: Certain family dynamics may have you questioning whether your assets should be divided equally. However, to avoid potential complications, equal distribution may be a wise decision. If you have two children, leave each half of all assets. Setting up a trust for a child with bad spending habits can be a useful tool to help protect and manage their assets. This way, a designated trustee will have the responsibility of managing assets for their benefit. The trust may specify how assets can be utilized, establish incentives to encourage good behavior and set access restrictions to prevent erratic spending. Regarding control of your estate, delegate positions according to skill level or select a corporate executor or trustee to avoid anyone from feeling slighted.

Distribute tangible property through specific bequests: While monetary assets can be divided easily, it can be difficult to determine the true value of heirlooms and tangible property. Statements in wills or trust which divide all “tangible personal property” amongst heirs in substantially equal shares may not be enough instruction for your beneficiaries. Substantive value can be based upon several characteristics including emotional and sentimental worth. Discuss this issue with your beneficiaries to determine the personal significance of certain items. By inserting specific bequests into your will or trust, you can mitigate squabbles regarding that antique lamp in the living room or your grandmother’s diamond ring.

Account for gifts given during lifetime: If you gifted money or property to an heir in the past, make sure to account for it in your plan. Since your goal is to treat all your children equally, you might want to address this gift in your will or trust. Classify any gift as an advancement, with the value of the gift counting as part of the “residuary” money you will leave to that beneficiary. For example, if you gave your daughter $5,000 toward student loans, you would specifically state under her residuary share “less $5,000 gifted for student loan payments during my lifetime.”

Insert a no-contest clause in your will: Typically, a no-contest clause will state that if a beneficiary challenges the validity of the will and fails, that beneficiary will forfeit any inheritance they would have received. The clause acts as a threat and discourages those seeking to receive a bigger piece of the pie. If you know a beneficiary is prone to conflict, inserting this statement can prevent heated legal battles and ensure your estate is distributed as intended.

Prove your Competence: Will contesters often claim the maker of the will was incompetent or under duress during the signing of their will. To avoid these allegations, you may want to consider obtaining a medical evaluation which will confirm you are mentally competent and understand the nature and consequences of signing a will. This statement can be included in the will or presented to a court if the will is challenged. Another way to prove competence when signing a will is to have witnesses present at the signing. Witnesses can attest to the individual’s mental capacity and ability to understand the nature and consequences of signing a will. In many jurisdictions, witnesses are required by law to sign the will in the presence of the individual and each other, and to affirm that they believe the individual is of sound mind and not under any form of duress.

Disinherit any heirs: Leaving certain family members out of your will can be a source of contention among beneficiaries. If you are going to disinherit someone, make sure it is noted clearly in your will so there can be no question as to whether you intended to exclude them.

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What is a Last Will and Testament?

A Last Will & Testament, commonly referred to as a Will, is a legal document that expresses a person's wishes regarding the distribution of their assets and the management of their affairs after their death. It serves as a written record of how an individual wants their property and belongings to be handled, including who should inherit their assets, who should be appointed as guardians for minor children, and any other specific instructions they may have regarding their final wishes when they are gone.  Many people confuse a Will with a Living Will which is a much different document that takes effect while you are alive!  Here in Florida, it generally covers three conditions and states that if you have: a terminal condition; end stage condition; or if you are in a persistent vegetative state, where in the opinion of two doctors, there is not reasonable medical hope of recovery, that you do not want to be kept alive by machines.  Again, a very different purpose than your Last Will & Testament. The main purposes of a Last Will & Testament are:Asset Distribution: A Will allows individuals to specify how their property, such as real estate, investments, bank accounts, personal belongings, and other assets, should be distributed among their beneficiaries or heirs. Without a Will, the distribution of assets typically follows the laws of intestacy, which may not align with the deceased person's preferences.Guardianship designation: If the deceased person has minor children, a Will can designate a guardian who will be responsible for their care and upbringing. This allows parents to have a say in who will be responsible for their children's well-being if they pass away and not leave it solely up to a judge with no input from them.Personal Representative Appointment: A Will typically appoints what is referred to in Florida as a personal Representative.  Other states call the persona and Executor.  This person is responsible for ensuring that the deceased person's wishes, as outlined in the Will, are carried out. The Personal Representative manages the administrative tasks, such as paying outstanding debts, filing tax returns, and distributing assets according to the instructions provided in the Will.Avoiding potential conflicts: This is a big issue, especially in situations where there is a second or third marriage involved and there are children from a prior relationship.  A well-drafted Will can help minimize conflicts among family members or other potential beneficiaries, as it provides clear instructions on asset distribution and removes ambiguity. To be legally valid in Florida, a Will requires certain formalities, such as being in writing, signed by the testator (the person making the Will) and witnessed by two witnesses.  Also it is best to have the testators signature and the witnesses signatures acknowledged by a Notary Public.  This makes the Will a self-proving Will which avoids the necessity of having to find the witnesses when the testator passes.Will ContestsContesting a Last Will & Testament means challenging its validity or certain provisions within it. There are a number of grounds on which a Will can be contested in Florida. Some of the typical reasons for contesting a Will include: Lack of testamentary capacity: This refers to the testator's mental ability to understand the nature and significance of creating a Will. If it can be demonstrated that the testator lacked the necessary mental capacity at the time of creating the Will, it may be deemed invalid. Factors that can affect testamentary capacity include mental illness, senility, or undue influence.Undue influence: If it can be proven that the testator was coerced, manipulated, or unduly influenced by another person when creating the Will, it may be contested. Undue influence typically involves someone exerting pressure on the testator to make decisions against their own wishes or best interests.  It is often a caregiver who cuts off outsiders from contact with the testator.  It can be a child, a spouse, a home health aid of trusted advisor.Fraud or forgery: If there is evidence to suggest that the Will was forged or that fraud was involved in its creation, it can be contested. This may include situations where someone impersonates the testator, forges their signature, or makes fraudulent changes to the Will.Improper execution: Wills must generally meet certain formalities to be considered valid. If the Will was not properly executed according to the legal requirements of the jurisdiction, such as lack of witnesses or failure to sign the document correctly, it can be contested.  This often occurs when someone tries to use a do it yourself Will kit.  While DIY may be good for home improvement projects, it is best to consult professionals when planning to disburse your hard-earned assets.Mistake or ambiguity: Another problem with DIY Will kits are mistakes or ambiguities in the Will that make it unclear or open to interpretation.  In such cases it may be contested. This can occur when the language used in the Will is vague, contradictory, or inconsistent, leading to disputes among beneficiaries.Revocation or subsequent Will: If a more recent Will is discovered that explicitly revokes or replaces the previous Will, the newer version may be contested based upon all of the grounds discussed above.It's important to note that contesting a Will can be a complex legal process, and the specific grounds for a challenge must be explored thoroughly as a Will contest is expensive and time-consuming as well as very difficult to win.  That is why your best course of action to avoid this for your family is to work with a team of professionals, including your lawyer, investment advisor and accountant, to develop an estate plan that best fits your intentions, and prepares you and your family for when life happens.

Estate Plan Check-Ups

Estate Plan Check-UpsEffective estate planning is personal, and its more than just deciding who to leave your assets to once you die.  Effective estate planning  is a comprehensive process that encompasses pre-need planning: health care decisions, financial management, and maintaining a delicate balance between independence and security.  Like your preventive doctor visits, you should regularly check in on your estate plan to ensure it fits your current needs, considers and plans for potential future care needs, and will give effect to your wishes now and in the future. Generally, estate planning involves creating a last will and testament, possibly a revocable trust, possibly an asset protection trust or a supplemental needs trust for a loved one who is unable to manage finances or may be vulnerable to abuse or exploitation.  Estate planning also involves important advanced directives, such as a durable financial power of attorney, a health care power of attorney, and a living will.   Creating an estate plan, or getting my affairs in order, tends to be an item on our to-do lists, for us to get done and move on to the next thing. However, while it may not be something you have to look at every month, or even every year, once your initial estate plan is completed, it is something that needs to be reviewed with some regularity.Most people get an annual physical when they are healthy, not when they are sick. They do this because they want to proactively spot any issues that could cause them to become ill in the future. The same concept can and should be applied when it comes to reviewing and updating your estate plan. Your estate plan may be healthy now, but you want to make sure that it stays that way by checking it regularly, to ensure it fits your needs and family circumstances, protects and provides for you now, and  accomplishes your goals and wishes in the future. Editors Note: This article is for informational purposes only and is not intended to be legal advice.  This article was submitted by Ashley Day, Esq.  Ashley Day Law, LLC.  Reach her at 251-277-3377. 

Paperwork...Paperwork...What Should I Keep?

PaperworkPaperworkWhat Should I keep? Sorting through the paperwork of a deceased loved one is a daunting task. It is important to know what to keep and what to discard. Here are some helpful tips.  Deeds, Titles and Vehicle RegistrationsDeeds and titles to property may not be obvious on the face of the document so it is important to read everything carefully. Keep anything that has a legal description (Lots and Blocks or Metes and Bounds), a vehicle identification number (VIN), contains the word title, deed of trust or warranty deed.  ReceiptsSome property does not have a title such as a tractor, farm equipment or certain recreational equipment. In such cases, keep the purchase receipts for this type of property. It will be useful if there is a question about ownership, the value of the property or the date it was purchased.  Bank RecordsSave all bank records and statements. These will be valuable if a dispute arises about ownership of an account, payments or distributions made from the account and to whom. Shred unused checks.  Retirement AccountsSave all statements and records pertaining to the decedents individual retirement accounts (IRAs), 401(k) plans or pension plans.  Life Insurance PoliciesSave all life insurance policies.  Social Security Paperwork and Earning StatementsSave information about the decedents Social Security account or earning statements.  Cancel the Decedents Credit Card Accounts Nowadays, identity theft is a huge issue. Contact Experian, Equifax and TransUnion to report the death of your loved one. Request the credit report be flagged as Deceased. Being proactive prevents a lot of hassle later on.  Cancel all credit cards in the deceased persons name. Also, there may be questions about the credit card purchase of certain items or property. Save credit card statements until probate of the decedents estate is complete.  Documents that contain the decedents Social Security NumberIf you find any documents with the decedents Social Security Number and you make a determination that the documents are not going to be saved, make sure it all gets shredded.  Tax RecordsKeep the decedents tax records. There may be a question about real property valuation, exemption or other issues that can be resolved by information in a tax return.   Loan PaperworkKeep all loan paperwork including loans on property or a loan the decedent made to a relative, friend, individual or organization. This may show that there is outstanding debt or money owed to the decedents estate.  Business AgreementsSometimes people have business agreements that have been documented in writing. Such agreements may contain a succession plan, what should happen with business equipment or property, or what should happen upon the death of a business partner.  Military RecordsSave all military records just in case there are benefits owed to a survivor such as a spouse, dependent child or disabled child. Some benefits are dependent upon verification of military service during war time which occurred prior to the advent of computer records. This includes photographs taken during wartime.  Birth and Marriage CertificatesSave all birth and marriage certificates. Again, for certain benefits for survivors, such certificates may be needed.  Timeframe for Keeping PaperworkIt is advisable to keep these potentially important documents until the estate of the decedent is settled, at a minimum. Otherwise keep them at least seven years and longer if possible, especially if real estate is involved.  Contact Your AttorneyYour attorney will ask you pertinent questions and give you advice about what records to keep.  You should also review your own estate plan documents to make sure they are up to date and reflect your current wishes.  This article was written by Donna A. Schuyler, Attorney, who practices in the areas of estate planning, elder law, guardianship, and probate. Donna Schuyler Law, PLLC; elderlawboise.com. Phone 208-344-1947

Local Services By This Author

Safe Harbor Law Firm

Elder Law 27821 South Tamiami Trail, Bonita Springs, Florida, 34134

At Safe Harbor Law Firm (formally known as Buff Law Firm PLLC), we focus on estate planning, elder law, and closely related practice areas. Our true focus, however, is helping families plan for and take control of their future. This can involve:Ensuring your assets will go to the people you want, when you want, in the manner you want after you pass awayPreparing for the possibility that you or your spouse will need expensive long-term careand helping you find ways to pay for itEnsuring that people you trust have the authority to make financial and medical decisions on your behalf in the event of incapacityProtecting your assets and those of your heirs against threats such as creditors, lawsuits, divorce, the high cost of long-term care, and moreGuiding your loved ones through the probate and/or trust administration processSafe Harbor Law Firm has helped families from all walks of life find solutions to challenges like these and many more. We welcome the opportunity to do the same for you. Ultimately, our goal is to help you enjoy the peace of mind that comes from having a plan in place for the future. We invite you to contact us for a personal meeting to discuss your particular needs and goals.EXPERT ATTORNEYSMeet the TeamPam Buff Baker, Esq.Attorney & FounderAbout Mrs. BakerPam Buff Baker, Esq., owner and founder of Safe Harbor Law Firm works closely with clients to meet their legal needs. In particular, Pam works in all areas of Estate Planning, Elder Law, Probate and Trust Administration. Pam was recognized by Naples Illustrated in 2021 and 2022 as a Top Lawyer in Trusts and Estates to include 2023. She is also a member of the nationwide organization, Lawyers with Purpose, an organization solely focused on helping seniors. Safe Harbor Law Firm serves clients at their offices in Naples and Bonita Springs.Pam graduated magna cum laude from Tulane University, having majored in chemical engineering. Since graduating from Tulane, Pam has worked in sales, marketing, and technical support for Eka Chemicals (part of Akzo Nobel), a company division that supplies water purification and treatment systems. Later, Pam moved to Naples, Florida. Since then, Pam graduated summa cum laude from Ave Maria School of Law, where she was Associate Editor of the Law Review and a full academic scholarship recipient. During her time at Ave Maria School of Law, Pam worked in the legal department of Arthrex and interned for several local law firms. Pam is a champion golfer, having been a varsity player at Tulane, inducted into the Hall of Fame. She was an All-American golfer, three-time conference champion, conference player of the year, and student athlete of the year. When she has free time, Pam likes to play golf and go to the beach and pool with her family, including her three children ages 4, 14, and 16. Originally from the Chicago area, Pam has lived year-round in Naples, Florida since 2005.Helen Mena, Esq.AttorneyThomas Tom LaTorre, Esq.AttorneyBrittany Cocchieri, Esq.AttorneyKatherine ReillyMarketing DirectorBryan D. WoulasDirector of OperationsAndy C. BakerFirm AdministratorKelly FinckProbate and Estate Planning Legal AssistantJessica MaristanyClient Services CoordinatorBreanna CanningFunding and Medicaid ParalegalRuth DavisClient Service CoordinatorJacqui CalmaAdministrative AssistantGabby AngExecutive AssistantMackenzie McTeviaClient Services Coordinator