CORONAVIRUS UPDATE: What We Are Doing to Protect Our Clients

Articles Posted in Out of State Beneficiaries

COVID-19 – Buying Life Insurance to protect your children, but what happens when you name them as the beneficiaries?

During these uncertain times, people are attempting to prepare for the worst. This is especially true for those who have minor children. The fear of getting infected with the virus, developing a serious illness that could potentially lead to death, and leaving their children unprotected is very real. Thus, individuals are opting to buy life insurance to make sure their children are taken care of in the event of their death.

But what happens when you die and your minor children are the beneficiaries under your life insurance policy? Since minors cannot legally manage property, the court will appoint a guardian to handle the money for the benefit of your children until they reach the age of majority—a guardianship proceeding. Alternatively, life insurance companies will sometimes ask you to name a custodian, which will create a custodianship account under the Florida Uniform Transfers to Minors Act (“UTMA”), also until the age of majority.

Social Distancing and Signing Documents: Can a Beneficiary Act as a Witness?

During COVID-19, we have had to adapt the way we sign estate planning documents while maintaining safe social distancing. Although businesses are slowly reopening and things appear to be getting back to a sense of normal, it is still important to be cautious and keep our exposures to a minimum. One of the strategies Chepenik Trushin LLP has adjusted is to make the estate planning process entirely remote, with phone and video conferences, email communications, and sending estate planning documents through regular or electronic mail with detailed instructions for clients to sign on their own. For some clients, this has worked well, but for others, it has been a challenge to find two witnesses and a notary, which are required for many estate planning documents. A frequent question that has arisen is whether a relative or a beneficiary may serve as the witness to a will or other estate planning documents, such as a trust.

For a number of years, Florida law disfavored beneficiaries under a will from also being witnesses to the will. Under current Florida law, a will or codicil is not invalid simply because the will or codicil is signed by an interested witness. Fla. Stat. § 732.504(2). Based on the Florida statute, a beneficiary can serve as a witness to a will.

How to Safely get Documents Notarized During a Pandemic

For the indefinite time being, social distancing and staying home are necessary safety measures. However, that does not mean the world stops. People still have needs and documents that must be notarized. There are ways to do that without leaving the house and risking exposure.

Florida Statute sections 117.201-117.305 went into effect on January 1, 2020 and allows notarization to occur remotely once a notary completes an application and training course. Usually, when getting a document notarized, the notary either confirms that they know you personally or verifies your identity by looking at government-issued identification. Now, according to Florida Statute § 117.265, via audio-video communication, a notary can do the same thing with an additional step. If the notary does not know you personally, you can remotely show your government-issued identification and then answer a few questions to confirm your identity. See Fla. Stat. § 117.265; See also Fla. Stat § 117.295. Once that is complete, the notary can watch you electronically sign the document and notarize it from his/her computer. When looking for a notary to provide this online service, look for someone that is a Remote Online Notary, also known as a “RON.” Not all notaries are qualified to perform this service remotely. The lawyers and staff at Chepenik Trushin LLP can help you through this process, keeping you and your loved one’s safe.

COVID 19 – Is Your Estate In Order? Non-Probate Transfers and Pitfalls of Beneficiary Designations

In the wake of the recent Corona virus pandemic, many people are understandably concerned about their estate plan. A common misconception is that if you have executed a will or even a trust, then you are all set. In fact, it may not be that simple. In fact, a will is not the only instrument capable of passing down an estate to the decedent’s heirs, and some assets may not be controlled by your will and/or trust at all.

For example, in a joint tenancy with rights of survivorship, the property automatically passes to the surviving owner. So, if A and B own a piece of land in joint tenancy and A dies, B immediately gains full ownership of the land, without a probate administration. A’s right to the land extinguishes and thus, A has nothing to leave to his heirs through a will, or otherwise. Another way to avoid probate is through accounts with Transfer-on-Death (TOD) clauses. An account with a TOD beneficiary will transfer the ownership of the account will be transferred to the beneficiary at the decedent’s death, without a will or trust.

Do I Need to Amend My Trust Because of the Secure Act?

Last month, in our last blog, we addressed the basics of the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019 (the “SECURE Act’) and how retirement plan beneficiary designations will be impacted for individuals who die in or after 2020. But what if you already set up an estate plan with a trust as beneficiary of your retirement account? Do you need to amend your trust or your beneficiary designation form as a result of the passage of the SECURE Act?

The answer is that it depends on whether the trust is an “accumulation” trust or a “conduit” trust and how you want such retirement accounts to be treated. Generally, in an accumulation trust, assets payable to the trust are to be distributed in the trustee’s discretion. A conduit trust, on the other hand, generally requires that assets must be distributed to the beneficiary – in other words, the trust simply acts as a conduit to deliver the assets to the beneficiary, and the assets cannot stay (that is, cannot accumulate) in the trust. It is possible to draft the trust as an accumulation trust with respect to all assets except retirement accounts, just as it is possible to draft a conduit trust that requires only outright distributions of retirement accounts (leaving the remainder of the funds at the trustee’s discretion).

The Secure Act: Retirement Accounts and Your Estate Plan

Beginning on December 20, 2019, the Secure Act substantially changed the rules for designated beneficiaries of retirement plans, with wide raging implications for estate planning.

The old rule used to be that upon the death of a retirement account owner, the beneficiary of the plan would be able to take required minimum distributions based on that beneficiary’s life expectancy. This was beneficial especially for younger beneficiaries with long life expectancies who could “stretch” the payments over many years, allowing the assets to stay invested in the plan longer. It was also possible for beneficiaries to receive these stretch payments if a trust for their benefit was named as the beneficiary, as long as the trust qualified as a “see-through” trust. If no beneficiary was named, or if a non-see-through trust was named as beneficiary, the entire plan had to be distributed within 5 years of the date of death of the participant. Because many clients wish to leave their assets in trust for their children, much of the focus of estate planners up until this point had been drafting trusts so that they qualified as see-through trusts in order to avoid the 5-year rule.

What if Your Beneficiaries Predecease You?

When preparing a will, people assume that the beneficiaries that they name will outlive them. Unfortunately, testator’s live beyond the life of their beneficiaries all the time. What happens to the gift left for someone who is now deceased?

The original common law understanding was that if a beneficiary predeceases the testator, the specific gift to that beneficiary would “lapse,” and therefore fall back into the residuary estate of the testator. However, in some instances, Florida “Anti-Lapse statutes” may change this result. In Florida, barring any contrary intent appearing in the will, if the devise is to the testator’s grandparent or any descendant of a grandparent, and the devisee predeceases the testator, the devise passes onto the devisee’s surviving descendants. Thus, a lapse is avoided when the specific gift is to the testator’s grandparents or descendant of grandparents. However, a devise to anyone who is not a grandparent or descendant of a grandparent would still lapse if that devisee predeceased the testator, unless a contrary intent appeared in the will.

How Can you Prove Undue Influence?

For a Will to be valid, certain conditions must be met. The testator must have legal capacity, at least eighteen years old, must have testamentary intent, and the will must not be a product of undue influence or duress. The first two requirements are usually relatively easy issues to resolve, but undue influence and duress is not always clear. As the Supreme Court of Florida explained, “[u]ndue influence is not usually exercised openly in the presence of others, so that it may be directly proved, hence it may be proved by indirect evidence of facts and circumstances from which it may be inferred.”

In In re Estate of Carpenter, the Supreme Court of Florida listed a set of seven, non-exhaustive factors to consider when deciding cases of Undue Influence:

Are Actions Taken Before Appointment as Personal Representative Valid? Yes, if the Actions Were Beneficial to the Estate

Florida law states that the duties and powers of a personal representative commence upon appointment. You may be named as personal representative in a decedent’s will, you are not legally considered a personal representative until the court appoints you. But what happens if you need to take action regarding an estate before a court officially appoints you as the personal representative of the estate, such as paying bills or filing a lawsuit? As it turns out, under the relation back doctrine, any act that you do on behalf of the estate becomes valid after you are appointed the personal representative, if such actions are beneficial to the estate. Florida courts have also clarified that performing the duties of a personal representative is considered beneficial to the estate.

Florida’s Relation Back Doctrine is found in Fla. Stat. § 733.601, which states, “The powers of a personal representative relate back in time to give acts by the person appointed, occurring before appointment and beneficial to the estate, the same effect as those occurring after appointment. A personal representative may ratify and accept acts on behalf of the estate done by others when the acts would have been proper for a personal representative.”

The Long Arm of the Law – Trust Litigation and Out-of-State Beneficiaries

When dealing with trusts, there is a possibility that the potential litigation or present lawsuit involves people from multiple jurisdictions and multiple states. A trust may be created and administered in Florida, but the beneficiaries may live elsewhere. If this is the case, can the beneficiaries still be sued in Florida?

The Southern District of Florida discussed the issue of personal jurisdiction over a party when dealing with an in-state trust and an out of state beneficiary in Abromats v. Abromats. Gloria Abromats, executed a revocable trust while she was residing in Florida. Further amendments were made to Trust, which one of her sons, Clifford, claimed were procured through undue influence over Gloria by his brother Phillip. Phillip lived in Wyoming and received distributions from the trust. Clifford filed suit against Phillip in Florida, but Phillip argued that the court did not have jurisdiction over him in Florida.

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