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DIY Estate Planning: Can I Make a Will Myself?

While a steady drive towards technology has been growing for decades, the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic tremendously increased our reliance on technology, effectively changing the the way we do nearly everything, including estate planning. Do-It-Yourself (DIY) online services offering legal templates and forms have gained popularity in the wake of the stay-home orders, popular for their convenience and low cost. DIY estate planning forms, such as like a last will and testament, codicils and health care or financial powers of attorney, created without the guidance of an attorney can create several issues.

Take, for instance, the case of Aldrich v. Basile, which the Supreme Court of Florida called “a cautionary tale of the potential dangers of utilizing pre-printed forms and drafting a will without legal assistance.”[1] In Aldrich, a women used a DIY will template that willed several assets to her brother. After creating this will, she inherited some property and large sum of money. Her will, however, did not contain a residuary clause, which accounts for all property not specially bequeathed in the will. Upon her death, her brother and nieces began suit to determine the rightful owner to the inherited money and property, each claiming it was theirs. The Florida Supreme Court held that because the will did not contain a residuary clause, the money and property would pass through intestacy (the law that happens when someone dies without a valid will), meaning it would be split according to the default Florida laws. This case demonstrates the detrimental impact of an online will template can have when it does not adequately address your estate’s specific, changing needs.

Florida’s Elective Share: Part II

Our previous blog post two weeks ago addressed Florida law regarding the protection to surviving spouses provided by the elective share from the perspective of estate planning (Elective Share – what is it and why you should know more about it). This post focusses on the options of a surviving spouse after declaring elective share. However, electing against the decedent’s estate may not always be the most beneficial option for a surviving spouse. Depending on the circumstances, a surviving spouse’s pretermitted share of decedent’s estate can be much larger than their elective share, and therefore, in some cases, it may not be beneficial to utilize the elective share.

Intestacy and Pretermitted Spouse

How does Florida’s Elective Share Affect my Estate Plan? Part One.

What is an “Elective Share”?

In situations where the decedent’s will has left their surviving spouse very little, or nothing, Florida law protects surviving spouse’s in two major ways: The Elective Share and Homestead. While both of these laws may affect your estate plan in significant ways, this blog and the next blog will focus on the elective share. A surviving spouse has the right to claim an elective share of the decedent’s estate, often termed “electing against the will.” By opting to claim their elective share, a surviving spouse can essentially supersede the terms of a will and bequests to other people in order to obtain a percentage of the decedent’s estate.

Larry King’s Handwritten Will Ordeal

The recent passing of the broadcasting legend, Larry King, has resulted in his family not only mourning him but also fighting amongst themselves over his true last wishes. Larry, together with his wife, Shawn Southwick King, had executed estate planning documents in 2015, where he named her the personal representative of his estate. However, the couple faced some difficulties and Larry filed for divorce in August 2019. Just two months later, he executed a new handwritten will, leaving his entire estate valued at $2 million dollars to his five children. Two witnesses also signed their names to the hand-written will.

Larry’s eldest son, Larry King Jr., submitted the 2019 will to the court and has petitioned to be appointed the temporary administrator of Larry’s estate. However, Shawn has filed an objection to the 2019 will, claiming that the will is invalid and that Larry King Jr. exerted undue influence over his father towards the end of his life, and insisting that the 2015 will is the valid one.

2021 Biden Administration Proposed Tax Changes: Will My Estate Be Subject to Estate Tax?

Over the course of the last several decades, the federal estate tax credit has increased to the point that only very high net-worth individuals and families need to concern themselves with estate tax planning. For the year 2021, the “applicable exclusion amount” is $11,700,000.00 per individual (23,400,000.00 for married couples). The gift tax exclusion amount is the same, that is, each individual may give $11,700,000.00 during their lifetime without incurring any gift tax. If the sum of lifetime gifts and assets transferred at death is greater than the applicable exclusion amount, then such transfers will be taxed at a rate as high as 40%.

However, the Biden administration has proposed a reduction of the applicable exclusion amount to $3,500,000.00 per person for estates, $1,000,000.00 for lifetime gifts, and increase the tax rate to up to 45%. Such a change is made more likely by the fact that, in January, the Democratic party has consolidated power in both branches of the U.S. Congress. Last year, there was even fear that, if such a change came in to effect at any time during 2021, congress could make the change retroactive to January 1, 2020, prompting many families to make gifts before the end of the year to ensure their use of the current applicable exclusion amounts.

Contracts to Create a Will

A last will and testament must be the consequence of a person’s free will (which is why they are aptly referred to as “wills”). Nevertheless, a person may execute a contract during life to include certain terms and/or beneficiaries in their will in exchange for goods or services.

Enforcing a contract to create a will is more complex than enforcing a normal contract. With these types of agreements, it may be impossible to tell whether the testator lived up to his or her side of the bargain until their estate plan is revealed after their death. Additionally, the terms of a will do not come into effect until death, so there may not technically be a breach of the contract until the decedent’s death. Further, if you were supposed to be a part of the decedent’s estate plan, but were not included, it’s possible you may never even receive notice regarding the administration of the decedent’s estate.

Homestead Protection: Can You Lose It in Probate?

A person’s home (homestead) is often the most important asset in their estate plan because of the monetary and sentimental value that is inherent in a person’s main residence. Florida has special rules that govern a person’s primary residence, known as homestead property. Unless a creditor is the IRS, a mortgagee, or a laborer that performed work on the home, a homestead property is safe from creditors’ claims. Essentially, the homestead is exempt from a forced sale of the property unless there is a special creditor.

To qualify for homestead protection, a person must be a permanent resident of Florida, and the homestead must be that person’s primary place of residence, among other rules. This means that second homes and investment properties are ineligible for such protection. However, there is no monetary cap associated with the exemption, so a Florida resident that invests millions of dollars into their primary residence will receive full protection.

Does My Will Control My Joint Property?

There are several different ways to hold real property with another individual in Florida. The three main ones are: 1) tenancy in common, 2) joint tenancy with a right of survivorship, and 3) tenancy by the entirety. The way co-ownership of real property is classified may have significant impacts on the disposition of an estate after one of the owners dies.

In Florida, the default classification of real estate ownership is known as tenancy in common. If a property title lists only the names of owners without specifying another classification, there is a presumption that the property is a tenancy in common (unless the individuals are married). Additionally, unless specifically stated otherwise, tenants in common own equal shares of the property. When a tenant in common dies, the real property passes according to that person’s estate plan. This type of ownership will ensure that the property will flow through the owner’s estate. However, unless this property is held by a mechanism that can avoid probate proceedings (e.g. a Revocable Trust), it must go through the time consuming, expensive and public probate process to transfer title to the heirs.

What Happens to My Pets When I Die? Florida Pet Trusts

Many people consider their pets to be an integral and indispensable part of their families. For that reason, many people want to ensure their beloved dog, cat, horse, or other animal will be provided for in the event of their death. Pets are considered tangible personal property in Florida, and can be devised, so in the absence of a specific bequest, your pets will go to whomever you have designated to receive your tangible personal property.

For many people, such an arrangement is fine, but some people may want to ensure that their pets are taken care of after they are gone, and for those people, a pet trust may be appropriate. A pet trust is a legal mechanism that specifies and arranges for how your pet would be taken care of and financially provided for should you become incapacitated or die. In Florida, Fla. Stat. § 736.0408 enables the creation of a pet trust.

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.

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