Articles Posted in Probate

What to do with 23 and me?

Recent years have seen the rise in ancestry services such as Ancestry.com and 23 and Me. After performing a simple DNA swab, these services provide the subscriber with hereditary and genealogical information that can unlock family history, medical information, and perhaps even long-lost relatives. While these services provide substantial value for our personal lives, they may be problematic in the world of estate planning.

To illustrate, consider the following hypothetical. A man donates to a fertility clinic when he is 20 years old. Many years later, the man is happily married with three adult children. The man then creates a will that reads in part as follows: “I hereby leave my personal savings account, valued at $1,000,000, to my biological children to be divided equally.” This language creates a class gift to a particular class of people, his children, as opposed to naming specific individuals to benefit. While the man’s three children are included in this class gift, as was intended, so too is a fourth biological child resulting from the man’s fertility clinic donation years prior, whom the man never knew existed. Genetic information services can have both intended and unintended consequences, as the three children will find out if the fourth child identifies his father through an ancestry service and later seeks a distribution from the man’s estate under the class gift in the will.

Estate planning 101 from the late Tony Hsieh, CEO of Zappos

            Tony Hsieh was the CEO of Zappos for over twenty years before retiring and taking up a series of different business ventures. Zappos is an online retailer that deals specifically with shoes and clothing on an international sale. Hsieh was an early investor, and then CEO, for this online clothing empire. On November 27, 2020, Tony Hsieh succumbed to his injuries resulting from a house fire at his residence, leaving behind assets worth over $700,000,000. Quite a large sum.

Like many celebrities who have passed away with large estates, including Aretha Franklin and Prince, Hsieh did not leave an estate plan in the unfortunate eventuality of his death.  Having no plan in place governing his wishes, Mr. Hsieh’s family is now left in the unenviable position of having to deal with the administration of Mr. Hsieh’s estate and the claims of many individuals seeking a potion of same.  At least ten individuals have submitted claims for a portion of Mr. Hsieh’s estate, seeking more than $130,000,000. Many of these claims concern different specific devises listed on thousands of yellow Post-It notes. Some Post-It notes are about particular items such as artwork and furniture, while others concern ownership interests in Mr. Hsieh’s business ventures.

How can a single parent avoid homestead to protect a minor child?

            Florida homestead laws are complex, confusing, and enormously important for homeowners with or without an estate plan. Florida homestead law applies to three categories: (1) creditor protection against reaching a primary residence, (2) property tax exemptions and limitations on annual property value increases, and (3) restrictions on how a homeowner may devise property if there is a surviving spouse or a minor child.

Under this third category, Article X, Section 4(c) of the Florida Constitution states that a homestead property cannot be devised if the owner is survived by a spouse or minor child, except to the spouse if there is no minor child. This section only pertains to devises, or post-death transfers of property. A homeowner is free to mortgage, gift, sell, or deed the property freely while the homeowner is still living. If the homestead is jointly owned by both spouses, then the property can be freely transferred as long as both spouses join on the conveyance.

Florida’s ‘Dutiful Child’ Exception

Throughout life, relationships and priorities often change, necessitating amendment to one’s Last Will and Testament to reflect these changes. However, sometimes these testamentary changes raise questions as to the testator’s motivations for the revisions, leading to a will contest. “Undue influence” upon the testator is one basis for challenging the validity of a will, trust, or other testamentary document. While litigating the issue of undue influence can be complex, the basic concept is straightforward: an individual is accused of improperly persuading a (often vulnerable and elderly) testator to draft or amend their will for that person’s individual benefit.

Florida courts consider several factors when assessing claims of undue influence over a testator, including the beneficiary’s arranging for the testator to prepare a will, knowledge of the contents of the will, and presence during the execution of estate planning documents. On paper, these factors seem like red flags pointing towards a finding of undue influence. Yet in reality, these are common actions of adult children simply caring for their elderly parents. So, how can an adult child helping their parent with estate planning justify these actions when faced with an allegation of undue influence?

What Happens to my Bitcoin when I die? Estate Planning and Digital Currencies

Cryptocurrencies have gained significant popularity over the last decade, appealing to the masses due to their decentralized nature, virtual anonymity, and enhanced security.[1] For Federal income tax purposes, cryptocurrency is treated as property, and longstanding tax principles apply to all transactions involving cryptocurrency.[2] Thus, anyone who owns cryptocurrency should be treated like other assets and be addressed in an estate plan.

However, these currencies pose certain challenges for estate planning. Like securities, the value of cryptocurrencies can fluctuate with great volatility due to market pressures. In addition, the virtual currency cannot be kept in a physical bank account. This lack of physical presence poses issues if the holder did not properly take steps to track and pass on his or her cryptocurrency.

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.

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