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Take it from us: thinking about death is very rarely how anyone wants to spend their time. As estate planning attorneys, however, we have learned that it is a necessary evil. In our experience, the clients whose families are best protected long-term are those who have taken the time and energy to carefully think through what will happen in the event of their death. On today’s blog, we consider a topic that is not glamorous but that is still incredibly important: planning for the day after your death.

The day after your death, your loved ones will be grief-stricken and perhaps unsure of where to turn. At McCulloch & Miller, we believe that we all have an obligation to our loved ones to make sure they have as little to worry about as possible when that day comes. When your loved ones find themselves in a funeral home, a hospital, or a hospice center, they will want to deal with as few logistics as possible.

Given that reality, there is a checklist we recommend making now, as soon as possible, that your loved ones can access in the event of your death. This checklist should include:

As a team of Texas estate planning attorneys, we often face similar questions from the clients and prospective clients we meet. One such question that many clients ask is: what’s the problem with a DIY will? Our short answer, which we will delve into more through this blog, is that a “do it yourself” will only works until it doesn’t work. While it can end up being legally valid, there are often complications that arise, and it’s often not worth the risk to you and to your loved ones down the road.

As online legal services become more and more popular, many individuals become increasingly interested in getting an online will. These wills do not require speaking to an estate planning attorney, but instead allow you to fill out online forms and quickly get a will that might work for you. There are three main issues that we see with these wills, and we will address each issue below.

1. Is the Will Valid?

In Texas, there are several requirements that a will must meet in order to be valid. It must, for example, be executed properly, self-proving, and written down. It must make sense and it must be able to survive legal scrutiny during probate. While an online will might meet these requirements, odds are there might be some difficulties that the will does not take into consideration.

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At McCulloch & Miller, we hear from our clients time and time again that the estate planning process feels daunting – especially when it is just beginning. Luckily, with the right estate planning attorneys in place, you can walk into your first meeting with the confidence that your case is in the best of hands. Today, we review some of the topics you might expect to cover in your initial estate planning consultation, with the hopes that you might feel more prepared as you get ready for your own consultation.

Central Issues

There are three main topics that an estate planning attorney might want to discuss with you during your estate planning consultation: your family situation, your financial situation, and your goals and concerns as you begin your estate planning journey.

Your family situation is important because many times, clients want to leave their assets to a spouse, children, or grandchildren. The more your estate planning attorney can familiarize him or herself with your possible heirs, the more he or she can help you figure out a plan that works for everyone.

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Going into a legal consultation regarding your probate affairs, you may have questions about what might happen during the meeting. On today’s blog, we expand on our YouTube series that discusses some of the ins and outs of probate by covering what you can expect during a probate consultation with an attorney from McCulloch & Miller.

Central Issues

There are a few central concerns that your probate attorney will want to address to make sure that the two of you are on the same wavelength. First and foremost, your attorney will want to know if there is a will or other estate planning document in play. If you are beginning the probate process for a loved one, the path you take will look completely different if there is a will or if there is no will. Even if there is a will, the attorney will want to have a look – it’s possible, for example, that the will might be invalid or that there might be inconsistencies that the attorney wants to raise on the front end of the proceedings.

In Texas, power of attorney refers to a legal document that allows one individual to act on behalf of another individual. Power of attorney can look different depending on the specific circumstances, and the decision of whether to grant power of attorney is an inherently personal one. Today, we review some of the options for granting power of attorney, including whether you can limit the authority of the person to whom you grant this power.

The short answer to this question is that yes, you can limit the power granted by power of attorney. You can accomplish this goal in several ways. To start, you can grant power of attorney only for a specific period of time – for example, you can give someone authority to act on your behalf only until a specific task has been accomplished (for example, for the period of time in which you are filing your taxes or undergoing a surgery). You can also grant power of attorney only if you become incapacitated, only upon your death, or only until you decide to revoke the power of attorney.

You can also grant an individual “limited” power of attorney, meaning you give a person authority only within a very specific realm of your life. You might, for example, grant someone power to assign the legal title to a vehicle you own. You might also consider granting power of attorney only in a matter concerning tax collection, or only in a matter concerning your physical health. The list of options is limitless, and how you choose to grant power of attorney will depend on your specific set of circumstances.

The diversity of estate planning tools available for Texans is vast, and without guidance, it can be difficult to figure out which tool works best for your individualized needs and goals. One specific tool that might be useful for you or a loved one is called the special needs trust. In today’s blog, we review the special needs trust – its advantages, its implications, and important tips to keep in mind if you are thinking about pursuing this trust for someone in your life.

The special needs trust is an irrevocable trust that benefits a physically or mentally disabled individual. The money put in this kind of trust is untouchable to creditors and lenders, and it is managed by a trustee who controls the trust’s assets. Under the law in Texas, the trustee cannot give the trust’s beneficiary money directly from the trust, but he or she can instead use the money to cover the beneficiary’s education, medical needs, and services that might be needed to help the beneficiary navigate his or her disability.

One important advantage of the special needs trust is that the money in the trust does not contribute to the beneficiary’s income for purposes of Social Security Income (SSI). If a disabled person wants to receive these benefits, he or she cannot have more than $2,000 to his or her name. With the special needs trust, however, the amount of money held in the trust has no bearing on this $2,000 maximum. The trust therefore allows these beneficiaries to both receive SSI and, at the same time, keep money in the special needs trust.

Are you delving into the world of trusts and finding yourself unsure of where to start? A common stumbling block for those looking to learn about trusts (or estate planning more generally) is the legal language that comes up in the process. Today, we review some key trust terms that everyone should know, so that you can move forward in your estate planning process with a solid foundation under your belt.

People Involved in a Trust

The trustee: a trustee is in charge of overseeing the assets in the trust. Many people appoint a family member or friend as their trustee, but you can also hire an outside party to oversee your trust.

The beneficiary: a trust’s beneficiary is the person (or group of persons) receiving assets from the trust. Parents, for example, may create a trust for their children – the children then qualify as the beneficiaries.

The settlor: the settlor transfers his or her asset into the trust, which in turn creates the trust.

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In our blog posts in the past, we have reviewed the process of creating, probating, and enforcing a will. In many cases, this process is straightforward, but there are times when complicated factors sneak in. For example: what happens if a person dies with two wills? Which will serve as the controlling document? And how do you navigate this issue if you are going through the probate process?

Who Decides Which Will is the Valid Will?

In short, the probate judge is the person who will determine which will is valid when a decedent leaves behind more than one will. Sometimes, the most important factor in the judge’s decision will be the timing of the will – that is, the will that was created most recently will be the controlling will.

It is safe to say that no one looks forward to navigating the probate process – it can be daunting for those that have lost loved ones and are just trying to get the decedent’s affairs in order. At McCulloch & Miller, part of our goal is to demystify the probate process for clients and potential clients, to help them feel like they have a better grip on what might happen through their interactions with the courts. Today, we cover which assets must go through the probate process, as well as which assets typically are exempt.

Probate Assets

Any real property typically goes through probate in Texas – this, notably, is a broad category of assets that includes real estate, money in non-exempt bank accounts, pieces of land, vehicles, and other important objects or possessions. The probate court’s job is to interpret the decedent’s estate planning documents and determine how these assets should be divided up. In the absence of a will, the court will divide the assets up according to intestate laws in Texas, which tell the court the specific family members that are entitled to receive the decedent’s property.

In an ideal world, probate would go smoothly in every case, and a decedent’s loved ones would always be confident that their inheritance is being handled professionally and well. In reality, however, there can be problems that come up during probate. One such problem, which is rare but severe when it does happen, is when an executor fails to initiate the probate process. On today’s blog, we cover some of the implications of this failure, as well as a few options available to those who have found themselves in this unfortunate situation.

One of the first (and perhaps most obvious) issues that arises from an executor failing to start probate is that the decedent’s assets do not transfer to his or her heirs. Through probate, a court decides that an individual’s will is valid, and the court authorizes the distribution of the decedent’s assets to his or her beneficiaries. Without this process, the assets get stuck, and the heirs are unable to receive their share of the estate.

Similarly, debts fail to get resolved if an executor does not start probate. This means that debtors can still pursue the decedent’s money and property, even going so far as to sue those with access to the decedent’s assets. A decedent’s estate will also continue to be responsible for recurring payments, such as property taxes, if probate has not begun. These costs can add up over time, taking away from the inheritance that beneficiaries will eventually receive once probate does get underway.

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