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In a perfect world, every individual would have a clearly defined estate plan and a will before they pass on. Unfortunately, life circumstances and the unexpected can get in the way of perfect planning. In Texas, state intestate succession laws define the way your assets will go to your closest family members in the event you pass without a last will and testament.

Intestate Succession in Texas

Texas law defines the order of succession for various possible circumstances. The first few circumstances are relatively simple. If you die with living children but no spouse, your children inherit everything. If you die with a spouse but no children, your spouse inherits everything. Likewise, if you die with parents but no siblings and no spouse or children, your parents inherit everything, and the same goes for if you have siblings but no living parents, spouse, or children.

When a person passes on, many of their assets will have to go through probate. Understanding probate, or the process through which a court legally recognizes the death of a person and facilitates the distribution of their assets and the payment of their debts, is crucial to smart estate planning. A skilled estate planning attorney can help walk through this often complicated process.

How to Start the Texas Probate Process

Assuming an individual dies with a will, the executor in the will must file for probate. Generally in Texas, an executor has four years from the date of death to file, though the time frames vary in different local courts. If not, the estate will go through intestate succession, where close family members will receive assets according to predefined rules set out by the state. Simple estates can be probated within 6 months, but contested wills or complicated scenarios can take multiple years.

First, an application for probate is filed. Then, a notice of the probate application will be posted at the courthouse to alert anyone who may contest the will. If no contests are received in approximately two weeks, a hearing will begin. During this hearing, the decedent’s death will be recognized and a judge will validate the will and appoint an administrator or identify the executor.

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Conservatorships have been thrust into the public spotlight in recent years because of one high-profile legal battle involving pop star Britney Spears. While many people may now understand the broad strokes of the legal mechanism because of this highly watched and followed case, it can be a complex tool best explained by a knowledgeable estate planning attorney. One thing the public understands well, though, is that conservatorships and guardianships can provide an easy route for fraud and abuse.

Conservatorship Basics

In Texas, a conservatorship is also called a guardianship. A court can appoint a conservator or guardian to make decisions on behalf of an individual. The person under guardianship is then deprived of making many everyday decisions on their own behalf.

To come under a conservatorship, a court must determine a person cannot make legal, financial, or medical decisions on their own behalf. This can encompass a wide range of possibilities, from mental health issues to dementia or intellectual or physical disabilities. Aging individuals can also come under conservatorship.

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It’s no question that estate planning can seem daunting. Beyond your last will and testament, there are a bevy of other documents that may seem unnecessary, duplicative, or just plain overwhelming. You may think making beneficiary designations, or forms that allow you to transfer assets directly to individuals without dealing with your will and the probate process, simplifies the entire endeavor. Unfortunately, there are a number of pitfalls that can happen when individuals simply settle for beneficiary designations without utilizing other estate planning tools with an experienced attorney.

1.) Your Beneficiary May Pass Away

Although this may seem obvious, many people do not consider that their beneficiary may pass away. With multiple assets, you may forget to change your designation in the event of your beneficiary’s death, leaving your asset stranded. You may be incapacitated in some way, which could render you unable to update your designations. Without proper mechanisms in place, you would be left without an avenue for passing on your assets.

2.) Your Beneficiary May Not Follow Your Wishes

You may name a beneficiary with the idea that they equitably share the asset or account you’ve left to them with other individuals, such as among siblings or children. Unfortunately, this may not always be the case. Proper planning can ensure your wishes are carried out exactly as you specify, without leaving it up to chance.

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For many business owners, the future of your business and life’s work is at the forefront of your mind. Business succession planning should also be at the forefront of your estate planning. Beyond the complexities of regular estate planning, business succession planning must carefully consider unique tax implications and asset protection strategies. In addition, choosing the right person to control your business—or the right plan for sale or closure—is imperative in ensuring your preferences and wishes are carried out.

Who Will Control Your Business?

When it comes to who will control your business, any business owner knows the right leader is crucial to the success of the company. If you can no longer run your business, you have several options.

First, you could transfer ownership to someone you’ve selected yourself. While many owners believe this will ensure their life’s work is carried out with their preferences in mind, owners should carefully consider who they should pass the business to and what training will need to be done. In addition, there are tax liability issues at play in the transfer of a business.

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Individuals thinking about estate planning may already be considering their spouses, children, and even important charities and foundations that are meaningful to them. It is important for planners to also consider implementing estate plans for their beloved cats and dogs. While you cannot leave money to your pet in your will, there are other tools to ensure your pets are cared for in your absence.

Choosing a Caretaker

In many cases, it may be clear and undisputed who your pet’s caretaker may be. You may think just telling your executor who will care for your cat or dog will be enough. But in the unfortunate event a dispute arises or your caretaker can no longer accept the responsibility, a formal arrangement in your will can ensure your pet is properly cared for. If you do not have a trusted loved one, many arrangements exist that will ensure your pet has a safe caretaker, such as SPCA programs, private pet sanctuaries, and veterinary school programs.

Pet Trusts

Some estates will leave a sum of money to their chosen caretaker to cover expenses related to animal care. Others, however, may choose to create a pet trust. Pet trusts are recognized in every state, including Texas, as legal estate planning instruments. Similar to other types of trusts, the trust creator places funds or assets into the trust for the benefit of the pet. The pet owner will name a trustee and even a successor trustee charged with managing these funds. Acceptable uses include veterinary and medical costs, food and care expenses, grooming needs, and even end of life plans for the pet, such as burial or cremation. Individuals creating pet trusts should clearly describe and identify their pet in the trust to avoid potential abuse.

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End-of-life planning is an emotionally challenging process. Without the aid of an experienced estate planning attorney, you may fall into some common pitfalls without realizing their harm.

Thinking you don’t have an estate

Some think only the very wealthy have an estate, but this is untrue. Everyone has an estate, and everyone’s estate plans will differ based on their individual needs. Common elements of an estate plan can range from a person’s post-death plans for their body to plans for their home to their vehicle. Even digital assets need to be included in a comprehensive estate plan.

Medicare and Medicaid have similar names but are two completely separate government health insurance programs. Understanding the difference can help you and your family plan for aging and retirement.

What is Medicare?

Medicare is a program administered by the federal government—the Centers for Medicare & Medicaid services—that is essentially available to anyone, regardless of income. If you are over 65 years of age or are younger and have a specific disability, you may qualify for Medicare. People covered under Medicare pay into a trust from which medical bills are paid. Most long-term care costs are not covered under Medicare, making it difficult for aging individuals and their families to pay for care facilities or long-term rehabilitation.

What is Medicaid?

Unlike Medicare, Medicaid is administered by individual states, such as Texas. It is catered to serve low-income people at any age, and also covers the costs of long-term care in nursing home facilities. In Texas, Medicaid is extremely complex and can be difficult to navigate. Medicaid applicants must either have a disability, be caring for a disabled child, or have a monthly income under a limit set by the government each year. Medicaid applicants must also have less than $2,000 in certain assets, which can exclude primary residences, vehicles, and some personal property. The government will look at the most recent five years of financial statements to ensure an applicant’s eligibility, making it difficult for applicants to transfer assets in anticipation of filing for Medicaid benefits if they wait until the last minute.

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If you’re considering your end-of-life plans and want to ensure your family’s safety and comfort, you may already know and understand the need for a last will and testament. Understanding what happens after the will is drafted, however, is crucial to best position your estate for a seamless and hassle-free probate process for your loved ones. This includes understanding the legal classification of your assets.

Probate, or the process of distributing a person’s assets after death, can be a lengthy and complicated process. Through this process, the executor of the estate as named by a will must file an application for probate in the relevant county. Then the court will post notice of that application, opening up the process for contesting a will. Even if there is no contest to the will, a court must still hold a hearing to ensure the validity of the will and appoint the executor. Once the executor is appointed, the process continues—the executor must locate and distribute all assets, notify creditors, and resolve any disputes.

Some assets, however, are not so clearly defined. Even if you have employed a Texas estate planning attorney to minimize the assets that must go through probate, there will likely be assets remaining that must go through this process. These assets may include community property.

Medical emergencies, especially among aging individuals, can result in long-term rehabilitation and financial distress. Planning ahead for these emergencies is crucial, not only to preserve your assets and your independence but also to protect yourself from unscrupulous practices.

According to a recent article, a woman has filed a lawsuit alleging extensive financial fraud and abuse against a long-term elder care and rehabilitation facility. The woman, who lived alone and independently, entered the facility to recover from numerous medical issues after hospitalization. She alleges employees of the care facility repeatedly suggested that she get rid of her assets and live the remainder of her days in the nursing home facility, which she declined and insisted she did not wish to do.

After this refusal, she was placed on a cocktail of medications that put her under a fog, leading to hallucinations and confusion. It was then that she was coerced into signing a durable power of attorney agreement handing over control of all of her financial decisions to an officer of the care facility, whom the woman had never actually met. This officer kept her from seeing her family and eventually sold all of her assets, including her car, and listed her home on the market.

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