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Getting to Know the Texas Intestate Laws

As we’ve mentioned in previous blog posts, a will is the cornerstone of any Houston estate plan. In a will, a person can determine what will happen with their property. However, not having a will does not mean that someone’s property will end up with the state. Instead, the Texas intestate laws dictate how the property will be distributed.

Texas intestate laws determine how an individual’s property is passed on. Rather than take a look at subjective factors such as close relationships or the deceased’s intentions, the intestate laws look only to the surviving family members of the deceased. This is not necessarily a problem if the deceased has no children, or family members all can agree on what the deceased’s intentions were. However, that is not often the case.

Under Texas law, the probate process is triggered when a person dies and leaves property without directly transferring ownership to another party. Probate is the process in which a court recognizes a person’s death, resolves debts, and distributes assets according to their will. If the decedent dies with a will, the estate’s representative or executor must file for probate. In situations where a person does not leave a will, the person’s assets and debts will go through intestacy laws.

The probate process requires a court to determine whether a will is valid. After hearing arguments on the will, the court will appoint a person to administer the estate and determine heirs. After determining heirs, the court will notify creditors of the death and allow them to file claims on any debts the estate may owe. After creditors make their claims, the court will distribute assets and resolve any disputes.

Families should understand that there are two main types of probate processes, “independent administration” and “dependent administration.” Independent administration cases tend to be quicker and less expensive. In most cases, however, the will must provide for independent administration. There are ways to get around this requirement if the lawyer or executor makes the appropriate argument to the court. On the other hand, dependent administration of estates occurs when there is any dispute regarding the beneficiaries or asset distribution.

Estate planning is critical for people of all ages and especially important for people with varying life circumstances. For instance, families who have children with special needs should think about developing an estate plan and putting specific provisions in place for their children. One such measure parents should take is creating a Houston special needs trust for their children. This protects any potential public benefits the child may receive in the future while still allowing families to indirectly assist their special needs loved one with fulfilling their basic needs.

What is a Special Needs Trust?

A Special or Supplemental Needs Trust is created to hold the property of a special needs person and distribute the funds to them in a way that still preserves their eligibility for public benefits. Many government programs, such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits and Medicaid, offer benefits to special needs individuals; however, to qualify for these programs, an individual cannot own more than $2,000 in assets. However, many family members want to give their loved one assistance without disqualifying them for these benefits. Without a special needs trust in place, giving gifts or assets directly to another person will likely result in losing any public benefits.

Even among those who have an estate plan in place, many are unaware of the potential taxes their heirs will need to pay. However, depending on the estate’s value, heirs may need to pay a significant amount of estate tax after the owner of the estate passes away. In short, an estate tax is a tax on property that is transferred from the deceased to their heirs. There is no Texas estate tax. However, there is still a federal estate tax to consider. Thus, it is important to work with a qualified Houston estate tax attorney to reduce or eliminate estate taxes. The questions below are those most commonly asked about preparing for an estate tax and the intricacies of the tax itself.

How Does an Estate Tax Work?

A federal estate tax is based on the fair market value of the estate’s “includible property.” Includible property may consist of cash, real estate, trusts, business interests, and other assets. Some assets may be deducted from the taxable estate, such as mortgages and other debts, administrative estate expenses, and qualified charities. Additionally, surviving spouses are normally exempt from these taxes. It is when the surviving spouse dies that any other beneficiaries may be forced to pay estate tax.

Probate is the process in which the court validates a will and distributes the deceased’s property according to the terms of their will. While probate is the default process in many situations, there are ways to avoid this lengthy and potentially costly process. In fact, one of the primary purposes of a Houston estate plan is to avoid probate.

Assets that are mentioned in a will are typically passed on to those named in the will. However, certain classes of assets are referred to as non-probate property. Non-probate property consists of those assets that will automatically pass on to the beneficiary at the time of the owner’s death. There are several types of non-probate property.

Jointly Held Property

Few people look forward to creating an estate plan. However, the importance of creating a Houston estate plan cannot be overstated. By taking action now, individuals can ensure that they have the means to provide for themselves while protecting everything that they have worked so hard to obtain throughout their life.

For many, the concept of estate planning can be overwhelming. Below is a checklist of important steps for those who are thinking about how to start the estate planning process.

Take Inventory:

In estate planning, the term “trustee” is often tossed around, but many people do not know what a trustee actually does. In short, a trustee is a person that administers the property or assets for a third party, often for a trust fund or retirement plans and pensions. While the specific duties of a trustee depend on the trust document and what assets are held in the trust, the following describes the duties of trustees and addresses a few of the more common questions people have about a trustee’s responsibilities.

What are a Trustee’s Duties?

First off, the trustee has the responsibility to safeguard the trust assets and act in furtherance of the trust’s goals. Trusts will often have a trust agreement, which specifies how a trustee utilizes the assets in the trust and specific details regarding its management. As such, the trustee must keep accurate records, file tax returns, and report any activity to the beneficiaries, those who are to receive the assets, as required by the trust. Trustees are the decision-makers for any issues that arise regarding the trust and must make the decision based on the trust agreement and with the interests of the beneficiaries in mind.

When someone is crafting their will or creating a Houston estate plan, there are many critical decisions they must make. One of the most vital choices is who to serve as the estate’s executor. An executor of an estate is a person appointed to administer the estate of a deceased person, also called a testator. An executor has many tasks they must fulfill, both during the life of the testator, and after they have passed. Although there are many duties an executor must fulfill, it can often be a rewarding position.

What Are an Executor’s Duties?

An executor is responsible for ensuring the deceased’s assets are accounted for, as well as transferring the assets to the people listed in the will. Assets can include cash, stocks, bonds, real estate, or even personal collectibles. Before disbursing the inheritances to the estate’s heirs, the executor must also estimate the value of the estate and pay of all of the debts of the deceased, if they had any. An executor, before the death of the testator, should make sure the testator is keeping a list of assets and debts, properties, and any other relevant information. Overall, the primary duty of an executor is to carry out the wishes of the deceased based on the instructions in their will and estate plan.

Creating a Houston estate plan and preparing for retirement can often be an extremely stressful process, especially with the passage of new laws and regulations that impact a person’s plans. One such law that affected many people’s retirement savings was the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act. The SECURE Act came into effect on January 1, 2020, and created new requirements for defined contribution plans, such as 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts (IRAs). Below are some of the retirement and estate planning aspects most impacted by the passage of the SECURE Act.

Individual Retirement Accounts

Prior to the SECURE Act, an individual had to start withdrawing funds from their IRA, called required minimum distributions (RMDs), after they turned 70 ½ years old. Now, individuals are not required to withdraw from their IRA until they reach 72 years old. As there are income tax payments associated with RMDs, the SECURE Act can help reduce a person’s overall taxation rate. The SECURE Act also removed the age limit for IRA contributions; now, people can contribute to their IRA at any age, as long as they are still working. Before the passage of the SECURE Act, where removing funds from an IRA before turning 60 years old would make the withdrawal subject to income tax, people can now draw up to $5,000 from an IRA penalty-free after the birth or adoption of a child.

From creating a will to establishing a revocable trust, there are many tools and options available to individuals creating a Houston estate plan. However, many people are unaware of the role insurance can play in an estate plan, especially for small business owners. Many estate planning attorneys will advise their clients to obtain life insurance, if they do not have it already, when planning ahead for their future. Besides merely obtaining insurance, there are vital steps business owners should follow when creating an estate plan.

Why Purchasing Life Insurance is Vital

Nothing can replace the loss of a loved one; however, having insurance can help soften the financial blow if tragedy strikes. If the loved one was an owner of a business and the family is looking for someone else to purchase the company, an insurance policy can allow the family to take the time to transition the company during a new period of leadership. Without life insurance during this time, the family would be a majority owner in a business they do not want to run and, often, requires a more experienced person to lead.

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