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At McCulloch & Miller, many of the clients we sit down with are meeting with an estate planning attorney for the first time. If you are looking to meet with an estate planning or probate attorney to discuss your long-term needs and don’t quite know what to expect, this guide will help you anticipate your first meeting as well as the process ahead.

Importantly, the estate planning attorney will likely start by setting up an initial meeting with you to understand your goals and provide you with options for how to achieve them. Before you have this initial meeting, it can be helpful to think about what, if any, preparation you could do beforehand.

Typically, when you call an estate planning attorney and set up a meeting, the attorney will send you a basic questionnaire for you to fill out before that meeting. The more information you can fill out on this questionnaire, the better, since it will save you time in the meeting itself if your attorney is already familiar with your family and financial information.

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Being chosen as an executor or trustee can be a big responsibility, and it is not one that you should take lightly. If someone you know has asked you to serve either as an executor or trustee, that person believes that you will fulfill your duties in a trustworthy manner, consistent with their wishes. There are important takeaways that you should note if you have found yourself in one of these positions; but, as always, the best thing you can do to fully understand your role is to speak with an experienced, dependable estate planning attorney.

An executor is someone appointed to carry out a decedent’s will. A trustee, on the other hand, is appointed when the decedent has organized their assets in the form of a trust. The trustee has ultimate control over the administration of the trust, but he or she has a duty to follow the decedent’s instructions on how exactly to administer the decedent’s property.

The first thing you should do as an executor or trustee is read the documents left by the decedent, whether those documents come in the form of a will or a trust. The decedent might have left co-executors or co-trustees, for example, or might have written specific instructions about what should happen to the assets in the short-term future. There might be time limits on when these assets need to be distributed, and it is important not to delay the initial review of the will or trust.

Part of our job as estate planning attorneys is to make sure our client population is up to date on recent acts, amendments, and changes in case law that might affect their long-term planning. Importantly, the SECURE Act (“Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement”) is important to know about, as it affects the retirement and estate plans of Americans in any stage of their own planning processes.

What is the SECURE Act?

The SECURE Act is part of a major spending bill that was passed in 2019. The Act has several significant implications for those planning for retirement, and it is important for anyone engaged in long-term planning to understand its effects.

The SECURE Act’s Implications

First and foremost, the Act pushes back the age at which retirement plan participants need to take required minimums distributions from age 70½ to age 72. This essentially means that those wanting to take distributions from their IRA can wait until April 1, after the year they turn 72, to begin these required minimum distributions. Giving this cushion allows for a bit more flexibility that can end up being greatly beneficial for those wanting to use money from their IRA.

Next, the SECURE Act makes changes to an important law that allowed decedents’ beneficiaries to receive the assets to which they were entitled over a long period of time. By taking these payments gradually over a lifetime, beneficiaries could defer taxes on the money and end up receiving twice the amount of money than what they would have received via a lump sum.

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One common question we receive from clients and potential clients revolves around power of attorney – does it expire? If so, when? Understanding power of attorney is crucial, especially if you have a loved one that might need help making decisions for themselves. At McCulloch & Miller, we understand that these are delicate topics, and we are here to help you and the people you care about navigate processes like this one with the utmost care.

What is Power of Attorney?

If one person has power of attorney over an individual, it means he or she can make decisions on behalf of the individual. The power of attorney can have broad powers or limited ones, depending on the circumstances and the nature of the relationship. A power of attorney might make financial decisions, medical decisions, or decisions surrounding a person’s property and estate. Importantly, the individual in any power of attorney relationship has the right to know what their power of attorney is doing and to see any paperwork the power of attorney might be using to make decisions.

How Do You Know When a Power of Attorney Expires?

Different states have different rules about how and when power of attorney might expire. In Texas, the answer to this question depends on what kind of power of attorney relationship exists. For example, a “limited power of attorney” exists only for the purpose of handling a specific issue. Once this matter is finished, the power of attorney expires. Similarly, a “medical power of attorney” gives authority only if the individual is unable to make her or his own medical decisions.

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The will is the most well-known tool in estate planning, and it is often clients’ first choice for how to make sure their assets are transferred to loved ones after their death. The will can be useful in that it allows individuals to provide detailed instructions for their beneficiaries, and clients are generally grateful to have the opportunity to leave a thoughtful, specific document that coordinates the distribution of their assets for the ones they leave behind.

It is imperative to recognize, however, that wills do have disadvantages, and it is important to explore the limitations of wills alongside their benefits. Of note, anyone that wants to contest a will has exactly two years to do so, or else the will becomes unalterable. When a person dies, their will is submitted to probate, which means the court takes charge of the process of distributing their assets according to their wishes. From the day the will is submitted to probate, any potential challenger to a will has exactly two years to file with the court and contest that will’s validity.

The second obvious disadvantage to a will is that it requires the decedent’s property to go through the probate process. At times, this process can be long, drawn out, and contentious. Courts are charged with interpreting the terms of each person’s will, and there is no guarantee that the court will distribute assets exactly as the decedent intended if there is even one ambiguous phrase in the will.

Unfortunately, the law around estate planning can be complex and technical in a way that makes it difficult to sort through. Fortunately, though, the law provides for a diverse array of options for those undergoing the estate planning process. Many of our clients come to us, for example, asking us to help them create a thoughtfully written will. It is important to note that wills are not the only option for those looking to make long-term plans. Another tool, the trust, comes in the form of a revocable living trust, which can be beneficial for those looking to both use their assets now and securely transfer them after their death.

What is a Revocable Living Trust?

When done correctly, creating a trust allows individuals to forgo the probate process and pass assets directly to their beneficiaries after they die. If the trust is revocable, the individual maintains the right to suspend the trust at any time, taking back the assets that are hers or his in order to use them in the short-term future.

As we have discussed elsewhere in our blog, the probate process can be long, drawn out, and public. Creating a trust, however, allows for a secure and private transfer of assets upon the designator’s death. By forming a trust, designating a trustee, and naming beneficiaries, individuals can make sure their assets will pass on seamlessly to those they care about.

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Recently, a court of appeals in Texas had to decide an important case regarding the interpretation of a decedent’s trust, which had implications for several family members who stood to benefit from the sale of a property specified in the trust. The trust in question was created by a man who intended to leave his property to his brothers, his sisters, and their children after his death. Fifty years after he died, however, the man’s nieces and nephews had questions about how the trust should be interpreted.

Facts of the Case

The decedent in this case passed away in 1964; according to his will, his property was put into a trust for the benefit of his siblings, nieces, and nephews. Per the terms of the trust, the properties would bring in income, and that income would be distributed to the siblings, nieces, and nephews as time went on. Twenty-one years after the death of the last niece or nephew alive at the man’s death, the trust would terminate.

In 2020, the trustee initiated this litigation, asking the court to determine whether one of the pieces of property could be sold. The court’s ruling would be important, said the trustee, because it would affect how income would be distributed to the nieces and nephews, as well as how much income they would receive. One of the nephews became involved in the litigation, arguing the property could not be sold and had to stay as it was.

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In a recent case before a court of appeals in Texas, the widow of a property owner had to defend her claim to the property that her husband left her in his will. At issue in the case was how to interpret the wills of both the decedent and the decedent’s mother; the decedent’s sons argued the documents made clear that the land belonged to them, while the widow argued that the land was clearly her property. Ultimately, the court of appeals agreed with the decedent’s widow that the property rightfully belonged to her, but the litigation took twelve years from beginning to end.

Facts of the Case

The defendant was the third wife of a man who passed away in 2010. Two years before his death, the man wrote a will that left all of his property to his wife if she survived him. Two of the man’s sons from a previous marriage, however, took issue with this provision after their father died. They claimed that 277 of the acres actually belonged to them – one large piece of property had originally been their grandmother’s, and their grandmother’s estate documents did not make clear whether the land should go to their father’s children or his wife after his death.

The sons initiated this litigation in December 2010. They argued the land qualified as something called a “life estate with a remainder interest”, which means that they were due to inherit the land after their father’s death. The man’s wife, however, argued that the land was actually something called a “fee simple interest”, which means the land should go directly to her as the designee in her husband’s will.

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In a recent case before the Fourteenth Court of Appeals, two siblings asked for a decision regarding the assets left in their father’s estate. Originally, the siblings fought when one took longer than the other wanted to distribute funds from their father’s trust. Without clear guidelines for how to handle the father’s estate, the siblings found themselves in a legal battle that went on for years after their father’s death.

Facts of the Case

This case originated when the father of two siblings died in October 2014. After the death, the decedent’s daughter was named trustee of the family’s trust, and it was her responsibility to distribute the money in the trust.

Several years later, the trustee’s brother sued her, arguing that she was intentionally and maliciously keeping funds from him by delaying the distribution of funds. He asked the trial court to order his sister to distribute his share of his father’s estate immediately, as well as to order her to pay the attorney’s fees he accrued in the lawsuit.

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One very common fear among those starting their end-of-life planning is that the Texas probate administration process will be difficult for their family members after they are gone. It is true that probate administration can be complicated, and it is also true that there are ways that individuals can make sure their assets go directly into their beneficiaries’ hands instead of going through a probate court at all. At McCullough & Miller, we offer guidance as to how to structure your assets so that you can make things as simple and straightforward as possible for your loved ones.

As we have addressed on our blog in the past, Texas probate administration is a process by which a judge presides over the distribution of a decedent’s assets. The entire process takes anywhere from three months to several years, and it can get very complicated as a person’s loved ones try to make sure everything is done thoroughly, fairly, and efficiently after that person’s death.

Avoiding the Probate Process Altogether

There are, however, ways to make sure your money goes directly into the hands of your loved ones if you want to bypass the probate process with certain specific assets. For example, you can add what is called a “payable-on-death” designation to your bank accounts. This means that as soon as you die, a person you name will automatically receive whatever money is in that account. This account is then exempt from the probate process entirely.

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