Probate is the name for the legal process of distributing assets after someone passes away. These assets can include bank accounts, real estate, vehicles, retirement accounts, life insurance, and financial investments. Before the assets can be distributed, however, they must first be gathered and used to pay creditors.
After that, the heirs can finally receive their distribution of the estate. However, even then, there are several factors that can still delay the distribution process. In our practice, it is common for probate to last about nine months. In more complex cases, probate can easily last several more months or even years. These delays ultimately mean less money and more headache for the surviving family.
Let’s go through the factors that cause delays in probate, and discuss what steps can be taken to minimize the delay.
1. Passing away without an Estate Plan
If you pass away without an estate plan, your loved ones will have to go to probate court. The court will appoint someone among them to be the “Personal Representative.” The Personal Representative will be responsible for contacting all of the financial institutions about your death. They will also be responsible for using your funds to pay creditors and ultimately make distributions to your heirs.
When there is no estate plan, the process for appointing a Personal Representative can be seriously delayed. The family will have to come to a consensus on who the Personal Representative will be before they present their choice to the court. Moreover, whoever is selected as Personal Representative is often not prepared for the role, as they had not been told to expect it. The process of going through all of your finances and contacting all of your financial institutions might be overwhelming for them, especially if they did not know your finances very well. Moreover, they will be responsible for mediating tension between the family, which is made even more difficult if members of the family do not think you explicitly wanted them to serve as Personal Representative.
Having an estate plan would minimize all of these consequences and delays. By having an estate plan, your family will already know who you want to represent your estate, which will make the process for appointing a representative much smoother. The person you select to represent your estate will also be better prepared for the role, as they are aware that they will one day need to fulfill the role.
The best way to minimize delays in probate is thus to have a clear estate plan in place, and to let your family and loved ones know about your intentions.
2. Family Tension
Even with an estate plan, family dynamics can still play a major role in probate. For example, if the only major asset that you have at the time of your death is your house, and one of your heirs would like to live in it while the other heirs would rather sell it and keep the sale value, tension will ensue and attorneys may need to get involved. All of this will ultimately lead to a delay of the probate process, and may ultimately divide the family in an irreparable way.
Feuds such as the one described happen even in the most loving of families. To avoid these feuds, it is important to not only have an estate plan, but to have one drafted by an experienced estate planning attorney. An experienced estate planning attorney will be familiar with cases such as the one described and will be able to help you think through exactly what you would want to happen if these cases occur. Your estate plan will thus be better able to help your family navigate your precise wishes for your assets, ultimately easing tension and expediting the probate process.
Hiring an estate planning attorney to draft your estate plan is one of the most important steps you can take to minimize probate delays.
3. Financial Complications
If you keep your finances private, it will be difficult for your intended heirs to know what to expect after you pass away. They may not even know where you bank and what financial investments you have. The more difficult it is for them to know your finances, the more difficult it will be for them to notify your financial institutions of your death and gather accounts.
Furthermore, if you are in debt or are not paying your taxes, your Personal Representative will be responsible for using your assets to pay your creditors and the IRS. This can cause serious delays to the probate process, especially if the Personal Representative was unaware. Creditors will ensure they receive their payments by filing claims against the estate through probate court. These claims ultimately slow down the probate process as each claim requires a hearing before a judge.
To save your family time, headache, and grief after your death, it is important that you keep your finances in order. Pay off debt when you can, and keep a clear record of it. File your yearly taxes appropriately. Let your loved ones (especially your Personal Representative) know of your finances and how to contact each financial institution in case something happens.
Even in the best of cases, probate takes a while. To minimize delays, we recommend having an experienced estate planning attorney draft your estate plan, clearly telling your loved ones of your intentions, and keeping your finances in order as much as possible. Your loved ones will already be filled with grief after your death. The best gift you can give them is preparation.
Here at Graceful Aging Legal Services, we offer software that can help our clients keep their estate in order. Contact us at 615-846-6201 or email@example.com if interested.
Tennessee law permits you to write your own will. Some people choose to handwrite theirs. Online services are another popular way to create a Will and other important documents inexpensively. As long as the Will meets the legal requirements, it is likely to be admitted to probate court in Tennessee.
However, just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should. Believe me, I love a bargain too- it can be really tempting to find a low cost option for something that is expensive and, well, a little scary. Most people have never met with an attorney before and the idea is intimidating. It’s understandable.
However, a fellow probate attorney once said “online services are a probate lawyer’s best friend.” This is the prevailing thought among probate attorneys, because we see so many Wills that were not prepared by attorneys, and ultimately end up costing the family more in court costs than it would have cost to meet with an attorney and prepare the Will and other important documents.
I like to compare it to pest control. You know that if termites invade your house, it will end up costing tens of thousands of dollars to repair the structural damage they can cause. Would you prefer to pay $150 per year up front to prevent an infestation, or let them do the damage and then pay to fix it?
So let’s look at some of the issues that cause self-created Wills to have problems when we go to court. Here are some of the main pitfalls that we see with DIY wills:
1. Improperly Executed
Unless you have legal training specific to estate law, you may not be familiar with the exact requirements of the type of document you are trying to create. Tennessee law provides for several types of Wills, and each of them have different requirements for signing. Some of them will require witnesses to come to court, which you may want to avoid. Fun fact: No Tennessee law requires a Will to be notarized. Guessing you didn’t know that!
2. Improper use or misunderstanding of terms
A Will uses a lot of terms that we don’t use in everyday life. These words are used to communicate information to the Judge when the Will is probated. However, if you are writing your own Will or using a form, you may not know the effect that these words have in practice. While our attorneys try to use more commonplace language when writing Wills, we need to be able to get your point across. Words like “fiduciary,” “per stirpes,” “per capita,” “ademption,” and “executrix” are not terms we use, but as experienced estate planning and probate attorneys, we know how to use them correctly to carry out the plan you have in mind. In DIY documents, you may ignore terms that you don’t understand that seem to be boilerplate, or may not fully understand the effect that they will have when your plan is carried out.
3. Missing essential elements
I’ll never forget the day that I had to tell someone that they were unable to help their parent because the Power of Attorney that had been created online did not give them authority to do what needed to be done. I wanted to help, but my hands were tied. In another situation, someone hand wrote their Will but left out an essential part. Because we didn’t have any specific instructions from the Will, we had to go to Court multiple times for Court approval to do things that we were pretty sure they wanted. Those court hearings cost the estate more money than it would have to have an attorney help with the original Will.
4. No contingency plan
One of my least favorite things to do is talk to parents about contingency plans. Usually this means asking who would inherit from you if your children died before you did. No one wants to even think about that. But for estate planning purposes, it’s very important to always have a back up plan. We hope for the best and plan for the worst. And that means discussing uncomfortable things.
5. Plans that are not logistically sound
In a social setting one time, someone mentioned to me that they had created their Will online. They were open to sharing about the experience and mentioned that they had named their parents as their beneficiaries in their Will. There’s nothing wrong with this, but it requires some additional thinking through things. Parents are older than their children, and in most situations the children will outlive the parents. At Graceful Aging Legal Services, PLLC, we want to help you create a plan that needs to be reviewed but hopefully requires few revisions except at big transitions in your life. If you pass away without making changes, we want your planning to go the extra mile for you. Let’s say that you name your parents as beneficiaries of your Will, but no back up beneficiaries. You figure you can update it later- but never get around to it. Eventually you pass with no named beneficiaries, which defeats the purpose of making a Will. An experienced estate planning attorney can help you avoid situations like this and worse.
6. No probate-avoidance planning
Another thing people are confused about is thinking that a Will helps avoid probate. It doesn’t. The purpose of a Will is for a probate court to know what you want when you die so they can carry out your wishes. In a meeting with a good estate planning attorney, you will talk about your goals for your assets when you die and create a plan. Oftentimes we are able to guide clients how to avoid probate. One of my favorite things is when someone comes to us for probate and we are able to tell them that good planning means that they don’t need to go to court.
7. Validate of the Will is easier to challenge
Although having options to create a Will yourself may be beneficial to some, it also creates opportunity for bad actors- or the perception that people are acting with impure motives. Imagine a scenario where your neighbor asks you to draft a will off the internet for them to sign. You may be called into Court to testify about how the Will was created, your neighbors medical condition at the time the Will was created, to what extent you helped, and if you inherited anything you’ll be looked at with additional scrutiny. Having a lawyer involved not only protects the Will and the Will-maker, but also the family and friends involved. We know how to prevent claims of undue influence and ensure the Will document is valid.
When you write your own Will, you don’t know what mistakes you might make. Unfortunately, by the time the Will is submitted to probate, you won’t be around to make clarifications. The Court will have to go by what is written in the Will. Your family will be stuck with what you wrote, or risk the Court finding that your Will is invalid and throwing out all of the work you did to create it in the first place. If your family thinks that you didn’t mean what you wrote, they will have to pay additional costs to help the Court figure out what you meant. When that happens, lawyers get more of your money and your family gets less.
We prefer to work with families who get along, and are on the same page when it comes to their loved one’s estate. It makes the probate process (if there is one), easier both emotionally and financially. We don’t like to make money correcting mistakes or with families who have been left in a difficult position. If you find yourself in this situation, we’re happy to help but we’d much prefer that you not be there in the first place.
If you have an online will or were thinking about it, sign up here for our virtual estate planning challenge to think through all of the things you need before you even meet with an attorney.
Many people think that if they are married, their spouse will automatically inherit everything when they pass and so they don’t need a will. While there are some situations where a spouse does inherit everything, it is not the default under Tennessee law. In Tennessee, if you are married and have children, your spouse will share your probate estate with your children. I call this the S.A.K.S. method (Spouse and Kids Share). In other words, your spouse does not inherit everything automatically.
If you die without a will, Tennessee law dictates that the spouse and children split the estate.
However, I believe that everyone should create their own plan for distributing their assets after death, even if the state has an understandable default on how to do this. Here’s why:
Having a Will can make it easier for your family to go through probate.
Having a Last Will and Testament can be an important way to reduce any burden on your family after your death. In your Will, you decide not only who will inherit your estate but also key decisions like who will serve as Personal Representative (also known as the Executor) and whether you want to require or waive documents that are required by statutes. Having a Will is your chance to have a say in the probate of your estate before you die. The process can be much less complicated for your beneficiaries as well because you may decide to be even more specific about some of the more difficult decisions that need to be made.
It is much easier on your family if you have an estate plan in place. A last will and testament will provide instructions on how to designate and divide assets between family members and friends. If you die intestate (without a will), then the state’s inheritance laws will determine who gets what.
Preparing an estate plan will cover situations that may arise after your passing
Have you considered what might happen if your spouse remarries? Are you aware that a future spouse can take an interest in a portion of your estate? Would you want part of your assets to go to a new spouse or to any children that they may have with that spouse? Do you have family or children that should benefit instead? There are many other factors to consider, but it’s important to discuss these things with your attorney when you create your estate plan.
A Will provides security for your spouse
If you are more concerned about your spouse inheriting from you than your children, you can plan for that too! The general rule in Tennessee is that the spouse would get no less than a third of the estate.
For example, if you are splitting the estate with two or more children, the spouse would get a third. If there is only one child, the spouse would get half.
What if you want to provide more? With a Will, you can designate that your spouse gets everything or only leave certain things to your children. Many spouses write “I love you” wills, where they inherit first from each other, and then their children only inherit when the second parent dies.
Use a Will to protect spousal inheritance from changes in family dynamics
Another consideration in making a Will is your family dynamic. Do you have children from different relationships throughout your life? Do you have concerns about how your children from those relationships will get along with your current spouse when it comes to your estate? It is important to consider how you want inheritances to be split. Your Will can dictate how your assets will be handled! You can also designate your preference for the guardian of any minor children in the event that both you and the other parent die.
Additionally, a Will provides provisions such as the appropriate age at which your children should take over responsibility for managing any inheritance. One primary concern many parents have is whether young adults will be mature enough to make sound judgments concerning any money they inherit. Your Will can establish a certain age at which young adults gain control of their inheritance, to ensure that it isn’t squandered when you would prefer it be used towards education or sound investments.
In short, your Last Will and Testament should be drafted so that your wishes regarding your family are honored.
A Will can safeguard your beneficiaries if they become disabled
Are any of your assets expected to go to a loved one who has a chronic medical condition? If so, you’ll want to consider that an inheritance could disqualify them from any means-tested government benefits that they may receive or be entitled to, which could be devastating if they are counting on that benefit. The most common examples of this are Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and TennCare (Medicaid). You’ll want to have a contingency plan in your estate plan to make sure that their benefits are secure and not at risk of being cut off due to an inheritance. You don’t want their government assistance to decrease just because you died! You definitely need a plan for that. Make sure to work with a qualified estate planning attorney so you can refrain from making errors with your family’s benefits.
If you want control over who can access your digital assets, you must make a Will
Many digital assets are governed by terms and conditions which are unlikely to specify who will take over your accounts when you die. Some providers, such as Facebook, permit you to designate someone as a “legacy contact.” However, not all companies are robust enough to provide this type of service. A Will protects your digital assets from falling into the wrong hands or being lost in digital space with no one able to claim them. Check out our blog post about how to create or change your Facebook “legacy contact” here.
These are just a few of the things that you’ll want to consider when making an estate plan. I want to encourage you to have a long discussion with your spouse about how your assets should be split when one of you dies. There shouldn’t be any surprises! I cannot stress the importance of knowing each other’s values and putting them in writing. It is crucial to have the outcome you desire. A failure to plan can end up in expensive court litigation. This is why we encourage everyone to speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about how they and their spouse can protect each other through proactive planning.
Are you ready to make your Will? Schedule a free initial call and make your plan with the Team at GALS!
To sign up for Part A, go to the Social Security Administration’s Medicare portal here. It will be helpful to set up an account for when you come back to sign up for Part B or when you are ready to begin receiving retirement benefits.
If you are signing up for Parts A and B, the process is the same. You’ll sign up through the Social Security Administration’s website. Remember that if you enroll for Part B, your premiums will either be deducted from your Social Security retirement payment or you will receive a bill. The 2021 Part B premium is $148.50 for most people.
If you are looking for a Medicare Advantage plan, Part D, or a Supplement (Medigap) plan, you will want to compare plan options using a plan comparison service. There are insurance brokers like Kendall Chanley and Harry Perret here in town who can help you compare options and narrow things down. Once done, they will get you signed up. These services are free to you and it’s nice to have one agent who can help you each year.
If you prefer to do things yourself or just want to do some exploring, Medicare.gov will allow you to find plans in your area and narrow them down based on what you are looking for and price ranges. I recommend filtering plans by the star ratings (four or above) and then whether you are looking for dental, vision, and prescription medicine access.
Once you make it through your first enrollment period at age 65 (ideally), you’ll be eligible for open enrollment each year from October 15th through December 7th. You may also have options to select coverage during a special enrollment period if you lose other coverage.
Applying for Medicare isn’t nearly as scary as it sounds, but it does require advanced planning and research. You don’t want any deadlines sneaking up on you! Personally, I love using reminders on my calendar well in advance of any deadlines that I have. Maybe one to begin research, one to call an expert, one to compare plans, one to sign up….all before your birthday or November.
What’s your plan for Medicare enrollment? Head to our Facebook page to share your plans in the comments!
I don’t know about you, but I don’t plan to retire at 65. I mean, that’s only 25 years away. And I like my job. Maybe that’s you.
Even still, don’t put off signing up for Medicare when you turn 65. Here’s Why.
Mistake #1: Waiting until after you retire to sign up for Part A.
Why it’s a mistake: Medicare is basically free money. You paid for it with your taxes for the past forty-some years…but still.
Ultimately here’s the deal–you CAN wait. But since it’s no skin off your back, wouldn’t you rather set it and forget it? Think about that time you set up automatic payments into your savings account or 401k. You may not have missed the money, but when you got your tax forms, you saw the benefit of making a small change. It’s the same here. Signing up for Part A is easy, and makes the process of signing up for Part B or a Medicare Advantage plan much easier.
Mistake #2: Staying on private health insurance coverage instead of signing up for Part B, without doing further research.
Why it’s a mistake: The plan you are currently on may not provide enough coverage.
If you plan to stay on your current coverage instead of signing up for Part B as soon as you turn 65, you want to make sure that your health plan provides appropriate coverage. We’re talking about a qualified group health plan (as defined by the IRS). If you’ve ever had to provide proof of “creditable coverage” for plan enrollment, this is similar. Otherwise, you will pay a penalty when you sign up for Part B coverage. This penalty is paid with each premium payment and never goes away. The longer you are eligible for Part B without signing up, the more the penalty costs. Do your future self a favor and get HR to confirm (in writing) that your current coverage meets the requirements.
Mistake #3: Assuming that your current insurance plan will continue to be available after you become eligible for Medicare
Why it’s a mistake: Believe it or not, some insurance plans and employers will not cover you (or your spouse) if there is other coverage available elsewhere. That includes Medicare. Medicare enrollment begins three months before you turn 65 and lasts three months after. Start looking at your options early to make sure you don’t get left without insurance unexpectedly.
Whatever you decide about retirement, make sure that you have the information you need to make good, informed decisions.
Next week we’ll be getting into the nitty-gritty of how to actually sign up for Medicare. Make sure to follow us on Facebook or Instagram to see when the blog gets posted!