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.
How can I help my parent/partner/loved one get their affairs in order? A lot of people call us wanting to help grandma start the process, not realizing grandma needs to call/give consent before we can do much of anything.)
If you’re closely related to someone who has recently passed away, it’s likely that you’ll be in line to inherit at least a part of their estate. It can be a complicated process, depending on the circumstances. To make this process easier for you, we’ve outlined some things you need to know as a potential inheritor of a Tennessee estate.
1. Take the time to grieve
If you’ve just lost a loved one, the first thing you need to do is take the time to grieve. This could be overwhelming, especially if you were close to the person who has passed away. You may not even know how to react if you’ve been left a large inheritance. Taking the time to grieve the death of a loved one is important, and you should not be pressured into making decisions. Also, don’t rush through any of the legal processes outlined in this article. There’s no need to hurry to open an estate, and you should make sure that you’re given enough time to make well-thought-out decisions and take care of things properly. All of the necessary information will be available to you once you are ready.
2. Take the time to understand the terms of the will
Another important thing to do is take the time to understand the terms of the will. If there was a will, then you’ll need to know who was named as the executor (aka personal representative) of the estate. You’ll also need to know whether there are any special provisions in the will, like leaving a specific piece of property to a specific person. You’ll want to know where the original will is being kept, as well as the executor’s contact information so you can stay informed about the progress of the estate.
Once the will is probated, there will be a record of it that you can access at any time. You’ll be able to see the contents of the will, as well as the names of everyone who was named as a beneficiary. This is something that you’ll need to keep in mind when communicating with the people who were named in the will.
3. Find out if there is any debt included with your share of the inheritance
Debt follows the person who incurred it, so a person’s debt usually belongs to their estate- not those inheriting from them. However, if your loved one left you anything with a debt tied to it, you may have to figure out how to resolve the debt before accepting the inheritance.
This includes things like car loans, mortgages, or other debts that your loved one may have had when they passed away. Even if you inherit something with debt tied to it, you do not have to inherit debt. You can choose not to accept the item or to sell it and take whatever it is worth after the debt is paid.
It’s important that you know if there is any debt included with your inheritance so that you can plan accordingly. It’s possible that you could get a loan to cover the cost of the debt and then pay it off gradually over time.
In my personal and professional opinion, it usually makes sense to take over a loan on something that will appreciate, such as real estate, but not on any depreciating assets like a vehicle. However, this is something that will have to be decided in consideration of your personal situation.
4. Find out what happens during the probate process
The probate process is the process of opening a probate estate, gathering all assets owned, and distributing the assets from the estate. During the probate process, the executor of the estate will file the will and any other documents that might be necessary with the court and has the responsibility of distributing the assets according to the terms of the will. These documents will become part of the public record. The executor of the estate will open an estate account with the court, and you can check in on it and see what progress is being made as the assets are distributed.
5. Check for Inherited IRA Rules and Taxes
If you inherit retirement accounts from a loved one, you will need to make a decision about how and when to cash out the account.
While spouses can easily “roll” retirement accounts to the surviving spouse, this is not an option for anyone else. As the non-spouse beneficiary of a retirement account, you have two options: (1) take all money out immediately or (2) you can “stretch” the distributions up to ten years.
Because most retirement accounts are “tax deferred” accounts, you will want to explore the tax consequences of any retirement investment accounts that you inherit. If your family member invested into a 401k, IRA, or similar type of account, they did not pay taxes when contributing to their retirement. That means that taxes must be paid when the money is taken out.
The financial institution will usually help you by holding an estimated tax payment but you will still want to make sure you are aware of what you will need to pay at tax time to account for those inheritances, no matter how you took the distribution.
6. Allow time for the Executor to carry out their duties
As soon as you’re named as a beneficiary to a will and the estate has been opened through probate, you can expect that the Executor will begin to take care of things, such as contacting creditors and making arrangements for the sale of any real estate. It’s important that you give them some time to do what they need to do. Expect that it will take about a year for the entire process to run its course. This is a rough estimate and will vary depending on how complicated the estate is, how many assets there are, if any estate tax is due, and whether there are any potential disputes. The Executor will keep you updated on progress and let you know when you can expect to receive the inheritance.
7. Communicate with the Executor
Keep in regular communication with the Executor of the estate. Ask if there is anything you need to do or can do to help. If you have questions, make sure that you ask the Executor and get the answers that you need to the point you understand. You can also ask to speak with the attorney for the estate. If you are having issues with the Executor getting back to you, or you suspect there are difficulties, it may be worth consulting a lawyer on your own.
8. Decide how you want to handle your share
Before you get a check, decide how you want to spend any money that you receive. Maybe you and your deceased loved one had already talked through what they hoped would happen with any funds they left you. Many people have a financial goal that their inheritance will help them reach, such as buying a house or investing in their own retirement. Some families use the money to take a trip together and make memories. Having a plan is the best way to make sure that your loved one’s legacy is honored.
9. Update your Plan
One of the most important things to consider is that receiving an inheritance could cause your own estate planning to need to be updated or revised. If you are currently the beneficiary of a trust or other estate planning document, you should contact your estate planning attorney to determine whether or not you need to make any updates.
If you are looking for a Middle Tennessee probate attorney or to create a Tennessee will, click here to schedule an initial call with us.
The reason to create a last will and testament is simple: it provides a way to give the people you have left behind instructions for your assets and belongings after you die. However, how you create that will can be a little more complex. While you aren’t technically required to hire a lawyer to draft a will, failing to do so can lead to costly problems for your family and others.
For Example: the Estate of James M. McKinney
To illustrate an example let me share with you a story about the Estate of James M. McKinney (Tennessee Court of Appeals Opinion dated June 9, 2022). In this case, a man created a will online without consulting an attorney. Unfortunately, the gentleman listed only one of his two daughters in the online form. However, the will had language that left his property to “all of his living children”. Because the language was unclear in the online will form, both daughters have found themselves unsure of their inheritance.
While the most recent decision has said that both daughters inherit under the online will, there is no clarity on whether that is what their father actually intended. This serves as an important reason why it’s important to hire an attorney in the first place. Both women have already spent two years of their lives, as well as a lot of energy on this case. The cost of an attorney to guide you in preparing your will and estate planning documents is much less expensive than what your family will spend to challenge an inaccurately drafted will in court. We’re guessing that Mr. McKinney wanted one, or both, of his daughters to inherit money from him, instead of their lawyers. Things would have been easier for his family if he used a lawyer to write a Will for him.
While the legal requirements of a will vary by state, some allow you to make a handwritten will, called a “holographic” will. However, it is more common for people to type their will. A typed will is easier to read and has a cleaner look. One of the drawbacks of a handwritten will is it often requires handwriting verification in court. While a Tennessee will prepared by an attorney can usually be admitted to probate without the need for any witnesses, a holographic will with the same provisions will require two witnesses who can identify the will-maker’s handwriting to come to court. Keeping in mind how much we type and text these days, we expect it will be more and more difficult to find these types of witnesses as time goes on.
Online Will software
Many services have popped up that offer do-it-yourself-will software and other legal documents. These services might work fine if you are a single individual and have little or no property. However, the rest of the population should not use these programs. Now we’re not making this statement because we’re in the will-making business. We want you to know that there are risks involved when attempting to create legal documents on your own, whether it’s a will or a business agreement. With a will, you will not be able to make any corrections if there are mistakes since it is a post-death document. Even Consumer Reports concluded that none of the will-writing products was likely to entirely meet a person’s needs unless those needs are extremely simple. In short, using a professional to write a Will is a better option.
You get what you pay for
If you read the fine print on the DIY will form, you will notice that there is no legal advice. There is no attorney-client relationship! And if you want to talk to an attorney, you are going to pay extra for it. Even if you pay for an attorney from the software company to speak with you, they may not even be licensed in your state! The saying “buy nice or buy twice” comes to mind here. While you think you’re saving on legal fees by using online software, you may have to pay for an attorney to advise you anyways. And what if the document falls short? You’ll have to pay an attorney to either fix it or start over. In other words, if you are going to do it yourself, be prepared to pay someone to fix it.
At Graceful Aging Legal Services, even if your needs are simple, we want to help you find a way to make the process easier for your family. This is what most of our families are really looking for. Our firm can guide you and your family through the process both before and after death.
Getting legal advice from an attorney is so important
Everyone’s situation is unique. If you aren’t well-versed in elder law, why would you chance making a legal document without consulting an attorney? Attorneys are called “counsel” for a reason! It just makes sense to consult an attorney to make sense of your assets in regard to your situation. You’ve worked so hard, why would you take risks with what you’ve built over your lifetime. You need a lawyer to definitively determine whether or not your needs are indeed simple. Here is a sample of the questions to consider:
Do you know if your estate is expected to be taxable under state or federal law?
Do you own significant amounts of tax-deferred retirement plans?
Is there anything about your estate that is unusual, such as having children from a previous marriage or a dependent who lives with a disability?
If you have any questions about your estate plan, you need to see a lawyer!
An attorney makes the process easier
Even if your needs are simple, an estate planning lawyer who practices in probate court could help you find a way to make the process easier on your family. This is what most of our clients and their families are really looking for. A legal form found online or at the office supply store will not be able to guide you through the process like an attorney can.
The best lawyer to hire to help you create a solid estate plan is someone who can help hold your family together during the probate process. That’s what we want, it’s what our clients want. Probate is stressful, but we love helping our estate planning clients ease that stress for their families in advance.
Not hiring a lawyer to write your will can lead to problems that drag your estate out in a lengthy court process, which is expensive and stressful for your family. We want your family to benefit from your estate. Our attorney, April, decided to enter into estate planning practice after the probate of a loved one became contested. You don’t want to put your family through that. You can count on our experiences to guide us in creating a peaceful plan for you and your family.
If you are on the fence about having an attorney draft your Will, consider taking our Virtual Estate Plan Challenge. This 7 email series will walk you through the decisions you need to make regarding your assets and property.
Many grandparents wish to leave a legacy behind for their grandchildren; however, they may run into some issues if those children are underage. A Nashville Wills and Trusts lawyer can help you determine what the best options are for leaving assets to underage beneficiaries, whether those assets are held in a Will or Trust, financial accounts, or as part of a life insurance benefit.
Underage Beneficiaries in a Will or Trust
As a Nashville Will and Trust lawyer, I always ask my clients if any of their beneficiaries are underage, or even if they would like to keep younger beneficiaries from accessing their full inheritance until they’ve reached a certain age, which is usually 25 or even 30. If the children are underage, an adult guardian must be named since minors are not allowed to own property. If a significant amount of property is left to the minor, a Trust is usually a good idea to manage the property until the child comes of age. In fact, Trusts can be used to ensure the minor only receives their full inheritance once they reach a certain age or milestone, such as graduating from college, while at the same time providing assets to make sure the child can achieve that milestone. I can speak with you about leaving an inheritance to an underage child and will help you choose the best option for administering the distributions.
Underage Beneficiaries of Financial Accounts
Many people choose to make beneficiary designations directly on their financial accounts, such as savings accounts, annuities, and retirement plans. Nashville Wills and Trusts lawyers urge their clients to carefully examine the details surrounding these beneficiary designations, as minor beneficiaries often cannot directly inherit assets after your passing. It is important to consult with a Nashville Wills and Trusts lawyer to determine the best way for your underage beneficiaries to receive the inheritance you leave for them at a time when they can make informed financial decisions on their own. Directing the assets to Trust is often the best bet in these situations, but consulting with an attorney will give you a much better idea of how this should be done.
Underage Beneficiaries on Life Insurance
Many parents and grandparents name their children or grandchildren as beneficiaries on their life insurance policies. As with the cases above though, an adult guardian or a Trust must be named in order to hold the life insurance proceeds until the minors come of age. It is generally not advised to name minors as beneficiaries to life insurance policies, as courts will often appoint an adult to look after the proceeds until the child comes of age – and that adult may not be someone you would have wanted to be appointed to such a role. Speaking with a Nashville Wills and Trusts lawyer may help you determine the best way to handle your life insurance beneficiary designations.
If you have any questions about the best ways to leave an inheritance to underage beneficiaries, please contact us at 615-846-6201 to set up a consultation.
One concern I frequently hear is a worry that the government will take assets from a loved one or take assets from an estate instead of family members inheriting it. These are valid concerns because there are specific instances where this can happen, but as a general rule, the government DOES NOT take assets unless they have a legal reason for doing so.
The State of Tennessee will not take your assets
There are a few instances where the government will take your assets if you die without a will. For example, if someone received Medicaid (TennCare) to pay for long-term care, if they owed back taxes, or if no family members can be located. But, as a general rule, the State of Tennessee is not going to take your assets.
Tennessee will find your closest heirs
The State of Tennessee has a statute that lays out how your assets will pass if you die without a will. Your assets will pass to what we call your heirs at law. Those are really the people that you probably think of as your closest relatives: your spouse, your children, your grandchildren, your parents, your siblings, your nieces and nephews, your cousins, and farther out. But it’s the close relatives that the state will seek out.
Generally, the government is going to look for anyone related to you before they get any money. I hope that sharing this information with you has given you a sense of relief if you were told inaccurate information elsewhere.
If you have other questions about your estate or that of a loved one, click here to schedule a call with us.