Reaching Family Settlement Agreements in Estates

When a family member passes away, many factors can combine to create conflict over how to resolve the estate. Oral promises made by the decedent while alive, or a confusing portion of a will, or an apparent change in circumstances since the will was drafted, all can give rise to disputes over how the estate should be settled. In today’s blog, we will discuss how to reach a family settlement agreement designed to resolve the estate and avoid any dispute in court over an accounting.

Negotiating with family can be difficult. Negotiating over assets which might have changed in value can make these negotiations even more complicated. However, in a family settlement agreement, the parties agree that they will sign a document confirming the way that the estate should be settled rather than going to court. In some cases, this is done without any dispute at all. The parties each review the proposed settlement and confirm that they believe it is the appropriate way to distribute the estate assets. Additionally, they waive any claims against the executor of the estate in exchange for their share and confirm the way that all bills were paid and the way that the estate was handled.

Of course, these decisions are not always so easy and can be drawn out in more complicated situations. An executor who proposes a breakdown that the beneficiaries believe does not follow the will appropriately might face an accounting action. If a dispute arises over how to finalize the estate, several things can be done to resolve the matter outside of court. First, the parties can negotiate between counsel for the beneficiaries and the executor. The probate attorney handling the estate represents the executor only and not the beneficiaries, so they will need to retain their own counsel. In a situation with multiple executors, and one in which those executors disagree, the executors may wish to seek their own counsel.

Second, the parties can seek a mediation and go before someone who is not attached to the situation at all and who can help work out the parties’ differences. A mediator should try to find a middle ground where the case can be settled. It is often said that a mediator’s best result comes when they find a resolution that does not please any party completely but that is better than the alternative of spending a lot of money and going to court. Compromise is usually involved, and it is important to remember that a mediation might not get you everything that you want as part of your final agreement. Still, mediations are convenient because they do not force anyone into a decision. They are an effort at finding an appropriate compromise after seeing the facts in light of an outside party’s perspective.

Finally, the parties can submit a dispute to a binding arbitration. The family may be able to pick a family member who is truly neutral or ask a pastor or other community leader to help them resolve the dispute. There also are companies which can be hired to send an arbiter to hear the dispute. With today’s modern technology, these arbitrations can even happen remotely without everyone having to gather in the same place.

There are many other potential ways to reach family settlement agreements, but these are some of the most common. If you are in a probate dispute, or if you believe that your matter can be worked out amicably without going to court but still wish to seek legal guidance, contact the estate administration attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm to learn more today.

What is a Power of Attorney in Pennsylvania?

Power of Attorney is a document granting one person the ability to make decisions regarding property and possessions on behalf of another. The power of attorney document (POA) is named this because the agent can act in many ways as an attorney can. Of course, this does not mean that your agent can represent you in court or perform legal work for you, but it does mean that he or she can appear on your behalf before any private party as if you yourself were present.

The POA only lasts while you are living. After you pass, your agent will no longer have the power to make decisions on your behalf regarding property, possessions, or anything else. After death, the executor named in your will takes over and opens a probate estate.

POAs are not only for the elderly, incapacitated or infirm. A POA allows you and your spouse to have unfettered access to each other’s financial affairs, even as it relates to work-related documents such as 401K or other retirement plans. POAs also can provide for business succession or allow someone to be appointed for business purposes in the event that you are disabled temporarily or permanently. POAs also are used when a person plans to go overseas and needs someone in the United States to help children or other dependents gain access to bank accounts during that time.

Guardianship

In the event that someone seeks a guardianship over you, the POA also names the person to be your guardian. The courts are bound by statute to honor this choice in a POA unless clear grounds to set aside the named agent are demonstrated.

Duties of the Agent Under a POA

If you have been named as an agent under a POA, what are your duties to the principal? Generally, you have duties:

  • of care
  • of confidence
  • of diligence
  • of loyalty
  • to keep funds separate
  • to keep records of transactions
  • to act in the best interest of the principal

This means that you cannot take the principal’s money and run off to Vegas. It also means that you cannot take all the principal’s money and invest it in a single stock or make other risky investment decisions. The POA creates an important responsibility because it allows the agent to help the principal make sound financial decisions, but the agent is also liable for poor decisions made on the principal’s behalf.

Revoking a POA

Unfortunately, POAs are sometimes abused. In the case of abuse, you can revoke the power you have given to your agent. You can do so with or without cause and at any time, but it is important to note that every action the agent has taken on your behalf will be considered ratified by you. In other words, you cannot claim that you did not authorize a specific action taken on your behalf by your agent while the POA was in effect. The POA grants that power even if it has been abused. Of course, you can sue the agent who has acted improperly under the POA; however, third parties are entitled to rely upon the POA. This is part of what makes it so powerful. No one other than you and your agent can question the validity of the document.

So why won’t the bank let me get into a bank account?

A common question we receive concerning POAs is why a bank or other financial institution would not honor the document. In most cases, this occurs because the principal has died, and the agent is attempting to access the bank account of the deceased principal. This is a common mistake and is easily solved. The executor named in the will, or the administrator if there is no will, must open a probate estate to obtain access to bank accounts and other financial assets of the deceased principal.

Conclusion

If you are interested in learning more about POAs or need one for yourself or someone else, contact Cornerstone Law Firm. Our experienced estate planning attorneys can help you and your loved ones determine whether a POA is right for you.

Opening an Estate in Schuylkill County

When someone you love has passed away, you’re confronted with many difficult decisions, and an estate process that can feel very complicated. If the person that you love passed away while living in Schuylkill County, here are the first three steps you’ll need to take to open an estate and probate their will.

1. Determine Whether Your Deceased Loved One Had a Will

The first question to answer is whether the person who died had a will or not. Although wills are very important, not everyone has one when they pass away. If they had a will, the process is usually easier and more straightforward. The will tells you who’s in charge of the estate (that is who the “executor” is), as well as who will inherit the possessions, money and property left behind in the will.

If your loved one did not have a will, however, you are left without this road map. Don’t be afraid: Pennsylvania law provides, by statute, who will inherit and who will be in charge of the estate. This statute is called the “Intestate Statute,” and gives detailed instructions on how such an estate will be processed. A good probate attorney can help walk you through figuring out who is in charge of the estate, and how to make sure that process goes smoothly.

2. Open an Estate in Pottsville

Once you’ve determined whether there’s a will, it’s time to open an estate in Pottsville. This is known as the “probate” process. Probating a will includes drafting something called a “Petition for Grant of Letters” and attaching the will. If there is no will, then other documents can demonstrate the proof that you are the proper person to open the estate and begin the probate process. In Schuylkill County, this petition is presented to the Schuylkill County Register of Wills. The Schuylkill County Register of Wills office is in the courthouse in Pottsville on the second floor.

3. Gather Assets and Liquidate the Estate

We’ve written in depth about this process elsewhere, but once an estate is opened through the probate process, you can begin gathering the assets, selling them as necessary to pay debts, and ultimately distributing the remainder of the estate to the beneficiaries. This process involves carefully ensuring that you are complying with the law. This includes paying taxes, paying creditors in the proper order, disputing claims filed against the estate as necessary, and occasionally seeking court orders for the transfer of real estate and other possessions.

The estate typically requires about nine months of work, though many executors are able to finish the process faster. The process ultimately culminates in filing a REV-1500 form, known as The Estate Inheritance Tax Return Form.

Conclusion

At Cornerstone Law Firm, our probate attorneys are able to help you in Schuylkill County. We will go with you to the Register of Wills in Pottsville and file documents with the Department of Revenue. We can assist­ throughout the rest of the process in providing advice, helping you to sell real estate, and properly valuing items belonging to the decedent. If someone you love has passed away in Schuylkill County and you need help processing their estate, call Cornerstone Law Firm for a free consultation today.

Avoiding Probate in Estate Planning

As we have discussed in other articles, probate is the process of an opening of an estate and transferring ownership of assets from a deceased individual to that person’s beneficiaries. Probate can be an expensive and time-consuming process, and naturally, many families are eager to find ways to avoid probate in advance.

In this article we are going to talk about some of the common ways that people avoid probate by planning ahead so that their loved ones do not have to incur the time and expense of probate. Please be aware that there are specific pros and cons to each of these approaches depending on a number of factors. It is important for you to speak to an experienced estate planning attorney about your options. This article is meant to help you, but it is not formal legal advice.

Revocable Living Trusts

One common mechanism to avoid probate is to create a revocable living trust rather than a will. While a will goes to probate, a trust can continue “living” even after you have passed away. The trust document controls who takes over responsibility for the assets of the trust, and who they benefit.

There are a few steps to this approach. First, you would place all of your assets, including your house, your cars and your bank accounts into the living trust. You will essentially live your life out of the living trust. Think of it as carrying around a basket that holds all your assets. A trust document lays out who will pick up the basket when you die. Your heirs, whom you designate to “pick up the basket,” then have the option of either administering the trust and living out of it themselves, or of “decanting the trust” and taking those assets for themselves.

The advantages to a trust include that you can avoid probate, including the costs and attorneys’ fees necessary to navigate the estate administration process. Furthermore, trusts give your loved ones access to your assets faster after your death. Finally, a trust can keep your estate private so that people cannot see it as a matter of public record when you pass away. For some people, the privacy is an important consideration.

But there are drawbacks to this approach, as well. For one thing, trusts won’t avoid inheritance taxes due to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania upon your death. Second, a trust does not protect you from Medicare forcing repayment for the medical care that they paid for at the end of your life. In other words, this is not the way to avoid losing what you owe to nursing homes nor is it a way to avoid any taxes.

Furthermore, setting up and administering a living trust day to day is more expensive than simply drafting a will. You have to be sure that you carefully keep up with all the formalities of the trust and put new assets into this trust; otherwise, your beneficiaries may have to go through probate anyway because you forgot to include an asset. There are more robust trust options, including an irrevocable living trust, which can also save you some of the taxes and other costs that you might typically associate with starting a trust in the first place. To learn more about these, you should speak with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Gifting Assets

A second way to avoid probate is to begin gifting your assets early. This includes putting your cars in other peoples’ names, putting your children on bank accounts, not merely as trustees or agents, but as co-owners. It even includes deeding your house to your heirs.

The advantages to this approach are that these assets do not need to go through probate because they belong to your heirs before your passing. Better yet, depending on how long you live after the gifting event, there may be no inheritance tax or Medicare liability.

But the obvious disadvantages to this should be apparent immediately. First, after gifting these assets, they legally belong to your children or other heirs. This means that, for example, if they get into a car accident and owe someone a lot of money, that someone can usually come collect against the assets that you’ve gifted over to them. This approach also secures your assets from Medicare or Medicaid, but only if done five years before any care or costs are incurred. Otherwise, the Department of Human Services will use the five year look back period to reclaim these assets. This would defeat the purpose of the gifting in the first place. Additionally, gifting your assets can affect your eligibility for credit or other financial planning tools.

Gifting a large amount of money and property to your heirs can also have significant tax implications for them. You can give away $14,000 a year as of 2022, without incurring any taxes. You can also use your lifetime gift taxing exemption to give some of these assets away. Nonetheless, if you are not careful and if you do not properly claim these, this will result in tax liability for your heirs. Remember also that if you gift a house to your children, they will need to pay the real estate tax every year.

One approach to this sort of gifting is known as the “half a loaf approach” in which you give your children a survivor interest in the house without giving them present possessory interest. This is more complicated than we can cover in this article here, but it is one approach that allows you to gift at least some of the value out of your estate before death to avoid some of the costs of probate.

However, it is important to remember that probate is not exactly an all or nothing affair. If you forget to gift anything out of your estate, your children will have to choose between abandoning that asset or probating the estate anyway. In such a case, this gifting may not have been helpful to your heirs.

Conclusion

There are certainly advantages to avoiding probate if you can do it. But sometimes, it is more trouble than it is worth. Whether to take one of the steps outlined above depends on the size of your estate, the nature of your family relationships and more. If you’re interested in learning more, speak with one of the experienced estate planning attorneys at Cornerstone Law Firm about your options so that we can help guide you through the process.

What Do I Do with the Will When A Loved One Passes Away?

When you experience a death in the family, the details of wrapping up the loved one’s legal affairs can seem overwhelming. One of the first questions that many people ask after the death of a loved one is, “What do I do with the Will?”

“What do I do with the Will?”

The short answer to this question is that the original Will (not a copy) is vital to the administration of an estate. Once this original is located, it should be taken to an attorney for review, along with any information you have on your loved one’s finances and liabilities. The purpose of this visit to an estate administration lawyer is to determine whether probate is necessary.

In many cases, in order to administer an estate, the Will must be probated. This means that it needs to be filed with the Register of Wills under the auspices of the Orphan’s Court at the Court of Common Pleas in the County where the decedent was living at the time of death.

What is Probate?

Probate is the process of liquidating estate assets, paying estate debts and taxes, and ultimately ensuring that the beneficiaries and survivors incur no future liability on the money they receive from the estate.

But probate is not always necessary, and avoiding probate can save time and money. A good estate administration attorney can help you determine whether the Will should be probated or not. Accordingly, if someone in your family has passed away recently and you’re attempting to figure out what to do with their Will (or in the absence of a Will, what to do with their assets and liabilities) then contact the Cornerstone Law Firm. Our attorneys can help you to figure out what to do with the Will, whether to probate the estate, and how to maximize the value of the estate to its beneficiaries.

Contact us today for a free consultation on your estate so we can help you handle these details during your time of loss.

What is Probate?

When a loved one passes away, the details can be overwhelming. Those left behind are suddenly confronted with a myriad of strange vocabulary to learn and figure out what to do with. One common word that you’ll begin hearing is “Probate.” So, what is probate, and do you need an attorney to help you with it?

Probate is the process of filing the will of a deceased loved one with the court, gathering their assets, paying off their liabilities, filing taxes, and closing out their estate. Simply put, probate is the court process that oversees the administration of an estate.

probate

The Purpose of Probate

The purpose of probate is to ensure that all of a deceased loved one’s debts are paid, and to make sure that their assets can be passed to their loved ones (“beneficiaries”) without any legal liability passing to their beneficiaries.

The Requirements of Probate

Probate requires that debts are paid in a certain order pursuant to a Pennsylvania statute, and limits the types of claims that can be brought against the person who has passed away. Probate also requires filing of tax returns to pay the Inheritance Tax for those who receive an inheritance from the person who passed. Usually, the estate pays this tax to avoid beneficiaries being saddled with the bill, although this depends on the Will.

Navigating the Probate Process

The Probate process can be confusing and, because it can be expensive, it is not always necessary to go through. A good Estate Administration Attorney will help you to see if there is any way to avoid the probate process altogether, as well as the fees and costs associated with it. However, in many cases, probate is required and is unavoidable.

If you know someone who has recently passed and you are trying to figure out how to administer their estate, call the Cornerstone Law Firm for a free consultation. We’ll be happy to sit down with you and discuss your options and to figure out the best way to administer your estate.