As many states continue to struggle with the current surge in COVID-19 cases, the “new normal” demands continued social distancing in many areas of life. What does this mean for estate planning? Clearly, estate planning is as important today — or arguably more important — than ever. But how do you plan your estate and execute critical documents if you’re uncomfortable with face-to-face meetings or are required to self-quarantine?

Fortunately, many estate planning activities may be able to be done from the safety of your own home. Here are some options to consider, but keep in mind that requirements vary significantly from state to state, so it’s important to discuss your plans with your estate planning advisor.

Most planning can be done remotely

There are definite advantages to meeting with your advisor in person to talk about creating or updating your estate plan. But these discussions can be conducted in video conferences or phone calls, and document drafts can be transmitted and reviewed via email, secure online portals or even “snail mail.”

Traditionally, estate planning documents are executed in an attorney’s office in the presence of witnesses and a notary public. In-office document signings may still be possible with appropriate precautions, but there are other options that may allow you to avoid traveling to an attorney’s office.

The options available depend in part on the type of document being signed:

Wills. In most states, a typewritten will (as well as a modification or codicil to an existing will) must be signed in the physical presence of at least two witnesses. Typically, those witnesses must be disinterested — that is, they don’t stand to inherit or otherwise benefit under the will. But some states permit family members or other interested parties to serve as witnesses. In those states, it may be possible to conduct a will signing at home (with instructions from your attorney) and have members of your household witness it.

What about notarization? Wills are usually notarized as a best practice, but in most states it’s not required. However, wills are often accompanied by a self-proving affidavit, which must be notarized.

Another option in some states is a “holographic,” or handwritten, will, which generally doesn’t require witnesses or notarization.

Trusts. In many states, you can sign a trust document without witnesses or notarization, and it may even be possible to sign it electronically. One potential strategy for avoiding traditional will-signing requirements is to sign a holographic “pour over” will that transfers all assets to a revocable trust, which can accomplish many of the same objectives as a traditional will.

Monitor legal developments

Requirements for signing estate planning documents have been evolving in recent years, and the COVID-19 pandemic may accelerate the process more. A few states permit electronic wills (e-wills) and online notarization, which makes it possible to execute these documents without the need for physical interaction with anyone. These technologies are still in their infancy, but they’re being considered by lawmakers in many states. Contact us with any questions regarding your estate planning documents.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Some people make video recordings of their will signings in an effort to create evidence that they possess the requisite testamentary capacity. For some, this strategy may help stave off a will contest. But in most cases, the risk that the recording will provide ammunition to someone who wishes to challenge the will outweighs the potential benefits.

Video will be closely scrutinized

Unless the person signing the will delivers a flawless, natural performance, a challenger could pounce on the slightest hesitation, apparent discomfort or momentary confusion as “proof” that the person lacked testamentary capacity. Even the sharpest among us occasionally forgets facts or mixes up our children’s or grandchildren’s names. And discomfort with the recording process can easily be mistaken for confusion or duress.

You’re probably thinking, “Why can’t we just re-record portions of the video that don’t look good?” The problem with this approach is that a challenger’s attorney will likely ask how much editing was done and how many “takes” were used in the video and cite that number as further evidence of a lack of testamentary capacity.

Employ alternative strategies

For most people, other strategies for avoiding a will contest are preferable to recording the will signing. These include having a medical practitioner examine you and attest to your capacity immediately before the signing. It can also involve choosing reliable witnesses and including a “no contest clause” in your will. In addition, you might consider using a funded revocable trust, which avoids probate and, therefore, is more difficult and expensive to challenge.

Before pressing “record” and signing your will, talk with us about how to proceed.

© 2021 Covenant CPA

Oh, no, your original will is missing!

In a world that’s increasingly paperless, you’re likely becoming accustomed to conducting a variety of transactions digitally. But when it comes to your last will and testament, only an original, signed document will do.

The original vs. a photocopy

Many people mistakenly believe that a photocopy of a signed will is sufficient. In fact, most states require that a deceased’s original will be filed with the county clerk and, if probate is necessary, presented to the probate court.

If your family or executor can’t find your original will, there’s a presumption in most states that you destroyed it with the intent to revoke it. That means the court will generally administer your estate as if you died without a will.

It’s possible to overcome this presumption. For example, if all interested parties agree that a signed copy reflects your wishes, they may be able to convince a court to admit it. But to avoid costly, time-consuming legal headaches, it’s best to ensure that your family can locate your original will when they need it.

Storage solutions

There isn’t one right place to keep your will — it depends on your circumstances and your comfort level with the storage arrangements. Wherever you decide to keep your will, it’s critical that 1) it be stored safely, and 2) your family knows how to find it.

Options include:

  • Having your accountant, attorney or another trusted advisor hold your will and making sure your family knows how to contact him or her.
  • Storing your will at your home or office in a fireproof lockbox or safe and ensuring that someone you trust knows where it is and how to retrieve it.

Storing your original will and other estate planning documents safely — and communicating their location to your loved ones — will help ensure that your wishes are carried out. Contact us if you have questions regarding your will or other estate planning documents.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

You’ve probably seen it in the movies or on TV: A close-knit family gathers to find out what’s contained in the will of a wealthy patriarch or matriarch. When the terms are revealed, a niece, for example, benefits at the expense her uncle, causing a ruckus. This “bad blood” continues to boil between estranged family members, who won’t even speak to one another.

Unfortunately, a comparable scenario can play out in real life if you don’t make proper provisions. With some planning, you can avoid family disputes or at least minimize the chances of your will being contested by your loved ones.

Start at the beginning

Before you (and your spouse, if married) set the table for your will, which is the centerpiece of any comprehensive estate plan, discuss estate matters with close family members who’ll likely be affected. This may include children, siblings, adult grandchildren and possibly others. Present an outline regarding the disposition of your assets and other important aspects.

This doesn’t mean you should be specific about everything in the will, but it’s a good idea to provide a basic overview of your estate. Consider the input of other family members; don’t just pay lip service to their feedback. In fact, they may raise issues that you hadn’t taken into account.

This meeting — which may require several sessions — may head off potential problems and better prepare your heirs. It certainly avoids the kind of “shockers” often depicted on screen.

Means of protection

Although there are no absolute guarantees, consider the following methods for bulletproofing your will from a legal challenge:

Draft a no-contest clause. Also called an “in terrorem clause,” this language provides that, if any person in your will challenges it, he or she is excluded from your estate. It’s often used to thwart contests to a will.

This puts the onus squarely on the beneficiary. If he or she asserts that the estate isn’t divided equitably, the beneficiary risks receiving nothing. Be aware that, in some states, this clause may not be enforceable or may be subject to certain exceptions.

Choose witnesses wisely. You may want to use witnesses who know you well, such as close friends or business associates. They can convincingly state that you were of sound mind when you made out the will. You also may want to choose witnesses who are in good health, preferably younger than you and easily traceable.

Obtain a physician’s note. A note from a physician about your health status is recommended. For instance, it can state that you have the requisite mental capacity to make estate planning decisions and thus will be useful in avoiding legal challenges.

Last but not least

After your will is drafted, don’t make the mistake of putting it in a safe where you may forget about it. Review it periodically with your attorney. By fine-tuning the will, you improve the likelihood that it’ll deter a legal challenge and, if necessary, prevail in court. Contact us with any questions regarding your will.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Virtually everyone needs an estate plan, but it isn’t a one-size-fits-all proposition. Even though each person’s situation is unique, general guidelines can be drawn depending on your current stage of life.

The early years

If you’ve recently embarked on a career, gotten married or both, now is the time to build the foundation for your estate plan. And, if you’ve recently started a family, estate planning is even more critical.

Your will is at the forefront. Essentially, this document divides up your accumulated wealth upon death by deciding who gets what, where, when and how. With a basic will, you may, for instance, leave all your possessions to your spouse. If you have children, you might bequeath some assets to them through a trust managed by a designated party.

A will also designates the guardian of your children if you and your spouse should die prematurely. Make sure to include a successor in case your first choice is unable to meet the responsibilities.

During your early years, your will may be supplemented by other documents, including trusts, if it makes sense personally. In addition, you may have a durable power of attorney that authorizes someone to manage your financial affairs if you’re incapacitated. Frequently, the agent will be your spouse. Also, obtain insurance protection appropriate for your lifestyle.

The middle years

If you’re a middle-aged parent, your main financial goals might be to acquire a home, or perhaps a larger home, and to set aside enough money to cover retirement goals and put your children through college. So you should modify your existing estate planning documents to meet your changing needs.

For instance, if you have a will in place, you should periodically review and revise it to reflect your current circumstances. Typically, minor revisions to a will can be achieved through a codicil. If significant changes are required, your attorney can rewrite the will entirely.

If you and your spouse decide to divorce, it’s critical to review and revise your estate plan to avoid unwanted outcomes.

The later years

Once you’ve reached retirement, you can usually relax somewhat, assuming you’re in good financial shape. But that doesn’t mean estate planning ends. It’s just time for the next chapter.

If you haven’t already done so, have your attorney draft a living will to complement a health care power of attorney. This document provides guidance in life-ending situations and can ease the stress for loved ones.

Finally, create or fine-tune, if you already have one written, a letter of instructions. Although not legally binding, it can provide an inventory of assets and offer directions concerning your financial affairs.

Revisit your plan periodically

Regardless of the stage of life you’re currently in, it’s important to bear in mind that your estate plan isn’t a static document. We can help review and revise your plan as needed.

© 2020 Covenant CPA

Understanding the contents of a will

You probably don’t have to be told about the need for a will. But do you know what provisions should be included and what’s best to leave out? The answers to those questions depend on your situation and may depend on state law.

Basic provisions

Typically, a will begins with an introductory clause, identifying yourself along with where you reside (city, state, county, etc.). It should also state that this is your official will and replaces any previous wills.

After the introductory clause, a will generally explains how your debts and funeral expenses are to be paid. The provisions for repaying debt generally reflect applicable state laws.

Don’t include specific instructions for funeral arrangements. It’s likely that your will won’t be accessed in time. Spell out your wishes in a letter of instructions, which is an informal letter to your family.

A will may also be used to name a guardian for minor children. To be on the safe side, name a backup in case your initial choice is unable or unwilling to serve as guardian or predeceases you.

Specific bequests

One of the major sections of your will — and the one that usually requires the most introspection — divides up your remaining assets. Outside of your residuary estate, you’ll likely want to make specific bequests of tangible personal property to designated beneficiaries.

If you’re using a trust to transfer property, make sure you identify the property that remains outside the trust, such as furniture and electronic devices. Typically, these items won’t be suitable for inclusion in a trust. If your estate includes real estate, include detailed information about the property and identify the specific beneficiaries.

Once you’ve covered real estate and other tangible property, move on to intangible property, such as cash and securities. Again, you may handle these items through specific bequests where you describe the property the best you can.

Finally, most wills contain a residuary clause. As a result, assets that aren’t otherwise accounted for go to the named beneficiaries, often adult children, grandchildren or a combination of family members.

Naming an executor

Toward the end of the will, name the executor — usually a relative or professional — who is responsible for administering it. Of course, this should be a reputable person whom you trust. Also, include a successor executor if the first choice is unable to perform these duties. Frequently, a professional is used in this backup capacity.

Cross the t’s and dot the i’s

Your attorney will help you meet all the legal obligations for a valid will in the applicable state and keep it up to date. Sign the will, putting your initials on each page, with your signature attested to by witnesses. Include the addresses of the witnesses in case they ever need to be located. Don’t use beneficiaries as witnesses. This could lead to potential conflicts of interest. Contact us with questions.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

Choosing the right executor — sometimes known as a “personal representative” — is critical to the smooth administration of an estate. Yet many people treat this decision as an afterthought. Given an executor’s many responsibilities and complex tasks, it pays to put some thought into the selection.

Job description

An executor’s duties may include:

  • Collecting, protecting and taking inventory of the estate’s assets,
  • Filing the estate’s tax returns and paying its taxes,
  • Handling creditors’ claims and the estate’s claims against others,
  • Making investment decisions,
  • Distributing property to beneficiaries, and
  • Liquidating assets if necessary.

You don’t necessarily have to choose a professional executor or someone with legal or financial expertise. Often, lay people can handle the job, hiring professionals as needed (at the estate’s expense) to handle matters beyond their expertise.

Candidate considerations

Many people choose a family member or close friend for the job, but this can be a mistake for two reasons. First, a person who’s close to you may be too grief-stricken to function effectively. Second, if your executor stands to gain from the will, he or she may have a conflict of interest — real or perceived — which can lead to will contests or other disputes by disgruntled family members.

If either of these issues is a concern, consider choosing an independent outsider as executor. Some people appoint co-executors — one trusted friend who knows the family and understands its dynamics, and one independent executor with business, financial or legal expertise.

Designate a backup

Regardless of whom you choose, be sure to designate at least one backup executor to serve in the event that your first choice dies or becomes incapacitated before it’s time to settle your estate — or turns down the job. Contact us for answers to your questions about choosing the right executor at 205-345-9898.

© 2019 Covenant CPA

If your son or daughter currently is home from college on winter break, now is a good time to sit down and discuss a few estate planning documents he or she should have at this stage of life. Let’s take a closer look at four such documents:

1. Health care power of attorney. With a health care power of attorney (sometimes referred to as a “health care proxy” or “durable medical power of attorney”), your child appoints someone — probably you or his or her other parent — to make health care decisions on his or her behalf should he or she be unable to do so. A health care power of attorney should provide guidance on how to make health care decisions. Although it’s impossible to anticipate every potential scenario, the document can provide guiding principles.

2. HIPAA authorization. To accompany the health care power of attorney, Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) authorization gives health care providers the ability to share information about your child’s medical condition with you. Absent a HIPAA authorization, making health care decisions could be more difficult.

3. Financial power of attorney. A financial power of attorney appoints someone to make financial decisions or execute transactions on your child’s behalf under certain circumstances. For example, a power of attorney might authorize you to handle your child’s financial affairs while he or she is out of the country studying abroad or, in the case of a “durable” power of attorney, incapacitated.

4. Will. Although your child is still in his or her upper teens or early twenties and probably doesn’t have too many assets, he or she isn’t too young to have a will drawn up. A will is a legal document that arranges for the distribution of property after a person dies. It names an executor or personal representative who’ll be responsible for overseeing the estate as it goes through probate.

If you have questions about any of these documents, don’t hesitate to give us a call at 205-345-9898. We can help provide peace of mind that your child’s health and financial affairs will be properly handled should the unthinkable happen.

© 2018 Covenant CPA