Basics of Estate Planning
By Cowles Liipfert
Estate planning is more than simply deciding who gets your assets after your death. It includes a wide range of matters, such as (1) planning for yourself and for your family in the event you become incapacitated; (2) the appointment of guardians for your minor children, if any, in the event of the deaths of both parents; (3) the protection of assets for minors, or for beneficiaries who cannot manage money, are incapacitated, or otherwise need asset protection; (4) planning for family members who are nonresidents or noncitizens of the United States; and (5) planning for a myriad of other personal issues for your family, including tax planning.
Please note that the reasons listed above for estate planning are not necessarily limited to wealthy individuals. It can be very important to a person of modest means to see that his or her assets are used to benefit the proper beneficiaries in a wise and appropriate manner.
We hope the following discussions will be helpful:
Wills are a common estate planning tool and are the most basic device for planning the distribution of an estate upon death. Wills that are 100% handwritten by the Testator and which are either kept with the decedent’s valuable papers or are given to someone else for safekeeping, are called “holographic” wills and do not have to be witnessed, provided that two witnesses attest to Probate Court as to the Testator’s handwriting, when the holographic will is presented to the court for probate after the decedent’s death. North Carolina wills that are not entirely in the Testator’s handwriting must have two witnesses, and preferably both witnesses and the Testator will sign in the presence of a Notary Public. If there was no notary public for the signatures of the testator and the witnesses, the Clerk of Superior Court may still probate the will, after the witnesses’ signatures have been duly proven to the Court.
Unless the Will is filed with the Court and is found by the court to be valid, a purported Will has no legal significance, so any paper which purports to be a will should be filed with the Court and you should request the Court to “probate” the Will (i.e., to certify the document to be valid). By the way, a Will can be probated (i.e., certified) without having a full court administration.
Probate (Court Administration):
One meaning of “probate” is the process whereby a decedent’s will is presented to the Probate Court (i.e., The Office of the Clerk of Superior Court) and the Court determines whether or not the will is valid. In an effort to avoid confusion, we will refer to that process as “probate (certification).”
If the will is found to be valid, an Executor or other personal representative will be appointed to take control of the decedent’s assets, and to notify creditors by direct notice and/or publication of a newspaper notice to creditors. That person will be responsible for tax filings, if applicable, and for paying debts and administration expenses. This process is also called “Probate” of the Estate, and to avoid confusion we will sometimes refer to this process as “probate (administration).” The executor pays valid claims and the remaining assets are distributed to the beneficiaries pursuant to the terms of the will. After these things have been done properly, the Probate Court will close the estate file.
Probate Avoidance (or Avoiding Court-Supervised Administration of an Estate):
Since probate (administration) documents are matters of public record, the family can maintain some privacy, while saving some court charges, by avoiding probate (administration). Probate (administration) can be avoided in several ways, such as by joint ownership of assets with survivorship or by naming beneficiaries in ownership documents, which will pass outside probate. Revocable trusts also hold assets in the name of the trustee, and the trust’s assets do not pass through court probate (administration).
Consequently, many individuals seek to avoid probate (administration), or at least to minimize the process, by a combination of joint accounts with survivorship, by naming beneficiaries for transfer on death of bank and brokerage accounts, and by naming beneficiaries for other assets, including life insurance and retirement accounts. Real estate can pass by survivorship to a joint tenant with survivorship rights, or to a surviving spouse under a “tenancy by the entirety” (a form of joint ownership applicable only to husbands and wives).
Irrevocable Trusts may be used as estate planning tools, sometimes to hold life insurance policies and often for the distribution of assets for the benefit of family members who are minors or developmentally-disabled beneficiaries, and sometimes to prevent wasteful spending by a spendthrift child, or to protect assets for a family member who is in a shaky marriage or who is in a high-risk job or profession. Also, certain types of trusts can provide for management of assets and the disposition of assets to protect family wealth for several generations and are typically called generation-skipping trusts (GST) or “Dynasty” Trusts.
This article cross-references you to other related topics, such as the following:
- Who gets your assets if you die without a will? This is not as simple as one might think. North Carolina has laws which deal with the disposition of the estates of decedents who die without wills, called the North Carolina Intestate Succession Act, some provisions of which might surprise you and likely would not be what you would want. Also, please be aware that some assets pass by beneficiary designation or by survivorship to individuals and do not pass under the Intestate Succession Act.
- Do you need a Durable Power of Attorney, a legal document which authorizes someone to act for you and to sign legal papers on your behalf if you are incapacitated?
- Do you need a Health Care Power of Attorney and Advance Directive, to authorize someone to make health care decisions for you, which may include decisions whether or not to resort to extraordinary means to prolong your life if you are terminally and incurably ill, and to allow you to die a natural death in those circumstances?
- Should you have a Revocable Living Trust to avoid the need for court probate at your death, i.e. court supervision, to insure that any assets belonging to you at the time of your death are used to pay your debts, funeral and administration expenses, etc., or can you rely on family members or other trusted individuals to administer your assets without court supervision? A revocable trust is not a matter of public record and affords your loved ones with some privacy concerning the assets which you own on the date of death and to whom those assets have been left.
- Would it be appropriate to create Irrevocable Trusts for the benefit of others, either during your lifetime or after your death?
- If you are a business owner or partner in a business or LLC, should you consider having a Business Succession Plan for the transfer of your business interest upon your retirement, death or disability?
- Would your family benefit from tax planning? With the federal estate tax exemption equivalent at $11.4 million in 2019 and increasing each year, the need for estate tax planning is not very important to many of us. But there are other tax issues, such as income tax considerations, which could benefit a family of moderate wealth, such as step-up in the cost basis of assets upon death.
This article cannot include all the estate planning possibilities and alternatives, but it is intended to give an overview of the issues involved.