Can I Write My Own Will or Should I Hire an Attorney?

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Just the thought of preparing your last will and testament (also known simply as your “will” or your “estate plan”) is enough to put some people on edge. That reaction is completely understandable given the nature of the information contained in said documents. Being uncomfortable, however, is not reason enough to avoid doing something so important.

A question on this topic that many people ask themselves is, “Can I write my own will or do I need an attorney’s help?” The best answer to this question is that it depends on your specific situation.

Legally binding wills can be drafted without an attorney’s help by using estate planning software to walk you through the process. You may be able to go the DIY route, but only if you need a basic, simple will, you don’t have a lot of assets and you have a small, uncomplicated family.

Anything beyond the most basic wills are best handled by a qualified estate planning professional. Too many people have made seemingly small blunders on their estate planning paperwork, costing surviving family members a significant amount of money, stress and angst.

If you have young children (and/or a complicated family), own your own business (especially if you are a co-owner), have a significant amount of investments, assets, debts or if you think there’s a strong possibility that someone may contest your will, you’ll be better off working with an attorney to come up with the will that works for you and all of your unique life circumstances.

With your estate planning attorney, you’ll work in tandem to create not only a will but a number of other important documents like a living will and a health care directive. Having an experienced professional to guide you will ensure that you avoid making mistakes that would likely end up causing a gigantic amount of trouble for your loved ones after you’ve passed away.

It can be easy to put off setting up your estate planning paperwork because, after all, it doesn’t affect you directly. You must take into consideration the aftermath you’ll leave behind if you die without a will in New Jersey. Your family members will not have the proper time to adequately grieve your passing if they have to spend all of their time figuring out what to do with your assets.

Don’t leave a bunch of questions for your family and friends to puzzle over. If you haven’t done so yet, make a promise to yourself to write down your last wishes as soon as possible. Take that list with you to your NJ attorney meeting. After your estate plan has been completed, you’ll feel a weight lifted off your shoulders – even if you never realized the weight was there.

Image credit: Desi

Estate Planning Basics: What You Need to Know to Get Started

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The term ‘estate planning‘ can make preparing your will sound a lot more daunting than the process really is. In fact, some of our clients come to us without understanding that your estate is simply everything you own. So, estate planning is essentially just making plans for what will happen to your real estate property, personal items, investments, life insurance policies and anything else you own after you pass away.

The process of setting up your estate plan is commonly referred to as ‘writing your will.’ Along with the fact that not very many people enjoy thinking about and planning for their own death, the process in itself can seem like it might be complicated.

The good news is that the reality of estate planning is quite simple for most people. At Veitengruber Law, we like to start getting to know our estate planning clients by having them fill out a questionnaire. Ideally, clients will return the questionnaire to us before their consultation so that we have time to get a feel for your overall financial details. Alternatively, you can bring the (completed) questionnaire along with you to your first appointment.

We will help you to determine which of the following documents that are appropriate for your needs:

Last Will and Testament – Also referred to as your ‘will,’ this document’s purpose is to let all of your survivors know how you want your property to be divided after your death. You’ll need to name someone to carry out your wishes (an executor) and you will have to decide who should get what. One of the tougher decisions to be made in your will involves custody of your children (if applicable).

Durable Power of Attorney – Another extremely important facet of your estate plan, your Durable Power of Attorney names someone to make decisions for you regarding your finances if you become unable to make sound decisions for yourself. This document will name someone as your ‘agent’ in case you become ill and/or incapacitated. Your agent is automatically your spouse if you are married. If you aren’t married, you definitely need a Durable Power of Attorney to ensure that your finances will be responsibly managed if you become unable to make smart decisions for yourself. This document expires when you do, so your agent will not make any decisions after your death unless s/he is also your executor.

Living Will – This document will set out any specific health care directives that you wish to be followed if a time comes when you are not able to communicate your wishes verbally. Some things included in your living will are:

  • What (if any) life extending procedures do you wish to be carried out?
  • Do you want to be resuscitated or would you like doctors to follow a DNR protocol (Do Not Resuscitate)?
  • Are there certain situations in which you would want doctors to stop life saving treatments?
  • Would you want to be tube fed or be placed on a ventilator? For how long?
  • Do you want to donate any or all of your organs for donation or scientific study?

Along with the above documents, we will also talk to you about your life insurance coverage, especially if you have a family who is dependent on you. Call us today or fill out our quick info form to get your estate plan started.

 

Image credit: Mark Moz

5 Tough Estate Planning Questions You Should be Able to Answer

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Estate planning is something that most of us put off repeatedly due to our own discomfort with the idea of becoming disabled, mentally incompetent, or, well, dead. It’s definitely not a pleasant thing to think about, but unfortunately it is a reality that we will all eventually face. At least until something like ‘The Singularity‘ comes to fruition, anyway. 😉

While scientific and medical advances have impressively increased the human life expectancy, they have yet to discover a magical fountain of youth that will allow us to live forever. Thus, it’s important that you plan accordingly so that the family members who survive you will be appropriately cared for. For starters, you need to have answers to the following questions:

  1. Who will raise your children if you and your spouse both die unexpectedly?
    This question is one of the main reasons some people avoid making a will. The idea of someone else raising your children feels terribly sad! But, if you are a single parent or widow, it is even more important that you make plans for your children, in case anything happens to you while they are still minors. Even if you are married to your children’s other biological parent, it can be extremely difficult to agree on who to select to raise your kids if you both die at the same time. Although it may cause tension and even some arguments, it’s an important issue to push through so that your children’s future isn’t determined by a judge they’ve never met.
  2. Are there any important relationships in your life that you’ve kept secret?
    If you have a significant relationship with someone and would like that person to be cared for after your death, you must speak up about it before it’s too late. Oftentimes, attorneys will repeatedly ask clients if there are any relationships that you haven’t disclosed yet because of this very issue. In order to fully advise you about your obligations and rights, your attorney needs full disclosure.
  3. Have you frozen any of your genetic material?
    If you pass away with existing, viable frozen sperm, eggs or embryos, you’ll need to think about whether you want to provide for any children that may be conceived after your death.
  4. Do you have any family members that your attorney doesn’t know about?
    Perhaps you had a child out of wedlock years ago, or maybe your father had children with a woman other than your mother, giving you half-siblings. Regardless of your current relationship with them, be sure to alert your lawyer to their existence. Make it clear in your Estate Plan whether you want them to be included in your will or not, because the likelihood of them making a surprise entrance at your funeral – or at a later date – is high. It’s likely that their appearance will be stress-inducing for everyone involved, unless you take care of all of the details in your Estate Plan.
  5. At what point would you like to have the so-called “plug” pulled?
    Part of creating an Estate Plan includes writing a Health Care Directive, which essentially states at what point you feel that your quality of life is no longer worth holding onto, should you become critically ill. By setting out specific details about when you would like medical intervention to cease, you will give yourself more control over your end-of-life care.

Ultimately, creating your Estate Plan is your chance to set things into motion for your descendants and family members who survive you. As difficult as it may be to ponder, it’s that much more important that you push through the uncomfortable feelings and do it anyway.

 

Image credit: Dan Moyle

Dying Without a Will in New Jersey: What Happens?

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If you have recently lost someone close to you and dear to your heart, we realize that you are undoubtedly weighed down by sadness and grief. Unfortunately, if the deceased wasn’t able to leave a Last Will and Testament, this time in your life just got incrementally more difficult.

When anyone dies without a will in New Jersey, they are said to have died “intestate.” This is the legal term for a deceased person who has not left any testamentary documents regarding the distribution of their assets. Some people mistakenly believe that an intestate decedent’s property will be taken by the state in which they reside. While that is not true, there are state laws that govern who the property should be divided between, and who should make decisions for the estate.

It’s important to know that not all assets are created equal. In fact, many types of assets/property are not passed from person to person via Last Will and Testament at all. These include:

  • Proceeds from a life insurance policy
  • Funds in an IRA, 401(k) or retirement account
  • Property named in a living trust
  • Funds in a POD bank account (payable on death)
  • Real estate, bank accounts, etc held in joint tenancy
  • Stocks, real estate or vehicles with a TOD (transfer on death) deed or title

The above assets will be distributed according to their individual documentation. They should each name a beneficiary or have a joint owner, making their transfer rather clear. Again, the above assets are never included as part of a will, and are inherited outside of the deceased’s estate.

In order to transfer ownership of the rest of the decedent’s assets and property, NJ state law dictates, using “intestate succession” laws to do so.

Since there is no will (in which an executor would have been named), the New Jersey Surrogate’s Court will appoint such a person so that the estate can be properly and fairly distributed. The NJ Surrogate’s Court typically chooses someone from the following list, in order of preference: surviving spouse, surviving partner of a civil union, children, grandchildren, parents, siblings, nieces, nephews.

Ultimately, the person who is selected as the estate’s administrator (executor) will be responsible for the fair and legal distribution of the estate to its heirs and creditors. S/he may be summoned to Surrogate’s Court to explain how or why  assets or property were distributed in a certain way. If mistakes are made by the estate administrator, s/he may be forced to pay for any losses that were suffered by the estate’s heirs and creditors.

Because it is such a big responsibility, many estate administrators choose to hire and work with an attorney during the process of distributing the estate. This is acceptable, and executors are permitted to use money from the estate to pay for this expense.

Distribution of the estate money and property must be completed in a very specific order so as to be legally correct. Before any heirs or survivors receive anything, all outstanding creditors and taxes must be paid. Following this distribution order is critical, because if it is later found that the executor made distribution errors, there’s a good chance s/he would be held personally responsible.

Beyond paying any and all creditors and taxes due, New Jersey laws state who shall be eligible to inherit parts of the estate of an intestate decedent. For more information about the New Jersey laws surrounding death without a will, call or contact our office today. In addition, strongly consider having Veitengruber Law draw up your own Estate Plan, so that your loved ones don’t have questions and conflict after you pass.

 

Image Credit: Alex Eflon

 

Do You Have a Proper Estate Plan in Place?

last will and testamentMany people think, “I don’t need a will, I have nothing to leave to anyone!”

The truth is, everyone needs to have an estate plan in place so that surviving family members are clear about your intentions. There are multiple parts to an estate plan, and it’s not as complicated as it might sound.  First of all, the word ‘estate’ simply means ‘all of your assets’.

Now, in order to be fully prepared, you will want to address the following components of an estate plan: a will, the assignment of someone as your power of attorney, a living will (or a medical power of attorney.) Depending on your situation, you may want to consider a trust as well.

1. The will tells precisely how you want anything and everything you own to be distributed after your demise. If you pass away before you get a chance to make a will, your children and other family members will have no idea who gets what, which can spark long-lasting family arguments.

2. Power of Attorney means that you are choosing someone to handle your financial affairs if and when you become incapable of doing so yourself, while you are still living but have experienced a medical crisis that has left you unable to make wise decisions. This person will be able to sign your name on financial documents and is required to act only in your best interests at all times. If you pass away without having assigned a person as your Power of Attorney, the court system will have to assign you a guardian, which can cost your family members even more money.

  • Springing Power of Attorney only goes into effect under certain circumstances that you set out in your
    Estate Plan.
  • Durable Power of Attorney becomes effective as soon as you are deemed incapacitated by a medical professional.

3. A Living Will is also known as an Advance Medical Directive, and it is exactly what it sounds like. This is the document wherein you will make your wishes known regarding your medical care and living-saving interventions that you wish to have taken if you become incapacitated and unable to communicate these wishes yourself.

4. A trust can be beneficial for you and your family if you have a net worth of $100,000 or more, a large amount of assets in real estate, a business, or a pricey collection. You may also want to set up a trust if you want to make certain conditions for your heirs as to when they will receive their inheritance, usually in multiple parts or upon meeting certain conditions. If you have a spouse and other heirs that you need and want to support, like children from a first marriage, a trust will ensure that the remainder of your estate will go to those children after your spouse passes away. A trust can also be effective if you have a relative who is disabled. To leave all of your money to him may disqualify him for government assistance, but setting up a trust avoids that.

It is always recommended that you have a talk with your children or other heirs before you pass away so your intentions for your estate plan are very clear. Also, there are easy ways to give monetary gifts to your heirs tax-free. To learn more about all of the details involved in the estate planning process, find a qualified attorney and make an appointment today.  Having a plan in place will give you the peace of mind that you might not have even realized you were missing.

Image credit: Ken Mayer