Estate Planning: Helping Protect Your Interests

Rights of Will and Trust Beneficiaries

Jeffrey R. Schmitt

Jeffrey R. Schmitt




After the death of a family member, people are often left wondering what interest they have in the deceased’s assets. At a time of grieving, it can be difficult to know where to begin. Lack of information or misinformation can leave potential beneficiaries in the dark as to the manner in which the deceased’s assets will be transferred.

Obtaining Wills, Trusts, and Other Documents

Fortunately in Missouri, and many other states, potential beneficiaries have rights allowing them access to information regarding the estate. In Missouri, if a will exists for a decedent, the original will must be filed with the probate court upon the death of the creator of the will. The will becomes public record at that point. If a family member believes that a will exists but has not been filed, that family member can open a probate estate with the court in order to try and require production of a will or other estate plan documents.

Similarly, trust beneficiaries often have rights to obtain copies of trust documents. Trusts do not have to be filed with the court but instead may be maintained privately by the named trustee. However, in most circumstances, trust beneficiaries are entitled to a copy of the relevant trust documents and can require production of them through a lawsuit, if necessary.

Accounting of Assets

Trustees, executors, administrators, and agents under a power of attorney all have some duty to account as to the assets and liabilities of the probate estate or trust.  After being appointed by the probate court, executors and administrators of wills have an obligation to file an inventory of assets and a corresponding obligation to advise the court concerning the liquidation or disposition of those assets.

Trustees of trusts have similar accounting requirements and are required by law to provide periodic accountings to the beneficiaries showing the assets, liabilities and expenses of a trust. If any of these fiduciaries fail in their accounting obligations, certain categories of heirs and beneficiaries have rights to compel the executor, personal representative, or trustee to prepare accountings and either file them with the court or provide the accounting to beneficiaries.

Discovery of Assets

A common concern for beneficiaries in estate matters is that a personal representative is hiding assets, has dissipated assets, or has incurred unnecessary or extraordinary expenses (which could be for the personal representative’s own benefit). However, the law provides certain rights for beneficiaries  to make inquiries and investigate possible improper dissipation of assets by filing a lawsuit to conduct an investigation.

Discovery of asset proceedings are not only limited to decedent’s estates but also can be used to investigate conservatorships or situations where a power of attorney is misused.

Will and Trust Contests and Construction Actions

A more extreme remedy that goes beyond investigation is asserting wrongdoing with respect to the creation or amendment of estate plan documents and filing a lawsuit to contest the estate plan documents. People who believe they are aggrieved by an estate plan (including a will or a trust that was either created or amended improperly) have the right to file a lawsuit to try to set aside those estate plan documents.

Reasons for contest actions include concerns that the estate planning documents were improperly executed, that the decedent lacked requisite mental capacity at the time the documents were signed, or that other family members or friends unduly influenced the decedent to make or change their estate plan.

Additionally, some estate planning documents may be drafted in a way that leaves questions as to who the correct beneficiaries are or what interests they might have, and a will or trust construction lawsuit provides the ability to have a court review the estate planning documents in question and make orders clarifying the terms or concluding the identities of the proper beneficiaries.

As is the case with many lawsuits and requirements of the probate and trust codes, many of the above procedures and remedies have strict time requirements or statutes of limitation. While these can be difficult situations after dealing with the loss of a family member or loved one, it is vital that someone who has questions or is concerned about possible wrongdoing take action as soon as possible so that their rights do not expire.

Posted by Attorney Jeffrey R. Schmitt. Schmitt represents businesses and individuals in civil and commercial litigation matters including banking and finance, real estate, condo and homeowners associations, probate, professional liability defense, title disputes, transportation, and pension and retirement plans. 

 

A Family Member Died, Now What? How to Begin Winding up a Relative’s Legal Affairs

David A. Zobel

David A. Zobel




The death of a loved one is never easy and will likely be an emotional time for you, your children, family, and friends. You may have a lot of things running through your head about what needs to be done, when, and how. To assist you through this difficult time, here’s an outline (in no particular order) of legal considerations necessary to begin the process of winding up your relative’s affairs. You can pursue these in order or at the same time. If it makes you more comfortable, you can skip ahead and contact an attorney at the outset. Finally, it is important to communicate with other family members so these efforts aren’t duplicated.

Order Death Certificates

One of the first things to do is obtain a certified death certificate of your relative and specifically multiple certified copies of the death certificate. Your relative’s financial and service providers, debt holders, the court, contracting parties, and many other institutions may need to see a death certificate to verify your relative’s death before they will begin their internal processes of closing your relative’s accounts. While some institutions will accept copies, many require a certified death certificate, which you or your attorney can get from your county vital records office. Depending on the office, it may take some time to process your requests, so performing this step sooner rather than later is recommended. Also, please note that death certificates are often ordered by the funeral home at the time the service is planned.

Gather Your Relative’s Estate-Planning Documents

If your relative had a will, trust, or any other estate-planning documents designed to transfer any property upon death, gather those documents together. For items with specific titles, e.g. the relative’s home, vehicles, and financial accounts, check for beneficiary or transfer on death provisions. Ideally, you will locate original copies of your relative’s estate planning documents. If you just have copies, consider whether another relative has the original document or where it might be located. If the documents are located in a bank safe deposit box, a bank officer may enter the box for the sole purpose of retrieving and filing a last will and testament.

Take a Preliminary Accounting

When you are gathering your relative’s estate planning documents, you will want to start taking a preliminary accounting of your relative’s assets. Here is a general checklist of information and documents to gather in preparation for your meeting with your attorney. In general, take note of the following: Continue reading »

A Family Member Died, Now What? Preparing for the Initial Meeting with the Attorney

David A. Zobel

David A. Zobel




In our recent post “A Family Member Died, Now What? How to Begin Winding up a Relative’s Legal Affairs,” we outlined several actions to take to start winding up a deceased relative’s legal affairs, including gathering your relative’s estate-planning documents and taking a preliminary accounting of your relative’s property.

Below is a general checklist of information and documents which will be helpful for you to assemble in preparation for meeting with your attorney. It is not necessary to have the checklist completed prior to the initial meeting. However, for reference, you may want to print this post, fill it out, and bring it with you to the initial meeting.

  1. Decedent’s Background Information (may attach a death certificate in lieu of this section):
    • Full Name:
      ______________________________________________
    • Residence Address:
      ______________________________________________
    • Date of Birth:
      ______________________________________________
    • Social Security Number:
      ______________________________________________
    • Marital Status:
      ______________________________________________
    • Spouse’s Name:
      ______________________________________________
  2. Relative’s Financial and Medical Affairs:
    • Employment Status:
      ______________________________________________
    • Employer’s Name:
      ______________________________________________
    • Banks / Institutions / Brokerages (including accounts held,
      e.g. savings):
      ______________________________________________
      ______________________________________________
      ______________________________________________
      ______________________________________________
    • Safe Deposit Box Location:
      ______________________________________________
    • Pension (if so, from where):
      ______________________________________________
    • Life Insurance Policies (provider(s) and amounts):
      ______________________________________________
      ______________________________________________
      ______________________________________________
      ______________________________________________
    • Vehicles and VINs:
      ______________________________________________
      ______________________________________________
      ______________________________________________
      ______________________________________________
    • Known Creditors (mortgage, credit card, etc.):
      ______________________________________________
    • Receiving Medicaid Benefits?
      ______________________________________________
    • Receiving Social Security Benefits?
      ______________________________________________
    • Important Notes / Special Circumstances to Tell Attorney:
      ______________________________________________
      ______________________________________________
      ______________________________________________
      ______________________________________________
      ______________________________________________
  3. Documents to Assemble (If you don’t have access to an account,
    just indicate that below):

_____     Certified death certificate
_____     Copy of death certificate of spouse, if widowed

_____     Original last will and testament and any codicils (amendments to the will)
_____     Copy of trust and any amendments

_____     Copy of all bank statements from accounts titled in relative’s name from month of relative’s death
_____     Copy of all brokerage statements from accounts titled in relative’s name from month of relative’s death
_____     Copy of all bank statements in the name of the trust for the month of death
_____     Copy of all brokerage statements in the name of the trust for the month of death
_____     Copy of all retirement account statements in the name of the relative for the month of death
_____     Original life insurance policies
_____     Death certificates for any predeceased owners or beneficiaries of insurance policies or co-owners of financial accounts

_____     Original vehicle titles (including boats, motors, and trailers) in the name of the relative and trust
_____     Copy of titles for any real property in the name of the relative or the trust
_____     List of extraordinary personal property (paintings, expensive jewelry, etc.)
_____     Original savings bonds
_____     Information on safe deposit box

_____     Information regarding any creditors of the relative (accounts, balances)
_____     Information regarding any Medicaid benefits the relative received
_____     Information regarding the relative’s beneficiaries/heirs (addresses, dates of birth and social security numbers)
_____     Information on any long term care policies
_____     Copy of funeral bill

David A. Zobel is a member of Danna McKitrick’s team of estate planning and probate professionals. If you would like to learn more about the considerations above, would like assistance administrating a relative’s estate or help with you estate planning needs, one of our firm’s experienced attorneys would love to meet with you.

Special Needs Trusts Can Now Be Created by Individuals

Misty A. Watson

Misty A. Watson




On December 13, 2016, the long awaited amendment to the Special Needs Trust Fairness Act was signed into law by President Obama.

For more than 20 years, individuals who had a disability were unable to create a self-settled special needs trust without a parent, grandparent, or legal guardian participating in the process. The only other option for an individual with a disability was to have the court create the trust on his or her behalf. This was often an incredibly costly process. Continue reading »

Understanding the ABLE Act

Misty A. Watson

Misty A. Watson




Co-authored by Misty Watson and Samantha Maerz

“A major victory for the disability community, ABLE, for the first time in our country’s policy on disability, recognizes that there are added costs to living with a disability….For far too long, federally imposed asset limits to remain eligible for critical public benefits have served as a roadblock toward greater financial independence for the millions of individuals living with a disability.” – Michael Morris, Executive Director of the National Disability Institute

Savings accounts for individuals with disabilities will soon be possible without risking their access to federal benefits. On December 19, 2014, the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act was signed into law by President Barack Obama after receiving huge bipartisan support in both the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. The ABLE Act is an amendment to the federal tax code that eliminates the $2,000 cap on conventional savings accounts for individuals with disabilities to qualify for Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid.

Eligibility for many federal benefits, such as SSI, SNAP and Medicaid, requires that individuals meet a means test. Part of that test includes that an individual can report no more than $2,000 in savings. However, such a uniform test failed to recognize the additional costs of living with a disability. The ABLE Act seeks to remedy this unfairness by allowing a tax-advantaged savings account to supplement federal benefits, rather than supplanting them. Continue reading »

My Health Care Wishes: New App

Misty A. Watson

Misty A. Watson




When you need access to your health care power of attorney and living will, it is often stored in your safe deposit box or safe at home. Personally, I keep my power of attorney on a USB drive on my key chain. This has come in quite handy a few times.

Recently, an app was released called “My Health Care Wishes” at www.myhealthcarewishes.org. The Lite version, called the Personal Advance Directive Manager, allows individuals the ability to store and share their advance care directive plus one additional document with health care providers. Personal & Family Advance Directive Manager is a more robust pro version available for a small fee. It allows “unlimited storage of people profiles and documents.” Continue reading »

IRS Grants Extension to Elect Portability Under Certain Circumstances

Misty A. Watson

Misty A. Watson




The IRS has released Rev. Proc. 2014-18 to provide taxpayers the opportunity to obtain an extension of time to make a portability election under certain circumstances.

Portability allows a surviving spouse to receive the unused estate tax exemption of the predeceased spouse for gift and estate tax purposes. The estate tax exemption for 2014 is $5,340,000.

Under the new revenue procedure, an extension to file for this election will be granted under the following conditions:

(1) The taxpayer is the executor of the estate of a decedent who: Continue reading »

Estate Planning for Second Marriages

Misty A. Watson

Misty A. Watson




Prior to saying “I do,” those getting married for a second time have many more estate plan considerations to take into account than a first-time marriage.

Children from the previous marriage and spouses often have different interests and expectations about inheritance. If a large difference in age or health status exists between the new spouses, further complications can arise.

Without some type of waiver of spousal rights, a surviving spouse may have a right to elect against the estate plan that is put in place. In Missouri, this means the surviving spouse may receive one-third (1/3) of the estate, even if the will only provides for the children. Continue reading »

Estate Planning – Why It’s Important for You

Misty A. Watson

Misty A. Watson




Recently we’ve heard a number of stories about estate planning blunders that have resulted in huge tax costs and undesired distribution of assets. While a $50 million mistake certainly makes for good headlines, the fact is that quality estate planning is not just for the rich and famous.

It is common for people of all kinds to find themselves in similar situations when loved ones die, albeit with less fortunes involved – all because the deceased did not plan appropriately for death or disability.

Estate planning is all about your control over what happens to the assets you have accumulated during your life (including planning to minimize estate tax) and your control over your health care decisions.

Benefits of Estate Planning

1.    Avoiding probate of your assets. Probate is a court process by which the heirs of an estate are determined and the deceased person’s assets are distributed to those heirs. The benefits of avoiding probate include:

  • Your assets can be distributed to or held for your beneficiaries in a timelier manner.
  • Your estate avoids costly statutory attorneys’ fees.
  • Assets can be held for minor children without court involvement.
  • Your estate is distributed to your intended beneficiaries versus under Missouri law. Continue reading »

Costs of Raising a Child with Special Needs: The Story of Finn

Misty A. Watson

Misty A. Watson




Meet Finn and his family. Finn is a real boy with autism.

Finn’s father, Jeff Howe, shared his family’s story in “Paying for Finn: A special-needs child” for CNN’s Money Magazine. According to Howe, Finn is representative of 8% of all U.S. children because he is a child with special needs: he is autistic. His household is one of 25% of all U.S. households with a family member with special needs.

As the Howe family has learned, raising a child with special needs comes at great cost, both financial and emotional. Howe goes into great detail explaining his family’s journey with Finn. He does not hold back from sharing the specifics of his family’s finances and the costs associated with Finn’s care.

The financial burden for raising a child with special needs is staggering, to say the least, even for a family with considerable means. For families with less financial resources available to them, the financial burden is even more overwhelming. Continue reading »