Recently in Wills Category

Having a Bon Voyage - Specifying End of Life Decisions that Lay Out Your Last Wishes

May 23, 2014,

It has been said that life is a journey, not a destination. So it makes sense that in our last days, on our final journey, we should strive to have a good one--a bon voyage.

While talking about end of life issues--particularly our own--can sometimes be uncomfortable, the best way to make sure that your end of life wishes are honored is to lay them out in writing and make sure that your loved ones are aware of them. Don't miss the opportunity to have a bon voyage--take the opportunity to set out your end of life wishes and take control of your journey.

Unfinished Life Matters
Sometimes so much focus is placed on the medical and legal aspect of dying that the personal aspects get brushed aside. However, the reality is that it is much easier to have a bon voyage if you are happy or at least satisfied when you depart. This involves taking care of loose ends and putting things right where necessary. Personal matters to consider include--

**Saying things you need to say to loved ones, friends, and others, such as "I'm sorry." "I forgive you." "Thank you." "I love you." "Goodbye."

**Determining whether you may need psychological, emotional, spiritual care, counseling, or other support.

**Writing a personal legacy or story, telling any life lessons or outlining your hopes and dream, as well as leaving any helpful advice, for loved ones.

**Creating a "bucket list," outlining any things you would still like to accomplish or setting out any goals of for your remaining medical care.

Funeral Wishes
Funeral arrangements are very personal and options vary widely--from in-ground burial, mausoleum burial, cremation, as well as other possibilities. Some planning and logistical questions include--

**Do I want to donate my organs for transplant or donate my body to science?

**Which funeral home/mortuary do I want used?

**What are my feelings regarding embalming, burial, cremation, casket, burial location?

**Who should be notified of my passing?

**Who will write my obituary and what should it say if you are not writing it yourself?

**What do you envision for a funeral--a church service, a party or dinner, a memorial service?

**Will you pre-pay your funeral expenses or where will funds be held?

**Do you want to specify a charity or other cause "in lieu of flowers"?

Medical And Legal End Of Life Paperwork
A complete estate plan typically involves the documents identified above as well as a pour-over will, a revocable living trust (RLT) or an irrevocable Medicaid asset protection trust (MAPT), power of attorney for finance, and deeds and memoranda regarding personal property. In particular, questions related to medical and/or legal arrangements include--

**Do you have a will and possibly a trust? When is the last time you looked at these documents and thought about their provisions? Do the provisions reflect your current wishes and desires for distribution of your personal and real property, as well as your other assets?

**Do you have a Living Will? Does it state your wishes regarding the type and extent of medical treatment you want in the event that you can no longer speak for yourself?

**Have you made your feelings known about matters such as "Do Not Resuscitate (DNR)" orders or your feelings on CPR? What are your feelings on palliative care and natural death? What are your feelings regarding breathing tubes (intubation) and feeding tubes? A Living Will allows you to record your wishes regarding organ donation, pain relief, funeral, and other advance planning matters. It is an important source of guidance for your health care agent.

**Have you executed a Durable Power of Attorney For Healthcare? Have you also selected a Health Care Proxy? Have you specified an alternative proxy in case your first choice is unable or later unwilling to act as proxy? A health care proxy is a designated decision-maker who will make medical decisions for you if you become incapacitated and cannot make decisions for yourself. Your health care proxy should be someone with a strong personality; someone who will fight for you and your wishes.

Thinking of end of life matters can be uncomfortable and challenging, but most things are easier when we have some control over them. Expressing your wishes and making affirmative decisions regarding end of life matters will hopefully allow you to have a peaceful departure and a bon voyage.

Common Reasons for Contested Wills in New York

May 2, 2014,

Many people know that having a will is necessary in order to properly ensure the deceased's wishes are followed and desired transfers are carried out once they are gone. However, the importance of having the proper documentation in place does not end there. Careful estate planning is crucial to a will being upheld as valid in the event it is contested. If estate planning documents are not properly executed, the document is in danger of being challenged and may be ultimately revoked.

Common Challenges to a Will

An estate planning document such as a will may be contested for a number of different reasons. Perhaps heirs are not satisfied with their inheritance, or maybe family members fear their loved one made a bequest against their will. No matter the reason, the fact remains that wills do get challenged. Some of the more common challenges involve the following:

***A will that was previously revoked is presented as valid: If an executor is trying to pass an outdated will, a newer will that was created will likely invalidate it. Both destroying an old will and dating both documents accurately can help to avoid a situation such as this.

***The testator's mental capacity at the time they executed the will is in question: The testator generally must be at least 18 years old to have capacity to create a will. Beyond that, in order to prove an adult lacked mental capacity to form a will, the challenger must prove the testator did not understand the consequences of making a will at the time of its execution. Certain requirements must be met to prove capacity, including understanding the extent and value of one's property, who the person's expected beneficiaries are, the disposition they are making and what their will means, and how these elements relate to distribute their property.

***The document was not properly executed according to legal requirements: This can include lacking sufficient or appropriate witnesses, or failing to contain provisions that are required to be part of the will by law. Although certain things, like having a will notarized, may not be a formal legal requirement, there are steps a testator can take to further authenticate the will as valid and assure a challenge to it will not be successful.

***There is evidence of fraud, forgery, coercion, or deception in drafting and executing the estate planning document: This can involve a scenario in which a third person influenced a vulnerable testator into leaving all of their property to them. Undue influence is usually a factor to be considered, which involves the testator lacking the free will to bargain because of the person influencing them.

***There is evidence of unauthorized changes or additions to the document: Usually, this involves things like handwriting over a will provision or providing a handwritten addition to a will. The will itself may provide for ways in which it can be changed properly.

Estate Planning Attorney
Whether you are considering challenging a will or are seeking help in defending a challenge to a will, an experienced estate planning attorney can assist .

Back to the Basics: What is the Difference Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts?

May 1, 2014,

While many New York residents familiar with and have an existing will in place in the event of their death, most people do not realize that estate planning documents extend far beyond a last will and testament. The world of estate planning documents includes not only living wills and advanced medical directives, but also trusts. Trusts offer several benefits associated with them, and come in two forms: revocable and irrevocable.

Benefits of Having a Trust
Trusts can not only provide for loved ones upon death, but they can provide for the person who created the trust during their lifetime. This is important in cases where the creator has a health issue, a mental disability or incapacitation, and other scenarios. Trusts can be administered without the need to involve a probate court, and can therefore protect privacy as to the contents of the trust. Trusts also serve as protection of assets for trust beneficiaries, and offer a wide variety of options in creating them to suit different needs.

Revocable Trusts
Revocable trusts are a type of trust that can be changed at any time. The creator of the trust could simply modify the terms of the trust through an amendment. Or, if they want to revoke the trust in its entirety, they can do that as well. In revocable trusts, the assets contained within the trust are considered the creator's assets and will be treated as such for tax purposes and if creditors exist.

Irrevocable Trusts
As one may expect from its name, an irrevocable trust is not able to be changed once it is signed by the creator of the trust. These trusts are often complex and require a special degree of care in drafting them in order to meet the creator's needs and desires for his or her estate. It is imperative to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney when setting up an irrevocable trust in order to ensure your estate is properly protected, and any concerns you have about being unable to change the terms of such a trust are addressed and handled appropriately.

That being said, irrevocable trusts have a number of specific benefits associated with them. Often times, estate taxes are significantly lessened or even eliminated through the creation of an irrevocable trust. Irrevocable trusts also offer a high degree of asset protection for the creator of the trust and the trust's beneficiaries. Both of these advantages are possible with irrevocable trusts because once the assets are placed into an irrevocable trust, the creator gives up his or her control and ownership of the trust assets.

NY Estate Planning Attorney
If you are interested in securing estate planning documents or are interested in further discussing the benefits of trusts and how they apply to you, the experienced estate planning attorneys can help you.

Be Aware of Cemetery Rules & Guidelines

April 29, 2014,

Delineating funeral and burial wishes is a common part of estate planning. Everyone has unique desires about their final resting places, incorporating personal, spiritual and religious preferences. In addition, the perspectives of surviving family members are also taken into account. That is because spouses and children may wish to remember their loved one in various ways. For example, it may be important for family to have a specific place, such as a memorial or cemetery plot where they can go to honor one's memory.

Unfortunately, when few plans are in place ahead of time, families may be forced to rush these decisions. Mistakes can be made, which lead to disappointment, regret, and sometimes even more conflict.

Memorial Feud
Consider the legal struggle one man is facing after disagreement erupted about his practices at a cemetery. As discussed in a recent story, a father was devastated when his 23-year old son died in a tragic rafting accident in 2011. The young man died without a will, and so all funeral and burial plans were left to his family to be made in a hurry. The father purchased 15 different plots at a local cemetery and is currently using only five of them. However, on those five plots he has erected a growing shrine with a small fence,flags, flowers, and large posters of his deceased son on 8-foot high poles.

The shrine caught the eye of the cemetery superintendent who asked the man to alter the memorial due to complaints received. Specifically, the father was told to remove the posters on poles for violating cemetery rules. The father refused, arguing that when the posters were added there were no rules prohibiting them.

This has set off a legal battle. The father filed a lawsuit in a local court. The judge issued a temporary restraining order in the father's favor, allowing the memorial to remain while noting that the state Cemetery Dispute Resolution Committee was the proper venue for the matter. As it now stands the father is preparing his complaint to be filed with that body in a month.

Plan Ahead
This unfortunate situation is a reminder of the need to think about many different detail when making long-term plans of this nature. Cemeteries have many different rules that may affect your decision. It is common to have limits on decorating plots, use of flowers, requirements for vases/stands, and more. Cemeteries also may have vastly different rules regarding visiting hours, parking, plot size, and more.

For help crafting an estate plan in New York, contact the experienced legal professionals at our firm today.

Undue Influence in NY & Pressuring Vulnerable Seniors

April 21, 2014,

Family feuding is all too common, and finances are often at the root. One argument often made in legal cases involves these matters is that an adult child or other close relative is abusing a position of trust and confidence with a parent to take advantage of them financially. Proving such an abuse is the challenge of an undue influence lawsuit.

Undue influence is usually defined the use of confidence for the purpose of taking unfair advantage of one with a weakness of mind (or other vulnerability). In other words, undue influence is about pressure. The question is when does pressure become excessive, and thereby amount to undue influence. In a legal case where undue influence is an issue, a court may consider a number of factors:

1. Unusual or inappropriate time of discussion of the transaction;
2. Unusual location of the completion of the transaction;
3. Insistence that the transaction be finished at once;
4. Repeated warning of the adverse consequences of delay;
5. Involving multiple individuals to apply persuasive pressure;
6. Absence of third-party advisors.

To illustrate, it is useful to consider a few real world examples:

In 2011, the children of actor Tony Curtis claimed that their father was the victim of undue influence. Curtis, redid his Will and changed other aspects of his estate plan a few months before he died from heart failure. As a result, Curtis's five children, including actress Jamie Lee Curtis, were left with nothing. The Will stated that Curtis intentionally disinherited his children, yet no reason was given. Shocked and deeply suspicious, daughter Kelly Lee Curtis sued, accusing Tony's widow Jill or others of convincing Tony to change his Trust through undue influence, fraud, or duress.

In 2009, comedian Pauly Shore filed a lawsuit against his brother, Peter, alleging the use of undue influence against their 79-year old mother, Mitzi. Mitzi suffers from neurological problems, including Parkinson's disease. Prior to her decline in health, Pauly, Peter, and their mother were joint directors of The Comedy Store, a famous Hollywood comedy club. When Peter subsequently took to managing the club's finances, Pauly requested that Peter turn over about three years worth of tax returns and financial documents. After Peter refused Pauly's request and instead fired Pauly from the club's Board of Directors. Pauly brought an undue influence lawsuit, claiming that Peter orchestrated firing Pauly from the Board by taking advantage of their mother's frail health.

Undue influence doesn't just disturb the families of the rich and famous. Too often it surfaces in the financial matters of everyday people, whether in wills and trusts, or the operation of a family-owned business. When it does, it's time to speak with an experienced attorney about your legal rights so you can protect the vulnerable from the unscrupulous.

The Power of Legacy - Could a Will have Prevented WWII?

April 11, 2014,

Life is about far more than the accumulation of material wealth. Working hard and collecting valuables to enjoy and pass on to others at death is nothing to spurn. But there are many other things that are accumulated over a life and can be passed on at death: morals, lessons, memories, stories of hope, words of kindness, inspiration, and countless other values.

When thinking about life transitions and estate planning, it is important to consider those intangibles just as much as those items that have a monetary value. This is why, in addition to creating legal wills and trusts, we work with New York families on "ethical wills" to pass on all of those moral and spiritual items that solidify a legacy.

Advice for the Future -- Preventing a War
One common part of an ethical will is the sharing of advice to the next generation. The value of passing on advice should not be underestimated. An extreme example suggests that one of the greatest horrors in human history--World War II--may have been prevented if only a last will and testament was more widely disseminated.

A Daily Mail story last month discussed the will of the former President of Germany, Baron Paul von Hindenburg. Hindenburg led the nation until his death in 1934. He was widely respected in the country, particularly among the powerful political class.

Recently declassified information suggests that Hindenburg's last will and testament did far more than dispose of his property. The will also contained very specific advice to his country about the preservation of democracy and limiting the power of the up-and-coming populist leader at the time: Adolf Hitler. Recognizing Hitler's goal of taking complete control of the government, Hindenburg's will explained that the country need to maintain established principles, like an independent army and separation of powers. The document was intended specifically to prevent Hitler from fulfilling his ambition. One historian described the will as "a bomb timed to go off posthumously and blow Hitler off course."

Unfortunately, it did not work out as intended. That is because before the will was made public, Hitler found out about the contents. He immediately ordered the document seized, and the German people never learned of the lessons their statesman wanted to impart. Instead, a forged document was released to the public which wrongly asserted that Hindenburg had nothing but glowing praise for Hitler.

While this example is a bit different than the lessons that many New York seniors wish to impart, the underlying principle stands. Estate planning offers a chance to think wholistically about the meaning of life and how one would like to be remembered by the generations to follow.

Planning for Immortality - A Legacy in the Online World

March 28, 2014,

http://legacylocker.com/

Passing on assets and saving on taxes are viewed as the hallmark of estate planning. But as we often share with clients, there are many intangible aspects to long-term planning that are often even more valuable that homes, cars, and savings accounts. A legacy.

An important part of many elder law estate plans is an "ethical will." This refers to non-legally binding document that shares values to friends and loved ones. An ethical will is about one's legacy, sharing information about one's life purpose and reminding family members of morals and cherished principles.

Leaving a Legacy in the 21st Century
Ethical wills made their way into Shakespearean plays and existed in various forms in ancient Rome and Greece. The world has changed dramatically over the centuries, and that includes the way a legacy is left to others. In fact, with the proliferation on various online account and social media services, more and more individuals are finding out how one can become "immortal" online.

An interesting story last week discusses how the permanence of one's online life can come as both a comfort or burden to surviving family members. For example one adult son explained the stress that comes on his mother's birthday every year--as old friends post Facebook messages, sending well wishes without knowing that she passed away three years ago. On the other hand, Facebook allows pages to become "memorialized" serving as a slightly more appropriate setting.

It is critical to think ahead about how these pages will be preserved. Considering their permanence, they will undeniably become a key component to your long-term legacy. There are no one-size-fits-all approaches to handling an online legacy. There are many different questions that you should consider, perhaps putting the details down in writing to ensure it all works as requested. Some things to consider include:

**Should someone have access to your email account after your passing?
**What should happen to your Facebook page? Should it be deleted, turned into a "memorial" or managed by another person?
**Are there any online photos, comments, or conversations that you would like shared or deleted?
**Would you feel comfortable using a special online legacy account, such as Legacy Locker?
**Should another have access to your online purchase record, at Amazon, ebay, or similar retailers?

Preserving an online legacy and creating an ethical will is a reminder of the comprehensive nature of estate planning. Doing this work is far more than just filling in the blanks on legal forms. It requires careful consideration about long-term goals, understanding of intricate legal details, and honest consideration about the most treasured values in one's life. For help crafting a comprehensive elder law estate plan throughout New York, please contact our experienced legal professionals today.

Don't Leave Your Planning Up to a Coin Toss

March 25, 2014,

A headline-grabbing story last week in the New York Post offers a good reminder of the need to be crystal clear in certain estate planning situations to avoid drawn-out legal battles.

According to reports, two siblings are engaged in a dispute over how to divide up an inheritance that they are to split from their uncle. The two men are the nephews of David Barrett, a well-known Manhattan interior designer who passed away in 2008 at the age of 85. Per the terms of Barrett's estate planning, his $5.6 million estate is set to be split between the two men.

However, the division of those assets into two is apparently not going smoothly.To help determine how the various assets are to be split, an executor of the estate apparently recommended that a coin toss be used. For example, to determine ownership of a painting valued at around $45.000 a coin toss was performed, with the younger brother winning.

This did not sit well with the older sibling, who has reacted to the loss by making aggressive accusations against his sibling and executors in addition to filing a lawsuit challenging the distribution plan. The most recent suit has put a hold on the process, slowing the ultimate distribution and preventing any named heirs from receiving property from the estate.

In defending the lawsuit and his concern about the distribution plan, the older brother explained "This case is about more than my share of my uncle's estate. It is about my uncle, his legacy, his reputation, and his family."

Planning Lessons
All those who follow high-profile estate planning matters appreciate that feuds of this nature are not rare. When significant assets are at stake, all those involved are frequently willing to go to extreme lengths to ensure the matter is handled to their liking. Unfortunately, there are often no winners in these situations, as the drama often causes significant delay and enormous resources spent on the legal battle itself. There are various lessons that can be taken from this Barrett story:

Be As Specific As Possible - While it is impossible to specifically list every single item big or small, it is usually worthwhile to explicitly indicate where every valuable item will go. This is particularly true when an estate is divided between various parties who may disagree on who is to get what piece of personal property.

Understand the Personalities Involved - Certain friends and family members may be a more "hot headed" than others. Conflict is more likely to be prevented with those unique personalities are accounted for.

Prevent Surprises - Dispute often arises when one party is unprepared for some outcome. By having clear discussions with heirs ahead of time, all parties are able to come to terms with how the affairs will be handled This may prevent a knee-jerk, defensive reaction when unexpectedly confronted by an unfavorable part of the plan.

Not Allowed to Disinherit - Spousal Right of Election in New York

March 17, 2014,

New York residents are urged to craft an estate plan so that their assets are passed on per their own wishes--and not based on arbitrary state laws. Unless you explicitly make your desires known, then all decisions will be left up to others. However, there are actually a few rare instances when the law explicitly prohibits you from making certain planning choices. These situations are not common, but it is important to be aware of them in case they conflict with your plans

The most notable rule of that nature relates to disinheriting a spouse. In most cases, the law automatically allows a spouse to inherit certain assets if he or she chooses--regardless of the specific estate planning provisions.

Marriage is deemed a special legal relationship that is voluntarily entered into under the law. As a result, state statutes include default rules that protect the relationship. This is somewhat different from other close relationships--like parent-child. A resident can always end a marriage to legally break the spousal relationship. That is why it is usually possible to disinherit a child but not a spouse.

NY Spousal Right of Election Law
There are countless different scenarios where one may want to remain married to an individual but not leave them assets as an inheritance. This can be a strategic choice and not necessarily motivated by animus. An estate planning attorney can explain if a strategy that does not leave assets to a spouse makes sense.

However, it is important to understand that there is a NY law that allows a spouse who is disinherited to voluntarily choose to collect various assets--even if they were designated for others. Specifically, the spouse can choose to take either ⅓ of the deceased "net estate" or, alternatively, $50,000. Under the law, the net estate may include many different assets. Beyond those indicated in a will, it can include joint accounts, living trust assets, and some assets where a beneficiary is designated. In addition, that net estate may also include certain gifts given within the last year. In other words, giving away asset to others as a means to deplete an estate is not a viable alternative.

This spousal right of election does not happen automatically. The disinherited spouse has to affirmatively exercise their right to take advantage of the provisions. There are various time limits to doing so. In addition, the right may be curtailed in some instances based on a pre- or postnuptial agreement.

For help creating a tailored elder law estate plan to fit your needs, please contact our NY attorneys today .

Secret Marriage, New Will Leads to NY Estate Fight

March 6, 2014,

It is impossible to predict exactly how every family member will respond in the aftermath of a passing. However, as experienced will and trust lawyers know all too well, there are many situations that dramatically increase the likelihood of controversy that leads to a contested estate. Mixed families, a large age-gap between spouses, and secrecy are often signs of family tension that may erupt after a death.

A high-profile New York estate feud offers an example of that very situation.

NY Photographer Bern Stern's Estate Fight
Celebrity photographer Bruce Stern is well-known for his legendary photos of Marilyn Monroe--many taken just before her death. Stern died last year at the age of 83, leaving a roughly $10 million estate behind. As discussed in a recent Post story, family members are in bitter disagreement over how the estate should be divided.

Stern had three children, all from his first marriage that ended in 1975. As far as the children knew, their father's assets were to be distributed per the terms of a 2007 will that split half the estate between the children while giving the other half to his own photography foundation.

However, just before his passing, Shannah Laumeister came forward claiming that she and Stern were married in secret in 2009. She directed a documentary about Stern in 2010 and is nearly 40 years his junior. The adult children had no idea of the union.

Laumeister produced a second will from 2010 that created a private trust with all of the assets and gave control of the trust to Laumeister. According to Surrogate Court filings, Laumeister claims that the adult children would still receive cash bequests as part of the new will, but the details of those bequests are unclear.

Psychiatry Records & Questions About Mental State
Expectedly, the adult children challenged the 2010 will. The feud is making its way through the court system. Most recently, reports suggest that the Laumeister is fighting to block sharing of information about Stern's meetings with a psychiatrist.

For their part, the children argue that information about Stern's mental and medical state when the contested will was created is of obvious relevance. Alternatively, the younger wife argues that release of the information would permanently damage Stern's reputation. The value of his estate is closely tied with his artistic works and reputation-damage would significantly harm the estate, she claims.

An obvious take-away lesson from this story is a reminder that an experienced estate planning attorney can point out the many red flags that suggests a feud may be likely. A legal professional can offer counsel on steps to take that may eliminate secrecy or otherwise increase the chance of a smooth, conflict-free process that is resolved fairly and efficiently.

Are You Too Young to Have an Estate Plan?

March 4, 2014,

A quick Google search reveals about 10,000 articles providing 5, 10, 15, or more reasons why everyone needs an estate plan. While that makes a catchy headline, it may not be technically correct. After all, in most instances, it is impossible for minors under 18 years old to enter into legal agreements. It is not reasonable for your five year old (or even high school student) to have a will drafted or a trust created for assets.

But realistically, when at what point is it prudent for New York resident to draft at least a minimal estate plan, including a Last Will and Testament? Perhaps more importantly, at what point does it make sense for one to invest some money in having a professional create an estate plan?

Not Age But Life Circumstances
The answer to the question is the perennially legal refrain: It Depends. It is best to view estate planning needs not by age but by circumstances. For example, even young adults should consider crafting a quality estate plan if:

1) You have children - The naming of alternative caregivers and other preferences for child-rearing is a part of all plans for parents with young children.

2) You own a home - Most young adults do not yet have sizeable assets to their name. But there are exceptions. Some have inherited sizeable wealth from parents or grandparents. Other may have saved and purchased a large asset. Ultimately, anyone with significant resources of any kind should ensure they have legal documents in place for a seamless transfer of those assets (and potential tax savings)

3) You have particular funeral/service preferences - It is only through a Will that your specific ideas about burial and funeral services can be enshrined legally. Residents of all ages with unique spiritual or religious preferences about these matters may want to ensure their wishes are explicit.

4) You have unique health challenges - Estate plans are understandably on the minds of older residents for whom death seems closer. However, all those with various health challenges should have a plan in place to name alternative decision-makers in case a disability arises which makes it impossible for one to care for themselves. This is true no matter how old you are.

In short: It may not make sense for everyone to pay for an estate plan immediately upon graduating from high school. But in some cases it could make sense. Not all 18 year olds need a detailed plan. But an 18 year old who owns a house or has children might need one.

An experienced estate planning attorney can provide straight-forward advice on what type of planning, if any, makes sense in your case. For help on these issues in Albany, Saratoga spring, Rhinebeck, Fishkill, Middletown, and many other communities through New York, please contact our lawyers today.

Marriage Matters - A Reminder of the Tax Benefit

February 28, 2014,

Earlier this week we discussed the tragic death of New York actor Philip Seymour Hoffman. There are many estate planning lessons to take away for Hoffman's situation, including the need to update a will after every life event. Hoffman unintentionally left out two of his children by not updating his will to include them specifically--his oldest son is named directly as a beneficiary of a trust.

Yet another lesson that fellow New Yorkers can take from the case is the role that marriage can play in these matters.

Companions vs. Spouses
According to reports, the mother of Hoffman's three children was long-time girlfriend Marianne O'Donnell. The couple was together for years, though they apparently were split in the few months before the death (allegedly as a result of Hoffman's relapse). At no point was the couple married. This is not necessarily an unusual state of affairs for couples today. Due to many personal factors, even the most intimate partners with decades together may choose not to formalize that union by way of a marriage. In the eyes of the parties, their relationship is the same regardless of whether there is official government sanction or not.

However, it is important to remember that the law does not view all couples the same. In fact, the entire purpose of marriage is to classify couples into different camps with thousands of rights on the line. Those rights have clear estate planning implications.

Per the terms of Hoffman's will the bulk of his suspected $35 million estate will go to O'Donnell. However, both New York State and the federal government impose an estate tax. Above the exemption amount, the tax can hit as high as 40%. Of critical importance, the tax does not apply to transfers between spouses. But Hoffman and O'Donnell were not married, and so she will likely be hit with an estimated estate burden of $15 million or more. A marriage would have eliminated 100% of that burden.

The bottom line is that in cases like this, marriage saves on taxes. There are many different situations where a transfer of wealth to another would be taxed except for transfers between spouses. While no one should make life decisions regarding marriage based entirely on taxes, one should not overlook the reality that marriage matters under the law.

Basic New York estate planning principles apply in virtually all cases, no matter if you have a $35 million estate or if your main asset is a family home. To ensure you take steps to protect your loved ones for the future, be sure to contact a NY estate planning attorney today.

Thinking About the Un-thinkable - When Children Are Involved

January 21, 2014,

According to a survey by legal services website RocketLawyer, 70% of American parents with minor children do not have a Will. The survey revealed that 76% of respondents believe that a Will is not an "urgent" matter. Parents of young children certainly must have many urgent claims on their attention. Many of them, it seems, are not inclined to give any consideration at all to the horrible possibility that they may not be around to raise their children themselves.

What would happen to your children if the unthinkable did happen and you were no longer there to care for them? If your children have two parents in their lives, then you might think that the chances of both parents dying in a common accident are too remote to merit serious consideration. Still, remote as the chances may be, we know that it does happen. Every day, couples face deadly risks together. How many times have you and your spouse found yourselves in a place where some quite plausible accident might befall you both? A car accident? A plane crash? A house fire? Upon reflection, you might discover that you face the risk of common accident almost every day.

Protect Your Child's Future
In New York, if both parents die, the fate of a minor child will be influenced heavily by the parents' Will, or the absence of a Will. If the parents leave a Will that designates a guardian for their child, the prospective guardian may petition the Surrogate's Court for appointment as guardian of the child's person or property (or both). The court is obliged to act in the best interest of the child, but within this broad parameter, New York courts will show great deference to the parents' wishes. The court will confirm that the prospective guardian (and other adults in the guardian's household) are not named in the New York State Registry of Child Abuse and Maltreatment. If there is no evidence of past abuse, the court will likely grant the petition for guardianship.

If there is no Will, the court will have to devise its own plan for the child. If you have ever given the guardianship question much thought with respect to your own family, you know how complicated this decision can be. Suppose a child has two loving adult relatives, both of whom wish to act as guardian. One is the child's favorite uncle, but he has four kids and a wife who is overwhelmed by the idea of adding another to their brood. Would it be best to have this child live with a more distant relative, if it meant that the addition of the child to the new household would cause less strife?

Although there is no perfect solution, in most cases, parents will be in a better position to find the best alternative. Think now about the unthinkable, and going forward, you can be assured that you have provided the best possible future for your child. Contact our estate planning attorneys today to learn more.

Last Minute Gift? Cashing A $100,000 Check

January 8, 2014,

Estate planning disputes can arise in any situation and based on any number of facts. However, one situation where disagreement is far more likely to arise is when planning steps are taken, gifts are made, or other actions pursued while an individual is on their death-bed or known to be very sick. Naturally, observers are skeptical of these actions, because they are more likely to involve fraud, mistake, coercion or other means.

That does not mean that all death-bed actions are unenforceable. On the contrary, many Wills are and signed and trusts created at just this time specifically because one wishes to get their affairs in order near the end. However, because of the potential for abuse and the natural skepticism, estate cases frequently involve last minute actions.

Was It a Legitimate Gift?
Consider, for example, a case discussed today in the Morning Sentinel. A former university professor died recently, leaving virtually all of his wealth to the university itself. The only exceptions were his car and a few valuable personal belongings that he left to his friend, a man named Daniel Toto.

However, a dispute is brewing regarding a check that the professor allegedly wrote to Toto for $100,000 a week before his death. When Toto went to the bank to cash the check--two days after the death--the bank refused to honor it. That is because the personal representative for the professor's estate (the executor) challenged the authenticity of the signature on the check.All of this has led to a lawsuit filed by Toto against the estate and the bank seeking to have the check honored.

It seems that the professor did a good amount of planning near the end of his life, as his Will itself was only signed about two months before his death. This may suggest that the $100,000 check was simply another action taken by the professor near the end to distribute his property according to his wishes.

On the other hand, the Will apparently lays out the professor's wishes in "meticulous detail." This may lead some to question why he would engage in such "off-the-cuff" actions (like writing a $100,000 check) if his other affairs were so neatly organized.

This particular case is an example of the scope of issues that may arise in these matters. Even when the Will is not challenged, as it does not appear to be in this case, ancillary issues (like a large check) may pop up and raise questions about one's actual wishes.

Clarity in Estate Planning - Who Owns Fawcett's Warhol Painting?

December 23, 2013,

Unintended consequences are rampant in do-it-yourself Will creation and other estate planning. Even arrangements that seem simple at first blush may prove to have hidden ambiguities or uncertainties that only come to light during probate--when it is too late to fix.

Partner vs. University
To get an idea of how ambiguity in estate planning can lead to controversy, consider the brewing legal battle between actor Ryan O'Neal and the University of Texas at Austin. The dispute centers on an Andy Warhol painting of actress Farrah Fawcett.

Though they never married, O'Neal and Fawcett were long-time romantic partners. Fawcett died rather young, in 2009. Her possessions were distributed to many different parties, but the single issue in contention here are provisions that all of her artwork be left to the University of Texas. No side disputes that the University should receive her artwork. However, they do disagree on what art was owned by Fawcett and what was owned by O'Neal.

Specifically, the well-known pop artist Andy Warhol painted two identical pictures of Fawcett and gave them to the couple in the 1980s. The University of Texas is already in possession of one of those pieces. However, they are now suing O'Neal to receive the other one. For his part, O'Neal claims that Warhol gave the couple each one of the pieces. Therefore, O'Neal claims that he himself owned one of the paintings, not Fawcett, and so it should not pass to the University.

As discussed in an AP news story, the case went to trial late last month. Expectedly, much of the testimony revolved when the couple received the paintings and what terms were implicit in the transfer of the items from Warhol to the pair. For example, O'Neal's legal team had a former hairdresser of the star explain on the stand that Fawcett told her in 1994 that one of the paintings belonged to O'Neal.

Interestingly, the trial also included dispute about the value of the work. O'Neal claims that a 2009 appraisal had the item pegged at less than $1 million. The University of Texas has their painting insured for $600,000. Yet, at trial testimony from an expert witnesses suggested that each painting was worth upwards of $12 million.

The bottom line: always have the support of an experienced estate planning attorney when doing this work. Experienced professionals can identify possible problem areas from the outset, finding solutions that give you and your family the best chance to settle these matters efficiently and conflict-free when the time comes.