Category Archives: Probate

Knives Out

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My husband and I went to see Knives Out in the theater, before the theaters were closed. The movie is glorious—stunningly beautiful cinematography and wonderful performances by an all-star cast, old favorites and newcomers alike.

Harlan Thrombey, celebrated mystery writer, is dead. His housekeeper finds him in his upstairs study the morning after his 85th birthday party, throat slit with a knife—a death worthy of any of his wildly popular novels. The police have concluded it was a suicide, but they come back to the house to interview Harlan’s family members, just to make sure they aren’t missing anything. Each family member sits in the interview chair with a giant piece of artwork behind them, a thousand knives and daggers arranged in circles around a sort of empty donut hole in the middle—an objet d’art that is wonderfully expressive of the movie’s “who dunnit and why?” theme. While the police ask their questions, a gentleman lounges behind them, listening to the testimony and occasionally playing a single note on the piano. He tries to remain in the background and let the cops do their job, but he cannot stay quiet and eventually jumps up and begins questioning the witnesses.

The gentleman sleuth is Benoit Blanc, who was hired to look into the matter by—we don’t know whom. He received an envelope with cash and a newspaper article about Harlan’s death. After the unsatisfying testimony of Harlan’s children and their spouses (dissemblers, all), Blanc enlists the help of Harlan’s nurse, Marta Cabrera, to help him look into the facts and events surrounding Harlan’s death.

I will not spoil the plot for you. (Well, not much, anyway). There are two things I want to talk about. The first is the setting. In the vein of Midsomer Murders, Harlan’s mansion is every bit one of the characters. The film was shot in Massachusetts in the fall, partly at the Ames mansion and partly at an undisclosed private home. The mansion is all mahogany and stained-glass windows and filled with marvelous period pieces like a carved wood sea captain on the stair case landing, a bronze sculpture of two German shepherds, vintage magic posters, a “stash clock” on the mantlepiece, and so on. I seriously need the set decorators from this movie to give our house a makeover.

The second is, of course, Harlan’s will. Harlan’s attorney arrives at the mansion for the reading of the will, something which I guess used to be a “thing” in estate law practice but has gone the way of all flesh, as far as I can tell. Blanc tells Marta to forget the drama of the reading, to think of it instead as being like a “community theater production of a tax return.” Ha ha—wills are a lot more exciting than tax returns, I dare say. And indeed, the reading of the will is pretty exciting. Before they even get that far, Harlan’s children, their spouses and children literally get into a fist fight.

The lawyer “sets up” and summons the family in. He produces and reads aloud two documents: the first is a short statement written by Harlan and addressed to his family members, encouraging them to accept his will—“It’s for the best.” The second is the will itself, which appears to be a one-page document with no witness signatures evident and which the lawyer says Harlan drafted himself and delivered to the lawyer’s office the previous week. (Wow—really? Exactly what did he hire the lawyer for? Document storage?) Harlan needed a good estate planner: No witnesses, no trust, no named executor; just a big load of estate taxes and probate fees.

But the film, as you may imagine, centers on the big surprise Harlan had up his sleeve, one that does not please his progeny: they have all been disinherited. His children press the lawyer for help—how can this be set aside? The lawyer—who (ethics alert!) was Harlan’s lawyer even if he did not draft the will—gives them advice: if he was of sound mind, you not liking it doesn’t make it invalid. But what about undue influence, one of them asks. “Did you just Google that?” shoots back the lawyer. But there is no basis for this either—Harlan left everything to a person who impressed him by having a good heart and working hard. All they have left is the Slayer Rule: which (in Nevada, anyway) provides that one who intentionally and feloniously kills another cannot benefit from the killing by inheriting from the deceased victim. But Harlan committed suicide, the lawyer points out. No good either. Or…is it?

Go see the movie. It’s really good. Ebert gives it the thumbs up: https://www.rogerebert.com/reviews/knives-out-2019. I bet you Siskel would have liked it too.

Morris Presents on Benefits of Trusts

View More: http://jessilemay.pass.us/woodburnwedgeThe free, semi-annual Family Estate Planning workshop series, sponsored by the Community Foundation of Western Nevada, begins on Wednesday, September 19, 2018. The eight-week workshop series features different presenters addressing all topics related to estate planning.  The workshops are held every Wednesday at the Sierra View Library at 10:30 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. Jason Morris has presented since the program’s inception in 2010.  He will speak on the benefits and advantages of trust planning on October 10, 2018.  Call 775-333-5499 to register for the workshop series now.

Top Ten Reasons People Procrastinate Estate Planning

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The great thing about practicing in the area of estate planning is that it’s the one thing everyone needs, and the one thing everyone asks me if I can do. But I do get a lot of inquiries from people who don’t go through with it. I also get a lot of clients in their 50’s and 60’s (and even older) who have never done any estate planning, or have not updated their estate planning since Jimmy Carter was president—and yours truly was watching Scooby Doo on Saturday mornings.

Here are the top ten reasons I hear for why people have put off this very important task.

10. “I don’t have enough assets to bother doing any estate planning.” Do you have minor children? Regardless of your assets, you should have a will that nominates who will be their guardian if you and their other parent should both die. Even if your assets are not all that significant, an estate planning package also includes powers of attorney for financial matters and for health care. Absolutely everyone should have both of these documents in place and should update them from time to time. Taking the simple step to put powers of attorney in place will enable the person you designate to take care of you if you become disabled, thus potentially avoiding an expensive guardianship proceeding, and possibly also a medical and ethical crisis.

9. “I’m afraid it will cost too much.” First, the cost is not prohibitive. You might ask the Oracle (=your iPhone) what estate planning should cost. Better yet, call around and find out what attorneys are charging in your area. Be prepared to give the attorney an idea of the nature and level of your wealth and your family situation, because this will affect the recommendations the attorney makes and the cost of the work. Second, if you have enough assets to generate any kind of probate proceeding, you have enough assets to pay for an appropriate level of estate planning.

8. “My kids can deal with it when I’m dead; I won’t care ’cause I won’t be around.” Fair to say, you won’t be around to see the mess you create. But is that any way to live your life? If you care about your family now, why would you not make the effort to make their lives easier in the future by nominating who will be in charge and providing for who gets what? The Golden Rule seems particularly apt here: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”

7. “I don’t want to have to make all the decisions about who will be in charge when I die and who will get everything.” It will require you to do some thinking and some planning. You may have to get in contact with friends or relatives to ask if they would be willing to serve as your executor or as agent under your power of attorney. But your estate planning attorney will give you guidance, and the results are worth the effort.

6. “Calling around to locate a lawyer is icky. I would rather leave it on my “to-do” list for another day.” Conceded; calling lawyers out of the blue could be an unpleasant prospect. But with the internet, you can let your fingers do the searching and get some information about estate planning, and about local estate planning lawyers, in advance of picking up the phone. Lots of people who find me on the internet say they’ve read my biography or my reviews and they already like me from what they’ve read. (My biography is here  and my client reviews are here).

5. “I would like to get this done, but my husband isn’t ready.” This is tough. Married couples should do their estate planning together, or at least in coordination, particularly if they have community or joint property. If, after an appropriate amount of time has passed and your efforts to persuade him or her have been unfruitful, and it will not cause undue hardship on your marriage, you might consider making an appointment just for yourself. Your spouse may be more willing to follow suit if you pave the way.

4. “I don’t need a will because all my assets are in joint tenancy with my spouse.” Has it ever occurred to you that your spouse might die before you do? Or that you might die in a common disaster? What will happen then? A probate will be necessary at the death of the second spouse. If you and your spouse have children from prior marriages, all the assets will pass to the surviving spouse, and then to the children or heirs of the surviving spouse—unless you provide otherwise with a will or trust. If that is not the result you want, you should put some estate planning in place to provide for both spouses’ children.

3. “The wife and I did wills in ’76; I’m sure that’s good enough.” Hopefully, your assets have changed and increased since then; maybe enough to warrant establishing a trust. And your kids have grown up. Maybe you now have grandchildren to be taken into consideration. Your family may have some special needs that did not exist in ’76. The persons you nominated as executor may no longer be alive or willing to serve. If your antiquated will was not prepared with a self-proving affidavit signed by the witnesses, your executor may be unable to probate it if he or she cannot find those same witnesses and get them to sign an affidavit regarding your competency. There are lots of reasons to update your estate planning periodically. Get on the ball.

2. “I’m too busy.” We are all busy, for sure. Something has to be important, or we have to make it a priority, in order to fit it into our schedule. I recently heard a Chinese proverb quoted: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago. The next best time is now.”

1. “I am afraid if I do my estate planning, it means I will die.” News flash: You will die whether or not you do any estate planning. Signing your will or setting up a trust will not induce that day to come any sooner. Getting your estate planning done by a professional will give you peace of mind, knowing that you’ve provided for an orderly administration and distribution of your assets when that day comes. Call today. Seriously.

Back to the Basics

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School has just started up again for many students, from grammar school to university. Everyone has had the summer to goof off, and now it’s time to get up to speed. At my office, I have recently met with a number of clients who are finally getting around to their estate planning, a task long-postponed for some. They all have questions for me, ranging from broad questions about how it all works to more sophisticated questions about tax planning; so mid-August seems like the perfect time to reflect on a few basic concepts in estate planning.

What is the difference between a will and a trust? A will is a document that becomes effective at the death of the person who created it, a/k/a the “testator”. To pass property via a will, it is generally necessary to lodge the will with the court in the jurisdiction where the testator lived at the time of death, and to petition the court to admit the will to probate. A probate takes time and costs money. It also has a public character to it, in the sense that the will can be accessed by the public and your nearest family members will receive a copy of it even if they are not beneficiaries under it.

A trust can be created during life and you can place your assets in the trust and administer them as trustee. Upon your death, or upon your becoming incapacitated, the person whom you name as successor trustee can take over the administration of the trust. At your death the successor trustee will administer and distribute the assets according to the provisions of your trust, without need of court supervision. If done properly, a trust will avoid a probate at your death, and also provides a level of disability planning that could avoid a guardianship. This saves money, and also keeps your estate planning out of the public eye.

Why do I need a will if I have a trust? If you have a trust, your assets will pass from the trust to your beneficiaries after your death. However, that only works for the assets that are actually in the trust. Any assets that were not placed in the trust, or were taken out of the trust, will need to be put into the trust after your death. If you have created a trust, you should also have a “pour over” will, meaning a will that leaves all your assets to your trust. If you do not have a pour over will, any assets not placed in your trust will pass according to intestate succession (unless such assets are held in a manner that controls their disposition at your death, such as a beneficiary designation account or a joint tenancy).

I have a trust in place but I want to make a few changes. Does it need to be completely redone or can it just be amended? It depends. If all you want to do is change a beneficiary or a successor trustee, it may make sense to do a simple amendment. If you need extensive changes, or if your trust is simply out of date with the law because of when it was prepared, it may be better to amend and restate it. This means a new trust agreement is prepared, which amends in its entirety the trust agreement you originally had. Sometimes it is less expensive to do this than to prepare a series of amendments.

Where can I get a power of attorney? Powers of attorney for financial matters and for health care are part of an estate planning package. You can also obtain forms on line. In Nevada, as in many states, the probate code provides a form for each of these documents. However, you should be aware that the forms are not necessarily easy to understand and they require you to make certain choices that are best understood if a lawyer explains them to you.

If you do not have estate planning in place or wish to have your existing plan reviewed, contact a qualified estate planning attorney today. Having a good plan in place will give you a sense of peace, knowing you will be taken care of in the manner you wish if you become disabled, and your loved ones or your favorite charities will be provided for at your death.

Small Estate Affidavits; Or, How to Know If Someone Has Authority to Act on Behalf of an Estate – Part II

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In my previous blog post, I addressed how you know whether someone has authority to act on behalf of an estate. I explained that letters testamentary, provided they are recently certified, furnish proof that the person in question has been appointed executor or personal representative of the estate. What if the person presents not letters testamentary but an affidavit?

Suppose for example that you are a bank clerk in Twin Falls, Idaho. A woman comes in to your branch and shows you an affidavit saying that a bank customer who was a resident of Elko, Nevada has died and she is entitled to receive the whole of the customer’s estate. The account has $9,000 in it and there is no “pay on death” beneficiary. The affidavit is supported by a will purportedly signed by the customer and leaves everything to the woman in question, who is a cousin of the decedent. It also identifies a vehicle of the decedent. The affidavit purports to be made pursuant to NRS 146.080.

What should the bank clerk do? How does the clerk know if the affidavit is true? Should the clerk get more documentation? Can the clerk demand a court order instead of the affidavit?

NRS 146.080 allows a beneficiary of a will or an heir of an intestate estate to obtain the decedent’s property if the decedent left less than $25,000 (excluding sums due for service in the armed forces) and no real property in decedent’s individual name. An affidavit can be used if at least forty days have elapsed since the decedent’s death. It must identify the affiant (the person making the affidavit) by name and address and state that the affiant is entitled to the decedent’s property. The affidavit has to state, among other things, that there is no petition for the appointment of a personal representative pending in any jurisdiction nor has any such petition been granted, and that all of decedent’s debts have been paid or provided for. It must describe the personal property claimed. It must state that the affiant has given written notice by personal service or certified mail, identifying the affiant’s claim and describing the property to all persons whose claim is equal or greater than affiant’s, and that fourteen days have elapsed since such notice was given. Additional requirements are listed in the statute.

Effective October 1, 2015, the small estate affidavit rules have been revised to allow a surviving spouse to obtain property up to a value of $100,000, and any other qualified person to receive property up to $25,000 by this method. The legislative changes also provide that the affidavit must state that the affiant has no knowledge of any existing claims for personal injury or tort damages against the decedent. Finally, the value of decedent’s motor vehicles is now to be excluded when calculating the value of the estate. Note, however, that the DMV will still need to see the affidavit and the affidavit must identify any and all vehicles that the affiant wishes to transfer.

Back to our example: if the affidavit is properly completed and the bank clerk has no reason to believe anything is amiss, it is proper to give the money to the person presenting the affidavit. The bank fulfills its obligation to the heirs or to the estate if it relies in good faith on the affidavit. That said, very often banks and brokerage firms outside of Nevada are not familiar with this provision of Nevada law and do in fact insist that a court order be obtained. If the bank refuses to turn over the account, the beneficiary may have to file a petition in court to set aside the account to herself.

If you are presented with a question about whether a small estate affidavit is valid under Nevada law, you should consult with a Nevada probate attorney before taking action.