Updating Your Estate Plan

Because of the COVID19 pandemic, many people are thinking about estate plans. You may think that once you get your estate plan drafted that you can make some changes just by handwriting in the changes and adding your signature to the change. Unfortunately, it’s not that easy.

There are specific procedures that have to be followed when you execute the documents in your estate plan. According to Massachusetts law, you need a certain number of witnesses and those witnesses must meet certain requirements. You must also have documents notarized. If you do not meet these requirements, then your will, trust, or incapacity documents could be considered invalid after you become incapacitated or die. All that hard work and money that you put into getting your documents drafted correctly by an attorney will be wasted. Even more importantly, you may not receive the care you wanted, and your beneficiaries may not receive the inheritance you left them.

In addition, making a change to your estate plan without having your estate planning attorney do it may have other ramifications. You may put in a term or make a change that is not recognized by Massachusetts. For example, an Irrevocable Medicaid Trust must have certain language in it or it may be successfully challenged by Medicaid, causing you to potentially lose your home to pay for nursing care costs. An estate planning attorney stays current on any state law that may effect estate plans. This allows her to draft documents that meet your needs and are legally binding.

If you haven’t updated your estate plan lately or want to make sure what you have is legally enforceable in Massachusetts, contact me, and I can make sure everything is done correctly.

Horse Trusts

As the COVID19 pandemic spreads, I have seen people on social media ask how they can make sure their horse is taken care of in case they are unable to do so. We are facing a reality many of us have never wanted to actually face. But here we are. As someone works with fearful riders, I know that if we can face what we are afraid of, we can handle what most concerns us.

Many people say they have talked to a friend or they have written some informal agreement. For example, I know of a nurse who asked a good friend to take care of her horse is anything happens to her. There is a legal document that allows you to plan for your horse’s future in the event you are incapacitated or die. That document is called an horse trust, and you can have one for every animal in your family, not just your horse. Currently, every state and the District of Columbia had some form of legislation that allows for animal trusts. While an animal trust is a stand-alone document so it doesn’t need to be included in your estate plan, it is a good idea to let your estate planning attorney know that you have or want one.

Horses as Property Under the Law

Under the current law in every state, horses are considered property. This means someone cannot legally step in and take care of your horse if anything happens to you because they do not own your horse. For example, if you are in a coma and your riding buddy decides to move your horse to a less expensive boarding barn during that time so she can take over board payments for you, she could be charged with theft, no matter how good her intentions. She also could not access your checking account to make the regular monthly board payments needed to keep your horse where it’s currently boarded. She would literally be helpless to intervene if the barn owner decided he had to file legal papers to seize your horse and then sell it to pay for unpaid boarding costs if several months went by while you were incapacitated and unable to take care of things. We all would hope that a boarding barn owner would understand but sometimes that isn’t the case.

Horse Trusts

The way around this problem is to create a horse trust. The trust becomes active if you are incapacitated or when you die. Once you are no longer incapacitated, it is no longer active and returns control to you to handle matters concerning your horse.

A horse trust gives you the ability to provide funds for your horse’s care and to include specific instructions concerning that care. When you set up the trust, you set aside enough money in it to take care of your horse in the manner you prefer. How much money should you put into the trust? It depends on how long you want it to last. Write down a monthly budget that shows how much it costs to take care of your horse. Then decide how many months you want to provide care. For example, you may want to provide care for six months and then have a provision that if you have not regained capacity by then, you want your horse sold to someone or given to a specific person. If you want your horse taken care of after your death, you could put in enough money to care for him for several years. Make sure that the amount is reasonable, though. While horse trusts are generally not challenged in court, an argument could be made to reduce the amount you have left for care if one of your relatives or someone you left an inheritance to claim that the amount to care for your horse was excessive. Keep in mind that you can add money to the trust. So start with what you can afford and add more if that works best for your budget.

A horse trust also allows you to name a trustee, which is the person who will take care of your horse if something happens to you. You can be as specific or general as you want concerning that care. You can leave it up to the trustee, or you can put in specific provisions you want the trustee to follow. For instance, you can include directions concerning where your horse is stabled, how she should be fed, and additional instructions about the farrier and vet visits. You can even stipulate specific things such as how you want your horse to be blanketed and special treats she should get fed. It’s always a good idea to talk to the person you want to name as trustee before you set up the trust, to make sure she can take on that responsibility and is comfortable following your directions for your horse’s care. Depending on your state, there may be other people included in the trust, such as a vet who makes sure the horse is being taken care of properly.

attorney lawyer massachusetts online affordable convenient massachsuettsUse equine law as a tool to help you. When you decide you’re ready to create a horse trust, contact an equine or animal lawyer in your state so you can be sure the state’s legal requirements for the trust are met. If you are a Massachusetts resident, please feel free to contact me to discuss one. During the COVID19 epidemic, I am providing free horse trusts if you need me to draft or update an estate plan for you and at a discounted fee if you just need the trust. If you don’t live in Massachusetts, I may be able to refer to an attorney in your jurisdiction. Be sure to revisit the trust every year to make sure the funds you’ve set aside are still adequate and to make sure you don’t want to change any of the instructions for your horse’s care. Then enjoy the peace of mind knowing your horse will be taken care of if anything unexpected ever happens to you.

Stay safe, stay healthy, stay compassionate.

This blog post is for educational purposes only.  It does not create an attorney-client relationship.  Seek an attorney’s advice for your specific situation. 

 

Respecting Aretha Franklin’s Wishes

You may have seen the latest headline about Aretha Franklin’s estate. Not one, not two, but three handwritten wills have been found and submitted to the court. There are several reasons why this news is so important. When Ms. Franklin died, it was reported that she had no estate planning. Generally speaking, that means she died intestate, and the state law where she was a resident, Michigan in this case, decides how her assets are divided. With the discovery of three handwritten wills, the court now has to decide if any of the wills are actually valid under state law, and if so, which one controls how Ms. Franklin’s estate is divided. Not all states recognize handwritten (and I mean actually handwritten) wills, so that will be the first question the court has to address. Next, if handwritten wills are valid in Michigan, the court will have to decide if Ms. Franklin created the wills properly under state law. For example, some states require two witnesses to a handwritten will. If that is the case in Michigan, the court will determine if the wills meet that requirement. Third, the court will have to determine which will is the one that Ms. Franklin executed last because, presumably, that will should state that all other wills are null and void.

The presence of a will also means that someone can contest the will. What that means is that a person can claim the will doesn’t really reflect what Ms. Franklin wanted done with her estate. How can that happen if she wrote the will herself? Well, there could be a claim that it’s not her actual handwriting and that someone forged the will to make it look like she wrote it. Someone could also claim that she did not have capacity to write the will, which might mean a claim that she suffered from dementia. Another claim could be that she was unduly influenced or coerced into writing the will. It will be interesting to see what happens with the wills.

massachusetts attorney online friendly convenient affordableIs a handwritten will valid in Massachusetts? Yes, if it meets certain criteria. Should you write one instead of consulting with an estate planning attorney, such as myself? Probably not. You don’t know if your will or other estate plan meets state law requirements and is valid if you don’t consult an attorney. There are also many considerations that go into deciding what kind of estate plan is best for you. Let’s look at Ms. Franklin’s situation again. Let’s assume that at least one of the wills is valid. Depending on how much her estate costs, she may have to pay a lot in federal estate tax that could have been avoided if she had the proper estate planning, such as a trust. In Massachusetts, we have a state estate tax, so you have to really be careful that your estate doesn’t have to pay that tax when you die. In addition,  wills are public documents. If Ms. Franklin had executed a trust, then the distribution of her assets would have remained private.

There are many considerations – legal, tax, and otherwise – when creating an estate plan. Contact me today, and we can discuss the different possibilities that can protect you, your family, and your assets.