Estate Planning for Dummies – The Important Steps You May Have Already Taken

Estate Planning for Dummies explains the most basic estate planning tools, many of which you may have already implemented without even knowing it.

Estate planning for dummies is a misnomer.  Because the premise of this article is that you may have sufficient estate planning in place, you are clearly not dummies.  But understanding how to make the most of your estate plan, will ensure that you and your family are protected in case the unforeseen occurs.

Do I need a Will?”  This is usually the first question asked by clients.  The short answer is yes and, to better understand why, it is important to know the protections that a Will provides.  A Last Will and Testament is the cornerstone to a comprehensive estate plan.  Whether you have children or not you do have assets.  Depending on their size, more complex planning may be required.  But the key to knowing whether you have unwittingly begun work on your estate plan, you must know what property passes under a planning basics

Probate Asset v. Non-Probate Assets

Wills cover probate assets, or assets held solely in your name. Examples include real property, bank accounts and personal belongings. Personal belongings are key because many people do not like the idea of a distant relative rooting through their most cherished items after death. Wills do not pass non-probate assets, or assets held jointly with someone else (like a bank account or real property held as a married couple or as joint tenants), assets held in trust for someone else or any asset that has a designated beneficiary, like an insurance policy, a 401(k) or an IRA retirement plan.

The goal of a good estate plan for a married couple is to maximize you non-probate asset designations.  If done correctly, there will be no need for a probate process upon the death of the first spouse.  Probate is the process by which the state of a decedent ensures that their Last Will and Testament was drafted and executed correctly, that the assets and debts of the decedent, the person who died, are identified, that the debts are paid and the assets are distributed according the decedent’s Will. The New York probate process governs the transfer of legal title of property from the estate of the person who has died to those named in that person’s Last Will and Testament.

If you are married and your home is listed in both spouses’ names, then the house will pass automatically to the surviving spouse with no need for probate.  Likewise, if you have joint bank accounts, the assets in those accounts pass outside of probate.

right of survivorship, JTWROS, joint tenantsMany city couples rent their apartments, making their most valuable assets their investment or retirement accounts.  For these investment vehicles, you may name your spouse, or partner if you are unmarried, as a designated beneficiary.  You may also name multiple designated beneficiaries as long as the percentage allocations are clear to the administrator of the investment/retirement account.

Estate planning for dummies = the maximization of non-probate asset designations.  It is the best tool you have to avoid probate.  And while this type of specific planning may allay the need for a Will, it is always a good idea to have a Will in place, even if you do not need to put that Will through probate.  If you are unmarried, it is of particular importance that you have a Will because the protections of marriage, which include naming the surviving spouse as the default beneficiary of a decedent’s assets, will not apply to you and your partner.

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Unmarried Estate Planning Information

While America has transformed in its understanding of marriage equality over the last five years, unmarried estate planning is still vital for those who, by choice, remain unmarried.

Unmarried estate planning was the bulk of my practice prior to marriage equality. In 2010, I published a law review article on estate planning for unmarried couples discussing just this material.  Finding the loopholes that would provide protection for unmarried couples is an art form and many today who are unmarried by choice, must know these rules and regulations that may negatively affect them without proper planning.

What unmarried couples must know – The law protects married couples in a way that is truly unique.  While some argue against making marriage the benchmark for protection, it nevertheless remains the standard in America.  Without proper planning, a surviving unmarried partner can face a number of pitfalls that could have been prevented with careful planning.  The main categories of awareness center on death, property, health care and asset for estate planning

Death – When an unmarried person dies, their Will is the operative document for distribution of assets upon their death.  If that unmarried person dies without a Will, the state in which they live will decide through the law of intestacy who receives from their estate.  Blood relatives are given priority.  In many states, New York included, if an unmarried person dies with a Will, their closest living legal relatives are also required to consent to the probate of the decedent’s Will.  The emotional and financial costs of these notification provisions can run high depending on the legal family of the decedent.

To best prepare for these issues, maximize your non-probate assets, or assets that are titled solely in the name of the one unmarried partner.   Create “POD,” or payable on death, designations for your bank accounts so they don’t have to go through probate.  Place real property titled in one unmarried partner’s name into a trust, which removes it from probate.  Also, verify all of your non-probate asset designations, such as life insurance beneficiaries, IRA beneficiaries and 401(k) beneficiaries.  These assets will pass directly to whomever you designate, as long as you make a designation.  If you do not, those assets pass into your estate and must go through the probate process.

Real property – You cannot discuss unmarried estate planning without talking about real property ownership.  If there is one legal owner of a house or apartment, then upon death the property will pass either through the Will of the decedent unmarried partner, or through a trust if they were savvy enough to create one.  If you purchase the property together, make sure to hold the title as Joint Tenants With Right of Survivorship.  This will ensure that the property passes to the surviving joint owner without having to go through a probate or an administration proceeding to pass to the surviving partner.

Health Care – One of the most important aspects of unmarried estate planning is addressing one another’s health care needs.  Each partner should have a carefully crafted Medical Power of Attorney, or Health Care Proxy, and a Living Will.  These documents will ensure that your individual wishes are met given an end of life situation and that your partner will make the medical decisions necessary if you cannot.

Asset Transfer – One of the real benefits of marriage is the unlimited transfer of assets between spouses, both during life and after death.  If an unmarried partner wanted to add their partner’s name to the deed of a home or apartment, they would have to file a gift tax return for half the value of the property.  If, however, they were married and did the same transaction, no gift tax return would be required.  Likewise, gifting of over $14,000.00 to any one person who is not your spouse in a calendar year also requires the filing of a gift tax return.

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Living Wills and Health Care Proxies

Living Wills and Health Care Proxies, sometime know as Medical Powers of Attorney, are vital aspect of an individual’s, couple’s or family’s estate plan. Many overlook these critical documents, but it may be at their own expense.

Why are these documents so important? – No estate plan is complete until it addresses unexpected medical crises which could leave someone alive, but in a compromised mental or physical condition.  Many people feel uncomfortable even thinking about these situations; however, they are exactly the reason why comprehensive estate planning is so important, including Living Wills and Health Care Proxies.

Without Living Wills and Health Care Proxies, a person may not be able to decide for themselves what medical decisions can be made about their condition or who can make them.guardianship, Gay Estate Planning, estate planning for same sex couples, estate planning law firms

What are Living Wills and Health Care Proxies – A Living Will is a witnessed and notarized document that states exactly what medical measures a person wants or does not want if a specifically outlined medical conditions arise.  It is important to note the Living Wills only apply to medical conditions which are terminal, with little or no hope of recovery.  If a doctor or hospital can get you better, they will use everything at their disposal to do so.  Living Wills address those situations where there is no hope for recovery, then you are empowered to decide what treatments a doctor or hospital to perform.

A Health Care Proxy, or Medical Power of Attorney, allows a person you designate to have access to medical records and make specified medical decisions for you. Comprehensive health Care Proxies will also allow the designated person to look into your medical file if needed to make the best decision.  This is accomplished by including a HIPAA (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act) waiver which authorizes hospital; and doctors to share your medical information with the proxy you have designated.

Other Considerations – It is also important to discuss with your Health Care proxy what your wishes are as defined in your Living Will.  You should never designate someone without first ensuring that they are capable of and comfortable with carrying out your end of life wishes.

If you do not have a Living Will and are unable to convey your wishes directly, a hospital has an obligation to keep you alive, whether that is your desire or not, unless your closest living legal relative (in most states) authorizes them otherwise.

The most noteworthy example of how not having a Living Will can become a nightmare was the Terri Schiavo case in Florida. Ms. Schaivo did not have a Living Will when she suffered a massive heart attack in 1995 and was declared by her doctors to be in a persistent vegetative state.  He husband petitioned the court to have her feeding tube removed and her parents opposed that petition.  In all, the Schiavo case involved 14 appeals and numerous motions, petitions, and hearings in the Florida courts; five suits in federal district court; extensive political intervention at the levels of the Florida state legislature, then-governor Jeb Bush, the U.S. Congress, and President George W. Bush; and four denials of certiorari from the Supreme Court of the United States. (procedural history courtesy of Wikipedia.)  All of this could have been prevented if she had a Living Will.

If you are incapacitated and cannot convey your wishes to a medical facility about your treatment, they will look to your Medical Power of Attorney. If you do not have one, the facility will look to your closest living legal relative for guidance.  This person may or may not be someone you wanting medical decisions for you.  The legal priority that must be followed in most states is a spouse, an adult child, a parent, a sibling, an adult niece or nephew, an aunt or uncle and finally, a first cousin.

Living Wills and Health Care Proxies are foundational elements of a person’s estate plan. These are also often the documents most critical to elderly individuals or those with preexisting medical conditions.

For more information about Living Wills and Health Care Proxies, or other healthcare documentation, contact Anthony M. Brown at Time for Families and speak to a specialist family lawyer to secure you and your family’s future.

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Tips For Estate Planning – Inside Information

Tips for estate planning can come from many people and places. The most important thing that you probably won’t hear is that you may have already done a substantial amount of estate planning without even knowing it.

The best tips for estate planning that I can offer involve a little basic education first. Most people, when they hear the term, “estate planning,” they think of Wills and, in some cases, trusts.  While Wills are a necessity and a Trust can be helpful in certain circumstances, you can take critical steps to protect your family without even having a Will or Trust.

Estate Planning For Same Sex Couples

Probate Assets

To understand this, you must understand what a Last Will and Testament does. A Will passes probate assets to your beneficiaries, the people you choose to receive them.  A probate asset is anything that is owned solely by an individual.  Examples of probate assets include your personal property and furnishings, bank accounts held solely in your name or a car, house or apartment titled solely in your name alone.

Non-Probate Assets

Wills do not cover, or pass, non-probate assets.  These assets pass outside a Will and, usually, are transferred to specified recipients much faster than if they would if transferred by a Will.  Examples of non-probate assets include accounts or policies with designated beneficiaries, like life insurance or joint bank accounts.  They also include property titled as joint tenants with rights of survivorship or tenancy by the entirety (how married couples jointly own property.)  Real property owned as joint tenants with rights of survivorship or tenancy by the entirety automatically passes to the joint owner upon the death of the first to die.

If you are in a long term relationship and have an IRA, a 401(k) or 403(b) account, a brokerage account, a joint bank account and you own your home or apartment jointly with your spouse or partner, then there is relatively little that would be considered a “probate” asset, therefore, very little need for the probate process.  Just make sure that you have named your spouse or partner as the primary designated beneficiary and you are good to go.  You can also name a secondary beneficiary on these accounts.

What is Probate?

While the specific process differs state by state, probate is the process that transfers legal title of property from the estate of the person who has died to those named in that person’s Last Will and Testament under the supervision of the local surrogates or probate court. If the person who has died has successfully minimized their inventory of probate assets, then there may be nothing which would require a probate court’s intervention.  This is successful estate planning.

Wills and Trust

It is always wise to have a Will, even if you have maximized your non-probate assets. Wills ensure that nothing falls between the cracks and, if your probate estate is under a certain amount, for example – in New York, a small estate proceeding can be accomplished if probate assets are valued at less than $30,000.00 – then you may be able to avoid a full probate proceeding.  If you have children that are minors, you should consider creating a Will with a testamentary trust (a trust that does not come into existence unless you, or you and your spouse or partner both die).  This trust allows you to control the way money is distributed to a minor and by whom.  Trusts are also advisable for people who own property in states other than those in which they reside.  This will help to avoid costly and redundant probate proceedings.  Click here for more information about what documents constitute a complete estate plan.

For more information on tips for estate planning for same sex couples, contact Anthony M. Brown at Time for Families and speak to a specialist family lawyer to secure your and your family’s future.  Click here to read more about estate planning for same sex couples.

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