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Minneapolis Estate Planning and Probate Lawyer Blog

Monday, May 25, 2015

What’s Involved in Serving as a Personal Representative in a Minnesota Probate?

A Minneapolis Probate Lawyer Explains Some of the Tasks Associated With Acting as a Personal Representative for an Estate

The personal representative is the person designated in a Will as the individual who is responsible for performing a number of tasks necessary to wind down the decedent’s affairs. [While a will merely nominates someone to act as personal representative subject to approval by the court, this post uses the term “personal representative” to refer both to the nominated and appointed personal representative.] Generally, the personal representative’s responsibilities involve taking charge of the deceased person’s assets, notifying beneficiaries and creditors, paying the estate’s debts and distributing the property to the beneficiaries. The personal representative may also be a beneficiary of the Will, though he or she must treat all beneficiaries fairly and in accordance with the provisions of the Will.

The first priority for a personal representative is to find out if the deceased had a valid Will.  Then the personal representative should locate the original Will.  The personal representative should also be sure to order certified copies of the Death Certificate if that hasn’t already been done.  The personal representative will be responsible for notifying all persons who have an interest in the estate, including those who are named as beneficiaries in the Will and any known creditors. A list of all assets must be compiled, including value at the date of death.

The personal representative must take steps to secure all assets, whether by taking possession of them, or by obtaining adequate insurance. Assets of the estate include all real and personal property owned by the decedent; overlooked assets sometimes include stocks, bonds, pension funds, bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, annuity payments, holiday pay, and work-related life insurance or survivor benefits. The personal representative must also compile a list of the decedent’s debts, including, credit card accounts, loan payments, mortgages, home utilities, tax arrears, alimony and outstanding leases.

Whether the Will must be probated depends on a variety of factors, including size of the estate and how the decedent’s assets were titled. An experienced probate or estate planning attorney can help determine whether probate is required, and assist with carrying out the personal representative’s duties. If the estate must go through probate, the personal representative must file the appropriate documents with the probate court in order to be appointed legal representative. Upon approval of the appointment, the court will issue a document called Letters Testamentary authorizing the personal representative to act on behalf of the estate to pay all of the decedent’s outstanding debts, provided there are sufficient assets in the estate. After debts have been paid, the personal representative must distribute the remaining real and personal property to the beneficiaries, in accordance with the wishes set forth in the Will. Because the personal representative is accountable to the beneficiaries of the estate, it is extremely important to keep complete, accurate records of all expenditures, correspondence, asset distribution, and filings with the court and government agencies.

The personal representative is also responsible for filing all tax returns for the deceased person including federal and state income tax returns and estate tax filings, if applicable. Please note that Minnesota law entitles a personal representative to reasonable compensation for his or her services.  Unfortunately, there is no guidance offered on the appropriate amount of this fee so it’s a good idea to discuss compensation with other family members to avoid later disputes.  I find it helpful to spell out the compensation in the will so that others know and understand that the deceased intended to offer payment to the personal representative.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Expenses of the Estate, Part IV: Fees Received as Personal Representative (Executor) are Taxable!

A Minnesota Probate Attorney Explains That Fees Received for Acting as a Personal Representative (Executor) Are Taxable

Serving as a personal representative takes a lot of time. As a result, some personal representatives consider charging the estate for their time as permitted under Minnesota law.

As appealing as that can be, the attorney should help the personal representative consider all the consequences of that decision. One consequence that is often overlooked is that fees paid to the personal representative are taxable and must be included in their gross income. As a result, the estate may be required to generate a 1099.

Contact a Minnesota Probate Lawyer to discuss your rights and obligations as executor.


Monday, May 11, 2015

Expenses of the Estate, Part III: D0 I Get Paid To Act As Personal Representative (Executor)?

Minnesota Probate Attorney Explains Compensation for a Personal Representative 

You are nominated as a personal representative to handle someone’s estate. Can you get paid for handling these matters? In a word, yes.

Your fee is dictated by Minnesota probate law. Unfortunately, Minnesota law doesn’t provide much guidance as the probate law simply says, “[a] personal representative is entitled to reasonable compensation for services.”

What does that mean?

It’s not really clear. The courts have generally stated that they know an unreasonable fee when they see one. But, they have failed to provide guidance on what constitutes a reasonable fee.

A personal representative is always entitled to be reimbursed for any expenses related to the probate. For instance, paying for filing fees, copies of the death certificate, publishing fees, attorney’s fees, accountant fees etc.…

I often suggest to clients that they state the fee they want to get up front to the rest of the family so there is no argument later.  This can be a flat amount of the estate ($5,000) or an hourly fee and the PR can simply track their time spent working on the probate.

Are fees received for acting as personal representative taxable?  See the next post for the answer.

Work with a Minnesota probate lawyer to ensure that you are getting paid a fair amount for the work you put in to handling an estate.


Monday, May 04, 2015

The Expenses of Probate, Part II: What Are The Fees for Handling an Estate (Probate)?

A Minneapolis Probate Attorney Explains the Fees Associated with Handling a Probate

In Part I of this series, I explained who is responsible for paying the fees to start a probate. This post discusses the different types of fees involved.

• Court Fees

These fees are dictated by Minnesota probate law and cover the court filing fee, publishing and copy fees. In Minnesota, this generally amounts to about $500-$1000.

 Attorney's Fees

Naturally, these fees vary by attorney. Be sure to ask the Minnesota probate lawyer about these fees before signing anything. At Unique Estate Law, we list our fees up front AND provide our probate clients with a knowledgeable quote based on what we think will be involved in handling the estate.

• Accounting Fees

These fees will vary depending upon the overall value of the estate and the type of assets owned. For instance, a small estate that nonetheless owns 25 different stocks and bonds may generate more accounting fees than a larger estate that owns a primary residence, a bank account and a CD. Of course, if the estate is taxable at the state and/or federal level, then the accounting fees may include the preparation and filing of the state and/or federal estate tax returns if the attorney for the estate doesn't prepare and file the returns.

• Appraisal and Business Valuation Fees

These fees will be necessary to determine the date of death values of real estate, personal property (including jewelry, antiques, art work, boats, cars and the like), and business interests. Appraisal fees for personal property can range anywhere from a few hundred to a few thousand dollars, while business valuation fees will run several thousand dollars.

I had a probate client who owned several racehorses. We had to hire someone to conduct an appraisal done of the horses so we could value them for the probate. The Personal Representative was lucky in that case as his father had opened a joint bank account and deposited funds for the sole purpose of funding probate fees. So, he did not need to pay for these things out of his own pocket and then wait to get reimbursed later.

• Bond Fees

If you don't have a Last Will and Testament that waives the posting of a bond by your Personal Representative, then before your Personal Representative can be appointed he or she may need to pay for and post a bond in an amount determined by the probate judge. I've also run into situations where the probate judge has required a bond to be posted even though the Last Will and Testament waived the posting of a bond simply because minor children - or charitable - beneficiaries were involved.

 Miscellaneous Fees

There are almost always other fees involved in a probate.  The following are a few examples of such fees:

  1. Postage to mail notices and documents to interested persons or governmental authorities
  2. Insuring and storing personal property;
  3. Shipping personal property;
  4. Moving personal property
  5. Paying the decedent’s mortgage
  6. Paying for property/casualty insurance on a residence
  7. Lawn care services
  8. House repairs (I had a client who had to pay to fix an ice dam on his father’s home during probate)
  9. Car insurance
  10. Utilities

As you can see, there are many fees involved in handling a probate. These fees can amount to several thousand dollars just to get assets/items to the beneficiaries. There are ways around paying the fees for probate. While that discussion is beyond the scope of this post, I do discuss it in other posts.

Contact a Minneapolis probate lawyer now to ask about the fees involved in probate.

I’m the personal representative? Do I get paid for that? See Part III for the answer to this question.


Monday, April 27, 2015

The Expenses of Probate, PART I: Who Pays The Fees For A Probate When Someone Dies?

Minnesota Probate Lawyer Explains Who Is Responsible for Paying Probate Fees

Recently, a client came to me to assist her with handling her mother’s estate. Her mother was sick for many years and had taken the time to plan as orderly a transition as possible after her death. She had a will drafted by an attorney and discussed her wishes with her relatives. The main asset was a money market account that would be paid out according to the will.

At our first meeting, I explained how probate works and the fees involved. She then asked the inevitable question of who pays for the probate. I explained that the estate is responsible for paying any fees associated with probate. “Well, there is money in an account, but how do I get that money out?” OR “The bank told me I can’t get the money until the court appoints me as personal representative. How do I pay the fees now?” As a Minnesota probate lawyer, I hear this question a lot.

And here is the circular problem with paying for probate.  The personal representative needs to pay to open up a probate, but can’t get the money until the probate is done. Unfortunately, this means that the personal representative must front the money for working through the probate until he/she is officially appointed by the court and can then access the money that has been frozen since the decedent died.

Contact a Minnesota probate attorney now to ask about the process of opening a probate.

What are the fees involved with probate? Read Part II of this series to find out.


Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Choosing a Guardian for Minor Children

If you are a parent and you are considering estate planning, one of the most difficult decisions you will have to make is choosing a guardian for your minor children.  It is not easy to think of anyone else, no matter how loving, raising your child. Yet, you can make a tremendous difference in your child’s life by planning ahead. 

The younger your child, the more crucial this choice is, because very young children cannot form or express their own preferences about caregivers. Yet young children are not the only ones who benefit from careful parental attention to guardianship. Children close to 18 years old will be legal adults soon, but, as you well know, may still need assistance of a parental figure after the fact.

By naming and talking about your choice of guardian, you can encourage a lifelong bond with a caring family. The nomination of guardians is a straightforward aspect of any family’s estate plan. It can be as basic or detailed as you want. You can simply name the guardian who would act if both you and your spouse were unable to or you can provide detailed guidance about your children and the sort of experiences and family environment you would like for them. Your state court, then, can give strong weight to your expressed wishes.

There are essentially four steps to this process. First, make a list of anyone you know that might be a candidate for guardian of your children.  It is important to think beyond your sisters and brothers and consider cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, child-care providers and business partners. You might also want to consider long-time friends and those you’ve gotten to know at parenting groups as they may share similar philosophies about child-rearing. Second, make a list of factors that are most important to you. Here are some to consider:

  • Maturity
  • Patience
  • Stamina
  • Age
  • Child-rearing philosophy
  • Presence of children in the home already
  • Interest in and relationship with your children
  • Integrity
  • Stability
  • Ability to meet the physical demands of child care
  • Presence of enough “free” time to raise children
  • Religion or spirituality
  • Marital or family status
  • Potential conflicts of interest with your children
  • Willingness to serve
  • Social and moral habits and values
  • Willingness to adopt your children

You might find that all or none of these factors are important to you or that there are others that make more sense in your particular situation.  The third step is to, match people with priorities. Use the factors you chose in step two to narrow your list of candidates to a handful.

For many families, it is as easy as it looks. For others, however, these three steps are fraught with conflict. One common source of difficulty is disagreement between spouses. But, consensus is important. Explore the disagreements to see what information about values and people is important to one another and use all of your strongest communications skills to understand each other’s position before you try to find a solution that you can both feel good about. Step four is to make it positive. For some parents, getting past this decision quickly is the best way to achieve peace of mind and happiness. For others, choosing a guardian can be the start of an intensive relationship-building process. An attorney who understands where you and your spouse fall on that spectrum can counsel you appropriately. 


Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Executors Fees

An executor's fee is the amount charged by the person who has been appointed as the executor of the probate estate for handling all of the necessary steps in the probate administration. Therefore, if you have been appointed an executor of someone’s estate, you might be entitled to a fee for your services.  This fee could be based upon a variety of factors and some of those factors may be dependent upon state, or even local, law.

General Duties of an Executor

  1. Securing the decedent's home (changing locks, etc.)
  2. Identifying and collecting all bank accounts, investment accounts, stocks, bonds and mutual funds
  3. Having all real estate appraised; having all tangible personal property appraised
  4. Paying all of the decedent’s debts and final expenses
  5. Making sure all income and estate tax returns are prepared, filed and any taxes paid
  6. Collecting all life insurance proceeds and retirement account assets
  7. Accounting for all actions; and making distributions of the estate to the beneficiaries or heirs.

This list is not all-inclusive and depending upon the particular estate more, or less, steps may be needed.

As you can see, there is a lot of work (and legal liability) involved in being the executor of an estate.  Typically the executor would keep track of his or her time and a reasonable hourly rate would be used. Other times, an executor could charge based upon some percent of the value of the estate assets. What an executor may charge, and how an executor can charge, may be governed by state law or even a local court's rules. You also asked whether the deceased can make you agree not to take a fee. The decedent can put in his or her will that the executor should serve without compensation but the named executor is not obligated to take the job. He or she could simply decline to serve. If no one will serve without taking a fee, and if the decedents will states the executor must serve without a fee, a petition could be filed with the court asking them to approve a fee even if the will says otherwise. Notice should be given to all interested parties such as all beneficiaries.

If you have been appointed an executor or have any other probate or estate planning issues, contact us for a consultation today.


Monday, April 06, 2015

Should You Just Add Your Kid to Your Bank Account?

Minnesota Probate Lawyer Discusses the Issues with Simply Adding A Child to Your Bank Account 

If I had a dime...

Why don't I just add my adult child to my bank account? She helps me with all my bills anyway?  This questions has the honor of being the one I am asked the most.  This post will discuss some of the concerns raised by handling your estate this way.

When deciding who will inherit your assets after you die, it is important to consider that you might outlive the beneficiary you choose.  If you have added someone to your financial accounts to ensure that he or she receives this asset after you die, you might be concerned about what will happen should you outlive this person.

What happens to a joint asset in this situation depends upon the specific circumstances. For example, if a co-owner that was meant to inherit dies first, the account will automatically become the property of the other co-owners and will not be included in the decedent’s estate.  However, whether it is somehow included in this person’s taxable estate, and is therefore subject to state death tax, also depends on state law. Assuming the other co-owners were the only ones to contribute to this account, and that the decedent did not put any of his or her money into the account, there may be state laws that provide that these funds are not taxed.  The other co-owners might have to sign an affidavit to that effect and submit it to the state department of revenue with the tax return. 

And if the adult child encounters money problems, a creditor could attach a lien to the bank account and reduce the amount you have saved for your peace of mind.

Also, if the decedent’s estate was large enough to require the filing of a federal estate tax return the same thing may be needed in order to exclude this money from his or her taxable estate. You would generally state that this person’s name was placed on the account for convenience, and that the money was contributed by the other co-owners.

If you are considering adding someone to your financial accounts so that they inherit it when you die, you should contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your options. 


Monday, March 30, 2015

For How Long Should a Business Keep Tax Records?

Minnesota Estate Planning Lawyer Talks About the Issues Related to Keeping Tax Records

There are many reasons for retaining tax records. They can be a useful guide for business planning, for tracking receipts and expenses, and in cases where the company or shares are being sold to outside parties.

The IRS expects taxpayers to keep records for as long as they are needed to administer any part of the Internal Revenue Code. In other words, if you fail to keep records, and an item in a past return is questioned, you may not have the documentation you need to defend yourself and avoid taxes and penalties. In addition, insurance companies and creditors may wish to see tax returns even after the IRS no longer does.

What is the "Period of Limitations" for a Tax Return?

Generally, you must keep records that support income and deductions for a tax return until the "period of limitations" for that return elapses. This is the period during which you can still amend your return to get a refund or credit and during which the IRS can still assess more tax. It varies depending on the circumstances surrounding each return.

  • If you owe additional tax, but you haven't seriously underpaid, committed fraud, or failed to file a return, the period is 3 years from the date taxes were filed.
  • If you failed to report income that you should have reported, in excess of 25% of the gross income that you did report, the period is 6 years.
  • If you filed a claim for credit or refund after you filed your return, the period is the later of 3 years after the return was filed or 2 years after tax was paid.
  • If you filed a claim for a loss from worthless securities or a bad debt deduction, the period is 7 years.
  • If you filed a fraudulent return or failed to file a return, the period is unlimited.

Note: Returns filed before taxes are due are treated as though they were filed on the due date.

Other Periods of Limitations

Additionally, if you are an employer, you must keep employee tax records for at least 4 years after the later of the date the tax becomes due or the date it is paid.

For assets, you should keep records until the period of limitations elapses for the year in which you sell the property in a taxable transaction. You will need records to compute depreciation, amortization, or depletion deductions and to add up your basis in the property for purposes of calculating gain or loss. A business law attorney experienced in tax matters can further guide you in relation to your specific situation


Monday, March 02, 2015

Changing Uses for Bypass Trusts

Minneapolis Estate Planning Lawyer Explains the Reasons Why You May Want a Bypass Trust

Every year, each individual who dies in the U.S. can leave a certain amount of money to his or her heirs before facing any federal estate taxes. For example, in 2013, a person who died could leave $5.25 million to his or her heirs (or a charity) estate tax free, and everything over that amount would be taxable by the federal government. Transfers at death to a spouse are not taxable.

Therefore, if a husband died owning $8 million in assets in 2013 and passed everything to his wife, that transfer was not taxable because transfers to spouses at death are not taxable. However, if the wife died later that year owning that $8 million in assets, everything over $5.25 million (her exemption amount) would be taxable by the federal government. Couples would effectively have the use of only one exemption amount unless they did some special planning, or left a chunk of their property to someone other than their spouse.

Estate tax law provided a tool called “bypass trusts” that would allow a spouse to leave an inheritance to the surviving spouse in a special trust. That trust would be taxable and would use up the exemption amount of the first spouse to die. However, the remaining spouse would be able to use the property in that bypass trust to live on, and would also have the use of his or her exemption amount when he or she passed. This planning technique effectively allowed couples to combine their exemption amounts.

For the year 2013, each person who dies can pass $5.25 million free from federal estate taxes.  This exemption amount is adjusted for inflation every year.  In addition, spouses can combine their exemption amounts without requiring a bypass trust (making the exemptions “portable” between spouses). This change in the law appears to make bypass trusts useless, at least until Congress decides to remove the portability provision from the estate tax law.

However, bypass trusts can still be valuable in many situations, such as:

(1)  Remarriage or blended families. You may be concerned that your spouse will remarry and cut the children out of the will after you are gone. Or, you may have a blended family and you may fear that your spouse will disinherit your children in favor of his or her children after you pass. A bypass trust would allow the surviving spouse to have access to the money to live on during life, while providing that everything goes to the children at the surviving spouse’s death.

(2)  State estate taxes. Currently, Minnesota has an estate tax exemption of 1.2 million per person (to increase to 2 million by 2018), so a bypass trust may be helpful to allow you and your spouse to combine your assets that can be exempt from state estate tax.

(3)  Changes in the estate tax law. Estate tax laws have been in flux over the past several years. What if you did an estate plan assuming that bypass trusts were unnecessary, Congress removed the portability provision, and you neglected to update your estate plan? You could be paying thousands or even millions of dollars in taxes that you could have saved by using a bypass trust.

(4)  Protecting assets from creditors. If you leave a large inheritance outright to your spouse and children, and a creditor appears on the scene, the creditor may be able to seize all the money. Although many people think that will not happen to their family, divorces, bankruptcies, personal injury lawsuits, and hard economic times can unexpectedly result in a large monetary judgment against a family member.

Although it may appear that bypass trusts have lost their usefulness, there are still many situations in which they can be invaluable tools to help families avoid estate taxes.

 Don't pay unnecessary taxes, call a Minneapolis estate planning attorney now to discuss your options with an attorney.


Monday, February 23, 2015

A Discussion of Wills, Part 3: Beware of “Simple” Estate Plans

“I just need a simple will.”  It’s a phrase I hear at least once a week.   What could be wrong with that?  This post explains the many common situations in which a "simple will" may not be a good fit for your family tells the cautionary tale of one family who relied on a will purchased at a stationary store.


Read more . . .


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