Minneapolis Estate Planning and Probate Lawyer Blog

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Minnesota Transfer on Death Deed, Part 4: Can You Change Your Mind?

We've been discussing the benefits of using a Minnesota Transfer on Death Deed to transfer your home to another person at your death. You own property in your name alone and want to be sure that it goes to the beneficiary of your choice without the expense and delay of probate.  So, you decide to use a Transfer on Death Deed (“TODD”) to achieve this purpose.

Can you cancel a Minnesota Transfer on Death Deed?

Yes. The Deed does not do anything to your rights over the property during your lifetime.  It only takes affect upon your death.  Therefore, nothing is set in stone until after death.  You may, at any time, change the beneficiary or cancel the deed altogether.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Minnesota Transfer on Death Deed: Should I Use it To Transfer My House?

Minnesota Estate Planning Attorney Discusses the Benefits of Using a Transfer on Death Deed to Transfer a Home

Minnesota has a unique tool to for use in avoiding probate known as a Transfer on Death Deed (“TODD”). In 2008 Minnesota’s legislature passed a law that allows the owner of real estate to execute a deed naming a beneficiary who, upon the current owner’s death, will succeed to ownership of that property.
There are several benefits to using a Transfer on Death Deed to transfer real property to someone.
  1. You Retain Your Ownership Interests.  The property is not transferred until the your death.  So, you retain full ownership of the property during your life. So, you may choose to remain living in the home, sell it, borrow against it or give it away without restriction.
  2. Your Home Is Still Protected. The finanacial obligations of the beneficiary will not affect your rights to the property. This is because the beneificary does NOT have any "present interest" in the property so if he/she has any legal actions such as bankruptcy, lawsuits, or divorce that are brought against the beneficiary won’t affect the property. This offers you a lot of protection in leaving the property to someone who may not be the best at managing money as a creditor may NOT file a lien against property subject to a transfer on death deed.
  3. Your Heirs Will Avoid Probate For That Home. Again, this is probably the main reason why people choose a Transfer on Death Deed.  The real estate won’t be subject to the costs and time of court probate proceedings- the beneficiary simply submits an affidavit and death certificate with the county recorder. This allows the home to transfer to the beneficiary quickly and inexpensively. It allows avoids the "ease of contest" often found in probate procedures.
  4. You Can Revoke It.  This means that you can change or delete the beneficiaries named in the document, even without their consent.  Names can be deleted or added as the you sees fit.  Or, you can revoke the entire document and dispose of the property in another manner (e.g. sell it or put it into a trust).
  5. You Have Not Given a Gift. Because you are not giving the beneficiary a present interest in the home, there is no gift. This avoids issues with having to file a gift tax return or potential problems if you end up needing medicaid (medical assistance) in the future.
As these come up quite often in my practice, whether between partners or parents and children, I will address the different aspects of Transfer on Death Deeds in a series of future posts.

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Preventing a Will Contest & Preserving Peace in the Family

Preventing a Will Contest & Preserving Peace in the Family

The purpose of writing a Last Will and Testament is to make sure that you – and not an anonymous probate court judge – have control over the distribution of your property after your death.  If one or more family members disputes the instructions in your will, however, then it is possible  that a probate court judge may decide how your assets will be distributed.

Protect yourself, your family members and your last wishes by taking steps to prevent a will contest after your death.  Will contests (this is the legal term used to describe a family member’s challenge to the contents of a will) can be based on one or more of these claims:

  • The will was not properly executed
  • The willmaker was under improper or undue influence from a beneficiary
  • The willmaker or another person committed fraud
  • The willmaker lacked the mental capacity to make the will

There are a number of steps that you can take to help prevent will contests based on any of those claims.  It is important to remember, though, that different states have different laws regarding wills and probate.  What is advisable in one state may be inadvisable in another, which is why the first suggestion for preventing a will contest is:

  1. Obtain qualified legal advice regarding your estate plan.  Estate planning has become a popular “do it yourself” legal task, but you should at least consider having your will reviewed – if not written – by a qualified estate planning lawyer.  Writing your will with the help of an estate planning attorney will also ensure that your will is a properly executed and valid legal document.
  2. Don’t delay estate planning.  Plan your estate while you are in good health – “of sound mind and body.”  If you create your will while your physical or mental health is failing, your will becomes vulnerable to claims that it is invalid due to your lack of mental capacity.
  3. Consider a no-contest clause.  A no-contest clause (also called an in terroreum clause) in a Last Will and Testament disinherits anyone who contests the will.  Keep in mind, though, that no-contest clauses are valid in some states but not in others.
  4. Consider using trusts.  Trusts are becoming more widely usedin estate planning , and are useful for various situations.  A will is a public document once it is filed in probate court, and the public nature of the document can give rise to disputes and will contests.  In contrast, a revocable living trust is a personal and private document that does not have to be filed as a public record.  Furthermore, lifetime trusts can be used to provide financially for “troublesome” beneficiaries who might otherwise spend through their inheritance.  Lifetime trusts are flexible and can link financial inheritance to the accomplishment of goals that you set forth in the trust documents.
  5. Write your will independently.  To avoid claims of undue influence after your death, make sure you write your will in circumstances that are clearly free from interference by family members or other beneficiaries.  Avoid having beneficiaries serve as witnesses, for example, and don’t allow beneficiaries to attend your meetings with your estate planning attorney.  This is especially important if you are under the care of a family member who is also a beneficiary.
  6. Be of sound mind and body.  At the time you write and sign your will, you can ask your physician to perform a physical examination and certify that you are mentally competent to execute your will.  Another option is for your attorney to ask you a series of questions before you sign your will and document that the questions were asked and answered.  It may also be a good idea to make a video recording of the process of signing your will, as another way to prove mental competency.
  7. Answer your family’s questions.  Consider sharing your intentions with your family and other beneficiaries.  If you explain the reasons for the decisions you made regarding bequests, you may help prevent will contests after your death.  Instead or in addition, you may write a letter to your beneficiaries that will be read at the same time your will is read.
  8. Keep your will dust-free.  Once your Last Will and Testament and other estate planning documents are complete, don’t just file and forget them.  Review your will with an attorney at least once a year and make any necessary changes in a timely manner.

Monday, September 17, 2012

Making your home senior-proof

A Minnesota Elder Law Attorney Discusses Ways to Make Your Home Safe When Caring for an Aging Parent

Let’s face it – it’s tough getting old. The aches, pains, and pills often associated with aging are things that many members of the baby-boomer generation know all too well by now. Though you might not be able to turn back time, you can help an aging loved one enjoy their golden years by giving them a safe, affordable place to call home. If an aging parent is moving in with you and your family, there are many quick fixes for the home that will create a safe environment for seniors.

Start by taking a good look at your floor plan. Are all the bedrooms upstairs? You may want to think about turning a living area on the main floor into a bedroom. Stairs grow difficult with age, especially for seniors with canes or walkers. Try to have everything they need accessible on one floor, including a bed, full bathroom, and kitchen. If the one-floor plan isn’t possible, make sure you have railings installed on both sides of staircases for support. A chair lift is another option for seniors who require walkers or wheelchairs.

Be sure to remove all hazards in hallways and on floors. Get rid of throw rugs – they can pose a serious tripping hazard. Make sure all child or pet toys are kept off the floor. Add nightlights to dark hallways for easy movement during the night when necessary. Also install handrails for support near doorframes and most importantly, in bathrooms.

Handlebars next to toilets and in showers are essential for senior safety. Use traction strips in the shower, which should also be equipped with a seat and removable showerhead. To avoid accidental scalding, set your hot water heater so that temperatures can’t reach boiling. You may also want to consider a raised seat with armrests to place over your toilet, to make sitting and standing easier.

This applies to all other chairs in the house as well. Big, puffy chairs and couches can make it very difficult for seniors to sit and stand. Have living and dining room chairs with stable armrests, and consider an electronic recliner for easy relaxation.

To keep everyone comfortable and help avoid accidents, store all frequently used items in easily accessible places. Keep heavy kitchen items between waist and chest height.

Even with appropriate precautions, not all accidents can be avoided. Purchasing a personal alarm system like Life Alert can be the most important preparation you make for a senior family member. If they are ever left alone, Life Alert provides instant medical attention with the push of a button that they wear at all times.

Amidst all the safety preparations, remember that it’s important to keep the brain healthy, too. Have puzzles, cards, large-print books and magazines, computer games, and simple exercises available to keep seniors of healthy body and mind.

These simple preparations can not only help extend the life of your loved one, but help to make sure their remaining years are happy and healthy.

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Preserving and Protecting Documents Is Part of Healthy Estate Planning

A Twin Cities Estate Planning Attorney Explains How to Store Your Estate Planning Documents

In the unsettled time after a loved one’s death, imagine the added stress on the family if the loved one died without a will or any instructions on distributing his or her assets.  Now, imagine the even greater stress to grieving survivors if they know a will exists but they cannot find it!  It is not enough to prepare a will and other estate planning documents like trusts, health care directives and powers of attorney.  To ensure that your family clearly understands your wishes after death, you must also take good care to preserve and protect all of your estate planning documents.

Did you know that the original, signed version of your will is the only valid version?  If your original signed will cannot be found, the probate court may assume that you intended to revoke your will.  If the probate court makes that decision, then your assets will be distributed as if you never had a will in the first place.

Where should you keep your original signed will?  There are several safe options – the best choice for you depends on your personal circumstances.

Keep it at home

You can keep your will at home, in a fireproof safe.  This is the lowest-cost option, since all you need to do is purchase a well-constructed fireproof document safe.  Also, keeping your will at home gives you easy access in case you want to make changes to the document.  There are two main disadvantages to keeping your will at home:

  • You may neglect to return your will to the safe after reviewing it at home, which increases the risk it will be destroyed by fire, flood, or someone’s intentional or accidental actions.
  • Your will could be difficult to find in the event of your death, unless you give clear instructions to several people on how to find it, which then creates a risk of privacy invasion.

Safe deposit box

You can keep your will in a safety deposit box.  Most banks have safety deposit boxes of various sizes available to rent for a monthly fee.  Banks, of course, tend to be more secure than private homes, which is one primary advantage.  Also, if you keep your will in a safety deposit box, then after your death, only the Executor of your estate may access the original will.  Thus, the will is strongly protected against alteration or destruction, because family members may have access to a copy but only the Executor will have access to the all-important original.

If you do keep your will and other estate planning documents in a safety deposit box, try to do so at the same bank where you keep your accounts and inform your executor of its location.  This will streamline the financial accounting process.

Online storage

Clients of Unique Estate Law have the option to store their documents online using Legal Vault. If you enroll in Legal Vault, you will receive a wallet card that shows you have executed a valid medical directive. The card also provides hospital personnel with a username and password that will allow them to access your medical directive and other medical information (as stored by you) in order to immediately notify your medical agent.

Further, you may store all of your estate planning documents online with Legal Vault and provide someone with postmortem access.  This means that another will have full access to any documents you have uploaded to the site if anything happens to you. Your surviviors will not have to wonder whether you executed a will, or any other estate planning documents. But, keep in mind that online storage “safes” may be an excellent back-up, but you must still find a secure place to store the paper originals.

Store your will with the county

By law, Minnesota courts provide a service allowing you to store your will with them for a nominal fee (the current fee for Hennepin County is $27.00). After death, your surviving family may obtain the will from the county by providing proof of death. This is a great way to store the will that can provide you with inexpensive peace of mind.

Other choices

Some of my senior clients have a trusted child hold their estate planning documents. Generally, they choose the child who is acting as their medical or financial agent to ensure that the proper person has the documents when needed. It is also common for people to store documents in a freezer bag in the freezer.  While I don't recommend this approach, it can work so long as someone knows where they are located.

As you can see, there are many different choices when it comes to storing your estate planning documents. The most important thing to remember is that your survivors must know you have estate planning documents and where you stored them. Please be sure to tell important people that you drafted a plan.

Thursday, August 30, 2012

Minnesota Asks Federal Government for Medicaid Waiver in Attempt to Save Millions m

Gov. Mark Dayton is seeking a waiver from the Federal Government that will allow Minnesota to put into place its own bipartisan plan that should make it easier to connect people to services, steering them out of institutions and into home-based care. In seeking the wavier, the state asserts that instead of paying the astronomical cost of institutional care, the ability to go into a Medicaid recipient's home and install ramps, or bring in home-care workers who could allow the person to stay at home comfortably and will provide services at a more affordable price for the state. Rather than waiting until a worker loses a job because of a disability, the reforms would allow the state to reach out to employers and craft a plan to keep them working.

The Governor feels that this reform could save the state $151 million over the next five years. Minnesota estimates it could save another $9.2 million over the next five years by giving families more options for home-based care, and $15 million by expanding counseling and other support to people faced with a choice between expensive nursing home care and more affordable home care. At the center of the waiver request is the state's plan to offer incentives to health care providers that make preventive care available to Minnesotans on Medicaid.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services will respond to the state's proposal after a 30-day public comment period. If approved, the reforms would go into effect in 2014.

Monday, August 13, 2012

Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples

A Minneapolis Estate Planning Attorney Examines the Importance of Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples

Estate planning is important for everyone. We simply don’t know when something tragic could happen such as sudden death or an accident that could leave us incapacitated. With proper planning, families who are dealing with the unexpected experience fewer headaches and less expense associated with managing affairs after incapacity or administering an estate after death.

If a person fails to do any planning and becomes involved in a debilitating accident or passes away, each state has laws that govern who will inherit assets, become guardians of minor children, make medical decisions for an incapacitated person, dispose of a person’s remains, visit the person in the hospital, and more. In some states, the spouse and any children are given top priority for inheritance rights. In the case of incapacity, spouses are normally granted guardianship over incapacitated spouse, though this requires a lengthy and expensive guardianship proceeding.

In today’s world, increasing numbers of couples are choosing to spend their lives together but aren’t getting married, either because they aren’t allowed to under the laws of their state, such as in the case of gay and lesbian couples, or simply because they choose not to. However, most states don’t recognize unmarried partners as spouses. In order to be given legal rights that married couples receive automatically, unmarried couples need to do special planning in order to protect each other.

In general, unmarried individuals need three basic documents to ensure their rights are protected:

  1. A Will – A will tells who should inherit your property when you pass away, who you want your executor to be, and who will become guardians of any minor children. These issues are all especially important for unmarried individuals. In most states, an unmarried partner does not have inheritance rights, so any property owned by his or her deceased partner would go to other family members. Also, in the case of many gay and lesbian couples, the living partner is not necessarily the biological or adoptive parent of any minor children, which could lead to custody disputes in an already very difficult time.  Therefore, it’s critical to nominate guardians for minor children.
  2. A power of attorney – A power of attorney (for financial matters) dictates who is authorized to manage your financial affairs in the event you become incapacitated. Otherwise, it can be very difficult or impossible for the non-disabled partner to manage the disabled partner’s affairs without going through a lengthy guardianship or conservatorship proceeding.
  3. Advance healthcare directives – A power of attorney for healthcare, informs caregivers as to who is responsible for making healthcare decisions for someone in the event that a person cannot make them for himself, such as in the event of a serious accident or a condition like dementia. Another related document is a HIPAA waiver, which allows the persons named to discuss your care with a doctor BUT not to make decisions.

A fourth document to consider is the use of a revocable living trust.  A trust document is nothing more than a set of instructions you leave to instruct your trustee on how, when and to whom to distribute your assets.  There are numerous advantages to a trust that are especially appliable to unmarried couples:

  • Avoids probate
  • It's private unlike a will at probate
  • You can determine where any remaining assets may go at your partner's death
  • Avoids court intervention if you're incapacitated

Beyond these documents, it is also critical that you check your beneficiary designations to ensure that the proceeds of your life insurance, retirement accounds, CDs, moneymarket or bank accounts go to your loved one. While your partner may still be able to inherit even without those designations, it will take time and effort to prove to a court that he/she is entitled to the benefits.

Estate planning is undoubtedly more important for unmarried couples than those who are married, since there aren’t built-in protections in the law to protect them and their loved ones.  It’s imperative that unmarried couples establish proper planning to avoid undue hardship, expense and aggravation.



Friday, August 10, 2012

Planning for Children: Name a Guardian Now

Planning for Children: Name a Guardian Now

A Twin Cities estate planning attorney discusses the benefits of using a delegation of parental authority for your minor child

You may know from prior posts that if you have minor children, you must name a guardian to care for them in the event that you (and any co-parent) are not around to raise them. Generally, you name a guardian in a will, which takes affect after your death.

What if you need to give someone the power to care for a child while you’re still alive?

Minnesota law allows you to sign a delegation granting another the authority to care for your child for a period of time not to exceed 1 year. Signing this delegation does not jeopardize your parental authority but simply grants another the temporary power to act for your child.

What powers can you delegate?

The powers conferred upon the other party through the use of the delegation of parental authority include the care, custody or property of the child. Once restriction is that the other party cannot consent to the marriage or adoption of the child.

What are the benefits of the delegation?

The delegation is a convenient way to allow for short-term custodial arrangements because they can be executed without judicial intervention (e.g. no court) as they only need to be notarized or witnessed to be legally valid.  Further, the parent does not give up any authority over the child when signing the delegation of power as the agent can only act in the place of the parent who signed the delegation.

When would you need to use a delegation?

A delegation can be used anytime you need someone else to have the ability to take care of your child.

One common use for the delegation is to grant someone the authority to handle medical needs for a child while you’re away on vacation. For instance, my partner and I went to New York for 5 days and my mother-in-law took care of our daughter while we were away. I signed a delegation of authority allowing her to make medical decisions for our daughter for the week we were gone. Then it expired upon our return. This gave us all peace of mind that in the event of an emergency, my mother-in-law could care for our daughter in our absence.

Another use is for the delegation is for situations where a lesbian couple has a child together. While the biological mother has the right to act on behalf of the baby, the non-biological parent has no rights pending adoption of the child. It can take about 6 months before the non-biological parent is able to adopt the child. During that time, the non-biological parent has no legal relationship to the child, so a delegation is one way to ensure that parent can act if needed.

A third use I’ve seen is in cases where the biological parents of a child are divorced and now dating other people. The boyfriend/girlfriend may spend a lot of time with the child but don’t have the ability to authorize medical care. A delegation can give them that power. Please note that, where there is another legal parent in the picture, the parent executing the delegation must mail or give a copy of the document to the other parent within 30 days of execution. This requirement is not necessary in cases where the other parent does not have parenting time, has supervised parenting time or has an order for protection against him/her.




Monday, August 6, 2012

Gay Marriage and Inheritance Rights, Part 4: Discussion of Probate Court Ruling That Gay Spouse May Inherit

This series of posts examines the unique case brought before the Hennepin County Probate Court in which a same sex spouse sought inheritance rights over $250,000 worth of assets from his deceased spouse's estate. Recall that Mr. Morrison and Mr. Proehl were legally married during the brief window in California and later returned to Minnesota - a state that has a statue prohibiting the recognition of same-sex marriage - where Mr. Proehl died suddenly of a heart attack.  In question were approximately $250,000 worth of life insurance proceeds and in a solo bank account in which Mr. Morrison was not named a beneficiary.

After unsuccessfully fighting to have the insurance company and bank issue the money to him, Mr. Morrison filed suit in Hennepin County Probate Court arguing that he was entitled to Mr. Proehl's estate because they were legally married in California. In a unique - and surprising - decision, the court agreed and ordered the $250,000 paid to Mr. Morrison.

As noted in my prior post, I am thrilled with this outcome for Mr. Morrison but caution that it may also cause some unintended consequences. A few issues that come to mind.

What if you break up?

 I know many couples who traveled to a state (Iowa, Massachusetts or New York) or country (Canada) to get married in a jurisdiction in which same-sex marriage is legal and some of those couples are no longer together.  But, because the marriage is not valid in Minnesota and due to the residency requirements (of 6 months or more) in most states, the couples never divorced.  What happens if one member of that “broken relationship” dies? Will the “ex”, but still-legal-spouse-in-another-state, be able to inherit from the deceased?

Do you have to be "same-sex married" in a jurisdiction where it's legal?

Another question: Would this only work for couples who got legally married in another state?  My partner and I have been together for almost 7 years and we have a 5-year-old daughter together. and are registered domestic partners in Minneapolis.  If my partner dies without a will, am I currently entitled to the same inheritance rights as Mr. Morrison or do we need to travel to Iowa (actually, I would choose New York) to get married so it’s legal somewhere? And what if we go to Illinois and get a civil union? Does that count?

Will gay couples rely on this decision?

As an estate planning attorney in Minnesota - a state increasingly restrictive of the right of gay couples to marry - I worry that potential clients will hear about this and interpret it to mean that they don't need to properly plan for an emergency. I want to be sure to point out that the judge in this case clearly stated that this was "unlike any that has come before Minnesota's probate court." When I hear that language, I think that it's a "one-off" decisions and may not be repeated. Further, this is not a binding case as it's only at the district court level. Another thing to note is that Mr. Morrison did still have to spend time and money in court fighting for what should have - easily - been his. If Mr. Proehl had named Mr. Morrison as a beneficiary OR in a valid will, those $250,000 worth of assets would have been in Mr. Morrison's hands within a couple of months without legal intervention. Please don't rely on a court to save you, but call my firm and get a plan in place now! If you mention this blog post, I will waive my initial consultation fee because it's that important to me to help this community (and so I know someone reads this).

What if other heirs dispute the partner/spouse's inheritance rights?

What if other family members object to the surviving partner/spouse's inheritance? It doesn't appear there will be any opposition to the Proehl decision as it was clear that Mr. Proehl's surviving family members all believed that Mr. Morrision was his husband and therefore entitled to the proceeds. But, will the outcome be the same if someone is there to dispute it?

While the decision does raise further questions (as complex legal questions often do), let me be clear that I am thrilled for the LGBT community and applaud Referee Borer and Judge Quam for what is clearly the right choice in this situation.



Thursday, August 2, 2012

BREAKING: Gay Marriage and Inheritance Rights, Part 3: Court Rules That Gay Spouse CAN Inherit!

A Minneapolis Lawyer Discusses the Recent Hennepin County Probate Decision on Inheritance Rights for Same Sex Couples

As a lawyer who specializes in the field of non-traditional families, I have to admit that this is an outcome that I would never have predicted.

Two of my prior posts discussed the inheritance issue facing James Morrison of Hennepin County, Minnesota.  Briefly, Mr. Morrison legally married Thomas Proehl in California during the brief window in which same sex marriage was permitted in that state.  Upon their return to Minnesota Mr. Proehl died of a heart attack and Mr. Morrison subsequently learned that there was $250,000 in life insurance benefits and in a solo bank account for which Mr. Proehl had not named a beneficiary.  Further, Mr. Proehl did not have a will specifying where his estate should go in the event of his death.

After failing to make his case with the insurance and retirement companies, Mr. Morrison argued to the Hennepin County Probate Court that, because they were legally married in California, he was entitled to inherit the $250,000 from Mr. Proehl's estate.  In a surprising ruling yesterday, the Hennepin County Probate judge agreed and granted Mr. Morrison the right to inherit the $250,000.

Referee George Borer held that Minnesota’s Defense of Marriage Act (MN DOMA) does not deny a same-sex partner the right to inherit the other’s assets.  His opinion noted that the MN DOMA bill as initially drafted included language prohibiting “the benefits of marriage” to same-sex couples but that language was removed prior to passage into law. Referee Borer stated that the removal of “benefits of marriage” language appeared to be an “intentional legislative compromise that allowed the passage of this bill.”  Hennepin County Probate Judge Jay Quam signed off on the referee’s order stating that the Legislature’s rejection of the “benefits” language was not accidental and acknowledged that this case was “unlike any that has come before Minnesota’s probate court.”

The judge also noted that what made Mr. Proehl and Mr. Morrison different was “that they were a married, same-sex couple in a state where that status is legally unwelcome.”

This is a great outcome for Mr. Morrison and I hope he can put this all behind him now as I must have been emotionally wrenching to have this drag on for so long.

I certainly feel this is the right decision for this couple, but I fear it may lead to some unintended consequences.  I will discuss these possible issues in the next post in this series.



Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Gay Marriage and Inheritance Rights in Minnesota, Part 2

A Minnesota Estate Planning Lawyer Discusses Issues Related to Estate Planning a Probate for Unmarried Couples

My prior post discussed the facts of the unique case of Thomas Proehl and James Morrison, a male couple who legally married California before returning to Minnesota.  Mr. Proehl died suddenly of a heart attack leaving a combined $250,000 in an insurance policy without a named beneficiary and a solo bank account.  So, what's the problem?  Well, who is entitled to receive that $250,000 in assets?

If there is no beneficiary stated on a life insurance policy (or retirement account) the institution holding the policy (or funds) will turn to the local probate court for help.  Institutions do not want to make these decisions so will hold the funds until a court tells them how to pay them out.  So, how does a court know what to do with these funds?  There are two ways: 1) check to see if the decedent left instructions (i.e. a will); and 2) look to the state law.

Is there a will?

The first step in the determining how to pay out Mr. Proehl's $250,000 was to see if he had a will.  As noted in prior posts, a will is set of instructions on how, and to whom, a decedent wants his/her probatable assets paid out.  If Mr. Proehl had drafted a legal will stating that all of his assets were to be paid to Mr. Morrison, a court would have ordered the insurance company and the University of Minnesota to immediately cut a check to Mr. Morrison.  Unfortunately, Mr. Proehl did not have a will so the court must now look to the second method of determining how to pay probatable assets.

What Does State Law Say?

If there is no will, the decedent is said to have died "intestate" (literally meaning "not testate").  For someone who died without a will, the probate court will turn to state law to guide it in determining how to pay assets.  In Minnesota, the state statute governing the payment of assets where there was no will is known as the law of intestate succession.  These statutes provide the court with very clear instruction on the "order of descent" (e.g. priority list) for any assets passing through probate.  At the simple level (the point of this post is not provide a lengthy explanation of intestacy succession) assets passing through intestacy are paid in the following order:

  1. To a legal spouse; then
  2. Any legal child(ren); then
  3. Living parent(s)
  4. To descendant of parent (i.e. sibling); and then
  5. To any living grandparent(s).

If there are more than one in any group (class) then the assets will be divided equally "at that level."

So, first up is the legal spouse and here we immediately have an issue.  Mr. Proehl and Mr. Morrison were legally married in California so shouldn't those assets go to Mr. Morrison as the surviving spouse?  That is exactly the issue Mr. Morrison brought before the Hennepin County Probate Court last month in which he filed a petition asking to be named hair of Mr. Proehl’s estate. We will see how this comes out but it has cost Mr. Morrison dearly in time and effort to fight for what is, indisputably to those who matter, his.

The good news is that you can prevent this from happening to you!  Check your beneficiary designations and get a will now! Work with an attorney who understands the unique challenges facing couples in nontraditional estate planning.

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