When my dad passed away in 2017, I was the executor of his will. One of the things an executor has to do is prepare an Inventory, Appraisal and List of Claims - basically, gather the decedent's stuff, figure out what it's worth and list any claims the estate might have against somebody. This has to be done within 90 days of receiving Letters Testamentary (the court document that lets you represent the estate). In the real estate section, I listed my dad's home in San Antonio and his lakehouse at Canyon Lake. That's it. That's all the real estate he owned.
Not exactly - see the picture above this paragraph? That's 1.549 acres in Travis County that was apparently omitted from the legal description in a sale of family land by my grandmother and her siblings back in 1963. They didn't know it was omitted, they thought they'd sold the entire 118 acres. The County apparently didn't know it either at the time, but 54 years later, somebody at the Appraisal District said, "Hey....nobody's been paying taxes on this acre and a half for the last 54 years. I wonder what's up with that?". Well, Granny, my great-aunt and my great-uncle - the people who sold the land - had all died years ago. The County paid good money to have somebody go through all the probate records and figure out who the second- and third-generation heirs were, and - you guessed it - tagged them with a bill for $11K of back taxes. Mind you, these were people who thought their parents/grandparents had sold the land over 50 years earlier. I approached all the adjoining landowners - nobody wanted to buy it. It's landlocked, in a drainage area, overgrown and (as you can see), one of the neighbors decided it would be a great place to dump all his old vehicles. The County appraised it for over $50K.
It appears the issue is about to be resolved (over a year later) with nobody's credit getting dinged with a tax lien; however, it took time, money, a largely cooperative family and Tylenol to resolve the issue, and if I hadn't been a probate lawyer, I don't know that I'd have any idea where to even start. If you find yourself in a similar situation, do yourself a great favor and contact an experienced real estate or probate lawyer. In fact, when a family member dies, it's always a good idea to consult a probate lawyer, even (maybe ESPECIALLY) if your family is saying the will doesn't need to be probated.
As always, the above is based on Texas law because I'm a Texas lawyer. It is legal information, not legal advice. Every estate is different, so be sure to consult an attorney if you have questions or concerns about a legal matter.
Tomorrow is moving day at the Jacobson Law Firm. Yup, we're packing everything up here at the place we've been practicing for the past 17 years and moving it all...50 feet south. From Suite 201 to Suite 301. It's a bigger space with a fresher feel and we're all excited about the change.
Did I mention we're moving 50 feet? Guess what? We still have to pack everything, look at what we REALLY need and what we can get rid of, figure out what needs to be replaced and what just won't work in the new configuration, notify everybody, change the letterhead and business cards, get phones and internet switched over. For 50 feet.
Why? Well, we can't grow any more in our current space. We have been, as our realtor and friend Jonathan Collins of Valcor Commercial Real Estate described it, "extremely efficient" in our use of space, but God has blessed us with a ton of work and new clients and it's just time. That 50-foot move will allow us to serve more clients, better and more efficiently, while giving all of us a little more elbow room. Many of the things we've taken for granted (broken file cabinets, out-of-date books, etc.) now have to be addressed, and that's a good thing. If the process of moving 50 feet results in us "helping people for life" at a higher level, it's worth it. Let's go! Purge! Pack! Move!
I'm tired already...
Many of you know that my father passed away a year ago last October, and that he was my law partner from 1994 until his retirement in 2015. In his last couple of years in practice he began to slow down cognitively a bit, which frustrated him (and occasionally the rest of us!) greatly. We received a great blessing this week when a former client of Dad's called, wanting us to prepare a document involving property in a probate matter Dad handled 10 years ago. None of us were involved in that case, and what the client was asking for didn't make sense from a probate perspective. We retrieved the file from offsite storage and when I opened it, right on top was a complete, concise and cogent handwritten note from my father, along with some printed emails, explaining precisely what the client had wanted (the same thing) years years earlier and why it wasn't legally possible to do that thing that way. As I read Dad's notes aloud to our staff, we got to remember back before the cognitive deterioration and hear Dad speak in his brilliant, confident way, missing nothing and summing up both the problem and its solution beautifully. What a blessing.
During this holiday season, take time to remember the people whose places at your table are empty. But remember them as they were in their best days, before they were bent by age or circumstances. Tell your favorite stories of those people, the ones that still make you laugh or shine with pride in the retelling. And do yourself a favor: listen to "Family Tree" by Dave Barnes this Christmas.
Thanks for the note, Dad. Love you.
At the Jacobson Law Firm, we represent a lot of senior/elder clients with estate planning, probate and other issues. A call yesterday reminded me of just how vulnerable this demographic is to unscrupulous opportunists through a technique called "social engineering". A client called and said an elderly family member had received a call from someone claiming to be a friend of her grandson's and told a story about the grandson being arrested for DWI and urgently needing $4,000 to get him out of jail. The caller had personal information on the grandson that convinced the grandmother the call was true, and asked her not to tell his father because he was so embarrassed. Fortunately, word got back to the father, who called his son, verifying nothing was wrong. He then called the scammer, who had the gall to yell at the father for wasting his time!
My parents were victims of the same sort of scam by someone pretending to be their grandson. Unfortunately, we didn't hear about it until they'd already sent money. In a similar scam, people will email the elder pretending to be a friend (again, the social engineering angle where they have enough information to be believed) who was robbed in London, lost passports and credit cards, had to pay the hotel bill or couldn't leave, etc., etc. Probably many of you reading this have had the calls from "The IRS" saying a lawsuit has been filed and the police are on their way to your office/house to arrest you if you don't pay up right away.
Thieves have bilked thousands and thousands of dollars out of good-hearted people this way. A BIG clue: if anybody says you have to buy gift cards to pay a debt - IT'S A SCAM. Do your elder family members a favor and check in with them regularly. Ask if they've gotten any odd calls or emails lately. Use that as a "teachable moment" to bring up some of these scams.
As always, the above is legal information, not legal advice, and it's based on Texas law because I'm a Texas lawyer. If you or your family members are faced with a situation like those described, be sure to contact the police and an experienced elder law attorney.
We do a lot of probate here at the Jacobson Law Firm, and it's a great privilege to serve families in that sometimes-challenging arena, especially when a will is being probated shortly after the death of the family member and the grieving process is ongoing. Sometimes the challenge is that family members are impatient to get the estate probated (to "get what's coming to me", or to just get it over with). This can lead to unfair pressure on the executor, who actually has four years to probate a will, though people don't usually wait that long. The person you name in your will as the executor of your estate should be able to withstand this kind of pressure without getting too annoyed, angry or fed up. If your spouse isn't that kind of personality, consider (after discussing with said spouse) naming an adult child or sibling who has a tougher hide.
Sometimes the problem is that the person named as executor has absolutely no interest in serving in that capacity, or actively refuses. We've had clients who named a prodigal child as executor, thinking that this vote of confidence would somehow change that child into a responsible adult. Don't! We've had to chase unwilling executors literally around the world to get them to either do the job or waive their right to serve, all because of something that happened years ago that never got resolved (or forgiven). An executor who has had a falling out with you or your family and is no longer in your life IS NOT THE PERSON YOU WANT IN CHARGE OF YOUR ESTATE.
As always, the above is legal information, not legal advice, and it's based on Texas law because I'm a Texas lawyer. Each case has its own unique facts, so be sure to consult an experienced probate lawyer if you find yourself in the position of being - or needing - an executor.
I met with a nice older lady recently who really just wanted a power of attorney prepared. As we discussed the various kinds of POA, she asked whether I would mind taking a look at the wills she and her husband had had prepared years earlier, before he developed Alzheimer’s Disease and before two of their four children had passed away.
As I reviewed the wills, they seemed well-drafted and had obviously been prepared in a lawyer’s office. As I turned to the signature pages at the end, however, my heart skipped a beat: although she and her husband had signed their respective wills and a notary had witnessed their signatures, the lines where the required two witnesses should have signed and the lines for their names were blank! She and her husband thought they had executed valid wills, and the wills stated their wishes properl; however, the wills were executed incorrectly, meaning that if either of them had died, that person would have died intestate (without a will). To make matters worse, her husband was now incompetent and unable to execute a new will, and since two of his children have since died, leaving children of their own, his estate would pass much differently than he had indicated in his will.
Fortunately, we will be able to adjust the client’s new will to largely overcome the problems her husband dying without a will would have caused; however, had she not asked me to review the wills, it’s likely neither of their estates would have passed the way they intended. Potential legal malpractice by her previous attorney aside, the moral of this story is to review your estate planning documents regularly. Usually, that’s just to make sure they’re current; however, in this case, the review prevented a big mistake from having dire consequences.
As always, the above is legal information, not legal advice, and it’s based on Texas law because I’m a Texas lawyer. Each person’s facts are different, so be sure to talk with an experienced estate planning lawyer if you have questions about what’s best for you and your family.
The picture’s just a cool sunset from a recent trip to Yellowstone. Enjoy!
Catchy, eh? To review basic physics and orbital mechanics (neither of which I ever took), the Coriolis effect is when it appears an object (a plane or a cannonball, for example) is veering off course, when actually the earth is rotating under the object - essentially, and with apologies to my buddies who are artillery types, the target is moving so you have to plan for the Coriolis effect in order to hit the target.
Applying the Coriolis effect to your estate planning (which, for our purposes today, includes advance directives like medical and financial powers of attorney), say you've named your spouse as your primary agent (executor, trustee, POA holder, etc.) and your spouse dies before you do. If you haven't planned for that contingency (you were wondering when I was going to get to that!), then your document can't help you because there's nobody to exercise the powers you granted. That's why we always insist that our EP clients provide at least one alternate agent for each position. The other thing you can do is make sure you're reviewing your documents every 3-4 years so that if it's necessary to add or remove a person or a bequest, you can make those revisions before it's too late. This turns your cannonball of a document into a GBU (guided bomb unit) that you can adjust while it's on its way to the target!
Can you tell I've been reading military stuff lately? As always, the above is legal information, not legal advice, and it's based on Texas law because I'm a Texas lawyer. Your situation will be unique to you, so you should always consult an experienced estate planning lawyer before making these decisions. And remember: with wills, powers of attorney and directives to physicians, when you need it, it's too late to get it. So don't wait.
At The Jacobson Law Firm, we do a lot of probate work, and though many executors prefer to handle the estate administration themselves after getting the court’s authority through “letters testamentary”, we often help guide the executor through the process of administering the estate, and this includes a detailed description of the executor’s duties. In a recent case, the executor was assisting the widow in getting her bank accounts balanced, and in the midst of the process, came upon an automatic debit from an account that nobody in the family could account for (so to speak). On doing a bit of research, the executor discovered that the debit was for insurance premiums on an accidental death policy the decedent, a few months before his death, had taken out on himself. No one in the family had been aware of this policy. So, since the cause of death was listed as “complications of subdural hemorrhage from a fall”, and after discussion with the family, the executor contacted the insurance company to see about filing a claim for accidental death. Long story short: after receiving the claim and some medical records, the insurance company, without arguing, paid the widow a completely unexpected $153,000.00.
This story has two morals: 1) that if you’re serving as executor or administrator of the estate of someone who has died, it’s critical to go over ALL the financial papers to ensure both you and the survivors understand the state of the decedent’s affairs, and 2) that sometimes the executor can help the family even if the asset doesn’t pass under the will. You see, insurance proceeds don’t generally pass through the estate unless the estate is listed as the beneficiary. If the executor had seen “insurance” and ignored the automatic debit, assuming this didn’t concern his duties to the estate, the widow might have lost the opportunity to recover under the insurance policy.
If you find yourself in the position of serving as executor under a will, please talk with an experienced probate attorney. The person who appointed you trusted that you would care for his or her surviving family - take the responsibility seriously and exercise it thoroughly and humbly.
As always, the above is legal information based on Texas law because I’m a Texas lawyer. It’s not legal advice, and you should consult an attorney with experience in your particular problem area before taking any action.
At the Jacobson Law Firm, PC we do a lot of estate planning and probate. Probate costs money. We tell all of our estate planning clients that if there's a way to designate a beneficiary on a financial account or other property instead of passing it under a will, they should strongly consider that because it saves both money and time. My March 16, 2018 blog on a way for married people in Texas to transfer title to a motor vehicle without going through probate when one spouse dies generated a number of comments, including one just today from my college roommate's wife, who asked if they should use the front of the title to make the "Joint Tenants With Right Of Survivorship" election, because only her husband's name was on the title. She said the DMV had mentioned another form that lets you designate a beneficiary for your automobile without having to go through probate (much like the JTWROS election). It looks like a great way to avoid having to use the probate process to transfer title if, say, you want one of your kids to inherit the car and not have to wait for the probate process to be completed in order to get the car in the child's name.
Behold, the Form VTR-121!
Okay, you have to squint a little, and it's just a screen grab of part of the form, but here's the link to download one of your very own. This won't work for every situation, so be sure to read the form and instructions carefully and contact the DMV if you have questions. Also, remember, this blog is legal information, not legal advice: your particular circumstances may not make this the best choice for you, so I recommend you talk with an experienced estate planning lawyer before making any decision about who gets your stuff when you die.
I usually draft these blogs from scratch, but I ran across a very helpful link published by the Real Estate, Probate and Trust Law (REPTL) Section of the State Bar of Texas that answers many of the questions my clients ask about how, when and why to pass title to real estate. I've been a member of the section for years but had never seen this resource before, so I thought I'd pass it on: Pay no attention to the fact it uses the term, "conveyancing" which has an extra and unnecessary syllable ("conveying" works just as well) - hey, they're lawyers.
I want to draw your attention to one particular type of deed: the Transfer on Death Deed, or TODD. This is a way for people whose estate consists of just real estate (usually a residence) and a few personal items to potentially avoid probate by conveying the property, but having the deed not take effect until they die. There's more to it
(it's revocable, for one, which is potentially a good thing), but it's worth a look.
Musings, observations, the occasional whineage and some funny stuff.