Wednesday, September 7, 2011

Anatomy of an Oregon Will

The old estate planners used to say to me, "no matter how much the clients want it, there is no such thing as a simple will." I didn't believe it. I figured it was just one of those things people say to make what they do for a living seem a little harder and more complicated than it really is. Reluctantly, as the years go by, I am coming around to their point of view.

There may be no such thing as a simple will, but there is such a thing as a short will. My average will for a middle class older couple with adult children is two pages long. The will is written in English and has no clauses that a high school graduate couldn't understand. Nevertheless, it is not simple. Each sentence, each paragraph, has a distinct purpose. I explain these purposes over and over again in my office, so I thought I would do so here.

For whom is the will written?

This is widely misunderstood. Every written document, whether a newspaper of a business contract, is written for an audience. The audience for will is not the relatives of the deceased, it is the probate judge who will oversee the wills administration. A remarkable number of people do not understand that a will is not self-executing. The power to administer the will comes from the court. You may be nominated in the will to be the executor of your mother's estate. The nomination is a request that the court appoint you. The court will try to honor your mother's request, but it may also decline to do so. You have no power or authority until the nomination in the will is affirmed by a court order. The will may leave you your mother's collection of antique hockey sticks, but you don't get your grubby hands on them until a judge says it's okay.
Allow me to say this again. A will has no power or authority until it is filed with the court and a judge appoints an executor.
Once a will is filed with the court it becomes a public record and any person wandering into the probate department is entitled to look at it and copy it. Therefore, once the person who wrote the will has died, there is never any reason to keep the contents of the will secret. Often I see a relative or group of relatives hoarding a will--refusing to let the other relatives know what is in it. This is crazy. If the will is going to be effective, it is going to end up as a publicly available document. There is no reason to keep the contents secret.

The first sentence.

The first sentence of a will declares the document to be a will, says who is writing it, and revokes all previous wills.  The best practice is to have old superseded wills revoked by a written document that has just as many witnesses as the will itself. The first sentence of the will takes care of that.

The listing of family.

The next part of the will generally tells whether the writer is married and lists his or her immediate family. This part of the will helps the court and the lawyers understand who is related to who and who is entitled to notice that the will is being administered. All persons who receive something and all natural heirs of a dead person are entitled to notice when a will is being administered. Just because a person is listed in the family section doesn't mean that person gets something, but if the familial tie is close the person is probably entitled to written notice of the probate.

Appointment of a personal representative.

The next section of a will often appoints a personal representative. This is the person who--if she isn't a notorious embezzler--will be appointed to be the executor of the estate. A personal representative and executor are the same thing. No matter what he or she is called, the person who has to gather up all the dead person's property, pay all the bills, and eventually distribute the money to the people named in the will, all under the eagle-eye supervision of the court staff. Naming your favorite son as your personal representative is not doing him a favor. Being personal representative is an annoying and nasty job. Nobody likes doing it. If you get the urge to spread the pain by naming a couple of your children as co-personal representatives, don't. Judges hate it, lawyers hate it, and it costs twice as much when--as always happens--the co-personal representatives don't get along and each asks for his or her own lawyer.

The last sentence in the paragraph appointing a personal representative allows the person you chose to serve without bond. The bond protects the heirs from a personal representative who decides to abscond with the money in the estate. Waiving the bond safes the estate money, unless of course you chose an executor who steals all the estate property. In that case, waiving the bond was not such a good idea.

Specific Gifts

In this part of the will we get down to giving stuff away. Giving things away is done in two stages. The first stage is specific gifts. A specific gift is to say "I give my baseball card collection to my cousin, Homer." Then you hope that the baseball card collection is still there twenty-five years later when you die. The most common specific gift is to give all your personal property to your spouse or your children. This is a specific gift of your stuff--your couch and your plates and your bust of Elvis that you got on that trip to Graceland. Lawyers and judges want the family quietly to divide this stuff so everyone is happy. Nobody except the family cares about this crap. If you choose to get in a pissing match with your relatives about it, the legal professionals will make fun of you behind your back. You need to make enough peace with your family to divide the personal property without going to court.

Some people have long lists of who they want to get what. My advice is to give the stuff away when you are alive. Once you are dead, by the time someone responsible gets around to inventorying your personal things, most of it will be gone anyway. Safes will be empty and safe deposit boxes will be filled with scrap paper. It doesn't happen all the time, but it happens a lot. If you want to be sure, give it away when you are alive.

Gifts of cash are specific gifts. If you give cousin Homer $25,000 instead of the baseball cards, that amount comes off the top. These kinds of specific gifts can get you in trouble. To see how, continue reading.

The Residue

"Residue," is a legal word for "everything else." It is the part of the will where the money is -- or at least should be. The residue is a legal container that expands or contracts to hold whatever you own at the moment of your death. If you are an average Joe or Josephine, the container holds your house, that rental you bought a while back, your stock account at Edward Jones, and what's left in your bank account. If you sell your house and use up your stocks paying for long term care, the residue of your estate will be small. If you win the lottery or get a big inheritance two days before you die, your residue will be big. When lawyers look at a will the first thing they look at is the residue clause. There are two reasons for this. One, the recipients of the residue are normally the people who get the biggest chunk of the estate. Two, the residue contains the funds that will pay the lawyer.

A typical residue clause uses fractions or percentages. "I give the residue of my estate to my three children in equal shares." Each child gets one third. Fractions (or percentages) allow the legal container to get bigger or grow smaller without changing how the whole of it will be distributed. Whether it be big or small, the children each get a third.

The residue also pays the costs of administering the will. The lawyer and the personal representative get paid from the residue. Income taxes get paid from the residue. Costs of keeping and selling real estate come from the residue. If you are fortunate enough to have to pay estate taxes, payment may have to come from the residue. These costs come out of the residue, and what remains is distributed to the people named in the will to receive it.  

Your best bet is to leave all your major assets in the residue. If you are an average person and you give everything away as specific gifts--your house to Able, your stocks to Cain, and your bank accounts to Seth--you may well have given everything away. There will be no residue and your personal representative will have a lot harder time of it. It will get done, mind you, but it will be more complicated and more expensive.

The worst cases of emptying the residue with specific gifts come from giving gifts of set dollar amounts. More than one elder has dribbled out generous cash gifts to distant relatives--ten thousand here, twenty thousand there. The elder then spent most of her money on long term care so that when she finally dies, the distant relatives take it all and the children named to receive the residue, get little or nothing.

The residue is designed to hold the bulk of the estate. Wills work best when you use the residue clause for the purpose for which it was designed..

The other stuff.

After giving away what you own, most wills go on with a lot of other stuff. You might have a trust to hold money in case some of your estate goes to a child. You might make some tax provisions. You might set the rules for who gets the money if someone named in the will dies before you do. As you move farther and farther away from the clauses that give stuff away the smaller the chance that anybody will actually ever read what it says. Some lawyers will tell you that the other stuff is really important. They might be right. Others will admit its there because it has always been in the form they use, and if it is in the form, there must be a good reason..

The signing

The will must be signed by the person making it. The signature must be witnessed by two people, and the witnesses must sign as witnesses before the person making the will dies. You cannot get around this requirement by hand writing your will or any other way. If you don't have the signatures of two witnesses, the thing is no good.

Lawyers add a document called a self-proving affidavit that is not required but makes the getting the will admitted to probate a lot easier. If you go to a lawyer, let him or her take care of that. If you are trying this on your own, don't worry about it. You have enough to not screw up without worrying about the affidavit.

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