A few weeks ago, it was reported that three handwritten wills were located in Aretha Franklin’s home months after she died, after it had previously been reported that she died without a will. The 2014 handwritten will was found in between couch cushions as part of a spiral notebook. It’s hard to read. Pages can be seen here: AP News Story
Two 2010 handwritten wills were found locked in a cabinet after the key was discovered. Her attorney filed all three and asked the probate court to determine their validity.
What if this happened in North Carolina? Handwritten wills (also called holographic wills) can be valid in North Carolina. They must be almost entirely in the handwriting of the testator (all of the substance must be in handwritten), signed by the testator, and “found after the testator's death among the testator's valuable papers or effects, or in a safe-deposit box or other safe place where it was deposited by the testator or under the testator's authority, or in the possession or custody of some person [or business] with whom . . . it was deposited by the testator or under the testator's authority for safekeeping.” Finally, it must be clear from the writing that the testator meant for the writing to serve as their Last Will and Testament.
Therefore, it’s unlikely that the 2014 will would be considered valid. It’s part of a spiral notebook found in couch cushions unlike the 2010 versions that were locked up. Also, it’s not clear from the writing that she intended for that document to be her will.
It’s not recommended to handwrite your own will for numerous reasons. First, you’re probably not an attorney – what if you use the wrong language? Forget important legal terminology? Second, it is more difficult to probate. Most typed wills, written by attorneys, are witnessed and notarized. The executor should have little trouble submitting the will to probate. The executor of a handwritten will will have to provide additional proof to the court, causing them stress and possibly costing more money. Finally, handwritten wills are asking to be challenged. If someone claims it is not the testator’s handwriting, handwriting experts will be called in to testify. Your estate could be reduced due to legal fees.
If you’re interested in having a will drafted by a professional, give Jesson & Rains a call!
North Carolina has a procedure whereby the surviving spouse can claim an “allowance” when their spouse dies, to be satisfied by only the deceased spouse’s singularly owned personal property. Most jointly owned property will automatically become the surviving spouse’s.
The allowance is a superior claim and will be paid out of the deceased spouse’s personal property before any creditors or other claimants are paid. The spousal allowance law applies whether or not the deceased spouse had a will. As of January 2019, the amount of available allowance doubled from $30,000 to $60,000! Only personal property may be used to satisfy the allowance. If a deceased spouse had real estate only in his name, the surviving spouse could not use the spousal allowance to get the real estate and would then have to resort to the probate process.
The benefits of the increased spouse allowance statute are clear. Example: you and your deceased wife own a house jointly and own joint bank accounts, but she had a car in only her name worth $30,000 and a stock account only in her name worth $20,000. She also had a $20,000 Macy’s credit card bill in only her name. You can go up to the courthouse with proof of her death and proof of your marriage, fill out a fairly simple form, pay a small fee, and leave being able to transfer those two items to you directly. There is no need for a costly and time-consuming probate proceeding. Additionally, Macy’s will not be paid.
It is very important to note that a surviving spouse only has one year to file a claim for the allowance. There are no exceptions to this rule. If the deadline had been missed in the above example, the stock would likely have to be sold to pay the Macy’s debt. Also, there is a $5,000 child’s allowance available for children under the age of 18 or certain children over age 18.
By Associate Attorney Danielle Nodar
One of the most important decisions when creating an estate plan is determining what will happen to your assets when you pass away. When thinking of assets, the usual tangible or financial assets come into mind: real estate, bank accounts, cars, jewelry, etc. However, today as more and more of us are active online, another important and often overlooked asset are digital assets. Digital assets cover a wide range of a client’s assets, from the sentimental and personal items such as photos stored online and email and social media accounts, to assets with a monetary value, such as PayPal accounts, domain names, intellectual property stored on a computer, business information such as client lists, and cryptocurrency.
Without creating an estate plan that references these assets, state and federal data privacy laws may make it difficult or even prevent loved ones from accessing your digital assets when you pass away. If no planning has been done, an online provider’s terms of service agreement will likely control what happens to a consumer’s account after death. As the law slowly catches up to technology, legislation has been enacted to allow the owner of digital assets to protect these assets after death. For example, The Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act has been passed in the majority of states (including North Carolina) and provides that an owner of digital assets can specify who will be able to access and dispose of the digital assets after death. Therefore, by creating a formal estate plan, your documents can designate a specific person (such as your executor or trustee) to have access to your digital assets when you pass away. You can also include provisions that this person will have the ability to reset or recover any passwords in order to access your data and assets.
After determining who should be allowed access to your digital assets after death, additional steps should be taken to ensure that this person will be able to more easily access any relevant data or digital assets. During your lifetime, you can create a list of your digital assets so that your loved ones have an idea of where to begin in collecting digital assets. This list should include usernames, passwords, security questions associated with accounts, and instructions on what should be done with accounts after death, such as which accounts should be deleted. As this list contains key information for accessing digital assets, it should be kept in a secure location that can be accessed by loved ones after death. We do not recommend that clients include this information in their wills, as they can be accessed by the public after death.
In addition to creating an estate plan that plans for access and disposition of digital assets, certain online providers have internal procedures and policies that you can use to protect your digital assets after death. For example, Facebook ‘s privacy and security settings allow you to name a “legacy contact” to handle your account after you pass away. Instructions can be found here: https://www.facebook.com/help/103897939701143?helpref=faq_content.
Google also has an option where you can name an “inactive account manager.” This allows the Google account owner to specify what should happen to the account after it has remained inactive for a period of time. The account owner can list persons who will be notified that the account will be closed before it is deleted, giving loved ones time to access the account and download any important content before the account is deleted. Instructions can be found here: https://support.google.com/accounts/answer/3036546?hl=en.
With some basic planning, you can provide your loved ones with access to assets that could have considerable sentimental and monetary value. As society and our lives continue to get more intertwined with the digital world, it becomes crucial that estate plans are comprehensive and provide protection and instructions for our digital assets.
- By Jesson & Rains Associate Attorney, Danielle Nodar
The beginning of a new year lends itself to reflecting on the year that has passed and setting goals for the future. Come January, we are bombarded with information about New Year’s resolutions and implementing plans to help us transform our resolutions from lofty dreams to our reality. From health goals relating to diet and fitness, financial goals such as saving for retirement or paying off longstanding debt, even decluttering our homes--there is no shortage of information about what we can do to improve our present and plan for our future.
However, one area of planning that many people seem to put off is creating an estate plan. Estate planning involves meeting with an attorney to discuss things like your assets and debts and how they could impact your estate plan; how you want your property distributed at your passing; who will administer the probate of your estate; who will handle your financial affairs and medical decisions if your become incapacitated and are no longer able to make those decisions on your own; and other important decisions that could make a lasting impact on your loved ones.
Even if you have an estate plan in place, you should meet with your estate planning attorney every three to five years to review any life changes or changes in the law. Some reasons to update an estate plan are:
If you have had any major life changes or just want to ensure that your estate plan is in order, make it a goal for 2019 to plan for your future and the future of your loved ones with estate planning. We can help you to ensure that your property is distributed how and to whom you want it to be distributed and to ensure that you are leaving your family unburdened.
By Danielle Nodar
Yes! When helping clients formulate an estate plan, we oftentimes have questions on whether there are any alternatives to passing property to loved ones without having to go through the court-regulated formal probate process. Depending on the types of assets and beneficiaries, formal probate administration is not always necessary. For example, formal probate administration is not always required at the death of the first spouse. Real property owned by spouses as tenants by entirety passes without regard to creditor claims, and the surviving spouse allowance allows a surviving spouse to obtain up to $30,000 in personal property of the decedent spouse free and clear of creditor claims. There are also forms of informal probate, such as summary administration and administration by affidavit, which apply to certain kinds of estates and are described in more detail below.
Summary administration is available for surviving spouses. This procedure is available only if the surviving spouse is the sole heir (intestate, meaning that the decedent died without a will) or the sole devisee (testate, meaning the decedent died with a will) of the decedent. An order of summary administration will permit the spouse to proceed with the collection and distribution of the decedent’s property without the formality of regular administration. By obtaining the order, the surviving spouse assumes all liabilities of the decedent to the extent of the value of the property received.
Another option for small(er) estates is to have a “collector” appointed instead of a personal representative. A collector may file a small estate affidavit to administer the estate of a decedent with a small(er) estate. This procedure is available for decedents whose personal property, less liens and encumbrances thereon, and less the spousal allowance, is valued at $20,000 or less. If the surviving spouse is the collector, and they are the sole heir or devisee of the decedent, the value of the personal property less liens and encumbrances and the spousal allowance can be valued at $30,000 or less.
Unfortunately, these informal probate procedures are unavailable if singularly-owned real estate is part of the decedent’s estate and heirs intend to sell the property within two years of the decedent’s death. Full probate administration is necessary to pass clear title because an executor must be appointed to publish notice to creditors. If the real estate is sold within those two years and notice to creditors has not been published, the sale will be void as to creditors. N.C.G.S. § 28A-17-12. If the real estate is sold after two years and notice has not been published, the estate still owes the debts to creditors (if the applicable statute of limitations has not expired), but the creditors cannot pull the real estate back into the estate to sell to satisfy their debt.
Another way probate may be avoided is if assets are titled joint with rights of survivorship. For example, if you and a loved one hold a bank account as joint with rights of survivorship, you both own 100% of the account’s assets jointly during your lifetimes. When one of the joint owners passes away, the surviving owner will own 100% of the account individually.
Finally, one of the most important means of estate planning outside of the probate process is the use of beneficiary designations and transfer on death designations for certain banking or brokerage accounts, securities, life insurance, retirements accounts, and 401(k)s. As you can imagine, the bulk of many people’s assets are contained in these accounts. These assets will pass to who you have listed as your beneficiary outside of probate, regardless of what your will says. This means that the money will get to your beneficiaries quickly and that it will not be accessible to any of your creditors at the time of your death.
Thus, it is critical to make sure that all of your beneficiary designations are up to date for primary and contingent beneficiaries. We have seen people fail to update these after death or divorce, causing the money to go into the probate estate, which will cause a delay in distribution to your loved ones and will open those funds up to creditors.
If you need assistance with any of the above planning, please give Jesson & Rains a call.
- By Jesson & Rains Associate Attorney, Danielle Nodar
Anthony Bourdain, acclaimed chef, television host, and travel writer, encouraged people to explore the world and continues to do so after his death. When Bourdain’s will was probated in New York, it was revealed that he left most of his estate to his eleven-year-old daughter. However, according to The New York Times’ Page Six, Bourdain bequeathed his frequent flier miles to his estranged wife. Bourdain stated in his will that she should “dispose of [them] in accordance with what [she] believes to have been my wishes.”
Considering Bourdain’s jet set career as the host of CNN’s Parts Unknown, this gift is likely a substantial amount of frequent flier miles. While most of us have not racked up a similarly significant amount of miles, Bourdain’s estate plan still calls into question what kind of property we can leave to our loved ones and how.
Every airline and credit card company has a different policy for their points or rewards programs. When a customer signs up for a loyalty program, they are entering into a contract and must abide by the company’s terms and conditions. Some programs specifically indicate that rewards points are not property of the rewards member. In these cases, the rewards points are neither assignable during lifetime nor inheritable at death. Other loyalty programs may allow rewards points or accrued miles to transfer to a person through a will or divorce decree. However, even in these cases, it is sometimes up to the discretion of the airline whether to honor a transfer of miles.
If you are interested in leaving a loved one your accrued airline miles or rewards points after your death, you should read the terms and conditions to determine (1) if you they are transferable and (2) if they are, how to transfer them properly.
“Travel isn’t always pretty. It isn’t always comfortable. Sometimes it hurts, it even breaks your heart. But that’s okay. The journey changes you; it should change you. It leaves marks on your memory, on your consciousness, on your heart, and on your body. You take something with you. Hopefully, you leave something good behind.”
― from “No Reservations: Around the World on an Empty Stomach”
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