Category Archives: Frequently Asked Questions

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Pretty young lady in her 20s with white blouse is sitting reading a book. Perhaps her parents are helping support her now. But what will happen in the future after her parents have passed away?

Will my kids be able to enjoy the same lifestyle?

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“Will my kids be able to enjoy the same lifestyle as me?” That’s a question that many people worth $10 million U.S. or less have. How do I know this? Because I’ve been an estate planning attorney since 2001. A number of my clients are worth around $10 million. If your net worth is around $10 million, you’re pretty well off. But you’re not quite well off enough to put your children in a position that they will never have to work. (This is mentioned in a 2014 article in The Telegraph.) Also, if you’re living off investments, you realize that there’s always a risk that your investments could shrink in value.

But here’s the good news. There is something you can do. At least help your kids get the most benefit from their inheritance. The fact is that most kids of wealthy families squander their inheritance. However, I do have a couple of practical suggestions for you. Now I’m not a fan of quick fixes because usually they don’t work. But here are a number of specific things you can do to help ensure that your kids will be able to enjoy a good lifestyle after you’re gone:

Don’t give the money to your kids immediately when you’re gone.

It’s so common to have a will or trust that says something like “After I have died, I want everything to go to my children equally.” This might work for a very modest estate. But if your estate is worth over $500,000 I would draft the will or trust so that your wealth remains in trust for your kids’ benefit. They can receive discretionary distributions. You will have a neutral trustee to administer the trust. The trust language will encourage your kids to continue to be productive. This will help make the money last as long as possible. WHY IS THIS IMPORTANT?  Because this is the only way to ensure that your kids don’t (a) squander their inheritance right away or (b) fight over how things are divided.

Be careful of Powers of Appointment.

One such potential landmine is what’s called a power of appointment. These are added to trusts for tax purposes. But they also allow the person with the power to change the beneficiaries. The result is it the love ones you want wanted to receive everything after you’re gone may end up getting nothing. (Obviously, your ability to help your kids enjoy the same lifestyle in the future is hampered if your wealth somehow gets transferred to someone else. You’d be surprised at how often this actually happens.) It’s probably best to have an estate planning attorney who also does probate litigation. Such an attorney is going to have a better idea of what actually works in the real world (in terms of drafting your trust and other estate plan documents).

Third, have an alternative dispute resolution provision in the trust and other documents.

Require that anyone who is to receive any benefits from the estate or trust agrees to at least attempt resolving issues without going to court. This will greatly reduce the likelihood of your loved ones having to hire attorneys to sort out legal issues after you’re gone.

Finally, make sure your trust appoints a trust protector.

his is a neutral person who can make changes as necessary. This is another way of preventing your loved ones from going to court to resolve conflicts. For example, if you choose one child to be trustee, maybe that child will make self-serving choices about dividing personal property (family heirlooms, etc.). This can cause enormous tension in the family. A trust protector can remove that child as trustee and insert a neutral trustee to dissolve the conflict.

This is just a short list of things you can do to help ensure that your kids will enjoy your same lifestyle after you’re gone. Having a neutral trustee is very important. People who suddenly come into money and up usually squandering it. There’s no perfect solution that fits every situation. But these are some steps that I have seen work time after time.

If you have any questions, call us at 602-443-4888 or email me at paul@magellanlawfirm.com.


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One of the Munchkins from Wizard of Oz asks if he can record a Death Certificate

Joint Tenancy: How to Record Death Certificate?

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Do you and your husband (or wife) own a house in joint tenancy and your spouse has passed away? How do you transfer title to just you? Most people will tell you just to record the death certificate. But is that the proper way? How do you record your spouse’s death certificate? Keep reading and find out . . .

Many married couples own their homes as “joint tenants” or “joint tenants with right of survivorship.” That means that if one owner dies, the surviving person is the sole owner. In order to transfer title to real property, you always need to record some sort of document with the County Recorder.

When one of the owners of jointly owned property dies, you need to record a death certificate. This shows that the one owner died. Years ago, you used to have to cross out the social security number on the death certificate. This prevented identity theft. But nowadays the County Recorder automatically makes death certificates private. You have to show that you’re a relative or attorney in order to get a copy of the death certificate.

A more proper way of transferring joint tenancy property is to record an Affidavit of Death. In this, you swear under oath that the one joint tenant has died. The Affidavit also sets out the facts and explains that you are now the sole owner. Even though this is not technically required in Arizona, it’s a good practice. Sometimes there are questions about title. If you have recorded an Affidavit of Death that actually states who owns the property, that can be helpful.

Here’s a sample Affidavit of Death. Even though this is a California form, it would work in Arizona. You will attach a copy of the death certificate to the form.

If you have any questions, feel free to contact us. This information is not legal advice. You should contact an attorney for your particular situation.


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What makes a Special Warranty Deed so special?

What’s a Special Warranty Deed?

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Title companies don’t want you knowing about this trick. For instance, Old Republic Title provides various sample documents on their website. But they don’t provide a Special Warranty Deed. There are different types of deeds: Quit Claim Deeds, General Warranty Deeds, Trustee Deeds. I could go on. Below I’ll explain why Special Warranty Deeds should be used more. So … what’s a Special Warranty Deed?

SHORT ANSWER: A special warranty deed is a transfer to real property and only warrants or guarantees the title against defects in clear title that may have arisen during the period of its tenure or ownership of the property.

TRANSLATION IN SIMPLE ENGLISH: A special warranty deed limits your liability for disputes over title to the real property. If an earlier owner messed things up by (for example) selling the same property to two different people, you aren’t responsible for that.

If you sign a deed to real property, how much liability do you want to assume? That’s the issue with different types of deeds. In order to qualify for title insurance, title companies require warranty deeds. But if you sign a “Warranty Deed” (also known simply as General Warranty Deed) you’re guaranteeing that there are no issues with ownership going all the way back to the beginning of time. Now no  one is going to sue you over something from 4.5 billion years ago when the earth was first formed. But whoever owned the property before you got involved might have done something. Maybe that prior owner promised the next door neighbor that he could drive over a corner of your property. Or the prior owner allowed the neighbor to run a water pipe under your property.

If you sign a (General) Warranty Deed, you agree to pay for any problems caused by that prior owner. That’s right. The current owner could sue you because the owner before you supposedly sold the property to two different people.

Here’s how you know the difference. A General Warranty Deed (aka simply a Warranty Deed) will say “The undersigned hereby warrants the title against all persons whomsoever, subject to the matters above set forth.”

A Special Warranty Deed, in contrast, will say “Notwithstanding any warranty that may otherwise be implied from the use of any word, phrase, or clause herein, Grantor(s) warrant title to the Property, subject to the matters referred to above, only against its own acts, but not the acts of any others.” Notice the underlined letters. That’s the difference.

I don’t know your specific situation, so I’m not giving you specific legal advice. But in most situations, a Special Warranty Deed is the way to go. If you have any questions, contact us. Looking forward to it.


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Young lady is holding an advertisement for a document preparation company

Document preparation company for a probate?

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Document preparers promise to do cheap divorces, bankruptcies … and probates. Is this a good idea? Should you use a document preparation company for a probate?

The short answer is NO (for most situations). I’ve been practicing law for 15 years now. I believe a document preparer could work if you have a very basic situation. Basic situations might be:

  • The deceased person left a valid will that an attorney prepared, and there is only one person in that will who is entitled to everything (and that same person is also named as the Personal Representative).
  • The person died without a will, and there is only one person entitled to everything. For example, the person died with no children and there is a surviving spouse.

Otherwise, I think it’s a recipe for mistakes and a family fight if you attempt to use a document preparation company. Here are some common disasters that can happen:

  1. The document preparer will suggest that everyone sign a Waiver of Bond. Bond is a form of insurance that protects against the Personal Representative stealing assets or mismanaging the estate. It’s surprisingly common for a Personal Rep to not act fairly. Bond protects the other family members from misbehavior by the Personal Representative.
  2. The document preparation company won’t check the Will for ambiguities or read the Will to see if what it says makes sense. If the estate gets distributed contrary to what the Will says, the Personal Rep could be on the hook personally for the mistake.
  3. Creditor claims can be complicated. For example, when should you deny a creditor claim?
  4. If you have a statement from a creditor (like a hospital or ambulance bill), and you send that company a Notice to Creditors, does the creditor need to send you another statement (like the Notice to Creditors says)? If you fail to deny a claim within a certain period of time, it is considered allowed and the estate need to pay it.
  5. The document preparation company won’t think through other issues. For example, how to transfer the property. A Will might way that Personal Representative should transfer the house to the deceased parent’s four kids. But that could turn into a fiasco if the kids can’t agree on what to do with the property. It would be better to have an attorney work with the family. The lawyer will fix such a situation before it turns into a problem.
  6. If a step mom or step dad is involved, you need a lawyer. There will almost certainly be conflict over division of the personal property. What if the step parent refuses to divide any of the deceased parent’s belongings with the children. It’s best to have a lawyer involved for such cases.

These are just some common situations that came to me when writing this. Just remember this: If the probate situation is really, really simple, a document preparer could handle it for you. But most cases these days are more complicated. Especially if you’re dealing with a blended family or multiple brothers or sisters.

If you have any questions, give us a call at 602-443-4888. We promise to talk straight with you. If you don’t need an attorney, we’ll let you know.


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Photo of various pleadings in a probate case gone bad. Someone should have hired a lawyer.

Do I Need a Lawyer for an Informal Probate?

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After a loved one dies, one of the tasks is administering your loved one’s estate. You want to make a smart decision and not give everything to lawyers or the government. I understand. But, here’s the thing. Sometimes you can do it just fine without a lawyer. But sometimes things go wrong. And it’s hard for you (as a non-attorney) to know ahead of time whether you need a lawyer. In asking “Do I need a lawyer for an informal probate?”, consider the case of the Estate of Rogers, which was decided in 2013.

The short version of that case is as follows:

On June 22, 2006, Marion Rogers (Decedent) passed away. He was survived by a husband, Dolores Rogers (Dolores), and three children: Nancy, Gary, and Candace. In September, 2007, Gary filed an application to appoint himself personal representative of the estate and to probate the estate through intestate proceedings. He did this without using a lawyer. Nancy, Candace and Dolores all waived their rights to apply as personal representative and consented to the appointment of Gary. On February 12, 2010 Gary filed a closing statement seeking to close the probate estate. Nancy then filed an Objection and requested a hearing. Nancy also filed a Petition for Removal and Surcharge of Gary as personal representative. A hearing was held in September 2011, and the probate court heard testimony from Nancy, Candace, Gary, and Nancy’s husband.

Note: What could have taken one year and not involved the courts has now blown up. Five years later after their loved one’s death, the family is fighting in court. The trial court eventually dismissed Nancy’s Petition for Removal and Surcharge of the personal representative. And that was eventually upheld by the appellate court. But that’s not the issue. This family spent lots of money on lawyers to fight over the administration of this estate. In hindsight, it would have been much better for them to spend $8,000 $10,000 to have a lawyer handle the estate administration for them. (And that’s probably a high estimate for a really simple probate.)

Moral of the story: Get a lawyer to help you.

At Magellan Law, we have perfected the administration of informal probates. We’ll make sure your loved one’s estate gets processed quickly, efficiently, and correctly … so you can sleep at night knowing that you won’t become like the story above and get served with a lawsuit 5 years after your loved one’s death.


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Should you waive bond?

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If your loved one died either without a Will, or with a Will that fails to specify if bond is waived, the person nominated as Personal Representative (aka, Executor) will probably ask the other heirs to waive bond.  (Click here to see a sample Waiver of Bond form.)  Should you waive bond?

What is bond? Bond (in terms of a probate) is a type of fiduciary insurance policy that insures against the Personal Representative improperly administering the estate or stealing assets.  In order to qualify for bond, the Personal Rep needs to either have good credit and a net worth that equals the value of the estate, or find someone who meets those qualifications to co-sign as a guarantor.

The main reason that a nominated Personal Representative will ask other family members to waive bond is the PR can’t qualify because he or she has bad credit or does not have a sufficient net worth.  This is a bad sign.  Do you want someone who the credit reporting agencies recognize as a bad money manager being in charge of your loved one’s estate?  Probably not.

You don’t have to be nice.  It’s okay to protect yourself.  Require the PR to post bond.  It will protect yourself in case the PR acts improperly.  If you give in, and sign the Waiver of Bond form, it’s hard to unwind that.  If the PR gains control of the estate and steals money or makes bad decisions, you won’t find out for at least six months to a year. By then, the money could be gone.  Even if you then file a Petition to remove the Personal Representative and get a judgment against the PR for the missing money, do you really think you can collect against someone with few assets and poor credit?  Good luck!

If you have any questions about what to do, reach out for help.  Call a probate attorney at Magellan Law (at 602-443-4888) and ask for a free consultation.  You may need to pay an attorney for a little time to assist you.  But that will be money well spent.


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Should You Transfer Your Cemetery Plot to Your Trust?

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Should you transfer your cemetery plot to your trust? Yes, if you want to make sure that your wishes are carried out. In Arizona, the applicable law defines “cemetery property” that you would transfer to your trust as “a cemetery plot, including interment rights, mausoleum crypts, niches and burial spaces.”

If you have purchased such a cemetery plot or mausoleum niche (such as with a prepaid burial plan), the cemetery will give you a “Certificate of Ownership” for use of the plot. You don’t actually own the plot. There is no deed that gets recorded anywhere. Upon your death, the cemetery will contact the “next of kin” to determine what happens with your body. “Next of kin” generally means your spouse, then your kids (if you have any), or if you aren’t married and have no kids, then your parents or siblings.

But … what if your “next of kin” is someone who is irresponsible or who is estranged from you? Then what?

That would be a good reason to have a revocable living trust and to have the cemetery re-issue the Certificate of Ownership in the name of the trust. The cemetery will charge a small fee (perhaps $200) to re-issue the Certificate of Ownership. To get the ball rolling, I usually have my client sign an Assignment of the lot (or niche). I then fax or email that Assignment to the cemetery, along with the contact information for my client. The cemetery will contact the client to arrange for payment, and will then re-issue the Certificate of Ownership.

Here is the language for a sample Assignment:

Assignment of Personal Property

For value received I, [name of person] of [city and state], assign, transfer, and convey to:

[name of trustee], Trustee of the [name of trust] dated [date of trust], and any amendments thereto

The following described Interment, Entombment, Inurnment or Niche Right of Use:

[Description of the lot or niche, such as Section 6, Block 2, Lot 5, Space 3 Single] situated in [name of cemetery, and County and state of location], according to a map of said plot, Mausoleum or Columbarium filed in the office of the County Recorder of said County, and also in the office of said [name of cemetery], which map is hereby referred to and made a part hereof.

 

Dated:  ___________________                                                                                 [signature]

STATE OF ARIZONA                                              )

COUNTY OF MARICOPA                                      )  ss.

This instrument was acknowledged before me on [date], by [name].

[Seal]

                                                                                   

Notary Public

My commission expires:                                             

Once transferred to the trust, the trustee will be able to ensure that your body is properly disposed of according to your wishes. I suggest making sure that this does not conflict with any Health Care Power of Attorney or other document that gives a person the ability to decide what happens to your remains when you die. Avoid conflicts by having the same person in charge of this decision. (You don’t want your health care power of attorney and trustee fighting over what happens.)


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How to Remove a Conservator

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How to Remove a ConservatorWhen someone is legally appointed to manage the finances of another person, that’s known as a “conservatorship.” This is a beneficial option for those who aren’t able to manage their own money due to health concerns, mental illness or old age. There are also conservatorships for children who receive money.

Unfortunately, some conservators mismanage funds (intentionally or unintentionally), compromising the financial wellbeing of people who aren’t able to tend to their own affairs. While it’s normal to become angry or frustrated in these situations, you should know that you have legal recourse to remove an ineffective conservator and seek a replacement.

A conservator has a legal duty to protect and conserve the protected person’s money and assets. If the conservator fails to fulfill these duties and responsibilities, he or she can be removed from the position.

The first step in the process is to gather evidence. You will need to prove that the conservator has failed to perform the required duties. Evidence might include bank statements or copies of checks that show the conservator has not been acting in the best interest of the protected person (known as a “ward”).

These statements can be compared against the annual accounting that the conservator is responsible for filing. If you need additional information in order to prove the conservator’s mismanagement of funds and assets, you can petition the court for a more detailed disclosure of financial dealings. Look for an experienced probate litigation attorney to assist you with this process.

Your attorney will help you file a notice of appearance and submit the documents that show the mismanagement of the protected person’s funds.

If you need to get documents from the conservator or another party (such as a bank or other involved person), your attorney can serve what is called a “subpoena duces tecum.” If you’re not able to get the necessary documents for evidence, you may need to work with the court to obtain them.

After you and your attorney have submitted the documentation, the court will rule on whether the conservator should be removed and, if so, will appoint a successor.

The courts, and the state and county governments, take very seriously the rights of vulnerable children and adults. The court accountant’s office closely monitors conservatorships. The court accountant, however, is merely reviewing annual accountings. If you or another family member discover before that review that money is being stolen or misused, you or the family member should take immediate action.

It’s important to act quickly in situations where money or assets are being stolen. Such quick action will increase the likelihood of recovering lost funds.

If you have questions about how to remove a conservator, please contact our office. We’d love to help.

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How to Remove a Guardian

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How to Remove a GuardianIt’s hard watching loved ones age. Their loss of independence can come as quite a blow for their families, and such challenges can become even more difficult if the guardian trusted with the care of a loved one is not fulfilling the responsibilities of the position.

A guardian is a person appointed by the court to make decisions about a protected person’s well-being (the “ward”).

A few of the responsibilities of a guardian, include ensuring safe and clean living arrangements, seeing to appropriate medical care (including compliance with taking of necessary medications)and determining whether or when family members or other people should be able to visit the ward.

If you suspect or see that something isn’t right with the guardianship, you should find an experienced probate litigation attorney to help you file a petition with the court or to contact Adult Protective Services (APS). Both of these bodies take the fulfillment of a guardian’s responsibilities very seriously.

Sometimes, a guardian might be doing an adequate job, but the court will remove a guardian and appoint a successor if it deems that another person is better able to act in the best interest of the ward.

Let’s look at an example where the need for a new guardian is not due to negligence but to circumstance. Sarah, a 75-year-old widow suffering from advanced dementia, is living in a nursing home. She needs a guardian to help with daily living and healthcare. Her son, who was originally appointed as her guardian, lives an hour away from his mother and has his own a busy work and family life. He’s finding it more and more difficult to remain as his mother’s guardian while also seeing to the care of his own family.

Sarah’s sister Beth, who is of sound mind and health, is a registered nurse who happens to live just 15 minutes away from Sarah’s nursing home. Beth visits Sarah daily and is able to be there quickly in an emergency. She has more time to devote to the care of her sister than does Sarah’s son.

It would be in the best interest of the court that Sarah’s son be removed as her guardian, though he has not abused his position, and to appoint Beth as the new guardian.  Sometimes another party is better able to care for the ward.

If a guardian is doing a poor job (whether intentionally or unintentionally), in most cases the court will simply to remove a guardian and appoint a successor. If the case is a more amicable transfer of responsibilities as in the example of Sarah and her son, the court will help with the legalities to relieve the original guardian of the responsibilities and transfer the legal authority to the new guardian.

If you’re serving as a guardian, focus on maintaining open lines of communication with your ward’s family and lawyer. Keep detailed records of both letters and reports of care and receipts for expenses paid for with the ward’s resources.

If you have questions about the process of removing a guardian, please contact our office. We’d love to help relieve you and your family of the burden of navigating the legal system as you seek care for your loved one.

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How to Remove a Trustee

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How to Remove a TrusteeNot everyone works out. And you have the right, as a beneficiary of a trust, to petition to remove the trustee of the estate if he or she proves to be incompetent, hostile, dishonest or otherwise unable to fulfill the responsibilities of administering the trust.

Here’s a quick definition of a trustee and a summary of the duties of the position.

A trustee can be a person (or a trust company) who has legal title to property, who holds that property for the benefit of another and who has assumed a legal duty (also called a fiduciary duty) to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries of the trust. As you can imagine, things can go awry.

Here’s an all too-frequent scenario from a recent case:

In a case involving a prominent Phoenix family that operated multiple businesses owned by their trust, the father had passed away a number of years earlier. The mother continued running the businesses, gradually turning over control to her adult children. One of the sons took control of the trust after the mother developed dementia.

The son used the money from the trust to enhance properties he would ultimately inherit. He also bought himself a new car and started taking lavish cruises and vacations.

My clients – the siblings of this trustee – turned to me for help. First they obtained evidence of wrongdoing. In this case, they were able to get copies of checks written from the trust directly to the trustee. This gave us enough to petition the court and get the son removed as trustee and replaced with a private fiduciary.

Trusts can be set up to allow for safeguards in case of wrongdoing. That is, they contain trigger points that can lead to the removal of a trustee.

For trusts that don’t specify a mechanism to remove a trustee, the court recognizes other reasons. Here are three:

  1. If the trustee has committed a breach of the fiduciary duties of care over the assets or loyalty to the beneficiaries. Examples include failing to pay taxes, stealing assets, and not following the specifications of the trust.
  2. If the trustee is unfit, unwilling or persistently fails to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries and the trust, the court can remove the trustee.
  3. In come cases, the circumstances surrounding the trust can change significantly or all qualified beneficiaries can request the removal of the trustee. The court can review the case and remove the trustee if it deems this for the best interest of the beneficiaries, as long as this isn’t inconsistent with the original specifications and intent of the trust.

If you are the beneficiary of a trust, it’s important to know what to do if the assets are being mismanaged. Trusts are normally very private affairs. In addition, trusts, being civil matters, are outside the jurisdiction of the police. There’s typically no court supervision and no government regulation to make sure that the trust is being run properly. It’s up to you and your attorney to pay attention to how a trust is being managed.

You need to take immediate action if you believe money is being misused. Proactive action increases your ability to protect your inheritance. Contact an experienced probate attorney at the first indication that a trustee is unethical or irresponsible with trust assets.

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Removing a Personal Representative: How to Appoint a Successor

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Removing a Personal Representative How to Appoint a SuccessorIn the last few posts, we’ve looked at the first two steps in removing an ineffective personal representativegathering evidence and petitioning the court. Once these steps are completed, you will need to appoint a successor. You’ll want to be particularly careful in choosing a qualified replacement after going through the effort to remove an ineffective personal representative.

If you think you can do a better job yourself than the person who had been personal representative, think twice. Before nominating yourself for the position, you should understand the responsibilities and duties of a personal representative. While you may be qualified to fulfill the role, it may be more than you really want to deal with.

Serving as a personal representative in an estate is time-consuming and requires great attention to detail. You will need to work closely with both your probate attorney and a CPA to make sure that everything is done properly. This includes the inventory of the estate, detailed recordkeeping, annual accountings of the estate, and other details that you might not have considered.

Here are a few criteria to consider when deciding whom to appoint as personal representative:

A personal representative must be bondable. This means the person can be insured against fraudulent acts. Most states require this measure to protect the beneficiaries of the estate. The size of the personal representative bond must equal the amount of the estate’s estimated value. (For instance, you would need to have a net worth of $5 million in order to be bondable to administer a $5 million estate.)

A personal representative must have good business sense. Managing an estate requires a lot of the same skills needed to run a business. It’s a big responsibility. Personal representatives are held to higher standards in managing the estate than they would be in their own personal affairs. The courts take this responsibility very seriously.

A personal representative must be reliable and of good character. Choosing a personal representative who suffers from drug or alcohol addiction is an obvious bad move. And of course choose someone who does not have a criminal record.

The replacement personal representative is often appointed in the same petition that removed the original personal representative. You will work closely with your probate litigation attorney throughout the petition process.

A hearing will be scheduled after the petition is filed with the court. Depending on the case, the petition process can require several hearings that will eventually lead to the trial. (Actually, in probate court, the trial is called an evidentiary hearing.)

Unfortunately, the process of appointing a new representative is rarely quick. In uncontested cases with ample evidence, the case can be resolved within a few weeks. However, it usually takes several months to resolve the issue in contested cases.

Petitioning to replace a personal representative can be an emotional and overwhelming task. The guidance and assistance of a lawyer familiar with probate litigation can help make the process less challenging (and less lengthy). Look for a skilled litigation attorney to be your advocate in protecting your inheritance, and to make a difficult time easier for you and your family.

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Petitioning to Remove a Personal Representative

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Petitioning to Remove a Personal RepresentativeIn the previous post we covered how to gather evidence to remove a personal representative. Once you have the necessary documentation as evidence, you can petition the court to remove the personal representative and appoint a successor.

The first step in petitioning the courts is to work with your probate litigation attorney to put together a formal Petition for Removal of Personal Representative and Appointment of Successor Personal Representative.

The Petition needs to include specific details that will be used as evidence to justify the removal of the personal representative. The more evidence and documentation that you can provide to the judge, the better your case. (Documentation should clearly show mismanagement of the estate, such as copies of checks drawn on the estate written to the personal representative, indicating that the representative is using estate money for personal gain.)

Once you have compiled the initial paperwork, the next step is to discuss with your attorney how quickly you should act to remove the representative. Discuss with your attorney if you can petition the court for emergency relief, if you feel this is necessary. The courts will work with you if you can prove that there’s an urgent need to replace an ineffective (or dishonest) personal representative. Probate judges and commissioners are both extremely busy and also extremely reluctant to take immediate action to remove a personal representative. The process of removing a personal representative normally takes months.

However, there are things you can do in the meanwhile. You can get a Temporary Restraining Order preventing the personal representative (or others) from taking action detrimental to the estate. You can request an Expedited Order for Formal Administration, meaning that the Personal Representative will need to get the court’s approval before taking any future action.

If the court approves the emergency status here, the court will take action quicker than it would otherwise. In most cases, there will still need to be at least one hearing. In any event, your lawyer can help you in arranging this.

If your case is not urgent, it will likely take the court anywhere from a few weeks to a couple of months before it intervenes. Everyone involved in the estate will need to be notified of this process. (Again, remember that there are often steps that can be taken to protect the estate in the meanwhile.)

There is normally more than one hearing. The first one, known as a “return hearing,” determines whether anyone objects to your petition. If that happens, then the court will require an additional hearing, or hearings, to sort out the situation.

Because each case is different, there’s no set standard for the amount of time or number of hearings a case will take to be settled. On average, you can expect the process of getting a court order to remove a personal representative to take between three to six months. In certain situations, such as where you are able to provide evidence that the personal representative is stealing assets or jeopardizing the value of the estate, the court might take more immediate action.

It’s important to keep an eye on the progress of the case, especially if you’re expecting an inheritance.

Be proactive. Seek the help of an experienced probate attorney if you suspect things related to the estate aren’t being handled correctly. Waiting to take action can jeopardize the estate and your loved one’s legacy. (Once money is spent or things have been stolen, it’s usually pretty hard to get it back.)

If you need help petitioning to remove an ineffective personal representative or trustee, please contact our office.

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How to Avoid Disputes in a Conservatorship

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How to Avoid Disputes in a ConservatorshipWhen a loved one needs help managing finances or legal affairs, a conservatorship is often the best option. The conservator, usually a family member or trusted friend, has the authority to act in the interest of the protected person’s legal and financial affairs. As beneficial as this can be for the loved one, at times this transfer of power can lead to disputes over certain decisions and situations.

First of all, though, we should clarify what a conservatorship dispute is. For one thing, it differs from a guardianship dispute. A guardianship dispute concerns disagreements about who should be making decisions regarding where the incapacitated person lives and the healthcare he or she receives. A dispute about a conservatorship is a disagreement about who should be in control of money and assets.

Most disputes surrounding conservatorships, then, involve money matters. A conservator may even be abusing his or her authority. Examples could include stealing money or not acting in the best interest of the protected person. But far more common are the disputes arising out of mistakes – so it pays to be aware of some of the pitfalls.

There are three common mistakes people make in conservatorships:

Mistake 1: Failing to segregate conservatorship assets. All assets must be transferred from the incapacitated person’s name into conservatorship accounts.

Failing to separate the protected person’s cash and assets from the conservator’s personal cash and assets can have significant legal consequences. This is a very sensitive area: A conservator may unknowingly use funds from the conservatorship for his or her own use, or may even think it’s okay to use an incapacitated person’s funds for personal use. But the conservator must repay all funds to conservatorship accounts. In the State of Arizona, a conservator can also be fined an additional amount on top of the original sum taken. The conservator can also be disinherited from the protected person’s estate and be made liable for legal fees that have been incurred as a result of mismanaging funds.

Mistake 2: Failing to keep detailed records. The conservator must document and account for all transactions. Dealing in cash, withdrawing funds from an ATM, failing to keep receipts and not keeping track of time spent on the conservatorship are all accounting issues that can leave a conservator liable to accusations of mishandling the responsibilities of the position. If you don’t keep accurate records, you may be held personally liable for all money that isn’t accounted for.

Mistake 3: Failing to comply with court orders. As a conservator, you are responsible for filing an inventory, filing a credit report, submitting a budget and performing annual accountings of the estate. If you fail to comply with the court’s orders and the conservatorship statute, you as conservator may also risk being removed from your position.

The best way to avoid making these mistakes is to be aware beforehand of all the responsibilities and requirements of being a conservator. If you’re not good with recordkeeping and other detailed work, it may be best to defer the position to someone who’s better suited to such things. One option is to get a licensed fiduciary appointed.  A licensed fiduciary is a specially trained person who regularly serves as conservator and/or guardian in cases.

That said, remember that if you do accept the position of conservator, you don’t have to do it alone. Find an experienced probate attorney to help you understand the requirements of the position, and to comply with them.

If you have questions about how to resolve or prevent a dispute in a conservatorship, comment below or contact our office. We’d love to help.

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How to Petition for Emergency Conservatorship

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How to Petition for Emergency ConservatorshipAs loved ones age they may need help managing their finances or legal matters.

A durable general power of attorney can be a great tool for helping older loved ones when they get to the point that they need help. Simply put, it’s the written authorization to represent or act on another’s behalf in private affairs, business, or some other legal matter. A durable general power of attorney is good in many situations, such as selling a car or home. The durable general power of attorney can give others the legal rights to perform or assist with any legal acts that the person covered under this power of attorney would do for him or herself.

In certain situations, however, a general power of attorney either is not available or is perhaps insufficient to the situation. In those cases, you may need to obtain a conservatorship.

First, let me define conservatorship for you. A conservatorship is a court proceeding that appoints a person or entity (such as a private fiduciary – a fiduciary is a legal or ethical relationship between two or more parties.). This person or entity will have the authority to manage the affairs of a minor or of an incapacitated adult who is unable to manage his or her property or financial matters.

Let’s look at a few situations where a power of attorney may have limited usefulness:

  • The person listed as the agent on the power of attorney turns out to be dishonest; this person may be stealing money or otherwise mismanaging assets.
  • The person listed as the agent may be unavailable to fulfill the role of power of attorney.
  • The power of attorney is somehow invalid.
  • The family is fighting over who should control the assets.

If a conservatorship is needed urgently for the above or other reasons, you can petition the courts for an emergency conservatorship.

You may have an emergency situation if your loved one’s bills are not getting paid, if your loved one is making poor financial decisions or if someone is stealing money or taking advantage of your loved one’s financial situation.

A hearing will be scheduled either within a few weeks or within a few days, depending on whether you can prove that there is an emergency.

If you are seeking to remove a current conservator who is either abusing power or mishandling assets, you must provide evidence of this to the court. A probate or litigation attorney can help you get the evidence you need to establish your case.

If you’re unable to provide evidence to prove that the situation is an emergency, the court will schedule your hearing as it fits into its schedule, which may take several weeks.

If the court hearing needs to be made immediately, then the court will treat it as an emergency and appoint someone without giving the other interested parties an opportunity to appear.  A follow-up hearing will then be scheduled to ensure that everyone involved is given due-process rights and allowed to contest the conservatorship if it’s felt to be necessary.

Probate courts are familiar with emergency situations. They are there to help. Remember that you have options. With the assistance of an experienced probate attorney and the probate courts, you can get help resolving the situation.

If you have questions about an emergency conservatorship, give us a call. We’re here to help.

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Handling Emergencies in Guardianships and Conservatorships in Arizona

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Handling Emergencies in Guardianships and Conservatorships in ArizonaIf you notice certain changes in an aging family member, it might be time to seek outside help. When a loved one can no longer make intelligent decisions about his or her healthcare, housing, finances or legal matters an emergency guardianship or conservatorship may be the solution.

Emergency guardianships and conservatorships are legal mechanisms created under the direction of the court to assist a person who has become incapacitated or debilitated.

The roles of guardian and conservator in Arizona are similar but distinct.

  • Guardianships concern specifically healthcare, living arrangements and other personal issues.
  • Conservatorships  deal with financial decisions.

A guardianship or conservatorship may be necessary if your loved one has a debilitating condition such as dementia and someone needs to step in immediately to take care of things. For example, if your loved one is not paying bills, or is wasting money, a conservator might be appointed to assume these financial decisions and responsibilities.

On the other hand, a guardian might be appointed if your loved one is continuing to drive even though it’s dangerous. Similarly, if your loved one is no longer safe at home but refuses to move, you may need to be appointed as guardian to make this decision concerning where your loved one should live.

Sometimes the court needs to get involved even when there is a healthcare power of attorney or general power of attorney. For example, I represented a family of three brothers whose mother was in hospice. One of the brothers was granted power of attorney for health care, and his mother’s living will provided him with the authority to act for her. But without communicating to his brothers, this son put the mother in a hospice where food and fluids were withheld, contrary to the mother’s wishes. (Can you imagine? This older lady was able to communicate that she wanted to eat and drink but the son instructed the hospice to withhold all food and fluids.)

The two brothers learned of their mother’s situation and came to her aid. Within 72 hours of contacting me, we were able to work with the probate court and appoint one brother as temporary guardian. He restored care to the mother, taking her out of an untenable situation and ultimately saving her life.

I’ve also helped clients in cases where an emergency conservatorship was necessary to protect the financial health of a loved one when someone was misusing or stealing money.

Every situation is different.
Searching for solutions can be incredibly frustrating and difficult.
But you don’t have to do it alone. Working with an experienced attorney, you’ll take comfort from knowing there is a solution to your situation.

Since 1998 I’ve been helping clients resolve both simple and complex issues and have helped them find resolution and peace of mind. We’d love to help you, too.

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Life and Estate-Planning: What Is a Conservatorship?

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Life and Estate Planning What Is a ConservatorshipWhen an adult is no longer able to care for himself or herself, the court can appoint another person to take over responsibility of managing finances and other everyday affairs. The person appointed (usually a spouse, family member, relative or hired professional) would serve as conservator and collect income and pay expenses on behalf of the protected person.

It can be difficult for an adult child to let a parent know that a conservator is needed. A parent with dementia or Alzheimer’s, for example, may not be aware of a problem. The parent can also become confused in thinking that the child is trying to take over money matters. The parent may think that the child is trying to cheat the parent, or the parent might feel that a vestige of independence is being removed.

Most such situations are resolved by requiring the person in need of help to go through neurological and psychological examination by a trained physician, psychologist or registered nurse. The court relies heavily on the results from these examinations to determine the need for a conservator.

This level of care protects those who are incapacitated from losing assets and being evicted from their homes or living facilities because they have failed to make payments.

Conservators are not, however, required to pay for the care of the protected person with the conservator’s own resources. The conservator should use the protected person’s resources to take care of expenses. The conservator can then apply for government benefits if needed to pay for the cost of care.

Some of a conservator’s duties include:

  • Obtaining a credit report on behalf of the protected person.
  • Creating a budget for the protected person’s finances.
  • Sending annual accounting reports to the court, as specified in that state.

Should the conservator fail to fulfill these responsibilities, he or she can be replaced by someone better suited to the position. Conservators who mismanage funds can be held personally liable.

If you have an aging loved one who is not making careful financial decisions, a conservatorship can be a good solution. Conservatorships are complicated. If you don’t like balancing your own checkbook or reviewing financial statements, then acting as a conservator is probably not something you should undertake. You may benefit from the help and direction of a financial conservator.

If you have questions about conservatorship or serving as a conservator, I’d love to help. Please comment below or contact our office.

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What Is a Guardianship?

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What Is a GuardianshipSince life expectancy has increased over the last two decades., a growing group of Americans will likely need some kind of long-term assistance. An important part of preparing for the future should you become unable to care for yourself is designating a health care agent and (if needed) a legal guardian. Having a health care power of attorney can usually avoid the need for someone to get appointed as a guardian through the court system. However, sometimes despite your best attempts at planning, someone will need to go to court and be appointed as your guardian.

A legal guardianship is a legal action in which someone is appointed by a court as a guardian to make decisions regarding healthcare and personal well-being for another person (who, in legal terms, is referred to as an “Incapacitated Person” or ward). These decisions can include living arrangements, medical care and whether the family should be able to visit.

Guardianship is a big responsibility, and it can sometimes be challenging. For example, I once represented a man who was caring for his mother as her legal guardian. They both lived in the Phoenix area. This man’s brother and sister, who lived in Michigan, wanted their mother to move out to live with them. Their mother was being well taken care of and was happy in Phoenix. This could have proved difficult, with different children wanting different things for their parent. But through working with my client on aspects of his guardianship, we were able to arrange a visitation schedule for the family, similar to child-custody arrangements common in divorce situations.

Guardianship is not that well-known a function among the general public. And common misperceptions and misconceptions exist.

• One is that the guardian is legally obligated to use personal resources to support the ward. This is incorrect. A guardian’s legal obligation is to use the ward’s resources to support the ward, not the guardian’s personal assets.

• Another is that the guardian assumes liability for the actions of the ward. This is not true except in cases where, say, the guardian gives a car or a gun to the ward. If the ward crashes the car or shoots someone with the gun, the guardian can be held liable if the guardian should have known that allowing the ward to have the car or gun was dangerous.

A guardian is required to sign a document called an Order to Guardian and Acknowledgement, which outlines the guardian’s responsibilities. A guardian should this document carefully and refer to it during the guardianship to prevent errors, and ensure that all responsibilities are being followed.

Here are two common mistakes that many guardians make:

  1. Failure to file an annual guardian’s report with the court. If you do not file this report, you will have to attend a hearing and explain why the report was not filed.
  2. Failure to restrict access to family and others when appropriate. This can justify removal of the guardian if the guardian is acting out of spite or maliciousness (as opposed to protecting the ward from people who may be dangerous).

As we age, our needs change. A health care power of attorney is an important part of a well-planned estate to make sure a person’s needs will be met as they arise. But sometimes this document can’t be found, or there is a dispute over who should be making the decisions.  In that case, someone needs to go to court to be appointed as a guardian. Just as it can be a delicate situation to consider making a will or plan an estate, it can be difficult to approach one’s parents about needing help now or in the future. It’s important to be proactive and address these issues sooner rather than later.

That’s where you come in. Remind your parents that you care about them and that you want to do what’s best to promote their health and well being, both today and in the months and years to come. And sometimes you need to make the tough call and get appointed as guardian even if your mom or dad does not want to give up control over their personal or health care decisions.

Remember that you aren’t alone. This is a common situation faced by adult children caring for their elderly parents.

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Resolving Disputes Involving Trusts

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Resolving Disputes Involving TrustsTrusts are legal arrangements in which someone holds property for the benefit of someone else.

Trusts can minimize estate taxes and prevent the need for probate. Trusts also offer greater precision in wealth management and distribution, and can protect your legacy.

But given the human element involved in estates and trusts, disputes can arise when a trust is being settled, even if you’ve given proper care to creating a trust.

Some common examples of trust disputes include:

1. A trustee stealing or misusing money or property in the trust.
2. Questions over whether an amendment to a trust is legitimate.
3. Uncertainty regarding the running of a business, should the trust own a business.

What is a trust dispute, then?

Simply put: If you’re a trustee and family members accuse you of mismanaging the trust, you are involved in a trust dispute.

Or, if someone else is the trustee and that person is mismanaging or stealing assets (or accused of doing so), then you are (or probably should be) involved in a trust dispute.

I have experience in trust disputes. In one particularly lengthy trust dispute case, I represented a professional licensed fiduciary who was the trustee of a trust.

Even before her death, the woman who created the trust was aware that her two adult children had been fighting with each other over how her trust would be settled.

After her death, the younger sibling accused the older one of stealing money from the trust.

The older sibling accused the younger of convincing their mother to amend the trust after she had become incapacitated.

Both accused the other of elder abuse and wanted the other to be disinherited. The case was in a standoff for months. It progressed very slowly through the court system.

This case shows the mistakes people make when resolving trust disputes. These
include:

1. Trying to settle disputes without the assistance of an experienced probate litigation attorney.
This area of law is very complicated and confusing – even to lawyers who do not work regularly in the area of probate disputes.
Statutes of limitations can be detrimental to resolving disputes if the disputes are not handled properly (and within the required time).

2. Not going to court when there is the possibility of a conflict of interest.
If you are both trustee and beneficiary, it can be tricky to avoid the appearance of acting in self-interest when dividing assets.
In such situations you should file a petition with the court asking for court guidance on how to distribute the assets and avoid conflict of interest.

The best way to avoid mistakes when navigating a trust dispute is to enlist the support of a skilled probate litigation attorney.

With the assistance of a qualified attorney, you may be able to settle an affair outside of court, saving you time and money.

Either way, an experienced attorney will help you prevent, negotiate, settle and litigate disputes to avoid costly losses.

If you have any questions about resolving trust disputes, I’d love to help. Give us a call.

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Resolving Disputes Involving Guardianships and Conservatorships

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Resolving Disputes Involving Guardianships and ConservatorshipsDisputes involving guardianships and conservatorships can be confusing and overwhelming for most people. The single biggest mistake I see in this area is people not consulting a probate litigation attorney. An experienced attorney will not only be familiar with the applicable statutes and case law, but will also know the applicable probate rules. Here is what you need to know about resolving disputes involving guardianships and conservatorships.

Guardianships and conservatorships is one of those areas of law that the uninitiated simply cannot tackle alone. People serving as guardians or conservators find themselves in a position where they are expected to be an expert on a complex topic they likely know little about. This is fertile ground for anger, surprises, greed and revenge among heirs and family members. While some guardianship and conservatorship matters are settled peacefully and amicably among family members and heirs, many times the actions by the guardian or conservator can engender disputes and bad feelings.

I recently worked with a prominent family in the Phoenix area to help the adult children resolve a dispute about their mother’s money. It turned out that one sister who had been named trustee and financial (general) power of attorney was mismanaging funds. To rectify this, I helped the other siblings file for conservatorship. We were able to obtain copies of all the financial documents and track all the funds that had been held in the mother’s trust and LLC.

After examining the financial documents, we could then force the sister who had been serving as trustee and financial power of attorney to pay back the money she’d stolen from the trust and business. We then replaced her with a professional trustee. (My clients became co-conservators.) We resolved this dispute in a cost-effective and family-oriented manner while maintaining the family’s privacy, thus avoiding public drama that would have tarnished the family name and reputation.

Conservators and guardians make important decisions on behalf of a loved one. But if the conservator or guardian is not living up to the responsibilities of the position you do have options. A probate litigation attorney can help you assess your unique situation and give you direction.

If you are an heir or if you’re serving as a guardian or conservator and you’ve found yourself in a dispute, don’t wait and hope the problem will go away on its own. Enlist the help of a probate litigation attorney right away.

In our next post we will look at solving disputes that involve trusts. If you have questions about guardianships and conservatorships, or other probate issues, please comment below or contact our office.

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Solving Disputes Involving Estates

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Solving Disputes Involving EstatesResolving disputes over estates, wills and trusts is often a delicate process. In a previous post we looked at the definition of a probate dispute (a dispute or conflict among family members that arises while settling a deceased loved one’s estate). As we’d seen, resolution to these conflicts doesn’t always come easily. An experienced probate and dispute litigation attorney can help you navigate the complex and often-confusing situations associated with settling an estate.

Consider a case where I represented two brothers in an estate dispute. The father had died a number of years earlier, and the mother had remarried. Later, both she and her second husband passed away. Before their deaths, the mother and her second husband – the stepfather – had revised their estate plans so the stepdfather’s children were in charge of everything after both parents died.

Instead of selling and distributing the home and assets, the stepsiblings moved into the parents’ home and refused to distribute the estate. (The estate included personal items of my client’s father: military medals, family heirlooms, photos and other irreplaceable family keepsakes). The stepsiblings were even threatening to give away or donate many of these treasured family heirlooms.

I helped resolve this dispute by going to court and obtaining orders to force the stepsiblings to turn over the heirlooms. We negotiated a resolution that saved my clients a lot time, money and further heartache. In the end everything was distributed fairly according to their parents’ wishes.

That was one case, all-too similar to many others. Here are a few questions to consider in estate disputes, where the assistance of a dispute-litigation attorney is beneficial:

  1. Who should be the personal representative or executor?
  2. Is the personal representative or executor doing what he or she is supposed to be doing?
  3. Is the will valid?
  4. Was there a will but is someone hiding it?
  5. Is a stepfather or stepmother in charge of the estate? Or are stepsiblings in charge of the estate?

The best way to solve an estate dispute is to address the issue when it arises, rather than waiting to see how it might play out. Seek the assistance of an experienced litigation attorney as soon as possible after your loved one passes away. This is true whether you have been nominated to be in charge of the estate or if you’re a beneficiary.

With an attorney assisting you in an estate dispute, you will have the advantage of an experienced guide to help you navigate a complex legal system. The dispute will be resolved in less time than if you were to attempt it on your own. You’ll also have peace of mind knowing that the estate will be settled as your loved one intended.

If you have any questions about resolving an estate dispute, please contact our office. We’d love to help.

[will write up an alternate CTA to send people to the quiz/whitepaper that will be the next step in the gravity well]

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Probate Disputes: How to Deal with Estate Conflict After Someone has Died

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How to Deal with Estate Conflict After Someone has DiedSettling an estate after a loved one’s death is a complex process.  The process can be even more challenging if detrimental disagreements and conflict arise among the various people who believe they are entitled to an inheritance from the estate. The court offers a recourse to resolve such probate disputes.

Here are five of the most common probate disputes that arise after someone has died:

  1. Who should be in control of a deceased person’s property? (In other words, who should be named the Executor or Personal Representative?)
  2. Has a trustee or personal representative done something wrong? Or has that person failed to do what was required?
  3. Did someone do something wrong prior to the person’s death? (For example, did someone acting as a guardian or conservator or agent under a power of attorney do something wrong?  Perhaps a trustee helped himself or herself to money held in trust?)
  4. Who should get the property of a deceased person?
  5. Is the last will and testament valid or was it forged? Or was the deceased person pressured to sign it?

The most common probate disputes arise when the personal representative or executor of an estate is doing a poor job of fulfilling executory responsibilities.

Let’s look at a hypothetical example. When Sue dies, her son Richard is appointed as personal representative. Instead of selling Sue’s house and splitting the proceeds between his siblings (as Sue’s will specifies), Richard moves in and takes up permanent residence. He never sells the house or distributes the proceeds to the rest of the family.

To complicate matters further, Sue has had a mortgage on the home and a loan on her Buick. Her will had stated that these assets – the home, the car – were to be sold with the money from the sale distributed equally between her children, but Richard begins making the payments to the bank so the bank never complains.  Richard doesn’t take very good care of the house and car, and at some point, Richard loses his job and stops making the payments to the bank.  Now the value of the house and car have gone down and the bank is threatening to foreclose on the house and repossess the car.

Richard’s sister Beth has had enough and doesn’t want to see their mother’s legacy squandered by her brother’s failure to live up to his responsibilities as personal representative. Beth calls the police to get help evicting her brother, but the police wont’ get involved in such cases, except to prevent physical violence.

This is where probate court and a probate litigation attorney can help.

But probate should be brought in quickly. One of the biggest mistakes people make in situations similar to this is waiting too long to hire an attorney. Delayed action can result in disappearing assets.

Another common mistake is hiring an attorney who has little or no experience in probate litigation. An attorney without direct experience in resolving probate disputes won’t be able to advise you properly and may in fact leave you with the impression that nothing can be done.

Dealing with disputes when settling an estate can be quite tricky. Finding common ground in any situation may be extremely difficult without the help of a qualified lawyer. If you’re dealing with a complex situation, don’t attempt to handle the situation without the help of a skilled probate litigation attorney.

Probate attorneys do more than provide legal information. They will serve as your legal “coach” and will help you to arrive at the best possible outcome.

And working with an attorney who knows how to solve general probate disputes will give you confidence that your loved one’s estate will be handled properly.

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What’s a Probate Emergency?

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What's a Probate EmergencyThings can get out of hand, even under the best circumstances, when caring for a loved one or settling an estate.

Probate court helps families arrange care for loved ones who are aging or incapacitated. After a loved one passes away, probate court helps a family sort through and settle their affairs.

It generally takes many months, sometimes more, to settle a case, depending on where you live and the complexity of your situation. Sometimes, however, families need immediate action from the court.

Here are a few examples of emergency probate situations that could require immediate legal intervention from probate court.
• If an elderly person is on the point of being evicted because bills haven’t been paid. A judge can appoint a temporary conservator to help resolve the situation until a permanent conservator can be appointed.

• If a person is not receiving necessary medical treatment for a life-threatening condition. The court can be petitioned to appoint a temporary conservatory.

• If assets are being stolen from the estate or trust of someone who has passed away, a judge can appoint a special administrator or special trustee.

Although some people feel that the police should be called in to resolve an emergency probate situation, the police have no jurisdiction in civil matters involving a guardianship, conservatorship, trust dispute or a decedent’s estate.

What people can do is provide evidence showing a high likelihood of imminent harm or danger unless the court acts immediately. For example, in a situation involving guardianships or conservatorships, you must present the judge with a physician’s note that clearly states, “An immediate guardianship is necessary.”

It’s essential to provide sufficient evidence to prevent a dismissal of any petition. This is where it’s important to have an attorney working with you. Most people who try to represent themselves to establish an emergency situation don’t know enough about the complexities of probate law to provide the judge or commissioner sufficient supporting information.

Here are a few of the other common mistakes people make in probate emergencies:

• Doing nothing after being told by the police the probate emergency is a civil matter.

• Taking away an elderly parent without letting anyone else know, to prevent the parent being placed into a nursing home you didn’t approve of. This can be considered a criminal action.

• Securing valuables from the decedent’s estate to protect them

A probate emergency situation arises when there is immediate danger, immediate harm to either a person, to property or the trust. You must be able to prove to the court that your situation requires immediate action. A lawyer can help with this to ensure the time response that is critical to helping you receive the assistance you need. You don’t have to navigate the waters of probate alone. We can help.

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Estate Planning: What Is a Guardianship?

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What Is a GuardianshipAs one generation matures another one needs care. Children are suddenly faced with dealing with their aging parents. This shift of roles, however natural it may seem, can be difficult. Illness, injury or long-term condition can leave a parent or loved one needing a little (or a lot) of extra help.

Legal guardianship may be necessary to allow you to help your loved one(s) make the legal, financial and healthcare decisions that are needed for their well-being.

A legal guardianship comes with a number of responsibilities. First, let’s define a few terms:

Guardianship. The legal right given to a person who will be responsible for assisting a person who is deemed to be fully or partially incapable of providing for him- or herself.

Guardian. The person granted guardianship over an incapacitated person

Ward (called an Incapacitated Person in Arizona). A person who is deemed to be fully or partially incapable of providing for him- or herself.

A guardian makes decisions about how the ward lives. These decisions include:

  • It’s important to make sure your ward is getting regular, healthy meals. Malnutrition is common in the elderly.
  • Doctors’ appointments, administering medication, ensuring the ward gets regular checkups are all an important part of guardianship.
  • If your loved on is not safe living alone, it is the guardian’s responsibility to arrange and pay for housing from the estate funds or government benefits. (The guardian is not personally responsible for paying for this expense out of pocket.)
  • Annual reporting. Filing annual guardian reports with the court is also one of a guardian’s responsibilities.

The guardian should assist the ward in maintaining as much independence and autonomy as possible, and should consider the ward’s value system, religious beliefs, wants and desires when making decisions on the ward’s behalf.

Guardianship has its limitations, and it certainly isn’t a magic wand. As a guardian, you cannot force your ward to take medications or to be more compliant. But you can make a difference in the overall care of a ward. And in especially tough situations a guardian can work with the courts to get a court order to make sure the ward in question gets the care and support needed.

Acting as guardian for an aging parent or loved one is an important role. Loved ones may need your help with the most intimate care as they age, which can be demanding and draining. And fraught with uncertainty regarding your responsibility and your ability to take action.

If you have any questions about legal guardianships, I’d love to help. Leave a comment below or contact our office.

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Trust Management: 3 Top Mistakes Trustees Make

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Trust Management 3 Top Mistakes Trustees MakeServing as a trustee is a big responsibility that can be complicated and confusing. It’s easy to fall into trouble if you’re misinformed or careless in the trust management. Keep in mind these three pitfalls when serving as trustee:

  1. Breaching fiduciary duties. Fiduciary duty is the highest legal duty of care recognized by the U.S. legal system. The most common example of breaching duties is when a trustee uses the trust to pay for personal expenses or purchases.
  2. Failing to keep beneficiaries informed. Trustees have the duty to keep beneficiaries “reasonably informed about the administration of the trust and of the material facts necessary for them to protect their interests.” Thus, beneficiaries are entitled to periodic accountings showing investments, disbursements and expenses. If a trustee is not transparent with these actions, he or she may be subject to legal action.
  3. Breaking the law. This can involve theft – the most common way a trustee may break the law – or the failure to pay taxes.

A trustee who doesn’t act in the best interest of the trust may be subject to consequences in civil court. The most common of these – for trustees who are also beneficiaries of an estate – is a surcharge, which is a legal term under probate law for a type of lawsuit that will reduce the trustee’s portion of the inheritance to return any losses to the trust that have been incurred because of mismanagement by the trustee. A trustee can also be personally liable for losses resulting from mismanaging assets in the trust.

If you’re concerned that a trustee is mismanaging your loved one’s trust, it’s important to seek help  immediately from an experienced probate attorney.

Many people want to avoid going to court to resolve their probate issues, but probate court exists to help families sort through the process of settling an estate. In fact, probate court can be particularly beneficial when a trustee is either a family member or a friend, because emotions and stress can complicate these situations.

If you’re a trustee and feel over your head in fulfilling your duties, attorneys can help you avoid pitfalls. You don’t have to do it alone. Consider hiring an attorney, bookkeeper, accountant or even a corporate trustee to work with you. A little bit of help can prevent not only mistakes but undue stress during an already-stressful time.

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  • 8

Estate Planning Basics: Trust Assets and Probate Assets

Estate Planning Basics Trust Assets and Probate AssetsEstate planning isn’t just for the wealthy. It’s an important element of protecting the people you love and the legacy you want to leave behind. An estate is made up of assets.

Assets can be any form of cash, physical property or intangible benefits. These include:

•  A house
•  other real estate
•  business interests
•  stocks, bonds, and mutual funds
•  money-market accounts
•  brokerage accounts
•  royalty contracts, patents, and copyrights
•  jewelry and antiques
•  precious metals
•  works of art
•  valuable collections

For estate-planning purposes, assets fall into two main categories: trust assets and probate assets. Assets held within a trust [link to post on trusts] are referred to as trust assets. Assets that are not within the trust are called probate assets. I’d like to outline the two, and show why creating trust assets is preferable in estate planning.

Trust assets

The advantage of putting assets into a trust include reduced estate taxes and greater control in how your descendants will receive their inheritance. When you put your assets into a trust, you no longer own the assets legally, which become known as trust assets.

You can decide what you’d like to be put into a trust, to become a trust asset, and you do this by having the item or property or deed officially given to the trust, with a title in the form of a deed or other legal documentation. For example, a certificate of title for a car owned by a trust should show John Doe, Trustee, or something similar indicates that it’s the trust that owns the asset, and not John Doe himself. There are various ways to transfer property such as jewelry, art, coins and other collectables, and an estate planning attorney can assist with this.

Probate assets

All assets that are not included in the trust are probate assets. A court proceeding is necessary to determine how these probate assets can be distributed. Thus, it makes sense to consider assigning assets to a trust, to avoid having your heirs go through probate court to receive any legacies you have assigned them.

The actual act of transferring assets to a trust can be a bit complicated and challenging, even for an attorney who has some experience with this process. But it’s worth the time to work with an experienced estate attorney to set up a trust for assets so that your estate can run smoothly.

Get help from someone who is skilled in estate planning and probate. It’s critical that you have legal documentation that the trust owns the assets. Without such documentation, these assets cannot be distributed as part of the trust and, as I mentioned, they’re considered probate assets.

The consequences of a poorly planned estate can affect not only the peace of mind of your survivors, but can be detrimental to the value and distribution of the assets you leave behind.

Find an experienced attorney who is familiar with probate law and asset protection in your state to protect your family and protect your legacy. [link to service line questionnaire]

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  • 0

When to Get Help from an Arizona Probate Attorney

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When to Get Help with ProbateDo-it-yourself projects can range from remodeling your home to engineering homebrew biodiesel to fixing your car to building worm-composting systems. But just because you can do something yourself, doesn’t necessarily mean you should. If you are named as a Personal Representative or trustee, and some of the property is in Arizona, you need to hire an experienced Arizona probate attorney.

That means, especially, something as important as probate.

Managing and settling an estate is one thing that may not be well-suited to doing it on your own. In some cases, settling an estate can be done without the assistance of an attorney. But in most situations, settling an estate can be quite complex and difficult to navigate on your own. If you make mistakes as a personal representative, you may pay more in penalties than you would pay for an attorney to help execute the will.

The two most common mistakes probate DIYers make when managing an estate are these: The failure to maintain adequate documentation, and the failure to pay taxes or creditors before distributing assets.

Unfortunately, it’s easier to make mistakes than to avoid them. Probate is a technical area of law that varies for each unique situation.

In most cases, you can’t really do it by scanning the Internet. Here are 10 tricky areas of settling an estate that an attorney can help you navigate:

  1. Dealing with creditors
  2. Sending the proper documents to interested parties
  3. Making sure the proper forms are filed with the court
  4. Locating and interpreting your estate planning documents
  5. Making sure you know how to properly protect the deceased person’s
    property
  6. Creating an accurate inventory of probate assets 
  7. Adequately informing necessary parties about a person’s death: bankers, insurance companies, the Social Security Administration.
  8. Discussing the division of assets with the heirs
  9. Keeping adequate records, especially if you’re being reimbursed for your
    time serving as personal representative
  10. Making sure tax forms get filed properly

Most people have minimal knowledge of the technical legal aspects involved in
settling an estate. What may seem to be just a simple mistake could actually result in fines, lawsuits and a lot unnecessary struggle and grief during an already stressful time.

If you are serving as a personal representative, it is your duty to make sure the estate is handled correctly. You don’t have to do it yourself. Seeking qualified help is the best way from protecting yourself from mistakes and their consequences.

If you have questions about whether you need an attorney to help you settle an estate, we can help. Comment below or contact our office.

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  • 0

The Role of a Personal Representative, Part 2

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The Role of an Estate Planning Representative, Part 2As I mentioned in my previous video, a good estate plan covers key life decisions. Your personal representative will be the one to make the necessary decisions to carry out your wishes.

Here are further responsibilities, based on the law in Arizona, but pertinent no matter where you live in the U.S.

  1. Provide an inventory of assets. This is where having an attorney with some experience comes in handy to help you classify different types of assets, especially personal property like furniture, ceramics or porcelain and photographs.
  2. Comply with the applicable standards of care. As personal representative, you are required to perform duties with prudence, reasonable care and caution.
  3. Keep detailed records. Keep and maintain records of everything: copies of checks, receipts, bills. Everything. You need to be able to prove where every dollar goes. So, avoid dealing in cash.
  4. Pay valid debts and expenses. There’s a specific procedure for determining whether a debt is valid. This takes into account all the debt and how to treat creditors equally as part of a personal representative’s fiduciary duty.
  5. Pay applicable taxes. Always pay applicable taxes before paying creditors and distributing assets.
  6. Distribute remaining assets. After all taxes and expenses have been paid, the remainder of assets can be distributed as the will has specified.
  7. Change the address of the estate. Until probate is closed and you complete your role as personal representative, you must notify the court in writing if you move or if your mailing address changes.
  8. Document payment your receipt of payment as personal representative. It’s important to document meticulously the time you’ve spent and the expenses you’ve incurred when seeking reimbursement from the estate you’re managing.
  9. Court involvement. The court prefers minimal involvement in settling estates where a personal representative has been appointed, but will get involved if the estate is not closed within two years.

To be sure your wishes are carried out, carefully select a personal representative for your estate. A little extra planning now can protect your family’s future. You can read more about a personal representative’s duties here.

If you have any questions about the duties of a personal representative, I’d love to help.


  • 0

What are the Duties of a Personal Representative?

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What are the Duties of a Personal RepresentativeA good estate plan covers key life decisions such as what happens to your home and other assets if you die. It also addresses who will care for your children and financial assets if you pass away. Your personal representative will be the one to make the necessary decisions to carry out your wishes.

The role of personal representative is a big responsibility. Settling the estate of a deceased person requires attention to detail. It’s important to select someone who is qualified for this position regardless of your net worth.

Specific duties and responsibilities can vary slightly from state to state. I practice in Arizona, but in this two-part overview, you’ll be able to get a sense of the duties of a personal representative, regardless of where you live in the United States.

  1. Act as personal representative. Perform fiduciary duty of fairness and impartiality to the beneficiaries and to the creditors, to be cautious and prudent in dealing with the state assets.
  2. Gather, control and manage estate assets. This is not moving into the deceased parent’s house and taking over assets for personal use. The personal representative oversees the execution of the will and makes sure that the assets are distributed according to the will.
  3. Provide notice of the appointment. You will need to notify your state’s revenue department and all of the heirs and devisees that you have been appointed. These heirs and devisees have four months to contest the probate.
  4. Provide notice of the admission of the will to probate. This is a form that gets filed with the court and delivered to those involved in the estate. It explains the duties and responsibilities of a personal representative.
  5. Mail copies of the order to the personal representative. You must mail copies of the order to the personal representative to the heirs and devisees.
  6. File proof of compliance. A notarized statement must be filed with the court affirming that the order to the personal representative was sent out.
  7. Publish notice to creditors with the court. You will need to notify creditors that they have a certain period of time to file a claim and give them instructions on how to file and pursue being paid.
  8. Protect assets. It is your responsibility to secure and keep valuables safe.
  9. Determine whether there are any statutory allowances. Statutory allowances can include a homestead allowance, exempt property allowance and a family allowance.

We will continue with this list in our next post. This is an important part of estate-planning. It doesn’t have to be complicated, but it does help if you have a sense of what the roles and responsibilities of a personal representative are.

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  • 4

Probate Basics: 5 Things You Should Know About Probate

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Managing a loved one’s estate that’s gone into probate can be overwhelming and more than a bit confusing. But it doesn’t have to be. Here are some probate basics that can help you start to understand this process.

With proper estate planning, you can avoid a lot of the drama often associated with legal proceedings.

Most people don’t know how to properly plan their estates or the granting of their final wishes – so remaining family members are left to sort through an often-confusing mess. But if you understand what probate is – and how it benefits you – you can take the first step to avoiding drama and confusion.

5 Things You Should Know About ProbateLG

What is probate law?

Technical definition: Probate is a court-supervised process where a will or a trust is established to be the decedent’s valid will. It concerns validity.

But probate also applies to instances where someone is incapacitated, or when there’s a trust that’s been established (and there is a dispute that needs to be resolved). In general, probate refers to any court proceedings that deal with the deceased or incapacitated person’s affairs. (Probate court does not apply to murder, malpractice or other wrongful death cases.)

Translation: Probate is the first step in the legal process after someone dies, or if a living person is unable to make further decisions about his or her estate. The parties involved in settling the estate will go to probate court where a judge (no jury) will review the case and help straighten things out to settle the affairs of the deceased or incapacitated person.

Probate court accomplishes five basic things:

  1. Proves that the deceased or otherwise incapacitated person’s will is valid (this is usually straightforward)
  2. Appoints a person to be in charge of gathering and inventorying assets, paying debts, and distributing the assets
  3. Pays any outstanding debts and taxes
  4. Resolves various disputes that can arise, such as who gets what personal property or how much the house should be sold for
  5. Distributes the remaining property as the will directs (or under state law if there’s no will).

Benefits of Probate

Probate sometimes gets a bad rap. It’s expensive, it’s scary, it’s overwhelming: These are just a few complaints I hear often. There are regulations in place, however, to protect you. Lawyers can charge only what’s considered a reasonable amount for their service in probate.

Here are a few of the benefits of probate that make it a worthwhile proceeding.

  1. Probate gives you options. You can have a say in making sure things are taken care of correctly, according to directions given in the deceased persons’ will.
  2. Probate gives heirs and beneficiaries a voice. Probate gives you recourse should you need help as a beneficiary and heir to make sure the will is carried out properly.
  3. Probate provides perspective. In probate you get the benefit of having multiple people look at issues from various angles, which makes it more likely that you will find a decision that everyone will agree on.

For the most part, probate is a relatively quick and easy way to work out these details. Most cases get resolved within a few months.

To sum up, probate is a court that you can go to whenever someone either dies or becomes incapacitated. It’s a way of not only resolving issues that come up, but also of preventing issues both for the protection of the person in charge and for the other heirs involved.

Do you have any questions about probate? I’d love to help. Leave a comment below or give our office a call.

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  • 0

Appearing Pro Per: Why You Shouldn’t Represent Yourself (even if you’re a lawyer)

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There is a trend for people to represent themselves more and more in legal matters. This is called appearing “in propria persona” or “pro per.” But unless it is an extremely simple legal matter (such as a speeding ticket or small claims court dispute), you are always going to be better served by having an experienced legal advocate on your side. Here are the top 4 reasons why you shouldn’t represent yourself (even if you’re a lawyer) in probate court.
Reason #1: Even if there is no dispute now, there could be if you do something wrong. If you are the person in charge, such as the personal representative or trustee, then you are held to a very high standard. You have a fiduciary duty to act in the best interest of the estate, to act fairly, and to administer the estate or trust expeditiously. But the applicable probate statutes, plus case law, are complicated even for lawyers who practice exclusively in this area. And if you make a wrong move (such as distributing money to the wrong people), you can be held personally liable. Is it really worth saving a few thousand dollars to risk this much personal liability?
Reason #2: You don’t know the applicable law and rules of procedure. Unless you are an experienced probate and estate planning attorney, you are at a severe disadvantage. You are expected to know all of the applicable probate statutes, plus the probate rules, plus the civil rules (to the extent that they do not conflict with the probate rules). Then there are the softer issues, such as knowing when the hearsay rule or the Dead Man’s Statute apply. (Hint: Even if you can recite these rules by heart, that has very little to do with their application in real life during a real evidentiary hearing.)
Reason #3: You are taken more seriously by the opposing parties (and the court) if you have a lawyer. In grade school, did you ever have an older sibling, or a friend, who could help you stand up to a bully or show you the ropes of how to deal with social situations? I had an older sister who would give me straight-forward advice about how to handle various social situations. Or have you ever gone to a party in which you didn’t know anyone? That is a lot easier with a “buddy” as well. Having a lawyer is somewhat like this. You don’t need to always worry that you might forget something or do something wrong, because your lawyer has your back and is helping you navigate the system.
Reason #4: You can’t see outside your own bottle. We all imagine that we are the stars of our own movies. Yet we don’t know how others perceive us. Are we being taken seriously? Do our legal arguments make sense to other people? Is our line of thinking persuasive? There is a saying among attorneys that “An attorney who chooses to represent himself in court has a fool for a client.” Even lawyers who routinely handle legal matters know better than to handle their own cases. The reason is this: We (as lawyers) would be too emotionally involved in our own situation to be able to make rational decisions. This hurts us when it comes to making sound, logical decisions. It also hinders our ability to see the big picture, possible flaws in our thinking, and possible solutions.
If this applies to lawyers who routinely handle legal matters, then it applies even more to non-lawyers. There is definitely an advantage to hiring an experienced advocate to handle your legal drama for you. It will get done quicker and have a higher likelihood of success.

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