Category Archives: Heirs & Beneficiaries

Heirs plan to return ‘stolen’ art

Families pass a number of items through the generations via estate processes. Common traditional assets passed on to heirs include money, investments, life insurance and real estate. Families might also pass on property such as vehicles or family heirlooms or keepsakes. In some cases, valuables such as jewelry or art are also part of an estate. But what happens if you find out that something you inherited was obtained via illicit means sometime in the past?

One Texas family is dealing with just such a question. The heirs of a World War II tank commander inherited three paintings. The paintings most recently hung in a room in the assisted living facility where the soldier’s widow was living. According to the family, the soldier himself won the paintings in a fair poker game. However, the man’s stepson said that he still considered that the paintings were stolen goods because of how they were originally obtained.

The paintings were part of a German museum collection. During the war, the museum workers hid the paintings in a salt mine. Most of the collection was preserved, but several paintings were looted or found their way home with American soldiers. According to reports, the three paintings inherited by this family, as well as two paintings inherited by others, are being returned to Germany.

While you probably don’t have a looted WWII art piece among items passed down to you through estate processes, it isn’t impossible that estates or inheritances could include stolen or questionable items. In some cases, there are laws governing how these items should be handled. In other cases, it’s a matter of doing what you feel is right. Understanding where those lines are, and managing estate processes from all angles appropriately, can reduce stress and legal issues when such situations arise.

Source: The New York Times, “Returning the Spoils of World War II, Taken by Americans,” May. 05, 2015

What is the purpose of probate court?

You may have heard people whose loved ones have passed away state that they are waiting on their inheritance, but the “will is in probate.” What does that mean?

Probate is a court process for validating a will. A person may have created a handwritten will or a typed will; either way its legitimacy must be proved to be valid. Probate of a will must occur within a four-year time period from the time of death.

What happens in probate court? In court, verification that the will was executed properly per Texas’ requirements is performed. The deceased must have been at least 18 (unless lawfully married or serving in the military), have been “of sound mind,” not have been forced or deceived into writing the will and must have had intent to bequeath property or assets.

What is a self-proved will? A testator my incorporate into his or her will — or attach to it — an affidavit of a specific form that contains required statements to validate the will, and is signed by a notary public. A will that is just signed and notarized does not qualify as a self-proved will.

What if a will is not proven in the court? This would be a “denied probate.” It a will is found to not be credible, it would be as if there was never a will, and the decedent’s property or assets would go to his or her heirs in the same manner as it would without a will, which may not be the desire of the deceased.

Having a will that is executed properly is very important if you want your property bequeathed to your heirs in a specific way. The wording and validity of the will are both very important, or one or more of your heirs could contest the will, holding it up in probate court for months or even years. An estate attorney can ensure that all of the “i’s” are dotted and “t’s” crossed, giving you peace of mind.

Source: Texas Young Lawyers Association, “Texas Probate Passport,” accessed April. 30, 2015

Robin Williams’ family feuds over the handling of his property

If you own an estate in Texas, should you put it in a trust, or is a will sufficient to ensure that your property is dispersed the way you desire?

That is a good question, and one that you may well want to take up with an estate attorney. In Robin Williams’ case, he decided to put his estate into a trust. However, with his passing away in August last year, it has his current wife and adult children in a feud over memorabilia and other items.

Williams’ current wife alleges that some of his personal items were removed without permission. She also filed papers in December to have the contents of their home excluded from the adult children’s inheritance.

According to the wife’s attorney, she has worked with them amicably on distributing hundreds of items belonging to Williams already, and he believes they will be able to work through the rest. However, she does want their wedding presents and claims that Williams’ intended certain assets and funds to be reserved for her home’s maintenance.

So, is a trust worthwhile if the family is still feuding over Williams’ estate and property? There are many advantages to a trust. For instance, if the estate had been in a will, the issues that are being resolved now, and the items that are being dispersed, would probably spend months or years in probate court. One person in the family can hold the entire estate ransom while probate is ongoing.

Another advantage to a trust is that it is private. It is not made public, and does not go through probate court. In Williams’ case, he gave his trustees full discretion of how his personal property should be distributed. He apparently trusted them to work it out with the attorneys on both sides, which in the long run, may require mediation.

When setting up a trust, you have the option to provide your own personal instructions as to how you want your property handled. You can eliminate a lot of family quarrels in this way. There may also be tax advantages when using a trust. An estate attorney can provide advice and explain the differences between trusts and wills, helping you to decide what is better for your situation.

Source: Watertown Daily Times, “Robin Williams’ wife, children head to court in estate fight,” March. 30, 2015

Battle begins over ownership of home after Texas woman’s passing

When a woman and her husband first were married, back in the mid 1990s, they set up wills that would basically just leave all of the assets and wealth to the surviving spouse if one of them ended up passing away. When they got divorced in 2007, things clearly had to change. As the couple had both a waterfront home and another home in Texas, they determined that the husband would get to keep the home in Texas and that the wife would get the waterfront home.

In fact, the woman even went to that home after the divorce and lived there until she passed away. She was just 43 years old. The property was special to her because her family had owned the land for generations.

After her death, which her ex-husband learned about on the Internet, he came forward with the older wills, saying that he was entitled to the lakefront property. Under the terms of those wills, which gave everything to the surviving spouse, he said he should get both plots of land.

The woman’s family, though, says that they worked on paperwork to keep the lakefront house in the family. Her parents essentially gave up their right to it so that it would go to the woman’s brothers instead. The whole case is now set to go to court as both sides believe that the legal paperwork says that they should be given the house.

This story shows just how important it is not only to have a will, but to clearly alter or replace that will when a major change must be made to the estate plan.

Source: Watertown Daily Times, “State’s highest court to consider Clayton woman’s disputed will” Brian Kelly, Feb. 28, 2015

Estate planning: Take care when naming beneficiaries on accounts

Any Texas resident may be able to benefit from strong estate planning — you don’t have to be rich to want to protect your heirs. In fact, you might be taking estate planning measures without even realizing it when you set up certain accounts or policies, such as savings bonds or life insurance. Keeping your overall estate planning goal in mind when selecting beneficiaries for such accounts can save future trouble and help protect your heirs.

Some mistakes people often make in completing beneficiary forms include naming a single minor or disabled person as the beneficiary. Sure, you want the assets to pass to your children, but if they are minors or are not capable of handling the assets for other reasons, you should make provisions on beneficiary forms and in estate plans. Name someone you trust to handle the money on behalf of the minor, or the court may do it for you.

Naming your estate as a beneficiary is a tactic that can help save on taxes and protect your assets, but it doesn’t work for every type of account. In some cases, the payout and tax structures related to an individual beneficiary are more flexible than those related to an estate.

In addition to choosing the right beneficiary when completing forms, it’s also a good idea to review beneficiary forms from time to time as estate needs change. If there is any reason to change your will, for example, you should probably review beneficiary designations to ensure they are in line with your new wishes.

Estate planning can get complicated, especially if you have multiple accounts and policies with different beneficiary forms. Third-party assistance can help you combine all the parts of your estate in a cohesive plan that protects your wishes and your heirs.

Source: The Wall Street Journal, “Beware the Beneficiary Form” Carolyn T. Geer, accessed Feb. 10, 2015

How can Texas heirs access unclaimed property?

Strong estate planning and administration reduces the chance that your property will sit unused or lost in a legal system for years. However, there are times when unclaimed property is listed by the state because someone has not properly claimed. The state of Texas offers some guidelines for heirs who are trying to reclaim such property.

First, the heir must provide a death certificate and proof of social security number for the person who is reported as the owner of the property. If property is valued over $5,000, then the death certificate must be a certified copy.

If the reported owner had a will and that will was probated, then the heir must also submit the will and either an Order Admitting Will to Probate as Muniment of Title or an Order Admitting to Probate. Closing documents must also be provided if the estate was closed.

In the absence of a will or probate, then requirement documentation depends on the value of the property. If the property is valued more than $10,000, a Small Estates Affidavit of Heirship or a Court’s Determination of Heirship are required. Both of those documents do require the signature of a judge.

If the value of the property is $5,001 to $10,000, then a notarized Affidavit of Heirship is required. The affidavit must be completed by a third-party with no interest in the case and filed in the county where the owner of the property died. An Affidavit of Heirship is also required for property valued at $5,000 or less, but the location requirement is not present.

Seeking property owed to you as an heir can be difficult, whether the property is with the state’s unclaimed property office or not. Understanding your legal rights and options can help you seek an outcome that is most satisfactory.

Source: Window on State Government, “General Claims” Jan. 02, 2015

Tax benefits for older and younger family members

When you are picking a beneficiary, you have a lot of choices. For many people, the spouse is the clear first choice, since an individual retirement account can simply be transferred into the spouse’s name, making the whole process very seamless. As you will see, though, there are tax benefits to take into account, and they often relate to the age of the person that you choose.

To understand this, you have to think about how long the person is expected to live, as the payouts and tax deferments are tied directly to this. If you choose someone who is 60 years old already, he or she has far fewer years to take advantage of this than if you choose someone who is just five years old. The longer the deferments can last, the more beneficial they are going to be.

For this reason, many people will not give their IRA accounts to their spouses or their children, but to their grandchildren. Other assets can be left for older family members in Texas, while these accounts can be given where they have the biggest impact and where they do the most good — to the younger family members. The older members still benefit in a more immediate way, which helps them the most, while the grandchildren are provided for on a long-term basis that they will appreciate as they grow up.

Do you want to learn more about this entire process or about what you need to do when setting up the transfer of an IRA? If so, you should check out our page on estate plan methods today!

Robin Williams’ will and estate plan details revealed

Robin Williams passed away in early August of 2014, but he already had a will in place, which he signed on the last day of January 2011. He also had a prenuptial agreement with his wife, which was set up before the two got married. The details of his estate plan have now been, to some degree, revealed to the public.

It appears that the estate is going to be split between four main parties: his wife and his three children.

The details for his wife are less clear, as he simply asked that the things he had agreed upon in the prenuptial agreement be carried out. This means that his wife is going to get a portion of his wealth and assets.

For his children, a fairly strict plan based on age was established. The children will all get part of the estate, but they will each only get a third of the money when they reach the age of 21. At age 25, they will get half of what is left. At age 30, they will each get the rest of what they have inherited.

Some of the exact dates do not matter so much now, since his children have passed some of the thresholds. One of his sons is 31, and thereby entitled to the full share, and the other is 22, and therefore, only able to get the first third. His daughter is 25, so she will get the first third and half of what remains.

While an estate plan does not necessarily have to be complicated in Texas or any other state, it is important to have one in place in the event of an unexpected death.

Source: People, “Robin Williams Left Fortune to His Children and Wife” Nov. 13, 2014

Love animals? Make an animal charity your beneficiary

States like Texas have more than their share of animals, both domesticated and commercial. But like every other state, there are many domesticated animals in need of care and loving homes. If you are one of those animal-loving people who care deeply about animals, you are probably well aware of the need for volunteers and funds to care for animals in need. It is never-ending. Have you ever thought about putting a charitable contribution in your will to the ASPCA or making the ASPCA a beneficiary of your estate?

This is a great option for those who have accumulated a healthy estate during their lifetime and don’t have heirs, as well as for those who do have heirs. For those who do have heirs, you can leave a one-time sum to the charity or a percentage of your assets.

Even if you don’t have a large estate to plan distribution of, most people have a retirement plan, insurance policy, 401(k), 401(b) or an IRA of some kind. You can designate the ASPCA as a beneficiary. This is a great way to continue giving to something you cared deeply about in your lifetime. You do not have to give the full amount if you have other heirs you want to designate funds to. You can designate a percentage of the funds, or you can designate the ASPCA as the contingent beneficiary in case your primary beneficiary becomes deceased before you.

There are additional benefits to giving to a charity at your death. The death benefits from your retirement plan are usually taxable to an heir but not to charities. So this is tax-free giving. Also, because it is contingent on your death, while you are alive, your retirement plan is still accessible to you to do with as you please.

You might also consider naming the ASPCA as a beneficiary for investment accounts or bank accounts. This is a great way of sharing your love for our four-legged friends!

Source:, “Beneficiary Designations: A Gift to the ASPCA that Costs Nothing Now” Nov. 13, 2014

Wayne family members seek control of estate plan

For years, John Wayne ruled the windswept west of the silver screen, earning the nickname “Duke” from coworkers and fans. Even today, mention of the Duke still brings the rugged visage and slow drawl of the cowboy actor to mind for many in Texas and across the country. The Duke’s brand isn’t binding, though, since golden-age actors weren’t in the habit of trademarking every phrase that came their way.

Today, John Wayne’s heirs are fighting to keep the moniker in the family, but they are running up against opposition from Duke University. According to reports, Wayne Enterprises has ventured into legal skirmishes with the university since 2005. The latest court-related battle had to do with the Wayne’s heirs desire to use the Duke moniker to market alcoholic beverages such as bourbon.

The university’s argument against Wayne Enterprises using the name to market products is that such activity could dilute or harm the school’s brand. According to reports, Wayne Enterprises filed a suit in the matter in another state. However, the lawsuit was dismissed by the judge, who said the court didn’t have jurisdiction.

Estate issues don’t always revolve around physical assets or monetary concerns, as this case shows. And celebrities aren’t the only people who may leave behind intellectual property or other non-physical assets. Artists, writers, public figures and inventors are just some of the types of individuals who may leave behind difficult-to-classify valuables. Heirs who believe they are entitled to trademarks, royalties or control of intellectual property may have to seek legal protection over those rights, even in cases when the property or rights are included in a will or other document.

Source: Alvarado Star, “John Wayne’s heirs lose ‘Duke’ legal brawl” Oct. 01, 2014