Articles Posted in PROBATE

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There was a time when only legitimate children–i.e., children born to a lawfully married couple–could inherit property from a parent. Modern law in California and most states have largely eliminated the distinction between legitimate and illegitimate children, but it can still be an issue in some probate situations.

For example, a court in the Canadian province of Ontario recently denied a man a share of his late grandmother’s estate because he was born out of wedlock. The grandmother’s will, which she signed in 1977, left shares to each of her “children” or their descendants. Ontario law at the time defined “children” as only including those born in wedlock. Ironically, Ontario changed the law in 1978 to include illegitimate children, but the court in this case said that did not apply to pre-1978 wills.

Establishing Paternity When There is No Will

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If you die without a will, California’s intestacy law dictates how your estate must be distributed. For example, if you are married at the time of your death, your spouse is entitled to a certain share of your property under intestacy. But if you are legally separated when you die, then your spouse does not inherit.

Living Apart Does Not Necessarily Prove the Marriage is Over

What does “legally separated” actually mean? Is it enough if you and your spouse are living in different homes? A California appeals court recently addressed this question in the context of a tragic case from Los Angeles.

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Not every California estate has to go through a formal probate administration. If you do careful estate planning and transfer all of your personal assets into a living trust, for example, you can ideally leave no probate estate at all. But even if you do not have a trust, if you leave a California estate worth $150,000 or less, your heirs can use a simplified affidavit process to transfer certain personal property without going to court.

Court Penalizes Stepdaughter for “Fraudulent” Affidavit

The affidavit process only applies to personal property such as bank accounts and stocks, and not real estate, like your house. The person who has the legal right to inherit the property must file the affidavit after your death. If you have a will, that means the beneficiaries you named to inherit your property. If you do not leave a will–i.e., you die intestate–then your heirs under California law have the right to file the affidavit.

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A person is free to dispose of property as he or she wishes by making a will. There are cases in which a person may enter into a written contract to make certain provisions in their will in exchange for certain considerations. For example, a father may promise to make a will leaving his house to his daughter. In exchange, the daughter agrees to move in with her father and take care of him in his final years.

Court Rejects Breach of Contract Claim Due to Late Filing

When there is an offer, acceptance, and consideration, a contract to make a will is legally binding in California. This means if the person who promises to make the will fails to do so before he or she dies, the other party may have grounds to file a breach of contract lawsuit. Under California law, such lawsuits must be filed within one year of the decedent’s death.

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Many Californians are self-employed or own their own small business. If you are among this group, it is important to make appropriate provisions in your estate planning, especially if you have partners, employees, or family members who need to continue the business after your death. The type of planning required will depend on the specific legal structure of your business.

Sole Proprietorships

A sole proprietor is anyone who is self-employed and does not incorporate his or her business. This can include anything from a work-at-home consultant to someone who operates a retail store with multiple employees. Basically, if you file a Schedule C with your federal tax return and you do not have any partners, you are a sole proprietor.

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In a typical probate administration, the personal representative named in the deceased person’s will must pay off any valid debts presented to the estate. What if the decedent was already in bankruptcy at the time of his or her death? What happens to the bankruptcy case?

Bankruptcy and probate are actually similar legal procedures. Both require a third party to take possession of a person’s assets. In bankruptcy that person is a court-appointed trustee, while in probate it is the personal representative. A bankruptcy trustee does not take all of a debtor’s assets, however, only those that are not specifically exempt from bankruptcy or creditor judgments. Those assets remain with the debtor and pass to his probate estate–and thus the personal representative–upon death.

Chapter 7 vs. Chapter 13

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There are a number of small questions you might have about to estate planning. For instance, what happens to your credit cards after you die? Does your estate have to pay the bill? Or can the credit card issuer go after your wife or children to collect the unpaid balance?

Credit Card Issuers Must Prove Debt

Death does not automatically terminate a credit card agreement. If the account was solely in the deceased person’s name, the credit card issuer may file a claim for the unpaid balance with the estate. If the account was jointly held with a spouse or another individual, that person may still be liable for the debt. Otherwise, a credit card company cannot pursue relatives for the debt.

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When you set up any kind of trust, it is important to consider the potential relationship between the trustee and any beneficiaries. In a revocable living trust, for example, the person making the trust often serves as the initial trustee. But when that person dies, a successor trustee must assume responsibility for the trust and make distributions to the beneficiaries according to the trustmaker’s instructions. Obviously, this process will go a lot smoother if there is a good relationship between the trustee and the beneficiary.

Trustee Ends Up Paying for Dealing With “Demanding” Beneficiary

Here is an example, taken from a recent unpublished California appeals court decision, of what can go wrong when there is a poor relationship between trustee and beneficiary. This case actually involves an irrevocable trust–one where the trustmaker does not serve as initial trustee and cannot amend or revoke the trust once it is made. Such trusts are commonly used for tax planning and charitable giving purposes.

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If you have multiple children, it is a natural desire to provide for them equally in your estate plan. For some types of assets this is no big deal. You can easily divide a bank account into equal shares. But other types of property, such as real estate, can prove trickier to deal with. In many cases it may not be practical for multiple children to jointly inherit a parent’s home.

Son’s “Obstruction” Delays Sale of Property

A recent case from Santa Clara offers a helpful illustration. Here, a father of three adult children owned a 2.9-acre piece of land including a residence. The property was held in a revocable living trust. When the father died, his two daughters took over the trust as successor co-trustees.

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There are many questions you may have when thinking about estate planning. In addition to worrying about making a will, or setting up a trust, and dealing with decisions about whom to leave your property, there are also more mundane issues to consider. For example, do you still have to file tax returns after your death?

It probably will not come as a surprise that the answer is “yes.” Tax obligations do not end at death. In fact, death raises a number of tax issues that your surviving spouse (if you are married) or the executor of your estate will need to handle.

Personal Income Taxes

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