Greater Boston Probate Attorney Reveals 8 Important Steps to Take After the Death of a Loved One

Probate stamp on a big folder of paperwork

As a Greater Boston Probate Attorney, I’m commonly asked, “What are the most important steps I need to take after the death of a loved one?”

While each situation is different, there are eight general tasks that I advise families to start with when attempting to finalize their loved one’s affairs and close out the estate. They are as follows:

 

  1. Secure all property– Secure and lock up all property and valuables, including garages and sheds. This will help keep your loved one’s property safe from theft and vandalism, while also preventing other family members from removing items before the estate is divided.
  1. Request certified copies of the death certificate- You will typically need several copies of a death certificate after the loss of a loved one. The funeral home will typically order them for you, and you can obtain them from the town clerk’s office. You will need the death certificates to claim SSI benefits, transfer property, close out bank accounts, and handle any other financial affairs.
  2. Freeze financial accounts– You will first need to take an inventory of your loved one’s financial affairs as soon as possible after their passing. Then, be sure to stop all automatic debits, and place a freeze on all bank accounts and credit cards that are not jointly owned.
  3. Locate estate planning documents, and contact a probate attorney–  Common places where estate planning documents are stored include home safes, within boxes of financial files, and bank safety deposit boxes.  You can also contact your loved one’s estate lawyer following their death for help locating a will or trust.
  4. Relocate abandoned pets– If your loved one lived alone, you will need to rehome their pets with another family member, friend, or shelter. Some people create pet trusts as part of their estate plan to provide for the continued care of their animals after they are gone. You can check with your loved one’s attorney to see if this had been done prior to your loved one’s passing.
  5. Contact social security– Always call Social Security upon the death of a loved one. You can reach them at 1-800-772-1213. Once they are notified of your loved one’s passing, benefits will be stopped, and you can then inquire about surviving benefits for a spouse or a child.
  6. Open Benefit Claims– If your loved one had a life insurance policy or was entitled to death benefits, you will need to contact the applicable company to start your claim.
  7. Consider long-term care for the surviving spouse– If your loved one left behind a spouse that he or she cared for, you may need to start inquiring about long-term care services to help if the surviving spouse will now live alone.

Of course, there may be additional steps to take depending on the circumstances of the deceased’s estate. If you have any questions, you can contact a Greater Boston probate attorney at (508) 532-8689 to set up a consultation today.

Framingham Will and Trust Lawyer: How to Ensure Your Estate Plan Doesn’t Spark a Family Feud

woman and man in fightUnfortunately, family feuds that center around someone’s will or trust are a tale as old as time. Even if this is not something you have personally experienced, you may have heard a few horror stories. As a Framingham will and trust lawyer, I’ve seen it firsthand.  While family squabbles after the death of a loved one are not always avoidable, there are a few strategies that can be utilized to decrease the possibility:

 

  1. If you have dependents, plan for the “what if.”  

Many people in their early 20s and 30s do not spend much time thinking about an estate plan. However, if you have minor children, it is critical to choose who will care for them if you pass away or become incapacitated. Once you decide, discuss your wishes with all parties involved. For example, if you are leaving your children to one set of grandparents, it is a good idea to explain that decision to the other grandparents. This can ease a lot of hurt feelings and potentially avoid a court battle if that time should ever come.

  1. When you come up with a plan, make it legal!

We’ve seen this sad situation quite a bit; there was a plan and it was discussed, but never legally documented. After talking to your loved ones about your plan, you need to make it legal. That way there are no questions or arguments after you pass away.

  1. Unequal distributions of assets can cause the biggest heartache.

Many people choose to leave their assets to their children in equal shares. In this scenario, things tend to go smoothly. But, there are many reasons why you may avoid dividing your assets in this way. For example, you may have a child with special needs that requires more money to maintain his or her level of care. If you choose to leave unequal shares, give an explanation to everyone involved so they know the reasons. This could help save your children’s relationships with one another.

  1. Choose your Personal Representative or Trustee with care.

Your loved ones may be hurt by the fact that they were not trusted to serve as the Personal Representative or Trustee of your estate. This may cause a conflict between the person chosen and the other beneficiaries. Make sure that you choose your executor or trustee with care, and explain your decisions. It may even be best to choose a neutral third-party to serve in this role if you believe it will cause problems after you are gone.

When it comes to inheritance conflict, we’ve seen just about everything. That experience helps us guide you through the “tricky” situations that may cause your family to squabble after you are gone. Call our Framingham will and trust lawyers at (508) 532-8689 and let’s get started on your estate plan to avoid any potential conflict.

Greater Boston Will Lawyer Offers Essential Estate Planning Considerations for Parents

Portrait of happy family laying on carpetBeing a responsible parent is usually associated with bedtime stories with toddlers, homework reminders for grade schoolers and trying to decide whether or not your teenager is responsible enough to drive to school on his or her own. Creating an estate plan for those children is not something we usually associate with responsible parenting, but it is just as important as everything else.

No one likes to think about their death, but as a responsible parent you have to ensure that your child’s emotional and financial future will be protected, even if that future does not include you. Think of all the decisions you make every day raising your child. It is vital to their growth that someone will always be there.

The Who

The first step of estate planning for parents with young children is selecting a guardian. By naming a legal guardian, you get to decide who will raise your children if something happens to you. If you don’t, a judge (who doesn’t know you or your family) will be responsible for making this decision.

You will also want to name short-term guardians if your long-term guardian does not live close by or travels a lot. This is a person who could care for your children quickly so that your kids are never forced to spend a second in the care of social services waiting for their long-term guardian to arrive.

The What

When naming guardians, you will also want to develop a plan for how you want your kids to be raised in your absence. While you will not have 100% say in their future, you can outline your parenting style and what’s important to you. It is also critical to communicate your wishes with your guardian to make sure they understand. You will want to look at:

  • Discipline Styles
  • Educational Choices
  • Financial Realities
  • Healthcare Choices
  • Religious Preferences

The How

You can also use your estate plan to make sure your assets are used to benefit your children now and in the future. Legal tools such as living trusts can be utilized to protect your child’s assets, while ensuring money is available to fund your child’s upbringing and education.

An experienced Greater Boston will lawyer can help you understand your options and how to structure your assets to best support your child(ren) if you can’t be there to raise them.  If you need help getting started, please contact our Framingham law firm at (508) 532-8689 to schedule a consultation.

Massachusetts Special Needs Lawyer: What Benefits Are Available for Children with Special Needs?

Disabled boy in wheelchair surrounded by family on lake pierChildren with special needs, or Children with Special Health Care Needs as defined by the Social Security Act, are eligible to receive a number of government benefits to pay for the aid, care, and services that are available to them. There are many ways a child can qualify as a Child with Special Health Care Needs (CSHCN), though it usually comes down to suffering from certain conditions, such as Down’s syndrome, ADHD, cerebral palsy, and autism. The following is a list of the benefits that are available to children with special needs:

Medicaid

Medicaid eligibility usually comes with income limitations, and as such, many children with special healthcare needs that come from lower income families may automatically qualify for Medicaid. In other cases, some children with special needs are eligible for Medicaid benefits if they need certain levels of institutional care, even if they come from higher income families.

In addition, children whose families spend a large amount of money on care and those who are placed in foster homes may also automatically qualify for Medicaid, although each individual situation is different. To find out if your child may qualify for Medicaid under the CSHCN rules, you should consult with a Massachusetts special needs lawyer.

State Children’s Health Insurance Program (SCHIP)

SCHIP is another federal program that is available to children with special healthcare needs who cannot qualify for Medicaid. While SCHIP is in some ways similar to Medicaid, there are some important differences. First, SCHIP typically does not cover as many services as Medicaid, and states have more control over SCHIP than they do over Medicaid. Additionally, SCHIP is available to children with special needs whose family income level is around 200% – 300% above the poverty level. A Massachusetts special needs lawyer will be able to tell you if SCHIP is right for you and your child’s situation.

Maternal Child Health Bureau Agencies

The Maternal and Child Health Bureau is responsible for looking out for the health of mothers and their infants. However, their purview extends to children with special needs, and the Maternal Child Health Bureau Agencies have developed many programs to serve children with special healthcare needs and their families. Most of the time, the federal grants that are given to the agencies are used to pay for aid and services that are not covered by Medicaid or SCHIP.

If you have questions about any of these federal programs that help children with special needs, please contact us at (508) 532-8689 to set up a consultation.

Framingham Estate Planning Lawyer: Pet Trusts…They’re Not Just for the Rich and Famous

pexels-photo-374825Not too long ago, a person who decided to leave an inheritance behind for their pet might be considered eccentric, to say the least. Take, for example, the case of Leona Helmsley: when she died in 2007, she left her dog Trouble an inheritance worth $12 million. While there may have been other factors weighing in on her decision (such as sending a message to her grandchildren), Helmsley’s wishes for making sure her pet was cared for after she was gone are echoed by pet owners across the country.

Framingham pet trust lawyers want their clients to be clear on what happens when they leave money to their dog or cat (or turtle or bird) through the use of a pet trust, such as who handles the money, how much money should be put into the pet trust, and how detailed one can make a pet trust.

Who handles the money in a pet trust?

Just like any other trust, the pet owner, acting as grantor, would name a trustee to handle the money that is left for the care of the pet. This person is not always the primary caregiver of the pet – in fact, it is sometimes better to avoid that conflict of interest. By meeting with a Framingham estate planning lawyer, pet owners can best determine what their options are for naming a trustee of the pet trust and choosing a person who will take care of the pet once they are gone.

How much money should be put into trust for a pet?

The amount of money to leave behind in a pet trust really depends on the pet’s age and condition. Money should be set aside for day-to-day living costs, medical expenses, grooming, and any kind of special care. But be warned: many pet trusts have been challenged in court by family members who are unhappy that a pet got an inheritance and they didn’t. Judges have been known to reduce amounts left to pets if they believe that amount is unreasonable.

How detailed can a pet trust get?

Framingham pet trust attorneys typically see very detailed instructions that are placed within a pet trust that cover how money should be spent and how the pet should be cared for. This can include specific veterinarians the pets can see, when and what the pet should eat, what to do with if the caretaker is traveling and cannot take the pet with them, and what specific toys can be bought for the pet. Trustees and caregivers should go to great pains in following these instructions since they often receive stipends and fees for taking care of the pets – as long as the instructions are followed dutifully.

If you are interested in learning more about pet trusts, or would like to set up a trust for your pets, please contact us at (508) 532-8689 to schedule a consultation.

Middlesex County Probate Lawyers: Avoiding Probate with a Roth IRA

Avoid the avoidableMany people plan for their retirement by using Roth IRAs due to their great tax benefits, but most don’t know that Roth IRAs are also excellent for avoiding probate.

First, here are some basics about tax planning with Roth IRAs that Middlesex County probate lawyers typically go over with their clients:

 

  • Unlike traditional IRAs and other retirement accounts, contributions to a Roth IRA are not tax deductible.
  • Qualified distributions (distributions made if you are at least 59 ½ or if the account has been open for more than 5 years) are not taxed.
  • Your contributions are not taxed when they are withdrawn, meaning you’ll see bigger benefits the longer you save.
  • There are no required minimum withdrawals with a Roth IRA.

It’s that last point that Middlesex County estate planning lawyers say make a Roth IRA a perfect tool for avoiding probate. If you decide to let your savings accumulate tax-free in a Roth IRA indefinitely, the account will pass to the beneficiary you named on the account. Since you named a beneficiary, the assets in the Roth IRA will not have to go through the Middlesex County probate process like other assets that are solely owned by you.

You should always make sure that your IRA beneficiary designations are up-to-date, however, as your beneficiary designations will trump even the wishes listed in your will or trust.  For example, if your spouse is named as the beneficiary of your Roth IRA but passes away before you do, the Roth IRA will become part of the probate estate when you die so that a new beneficiary can be determined by the courts.  Or, if you forget to remove your ex-spouse as beneficiary, he or she would still be able to inherit your retirement account despite your legal divorce or any wishes outlined in your estate planning documents.

For these reasons, extra care must be taken when choosing beneficiaries of your retirement accounts.  Middlesex County probate lawyers can guide you as to the best practices for naming beneficiaries to your Roth IRA, while helping you select alternative beneficiaries who can inherit the funds in the event your first choice predeceases you.

If you have any questions about using a Roth IRA for retirement or estate planning, please contact us at (508) 532-8689 to set up a consultation.

Greater Boston Elder Law Lawyer: 5 Red Flags of Financial Abuse

Healthcare worker and elderly patientThe elderly are too often targets of unscrupulous individuals who may try to take an unsuspecting senior’s money. Seniors are especially vulnerable as they become less cognitively able and thus more dependent on other adults. Unfortunately, as a Great Boston Area elder law lawyer, I am sad to say that elder financial abuse is common in Massachusetts. Here are some red flags to watch out for with your elderly relative:  

New friends who aren’t peers. If someone new comes into your older loved one’s life, and they’re not a peer but somehow have really dazzled your relative, this may indicate someone who wants more than friendship. While it’s not impossible for seniors to make friends with people from all different walks of life, if your relative has a new friend who is significantly younger, or even from a different country, this may be a sign of someone targeting your relative. 

Relatives who appear to have had a sudden windfall. If a senior’s relative who doesn’t normally have a lot of disposable income is spending more, or has recently purchased something lavish, this may be a sign of financial abuse. This is especially true if this relative has been known to be manipulative or has a history of borrowing money without returning it. 

Suddenly unable to balance a checkbook or manage finances. If your senior relative is competent and otherwise generally good at paying bills on time and managing his or her bank accounts, and then suddenly isn’t, it could be a sign of financial abuse, especially if checks appear to have been written, but the corresponding bills are consistently unpaid. Ask your senior relative to get check images from their bank to find out where the money went. 

Checks or cash gone without explanation. Checks missing altogether, people in your senior’s life writing checks to themselves, cash disappearing without corresponding receipts, and your senior relative consistently running out of cash may mean that someone else is wrongfully benefitting from your elderly loved one.

 Sudden changes to a will or estate plan. If your loved one has recently changed a will or estate plan to either include a new person or to give the bulk of the estate to one person in particular, this may be a sign of financial abuse. Note that it’s perfectly normal for an individual to leave everything to their spouse or even to disinherit a relative for cause. However, suddenly favoring one child, or one unrelated individual while leaving the others in the cold is abnormal and may indicate that the new beneficiary has undue influence over your senior relative.

What can you do? Unfortunately, if your relative is of sound mind, it’s up to them to recognize and stop the abuse. However, you can always seek the advice of an elder law lawyer in the Greater Boston area to find out what the laws are and what you can do to protect your relative. The lawyer can advise you on how to protect your elderly relative and possibly recover any money wrongfully taken.

Middlesex County Special Needs Lawyer: Special Needs Planning for Divorced Families

Working with disability / A disabled child in a wheelchair relaxing outside with a special needs carer.When it comes to creating a special needs plan for a loved one with disabilities, it’s the hope that all family members are in agreement and ideally on the same page. But, as a Middlesex County special needs lawyer, I have seen that even if everyone is working together, there can be issues when the parents are divorced. Often, there are separate estates, separate finances, and other factors to consider for both parents when creating trusts and other care plans for children with special needs. By facing the following challenges now, divorced parents have the best chance of creating solid plans for the future:

Understand that you two may have distinct financial and familial obligations. Remarriage and new families may make less money available for special needs planning. One parent may rely on the other to financially back any plans without fully understanding whether the other parent can do what is expected. Since divorced parents’ finances are separate, one parent cannot obligate the other to invest in or pay for something. Also, considering that lump sum inheritances can disqualify your child with special needs from receiving SSI and Medicaid, it’s best to make sure neither of you will accidentally undermine the other’s planning due to unintended consequences of your estate.

Work out any differences in opinion or desired outcomes. Parents may not want the same the thing for their adult child with disabilities, even though they both want the best. This can result in fights and disputes, which can turn ugly and contentious if not resolved. Hiring a Middlesex County special needs lawyer to handle your child’s special needs plan means having a knowledgeable neutral party working in the best interest of your child, no matter what happens between the two of you.

Decide if one parent should take the lead. If a child with disabilities primarily lives with one parent who is more involved in the child’s ongoing care, then it may be in the best interest of the child for the more involved parent to take the lead and do the lion’s share of the planning. If one parent takes on more responsibility, that parent should strive to keep the other in the loop, while the other pledges support, both emotional and financial.

Make sure all families know what’s going on. Your child may have family members on both sides that don’t communicate with each other or know what’s planned. More importantly, they may have siblings, half-siblings, and step-siblings who may be very concerned about your plans, and especially with any lack of planning. Just because you’ve asked one or all of your children to take over for you when you’re gone, doesn’t mean they can just slip into your place, even if they have the time and means to do so. All parties who would be interested should be kept in the loop to avoid any arguments or fights over your child’s plan when you’re gone.

Special needs planning in Massachusetts can be just as unique as your own family. Contact a Middlesex County special needs lawyer when you’re ready to start planning. He or she has the experience and knowledge to work with challenges like divorced and blended families to create the right plan for your child and your family.

 

Framingham Will Lawyer: A Life Estate Can Prevent Your New Spouse and Adult Kids from Fighting Over Your House When You’re Gone

Angry friends arguing in a coffee shopA common concern for those who have remarried is that they still want to leave the bulk of their estate to their adult children without abandoning their current spouse. The solution? Create a life estate. A life estate is a tenancy that allows a person to use a property for the rest of their natural life, but not own the property.

For example, Larry in Massachusetts lives with his second wife, Jane, and stepchildren on the ancestral farm he inherited after both his parents died. Larry wants the house to go to his children, but he’s afraid that if he wills the house to them and he dies first, they’ll make Jane leave. If he leaves it to his wife, the house goes to his stepchildren when she dies. However, Larry could plan his estate by giving Jane a life estate, with the farm reverting to his heirs when she dies.

Quick facts about life estates:

A life estate doesn’t:

Give the possessor ownership. Those who have life estates don’t own the property. They’re tenants for the rest of their lives, and unless there are other rules restricting the use of the property, they can use the properties as they wish. For example, if Larry gives Jane a life estate, she can’t turn around and sell the property.

Give the possessor the right to sell or significantly change the property. Likewise, since Jane doesn’t own the property, she can’t make significant changes to it. She can’t take the house down and put up a motel, pave the cornfields, or even put an attached garage on the land. This is called waste.

Give anyone else the power to dispossess whoever has the life estate. As long as Jane isn’t causing waste to the farm, then her stepchildren, Larry’s adult children from a previous marriage, may not remove her from the property. Since she’s also a life tenant, they have to respect her tenancy. This means they can’t intrude, trespass, or disrupt her ability to live peacefully on the property. For example, the children can’t decide to rent the fields to another farmer.

 A life estate does:

 Allow the possessor to rent the property. Jane can rent out the farm for as long as she has the life estate. For example, if Jane moves away but decides to rent the farm to her brother, she can rent it to him for as long as she lives. He’s still bound by the same rules as she to not change or destroy the property.

 Allow the possessor to sell their interest ONLY. Jane can even sell her life estate if she wishes. She can’t sell the property, however, since she doesn’t own it. So long as the buyer knows they’re not buying the property but the life estate, then the sale is legal.

 If you’re in a similar situation, contact a Framingham will lawyer to consider setting up a life estate so you can best take care of everyone whom you consider family.

 

Massachusetts Probate Lawyer: Can Beneficiaries Demand a Formal Accounting of an Estate?

accountant-accounting-smallerAn estate administrator has a duty to manage the estate and do so in the best interest of the beneficiaries. However, not every administrator acts in good faith, and even when they do, disputes and discrepancies can make a beneficiary want to know exactly where the assets are and where they’re going.

  What duty does an administrator owe to the beneficiaries of an estate?

 An administrator of an estate in the Massachusetts has what’s called a fiduciary duty to the estate’s beneficiaries. To have a fiduciary duty means to have a duty to act in good faith at all times when it comes to administering something on behalf of another person. Fiduciary duty requires the administrator to act according to a set of rules or laws, and a person with a fiduciary duty may not break those rules even if the beneficiaries ask them to do so. In Massachusetts, an administrator of an estate must only spend or reallocate assets for the benefit of the estate. There may be civil consequences for breaching fiduciary duty.

However, if an administrator is suspected of acting in bad faith, as in acting against the interests of the beneficiaries, or suspected of being negligent, the beneficiaries have a right to ask for an accounting.

What is an accounting, and why do I want one?

 An accounting is a detailed explanation of how the assets in an estate are controlled, how money is spent, why money has been spent, and what assets remain. An accounting shows who the estate’s creditors may be, how and when they’re paid, and what debts remain.

A beneficiary may seek an accounting to know the current status of an estate. A beneficiary may be suspicious of an administrator’s ability to administer the estate and about what they’ve done so far. For example, a beneficiary stands to inherit a house, but it goes into foreclosure because there weren’t enough assets in the estate to pay the mortgage. The beneficiary didn’t know that, or was sure there were enough assets to pay the mortgage, so the beneficiary wants an accounting to show why there was no money to pay the mortgage.

How do I get an accounting?

In Massachusetts, a formal accounting is an accounting granted through the court. An informal accounting can be made upon request. If a beneficiary requests an informal accounting directly from the administrator, the administrator is obligated to give one. It may not be extremely detailed, but it should at least offer an overview of what’s happening.

A formal accounting is granted by the court, and may be requested by the court if there’s suspicion that the administrator has mismanaged the estate, or if there’s a legal dispute over the estate. Massachusetts has specific laws regarding formal accountings.

It’s best to consult your own probate lawyer in Massachusetts if you’re a beneficiary seeking an accounting. An experienced Massachusetts probate lawyer can help you get an accounting and protect your assets if they’re being mismanaged by the estate administrator.