Estate planning has been defined as "that branch of the law which, in arranging a person's property and estate, takes into account the
laws of wills, taxes, insurance, property, and trusts so as to gain maximum benefit of all laws while carrying out the person's own wishes for the disposition of his property upon his death."
An estate planning attorney will advise you as to what documents are needed to effect your goals. A basic estate plan takes into consideration the following matters. First, what happens
to a person's financial affairs if he becomes incapacited? One either can leave it to a court through an expensive conservatorship proceeding to manage his financial
affairs or, through the use of a financial power of attorney, he can appoint a trusted family member or friend as agent to manage his financial affairs. Second, what happens when
a person becomes incapacited and unable to make health care decisions for himself? He either can leave it to doctors or courts unfamiliar with his wishes to decide or,
through the use of an advance directive for health care, he can appoint a trusted family member or friend to make decisions for him. In an advance health care directive,
one can provide general or specific guidance about his wishes concerning health care matters. Third, what happens to a person's estate when he dies? To whom does his
property pass? Again, one can leave it to the courts to decide based on the law of intestacy and in a manner which may not reflect his wishes, or one can plan for the disposition of
property in a manner which reflects his wishes through the use of a will, trust, and/or other means. Below you will find some general information about documents which often form
part of a basic estate plan.
A will is an instrument in which a person declares his intent regarding disposition of his probate estate at death. To have a valid will, Georgia law requires that certain formalities be followed in the execution of the will. For example, a will must be in writing and be signed by the person making the will and attested by witnesses. If the required formalities are not followed, then the will is not valid and cannot be admitted to probate. Further, even if a person has executed a valid will, certain events cause an automatic revocation of the will. For example, the birth of a child to a person after the person has executed a will causes the revocation of the will unless the will contains a provision contemplating the birth of the child or the will prrovides a class gift to the person's chldren. If a person marries after making a will and the will does not state that it was made in contemplation of marriage, then his or her spouse is entitled to receive from the estate the share the spouse would have received had there been no will. Thus, while there is not a total revocation of a will by reason of the marriage, there is in effect a partial revocation of the will.
A. DEATH WITHOUT A VALID WILL
A question often asked is what happens to a person’s property if that person dies without a will. A person who dies without a valid
will in effect at the time of his or her death is said to die intestate. Contrary to what many people believe, the property of a person who dies without a valid will does not automtically pass to the
government. Instead, each state has rules of inheritance that apply when a person dies without a valid will and determine who inherits the property of the intestate
person. The Georgia rules of inheritance are set forth in OCGA§ 53-2-1. Under Georgia law, the spouse of a married person who dies without children or lineal
descendants inherits the entire estate. (Lineal descendant refers to a person in the direct line of descent, such as a child or granchild, in contrast to a collateral descendant
such as a niece.) If a person dies leaving a spouse and children or lineal descendants, then the spouse and children share equally in the decedent’s estate, except that the surviving
spouse is entitled to not less than one-third of the estate regardless of the number of children. (A decedent's estate is the property, both real and personal, which a person possesses at the
time of his or her death.) Lineal descendants of deceased children receive per stirpesthe share their deceased ancestor would have received if such ancestor had survived the
intestate decedent. (Per stirpes means "by roots or stocks." "The term ... denotes that method of dividing an intestate estate where a class or group of distributees take the share
which their deceased [ancestor] would have been entitled to, taking thus by their right of representing such ancestor, and not as so many individuals." Black's Law Dictionary.) If a
person dies, leaving no surviving spouse, but leaving children or lineal descendants of deceased children, the surviving children receive the entire estate in equal shares, with the lineal
descendants of a deceased child receiving the share of the deceased child per stirpes.
If a person dies leaving no surviving spouse and no surviving children or lineal descendant of deceased children, the decedent's parents share equally in the estate. If both parents are deceased, then the decedent’s surviving siblings share the estate equally, with the descendants of any deceased sibling taking, per stirpes, the share the sibling would have taken had he or she survived. However, if no sibling survives the decedent, the nieces and nephews who survive the decedent take the estate in equal shares, with the descendants of any deceased niece or nephew taking, per stirpes, the share that niece or nephew would have taken had he or she survived. If the decedent is not survived by any of the above persons, then the grandparents inherit the entire estate. If the grandparents are deceased, then the aunts and uncles of the decedent share equally the entire estate, with the children of any deceased uncle or aunt inheriting in the place of their parent. If no uncle or aunt of the decedent survives the decedent, then the first cousins who survive the decedent share the estate equally. If none of the above persons survives the intestate decedent, the heirs at law are determined by a formula set forth in the Georgia statute, counting the steps from the claimant to the closest common ancestor and from the amcestor to the intestate decedent. The sum of the two chains shall be the degree of kinship and the one or ones closest in degree are the heir or heirs at law.
Many married people are surprised to learn that under the rules of inheritance, the surviving spouse will not inherit the entire estate of his or her deceased spouse if the deceased spouse has children. Many people do not realize that, in the absence of a will, a child will inherit from the parent a share of his or her estate. If the child is a minor and inherits part of his or her parent’s estate, the appointment of a conservator of property of the child may be required.It is likely that not insignificant legal expenses will be incurred in establishing the conservatorship. Further, the conservator, even if he or she is the surviving parent of the child, will be required to file reports with the Court, and will be restricted in handling the property of the minor.
B. ADVANTAGES OF MAKING A WILL
First, the testator (i.e. person making the will) has the freedom to give his property to whomever he pleases. For example, a
spouse may give his entire estate to the surviving spouse. A second advantage is that under a will, the estate owner may name the person or entity of his choice to act as executor of the
estate. The executor is the person who collects assets of the estate, pays debts of the estate, and makes distributions to beneficiaries. Another advantage is that the person making the
will can waive the posting of a bond and filing of any inventory (itemized list of property of the estate), appraisal, or other reports with the Court. In the absence of a will, an
administrator will be appointed by the Court and a bond may be required, as well as an inventory and appraisal. Relieving the executor from posting bond can result in a savings to the
estate. In the absence of such a provision, the estate would be required to pay the bond premium, which will diminish the assets of the estate. If an inventory must be filed because there
is no will, then private information about a person’s assets becomes a matter of public record. Thus, maintaining some degree of privacy concerning one's estate provides an additional reason
for making a valid will.
Some married people believe that they do not need a will because they have placed all of their assets in joint tenancy with right of survivorship. However, even if all the assets are placed in joint tenancy with right of survivorship, there will need to be a disposition of the assets upon the death of the survivor or in the event both spouses die simultaneously. Therefore, placing assets in joint tenancy does not make wills unnecessary.
Another advantage of making a will for a person who has a minor child or children is that he can name a guardian for such child or children. Upon the death of one parent, the surviving parent usually will have custody of the children. However, each parent’s will should reflect his choice of a guardian in the event the other parent does not survive. While the parent’s choice of guardian is not absolutely binding upon the court, it is persuasive. Since the guardian of the person is largely responsible for the upbringing of the children, the parents should carefully consider this matter.
Because a minor child (i.e., a child under eighteen years of age) is restricted in his ability to deal with property, a person giving property to a minor child may wish to establish a trust and name a trustee to manage the estate of the minor child. The trustee can be instructed to use the net income and principal for the support and education of the estate owner’s beneficiaries. Furthermore, a trust can continue after a child turns eighteen years. At the very least, a parent may wish to name a custodian for any property to which a minor child is entitled.
These are only some of the reasons for making a will. In addition to the above reasons, tax considerations may necessitate the making of a will (and have an influence on what provisions are included in the will). Tax considerations are of particular importance where the combined value of both spouses' estates exceeds the equivalent exemption of the applicable estate tax credit.
II. GENERAL FINANCIAL POWER OF ATTORNEY
One type of power of attorney is the general financial power of attorney ("GFPA"). In a general financial power of attorney, a person (i.e., the principal) can grant to his or her spouse or a trusted family member or friend the power to manage his or her financial affairs. In contrast to the advance directive referred to in Section IV below, the general financial power of attorney is used in connection with financial transactions rather than health care matters. If the power of attorney is "durable," it remains in effect even in the event of disability. A durable general financial power of attorney may make unnecessary the appointment of a conservator for the property of an incapacitated person. For example, if a husband and wife own their home as joint tenants with right of survivorship, if one of them were to become incapacitated, the other would be required to seek the appointment of a conservator (formerly known as "guardian of the property") in order to sell the home. A conservatorship proceeding is somewhat cumbersome and costly. A general financial power of attorney may make a conservatorship proceeding unnecessary. An estate planning attorney also can assist his client in determining whether the client should place certain limits on the agent's power to act. For example, the principal may wish to limit the agent's power to make gifts. Any person concerned with the possibility of disability should consider making a general durable financial power of attorney.
III. ADVANCE DIRECTIVES FOR HEALTH CARE
For various reasons, including the increased cost and complexity of medical procedures, one may wish to permit a trusted person to make health care decisions which he or she is unable to make due to incapacity. Georgia law permits a person to do so in an advance directive. In Georgia, an advance directive may contain provisions similar to those formerly found in durable powers of attorney for health care and living wills. In an advance directive, one may appoint an agent to make certain health care decisions in the event of his or her incapacity. One may appoint a successor agent or agents. One may state whether he or she desires to be creamted or buried after death. One may grant or forbid permission to donate one's organs after death. In an advance directive, a person also may make a statement reflecting his or her desires concerning life-sustaining or death-delaying treatment in the event he or she has a terminal condition or is in a permanent state of unconsciousness. A person may include provisions related to his or her religious beliefs if so desired.
A trust is an instrument in which the person creating the trust (called a trustor or settlor) appoints a trustee to hold legal title to property for the benefit of one or more beneficiaries. Georgia law requires that an express trust shall be created in writing and have each of the following elements: (1) an intention by a settlor to creat a trust; (2) trust property; (3) except for charitable trusts, a beneficiary who is reasonably ascertainable at the time of the creation of the trust or reasonably ascertainable within the period of the rule against perpetuities; (4) a trustee; and (5) duties imposed on the trustee in writing or provided by law. In Georgia, a person has capacity to create a living trust to the extent that the person has legal capacity to transfer property during life. A person has capacity to create a testamentary trust (i.e., a trust created by last will and testament) to the extent that the person has legal capacity to devise or bequeath property by will. A trustee has the legal capacity under Georgia law to acquire, hold, and transfer title to property. In Georgia, the same person may be the trustor, the trustee, and the beneficiary of a trust. In 2010, the Georgia legislature passed "The Revised Georgia Trust Code of 2010." The Revised Georgia Trust Code of 2010 contains major revisions to the prior trust code. If you have an existing trust governed by Georgia law, you may wish to consult with an attorney in Georgia to determine whether the trust should be modified in light of the Revised Georgia Trust Code of 2010.
There are many different types of trusts and some are used in the context of estate planning. Common forms of trusts include: (1) revocable living trusts (also called revocable inter vivos trusts; (2) testamentary trusts; and (3) insurance trusts. A brief explanation of these trusts is found below.
V. REVIEWING YOUR ESTATE PLAN
It is a good idea to review one's estate plan at least every couple of years. Without regard to how long it has been since one executed his estate planning documents, changes that should prompt an immeidate review review of the estate plan include the following events:
In summary, basic estate planning generally includes a will, a general power of attorney (for financial matters), and an advance directive (for health care). In addition to these documents, a revocable living trust sometimes forms part of a basic estate plan. The estate planning process also may include a review and modification of the beneficiary designations of life insurance policies and retirement plans and accounts. Effective estate planning involves more than purchasing a do-it-yourself form or computer program. Most of these forms and programs available to the general public are generic in nature and not tailored to the laws of any particular state. For that reason alone, it is risky to use such a form or program. Do it yourself estate planning ultimately may result in great trouble and expense for your loved ones. Jeffrey N. Pennell, one of the eminent estate planning experts in the United States, has written that "there is no such thing as a simple will anymore: there are short wills, and lawyers who think about wills in simple ways, but there are no simple wills." Another eminent estate planning expert, Mary F. Radford, has written: "Testators should employ competent individuals to draft wills rather than succumb to the temptation to save money by drafting their own wills, with or without the aid of the numerous 'one-size-fits-all' will kits that are available on the market. Any money saved at the initial end of the process is likely to be minimal when compared to the expense of later litigation that is often spawned by self-drafted wills. If there is anything more conducive to litigation than intestacy, perhaps it is a will drawn and executed by the testator with aid only of a few well-meaning friends." Because of the intricacies of even basic estate planning, it is wise to seek the assistance of a lawyer with knowledge of this area of the law. An estate planning attorney can help you formulate the most effective estate plan for your situation and assist you with the implementation of your estate plan. With a properly prepared will and implemented estate plan, the probate process should not be a burden on your loved ones.
If you need an Atlanta estate planning attorney and/or probate attorney in the metropolitan Atlanta, Georgia, area, contact the firm of Chambers, Chambers & Chambers, LLP. Our firm has served for clients as probate attorney in DeKalb County, Fulton County, Cobb County, and Gwinnett County, Georgia. We would be pleased to assist you with your estate planning or probate needs.
Disclaimer: The above memorandum provides some general information about estate planning and wills, financial powers of attorney, advance health care directives, and trustees. It is provided for informational purposes only and should not be considered legal advice. No person should act or refrain from acting on the basis of information contained herein. You should seek appropriate legal advice on your particular legal matter from an attorney licensed in your state. This content may not reflect current legal developments, and this firm disclaims all liability with respect to actions taken or not taken based on any information contained herein.