Legally Speaking

When a person dies without a will, the law determines who the heirs of the estate are. Stock photo

By Linda M. Toga, Esq.

Linda Toga

THE FACTS: After my mother’s death I was approached by a man I will refer to as Joe who claims that my mother was his biological mother as well. According to Joe, before she and my father married, my mother gave birth to Joe and immediately put him up for adoption. Although Joe admits that my mother rejected his attempts to develop a relationship with her during her lifetime, Joe now claims that since my mother died without a will, he is entitled to a share of my mother’s estate.

THE QUESTION: Is Joe correct? Will my siblings and I have to share our inheritance with him?

THE ANSWER: Fortunately for you, Joe is wrong.

HOW IT WORKS: Generally a child who is adopted out does not have the right to an inheritance from the estate of his birth mother. The order of adoption generally relieves the birth parents of all parental duties and of all responsibilities for the adopted child. At the same time, the order extinguishes all parental rights of the birth parent to the estate of a child who has been adopted, including the right to serve as administrator of that child’s estate and the right to inherit under the intestacy statutes.

Although Joe seems to be relying upon the fact that your mother died without a will and, therefore, did not explicitly disinherit him, his reliance is unwarranted. That is because the New York State intestacy statute and the domestic relations law govern how your mother’s estate should be distributed.

While the child of a decedent is generally entitled to a share of his parent’s estate if the parent dies without a will [Estates, Powers and Trusts Law §4-1.1 (a)(1) and (3)], the rights of an adopted child in the estate of a birth parent are governed by subsection (d) of the statute. It provides that the Domestic Relations Law, specifically Domestic Relations Law §117, controls.

Domestic Relations Law §117 (1)(a) and (b) provide that an order of adoption relieves the birth parent of all parental duties and responsibilities and extinguishes any rights the parent would otherwise have over the adoptive child’s property or estate. At the same time, the order terminates any rights of the adoptive child to an inheritance from the birth parent.

Although there are some exceptions to these laws, the logic behind terminating inheritance rights is to prevent people in Joe’s position from enjoying a windfall by inheriting from both his birth and adoptive parents and to prevent a birth mother from receiving an inheritance from a child that she did not support during her lifetime.

Under the circumstances, the only way Joe could inherit from your mother’s estate would be if she chose to name him as a beneficiary in a will or a trust or on a beneficiary designation form. If Joe decides to pursue a claim against your mother’s estate, you should be able to defeat the claim by providing the court with evidence that Joe was legally adopted as a child.

It would be wise to retain an attorney experienced in estate administration to assist you with this matter.

Linda M. Toga provides personalized service and peace of mind to her clients in the areas of elder law, estate administration and estate planning, real estate, marital agreements and litigation. Visit her website at www.lmtogalaw.com or call 631-444-5605 to schedule a free consultation.

There are a number of questions that must be answered before a determination can be made. Stock photo

By Linda M. Toga, Esq.

Linda Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: Approximately five years ago, my father remarried and he and his second wife, Mary, purchased a house together. At the time my father told me that he alone paid for the house and that his plan was for the house to pass to me and my sister when he died. My father is now very ill and suffers from advanced Alzheimer’s. He never updated his will, which leaves his entire estate to me and my sister.

THE QUESTION: What is going to happen to the house when he dies? Will my sister and I inherit the house?

THE ANSWER: What happens to the house will depend on a number of factors, including how title is held and whether Mary waived her marital rights in your father’s estate.

HOW IT WORKS: Generally when a married couple buys real property, the property is held jointly as “tenants by the entirety” unless the deed states otherwise. That means that upon the death of the first spouse, the surviving spouse owns the entire property outright. There is no need to have a new deed prepared transferring the property into the name of the surviving spouse since the transfer is automatic “by operation of law.” The surviving spouse need not take any action for ownership of the property to be transferred.

If, however, the deed states that the parties own the property as “tenants in common” or states that the parties each own a specific percentage of the property, the surviving spouse only owns the percentage of the property set forth in the deed. If your father owned the property with Mary as tenants in common, the share of the property owned by your father will pass under his will.

As I mentioned above, how title is held between spouses only addresses part of the question. What is going to happen to the house may also depend on whether Mary waived her marital rights and, if she did not, whether she chooses to exercise her right of election.

Mary may have signed a waiver stating that she was not going to enforce the rights she would have to handle your father’s estate and to receive a one-third share of that estate. Absent such a signed waiver, Mary may exercise her right of election and would be entitled to approximately one-third of your father’s entire estate, regardless of the terms of his will or the manner in which he held property.

For example, if your father owned the property in question jointly with you rather than Mary, and the property was valued at $300,000, Mary could demand that the estate satisfy her right of election by turning over to her assets with a value of $100,000.

Even if the property is held jointly with Mary so that she becomes the sole owner upon the death of your father, Mary can still demand other assets from your father’s estate if the value of the property passing to her by operation of law is not equal to one-third of your father’s total estate. Whether she makes such a demand will likely depend on her own financial health, the size of your father’s estate and her relationship with your father.

Even when there is no waiver, it is not unusual for a surviving spouse to honor the wishes of the decedent and decide against exercising her right of election.

Clearly, there are a number of questions that must be answered before a determination can be made about what will happen to the house when your father dies. Additional questions will arise if Mary decides to exercise her right of election. Under the circumstances, you should seek the expertise of an attorney with experience in estate administration to assist you when the time comes.

Linda M. Toga, Esq. provides legal services in the areas of estate planning and administration, wills and trusts, guardianship real estate, small business services and litigation from her East Setauket office.

The best way to defray the cost of a college education is to open a 529 plan.

By Linda M. Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: I would like to help defray the cost of college for my grandson, Joe. My daughter and son-in-law are not in a position to pay full tuition, room and board. I don’t want them or Joe to borrow for his education.

THE QUESTION: What is the best way to help out without hurting Joe’s chances of receiving needs-based financial aid?

THE ANSWER: Although there are a number of ways to defray the cost of Joe’s education, including giving him money, giving money to your daughter and son-in-law or paying the college directly, for many people the best way to assist with college expenses is to set up a Section 529 College Savings Plan (a “529 plan”) with Joe as the beneficiary. Your various options are discussed below.

If you want to simply gift money to Joe for his education, you can give him up to $14,000 per year without incurring any gift tax. However, when the college reviews his financial aid application and determines how much Joe should contribute toward his education, they will take any gifts you have given him into consideration. Since students are expected to contribute approximately 20 percent of their savings to their education, the more you give to Joe directly, the less aid he will receive.

If you decide to give money for Joe’s college expenses directly to your daughter and son-in-law, you can gift each of them $14,000 for a total of $28,000 per year. Clearly you can make a larger annual contribution to Joe’s education this way; but, like the funds gifted to Joe, the funds you gift to your daughter and son-in-law will be taken into consideration when calculating any financial aid that may be awarded to Joe. The negative impact of gifting funds to his parents rather than to Joe will be less than the impact of gifts made directly to Joe because his parents are only expected to contribute about 6 percent of their assets to his education.

Paying the college Joe attends directly is an option that avoids any potential gift tax issues on gifts exceeding the $14,000 annual limit. Paying the college directly would allow you to make larger contributions annually to his education; but, this method is not recommended since the money paid directly to the college will be considered as income to Joe. Like gifts to Joe, payments to the college will adversely impact the amount of aid Joe may receive.

In my opinion, the best way to defray the cost of Joe’s college education is to open a 529 plan. Many states, including New York, offer such plans that allow for tax exempt growth on investments so long as distributions from the accounts are used to pay qualified college expenses. Contributions to a 529 plan are subject to gift tax; but, the law allows contributions up to $70,000 to be made in one year as long as the person funding the plan files a gift tax return and applies the contribution over a five-year period.

If you open a 529 plan, you could decide how the funds in the account will be invested and to change the beneficiary in the event Joe decides not to attend college. You could also remove funds from the account for noncollege expenses although such a withdrawal will result in a penalty and tax liability.

Although the income on the investments in the plan will be considered Joe’s income, increasing the amount he will be expected to contribute to his education, it is only assessed at 50 percent as opposed to other income that is assessed at 100 percent so the negative impact is greatly reduced.

In some states you can avoid the negative impact of increasing Joe’s income if you transfer the 529 plan to your daughter before Joe applies for aid. Unfortunately, this option is not available in New York where transfers are prohibited unless the account owner dies or there is a court order. For this reason, it may make more sense if you simply contribute funds to a 529 plan opened by your daughter.

Regardless of the method you decide to use to defray the cost of Joe’s education, it is worth noting that gifts made to Joe or his parents after January of Joe’s junior year of college should not have any impact on his ability to get financial aid. That is because by then Joe will have already filed his aid application for his senior year.

Before you make a decision about how to help Joe and his parents pay for his college education, you should not only look at all the options available to you but you should discuss with an estate planning attorney how Joe’s college education should be addressed in your estate plan. You don’t want your estate plan to jeopardize whatever steps you may take during your lifetime to benefit Joe.

Linda M. Toga provides personalized service and peace of mind to her clients in the areas of estate planning and administration, real estate, marital agreements and litigation out of her Setauket office.

Many boomers plan on using their assets to make their golden years golden.

By Linda M. toga, Esq.

Linda M. Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: My husband and I are in our sixties and have three grown children. All were given the same opportunities growing up, but they did not all take advantage of those opportunities or make wise decisions about their futures. Our two daughters are financially secure and doing very well. Our son, however, has struggled and we expect will continue to struggle to make ends meet his entire life.

My husband and I have accumulated significant assets over the years. We have been generous to our children and have made an effort to treat them all the same despite the differences in their financial well-being.

Despite this fact, my son seems to be under the impression that because he needs more, he is entitled to more. He has made comments on a number of occasions suggesting that since we have the means to make his life easier, we should do so. It is clear that he expects that we will be leaving him a sizable inheritance, perhaps even more than we leave our daughters.

We are bothered by these comments for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that my husband and I are planning on using our hard earned money to travel and, if needed, to cover our health care costs. While we fully expect that all of our children will inherit some money from us, I do not believe that we will be leaving any of them substantial assets.

THE QUESTION: How do we make this clear to our son who seems to think he will see a windfall when we die?

THE ANSWER: You and your husband are not alone in having accumulated significant assets that you hope to spend on yourselves. Many boomers benefited by parents who were conservative savers and cautious spenders. Consequently, these parents often accumulated more wealth than they spent and passed that wealth on to their boomer children.

The boomers, on the other hand, may not have been such conscientious savers. Even if they were, they are finding that they are living longer, may need more money for health care and often believe that they need not leave substantial assets to their children since they did so much for them during their lives.

Like you and your husband, many boomers plan on using their assets to make their golden years golden. That is your right. You earned it. You can spend it. However, if you do not want your son to be surprised or resentful when he does not inherit the kind of money he may expect will be coming his way, the best thing to do is to tell him outright.

Perhaps you can share with him the choices you made over the years that resulted in having a significant nest egg. Then tell him how you hope to spend your hard earned money on yourselves while you enjoy a long and healthy life.

You may discover that the comments he has made about a large inheritance were made in jest and that he isn’t really counting on a windfall. That would be the best scenario.

Even if he expresses disappointment and/or anger, you and your husband should feel better about the fact that you were open and honest with him. He can ignore what you say or he can use what you tell him to better plan for his future. In either case, having the conversation will ensure that when you and your husband pass away, he is not blindsided.

Linda M. Toga provides personalized service and peace of mind to her clients in the areas of elder law, estate administration and estate planning, real estate, marital agreements and litigation. Visit her website at www.lmtogalaw.com or call 631-444-5605 to schedule a free consultation.

A pet trust is effective immediately upon your death whereas a will can take months to execute.

By Linda Toga

Linda Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: My mother has a dog, Fido, who means the world to her. When it comes to Fido, money is no object. She is very concerned about what will happen to Fido when she dies. Not only does she worry about who will care for Fido but also about who will pay for Fido’s care.

THE QUESTION: Should these issues be addressed in her will?

THE ANSWER: While the long-term care of Fido can be addressed in her will, your mother needs to make arrangements for Fido’s care for the period immediately following her death because the provisions of her will are not effective until the will is probated. That could take some time.

I always suggest that pet owners arrange in advance for someone to take care of their pet in the event they are unable to do so either because of disability or death. It is important that a caregiver is identified and is ready and willing to take the pet on relatively short notice. These temporary arrangements need not be in writing unless the owner feels that people are going to fight over who will care for the pet.

For example, if you and your siblings agree with your mother that Mary will take care of Fido, there is no need to put the arrangement in writing. However, if all of you want to take care of Fido, your mother should put her wishes in writing to avoid conflicts.

As for the long-term care of Fido after your mother’s passing and the cost of that care, I suggest that your mother include in her will a pet trust. When thinking about the provisions to include in the pet trust, your mother should not only consider who will care for Fido for the rest of his life but also whether the appointed caregiver has the resources to cover the costs associated with pet ownership.

Even if money is not an issue for the caregiver, your mother should confirm in advance that the caregiver’s living arrangements are suitable for Fido. Some apartment buildings and residential communities do not permit residents to own pets. If the caregiver of choice lives in such a community, or lives in a setting that is not large enough for Fido, your mother should consider naming someone else to adopt Fido after her death.

Once she has settled on a caregiver, your mother should think about the types of care she wants Fido to receive after she is gone. For example, does she want Fido groomed once a month or to have his teeth cleaned three times a year? Does she want Fido to be fed certain types of food? Does Fido suffer from any ailments that require medication or close monitoring? If so, these things should be addressed in the pet trust. If your mother has been using the same groomer and vet for years, she may want the caregiver to continue using the same providers. This is particularly important if Fido is receiving any specialized care or treatment. If this information is not included in the pet trust itself, your mother definitely should provide this information to the caregiver in a letter.

While the reason for including a pet trust in her will is to ensure that Fido will be cared for after she dies, it can also serve as a vehicle for providing the caregiver with instructions with respect to the handling of Fido’s remains after he dies. This information is important and useful to the caregiver who will certainly want to honor your mother’s wishes.

In addition to setting forth in the pet trust the name of the caregiver and the type of care she wants Fido to receive, both during his lifetime and upon death, your mother will need to allocate a certain amount of money to the trustee of the pet trust.

The job of the trustee is to distribute the funds in the trust to the caregiver as needed to be used for Fido’s benefit. The money will be used to pay for Fido’s food and care, but your mother can also allocate some of the money in the trust directly to the caregiver in recognition of the time, effort and responsibility he/she assumed by caring for Fido. If she wants, your mother can name the caregiver as trustee of the pet trust. She need not name two different people for these roles.

A final decision that your mother will have to make in connection with the pet trust is what happens to any of the funds left in the trust after Fido dies. Many people who have a pet trust direct that any money left in the trust after the death of their pet goes to the caregiver. Another popular arrangement is for the money to be donated to an organization that cares for abandoned and/or abused animals. Of course, your mother can also have the funds left in the pet trust divided between you and your siblings. Regardless of how she wants the funds distributed, it is important to include her wishes in the pet trust.

In light of the number of issues, your mother should discuss if she wants to create a pet trust, and the fact that it will be part of her will, with an experienced estate planning attorney. That is the best way to ensure that Fido will be cared for in accordance with her wishes.

Linda M. Toga, Esq. provides legal services in the areas of estate planning, probate, estate administration, litigation, wills, trusts, small business services and real estate from her East Setauket office.

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