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will

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By Linda Toga, Esq.

Linda Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: I will be getting married soon. It is a second marriage for both me and Mary. We both have children from our prior marriages. 

THE QUESTION: Is there something I can have Mary sign to ensure that my assets will pass to my children when I die? 

THE ANSWER: If you are only worried about what happens to your assets when you die, you can ask Mary to sign a waiver of her right of election. As long as you have kept your assets separate from Mary’s as opposed to comingling your assets in joint accounts or investing your assets in jointly held property, a waiver should be adequate. 

Under the law, regardless of how assets are held or the wishes memorialized in a will, trust or beneficiary designation form, a surviving spouse is entitled to one-third of his/her deceased spouse’s assets. This entitlement is known as the surviving spouse’s right of election. The types of assets that are subject to the right of election are set forth in Estates, Powers and Trusts Law Article 5. 

Pursuant to Article 5, a surviving spouse’s elective share may include assets owned by the decedent individually but also assets that the decedent owned jointly with others and assets held in retirement and pension plans, to name a few. 

A surviving spouse must exercise his/her right of election within six months of the issuance by the Surrogate’s Court letters testamentary or letters of administration. Although spouses who voluntarily agree to live apart can still exercise their right of election, a spouse who is found to have “abandoned” a decedent is barred from claiming an elective share. 

In order for Mary to waive her right of election, she must sign a document that states that she waives her right of election and all claims against your estate. The waiver must be signed by Mary in the presence of a notary. Of course, if, after Mary signs a waiver, you choose to leave assets to Mary in your will, you can certainly do so. The waiver does not prevent Mary from being a beneficiary of your estate. It simply prevents her from demanding more than you may voluntarily allocate to her.

 It is important to note that a waiver only addresses Mary’s rights to your assets after your death. If you are concerned about what may happen to assets in the event of a divorce, you should discuss with an experienced attorney your options in terms of a pre- or postnuptial agreement. 

Linda M. Toga, Esq. provides legal services in the areas of estate planning and administration, real estate, small business services and litigation from her East Setauket office. Visit her website at www.lmtogalaw.com or call 631-444-5605 to schedule a free consultation.

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Linda Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: My grandson Frank is disabled and will likely need medical and financial assistance as an adult. I would like to name Frank and my other grandchildren as beneficiaries in my will, but I am concerned that doing so may make Frank ineligible for government assistance programs. 

THE QUESTION: How can I leave Frank money without interfering with whatever government benefits he may be receiving at the time of my death? 

THE ANSWER: The best way to provide financial support to Frank without making him ineligible for needs-based government benefits like Medicaid and Section 8 housing assistance is to direct your executor to put Frank’s bequest in a supplement needs trust, (SNT). 

An SNT is designed so that the trustee can use trust assets to supplement the government benefits that the disabled beneficiary may be receiving. Trust assets can be used to enhance the life and well-being of the beneficiary. They cannot, however, be used to pay for goods and/or services provided to the beneficiary by the government. 

For example, the trustee may pay for a disabled beneficiary’s cellphone, car or vacation but cannot pay for medical treatment if the beneficiary is receiving Medicaid. Similarly, if the beneficiary’s housing costs are covered by a needs-based government program, the trustee can use the trust asset to furnish an apartment but cannot pay the rent. 

As mentioned above, in your will you can direct your executor to fund a testamentary SNT that will be administered by a trustee of your choosing. In the alternative, you can create and fund an SNT for Frank during your lifetime. One advantage of this approach is that other family members can then contribute to the SNT either directly or by a bequest in their own wills. In either case, Frank will benefit from your generosity because rather than his inheritance being used for necessities, the trust assets can be used for things that will enhance his life, make him more comfortable and make each day more enjoyable. 

To create an SNT, you should contact an attorney who has prepared trusts in the past and who has experience working with clients concerned about the future of their disabled beneficiaries. 

Linda M. Toga, Esq. provides legal services in the areas of estate planning and administration, real estate, small business services and litigation from her East Setauket office. Visit her website at www.lmtogalaw.com or call 631-444-5605 to schedule a free consultation.

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By Linda M. Toga, Esq. 

Linda Toga, Esq.

THE FACTS: My father executed a will many years ago in which he disinherited my older brother, Joe, and named me as executor of his estate. Joe had been estranged from the family for years. My father recently passed away. I have looked through all of my father’s papers and cannot find the will. I vaguely remember my father telling me that he put his will in his safe deposit box so that it would not get lost, but the bank manager will not allow me to access the box. 

THE QUESTIONS: How can I gain access to my father’s safe deposit box? If my father’s will is in the box, how should I proceed? 

THE ANSWER: Many people mistakenly believe that their safe deposit box is the best place to keep their will. While the will may be safe locked in the safe deposit box in the bank, it will not necessarily be accessible when needed. 

When the holder of a safe deposit box dies, the box is supposed to be sealed. This means the box is not to be opened unless the person seeking access to the contents of the box provides the bank with either a court order directing the bank to open the box or evidence that the person has been granted authority from the court to handle the decedent’s estate. 

If you cannot find your father’s will and believe it is in his safe deposit box, you must obtain an order from the Surrogate’s Court directing the bank to open the box. To do that, your attorney will need to file an application with the court in the county where your father lived in which he or she provides your father’s name and address, his date of death, your relationship to your father and the location of the bank where the safe deposit box is located. 

A small fee is required by the court for filing the application and providing to you a certified copy of the order when it is issued. 

Once the court issues the order, you should arrange with the bank for a bank officer to open your father’s safe deposit box in your presence. The officer is required to take an inventory of the contents of the box and, if your father’s will is there, to send the will to the Surrogate’s Court that issued the order. All other items that are in the box must be returned to the box. You will not be able to remove the other items until your attorney files a petition for letters testamentary and the court issues those letters to you.

 If it ends up that your father’s will is not in his safe deposit box, and you cannot locate it elsewhere, rather than petitioning for letters testamentary, your attorney will need to petition for letters of administration. Once you have obtained either letters testamentary or letters of administration, you will have full authority to access your father’s safe deposit box and to remove the contents.

 As an aside, if you cannot provide the original will to the court as part of the probate process and are issued letters of administration, you will be required to distribute to your estranged brother a share of your father’s estate pursuant to the NYS intestacy statute, regardless of what you believe your father may have wanted.

Although you will eventually gain access to the contents of your father’s safe deposit box, the administration of your father’s estate will clearly be delayed and additional estate expenses will be incurred in order to determine if, in fact, he put his will in his safe deposit box. To avoid the delay and expense I recommend that clients keep their wills and other important papers at home in a water/fire resistant safe or storage box. 

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