Category Archives: Estate Planning

A stitch in time saves nine

By Patrice A. Putman, Maine elder law attorney

The old saying “A stitch in time saves nine.” makes a lot of sense. Unfortunately, too often, people don’t know that there may be a legal “stitch” needed. Below is a situation that I’ve seen. Luckily, if discovered and fixed early, a client can save a lot of time, money, and frustration.

Most married couples own their home as “Joint Tenants”. This means that when one spouse dies, the property automatically becomes owned entirely by the other spouse. Nothing needs to be done to accomplish the change in ownership. In order for this transfer of ownership to the surviving spouse to happen automatically, the deed into the spouses must expressly state the concept that the spouses own as “joint tenants” or that the surviving spouse is to automatically become the sole owner of the home.

It is also possible for a married couple to own their home jointly, but as “tenants-in-common”. The home will be owned by the spouses as tenants-in-common if the deed is not explicitly a “joint tenancy deed”. If the home is owned as tenants –in-common, the surviving spouse does not automatically end up with ownership of the entire home. Rather the half owned by the deceased spouse must go through probate and title passes according to the will of the deceased or through the laws of succession (if there is no will). The property must go through probate, a personal representative must be named and the property must then be deeded according to either the Will or intestate laws.

There are times when a new widow or widower who thought she/he owned the property as a joint tenant finds that she/he did not.

Here is a hypothetical: Husband and wife own property together. The deed says “I seller, give to you, husband and wife, a piece of property.” This deed is a tenancy in common deed, something which the spouses didn’t understand and didn’t intend. Husband dies. Wife goes to a lawyer to see if she needs to do anything with regard to probate. All the bank accounts were jointly owned (no probate needed), life insurance had a beneficiary listed (no probate needed), the IRA has a listed beneficiary (no probate needed), cars were owned jointly (no probate needed). Then the lawyer asks to see the deed, and sees that the deed is not a joint tenancy deed. Now a probate estate must be opened, heirs must be notified, if there is a Will, the original must be found and filed, probate and attorney fees must be paid and a new deed will need to be executed and recorded. If the Will says “all to my spouse” then, after the personal representative has been appointed, a new deed can transfer the deceased spouse’s share to the spouse. If there is no Will or if the Will leaves part of the estate to others, the widow who thought she owned her house entirely, may now own it partially with children, step-children or others. Either way, things just got a lot more expensive and complicated.

Here’s the simple solution: Go look at your deed(s). If your deed(s) say you own the property as “joint tenants” or if the deed is clear that the surviving owner is to be the sole owner, then you are joint tenants and when one of you dies, the property will be owned entirely by the other automatically. If your deed is not a joint tenancy deed, then you and your spouse own as tenants in common. Once you understand how you own the property, then you can decide whether it fits your needs, or whether you need to see an attorney to get advice on whether your deed fits your needs. If a fix is needed, it’s an easy fix while both of you are alive. It may be needlessly expensive and upsetting if you find out after your spouse has died that the form of ownership didn’t work to your best advantage. This is clearly a situation where a stitch in time saves nine. Go read your deed! Make sure it says exactly what you need it to say, so that it does exactly what you want it to do. If you are not sure, get help sooner rather than later!

The information provided here is for educational purposes only. It should not be construed as rendering legal advice or offering an answer to a specific legal problem.

Second marriages: what if your spouse requires expensive long term care?

By Sally Wagley, Maine elder law and estate attorney

We have had a number of clients, either divorced or widowed, become happily married later in life. Sadly, after a number of years of love and companionship, one of them may start to decline and need expensive care in a nursing home or assisted living facility. For purposes of discussion, we’ll assume that the husband is the one who needs institutional care, with the wife remaining at home. The wife may find out to her chagrine that she is expected to use her own assets — accumulated by her before the marriage from a lifetime of work –on her husband’s nursing home costs. She may find out that after he has depleted his own funds, he will not qualify for state assistance through Maine’s Medicaid program (called MaineCare) until she has spent down her own funds to a certain point. This causes her great anxiety, for two reasons: most important, she wants to make sure that she has enough to live comfortably for the rest of her life; in addition, she may want to be able to pass on assets to her own children.

What can a couple do in this situation? Advance planning, while both are still healthy, is the best option. If they qualify for and can afford long term care insurance, that will make it less likely that the wife will have to spend down her own savings. Another option is an irrevocable trust, whereby the wife places some of her own assets into an irrevocable trust, naming one or more of her children as trustees. She gives up control of the principal in the trust but will receive income from it. In this way, she can put some of her assets off limits for purposes of her husband’s possible future long term care expenses. In order for her to safely do this, however, she must feel reasonably confident that neither she nor her husband will need long term care in the next five years, as MaineCare has a “five-year look-back” rule which penalizes people who transfer assets in order to qualify for MaineCare.

For a couple who is already in crisis, there are still options. The spouse may purchase a certain type of annuity which meets the requirements of the law. This annuity will protect her assets while providing a stream of income. She can invest her countable assets into exempt assets, such as repairs or improvements to her home, or the purchase of a newer car.

As a last resort, some spouses choose to divorce for the purpose of preserving assets. This is a wrenching decision for most clients, but may be the only option for ensuring that the spouse at home to preserve what she has worked so hard for over the years. This divorce, however, will not prevent the wife from continuing to provide love, companionship and care to her husband, just as if they continued to be married.

Second marriages: providing for a surviving spouse in a trust

By Sally Wagley, Maine elder law and estate attorney

We have had a number of clients who fit the following profile: They are married for a second time, each with children from a previous marriage. One of them has substantially more than the other. Let’s assume for discussion purposes that the husband is the one with more than the wife. The husband wants to ensure that, should he die first, the wife has enough income to live comfortably for the rest of her life. However, he does not want to leave assets to her outright, as he wants to make sure that his children will ultimately inherit.

One option is for the husband to leave some or all of his estate to a trust for his wife’s benefit. Such a trust typically provides that she gets all the income generated by the assets placed in trust, to give her a stream of income which is adequate to maintain her standard of living. The trust may provide, in addition, that should the trust income and her own income be inadequate, the wife can receive amounts of principal which are needed for this purpose.

Who should be the trustee of this trust? One option is for the husband to name one or more of his children as trustees. If his estate is substantial, it is possible to have a bank serve as trustee. Or, if the husband trusts the wife to be a responsible trustee and to abide by the rules of the trust, he can name her to be the trustee, with one or more of his children to become the successor trustee if she becomes incapacitated.

This arrangement may be coupled with giving the wife a life estate in any real estate which he owns separately, such as a primary home or a cottage.

Second marriages: pre-nuptial and post-nuptial agreements

By Sally Wagley, Maine elder law and estate attorney

Some clients who marry later in life do not think, before the wedding, about the usefulness of a prenuptial agreement. In the flush of romance, these clients may not have their minds on practical matters, such as ensuring that their assets will remain separate should they divorce and ensuring that children from previous marriages will inherit.

After the wedding, when things calm down, these clients may turn their attention to these sobering issues. They may, at that point, wish they had executed a prenuptial agreement. Is it too late for these clients to execute an agreement of this kind?

No, it is not too late for these clients. Post-nuptial agreements under which each member of the couple agrees to forego certain spousal rights in the event of divorce or upon death. In this situation, each one will need to see advice from his/her own lawyer, as a single lawyer would face a conflict of interest in representing them both. Also, each one has to make full disclosure to the other of all financial assets that each has, so that there are no secrets between them in this regard.

Second marriages: the “elective share,” your spouse’s right to part of your estate when you die.

The law in Maine is such that, absent an agreement to the contrary, a married person cannot disinherit his or her surviving spouse. The law gives the surviving spouse the right to go to court to demand that he or she receive at least one-third of the deceased’s “augmented estate.” The determination of the amount that the surviving spouse can receive takes into account not only the assets in the deceased spouse’s name but also some of the surviving spouse’s assets.

We have many clients who marry later in life, sometimes for the second time. Each spouse has accumulated assets separately and may have children from a previous marriage. One or both spouses may wish to favor his or her own children in the will, choosing not to leave anything to the surviving spouse or perhaps to leave only a modest amount. For those clients who die without being aware or without addressing the “elective share” issue, the deceased’s children may be in for an unpleasant surprise, should the surviving spouse choose to seek more from the estate than what was left to him or her in the deceased’s will.

Clients who are either planning to marry or who are already married, who wish to agree that neither will file for the elective share against the other’s estate can put this in writing in a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement.

Second marriages: giving your surviving spouse a life estate in your home

By Sally Wagley, Maine elder law and estate attorney

Consider the case of this typical client of ours, a man in his 60’s, married for the second time to a lovely woman, also in her 60’s. He has three grown children from his previous marriage and several grandchildren. She too has children and grandchildren of her own. Both have property, savings and investments of their own, which they wish to keep separate, and which they wish to leave directly to their own children rather than to each other.

When they marry, the wife moves into the husband’s home. The husband chooses to keep the home titled in his own name, rather than put his wife’s name on the deed, so that the home will ultimately go to his children when he dies. At the same time, he does not want his wife to have to move out of the home when he dies. He comes to us for advice.

One of the options we offer him is revising his will so as to provide his wife with a “life estate” in the home. The will we prepare for him states that should his wife survive him, she has the right to occupy the home for as long as she wants, provided she pays the expenses (taxes, insurance, utilities, maintenance) and takes care of the home. Should she choose to move out of the home, the property will then belong to his children, who can do with it as they choose. If she remains there until she dies, then upon her death the husband’s children will at that point receive title to the home.

In this way, the husband can ensure that his wife will not be uprooted while at the same time ensuring that his children will inherit the property when she no longer needs it.

Simple Wills that Make a Difference

By Patrice A. Putman, Maine estate and elder law attorney

Most people have some sense of what they want to happen with their “estates” (real estate, savings, cars and the “stuff” in their homes) if they die any time soon. If they have minor children, they know who they want (and, just as importantly, don’t want) to raise their kids. But then they are hesitant to call a lawyer and put their wishes in writing. Why?

Lawyers can be intimidating. When we see commercials about lawyers on TV they invariably use deep, intimidating voices and sometimes even flash fists and baseball bats. In fact, most lawyers are nice people who work hard to meet your needs. Many donate a great deal of their time to charities that they care about and volunteer in their communities.

You are concerned about cost. Having a Will written well and executed properly costs money – but probably not as much as you fear. At our office, a simple Will with a testamentary trust for the kids (a trust that is created only upon one’s death) is usually done for a flat fee, which we quote you at the end of a first meeting. This fee includes the initial meeting to gather all the necessary information and to understand your wishes. This is also when we will tell you about any unintended consequences associated with your wishes so that you can be fully informed about your choices. We then draft the Will, send you the draft, go over any questions or concerns with you, make any changes needed, and prepare a final document. The basic fee also includes a final meeting where any last questions are answered and any final changes are made. The Will is then signed, witnessed, and notarized. Copies are made and instructions (on what to do with the Will and the copies) are given.

You haven’t decided what to do. Decisions about what to do with your stuff or who to name to take care of your kids or to serve as Personal Representative (executor) are really hard decisions. We can help you think these things through. Sometimes you need more information and sometimes you need more options. Lawyers are trained to provide you with both.

If you don’t have a Will, state law determines what happens to your real estate, savings and other assets, a probate judge will decide who the best person is to raise your children. A simple will ensures that these things are handled they way you want.

The information provided in this post is for educational purposes only.   It describes the law in effect at the time the materials were written.  This information should not be construed as rendering legal advice or offering an answer to a specific legal problem.

Leaving your “stuff” to people in your last will

By Sally M. Wagley, Maine estate planning and elder law attorney


A concern that older people often bring to estate planning and elder law attorneys is how they can make sure that, at their deaths, the right people receive treasured heirlooms and other items.  These items include jewelry, antiques, firearms, tools, musical instruments, art work, knick-knacks, and the like.  Lawyers refer to this “stuff” as “tangible personal property.”

It is not necessary to list things in the last will and testament prepared by your estate planning lawyer.  Instead, you can list these things in a separate writing, which your will refers to.  This separate writing can be in your own handwriting or typed.  What’s important is that it be signed by you and dated.

This list can be dated before or after the will prepared by your lawyer – it doesn’t matter.  You can change it time and time again, without going back to your estate planning lawyer to get your will changed.   The best place to keep this list is together with your will.

Some people, instead of preparing this list, go around their homes and put post-it notes on things, naming the person to receive each item.  This will work out fine as long as your family agrees about who gets what.  However, if they don’t agree, there is no way to make sure that these things will go to the right people.  This can cause problems within your family and could even require a judge of the Maine probate court to resolve the issue.   Therefore, it is best to put your wishes in writing.

Big changes in Maine and federal estate tax

by Sally M. Wagley, estate planning and elder law attorney

 Everything in life changes – especially the law on estate tax.

Since I started practicing as an estate planning lawyer in Maine almost 14 years ago, estate tax laws have changed many times.   This last year, 2011, has been particularly eventful:

  •  The federal estate and gift tax exemption increased from $3.5 million to $5 million dollars (after a very brief period during which the federal estate tax was repealed altogether).  
  • The Maine estate tax exemption will increase from $1 million to $2 million dollars, effective January 1, 2013.   

 If you are a Maine resident and have accumulated significant wealth, a simple will may not be enough. You may need an estate plan which aims to reduce or even eliminate estate tax, thus preserving what you’ve saved for the next generation or for charity.  Strategies  include: 

  •  Trusts for the benefit of spouse, children, grandchildren or other family members;
  •  Gifts to charity, including gifts to charitable trusts;
  •  Bequests which skip a generation;
  •  Annual gifts of up to $13,000 per person to family members;
  •  Funding college savings plans for grandchildren. 

Since the laws on estate tax change so often (and will continue to change), I like to incorporate flexibility into clients’ estate plans, enabling surviving family members to make decisions at the time of your death based on the law in effect at that time, based on the size of your estate and based on th e needs of surviving family members.   An example is a will which gives your surviving spouse the ability to “disclaim” his or her inheritance from you, directing assets to one or more tax-saving trusts, if it appears at that time to be beneficial.    This is just one of a number of approaches to formulating a tax-oriented estate plan.

The information provided here is for educational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice or an answer to a specific legal problem. 

Sally M. Wagley practices in the areas of elder law,  estate planning and estate administration, with the firm of Levey and Wagley, P.A. in Winthrop, Maine, www.leveyandwagley.com.   

Marrying Later in Life: Should You Have a Prenuptial Agreement?

by Michael J. Levey, Esq.

When a marriage occurs later in life, each partner has his or her own lifelong experience.  Each has a substantial personal, family and economic history.  In addition, each party has separate assets and liabilities, developed separately from the new marital partner. And quite importantly, each partner has a family constellation (children, grandchildren and others) separate from the new marital partner.

When thinking of marrying, the partners inevitably consider the impact the new marriage will have on their separately developed economic and personal lives.  The questions which arise are:

  • If my new marriage ends in divorce, how can I protect my separately developed assets?
  • If my new marriage ends in divorce, will I be entitled to support, or will I have to pay support?
  • If I remarry, how can I ensure that upon my death, my separate assets will go to my own, original family?
  • If I make an agreement with my new partner about these subjects, will that agreement “hold up in court”? 

Maine law, in the Uniform Premarital Agreement Act, provides answers to these questions.  The Act permits parties to have an agreement which is made in contemplation of the marriage.  Under the act, the agreement must be made before the marriage and then takes effect when the couple is married.  The agreement must be in writing and signed by the parties.  The agreement can be modified or terminated during the marriage if both parties agree.

If my new marriage ends in divorce, how can I protect my separate assets?  The Act permits a prenuptial agreement to contain the following kinds of provisions, giving a party the opportunity to protect that party’s separate assets:

  • The agreement can state that the separate real estate, accounts or retirement assets of a party are to remain the separate property of its owner, and that additions to and increases in value to any such property remain the separate property of its owner.
  • The agreement can give a party the exclusive right to manage, re-invest and otherwise completely control that party’s separate assets.
  • The agreement can allow a party to keep that party’s separate assets in the event of divorce.

 If my new marriage ends in divorce, will I be entitled to support, or will I have to pay support?  A prenuptial agreement can state that upon divorce neither party will pay support to the other.  The agreement can also set forth a specific amount of spousal support. The agreement can state that spousal support will be terminated later, for example upon remarriage of the spousal support payee.

If I remarry, how can I ensure that upon my death, my separate assets will go to my own, original family? The prenuptial agreement can give a party the opportunity to pass his or her separate assets to that spouse’s original family or other loved ones upon death. A premarital agreement can prevent a surviving spouse from demanding a one-third “elective share” amount from the deceased spouse’s estate and from exercising other rights otherwise available under the law. The agreement can state that the surviving spouse is to receive a certain limited amount, and can require one or both spouses to have wills providing for this specific amount.

If I make an agreement with my new partner about these subject matters, will that agreement “hold up in court”?  The Act upholds these agreements, if they are made in the correct fashion (made in contemplation of marriage, executed before the marriage, written and signed).  However, the court will not enforce the agreement if it was not executed voluntarily by the parties.  The court will not enforce the agreement if it was an “unconscionable” agreement and the victimized party was kept in the dark about the assets of the other party.  The following suggestions help keep premarital agreements enforceable:

  • Full financial disclosure:  Before signing the agreement, the parties should make an accurate and complete disclosure to each other of their separate assets, liabilities and income. 
  • Separate lawyers for each spouse: Before signing the agreement, each party should have access to separate and independent legal advice.  

Does every person who is thinking of marrying later in life need a premarital agreement?  Does every person have to keep his or her assets separate from a new spouse? 

          Of course not.  The law doesn’t require premarital agreements, but only permits them.  Every person and every marriage is unique. Some couples, for very good reason, want to blend their assets during their new marriage and to permit flexibility as to what happens in the event of divorce or death.  I have clients who, after reviewing the relevant facts, have written premarital agreements, and I have had other clients who have chosen not to write them.  The important point is that people marrying later in life ought to give careful attention to the above considerations, so that they can choose the legal option which best fits their situation. 

The information provided here is for educational purposes only, and should not be construed as legal advice or an answer to a specific legal problem.

 Michael J. Levey practices family law with the firm of Levey and Wagley, P.A. in Winthrop, Maine. Go to www.leveyandwagley.com.     

Using a trust or LLC to keep your vacation home in the family

Here in Maine (“Vacationland”), one of our favorite activities is going “up to camp.”  People treasure their waterfront property and hope that it will remain in the family for generations.   While it is impossible to control the future from your grave, you can increase the chances of the property staying in the family by placing the property in a trust or a limited liability company (LLC). Such an arrangement typically provides:


  • Who will make decisions about the property. If you use a trust, the decision maker(s) will be called “trustees” if you use a trust.  You might appoint one of your children as trustees, or perhaps all of them, to act as a group.
  • The arrangement will state how decisions are to be made about the property: Will one person make decisions unilaterally?  Or will decisions be made by a group, by majority vote?
  • Who will pay property taxes, insurance, utilities and maintenance?  Will it be shared by all members of the family who get to use it?  What if one person can’t afford these expenses?
  • How will a schedule be arrived at, enabling different family members to use the property?
  • What if one of the beneficiaries isn’t using the property much and wants out of the arrangement?  Will other beneficiaries be required to buy him or her out? If so, how will they decide on a price?
  • What happens if a beneficiary dies?  Does that beneficiary’s share go to the other beneficiaries?  Or does it go to the deceased beneficiary’s children?

Families are often tempted to develop such an arrangement informally.  However, this type of arrangement is complex, requiring the consideration of many possible scenarios as well as tax considerations.  Therefore, it is essential to consult an attorney before deciding to go in this direction.  

 

Sally M. Wagley assists older and disabled people and their families in the areas of elder law,  estate planning and estate administration with the firm of Levey and Wagley, P.A. in Winthrop, Maine. Go to www.leveyandwagley.com.