Frequently Asked Questions and Answers About Connecticut Wills, “Will Packages”, Revocable Living Trusts, and Probate
If you are just starting to plan for your family’s future, you may have questions about how estate planning works, and what documents you need to protect yourself and your family. Here are some of the most frequently asked questions and answers about Connecticut wills, revocable living trusts and probate.
Why Do I Need a Basic Estate Plan?
In estate planning, lawyers and their staff help individuals and couples plan for their futures. Estate planning considers your family tree, financial situation and healthcare needs to make things easier during your life and to honor your wishes at the end of your life. The heart of the estate plan is a will or trust that identifies your beneficiaries and directs how they should receive your assets after you pass.
A basic estate plan can also let you plan for end-of-life care and make sure your health and finances will be taken care of if you are no longer able to make decisions yourself, and minimize the court processes your family will need to go through after your death.
Whose Will Is It, Anyway?
A “Last Will and Testament” (or will) is a signed and witnessed document that directs how you (the “testator”) want your property handled after your death. Wills allow you to designate the person you want in charge of handling your affairs (the “executor” or “administrator”). If you have young children, you can also appoint a guardian to care for them, and a trustee to handle their financial affairs. In addition, you can use a will to:
- Divide bank accounts
- Bequeath heirlooms
- Make charitable gifts and fund philanthropic causes
- Leave property to friends, business partners, and others outside your family
- Direct funeral and burial arrangements
- Transfer assets into a trust to be administered and distributed later (see below)
Will vs Living Will: What’s the Difference?
If a will directs what happens to your possessions after you die, then a “living will” or “health care directive” directs what happens to you before you die. A living will is a written statement directing the types of medical care you do or do not want in a variety of situations. By laying out your wishes ahead of time, you can direct your end-of-life care even if you are unable to speak or make those choices at the time they are needed. A living will can address:
- Use of experimental treatments
- “Do Not Resuscitate” orders
- Treatment of terminal illnesses
- Care while permanently unconscious or in a “persistent vegetative state”
- Removal of life support systems
In Connecticut, a living will must be witnessed and formally acknowledged to be valid. If you are going in for a medical procedure your doctor will ask you if you have a living will.
Can a Will be Challenged in Connecticut?
It is difficult, but not impossible for an unhappy heir to challenge a well-drafted will in Connecticut. To have a will set aside, the challenger must show that the will is fake, was executed incorrectly, or otherwise invalid. Proving that will be difficult if the testator worked with an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare and execute the will.
What Happens if I Die Without a Will in Connecticut?
If you die without a will, or if your will is invalidated in a will challenge, the courts will distribute your assets according to Connecticut’s laws of intestacy. These laws allocate a deceased person’s assets among their surviving spouse, children, grandchildren, and other relatives according to a priority scheme. A will allows a testator to deviate from that. With a will…it’s your will! Without a will, the percentages and order of distribution of the probate estate are set by law and cannot be changed after a person’s death.
What is Probate?
Probate is the process by which a court (the probate court) supervises the settlement of a person’s estate after their death. It involves:
- Appointing an executor or administrator (usually the person named in the will, if there was a will),
- Identifying and contacting the person’s heirs at law or beneficiaries under the will,
- Identifying and valuing the deceased person’s assets and debts,
- Settling any final debts against the estate
- Paying the estate’s final taxes
- Selling off property not specifically devised to a beneficiary
- Distributing the assets according to the terms of the deceased’s will
Can I Avoid Probate?
Not entirely. Even in simple cases, the process can easily take several months or longer, during which time an executor’s ability to make transactions with estate property may be limited. An estate planning attorney can use a variety of estate planning tools to help you reduce or avoid probate using
- Jointly titled real estate and accounts (with rights of survivorship)
- Payable-on-death and transfer-on-death accounts
- Beneficiary designations for retirement accounts and insurance policies
- A revocable living trust
What is a Revocable Living Trust?
Generally, a trust is a separate legal entity that you transfer assets to for your benefit during your lifetime and the benefit of specific people after your death (your beneficiaries). Your trust designates one or more “trustees” to oversee your assets, manage investments and maintenance, and distribute your property to your beneficiaries according to the terms of the trust. It avoids probate because the trust survives, even after you pass away. With conventional trusts, you lose control over the property in the trust during your lifetime, and its directives cannot be changed. Control is in the hands of the trustee, not you.
A revocable living trust offers several advantages. It is revocable, meaning it can be dissolved at your discretion during your lifetime. You also keep complete control during your lifetime, for your own benefit. While you are alive, you are the trustee as well as the beneficiary. When you die your appointed successor trustee takes over and manages your estate.
Revocable living trusts can be very useful in the following situation. Most married people own their homes jointly with survivorship, so after the death of one of them, the surviving spouse inherits the home. But when that spouse dies, the house could land in probate, so the heirs might have to wait to sell or refinance under a favorable interest rate until the estate is settled. But if the home is in a revocable living trust the heirs will be able to pursue any such advantages without waiting out the settlement process.
If most of your assets are owned jointly or there are beneficiaries, however, these will pass outside of probate and there may be little need for a revocable living trust.
What Are Powers of Attorney?
A “durable” power of attorney can be used for convenience during your life. You can give a family member or a trusted friend the ability to conduct a wide range of transactions on your behalf, including banking transactions and real estate closings. This can come in handy in any situation in which you will be temporarily unavailable, for example, if you are traveling or anticipate a hospital stay.
This is Complicated, Isn’t It?
Not at all. All of these can form a simple estate plan custom-tailored to your situation that provides peace of mind and spans a continuum during and after life.
How Do I Choose an Attorney for a Basic Connecticut Estate Plan?
When choosing an attorney for a simple estate plan, you want someone knowledgeable, experienced, and sympathetic to your family’s needs and goals. Creating an estate plan means asking yourself some difficult questions, but you may be surprised to find that you already know many of the answers. You want someone who can guide you to the right answers and respect your choices.
The estate planning attorneys at Lawrence & Jurkiewicz, LLC represent clients in Hartford and Litchfield Counties. Attorney Edward Jurkiewicz has decades of experience helping individuals and families plan for their future. Please call us at (860) 264-1551 or contact us at your convenience to discuss your estate plan and prepare your last will and testament.
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