Probating the Texas Estate of a Missing Person

At first glance, it might seem impossible to probate the estate of someone who is missing and presumed dead. However, the Texas Estates Code provides for this very process under Title 2, Subtitle J, Chapter 454 entitled, “Administration of Estate of Person Presumed Dead.”

That chapter clearly states that a probate court has the required jurisdiction to determine the likelihood of a person’s death when specific steps are followed — even if the main evidence presented is entirely circumstantial. However, the Texas Estates Code was carefully drafted to prevent fraud by requiring a lengthy delay before the assets of these types of estates can be distributed.

What are the main steps usually taken to probate the estate of a missing person?

  • Request for letters testamentary. After the probate process has begun with the filing of a request for letters testamentary, the court-appointed personal representative must serve a citation on the person presumed dead in the manner required by the court. Since the person is missing, this often means publishing a notice of the proceeding in one or more print newspapers – and in any other manner dictated by the court;
  • Contacting the proper authorities. The personal representative must then formally contact the proper authorities about the estate owner’s missing status. Among others, law

enforcement officials and state welfare agencies should be notified – along with any others suggested by the court;

  • A professional investigative agency should be hired. This must be done in keeping with the provisions of  Section 454.003 of the Texas Estates Code (requiring efforts to locate the missing owner of the estate). During this process, the investigator may encounter potential heirs who may have crucial information that can help locate the missing person – or help determine where s/he was living shortly before death.

The investigator should create a report based on all research and interviews conducted and then present it to the court – documenting that the missing person cannot be located. The cost of this investigation is normally reimbursed by the estate, after the court has had time to review the requested fees.

How quickly can the estate be distributed?

Section 454.004 of the Texas Estates Code clearly states that this can only be done after three years have passed since the date on which the letters testamentary were issued by the court to the personal representative.

What personal liabilities can arise if the person presumed dead reappears after distribution?

If the missing person returns and presents conclusive evidence that s/he was alive at the time the

letters testamentary were granted, that individual has the legal right to regain control of the estate — whatever remains of the funds or property.

However, this person who was presumed dead – yet has now reappeared – cannot get his/her property back that was sold for value to a bona fide purchaser. Instead, this person only has the right to the proceeds or funds obtained for the sale of the property to the bona fide purchaser.

In addition, Section 454.052 states that the personal representative who handled all the legal sales transactions for the estate, not knowing that the missing person was actually alive, cannot be held liable for any financial losses suffered by that individual who has now returned. And any surety who issued a bond to that personal representative cannot be held liable for anything the personal representative did while complying with approved court-ordered activities.

Should you need help probating any estate, please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys. We’ve had the opportunity to help many clients and can readily answer all your questions.

How Texas Estates Are Often Handled When Wills Cannot Be Found

Given how hard most people work to pay their bills and save up for their retirement years, you would think all of us would want to maintain strict control over who will inherit from us. Yet statistics reveal that only about forty percent (40%) of Americans have faced their mortality and asked their lawyers to help them create Wills.

When we make this error, we increase the chances that relatives we don’t know very well – or perhaps even like – may one day receive all our wealth. That’s regrettable since most of us have specific family members who would benefit the most from an inheritance. And great charities and faith-related beneficiaries can always use our funds to bless many others.

Hopefully, this article will help you see the advantages of meeting with your Houston estate planning attorney to create a first Will — and then later update it as your estate grows.

What are the five ways Texas wealth is often distributed when there is no Will?

  1. Under the state’s intestate succession laws. While these are useful, they do not let you determine who will inherit from you. Furthermore, if you own any of the following types of accounts or property, you must make sure that you’ve provided an updated list of beneficiaries to those who maintain these accounts (or other forms of wealth) on your behalf.
  1. Proceeds from a life insurance policy
  2. Retirement account funds that may include a 401k, IRA — or another, similar type of account
  3. Property that you and another person own together
  4. POD or payable-on-death account funds
  5. Property that’s already held in some type of living trust
  1. Through the filing of an Affidavit of Heirship. This approach can normally only be used when the assets requiring a title transfer are real estate. However, you can sometimes use this type of affidavit for non-property assets – depending on the rules of the institution that currently manages those items. Be prepared to discuss this topic in detail with your lawyer since there are certain limitations involved with using this type of affidavit.

For example, some title companies will not accept these types of affidavits when you’re trying to establish a legally valid chain of title for property. In addition, since no personal representative will be appointed, there won’t be anyone who can manage the estate’s assets and pay all required debts. Also, two witnesses must sign this type of affidavit and both are liable for any false statements that may be contained in it.

  1. By filing a Small Estate Affidavit. If your attorney takes this approach, he’ll first have to determine if the estate is solvent and if it’s worth $75,000 or less. In addition, the affidavit can only be used to transfer title to a homestead. Furthermore, there will be no appointed personal representative to collect all the assets, pay all required debts and deal with necessary third parties. Financially responsible witnesses must also sign this type of affidavit.
  1. Using a probate court proceeding called a determination of heirship. The advantages of this approach include having a hearing, the presentation of evidence and a court issuing a judgment accepting or rejecting all submitted affidavits of heirship. However, some relatives eager to settle an estate may find this approach less appealing since it can be rather costly – mainly due to the need to file various pleadings with the probate court. You must also coordinate everything with the court appointed attorney ad litem who will investigate whether there’s any possible fraud regarding the filed affidavits of heirship. However, obtaining a court ruling that specific parties are lawful heirs is very useful;
  1. Handling the matter as either an independent or dependent administration of the estate.

The difference between these two types of administrations is based on the degree to which the probate court must be involved in the proceedings. The term “independent administration” simply means that the court has minimal involvement.

Whichever approach is chosen, there will need to be an appointment of a personal representative who is qualified to receive letters of administration provided by the probate court. These “letters” allow the personal representative to collect all the assets and pay all the debts. The biggest drawback of this approach is that it’s often the most expensive way to handle the estate of someone who died without a Will.

Hopefully, this general information has helped you see that creating a Will is one of the best ways to move forward into a more stable financial future.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb lawyers so we can answer any questions you may have about settling someone else’s estate — or drawing up a Will (or full estate plan) of your own. We appreciate the opportunity to help our clients handle these types of matters and look forward to hearing from you soon.

Why Most Adults Under Age 35 Needs an Estate Plan

Many young adults assume they won’t need a simple or comprehensive estate plan until they’ve created or inherited a sizeable amount of wealth. However, all adults, especially those who are married or have children, need estate plans to protect their legal interests.

After all, none of us know when we may suddenly become the victim of a severe pedestrian or auto accident – or receive a devastating medical diagnosis. When you have a basic Will, it can greatly simplify matters for your loved ones if you become too incapacitated to manage your own finances or even pass away.

The following information helps explain why no one should want to continue being one of the approximately 60% of American adults who are without a Will or estate plan.

While it may be a bit uncomfortable requesting documents that directly address your own possible incapacitation or death – the peace of mind you and your loved ones will gain always makes the effort worth it.

Key reasons why all younger adults can benefit from a Will or comprehensive estate plan

  • They each allow you to specifically name the beneficiaries you want to receive your real property and investment accounts. When you fail to create a Will, the state of Texas will apply its laws of intestacy to decide who will inherit everything you own. Even if you’ve only had time to pay into a 401k or other investment account for a few years, chances are you also own a car and a few other valuable possessions. Creating an estate plan lets you decide who will receive your assets – although community property and other laws will also come into play if you’re married;
  • You can designate a guardian for any minor children. There may be good reasons why your child shouldn’t go live with certain relatives if you become critically ill (or too disabled) to care for the child. A Will lets you designate one or more people to shoulder this responsibility, along with one or two back-up guardians.
  • You can designate someone else to speak for you in a medical Advanced Directive. This type of estate planning document lets a person you trust choose the specific medical care you wish to receive if you become seriously ill and can’t make decisions for yourself;
  • Your Houston estate planning attorney can provide you with valuable legal advice on how to protect your wealth against excessive taxes as your estate begins to grow. Even if you hold a degree in asset or wealth management, you’ll always need to make sure you’re using tax-efficient wealth transfers to others that fully comply with all recent changes in IRS laws and regulations. You may also want to have a trust account created to help you annually transfer wealth to specific individuals or charitable organizations;
  • Creating an estate plan helps you develop meaningful savings goals as you begin to plan for your eventual retirement. If you begin funding your retirement in your early 20s and 30s, you’ll increase the chances of being able to choose the date when you’ll retire or reduce your workload. Should you marry, having an estate plan can help you and your spouse make more informed choices about assuming a new mortgage, having children, setting aside funds to help pay for your children’s education — and possibly even one day funding a charitable trust or family foundation.

Perhaps the best part of creating an estate plan when you’re very young is that you’ll be able to reflect on how your legal documents are helping you “grow your income.” And you’ll always be able to change and update your financial goals when new life circumstances develop.

While many younger people request an entire set of estate planning documents, others are more comfortable just requesting a Will that will cover all their current, limited possessions.

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can provide you with the estate planning advice you currently need. We’ll always be available to answer any questions you have and update your legal paperwork as your life changes and moves forward.

Creative Planning for Your Senior Years Should Begin Now

Creative Planning for Your Senior Years Should Begin Now

Just as most younger people make detailed plans before entering college or starting their careers, older Americans must also carefully plan how they want to live out the last decades of their lives. If you’ll start this process early, you’re much more likely to have many positive options and choices available.

Yet before older Americans or “seniors” start thinking about vacations and other pleasure pursuits – it’s crucial to first address such basic needs as finances, housing and medical care. A good way to start this process is by asking yourself each of the following questions.

  • What family, financial and legal resources do I currently have?
  • When – and in what order — should I begin drawing upon those resources in the most efficient manner?
  • If I’m short on all or most resources – how can I immediately begin creating a supportive community of friends, relatives and others to help me?

Your financial and legal resources require immediate planning and regular oversight

You’ll always need to know more than just how much money you have and how quickly you can liquidate it in case of an emergency. Although it’s important to be able to access large amounts of money should you or your spouse require immediate medical care that isn’t readily covered by insurance, there are other more critical issues you should address first.

Stated simply, everyone needs to secure Medical Power of Attorney documents, a Will and other supporting documents. You can easily acquire this paperwork by meeting with your Houston estate planning lawyer long before you reach your senior years. This will help you obtain the best medical care available – in keeping with your preferences.  You can also inquire about other documents that can grant trusted individuals the right to handle your finances (especially if you’re single without adult children) if you become temporarily incapacitated.

Given how many older Americans now live alone, these matters should never be postponed. As of 2010, about 12% of women between the ages of 80 and 84 were unmarried and childless. By 2018, some experts predict that about 16% of women in that age group will fit that description.

Of course, many men may also have similar needs since the average woman only outlives the average male by a few years.

Once you and your attorney have created all this legal paperwork, be sure to give copies to trusted relatives or friends so that they can make sure you obtain the care you need right when you need it the most.

If you’re age sixty and single (or even if married) – start proactively deciding where you’ll live Afraid to face the reality of eventual death, too many people refuse to move into proper housing before their health seriously deteriorates. When this happens, helpful family members or friends are often greatly inconvenienced by your avoidable tardiness.

Give serious thought to moving into a place now that offers different levels of care. Otherwise, if a sudden emergency develops, you might not wind up where you want to be. Try looking for unique living arrangements where seniors can blend in with others of all ages. Places like Hope Meadows are often a blessing to many.

Think positive if you have little money – consider part-time work – and keep socializing

Stay active pursuing activities that are meaningful, useful and fun. As you get to know others better, you may want to suggest becoming part of each other’s support network. Friendships with others of all ages can prove very beneficial to everyone involved.

If you currently have a tech-savvy friend or family member — and want to live at home as long as possible — be sure to check out the newest “apps” that can help keep you and your financial world safe.

Always be kind to yourself. If current media articles make you feel that you made poor choices in the past regarding marriage and children, keep in mind that married couples (and older singles) with children don’t always “have it made” regarding help while growing older. Many of these people have adult children who: (1) live far away, (2) are estranged from them, (3) are coping with serious addictions – or are (4) barely staying afloat in their own busy family and work lives.

Finally, since so many entrepreneurs are now rushing into the “longevity market,” you must make sure you’re interacting with reputable people and not scam artists. Just because someone is financially “bonded” to do their work, doesn’t mean they’ll do what’s best for you. Stay in touch with your lawyer and always have at least one trusted friend help you make critical decisions.

Please feel free to schedule an appointment with one of our Murray Lobb attorneys so we can help you prepare all the estate planning legal paperwork that you need. We can also review any contracts you’re being asked to sign regarding a continuing care retirement community (CCRC). We look forward to being of service to you.

Choosing Reputable Charities for Your Texas Estate Plan

Many Americans now name one or more charities in their Wills or other estate planning documents to help these important cultural and humanitarian groups maintain adequate funding. However, others less familiar with charitable giving need to understand that, before arranging these types of gifts, they must carefully evaluate each charity or non-profit group to be sure their funds will be shared properly. 

Fortunately, there are several reputable organizations that will readily help consumers decide which charitable or non-profit groups are properly using all their donations while minimizing administrative costs. These same “watchdog” groups often urge all charitable groups to maintain open donation and expenditure records. In addition, our Texas Attorney General’s Office has put together some useful tips that can help all of us do a better job of deciding which charities will be the most responsible recipients of our testamentary gifts.

Here’s a list of basic tips that can help all of us better evaluate all non-profits and charities. That information is followed by a list of different websites and groups dedicated to providing consumers with current news about charitable activities. Of course, it’s always best to start your search by first visiting with your Houston estate planning attorney who may already know about the reputations of many charitable organizations.

Important Information to Obtain While Choosing Charities to Include in Your Estate Plan

  • First, be sure to obtain the full legal name of each group, its address and telephone number. Next, ask if the IRS has formally recognized it as a public charity that’s tax exempt. Then, ask if your donations will all be fully tax deductible.
  • Find out how long the non-profit or charity (hereinafter just referenced as ‘charity’) has been in existence.  While longevity doesn’t always ensure completely honest and frugal management of funds, it does mean that it should be easier to research the group’s reputation by visiting several of the online sources named below.
  • Request a recent annual report that clearly indicates how much money the group spends on administrative costs and how much of every donated dollar will directly benefit those the charity is seeking to help.
  • Find out if the charity’s main goals are related to education, medical services, scientific and medical research – or perhaps providing scholarships to those pursuing careers in specific vocational fields.
  • Do not give the group any of your private bank account or credit card information during your investigative calls – although it’s best to be honest about your intentions. Also, if you’re not ready to receive numerous emails or letters to your home address, avoid giving that type of information out right now.

Be sure to ask members of your professional or business circles if any of them have had positive experiences with the charities that interest you the most. When any charity has a publicly named board of directors, consider contacting those individuals directly by phone to ask them about their experiences with handling tasks on behalf of the charity.

When you’re ready, start visiting some of the websites set forth below to see what you can find out about each of the charities that seem to be highly reputable.

Online Websites Offering Detailed Information About Various Charities

  • Give.org. This website includes the sub-title, “BBB Wise Giving Alliance.” On its page dedicated to donors, it states that you can look up information about each charity’s effectiveness, governance, finances – and current brochures or other materials available to the public.
  • The American Institute of Philanthropy (Charity Watch). Among its various offerings, this website offers a list of charitable groups involved with some highly specific causes and issues.
  • Guidestar. This online resource offers a wide array of information about many reputable non-profit groups.
  • Charity Navigator. Like the other websites already named above, this one offers timely information about many charities. It also provides a “hot topics” link that will tell you more about charities currently in the news for one reason or another.

All four of the oversight groups listed above are noted on the Texas Attorney General website. You can also find out additional information about specific charities by visiting this Consumer Reports page.

If you haven’t already thought about giving to a charity or non-profit when you pass away, please consider doing so now.  All Texans need to do a bit more to help others so our state can become more compassionate — and improve our current ranking for charitable giving.

Please feel free to contact our firm so we can explain some of the best ways to include charities as beneficiaries in your estate plan. There are specific legal ways of handling this task so that your estate will reap the best tax advantages available.

Common Reasons for Creating a Spendthrift Trust

Nearly all of us have relatives who need extra help managing their income and assets. When we can, we try to find ways to help them. In some instances, you might have a grandson or granddaughter who’s having trouble holding down a steady part-time job during college – or trying to make ends meet after battling a lengthy addiction. Your troubled relative might also be older and starting to struggle with handling all his monthly financial affairs.

Whatever the individual’s special needs may be, you can often help by making the person a beneficiary of a spendthrift trust.

How Should You Define This Type of Trust to the Beneficiary?

You may first want to simply say that, because you greatly care for this individual, you want to remove all or most of her current money management problems from her life. You can then say that you’ve named the person as a beneficiary of a special trust account that will be managed by a trustee. You should then quickly point out that you’ll be personally choosing the exact terms governing the trust so the trustee can properly meet specific needs of the beneficiary.

Should the beneficiary ask if she can personally manage the money, you must be ready to say that you have considered that alternative and prefer to disburse the funds over time. You might also note your desire to prevent the funds from being taken by untrustworthy creditors. (Of course, there are legal exceptions that do allow some creditors to reach these funds, and they’ll be briefly addressed below).

It’s also useful to tell the beneficiary that the funds or property that you’ll be placing in the trust as its creator (grantor) are generally referred to as the trust principal.

What Basic Terms and Provisions Are Normally Included in a Spendthrift Trust?

As your Houston estate planning lawyer will tell you, specific language must be included in the trust document, making it clear that you’re creating a spendthrift trust, in keeping with Texas law. This enabling language is designed to fully protect all the property and funds that you’re placing in the trust from others who might try to illegally reach them. All of this is clearly explained in the Texas Property Code, Title 9, entitled “Trusts.”

Your spendthrift trust language will clearly state that since the beneficiary has no right to directly reach and control the funds – neither can most creditors. Most grantors also include some specific language indicating that they are trying to provide for the beneficiary’s general needs.

As the grantor/settlor you must also clearly state all the trustee’s rights, duties and obligations while administering the trust. The trustee’s job can be a very difficult one, especially if the beneficiary decides to legally challenge the trustee by demanding large sums of money for serious medical, educational or basic living expenses not expressly referenced in the trust.

When Can Creditors & Other Parties Successfully Obtain Funds from a Spendthrift Trust?

The laws in most states allow creditors that can prove that a beneficiary owes them money for basic “necessities” (like shelter or food) to win judgments and collect funds from these types of trusts. Other legal obligations that can be paid out of spendthrift trust funds (once legal action has been taken) include child support, alimony or support of a past (or current) spouse and certain government claims.

When funds are periodically released to a beneficiary, creditors can also try to obtain them based on judgments they’ve obtained. 

Please feel free to contact one of our Murray Lobb attorneys to learn more about the various types of trusts and other estate planning tools that we can draft to meet all your needs, including a spendthrift trust.

Some Pros and Cons of Having an Adult Guardian Appointed

While most middle-aged and older adults recognize their need for a Will and a basic estate plan, far fewer understand when it may (or may not) be in their best interest to have a formal guardian appointed to help them manage all their personal and financial (estate) decisions. In general, if you’re still capable of making fully competent decisions regarding your finances, basic living arrangements, and medical care needs, you probably don’t need a guardian appointed for you.

However, if you’re currently suffering from some form of mental incapacity or dementia that impairs your ability to handle such matters, then you may need to have a guardian appointed to help you manage your affairs (either temporarily or permanently).

This article first reviews some of the dangers that can occur when the wrong person becomes your guardian and then lists the various legal documents that can help all adults provide for their general medical, financial, and everyday needs should they unexpectedly become very ill or need extensive medical treatment.

Can Courts Abruptly Take Away Elderly People’s Rights to Live as They Choose?

The New Yorker magazine recently published an article in October 2017 entitled, “How the Elderly Lose Their Rights.” It details the real-life experience of many seniors who suddenly found themselves under the control of a “questionable” court-appointed guardian in Clark County, Nevada. In some cases, these older Americans were in regular contact with family members – when a local court guardian decided that they could no longer live on their own and required her overbearing control of their lives.

In some instances, all it took was a hired home healthcare aide’s statement that the elderly person could no longer properly care for himself or his spouse, even though appropriate outside care had obviously been employed for such purposes. One court guardian (who’s been indicted for her actions), would simply arrive at an elderly person’s apartment or senior care facility and announce that she had just gotten herself appointed as that person’s (or couple’s) legal guardian. That same day, the individuals were then forced to leave where they had been living and go move in where this previously unknown woman directed.

Immediate attempts by family and other outsiders who tried to help proved futile. Instead of the court allowing the elderly to appear in court to respond to concerns about their mental competency, the court allowed a court-appointed, professional guardian to file emergency ex parte petitions indicating that immediate decisions had to be made regarding the seniors’ best interests. One couple’s daughter who tried to help her parents after they suddenly disappeared from their home had to endure various types of character assassination before she finally won their freedom. By that time, all her parent’s finances had been drained – supposedly spent in their best interests.

Sadly, the article also contains the chilling observation that this type of elder abuse has become far too common in many counties across this nation – especially in areas where seniors tend to congregate. Hopefully, more states will follow Nevada’s current plans to soon pass legislation that will expressly give seniors the right to be represented by attorneys during all guardianship competency hearings.

Conclusions

Since no adult ever wants to be suddenly “kidnapped”  or taken somewhere (at any age) by a court-appointed guardian or “professional” — it makes sense for all older adults to have their lawyers provide them with the following critical documents:  an Advance Directive for Medical Care, a Durable Power of Attorney and a Declaration of Guardian in the Event of Later Incapacity or Need of Guardian. By naming someone you know and trust in these documents, it should make it easier for your relatives and friends to help you in a manner that fully comports with your stated preferences should you one day become very ill or incapacitated.

Please contact our law firm if you need to ask any questions about creating an estate plan or having the types of documents referenced in this article prepared for you and other loved ones.