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Reviewing Washington's intestate succession guidelines

Despite the effort that many in Seattle put into their estate planning, there is no guarantee that disputes and discord will not arise amongst their beneficiaries once they are gone. If such disputes are possible even when people have planned out the distribution of their estates, imagine the chaos that can ensue when a person dies without a will. Such an occurrence is certainly not uncommon; after all, according to information shared by the American Association of Retired Persons, only four out of 10 adults in America have drafted any sort of estate planning documents. 

However, the law does not allow for a veritable "free-for-all" amongst one's heirs when he or she forgets to create a will. Instead, statutes have been created that dictate how a decedent's assets are to be dispersed if he or she dies "intestate" (without a will). Local intestate succession guidelines can be found in Section 11.04.015 of the Revised Code of Washington. The law identifies one's surviving spouse or domestic partner as the first beneficiary entitled to estate assets. Not only does he or she inherit all of the community property he or she shared with the decedent, but he or she is also entitled to all of the decedent's estate if the decedent has no surviving direct descendants or immediate family members. If the decedent does have surviving issue, one-half of the estate is split equally amongst them, while the other half goes to the surviving spouse or domestic partner. 

Will revision after a workplace accident

If you have a will, there are a number of instances where you may find that revision has become necessary, such as ending your marriage or one of your loved ones passing away. However, you may also need to go over your will if you are hurt in a work-related accident. There are a variety of reasons why the revision of your estate plan may be necessary following a work injury and it is pivotal to handle these estate-related matters in a timely manner. After all, ensuring that your assets are split up among beneficiaries in accordance with your desires is essential.

Job-related accidents can make life hard in all sorts of ways. However, a serious injury may leave a worker unable to return to a particular field or adversely impact their income because of a disability they have, which may necessitate going over one’s will. On the other hand, some people may gain access to a large amount of compensation due to a successful lawsuit over a workplace mishap that was caused by another’s negligence, another reason why revising a will may become necessary.

Beneficiary designations in estate planning

If you are one of the residents in Washington State who has taken the time and care to prepare a will or a trust, you may understandably feel good about getting your affairs in order and responsibly providing clarity about your wishes for your estate after you die. However, if you have stopped at the creation of a wall or a trust, you may want to think twice before celebrating completely as there are other things that may require your attention.

As explained by MarketWatch, a standard estate planning tool like a trust or a will often does not address every one of your assets. Things like your life insurance policy or your retirement account have beneficiaries identified so that when you die, the funds in those accounts go to the beneficiaries. This will happen regardless of what you put in any other estate planning document.

5 estate planning mistakes

Estate planning is complex and very important, but many people put it off for far too long. Some never get around to making an estate plan at all, while others rush through it when they get older, or sudden injuries or disease make the need clear.

This type of approach can lead to mistakes. Unfortunately, those mistakes can make things far harder for your family. If you do not yet have an estate plan, it may be time to create one. If you have one, check it over to ensure there are no clear errors. A few examples of common mistakes include:

Resolving boundary disputes

People in Seattle may often envision boundary disputes between neighbors devolving into some form of "Hatfields-vs.-McCoys"-type of feud. Few disputes ever go that far, yet still, they can involve a good deal of emotion (often manifested in vitriol). After all, people take great pride in their homes and properties, and thus are fiercely protective of them. If, however, a dispute over property boundaries does arise, the hope is that cooler heads will prevail and the matter can be resolved easily. Even the law has been structured to be help facilitate such resolutions. 

Per Section 58.04.007 of the Revised Code of Washington, owners of adjacent properties have been empowered to resolve boundary disputes on their own. Those affected simply need to draft a written instrument (complete with survey map) that details exactly what the property boundaries are. An effective way to make such a determination may be to call in a professional surveyor to draw up a detailed schematic that can then be used for future reference. Once such an instrument has been completed, all parties involved must sign it. The agreement will then be filed in the real estate records of the county in which the properties are located. That agreement then remains binding even unto future generations. 

Late real estate magnate's estate case in chaos

One of the main reasons why estate planning experts in Seattle encourage people to see to such matters before it is too late is to avoid the potential for conflict that can erupt over their assets once they are gone. Some might think that built-in safeguards such as state intestate succession guidelines will prevent mass confusion over the administration of an estate from ever happening. Yet simply because such guidelines are in place does not mean that there will not be motions and legal wranglings on the part of multiple parties that can end up turning an estate case into a virtual quagmire of chaos. 

There may be no better term to describe the probate case currently playing out involving the estate of a Texas real estate magnate. The decedent was known for being a colorful character in life who was definitely unconventional in his business dealings, and he seems to be intent on continuing that legacy from beyond the grave. Currently, no valid will is known to exist addressing the administration of his estimated $288 million estate. His widow filed to name temporary administrator of the estate shortly after his death, a move that was immediately opposed by his five children. Ultimately, the case was handed off to a local attorney, which may be for the best given that poor recordkeeping coupled with several defaulted loans on properties the decedent owned (as well as seemingly endless stream of creditors) call into question exactly how much the estate will end up being worth once all is settled). 

Why are wills so controversial?

The death of a parent or grandparent is always tough, whether it is a sudden accident or death after a long, slow decline in health. What makes it tougher for Seattle residents is a will that they feel is unfair. For example, a child who acts as the primary caregiver for an aging parent for several years may feel entitled to a bigger share of the estate than siblings who did not.

Psychology Today explains that children may feel that the will is a “final grade” of their parent’s feelings about them. It does not matter whether it is true. For children, it is their perception of reality. A will can feel like a summing up of a child’s entire life and their reward, or lack of reward. Nobody is prepared for such an emotional summary.

When a family member cannot be trusted

Unfortunately, stories of elderly abuse -- especially those involving financial deception -- are all too common. A large number of these cases occur within the walls of Seattle nursing homes and hospitals. Some incidents, shockingly enough, can be traced back to an elderly person's own family member. 

Discovering that an elderly loved one has been the victim of abuse is heartbreaking, as it can often present a complex situation. One article from Forbes asks readers whether they would be willing to report family members for financial elder abuse, given the inevitably emotional obstacles that can ensue. Forbes quotes a study from the National Center on Elder Abuse, which shares that only 44 out of 1,000 cases of abuse are reported. For some, reporting a daughter or son can be an excruciating process on its own. Other family members simply wish to avoid contention during a time that is likely already painful. Forbes urges its audience to call out family members who have abused vulnerable elderly patients, and adds that people may report cases anonymously.

Neighbor disputes have more potential causes than you thought

You've heard plenty about people getting into heated disputes with their neighbors. You've even heard about physical confrontations. They often stem from a simple dispute: Claiming that a neighbor put up a new deck on your property, for instance.

You think these cases are interesting, but you do not think they'll ever be a problem for you. You know exactly where the property line is. In all of these cases, you keep hearing about how confusion over where the line sits makes two people think they both own the same land. You're sure you won't have that problem.

Examining no contest clauses

Seattle residents certainly do not want to see their decisions regarding the dispersal of their estates to cause contention amongst their beneficiaries. Being as transparent as possible in the structuring of a will might help to avoid that, yet there still may be situations where one beneficiary who is unhappy about what he or she receives chooses to dispute the matter and hold up the entire estate administration process. Some might say that there is an easy way to avoid this: simply include a "no contest" clause in a will.

A no contest clause (also called an in terrorem clause) can punish a beneficiary who chooses to dispute a will. That punishment may range from disinheriting the person pushing for a dispute to limiting his or her interest in the estate to a nominal amount (potentially to even as low as a few dollars). The purpose of such clauses is (of course) to deter beneficiaries from questioning the validity of a will (and, by extension, the testator's wishes). Yet questions have arisen regarding the enforceability of no-contest clauses. Washington has no law currently on the books that specifically addresses no-contest clauses. Rulings issued by the state's Supreme Court, however, have held that they are valid, yet challenges initiated in good faith are still permissible. 

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Riach Gese Jacobs, PLLC
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