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Does Your Family Know What to Do When You Die?

Death comes for us all, whether we plan for it or not. Given that harsh reality, it’s tempting to simply avoid thinking about it—after all, there’s nothing you can do about it, and you may not be comfortable talking about how to plan for death. But planning for death is one of the last and kindest gifts you can give to the people you love. Let’s talk about how to discuss your estate plan with your family, as well as your last wishes.

Discuss Your Estate Plan With Loved Ones

Having to have “the talk” is never easy, and there are various components of it: end of life questions, how you want your property distributed, and how to plan your funeral. There is often an easy, if unfortunate, introduction to the topic: the death of a friend, neighbor, or other family member.

You can begin the conversation with your loved ones by saying something along the lines of, “You know, since Mrs. Smith passed away, I’ve been thinking about the things you’ll need to know about my wishes someday. I hope that day will be a long way off, but I know it will be easier on you… Read More

Advantages of Probate Mediation

Probate is the court-supervised process of administering a deceased person’s estate after their death. Ohio probate courts are also involved in appointing guardians for people who lack the capacity to manage their own affairs. These processes can be emotionally charged, and it is not uncommon for family members to have disputes about how estate business should be handled or who should be appointed administrator or guardian. These disputes have historically been resolved by litigation in the probate court.

Probate litigation may result in a definitive answer about the issue at hand, but probate matters are often also about conflicts that a court cannot effectively address. In recent years, probate mediation has become more popular as a way of reaching deeper, more lasting resolutions to the issues involved in probate disputes.

What is Probate Mediation?

Probate mediation is a form of alternative dispute resolution in which a neutral third party, a trained mediator, helps parties to a probate dispute reach a mutually agreeable resolution… Read More

An Executor’s Duty to Identify Possible Heirs

The probate process is full of language that is widely assumed to mean one thing, when it technically means something different or narrower. Executor duty generally consists of administering a deceased person’s (decedent’s) estate. In fact, an executor is the title given to someone tasked with managing the estate of a person who died with a will (testator).

Someone who died without a will is said to have died “intestate” and the person in charge of their estate is called an “administrator.” Administrators and executors collectively are called “personal representatives.”

Similarly, many people assume that an “heir” is someone who inherits from a decedent. What the term really means is a person who would be entitled by law to inherit from someone who died intestate, often a child or grandchild, but perhaps a parent, sibling, aunt, uncle, or cousin. (Spouses, while they have priority to inherit, are not considered “heirs.”) “Beneficiary” is the technical term for someone who inherits under a will or trust. An heir need not be a beneficiary (like a child who has been disowned). A beneficiary need not be an heir (like a friend named in a will… Read More

What Are Reasonable Attorney Fees in Estate Administration?

In Ohio, as in other states, attorneys who assist a personal representative in the administration of an estate are entitled to have their reasonable fees paid out of the estate. Attorney fees are governed not only by ethical guidelines established by attorneys' Rules of Professional Conduct, but by other Ohio rules and statutes. As such, attorney fees in estate administration are perhaps some of the most strictly regulated. Although attorney fees are paid out of the estate, Ohio case law has established that it is the personal representative, rather than the estate itself, who is the attorney's client.

What is a reasonable attorney fee for estate administration, and how is it determined? Essential guidance comes from Rule of Professional Conduct 1.5 (Rule 1.5), which states that a "lawyer shall not make an agreement for, charge, or collect an illegal or clearly excessive fee." A fee would be illegal if it violated a statute or some administrative regulation. A fee would be considered "clearly excessive" if an attorney of ordinary prudence would be left with a "definite and firm conviction" that the fee was excessive.

Factors in Determining Whether an Attorney Fee… Read More

Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets in Ohio

Imagine the following scenario: Your sister, your only sibling, is a single mother of two young children. She hasn't gotten around to making an estate plan because, well, she's the single mother of two young children. You know she does all her banking online, but you don't know the details. If she died suddenly, and you needed to administer her estate, would you know where to begin? Would you even be able to gain access to the information you needed? This is just one of many scenarios that makes fiduciary access to digital assets in Ohio an important issue.

A fiduciary is someone who manages assets for the benefit of someone else, and is required to do so in the beneficiaries' best interest. So "fiduciary" is an umbrella term that refers to, among other things, the executor of a will, the administrator of an estate where there is no will, a guardian, an agent under a power of attorney, or the trustee of a trust.

As a fiduciary, you have the responsibility to act in the best interest of the beneficiaries of an estate or trust, but until recently, it may have been difficult to gain access to the data or documents you needed to do so. Once upon a time, there were pape… Read More

Ethical Issues in Trust Administration

Ohio trustees are fiduciaries, bound to act in the best interests of the beneficiaries of the trusts they are managing. As such, they frequently face ethical dilemmas regarding their duties. Let's talk about some of the ethical issues in trust administration, along with suggestions for addressing them.

Most trustees have the best of intentions, but may not anticipate some of the scenarios that could arise in the course of their administration of the trust. By considering some potential ethical pitfalls in advance, trustees can be better prepared to handle these situations.

Certain duties are imposed on trustees by Ohio statute. These include a duty of communication, which requires a trustee to "keep the current beneficiaries of the trust reasonably informed about the administration of the trust and of the material facts necessary for them to protect their interests.” Trustees also have a duty of confidentiality, by which they are bound to "administer the trust in good faith, in accordance with its terms and purposes and the interests of the beneficiaries" and of course, as with Ohio law.

These ethical obligations are in many ways analogous to those that at… Read More

First-Time Executors: What You Should Know

Serving as the executor of an estate can be a daunting prospect, especially if it's a large or complex estate, and particularly if you have never before served as executor. It is reasonable to be concerned about this responsibility, but you do not have to be overwhelmed. As attorneys who have guided executors through hundreds of Ohio probate matters, we have guidance to offer first time executors that we hope will set your mind at ease and make the probate process smoother. Here are some of the things people often wish they knew before serving as a first-time executor.

Set Aside Space for Estate Documents

Even before the probate estate is opened, you will begin accumulating documents relevant to the estate. These may be bills that have gone out to the deceased person (decedent) which need to be paid, mail, and receipts. You don't need to have a fancy filing system, but it will reduce your stress immeasurably to be able to quickly lay hands on any document that has to do with the estate.

Part of your job will be to keep meticulous records of any claims against the estate, estate income, and payments made by the estate. Even if your "filing system" is a larg… Read More

Eight Things NOT to Do as the Personal Representative of an Estate

If you've been appointed or named as personal representative of a deceased person's estate in Ohio, you already know you have a lengthy "to-do" list. However, you may not have thought much about what NOT to do as the personal representative of the estate.

Here are some rules for how to avoid trouble when you're administering a loved one's estate.

DON'T Neglect to Give Proper Notice of the Estate.

Anyone who would be entitled to inherit from the deceased if he or she died without a will is entitled to notice of the probate of an estate. Heirs may choose to waive their right to notice, but the personal representative is obligated to go through the process of giving notice or securing a waiver. This is usually routine, but can be touchy, say, if Uncle Joe had a child out of wedlock who was never publicly acknowledged but whom everyone knew about. Don't be tempted to do an end run around the law. Notify everyone who has a legal right to notice.

DON'T Distribute any Assets Until You Have Fully Assessed Possible Claims Against the Estate.

Part of the reason for the probate process is to allow the personal representative to notify potential credit… Read More

Guidance for Fiduciaries Regarding Digital Assets

When you think of assets, what springs to mind? If you're like most people, the answer is bank and investment accounts, real estate, and other tangible things with financial value. But you have other things of value that you can't put your hands on—that is, unless your hands are on your computer, phone, or tablet. In other words, your so-called "digital assets."

A decade ago, few people thought about digital assets. But now, when so many people have a social media presence on multiple platforms, and manage much of their financial life online, management of digital assets is increasingly important. And if you are not able to manage your own digital assets, either after your death or because you have been somehow incapacitated, what guidance is available for the person charged with doing so--your fiduciary? Or, what if you happen to be a fiduciary, in charge of managing assets or making decisions for someone else's benefit? What rights and limits do you have to access someone else's digital assets?

Managing Digital Assets for Someone Else

There are a number of scenarios in which you might act as a fiduciary with regard to another person's digital assets. O… Read More

How Online Tools for Executors Can Help with Administering an Estate

If you've recently been appointed executor of a loved one's estate, you've been hit with something of a double whammy: grief at the loss of someone close to you, and the responsibility of making sure their estate is appropriately managed and distributed. Particularly if you've never served as an executor before, you may find the documentation and dissemination of information to the court, heirs and creditors overwhelming. If you make errors, you could delay the administration of the estate, cost the estate money, or even be subject to personal liability.

If you're wise, you've already retained an experienced probate attorney to help you navigate the legal landscape of the probate process. But there are still tasks that you will be handling yourself. The good news is that increasingly, there is software and online tools for executors that can help make your part of the work easier and more organized.

Best Software and Online Tools for Executors

One such tool is EstateExec.com, which was developed by Daniel Stickel after he experienced challenges and frustration while serving as executo… Read More