Frequently Asked Questions (Q&A) About a Last Will
Should I have a will or a trust? Understanding the differences. And… Does it matter?
I’m asked this question all the time as a NJ elder law attorney who concentrates his practice in estate planning and elder care law. Probably the best thing you can do is learn about each type of document. Let’s see if I can help you.
A Last Will generally spells out a one-time distribution of your assets, though both a will and a trust can establish conditions to the distribution of your estate and stipulate that assets be distributed over time. For example, if you have young children or grandchildren, a trust can be written inside of your will or as a standalone document so that each child gets their inheritance in installments upon reaching certain milestones, such as age 25/30, graduating from college or marriage. This way their funds are not squandered like the “prodigal son or daughter” referred to in the Bible.
The use of a will is more common in states like New Jersey with simpler probate procedures. Usually the presence of only one person close to the deceased, often the executor of the will or a family member is required to probate a will.
One common reason for setting up a trust, rather than a will, is to avoid probate in New Jersey.
With a trust, your assets are transferred to a trustee (or trustees) that you select either while you are alive (an inter vivos trust) or upon your death (a testamentary trust). A brief “pour-over will” usually accompanies the last will and declares that any remaining assets not within the trust at time of death will be transferred into the trust upon your death.
You can also set up a “trust within a trust” or a trust within a will, for a single beneficiary or multiple beneficiaries, like children or parents.
Fred Discusses Frequently Asked Questions About Making A Last Will and Testament
Here are some common questions and answers about last wills and trusts in New Jersey.
Q: What goes into setting up a last will or a trust?
A: Each document is written and when signed and notarized is legally enforceable. You can make your last will or trust as simple or complicated as you want.
Costs vary widely depending on the size and complexity of your estate, but many attorneys will charge a flat fee for either document. Be sure to get a fee from your attorney before you proceed.
Once your document is finished, be sure to let family members or those named in the will or trust know where to find it should you die or become seriously hurt or sick. Anybody who has possession of your will – often your attorney – is obligated to produce it upon your death, if requested by the executor named in your will.
“It’s common to leave copies of your last will or trust with your attorney or designated representative. Confiding with trusted family members about the location of your important family documents is absolutely essential in the event of unexpected death or incapacity”, says Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq., a New Jersey law firm Freehold (Monmouth County) New Jersey.
Q: Does a court or judge get involved with a last will or trust?
A: Wills are filed upon death with the Surrogate’s Office of the county where the deceased person lived. Wills are not public records or filed until death.
Probate and Administrative court fees come out of the estate; costs vary but are generally not expensive.
Q: Who’s responsible for administering my last will or trust when the time comes?
A: The executor you name in your last will or the trustee of your living trust carries out the instructions of your will and trust. A trustee plays a similar role in a trust under your will, but usually for a much longer time- typically until all assets are distributed to the named beneficiaries. A bank or financial institution can be named to act as a co-executor or co-trustee of your last will and trust. A trustee is often given (some) discretion if and when distributions should be made to beneficiaries. For example, a support trust for minor children can give your trustee the discretion on how much money should be spent on their education, spending allowance, social life, and budget.
While the titles sound simple, the responsibilities of executors and trustees of an estate are significant. They include paying or negotiating with creditors, notifying and paying beneficiaries, filing final income tax and estate tax return and managing any investments, among many other responsibilities.
Q: What happens to the debt(s) I leave behind?
A: Whether you have a will or a trust, any and all debts you have at the time of your death will need to be settled and paid. If your assets aren’t liquid, creditors could force the sale of your property to get paid.
Of course, a trustee or an executor can negotiate with creditors to repay debts over time or settle payment at a reduced amount.
Q: Are there special benefits to setting up a Trust vs. a Last Will in New Jersey?
A: One reason some people prefer trusts (and I generally agree) is that it makes it easier to handle your care if you become medically incapacitated. You can stipulate in your trust that your assets be used to pay for your health care and support, and the trustee is then able to disburse money from your trust estate without going to court.
Without a trust, you need a power of attorney with life care authority and financial decision making, otherwise a guardianship is required by law.
Q: Where should I keep my Will?
A: You should keep your Will in a safe, but accessible, place. I normally recommend that you keep it in a safe in your attorney’s office or in your bank. If your Will leaves property in a way significantly different from the way it would pass if you die with no Will, then a secure location is extremely important.
I also suggest that you keep a photocopy of your Will at home for reference and annual review.
Q: Who should get copies of my Will?
A: It is not necessary for anyone other than you, the client, to have copies of your Will. If you wish, I will be glad to make copies for anyone you desire. I keep a copy of your Will in your confidential file. I will not make copies for anyone other than you or someone you authorize.
Q: When should I review my Will?
A: I suggest that you review your Will every time there is a significant change in your family or financial situation. At a minimum, you should review your Will once every three years. You will receive periodic letters from this office.
Q: What are some changes that would cause me to review my Will?
- Death of a beneficiary
- Marriage, divorce or remarriage
- Birth or adoption of a child
- Death or change of personal representative
- Death or change of children’s guardian
- If you change your mind about distribution
- If there is a significant change in your assets
- If you retire
- If you buy, inherit, or receive assets as a gift
- Finally, any time you feel uneasy about your Will
Q: How do I change my Will?
A: Do not write on your Will. Changing your Will is often done by a Codicil. However, if you are changing beneficiaries or changing the amounts being given to beneficiaries, it is a better practice to redo the Will. I recommend that you contact us if you want to make changes and to make certain all changes are legally made.
Q: How do I revoke my Will?
The best way to revoke a Will is to tear up the original. Normally, you should not revoke your Will unless you are having a new one prepared.
If you revoke your Will and die without one, your property will be distributed according to State Law, and that may not be the way you want.
Q: Will my New Jersey Will be valid if I later move and become a resident of another state?
A: If you execute a valid New Jersey Will while you reside here and you later move to another state, you should have your Last Will reviewed by a lawyer in the state to which you moved to ensure it is valid in that state.
A Will that is valid in New Jersey may be valid in another state where you may afterward move. However, because the laws in all states are different, you should have your Will reviewed by a lawyer in the state to which you moved to ensure it is valid. Most states have adopted the Uniform Wills Act. One of the provisions of this Act is that if your Will is valid in New Jersey, it is good in the state where you move. However, it is always worth checking.
Q: What if I have another question about my Will?
A: If you have questions about whether you should have a trust or a Last Will prepared, then please contact Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. at firstname.lastname@example.org or call him toll-free at (855) 376-5291.
Written by Fredrick P. Niemann, Esq. of Hanlon Niemann & Wright, a New Jersey Last Wills Attorney
New Jersey Wills attorney serving these New Jersey Counties:
Monmouth County, Ocean County, Essex County, Cape May County, Mercer County, Middlesex County,
Bergen County, Morris County, Burlington County, Union County, Somerset County, Hudson County, Passaic County