Compassionate and Orderly Probate, Estate & Trust Settlement
At Oakstone Law, we provide compassionate and orderly probate, estate settlement and trust settlement services. When a husband or wife, sibling or partner or other loved one has passed away, we can help guide you through this challenging and emotionally-charged time.
As with all of our legal work, we use a “regimented but flexible” process to take the estate settlement or trust settlement from start to finish. We can show you how this orderly process makes sure that no deadlines are missed, tax benefits are identified and maintained and the legal process is properly concluded so that you can move forward with the healing process.
My staff and I have handled hundreds of probate, estate settlement and trust settlement cases over the years. Chances are, we’ve come across personalities, assets and legal structures similar to those found in your family.
But, each estate is unique. Each family is unique. We take the time to get to know you and your family and truly understand the dynamics involved. We serve you at your pace, and focus on what’s important to you.
If you are a technical wizard who is fascinated by the mechanics of the process, we can take you through it step-by-step. Or, if you would rather focus on your family and personal matters, we can handle almost everything behind the scenes, and update you along the way. Your choice.
What Exactly Do We Do?
Here, in broad brushstrokes, are the specific services we offer related to probate, estate settlement and trust settlement:
Formal Probate Proceedings in Florida:
Formal Probate is a detailed court process that grants authority to the personal representative (executor), handles the payment of the deceased’s debts, and ultimately distributes money and shares to the estate’s beneficiaries. If necessary, we can guide you through Formal Probate court proceedings from start to finish, from appointment of the personal representative through the Final Accounting (or, preferably, waiver closing). Except for serious disputes and other rare cases, you will not have to appear in court, and we can handle all the documentation and filings for you.
Summary Probate Proceedings in Florida:
Summary Probate in Florida is an abbreviated process in which no personal representative (executor) is appointed. In a nutshell, an interested party informs the court about the estate’s assets and the plan to pay estate creditors and distribute to the beneficiaries. This is generally for estates where everyone is in agreement and estate assets are under $75,000 in value. Note that this amount refers only to the assets in the deceased’s individual name – not counting trust assets, most insurance policies, most retirement accounts and certain other assets. Most Oakstone Law trust plans are designed to qualify for Summary Probate.
Estate Settlement Services:
These services include other aspects of settling the estate. We help you take care of items such as:
- identifying and valuing assets;
- addressing IRAs and retirement accounts to secure the best tax treatment;
- identifying and accessing insurance policies; and
- helping you with the technical and legal jargon that comes with all of the account and asset documentation.
We work closely (and pleasantly) with your financial and other advisors to accomplish all of these. Often this process includes important income, estate and generation-skipping tax considerations.
Trust Settlement Services:
A trust settlement is the process of securing and identifying trust assets, including any that may “pour over” from the will or another trust. We can help you make sure accounts are properly set up and trust assets have the right titling. Also we help ensure the various shares and allocations required under the trust agreement are properly established and made.
We work closely (and pleasantly) with your financial and other advisors to accomplish all of these. Often this process includes important income, estate and generation-skipping tax considerations. In addition, where charitable split-interest trusts (CRTs, CLTs) are involved, you’ll want to be sure that special considerations involving your charitable obligations and goals are addressed.
Equally important here is providing you and/or your trustee with guidance on fiduciary duties and best practices. These include important legal responsibilities such as beneficiary notices and accountings.
Estate Tax Returns:
We’ve done many of these, and we’ve reviewed many done by others. If the deceased’s estate is close to or more than $5 million, or if the deceased was married and the combined marital estate is close to or more than $5 million, there is some estate tax analysis needed and possibly an estate tax return (IRS Form 706) is required or advisable.
If this applies to you, we can prepare the entire estate tax return and advise you on all of the important decisions and allocations needed. Or, if you have a favorite tax preparer, we can stand ready to advise you and/or review the finished return. Your choice. We work closely (and pleasantly) with your trustee and other advisors so that you can have an effective team at your service, and avoid duplication of services which can be common in this area.
If advanced-level estate planning is involved (perhaps including GRATs, IDGTs, FLPs and other lifetime wealth transfer techniques), it will be critically important to make sure this part of the process is well done. This may include hiring gift or estate valuation experts, something we have done many times. We have seen very careful planning undone by faulty estate tax return analysis and preparation, so the importance of good estate tax advice is hard to overstate.
Gift Tax Returns and Generation-Skipping Transfer (GST) Tax:
Often in cases involving estate tax considerations there is a final gift tax return (IRS Form 709) to be filed for the deceased. We can prepare this or help your tax preparer do so. In addition, if the deceased was the beneficiary of a trust established by his or her parent or grandparent, there may be important generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax decisions to make.
We’ve handled and advised on many multi-generational trusts facing these issues, and we can help your family too. When done right, GST planning can be the difference between protecting your family from estate and GST tax for generations, or, sadly, subjecting them to estate or GST tax at every generation.
Trust Income Tax Returns:
Trusts are required to file annual income tax returns (IRS Form 1041) just like humans. Our trust income tax return approach is the same as our estate tax return approach – at your direction, we can prepare them ourselves or coordinate with your CPA, trustee and other advisors.
One often overlooked point here: state income tax planning. Developments in state income tax law are ever-shifting. Florida does not have a trust income tax, but if your family utilizes trusts that may be taxed by another state like New York, Illinois or Massachusetts, you will want to make sure these trusts are reviewed carefully and possibly changed to avoid paying too much tax.
Other Income Tax Planning:
We can advise you and work with your trustee and other advisors on things like capital gains tax, IRA and retirement account distribution and “stretch-out” planning, income in respect of a decedent (a frequent concern with IRAs and retirement accounts), and the like. Correct decisions made at this stage may save your family many income tax dollars in the future.
Homestead and Other Asset Titling Matters:
In Florida, the deceased’s homestead (permanent Florida residence) may present some technically difficult issues depending on how the property was titled and who the deceased attempted to leave it to at his or her death. Often these issues lie dormant for years until the property is being under contract for sale, and then a closing agent will discover them. We’ve seen more than a few home sales get derailed when the home was improperly titled or title was never properly cleared in the estate settlement process. Let us help you make sure that doesn’t happen to your family.
Ancillary Probate Matters:
If the deceased was not a Florida resident, we can help you and your attorney handle the title clearing for the Florida property so that the eventual sale of the property is as smooth as possible. We have done many of these proceedings for attorneys in northern states, and we are happy to help you through this fairly straightforward but important process.
What We Don’t Do:
We do not handle probate litigation. In fact, one of our primary goals in working with you on your family’s probate, estate settlement or trust settlement is to avoid this very difficult and expensive quagmire. Sure, families disagree all the time, especially in matters involving siblings and cousins and inheritance. And, we’ve helped a number of families settle some difficult disagreements. But if a disagreement arises in your family that looks like it’s headed for litigation, we can: (a) help you recognize when that storm is coming; and (b) personally introduce you to a few very capable professionals who specialize in probate and trust litigation.
What does it cost?
At Oakstone Law, we would be honored and thrilled to help you and your family successfully navigate the probate, estate settlement and trust settlement process. As noted above, every estate, trust and family situation is different so it’s impossible to say in this setting what your costs may be.
Some firms charge by the hour, simply because it is so difficult to estimate a cost up front. Other firms tackle this challenge by charging a percentage of the estate’s and trust’s assets (which works out great for them if the estate is large but simple!). We use a hybrid approach that takes into account:
- the amount of estate and trust assets, which gives a general barometer of overall complexity, responsibility and tax implications; and
- an estimate, driven and backed by a wide variety of experience with these matters, of the likely amount of our help needed.
Then we will present you with two or three options broken down by price and our level of involvement. This way, you get to pick the cost that reflects how much you’d like us to tackle.
Watch the short video below to learn how an estate plan can prevent probate of your estate.
If You’d Like to Know More:
Here’s how it works:
- You get in touch with us via phone or email.
- We will have a preliminary discussion and ask you to complete a short form designed to give us a basic snapshot.
- You’ll come in and visit with us at no cost. We will discuss your scenario more fully.
- We present you with some options to choose from.
- You select the plan that works best for you and your family.
Of course, “no thanks” is always one of your options – if it’s not a great fit, that’s okay! If you like, we can even help you find other attorneys and advisors that may be able to serve your particular needs better.
Again, at Oakstone Law, we would be honored to help you and your family and we are waiting to hear from you. Please give us a call at 239.206.3454 or contact us here.