Wisconsin Estate Planning Documents You Need

estate planning documents

Estate planning is a necessary part of preparing for the future. However, in the here and now, the necessity of estate planning documents may not be incredibly apparent. Unfortunately, it often takes the worst-case scenarios to bring the importance of estate planning to light.

This post outlines estate planning documents every Wisconsin resident should draft before they are needed and why it is so important to make  estate planning a top priority.

Will

This estate planning document is one of the most well-known and well-misunderstood. There are several  misconceptions surrounding wills, but its also one of the most-needed estate planning tools.

A will is a legal tool for a person to express their wishes when they cannot. Unfortunately, verbal expressions are not enough to spur action in the State of Wisconsin. For example, telling a relative they can have an heirloom does not make the item exempt from a battle among family members.

People can use a will to detail these wishes:

  • Which persons or organizations should receive assets from the estate
  • Which person is responsible for the care of minors in the household (if the other parent should also be incapacitated)
  • The person or organization that serves as the executor of the estate and is responsible for settling the estate (including distributing assets)
  • If a trust is established for asset distribution


If there is no will drafted for an estate, the distribution of assets and settling of debts is handled by other parties who may not follow the wishes of the decedent. In Wisconsin, a legal will must be drafted (ideally by an  estate planning professional) and signed by the individual as well as two witnesses. The witnesses should not be beneficiaries who receive assets as spelled out in the will or lawful heirs of the estate. It is also recommended that the will is stored in a safe location in the full knowledge of a trusted person.

Durable Power of Attorney

A Durable Power of Attorney designates a party who can make financial decisions when an estate owner is unable to do so. This is essential for situations when a person is sick or hurt, and financial matters need to be handled during this time. The lack of a Durable Power Attorney can leave family and friends struggling during what can be a very difficult time.

A Durable Power of Attorney is only applicable when a person is alive; this power ends when the person dies. The person can express in the document what financial matters can be handled. A Durable Power of Attorney can give an agent the right to purchase and sell real estate, pay for expenses, and sign legal documents on the individual’s behalf.

Healthcare Power of Attorney

A Healthcare Power of Attorney is a separate estate planning document from the Durable Power of Attorney. This estate planning document designates an agent to make healthcare decisions for another. This agent can be the same as the will executor, party named in the Durable Power of Attorney, or can be another party.

This estate planning document can be incredibly important when a person cannot make the decisions or express their wishes because of a health issue. In these cases, a agent can make decisions and carry out any wishes previously stated.

The materials on this website are provided for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. These materials are intended, but not promised or guaranteed to be current, complete, or up-to-date and should in no way be taken as an indication of future results. Transmission of the information is not intended to create, and the receipt does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship between sender and receiver. You should not act or rely on any information contained in this website without first seeking the advice of an attorney.

3 Wisconsin Probate Myths Explained

Wisconsin probate

Probate is the court-supervised process in Wisconsin through which the assets from an estate are distributed. There are both Formal and Informal Probates, the formality dictates how involved the Court is in the process. This process can be lengthy and complicated or it can be short and smooth; there are steps that can be set up to ensure the process is the latter.

Unfortunately, many Wisconsin families are not aware of those steps or are held back by misconceptions about probate. An experienced estate planning lawyer can assist with the steps needed to make the time after a death easier for the family. This post can help clear up the most common misconceptions about Wisconsin probate proceedings.

Myth 1: Every estate goes into probate

Most estates are subject to probate. During the probate process, creditors have three months to file claims against the estate. There are also income taxes to file; the exact details of income tax filings depend on the estate.

However, there are some estates that do not go through the probate process. If the amount of the estate is under the  Wisconsin threshold, the estate is not subject to the probate process. Some assets in an estate may not be subject to probate.

Myth 2: There is no way to avoid probate

As discussed above, not all estates are subject to probate. Even if an estate is going through the probate process, not all assets in the estate may be part of the process. These assets may include accounts with a beneficiary designation, assets included in a trust, or property that is jointly owned. In a joint ownership, property automatically passes to the second party named in the joint ownership.

It should be noted that accounts are only excluded from probate IF the owner has specifically named beneficiaries. This is one of several estate planning steps that can make the process easier for friends and family members after a death.

revocable living trust is another way to make the distribution of assets smoother during a difficult time. Certain items of the estate are placed into a revocable living trust; the “revocable” label means the trust can be revoked at any time. There are three parties named for management and distribution of the assets: a settlor, trustee, and beneficiary (or beneficiaries). The settlor is the individual who owns the assets. The trustee manages those assets when the guarantor is alive or becomes unable to do so. The beneficiaries are the parties designated to receive those assets. A trust can be established with the assistance of an experienced estate planning lawyer. Even with a trust, a will should still be drafted to detail the distribution of other assets not included in the trust.

Myth 3: During probate, the court is responsible for every part of estate distribution

This common estate planning myth is partially true. Probate is a court-supervised proceeding, but the distribution of assets is executed by a personal representative usually named in the will. If a personal representative is not named in the will, the court appoints an executor.

The will can designate any party as the personal representative. The personal representative can be a friend, family member, or organization. A personal representative can also consult a lawyer to assist with the process. The personal representative is charged with compiling a list of assets, managing creditor claims, and distributing assets. Because this is a multi-step process, the probate process may take a year or more.

The materials on this website are provided for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. These materials are intended, but not promised or guaranteed to be current, complete, or up-to-date and should in no way be taken as an indication of future results. Transmission of the information is not intended to create, and the receipt does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship between sender and receiver. You should not act or rely on any information contained in this website without first seeking the advice of an attorney.

Common (and Costly) Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

grandparents with children after granted third-party visitation in WisconsinEstate planning is a process; one that can be fraught with costly and inefficient mistakes. These are some of the most common and expensive estate planning mistakes that Wisconsin residents make as they plan (or don’t plan) for the unexpected.

Avoiding estate planning all together

Not wanting to think about death may be human nature, but that avoidance can also be a major mistake. Estate planning makes a very difficult time easier for friends and family. The planning process also allows a person to take steps to ensure that family is provided for after death; in Wisconsin, if an estate plan is not present, Wisconsin’s intestacy succession laws go into effect. All organization of assets are done according to the law, without regard for the deceased’s wishes. Estate planning can also become a vehicle for organizing assets in preparation for the next phase of life (i.e. establishing a living trust, etc.) and for an expedient process after death.

Assuming a will is the only estate planning document

A comprehensive estate plan is a collection of documents appropriate for the client’s situation (contact an attorney to get recommendations and advice on the right estate planning documents). Since every situation is different, the right estate planning documents are custom and drafted to the benefit of the client. A complete estate plan can expedite the probate process, organize assets and liabilities, and provide clear guidance during very difficult times (i.e. when a loved one is very ill or has passed away).

Not drafting advance directives

When an incident happens that incapacitates a person—an accident, illness, mental affliction, etc.—-the person’s family is not automatically authorized to make legal decisions in Wisconsin.  For that reason, advanced directives, also termed the Power of Attorney forms, are an essential part of an estate plan. Advance directives give legal authorization and instructions for vital financial and health care decisions that need to be made when a party is not able to.

Not Updating Beneficiaries

Naming beneficiaries is an important function of estate planning, but one that often is neglected or incomplete. Many people do not give this important estate planning task the attention it deserves. The beneficiaries listed in all estate planning documents should match the designation on all assets, such as life insurance policies. Designations should also be updated as circumstances change. For example, if a couple divorces, all estate planning forms (and asset documents) should be updated to reflect the change in relationship. Beneficiaries should also be named in case the primary beneficiaries are not available.

Not considering document storage

A well-prepared estate plan is useless if it’s not accessible during difficult times. In the past it was common to store legal documents in a lock box; today that strategy can make a very difficult time more challenging. If the lock box is in the deceased’s name (even if the executor is given access), the family needs to go through a legal process to get to the documents. Make the process easier for friends and family by considering accessible options for storage, such as a lawyer’s office or fire-proof safe. It can also be helpful to give copies of the will to significant parties, such as the executor and guardian named in the will.

Forgetting to update estate planning documents

All documents and insurance policies should be reviewed and updated periodically as circumstances change. Specifically, contact an experienced estate planning attorney to update documents when additional children are born, when additional beneficiaries need to be added, the executor name needs to be changed, family relationships have been changed, or there is a significant increase or decrease in assets.

The materials on this website are provided for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. These materials are intended, but not promised or guaranteed to be current, complete, or up-to-date and should in no way be taken as an indication of future results. Transmission of the information is not intended to create, and the receipt does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship between sender and receiver. You should not act or rely on any information contained in this website without first seeking the advice of an attorney.

Guide to Creating an Estate Plan in Wisconsin

family walking on beach after estate planning in wisconsinMost Wisconsin residents associate estate planning with drafting a will—and nothing more. In reality, there is more to the process, such as drafting directives that guide family and friends during difficult times. As a whole, an estate plan is a package of legal documents that lead to an optimal financial outcome and expedient process for all parties involved and detail the wishes of the incapacitated or deceased.

Because everyone’s situation varies, the exact estate planning documents and arrangements needed are different for every household (and sometimes for individual household members). The details of an estate plan can also vary from state to state. In general, however, the initial steps for creating an estate plan are similar, including where to start the estate planning process.

Gather information about assets and liabilities.

Estate planning is not entirely about financial matters; however, finances are an integral part of every estate plan. To give professionals a comprehensive view of the financial situation, compile a list of assets and liabilities. This information should include financial accounts, life insurance policies, any financial debts, and other liabilities that needs to be factored into the estate. This information can also be used to calculate the net worth of the estate; this step needs to be done to determine if and what taxes the estate is subject to.

Have important discussions.

Beyond the owner of the estate, there are other parties that are named in estate planning documents. These parties need to be chosen, including:

  • Beneficiary or beneficiaries. These parties receive assets from the estate. Beneficiaries, commonly called heirs, can be individuals (i.e. family members, friends, associates) or organizations (i.e. charities).
  • Executor. This party should be a responsible individual that ensures all the terms of the estate planning documents are executed. An executor can be a friend, family member, or associate, such as a lawyer or other firm.
  • Guardian. This party is named as the caregiver for minors when the owner of the estate is incapacitated or deceased. (Read more about choosing and naming a guardian for children.)

A discussion with these parties is not required for estate planning; however, discussions can be invaluable with all parties involved (including friends or family members that are not named in the estate plan) so the execution of the estate plan is seamless and efficient. When executors, beneficiaries, and guardians are named, information about the parties should be collected (contact an estate planning lawyer to find out what information is needed). If the choice of beneficiaries, executors, or guardian changes, these parties can (and should) be changed and updated.

Contact an experienced local estate planning lawyer.

There are several different estate planning options, such as a will, advanced directives, irrevocable and revocable living trust. An experienced, local estate planning lawyer can recommend the best documentation and arrangements suited to the specific situation. Bring all information to the meeting, including the list of assets and liabilities and information about parties that should be included.

The materials on this website are provided for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. These materials are intended, but not promised or guaranteed to be current, complete, or up-to-date and should in no way be taken as an indication of future results. Transmission of the information is not intended to create, and the receipt does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship between sender and receiver. You should not act or rely on any information contained in this website without first seeking the advice of an attorney.

 

Living Trust versus Will: What’s the difference?

Estate planning worksheet for writing a willIn the past few years we’ve had more clients in our Wisconsin offices asking about revocable living trusts and whether or not a living trust is right for their estate planning. While we can’t answer the latter question here (make an appointment to find out if a living trust is right for your situation), we can give you a basic overview of revocable living trusts and wills.

Will

The will is the most common estate planning document. A will is a legal document (find tips for drafting a legal will here) that details your wishes, such as guardianship of minor children, distribution of assets, and who the executor is that carries out your wishes. Other than drafting a will and other important estate planning documents, no other actions may be necessary during the estate owner’s lifetime.

Revocable Living Trust

A revocable living trust is a legal document that outlines your assets and distribution. The living trust is revocable at any time. In a living trust, all assets are placed in a living trust and a trustee is appointed to manage the assets. Typically, the trustee is the estate owner during their lifetime and is transferred to another party or parties when necessary.

Similarities

A revocable living trust shares similarities to a will. Both legal documents dictate the distribution of your assets and should be established during estate planning prior to one’s death. Also, estate taxes are the same for estates with a will and living trust.

Differences

There are some key differences between these estate planning documents, however. A revocable living trust is not a public document, making all matters private. When an estate is in a living trust, the estate does not have to go through probate. All wills have to go through probate, which can take longer (in some cases months or years) and incur more expenses to the estate. Overall, it is easier to create and make changes to a will than it is to a living trust. A living trust has more initial costs during set-up than a traditional will.

What is right for you

Your lawyer can discuss whether a will or revocable living trust, or a combination of both (a “pour over will”), is right for your situation. Make an appointment to get the process started and determine which legal option is right for your estate and your family.

The materials on this website are provided for informational purposes only and do not constitute legal advice. These materials are intended, but not promised or guaranteed to be current, complete, or up-to-date and should in no way be taken as an indication of future results. Transmission of the information is not intended to create, and the receipt does not constitute, an attorney-client relationship between sender and receiver. You should not act or rely on any information contained in this website without first seeking the advice of an attorney.