February is a dreary month, a good time to think about death and taxes.
Which brings us to wills. Even if your thoughts are currently on how to get good child care, not how to divide your estate, look at it this way: none of us knows when our lives will end, but a will gives you some control over what happens to money you saved or the business you built. And it allows you to provide for your spouse and children.
Wills can help with taxes. Taxes can’t get you personally after you’ve left this world, but your survivors may be grateful if you consulted an estate planner to help you avoid or reduce some taxes.
A will also allows you to appoint a personal representative — called an executor in some states — to carry out your wishes. Testators often name a trusted family friend, but for a complicated estate, it may be wiser to appoint an expert estate manager or to appoint your friend and the expert as co-managers.
The personal representative is entitled to a commission for his service. You can set the amount in the will or leave it to a court to decide. Your personal representative will be required to file a bond with the court for your beneficiaries’ protection. You can direct in your will that a bond not be required, but a court has the authority to override your wishes and require one.
You don’t have to tell the personal representative your life history, but if you have a child you haven’t seen in 20 years, it might be wise to include a provision in your will regarding your wishes and to alert the personal representative that your family may not know of the child.
Under usual family circumstances, you and your spouse will live to see your children grow up, marry and have children of their own. But you may want to provide in your will for a guardian, in case you and your spouse die before the children are adults.
What if your plan for final revenge is that your surviving spouse receives nothing in your will? Unless you divorced, or your spouse signed a valid waiver in a property settlement, a surviving spouse legally can choose to take a share of the estate instead of whatever you bequeathed in the will. That can be a one-third share if you have descendants, or a one-half share if there are no surviving issue – a term that means children or their children.
There is no Maryland law that sets a deadline for settling an estate, according to the website mdcourts.gov/orphanscourt/faqs. But there are provisions for how soon you can settle. Unless the estate includes real property that needs to be sold, requires filing a federal tax return, or is tied up in litigation, a regular estate can be closed after six months from the date of death, the expiration date for creditors to file claims.
Donna Engle is a retired Westminster attorney. Her Legal Matters column, which provides legal information but not legal advice, appears on the second and fourth Sunday each month in Life & Times. Email her at email@example.com.