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San Diego Probate & Estate Administration Law Blog

How to avoid common scams after a loved one's death

There are a lot of people out there who use someone's death as an opportunity to illegally make money. Often, they do it by lying to and stealing from the deceased's surviving loved ones.

These scams are often perpetrated with information the family published in an obituary. Sites like give families the opportunity to tell a loved one's story after they're gone, list their accomplishments and extol their virtues. Often this involves mentioning places they've worked and lived, family members (and where they live) -- and even the deceased's beloved pets. They talk about where the deceased went to school and their favorite vacation spots.

You can challenge a will that someone was tricked into signing

Estate planning fraud does not mean just creating a fake will after the fact and claiming it is the real thing. Instead, the person planning to commit fraud may do so by tricking that person and getting them to sign the document, thereby making it appear more official than it would otherwise.

For instance, say that you have a sibling who has always been intent on getting as much money as they can for themselves. It has created family drama in the past, as you have felt that sibling was taking advantage of your parents financially. That made you nervous about what would happen when they passed away.

A lack of an estate plan creates family disputes

One of the best reasons to do estate planning is just to stave off family disputes before they begin. Without a plan, heirs will often argue over all manner of things.

In some cases, they disagree on who should get specific assets. Two children may want the same mementos from their parents' home, for instance, and they have no guidance. They both feel like their parents would have wanted them to have it, but how do they solve that with no proof?

Will your heirs be stuck with your student loan debt?

Many Americans feel like their student loan debt is going to follow them to their grave. That's not an unrealistic fear. In 2018, people over 50 owed a cumulative $260 billon-plus in student loan debt. Just 14 years earlier, that figure had been $36 billion.

So what happens to your student loan debt when you're gone? Will your loved ones be saddled with it? Probably not, but it's wise to look at your student loan debt when you're doing your estate planning.

Pressuring someone into signing a will makes it invalid

When people think about a will that is not valid, they often think about a fake will. Maybe, after a parent's passing, an heir drafted a will that gave them a far greater share of the estate than they got in the original. There is a clear chance for financial gain.

This type of thing does happen, but a fake or fraudulent will is not the only type of invalid will. There are many other ways that a will can fail to hold up in court. One such issue is if the person who signed it was pressured into doing so.

Do children need to pay a deceased parent's debt?

You have $10,000 in credit card debt. If you pass away, does that debt simply go to your children? Are they obligated to pay?

This is an important question to ask when doing your estate planning. The truth is that, in most cases, children do not need to pay for debts like this and have no obligation to even attempt it. After all, just because a parent was approved for a card with a high limit does not mean that the children can afford it or had any say in the parent's spending. It would be unfair to pass the debt to them.

Estate planning can address simple things

One reason people sometimes give for not doing their estate planning is that they don't think their estate is complex enough. Maybe they don't have multiple homes or properties. They don't have complex investment portfolios. They don't want to use trusts or give to charity. They just assume that the assets they have should go to their heirs, and that's fairly straightforward.

While this line of thinking is understandable, it also overlooks a key fact: Estate planning can address simple things. It's not just about complex assets.

Is a Formal Probate Proceeding Always Necessary?

Coping with the death of a loved one and the formal probate proceeding can be daunting. If the decedent's assets are not already transferring outside of probate, for example by jointly owned property, trust property, or property determined by beneficiary designation, a formal probate proceeding can seem like an absolute certainty. However, in some such cases, a formal probate proceeding may actually be avoided altogether.

The California Probate Code provides a streamlined procedure to settle an estate with assets under a certain threshold value, thus qualifying it as a "small estate." In these small estates, an affidavit may be used to transfer the decedent's assets.

Education trusts are not just for college

When people generally talk about education trusts, they mean that the money can be used to pay for tuition and related costs at a college or a university. It is important to note that, while this is how it often works, the trust does not have to be so limited. It can be used for other educational purposes.

For instance, perhaps an heir does not want to go to a four-year college and instead plans on going to a one-year trade school. The trust can still be used for that school even though it is different than a traditional college. Other examples of alternatives include educational workshops or private schools.

Gifting money before you pass away

Estate planning does not always have to mean putting money in a trust or writing out your assets in a will to give them away after you die. You may want to gift money to your heirs before you pass away.

For one thing, this can help to reduce the tax burden on the estate, which may mean that more of the money stays in your family. You can also make the estate process simpler and easier by parring down the estate in advance.

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