Category Archives: Testamentary Intent

July 17, 2017

Beneficiary Designations: They Aren’t Always What They Seem

by Jody H. Hall, Paralegal

As long as I have been a probate paralegal, and even prior when I worked in financial services, I have spoken about assets with beneficiary designations, including life insurance, retirement accounts and annuities passing outside of probate as if they were a foregone conclusion.  Period.  End of Story.  However, some recent situations have reminded me that the plot of the story may indeed have a surprise ending.

First of all, it bears reminding to our clients, that documents with beneficiary designations do not pass in accordance with the general instructions in the Decedent’s Will.  I recently worked with a client that became concerned when we learned that an estranged family member received a portion of an IRA account due to the beneficiary designation.  It was very confusing and upsetting to her that this family member received assets in addition to those provided for in the Will.

Secondly, there are situations where the beneficiary designation needs to be reviewed and confirmed, both at the time the designation is made and at the time of the claim. Read more >>

July 5, 2017

Electronic Wills

by Morgan Wiener

As regular readers of this blog know, one of our favorite topics is digital assets, including estate planning for digital assets.  Today, we’re taking a slightly different focus and discussing developments in digital estate planning, more commonly known as electronic wills.

One of the more recent developments in estate planning is the concept of electronic wills. In general, an electronic will is one that is signed and stored electronically. Instead of signing a hard copy document in ink, the testator electronically signs the will, and it is also signed by witnesses and notarized electronically.  Not surprisingly, companies like LegalZoom are very interested in this topic.

Read more >>

May 22, 2017

Fiduciary Duty to Elect Portability

by Matthew Skotak

The Oklahoma Supreme Court recently upheld a ruling that has required the Personal Representative of an Estate to take the necessary steps to transfer the deceased spousal unused election (DSUE) to the surviving spouse. The case stems from the rights created by the federal gift and estate tax laws regarding portability.  More specifically, beginning in 2010 one spouse was allowed to transfer, at death, his or her unused gift and estate tax exemption to the surviving spouse. Prior to 2010, each spouse had his or her own gift and estate tax exemption, but any portion of that exemption which remained unused by the spouse at death could not be transferred to the surviving spouse.

In In re Estate of Vose, 390 P.3d 238 (Okla. 2017), the Personal Representative of the Estate, one of the children of the decedent by a prior marriage, had refused to make the required election for transfer even though the surviving spouse agreed to pay the cost required to prepare the necessary Federal Estate tax return to do so. Read more >>

April 10, 2017

Contracts to Make Wills or Trusts

by Carol Warnick

Does the fact that a husband and wife create “mirror-image” wills or trusts mean that they have entered into a contract with their spouse to maintain the dispositive provisions in the document?  The law in Colorado is very clear that no contract exists merely because the documents are “mirror-image” or reciprocal.

Pursuant to Colo. Rev. Stat. § 15-11-514, a contract to make a devise may be established only by:

(i) provisions of a will stating material provisions of the contract, (ii) an express reference in a will to a contract and extrinsic evidence proving the terms of the contract, or (iii) a writing signed by the decedent evidencing the contract. The execution of a joint will or mutual wills does not create a presumption of a contract not to revoke the will or wills. (emphasis added).

Read more >>

December 19, 2016

Claims Challenging Estate Plans

by Rebecca Klock Schroer

We are seeing an increase in the number of lawsuits in which people are challenging or trying to circumvent estate plans.  The claims traditionally include lack of testamentary capacity and those involving improper actions by family members, agents under powers of attorney or conservators.

Testamentary Capacity

A challenge to an estate plan often involves a claim that the testator was not of sound mind. Under Colorado law, a sound mind includes the presence of the Cunningham factors and absence of an insane delusion that materially affected the testamentary instrument.  The Cunningham factors are as follows: the testator must (1) understand the nature of the act, (2) know the extent of his property, (3) understand the proposed testamentary disposition, (4) know the natural objects of his bounty, and (5) that the testamentary instrument represented his wishes.  Cunningham v. Stender, 255 P.2d 977 (Colo. 1953).

In addition to these factors, the testator cannot be suffering from an insane delusion.  An insane delusion exists if a person has a persistent belief, resulting from illness or disorder, in the existence or non-existence of something contrary to all evidence, which materially affects the disposition in the testamentary instrument.  Breeden v. Stone, 992 P.2d 1167 (Colo. 2000).  For example, failure to include a child in the will because the testator believes that child has been abducted by aliens and will never return to earth. Read more >>

December 5, 2016

Will the Estate Tax Really Go Away?

by Carol Warnick

Will the estate tax be eliminated as part of the tax reform promised by the incoming administration?  Unfortunately, my crystal ball is not working well and I don’t have an answer for that question.  I would, however, like to share a bit of the tortured history of the estate and gift tax since the Civil War in the hope that it might give us some perspective when wondering what the future will bring.

A series of Acts between 1862-64 created an inheritance tax which helped finance the war effort.  Rates were between .75% and 5% and there was an exemption of $1,000.  In 1870 the inheritance tax was repealed.  An estate tax was again instituted to fund a war effort in 1916, in response to World War I.  The rates were between 1% and 10% and there was an exemption of $50,000.

Read more >>

September 26, 2016

Tax Apportionment Controversies Continue to Fuel Litigation

by C. Jean Stewart

Last month Maryland’s highest appellate court released[1] a narrowly-divided (4-to-3) opinion in a tax apportionment case involving the estate of celebrity novelist Tom Clancy (The Hunt For Red October, Patriot Games, Clear and Present Danger, and other popular espionage novels), who died on October 1, 2013.  This case once again confirms that (1) blended families, combined with (2) tax apportionment disputes and (3) ambiguity and inconsistency in estate planning documents, inevitably fuel expensive and protracted probate litigation.

In his will, Clancy gave his tangible personal property and two of his residences outright to his second wife, who survived him, and directed his Personal Representative to divide his residuary estate into three equal parts.  One part, designated as the “Marital Share,” was to be (a) comprised entirely of assets qualifying for the federal estate tax marital deduction, (b) held solely for the benefit of his widow, and (c) exonerated from all tax liabilities to qualify entirely for the marital deduction.   Read more >>

January 25, 2016

Colorado Supreme Court Upholds the Strict Privity Doctrine for Attorney Malpractice Claims

by Kelly Dickson Cooper

The Colorado Supreme Court upheld the strict privity doctrine for attorney malpractice claims by nonclients and reaffirmed that an attorney’s liability is limited to when the attorney has committed fraud or a malicious or tortious act, including negligent misrepresentation. Baker v. Wood, Ris & Hames, case number 2013SC551 (2016 CO 5).

In Baker, the dissatisfied beneficiaries sued the attorneys for their father and alleged as follows:

  • The attorneys failed to advise their father of the impact of holding property in joint tenancy.
  • The attorneys failed to advise their father that failing to sever those joint tenancies would frustrate his intent to treat his children equally with his stepchildren.
  • The attorneys’ actions allowed the surviving spouse to change their father’s estate plan after his death.
  • The attorneys drafted documents for the surviving spouse that were different from their father’s original plan.
  • The beneficiaries were the intended beneficiaries of the client’s plan, that the attorneys failed to advise the beneficiaries of the relevant facts, and that they had suffered damages as a result.

The beneficiaries asked the Colorado Supreme Court to adopt the “California Test” or the “Florida-Iowa Rule” and set aside the strict privity rule. The Court rejected the adoption of both tests and reaffirmed the strict privity rule. The Court also held that the beneficiaries’ claims would fail under both the California Test and the Florida-Iowa Rule.

The Court put forth the following rationales for upholding the strict privity rule in Colorado:

  • It protects the attorney’s duty of loyalty to the client and allows for effective advocacy for the client.
  • Abandoning strict privity could result in adversarial relationships between an attorney and third parties. This could result in conflicting duties for the attorney.
  • Without strict privity, the attorney could be liable to an unforeseeable and unlimited number of people.
  • Expanding attorney liability to nonclients might deter attorneys from taking on certain legal matters. The Court reasoned that this result could compromise the interests of potential clients by making it more difficult to obtain legal services.
  • Casting aside strict privity would increase the risk of suits by disappointed beneficiaries. Those suits would cast doubt on the testator’s intentions after his or her death when he or she is unavailable to speak.
  • The beneficiaries have other avenues available to them, including reformation of the documents.
  • A personal representative can pursue legitimate claims on behalf of a testator.

The Court held, “We further believe that the strict privity rule strikes the appropriate balance between the important interests of clients, on the one hand, and non-clients claiming to be injured by an attorney’s conduct, on the other.” As a result, the strict privity rule remains intact in Colorado.

April 27, 2015

Who Gets the Embryo?

by Elizabeth Meck

This has been a busy week in celebrity news, particularly with regard to advancements in assisted reproductive technology and the applicability of legally enforceable agreements.

For example, Sophia Vergara, superstar of ABC sitcom Modern Family, is now embroiled in a legal battle with her ex-fiancé, Nick Loeb, regarding two frozen embryos created by the then-couple several years ago when they were planning to use in vitro fertilization and a gestational surrogate to have a baby. Vergara and Loeb executed documents at their fertility clinic stating their agreement to keep the embryos frozen unless both parties mutually agreed to use them (i.e., to implant them into a surrogate) or to destroy them. Otherwise, the parties agreed that the embryos would only be destroyed if one of them dies. Apparently, the standard documents did not address what would happen to the embryos in the event the couple did not remain together or could not agree whether to use or destroy the embryos. Hence, Loeb filed a lawsuit in which he requests that a judge order that the embryos cannot be destroyed under any circumstances and states his position that the survivor between Loeb and Vergara would have control over the embryos upon the death of the other party. For more on the dispute, click here.

This type of dispute is not limited to the rich and famous. Assisted reproductive technology, or “ART,” is on the rise.1 The Centers for Disease Control estimates that approximately 12% of couples experience problems with fertility and as many as 12% of U.S. women and their partners receive infertility services.2 In 2009, the Colorado Legislature adopted the Uniform Probate Code III into the Colorado Probate Code (the “Code”), which incorporated several important changes regarding ART.3 For example, the Code now specifically includes definitions of a “genetic father” and a “genetic mother,” § 15-11-115(5-6), the definition of a “genetic parent," § 15-11-115(7), and clarification as to the individual who “functions as a parent of the child,” § 15-11-115(4), to assist in the determination of exactly who constitutes a child’s “parent” for purposes of succession under the Code.

Further, sections 15-11-116 to -121 of the Code re-codified the existing concept that marital status is not necessarily determinative of a parent-child relationship. As a result, the rules of who is eligible to “take” in an intestacy proceeding have been expanded to include ART children who are adopted or in the process of being adopted. § 15-11-119(5). An ART child does not, however, maintain intestacy rights as to a gestational carrier, absent additional evidence of the parent-child relationship. § 15-11-121(3). Importantly, though, an ART child who is born to a birth mother, who is not a gestational mother, is considered the child of the birth mother regardless of whether the child is genetically tied to the birth mother; and, the person who consented to the assisted reproduction by the birth mother with the “intent” to be treated as the other parent of the child is the parent. § 15-11-120. Intent can be demonstrated any number of ways pursuant to § 15-11-120(6).4 It is important to note that a parent can demonstrate “intent” to be treated as the parent of a posthumously conceived child, so long as the child is in utero within thirty-six months or born within forty-five months of the intended parent’s death. § 15-11-120(11).

ART children may also be included in the definition of a class defined in estate planning documents such as “children” or “grandchildren” or “descendants,” even though they may or may not be genetically related to the grantor or settlor. For example, an ART child may be included in the class even though he or she is not in utero for thirty-six months or born up to forty-five months after the grantor’s or the settlor’s death. § 15-11-705(7).

The presence of ART and the constantly-evolving technologies in this area require that estate planning attorneys, drafters of marital agreements and probate litigators be vigilantly aware of the repercussions of these definitions and our changing laws, as well as how the changing definition of “family” will play out after a decedent’s death. It is increasingly important to ask estate planning clients whether they have any children who were the result of ART, or whether they still have any cryopreserved sperm, eggs, or embryos. Also, including specific instructions with regard to ART in the estate planning documents may become necessary so as to try to avoid dispute after the passing of a genetic parent, an adoptive parent, or an individual who consented to ART by a birth mother.

Additionally, it is increasingly important to inquire as to the existence of any existing written document or directive that specifies the ultimate use or destruction of frozen genetic material such as embryos. Sophia Vergara’s experience could teach us all a good lesson in terms of covering all aspects of “family” as well as “property” when discussing issues with clients whether in the planning stages or during the administration of an estate or trust. For example, practitioners should start to think about the importance of including genetic material in estate planning documents and marital agreements. Further, practitioners should discuss post-death use and disposition of genetic materials with their clients, and address questions such as whether the surviving spouse should be able to utilize a frozen embryo after the death of the other spouse.

At the end of the day, it is crucial to ensure that a client’s documents consistently reflect his or her wishes regarding all assets, family and dispositions, including the often-difficult decision of how to treat and manage genetic materials. Clarification in the planning documents and marital agreements may reduce the potential for surprises and disputes during estate and trust administration or divorce. Otherwise, as in many other areas of probate litigation, disputes with regard to one’s entitlement to an estate or trust will continue to rise.


1ART commonly includes a variety of assisted reproduction methods such as: sperm or egg donation, in vitro fertilization, gestational surrogacy, embryo donation or adoption, embryo or egg or sperm cryopreservation, post-death conception, and the disposition of cryopreserved embryos.
2Centers for Disease Control, 2006-2010 National Survey of Family Growth.
3The Code defines ART as “a method of causing pregnancy other than sexual intercourse.” § 15-11-115(2).
4Intent can be demonstrated by the following: a signed record that evidences the individual’s consent; evidence that the individual functioned as the parent of the child no more than two years after the child is born; or, the intent to function as the parent of the child within two years of the child’s birth notwithstanding that the individual’s intent was thwarted by incapacity or death. § 15-11-120(6).

March 16, 2015

Advancements

by Rebecca Klock Schroer

Almost every estate dispute among children seems to have an emotional component relating to perceived disparity in treatment by one or both parents.  For example, a will may leave property in equal shares to the Decedent’s children, but the children still argue because one feels that the other received more financial support during the Decedent’s life.  Usually this results in one side making the argument that certain lifetime gifts should be counted against the child who received them and reduce their share of the estate. 

If a lifetime gift counts against a share of the estate, it is commonly referred to as an advancement.  The Colorado Probate Code is very specific regarding what is necessary for a gift to qualify as an advancement or ademption by satisfaction.  Colo. Rev. Stat. § 15-11-109, which is entitled “advancements,” addresses the requirements when a Decedent dies intestate.  Colo. Rev. Stat. § 15-11-609, which is entitled “Ademption by Satisfaction,” addresses the requirements when a Decedent dies with a will.

To be considered an advancement, (1) the will (if there is one) must specifically provide for deduction of the gift or (2) a contemporaneous writing by the Decedent or the heir (or devisee) must declare that the gift should be counted against a devise made in the will or the intestate share of the heir.  Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 15-11-109(1) & 15-11-609(1).

For purposes of valuation, the property is valued at the time the heir or devisee came into possession or enjoyment of the property or the Decedent’s death, whichever occurs first.  Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 15-11-109(2) & 15-11-609(2).

The two statutes address the effect of the heir or devisee predeceasing the Decedent.  If the Decedent dies intestate, the property is not taken into account unless the Decedent’s contemporaneous writing provides otherwise.  If the Decedent dies testate, the gift is considered a full or partial satisfaction of the devise, as appropriate, in applying 15-11-603 (antilapse statute) and 15-11-604 (failure of a testamentary provision), unless the testator’s contemporaneous writing provides otherwise. Colo. Rev. Stat. §§ 15-11-109(3) & 15-11-609(3).

Finally, for a Decedent who died intestate, Colo. Rev. Stat. § 15-11-109(4) provides that an heir does not have to refund the estate if he or she received more than his or her share, unless otherwise provided under the elective share statutes.

In order to minimize disputes, an estate planning attorney should ask their clients whether they wish to have any gifts counted as advancements and whether they have executed any other relevant writings.  For example, ambiguity could arise if the Decedent had a contemporaneous writing that referred to a certain gift as an advancement, but then signed a will at a later date that does not mention the gift.  Does the later will override the contemporaneous writing? 

Finally, the calculation of the impact of an advancement is referred to as a “hotchpot.”  Below is an example:

  • an estate holds $280,000
  • the estate is to be divided equally among three children
  • one child received a $20,000 advancement

First, the $20,000 advancement has to be added back in: $20,000 + $280,000 = $300,000. 

Second, the total is divided by the number of beneficiaries: $300,000/3 = $100,000 per beneficiary. 

The $20,000 is then subtracted from the share for the beneficiary that received the advancement, so the final shares of the estate would be (1) $100,000, (2) $100,000 and (3) $80,000.