What Is Estate Law?

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 What is Wills, Trusts, and Estate Planning?

A will settlement is a legal process which is used to resolve disputes which involve a will. Wills are legally binding documents which are created and signed by individuals for the purpose of distributing their assets when they pass away.

Individuals who create wills are called testators. Wills contain instructions for how the property and assets, or the estate, of the testator, are to be distributed after the testator passes away.

Wills also specify which assets are to be distributed to which individuals, or beneficiaries. When the testator passes away, their will is submitted to the court to be probated, or proved.

In general, the probate process is commenced by submitting a will to the probate court. The term probate means to distribute the property of the decedent in accordance with the terms of their will.

A probate proceeding is the process by which a court gives legal approval for the distribution of property. Estate planning is how a testator ensures that their property will be distributed according to their wishes.

Estate planning includes drafting wills and creating trusts which specify which individuals will inherit property in the estate. An estate is the entirely of an individual’s assets and wealth, which may include:

  • Land;
  • Money;
  • Insurance;
  • Investments;
  • Personal property;
  • Real property; and
  • Debts.

A will settlement often requires reviewing the documents which were created as part of the estate planning process. For example, if a testator’s will provides that certain property should be distributed by a trust, the document which created the trust during the testator’s estate planning process will likely be examined to help resolve any issues or disputes which arise.

It is important to be aware that estate planning laws typically differ from state to state and even between cities. For example, the estate planning rules which apply in Bakersfield, California may vary compared to the laws in New York, New York.

What is Estate Law?

Estate law is a subcategory of property law which governs the manner in which a testator’s estate is handled. This includes overseeing how the individual’s property is managed during their lifetime as well as after they pass away or become incapacitated.

The legal term estate refers to all of an individual’s:

  • Personal belongings;
  • Real property; and
  • Intangible assets, including patents or copyrights.

If there are any debts or taxes which are owed on the property, they may also be part of the estate. Therefore, it is not surprising that estate law governs a broad range of legal matters , including most things related to an individual’s real property and the related financial aspects.

One final important issue that individuals should be aware of regarding estate law is that it typically overlaps with the laws which govern wills, trusts, and rules which govern estate planning. Because of the wide range of topics which are governed by estate law, it is important for an individual to consult with an estate lawyer in their area if they have any questions or concerns regarding estate law issues.

Estate lawyers can help individuals through the process of estate planning in their area and assist them with any further questions they may have.
What Does Estate Law Cover?

As previously noted, estate law is broad body of laws which govern matters including:

  • Estate planning, which serves as a guide to other individuals regarding how a testator’s property will be distributed upon their death or incapacitation.In addition to will and trust issues, estate planning also addresses other important issues, such as:
    • organ donation;
    • legal guardian matters;
    • medical treatments; and
    • funeral arrangements;
  • Estate administration, which specifically relates to the process of managing and distributing a testator’s estate after they pass away;
    • This is often handled by the designated executor, or, if they died without a will, their property will be distributed according to intestate laws, or the laws of the jurisdiction;
  • Duties of the executor, who handles the distribution of a testator’s estate;
    • However, executors, also called administrators, are legally responsible for fulfilling certain duties and are required to carry out the deceased individual’s wishes in accordance with what is provided in their will;
  • Distribution of property, or how the property is distributed to the named beneficiaries, which is the ultimate goal of estate planning; and
  • Debt, because debts that the individual owes at the time of their death need to be addressed, even after they have become incapacitated or deceased.

Additionally, estate laws are based upon local and state statutes in a jurisdiction. Therefore, they will likely vary depending on the testator’s state.

This can affect how estate legal issues are handled which impacts the solutions available. For example, if an individual owned a house in Florida but decided to sell that home and move to a different state, if their will document provides that a beneficiary will receive that Florida home upon their passing and their will was not updated, the court will have to intervene and resolve the estate issue.

If not, the surviving beneficiary may receive nothing, even if the individual owned a home in a different state. Another major estate issue which is often impacted by the testator’s location includes how property is distributed to spouses, children, and other recipients after the testator:

  • Becomes incapacitated;
  • Passes away; or
  • Divorces.

Because of these issues, it is a good idea to contact an experienced estate attorney when an individual is facing an estate issue.

Who are the Main Parties Involved in an Estate Plan?

If a will is part of an individual’s estate plan, they will notice certain terms in their will which describe individuals other than the testator. This usually includes the following parties:

  • The executor, or individual who the testator designates to distribute their property and other assets upon their death. If the testator creates a trust, this individual is referred to as a trustee;
  • Beneficiaries, or individuals who will receive, or inherit, the property and other assets which are listed in the will. Other terms used for these individuals are devisees and heirs;
    • This may include:
      • family;
      • friends;
      • charities;
      • businesses; and
      • churches;
  • Witnesses, or other uninterested parties, who will watch the testator sign their will and then sign the will as witnesses attesting to the fact that the testator, in fact, executed the document.

What if Estate Laws are Violated?

A violation of estate laws may arise in a variety of situations, including:

  • When two parties have a dispute over the property in the estate;
  • If there are probate challenges regarding the actions of the beneficiaries or the executor connected to a will; or
  • There are issues with the actual documents related to the estate.

In these cases, the remedies for an estate violation typically include a solution which changes the way the property has been distributed among the beneficiaries of the will. For issues involving problems with an actual estate document, a court may permit the parties to re-draft the document, as long as the estate holder or administrator consents to having the document rewritten.

Should I Hire an Estate Lawyer?

It is essential to have the assistance of an estate planning lawyer for any issues, questions, or concerns you may have regarding your estate or the estate of a loved one. As noted above, estate laws govern a broad range of topics which may have a direct impact on the property and possessions of an individual.

Your lawyer can assist you with tasks related to your estate planning documents such as drafting, reviewing, and editing. They can also provide you with advice regarding the best ways to plan your estate.

Your attorney is also able to provide you with representation during any court related matters if you or your loved ones are involved in an estate law dispute of any kind.

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