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Friday, November 15, 2013

Overview of the Ways to Hold Title to Property

Overview of the Ways to Hold Title to Property

You are purchasing a home, and the escrow officer asks, “How do you want to hold title to the property?” In the context of your overall home purchase, this may seem like a small, inconsequential detail; however nothing could be further from the truth. A property can be owned by the same people, yet the manner in which title is held can drastically affect each owner’s rights during their lifetime and upon their death. Below is an overview of the common ways to hold title to real estate:

Tenancy in Common
Tenants in common are two or more owners, who may own equal or unequal percentages of the property as specified on the deed. Any co-owner may transfer his or her interest in the property to another individual. Upon a co-owner’s death, his or her interest in the property passes to the heirs or beneficiaries of that co-owner; the remaining co-owners retain their same percentage of ownership. Transferring property upon the death of a co-tenant requires a probate proceeding.

Tenancy in common is generally appropriate when the co-owners want to leave their share of the property to someone other than the other co-tenants, or want to own the property in unequal shares.

Joint Tenancy
Joint tenants are two or more owners who must own equal shares of the property. Upon a co-owner’s death, the decedent’s share of the property transfers to the surviving joint tenants, not his or her heirs or beneficiaries. Transferring property upon the death of a joint tenant does not require a probate proceeding, but will require certain forms to be filed and a new deed to be recorded.

Joint tenancy is generally favored when owners want the property to transfer automatically to the remaining co-owners upon death, and want to own the property in equal shares.

Living Trusts
The above methods of taking title apply to properties with multiple owners. However, even sole owners, for whom the above methods are inapplicable, face an important choice when purchasing property. Whether a sole owner, or multiple co-owners, everyone has the option of holding title through a living trust, which avoids probate upon the property owner’s death. Once your living trust is established, the property can be transferred to you, as trustee of the living trust. The trust document names the successor trustee, who will manage your affairs upon your death, and beneficiaries who will receive the property. With a living trust, the property can be transferred to your beneficiaries quickly and economically, by avoiding the probate courts altogether. Because you remain as trustee of your living trust during your lifetime, you retain sole control of your property.

How you hold title has lasting ramifications on you, your family and the co-owners of the property. Title transfers can affect property taxes, capital gains taxes and estate taxes. If the property is not titled in such a way that probate can be avoided, your heirs will be subject to a lengthy, costly, and very public probate court proceeding. By consulting an experienced real estate attorney, you can ensure your rights – and those of your loved ones – are fully protected.
 


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Year End Gifts

Year End Gifts

If you’re like most people, you want to make sure you and your loved ones pay the least amount of tax possible. Many use year-end gift giving as a way to transfer wealth to younger generations and also reduce the overall potential estate tax that will be due upon their death. Below are some steps you can take to make gifts to your heirs without triggering any gift tax liability. Some of these techniques may also reduce your own income tax liability.

A combination of estate and gift tax exemptions can be used to significantly reduce the overall tax liability of your estate. Upon your death, federal estate tax may be owed. A portion of your estate is exempt from the tax. That exemption amount is set by Congress and can change from year to year. For deaths that occur in 2011, the exemption amount is $5 million and the value of an estate in excess of that amount is subject to estate tax.

Many taxpayers make annual gifts to loved ones during their lifetimes, to reduce the overall value of the estate so that it does not exceed the exemption amount in effect at the time of death. It is important to consider that gifts made during your lifetime are subject to a gift tax (equal to the estate tax). However, certain gifts or transfers are not subject to the gift tax, enabling you to make tax-free gifts that benefit your loved ones and reduce the overall taxable value of your estate upon your death.

The annual gift tax exclusion allows each individual to make annual gifts of up to $13,000 to each recipient. There is no limit to the number of recipients who may each receive up to $13,000 totally tax-free. Married couples may gift up to $26,000 to each recipient without triggering any tax liability. This annual exclusion expires on December 31 of each year, and larger gifts may be made by splitting it up into two payments. By making a payment in December and one the following January, you can take advantage of the gift tax exclusion for both years. Keeping annual gifts below $13,000 per recipient ensures that no gift tax return must be filed, and that there is no reduction in the estate tax exemption amount available upon your death.

Annual gifts may also be made in the form of contributions to a §529 College Savings Plan. These, too, are subject to the $13,000 annual gift tax exclusion. Additionally, such contributions may afford the giver with a state tax deduction.

Payment of a beneficiary’s medical expenses is also excluded from the gift tax. There is no limit to the amount of medical expense payments that may be excluded from tax. To qualify, the payment must be made directly to the health care provider and must be the type of expenses that would qualify for an income tax deduction.

If you have a large estate that may be subject to taxes upon your death, making annual gifts during your lifetime can be a simple way to reduce the size of your estate while avoiding negative tax consequences.


Friday, October 25, 2013

Should I Transfer My Home to My Children?

Should I Transfer My Home to My Children?

Most people are aware that probate should be avoided if at all possible. It is an expensive, time-consuming process that exposes your family’s private matters to public scrutiny via the judicial system. It sounds simple enough to just gift your property to your children while you are still alive, so it is not subject to probate upon your death, or to preserve the asset in the event of significant end-of-life medical expenses.

This strategy may offer some potential benefits, but those benefits are far outweighed by the risks. And with other probate-avoidance tools available, such as living trusts, it makes sense to view the risks and benefits of transferring title to your property through a very critical lens.

Potential Advantages:

  • Property titled in the names of your heirs, or with your heirs as joint tenants, is not subject to probate upon your death.
  • If you do not need nursing home care for the first 60 months after the transfer, but later do need such care, the property in question will not be considered for Medicaid eligibility purposes.
  • If you are named on the property’s title at the time of your death, creditors cannot make a claim against the property to satisfy the debt.
  • Your heirs may agree to pay a portion, or all, of the property’s expenses, including taxes, insurance and maintenance.


Potential Disadvantages:

  • It may jeopardize your ability to obtain nursing home care. If you need such care within 60 months of transferring the property, you can be penalized for the gift and may not be eligible for Medicaid for a period of months or years, or will have to find another source to cover the expenses.
  • You lose sole control over your property. Once you are no longer the legal owner, you must get approval from your children in order to sell or refinance the property.
  • If your child files for bankruptcy, or gets divorced, your child’s creditors or former spouse can obtain a legal ownership interest in the property.
  • If you outlive your child, the property may be transferred to your child’s heirs.
  • Potential negative tax consequences: If property is transferred to your child and is later sold, capital gains tax may be due, as your child will not be able to take advantage of the IRS’s primary residence exclusion. You may also lose property tax exemptions. Finally, when the child ultimately sells the property, he or she may pay a higher capital gains tax than if the property was inherited, since inherited property enjoys a stepped-up tax basis as of the date of death.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to estate planning. Transferring ownership of your property to your children while you are still alive may be appropriate for your situation. However, for most this strategy is not recommended due to the significant risks. If your goal is to avoid probate, maximize tax benefits and provide for the seamless transfer of your property upon your death, a living trust is likely a far better option.


Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Serving as an Executor?

What’s Involved in Serving as an Executor?

An executor is the person designated in a Will as the individual who is responsible for performing a number of tasks necessary to wind down the decedent’s affairs. Generally, the executor’s responsibilities involve taking charge of the deceased person’s assets, notifying beneficiaries and creditors, paying the estate’s debts and distributing the property to the beneficiaries. The executor may also be a beneficiary of the Will, though he or she must treat all beneficiaries fairly and in accordance with the provisions of the Will.

First and foremost, an executor must obtain the original, signed Will as well as other important documents such as certified copies of the Death Certificate.  The executor must notify all persons who have an interest in the estate or who are named as beneficiaries in the Will. A list of all assets must be compiled, including value at the date of death. The executor must take steps to secure all assets, whether by taking possession of them, or by obtaining adequate insurance. Assets of the estate include all real and personal property owned by the decedent; overlooked assets sometimes include stocks, bonds, pension funds, bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, annuity payments, holiday pay, and work-related life insurance or survivor benefits.

The executor is responsible for compiling a list of the decedent’s debts, as well. Debts can include credit card accounts, loan payments, mortgages, home utilities, tax arrears, alimony and outstanding leases. All of the decedent’s creditors must also be notified and given an opportunity to make a claim against the estate.

Whether the Will must be probated depends on a variety of factors, including size of the estate and how the decedent’s assets were titled. An experienced probate or estate planning attorney can help determine whether probate is required, and assist with carrying out the executor’s duties. If the estate must go through probate, the executor must file with the court to probate the Will and be appointed as the estate’s legal representative.  Once the executor has this legal authority, he or she must pay all of the decedent’s outstanding debts, provided there are sufficient assets in the estate. After debts have been paid, the executor must distribute the remaining real and personal property to the beneficiaries, in accordance with the wishes set forth in the Will. Because the executor is accountable to the beneficiaries of the estate, it is extremely important to keep complete, accurate records of all expenditures, correspondence, asset distribution, and filings with the court and government agencies.

The executor is also responsible for filing all tax returns for the deceased person including federal and state income tax returns and estate tax filings, if applicable. Additional tasks may include notifying carriers for homeowner’s and auto insurance policies and initiating claims on life insurance policies.

The executor is entitled to compensation for his or her services.  This fee varies according to the estate’s size and may be subject to review depending on the complexity as well as the time and effort expended by the executor.

   


Friday, October 4, 2013

Retirement Accounts and Estate Planning

Retirement Accounts and Estate Planning

For many Americans, retirement accounts comprise a substantial portion of their wealth. When planning your estate, it is important to consider the ramifications of tax-deferred retirement accounts, such as 401(k) and 403(b) accounts and traditional IRAs. (Roth IRAs are not tax-deferred accounts and are therefore treated differently). One of the primary goals of any estate plan is to pass your assets to your beneficiaries in a way that enables them to pay the lowest possible tax.

Generally, receiving inherited property is not a transaction that is subject to income tax. However, that is not the case with tax-deferred retirement accounts, which represent income for which the government has not previously collected income tax. Money cannot be kept in an IRA indefinitely; it must be distributed according to federal regulations. The amount that must be distributed annually is known as the required minimum distribution (RMD). If the distributions do not equal the RMD, beneficiaries may be forced to pay a 50% excise tax on the amount that was not distributed as required.

After death, the beneficiaries typically will owe income tax on the amount withdrawn from the decedent’s retirement account. Beneficiaries must take distributions from the account based on the IRS’s life expectancy tables, and these distributions are taxed as ordinary income. If there is more than one beneficiary, the one with the shortest life expectancy is the designated beneficiary for distribution purposes. Proper estate planning techniques should afford the beneficiaries a way to defer this income tax for as long as possible by delaying withdrawals from the tax-deferred retirement account.

The most tax-favorable situation occurs when the decedent’s spouse is the named beneficiary of the account. The spouse is the only person who has the option to roll over the account into his or her own IRA. In doing so, the surviving spouse can defer withdrawals until he or she turns 70 ½; whereas any other beneficiary must start withdrawing money the year after the decedent’s death.

Generally, a revocable trust should not be the beneficiary of a tax-deferred retirement account, as this situation limits the potential for income tax deferral. A trust may be the preferred option if a life expectancy payout option or spousal rollover are unimportant or unavailable, but this should be discussed in detail with an experienced estate planning attorney. Additionally, there are situations where income tax deferral is not a consideration, such as when an IRA or 401(k) requires a lump-sum distribution upon death, when a beneficiary will liquidate the account upon the decedent’s death for an immediate need, or if the amount is so small that it will not result in a substantial amount of additional income tax.

The bottom line is that trusts typically should be avoided as beneficiaries of tax-deferred retirement accounts, unless there is a compelling non-tax-related reason that outweighs the lost income tax deferral of using a trust. This is a complex area of law involving inheritance and tax implications that should be fully considered with the aid of an experienced estate planning lawyer.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Overlooked Issues in Estate Planning

Top 5 Overlooked Issues in Estate Planning

In planning your estate, you most likely have concerned yourself with “big picture” issues. Who inherits what? Do I need a living trust? However, there are numerous details that are often overlooked, and which can drastically impact the distribution of your estate to your intended beneficiaries. Listed below are some of the most common overlooked estate planning issues.

Liquid Cash: Is there enough available cash to cover the estate’s operating expenses until it is settled? The estate may have to pay attorneys’ fees, court costs, probate expenses, debts of the decedent, or living expenses for a surviving spouse or other dependents. Your estate plan should estimate the cash needs and ensure there are adequate cash resources to cover these expenses.

Tax Planning: Even if your estate is exempt from federal estate tax, there are other possible taxes that should be anticipated by your estate plan. There may be estate or death taxes at the state level. The estate may have to pay income taxes on investment income earned before the estate is settled. Income taxes can be paid out of the liquid assets held in the estate. Death taxes may be paid by the estate from the amount inherited by each beneficiary. 

Executor’s Access to Documents: The executor or estate administrator must be able to access the decedent’s important papers in order to locate assets and close up the decedent’s affairs. Also, creditors must be identified and paid before an estate can be settled. It is important to leave a notebook or other instructions listing significant assets, where they are located, identifying information such as serial numbers, account numbers or passwords. If the executor is not left with this information, it may require unnecessary expenditures of time and money to locate all of the assets. This notebook should also include a comprehensive list of creditors, to help the executor verify or refute any creditor claims.

Beneficiary Designations: Many assets can be transferred outside of a will or trust, by simply designating a beneficiary to receive the asset upon your death. Life insurance policies, annuities, retirement accounts, and motor vehicles are some of the assets that can be transferred directly to a beneficiary. To make these arrangements, submit a beneficiary designation form to the financial institution, retirement plan or motor vehicle department. Be sure to keep the beneficiary designations current, and provide instructions to the executor listing which assets are to be transferred in this manner.

Fund the Living Trust: Unfortunately, many people establish living trusts, but fail to fully implement them, thereby reducing or eliminating the trust’s potential benefits. To be subject to the trust, as opposed to the probate court, an asset’s ownership must be legally transferred into the trust. If legal title to homes, vehicles or financial accounts is not transferred into the trust, the trust is of no effect and the assets must be probated.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Considering Online Estate Planning?

Considering Online Estate Planning? Think Twice

The recent proliferation of online estate planning document services has attracted many do-it-yourselfers who are lured in by what appears to be a low-cost solution. However, this focus on price over value could mean your wishes will not be carried out and, unfortunately, nobody will know there is a problem until it is too late and you are no longer around to clean up the mess.

Probate, trusts and intestate succession (when someone dies without leaving a will) are governed by a network of laws which vary from state to state, as well as federal laws pertaining to inheritance and tax issues. Each jurisdiction has its own requirements, and failure to adhere to all of them could invalidate your estate planning documents. Many online document services offer standardized legal forms for common estate planning tools including wills, trusts or powers of attorney. However, it is impossible to draft a legal document that covers all variations from one state to another, and using a form or procedure not specifically designed to comply with the laws in your jurisdiction could invalidate the entire process.

Another risk involves the process by which the documents you purchased online are executed and witnessed or notarized. These requirements vary, and if your state’s signature and witness requirements are not followed exactly at the time the will or other documents are executed, they could be found to be invalid. Of course, this finding would only be made long after you have passed, so you cannot express your wishes or revise the documents to be in compliance.

Additionally, the online document preparation process affords you absolutely no specific advice about what is best for you and your family. An estate planning attorney can help your heirs avoid probate altogether, maximize tax savings, and arrange for seamless transfer of assets through other means, including titling property in joint tenancy or establishing “pay on death” or “transfer on death” beneficiaries for certain assets, such as bank accounts, retirement accounts or vehicles. In many states, living trusts are the recommended vehicle for transferring assets, allowing the estate to avoid probate. Trusts are also advantageous in that they protect the privacy of you and your family; they are not public records, whereas documents filed with the court in a probate proceeding are publicly viewable. There are other factors to consider, as well, which can only be identified and addressed by an attorney; no online resource can flag all potential concerns and provide you with appropriate recommendations.

By implementing the correct plan now, you will save your loved ones time, frustration and potentially a great deal of money. In most cases, proper estate planning that is tailored to your specific situation can avoid probate altogether, and ensure the transfer of your property happens quickly and with a minimum amount of paperwork. If your estate is large, it may be subject to inheritance tax unless the proper estate planning measures are put in place. A qualified estate planning attorney can provide you with recommendations that will preserve as much of your estate as possible, so it can be distributed to your beneficiaries. And that’s something no website can deliver.


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Guardianships & Conservatorships

Guardianships & Conservatorships and How to Avoid Them

If a person becomes mentally or physically handicapped to a point where they can no longer make rational decisions about their person or their finances, their loved ones may consider a guardianship or a conservatorship whereby a guardian would make decisions concerning the physical person of the disabled individual, and conservators make decisions about the finances.

Typically, a loved one who is seeking a guardianship or a conservatorship will petition the appropriate court to be appointed guardian and/or conservator. The court will most likely require a medical doctor to make an examination of the disabled individual, also referred to as the ward, and appoint an attorney to represent the ward’s interests. The court will then typically hold a hearing to determine whether a guardianship and/or conservatorship should be established. If so, the ward would no longer have the ability to make his or her own medical or financial decisions.  The guardian and/or conservator usually must file annual reports on the status of the ward and his finances.

Guardianships and conservatorships can be an expensive legal process, and in many cases they are not necessary or could be avoided with a little advance planning. One way is with a financial power of attorney, and advance directives for healthcare such as living wills and durable powers of attorney for healthcare. With those documents, a mentally competent adult can appoint one or more individuals to handle his or her finances and healthcare decisions in the event that he or she can no longer take care of those things. A living trust is also a good way to allow someone to handle your financial affairs – you can create the trust while you are alive, and if you become incompetent someone else can manage your property on your behalf.

In addition to establishing durable powers of attorney and advanced healthcare directives, it is often beneficial to apply for representative payee status for government benefits. If a person gets VA benefits, Social Security or Supplemental Security Income, the Social Security Administration or the Veterans’ Administration can appoint a representative payee for the benefits without requiring a conservatorship. This can be especially helpful in situations in which the ward owns no assets and the only income is from Social Security or the VA.

When a loved one becomes mentally or physically handicapped to the point of no longer being able to take care of his or her own affairs, it can be tough for loved ones to know what to do. Fortunately, the law provides many options for people in this situation.  
 


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Gifting to Grandchildren

Issues to Consider When Gifting to Grandchildren

Many grandparents who are financially stable love the idea of making gifts to their grandchildren. However, they are usually not aware of the myriad of issues that surround what they may consider to be a simple gift. If you are considering making a significant gift to a grandchild, you should consult with a qualified attorney to guide you through the myriad of legal and tax issues that are involved in making such gifts.

Making a Lifetime Gift or a Bequest:  Before making a gift, you should consider whether you want to make the gift during your lifetime or leave the gift in your will. If you make the gift as a bequest in your will, you will not experience the joy of seeing your grandchild’s appreciation and use of the gift. However, there’s always the possibility that you will need the money to live on during your lifetime, and in reality, once a gift is made it cannot be taken back. Also, if you anticipate needing Medicaid or other government programs to pay for a nursing home or other benefits at some point in your life, any gifts you make in the prior five years can be considered as part of your assets when determining your eligibility.

What Form Gift Should Take:  You may consider making a gift outright to a grandchild. However, once such a gift is made, you give up control over how the funds can be used. If your grandchild decides to purchase a brand-new sports car or take an extravagant vacation, you will have no legal right to stop the grandchild. The grandchild’s parents could also in some cases access the money without your approval.

You could consider making a gift under the Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) or the Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA), depending on which state you live in. The accounts are easy to open, but once the grandchild reaches the age of majority, he or she will have unfettered access to the funds. You could also consider depositing money into a 529 plan, which is specifically designed for education purposes. Finally, you could consider establishing a trust with an estate planning attorney, which can be more expensive to set up, but can be customized to fit your needs. Such a trust can provide for spendthrift, divorce and creditor protection while allowing for more flexibility for expenditures such as education or purchase of a first home.

Tax Consequences: If you have a large estate, giving gifts to grandchildren may be a great way to get money out of your estate in order to reduce your future estate tax liability. In 2011 and 2012, a single person can pass $5 million at death free of estate tax, and a couple can pass a combined $10 million without paying estate taxes. In addition, a person can give $13,000 in 2011 to any number of individuals without incurring any gift taxes. A grandparent with 10 grandchildren could give $130,000 per year to all grandchildren (and a married couple could give $260,000), thereby removing that property from his or her estate.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Medicare vs. Medicaid

Medicare vs. Medicaid: Similarities and Differences

With such similar sounding names, many Americans mistake Medicare and Medicaid programs for one another, or presume the programs are as similar as their names. While both are government-run programs, there are many important differences. Medicare provides senior citizens, the disabled and the blind with medical benefits. Medicaid, on the other hand, provides healthcare benefits for those with little to no income.

Overview of Medicare
Medicare is a public health insurance program for Americans who are 65 or older. The program does not cover long-term care, but can cover payments for certain rehabilitation treatments. For example, if a Medicare patient is admitted to a hospital for at least three days and is subsequently admitted to a skilled nursing facility, Medicare may cover some of those payments. However, Medicare payments for such care and treatment will cease after 100 days or if the patient stops improving.

Nursing home patients often find their Medicare payments are terminated much sooner than 100 days. If a patient’s condition stops improving, Medicare coverage will be discontinued. For example, many older Americans are suffering from diseases with no known cure, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s Disease. Accordingly, it is simply impossible to “rehabilitate” these patients so Medicare typically denies skilled nursing facility coverage in these types of situations.

In summary:

  • Medicare provides health insurance for those aged 65 and older
  • Medicare is regulated under federal law, and is applied uniformly throughout the United States
  • Medicare pays for up to 100 days of care in a skilled nursing facility
  • Medicare pays for hospital care and medically necessary treatments and services
  • Medicare does not pay for long-term care
  • To be eligible for Medicare, you generally must have paid into the system

Overview of Medicaid
Medicaid is a state-run program, funded by both the federal and state governments. Because Medicaid is administered by the state, the requirements and procedures vary across state lines and you must look to the law in your area for specific eligibility rules. The federal government issues Medicaid guidelines, but each state gets to determine how the guidelines will be implemented.

In summary:

  • Medicaid is a health care program based on financial need
  • Medicaid is regulated under state law, which varies from state to state
  • Medicaid will cover long-term care
     

Monday, August 5, 2013

Paying Off Loved One’s Debts

Do Heirs Have to Pay Off Their Loved One’s Debts?

The recent economic recession, and staggering increases in health care costs have left millions of Americans facing incredible losses and mounting debt in their final years. Are you concerned that, rather than inheriting wealth from your parents, you will instead inherit bills? The good news is, you probably won’t have to pay them.

As you are dealing with the emotional loss, while also wrapping up your loved one’s affairs and closing the estate, the last thing you need to worry about is whether you will be on the hook for the debts your parents leave behind. Generally, heirs are not responsible for their parents’ outstanding bills. Creditors can go after the assets within the estate in an effort to satisfy the debt, but they cannot come after you personally. Nevertheless, assets within the estate may have to be sold to cover the decedent’s debts, or to provide for the living expenses of a surviving spouse or other dependents.

Heirs are not responsible for a decedent’s unsecured debts, such as credit cards, medical bills or personal loans, and many of these go unpaid or are settled for pennies on the dollar. However, there are some circumstances in which you may share liability for an unsecured debt, and therefore are fully responsible for future payments. For example, if you were a co-signer on a loan with the decedent, or if you were a joint account holder, you will bear ultimate financial responsibility for the debt.

Unsecured debts which were solely held by the deceased parent do not require you to reach into your own pocket to satisfy the outstanding obligation. Regardless, many aggressive collection agencies continue to pursue collection even after death, often implying that you are ultimately responsible to repay your loved one’s debts, or that you are morally obligated to do so. Both of these assertions are entirely untrue.

Secured debts, on the other hand, must be repaid or the lender can repossess the underlying asset. Common secured debts include home mortgages and vehicle loans. If your parents had any equity in their house or car, you should consider doing whatever is necessary to keep the payments current, so the equity is preserved until the property can be sold or transferred. But this must be weighed within the context of the overall estate.

Executors and estate administrators have a duty to locate and inventory all of the decedent’s assets and debts, and must notify creditors and financial institutions of the death. Avoid making the mistake of automatically paying off all of your loved one’s bills right away. If you rush to pay off debts, without a clear picture of your parents’ overall financial situation, you run the risk of coming up short on cash, within the estate, to cover higher priority bills, such as medical expenses, funeral costs or legal fees required to settle the estate.


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