What will happen to your assets when you die?

In the same vein of our recent "news you can use" articles on umbrella insurance and the TreasuryDirect program, today we focus on two important (and under-utilized) estate planning tools: wills and living trusts.

Wills and living trusts make sense for those who are married, have children, own real estate, have financial or other material assets, and/or wish to influence how their estate is distributed after their death. I'm guessing the vast majority of folks reading this fall into at least one of these categories.

Yes, this is morbid territory to tread into. But it's important.

A few months ago, right after I published What Really Matters, a good friend died suddenly of a heart attack at age 42. There was no warning. He was a former college athlete, still-fit, and died on the basketball court during his weekly practice. He left behind a wife and three children, one with life-long special needs.

Fortunately, my friend was a lawyer, and had practiced what he preached professionally. He had put a well-constructed estate plan in place while alive (along with a healthy life insurance policy).

I saw first-hand the great benefits this gave his family upon his sudden passing. They were able to fully focus on dealing with their grief, as the estate plan largely took care of all the legal and financial details in the background.

If you've had an immediate family member or close friend pass away, you're likely aware of the tremendous number of tasks and decisions that need to be dealt with when someone dies. Aside from the obvious treatment of their remains and funerary arrangements, the deceased's estate needs to be settled.

This means an executor needs to be appointed who will manage the process, creditors need to be paid as will any estate taxes, heirs need to be identified and assets distributed among them (which in many cases requires selling/disposition of these assets first), care for minor children needs to be arranged, etc. This process is oftentimes managed by the state (i.e., slowly and often inefficiently).

This is an awful lot to put a surviving spouse through (assuming there is one) during a time of extreme grief. The same goes for children.

And this burden gets compounded if there's no estate plan in place. What assets did the deceased own? Where are they? Whom did he/she want to inherit them? All of these questions need to be answered during the estate settlement process.

Imagine trying to untangle all this right after your spouse, parent, sibling or friend has died. When you're already emotionally traumatized.

Now imagine that the heirs involved don't agree on how the estate should be divided, and infighting ensues. Relationships can easily get permanently damaged and money quickly drained should expensive lawyers get involved to contest the matter. The situation often gets very ugly, very quickly. (Click here for a sampling of horror stories resulting from when folks died without a will.)

Why risk putting your loved ones through this? Especially when it's so easily avoidable, and relatively inexpensive to do so?

Look, every one of us is going to die. That's the only rock-solid guarantee we're given during our time on Earth.

You've worked hard your whole life to take care of those important to you. Don't drop the ball on the 1-yard line. Take care of them in your death, too.

Wills & Living Trusts

The bedrock of a good estate plan involves a will and a living trust. I'll explain the role of each, the differences between the two, and the wisdom of having both.

NOTE: What follows is a summarization. While wills and living trusts are fairly simple conceptually, there are lots of special cases. Many of those are not addressed below so as not to prevent this article from becoming densely encyclopedic. Also, I am not a lawyer -- meaning: take this synopsis as education, not personal legal advice. If you want that, consult an estate lawyer.

OK, with that out of the way, let's proceed.

Will

Most folks are familiar with the concept of a will. Every murder mystery usually has a scene where the family gathers at the lawyer's office to hear the reading of the late victim's will: "Being of sound mind, I hereby bequeath to my nephew, Chauncey, my collection of rare Amazonian butterflies..."

Simply put, a will is a legal document that specifies:

  • how you want your assets distributed upon your death,
  • whom you grant the power to oversee that distribution (i.e., your "executor"), and
  • whom you want to have guardianship of your minor children, should there be any

Sounds like something every responsible adult should have, right? I agree.

But amazingly, 63% of US adults do not have a will. And an additional 9% have a will that's no longer up to date. Even among the more affluent, 45% do not have a will.

So those ugly issues I mentioned above of what can happen when you die without a will? They're very real and actually happen a lot.

Which is criminal, as a will is a straightforward document that shouldn't cost you more than a few hundred dollars (at most) and a few days to create (I'll give more specifics on the will creation process in Part 2). There really aren't any good reasons why the vast majority of us, especially those with minor children, shouldn't have one.

The key downside to note with a will is that it's subject to probate. Probate is the judicial process that determines the validity of the deceased's will. None of the instructions laid out in your will can be undertaken until a court accepts its validity and "grants probate" to your specified executor.

Probate isn't much fun. It takes time: typically a few months, but it can last years in certain cases. It can be costly: expect to pay somewhere between 3-8% of your estate's assets in combined attorney, court and other fees.

Probate can be challenging for real estate, especially investment properties. Until these assets have passed probate, your heirs (including your spouse) cannot manage or dispose of them. They're locked in limbo, which can get quite inconvenient if the probate period stretches for many months or years.

It's also a public process. During the probate period, your will is made available upon request to anyone who asks for it. So the details of your estate and your disposition wishes are not kept private. And your will can be challenged in court during this time by anyone who feels they have a valid claim on your assets.

Which brings us to Living Trusts...

Living Trusts

A trust is a legal arrangement in which one or more people manage or take care of property for someone else's benefit.

There are several major benefits you can enjoy by placing your assets into a trust to manage them while you're alive (that's why it's called a "living" trust). One of them is avoiding probate upon your death.

Once your assets have been placed inside a living trust, they're managed by its Trustees on behalf of clearly-specified Beneficiaries. So with ownership transfer, executorship and distribution are already worked out -- the probate court doesn't need to get involved.

For most couples, this allows the surviving partner to retain seamless control of all Trust assets after the other dies. The assets don't go through the probate process, there are far less fees involved, and the process is private. (The estate still can be contested, though. But the details of the estate's assets don't have to be made available to the public upon request.)

Avoiding probate is just one of the advantages offered by living trusts.

Another big one is (potentially) reducing estate taxes. I'll spare you the wonky details for now, but there are ways for your trust to take advantage of deductions and credits that may materially reduce the estate tax liability on your wealth after you and/or your surviving spouse die. Any estate lawyer or tax accountant worth their salt can walk you through the details.

Your living trust will also enable you to control how your assets flow to your heirs. If you have minor children, most states won't let them own property directly while they're 17 or younger. And if you're passing along a substantial amount of wealth, giving it to all to them at age 18 in a lump sum is a bad idea (unless you want the inheritance squandered in an epic blast of debauchery).

Via your trust, you can specify how you want your assets (and any associated income from them) to be meted out to each heir over time -- based on age milestones, financial need, use (e.g., education), mental competency, or any other conditions important to you.

Similarly, a living trust is helpful in keeping your assets managed the way you want should you become incapacitated (i.e., still living, but not able to mentally or physically manage your affairs). For many of us, living too long may become the bigger risk to our estate vs dying too soon.

Last, the most common form of living Trust is amendable throughout your life. You can change it at anytime, as often as you like. Or you can dissolve it altogether. The bottom line is, you're in full control over everything while you're alive (and mentally competent).

Getting Started

OK, as a refresher:

  • A will is a good idea for pretty much everyone. But it's especially important for people with minor children. A trust does not specify legal guardianship in the event of your death. Only a will does that.
  • A living trust makes sense for anyone with assets and heirs (especially your spouse) they want to pass their wealth along to. Some experts say living trusts make sense if you expect your estate to be worth over $150,000; others go as low as $20,000.

The cost to set these up is pretty trivial compared to the huge benefits they can offer your loved ones. A will costs a few hundred bucks (or less) to set up and can be completed in a matter of days (or less). A living trust will range between several hundred and a few thousand dollars, depending on how sizable/complicated your estate is.

In Part 2: A Primer On The Essentials For Your Will & Living Trust, we walk through in detail the principal legal elements that your will and living trust should address. This includes specific clauses your documents should contain (unless advised otherwise by a professional), as well as helpful context for the most common decisions folks will face when creating/updating these legal vehicles.

If you don't yet have a will and/or a living trust, or it's been a while since you've reviewed the ones you have, read on. Your loved ones will be glad you did.

Click here to read Part 2 of this report (free executive summary, enrollment required for full access)

From the moment the 33-year-old Thomas Jefferson arrived at the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776, he was on the radical side. That caused John Adams to like him immediately. Then the Congress stuck Jefferson and Adams together on the five-man committee to write a formal statement justifying a break with Great Britain, and their mutual admiration society began.

Jefferson thought Adams should write the Declaration. But Adams protested, saying, “It can't come from me because I'm obnoxious and disliked." Adams reasoned that Jefferson was not obnoxious or disliked, therefore he should write it. Plus, he flattered Jefferson, by telling him he was a great writer. It was a master class in passing the buck.

So, over the next 17 days, Jefferson holed up in his room, applying his lawyer skills to the ideas of the Enlightenment. He borrowed freely from existing documents like the Virginia Declaration of Rights. He later wrote that “he was not striving for originality of principle or sentiment." Instead, he hoped his words served as “an expression of the American mind."

It's safe to say he achieved his goal.

The five-man committee changed about 25 percent of Jefferson's first draft of the Declaration before submitting it to Congress. Then, Congress altered about one-fifth of that draft. But most of the final Declaration's words are Jefferson's, including the most famous passage — the Preamble — which Congress left intact. The result is nothing less than America's mission statement, the words that ultimately bind the nation together. And words that we desperately need to rediscover because of our boiling partisan rage.

The Declaration is brilliant in structure and purpose. It was designed for multiple audiences: the King of Great Britain, the colonists, and the world. And it was designed for multiple purposes: rallying the troops, gaining foreign allies, and announcing the creation of a new country.

The Declaration is structured in five sections: the Introduction, Preamble, the Body composed of two parts, and the Conclusion. It's basically the most genius breakup letter ever written.

In the Introduction, step 1 is the notificationI think we need to break up. And to be fair, I feel I owe you an explanation...

When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another…

The Continental Congress felt they were entitled by “the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God" to “dissolve the political bands," but they needed to prove the legitimacy of their cause. They were defying the world's most powerful nation and needed to motivate foreign allies to join the effort. So, they set their struggle within the entire “Course of human events." They're saying, this is no petty political spat — this is a major event in world history.

Step 2 is declaring what you believe in, your standardsHere's what I'm looking for in a healthy relationship...

This is the most famous part of the Declaration; the part school children recite — the Preamble:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

That's as much as many Americans know of the Declaration. But the Preamble is the DNA of our nation, and it really needs to be taken as a whole:

That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.

The Preamble takes us through a logical progression: All men are created equal; God gives all humans certain inherent rights that cannot be denied; these include the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness; to protect those rights, we have governments set up; but when a government fails to protect our inherent rights, people have the right to change or replace it.

Government is only there to protect the rights of mankind. They don't have any power unless we give it to them. That was an extraordinarily radical concept then and we're drifting away from it now.

The Preamble is the justification for revolution. But note how they don't mention Great Britain yet. And again, note how they frame it within a universal context. These are fundamental principles, not just squabbling between neighbors. These are the principles that make the Declaration just as relevant today. It's not just a dusty parchment that applied in 1776.

Step 3 is laying out your caseHere's why things didn't work out between us. It's not me, it's you...

This is Part 1 of the Body of the Declaration. It's the section where Jefferson gets to flex his lawyer muscles by listing 27 grievances against the British crown. This is the specific proof of their right to rebellion:

He has obstructed the administration of justice...

For imposing taxes on us without our consent...

For suspending our own legislatures...

For quartering large bodies of armed troops among us...

Again, Congress presented these “causes which impel them to separation" in universal terms to appeal to an international audience. It's like they were saying, by joining our fight you'll be joining mankind's overall fight against tyranny.

Step 4 is demonstrating the actions you took I really tried to make this relationship work, and here's how...

This is Part 2 of the Body. It explains how the colonists attempted to plead their case directly to the British people, only to have the door slammed in their face:

In every stage of these Oppressions We have Petitioned for Redress in the most humble terms: Our repeated Petitions have been answered only by repeated injury...

They too have been deaf to the voice of justice... We must, therefore... hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, Enemies in War, in Peace Friends.

This basically wrapped up America's argument for independence — we haven't been treated justly, we tried to talk to you about it, but since you refuse to listen and things are only getting worse, we're done here.

Step 5 is stating your intent — So, I think it's best if we go our separate ways. And my decision is final...

This is the powerful Conclusion. If people know any part of the Declaration besides the Preamble, this is it:

...that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain, is and ought to be totally dissolved...

They left no room for doubt. The relationship was over, and America was going to reboot, on its own, with all the rights of an independent nation.

And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.

The message was clear — this was no pitchfork mob. These were serious men who had carefully thought through the issues before taking action. They were putting everything on the line for this cause.

The Declaration of Independence is a landmark in the history of democracy because it was the first formal statement of a people announcing their right to choose their own government. That seems so obvious to us now, but in 1776 it was radical and unprecedented.

In 1825, Jefferson wrote that the purpose of the Declaration was “not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of… but to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm… to justify ourselves in the independent stand we are compelled to take."

You're not going to do better than the Declaration of Independence. Sure, it worked as a means of breaking away from Great Britain, but its genius is that its principles of equality, inherent rights, and self-government work for all time — as long as we actually know and pursue those principles.

On June 7, 1776, the Second Continental Congress met in Philadelphia at the Pennsylvania State House, better known today as Independence Hall. Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee introduced a motion calling for the colonies' independence. The “Lee Resolution" was short and sweet:

Resolved, That these United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States, that they are absolved from all allegiance to the British Crown, and that all political connection between them and the State of Great Britain is, and ought to be, totally dissolved.

Intense debate followed, and the Congress voted 7 to 5 (with New York abstaining) to postpone a vote on Lee's Resolution. They called a recess for three weeks. In the meantime, the delegates felt they needed to explain what they were doing in writing. So, before the recess, they appointed a five-man committee to come up with a formal statement justifying a break with Great Britain. They appointed two men from New England — Roger Sherman and John Adams; two from the middle colonies — Robert Livingston and Benjamin Franklin; and one Southerner — Thomas Jefferson. The responsibility for writing what would become the Declaration of Independence fell to Jefferson.

In the rotunda of the National Archives building in Washington, D.C., there are three original documents on permanent display: the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Declaration of Independence. These are the three pillars of the United States, yet America barely seems to know them anymore. We need to get reacquainted — quickly.

In a letter to his friend John Adams in 1816, Jefferson wrote: “I like the dreams of the future, better than the history of the past."

America used to be a forward-looking nation of dreamers. We still are in spots, but the national attitude that we hear broadcast loudest across media is not looking toward the future with optimism and hope. In late 2017, a national poll found 59% of Americans think we are currently at the “lowest point in our nation's history that they can remember."

America spends far too much time looking to the past for blame and excuse. And let's be honest, even the Right is often more concerned with “owning the left" than helping point anyone toward the practical principles of the Declaration of Independence. America has clearly lost touch with who we are as a nation. We have a national identity crisis.

The Declaration of Independence is America's thesis statement, and without it America doesn't exist.

It is urgent that we get reacquainted with the Declaration of Independence because postmodernism would have us believe that we've evolved beyond the America of our founding documents, and thus they're irrelevant to the present and the future. But the Declaration of Independence is America's thesis statement, and without it America doesn't exist.

Today, much of the nation is so addicted to partisan indignation that "day-to-day" indignation isn't enough to feed the addiction. So, we're reaching into America's past to help us get our fix. In 2016, Democrats in the Louisiana state legislature tabled a bill that would have required fourth through sixth graders to recite the opening lines of the Declaration. They didn't table it because they thought it would be too difficult or too patriotic. They tabled it because the requirement would include the phrase “all men are created equal" and the progressives in the Louisiana legislature didn't want the children to have to recite a lie. Representative Barbara Norton said, “One thing that I do know is, all men are not created equal. When I think back in 1776, July the fourth, African Americans were slaves. And for you to bring a bill to request that our children will recite the Declaration, I think it's a little bit unfair to us. To ask our children to recite something that's not the truth. And for you to ask those children to repeat the Declaration stating that all men's are free. I think that's unfair."

Remarkable — an elected representative saying it wouldn't be fair for students to have to recite the Declaration because “all men are not created equal." Another Louisiana Democrat explained that the government born out of the Declaration “was used against races of people." I guess they missed that part in school where they might have learned that the same government later made slavery illegal and amended the Constitution to guarantee all men equal protection under the law. The 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments were an admission of guilt by the nation regarding slavery, and an effort to right the wrongs.

Yet, the progressive logic goes something like this: many of the men who signed the Declaration of Independence, including Thomas Jefferson who wrote it, owned slaves; slavery is evil; therefore, the Declaration of Independence is not valid because it was created by evil slave owners.

It's a sad reality that the left has a very hard time appreciating the universal merits of the Declaration of Independence because they're so hung up on the long-dead issue of slavery. And just to be clear — because people love to take things out of context — of course slavery was horrible. Yes, it is a total stain on our history. But defending the Declaration of Independence is not an effort to excuse any aspect of slavery.

Okay then, people might say, how could the Founders approve the phrase “All men are created equal," when many of them owned slaves? How did they miss that?

They didn't miss it. In fact, Thomas Jefferson included an anti-slavery passage in his first draft of the Declaration. The paragraph blasted King George for condoning slavery and preventing the American Colonies from passing legislation to ban slavery:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights to life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere... Determined to keep open a market where men should be bought and sold, he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce.

We don't say “execrable" that much anymore. It means, utterly detestable, abominable, abhorrent — basically very bad.

Jefferson was upset when Georgia and North Carolina threw up the biggest resistance to that paragraph. Ultimately, those two states twisted Congress' arm to delete the paragraph.

Still, how could a man calling the slave trade “execrable" be a slaveowner himself? No doubt about it, Jefferson was a flawed human being. He even had slaves from his estate in Virginia attending him while he was in Philadelphia, in the very apartment where he was writing the Declaration.

Many of the Southern Founders deeply believed in the principles of the Declaration yet couldn't bring themselves to upend the basis of their livelihood. By 1806, Virginia law made it more difficult for slave owners to free their slaves, especially if the owner had significant debts as Jefferson did.

At the same time, the Founders were not idiots. They understood the ramifications of signing on to the principles described so eloquently in the Declaration. They understood that logically, slavery would eventually have to be abolished in America because it was unjust, and the words they were committing to paper said as much. Remember, John Adams was on the committee of five that worked on the Declaration and he later said that the Revolution would never be complete until the slaves were free.

Also, the same generation that signed the Declaration started the process of abolition by banning the importation of slaves in 1807. Jefferson was President at the time and he urged Congress to pass the law.

America has an obvious road map that, as a nation, we're not consulting often enough.

The Declaration took a major step toward crippling the institution of slavery. It made the argument for the first time about the fundamental rights of all humans which completely undermined slavery. Planting the seeds to end slavery is not nearly commendable enough for leftist critics, but you can't discount the fact that the seeds were planted. It's like they started an expiration clock for slavery by approving the Declaration. Everything that happened almost a century later to end slavery, and then a century after that with the Civil Rights movement, flowed from the principles voiced in the Declaration.

Ironically for a movement that calls itself progressive, it is obsessed with retrying and judging the past over and over. Progressives consider this a better use of time than actually putting past abuses in the rearview and striving not to be defined by ancestral failures.

It can be very constructive to look to the past, but not when it's used to flog each other in the present. Examining history is useful in providing a road map for the future. And America has an obvious road map that, as a nation, we're not consulting often enough. But it's right there, the original, under glass. The ink is fading, but the words won't die — as long as we continue to discuss them.

'Good Morning Texas' gives exclusive preview of Mercury One museum

Screen shot from Good Morning Texas

Mercury One is holding a special exhibition over the 4th of July weekend, using hundreds of artifacts, documents and augmented reality experiences to showcase the history of slavery — including slavery today — and a path forward. Good Morning Texas reporter Paige McCoy Smith went through the exhibit for an exclusive preview with Mercury One's chief operating officer Michael Little on Tuesday.

Watch the video below to see the full preview.

Click here to purchase tickets to the museum (running from July 4 - 7).

Over the weekend, journalist Andy Ngo and several other apparent right-leaning people were brutally beaten by masked-gangs of Antifa protesters in Portland, Oregon. Short for "antifascist," Antifa claims to be fighting for social justice and tolerance — by forcibly and violently silencing anyone with opposing opinions. Ngo, who was kicked, punched, and sprayed with an unknown substance, is currently still in the hospital with a "brain bleed" as a result of the savage attack. Watch the video to get the details from Glenn.