Heirs at law on beach

Before I explain the concept of “heirs at law,” you might be thinking, why even bring this up? Of what relevance is this “Ye Olde Sounding Phraise” in today’s modern world?

It’s important for me to share the concept of “heirs at law” with you, dear GoFisch blog Reader, for three reasons.

  1. It helps explain why I, and other estate planners, ask so many darn questions. We need lots of info.
  2. The concept of “heirs at law” shows that you need to be open and honest and forthcoming with me, or any estate planner. Without complete transparency and truth, the estate plan runs the risk of being useless (the idea of “garbage in, garbage out” applies here).
  3. “Heirs at law” is yet another reason that a DIY will, or using an online service to produce your will, is just a terrible idea. You need an estate plan crafted by a trusted professional, unique to your special needs. Every family is different, so there can be no “one-size-fits-all” estate plan, and there are many moving parts to a comprehensive estate plan.

With that established, what does the term “heirs at law” actually mean?

girl drawing heart in sand

Heirs at law are those folks who would inherit your property in the event you died without a will, which is called intestacy1. It is critically important to determine who the heirs at law are, even for people not subject to the laws of intestacy (i.e., folks who have a will) for two big reasons.

  1. Heirs at law must be notified of the probate process.
  2. Heirs at law are allowed to challenge the Will in probate court.

As I already stated, you must provide all the information your estate planner requests. As a practical matter, the extent of information you’ll need to provide your estate planner regarding heirs at law depends of the nature of your family and relatives. For instance, in the case of two people, married only to each other, with children only from that one marriage—then the spouse and children (and perhaps grandchildren) will be the obvious heirs at law.

In another example, a family could also constitute a remarriage with each spouse having children from previous relationships. In this case, the stepchildren would need to be adopted by the applicable stepparent to be considered an heir at law.

In other situations, the client relatives may be much more distant, requiring more fact investigation. For example, take the case of a client who is unmarried and without children. In such a situation, the estate planner will need to pay close attention to identifying other relatives.

Family walking down road hand-in-hand

Of course, you can bequeath your estate to whomever you choose. You don’t have to give anything to any of your obvious or non-obvious heirs at law or any other relative for that matter. (In colloquial terms we could call this “stiffing your relatives.”)

This point reiterates why the estate planner should know and have updated contact information of who are the heirs at law. Again, it’s required that heirs at law be notified of probate process and these heirs (unlike a non-relative work colleague or neighbor) also have the legal standing to contest the will in court.

Another reason the estate planner must have knowledge of the heirs at law is to ward off fraudulent claims, if need be. This reason is particularly important if the heirs at law are distant relatives. (An unfortunate real world example of this involves Prince and the complicated intestate process following the singer’s passing without an estate plan.)

Bottom line: heirs at law are important when it comes to the distribution of your estate (with or without a Will). Of course, dying intestate is NOT optimal and you DO need a Will for a number of important reasons. I’d love to discuss the topic over the phone (515-371-6077) or via email. Don’t hesitate to contact me at any time!


[1] Bonus word! If an Iowan dies without a will, they die “intestate” and the laws of “intestate” succession are used to determine who will inherit the estate.

A will may provide for disposition of the testator’s assets at the time the will is executed, but of course it may be many years—many decades, even—between the will’s execution and the testator’s death. What if between the execution of the will and the testator’s death, there are changes in circumstances (such as the death of beneficiary) which make it impossible for the executor to follow the dispositive provisions of the will? That’s where estate planning gets complicated and can open the door to litigation.

Changed Circumstances = Default

Of course, we would first look to the language of the will. But, what if the will fails to address the changed circumstances? In such cases, Iowa law provides default rules. Obviously, it is much preferable for the estate planner to raise the possibility of changed circumstances with the testator during the drafting process, and address them accordingly with clear language in the will. (Yet, another reason to use a lawyer to draw up your estate plan.) And, yes, you should keep your will (and overall estate plan) updated.

Death of a Beneficiary

If Grace provides in her will, “I give Lawrence $10,000,” and Lawrence dies before Grace, the will can’t be followed exactly as written. Of course, this situation can and should be avoided by careful drafting – the estate planner asking what the testator wants if a beneficiary should predecease the testator. If, continuing this example, Grace wants the bequest to pass to Lawrence’s estate or Lawrence’s children if Lawrence predeceases her, Grace should so specify in her will. If instead Grace wants the bequest to go to other beneficiaries, the will should spell that out, too.

The Doctrine of Lapse

Let’s take our example and apply the doctrine of lapse. Under the common law, a bequest would fail, or lapse, if the beneficiary predeceased the testator. The bequest would simply fall back to the estate.

Iowa’s Anti-Lapse Statute   

Iowa is among the majority of states which have adopted anti-lapse statutes. Iowa Code Section 633.273 provides that if a beneficiary (actually, the statute uses the legal term devisee) dies before the testator, leaving children who survive the testator, the devisee’s children inherit the property devised, unless the terms of the decedent’s will is clear and explicit to the contrary.

Real Life Case

Clyde Guthrie executed a will in 2002 and died in 2006. His wife predeceased him, and so did two of his five children. Both of the predeceased children died before Guthrie executed his will. That turned out to be a key fact. Guthrie’s will left his entire estate equally to his five children except “in the event any of my children should predecease me leaving issue who survive me, then the share of such predeceased child shall go in equal shares to his or her issue who survive me . . .” His three surviving children claimed that the will language meant to include only them—the decedent’s children that survived him, and not the grandchildren of one of their deceased siblings. That predeceased sibling only had one child, and that child also predeceased the decedent, but left two surviving children–great-grandchildren of the decedent. (The other predeceased child died without having had children).

 

old hand and baby hand

Application of Facts to Iowa Code Section 633.273

On first glance Guthrie’s will appeared to be clear. Again, his will stated that if children predeceased him, “the share of such predeceased child shall go in equal shares to his or her issue who survive me.” However, the Iowa anti-lapse statute defines “devisee” as a person who dies after execution of the decedent’s will unless the will clearly specifies otherwise. Here the pre-deceased child that left surviving issue died long before the decedent executed his will. So, the anti-lapse statute didn’t apply, and the great-grandchildren were not beneficiaries of their great-grandfather’s estate.

Guthrie of course knew that two of his children had already died. The language of the Guthrie’s will, the Iowa Court of Appeals reasoned, could only possibly refer to the possibility of any or all of the three remaining children dying before he did – and the decedent’s will did not clearly state that issue of an already pre-deceased child should be included. (Review the case: Estate of Guthrie v. Busch, No. 8-093/07-1427 (Iowa Ct. App. May 14, 2008).

Back to the Basics: Let’s Review

With that example in mind, let’s review again the basics of the doctrine of lapse. Under the common law, if a beneficiary dies before the testator, the bequest lapses, i.e., goes back to the estate.

Iowa changed this rule by adopting an anti-lapse statute. Under current Iowa law, if the beneficiary dies before the testator, but leaves children who survive the testator, the beneficiary’s children inherit the property devised, unless the terms of the decedent’s will are clear and explicit to the contrary.

Of course, the problem of lapse/anti-lapse can be avoided through careful drafting by a trained professional, as well as annual reviews to see if your estate plan needs updating.


Have questions about your own estate plan that may be in need of revisions after learning about lapse? Contact me and we can talk about what changes would be wise for you to incorporate into your estate plan.

hammers and tools hanging in garage

Three Parties

I’ve previously written about the three parties necessary for every trust: (1) the settlor (sometimes called the donor or grantor); (2) the trustee; and (3) the beneficiary.

Two Other Elements

Besides three parties, at least two other elements are necessary for a valid trust.

  1. The trust instrument is the document that sets forth the terms of the trust.
  2. The other necessary element is property. After all, the trustee must be holding something for the benefit of the beneficiary.

Property of the Trust

When laypersons use the word “property,” I believe they usually mean real estate. But, lawyers use the term “property” much, much more broadly, to mean literally any transferable interest. Sometimes trust property is also referred to as the res or corpus or assets of the trust. (Bonus words!)

Any property can be held in trust. Seriously, check out this list of 101 assets which would fit in a trust. You could likely think of literally hundreds more types or categories of property to place in your own individual trust.

Pour Over Trust

How about an unfunded trust that will receive property at some point in the future? Can you even do that?

Yes, that can certainly be done. This is usually called a pour over trust. (More bonus words!) The pour over trust deserves its own blog post. Briefly, a pour over trust is usually set up by language in a will. A will may validly devise property to a trust, established during the testator’s lifetime, and then funded at her death.

Example

Let’s take a very simple example. Kate has a lawyer write her will, including language that at her death all her Monster Truck memorabilia be placed in a trust for the benefit of her nieces and nephews. Only at Kate’s death will the property be transferred into the trust, not before.

monster truck as a type of property

Take Aways

The important points are that property is necessary, at some point, to make a trust valid, and that literally any transferable interest in property – anything! – can be held in a trust.

Let’s Talk Trusts

It can be difficult to determine on your own if a trust may be right for your personal situation. It certainly doesn’t hurt to take me up on my offer for a free one-hour consultation. Give me a call at 515-371-6077 or shoot me an email at gordon@gordonfischerlawfirm.com.