Charitable Giving Season Tax Guidelines

As we near the bustle of holiday season shopping and cheer, the feelings of good will towards man and year-end tax deductions translate into the busy season for charity donations. Every store seems to have someone out front with a bucket and a bell asking for spare change to help a specific cause.

Top view of a U.S. Individual tax form, calculator, pen, glasses and white files.

If you’re donating to a cause out of the goodness of your heart, please make sure you’re giving to a reputable entity: ask for a charity’s public 501(c)(3) or number or visit charitynavigator.org for ratings of thousands of charities. If you’re hoping to use your good will to lighten your load come tax time, you have to be a bit more intentional in where and how you give. To learn whether (and what percentage of) your donation is tax deductible, visit the IRS Tax Exempt Organization Search

You may know that cash donations greater than $250 must have an acknowledgement from the charity with the date and amount of the donation. The rules have changed in that cash donations without a receipt are not deductible. That means if you plan to deduct a weekly donation to a religious entity, you must have a cancelled check, or a bank or credit card statement to be able to claim it as a tax deduction. Also remember that if you receive a benefit in exchange for your donation (tickets to a ball game, free admission to a museum or other goods), you can only deduct that amount that exceeds the fair market value of the benefit received. 

If you are donating non-cash property to a charity (clothing, land or a vehicle), you can only deduct the fair market value of the items. Clothing can be determined by what a reasonable resale value would be, say if you chose to sell it on Facebook Marketplace or Craigslist. Larger donations like real estate or an automobile should have an appraisal amount to verify its value.

Are you considering a large donation to a charity or need some guidance on what you can write off come tax season? For a consultation, contact our office at 724-216-5180 or use our online form

The Validity Handwritten Wills

a photo of pen and ink handwritten will

Even though it’s nearly 2020, handwritten wills do still exist. And yes, they are legal in a handful of states, including Pennsylvania; however, there are stipulations and special care must be taken to confirm their validity. While this isn’t the recommended way of making final preparations for assets after death, sometimes a handwritten will is better than no will at all.

For any will (typed or handwritten) to be considered valid, or the person whose assets will be distributed upon death, or “the testator,” must be at least 18 years of age and be of sound mind. This means the person needs to understand what they are signing and what possessions they will be bequeathing.

The actual document itself, regardless of its contents, needs to in some way state that it is to serve as a last will and testament for the person. It just won’t cut it to hand over a note to the courts that simply states: “hey friend, I’m giving you all my things.”

Creating a handwritten will without the assistance of an experienced estate attorney can be risky business for proving its validity in court as well as assuring your assets are distributed according to your wishes. This is especially so if the last will and testament is for someone who has children that are minors, has remarried or is part owner in a business venture. Owning assets in multiple states or countries increases the complexity. 

In some states, handwritten wills must be made within the state, have two independent witnesses confirm the signature, and the document must be notarized. Unsurprisingly, named beneficiaries do not count as independent witnesses. 

Pennsylvania is one of a handful of states that also permits an unwitnessed will to be admissible in probate. An unwitnessed will, or holographic will, only needs to be signed and dated by the testator at the end. It is also the easiest will to challenge in court. And while a witness may not be necessary at the time of signing to make the will valid, at least two independent witnesses must attest in court that the will indeed is signed by the testator.

Whenever possible it is best practice to avoid utilizing handwritten or holographic wills. As part of the services offered in our offices, we have joined testators at home, in hospice or in other settings outside our offices to create and validate wills. These include times when the testator is too injured or too ill to write and sign a will. However, if left with a handwritten or holographic will, having an attorney experienced in handwritten wills and the specific details necessary for it to be admissible in court can make the difference between a will being accepted or declared invalid. 

If you have questions about a loved one’s handwritten will or need help in drafting a valid will, contact our office at 724-216-5180 or use our online form

Newly Discovered Heir after an Estate is Already Closed

Previously ‘unknown heirs’ have always been known to come out of the woodwork when an estate proceeding is publicly posted. If you are the personal representative for a deceased’s estate, it can be disorienting to deal with individuals outside those who are specifically named beneficiaries. This confusion is compounded after an estate has already been probated and effectively is considered ‘closed’ by the courts. If a new heir comes forward, you need to determine if the estate should be reopened in probate court. 

When notice is given to all heirs, sometimes a particular individual does not respond in time. Unfortunately for them, some courts will not allow a reopening. Afterall, they should have pressed their claim within the allotted time. Sometimes there is an error and if the personal representative failed to give notice to a named heir of the probate proceeding, then the estate will need to be reopened in court and appropriately addressed. This can be followed with the unenviable position of needing to collect previously distributed assets from current beneficiaries for redistribution. 

Every once in a while, an heir emerges that even the deceased did not know about, such as an unknown child of the deceased. While they can petition the court as an heir-at-law, if the individual is not specifically named in a will, there is a good chance that even bringing forth a lawsuit will not successfully overturn the will. 

If you are a personal representative or beneficiary of a closed estate and have recently learned of a potential new heir to the deceased’s estate, speak to an expert who is knowledgeable in probate law before determining what to do. Every new development – particularly if redistribution of assets may be necessary – should be thoroughly analyzed for the most efficient way of addressing it. 

With more than 15 years of experience in probating wills, our offices can help! Contact our office at 724-216-5180 or use our online form to discuss your options. 

Surprise! A Disclosure after an Estate is Already Closed

a photo of a gavel, pen and paper

If you are executor of a will or one of its named beneficiaries, you may think that once debts are settled, property is disbursed and the estate is closed, that’s the end. For the most part, this is true; however, occasionally a surprise disclosure pops up after the fact. This generally takes the form of a newly discovered insurance policy, bank account or other asset of value that was not initially accounted for. 

If the discovery happens within one year of the closing statement, the personal representative has authority to act without being reappointed. However, if the closing statement was filed more than a year prior to the discovery, then anyone with a vested interest can petition the court to reopen a previously administered estate. Usually, the court may appoint the same personal representative to administer the subsequently discovered estate. 

Not every asset discovery requires the estate to be reopened. For example, insurance policies name at least one beneficiary. Assets with titles will list the owner(s). If more than one owner is listed on a title, that person would become the full owner of asset. If an asset does not have a title or a named beneficiary, then it would need to be collected for the estate. 

It’s also not entirely unheard of for a new debtor to file a claim against the estate; however, these should be carefully reviewed by an experienced probate attorney because during the normal administrative process, the personal representative has provided notice to known creditors and posted public notice of the estate. Creditors have a finite period of time to respond. If they do not respond in time, they can be barred from collecting on the debt. Unfortunately, late responses are often fraudulent claims. 

If you are a personal representative or beneficiary of a closed estate and have recently learned of a new asset or debt related to the deceased’s estate, speak to an expert who is knowledgeable in probate law before determining what to do. Every new disclosure should be thoroughly analyzed for the most efficient way of addressing it. 

With more than 35 years of experience in probating wills, our offices can help! Contact us at 724-216-5180 or use our online form to discuss your options.

Don’t Let Certified Letters from the IRS Make You ‘Certifiable’

a photo of tax court building

You get a knock at the door. It’s the mailman. He’s holding an envelope in his hand and needs you to sign for it. You sign and he’s gone before you even know what it’s for. 

Then you turn the envelope over. You’ve just received a certified letter from the Internal Revenue Service! What’s the first thing you should do? Try to relax. 

This doesn’t automatically mean you’re going to jail or your banks accounts have been seized. It typically is about a specific issue on your federal tax return or tax account. A notice may tell you about changes to your account or ask you for more information. It could also tell you that you must make a payment. 

When you read the notice, it will contain specific instructions on what they want you to do. As I mentioned before in the auditing blog (Taxman Disputes Solved): DO NOT ignore this letter, regardless of its contents. If the IRS sends a certified letter, it’s because this is an important document they wanted to confirm you’ve received. 

By signing for the letter, you’ve confirmed you’re in receipt of their notice. Also, don’t just refuse to sign for it (or not answer the door when the mailman rings). That also is not a productive way of dealing with things: even if it works with door-to-door solicitors. If you do owe money, the longer you wait to deal with the situation, the more interest your account could be accruing,

However, before you respond, gather all the information they are asking from you and call an attorney. Do not respond until you’ve had a chance to have a consultation with a tax professional. If my blogs sound like a broken record, it’s because I cannot stress to you enough that there are often ways to make things right with causing far less financial and emotional pain otherwise. A proper plan potentially can save you thousands of dollars and untold hours of lost sleep. 

One last tidbit: the IRS will never call you, email you or contact you via social media. Nor will anyone from the IRS ask for personal or financial information over the phone or via e-mail. These are all scams. Remember this when a scammer reaches out via these methods. Remind your mother. Remind your gullible friend and elderly neighbor. The same “prince from Nigeria” who wants to give you a million dollars for transferring funds if you just give him your bank account, is the same person who wants your personal information to run you over the coals. Don’t fall for it. 

With extensive experience in all reasons the IRS sends certified letters or any other tax disputes, I can help you resolve your problems and minimize your tax exposure. Call my office at 724-216-5180.

How to Avoid Probating a Will

Probating wills is time-consuming and a public affair; however, there are steps you can take now to avoid these situations for your heirs at your time of death. Yes, there are times when the complexity of the financial situation for an individual requires one to execute a will to be properly vetted and probated. But that’s not always the case. 

A photo of probate and estate admin law book

This can save untold stress – emotional and financial – on your loved ones while they grieve. Having to worry about sorting out assets and paying inheritance taxes, among other fees can be reduced. 

Of course, the quickest and most extreme way to avoid probating your estate is to sell or otherwise get rid of all property in your name. Without any assets, there is nothing to probate. But let’s be real. This isn’t really practical in most cases. You need cash to live on until you die. You can also use a revocable living trust that covers you now (while you’re presumably alive and well), if you should become mentally incapacitated, and finally after your death. This isn’t as easy as it sounds either. All your assets need to be transferred into the name of the trust fund. You would then name beneficiaries to own the trust upon your death.

Another possibility is to use joint ownership with rights of survivorship. Basically, you’re adding a joint owner to a bank account or retirement fund, and registering it transfer on death (TOD). There are limitations to how effective a joint ownership can be in your circumstances. For example, Pennsylvania law does not permit TOD for real estate or vehicles. 

You can also use beneficiary designations on common assets like life insurance or retirement funds. This is probably one of the easiest ways to avoid probate. When you sign up for the account, simply designate a beneficiary at the same time (make sure to revisit these designations from time to time to ensure they’re still accurate!). 

While there are multiple ways to reduce the impact of estate taxes, only a tax attorney can help determine the best options for you. With more than 35 years of experience helping families minimize taxes and fees associated with collecting inheritances, we can help! Contact our office at 724-216-5180 or use our online form for more information. 

What Happens to Will in Probate?

A photo of probate and estate admin law book

Carrying on with our theme of processing wills after the death of a loved one, I thought it may help if we walk through the process of what exactly happens when a will goes to probate. Probate is just a fancy word to describe the process by which a will is reviewed by the court and accepted as a valid public document. 

Register of Wills will receive the petition and all information submitted to ‘prove’ its validity by their personal representative (or executor). This basically means that the will an executor has in their possession is a true reflection of the deceased’s last wishes. 

A few things to note here: the executor must provide notice of the filing for probate to all heirs, beneficiaries and known creditors; all funeral expenses, debts and taxes may be paid from the estate; and while the will is in probate, many expenses may need to be paid out of pocket while waiting for finalization from the court. 

Finalization can take several months to a year (or years), depending on complexities of the estate assets, any objections from beneficiaries or creditors, or the intricacies of business transactions.

As you can imagine, there are a few downsides to this traditional process. Aside from costs and slow processing times, probates become public record and potentially create family fights since a great deal of the decedent’s information is made public. 

Did you know it is possible, and in some cases preferable, to avoid probate or minimize its affect? My office can help you set up systems and accounts so that your heirs and beneficiaries can still receive the same assets with minimal cost and time determents, in additional to remaining private business amongst those involved. 

Call our office at 724-216-5180 or email us at john@jacochranlaw.com to discuss options on how to arrange your final affairs so that they work the best for everyone involved. 

Naming a Third-Party Administrator

a photo of will document
Sometimes closing out the legal affairs of a deceased loved one
isn’t as easy as following a clear last will and testament...

Over the last several blogs, we’ve been talking about the many ways that a will can be administered after the death of a loved ones.

We’ve talked about the responsibilities of a named executor and how to relinquish the role of executor if the named is unwilling or unable to do so. These are the most common forms of executing a will. In rare instances, there is a third option: an independent third-party assumes the roles and responsibilities of executor to administer the will. 

An independent administrator also can be named if the deceased did not have a will and there is not a clear next of kin to assume the role of administrator. And unfortunately, although you may rarely hear about this with ‘real’ families, the death of a patriarch or matriarch can cause very public disagreements among beneficiaries on inheritances that potentially make for a great circus. 

In these situations, it may make sense financially to name an unbiased third party to serve as administrator. Battles over estates can rage on for years in courts and potentially cost family members and benefactors more than their inheritance in legal fees, even if they do ‘win.’ 

An independent administrator could be a trusted attorney or another official mediator. In these cases, the administrator will either follow the instructions of the deceased’s will if there is one or distribute the estate according to applicable intestacy statutes in the absence of a valid will.

Before you choose an action, take the time to consider how different scenarios could play out. Speaking with someone who is an expert in estate law will help you make the most informed decisions. Call our office at 724-216-5180 or email us at john@jacochranlaw.com to learn about your legal options.

Estate Administration

During the loss of a loved one, serving as executor may not be something you feel you can do. Having an expert by your side to stand in can make a difficult time easier.

Administering the estate of someone who has died is not an easy process. Occasionally, there are more hurdles than usual for settling their estate. 

It’s common for problems to arise when there are multiple executors who do not get along or when a beneficiary does not agree with the actions of the named executor. More often, though, the named executor is not willing or able to serve in this role. In these cases, the best option is relinquish this responsibility. It’s important to remember that this has no bearing on the status of being a beneficiary of a will.

In the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, it is not difficult for someone to renounce their role as executor and hand over accountability to another individual; it only requires the completion of a simple form. 

Before you choose an action, take the time to consider how different scenarios could play out. Speaking with someone who is an expert in estate law will set your mind at ease and help you make the most informed decisions. Call our office at 724-216-5180 or email us at john@jacochranlaw.com to learn about your legal options.

How to Serve as an Estate Executor

a photo of a last will and testament

A loved one dies and you’re the executor of their will. Now what? 

Unlike the scenes laid out in movies, rarely is everyone gathered at the attorney’s office at once for a reading of the will, complete with gasps and tears at surprise announcements. It makes for great drama on the screen, but as you can imagine, real life is rarely that… interesting.

Hopefully the person who named you in the will told you they were doing so. Some people are caught off guard. Let’s assume you knew you were being asked to be an executor.  

What does that even mean? 

As executor, you are responsible for settling all of the debts of the departed, distributing items per their wishes and dividing the remaining material wealth amongst named beneficiaries. 

Step one is determining if the will needs to be probated and then filing the will in the appropriate local probate court. While there is not a time limit on when you must do this, the longer you hold off, the greater the chance additional problems will arise and thus unnecessarily complicate the estate’s administration. This can get tricky and you should definitely have an attorney help you navigate this. 

You’re also responsible for finding assets owned by the departed and safekeeping them. If other people have property, you’ll need to collect it… one way or another. Yes, this is also another step where it’s important to have an attorney at your side.

Further, you will need to contact any places where the departed had bank accounts, credit card accounts, and various insurance policies. You will also need to contact pension plans, the Social Security Administration, and any other government or private organization that paid them benefits. Then you will need to contact anyone in debt to the departed and collect on those debts. You’ll also need to pay any taxes the estate owes to be able to fully settle the estate.

After distributing property and/or selling off anything the beneficiaries do not want, the proceeds must be distributed accordingly and only then can the estate be closed. 

Easy-peasy, right? You can probably tell we’ve barely scratched the surface of what serving as executor of the will of a loved one can entail. If you’ve recently learned you’ve been named as executor, or want to plan for your future duties, preparing now can help make the entire process go much more smoothly. Call our office at 724-216-5180 or email us at john@jacochranlaw.com to get started.