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What Is a Fiduciary and a Fiduciary Duty?

First, a fiduciary duty is the requirement that certain professionals, like attorneys or financial advisors, work in the best financial interest of their clients. By law, members of some professions with clients are bound by fiduciary duty.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “What Is Fiduciary Duty?” explains that in a fiduciary relationship, the person who must prioritize their clients’ interests over their own is called the fiduciary. The person getting the services or assistance is called the beneficiary or principal.

You will frequently see a fiduciary relationship with certain types of professionals, like attorneys and financial advisors. A fiduciary duty is a serious obligation, and if a fiduciary doesn’t fulfill his or her duties, it’s known as a breach of fiduciary duty. Fiduciaries must act in a beneficiary’s best interest. They have two main duties: duty of care and duty of loyalty. Fiduciaries may have different or additional requirements, depending on their industry.

With the duty of care, fiduciaries must make informed business decisions after reviewing available information with a critical eye. Lawyers must act carefully in performing work for clients. Care is determined by the prevailing standards of professional competence in the relevant field of law and geographic region. To abide by the duty of loyalty, fiduciaries must not have any undisclosed economic or personal conflict of interest. They can’t use their positions to further their own private interests. For example, fiduciary financial advisors might adhere to the duty of loyalty by disclosing recommendations from which they’ll receive a commission.

Other common professions or positions that require fiduciary duties include directors of corporations and real estate agents, as well as those discussed below:

Trustee of a Trust. When you want your assets to transfer to someone after you die, you can put them into a trust. The trustee who’s in charge of the trust has a fiduciary duty to manage the trust and its assets in the best interests of the beneficiary who will one day inherit them.

Estate Personal Representative or Executor. The person who manages your estate and handles your affairs is your personal representative. He or she has a fiduciary responsibility to your heirs and next of kin to distribute the estate according to your wishes.

Lawyer. Your attorney must disclose any conflicts of interest and must work with your best interests in mind.

Financial Advisors. Financial advisors who are fiduciaries must act in the best interest of their clients and offer the lowest cost financial solutions to fit their clients’ needs. However, it important to note that not all financial advisors are fiduciaries.

Reference: Forbes (July 28, 2020) “What Is Fiduciary Duty?”

 

What Is Involved with Serving as a Personal Representative?

Serving as the personal representative (or executor) of a relative’s estate may seem like an honor, but it can also be a lot of work, says The (Fostoria, OH) Review Times’ recent article entitled “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate.”

As a personal representative of a will, you’re tasked with settling her affairs after she dies. This may sound rather easy, but you should be aware that the job can be time consuming and difficult, depending on the complexity of the decedent’s financial and family situation. Here are some of the required duties:

  • Filing court papers to initiate the probate process
  • Taking inventory of the decedent’s estate
  • Using the decedent’s estate funds to pay bills, taxes, and funeral costs
  • Taking care of canceling her credit cards and informing banks and government offices like Social Security and the post office of her death
  • Readying and filing her final income tax returns; and
  • Distributing assets to the beneficiaries named in the decedent’s will.

Every state has specific laws and deadlines for a personal representative’s responsibilities. To help you, work with an experienced estate planning attorney and take note of these reminders:

Get organized. Make certain that the decedent has an updated will and locate all her important documents and financial information. Quickly having access to her deeds, brokerage statements and insurance policies after she dies, will save you a lot of time and effort. With a complex estate, you may want to hire an experienced estate planning attorney to help you through the process. The estate will pay that expense.

Avoid conflicts. Investigate to see if there are any conflicts between the beneficiaries of the decedent’s estate. If there are some potential issues, you can make your job as personal representative much easier, if everyone knows in advance who’s getting what, and the decedent’s rationale for making those decisions. Ask your aunt to tell her beneficiaries what they can expect, even with her personal items because last wills often leave it up to the executor to distribute heirlooms. If there’s no distribution plan for personal property, she should write one.

Personal representative fees. You’re entitled to a personal representative fee paid by the estate. In Florida, personal representatives are allowed to take a percentage of the estate’s value, generally 3%, depending on the size of the estate. However, if you’re a beneficiary, it may make sense for you to forgo the fee because fees are taxable, and it could cause rancor among the other beneficiaries.

Reference: The (Fostoria, OH) Review Times (Aug. 19, 2020) “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate”

 

How Do I Keep My Spendthrift Son-in-Law from Getting the Money I Give my Daughter in My Estate?

Say that you were to name your daughter as the beneficiary on your Roth IRA and 401(k) accounts, as well as your house and other investments. Her husband would not be a beneficiary.

His only source of income is a monthly stipend that he receives from a trust and earned income from being a rideshare driver. He has at least $5,000 in credit card debt.

Can Mom use a “spendthrift trust” to prevent her son-in-law from inheriting or getting her money when she dies?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I protect my daughter’s inheritance from her husband?” explains that “spendthrift trusts” were created for this very reason.

Note first that retirement assets can’t be re-titled to a trust. However, a home can be, and investments can be, if they’re not tax deferred.

For assets that can’t be re-titled to the trust during your lifetime, you can name the trust as the payable-on-death (POD) beneficiary of those assets.

You also should take care in deciding on who you choose as a trustee.

In the situation above, depending on applicable law for your state of residence, the daughter may not be the sole trustee and the sole beneficiary under this form of trust arrangement. However, in all instances, a bank or attorney can be a co-trustee.

This trust arrangement ensures that assets distributed to the daughter aren’t commingled with the assets of her husband with extravagant tastes and an open checkbook. In addition, those assets would not be subject to equitable distribution in the event of a divorce.

If the daughter is the sole trustee over a spendthrift trust, then all the planning will be out the window, if the daughter does not agree to this set-up.

For example, if she takes distributions from the trust and deposits them in a joint account with her husband, the money is available for equitable distribution.

This means the daughter arguably has indicated that she does not think of her inheritance as a non-marital asset.

A divorce court would see it the same way and award a portion to the husband in a break-up.

Reference: nj.com (July 21, 2020) “Can I protect my daughter’s inheritance from her husband?”

 

Gifting Can Help Estate Plans and Heirs Reach Goals

The applicable exclusion amount for gift/estate tax purposes is $11.58 million in 2020, a level that makes incorporating gifting into estate plans very attractive for high net-worth families. If a donor’s taxable gift—one that does not qualify for the annual, medical or education exclusion—is in excess of this amount, or if the value of the donor’s aggregate taxable gifts is higher than this amount, the federal gift tax will be due by April 15 of the following year. The current gift tax rate is 40%.

This presents an opportunity, as described in detail in the article “The Case for Gifting Now (or At Least Planning for the Possibility” from The National Law Review.

If the exclusion is used during one’s lifetime, it reduces the amount of the exemption available at death to shelter property from the estate tax. With proper planning, spouses may currently gift or die with assets totally as much as $23.16 million, with no gift or federal estate tax.

To gain perspective on how high this exclusion is, in 2000-2001, the applicable exclusion amount was $675,000.

The exclusion amount will automatically decrease to approximately $6.5 million on January 1, 2026, unless changes are made by Congress before that time to continue the current exclusion amount. Now is a good time to have a conversation with your estate planning attorney about making gifts in advance of the scheduled decrease and/or any changes that may occur in the future. The following are reasons why this exemption may be lowered:

  • Trillions of dollars in federal stimulus spending necessitated by the COVID-19 pandemic and the severe economic downturn in the U.S.
  • Past precedent of passing tax legislation mid-year and applying it retroactively to January 1.
  • A possible change in party control for the presidency and/or the Senate
  • The use of the budget reconciliation process to pass changes to taxes.

In the 100-plus year history of the estate tax, the exemption has never gone down. However, the exemption has also never been this high. The possibility of a compressed timeframe for family business owners and wealthy individuals to implement lifetime gifts before any legislative change may make a tidal wave of gifting transactions challenging between now and December 31, 2020. Now is the time to start planning and take action to utilize the exclusion amount.

Reference: The National Review (Aug. 20, 2020) “The Case for Gifting Now (or At Least Planning for the Possibility”

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Trusts: The Swiss Army Knife of Estate Planning

Trusts serve many different purposes in estate planning. They all have the intent to protect the assets placed within the trust. The type of trust determines what the protection is, and from whom it is protected, says the article “Trusts are powerful tools which can come in many forms,” from The News Enterprise. To understand how trusts protect, start with the roles involved in a trust.

The person who creates the trust is called a “grantor” or “settlor.” The individuals or organizations receiving the benefit of the property or assets in the trust are the “beneficiaries.” There are two basic types of beneficiaries: present interest beneficiaries and “future interest” beneficiaries. The beneficiary, by the way, can be the same person as the grantor, for their lifetime, or it can be other people or entities.

The person who is responsible for the property within the trust is the “trustee.” This person is responsible for caring for the assets in the trust and following the instructions of the trust. The trustee can be the same person as the grantor, as long as a successor is in place when the grantor/initial trustee dies or becomes incapacitated. However, a grantor cannot gain asset protection through a trust, where the grantor controls the trust and is the principal recipient of the trust.

One way to establish asset protection during the lifetime of the grantor is with an irrevocable trust. Someone other than the grantor must be the trustee, and the grantor should not have any control over the trust. The less power a grantor retains, the greater the asset protection.

One additional example is if a grantor seeks lifetime asset protection but also wishes to retain the right to income from the trust property and provide a protected home for an adult child upon the grantor’s death. Very specific provisions within the trust document can be drafted to accomplish this particular task.

There are many other options that can be created to accomplish the specific goals of the grantor.

Some trusts are used to protect assets from taxes, while others ensure that an individual with special needs will be able to continue to receive needs-tested government benefits and still have access to funds for costs not covered by government benefits.

An estate planning attorney will have a thorough understanding of the many different types of trusts and which one would best suit each individual situation and goal.

Reference: The News Enterprise (July 25, 2020) “Trusts are powerful tools which can come in many forms”

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Should I Let The State Write My Will?

It’s a common question asked of estate planning attorneys: “Do I Really Need A Will?” This article in The Sun explains that the answer is “yes.” If you die without a will or “intestate,” the probate laws of the state will determine who will receive the assets in your estate. Of course, that may not be how you wanted things to go. That’s why you need a will.

When you die, your assets (i.e., your “estate”) are distributed to family and loved ones in your estate plan, if there is no surviving joint owner or designated beneficiary (e.g., life insurance, annuities, and retirement plans). No matter the complexity, a will is a key component of the plan.

A will allows you make decisions about the distribution of your assets, such as your real estate, personal property, investments and any businesses. You can make donations to your favorite charities or a religious organization. Your will is also important, if you have minor children: it’s where you nominate a guardian to care for them if you die.

Of course, you can write your own will or pay for a program on the Internet, but it’s better to have one prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney. Prior to sitting down with an attorney, make a listing of all your assets (your home, real estate, bank accounts, retirement plans, personal property and life insurance policies). If you have prized possessions or family heirlooms, be sure to also detail these.

Make a list of all debts, such as your mortgage, auto loans and credit cards. You should also collect contact information for all immediate living family members, detailing their addresses and birth dates.

When meeting with an attorney, ask about other components of an estate plan, such as a power of attorney and health care directive.

The originals of these documents should be kept in a safe place, where they can be easily accessed by your estate administrator or personal representative.

You should also review your estate plan every few years and at significant points in your life, like marriage, divorce, the adoption or birth of a child, death of a beneficiary and divorce.

Do your homework, then visit an experienced estate planning attorney to receive important planning insights from their experience working with estate plans and families.

Reference: The (Jonesboro, AR) Sun (July 15, 2020) “Do I Really Need A Will?”

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How Do I Handle Inheritance?

The loss of a close loved one can make it very hard to think clearly and function effectively. Add to that the fact that you may have to make important decisions about an inheritance, and it can be an overwhelming time.

Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “5 Considerations for Managing an Inheritance” discusses some ways to be a responsible steward of the money you’ve received and how to best integrate new funds into your larger financial plan.

  1. Stop and organize your thoughts. After the funeral or memorial service, take time to grieve and reflect on the loss of your loved one. You should also not make any sudden, large changes to your life, if you’ve inherited a considerable amount of money or a valuable asset. After some time has passed, you should speak with the estate’s executor or court-appointed administrator about next steps.
  2. Create a plan and act on it. While the executor is tasked with winding up the deceased’s affairs, you might ask if you can help with an inventory of his or her assets in the estate. This should include both probate (assets without a named beneficiary) and non-probate (assets with a named beneficiary). It’s helpful to make sure that you verify and then cancel your loved one’s subscription services and recurring household expenses (i.e., cable and electric). The executor will make that decision, but you may be able to help with some phone calls or emails to these companies. After the estate’s final expenses are paid, you should create an action plan and assign responsibilities. You’ll then be ready when the executor distributes the estate assets to heirs.
  3. Integrate to avoid mental accounting. After time has passed and you’ve received your inheritance, any new funds should be integrated into your own financial plan, as if it were earned income. If you don’t yet have a written financial plan, talk to a fee-only financial planner who charges by the hour or on a fixed-rate.
  4. Make certain that your financial priorities are met. Your inheritance creates a critical chance to possibly change the trajectory of your net worth. You might use it to pay off or reduce long-standing debts, like student loans. Build your emergency fund — at least six months’ worth of living expenses — that will cushion you from unforeseen circumstances (like this pandemic!). You should also make sure that Roth contributions are made for the year.
  5. Get creative! If you’ve inherited non-financial assets, like a car, artwork or antiques, you should make sure you know their value and decide whether you’ll keep or sell them. You might also swap an item with another heir, or if you aren’t ready to absolutely part with an inherited item, you might offer them to other family or friends. It can be nice to know that an unused item is being put to good use by people you know. Another option is to repurpose the item or donate it.

Losing a close loved one is difficult enough, but the need to wisely manage your inheritance will be a big task. Follow these steps to help with that process.

Reference: Motley Fool (Aug. 8, 20020) “5 Considerations for Managing an Inheritance”

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Why Not Claim Social Security at 62?

If you’re getting close to age 62 and thinking about filing for benefits, there are a few things you need to know before you act, so you don’t later regret your choice.

Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “3 Reasons Retirees May Regret Claiming Social Security at 62” explains that there are three reasons why you may regret getting your checks when you turned 62.

1.You outlive your life expectancy. Social Security is designed in theory for you to get the same income over your lifetime, no matter if you begin getting benefits early, claim them late, or start them on time. Early filers receive more but smaller checks, because of early filing penalties. Late claimers get fewer and bigger checks, because they don’t claim them until they’re older. However, everyone dies on schedule, and if you outlive your projected lifespan and you claimed Social Security at 62, each month you live beyond your life expectancy, is a month in which you miss out on extra income. Your total lifetime benefits could end up much larger, if you receive a lot of checks beyond the point when you would’ve broken even for delaying benefits.

  1. Your medical care is too expensive. Medical care is very expensive for many retirees. There is out-of-pocket spending for Medicare premiums and prescription drug costs that aren’t covered. Many of these substantial healthcare costs are incurred late in retirement, when your health has started to decline. Unfortunately, for many, their investment account balances are low at this point after years of withdrawals. If you find that your savings are running short and you can’t afford costly care, you may regret that you claimed your money early and minimized the amount of your Social Security checks.
  2. Your spouse winds up with lower survivor benefits. If you’re the higher-earning spouse, taking your Social Security benefit may potentially result in leaving your spouse in a pinch, if you die first. That’s because filing at 62 would mean lower survivor benefits. You should think about the effect on your spouse, if you file benefits ahead of schedule.

Ask an attorney to work the numbers for you. In some cases, for married couples, it’s frequently best for a lower earner to begin their benefits early, if the money is needed for household income.  The higher earner can then wait to claim benefits as long as possible—ideally to age 70—to maximize the survivor benefits.

Take your time and think carefully about when to claim benefits. You don’t want to regret your choice, especially if it’s at 62.

Once you claim your Social Security benefits early, your income is going to be smaller for the rest of your life, unless you can undo your claim. You don’t want to look back and wish you’d waited or regret not considering all of the ramifications of starting benefits at 62. Even so, you may determine that claiming right away at age 62 still makes sense. However, understand the negatives before you make this choice.

Reference: Motley Fool (Aug. 17, 2020) “3 Reasons Retirees May Regret Claiming Social Security at 62”

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How to Make Beneficiary Designations Better

Beneficiary designations supersede all other estate planning documents, so getting them right makes an important difference in achieving your estate plan goals. Mistakes with beneficiary designations can undo even the best plan, says a recent article “5 Retirement Plan Beneficiary Mistakes to Avoid” from The Street. Periodically reviewing beneficiary forms, including confirming the names in writing with plan providers for workplace plans and IRA custodians, is important.

Post-death changes, if they can be made (which is rare), are expensive and generally involve litigation or private letter rulings from the IRS. Avoiding these five commonly made mistakes is a better way to go.

1—Neglecting to name a beneficiary. If no beneficiary is named for a retirement plan, the estate typically becomes the beneficiary. In the case of IRAs, language in the custodial agreement will determine who gets the assets. The distribution of the retirement plan is accelerated, which means that the assets may need to be completely withdrawn in as little as five years, if death occurs before the decedent’s required beginning date for taking required minimum distributions (RMDs).

With no beneficiary named, retirement plans become probate accounts and transferring assets to heirs becomes subject to delays and probate fees. Assets might also be distributed to people you didn’t want to be recipients.

2—Naming the estate as the beneficiary. The same issues occur here, as when no beneficiary is named. The asset’s distributions will be accelerated, and the plan will become a probate account. As a general rule, estates should never be named as a beneficiary.

3—Not naming a spouse as a primary beneficiary. The ability to stretch out the distribution of retirement plans ended when the SECURE Act was passed. It still allows for lifetime distributions, but this only applies to certain people, categorized as “Eligible Designated Beneficiaries” or “EDBs.” This includes surviving spouses, minor children, disabled or special needs individuals, chronically ill people and individuals who are not more than ten years younger than the retirement plan’s owner. If your heirs do not fall into this category, they are subject to a ten-year rule. They have only ten years to withdraw all assets from the account(s).

If your goal is to maximize the distribution period and you are married, the best beneficiary is your spouse. This is also required by law for company plans subject to ERISA, a federal law that governs employee benefits. If you want to select another beneficiary for a workplace plan, your spouse will need to sign a written spousal consent agreement. IRAs are not subject to ERISA and there is no requirement to name your spouse as a beneficiary.

4—Not naming contingent beneficiaries. Without contingency, or “backup beneficiaries,” you risk having assets being payable to your estate, if the primary beneficiaries predecease you. Those assets will become part of your probate estate and your wishes about who receives the asset may not be fulfilled.

5—Failure to revise beneficiaries when life changes occur. Beneficiary designations should be checked whenever there is a review of the estate plan and as life changes take place. This is especially true in the case of a divorce or separation.

Any account that permits a beneficiary to be named should have paperwork completed, reviewed periodically and revised. This includes life insurance and annuity beneficiary forms, trust documents and pre-or post-nuptial agreements.

Reference: The Street (Aug. 11, 2020) “5 Retirement Plan Beneficiary Mistakes to Avoid”

Suggested Key Terms: Surviving Spouses, Beneficiary Designations, Contingent, Estate Planning Attorney, ERISA, Eligible Designated Beneficiaries EDBs, Probate, Retirement Plans, Required Minimum Distributions

What Does Pandemic Estate Planning Look Like?

In the pandemic, it’s a good idea to know your affairs are in order. If you already have an estate plan, it may be time to review it with an experienced estate planning attorney, especially if your family’s had a marriage, divorce, remarriage, new children or grandchildren, or other changes in personal or financial circumstances. The Pointe Vedra Recorder’s article entitled “Estate planning during a pandemic: steps to take” explains some of the most commonly used documents in an estate plan:

Will. This basic estate planning document is what you use to state how you want your assets to be distributed after your death. You name an executor to coordinate the distribution and name a guardian to take care of minor children.

Financial power of attorney: This legal document allows you to name an agent with the authority to conduct your financial affairs, if you’re unable. You let them pay your bills, write checks, make deposits and sell or purchase assets.

Living trust: This lets you leave assets to your heirs, without going the probate process. A living trust also gives you considerable flexibility in dispersing your estate. You can instruct your trustee to pass your assets to your beneficiaries immediately upon your death or set up more elaborate directions to distribute the assets over time and in amounts you specify.

Health care proxy: This is also called a Designation of Health Care Surrogate. It is a legal document that designates an individual to act for you, if you become incapacitated. Similar to the financial power of attorney, your agent has the power to speak with your doctors, manage your medical care and make medical decisions for you, if you can’t.

Living will: This is also known as an advance health care directive. It provides information about the types of end-of-life treatment you do or don’t want, if you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious.

These are the basics. However, there may be other things to look at, based on your specific circumstances. Consult with an experienced estate planning attorney about tax issues, titling property correctly and a host of other things that may need to be addressed to take care of your family. Pandemic estate planning may sound morbid in these tough times, but it’s a good time to get this accomplished.

Reference: Pointe Vedra (Beach, FL) Recorder (July 16, 2020) “Estate planning during a pandemic: steps to take”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Wills, Probate Court, Inheritance, Asset Protection, Guardianship, Executor, Revocable Living Trust, Power of Attorney, Healthcare Directive, Living Will, Probate Attorney, Estate Tax