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Helping clients plan for their family's future, by creating an efficient, thoughtful and comprehensive estate plan that preserves their legacy and gives them peace of mind.

Digital Assets and Estate Planning

Today’s estate plan needs to expressly declare an “agent” or a “fiduciary” to gain access and control of “digital assets” in case of incapacity or death. If your estate plan has not been updated in the last four or five years, it’s likely that your digital assets are unprotected, advises the article “Properly addressing digital assets on your estate plan” from Southern Nevada Business Weekly.

Digital assets have value not only to owners, but to family members, beneficiaries and heirs. Some assets have sentimental value, like videos and photos, while others, like business records, URLs and gaming accounts, have financial value. Failing to address these issues in an estate plan could result in your executor and heirs being denied access and control of these assets during incapacity or death.

Here are some examples of digital assets:

  • Email accounts–contain communications and history, including information about other digital assets.
  • Social media accounts/apps: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, etc.
  • Photo Sharing Accounts: Instagram, Shutterfly, Snapfish, Flickr, etc.
  • Gaming and Gambling Accounts/Apps: DraftKings, Esports Entertainment
  • E-Commerce Accounts/Apps: Amazon, PayPal, Etsy, PayPal, Venmo, etc.
  • Financial Accounts/Apps: Banks, Scottrade, E*Trade
  • Retail Accounts: Any store, online shopping that has a username and a password
  • Security Information: Two factor authentication, mobile phone PIN/PW, facial recognition, etc.

Here’s a little-known fact: without the proper legal authority to access these assets, the “agent” or “fiduciary” could be committing a crime. The Consumer Fraud and Abuse Act provides that it is a federal crime to access a computer and obtain information without authorization or when exceeding authorized access.

Most states have adopted the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA 2017). The Act contains specific language to be used in wills, trusts or power of attorney to name a “designated recipient” or “fiduciary” to access, control, transfer, or close digital assets upon incapacity or after death. RUFADDA also provides specific procedures for companies to disclose digital assets to a designated recipient or fiduciary.

If your estate planning assets do not address the issue of digital assets or do not use the specific language of RUFADDA, or generally if your estate planning documents were created before 2017, it’s time for a review that includes digital assets.

Even if all you have is a personal email account, you have digital assets to protect. It’s not a big problem to address them in your estate plan but can become a bigger program if they are neglected.

Let us help you make sure your digital assets are covered in your estate plan.

Reference: Southern Nevada Business Weekly (Sep. 17, 2020)“Properly addressing digital assets on your estate plan”

 

Social Security in 2021

Issues for Social Security in 2021 include the annual cost-of-living adjustment (COLA) for benefits to be 1.3%, which is a small but significant increase for millions of beneficiaries. They’ll see a raise in their monthly payments beginning in January 2021. However, the benefits increase isn’t the only change coming next year, according to AARP’s October article entitled “Biggest Social Security Changes for 2021.” Some of the biggest changes affecting Social Security recipients in 2021, including the average monthly benefits in 2021 (+ difference from 2020):

  • Retired worker: $1,543 (+$20)
  • Retired couple: $2,596 (+$33)
  • Widow or widower: $1,453 (+$19)
  • Widow with two children: $3,001 (+$39)
  • Disabled worker: $1,277 (+$16)
  • Disabled worker w/ spouse, children: $2,224 (+$29)
  • SSI for individual: $794 (+$11)
  • SSI for couple: $1,191 (+$16)

The 1.3% COLA that starts in January was calculated based on the year-over-year rate of inflation. It’s the difference between the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners (CPI-W), a government measurement of prices typically paid for a basket of goods and services, in the third quarter of 2019 and the third quarter of 2020. The modest increase signals the relatively low rate of inflation over the past year. When there’s no change in the index, or if prices have fallen year over year, there’s no COLA.

For the average retired worker, the monthly Social Security in 2021 benefit will go up by $20 to $1,543 in January from $1,523 this year. For the average retired couple who both collect benefits, the payment will rise by $33 to $2,596, up from $2,563, and for the average disabled worker, monthly benefits will increase by $16 to $1,277 from $1,261. The maximum Social Security check for a person retiring at full retirement age will rise to $3,148 a month in 2021 from $3,011 — an increase of $137.

The payroll tax that funds Social Security in 2021 is set at 12.4% on eligible wages. Employees pay 6.2%, and employers pay the other half. Self-employed workers pay the whole 12.4%. The money paid in by today’s workers goes to cover current benefits, with any excess going into the Social Security trust fund.

A recent change in law states that the new Medicare premium will be less than previously projected, which preserves part of the COLA for most beneficiaries. Initially, higher emergency Medicare spending due to COVID-19 was expected to lead to very high Medicare premiums in 2021. Most beneficiaries would have seen their COLA wiped out by Part B premium increases, if the law hadn’t been changed.

Those who get Supplemental Security Income (SSI) that helps some individuals with little or no income meet basic living needs, will also see a 1.3% rise in their monthly benefits. For the average individual, that means $11 more a month, to $794 from $783. The average couple gets $16 more a month, to $1,191 from $1,175. SSI is funded by general tax revenue, not Social Security payroll taxes.  These are just a few of the changes for Social Security in 2021.

Let us help you with your estate planning.

Reference: AARP (Oct. 28, 2020) “Biggest Social Security Changes for 2021”

Suggested Key Terms: Disability, Social Security, Supplemental Security Income, Social Security Disability Insurance

When Parents Move In

When parents move into someone else’s household, 14% of the homeowners were the parent of the head of household in 2017. That number is an increase from 7% in 1995, according to the Pew Research Center.

“While the rise in shared living during and immediately after the recession was attributed in large part to a growing number of millennials moving back in with their parents, the longer-term increase has been partially driven by a different phenomenon: parents moving in with their adult children,” according to the Pew report.

US News and World Report’s recent article entitled “When Your Elderly Parents Move In With You” says that if your children also return home after college, you might wind up supporting your children and your parents at the same time.

The critical thing to do is to make a plan. Discuss your goals, the finances and the possibilities, which includes in-home care or nursing home care. Let’s look at how to care for aging parents in your home.

Get Financially Prepared. When parents move in, it will add new costs to your budget. In addition to health care for aging parents, the most disruptive implications are often the financial cost of supporting another dependent and having the space to accommodate them in the household. Talk about whether your parent will be contributing Social Security income or other retirement assets toward household expenses.

Think About Hiring Extra Help. Caring for a parent with significant health problems who needs help with basic living tasks can quickly become overwhelming for an adult child with children and work responsibilities. An aging parent might need around-the-clock care. A home health aide could be brought in during work hours or there’s also adult day health care services. However, these costs can add up. It’s not uncommon for the child who is caring for a parent to scale back his or her own career to accomplish both tasks.

Plan Before They Move In. Begin the discussion about the transition as early as you can. It can be doubly stressful to be executing a move in the middle of a crisis or urgent situation, like a health emergency or the death of a parent.

Remember that when parents move in, it often means you may need to schedule their activities and medical appointments. This can take time away from normal family routines.

Let us help you plan your estate.

Reference: US News and World Report (Aug. 30, 2020) “When Your Elderly Parents Move In With You”

Suggested Key Terms: Elder Law Attorney, Disability, Supplemental Security Income, Elder Care, Caregiving, Elder Care

How to Catch Up on Retirement Savings

Many workers need to catch up on retirement savings because they haven’t created any plans to save for their retirement. However, you can start turning that situation around now. Money Talks News’ recent article entitled “The 7 Fastest Ways to Catch Up on Retirement Savings” says that, even if you can’t add to retirement savings at the moment, here are some ideas to plan for how you’ll address this shortfall, when you’re back on your feet financially.

Review your budget. If you need more money for retirement savings, change your budget. Make certain that all your money is identified and working for you. Reduce or cut expenses that prevent you from achieving goals.

“Catch up” your 401(k). If you are over 50, take advantage of the ‘catch-up contribution’ in your 401(k). In 2020, the base limit for contributions to workplace retirement accounts is $19,500. In addition, starting at age 50, workers with a 401(k) plan can contribute an extra $6,500 per year. If you have an IRA — either traditional or Roth — you can contribute $6,000, plus an extra $1,000 beginning at age 50.

Leverage all investment opportunities. When you invest in your 401(k), put enough in to at least get any full employer matching funds. There are also employers that match contributions to a health savings account, which can be a great hidden way to save for retirement. You can also maximize IRA contributions (Roth or traditional), depending on what is possible given your income. Any money left over can be invested it in a taxable account.

Bolster your earnings. If you’re behind in saving for retirement, you might need to boost your earnings more quickly. To earn more income, consider changing jobs, get training to update your skills, or finding a side gig. If income doesn’t grow over time, it’s hard to have savings strategies accelerate retirement success.

Be wise with raises and windfalls. When you get a raise, split the amount and put half in a checking account and half toward retirement savings.

Minimize your spending. This can be the toughest part, but it’s also perhaps the most important. Reducing spending increases your savings, and it also teaches you to live with less. If you learn to live more modestly, you won’t need to save as much to continue your lifestyle in retirement. If you’re unsure where all your money is going, monitor your spending. List all the expenses and track them over time. When you know where your money is going, you’ll have the information needed to determine if there are places where spending can be diverted to savings.

Make a “mortgage payment” after the house is paid off. If you’ve worked hard to pay off the mortgage, save the money that was budgeted for the house. Save it in an investment account to use for retirement spending. Do the same when you pay off a car loan and watch your wealth grow.  We can help you with your estate planning in retirement.

Reference: Money Talks News (Oct. 8, 2020) “The 7 Fastest Ways to Catch Up on Retirement Savings”

 

Special Needs Trusts

The most frequently used tool to protect and care for children with special needs after both parents has passed is a special needs trust (SNT), says Forbes in its article entitled “Making Trusts for Special Needs Children.” An SNT is a legal instrument used to provide benefits to an individual with special needs, while also maintaining that person’s ability to receive state or federal benefits assistance. The trust is usually created by a parent or guardian, with the special needs child as the beneficiary.

A third-party trustee is often appointed. That person or institution has authority to make disbursements from the assets in the trust on behalf of the beneficiary. This trust lets parents make sure that their child with special needs has his or her needs met after the parents pass away.

Some government benefits used by a person with special needs—such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid are “means tested.” That means they are only available to those who themselves have limited income or assets. If a parent wants to provide support to a child with special needs after the parent’s death, those assets must pass correctly to ensure that the assets don’t cause that child to directly own the assets and thereby lose their government eligibility for the benefits.

Again, any assets left directly to the beneficiary without use of an SNT could disrupt the beneficiary’s receipt of benefits, taking money and support away from the beneficiary.

The most common of these trusts is a third-party SNT. This trust is funded by family members of the beneficiary to make certain that there are specific assets set aside for the beneficiary’s utility bills, education, entertainment, or most other regular expenses.

There are also first-party trusts, where the trust is established with the assets owned directly by the child with special needs. This can result when the child with special needs receives an inheritance, life insurance payout, or personal injury settlement directly, which may impact their existing benefits.

There are also pooled trusts, which are trusts that are managed by a nonprofit organization. With a pooled trust, the grantor doesn’t have to name a trustee, especially one who may not have experience in managing trust assets. Consequently, the assets are held for the benefit of the child with special needs, but they are managed by an organization with expertise in doing just that.

An ABLE account is another option. They’re not trusts, but they allow up to $15,000 a year to be earmarked for the benefit of a person with special needs. The distribution rules are similar to those of a SNT.

There is significant complexity with the laws surrounding SNTs, so you should work with an experienced estate planning attorney or elder law attorney.  Let us help you design a special needs trust.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 10, 2020) “Making Trusts for Special Needs Children”

 

The Death of a Spouse

It probably is the last thing on your mind, but there are tasks that must be accomplished after the death of a spouse. You might want to ask for help and advice from a trusted family member, friend, or adviser to sort things out and provide you with emotional guidance.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Checklist: Steps to Take after Your Spouse Dies” provides a checklist to help guide you through the most important tasks you need to complete:

Don’t make any big decisions. It’s not a good time to make any consequential financial decisions. You may wish to sell a home or other property that reminds you of your spouse, but you should wait. You should also refrain from making any additional investments or large purchases—especially if you weren’t actively involved in your family’s finances before the death.

Get certified copies of the death certificate. You’ll need certified copies of your spouse’s death certificate for any benefit claims or to switch over accounts into your name. Ask the funeral home for no fewer than 12 copies. You also may need certified marriage certificates to prove you were married to your late spouse.

Talk to your spouse’s employer. If your spouse was working when he or she passed, contact the employer to see if there are any benefits to which you are entitled, such as a 401(k) or employer-based insurance policy. If you and your dependents’ medical insurance was through your spouse’s job, find out how long the coverage will be in effect and begin making other arrangements.

Contact your spouse’s insurance company and file a claim.  After the death of a spouse, get the documentation in order prior to contacting the insurance company and make certain that you understand the benefit options to claim a life insurance benefit.

Probate the estate. Get a hold of the will. Contact the attorney for help in settling the estate. If your spouse didn’t have a will, it will be more complicated.  However, the death of a spouse may reveal that many if not all assets are held as tenants by the entireties which has rights of survivorship and doesn’t require probate. Reach out to an experienced estate planning attorney or elder law attorney for advice in this situation.

Collect all financial records. Begin collecting financial records, including bank records, bills, credit card statements, tax returns, insurance policies, mortgages, loans and retirement accounts. If your spouse wasn’t organized, this might take some time. You may be required to contact companies directly and provide proof of the death of a spouse, before being able to gain access to the accounts.

Transfer accounts and cancel credit cards. If your spouse was the only name on an account, like a utility, change the name if you want to keep the service or close the account. Get a copy of your spouse’s credit reports, so you’ll know of any debts in your spouse’s name. Request to have a notification in the credit report that says “Deceased — do not issue credit.” That way new credit won’t be taken out in the spouse’s name.

Contact government offices. Have your spouse’s Social Security number available and call the Social Security Administration office to determine what’s required to get survivor benefits. Do this as soon as possible to avoid long delays before you get your next Social Security payment. You may also qualify for a one-time death benefit of $255. If your spouse served in the armed forces, you may be eligible for additional benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs. Therefore, contact your local office.

Change your emergency contact information. Change any of your or your family members’ emergency contact info that had your spouse’s name or number listed as someone else’s primary point of contact.

This checklist is a good way to help with the pressing tasks. You can also contact an estate planning attorney or elder law attorney for help.

Reference: Kiplinger (Aug. 27, 2020) “Checklist: Steps to Take after Your Spouse Dies”

 

Inheriting a Mortgage

Many people are unprepared to address the issue of inheriting a mortgage.  When a loved one dies, there are always questions about wills, inheritances and how to manage all of their legal and financial affairs. It’s worse if there’s no will and no estate planning has been done. This recent Bankrate article, “Does the home you inherited include a mortgage?,” says that things can get even more complicated when there’s a mortgage on the inherited house.

Heirs often inherit the family home. However, if it comes with a mortgage, you’ll want to work with an estate planning attorney. If there are family members who could become troublesome, if houses are located in different states or if there’s a lot of money in the estate, it’s better to have the help of an experienced professional.

Death does not mean the mortgage goes away. Heirs need to decide how to manage the loan payments, even if their plan is to sell the house. If there are missing payments, there may be penalties added onto the late payment. Worse, you may not know about inheriting a mortgage until after a few payments have gone unpaid.

Heirs inheriting a mortgage do have several options:

If the plan is for the heirs to move into the home, they may be able to assume the mortgage and continue paying it. There is also the option to do a cash-out refinance and pay that way.

If you plan to sell the home, which might make it easier if no one in the family wants to live in the home, paying off the mortgage by using the proceeds from the sale is usually the way to go. If there is enough money in the estate account to pay the mortgage while the home is on the market, that money will come out of everyone’s share. Here again, the help of an estate planning attorney will be valuable.

Heirs have certain leverage, when dealing with a mortgage bank in an estate situation. There are certain protections available that will give you some leeway as the estate is settling. More good news—the chance of owing federal estate taxes right now is pretty small. An estate must be worth at least $11.58 million, before the federal estate tax is due.

There are still 17 states and Washington D.C. that will want payment of a state estate tax, an inheritance tax or both. There also might be capital gains tax liability from the sale of the home.

If you decide to take over the loan, the lender should be willing to work with you. The law allows heirs to assume a loan, especially when the transfer of property is to a relative, because the borrower has died. Surviving spouses have special protections to ensure that they can keep an inherited home, as long as they can afford it. In many states, this is done by holding title by “tenancy by the entireties.”

When there is a reverse mortgage on the property, options include paying off or refinancing the balance and keeping the home, selling the home for at least 95% of the appraised value, or agreeing to a deed in lieu of foreclosure. There is a window of time for the balance to be repaid, which may be extended, if the heir is actively engaged with the lender to pay the debt. However, if a year goes by and the reverse mortgage is not paid off, the lender must begin the foreclosure process.

Nothing changes if the heir inheriting a mortgage is a surviving spouse, but if the borrower who dies had an unmarried partner, they have limited options, unless they are on the loan.

What if the mortgage is “underwater,” meaning that the value of the inherited home is less than the outstanding mortgage debt? If the mortgage is a non-recourse loan, meaning the borrower does not have to pay more than the value of the home, then the lender has few options outside of foreclosure. This is also true with a reverse mortgage. Heirs are fully protected, if the home isn’t worth enough to pay off the entire balance.

If there is no will, things get extremely complicated. Contact an estate planning attorney as soon as possible.

Reference: Bankrate (Oct. 22, 2020) “Does the home you inherited include a mortgage?”

 

Estate Planning in a Pandemic

What is unique about estate planning in a pandemic?  The fear of the unknown and a sense of loss of control is sending many people to estate planning attorney’s offices to have wills, advance directives and other documents prepared, reports the article “Legal lessons from a pandemic: What you can plan for” from The Press-Enterprise.

However, people are not just planning because they are worried about becoming incapacitated or dying because of COVID. High net-worth people are also planning because they are concerned about the changes the election may bring, changes to what are now historically advantageous estate tax laws and planning to take advantage of tax laws, as they stand pre-December 31, 2020.

Regardless of your income or assets, it is always good to take control of your future and protect yourself and your family, by having an up-to-date estate plan in place. Anyone who is over age 18 needs the following:

  • Health Care Directive
  • Power of Attorney
  • HIPPA Release Form
  • Last Will and Testament

Any assets without beneficiary designations should be considered for a trust, depending upon your overall estate. Trusts can be used to take assets out of a taxable estate, establish control over how the assets are distributed and to avoid probate. You don’t have to be wealthy to benefit from the use of trusts.

Preparing estate planning documents in a last-minute rush, is always a terrible idea.  Especially estate planning in a pandemic.

If you have more free time during the pandemic, consider using some of your free time to have your estate plan implemented or updated. This should be a top priority. The state of the world right now has all of us thinking more about our mortality, our values and the legacy we want to leave behind. Most estate planning attorneys encourage clients to think about the next three to five years. What would be important to you, if something were to happen in that time frame?

Estate planning is about more than distributing assets upon death. It addresses incapacity—what would happen if you became too ill or injured to care for yourself? Who would make medical decisions for you, such as what kind of medical care would you want, who will your doctors be and where will you live in the short-term and long-term? Incapacity planning is a big part of an estate plan.

When naming people to care for you in the event of incapacity, provide your estate planning attorney with three names, in case your first or second choices are not able to act on your behalf. Most people name their spouse, but what if you were both in an accident and could not help each other?

In recent months, Advance Health Care Directives have received a lot of attention, but they are not just about ventilator use and intubation. An Advance Health Care Directive is used to state your preferences concerning life-sustaining treatment, pain relief and organ donation. The agent named in your health care directive is also the person who will carry out post-death wishes, so provide as many details as you can about your wishes for cremation, burial, religious services, etc.

Trusts are a way to preserve a family legacy. A living trust gives you the ability to decide who you want involved, in case of your death or incapacity. You decide on your beneficiaries, and if you want your assets going directly to those beneficiaries or if they should be held in trust until certain goals are met, like finishing college or reaching a certain age or life milestone.

You can see that estate planning in a pandemic is not much different than during normal times.  The need is always there.

Your estate planning attorney will help you clarify family legacy goals, whether they include a beneficiary with special needs, a supplement for children who go into public service careers, etc.  Let us help you with your planning.

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (Oct. 18, 2020) “Legal lessons from a pandemic: What you can plan for”

 

Myths About Probate

The Pauls Valley Daily Democrat’s recent article entitled “It doesn’t end with the will” explains that there’s constant confusion about wills. This misunderstanding involves the scope of power of those named in the will as the personal representative (or executor) of the decedent’s estate. Let’s try to straighten out some of these myths or pieces of bad information about wills and probate.

The Personal Representative Doesn’t Need Court Permission. False. An estate executor or personal representative can’t distribute a decedent’s assets to themselves or to any heirs, until okayed by the court. Many people think that a will provides immediate authorization to distribute the assets of an estate.

If He had a Will, We Don’t need Probate. Another myth about probate is that if a person dies with a will, probate isn’t needed or required. If a person has a will, the will and the distributions named in it can only be made valid by the probate court. There are ways to avoid the probate process. However, having a will isn’t one of them.

The Personal Representative Can Start Giving Away Stuff ASAP. This is also false. Some people think that as soon as a person receives appointment as the personal representative or executor from the probate court, they can begin distributing assets from the decedent’s estate. Nope. If this were true, it would defeat the objectives of probate, which is court oversight and control.

The Court Doesn’t Monitor the Personal Representative’s Actions. This statement is also a myth about probate. The entire probate process is structured to provide a court monitored coordination of a decedent’s estate to make certain that his or her wishes are followed. This also helps to prevent unauthorized distributions or “raids” on a decedent’s assets by improper persons.

Remember, the executor’s Letters Testamentary authorize that person to act for the estate—they don’t permit any distributions before court approval or final probate court order.

What Does Probate Do? Probate fulfills these purposes:

  • At death, the deceased’s property is subject to control and monitoring by the court.
  • The court then starts to see what the decedent’s wishes were for distribution and who was named to administer the estate.
  • The court must also review the scope of the estate, define all assets in the estate and determine all debts of the estate.
  • Probate requires a notice to creditors, so the executor has a complete list of debts of the estate and to give each creditor the opportunity to be paid.
  • The court watches any transfers, sales of assets or payments during probate.
  • The executor is authorized to receive money and manage the assets of the estate, but he can’t withdraw or transfer assets from the estate.
  • At a final hearing and after notice to interested parties, the court determines who should get distributions.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the probate process and how to devise a complete estate plan.  We can help you avoid probate.

Reference: Pauls Valley Daily Democrat (Oct. 1, 2020) “It doesn’t end with the will”