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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.

Estate Planning Basics You Need to Know

The key reason for estate planning is to create a plan directing where your assets will go after you die. The ultimate goal is for wealth and real property to be given to the people or organizations you wish, while minimizing taxes, so beneficiaries can keep more of your wealth. However, good estate planning also reduces family arguments, protects minor children and provides a roadmap for end-of-life decisions, says the article “What is estate planning?” from Bankrate.

Whenever you’ve opened a checking and savings account, retirement account or purchased life insurance, you’ve been asked to provide the name of a beneficiary for the account. This person (or persons) will receive these assets directly upon your passing. You can have multiple beneficiaries, but you should always have contingent beneficiaries, in case something happens to your primary beneficiaries. Named beneficiaries always supersede any declarations in your will, so you want to make sure any account that permits a beneficiary has at least one and update them as you go through the inevitable changes of life.

A last will and testament is a key document in your estate plan. It directs the distribution of assets that are not distributed through otherwise designated beneficiaries. Property you own jointly, typically but not always with a spouse, passes to the surviving owner(s). An executor you name in your will is appointed by the court to take care of carrying out your instructions in the will. Choose the executor carefully—he or she will have a lot to take care of, including the probate of your will.

Probate is the process of having a court review your estate plan and approve it. It can be challenging and depending upon where you live and how complicated your estate is, could take six months to two years to complete. It can also be expensive, with court fees determined by the size of the estate.

Many people use trusts to minimize how much of their estate goes through probate and to minimize estate taxes. Assets that are distributed through trusts are also private, unlike probate documents, which become public documents and can be seen by anyone from nosy relatives to salespeople to thieves and scammers.

Trusts can be complex, but they don’t have to be. Trusts can also offer a much greater level of control over how assets are distributed. For instance, a spendthrift trust is used when an heir is not good with handling money. A trustee distributes assets, and a timeframe or specific requirements can be set before any funds are distributed.

Living wills and Designations of Health Care Surrogate are also part of an estate plan. These are documents used to give another person the ability to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you become incapacitated or if decisions need to be made concerning end-of-life care.

An estate plan can help prevent family fights over who gets what. Arguments over sentimental items, or someone wanting to make a grab for cash can create fractures that last for generations. A properly prepared estate plan makes your wishes clear, lessening the reasons for squabbles during a difficult period.

Protecting minor children and heirs is another important reason to have a well thought out estate plan. Your last will and testament is used to nominate a guardian for minor children and can also be used to direct who will be in charge of any assets left for the children’s care.

Reference: Bankrate (Aug. 3, 2020) “What is estate planning?”

Suggested Key Terms: Trusts, Living Wills, Probate, Guardians, Last Will and Testament, Beneficiaries, Living Wills, Incapacitated, End-of-Life, Estate Planning Attorney

When Exactly Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?

Many people say that they’ve been meaning to update their estate plan for years but never got around to doing it.

Kiplinger’s article entitled “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will” gives us a dozen times you should think about changing your last will:

  1. You’re expecting your first child. The birth or adoption of a first child is typically when many people draft their first last will. Designate a guardian for your child and who will be the trustee for any trust created for that child by the last will.
  2. You may divorce. Update your last will before you file for divorce, because once you file for divorce, you may not be permitted to modify your last will until the divorce is finalized. Doing this before you file for divorce ensures that your spouse won’t get all of your money, if you die before the divorce is final.
  3. You just divorced. After your divorce, your ex no longer has any rights to your estate (unless it’s part of the terms of the divorce). However, even if you don’t change your last will, most states have laws that invalidate any distributive provisions to your ex-spouse in that old last will. Nonetheless, update your last will as soon as you can, so your new beneficiaries are clearly identified.
  4. Your child gets married. Your current last will may speak to issues that applied when your child was a minor, so it may not address your child’s possible divorce. You may be able to ease the lack of a prenuptial agreement, by creating a trust in your last will and including post-nuptial requirements before you child can receive any estate assets.
  5. A beneficiary has issues. Last wills frequently leave money directly to a beneficiary. However, if that person has an addiction or credit issues, update your last will to include a trust that allows a trustee to only distribute funds under specific circumstances.
  6. Your executor or a beneficiary die. If your estate plan named individuals to manage your estate or receive any remaining funds, but they’re no longer alive, you should update your last will.
  7. Your child turns 18. Your current last will may designate your spouse or a parent as your executor, but years later, these people may be gone. Consider naming a younger family member to handle your estate affairs.
  8. A new tax or probate law is enacted. Congress may pass a bill that wrecks your estate plan. Review your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney every few years to see if there have been any new laws relevant to your estate planning.
  9. You come into a chunk of change. If you finally get a big lottery win or inherit money from a distant relative, update your last will so you can address the right tax planning. You also may want to change when and the amount of money you leave to certain individuals or charities.
  10. You can’t find your original last will. If you can’t locate your last will, be sure that you replace the last will with a new, original one that explicitly states it invalidated all prior last wills.
  11. You purchase property in another country or move overseas. Many countries have treaties with the U.S. that permit reciprocity of last wills. However, transferring property in one country may be delayed, if the last will must be probated in the other country first. Ask your estate planning attorney about having a different last will for each country in which you own property.
  12. Your feelings change for a family member. If there’s animosity between people named in your last will, you may want to disinherit someone. You might ask your estate planning attorney about a No Contest Clause that will disinherit the aggressive family member, if he or she attempts to question your intentions in the last will.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 26, 2020) “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will”

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Different Trusts for Different Estate Planning Purposes

There are a few things all trusts have in common, explains the article “All trusts are not alike,” from the Times Herald-Record. They all have a “grantor,” the person who creates the trust, a “trustee,” the person who is in charge of the trust, and “beneficiaries,” the people who receive trust income or assets. After that, they are all different. Here’s an overview of the different types of trusts and how they are used in estate planning.

“Revocable Living Trust” is a trust created while the grantor is still alive, when assets are transferred into the trust. The trustee transfers assets to beneficiaries, when the grantor dies. The trustee does not have to be appointed by the court, so there’s no need for the assets in the trust to go through probate. Living trusts are used to save time and money, when settling estates and to avoid will contests.

A “Medicaid Asset Protection Trust” (MAPT) is an irrevocable trust created during the lifetime of the grantor. It is used to shield assets from the grantor’s nursing home costs but is only effective five years after assets have been placed in the trust. The assets are also shielded from home care costs after assets are in the trust for two and a half years. Assets in the MAPT trust do not go through probate.

The Supplemental or Special Needs Trust (SNT) is used to hold assets for a disabled person who receives means-tested government benefits, like Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid. The trustee is permitted to use the trust assets to benefit the individual but may not give trust assets directly to the individual. The SNT lets the beneficiary have access to assets, without jeopardizing their government benefits.

An “Inheritance Trust” is created by the grantor for a beneficiary and leaves the inheritance in trust for the beneficiary on the death of the trust’s creator. Assets do not go directly to the beneficiary. If the beneficiary dies, the remaining assets in the trust go to the beneficiary’s children, and not to the spouse. This is a means of keeping assets in the bloodline and protected from the beneficiary’s divorces, creditors and lawsuits.

An “Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust” (ILIT) owns life insurance to pay for the grantor’s estate taxes and keeps the value of the life insurance policy out of the grantor’s estate, minimizing estate taxes. As of this writing, the federal estate tax exemption is $11.58 million per person.

A “Pet Trust” holds assets to be used to care for the grantor’s surviving pets. There is a trustee who is charge of the assets, and usually a caretaker is tasked to care for the pets. There are instances where the same person serves as the trustee and the caretaker. When the pets die, remaining trust assets go to named contingent beneficiaries.

A “Testamentary Trust” is created by a will, and assets held in a Testamentary Trust do not avoid probate and do not help to minimize estate taxes.

An estate planning attorney in your area will know which of these trusts will best benefit your situation.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (August 1,2020) “All trusts are not alike”

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What Happens to Debt when You Die?

When a person dies, it’s not unusual for them to leave behind some unpaid debt. What happens to that debt depends upon how their estate was organized, says the article “This is how your unpaid debts are handled if you pass away” from CNBC.com. The estate consists of whatever is owned, whether the person was wealthy or not. It includes financial accounts, real estate and personal possessions.

For surviving spouses, this can be worrisome. In most instances, they are not responsible for their spouse’s debt, but there are some exceptions. Here’s how it works.

Paying off all debts and then distributing the remaining assets is part of the probate process. Every state has its own laws regarding how long creditors have to make a claim against the estate. In some states, it’s a few months, in others it can last a few years. An estate planning attorney in your state will know how long the estate is vulnerable to creditors.

In most states, funeral expenses take priority, then the cost of administering the estate, followed by taxes and hospital and medical bills. However, not all assets are necessarily part of the estate, and this is where estate planning is important.

Life insurance policies, qualified retirement accounts and other assets with named beneficiaries go directly to the beneficiaries and do not pass through probate. The same goes for assets placed in trusts, as does jointly owned property, as long as it has been properly titled.

With the right planning, it is possible that an entire estate, including one that is insolvent, could be passed on to heirs outside of probate, leaving creditors high and dry. However, there are a handful of states that have “community property laws” that make debt more complicated.

The law in these states views both assets and certain debt accumulated during the marriage as being owned by both spouses, even if it is only in the decedent’s name. That includes debt like medical expenses or a mortgage. However, that’s not the final word. A well-structured letter with a copy of the death certificate can sometimes lead to the debt being discharged. During the probate process, the company holding the debt should be advised that the estate has little or no assets to cover the debt and ask that it be forgiven.

This does not apply to co-signing on a loan. Although the request can be made, it is not likely to be honored. Federal student loans are forgiven if the student dies, which seems a matter of kindness. Parent PLUS loans, which are loans taken out by parents to help pay for education, are usually discharged, if the student or parent dies.

Your estate planning attorney can help structure your estate to protect your surviving spouse and family members from creditors.

Reference: CNBC.com (July 31, 2020) “This is how your unpaid debts are handled if you pass away”

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What Happens If I Don’t Fund My Trust?

The revocable Trust is a powerful and efficient estate planning tool to avoid probate and reduce estate taxes. However, it is important to understand that the Trust is only effective for those assets that have been transferred to the Trust. You can pay a fortune for a terrific Trust agreement, but if your assets are not titled in the name of the Trust, they will still have to pass through probate to get to your heirs.

However, if it’s done properly, funding will avoid probate, provide for you in the event of your incapacity and save on estate taxes.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” looks at some of the benefits of trusts.

Avoiding probate and problems with your estate. If you’ve created a revocable trust, you have control over the trust and can modify it during your lifetime. You are also able to fund it (transfer assets to the trust), while you are alive. You can fund the trust now or on your death. If you don’t transfer assets to the trust during your lifetime, then your Pour-Over Will must be probated, and an executor of your estate should be appointed. The executor will then have the authority to transfer the assets to your trust. This may take time and will involve court. In many cases, it defeats the purpose of your estate plan.  You can avoid this by transferring assets to your trust now, saving your family time and aggravation after your death.

Protecting you and your family in the event that you become incapacitated. Funding the trust now will let the successor trustee manage the assets for you and your family, if your become incapacitated. If a successor trustee doesn’t have access to the assets to manage on your behalf, a conservator may need to be appointed by the court to oversee your assets, which can be expensive and time consuming.

Taking advantage of estate tax savings. If you’re married, you may have created a trust that contains terms for estate tax savings. This will often delay estate taxes until the death of the second spouse, by providing income to the surviving spouse and access to principal during his or her lifetime while the ultimate beneficiaries are your children. Depending where you live, the trust can also reduce state estate taxes. You must fund your trust to make certain that these estate tax provisions work properly.

Remember that any asset transfer will need to be consistent with your estate plan. Your beneficiary designations on life insurance policies should be examined to determine if the beneficiary can be updated to the trust.

You may also want to move tangible items to the trust, as well as any closely held business interests, such as stock in a family business or an interest in a limited liability company (LLC). Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the assets to transfer to your trust.

Fund your trust now to maximize your updated estate planning documents.

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Wills, Probate Court, Inheritance, Asset Protection, Conservatorship, Trustee, Revocable Living Trust, Estate Tax, Beneficiary Designations

How Can I Use Estate Planning for My Small Business?

All business owners would like to live long enough to see their business become successful, but there are no guarantees.

Legal Scoops’ recent article entitled “3 Ways Estate Planning is Used in Small Business” says that estate planning can work to keep your dream alive and help keep your business thriving after your death. Let’s look at some ways that estate planning helps small business owners.

  1. Protection from Unfamiliar Owners with Buy-Sell Agreements. Small businesses are frequently partnerships between family members or friends. However, one of the owners will die before the other, and if this occurs, the business may be in jeopardy if a buy-sell agreement isn’t in place. Buy-sell agreements can make certain that family members of the deceased don’t gain control of the business. It also automatically allows other owners to buy the owner’s share in the company.
  2. Implementation of a Succession Plan. A succession plan can identify and develop new leaders and key people to fill business objectives. Succession plans are implemented long before an owner’s death, so their wishes can be upheld. A succession plan can also decrease the chance of family arguments that come after a person’s death.
  3. Elimination of Unnecessary Taxes. A business that’s operational and successful will have assets and significant tax burdens for heirs. If a majority of your wealth is tied into a business, you must take action to help remove these unnecessary tax burdens from your business. Business owners can do one of the following:
  • Gift family members shares in the business, while they’re still alive
  • Redeem stocks at a lower tax rate than cash; or
  • Estate taxes can pay estate taxes in installments.

When a business is illiquid, heirs may not be able to pay the 35% – 50% estate tax on the business.

To help you with your business succession planning, contact an experienced estate planning attorney to make certain that your family is financially sound after your death and that your legacy continues on with your family business.

Reference: Legal Scoops (July 14, 2020) “3 Ways Estate Planning is Used in Small Business”

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What Do I Need besides a Designation of Health Care Surrogate for Healthcare?

In Florida, a Designation of Health Care Surrogate (DHCS) is a durable power of attorney for healthcare. This document lets a trusted friend or family member serve as your agent to make important and necessary healthcare decisions, if you become incapacitated or unable to communicate or participate in care.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “For Medicare, Having A Power Of Attorney Is Not Enough” explains that with COVID-19, this is very important. The risk for severe illness from this disease increases with age, and hospitals aren’t permitting visitors. This lack of access can create some major challenges in managing a family, dealing with critical business issues and paying bills.

Here’s one more: powers of attorney don’t stand alone, when it comes to dealing with Medicare issues. Medicare requires a beneficiary’s written permission to use or provide personal medical information for any purpose not defined in the privacy notice contained in the Medicare & You handbook. A competent person can complete the form, call the “1-800-MEDICARE Authorization to Disclose Personal Health Information.” When needed, the representative is then authorized to talk with Medicare, research and choose Medicare coverage, handle claims and file an appeal.

Make sure that you’ve authorized Medicare to release information to family or an agent. You should also see if the authorization applies for a specified period of time or indefinitely. You must mail the completed form to Medicare. You can revoke this authorization at any time. For those who are no longer able to give consent, their personal representative can complete the form and attach a duly executed power of attorney.

There’s another authorization to address. It concerns individual Medicare plans – Medicare Advantage, Part D prescription drug, or Medicare supplement. Every plan has an authorization form that gives the authority to speak to plan representatives about claims or coverage, update contact information and more, depending on the individual plan.

To begin this process, check the plan’s member information or talk to a customer service representative.

You never know what’s in the future, so take the time now to prepare. You should take these three important steps.

  1. Establish or update your financial power of attorney and designation of health care surrogate.
  2. Identify and name an authorized Medicare representative; and
  3. Contact your Medicare plan(s) and fill out the authorization forms.

Reference: Forbes (August 4, 2020) “For Medicare, Having A Power Of Attorney Is Not Enough”

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Avoid These Mistakes with Your Estate Plan

Estate planning means putting together a plan on paper, following the letter of the law, when it comes to what should happen to assets when you die. It also includes your decision regarding who will care for your children, who will make decisions on your behalf if you are unable and what kind of care you do or don’t want, when you are seriously ill or injured. It doesn’t have to be difficult, but according to the article “10 Mistakes Often Made When Estate Planning” from SavingAdvice.com, there are ten classic mistakes to avoid.

1—Thinking you don’t have an estate and not having an estate plan. Your estate is whatever you own: a house, regardless of its size, a car, personal items, financial accounts, pets and any items that have monetary or sentimental value. You might think your family will just figure things out when you die. In most cases, they won’t, or not easily. That creates a burden for them.

2—Thinking only about after death. Most of what is done in estate planning does concern what happens after you die, but it also includes protection for you and loved ones while you are living. Certain documents are created to protect you, if you become incapacitated. It also includes life insurance, disability insurance and long-term care insurance.

3—Not making sure all of your estate planning documents work together. Let’s say you have a life insurance policy and the beneficiary is your first husband. If you remarry, you need to update that form. What if you named someone to be your beneficiary on retirement accounts, but you have learned since you named them that the person won’t be able to manage the money? An estate planning attorney can help you put all of the pieces together to work correctly.

4—Not planning for minor children. If you have children who are under age 18, your estate plan is the document that tells the court two very important things: who you want to raise them (to be their guardian) and who you want to be in charge of the money left for their care.

5—Not taking advantage of trusts. A revocable trust gives you control over assets while you are alive, but passes control to a beneficiary when you die. It, therefore, avoids probate for the assets in the trust. However, if you don’t do this correctly, you’ll create more problems than you solve.

6—Forgetting about taxes. An estate plan helps minimize taxes for your estate and for your heirs. Otherwise, your heirs could receive far less, and Uncle Sam will receive far more than you wanted.

7—Failing to set aside adequate liquid assets. When you die, your loved ones will need to pay for a funeral, which are very expensive. Or you may own a business that you left to heirs—they may need a certain amount of cash to continue operating, while things are being settled. Make arrangements, so you don’t leave loved ones or business partners high and dry.

8—Avoiding the tough conversations while you’re alive. Maybe you want to leave your children the family home, but they don’t want it. You may also want to be sure they take your ancient Pekinese dog, who they never warmed up to. Talk with your heirs about your wishes and understand if your wishes are not the same as theirs. Adjust your estate plan accordingly.

9—Overlook the concept of secondary beneficiaries and executors. If you have three children and name only one as a beneficiary, what happens if that one dies? The same goes for naming an executor. You’ll want to name a primary and a secondary executor, and multiple beneficiaries.

10—Thinking estate planning is done once and finished forever. Estate planning is never really done, until you die. Life changes, your relationships change and assets change. Just as you do your taxes once a year, you should review your estate plan every time there is a big change in your life or every three or four years.

Reference: SavingAdvice.com (July 24, 2020) “10 Mistakes Often Made When Estate Planning”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Plan, Minor Children, Guardianship, Beneficiaries, Executor, Estate Planning Attorney, Trusts, Taxes, Life Insurance

How Can I Avoid Family Fighting in My Estate Planning?

It’s not uncommon for parents to modify their first estate plans, when their children become adults. At that point, many parents’ estate plans are designed to help efficiently transfer assets to the surviving spouse and ultimately to the adult children. However, this process can encounter a number of hiccups and headaches.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Three Steps To Estate Planning Without The Family Friction” explains that there are a number of reasons for sibling animosity in the inheritance process. The article says that frequently there are issues that stem from a lack of communication between siblings, which causes doubts as to how things are being done. In addition, siblings may not agree if and how property should be sold and maintained. To help avoid these problems, use this three-step process for estate planning.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney. Hire an estate attorney who has many years of working in this practice area. This will mean that they’ve seen—and more importantly—resolved every type of family conflict and problem that can arise in the estate planning process. That’s the know-how that you’re really paying for, in addition to his or her legal expertise in wills and trusts.

Create a financial overview. This will help your beneficiaries see what you own. A financial overview can simplify the inheritance process for your executor, and it can help to serve as the foundation for you and your executor to frankly communicate with future beneficiaries to reduce any lingering doubts or questions that they may have, when they’re not in the loop. Your inventory should at least include the following items:

  • A list of all assets, liabilities and insurance policies you have and their beneficiaries
  • Contact information for all financial, insurance and legal professionals with whom you partner;
  • Access information for any websites your beneficiaries may need for your online accounts; and
  • A legacy letter that discusses non-financial items for your children.

Hold a family meeting. Next, conduct a family meeting that includes the parents and the children who will be inheriting assets. Some topics for this meeting include:

  • The basics of your estate intentions
  • Verify that a trusted person knows the location of your important estate documents
  • State who your executor and other involved people will be and your rationale
  • Make certain that all parties value communication and transparency during this process; and
  • Discuss non-financial legacy items that are important for you to give to your children.

This three-step process can help keep your children’s relationships intact after you are gone. Hiring an experienced estate planning attorney, creating a clear financial overview and communicating what’s important to you are critical steps in helping to keep your family together.

Reference: Forbes (July 2, 2020) “Three Steps To Estate Planning Without The Family Friction”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Lawyer, Inheritance, Asset Protection, Executor, Legacy Letter, Letter of Last Instruction

A Non-Medical Check Up – For Your Estate Plan

An estate plan isn’t just for you—it’s for those you love. It should include a will and possibly, trusts, a power of attorney for financial affairs and a health care directive. As many as 60% of all Americans don’t have a will. However, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted for everyone the need to have those documents. For those who have an estate plan, the need for a tune-up has become very clear, says the article “Time for a non-medical checkup? Review your will” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

With any significant change in your life, a review of your estate plan is in order. Keep in mind that none of your estate planning documents are written in stone. They should be changed when your life does. COVID-19 has also changed many of our lives. Let’s take a look at how.

Has anyone you named as a beneficiary died, or become estranged from you? Will everyone who is a beneficiary in your current estate plan still receive what you had wanted them to receive? Are there new people in your life, family members or otherwise, with whom you want to share your legacy?

The same applies to the person you selected as your executor. As you have aged over the years, so have they. Are they still alive? Are they still geographically available to serve as an executor? Do they still want to take on the responsibilities that come with this role? Family members or trusted friends move, marry, or make other changes in their lives that could cause you to change your mind about their role.

Over time, you may want to change your wishes for your children, or other beneficiaries. Maybe ten years ago you wanted to give everyone an equal share of an inheritance, but perhaps circumstances have changed. Maybe one child has had career success and is a high-income earner, while another child is working for a non-profit and barely getting by. Do you want to give them the same share?

Here’s another thought—if your children have become young adults (in the wink of an eye!), do you want them to receive a large inheritance when they are young adults, or would you want to have some control over when they inherit? Some people stagger inheritances through the use of trusts, and let their children receive significant funds, when they reach certain ages, accomplishments or milestones.

Have you or your children been divorced, since your estate plan was last reviewed? In that case, you really need to get that appointment with an estate planning attorney! Do you want your prior spouse to have the same inheritance you did when you were happily married? If your children are married to people you aren’t sure about, or if they are divorced, do you want to use estate planning to protect their inheritance? That is another function of estate planning.

Taking out your estate plan and reviewing it is always a good idea. There may be no need for any changes—or you may need to do a major overhaul. Either way, it is better to know what needs to be done and take care of it, especially during a times like the one we are experiencing right now.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (July 27, 2020) “Time for a non-medical checkup? Review your will”

Suggested Key Terms: Will, Trusts, Power of Attorney, Health Care Directive, Estate Planning Lawyer, Divorce, Inheritance, Executor