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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.

Avoiding Probate With Ownership

When your goal is avoiding probate, there are three categories of property, and only one requires probate, so it can be accessed when the owner passes away, says njmoneyhelp.com’s recent article entitled “How can we avoid probate for this account?”

First, it’s important to understand that property that passes by operation of law is any asset that’s owned jointly with right of survivorship. These accounts are sometimes labeled as “JTWROS.”

When one co-owner dies, the property passes by law to the surviving co-owner. This is a way of avoiding probate.

Married couples in Florida have a similar ownership known as tenancy by the entireties.  It also has a right of survivorship.

A second category is contract property, which includes life insurance, retirement accounts and any non-retirement accounts that have beneficiaries designated upon death.

These designations supersede or “override” a will and are also a means of avoiding probate, directly passing to the named beneficiary.

These are frequently designated as “POD” (payable on death) or “TOD” (transfer on death).

The third category is everything else. This includes accounts that are owned solely by the person who died with no POD or TOD designation and is usually subject to probate.

A certificate of deposit is a time deposit. It’s a financial product commonly available from banks, thrift institutions and credit unions. Certificates of deposit are different from savings accounts because a CD has a specific, fixed term and usually, a fixed interest rate.

To avoid probate to access a CD or any other account owned by a spouse’s name, you can either make the account jointly owned by husband and wife with right of survivorship. or designate your spouse as a beneficiary upon death.

Either option will succeed in avoiding probate to access that particular account, like a certificate of deposit.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney with questions about CDs and probate.

Reference: njmoneyhelp.com (June 6, 2019) “How can we avoid probate for this account?”

Administering an Estate

When administering an estate, there are both similarities and differences between wills and trusts.  A last will and testament is used to point out the beneficiaries and trustees and the legal professionals you want to be involved with your estate when you have passed, explains this recent article What You Need To Know About Handling a Will and Trust from Your Dearly Departed Loved One” from North Forty News. If there are minor children in the picture, the last will is used to direct who will be their guardians.

A trust is different than the last will. A trust is a legal entity where one person places assets in the trust and names a trustee to be in charge of the assets in the trust on behalf of the beneficiaries. The assets are legally protected and must be distributed as per the instructions in the trust document. Trusts are a good way to reduce paperwork, save time and reduce estate taxes. It removes the estate from the probate process when administering an estate.

Don’t go it alone. If your loved one had a last will and trust, chances are they were prepared by an estate planning lawyer. The estate planning attorney can help you go through the legal process. The attorney also knows how to prepare for problems in administering an estate such as any possible disputes from relatives.

It may be more complicated than you expect. There are times when honoring the wishes of the deceased about how their property is distributed becomes difficult. Sometimes, there are issues between the beneficiaries and the last will and trust custodians. If you locate the attorney who was present at the time the last will was signed and the trusts created, she may be able to make the process easier.

Be prepared to get organized. There’s usually a lot of paperwork in administering an estate. First, gather all of the documents—an original last will, the death certificate, life insurance policies, marriage certificates, real estate titles, military discharge papers, divorce papers (if any) and any trust documents. Review the last will and trust with an estate planning attorney to understand what you will need to do.

Protect personal property and assets. Homes, boats, vehicles and other large assets will need to be secured to protect them from theft. Once the funeral has taken place, you’ll need to identify all of the property owned by the deceased and make sure they are property insured and valued. If a home is going to be empty, changing the locks is a reasonable precaution. You don’t know who has keys or feels entitled to its contents.

Distribution of assets. If there is a last will, it must be filed with the probate court and all beneficiaries—everyone mentioned in the last will has to be notified of the decedent’s passing. As the executor, you are responsible for ensuring that every person gets what they have been assigned. You will need to prepare a document that accounts for the distribution of all properties, which the court has to certify before the estate can be closed.

Taking on the responsibility of administering an estate is not without challenges. An estate planning attorney can help you through the process, making sure you are managing all the details according to the last will and the state’s laws. There may be personal liability attached to serving as the executor, so you’ll want to make sure to have good guidance on your side.

Reference: North Forty News (Feb. 3, 2021) What You Need To Know About Handling a Will and Trust from Your Dearly Departed Loved One”

 

Inheriting a Timeshare

Ask anyone who ever purchased a timeshare and changed their mind about it. Getting rid of a timeshare can be problematic. However, imagine if your parents purchased a timeshare and left it to you, with all the financial obligations? Some timeshare companies are now trying to make people continue to pay after they have died, warns a cautionary article “How to Avoid Inheriting a TImeshare You Don’t Want” from KSL-TV

One woman’s parents loved their timeshare. They travelled to one for skiing, another to relax in the sun, and others according to availability and their travel plans. The entire family went on trips and all enjoyed the flexibility. However, when both parents passed away just a few months apart, the timeshare company started sending letters demanding payment. The siblings didn’t want any part of it.  Inheriting a timeshare was not part of their plans.

There had not been any discussions with their parents about what would happen to the timeshare. One of the daughters decided to put the monthly fee onto her credit card to be paid automatically, thinking this would be a short-term issue. When the timeshare company did not respond to the children’s attempt to contact the company to shut down the account, she had the automatic payments stopped. A collection notice showed up and demanded payment immediately.

However, is the family legally obligated to pay for the parental timeshare?

If you die owning a timeshare, it does become part of your estate and obligations are indeed passed onto the next-of-kin or the estate’s beneficiaries. However, they do not have to accept it, in the same way that anyone has the right to refuse any part of an inheritance. No one is legally obligated to accept something just because it was bequeathed to them. This is known as the right to disclaim, but it’s not automatic.

A local estate planning attorney will know how your state governs the right to disclaim. Generally speaking, a disclaimer of interest must be filed with the probate court, stating that you reject inheriting a timeshare. There are time limits–in some states, you have only nine months after the death of a loved one to file.

When the next-of-kin rejects inheriting the timeshare, it may go to the next heir, and the next, and the next, etc. Every family member must file their own disclaimer. If the timeshare is disclaimed by all heirs, it is likely that the timeshare company will foreclose on the timeshare. There may be leftover debts for unpaid fees, and the estate may have to fork over those payments.

A few tips: if you are planning on refusing inheriting a timeshare, you cannot use it. Don’t try it out, let a friend use it or go one last time. If you wish to disclaim something, you cannot receive any benefit of the thing you are disclaiming. Once you receive a benefit, the opportunity to disclaim it is gone.

Unwanted timeshares usually sell for far less than the original purchase price. Selling a timeshare involves a market loaded with scammers who promise a quick sale, while charging thousands of dollars upfront.

If possible, speak with your parents and their estate planning attorney to head the problem off in advance.

Reference: KSL-TV (Jan. 25, 2021) “How to Avoid Inheriting a TImeshare You Don’t Want”

Durable Powers of Attorney

The situation facing one family is all too common. An aunt is now incapacitated with severe Alzheimer’s disease. Her brother has been her agent with a durable power of attorney in place for many years. In the course of preparing his own estate plan, he decided it’s time for one of his own children to take on the responsibility for his sister, in addition to naming his son as executor of his estate. The aunt has no spouse or children of her own.

The answers, as explained in a recent article “Changing the agent under a durable power of attorney” from My San Antonio Life, all hinge on the language used in the aunt’s current durable power of attorney. If she used a form from the internet, the document is probably not going to make the transfer of agency easy. If she worked with an experienced estate planning attorney, chances are better the document includes language that addresses this common situation.

If the durable power of attorney included naming successor agents, then an attorney can prepare a resignation document that is attached to the durable power of attorney. The power of attorney document might read like this: “I appoint my brother Charles as agent. If Charles dies or is incapacitated or resigns, I hereby appoint my nephew, Phillip, to serve as a successor agent.”

If the aunt would make her wishes clear in the actual signed durable power of attorney, the nephew could relatively easily assume authority, when the father resigns the responsibility because the aunt pre-selected him for the role.

If there is a clause that appointed a successor agent, but the successor agent was not the nephew, the nephew does not become the agent and the aunt’s brother can’t transfer the POA. If there is no clause at all, the nephew and the father can’t make any changes.

In September 2017, there was a change to the law that required durable power of attorney documents to specifically grant such power to delegate the role to someone else. The law varies from state to state, so a local estate planning attorney needs to be asked about this issue.

If there is no provision allowing an agent to name a successor agent, the nephew and father cannot make the change.

Another avenue to consider: did the aunt’s estate planning attorney include a provision that allows the durable power of attorney to establish a living trust to benefit the aunt and to transfer assets into the trust? Part of creating a trust is determining who will serve as a trustee, or manager, of the trust. If such a clause exists in the durable power of attorney and the father uses it to establish and fund a trust, he can then name his son, the nephew, as the trustee.

Taking this step would place all of the aunt’s assets under the nephew’s control. He would still not be the aunt’s agent under her power of attorney. Responsibility for certain tasks, like filing the aunt’s income taxes, will still be the responsibility of the durable power of attorney.

If her durable power of attorney does not include establishing a living trust, the most likely course is the father will need to resign as agent and the nephew will need to file in court to become the aunt’s guardian. This is a time-consuming and slow-paced process, where the court will become heavily involved with supervision and regular reporting. It is the worst possible option, but it may also be the only option.

If your family is facing this type of situation, begin by speaking with an experienced estate planning attorney to find out what options exist in your state, and it might be resolved.

Reference: My San Antonio Life (Jan. 25, 2021) “Changing the agent under a durable power of attorney”

Planning for the Death of a Spouse

It is sometimes difficult to plan for the death of a spouse. The COVID pandemic has become a painful lesson in how important it is to having estate plans in order, especially when a spouse becomes sick, incapacitated, or dies unexpectedly. With more than 400,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus, not every one of them had an estate plan and a financial plan in place, leaving loved ones to make sense of their estate while grieving. This recent article from Market Watch titled “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying” offers five things to do before the worst occurs.

Start by gathering information. The first step in planning for the death of a spouse is to make all of your accounts known and put together paperwork about each and every account. Look for documents that will become crucial, including a durable power of attorney, an advanced health care directive and a last will. Gather paperwork for life insurance policies, investment portfolios and retirement accounts. Create a list of contact information for your estate planning attorney, accountant, insurance agent, doctors and financial advisors and share it with the people who will be responsible for managing your life. In addition, call these people, so they have as much information as possible—this could make things easier for a surviving spouse. Consider making introductions, via phone or a video call, especially if you have been the key point person for these matters.

Create a hard copy binder for all of this information or a file, so your loved ones do not have to conduct a scavenger hunt. Organization is a large part of planning for the death of a spouse.

If there is an estate plan in place, discuss it with your spouse and family members so everyone is clear about what is going to happen. If your estate plan has not been updated in several years, that needs to be done. There have been many big changes to tax law, and you may be missing important opportunities that will benefit those left behind.

If there is no estate plan, something is better than nothing. A trust can be done to transfer assets, as long as the trust is funded properly and promptly.

Confirm beneficiary designations. Check everything for accuracy while planning for the death of a spouse. If ex-spouses, girlfriends, or boyfriends are named on accounts that have not been reviewed for decades, there will be a problem for the family. Problems also arise when no one is listed as a beneficiary. Beneficiary designations are used in many different accounts, including retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, stock options, restricted stock and deferred compensation plans.

Many Americans die without a will, known as “intestate.” With no will, the court must rely on the state’s estate laws, which does not always result in the people you wanted receiving your property. Any immediate family or next of kin may become heirs, even if they were people you with whom you were not close or from whom you may even have been estranged. Having no will can lead to estate battles or having strangers claim part of your estate.

If there are minor children and no will to declare who their guardian should be, the court will decide that also. If you have minor children, you must have a will to protect them and a plan for their financial support.

Create a master list of digital assets.  Digital assets are frequently overlooked when planning for the death of a spouse. These assets range from photographs to financial accounts, utility bills and phone bills to URLs for websites. What would happen to your social media accounts, if you died and no one could access them? Some platforms provide for a legacy contact, but many do not. Prepare what information you can to avoid the loss of digital assets that have financial and sentimental value.

Gathering these materials and having these conversations is difficult, but they are a necessity if a family member receives a serious diagnosis. If there is no estate plan in place, have a conversation with an estate planning attorney who can advise what can be done, even in a limited amount of time.

Reference: Market Watch (Jan. 22, 2021) “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying”

 

Selling Your Life Insurance Policy

An interesting way of providing retirement income is selling your life insurance policy.  It is quite common to buy life insurance. It may have been to protect your family financially or as a vehicle to provide liquidity for estate taxes. As we grow older and laws change, it is critical to determine if your policy has outlived its intended purpose. The traditional strategy of “buy and hold” no longer applies to the ever-changing world. Today, it may be a good idea to consider selling your life insurance policy.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “What You Should Know Before Selling Your Old Life Insurance Policy” explains that a lesser-known alternative to abandoning or surrendering a policy is known as a life settlement. This gives the policy owners the chance to get a much bigger cash lump sum, than what is provided by the life insurance carrier’s cash surrender value.

Life settlements are not new. Third-party institutional buyers have now started to acquire ownership of policies, in exchange for paying the owner a lump sum of cash. As a consequence, the policy owner no longer needs to make future premium payments.

T After selling your life insurance policy, the buyer then owns the policy and takes on the responsibility of future premium payments. They also get the full death benefit payable from the life insurance carrier when the insured dies.

Research shows that, on average, the most successful life settlement deals are with policies where the insured is age 65 or older. Those who are younger than 65 usually require a health impairment to receive a life settlement offer.

Knowing what your policy is worth is important when selling your life insurance policy, and its value is based on two primary factors: (i) the future projected premiums of the policy; and (ii) the insured’s current health condition.

Many policy owners don’t have the required experience with technical life expectancies, actuarial tables and medical knowledge to properly evaluate their life settlement value policies. This knowledge gap makes for an imbalance, since inexperienced policy owners may try to negotiate against experienced and sophisticated policy buyers trying to acquire the policy at the lowest possible cost.

To address this imbalance, the policy owner should seek help from an experienced estate planning attorney to help them with the process to sell the policy for the highest possible price.

If you have an old life insurance policy that’s collecting dust, ask an experienced estate planning attorney to review the policy’s importance and purpose in your portfolio. This may be the right time to turn that unneeded life insurance policy into cash.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 26, 2021) “What You Should Know Before Selling Your Old Life Insurance Policy”

 

Control of Assets and Trusts

Control of assets is a key issue in deciding on a trust.  Any trust created while the person, known as the “grantor,” is living, is known as a “living trust.” However, the term is also used interchangeably with “revocable trusts,” which can be changed according to the grantor’s wishes. During the lifetime of the grantor, as explained in the recent article “Control of Assets a Key Issue in Deciding on a Trust” from FED Week, that person can be the trustee as well as the beneficiary. Control is retained over the trust and the assets it contains.

Trusts are used in estate plans as a way to avoid probate. Equally importantly, they can provide for an easier transition if the grantor becomes incapacitated. The co-trustee or successor trustee steps in to manage and control assets, and the process is relatively seamless. The family, in most cases, will not have to apply for conservatorship, an expensive and sometimes unnerving process. Within the privacy afforded a trust, the management and control of assets is far less stressful, assuming that the trust has been funded and all assets have been placed properly within the trust beforehand.

Naming a successor trustee so the grantor may remain in control during his or her lifetime is an easier concept for most people. However, adding a co-trustee rather than a successor may be a wiser move. A successor trustee requires the grantor, if still living, to formally resign and allow the successor trustee to take control of the trust and its assets.

If a co-trustee is named, he or she may step into control instantly, if the grantor becomes incapacitated.

Trusts fall into two basic categories:

Irrevocable Trusts—A permanent arrangement in which assets going into the trust are out of control of anyone but the trustee. Giving up this control comes with benefits: the assets within the trust may not be tapped by creditors and they are not considered part of the estate, also lowering tax liability. Irrevocable trusts are generally used to protect loved ones, who are named as beneficiaries.

Revocable Trusts—The grantor retains control of assets and may collect investment income from assets in the trust. If the grantor decides to have the assets back in his or her personal accounts, they can be reclaimed into his or her own name.

The revocable trust protects the grantor against incapacity, as the successor trustee or co-trustee can take over management of trust assets and assets pass to designated recipients without having to go through probate.

Determining which of these trusts is best for your family depends on many different factors, including control of assets.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn how trusts might work within your unique estate plan.

Reference: FED Week (Jan. 21, 2021) “Control of Assets a Key Issue in Deciding on a Trust”

 

Unmarried Couples and Planning

For unmarried couples, having an estate plan might be even more important than for married couples, especially if there are children in the family. The unmarried couple does not enjoy all of the legal protection afforded by marriage, but many of these protections can be had through a well-prepared estate plan.

A recent article “Planning for unmarried couples” from nwi.com explains that in states that do not recognize common law marriages, like Indiana, the state will not recognize the couple as being married. However, even if you learn that your state does recognize a common law marriage, you still want to have an estate plan.

A will is the starting point of an estate plan, as is a revocable trust, and for an unmarried couple, having it professionally prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney is very important. An agreement between two people as to how they want their assets distributed after death sounds simple, but there are many laws. Each state has its own laws, and if the document is not prepared correctly, it could very easily be invalid. That would make the couple’s agreement useless.

There are also things that need to be prepared, so an unmarried couple can take care of each other while they are living, which they cannot legally do without being married.

A cohabitating couple has no right to direct medical care for each other, including speaking with the healthcare provider or even seeing their partner as a visitor in a healthcare facility. If a decision needs to be made by one partner because the other partner is incapacitated, their partner will not have the legal right to make any medical decisions or even speak with a healthcare provider.

If the couple owns vehicles separately, the vehicles have their own titles (i.e., the legal document establishing ownership). If they want to add their partner’s name to the vehicle, the title needs to be reissued by the state to reflect that change.

If the couple owns a home together, they need to confirm how the home is titled. If they are joint tenants with rights of survivorship or tenants in common, that might be appropriate for their circumstances. However, if one person bought the home before they lived together or was solely responsible for paying the mortgage and for upkeep, they will need to make sure the title and their will or revocable trust establishes ownership and what the owner wants to happen with they die.

If the wish is for the surviving partner to remain in the home, that needs to be properly and legally documented. An estate planning attorney will help the couple create a plan that addresses this large asset and reflect the couple’s wishes for the future.

Unmarried cohabitating adults need to protect each other while they are living and after they pass. A local estate planning attorney will be able to help accomplish this.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 24, 2021) “Planning for unmarried couples”

 

Selecting Beneficiaries

For many people, selecting beneficiaries occurs when they first set up an account, and it’s rarely given much thought after that. The Street’s recent article entitled “Secure your IRA – Review Your Beneficiary Forms Now” says that many account holders aren’t aware of how important the beneficiary document is or what the consequences would be if the information is incorrect or is misplaced. Many people are also surprised to hear that wills don’t cover these accounts because they pass outside the will and are distributed pursuant to the beneficiary designation form.

If you are remiss in selecting beneficiaries and if one of these accounts does not have a designated beneficiary, it may be paid to your estate. If so, the IRS says that the account has to be fully distributed within five years if the account owner passes before their required beginning date (April 1 of the year after they turn age 72). This may create a massive tax bill for your heirs.

Get a copy of your listed beneficiaries from every institution where you have your accounts, and don’t assume they have the correct information. Review the forms and make sure all beneficiaries are named and designated not just the primary beneficiary but secondary or contingent beneficiary. It is also important to make certain that the form states clearly their percentage of the share and that it adds up to 100%. You should review these forms at any life change, like a marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, or the death of a loved one.

Note that the SECURE Act changed the rules for anyone who dies after 2019. If you don’t heed these changes, it could result in 87% of your hard-earned money to go towards taxes. For retirement accounts that are inherited after December 31, 2019, there are new rules that necessitate review of selecting beneficiaries:

  1. The new law created multiple “classes” of beneficiaries, and each has its own set of complex distribution rules. Make sure you understand the definition of each class of beneficiary and the effect the new rules will have on your family.
  2. Some trusts that were named as beneficiaries of IRAs or retirement plans will no longer serve their original purpose. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to review this.
  3. The stretch IRA has been eliminated for most non-spouse beneficiaries. As such, most non-spouse beneficiaries will need to “empty” the IRA or retirement account within 10 years and they can’t “stretch” out their distributions over their lifetimes. Failure to comply is a 50% penalty of the amount not distributed and taxes due.

For many selecting beneficiaries, using the beneficiary form is their most important estate planning document but the most overlooked.  Let us help you incorporate selecting beneficiaries into your estate plan.

Reference: The Street (Dec. 28, 2020) “Secure your IRA – Review Your Beneficiary Forms Now”