avoiding probate

Serving Southwest Florida

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.

Living Trust Basics

A will and a living trust both can be very important in your estate plan. However, a trust doesn’t require probate to transfer your assets.

KYT24’s recent article entitled “Fundamentals Of A Living Trust” explains that everyone who owns a home and/or other assets should have a will or a living trust. Proper estate planning can protect your family from unnecessary court costs and delay, if you become incapacitated, disabled, or die.

With a living trust, you can avoid all probate delays and related costs and make life much simpler for your family in a crisis. If you pass away, your spouse will be able to automatically and immediately continue without any delay or unnecessary expense.

When you and your spouse both die, your assets will also transfer directly to your beneficiaries.

Trusts can save time, expense and stress for your loved ones. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a living trust.

A trust agreement, being a legal document, must be written by an experienced estate planning attorney who has the knowledge and experience to prepare such a legal document to cover all of your needs and desires. If not properly and completely drafted, you run the risk of issues after you’re gone for your family.

After your attorney drafts your trust, you must fund the trust, by titling or adding assets to it. If assets aren’t titled to or otherwise connected to your trust agreement, they won’t be legally part of the trust.

This totally defeats the purpose of drafting your living trust agreement in the first place.

It’s a common mistake to fail to fund a trust, which can happen as a result of poor follow through after signing the trust.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to complete a revocable trust and your entire estate plan. This includes a thorough review of your goals and objectives, as well as reviewing all estate assets to complete the funding of your trust, by transferring assets into the name of the living trust.  We can help you create a living trust.

Reference: KYT24 (Nov. 14, 2020) “Fundamentals Of A Living Trust”

 

Joint Ownership vs Beneficiary Designations

Two of the most popular ways of avoiding probate are joint ownership and beneficiary designations.  Most people think a will is the most important tool in the estate planning toolbox, but in many instances, it is not even used. Assets in the will go through probate, and wills control assets in your name only. If you don’t have a will, your state laws will provide one under its law of Intestate Succession. Instead of making a will, some people just name their spouses or children on joint accounts or as beneficiary designations, says the article “Protecting Your Assets: Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations” from The Street. however, that can lead to big problems.

Let’s look at a typical family. They own a home, an IRA, life insurance and some bank and investment accounts. They have wills that leave everything to each other, and equally to their children upon their deaths. If a child predeceases them, they want the child’s share to go to the child’s children (their grandchildren). This is called per stirpes, meaning it goes to the next generation. The husband and wife have also listed each other as joint owners and beneficiaries and then listed their children as contingent beneficiaries on all financial accounts.

When the husband dies, all his assets go to his wife. When she dies, she had named her living children as beneficiaries. If she signed a quit claim deed putting the children’s names on the house before she died, the will and probate may be bypassed altogether.

Sounds like a great plan, doesn’t it? Except like most things that sound too good to be true, this one is not a great plan. Here’s what can and very often does go wrong.

Let’s say a daughter inherits a bank account and is sued, files for bankruptcy or divorces. Her entire inheritance is vulnerable, with no protection at all.

What if you say in your will that you want everything to go equally to all three children when you die, but you only put one son as a beneficiary on your accounts? When you die, only one son inherits everything. The will does not supersede the beneficiary designation. If the son wants to keep all your assets, he can, no matter what he may have promised you and his siblings.

If the wife dies first and the husband remarries, he may want to leave everything to his new wife. He’s hoping that when she dies, she’ll distribute the assets from his first marriage to his children. He even has a will and changes the beneficiary designations on his investment accounts to make sure that happens. However, when he dies, because of the survivorship aspect of joint ownership and beneficiary designations, she owns the accounts and can name whoever she wants to inherit those accounts. She has the legal right to cut out anyone she wants. The husband may have avoided probate, but his children are left with no inheritance.

We all like to believe that our spouses and children will do the right thing upon our death, but the only way to ensure that this will happen is to have an estate plan created using trusts and other planning strategies. Avoiding probate may be a popular theme but making sure your assets go where you want to them to is far more important than avoiding probate. Meet with an estate planning attorney to ensure that your family is protected, the right way.

We can help you avoid probate efficiently.

Reference: The Street (Oct. 30, 2020) “Protecting Your Assets: Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations”

 

Avoiding Probate

Estate planning attorneys are often asked if one of the goals of an estate plan is avoiding probate, regardless of the cost. The answer to that question is no, but a better question is the more even-tempered “Should I try to avoid probate?” In that case, the answer is “It depends.” A closer look at this question is provided in the recent article from The Daily Sentinel, “Estate Planning: Is Probate Something to Avoid at All Costs?”

Probate is not always a nightmare, depending upon where a decedent lived. Probate is a court process conducted by judges, who usually understand the difficulty executors and families are facing, and their support staff who genuinely care about the families involved. This is not everywhere, but your estate planning attorney will know what your local probate court is like. With that in mind, there are certain pitfalls to probate and there are situations where avoiding probate does make sense for your family.

In the case where it makes sense to avoid probate, whatever planning strategy is being used to avoid probate must be carefully evaluated. Does it make sense, or does it create further issues? Here’s an example of how this can backfire. A person provided their estate planning attorney with a copy of an Enhanced Life Estate Deed, which is a deed that transfers property to a designated person (called a “grantee”) immediately upon the death of the person who signed the deed (called a “grantor”).

The deed had been signed and recorded properly with the recorder’s office, just as a typical deed would be during the sale of a home. Note that an Enhanced Life Estate Deed does not transfer the title of ownership, until the grantor dies.

Here’s where things went bad. No one knew about the deed, except for the grantor and the grantee. The remainder of the estate plan did not mention anything about the Enhanced Life Estate Deed. When the grantor died, ownership of the property was transferred to the grantee. However, the will contained conflicting instructions about the property and who was to inherit it.

Instead of avoiding probate, the grantor’s estate was tied up in court for more than a year. The family was torn apart, and the costs to resolve the matter were substantial.

Had the deceased simply relied upon the probate process or coordinated the transfer of ownership with his estate planning attorney, the intended person would have received the property and the family would have been spared the cost and stress. Sticking with the use of a last will and testament and the probate process would have protected everyone involved.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help determine the best approach for the family, with or without probate.  Let us help you plan to avoid probate.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Oct. 3, 2020) “Estate Planning: Is Probate Something to Avoid at All Costs?”

 

You Need More than a Will for Estate Planning

As the coronavirus continues to sweep across through the U.S. and the death tolls continue to rise, many people are starting to put their estate plans in place, as reported by CNBC.com in the article “A will doesn’t cover all your bases when it comes to end-of-life decisions. Here’s what else you need.”

It’s true–your will, or last will and testament, is just one of several legal documents you need to help loved ones know what your wishes are. If there is no will, all kinds of problems are created. If you have minor children and no will, the court will decide who will care for them. With no will, the laws of your state determine who will receive your assets—even if it’s a relative you’ve never met—or one you’ve loathed for decades.

For those who have partners but are not married, no will means your assets won’t go to them. They also won’t have legal standing to fight back. The courts typically pass assets on to your closest blood relatives. That might not be what you want.

However, a will is only one part of your entire estate plan. You don’t need to live on “an estate” to have an estate. Actually, your estate refers to everything you own—financial accounts, possessions, real estate and digital assets. Putting a plan in place for those assets helps lessen the chances your family will fracture when you have died. Your assets will also go where you want them. It’s a kindness to your loved ones.

A will lets you convey your wishes about who gets what when you die, except for assets that pass outside of a will. These are accounts where you have named a beneficiary, like insurance policies, retirement accounts and jointly owned property. The beneficiary designations and joint ownership (with rights of survivorship) always supersede your will, which is where many people make big mistakes. If you don’t update your beneficiary designations as you move through life, the wrong person might inherit significant assets. There also won’t be anything your intended heirs can do about it.

Another big part of your will involves choosing a person to be in charge of carrying out your intentions—the personal representative (or executor). This is a job that requires someone who is responsible, reliable and comfortable with handling financial and legal matters.

You’ll also need a health care directives, sometimes called designation of health care surrogate and living will, to outline your wishes, if you become incapacitated because of illness or injury. This gives loved ones the instructions they need if, for example, you are on life support and a decision has to be made about whether to continue or to let you pass. Don’t forget a Durable Power of Attorney. This document allows a person of your choice to carry out all of your financial and legal affairs on your behalf. You want to pick someone who is smart and trustworthy. They might need to do everything from selling your home to managing your investments.

Estate planning also includes preparing all of the important documents in your life, so that your executor can find them easily, including your will itself, other legal documents, information about bank accounts, investment accounts and even your Social Security number. The more organized you can be, the more easily your loved ones will be able to administer your estate.

If you want your children to receive money from you but are concerned about their ability to manage an inheritance, you may want to add a trust to your estate plan. Your assets go into the trust, instead of directly into their hands. You also name a trustee who will oversee the trust. The trustee will decide when your children receive the money, according to your instructions. The distribution could be tied to achieving certain goals—like graduating from college or getting their first apartment. Further, if the trust is a revocable living trust, all assets titled in the trust will avoid probate.

One last point: many people today are downloading estate planning forms from the internet. The problem is, you don’t know if they are up-to-date, or even admissible in your state. Every state has its own estate laws, and no one document works in all states. Working with an estate planning attorney who knows the laws in your state eliminates the risk that a judge will toss out your will, because it does not comply with state law.

Reference: CNBC.com (July 27, 2020) “A will doesn’t cover all your bases when it comes to end-of-life decisions. Here’s what else you need.”

 

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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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