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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.

Separate or Joint Trusts?

The decision about separate or joint trusts is not as straightforward as you might think. Sometimes, there is an obvious need to keep things separate, according to the recent article “Joint Trusts or Separate Trusts: Advice for Married Couples” from Kiplinger. However, it is not always the case.

A revocable living trust is a popular way to pass assets to heirs. Assets titled in a revocable living trust don’t go through probate and information about the trust remains private. It is also a good way to plan for incapacity, avoid or reduce the likelihood of a death tax and make sure the right people inherit the trust.

There are advantages to Separate Trusts:

They offer better protection from creditors. When the first spouse dies, the deceased spouse’s trust becomes irrevocable, which makes it far more difficult for creditors to access, while the surviving spouse can still access funds.

If assets are going to non-spouse heirs, separate is better. If one spouse has children from a previous marriage and wants to provide for their spouse and their children, a qualified terminable interest property trust allows assets to be left for the surviving spouse, while the balance of funds are held in trust until the surviving spouse’s death. Then the funds are paid to the children from the previous marriage.

Reducing or eliminating the death tax with separate trusts. Unless the couple has an estate valued at more than $23.16 million in 2020 (or $23.4 million in 2021), they won’t have to worry about federal estate taxes. However, there are still a dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, with state estate taxes and half-dozen states with inheritance taxes. These estate tax exemptions are considerably lower than the federal exemption, and heirs could get stuck with the bill. Separate trusts as part of a credit shelter trust would let the couple double their estate tax exemption.

When is a Joint Trust Better?

If there are no creditor issues, both spouses want all assets to go to the surviving spouse and state estate tax (Florida has no state estate tax) and/or inheritance taxes aren’t an issue, then a joint trust could work better because:

Joint trusts are easier to fund and maintain. There is no worrying about having to equalize the trusts, or consider which one should be funded first, etc.

There is less work at tax time. The joint trust doesn’t become irrevocable, until both spouses have passed. Therefore, there is no need to file an extra trust tax return. With separate trusts, when the first spouse dies, their trust becomes irrevocable and a separate tax return must be filed every year.

Joint trusts are not subject to higher trust tax brackets, because they do not become irrevocable until the first spouse dies. However, any investment or interest income generated in an account titled in a deceased spouse’s trust, now irrevocable, will be subject to trust tax brackets. This will trigger higher taxes for the surviving spouse, if the income is not withdrawn by December 31 of each year.

In a joint trust, after the death of the first spouse, the surviving spouse has complete control of the assets. When separate trusts are used, the deceased spouses’ trust becomes irrevocable and the surviving spouse has limited control over assets.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you determine which is best for your situation. This is a complex topic, and this is just a brief introduction.

Reference: Kiplinger (Nov. 20, 2020) “Joint Trusts or Separate Trusts: Advice for Married Couples”

 

What’s Involved in the Probate Process

SWAAY’s recent article entitled “What is the Probate Process in Florida?” says that while every state has its own laws, the probate process can be fairly similar. Here are the basic steps in the probate process:

The family consults with an experienced probate attorney. Those mentioned in the decedent’s will should meet with a probate lawyer. During the meeting, all relevant documentation like the list of debts, life insurance policies, financial statements, real estate title deeds, and the will should be available.   The lawyer will prepare and file petitions and documents and explain the probate process.

Filing the petition. The probate process would be in initiated by the personal representative (executor in other states) named in the will. He or she is in charge of distributing the estate’s assets. If there’s no will, you can ask an estate planning attorney to petition a court to appoint a personal representative. When the court approves the estate representative, the Letters of Administration are issued as evidence of legal authority to act as the personal representative. The personal representative will pay state taxes, funeral costs, and creditor claims on behalf of the decedent. He or she will also notice creditors and beneficiaries, coordinate the asset distribution and then close the probate estate.

Noticing beneficiaries and creditors. The personal representative must notify all beneficiaries of trust estates, the surviving spouse and all parties that have the rights of inheritance. Creditors of the deceased will also want to be paid and will have three months to make a claim on the estate.

Obtaining the letters of administration (letters testamentary) obtained from the probate court. After the personal representative obtains the letter, he or she will open the estate account at a bank. Statements and assets that were in the deceased name will be liquidated and sold, if there’s a need. Proceeds obtained from the sale of property are kept in the estate account and are later distributed.

Settling all expenses, taxes, and estate debts. By law, the decedent’s debts must typically be settled prior to any distributions to the heirs. The personal representative will also prepare a final income tax return for the estate. Note that life insurance policies and retirement savings are distributed to heirs despite the debts owed if they transfer by beneficiary designation outside of the will and the probate process.

Conducting an inventory of the estate. The executor will have conducted a final account of the remaining estate. This accounting will include the fees paid to the personal representative and attorney, probate expenses, cost of assets and the charges incurred when settling debts.

Distributing the assets. After the creditor claims have been settled, the personal representative will ask the court to transfer all assets to successors in compliance with state law or the provisions of the will. The court will issue an order to move the assets. If there’s no will, the state intestate succession laws will decide who is entitled to receive a share of the property.

Finalizing the probate process. The last step in the probate process is for the personal representative to formally close the estate. The includes payment to creditors and distribution of assets, preparing a final distribution document and a closing affidavit that states that the assets were adequately distributed to all heirs.  Learn more about the probate process by contacting our office.

Reference: SWAAY (Aug. 24, 2020) “What is the Probate Process in Florida?”

 

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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