estate planning attorney

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.

Communicating Your Estate Plan

This post stresses the importance of communicating your estate plan with your children.  Some $68 trillion will move between generations in the next two decades, reports U.S. News & World Report in the article “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children.” Having this conversation with your adult children, especially if they are members of Generation X, could have a profound impact on the quality of your relationship and your legacy.

Staying on top of and communicating your estate plan with your children will also have an impact on how much of your estate is consumed by estate taxes. The historically high federal exemptions are not going to last forever—even without any federal legislation, they sunset in 2025, which isn’t far away.

One of the purposes of your estate plan is to transfer money as you wish. What most people do is talk with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan. They create trusts, naming their child as the trustee, or simple wills naming their child as the executor. Then, the parents drop the ball.

Talk with your children about the role of trustee and/or executor. Help them understand the responsibilities that these roles require and ask if they will be comfortable handling the decision making, as well as the money. Include the Power of Attorney role in communicating your estate plan.

What most parents refuse to discuss with their children is money, plain and simple. Children will be better equipped, if they know what financial institutions hold your accounts and are introduced to your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor.

You might at some point forget about some investments, or the location of some accounts as you age. If your children have a working understanding of your finances, estate plan and your wishes, they will be able to get going and you will have spared them an estate scavenger hunt.

If possible, hold a family meeting with your advisors, so everyone is comfortable and up to speed.  Advisors can help with communicating your estate plan.

Most adult children do not have the same experience with taxes as parents who have acquired wealth over their lifetimes. They may not understand the concepts of qualified and non-qualified accounts, step-up in cost basis, life insurance proceeds, or a probate asset versus a non-probate asset. It is critical that they understand how taxes impact estates and investments. By explaining things like tax-free distributions from a Roth IRA, for instance, you will increase the likelihood that your life savings aren’t battered by taxes.

Even if your adult children work in finance, do not assume they understand your investments, your tax-planning, or your estate. Even the smartest people make expensive mistakes, when handling family estates.

Communicating your estate plan is another way to show your children that you care enough to set your own ego aside and are thinking about their future. It’s a way to connect not just about your money or your taxes, but about their futures. Knowing that you purchased a life insurance policy specifically to provide them with money for a home purchase, or to fund a grandchild’s college education, sends a clear message. Don’t miss the opportunity to share that with them, while you are living.  Let us help you create and communicate your estate plan.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Feb. 17, 2021) “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children”

Trusts and Probate

This post explores the relationship between a trust and probate. A living trust is a trust that’s created during a person’s lifetime, explains nj.com’s recent article entitled “Will a living trust help with probate and inheritance taxes?”

For example, Florida’s Uniform Trust Code governs the creation and validity of trusts. A real benefit of a trust is that its assets aren’t subject to the probate process.

Under Florida law, a revocable living trust is governed by Florida Statute § 736.0402. For a grantor to create a valid revocable trust in Florida, these elements are required:

  • The grantor must have capacity to create the trust
  • The grantor must indicate an intent to create a trust
  • The trust must have a definite beneficiary
  • The trustee must have duties to perform; and
  • The same person can’t be the sole trustee and sole beneficiary.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney and he or she will tell you that no matter where you’re residing, the element that most estate planning attorneys concentrate on is the first—the capacity to create the trust. In most states, the capacity to create a revocable trust is the same capacity required to create a last will and testament.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the mental capacity required to make a will in your state. Some state laws say that it’s a significantly lower threshold than the legal standards for other capacity requirements, like making a contract.

However, if a person lacks capacity when making a will, then the validity of the will can be questioned. The person contesting the will has the burden to prove that the testator’s mental capacity impacted the creation of the will.

Note that the assets in a trust may be subject to income tax and may be includable in the grantor’s estate for purposes of determining whether estate or inheritance taxes are owed. State laws differ on this. There are many different types of living trusts that have different tax consequences, so you should talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to see if a living trust is right for your specific situation.

Reference: nj.com (Jan. 11, 2021) “Will a living trust help with probate and inheritance taxes?”

The Probate Process

How you handle your property when you are living determines if and how your estate is administered during the probate process.  While you are living, you have the right to give anyone any property of your choosing. If you give your power to gift your property to another person, typically through a Power of Attorney, then that person is your agent and may give away your property, according to an article “Explaining the basic aspects probate” from The News-Enterprise. When you die, the Power of Attorney you gave to an agent ends, and they are no longer in control of your estate. Your “estate” is not a big fancy house, but a legal term used to define the total of everything you own.

Property that you owned while living, unless it was owned jointly with another person, or had a beneficiary designation giving the property to another person upon your death, is distributed through the probate process. However, probate administration requires a series of steps.

First, you need to have had created a will while you were living. Unlike most legal documents (including the Power of Attorney mentioned above), a will is valid when it is properly signed. However, it can’t be used until a probate case is opened at the local probate court. If the Court deems the will to be valid, the probate process is called “testate” and the executor named in the will may go forward with settling the estate (paying legitimate debts, taxes and expenses), before distributing assets.

If you did not have a will, or if the will was not prepared correctly and is deemed invalid by the court, the probate process is called “intestate” and the court appoints an administrator to follow the state’s laws concerning how property is to be distributed. You may not agree with how the state law directs property distribution. Your spouse or your family may not like it either, but the law itself decides who gets what.

After opening a probate case, the court will appoint a personal representative (or executor) to administer the probate process. The personal representative will have a legal notice published in the local newspaper, so any creditors can file a claim against the estate.  In Florida, the claims period (the amount of time the creditors have to file a claim after publishing the notice) is three months.

The personal representative will create a list of all of the property and the claims submitted by any creditors. It is their job to ensure that claims are valid and have been submitted within the correct timeframe. They will also be in charge of cleaning out your home, securing your home and other possessions, then selling the house and distributing your personal furnishings.

Depending on the size of the estate, the personal representative’s job may be time consuming and complex. If you left good documentation and lists of assets, a clean file system or, best of all, an estate binder with all your documents and information in one place, it can alleviate a lot of stress for your executor and help simplify the probate process. Personal representatives who are left with little information or a disorganized mess must undertake an expensive and burdensome scavenger hunt.

The personal representative is entitled to a fee for their work, which is usually a percentage of the estate.

The probate process ends when all of the property has been gathered, creditors have been paid and beneficiaries have received their distributions.

With a properly prepared estate plan, your property will be distributed according to your wishes, versus hoping the state’s laws will serve your family. You can also use the estate planning process to create the necessary documents to protect you during life, including a Power of Attorney and Advance Medical Directive.  Let us help you plan to avoid the probate process.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 2, 2021) “Explaining the basic aspects probate”

Death of a Spouse

Mourning the death of a spouse can be one of the hardest experiences one can face. The emotional aspects of grief can also be difficult enough without having to concern yourself whether you’re financially unprepared.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Financial planning considerations after the loss of a spouse” says that at the death of a spouse, there can be many impacts to the financial picture. These can include changes in income, estate planning and dealing with IRA and insurance distributions. The first step, however, is understanding and quantifying the financial changes that may happen when your spouse dies.

Income Changes – Social Security. A drop in income is frequently an unforeseen reality for many surviving spouses at the death of a spouse, especially those who are on Social Security benefits. For retirees without dependents that have reached full retirement age, the surviving spouse will typically get the greater of their social security or their deceased spouse’s benefits – but not both. For example, let’s assume Dirk and Melinda are receiving $2,000 and $1,500 per month in Social Security benefits, respectively. In the event Dirk dies, Melinda will no longer receive her benefit and will only receive Dirk’s $2,000 benefit. That is a 42% reduction in total social security income received.

Social Security benefits typically start at 62, but a widow’s benefit can be available at age 60 for the survivor or at 50 if the survivor is disabled within seven years of the spouse’s death. Moreover, unmarried children under 18 (up to age 19 if attending elementary or secondary school full time) of a worker who passes away may also be eligible to get Social Security survivor benefits.

Income Changes – Pension Benefits. This is another type of income that may be decreased because of the death of a spouse. Those eligible to receive a pension often choose little or no survivorship benefits, which results in a sudden drop in income. Therefore, a single life annuity pension payment will end at the worker’s death leaving the survivor with no additional benefits. However, a 50% survivor option will pay 50% of the worker’s benefit to the surviving spouse at their death. A surviving spouse needs to understand what, if any pension benefits will continue and the financial effect of these changes.

Spousal IRA Benefits. Spouses must understand their options for inherited retirement accounts at the death of a spouse. A spousal beneficiary can roll the funds to their own IRA account, which lets the spousal beneficiary delay Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) until age 72. In this case, the spousal beneficiary’s life expectancy is used to calculate future RMDs. This may be appropriate for those over 59½, but spousal beneficiaries under that age that require retirement account distributions may subject themselves to early withdrawal penalties, including a tax and a 10% early withdrawal penalty, even on inherited funds. Spouses younger than 59½ may consider rolling the account to a beneficial or inherited IRA for more flexibility. In this case, RMDs will be taken annually based upon the life expectancy of the beneficiary, with distributions avoiding the 10% penalty. Distributions greater than the RMD may also be taken, while still avoiding early withdrawal penalties. Inherited IRAs can be a great tool for spousal beneficiaries who need income now to help support their lifestyle but have not reached 59½.

Updating the Estate Plan of the Surviving Spouse. It is easy to forget to review your estate plan drafted before the death of your spouse. Check on this with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Updating Financial Planning Projections. You don’t want to make any major decisions after the death of a spouse, you can still review the numbers. Create a new financial plan to help provide clarity.

Reference: nj.com (Jan. 9, 2021) “Financial planning considerations after the loss of a spouse”

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”