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.

Basic Estate Planning Documents

Having a well-prepared estate plan means that you have a estate planning documents in place to distribute your home, assets and possessions. However, the estate plan does more, says the article “Trustee Tips: Estate Planning Basics” from Wilmington Biz Insights: it also gives your family the insight and legally enforceable directions to follow, so they may honor your wishes.

Estate planning eliminates uncertainty and maximizes the value of the estate, by streamlining the transfer of assets to beneficiaries and minimizing estate tax liability. In addition, estate planning documents protect your estate and your family from mismanagement, creditor claims or claims from people or companies outside of the family.

Many people equate estate planning with owning a large home and significant wealth, but that’s not true. An estate includes everything people own: their personal residence, retirement accounts, insurance policies, investments and possessions.

A case can be made that estate planning is more important for people with a modest estate to preserve and protect what assets they have, versus a large estate where the family enjoys a large cushion against poverty.

The basic estate planning documents are a last will and testament, trusts, financial power of attorney, health care power of attorney and a living will.

A Last Will and Testament provides instructions to the probate court of the decedent’s final wishes, including naming an executor to carry out the instructions. It also contains instructions on who will raise minor children by naming a guardian. This document, and any other documents filed with the probate court, become part of the public record, and can be accessed by anyone who wishes to see them.

A Revocable Trust also provides instructions but avoids probate. The trust creates a legal entity that owns assets (once they are retitled and placed in the trust). The individual who creates a revocable trust remains in control of the assets, as long as they are alive. The revocable trust can be changed at any time.

A Pour-Over Will is an estate planning document used with a revocable trust. It ensures that any assets not included in the Revocable Trust are “poured-over” into the trust upon death, protecting them from the probate process and keeping your wishes private.  Anything going through the Pour-Over Will goes through probate, so it should be used only as a safety net.

A financial Power of Attorney and Designation of Health Care Surrogate are documents used to give control of legal and financial affairs and health care decisions, in the event of incapacity.

The Living Will provides directions to designated persons, usually family members, about what kind of medical care is desired in the event of an inability to communicate. This is a gift to loved ones, who would otherwise be left guessing what the person would wish. A HIPAA release should also be prepared to allow doctors to discuss medical matters with the Health Care Power of Attorney.

An estate plan is a way to protect the family’s well-being, not just distributing property and minimizing taxes. Well-crafted estate planning documents, created for the family’s unique situation, helps avoid family fights, litigation within and outside of the family and provides direction for the next generation.  We can help you plan your estate.

Reference: Wilmington Biz Insights (Nov. 17, 2020) “Trustee Tips: Estate Planning Basics”

 

Estate Planning Disasters

The potential of estate planning disasters looms in the near future.  One of the largest wealth transfers our nation has ever seen is about to occur, since in the next 25 years, roughly $68 trillion of wealth will be passed to succeeding generations. This event has unique planning opportunities for those who are prepared, and also big challenges due to the ever-changing legal and tax world of estate planning.

Fox Business’ article “5 estate planning disasters you’ll want to avoid,” discusses the biggest estate planning disasters to avoid.

Failing to properly name beneficiaries. This common estate planning mistake is easily overlooked, when setting up a retirement plan for the first time or when switching investment companies. A big advantage of adding a beneficiary to your account, is that the account will avoid probate and pass directly to your beneficiaries.

Any account with a properly listed beneficiary designation will override what is written in your will or revocable living trust. Therefore, you should review your investment and bank accounts to make certain that your beneficiaries are accurate and match your intentions.

Naming a minor as a beneficiary. This can be an estate planning disaster, if they are still minors when you die. A minor won’t have the legal authority to take control of inheritance or investment accounts until they reach the age of 18 or 21 (depending on state law). When a minor receives an asset as a beneficiary, a court-appointed guardianship will be created to supervise and manage the assets on behalf of the minor. To avoid this mistake, you can name a guardian for the minor child in your will.

Forgetting to fund a trust. Creating a trust is the first step, but many people don’t properly fund their trust after it’s established.  If you don’t transfer your assets to the trust, they will have to go through probate – a serious estate planning disaster.

Making a tax mess for your heirs. A significant advantages of passing on real estate or other highly appreciated investments or property, is that your beneficiaries receive what is known as a “step-up” in basis, so that they aren’t responsible for any income taxes on the appreciated assets when they are received. The exception is when inheriting retirement accounts, such as 401k’s and traditional IRAs. Except for a surviving spouse, inheriting a traditional IRA or 401k means that you are now responsible for the taxes owed. With the recent passage of the SECURE Act, most non-spouse beneficiaries must totally withdraw a 401k or IRA within 10 years. It is deemed to be ordinary income for beneficiaries, which could result in a huge tax bill for your heirs. To avoid this, you can convert some or all of your retirement account assets to a Roth IRA during your lifetime, which lets you to pay the conversion taxes at your current income tax rate—a rate that may be much lower than your children or grandchildren’s tax rate. When you pass away, any money that is passed inside a Roth IRA goes tax-free to your heirs, avoiding an estate planning disaster.

Failing to create a comprehensive estate plan. Properly establishing your estate plan now, will care for your loved ones financially, and can also save them a lot of emotional stress after you’re gone.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about planning now. It can really affect your family for generations. It is one of the best gifts that you can leave your family.

Reference: Fox Business (Nov. 12, 2020) “5 estate planning disasters you’ll want to avoid”

Get Your Estate Plan Done!

It is important to stop procrastinating and to get your estate plan done.  While many people have had their wills updated or created in response to the pandemic, millions of Americans have yet to do so, reports the article “How to Stop Stalling On Getting a Will and Estate Plan” from AARP Magazine. The main reasons for the big stall? They haven’t “gotten around to it,” or, they think they don’t have enough assets to leave to anyone and don’t need a will. Neither reason is valid.

Estate Plans Protect Us During Life. A will is a legal document used to distribute assets after death. It saves families from unnecessary costs and stresses resulting from intestacy, which is what having no will is called. However, there are more documents to an estate plan than just a will. Two of them are health care directives, often called a living will and a Designation of Health Care Surrogate. These documents name someone of your choosing to make medical decisions for you if you are unable. It is also used to outline the kind of medical treatments you do or do not want.  These scenarios are vital reasons for getting your estate plan done.

Imagine your family faced with making the decision of keeping you on a heart and lung machine or pulling the plug and letting you die. Would they know what you want them to do? Without a living will, they have to make a decision, and hope it’s the one you would have wanted. That’s quite a burden to put on your loved ones, especially since there is a simple way for you to convey your wishes in a legally enforceable manner.

You also Need a Power of Attorney. A financial power of attorney appoints a person of your choosing to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated. This is an important document and can be created to be as broad or as narrow as you want. You can provide the direction for someone—a trusted, responsible adult—to manage finances, including paying bills, managing a portfolio, paying a mortgage and generally taking over the business of your life. Without it, your family will need to go to court to obtain a guardianship and/or conservatorship to take care of these matters.

Estate Planning Requires Hard Conversations. When people say they “haven’t gotten around” to doing their wills, what they are really thinking is “This is too unpleasant a topic for me” or “I can’t bring myself to have this conversation with my children.” Death and sickness are uncomfortable topics, and most people find it painful to discuss them with their spouses and their children, and result in not getting your estate plan done.

However, imagine the great relief you will feel when your loved ones know what your wishes are for sickness and death. You can also imagine the relief they will have in knowing that you took the time give them the tools needed to deal with whatever the future will bring.

Joint Wills are Never a Good Idea. A joint will can leave a surviving spouse in a terrible legal and financial situation. They are not even valid in certain states. They can restrict a surviving spouse from changing the instructions of the will, which could create all kinds of hardships. Circumstances change, and a joint will won’t allow for that. Most couples opt for a “Mirror” will, where they leave the estate to each other and/or their children.

Blended Families Need Special Treatment. If your family is made up of children from different parents, it is important to understand that stepchildren are not treated the same as children by the law. You may love your stepchildren as if they were your own, but unless you specifically name them in the will, they will not be included. Your estate planning attorney will know how to address this issue.

A few final thoughts: estate planning laws of each state are different, so you should meet with an estate planning attorney who practices in your state. The Power of Attorney and Health Care Directives should name the people who you feel will carry out your wishes and can be trusted to do as you want. The person does not have to be the oldest male child. They don’t even have to be related to you, as long as the person you choose is trustworthy, responsible and good with managing money and details. But most importantly, get your estate plan done.

Reference: AARP Magazine (Nov. 12, 2020) “How to Stop Stalling On Getting a Will and Estate Plan”

Probate Without a Will

Probate, also called “estate administration,” is the management and final settlement of a deceased person’s estate. It is conducted by an executor, also known as a personal representative, who is nominated in the will and approved by the court. Estate administration needs to be done when there are assets subject to probate, regardless of whether there is a will, says the article “Probating your spouse’s will” from The Huntsville Item.

Probate is the formal process of administering a person’s estate. Without a will, probate also establishes heirship. In some regions, this is a quick and easy process, while in others it is a lengthy, complex and expensive process. The complexity depends upon the size and value of the estate, whether a proper estate plan was prepared by the decedent prior to death and if there are family members or others who might contest the will.

Family dynamics can cause a tremendous amount of complications and delays, especially if the family has blended children from prior marriages or if a child has predeceased their parents.

There are some exceptions, when the estate is extremely small and when probate is not required. However, in most cases, it is required.

A recent District Court case ruled that a will not admitted to probate is not effective for proving title and thereby ownership, to real estate. A title company was sued for defamation after the title company issued a title report that included the statement that the decedent had died intestate, that is, without a will.

The decedent’s son, who was her executor, sued the title company because his mother did indeed have a will and the title report was defamatory. The court rejected this theory, and the case was brought to the Appellate Court to seek relief for the family. The Appellate Court ruled that until a will has been admitted to probate, it is not effective for the purpose of proving title to real property.

If a person owns real estate, they must have an estate plan to ensure that their property can be successfully transferred to heirs. When there is no estate plan, heirs find out how big a problem probate without a will can be when someone decides they want to sell the property or divide it up among family members.

Problems also arise when the family finds that they must pay taxes on the property or that there are expenses that must be paid to maintain the property. Without a will, the disposition of the property is determined by the state’s estate law. Things can become complicated quickly when probate without a will is required.

If the deceased spouse has children from outside the most recent marriage, those children may have rights to the property and end up owning a portion of the property along with the surviving spouse. However, neither the children nor the surviving spouse can sell the property without each other’s approval. This is a common occurrence.

There are also limitations as to how probate can be used to distribute and manage an estate. In some states, the time limit is four years from the date of death.

An estate planning attorney can help the family move through the probate process more efficiently when there is no will. A better situation would be for the family to speak with their parents about having a will and estate plan created before it’s too late.

Reference: The Huntsville Item (Nov. 22, 2020) “Probating your spouse’s will”

Suggested Key Terms: Probate, Last Will and Testament, Surviving Spouse, Estate Planning Attorney, Title

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”

 

Estate Administration Tips

More than 75% of advisors polled by Key Private Bank said the most difficult part of estate administration is dealing with interfamily dynamics, according to a survey released in 2019.

Channel 10 Boston’s recent article entitled “Executor of a Family Estate? Here’s How to Avoid Infighting Over Inherited Wealth” reports that the bank surveyed 130 of its client-facing advisors about their experience with individuals who are doing estate planning.

“The sensitivities of talking about estate planning often present emotional hurdles to putting a plan in place — especially when multiple marriages and blended families are involved,” stated Karen Arth, Head of Trust with Key Private Bank, in the survey release.  The victim is often the personal representative who is responsible for the estate administration.

Many family conflicts surrounding assets and estate planning are caused by miscommunication. The older generation should ask their children to join the conversation. Without this step, there can be a lack of clarity and transparency from generation to generation. The older generation believes that it did everything right in their estate planning, but often they don’t explain their reasoning to their children and didn’t give their children a chance to offer any input.

One way to prevent drama, as well as ways to remedy conflicts already started, is to begin the communication while everyone is alive.

When a person dies, they may leave an entire estate, with a lifetime of items to family. However, many of these items might not be listed in the will. As a result, the family must divide them up among themselves. Conflicts around sentimental value can arise during the estate administration. It is a good idea to seek help from a third party, so they can bring clarity and allow everyone to cool down. There are facilitators who can help. They are not just financial advisors and family dynamics experts but also professional mediators, who can help the family come to an agreement.

It is critical to have an open dialogue, when it comes to dividing up assets. One way to avoid conflict is for the heirs to create wish lists of items they’d like, that can then be reviewed by the personal representative of the estate. Some people categorize items into groups of equal value, and others decide who gets what by rolling the dice. Whatever the method, open communication is vital to avoiding conflict during estate administration.

We can address these issues and help you plan your estate.

Reference: Channel 10 Boston (Nov. 12, 2020) “Executor of a Family Estate? Here’s How to Avoid Infighting Over Inherited Wealth”

 

The Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes

Heirs who are prepared to inherit wealth, with families who talk about wealth and have an estate plan, will do better than those who do not, says the West Haven Observer’s recent article “5 Estate planning disasters you’ll want to avoid.” A constantly changing legal and tax environment presents significant challenges, but a few simple steps may save your beneficiaries from the expense and stress of these common estate planning mistakes.

  1. Not designating beneficiaries properly. This is one of the most common estate planning mistakes, and one that cannot always be fixed. It’s easy to forget whose name you put on a pension or life insurance plan thirty years ago. However, failing to check those beneficiaries, especially if your life has undergone big changes, can lead to the wrong people enjoying the proceeds.

Using beneficiary designations is an excellent way to bypass the process of probate, since assets that pass this way are not subject to probate. Depending upon where you live, probate can be a long, drawn out process. A beneficiary designation is far simpler and more efficient.

Failing to name a beneficiary when setting up bank accounts, opening CDs, and savings accounts is a common error. This can be fixed by making these accounts “TOD,” or Transfer on Death, and the account goes directly to your beneficiary.

Your will does not control any beneficiary designations. That’s why this step is so important.

2-Designating a minor as a beneficiary. You love your grandchildren, but unless they are adults, they cannot inherit assets until they are 18 or 21, depending on the laws of your state. If a minor does receive an asset, the court appoints a guardian to supervise and manage the assets. Your estate planning attorney will advise you on your individual situation, but one alternative is to list a guardian for the minor child inside the will, so the court appoints the person who you choose to manage the property until the child becomes of age.

Another means of providing for young children or grandchildren is to create a trust. The trust names a trustee who is usually a trusted friend or relative who is knowledgeable and responsible. They manage the assets on behalf of the child. The trust also permits assets to pass without probate.

3-Failing to fund a trust. All too often, this estate planning mistake is the weak link that breaks the estate. Placing assets within the trust is called funding. Usually this means changing the ownership of bank accounts or real estate from being owned by an individual to being owned by the trust. If the trust is not funded and the will has instructions that seemingly contradict the trust, the asset will need to go through probate and the trust instructions will be ignored.

4-Leaving a tax nightmare for heirs. One of the many advantages of passing on real estate or other assets that appreciate that beneficiaries get a “step up” in basis. That means the heirs are not responsible for any income taxes on the appreciated assets. This can be a very big benefit. There are exceptions—inherited IRAs and 401(k)s don’t have this advantage. However, the recent passage of the SECURE Act has taken away many tax benefits for IRA heirs. Most non-spouse beneficiaries must fully withdraw the entire amount from the IRA or 401(k) within ten years, and the withdrawal is considered ordinary income. It could leave your heirs with a huge, unexpected tax bill.

There is a workaround. By converting some or perhaps all of your retirement accounts to a Roth IRA during your lifetime, you can pay the taxes when converting the IRA to a Roth IRA at your current tax rate, which may be lower than your children or grandchildren’s rate. When you die, any money in the Roth IRA goes to heirs completely tax free.

5-The biggest estate planning mistake of all is not having an estate plan. Thinking about your legacy plan, mortality and incapacity is not fun for anyone. However, by spending the time and resources in creating an estate plan, you spare your loved ones from an inordinate amount of stress and expenses, which they will appreciate. One of the best gifts you can give your loved ones is a well-thought out, properly created and executed estate plan.

Let us help you avoid estate planning mistakes.

Reference: West Haven Observer (Nov. 12, 2020) “5 Estate planning disasters you’ll want to avoid”

 

Probate and Real Estate

There as unique issues when dealing with probate and real estate. For a family whose 91-year-old mother lives in her home, has a will and has appointed two sisters as attorneys in fact under her Power of Attorney and personal representatives of her estate, the question of handling the transfer of the home is explored in a recent article from the Herald Tribune, “Transfer title now or go through probate in the future?”

The family wasn’t sure if it made more sense to transfer the title to her two daughters and son while she was still living, or let the children handle the transfer as part of the estate. The brother may wish to purchase the home after the mother passes, as he lives with his mother.

If nothing is done, the house will be part of the probate estate. An estate will have to be opened, a representative will be appointed by the court (usually the personal representative of the will) and then the personal representative can sell assets in the estate, close accounts and deal with the IRS and the Social Security Administration. The probate process can be time-consuming and expensive, depending on where the mother lives.

There are a number of steps that could be taken to simplify things and make sure that probate and real estate do not become an issue. The mom’s assets can be held jointly, so they pass to the surviving owner, an enhanced life estate deed can be created, under which the the children would acquire title automatically at her death, or a trust can be created, and her assets be titled to the trust, so they pass automatically to beneficiaries.

The issue of the house becomes a little more complicated because there are so many options. If the house has appreciated significantly over the years, keeping it in the estate will minimize taxes that have to be paid if and when it is sold.

For example, let’s say the house has increased in value by $250,000. Under current tax law, the mother can exclude up to $250,000 in profits from the sale of the home. This is the exclusion before the sale of a primary residence where the owner has lived in the home for two out of the last five years.

If she signs a quitclaim deed now to give the home to her three children, the IRS will consider this a gift to the three children. Her cost basis in the property (what she paid for the home, plus the cost of any material or structural improvements) will be transferred to the children. However, when the children go to sell the property, they won’t have that same $250,000 exclusion. The three siblings will have to pay federal income or capital gains tax on the same of the home.  The mother may also lose her Florida homestead exemption.

However, if the home remains in the mother’s estate when she passes, the siblings inherit the home at the stepped-up basis. In other words, the value of the house (for estate tax purposes) will rise to the current market value at the time of her death, and not the value when she paid for the house. If the children decide to sell the house immediately, there won’t be any profit and there won’t be any taxes.

In Florida, the children would be able to use an enhanced life estate deed that would let the property transfer automatically to heirs upon the mother’s death. The siblings then inherit the property at the stepped-up value and avoid the problems of probate and real estate.

Here’s another question to consider: how does the cost of setting up trusts and enhanced life estate deeds compare to the estimated cost of probating the estate?

This family, and others in the same situation, should speak with an estate planning attorney to evaluate their options. The siblings in this case need to clarify whether their brother wants to buy the house and if he is able to do so. The mom then needs to make a decision, while she is still able to do so, because after all, it’s still her home.

Reference: Herald-Tribune (Nov. 7, 2020) “Transfer title now or go through probate in the future?”

 

Estate Tax Exemption for 2021?

The amount of the federal estate tax exemption is adjusted annually for inflation. Yahoo Sports’ recent article “Estate Tax Exemption Amount Goes Up for 2021” says that when you die your estate isn’t usually subject to the federal estate tax, if the value of your estate is less than the exemption amount. The 2021 exemption amount will be $11.7 million (up from $11.58 million for 2020). It is twice that amount for a married couple.

Just a small percentage of Americans die with an estate worth $11.7 million or more. However, for estates that do, the federal tax bill is can be taxed at a 40% rate. As the table below shows, the first $1 million is taxed at lower rates – from 18% to 39%. That results in a total tax of $345,800 on the first $1 million, which is $54,200 less than what the tax would be if the entire estate were taxed at the top rate. However, when you are beyond the first $1 million, everything else is taxed at the 40% rate.

Rate | Taxable Amount (Value of Estate Exceeding Exemption)

18% | $0 to $10,000

20% | $10,001 to $20,000

22% | $20,001 to $40,000

24% | $40,001 to $60,000

26% | $60,001 to $80,000

28% | $80,001 to $100,000

30% | $100,001 to $150,000

32% | $150,001 to $250,000

34% | $250,001 to $500,000

37% | $500,001 to $750,000

39% | $750,001 to $1 million

40% | Over $1 million

Note that the 2018 increase is temporary. The base exemption amount is set to drop back down to $5 million (adjusted for inflation) in 2026. There’s also a chance if Joe Biden is president, the federal estate tax exemption might go back down sooner. This is because he has called for a reduction of the exemption amount to pre-2018 levels.

Don’t Forget State Estate Taxes. While an estate isn’t subject to federal estate tax, the estate might be subject to a state estate tax. In fact, 12 states and DC impose their own estate tax. The state exemption amounts are also often much lower than the federal estate tax exemption. Six states also levy an inheritance tax, which is paid by the heirs. Maryland has both an estate tax and an inheritance tax.  Florida does not have an estate tax nor an inheritance tax.  Let us help you plan your estate.

Reference: Yahoo Sports (Oct. 27, 2020) “Estate Tax Exemption Amount Goes Up for 2021”