Estate Planning

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.

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?”

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”

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”

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”

 

Fund Your Trust

Funding your trust is vital to the success of an estate plan. Thinking you have divided assets equally between children by creating a trust that names all as equal heirs, while placing only one child’s name on other assets is not an equally divided estate plan. Instead, as described in the article “Estate Planning: Fund the trust” from nwi.com, this arrangement is likely to lead to an estate battle.

One father did just that. He set up a trust with explicit instructions to divide everything equally among his heirs. However, only one brother was made a joint owner on his savings and checking accounts and the title of the family home.

Upon his death, ownership of the savings and checking accounts and the home would go directly to the brother. Assets in the trust, if there are any, will be divided equally between the children. That’s probably not what the father had in mind, but legally the other siblings will have no right to the non-trust assets.

This is an example of why creating a trust is only one part of an estate plan. You must also fund your trust or it will not work.

Many estate plans include what is called a “pour-over will” usually executed just after the trust is executed. It is a safety net that “catches” any assets not funded into the trust and transfers them into it. However, this transfer requires probate, and since probate avoidance is a goal of having a trust, it is not the best solution.

The situation as described above is confusing. Why would one brother be a joint owner of assets, if the father means for all of the children to share equally in the inheritance? When the father passes, the brother will own the assets. If the matter went to court, the court would very likely decide that the father’s intention was for the brother to inherit them. Whatever language is in the trust will be immaterial.

If the father’s intention is for the siblings to share the estate equally, the changes need to be made while he is living. The brother’s name needs to come off the accounts and the title to the home, and they all need to be funded (re-titled) in the name of the trust. The brother will need to sign off on removing his name. If he does not wish to do so, it’s going to be a legal challenge.

The family needs to address the situation as soon as possible with an experienced estate planning attorney. Even if the brother won’t sign off on changing the names of the assets, as long as the father is living there are options. Once he has passed, the family’s options will be limited. Estate battles can consume a fair amount of the estate’s value and destroy the family’s relationships.

We can help you fund your trust as part of a successful estate plan.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 17, 2021) “Estate Planning: Fund the trust”

 

Inheritance and Estate Taxes

The District of Columbia already moved to reduce its estate tax exemption from $5.67 million in 2020 to $4 million for individuals who die on or after Jan. 1, 2021. A resident with a taxable estate of $10 million living in the District of Columbia will owe nearly $1 million in state estate tax, says the article “State Death Tax Hikes Loom: Where Not To Die In 2021” from Forbes. It won’t be the last change in these taxes.

Seventeen states and D.C. levy their own inheritance or estate taxes in addition to the federal estate tax, which as of this writing is so high that it effects very few Americans. In 2021, the federal estate tax exemption is $11.7 million per person. In 2026, it will drop back to $5 million per person, with adjustments for inflation. However, that is only if nothing changes.  Florida has no state estate tax or inheritance tax.

President Joseph Biden has already called for the federal estate tax to return to the 2009 level of $3.5 million per person. The increased tax revenue purportedly would be used to pay for the costs of fighting the “pandemic” and the “infrastructure improvements” he plans, but many believe such a move would potentially destroy family businesses, farms and ranches that drive and feed the economy in the first place. If that were not troubling enough, President Biden has threatened to eliminate the step up in basis on appreciated assets at death.

This change at the federal level is likely to push changes at the state level. States that don’t have a death tax may look at adding one as a means of increasing revenue, meaning that death tax planning as a part of estate planning will become important in the near future.

States with high estate tax exemptions could reduce their state exemptions to the federal exemption, adding to the state’s income and making things simpler. Right now, there is a disconnect between the federal and the state tax exemptions, which leads to considerable confusion.

Five states have made changes in 2021, in a variety of forms. Vermont has increased its exemption from $4.25 million in 2020 to $5 million in 2021, after sitting at $2.75 million from 2011 to 2019.

Connecticut’s exemption had been $2 million for more than ten years, but in 2021 it will be $7.1 million. Connecticut has many millionaires that the state does not wish to scare away, so the Nutmeg state is keeping a $15 million cap, which would be the tax due on an estate of about $129 million.

Three states increased their exemptions because of inflation. Maine has slightly increased its exemption because of inflation to $5.9 million, up from $5.8 million in 2020. Rhode Island is at $1,595.156 in 2021, up from $1,579,922 in 2020. In New York, the exemption amount increased to $5.93 million in 2021, from $5.85 million in 2020.

The overall trend in the recent past had been towards reducing or eliminating state estate taxes. In 2018, New Jersey dropped their tax, but kept an inheritance tax. In 2019, Maryland added a portability provision to its estate tax, so a surviving spouse may carry over the unused predeceased spouse’s exemption amount. Most states do not have a portability provision.

Another way to grab revenue is targeting the richest estate with rate hikes, which is what Hawaii did. As of January 1, 2020, Hawaii boosted its state tax on estates valued at more than $10 million to 20%.

Let us help you plan your move to Florida and avoid estate taxes and inheritance taxes.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 15, 2021) “State Death Tax Hikes Loom: Where Not To Die In 2021”

 

What is an Intestate Estate?

Intestate estates can make the administration of a probate estate very confusing.  Imagine a scenario where three brothers’ biological father passed away a decade ago. The father wasn’t married to the brothers’ mother, plus, he had another family with three children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. The father never publicly acknowledged that the three boys were his children. They’ve now heard rumors that he left them something in his will—which may or may not exist. The father’s wife has also passed away.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “How can we find out if our father left us something in his will?” explains that a parent isn’t required to leave his or her adult children an inheritance.

If a person doesn’t leave a will when they die, the intestacy laws of the state in which he or she dies will dictate how the decedent’s property is divided.

For example, if you die intestate (without a will) in Florida, there is a surviving spouse and the decedent has no living children or grandchildren or great-grandchildren (lineal descendants), then the surviving spouse gets the entire probate estate. If the decedent has lineal descendants, and all of them are also lineal descendants of the surviving spouse, then the surviving spouse gets the first $60,000 of the probate estate and half of the balance of the probate estate. The lineal descendants split the remaining half. If the decedent has lineal descendants, and one or more of them are not lineal descendants of the surviving spouse, then the surviving spouse gets one-half of the probate estate and the lineal descendants divide the other half equally among themselves.  You can see what happens in other situations at EstatePlanningInFlorida. com

Note that an intestate estate doesn’t include property that’s in the joint name of the decedent and another person with rights of survivorship or payable upon death to another beneficiary. In our problem above, the issue would be whether the three boys would’ve been entitled to a percentage of the property permitted under the state intestacy statute, or under a will if you could prove there was one.

However, the time for the three boys to make a claim against their father’s intestate estate would have been at his death. A 10-year delay is a problem. It may prevent a recovery because there are time limitations for bringing legal actions. However, they may have other claims, and there may be reasons you are not too late.

Litigation is very fact-specific, and the rules are state-specific. The boys should talk to an estate litigation attorney, if they think there are enough assets to make at it worth their while.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 29, 2020) “How can we find out if our father left us something in his will?”

Let us help you plan your estate.

Homestead and Revocable Trusts

There is a lot of confusion surrounding the issue of homestead and Revocable Trusts. Some clients have said that they have been told that you cannot transfer homestead into a Revocable Trust. If this were the case, a major asset of most people’s estates would be left vulnerable to probate.  My website, Estate Planning in Florida addresses this issue.

In order to fully address this issue, we have to delve into the complexities of the Florida homestead law. The law regarding Florida homestead is set forth in the state constitution as well as various sections of the Florida Statutes. It cover three distinct areas.

The first area, which most people are familiar with, concerns the exemption from property tax of the first $25,000 in value, and the exemption from property taxes (except school taxes) the third $25,000 in value.

The second aspect involves the exemption of homestead from the claims of creditors.

The third area is what we will be discussing in this article. It deals with what happens to homestead property when its owner dies. The restrictions contained in this part of the law deal only with married persons or persons with minor children. If you are a single person without minor children, there are no restrictions and you may transfer your homestead to your Revocable Trust without any adverse consequences.

However, if you are married, Florida law regarding homestead and revocable trusts states that your homestead may not be devised if the you are survived by a spouse, unless it is devised to that spouse.  A devise is a distribution of property pursuant to a Will or Trust.

If a married person tries to leave his interest in the homestead to someone other than his spouse, that transfer would, under the law, be void. Instead, the law says that in this case, the spouse would receive a life estate in the property and at the spouse’s death the homestead would pass to the lineal descendants of the person who died first.

As you can guess, this creates huge title problems for the surviving spouse. She would not be able to sell the homestead or put a mortgage on it without the consent of the deceased spouse’s lineal descendants.

What, you may ask, does this have to do with my homestead and Revocable Trust? Some attorneys and title examiners believe that leaving the property in joint trust after the death of one spouse is different from leaving it directly to the spouse, as required by the homestead law. They contend that this causes the ugly life estate scenario and that any future transactions will require consent of the lineal descendants.

Because of this, I structure your Trust to distribute the deceased spouse’s share of the homestead directly to the surviving spouse. The surviving spouse would then deed that interest back into the Trust. In this way we comply with the homestead law and avoid probate.

One exception to titling your homestead into the Revocable Trust is when you have minor children. In this situation the law states, “the homestead shall not be subject to devise if the owner is survived by a spouse or minor child, except that the homestead may be devised to the owner’s spouse if there is no minor child.”  If a person dies leaving a minor child and tries to devise the homestead to his spouse, the spouse would only get a life estate and the property will pass to the deceased spouse’s lineal descendants upon the death of the second spouse.

Because property owned by husband and wife as tenants by the entireties is exempt from this provision, the property should not be put into the Trust if you have minor children.  Instead it should be titled in you and your spouse as husband and wife.  This will provide a right of survivorship upon the first spouse’s death.

Let us help you plan your estate.

D-I-Y Estate Planning

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning Mistakes” provides some issues that D-I-Y estate planners might encounter and why it is best to consult an experienced estate planning attorney.

What are the Right Questions to Ask?  Completing a simple and straightforward form—like a beneficiary designation for your IRA— is one thing, but what about tax consequences, probate law, new legislation and court procedures? Are you ready to take these on? The trick is that you may not know what you don’t know. D-I-Y estate planning could prove to be disastrous That’s why it’s money well-spent to employ the services of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Is My Situation Complex? Likewise, you may have property and assets all over the country (or world) that require expert advice. You must be certain that your planning, tax planning and financial planning all work together because they’re all interrelated. If you only work on one of these areas at a time, you may create complications in another area and unintentionally increase your expenses or taxes. It can also create headaches and expense for your heirs. If you have a child with special needs, a blended family, or want to control how and where a beneficiary spends your money, a D-I-Y estate planning approach won’t do. Instead, you should see an experienced estate planning attorney.

What are the Probate Laws in My State? Estate planning laws and taxes are different in each state.  Your state will have different rules and legal procedures for creating and administering an estate. There are many different state laws that govern inheritance taxes. There are 17 states plus DC that tax your estate, inheritance or both, and the tax laws can affect your situation when planning. Eleven states plus DC have only an inheritance tax. One state taxes both inheritances and estates.

If you mess up your D-Y-I estate planning documents, if could cause significant problems for your family. You best bet is to work with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state.

Reference: US News & World Report (Dec. 18, 2020) “Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning Mistakes”

 

Irrevocable Trusts

Irrevocable trusts are mainly used for tax planning, says a recent article from Think Advisor titled “10 Facts to Know About Irrevocable Trusts.”  Their key purpose is to take assets out of an estate, reducing the chances of having to pay estate taxes. For estate planning purposes, placing assets inside the irrevocable trust is the same as giving it to an heir. If the estate exceeds the current limit of $11.7 million, then an irrevocable trust would be a smart move. Remember the $11.7 million includes life insurance policy proceeds. Many states with estate taxes also have far lower exemptions than the federal estate tax, so high income families still have to be concerned with paying estate taxes.

However, let’s not forget that beneficiaries must pay taxes on the income they receive from an irrevocable trust, usually at ordinary income tax rates. On the plus side, trusts are not subject to gift tax, so the trust can pay out more than the current gift tax limit of $15,000 every year.

If the trust itself generates income that remains inside the trust, then the trust will have to pay income taxes on the income.

Asset protection is another benefit from an irrevocable trust. If you are sued, any assets in the irrevocable trust are beyond the reach of a legal judgment, a worthwhile strategy for people who have a greater likelihood of being sued because of their profession. However, the irrevocable trust must be created long before lawsuits are filed.

A physician who transfers a million-dollar home into the trust on the eve of a malpractice lawsuit, for instance, may be challenged with having made a fraudulent transfer to the trust.

There is a cost to an irrevocable trust’s protection. You have to give up control of the assets and have no control over the trust. Legally you could be a trustee, but that means you have control over the trust, which means you will lose all tax benefits and asset protections.

Most people name a trusted family member or business associate to serve as the trustee. Consider naming a successor trustee, in case the original trustee is unable to fulfill their duties.

If you don’t want to give someone else control of your assets, you may wish to use a revocable trust and give up some of the protections of an irrevocable trust.

Despite the name, changes can be made to an irrevocable trust by the trustee. Trust documents can designate a “trust protector,” who is empowered to make certain changes to the trust. Many states have regulations concerning changes to the administrative aspects of a trust, and a court has the power to make changes to a trust.

An irrevocable trust can buy and sell property. If a house is placed into the irrevocable trust, the house can be sold, as long as the proceeds go into the trust. The trust is responsible for paying taxes on any profits from the sale. However, you can request that the trustee use the proceeds from selling a house to buy a different house. Be sure the new house is titled correctly: owned by the trust, and not you.

Asset swaps may be used to change irrevocable trusts. Let’s say you want to buy back an asset from the trust, but don’t want that asset to go back into your estate when you die. There are tax advantages for doing this. If the trust holds an asset that has become highly appreciated, swap cash for the asset and the basis on which the asset’s capital gains is calculated gets reset to its fair value, eliminating any capital gains on a later sale of the asset.

Loss of control is part of the irrevocable trust downside. Make sure that you have enough assets to live on before putting everything into the trust. You can’t sell assets in the trust to produce personal income.

Transferring assets to an irrevocable trust helps maintain eligibility for means-tested government programs, like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. Assets and income sheltered within an irrevocable trust are not counted as personal assets for these kinds of program limits. However, Medicaid has a look-back period of five years, so the transfer of a substantial asset to such a trust must have taken place five years before applying for Medicaid.

Talk with your estate planning attorney first. Not every irrevocable trust satisfies each of these goals. It is also possible that an irrevocable trust may not fit your needs. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan that suits your needs best for tax planning, asset protection and legacy building.

Reference: Think Advisor (Dec. 16, 2020) “10 Facts to Know About Irrevocable Trusts”