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Estate Planning Documents You Should Have

This post describes estate planning documents you should have. You might think that the coronavirus pandemic has caused everyone to get their estate planning documents in order, but the 20th annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Retirees found that 30% of all retirees have nothing prepared—not even a will. That’s not good, for them or their families, says this timely article “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need—but Don’t Have” from MSN Money.

The survey revealed some troubling facts:

Only 32% have a Health Care Power Of Attorney or Designation of Health Care Surrogate, which allows named persons to make medical decisions on the retiree’s behalf.

Only 30% have an Advance Directive or Living Will, sharing their end-of-life wishes for medical care.

A mere 28% have a designated Durable Power of Attorney, so an agent can act on their behalf to pay bills and manage finances, if they are incapable of doing so themselves.

Worse, only 19% have written funeral and burial arrangements. Their families will be left to make all the decisions.

18% have a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) waiver, which is needed so someone else may speak with health care and insurance providers on their behalf.

11% have a Trust of any kind.

The study shines a bright light on a big problem that will be faced by families, if their elders have not created the proper estate planning documents to prepare for incapacity or death. Ignoring the problem does not make it go away. It becomes more complicated, expensive and stressful for the loved ones left behind.

These estate planning documents and a last will and testament are needed, so families have the legal right to take care of their loved ones while they are living, as well as handle their estates after they pass.

Without these estate planning documents, the family may find themselves having to go to court to have a guardian appointed in the event their senior loved ones are too ill to manage their financial affairs.

If the loved one should die and there is no will in place, the court will rely on the state’s estate laws to determine who inherits assets. An estranged family member could end up owning the family home and all of its contents, regardless of their absence from the family.

An experienced estate planning attorney can work with the family in a safe, socially distanced manner to have the necessary estate planning documents created, before they are needed.

Reference: MSN MONEY (Dec. 15, 2020) “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need—but Don’t Have”

 

Wills Don’t Avoid Probate

Wills don’t avoid probate.  A last will and testament is a straightforward estate planning tool, used to determine the beneficiaries of your assets when you die, and, if you have minor children, nominating a guardian who will raise your children. Wills can be very specific but can’t enforce all of your wishes. For example, if you want to leave your niece your car, but only if she uses it to attend college classes, there won’t be a way to enforce those terms in a will, says the article “Things you should never put in your will” from MSN Money.

If you have certain terms you want met by beneficiaries, your best bet is to use a trust, where you can state the terms under which your beneficiaries will receive distributions or assets.

Leaving things out of your will can actually benefit your heirs, because in most cases, they will get their inheritance faster. Here’s why: when you die, your will must be probated in a court of law before any property is distributed.  Wills don’t avoid probate.  Probate takes a certain amount of time, and if there are issues, it might be delayed. If someone challenges the will, it can take even longer.

However, property that is in a trust or in payable-on-death (POD) titled accounts pass directly to your beneficiaries outside of a will.

Don’t put any property or assets in a will that you don’t own outright. If you own any property jointly, upon your death the other owner will become the sole owner. This is usually done by married couples in community property states.

A trust may be the solution for more control. When you put assets in a trust, title is held by the trust. Property that is titled as owned by the trust becomes subject to the rules of the trust and is completely separate from the will. Since the trust operates independently, it is very important to make sure the property you want to be held by the trust is titled properly and to not include anything in your will that is owned by the trust.  Any property titled in a trust will avoid probate.  Wills don’t avoid probate.

Certain assets are paid out to beneficiaries because they feature a beneficiary designation. They also should not be mentioned in the will. You should check to ensure that your beneficiary designations are up to date every few years, so the right people will own these assets upon your death.

Here are a few accounts that are typically passed through beneficiary designations:

  • Bank accounts
  • Investments and brokerage accounts
  • Life insurance polices
  • Retirement accounts and pension plans.

Another way to pass property outside of the will, is to own it jointly. If you and a sibling co-own stocks in a jointly owned brokerage account and you die, your sibling will continue to own the account and its investments. This is known as joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Business interests can pass through a will, but that is not your best option. An estate planning attorney can help you create a succession plan that will take the business out of your personal estate and create a far more efficient way to pass the business along to family members, if that is your intent. If a partner or other owners will be taking on your share of the business after death, an estate planning attorney can be instrumental in creating that plan.

Funeral instructions don’t belong in a will. Family members may not get to see that information until long after the funeral. You may want to create a letter of instruction, a less formal document that can be used to relay these details.

Your account numbers, including passwords and usernames for online accounts, do not belong in a will. Remember a will becomes a public document, so anything you don’t want the general public to know after you have passed should not be in your will.

Reference: MSN Money (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

Let is help you plan your estate.

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”

 

Myths About Probate

The Pauls Valley Daily Democrat’s recent article entitled “It doesn’t end with the will” explains that there’s constant confusion about wills. This misunderstanding involves the scope of power of those named in the will as the personal representative (or executor) of the decedent’s estate. Let’s try to straighten out some of these myths or pieces of bad information about wills and probate.

The Personal Representative Doesn’t Need Court Permission. False. An estate executor or personal representative can’t distribute a decedent’s assets to themselves or to any heirs, until okayed by the court. Many people think that a will provides immediate authorization to distribute the assets of an estate.

If He had a Will, We Don’t need Probate. Another myth about probate is that if a person dies with a will, probate isn’t needed or required. If a person has a will, the will and the distributions named in it can only be made valid by the probate court. There are ways to avoid the probate process. However, having a will isn’t one of them.

The Personal Representative Can Start Giving Away Stuff ASAP. This is also false. Some people think that as soon as a person receives appointment as the personal representative or executor from the probate court, they can begin distributing assets from the decedent’s estate. Nope. If this were true, it would defeat the objectives of probate, which is court oversight and control.

The Court Doesn’t Monitor the Personal Representative’s Actions. This statement is also a myth about probate. The entire probate process is structured to provide a court monitored coordination of a decedent’s estate to make certain that his or her wishes are followed. This also helps to prevent unauthorized distributions or “raids” on a decedent’s assets by improper persons.

Remember, the executor’s Letters Testamentary authorize that person to act for the estate—they don’t permit any distributions before court approval or final probate court order.

What Does Probate Do? Probate fulfills these purposes:

  • At death, the deceased’s property is subject to control and monitoring by the court.
  • The court then starts to see what the decedent’s wishes were for distribution and who was named to administer the estate.
  • The court must also review the scope of the estate, define all assets in the estate and determine all debts of the estate.
  • Probate requires a notice to creditors, so the executor has a complete list of debts of the estate and to give each creditor the opportunity to be paid.
  • The court watches any transfers, sales of assets or payments during probate.
  • The executor is authorized to receive money and manage the assets of the estate, but he can’t withdraw or transfer assets from the estate.
  • At a final hearing and after notice to interested parties, the court determines who should get distributions.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the probate process and how to devise a complete estate plan.  We can help you avoid probate.

Reference: Pauls Valley Daily Democrat (Oct. 1, 2020) “It doesn’t end with the will”

 

Personal Property Distribution

Creating and probating a last will and testament is rarely a simple task, but one of the most challenging aspects is personal property distribution, warns the article “Be clear about personal property distribution in your will” from The News-Enterprise. The nature of personal property—that it is relatively low in market value but high in sentimental value—is just part of the problem.

You’d be surprised how many families fight over a favorite ceramic dish or an inexpensive oil painting. However, those fights slow down the process of settling the estate and can create unnecessary costs.

Personal property distribution is usually part of the residual estate, that which is left over when other assets, like a home, bank accounts, etc., have been distributed. Some families don’t even have a chance to select items, and instead find themselves in irrational bidding wars at estate sales.

This issue may be avoided by having precise language in the last will and testament about these items. First, the testator, the person who is creating the will, should outline the specific items they want to be given to specific people. Promised items should be listed and removed from the general pool of personal property.

Next, the testator names who should be included in the distribution of remaining personal property. Florida allows for a handwritten list to specify personal property distribution. While some people list the same recipients of the full estate, this is not always the case, particularly if there are no children or if property is being left to charity. One option is to limit the beneficiaries of personal items to only close family members.

Third, provide clear directions for how the remaining items will be distributed. Will beneficiaries take turns in a defined order? Should the property be appraised, and values being divided equally by the executor? Be as specific as possible.

If there are any unclaimed items, provide instructions for those as well. Do you want a collection of expensive cookware to be sent to a charitable organization? Clothing, furniture, and other items should be either donated to charity or sold at an estate sale, with the proceeds distributed between the beneficiaries.

Another way to avoid conflicts over personal property is to give away items, while you are living. Sentimental gifts are a good alternative for holiday gifts, especially for seniors on a fixed budget. This way the items are clearly out of the estate.

A warning for those who are thinking about taking the “sticky note” system: it rarely goes off without a hitch. Attaching stickers to items with the name of the person who you want to receive them is vulnerable to someone else removing the stickers. Similarly, naming one person to distribute all personal items could lead to strife between family members. There’s no legally enforceable way to ensure that they will follow your wishes.

Address the issue of personal property distribution with your estate planning attorney. They will be able to help determine the least acrimonious means of ensuring that the people you want will end up with the things you want.  Let us help you with your estate plan.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Sep. 29, 2020) “Be clear about personal property distribution in your will”

 

Prince’s Estate Planning Disaster

Another unnecessary probate lesson comes from Prince’s estate planning disaster. Filing probate documents was just the beginning of process that still hasn’t ended the bad news from the Prince estate. He did not have a spouse or children, but Prince had half-brothers and half-sisters, says a recent article from Forbes titled “Prince’s Estate Sues IRS Over Claimed $135 Million Tax Value.” There were a number of claims against the estate, and claims by the estate as well, including a wrongful death action that was eventually dismissed.

However, just like anyone else who dies without a will, probate takes a long time and is expensive. Things also get complicated quickly, especially with an estate of this size.

One of Prince’s half-sisters, Tyka Nelson, sold a portion of her share of the estate to Primary Wave, a music publisher. So did another sibling. And then the tax troubles began. Cash poor or not, estates must pay a federal estate tax of 40%. A federal estate tax return needs to be filed, and while audits are rare, almost every estate of this magnitude is audited by the IRS. The estate reported a taxable value of $82 million, but the IRS isn’t satisfied.

Estate tax fights with the IRS can go on for a long time. Michael Jackson’s estate battle with the IRS is still going on—and he died in 2009.

Papers filed by Prince’s estate in the U.S. Tax Court show that the estate reported a taxable value of $82 million, but the IRS claims that the value is really $163 million and wants an additional $38.7 million. In every case, Prince’s estate has obtained appraisals to support its reported values, but the IRS has its own appraisers who disagree.

Even if Prince had a will, there still could have been problems. Heath Ledger had a will, but it was five years old when he died and there was no provision made for his daughter. James Gandolfini had a will, but his estate gave the IRS $30 million of his $70 million. These estate planning disaster stories make estate planning attorneys cringe. Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, and James Gandolfini’s estates all ended up with wills in probate, which is public, expensive, time-consuming and unnecessary. A will does have to go through the court process, but the use of a revocable trust could have disposed of their assets outside of probate. A simple pour-over will would have given everything to the revocable trust, simply, and privately in terms of the ultimate inheritance disposition.

Estate planning attorneys advise clients to update wills and trusts every time there is a birth, marriage, divorce, etc. It is good advice for both celebrities and regular people.

You can give an unlimited amount to your spouse during life or on death. Prince’s estate may face a 40% estate tax, but if he had been married and left his estate to his spouse, there would not have been any federal estate tax until the death of the spouse.

A lesson for the rest of us: have an estate plan, including a will and trust, make sure that it includes tax planning and avoid your own estate planning disaster.

Let us help you.

Reference: Forbes (Oct. 7, 2020) “Prince’s Estate Sues IRS Over Claimed $135 Million Tax Value”

 

Estate Planning After Retirement

How you handle money and legal matters during retirement is more important than during your working years. It’s harder to bounce back from financial setbacks when you aren’t getting a regular paycheck. Managing finances and legal affairs to keep your savings intact and keeping your estate planning after retirement current is part of your new responsibility as a retiree, says a recent article “7 Money Moves You Should Make After Retiring” from MoneyTalksNews.

  1. Review estate planning documents. One of the most important documents is your will, but you also need to review any power of attorney and trust documents. A will is used to specify what you want done with your property after you die. What happens if you die without a will? The state will step in and make those decisions for you.

If you marry, divorce, inherit or buy property, you should update your will to reflect your changed circumstances. The arrival of a new grandchild may make you want to change your beneficiaries.

Reviewing your estate planning after retirement and then periodically afterwards can put your mind at ease. If you don’t have a will or trust, now is the time to have one created with an experienced estate planning attorney. You may also need a living will, power of attorney and letter of intent.

  1. Review named beneficiaries. Beneficiary designations require updating anytime there is a change in your life.  They play a large role in your estate planning after retirement. When you purchase life insurance, enroll in a pension plan or open an individual retirement account, you are often asked to name a beneficiary–the person who will inherit the proceeds when you die. These instructions take precedence over instructions in a will.
  2. Prepare for your funeral. No one wants to consider their own mortality, but helping your loved ones be financially prepared for your funeral is a gift. By planning your own funeral, including making arrangements for funds to be available to pay for it, you save your family of the burden of having to plan and pay for a funeral while they are grieving your loss. Planning in advance also gives you an opportunity to decide what type of funeral you want.
  3. Consider trimming transportation costs. If your household has two cars, but you could manage with one, consider paring down this expense. Seniors tend to pay higher rates than young people, so this is one way to trim your monthly expenses.
  4. Review emergency fund status. Having money set aside for unexpected expenses is more important now than when you were working. An emergency fund can help you avoid taking money out of retirement accounts, which costs you not only the funds themselves, but the potential growth of the funds and any taxes that might be due on withdrawals.
  5. Plan for Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) and taxes. Once you celebrate your 72nd birthday, you’ll need to start taking RMDs from tax-deferred retirement accounts. If you miss an RMD deadline or don’t take out enough, you may have to pay a 50% tax penalty on the amount of money you did not withdraw. RMDs are treated as taxable income, so they may impact your federal income tax rate, as well as the “combined income” formula used to determine the extent to which your Social Security benefits are taxable.
  6. Do you still need life insurance? If your family is not dependent upon your income, now might be the time to drop life insurance policies. The main purpose of life insurance is to provide an income stream for loved ones, if you should die unexpectedly when you are working and raising a family. However, if you are retired, your children are grown and your spouse is not relying on your income, it may be time to let the policies lapse. On the other hand, if you can afford the premiums and wish to leave the proceeds to a spouse or your children, by all means keep the policy. However, check the beneficiary designation.

Let us help you with your estate planning after retirement.

Reference: MoneyTalksNews (Oct. 9, 2020) “7 Money Moves You Should Make After Retiring”

 

Five Ways to Protect Your Estate

One of the prime goals of estate planning is to protect your estate.  It is true that a single person who dies in 2020 could have up to $11.58 million in personal assets and their heirs would not have to pay any federal estate tax. However, that doesn’t mean that regular people don’t need to worry about estate taxes—their heirs might have to pay state estate taxes, inheritance taxes or the estate may shrink because of other tax issues. That’s why U.S. News & World Report’s recent article “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family” is worth reading.

Without proper planning, any number of factors could take a bite out of your children’s inheritance. They may be responsible for paying federal income taxes on retirement accounts, for instance. You want to be sure that a lifetime of hard work and savings doesn’t end up going to the wrong people.

The best way to protect your estate, your family and your legacy, is by meeting with an estate planning attorney and sorting through all of the complex issues of estate planning. Here are five areas you definitely need to address:

  1. Creating a last will and testament
  2. Checking that beneficiaries are correct
  3. Creating a trust
  4. Converting traditional IRA accounts to Roth accounts
  5. Giving assets while you are living

A last will and testament. Only 32% of Americans have a will, according to a survey that asked 2,400 Americans that question. Of those who don’t have a will, 30% says they don’t think they have enough assets to warrant having a will. However, not having a will means that your entire estate goes through probate, which could become very expensive for your heirs. Having no will also makes it more likely that your family will challenge the distribution of assets. As a result, someone you may have never met could inherit your money and your home. It happens more often than you can imagine.

Checking beneficiaries. Once you die, beneficiaries cannot be changed. That could mean an ex-spouse gets the proceeds of your life insurance policy, retirement funds or any other account that has a named beneficiary. Over time, relationships change—make sure to check the beneficiaries named on any of your documents to ensure that your wishes are fulfilled. Your will does not control this distribution and is superseded by the named beneficiaries.

Set up a trust. Trusts are used to accomplish different goals. If a child is unable to manage money, for instance, a trust can be created, a trustee named and the account funded. The trust will include specific directions as to when the child receives funds or if any benchmarks need to be met, like completing college or staying sober. With an irrevocable trust, the money is taken out of your estate and cannot be subject to estate taxes. Money in a trust does not pass through probate, which is another benefit of protecting your estate.

Convert traditional IRAs to Roth retirement accounts. When children inherit traditional IRAs, they come with many restrictions and heirs get the income tax liability of the IRA. Regular income tax must be paid on all distributions, and the account has to be emptied within ten years of the owner’s death, with limited exceptions. If the account balance is large, it could be consumed by taxes. By gradually converting traditional retirement accounts to Roth accounts, you pay the taxes as the accounts are converted. You want to do this in a controlled fashion, so as not to burden yourself. However, this means your heirs receive the accounts tax-free.

Gift with warm hands, wisely. Perhaps the best way to ensure that money stays in the family, is to give it to heirs while you are living. As of 2020, you may gift up to $15,000 per person, per year in gifts. The money is tax free for recipients. Just be careful when gifting assets that appreciate in value, like stocks or a house. When appreciating assets are inherited, the heirs receive a step-up in basis, meaning that the taxable amount of the assets are adjusted upon death, so some assets should only be passed down after you pass.

Let us help your protect your estate.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Sep. 30, 2020) “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family”

Avoiding Probate

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Planning With Digital Assets

One of the challenges facing estate plans today is a new class of assets, known as digital property or digital assets. When a person dies, what happens to their digital lives? According to the article “Digital assets important part of modern estate planning” from the Cleveland Jewish News, digital property needs to be included in an estate plan, just like any other property.

What is a digital asset? There are many, but the basics include things like social media—Facebook, Instagram, SnapChat—as well as financial accounts, bank and investment accounts, blogs, photo sharing accounts, cloud storage, text messages, emails and more. If it has a username and a password and you access it on a digital device, consider it a digital asset.

Business and household files stored on a local computer or in the cloud should also be considered as digital property. The same goes for any cryptocurrency; Bitcoin is the most well-known type, and there are many others.

The Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA) has been adopted by almost all states to provide legal guidance on rights to access digital property for four (4) different types of fiduciaries: executors, trustees, agents under a financial power of attorney and guardians. The law allows people the right to grant not only their digital property, but the contents of their communications. It establishes a three-tier system for the user, the most important part being if the person expresses permission in an online platform for a specific asset, directly with the custodian of a digital platform, that is the controlling law. If they have not done so, they can provide for permission to be granted in their estate planning documents. They can also allow or forbid people to gain access to their digital property.

If a person does not take either of these steps, the terms of service they agreed to with the platform custodian governs the rights to access or deny access to their digital property.

It’s important to discuss this new asset class with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your estate plan addresses your digital property. Having a list of your digital property is a first step, but it’s just the start. Leaving the family to fight with a tech giant to gain access to digital accounts is a stressful legacy to leave behind.

Let us help you address digital assets in your estate plan.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (Sep. 24, 2020) “Digital assets important part of modern estate planning”