Wills

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?”

Living Trusts

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Will a living trust save time and money when settling an estate?” explains that, although probate avoidance is often thought of as a reason to have a living trust, generally speaking, many people who have living trusts also have what are known as “pour-over wills.”

The reason? Individuals frequently have assets that they have not placed into a living trust, such as tangible personal property. Those are things like furniture and household furnishings, a car, or a small bank account. It may also be necessary to open an estate because of unclaimed funds held by the state, a tax refund or return of insurance premiums.

Pour-over wills typically are written so the estate assets will pour over or pour into the living trust at the death of the person who created the trust.

Living trusts have the benefit of privacy and the elimination of challenges to the estate. A trust can also be used to separate assets acquired before a marriage; or as a vehicle to manage the assets of a person with diminished or lack of capacity, such as a person suffering from dementia.

It’s important to note that financial institutions can freeze up to 50% of the assets in an estate, until a tax waiver is obtained. However, tax waivers aren’t required to transfer legal ownership of trust assets after the death of the person who created the living trust. Therefore, financial institutions can’t similarly freeze up to half of the assets in a trust for that reason.

However, there can also be a few disadvantages to creating a trust. The cost of creating a revocable trust and a pour-over will is more than the cost of preparing just a will.

There may also be expenses involved with transferring assets, such as real property, into a living trust.

The legal fees incurred in administering a probate estate are almost always more than legal fees incurred in administering a trust after the death of the trust maker.

Moreover, the time it takes to settle an estate may be longer than what it takes to distribute trust assets. That is because it may take months to probate a will and obtain a tax waiver.

However, if the individual has relatively few assets that would be subject to probate, the cost of establishing a living trust may be more costly than administering an estate.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about whether a revocable living trust makes sense for your unique circumstances.

Reference: nj.com (Feb. 8, 2021) “Will a living trust save time and money when settling an estate?” 

Charitable Remainder Trusts and IRAs

A Charitable Remainder Trust can solve estate planning issues with Individual Retirement Accounts.  Since the mid-1970s, saving in a tax-deferred employer-sponsored retirement plan has been a great way to save for retirement, while also deferring current income tax. Many workers put some of their paychecks into 401(k)s, which can later be transferred to a traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Others save directly in IRAs.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Worried about Passing Down a Big IRA? Consider a CRT” says that taking lifetime IRA distributions can give a retiree a comfortable standard of living long after he or she gets their last paycheck. Another benefit of saving in an IRA is that the investor’s children can continue to take distributions taxed as ordinary income after his or her death, until the IRA is depleted.

Saving in a tax-deferred plan and letting a non-spouse beneficiary take an extended stretch payout using a beneficiary IRA has been a significant component of leaving a legacy for families. However, the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019 (the SECURE Act), which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, eliminated this.

Under the new law (with a few exceptions for minors, disabled beneficiaries, or the chronically ill), a beneficiary who isn’t the IRA owner’s spouse is required to withdraw all funds from a beneficiary IRA within 10 years. Therefore, the “stretch IRA” has been eliminated.

However, there is an option for extending IRA distributions to a child beyond the 10-year limit imposed by the SECURE Act: it’s a Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT). This trust provides for distributions of a fixed percentage or fixed amount to one or more beneficiaries for life or a term of less than 20 years. The remainder of the assets will then be paid to one or more charities at the end of the trust term.

Charitable Remainder Trusts can provide that a fixed percentage of the trust assets at the time of creation will be given to the current individual beneficiaries, with the remainder being given to charity, in the case of a Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust (CRAT). There is also a Charitable Remainder Unitrust (CRUT), where the amount distributed to the individual beneficiaries will vary from year to year, based on the changing value of the trust. With both trusts, the amount of the charity’s remainder interest must be at least 10% of the value of the trust at its inception.

Implementing a Charitable Remainder Trust to extend distributions from a traditional IRA can have tax advantages and can complement the rest of a comprehensive estate plan. It can be very effective when your current beneficiary has taxable income from other sources and resources, in addition to the beneficiary IRA.  It can also be effective in protecting the IRA assets from a beneficiary’s creditors or for planning with potential marital property, while providing the beneficiary a lengthy predictable income stream.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney, if one of these trusts might fit into your comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: Kiplinger (Feb. 8, 2021) “Worried about Passing Down a Big IRA? Consider a CRT”

Avoiding Probate With Ownership

When your goal is avoiding probate, there are three categories of property, and only one requires probate, so it can be accessed when the owner passes away, says njmoneyhelp.com’s recent article entitled “How can we avoid probate for this account?”

First, it’s important to understand that property that passes by operation of law is any asset that’s owned jointly with right of survivorship. These accounts are sometimes labeled as “JTWROS.”

When one co-owner dies, the property passes by law to the surviving co-owner. This is a way of avoiding probate.

Married couples in Florida have a similar ownership known as tenancy by the entireties.  It also has a right of survivorship.

A second category is contract property, which includes life insurance, retirement accounts and any non-retirement accounts that have beneficiaries designated upon death.

These designations supersede or “override” a will and are also a means of avoiding probate, directly passing to the named beneficiary.

These are frequently designated as “POD” (payable on death) or “TOD” (transfer on death).

The third category is everything else. This includes accounts that are owned solely by the person who died with no POD or TOD designation and is usually subject to probate.

A certificate of deposit is a time deposit. It’s a financial product commonly available from banks, thrift institutions and credit unions. Certificates of deposit are different from savings accounts because a CD has a specific, fixed term and usually, a fixed interest rate.

To avoid probate to access a CD or any other account owned by a spouse’s name, you can either make the account jointly owned by husband and wife with right of survivorship. or designate your spouse as a beneficiary upon death.

Either option will succeed in avoiding probate to access that particular account, like a certificate of deposit.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney with questions about CDs and probate.

Reference: njmoneyhelp.com (June 6, 2019) “How can we avoid probate for this account?”

Planning for the Death of a Spouse

It is sometimes difficult to plan for the death of a spouse. The COVID pandemic has become a painful lesson in how important it is to having estate plans in order, especially when a spouse becomes sick, incapacitated, or dies unexpectedly. With more than 400,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus, not every one of them had an estate plan and a financial plan in place, leaving loved ones to make sense of their estate while grieving. This recent article from Market Watch titled “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying” offers five things to do before the worst occurs.

Start by gathering information. The first step in planning for the death of a spouse is to make all of your accounts known and put together paperwork about each and every account. Look for documents that will become crucial, including a durable power of attorney, an advanced health care directive and a last will. Gather paperwork for life insurance policies, investment portfolios and retirement accounts. Create a list of contact information for your estate planning attorney, accountant, insurance agent, doctors and financial advisors and share it with the people who will be responsible for managing your life. In addition, call these people, so they have as much information as possible—this could make things easier for a surviving spouse. Consider making introductions, via phone or a video call, especially if you have been the key point person for these matters.

Create a hard copy binder for all of this information or a file, so your loved ones do not have to conduct a scavenger hunt. Organization is a large part of planning for the death of a spouse.

If there is an estate plan in place, discuss it with your spouse and family members so everyone is clear about what is going to happen. If your estate plan has not been updated in several years, that needs to be done. There have been many big changes to tax law, and you may be missing important opportunities that will benefit those left behind.

If there is no estate plan, something is better than nothing. A trust can be done to transfer assets, as long as the trust is funded properly and promptly.

Confirm beneficiary designations. Check everything for accuracy while planning for the death of a spouse. If ex-spouses, girlfriends, or boyfriends are named on accounts that have not been reviewed for decades, there will be a problem for the family. Problems also arise when no one is listed as a beneficiary. Beneficiary designations are used in many different accounts, including retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, stock options, restricted stock and deferred compensation plans.

Many Americans die without a will, known as “intestate.” With no will, the court must rely on the state’s estate laws, which does not always result in the people you wanted receiving your property. Any immediate family or next of kin may become heirs, even if they were people you with whom you were not close or from whom you may even have been estranged. Having no will can lead to estate battles or having strangers claim part of your estate.

If there are minor children and no will to declare who their guardian should be, the court will decide that also. If you have minor children, you must have a will to protect them and a plan for their financial support.

Create a master list of digital assets.  Digital assets are frequently overlooked when planning for the death of a spouse. These assets range from photographs to financial accounts, utility bills and phone bills to URLs for websites. What would happen to your social media accounts, if you died and no one could access them? Some platforms provide for a legacy contact, but many do not. Prepare what information you can to avoid the loss of digital assets that have financial and sentimental value.

Gathering these materials and having these conversations is difficult, but they are a necessity if a family member receives a serious diagnosis. If there is no estate plan in place, have a conversation with an estate planning attorney who can advise what can be done, even in a limited amount of time.

Reference: Market Watch (Jan. 22, 2021) “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying”

 

Letter of Last Instruction

It is important to know that a Letter of Last Instruction does not pass through a legal process. It’s an informal but organized method of providing your family with instructions on the decisions related to financial and personal matters that should be made when you die. This can also be an alternative way of ensuring that your family are cared for after your death and to prevent issues that could arise from not probating the will.

Qrius’ recent article entitled “How to Prepare a Letter of Last Instruction” explains that preparing it can relieve your relatives of added headaches and stress after your death because it can provide crucial information on personal, financial and funeral matters. Here are some ideas as to what to include in your Letter of Last Instruction:

Personal info. This is a basic information like your full name, date of birth, father’s name and mother’s maiden name, address, Social Security number and place of birth. Add information about significant people in your life, like family, friends, business partners, clergy and others you’d like to be notified about your death.

Business and Financial Contacts. List the contact info of your business and financial partners, as well as your accountant and investment adviser. Include information on your insurance policies, as well as your bank account details.

Legal Document Location. Make sure your executor can find important legal documents, such as your will, tax returns, marriage license, Social Security card, birth certificates, trust documents, deeds, veteran benefits info and contracts. State the location of those documents in your Letter of Last Instruction.

Loan and Debt Info. Make a list of creditors containing collateral and payment terms, along with any credit card account numbers and loan account numbers. Likewise, list the people who owe you money, including their contact info and collateral and payment terms.

Usernames and Passwords. Include a section with your usernames and passwords for your online banking accounts, social media email, computer, smartphone and other electronics, so your executor or someone responsible for overseeing your estate can be certain your accounts and financial information are not compromised after your death.

Beneficiaries. Make a list of the names and contact details of all your beneficiaries with additional information on specific instructions you may want to give to clarify your intentions on the distribution of the assets.

Funeral Arrangements. Include your desires as to your funeral arrangements, such as the type of flowers, pictures and service music. You can also state the clothes in which you wish to be buried, the type of service and location and other items that will help your family with this task.

Once you have the letter, be sure your executor or at least a close family member knows where it can be located after your death.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney for pointers on writing your Letter of Last Instruction and keep updating it regularly.  We can help.

Reference: Qrius (Dec. 8, 2020) “How to Prepare a Letter of Last Instruction”

Estate Planning Documents For Retirees

Research of estate planning documents for retirees shows that most (53%) have a last will and testament. However, they don’t have six other crucial legal documents.

Money Talks News’ recent article entitled “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have” says in fact, in this pandemic, 30% of retirees have none of these crucial documents — not even a will — according to the 20th annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Retirees.

In addition, the Transamerica survey found the following about estate planning documents for retirees:

  • 32% have a power of attorney or medical proxy, which allows a designated agent to make medical decisions on their behalf
  • 30% have an advance directive or living will, which states their end-of-life medical preferences to health care providers
  • 28% have designated a power of attorney to make financial decisions in their stead
  • 19% have written funeral and burial arrangements
  • 18% have filled out a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) waiver, which allows designated people to talk to their health care and insurance providers on their behalf; and
  • 11% have created a trust.

The study shows there is a big gap that retirees need to fill, if they want to be properly prepared for the end of their lives.

The coronavirus pandemic has created an even more challenging situation. Retirees can and should be taking more actions to protect their health and financial well-being. However, they may find it hard while sheltering in place.

Now more than ever, seniors may need extra motivation and support from their families and friends.

The Transamerica results shouldn’t shock anyone. That is because we have a long history of disregarding death, and very important estate planning questions. No one really wants to ponder their ultimate demise, when they can be out enjoying themselves.

However, creating estate planning documents for retirees now will give you peace of mind. More importantly, this planning can save your heirs and loved ones a lot of headaches and stress, when you pass away.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney today to get your plan going.

Reference: Money Talks News (Dec. 16, 2020) “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have”

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 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?”

 

Joint Ownership vs Beneficiary Designations

Two of the most popular ways of avoiding probate are joint ownership and beneficiary designations.  Most people think a will is the most important tool in the estate planning toolbox, but in many instances, it is not even used. Assets in the will go through probate, and wills control assets in your name only. If you don’t have a will, your state laws will provide one under its law of Intestate Succession. Instead of making a will, some people just name their spouses or children on joint accounts or as beneficiary designations, says the article “Protecting Your Assets: Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations” from The Street. however, that can lead to big problems.

Let’s look at a typical family. They own a home, an IRA, life insurance and some bank and investment accounts. They have wills that leave everything to each other, and equally to their children upon their deaths. If a child predeceases them, they want the child’s share to go to the child’s children (their grandchildren). This is called per stirpes, meaning it goes to the next generation. The husband and wife have also listed each other as joint owners and beneficiaries and then listed their children as contingent beneficiaries on all financial accounts.

When the husband dies, all his assets go to his wife. When she dies, she had named her living children as beneficiaries. If she signed a quit claim deed putting the children’s names on the house before she died, the will and probate may be bypassed altogether.

Sounds like a great plan, doesn’t it? Except like most things that sound too good to be true, this one is not a great plan. Here’s what can and very often does go wrong.

Let’s say a daughter inherits a bank account and is sued, files for bankruptcy or divorces. Her entire inheritance is vulnerable, with no protection at all.

What if you say in your will that you want everything to go equally to all three children when you die, but you only put one son as a beneficiary on your accounts? When you die, only one son inherits everything. The will does not supersede the beneficiary designation. If the son wants to keep all your assets, he can, no matter what he may have promised you and his siblings.

If the wife dies first and the husband remarries, he may want to leave everything to his new wife. He’s hoping that when she dies, she’ll distribute the assets from his first marriage to his children. He even has a will and changes the beneficiary designations on his investment accounts to make sure that happens. However, when he dies, because of the survivorship aspect of joint ownership and beneficiary designations, she owns the accounts and can name whoever she wants to inherit those accounts. She has the legal right to cut out anyone she wants. The husband may have avoided probate, but his children are left with no inheritance.

We all like to believe that our spouses and children will do the right thing upon our death, but the only way to ensure that this will happen is to have an estate plan created using trusts and other planning strategies. Avoiding probate may be a popular theme but making sure your assets go where you want to them to is far more important than avoiding probate. Meet with an estate planning attorney to ensure that your family is protected, the right way.

We can help you avoid probate efficiently.

Reference: The Street (Oct. 30, 2020) “Protecting Your Assets: Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations”