What’s the Difference between a Conservatorship and a Guardianship?

A conservatorship is created to let one person manage another’s finances. The conservator is court- appointed and may be responsible for financial decisions, such as retirement planning, the purchase or sale of property and the transfer of other financial assets.

The laws for conservatorships and guardianships can vary widely in different states. A conservatorship or guardianship is typically necessitated by a disability or injury that prevents a person from caring for themselves.

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “How Conservatorships Can Prop Up or Tear Down a Loved One” explains that once you have a conservator in place, the burden is on you to prove you no longer need it. The biggest issue in most cases is abuse of power or neglect. Either (the conservator) is doing something self-serving, such as spending money on something other than the senior’s care, or they’re not helping the conservatee, or providing the care they need.

Estate planning attorneys may recommend a conservator or guardian be named in standard estate planning documents, like a power of attorney. A conservator can be any adult, possibly a family member, who is tasked with the responsibility of managing the person’s finances.

Because a conservator would be in charge of a person’s assets, it’s common for the same person to be named to serve as attorney-in-fact or agent with a power of attorney. However, because a guardian is in charge of the person themselves, it’s wise to nominate the same people who are named to serve as health care agents in the client’s health care proxy. Sometimes, these are the same, but if they’re different, it is important for that difference to be stated.

A guardianship is created in cases when a person can’t take care of themselves and requires another person to make some or all of their personal decisions. This might include decisions about his or her medical care, support services, housing, or finances. While a court appoints both a conservator and a guardian, a conservatorship is generally limited to financial decisions. In contrast, a guardianship deals with personal decisions, like medical care, and may, in some instances, also cover financial decisions.

Just about every state has laws designed to protect those placed in a conservatorship or guardianship. For example, in New York, individuals must satisfy medical requirements to be determined unable to care for oneself. The burden of proof to meet such restrictions is high.

In addition, individuals can seek professional help in preparing for future circumstances that may prevent them from managing their finances and personal affairs. This includes estate planning documents, such as wills, powers of attorney, beneficiary forms and health care proxies.

Reference: US News & World Report (Aug. 19, 2021) “How Conservatorships Can Prop Up or Tear Down a Loved One”

How Important Is a Power of Attorney?

People are often surprised to learn a power of attorney is one of the most urgently needed estate planning documents to have, with a last will and health care proxy close behind in order of importance. Everyone over age 18 should have these documents, explains a recent article titled “The dangers of not having a power of attorney” from the Rome Sentinel. The reason is simple: if you have a short- or long-term health problem and can’t manage your own assets or even medical decisions and haven’t given anyone the ability to do so, you may spend your rehabilitation period dealing with an easily avoidable nightmare.

Here are other problems that may result from not having your incapacity legal planning in place:

A guardianship proceeding might be needed. If you are incapacitated without this planning, loved ones may have to petition the court to apply for guardianship so they can make fundamental decisions for you. Even if you are married, your spouse is not automatically empowered to manage your financial affairs, except perhaps for assets that are jointly owned. It can take months to obtain guardianship and costs far more than the legal documents in the first place. If there are family issues, guardianship might lead to litigation and family fights.

The cost of not being able to pay bills in a timely manner adds up quickly. The world keeps moving while you are incapacitated. Mortgage payments and car loans need to be paid, as do utilities and healthcare bills. Lapses of insurance for your home, auto or life, could turn a health crisis into a financial crisis, if no one can act on your behalf.

Nursing home bills and Medicaid eligibility denials. Even one month of paying for a nursing home out of pocket, when you would otherwise qualify for Medicaid, could take a large bite out of savings. The Medicaid application process requires a responsible person to gather a lot of medical records, sign numerous documents and follow through with the appropriate government authorities.

Getting medical records in a HIPAA world. Your power of attorney should include an authorization for your representative to take care of all health care billing and payments and to access your medical records. If a spouse or family member is denied access to review records, your treatment and care may suffer. If your health crisis is the result of an accident or medical malpractice, this could jeopardize your defense.

Transferring assets. It may be necessary to transfer assets, like a home, or other assets, out of your immediate control. You may be in a final stage of life. As a result, transferring assets while you are still living will avoid costly and time-consuming probate proceedings. If a power of attorney is up to date and includes a fully executed “Statutory Gift” authorization, your loved ones will be able to manage your assets for the best possible outcome.

The power of attorney is a uniquely flexible estate planning document. It can be broad and permit someone you trust to manage all of your financial and legal matters, or it can be narrow in scope. Your estate planning attorney will be able to craft an appropriate power of attorney that is best suited for your needs and family. The most important thing: don’t delay having a new or updated power of attorney created. If you have a power of attorney, but it was created more than four or five years ago, it may not be recognized by financial institutions.

Reference: Rome Sentinel (July 25, 2021) “The dangers of not having a power of attorney”

 

Checklist for Estate Plan’s Success

We know why estate planning for your assets, family and legacy falls through the cracks. It’s not the thing a new parent wants to think about while cuddling a newborn, or a grandparent wants to think about as they prepare for a family get-together. However, this is an important thing to take care of, advises a recent article from Kiplinger titled “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?

Every four years, or every time a trigger event occurs—birth, death, marriage, divorce, relocation—the estate plan needs to be reviewed. Reviewing an estate plan is a relatively straightforward matter and neglecting it could lead to undoing strategic tax plans and unnecessary costs.

Moving to a new state? Estate laws are different from state to state, so what works in one state may not be considered valid in another. You’ll also want to update your address, and make sure that family and advisors know where your last will can be found in your new home.

Changes in the law. The last five years have seen an inordinate number of changes to laws that impact retirement accounts and taxes. One big example is the SECURE Act, which eliminated the Stretch IRA, requiring heirs to empty inherited IRA accounts in ten years, instead of over their lifetimes. A strategy that worked great a few years ago no longer works. However, there are other means of protecting your heirs and retirement accounts.

Do you have a Power of Attorney? A POA gives a person you authorize the ability to manage your financial, business, personal and legal affairs, if you become incapacitated. If the POA is old, a bank or investment company may balk at allowing your representative to act on your behalf. If you have one, make sure it’s up to date and the person you named is still the person you want. If you need to make a change, it’s very important that you put it in writing and notify the proper parties.

Health Care Power of Attorney needs to be updated as well. Marriage does not automatically authorize your spouse to speak with doctors, obtain medical records or make medical decisions on your behalf. If you have strong opinions about what procedures you do and do not want, the Health Care POA can document your wishes.

Last Will and Testament is Essential. Your last will needs regular review throughout your lifetime. Has the person you named as an executor four years ago remained in your life, or moved to another state? A last will also names an executor for your property and a guardian for minor children. It also needs to have trust provisions to pay for your children’s upbringing and to protect their inheritance.

Speaking of Trusts. If your estate plan includes trusts, review trustee and successor appointments to be sure they are still appropriate. You should also check on estate and inheritance taxes to ensure that the estate will be able to cover these costs. If you have an irrevocable trust, confirm that the trustee is still ready and able to carry out the duties, including administration, management and tax returns.

Gifting in the Estate Plan. Laws concerning charitable giving also change, so be sure your gifting strategies are still appropriate for your estate. An estate plan review is also a good time to review the organizations you wish to support.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 28, 2021) “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?

For more information about this or other topics, click here.

How Do You Survive Financially after Death of Spouse?

The financial issues that arise following the death of a spouse range from the simple—figuring out how to access online bill payment for utilities—to the complex—understanding estate and inheritance taxes. The first year after the death of a spouse is a time when surviving spouses are often fragile and vulnerable. It’s not the time to make any major financial or life decisions, says the article “The Financial Effects of Losing a Spouse” from Yahoo! Finance.

Tax implications following the death of a spouse. A drop in household income often means the surviving spouse needs to withdraw money from retirement accounts. While taxes may be lowered because of the drop in income, withdrawals from IRAs and 401(k)s that are not Roth accounts are taxable. However, less income might mean that the surviving spouse’s income is low enough to qualify for certain tax deductions or credits that otherwise they would not be eligible for.

Surviving spouses eventually have a different filing status. As long as the surviving spouse has not remarried in the year of death of their spouse, they are permitted to file a federal joint tax return. This may be an option for two more years, if there is a dependent child. However, after that, taxes must be filed as a single taxpayer, which means tax rates are not as favorable as they are for a couple filing jointly. The standard deduction is also lowered for a single person.

If the spouse inherits a traditional IRA, the surviving spouse may elect to be designated as the account owner, roll funds into their own retirement account, or be treated as a beneficiary. Which option is chosen will impact both the required minimum distribution (RMD) and the surviving spouse’s taxable income. If the spouse decides to become the designated owner of the original account or rolls the account into their own IRA, they may take RMDs based on their own life expectancy. If they chose the beneficiary route, RMDs are based on the life expectancy of the deceased spouse. Most people opt to roll the IRA into their own IRA or transfer it into an account in their own name.

The surviving spouse receives a stepped-up basis in other inherited property. If the assets are held jointly between spouses, there’s a step up in one half of the basis. However, if the asset was owned solely by the deceased spouse, the step up is 100%. In community property states, the total fair market value of property, including the portion that belongs to the surviving spouse, becomes the basis for the entire property, if at least half of its value is included in the deceased spouse’s gross estate. Your estate planning attorney will help prepare for this beforehand, or help you navigate this issue after the death of a spouse.

It should be noted there is a special rule that helps surviving spouses who wish to sell their home. Up to $250,000 of gain from the sale of a principal residence is tax-free, if certain conditions are met. The exemption increases to $500,000 for married couples filing a joint return, but a surviving spouse who has not remarried may still claim the $500,000 exemption, if the home is sold within two years of the spouses’ passing.

There is an unlimited marital deduction in addition to the current $11.7 million estate tax exemption. If the deceased’s estate is not near that amount, the surviving spouse should file form 706 to elect portability of their deceased spouse’s unused exemption. This protects the surviving spouse if the exemption is lowered, which may happen in the near future. If you don’t file in a timely manner, you’ll lose this exemption, so don’t neglect this task.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (July 16, 2021) “The Financial Effects of Losing a Spouse”

 

Does a Beneficiary on a Bank Account Override a Will?

You’ve named beneficiaries to accounts many times already, when you opened an IRA, bought an insurance annuity, a life insurance policy, started an investment account, signed up for a pension or bought shares in a mutual fund. These are the accounts that come to mind when people think about beneficiary designations. However, according to a recent article in Forbes titled “Do You Need a Beneficiary for Your Bank Account?,” they are not the only financial instruments with beneficiary designations.

When you open a bank account, most retail banks don’t ask you to name a beneficiary, but it’s not because you can’t. If the bank allows beneficiaries on their accounts, it’s usually a pretty simple process. In most cases, you’ll be asked to fill out a form or go through the bank’s process online.

Banks don’t push for beneficiary accounts because they are not required to do so. However, this is a smart move and can be a helpful part of your estate plan. The biggest benefit: funds in the account will be distributed directly to the beneficiary upon your death. They won’t have to go through probate and won’t be part of your estate. Otherwise, whatever assets you keep in your bank accounts will be counted as part of your estate and subject to probate.

Probate is a court process to validate the will and the named executor, supervising the distribution of assets from your estate. In some cases, it can be complicated, take months to complete and depending on the size of your estate, be expensive. If the money in your bank accounts does not go to a beneficiary, it can be used to pay off estate debts instead of going straight to a beneficiary.

For married people, bank account funds are treated differently. Half of the balance goes to your spouse upon death, the rest goes through probate.

Naming a beneficiary is a better alternative. The beneficiary may collect the money immediately. They’ll need to go to the bank with an original or certified copy of a death certificate, required identification (usually a driver’s license) and the money is transferred to them.

If you are married and don’t live in a community property estate, a surviving spouse may be able to dispute the terms of a beneficiary arrangement, but that will take time.

Another means of transferring assets in a bank account is to change your accounts to POD, or Payable On Death accounts. There are other names: In Trust For (ITF), Totten Trust or Transfer on Death (TOD). The named beneficiary is referred to as the POD beneficiary.

There is considerable flexibility when naming a POD beneficiary. It may be a living person, or it can be an organization, including a nonprofit charity or other trusts. You are not allowed to name a non-living legal entity, like a corporation, limited liability company (LLC) or partnership.

Beneficiary designations override wills, so if you forget to change them, the person named will still receive the money, even if that was not your intent. You should review beneficiaries for all of your accounts every year or so. Divorce, death, marriages, births and any other lifetime events are also reasons to check on beneficiary designations.

Reference: Forbes (July 9, 2021) “Do You Need a Beneficiary for Your Bank Account?”

 

Does Estate Planning Vary by State?

Estate planning laws vary greatly from state to state and understanding the difference could have a significant impact on whether your estate plan is valid. It is best to get this straight shortly after moving, says The National Law Review in the recent article “Updating Your Estate Plan: What Michigan Residents Need to Know When Moving to Florida.”

It’s not just people from Michigan who move to Florida who need to have their estate plans reviewed, if they are snowbirds or making a full-time move—it’s anyone who moves to another state, from any state. However, Florida’s popularity makes it a good example to use.

Florida restricts who is permitted to serve as a Personal Representatives under a will. The personal representative, also known as an executor, must be a descendent or ancestor of the decedent, a spouse, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, nephew, niece or descendant or ancestor of any such person or a Florida resident.

Florida doesn’t recognize “no contest” clauses in trusts or wills. It also does not recognize unwitnessed testamentary documents, which are handwritten documents even if they are in your own handwriting. Michigan may accept them, but Florida courts do not.

Florida also has a special set of laws, known as the Homestead laws, designed to protect a decedent’s surviving spouse and children. You may have had other plans for your Florida home, but they may not be passed to the people you have designated in your non-Florida will, if they don’t follow the Sunshine State’s guidelines.

Power of Attorney laws differ from state to state, and this can create huge headaches for families. In Michigan, the Durable Power of Attorney can be “springing,” that is, it is effective only upon incapacity. In Florida, once a Durable Power of Attorney is signed, it is effective. Florida may accept a DPA from another state, but Florida law will be applied to the agent’s actions, and restrictions will be based on Florida law, not that of another state.

As for estate planning documents concerning medical and financial decisions while you are living, these are also different. A living will names a person, known as a “Patient Advocate” in Michigan or a “Health Care Surrogate” in Florida, who is authorized to make decisions regarding end of life care, including providing, withholding, or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment. In Michigan, you need two doctors to certify a patient’s incapacity for non-life-or-death decisions. In Florida, only one doctor is needed.

Whether you are traveling north for a cooler summer or planning to leave a northern home before the winter arrives, meet with your estate planning attorney to understand how any and all of your estate planning documents will work—or not—when you are in another state.

Reference: The National Law Review (June 30, 2021) “Updating Your Estate Plan: What Michigan Residents Need to Know When Moving to Florida”

What Is a Testamentary Trust?

Trusts are created to hold assets, and money in a trust is managed according to the instructions of the person who created it. A testamentary trust is a trust that’s created by a will after death, explains WTOP’s article entitled “What Is a Testamentary Trust and How Do I Create One?” Once the trust has been created, assets are placed into it and then distributed, as designated by its legal documentation.

There is also something called a revocable trust, which is a living trust created prior to a person’s death. A revocable trust is created outside of probate, which means that the heirs do not have to go through probate to receive assets from a living trust. Instead, a trustee can distribute funds directly to beneficiaries. Both testamentary trusts and living trusts are used for estate planning. However, a living trust allows for more flexibility and can have lower long-term costs. Living trusts are not only created outside probate but managed outside the court system as well. In contrast, testamentary trusts are administered through probate for as long as they are in effect.

A testamentary trust is frequently used to manage money for minor children, but it can protect assets in other situations too. The good thing is that there is a lot more court oversight. The bad part is court oversight is not cheap.

For example, a testamentary trust could be used to manage money for an 8-year-old beneficiary until age 25. But that means 17 years of probate. So, while testamentary trusts may be less expensive than living trusts to set up, they could cost more in the long run. These trusts are rare, and the one time a testamentary trust may have an advantage over a living trust is if someone involved in the estate is prone to taking legal action, in which case court management may be the better option.

You should ask an attorney to draft the documents. It should be an attorney who specializes in trusts and estates. Having an attorney draw up will and trust documents will make certain that they meet the state’s requirements and are written so that your assets are distributed according to your instructions.

When the creator of the trust dies, the testamentary trust will be created, and assets moved into it as stipulated in the deceased’s will. Distributions will then occur from the trust, as instructed in the trust documents.

Reference: WTOP (July 19, 2021) “What Is a Testamentary Trust and How Do I Create One?”

Do You Need a Revocable Trust or Irrevocable Trust?

There are important differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts. One of the biggest differences is the amount of control you have over assets, as explained in the article “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust” from Kiplinger. A revocable trust is often referred to as the Swiss Army knife of estate planning because it has so many different uses. The irrevocable trust is also a multi-use tool, only different.

Trusts are legal entities that own assets like real estate, investment accounts, cars, life insurance and high value personal belongings, like jewelry or art. Ownership of the asset is transferred to the trust, typically by changing the title of ownership. The trust documents also contain directions regarding what should happen to the asset when you die.

There are three key parties to any trust: the grantor, the person creating and depositing assets into the trust; the beneficiary, who will receive the trust assets and income; and the trustee, who is in charge of the trust, files tax returns as needed and distributes assets according to the terms of the trust. One person can hold different roles. The grantor could set up a trust and also be a trustee and even the beneficiary while living. The executor of a will can also be a trustee or a successor trustee.

If the trust is revocable, the grantor has the option of amending or revoking the trust at any time. A different trustee or beneficiary can be named, and the terms of the trust may be changed. Assets can also be taken back from a revocable trust. Pre-tax retirement funds, like a 401(k) cannot be placed inside a trust, since the transfer would require the trust to become the owner of these accounts. The IRS would consider that to be a taxable withdrawal.

There isn’t much difference between owning the assets yourself and a revocable trust. Assets still count as part of your estate and are not sheltered from estate taxes or creditors. However, you have complete control of the assets and the trust. So why have one? The transition of ownership if something happens to you is easier. If you become incapacitated, a successor trustee can take over management of trust assets. This may be easier than relying on a Power of Attorney form and some believe it offers more legal authority, allowing family members to manage assets and pay bills.

In addition, assets in a trust don’t go through probate, so the transfer of property after you die to heirs is easier. If you own homes in multiple states, heirs will receive their inheritance faster than if the homes must go through probate in multiple states. Any property in your revocable trust is not in your will, so ownership and transfer status remain private.

An irrevocable trust is harder to change, as befits its name. To change an irrevocable trust while you are living takes a little more effort but is not impossible. Consent of all parties involved, including the beneficiary and trustee, must be obtained. The benefits from the irrevocable trust make the effort worthwhile. By giving up control, assets in the irrevocable trust may not be part of your taxable estate. While today’s federal estate exemption is historically high right now, it’s expected to go much lower in the future.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 14, 2021) “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust”

Click here to sign up for our blog and learn more about this or other topics.

What Should Be Included in Estate Planning?

How should you plan for the future, given all that we’ve been through since March 2020? One important step is to get your estate plan in order. While many people became more aware of their mortality since the pandemic began, just as many have kept putting off having an estate plan done. The time to do it, according to the recent article “A Simple Guide to Estate Planning Best Practices” from Accounting Web, is now. Here’s how.

Start with a will. The size of your estate doesn’t matter. Having a will means that you are able to grant whatever you own to someone else on your death. If you don’t have a will, your state’s law will distribute your worldly goods. This method makes certain assumptions that might not be true. You might not want your children to inherit everything you own at age 25. You may also have a distant cousin who thinks they are entitled to an inheritance and is willing to litigate just to get some of your assets. Having a will is the start of having an estate plan. It’s also how you name the executor, the person who will be in charge of administering your assets after death. Your will is used to name a guardian to care for minor children.

Consider your estate planning goals. If you have an estate plan that’s older than four years, it’s time for a review. If you don’t remember when your estate was last done, you definitely should have it reviewed. Your assets may have increased or decreased. The person you named to be your executor may have moved away or died. The past five years have seen a large number of new tax laws, which may have a major impact on your estate plan. You may need to establish trusts and make gifts to keep your wealth in the family.

Could low-cost wealth transfers be right for you? Making gifts to your next of kin may allow them to have access to capital, while decreasing your taxable estate. One common method to do this is through an intra-family loan. By providing a younger member of the family with a loan at a minimal federal interest rate, the younger generation can invest in assets that are likely to appreciate outside the older generation’s taxable estate. Talk with your estate planning attorney about how to do this properly. It’s not a do-it-yourself transaction.

Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs) A GRAT allows you to retain an annuity interest in a separate trust, while leaving the remainder beneficiaries. The value of the annuity is removed from the value of the GRAT-constrained property, so beneficiaries only need to pay taxes on the remainder of the value. Low interest rates made a GRAT very attractive, and low entry requirements provide an opportunity to appreciate assets within the GRAT, which might have otherwise been levied on the investments if they were passed through a will. GRATs may need management—one strategy is to combine assets with a series of long and short-term trusts to prepare for market volatility.

Grantor Trust Acquisition of Assets. Here’s a slightly complicated but effective way to reduce taxes on assets: selling them to a grantor trust. The sale may still be taxable, but for a reduced rate. An individual may create and fund a trust using a portion of their gift tax shelter allowance. This ensures that the assets in the trust will be sheltered from transfer tax in the future. The trust structure works as a “grantor” trust for income tax purposes with the individual as the taxpayer, who is liable to report all income generated from the trust. Here’s the neat twist: the individual may sell these appreciated assets to the grantor trust without expressing capital gains. The assets in the trust may grow over time, so the trust estate develops with less fear of tax liability. This is a complex transaction that an estate planning attorney can discuss with you.

One thing is certain: the financial demands of the pandemic have created a need for government agencies to find revenue. The time to prepare for increased taxes on wealth is now.

Reference: Accounting Web (June 23, 2021) “A Simple Guide to Estate Planning Best Practices”

For more information about this or other topics follow us on Facebook or sign up for our blog.

Click here to learn more about our team.