Common Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Estate planning attorneys see them all the time: the mistakes that people make when they try to create an estate plan or a will by themselves. They learn about it, when families come to their offices trying to correct mistakes that could have been avoided just by seeking legal advice in the first place. That’s the message from the article “Five big estate planning ‘don’ts’” from Dedham Wicked Local.

Here are the five estate planning mistakes that you can easily avoid:

Naming minors as beneficiaries. Beneficiary designations are a simple way to avoid probate and be certain that an asset goes to your beneficiary at death. Most life insurance policies, retirement accounts, investment accounts and other financial accounts permit you to name a beneficiary. Many well-meaning parents (and grandparents) name a grandchild or a child as a beneficiary. However, a minor is not permitted to own an asset. Therefore, the financial institution will not name the minor child as the new owner. A conservator must be appointed by the court to receive the asset on behalf of the child and they must hold that asset for the minor’s benefit, until the minor becomes of legal age. The conservator must file annual accountings with the court reflecting activity in the account and report on how any funds were used for the minor’s benefit, until the minor becomes a legal adult. The time, effort, and expense of this are unnecessary. Handing a large amount of money to a child the moment they become of legal age is rarely a good idea. Leaving assets in trust for the benefit of a minor or young adult, without naming them directly as a beneficiary, is one solution.

Drafting a will without the help of an estate planning attorney. The will created at the kitchen table or from an online template is almost always a recipe for disaster. They don’t include administrative provisions required by the state’s laws, provisions are ambiguous or conflicting and the documents are often executed incorrectly, rendering them invalid. Whatever money or time the person thought they were saving is lost. There are court fees, penalties and other costs that add up fast to fix a DIY will.

Adding joint owners to bank accounts. It seems like a good idea. Adding an adult child to a bank account, allows the child to help the parent with paying bills, if hospitalized or lets them pay post-death bills. If the amount of money in the account is not large, that may work out okay. However, the child is considered an owner of any account they are added to. If the child is sued, gets divorced, files for bankruptcy or has trouble with creditors, that bank account is an asset that can be reached.

Joint ownership of accounts after death can be an issue, if your will does not clearly state what your intentions are for that account. Do those funds go to the child, or should they be distributed between heirs? If wishes are unclear, expect the disagreements and bad feelings to be directly proportionate to the size of the account. Thoughtful estate planning, that includes power of attorney and trust planning, will permit access to your assets when needed and division of assets after your death in a manner that is consistent with your intentions.

Failing to fund trusts. Funding a trust means changing the ownership of an asset, so the asset is owned by the trust or designating the trust as a beneficiary. When a trust is properly funded, assets funding the trust avoid probate at your death. If your trust includes estate tax planning provisions, the assets are sheltered from estate tax at death. You have to do this before you die. Once you’re gone, the benefits of funding the trust are gone. Work closely with your estate planning attorney to make sure that you follow the instructions to fund trusts.

Poor choices of co-fiduciaries. If your children have never gotten along, don’t expect that to change when you die. Recognize your children’s strengths and weaknesses and be realistic about their ability to work together, when deciding who will make financial decisions under a power of attorney, health care decisions under a health care proxy and who will best be able to settle your estate. If you choose two people who do not get along, or do not trust each other, it will take far longer and cost more to settle your estate. Don’t worry about birth order or egos.

The sixth biggest estate planning mistake people make, is failing to review their estate plan every few years. Estate laws change, tax laws change and lives change. If it’s been a while since your estate plan was reviewed, make an appointment to meet with your estate planning attorney for a review.

Reference: Dedham Wicked Local (May 17, 2019) “Five big estate planning ‘don’ts’”

Selling a Parent’s Home after They Pass

Family members who are overtaken with grief are often unable to move forward and make decisions. If a house was not being well maintained while the parent was ill or aging, it might fall into further disrepair. When siblings have emotional attachments to the family home, says the article “With proper planning, selling a parent’s house can be a relatively painless process,” from The Washington Post, things can get even more complicated.

The difficulty of selling a parent’s home after their passing, depends to a large degree on what kind of advance planning has taken place. Much also depends on the heir’s ability to ask for help and working with the right professionals in handling the sale of the home and managing the estate. The earlier the process begins, the better.

Parents can take steps while they are still living to ward off unnecessary complications. It may be a difficult conversation but having it will make the process easier and allow the family time to focus on their emotions, rather than the sale of property. Here are a few pointers:

Make sure your parents have a will. Many Americans do not. A survey from Caring.com found that only 42% of American adults had a will and other estate planning documents.

Be prepared to spend some money. Before a home is sold, there may be costs associated with maintaining the property and fixing any overdue repairs. Save all receipts and estimates.

Secure the property immediately. That may mean having the locks changed as soon as possible. Once an heir (or someone who believes they are or should be an heir) moves in, getting them out adds another layer of complications.

Get real about the value of the property. Have a real estate agent run a competitive market analysis on the property and consider an appraisal from a licensed appraisal. Avoid any accusations of impropriety—don’t hire a friend or family member. This needs to be all business.

Designate a contact person, usually the executor, to keep the heirs updated on how the sale of the house is progressing.

The biggest roadblock to selling the family house is often the emotional attachment of the children. It’s hard to clean out a family home, with all of the mementos, large and small. The longer the process takes, the harder it is.

This is not the time for any major renovations. There may be some cosmetic repairs that will make the house more marketable, but substantial improvements won’t impact the sale price. Remove all family belongings and show the house either empty or with professional staging to show its possibilities. Clean carpets, paint, if needed and have the landscaping cleaned up.

Keep tax consequences in mind. Depending on where the property is, where the heirs live and how much money is being inherited, there can be estate, inheritance and income taxes.  It is usually best to sell an inherited property, as soon as the rights to it are received. When a property is inherited at death, the property value is “stepped up” to fair market value at the time of the owner’s death. That means that you can sell a property that was purchased in 1970 but not pay taxes on the value gained over those years.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about what will happen when the home needs to be sold. It may be better for parents to create a revocable trust in advance, which will direct the sale, allow a child to continue living in the home for a certain period of time, or instruct the one child who loves the home so much to buy it from the trust. Trusts are typically easier to administer after parents pass away and can be very helpful in preventing family fights.

Reference: The Washington Post (May 16, 2019) “With proper planning, selling a parent’s house can be a relatively painless process”

Special Needs Families and Special Needs Trust

If nothing prepares a person for parenting, consider how much harder it is to be prepared to raise a child with special needs. Parents often sink in uncharted waters. It’s not just a matter of negotiating all of the day-to-day details, says Newsday in the article “Be ‘biggest advocate’: Parents plan future for adult children with special needs.” Special needs families need to plan for what will happen as the parents age, become ill or die.

As an adult child with disabilities ages, eventually there will be medical issues. If the parents are gone, who will be able to make medical decisions? Where they live, who will oversee their finances and who will be there for them to rely on in a parenting role? There are many questions and they all need answering.

For one family, raising their special needs daughter was a full-time challenge. Their daughter, now 24, has autism. The couple sought out others in their same situation, noting that often even their own family members could not relate to their daily experiences.

It takes a village for special needs families to do more than survive. That includes estate planning and elder law attorneys with deep experience in special needs planning, social workers, therapists and medical professionals. Here’s what needs to be top-of-mind:

Don’t wait to plan. Families often think they have time, but you never know when unexpected events occur. Have a plan in place for legal guardianship, finances and health care.

Work with experienced legal help. You want to work with an attorney who has a great deal of experience and knowledge in special needs law and estate planning. Someone who dabbles on the side of a real estate practice is not the right professional for the task.

Stay in control. When children turn 18, they are adults. Parents and guardians will need to go through Surrogate’s Court to become the child’s guardian. Unless that is done, the parents and guardians will have no legal rights about the child’s medical, financial or other affairs. A successor guardian also needs to be named, so that when the parents are no longer able to serve, someone is in place to care for the child.

Create a Special Needs Trust. A trusts attorney with experience in Special Needs planning will be able to work with the family to create and structure a Special Needs Trust (SNT). A disabled person usually cannot earn enough to support himself, or the caregiver who remains at home to care for them and care-related expenses. The SNT helps to meet current needs and plan for future needs. The trust is used to preserve eligibility for any means-tested state and federal benefits. It allows the individual to have a better quality of life, by providing for expenses that are not covered by their benefits.

It’s very important that no assets be left to the child in an inheritance. Any assets must be placed in the trust. A well-meaning relative could put their eligibility for aid in jeopardy.

Parents and guardians also need to name a trustee and a successor trustee. The person needs to be competent, good with money management, organized and focused on caring for the loved one. It cannot be an emotional decision.

Parents of special needs children are advised to create a Letter of Intent, a narrative that outlines their child’s likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, activities and friends they enjoy and other details that will help them to continue an enjoyable life, when their parents are gone.

Parent’s own estate planning must be done with an eye to maintaining the SNT and caring for their other children. This is a case when assets need to be distributed in a realistic and fair manner. If one sibling is the successor trustee, for example, they may need a larger portion of an estate to help care for their sibling.

Reference: Newsday (May 9, 2019) “Be ‘biggest advocate’: Parents plan future for adult children with special needs.”

Power of Attorney: Why You’re Never Too Young

When that time comes, having a power of attorney is a critical document to have. The power of attorney is among a handful of estate planning documents that help with decision making, when a person is too ill, injured or lacks the mental capacity to make their own decisions. The article, “Why you’re never too young for a power of attorney” from Lancaster Online, explains what these documents are, and what purpose they serve.

There are three basic power of attorney documents: financial, limited and health care.

You’re never too young or too old to have a power of attorney. If you don’t, a guardian must be appointed in a court proceeding, and they will make decisions for you. If the guardian who is appointed does not know you or your family, they may make decisions that you would not have wanted. Anyone over the age of 18 should have a power of attorney.

It’s never too early, but it could be too late. If you become incapacitated, you cannot sign a POA. Then your family is faced with needing to pursue a guardianship and will not have the ability to make decisions on your behalf, until that’s in place.

You’ll want to name someone you trust implicitly and who is also going to be available to make decisions when time is an issue.

For a medical or healthcare power of attorney, it is a great help if the person lives nearby and knows you well. For a financial power of attorney, the person may not need to live nearby, but they must be trustworthy and financially competent.

Always have back-up agents, so if your primary agent is unavailable or declines to serve, you have someone who can step in on your behalf.

You should also work with an estate planning attorney to create the power of attorney you need. You may want to assign select powers to a POA, like managing certain bank accounts but not the sale of your home, for instance. An estate planning attorney will be able to tailor the POA to your exact needs. They will also make sure to create a document that gives proper powers to the people you select. You want to ensure that you don’t create a POA that gives someone the ability to exploit you.

Any of the POAs you have created should be updated on a fairly regular basis. Over time, laws change, or your personal situation may change. Review the documents at least annually to be sure that the people you have selected are still the people you want taking care of matters for you.

Most important of all, don’t wait to have a POA created. It’s an essential part of your estate plan, along with your last will and testament.

Reference: Lancaster Online (May 15, 2019) “Why you’re never too young for a power of attorney”

End of Life Planning to Care for Loved Ones During Grief

It’s definitely an uncomfortable thing to do. However, making funeral arrangements for yourself eliminates a lot of stress and anxiety for the family members, who are left to guess what you may have wanted. This, says the Leesville Daily Leader in the article “Planning for the end of your life” lets you make the decisions.

Here are some of the things to consider:

  • Do you want to be buried or cremated?
  • Do you want a funeral or a memorial service?
  • What music do you want played?
  • Do you want flowers, or would you prefer donations to a charity?
  • Do you want people to speak or prefer that only a religious leader speak?
  • What clothing do you want to be buried in?
  • Have you purchased a plot? A gravestone?
  • Who should be notified about your death?
  • Do you want an obituary published in the newspaper?

There are also estate matters that need to be attended to before you pass. Do you have a will, power of attorney, healthcare power of attorney, or a living will? Make sure that your family members or your executor know where these documents can be found.

If you do not have an estate plan in place, now is the time to meet with an estate planning attorney and have a plan created.

Your family will also need to be able to access information about your accounts: investment accounts, credit cards, utility bills, Social Security, pension, retirement funds and other assets and property. A list of the professionals, including your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor, along with the names of your healthcare providers, will be needed.

If you are a veteran, you’ll need to have a copy of your DD-214 in your documents or let family members know where this is located. They will need it, or the funeral home will need it, when applying for burial benefits from the Department of Veterans Affairs and the National Cemetery Administration.

If you wish to be buried in a national cemetery, you’ll need VA Form 40-10007, Application for Pre-Need Determination of Eligibility for Burial in a VA National Cemetery. This must be completed and sent to the National Cemetery Scheduling Office. Include a copy of the DD-214 with the application.

Your family may find discussing these details difficult, but when the time comes, they will appreciate the care that you took, one last time, to take care of them.

Reference: Leesville Daily Leader (May 1, 2019) “Planning for the end of your life”

What If Your Executor Doesn’t Want to Serve?

When you’ve finally come to determine who you trust enough to serve as your executor, you’ll need to take the next step. It involves having a conversation with the person about what you are asking them to do. You’ll need to ask if they are willing, says the Pocono Record in the article “Don’t assume person is willing to be your executor.” People are often flattered at first when they are asked about this role, but if they don’t fully understand the responsibilities, they may decide not to serve just when you need them the most.

Once your executor has agreed to act on your behalf and you have a last will and testament prepared by an estate attorney, tell your executor where your will is stored. Remember that they need to have access, in addition to knowing where the document is. If the will is kept at home in a fire-proof box or a document box that is locked, make sure to tell them where the key is located.

If you feel that the will would be safer in a bank’s safe deposit vault, you have a few additional tasks to complete. One is to make sure that your executor will be able to access the safe deposit box. That may mean adding them to the list of people who have access. They may be technically permitted to enter the box with a bank representative solely for the purpose of obtaining the last will and testament.  However, you should check with your branch first.

Once they have the last will and testament and it is filed for probate, the Register of Wills issues Letters Testamentary, which says that the executor has the authority to open the safe deposit box to inventory its contents, after proper notice is given to the state’s authorities. The executor must complete an inventory form for the authorities and any personal property in the safe deposit box must be appraised for fair market value as of the date of death. Inheritance tax will need to be paid on the value, if there is any due.

Communication is very important in the executor’s role. You may or may not want to allow them to see the will before you pass, but they will need to know where the original document can be found.

To make the next part of the executor’s job easier, create an inventory of your assets and include information they will need to complete their task. They’ll also need to know contact information and account numbers for homeowners and car insurance, veterans’ benefits, credit cards, mortgage, pensions, retirement accounts and any other assets.

Some people store their information on their computer. However, if the executor cannot access your computer or cannot get into the computer because they don’t have your password, you may want to create a hard copy document, as well as keeping information on your computer.

Taking on the role of an executor is a big job. You can show your appreciation, even after you are gone, by making all preparations for the information needed.

Reference: Pocono Record (May 1, 2019) “Don’t assume person is willing to be your executor”

Suggested Key Terms: Executor, Last Will and Testament, Safe Deposit Box, Letters Testamentary

Retirement-Age Workers Crack the 20% Mark

At some point last century, single income families vanished.  It now seems the idea of Americans being able to retire after age 65 may be headed in the same direction. For the first time in 57 years, the participation rate in the work world of people of retirement age has gone to more than 20%, says Crain’s New York Business in the article “America’s elderly are twice as likely to work now than in 1985.”

As of February 2019, the ranks of people who are 65 and older who are retirement age and either employed or seeking employment has doubled from a low of 10% in 1985. The biggest group of older workers? Those who have a college degree. The share of employees age 65 and older with at least an undergraduate degree is now at 53%, up from 25% in 1985.

The dramatic increase has pushed the demographics inflation-adjusted income to an average of $78,000, which is 63% higher than what older workers earned in 1985. By comparison, American workers below age 65 saw their average income increase only by 38% over the same period.

A study by United Income, which drew on data from the Census Bureau and the Bureau of Labor Statistics, shows a mismatch between older workers who need the money the most and those who are college educated and still working.

The wealthier, college-educated workers who are in better health are working, but the less-educated workers are more in need of the income.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics expects the aging baby boomers to continue to represent the strongest growth in the labor force participation through 2024. At that point, they’ll be between 60–78. Many will likely continue to work, even after starting to receive Social Security benefits.

The outlook for retirement for all Americans is not great. Most people will need at least 80% of their pre-retirement income to maintain their lifestyles, when they stop working. Social Security only covers about 40-50%. The typical worker on the bottom half of the income distribution has no retirement savings and is completely dependent upon Social Security.

People in the middle range have a median of $60,000 saved, so they are not really prepared for retirement either.

The top 10% of earners have a median amount of $200,000 saved. While this number does not include real estate or other tangible assets (and it does not include any potential inheritances), they aren’t fully ready either.

With most experts recommending people have at least $1-2 million saved to retire comfortably, it’s no wonder that most Americans will be working well into their so-called “golden years.”

Reference: Crain’s New York Business (April 22, 2019) “America’s elderly are twice as likely to work now than in 1985”

Estate Planning When a Family Member Is Disabled

This kind of mistake can wreak havoc on many lives, which is why it is so important to work with an experienced estate planning attorney who is knowledgeable about special needs planning. The article, “Crafting an estate plan to include disabled family members” from The Ledger explains what is involved in special needs planning.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a federal program that pays monthly benefits to disabled or blind adults and children. To qualify, an individual must have fewer than $2,000 of countable assets and very limited income. Medicaid is a Federal and State health insurance program that helps people with limited assets and income pay for their medical costs.

While it is common for people to name their spouse or children as beneficiaries in their estate plan, if your spouse or child is disabled and receiving government benefits, an inheritance will result in their loss of benefits, unless special planning is done.

A Special Needs Trust (SNT) is designed for disabled beneficiaries so that cash, real property, or any other assets are available for the person’s benefit, while still allowing the disabled person to receive their means-based government benefits.

There are several different ways to accomplish this, depending on your family’s situation. One way is to have a testamentary Special Needs Trust created within a will or trust that goes into effect, when the creator of the trust or the will dies. A SNT can also be created while you are living and can be funded, instead of waiting for it to go into effect at your death.

A third-party SNT can be named as the beneficiary of life insurance policies and retirement accounts, investment accounts or real property. The third-party SNT assets that are not used for the disabled beneficiary during their lifetime, can pass to non-disabled beneficiaries upon the death of the disabled beneficiary.

These assets will be free from Medicaid recovery liens, since the property in a third party SNT does not belong to the disabled beneficiary.

A first party SNT is set up and funded with assets that do belong to a disabled person, and no other funds can be contributed to this type of trust by any other donors. These are often used when a large settlement following an injury is awarded. In Florida and in other states, first-party SNTs are subject to Medicaid recovery to reimburse the state.

Special needs trusts are complicated trusts and require the knowledge of an experienced attorney who devotes most, if not all, of their practice to SNTs and trust and estate planning.

Reference: The Ledger (May 2, 2019) “Crafting an estate plan to include disabled family members”

 

Could You Lose Your Social Security Benefits to Creditors?

What if you are retired and the only income you have is your Social Security benefit? “Can Creditors Come After Your Social Security Benefits” is the question posed by Yahoo! Finance. While for the most part, you don’t have to worry about creditors coming after your Social Security benefits, there are others who can get them, if you haven’t paid certain debts.

Personal loan payments, credit card payments, or medical bills are usually not able to take your Social Security benefits. But there are some exceptions you’ll need to know about:

  • The IRS will not blink at taking up to 15% of your benefits, if your taxes are not paid.
  • If you owe on student loans, the loan companies can come after your Social Security benefits, even if the debt is decades old.
  • The same is true if you are behind on either child support or alimony payments.

As long as your outstanding debt is not tax-related, the first $750 of your benefits is protected from being garnished. However, if you’re behind on child support or alimony, you could lose more than 50% of those benefits.

There are steps to take if debt is an issue. First, if you owe money to the IRS, contact the local IRS office to work out a payment plan. They will almost always work with people to reach an agreement on an installment payment agreement. This will avoid having your benefits garnished.

If you’re behind on student loan payments, reach out to the lender and work out an arrangement. If you can prove that your financial situation is dire, you might be able to come up with a deferred payment plan or change the repayment schedule.

If things are really bad, consider filing for bankruptcy. If you do, realize that not all your debt will be dischargeable. For the most part, the same debts that can cause Social Security benefits to be garnished, like overdue taxes and student loans, are not forgivable by a bankruptcy. If those are your key issues, bankruptcy is not your best option.

This might be a situation where a bankruptcy attorney or a debt settlement firm is needed. Be very cautious about working with a debt settlement firm, to be sure that they are credible and trustworthy. The firm or the attorney will be able to help negotiate the debts. Remember that the ultimate goal of any creditor is to get paid, and sometimes getting paid half of the amount is better than not being paid at all.

Your best bet is to approach this problem and tackle it before you file for Social Security. If your sole source of retirement income is compromised, you want to contact the local county Office for Aging services to find out what kind of help is available in your community. Don’t leave this hanging and hope that it will be resolved by itself.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (April 27, 2019) “Can Creditors Come After Your Social Security Benefits”

What is Congress Doing for Seniors?

House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, a Democrat from Maryland, informed the House Democratic Caucus in an April 25th “Dear Colleague” letter that he intends to bring H.R. 1994,the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act of 2019, to the House floor in May.

Think Advisor’s recent article, “SECURE Act to Get House Vote in May,” explains that the SECURE Act passed the House Ways and Means Committee on April 2. There’s been action on the companion bill—the Retirement Enhancement and Savings Act (RESA) of 2019. That legislation has yet to be scheduled by the Senate Finance Committee.

In discussing the actions taken during the first 100 days of the 116th Congress, Representative Hoyer said that the House will soon take up H.R. 9, the Climate Action Now Act, “to affirm the principles of the Paris Climate Agreement, in spite of President Trump’s pledge to withdraw the United States.”

Hoyer signaled that a vote on the SECURE Act would follow “over the coming work period,” and noted that with the flood insurance program set to expire at the end of May, “I expect the House to take action to address that as well.”

Hoyer said in the next few weeks, “as committees continue to markup legislation, the House will also take up legislation to strengthen the Affordable Care Act and to address rising prescription drug costs.”

Another possibility for consideration in May by the full House is Financial Services Committee Chairwoman Maxine Waters’ Consumers First Act, H.R. 1500. That bill passed out of that committee on March 28. Waters’ bill is aimed at reversing the damage done to the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, under former acting director Mick Mulvaney.

The Senior Security Act of 2019 would require the SEC to create a Senior Investor Taskforce. That bill could be up for a House vote very soon. The House docket also has a resolution on Supporting the Protection of Elders Through Financial Literacy.

The bill includes a provision requiring law enforcement and regulatory agencies to work together to understand and detect elder frauds and scams.

Reference: Think Advisor (April 29, 2019) “SECURE Act to Get House Vote in May”