When Should I Start My Estate Planning?

Only 42% of Americans have a will or other estate planning documents, according to a 2017 Caring.com study. Among parents of children under 18, only 36% have created a will.

USA Today’s recent article, “Estate planning: 6 steps to ensure your family is financially ready for when you die,” explains that if you die without a will, state laws will decide what happens to your property or who should be legally responsible for minor children. That might be OK in some circumstances, but in others, a grandchild with special needs might not receive the resources you want him to have, or an estranged family member might get your house.

For some reason, people believe that if they don’t do anything, things will “work out.” They often do not. Here is what you should consider:

Create a will. This document states who should get your money and possessions, as well as who would become a guardian to your minor children, if both parents die.

A living will. This legal document states what medical procedures you want or don’t want, if you’re incapacitated and can’t speak for yourself, such as whether to continue life-sustaining treatment. Powers of attorney let you appoint someone you trust to make legal, financial and health care decisions for you, if you are unable.

Trust. This is a legal entity that holds any property you want to leave to your beneficiaries. With a trust, your family won’t have to go through probate. Trusts also let you to set up instructions for how and when property is distributed. A trustee will manage the trust. Make sure you let people know, when you’ve designated them as a trustee. Name a secondary trustee, in case the primary trustee cannot or will not serve.

Beneficiaries. If you have investment accounts and retirement plans like a 401(k), make certain that the individual you’ve listed as the beneficiary is the person you want to receive those funds.  Remember to appoint a contingency or secondary beneficiary, just in case.

Work with an experienced attorney. Estate planning can be complicated, so get some professional legal help.

End-of-life planning isn’t really fun, but it’s necessary, if you want to have full control over your life and your assets.

Reference: USA Today (April 1, 2019) “Estate planning: 6 steps to ensure your family is financially ready for when you die”

Estate Planning with Loved Survivors In Mind

There is a strong need for clarity regarding the rules about what happens when a spouse from a second marriage, who is not an owner of the home, wants to remain in the home after the death of the owner. A kind-hearted practice is to allow the surviving spouse to remain in the home and enjoy the memories the couple shared, says The Union in the article “Estate planning from the heart.”

Giving the surviving spouse the ability to remain in the home, honors the relationship of the spouse with the decedent. It is an act of kindness. However, it does need to be made legally enforceable, in case there are any challenges. Several considerations need to be evaluated in the estate plan:

Can the surviving spouse manage the cost of the home? This may include a monthly mortgage payment, property taxes, homeowner’s dues, insurance, yard upkeep, interior and exterior maintenance and any repairs that are needed to keep the home working.

Another concern is whether the surviving spouse will continue to be able to maintain the home in the immediate and distant future.

The surviving spouse’s health, including physical and mental abilities, needs to be considered. Will the survivor be able to manage if dementia strikes, or if they are afflicted by a serious illness and left in poor health? All of these challenges need to be considered, when drafting language regarding the rights of a person to remain in the decedent’s home. For instance, if a person is not mentally competent to live on their own, health problems or the declining condition of the property may arise.

A standard of care needs to be made regarding home maintenance and update. It may get very specific, including details like pet care and clean-up, internal cleanliness, the presence of roommates or boarders and an annual or semi-annual inspection to be sure that the home remains in good condition.

The most common problem for a surviving spouse is the financial ability to remain in the home and pay the bills. One solution may be to permit the survivor to stay in the house for two years, creating a trust that can support the cost of maintaining the home during the hardest period of mourning. This gives the surviving spouse time to recover and adjust to the loss.

If the surviving spouse does not have the mental capacity to remain in the house, the choices are difficult. Ideally, both spouses are involved in planning for this possibility, long before the owner of the property dies. There is nothing pleasant or easy about this. However, it must be done. Ignoring it, makes a bad situation worse. Will the person need care, how will that care be paid for, etc.? Don’t leave it for the family to manage.

In the case of a second marriage, leaving the house to an individual who does not have the ability to manage it, creates a difficult situation, unless the decedent is able to leave enough assets in trust for the surviving spouse to maintain the home. There should be no assumption of the ability of the surviving spouse to care for the home, as an unexpected illness or accident could make a person who is healthy at the time of the signing of the agreement, change to one who needs a great deal of help.

The key to a surviving non-owner spouse is to address the “what-if’s” early on, in the context of the estate plan. A plan should be put in place, which may involve trusts or other estate planning tools, to allow the surviving spouse to remain in the home, if that is the couple’s wish, and a plan “A,” “B,” and “C” for the unexpected events that occur in the course of aging.

An estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan that makes sense for the spouse, the surviving spouse and the heirs. A family meeting will be helpful to ensure that everyone involved knows what the plan is, so there are no misunderstandings, and all can act from a place of kindness.

Reference: The Union (April 7, 2019) “Estate planning from the heart”

Having a Generous Spirit is a Good Thing for Many Reasons

Many people give generously throughout the year, for birthdays, to help children or grandchildren with college costs or just because they want to help family or friends. However, according to the New Hampshire Union Leader’s article “Lifetime (noncharitable) giving has many advantages—and not just for tax purposes.”

Lifetime giving means that you are more involved with giving, than if your giving occurs after you have died. Perhaps the best part of gifting with warm hands, is that you are able to enjoy seeing the recipient (donee) benefit from your gift. It’s a good feeling to see a person have his life enriched by your generosity.

It should also be noted that sometimes, giving away something can be a way of liberating yourself. With less property, there’s less for you to manage, insure or provide upkeep.

If you die with no will, the intestacy laws of your state will determine who gets what. With a will, you have the opportunity to make your intentions known clearly. However, since you will not be alive, you won’t be able to see the actual transfer of property. A beneficiary might decide that they don’t want an asset. It is also possible that someone who always told you that he loved the painting in the foyer of your home, may decide to sell it, instead of keeping it.

Lifetime giving lets you react to changing circumstances and provides some control over how your assets are distributed.

After your death, your property and your estate may go through probate, which in some states can be a lengthy process. Lifetime giving also reduces the costs associated with probate and estate administration, because they won’t be included in your estate at the time of death. Assets that come out of the probate estate, reduces the likelihood of estate creditors or dissatisfied heirs. Lifetime gifts are private, while probate is public.

However, there are also tax advantages. If your gifting program is structured correctly by an experienced estate planning attorney, income and estate taxes can be decreased. Generally, a gift is not taxable income to the donee. However, any income earned by the gift property or capital gain subsequent to the gift, is usually taxable. The donor holds the responsibility of paying state or federal transfer taxes imposed on the gift. There are four taxes to be aware of: the state gift tax, the state generation-skipping transfer tax, federal gift and estate taxes and the federal generation-skipping transfer tax.

Many people give, because they want to support charitable causes or help friends and family enjoy a higher quality of life. The need to reduce the size of an estate to lower estate taxes is now less prominent, since the federal estate tax exemption is so high. It should be kept in mind that the new tax laws regarding federal estate taxes end in 2025. That may seem far away, but it will be here soon enough.

Another way to give, is to help with college expenses. Any gift must be made directly to a qualified institution. Similarly, if you’d like to help a friend or family member with medical expenses, a gift needs to be made directly to the healthcare provider. Not only are these types of transfers exempt from federal gift and estate taxes, but they are outside of the $15,000 annual gift exclusion gift you can make to an individual in any given calendar year.

This is a simple overview of gifting. An estate planning attorney should be consulted to create a plan for giving, that aligns with your overall estate plan and tax management plan.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (April 7, 2019) “Lifetime (noncharitable) giving has many advantages—and not just for tax purposes”

What You Need to Know, If the Next Generation Is Inheriting the Family Farm

Understanding the tax liabilities for inheriting, buying or being gifted the family farm, is critical to avoid a costly financial misstep, says Capital Press in the article “The family farm is coming to you: What’s next?” You’ll need to work closely with your estate planning attorney and CPA to make sure you understand the basis in the real estate, especially if the property is sold and taxes will need to be paid. How you inherit the property, makes a big difference in the tax bill.

If you receive the property as a gift from parents while they are alive, then you retain their income tax basis in the property. If they inherited it also, they likely have a low tax basis. Farms with a basis of $50,000 that are now worth $2 million are not unusual. If the farm is sold, there will be a capital gains tax on the difference between the basis and the present value, which could be more than $600,000.

If you inherit the farm from a parent and then sell it for $2 million, its value at the time of their death, you would not have to pay a capital gains tax. That saves $600,000.

The estate tax may not be so bad, depending upon your state’s estate tax, which is probably lower than the highest capital gains rate. If you live in Oregon, you may be eligible for the Oregon National Resource Credit, which was created to reduce Oregon estate taxes on family farms. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you plan for and manage these taxes.

If you bought the farm from a parent’s trust or estate for $2 million, then you have a $2 million basis in the property and will probably not owe any property gains tax, if you eventually sell it for $2 million.

Just be sure that you comply with all reporting requirements. If you are in Oregon and took the Oregon National Resource Credit, then for five out of eight years after the death, the recipient of the inherited property is required to file an annual certification to keep the credit that was used to lower the estate tax. Failure to comply, means that a portion of the estate tax will have to be repaid.

If you own the farm without other family members, you should start planning your next steps. To whom do you want to pass the farm? If you want to keep the farm in the family, work with an attorney who is familiar with farm families, so that you can keep working the land and reduce any disputes.

Farmers often separate business operations from the land, with the operations held by one business and the land held by another entity. This allows the estate planning attorney to plan for succession in how operations and land are transferred to the next generation. It also provides asset protection, while you are alive.

Make sure that your farm succession plan and your estate plan are aligned. A common issue is finding that buy-sell documents don’t align with the will or trust. Some farmers use a revocable living trust as a will, so they can incorporate estate tax planning and transition the farm privately upon death.

Reference: Capital Press (March 24, 2019) “The family farm is coming to you: What’s next?”