What’s Better, A Living Trust or a Will?

Everyone knows what a last will and testament is. However, a will is not always the best way to distribute your assets, explains the Times Herald-Record in the article “Living trusts are better choice than wills.” Most people think that by having a will alone, they will make it clear who they want to receive their assets when they die. However, wills are used by the court in a proceeding called “probate,” if the only estate plan you have is a will. The court proceeding is to establish that the will is valid. Depending upon where you live, probate can take a year before assets are distributed to beneficiaries.

Certain family members must receive notifications, when a will is submitted to probate. Some people will receive notices, even if they are not mentioned in the will. This can lead to all kinds of awkward situations, especially from estranged or unknown relatives. The person who is the executor of the will is required to locate these relatives, and until they are found and notified, the probate process comes to a standstill.

There are instances where a judge will allow a legal notice to be published in a local newspaper, after valid attempts to find relatives aren’t successful. If there is a disabled beneficiary, a minor beneficiary, a relative or beneficiary who can’t be located, or a relative who has been incarcerated, the judge often appoints lawyers to represent these parties’ interests and the estate pays for the attorney’s fees.

Depending on the situation, the executor may be required to furnish a family tree, or a friend of the decedent must sign an affidavit attesting that the person never had any children.

Thinking of disinheriting a child? Anyone who is disinherited in a will, receives a notice about that and is legally permitted to contest the will. That can lead to years of expensive litigation, including discovery demands, depositions, motions and possibly a trial. Like most litigation, will contests usually end in a settlement. The disinherited relative often gets a share of the inheritance, even when the decedent didn’t want them to get anything.

For many families, a living trust is a better alternative. They also serve as disability planning, naming people who will manage the assets of the trust, in case of incapacity. They are private documents, so their information does not become public knowledge, like the details of a will.

A qualified estate planning attorney will help you determine what estate planning tools will work best to achieve your goals, while maintaining your privacy and ensuring that assets pass to heirs in a discrete manner.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Oct. 26, 2019) “Living trusts are better choice than wills”

Good News About Gifts

It’s worthwhile to understand the rules about taxes that might be triggered by your generosity, says Forbes in the article “How To Avoid Taxes When Giving Big-Dollar Gifts.” Did you know that you can give any one person as much as $15,000 every year, without having to pay any gift taxes? You can give any number of people up to $15,000 and they don’t even need to be relatives.

Note that if and when any gift taxes are due, it’s the giver who pays any gift taxes, and not the recipient.

Therefore, if you think the world of your next-door neighbor and give him a gift of $20,000, you only owe taxes on the $5,000 above the $15,000 limit, and that’s also if your total gift exceeds your lifetime exclusion. You don’t have to be generous with cash only. Gifts can come in the form of stock, a boat or jewelry. Just remember to keep it under $15,000, so as not to incur any gift taxes.

The $15,000 limit is per person, not per couple, so if you want to give someone $15,000 and your spouse also wants to give them a $15,000 gift, that works. You can double the gift, while still staying under the annual limit.

If your gift is going to a charitable organization—a registered 501(c)(3), you won’t owe anything in gift taxes.

In addition to this $15,000 annual cap, wealthy gift givers should just keep in mind a $11.4 million maximum that is known as the lifetime exclusion. That’s the limit in 2019, and it will rise next year. This governs all the gifting you do during your lifetime. That’s outside of the annual exclusion of $15,000.

Anything more than that in the way of gifts, and you or your estate will have to pay estate tax. The top rate for the overage is high-40%. However, you’ll have to be mighty generous to get near that limit.

Here’s what’s nice: you won’t have to pay gift taxes every single time you go over that $15,000 limit. Let’s say you give your son $50,000 in 2019. Your gift is $35,000 above the ceiling, which is taxable.  However, rather than write a check for taxes to the IRS now, you count it against the $11.4 million lifetime exclusion. You now have $11.365 remaining.

The best way to go about gifting, is to make sure that your desired gifts are working in concert with your estate plan. One reason for gifting “with warm hands” is to reduce the taxable size of the estate, but there are many other ways to do this. There are also instances when gifts need to be reported to the IRS, even if no taxes are owed on them.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about your gifting strategy, how it works with your estate plan and what gift tax forms you do, or do not, need to file.

Reference: Forbes (October 14, 2019) “How To Avoid Taxes When Giving Big-Dollar Gifts”

Americans Still Aren’t Planning for The After Life

Think Advisor reported on a survey conducted by a financial services firm that revealed good news and bad news about Americans and estate planning. In the article “Americans, Even Advisory Clients, Have a Big Estate Planning Problem: Survey,” the firm Edward Jones found that two-thirds of those with an advisor have not discussed estate goals and legacy plans. That’s the bad news. The good news is that 77% said estate and legacy strategies are important for everyone, not just wealthy individuals.

Most people do understand how a properly prepared estate plan puts them in control of what happens to the people that matter most to them, including minor children, their spouses and partners. It also indicates that they recognize how estate planning is necessary to protect themselves. That means having documents, like Power of Attorney and Medical Health Care Power of Attorney.

However, the recognition does not follow with the necessary steps to put a plan into place. That is the part that is worrisome.

Without a will, assets could be subject to the costly and time-consuming process of probate, where the entire will becomes a public document that anyone can look at. Nosy neighbors, creditors and relatives all having access to personal and financial information, is not something anyone wants to happen. However, by failing to plan, that’s exactly what happens.

The survey of 2,007 adults showed little sense of urgency to having legacy conversations. Only about a third of millennials and Gen Xers said they’d spoken with their advisors about the future. Surprisingly, only 38% of baby boomers had done so—and they are the generation most likely to need these plans in place in the immediate future.

Where do you start? Begin with the beneficiary designations. Check all investment accounts, bank accounts, insurance policies and retirement accounts. Most, if not all, of these financial documents should have a place to name a beneficiary, and some may permit a secondary beneficiary to be named. Make sure that you name a person you want to receive these assets, and that the person named is still in your life.

The beneficiary designation is more powerful than your will. The person named in the beneficiary designation will receive the asset, no matter what your will says. If you don’t want an ex to receive life insurance policy proceeds, make sure to check the names on your life insurance beneficiary designations.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan. If you haven’t updated your estate plan in three or four years, it’s time for an update. It’s equally important if you should become incapacitated and you want someone else to make financial and medical decisions on your behalf, to have up to date Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy forms.

Reference: Think Advisor (September 16, 2019) “Americans, Even Advisory Clients, Have a Big Estate Planning Problem: Survey”

 

Relocating for Retirement? What You Need to Know

Sometimes having too many choices can become overwhelming. Move closer to the grandchildren, or live in a college town? Escape cold weather, or move to a mountain village? With the freedom to move anywhere, you’ll need to do some serious homework. A recent article titled “Don’t Relocate in Retirement Without Answering These 5 Questions” from Nasdaq contains some wise and practical advice.

There are some regions that are more retirement-friendly than others. If you end up in the wrong place, it could hurt your retirement finances. Therefore, ask these questions first:

What are the state’s taxes like? If you are living on Social Security benefits, retirement savings and a pension, the amount of money you’ll actually receive will vary depending on the state. There are 37 states that don’t tax Social Security benefits, but there are 13 that do. There are also some states that do not tax distributions from retirement accounts. Learn the local rules first. If you currently live in a state with no income tax, don’t move to a state that may require a big tax check.

If you live in a high tax state and don’t have enough money saved for a comfortable retirement, then moving to a lower tax state will help stretch your budget.

Is there an estate or inheritance tax, and is that a concern for you? If leaving money to heirs doesn’t matter to you, this isn’t a big deal. However, if you want to pass on your assets, then find out what the state’s inheritance taxes are. In some states, there are no taxes until you reach a pretty large amount. However, in states with inheritance taxes, even a small estate may be taxed, with those who inherit sometimes owing money on even small transfers.

What’s the cost of living compared to where you live now? When you’re working, moving to a place with a higher cost of living is not as big a deal, since your wages (hopefully) increase with the relocation. However, if your cost of living goes up and your income remains fixed, that’s a problem. The last thing you want to do is move to a place where the cost of living is so high, that it decimates your retirement savings.

If you live somewhere with high taxes and high prices, moving to a lower cost of living area will help your money last longer, and could make your retirement much easier.

Is it walkable or do you need a car? Cars present two problems for aging adults. One, they are expensive to maintain and insure. Two, at a certain point along the aging process, it becomes time to give up the keys. If you live in a walkable community, you may be able to go from having two cars to having one car. You might even be able to get rid of both cars and do yourself a favor, by walking more. This also gives you far more independence, far later in life.

What’s healthcare like? Even people who are perfectly healthy in their 50s and 60s, may find themselves living with chronic conditions in their 70s and 80s. You want to live where first-class healthcare is available. Check to see what hospitals and doctors are in the area before moving. You should also find out if medical care providers accept Medicare. Consider the cost of a nursing home or home care in your potential new community. Some areas of the country have much higher costs than others.

Reference: Nasdaq (Aug. 9, 2019) “Don’t Relocate in Retirement Without Answering These 5 Questions,”

What Happens when Both Spouses Die at the Same Time?

There are any number of ways a person can inherit assets from another person. They may inherit assets from a trust, through a will or as a designated beneficiary of an insurance policy or retirement account. However, in each case, says Lake Country News in the article “Simultaneous and close together deaths,” the person inheriting the asset is living, while the person they inherited from has died.

What happens if spouses die either at the same exact time, or at a time that is very close to each other? The answer, as with so many estate planning questions, is that it depends.

The first question is, did both decedents have estate planning documents in place. If so, what directions do the wills give? Are there trusts, and if so, who are the trustees? If they served as trustees for each other’s trusts, did they name a secondary trustee?

If assets were owned as joint tenancy with right of survivorship, the estate of each deceased tenant receives an equal share of the asset, unless it can be proven that a joint tenant survived the other.

Here’s an example: if a parent dies without a will, is survived by two children, but one of the two children dies only four days after the parent’s death, i.e., fewer than 120 hours, in California, the law presumes that the deceased child did not survive the mother. The sole surviving child’s estate receives the entire parent’s intestate estate.

A beneficiary who survives long enough to inherit, however, might die before receiving complete distribution of his or her inheritance.

A trust may provide for distributions to alternative beneficiaries. This is another reason why it is wise to have primary and secondary beneficiaries on all accounts that permit secondary beneficiaries. Not all accounts permit this.

Similarly, a trust may provide for distribution to alternative beneficiaries. Otherwise, unless there has been advance planning, the undistributed inheritance becomes part of the deceased beneficiary’s estate, where it will be distributed either according to the beneficiary’s will, or according to the laws of intestacy of the decedent’s state of residence.

All of these instances are further reasons why it is so important for everyone to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared.

A probate of the beneficiary’s estate may be required, as a result of an undistributed inheritance.

The legal and factual analysis associated with the distribution of a couple who die at the same time or in close proximity to each other varies from case to case. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have an estate plan prepared to avoid your family having to unravel the knotty mess that is created when there is no will, and no estate planning has been done.

Reference: Lake Country News (Aug. 10, 2019) “Simultaneous and close together deaths”

Why Do I Need an Attorney to Help Me with Estate Planning?

Your estate plan can be simple or complicated. The New Hampshire Union Leader’s recent article, “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional,” says that some strategies are definitely easier to implement—like having a will, for example. Others are more complex, like creating a trust. Whatever your needs, most strategies will probably necessitate that you hire a qualified estate planning attorney. Here are some situations that may require special planning attention:

  • Your estate is valued at more than the federal gift and/or estate tax applicable exclusion amount ($11.4 million per person in 2019);
  • You have minor children;
  • You have loved ones with special needs who depend on you;
  • You own a business;
  • You have property in more than one state;
  • You want to donate to charities;
  • You own valuable artwork or collectibles;
  • You have specific thoughts concerning health care; or
  • You desire privacy and want to avoid the probate process.

First, you need to understand your situation, and that includes factors like your age, health and wealth. Your thoughts about benefitting family members and taxes also need to be considered. You’ll want to have plans in place should you become incapacitated.

Next, think about your goals and objectives. Some common goals are:

  • Providing financial security for your family;
  • Preserving property for your heirs;
  • Avoiding disputes among family members or business partners;
  • Giving to a charity;
  • Managing your affairs, if you are disabled;
  • Having sufficient liquidity to pay the expenses of your estate; and
  • Transferring ownership of your property or business interests.

Ask your attorney about a will. If you have minor children, you must have a will to address guardianship, unless your state provides an alternative legal means to do so. Some people many need a trust to properly address their planning concerns. Some of your assets will also have their own beneficiary designations. Once you have you a plan, review it every few years or when there’s a birth, adoption, death, or divorce in the family.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (July 27, 2019) “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional”

A Will, Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney: Three Documents Everyone Should Have

These three documents combined allow you to designate who you want to be responsible for your well- being, if you are unable to communicate to others on your own behalf and name who you want to receive your property. Having a will, power of attorney and health care power of attorney are the foundation of an estate plan and peace of mind, says the article “Simple steps to peace of mind” from the Traverse City Record Eagle.

If you die without a will, your state has a plan in place for you. However, you, or more correctly, your family, probably won’t like it. Your assets will be distributed according to the laws of inheritance, and people who you may not know or haven’t spoken to in years may end up inheriting your estate.

If your fate is to become incapacitated and you don’t have an estate plan, your family faces an entirely new set of challenges. Here’s what happened to one family:

A son contacted the financial advisor who had worked with the family for many years. He asked if the advisor had a power of attorney for his father. His mother had passed away two years ago, and his father had Alzheimer’s and wasn’t able to communicate or make decisions on his own behalf.

Five years ago, the financial advisor had recommended an estate planning attorney to the couple. The son called the attorney’s office and learned that his parents did make an appointment and met with the attorney about having these three documents created. However, they never moved forward with an estate plan.

The son had tried to talk with his parents over the years, but his father refused to discuss anything.

The son now had to hire that very same attorney to represent him in front of the probate court to be appointed as his father’s guardian and conservator. The son was appointed, but the court could just have easily appointed a complete stranger to these roles.

The son now has the power to help his father, but he will also have to report to the probate court every year to prove that his father’s well-being and finances are being handled properly. Having a will, power of attorney and medical power of attorney would have made this situation much easier for the family.

Guardianship is concerned with the person and his or her well-being. Conservatorship means a person has control over an individual’s financial matters and can make all decisions about property and assets.

There is a key difference between powers of attorney and conservatorship and guardianship. The person gets to name who they wish to have power of attorney. It’s someone who knows them, who they trust and they make the decision. With conservator and guardianship, it’s possible that someone you don’t know and who doesn’t know your family, holds all your legal rights.

A far better alternative is simply to meet with an estate planning attorney and have him create these three documents and whatever planning tools your situation calls for. Start by giving some thought to who you would want to be in charge of your life and your money, if you should become unable to manage your life by yourself. Then consider who you would want to have your various assets when you die. Take your notes with you to a meeting with an estate planning attorney, who will know what documents you need. Make sure to complete the process: signing all the completed documents, funding any trusts, retitling any accounts and finally, making sure your family knows where your documents are. This is a road to peace of mind, for you and your family.

Reference: Traverse City Record Eagle (June 23, 2019) “Simple steps to peace of mind”

What Does ‘Getting Your Affairs in Order’ Really Mean?

That “something” that happens that no one wants to come out and say is that you are either incapacitated by a serious illness or injury or the ultimate ‘something,’ which is death. There are steps you can take that will help your family and loved ones, so they have the information they need and can help you, says Catching Health’s article “Getting your affairs in order.”

Start with the concept of incapacity, which is an important part of estate planning. Who would you want to speak on your behalf? Would that person be the same one you would want to make important financial decisions, pay bills and handle your personal affairs? Does your family know what your wishes are, or do you know what your parent’s wishes are?

Financial Power of Attorney. Someone needs to be able to pay your bills and handle financial matters. That person is named in a Financial Power of Attorney, and they become your agent. Without an agent, your family will have to go to court and get a conservatorship. This takes time and money. It also brings in court involvement into your life and adds another layer of stress and expense.

It’s important to name someone who you trust implicitly and whose financial savvy you trust. Talk with the person you have in mind first and make sure they are comfortable taking on this responsibility. There may be other family members who will not agree with your decisions, or your agent’s decisions. They’ll have to be able to stick to the course in the face of disagreements.

Medical Power of Attorney. The Medical Power of Attorney is used when end-of-life care decisions must be made. This is usually when someone is in a persistent vegetative state, has a terminal illness or is in an irreversible coma. Be cautious: sometimes people want to appoint all their children to make health care decisions. When there are disputes, the doctor ends up having to make the decision. The doctor does not want to be a mediator. One person needs to be the spokesperson for you.

Health Care Directive or Living Will. The name of these documents and what they serve to accomplish does vary from state to state, so speak with an estate planning attorney in your state to determine exactly what it is that you need.

Health Care Proxy. This is the health care agent who makes medical decisions on your behalf, when you can no longer do so. In Maine, that’s a health care advance directive. The document should be given to the named person for easy access. It should also be given to doctors and medical providers.

DNR, or Do Not Resuscitate Order. This is a document that says that if your heart has stopped working or if you stop breathing, not to bring you back to life. When an ambulance arrives and the EMT asked for this document, it’s because they need to know what your wishes are. Some folks put them on the fridge or in a folder where an aide or family member can find them easily. If you are in cardiac arrest and the DNR is with a family member who is driving from another state to get to you, the EMT is bound by law to revive you. You need to have that on hand, if that is your wish.

How Much Should You Tell Your Kids? While it’s really up to you as to how much you want to share with your kids, the more they know, the more they can help in an emergency. Some seniors bring their kids with them to the estate planning attorney’s office, but some prefer to keep everything under wraps. At the very least, the children need to know where the important documents are, and have contact information for the estate planning attorney, the accountant and the financial advisor. Many people create a binder with all of their important documents, so there are no delays caused in healthcare decisions.

Reference: Catching Health (May 28, 2019) “Getting your affairs in order.”

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”