Top Four Facts to Know about Estate Planning

Estate planning can save your family the stress of court cases and family feuds before the process of settling your estate begins. A plan that you create will provide tremendous peace of mind to those who are left behind. The sorrow of losing a loved one is more than enough for a family to experience, says NewsGram, in the article 4 Things You Must Know About Estate Planning.” You had better to have a plan to ensure that your estate is executed with as little acrimony as possible.

Estate planning focuses on planning for how an individual’s assets will be preserved, managed and distributed after their death. It also addresses how the person’s financial life, including their property, is to be managed, in the event they become incapacitated because of an accident or an illness. This is done with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

The core of estate planning while you are living, is to protect your assets, protect your estate from having to pay unnecessary taxes and protects you and your wishes, if you are incapacitated or pass away. Here are four key things everyone should keep in mind while preparing their estate plan.

Age should not be a factor. Anyone who is of legal age and owns anything has an estate. An estate refers to anything of value that you own. It does not mean a $10 million mansion. A home, a car, bank accounts, retirement accounts and personal possessions make up an estate, regardless of their size or value. Once you have assets, you need an estate plan. We don’t know when we are going to die, but we can be sure that if you have no estate plan, the state will determine who receives your assets. You may want to make those decisions for yourself. That’s what an estate plan does.

You need an estate planning attorney. Estate planning crosses into several different legal practice areas. Asset management, tax planning, real estate, guardianship and other areas need to be addressed by a legal professional who understands how these elements all work together. An estate planning attorney has a professional responsibility to help you document your wishes for incapacity and death.

However, they do more than that. The estate planning attorney will help you fine-tune your wishes, gain clarity on what you want to happen during life and death and translate that into the legal language that ensures that your wishes are achieved.

Planning helps avoid or minimize probate. Depending on where you live, probate can be a simple process or one that takes a long time. The estate planning attorney will help you plan to pass your assets to your spouse or the next generation to avoid going through the court process known as probate. This is a process of authenticating your will, verifying that the assets in the will are correctly named, paying off any outstanding tax balances and approving the distribution of the assets. With a good estate plan, you can make this a simple process.

An estate plan works to minimize family squabbles. Disagreements over estates, including personal possessions as well as money, routinely tears families apart. You don’t have to be wealthy or even a celebrity to have a family that is fractured over a misunderstanding or someone feeling like they were not treated fairly. This is another area where an experienced estate planning attorney can help bring you through the process of distributing assets, with a deep dive into how your decisions may be received by various family members.

To get started, contact an experienced estate planning attorney in your community. If you have an estate plan but haven’t reviewed it in more than four years, it’s time for an update. A number of laws have changed on the federal level that may require some changes to your estate plan. If you have had any major life events, you also need a review.

Reference: NewsGram (June 5, 2019) 4 Things You Must Know About Estate Planning.”

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.”

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’”

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

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”

 

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”

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?”

 

How to Be Smart about an Inheritance

While there’s no one way that is right for everyone, there are some basic considerations about receiving a large inheritance that apply to almost anyone. According to the article “What should you do with an inheritance?” from The Rogersville Review, the size of the inheritance could make it possible for you to move up your retirement date. Just be mindful that it is very easy to spend large amounts of money very quickly, especially if this is a new experience.

Here are some ways to consider using an inheritance:

Get rid of your debt load. Car loans, credit cards and most school loans are at higher rates than you can get from any investments. Therefore, it makes sense to use at least some of your inheritance to get rid of this expensive debt. Some people believe that it’s best to not have a mortgage, since now there are limits to deductions. You may not want to pay off a mortgage, since you’ll have less flexibility if you need cash.

Contribute more to retirement accounts. If the inheritance gives you a little breathing room in your regular budget, it’s a good idea to increase your contributions to an employer-sponsored 401(k) or another plan, as well as to your personal IRA. Remember that this money grows tax-free and it is possible you’ll need it.

Start college funding. If your financial plan includes helping children or even grandchildren attend college, you could use an inheritance to open a 529 account. This gives you tax benefits and considerable flexibility in distributing the money. Every state has a 529 account program and it’s easy to open an account.

Create or reinforce an emergency fund. A recent survey found that most Americans don’t have emergency funds. Therefore, a bill for more than $400 would be difficult for them to pay. Use your inheritance to create an emergency fund, which should have six to 12 months’ worth of living expenses. Put the money into a liquid, low-risk account, so that you can access it easily if necessary. This way you don’t tap into long-term funds.

Review your estate plan. Anytime you have a large life event, like the death of a parent or an inheritance, it’s time to review your estate plan. Depending upon the size of the estate, there may be some tax liabilities you’ll need to deal with. You may also want to set some of the assets aside in trust for children or grandchildren. Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide you with experienced counsel on the use of the inheritance for you and future generations.

Reference: The Rogersville Review (March 21, 2019) “What should you do with an inheritance?”

How Do I Make the Right Estate Planning Moves When I Divorce?

The Journal Enterprise explains in its recent article, “5 Estate Planning Moves If You Are Getting Divorced,” that the following tips will help you get your plans in order, so your final wishes will be carried out later.

Medical Power of Attorney. This is also called a healthcare proxy. This person is named to make decisions on your medical care, if you’re ill or injured and can’t state your medical care decisions. Unless you make the change, your ex-spouse will have this right.

Financial Power of Attorney. Like a healthcare proxy, this is someone you select to take charge, if you become incapacitated. This person has authority over your financial decisions, and it means they have the authority to pay your bills, access your bank and investment accounts, collect and cash your paychecks and make financial decisions for you. You want to be certain that your assets are protected, and your financial obligations are met, while you’re unable to act on your own behalf. Most people name a spouse, but if you get divorced and don’t switch this designation, your spouse will still be your financial power of attorney and will retain access to your finances.

Create a List of Things to Change After Your Divorce. A divorce can freeze some assets and accounts, which remains in effect until it’s finalized. Therefore, you won’t be able to change the beneficiary on life insurance policies, pensions and other types of accounts. Ask your estate planning attorney to find out exactly what accounts will be affected. Once you know which ones are frozen, you should make a list to ensure you won’t neglect to change them, when the divorce is finalized.

Modify Your Will. In some states, you may not be permitted to create a new will, but your attorney should still be able to help you make the necessary changes. You’ll want to review your heirs. If you do have minor children and you have sole custody, you may want to designate another person as their guardian. If you named your spouse as executor of your will, you may want to consider changing that.

Modify Your Trust. You may have a revocable living trust, in addition to a will. One of the advantages of a revocable trust is that it doesn’t go through probate, so your heirs get a bigger inheritance more quickly. If you have a revocable trust, talk to your attorney about changing it after your divorce.

If you don’t make these changes at the time of your divorce, your assets may not go to the right beneficiaries, or your ex-spouse may end up with rights you didn’t intend.

Reference: Journal Enterprise (March 20, 2019) “5 Estate Planning Moves If You Are Getting Divorced”