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”

Should Pets Be Part of Your Estate Plan?

Most of us don’t have the luxury (or the need) to leave our pets $12 million, but to make sure that our pets are cared for, having a legally enforceable trust for a pet, which is allowed in New York State, can provide peace of mind. That is part of the answer to the question posed by the Times Herald-Record in the article “Who’ll care for your pets when you’re gone?”

A will is a document used in a court proceeding called probate, if you die with assets that are only in your name. When the will goes through probate, it becomes a public document. A trust, on the other hand, is a document that does not become part of the public record, unless it was created under a will. Some people use trusts for their beloved pets, to pay for their care and maintain their lifestyle. Some pets lead fancier lives than others!

Most people leave the care of pets in the hands of friends or relatives and hope for the best. Visit any animal shelter and you’ll see the animals whose owners could not take care of them, or whose friends or family members intended to take care of them, but for whatever reasons, could not care for them. Putting a pet trust into your estate plan, is a better way to care for pets, if you outlive them.

The pet trust has several steps, and an estate planning attorney will be able to set it up for you. First, you need to appoint a trustee of the trust funds. This person is in charge of the financial aspect of the trust, from paying vet bills, making sure pet health insurance premiums are paid, to providing money for the caretaker to buy supplies. It’s a good idea to have a secondary trustee, just in case.

Next, you name a caretaker of the pet. This person can be the same as the trustee, although it may be better to name a different person, to create some checks and balances on the funds. You can, if you like, give the trustee the right to appoint a caregiver or a back-up caregiver. Make sure you discuss all of these details with the trustee and the caregiver and their back-ups to be sure that everyone understands their roles, and all are willing to take on these responsibilities. Some pets can live a long time, and you want to have everyone understand what they are undertaking.

Third, you’ll need to designate the amount of money to be held in trust for the pets for medical care, daily living costs and support until the pet dies. Don’t forget to include the cost of burial or cremation.

Finally, name the persons or organizations you wish to receive any remaining funds.

An informal letter of instruction to both the trustee and the caregiver would be very helpful. Provide details on the pet’s personality, quirky behavior, preferences for food, treats, play and any information that will help all the parties get along well. You should also provide information on your pet’s vet, any registration numbers for microchips, medical and dental records, medications, etc.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (March 9, 2019) “Who’ll care for your pets when you’re gone?”

Can A Cell Phone Video Become a Will?
Old woman making a statement with her smartphone

Can A Cell Phone Video Become a Will?

What if a grandmother made a statement, while in an intensive care unit, that she wanted everything she owned to go to a grandchild and a brother-in-law? What if that statement was captured on a cellphone as a video? The question was a real one, posed by a reader of My San Antonio in the article “Can a video be used as a Will?”

There are two reasons why a cellphone video is unlikely to be accepted as a will by any court. One is that the cellphone video does not follow the formality of how a will is created and executed. Another is the statute of frauds, which basically says that to be lawfully valid, certain promises must be in writing.

Not only does a will need to be in writing, it must show clear intent to dispose of assets after death. The writing must be dated and signed by the person who is making the promise (the testator). If the will is written by the testator in his or her handwriting, it is known as a “holographic” will. If the will is typed or in someone else’s handwriting other than the testator, which is known as a “formal will,” then it must also be signed by two independent witnesses and must be notarized. The person who is having the will created (again, the testator), must also have legal capacity for the will to be valid.

In some states, including Texas, there was a time when a spoken will, known an a “nuncupative will” could have been recognized. However, that is no longer the case and a verbal will is no longer valid. Even when a nuncupative will was accepted, it was only accepted for inexpensive personal effects, not large assets or real property.

Some states, including Florida and Nevada, now allow a person to make a will online or on their computer and never have it transferred to paper. These are called “digital” or “electronic” wills. In these cases, e-signatures are allowed to be used. Other states have considered bills allowing digital wills, but the bills did not pass. The Florida law allows the digital will to be e-signed, but it must be witnessed by two independent individuals and it must be e-notarized. It should be noted that the will process is not permitted to be used by a person, who is in an end-stage illness or who is legally considered a “vulnerable adult.”

In the state of Texas, the grandmother in the example above is considered to have died without a will, meaning that she died “intestate.” Texas law will determine how her assets are distributed, and that will depend on her relationships and her survivors. If she was married and all children are from that marriage, her assets go to her spouse. If she was married and had children from a prior marriage, her assets are split unevenly between those children and her spouse. If there is no spouse, assets go to her children. There is a tremendous burden placed on the heirs of those who die without a will, since it does take a long time to figure out who their heirs are.

If she had a properly executed legal will, all these issues would be moot. Anyone who owns a home needs to have a will, and this should have been something that was taken care of, long before she became ill.

For more information about Utah’s laws regarding video wills, consult an estate planning attorney.

Reference: My San Antonio (Feb. 18, 2019) “Can a video be used as a Will?”

When Was the Last Time You Talked with Your Estate Planning Attorney?
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When Was the Last Time You Talked with Your Estate Planning Attorney?

If you haven’t had a talk with your estate planning attorney since before the TCJA act went into effect, now would be a good time to do so, says The Kansas City Star in the article “Talk to estate attorney about impacts of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” While most of the news about the act centered on the increased exemptions for estate taxes, there are a number of other changes that may have a direct impact on your taxes.

Start by looking at any wills or trusts that were created before the tax act went into effect. If any of the trusts use formulas that are tied to the federal estate tax exemption, there could be unintended consequences because of the higher exemption amounts.

The federal estate tax exemption doubled from $5.49 million per person in 2017 to $11.18 million per person in 2018 (or $22.36 million per couple). It is now $11.2 million per person in 2019 (or $22.4 million per couple).

Let’s say that your trust was created in 2001, when the estate tax exemption was a mere $675,000. Your trust may have stipulated that your children receive the amount of assets that could be passed free from federal estate tax, and the remainder, which exceeded the federal estate tax exemption, goes to your spouse. At the time, this was a perfectly good strategy. However, if it hasn’t been updated since then, your children will receive $11.4 million and your spouse could be disinherited.

Trusts drafted prior to 2011, when portability was introduced, require particular attention.

Two other important factors to consider are portability and step-up of cost basis. In the past, many couples relied on the use of bypass or credit shelter trusts that pay income to the surviving spouse and then eventually pass trust assets on to the children, upon the death of the surviving spouse. This scenario made sure to use the first deceased spouse’s estate exemption.

However, new legislation passed in 2011 allowed for portability of the deceased spouse’s unused estate exemption. The surviving spouse’s estate can now use any exemption that wasn’t used by the first spouse to die.

A step-up in basis was not changed by the TCJA law, but this has more significance now. When a person dies, their heir’s cost basis of many assets becomes the value of the asset on the date that the person died. Highly appreciated assets that avoided income taxes to the decedent, could avoid or minimize income taxes to the heirs. Maintaining the ability for assets to receive a step-up in basis is more important now, because of the size of the federal estate tax exemption.

Beneficiaries who inherit assets from a bypass or credit shelter trust upon the surviving spouse’s death, no longer benefit from a “second” step-up in basis. The basis of the inheritance is the original basis from the first spouse’s death. Therefore, bypass trusts are less useful than in the past, and could actually have negative income tax consequences for heirs.

If your current estate plan has not been amended for these or other changes, make an appointment soon to speak with a qualified estate planning attorney. It may not take a huge overhaul of the entire estate plan, but these changes could have a negative impact on your family and their future.

Reference: The Kansas City Star (Feb. 7, 2019) “Talk to estate attorney about impacts of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”