How Bad Will Your Estate’s Taxes Be?

The federal estate tax has been a small but steady source of federal revenue for nearly 100 years. The tax was first imposed on wealthy families in America in 1916. They were paid by families whose assets were previously passed down through multiple generations completely and utterly untaxed, says the article “Will the government tax your estate when you die, seizing home and assets?” from The Orange County Register.

The words “Death Tax” don’t actually appear anywhere in the federal tax code, but was the expression used to create a sympathetic image of the grieving families of farmers and small business owners who were burdened by big tax bills at a time of personal loss, i.e., the death of a parent. The term was made popular in the 1990s by proponents of tax reform, who believed that estate and inheritance taxes were unfair and should be repealed.

Fast forward to today—2020. Will the federal government tax your estate when you die, seize your home and everything you had hoped to hand down to your children? Not likely. Most Americans don’t have to worry about estate or death taxes. With the new federal exemptions at a record high of $11,580,000 for singles and twice that much for married couples, only very big estates are subject to a federal estate tax. Add to that, the 100% marital deduction means that a surviving spouse can inherit from a deceased spouse and is not required to pay any estate tax, no matter how big the estate.

However, what about state estate taxes? To date, thirteen states still impose an estate tax, and many of these have exemptions that are considerably lower than the federal tax levels. Six states add to that with an inheritance tax. That’s a tax that is levied on the beneficiaries of the estate, usually based upon their relationship to the deceased.

Many estates will still be subject to state estate taxes and income taxes.

The personal representative or executor is responsible and legally authorized to file returns on a deceased person’s behalf. They are usually identified in a person’s will as the executor of the estate. If a family trust holds the assets, the trust document will name a trustee. If there was no will or trust, the probate court will appoint an administrator. This person may be a professional administrator and likely someone who never knew the person whose estate they are now in charge of. This can be very difficult for family members.

If the executor fails to file a return or files an inaccurate or incomplete return, the IRS may assess penalties and interest payments.

The final individual income tax return is filed in just the same way as it would be when the deceased was living. All income up to the date of death must be reported, and all credits and deductions that the person is entitled to can be claimed. The final 1040 should only include income earned from the start of the calendar year to the date of their death. The filing for the final 1040 is the same as for living taxpayers: April 15.

Even if taxes are not due on the 1040, a tax return must be filed for the deceased if a refund is due. To do so, use the Form 1310, Statement of a Person Claiming Refund Due to a Deceased Taxpayer. Anyone who files the final tax return on a decedent’s behalf must complete IRS Form 56, Notice Concerning Fiduciary Relationship, and attach it to the final Form 1040.

If the decedent was married, the widow or widower can file a joint return for the year of death, claiming the full standard deduction and using joint-return rates, as long as they did not remarry in that same year.

An estate planning attorney can help with these and the many other details that must be taken care of, before the estate can be finalized.

Reference: The Orange County Register (March 1, 2020) “Will the government tax your estate when you die, seizing home and assets?”

Estate Planning Is For Everyone

Estate planning is something anyone who is 18 years old or older needs to think about, advises the article “Estate planning for every stage of life from the Independent Record. Estate planning includes much more than a person’s last will and testament. It protects you from incapacity, provides the legal right to allow others to talk to your doctors if you can’t and takes care of your minor children, if an unexpected tragedy occurs. Let’s look at all the ages and stages where estate planning is needed.

Parents of young adults should discuss estate planning with their children. While parents devote decades to helping their children become independent adults, sometimes life doesn’t go the way you expect. A college freshman is more concerned with acing a class, joining a club and the most recent trend on social media. However, a parent needs to think about what happens when the child is over 18 and has a medical emergency. Parents have no legal rights to medical information, medical decision making or finances, once a child becomes a legal adult. Hospitals may not release private information and doctors can’t talk with parents, even in an extreme situation. Young adults need to have a HIPAA release, a durable power of medical attorney and a power of attorney for their finances created.

New parents also need estate planning. While it may be hard to consider while adjusting to having a new baby in the house, what would happen to that baby if something unexpected were to affect both parents? The estate planning attorney will create a last will and testament, which is used to name a guardian for any minor children, in case both parents pass. This also includes decisions that need to be made about the child’s education, medical treatment and even their social life. You’ll need to name someone to be the child’s guardian, and to be sure that they will raise your child the same way that you would.

An estate plan includes naming a conservator, who is a person with control over a minor child’s finances. You’ll want to name a responsible person who is trustworthy and good with handling money. It is possible to name the same person as guardian and conservator. However, it may be wise to separate the responsibilities.

An estate plan also ensures that your children receive their inheritance, when you think they will be responsible enough to handle it. If a minor child’s parents die and there is no estate plan, the parent’s assets will be held by the court for the benefit of the child. Once the child turns 18, he or she will receive the entire amount in one lump sum. Few who are 18-years old are able to manage large sums of money. Estate planning helps you control how the money is distributed. This is also something to consider, when your children are the beneficiaries of any life insurance policies. An estate planning attorney can help you set up trusts, so the monies are distributed at the right time.

When people enter their ‘golden’ years—that is, they are almost retired—it is the time for estate plans to be reviewed. You may wish to name your children as power of attorney and medical power of attorney, rather than a sibling. It’s best to have people who will be younger than you for these roles as you age. This may also be the time to change how your wealth is distributed. Are your children old enough to be responsible with an inheritance? Do you want to create a legacy plan that includes charitable giving?

Lastly, update your estate plan any time there are changes in the family structure. Divorce, death, marriage or individuals with special needs all require a different approach to the basic estate plan. It’s a good idea to revisit an estate plan anytime there have been major changes in your relationships, to the law, or changes to your financial status.

Reference: Independent Record (March 1, 2020) “Estate planning for every stage of life

Surprising Ways Beneficiary Designations Can Damage an Estate Plan

Naming a beneficiary on a non-retirement account can result in an unintended consequence—it can even topple an entire estate plan—reports The National Law Review in the article “Overuse of Beneficiary Designations: How They Can Derail a Client’s Estate Plan.” How is that possible?

In most cases, retirement accounts and life insurance policies pass to beneficiaries as a result of the beneficiary designation form that is completed when someone opens a retirement account or purchases a life insurance plan. Most people don’t even think about those designations again, until they embark on the estate planning process, when they are reviewed.

The beneficiary designations are carefully tailored to allow the asset to pass through to the heir, often via trusts that have been created to achieve a variety of benefits. The use of beneficiary designations also allows the asset to remain outside of the estate, avoiding probate after death.

Apart from the beneficiary designations on retirement accounts and life insurance policies, beneficiary designations are also available through checking and savings accounts, CDs, U.S. Savings Bonds or investment accounts. The problem occurs when these assets are not considered during the estate planning process, potentially defeating the tax planning and distribution plans created.

The most common way this happens, is when a well-meaning bank employee or financial advisor asks if the person would like to name a beneficiary and explains to the account holder how it will help their heirs avoid probate. However, if the estate planning lawyer, whose goal is to plan for the entire estate, is not informed of these beneficiary designations, there could be repercussions. Some of the unintended consequences include:

Loss of tax saving strategies. If the estate plan uses funding formulas to optimize tax savings by way of a credit shelter trust, marital trust or generation-skipping trust, the assets are not available to fund the trusts and the tax planning strategy may not work as intended.

Unintentional beneficiary exclusion. If all or a large portion of the assets pass directly to the beneficiaries, there may not be enough assets to satisfy bequests to other individuals or trust funds created by the estate plan.

Loss of creditor protection/asset management. Many estate plans are created with trusts intended to protect assets against creditor claims or to provide asset management for a beneficiary. If the assets pass directly to heirs, any protection created by the estate plan is lost.

Estate administration issues. If a large portion of the assets pass to beneficiaries directly, the administration of the estate—that means taxes, debts, and expenses—may be complicated by a lack of funds under the control of the executor and/or the fiduciary. If estate tax is due, the beneficiary of an account may be held liable for paying the proportionate share of any taxes.

Before adding a beneficiary designation to a non-retirement account, or changing a bank account to a POD (Payable on Death), speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that the plan you put into place will work if you make these changes. When you review your estate plan, review beneficiary designations. The wrong step here could have a major impact for your heirs.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 28, 2020) “Overuse of Beneficiary Designations: How They Can Derail a Client’s Estate Plan”

What is the Difference between Guardianship and Power of Attorney?

Protecting yourself or a loved one can take many different forms, since aging takes a toll on the ability to handle financial and medical decisions. In most situations, guardianship or a power of attorney does the trick, says the article “Guardianships vs. Powers of Attorney” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  How to know which is the best one to use?

A guardianship is a court-authorized assignment of surrogate decision-making power for the benefit of a person who has lost the ability to make informed decisions on their own, often described as a person who has become incapacitated. The decisions that another person can make on their behalf can be very broad, or they can be very specific.

If a person becomes incapacitated, either through a slowly progressing illness like dementia or quickly, as the result of an accident, a judge will appoint a person or sometimes an organization to handle health care and financial decisions. The court-appointed guardian or organization could be a person or agency you have never heard of and would not know your family or anything about you.

Yes, that is scary. However, guardianship takes place when families do not plan in advance to appoint a surrogate decision maker, also known as an “agent.”

Here’s even more scary news: once the court has appointed a guardian, that relationship may continue for the rest of the incapacitated person’s life. That means annual accountings and involvement with the court, legal fees and other professional fees the guardian or court deems necessary.

There are some guardians who have made headlines for stealing money and making care decisions that the individual and their families did not want.

Meeting with an estate planning attorney to prepare for incapacity as part of an overall estate plan is a far better way. Why don’t more people do it?

  • They aren’t aware of the importance of power of attorney.
  • They don’t want to spend the money.
  • They don’t know who to choose as their power of attorney
  • They don’t want to think about incapacity or death.

In contrast to a court-supervised lifetime guardianship, a properly drafted power of attorney can provide for an agent to make a variety of financial and medical decisions. The person named as a power of attorney (the agent) can serve for the person’s lifetime, just like a guardian.

This is the most fundamental estate planning document, after the last will and testament. Once it’s prepared, you can always change your mind and you or your agent never need to go to court.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Feb. 24, 2020) “Guardianships vs. Powers of Attorney”

Be Aware of Probate

Probate is the legal process that happens after a person dies. The court accepts the deceased’s last will, and then the executor can carry out the instructions for the deceased’s estate. However, first he or she must pay any debts and sell assets before distributing any remaining property to the heirs.

If the deceased doesn’t have a will, the probate court will appoint an administrator to manage the probate process, and the court will supervise the process. The Million Acres article entitled asks, “Probate Explained: What Is Probate, and How Does It Work?”

When the will is proven to be legal, the probate judge will grant the executor legal rights to carry out the instructions in the will.

When there’s no will, the probate process can be complicated, because there’s no paper trail that shows what assets belong to what heirs. Tracking down heirs can also be challenging, especially if there’s no surviving spouse and the next of kin is located in a different state or outside the U.S.

Many executors will partner with a probate attorney to help them through the probate process, as well as to assist in filing the required paperwork, notifying creditors, filing taxes and distributing assets. The deceased’s assets must first be located and then formally appraised to determine their value.  Creditors must also be notified after death within a specified period of time.

After the creditors, taxes and fees have been paid on behalf of the estate, any leftover money or assets are distributed to the heirs.

The probate process can be lengthy. Things that can lengthen the process include the state when the deceased was a resident, whether there is a will and whether it is contested by the heirs. The more detailed the will, the simpler the probate process.

The probate process can be expensive, because of court filing fees, creditor notice fees, appraisal fees, tax preparation and filing fees and attorney fees. All of these fees are subtracted from the proceeds of the estate.

Estate planning with a qualified estate planning or elder law attorney involves taking the proper actions to avoid probate. This can reduce the burden for the surviving heir(s) and reduce costs, fees and taxes. Ask your attorney about some of the steps you can take before death to avoid probate.

Reference: Million Acres (Jan. 17, 2020) “Probate Explained: What Is Probate, and How Does It Work?”

Not a Billionaire? Trusts Can Still Be Beneficial

You don’t have to be wealthy to benefit from the use of a trust. A trust is a legal arrangement by which one person transfers his or her assets to a trustee who will hold those assets in trust for third parties, explains the Stamford Advocate’s article “Trusts are not for the wealthy only.” As the person who created the trust, referred to as “the settlor,” you determine who the trustee is, as well as naming the beneficiaries.

There are many different types of trusts which serve different purposes. However, the two basic categories of trusts are revocable (also known as “living” trusts) and irrevocable trusts. Their names reflect two chief characteristics: the revocable trust can be changed and controlled by the settlor. The irrevocable trust cannot be changed, and the settlor gives up the control of the trust. However, it should be noted that the irrevocable trust has certain tax and other benefits not offered by the revocable trust.

A will is definitely necessary to pass assets on according to your wishes, but a trust can serve other purposes. Here’s a look at some common reasons why people use trusts:

  • Protect assets from creditors
  • Allow heirs to avoid probate of assets in the trusts
  • Avoid, minimize or delay estate taxes, transfer taxes or income taxes
  • Control how assets are disbursed or invested
  • Facilitate business succession planning and manage business assets
  • Shelter assets for descendants, if a spouse remarries
  • Establish a family tradition of philanthropy

Trusts allow assets to be passed on quickly and privately, while eliminating some expenses for heirs. They also permit closer management of who will benefit from your assets.

The cost of setting up a trust depends on the complexity of the trust and the estate, as well as other factors, like the number of beneficiaries and how many generations are being planned for. Bear in mind that the cost of setting up a trust should be measured against the future cost of not just taxes, but any litigation that might occur if the estate is probated and becomes public knowledge, or if family members are dissatisfied with the distribution of assets.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to first determine what kind of trusts are needed for your estate plan to achieve your wishes. Discuss the role of a Special Needs trust, if any family members have mental or physical needs that make them eligible for public assistance. An experienced estate planning attorney will know which planning strategies are best in your unique circumstances.

Reference: Stamford Advocate (Jan. 19, 2020) “Trusts are not for the wealthy only”

Why a Will Is the Foundation of an Estate Plan

An estate planning lawyer has many different tools to achieve clients’ estate planning goals. However, at the heart of any plan is the will, also known as the “last will and testament.” Even people who are young or who have modest levels of assets should have a will—one that is legally valid and up to date. For parents of young children, this is especially important, says the article “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan” from the Sparta Independent. Why? Because in most states, a will is the only way that parents can name guardians for their children.

Having a will means that your estate will avoid being “intestate,” that is, having your assets distributed according to the laws of your state. With a will, you get to determine who is to receive your property. That includes your home, car, bank and investment accounts and any other assets, including those with sentimental value.

Without a will, your property will be distributed to your closest blood relatives, depending upon how closely related they are to you. Few individuals want to have the state making these decisions for their property. Most people would rather make these decisions for themselves.

Property can be left to anyone you choose—including a spouse, children, charities, a trust, other relatives, a college or university, or anyone you want. There are some limits imposed by law that you should know about: a spouse has certain rights to your property, and they cannot be reversed based on your will.

For parents of young children, the will is used to name a legal guardian for children. A personal guardian, who takes personal custody of the children, can be named, as well as a property guardian, who is in charge of the children’s assets. This can be the same person, but is often two different people. You may also want to ask your estate planning attorney about using trusts to fund children’s college educations.

The will is also a means of naming an executor. This is the person who acts as your legal representative after your death. This person will be in charge of carrying out all of your estate settlement tasks, so they need to be someone you trust, who is skilled with managing property and the many tasks that go into settling an estate. The executor must be approved by the probate court, before they can start taking action for you.

There are also taxes and expenses that need to be managed. Unless the will provides directions, these are determined by state law. To be sure that gifts you wanted to give to family and loved ones are not consumed by taxes, the will needs to indicate that taxes and expenses are to be paid from the residuary estate.

A will can be used to create a “testamentary trust,” which comes into existence when your will is probated. It has a trustee, beneficiaries and directions on how distributions should be made. The use of trusts is especially important, if you have young children who are not able to manage assets or property.

Note that any assets distributed through a will are subject to probate, the court-supervised process of administering and proving a will. Probate can be costly and time-consuming, and the records are available to the public, which means anyone can see them. Many people chose to distribute their assets through trusts to avoid having large assets pass through probate.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a will and the many different functions that the will plays in settling your estate. You’ll also want to explore planning for incapacity, which includes having a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Medical Directives. Estate planning attorneys also work on tax issues to minimize the taxes paid by the estate.

Reference: Sparta Independent (Dec. 19, 2019) “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan”

Key Health Document Most Americans Don’t Have but Should

You may not like the idea of contemplating your own mortality, or that of a loved one. You may procrastinate all year long about putting your final wishes in place. However, this one document is important for yourself, your loved ones and your life. You shouldn’t put it off any longer. Forbes’ recent article titled “Two-Thirds of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document” explains why.

A health care directive is a legal document that an individual will use to give specific directions for caregivers, in case of dementia or illness. It directs end of life decisions. It also gives directions for how the person wishes their body to be cared for after their death.

This document is known by several different names: living wills, durable health care powers of attorney or medical directives. However, the purpose is the same: to give guidance and direction on making medical and end-of-life decisions.

This document itself is a relatively new one. The first was created in California in 1976, and by 1992, all fifty states had similar laws. The fact that the law was accepted so fast across the country, indicates how important it is. The document provides control when a person is impaired and after their death. That is at the heart of all estate planning.

Yet just as so many Americans don’t have wills, only a third have a health care directive. That’s a surprise, since both estate planning attorneys and health care professionals regularly encourage people to have these documents in place.

A key part of a health care directive is selecting an agent. This is a person who will act as the proxy to make decisions for another person, consistent with their wishes. They will also have to advocate for the person with respect to having treatment continue or shifting to pain management and palliative care. The spouse is often the first choice for this role. An adult child or other close and trusted family or friends can also serve.

The agent’s role does not end at death but continues to ensure that post-mortem wishes are carried out. The agent takes control of the person’s body, making sure that any organ donations are made, if it was the person’s wish.

Once any donation wishes are carried out, the agent also makes sure that funeral wishes are done according to the person’s wishes. Burial is an ancient tradition, but there are many different choices to be made. The health care directive can have as many details as possible, or simply state burial or cremation.

Having a health care directive in place permits an individual to state his or her wishes clearly. Talk with your estate planning attorney about creating a health care directive as part of your comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: Forbes (December 13, 2019) “Two-Thirds of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document”

Money Mistakes Retirees Can Avoid

By the time retirement comes, most people have gained a certain amount of insight and wisdom.  However, this doesn’t always translate into financial savvy. The article “5 Common Money Mistakes Retirees Make” from Next Avenue aims to help retirees steer clear of mistakes that are easy to make—and just as easy to avoid.

Thinking You’re Smarter than the Market. Even professionals who buy and sell individual stocks, or the money managers who run billion-dollar funds rarely outperform the market. Don’t forget the millions of artificial intelligence programs now operating in markets world-wide. Moving in and out of individual stocks, known as an “active strategy,” is a recipe for financial risk. Here’s why:

  • Betting on an individual stock is not betting on the company’s performance, as much as it is betting it will go up more than the professionals believe it will, and betting that you know more than the supercomputers that run today’s markets.
  • Higher volatility strategies may look better than the market some years. However, even if you’ve done well for ten years, you may be up against a big upset. Do you have time to recover those losses? Not if you’re over 65.

Sticking with an All Cash Portfolio. The opposite of the person who trades stocks, is the one who keeps everything in cash, money-market mutual funds or CDs. However, health care costs are rising, at some point inflation will start to ramp up and money that doesn’t grow can’t keep up.

Putting a Little Bit Here, a Little Bit There. Diversification is the name of the game, but that doesn’t mean having multiple accounts at numerous financial institutions. Many people think they are playing it safe by keeping some money in a high-risk mutual fund, while other money is in a risk-avoiding mutual fund. The strength of diversification is in the underlying assets—stocks, bonds, real estate, etc. Having money in multiple mutual funds in different financial services accounts may mean all of your money is invested in exactly the same way. Ask your financial advisor for a look-through analysis to review underlying assets to be sure that your investments really are diversified.

Not Touching Savings. Not Even a Little Bit. Is your plan to leave money for children, or charity? Don’t be afraid to dip into your savings accounts during retirement. Many people live too frugally, afraid that they will outlive their money. However, if you have a good handle on your spending and investments, you should enjoy the money you worked hard to accumulate. There are numerous ways to make donations or bequests that can protect your money, while enjoying your retirement. Talk with an estate planning attorney about the use of charitable donations as a means of reducing taxes, or how trusts can help.

Letting Real Estate pin You in a Financial Corner. The family home is many people’s biggest asset. Selling it to finance your retirement may create many unknowns. Will the sale generate enough profit to cover your cost of living for the next few decades? You’ll need to crunch the numbers to figure out what the best strategy will be. If you can sell your home, buy something smaller and use the proceeds to enjoy your retirement, you might actually end up with more money, not less.

How do you pull your retirement finances together? Consider the risks, like long-term care costs, medical expenses, or outliving your savings. Figure out a strategy to address them. Use a simple, broad-based investment approach, and finally, figure out how much money you need to live on. Then, use that money in the best way possible, so that you are managing your costs of living and enjoying your life.

Reference: Next Avenue (November 14, 2019) “5 Common Money Mistakes Retirees Make”

How Does a Conservatorship Work?

Millennials, now in their 30s, need to begin thinking about caring for their boomer parents, as medical, financial and mental health needs come up. For lucky families, this will mean conversations with travel agents and financial advisors. For those not so fortunate, it will mean conversations with doctors, nursing home staff and, in some cases, with lawyers regarding conservatorships, says KAKE.com in the article “What is a Conservatorship and How Does It Work?”

A conservatorship is a form of legal guardianship of an adult. The conservator has legal authority over certain parts of the person’s life. It may be a “limited conservatorship,” where only specific matters are under the conservator’s control, like health or finances. The “full conservatorship” gives the conservator complete control over the person’s life, in the same way that a parent has legal control over a child.

Conservatorship is granted when the person no longer has the capacity to make decisions on their own behalf. In almost all cases, this is based on their mental capacity. While it can happen, physical incapacity rarely is acceptable for conservatorship to be awarded.

Some of the common reasons for conservatorship by way of mental incapacity, include if the person is in a coma, suffers from Alzheimer’s, dementia or severe mental illness, or has a permanent or genetic mental disability that prevents them from ever reaching legal maturity or independence.

Conservatorship is a legal proceeding, which must be granted by an officer or appointee of the court. It’s typically handled by a state probate court or family court. Hearings are usually held by a judge or a magistrate. A conservatorship may be part of estate planning. Most conservatorships require medical paperwork, but in all instances, the potential ward must have the opportunity to be heard by the decision maker and to present their case, if they wish, as to why conservatorship should not be granted. An individual also has the right to challenge the conservatorship, in court, at any time, if they disagree.

Power of Attorney may be used to accomplish some of the things that would be accomplished by a conservatorship. A POA gives a person the ability to make legally binding decisions for someone else, and the scope can be narrow or broad. The POA, however, is granted at the discretion of the person giving another person this power.

An estate planning attorney will be able to discuss all of the rights, responsibilities and fiduciary obligations of a conservatorship. Most have had experience with conservatorship and will be able to help the family and the individual make informed decisions in the best interest of the individual.

Reference: KAKE.com (December 11, 2019) “What is a Conservatorship and How Does It Work?”