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?”

From Gentle Persuasion to a No-Nonsense Approach, Talking About Estate Plans

Sometimes the first attempt is a flop. Imaging this exchange: “So, do you want to talk about what happens when you die?” Answer: “Nope.” That’s what can happen, but it doesn’t have to, says The Wall Street Journal’s recent article “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans.”

Many people have successfully begun this conversation with their aging parents. The gentle persuasion method is deemed to be the most successful. Treating elderly parents as adults, which they are, and asking about their fears and concerns is one way to start. Educating, not lecturing, is a respectful way to move the conversation forward.

Instead of asking a series of rapid-fire questions, provide information. One family assembled a notebook with articles about how to find an estate planning attorney, when people might need a trust, or why naming someone as power of attorney is so important.

Others begin by first talking about less important matters than bank accounts and bequests. Asking a parent for a list of utility companies with the account number, phone number and if they are paying bills online, their password, is an easy entry to thinking about next steps. Sometimes a gentle nudge, is all it takes to unlock the doors.

For some families, a more direct, less gentle approach gets the job done. That includes being willing to tell parents that not having an estate plan or not being willing to talk about their estate plan is going to lead to disaster for everyone. Warn them about taxes or remind them that the state will disburse all of their hard-earned assets, if they don’t have a plan in place.

One son tapped into his father’s strong dislike of paying taxes. He asked a tax attorney to figure out how much the family would have to pay in estate taxes, if there were no estate plan in place. It was an eye-opener, and the father became immediately receptive to sitting down with an estate planning attorney.

A daughter had tried repeatedly to get her father to speak with an estate planning attorney. His response was the same for several decades: he didn’t believe that his estate was big enough to warrant doing any kind of planning. One evening the daughter simply threw up her hands in frustration and told him, “Fine, if your favorite charity is the federal government, do nothing…but if you’d rather benefit the church or a university, do something and make your desires known.”

For months after seeing an estate attorney and putting a plan in place, he repeated the same phrase to her: “I had no idea we were worth so much.”

Between the extremes is a third option: letting someone else handle the conversation. Aging parents may be more receptive to listening to a trusted individual, who is of their same generation. One adult daughter contacted her wealthy mother’s estate planning attorney and financial advisor. The mother would not listen to the daughter, but she did listen to her estate planning attorney and her financial advisor, when they both reminded her that her estate plan had not been reviewed in years.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (December 16, 2019) “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans”

How Estate Planning Keeps the Peace for Blended Families

With the IRS’s announcement that the first $11.58 million (in 2020) of a taxable estate is free from estate taxes, most people won’t have to worry about paying estate taxes. Therefore, what’s the biggest reason to have an estate plan?

Earlier this year, a survey was conducted at the 53rd annual Heckerling Institute of Estate Planning, a prestigious legal and financial conference that attracts leaders in the field of estate planning. For the second year in a row, family conflict was identified as the biggest threat to estate planning, reports Investment News in the article Reducing potential family conflicts.”

Statistics show that there are more blended families in the U.S. than ever before.

The increase in blended families has led to an increase in family conflicts. While open and honest communication is the key to any kind of conflict resolution, it’s particularly sticky when it comes to blended families. For most families, it’s a good idea to talk openly about estate plans, rather than waiting until one of the spouses has passed and explaining to the biological and stepchildren how the assets are being distributed. Discussing the estate plan before anyone dies, at the very least gives everyone a chance to voice their opinions, even if no changes to the spouse’s plans are made.

How do you minimize conflicts within blended families? One way is with a prenuptial agreement, which is executed before marriage and clarifies the financial rights of each spouse, in the event of divorce or death. This is especially useful, when there is a disparity in wealth or age between the couple.

However, not everyone is willing to have a prenup. And even if they do, family conflicts can still crop up. Let’s say Gary and Helen are married, each with children from a previous marriage. Gary wants to give his entire estate to Helen when he dies. If Gary dies first, there’s no legal reason for Helen to give any of Gary’s assets to his biological children.

There are any number of solutions. If Gary really wants to cut his children out of his will, he can talk with them and explain his thinking. He can also have an estate planning attorney include a “no contest” clause in his will. If any named beneficiary challenges the will, they will lose any inheritance and are treated legally, as if they have predeceased the decedent. Gary could also use a revocable living trust, which would avoid the estate being probated and deny the children an opportunity to challenge his will.

A better solution would be to craft an estate plan that benefits both Gary and Helen’s children. Harry’s children could receive a partial outright distribution when Gary dies, with the remaining estate passing to Helen. A trust could be created for Helen’s benefit, but the remaining trust assets could go to Gary’s children when Helen dies.

There are many different ways to resolve this issue with an eye to minimizing conflict among children in blended families. If the parents are truly invested in keeping their children together as a family, it is worth the effort to create an estate plan that cares for the spouses and all of the children. An estate planning attorney can create a plan to accomplish your goals for the entire blended family.

Reference: Investment News (December 9, 2019) Reducing potential family conflicts

The Many Responsibilities of Inheriting a Home

When you inherit a home, there are three key factors to consider: the financial and legal responsibilities of the home, the tax liabilities of the home and what you’ll eventually do with the home. All of these different things relate to each other, explains Million Acres in “A Guide to What Happens When You Inherit a House.”

Let’s look at taxes first. There’s no federal tax associated with inheriting a house, but some states have inheritance taxes. For most situations, this inheritance does not lead to an immediate tax liability. When a property is inherited, the IRS establishes a fair market value for the property, which is the new basis for the property. This is a step-up basis. It is the valuation that is used to set future taxes, when the property is sold.

Capital gains are a tax relating to the profits generated from selling an asset, in this case, a house. The step up in basis means the heir only has to pay capital gains taxes, if the home is sold. The taxes will be the difference between the fair market value set at the time of the inheritance and the selling price.

If the property has a mortgage, heirs will need to know what type of mortgage it is and if it is assumable or due on sale. Most mortgage companies allow heirs to take over the payments, according to the original loan terms. However, if there is a reverse mortgage on the home, the unpaid balance is due when the person who took out the reverse mortgage dies. This usually requires the heirs to sell the home to settle the debt.

The condition of the inherited home often determines what heirs decide to do with the house. If it hasn’t been maintained and needs major work, it may be easier to sell it as-is, rather than undertake renovations. Heirs are responsible for taxes, insurance and maintenance. However, if the house is in good shape, it may make sense to keep it.

What happens when siblings inherit a house together? That can get complicated, if each person has a different idea about what to do with the house. One may want to sell now for cash, while another may want to rent it out for income. What ultimately happens to the property, may depend on how well the siblings communicate and make decisions together.

Often the best option is to simply sell the home, especially if multiple heirs are involved. Note that there are costs associated with the sale of the house. This includes any outstanding debts, like a mortgage, the cost of fixing up the home to prepare it for sale, closing costs and fees and real estate agent commissions. If there is a profit on the sale of the home from the tax basis at the time of inheritance, the heirs may need to pay short-term or long-term capital gains tax, depending on how long they held the property.

Talk with an estate planning attorney about managing the sale of the family home. They will be able to guide you, advise you about taxes and keep the family moving through the process of settling the estate.

Reference: Million Acres (December 4, 2019) “A Guide to What Happens When You Inherit a House”

What Estate Planning Documents Do You Need?

Wouldn’t your children be relieved to learn that you’ve done all the necessary advance planning so that if you should become incapacitated, someone has been properly appointed to help with health care and financial decisions? The Tennessean suggests that you “Give your loved ones peace of mind with legal documents” so that your spouse and your family will be able to take the necessary steps to give you the care and dignity you (and they) deserve.

Here’s a checklist of the documents that everyone should have in place:

Power of Attorney for Health Care. When you have mental capacity, you can make your own decisions. When you do not, you need someone to be appointed who knows your beliefs and wishes and has the ability to advocate for you. Ideally, you should name one person to be your agent to minimize arguments. Talk with your family to explain who has been named your power of attorney for health care, and if need be, explain why that person was chosen.

Power of Attorney for Finances. There are different kinds of POA for finances. The goal of the POA for finances is so they can make decisions on your behalf, when you become incapacitated. Some states use “springing” POA—but that may mean your family has to go through a process to prove you are incapacitated. Check with an estate planning elder law attorney in your state to see what the laws are.

Advance Directive. This describes what kind of life sustaining treatment you do or do not want if you are in a coma, are terminally ill or have dementia. You can direct whether you want CPR, tube feeding, and other life-sustaining procedures to be withheld, if your quality of life is diminished and there is no hope of improvement. This will help your family to know what you want in a time when emotions are running high.

Last Will and Testament. Have a will created, if you don’t already have one. This directs distribution of your assets to your wishes and does not leave them to the laws of your state. Not having a will means your family will have to go through many more court proceedings and people you may not want to receive your worldly possessions may get them.

Trusts. Talk with your estate planning attorney about placing assets in trust, so they are not subject to the public process of probate. Your wishes will be followed, and they will remain private.

Reference: Tennessean (Nov. 16, 2019) “Give your loved ones peace of mind with legal documents”

What If Only One Parent Is Willing to Plan?

Making matters much worse for one family, is the fact that while the mother is willing to speak with an estate planning attorney and make a plan for the future, the father won’t even discuss it. What should this family do, asks the article from nwi.com titled “Estate Planning: Can one spouse plan?”

Planning for your eventual demise and distribution of your worldly goods isn’t as much fun as planning a vacation or buying a new car. For some people, it’s too painful, even when they know that it needs to be done. There’s nothing pleasant about the idea that one day you won’t be with your loved ones.

Although contemplating the reality is unpleasant, this is a task that creates all kinds of problems for those who are left behind, if it is not done.

Unfortunately, it is not unusual for one parent to recognize the importance of having an estate plan and the other parent does not consider it to be an important task or simply refuses. In that case, the estate planning attorney can work with the spouse who is willing to go forward.

Some attorneys prefer to represent only one of the spouses, especially in a case like this. Spouses’ interests aren’t always identical, and there are situations where conflicts can arise. When a couple goes to the estate planning attorney’s office and wishes the attorney to represent both of them, sometimes the lawyer will ask for an acknowledgment that the lawyer is representing both of them as a couple. In the event that a disagreement arises or if their interests are very different, some attorneys will withdraw their representation. This is not common, but it does happen.

The estate planning lawyer usually prefers, however, to represent both spouses. Married couple’s estates tend to be intertwined, with real property jointly owned as husband and wife, or husband and husband or wife and wife. Spouses are usually named beneficiaries of life insurance and retirement accounts. Even in blended family situations, this holds true.

If the father in the situation above won’t budge, the mother should meet with the attorney and create an estate plan. The problem is, she may not be able to plan effectively for the two most common and usually the most valuable assets: their jointly owned home and retirement accounts.

If the home is owned by the spouses as “entireties property,” that is, by the couple, she can’t make changes to the title, without her spouse’s consent. One spouse cannot sever entireties property, without both spouses agreeing. Some retirement plans are also subject to the federal law ERISA, which requires a spouse’s consent to change beneficiaries to someone other than the spouse.

Even with these issues, having a plan for one spouse is better than not having any plan at all.

The only last argument that may be made to the father, is that if he does not make a plan, the laws of the state will be used, and few people actually like the idea of the state taking care of their estate.

Reference: nwi.com (Nov. 17, 2019) “Estate Planning: Can one spouse plan?”

When are You Done with Estate Planning?

A family has set up their estate plan. Two sons are already in the farming business and are thriving. Their daughter will receive the proceeds from a second-to-die life insurance policy and their considerable savings. The amounts are not equal in amount, but they are an equitable inheritance, and it seems like the couple has done its homework.

However, asks an article in The Courier, “The will is done, you’re sitting pretty—but are you?”

Estate planning is a lot like putting together a jigsaw puzzle. Like farming, it gets put together over time, piece by piece. Each piece represents something that needs to be done. For instance, a key part of the puzzle is having a last will and testament. That functions like building the outside frame of the puzzle, for those who start their puzzles by building the perimeter first. It frames the rest of your estate plan.

Other pieces are included within the will, like naming a personal representative, or executor. This is the person who is in charge of distributing your assets and making sure that the directions in your will are followed, when you pass away.

Do you have a plan for what happens when you die? For instance, if a husband dies, is there a plan for the wife to maintain the farm, or will she sell machinery and other transitory assets?

For the couple mentioned above who has the will, a transition spelled out in the will and a second-to-die policy in place to supplement the daughter’s inheritance, congratulations: they have many pieces of the puzzle in place. However, that’s not everything.

The other parts of the puzzle have to do with issues while the couple is still living. What happens if one or both are injured, or become ill? Who should take over the farming in the short or long term? Who will care for the spouse or spouses? Will they depend on each other for caretaking, or their daughter?

The number one worry for seniors is whether they have enough money to last until they die. However, by taking a portion of their savings and investing in a long-term care insurance policy, they can rest assured that they or their spouse will get the care they need—in a nursing home or at home—without burning through the family’s savings.

This piece of the estate planning puzzle—preparing for illness or disability—is often missing, and it can turn the rest of the estate plan into a pile of unattached pieces.

Speak with an estate planning attorney today to make sure your estate plan does not have any missing pieces. If you have not recently reviewed your estate plan in the last three or four years, schedule a review. Changes in the law and changes in your own life may make your old estate plan out of date and may no longer achieve the goals you had in mind.

Reference: The Courier (Sep. 4, 2019) “The will is done, you’re sitting pretty—but are you?”