Common Myths about Your Estate When You Die

There are many misconceptions about the law in general and about estate planning in particular. There are also many opportunities to use the law to protect those we love, when it comes to helping families navigate life and the legal processes that happen after the death or disability of a loved one. The best option is to plan ahead, reports the article “I’m dead, now what? Myths about deaths in Georgia” from the Cherokee Tribune & Ledger-News. Here are the top four myths about what happens when someone dies.

A Will. If there’s no will, my spouse gets everything. Well, no. While you are a team, and you may want your spouse to get everything, if there’s no will, the laws of your state will determine who gets what. Your spouse in some states will split your possessions with your children. Your spouse in some states will get no less than a third of your assets. If you want your spouse to inherit everything, you need a will.

You also need a will if you want your spouse to receive everything so they can take care of your children, if something unexpected happens to you. Without it, your spouse will have to create a budget for your children’s needs and present that to the court before they can spend any of the children’s money. That’s how it works in Georgia. Check with a local estate planning attorney to make sure that’s what you’re prepared to leave for your spouse to do, or what your state’s laws say.

Having a will allows you to determine who you want to inherit what.

A will means there’s no need for probate court. Wrong again! Having a will does not mean you avoid probate court and the legal process known as probate. A will is not legally effective, until the nominated executor presents your will to the probate court and the court accepts the will and declares it to be valid. This is a longer process in some jurisdictions. However, there are potential problems. If there’s a disgruntled family member or a need for privacy, the probate process creates a public record and information can and often is obtained by family members. To avoid making your life a public matter, you need an estate plan that includes trusts, which do not go through the probate process and do not become public records.

If I don’t have a will, the state will take it all. It’s very rare that any state will take everything, even if there is no will. The state only does that if absolutely no family members can be found, or if the state’s Medicaid program has an aggressive claw back policy that seeks to recover the cost of nursing home care provided to the decedent. If the person who died did not need Medicaid services, then it’s unlikely that the state will take the assets. More likely? A family member, determined by degree of kinship, will be entitled to inherit. Again, the law varies by state, so check with an experienced estate planning lawyer in your state.

The family gets stuck with the debts. That’s a yes and no answer. The debts of family members do not have to be paid by the family. However, they are paid by the deceased’s estate, which will be decreased by the amount of debt owed. Therefore, the family members will inherit less, but it’s not coming out of their own pockets. The debts of the deceased are to be paid by whatever assets he or she owned at the time of death. If there’s not enough in the estate, the family is not obligated to pay the debt. The exception is if the spouse was a joint borrower or otherwise legally obligated to pay the debt.

What you know and don’t know about estate planning can hurt you and your family. An easy way to address this: meet with an experienced estate planning attorney and make a plan that will distribute your assets according to your wishes.

Reference: Cherokee Tribune & Ledger-News (Feb. 1, 2020) “I’m dead, now what? Myths about deaths in Georgia”

Special Needs Guardianship Can Be a Challenge

A person who’s diagnosed with autism should have a named guardian before turning 18. At that point, the person can sign binding contracts, make health care decisions and sign IEPs (Individualized Education Plan) without parental involvement.

Autism Parenting’s recent article entitled “A Brief Overview of Special Needs Guardianship” explains that guardianship is a legal process in which a responsible person is named as the final decision maker for another. When it’s the parent and their child with autism, the parent can become the guardian of the 18-year-old with autism in a specific legal process. Guardianship gives the parent the final say, on all decisions regarding the child.

It’s not uncommon for a parent to be hesitant about becoming the guardian, especially if the child is developing well and has several abilities. One question to ask in this situation concerns the intellectual or developmental age of my child. If the honest answer is below the age 18 (like 14 or 12 years old), then you’ll want to ask yourself if you’d allow your 14-year-old make all healthcare, education, housing and financial decisions and have those decisions be legally binding. Probably not. In that case, you should look into guardianship.

If your adult child continues to develop and at some point down the road can make decisions on her own, the guardian can petition the court to have relationship revoked.

Another important time period that guardianship needs to be considered is when the parents die. The appointed guardian then will be responsible for day-to-day care or decisions on that day to day care. The selection of a guardian for this situation is often a large roadblock to finishing up a family’s plan.

The reason is because parents must make this decision before completing their will. If parents have trouble with choosing a potential guardian, consider these criteria when considering each person: location, family circumstances, their personality qualities and demeanor, their age, their experience with special needs individuals, the fact that the person knows your family member, your parent or your loved one knows the individual, their financial position, marital status and work schedule.

By the following factors, parents can rank each possible future guardian and settle on the best possible choice.

Although the guardian might never be as committed as a parent, if you use a more objective process (like the criteria above), parents will be better able to find a qualified future guardian.

Click here for more information about guardianship and conservatorship.

Reference: Autism Parenting (undated) “A Brief Overview of Special Needs Guardianship”

If I’m 35, Do I Need a Will?

Estate planning is a crucial process for everyone, no matter what assets you have now. If you want your family to be able to deal with your affairs, debts included, drafting an estate plan is critical, says Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate planning for those 40 and under.”

If you have young children, or other dependents, planning is vitally important. The less you have, the more important your plan is, so it can provide as long as possible and in the best way for those most important to you. You can’t afford to make a mistake.

Talk to your family about various “what if” situations. It is important that you’ve discussed your wishes with your family and that you’ve considered the many contingencies that can happen, like a serious illness or injury, incapacity, or death. This also gives you the chance to explain your rationale for making a larger gift to someone, rather than another or an equal division. This can be especially significant, if there’s a second marriage with children from different relationships and a wide range of ages. An open conversation can help avoid hard feelings later.

You should have the basic estate plan components, which include a will, a living will, advance directive, powers of attorney, and a designation of agent to control disposition of remains. These are all important components of an estate plan that should be created at the beginning of the planning process. A guardian should also be named for any minor children.

In addition, a life insurance policy can give your family the needed funds in the event of an untimely death and loss of income—especially for young parents. The loss of one or both spouses’ income can have a drastic impact.

Remember that your estate plan shouldn’t be a “one and done thing.” You need to review your estate plan every few years. This gives you the opportunity to make changes based on significant life events, tax law changes, the addition of more children, or their changing needs. You should also monitor your insurance policies and investments, because they dovetail into your estate plan and can fluctuate based on the economic environment.

When you draft these documents, you should work with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 21, 2020) “Estate planning for those 40 and under”

Should Retirees Buy Vacation Homes?

It sounds like a great idea. After all, it’s an investment in real estate and it could be passed along to the next generation. It might be a rental property, too, generating income when the owners aren’t able to enjoy it. However, there are some things to be careful of, warns Barron’s in the article “What Retirees Should Know Before Buying a Vacation Home.”

Taxes, maintenance, insurance and possibly the cost of hiring a rental-management company are just a few things to consider. Above all, don’t think of it as an investment This is because with real estate, there are no guarantees. For one thing, it’s not liquid. You can’t count on selling it for a good price, when you need some ready cash.

The first and most important question: can you afford it? Retirees are usually living on a fixed income. The cost of a vacation home can be loaded with surprises, just like any other property. If there’s enough of a nest egg to live on and there won’t ever be a need to sell fast, then it may be a good move.

If there’s enough money to purchase the home, then investing in someone to manage the property is a good idea. Empty homes are targets for thieves, and if there’s a maintenance issue, an uninhabited home is vulnerable to damages.

Where taxes are concerned, the sale of a second home does not give the seller the same capital gains tax exemption as the sale of a primary residence. That exemption is only available for people who have lived in the home as a primary residence for at least two of the previous five years. The exemption is up to $500,000 for married couples.

There is one way around it, if it makes sense for owners. Let’s say that they plan on downsizing from their primary residence. They sell it and use the tax exemption. They then move to the vacation home, for at least two years, using that as their primary residence. At that point, they can sell the home that has now become a primary residence, enjoy the generous tax exemption and then move to a new primary residence.

As a rental property, owners are permitted to rent for up to 14 days without owing any taxes on the rental income. After the 14-day period, taxes must be paid, but some of the rental expenses are tax deductible.

If the intent is to keep the house for as long as the owners are living, it becomes part of the estate and must be included in an estate plan. Leaving it to the next generation may be feasible, if all of the children want to keep the house and can afford its upkeep. Have the conversation with the children first. Giving the house to children can be accomplished by putting it into a limited liability corporation with an operating agreement that defines it. Each child will have a stake in the entity that owns the home, rather than the house itself.

Talk with your estate planning lawyer about how the purchase and inheritance of a vacation home may impact your overall estate plan before making a purchase.

Reference: Barron’s (Jan. 18, 2020) “What Retirees Should Know Before Buying a Vacation Home”

Can I Add an Adult Daughter to the Title of a Home?

It’s surprising that the lender wouldn’t allow this 77-year-old widowed woman to add her daughter to the title of her your home, says The Ledger’s recent article “Leaving your home to a family member? Consider these options.” Typically, the mortgage lender likes to make sure that the borrower on the loan is the same as the owners on the title to the property. However, if a senior wanted to add her daughter, it’s not uncommon for a lender to allow a non-borrower spouse or child to be on the title but not on the loan. When the lender permits this, all the loan documents are signed by the borrower and a few documents would also be signed by the non-borrowing owner of the home.

In this situation where the mother closed on the loan, and the lender refused to put the daughter on the title to the home, there are a few options. One option is to do nothing but be certain sure that there’s a valid will in place with instructions that the home is to go to the daughter. When the mother passes away, the daughter would have to wait while the will is probated, then transfer the title to her name or sell the place. The probate process will increase some costs and can be a little stressful, especially if someone is grieving the loss of a family member.

A second option is for the mother to create a living trust and transfer the title of the home to the trust—she would be the owner and trustee. The mother would name her daughter as the successor beneficiary and trustee of the trust. Upon the mother’s death, the daughter would assume the role of trustee.

The next option is a transfer on death (or “TOD”) instrument. Some real estate professionals don’t like to use this document. It may not be acceptable depending on state law, but the TOD would allow the mother to record a document now that would state that upon her death the home would go to her daughter.

Finally, the mother could transfer ownership of the home to her daughter and herself with a quitclaim deed to hold the home as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Upon mother’s death, the home would automatically become the daughter’s home. However, this type of transfer of the home might trigger the lender’s “due on sale” requirement in the mortgage. Thus, if the lender wanted to be a stickler, they could argue that the mother violated the terms of that loan and is in default.

It is also worth mentioning that there may be tax consequences for the daughter. If the mother goes with the last option and puts her daughter on the title to the property, she’s in effect gifting her half of the value of the home. This may cause tax issues in the future, because the daughter will forfeit her ability to get a stepped-up basis. However, if the daughter gets title to the home through a will, the living trust or the transfer on death instrument, she’ll inherit the home at the home’s value at or around the time of the mother’s death (the stepped-up basis). You should work with an experienced estate planning attorney to get the best advice.

Reference: The Ledger (Jan. 11, 2020) “Leaving your home to a family member? Consider these options”

Some Surprising Facts about Retirement

It’s crucial to have a plan for your retirement, so let’s get educated. There are some facts you might not know about retirement, like the way in which your Social Security benefit can be taxed and how to factor in travel expenses.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “5 Surprising Facts to Know About Retirement” gives us five important facts to learn about retirement.

Your Social Security May Be Taxed. Your Social Security benefit can be taxed, up to 85% of it. If your provisional income as an individual is more than $34,000 or over $44,000 as a couple, the IRS says that up to 85% of your benefit is taxable. You only have to receive $25,000 in provisional income as an individual or $32,000 as a couple for 50% of your benefit to be taxed. What’s more, there are several states that impose taxes on some or all Social Security benefits including: Colorado, Connecticut, Kansas, Minnesota, Missouri, Montana, Nebraska, New Mexico, North Dakota, Rhode Island, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia.

No Age Limit for Contributing to a Roth IRA. You are able to contribute earned income to a Roth IRA for the rest of your life. You also never have to take required minimum distributions (RMDs) from a Roth. Note that after-tax dollars are contributed to a Roth and qualified distributions are tax-free.

Those 65+ Can Take a Larger Tax Deduction. You don’t have to be retired to get a slightly larger standard deduction. When you turn 65, your standard deduction as an individual goes up by $1,300 and for a couple filing jointly where both members are 65 or older, it increases by $2,600 for the 2019 tax year.

Many Don’t Include Travel Expenses. Many retirees want to travel after they stop working. However, a Merrill Lynch survey found that 66% of those 50 and older say they haven’t saved anything for a trip.

Roughly a Third of Retirees Who Live Independently Also Live by Themselves. Older adults who live outside of a nursing home or hospital are living independently, but about 33% of these adults live alone, according to a study from the Institute on Aging. The study found that the older people get, the more likely they are to live alone. Women are also twice as likely as older men to live alone. This has financial implications, considering the high cost of and likelihood of needing long-term care.

Understanding what your expenses and your income will be in retirement, are the first steps in making a comprehensive plan.

Reference: Kiplinger (Nov. 11, 2019) “5 Surprising Facts to Know About Retirement”

Mistakes to Avoid when Planning Estates

Because estate planning has plenty of legal jargon, it can make some people think twice about planning their estates, especially people who believe that they have too little property to bother with this important task.

Comstock’s Magazine’s recent article entitled “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate” warns that without planning, even small estates under a certain dollar amount (which can pass without probate, according the probate laws in some states) may cause headaches for heirs and family members. Here are five mistakes you can avoid with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney:

Getting Bad Advice. If you want to plan an estate, start with a qualified estate planning attorney. There are plenty of other “experts” out there ready to take your money, who don’t know how to apply the law and strategies to your specific situation.

Naming Yourself as a Sole Trustee. You might think that the most trustworthy trustee is yourself, the testator. However, the estate plans can break down, if dementia and Alzheimer’s disease leave a senior susceptible to outside influences. In California, the law requires a certificate of independent review for some changes to trusts, like adding a nurse or an attorney as a beneficiary. However, this also allows family members to take advantage of the situation. It’s wise to designate a co-trustee who must sign off on any changes — like a trusted adult child, financial adviser, or licensed professional trustee, providing an extra layer of oversight.

Misplacing Assets. It’s not uncommon for some assets to be lost in a will or trust. Some assets, such as 401(k) plans, IRAs, and life insurance plans have designated beneficiaries which are outside of a last will and testament or trust document. Stocks and securities accounts may pass differently than other assets, based upon the names on the account. Sometimes people forget to change the beneficiaries on these accounts, like keeping a divorced spouse on a life insurance policy. When updating your will or trust, make certain to also update the beneficiaries of these types of assets.

Committing to a Plan Without Thinking of Others. When it comes to estate planning, there’s no one-size-fits-all solution. For example, for entitlement or tax reasons, it may make sense to transfer assets to beneficiaries, while the testator is still living. This might also be a terrible idea, depending on the beneficiaries’ situation and ability to handle a sum of money. He or she may have poor spending habits. Remember that estate planning is a personal process that depends on each family’s assets, needs and values. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to be sure to consider all the angles.

Reference: Comstock’s Magazine “Five Mistakes to Avoid When Planning Your Estate”

Not a Festive Thought, But A Kind One: Planning for Your Own Funeral

Leaving instructions for your funeral and burial wishes relieves loved ones of the burden of making decisions and hoping they are following your wishes. In addition, says the article “Important to provide instructions for preferred funeral, burial wishes” from The Leader, it also prevents arguments between relatives and friends who have their own opinions about what they think you may have wanted.

What often happens is that people make this information part of their estate plan. However, the will is usually not looked at until after the funeral. If your loved ones don’t know where your will is, then they certainly won’t know what your wishes were for the funeral.

Without clear written directions, spiritual practices or cultural traditions that are important to you, may not be followed.

An estate planning attorney can help you create a document that outlines your wishes and will have suggestions for how to discuss this with your family and where it should be located. The documents are different in each state, so be sure to work with a local lawyer. In New York State, there is a form that allows you to name an agent who will be in charge of your remains. You can give your instructions to that person or you can leave them in charge to make arrangements in their discretion.

In New York State, if this form is not completed, the following people, in descending order, have the right to control your remains: spouse, domestic partner, children, other family members and others.

For funeral planning, one option is to go to the funeral home and arrange to pay for the funeral and go to the cemetery and purchase a plot. A pre-paid irrevocable funeral trust purchased at a funeral home can also protects assets from nursing home costs, when applying for Medicaid.

Some people wish to donate their organs, which can be done on a driver’s license or in another statement. Donating your body for medical research or education will require researching medical schools or other institutions and may require an application and other paperwork that confirms your intent to donate your body. When you pass, your family member or whoever is in charge will need to contact the organization and arrange for transport of your remains.

A comprehensive estate plan does more than distribute assets at death. It also includes what a person’s wishes are for their funeral and burial wishes. Think of it as a gift to loved ones.

Reference: The Leader (December 7, 2019) “Important to provide instructions for preferred funeral, burial wishes”

How Did Alzheimer’s Impact the Estate Planning of These Famous People?

Forbes’ recent article, “Top 7 Celebrity Estates Impacted By Alzheimer’s Disease” looks at seven celebrity estates that were affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

  1. Rosa Parks. The civil rights icon died at 92 in 2005. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Legal battles over her estate continue to this day. Her estate plan left her assets to a charitable institution she created. However, her nieces and nephews challenged the validity of her will and trust, due to her mental deficiencies and allegations of undue influence. That claim was settled, but there have been fights over broken deals and leaked secrets, claimed mismanagement of her estate and assets, allegations of bribery and corruption and a battle over Rosa’s missing coat that she wore at the time of her famous arrest at the Alabama bus stop in 1955.
  2. Gene Wilder. Wilder’s widow–his fourth wife, Karen–and his adopted daughter didn’t fight over Gene’s estate after he died, which shows good estate planning. Wilder makes the list because of how his widow used her husband’s struggle—which she kept private while he was alive—to bring attention to the terrible disease, including permitting his Willy Wonka character to be used in a campaign to raise awareness.
  3. Aaron Spelling. The Hollywood producer left behind a reported fortune worth $500 million. His death certificate listed Alzheimer’s disease as a contributing factor. Spelling changed his estate plan just two months before he died, reducing the share to his daughter, actress Tori, and his son, Randy, to $800,000 each.
  4. Etta James. Legendary blues singer Etta James passed away in 2012, at 73. Her family said she had been struggling with Alzheimer’s disease for several years, and her illness ignited an ugly court battle between her husband of more than 40 years and her son from a prior relationship, over the right to make her medical and financial decisions, including control of her $1 million account. Her husband, Artis Mills, alleged that the power of attorney she signed appointing her son as decision-maker was invalid, because she was incompetent when she signed it. Mills sued for control of the money to pay for Etta’s care. After some litigation, Etta’s leukemia was determined to be fatal, which led to a settlement. Mills was granted conservatorship and permitted to control sums up to $350,000 to pay for Etta’s care for the last few months of her life.
  5. Peter Falk. The Lieutenant Columbo actor died at 83 in 2011, after living with Alzheimer’s disease for years. His wife Shera and his adopted daughter Catherine fought in court for conservatorship to make his decisions. Shera argued that she had power of attorney and could already legally make Peter’s decisions for him, which included banning daughter Catherine from visits. The judge granted Shera conservatorship, but ordered a visitation schedule for Catherine. However, a doctor, who testified at the hearing, said that Falk’s memory was so bad that he probably wouldn’t even remember the visits.
  6. Tom Benson. The billionaire owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans was the subject of a lengthy and bitter court battle over control of his professional sports franchises, and hundreds of millions of dollars of other assets. Prior trusts, that he and his late wife established, left the sports franchises and other business interests to his daughter and two grandchildren. One of granddaughters operated the Saints as lead owner, until she was fired by her grandfather. Tom decided to take the controlling stock of the teams out of the trust and substitute other assets in their place, taking over control of the teams. However, his daughter and grandchildren fought the move. A 2015 court ruling declared Benson to be competent, despite allegations he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Benson then changed his will and trust and left everything to his third wife, Gayle. They all settled the dispute in 2017, leaving other assets to the daughter and grandchildren—but ultimately leaving Gayle in control of the Saints and Pelicans, after Benson’s death in 2018 at age 90.
  7. Glen Campbell. Campbell’s 2007 estate plan left out three of his adult children. They sued to challenge their disinheritance after he died. They dropped the case in 2018, without receiving a settlement. The fact that Campbell’s final will was drafted several years prior to his Alzheimer’s diagnosis was a critical factor in the outcome of the lawsuit.

The estate planning of these celebrities show the importance of proper estate planning, before it is too late. Wills and trusts that are created or changed after someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or similar conditions are more apt to be challenged in court.

Click here If you are interested in learning more about estate planning, elder law, or long-term care planning.

Reference: Forbes (November 25, 2019) “Top 7 Celebrity Estates Impacted By Alzheimer’s Disease”

How Can I Upgrade My Estate Plan?

Forbes’ recent article, “4 Ways To Improve Your Estate Plan,” suggests that since most people want to plan for a good life and a good retirement, why not plan for a good end of life, too? Here are four ways you can refine your estate plan, protect your assets and create a degree of control and certainty for your family.

  1. Beneficiary Designations. Many types of accounts go directly to heirs, without going through the probate process. This includes life insurance contracts, 401(k)s and IRAs. These accounts can be transferred through beneficiary designations. You should update and review these forms and designations every few years, especially after major life events like divorce, marriage or the birth or adoption of children or grandchildren.
  2. Life Insurance. A main objective of life insurance is to protect against the loss of income, in the event of an individual’s untimely death. The most important time to have life insurance is while you’re working and supporting a family with your income. Life insurance can provide much needed cash flow and liquidity for estates that might be subject to estate taxes or that have lots of illiquid assets, like family businesses, farms, artwork or collectibles.
  3. Consider a Trust. In some situations, creating a trust to shelter or control assets is a good idea. There are two main types of trusts: revocable and irrevocable. You can fund revocable trusts with assets and still use the assets now, without changing their income tax nature. This can be an effective way to pass on assets outside of probate and allow a trustee to manage assets for their beneficiaries. An irrevocable trust can be a way to provide protection from creditors, separate assets from the annual tax liability of the original owner and even help reduce estate taxes in some situations.
  4. Charitable Giving. With charitable giving as part of an estate plan, you can make outright gifts to charities or set up a charitable remainder annuity trust (CRAT) to provide income to a surviving spouse, with the remainder going to the charity.

Your attorney will tell you that your estate plan is unique to your situation. A big part of an estate plan is about protecting your family, making sure assets pass smoothly to your designated heirs and eliminating stress for your loved ones.

Reference: Forbes (November 6, 2019) “4 Ways To Improve Your Estate Plan”