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”

Are You Ready for Retirement?

While retirement planning may seem daunting, it’s critical to be certain that you have enough savings set aside for your golden years.

According to the Federal Reserve, 26% of non-retirees say they have nothing saved for retirement. Zero.

CNBC’s recent article, “Make these 6 moves now to be financially prepared for retirement,” provides the steps you should take right away to start building your retirement savings.

  1. Put on your thinking cap. Picture as accurately as you can what your ideal retirement will look like—and what it will cost. Use an online retirement savings calculator to help you see if you’re on the right spending and savings path.
  2. Get a checkup. Get educated about Medicare and weigh the alternatives for long-term care, such as long-term care insurance.
  3. Be sure your estate plan is up to date. See your attorney and be sure that all your estate documents work with the laws of the state where you’re retiring. Look at any possible concerns about estate taxes. Keep beneficiary designations up to date because, regardless of what’s said in your will, beneficiaries listed on specific accounts, such as IRAs, will inherit those funds.
  4. Think of charities now. With more time on your hands, consider selecting a cause or two. You can lend a hand or make a donation.
  5. Review your portfolio. You may have your money primarily deposited in a target-date fund that keeps your investment mix of stocks, bonds, cash, and other assets appropriate for your retirement time horizon. However, it’s a good idea to make certain that your asset allocation is where you want it. Remember that portfolio growth and market shifts can change your allocation at any time, and the closer you get to actual retirement—or if you’re already there—the more conservative an allocation you’ll want to have. You should also monitor the account fees you’re paying in funds and consider lower-cost alternatives.
  6. Get professional advice. If you’re not already working with a money and tax expert, consider it.

Reference: CNBC (November 11, 2019) “Make these 6 moves now to be financially prepared for retirement”

What Worries Retirees the Most?

Retirees don’t want to run out of money. However, homeowners over 62 who have considerable equity in their homes may want to look at a strategy that can minimize their money anxiety. A reverse mortgage will let them tap into home equity, by providing funds to keep them financially stable. Could the reverse mortgage payments take a bite out of their Social Security or Medicare benefits?

Motley Fool’s recent article asks, “Can a Reverse Mortgage Impact Your Social Security or Medicare Benefits?” The article explains that reverse mortgages, also called home equity conversion mortgages (HECM), were created in 1980 to help seniors stay solvent, while remaining in their homes.

You know that in a regular mortgage, you pay the bank monthly installments. However, with a reverse mortgage, the bank pays you. You take out money against the equity in your home, and the loan doesn’t come due until you sell the home, move out of it, or die. The amount you can get is based on a formula that takes into account your age, the equity in your home, its market value and the interest rate you’ll be paying. You can get your reverse mortgage funds as a lump sum, a monthly payment, or a line of credit.

There are some drawbacks to a reverse mortgage. This type of loan can have big fees, including origination fees, closing costs (similar to a regular mortgage) and mortgage insurance premiums.  These fees can usually be rolled into the loan. It will, however, increase the amount the bank is entitled to receive once the loan ends.

A reverse mortgage isn’t for you, if you want to leave your home to your family. Perhaps they can pay off the balance of your HECM once you die or move out, but that could be costly. If you want to sell it (perhaps to simplify the splitting up of that inheritance), the share your heirs will receive from the proceeds may not be as much as you’d anticipated. If you’re having a hard time keeping up with the day-to-day costs of running the house, a reverse mortgage may not be the best option. However, if you’re just looking to add to your retirement income for peace of mind, it’s a decent financial planning tool to consider.

The good news is that it has no impact on your Social Security benefits, because the program is not means-tested. Therefore, the amount of income you have won’t affect your monthly benefit when you file. As a result, you don’t need to take Social Security into account when you’re thinking about this type of loan.

Likewise, Medicare is a non-means-tested program. However, a reverse mortgage can have an impact on Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI) benefits, because those are based on your current financial assets. If you’re receiving either of those, talk to an elder law attorney or estate planning attorney to discuss how a reverse mortgage might have an effect on your specific circumstances.

Reference: Motley Fool (November 1, 2019) “Can a Reverse Mortgage Impact Your Social Security or Medicare Benefits?”

What is a Special Needs Trust?

Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid are critical sources of support for those with disabilities, both in benefits and services.

To be eligible, a disabled person must satisfy restrictive income and resource limitations.

That’s why many families ask elder law and estate planning attorneys about the two types of special needs trusts.

Moberly Monitor’s recent article, “Things to know, things to do when considering a special needs trust,” explains that with planning and opening a special needs trust, family members can hold assets for the benefit of a family member, without risking critical benefits and services.

If properly thought out, families can continue to support their loved one with a disability long after they’ve passed away.

After meeting the needs of their disabled family member, the resources are kept for further distribution within the family. Distributions from a special needs trust can be made to help with living and health care needs.

To establish a special needs trust, meet with an attorney with experience in this area of law. They work with clients to set up individualized special needs trusts frequently.

Pooled trust organizations can provide another option, especially in serving lower to more moderate-income families, where assets may be less and yet still affect eligibility for vital governmental benefits and services.

Talk to an elder law attorney to discuss what public benefits are being received, how a special needs trust works and other tax and financial considerations. With your attorney’s counsel, you can make the best decision on whether a special needs trust is needed or if another option is better, based on your family’s circumstances.

Reference: Moberly Monitor (October 27, 2019) “Things to know, things to do when considering a special needs trust”

How Do I Change My Will?

Many parents have wills that were drafted years ago. Now they want to leave some specific items to people. Those are items not specifically mentioned in the will.

How can he change his will? Can he just write this list and sign it in front of a notary, or does he need to have his will changed?

If you’re the executor and don’t want your father to have to spend more money to add these items to the will, how is it done?

Dad can keep it simple, says nj.com’s recent article, “Does my dad need to pay money to get a new will?” However, doing so will likely cause more trouble for the executor.

The father can create a written list that disposes of tangible personal property, not otherwise identified and disposed of by the will.

The list must either be in the testator’s handwriting or be signed by the testator. This list also must describe the item and the recipient clearly. This list can be created before or after the will is signed.

This list can be amended or revoked. It should be kept with the will or given to the executor, so he or she knows about it and can ensure it is followed.

This list isn’t legally enforceable. The executor may elect to honor such a distribution, assuming the beneficiaries of the other tangible personal property and/or residuary estate agree. That’s so, even if the will doesn’t reference the written list but the testator nevertheless leaves the list.

However, it would not be in the interest of the executor and may be perceived as a breach of fiduciary duty to honor such a list and make such a distribution, if the beneficiaries named in the will object. No one wants to cause a fight over the items on the list, after the parent is gone.

As a result, it would be wiser to invest in having the items added to a revised will to protect the father’s wishes. If some of the beneficiaries got into a quarrel over the items on the list, it could result in a family fight that a properly drafted and executed revision or amendment could prevent.

If you would like assistance or have questions about changing you will click here to sign up for a consultation.

Reference: nj.com (October 14, 2019) “Does my dad need to pay money to get a new will?”

Don’t Forget to Update Your Estate Plan

There are some people who sign their will once in their life and never change it. They may have executed their estate plan late in life, or after they were diagnosed with a serious disease. However, even if your family life and finances are pretty basic, there are still changes in the law that you may need to incorporate into your estate plan.  Some of the people that you named in your will could also have died or moved away.

Forbes’ recent article, “Why You Should Change Your Will Now,” warns us that if you’ve taken the “one and done” approach to your estate plan, think again. In addition to the reasons already mentioned, your assets may have changed dramatically since you signed your will. The plan you put in place years ago, may not have considered new federal and state estate taxes. Now that you’ve accumulated significant wealth that will be passed on to your children, you might need to review your plans for that wealth for your children.

You may want to include grandchildren to help pay for their college education.

It is also not uncommon for parents to want to protect their children from themselves. This can be because of addiction issues or a lack of financial literacy. If that’s an issue, some parents elect to hold monies in trust for adult children, as a way to ensure that the funds will be there throughout the child’s lifetime.

A person’s estate plan should grow with them over time. An estate plan for a twenty-something may be very basic, but a newly-married couple will want to include provisions for their spouse. Parents need to think about providing for and protecting their children. Adult children have another set of concerns and you need prepare for the possibility of divorcing spouses, poor life choices, addiction issues and just poor money management. There are many stages in life when you may need to readjust the provisions for your children in your estate planning documents.

If you haven’t looked at your will in a while, do it now.

Reference: Forbes (August 27, 2019) “Why You Should Change Your Will Now”

Why Do I Need an Attorney to Help Me with Estate Planning?

Your estate plan can be simple or complicated. The New Hampshire Union Leader’s recent article, “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional,” says that some strategies are definitely easier to implement—like having a will, for example. Others are more complex, like creating a trust. Whatever your needs, most strategies will probably necessitate that you hire a qualified estate planning attorney. Here are some situations that may require special planning attention:

  • Your estate is valued at more than the federal gift and/or estate tax applicable exclusion amount ($11.4 million per person in 2019);
  • You have minor children;
  • You have loved ones with special needs who depend on you;
  • You own a business;
  • You have property in more than one state;
  • You want to donate to charities;
  • You own valuable artwork or collectibles;
  • You have specific thoughts concerning health care; or
  • You desire privacy and want to avoid the probate process.

First, you need to understand your situation, and that includes factors like your age, health and wealth. Your thoughts about benefitting family members and taxes also need to be considered. You’ll want to have plans in place should you become incapacitated.

Next, think about your goals and objectives. Some common goals are:

  • Providing financial security for your family;
  • Preserving property for your heirs;
  • Avoiding disputes among family members or business partners;
  • Giving to a charity;
  • Managing your affairs, if you are disabled;
  • Having sufficient liquidity to pay the expenses of your estate; and
  • Transferring ownership of your property or business interests.

Ask your attorney about a will. If you have minor children, you must have a will to address guardianship, unless your state provides an alternative legal means to do so. Some people many need a trust to properly address their planning concerns. Some of your assets will also have their own beneficiary designations. Once you have you a plan, review it every few years or when there’s a birth, adoption, death, or divorce in the family.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (July 27, 2019) “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional”