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in the 1990s by proponents of tax reform, who believed that estate and inheritance taxes were unfair and should be repealed.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?”

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?”

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”

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 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?”

How Does a Probate Proceeding Work?

A Will, also known as Last Will and Testament, is a legal document that is used in probate court, if a person dies with assets that are in their name alone without a surviving joint owner or beneficiary designated, says the Record Online in the article “Anatomy of a probate proceeding.” The probate process proves the will is valid.

Probate is a judicial or court proceeding, where the probate court has jurisdiction over the assets of the person who has died. The court oversees the payment of debts, taxes and probate fees, in addition to supervising distribution of assets to the person’s beneficiaries. The executor of the will is to manage the probate assets and then report to the judge.

Without a will, things get messy. A similar court proceeding takes place, but it is known as an administrative proceeding, and the manager of the estate is called an administrator, and not the executor.

To start the probate proceeding, the executor completes and submits a probate petition with the probate court. Some executors do this on their own, but most hire an estate planning attorney to help. The attorney knows the process, which keeps things moving along.

The probate petition lists the beneficiaries named in the will, plus certain relatives who must, by law, receive legal notice in the mail. Let’s say that someone disinherits a child in their will. That child receives notice and learns they have been disinherited. Beneficiaries and relatives alike must return paperwork to the court stating that they either consent or object to the provisions of the will.

A disinherited child has the right to file objections with the court, and then begin a battle for inheritance that is known as a will contest. This can become protracted and expensive, drawing out the probate process for years. A will contest places all of the assets in the will in limbo. They cannot be distributed unless the court says they can, which may not occur until the will contest is completed.

The will contest can be resolved in two ways: with a settlement between the parties involved, or with a jury trial. It is always possible that the disinherited person could prevail and be awarded any amount of the inheritance, regardless of what the decedent said in their will.

In addition to the expense and time that probate takes, while the process is going on, assets are frozen. Only when the court gives the all clear does the judge issue what are called “Letters Testamentary,” which allows the executor to start the process of distributing funds. They must open an estate account, apply for a taxpayer ID for the account, collect the assets and ultimately, distribute them, as directed in the will to the beneficiaries.

Can a will contest, or probate be avoided? Avoiding probate, or having selected assets taken out of the estate, is one reason that people use trusts as part of their estate plan. Assets can also be placed in joint ownership, and beneficiaries can be added to accounts, so that the asset goes directly to the beneficiary.

By working closely with an estate planning attorney, you’ll have the opportunity to prepare an estate plan that addresses how you want assets to be distributed, which assets may be placed outside of your estate for an easier transfer to beneficiaries and what you can do to avoid a will contest, if there is a disinheritance situation looming.

Reference: Record Online (August 24, 2019) “Anatomy of a probate proceeding”

What If Your Executor Doesn’t Want to Serve?

When you’ve finally come to determine who you trust enough to serve as your executor, you’ll need to take the next step. It involves having a conversation with the person about what you are asking them to do. You’ll need to ask if they are willing, says the Pocono Record in the article “Don’t assume person is willing to be your executor.” People are often flattered at first when they are asked about this role, but if they don’t fully understand the responsibilities, they may decide not to serve just when you need them the most.

Once your executor has agreed to act on your behalf and you have a last will and testament prepared by an estate attorney, tell your executor where your will is stored. Remember that they need to have access, in addition to knowing where the document is. If the will is kept at home in a fire-proof box or a document box that is locked, make sure to tell them where the key is located.

If you feel that the will would be safer in a bank’s safe deposit vault, you have a few additional tasks to complete. One is to make sure that your executor will be able to access the safe deposit box. That may mean adding them to the list of people who have access. They may be technically permitted to enter the box with a bank representative solely for the purpose of obtaining the last will and testament.  However, you should check with your branch first.

Once they have the last will and testament and it is filed for probate, the Register of Wills issues Letters Testamentary, which says that the executor has the authority to open the safe deposit box to inventory its contents, after proper notice is given to the state’s authorities. The executor must complete an inventory form for the authorities and any personal property in the safe deposit box must be appraised for fair market value as of the date of death. Inheritance tax will need to be paid on the value, if there is any due.

Communication is very important in the executor’s role. You may or may not want to allow them to see the will before you pass, but they will need to know where the original document can be found.

To make the next part of the executor’s job easier, create an inventory of your assets and include information they will need to complete their task. They’ll also need to know contact information and account numbers for homeowners and car insurance, veterans’ benefits, credit cards, mortgage, pensions, retirement accounts and any other assets.

Some people store their information on their computer. However, if the executor cannot access your computer or cannot get into the computer because they don’t have your password, you may want to create a hard copy document, as well as keeping information on your computer.

Taking on the role of an executor is a big job. You can show your appreciation, even after you are gone, by making all preparations for the information needed.

Reference: Pocono Record (May 1, 2019) “Don’t assume person is willing to be your executor”

Suggested Key Terms: Executor, Last Will and Testament, Safe Deposit Box, Letters Testamentary

How Do I Make the Right Estate Planning Moves When I Divorce?

The Journal Enterprise explains in its recent article, “5 Estate Planning Moves If You Are Getting Divorced,” that the following tips will help you get your plans in order, so your final wishes will be carried out later.

Medical Power of Attorney. This is also called a healthcare proxy. This person is named to make decisions on your medical care, if you’re ill or injured and can’t state your medical care decisions. Unless you make the change, your ex-spouse will have this right.

Financial Power of Attorney. Like a healthcare proxy, this is someone you select to take charge, if you become incapacitated. This person has authority over your financial decisions, and it means they have the authority to pay your bills, access your bank and investment accounts, collect and cash your paychecks and make financial decisions for you. You want to be certain that your assets are protected, and your financial obligations are met, while you’re unable to act on your own behalf. Most people name a spouse, but if you get divorced and don’t switch this designation, your spouse will still be your financial power of attorney and will retain access to your finances.

Create a List of Things to Change After Your Divorce. A divorce can freeze some assets and accounts, which remains in effect until it’s finalized. Therefore, you won’t be able to change the beneficiary on life insurance policies, pensions and other types of accounts. Ask your estate planning attorney to find out exactly what accounts will be affected. Once you know which ones are frozen, you should make a list to ensure you won’t neglect to change them, when the divorce is finalized.

Modify Your Will. In some states, you may not be permitted to create a new will, but your attorney should still be able to help you make the necessary changes. You’ll want to review your heirs. If you do have minor children and you have sole custody, you may want to designate another person as their guardian. If you named your spouse as executor of your will, you may want to consider changing that.

Modify Your Trust. You may have a revocable living trust, in addition to a will. One of the advantages of a revocable trust is that it doesn’t go through probate, so your heirs get a bigger inheritance more quickly. If you have a revocable trust, talk to your attorney about changing it after your divorce.

If you don’t make these changes at the time of your divorce, your assets may not go to the right beneficiaries, or your ex-spouse may end up with rights you didn’t intend.

Reference: Journal Enterprise (March 20, 2019) “5 Estate Planning Moves If You Are Getting Divorced”

Wills v. Trusts: What’s Right for You?

It’s a good idea to take the time and make the effort to create an estate plan to take care of your estate — no matter if it’s a condo apartment and a housecat or a big house and lots of money in the bank — just in case something unexpected occurs tomorrow. That’s the advice from AZ Big Media in the article “The pros and cons of wills vs. trusts.”

Estate planning is the area of the law that focuses on the disposition of assets and expenses, when a person dies. The goal is to take care of the “business side” of life while you are living, so your family and loved ones don’t have to pick up the pieces after you are gone. It’s much more expensive, time-consuming and stressful for the survivors to do this after death, than it is if you plan in advance.

You have likely heard the words “trust” and “will” as part of estate planning. What are the differences between the two, and how do you know which one you need?

A will is the most commonly used legal document for leaving instructions about your property after you die. It is also used to name an executor — the person who will be in charge of your assets, their distribution, paying taxes and any estate expenses after you die. The will is very important, if you have minor children. This is how you will name guardians to raise your children, if something unexpected occurs to you and your partner, spouse or co-parent. The will is also the document you use to name the person who you would like to care for your pets, if you have any.

Burial instructions are not included in wills, since the will is not usually read for weeks or sometimes months after a person passes. It’s also not the right way to distribute funds that have been taken care of through the use of beneficiary designations or joint ownership on accounts or assets.

Another document used in estate planning is a trust. There are many different types of trusts, from revocable trusts, which you control as long as you are alive, and irrevocable trusts, which are controlled by trustees. There are too many to name in one article, but if there is something that needs to be accomplished in an estate plan, there’s a good chance there is a special trust designed to do it. An estate planning attorney will be able to tell you if you need a trust, and what purpose it will serve.

Trusts can be used by anyone with assets or property.

A will can be a very simple document. It requires proper formats and formalities to ensure that it is valid. If you try to do this on your own, your heirs will be the ones to find out if you have done it properly.  If it is not done correctly, the court will deem it invalid and your estate will be “intestate,” that is, without a will.

Many people believe that they should put all their assets into a trust to avoid probate. In some cases, this may be useful. However, there are many states where probate is not an onerous process, and this is not the reason for setting up trusts.

A trust won’t eliminate taxes completely, nor will it eliminate the need for any estate administration. However, it may make passing certain assets to another person or another generation easier. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you through this process.

Whether you use a will or a trust, or as is most common, a combination of the two, you need an estate plan that includes other documents, including power of attorney and health care power of attorney. These two particular documents are used while you are living, so that someone you name can make financial decisions (power of attorney) and medical health decisions (health care power of attorney) if you should become incapacitated, through illness or injury.

Speak with an estate planning attorney. Every person’s situation is a little different, and an estate planning attorney will create an estate plan that works for you and protects your family.

Reference: AZ Big Media (March 21, 2019) “The pros and cons of wills vs. trusts”

Why Would a Guy Like Me Need a Will?
Wills do not have to be complicated, but they should be done correctly.

Why Would a Guy Like Me Need a Will?

Wills don’t have to be complicated, but it’s best to work with a seasoned estate planning attorney. Wills must be dated, signed, witnessed and notarized. If you don’t have a will, it delays the process considerably and may delay payment of the deceased’s assets to his or her heirs. To eliminate some of the mystery from the will creation process, here are several items that all wills need to have to be legally binding. The Daily Advertiser’s recent article, “Where there is a will, there is a plan in place“ provides some definitions for key concepts and reminders for the estate planning process.

Testator. The creator of the will must provide his name, address and intention to create a distribution process for his assets. He must also state that the will being made is his last will and testament, revoking any other prior wills. Revocation of prior wills is important to show that the decisions made in the current will are final and the recent date on the will evidences how current the will is and to know which will (if there are others) supersedes all others.

Debts. The will must explain how any outstanding bills will be paid. These include the funeral costs, medical costs, taxes, court costs for settling the estate, and any other expenses the deceased may have at his death.

Heirs. A will should detail who gets what. Specific bequests should state a full description of the physical asset or, if money is to be distributed, then a percentage of the estate’s value or specific amount should be listed. Most testators don’t know the effect that death taxes or final expenses will have on an estate. Therefore, percentages work better, because it’s a percentage of what is available to be distributed.

Executor. This is the person who will take the will through the probate process, account for the decedent’s personal property, pay taxes and debts, and distribute the assets to the heirs, according to the will. Choosing an executor is an important decision. He or she should be trustworthy and knowledgeable about financial matters.

Guardian. A guardian needs to be named to care for minor children. This person should mirror the parents’ values and ideas as to the care and raising of the minor children. A relative or parent shouldn’t be selected just based on kinship. If a guardian isn’t selected, the court will choose one, and that person may not be capable of handling young children over the long-term.

Funeral Arrangements. You may not want a big expensive funeral, but without specific instructions, your funeral arrangements might be overly grand and out of character with your personality. Just add a paragraph detailing your wishes.

Reference: Daily Advertiser (March 10, 2019) “Where there is a will, there is a plan in place“