What is a Transfer on Death (TOD) Account?

Most married couples share a bank account from which either spouse can write checks and add or withdraw funds without approval from the other. When one spouse dies, the other owns the account. The dead spouse’s will can’t change that.

This account is wholly owned by both spouses while they’re both alive. As a result, a creditor of one spouse could make a claim against the entire account, without any approval or say from the other spouse. Either spouse could also withdraw all the money in the account and not tell the other. This basic joint account offers a right of survivorship, but joint account holders can designate who gets the funds, after the second person dies.

Kiplinger’s recent article, “How Transfer-on-Death Accounts Can Fit Into Your Estate Planning,” explains that the answer is transfer on death (TOD) accounts (also known as Totten trusts, in-trust-for accounts, and payable-on-death accounts).

In some states, this type of account can allow a TOD beneficiary to receive an auto, house, or even investment accounts. However, retirement accounts, like IRAs, Roth IRAs, and employer plans, aren’t eligible. They’re controlled by federal laws that have specific rules for designated beneficiaries.

After a decedent’s death, taking control of the account is a simple process. What is typically required, is to provide the death certificate and a picture ID to the account custodian. Because TOD accounts are still part of the decedent’s estate (although not the probate estate that the will establishes), they may be subject to income, estate, and/or inheritance tax. TOD accounts are also not out of reach for the decedent’s creditors or other relatives.

Account custodians (such as financial institutions) are often cautious, because they may face liability if they pay to the wrong person or don’t offer an opportunity for the government, creditors, or the probate court to claim account funds. Some states allow the beneficiary to take over that responsibility, by signing an affidavit. The bank will then release the funds, and the liability shifts to the beneficiary.

If you’re a TOD account owner, you should update your account beneficiaries and make certain that you coordinate your last will and testament and TOD agreements, according to your intentions. If you fail to do so, you could unintentionally add more beneficiaries to your will and not update your TOD account. This would accidentally disinherit those beneficiaries from full shares in the estate, creating probate issues.

TOD joint account owners should also consider that the surviving co-owner has full authority to change the account beneficiaries. This means that individuals whom the decedent owner may have intended to benefit from the TOD account (and who were purposefully left out of the Last Will) could be excluded.

If the decedent’s will doesn’t rely on TOD account planning, and the account lacks a beneficiary, state law will govern the distribution of the estate, including that TOD account. In many states, intestacy laws provide for spouses and distant relatives and exclude any other unrelated parties. This means that the TOD account owner’s desire to give the account funds to specific beneficiaries or their descendants would be thwarted.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney, if a TOD account is suitable to your needs and make sure that it coordinates with your overall estate plan.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 18, 2019) “How Transfer-on-Death Accounts Can Fit Into Your Estate Planning”

When Should I Start My Estate Planning?

Only 42% of Americans have a will or other estate planning documents, according to a 2017 Caring.com study. Among parents of children under 18, only 36% have created a will.

USA Today’s recent article, “Estate planning: 6 steps to ensure your family is financially ready for when you die,” explains that if you die without a will, state laws will decide what happens to your property or who should be legally responsible for minor children. That might be OK in some circumstances, but in others, a grandchild with special needs might not receive the resources you want him to have, or an estranged family member might get your house.

For some reason, people believe that if they don’t do anything, things will “work out.” They often do not. Here is what you should consider:

Create a will. This document states who should get your money and possessions, as well as who would become a guardian to your minor children, if both parents die.

A living will. This legal document states what medical procedures you want or don’t want, if you’re incapacitated and can’t speak for yourself, such as whether to continue life-sustaining treatment. Powers of attorney let you appoint someone you trust to make legal, financial and health care decisions for you, if you are unable.

Trust. This is a legal entity that holds any property you want to leave to your beneficiaries. With a trust, your family won’t have to go through probate. Trusts also let you to set up instructions for how and when property is distributed. A trustee will manage the trust. Make sure you let people know, when you’ve designated them as a trustee. Name a secondary trustee, in case the primary trustee cannot or will not serve.

Beneficiaries. If you have investment accounts and retirement plans like a 401(k), make certain that the individual you’ve listed as the beneficiary is the person you want to receive those funds.  Remember to appoint a contingency or secondary beneficiary, just in case.

Work with an experienced attorney. Estate planning can be complicated, so get some professional legal help.

End-of-life planning isn’t really fun, but it’s necessary, if you want to have full control over your life and your assets.

Reference: USA Today (April 1, 2019) “Estate planning: 6 steps to ensure your family is financially ready for when you die”

What You Need to Know, If the Next Generation Is Inheriting the Family Farm

Understanding the tax liabilities for inheriting, buying or being gifted the family farm, is critical to avoid a costly financial misstep, says Capital Press in the article “The family farm is coming to you: What’s next?” You’ll need to work closely with your estate planning attorney and CPA to make sure you understand the basis in the real estate, especially if the property is sold and taxes will need to be paid. How you inherit the property, makes a big difference in the tax bill.

If you receive the property as a gift from parents while they are alive, then you retain their income tax basis in the property. If they inherited it also, they likely have a low tax basis. Farms with a basis of $50,000 that are now worth $2 million are not unusual. If the farm is sold, there will be a capital gains tax on the difference between the basis and the present value, which could be more than $600,000.

If you inherit the farm from a parent and then sell it for $2 million, its value at the time of their death, you would not have to pay a capital gains tax. That saves $600,000.

The estate tax may not be so bad, depending upon your state’s estate tax, which is probably lower than the highest capital gains rate. If you live in Oregon, you may be eligible for the Oregon National Resource Credit, which was created to reduce Oregon estate taxes on family farms. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you plan for and manage these taxes.

If you bought the farm from a parent’s trust or estate for $2 million, then you have a $2 million basis in the property and will probably not owe any property gains tax, if you eventually sell it for $2 million.

Just be sure that you comply with all reporting requirements. If you are in Oregon and took the Oregon National Resource Credit, then for five out of eight years after the death, the recipient of the inherited property is required to file an annual certification to keep the credit that was used to lower the estate tax. Failure to comply, means that a portion of the estate tax will have to be repaid.

If you own the farm without other family members, you should start planning your next steps. To whom do you want to pass the farm? If you want to keep the farm in the family, work with an attorney who is familiar with farm families, so that you can keep working the land and reduce any disputes.

Farmers often separate business operations from the land, with the operations held by one business and the land held by another entity. This allows the estate planning attorney to plan for succession in how operations and land are transferred to the next generation. It also provides asset protection, while you are alive.

Make sure that your farm succession plan and your estate plan are aligned. A common issue is finding that buy-sell documents don’t align with the will or trust. Some farmers use a revocable living trust as a will, so they can incorporate estate tax planning and transition the farm privately upon death.

Reference: Capital Press (March 24, 2019) “The family farm is coming to you: What’s next?”

 

How to Be Smart about an Inheritance

While there’s no one way that is right for everyone, there are some basic considerations about receiving a large inheritance that apply to almost anyone. According to the article “What should you do with an inheritance?” from The Rogersville Review, the size of the inheritance could make it possible for you to move up your retirement date. Just be mindful that it is very easy to spend large amounts of money very quickly, especially if this is a new experience.

Here are some ways to consider using an inheritance:

Get rid of your debt load. Car loans, credit cards and most school loans are at higher rates than you can get from any investments. Therefore, it makes sense to use at least some of your inheritance to get rid of this expensive debt. Some people believe that it’s best to not have a mortgage, since now there are limits to deductions. You may not want to pay off a mortgage, since you’ll have less flexibility if you need cash.

Contribute more to retirement accounts. If the inheritance gives you a little breathing room in your regular budget, it’s a good idea to increase your contributions to an employer-sponsored 401(k) or another plan, as well as to your personal IRA. Remember that this money grows tax-free and it is possible you’ll need it.

Start college funding. If your financial plan includes helping children or even grandchildren attend college, you could use an inheritance to open a 529 account. This gives you tax benefits and considerable flexibility in distributing the money. Every state has a 529 account program and it’s easy to open an account.

Create or reinforce an emergency fund. A recent survey found that most Americans don’t have emergency funds. Therefore, a bill for more than $400 would be difficult for them to pay. Use your inheritance to create an emergency fund, which should have six to 12 months’ worth of living expenses. Put the money into a liquid, low-risk account, so that you can access it easily if necessary. This way you don’t tap into long-term funds.

Review your estate plan. Anytime you have a large life event, like the death of a parent or an inheritance, it’s time to review your estate plan. Depending upon the size of the estate, there may be some tax liabilities you’ll need to deal with. You may also want to set some of the assets aside in trust for children or grandchildren. Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide you with experienced counsel on the use of the inheritance for you and future generations.

Reference: The Rogersville Review (March 21, 2019) “What should you do with an inheritance?”

Estate Taxes, Death and a Other Certainties

As the old saying goes, “Nothing is certain but death and taxes.” Many people don’t have the faintest idea of just how extensive those taxes can be, says Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the article “Death and taxes—and taxes and taxes.” For all the headlines and noise about federal estate taxes, those are the last ones most of us have to think about.

The federal estate tax is a non-event, unless you belong to the upper one percent of wealthy Americans. The federal tax is paid, based on the value of the assets owned by the decedent at the time of death. It also includes any assets that are controlled by the decedent at the time of death. The first $11.4 million is now excluded from any taxes due for an individual, and $22.8 million for a couple.

Before the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017, this exemption was roughly $5 million, so many more people had to pay it. The levels are expected to go back to the pre-2018 amount at the end of 2025, unless the law changes before that time.

This is an important point to remember: the tax laws change, and anytime tax laws change, your estate plan should be reviewed to ensure that it is still going to work the way you intend.

In some states, like Pennsylvania, there are still inheritance taxes. Only six states have inheritance taxes, and only 12 states still have an estate tax. Your estate planning attorney will know what your state’s inheritance and estate taxes are and can help you plan, so that your family is not overly burdened when it comes time to pay these taxes.

Inheritance taxes are generally based on the value of the assets owned or controlled by the decedent. It is independent of the obligation to file an income tax return for the estate.

The decedent’s representative, usually the executor, is responsible for filling all state, local and federal income tax returns for the portion of the year, in which the decedent was still living.

When a person passes and their last will and testament is admitted to probate, the executor receives an employer identification number (EIN) from the IRS. If the decedent died owning a trust, the trustee must obtain an EIN. Once the EIN is obtained, the IRS sends a letter notifying you of the due date for the income tax return for the estate or the trust. These are known as “fiduciary income tax returns.” They must be filed every year for the year that the estate or trust exists.

Note that the tax returns involve federal capital gains tax and how assets purchased before death will be treated for tax purposes, when they are sold after death. Usually these are real estate and investments. There are a LOT of taxes to consider, each has a unique due date and there may be ways to pay some taxes that will have an impact on other taxes, depending upon the situation.

The key, and an estate planning attorney can help with this, is to create a plan that takes all the taxes into consideration and plans out a strategy to minimize taxes, ensure that everything is paid on time, and prepare for the taxes to be paid.

Ideally, all this planning takes place before someone dies, as part of their estate plan, so that their loved ones are not left figuring out all of the different tax liabilities and how to pay them.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (March 25, 2019) “Death and taxes—and taxes and taxes”

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”

Should Pets Be Part of Your Estate Plan?

Most of us don’t have the luxury (or the need) to leave our pets $12 million, but to make sure that our pets are cared for, having a legally enforceable trust for a pet, which is allowed in New York State, can provide peace of mind. That is part of the answer to the question posed by the Times Herald-Record in the article “Who’ll care for your pets when you’re gone?”

A will is a document used in a court proceeding called probate, if you die with assets that are only in your name. When the will goes through probate, it becomes a public document. A trust, on the other hand, is a document that does not become part of the public record, unless it was created under a will. Some people use trusts for their beloved pets, to pay for their care and maintain their lifestyle. Some pets lead fancier lives than others!

Most people leave the care of pets in the hands of friends or relatives and hope for the best. Visit any animal shelter and you’ll see the animals whose owners could not take care of them, or whose friends or family members intended to take care of them, but for whatever reasons, could not care for them. Putting a pet trust into your estate plan, is a better way to care for pets, if you outlive them.

The pet trust has several steps, and an estate planning attorney will be able to set it up for you. First, you need to appoint a trustee of the trust funds. This person is in charge of the financial aspect of the trust, from paying vet bills, making sure pet health insurance premiums are paid, to providing money for the caretaker to buy supplies. It’s a good idea to have a secondary trustee, just in case.

Next, you name a caretaker of the pet. This person can be the same as the trustee, although it may be better to name a different person, to create some checks and balances on the funds. You can, if you like, give the trustee the right to appoint a caregiver or a back-up caregiver. Make sure you discuss all of these details with the trustee and the caregiver and their back-ups to be sure that everyone understands their roles, and all are willing to take on these responsibilities. Some pets can live a long time, and you want to have everyone understand what they are undertaking.

Third, you’ll need to designate the amount of money to be held in trust for the pets for medical care, daily living costs and support until the pet dies. Don’t forget to include the cost of burial or cremation.

Finally, name the persons or organizations you wish to receive any remaining funds.

An informal letter of instruction to both the trustee and the caregiver would be very helpful. Provide details on the pet’s personality, quirky behavior, preferences for food, treats, play and any information that will help all the parties get along well. You should also provide information on your pet’s vet, any registration numbers for microchips, medical and dental records, medications, etc.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (March 9, 2019) “Who’ll care for your pets when you’re gone?”

When Was the Last Time You Talked with Your Estate Planning Attorney?
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When Was the Last Time You Talked with Your Estate Planning Attorney?

If you haven’t had a talk with your estate planning attorney since before the TCJA act went into effect, now would be a good time to do so, says The Kansas City Star in the article “Talk to estate attorney about impacts of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act.” While most of the news about the act centered on the increased exemptions for estate taxes, there are a number of other changes that may have a direct impact on your taxes.

Start by looking at any wills or trusts that were created before the tax act went into effect. If any of the trusts use formulas that are tied to the federal estate tax exemption, there could be unintended consequences because of the higher exemption amounts.

The federal estate tax exemption doubled from $5.49 million per person in 2017 to $11.18 million per person in 2018 (or $22.36 million per couple). It is now $11.2 million per person in 2019 (or $22.4 million per couple).

Let’s say that your trust was created in 2001, when the estate tax exemption was a mere $675,000. Your trust may have stipulated that your children receive the amount of assets that could be passed free from federal estate tax, and the remainder, which exceeded the federal estate tax exemption, goes to your spouse. At the time, this was a perfectly good strategy. However, if it hasn’t been updated since then, your children will receive $11.4 million and your spouse could be disinherited.

Trusts drafted prior to 2011, when portability was introduced, require particular attention.

Two other important factors to consider are portability and step-up of cost basis. In the past, many couples relied on the use of bypass or credit shelter trusts that pay income to the surviving spouse and then eventually pass trust assets on to the children, upon the death of the surviving spouse. This scenario made sure to use the first deceased spouse’s estate exemption.

However, new legislation passed in 2011 allowed for portability of the deceased spouse’s unused estate exemption. The surviving spouse’s estate can now use any exemption that wasn’t used by the first spouse to die.

A step-up in basis was not changed by the TCJA law, but this has more significance now. When a person dies, their heir’s cost basis of many assets becomes the value of the asset on the date that the person died. Highly appreciated assets that avoided income taxes to the decedent, could avoid or minimize income taxes to the heirs. Maintaining the ability for assets to receive a step-up in basis is more important now, because of the size of the federal estate tax exemption.

Beneficiaries who inherit assets from a bypass or credit shelter trust upon the surviving spouse’s death, no longer benefit from a “second” step-up in basis. The basis of the inheritance is the original basis from the first spouse’s death. Therefore, bypass trusts are less useful than in the past, and could actually have negative income tax consequences for heirs.

If your current estate plan has not been amended for these or other changes, make an appointment soon to speak with a qualified estate planning attorney. It may not take a huge overhaul of the entire estate plan, but these changes could have a negative impact on your family and their future.

Reference: The Kansas City Star (Feb. 7, 2019) “Talk to estate attorney about impacts of Tax Cuts and Jobs Act”

Here’s Why You Need an Estate Plan in 2019

The New Year sees young adult clients calling estate planning attorney’s offices. They are ready to get their estate plans done because this year they are going to take care of their adult responsibilities. That’s from the article “Estate Planning Resolutions for 2019: How To Be A Grown-Up in The New Year” in Above The Law. It’s a good thing, especially for parents with small children. Here’s a look at what every adult should address in the New Year:

Last Will and Testament: Talk with a local attorney about distributing your assets and the guardianship of your young children. If you’re over age 18, you need a will. If you die without one, the laws in your state will determine what happens to your assets, and a judge, who has never met you or your children, will decide who gets custody. Having a last will and testament prevents a lot of problems, including costs, for those you love.

Power of Attorney. This is the document used to name a trusted person to make financial decisions if something should happen and you are unable to act on your own behalf. It could include the ability to handle your banking, file taxes and even buy and sell real estate.

Health Care Proxy. Having a health care agent named through this document gives another person the power to make decisions about your care. Make sure the person you name knows your wishes. Do you want to be kept alive at all costs, or do you want to be unplugged? Having these conversations is not pleasant, but important.

Life Insurance. Here’s when you know you’ve really become an adult. If you pass away, your family will have the proceeds to pay bills, including making mortgage payments. Make sure you have the correct insurance in place and make sure it’s enough.

Beneficiary Designations. Ask your employer for copies of your beneficiary designations for retirement accounts. If you have any other accounts with beneficiary designations, like investment accounts and life insurance policies, review the documents. Make sure a person and a secondary or successor person has been named. These designated people will receive the assets. Whatever you put in your will about these documents will not matter.

Long-Term Care and Disability Insurance. You may have these policies in place through your employer, but are they enough? Review the policies to make sure there’s enough coverage, and if there is not, consider purchasing private policies to supplement the employment benefits package.

Talk with your parents and grandparents about their estate plans. Almost everyone goes through this period of role reversal, when the child takes the lead and becomes the responsible party. Do they have an estate plan, and where are the documents located? If they have done no planning, including planning for Medicaid, now would be a good time.

Burial Plans. This may sound grim, but if you can let your loved ones know what you want in the way of a funeral, burial, memorial service, etc., you are eliminating considerable stress for them. You might want to purchase a small life insurance policy, just to pay for the cost of your burial. For your parents and grandparents, find out what their wishes are, and if they have made any plans or purchases.

Inventory Possessions. What do you own? That includes financial accounts, jewelry, artwork, real estate, retirement accounts and may include boats, collectible cars or other assets. If there are any questions about the title or ownership of your property, resolve to address it while you are living and not leave it behind for your heirs. If you’ve got any unfinished business, such as a pending divorce or lawsuit, this would be a good year to wrap it up.

The overall goal of these tasks is to take care of your personal business. Therefore, should something happen to you, your heirs are not left to clean up the mess. Talk with an estate planning attorney about having a will, power of attorney and health care proxy created. They can help with the other items as well.

Reference: Above The Law (Jan. 8, 2019) “Estate Planning Resolutions for 2019: How To Be A Grown-Up in The New Year”