Protect Your Estate with Five Facts

It is true that a single person who dies in 2020 could have up to $11.58 million in personal assets and their heirs would not have to pay any federal estate tax. However, that doesn’t mean that regular people don’t need to worry about estate taxes—their heirs might have to pay state estate taxes, inheritance taxes or the estate may shrink because of other tax issues. That’s why U.S. News & World Report’s recent article “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family” is worth reading.

Without proper planning, any number of factors could take a bite out of your children’s inheritance. They may be responsible for paying federal income taxes on retirement accounts, for instance. You want to be sure that a lifetime of hard work and savings doesn’t end up going to the wrong people.

The best way to protect your family and your legacy, is by meeting with an estate planning attorney and sorting through all of the complex issues of estate planning. Here are five areas you definitely need to address:

  1. Creating a last will and testament
  2. Checking that beneficiaries are correct
  3. Creating a trust
  4. Converting traditional IRA accounts to Roth accounts
  5. Giving assets while you are living

A last will and testament. Only 32% of Americans have a will, according to a survey that asked 2,400 Americans that question. Of those who don’t have a will, 30% says they don’t think they have enough assets to warrant having a will. However, not having a will means that your entire estate goes through probate, which could become very expensive for your heirs. Having no will also makes it more likely that your family will challenge the distribution of assets. As a result, someone you may have never met could inherit your money and your home. It happens more often than you can imagine.

Checking beneficiaries. Once you die, beneficiaries cannot be changed. That could mean an ex-spouse gets the proceeds of your life insurance policy, retirement funds or any other account that has a named beneficiary. Over time, relationships change—make sure to check the beneficiaries named on any of your documents to ensure that your wishes are fulfilled. Your will does not control this distribution and is superseded by the named beneficiaries.

Set up a trust. Trusts are used to accomplish different goals. If a child is unable to manage money, for instance, a trust can be created, a trustee named and the account funded. The trust will include specific directions as to when the child receives funds or if any benchmarks need to be met, like completing college or staying sober. With an irrevocable trust, the money is taken out of your estate and cannot be subject to estate taxes. Money in a trust does not pass through probate, which is another benefit.

Convert traditional IRAs to Roth retirement accounts. When children inherit traditional IRAs, they come with many restrictions and heirs get the income tax liability of the IRA. Regular income tax must be paid on all distributions, and the account has to be emptied within ten years of the owner’s death, with limited exceptions. If the account balance is large, it could be consumed by taxes. By gradually converting traditional retirement accounts to Roth accounts, you pay the taxes as the accounts are converted. You want to do this in a controlled fashion, so as not to burden yourself. However, this means your heirs receive the accounts tax-free.

Gift with warm hands, wisely. Perhaps the best way to ensure that money stays in the family, is to give it to heirs while you are living. As of 2020, you may gift up to $15,000 per person, per year in gifts. The money is tax free for recipients. Just be careful when gifting assets that appreciate in value, like stocks or a house. When appreciating assets are inherited, the heirs receive a step-up in basis, meaning that the taxable amount of the assets are adjusted upon death, so some assets should only be passed down after you pass.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Sep. 30, 2020) “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family”

For more information about this or other topics, click here.

Planning for Nursing Home Expenses

The question raised in the article “Fact or Fiction: I Can Protect My Assets from a Nursing Home with a Revocable Trust” from New Hampshire Business Review is frequency asked, and the reason for it is understandable. Any form of long-term home care is costly and can quickly decimate a lifetime of savings. There are ways to protect assets, but a revocable trust is not one of them.

There are some reasons why a person might find a revocable trust attractive. For one thing, if the grantor (the person who creates the trust and is also the trustee (i.e., the person in charge of the trust)), there is no loss of control. It is as if you still own the assets that are in the trust. However, when you die, the assets in the trust don’t go through the probate process. Instead, they go directly to the beneficiaries named in the trust documents. A revocable trust also lets you make specific provisions for beneficiaries and beneficiaries with special needs.

There is a trust that can be used to protect assets from the cost of long-term care. It is the irrevocable trust, which must be properly prepared by an estate planning attorney and done in a timely fashion: five years before the person needs to go to a nursing home.

The difference is in the name: the irrevocable trust is irrevocable. Once it is created, you (the grantor) may not change it. Once an asset is placed in the trust, you don’t own it. The trust is the owner. You can’t change your mind. The grantor may also not serve as the trustee of the trust.

You have to be prepared to give up complete control of the assets that go into the trust.

Some people think simply by handing over their assets in the trust to their children, they’ve solved everything. However, there are problems. If your children are sued or run into debt problems, that lifetime of saving which is now in their control is also subject to creditors or claims. If you need to enter a nursing home within five years of your handing over the assets, you also won’t be eligible for Medicaid.

The best course of action is to meet with an estate planning attorney and discuss your overall estate plan. You should have a frank conversation about your wishes, what kind of a legacy you want to leave behind and your bigger picture for the world after you’ve passed. The attorney will help work out a plan that will protect you, your spouse, your assets and your family.

Remember that an estate plan is not a one-and-done document. Every three or four years, or as “life happens” and changes occur in your life, you should touch base with your attorney. A new family member by marriage, birth or adoption, may call for some changes to your estate plan. It might also be affected by the sadder events of life; death, divorce, or a significant health change. All require a phone call and a discussion to ensure that your estate plan still achieves your goals and protects those you love.

If you have any questions about your current estate plan, or would like a consultation click here.

Reference: New Hampshire Business Review (July 30, 2020) “Fact or Fiction: I Can Protect My Assets from a Nursing Home with a Revocable Trust”

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”

Is My Irrevocable Trust Revocable?

Irrevocable trusts aren’t as irrevocable as their name implies, according to Barron’s recent article, “Are Irrevocable Trusts True to Their Name?” The article says that, for both new and existing trusts, there are ways to build in flexibility to make changes to a grantor’s wishes, if terms are no longer appropriate or desirable for beneficiaries.

However, there are strict rules that apply. These rules vary between states. One of the main reasons for an irrevocable trust, is to remove assets from an estate for estate tax purposes. If the rules aren’t followed carefully, a trust can be rendered unlawful. If that happens, the assets may be returned to the grantor’s estate and estate taxes may apply.

If you want to be certain that beneficiaries have some discretion in the future if circumstances change, grantors should build flexibility into the trust when it’s established. This can be accomplished by giving a power of appointment to beneficiaries. However, if the beneficiaries are looking to change the terms or the structure of an existing trust, the trust must be modified, according to state law.

Most states allow trusts to be decanted. When you decant a trust, you pour its terms into a new trust, and leave out the parts that are no longer wanted. Just like decanting a bottle of wine, it’s like the sediment left in the wine bottle.

In a state that doesn’t permit decanting, a trustee can ask a judge to allow it. You should be careful with decanting, because you don’t want to do anything that would adversely affect the original tax attributes of the trust.

The power of appointment in a trust or the ability to decant can’t be given to the person who set up the trust. Thus, grantors can’t have a “re-do” or rescind the terms. It’s only trustees and the beneficiaries that can do that.

If you and your attorney create a trust with a lot of flexibility for the trustee, you may want to appoint an institutional trustee from a bank, trust, or other financial services company.

They can be either the sole trustee or serve as co-trustees with a personal, non-institutional trustee, like a family member. This can help to eliminate future conflicts.

Reference: Barron’s (June 18, 2019) “Are Irrevocable Trusts True to Their Name?”