Why Do I Need Estate Planning?

Many people who failed to plan their estate with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney have their assets tied up in lengthy, and often messy, legal battles that were decided by people not of their choosing.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Everyone Needs An Estate Plan: Here’s What You Need To Know” says that although many of us don’t have quite as much at stake financially, it doesn’t mean that estate planning is any less important. In fact, leaving a legacy, passing down wealth and helping family aren’t things that are just for the ultra-rich.

The biggest misstep is not creating an estate plan at all. This is more than just a last will and includes powers of attorney, healthcare directives, a living will and a HIPAA waiver. People put this important responsibility off because they do not want to contemplate their own death. They try to avoid the subject. Some others may have complex family dynamics, and still others are hesitant to confide their complicated relationships with a lawyer. However, all these are just excuses.

We know that life is full of changes, and people get married, divorced, have children and grandchildren, relocate to different states, change careers and get inheritances. Each of these events could make you reconsider your goals. This may necessitate an update to your estate plan.

You need to review the beneficiaries on your IRAs, life insurance policies and pensions. You should look at how you want your heirs to receive your assets and any charitable or philanthropic notions. With powers of attorney, healthcare directives, living wills and HIPAA waivers, you need to think about who you’ll entrust to make important medical and financial decisions for you, if you become incapacitated. You see these critical questions and many others are fluid and prone to change every few years as your life changes.

Remember that your assets receive different treatment from the IRS based on the type and who owns legally owns them. For example, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), Roth IRAs, traditional brokerage accounts, life insurance policies and bank accounts are different than the family home. Therefore, it’s important to be mindful of which assets are left to whom.

Don’t wait. Speak to an experienced estate planning attorney to be certain that you give this process the attention it deserves for the well-being of you and your family.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 26, 2021) “Everyone Needs An Estate Plan: Here’s What You Need To Know”

What Happens If Trust Not Funded
Senior couple meeting financial adviser for investment

What Happens If Trust Not Funded

Revocable trusts can be an effective way to avoid probate and provide for asset management, in case you become incapacitated. These revocable trusts — also known as “living” trusts — are very flexible and can achieve many other goals.

Point Verda Recorder’s recent article entitled “Don’t forget to fund your revocable trust” explains that you cannot take advantage of what the trust has to offer, if you do not place assets in it. Failing to fund the trust means that your assets may be required to go through a costly probate proceeding or be distributed to unintended recipients. This mistake can ruin your entire estate plan.

Transferring assets to the trust—which can be anything like real estate, bank accounts, or investment accounts—requires you to retitle the assets in the name of the trust.

If you place bank and investment accounts into your trust, you need to retitle them with words similar to the following: “[your name and co-trustee’s name] as Trustees of [trust name] Revocable Trust created by agreement dated [date].” An experienced estate planning attorney should be consulted.

Depending on the institution, you might be able to change the name on an existing account. If not, you’ll need to create a new account in the name of the trust, and then transfer the funds. The financial institution will probably require a copy of the trust, or at least of the first page and the signature page, as well as the signatures of all the trustees.

Provided you’re serving as your own trustee or co-trustee, you can use your Social Security number for the trust. If you’re not a trustee, the trust will have to obtain a separate tax identification number and file a separate 1041 tax return each year. You will still be taxed on all of the income, and the trust will pay no separate tax.

If you’re placing real estate in a trust, ask an experienced estate planning attorney to make certain this is done correctly.

You should also consult with an attorney before placing life insurance or annuities into a revocable trust and talk with an experienced estate planning attorney, before naming the trust as the beneficiary of your IRAs or 401(k). This may impact your taxes.

Reference: Point Verda Recorder (Nov. 19, 2020) “Don’t forget to fund your revocable trust”

Despite Pandemic, Many Still Don’t Have an Estate Plan

It’s true—many people still believe that they don’t have enough assets so they don’t need a will, or that their money will automatically go to a next of kin. Both of these beliefs are wrong. While the title of this CNBC article is “More people are creating wills amid the pandemic,” the story’s focus is on the fact that most Americans don’t have a will. If you belong to this group, here’s what happens when you die.

The state you live in has laws about who will receive your assets if you die without a will, known as intestacy. Let’s say you live in New York. Your surviving spouse and children will receive your assets. However, in Texas, your assets will be entered into the state’s intestacy probate process, and your relatives will divide up your assets. Want to be in charge of who inherits your property? Have a will created with an experienced estate attorney.

Young adults think they don’t need a will, but Covid-19 has taken the lives of many healthy, young people. Every adult over age 18 needs a will. If you don’t have one, your loved ones—even if it’s your parents—will inherit a legal mess that will take time and money to fix.

If you have children and no will, there’s no way to be sure who will raise your children. The court will decide. Choose your guardians, name them in your will and be sure to name additional choices just in case the first guardian can’t or won’t serve. You should also appoint someone to be in charge of your children’s money.

What if you had a will created 10 or twenty years ago? That’s another big mistake. Your life changes, the law changes, and so do relationships. Life insurance policies, retirement plans, and transfer-on-death instruments are all legally binding contracts. The last will you made will be used, and if you haven’t updated your will or other documents, then the old decisions will stand. Remember that contracts supersede wills, so no matter how much you don’t want your ex to receive your life insurance proceeds, failing to change that designation won’t help your second spouse. You should review and update all documents.

Doing it yourself is risky. You won’t know if your will is valid and enforceable, if you do it from an online template. Your heirs will have to fix things, which can be expensive. The cost of an estate plan depends on the complexity of your situation. You may only need a will, power of attorney and advance directive. You may also need trusts to pass property along with minimal taxes. An estate planning attorney will be able to give you an idea of how much your estate plan will cost.

Talking about death and planning for it is a difficult topic for everyone, but a well-planned estate plan is one of the most thoughtful gifts you can give to your loved ones.

Reference: CNBC (Oct. 5, 2020) “More people are creating wills amid the pandemic”

 

Can I Fund a Trust with Life Insurance?

A trust is a legal vehicle in which assets are legally titled and held for the benefit of another party, the beneficiary, explains Forbes’ recent article entitled “How To Fund A Trust With Life Insurance.” The article says that trusts are often funded with a life insurance policy. This will provide assets to be used after the death of the insured for the benefit of their family. If you are a parent of minor children, the combination of life insurance and a trust may be the best way to make certain that your children have their financial needs satisfied and also make sure the assets are used in ways you want.

Trusts are either revocable or irrevocable. A revocable living trust is the most frequently used type of trust. It has some major benefits, like the ability to avoid probate, which can be an expensive and lengthy process. Assets in a revocable trust are accessible much more quickly than those left through a will.  Because they’re revocable, the person who creates the trust (the grantor) can also make adjustments to the trust, as their situation changes.

A grantor will fund the trust with assets for the trust beneficiaries. For parents of minor children, funding a trust using term life insurance is an inexpensive tactic to make certain that your children are cared for after your death. Typically, each parent buys a life insurance policy, and in a two-parent household, usually each spouse names the other as the primary beneficiary with a revocable living trust as the contingent beneficiary.

If the second parents were to die, the life insurance policies would pay to the trust. The trustee would manage the trust assets for the minor children. Funding a trust with life insurance also benefits heirs, because it provides liquidity right after your death. Other assets like investment accounts and real estate can be very illiquid or have tax consequences. As a result, it can take a while to get to that equity.

On the other hand, term life insurance is a fast and tax-free funding way to build a trust. Purchase a term life policy that will last until your children are adults and out of college. In making the life insurance paid to a trust with your children as beneficiaries, you also have some control over the assets. If you name minor children as beneficiaries on a life insurance policy, they won’t be able to use the money until they are an adult. Some children may also not be financially responsible enough to manage money as young adults in their 20s.

If you already own a life insurance policy and want to create a trust, you can transfer ownership of the policy to the trust. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 17, 2020) “How To Fund A Trust With Life Insurance”

Preparing for an Emergency Includes Power of Attorney

Unexpected events can happen at any time. Without a backup plan, finances are vulnerable. The importance of having an estate plan and organized legal and financial documents on a scale of one to ten is fifteen, advises the article “Are you prepared to hand over your finances to someone in an emergency?” from USA Today. Maybe it doesn’t matter so much if your phone bill is a month late but miss a life insurance premium payment and your policy may lapse. If you’re over 70, chances are slim to none that you’ll be able to purchase a new one.

When estate plans and finances are organized to the point that you can easily hand them over to a trusted spouse, adult child or other responsible person, you gain the peace of mind of knowing you and your family are prepared for anything. Someone can take care of you and your family, in case the unexpected happens.

A financial power of attorney (POA) gives another person the legal authority to take financial actions on your behalf. The person you give this responsibility to, should be someone you trust and who will put your best interests ahead of their own. An estate planning attorney will be able to create a power of attorney that can be very specific about the powers that are granted.

You may want your POA to be able to pay bills, and manage your investment accounts, for instance, but you may not want them to make changes to trusts. A personalized power of attorney document can give you that level of control.

Consider your routine for taking care of household finances. Most of us do these tasks on autopilot. We don’t think about how it would be if someone else had to take over, but we should. Take a pad of paper and make notes about every task you complete in a given month: what bills do you pay monthly, which are paid quarterly and what comes due only once or twice a year? By making a detailed record of the tasks, you’ll save your spouse or family member a great deal of time and angst.

Is your paperwork organized so that someone else will be able to find things? Most people create their own systems, but they are not always understandable to anyone else. Create a folder or a file that holds all of your important documents, like insurance policies and investment accounts, legal documents and deeds.

If you pay bills online, naming someone else on the account so they have access is ideal. If not, then try consolidating the bills you can. Many banks allow users to set up bill payment through one account.

Keep legal documents and records up to date. If you haven’t reviewed your estate planning documents in more than three years, now is the time to speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your estate plan still reflects your wishes. Call your estate planning attorney to discuss your next steps.

Reference: USA Today (March 20, 2020) “Are you prepared to hand over your finances to someone in an emergency?”

What are the Main Estate Planning Blunders to Avoid?

There are a few important blunders that can make an estate plan defective—most of these can be easily avoided by reviewing your estate plan periodically and keeping it up to date.

Investopedia’s article from a few years ago entitled “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning” lists these common blunders:

Not Updating Your Beneficiaries. Big events like a marriage, divorce, birth, adoption and death can all have an effect on who will receive your assets. Be certain that those you want to inherit your property are clearly detailed as such on the proper forms. Whenever you have a life change, update your estate plan, as well as all your financial, retirement accounts and insurance policies.

Forgetting Important Legal Documents. Your will may be just fine, but it won’t exempt your assets from the probate process in most states, if the dollar value of your estate exceeds a certain amount. Some assets are inherently exempt from probate by law, like life insurance, retirement plans and annuities and any financial account that has a transfer on death (TOD) beneficiary listed. You should also make sure that you nominate the guardians of minor children in your will, in the event that something should happen to you and/or your spouse or partner.

Lousy Recordkeeping. There are few things that your family will like less than having to spend a huge amount of time and effort finding, organizing and hunting down all of your assets and belongings without any directions from you on where to look. Create a detailed letter of instruction that tells your executor or executrix where everything is found, along with the names and contact information of everyone with whom they’ll have to work, like your banker, broker, insurance agent, financial planner, etc.. You should also list all of the financial websites you use with your login info, so that your accounts can be conveniently accessed.

Bad Communication. Telling your loved ones that you’ll do one thing with your money or possessions and then failing to make provisions in your plan for that to happen is a sure way to create hard feelings, broken relationships and perhaps litigation. It’s a good idea to compose a letter of explanation that sets out your intentions or tells them why you changed your mind about something. This could help in providing closure or peace of mind (despite the fact that it has no legal authority).

No Estate Plan. While this is about the most obvious mistake in the list, it’s also one of the most common. There are many tales of famous people who lost virtually all of their estates to court fees and legal costs, because they failed to plan.

These are just a few of the common estate planning errors that commonly happen. Make sure they don’t happen to you: talk to a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (Sep. 30, 2018) “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning”

Surprising Ways Beneficiary Designations Can Damage an Estate Plan

Naming a beneficiary on a non-retirement account can result in an unintended consequence—it can even topple an entire estate plan—reports The National Law Review in the article “Overuse of Beneficiary Designations: How They Can Derail a Client’s Estate Plan.” How is that possible?

In most cases, retirement accounts and life insurance policies pass to beneficiaries as a result of the beneficiary designation form that is completed when someone opens a retirement account or purchases a life insurance plan. Most people don’t even think about those designations again, until they embark on the estate planning process, when they are reviewed.

The beneficiary designations are carefully tailored to allow the asset to pass through to the heir, often via trusts that have been created to achieve a variety of benefits. The use of beneficiary designations also allows the asset to remain outside of the estate, avoiding probate after death.

Apart from the beneficiary designations on retirement accounts and life insurance policies, beneficiary designations are also available through checking and savings accounts, CDs, U.S. Savings Bonds or investment accounts. The problem occurs when these assets are not considered during the estate planning process, potentially defeating the tax planning and distribution plans created.

The most common way this happens, is when a well-meaning bank employee or financial advisor asks if the person would like to name a beneficiary and explains to the account holder how it will help their heirs avoid probate. However, if the estate planning lawyer, whose goal is to plan for the entire estate, is not informed of these beneficiary designations, there could be repercussions. Some of the unintended consequences include:

Loss of tax saving strategies. If the estate plan uses funding formulas to optimize tax savings by way of a credit shelter trust, marital trust or generation-skipping trust, the assets are not available to fund the trusts and the tax planning strategy may not work as intended.

Unintentional beneficiary exclusion. If all or a large portion of the assets pass directly to the beneficiaries, there may not be enough assets to satisfy bequests to other individuals or trust funds created by the estate plan.

Loss of creditor protection/asset management. Many estate plans are created with trusts intended to protect assets against creditor claims or to provide asset management for a beneficiary. If the assets pass directly to heirs, any protection created by the estate plan is lost.

Estate administration issues. If a large portion of the assets pass to beneficiaries directly, the administration of the estate—that means taxes, debts, and expenses—may be complicated by a lack of funds under the control of the executor and/or the fiduciary. If estate tax is due, the beneficiary of an account may be held liable for paying the proportionate share of any taxes.

Before adding a beneficiary designation to a non-retirement account, or changing a bank account to a POD (Payable on Death), speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that the plan you put into place will work if you make these changes. When you review your estate plan, review beneficiary designations. The wrong step here could have a major impact for your heirs.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 28, 2020) “Overuse of Beneficiary Designations: How They Can Derail a Client’s Estate Plan”

If I’m 35, Do I Need a Will?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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”

How Do I Cash in My Life Insurance Policy?

There are some drawbacks to using life insurance to meet immediate cash needs, especially if you’re compromising your long-term goals or your family’s financial future. Investopedia’s recent article “Cashing in Your Life Insurance Policy” says that if other options are not available, life insurance—especially cash-value life insurance—can be a source of needed income.

Cash-value life insurance, like whole life and universal life, builds reserves through excess premiums plus earnings. These deposits are held in a cash-accumulation account within the policy. You can access cash accumulations within the policy through withdrawals, policy loans, or partial or full surrender of the policy. Another alternative is selling your policy for cash, known as a life settlement. Note that although cash from the policy might be useful during stressful financial times, you could face unwanted consequences, depending on the method you use to access the funds.

You can usually withdraw limited cash from a life insurance policy, based on the type of policy you own and the insurance company. The big advantage is that the withdrawals aren’t taxable up to your policy basis, as long as your policy isn’t classified as a modified endowment contract (MEC). However, these can have unexpected or unrealized consequences. Withdrawals that decrease your cash value, could cause a reduction in your death benefits. This is a potential source of funds you or your family might need for income replacement, business purposes or wealth preservation. Cash-value withdrawals also aren’t always tax-free. If you take a withdrawal during the first 15 years of the policy, and the withdrawal causes a reduction in the policy’s death benefit, some or all of the withdrawn cash could be subject to tax. Withdrawals are treated as taxable, to the extent that they exceed your basis in the policy.

Withdrawals that reduce your cash surrender value could mean higher premiums to maintain the same death benefit, or the policy could lapse.

If your policy is determined to be an MEC, withdrawals are taxed, according to the rules applicable to annuities–cash disbursements are considered to be made from interest first and are subject to income tax and possibly a 10% early-withdrawal penalty, if you’re under age 59½ at the time of the withdrawal. Policy loans are treated as distributions, so the amount of the loan up to the earnings in the policy will be taxable and could also be subject to the pre-59½ early-withdrawal penalty.

Surrendering the policy can provide the cash you need, but you’re relinquishing the right to the death-benefit protection. You can sell your life insurance policy to a life settlement company in exchange for cash. The new owner will keep the policy in force (by paying the premiums) and get a return on the investment, by receiving the death benefit when you die.

To qualify for a life settlement, the insured must be at least 65 years old, have a life expectancy of 10 to 15 years or less, and usually have a policy death benefit of at least $100,000. However, the taxation of life settlements is complicated. The gain in excess of your basis in the policy is taxed to you as ordinary income. In addition to the tax liability, life settlements usually include up to a 30% in commissions and fees, which reduces the net amount you receive.

If you are interested in learning more about tax planning or how your life insurance policy can affect your estate plan, speak with your local estate planning or elder law attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (January 9, 2019) “Cashing in Your Life Insurance Policy”