Why Is It Important to have a Will?

A Gallup poll released in June showed that slightly less than half of all Americans have a will to tell loved ones what they want to happen with their estate after they die. What’s surprising is that the results of this survey have been almost the same since 1990, explains the article “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now” from Real Simple. The survey also showed that upper-income Americans are more likely than lower-income Americans to have a will, and the younger people are, the less likely they are to have a will.

One of the lessons from the pandemic, is how fragile our lives are. It’s never too early to start planning and properly document your wishes. If you need more reasons to begin estate planning, here are six:

No will often leads to unwanted consequences. A major misconception is the idea that you don’t need a will because everything you own will go to your family. Not necessarily. Each state has its own laws about what happens if you have no will, and those laws are usually based on bloodlines or kinship. Most states leave two-thirds of your assets to your children and one-third to your spouse. Will your spouse be able to maintain the same standard of living, or even remain in the family home if this is how assets are distributed? A no-will situation is a no-win situation and can fracture even the best families.

Wills are used to name guardians for minor children. No parent, especially young parents, thinks that anything will happen to them, or even more unlikely, to both parents. However, it does. Creating a will offers the opportunity to name guardians to care for your children after death. If you don’t designate a guardian, a judge will. The judge will have never met your children, nor understand your family’s dynamics, and might even determine that the children should be raised by strangers.

Wills and pet trusts can protect pets after your demise. If you have beloved animal companions, it’s important to understand what can happen to them after you die. The law considers pets to be property, so you can’t leave money to your pet. However, you can create a pet trust and name a person to be the caregiver for your pet, if it survives you. The trust is enforceable, and the pet’s care can be detailed. Otherwise, there is no guarantee your pet will avoid being euthanized.

Taxes are part of death. Creating an estate plan with an experienced estate planning attorney who is knowledgeable about estate taxes, could save your heirs from losing a significant part of their inheritance. There are many tools and strategies to minimize taxes, including making charitable gifts. Plans for large estates can be structured in a way to avoid as much as 40% of tax exposure. It’s even more important to protect a smaller estate from being lost to taxes.

Peace of mind. Remember, wills and estate plans are not just for the benefit of the person who creates them. They are for the family, the surviving spouse, children, and grandchildren. If you did not take the time and make the effort to create an estate plan, they are the ones who will live with the consequences. In many cases, it could change their lives—and not for the better.

Putting it off never ends well. When you’re young and healthy, it seems like nothing can ever go wrong. However, live long enough, and you learn life has ups and downs and unexpected events—like death and serious illness—happen to everyone. Creating an estate plan won’t make you die sooner but having one can provide you and your loved ones with security, so you can focus on living.

Reference: Real Simple (June 25, 2021) “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now”

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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”

 

Why Wills Need to be Updated

Lives change, and laws change. People come and go in our lives, through birth, death, marriage and divorce. Change is a constant factor in everyone’s lives. If your estate plan doesn’t keep up to date, says Next Avenue in the article “8 Reasons You May Need to Update Your Will,” you could create real problems for those you love. Here are eight reasons why people need to review their wills to ensure that your estate plan reflects your current life.

Moving to a new home. If you’ve moved to a new state since the last time your will was written, your will needs a review. Remember, wills are administered under the laws of the state where you live, so the new state’s laws apply. An out-of-state will could present issues. If the number of witnesses required to make a will valid in your old state of residence was one, but the new state requires two witnesses, your will could be deemed invalid.

Selling one home and buying another. If your will does not reflect your current address, it’s going to be very difficult for your executor to properly transfer ownership or manage the sale of the house. Most wills incorporate specific language about homes that includes the address.

You’ve done a good job of downsizing. Kudos to you for cleaning out and getting rid of unwanted items. If you no longer own things that are itemized in a will, they’ll be skipped over. However, do you want to give heirs something else? Without specific instructions, they won’t know who gets what.

Did you already give away possessions? Avoid family conflicts by being clear about who gets what. If you already gave your oldest daughter an antique dining room set but your will says it goes to the youngest son, things could become awkward. Similarly, if you gave one child something with a higher market or sentimental value than what you gave to another, it could create tension in the family. Updating your will is an opportunity to adjust these gifts.

Charity relationships change. The same organization that mattered greatly to you ten years ago may not have as much meaning—or may have changed its focus. Update your will to reflect the charitable contributions that matter to you now.

Finances change. If a will spells out exact amounts and the money is gone, or if your accounts have increased, those numbers may no longer be accurate or reflect your wishes. The dollar amounts may create a challenge for your executor. What if you designated a gift of stock to someone that wasn’t worth much at the time, but is worth a small fortune now? Amending a will can ensure that your gifts are of the value that you want them to be.

One child is now your primary caregiver. If one child has dedicated the last five years to taking care of you, you may want to update the document to show your gratitude and compensate them for lost earnings or expenses. If you do, explain your reasons for this kind of change to other children, so that there’s no misunderstanding when the will is read.

A beneficiary has passed away. If you are a surviving spouse, that alone may not be reason to update your will, if—and this is a big if—your will included alternate recipients as a plan for this situation. If there were no alternate recipients, then you will need to revise your will after the death of a spouse. If you listed leaving items to a beneficiary who has died, instructions on how to distribute these items or assets to someone else can be done with an amended will.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to review your will and your estate plan with you to determine what items need to be updated. Your documents may need only a tune-up, and not a complete overhaul, but it is advisable to review estate plans every three or four years.

Reference: Next Avenue (August 22, 2019) “8 Reasons You May Need to Update Your Will”

What’s Long Term Care About?

Many people are scared about the prospect of needing help in a long-term care setting, and they are right to be worried. For many people, a spouse or adult children will become the go-to caregivers, but not everyone will have that option, says Market Watch’s article “This is how much long-term care could cost you, and don’t expect Medicare to help.”

If that’s not worrisome enough, here are facts to consider:

  • More than a third of people will spend some time in a nursing home, where the median annual cost of a private room is well over $100,000, says Genworth’s 2018 Cost of Care Survey. Don’t expect those numbers to go down.
  • Four of ten people will opt for paid care at home, and the median annual cost of a home health aide is more than $50,000.
  • Half of people over 65 will eventually need some kind of long-term care costs, and about 15% of those will incur more than $250,000 in costs, according to a joint study conducted by Vanguard Research and Mercer Health and Benefits.

Medicare and even private health insurance don’t cover what are considered “custodial” expenses. That’s going to quickly wipe out the median retirement savings of most people: $126,000. With savings completely exhausted, people will find themselves qualifying for Medicaid, a government health program for the indigent that pays for about half of all nursing home and custodial care.

Those who live alone, have a chronic condition or are in poor health have a greater chance of needing long-term care. Women in particular are at risk, as they tend to outlive their husbands and may not have anyone available to provide them with unpaid care. If a husband’s illness wipes out the couple’s savings, the surviving spouse is at risk of spending their last years living on nothing but a Social Security benefit.

The best hedge against long-term care costs is to purchase a long-term care insurance policy, if you are eligible to purchase one. Wait too long, and you may not be able. One woman persuaded her parents to purchase a long-term insurance policy when her father was 68 and her mother was 54. Five years into the policy, her father was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. The policy covered almost the entire cost of his 24-hour care in the final months of his life. Her mother lived to 94, so the investment in the policy was well worth it.

Everyone approaching retirement needs a plan for long-term care costs. That may be purchasing long-term care insurance, speaking with a qualified elder law attorney, or purchasing a hybrid life insurance product with long-term care benefits. If there is no insurance and one member of the couple is still alive, getting a reverse mortgage may be an option.

Reference: Market Watch (July 19, 2019) “This is how much long-term care could cost you, and don’t expect Medicare to help.”

Be Aware of These Myths about Social Security

Despite everything written about filing for benefits as late as possible, more than half of seniors apply for Social Security before they reach full retirement age. It is now 66 and will rise to 67 for people born in 1960 and later. More than a third of all Americans apply as soon as they possibly can—at age 62. Only one in twenty-five applicants puts off filing to age 70, when monthly benefits max out, says the Washington Post in the article advising readers “Don’t believe these Social Security myths.”

Some people have no choice and must take their benefits early, because they’ve lost their job and have no savings. Others have better options, but they aren’t aware of them. That’s because of the many myths about Social Security. A survey found that while 77% of Americans thought they were pretty smart about Social Security, 95% couldn’t answer eight basic questions about the program.

Let’s look at these myths.

It doesn’t matter when I take Social Security. Benefits increase by about 7% every year from age 62  to your full retirement age, and then by 8% each year between full retirement age and 70. This is a planned adjustment to ensure that people who opt for a larger check for a shorter period don’t receive more than those who file earlier and receive smaller checks. It’s better to delay, both for the larger check and the benefits that the surviving spouse receives. People who live longer can run out of savings, so having a larger check in your 90s could make a huge difference.

If I don’t expect to live a long time, I should claim benefits early. Most of us underestimate our life span. A 65-year old man today can expect to live to 84, and a 65-year old woman can expect to live to 86.5. Life expectancies are even longer for those in their mid-50s. However, here’s the thing: even if one spouse doesn’t live as long, by taking Social Security earlier, their spouse will have a smaller benefit. Married couples lose one of their checks when the first spouse dies, causing a big drop in income. The survivor receives the larger of the two checks the couple was receiving. Therefore, the higher earner in a couple, whose check will be larger, should delay taking benefits, if at all possible, to benefit the surviving spouse.

I can claim benefits early and invest the money to come out ahead. No investment today offers a guaranteed return as high, as what can be obtained from delaying benefits. You’d have to take a lot of risk to get close to the 7% or 8% guaranteed by Social Security.

As soon as I stop working, I have to file for Social Security benefits. Not true. You don’t have to file for Social Security benefits until you want to. Even delaying four years, from 62 to 66, can translate into a sustainable 33% increase in your standard of living.

I better apply before Social Security runs out of money and closes down. This myth becomes more widespread every year. If Congress doesn’t act, which is unlikely, by 2035, the system will still be able to make payments, although they may be curtailed by 20%. Eighty percent of your Social Security check is not zero. It’s also more than likely that Congress will address Social Security fixes.

Reference: Washington Post (June 10, 2019) “Don’t believe these Social Security myths”

Estate Planning with Loved Survivors In Mind

There is a strong need for clarity regarding the rules about what happens when a spouse from a second marriage, who is not an owner of the home, wants to remain in the home after the death of the owner. A kind-hearted practice is to allow the surviving spouse to remain in the home and enjoy the memories the couple shared, says The Union in the article “Estate planning from the heart.”

Giving the surviving spouse the ability to remain in the home, honors the relationship of the spouse with the decedent. It is an act of kindness. However, it does need to be made legally enforceable, in case there are any challenges. Several considerations need to be evaluated in the estate plan:

Can the surviving spouse manage the cost of the home? This may include a monthly mortgage payment, property taxes, homeowner’s dues, insurance, yard upkeep, interior and exterior maintenance and any repairs that are needed to keep the home working.

Another concern is whether the surviving spouse will continue to be able to maintain the home in the immediate and distant future.

The surviving spouse’s health, including physical and mental abilities, needs to be considered. Will the survivor be able to manage if dementia strikes, or if they are afflicted by a serious illness and left in poor health? All of these challenges need to be considered, when drafting language regarding the rights of a person to remain in the decedent’s home. For instance, if a person is not mentally competent to live on their own, health problems or the declining condition of the property may arise.

A standard of care needs to be made regarding home maintenance and update. It may get very specific, including details like pet care and clean-up, internal cleanliness, the presence of roommates or boarders and an annual or semi-annual inspection to be sure that the home remains in good condition.

The most common problem for a surviving spouse is the financial ability to remain in the home and pay the bills. One solution may be to permit the survivor to stay in the house for two years, creating a trust that can support the cost of maintaining the home during the hardest period of mourning. This gives the surviving spouse time to recover and adjust to the loss.

If the surviving spouse does not have the mental capacity to remain in the house, the choices are difficult. Ideally, both spouses are involved in planning for this possibility, long before the owner of the property dies. There is nothing pleasant or easy about this. However, it must be done. Ignoring it, makes a bad situation worse. Will the person need care, how will that care be paid for, etc.? Don’t leave it for the family to manage.

In the case of a second marriage, leaving the house to an individual who does not have the ability to manage it, creates a difficult situation, unless the decedent is able to leave enough assets in trust for the surviving spouse to maintain the home. There should be no assumption of the ability of the surviving spouse to care for the home, as an unexpected illness or accident could make a person who is healthy at the time of the signing of the agreement, change to one who needs a great deal of help.

The key to a surviving non-owner spouse is to address the “what-if’s” early on, in the context of the estate plan. A plan should be put in place, which may involve trusts or other estate planning tools, to allow the surviving spouse to remain in the home, if that is the couple’s wish, and a plan “A,” “B,” and “C” for the unexpected events that occur in the course of aging.

An estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan that makes sense for the spouse, the surviving spouse and the heirs. A family meeting will be helpful to ensure that everyone involved knows what the plan is, so there are no misunderstandings, and all can act from a place of kindness.

Reference: The Union (April 7, 2019) “Estate planning from the heart”