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”

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”

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”

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”

Smart Women Protect Themselves with Estate Planning

The reason to have an estate plan is two-fold: to protect yourself, while you are living and to protect those you love, after you have passed. If you have an estate plan, says the Boca Newspaper in the article titled “Smart Tips for Women: Estate Planning,” your wishes for the distribution of your assets are more likely to be carried out, tax liabilities can be minimized and your loved ones will not be faced with an extended and expensive process of settling your estate.

Here are some action items to consider, when putting your estate plan in place:

If you have an estate plan but aren’t really sure what’s in it, it’s time to get those questions answered. Make sure that you understand everything. Don’t be intimidated by the legal language: ask questions and keep asking until you fully understand the documents.

If you have not reviewed your estate plan in three or four years, it’s time for a review. There have been new tax laws that may have changed the outcomes from your estate plan. Anytime there is a big change in the law or in your life, it’s time for a review. Triggering events include births, deaths, marriages, and divorces, purchases of a home or a business or a major change in financial status, good or bad.

If you don’t have an estate plan, stop postponing and make an appointment with an estate planning attorney, as soon as possible.

Your estate plan should include advance directives, including a Durable Power of Attorney, Health Care Surrogate, and a Living Will. You may not be capable of executing these documents during a health emergency and having them in place will make it possible for those you name to make decisions on your behalf.

Anyone who is over the age of 18, needs to have these same documents in place. Parents do not have a legal right to make any decisions or obtain medical information about their children, once they celebrate their 18th birthday.

Make a list of your trusted professionals: your estate planning attorney, CPA, financial advisor, your insurance agent and anyone else your executor will need to contact.

Tell your family where this list is located. Don’t ask them to go on a scavenger hunt, while they are grieving your loss.

List all your assets. You should include where they are located, account numbers, contact phone numbers, etc. Tell your family that this list exists and where to find it.

If you have assets with primary beneficiaries, make sure that they also have contingent beneficiaries.

If you have assets from a first marriage and remarry, be smart and have a prenuptial agreement drafted that aligns with a new estate plan.

If you have children and assets from a first marriage and want to make sure that they continue to be your heirs, work with an estate planning attorney to determine the best way to make this happen. You may need a will, or you may simply need to have your children become the primary beneficiaries on certain accounts. A trust may be needed. Your estate planning attorney will know the best strategy for your situation.

If you own a business, make sure you have a plan for what will happen to that business, if you become incapacitated or die unexpectedly. Who will run the business, who will own it and should it be sold? Consider what you’d like to happen for long-standing employees and clients.

Smart women make plans for themselves and their loved ones. An estate planning attorney will be able to help you navigate through an estate plan. Remember that an estate plan needs upkeep on a regular basis.

Reference: Boca Newspaper (March 4, 2019) “Smart Tips for Women: Estate Planning”

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”