Not a Festive Thought, But A Kind One: Planning for Your Own Funeral

Leaving instructions for your funeral and burial wishes relieves loved ones of the burden of making decisions and hoping they are following your wishes. In addition, says the article “Important to provide instructions for preferred funeral, burial wishes” from The Leader, it also prevents arguments between relatives and friends who have their own opinions about what they think you may have wanted.

What often happens is that people make this information part of their estate plan. However, the will is usually not looked at until after the funeral. If your loved ones don’t know where your will is, then they certainly won’t know what your wishes were for the funeral.

Without clear written directions, spiritual practices or cultural traditions that are important to you, may not be followed.

An estate planning attorney can help you create a document that outlines your wishes and will have suggestions for how to discuss this with your family and where it should be located. The documents are different in each state, so be sure to work with a local lawyer. In New York State, there is a form that allows you to name an agent who will be in charge of your remains. You can give your instructions to that person or you can leave them in charge to make arrangements in their discretion.

In New York State, if this form is not completed, the following people, in descending order, have the right to control your remains: spouse, domestic partner, children, other family members and others.

For funeral planning, one option is to go to the funeral home and arrange to pay for the funeral and go to the cemetery and purchase a plot. A pre-paid irrevocable funeral trust purchased at a funeral home can also protects assets from nursing home costs, when applying for Medicaid.

Some people wish to donate their organs, which can be done on a driver’s license or in another statement. Donating your body for medical research or education will require researching medical schools or other institutions and may require an application and other paperwork that confirms your intent to donate your body. When you pass, your family member or whoever is in charge will need to contact the organization and arrange for transport of your remains.

A comprehensive estate plan does more than distribute assets at death. It also includes what a person’s wishes are for their funeral and burial wishes. Think of it as a gift to loved ones.

Reference: The Leader (December 7, 2019) “Important to provide instructions for preferred funeral, burial wishes”

What’s Better, A Living Trust or a Will?

Everyone knows what a last will and testament is. However, a will is not always the best way to distribute your assets, explains the Times Herald-Record in the article “Living trusts are better choice than wills.” Most people think that by having a will alone, they will make it clear who they want to receive their assets when they die. However, wills are used by the court in a proceeding called “probate,” if the only estate plan you have is a will. The court proceeding is to establish that the will is valid. Depending upon where you live, probate can take a year before assets are distributed to beneficiaries.

Certain family members must receive notifications, when a will is submitted to probate. Some people will receive notices, even if they are not mentioned in the will. This can lead to all kinds of awkward situations, especially from estranged or unknown relatives. The person who is the executor of the will is required to locate these relatives, and until they are found and notified, the probate process comes to a standstill.

There are instances where a judge will allow a legal notice to be published in a local newspaper, after valid attempts to find relatives aren’t successful. If there is a disabled beneficiary, a minor beneficiary, a relative or beneficiary who can’t be located, or a relative who has been incarcerated, the judge often appoints lawyers to represent these parties’ interests and the estate pays for the attorney’s fees.

Depending on the situation, the executor may be required to furnish a family tree, or a friend of the decedent must sign an affidavit attesting that the person never had any children.

Thinking of disinheriting a child? Anyone who is disinherited in a will, receives a notice about that and is legally permitted to contest the will. That can lead to years of expensive litigation, including discovery demands, depositions, motions and possibly a trial. Like most litigation, will contests usually end in a settlement. The disinherited relative often gets a share of the inheritance, even when the decedent didn’t want them to get anything.

For many families, a living trust is a better alternative. They also serve as disability planning, naming people who will manage the assets of the trust, in case of incapacity. They are private documents, so their information does not become public knowledge, like the details of a will.

A qualified estate planning attorney will help you determine what estate planning tools will work best to achieve your goals, while maintaining your privacy and ensuring that assets pass to heirs in a discrete manner.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Oct. 26, 2019) “Living trusts are better choice than wills”

It’s Like Going to the Dentist: You Need to Get Your Estate Plan Ready

This is one of those things that you know you should do, but you keep finding reasons not to. After all, says the article Estate planning: How to quit stalling and write your willfrom The Orange County Register, none of us likes to think about dying or what might occur that would require someone else to raise our children.

What do you need to get motivated and stop procrastinating?

Remember who you are creating a will for. Think of it as a love letter to those you leave behind. You want to provide specific instructions for the people you love about what you want to happen to your minor children, beloved pets and possessions. You are saving them the worries of trying to guess what you would have wanted, and the cost of having to pay attorneys to clean up a mess after you have died.

Legal visualization. Think about what will happen in the absence of a will. Without an estate plan, a court will decide who will raise your children. State law determines who inherits your possessions, and maybe the laws won’t follow your wishes. Every estate planning attorney has stories of people who die without planning. A spendthrift heir can easily spend a lifetime’s work in less than two years. A trust can be used to control how and when money is distributed.

Simple works. Don’t let the term “estate plan” throw you. A basic estate plan is not as complicated or as expensive as you might think. An experienced estate planning attorney will guide you through the process. You should also think about the short-term: what do you want to happen, if you die sometime in the next five years? You can always update the plan, if things change.

Give yourself a realistic timeline. Setting specific dates for tasks to be done and breaking the project out into smaller parts, can make this easier to address. Start by getting an appointment with an attorney on your calendar. Then, set a date to have a conversation with your family members about guardians, charities and other intentions for your legacy. That might take place around Thanksgiving, when families have extended time together. By December 1, clarify and confirm your documents, and get them signed before the holidays. You should also make sure to retitle any assets that are being moved into trusts.

If you were to start today, you could be done by New Year’s Day, 2020. Wouldn’t that feel great?

Reference: The Orange County Register (October 1, 2019) Estate planning: How to quit stalling and write your will

Americans Still Aren’t Planning for The After Life

Think Advisor reported on a survey conducted by a financial services firm that revealed good news and bad news about Americans and estate planning. In the article “Americans, Even Advisory Clients, Have a Big Estate Planning Problem: Survey,” the firm Edward Jones found that two-thirds of those with an advisor have not discussed estate goals and legacy plans. That’s the bad news. The good news is that 77% said estate and legacy strategies are important for everyone, not just wealthy individuals.

Most people do understand how a properly prepared estate plan puts them in control of what happens to the people that matter most to them, including minor children, their spouses and partners. It also indicates that they recognize how estate planning is necessary to protect themselves. That means having documents, like Power of Attorney and Medical Health Care Power of Attorney.

However, the recognition does not follow with the necessary steps to put a plan into place. That is the part that is worrisome.

Without a will, assets could be subject to the costly and time-consuming process of probate, where the entire will becomes a public document that anyone can look at. Nosy neighbors, creditors and relatives all having access to personal and financial information, is not something anyone wants to happen. However, by failing to plan, that’s exactly what happens.

The survey of 2,007 adults showed little sense of urgency to having legacy conversations. Only about a third of millennials and Gen Xers said they’d spoken with their advisors about the future. Surprisingly, only 38% of baby boomers had done so—and they are the generation most likely to need these plans in place in the immediate future.

Where do you start? Begin with the beneficiary designations. Check all investment accounts, bank accounts, insurance policies and retirement accounts. Most, if not all, of these financial documents should have a place to name a beneficiary, and some may permit a secondary beneficiary to be named. Make sure that you name a person you want to receive these assets, and that the person named is still in your life.

The beneficiary designation is more powerful than your will. The person named in the beneficiary designation will receive the asset, no matter what your will says. If you don’t want an ex to receive life insurance policy proceeds, make sure to check the names on your life insurance beneficiary designations.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan. If you haven’t updated your estate plan in three or four years, it’s time for an update. It’s equally important if you should become incapacitated and you want someone else to make financial and medical decisions on your behalf, to have up to date Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy forms.

Reference: Think Advisor (September 16, 2019) “Americans, Even Advisory Clients, Have a Big Estate Planning Problem: Survey”

 

How to Choose an Estate Planning Attorney

Estate planning is a critical part of financial planning, but it is something that many Americans prefer to procrastinate about. However, drafting a will, health care proxy, and power of attorney are too important to leave to chance, says Next Avenue in the article “How to Find a Good Estate Planner.” An experienced estate planning attorney can help prevent critical mistakes and help you adjust your plan as circumstances change.

Here are a few tips:

Look for an estate planning attorney. An attorney who practices real estate law is not going to be up on all of the latest changes to estate and tax laws.

Next, determine if the attorney deals with families who are in similar situations to yours. An attorney who works with family-owned businesses, for instances, will be more helpful in creating an estate plan that includes tax and succession planning.

Experience matters in this area of the law. The laws of your state are just one of the many parts that the attorney needs to know by heart. The estate planning attorney who has been practicing for many years, will have a better sense of how families work, what problems crop up and how to avoid them.

Ask about costs. Don’t be shy. You want to be clear from the start what you should expect to be spending on an estate plan. The attorney should be comfortable having this discussion with you and your spouse or family member. Remember that the attorney will be able to understand the scope of work, only after they speak with you about your situation. What may seem simple to you, may be more complicated than you think.

If a trust is added, the fees are likely to increase. A trust can be used to avoid or minimize estate taxes, avoid probate, save on time and court fees and create conditions for the distribution of assets after you die.

Don’t neglect to have the attorney create a Power of Attorney form and any other advance directives you need. These vary by state, and you don’t want them to get too old, or they may become out of date.

Recognize that this is an ongoing relationship. Make sure that you are comfortable with the attorney, how the practice is run and the people who work there—receptionist, paralegals and other associates at the firm are all people you may be working with at one point or another during the process. You will be sharing very personal information with the entire team, so be sure it’s a good fit.

This is also not a one-and-done event. Having an estate plan is a lot like having a home—it requires maintenance. Every four years or so, or when large events occur in your life, you’ll need to have your will reviewed.

Your estate planning attorney should become a trusted advisor who works hand in hand with your accountant and financial advisor. Together, they should all be looking out for you and your family.

Reference: Next Avenue (September 10, 2019) “How to Find a Good Estate Planner”

A Will is the Way to Have Your Wishes Followed

A will, also known as a last will and testament, is one of three documents that make up the foundation of an estate plan, according to The News Enterprises’ article “To ensure your wishes are followed, prepare a will.” As any estate planning attorney will tell you, the other two documents are the Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These three documents all serve different purposes, and work together to protect an individual and their family.

There are a few situations where people may think they don’t need a will, but not having one can create complications for the survivors.

First, when spouses with jointly owned property don’t have a will, it is because they know that when the first spouse dies, the surviving spouse will continue to own the property. However, with no will, the spouse might not be the first person to receive any property that is not jointly owned, like a car.  Even when all property is jointly owned—that means the title or deed to all and any property is in both person’s names –upon the death of the second spouse, a case will have to be brought to court through probate to transfer property to heirs.

Secondly, any individuals with beneficiary designations on accounts transfer to the beneficiaries on the owner’s death, with no court involvement. However, the same does not always work for POD, or payable on death accounts. A POD account only transfers the specific account or asset.

Other types of assets, such as real estate and vehicles not jointly owned, will have to go through probate. If the beneficiary named on any accounts has passed, their share will go into the estate, forcing distribution through probate.

Third, people who do not have a large amount of assets often believe they don’t need to have a will because there isn’t much to transfer. Here’s a problem: with no will, nothing can be transferred without court approval. Let’s say your estate brings a wrongful death lawsuit and wins several hundred thousand dollars in a settlement. The settlement goes to your estate, which now has to go through probate.

Fourth, there is a belief that having a power of attorney means that they can continue to pay the expenses of property and distribute property after the grantor dies. This is not so. A power of attorney expires on the death of the grantor. An agent under a power of attorney has no power, after the person dies.

Fifth, if a trust is created to transfer ownership of property outside of the estate, a will is necessary to funnel unfunded property into the trust upon the death of the grantor. Trusts are created individually for any number of purposes. They don’t all hold the same type of assets. Property that is never properly retitled, for instance, is not in the trust. This is a common error in estate planning. A will provides a way for property to get into the trust, upon the death of the grantor.

With no will and no estate plan, property may pass unintentionally to someone you never intended to give your life’s work to. Having a will lets the court know who should receive your property. The laws of your state will be used to determine who gets what in the absence of a will, and most are based on the laws of kinship. Speak with an estate planning attorney to create a will that reflects your wishes, and don’t wait to do so. Leaving yourself and your loved ones unprotected by a will, is not a welcome legacy for anyone.

Reference: The News Enterprise (September 22, 2019) “To ensure your wishes are followed, prepare a will.”

Do It Yourself Estate Planning Leads to Bad Outcomes

While the attraction of simplicity and low cost is appealing, the results are all too often disastrous, affirms Insurance News in the article “Mind Your Mouse Clicks: DIY Estate Planning War Stories.” The increasing number of glitches that estate planning attorneys are seeing after the fact has increased, as much as the number of people using online estate planning forms. For estate planning attorneys who are concerned about their clients and their families, the disasters are troubling.

A few clumsy mouse clicks can derail an estate plan and adversely affect the family. Here are five real life examples.

Details matter. One of the biggest and most routinely made mistakes in DIY estate planning goes hand-in-hand with simple wills, where both spouses want to leave everything to each other. Except this typical couple neglected something. See if you can figure out what they did wrong:

John’s will: I leave everything to my wife Phyllis.

Phyllis’ will: I leave everything to my wife Phyllis.

Unless John dies and Phyllis marries someone named Phyllis, this will is not going to work. It seems like a simple enough error, but the courts are not forgiving of errors.

Life insurance mistakes. Jeff owns a life insurance policy and has been using its cash value as a “rainy day” fund. He had intended to swap the life insurance into his irrevocable grantor trust in exchange for low-basis stock held in the trust. The swap would remove the life insurance from Jeff’s estate without exposure to the estate tax three-year rule, and the stock would receive a stepped-up basis at death, leading to tax savings on both sides of the swap.

However, Jeff had a stroke recently, and he’s incapacitated. He planned ahead though, or so he thought. He downloaded a free durable power of attorney form from a nonprofit that helps the elderly. The POA specifically included the power to change ownership of his life insurance.

Jeff put his name in the space designated for the POA. As a result, the insurance company won’t accept the form, and the swap isn’t going to happen.

Incomplete documents. Ellen created an online will leaving her entire probate estate to her husband. It was fast, cheap and she was delighted. However, she forgot to click on the space where the executor is named. The website address for the website company is the default information in the form, which is what was created when she completed the will. The court is not likely to appoint the website as her executor. Her heirs are stuck, unless she corrects this, hoping the court will understand. Hope is a terrible estate plan.

Letting the form define the estate plan. Single parent Joan has a 6-year-old son. Her will includes a standard trust for minors, providing income and principal for her son until he turns 21, at which point he inherits everything. Joan met with a life insurance advisor and applied for a $1 million convertible 20–year term life insurance policy. It will be payable to the trust. However, her son has autism, and receives government benefits. There are no special needs provisions in her will, so her son is at risk of losing any benefits, if and when he inherits the policy proceeds.

Don’t set it and forget it. One couple created online wills, when the estate tax exclusion was $2 million. They created a credit shelter, or bypass, trust to reduce their estate taxes, by allowing each of them to use their estate tax exclusion amount. However, the federal estate tax exclusion today is $11.4 million per person. With $4 million in separate assets and a $2 million life insurance policy payable to children from a previous marriage, the husband’s separate assets will go into the bypass trust. None of it will go to his wife.

An experienced estate planning attorney who is licensed to practice in your state is the best source for creating and updating estate plans, preparing for incapacity and ensuring that tax planning is done efficiently.

Reference: Insurance News Net (Sep. 9, 2019) “Mind Your Mouse Clicks: DIY Estate Planning War Stories”

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 Happens when Both Spouses Die at the Same Time?

There are any number of ways a person can inherit assets from another person. They may inherit assets from a trust, through a will or as a designated beneficiary of an insurance policy or retirement account. However, in each case, says Lake Country News in the article “Simultaneous and close together deaths,” the person inheriting the asset is living, while the person they inherited from has died.

What happens if spouses die either at the same exact time, or at a time that is very close to each other? The answer, as with so many estate planning questions, is that it depends.

The first question is, did both decedents have estate planning documents in place. If so, what directions do the wills give? Are there trusts, and if so, who are the trustees? If they served as trustees for each other’s trusts, did they name a secondary trustee?

If assets were owned as joint tenancy with right of survivorship, the estate of each deceased tenant receives an equal share of the asset, unless it can be proven that a joint tenant survived the other.

Here’s an example: if a parent dies without a will, is survived by two children, but one of the two children dies only four days after the parent’s death, i.e., fewer than 120 hours, in California, the law presumes that the deceased child did not survive the mother. The sole surviving child’s estate receives the entire parent’s intestate estate.

A beneficiary who survives long enough to inherit, however, might die before receiving complete distribution of his or her inheritance.

A trust may provide for distributions to alternative beneficiaries. This is another reason why it is wise to have primary and secondary beneficiaries on all accounts that permit secondary beneficiaries. Not all accounts permit this.

Similarly, a trust may provide for distribution to alternative beneficiaries. Otherwise, unless there has been advance planning, the undistributed inheritance becomes part of the deceased beneficiary’s estate, where it will be distributed either according to the beneficiary’s will, or according to the laws of intestacy of the decedent’s state of residence.

All of these instances are further reasons why it is so important for everyone to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared.

A probate of the beneficiary’s estate may be required, as a result of an undistributed inheritance.

The legal and factual analysis associated with the distribution of a couple who die at the same time or in close proximity to each other varies from case to case. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have an estate plan prepared to avoid your family having to unravel the knotty mess that is created when there is no will, and no estate planning has been done.

Reference: Lake Country News (Aug. 10, 2019) “Simultaneous and close together deaths”

What Goes into an Estate Plan?

The very idea of creating an estate plan can be intimidating, but this article from Brainerd Dispatch, “Navigating your estate plan,” wisely advises breaking down the process into smaller pieces, making it more manageable. By taking it step by step, it’s more likely that you’ll be comfortable getting started with the process.

Start with Beneficiaries. This may be the easiest way to start. If you have retirement accounts, like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s or other retirement accounts, chances are you have already written down the name of the person who you want to receive your assets, if you die. The same goes for life insurance policies. The beneficiary designation tells who receives the assets on your death. You should also note that there are tax ramifications, if you do not have a beneficiary. Your assets could become taxable five years after you die, without a named beneficiary.

Be aware that no matter what your will says, the name on your beneficiary designations on these accounts determines who gets the assets. You need to check on these to be sure the people you have named are still the people who you want to receive your accounts. You should review the designations every time you review your estate plan, which should be every three or four years.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way Forward. The will is a key document in your estate plan. It can be used to minimize taxes on your estate, ensure that your family has the management assistance they need, and, if you have minor children, establish who their guardians should be. Don’t neglect updating your will, whenever there is a big change to the law or changes in your life. Not having a will leaves your family in a terrible position, where they will have to endure unnecessary expenses and added stress. Your assets will be distributed according to the laws of your state, and not according to your own wishes.

Directives for Difficult Times Health care directives give your loved ones direction when a terrible situation occurs. If you become incapacitated, through an accident or serious illness, the health care directive tells your family members what kind of care you want—or do not want. You should also have a health care proxy, so that a person can make medical decisions on your behalf. An estate planning attorney who is licensed in your state will know what forms are accepted.

In addition, you’ll need a financial power of attorney. This allows you to designate someone to step in and manage your finances in the case of incapacity. This is especially important if you are single, because otherwise a court may name someone to be your financial guardian.

What About Trusts? If you own a lot of assets or if your estate is complicated, a trust may be helpful. Trusts are legal entities that hold assets on behalf of a beneficiary or beneficiaries. There are many different types of trusts that are used to serve different purposes, from Special Needs Trusts that are designed to help families plan for an individual with special needs, revocable trusts used to avoid probate and testamentary trusts, which are created only when you die. An estate planning attorney will know which trusts are appropriate for your individual situation.

Reference: Brainerd Dispatch (Aug. 11, 2019) “Navigating your estate plan”