Should I Use a DIY Will?

Sure, many of us would prefer to fill in the blanks in private, than have to talk to anyone about our questions. However, it’s better to get professional advice.

MarketWatch’s recent article, “Online wills may save you money, but they can lay these estate-planning traps,” says that if you prepare your taxes yourself and you make a mistake, you may need to meet with the IRS. However, you may never know the results of your work when it comes to a DIY will. Who will be the ones to find out if you made any mistakes, and need to pay the price? Your family.

You can find many DIY options for completing your own estate plan. With the ease and availability of these programs, along with lower prices, one would think more of us would have an up-to-date estate plan. According to the AARP article, Haven’t Done a Will Yet?, only 4 in 10 American adults have a will or living trust.

The four basic estate planning documents are a will, a trust, power of attorney for financial matters and an advance health care directive. If you try to produce any or all of them through a DIY site, expect to be offered a fill-in-the-blank approach. However, each state has its own probate code and the program you use may have different names for the documents. They also may not address state-specific questions.

Some DIY sites have all these documents, but you must buy their higher-end packages to access them. Others offer what they call a “limited attorney consultation” in the form of a drop-down menu of questions with pre-written responses, not an actual conversation with an attorney.

The range of DIY services also has a range of prices. Some claim it’s $69 for just a will, and others charge hundreds of dollars for what may be described as a “complete plan.” Some sites have more information than others about their options, so you must dig through the website to be certain you’re getting a legally binding will or other estate planning document. It is important to read the fine print with care.

Most of these websites presume you already know what you want, but most people have no idea what they want or need. When you get into the complexities of family dynamics and trust language specific to your state and situation, these DIY estate planning packages can cause more challenges than working with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Remember: you don’t know what you don’t know. You may not know the case law and legislation that have evolved into your state’s probate code.

Play it safe and use an attorney who specializes in estate planning. Your family will be grateful that you did.

Reference: MarketWatch (May 3, 2019) “Online wills may save you money, but they can lay these estate-planning traps”

 

Estate Planning Hacks Create More Problems

The estate planning attorney in this gentleman’s neighborhood isn’t worried about this rancher’s plan to avoid the “courtroom mumbo jumbo.” It’s not the first time someone thought they could make a short-cut work, and it won’t be the last. However, as described in the article “Estate planning workaround idea needs work” from My San Antonio, the problems this rancher will create for himself, his wife, and his children, will easily eclipse any savings in time or fees he thinks he may have avoided.

Let’s start with the idea of putting all the man’s assets in his wife’s name. For starters, that means she has complete control and access to all the accounts. Even if the accounts began as community property, once they are in her name only, she is the sole manager of these accounts.

If the husband dies first, she will not have to go into probate court. That is true. However, if she dies first, the husband will need to go to probate court to access and claim the accounts. If the marriage goes sour, it’s not likely that she’ll be in a big hurry to return access to everything.

Another solution: set the accounts up as joint accounts with right of survivorship. The bank would have to specify that when spouse dies, the other owns the accounts. However, that’s just one facet of this estate planning hack.

The next proposal is to put the ranch into the adult children’s names. Gifting the ranch to children has a number of irreversible consequences.

First, the children will all be co-owners. Each one of them will have full legal control. What if they don’t agree on something? How will they break an impasse? Will they run the ranch by majority rule? What if they don’t want to honor any of the parent’s requests or ideas for running the ranch?  In addition, if one of them dies, their spouse or their child will inherit their share of the farm. If they divorce, will their future ex-spouse retain ownership of their shares of the ranch?

Second, you can’t gift the ranch and still be an owner. The husband and wife will no longer own the ranch. If they don’t agree with the kid’s plans for the ranch, they can be evicted. After all, the parents gave them the ranch.

Third, the transfer of the ranch to the children is a gift. There will be a federal gift tax return form to be filed. Depending on the value of the ranch, the parents may have to pay gift tax to the IRS.  Because the children have become owners of the ranch by virtue of a gift, they receive the tax-saving “free step-up in basis.” If they sell the ranch (and they have that right), they will get hit with capital gains taxes that will cost a lot more than the cost of an estate plan with an estate planning attorney and the “courtroom mumbo jumbo.”

Finally, the ranch is not the children’s homestead. If it has been gifted it to them, it’s not the parent’s homestead either. Therefore, they can expect an increase in the local property taxes. Those taxes will also be due every year for the rest of the parent’s life and again, will cost more over time than the cost of creating a proper estate plan. Since the ranch is not a homestead, it is subject to a creditor’s claim, if any of the new owners—those children —have a financial problem.

We haven’t even mentioned the family business succession plan, which takes a while to create and complements the estate plan. Both plans exist to protect the current owners and their heirs. If the goal is to keep the ranch in the family and have the next generation take the reins, everyone concerned be better served by sitting down with an estate planning attorney and discussing the many different ways to make this happen.

Reference: My San Antonio (April 29, 2019) “Estate planning workaround idea needs work”

 

Communicate Your Wishes and Have the Documents in Place

Without a will or other estate planning documents, your property is distributed according to the law of intestate succession in the state where you live at the time of your death. That means any wishes you might have as to how your assets are distributed will not be considered, says the article “Make Your Wishes Known” from the Concord Monitor.

If you want to have a say in what happens to your property, including financial accounts and personal items, you need a will. However, that’s not the only document you need. Here’s a list of the documents that are part of an estate plan.

Last will and testament. This transfers property through the probate process. It ensures that you get to tell others how you want your assets distributed. It may include naming a guardian to be responsible for a minor or incapacitated heir’s personal care and assets.

If you have minor children, you may wish to include a testamentary trust so assets can be managed, and their distribution controlled. If your family includes an individual with special needs, you’ll want a Special Needs Trust (SNT), so they do not lose their eligibility for government benefits.

There are many different types of trusts, and they serve different purposes.

Revocable Trust. This can distribute property without going through probate. It also preserves privacy, since documents do not become public. To avoid probate, the trust must be funded during your lifetime, by changing the title on assets from your name to the name of your revocable trust. That may include bank and investment accounts, personal property and real estate. Income, dividends, gains and losses continue to be reported on your tax returns, while you are living.

If you own a business, talk with your estate planning attorney about whether the ownership of the business should be transferred to a trust.

Married couples should speak with their estate planning attorney about having a joint trust together, or if they should each have separate trusts for estate tax planning, creditor protection, protecting children from prior marriages, or ensuring the continuation of a family business.

You may need a pour-over will with your revocable trust, so assets may be transferred into the revocable trust that are outside of the trust at the time of your death. Your estate planning attorney will be able to discuss this in detail, to see if it is a good option.

Joint ownership. If assets are owned in joint tenancy, property automatically transfers upon death to the surviving joint owner. It is not affected by your will and is a way to avoid probate. However, there may be a loss of control and there may be gift, estate, or income tax consequences.

Beneficiary designations. Life insurance, retirement assets, annuities and other Pay on Death accounts all have a person named to receive the asset upon the death of the owner. Every asset you own with a beneficiary designation should be checked every few years to make sure the right person is set to receive the asset. The beneficiary designation supersedes anything written in your will. There should always be a primary and a secondary beneficiary named, just in case the primary predeceases you or does not want to accept the asset.

Power of Attorney. Everyone should have a Power of Attorney, in the event of incapacity. This permits someone to act as your agent in any financial matters. There is also the Health Care Power of Attorney, which gives another person the authority to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are not able to communicate your wishes.

All these documents should be the foundation of your estate plan. Each person’s situation is different, but an experienced estate planning attorney will help determine what you need.

Reference: Concord Monitor (April 22, 2019) “Make Your Wishes Known”

 

Singles Need Two Key Documents, No Matter How Young

 

A woman is shopping, when suddenly she is struck by abdominal pains that are so severe she passes out in the store. When she comes to, an EMT is asking her questions. One of those questions is “Do you have a living will or a medical power of attorney?” That was a wake-up call for her and should be for other singles also, says Morningstar in the article “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider.”

People who don’t have children or a married spouse, often think they don’t need any kind of estate plan. However, the truth is, they do. For singles, power of attorney, medical power of attorney and a living will are especially important.

What is a Living Will? A living will is sometimes called an advance medical directive. It details your wishes, if you are in a situation where life-sustaining treatment is the only way to keep you alive. Would you want to remain on a respirator, have a feeding tube or have other extreme measures used? It’s not pleasant to think about. However, this is an opportunity for you to make this decision on your own behalf, for a possible future date when you won’t be able to convey your wishes. Some people want to stay alive, no matter what. Others would prefer to turn off any artificial means of life support.

This spares your loved ones from having to guess about what you might like to have happen.

What is a Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare? This is a legal document that gives a person you name the ability to make decisions about healthcare for you, if you can’t. To some people, this matters more than a living will, because the durable power of attorney for healthcare can convey your wishes in situations, where you are not terminally ill, but incapacitated.

Find someone you trust, whose judgment you respect and have a long, serious talk with them. Talk about your preferences for blood transfusions, organ transplants, disclosure about your medical records and more. Doctors have a hard time when a group of relatives and friends are all trying to help, if there is no one person who has been named as your power of attorney for healthcare.

What else does a single person need? The documents listed above are just part of an estate plan, not the whole thing. A single person should have a will, so that they can determine who they want to receive their assets upon death. They should also check on their beneficiary designations from time to time, so any insurance policies, investment accounts, retirement accounts, and any other assets that allow beneficiary designations are going to the correct person. Some accounts also do not permit non-spouses as beneficiaries. As unfair as this is, it does exist.

The takeaway here is that to protect yourself in a health care emergency situation, you should have these documents in place. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney. This is not a complicated matter, but it is an important one.

Reference: Morningstar (April 23, 2019) “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider”

 

Should I Leave an Inheritance to My Kids?

Some retirees make a big mistake and give their retirement savings away without considering their own income needs. Before you make gifts to others, take a look at how much to spend on yourself. Determine how much you need to save and how much you can withdraw each year, when you retire.

Investopedia’s article, “Challenges in Leaving Inheritance to Children,” says to consider the effect of inflation and taxes and maintain a diversified portfolio of growth and income investments to help your portfolio keep pace with inflation.

The biggest unknowns with retirement income and children’s inheritance are unexpected illness and high healthcare costs. Government programs are frequently not helpful in paying for nursing homes and other forms of long-term medical care. Medicare covers nursing home stays for a very limited period. Medicaid mandates that you spend nearly all of your own money, before it will pay for long-term care. You can’t just move assets to family members to qualify for Medicaid, because the program restricts benefits, if asset transfers were made within five years prior to applying for Medicaid. The rules are tricky, when it comes to eligibility.

You can protect your assets from the costs of catastrophic illness with a long-term care insurance policy. However, these policies can be very expensive and have coverage limitations. Consider them carefully.

What happens if you outlive your retirement funds? With longer life expectancies, it’s crucial to try to manage retirement-plan withdrawals, so you do not deplete all of your assets during your lifetime.

You could purchase an immediate annuity with some retirement money to ensure a guaranteed amount, for at least as long as you live. Some pension and retirement plans may allow you to stretch payments over single or joint life expectancies, rather than receive the proceeds as a lump sum.

If you expect to inherit assets from your parents, you may be in a better position financially than someone who doesn’t expect to receive an inheritance. Note that certain inherited assets, like stocks and mutual funds, are eligible for a favorable tax treatment called a step-up in basis. If you are leaving assets to others, this could mean significant savings for heirs.

You may also want to set up a trust to control distributions from the estate to the surviving spouse and children. If you or your spouse have children from previous relationships but don’t have a prenuptial agreement, trusts can ensure that specific assets are passed to designated children.

You may share your wealth with others by gifting assets, creating a trust, deferring income or purchasing life insurance or tax-deferred variable annuities.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney  to determine the best options for your circumstances.

Reference: Investopedia (November 26, 2018) “Challenges in Leaving Inheritance to Children”

 

An Estate Plan Directs Assets According to Your Wishes

Anyone who has any assets they want distributed should have an estate plan, regardless of the size of their estate. Having a will and an estate plan created by an experienced estate planning attorney is the easiest place to start, says the Observer-Reporter in the article “Set up an estate plan so your assets go where you want.” Without a will, the state will decide what happens to your assets, and it may not be what you wanted.

If your will was done more than four years ago and was never updated, it may lead to some unwanted results. If people you named as beneficiaries or executors have died, or if there were divorces in your family, these are examples of changes that should be addressed in the estate plan.

Many people don’t know that insurance policies, annuities, 401(k), or IRA accounts that have a designated beneficiary are going to the designated beneficiary, regardless of what is in the will. If the will says everything in the estate should be divided equally between children, but one child was named the beneficiary on the life insurance policy, then only the named child will inherit the insurance policy.

Another part of an estate plan that is needed to ensure that your wishes are followed, is a financial power of attorney and a health care power of attorney. The financial power of attorney gives the person you name the legal ability to make financial decisions for you, if you are incapacitated. The health care power of attorney, similarly, gives the person you name the power to make health care decisions for you, if you cannot do so for yourself. A living will is another part of planning for incapacity that is a part of a comprehensive estate plan. The living will lets your wishes for end of life care be known to others.

Assets that pass to heirs through beneficiary designations do not go through the probate process. However, assets distributed through your will do so. Probate administration of an estate takes some time to complete, depending upon where you live. In some states, probate is more involved and time consuming than in others.

Another reason why people like to avoid probate is that documents, including your will, are filed with the court and become part of the public record. That’s why many people who lose a family member find themselves receiving direct mail and phone calls about buying insurance policy or selling their home.

There are ways to minimize the number of assets that pass through probate, which your estate planning attorney will be able to explain. Trusts are used for this purpose. There are a variety of trusts that can be used, depending upon your circumstances. Some are used to protect inheritances, if a person has an opiate addiction or cannot manage her own affairs. Others are used, so individuals with special needs do not receive inheritances that would make them ineligible for government benefits.

An experienced estate planning attorney can advise you in creating an estate plan that fits your unique circumstances.

Reference: Observer-Reporter (April 19, 2019) “Set up an estate plan so your assets go where you want”

 

Property Transfers and Gift Taxes: Estate Planning Basics

As we age, our needs change. That includes our needs for the property that we own. For one person, the family home was rented to the daughter and her spouse as a “rent-to-own” property. This is generous, since it gives the daughter an opportunity to build equity in a home. The parent had questions about what kind of a deed would be needed for this transaction, and if any gift taxes need to be paid on the gift of the house and a separate parcel of land. The answers are presented in the article “Dealing with property transfers and gift taxes” from Chicago Tribune.

For starters, there are tax advantages while the person is living, since the home is an investment for the owner, as described above. On the day that the home is deeded over to the daughter, she will own the home at the cost basis of the parent. Here is why. The IRS defines the “cost basis” of a real estate property as the price that the owner paid for it, plus the cost of purchase and any fees associated with the sale plus the cost of any new materials or structural improvements.

When you give someone a home, they receive it at the price that was paid for it plus these costs.

Let’s say this person paid $50,000 for the family home, and it’s now worth $100,000. If you give the home to a family member, it’s as if she paid $50,000 for it, not $100,000. There may be tax consequences when she goes to sell it, but that’s in the distant future.

It’s different if the home is inherited. In that case, if the house was valued at $100,000 on the date that the owner died, the heir’s cost basis would be $100,000. However, if the heir sold the property on the exact same day (this is an unlikely scenario), there would be no tax owed on the sale for the heir.

This is a very simplified explanation of how a home can be passed from one generation to the next. It would be best to speak with a good estate planning attorney, who can evaluate all the factors, since every situation is different. One suggestion might be to put the property into a living trust, in which case the daughter will still pay rent to the parent, but then would inherit the property when the parent died.

The estate planning attorney could use the same living trust for the separate parcel of land. Once the home and the land are deeded into the living trust, the owner can state her wishes for how the properties are to be used.

As for the question of gift taxes, anyone can give anyone else $15,000 per year, with no need to file any forms with the IRS or pay any taxes. If you give someone more than $15,000 in one year, the IRS requires a gift tax form with the federal income tax return.

A meeting with an estate planning attorney is the best way to ensure that the transfer of a family home to a family member is handled correctly and that there are no surprises.

Reference: Chicago Tribune (April 23, 2019) “Dealing with property transfers and gift taxes”

 

Why Do Singles Need These Two Estate Planning Tools?

Morningstar’s article, “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider” explains that a living will or advance medical directive, are legal documents that detail your wishes for life-sustaining treatment. They are documents that you sign when you are of sound mind and say you want to be removed from life supporting measures, if you become terminally ill and incapacitated.

If you’re on life support with no chance of getting better, you’d choose to have your family avoid the expense and stress of keeping you alive artificially.

Like a living will, a durable power of attorney for healthcare is a legal document that names an agent to make healthcare decisions for you, if you are unable to make them yourself.

A durable power of attorney for healthcare can provide your instructions in circumstances in which you’re not necessarily terminally ill, but you are incapacitated.

When selecting an agent, find a person you trust enough to act on your behalf when you’re unable. Let this person know exactly how you feel about blood transfusions, organ transplants, disclosure of your medical information and other sensitive topics that may arise, if you’re incapacitated.

A durable power of attorney eliminates any confusion, especially if this person is someone other than your spouse. Your doctors will know exactly who the decision-maker is among your relatives and friends.

These two documents aren’t all that comprise a fully comprehensive estate plan. Singles should regularly make certain that the beneficiary designations on their checking and retirement accounts are up to date.

You should also consider your life insurance needs, especially if you have children and/or a mortgage.

It is also important to understand that a living will doesn’t address the issues of a will. A will ensures that your property is distributed after your death, in accordance with your wishes. Ask for help from an experienced estate planning attorney.

These two documents—a living will and a durable power of attorney—can help ensure that in a healthcare emergency, any medical and financial decisions made on your behalf are in accordance with what you really want. Speak with to an estate planning attorney in your state to get definitive answers to your questions.

Reference: Morningstar (April 23, 2019) “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider”

 

What Are the Six Most Frequent Estate Planning Mistakes?

it is a grim topic, but it is an important one. Without a legal will in place, your loved ones may spend years stuck in court proceedings and spend a lot in legal fees to settle your estate.

The San Diego Tribune writes in its recent article, 6 estate-planning mistakes to avoid, that without a plan, everything is more stressful and expensive. Let’s look at the top six estate planning mistakes that people need to avoid:

No Plan. Regardless of your age or financial status, it’s critical to have a basic estate plan. This includes crafting powers of attorney for both healthcare and finances and a living will.

No Discussion. Once you create your plan, tell your family. Those you’ve named to take care of you, need to know what you’ve decided and where to find your plan.

Focusing Only on Taxes. Estate planning can be much more than just about tax avoidance. There are many other reasons to create an estate plan that have nothing to do with taxes, like charitable giving, special needs planning for a family member, succession planning in the event of incapacity and planning for children of a prior marriage, to name just a few.

Leaving Assets Directly to Children. If you leave assets directly to your children or grandchildren under age 18, it can cause unintended custodian or guardianship issues. Minors can’t own legal property, so a guardian will be appointed by the court to manage the property for them, until they reach age 18. If you don’t name a guardian, the court will appoint one for you and that person may have very different ideas about how the account should be managed and invested.

Making Mistakes with Ownership and Property Titles. With many blended families, you may want to preserve assets from an inheritance as your own separate property or from a prior marriage for your children. There are many tax consequences and control issues in blended families about which you may not be aware.

Messing Up Your Trust. Many people don’t properly fund or update their trusts. An unfunded trust doesn’t do anyone any good. Assets that aren’t titled in the name of the trust don’t avoid probate.

Finally, be sure to review your estate plan regularly, and make an appointment with a local, experienced estate planning attorney  as your circumstances change.

Reference: San Diego Tribune (April 18, 2019) “6 estate-planning mistakes to avoid”

 

What Are the Five “Must Have” Estate Planning Documents?

WTHR 13’s recent article, “The 5 legal documents every adult should have” lists the five key documents involved in estate planning.

  1. General Durable Power of Attorney. This document states who you want to make decisions, if you’re unable to do so for yourself. Without it, your family may have to petition the courts to become your legal guardian, which can be time consuming and expensive. A power of attorney allows the person whom you select, to pay your mortgage or rent and your bills.
  2. Health Care Power of Attorney. This document plans for the situation, if you are unable to make your own health care decisions. You name someone you trust, like family members or friends, to do this on your behalf.
  3. Will. This says that when you pass away, here’s what I want to happen. A will states who will get your assets after your death. If you don’t have a valid will in place, the state laws of intestacy will govern what will happen to your estate—which may not be what you want.
  4. Living Will. This is the document in which you state your instructions for end-of-life care, such as life support. This document is used to make certain that your family and physicians know what you want your end-of-life care to be. A living will is much different than a will.
  5. Revocable Living Trust. This document can be important, if you’re a parent with young children and would like your assets passed down properly to your children, if you die. Typically, if children are under 18 or 21, they’re legally minors and can’t receive assets. A trust can help coordinate their receiving your property.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help you with the creation of these documents, while creating an overall plan so that your wishes are followed, your legacy is protected and your family is secure.

Reference: WTHR 13 (April 17, 2019) “The 5 legal documents every adult should have”