How Can I Make Amendments to an Estate Plan?

If you want to make changes to your estate plan, don’t think you can just scratch out a line or two and add your initials. For most people, it’s not that simple, says the Lake County Record-Bee’s recent article “Amending estate planning documents.” If documents are not amended correctly, the resulting disappointment and costs can add up quickly.

If you live in California, for example, a trust can be amended using the method that is stated in the trust, or alternatively by using a document—but not the will—that is signed both by the settlor or the other person holding the power to revoke the trust and then delivered to the trustee. If the trust states that this method is not acceptable, then it cannot be used.

In a recent case, the deceased settlor made handwritten notes—he crossed out existing trust language and hand wrote his revisions to a recently executive amendment to his trust. Then he mailed this document, along with a signed post-it note stuck on the top of the document, to his attorney, requesting that his attorney draft an amendment.

Unfortunately, he died before the new revision could be signed. His close friend, the one he wanted to be the beneficiary of the change, argued that his handwritten comments, known as “interlineations,” were as effective as if his attorney had actually completed the revision and the document had been signed properly. He further argued that the post-it note that had a signature on it satisfied the requirement for a signature.

The court did not agree, not surprisingly. A trust document may not be changed, just by scribbling out a few lines and adding a few new lines without a signature. A post-it note signature is also not a legal document.

Had he signed and dated an attachment affirming each of his specific changes made to the trust, that might have been considered a legally binding amendment to his trust.

A better option would be going to the attorney’s office and having the documents prepared and executed.

What about changes to a will? Changing a will is done either through executing a codicil or creating and executing a new will that revokes the old will. A codicil is executed just the same way as a will: it is signed by the testator with at least two witnesses, although this varies from state to state. Your estate planning attorney will make sure that the law of your state is taken into consideration, when preparing your estate plan.

If you live in a state where handwritten or holographic wills are accepted, no witnesses are required and changes to the will can be made by the testator directly onto the original without a new signature or date. Be careful about a will like this, even if legal, it can lead to estate challenges and family battles.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you decide that your will needs to be changed. Having the documents properly executed in a timely manner ensures that your wishes will be followed.

Reference: Lake County Record-Bee (October 5, 2019) “Amending estate planning documents.”

 

How Can Beneficiary Designations Wreck My Estate Plan?

It’s not uncommon for the intent of an individual’s will and trust to be overridden by beneficiary designations that weren’t chosen carefully.

Some people think that naming a beneficiary should be a simple job and they try to do it themselves and others don’t want to bother their attorney with what seems like a straightforward issue.

Beneficiary designations are often used for life insurance and retirement benefits, but more frequently, they’re also being used for brokerage and bank accounts. People trying to avoid probate may name a “payable on death” beneficiary of an account. However, they don’t know that doing this may undermine their existing estate plan. It’s best to consult with your estate planning attorney to make certain that your named beneficiaries are consistent with your estate planning documents.

Wealth Advisor’s “7 Ways That Beneficiary Designations Can Mess Up Your Estate Plan” lists seven issues you need to think about, when making your beneficiary designations.

Cash. If your will leaves cash to various people or charities, you need to make certain that sufficient money comes into your estate so your executor can pay these gifts.

Estate tax liability. If assets do pass outside your estate to a named beneficiary, make certain there will be sufficient money in your estate and trust to pay your estate tax liability. If all your assets pass by beneficiary designation, your executor may not have enough money to pay the estate taxes that may be due at your death.

Protect your tax savings. If you have created trusts for estate tax purposes, make sure that sufficient assets flow into your trusts to maximize the estate tax savings. Designating individuals as beneficiaries instead of your trusts may defeat the purpose of your estate tax planning. If there aren’t enough assets in your trust, the estate tax provisions may not work. As a result, your heirs may eventually end up paying more in taxes.

Accurate records. Be sure the information you have on the change of beneficiary form is accurate. This is particularly important if the beneficiary is a trust—the trust name, trustee information and tax identification number all need to be right.

Spouses as beneficiaries. Many people name their spouse as the primary beneficiary of their life insurance policy, followed by their trust as the secondary beneficiary. However, this may defeat your estate planning, especially if you have children from a first marriage, or if you don’t want your spouse to control the assets. If your trust provides for your surviving spouse on your death, he or she will be taken care of from the trust.

No last minute changes. Some people change their beneficiary designations at the last minute, because they’re nervous about assets flowing into a trust. This could lead to increased estate tax payments and litigation from heirs who were left out.

Qualified accounts. Don’t name a trust as the beneficiary of qualified accounts, like an IRA, without consulting with your attorney. Trusts that receive such qualified money need to contain special provisions for income tax purposes.

Be sure that your beneficiary designations work with your estate planning, rather than against it. Make sure that you speak with your estate planning attorney before you make any changes to beneficiary designations.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (October 8, 2019) “7 Ways That Beneficiary Designations Can Mess Up Your Estate Plan”

 

How Do I Start Writing My Will?

Stopping procrastination on this important money chore can be hard.

Fox Business’ recent article, “How to quit stalling and write your will,” says that providing guidance on what you want to happen after your death—and who you want to care for minor children or pets—can be a wonderful gift to those you leave behind. You will also be saving them possible expense and stress.

There are some people who need to hear about a worst-case scenario, before they’ll act. This means that, for example, without an estate plan, a probate judge could wind up deciding who takes care of your children. That’s because you have no will with a named guardian. State probate law determines who inherits your assets, and the distribution may not be as you would have envisioned.

Getting a basic estate plan in place may not be as hard or expensive as you fear. That’s because it’s the attorney who does the work. An experienced estate planning attorney can counsel you, by identifying the questions you need to answer, so a comprehensive estate plan can be developed.

You should also think about what you’d want to happen if you died in the next few years, rather than trying to create an estate plan that covers all eventualities and possibilities. Remember, you can always update and change things at any point.

If you start it off, it’s on the books and you’ll feel like you’ve accomplished something. You also don’t have to face it for a while.

One expert suggests incremental deadlines.  Say that by the first of next month, you have the conversation about guardians, charities and other estate intentions. Then the next month on the first, you have the first meeting with an estate planning attorney and set up your estate plan.

These are baby steps.

Reference: Fox Business (October 2, 209) “How to quit stalling and write your will”

 

Be Prepared, Because The Future Comes Sooner Than You Think

When children are born, many people make sure to have their wills prepared so they can name a guardian in the event both parents die. Usually those documents are not reviewed, says the article “Preparations for the Future” from the Montevideo American-News, and this can lead to problems.

Legal and medical experts encourage people to review their estate planning documents from time to time to be sure that their wishes have not changed.

When people are diagnosed with a serious illness, they are also encouraged to examine their legal and healthcare documents. It’s also important to have plans in place for people diagnosed with dementia as soon as possible as long as that person is still deemed mentally competent to make these decisions for themselves.

According to the National Institute on Aging, advance planning should take place immediately after a diagnosis of early-stage Alzheimer’s, while the person can participate in discussions. People with early stage disease can often understand many aspects and consequences of legal decision making. However, as the disease progresses the ability to make decisions becomes difficult and the validity of the document may come into question.

Advance directives for healthcare documents that communicate healthcare wishes are just part of the legal documents that need to be created. Other documents include a Living Will, which records a person’s wishes for medical treatment, a Health Care Proxy for Healthcare, which designates a person to make healthcare decisions on your behalf and a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order.

Estate planning also needs to be done. An estate planning attorney can help the individual and the family create their plan for the future. There will need to be a Last Will and Testament created, as well as a Power of Attorney for finances, so someone can handle the financial aspect of their life.

A Living Trust may need to be created, to provide instructions about the person’s estate and appoint someone to hold title and property for the beneficiaries. It may be necessary for trusts to be created and funded to protect the family’s assets.

Having an estate planning attorney who has worked with patients suffering from Alzheimer’s and other forms of dementia will allow the family to focus on caregiving.

Reference: Montevideo American-News (September 25, 2019) “Preparations for the Future”

 

What Estate Planning Documents Should I Have for My Child Who’s at College?

Kiplinger’s recent article, “Documents that Parents and College Students Need,” explains that many parental rights are no longer applicable, when a child legally reaches adulthood (age 18 in most states).

However, with a few estate planning documents, you can still be involved in your child’s medical and financial affairs. Many parents don’t know that they need these documents. They think they can access a child’s medical and other information because their son or daughter is still on the family’s insurance plan and the parents are paying the medical and tuition bills.

Here are four documents you and your son or daughter will need.

HIPAA Authorization Form. This is a federal law that protects the privacy of medical records. You child must sign a HIPPA authorization form to let you to receive information from health care providers, such as the college’s health clinic, about their health and treatment. If your son or daughter doesn’t want to share her entire medical record, he or she can set restrictions on what information you can receive.

Medical Power of Attorney. This lets your son or daughter name a person to make medical decisions if they are incapacitated and unable to make medical decisions. Your child should select both a primary agent and a secondary agent in the event the first one is unavailable.

Durable Power of Attorney. This lets your son or daughter authorize a person to handle financial or legal matters on his or her behalf. A durable power of attorney is usually written so it takes effect when a person becomes incapacitated. However, if your child would like you to manage his or her financial accounts or file tax returns while away at school, they can make the document effective immediately.

Family Education Rights and Privacy Act Waiver. Once your child is an adult, you’re no longer entitled to see their grades without express permission. It seems a bit crazy that you can be paying for tuition but you don’t have access to their academic records. This waiver signed by your child will allow you permission to receive his or her academic record. Many colleges provide this form, or you can find it online.

You need to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to have these documents prepared correctly. One you get these documents make sure you have ready access to them, if required.

Reference: Kiplinger (September 24, 2019) “Documents that Parents and College Students Need”

 

How Do I Set Up a Living Trust?

For those who want to spare heirs the hassle and cost of the probate process, you may consider transferring your assets to a living trust.

Yahoo! Finance’s recent article, “How to Create a Living Trust in Tennessee” explains that creating a living trust is mostly the same, regardless of where you live in the U.S.

Let’s look at the basic steps you’ll need to take, with the help of a qualified estate planning attorney:

  1. List the assets that should go into the trust. There are some assets, such as 401(k) plans and IRAs, which must be in an individual’s name. Other items like bank accounts, securities and life insurance policies can but don’t need to provided you designate your beneficiaries. Usually real estate and business interests are shielded with living trusts.
  2. Select the right type of living trust. If you use a revocable trust, you can remove assets or cancel the trust. With an irrevocable trust, you don’t have this luxury. If you’re not married, you can create a single trust. If you’re married, a Tennessee Community Property Trust will hold what you own jointly without having to split property or say who owns what. However, this type of trust isn’t a good option, if you’re in a later marriage with separate assets and children from previous relationships.
  3. Name a trustee. The trustee will manage the trust. With revocable trusts, you can also be the trustee, or in the case of a joint trust, you and your spouse can be co-trustees. If you name yourself, name a successor trustee for when you pass away.
  4. Create a trust agreement. It’s best to hire an experienced estate planning attorney to create the trust, because it must be done correctly and legally. If the trust is found to be invalid, there may be penalties, taxes and added costs.
  5. Sign and notarize the trust document.
  6. Transfer property into the trust. The law states that the trust won’t be effective unless and until property is retitled in the name of the trust.

Trusts and their rules can be complicated. Use an experienced estate planning attorney to do it right.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (September 27, 2019) “How to Create a Living Trust in Tennessee”

 

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.”

 

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”

 

Do It Yourself Wills Go Wrong–Fast

What happens when a well-meaning person decides to create a will, after reading information from various sources on the internet? There’s no end of problems, as described in the Glen Rose Reporter’s article “Do-it-yourself estate plan goes awry.”

The woman started her plan by deeding her home to her three children retaining a life estate for herself.

By doing so, she has eliminated the possibility of either selling the house or taking out a reverse mortgage on the home, if she ever needs to tap its equity.

Since she is neither an estate planning attorney nor an accountant, she missed the tax issue completely.

By deeding the house, the transfer has caused a taxable transaction. Therefore, she needs to file a gift tax return because of it. At the same time, her life estate diminishes the value of the gift, and her estate is not large enough to require her to actually pay any tax.

She was puzzled to learn this, since there wasn’t any tax when her husband died and left his share of the house to her. That’s because the transfer of community property between spouses is not a taxable event.

However, that wasn’t the only tax issue to consider. When the house passed to her from her husband, she got a stepped-up basis meaning that since the house had appreciated in value since she bought it, she only had to pay taxes on the difference in the increased value at the time of her husband’s death and what she sold the property for.

By transferring the house to the children, they don’t get a stepped-up basis. This doesn’t apply to a gift made during one’s lifetime. When the children get ready to sell the home, the basis will be the value that was established at the time of her husband’s death, even if the property increased in value by the time of the mother’s death. The children will have to pay tax on the difference between that value, which is likely to be quite lower, and the sale price of the house.

There are many overlapping issues that go into creating an estate plan. The average person who doesn’t handle estate planning on a regular basis (and even an attorney who does not handle estate planning on a regular basis), doesn’t know how one fact can impact another.

Sitting down with an experienced estate planning attorney, who understands the tax issues surrounding estate planning, gifting, real estate, and inheritances, will protect the value of the assets being passed to the next generation and protect the family. It’s money well spent.

Reference: Glen Rose Reporter (September 17, 2019) “Do-it-yourself estate plan goes awry”