Why Everyone Needs an Estate Plan

Financial planners know that most people need to have estate plans, no matter how much or even how little money they have, as explained in this recent article “I’m a financial planner, and there are 3 reasons everyone needs an estate plan no matter how much money you have” from Business Insider. An estate plan includes healthcare directives and identifies guardians for minor children in the event you and your spouse die unexpectedly. It also can be created to avoid your family from having to go through probate court.  Skipping this part of your overall financial and legal life could put you, your assets and your family members at risk. Estate planning is done to protect you and your loved ones. That’s just one reason why everyone needs an estate plan. Having an estate plan protects you while you are living.

An estate plan is more than just a will or a trust. The two most common tools in an estate plan are a will and trust, but that’s just the beginning. A will or last will and testament is the document that provides the instructions for your heirs and beneficiaries to follow after you die. Trusts are used to protect assets and enforce your wishes, after you’re gone. However, a good estate plan should also include these documents:

  • An advance healthcare directive or healthcare proxy. These documents stipulate how you want to be treated, if you are alive but so sick or injured that you can’t provide directions. You may want to have a Do Not Resuscitate Order (DNR).
  • Powers of attorney. This legal document outlines who can represent you in legal, medical or financial matters, if you are not able to do so. An experienced estate planning attorney can prepare one for you.
  • The right documents help avoid probate court. If you don’t have a will, any property or possessions must go through the probate system. Your documents and information about your assets become part of the public record and can be seen by anyone. Going through probate opens the door to litigation and disputes, which can further delay settling your estate. Having a will and the proper trusts gives clarity to heirs about what you want.

An estate plan protects your children. If you don’t have a will, a court names the guardian who will raise your children. Instead, decide who you would want. Make sure the person you want to care for your children will accept this responsibility. Trusts are a way to preserve assets for your children. The trust is managed by a trustee after you die and can stipulate specific rules and uses for the assets. For instance, you can provide a certain amount of money for the children, until they reach age 18. At that point, your trust could instruct the trustee to use the money for college expenses. You can be as specific as you wish.

Meet with an estate planning attorney familiar with the laws of your state. An estate planning attorney will know the estate and tax laws that apply to you and your family.

Reference: Business Insider (June 12, 2020) “I’m a financial planner, and there are 3 reasons everyone needs an estate plan no matter how much money you have”

 

Are People Avoiding Estate Planning in the Pandemic?

A survey by Quest Research Group in the wake of COVID-19 wanted to see how prepared people would be if something were to happen to them. They asked 1,000 people how much planning they’d done in the past and if the pandemic encouraged them to start planning now.

Forbes’ June article entitled “The Three Reasons People Avoid Estate Planning” says that with all the uncertainty in the world, the study reveals that people are taking action even though it’s something people typically try to avoid. Why do people avoid it? The article narrows it down to the three most common excuses:

  • I’m much too busy. I can barely keep up with my life as it is.
  • It’s complicated and/or expensive.
  • I’m just too superstitious. I’ll just jinx my life by thinking about death.

All of these excuses are followed by a sentiment such as “I know it’s something I should do” and “I’ll get around to it one day.” No matter how it’s said, people just don’t feel that it is urgent.

First, are those who are superstitious and think doing this somehow curse their life. However, people buy car seats for their children, and no one refuses to buy a car seat because they think it would make them more susceptible to an accident. Instead, you buy one, because you’re a responsible adult who cares for your child.  The other two excuses are similar, because when people say that planning is a time consuming or expensive task, they’re automatically too busy or frugal to even consider taking on such a task. Then we do all that we can to procrastinate.

To address these excuses, here are some things you can do right now at little or no expense that can help your family, if there’s an emergency. It will also make you feel more responsible for your life in the same way parents do when they purchase car seats.

Password Sharing. Passwords are the keys to modern estate planning. To have access to your accounts in the event of an emergency, someone you trust should have access to your passwords. There are password managers, like Dashlane or LastPass, which coordinate all your passwords, so you only have to remember one. You can later share it.

Draft a Medical Directive. This document instructs your family what you want done in a medical emergency (Living Will) and who should speak on your behalf, if you’re unable to communicate (Health Care Proxy). These make up an Advance Directive.

Create a Will and a Power of Attorney. A will is the document that instructs your executor how to distribute your assets. A will also names a guardian for any minor children. A Power of Attorney (POA) is like a Health Care Proxy for your money and lets an agent make financial and legal decisions on your behalf when you are unable.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you create these to avoid any issues down the road.

Reference: Forbes (June 24, 2020) “The Three Reasons People Avoid Estate Planning”

 

Estate Planning and Probate Planning

The nature of the probate process varies from state to state and even varies from county to county. However, the nature of the process is the same. A court has to validate a will to ensure that it meets the legal requirements of the state before assets can be distributed, explains the article “Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money” from the Baker City Herald. A typical will in some states can take nine to twelve months and court shutdowns related to COVID-19 means that the wait could be longer. Probate is also expensive.

When does probate make sense? When a person dies with a lot of debt, probate can be helpful by limiting the amount of time creditors have to make their claims against the estate. If there’s not enough to pay everyone, the probate court makes the decision about how much each creditor gets. Without probate, creditors may surface long after assets have been distributed and depending upon the amount owed, may sue heirs or the executor.

The court supervision provided by probate can be helpful if there are any concerns about the instructions in the will not being carried out. However, the will and the details of the estate become public which is bad not just for privacy reasons. If there are any greedy or litigation-happy family members, they’ll be able to see how assets were distributed. All assets, debts and costs paid by the estate are disclosed and the court approves each distribution. This much oversight can be protective in some situations.

What’s the alternative? Some states have simplified probate for smaller estates, which can reduce the time and cost of probate. However, it varies by state. In Delaware, it is estates worth no more than $30,000, but in Seattle, small means estates valued at $275,000 or less.  These limits don’t include assets that go directly to heirs, like accounts with beneficiaries or jointly owned assets. Most retirement funds and life insurance policies have named beneficiaries. The same is often true for bank and investment accounts. Just remember not to name your estate as a beneficiary, which defeats the purpose of having a beneficiary.

Are there any other ways to avoid probate? Here’s where trusts come in. Trusts are legal documents that allow you to place your assets into ownership by the trust. A living trust takes effect while you are still alive, and you can be a trustee. Once created, property needs to be transferred into the trust, which requires managing details: changing titles and deeds and account names. This type of trust is revocable, which means you can change it any time. As a trustee, you have complete control over the property. A successor trustee is named to take over, if you die or become incapacitated.

An experienced estate planning attorney will know other legal strategies to avoid probate for part or all of your estate.

Reference: Baker City Herald (July 16, 2020) “Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money”

 

What Happens When a Will Is Challenged?

What happens when estate planning doesn’t go according to plan? A last will and testament is a legally binding contract that determines who will get a person’s assets. However, according to the article “Can you prevent someone from challenging your will?” in the Augusta Free Press, it is possible for someone to bring a legal challenge and what happens when a Will is challenged?

Most will contests are centered around five key reasons:

  • The deceased had a more recent will.
  • The will was not signed voluntarily.
  • The deceased was incapacitated, when she signed the will.
  • The will was not signed in front of the right number of witnesses.
  • The will was signed under some kind of duress or mental impairment.

What is the best way to lessen the chances of someone challenging your will? Take certain steps when the will is created, including:

Be sure your will is created by an estate planning attorney. Just writing your wishes on a piece of paper and signing and dating the paper is not the way to go. Certain qualifications must be met, which they vary by state. In some states, one witness is enough for a will to be properly executed. In others, there must be two and they can’t be beneficiaries.

The will must state the names of the intended beneficiaries. If you want someone specific to be excluded, you’ll have to state their name and that you want them to be excluded. A will should also name a guardian, if your children are minors.  It should also contain the name of an alternate executor, in case the primary executor predeceases you or cannot serve.

What about video wills? First, make a proper paper will. If you feel the need to be creative, make a video. In many states, a video will is not considered to be valid. A video can also become confusing especially if what you say in the paper will is not exactly the same as what’s in the video. Discrepancies can lead to will contests.

Don’t count on those free templates. Downloading a form from a website seems like a simple solution but some of the templates online are not up to date. They also might not reflect the laws in your state. If you own property, or your estate is complex, a downloaded form could create confusion and lead to family battles.

Tell your executor where your will is kept. If no one can find your will, people you may have wanted to exclude from your estate will have a better chance of succeeding in a will challenge. You should also tell your executor about any trusts, insurance policies and any assets that are not listed in the will and discuss these items with you estate planning attorney.

Don’t expect that everything will go as you planned. Prepare for things to go sideways, to protect your loved ones. It is costly, time-consuming and stressful to bring an estate challenge, but the same is true on the receiving end. If you want your beneficiaries to receive the assets you intend for them, a good estate planning attorney is the right way to go.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (July 12, 2020) “Can you prevent someone from challenging your will?”

 

That Last Step: Trust Funding

Neglecting to fund trusts is a surprisingly common mistake and one that can undo the best estate and tax plans. Many people put it on the back burner, then forget about it, says the article “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” from Forbes.

Done properly, trust funding helps avoid probate, provides for you and your family in the event of incapacity and helps save on estate taxes.

Creating a revocable trust gives you control. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust while you are living including funding. Think of a trust like an empty box—you can put assets in it now, or after you pass. If you transfer assets to the trust now, however, your executor won’t have to do it when you die.

Note that if you don’t put assets in the trust while you are living, those assets will go through the probate process. While the executor will have the authority to transfer assets, they’ll have to get court approval. That takes time and costs money. It is best to do it while you are living.

A trust helps if you become incapacitated. You may be managing the trust while you are living, but what happens if you die or become too sick to manage your own affairs? If the trust is funded and a successor trustee has been named, the successor trustee will be able to manage your assets and take care of you and your family. If the successor trustee has control of an empty, unfunded trust, a conservatorship may need to be appointed by the court to oversee assets.

There’s a tax benefit to trusts. For married people, trusts are often created that contain provisions for estate tax savings that defer estate taxes until the death of the second spouse. Income is provided to the surviving spouse and access to the principal during their lifetime. The children are usually the ultimate beneficiaries. However, the trust won’t work if it’s empty.

Depending on where you live, a trust may benefit you with regard to state estate taxes. Putting money in the trust takes it out of your taxable estate. You’ll need to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that the assets are properly structured. For instance, if your assets are owned jointly with your spouse, they will not pass into a trust at your death and won’t be outside of your taxable estate.

Move the right assets to the right trust. It’s very important that any assets you transfer to the trust are aligned with your estate plan. Taxable brokerage accounts, bank accounts and real estate are usually transferred into a trust. Some tangible assets may be transferred into the trust, as well as any stocks from a family business or interests in a limited liability company. Your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and insurance broker should be consulted to avoid making expensive mistakes.

You’ve worked hard to accumulate assets and protecting them with a trust is a good idea. Just don’t forget the final step of funding the trust.

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”