What Do I Look for in a Trustee?

The trustee is tasked with caring for the assets in the trust for one or more beneficiaries.  It is the trustee who handles all the necessary paperwork and sees that tax returns are filed.  FedWeek’s recent article entitled “Your Options for Selecting a Trustee” explains that probate and trust law creates a fiduciary responsibility, so the trustee is accountable to the trust beneficiaries and must serve the beneficiaries’ best interests.

Here are the types of trustee one can select:

Individual trustee: this can be a friend or relative who’s probably familiar with everyone involved and may well make the decisions desired by you, the trust creator. If you decide to go with an individual, make sure you choose someone who is trustworthy. It’s the most important qualification of a trustee. Ask yourself if this a is person who I can trust unconditionally to carry out my wishes when I’m gone. You also need to be certain that your trustee is financially responsible. The reason is that a trustee’s duties will include handling your financial accounts and being responsible for your investments. Therefore, finding a person who’s proven themselves to be financially responsible is critical. A trustee needs to deal with financial accounts, as well as the responsibility of accounting to the trust beneficiaries regarding all assets, income and expenses of a trust. Therefore, basic record keeping skills are required. Finally, you need someone who’s available. Choose a trustee who’s likely to be available when the need for his or her services arises. Age, health, job demands and location are all things to take into account, when selecting a trustee.

Institutional trustee: a local bank or trust company might have the resources to manage your assets. They also will have the staying power to handle long-term trusts.

You can also set up a combination of the two. You could designate an institution and an individual as co-trustees. That way, you may get financial expertise and personal attention. If discretionary decisions are permitted, you can leave instructions that both co-trustees must agree.

You can also add “trustee removal” powers into the terms of the trust to reduce the risk that a trustee will prove to be unsatisfactory. A majority vote of adult income beneficiaries may be enough to get a new trustee. That person must be an unrelated person or institution.

When you name an individual as trustee or co-trustee, again make certain that he or she is qualified to do the job, then get his or her consent.

You should also designate a successor trustee, just in case your first choice is unable or unwilling to serve.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss the roles of a trustee or if you need to prepare estate planning documents.

Reference: FedWeek (Aug. 13, 2020) “Your Options for Selecting a Trustee”

 

How to Protect Your Estate from Unintended Heirs

Disinheriting a child as an heir happens for a variety of reasons. There may have been a long-running dispute, estrangement over a lifestyle choice, or not wanting to give assets to a child who squanders money. What happens when a will or trust has left a child without an inheritance is examined in an article from Lake County News, “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children.”

Circumstances matter. Was the child born or adopted after the decedent’s estate planning documents were already created and executed? In certain states, like California, a child who was born or adopted after documents were executed, is by law entitled to a share in the estate. There are exceptions. Was it the decedent’s intent to omit the child, and is there language in the will making that clear? Did the decedent give most or all of the estate to the other parent? Did the decedent otherwise provide for the omitted child and was there language to that effect in the will? For example, if a child was the named beneficiary of a $1 million life insurance policy, it is likely this was the desired outcome.

Another question is whether the decedent knew of the existence of the child, or if they thought the child was deceased. In certain states, the law is more likely to grant the child a share of the estate.  Actor Hugh O’Brien did not provide for his children who were living when his trust was executed. His children argued that he did not know of their existence and had he known, he would have provided for them. His will included a general disinheritance provision that read “I am intentionally not providing for … any other person who claims to be a descendant or heir of mine under any circumstances and without regard to the nature of any evidence which may indicate status as a descendant or heir.”

The Appellate Court ruled against the children’s appeal for two reasons. One, the decedent must have been unaware of the child’s birth or mistaken about the child’s death, and two, must have failed to have provided for the unknown child solely because of a lack of awareness. The court found that his reason to omit them from his will was not “solely” because he did not know of their existence, but because he had no intention of giving them a share of his estate.  In this case, the general disinheritance provision defeated the claim by the children, since their claim did not meet the two standards that would have supported their claim.

This is another example of how an experienced estate planning attorney creates documents to withstand challenges from unintended outcomes. A last will and testament is created to defend the estate and the decedent’s wishes.

Reference: Lake County News (Aug. 22, 2020) “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children”

 

What Does an Executor Do?

Being asked to be an executor is a lot of work. As the executor, you are responsible for taking care of all of the financial and legal matters of the estate, explains the article “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate” from Review Times. The job will require a lot of time and, depending upon the complexity of the estate and the family situation, could be challenging.

Some of the tasks include:

  • Filing court papers to start the probate process to determine whether the will is valid.
  • Making a complete inventory of everything in the estate.
  • Obtaining an estate tax ID number, opening an estate bank account and using the estate funds to pay bills, including funeral costs and medical bills.
  • If the estate includes a home, maintaining the home and paying the mortgage, taxes, etc.
  • Terminating credit cards, notifying banks and government agencies—including Social Security—and the post office.
  • Preparing and filing income tax returns for the last year of the person’s life, unless they filed them already, and for the estate.
  • Distributing assets, as directed by the will.

Your first task is to locate the will and any important documents and financial information. You will need the will, deeds, titles, brokerage statements, insurance policies, etc.

If the estate is complicated, you will want to work with an estate planning attorney, who can guide you through the process. The estate pays for the attorney and you work closely with them. Every state has its own laws and timetables for the executor’s responsibilities, which an estate planning attorney will be familiar with.

If possible, find out if there are any family conflicts, before the loved one passes. If there are potential problems, it may be better for the loved one to tell who will be inheriting what before they die. If there is no plan for asset distribution, the person who is asking you to be the executor needs to meet with an estate planning attorney as soon as possible and have a plan created, with all of the documents necessary for your state.

The executor is entitled to be paid a fee, which is paid by the estate. In most states, that fee is set at a percentage of the estate’s value, depending on the size and complexity of the estate. If you are both an executor and a beneficiary, you may want to forgo the fee, because fees are taxable, but in most states, inheritances are not.

Reference: Review Times (Sep. 6, 2020) “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate”

 

Estate Planning Needs for Every Stage

Many people decide they need an estate plan when they reach a certain age, but when an estate plan is needed is less about age than it is about stages in life, explains a recent article “Life stages dictate estate planning needs” from The News-Enterprise. Life’s stages can be broken into four groups, young with limited assets, young parents, getting close to retirement and post-retirement life.

Every adult should have an estate plan and without one, we can’t determine who will take care of our financial and legal matters, if we are incapacitated or die unexpectedly. We also don’t have a voice in how any property we own will be distributed after death.

The first stage—a young individual with limited assets—includes college students, people in the early years of their careers and young couples, married or not. They may not own real estate or substantial assets but they need a fiduciary and beneficiary. Distribution of assets is less of a priority than provisions for life emergencies.

Once a person becomes a parent, he or she needs to protect minor children or special needs dependents. Lifetime planning is still a concern but protecting dependents is the priority. Estate planning is used in this stage to name guardians, set up trusts for children and name a trustee to oversee the child’s inheritance, regardless of size.

Many people use revocable living trusts as a means of protecting assets for minor dependents. The revocable trust directs property to pass to the minor beneficiary in whatever way the parents deem appropriate. This is typically done so the child can receive ongoing care until the age when parents decide the child should receive his or her inheritance. The revocable trust also maintains privacy for the family since the trust and its contents are not part of the probated estate.

The third stage of life includes people whose children are adults, who have no children or who are near retirement age and addresses different concerns, such as passing along assets to beneficiaries as smoothly as possible while minimizing taxes. The best planning strategy for this stage is often dictated by the primary type of asset.

For people with special situations, such as a beneficiary with substance abuse problems, or a person who owns multiple properties in multiple states or someone who is concerned about the public nature of probate, trusts are a critical part of protecting assets and privacy.

For people who own a primary residence and retirement assets, an estate plan that includes a will, a power of attorney and medical power of attorney may suffice. An estate planning attorney guides each family to make recommendations that will best suit their needs.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Aug. 25, 2020) “Life stages dictate estate planning needs”

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How Do I Find a Good Estate Planning Attorney?

About 68% of Americans don’t have a will. With the threat of the coronavirus on everyone’s mind, people are in urgent need of an estate plan. To make sure your plan is proper and legal, consult an experienced estate planning attorney. Work with a lawyer who understands your needs, has years of experience and knows the law in your state.

EconoTimes’ recent article entitled “Top 3 Estate Planning Tips When Seeing An Attorney” provides several tips for estate planning when seeing an attorney.

Attorney Experience. An estate planning attorney will have the experience and specialized knowledge to help you, compared to a general practitioner. Look for an attorney who specializes in estate planning.

Inventory. List everything you have. Once you start the list, you may be surprised with the tangible and intangible assets you possess.

Tangible assets may include:

  • Cars and boats
  • Homes, land, and other real estate
  • Collectibles like art, coins, or antiques; and
  • Other personal possessions.

Your intangible assets may include:

  • Mutual funds, bonds, stocks
  • Savings accounts and certificates of deposit
  • Retirement plans
  • Health saving accounts; and
  • Business ownership.

Create Your Estate Planning Documents. Prior to seeing an experienced estate planning attorney, he or she will have you fill out a questionnaire and to bring a list of documents to the appointment. In every estate plan, the core documents often include a creating a last will and powers of attorney, as well as coordinating your Beneficiary Designations on life insurance and investment accounts. You may also want to ask about a trust and if you have minor children selecting a guardian for their care if you should pass away. You should also ask about estate taxes with the attorney.

Reference: EconoTimes (July 30, 2020) “Top 3 Estate Planning Tips When Seeing An Attorney”

 

How Can I Help with My Grandchild’s College Tuition?

To assist with college tuition for younger children or grandchildren, you may want to defer the receipt of funds until the child or grandchild needs to pay for tuition down the road. You can make a gift into a custody account or into a trust that qualifies as a current gift under the Uniform Gifts to Minor’s Act or you can fund a Qualified Tuition Plan under IRC Section 529.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning Primer: Qualified Tuition Plans” explains that there are two kinds of 529 programs: prepaid plans and savings plans. The advantage of a 529 plan over a Unified Gift to Minors Act plan is that the earnings on the assets in the 529 plan aren’t taxed until the funds are distributed. The distributions are also tax-free up to the amount of the student’s “qualified higher education expenses.”

Prepaid Programs: Some colleges let you buy tuition credits or certificates at the current tuition rates, even though your grandchild won’t be starting college for several years. This allows you to lock in today’s rates for her enrollment some years later. This move can resultant in substantial savings since tuition continues to rise at most institutions.

Savings Programs: Similar to a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA, tuition amounts covered by a savings plan are dependent on the investment performance of the money you have in the plan. If it grows, more cost can be covered. But if it declines, less will be covered. Therefore, it is good to be conservative if the need for distributions is nearing soon.

Qualified Higher Education Expenses: Tuition (including up to $10,000 in tuition for an elementary or secondary public, private, or religious school), fees, books, supplies, and required equipment, as well as reasonable room and board are qualified expenses, if the student is enrolled at least half-time. Distributions in excess of qualified expenses are taxed to the student, if they represent earnings on the account. A 10% penalty tax is also imposed.

Beneficiary: The beneficiary of the program is specified when you start the funding. However, you are able to change the beneficiary or roll over the funds in the program to another plan for the same or a different beneficiary without income tax liability.

Eligible Schools: Any college, university, vocational school, or other post-secondary school eligible to participate in a student aid program of the Department of Education will be eligible schools for these programs.

The contributions made to the qualified tuition program are treated as gifts to the student. They qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion ($15,000 per person per year for 2020) adjusted annually for inflation. If your contributions in a year exceed the exclusion amount, you can elect to take the contributions into account over a five-year period starting with the year of the contributions.  Note that you may not be able to make the distributions from the program when a very young (or unborn) beneficiary goes to college, so name an alternative custodian, perhaps a parent of a grandchild, to make distributions for you.

Speak with an tax advisor or an estate planning attorney for direction.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 5, 2020) “Estate Planning Primer: Qualified Tuition Plans”

 

What are Power of Attorney Options?

FedWeek’s recent article entitled The Options in Granting Powers of Attorney” explains that a power of attorney designates someone else to handle your affairs, if you can’t.

Here are the major types:

  • Limited power of attorney. This allows an agent to act on your behalf under specific circumstances like a home sale closing that you can’t attend and/or for a defined period of time.
  • General power of attorney. Gives broad authority to your agent, who at any time can write checks to pay your bills, sign contracts on your behalf and take distributions from your IRA.
  • Springing power of attorney. This isn’t effective when you execute it, but rather “springs” into effect upon certain circumstances, such as your becoming incompetent. You can say in the document what’s needed to verify your incompetency, like letters from two physicians stating that you no longer can manage your own affairs.

A power of attorney is important because your agent can act if you become incapacitated. To serve this purpose, a power should be “durable,” so it will remain in effect if you become incompetent. Other powers of attorney may not be recognized if a judge determines that you no longer can manage your affairs.

Without a power of attorney your family may have to ask a judge to name a guardian to act in your best interests. A guardianship proceeding can be expensive and contentious. You might also wind up with an unwelcome interloper managing your finances. To avoid this situation, designate a person you trust as agent on your durable power.

A health care power of attorney (“HCP”), also known as a health care proxy or a medical power of attorney, should be a component of a complete estate plan. This document names a trusted agent to make decisions about your medical treatment, if you become unable to do so. The person you name in your health care power doesn’t have to be the same person that you name as agent for a “regular” power of attorney (the POA that affects your finances).

For your health care power, chose a person in your family who is a medical professional or someone you trust to see that you get all necessary care.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to explain these types of powers or if you have estate planning questions.

Reference: FedWeek (Aug. 26, 2020) “The Options in Granting Powers of Attorney”

 

Estate Planning for Asset Distribution

Your will determines who inherits your property—everything from your home, car, bank accounts and personal possessions and without proper planning, your spouse may not necessarily be your heir—and that’s just one of many reasons to have an estate plan.

An estate plan avoids a “default” distribution of your possessions, says the recent article “Asset distribution when we die” from LimaOhio.com.

Let’s say someone names a nephew as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. The life insurance company has a contractual legal responsibility to pay the nephew when the policy owner dies. In turn, the nephew will be required to provide a death certificate and prove that he is indeed the nephew. This is an example of an asset governed by a contract also described as a named beneficiary.

Assets that are not governed by a contract are distributed to whoever a person directs to get the asset in their will, aka their last will and testament. If there is no will, the state law will determine who should get the assets in a process known as “intestate probate.”

In this process, when there is a last will, the executor is in charge of the assets. The executor is overseen by the probate court judge, who reviews the will and must give approval before assets can be distributed. However, the probate court’s involvement comes with a price, and it is not always a fast process. It is always faster and less costly to have an asset be distributed through a contract like a trust or by having a beneficiary named to the asset.

If a will only provides limited instructions, the state’s law will fill in the gaps. Therefore, any assets that pass-through contracts will be distributed directly, assets noted in the will go through probate and anything else will go usually to the next of kin.

A better course of action is to have an estate attorney review all of your assets, determine who you want to receive your property and make up a plan to make this happen in a smooth, tax-efficient manner.

Reference: LimaOhio.com (Aug. 22, 2020) “Asset distribution when we die”

 

Planning for Nursing Home Expenses

The question raised in the article “Fact or Fiction: I Can Protect My Assets from a Nursing Home with a Revocable Trust” from New Hampshire Business Review is frequency asked and the reason for it is understandable. Any form of long-term home care is costly and can quickly decimate a lifetime of savings. There are ways to protect assets but a revocable trust is not one of them.

There are some reasons why a person might find a revocable trust attractive. If the grantor (the person who creates the trust and is also the trustee (i.e., the person in charge of the trust)), there is no loss of control. It is as if you still own the assets that are in the trust. However, when you die, the assets in the trust don’t go through the probate process. Instead, they go directly to the beneficiaries named in the trust documents. A revocable trust also lets you make specific provisions for beneficiaries and beneficiaries with special needs.

There is a trust that can be used to protect assets from the cost of long-term care. It is the irrevocable trust which must be properly prepared by an estate planning attorney and done in a timely fashion: five years before the person needs to go to a nursing home.

The difference is in the name: the irrevocable trust is irrevocable. Once it is created, you (the grantor) may not change it. Once an asset is placed in the trust you don’t own it. The trust is the owner. You can’t change your mind. The grantor may also not serve as the trustee of the trust.  You have to be prepared to give up complete control of the assets that go into the trust.

Some people think simply by handing over their assets in the trust to their children that they’ve solved everything. However, there are problems. If your children are sued or run into debt problems that lifetime of saving which is now in their control is also subject to creditors or claims. If you need to enter a nursing home within five years of your handing over the assets you also won’t be eligible for Medicaid.

The best course of action is to meet with an estate planning attorney and discuss your overall estate plan. You should have a frank conversation about your wishes, what kind of a legacy you want to leave behind and your bigger picture for the world after you’ve passed. The attorney will help work out a plan that will protect you, your spouse, your assets and your family.

Remember that an estate plan is not a one-and-done document. Every three or four years or as “life happens” and changes occur in your life, you should touch base with your attorney. A new family member by marriage, birth or adoption, may call for some changes to your estate plan. It might also be affected by the sadder events of life; death, divorce, or a significant health change. All require a phone call and a discussion to ensure that your estate plan still achieves your goals and protects those you love.

Reference: New Hampshire Business Review (July 30, 2020) “Fact or Fiction: I Can Protect My Assets from a Nursing Home with a Revocable Trust”

 

Do I Need More Than a Will?

If you die without a will (i.e., intestate), a court will determine who inherits your assets and who would care for any surviving children as a guardian.  CNBC’s recent article entitled “A will doesn’t cover all your bases when it comes to end-of-life decisions. Here’s what else you need” explains that some assets pass outside of the will including retirement accounts and life insurance.

Start your estate planning with a will which is just one piece of an “estate plan.” Creating a plan for your assets helps make certain that your wishes will be carried out upon your death and that family grumbling doesn’t escalate into destroyed relationships. Here are some additional things about estate planning you should know.

What passes via your will. A will is a document that allows you to say who gets what when you die. However, there are some assets that pass outside of the will, such as retirement accounts like 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts (IRAs), and life insurance policies. As a result, the person named as a beneficiary on those accounts will get the money, no matter what your will says. Regular bank accounts also can have beneficiaries listed on a payable-on-death form, also known as a POD. If you own a home, check how it’s titled to ensure it ends up passing as you wish upon your death.

Executor. As part of the will-making process, you’ll need to name an executor of your will (sometimes called a personal representative). This entails making sure that assets are liquidated, the assets go to the proper beneficiaries, paying any debts not discharged and selling your home.

To prepare a will, you can hire an estate planning attorney in your local area, who knows state law. If use an online option, note that not all of the web-based alternatives will necessarily reflect the specifics of your state’s law. Online forms or software may not be compliant with your local law.

Living Will. An estate plan will typically include a few other legal documents, such as an advance health-care directive, also known as a living will. This document states your wishes, if you become incapacitated due to illness or injury, like whether you want to be kept on life support if there’s no hope of recovery.

Powers of Attorney. If you become incapacitated, your designated attorney-at-fact or agent will handle your medical and financial affairs. Similar to selecting an executor, be certain that he or she is trustworthy and smart, with the ability, skill set, time and desire to make such decisions and do these tasks.

Make a list of critical documents. Create an organized list of information your executor will need to settle your estate and include passwords, so your online accounts can be accessed.

Look at a trust. If you want your children or loved ones to receive money but don’t want to give a young adult or someone with poor money management free access to a lot of cash, you can create a trust for your beneficiaries. A trust holds assets on behalf of your beneficiaries, so they can only receive money according to how (or when) you’ve stated in the trust documents.

Again, it is important that you contact an experienced estate planning attorney to help you.

Reference: CNBC (July 27, 2020) “A will doesn’t cover all your bases when it comes to end-of-life decisions. Here’s what else you need”