Just What Does an Executor Do?

Spending the least amount of time possible contemplating your death is what most people try to do. However, one part of the estate planning process needs time and reflection: deciding who should serve in important roles, including executor. Whatever the size of your estate, the people you name have jobs that will impact your life and your family’s future, says a recent article “How to get it right when naming an executor and filling other key roles in your estate plan” from CNBC. A quick decision now might have a bad outcome later.

First, let’s look at the executor. They are responsible for everything from filing your last will with the court to paying off debts, closing accounts and making sure that assets in your probate estate are distributed according to the directions in your last will. They need to be trustworthy, organized and able to manage financial decisions. They also need to be available to handle your estate, in addition to their other responsibilities.  Note that some of your assets, including retirement tax deferred accounts, life insurance proceeds and any other assets with a named beneficiary, will pass outside of your probate estate. These assets need to be identified and the custodian needs to be notified so the heir can receive the asset.

Settling an estate takes an average of 16 months, with smaller estates being settled more quickly. Larger estates, worth more than $5 million and up, can take as long as four years to settle.

Some people prefer to name co-executors as a means of spreading out the responsibilities. That ix fine, unless the two people have a history of not getting along, as is the case with many siblings. Sharing the duties sounds like a good idea, but it can lead to delays if the two don’t agree or can’t coordinate their estate tasks. Many estate planning attorneys recommend naming one person as the executor and a second as the contingency executor, in case the first cannot serve or decides he or she does not want to take on the responsibilities. The same applies to any trustees, if your estate plan includes a trust.

Make sure the people you are considering as executor, contingent executor, trustee or success or trustee are willing to take on these roles. If there is no one in your life who can take on these tasks, an option is to name an estate planning attorney, accountant, or trust company.

Another important role in your estate plan is the Power of Attorney. You’ll want one for financial decisions and another for healthcare decisions. They can be the same person or different people. Understand that the financial Power of Attorney will have complete control over your assets, including accounts, real estate, and personal property, if you are too incapacitated to make decisions or to communicate your wishes.

The healthcare Power of Attorney will be making medical decisions on your behalf. You will want to name a person you trust to carry out your wishes—even if they are not the same ones they would want, or if your family opposes your wishes. It’s not an easy task, so be sure to create a Living Will to express your wishes, if you are placed on life support or suffer from a terminal condition. This will help your healthcare Power of Attorney follow your wishes.

Finally, revisit your estate plan every three to five years. Life changes, laws change and your estate plan should continue to reflect your wishes. The lives of the people in key roles change, so the same person who was ready to serve as your executor today may not be five years from now. Confirm their willingness to serve every time you review your last will, just to be sure.

Reference: CNBC (March 5, 2021) “How to get it right when naming an executor and filling other key roles in your estate plan”

 

Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?

Did you know that Hawaii and the State of Washington have the highest estate tax rates in the nation at 20%? There are 8 states and DC that are next with a top rate of 16%. Massachusetts and Oregon have the lowest exemption levels at $1 million, and Connecticut has the highest exemption level at $7.1 million.

The Tax Foundation’s recent article entitled “Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?” says that of the six states with inheritance taxes, Nebraska has the highest top rate at 18%, and Maryland has the lowest top rate at 10%. All six of these states exempt spouses, and some fully or partially exempt immediate relatives.

Estate taxes are paid by the decedent’s estate, prior to asset distribution to the heirs. The tax is imposed on the overall value of the estate. Inheritance taxes are due from the recipient of a bequest and are based on the amount distributed to each beneficiary.  Most states have been steering away from estate or inheritance taxes or have upped their exemption levels because estate taxes without the federal exemption hurt a state’s competitiveness. Delaware repealed its estate tax at the start of 2018, and New Jersey finished its phase out of its estate tax at the same time. The Garden State now only imposes an inheritance tax.

Connecticut still is phasing in an increase to its estate exemption. They plan to mirror the federal exemption by 2023. However, as the exemption increases, the minimum tax rate also increases. In 2020, rates started at 10%, while the lowest rate in 2021 is 10.8%. Connecticut’s estate tax will have a flat rate of 12% by 2023.

In Vermont, they’re still phasing in an estate exemption increase. They are upping the exemption to $5 million on January 1, compared to $4.5 million in 2020.

DC has gone in the opposite direction. The District has dropped its estate tax exemption from $5.8 million to $4 million in 2021, but at the same time decreased its bottom rate from 12% to 11.2%.

Remember that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act of 2017 raised the estate tax exclusion from $5.49 million to $11.2 million per person. This expires December 31, 2025, unless reduced sooner!

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about estate and inheritance taxes, and see if you need to know about either, in your state.

Reference: The Tax Foundation (Feb. 24, 2021) “Does Your State Have an Estate or Inheritance Tax?”

 

What Should I Do with My Valuable Beanie Baby Collection?

The Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning for Your Collections May Be a Smart Decision to Make” explains that the legacy we leave isn’t always a lot of money or real estate. Artifacts and collections have a value that goes beyond dollars and cents. The importance of hobbies and collections in a person’s estate plan should be noted.

Learning a foreign language, making wine and crafting are popular stay-at-home activities, there’s a new trend: childhood collections of baseball cards, comic books, video games, sneakers, model trains, and Barbie dolls are being uncovered and re-examined.

A collector should catalog their collection because an heir might have no idea what he’s holding. Is it a three-buck toy from the local department store or is it a Devi Kroell Barbie from 2010 that sells now for at least $1,100?  One way to start a catalog is to take photos on a smart phone and save them in a shared file called “My Collectible Barbies.”

Next, get an idea what your collection is worth. You can get some idea by looking at prices for similar items on eBay prices. You also should be aware of the “grade” of your pieces. Is your Devi Kroell Barbie still in its original packaging in pristine condition, or has your niece chewed on it for a few years as a baby? Of course, the condition makes a huge difference in the price.

You can gift a collection to a trust through a gift memorandum and specifically listed it on a trust’s Schedule A. If the collectible has its own title, like your 1954 Chevrolet Corvette Convertible, the title can be transferred to the trust. When it’s part of a trust, a collectible can be distributed or maintained the way other trust assets are governed.  Trusts avoid probate and let a collector have more flexibility to control how her collection is handled, appreciated and sold. Contact an estate planning attorney to discuss preparing a trust.

Without a specific bequest in a last will, something like a Beanie Baby collection worth thousands of dollars may only be mentioned as “personal property” in a catch-all category for non-financial accounts or real estate belonging to the decedent. As a result, it’s lumped in with clothing, furniture and household items. An executor who is unfamiliar with Beanie Babies or Barbies may not know enough to maximize the collection’s value.

Some collectors dispose of an unwanted collection while they’re still alive. That is because the owner is the one who understands the market for the collectibles. Obtaining the best prices and letting your heirs  use the windfall for their individual plans may be a win-win.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare estate planning documents.

Reference: The Wealth Advisor (Feb. 2, 2021) “Estate Planning for Your Collections May Be a Smart Decision to Make”

 

Preparing for an Estate Planning Meeting

Preparing to meet with an estate planning attorney for the first time is an opportunity to get organized and think about your wishes for the future. If you meet with your accountant every year to prepare tax returns, this may be a familiar process. It’s a chance to step away from day-to-day activities and focus on your life, as described in a recent article “Preparing for an Estate Planning Consultation: 10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney” from The National Law Journal.

Minor Children Need Guardians and Conservators. In most states, families with minor children need a last will to designate one or more guardians to raise the children in the event both parents die. A successor should be named in case the first named guardian is unable or unwilling to serve. Discuss your decision with the people you are naming; don’t leave this as a surprise. Choosing these people is a hard decision. However, don’t let it be a reason to delay creating your estate plan. It’s better that you name a guardian, rather than let the court make that decision.

Agents, Trustees, and Power of Attorney. With a Durable Power of Attorney, your assets can be managed by a named agent, if you become incapacitated. The person who manages your estate after death is the executor. They are named in your last will. If you have trusts, the documents that create the trust also name the trustees. It is possible for one person to act as a fiduciary for all of these roles, although the tasks can be divided.

Living Will and Patient Advocate Designation. If you are incapacitated, a Patient Advocate can make medical decisions on your behalf, including following the instructions of your Living Will.

Personal Property. Any items of personal property, whether their value is sentimental or monetary, should be specified in the will. A list of items and who you want to receive what, may spare your heirs from squabbles over your personal effects, large or small. If you own a business or real estate, they also need to be addressed in your will.

Charitable Donations. If you are charitably minded, your will is one way to make bequests and build a lasting legacy. Charitable donations can also be made to gain tax benefits for heirs.

Beneficiary Distributions. The beneficiary designation is the unsung hero of the estate plan. By managing beneficiary designations while you are living—updating beneficiary designations, assigning beneficiary designations to all accounts possible—you take assets out of your probate estate and smooth the asset distribution process. However, there are some wrinkles to consider.

Minor children may not receive assets until they become of age—18 in most cases. Do you want your children (or nieces or grandchildren) to receive an inheritance, while they are still in their teens? Proper estate planning includes trusts created, so a responsible adult can manage the trust on their behalf. Your trust can also be structured so the money may only be used for college expenses, or when the children reach certain ages.

Surviving Pets. You can plan for your pet’s care, if you pass away or become incapacitated before they die. Most states permit the creation of a pet trust, an enforceable means of providing assets to be used for the care and well-being of your pet.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide you with a list of the documents she will need to get started on your estate plan, but these are the major issues that you will be discussing at your first meeting.

Reference: The National Law Journal (Feb. 23, 2021) “Preparing for an Estate Planning Consultation: 10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney”

 

Estate Planning and a Second Marriage

In California, a community property state, a resident can bequeath (leave) 100% of their separate property assets and half of their community property assets. A resident may only bequeath the entirety of a community property asset to someone other than their spouse with their spouse’s consent or acquiescence. This can be extremely important to those in second marriages with prior children.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate planning for second marriages” asks, first, does the individual’s (the testator) spouse even need support? If they don’t, a testator typically leaves his or her separate property assets directly to his or her own children. However, because the surviving spouse is an heir of the testator, his or her will and/or trust must acknowledge the marriage and say that the spouse is not inheriting. Otherwise, the surviving spouse as heir may be entitled either to a one-half or one-third share in the testator’s separate property, along with all of the couple’s community property assets. The surviving spouse would inherit, if the testator died intestate (with no will) or he or she passed with an outdated will he or she signed before this marriage that left out the current spouse.

If the spouse needs support, consider the assets and family relationships. Determine if the assets are the surviving spouse’s separate property from prior to marriage or from inheritance while married. It is also important to know if the testator’s spouse and children get along and whether it’s possible for the beneficiaries to inherit separate assets. If the testator’s surviving spouse and children aren’t on good terms and/or are close in age, and if it’s possible for separate assets to go to each party, perhaps they should inherit separate assets outright and part company. If not, it can get heated and complicated quickly. For example, the testator’s house could be left to his or her children and a retirement plan goes to the testator’s spouse.

If that type of set-up doesn’t work, a testator might consider making the spouse a lifetime beneficiary of a trust that owns some or all of an individual’s assets. A trust requires careful drafting, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Next, determine if the children need support, and if so, what kind of support, such as Supplemental Security Income. Also think about whether the children can manage an outright inheritance or if a special needs or a support trust is required.

This just scratches the surface of this complex topic. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about your specific situation.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Feb. 23, 2021) “Estate planning for second marriages”

 

Why Do I Need Estate Planning?

Many people who failed to plan their estate with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney have their assets tied up in lengthy, and often messy, legal battles that were decided by people not of their choosing.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Everyone Needs An Estate Plan: Here’s What You Need To Know” says that although many of us don’t have quite as much at stake financially, it doesn’t mean that estate planning is any less important. In fact, leaving a legacy, passing down wealth and helping family aren’t things that are just for the ultra-rich.

The biggest misstep is not creating an estate plan at all. This is more than just a last will and includes powers of attorney, healthcare directives, a living will and a HIPAA waiver. People put this important responsibility off because they do not want to contemplate their own death. They try to avoid the subject. Some others may have complex family dynamics, and still others are hesitant to confide their complicated relationships with a lawyer. However, all these are just excuses.

We know that life is full of changes, and people get married, divorced, have children and grandchildren, relocate to different states, change careers and get inheritances. Each of these events could make you reconsider your goals. This may necessitate an update to your estate plan.

You need to review the beneficiaries on your IRAs, life insurance policies and pensions. You should look at how you want your heirs to receive your assets and any charitable or philanthropic notions. With powers of attorney, healthcare directives, living wills and HIPAA waivers, you need to think about who you’ll entrust to make important medical and financial decisions for you, if you become incapacitated. You see these critical questions and many others are fluid and prone to change every few years as your life changes.

Remember that your assets receive different treatment from the IRS based on the type and who owns legally owns them. For example, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), Roth IRAs, traditional brokerage accounts, life insurance policies and bank accounts are different than the family home. Therefore, it’s important to be mindful of which assets are left to whom.

Don’t wait. Speak to an experienced estate planning attorney to be certain that you give this process the attention it deserves for the well-being of you and your family.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 26, 2021) “Everyone Needs An Estate Plan: Here’s What You Need To Know”

 

Is it Better to Have a Living Will or a Living Trust?

A living will and a living trust are part of an estate plan that achieves the goals of protecting you while you are living and your loved ones when you have passed. You may need both, but before you make any decision, first know what they are, says the article “Living Will vs. Living Trust” from Yahoo! Finance.

A living will is a legal document used in healthcare decision making. It offers a way for you to provide in exact terms what kind of medical care and treatment you want to receive in end-of-life situations. They are not fun to contemplate, but the alternative is leaving your spouse or children guessing what you would want and living with the consequences. By having a living will prepared properly with your estate planning attorney (to ensure that it is valid), you tell your loved ones what you want. They will not be left guessing or fighting among each other. The treating physicians will also know what you want.

This is different from an advance healthcare directive, which also deals with medical situation but from a different angle. The advance healthcare directive is used to name an agent who will act on your behalf to make medical decisions. It is used in situations other than end-of-life care. Let’s say you are incapacitated by an illness. That person is authorized to make medical care decisions on your behalf.

A trust is a legal entity that lets you transfer assets to the ownership of a trustee and has little to do with your healthcare. The trustee is a person named to be in charge of the trust. He is considered a fiduciary, a legal standard requiring him to put the interest of the trust above his own. A living trust is one of many different kinds of trusts.

Living trusts are also known as “inter vivos” trusts and take effect while you are alive. You (the grantor) are permitted to serve as your own trustee. You should name one or more successor trustees, who can take over just in case something happens to you. You can also name someone else to be the trustee. That is usually a trusted person or a financial institution.

Living trusts may be revocable or irrevocable. When they are revocable, assets transferred to the trust can be moved in and out of the trust as you like, as long as you are alive. You can add assets, remove assets, change the named beneficiaries, or even change the terms of how the assets are managed.

An irrevocable trust is just as it sounds—once it’s created and funded, those assets are permanently inside the trust. There are some states that permit “decanting” of a trust, that is, moving the assets inside a trust to another trust. Your estate planning attorney will know if that is an option for you.

So, do you need a living will or a living trust? You probably need both. The living will deals with your healthcare, while the living trust is all about your assets. Do you need a trust? Most estates will benefit from some kind of a trust. Depending on the type of trust, it may let you protect assets against creditors, give you control postmortem of how and when (or if!) your beneficiaries receive their inheritance, and removes the assets from your taxable estate. Both are important tools in a comprehensive estate plan and should be prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney or an elder law attorney.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Feb. 18, 2021) “Living Will vs. Living Trust”

 

Sound Like a Broken Record in Estate Planning?

After a year like the last, estate planning attorneys may sound like a broken record, repeating their message over and over again: No matter your age, wealth, or familial structure, you should have a last will and testament, powers of attorney and a health care proxy.

Everyone needs these documents, to protect wealth, children, spouses, family and yourself.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “2020 Concludes With Intestate Celebrity Estates” says that the execution of legal documents does have a financial cost. This can keep some people from talking to an experienced estate planning attorney. Others say they are simply too busy to take care of the matter, so they delay. There are other people don’t want to talk about issues of sickness and mortality because they just can’t bring themselves to think about these important estate planning documents.

It doesn’t matter who you are, these types of issues are seen with all kinds of people. Recently, we’ve learned that several celebrities died intestate or without a last will and testament. For example, Argentinian soccer great Diego Armando Maradona died in November at the age of 60. He had a fortune including real estate, financial assets and jewelry, but his life was filled with drama. Diego fathered eight children from six different partners but signed no last will and testament. Fighting among his many heirs is expected, especially with his large estate. Diego said publicly that he wanted to donate his entire estate and not leave his children anything. However, he died of a heart attack before putting this plan in place. Therefore his next-of-kin, not the charities, received his assets.

Another notable person who died intestate recently is former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who died at age 46. His estate is valued at $840 million. Hsieh was survived by his two brothers and his parents. He recently purchased eight houses in Park City, Utah, so this purchase of real estate across state lines will make the administration of his estate even more complicated without a last will and testament or a trust.

Finally, actor Chadwick Boseman died intestate at age 43, after a long battle with colon cancer. His wife, Simone Ledward, petitioned the California courts to be named the administrator of his estate. The couple married in early 2020. As a result, she was qualified to administer and receive from his estate. He had no children, so under California probate law, she gets the entire estate.

These recent deaths of three celebrities, none of whom were elderly, show the need for individuals of all ages, backgrounds and wealth to address their estate plans and not put it off.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 19, 2020) “2020 Concludes With Intestate Celebrity Estates”

 

How Do I Talk to the Children about My Estate Planning?

Some $68 trillion will move between generations in the next two decades, reports U.S. News & World Report in the article “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children.” Having this conversation with your adult children, especially if they are members of Generation X, could have a profound impact on the quality of your relationship and your legacy.

Staying on top of your estate plan and having candid discussions with your children will also have an impact on how much of your estate is consumed by estate taxes. The historically high federal exemptions are not going to last forever—even without any federal legislation, they sunset in 2025, which isn’t far away.

One of the purposes of your estate plan is to transfer money as you wish. What most people do is talk with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan. They create trusts, naming their child as the trustee, or simple wills naming their child as the executor. Then, the parents drop the ball. Talk with your children about the role of trustee and/or executor. Help them understand the responsibilities that these roles require and ask if they will be comfortable handling the decision making, as well as the money. Include the Power of Attorney role in your discussion.What most parents refuse to discuss with their children is money, plain and simple. Children will be better equipped, if they know what financial institutions hold your accounts and are introduced to your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor.

You might at some point forget about some investments, or the location of some accounts as you age. If your children have a working understanding of your finances, estate plan and your wishes, they will be able to get going and you will have spared them an estate scavenger hunt.

If possible, hold a family meeting with your advisors, so everyone is comfortable and up to speed.

Most adult children do not have the same experience with taxes as parents who have acquired wealth over their lifetimes. They may not understand the concepts of qualified and non-qualified accounts, step-up in cost basis, life insurance proceeds, or a probate asset versus a non-probate asset. It is critical that they understand how taxes impact estates and investments. By explaining things like tax-free distributions from a Roth IRA, for instance, you will increase the likelihood that your life savings aren’t battered by taxes.

Even if your adult children work in finance, do not assume they understand your investments, your tax-planning, or your estate. Even the smartest people make expensive mistakes, when handling family estates.

Having these discussions is another way to show your children that you care enough to set your own ego aside and are thinking about their future. It’s a way to connect not just about your money or your taxes, but about their futures. Knowing that you purchased a life insurance policy specifically to provide them with money for a home purchase, or to fund a grandchild’s college education, sends a clear message. Don’t miss the opportunity to share that with them, while you are living.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Feb. 17, 2021) “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children”