What Does the Executor Do?

The executor of an estate is the person who manages all the decedent’s financial affairs. If the person wants to have more than one person manage their affairs, like naming two children instead of one, then the term “co-executors” is used, as explained in a recent article “Executor of Estate: What Do They Do?” from Forbes

The most important characteristic that the executor should have, is integrity and good judgment. They are legally required to act in the estate’s best interest, which is called acting as a fiduciary. This is important, especially if an heir serves as an executor. They also need to be wise enough to know when they need help from a skilled professional like an experienced estate planning attorney.

The executor follows the directions that are included in the person’s will, including distributing assets to beneficiaries. They also manage the many tasks associated with wrapping up the decedent’s life, including paying creditors, issuing notices of death, filing tax returns and overseeing the sale of homes and automobiles.

In some states, the executor is called a “personal representative.” The word “executrix” is an old, out-of-date term used when a woman serves as the executor, not commonly used today.

When a proper estate plan is in place, the executor of the estate is named in the decedent’s last will and testament. In cases where the decedent (sometimes referred to as the testator) did not have a will, or the will has been deemed invalid, the probate court judge names someone to serve as executor. This is not always someone who the executor would have named, but when there is no will, the court makes this decision.

If you have been named the executor of an estate and don’t wish to serve, you may decline. If the decedent anticipated that and named an alternative or contingent executor, then the secondary person will serve, or the probate court judge will name someone to serve in this role. The judge can also override the decedent’s choice of an executor, if the person they named has a criminal history, is not of legal age, has a mental disability or a substance abuse problem. The court is not allowed to change the executor simply because the heirs don’t want a person to serve.

The executor has a long list of tasks to accomplish, from obtaining death certificates and securing the home to filing the will with the probate court in the decedent’s county of residence and petitioning the court for probate. Many executors bring in an estate attorney to assist with the legal portion of administering the estate, as an estate and trusts attorney will be familiar with the processes and the deadlines.

The executor must notify the Social Security administration and Medicare, if the person was enrolled in either of these federal programs. The Department of Motor Vehicles, Veterans Affairs and insurance companies must also be notified. The executor is also responsible for filing the person’s final income tax returns and if necessary, filing the state and federal estate tax returns. This is just a partial listing of the many different tasks that must be accomplished. The estate planning attorney may have a checklist to help the executor on track.

Reference: Forbes (May 3, 2021) “Executor of Estate: What Do They Do?”

 

How to Protect Loved Ones from Elder Abuse

Predators had an open season on the elderly during the pandemic, as isolation necessitated by COVID severely limited family member’s ability to visit in person. In some instances, caregivers themselves were the predators, and manipulation on important legal documents, including durable power of attorney, trusts, wills and ownership of homes has occurred. All this was reported the article “Warning: Isolation Of Your Aging Parent May Be A Red Flag” from Forbes. The enforced isolation has created worrisome situations for all concerned.

If you haven’t seen your parents or grandparents for a year or more, and are all fully vaccinated, one expert strongly encourages visitation, as soon as is possible. Use the visit to review all of their legal matters and talk about how to increase engagement and end the isolation.

Consider the following a checklist of what needs to be done at that first visit:

Look for any signs that anyone who had access to loved ones may have taken advantage of their isolation during the past year. Don’t assume the best behavior of everyone around them. It’s not how we like to think, but caution needs to be exercised in this situation.

Check on their will and trusts. The pandemic has reminded everyone that life is fragile, and it’s important to go over legal documents or, if they don’t exist, create them. Find out if anyone has pressured family members to change legal documents—if they have been changed in the last year and you weren’t told about it, find out what happened.

If aging parents do not have a will or trusts, or these documents were altered in your absence, speak with an estate planning attorney who can create a new estate plan. Make sure all copies of older wills are destroyed. At the same time, this would be a good time to have their powers of attorney, healthcare proxy and living wills updated.

If your parent or grandparent lives on their own, find out if they are now in need of any caregiving. A year is a long time, and elderly people who started out fine during the epidemic may have had changes in their health or ability to live independently. Go see for yourself how they are managing. Is the house clean? Are the stairs too steep to be managed?  Not everyone will be able to return to “normal” without some help. Senior centers, gyms and recreational facilities have been shut down for a long time. They may need some help getting back into a routine of socializing and exercising.  The end of enforced isolation can also mean the end of an easy cover for anyone who was using isolation as a protection for financial elder abuse or any other type of abuse.

Isolation itself is a form of abuse, including not allowing others to visit in person or speak with a parent alone. You can overcome this by being engaged with family members on a regular basis, by phone, video visits or, if you are able to, more frequent in person visits.

Reference: Forbes (April 23, 2021) “Warning: Isolation Of Your Aging Parent May Be A Red Flag”

 

How to Prevent Fighting over New Kids on the Block CDs?

Estate plans often don’t include sentimental items. These day-to-day objects can cause some of the worst arguments among survivors, says The Wall Street Journal’s recent article entitled “You Don’t Want Your Heirs to Fight Over Your Assets? Here’s What to Do Now.”

A photograph, dads’ baseball mitt, or mom’s Bible can sometimes have greater sentimental value than we realize. In addition, it can be tricky to determine what is fair, when dividing personal items. So, how do you assign a value to a banged-up saxophone that several family members might want or your collection of NKOTB (New Kids On The Block) music?

The wisest path on such decisions about personal property is to talk with heirs, while you are still alive and in good health.  Ask your adult children what they might want and why and ask what other family members should have and why.  You might discover, for instance, that your adult daughter thinks her brother should inherit their dad’s baseball glove because they were the ones who played catch. You might be left with the NKOTB CDs because you are the music aficionado.

The other big plus for discussing personal property is that the would-be beneficiaries can have the opportunity to hear stories and memories that are connected to these gifts. You can even write the stories down. Here are some other questions to consider:

  • Do you want to include in-laws in the decision-making?
  • What happens to personal items, if a parent remarries?
  • When is the best time to begin the actual transfer (the worst time is right after a funeral when family members are not at their best)?

You can also ask an experienced estate planning attorney to draft what is known as a “personal property memorandum.” It is a list of items and the people selected to inherit them. You should mention the existence of the document in your will, but the memo can be changed as often as you want without having to update your will.

Reference: Wall Street Journal (May 3, 2021) “You Don’t Want Your Heirs to Fight Over Your Assets? Here’s What to Do Now”

 

What Is the Main Purpose of a Trust?

There are advantages and disadvantages of an irrevocable trust, and you’ll want to be fully informed before taking steps that may be costly to undo, explains the article “Understanding your trust” from The Sentinel. Once your home is deeded to an irrevocable trust, you won’t be able to make any changes without getting permission from the beneficiary or beneficiaries named in the trust. Your rights of ownership are transferred to the trust, when you deed it to the trust.

A separate legal agreement with the trustee, the person in charge of the trust, will be needed to give you a legal right to occupy the home also. Any changes could be made but will take time and could be costly. Changes can also only be made, if the beneficiaries agree.

There was a time when lenders inserted clauses into mortgages that any time a sale or transfer of the deed occurred, full payment of the mortgage would be due. This changed, and today the mortgage is not due just because of a change in the deed. However, it may be a challenge to refinance if the home is held in an irrevocable trust.

For most people, the reason to put a home into an irrevocable trust is to prevent the home from being lost to a creditor, including protecting the home’s equity from the cost of nursing home care, during life or after death. In some states, like Pennsylvania, the state will initiate a collection action against the estate to recover the amount paid for the deceased homeowner’s nursing care costs.

The move to put a home into an irrevocable trust can work as long as the trust remains intact and the homeowner does not apply for financial assistance for nursing home care for at least five years from the date that the deed was transferred as recorded in the courthouse.  If long-term care needs arise before that time, putting the home into an irrevocable trust may not serve its intended purpose.

There are some tax benefits from an irrevocable trust. If the homeowner lives at least one year after the home is deeded to the trust, in some states no inheritance taxes will be due on the home. Check with a local estate planning attorney to learn what the rules are in your state.

If the trust is prepared by an experienced elder law attorney, it is likely that the capital gain on the sale of the home by the trust after the homeowner’s death will be taxed based on the home’s value at the time of sale, rather than the value at the time it is placed into the trust or on the day of death.

If the home is the only asset in the trust, the taxpayer ID of the trust will be the homeowner’s Social Security number, and no annual tax return is required. If, however, other assets, particularly income-producing assets, are placed in the trust, then the trust needs to have its own EIN (a federal tax identification number) and annual tax returns will need to be paid. Taxes on a trust are normally at a higher rate than individual income rates.

Your estate planning attorney will explain the numerous strategies that can be used to protect your assets and your home from the high cost of long-term care. There are many Medicaid compliant techniques and tools, depending upon the situation of the individual and the family.

Reference: The Sentinel (April 23, 2021) “Understanding your trust”

 

What Does Tax Proposal Mean for Estate Planning?

The president’s tax plan proposes to nearly double the top tax rate on capital gains and eliminate a tax benefit on appreciated assets, known as the “step-up in basis.”  CNBC’s recent article entitled “Wealthy may face up to 61% tax rate on inherited wealth under Biden plan” reports that the combined tax rate would be the highest in nearly a century.

Some more well-off families could face combined tax rates of as much as 61% on inherited wealth under President Biden’s tax plan.

It is not known if President Biden’s plan can get through Congress, even with changes. Many moderate Democrats are likely to resist his proposal to raise the capital gains rate to 39.6%, as well as the plan to eliminate the step-up. Moreover, just a small number of the wealthiest taxpayers would ever see a rate of 61%. Most of us others would try to avoid this hike with tax and estate planning.

According to analysis by the Tax Foundation, families who own a business or a large amount of stock and want to transfer the assets to heirs could see a dramatic tax change.

For instance, you are an entrepreneur who started a business decades ago, that is now worth $100 million. Under the current tax law, the business would pass to the family without a capital gains tax—the value of the business would be “stepped-up,” or adjusted to its current value and the heirs would only pay a capital gain, if they later sold at a higher valuation. However, under President Biden’s plan, the family would immediately owe a capital gains tax of $42.96 million upon death (capital gains rate of 39.6%, plus the net investment income tax of 3.8%, minus the $1 million exemption).

If the estate tax remains unchanged, the family would also have an estate tax of 40% on the $57.04 million of remaining value of the assets. Including exemptions, the estate tax would amount to $18.13 million.  The combined estate tax and capital gains tax liability would total $61.10 million, reflecting a combined effective tax rate of just over 61% on the original $100 million asset. The rate rises, when including potential state capital gains and estate taxes.

However, experts say that if the step-up is eliminated, Congress would likely eliminate or overhaul the estate tax.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney if you need advice.

Reference: CNBC (May 3, 2021) “Wealthy may face up to 61% tax rate on inherited wealth under Biden plan”

 

Should I Create a Trust?

Most people know that a will instructs your executor regarding where to transfer your assets when you die. You may also want to consider a trust.

Nbcnew25.com’s recent article entitled “Elder law and estate planning: What you need to know” explains that a trust can give you peace of mind that your wishes will be carried out when you pass away. Your property won’t need to go through the probate process, if it’s in a trust. Your family can focus on the grieving process without having any problems with wrapping up your estate.

In addition, financial and health care powers of attorney should also be part of your estate plan. Ask an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney to help you draft these documents to save your loved ones the worry, if you must be moved into a nursing home and are unable to make decisions for yourself.

Having the correct documents in place before you or a loved one goes into a nursing home is extremely important. With a financial power of attorney, an elder law attorney could design a Medicaid plan for someone entering a nursing home to help protect their assets.

If the correct documents aren’t in place when a loved one enters a nursing home, it could create issues—one of which is the inability to protect their assets. In that case, you may also be required to appear in front of a judge to get permission for an elder law attorney to assist in protecting assets. That request could even be denied by the judge.

For a married couple, 100% of cash assets, plus the home, can be protected, and Medicaid would cover most of the nursing home cost. This is big because the cost of nursing homes can exceed be tens of thousands of dollars every month.

For married couples, in many instances, the income of the spouse who is entering the nursing home may be able to be transferred to the spouse who still lives at home. That’s important because the spouse at home may depend on the other spouse’s income to help make ends meet.

For singles, at least 60% to 70% of cash assets, plus the home, can be protected, so that Medicaid would cover most of the nursing home cost.

Moving a loved one into a nursing home can be stressful enough, without having to worry about the cost. Help yourself and your family, by preparing the proper documents ahead of time to eliminate some of the stress. Working with an elder law attorney who specializes in Medicaid planning is a wise move. Don’t wait until it is too late.

Have things in order, so you or a loved one can avoid any unnecessary stress and keep the assets that you’ve acquired during your lifetime. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: nbcnew25.com (April 30, 2021) “Elder law and estate planning: What you need to know”

 

What Is the Purpose of an Estate Plan?

No one wants to think about becoming seriously ill or dying, but scrambling to get an estate plan and healthcare documents done while in the hospital or nursing home is a bad alternative, says a recent article titled “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan” from Kiplinger. Not having an estate plan in place can create enormous costs for the estate, including taxes, and delay the transfer of assets to heirs.

If you would like to avoid the cost, stress and possibility of your spouse or children having to go to court to get all of this done while you are incapacitated, it is time to have an estate plan created. Here are the basics:

A Will, a Living Will, Power of Attorney and a Beneficiary Check-Up. People think of a will when they think of an estate plan, but that’s only part of the plan. The will gives instructions for what you want to happen to assets, who will be in charge of your estate—the executor—and who will be in charge of any minor children—the guardian. No will? This is known as dying intestate, and probate courts will make all of these decisions for you, based on state law.

However, a will is not enough. Beneficiary designations determine who receives assets from certain types of property. This includes life insurance policies, qualified retirement accounts, annuities, and any account that provides the opportunity to name a beneficiary. These instructions supersede the will, so make sure that they are up to date. If you fail to name a beneficiary, then the asset is considered part of your estate. If you fail to update your beneficiaries, then the person you may have wanted to receive the assets forty years ago will receive it.

Some banks and brokerage accounts may have an option of a Transfer on Death (TOD) agreement. This allows you to plan out asset distribution outside of the will, speeding the distribution of assets.

A Living Will or Advance Directive is used to communicate in advance what you would want to happen if you are alive but unable to make decisions for yourself. It names an agent to make serious medical decisions on your behalf, like being kept on life support or having surgery. Not having the right to make medical decisions for a loved one requires petitioning the court.

Financial Power of Attorney names an attorney in fact to manage finances, paying bills and overseeing investments. Without a POA, your family can’t take action on your financial matters, like paying bills, overseeing the maintenance of your home, etc. If the court appoints a non-family member to manage this task, the family may see the estate evaporate.

Creating a trust is part of most people’s estate plan. A trust is a means of leaving assets for a minor child, or someone who cannot be trusted to manage money. The trust is a legal entity that inherits money when you pass, and a trustee, who you name in the trust documents, manages everything, according to the terms of the trust.

Today’s estate plan needs to include digital assets. You need to give someone legal authority to manage social media accounts, websites, email and any other digital property you own.  The time to create an estate plan, or review and update an existing estate plan, is now. COVID has awakened many people to the inevitability of severe illness and death. Planning for the future today protects the ones you love tomorrow.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you in preparing your documents.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 21, 2021) “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan”

 

Do I Have to Pay Deceased Loved One’s Taxes?

Sooner or later, someone has to resolve the tax liabilities when a loved one dies. It is usually a family member who faces this task. For one woman, the unexpected passing of her father in early 2018 left her the task of filing his 2017 return and the family’s estate planning attorney filed the 2018 return through the father’s estate. The family is still waiting for the 2017 tax refund from the IRS, and needs to resolve a stimulus check for $1,200 her family received last spring that had to be sent back.

Many families are facing similar situations, as reported in this recent article “Death and taxes: Americans grapple with filing the final tax return for deceased relatives in a pandemic year” from USA Today. Survivors are anxious about complex tax issues at the same time they are in mourning for a loved one.

The final tax return uses IRS Form 1040, the same one that would have been used if the taxpayer were living. The major difference: the word “deceased” is written after the taxpayer’s name.  If the taxpayer was married, the surviving spouse may file a joint return for the year of death. For two years after the taxpayer’s death, the surviving spouse may file as a qualifying widow or widower, which lets them continue to use the same tax brackets that apply to married-filing-jointly returns.

The larger the estate and income for a decedent, the more complicated taxes after death can become. Estate planning attorneys recommend naming an executor in the will and tasking them with taking care of final taxes.

The estate tax is paid on assets owned at the time of death. As of this writing, estates valued at more than $11.7 million (or $23.4 million per married couple), pay a 40% federal tax, in addition to state estate or inheritance taxes, if there are any. It is generally expected that the coming months will see a large reduction in the federal estate tax exemption.

The deadline to file a final return is the tax filing deadline of the year following the taxpayer’s death. The executor or administrator is usually the person who signs the tax return, although a surviving spouse signs the joint return. If there is no executor, whoever is responsible for filing the return signs it and should note that they are signing on behalf of the decedent. For a joint return, the spouse signs the return and writes “filing as surviving spouse” in the space for the other spouse’s signature.

There’s one more step if a return is due. If the deceased is owed money, the IRS Form 1310 should be used. That’s the Statement of a Person Claiming Refund Due a Deceased Taxpayer. The IRS says that surviving spouses signing a joint return don’t have to file this form, but tax experts think it’s a good idea to try to proactively prevent any delays.

If the decedent owes taxes, the tax bill is to be settled by the estate’s executor. If there are insufficient funds to pay the federal income and estate taxes, relatives are not responsible for the remaining balance.

Note that the executor may be held liable if the assets are distributed before paying the taxes, or if the debts of the estate are paid before taxes are paid. The same is true if the executor is aware of the insufficient funds and inability to pay the taxes but spends assets anyway.

Talk with an estate planning attorney about the taxes that will need to be paid from an estate. You don’t want to leave a legacy of tax pain for the family.

Reference: USA Today (April 22, 2021) “Death and taxes: Americans grapple with filing the final tax return for deceased relatives in a pandemic year”

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Can Estate Taxes Be Avoided with a Trust?

If the federal estate tax exemption is lowered, as is expected, it could go as low as $3 million, reports the article “How Trusts Can Be Used To Counter Tougher Estate Taxes” from Financial Advisor. For Americans who own a home and robust retirement accounts, this change presents an estate planning challenge—but one with several solutions. Trusts, giving and updating estate plans or creating wholly new estate plans should be addressed in the near future.

Not that these topics aren’t challenging for most people. Confronting the future, including death and incapacity, is difficult. Adult children and their parents may find it hard to talk about these matters; emotions, death and money are tough to talk about on their own, but estate planning includes conversations around all three.

Once those hurdles are overcome, an unemotional approach to the business of estate planning can accomplish a great deal, especially when guided by an experienced estate planning attorney. Here are a few suggestions for families to consider.

Estate and gift planning techniques include Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs) and Spousal Limited Access Trusts (SLATs). A SLAT is an irrevocable trust created when one spouse (the donor spouse) makes a gift into a trust to benefit their spouse (the beneficiary spouse), while retaining limited access to the assets at the same time they remove the asset from their combined estate. One spouse is permitted to indirectly benefit, as long as the couple remains married.

The indirect access disappears, if the spouses divorce or if the beneficiary spouse dies before the donor spouse. Be careful about creating SLATs for both spouses; the IRS does not like to see SLATs with the same date of origin and the same amount for both spouses.

The GRAT and sales to an Intentionally Defective Trust (IDGT) are useful tools in a low-interest rate environment. For a GRAT, property is transferred to a trust in exchange for an annual fixed payment. A sale to an IDGT is where property is sold to a trust in exchange for a balloon note.

Gifting is an important part of estate planning at any asset level. For 2020 and 2021, the annual gift-tax exclusion is $15,000 per donor, per recipient. The simple strategy of aggressive lifetime gifting using that $15,000 exclusion is a good way to get money out of a taxable estate.

Protect the estate plan by reviewing it every four or five years, and sooner if there are large changes to the tax law—which is coming soon—and changes in the family’s circumstances. Contact your estate planning attorney to review your plan.

Thoughtful use of trusts and gifting strategies can avoid the probate of the will and ensure that assets go directly to heirs. Reviewing the estate plan regularly with an eye to changes in tax law will protect the legacy.

Reference: Financial Advisor (April 19, 2021) “How Trusts Can Be Used To Counter Tougher Estate Taxes”

 

Should Parent Transfer House to Kid?

Let us say the parent is 90 and has a will bequeathing a home to a child, a son. The house was purchased 20 years ago for $300,000 and is now worth about $400,000.  The child stays there occasionally to help care for the parent, but he doesn’t live there. The parents’ estate is otherwise worth less than $1 million.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “What are the pros and cons of transferring a home’s title?” explains that there are two primary reasons why parents want to transfer their home to their children.

First, they think they will be able to protect the house, in the event the parent needs to move to a nursing home. Second, they want to avoid probate. Because many states now have a simple probate process for smaller estates, probate avoidance alone isn’t a worthwhile rationale to transfer the house to a child.

The transfer of the house to a child who doesn’t live there will be subject to the look-back rule for Medicaid, which in most states is now five years. As a result, if a parent transfers the house to the child within five years of applying for Medicaid, the transfer will trigger a penalty which will begin when the Medicaid application is submitted. The length of the penalty period depends on the value of the house. Therefore, if the parent might require nursing home care in the next five years, the parent should have enough other assets to cover the penalty period or wait five years before applying for Medicaid.

In addition, the transfer of the house may also cause a significant capital gains tax liability to the child when the house is sold. That’s because the child will receive the house with the carryover basis of the parent. However, if the child inherits the house, the child will get a step-up in basis—the basis will be the value of the house at the date of the parent’s death.

If the parent transferring the house retains a life estate—the right to live in the house until he or she passes away—the property will get a step-up in basis to the value of the house at the date of death.  In the event that the house is sold while the parent is still alive, the value of the life estate interest will be excluded from income tax but the value of the child’s remainder interest in the house may be subject to capital gain taxes.

Last, if the house is transferred to a child who has financial troubles, the child’s creditors may be able to force the child to sell the house to pay his debts.

Contact an experienced an estate planning attorney if you need assistance.

Reference: nj.com (April 20, 2021) “What are the pros and cons of transferring a home’s title?”