Checklist for Estate Plan’s Success

We know why estate planning for your assets, family and legacy falls through the cracks. It’s not the thing a new parent wants to think about while cuddling a newborn, or a grandparent wants to think about as they prepare for a family get-together. However, this is an important thing to take care of, advises a recent article from Kiplinger titled “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?

Every four years, or every time a trigger event occurs—birth, death, marriage, divorce, relocation—the estate plan needs to be reviewed. Reviewing an estate plan is a relatively straightforward matter and neglecting it could lead to undoing strategic tax plans and unnecessary costs.

Moving to a new state? Estate laws are different from state to state, so what works in one state may not be considered valid in another. You’ll also want to update your address, and make sure that family and advisors know where your last will can be found in your new home.

Changes in the law. The last five years have seen an inordinate number of changes to laws that impact retirement accounts and taxes. One big example is the SECURE Act, which eliminated the Stretch IRA, requiring heirs to empty inherited IRA accounts in ten years, instead of over their lifetimes. A strategy that worked great a few years ago no longer works. However, there are other means of protecting your heirs and retirement accounts. It is recommended that you speak with a qualified estate planning attorney to periodically review your estate plan to coincide with changes in the law.

Do you have a Power of Attorney? A POA gives a person you authorize the ability to manage your financial, business, personal and legal affairs, if you become incapacitated. If the POA is old, a bank or investment company may balk at allowing your representative to act on your behalf. If you have one, make sure it’s up to date and the person you named is still the person you want. If you need to make a change, it’s very important that you put it in writing and notify the proper parties.

Health Care Power of Attorney needs to be updated as well. Marriage does not automatically authorize your spouse to speak with doctors, obtain medical records or make medical decisions on your behalf. If you have strong opinions about what procedures you do and do not want, the Health Care POA can document your wishes.

Last Will and Testament is Essential. Your last will needs regular review throughout your lifetime. Has the person you named as an executor four years ago remained in your life, or moved to another state? A last will also names an executor for your property and a guardian for minor children. It also needs to have trust provisions to pay for your children’s upbringing and to protect their inheritance.

Speaking of Trusts. If your estate plan includes trusts, review trustee and successor appointments to be sure they are still appropriate. You should also check on estate and inheritance taxes to ensure that the estate will be able to cover these costs. If you have an irrevocable trust, confirm that the trustee is still ready and able to carry out the duties, including administration, management and tax returns.

Gifting in the Estate Plan. Laws concerning charitable giving also change, so be sure your gifting strategies are still appropriate for your estate. An estate plan review is also a good time to review the organizations you wish to support.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 28, 2021) “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?

What are Responsibilities of Trustees and Executors?

Being a fiduciary requires putting the interest of the beneficiary over your own interests, no matter what. The person in charge of managing a trust, the trustee, has a fiduciary duty to the beneficiary, which is described by the terms of the trust. This is explained in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: Executors, executrix and personal representatives” from nwitimes.com.

Understanding the responsibilities of the trust requires a review of the trust documents, which can be long and complicated. An estate planning attorney will be able to review documents and explain the directions if the trust is a particularly complex one.

If the trust is a basic revocable living trust used to avoid having assets in the estate go through probate, duties are likely to be similar to those of a personal representative, also known as the executor. This is the person in charge of carrying out the directions in a last will.

A simple explanation of executor responsibilities is gathering the assets, filing tax returns, and paying creditors. The executor files for an EIN number, which functions like a Social Security number for the estate. The executor opens an estate bank account to hold assets that are not transferred directly to named beneficiaries. And the executor files the last tax returns for the decedent for the last year in which he or she was living, and an estate tax return. There’s more to it, but those are the basic tasks.

A person tasked with administering a trust for the benefit of another person must give great attention to detail. The instructions and terms of the trust must be followed to the letter, with no room for interpretation. Thinking you know what someone else wanted, despite what was written in the trust, is asking for trouble.

If there are investment duties involved, which is common when a trust contains significant assets managed in an investment portfolio, it will be best to work with a professional advisor. Investment duties may be subject to the Prudent Investor Act, or they may include the name of a specific advisor who was managing the accounts before the person died.

If there is room for any discretion whatsoever in the trust, be careful to document every decision. If the trust says you can distribute principal based on the needs of the beneficiary, document why you did or did not make the distribution. Don’t just hand over funds because the beneficiary asked for them. Make decisions based on sound reasoning and document your reasons.

Being asked to serve as a trustee reflects trust. It is also a serious responsibility, and one to be performed with great care. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney if you have any questions about your responsibility as an executor or trustee.

Reference: nwitimes.com (July 18, 2021) “Estate Planning: Executors, executrix and personal representatives”

 

Does Your Estate Have to Go Through Probate?

Probate is a court-supervised process intended to ensure the validity of a lasts will and to protect the distribution of assets after a person has died. If there is no last will, probate still takes place, according to the article “Probate—Courts protecting you after death” from Pauls Valley Democrat.

Every estate that owns property must be probated, unless the title or ownership of the property has been transferred before the person died by gift, if the property is owned jointly with another person, or if it passes by direct beneficiary designation. If a person died without a last will, probate still takes place, but the guidelines used are those of the state law where the person died.

In all cases, it’s better to have a last will and to decide for yourself how you want your assets distributed. For all you know, your state law may give everything you own to an estranged third cousin and her children, who are perfect strangers to you.

If you don’t have a last will, which is referred to as dying “intestate,” the court decides who is going to serve as your administrator. This person will be in charge of distributing all of your worldly goods and taking care of the business part of settling your estate, like paying taxes, selling your home, etc. Without a last will, the court picks a person, and it might not be the person you would have wanted.

Here are the basic steps in probating an estate, once the probate petition is filed:

Initial hearing. This is where the court affirms its jurisdiction and identifies all known heirs, and the personal representative is identified.

Letters Testamentary. This document is issued to the personal representative. This is a judge signed document proving to others, like banks and investment custodians, that the personal representative is legally permitted to handle your property and act on behalf of your estate. It’s similar to a Power of Attorney.

Probate. This court process collects, identifies, and accounts for all assets of a decedent. The representative must be mindful to document any money going in and out of the estate during the administrative process.

Written notice must be given to all and any known heirs. This can lead to relatives and others believing they have a claim on your estate and to then challenge the provisions of your last will with the court.

Notice is also provided to creditors, who have at least 60 days after notice is provided to make a claim on the estate. This timeframe varies by jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, these notices are published in local newspapers, once a week for two or more consecutive weeks. Once they receive fair notice, general creditors who fail to file a claim lose their right to ever file a claim on the estate.

An estate plan is created with an eye to minimizing taxes, maximizing privacy for the family and heirs, and transferring ownership of assets with as little red tape as possible. Failing to properly plan can lead to a probate taking months, and in some cases, years.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your estate plan and avoid probate.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (July 1, 2021) “Probate—Courts protecting you after death”

 

Why Do I Need a Will, Like Yesterday?

A recent Gallup poll found that fewer than half of Americans (46%) have a last will that states the way in which their assets are to be handled after their death.

Surprisingly, the results of this survey have been nearly unchanged since 1990 at between 44% and 51%.

Real Simple’s recent article “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now” says that one of the most common myths is that a last will isn’t needed if you want all of your assets to go to your family.

  1. While the state has laws on what happens if you die without a last will, what if that’s not exactly how you want your estate to be distributed?
  2. Another major reason for creating a last will is to make certain that someone is named to care for your minor children.
  3. A last will lets you designate guardians to care for your children after your death. Without a guardian in a last will, a judge will decide who raises your children if you pass away. That judge likely would be someone who does not know you or your children or your family and friends. Without a last will, you will be allowing this “stranger” to make this life-changing decision for your children.
  4. Also, there are taxes. If you have a last will in place, it will minimize estate taxes your family may have to deal with. A comprehensive estate plan created with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney can reduce tax exposure by as much as 40%. This move alone can help avoid having to pay taxes on your income a second time.
  5. A last will isn’t just for your benefit. Your family will ultimately be most impacted by whether you took the time to draft up this important document. Creating a last will can give them some peace and comfort during a difficult time. In contrast, not having a last will leaves them with no guidance as to your wishes and can add to their burdens and stress during their grieving.
  6. Care and maintenance of pets. The law says that pets are just property. If you regard your pets as members of the family, then you can leave money to an individual whom you designate as the caregiver for your pet if it survives you. A last will lets you to give your pet to a chosen loved one. This simple step alone can help prevent your pet from going to a shelter.
  7. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your will.

Reference: Real Simple (June 25, 2021) “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now”

 

What are My Best Estate Planning Moves?

Tickertape’s recent article “5 Estate Planning Tips That Aren’t Just for the Wealthy” explains that a common misconception is that estate planning isn’t necessary if your estate assets amount to less than the 2021 federal estate tax exemption of $11.7 million per individual.

But most of us can benefit from estate planning. This can help protect your assets for your heirs. Estate planning includes creating a last will or revocable living trust, making certain that you have the right beneficiaries, and creating a health care directive. Creating a solid estate plan can decrease the odds that your family will have to deal with a problematic probate and reduce the amount of money because of unneeded taxes.

Create a Will. A last will is one way to let people know how you want your assets taken care of after you die. Plus, a last will should include information about who should act as guardians for minor children and care for any pets. Talk to an estate planning attorney about the specific laws for probate to make sure you do it correctly.

Name Your Beneficiaries. Review your beneficiary designations and make sure they’re up to date. When there’s a major life change, you should look at your beneficiary designations (e.g., life insurance and retirement funds), update your last will, and make sure everything matches. This includes charities as well as individuals. There are estate planning strategies designed to help you pass your assets on, but none of these will help if you don’t have your beneficiaries properly designated and assets aligned with your estate plan.

Ask Your Attorney About a Trust. A fully funded revocable living trust can be great tool to pass your assets on while potentially helping your heirs avoid probate. There are many different types of trusts that can be used to provide a variety of benefits. Much depends on your situation, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Power of Attorney. Estate planning also includes documents in the event you become incapacitated. Signing a power of attorney allows an agent to make decisions on your behalf if you’re incapacitated. Find a person you trust to handle these decisions and have an estate planning attorney prepare the legal documents to ensure that everything is correct.

Think About Giving Now. You don’t need to wait until you’re gone to provide resources to your family. In 2021, you can give up to $15,000 to each recipient without paying the gift tax. If you’re married, each spouse can give $15,000. When you give to charity now, instead of waiting until you pass, you may claim a tax deduction, whether you donate directly, give stock, or set up a donor-advised fund. This allows you to benefit now—along with your beneficiaries.

Reference: Tickertape (June 25, 2021) “5 Estate Planning Tips That Aren’t Just for the Wealthy”

 

What Should a Power of Attorney Include?

The pandemic has taught us how swiftly our lives can change, and interest in having a power of attorney (POA) has increased as a result. But you need to know how this powerful document is and what it’s limits are. A recent article from Forbes titled “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On” explains it all.

The agent acting under the authority of your POA only controls assets in your name. Assets in a trust are not owned by you, so your agent can’t access them. The trustee (you or a successor trustee, if you are incapacitated) appointed in your trust document would have control of the trust and its assets.

There are several different types of POAs. The Durable Power of Attorney goes into effect the moment it is signed and continues to be valid if you become incapacitated. The Springing Power of Attorney becomes valid only when you become incapacitated.

Most estate planning attorneys will advise you to use the Durable Power of Attorney, as the Springing Power of Attorney requires extra steps (perhaps even a court) to determine your capacity.

All authority under a Power of Attorney ceases to be effective when you die.

There are challenges to the POA. Deciding who will be your agent is not always easy. The agent has complete control over your financial life outside of assets held in trust. If you chose to appoint two different people to share the responsibility and they don’t get along, time-sensitive decisions could become tangled and delayed.

Determine gifting parameters. Will your agent be authorized to make gifts? Depending upon your estate, you may want your agent to be able to make gifts, which is useful if you want to reduce estate taxes or if you’ll need to apply for government benefits in the near future. You can also give directions as to who gets gifts and how much. Most people limit the size of gifts to the annual exclusion amount of $15,000.

Can the POA agent change beneficiary designations? Chances are a lot of your assets will pass to loved ones through a beneficiary designation: life insurance, investment, retirement accounts, etc. Do you want your POA agent to have the ability to change these? Most people do not, and the POA must specifically state this. Your estate planning attorney will be able to custom design your POA to protect your beneficiary designations.

Can the POA amend a trust? Depending upon your circumstances, you may or may not want your POA to have the ability to make changes to trusts. This would allow the POA to change beneficiaries and change the terms of the trust. Most folks have planned their trusts to work with their estate plan, and do not wish a POA agent to have the power to make changes.

The POA and the guardian. A POA may be used to name a guardian, who would be appointed by the court. This person is often the same person as the POA, with the idea that the same person you trust enough to be your POA would also be trusted to be your guardian.

The POA is a more powerful document than people think. Downloading a POA and hoping for the best can undo a lifetime of financial and estate planning. It’s best to have a POA created that is uniquely drafted for your family and your situation. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare this document for you.

Reference: Forbes (July 19, 2021) “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On”

 

What are the Basics of a Successful Estate Plan?

Whether you have a whole lot of money or a little, an estate plan is an essential. It protects you and your loved ones, and can also minimize taxes, expenses, fees and the loss of your privacy. A solid estate plan is created by an experienced estate planning attorney who is familiar with the laws of your state, reports the recent article titled “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan” from Bankrate.com.

All good estate plans have three key elements: a will, power of attorney and an advance healthcare directive. Each serves a different purpose. Some estate plans also include trusts, but every situation is different. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create the right estate plan for you.

A Will. The will, also known as the last will and testament, is the foundation of all estate plans. It directs your assets to be distributed as you wish. Without an estate plan, the court decides who will receive your assets. That’s the biggest mistake you can make. It’s called dying intestate. Your heirs will be burdened with additional court costs, delays and the stress of not knowing what you might have wanted.

However, financial accounts and property aren’t the only valuable thing protected by your will. If you have a minor child or children, the will is used to name a guardian who will take care of them. It also names a conservator who will manage the child’s financial assets, until they are of legal age. The guardian and conservator may be the same person, or they might be two different people. If you opt to split the roles, be sure the two people work well together.

Power of Attorney. A power of attorney, or POA, is used to give another person legal authority to take care of financial and legal matters, while you are still living. If you are incapacitated, a POA gives someone else the ability to pay bills and manage your affairs. A medical POA gives another person the ability to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. The POA is completely customizable: you can use it to give someone else broad powers to do everything, or narrow powers so they are in charge of only one bank account, for instance. It is very important to have a detailed discussion with the person before you name them. It’s a big responsibility and you want to be certain they are comfortable carrying out all of the tasks.

The Advance Healthcare Directive. This document lays out in detail what you want to happen to you if you are not able to make decisions because of severe illness or injury. If you don’t want to be resuscitated after a heart attack, for instance, you would state that in your advance care directive. It includes a list of treatments you do and do not want. Your family will be able to use it as a guide to help them make difficult decisions regarding sustaining your life, managing pain and providing end-of-life care.

Trusts in Estate Planning. The three elements above form the base of an estate plan, but there are other tools used to achieve your goals. Depending on your circumstances, you will want to incorporate trusts, useful tools for transferring assets of all types. For example, when assets are placed in an irrevocable trust, they are no longer part of your estate, thereby minimizing your estate tax liability. Trusts are also used when parents wish to exert control over how and when money is distributed to children. If the parents should both die, a trust can prevent an entire inheritance coming into the hands of an 18-year-old who is legally old enough to inherit property, but likely not ready for the responsibility.

Trusts also transfer assets outside of the probate process, so they protect the family’s privacy. No one outside of the trustees know how much money is in the trust and how the money is being distributed. Trusts are not just for the very wealthy. They can help you protect assets from creditors, ex-spouses and litigious family members.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you in preparing your plan.

Reference: Bankrate.com (July 23, 2021) “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan”

 

Singer’s 15-Year Estate Battle Is Wrapping Up

The fighting over Brown’s estate has been going on since he died 15 years ago on Christmas Day at age 73. A series of bizarre events followed, says the Associated Press in the article “Family of James Brown settles 15-year battle over his estate.” They included photos of a woman who claimed to have been married to Brown being locked out of his home, sobbing and rattling the iron gates to his estate.

James Brown was known for his flashy performances and iconic chart-topping hits, like “I Feel Good,” “A Man’s World,” “Pappas Got a Brand-New Bag,” and many more. Unfortunately, he was plagued by drug problems and mismanaged finances, which shrank his estate.

More than twelve lawsuits were filed by people trying to establish claims to his assets. Courts estimates of his net worth range from $5 million to more than $100 million.

The battle was gruesome from the start, since it wasn’t just about money. Brown’s family fought over what was to happen with his body. His remains, inside a gold casket, were in a funeral home in cold storage for more than two months, until this issue was resolved.

Brown was eventually interred in Beech Island, South Carolina, at the home of one of his daughters. The family had plans to create a shrine to him, using Elvis Presley’s Graceland as a model, but the idea never became reality.

In 2020, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that Tommie Rae Hynie, the woman who claimed to be his wife, had never been legally married to Brown and had no claim on his estate. Justices also ordered a circuit court to proceed with probating Brown’s estate, following the directions of his estate plan.

Brown’s estate plan outlined plans for a trust to be created to use his music royalties to fund educational expenses for children in South Carolina and Georgia.

There had been a 2009 settlement plan that would have given almost half of his estate to a charitable organization, a quarter of his estate to Hynie and the rest to be divided among his adult children. That settlement was overturned in 2013, with a judge saying the settlement did not follow Brown’s wishes for most of his money to go to charity.

A professional manager had been brought in to take control of Brown’s assets from the estate’s trustees to settle his debts.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to help you with your estate so that something like this does not happen to you.

Reference: Associated Press (July 23, 2021) “Family of James Brown settles 15-year battle over his estate”

 

What are the Advantages of a Testamentary Trust?

One reason to have a last will and testament is to protect minor children. A will offers a means of providing for a minor child through a testamentary trust, which is also a good tool for leaving an inheritance to someone who might not use their bequest wisely, says the recent article “What is a Testamentary Trust and How Do I Create One?” from wtop news.

Trusts are legal entities that hold assets, and money or other assets in the trust are managed according to the wishes of the person who created the trust, known as the grantor. A testamentary trust is created through the person’s will and becomes effective upon their death. Once the person dies, their assets are placed in the trust and are distributed according to the directions in the trust.

A trust can also be created while a person is living, called a revocable trust or a living trust. Assets moved into the trust are distributed directly to heirs upon the person’s death and do not go through the probate process. However, they are administered without probate, as long as they are in effect. Living trusts are also managed outside of the court system, while testamentary trusts are administered through probate as long as they are in effect.

A testamentary trust is used to manage money for children. However, it can also protect assets in other situations. If you are concerned about an adult child getting divorced and don’t want their inheritance to be lost to a divorce, a trust is one way to keep their inheritance from being considered a marital asset.

The oversight by the court could be useful in some situations, but in others it becomes costly. Here’s an example. Let’s say a testamentary trust is created for an 8-year-old to hold assets until she turns 25. For seventeen years, any distribution of assets will have to take place through the court. Therefore, while it was less costly to set up than a living trust, the costs of court proceedings over the seventeen years could add up quickly and easily exceed the cost of setting up the living trust in the first place.

If someone involved in the estate is litigious and likely to contest a will or a trust, having the court involved on a regular basis may be an advantage.

Having an estate planning attorney create the trust protects the grantor and the beneficiary in several ways Trusts are governed by state law, and each state has different requirements. Trying to set up a trust with a generic document downloaded from the web could create an invalid trust. In that case, the trust may not be valid, and your wishes won’t be followed.

Once a testamentary trust is created, nothing happens until you die. At that point, the trust will be created, and assets moved into it, as stipulated in your last will and testament.

The trust can be changed or annulled while you are living. To do this, simply revise your will with your estate planning attorney. However, after you have passed, it’ll be extremely difficult for your executor to make changes and it will require court intervention.

Reference: wtop news (July 19, 2021) “What is a Testamentary Trust and How Do I Create One?”