Should I Try Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning?

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “6 Common Myths About Estate Planning explains that the coronavirus pandemic has made many people face decisions about estate planning. Many will use a do-it-yourself solution. Internet DIY websites make it easy to download forms. However, there are mistakes people make when they try do-it-yourself estate planning.

Here are some issues with do-it-yourself that estate planning attorneys regularly see:

You need to know what to ask. If you’re trying to complete a specific form, you may be able to do it on your own. However, the challenge is sometimes not knowing what to ask. If you want a more comprehensive end-of-life plan and aren’t sure about what you need in addition to a will, work with an experienced estate planning attorney. If you want to cover everything, and are not sure what everything is, that’s why you see them.

More complex issues require professional help. Take a more holistic look at your estate plan and look at estate planning, tax planning and financial planning together, since they’re all interrelated. If you only look at one of these areas at a time, you may create complications in another. This could unintentionally increase your expenses or taxes. Your situation might also include special issues or circumstances. A do-it-yourself website might not be able to tell you how to account for your specific situation in the best possible way. It will just give you a blanket list, and it will all be cookie cutter. You won’t have the individual attention to your goals and priorities you get by sitting down and talking to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Estate laws vary from state to state. Every state may have different rules for estate planning, such as for powers of attorney or a health care proxy. There are also 17 states and the District of Columbia that tax your estate, inheritance, or both. These tax laws can impact your estate planning. Eleven states and DC only have an estate tax (CT, HI, IL, ME, MA, MN, NY, OR, RI, VT and WA). Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have only an inheritance tax. Maryland has both an inheritance tax and an estate tax.

Setting up health care directives and making end-of-life decisions can be very involved. It’s too important to try to do it yourself. If you make a mistake, it could impact the ability of your family to take care of financial expenses or manage health care issues. Don’t do it yourself.

Reference: US News & World Report (July 5, 2021) “6 Common Myths About Estate Planning”

 

What Should I Know about Powers of Attorney?

Forbes’ recent article entitled “5 Power Of Attorney Clauses You Need to Focus On” explains that there are two types of powers of attorney. A durable power of attorney is valid when you sign it and stays valid, if you later become incapacitated. A springing power of attorney “springs” into effect, if you become incapacitated. No matter the type of power of attorney, here are some things to consider before signing.

  1. Designating multiple agents. Selecting the person you want as your attorney-in-fact or agent can be a difficult decision because he or she will have control of your financial assets. You can name more than one person as your agent, but if you name two, specify if they’ll be required to act together or if either one can act independently.
  2. Defining gifting parameters. Make certain that your agent will be authorized to make gifts, as this may be important if you want to reduce estate taxes or if you’ll need to apply for government benefits in the future.
  3. Changing beneficiary designations. See if the document lets your agent change beneficiary designations. You should have already named beneficiaries of important assets, like life insurance and retirement accounts, but verify whether you want your agent to be able to change those designations. Most people don’t want their agent to be able to change these designations.
  4. Amending a trust. If you’ve created a revocable trust during your lifetime, you may want to give your agent the ability to change important provisions of the trust, like the beneficiaries or the amounts that they receive. However, this could ruin your estate planning goals and disinherit family that you intended to provide for. Most people don’t want to give their agent the ability to change a trust.
  5. Designating a guardian. The power of attorney often names a guardian, in case one is required. The guardian would be appointed by a court and is often the same person as the agent. If you trust someone enough to be your attorney-in-fact, you’ll probably also trust them as your guardian.

The power of attorney contains powerful authorizations, so make sure you read the document carefully before you sign it. It may be wise to sign a new power of attorney every few years. Otherwise, the power of attorney might become “stale” and your named agent may have trouble using it if it’s ever needed. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss the different powers of attorney and which one would best suit your needs.

Reference: Forbes (July 19, 2021) “5 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need to Focus On”

 

What Should Same-Sex Couples Know about Estate Planning?

Proper estate planning can help ensure that your wishes are carried out exactly as intended in the event of a death or a serious illness, says Insurance Net News’ recent article entitled “What Same-Sex Partners Need to Know About Estate Planning.” Having a clearly stated plan in place can give clear instructions and potentially avoid any fights that otherwise might occur. For same-sex couples, this may be even more crucial.

Your estate plan should include a will or trust, beneficiary forms, powers of attorney, a living will and a letter of intent. It’s also smart to include a secure document with a list of your accounts, debts, assets and contact info for any key people involved in those accounts. This list should contain passwords for locked accounts and any other relevant information.

A will is a central component of an estate plan which ensures that your wishes are followed after you pass away. This alleviates your family from the responsibility of determining how to divide your property and takes the guessing and stress out of how to pass along belongings. A will or trust might also state the way in which to transfer your financial assets to your children. You should also make sure your beneficiary forms are up to date with your spouse for life insurance policies, bank accounts and retirement accounts.

For same-sex couples, it is particularly important to create a clear medical power of attorney and create a living will that states your medical directives, if you aren’t able to make those decisions on your own. If you aren’t married, this will give your partner the legal protection he or she needs to make those decisions. It is important for you to take time to have those conversations with your partner, so the plans and directives are clear. You can also draft a letter of intent, which is a written, personal note that can be included to help detail your wishes and provide reasoning for the decisions.

Protecting Your Minor Children. Name a legal guardian for them in your will, in the event both parents die. Same-sex couples must make sure that both parents have equal rights, especially in a case where one parent is the biological parent. If the surviving spouse or partner isn’t the biological parent and hasn’t legally adopted the children, don’t assume they’ll automatically be named guardian.  These laws vary from state to state.

Dissolve Old Unions. There could be challenges, if you entered into a civil union or domestic partnership before your marriage was legalized. Prior to the 2015 marriage equality ruling, some same-sex couples married in states where it was legal but resided in states where the marriage wasn’t recognized. If you and your partner broke up, but didn’t legally dissolve the union, it may still be legally binding. Moreover, some states converted civil unions and domestic partnerships to legal marriages, so you and a former partner could be legally married without knowing it. If a former union wasn’t with your current partner, make certain that you legally unbind yourself to avoid any future disputes on your estate.

Review Your Real Estate Documents. Check your real estate documents to confirm that both partners are listed and have equal rights to home ownership, especially if the home was purchased prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage or if you aren’t married. There are a few ways to split ownership of their property. This includes tenants in common, where both partners share ownership of the property, but allows each individual to leave their shares to another person in their will. There’s also joint tenants with rights to survivorship. This is when both partners are property owners but if one dies, the remaining partner retains sole ownership.

Estate planning can be a complex process, and same-sex couples may have more stress to make certain that they have a legally binding plan. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the estate planning process to put a solid plan to help provide peace of mind knowing your family is protected.

Reference: Insurance Net News (June 30, 2021) “What Same-Sex Partners Need to Know About Estate Planning”

 

How Do I Sell a Home in an Irrevocable Trust?

A trustee who sells a home in irrevocable trust for a parent who died should know that generally, assets transferred to an irrevocable trust will be deemed a completed gift and will not be included in an estate for estate tax purposes.

Lehigh Valley Live’s recent article entitled “What happens to tax on a home sold from a trust?” explains that this means there wouldn’t be a step-up in basis to the fair market value upon the decedent’s death.

Remember that an irrevocable trust is a type of trust in which its terms can’t be modified, amended, or terminated without the permission of the grantor’s named beneficiary or beneficiaries.

Irrevocable trusts have tax-shelter benefits that revocable trusts to don’t.

However, an irrevocable trust can be created so that the settlor (the creator) of the trust keeps certain rights and powers, so that gifts to the trust are incomplete.

In that instance, the assets are included in the settlor’s estate upon death and obtain a step-up in basis upon the decedent’s death.

If the trust sells the asset in the trust, the trust may need to file Form 1041, U.S. Income Tax Return for Estates and Trusts, and the trust may be required to pay a tax.

If the trust distributes any income to the beneficiaries in the same tax year it receives that income, the income is passed through to the beneficiaries, and the beneficiaries must report it on the beneficiaries’ individual tax returns (Form 1040) and pay any tax due.

It’s generally a good idea to report and pay tax at the individual rate instead of at the trust or estate level.

That’s because the trust or estate will begin to pay tax at the highest rate at only $13,150. In comparison, an individual doesn’t pay tax at the highest rate until his or her income exceeds over $440,000.

Note that an irrevocable trust is a more complex legal arrangement than a revocable trust. As a result, there might be current income tax and future estate tax implications when using this type of trust. It’s wise to seek the assistance of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Lehigh Valley Live (Aug. 16, 2021) “What happens to tax on a home sold from a trust?”

 

Key Dates for Planning Retirement

Just as there are many types of retirement benefits, there are many dates to keep in mind when creating a retirement plan. Some concern when you can make larger contributions to retirement accounts and others have to do with withdrawals. Knowing the dates for each matters to your retirement planning, according to the recent article title “10 Important Ages for Retirement Planning” from U.S. News & World Report.

When should you max out retirement savings contributions? The sooner you start saving for retirement, the more likely you’ll retire with robust tax-deferred accounts. Tax breaks and employer matches add up, as do compounding interest returns. The 401(k) contribution limit in 2021 is $19,500. Wage earners can deposit up to $6,000 in a traditional IRA or Roth IRA. If you’re in your peak earning years, traditional IRAs and 401(k)s may be better, since your tax bracket is likely higher to be higher than when you started out.

Catch-up contributions begin at age 50. Once you’ve turned 50, you can make catch up contributions to 401(k)s—up to $6,500—and up to $7,000 in traditional IRAs. That’s for 2021. If you’re able to take advantage of these contributions, you can put away additional money and qualify for even bigger tax deductions.

401(k) withdrawals could start at 55. If you left your job in the same year you hit the double nickel, you can take 401(k) withdrawals penalty-free from the account associated with your most recent job. The “Rule of 55” lets you avoid a 10% early penalty, but you’ll still have to pay income taxes on any withdrawals from a 401(k) account. However, if you roll a 401(k) account balance into an IRA, you’ll need to wait until age 59½ to take IRA withdrawals without any penalties.

When does the IRA retirement age begin? The magic number is 59½. However, traditional IRA distributions are not required until age 72. All traditional IRA withdrawals are also taxable.

Social Security eligibility begins at age 62. The earlier you start collecting Social Security, the smaller your monthly benefit. Your full retirement age depends upon your date of birth, when the benefit amount will be higher than at age 62. If you work after signing up for Social Security, your benefits could be temporarily withheld if your salary is higher than the annual earnings limit. If you retire before your full retirement age and earn more than $18,960 per year, for every $2 above this amount, your benefits will be reduced by $1. Benefits will be recalculated once you reach full retirement age.

Medicare eligibility begins at age 65. Enrollment in Medicare may take place during a seven-month period that begins three months before the month you turn 65. Signing up on time matters, because Medicare Part B premiums increase by 10% for every 12-month period you were eligible for benefits but failed to enroll. Are you delaying enrollment because you or your spouse is still covered by a group health plan at work? Make sure to sign up within eight months of leaving your job or health plan and avoid the penalty.

Social Security Full Retirement Age is 66 for most Baby Boomers. 67 is the full retirement age for workers born in 1960 or later. Millennials and younger generations qualify after age 67.

If you can wait until 70, you’ll max out on Social Security. Social Security benefits increase by 8% for each year you wait to start payments between Full Retirement Age and age 70. After age 70, the number remains the same.

RMDs begin for 401(k) and IRA retirement accounts at age 72. These mistakes here are expensive! Your first distribution must be taken by April 1 of the year you turn 72. After that, annual withdrawals from 401(k)s and traditional IRAs must be taken by December 31 of each year. Missing a required distribution and you’ll get hit with a nasty 50% of the amount that you should have withdrawn.

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

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (July 28, 2021) “10 Important Ages for Retirement Planning”

 

When to Use a QTIP Trust

Using trusts in an estate plan protects assets and financial legacies, explains Yahoo! Finance in a recent article titled “How Does a QTIP Trust Work? Married couples often use a QTIP trust to allow the grantor, the person creating the trust, to set aside assets for their spouse and establishing some control over the assets after the grantor has passed.

If you are concerned about what might happen to your spouse after you have died, a QTIP can provide some reassurance.

What is a Qualified Terminable Interest Property Trust? A QTIP lets one spouse provide income for another and can be used to pass assets to other beneficiaries, including children. The QTIP has some similarities to a marital trust, which is also used to hold assets belonging to a spouse. However, the marital trust is not as restrictive as a QTIP. When the grantor of the QTIP dies, their assets are transferred into the trust, which then provides income for the surviving spouse.

How does a QTIP Trust Work? QTIPs are types of irrevocable trusts. Once assets are transferred to the trust, in most cases, the transfer can’t be reversed. This is especially useful for second marriages, where there are children from a prior marriage. The QTIP allows the grantor the ability to provide for their second spouse and protect children from the previous marriage.

Assets can be transferred to the QTIP when it is created, or they can be transferred at the time of death. Usually this is done through the creation of a separate will.

You’ll need to name a trustee for the QTIP, who will manage the trust and oversee distributions. You should also name a successor trustee, in case the original trustee cannot serve.

The spouse of a grantor is considered a lifetime beneficiary, as they may draw on the trust income as long as they are living. When the surviving spouse passes, the people who receive the assets left in the trust, or “remainder,” are known as “remainder beneficiaries.” They may be children from a prior marriage, or anyone else named by the grantor.

The surviving spouse benefits from the QTIP because it provides an income stream. Assets held in a QTIP may be investment properties and taxable investment accounts. The estate benefits from the QTIP because assets qualify for the marital deduction and are excluded from the estate at the grantor’s death. When the surviving spouse dies, the QTIP trust is dissolved, and assets are passed to remainder beneficiaries. At this point, assets in the trust are included in the surviving spouse’s estate for estate tax purposes.

A QTIP, and the separate will for it, should be established with an estate planning attorney to ensure it works with the rest of your estate plan. This is especially important when there are children from second marriages in the family.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (July 30, 2021) “How Does a QTIP Trust Work?

What You Need to Know about Probate

We often read about celebrities who die without an estate and how everything they own must go through probate. The article titled “What to know about probate” from wmur.com explains what that means, and what you need to understand about wills, probate and estate planning.

Probate is a process used to prove that a person’s will is valid and to supervise how their estate is handled. It involves a court that focuses on this area. Much about the process depends upon the state in which it’s taking place, since these laws vary from state to state.

When someone dies without a will, they have failed to provide instructions for the distribution of their property. Their assets will still be distributed, but the laws of the state will determine what happens next. The state follows intestacy laws, which outline pre-set patterns of distributing property. In one state, property will go to the spouse and children. In others, the spouse may get everything.

Other decisions are made for your family when there is no will. If you have not named an executor, the court will appoint someone to oversee your estate. The court will also appoint a person to raise your children, if no guardian has been named for minor children. A family member may be chosen, but it may not be the family member you wanted to raise your kids, or it may be a stranger in a foster home.

Another reason to have a will is that probate can take a few months, or, depending on where you live, a few years, to complete. If there is litigation, and not having a will makes that more likely, it would take longer and will undoubtedly cost more. While this is going on, assets may lose value and heirs may suffer from not having access to assets.

Probate is also costly. There are legal notices to be published, court fees, executor fees and bond premiums, appraisal fees and attorney expenses.

Having an estate plan also means tax planning. While the federal estate tax as of this writing is $11.7 million per individual, it will not be that high forever. If the proposals to lower the federal estate tax to $3.5 million per person come to pass, will your estate escape estate taxes? What about your state’s estate or inheritance taxes?

Probate is also a very public process. Once a will is admitted as valid by the court, it becomes a public document. Anyone and everyone can view it and learn about your net worth and who got what.

With all these drawbacks, are there good reasons to allow your estate to go through probate? In some cases, yes. If multiple wills have been found, probate will be needed to establish which will is the correct one. If the will is confusing or complex, probate could provide the clarity needed to settle the estate. If beneficiaries are litigious, probate may be the voice of authority to quell some (but not all) disputes. And if the estate has no money and a lot of debt, it may be the probate court that sorts out the situation.

Every estate is different. Therefore, it is important to speak with an estate planning attorney to have a will, power of attorney and any health care directives created and properly executed. Every few years, these documents should be reviewed and revised to keep up with changes in the law and in your personal life.

Reference: wmur.com (July 29, 2021) “What to know about probate”

What Not to Do when Creating an Estate Plan

Having a good estate plan is critical to ensure that your family is well taken care of after you are gone. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney remains the best way to be sure that your assets are distributed as you want and in the most tax-efficient way possible. A recent article titled “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid” from Urology Times looks at the fine points.

An out-of-date estate plan. Life is all about change. Your estate plan needs to reflect those changes. Just as you prepare taxes every year, your estate plan should be reviewed every year. Here are trigger events that should also spur a review:

  • Parents die and can no longer be beneficiaries or guardians of minor children.
  • Children marry or divorce or have children of their own.
  • Your own remarriage or divorce.
  • A significant change in your asset levels, good or bad.
  • Buying or selling real estate or other large transactions.

Neglecting to update an estate plan correctly. Scratching out a provision in a will and initialing it does not make the change valid. This never works, no matter what your know-it-all brother-in-law says. If you want to make a change, visit an estate planning attorney.

Relying on joint tenancy to avoid probate. When you bought your home, someone probably advised you to title the home using joint tenancy to avoid probate. That only works when the first spouse dies. When the surviving spouse dies, they own the home entirely. The home goes through probate.

Failing to coordinate your will and trusts. All your wills and trusts and any other estate planning documents need to be reviewed to be sure they work together. If you create a trust and transfer assets to it, but your will states that the asset now held in the trust should be gifted to a nephew, then you’ve opened the door to delays, family dissent and possibly litigation.

Not titling assets correctly. How assets are titled reflects their ownership. If your home, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, vehicles and other properties are titled properly, you’ve done your homework. Next, check on beneficiary designations for any asset. Beneficiary designations allow assets to pass directly to the beneficiary. Review these designations annually. If your will says one thing and the beneficiary designation says another, the beneficiary designation wins.

Not naming successor or contingent beneficiaries. If you’ve named a beneficiary on an account—such as your life insurance—and the beneficiary dies, the proceeds could go to your estate and become taxable. Naming an alternate and successor for all the key roles in your estate plan, including beneficiaries, trustees and guardians, offers another layer of certainty to your estate plan.

Neglecting to address health care directives. It may be easier to decide who gets the family vacation home than who will decide to keep you on or take you off life-support systems. However, this is necessary to protect your wishes and prevent family disasters. Health care proxy, advance care directive and end-of-life planning documents tell your loved ones what your wishes are. Without them, the family may be left guessing what to do.

Forgetting to update Power of Attorney. Review this critical document to be sure of two things: the person you named to manage your affairs is still the person you want, and the documents are relatively recent. Some financial institutions balk at older POA forms, and others will outright refuse to accept them. Some states, like New York, have changed POA rules to make it harder for POAs to be denied, but in other states there still can be problems, if the POA is old.

Reference: Urology Times (July 29, 2021) “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid”

How Important Is a Power of Attorney?

People are often surprised to learn a power of attorney is one of the most urgently needed estate planning documents to have, with a last will and health care proxy close behind in order of importance. Everyone over age 18 should have these documents, explains a recent article titled “The dangers of not having a power of attorney” from the Rome Sentinel. The reason is simple: if you have a short- or long-term health problem and can’t manage your own assets or even medical decisions and haven’t given anyone the ability to do so, you may spend your rehabilitation period dealing with an easily avoidable nightmare.

Here are other problems that may result from not having your incapacity legal planning in place:

A guardianship proceeding might be needed. If you are incapacitated without this planning, loved ones may have to petition the court to apply for guardianship so they can make fundamental decisions for you. Even if you are married, your spouse is not automatically empowered to manage your financial affairs, except perhaps for assets that are jointly owned. It can take months to obtain guardianship and costs far more than the legal documents in the first place. If there are family issues, guardianship might lead to litigation and family fights.

The cost of not being able to pay bills in a timely manner adds up quickly. The world keeps moving while you are incapacitated. Mortgage payments and car loans need to be paid, as do utilities and healthcare bills. Lapses of insurance for your home, auto or life, could turn a health crisis into a financial crisis, if no one can act on your behalf.

Nursing home bills and Medicaid eligibility denials. Even one month of paying for a nursing home out of pocket, when you would otherwise qualify for Medicaid, could take a large bite out of savings. The Medicaid application process requires a responsible person to gather a lot of medical records, sign numerous documents and follow through with the appropriate government authorities.

Getting medical records in a HIPAA world. Your power of attorney should include an authorization for your representative to take care of all health care billing and payments and to access your medical records. If a spouse or family member is denied access to review records, your treatment and care may suffer. If your health crisis is the result of an accident or medical malpractice, this could jeopardize your defense.

Transferring assets. It may be necessary to transfer assets, like a home, or other assets, out of your immediate control. You may be in a final stage of life. As a result, transferring assets while you are still living will avoid costly and time-consuming probate proceedings. If a power of attorney is up to date and includes a fully executed “Statutory Gift” authorization, your loved ones will be able to manage your assets for the best possible outcome.

The power of attorney is a uniquely flexible estate planning document. It can be broad and permit someone you trust to manage all of your financial and legal matters, or it can be narrow in scope. Your estate planning attorney will be able to craft an appropriate power of attorney that is best suited for your needs and family. The most important thing: don’t delay having a new or updated power of attorney created. If you have a power of attorney, but it was created more than four or five years ago, it may not be recognized by financial institutions. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to create your power of attorney.

Reference: Rome Sentinel (July 25, 2021) “The dangers of not having a power of attorney”

 

Estate Planning for Couples with Big Age Differences

Seniors who are married to younger spouses have a special situation for estate planning, a situation that’s become more common, according to Barron’s recent article “Couples with Big Age Gaps Require Special Attention.”

This kind of family requires planning for the older spouse’s retirement needs and healthcare costs, while determining how much of the older spouse’s wealth should go to the children from any previous marriages while balancing the needs of a future child with a younger spouse. Beneficiaries for all financial accounts, last wills and all estate documents need to be updated to include the new spouse and child. The same goes for medical directives and power of attorney forms.

Social Security and retirement account considerations differ as well. The younger spouse may begin receiving their own Social Security at age 62, or a portion of the older spouse’s Social Security, whichever is greater. If the older spouse can wait to file for Social Security benefits at age 70, the younger spouse will receive more spousal benefits than if the older spouse claims earlier. Social Security pays the survivor’s benefit, typically based upon the older spouse’s earnings.

Pension plans need to be reviewed for a younger spouse. If the pension plan allows a survivor benefit, the surviving spouse will receive benefits in the future. IRAs have different beneficiary distribution rules for couples with significant age differences. Instead of relying on the standard Uniform Lifetime Tables, the IRS lets individuals use the Joint Life and Last Survivor Expectancy Table, if the sole beneficiary is a spouse who is more than ten years younger. This allows for smaller than normally Required Minimum Distributions from the IRA, allowing the account a longer lifetime.

Families that include children with special needs also benefit from trusts, as assets in the trust are not included in eligibility for government benefits. Many families with such family members are advised to use an ABLE Savings Account, which lets the assets grow tax free, also without impacting benefit eligibility. There are limits on the accounts, so funds exceeding the ABLE account limits may be added to special needs trusts, or SNTs.

A trustee, who may be a family member or a professional, uses the SNT assets to pay for the care of the individual with special needs after the donor parents have passed. The child is able to maintain their eligibility.

For same sex couples, revocable or irrevocable trusts may be used, if the couple is not married. Nontraditional families of any kind with children require individual estate plans to protect them,  which usually involves trusts.

Trusts are also useful when there are children from different marriages. They can protect the children from the first marriage and subsequent marriages. A wisely constructed estate plan can do more than prevent legal battles among children—they can preserve family harmony in the non-traditional family after parents have passed. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney for help.

Reference: Barron’s (July 27, 2021) “Couples with Big Age Gaps Require Special Attention”