Why Would I Need a Will or a Trust?

Say that some time ago– when your family was still young, and the estate tax limit was $600,000—you created a revocable and an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT). This was designed to take care of your family after your death. However, at this point, everyone is financially independent, and the value of your estate is far less than the taxable threshold of $11.7 million.

If the trust is terminated, the beneficiaries will get a step-up basis at your death and pay taxes at their own rates, rather than the trust rate. Would you need a will, if all the accounts have your children as beneficiaries? The ILIT was also funded with a term life insurance policy that is going to expire soon.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Should I terminate this trust and do I need a will?” says that there are number of issues to address. The purpose of an irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) is to own and control term or permanent life insurance policies, so that the policy proceeds aren’t included in the insured’s taxable estate upon his or her death.

While the current federal estate tax exemption amount is $11.7 million per person, the law is scheduled to expire at the end of 2025, when it will return to an exemption of $5 million, adjusted for inflation. It’s unknown if Congress will change the proposed exemption amount when the law sunsets.

If the ILIT is funded with a term policy that is set to expire soon, it may be easier to let the policy owned by the ILIT expire, which would render the ILIT immaterial. The terms of the ILIT will govern the procedure for the termination of the trust, which may be simple or onerous. Consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to who can look more closely at the trust’s language.

A revocable living trust lets the person creating the trust control the assets in the trust and avoid probate. It also can be used to manage the trust assets by a successor trustee, in the event the grantor who created the trust becomes incapacitated.

For example, New Jersey banks may freeze 50% of the assets in an estate at the owner’s death to be certain that any estate or inheritance taxes that may be due are paid. A tax waiver must be obtained to lift the freeze. However, any assets in a trust, aren’t subject to a similar freeze.

At the grantor’s death, a trustee must pay income tax, if the gross income of the trust is $600 or more. Depending on the amount of assets in the trust, the trust may not accumulate gross income of $600, if the assets are distributed outright to the beneficiaries right after the death of the grantor.

Lastly, it’s wise to have a will, even if the majority of assets are in a living trust or are in IRAs and other retirement accounts. That is because there may be some assets that are outside the trust or retirement account or there may be a need for a personal representative of the estate to handle tax or other types of refunds.

Reference: nj.com (June 15, 2021) “Should I terminate this trust and do I need a will?”

 

Can I Be Certain My Estate Plan Is Successful?

Forbes’ recent article entitled“7 Steps to Ensure a Successful Estate Plan” listed seven actions to take for a good estate plan:

  1. Educate and communicate. A big reason estate plans aren’t successful, is that the next generation isn’t ready and they waste or mismanage the assets. You can reduce those risks and put your estate in a trust to allows children limited access. In addition, you can ensure that the children have a basic knowledge of and are comfortable with wealth. Children also benefit from understanding their parents’ philosophy about managing, accumulating, spending and giving money.
  2. Anticipate family conflicts. Family conflicts can come to a head when one or both parents pass, and frequently the details of the estate plan itself cause or exacerbate family conflicts or resentments. Many people just think that “the kids will work it out,” or they create conflicts by committing classic mistakes, like having siblings with different personalities or philosophies jointly inherit property or a business.
  3. Plan before making gifts. In many cases, gift giving is a primary component of an estate plan, and gifts can be a good way for the next generation to become comfortable handling wealth. Rather than just automatically writing checks, the older generation should develop a strategy that will maximize the impact of their gifts. Cash gifts can be spent quickly, but property gifts are more apt to be kept and held for the future.
  4. Understand the basics of the plan. Few people understand the basics of their estate plans, so ask questions and get comfortable with what your estate planning attorney is saying and recommending.
  5. Organize, simplify, and prepare. A major reason it takes a lot of time and expense in settling an estate, is that the owner didn’t make it easy for the executor. The owner may have failed to make information easy to locate. An executor must understand the details of the estate.
  6. Have a business succession plan. Most business owners don’t have a real succession plan. This is the primary reason why few businesses survive the second generation of owners. The value of a small business rapidly declines, when the owner leaves with no succession plan in place. A succession plan designates the individual who’ll run the business and who will own it, as well as when the transitions will happen. If no one in your family wants to run the business, the succession plan should provide that the company is to be sold when you retire or die. A business must be managed and structured, so it’s ready for a sale or inheritance, which frequently entails improving accounting and other information systems.
  7. Fund living trusts. A frequent estate planning error is the failure to fund a revocable living trust. The trust is created to avoid probate and establish a process under which trust assets will be managed. However, a living trust has no impact, unless it’s given legal title to assets. Be sure to transfer legal ownership of assets to the trust.
  8. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to set up an estate plan.

Reference: Forbes (May 21, 2021) “7 Steps to Ensure a Successful Estate Plan”

 

Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives

A medical crisis only gets worse, when you learn you don’t have legal authority to make medical decisions for a loved one, or find out after a loved one is incapacitated that you can’t gain access to assets in their trust. You need to have certain estate planning legal documents already in place, according to the article “Tips you should know for Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives” from seacoastonline.com.

Power of Attorney. The power of attorney (POA) allows one person, the “principal” to appoint another person as their “agent” (also known as an “attorney in fact”). The agent has the authority to act on behalf of the principal, depending on the powers described in the document. Each state has its own laws about who can be an agent, if more than one person can be appointed as agent and if there are any limits to what power can be given to an agent. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create a POA to suit your situation.

A POA can be created to give extremely broad powers to an agent. This is sometimes called a “general” POA, where agents can do everything that you would do, from accessing and managing bank accounts, applying for Social Security, to filing tax returns. A POA can also be limited in scope, known as “limited” POA. You could permit an agent to only sign a tax return or conduct a specific transaction.

In most estate planning scenarios, the POA is “durable,” meaning the named agent can continue to have authority to act, even if the principal is incapacitated after the documents have been executed. This makes sense: a durable POA generally avoids having to go to court and have a guardian appointed. The person you have selected will be the POA, not a court-appointed person.

Advance Directive. The advance directive allows a person to appoint another person to make medical decisions on their behalf if incapacitated. In some states, this is called a durable power of attorney for health care, and in others it is referred to as a health care proxy.

In most cases, the advance directive becomes effective when one or more treating physicians determine the person no longer has capacity to make or communicate health care decisions. Having this document in place avoids having to go to court to have a guardian appointed. If time is of the essence, any delay in decision-making could lead to a poor outcome. If there is no advance directive and physicians have decided you are unable to make these decisions, they go by a hierarchy of relatives to make the decisions for you. If you have an estranged adult child, for instance, but they are your next-of-kin, they could be the one making decisions for you.

If you have children who recently became legal adults (usually age 18), these documents will protect them as well, since just being their parent does not provide you with the right to make these decisions.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare these documents should a medical crisis arise.

Reference: Seacoastonline.com (June 27, 2021) “Tips you should know for Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives”

 

Why Is It Important to have a Will?

A Gallup poll released in June showed that slightly less than half of all Americans have a will to tell loved ones what they want to happen with their estate after they die. What’s surprising is that the results of this survey have been almost the same since 1990, explains the article “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now” from Real Simple. The survey also showed that upper-income Americans are more likely than lower-income Americans to have a will, and the younger people are, the less likely they are to have a will.

One of the lessons from the pandemic, is how fragile our lives are. It’s never too early to start planning and properly document your wishes. If you need more reasons to begin estate planning, here are six:

No will often leads to unwanted consequences. A major misconception is the idea that you don’t need a will because everything you own will go to your family. Not necessarily. Each state has its own laws about what happens if you have no will, and those laws are usually based on bloodlines or kinship. Most states leave two-thirds of your assets to your children and one-third to your spouse. Will your spouse be able to maintain the same standard of living, or even remain in the family home if this is how assets are distributed? A no-will situation is a no-win situation and can fracture even the best families.

Wills are used to name guardians for minor children. No parent, especially young parents, thinks that anything will happen to them, or even more unlikely, to both parents. However, it does. Creating a will offers the opportunity to name guardians to care for your children after death. If you don’t designate a guardian, a judge will. The judge will have never met your children, nor understand your family’s dynamics, and might even determine that the children should be raised by strangers.

Wills and pet trusts can protect pets after your demise. If you have beloved animal companions, it’s important to understand what can happen to them after you die. The law considers pets to be property, so you can’t leave money to your pet. However, you can create a pet trust and name a person to be the caregiver for your pet, if it survives you. The trust is enforceable, and the pet’s care can be detailed. Otherwise, there is no guarantee your pet will avoid being euthanized.

Taxes are part of death. Creating an estate plan with an experienced estate planning attorney who is knowledgeable about estate taxes, could save your heirs from losing a significant part of their inheritance. There are many tools and strategies to minimize taxes, including making charitable gifts. Plans for large estates can be structured in a way to avoid as much as 40% of tax exposure. It’s even more important to protect a smaller estate from being lost to taxes.

Peace of mind. Remember, wills and estate plans are not just for the benefit of the person who creates them. They are for the family, the surviving spouse, children, and grandchildren. If you did not take the time and make the effort to create an estate plan, they are the ones who will live with the consequences. In many cases, it could change their lives—and not for the better.

Putting it off never ends well. When you’re young and healthy, it seems like nothing can ever go wrong. However, live long enough, and you learn life has ups and downs and unexpected events—like death and serious illness—happen to everyone. Creating an estate plan won’t make you die sooner but having one can provide you and your loved ones with security, so you can focus on living.

If you need a will created, contact an experienced estate planning attorney who can help you.

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

 

How Do You Divide Inheritance among Children?

A father who owns a home and has a healthy $300,000 IRA has two adult children. The youngest, who is disabled, takes care of his father and needs money to live on. The second son is successful and has five children. The younger son has no pension plan and no IRA. The father wants help deciding how to distribute 300 shares of Microsoft, worth about $72,000. The question from a recent article in nj.com is “What’s the best way to split my estate for my kids?” The answer is more complicated than simply how to transfer the stock.

Before the father makes any kind of gift or bequest to his son, he needs to consider whether the son will be eligible for governmental assistance based on his disability and assets. If so, or if the son is already receiving government benefits, any kind of gift or inheritance could make him ineligible. A Third-Party Special Needs Trust may be the best way to maintain the son’s eligibility, while allowing assets to be given to him.

Inherited assets and gifts—but not an IRA or annuities—receive a step-up in basis. The gain on the stock from the time it was purchased and the value at the time of the father’s death will not be taxed. If, however, the stock is gifted to a grandchild, the grandchild will take the grandfather’s basis and upon the sale of the stock, they’ll have to pay the tax on the difference between the sales price and the original price.

You should also consider the impact on Medicaid. If funds are gifted to the son, Medicaid will have a gift-year lookback period and the gifting could make the father ineligible for Medicaid coverage for five years.

An IRA must be initially funded with cash. Once funded, stocks held in one IRA may be transferred to another IRA owned by the same person, and upon death they can go to an inherited IRA for a beneficiary. However, in this case, if the son doesn’t have any earned income and doesn’t have an IRA, the stock can’t be moved into an IRA.

Gifting may be an option. A person may give up to $15,000 per year, per person, without having to file a gift tax return with the IRS. Larger amounts may also be given but a gift tax return must be filed. Each taxpayer has a $11.7 million total over the course of their lifetime to gift with no tax or to leave at death. (Either way, it is a total of $11.7 million, whether given with warm hands or left at death.) When you reach that point, which most don’t, then you’ll need to pay gift taxes.

Medical expenses and educational expenses may be paid for another person, as long as they are paid directly to the educational institution or health care provider. This is not considered a taxable gift.

This person would benefit from sitting down with an estate planning attorney and exploring how to best prepare for his youngest son’s future after the father passes, rather than worrying about the Microsoft stock. There are bigger issues to deal with here.  Contact an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney to discuss these items.

Reference: nj.com (June 24, 2021) “What’s the best way to split my estate for my kids?”

 

I’ve Been Appointed My Aging Parents’ Power of Attorney but What Now?

A durable power of attorney is frequently signed by aging parents. However, sometimes the elderly can misunderstand exactly what that entails, especially when it comes to the authority of the person given decision-making powers.

The person appointed (called the agent or attorney-in-fact) is also typically an adult child. Nevertheless, he or she may be unaware of the appointment or does not grasp what is permitted and when it is permitted. It can be very confusing.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “Let’s Get Clear: What Does It Mean To Be Appointed Aging Parents’ Power Of Attorney?” provides the answers to three frequently asked questions of many heard from families.

Question: Can my father, who’s in charge of our family finances but now has dementia, revoke his DPOA that he signed years ago and name a child to take over managing his money when he needs help?

Answer: Perhaps. If Dad has dementia, he needs to be evaluated by a doctor to see if he still has the capacity to make financial decisions. This is a legal determination with help from doctors and particularly psychologists, who can perform the evaluation and give standardized test results. If the parent is found to have financial capacity, he is permitted to revoke the durable power of attorney at any time. However, if he doesn’t have mental capacity, he’s no longer legally capable of revoking the document.

Question: What if my mother is found to be incapacitated for financial decisions? If I’m the appointed agent on the DPOA, when can I use this authority?

Answer: Provided you’ve met any requirements detailed in the DPOA document itself, you can immediately take over financial authority. Some durable power of attorney documents require that a doctor or even two doctors must say the parent no longer has capacity before you can act. Some durable powers of attorney say the document is effective immediately. The agent’s authority is contained in the document.

Question: Am I allowed to keep my father from recklessly giving away money or making imprudent decisions with his wealth, if I’m the appointed agent on his DPOA?

Answer: Yes. Usually, the durable power of attorney gives the agent full authority over all financial matters.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss this important document.

Reference: Forbes (June 22, 2021) “Let’s Get Clear: What Does It Mean To Be Appointed Aging Parents’ Power Of Attorney?”

 

What Do I Need to Know to Be a Great Executor?

AARP’s recent article entitled “How to Be a Good Executor of a Will or Estate” provides items to tell your future executor.

An executor is the person who’s responsible for managing the affairs of the deceased’s probate estate. A dead person no longer can own property, so everything owned at the time of death must be legally transferred to living beneficiaries.

The term “executor” is most commonly used for a person who serves in this capacity. “Executrix” is an older term from more gender-specific days, when a woman serving in this capacity was given that variation of the title.

There are also the gender-neutral terms “personal representative” or “administrator” that are used in place of either executor or executrix. However, these are more frequently used with intestate estates (when a decedent died without leaving a will).

Let’s look at the reminders. Your executor should know the following:

The Location of Your Original Will Identify the precise location in your home, or if your will is filed with an attorney, state his or her contact information. Don’t put it in a safe deposit box because this can be difficult to access after your death.

Who Should Receive Notification Name all the people your executor or family might not think to tell or know how to reach. This may include physicians, the human resources department at your job and any organizations or clubs of which you are a member with the contact info to make things easier for the executor.

Passwords. List your passwords and access codes for email, social media, banks and other online accounts, as well as for your cellphone and PC. Give directions on how to handle the accounts and devices.

Who Gets What Give details as to what happens to nonfinancial items, such as recipes, photographs and mementos. Consider the things in your life that are special to you, describe this to future generations.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney if you are uncertain of your new position.

Reference: AARP (May 7, 2021) “How to Be a Good Executor of a Will or Estate”

 

What Should Be Included in Estate Planning?

How should you plan for the future, given all that we’ve been through since March 2020? One important step is to get your estate plan in order. While many people became more aware of their mortality since the pandemic began, just as many have kept putting off having an estate plan done. The time to do it, according to the recent article “A Simple Guide to Estate Planning Best Practices” from Accounting Web, is now. Here’s how.

Start with a will. The size of your estate doesn’t matter. Having a will means that you are able to grant whatever you own to someone else on your death. If you don’t have a will, your state’s law will distribute your worldly goods. This method makes certain assumptions that might not be true. You might not want your children to inherit everything you own at age 25. You may also have a distant cousin who thinks they are entitled to an inheritance and is willing to litigate just to get some of your assets. Having a will is the start of having an estate plan. It’s also how you name the executor, the person who will be in charge of administering your assets after death. Your will is used to name a guardian to care for minor children.

Consider your estate planning goals. If you have an estate plan that’s older than four years, it’s time for a review. If you don’t remember when your estate was last done, you definitely should have it reviewed. Your assets may have increased or decreased. The person you named to be your executor may have moved away or died. The past five years have seen a large number of new tax laws, which may have a major impact on your estate plan. You may need to establish trusts and make gifts to keep your wealth in the family.

Could low-cost wealth transfers be right for you? Making gifts to your next of kin may allow them to have access to capital, while decreasing your taxable estate. One common method to do this is through an intra-family loan. By providing a younger member of the family with a loan at a minimal federal interest rate, the younger generation can invest in assets that are likely to appreciate outside the older generation’s taxable estate. Talk with your estate planning attorney about how to do this properly. It’s not a do-it-yourself transaction.

Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs) A GRAT allows you to retain an annuity interest in a separate trust, while leaving the remainder beneficiaries. The value of the annuity is removed from the value of the GRAT-constrained property, so beneficiaries only need to pay taxes on the remainder of the value. Low interest rates made a GRAT very attractive, and low entry requirements provide an opportunity to appreciate assets within the GRAT, which might have otherwise been levied on the investments if they were passed through a will. GRATs may need management—one strategy is to combine assets with a series of long and short-term trusts to prepare for market volatility.

Grantor Trust Acquisition of Assets. Here’s a slightly complicated but effective way to reduce taxes on assets: selling them to a grantor trust. The sale may still be taxable, but for a reduced rate. An individual may create and fund a trust using a portion of their gift tax shelter allowance. This ensures that the assets in the trust will be sheltered from transfer tax in the future. The trust structure works as a “grantor” trust for income tax purposes with the individual as the taxpayer, who is liable to report all income generated from the trust. Here’s the neat twist: the individual may sell these appreciated assets to the grantor trust without expressing capital gains. The assets in the trust may grow over time, so the trust estate develops with less fear of tax liability. This is a complex transaction that an estate planning attorney can discuss with you.

One thing is certain: the financial demands of the pandemic have created a need for government agencies to find revenue. The time to prepare for increased taxes on wealth is now.

Reference: Accounting Web (June 23, 2021) “A Simple Guide to Estate Planning Best Practices”

 

Can I Write a Perfect Will?

The Good Men Project’s recent article entitled “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will” says that writing a perfect will is hard but not impossible. The article provides some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Include Everything. If you have items that are very important to you, make sure they are in the right hands after your death.
  2. Consult an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney. It is a challenge to write a will, especially when you do not know all the legal processes that will take place after your death. An estate planning lawyer can educate you on how your estate is being distributed after your death and how to address specific circumstances.
  3. Name an Executor. An executor will manage and distribute your assets after you die. Select a trustworthy person and be sure it is someone who will respect you and your will.
  4. Name the Beneficiaries. These people will get your assets after you pass away. Name them all and include their full names, so there is no confusion.
  5. Say Where Everything Can Be Found. Your executor should know where all of your property and assets can be found. If there is any safe place where you keep things, add it to your will.
  6. Describe Residual Legacies. This is what remains in your estate, once all the other legacies and bequests are completed. If you fail to do this, it will be a partial intestacy. No matter that the legacies would be distributed according to the will, the intestacy laws will control the residue, which may not be to your liking.
  7. Name Guardians for Your Minor Children. Appoint a guardian to take care of any minor children or the court will appoint their guardians, again this may not be to your liking.
  8. Be Specific. An ambiguous will creates issues for the executor and may require court intervention. Be specific and include heirs’ full names. Account numbers, security boxes and anything of the sort should also be included in your will for easy access.
  9. Keep it Updated. If you experience a major life event, update your will accordingly.
  10. Get Signatures from Witnesses. Once your will is completed, you need witnesses who are at least 18 and are not beneficiaries. Sign and date the will in front of these witnesses, and then ask them to date and sign it too.

If you have any questions about wills, speak to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: The Good Men Project (May 28, 2021) “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will”

 

What are Typical Estate Planning Documents?

For many people, eight documents form the foundation of an estate plan. It’s not that difficult a project as it seems, explains the article “8 Documents That Are Essential to Planning Your Estate” from msn.com. When you’ve completed your estate plan, you’ll also gain the peace of mind of knowing that you’ve done what was needed to protect your family. It’s well worth the effort.

Last will and testament. This is the basic document that gives you the ability to tell your family what you want to happen with your assets. It is used to name an executor—a person who will be in charge of managing your estate. Your will is also where you name a guardian who will be in charge of raising minor children. You can use the will to convey funeral instructions, but you may want to do that in a separate document, in case your will isn’t found right away. Your estate planning attorney will help you figure out the best way to handle that.

What happens if you don’t have a will? In that case, a probate court will determine who will be your executor. It might be a spouse, a grown child, or someone you don’t know or would not want to handle your estate. It’s best to have a will and select your executor yourself. When your estate goes through probate, all of the information in your will becomes part of the public record, so don’t put anything in your will, like passwords or account numbers.

Revocable living trust. Trusts are used to pass assets and property without going through probate. Your estate planning attorney will help create the trust and you’ll decide who will be in charge of it upon your death. You can be the trustee while you are living, but then you lose any estate tax benefits. If you have substantial property or wealth, trusts are a good tool to control assets and save on estate taxes.

Beneficiary designations. Any time you purchase a new insurance policy or a retirement plan, you are asked to name a beneficiary. If your first job came with a retirement plan, you likely also named a beneficiary for that plan. These designations allow the assets to pass directly to the beneficiary upon your death. They aren’t included in your will and they don’t go through probate. The biggest problem with beneficiary designations? Neglecting to update them through the many changes in life. Review and update your beneficiary designations on a regular basis.

Durable power of attorney. This document allows you to name the person to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated because of illness or injury. They can manage your legal and financial affairs. Here’s an important point: if you become incapacitated, you cannot assign this role to someone. It needs to be done when you are legally competent.

Health care power of attorney and living will. The health care power of attorney lets someone else make medical decisions on your behalf, if you are too sick to do so yourself. The living will gives you the opportunity to explain what kind of care you do or do not want if you are close to death. If the idea of staying alive on a heart machine makes you unhappy, for instance, you can document your wishes, so loved ones don’t have to wonder what you want.

Digital assets. Much of our lives are lived online, and we have assets that won’t be found in a search of the attic or basement. Each online platform that you use may have a directive process, where you can clearly state who you want to have access to your digital assets and what you would like to have happen to them upon your death.

A letter of intent. Writing a letter of intent is a way to convey your wishes to loved ones for what you’d like to happen after you die. It may not be legally enforceable, like a will or a trust, but your loved ones will appreciate knowing what you want for funeral planning or a memorial service.

List of important documents. Sparing your family a post-mortem scavenger hunt is a gift to the living. Make a list of documents and make sure they know where important documents can be found. Include a list of routine bills, the professionals you rely on, including contact information and account numbers. Some families use a briefcase to store the important papers, but a fireproof and waterproof safe is more secure.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney if you have not prepared your estate plan.

Reference: msn.com (June 19, 2021) “8 Documents That Are Essential to Planning Your Estate”