What Happens If a Trust Is Invalid?

Lessons about gifting, blended families, entity formalities, trusts and estate planning may all be found in the outcome of a tax case described in The Dallas Morning News’ article “The Smaldino case: Tax court opinion leads to estate planning angst.” The case involves gift taxes, and more particularly, a gift of LLC interest to a dynasty trust. The interest started out in the husband’s trust, transferred to the wife, who then transferred them to a dynasty trust, created to benefit some of the husband’s children from a prior marriage.

You may know that taxpayers are not required to report gifts between spouses. The husband’s gift to his spouse was, therefore, not reported to the IRS. The wife did report her gift to the IRS, but she didn’t need to pay any gift taxes because the reported value didn’t exceed her own lifetime gift tax exemption. Therefore, no gift taxes were due or paid on the transfer of the LLC interest to the trust.

The IRS assessed the husband a $1,154,000 gift tax deficiency, which was subsequently held up by the tax court. What was wrong?

The IRS and the tax court found a number of red flags. For starters, the wife held her LLC interest for only one day, before transferring it to the trust.

In testimony before the court, the wife said she had committed to transferring the shares to the trust even before she received the assignment of the shares. She clearly stated that she would have not changed her mind about transferring the assets, which were to benefit her stepchildren. Her timing was too hasty, however.

The husband, who was in control of the LLC, neglected to amend the LLC documents to reflect his wife’s owning an interest in the LLC. As a result, she was never recognized formally as a member of the LLC. The LLC documents made a clear distinction between the roles and duties of an assignee and a member. He executed the assignment of the interest, but she never became a member of the LLC.

The tax court also found a number of the corporate documents simply unbelievable. Several were undated. Others had an “effective date,” but lacked the date of signing.

One could say the IRS was being picky, but the IRS doesn’t have the ability to disregard documents, for two reasons. One is the doctrine of the tax court known as “substance over form.” The substance of a transaction, rather than the form it is presented in, determines the tax determination. The second is something families need to take seriously: when transactions involve family members, the IRS uses a fine-tooth comb to be sure transactions are legitimate.

When estate planning entities are created and transactions take place, consistency in actions is needed to demonstrate intent. All of the rules and practices must be followed, and when family members are involved, those involved must go above and beyond to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

An estate planning attorney with experience in creating LLCs, transferring interests and procedures required by the IRS, does more than create documents. He or she educates clients and explain how the transactions should be carried out to ensure that proper procedures are being followed. In this case, the mistakes far outweighed any benefits from the transaction.

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (Dec. 19, 2021) “The Smaldino case: Tax court opinion leads to estate planning angst”

What a Will Can and Cannot Do

Having a will doesn’t avoid probate, the court-directed process of validating a will and confirming the executor. To avoid probate, an estate planning attorney can create trusts and other ways for assets to be transferred directly to heirs before or upon death. Estate planning is guided by the laws of each state, according to the article “Before writing your own will know what wills can, can’t and shouldn’t try to do” from Arkansas Online.

In some states, probate is not expensive or lengthy, while in others it is costly and time-consuming. However, one thing is consistent: when a will is probated, it becomes part of the public record and anyone who wishes to read it, like creditors, ex-spouses, or estranged children, may do so.

One way to bypass probate is to create a revocable living trust and then transfer ownership of real estate, financial accounts, and other assets into the trust. You can be the trustee, but upon your death, your successor trustee takes charge and distributes assets according to the directions in the trust.

Another way people avoid probate is to have assets retitled to be owned jointly. However, anything owned jointly is vulnerable, depending upon the good faith of the other owner. And if the other owner has trouble with creditors or is ending a marriage, the assets may be lost to debt or divorce.

Accounts with beneficiaries, like life insurance and retirement funds bypass probate. The person named as the beneficiary receives assets directly. Just be sure the designated beneficiaries are updated every few years to be current.

Assets titled “Payable on Death” (POD), or “Transfer on Death” (TOD) designate beneficiaries and bypass probate, but not all financial institutions allow their use.

In some states, you can have a TOD deed for real estate or vehicles. Your estate planning attorney will know what your state allows.

Some people think they can use their wills to enforce behavior, putting conditions on inheritances, but certain conditions are not legally enforceable. If you required a nephew to marry or divorce before receiving an inheritance, it’s not likely to happen. Someone must also oversee the bequest and decide when the inheritance can be distributed.

However, trusts can be used to set conditions on asset distribution. The trust documents are used to establish your wishes for the assets and the trustee is charged with following your directions on when and how much to distribute assets to beneficiaries.

Leaving money to a disabled person who depends on government benefits puts their eligibility for benefits like Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid at risk. An estate planning attorney can create a Special Needs Trust to allow for an inheritance without jeopardizing their services.

Finally, in certain states you can use a will to disinherit a spouse, but it’s not easy. Every state has a way to protect a spouse from being completely disinherited. In community property states, a spouse has a legal right to half of any property acquired during the marriage, regardless of how the property is titled. In other states, a spouse has a legal right to a third to one half of the estate, regardless of what is in the will. An experienced estate planning attorney can help draft the documents, but depending on your state and circumstances, it may not be possible to completely disinherit a spouse.

Reference: Arkansas Online (Dec. 27, 2021) “Before writing your own will know what wills can, can’t and shouldn’t try to do”

Should Young Adults have a Will?

Young adults are starting to get their affairs in order, contacting estate planning attorneys because they are concerned about dying unexpectedly. A study by Caring.com, a senior referral service, said that almost a third of young adults, ages 18—34, had a will in 2021, compared to 18% in 2019. The leap, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Millennials, Feeling Their Mortality During Covid-19, Start Writing Their Wills” can be directly attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The concern over continued uncertainty regarding whether the young adults themselves or their family members will become sick, and die is all too real. Millennials also haven’t experienced another event: sharply rising inflation. The general sense of unease and instability is leading young adults to make sure they have wills and healthcare proxies in place to give some sense of control in the face of an unstable world. Those with young families are especially concerned, as new variants of Covid emerge.

Before the pandemic, young adults, even with those with children, didn’t feel the need to have an estate plan created. That’s changed.

Just under half of all Americans have a will, and people 65 and up have traditionally been more likely to have one, according to a May 2021 study by Gallup. This number has been relatively stable since about 1990.

If you die without a will, the state law determines how to distribute assets, under court supervision. The process is slower and far more costly for survivors. In many situations, not having a will can be catastrophic. If beneficiaries with special needs inherit funds outright, and not in a Supplemental Needs Trust (or a Special Needs Trust), they could lose government benefits necessary for their day-to-day lives.

Wills are also used to name a guardian to care for minor children. If both parents die and there is no will, a court will decide who should raise a child. The court may not necessarily name a family member, and the person may not be who the parents or grandparents might have wished.

Similarly, news about young celebrities dying unexpectedly also pushes the “go” button for millennials to get their wills completed. When Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs died of a fentanyl overdose in 2019, calls to estate planning attorneys from millennial males increased in many law offices. At the same time, millennials who are aware of the importance of a will for themselves and their families are pressing their parents to get their wills prepared or updated.

In every case, having a will is far less costly than not having a will. The cost of preparing a will depends on many factors: the size of the estate, the complexity of the family situation, the nature of assets and where the will is being prepared. Other documents are necessary. For example, every adult should have a power of attorney, health care proxy, living will and possibly a trust.

The last gift you leave your heirs is a plan and organized documents, so they can grieve properly after you pass, rather than having to embark on a scavenger hunt through decades of paperwork and old files.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 6, 2021) “Millennials, Feeling Their Mortality During Covid-19, Start Writing Their Wills”

Can You Remove Someone from a Life Estate?

Parents often use life estates to leave the family home to children, while remaining in the house for the rest of their lives. However, sometimes things don’t work out as intended. If and how changes may be made to a life estate is the focus of a recent article “How to Remove Someone from a Life Estate” from Yahoo! Finance. For the life estate to be flexible, certain provisions must be in the document when it is first created. An experienced estate planning attorney is needed to do this right.

A life estate allows two or more people to jointly own real estate property. One person, referred to as the “life tenant” has ownership of the property for as long as they live. The other person, called the “remainderman,” takes possession only after the life tenant’s death. Multiple people can be named as life tenant and remainderman. However, the more people involved, the more complicated this arrangement becomes.

The remainderman has an unusual position. They don’t have full possession of the property until the life tenant dies, yet they have an interest in the property. The life tenant is not allowed to do certain things, like take out a mortgage or sell the property, without the consent of the remainderman.

The remainderman must agree to any changes in any person or persons named as other remainderman. If there’s more than one, which happens when there’s more than one adult child, for instance, all of the remaindermen must agree, before any names on the life estate can be removed or changed.

If one of the remainderman becomes heavily indebted, has a contentious divorce, or is sued for a considerable sum, their share of the property could be lost to creditors, ex-spouses, or adversaries. In that case, removing the problematic remainderman could protect the value of the home.

Most life estates are irrevocable, and the laws concerning life estates vary by state.

One way to work around the need for remainderman approval, is to use a Testamentary Power of Appointment, a clause in a will permitting the life tenant to change the person to whom the property will be left upon death. Invoking the Power of Appointment doesn’t make the life estate invalid, so the tenant is still constrained from selling the property or taking any other actions without permission from the remaindermen.

The testamentary power of appointment does give the life tenant some negotiating muscle but must be built into the documents from the start.

Another trust used in this situation is the Nominee Realty Trust. This is a revocable trust holding legal title to real estate. A property owner files a new deed transferring ownership to the nominee realty trust. The trust specifies who receives the property after the owner’s death. The grantor of the nominee trust can direct the actions of the trustee, so the life tenant has the legal ability to tell the trustee to change the names of the remaindermen. This flexibility may be desirable when the children are problematic. This has to be set up when the life estate is first established.

There are occasions when the remainderman wants to terminate the interest of the life tenant. This is actually easier than removing or changing the remainderman but requires the life tenant to do something particularly egregious or illegal. The life tenant has certain rights: to rent out the property, to change or improve the property—as long as the property is being improved. The life tenant is responsible for paying taxes, maintaining the property and avoiding any liens being placed on the property.

If the life tenant does not fulfill their responsibilities or allows the property to lose value, it may be possible for the remainderman to have the life tenant’s interest terminated. However, that depends upon the provisions in the life estate. This option should be discussed and planned for when the life estate is created.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Dec. 16, 2021) “How to Remove Someone from a Life Estate”

Why Do I Need an Estate Planning Attorney?

Pennsylvania News Today’s recent article entitled “Top 7 Reasons You Need An Estate Lawyer says that when you think about hiring a real estate lawyer, it might seem a little unsettling. However, let’s look at these reasons and why you might require them.

Estate Planning. You might want to consider this, but everyone passes away. It’s important that your family is ready for this. An experienced estate planning attorney can help you through this process and make certain everything is prepared. You should have a will. This document says what should happen with your assets when you pass away.

Trusts. A trust helps manage assets before someone dies. If you only have one or two assets you want given to someone, a will is adequate. However, if you own extensive property, ask an experienced estate planning attorney about setting up a trust. This will help your family keep living in your home, even after you’re gone without worrying about it being sold out from under them.

Probate. The probate court oversees the distribution of a person’s estate according to the instructions in their will. Probate can be a lengthy and expensive process, depending on where you live and the complexity of your assets or family situation. An estate planning attorney can help you with strategies to avoid it. A probate attorney can help you, so your family doesn’t have to worry about dealing with that stress or spending a vast amount of money necessary to do this correctly.

Guardianship. Guardianships are used when parents pass away and leave minor children behind. You can designate a guardian for your minor children in your will.

Elder Law Services. Seniors frequently need help managing finances and health care decisions. An experienced estate planning attorney or elder law attorney can help your loved ones through these complicated matters.

Estate Investments. An experienced attorney can also advise you on how to make smart investments for your family and can make certain that the transaction goes smoothly, and that any moves work with your estate planning objectives.

Tax Issues. Taxes may be owed on estates worth more than five million dollars. This can make it hard for heirs who don’t have access to this much money upfront. An estate planning attorney can help you avoid taxes, so your family doesn’t have to deal with this problem.

Estate planning is a process that should be started as soon as possible. You’ll need an estate planning lawyer who is knowledgeable and experienced to help.

Reference: Pennsylvania News Today (Nov. 11, 2021) “Top 7 Reasons You Need An Estate Lawyer”

Can I Avoid Password Problems for My Family in Estate Planning?

Barron’s recent article entitled “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare” explains that even financial planners may not consider until too late, how difficult it can be to recover and access a loved one’s accounts after they pass away. Since we are much more paperless with our finances, getting access to these accounts can be extremely hard for heirs, if they don’t have the right information. That’s because digital accounts are protected by encryption, multifactor authentication and federal data privacy laws.

Create a list of digital accounts and instructions on how to access them. The list should include not only financial assets but social media and other accounts. Digital accounts that loved ones or advisors may need to access following a death include:

  • Traditional financial accounts
  • Cryptocurrency accounts
  • Home payment and utilities accounts
  • Health insurance benefits
  • Email accounts
  • Social media
  • Smartphone accounts
  • Storage and file-sharing
  • Photo, music and video accounts
  • E-commerce accounts
  • Subscriptions to streaming services, such as Netflix, newspapers, music services; and
  • Loyalty/rewards programs for airlines and hotels.

Create a list of accounts, passwords and access information, keeping it up to date as information changes and letting a trusted person, such as an executor or estate planning attorney, know its location. Without a password list, it can be a nightmare.

Note that with every digital account, there’s a specific process that heirs must undertake to gain access, which should then be communicated clearly in your estate plan. Make a list of all digital assets and their access information, but don’t include this in the will itself, since the document is part of the public record in probate.

Being prepared well ahead of time can help your family avoid additional stress and delays as they probate your estate. It also ensures that they don’t forfeit significant financial assets concealed behind an impenetrable digital wall.

Reference: Barron’s (Dec. 15, 2021) “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare”

What are Digital Assets in a Will?

Most of us overlook the amount of information and assets we have online, from social media to networking websites, frequent flier miles, online bank accounts, subscriptions, photos, websites, etc. The list of most people’s digital assets has grown considerably in recent years, and yet most have no plan for what should happen to those assets when their owner dies.

This is a growing problem, says msn money, in an article making the case clear: “From Facebook to iTunes to Amazon, You Need A Digital Will!” Every website has its own legal requirements for dealing with the original owner’s death, almost aways hidden deep within the Terms of Service Agreement we all click on without reading. Some have created processes for executors, while others have not. What can you do to make it easier for your executor?

Make a list of everything you access online. Be prepared to be surprised at just how much your life occurs online. Compile a list of all online accounts, usernames and passwords. You probably have to do this bit by bit, as a marathon session might take a long time. Use either a password manager with top-notch security or a password-protected spreadsheet you update around once every three months.

This is especially important for accounts with monetary value. But sentimental value counts too. A side note: all those playlists you’ve created on iTunes? They are non-transferrable and when you die, they are deleted.

What do you want to have happen to each account? You’ll need to decide what you want to happen to each account and, depending on the account, state it clearly in what’s known as a directive. You may want to preserve some, or you may want to shut down others. Some free email accounts are automatically shut down, if they are not used for a certain period of time. Others should be down immediately to prevent fraud. Scammers prefer accounts where the owners have died, since they are often an easy entry to the person’s online identity.

Facebook is one of the platforms allowing you to designate a Legacy contact, so the person can memorialize the account, allowing only friends to see the page and removing some information. If you want to have the page deleted on death, Facebook provides directions.

Each platform has its own rules. Most rely on provisions regarding privacy protection: only the original owner is authorized to access the account. There are now federal and state laws prohibiting accessing private online data, which have created significant obstacles for loved ones to access digital assets. Don’t expect anyone to resolve your digital accounts after you pass, unless you have a digital will. Even with one, there might be issues.

Your estate planning attorney will help you add the correct language to your estate documents as to what you want to happen to each account. It’s important to ensure that your estate plan gives your executor or other fiduciary authorization to access your digital assets and what you want to happen to them. Remember—don’t put account names, usernames, or passwords in a will, as it becomes a public document during the probate process.

Without an inventory of digital assets, it may be simply impossible to ascertain where digital assets are located and how to access them. Looking at credit card statements for autopayments may be a place to start, or at least to stop the autopayments.

This is a relatively new asset class, with laws varying from state to state. Speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure your digital assets are protected, as well as traditional assets when creating or reviewing your estate plan.

Reference: msn money (Dec. 19, 2021) “From Facebook to iTunes to Amazon, You Need A Digital Will!”

What Does an Elder Law Attorney Do?

WAGM’s recent article entitled “A Closer Look at Elder Law” takes a look at some of the finer points of estate planning and elder law.

Elder law focuses on issues that concern older people. However, it’s not just for older people.

Elder law attorneys frequently also speak with family members of older people about their concerns.

Wills and estate planning may not be the most riveting topics of conversation. However, in this day and age, they can be one of the most important tools to ensure your wishes are carried out after you’re gone.

An attorney who practices in this area of law will talk to a senior or his or her family and ask questions to determine what they may require. In many cases, there are things that can and should be done immediately.

In many instances, a senior member of their family isn’t sure what they should do. An elder law attorney will walk them through the process.

One of the main concerns is, “How do I get started and how much planning do I have to do before hand?”

As far as an estate plan, everyone should have a will, a financial power of attorney, a medical power of attorney and a healthcare directive.

Elder law often also centers upon long-term care planning, and this should be started before a senior is in a crisis and needs an immediate solution.

With planning, an elder law attorney can help with questions about Medicaid, protecting assets and proper senior care, whether that’s at home or in a care facility.

This can benefit families who want to help protect their loved ones, lifestyle and assets; retirees and pre-retirees who’d like to preserve the savings they’ve worked hard to compile over the years; and those seniors who may not have someone to care for them or significant assets to pay for these costs.

Planning can also ease the transition, if a senior suffers from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease and will require specialized care.

Reference: WAGM (Dec. 8, 2021) “A Closer Look at Elder Law“

Do I Need More than a Will?

A will lets you distribute your assets, name a guardian for minor children and name an executor to carry out your wishes when you die.

The Chicago Sun-Times’ recent article entitled “Estate planning: When a will won’t work” says that you should know what a will can’t or shouldn’t do, especially if you’re writing your own without a lawyer, or you could unknowingly make a mistake that ruins your estate plan.

A will can’t avoid probate, and your will becomes a public record. However, a frequently used method to bypass probate is to create a revocable living trust, and transfer ownership of your assets into the trust. You retain control, but after you die, your successor trustee can distribute your property without a court’s involvement.

Jointly-held property also passes directly to the other owner, and accounts with beneficiaries (life insurance and retirement funds) also avoid probate. Another option is to use “transfer on death” or “payable on death” documents to designate beneficiaries for other financial accounts.

You might think that a will is a way to make people to do what you want. For instance, you could leave your son a bequest that he gets only if he finally finishes college. However, putting conditions in a will may not work well. Some conditions aren’t legally enforceable or are simply too burdensome to enforce.

If you want to impose conditions, ask an experienced estate planning attorney to create a trust. You might also use a trust is when you want to leave money to someone with special needs who is getting government benefits. That’s because a bequest could disqualify them from essential benefits, such as Supplemental Security Income and health insurance coverage through Medicaid.

Technically you can disinherit your spouse in your will. However, disinheriting a spouse can be extremely hard to do. That’s because the state has a mechanism that protects a spouse from being completely disinherited. In many states, a spouse has a right to claim one third to one half of the estate, regardless of what a will states.

However, a spouse can agree to be disinherited in a prenuptial or postnuptial agreement or can “disclaim” or refuse an inheritance, so that it goes to other heirs.

Reference: Chicago Sun-Times (Nov. 18, 2021) “Estate planning: When a will won’t work”

How Do You Split an Estate in a Blended Family?

Estate planning attorneys know just how often blended families with the best of intentions find themselves embroiled in disputes, when the couple fails to address what will happen after the first spouse dies. According to the article “In blended families, estate planning can have unintended issues” from The News-Enterprise, this is more likely to occur when spouses marry after their separate children are already adults, don’t live in the parent’s home and have their own lives and families.

In this case, the spouse is seen as the parent’s spouse, rather than the child’s parent. There may be love and respect. However, it’s a different relationship from long-term blended families where the stepparent was actively engaged with all of the children’s upbringing and parents consider all of the children as their own.

For the long-term blended family, the planning must be intentional. However, there may be less concern about the surviving spouse changing beneficiaries and depriving the other spouse’s children of their inheritance. The estate planning attorney must still address this as a possibility.

When relationships between spouses and stepchildren are not as close, or are rocky, estate planning must proceed as if the relationship between stepparents and stepsiblings will evaporate on the death of the natural parent. If one spouse’s intention is to leave all of their wealth to the surviving spouse, the plan must anticipate trouble, even litigation.

In some families, there is no intent to deprive anyone of an inheritance. However, failing to plan appropriately—having a will, setting up trusts, etc.—is not done and the estate plan disinherits children.

It’s important for the will, trusts and any other estate planning documents to define the term “children” and in some cases, use the specific names of the children. This is especially important when there are other family members with the same or similar names.

As long as the parents are well and healthy, estate plans can be amended. If one of the parents becomes incapacitated, changes cannot be legally made to their wills. If one spouse dies and the survivor remarries and names a new spouse as their beneficiary, it’s possible for all of the children to lose their inheritances.

Most people don’t intend to disinherit their own children or their stepchildren. However, this occurs often when the spouses neglect to revise their estate plan when they marry again, or if there is no estate plan at all. An estate planning attorney has seen many different versions of this and can create a plan to achieve your wishes and protect your children.

A final note: be realistic about what may occur when you pass. While your spouse may fully intend to maintain relationships with your children, lives and relationships change. With an intentional estate plan, parents can take comfort in knowing their property will be passed to the next generation—or two—as they wish.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Dec. 7, 2021) “In blended families, estate planning can have unintended issues”