Can I Create a Stress-free Asset Transfer?

We can all agree that end-of-life planning is a sensitive topic. Nonetheless, taking the time to consider a loved one’s estate and distribution of wealth can set the family at ease and also make certain that there is a smooth transition of assets, without unnecessary legal hurdles or headaches.

MarketWatch’s article entitled “3 tips for navigating estate planning with loved ones” explains that, if you’re thinking about starting the process of estate planning with a close family member, like an elderly parent or a new spouse, read these recommendations:

  1. Stress the ultimate benefit of peace of mind. Estate planning helps the transfer of assets in an efficient and less stressful manner. It also minimizes estate tax liability of your assets when you die. Most of all, your loved ones will benefit with the peace of mind.
  2. Be as open as you can. Be honest and communicate openly about your loved one’s wishes on how they would like to distribute their estate and wealth either during life or death. Many assumptions can be made about end-of-life financial planning, like parents who assume their children will not fight when dividing their assets. This can put a lot of stress on surviving siblings, so communicate clear expectations during the planning process. It is also important to take some time to consider trustees and executors, and to encourage your parent or spouse to name an executor who is organized and thorough. Once this individual is named, be sure he or she understands the location of all of your loved one’s assets.
  3. Use care with beneficiary selections. Naming beneficiaries can have important tax implications. It is common to name a trust as the beneficiary of an IRA account, when your children are young. However, as they grow up, this can be an issue. When an IRA is distributed to a trust, it triggers taxes. The assets will be taxed immediately before being distributed to beneficiaries. Name children as direct beneficiaries of their IRA, so that they have other options available to them. Many of these may provide significant tax savings.

One more thought: using “transfer on death” designations for individual accounts is similar to a beneficiary designation for a retirement account. However, it permits your parent or spouse to name beneficiaries when they pass and prevents their money from going through a lengthy and expensive probate.

The best time to discuss estate planning with your parents is now. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to guide you through this process.

Reference: MarketWatch (June 5, 2021) “3 tips for navigating estate planning with loved ones”

 

Will the Girlfriend Get the Life Insurance or the Wife?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Who will get my boyfriend’s property if he dies? Me or his wife?” says that a couple that’s lived together for some time where one is still married to another can create some issues. If the boyfriend has a life insurance policy and 401(k) with the girlfriend as beneficiary, they should draft a will to make certain that the estranged wife does not get that money.

Despite the fact that the girlfriend is the named beneficiary of the life insurance and the 401(k), there is more you need to think about.

Without a will, probate assets (the assets held by individuals in their own name without a beneficiary designation or assets held in joint names as tenants in common) will be transferred by the laws of intestacy.

The laws of intestacy provide first to a spouse and/or children of the deceased, without regard to whether the couple are living together.  If the deceased had no spouse or children, state intestacy laws say that property passes to parents then siblings.

As far as the life insurance policy and 401(k), absent a valid waiver, the boyfriend’s spouse will certainly have a legal right to the 401(k) and may have a contractual claim on the life insurance either through a premarital agreement or a property settlement agreement.

Therefore, even if the assets are paid out to the girlfriend, the contractual claim may provide the spouse with a successful action against her.

A spouse may also have rights to the policy or part of the 401(k) as a result of the marriage in a future divorce proceeding.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare your estate planning documents.

Reference: nj.com (June 21, 2021) “Who will get my boyfriend’s property if he dies? Me or his wife?”

 

What are the Most Popular Estate Planning Scams?

The Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Beware of These Common Estate Planning Scams” advises you to avoid these common estate planning scams.

  1. Cold Calls Offering to Prepare Estate Plans. Scammers call and email purporting to be long lost relatives who’ve had their wallets stolen and are stranded in a foreign country. Seniors fall prey to this and will pay for estate planning documents. Any cold call from someone asking that money be wired to a bank account, in exchange for estate planning documents should be approached with great skepticism.
  2. Paying for Estate Planning Templates. For a one-time fee, some scammers will offer estate planning documents that may be downloaded and modified by an individual. While this may look like a great deal, avoid using these pro forma templates to draft individual estate plans. Such templates are rarely tailored to meet state-specific requirements and often fail to incorporate contingencies that are necessary for a comprehensive and complete estate plan. Instead, work with an experienced estate planning attorney.
  3. Not Requiring an Estate Plan. Although less of a scheme, some people think they do not need an estate plan. However, proper estate planning entails deciding who can make health care and financial decisions during life, in the event of incapacity. These documents help to minimize the need for family members to petition the Probate Court in certain situations.
  4. Paying High Legal Fees. Like many things in life, with an estate plan, you may get what you pay for. Paying money upfront to have your intentions memorialized in writing can minimize the expense. Heirs should be on guard if an attorney hired to administer an estate is charging exorbitant fees for what looks to be a well-prepared estate plan. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion in these situations.
  5. Signing Estate Planning Documents You Don’t Understand. Estate planning documents are designed to prepare for potential incapacity and for death. It is critical that your estate planning documents represent your intentions. However, if you don’t read them or don’t understand what you’ve read, you will have no idea if your goals are accomplished. Make certain that you understand what you’re signing. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to explain these documents to you clearly and will make sure that you understand each of them before you sign.

You can avoid these common scams, by establishing a relationship with an experienced attorney you trust.

Reference: The Wealth Advisor (June 7, 2021) “Beware of These Common Estate Planning Scams”

 

What Is Probate and How Does It Work?

Probate is a legal process created long ago to protect the interests of a person after their death. It establishes a documented, validated, formal court procedure to establish title (ownership) and transfer ownership of a deceased person’s assets, as described in a recent article “Probate still gets lots of questions” from the Pauls Valley Democrat.

Probate accomplishes several goals. One is to fulfill the intentions of the decedent and follow the directions expressed in a written valid will. Another is to prevent the improper acquisition of assets by self-serving heirs or claimants. It provides a formal process to capture and control assets and document them. It also provides for the distribution of all assets in the estate, as directed by the decedent.

A petition is typically filed with the local district court in the county where the person resided at death. It confirms the jurisdiction of the court and defines the scope of the estate. This includes:

  • Fact of death and name of the decedent, included in the original copy of the death certificate
  • Residency of the decedent
  • Whether there was a will (original will is filed with the court)
  • Name of the executor or personal representative
  • Names of all potential heirs
  • The approximate size and scope of the estate

After documents are filed, a hearing takes place and formal notice is provided to all known heirs and to the public. This is where probate becomes problematic. Any known heirs who are notified may not always be named in the will and could bring claims against the estate. Any person who wishes to find out the size and scope of the estate may do so. This often brings creditors and predators into the process. Many scammers rely on probate notices to find fresh victims.

While the traditional goals of providing an open and fair opportunity to gain notice of the person’s death may have worked well in the past, today they often provide an opportunity for disgruntled relatives and thieves.

For this reason, many families prefer to take some or all assets from the estate and place them within the protection of a revocable living trust. Assets placed in a trust do not go through probate and will not be mentioned in a will. The trustee is charged with administering and distributing assets in a trust. There is no court involvement. Trusts may also be used during a person’s lifetime, as well as after they have died.

Other assets not governed by probate are those with beneficiary designations. Insurance policies, retirement accounts and investment accounts are among the types of assets distributed directly to the beneficiary without court involvement.

An estate planning attorney takes the best of these old English laws and blends them with our modern realities and current tax laws.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (June 3, 2021) “Probate still gets lots of questions”

 

Reviewing Estate Plans Matters

If your estate plan or your parent’s estate plan hasn’t been reviewed in the last four years—or the last forty years—it’s time for an estate plan check-up—sooner, not later. Besides the potential for costing a lot to correct, says a recent article in Forbes entitled “5 Reasons To Have Your Parents’ Estate Plan Reviewed,” the documents may no longer work to achieve your parent’s wishes.

Rather than fix a messy situation after death, have an experienced estate planning attorney review the documents now. Here’s why.

Stale documents are anathema to financial institutions. If a power of attorney is more than twenty years old, don’t expect it to be received well by a bank or brokerage house. The financial institution will probably want to get an affidavit from the attorney who originally created the document to attest to its validity. Start with a hunt to find said attorney, and then hope that nothing occurs between the time that you request the affidavit and the time it arrives. For one client, the unexpected death of a parent during this process created all kinds of headaches. A regular review and refresh of estate documents would have prevented this issue.

State laws change. Changes to state laws change how estates are handled. They may be positive changes that could benefit your parents and your family. Let’s say your mother’s will leaves all of the contents of her home to numerous people. Locating all of these people becomes costly, especially if the will needs to be probated. Many states now allow for a separate document that lets personal items be disposed of, without being part of the probated estate. However, if the will has not been reviewed in ten or twenty years, you won’t know about this option.

Languages in estate planning documents change. In addition to changes in the law, there are changes to language that may have a big impact on the estate. Many attorneys have changed the language they use for trusts based on the SECURE Act. If your parent has a retirement account payable to a trust, it is critical that this language be modified, so that it complies with the new law. Lacking these updates, your parent’s estate may be subject to an increase in taxes, fees, or penalties.

Estate laws change over time. Recent years have seen major changes to estate law, from the aforementioned SECURE Act to changes in federal exclusions and gift taxes. Is your parent’s estate plan (or yours) in compliance with the new laws? If assets have changed since the last estate plan was done, there may be tax law changes to be incorporated. Are there enough assets available to pay the taxes from the estate or the trusts? If many accounts pass by beneficiary designation, getting beneficiaries to come up with the cash to pay the tax bill may be problematic.

The decedent’s wishes may not be followed, if documents are not updated. Here’s an example. A man came to an estate planning attorney’s office with his father’s will, which had not been updated. His father died, having been predeceased by the father’s sister. The man was the only living child. He and his father had a mutual understanding that the son would inherit the entire estate on the death of his father. However, his father’s sister had also died, and the will stated that her children would receive the sister’s share. The man had to share his inheritance with estranged nieces and nephews. Had the will been reviewed with an attorney, this mishap could have been prevented very easily.

Reference: Forbes (May 25, 2021) “5 Reasons To Have Your Parents’ Estate Plan Reviewed”

 

Should a Trust Be a Component of My Estate Planning?

Let’s say that there’s a young father with a wife and young son, who owns a home and a Roth IRA account, with a few stock investments. On the stock investments, he’s filled out the beneficiary designation forms passing all his assets to his wife and son, should anything happen to him.  This father owns his home is joint tenancy with right of survivorship with his wife.  Does he need to set up a separate trust, if most of his assets pass through beneficiary designations?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Do I need a trust in case something happens to me?” says that leaving assets outright to a minor is typically a bad move. The son’s guardian and/or the court would take custody of the assets, both of which require significant court oversight and involvement.

The minor would also receive the assets upon attaining the age of majority, which in most states is age 18.

No one can tell what a young child will be like at the age of 18, especially after suffering the loss of their parents. Even if there are no significant issues, such as drug addiction or special needs, parents should think about what they’d have done with that much money at that age.

The best option is to leave assets in trust for the benefit of the minor son.

The trustee can manage and use the assets for the benefit of the young boy with limited court involvement.

The terms of the trust can also delay the point at which the assets can be distributed and ultimately paid over to the beneficiary, if at all.

For example, it’s not uncommon for a trust to stipulate that the beneficiary gets a third of the assets at 25, half of the remaining assets at 30 and the rest at age 35. However, other trusts don’t provide for such mandatory distributions and can hold the assets for the beneficiary’s lifetime, which has its advantages.

In some instances, the terms of the trust are included in a will. This creates a trust account after death, which is also called a testamentary trust.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney, who can assess your specific situation and provide guidance in creating an estate plan. The attorney can also make certain that trust assets are correctly titled and that beneficiary designations of retirement accounts and life insurance are correctly prepared, so the trust under the will receives those assets and not the minor individually.

Reference: nj.com (June 14, 2021) “Do I need a trust in case something happens to me?”

 

What’s the Right Age to Start Estate Planning?

Okay, you just hit 40 and you’re thinking about what your life will be like now that you are middle-aged. You better start thinking about retirement.  Your children will need money to go to college one day.

So, you’re not even considering the possibility of estate planning because that’s something that you do when you’re old, like in your 60s, right?

Wrong, says Reality Biz News’ recent article entitled “When is the right time to consider estate planning?” While the life expectancy for the average American might be between 80 and 85, stuff happens, and so does death. You should be certain that your family is provided for, if you pass away unexpectedly.

It’s much easier to plan for the inevitable when you are young and healthy.  However, many people wait until they’re in the hospital to begin considering estate planning. Let’s look at some signs you should begin estate planning:

If you are in your twenties and living from paycheck to paycheck, it might not make much sense to plan for the distribution of your estate. Your bestie knows she’s getting your Beats, and your vintage records are going to your significant other. However, you should start planning your estate, when you begin saving money and making investments. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney, if you fall into one of these categories:

You have a savings account. If you have a savings account with a few thousand dollars, you might want to think about who you want the money to go to if you pass away.

Have you recently been married? If you recently wed (or divorced), you and your spouse will want to start making a plan for who will get your joint assets when you’re no longer around. If you’re divorced, you should remove your ex from your will.  If you don’t have a will, your property will go directly to your spouse when you die. However, there are a few exceptions, including the fact that you can leave a bank account to a payable on death beneficiary. This will avoid probate and have the funds in that account go directly to that designated beneficiary.

You have assets of over $100,000. If you have some significant savings, you should ask an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a trust for anyone who may be dependent upon you.

You want to travel. Before you plan your ascent of Mount Everest, update your will. If you have minor children, you will want to nominate a guardian for them, in the event that you fall off the mountain and do not return.

You own property. If you own a house, a car, a boat, or other real estate but aren’t married and have no children, make a will. That way you can leave those assets to whomever you want.

Reference: Reality Biz News (April 23, 2021) “When is the right time to consider estate planning?”

 

What Is a Fiduciary and Why Is It Important?

If you do not choose a fiduciary, a guardian appointed by a court may end up making financial and medical decisions for you and the intestate statutes of your state will determine who will administer your estate when you have passed. If you’d rather have some control over your life, doing some estate planning now will prevent these scenarios later, according to the article “Fiduciary Agents have power to make decisions you’d prefer to make yourself” from the Pocono Record.

A financial fiduciary is the person you designate under your general durable power of attorney, last will and testament, or trust.

The fiduciary under a power of attorney has the power to make decisions, while you are living, for your financial and legal affairs. The person is named in a legal document called an agent or attorney in fact. This document can be broad, allowing the person to determine how to spend or invest your money, to buy and/or sell your home, etc., or it can permit someone to act on your behalf solely for a specific transaction. You and your estate planning attorney determine what is best.

An agent under a healthcare proxy can make healthcare decisions on your behalf, when you are unable to communicate for yourself because of a severe illness or an injury, or a cognitive condition. It is very important to understand that if you are already incapacitated, you cannot sign documents giving anyone else these powers. They must be prepared before they are needed!

Some people prefer to have one person serve as both their agent for finances and for healthcare. This allows one person who understands your physical and mental needs to make decisions about home care, assisted living or a skilled nursing facility and have access to the resources to pay for these services. This also means that one person is applying for any government benefits to help pay for this care.

There are times when designating two different agents creates conflict, if the two people don’t agree on the appropriate type of care. One may be more concerned with spending down resources, while another may wish you to receive 24/7 care.

If you appointed someone to serve as your fiduciary many years ago, it is so important that your documents be reviewed and updated. Do you still want that same person to make critical decisions on your behalf? Are they still able or willing to serve? If the person you have chosen lives in another state and wants you to be moved to where they live, will that work for you and your family?

If you have not reviewed your estate plan and your power of attorney documents in recent years, it is strongly recommended you do so now. Many families are now grappling with the results of outdated planning, or no planning at all. Having an updated estate plan and all of the related documents provides peace of mind for you and your loved ones. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to update or even begin your estate planning documents.

Reference: Pocono Record (June 1, 2021) “Fiduciary Agents have power to make decisions you’d prefer to make yourself”

 

What Happens If an Unmarried Partner Dies?

If you, like so many others, found yourself settling the affairs of a loved one in the last 18 months, you may be well aware of the challenges created when there is no estate plan. The lack of planning can create an enormous headache for loved ones, explains a recent article titled “3 Estate Planning Tips for Same-Sex Couples” from The Street. If this is true for married couples, then it’s even more important for unmarried couples.

Planning for incapacity and death is not fun, but unmarried couples in serious relationships need to plan for the unknown. Even married same-sex couples may face hostility from family members, including will contests and custody battles over children. There are three key issues to address: inheritance, incapacity and end-of-life care and beneficiary designations.

If a partner in an unmarried relationship dies and there is no will, assets belonging to the decedent pass to their family, which could leave their partner with nothing. With no will, the estate is subject to the laws of intestacy. These laws almost always direct the court to distribute the property based on kinship.

A will establishes an unmarried partner’s right to inherit property from the decedent. It is also used to name a guardian for any minor children. Concern about the will being contested by family members is often addressed by the use of trusts. When property is transferred to a trust, it no longer belongs to the individual, but to the trust. A trustee is named to be in charge of the trust. If the surviving partner is the trustee, he or she has access and control of the trust.

A trust helps to avoid probate, as property does not go through probate. A will also only goes into effect after the person who created the will passes away. A revocable living trust is effective as soon as it is established. Trusts allow for more control of assets before and after you pass. The trustee is legally bound to carry out the precise intentions in the trust document.

Establishing a trust is step one—the next step is funding the trust. If the trust is established but not funded, there is no protection from probate for the assets.

Incapacity and end-of-life planning allows you to make decisions about your care, while you are living. Without it, your unmarried partner could be completely shut out of any decision-making process. Here are the documents needed to convey your wishes in an enforceable manner:

Healthcare power of attorney (proxy). This document allows you to name the person you wish to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. You may be very specific about what treatments and care you want—and those you don’t want.

Healthcare directive. The healthcare directive lets you designate your wishes for end-of-life care or any potentially lifesaving treatments. Do you want to be resuscitated, or to have CPR performed?

Durable financial power of attorney. By designating someone in a financial power of attorney, you give that person the right to conduct all financial and legal matters on your behalf. Note that every state has slightly different laws, and the POA must adhere to your state’s guidelines. You may also make the POA as broad or narrow as you wish. It can give someone the power to handle everything on your behalf or confine them to only one part of your financial life.

Beneficiary designations. Almost all tax-deferred retirement accounts and pensions permit a beneficiary to be named to inherit the assets on the death of the original owner. These accounts do not go through probate. Check on each and every retirement account, insurance policies and even bank accounts. Any account with a beneficiary designation should be reviewed every few years to be sure the correct party is named. Estranged ex-spouses have received more than their fair share of happy surprises, when people neglect to update their beneficiaries after divorce.

Some accounts that may not have a clear beneficiary designation may have the option for a Transfer on Death designation, which helps beneficiaries avoid probate.

Review these steps with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your partner and you have made proper plans to protect each other, even without the legal benefits that marriage bestows.

Reference: The Street (June 2, 2021) “3 Estate Planning Tips for Same-Sex Couples”

 

How Do Special Needs Trusts Work?

Special-needs trusts have been used for many years. However, there are two factors that are changing and parents need to be aware of them, says the article “Special-Needs Trusts: How They Work and What Has Changed” from The Wall Street Journal. For one thing, many people with disabilities and chronic illnesses are leading much longer lives because of medical advances. As a result, they are often outliving their parents and primary caregivers. This makes planning for the long term more critical.

Second, there have been significant changes in tax laws, specifically laws concerning inherited retirement accounts.

Special needs planning has never been easy because of the many unknowns. How much care will be needed? How much will it cost? How long will the special needs individual live? Tax rules are complex and coordinating special needs planning with estate planning can be a challenge. A 2018 study from the University of Illinois found that less than 50% of parents of children with disabilities had planned for their children’s future. Parents who had not done any planning told researchers they were just overwhelmed.

Here are some of the basics:

A Special-Needs Trust, or SNT, is created to protect the assets of a person with a disability, including mental or physical conditions. The trust may be used to pay for various goods and services, including medical equipment, education, home furnishings, etc.

A trustee is appointed to manage all and any spending. The beneficiary has no control over assets inside the trust. The assets are not owned by the beneficiary, so the beneficiary should continue to be eligible for government programs that limit assets, including Supplemental Security Income or Medicaid.

There are different types of Special Needs Trusts: pooled, first party and third party. They are not simple entities to create, so it’s important to work with an experienced estate elder law attorney who is familiar with these trusts.

To fund the trust after parents have passed, they could name the Special Needs Trust as the beneficiary of their IRA, so withdrawals from the account would be paid to the trust to benefit their child. There will be required minimum distributions (RMDs), because the IRA would become an Inherited IRA and the trust would need to take distributions.

The SECURE Act from 2019 ended the ability to stretch out RMDs for inherited traditional IRAs from lifetime to ten years. However, the SECURE Act created exceptions: individuals who are disabled or chronically ill are still permitted to take distributions over their lifetimes. This has to be done correctly, or it won’t work. However, done correctly, it could provide income over the special needs individual’s lifetime.

The strategy assumes that the SNT beneficiary is disabled or chronically ill, according to the terms of the tax code. The terms are defined very strictly and may not be the same as the requirements for SSI or Medicaid.

The traditional IRA may or may not be the best way to fund an SNT. It may create larger distributions than are permitted by the SNT or create large tax bills. Roth IRAs or life insurance may be the better options.

The goal is to exchange assets, like traditional IRAs, for more tax-efficient assets to reach post-death planning solutions for the special needs individual, long after their parents and caregivers have passed.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (June 3, 2021) “Special-Needs Trusts: How They Work and What Has Changed”