How Does Power of Attorney Work?

Depending on how you structure a power of attorney, an agent can – in some instances – transfer money and property to themselves.

However, it’s uncommon and only allowed in specific circumstances and the laws vary by state.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Can a Power of Attorney Transfer Money to Themselves?” explains that a power of attorney is when you assign someone (known as an agent or attorney-in-fact) the authority to make legally binding decisions on your behalf. Most of these documents have a limited grant of authority.

A general power of attorney is a type of durable power of attorney (the other two are special power of attorney and healthcare or medical power of attorney). With this, an agent is permitted to make just about any decisions at all on your behalf while the power of attorney assignment remains valid. However, even a general power of attorney has limits.

An agent typically can’t transfer money, personal property, real estate, or any other assets from the grantee to him or herself, and it’s usually deemed a fraudulent conveyance.

However, a power of attorney can transfer assets to themselves, if they have specific written consent from the grantee (or creator of the document).

The grantee can authorize most forms of property transfer, provided the assets are theirs to give and the authorization is specific.

A grantee can only give this authority to an agent, if he or she is mentally and legally competent.

If you think you’ll want your power of attorney to have this authority at some point, be sure to write it out in the original grant because you may not be able legally to amend this document when the issue comes up in the future. Be sure to speak with your estate planning attorney to make sure your power of attorney is up to date.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Sep. 21, 2021) “Can a Power of Attorney Transfer Money to Themselves?”

Before They’re Gone—Estate Planning Strategies

As Congress continues to hammer out the details on impending legislation, there are certain laws still in effect concerning estate planning. The article “Last Call for SLATs, GTRATs, and the Use of the Enhanced Gift Tax Exemption?” from Mondaq says now is the time to review and update your estate plan, just in case any beneficial strategies may disappear by year’s end.

Here are the top five estate planning items to consider:

Expect Exemptions to Take a Dive. Estate, gift, and generation-skipping transfer tax exemptions are $11.7 million per person and are now scheduled to increase by an inflationary indexed amount through 2025. Even if there are no legislative changes, on January 1, 2026, this number drops to $5 million, indexed for inflation. Under proposed legislation, it will revert to $6,020,000 and will continue to be indexed for inflation. This is a “use it or lose it” exemption.

Married Couples Have Options Different Than Solos. Married persons who don’t want to gift large amounts to descendants have the option to gift the exemption amount to their spouse using a SLAT—Spousal Lifetime Access Trust. The spouses can both create these trusts for each other, but the IRS is watching, so certain precautions must be taken. The trusts should not be identical in nature and should not be created at the same time to avoid application of the “reciprocal trust” doctrine, which would render both trusts moot. Under proposed legislation, SLATs will be includable in your estate at death, but SLATs created and funded before the legislation is enacted will be grandfathered in. If this is something of interest, don’t delay.

GRATs and other Grantor Trusts May be Gone. They simply won’t be of any use, since proposed legislation has them includable in your estate at death. Existing GRATs and other grantor trusts will be grandfathered in from the new rules. Again, if this is of interest, the time to act is now.

IRA Rules May Change. People who own Individual Retirement Accounts with values above $10 million, combined with income of more than $450,000, may not be able to make contributions to traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, and defined contribution plans under the proposed legislation. Individuals with large IRA balances may be required to withdraw funds from retirement plans, regardless of age. A minimum distribution may be an amount equal to 50% of the amount by which the combined IRA value is higher than the $10 million threshold.

Rules Change for Singles Too. A single person who doesn’t want to make a large gift and lose control and access may create and gift an exemption amount to a trust in a jurisdiction with “domestic asset protection trust” legislation and still be a beneficiary of such a trust. This trust must be fully funded before the new legislation is enacted, since once the law passes, such a trust will be includable in the person’s estate. Check with your estate planning attorney to see if your state allows this strategy.

Reference: Mondaq (Sep. 24. 2021) “Last Call for SLATs, GTRATs, and the Use of the Enhanced Gift Tax Exemption?”

What a Will Won’t Accomplish

Everyone needs a will. A last will and testament is how an executor is named to manage your estate, how a guardian is named to care for any minor children and how you give directions for distribution of property. However, not all property passes via your will. You’ll want to know what a will can and cannot do, as well as how assets are distributed outside of a will. This was the topic of “The Legal Limits of Your Will” from AARP Magazine.

Retirement and Pension Accounts

The beneficiaries named on retirement accounts, including 401(k)s, pensions, and IRAs, receive these assets directly. Some states have laws about requiring spouses to receive some or all assets. However, if you don’t keep these beneficiary names updated, the wrong person may receive the asset, like it or not. Don’t expect anyone to willingly give up a surprise windfall. If a primary beneficiary has died and no contingency beneficiary was named, the recipient may also be determined by default terms, which may not be what you have in mind.

Life Insurance Policies.

The beneficiary designations on an insurance policy determine who will receive proceeds upon your death. Laws vary by state, so check with an estate planning attorney to learn what would happen if you died without updating life insurance policies. A simpler strategy is to create a list of all of your financial accounts, determine how they are distributed and update names as necessary.

Note there are exceptions to all rules. If your divorce agreement includes a provision naming your ex as the sole beneficiary, you may not have an option to make a change.

Financial Accounts

Adding another person to your bank account through various means—Payable on Death (POD), Transfer on Death (TOD), or Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship (JTWROS)—may generally override a will, but may not be acceptable for all accounts, or to all financial institutions. There are unanticipated consequences of transferring assets this way, including the simplest: once transferred, assets are immediately vulnerable to creditors, divorce proceedings, etc.

Trusts

Trusts are used in estate planning to remove assets from a personal estate and place them in safekeeping for beneficiaries. Once the assets are properly transferred into the trust, their distribution and use are defined by the trust document. The flexibility and variety of trusts makes this a key estate planning tool, regardless of the value of the assets in the estate.

Reference: AARP Magazine (Sep. 29, 2021) “The Legal Limits of Your Will”

What Do I Do with Estate Plan after Divorce?

If you forget to update your will after a divorce, you risk your assets being distributed to your ex-spouse when you pass away.

Investopedia’s recent article “Here’s what you need to remove and add to your will when your marriage is over,” says that many states have laws that, after a divorce, automatically revoke gifts to a former spouse listed in a will. There are states that also revoke gifts to family members of a former spouse. If you’re in a state that has such a law, gifts to former stepchildren would also be revoked after your divorce.

Most married people leave everything in their will to their surviving spouse. If that’s the way that your will currently reads, be certain that you change your ex as a beneficiary and add a new beneficiary. Remember that many types of assets are passed outside of a will, such as life insurance, 401k’s and other investments. Therefore, you must change the beneficiary designation on those documents.

Property Transfers. Update your will for any property gained or lost during the divorce. If you have assets that are specifically identified in your will, be sure to update them for any changes that may have happened because of the divorce.

The Executor of your Will. If your ex-spouse is named in your will as your executor, you should change this.

A Guardian for Minor Children. If you have children with your ex-spouse, you will want to update your will to appoint a guardian, if you and your ex-spouse pass unexpectantly at the same time. If you die, your children will likely be raised by your ex-spouse.

The Best Way to Change Your Will After Divorce. It’s easy: tear up your old will (literally) and begin again because you probably left everything or almost everything to your spouse in your original will. Just because you’re legally married until a judge signs a divorce decree, you can still modify your will or estate plan at any time. Ask an estate planning attorney because there some actions you can’t take until the divorce is final.

Can an Ex Challenge Your Will? An ex-spouse or even ex-de facto partner can challenge the will of a former spouse or partner. Whether the challenge will be successful will depend on the court’s interpretation of a number of factors.

Reference: Investopedia (Sep. 14, 2021) “Here’s what you need to remove and add to your will when your marriage is over”

Should You Put Your House in Your Child’s Name?

One of the ways families build wealth across generations is through home ownership. Parents who can afford to give a property to children who either sell the home and distribute profits or keep it in the family have a definite advantage over generations of renters. How to transfer the home is not always straightforward. A recent article from The Washington Post titled “Don’t put your kids on the title of your home. There’s a better way for them to inherit the property” explains how to do this.

In this article, the mother placed an adult child on the deed to a home purchased some five years ago. The mom wants to sell the house and buy a smaller one nearby. The adult child has never lived in the home. The mother wants to do an 80/20 split of profits from the sale, with the child receiving the majority amount. This would push the child into a higher tax bracket, although the child says she could use the income.

The mother, despite her good will, has made a classic estate planning mistake. Was she trying to avoid probate at death, or to give the child some or all of the property?

As the homeowner, the mother may exclude the first $250,000 in profits from federal income taxes, if she was the sole owner. If she were married, that number would be up to $500,000. However, she’s not the sole owner.

When a person dies, heirs inherit real estate at its current market value. If the home was purchased for $100,000 and its worth is $500,000 when the owner dies, a child who inherits the home outright and then sells it immediately will receive about $400,000 in profits. If the house was inherited after death and then sold shortly thereafter, the IRS would say the property value is $500,000.

If someone inherits a home worth $500,000 and then sells it for $500,000, there is no profit because of the stepped-up value of the home assigned at the time of the owner’s death. However, if the estate in total is worth less than $11.7 million, estate taxes are not a concern.

Here’s the twist: if the mother and child are co-owners of the home and the mother dies, the child inherits only one-half the value of the home (and receives the stepped-up basis for the half but won’t benefit from the stepped-up basis) If the child sells the home, they won’t pay taxes on the share inherited from the mother but would pay taxes on the child’s share of the home.

If the mom bought the house for $100,000 and the mother and child are co-owners, the child would inherit the mother’s half of the property at the stepped-up basis of $500,000. When the home was sold, the mother’s half is shielded from taxes, but the child’s profit is calculated based on the difference between the purchase and sales price, or $400,000, of which their share is $200,000. They would owe taxes on the $200,000, instead of inheriting the home tax-free.

There are many estate planning and real estate tax rules making this more complicated. However, one better alternative is for the mom to put the home in a living trust, so she controls the home while she is alive, and the child can inherit the home through the trust upon her death. Talk with an estate planning attorney about how to create a living trust and how it would work to benefit both of you.

Reference: The Washington Post (Oct. 20, 2021) “Don’t put your kids on the title of your home. There’s a better way for them to inherit the property.”

What Do I Need in My Estate Plan?

Digital Journal’s recent article entitled “What is an Estate Plan and What are its Benefits?” explains that an estate plan usually includes the following:

  • A will;
  • A financial power of attorney and a medical power of attorney (with consent);
  • A living will; and perhaps
  • A living trust.

You also need an experienced estate planning attorney who understands the possible strategies that are available to you for your family.

There are many significant benefits to establishing an effective estate plan, including deciding who will inherit specific assets, possessions, or valuables; and designating guardians for minor children; and avoid or minimizing taxes.

Without an estate plan, heirs must go through a very stressful probate process, which can take years. It can also be expensive. With a will, you can protect your young children and ensure that they are cared for by designating a guardian. Without a will, the court decides who will care for your children.

You can also stop fights before they start with an estate plan. One sibling—for whatever reason—may think he or she deserves more than the others. Such disagreements can easily wind up in court, with family members fighting each other and costing thousands in legal fees.

With an effective estate plan, you can make certain your assets are handled the way you intended if you were to become mentally incapacitated or pass away. You can choose who will be in charge of your medical affairs, financial affairs, and even specific assets such as a small business. If a business owner doesn’t have an estate plan, state law would determine who would be in control of the business.

A big question for a small business owner is who will oversee the business if he or she becomes incapacitated or dies. A key is determining the best strategy after the death of the owner. A business succession plan is critical.

Reference: Digital Journal (Sep. 2, 2021) “What is an Estate Plan and What are its Benefits?”

Some of Most Famous (or Infamous) Estate Planning Mistakes

Blunders in the estate planning of high-profile celebrities is one very good way to learn the lesson of what not to do. The Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Lessons To Be Learned From Failed Celebrity Estates” gives us some celebrity estates where the mistakes have caused problems for their heirs.

James Gandolfini. The Sopranos actor left only 20% of his estate to his wife, but if he’d left more of his estate to his wife, the estate tax on that gift would have been avoided. He failed to maximize the tax savings in his estate. Consequently, 55% of his total estate, including a significant art collection, went to pay estate taxes.

James Brown. The Godfather of Soul left the copyrights to his music to an educational foundation, his tangible assets to his children and $ 2 million to educate his grandchildren. However, because of ambiguous language in his estate planning documents, his girlfriend and her children sued. Six years later and after the payment of millions in estate taxes, his estate was finally settled.

Michael Jackson. The King of Pop had a trust—but he never funded it in his lifetime. As a result, there’s be a long and costly battle in the California Probate Court over control of his estate.

Howard Hughes. Although he wanted his $2.5 billion fortune left to medical research, no valid written will could be discovered at his death. Instead, his wealth was divided among his 22 cousins. Because Hughes Aircraft Co. was gifted to the Hughes Medical Institute prior to his death, it wasn’t included in his estate.

Michael Critchton. The famous author was survived by his pregnant fifth wife. His son was born after his death, but since his will and trust didn’t anticipate a child being born after his death, his daughter from a previous marriage tried to exclude his son from his estate. While the California statute would have included his son in his estate, as pretermitted heir, the author had language that specifically overrode the statute and excluded all heirs not otherwise mentioned in his will—failing to anticipate that he’d die with an unborn son—whom he didn’t mention in the will.

Casey Kasem. The DJ’s wife and the children of his prior marriage fought over his end-of-life care and even the disposition of his body. It made for an embarrassing scene, including kidnapping and theft of his corpse.

Prince and Aretha Franklin. Both music superstars died without a will, so their families were each involved in very public, and in the case of Prince, a very contentious settlement of their estates.

If you have an estate plan in place, review your existing documents to make certain that it still accomplishes your wishes. Consider these mistakes of celebrities when you’re creating a comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: The Wealth Advisor (Aug. 31, 2021) “Lessons To Be Learned From Failed Celebrity Estates”

Do You Need a Revocable or Irrevocable Trust?

However, below the surface of estate planning and the world of trusts, things get complicated. Revocable trusts become irrevocable trusts, when the grantor becomes incapacitated or dies. It is just one of the many twists and turns in trusts, as reported in the article “What’s the difference between a revocable and irrevocable trust” from Market Watch.

For starters, the person who creates the trust is known as the “grantor.” The grantor can change the trust while living, or while the grantor has legal capacity. If the grantor becomes incapacitated, the grantor can’t change the trust. An agent or Power of Attorney for the grantor can make changes, if specifically authorized in the trust, as could a court-appointed conservator.

Despite the name, irrevocable trusts can be changed—more so now than ever before. Irrevocable trusts created for asset protection, tax planning or Medicaid planning purposes are treated differently than those becoming irrevocable upon the death of the grantor.

When an irrevocable trust is created, the grantor may still retain certain powers, including the right to change trustees and the right to re-direct who will receive the trust property, when the grantor dies or when the trust terminates (these don’t always occur at the same time). A “testamentary power of appointment” refers to the retained power to appoint or distribute assets to anyone, or within limitations.

When the trust becomes irrevocable, the grantor can give the right to change trustees or to change ultimate beneficiaries to other people, including the beneficiaries. A trust could say that a majority of the grantor’s children may hire and fire trustees, and each child has the right to say where his or her share will go, in the event he or she dies before receiving their share.

Asset protection and special needs trusts also appoint people in the role of trust protectors. They are empowered to change trustees and, in some cases, to amend the trust completely. The trust is irrevocable for the grantor, but not the trust protector. Another trust might have language to limit this power, typically if it is a special needs trust. This allows a trust protector to make necessary changes, if rules regarding government benefits change regarding trusts.

Irrevocable trusts have become less irrevocable over the years, as more states have passed laws concerning “decanting” trusts, reformation and non-judicial settlement of trusts. Decanting a trust refers to “pouring” assets from one trust into another trust—allowing assets to be transferred to other trusts. Depending on the state’s laws, there needs to be a reason for the trust to be decanted and all beneficiaries must agree to the change.

Trust reformation requires court approval and must show that the reformation is needed if the trust is to achieve its original purpose. Notice must be given to all current and future beneficiaries, but they don’t need to agree on the change.

The Uniform Trust Code permits trust reformation without court involvement, known as non-judicial settlement agreements, where all parties are in agreement. The law has been adopted in 34 states and the District of Columbia. Any change that doesn’t violate a material purpose of the trust is permitted, as long as all parties are in agreement.

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 8, 2021) “What’s the difference between a revocable and irrevocable trust”

How Does Cryptocurrency Work in an Estate Plan?

Crypto-assets, including cryptocurrencies and non-currency blockchain tokens, hold significant family wealth today and present challenges to securing, transferring, protecting and gifting, as explained in the article “What Holding Crypto Means for Your Estate Plan” from U.S. News & World Report.

Traditional estate planning is evolving to include this new asset class, as digital asset investors embrace a market worth more than $1 trillion. Experienced investors who use digital assets to expand their asset diversification are more likely to understand the importance of protecting their investment through estate planning. However, first time investors who own a small amount of cryptocurrency or the early adapters who bought Bitcoins at the very start and now are worth millions, may not be as aware of the importance of digital asset estate planning.

Unlike traditional bank accounts, controlled through a centralized banking system and a legacy system of reporting, digital assets are by their very nature decentralized. An owner has access through a private key, usually a series of numbers and letters known only to the asset’s owner and stored in a digital wallet. Unless an executor knows about digital wallets and what a private key is and how to use them, the assets can and often do evaporate.

It can be challenging for executors to obtain access to traditional accounts, like 401(k)s or brokerage accounts. Mistakes are made and documents go astray, even in straightforward estates. In a new asset class, with new words like private keys, seed phrases, hardware wallets and more, the likelihood of a catastrophic loss increases.

A last will and testament is necessary for every estate. It’s needed to name an executor, a guardian for minor children and to set forth wishes for wealth distribution. However, a will becomes part of the public record during court proceedings after death, so it should never include detailed information, like bank account numbers. The same goes for information about cryptocurrency. Specific information in a will can be used to steal digital assets.

Loved ones need to know the crypto-assets exist, where to find them and what to do with them. Depending on the amount of the assets and what kind of assets are held, such information needs to be included and addressed in the estate plan.

If the assets are relatively small and owned through an exchange (Coinbase, Binance, or Kraken are a few examples), it is possible to list the crypto asset on a schedule of trust assets and ensure that the trustee has all the login information and knows how to access them.

For complex cases with significant wealth in digital assets, establishing a custodian and trustee may be necessary. A plan must be created that establishes both a custodian and trustee of digital assets. Steps include sharing private keys with a family member or trusted friend or splintering the private keys among multiple trusted individuals, so no one person has complete control.

This new asset class is here for the foreseeable future, and as more investors get involved with cryptocurrency, their estate plan needs to address and protect it.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Oct. 5, 2021) “What Holding Crypto Means for Your Estate Plan”

Talk to Parents about Estate Planning without Making It Awkward

If you don’t have this conversation with parents when they are able to share information and provide you with instructions, helping with their care if they become incapacitated or dealing with their estate after they pass will be far more difficult. None of this is easy, but there are some practical strategies shared in the article “How to Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning” from The Balance.

Parents worry about children fighting over estates after they pass, but not having a “family meeting” to speak about estate planning increases the chance of this happening. In many cases, family conflicts lead to litigation, and everyone loses.

Start by including siblings. Including everyone creates an awareness of fairness because no one is being left out. A frank, open conversation including all of the heirs with parents can prevent or at least lessen the chances for arguments over what parents would have wanted. Distrust grows with secrets, so get everything out in the open.

When is the right time to have the conversation? There is no time like the present. Don’t wait for an emergency to occur—what most people do—but by then, it’s too late.

Estate planning includes preparing for issues of aging as well as property distribution after death. Health care power of attorney and financial power of attorney need to be prepared, so family members can be involved when a parent is incapacitated. An estate planning attorney will draft these documents as part of creating an estate plan.

The unpredictable events of 2020 and 2021 have made life’s fragile nature clear. Now is the time to sit down with family members and talk about the plans for the future. Do your parents have an estate plan? Are there plans for incapacity, including Long-Term Care insurance? If they needed to be moved to a long-term facility, how would the cost be covered?

Another reason to have this conversation with family now is your own retirement planning. The cost of caring for an ailing parent can derail even the best retirement plan in a matter of months.

Define roles among siblings. Who will serve as power of attorney and manage mom’s finances? Who will be the executor after death? Where are all of the necessary documents? If the last will and testament is locked in a safe deposit box and no one can gain access to it, how will the family manage to follow their parent’s wishes?

Find any old wills and see If trusts were established when children were young. If an estate plan was created years ago and the children are now adults, it’s likely all of the documents need to be revised. Review any trusts with an estate planning attorney. Those children who were protected by trusts so many years ago may now be ready to serve as executor, trustees, power of attorney or health care surrogate.

Usually, a complete understanding of the parent’s wishes and reasons behind their estate plan takes more than a single conversation. Some of the issues may require detailed discussion, or family members may need time to process the information. However, as long as the parents are living, the conversation should continue. Scheduling an annual family meeting, often with the family’s estate planning attorney present, can help everyone set long-term goals and foster healthy family relationships for multiple generations.

Reference: The Balance (Oct. 15, 2021) “How to Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning”