Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Estate planning is crucial to ensure that wealth accumulated over a lifetime is distributed according to your wishes and will take care of your family when you are no longer able to do so. Many well-intentioned people make common mistakes, which could be avoided with the guidance of an estate planning attorney, says the article “Avoiding Big Estate Planning Mistakes” from Physician’s Weekly.

Do you have a will? Many families must endure the red tape and expenses of “intestate” probate because a parent never got around to having a will prepared. The process is relatively straightforward: identify an estate planning attorney and make an appointment. Once the will is completed, make sure several trusted people, likely family members, know where it is and can access it.

Are you properly insured? If the last time you looked at your life insurance coverage was more than ten years ago, it’s probably not kept pace with your life. Although every person’s situation is different, high- income earners, like physicians or other professionals, need to understand that life insurance “replaces” income. This means enough to pay for college, pay off a mortgage and provide for your surviving spouse and children’s lifestyles.

When was the last time you spoke with your estate planning attorney, CPA, or financial advisor? Tax laws are constantly changing, and if your estate plan is not keeping up with those changes, you may be missing out on planning opportunities. Your family also may end up with a big tax bill, if your estate plan hasn’t been revised in the last three or four years. Your team of professionals is only as good as you let them be, so stay in touch with them.

When was the last time you reviewed your estate plan with your attorney? If you thought an estate plan was a set-it-and-forget-it plan, think again. Tax laws aren’t the only thing that changes. If you’ve divorced and remarried, you definitely need a new estate plan—and possibly a post-nuptial agreement. Have your children grown up, married and perhaps had children of their own? Do you have a new and troublesome son-in-law and want to protect your daughter’s inheritance? All of the changes in your life need to be reflected in your estate plan.

Having “the talk” with your family. No one wants to think about their own mortality or their parent’s mortality. However, if you don’t discuss your estate plan and your wishes with your family, they will not know what you want to happen. It doesn’t need to be a summit meeting, but a series of conversations to allow your loved ones to become comfortable with the discussion and make it more likely your wishes will be fulfilled. This includes your estate plan and your wishes for burial or cremation and what kind of memorial service you want.

Reference: Physician’s Weekly (Oct. 8, 2021) “Avoiding Big Estate Planning Mistakes”

What is the Difference between a Trust and a Will?

Trusts and wills are two different ways to distribute and control your assets after your death. They have some key differences. Family trusts and wills are both worthwhile estate planning tools that can make sure your assets are protected and will pass to heirs the way you intended, says MSN’s recent article entitled “Family Trusts vs. Wills: What Are the Differences Between These Estate-Planning Options?”

This article tells you what you need to know about the differences between family trusts and wills to help you avoid estate planning mistakes.

Remember that without a will, the state probate laws will determine what happens to your assets. It may or may not be what you want. In contrast, a will lets you state to whom you want to distribute your assets.

Note that a trust permits the grantor (the person making the trust) to do what he or she wants with the assets. A trust also avoids probate.

A family trust is a wise choice for those who want to provide for the management of their assets if they become incapacitated, people interested in keeping information about their assets and who inherits those assets private and those who have a significant number of assets or a large estate. Here are some other situations in which a family trust would be appropriate to use:

  • Asset protection from creditors and divorce
  • For disabled beneficiaries who need to qualify for government benefits
  • For tax-planning; and
  • For cost and time efficiency over a lengthy probate process.

Everyone should have a will. It’s a way to leave bequests, nominate guardians for a minor child and an executor.

If you have a family trust, you still need a will. There may be some assets not owned by the trust, such as vehicles and other personal property. There may also be payments due you at your death. Those assets must go through probate, if not arranged to avoid probate.

Once that process is complete, the assets are distributed to the family trust and are governed by its provisions. This is what is known as a “pour-over will” because the assets “pour over” to the family trust.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss the estate planning options available for you and your situation.

Reference: MSN (Aug. 27, 2021) “Family Trusts vs. Wills: What Are the Differences Between These Estate-Planning Options?”

How Do I Hire an Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law attorneys are lawyers who assist the elderly and their family members, and caregivers with legal questions and planning related to aging.

These attorneys frequently are called upon to assist with tax planning, disability planning, probate and the administration of an estate, nursing home placement, as well as a host of other legal issues, says Forbes’ recent article entitled “Hiring An Elder Law Attorney.”

In addition, there are some elder law attorneys who have the designation of Certified Elder Law Attorney (CELA), a certification issued by the National Elder Law Foundation. A Certified Elder Law Attorney must meet licensing and other requirements, including specific experience in elder law matters and continuing education in elder law. However, note that an elder law attorney does not need to have the CELA certification to be an experienced elder law attorney.

There are many elder law attorneys who specialize in Medicaid planning to help protect a senior’s financial assets, if they suffer from dementia or another debilitating illness that may require long-term care. Elder law attorneys also prepare estate documents, such as a durable power of attorney for health and medical needs and a living will. As you age, the legal issues that you, your spouse, and/or your family caregivers must address can also change.

If you are a senior, then you should have durable powers of attorney for financial and health needs, in the event that you or your spouse becomes incapacitated. You might also need an elder law attorney to help you transfer assets if you or your spouse move into a nursing home to avoid spending your life savings on long-term care.

Healthy people over 65 are in the best spot to do more than having estate planning documents prepared. That’s because they have the opportunity to develop a holistic strategy beyond the legal documents. This can give assurances that the family members and professionals they’ve assembled understand the principle of supported decision-making and how it will be implemented.

For example, an elder law attorney may focus on finding the least restrictive residential environment and making other health care and financial choices. An elder law attorney can also protect seniors with diminished capacity, who are being victimized by personal and financial exploitation.

An initial consultation with an elder law attorney will help determine the types of legal services they can offer, and the fees associated with these services.

Reference: Forbes (Oct. 4, 2021) “Hiring an Elder Law Attorney”

How Do I Write a Will?

You should get the basic estate planning documents in order and revisit them regularly. Everyone should have a will, but it’s only one of several significant estate planning documents in a comprehensive plan.

US News’ recent article entitled “10 Steps to Writing a Will” says that many of a typical household’s assets, such as retirement accounts, can be transferred outside of a will by naming beneficiaries. Documents, like financial and medical powers of attorney, can also be more powerful in determining the outcome of an estate.

Find an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney. Most situations will require an estate planning attorney, especially when you have a large estate, a blended family, or other complex situations.

Select Beneficiaries. A common mistake people make when planning their estate is failing to name or update beneficiaries on key accounts that work with the plans outlined in their wills. The beneficiary listed on bank accounts, life insurance and other financial accounts will have control over the will.

Choose the Executor. The executor of your will has the task of carrying out your wishes detailed in the will.

Choose a Guardian for Your Minor Children. If you have minor children, you must designate a guardian in your will. That way you can name the person you want to care for your children, in the event you die while they are yet minors.

Be Specific About Who Gets What. One of the most time-consuming aspects of creating a will may be deciding which assets to include and determining who will receive what. Consider the types of assets being allocated to heirs to help with decision-making and management.

Be Clear About Who Gets What. Think practically about how your property will be distributed. A big reason children stop speaking after a parent’s death is because there’s boilerplate language directing tangible assets, such as artwork, collectibles, or jewelry, to be divided equally among children.

Attach a Letter. You can attach an explanatory letter to your will. This letter may provide additional detail about certain wishes. This is also called a “Letter of Last Instruction.”

Sign the Will Properly. If you fail to execute your will properly, it may result in the document being deemed invalid. An experienced estate planning attorney will know precisely what is required as far as witnesses and notarization.

Find a Place for Your Will. Inform a person you trust about the location of your will as well as any other important legal papers and passwords to financial institutions. In addition, it’s wise to store the original copy somewhere secure, such as in a fireproof safe.

Review and Update Your Will. A will should be updated every few years.

Reference: US News (May 31, 2021) “10 Steps to Writing a Will”

How Is a Notary Used in Estate Planning?

After the coronavirus pandemic hit, and the virus spread continued to surge throughout 2021, the methods of getting a document quickly and safely notarized evolved, reports WTOP’s article entitled “What Is a Notarized Document — and Where Can I Get Something Notarized?”

“Notaries have bent over backwards to accommodate the varying needs during the pandemic,” says Bill Anderson, vice president of government affairs at the National Notary Association. “The pandemic didn’t stop business. Even though we’ve been working from home, and it’s been harder than usual to get work done, the types of documents that required notarization before the pandemic continue to require notarization during the pandemic.”

A notary is appointed by the state to serve as an impartial witness to protect against fraud. They act as gatekeepers during the signing of important documents. Moreover, they’re required to follow specific rules in accordance with state laws and regulations. Notarization is an official process in which the parties of a transaction make certain that a document is authentic and legitimate.

Notarization entails the verification of a signer’s identity, their willingness to sign without duress or intimidation, along with their awareness of the document’s contents.

Notarizations can also be called “notarial acts.”

There are three common types of notarial acts:

  • Acknowledgments, where a signer declares the signature on the document is his or her own, made willingly, for documents, such as real property deeds, powers of attorney, and trusts.
  • Jurats which verifies that paperwork is truthful. This typically involves documents associated with criminal or civil justice systems.
  • Certified copies include certifying the copying or reproduction of certain papers.

A notary will ask to see a current ID that has a photo, physical description and signature. He or she will also record the details of the notarization in a chronological journal of notarial acts.

If a document fails any of the criteria, the notary will refuse to validate the document.

The process is complete when the notary affixes his or her signature and seal of office on a notarial certificate. Most experienced estate planning attorneys are also Notary Publics.

Reference: WTOP (Aug. 26, 2021) “What Is a Notarized Document — and Where Can I Get Something Notarized?”

What Should Small Business Owners Know about Estate Planning?

Not having an estate plan can place business owners and entrepreneurs in jeopardy because they may face difficulties in keeping the business running, if they have to withdraw from the business at any point in time.

Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “What Small Business Owners Should Know about Doing Estate Planning” explains that estate planning is necessary to ensure business continuity. Think about who can take control when you’re no longer around to have the business continue according to your wishes contained in your estate plan. An experienced estate planning attorney can help business owners create a comprehensive estate plan, so things do not become chaotic for their family in the event of premature death or any permanent disability. Consider these steps when it comes to good estate planning for business owners.

Create an estate plan if you haven’t got one. A will is designed to detail your wishes about how you want the business to run and the manner of sharing your property at your death. A power of attorney allows an entrusted individual to undertake your business transactions and manage your finances, if you are incapacitated by injury or illness. A healthcare directive permits a trusted agent to make medical decisions on your behalf when you can’t do so yourself.

Plan for taxes. Tax planning is a major component of estate planning. Our tax laws keep changing frequently, so you have to stay in constant touch with your attorney to develop strategies for decreasing your tax liability, as well as creating a strategy for minimizing inheritance/estate taxes.

Buy life and disability insurance. Small business owners should think about purchasing life insurance, so their families can have a source of income after their death.

Create a succession plan. In addition to estate planning, a business owner should have a succession plan that specifies exactly how your company, and your family will prepare for a transition of ownership. The purpose of a well thought out succession plan is to keep the business operating or to take steps to sell it. This plan also includes the organizational structure of the business in case of maintaining business continuity.

Finally, you should keep everyone impacted by your decisions apprised of your estate plan and your business succession plan.

Reference: Legal Reader (Aug. 26, 2021) “What Small Business Owners Should Know about Doing Estate Planning”

When Should You Update Your Estate Plan?

Updating an estate plan is not usually the first thing on one’s mind when large life events occur. However, if you fail to update your estate plan, over time the plan may not work—for you or your loved ones. Reviewing estate plans at least once every three or four years will help to reach your goals and protect your family, explains the article “Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?” from Arkansas Business.

Two key documents are used to distribute your assets: your last will and testament and trusts. As your children and other family members mature, those documents should change as may be needed.

If you have a revocable trust, you need to review the dispositive provisions and the trust funding. One of the biggest mistakes in estate planning, after failing to have an estate plan, is failing to fund or manage the funds in a trust.

Trusts are created to avoid probate and establish a process for distributing assets in case of disability or death. However, if assets are not retitled to be owned by the trust, or if the assets don’t have an appropriate beneficiary designation to transfer assets to the trust at the time of your death, they won’t perform as intended. As new assets are purchased, they also need to be incorporated into your estate plan.

Relationships you have with people who have responsibilities for your estate plan may change over time. Those need to be updated, including the following:

Trustee—The person or institution administering and managing a revocable trust, when you can no longer do so.

Guardian—The individual who will have legal authority and responsibility to raise your minor child(ren).

Executor—The person who is in charge of administering and managing your estate.

Health Care Agent—The person you authorize to make medical decisions in the event of incapacity.

Another common point of failure for estate plans: neglecting to update beneficiary designations for assets like life insurance, retirement plans and any asset that customarily passes to an heir through a beneficiary designation.

A regular review of your estate plan with your estate planning attorney also allows your plan to incorporate changes in tax laws. The last few years have seen many significant changes in tax laws, and more changes are likely in the future. Strategies that may have been extremely effective five or ten years ago are probably outdated and might create costs for your heirs. A review with an experienced estate planning attorney can prevent unnecessary tax liabilities, unexpected inheritances and family feuds.

Reference: Arkansas Business (Sep. 2021) “Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?”

Estate Planning and Cryptocurrency

The increase of people investing in digital assets has not been matched by an increase in the number of people preparing to pass on these assets, which can be of considerable value. This new class of assets requires a new kind of estate planning, according to the article “Cryptocurrency and Estate Planning: What Digital Investors Should Know” from Forbes.

Cryptocurrency is digital currency used to buy online goods and services and traded in several markets. Cryptocurrency is not issued by any government. Instead, it’s created and managed through blockchain, a technology comprised of decentralized computers used to record and manage transactions. Users claim cryptocurrency is extremely secure. Sometimes, cryptocurrency is so secure that a lost password can cause the owner to lose millions.

The most popular cryptocurrencies are Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin and Binance Coin, although there are many others, and it seems like a new cryptocurrency is always being introduced. The total value is estimated at $1.35 trillion.

Another digital asset class gaining in popularity is the NFT, or non-fungible token, used to buy and sell digital art. Each NFT, which is also supported by blockchain technology, can be anything digital, like music or artwork files. The buyer of an NFT owns the exclusive original and the artist, in some cases, retains proprietary rights to feature the artwork or make copies of it. Numerous NFTs have already sold for millions.

Owning digital assets without a plan for passing them along to the next generation, could leave heirs empty handed.

Even if your family knows you own cryptocurrency, and even if they know your passwords or have access to the digital wallet where you keep your passwords, they still may not be able to access your accounts. Probate for digital assets is still very new to the courts, and if you can avoid probate for this asset class, you should.

Blockchain technology, the system behind cryptocurrency and NFTs, requires a private key to access each account, typically in the form of a long passcode. Just as you would not put account numbers into a will, you should never put passcodes or usernames in a last will and testament to prevent them from becoming part of the public record. However, only by understanding how each currency works after the original owner dies and preparing to provide the information to your executor, can your heirs receive these assets.

The nature of cryptocurrency is decentralization. There is no governing body that oversees or regulates cryptocurrency. Laws around cryptocurrency are still evolving, so your estate plan may benefit from a trust to protect digital assets.

Don’t neglect to have the necessary discussion with your heirs, including a knowledge transfer of the step-by-step process they’ll need to know to access your digital assets. An estate planning attorney with experience with digital assets and your state’s laws about digital assets will help protect these assets and ensure they are passed to the next generation without evaporating into cyberspace.

Reference: Forbes (July 21, 2021) “Cryptocurrency and Estate Planning: What Digital Investors Should Know”

If I Have a Will, Do I Have an Estate Plan?

Estate planning and writing a will are entirely different terms.

An estate plan is a broader plan of action for your assets that may apply during your life, as well as after your death.

However, a will states the way in which your assets will go after you die.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning vs. Will: What’s the Difference?” explains that a will is a legal document that states the way in which you’d like your assets to be distributed after you die.

A will can also detail your wishes about how your minor children will be cared after your death, and it names an executor who’s in charge of carrying out the actions in your will. Without a will, the state’s probate laws determine how your property is divided.

Estate planning is a lot broader and more complex than writing a will. A will is a single tool. An estate plan involves multiple tools, such as powers of attorney, advance directives and trusts.

Again, a will is a legal document, and an estate plan is a collection of legal documents. An estate plan can also handle other estate planning matters that can’t be addressed in a will.

A will is a good place to start, but you’ll want to create an estate plan to ensure that your family is fully covered in the event of your death.

While having a will is important, it’s only the first step when it comes to creating an estate plan.

To leave your heirs and loved ones in the best position after your death, you should talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a comprehensive estate plan, so your assets can end up where you want them.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Aug. 10, 2021) “Estate Planning vs. Will: What’s the Difference?”

Estate Planning for Special Needs Children

Part of providing comprehensive estate planning for families includes being prepared to address the needs of family members with special needs. Some of the tools used are trusts, guardianship and tax planning, according to the article “How to Help Clients With Special Needs Children” from Accounting Web. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan for the future that addresses both legal and financial protections.

A survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that 12.8 percent of children in our country have special health care needs, while 20 percent of all American households include a child with special needs. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) estimates that 26% of adults in America have some type of disability. In other words, some 61 million Americans have some kind of disability.

Providing for a child with special needs can be expensive, depending upon the severity of the disability. The first step for families is to have a special needs trust created through an estate planning attorney with experience in this area. The goal is to have money for the support and care of the child available, but for it not to be in the child’s name. While there are benefits available to the child through the federal government, almost all programs are means-tested, that is, the child or adult with special needs may not have assets of their own.

For many parents, a good option is a substantial life insurance policy, with the beneficiary of the policy being the special needs trust. Depending on the family’s situation, a “second to die” policy may make sense. Both parents are listed as the insured, but the policy does not pay until both parents have passed. Premiums may be lower because of this option.

It is imperative for parents of a child with special needs to have their will created to direct their assets to go to the special needs trust and not to the child directly. This is done to protect the child’s eligibility to receive government benefits.

Parents of a child with special needs also need to consider who will care for their child after they have died. A guardian needs to be named as early as possible in the child’s life, in case something should occur to the parents. The guardianship may end at age 18 for most children, but for an individual with special needs, more protection is needed. The guardian and their role need to be spelled out in documents. It is a grave mistake for parents to assume a family member or sibling will care for their child with special needs. The need to prepare for guardianship cannot be overstated.

The special needs trust will also require a trustee and a secondary trustee, if at some point the primary trustee cannot or does not want to serve.

It may seem easier to name the same person as the trustee and the guardian, but this could lead to difficult situations. A better way to go is to have one person paying the bills and keeping an eye on costs and a second person taking care of the individual.

Planning for the child’s long-term care needs to be done as soon as possible. A special needs trust should be established and funded early on, wills need to be created and/or updated, and qualified professionals become part of the family’s care for their loved one.

Having a child with special needs is a different kind of parenting. A commonly used analogy is for a person who expected to be taking a trip to Paris but finds themselves in Holland. The trip is not what they expected, but still a wonderful and rewarding experience.

Reference: Accounting Web (Sep. 13, 2021) “How to Help Clients With Special Needs Children”