How Do I Disinherit My Child?

Disinheriting a child or any person trying to gain access to your assets after you have died requires skilled estate planning. The things that can be done before you die to protect your estate are the subjects of a recent article “Disinheriting a child” from Westfair Online. It should be noted that if you anticipate a challenge to your will, or if you suspect claims will emerge after you pass, it will be wise to prepare your estate and family members for the legal, financial and emotional aspects of an estate battle.

Here are some of the steps to consider.

Avoiding probate. The probate estate includes assets that are controlled by your Last Will and Testament on the day you die. It does not include assets where there are named beneficiaries. Such assets pass directly to beneficiaries.

Before a will can be executed, it must go through probate. Part of the probate process is the notification of any individuals who may be entitled to receive assets. If you pass away without a will, the estate still needs to be probated and those individuals must still be provided with a notice of your passing and the distribution of your assets. If you had intended to disinherit someone and did not take the necessary steps, it is as if you have issued an invitation to them.

Using a revocable trust. Trusts are used to remove assets from probate estates. A revocable trust is a trust that allows you to maintain complete control over the assets in the trust, while you are living. When you die, the trust does not go through probate and no one needs to be notified of the trust’s existence or its terms, if you so specify and state law permits. Your wishes and assets may remain private. This is especially useful, if you want to disinherit someone.

The revocable trust is not immune from contest, but it makes the challenging more difficult.

Changing titles to joint ownership and naming beneficiaries. Changing your bank, investment and real estate property ownership to joint ownership is a way to avoid probate and have assets pass directly to your intended beneficiaries. However, there are complications to this strategy. If the person you add to an account has money problems, your assets are now available to their creditors. If the person on the account goes through a divorce, your assets are legally available to their spouse. And if the joint owner should die before you, any protection you may have obtained is gone. A trust may be a better solution.

Review your retirement plans and any other assets that allow you to name a beneficiary to ensure that the person who will receive these assets is still the person you want.

What about a no-contest clause? It seems like a simple solution—by including a no-contest clause, often referred to as an “in terrorem” clause, anyone who seeks to contest the will immediately forfeits any distribution to that person, if they are not successful in the will contest. However, what if they are successful in the will contest?

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about these and other strategies to defuse a disinherited person’s potential claims. Disinheriting a child sparks many estate battles, so preparations need to be made to protect the family and the estate.

Reference: Westfair Online (Jan. 26, 2021) “Disinheriting a child”

 

Can You Amend a Power of Attorney?

The situation facing one family is all too common. An aunt is now incapacitated with severe Alzheimer’s disease. Her brother has been her agent with a durable power of attorney in place for many years. In the course of preparing his own estate plan, he decided it’s time for one of his own children to take on the responsibility for his sister, in addition to naming his son as executor of his estate. The aunt has no spouse or children of her own.

The answers, as explained in a recent article “Changing the agent under a durable power of attorney” from My San Antonio Life, all hinge on the language used in the aunt’s current durable power of attorney. If she used a form from the internet, the document is probably not going to make the transfer of agency easy. If she worked with an experienced estate planning attorney, chances are better the document includes language that addresses this common situation.

If the durable power of attorney included naming successor agents, then an attorney can prepare a resignation document that is attached to the durable power of attorney. The power of attorney document might read like this: “I appoint my brother Charles as agent. If Charles dies or is incapacitated or resigns, I hereby appoint my nephew, Phillip, to serve as a successor agent.”

If the aunt would make her wishes clear in the actual signed durable power of attorney, the nephew could relatively easily assume authority, when the father resigns the responsibility because the aunt pre-selected him for the role.

If there is a clause that appointed a successor agent, but the successor agent was not the nephew, the nephew does not become the agent and the aunt’s brother can’t transfer the POA. If there is no clause at all, the nephew and the father can’t make any changes.

In September 2017, there was a change to the law that required durable power of attorney documents to specifically grant such power to delegate the role to someone else. The law varies from state to state, so a local estate planning attorney needs to be asked about this issue.

If there is no provision allowing an agent to name a successor agent, the nephew and father cannot make the change.

Another avenue to consider: did the aunt’s estate planning attorney include a provision that allows the durable power of attorney to establish a living trust to benefit the aunt and to transfer assets into the trust? Part of creating a trust is determining who will serve as a trustee, or manager, of the trust. If such a clause exists in the durable power of attorney and the father uses it to establish and fund a trust, he can then name his son, the nephew, as the trustee.

Taking this step would place all of the aunt’s assets under the nephew’s control. He would still not be the aunt’s agent under her power of attorney. Responsibility for certain tasks, like filing the aunt’s income taxes, will still be the responsibility of the durable power of attorney.

If her durable power of attorney does not include establishing a living trust, the most likely course is the father will need to resign as agent and the nephew will need to file in court to become the aunt’s guardian. This is a time-consuming and slow-paced process, where the court will become heavily involved with supervision and regular reporting. It is the worst possible option, but it may also be the only option.

If your family is facing this type of situation, begin by speaking with an experienced estate planning attorney to find out what options exist in your state, and it might be resolved.

Reference: My San Antonio Life (Jan. 25, 2021) “Changing the agent under a durable power of attorney”

 

What’s the Difference between Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita in Estate Planning?

When creating an estate plan, one of the basic documents you need is a will. In estate planning, it’s important to distinguish between per stirpes and per capita distributions. These are two terms you are likely to come across when creating your estate plan, says Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita in Estate Planning.”

Per stirpes is Latin and means “by branch” or “by class.” When this term is used in estate planning, it refers to the equal distribution of assets among the different branches of a family and their surviving descendants. This lets the descendants of a beneficiary keep inherited assets within that branch of their family, even if the original beneficiary passes away. The assets would be equally divided between the survivors. Per stirpes distributions essentially create a “trickle-down” effect: assets can be passed on to future generations if a primary beneficiary passes away.

In contrast, “per capita” is also a Latin term that means “by head.” When you use a per capita distribution method for estate planning, any assets you have would pass equally to the beneficiaries who are still living when you pass. The share portions would adjust accordingly, if one of your children or grandchildren were to die before you.

Whether it makes sense to use a per stirpes or per capita distribution in your estate plan can depend for the most part, the way in which you want your assets to be distributed after you’re gone.

Per stirpes allows you to keep asset distributions within the same branch of the family and eliminates the need to amend or update wills and trusts when a child is born to one of your beneficiaries or a beneficiary passes away. This method can also help to minimize the potential for infighting among beneficiaries, since asset distribution takes a linear approach. However, an unwanted person could take control of your assets.

With per capita, you can state precisely who you want to name as beneficiaries and receive part of your estate. The assets are distributed equally among beneficiaries, based on the value of your estate at the time you pass away.

Per stirpes and per capita distribution rules can help you determine how your assets are distributed after you die.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney to fully understand the implications of each one for your beneficiaries, including how they may be affected from a tax perspective.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Jan. 7, 2021) “Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita in Estate Planning”

 

How Do You Plan for the Death of a Spouse?

The COVID pandemic has become a painful lesson in how important it is to having estate plans in order, especially when a spouse becomes sick, incapacitated, or dies unexpectedly. With more than 400,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus, not every one of them had an estate plan and a financial plan in place, leaving loved ones to make sense of their estate while grieving. This recent article from Market Watch titled “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying” offers five things to do before the worst occurs.

Start by gathering information. Make all of your accounts known and put together paperwork about each and every account. Look for documents that will become crucial, including a durable power of attorney, an advanced health care directive and a last will. Gather paperwork for life insurance policies, investment portfolios and retirement accounts. Create a list of contact information for your estate planning attorney, accountant, insurance agent, doctors and financial advisors and share it with the people who will be responsible for managing your life. In addition, call these people, so they have as much information as possible—this could make things easier for a surviving spouse. Consider making introductions, via phone or a video call, especially if you have been the key point person for these matters.

Create a hard copy binder for all of this information or a file, so your loved ones do not have to conduct a scavenger hunt.

If there is an estate plan in place, discuss it with your spouse and family members so everyone is clear about what is going to happen. If your estate plan has not been updated in several years, that needs to be done. There have been many big changes to tax law, and you may be missing important opportunities that will benefit those left behind.

If there is no estate plan, something is better than nothing. A trust can be done to transfer assets, as long as the trust is funded properly and promptly.

Confirm beneficiary designations. Check everything for accuracy. If ex-spouses, girlfriends, or boyfriends are named on accounts that have not been reviewed for decades, there will be a problem for the family. Problems also arise when no one is listed as a beneficiary. Beneficiary designations are used in many different accounts, including retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, stock options, restricted stock and deferred compensation plans.

Many Americans die without a will, known as “intestate.” With no will, the court must rely on the state’s estate laws, which does not always result in the people you wanted receiving your property. Any immediate family or next of kin may become heirs, even if they were people you with whom you were not close or from whom you may even have been estranged. Having no will can lead to estate battles or having strangers claim part of your estate.

If there are minor children and no will to declare who their guardian should be, the court will decide that also. If you have minor children, you must have a will to protect them and a plan for their financial support.

Create a master list of digital assets. These assets range from photographs to financial accounts, utility bills and phone bills to URLs for websites. What would happen to your social media accounts, if you died and no one could access them? Some platforms provide for a legacy contact, but many do not. Prepare what information you can to avoid the loss of digital assets that have financial and sentimental value.

Gathering these materials and having these conversations is difficult, but they are a necessity if a family member receives a serious diagnosis. If there is no estate plan in place, have a conversation with an estate planning attorney who can advise what can be done, even in a limited amount of time.

Reference: Market Watch (Jan. 22, 2021) “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying”

 

When Does a Power of Attorney Fail to Do Its Job?

A power of attorney is an essential component of a comprehensive estate plan. However, there are at least two important situations when the power of attorney (POA) will not be recognized and followed.

The IRS and Social Security Administration don’t recognize traditional POAs, explains Forbes’ recent article entitled “Two Times When Your Power Of Attorney Isn’t Going To Work.”

The IRS requires the use of its Form 2848, “Power of Attorney and Declaration of Representative” before it will let anyone act on your behalf. This form is required when an agent, even a relative, tries to handle your tax matters, when you are not able to so.

One of the requirements of Form 2848 is that it requires you to state the tax matters and years for which the agent is authorized to act. Form 2848 also requires you to list the type of tax, the IRS form number and the year or periods involved. That is different from a traditional POA to handle financial matters, which frequently has a blanket statement allowing the agent to take a broad range of actions on your behalf in certain matters.

For a married couple that files joint tax returns, each spouse must also separately complete and sign a form. They cannot simply execute a joint form.

Technically, the IRS could accept other POAs, as indicated by the instructions to Form 2848. However, as you can see a POA must meet all the IRS’ requirements to be accepted.

The Social Security Administration is much the same. When you need someone to manage your Social Security benefits, you contact the Social Security Administration and make an advance designation of a representative payee.

This lets you name one or more people to manage your Social Security benefits. The Social Security Administration then is required to work with the named individual or individuals, in most cases.

A person who already is receiving Social Security benefits may name an advance designee at any time. A first-time claimer can also name the designee during the claiming process.

This designee can be changed at any time.

If you do not name any representatives, the Social Security Administration will designate a representative payee on your behalf, if it determines that you need help managing your money. Relatives or friends can apply to be representative payees, or the Social Security Administration can select someone. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 28, 2021) “Two Times When Your Power of Attorney Isn’t Going to Work”

 

Divorce, Death and Details: Missteps can Create Estate Planning Disasters

Four courts and several years after this estate battle began, a family won a case that could have been easily prevented, as reported in The Dallas Morning News article “The way out of the ERISA trap: A tale of divorce, death and money.” This estate battle shows how small details can become huge headaches.

A couple married and then divorced. The divorce decree clearly stated that Mike was awarded all of his employee benefits, including his life insurance. However, when Mike logged into his employer’s benefits systems, it would not allow him to delete his ex-wife as the beneficiary of his life insurance. It may have been programmed that way. There are laws concerning removing spouses from employee benefits. Or it was a glitch. However, Mike did not pursue it.

When Mike died, he was survived by his parents, who claimed his estate, but the $377,000 life insurance policy was not part of his estate because his ex-wife was still the beneficiary.  His parents filed a claim with the insurance company for the proceeds of the insurance policy.

The first court they filed in was the probate court, so they could be properly recognized as Mike’s heirs. The probate court found in their favor and named Mike’s dad as the independent administrator of his estate.

The second court was federal court. That’s because employee benefits are governed by a federal law ERISA—the Employee Retirement Income Security Act—that controls employee benefits, including employer-provided life insurance. These matters can only be dealt with by a federal court.  The federal court ruled that because Mike’s ex was on the beneficiary form, she was the rightful owner.  However, Wendy had waived her rights to the insurance benefits when she signed off on the divorce decree. Mike’s parents were determined to win this battle.

Their legal team took the argument next to court three—the original divorce court. Mike’s dad, in the position of the estate administrator, argued that while Wendy did have a right to receive the money under ERISA, she did not have a right under state law to keep it. She had waived that right in the divorce decree. The divorce court agreed and found that Mike’s estate owned the proceeds. The money was to be turned over to Mike’s parents.

Court number four came when Wendy petitioned the state appellate court to overturn the award. She lost. What were the factors that allowed Mike’s parents to win this case? The divorce decree contained clear language regarding the life insurance policy. If it had been poorly drafted, the results could have been different. Mike’s parents went through all the correct procedural courts—establishing heirship, then probate, then divorce enforcement case.

One step could have been added: a restraining order so that the ex could not squander the money between the time that she received the proceeds and when the final judgement was rendered.

In any instance, you should contact an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure your documents are prepared correctly.

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (Jan. 24, 2021) “The way out of the ERISA trap: A tale of divorce, death and money”

 

Can Unmarried Couples have an Estate Plan?

For unmarried couples, having an estate plan might be even more important than for married couples, especially if there are children in the family. The unmarried couple does not enjoy all of the legal protection afforded by marriage, but many of these protections can be had through a well-prepared estate plan prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney.

A recent article “Planning for unmarried couples” from nwi.com explains that in states that do not recognize common law marriages, like Indiana, the state will not recognize the couple as being married. However, even if you learn that your state does recognize a common law marriage, you still want to have an estate plan.

A will is the starting point of an estate plan and for an unmarried couple, having it professionally prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney is very important. An agreement between two people as to how they want their assets distributed after death sounds simple, but there are many laws. Each state has its own laws, and if the document is not prepared correctly, it could very easily be invalid. That would make the couple’s agreement useless.

There are also things that need to be prepared, so an unmarried couple can take care of each other while they are living, which they cannot legally do without being married. A cohabitating couple has no right to direct medical care for each other, including speaking with the healthcare provider or even seeing their partner as a visitor in a healthcare facility. If a decision needs to be made by one partner because the other partner is incapacitated, their partner will not have the legal right to make any medical decisions or even speak with a healthcare provider.

If the couple owns vehicles separately, the vehicles have their own titles (i.e., the legal document establishing ownership). If they want to add their partner’s name to the vehicle, the title needs to be reissued by the state to reflect that change.

If the couple owns a home together, they need to confirm how the home is titled. If they are joint tenants with rights of survivorship or tenants in common, that might be appropriate for their circumstances. However, if one person bought the home before they lived together or was solely responsible for paying the mortgage and for upkeep, they will need to make sure the title and their will establishes ownership and what the owner wants to happen with they die.

If the wish is for the surviving partner to remain in the home, that needs to be properly and legally documented. An estate planning attorney will help the couple create a plan that addresses this large asset and reflect the couple’s wishes for the future.  Unmarried cohabitating adults need to protect each other while they are living and after they pass. A local estate planning attorney will be able to help accomplish this.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 24, 2021) “Planning for unmarried couples”

 

Control of Assets a Key Issue in Deciding on a Trust

Any trust created while the person, known as the “grantor,” is living, is known as a “living trust.” However, the term is also used interchangeably with “revocable trusts,” which can be changed according to the grantor’s wishes. During the lifetime of the grantor, as explained in the recent article “Control of Assets a Key Issue in Deciding on a Trust” from FED Week, that person can be the trustee as well as the beneficiary. Control is retained over the trust and the assets it contains.

Trusts are used in estate plans as a way to avoid probate. Equally importantly, they can provide for an easier transition if the grantor becomes incapacitated. The co-trustee or successor trustee steps in to manage assets, and the process is relatively seamless. The family, in most cases, will not have to apply for conservatorship, an expensive and sometimes unnerving process. Within the privacy afforded a trust, the control and management of assets is far less stressful, assuming that the trust has been funded and all assets have been placed properly within the trust beforehand.

Naming a successor trustee so the grantor may remain in control during his or her lifetime is an easier concept for most people. However, adding a co-trustee rather than a successor may be a wiser move. A successor trustee requires the grantor, if still living, to formally resign and allow the successor trustee to take control of the trust and its assets.

If a co-trustee is named, he or she may step into control instantly, if the grantor becomes incapacitated.

Trusts fall into two basic categories:

Irrevocable Trusts—A permanent arrangement in which assets going into the trust are out of control of anyone but the trustee. Giving up this control comes with benefits: the assets within the trust may not be tapped by creditors and they are not considered part of the estate, also lowering tax liability. Irrevocable trusts are generally used to protect loved ones, who are named as beneficiaries.

Revocable Trusts—The grantor retains control over trust assets and may collect investment income from assets in the trust. If the grantor decides to have the assets back in his or her personal accounts, they can be reclaimed into his or her own name.

The revocable trust protects the grantor against incompetency, as the successor trustee or co-trustee can take over management of trust assets and assets pass to designated recipients without having to go through probate.

Determining which of these trusts is best for your family depends on many different factors. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn how trusts might work within your unique estate plan.

Reference: FED Week (Jan. 21, 2021) “Control of Assets a Key Issue in Deciding on a Trust”

 

Every Adults Needs a Will and a Health Care Power of Attorney

A serious illness can happen at any age, but just 18% of those 55 and older have a living will, power of attorney for health care and a last will and testament, according to a 2019 study by Merrill Lynch Wealth Management.

AZ Central’s recent article entitled “What to know about wills and health care power of attorney in Arizona” says that every adult should have these documents, including young professionals, single people and those without children.

These documents make it easier for an individual and their family during a stressful time. They make your wishes clear.  They also help give directions to family members and allow you to name a person you believe is the most responsible and able to fulfill your wishes.

Note that a power of attorney, living will and last will each has its own purpose.  A power of attorney for health care lets your named agent make medical decisions on your behalf if you are incapacitated, while you are still alive. Without a health care power of attorney or living will, it can complicate and delay matters.

A living will or “advance directive” is used when a person needs end-of-life care. This document can provide instructions on how the person wants to be treated, like not wanting a feeding tube or wanting as much medical help as possible.

In contrast, a last will and testament states what happens to a person’s estate or assets after they pass away. A last will can also designate a guardian for minor children.  A last will can state who will be in charge of the person’s estate, known as an executor or a personal representative.

You should name a primary representative and an alternate to serve and provide copies of the documents to the people chosen for these roles.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you.

Reference: AZ Central (Jan. 14, 2021) “What to know about wills and health care power of attorney in Arizona”

 

Do We Need Estate Planning?

Estate planning is not just about making a will, nor is it just for people who live in mansions. Estate planning is best described in the title of this article “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan” from Business Insider. Estate planning is a plan for the future, for you, your spouse and those you love.

There are a number of reasons for estate planning:

  • Avoiding paying more federal and state taxes than necessary
  • Ensuring that assets are distributed as you want
  • Naming the people you choose for your own care, if you become incapacitated; and/or
  • Naming the people you choose to care for your minor children, if you and your spouse left them orphaned.

If that sounds like a lot to accomplish, it is. However, with the help of a trusted estate planning attorney, an estate plan can provide you with the peace of mind that comes with having all of the above.

If those decisions and designations are not made by you while you are alive and legally competent, the state law and the courts will determine who will get your assets, raise your children and how much your estate will pay in death taxes to state and federal governments. You can avoid that with an estate plan.

Here are the five key things about estate planning:

It’s more than a will. The estate plan includes creating Durable Powers of Attorney to appoint individuals who will make medical and/or financial decisions, if you are not able to do so. The estate plan also contains Medical Directives to communicate your wishes about what kind of care you do or do not want, if you are so sick you cannot do so for yourself. The estate plan is where you can create Trusts to control how property passes from one person or one generation to the next.

Estate planning saves time, money, and angst. If you have a surviving spouse, they are usually the ones who serve as your executor. However, if you do not and if you do not have an estate plan, the court names a public administrator to distribute assets according to state law. While this is happening, no one can access your assets. There’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of legal fees. With a will, you name an executor who will take care of and gain access to most, if not all, of your assets and administer them according to your instructions.

Estate planning includes being sure that investment and retirement accounts with a beneficiary designation have been completed. If you don’t name a beneficiary, the asset goes through the probate court. If you fail to update your beneficiary designations, your ex or a person from your past may end up with your biggest assets.

Estate planning is also tax planning. While federal taxes only impact the very wealthy right now, that is likely to change in the future. States also have estate taxes and inheritance taxes of their own, at considerably lower exemption levels than federal taxes. If you wish your heirs to receive more of your money than the government, tax planning should be part of your estate plan.

The estate plan is also used to protect minor children. No one expects to die prematurely, and no one expects that two spouses with young children will die. However, it does happen, and if there is no will in place, then the court makes all the decisions: who will raise your children, and where, how their upbringing will be financed, or, if there are no available family members, if the children should become wards of the state and enter the foster care system. That’s probably not what you want.

The estate plan includes the identification of the person(s) you want to raise your children, and who will be in charge of the assets left in trust for the children, like proceeds from a life insurance policy. This can be the same person, but often the financial and child-rearing roles are divided between two trustworthy people. Naming an alternate for each position is also a good idea, just in case the primary people cannot serve.

Estate planning, finally, also takes care of you while you are living, with a power of attorney and healthcare proxy. That way someone you know, and trust can step in, if you are unable to take care of your legal and financial affairs.

Once your estate plan is in place, remember that it is like your home: it needs to be updated every three or four years, or when there are big changes to tax law or in your life. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you.

Reference: Business Insider (Jan. 14, 2021) “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan”