Is it Wise to Have Three Grown Children Named Co-Executors of Your Will?

Is it a good idea to have your three grown children listed as co-executors of your will? This may get somewhat confusing when probating a will, if there are multiple executors.

What are the pros and cons to choosing one child to act as your executor, instead of selecting all three of your children to act together?

nj.com’s recent article asks “I’m planning my will. Is it bad to have more than one executor?”

The article explains that the duty of the executor is to gather all the decedent’s assets, pay any outstanding debts and liabilities and then account for and distribute the remaining estate to the beneficiaries, according to the instructions in the decedent’s will.

The executor is allowed to hire professionals and others to help with tasks, like completing a decedent’s final income tax return or preparing the home for sale.

When you have multiple executors appointed, these tasks can be assigned to each person to lessen the burden of the many duties and responsibilities that an executor has.

On the downside, if those appointed can’t work together easily and without strife, appointing multiple siblings can make the administration of an estate much more difficult due to arguments, conflicts of interest, one sibling taking the lead to the resentment of the others or one executor undermining another executor’s actions.

The problem is, in situations where the siblings don’t get along, designating one of them as executor can cause hard feelings and conflict. It’s not uncommon for those siblings who aren’t named as executor, to complain about every decision made by the named executor or delay in the administration of the estate.

If there are multiple executors, the majority rules. That can avoid deadlock. Simple math in this case says that you want to avoid naming an even number of executors or name a person who can act as the tiebreaker.

Even with a “majority rules” agreement among the executors, there are some financial institutions and other entities that may require all the executors to sign documents and/or checks on behalf of the estate. This can become burdensome and inefficient, if there are multiple executors.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about your family dynamics and get their opinion about what would be best in your personal situation.

Reference: nj.com (May 22, 2019) “I’m planning my will. Is it bad to have more than one executor?”

 

Common Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Estate planning attorneys see them all the time: the common estate planning mistakes that people make when they try to create an estate plan or a will by themselves. They learn about it, when families come to their offices trying to correct mistakes that could have been avoided just by seeking legal advice in the first place. That’s the message from the article “Five big estate planning ‘don’ts’” from Dedham Wicked Local.

Here are the five estate planning mistakes that you can easily avoid:

Naming minors as beneficiaries. Beneficiary designations are a simple way to avoid probate and be certain that an asset goes to your beneficiary at death. Most life insurance policies, retirement accounts, investment accounts and other financial accounts permit you to name a beneficiary. Many well-meaning parents (and grandparents) name a grandchild or a child as a beneficiary. However, a minor is not permitted to own an asset. Therefore, the financial institution will not name the minor child as the new owner. A conservator must be appointed by the court to receive the asset on behalf of the child and they must hold that asset for the minor’s benefit, until the minor becomes of legal age. The conservator must file annual accountings with the court reflecting activity in the account and report on how any funds were used for the minor’s benefit, until the minor becomes a legal adult. The time, effort, and expense of this are unnecessary. Handing a large amount of money to a child the moment they become of legal age is rarely a good idea. Leaving assets in trust for the benefit of a minor or young adult, without naming them directly as a beneficiary, is one solution.

Drafting a will without the help of an estate planning attorney. The will created at the kitchen table or from an online template is almost always a recipe for disaster. They don’t include administrative provisions required by the state’s laws, provisions are ambiguous or conflicting and the documents are often executed incorrectly, rendering them invalid. Whatever money or time the person thought they were saving is lost. There are court fees, penalties and other costs that add up fast to fix a DIY will.

Adding joint owners to bank accounts. It seems like a good idea. Adding an adult child to a bank account, allows the child to help the parent with paying bills, if hospitalized or lets them pay post-death bills. If the amount of money in the account is not large, that may work out okay. However, the child is considered an owner of any account they are added to. If the child is sued, gets divorced, files for bankruptcy or has trouble with creditors, that bank account is an asset that can be reached.

Joint ownership of accounts after death can be an issue, if your will does not clearly state what your intentions are for that account. Do those funds go to the child, or should they be distributed between heirs? If wishes are unclear, expect the disagreements and bad feelings to be directly proportionate to the size of the account. Thoughtful estate planning, that includes power of attorney and trust planning, will permit access to your assets when needed and division of assets after your death in a manner that is consistent with your intentions.

Failing to fund trusts. Funding a trust means changing the ownership of an asset, so the asset is owned by the trust or designating the trust as a beneficiary. When a trust is properly funded, assets funding the trust avoid probate at your death. If your trust includes estate tax planning provisions, the assets are sheltered from estate tax at death. You have to do this before you die. Once you’re gone, the benefits of funding the trust are gone. Work closely with your estate planning attorney to make sure that you follow the instructions to fund trusts.

Poor choices of co-fiduciaries. If your children have never gotten along, don’t expect that to change when you die. Recognize your children’s strengths and weaknesses and be realistic about their ability to work together, when deciding who will make financial decisions under a power of attorney, health care decisions under a health care proxy and who will best be able to settle your estate. If you choose two people who do not get along, or do not trust each other, it will take far longer and cost more to settle your estate. Don’t worry about birth order or egos.

The sixth biggest estate planning mistake people make, is failing to review their estate plan every few years. Estate laws change, tax laws change and lives change. If it’s been a while since your estate plan was reviewed, make an appointment to meet with your estate planning attorney for a review.

Reference: Dedham Wicked Local (May 17, 2019) “Five big estate planning ‘don’ts’”

 

Complete Your Financial Plan with Estate Planning

If you are among those who haven’t put together a basic estate plan, you should make every effort to accomplish this in 2019. Your family and friends will thank you.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s recent article, “No financial plan is complete without a basic estate plan” reports that, while Americans are living longer, it was emphasized in a session at the American Society on Aging’s 2019 conference in New Orleans that 56% of Americans don’t have a will.

The basic list isn’t particularly daunting. Talk to an experienced estate planning lawyer to create a will to get your affairs in order.

You should also sign a health care directive and a durable power of attorney. It is also important to decide where you want to be buried or cremated.

You should discuss your late-life goals and desires with your family, relatives and close friends. This gives everyone a better idea about your values and thinking. An estate plan makes things much less stressful on your family.

Many people want to leave at least some money to their loved ones. However, instead of waiting for death to pass on assets, more people are now deciding to “give while living.”

For example, grandparents can help to fund their grandchildren’s education expenses. Nearly two-thirds of people 50 years and older are giving some financial support to family members, according to a survey by the financial services firm Merrill Lynch and demographic consulting firm Age Wave.

Since you are already thinking about your life while devising an estate plan, it is important to understand that far more valuable than your money and assets is your accumulated experience, knowledge and skills. You can tap into your experience later in life to help others succeed.  Your experience and judgment can help family members decide how to have both purpose and a paycheck.

Perhaps you can serve as a mentor for those in your community in areas where you have some expertise?

The desire to leave our families with a legacy is powerful. Don’t leave them without an estate plan.  Remember that giving of our experience can make a significant difference to the community around us.

Reference: Minneapolis Star-Tribune (May 4, 2019) “No financial plan is complete without a basic estate plan”

 

Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan if I Relocate for Retirement?

Anyone who moves to another state, for retirement, a new job or to be closer to family, needs to have a look at their estate plan to make sure it is valid in their new state, advises the Boca Newspaper in the recent article “I’ve Relocated To Florida…Should I Update My Estate Plan?”

If an estate plan hasn’t been created, a relocation is the perfect opportunity to get this important task done. Think of it as preparation for your new life in your new home.

Because so many retirees do relocate to Florida, there are some general rules that make this easier. For one thing, most wills that are valid in another state are recognized in Florida. There’s a specific law in the Florida statutes that confirms that “other than a holographic or nuncupative will, executed by a nonresident of Florida… is valid as a will in this state if valid under the laws of the state or country where the will was executed.”

In other words, if the estate plan was prepared by an estate planning attorney and is legally valid in the prior state, it will be valid in Florida. Exceptions are a holographic will, which is a handwritten will that is signed by the person with no witnesses, or a nuncupative will, which is a verbal statement made in front of witnesses.

However, just because your will is recognized in Florida, does not mean that it doesn’t need a review.

There are distinctions in Florida law that may make certain provisions invalid or change their meaning. In one well-known case, a will was missing one sentence—known as a “residual clause,” a catch-all that distributes assets that are otherwise not specified. The maker of the will wanted everything to go to her brother. However, without that one clause, property acquired after the will was created was not included. The court determined that the property that was acquired after the will was created, would go to other relatives, despite the wishes of the decedent.

Little details mean a lot when it comes to estate plans.

It’s important to ensure that the last will and testament properly expresses intentions under the laws of your new home state. As you review or begin the process, this might be the time to speak with your estate planning attorney about whether any trusts are applicable to your estate. A revocable living trust, for example, would avoid the assets placed in the trust having to go through probate.

This is also the time to review your Durable Power of Attorney, designation of a Health Care Surrogate, Living Will and nomination of a pre-need Guardian.

Estate planning gives peace of mind, knowing that the legal side of your life is all taken care of. It avoids stress and unnecessary costs and delays to your family. It should be reviewed and updated, if needed, at big events in your life, including a relocation, the sale or purchase of a home or when you retire. You should contact an experienced estate planning attorney in your area.

Reference: Boca Newspaper (May 1, 2019) “I’ve Relocated To Florida…Should I Update My Estate Plan?”

 

Estate Planning When a Family Member Is Disabled

This kind of mistake can wreak havoc on many lives, which is why it is so important to work with an experienced estate planning attorney who is knowledgeable about special needs planning. The article, “Crafting an estate plan to include disabled family members” from The Ledger explains what is involved in special needs planning.

Supplemental Security Income (SSI) is a federal program that pays monthly benefits to disabled or blind adults and children. To qualify, an individual must have fewer than $2,000 of countable assets and very limited income. Medicaid is a Federal and State health insurance program that helps people with limited assets and income pay for their medical costs.

While it is common for people to name their spouse or children as beneficiaries in their estate plan, if your spouse or child is disabled and receiving government benefits, an inheritance will result in their loss of benefits, unless special planning is done.

A Special Needs Trust (SNT) is designed for disabled beneficiaries so that cash, real property, or any other assets are available for the person’s benefit, while still allowing the disabled person to receive their means-based government benefits.

There are several different ways to accomplish this, depending on your family’s situation. One way is to have a testamentary Special Needs Trust created within a will or trust that goes into effect, when the creator of the trust or the will dies. A SNT can also be created while you are living and can be funded, instead of waiting for it to go into effect at your death.

A third-party SNT can be named as the beneficiary of life insurance policies and retirement accounts, investment accounts or real property. The third-party SNT assets that are not used for the disabled beneficiary during their lifetime, can pass to non-disabled beneficiaries upon the death of the disabled beneficiary.

These assets will be free from Medicaid recovery liens, since the property in a third party SNT does not belong to the disabled beneficiary.

A first party SNT is set up and funded with assets that do belong to a disabled person, and no other funds can be contributed to this type of trust by any other donors. These are often used when a large settlement following an injury is awarded. In Florida and in other states, first-party SNTs are subject to Medicaid recovery to reimburse the state.

Special needs trusts are complicated trusts and require the knowledge of an experienced estate planning attorney who devotes most, if not all, of their practice to SNTs and trust and estate planning.

Reference: The Ledger (May 2, 2019) “Crafting an estate plan to include disabled family members”

 

Which Type of Power of Attorney Do I Need?

A power of attorney is a document that grants a person the legal authority to make decisions about certain aspects of another person’s life. It gives a trusted person of your choosing the right to act as your agent in either highly specific or general decisions, depending on the type of power of attorney. As reported in Wicked Local’s article “Investors, Plans & Money: Power of attorney,” the person you name does not have to be an attorney, nor does it have to be a spouse.

Each type of power of attorney works to achieve a slightly different goal. As you work with your estate planning attorney on developing your overall estate plan, you will want to know which type you need and what your state’s requirements are. You will have to be of sound mind, with awareness of what you are signing, when the documents are prepared and signed.

Here’s a look at the basic powers of attorney:

A General Power of Attorney gives the named agent the broadest scope and authority to act and make decisions for another person. The document ideally lists the actions the person wishes them to take. This requires absolute trust, because it gives the agent complete control.

A Limited, Specific or Special Power of Attorney is a document that gives an agent the authority to act on your behalf in a very specific area of your life, task, or within a specified time frame. An example would be if you wanted someone to sell, maintain, or manage property for you.

The Springing Power of Attorney is “triggered” (hence the name) when, and only when, certain conditions are met. That might be a loss of mental capacity, for example. This document also must be very carefully defined, and proof of the condition being met may need to be presented.

A Healthcare Power of Attorney goes by different names depending upon the state. However it is named, this is the legal document that gives the authority to make healthcare decisions, if the person is incapacitated through illness or accident. The person named as your healthcare agent should have a clear understanding of your wishes regarding extreme life-sustaining measures, as well as critical care procedures, like blood transfusions or organ transplants.

There can be problems with powers of attorney. The person named to act as an agent must be entirely trustworthy and reliable. Other issues arise, if the documents are not prepared properly. This is why an experienced estate planning attorney is the best source. Here are some examples of what can go wrong:

  • Details are lacking, so the document is declared invalid;
  • The wrong type of power of attorney is created;
  • The state requirements are not met;
  • An agent is named who the attorney would immediately know is a bad choice; and/or
  • A generic document does not contain the correct language.

Properly prepared, a power of attorney can save a tremendous amount of stress, provide the ability to make time-sensitive decisions and allow your wishes to be followed. Speak with your estate planning attorney to determine the type of power of attorney your estate plan needs.

Reference: Wicked Local (April 24, 2019) “Investors, Plans & Money: Power of attorney”

 

How Do I Organize Estate Planning Documents, So Family Can Find Them?

Keeping track of certain estate planning documents and talking about them with your loved ones, who are likely to live after you pass, can be unsettling. However, they can make their lives easier. Your children and beneficiaries should always know where your estate planning documents are, says Lancaster Online in the article “The paper trail: Keep important documents in order to make it easy on family and friends.”

A will is just one of several important documents that survivors will need to locate. Having access to all estate planning documents will also avoid assets or debts being overlooked. It doesn’t matter if a person owns a single home or has a vast empire of property or multiple investment accounts: being organized matters.

The first mistake people make is not having an estate plan at all. Once assets begin to accumulate, there needs to be a plan to distribute them. An estate planning attorney can work with the person and their family to create the necessary documents and the overall estate plan. The next step is to update that plan, as changes occur in life and in the law. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney.

A growing problem is accessing digital accounts. Now that bills are paid online and statements are issued electronically, having a comprehensive list of bills, investment accounts, property, insurers and contact information for your CPA, financial advisor and estate planning attorney becomes even more important.

Create a list and let executors and heirs know where that list is. If possible, consolidate some accounts to make the process of settling the estate easier. If health is failing, it becomes more important to take care of this sooner rather than later.

Families left without a list of any kind are advised to start with tax returns, as they contain a wealth of information.

One of the most important things about a will is that someone is going to need to find it. If it’s in a fire-safe box at home and can be located, that’s good. If it is in a safe deposit box in a bank, that may present some problems, unless the executor is on the list of those permitted to access the box and they know where the keys are.

A copy of the will does not work. An original, with inked signatures from the testator and two witnesses must be presented to the court. If there are minor children, the will must name a guardian for the children, or the court may determine that the child is vulnerable and place them with care at a foster home, until a guardian can be determined.

One document that is growing in popularity is a letter of intent. It is not a legally binding document, but is a letter written to survivors to explain the decedent’s reasoning for how the estate was divided, or what specific personal items they want to go to which person. People struggling with grief often create storms over minor things, like Aunt Sara’s first toy doll or Uncle Henry’s fishing rod. The letter might be used to uphold the will, if there is an estate contest.

Maintain the documents in an organized manner, whether a binder, folder, or a pile in a specified location. Tell family members where the documents are, so they can find them easily. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to create estate planning documents that are legal.

Reference: Lancaster Online (May 1, 2019) “The paper trail: Keep important documents in order to make it easy on family and friends”

 

Should I Use a DIY Will?

Sure, many of us would prefer to fill in the blanks in private, than have to talk to anyone about our questions. However, it’s better to get professional advice.

MarketWatch’s recent article, “Online wills may save you money, but they can lay these estate-planning traps,” says that if you prepare your taxes yourself and you make a mistake, you may need to meet with the IRS. However, you may never know the results of your work when it comes to a DIY will. Who will be the ones to find out if you made any mistakes, and need to pay the price? Your family.

You can find many DIY options for completing your own estate plan. With the ease and availability of these programs, along with lower prices, one would think more of us would have an up-to-date estate plan. According to the AARP article, Haven’t Done a Will Yet?, only 4 in 10 American adults have a will or living trust.

The four basic estate planning documents are a will, a trust, power of attorney for financial matters and an advance health care directive. If you try to produce any or all of them through a DIY site, expect to be offered a fill-in-the-blank approach. However, each state has its own probate code and the program you use may have different names for the documents. They also may not address state-specific questions.

Some DIY sites have all these documents, but you must buy their higher-end packages to access them. Others offer what they call a “limited attorney consultation” in the form of a drop-down menu of questions with pre-written responses, not an actual conversation with an attorney.

The range of DIY services also has a range of prices. Some claim it’s $69 for just a will, and others charge hundreds of dollars for what may be described as a “complete plan.” Some sites have more information than others about their options, so you must dig through the website to be certain you’re getting a legally binding will or other estate planning document. It is important to read the fine print with care.

Most of these websites presume you already know what you want, but most people have no idea what they want or need. When you get into the complexities of family dynamics and trust language specific to your state and situation, these DIY estate planning packages can cause more challenges than working with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Remember: you don’t know what you don’t know. You may not know the case law and legislation that have evolved into your state’s probate code.

Play it safe and use an attorney who specializes in estate planning. Your family will be grateful that you did.

Reference: MarketWatch (May 3, 2019) “Online wills may save you money, but they can lay these estate-planning traps”

 

Estate Planning Hacks Create More Problems

The estate planning attorney in this gentleman’s neighborhood isn’t worried about this rancher’s plan to avoid the “courtroom mumbo jumbo.” It’s not the first time someone thought they could make a short-cut work, and it won’t be the last. However, as described in the article “Estate planning workaround idea needs work” from My San Antonio, the problems this rancher will create for himself, his wife, and his children, will easily eclipse any savings in time or fees he thinks he may have avoided.

Let’s start with the idea of putting all the man’s assets in his wife’s name. For starters, that means she has complete control and access to all the accounts. Even if the accounts began as community property, once they are in her name only, she is the sole manager of these accounts.

If the husband dies first, she will not have to go into probate court. That is true. However, if she dies first, the husband will need to go to probate court to access and claim the accounts. If the marriage goes sour, it’s not likely that she’ll be in a big hurry to return access to everything.

Another solution: set the accounts up as joint accounts with right of survivorship. The bank would have to specify that when spouse dies, the other owns the accounts. However, that’s just one facet of this estate planning hack.

The next proposal is to put the ranch into the adult children’s names. Gifting the ranch to children has a number of irreversible consequences.

First, the children will all be co-owners. Each one of them will have full legal control. What if they don’t agree on something? How will they break an impasse? Will they run the ranch by majority rule? What if they don’t want to honor any of the parent’s requests or ideas for running the ranch?  In addition, if one of them dies, their spouse or their child will inherit their share of the farm. If they divorce, will their future ex-spouse retain ownership of their shares of the ranch?

Second, you can’t gift the ranch and still be an owner. The husband and wife will no longer own the ranch. If they don’t agree with the kid’s plans for the ranch, they can be evicted. After all, the parents gave them the ranch.

Third, the transfer of the ranch to the children is a gift. There will be a federal gift tax return form to be filed. Depending on the value of the ranch, the parents may have to pay gift tax to the IRS.  Because the children have become owners of the ranch by virtue of a gift, they receive the tax-saving “free step-up in basis.” If they sell the ranch (and they have that right), they will get hit with capital gains taxes that will cost a lot more than the cost of an estate plan with an estate planning attorney and the “courtroom mumbo jumbo.”

Finally, the ranch is not the children’s homestead. If it has been gifted it to them, it’s not the parent’s homestead either. Therefore, they can expect an increase in the local property taxes. Those taxes will also be due every year for the rest of the parent’s life and again, will cost more over time than the cost of creating a proper estate plan. Since the ranch is not a homestead, it is subject to a creditor’s claim, if any of the new owners—those children —have a financial problem.

We haven’t even mentioned the family business succession plan, which takes a while to create and complements the estate plan. Both plans exist to protect the current owners and their heirs. If the goal is to keep the ranch in the family and have the next generation take the reins, everyone concerned be better served by sitting down with an estate planning attorney and discussing the many different ways to make this happen.

Reference: My San Antonio (April 29, 2019) “Estate planning workaround idea needs work”

 

Communicate Your Wishes and Have the Documents in Place

Without a will or other estate planning documents, your property is distributed according to the law of intestate succession in the state where you live at the time of your death. That means any wishes you might have as to how your assets are distributed will not be considered, says the article “Make Your Wishes Known” from the Concord Monitor.

If you want to have a say in what happens to your property, including financial accounts and personal items, you need a will. However, that’s not the only document you need. Here’s a list of the documents that are part of an estate plan.

Last will and testament. This transfers property through the probate process. It ensures that you get to tell others how you want your assets distributed. It may include naming a guardian to be responsible for a minor or incapacitated heir’s personal care and assets.

If you have minor children, you may wish to include a testamentary trust so assets can be managed, and their distribution controlled. If your family includes an individual with special needs, you’ll want a Special Needs Trust (SNT), so they do not lose their eligibility for government benefits.

There are many different types of trusts, and they serve different purposes.

Revocable Trust. This can distribute property without going through probate. It also preserves privacy, since documents do not become public. To avoid probate, the trust must be funded during your lifetime, by changing the title on assets from your name to the name of your revocable trust. That may include bank and investment accounts, personal property and real estate. Income, dividends, gains and losses continue to be reported on your tax returns, while you are living.

If you own a business, talk with your estate planning attorney about whether the ownership of the business should be transferred to a trust.

Married couples should speak with their estate planning attorney about having a joint trust together, or if they should each have separate trusts for estate tax planning, creditor protection, protecting children from prior marriages, or ensuring the continuation of a family business.

You may need a pour-over will with your revocable trust, so assets may be transferred into the revocable trust that are outside of the trust at the time of your death. Your estate planning attorney will be able to discuss this in detail, to see if it is a good option.

Joint ownership. If assets are owned in joint tenancy, property automatically transfers upon death to the surviving joint owner. It is not affected by your will and is a way to avoid probate. However, there may be a loss of control and there may be gift, estate, or income tax consequences.

Beneficiary designations. Life insurance, retirement assets, annuities and other Pay on Death accounts all have a person named to receive the asset upon the death of the owner. Every asset you own with a beneficiary designation should be checked every few years to make sure the right person is set to receive the asset. The beneficiary designation supersedes anything written in your will. There should always be a primary and a secondary beneficiary named, just in case the primary predeceases you or does not want to accept the asset.

Power of Attorney. Everyone should have a Power of Attorney, in the event of incapacity. This permits someone to act as your agent in any financial matters. There is also the Health Care Power of Attorney, which gives another person the authority to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are not able to communicate your wishes.

All these documents should be the foundation of your estate plan. Each person’s situation is different, but an experienced estate planning attorney will help determine what you need.

Reference: Concord Monitor (April 22, 2019) “Make Your Wishes Known”