Estate Planning Is Best When Personalized

Just as a custom-tailored suit fits better than one off the rack, a custom-tailored estate plan works better for families. Making sure assets pass to the right person is more likely to occur when documents are created just for you, advises the article “Tailoring estate to specific needs leads to better plans” from the Cleveland Jewish News.

The most obvious example is a family with a special needs member. Generic estate planning documents typically will not suit that family’s estate planning. This is why you need an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you.

Every state has its own laws about distributing property and money owned by a person at their death, in cases where people don’t have a will. Relying on state law instead of a will is a risky move that can lead to people you may not even know inheriting your entire estate.

In the absence of an estate plan, the probate court makes decisions about who will administer the estate and the distribution of property. Without a named executor, the court will appoint a local attorney to take on this responsibility. An appointed attorney who has never met the decedent and doesn’t know the family won’t have the insights to follow the decedent’s wishes.

The same risks can occur with online will templates. Their use often results in families needing to retain an estate planning attorney to fix the mistakes caused by their use. Online wills may not be valid in your state or may lead to unintended consequences. Saving a few dollars now could end up costing your family thousands to clean up the mess.

Estate plans are different for each person because every person and every family are different. Estate plan templates may not account for any of your wishes.  Generic plans are very limited. An estate plan custom created for you takes into consideration your family dynamics, how your individual beneficiaries will be treated and expresses your wishes for your family after you have passed.

Generic estate plans also don’t reflect the complicated families of today. Some people have family members they do not want to inherit anything. Disinheriting someone successfully is not as easy as leaving them out of the will or leaving them a small token amount.  Ensuring that your wishes are followed and that your will is not easily challenged takes the special skills of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (Dec. 9, 2020) “Tailoring estate to specific needs leads to better plans”

 

What You Should Never, Ever, Include in Your Will

A last will and testament is a straightforward estate planning tool, used to determine the beneficiaries of your assets when you die, and, if you have minor children, nominating a guardian who will raise your children. Wills can be very specific but can’t enforce all of your wishes. For example, if you want to leave your niece your car, but only if she uses it to attend college classes, there won’t be a way to enforce those terms in a will, says the article “Things you should never put in your will” from MSN Money.

If you have certain terms you want met by beneficiaries, your best bet is to use a trust, where you can state the terms under which your beneficiaries will receive distributions or assets.

Leaving things out of your will can actually benefit your heirs, because in most cases, they will get their inheritance faster. Here’s why: when you die, your will must be validated in a court of law before any property is distributed. The process, called probate, takes a certain amount of time, and if there are issues, it might be delayed. If someone challenges the will, it can take even longer.  However, property that is in a trust or in payable-on-death (POD) titled accounts pass directly to your beneficiaries outside of a will.

Don’t put any property or assets in a will that you don’t own outright. If you own any property jointly, upon your death the other owner will become the sole owner. This is usually done by married couples in community property states.

A trust may be the solution for more control. When you put assets in a trust, title is held by the trust. Property that is titled as owned by the trust becomes subject to the rules of the trust and is completely separate from the will. Since the trust operates independently, it is very important to make sure the property you want to be held by the trust is titled properly and to not include anything in your will that is owned by the trust. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss this.

Certain assets are paid out to beneficiaries because they feature a beneficiary designation. They also should not be mentioned in the will. You should check to ensure that your beneficiary designations are up to date every few years, so the right people will own these assets upon your death.

Here are a few accounts that are typically passed through beneficiary designations:

  • Bank accounts
  • Investments and brokerage accounts
  • Life insurance polices
  • Retirement accounts and pension plans.

Another way to pass property outside of the will, is to own it jointly. If you and a sibling co-own stocks in a jointly owned brokerage account and you die, your sibling will continue to own the account and its investments. This is known as joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Business interests can pass through a will, but that is not your best option. An estate planning attorney can help you create a succession plan that will take the business out of your personal estate and create a far more efficient way to pass the business along to family members, if that is your intent. If a partner or other owners will be taking on your share of the business after death, an estate planning attorney can be instrumental in creating that plan.

Funeral instructions don’t belong in a will. Family members may not get to see that information until long after the funeral. You may want to create a letter of instruction, a less formal document that can be used to relay these details.

Your account numbers, including passwords and usernames for online accounts, do not belong in a will. Remember a will becomes a public document, so anything you don’t want the general public to know after you have passed should not be in your will.

Reference: MSN Money (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

 

The Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them “”

Heirs who are prepared to inherit wealth, with families who talk about wealth and have an estate plan, will do better than those who do not, says the West Haven Observer’s recent article “5 Estate planning disasters you’ll want to avoid.” A constantly changing legal and tax environment presents significant challenges, but a few simple steps may save your beneficiaries from the expense and stress of these common estate planning mistakes.

  1. Not designating beneficiaries properly. This is one of the most common mistakes, and one that cannot always be fixed. It’s easy to forget whose name you put on a pension or life insurance plan thirty years ago. However, failing to check those beneficiaries, especially if your life has undergone big changes, can lead to the wrong people enjoying the proceeds.

Using beneficiary designations is an excellent way to bypass the process of probate, since assets that pass this way are not subject to probate. Depending upon where you live, probate can be a long, drawn out process. A beneficiary designation is far simpler and more efficient.

Failing to name a beneficiary when setting up bank accounts, opening CDs, and savings accounts is a common error. This can be fixed by making these accounts “TOD,” or Transfer on Death, and the account goes directly to your beneficiary.

Your will does not control any beneficiary designations. That’s why this step is so important.

2-Designating a minor as a beneficiary. You love your grandchildren, but unless they are adults, they cannot inherit assets until they are 18 or 21, depending on the laws of your state. If a minor does receive an asset, the court appoints a guardian to supervise and manage the assets. Your estate planning attorney will advise you on your individual situation, but one alternative is to list a guardian for the minor child inside the will, so the court appoints the person who you choose to manage the property until the child becomes of age.

Another means of providing for young children or grandchildren is to create a trust. The trust names a trustee who is usually a trusted friend or relative who is knowledgeable and responsible. They manage the assets on behalf of the child. The trust also permits assets to pass without probate.

3-Failing to fund a trust. All too often, this is the weak link that breaks the estate. Placing assets within the trust is called funding. Usually this means changing the ownership of bank accounts or real estate from being owned by an individual to being owned by the trust. If the trust is not funded and the will has instructions that seemingly contradict the trust, the asset will need to go through probate and the trust instructions will be ignored.

4-Leaving a tax nightmare for heirs. One of the many advantages of passing on real estate or other assets that appreciate that beneficiaries get a “step up” in basis. That means the heirs are not responsible for any income taxes on the appreciated assets. This can be a very big benefit. There are exceptions—inherited IRAs and 401(k)s don’t have this advantage. However, the recent passage of the SECURE Act has taken away many tax benefits for IRA heirs. Most non-spouse beneficiaries must fully withdraw the entire amount from the IRA or 401(k) within ten years, and the withdrawal is considered ordinary income. It could leave your heirs with a huge, unexpected tax bill.

There is a workaround. By converting some or perhaps all of your retirement accounts to a Roth IRA during your lifetime, you can pay the taxes when converting the IRA to a Roth IRA at your current tax rate, which may be lower than your children or grandchildren’s rate. When you die, any money in the Roth IRA goes to heirs completely tax free.

5-The biggest mistake of all is not having an estate plan. Thinking about your legacy plan, mortality and incapacity is not fun for anyone. However, by spending the time and resources in creating an estate plan, you spare your loved ones from an inordinate amount of stress and expenses, which they will appreciate. One of the best gifts you can give your loved ones is a well-thought out, properly created and executed estate plan. Contact and experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: West Haven Observer (Nov. 12, 2020) “5 Estate planning disasters you’ll want to avoid”

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The Biggest Mistake in Trusts: Funding

Failing to put assets into trusts creates headaches for heirs and probate hassles, says the article “Once You Create a Living Trust, Don’t Forget to Fund It” from Kiplinger. It’s the last step of creating an estate plan that often gets forgotten, much to the dismay of heirs and estate planning attorneys.

Are people so relieved when their estate plan is finished, that they forget to cross the last “t” and dot the last “i”? Could be! Retitling accounts is not something we do on a regular basis and it does take time to get done. However, without this last step, the entire estate plan can be doomed.

Here are the steps that need to be competed:

Check the deeds on all real estate property. If the intention of your estate plan is to place your primary residence, vacation home, timeshare or rental properties into the trust, all deeds need to be updated. The property is being moved from your ownership to the ownership of the trus, and the title must reflect that. If at some point you refinanced a home, the lender may have asked you to remove the name of the trust for purposes of financing the loan. In that case, you need to change the deed back into the name of the trust. If your estate planning attorney wasn’t part of that transaction, they won’t know about this extra step. Check all deeds to be certain.

Review financial statements. Gather bank statements, brokerage statements and any financial accounts. Confirm that any of the accounts you want to be owned by the trust are titled correctly. You may need to contact the institutions to make sure that the titles on the statements are correct. If there is no reference to the trust at all, then the account has not been recorded correctly and changes need to be made.

It’s also a good idea to review any accounts with named beneficiaries. Talk with your estate planning attorney about whether these accounts should be retitled. The rules regarding beneficiaries for annuities changed a few years ago, so naming the trust as a beneficiary might not work for your estate plan or your tax planning goals as it did in the past.

IRAs and other retirement accounts. These accounts need to be treated on an individual basis when deciding if they should have a trust listed as a primary or contingent beneficiary. Listing a trust as a beneficiary can, in some cases, accelerate income tax due on the account. If the trust is listed as the beneficiary, the ability to distribute assets to trust beneficiaries may be impacted.

The main reason to list a trust as a beneficiary to an IRA or retirement plan is to protect the asset from creditors, financially reckless heirs, or a beneficiary with special needs. An estate planning attorney will know the correct way to handle this.

Making sure that your assets are in the trust takes a little time, but it is up to the owner of the trust to take care of this final detail. The estate planning attorney may provide you with written directions, but unless you make specific arrangements with the office, they will expect you to take care of this. The assets don’t move themselves – you’ll need to make it happen.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 26, 2020) “Once You Create a Living Trust, Don’t Forget to Fund It”

 

Retirement Account Beneficiary Choices and Your Estate

Even if you have done all the right estate planning, mistakes with beneficiaries can happen. Just remember this very simple fact: your will does not control your retirement accounts and it may not control any accounts where you have been asked to name the person who inherits the asset, like a life insurance policy.

A designated beneficiary is the person named on a retirement or investment account to inherit the asset if you die. That’s the simple part. What gets complicated is when people don’t think it’s such a big deal, says a recent article “5 Mistakes To Avoid With Retirement Account Beneficiary Selections” from Forbes. Mistakes made about beneficiaries can be costly and sometimes, unfixable. You could accidently disinherit a child or leave money to an ex-spouse.

A will can also push your estate into the probate process which can have some significant pitfalls. If you have a living trust but neglect to fund it, the assets left outside of the trust might also have to go through probate. The best way for most people to pass assets like retirement accounts is to have them go directly to a beneficiary.

Other accounts that pass via beneficiary designation are usually 401(k)s, IRAs, Roth IRAs, life insurance, annuities, and investment accounts that have Transfer on Death (TOD) options. Using beneficiary designations may allow your heirs to receive assets in a tax-efficient and fast manner.

What are the top five mistakes people make for beneficiary designations?

Forgetting to name a beneficiary. This happens very commonly when people are young adults. It’s hard to imagine needing to name an heir when you are young and healthy, but not naming anyone creates headaches.

Ignoring special circumstances. When you have an heir with an addiction problem, one who has trouble managing money or who is preparing to leave a marriage, leaving them a large sum of money can create more problems. If your loved one has special needs and receives benefits from the government, an inheritance could put all their aid at risk. An estate planning attorney can help create a Special Needs Trust and plan for their future.

Using the wrong name. It sounds silly, but it happens often. If your loved one’s name is Jane Doe, or there are family members with very similar names, you’ll need to use more information to identify them, like birthdates, Social Security numbers and even details about their relationship to you. Not providing enough clear information, could send your asset into the wrong hands.

Neglecting to update your beneficiaries. The person you name as your beneficiary when you are in your 30s, may not be the same person you want to inherit your assets in your 60s. If you have remarried, you must change all beneficiary designations to protect your current spouse. If you have had children or additional children since you first purchased a life insurance policy, you’ll need to be sure that all your children are named on that policy. Every few years, just as you need to review your estate plan, you need to update your beneficiaries.

Failing to discuss your beneficiaries with your estate planning attorney, tax, and financial advisor. There are complications that can occur with an inheritance. Being pushed into a higher bracket sounds like a nice problem to have, until the tax bill comes due. Your estate planning attorney will be able to work with you and your loved ones to protect your legacy and their future.

Reference: Forbes (Oct. 25, 2020) “5 Mistakes To Avoid With Retirement Account Beneficiary Selections”

 

Good Planning for Life Is Also Good Planning for a Pandemic

The fear of the unknown and a sense of loss of control is sending many people to estate planning attorney’s offices to have wills, advance directives and other documents prepared, reports the article “Legal lessons from a pandemic: What you can plan for” from The Press-Enterprise.

However, people are not just planning because they are worried about becoming incapacitated or dying because of COVID. High net-worth people are also planning because they are concerned about the changes the election may bring, changes to what are now historically advantageous estate tax laws and planning to take advantage of tax laws, as they stand pre-December 31, 2020.

Regardless of your income or assets, it is always good to take control of your future and protect yourself and your family, by having an up-to-date estate plan in place. Anyone who is over age 18 needs the following:

  • Health Care Directive
  • Power of Attorney
  • HIPPA Release Form
  • Last Will and Testament

Any assets without beneficiary designations should be considered for a trust, depending upon your overall estate. Trusts can be used to take assets out of a taxable estate, establish control over how the assets are distributed and to avoid probate. You don’t have to be wealthy to benefit from the use of trusts.

Preparing estate planning documents in a last-minute rush, is always a terrible idea.

If you have more free time during the pandemic, consider using some of your free time to have your estate plan implemented or updated. This should be a top priority. The state of the world right now has all of us thinking more about our mortality, our values and the legacy we want to leave behind. Most estate planning attorneys encourage clients to think about the next three to five years. What would be important to you, if something were to happen in that time frame?

Estate planning is about more than distributing assets upon death. It addresses incapacity—what would happen if you became too ill or injured to care for yourself? Who would make medical decisions for you, such as what kind of medical care would you want, who will your doctors be and where will you live in the short-term and long-term? Incapacity planning is a big part of an estate plan.

When naming people to care for you in the event of incapacity, provide your estate planning attorney with three names, in case your first or second choices are not able to act on your behalf. Most people name their spouse, but what if you were both in an accident and could not help each other?

In recent months, Advance Health Care Directives have received a lot of attention, but they are not just about ventilator use and intubation. An Advance Health Care Directive is used to state your preferences concerning life-sustaining treatment, pain relief and organ donation. The agent named in your health care directive is also the person who will carry out post-death wishes, so provide as many details as you can about your wishes for cremation, burial, religious services, etc.

Trusts are a way to preserve a family legacy. A living trust gives you the ability to decide who you want involved, in case of your death or incapacity. You decide on your beneficiaries, and if you want your assets going directly to those beneficiaries or if they should be held in trust until certain goals are met, like finishing college or reaching a certain age or life milestone.

Your estate planning attorney will help you clarify family legacy goals, whether they include a beneficiary with special needs, a supplement for children who go into public service careers, etc.

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (Oct. 18, 2020) “Legal lessons from a pandemic: What you can plan for”

 

Avoid Estate Planning Mistakes

Estate planning should be a business-like process where people evaluate the assets they have accumulated over time and make clear decisions about how to leave their assets and legacy to those they love. The reality, as described in the article “5 Unfortunate Estate Planning Myths You Probably Believe,” from Kiplinger, is not so straightforward. Emotions take over as does a feeling that time is running short which is sometimes the case.

Reactive decisions rarely work as well in the short and long term as decisions made based on strategies that are set in place over time. Here are some of the most common mistakes that people make when creating an estate plan or revising one in response to life’s inevitable changes.

Estate plans are all about tax planning. Strategies to minimize taxes are part of estate planning, but they should not be the primary focus. Since the federal exemption is $11.58 million for 2020, and fewer than 3% of all taxpayers need to worry about paying a federal estate tax, there are other considerations to prioritize. If there is a family business, for example, what will happen to the business, especially if the children have no interest in keeping it? In this case, succession or exit planning needs to be a bigger part of the estate plan.

The children should get everything. This is a frequent response, but not always right. You may want to leave your descendants most of your estate, but ask yourself, could your lifetime’s work be put to use in another way? You don’t need to rush to an automatic answer. Give consideration to what you’d like your legacy to be. It may not only be enriching your children and grandchildren’s lives.

My children are very different but it’s only fair that I leave equal amounts to all of them. Treating your children equally in your estate plan is a lot like treating them exactly the same way throughout their lives. One child may be self-motivated and need no academic help, while another needs tutoring just to maintain average grades. Another may be ready to step into your shoes at the family business, with great management and finance skills, but her sister wants nothing to do with the business. The same family includes offspring with different dreams, hopes, skills and abilities. Leaving everyone an equal share doesn’t always work.

Having a trust takes care of everything. Well, not exactly. In fact, if you neglect to fund a trust, your family may have a mess to deal with. A sizable estate may need revocable or irrevocable trusts but an estate plan is more complicated than trust or no trust. First, when an asset is placed into an irrevocable trust, the grantor loses control of the asset and the trustee is in control. The trustee has a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries, not the grantor of the trust. The beneficiaries include the current and future beneficiaries so the trustee may have to answer to more than one generation of beneficiaries. Problems can arise when one family member has been named a trustee and their siblings are beneficiaries. Creating that dynamic among family members can create a legacy of distrust and jealousy.

My estate advisors are all working well with each other and looking out for me. In a perfect world, this would be true but it doesn’t always happen. You have to take a proactive stance, contacting everyone and making sure they understand that you want them to cooperate and act as a team. With clear direction from you, your professional advisors will be able to achieve your goals.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 17, 2020) “5 Unfortunate Estate Planning Myths You Probably Believe”

 

How to Choose a Trustee

To protect all that you have worked for and take care of the most important people in your life, you may have been advised to place some or perhaps all of your assets into a trust. Once you and your estate planning attorney have made that decision, you’ll need to decide who to name as your trustee or trustees. Doing so is not always an easy process, explains Kiplinger in the article “Guidance on Choosing the Right Trustee (or Trustees) for Your Estate.”

Serving as a trustee creates many duties under state law, including acting as a fiduciary to the trust. That means the trustee must be impartial about their own interests, put the beneficiary’s interests and well-being first and be prudent with how they invest funds. Law prohibits a trustee from self-dealing.

Here are a series of questions that will help to assess a person’s ability to serve as a trustee:

  • Will the person be able to separate their personal feelings and interests from those of the beneficiaries?
  • Will all parties be treated fairly, especially if your children are not also your spouse’s children?
  • Can your trustee manage complex finances and investments?
  • Is there any risk that your trustee will be tempted to take a risk to obtain money at the expense of beneficiaries?
  • What happens if your spouse remarries?
  • Will a child who is a trustee be fair to the other siblings, even if they are step siblings?
  • Will a child who is managing work and family have the time to take on the responsibilities of the trustee?

Some people decide that no family member is the right fit for the trustee role, and opt instead for their estate planning attorney, accountant or financial advisor to serve as a trustee. There are some questions to ask:

  • Does the person understand the family dynamics?
  • Has the person served as a trustee before?
  • Can they separate their personal financial interest from their clients?
  • If there is a breach of duties, will their professional malpractice coverage be enough to make the trust whole?

Some families prefer to use a bank or trust company to provide fiduciary services and act independently for the trust. This may reduce conflicts among family members, while providing professional services. Fees are typically based on the size of the estate, which may be a consideration.

Another idea is to have more than one trustee to provide a balance of record keeping, investments and other trustee duties. A properly drafted trustee agreement created by an experienced estate planning attorney, will outline specific duties of the trustees. An individual co-trustee might better understand your heir’s needs and be able to help other trustees in making decisions to benefit family members.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 8, 2020) “Guidance on Choosing the Right Trustee (or Trustees) for Your Estate”

 

Estate Planning Needs for Every Stage

Many people decide they need an estate plan when they reach a certain age, but when an estate plan is needed is less about age than it is about stages in life, explains a recent article “Life stages dictate estate planning needs” from The News-Enterprise. Life’s stages can be broken into four groups, young with limited assets, young parents, getting close to retirement and post-retirement life.

Every adult should have an estate plan and without one, we can’t determine who will take care of our financial and legal matters, if we are incapacitated or die unexpectedly. We also don’t have a voice in how any property we own will be distributed after death.

The first stage—a young individual with limited assets—includes college students, people in the early years of their careers and young couples, married or not. They may not own real estate or substantial assets but they need a fiduciary and beneficiary. Distribution of assets is less of a priority than provisions for life emergencies.

Once a person becomes a parent, he or she needs to protect minor children or special needs dependents. Lifetime planning is still a concern but protecting dependents is the priority. Estate planning is used in this stage to name guardians, set up trusts for children and name a trustee to oversee the child’s inheritance, regardless of size.

Many people use revocable living trusts as a means of protecting assets for minor dependents. The revocable trust directs property to pass to the minor beneficiary in whatever way the parents deem appropriate. This is typically done so the child can receive ongoing care until the age when parents decide the child should receive his or her inheritance. The revocable trust also maintains privacy for the family since the trust and its contents are not part of the probated estate.

The third stage of life includes people whose children are adults, who have no children or who are near retirement age and addresses different concerns, such as passing along assets to beneficiaries as smoothly as possible while minimizing taxes. The best planning strategy for this stage is often dictated by the primary type of asset.

For people with special situations, such as a beneficiary with substance abuse problems, or a person who owns multiple properties in multiple states or someone who is concerned about the public nature of probate, trusts are a critical part of protecting assets and privacy.

For people who own a primary residence and retirement assets, an estate plan that includes a will, a power of attorney and medical power of attorney may suffice. An estate planning attorney guides each family to make recommendations that will best suit their needs.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Aug. 25, 2020) “Life stages dictate estate planning needs”

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