Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples

For some couples, getting married just doesn’t feel necessary. However, they don’t enjoy the automatic legal rights and protections that legally wed spouses do especially when it comes to death. There are many spousal rights that come with a marriage certificate, reports CNBC in the article “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die.” Without the benefit of marriage extra planning is necessary to protect each other.

Taxes are a non-starter. There’s no federal or state income tax form that will permit a non-married couple to file jointly. If one of the couple’s employers is the source of health insurance for both, the amount that the company contributes is taxable to the employee. A spouse doesn’t have to pay taxes on health insurance.

More important, however, is what happens when one of the partners dies or becomes incapacitated. A number of documents need to be created so should one become incapacitated the other is able to act on their behalf. Preparations also need to be made so the surviving partner is protected and can manage the deceased’s estate.

In order to be prepared, an estate plan is necessary. Creating a plan for what happens to you and your estate is critical for unmarried couples who want their commitment to each other to be protected at death. The general default for a married couple is that everything goes to the surviving spouse. However, for unmarried couples the default may be a sibling, children, parents or other relatives. It won’t be the unmarried partner.

This is especially true if a person dies with no will. The courts in the state of residence will decide who gets what depending upon the law of that state. If there are multiple heirs who have conflicting interests, it could become nasty—and expensive.

However, a will isn’t all that is needed. Most tax-advantaged accounts—Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs, 401(k) plans, etc.—have beneficiaries named. That person receives the assets upon death of the owner. The same is true for investment accounts, annuities, life insurance and any financial product that has a beneficiary named. The beneficiary receives the asset regardless of what is in the will. Therefore, checking beneficiaries need to be part of the estate plan. Checking, savings and investment accounts that are in both partner’s names will become the property of the surviving person, but accounts with only one person’s name on them will not.

Unmarried couples who own a home together need to check how the deed is titled, regardless who is on the mortgage. The legal owner is the person whose name is on the deed. If the house is only in one person’s name, it won’t become part of the estate. Change the deed so both names are on the deed with rights of survivorship, so both are entitled to assume full ownership upon the death of the other.

To prepare for incapacity, an estate planning attorney can help create a durable power of attorney for health care, so partners will be able to make medical decisions on each other’s behalf. A living will should also be created for both people which states wishes for end of life decisions. For financial matters, a durable power of attorney will allow each partner to have control over each other’s financial affairs. It takes a little extra planning for unmarried couples, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you have prepared to care for each other, until death do you part, is priceless.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 16, 2019) “Here’s what happens to your partner if you’re not married and you die”

 

Not a Billionaire? Trusts Can Still Be Beneficial

You don’t have to be wealthy to benefit from the use of a trust. A trust is a legal arrangement by which one person transfers his or her assets to a trustee who will hold those assets in trust for third parties, explains the Stamford Advocate’s article “Trusts are not for the wealthy only.” As the person who created the trust, referred to as “the settlor,” you determine who the trustee is, as well as naming the beneficiaries.

There are many different types of trusts which serve different purposes. However, the two basic categories of trusts are revocable (also known as “living” trusts) and irrevocable trusts. Their names reflect two chief characteristics: the revocable trust can be changed and controlled by the settlor. The irrevocable trust cannot be changed, and the settlor gives up the control of the trust. However, it should be noted that the irrevocable trust has certain tax and other benefits not offered by the revocable trust.

A will is definitely necessary to pass assets on according to your wishes, but a trust can serve other purposes. Here’s a look at some common reasons why people use trusts:

  • Protect assets from creditors
  • Allow heirs to avoid probate of assets in the trusts
  • Avoid, minimize or delay estate taxes, transfer taxes or income taxes
  • Control how assets are disbursed or invested
  • Facilitate business succession planning and manage business assets
  • Shelter assets for descendants, if a spouse remarries
  • Establish a family tradition of philanthropy

Trusts allow assets to be passed on quickly and privately, while eliminating some expenses for heirs. They also permit closer management of who will benefit from your assets.

The cost of setting up a trust depends on the complexity of the trust and the estate, as well as other factors, like the number of beneficiaries and how many generations are being planned for. Bear in mind that the cost of setting up a trust should be measured against the future cost of not just taxes, but any litigation that might occur if the estate is probated and becomes public knowledge, or if family members are dissatisfied with the distribution of assets.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to first determine what kind of trusts are needed for your estate plan to achieve your wishes. Discuss the role of a Special Needs trust, if any family members have mental or physical needs that make them eligible for public assistance. An experienced estate planning attorney will know which planning strategies are best in your unique circumstances.

Reference: Stamford Advocate (Jan. 19, 2020) “Trusts are not for the wealthy only”

 

Seriously, Why Do I Need a Will?

The Times Herald-Record’s article “55 Plus: Four Reasons to Create a Will” provides some tips and important reasons for why you should make a will.

When you create a will with the help of an estate planning attorney, you are able to decide who will execute your estate.

Creating a will and appointing a trusted executor will help make certain that your estate is managed in accordance with your wishes and instructions. If you have a will, you help the people you leave behind. A legally valid will can avoid added costs of legal dealings. If you pass away without a will, the state will decide how your estate is divided.

Creating a will allows you to determine who inherits your estate. Your estate will include your home, motor vehicles, financial accounts and any other personal property you want to pass on to your loved ones. The great thing about a will is that it clearly states the persons or organizations that will receive all or part of your estate after your death.

Consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney to help understand your state laws and probate procedures is a wise move.

In your will, you can also decide and designate the person(s) who will care for your minor children. Creating a will gives you the opportunity to appoint a guardian for your minor children, in the event of your death. If you don’t have a will stating a guardianship, a court can make the issue its own and appoint a guardian in your absence. It could be someone you don’t like or someone you hardly know.

By creating a will, you provide several benefits for yourself and your family. A will offers peace of mind that your loved ones will be cared for as you intend, after you’re no longer around.

Finally, a reminder for those with wills and estate plans: review these documents every year or three to be certain that everything is up to date. You want to be sure that your estate plan includes any new spouse, birth or adoption of a child or grandchild, death of a relative and change in your financial situation.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Jan. 6, 2020) “55 Plus: Four Reasons to Create a Will”

 

Planning Retirement with a Cognitive Decline

The Director of Volunteer Programs at the Alzheimer’s Association, Stephanie Rohlfs-Young, explains that families shouldn’t let a diagnosis disrupt proper financial, estate and retirement planning. She recommends several proactive and tactical steps that individuals and families can undertake to address issues related to cognitive decline.

Barron’s recent article entitled “Cognitive Decline Shouldn’t Derail Retirement Planning. Here Are Some Tips to Prepare Your Finances” provides some tips on navigating the financial aspects of cognitive decline. Let’s look at some of them:

Inventory. For budgeting and estate planning purposes, families should conduct a thorough inventory of the individual’s property and debts to create a list of those who have access to each account. Ask about and include online checking, savings, credit-card and investment accounts. These can be neglected, if they aren’t in paper form. Try to work with the individual in cognitive decline to ascertain this information, when they can still be helpful. You don’t want to lose all those assets. This task can be challenging, when children aren’t aware of their parents’ financial dealings. This can include savings, insurance, retirement benefits, government assistance, veterans’ benefits and more. Families should also pick a lead person to be in charge of financial or legal matters.

Calculating future costs. A diagnosis of this nature is the time to figure out and plan for care costs that may include adult day care, in-home care and full-time medical care. These can costs vary widely, and many times families underestimate the amount they’ll spend on care. Families often fail to factor in out-of-pocket expenses that can add up, like prescriptions not covered by insurance. When budgeting, families should see what insurance may be available and if they might add or amend coverage.

Leverage the skills of an elder-law attorney. Partner with an experienced elder law attorney to help get the family’s financial and legal affairs together. Issues can include the titling of assets, trusts, powers of attorney, advance health care directive and more. For some, there’s also Medicaid planning.

Automate finances. Families should devise a plan for routine financial tasks, like bill paying. These are things that will eventually become too difficult for the loved one experiencing cognitive decline. Consider signing up for online banking. That way, an adult child can have easy access to monitor the parent’s account. Monthly bills, including insurance premiums, can be set up for automatic payment to help minimize the possibility of errors.

Organize your important documents. It’s critical after a diagnosis of cognitive decline to name a health-care representative to allow healthcare decisions to be made by someone of the person’s choosing. You should also have a general durable power of attorney for finances in place. This allows the appointed agent to make financial and legal decisions in the individuals’ stead.

Reference: Barron’s (Jan. 11, 2020) “Cognitive Decline Shouldn’t Derail Retirement Planning. Here Are Some Tips to Prepare Your Finances.”

Preparing for the Inevitable: The Loss of a Spouse

Becoming a widow at a relatively young age, puts many people in a tough financial position, says the article “Preparing for the Unexpected Death of a Spouse” from Next Avenue. At this point in their lives, they are too young to draw Social Security benefits. There is no best time, but this is a hard time to lose the prime breadwinner in the household.

Women are more likely than men to lose a spouse, and they are typically left in a worse financial position than if their spouse dies before they are old enough to take retirement benefits.

One of the best ways to plan for this event, is for both spouses to have life insurance. This can replace income, and term life insurance, if purchased early in life, can be relatively affordable. The earlier a policy is purchased, the better. This can become a safety net to pay bills and maintain a lifestyle.

Another key component for surviving early widowhood, is being sure that both members of the couple understand the couple’s finances, including how household bills are paid. Usually what happens is that one person takes over the finances, and the other is left hoping that things are being done properly. That also includes knowing the accounts, the log in and password information and what bills need to be paid at what dates.

Having that conversation with a spouse is not easy, but necessary. There are costs that you may not be aware of, without a thorough knowledge of how the household works. For instance, if the husband has done all of the repairs around the house, maintaining the yard and taking care of the cars, those tasks still need to be done. Either the widow will become proficient or will have to pay others.

Couples should work with an estate planning attorney and a financial advisor, as well as an accountant, to be sure that they are prepared for the unexpected. What survivor’s benefits might the surviving spouse be eligible to receive? If there are children at home age 16 or under, there may be Social Security benefits available for the child’s support.

Discuss what debt, if any, either spouse has taken on without the other’s knowledge. Any outstanding medical bills should also be discussed. The last thing a loved one should have to cope with when a spouse passes, is a tangle of debt. However, this often happens.

If the spouse was a veteran, the surviving spouse might be eligible for benefits from the Veterans Administration. Find out what information will be needed to apply for benefits.

Talk with your estate planning attorney to make sure that all proper documents have been prepared. This includes a last will and testament, power of attorney, health care proxy and any trusts.

Reference: Next Avenue (Dec. 18, 2019) “Preparing for the Unexpected Death of a Spouse”

Failure to Act on a Will Can Lead to a Loss of an Estate

Here’s a cautionary tale for family members who don’t know what to do when a parent or uncle dies. A man and his sister have an uncle, let’s call him George, who has no children. Uncle George had two siblings—the father of the man and his sister (who died before Uncle George made out his will)—and a brother. Let’s call the brother Jim. Uncle Jim lived in Uncle George’s house. Uncle George died, and the siblings didn’t do anything.

Five years went by and the siblings decided they wanted to sell the house to pay off some loans. When they told Uncle George their plans, he announced that he would not leave the house. As explained in the article “Wills are not self-enacting” from mySanAntonio.com, the nephew and niece have overlooked more than a few salient details.

The most important fact: wills are not self-enacting. Next, there is a legal time limit upon which an executor or an heir must take legal action and finally, state law for each state has a default inheritance plan, when there is no will in the public record after someone has died.

What does it mean for a will to not be “self-enacting”? While Uncle George may have had a will with instructions to leave his house to the siblings, they did not do anything to probate the will. The only people who knew about the will were the uncle, the attorney who prepared the will and maybe a few other family members. When a home is bought and sold, the transaction must be recorded in the county’s public records to inform the public of the change of ownership.

Not taking action on a will is a disservice to the decedent and their heirs. The will needs to go through probate, for the will to be deemed valid by the court and to allow the named executor to distribute assets, according to the terms of the will.

There are legal limits to when the will must be presented to the courts. A local estate planning attorney will know what those limits are, as they are different in each state. In Texas, where this took place, the will must be filed for probate within four years of the date that the will’s maker passed. After four years, the court is not allowed to appoint the named executor. The court may not recognize the will either, unless those who are late in presenting the will can explain the delay, the heirs agree that the will can be recognized and the will is limited to passing title to the named devisees.

Every state has a plan for how assets are distributed in the absence of a will. When the owner of something dies, the ownership passes to someone else. When there is no will, heirs-at-law receive the property. Each state has a statute that determines who the heirs are.

In this case, the will was not timely probated so the law defaults to giving ownership to the heirs-at-law. In Texas, when there is no surviving spouse and no descendants, the siblings of the deceased person are the heirs-at-law. That would be Uncle George, since the nephew and niece failed to file the will for probate in a timely manner.

When a family member passes, someone in the family must take steps to ensure that the will is probated, and the estate is properly settled. Failing to do so cost this brother and sister the inheritance that their uncle wanted them to have. Had they contacted a qualified estate planning attorney, the entire process would have been handled correctly, and they would have had ownership of their uncle’s home.

Reference: mySanAntonio.com (Dec. 23, 2019) “Wills are not self-enacting”

 

Start the New Year with Estate Planning To-Do’s

Families who wish their loved ones had not created an estate plan are far and few between. However, the number of families who have had to experience extra pain, unnecessary expenses and even family battles because of a lack of estate planning are many. While there are a number of aspects to an estate plan that take some time to accomplish, The Daily Sentinel recommends that readers tackle these tasks in the article “Consider These Items As Part of Your Year-End Plan.”

Review and update any beneficiary designations. This is one of the simplest parts of any estate plan to fix. Most people think that what’s in their will controls how all of their assets are distributed, but this is not true. Accounts with beneficiary designations—like life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and some bank accounts—are controlled by the beneficiary designation and not the will.

Proceeds from these assets are based on the instructions you have given to the institution, and not what your will or a trust directs. This is also true for real estate that is held in JTWROS (Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship) and any real property transferred through the use of a beneficiary deed. The start of a new year is the time to make sure that any assets with a beneficiary designation are aligned with your estate plan.

Take some time to speak with the people you have named as your agent, personal representative or successor trustee. These people will be managing all or a portion of your estate. Make sure they remember that they agreed to take on this responsibility. Make sure they have a copy of any relevant documents and ask if they have any questions.

Locate your original estate planning documents. When was the last time they were reviewed? New laws, and most recently the SECURE Act, may require a revision of many wills, especially if you own a large IRA. You’ll also want to let your executor know where your original will can be found. The probate court, which will review your will, prefers an original. A will can be probated without the original but there will be more costs involved and it may require a few additional steps. Your will should be kept in a secure, fire and water-safe location. If you keep copies at home, make a note on the document as to where the original can be found.

Create an inventory of your online accounts and login data for each one. Most people open a new account practically every month, so keep track. That should include email, personal photos, social media and any financial accounts. This information also needs to be stored in a safe place. Your estate planning document file would be the logical place for this information but remember to update it when changing any information, like your password.

If you have a medical power of attorney and advance directive, ask your primary care physician if they have a means of keeping these documents, and explain how you wish the instructions on the documents to be carried out. If you don’t have these documents, make them part of your estate plan review process.

A cover letter to your executor and family that contains complete contact information for the various professionals—legal, financial, and medical—will be a help in the case of an unexpected event.

Remember that life is always changing, and the same estate plan that worked so well ten years ago may be out of date now. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state who can help you create a plan to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Dec. 28, 2019) “Consider These Items As Part of Your Year-End Plan”

 

Why a Will Is the Foundation of an Estate Plan

An estate planning lawyer has many different tools to achieve clients’ estate planning goals. However, at the heart of any plan is the will, also known as the “last will and testament.” Even people who are young or who have modest levels of assets should have a will—one that is legally valid and up to date. For parents of young children, this is especially important, says the article “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan” from the Sparta Independent. Why? Because in most states, a will is the only way that parents can name guardians for their children.

Having a will means that your estate will avoid being “intestate,” that is, having your assets distributed according to the laws of your state. With a will, you get to determine who is to receive your property. That includes your home, car, bank and investment accounts and any other assets, including those with sentimental value.

Without a will, your property will be distributed to your closest blood relatives, depending upon how closely related they are to you. Few individuals want to have the state making these decisions for their property. Most people would rather make these decisions for themselves.

Property can be left to anyone you choose—including a spouse, children, charities, a trust, other relatives, a college or university, or anyone you want. There are some limits imposed by law that you should know about: a spouse has certain rights to your property, and they cannot be reversed based on your will.

For parents of young children, the will is used to name a legal guardian for children. A personal guardian, who takes personal custody of the children, can be named, as well as a property guardian, who is in charge of the children’s assets. This can be the same person, but is often two different people. You may also want to ask your estate planning attorney about using trusts to fund children’s college educations.

The will is also a means of naming an executor. This is the person who acts as your legal representative after your death. This person will be in charge of carrying out all of your estate settlement tasks so they need to be someone you trust who is skilled with managing property and the many tasks that go into settling an estate. The executor must be approved by the probate court before they can start taking action for you.

There are also taxes and expenses that need to be managed. Unless the will provides directions, these are determined by state law. To be sure that gifts you wanted to give to family and loved ones are not consumed by taxes, the will needs to indicate that taxes and expenses are to be paid from the residuary estate.

A will can be used to create a “testamentary trust,” which comes into existence when your will is probated. It has a trustee, beneficiaries and directions on how distributions should be made. The use of trusts is especially important if you have young children who are not able to manage assets or property.

Note that any assets distributed through a will are subject to probate, the court-supervised process of administering and proving a will. Probate can be costly and time-consuming, and the records are available to the public which means anyone can see them. Many people chose to distribute their assets through trusts to avoid having large assets pass through probate.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a will and the many different functions that the will plays in settling your estate. You’ll also want to explore planning for incapacity, which includes having a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Medical Directives. Estate planning attorneys also work on tax issues to minimize the taxes paid by the estate.

Reference: Sparta Independent (Dec. 19, 2019) “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan”

 

From Gentle Persuasion to a No-Nonsense Approach, Talking About Estate Plans

Sometimes the first attempt is a flop. Imaging this exchange: “So do you want to talk about what happens when you die?” Answer: “Nope.” That’s what can happen but it doesn’t have to, says The Wall Street Journal’s recent article “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans.”

Many people have successfully begun this conversation with their aging parents. The gentle persuasion method is deemed to be the most successful. Treating elderly parents as adults which they are and asking about their fears and concerns is one way to start. Educating, not lecturing, is a respectful way to move the conversation forward.

Instead of asking a series of rapid-fire questions, provide information. One family assembled a notebook with articles about how to find an estate planning attorney, when people might need a trust or why naming someone as power of attorney is so important.

Others begin by first talking about less important matters than bank accounts and bequests. Asking a parent for a list of utility companies with the account number, phone number and if they are paying bills online, their password, is an easy entry to thinking about next steps. Sometimes a gentle nudge, is all it takes to unlock the doors.

For some families, a more direct less gentle approach gets the job done. That includes being willing to tell parents that not having an estate plan or not being willing to talk about their estate plan is going to lead to disaster for everyone. Warn them about taxes or remind them that the state will disburse all of their hard-earned assets, if they don’t have a plan in place.

One son tapped into his father’s strong dislike of paying taxes. He asked a tax attorney to figure out how much the family would have to pay in estate taxes, if there were no estate plan in place. It was an eye-opener, and the father became immediately receptive to sitting down with an estate planning attorney.

A daughter had tried repeatedly to get her father to speak with an estate planning attorney. His response was the same for several decades: he didn’t believe that his estate was big enough to warrant doing any kind of planning. One evening the daughter simply threw up her hands in frustration and told him, “Fine, if your favorite charity is the federal government, do nothing…but if you’d rather benefit the church or a university, do something and make your desires known.”

For months after seeing an estate attorney and putting a plan in place, he repeated the same phrase to her: “I had no idea we were worth so much.”

Between the extremes is a third option: letting someone else handle the conversation. Aging parents may be more receptive to listening to a trusted individual, who is of their same generation. One adult daughter contacted her wealthy mother’s estate planning attorney and financial advisor. The mother would not listen to the daughter but she did listen to her estate planning attorney and her financial advisor when they both reminded her that her estate plan had not been reviewed in years.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (December 16, 2019) “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans”

 

Key Health Document Most Americans Don’t Have but Should

You may not like the idea of contemplating your own mortality or that of a loved one. You may procrastinate all year long about putting your final wishes in place. However, this one document is important for yourself, your loved ones and your life. You shouldn’t put it off any longer. Forbes’ recent article titled “Two-Thirds of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document” explains why.

A health care directive is a legal document that an individual will use to give specific directions for caregivers in case of dementia or illness. It directs end of life decisions. It also gives directions for how the person wishes their body to be cared for after their death.

This document is known by several different names: living wills, durable health care powers of attorney or medical directives. However, the purpose is the same: to give guidance and direction on making medical and end-of-life decisions.

This document itself is a relatively new one. The first was created in California in 1976, and by 1992, all fifty states had similar laws. The fact that the law was accepted so fast across the country, indicates how important it is. The document provides control when a person is impaired and after their death. That is at the heart of all estate planning.

Yet, just as so many Americans don’t have wills only a third have a health care directive. That’s a surprise, since both estate planning attorneys and health care professionals regularly encourage people to have these documents in place.

A key part of a health care directive is selecting an agent. This is a person who will act as the proxy to make decisions for another person, consistent with their wishes. They will also have to advocate for the person with respect to having treatment continue or shifting to pain management and palliative care. The spouse is often the first choice for this role. An adult child or other close and trusted family or friends can also serve.

The agent’s role does not end at death but continues to ensure that post-mortem wishes are carried out. The agent takes control of the person’s body, making sure that any organ donations are made, if it was the person’s wish.  Once any donation wishes are carried out, the agent also makes sure that funeral wishes are done according to the person’s wishes. Burial is an ancient tradition, but there are many different choices to be made. The health care directive can have as many details as possible, or simply state burial or cremation.

Having a health care directive in place permits an individual to state his or her wishes clearly. Talk with your estate planning attorney about creating a health care directive as part of your comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: Forbes (December 13, 2019) “Two-Thirds of All Americans Are Missing This Estate Planning Document”