What Does It Mean to Be an Executor?

Being named an executor can be a big deal, undertaking confidence and trust that someone is appointing you to manage their estate after they’ve died. An executor has a long to-do list, according to The Cleveland Jewish News’ recent article entitled “Role of executor comes with many responsibilities.”

First, the executor must find the signed will and file it at the probate court to officially be appointed.  Next, the executor must collect all of the estate’s assets, as well as track down any debts like mortgages, credit card bills, car payments and the like.  Once the bills are paid, the executor will distribute the assets to the beneficiaries.  Finally, the executor is tasked with going to the probate court and state that the bills were paid, so all of the assets can be distributed. At that point, the executor is discharged.

Any adult can be named an executor as an executor of an estate. However, in some circumstances, a bond is required. The bonding company will decide if the executor is financially sound. If a person dies without a will, an individual can apply to be an administrator of the estate.  When naming an executor, before death, the estate owners should discuss the role and responsibilities of their named executor to have a smooth transition with no surprises for those left behind.  In addition, an alternate executor should be named in the event the first person is unwilling or unable to serve.

Executors should consult an estate planning attorney throughout the process. This legal assistance is important to guide the executor through all the required steps, so he or she can fulfill the fiduciary responsibilities.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help review the will with the executor, so he or she understands what it means. The attorney can also review the steps of being appointed and what their role of the executor is as far as collecting the assets and debts, along with the details about which the average non-attorney might not consider.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (Sep. 23, 2020) “Role of executor comes with many responsibilities”

 

Does My Estate Plan Need an Audit?

You should have an estate plan because every state has statutes that describe how your assets are managed, and who benefits if you don’t have a will. Most people want to have more say about who and how their assets are managed, so they draft estate planning documents that match their objectives.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Auditing Your Estate Plan” says the first question is what are your estate planning objectives? Almost everyone wants to have financial security and the satisfaction of knowing how their assets will be properly managed. Therefore, these are often the most common objectives. However, some people also want to also promote the financial and personal growth of their families, provide for social and cultural objectives by giving to charity and other goals. To help you with deciding on your objectives and priorities, here are some of the most common objectives:

  • Making sure a surviving spouse or family is financially OK
  • Providing for others
  • Providing now for your children and later
  • Saving now on income taxes
  • Saving on estate and gift taxes in the future
  • Donating to charity
  • Having a trusted agency manage my assets, if I am incapacitated
  • Having money for my children’s education
  • Having retirement income; and
  • Shielding my assets from creditors.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about the way in which you should handle your assets. If your plan doesn’t meet your objectives, your estate plan should be revised. This will include a review of your will, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms and real property titles.

Note that joint accounts, pay on death (POD) accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities and other assets will transfer to your heirs by the way you designate your beneficiaries on those accounts. Any assets in a trust won’t go through probate. “Irrevocable” trusts may protect assets from the claims of creditors and possibly long-term care costs, if properly drafted and funded.

Another question is what happens in the event you become mentally or physically incapacitated and who will see to your financial and medical affairs. Use a power of attorney to name a person to act as your agent in these situations.

If, after your audit, you find that your plans need to be revised, follow these steps:

  1. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a plan based on your objectives
  2. Draft and execute a will and other estate planning documents customized to your plan
  3. Correctly title your assets and complete your beneficiary designations
  4. Create and fund trusts
  5. Draft and sign powers of attorney, in the event of your incapacity
  6. Draft and sign documents for ownership interest in businesses, intellectual property, artwork and real estate
  7. Discuss the consequences of implementing your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney; and
  8. Review your plan regularly.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 23, 2020) “Auditing Your Estate Plan”

 

Will a ‘Will’ Really Pay Off?

Wills are often seen as a something that only comes up when an elderly person passes away. Because of this notion, many people think that a will is something they’ll only need to worry about decades from now. However, even young adults can benefit from currently having a will.

The Charleston Gazette-Mail’s recent article entitled “Don’t have a will? Now might be the time to change that” explains that having a will provides you with a layer of security for your family.

The process of drafting a will itself is pretty simple. A person can get a sense of comfort knowing that their final wishes and requests will be known and respected. The creation of most wills starts with a person contacting an experienced estate planning attorney. He or she will usually send them a questionnaire to complete that asks about the spelling of their names and those of family members, as well as the items and properties they want to list. Once the attorney has that information, the client and the attorney meet to talk about the goals of the client. The attorney will get back to the client in a few weeks with a draft or estate plan. After a review, the client returns to execute the document before witnesses and a notary.

It truly is important for young people to have wills, especially those who are unmarried or have children. If you have young children, your will states the guardians for your children.  If a parent without a spouse doesn’t name a guardian in a will for their child, the court will make a selection.

Estate planning attorneys usually will charge a flat fee for a drafting will. While there are alternatives to the traditional process, going online to find a will-making program isn’t recommended, especially if you have a complex estate. These should be left to experienced estate planning attorneys. However, even for a Regular Joe, most experts say to avoid these sites entirely.

Attorneys can make a lot of money from these do-it-yourself will websites, because they often result in litigation. Some of these websites can cause errors in the drafting of a will. This leads to law firms making far more money than they would have, if the client had simply drafted the will through them in the first place.

Death is an uncomfortable topic for many people. Many people don’t know what options are available, and they’re often scared to ask. However, with COVID-19, people are beginning to realize the importance of a will and a complete estate plan.

Reference: The Charleston Gazette-Mail (Aug. 23, 2020) “Don’t have a will? Now might be the time to change that”

 

How Can Siblings Settle Disputes over an Estate?

When your parents pass away, their assets are often divided between their children. However, if there’s no will to answer any legal questions that may arise  siblings can fight over the assets. Some even take the matter to court. It would be great to avoid these battles because, in many cases, a fight over an estate between the siblings can end their good relationship and enrich attorneys instead of family members.

The Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “Tips to Help Siblings Avoid or Resolve an Estate Battle” says that the following tips can help people in this situation or assist them in preventing the fight entirely, when there are no instructions for the distribution of certain assets.

Use a Family Auction. With a family auction, siblings use agreed upon “tokens” to bid for the estate items they want.

Get an Appraisal. The division of an estate between the siblings can get complicated and end in a fight if the siblings want different pieces of the estate and have to work out the value difference. If, for example, the siblings decide to split the estate unevenly and one gets a car and another a house, it’s worthwhile to engage the services of an appraiser to calculate the value of these assets. That way, those pieces of smaller value can be deducted from ones of higher value for fairer distribution.

Mediation. If siblings historically don’t get along, they may battle over every trinket left as an inheritance, no matter how immaterial. In that case, you should use a mediator to help divide the estate fairly without a court battle.

Take Turns! Sometimes, if there are several siblings involved in the division of assets, they can take turns in claiming the items within the estate. All siblings naturally have to agree to the idea with no hard feelings involved. Just like Mom would have wanted!

Asset Liquidation. If everything else fails, the easiest way to divide the assets and the estate between the siblings is to go through asset liquidation and split the proceeds.

As you can see, there are a number of ways to deal with the division of the estate and assets and prevent the legal battle between the siblings. To avoid hard feelings, stay calm, be reasonable and ask your siblings to act the same way. Perhaps it also might be a good time to speak with an experienced estate planning attorney and create estate planning documents now to avoid arguments.

Reference: The Legal Reader (Aug. 24, 2020) “Tips to Help Siblings Avoid or Resolve an Estate Battle”

 

How Important Is Estate Planning in the Pandemic?

Waiting to create a will leaves nothing but headaches for your heirs and relatives. With nearly 200,000 deaths due to Covid-19 in the U.S. alone, we are reminded of how fast our lives can change.  The Street’s recent article entitled “Life Changes Fast: The Importance of Estate Planning and Health Care Directives” also notes that this reminds us how important it is to make sure we have current estate planning decisions and end-of-life decisions in place.

Here is a basic overview of some important areas of estate and health care planning you should consider:

Your Assets and Belongings

An experienced estate planning attorney can help you determine if a will or a trust would best take care of your objectives and needs. Don’t make this decision on your own because there are major differences between these two types of documents.

Some people use a living trust instead of a will because it avoids the publicity and expense that comes with the probate process. Ask your attorney what is best for your family and situation.  You’ll need to name an executor who will be in charge of making sure your requests are carried out, including the division of assets. In addition to your will or trust, be sure the beneficiaries on your life insurance and accounts such as your bank and retirement accounts are current. You should also see how the title is held on any real estate property you own.

Health Care and Your Body

Make certain that it’s super clear and in writing as to what your final wishes are for your medical treatment and final arrangements. Your documents need to address what type of medical treatment you want, if you are not able to make those decisions for yourself. It should also be clear as to any specific life-preserving measures you would want taken.

A power of attorney for healthcare lets you name an agent to make health-related decisions for you, if you’re unable to do so. Some states combine both the power of attorney for health care and a living will into one document, which is called an advance directive. If you want to be an organ donor, make sure this is recorded and your wishes are known (some states have directories or it’s on a person’s driver’s license). Be sure that your hospital and doctor are aware of your wishes and they have copies of any necessary documents.

Guidance and Financial Help. Always consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to be certain that your wishes and objectives are properly spelled out and legally binding.

Reference:  The Street (Aug. 28, 2020) “Life Changes Fast: The Importance of Estate Planning and Health Care Directives”

 

What Is Estate Planning and Is It for Everyone?

A key objective of estate planning is to make certain that your assets go to those you want rather than distant family. It also can minimize taxes, so your beneficiaries can keep more of your wealth. Finally, sound estate planning can decrease family fighting and provide clear end-of-life directives, if you become incapacitated before you die.

Bankrate’s recent article entitled “What is estate planning?” gives us a look at estate planning and why you absolutely need it, regardless of how much wealth you have. Here are a few of the most common elements of an estate plan and what you should consider.

Beneficiary designations. When you open a financial account, checking, savings, brokerage, or insurance account, you’ll be asked to name a beneficiary for the account. This person will get any funds from the account at your death. You can have multiple beneficiaries and should also name contingent beneficiaries in case the primary beneficiaries are not living when you pass away. Naming a beneficiary supersedes any other declaration in your estate.

Will. This is another key document in the estate plan. When you die, it instructs where your assets will go. Property that’s owned jointly, such as with a spouse, passes directly to the surviving owner(s). An executor will be appointed to carry out the will and manage the distribution of assets.

Trusts. This is a legal vehicle that allows a third party (the trust) to hold assets for a beneficiary. They give you several estate planning options, including avoiding probate and privacy. Trusts also let you direct how your assets are distributed after your death. You can also name the trustee(s) to manage and direct the trust on your passing. Ask your experienced estate planning attorney to help you with your trust questions and to create one, if it is a good idea.

Living wills. In the event you become incapacitated, you should have a clear statement of your wishes. A living will states how you want to be treated during your end-of-life care, such as specific treatments to take or refrain from taking. A living will is often combined with a durable power of attorney which can allow a surrogate to make decisions on behalf of the incapacitated individual.

Estate planning can help avoid many issues from arising, even if you don’t have a lot of money. By determining how you want to handle your estate before you die, you’ll save your loved ones a lot of effort, expense and stress concerning how your estate is distributed. Contact an estate planning attorney to schedule an appointment.

Reference: Bankrate (Aug. 3, 2020) “What is estate planning?”

 

What Do I Look for in a Trustee?

The trustee is tasked with caring for the assets in the trust for one or more beneficiaries.  It is the trustee who handles all the necessary paperwork and sees that tax returns are filed.  FedWeek’s recent article entitled “Your Options for Selecting a Trustee” explains that probate and trust law creates a fiduciary responsibility, so the trustee is accountable to the trust beneficiaries and must serve the beneficiaries’ best interests.

Here are the types of trustee one can select:

Individual trustee: this can be a friend or relative who’s probably familiar with everyone involved and may well make the decisions desired by you, the trust creator. If you decide to go with an individual, make sure you choose someone who is trustworthy. It’s the most important qualification of a trustee. Ask yourself if this a is person who I can trust unconditionally to carry out my wishes when I’m gone. You also need to be certain that your trustee is financially responsible. The reason is that a trustee’s duties will include handling your financial accounts and being responsible for your investments. Therefore, finding a person who’s proven themselves to be financially responsible is critical. A trustee needs to deal with financial accounts, as well as the responsibility of accounting to the trust beneficiaries regarding all assets, income and expenses of a trust. Therefore, basic record keeping skills are required. Finally, you need someone who’s available. Choose a trustee who’s likely to be available when the need for his or her services arises. Age, health, job demands and location are all things to take into account, when selecting a trustee.

Institutional trustee: a local bank or trust company might have the resources to manage your assets. They also will have the staying power to handle long-term trusts.

You can also set up a combination of the two. You could designate an institution and an individual as co-trustees. That way, you may get financial expertise and personal attention. If discretionary decisions are permitted, you can leave instructions that both co-trustees must agree.

You can also add “trustee removal” powers into the terms of the trust to reduce the risk that a trustee will prove to be unsatisfactory. A majority vote of adult income beneficiaries may be enough to get a new trustee. That person must be an unrelated person or institution.

When you name an individual as trustee or co-trustee, again make certain that he or she is qualified to do the job, then get his or her consent.

You should also designate a successor trustee, just in case your first choice is unable or unwilling to serve.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss the roles of a trustee or if you need to prepare estate planning documents.

Reference: FedWeek (Aug. 13, 2020) “Your Options for Selecting a Trustee”

 

How Do I Find a Good Estate Planning Attorney?

About 68% of Americans don’t have a will. With the threat of the coronavirus on everyone’s mind, people are in urgent need of an estate plan. To make sure your plan is proper and legal, consult an experienced estate planning attorney. Work with a lawyer who understands your needs, has years of experience and knows the law in your state.

EconoTimes’ recent article entitled “Top 3 Estate Planning Tips When Seeing An Attorney” provides several tips for estate planning when seeing an attorney.

Attorney Experience. An estate planning attorney will have the experience and specialized knowledge to help you, compared to a general practitioner. Look for an attorney who specializes in estate planning.

Inventory. List everything you have. Once you start the list, you may be surprised with the tangible and intangible assets you possess.

Tangible assets may include:

  • Cars and boats
  • Homes, land, and other real estate
  • Collectibles like art, coins, or antiques; and
  • Other personal possessions.

Your intangible assets may include:

  • Mutual funds, bonds, stocks
  • Savings accounts and certificates of deposit
  • Retirement plans
  • Health saving accounts; and
  • Business ownership.

Create Your Estate Planning Documents. Prior to seeing an experienced estate planning attorney, he or she will have you fill out a questionnaire and to bring a list of documents to the appointment. In every estate plan, the core documents often include a creating a last will and powers of attorney, as well as coordinating your Beneficiary Designations on life insurance and investment accounts. You may also want to ask about a trust and if you have minor children selecting a guardian for their care if you should pass away. You should also ask about estate taxes with the attorney.

Reference: EconoTimes (July 30, 2020) “Top 3 Estate Planning Tips When Seeing An Attorney”

 

How Can I Help with My Grandchild’s College Tuition?

To assist with college tuition for younger children or grandchildren, you may want to defer the receipt of funds until the child or grandchild needs to pay for tuition down the road. You can make a gift into a custody account or into a trust that qualifies as a current gift under the Uniform Gifts to Minor’s Act or you can fund a Qualified Tuition Plan under IRC Section 529.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning Primer: Qualified Tuition Plans” explains that there are two kinds of 529 programs: prepaid plans and savings plans. The advantage of a 529 plan over a Unified Gift to Minors Act plan is that the earnings on the assets in the 529 plan aren’t taxed until the funds are distributed. The distributions are also tax-free up to the amount of the student’s “qualified higher education expenses.”

Prepaid Programs: Some colleges let you buy tuition credits or certificates at the current tuition rates, even though your grandchild won’t be starting college for several years. This allows you to lock in today’s rates for her enrollment some years later. This move can resultant in substantial savings since tuition continues to rise at most institutions.

Savings Programs: Similar to a Traditional IRA or a Roth IRA, tuition amounts covered by a savings plan are dependent on the investment performance of the money you have in the plan. If it grows, more cost can be covered. But if it declines, less will be covered. Therefore, it is good to be conservative if the need for distributions is nearing soon.

Qualified Higher Education Expenses: Tuition (including up to $10,000 in tuition for an elementary or secondary public, private, or religious school), fees, books, supplies, and required equipment, as well as reasonable room and board are qualified expenses, if the student is enrolled at least half-time. Distributions in excess of qualified expenses are taxed to the student, if they represent earnings on the account. A 10% penalty tax is also imposed.

Beneficiary: The beneficiary of the program is specified when you start the funding. However, you are able to change the beneficiary or roll over the funds in the program to another plan for the same or a different beneficiary without income tax liability.

Eligible Schools: Any college, university, vocational school, or other post-secondary school eligible to participate in a student aid program of the Department of Education will be eligible schools for these programs.

The contributions made to the qualified tuition program are treated as gifts to the student. They qualify for the annual gift tax exclusion ($15,000 per person per year for 2020) adjusted annually for inflation. If your contributions in a year exceed the exclusion amount, you can elect to take the contributions into account over a five-year period starting with the year of the contributions.  Note that you may not be able to make the distributions from the program when a very young (or unborn) beneficiary goes to college, so name an alternative custodian, perhaps a parent of a grandchild, to make distributions for you.

Speak with an tax advisor or an estate planning attorney for direction.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 5, 2020) “Estate Planning Primer: Qualified Tuition Plans”

 

Do I Need More Than a Will?

If you die without a will (i.e., intestate), a court will determine who inherits your assets and who would care for any surviving children as a guardian.  CNBC’s recent article entitled “A will doesn’t cover all your bases when it comes to end-of-life decisions. Here’s what else you need” explains that some assets pass outside of the will including retirement accounts and life insurance.

Start your estate planning with a will which is just one piece of an “estate plan.” Creating a plan for your assets helps make certain that your wishes will be carried out upon your death and that family grumbling doesn’t escalate into destroyed relationships. Here are some additional things about estate planning you should know.

What passes via your will. A will is a document that allows you to say who gets what when you die. However, there are some assets that pass outside of the will, such as retirement accounts like 401(k) plans and individual retirement accounts (IRAs), and life insurance policies. As a result, the person named as a beneficiary on those accounts will get the money, no matter what your will says. Regular bank accounts also can have beneficiaries listed on a payable-on-death form, also known as a POD. If you own a home, check how it’s titled to ensure it ends up passing as you wish upon your death.

Executor. As part of the will-making process, you’ll need to name an executor of your will (sometimes called a personal representative). This entails making sure that assets are liquidated, the assets go to the proper beneficiaries, paying any debts not discharged and selling your home.

To prepare a will, you can hire an estate planning attorney in your local area, who knows state law. If use an online option, note that not all of the web-based alternatives will necessarily reflect the specifics of your state’s law. Online forms or software may not be compliant with your local law.

Living Will. An estate plan will typically include a few other legal documents, such as an advance health-care directive, also known as a living will. This document states your wishes, if you become incapacitated due to illness or injury, like whether you want to be kept on life support if there’s no hope of recovery.

Powers of Attorney. If you become incapacitated, your designated attorney-at-fact or agent will handle your medical and financial affairs. Similar to selecting an executor, be certain that he or she is trustworthy and smart, with the ability, skill set, time and desire to make such decisions and do these tasks.

Make a list of critical documents. Create an organized list of information your executor will need to settle your estate and include passwords, so your online accounts can be accessed.

Look at a trust. If you want your children or loved ones to receive money but don’t want to give a young adult or someone with poor money management free access to a lot of cash, you can create a trust for your beneficiaries. A trust holds assets on behalf of your beneficiaries, so they can only receive money according to how (or when) you’ve stated in the trust documents.

Again, it is important that you contact an experienced estate planning attorney to help you.

Reference: CNBC (July 27, 2020) “A will doesn’t cover all your bases when it comes to end-of-life decisions. Here’s what else you need”