Am I Making One of the Five Common Estate Planning Mistakes?

You don’t have to be super-wealthy to see the benefits from a well-prepared estate plan. However, you must make sure the plan is updated regularly so these kinds of mistakes don’t occur and hurt the people you love most, reports Kiplinger in its article entitled “Is Anything Wrong with Your Estate Plan? Here are 5 Common Mistakes.”

An estate plan contains legal documents that will provide clarity about how you’d like your wishes executed both during your life and after you die. There are three key documents:

  • A will
  • A durable power of attorney for financial matters
  • A health care power of attorney or similar document

In the last two of these documents, you appoint someone you trust to help make decisions involving your finances or health, in case you can’t while you’re still living. Let’s look at five common mistakes in estate planning:

# 1: No Estate Plan Whatsoever. A will has specific information about who will receive your money, property and other property. It’s important for people, even with minimal assets. If you don’t have a will, state law will determine who will receive your assets. Dying without a will (or “intestate”) entails your family going through a time-consuming and expensive process that can be avoided by simply having a will.  A will can also include several other important pieces of information that can have a significant impact on your heirs, such as naming a guardian for your minor children and an executor to carry out the business of closing your estate and distributing your assets. Without a will, these decisions will be made by a probate court.

# 2: Forgetting to Name or Naming the Wrong Beneficiaries. Some of your assets, like retirement accounts and life insurance policies, aren’t normally controlled by your will. They pass directly without probate to the beneficiaries you designate. To ensure that the intended person inherits these assets, a specific person or trust must be designated as the beneficiary for each account.

# 3: Wrong Joint Title. Married couples can own assets jointly, but they may not know that there are different types of joint ownership, such as the following:

  • Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship (JTWROS) means that, if one joint owner passes away, then the surviving joint owners (their spouse or partner) automatically inherits the deceased owner’s part of the asset. This transfer of ownership bypasses a will entirely.
  • Tenancy in Common (TIC) means that each joint owner has a separately transferrable share of the asset. Each owner’s will says who gets the share at their death.

# 4: Not Funding a Revocable Living Trust. A living trust lets you put assets in a trust with the ability to freely move assets in and out of it, while you’re alive. At death, assets continue to be held in trust or are distributed to beneficiaries, which is set by the terms of the trust. The most common error made with a revocable living trust is failure to retitle or transfer ownership of assets to the trust. This is where you need the direction of an experienced estate planning attorney as this critical task is often overlooked after the effort of drafting the trust document is done. A trust is of no use if it doesn’t own any assets.

# 5: The Right Time to Name a Trust as a Beneficiary of an IRA. The new SECURE Act, which went into effect on January 1, 2020 gets rid of what’s known as the stretch IRA. This allowed non-spouses who inherited retirement accounts to stretch out disbursements over their lifetimes. It let assets in retirement accounts continue their tax-deferred growth over many years. However, the new Act requires a full payout from the inherited IRA within 10 years of the death of the original account holder, in most cases, when a non-spouse individual is the beneficiary. Therefore, it may not be a good idea to name a trust as the beneficiary of a retirement account. It’s possible that either distributions from the IRA may not be allowed when a beneficiary would like to take one, or distributions will be forced to take place at a bad time and the beneficiary will be hit with unnecessary taxes.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney and review your estate plans to make certain that the new SECURE Act provisions don’t create unintended consequences.

Reference: Kiplinger (Feb. 20, 2020) “Is Anything Wrong with Your Estate Plan? Here are 5 Common Mistakes”

 

What’s the Difference Between an Inter Vivos Trust and a Testamentary Trust?

Trusts can be part of your estate planning to transfer assets to your heirs. A trust created while an individual is still alive is an inter vivos trust, while one established upon the death of the individual is a testamentary trust.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Inter Vivos Trust vs. Testamentary Trust: What’s the Difference?” explains that an inter vivos or living trust is drafted as either a revocable or irrevocable living trust and allows the individual for whom the document was established to access assets like money, investments and real estate property named in the title of the trust. Living trusts that are revocable have more flexibility than those that are irrevocable. However, assets titled in or made payable to both types of living trusts bypass the probate process once the trust owner dies.

With an inter vivos trust, the assets are titled in the name of the trust by the owner and are used or spent down by him or her, while they’re alive. When the trust owner passes away, the remainder beneficiaries are granted access to the assets which are then managed by a successor trustee.

A testamentary trust (or will trust) is created when a person dies and the trust is set out in their last will and testament. Because the creation of a testamentary trust doesn’t occur until death, it’s irrevocable. The trust is a created by provisions in the will that instruct the executor of the estate to create the trust. After death, the will must go through probate to determine its authenticity before the testamentary trust can be created. After the trust is created, the executor follows the directions in the will to transfer property into the trust.

This type of trust does not protect a person’s assets from the probate process. As a result, distribution of cash, investments, real estate, or other property may not conform to the trust owner’s specific desires. A testamentary trust is designed to accomplish specific planning goals like the following:

  • Preserving property for children from a previous marriage
  • Protecting a spouse’s financial future by giving them lifetime income
  • Leaving funds for a special needs beneficiary
  • Keeping minors from inheriting property outright at age 18 or 21
  • Skipping your surviving spouse as a beneficiary and
  • Making gifts to charities.

Through trust planning, married couples may use of their opportunity for estate tax reduction through the Unified Federal Estate and Gift Tax Exemption. That’s the maximum amount of assets the IRS allows you to transfer tax-free during life or at death. It can be a substantial part of the estate (all of your assets), making this a very good choice for financial planning. Seek out an experienced estate planning attorney to explore and discuss these types of trusts.

Reference: Investopedia (Aug. 30, 2019) “Inter Vivos Trust vs. Testamentary Trust: What’s the Difference?”

 

A Good Move to Make during the Pandemic

While most of those infected with COVID-19 will recover, about 20% need hospitalization and in the absence of widely approved treatment those who are placed in the ICU can be in grave danger.  Thousands of deaths from the coronavirus is making many of us look at death more seriously than we would otherwise. With our major health crisis, it’s not really the time to delay creating a will if you don’t have one already. Many Americans are looking to create a will and making a will is a good move to make during the Pandemic. If you don’t have this important document in place, it’s critical that you create one immediately — just in case.

Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “The 1 Move You Must Make During the COVID-19 Crisis” says that about 37% of Americans have a will. Without one, you’ll risk having little to no say over what happens to your assets in the event of your passing.

It’s not uncommon for people to say things like, “I’m not rich and have very little money to my name, so who cares who gets it after I pass?” This is not so. Even if you only have a modest amount of assets, it’s wise to make out a will, so your wishes are carried out.  If you have minor children, you need to designate a guardian to care for them, if you should die and they don’t have another living parent. This isn’t a question you want to leave unanswered and you don’t want to leave your family members to fight over who will take on the assume the responsibility of taking in your children.

Create a will with the help of an estate planning attorney. If you create one online, you risk missing nuances that may be important in the event of your passing. If your estate is somewhat complex, it’s worth the money to use a legal expert.  Another estate-planning document to create includes a financial power of attorney which designates someone to make financial decisions on your behalf, if you can’t.

A healthcare proxy is a person who can make medical decisions on your behalf. Ask your estate planning attorney to help you determine which documents will benefit you. This document could give you and your loved ones peace of mind, when comfort goes a long way.

Reference: Motley Fool (April 6, 2020) “The 1 Move You Must Make During the COVID-19 Crisis”

 

Do You Have an Estate Planning Blueprint?

An estate planning attorney is necessary to ensure that an estate planning “Blueprint” for your assets is completed. this applies to people of all ages. Your assets can go to one of four spots:

  • Your family
  • Your friends
  • Charitable organizations or
  • The government.

Therefore, you need to avoid the last choice to confirm that your assets go to who you want them to.

Forbes recent article entitled “How To Create An Estate Planning Blueprint” reminds you to make sure your plan is optimized, so your beneficiaries can avoid probate and make the most of the gifts you plan to leave them.

Here are some ideas on how to make sure your estate is as planned as possible.

Set Regular Check-Ins. Estate planning isn’t a “set it and forget it’ task.” It needs regular reviews. Your estate is constantly evolving because of life events, changing laws and your financial circumstances. You need to talk to your attorney to make certain that all your assets, as well as circumstances, such as the birth or adoption of a grandchild, are recognized in your will. These meetings should be held every few years—but may be more frequent due to occurrences, such as a births, deaths, or divorces.

Think of the Future. Forecasting into the future can give you peace of mind now and make things easier for your beneficiaries. Failing to plan can create future problems for your heirs.

Look at Your Options. If you decide to create a trust, know your options and discuss different setups—and their tax implications—with an experienced estate planning attorney. Working through the pros and cons of options, can help you to determine the best options for you and your situation.

Tell Your Beneficiaries about Your Wishes. Let your beneficiaries know what you’re planning, so there are no surprises or hurt feelings. There’s no need to detail all of the financial details. Just give a summary of what you anticipate, as well as details about who will be the trustees and executors of your estate.

When it comes to your estate, paying for the professional services of a qualified estate planning attorney now, can help you and your family avoid issues in the future.

Reference: Forbes (April 1, 2020) “How To Create An Estate Planning Blueprint”

 

Why Is Walt Disney’s Grandson Unable to Claim his $200 Million Inheritance?

Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge David J. Cowan recently claimed that Walt Disney’s grandson Bradford D. Lund had Down Syndrome—despite being presented with DNA evidence proving the opposite. The judge also ruled Lund to be “unfit” to receive his $200 million inheritance from Walt Disney and appointed him a temporary guardian to make all his legal decisions. This was all ordered without a hearing. Lund’s legal team is now trying to contest the rulings.

Inside the Magic’s recent article entitled “Walt Disney’s Grandson Sues Judge Claiming He Has Down Syndrome Without Evidence, Blocking $200 Million Inheritance” says that in the complaint, Lund’s attorney Lanny Davis alleges that the probate court’s action is “all too reminiscent of a perspective where facts do not matter but alternative facts do, where the constitution does not matter…”

The alternative facts Davis spoke of are from a 2016 court decision by Superior Court Judge Robert Oberbillig from a 10-day trial brought on by “disgruntled relatives” against Lund. The trial came after seven years of litigation questioning whether Lund was required to have a limited guardianship. In that trial, Lund was examined by two court-appointed physicians, one court-appointed expert and by Judge Oberbillig himself in open court.

From the investigation, Judge Oberbillig rejected the family’s claims that Lund needed guardianship and ruled that Lund was “not incapacitated.” However, Judge Cowan ignored Oberbillig’s ruling and the DNA evidence that showed Lund doesn’t have Down Syndrome. Instead, Cowan stated from the bench: “Do I want to give 200 million dollars, effectively, to someone who may suffer, on some level, from Down syndrome? The answer is no.”

From this statement, Lund’s legal team brought an additional cause of action that claims Judge Cowan and the Los Angeles Court violated an anti-discrimination law, when Judge Cowan made this “indisputably false” statement and “perception.” They claim this resulted in discrimination against Lund and his loss of freedom regarding the right to counsel and property rights without due process of law.

On Feb. 27, 2020, Lund’s counsel also filed a federal civil rights case in the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California against Judge Cowan for alleged violation of Lund’s constitutional due process rights in the appointment of a limited guardian ad lit em.

Lund was supposed to have received his portion of his mother’s trust fund when he was 35, which was 15 years ago. He is now 50 years old. Speak with your estate planning attorney if you have questions regarding your inheritance.

Reference:  Inside the Magic (March 25, 2020) “Walt Disney’s Grandson Sues Judge Claiming He Has Down Syndrome Without Evidence, Blocking $200 Million Inheritance”

Finalizing Estate Planning Documents while Social Distancing

After the initial shock of the pandemic, people are realizing not just that they need to update their wills, but the people who have been named in important roles. In a recent article from The New York Times, “What to Know About Making a Will in the Age of Coronavirus,” one person said, “I think I still have my jerk brother as the trustee. I need to change that.”

However, with social distancing now being the new norm, some necessary processes for finalizing estate plans are calling for extra creativity. While lawyers can draft any necessary documents from their home offices, the documents need to be signed by clients and, depending upon the document and the state, by witnesses and notaries. These parties usually need to be in the same room for the documents to be considered legally valid.

New York’s Governor Andrew M. Cuomo issued an executive order on March 7 that declared a disaster emergency in the state and temporarily gave notaries the authority to authenticate documents by videoconference. Other governors have also issued executive orders to allow video notarizations, including Connecticut, Iowa, New Hampshire and Washington. It’s safe to say that more states will probably permit this as time goes on.

However, besides needing notarizations, wills in New York State and other documents require two unrelated witnesses in the room when the document is signed. That also goes for the health care proxy, which gives a person the ability to name someone to make medical decisions on their behalf, if they become incapacitated.

One New York attorney used a video conference to watch two clients and their witnesses, located more than 100 miles away from his home office, sign new financial powers of attorney and health care proxies. He used his laptop to record a video of the proceedings, while clients used their phones. The client couple sat on the enclosed porch of a friend’s house in a distant county and signed the documents, while their friends stood six feet away. When the couple finished signing, they stepped away and their friends moved in to sign the documents, all in view of the attorney and all, of course, wearing vinyl gloves.

The documents were then scanned and sent to the attorney by email and he notarized them. They will also be mailed to him at his home, and then he will authenticate the documents.

In New Jersey, notaries need to be physically present at the signing of documents. One attorney took extra steps for two ER nurses, both single mothers and on the front lines of the coronavirus outbreak. He met them in the front yard of one of their houses, where a table had been set up and rocks were used to hold down the documents from blowing away in the wind. Everyone wore gloves and brought their own pens. One nurse served as witness for each other, and another friend was a witness for both. After each person signed, they stepped away, while another stepped up to the table.

Not every state is making changes to permit these documents to be witnessed and notarized, so there may be many outdoor signings taking place in the weeks and months to come. Speak with your estate planning attorney, who will know the laws that apply to your state.

Reference: The New York Times (March 26, 2020) “What to Know About Making a Will in the Age of Coronavirus”

Common Will Mistakes to Avoid

Dying without a will (or “intestate”) means your estate assets will pass to your heirs according to the intestacy laws of the state. Under the state’s intestacy provisions, if your spouse is alive, and you had no children (with any person), your assets will pass to your spouse. In many states, if you had children your surviving spouse would get half of the assets of the estate and the other half would be divided equally among your children. If you didn’t have surviving spouse, your children would share equally in the estate.

The Aiken (SC) Standard’s recent article entitled “Avoiding mistakes with your will” says that a critical point to remember is that only your spouse must survive in order to be an heir. Typically, if one of your children had died, their children would get their share.

Every state has specific requirements for what constitutes a legal will. For example, in South Carolina, a will has these requirements

  • It must be in writing
  • The maker of the will (the testator) must be of sound mind
  • The maker of the will cannot be a minor
  • The will must be witnessed by two witnesses who were present when the testator signed the will and who also witnessed each other sign the document and
  • The will must be notarized.

The witnesses must not be beneficiaries of the will.

Because a will is so critical, you should employ the services of a qualified estate planning attorney. If you and your spouse already have a will prepared, it is important that these documents be reviewed periodically to make certain that your instructions are up to date and that your will recognizes any changes that have occurred in either federal or state law. People frequently forget about including certain assets in their wills, like special collections of memorabilia or other treasures.

Be sure that you designate an executor to serve in this capacity who is well-organized, calm and willing. You should typically name a person who’s younger than you and also name an alternate executor, in case your primary choice is unable to serve. If you have any minor children, you should name a guardian for those children. You can divide the duties of a guardian, by naming a different guardian to handle the children’s financial affairs and one who provides care for your children.

After your will is drafted, be certain you tell your family know where it’s kept and be sure that your will is in synch with other documents like your life insurance policies and other benefits that will pass directly to beneficiaries named in those documents.

It is important that you contact an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare your estate planning documents.

Reference: Aiken (SC) Standard )(March 22, 2020) “Avoiding mistakes with your will”

 

If Not Now, When? It is the Time for Estate Planning

What else could possibly go wrong? You might not want to ask that question, given recent events. A global pandemic, markets in what feels like free fall, schools closed for an extended period of time—these are just a few of the challenges facing our communities, our nation and our world. The time is now to do to be sure that everyone has their estate planning completed, advises Kiplinger in the article “Coronavirus Legal Advice: Get Your Business and Estate in Order Now.”

Business owners from large and small sized companies are contacting estate planning attorney’s offices to get their plans done. People who have delayed having their estate plans done or never finalized their plans are now getting their affairs in order. What would happen if multiple family members got sick, and a family business was left unprotected?

Because the virus is recognized as being especially dangerous for people who are over age 60 or have underlying medical issues, which includes many business owners and CEOs, the question of “What if I get it?” needs to be addressed. Not having a succession plan or an estate plan, could lead to havoc for the company and the family.

Establishing a Power of Attorney is a key part of the estate plan, in case key decision makers are incapacitated, or if the head of the household can’t take care of paying bills, taxes or taking care of family or business matters. For that, you need a Durable Power of Attorney.

Another document needed now, more than ever: is an Advance Health Care Directive. This explains how you want medical decisions to be made if you are too sick to make these decisions on your own behalf. It tells your health care team and family members what kind of care you want, what kind of care you don’t want and who should make these decisions for you.

This is especially important for people who are living together without the legal protection that being married provides. While some states may recognize registered domestic partners, in other states, medical personnel will not permit someone who is not legally married to another person to be involved in their health care decisions.

Personal information that lives only online is also at risk. Most bills today don’t arrive in the mail, but in your email inbox. What happens if the person who pays the bill is in a hospital, on a ventilator? Just as you make sure that your spouse or children know where your estate plan documents are, they also need to know who your estate planning attorney is, where your insurance policies, financial records and legal documents are and your contact list of key friends and family members.

Right now, estate planning attorneys are talking with clients about a “Plan C”—a plan for what would happen if heirs, beneficiaries and contingent beneficiaries are wiped out. They are adding language that states which beneficiaries or charities should receive their assets, if all of the people named in the estate plan have died. This is to maintain control over the distribution of assets, even in a worst-case scenario, rather than having assets pass via the rules of intestate succession. Without a Plan C, an entire estate could go to a distant relative, regardless of whether you wanted that to happen.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 16, 2020) “Coronavirus Legal Advice: Get Your Business and Estate in Order Now.”

 

What are the Main Estate Planning Blunders to Avoid?

There are a few important mistakes that can make an estate plan defective—most of these can be easily avoided by reviewing your estate plan periodically and keeping it up to date.

Investopedia’s article from a few years ago entitled “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning” lists these common blunders:

Not Updating Your Beneficiaries. Big events like a marriage, divorce, birth, adoption and death can all have an effect on who will receive your assets. Be certain that those you want to inherit your property are clearly detailed as such on the proper forms. Whenever you have a life change, update your estate plan, as well as all your financial, retirement accounts and insurance policies.

Forgetting Important Legal Documents. Your will may be just fine, but it won’t exempt your assets from the probate process in most states, if the dollar value of your estate exceeds a certain amount. Some assets are inherently exempt from probate by law, like life insurance, retirement plans and annuities and any financial account that has a transfer on death (TOD) beneficiary listed. You should also make sure that you nominate the guardians of minor children in your will, in the event that something should happen to you and/or your spouse or partner.

Lousy Recordkeeping. There are few things that your family will like less than having to spend a huge amount of time and effort finding, organizing and hunting down all of your assets and belongings without any directions from you on where to look. Create a detailed letter of instruction that tells your executor or executrix where everything is found, along with the names and contact information of everyone with whom they’ll have to work, like your banker, broker, insurance agent, financial planner, etc.. You should also list all of the financial websites you use with your login info, so that your accounts can be conveniently accessed.

Bad Communication. Telling your loved ones that you’ll do one thing with your money or possessions and then failing to make provisions in your plan for that to happen is a sure way to create hard feelings, broken relationships and perhaps litigation. It’s a good idea to compose a letter of explanation that sets out your intentions or tells them why you changed your mind about something. This could help in providing closure or peace of mind (despite the fact that it has no legal authority).

No Estate Plan. While this is about the most obvious mistake in the list, it’s also one of the most common. There are many tales of famous people who lost virtually all of their estates to court fees and legal costs, because they failed to plan.

These are just a few of the common estate planning errors that commonly happen. Make sure they don’t happen to you: talk to a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (Sep. 30, 2018) “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning”