What Should Be Included in Estate Planning?

How should you plan for the future, given all that we’ve been through since March 2020? One important step is to get your estate plan in order. While many people became more aware of their mortality since the pandemic began, just as many have kept putting off having an estate plan done. The time to do it, according to the recent article “A Simple Guide to Estate Planning Best Practices” from Accounting Web, is now. Here’s how.

Start with a will. The size of your estate doesn’t matter. Having a will means that you are able to grant whatever you own to someone else on your death. If you don’t have a will, your state’s law will distribute your worldly goods. This method makes certain assumptions that might not be true. You might not want your children to inherit everything you own at age 25. You may also have a distant cousin who thinks they are entitled to an inheritance and is willing to litigate just to get some of your assets. Having a will is the start of having an estate plan. It’s also how you name the executor, the person who will be in charge of administering your assets after death. Your will is used to name a guardian to care for minor children.

Consider your estate planning goals. If you have an estate plan that’s older than four years, it’s time for a review. If you don’t remember when your estate was last done, you definitely should have it reviewed. Your assets may have increased or decreased. The person you named to be your executor may have moved away or died. The past five years have seen a large number of new tax laws, which may have a major impact on your estate plan. You may need to establish trusts and make gifts to keep your wealth in the family.

Could low-cost wealth transfers be right for you? Making gifts to your next of kin may allow them to have access to capital, while decreasing your taxable estate. One common method to do this is through an intra-family loan. By providing a younger member of the family with a loan at a minimal federal interest rate, the younger generation can invest in assets that are likely to appreciate outside the older generation’s taxable estate. Talk with your estate planning attorney about how to do this properly. It’s not a do-it-yourself transaction.

Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs) A GRAT allows you to retain an annuity interest in a separate trust, while leaving the remainder beneficiaries. The value of the annuity is removed from the value of the GRAT-constrained property, so beneficiaries only need to pay taxes on the remainder of the value. Low interest rates made a GRAT very attractive, and low entry requirements provide an opportunity to appreciate assets within the GRAT, which might have otherwise been levied on the investments if they were passed through a will. GRATs may need management—one strategy is to combine assets with a series of long and short-term trusts to prepare for market volatility.

Grantor Trust Acquisition of Assets. Here’s a slightly complicated but effective way to reduce taxes on assets: selling them to a grantor trust. The sale may still be taxable, but for a reduced rate. An individual may create and fund a trust using a portion of their gift tax shelter allowance. This ensures that the assets in the trust will be sheltered from transfer tax in the future. The trust structure works as a “grantor” trust for income tax purposes with the individual as the taxpayer, who is liable to report all income generated from the trust. Here’s the neat twist: the individual may sell these appreciated assets to the grantor trust without expressing capital gains. The assets in the trust may grow over time, so the trust estate develops with less fear of tax liability. This is a complex transaction that an estate planning attorney can discuss with you.

One thing is certain: the financial demands of the pandemic have created a need for government agencies to find revenue. The time to prepare for increased taxes on wealth is now.

Reference: Accounting Web (June 23, 2021) “A Simple Guide to Estate Planning Best Practices”

 

Can I Write a Perfect Will?

The Good Men Project’s recent article entitled “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will” says that writing a perfect will is hard but not impossible. The article provides some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Include Everything. If you have items that are very important to you, make sure they are in the right hands after your death.
  2. Consult an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney. It is a challenge to write a will, especially when you do not know all the legal processes that will take place after your death. An estate planning lawyer can educate you on how your estate is being distributed after your death and how to address specific circumstances.
  3. Name an Executor. An executor will manage and distribute your assets after you die. Select a trustworthy person and be sure it is someone who will respect you and your will.
  4. Name the Beneficiaries. These people will get your assets after you pass away. Name them all and include their full names, so there is no confusion.
  5. Say Where Everything Can Be Found. Your executor should know where all of your property and assets can be found. If there is any safe place where you keep things, add it to your will.
  6. Describe Residual Legacies. This is what remains in your estate, once all the other legacies and bequests are completed. If you fail to do this, it will be a partial intestacy. No matter that the legacies would be distributed according to the will, the intestacy laws will control the residue, which may not be to your liking.
  7. Name Guardians for Your Minor Children. Appoint a guardian to take care of any minor children or the court will appoint their guardians, again this may not be to your liking.
  8. Be Specific. An ambiguous will creates issues for the executor and may require court intervention. Be specific and include heirs’ full names. Account numbers, security boxes and anything of the sort should also be included in your will for easy access.
  9. Keep it Updated. If you experience a major life event, update your will accordingly.
  10. Get Signatures from Witnesses. Once your will is completed, you need witnesses who are at least 18 and are not beneficiaries. Sign and date the will in front of these witnesses, and then ask them to date and sign it too.

If you have any questions about wills, speak to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: The Good Men Project (May 28, 2021) “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will”

 

What Is Probate and How Does It Work?

Probate is a legal process created long ago to protect the interests of a person after their death. It establishes a documented, validated, formal court procedure to establish title (ownership) and transfer ownership of a deceased person’s assets, as described in a recent article “Probate still gets lots of questions” from the Pauls Valley Democrat.

Probate accomplishes several goals. One is to fulfill the intentions of the decedent and follow the directions expressed in a written valid will. Another is to prevent the improper acquisition of assets by self-serving heirs or claimants. It provides a formal process to capture and control assets and document them. It also provides for the distribution of all assets in the estate, as directed by the decedent.

A petition is typically filed with the local district court in the county where the person resided at death. It confirms the jurisdiction of the court and defines the scope of the estate. This includes:

  • Fact of death and name of the decedent, included in the original copy of the death certificate
  • Residency of the decedent
  • Whether there was a will (original will is filed with the court)
  • Name of the executor or personal representative
  • Names of all potential heirs
  • The approximate size and scope of the estate

After documents are filed, a hearing takes place and formal notice is provided to all known heirs and to the public. This is where probate becomes problematic. Any known heirs who are notified may not always be named in the will and could bring claims against the estate. Any person who wishes to find out the size and scope of the estate may do so. This often brings creditors and predators into the process. Many scammers rely on probate notices to find fresh victims.

While the traditional goals of providing an open and fair opportunity to gain notice of the person’s death may have worked well in the past, today they often provide an opportunity for disgruntled relatives and thieves.

For this reason, many families prefer to take some or all assets from the estate and place them within the protection of a revocable living trust. Assets placed in a trust do not go through probate and will not be mentioned in a will. The trustee is charged with administering and distributing assets in a trust. There is no court involvement. Trusts may also be used during a person’s lifetime, as well as after they have died.

Other assets not governed by probate are those with beneficiary designations. Insurance policies, retirement accounts and investment accounts are among the types of assets distributed directly to the beneficiary without court involvement.

An estate planning attorney takes the best of these old English laws and blends them with our modern realities and current tax laws.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (June 3, 2021) “Probate still gets lots of questions”

 

What Is a Fiduciary and Why Is It Important?

If you do not choose a fiduciary, a guardian appointed by a court may end up making financial and medical decisions for you and the intestate statutes of your state will determine who will administer your estate when you have passed. If you’d rather have some control over your life, doing some estate planning now will prevent these scenarios later, according to the article “Fiduciary Agents have power to make decisions you’d prefer to make yourself” from the Pocono Record.

A financial fiduciary is the person you designate under your general durable power of attorney, last will and testament, or trust.

The fiduciary under a power of attorney has the power to make decisions, while you are living, for your financial and legal affairs. The person is named in a legal document called an agent or attorney in fact. This document can be broad, allowing the person to determine how to spend or invest your money, to buy and/or sell your home, etc., or it can permit someone to act on your behalf solely for a specific transaction. You and your estate planning attorney determine what is best.

An agent under a healthcare proxy can make healthcare decisions on your behalf, when you are unable to communicate for yourself because of a severe illness or an injury, or a cognitive condition. It is very important to understand that if you are already incapacitated, you cannot sign documents giving anyone else these powers. They must be prepared before they are needed!

Some people prefer to have one person serve as both their agent for finances and for healthcare. This allows one person who understands your physical and mental needs to make decisions about home care, assisted living or a skilled nursing facility and have access to the resources to pay for these services. This also means that one person is applying for any government benefits to help pay for this care.

There are times when designating two different agents creates conflict, if the two people don’t agree on the appropriate type of care. One may be more concerned with spending down resources, while another may wish you to receive 24/7 care.

If you appointed someone to serve as your fiduciary many years ago, it is so important that your documents be reviewed and updated. Do you still want that same person to make critical decisions on your behalf? Are they still able or willing to serve? If the person you have chosen lives in another state and wants you to be moved to where they live, will that work for you and your family?

If you have not reviewed your estate plan and your power of attorney documents in recent years, it is strongly recommended you do so now. Many families are now grappling with the results of outdated planning, or no planning at all. Having an updated estate plan and all of the related documents provides peace of mind for you and your loved ones. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to update or even begin your estate planning documents.

Reference: Pocono Record (June 1, 2021) “Fiduciary Agents have power to make decisions you’d prefer to make yourself”

 

Why Is Estate Planning So Important?

“Estate planning” will be your family’s guidebook once you have passed away. The Big Easy Magazine’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning Is Essential and Here’s Whyexplains that estate planning is similar to writing a last will. HOwever, writing one is not limited to what happens to your house, car, possessions, or other assets after you pass away. It also entails the question of who will take care of your minor children, if they are left without a parent, as well as your instructions for burial and other items.

If you fail to leave specific instructions, the state’s intestacy laws will apply at your death, meaning that the court will decide who gets what. There is no guarantee this will be in your best interest. Let’s look at the consequences of not writing your will:

  • If you prefer cremation or a traditional burial, your family may not know and decide based on their preferences or convenience.
  • Your properties will be managed by someone you do not necessarily trust, if you do not name an executor to your will.
  • Some of your loved ones may not get an inheritance if there is no will. State law may not carry out your intentions, and some people may be left out.
  • Your favorite charity may not receive donations. For those committed to leaving a legacy, your organization of choice should be listed in the will.
  • The court will assign guardians for your minor children, and social services will appoint a guardian. You can avoid this, by naming a trusted person in your will.

Aside from avoiding these consequences, estate planning can also save your family a lot of headaches and expense. A detailed will with your instructions will alleviate the stress and provide them with comfort, while they recover emotionally from their loss. Here are the top reasons why you need to plan these things:

  • You can avoid inheritance taxes and federal estate taxes with proper estate planning.
  • You can name who will care for you, if you are unable to make your own decisions because of illnesses, infirmity, or old age. With a power of attorney, you can name someone you trust to manage your finances.
  • If your minor children are orphaned, you can name someone you trust to be their guardian in your will.
  • Some family members are greedy, so you can exclude them from your will. With an estate plan created by an experienced estate planning attorney, you can ensure that the people you love will receive what you intend.

Estate planning is essential to securing a comfortable life for your loved ones. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to set things up correctly.

Reference: The Big Easy Magazine (May 17, 2021) “Estate Planning Is Essential and Here’s Why”

 

What Do I Need to Know about Estate Planning?

Your idea of planning for the future may include vacations and visits to family and friends—estate planning, not so much. However, it should, advises Real Simple in the article “Everything You Need to Know About Estate Planning—and Why You Should Start Now.” Estate planning concerns decisions about distributing your property when you die, and while that’s not as much fun as planning a trip to an adventure park, it’s become increasing important for adults of all ages.

A survey by caring.com found that the number of young adults with a last will (ages 18-34) increased by 63 percent since 2020. Many tough lessons were learned through the pandemic, and the importance of having an estate plan was one of them.

An estate plan is more than documents for when you die. There are also documents for what should happen, if you become disabled. The last will is one piece of the larger estate plan. An estate plan is also an opportunity to plan for wealth accumulation and building generational wealth, at any level.

Estate planning is for everyone, regardless of their net worth. People with lower incomes actually need estate planning more than the wealthy. There’s less room for error. Estate planning is everything from where you want your money to go, to who will be in charge of it and who will be in charge of your minor children, if you have a young family.

It may be rare for both parents to die at the same time, but it does happen. Your last will is also used to name a guardian to raise your minor children. With no last will, the court will decide who raises them.

If you’ve filled out 401(k) and life insurance paperwork at work, you’ve started estate planning already. Any document that asks you to name a beneficiary in case of your death is part of your estate plan. Be certain to update these documents. Young adults often name their parents and then neglect to change the beneficiaries, when they get married or have children.

For single people, estate planning is more important. If you have no estate plan and no children, everything you own will go to your parents. What if you have a partner or best friend and want them to receive your assets? Without an estate plan, they have no legal rights. An estate planning attorney will know how to plan, so your wishes are followed.

Estate planning includes planning for disability, also known as “incapacity.” If you become too sick to manage your affairs, bills still need to be paid. Who can do that for you? Without an estate plan, a family member will need to go to court to be assigned that role—or someone you don’t even know may be assigned that role. Your last will names an executor to manage your affairs after you die.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to have your last will, Power of Attorney, Medical Power of Attorney and other parts of your estate plan created. The court system and processes are complex, and the laws are different in every state. Trying to do it yourself or using a template that you download, could leave you with an invalid last will, which will cause more problems than it solves.

Reference: Real Simple (May 12, 2021) “Everything You Need to Know About Estate Planning—and Why You Should Start Now”

 

What Does the Executor Do?

The executor of an estate is the person who manages all the decedent’s financial affairs. If the person wants to have more than one person manage their affairs, like naming two children instead of one, then the term “co-executors” is used, as explained in a recent article “Executor of Estate: What Do They Do?” from Forbes

The most important characteristic that the executor should have, is integrity and good judgment. They are legally required to act in the estate’s best interest, which is called acting as a fiduciary. This is important, especially if an heir serves as an executor. They also need to be wise enough to know when they need help from a skilled professional like an experienced estate planning attorney.

The executor follows the directions that are included in the person’s will, including distributing assets to beneficiaries. They also manage the many tasks associated with wrapping up the decedent’s life, including paying creditors, issuing notices of death, filing tax returns and overseeing the sale of homes and automobiles.

In some states, the executor is called a “personal representative.” The word “executrix” is an old, out-of-date term used when a woman serves as the executor, not commonly used today.

When a proper estate plan is in place, the executor of the estate is named in the decedent’s last will and testament. In cases where the decedent (sometimes referred to as the testator) did not have a will, or the will has been deemed invalid, the probate court judge names someone to serve as executor. This is not always someone who the executor would have named, but when there is no will, the court makes this decision.

If you have been named the executor of an estate and don’t wish to serve, you may decline. If the decedent anticipated that and named an alternative or contingent executor, then the secondary person will serve, or the probate court judge will name someone to serve in this role. The judge can also override the decedent’s choice of an executor, if the person they named has a criminal history, is not of legal age, has a mental disability or a substance abuse problem. The court is not allowed to change the executor simply because the heirs don’t want a person to serve.

The executor has a long list of tasks to accomplish, from obtaining death certificates and securing the home to filing the will with the probate court in the decedent’s county of residence and petitioning the court for probate. Many executors bring in an estate attorney to assist with the legal portion of administering the estate, as an estate and trusts attorney will be familiar with the processes and the deadlines.

The executor must notify the Social Security administration and Medicare, if the person was enrolled in either of these federal programs. The Department of Motor Vehicles, Veterans Affairs and insurance companies must also be notified. The executor is also responsible for filing the person’s final income tax returns and if necessary, filing the state and federal estate tax returns. This is just a partial listing of the many different tasks that must be accomplished. The estate planning attorney may have a checklist to help the executor on track.

Reference: Forbes (May 3, 2021) “Executor of Estate: What Do They Do?”

 

What Is the Purpose of an Estate Plan?

No one wants to think about becoming seriously ill or dying, but scrambling to get an estate plan and healthcare documents done while in the hospital or nursing home is a bad alternative, says a recent article titled “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan” from Kiplinger. Not having an estate plan in place can create enormous costs for the estate, including taxes, and delay the transfer of assets to heirs.

If you would like to avoid the cost, stress and possibility of your spouse or children having to go to court to get all of this done while you are incapacitated, it is time to have an estate plan created. Here are the basics:

A Will, a Living Will, Power of Attorney and a Beneficiary Check-Up. People think of a will when they think of an estate plan, but that’s only part of the plan. The will gives instructions for what you want to happen to assets, who will be in charge of your estate—the executor—and who will be in charge of any minor children—the guardian. No will? This is known as dying intestate, and probate courts will make all of these decisions for you, based on state law.

However, a will is not enough. Beneficiary designations determine who receives assets from certain types of property. This includes life insurance policies, qualified retirement accounts, annuities, and any account that provides the opportunity to name a beneficiary. These instructions supersede the will, so make sure that they are up to date. If you fail to name a beneficiary, then the asset is considered part of your estate. If you fail to update your beneficiaries, then the person you may have wanted to receive the assets forty years ago will receive it.

Some banks and brokerage accounts may have an option of a Transfer on Death (TOD) agreement. This allows you to plan out asset distribution outside of the will, speeding the distribution of assets.

A Living Will or Advance Directive is used to communicate in advance what you would want to happen if you are alive but unable to make decisions for yourself. It names an agent to make serious medical decisions on your behalf, like being kept on life support or having surgery. Not having the right to make medical decisions for a loved one requires petitioning the court.

Financial Power of Attorney names an attorney in fact to manage finances, paying bills and overseeing investments. Without a POA, your family can’t take action on your financial matters, like paying bills, overseeing the maintenance of your home, etc. If the court appoints a non-family member to manage this task, the family may see the estate evaporate.

Creating a trust is part of most people’s estate plan. A trust is a means of leaving assets for a minor child, or someone who cannot be trusted to manage money. The trust is a legal entity that inherits money when you pass, and a trustee, who you name in the trust documents, manages everything, according to the terms of the trust.

Today’s estate plan needs to include digital assets. You need to give someone legal authority to manage social media accounts, websites, email and any other digital property you own.  The time to create an estate plan, or review and update an existing estate plan, is now. COVID has awakened many people to the inevitability of severe illness and death. Planning for the future today protects the ones you love tomorrow.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you in preparing your documents.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 21, 2021) “The Essentials You Need for an Estate Plan”

 

Does Executor have to Be a Family Member?

Executor, executrix or personal representative, whatever name you use, is the person who will be in charge of your estate and follow the directions in your last will and testament. The first thing clarified in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: Non-family member personal representatives” from nwi.com, is that the person does not have to be a family member.

This is often a surprise to people, who think an adult child or sibling is the only person who can take on this responsibility. This is not true. There is no requirement that a relative be named—it can be anyone you wish.  There are some requirements which vary from state to state. However, for the most part include the following: the person has to be a legal adult, must not be incapacitated, and cannot be a felon or an “undesirable” person. As long as they are an upstanding member of the community, they may serve.  What are your choices? Some people prefer a family member, even if it is a distant relative or someone with whom they do not have a great relationship. It may take some digging to identify distant relatives. You may also have no idea how someone you don’t know will manage your estate. You should also contact them to be sure they will accept the responsibility. Without having an established relationship, they may decline.  An alternative is a trusted friend, as long as they meet the criteria noted above.

Another option is an institution that holds trust powers, such as a bank’s trust department. Community banks and some national banks do offer traditional trust services, including estate administration. There will be fees, but the experienced and impartial management of your estate may make this a better choice.

Some estate planning law firms serve clients in this role. Talk with your estate planning attorney to see if this is a service the firm offers. If the firm does not do this, they may have relationships with other professionals or institutions that can help.  One final note: don’t delay creating an estate plan because you cannot decide who should be your executor. Selecting someone for this role is not always an easy or obvious choice, but your estate planning attorney will be able to help you make the decision. Not having an estate plan is far worse than not knowing who to name as your executor.

Reference: nwi.com (April 18, 2021) “Estate Planning: Non-family member personal representatives”

 

What Emergency Documents Do I Need in Pandemic?

With the threat of COVID-19, we’ve all come face-to-face with our mortality. However, are you prepared for the worst?, asks KSAT in its January 23 article entitled, “Important documents you need to have handy in case of an emergency.”

A consumer report recently found that just 7% of those ages 19 to 29 have an advance directive for health care emergencies, and even fewer have a will. Estate planning is one of the most worthwhile things we could do for ourselves or our loved ones.

The article explains that your estate is everything you own, and if it’s not protected, it could be taken away from your loved ones.  An extremely important document to have, in addition to a will, is a living will and a healthcare proxy or power of attorney. These documents let you designate the individual who will make decisions on your behalf if you cannot speak for yourself.

In addition, a HIPAA authorization permits an individual you trust to speak with your healthcare staff and receive your personal medical information.  Another key document is a financial power of attorney. This empowers you to designate an agent to handle your debts, contracts and assets. A financial power of attorney must be signed and notarized.

You should also consider payable on death and transfer on death designations, which transfer assets to designated beneficiaries without probate.

It is important to conduct a digital asset inventory to list your entire online presence and include all accounts, logins, passwords, social media, and professional profiles, and most importantly, a list of everything you have on autopay.

Last, you need a last will and testament. This lets you to name an executor or personal representative to handle your postmortem affairs. However, a last will does not keep assets out of probate. You should contact an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure that these documents are done correctly.

One last note: you can prepare a personal property memorandum to list the beneficiaries of any sentimental, non-monetary items.

Reference: KSAT (San Antonio) (Jan. 23, 2021) “Important documents you need to have handy in case of an emergency”