Do You Need a Revocable Trust or Irrevocable Trust?

There are important differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts. One of the biggest differences is the amount of control you have over assets, as explained in the article “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust” from Kiplinger. A revocable trust is often referred to as the Swiss Army knife of estate planning because it has so many different uses. The irrevocable trust is also a multi-use tool, only different.

Trusts are legal entities that own assets like real estate, investment accounts, cars, life insurance and high value personal belongings, like jewelry or art. Ownership of the asset is transferred to the trust, typically by changing the title of ownership. The trust documents also contain directions regarding what should happen to the asset when you die.

There are three key parties to any trust: the grantor, the person creating and depositing assets into the trust; the beneficiary, who will receive the trust assets and income; and the trustee, who is in charge of the trust, files tax returns as needed and distributes assets according to the terms of the trust. One person can hold different roles. The grantor could set up a trust and also be a trustee and even the beneficiary while living. The executor of a will can also be a trustee or a successor trustee.

If the trust is revocable, the grantor has the option of amending or revoking the trust at any time. A different trustee or beneficiary can be named, and the terms of the trust may be changed. Assets can also be taken back from a revocable trust. Pre-tax retirement funds, like a 401(k) cannot be placed inside a trust, since the transfer would require the trust to become the owner of these accounts. The IRS would consider that to be a taxable withdrawal.

There isn’t much difference between owning the assets yourself and a revocable trust. Assets still count as part of your estate and are not sheltered from estate taxes or creditors. However, you have complete control of the assets and the trust. So why have one? The transition of ownership if something happens to you is easier. If you become incapacitated, a successor trustee can take over management of trust assets. This may be easier than relying on a Power of Attorney form and some believe it offers more legal authority, allowing family members to manage assets and pay bills.

In addition, assets in a trust don’t go through probate, so the transfer of property after you die to heirs is easier. If you own homes in multiple states, heirs will receive their inheritance faster than if the homes must go through probate in multiple states. Any property in your revocable trust is not in your will, so ownership and transfer status remain private.

An irrevocable trust is harder to change, as befits its name. To change an irrevocable trust while you are living takes a little more effort but is not impossible. Consent of all parties involved, including the beneficiary and trustee, must be obtained. The benefits from the irrevocable trust make the effort worthwhile. By giving up control, assets in the irrevocable trust may not be part of your taxable estate. While today’s federal estate exemption is historically high right now, it’s expected to go much lower in the future.

Contact and experienced estate planning attorney to discuss you estate planning needs.

 

Reference: Kiplinger (July 14, 2021) “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust”

 

What Should Not Be Included in Will?

A last will and testament is the basic document of an estate plan, which is how you direct assets according to your wishes after you have died. However, there are certain things that do not belong in a will, and it’s important to know what they are. Mistakes can lead to expensive and worrisome complications, says the article “Things you should never put in your will” from msn.com.

Your will can get very specific about who receives what in the way of your personal possessions. For example, you can give your car to a family member of your choice. What you can’t do is tell the family member how they can use the car, or if she should never sell the car. Enforcing conditional wishes through a will isn’t legal, nor is it practical.

If you want to control aspects of an inheritance, the best way to this is through a trust, which allows you to set terms that are enforceable, even after you have died. A trust is a legal entity with a trustee and the law to enforce its terms. You can set goals or milestones for heirs best with a trust.

Leaving assets out of your will actually benefits family members in many regards. First, they’ll receive their inheritance faster. Upon death, your will must be reviewed and validated in a court of law in a process known as probate. Depending on your jurisdiction and the complexity of your estate, this can take months and, in some cases, years. Papers have to be filed, judges have to review your will and determinations must be made. Wills can also be contested in court, further tying up assets and slowing the process of distribution.

Putting property in a trust or having accounts that are Payable On Death (POD) will speed up the process for heirs.

Don’t put anything in a will that you don’t own outright. If you are a co-owner with someone, upon your death, the other owner will become the owner, with no need for court involvement.

Trusts are a key tool in estate planning, used to avoid probate and increase control of assets. Once property is titled into the trust, it becomes subject to the rules and directions of the trust, which are explained in detail in the trust documents. Nothing placed in a trust should be included in a will to avoid any confusion and delays.

Certain accounts and assets are payable or transferable on death. They are distributed directly to heirs, so putting them in a will is not necessary. These are accounts with beneficiary designations, typically brokerage or investment accounts, retirement accounts, pension plans and life insurance policies.

Business interests can be given through a will, but you don’t want to do this. Succession could be contested, and your business partners may be left with a big headache, instead of focusing on transitioning the business to the next generation of owners. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help create a succession plan that will align with your estate plan. The two need to work together.

Once deemed valid by the probate court, your last will and testament becomes a public document.  Anyone who wants to read it, can do so. Your will should not include any account numbers, account values, login information, passwords, or any information you would not want to be shared in public.

Reference: msn.com (July 11, 2021) “Things you should never put in your 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”

 

Do Estate Planning before Golden Age Ends

Unfortunately, the changes that may be coming to estate planning are likely to be felt by not just ultra-high-net-worth families, but by upper middle-class families whose net worth is comfortable, but not in the stratosphere. Estate planning lawyers are talking with their clients now about how to plan for transferring assets to families without overly aggressive tax avoidance strategies, according to the article “Are We Leaving a ‘Golden Age’ For Estate Planning?” from Financial Advisor Magazine.

The lifetime gift and estate tax exemption is $11.7 million per person and $23.4 million for couples for 2021, which touched only the extremely wealthiest Americans. However, new tax policies are being debated in Congress, including the possible rollback of those estate tax exemptions. Tax-aware estate planning has already gotten underway for many Americans who are not in the top 1%.

There are two proposed changes that may push more families into using trusts and other planning strategies. The first is a proposed increase in the capital gains tax rate for high earners to bring it more in line with their income tax bracket. That would mean they might lose the advantage of deriving income from investments versus a salary.

The second is the possible elimination of step-up in cost basis for assets upon death. Other changes under discussion have been the elimination or decrease of valuation discounting within an estate.

The rush to change estate plans has begun. Estate plans are being revised, trusts are being created and giving strategies are being planned to remove assets from the grantor generations’ estates and take advantage of the current high tax exemption.

Congress is still figuring out what changes will be made. In addition, no one knows if these changes will be retroactive to 2021 if they are made in the third quarter of 2021, or if they will be enacted on January 1, 2022.

Without knowing what the final changes will be, any planning now should be made with a long-term framework for the family.

Estate planning can be considered in three steps:

The grantor generation needs to consider the purpose of their wealth. Do they want to continue a family business, give the majority of their wealth to a charitable organization, or pass it all to their children and grandchildren?

What does it mean to treat beneficiaries fairly? If one child is teacher, while the other has built and grown a highly successful business, do both children inherit the same amount? What if one of the children has a child with Special Needs?

The grantor generation needs to communicate with their heirs. Heirs often don’t learn about their parent’s intentions, tax planning or charitable giving, until after they have passed. It’s far better to talk about the parent’s wishes and their reasoning while they are living. Without these conversations, families suffering from loss must add sibling quarrels and sometimes, estate litigation, to an already difficult time. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney who can directly you.

Financial Advisor Magazine (May 20, 2021) “Are We Leaving a ‘Golden Age’ For Estate Planning”

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Can Estate Taxes Be Avoided with a Trust?

If the federal estate tax exemption is lowered, as is expected, it could go as low as $3 million, reports the article “How Trusts Can Be Used To Counter Tougher Estate Taxes” from Financial Advisor. For Americans who own a home and robust retirement accounts, this change presents an estate planning challenge—but one with several solutions. Trusts, giving and updating estate plans or creating wholly new estate plans should be addressed in the near future.

Not that these topics aren’t challenging for most people. Confronting the future, including death and incapacity, is difficult. Adult children and their parents may find it hard to talk about these matters; emotions, death and money are tough to talk about on their own, but estate planning includes conversations around all three.

Once those hurdles are overcome, an unemotional approach to the business of estate planning can accomplish a great deal, especially when guided by an experienced estate planning attorney. Here are a few suggestions for families to consider.

Estate and gift planning techniques include Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs) and Spousal Limited Access Trusts (SLATs). A SLAT is an irrevocable trust created when one spouse (the donor spouse) makes a gift into a trust to benefit their spouse (the beneficiary spouse), while retaining limited access to the assets at the same time they remove the asset from their combined estate. One spouse is permitted to indirectly benefit, as long as the couple remains married.

The indirect access disappears, if the spouses divorce or if the beneficiary spouse dies before the donor spouse. Be careful about creating SLATs for both spouses; the IRS does not like to see SLATs with the same date of origin and the same amount for both spouses.

The GRAT and sales to an Intentionally Defective Trust (IDGT) are useful tools in a low-interest rate environment. For a GRAT, property is transferred to a trust in exchange for an annual fixed payment. A sale to an IDGT is where property is sold to a trust in exchange for a balloon note.

Gifting is an important part of estate planning at any asset level. For 2020 and 2021, the annual gift-tax exclusion is $15,000 per donor, per recipient. The simple strategy of aggressive lifetime gifting using that $15,000 exclusion is a good way to get money out of a taxable estate.

Protect the estate plan by reviewing it every four or five years, and sooner if there are large changes to the tax law—which is coming soon—and changes in the family’s circumstances. Contact your estate planning attorney to review your plan.

Thoughtful use of trusts and gifting strategies can avoid the probate of the will and ensure that assets go directly to heirs. Reviewing the estate plan regularly with an eye to changes in tax law will protect the legacy.

Reference: Financial Advisor (April 19, 2021) “How Trusts Can Be Used To Counter Tougher Estate Taxes”

 

What Paperwork Is Needed after Someone Dies?

Tax return issues, family matters, business associates, partners, trustees, bankers, investment advisors and tax collectors from the IRS to state and local taxing authorities all require attention after someone has died. There is a lot of work, and often a grieving family member finds it helpful to enlist the aid of a professional to lighten the load. A recent article, “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate” from Accounting Web, contains a list of the tasks to be completed.

General administration and legal tasks. At the very earliest, the executor should create a timetable with the known tasks. If you’ve never done this before, there’s no shame in enlisting help from a qualified professional. Be realistic about your familiarity with tax and legal issues and your organizational skills.

Determine with your estate planning attorney whether probate is necessary. Is the estate small enough for your state’s laws to allow you to expedite the process? Some jurisdictions can do this, others do not.

If an estate plan was created and executed properly, many assets may not need to go through probate. Assets like IRAs, joint tenancies, accounts that are POD, or Payable on Death and any assets with named beneficiaries do not require probate.

Gather information about family owners or others who may have a claim to the estate and who may have useful information about the assets. You’ll need to locate and notify heirs of the decedent’s passing.

Others who need to be notified, include charities named in the will. You’ll need to identify prior transfers to charities that were partial transfers, such as Charitable Remainder Trusts. If there is a charitable remainder trust with a retained lifetime income interest, it will need to be in the estate tax return, albeit with an offsetting estate tax charitable deduction.

Locate the important documents, including the will, any correspondence relating to the will, any letters explaining the decedent’s wishes, deeds, trusts, bank and brokerage statements, partnership agreements, prior tax returns, federal and state tax forms and any gift tax returns.

An estate planning attorney will be able to help determine ownership issues, including identifying assets and liabilities. This includes deeds, vehicle titles, club memberships, personal possessions and business assets, including copyrights and patents.

Social Security will need to be notified, as will Medicare, pension administrators, Department of Veteran Affairs, the post office, trustees, and any service providers.

Filing taxes for the last year of the person’s life and their estate tax filing needs to happen on a timely basis. Even if an estate tax return may not be required, it is useful to file to establish date of death values for assets. It is important to resolve income tax statute of limitation issues and any IRS or state examination issues.

Estate administration is a big job, especially if you’ve never done it before. Having the help of an experienced estate lawyer can alleviate much of the worry that comes with settling an estate.

Reference: Accounting Web (March 19, 2021) “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate”

 

Does a Trust Have to Be Funded to Be Valid?

Thinking you have divided assets equally between children by creating a trust that names all as equal heirs, while placing only one child’s name on other assets is not an equally divided estate plan. Instead, as described in the article “Estate Planning: Fund the trust” from nwi.com, this arrangement is likely to lead to an estate battle.

One father did just that. He set up a trust with explicit instructions to divide everything equally among his heirs. However, only one brother was made a joint owner on his savings and checking accounts and the title of the family home.  Upon his death, ownership of the savings and checking accounts and the home would go directly to the brother. Assets in the trust, if there are any, will be divided equally between the children. That’s probably not what the father had in mind, but legally the other siblings will have no right to the non-trust assets.

This is an example of why creating a trust is only one part of an estate plan. If it is not funded, that is if assets are not retitled, it will not work.

Many estate plans include what is called a “pour-over will” usually executed just after the trust is executed. It is a safety net that “catches” any assets not funded into the trust and transfers them into it. However, this transfer requires probate, and since probate avoidance is a goal of having a trust, it is not the best solution.

The situation as described above is confusing. Why would one brother be a joint owner of assets, if the father means for all of the children to share equally in the inheritance? When the father passes, the brother will own the assets. If the matter went to court, the court would very likely decide that the father’s intention was for the brother to inherit them. Whatever language is in the trust will be immaterial.

If the father’s intention is for the siblings to share the estate equally, the changes need to be made while he is living. The brother’s name needs to come off the accounts and the title to the home and they all need to be re-titled in the name of the trust. The brother will need to sign off on removing his name. If he does not wish to do so, it’s going to be a legal challenge.

The family needs to address the situation as soon as possible with an experienced estate planning attorney. Even if the brother won’t sign off on changing the names of the assets, as long as the father is living there are options. Once he has passed, the family’s options will be limited. Estate battles can consume a fair amount of the estate’s value and destroy the family’s relationships. It would be wise to reach out to your estate planning attorney to review your estate plan. If you have not prepared estate planning documents, contact an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare them for you.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 17, 2021) “Estate Planning: Fund the trust”

 

What Kind of Estate Planning Mistakes Do People Make?

Estate planning for any sized estate is an important responsibility to loved ones. Done correctly, it can help families flourish over generations, control how legacies are distributed and convey values from parents to children to grandchildren. However, a failed estate plan, says a recent article from Suffolk News-Herald titled “Estate planning mistakes to avoid,” can create bitter divisions between family members, become an expensive burden and even add unnecessary stress to a time of intense grief.

Here are some errors to avoid:

This is not the time for do-it-yourself estate planning.

An unexpected example comes from the late Chief Justice Warren Burger. Yes, even justices make mistakes with estate planning! He wrote a 176 word will, which cost his heirs more than $450,000 in estate taxes and fees. A properly prepared will could have saved the family a huge amount of money, time and anxiety. Use an experienced estate planning attorney.

Don’t neglect to update your will or trust.

Life happens and relationships change. When a new person enters your life, whether by birth, adoption, marriage or other event, your estate planning wishes may change. The same goes for people departing your life. Death and divorce should always trigger an estate plan review.

Don’t be coy with heirs about your estate plan.

Heirs don’t need to know down to the penny what you intend to leave them but be wise enough to convey your purpose and intentions. If you are leaving more money to one child than to another, it would be a great kindness to the children’s relationship, if you explained why you are doing so. If you want your family to remain a family, share your thinking and your goals.

If there are certain possessions you know your family members value, making a list those items and who should get what. This will avoid family squabbles during a difficult time. Often it is not the money, but the sentimental items that cause family fights after a parent dies.

Understand what happens if you are not married to your partner.

Unmarried partners do not receive many of the estate tax breaks or other benefits of the law enjoyed by married couples. Unless you have an estate plan and a valid will in place, your partner will not be protected. Owning property jointly is just one part of an estate plan. Sit down with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect each other. The same applies to planning for incapacity. You will want to have a HIPAA release form and Power of Attorney for Health Care, so you are able to speak with each other’s medical providers. You need to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare these documents.

Don’t neglect to fund a trust once it is created.

It’s easy to create a trust and it’s equally easy to forget to fund the trust. That means retitling assets that have been placed in the trust or adding enough assets to a trust, so it may function as designed. Failing to retitle assets has left many people with estate plans that did not work.

Please don’t be naive about caregivers with designs on your assets or relatives, who appear after long periods of estrangement.

It is not pleasant to consider that people in your life may not be interested in your well-being, but in your finances. However, this must remain front and center during the estate planning process. Elder financial abuse and scams are extremely common. Family members and seemingly devoted caregivers have often been found to have ulterior motives. Be smart enough to recognize when this occurs in your life.

Reference: Suffolk News-Herald (Dec. 15, 2020) “Estate planning mistakes to avoid”

 

How Much Should We Tell the Children about the Estate Plan?

Congratulations, if you have finished your estate plan, you and your estate planning attorney created a plan that is suited for your family, you have checked on beneficiary designations, signed all of the necessary documents and named an executor to carry out your directions when you pass. However, have you talked about your estate plan with your adult children? That is the issue explored in the recent article entitled “What to tell your adult kids when planning your estate” from CNBC. It can be a tricky one.

There are certain parts of estate plans that should be shared with adult children, even if money is not among them. Family conflict is common in many cases, whether the estate is worth $50,000 or $50 million. So, even if your estate plan is perfect, it might hold a number of surprises for your children, if you don’t speak with them while you are living.  The best estate plan can bequeath resentment and enduring family conflicts, if family members don’t have a head’s up about what you’ve planned and why.

If you die without a will, there can be even more problems for the family. With no will—called dying “intestate”—it is up to the courts in your state to decide who inherits what. This is a public process, so your life’s work is on display for all to see. If your heirs have a history of fighting, especially over who deserves what, dying without a will can make a bad family situation worse.

Not everything about an estate plan has to do with distribution of possessions. Much of an estate plan is concerned with protecting you, while you are alive.  For starters, your estate planning attorney can help you with a Power of Attorney. You’ll name a person who will handle your finances, if you become unable to do so because of illness or injury. A Healthcare Power of Attorney is used to empower a trusted person to make medical decisions for you, if you are incapacitated. Some estate planning attorneys recommend having a Living Will, also called an Advance Healthcare Directive, to convey end-of-life wishes, if you want to be kept alive through artificial means.

These documents do not require that you name a family member. A friend or colleague you trust and know to be responsible can carry out your wishes and can be named to any of these positions.  All of these matters should be discussed with your children. Even if you don’t want them to know about the assets in your estate, they should be told who will be responsible for making decisions on your finances and health care.

Consider if you want your children to learn about your finances during your lifetime, when you are able to discuss your choices with them, or if they will learn about them after you have passed, possibly from a stranger or from reading court documents.

Many of these decisions depend upon your family’s dynamics. Do your children work well together, or are there deep-seated hostilities that will lead to endless battles? You know your own children best, so this is a decision only you can make.

It is also important to take into consideration that an unexpected large inheritance can create emotional turbulence for many people. If heirs have never handled any sizable finances before, or if they have a marriage on shaky ground, an unexpected inheritance could create very real problems—and a divorce could put their inheritance at risk.

Talk with your children, if at all possible. Erring on the side of over-communicating might be a better mistake than leaving them in the dark. You may want to schedule an appointment with your estate planning attorney and have the family in for a meeting.

Reference: CNBC (Nov. 11, 2020) “What to tell your adult kids when planning your estate”