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”

 

How Can Estate Planning Address the Troubled Child?

Every family has unique challenges when planning for the future, and every family needs to consider its individual beneficiaries in an honest light, even when the view isn’t pretty. Concerns may range from adults with substance abuse problems, an inability to make good decisions, or siblings with worrisome marriages. These situations can be addressed through estate planning documents, says the article “Estate Planning for ‘Black Sheep’ Beneficiaries” from Kiplinger.

How can you prepare your estate, when a problem child has grown into an adult with problems?

You have the option of not dividing your estate equally to beneficiaries.

Disinheriting a beneficiary occurs for a variety of reasons and is more common than you might think. If you have already given one child a down payment on a home, while another has gone through two divorces, you may want to make plans for one child to receive their share of the inheritance through a trust to protect them.

A family member who is disabled may benefit from a more generous inheritance than a successful sibling—although that inheritance must be structured properly, if the disabled person is to continue receiving support from government programs.

No matter the reason for unequal distributions, discuss the reasons for the difference in your estate plan with your family, or if your estate planning attorney advises it, include a discussion of your reasons in a document. This buttresses your plan against any claims against the estate and may prevent hard feelings between siblings.

You can change your mind about your estate plan if your ‘wild child’ gets his life together.

A regular evaluation of your estate plan—every three or four years, or whenever big life events occur—is always recommended. If your wayward child finds his footing and you want to change how he is treated in your estate plan, you can do that.

Your estate plan can include incentives, even after you are gone.

Specific provisions in a trust can be used to reward behavior. An incentive trust sets certain goals that must be met before funds are distributed, from completing college to maintaining employment or even to going through rehabilitation. Many estate plans stagger the distribution of funds, so heirs receive distributions over time, rather than all at once. An example: 1/3 at age 25, 1/2 at age 30 and the balance at age 40. This prevents the beneficiary from squandering all of his inheritance at once. Ideally, his financial skills grow, so he is better equipped to preserve a large sum at age 40.

Trusts are not that complicated, and their administration is not overly difficult.

People think trusts are for the wealthy only or are complicated and expensive. None of that is true. Trusts are excellent tools, considered the “Swiss Army Knife” of estate planning. Your estate planning attorney can craft trusts that will help you control how money flows to heirs, protect a special needs individual, minimize taxes and create a legacy. For families who have one or more “black sheep,” the trust is a perfect tool to protect your loved ones from themselves and their life choices.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 8, 2020) “Estate Planning for ‘Black Sheep’ Beneficiaries”

 

How Do You Stop Family Fights Over an Inheritance?

More than two-thirds of all advisors surveyed by Key Private Bank said the hardest part of estate planning is navigating family dynamics, according to a 2019 survey. The sensitivities of simply talking about estate planning often present emotional challenges to putting a plan in place, especially when the family includes multiple marriages and blended families.

Advice is offered in a recent news article from CNBC, “Executor of a Family Estate? Here’s How to Avoid Infighting Over Inherited Wealth.”

Much of the problem, experts say, stems from poor communication. A dialogue needs to be open between generations that is a two-way conversation. In most instances, the older generation needs to invite the younger generation to get the ball rolling.

A lack of clarity and transparency can lead to problems. One example is a father leaving the family farm to his children, with a plan that also included money to help run the farm and legal documents to help the transition go smoothly. However, the children didn’t want the farm. They wanted to sell. Disagreements broke out between siblings, and the family was bogged down in a big fight.

Clearly Dad needed to talk with the children, while his estate plan was being created. The children needed to be upfront and honest about their plans for the future, and the issue could have been solved before the father’s death. The lesson: talk about your wishes and your children’s wishes while you are living.

After someone dies, they may leave behind an entire estate, with a lifetime of personal items that they want to gift to family members. However, if these items are not listed in the will, the heirs have to decide amongst themselves who gets what. This is asking for trouble, whether the items have sentimental or financial value. In fact, sentimental items often generate the most controversy.

When conflicts arise, the presence of a third party who doesn’t have emotional attachments and is not embroiled in the family dynamics can be helpful.

If the issue is not addressed before death, there are a few ways to move forward. An estate planning attorney who has seen many families go through this process can offer suggestions while the will is being prepared. There are facilitators or mediators who can help, if things get really rocky.

Heirs may wish to create a list of items that they would like to be reviewed by the executor. This option works best, if the executor is not a sibling, otherwise charges of favoritism and “Mom always liked you best” can spiral into family spats.

Some families group items into buckets of equal value, others set up a lottery to determine who picks first, second, etc., and some families literally roll the dice to make decisions.

Contact a local experienced estate planning attorney to assist you.

Reference: CNBC (Nov. 12, 2020) “Executor of a Family Estate? Here’s How to Avoid Infighting Over Inherited Wealth”

 

Avoid Estate Planning Mistakes

Estate planning should be a business-like process where people evaluate the assets they have accumulated over time and make clear decisions about how to leave their assets and legacy to those they love. The reality, as described in the article “5 Unfortunate Estate Planning Myths You Probably Believe,” from Kiplinger, is not so straightforward. Emotions take over as does a feeling that time is running short which is sometimes the case.

Reactive decisions rarely work as well in the short and long term as decisions made based on strategies that are set in place over time. Here are some of the most common mistakes that people make when creating an estate plan or revising one in response to life’s inevitable changes.

Estate plans are all about tax planning. Strategies to minimize taxes are part of estate planning, but they should not be the primary focus. Since the federal exemption is $11.58 million for 2020, and fewer than 3% of all taxpayers need to worry about paying a federal estate tax, there are other considerations to prioritize. If there is a family business, for example, what will happen to the business, especially if the children have no interest in keeping it? In this case, succession or exit planning needs to be a bigger part of the estate plan.

The children should get everything. This is a frequent response, but not always right. You may want to leave your descendants most of your estate, but ask yourself, could your lifetime’s work be put to use in another way? You don’t need to rush to an automatic answer. Give consideration to what you’d like your legacy to be. It may not only be enriching your children and grandchildren’s lives.

My children are very different but it’s only fair that I leave equal amounts to all of them. Treating your children equally in your estate plan is a lot like treating them exactly the same way throughout their lives. One child may be self-motivated and need no academic help, while another needs tutoring just to maintain average grades. Another may be ready to step into your shoes at the family business, with great management and finance skills, but her sister wants nothing to do with the business. The same family includes offspring with different dreams, hopes, skills and abilities. Leaving everyone an equal share doesn’t always work.

Having a trust takes care of everything. Well, not exactly. In fact, if you neglect to fund a trust, your family may have a mess to deal with. A sizable estate may need revocable or irrevocable trusts but an estate plan is more complicated than trust or no trust. First, when an asset is placed into an irrevocable trust, the grantor loses control of the asset and the trustee is in control. The trustee has a fiduciary duty to the beneficiaries, not the grantor of the trust. The beneficiaries include the current and future beneficiaries so the trustee may have to answer to more than one generation of beneficiaries. Problems can arise when one family member has been named a trustee and their siblings are beneficiaries. Creating that dynamic among family members can create a legacy of distrust and jealousy.

My estate advisors are all working well with each other and looking out for me. In a perfect world, this would be true but it doesn’t always happen. You have to take a proactive stance, contacting everyone and making sure they understand that you want them to cooperate and act as a team. With clear direction from you, your professional advisors will be able to achieve your goals.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 17, 2020) “5 Unfortunate Estate Planning Myths You Probably Believe”

 

How to Choose a Trustee

To protect all that you have worked for and take care of the most important people in your life, you may have been advised to place some or perhaps all of your assets into a trust. Once you and your estate planning attorney have made that decision, you’ll need to decide who to name as your trustee or trustees. Doing so is not always an easy process, explains Kiplinger in the article “Guidance on Choosing the Right Trustee (or Trustees) for Your Estate.”

Serving as a trustee creates many duties under state law, including acting as a fiduciary to the trust. That means the trustee must be impartial about their own interests, put the beneficiary’s interests and well-being first and be prudent with how they invest funds. Law prohibits a trustee from self-dealing.

Here are a series of questions that will help to assess a person’s ability to serve as a trustee:

  • Will the person be able to separate their personal feelings and interests from those of the beneficiaries?
  • Will all parties be treated fairly, especially if your children are not also your spouse’s children?
  • Can your trustee manage complex finances and investments?
  • Is there any risk that your trustee will be tempted to take a risk to obtain money at the expense of beneficiaries?
  • What happens if your spouse remarries?
  • Will a child who is a trustee be fair to the other siblings, even if they are step siblings?
  • Will a child who is managing work and family have the time to take on the responsibilities of the trustee?

Some people decide that no family member is the right fit for the trustee role, and opt instead for their estate planning attorney, accountant or financial advisor to serve as a trustee. There are some questions to ask:

  • Does the person understand the family dynamics?
  • Has the person served as a trustee before?
  • Can they separate their personal financial interest from their clients?
  • If there is a breach of duties, will their professional malpractice coverage be enough to make the trust whole?

Some families prefer to use a bank or trust company to provide fiduciary services and act independently for the trust. This may reduce conflicts among family members, while providing professional services. Fees are typically based on the size of the estate, which may be a consideration.

Another idea is to have more than one trustee to provide a balance of record keeping, investments and other trustee duties. A properly drafted trustee agreement created by an experienced estate planning attorney, will outline specific duties of the trustees. An individual co-trustee might better understand your heir’s needs and be able to help other trustees in making decisions to benefit family members.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 8, 2020) “Guidance on Choosing the Right Trustee (or Trustees) for Your Estate”

 

Planning for Nursing Home Expenses

The question raised in the article “Fact or Fiction: I Can Protect My Assets from a Nursing Home with a Revocable Trust” from New Hampshire Business Review is frequency asked and the reason for it is understandable. Any form of long-term home care is costly and can quickly decimate a lifetime of savings. There are ways to protect assets but a revocable trust is not one of them.

There are some reasons why a person might find a revocable trust attractive. If the grantor (the person who creates the trust and is also the trustee (i.e., the person in charge of the trust)), there is no loss of control. It is as if you still own the assets that are in the trust. However, when you die, the assets in the trust don’t go through the probate process. Instead, they go directly to the beneficiaries named in the trust documents. A revocable trust also lets you make specific provisions for beneficiaries and beneficiaries with special needs.

There is a trust that can be used to protect assets from the cost of long-term care. It is the irrevocable trust which must be properly prepared by an estate planning attorney and done in a timely fashion: five years before the person needs to go to a nursing home.

The difference is in the name: the irrevocable trust is irrevocable. Once it is created, you (the grantor) may not change it. Once an asset is placed in the trust you don’t own it. The trust is the owner. You can’t change your mind. The grantor may also not serve as the trustee of the trust.  You have to be prepared to give up complete control of the assets that go into the trust.

Some people think simply by handing over their assets in the trust to their children that they’ve solved everything. However, there are problems. If your children are sued or run into debt problems that lifetime of saving which is now in their control is also subject to creditors or claims. If you need to enter a nursing home within five years of your handing over the assets you also won’t be eligible for Medicaid.

The best course of action is to meet with an estate planning attorney and discuss your overall estate plan. You should have a frank conversation about your wishes, what kind of a legacy you want to leave behind and your bigger picture for the world after you’ve passed. The attorney will help work out a plan that will protect you, your spouse, your assets and your family.

Remember that an estate plan is not a one-and-done document. Every three or four years or as “life happens” and changes occur in your life, you should touch base with your attorney. A new family member by marriage, birth or adoption, may call for some changes to your estate plan. It might also be affected by the sadder events of life; death, divorce, or a significant health change. All require a phone call and a discussion to ensure that your estate plan still achieves your goals and protects those you love.

Reference: New Hampshire Business Review (July 30, 2020) “Fact or Fiction: I Can Protect My Assets from a Nursing Home with a Revocable Trust”

 

Estate Planning and Probate Planning

The nature of the probate process varies from state to state and even varies from county to county. However, the nature of the process is the same. A court has to validate a will to ensure that it meets the legal requirements of the state before assets can be distributed, explains the article “Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money” from the Baker City Herald. A typical will in some states can take nine to twelve months and court shutdowns related to COVID-19 means that the wait could be longer. Probate is also expensive.

When does probate make sense? When a person dies with a lot of debt, probate can be helpful by limiting the amount of time creditors have to make their claims against the estate. If there’s not enough to pay everyone, the probate court makes the decision about how much each creditor gets. Without probate, creditors may surface long after assets have been distributed and depending upon the amount owed, may sue heirs or the executor.

The court supervision provided by probate can be helpful if there are any concerns about the instructions in the will not being carried out. However, the will and the details of the estate become public which is bad not just for privacy reasons. If there are any greedy or litigation-happy family members, they’ll be able to see how assets were distributed. All assets, debts and costs paid by the estate are disclosed and the court approves each distribution. This much oversight can be protective in some situations.

What’s the alternative? Some states have simplified probate for smaller estates, which can reduce the time and cost of probate. However, it varies by state. In Delaware, it is estates worth no more than $30,000, but in Seattle, small means estates valued at $275,000 or less.  These limits don’t include assets that go directly to heirs, like accounts with beneficiaries or jointly owned assets. Most retirement funds and life insurance policies have named beneficiaries. The same is often true for bank and investment accounts. Just remember not to name your estate as a beneficiary, which defeats the purpose of having a beneficiary.

Are there any other ways to avoid probate? Here’s where trusts come in. Trusts are legal documents that allow you to place your assets into ownership by the trust. A living trust takes effect while you are still alive, and you can be a trustee. Once created, property needs to be transferred into the trust, which requires managing details: changing titles and deeds and account names. This type of trust is revocable, which means you can change it any time. As a trustee, you have complete control over the property. A successor trustee is named to take over, if you die or become incapacitated.

An experienced estate planning attorney will know other legal strategies to avoid probate for part or all of your estate.

Reference: Baker City Herald (July 16, 2020) “Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money”