How Do You Split an Estate in a Blended Family?

Estate planning attorneys know just how often blended families with the best of intentions find themselves embroiled in disputes, when the couple fails to address what will happen after the first spouse dies. According to the article “In blended families, estate planning can have unintended issues” from The News-Enterprise, this is more likely to occur when spouses marry after their separate children are already adults, don’t live in the parent’s home and have their own lives and families.

In this case, the spouse is seen as the parent’s spouse, rather than the child’s parent. There may be love and respect. However, it’s a different relationship from long-term blended families where the stepparent was actively engaged with all of the children’s upbringing and parents consider all of the children as their own.

For the long-term blended family, the planning must be intentional. However, there may be less concern about the surviving spouse changing beneficiaries and depriving the other spouse’s children of their inheritance. The estate planning attorney must still address this as a possibility.

When relationships between spouses and stepchildren are not as close, or are rocky, estate planning must proceed as if the relationship between stepparents and stepsiblings will evaporate on the death of the natural parent. If one spouse’s intention is to leave all of their wealth to the surviving spouse, the plan must anticipate trouble, even litigation.

In some families, there is no intent to deprive anyone of an inheritance. However, failing to plan appropriately—having a will, setting up trusts, etc.—is not done and the estate plan disinherits children.

It’s important for the will, trusts and any other estate planning documents to define the term “children” and in some cases, use the specific names of the children. This is especially important when there are other family members with the same or similar names.

As long as the parents are well and healthy, estate plans can be amended. If one of the parents becomes incapacitated, changes cannot be legally made to their wills. If one spouse dies and the survivor remarries and names a new spouse as their beneficiary, it’s possible for all of the children to lose their inheritances.

Most people don’t intend to disinherit their own children or their stepchildren. However, this occurs often when the spouses neglect to revise their estate plan when they marry again, or if there is no estate plan at all. An estate planning attorney has seen many different versions of this and can create a plan to achieve your wishes and protect your children.

A final note: be realistic about what may occur when you pass. While your spouse may fully intend to maintain relationships with your children, lives and relationships change. With an intentional estate plan, parents can take comfort in knowing their property will be passed to the next generation—or two—as they wish.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Dec. 7, 2021) “In blended families, estate planning can have unintended issues”

Who Should I Name as Trustee?

When a revocable living trust is created, the grantor (person who creates the trust) names a successor trustee, the person who will take charge of the trust when the grantor dies. One of the biggest sticking points in creating a trust is often selecting a successor trustee. A recent article, “Be careful when choosing your successor trustee,” from Los Altos Town Crier explains what can go wrong and how to protect your estate.

When the grantor dies, the successor trustee is in charge of determining the value of the trust and distributing assets to named beneficiaries. If there are unclear provisions in the trust, the trustee is required by law, as a fiduciary, to use good judgment and put the interest of the beneficiaries ahead of the trustee’s own interests.

When considering who to name as a successor trustee, you have many options. Just because your first born adult child wants to be in charge doesn’t mean they are the best candidate. You’ll want to name a reliable, responsible and organized person, who will be able to manage finances, tax reporting and respects the law.

The decision is not always an easy one. The child who lives closest to you may be excellent at caregiving, but not adept at handling finances. The child who lives furthest away may be skilled at handling money, but will they be able to manage their tasks long distance?

A trustee needs to be able to understand what their role is and know when they need the help of an estate planning attorney. Some trusts are complicated and tax reporting is rarely simple. The trustee may need to create a team of professionals, including an estate planning attorney, a CPA and a financial advisor. Someone who thinks they can manage an estate on their own with zero experience in the law or finance may be headed for trouble.

If there are no family members or trusted friends who can serve in this role, it may be best to consider a professional fiduciary to serve as a successor trustee. An estate planning attorney may also serve as a successor trustee.

The next option is a financial institution or trust company. Some banks have trust departments and take on this role, but they often have steep minimums and will only work with estates with significant value. Fees are also likely to be higher than for a professional fiduciary or other professional. Be sure to inquire how they evaluate your needs and ensure quality of care, if you become incapacitated. What processes are in place to protect grantors?

Another alternative is to identify a nonprofit with a pooled trust that accepts trustee responsibilities for individuals with special needs and for others who would prefer to have a nonprofit in this role.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you identify the best candidate for this role, as you work through the creation of the trust. Don’t be shy about asking for help with this important matter.

Reference: Los Altos Town Crier (Nov. 17, 2021) “Be careful when choosing your successor trustee”

Do You Need an Estate Plan or Will?

No one wants to squander a lifetime of sacrifice and hard work. However, if there is no estate plan, it’s entirely possible for this to occur. The aim of every estate plan, no matter how larger or small the estate, is to protect loved ones. What steps need to be taken are described in the article “Estate Planning for Everyone” from The Street. An estate plan can include almost any of your goals, and it’s not something to postpone.

Think of estate planning as a means of efficiently transferring the assets you’ve accumulated over a lifetime, while protecting your family from unnecessary expenses, stress and yes, taxes. Without an estate plan, the laws of your state and the federal government will determine who receives what, and your estate will be reduced considerably by taxes. The process will take months, or even years. If you have ever been divorced, own property in more than one state, own a business or care for a family member with special needs, the complications and costs grow exponentially.

The core of any estate plan is the answer to a few simple questions: how do you want future generations to carry out your wishes? Who would you like to take care of? And how do you want to be remembered? An estate plan can allow you to set up a roadmap for future generations, manage how and when wealth is distributed, create a legacy for your family and, if you are charitably minded, for your community.

A Will, or Last Will and Testament. This document is used to spell out how your assets should be distributed upon your death. It also includes naming a guardian if you have minor children and names an executor, the person who will be in charge of carrying out the directions in the will. You can also use a will to name gifts to individuals or institutions. Without a will, assets may be distributed in accordance with state law, which may not be the same as your wishes. Heirs will almost assuredly pay more in estate taxes and the family may find themselves battling over personal items.

The will forms the foundation of estate planning, but it is by no means the only document you’ll need.

Living Will. This is a legal document used to communicate end-of-life decisions. In some states, it’s referred to as an Advance Healthcare Directive. It often includes a Do Not Resuscitate (DNR) order, if you do not want life-extending treatments, like a breathing or feeding tube, blood transfusion, dialysis, or pain medication. The living will only work if the family knows where it is and shares it with your healthcare providers. Let loved ones know your wishes and tell them where the living will is located.

Power of Attorney—Healthcare and Financial. Power of Attorney, or POA documents, name people to manage specific tasks for you if you are incapacitated, whether by illness or injury. Don’t make the mistake of using a standard form because it may not reflect your wishes. For instance, you may want to name one person to handle your finances, but you may not want the same person to handle the sale of your home. The POA can be as broad or as narrow as you want, but only if it is created for your needs.

Without a POA, the family will need to go to court and have one or more people named to act as your guardian. This takes time, is expensive and extremely stressful. What if the court names a family member to make all of your decisions, and it is someone you don’t want? The matter will be out of your control.

Trusts are used to avoid certain assets passing through probate, minimize taxes and maintain privacy. Trusts are legal entities, funded with a wide range of assets, which are transferred out of your control and into the trust, where they are the responsibility of the trustee. When the trust is a “revocable living trust,” then you will likely serve as the trustee as long as you are able. The person who receives the assets at the direction of the trust is known as the beneficiary. There are numerous types of trusts, and your estate planning attorney will recommend the one that works best for your purposes.

Reference: The Street (Nov. 4, 2021) “Estate Planning for Everyone”

Is It Important to Have a Power of Attorney?

If you have a will, you have a document to tell others what you want to happen with your property after you die. However, if you are incapacitated and cannot make decisions about your finances or health, you need a Power of Attorney, says Ohio News Time in the article “Do I Really Need a Power of Attorney?”

A Power of Attorney (POA) names another person, referred to as an “agent,” to make decisions on another person’s behalf, known as the “principal.” The agent may need to manage the person’s finances, including paying a mortgage, utility bills and handling other money matters.

If there is no POA, the family faces a series of challenges. They will need to go to court and apply to become their loved one’s guardian. This process becomes expensive and time consuming. Anyone applying to become a guardian needs to be vetted by the court and any large decisions made for the ward must be approved by the court. The court is not required to make a family member a guardian, so it is possible for a person the family doesn’t even know to suddenly be empowered to handle their loved one’s finances.

It’s far easier to have a POA created when you have your estate created. When you update your estate plan, you’ll also want to review and update your POA.

A POA should never be a standard form, since few people’s lives fit into a standard format. For instance, you may want a POA to permit your agent to conduct all of your financial matters, but not to sell your home. You may want to name a specific person just to handle the sale of your home, if you are not able to return to living at home but will need to permanently stay in a long-term care facility. The POA is tailored to reflect your wishes and can be as broad or as narrow as you want.

It is also important to name “successor” agents. If the first person you name cannot or does not want to serve in this capacity, naming a successor agent will make the transition easier. In the event the successor does not want to serve, it may not be a bad idea to have a back-up to the back-up.

Speak with the people you are naming to serve as POA to ensure that they know what their responsibilities will be and confirm their willingness to serve. It is also important to be realistic: if they are the same age as you, will they be able to serve? It may be better to name an adult child to take on this role.

In addition to the POA, everyone should have a Health Care Power of Attorney. This permits a named person, also known as an agent, to discuss your health with doctors and other providers and make decisions about your care. You’ll also want a HIPAA Release, so a person you wish has access to medical records.

The POA is often considered a simple add-on to an estate plan. However, it is actually a very important document to protect you while you are living. Without it, your spouse or adult children will have many more barriers to be involved in your care and make decisions on your behalf.

Reference: Ohio News Time (Oct. 15, 2021) “Do I Really Need a Power of Attorney?”

What is the Difference between Conservatorship and Guardianship?

Just as different states have different laws and use different legal terms in estate planning, each state has their own laws and terms about guardianship and conservatorship, explains a recent article from Real Simple, “Everything You Need to Know About Guardianship, Conservatorship, and Legal Dependents.”

Guardianship and Conservatorship mean different things in different states, but both refer to legal proceedings used to make one person, guardian or conservator, responsible and in charge of another person, often known as a ward. In some states, guardianship concerns a ward who is a minor and conservatorship concerns a ward who is an adult. Your estate planning attorney will be able to clarify the rules of your state.

In general, guardianship is not something we like to think about. Who wants to consider two parents dying and leaving a child or children utterly alone? However, if you have children, you must protect them, and you do so by naming a guardian in your will. In this way, your children will be raised by someone you know and trust.

If no guardian is named, the court names a person to raise your children, and there are no requirements for the court to pick a family member.

Guardianship can be contested. People who want to become guardians of children may file a petition in court to become the child’s legal guardian. However, it is easier for all concerned when parents do this in their will or other means allowed by state law.

Conservatorship of an adult is necessary when an adult becomes incapacitated and cannot make informed decisions about medical care, financial or legal matters, or manage daily living. This may occur because of an accident, illness, stroke, or having a mental illness or disability.

An estate planning or elder law attorney files papers with the court to attain the status of conservatorship. Only a court may grant conservatorship after hearing evidence that an adult lacks mental capacity and needs this level of help.

If someone has filed for conservatorship for you, you have the right to retain an attorney and object to the petition or take action to select a different person to act as your conservator.

We also hear the term “legal dependent” used for a few different situations. A legal dependent is a qualifying child or relative who is claimed by a taxpayer on their taxes. They must be under 19 or under 24 if a full-time student. Someone who is legally deemed permanently disabled may be a legal dependent regardless of their age and they don’t have to live with you to qualify. Let’s say you have a parent who has little, or no income and you provide them with more than half (50%) of their total support. You may claim them as a dependent on your taxes.

There are many different situations and rules for guardianship, conservatorship and legal dependents. Meet with a local estate planning attorney to navigate these complex matters correctly, so you may focus on caring for loved ones.

Reference: Real Simple (Sep. 20, 2021) “Everything You Need to Know About Guardianship, Conservatorship, and Legal Dependents”

When Should You Fund a Trust?

If your estate plan includes a revocable trust, sometimes called a “living trust,” you need to be certain the trust is funded. When created by an experienced estate planning attorney, revocable trusts provide many benefits, from avoiding having assets owned by the trust pass through probate to facilitating asset management in case of incapacity. However, it doesn’t happen automatically, according to a recent article from mondaq.com, “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

For the trust to work, it must be funded. Assets must be transferred to the trust, or beneficiary accounts must have the trust named as the designated beneficiary. The SECURE Act changed many rules concerning distribution of retirement account to trusts and not all beneficiary accounts permit a trust to be the owner, so you’ll need to verify this.

The revocable trust works well to avoid probate, and as the “grantor,” or creator of the trust, you may instruct trustees how and when to distribute trust assets. You may also revoke the trust at any time. However, to effectively avoid probate, you must transfer title to virtually all your assets. It includes those you own now and in the future. Any assets owned by you and not the trust will be subject to probate. This may include life insurance, annuities and retirement plans, if you have not designated a beneficiary or secondary beneficiary for each account.

What happens when the trust is not funded? The assets are subject to probate, and they will not be subject to any of the controls in the trust, if you become incapacitated. One way to avoid this is to take inventory of your assets and ensure they are properly titled on a regular basis.

Another reason to fund a trust: maximizing protection from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance coverage. Most of us enjoy this protection in our bank accounts on deposits up to $250,000. However, a properly structured revocable trust account can increase protection up to $250,000 per beneficiary, up to five beneficiaries, regardless of the dollar amount or percentage.

If your revocable trust names five beneficiaries, a bank account in the name of the trust is eligible for FDIC insurance coverage up to $250,000 per beneficiary, or $1.25 million (or $2.5 million for jointlyowned accounts). For informal revocable trust accounts, the bank’s records (although not the account name) must include all beneficiaries who are to be covered. FDIC insurance is on a per-institution basis, so coverage can be multiplied by opening similarly structured accounts at several different banks.

One last note: FDIC rules regarding revocable trust accounts are complex, especially if a revocable trust has multiple beneficiaries. Speak with your estate planning attorney to maximize insurance coverage.

Reference: mondaq.com (Sep. 10, 2021) “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

 

What Kind of Trust Is Right for You?

Everyone wins when estate planning attorneys, financial advisors and accounting professionals work together on a comprehensive estate plan. Each of these professionals can provide their insights when helping you make decisions in their area. Guiding you to the best possible options tends to happen when everyone is on the same page, says a recent article “Choosing Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts” from U.S. News & World Report.

What is a trust and what do trusts accomplish? Trusts are not just for the wealthy. Many families use trusts to serve different goals, from controlling distributions of assets over generations to protecting family wealth from estate and inheritance taxes.

There are two basic kinds of trust. There are also many specialized trusts in each of the two categories: the revocable trust and the irrevocable trust. The first can be revoked or changed by the trust’s creator, known as the “grantor.” The second is difficult and in some instances and impossible to change, without the complete consent of the trust’s beneficiaries.

There are pros and cons for each type of trust.

Let’s start with the revocable trust, which is also referred to as a living trust. The grantor can make changes to the trust at any time, from removing assets or beneficiaries to shutting down the trust entirely. When the grantor dies, the trust becomes irrevocable. Revocable trusts are often used to pass assets to adult children, with a trustee named to manage the trust’s assets until the trust documents direct the trustee to distribute assets. Some people use a revocable trust to prevent their children from accessing wealth too early in their lives, or to protect assets from spendthrift children with creditor problems.

Irrevocable trusts are just as they sound: they can’t be amended once established. The terms of the trust cannot be changed, and the grantor gives up any control or legal right to the assets, which are owned by the trust.

Giving up control comes with the benefit that assets placed in the trust are no longer part of the grantor’s estate and are not subject to estate taxes. Creditors, including nursing homes and Medicaid, are also prevented from accessing assets in an irrevocable trust.

Irrevocable trusts were once used by people in high-risk professions to protect their assets from lawsuits. Irrevocable trusts are used to divest assets from estates, so people can become eligible for Medicaid or veteran benefits.

The revocable trust protects the grantor’s wishes, if the grantor becomes incapacitated. It also avoids probate, since the trust becomes irrevocable upon death and assets are outside of the probated estate. The revocable trust may include qualified assets, like IRAs, 401(k)s and 403(b)s.

However, there are drawbacks. The revocable trust does not provide tax benefits or creditor protection while the grantor is living.

Your estate planning attorney will know which type of trust is best for your situation, and working with your financial advisor and accountant, will be able to create the plan that minimizes taxes and maximizes wealth transfers for your heirs.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Aug. 26, 2021) “Choosing Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts”

 

How Does Probate Work?

Having a good understanding of how wills are used, how probate works and what other documents are needed to protect yourself and loved ones is key to creating an effective estate plan, explains the article “Understanding probate helps when drafting will” from The News Enterprise.

A last will and testament expresses wishes for property distribution after death. It’s different from a living will, which formalizes choices for end-of-life decisions. The last will and testament also includes provisions for care of minor children, disabled dependents and sometimes, for animal companions.

The will does not become effective until after death. However, before death, it is a useful tool in helping family members understand your goals and wishes, if you are ever incapacitated by illness or injury.

The will has roles for specific people. The “testator” is the person creating the will. “Beneficiaries” are heirs receiving assets after the testator has died. The “executor” is the person who oversees the estate, ensuring that directions in the will are followed.

If there is no will, the court will appoint someone to manage the estate, usually referred to as the “administrator.” There is no guarantee the court will appoint a family member or relative, even if there are willing and qualified candidates in the family. Having a will precludes a court appointing a stranger to make serious decisions about a treasured possession and the future of your loved ones.

A will is usually not filed with the court until after the testator dies and the executor takes the will to the court in the county where the testator lived to open a probate case. If the person owned real estate in other counties or states, probate must take place in all other such locations. The will is recorded by the county clerk’s office and becomes part of the public record for anyone to see.

Assets with named beneficiaries, like life insurance proceeds, retirement funds and property owned jointly are distributed to beneficiaries outside of probate. However, any property owned solely by the decedent is part of the probate action and is vulnerable to creditors and anyone who wishes to make a claim against the estate.

The best way to protect your family is to contact an experienced estate planning attorney to have a complete estate plan prepared that includes a will and a thorough review of how assets are titled so they can, if possible, go directly to beneficiaries and not be subject to probate.

Reference: The News Enterprise (Aug. 17, 2021) “Understanding probate helps when drafting will”

 

How Important Is a Power of Attorney?

People are often surprised to learn a power of attorney is one of the most urgently needed estate planning documents to have, with a last will and health care proxy close behind in order of importance. Everyone over age 18 should have these documents, explains a recent article titled “The dangers of not having a power of attorney” from the Rome Sentinel. The reason is simple: if you have a short- or long-term health problem and can’t manage your own assets or even medical decisions and haven’t given anyone the ability to do so, you may spend your rehabilitation period dealing with an easily avoidable nightmare.

Here are other problems that may result from not having your incapacity legal planning in place:

A guardianship proceeding might be needed. If you are incapacitated without this planning, loved ones may have to petition the court to apply for guardianship so they can make fundamental decisions for you. Even if you are married, your spouse is not automatically empowered to manage your financial affairs, except perhaps for assets that are jointly owned. It can take months to obtain guardianship and costs far more than the legal documents in the first place. If there are family issues, guardianship might lead to litigation and family fights.

The cost of not being able to pay bills in a timely manner adds up quickly. The world keeps moving while you are incapacitated. Mortgage payments and car loans need to be paid, as do utilities and healthcare bills. Lapses of insurance for your home, auto or life, could turn a health crisis into a financial crisis, if no one can act on your behalf.

Nursing home bills and Medicaid eligibility denials. Even one month of paying for a nursing home out of pocket, when you would otherwise qualify for Medicaid, could take a large bite out of savings. The Medicaid application process requires a responsible person to gather a lot of medical records, sign numerous documents and follow through with the appropriate government authorities.

Getting medical records in a HIPAA world. Your power of attorney should include an authorization for your representative to take care of all health care billing and payments and to access your medical records. If a spouse or family member is denied access to review records, your treatment and care may suffer. If your health crisis is the result of an accident or medical malpractice, this could jeopardize your defense.

Transferring assets. It may be necessary to transfer assets, like a home, or other assets, out of your immediate control. You may be in a final stage of life. As a result, transferring assets while you are still living will avoid costly and time-consuming probate proceedings. If a power of attorney is up to date and includes a fully executed “Statutory Gift” authorization, your loved ones will be able to manage your assets for the best possible outcome.

The power of attorney is a uniquely flexible estate planning document. It can be broad and permit someone you trust to manage all of your financial and legal matters, or it can be narrow in scope. Your estate planning attorney will be able to craft an appropriate power of attorney that is best suited for your needs and family. The most important thing: don’t delay having a new or updated power of attorney created. If you have a power of attorney, but it was created more than four or five years ago, it may not be recognized by financial institutions. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to create your power of attorney.

Reference: Rome Sentinel (July 25, 2021) “The dangers of not having a power of attorney”

 

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”