The Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them “”

Heirs who are prepared to inherit wealth, with families who talk about wealth and have an estate plan, will do better than those who do not, says the West Haven Observer’s recent article “5 Estate planning disasters you’ll want to avoid.” A constantly changing legal and tax environment presents significant challenges, but a few simple steps may save your beneficiaries from the expense and stress of these common estate planning mistakes.

  1. Not designating beneficiaries properly. This is one of the most common mistakes, and one that cannot always be fixed. It’s easy to forget whose name you put on a pension or life insurance plan thirty years ago. However, failing to check those beneficiaries, especially if your life has undergone big changes, can lead to the wrong people enjoying the proceeds.

Using beneficiary designations is an excellent way to bypass the process of probate, since assets that pass this way are not subject to probate. Depending upon where you live, probate can be a long, drawn out process. A beneficiary designation is far simpler and more efficient.

Failing to name a beneficiary when setting up bank accounts, opening CDs, and savings accounts is a common error. This can be fixed by making these accounts “TOD,” or Transfer on Death, and the account goes directly to your beneficiary.

Your will does not control any beneficiary designations. That’s why this step is so important.

2-Designating a minor as a beneficiary. You love your grandchildren, but unless they are adults, they cannot inherit assets until they are 18 or 21, depending on the laws of your state. If a minor does receive an asset, the court appoints a guardian to supervise and manage the assets. Your estate planning attorney will advise you on your individual situation, but one alternative is to list a guardian for the minor child inside the will, so the court appoints the person who you choose to manage the property until the child becomes of age.

Another means of providing for young children or grandchildren is to create a trust. The trust names a trustee who is usually a trusted friend or relative who is knowledgeable and responsible. They manage the assets on behalf of the child. The trust also permits assets to pass without probate.

3-Failing to fund a trust. All too often, this is the weak link that breaks the estate. Placing assets within the trust is called funding. Usually this means changing the ownership of bank accounts or real estate from being owned by an individual to being owned by the trust. If the trust is not funded and the will has instructions that seemingly contradict the trust, the asset will need to go through probate and the trust instructions will be ignored.

4-Leaving a tax nightmare for heirs. One of the many advantages of passing on real estate or other assets that appreciate that beneficiaries get a “step up” in basis. That means the heirs are not responsible for any income taxes on the appreciated assets. This can be a very big benefit. There are exceptions—inherited IRAs and 401(k)s don’t have this advantage. However, the recent passage of the SECURE Act has taken away many tax benefits for IRA heirs. Most non-spouse beneficiaries must fully withdraw the entire amount from the IRA or 401(k) within ten years, and the withdrawal is considered ordinary income. It could leave your heirs with a huge, unexpected tax bill.

There is a workaround. By converting some or perhaps all of your retirement accounts to a Roth IRA during your lifetime, you can pay the taxes when converting the IRA to a Roth IRA at your current tax rate, which may be lower than your children or grandchildren’s rate. When you die, any money in the Roth IRA goes to heirs completely tax free.

5-The biggest mistake of all is not having an estate plan. Thinking about your legacy plan, mortality and incapacity is not fun for anyone. However, by spending the time and resources in creating an estate plan, you spare your loved ones from an inordinate amount of stress and expenses, which they will appreciate. One of the best gifts you can give your loved ones is a well-thought out, properly created and executed estate plan. Contact and experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: West Haven Observer (Nov. 12, 2020) “5 Estate planning disasters you’ll want to avoid”

,

What Does Legacy Planning Mean?

Asset distribution is how many estate plans begin, but we can create legacies for generations to come through our estate planning, says Kiplinger in the article “Legacy Planning: Create a Lasting Legacy.” You may not realize it until you sit down to prepare an estate plan, or even until you prepare a second estate plan. Your life has been devoted to building wealth and now it’s time to plan for the next generation. This is when estate planning becomes legacy planning.

Why is Legacy Planning Important?

If the goal is to leave wealth to children, the plan may be simply to bequeath assets.

However, if children are not good at handling money or if there is a concern about a marriage’s longevity, then you’ll want to look past a simple transfer of assets on death. For some families, a concern is leaving too much wealth to children, undermining the parent’s life of work and respect for their accomplishments. Legacy planning addresses these and other serious issues.

Which Documents are Necessary for Estate Planning?

Most people need the following documents:

Revocable Living Trust, or RLT. The person who creates this trust maintains full control of assets that are titled to the trust while they are living, and then directs how assets are to be passed on when one spouse dies and then after both spouses die.

Pour-Over Wills. Used in conjunction with a RLT, these work to direct assets to the RLT.

Durable Power of Attorney. These documents are part of planning for incapacity. They designate a person who will make financial and/or legal decisions for you, if you cannot do so.

Health Care Directives. Note that these have different names and details, depending on the state. For most people, they consist of a Living Will and a Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. Together, these two documents provide a platform for you to share wishes about medical care. The Living Will gives guidance about your wishes, if you become too sick to communicate, including your wishes on pain medication, artificial feeding and hydration and resuscitation. The Durable Power of Attorney (sometimes called a Health Care Proxy) names a person who can make health care decisions, if you can’t do so for yourself.

How Do I Leave a Lasting Legacy?

Many people believe that their children should be the only beneficiaries of their wealth. However, for others, even those with modest estates, supporting an organization that has meaning to them through a gift in their will is just as important as leaving money to children and grandchildren.

Here are a few questions to consider when thinking about a legacy:

  • How much wealth is “enough” for heirs?
  • At what age should money be transferred to heirs?
  • Should incentive milestones be created, like completing college, attaining higher education goals, or staying sober?

If assets are left directly to children, there is always the risk that they may lose the wealth. Sometimes that is not the child’s fault, but this can be prevented with good planning. Inherited assets can be protected in trusts, which can be created to protect wealth and provide for professional management. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney before you do anything.

Do Trusts Avoid Estate Taxes?

Another important consideration when creating a legacy, is minimizing tax liabilities. Not every estate plan is designed with taxes in mind, so you’ll want to discuss this with your estate planning attorney.  The issue of taxes can become more complex, if the estate includes non-liquid assets, including real estate or a family owned business.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 30, 2020) “Legacy Planning: Create a Lasting Legacy”

 

Good Planning for Life Is Also Good Planning for a Pandemic

The fear of the unknown and a sense of loss of control is sending many people to estate planning attorney’s offices to have wills, advance directives and other documents prepared, reports the article “Legal lessons from a pandemic: What you can plan for” from The Press-Enterprise.

However, people are not just planning because they are worried about becoming incapacitated or dying because of COVID. High net-worth people are also planning because they are concerned about the changes the election may bring, changes to what are now historically advantageous estate tax laws and planning to take advantage of tax laws, as they stand pre-December 31, 2020.

Regardless of your income or assets, it is always good to take control of your future and protect yourself and your family, by having an up-to-date estate plan in place. Anyone who is over age 18 needs the following:

  • Health Care Directive
  • Power of Attorney
  • HIPPA Release Form
  • Last Will and Testament

Any assets without beneficiary designations should be considered for a trust, depending upon your overall estate. Trusts can be used to take assets out of a taxable estate, establish control over how the assets are distributed and to avoid probate. You don’t have to be wealthy to benefit from the use of trusts.

Preparing estate planning documents in a last-minute rush, is always a terrible idea.

If you have more free time during the pandemic, consider using some of your free time to have your estate plan implemented or updated. This should be a top priority. The state of the world right now has all of us thinking more about our mortality, our values and the legacy we want to leave behind. Most estate planning attorneys encourage clients to think about the next three to five years. What would be important to you, if something were to happen in that time frame?

Estate planning is about more than distributing assets upon death. It addresses incapacity—what would happen if you became too ill or injured to care for yourself? Who would make medical decisions for you, such as what kind of medical care would you want, who will your doctors be and where will you live in the short-term and long-term? Incapacity planning is a big part of an estate plan.

When naming people to care for you in the event of incapacity, provide your estate planning attorney with three names, in case your first or second choices are not able to act on your behalf. Most people name their spouse, but what if you were both in an accident and could not help each other?

In recent months, Advance Health Care Directives have received a lot of attention, but they are not just about ventilator use and intubation. An Advance Health Care Directive is used to state your preferences concerning life-sustaining treatment, pain relief and organ donation. The agent named in your health care directive is also the person who will carry out post-death wishes, so provide as many details as you can about your wishes for cremation, burial, religious services, etc.

Trusts are a way to preserve a family legacy. A living trust gives you the ability to decide who you want involved, in case of your death or incapacity. You decide on your beneficiaries, and if you want your assets going directly to those beneficiaries or if they should be held in trust until certain goals are met, like finishing college or reaching a certain age or life milestone.

Your estate planning attorney will help you clarify family legacy goals, whether they include a beneficiary with special needs, a supplement for children who go into public service careers, etc.

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (Oct. 18, 2020) “Legal lessons from a pandemic: What you can plan for”

 

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”

 

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”

 

Keeping Yourself and Loved Ones Safe during the Pandemic

The numbers are frightening, especially for those over 80. By the time seniors with COVID-19 are admitted to the hospital, it’s usually too late to do anything about their legacy. This topic was taken up recently in the article “Tips for protecting seniors and their legacy in the pandemic” from My Edmond News. That includes creating a last will and testament, naming a health care power of attorney, or having a conversation about their end-of-life wishes. Here are thoughts on how to stay safe and prepare for the worst.

Follow the recommended health guidelines and be careful. Hand washing, social distancing, avoiding crowds, wearing masks and cleaning surfaces are very important for seniors. Online shopping or going to the grocery store during senior hours are better choices, if you have a choice.

Beware of scammers. Scammers who target the elderly use their fear of the pandemic to provoke action. One of the latest scams is a phone call from someone claiming to be a contact tracer, saying they are tracking people who have been exposed to COVID-19. They ask for Social Security numbers, birthdays and zip codes. No legitimate contact tracer will ask these questions.

Make a plan for your digital assets. Seniors are active on Facebook, use email and a variety of apps to stay in touch with grandchildren and manage their finances. Make a list of all of your online accounts and passwords, so that a trusted family member or friend will be able to help, if you are incapacitated or die. Untangling digital assets is much more complex than tangible assets—there’s no paper trail to follow.

Get your legal affairs in order now. Depending on your state of residence, you may be able to have documents witnessed and notarized remotely. Your estate planning attorney will know what the current rules are and be able to get documents prepared.

Create a Power of Attorney. This will let the person you name as POA take care of your finances, pay bills and keep your financial life from falling apart if you become ill.

Have a Health Care Power of Attorney created. This allows the person you name to get information on your medical decisions and make health care decisions, if you cannot.

Use an estate planning attorney to have these documents created. They are powerful documents, and their advice in helping select the right person can prevent a world of trouble in the future. The estate planning attorney who hears you say “Well, my nephew is the only one, but he’s been in and out of rehab for six years now,” can help you make a better choice!

Have a Will, or Last Will and Testament, created by an estate planning attorney. A professionally prepared last will sets out your wishes for distribution of your assets and is legally enforceable.

Update your beneficiaries. Distributions from accounts including IRAs, pensions and life insurance policies are not governed by your last will, but by the beneficiaries you name. As your life changes, these need to be updated. You really don’t want an old boyfriend or ex-spouse receiving your entire life insurance policy.

Once you have your estate plan done, you’ll realize it was easy to do, and well worth the peace of mind of knowing that you and your loved ones are protected.

Reference: My Edmond News (June 1, 2020) “Tips for protecting seniors and their legacy in the pandemic”

 

An Estate Plan Is Necessary for the Unthinkable

An estate plan is necessary considering the recent death of basketball legend Kobe Bryant, his daughter and seven others. This reminds us that we never know what fate has in store for us. A recent article from The Press Enterprise titled Yes, you must go there: Think about the unthinkable, plan for the worst” explains the steps.

Put an appointment in your schedule. Make an appointment with a qualified estate planning attorney. If you make the call and have an actual appointment, you have a deadline and that’s a start. The attorney may have a planning worksheet or organizer that he or she can send to you to guide you.

Start getting organized. If this seems overwhelming, break it out into separate parts. Begin with the easy part: a list of names, addresses, phone numbers, and email addresses for family members. Include any other people who you intend to include in your estate plan.

Next, list your assets and an estimated value of each. It doesn’t have to be to the penny. Include the account numbers, name of the institution, phone number and, if you have a personal contact, a name. Include bank accounts, real estate holdings, timeshares, stocks, bonds, personal property, vehicles, RVs, any collectibles of value (attach appraisals if you have them), life insurance and retirement accounts. List the professionals who you rely on—your estate planning lawyer, CPA, financial advisor, etc.

If you own a firearm, include your license and make sure your spouse is aware of the information. In certain states, having possession of a firearm without being the licensed owner is against the law.

Name an executor or personal representative. Estate planning is not just for death. It is also for incapacity. Who will act on your behalf, if you are not able to do so? Many people name their spouse, a long-time trusted friend or a family member. Be certain that person will be willing to act on your behalf. Have a second person also named, in case something occurs, and your first choice cannot serve.

If you have minor children, your estate plan will include a guardian who will be responsible for raising them. Talk about that with your spouse and that person to make sure they are willing to serve. You can also name a second person to be in charge of finances for the children. Your estate planning lawyer will talk with you about the role of trusts to provide for the children.

Think about your overall goals. How do you see your legacy? Do you want to leave some funds for a charity that has meaning to you and your family? Do you want your children to receive equal shares of your entire estate? Does one child require special needs planning or are you concerned that one of your children may not be able to manage an inheritance? These are all topics to discuss with your estate planning attorney. Their experience will help clarify your goals and create a plan.

Reference: The Press Enterprise (Feb. 2, 2020) Yes, you must go there: Think about the unthinkable, plan for the worst”

Suggested Key Terms: 

Estate Planning, Simplified

Estate planning attorneys hear it all the time: “My children will have to figure it out,” “Everything will go to my spouse, right?” and “It’s just not a priority right now.” But then we read about famous people who don’t plan, and the family court battles that go on for years. Regular families also have this happen. We just don’t read about it.

A useful article from The Mercury titled “Estate planning basics and an estate attorney meeting preparation” reviews the basics of estate planning and explains how following the advice of an experienced estate planning attorney can protect families from the financial and emotional pain of an estate battle.

Estate planning is not just concerned with passing property and assets along to heirs. Estate planning also concerns itself with planning for incapacity, or the inability to act or speak on one’s own behalf. This is what happens when someone becomes too ill or is injured, although we usually think of incapacity as having to do with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia.

Lacking an estate plan, all the assets you have worked to accumulate are subject to being distributed by a court-ordered executor, who likely doesn’t know you or your family. Having an estate plan in place protects you and your family.

Living Will or Advanced Directive. A living will provides directions from a patient to their doctor, concerning their wishes regarding life support. This alleviates the family from having to make a painful and permanent decision. They will know what their loved one wanted.

Springing Durable Power of Attorney. This document will allow someone you choose to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf if you are not able to. Some attorneys prefer to use the Durable Power of Attorney, rather than the Springing POA, since the Springing event may need a physician to state that the individual has become incapacitated, and it may require the court becoming involved. Powers of attorney can be drafted to be very limited in nature (i.e., to let one single task be accomplished), or very broad, allowing the POA to handle everything on your behalf.

Durable Power of Attorney for Health Care. This lets a person you name make health care decisions for you, if you are not able to do so. The decision-making power is limited to health care only.

Should Your Health Care POA and Your Financial/Legal POA be the Same Person? Deciding who to give these powers to can be difficult. Is the person you are considering equally skilled with health care as they are with finances? Someone who is very emotional may not be able to make health care decisions although they may be good with money. Think carefully about your decision. Just remember it’s better that you make this decision rather than leaving it for the court to decide.

Last Will and Testament: This is the document people think of when they think about estate planning. It is a document that allows the person to transfer specific property after they die in the way they want. It also allows the person to name a guardian for any minor children and an executor who will be in charge of administering the estate. It is far better that you name a guardian and an executor than having the court select someone to take on these roles.

The estate planning process will be smoother if you spend some time speaking with your spouse and family members to discuss some of the key decisions discussed above. Talk with your loved ones about your thoughts on death and what you’d like to have happen. Think about what kind of legacy you want to leave and then contact an experienced estate planning attorney to put your plan into action.

Estate battles often leave families estranged during a time when they need each other most. Spend the time and resources creating an estate plan with a qualified estate planning attorney. Leaving your family intact and loving may be the best legacy of all.

Reference: The Mercury (Oct. 27, 2019) “Estate planning basics and an estate attorney meeting preparation”

 

It’s Like Going to the Dentist: You Need to Get Your Estate Plan Ready

This is one of those things that you know you should do but you keep finding reasons not to. After all, says the article Estate planning: How to quit stalling and write your willfrom The Orange County Register, none of us likes to think about dying or what might occur that would require someone else to raise our children.

What do you need to get motivated and stop procrastinating?

Remember who you are creating a will for. Think of it as a love letter to those you leave behind. You want to provide specific instructions for the people you love about what you want to happen to your minor children, beloved pets and possessions. You are saving them the worries of trying to guess what you would have wanted and the cost of having to pay attorneys to clean up a mess after you have died.

Legal visualization. Think about what will happen in the absence of a will. Without an estate plan, a court will decide who will raise your children. State law determines who inherits your possessions and maybe the laws won’t follow your wishes. Every estate planning attorney has stories of people who die without planning. A spendthrift heir can easily spend a lifetime’s work in less than two years. A trust can be used to control how and when money is distributed.

Simple works. Don’t let the term “estate plan” throw you. A basic estate plan is not as complicated or as expensive as you might think. An experienced estate planning attorney will guide you through the process. You should also think about the short-term: what do you want to happen, if you die sometime in the next five years? You can always update the plan, if things change.

Give yourself a realistic timeline. Setting specific dates for tasks to be done and breaking the project out into smaller parts, can make this easier to address. Start by getting an appointment with an attorney on your calendar. Then set a date to have a conversation with your family members about guardians, charities and other intentions for your legacy. That might take place around Thanksgiving, when families have extended time together. By December 1, clarify and confirm that you want your documents drafted by an experienced estate planning attorney and set hte ball in motion to get the documents prepared and signed. You should also make sure to retitle any assets that are being moved into trusts.

If you were to start today, you could be done by New Year’s Day, 2020. Wouldn’t that feel great?

Reference: The Orange County Register (October 1, 2019) Estate planning: How to quit stalling and write your will