Should a Trust Be Part of My Estate Plan?

A revocable trust can be a wise choice for managing your assets, says nj.com’s recent article entitled “What are the advantages of putting assets into a trust?”

A revocable trust is a type of trust that can be changed once it is executed by the creator of the trust, known as the grantor. During the life of the trust, income earned is distributed to the grantor. After his or her death, the trust assets transfer to the beneficiaries of the trust.  A revocable trust can be advantageous because it has flexibility and provides this income stream and full access to the trust principal by the living grantor (also known as the trustor).

If you are the grantor, you can act as trustee, by yourself or with another as co-trustee.  When you no longer want to manage, or when you’re unable to manage your affairs, the co-trustee or a successor trustee can take over all of the duties.

If you didn’t put your assets in a revocable trust, you’d need to appoint an agent under a durable power of attorney to handle your financial affairs, if you become incapacitated.  However, some financial institutions would rather do business with a trustee instead of an agent under a power of attorney.

At your death, if all of your assets are in trust, your family can avoid the probate process. The trustee continues to manage the trust assets pursuant to the terms of the trust document. Those instructions do not need to be recorded any court in most jurisdictions.

Unlike a will, which is recorded with the government once it is probated, a trust is not a public document in most jurisdictions. Therefore, privacy is another advantage of a trust.

Finally, in states where an inheritance tax return is required, a revocable trust also avoids the need to obtain tax waivers, which are issued by the state to release any tax liens, upon death.  However, there are some downsides to putting assets into a trust.

First, the expense of creating a trust will be more than a simple will and you would still need a will in the event you did not place everything in the trust during your lifetime or upon your death by a beneficiary designation.

Sometimes, having all of your assets in trust can also be more costly or cumbersome. For instance, insurance may be more expensive when an asset is in the trust.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare a trust and estate planning documents for you.

Reference: nj.com (March 17, 2021) “What are the advantages of putting assets into a trust?”

 

Why Do I Need Estate Planning?

Many people who failed to plan their estate with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney have their assets tied up in lengthy, and often messy, legal battles that were decided by people not of their choosing.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Everyone Needs An Estate Plan: Here’s What You Need To Know” says that although many of us don’t have quite as much at stake financially, it doesn’t mean that estate planning is any less important. In fact, leaving a legacy, passing down wealth and helping family aren’t things that are just for the ultra-rich.

The biggest misstep is not creating an estate plan at all. This is more than just a last will and includes powers of attorney, healthcare directives, a living will and a HIPAA waiver. People put this important responsibility off because they do not want to contemplate their own death. They try to avoid the subject. Some others may have complex family dynamics, and still others are hesitant to confide their complicated relationships with a lawyer. However, all these are just excuses.

We know that life is full of changes, and people get married, divorced, have children and grandchildren, relocate to different states, change careers and get inheritances. Each of these events could make you reconsider your goals. This may necessitate an update to your estate plan.

You need to review the beneficiaries on your IRAs, life insurance policies and pensions. You should look at how you want your heirs to receive your assets and any charitable or philanthropic notions. With powers of attorney, healthcare directives, living wills and HIPAA waivers, you need to think about who you’ll entrust to make important medical and financial decisions for you, if you become incapacitated. You see these critical questions and many others are fluid and prone to change every few years as your life changes.

Remember that your assets receive different treatment from the IRS based on the type and who owns legally owns them. For example, individual retirement accounts (IRAs), Roth IRAs, traditional brokerage accounts, life insurance policies and bank accounts are different than the family home. Therefore, it’s important to be mindful of which assets are left to whom.

Don’t wait. Speak to an experienced estate planning attorney to be certain that you give this process the attention it deserves for the well-being of you and your family.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 26, 2021) “Everyone Needs An Estate Plan: Here’s What You Need To Know”

 

How Do I Talk to the Children about My Estate Planning?

Some $68 trillion will move between generations in the next two decades, reports U.S. News & World Report in the article “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children.” Having this conversation with your adult children, especially if they are members of Generation X, could have a profound impact on the quality of your relationship and your legacy.

Staying on top of your estate plan and having candid discussions with your children will also have an impact on how much of your estate is consumed by estate taxes. The historically high federal exemptions are not going to last forever—even without any federal legislation, they sunset in 2025, which isn’t far away.

One of the purposes of your estate plan is to transfer money as you wish. What most people do is talk with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan. They create trusts, naming their child as the trustee, or simple wills naming their child as the executor. Then, the parents drop the ball. Talk with your children about the role of trustee and/or executor. Help them understand the responsibilities that these roles require and ask if they will be comfortable handling the decision making, as well as the money. Include the Power of Attorney role in your discussion.What most parents refuse to discuss with their children is money, plain and simple. Children will be better equipped, if they know what financial institutions hold your accounts and are introduced to your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor.

You might at some point forget about some investments, or the location of some accounts as you age. If your children have a working understanding of your finances, estate plan and your wishes, they will be able to get going and you will have spared them an estate scavenger hunt.

If possible, hold a family meeting with your advisors, so everyone is comfortable and up to speed.

Most adult children do not have the same experience with taxes as parents who have acquired wealth over their lifetimes. They may not understand the concepts of qualified and non-qualified accounts, step-up in cost basis, life insurance proceeds, or a probate asset versus a non-probate asset. It is critical that they understand how taxes impact estates and investments. By explaining things like tax-free distributions from a Roth IRA, for instance, you will increase the likelihood that your life savings aren’t battered by taxes.

Even if your adult children work in finance, do not assume they understand your investments, your tax-planning, or your estate. Even the smartest people make expensive mistakes, when handling family estates.

Having these discussions is another way to show your children that you care enough to set your own ego aside and are thinking about their future. It’s a way to connect not just about your money or your taxes, but about their futures. Knowing that you purchased a life insurance policy specifically to provide them with money for a home purchase, or to fund a grandchild’s college education, sends a clear message. Don’t miss the opportunity to share that with them, while you are living.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Feb. 17, 2021) “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children”

 

Should I Add that to My Will?

In general, a last will and testament is an easy and straightforward way to state who gets what when you die and designate a guardian for your minor children, if you (and your spouse) die unexpectedly.

MSN’s recent article entitled “Things you should never put in your will” explains that you can be specific about who receives what. However, attaching strings or conditions may not work because there’s no one to legally enforce the terms. If you have specific details about how a person should use their inheritance, whether they are a spendthrift or someone with special needs, a trust may be a better option because you’ll have more control, even from beyond the grave.

Keeping some assets out of your will can actually benefit your future heirs because they’ll get their inheritance faster. When you pass on, your will must be “proven” and validated in a probate court prior to distribution of your property. This process takes some time and effort, if there are issues—including something in your will that doesn’t need to be there. For example, property in a trust and payable-on-death accounts are two types of assets that can be distributed to your beneficiaries without a will.

Don’t put anything in a will that you don’t own outright. If you jointly own assets with someone, they will likely become the new owner. For example, this applies to a property acquired by married couples in community property states.

Property in a revocable living trust. This is a separate entity that you can use to distribute your assets which avoids probate. When you title property into the trust, it is subject to the trust’s rules.  Because a trust operates independently, you must avoid inconsistencies and not include anything in your will that the trust addresses. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss.

Assets with named beneficiaries. Some financial accounts are payable-on-death or transferable-on-death. They are distributed or paid out directly to the named beneficiaries. That makes putting them in a will unnecessary (and potentially troublesome, if you’re inconsistent). However, you can add information about these assets in your letter of instruction (see below). As far as bank accounts, brokerage or investment accounts, retirement accounts and pension plans and life insurance policies, assign a beneficiary rather than putting these assets in your will.

Jointly owned property. Property you jointly own with someone else will almost always directly pass to the co-owner when you die, so do not put it in your will. A common arrangement is joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Other things you may not want to put in a will. Businesses can be given away in a will, but it’s not the best plan. Wills must be probated in court and that can create a rough transition after you die. Instead, work with an experienced estate planning attorney on a succession plan for your business and discuss any estate tax issues you may have as a business owner.

Adding your funeral instructions in your will isn’t optimal. This is because the family may not be able to read the will before making arrangements. Instead, leave a letter of instruction with any personal wishes and desires.

Reference: MSN (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

 

What Questions Keep Pre-Retirees Awake at Night?

As we get to the final part of our careers, thoughts of how retirement will look can create mixed emotions. For many, it will be a time to dream about doing those things on their bucket list, such as traveling abroad, learning a hobby, making memories with grandchildren, or pursuing a new business venture.

However, for others, it may be a time of stress and uncertainly because of the extent to which our identity has been tied to our career success and advancement. The routines and structures we’ve followed for years will end, and we face a new reality.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “4 Questions That Keep Most Pre-Retirees Awake at Night” explains that for many people coming to this next phase of life, there are four questions that will keep them awake at night. Knowing the answers to these four questions, can give confidence to those who are prepared to make this a smooth transition.

Exactly When Can I Retire? With the traditional pension becoming a thing of the past, the answer may not be so obvious. We also can’t overlook the emotional piece of retirement. Research shows that the happiest people in retirement will be retiring to something, instead of retiring from something. Several pursuits in retirement can bring purpose and meaning to daily life. As you near retirement, consider what pursuits you may enjoy and allow yourself to look forward to getting started.

Will I Have Enough Money? What’s the “magic number” that makes it appropriate to retire? However, more importantly, what is your “magic number.” This may be tied emotionally to a vision you’ve had your entire career, like accumulating $1 million or paying off your mortgage. However, there’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question. Start by creating a retirement budget and understand what percentage of your monthly expenses can be covered by fixed sources of income, like your Social Security, pension and investments. The closer this percentage is to 100, the better. You should also be certain that you parse out the purpose of your money and specifically dedicate it to things, like creating monthly income, covering future health care costs and growth to outpace inflation. If you do this, you’ll be better able to allocate your portfolio appropriately among various tools, such as savings, investments, annuities and life insurance, etc..

Will My Nest Egg Last Throughout Retirement? A major issue for retirees is having negative returns in their investment portfolio during their early years of retirement. Unlike your working years, when you may have been contributing money to your retirement plan on a regular basis, the opposite may now happen. Monthly withdrawals may be needed to generate needed income. This is referred to as a Sequence of Returns Risk, where the order in which the annual returns hit a portfolio matters significantly. The best way to manage this risk is to avoid taking systematic distributions from a fluctuating account. Earmark a portion of your portfolio to create the monthly income needed to cover fixed expenses that are beyond what your Social Security and your pension will provide. Once you have this, you’re ready to see what combination of investments and insurance tools are right for you.

Will My Family Be OK? If you die, will your spouse be OK and able to carry on? It’s essential to be sure that both spouses are comfortable with the finances and how decisions on investing and retirement have been made. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney if you have not created an estate plan yet.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 29, 2020) “4 Questions That Keep Most Pre-Retirees Awake at Night”

 

Retirement Account Beneficiary Choices and Your Estate

Even if you have done all the right estate planning, mistakes with beneficiaries can happen. Just remember this very simple fact: your will does not control your retirement accounts and it may not control any accounts where you have been asked to name the person who inherits the asset, like a life insurance policy.

A designated beneficiary is the person named on a retirement or investment account to inherit the asset if you die. That’s the simple part. What gets complicated is when people don’t think it’s such a big deal, says a recent article “5 Mistakes To Avoid With Retirement Account Beneficiary Selections” from Forbes. Mistakes made about beneficiaries can be costly and sometimes, unfixable. You could accidently disinherit a child or leave money to an ex-spouse.

A will can also push your estate into the probate process which can have some significant pitfalls. If you have a living trust but neglect to fund it, the assets left outside of the trust might also have to go through probate. The best way for most people to pass assets like retirement accounts is to have them go directly to a beneficiary.

Other accounts that pass via beneficiary designation are usually 401(k)s, IRAs, Roth IRAs, life insurance, annuities, and investment accounts that have Transfer on Death (TOD) options. Using beneficiary designations may allow your heirs to receive assets in a tax-efficient and fast manner.

What are the top five mistakes people make for beneficiary designations?

Forgetting to name a beneficiary. This happens very commonly when people are young adults. It’s hard to imagine needing to name an heir when you are young and healthy, but not naming anyone creates headaches.

Ignoring special circumstances. When you have an heir with an addiction problem, one who has trouble managing money or who is preparing to leave a marriage, leaving them a large sum of money can create more problems. If your loved one has special needs and receives benefits from the government, an inheritance could put all their aid at risk. An estate planning attorney can help create a Special Needs Trust and plan for their future.

Using the wrong name. It sounds silly, but it happens often. If your loved one’s name is Jane Doe, or there are family members with very similar names, you’ll need to use more information to identify them, like birthdates, Social Security numbers and even details about their relationship to you. Not providing enough clear information, could send your asset into the wrong hands.

Neglecting to update your beneficiaries. The person you name as your beneficiary when you are in your 30s, may not be the same person you want to inherit your assets in your 60s. If you have remarried, you must change all beneficiary designations to protect your current spouse. If you have had children or additional children since you first purchased a life insurance policy, you’ll need to be sure that all your children are named on that policy. Every few years, just as you need to review your estate plan, you need to update your beneficiaries.

Failing to discuss your beneficiaries with your estate planning attorney, tax, and financial advisor. There are complications that can occur with an inheritance. Being pushed into a higher bracket sounds like a nice problem to have, until the tax bill comes due. Your estate planning attorney will be able to work with you and your loved ones to protect your legacy and their future.

Reference: Forbes (Oct. 25, 2020) “5 Mistakes To Avoid With Retirement Account Beneficiary Selections”

 

Despite Pandemic, Many Still Don’t Have an Estate Plan

It’s true—many people still believe that they don’t have enough assets so they don’t need a will, or that their money will automatically go to a next of kin. Both of these beliefs are wrong. While the title of this CNBC article is “More people are creating wills amid the pandemic,” the story’s focus is on the fact that most Americans don’t have a will. If you belong to this group, here’s what happens when you die.

The state you live in has laws about who will receive your assets if you die without a will, known as intestacy. Let’s say you live in New York. Your surviving spouse and children will receive your assets. However, in Texas, your assets will be entered into the state’s intestacy probate process, and your relatives will divide up your assets. Want to be in charge of who inherits your property? Have a will created with an experienced estate attorney.

Young adults think they don’t need a will, but Covid-19 has taken the lives of many healthy, young people. Every adult over age 18 needs a will. If you don’t have one, your loved ones—even if it’s your parents—will inherit a legal mess that will take time and money to fix.

If you have children and no will, there’s no way to be sure who will raise your children. The court will decide. Choose your guardians, name them in your will and be sure to name additional choices just in case the first guardian can’t or won’t serve. You should also appoint someone to be in charge of your children’s money.

What if you had a will created 10 or twenty years ago? That’s another big mistake. Your life changes, the law changes, and so do relationships. Life insurance policies, retirement plans, and transfer-on-death instruments are all legally binding contracts. The last will you made will be used, and if you haven’t updated your will or other documents, then the old decisions will stand. Remember that contracts supersede wills, so no matter how much you don’t want your ex to receive your life insurance proceeds, failing to change that designation won’t help your second spouse. You should review and update all documents.

Doing it yourself is risky. You won’t know if your will is valid and enforceable, if you do it from an online template. Your heirs will have to fix things, which can be expensive. The cost of an estate plan depends on the complexity of your situation. You may only need a will, power of attorney and advance directive. You may also need trusts to pass property along with minimal taxes. An estate planning attorney will be able to give you an idea of how much your estate plan will cost.

Talking about death and planning for it is a difficult topic for everyone, but a well-planned estate plan is one of the most thoughtful gifts you can give to your loved ones.

Reference: CNBC (Oct. 5, 2020) “More people are creating wills amid the pandemic”

 

Does My Estate Plan Need an Audit?

You should have an estate plan because every state has statutes that describe how your assets are managed, and who benefits if you don’t have a will. Most people want to have more say about who and how their assets are managed, so they draft estate planning documents that match their objectives.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Auditing Your Estate Plan” says the first question is what are your estate planning objectives? Almost everyone wants to have financial security and the satisfaction of knowing how their assets will be properly managed. Therefore, these are often the most common objectives. However, some people also want to also promote the financial and personal growth of their families, provide for social and cultural objectives by giving to charity and other goals. To help you with deciding on your objectives and priorities, here are some of the most common objectives:

  • Making sure a surviving spouse or family is financially OK
  • Providing for others
  • Providing now for your children and later
  • Saving now on income taxes
  • Saving on estate and gift taxes in the future
  • Donating to charity
  • Having a trusted agency manage my assets, if I am incapacitated
  • Having money for my children’s education
  • Having retirement income; and
  • Shielding my assets from creditors.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about the way in which you should handle your assets. If your plan doesn’t meet your objectives, your estate plan should be revised. This will include a review of your will, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms and real property titles.

Note that joint accounts, pay on death (POD) accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities and other assets will transfer to your heirs by the way you designate your beneficiaries on those accounts. Any assets in a trust won’t go through probate. “Irrevocable” trusts may protect assets from the claims of creditors and possibly long-term care costs, if properly drafted and funded.

Another question is what happens in the event you become mentally or physically incapacitated and who will see to your financial and medical affairs. Use a power of attorney to name a person to act as your agent in these situations.

If, after your audit, you find that your plans need to be revised, follow these steps:

  1. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a plan based on your objectives
  2. Draft and execute a will and other estate planning documents customized to your plan
  3. Correctly title your assets and complete your beneficiary designations
  4. Create and fund trusts
  5. Draft and sign powers of attorney, in the event of your incapacity
  6. Draft and sign documents for ownership interest in businesses, intellectual property, artwork and real estate
  7. Discuss the consequences of implementing your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney; and
  8. Review your plan regularly.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 23, 2020) “Auditing Your Estate Plan”

 

What’s Involved in the Probate Process?

SWAAY’s recent article entitled “What is the Probate Process in Florida?” says that while every state has its own laws, the probate process can be fairly similar. Here are the basic steps in the probate process:

The family consults with an experienced probate attorney. Those mentioned in the decedent’s will should meet with a probate lawyer. During the meeting, all relevant documentation like the list of debts, life insurance policies, financial statements, real estate title deeds, and the will should be available.

Filing the petition. The process would be in initiated by the executor or personal representative named in the will. He or she is in charge of distributing the estate’s assets. If there’s no will, you can ask an estate planning attorney to petition a court to appoint an executor. When the court approves the estate representative, the Letters of Administration are issued as evidence of legal authority to act as the executor. The executor will pay state taxes, funeral costs, and creditor claims on behalf of the decedent. He or she will also notice creditors and beneficiaries, coordinate the asset distribution and then close the probate estate.

Noticing beneficiaries and creditors. The executor must notify all beneficiaries of trust estates and the surviving spouse and all parties that have the rights of inheritance. Creditors of the deceased will also want to be paid and will make a claim on the estate.

Obtaining the letters of administration (letters testamentary) obtained from the probate court. After the executor obtains the letter, he or she will open the estate account at a bank. Statements and assets that were in the deceased name will be liquidated and sold if there’s a need. Proceeds obtained from the sale of property are kept in the estate account and are later distributed.

Settling all expenses, taxes, and estate debts. By law, the decedent’s debts must typically be settled prior to any distributions to the heirs. The executor will also prepare a final income tax return for the estate. Note that life insurance policies and retirement savings are distributed to heirs despite the debts owed, as they transfer by beneficiary designation outside of the will and probate.

Conducting an inventory of the estate. The executor will have conducted a final account of the remaining estate. This accounting will include the fees paid to the executor, probate expenses, cost of assets and the charges incurred when settling debts.

Distributing the assets. After the creditor claims have been settled, the executor will ask the court to transfer all assets to successors in compliance with state law or the provisions of the will. The court will issue an order to move the assets. If there’s no will, the state probate succession laws will decide who is entitled to receive a share of the property.

Finalizing the probate estate. The last step is for the executor to formally close the estate. The includes payment to creditors and distribution of assets, preparing a final distribution document and a closing affidavit that states that the assets were adequately distributed to all heirs.

We suggest that you contact an experienced estate planning attorney to assist you in the probate process.

Reference: SWAAY (Aug. 24, 2020) “What is the Probate Process in Florida?”

 

How Do I Find a Good Estate Planning Attorney?

About 68% of Americans don’t have a will. With the threat of the coronavirus on everyone’s mind, people are in urgent need of an estate plan. To make sure your plan is proper and legal, consult an experienced estate planning attorney. Work with a lawyer who understands your needs, has years of experience and knows the law in your state.

EconoTimes’ recent article entitled “Top 3 Estate Planning Tips When Seeing An Attorney” provides several tips for estate planning when seeing an attorney.

Attorney Experience. An estate planning attorney will have the experience and specialized knowledge to help you, compared to a general practitioner. Look for an attorney who specializes in estate planning.

Inventory. List everything you have. Once you start the list, you may be surprised with the tangible and intangible assets you possess.

Tangible assets may include:

  • Cars and boats
  • Homes, land, and other real estate
  • Collectibles like art, coins, or antiques; and
  • Other personal possessions.

Your intangible assets may include:

  • Mutual funds, bonds, stocks
  • Savings accounts and certificates of deposit
  • Retirement plans
  • Health saving accounts; and
  • Business ownership.

Create Your Estate Planning Documents. Prior to seeing an experienced estate planning attorney, he or she will have you fill out a questionnaire and to bring a list of documents to the appointment. In every estate plan, the core documents often include a creating a last will and powers of attorney, as well as coordinating your Beneficiary Designations on life insurance and investment accounts. You may also want to ask about a trust and if you have minor children selecting a guardian for their care if you should pass away. You should also ask about estate taxes with the attorney.

Reference: EconoTimes (July 30, 2020) “Top 3 Estate Planning Tips When Seeing An Attorney”