How Can I Upgrade My Estate Plan?

Forbes’ recent article, “4 Ways To Improve Your Estate Plan,” suggests that since most people want to plan for a good life and a good retirement, why not plan for a good end of life, too? Here are four ways you can refine your estate plan, protect your assets and create a degree of control and certainty for your family.

  1. Beneficiary Designations. Many types of accounts go directly to heirs, without going through the probate process. This includes life insurance contracts, 401(k)s and IRAs. These accounts can be transferred through beneficiary designations. You should update and review these forms and designations every few years, especially after major life events like divorce, marriage or the birth or adoption of children or grandchildren.
  2. Life Insurance. A main objective of life insurance is to protect against the loss of income, in the event of an individual’s untimely death. The most important time to have life insurance is while you’re working and supporting a family with your income. Life insurance can provide much needed cash flow and liquidity for estates that might be subject to estate taxes or that have lots of non-liquid assets, like family businesses, farms, artwork or collectibles.
  3. Consider a Trust. In some situations, creating a trust to shelter or control assets is a good idea. There are two main types of trusts: revocable and irrevocable. You can fund revocable trusts with assets and still use the assets now, without changing their income tax nature. This can be an effective way to pass on assets outside of probate and allow a trustee to manage assets for their beneficiaries. An irrevocable trust can be a way to provide protection from creditors, separate assets from the annual tax liability of the original owner and even help reduce estate taxes in some situations. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss options.
  4. Charitable Giving. With charitable giving as part of an estate plan, you can make outright gifts to charities or set up a charitable remainder annuity trust (CRAT) to provide income to a surviving spouse, with the remainder going to the charity.

Your estate planning attorney will tell you that your estate plan is unique to your situation. A big part of an estate plan is about protecting your family, making sure assets pass smoothly to your designated heirs and eliminating stress for your loved ones.

Reference: Forbes (November 6, 2019) “4 Ways To Improve Your Estate Plan”

 

What’s Better, A Living Trust or a Will?

Everyone knows what a Last Will and Testament is however, a Will is not always the best way to distribute your assets, explains the Times Herald-Record in the article “Living trusts are better choice than wills.” Most people think that by having a will alone, they will make it clear who they want to receive their assets when they die. However, wills are used by the court in a proceeding called “probate” if the only estate plan you have is a will. The court proceeding is to establish that the will is valid. Depending upon where you live, probate can take a year before assets are distributed to beneficiaries.

Certain family members must receive notifications when a will is submitted to probate. Some people will receive notices even if they are not mentioned in the will. This can lead to all kinds of awkward situations especially from estranged or unknown relatives. The person who is the Executor of the will is required to locate these relatives and until they are found and notified, the probate process comes to a standstill.

There are instances where a judge will allow a legal notice to be published in a local newspaper after valid attempts to find relatives aren’t successful. If there is a disabled beneficiary, a minor beneficiary, a relative or beneficiary who can’t be located or a relative who has been incarcerated, the judge often appoints lawyers to represent these parties’ interests and the estate pays for the attorney’s fees.

Depending on the situation, the Executor may be required to furnish a family tree, or a friend of the decedent must sign an affidavit attesting that the person never had any children.

Thinking of disinheriting a child? Anyone who is disinherited in a will, receives a notice about that and is legally permitted to contest the will. That can lead to years of expensive litigation, including discovery demands, depositions, motions and possibly a trial. Like most litigation, will contests usually end in a settlement. The disinherited relative often gets a share of the inheritance even when the decedent didn’t want them to get anything.

For many families, a living trust is a better alternative. They also serve as disability planning naming people who will manage the assets of the trust in case of incapacity. They are private documents so their information does not become public knowledge like the details of a will.

A qualified estate planning attorney will help you determine what estate planning tools will work best to achieve your goals while maintaining your privacy and ensuring that assets pass to heirs in a discrete manner.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Oct. 26, 2019) “Living trusts are better choice than wills”

 

What Is a Pour-Over Will?

If the goal of estate planning is to avoid probate, it seems counterintuitive that one would sign a will, but the pour-over will is an essential part of some estate plans, reports the Times Herald-Record’s article “Pour-over will a safety net for a living trust.”

If a person dies with assets in their name alone those assets go through probate. The pour-over will names the trust as the beneficiary of probate assets so the trust controls who receives the inheritance. The pour-over will works as a backup plan to the trust and it also revokes past wills and codicils.

Living trusts became more widely used after a 1991 AARP study concluded that families should be using trusts rather than wills and that wills were obsolete. Trusts were suddenly not just for the wealthy. Middle class people started using trusts rather than wills, to save time and money and avoid estate battles among family members. Trusts also served to keep financial and personal affairs private. Wills that are probated are public documents that anyone can review.

Even a simple probate lasts about a year, before beneficiaries receive inheritances. A trust can be settled in months. Regarding the cost of probate, it is estimated that between 2—4% of the cost of settling an estate can be saved by using a trust instead of a will.

When a will is probated, family members receive a notice, which allows them to contest the will. When assets are in a trust, there is no notification. This avoids delay, costs and the aggravation of a will contest.

Wills are not a bad thing and they do serve a purpose. However, this specific legal document comes with certain legal requirements. The will was actually invented more than 500 years ago, by King Henry VIII of England. Many people still think that wills are the best estate planning document but they may be unaware of the government oversight and potential complications when a will is probated. Your personal information is exposed. There were no estate planning attorneys at that time.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to talk about how probate may impact your heirs and see if they believe the use of a trust and a pour-over will would make the most sense for your family.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Sep. 13, 2019) “Pour-over will a safety net for a living trust.”

 

Estate Planning Smooths Life’s Bumpy Road

It’s too bad that this happened to the Franklin family but it happens often. A family member dies unexpectedly or becomes incapacitated at a young age and they never did the right planning.  Sometimes worse, they did the right planning but the documents are decades old and out of step with current laws and the power of attorney is so old  that no financial institution will recognize it.

The problems that these scenarios create for loved ones are stressful and expensive and take a fair amount of everyone’s time. Solutions are offered in the article “Planning for the unexpected–4 Steps to get your affairs in order” from the Post Independent.

These four steps will help make the unexpected events of life a little less challenging.

Have a will and other estate planning documents prepared.

A will is a list of instructions to the court that details how you want your possessions to be distributed after you die. It should be drafted by an estate planning attorney who is licensed to practice law in your home state. The will goes through the probate process, which takes care of your legal and financial matters. In some states, the probate process is a simple process. In others, it can be problematic. Your estate planning attorney will be able to advise you about the probate process in your area.

A revocable living trust is a useful estate planning document that is used to establish more control over your assets, while you are alive. It should also be created by an experienced estate planning attorney. At your death, assets held in your trust then pass to heirs and avoid the probate process.

Make sure you title your assets properly.

Once you have a will and any trusts in place, any assets you wish to have placed in the trust need to be titled correctly. If you own a property with someone else and want to be sure your share of that property goes to the other owner, you’ll need to title it jointly.

Don’t forget to review the beneficiary designations that are usually a part of your bank and investment accounts, retirement accounts and insurance policies. Any beneficiary designation will override the will. If you haven’t reviewed beneficiary designations in a long time, now is the time to do so. There is no way to undo a beneficiary designation, once you have died.

Have power of attorney agreements created.

These documents give another person, the “agent,” the power to act on your business, financial and legal affairs, if you are incapacitated. The laws vary from state to state, which is another reason to work with an estate planning attorney licensed in your state. You’ll need these documents:

  • A Durable Power of Attorney
  • A Health Care Proxy
  • A Living Will
  • Prepare a letter of instruction-This is not a legally binding document, but it can provide loved ones with a great deal of clarity when you have passed.
  • Consider including this information:
  • A list of financial accounts and account numbers and any online usernames and passwords.
  • A list of important documents and where they can be found.
  • The names and contact information for the legal and financial professionals with whom you work.
  • Your final burial and/or funeral wishes.

Once you’re done, review the documents every few years and when there are major events in your life, including births, marriages, divorces, deaths and other “trigger” events. Remember that the laws change, so don’t let too much time go by without a thorough review of your estate plan.

Reference: Post Independent (July 22, 2019) “Planning for the unexpected–4 Steps to get your affairs in order”

 

Elder Law Estate Planning for the Future

Seniors who are parents of adult children can make their children’s lives easier, by making the effort to button down major goals in elder law estate planning, advises Times Herald-Record in the article “Three ways for seniors to make things easier for their kids.” Those tasks are planning for disability, protecting assets from long-term care or nursing home costs and minimizing costs and stress in passing assets to the next generation. Here’s what you need to do, and how to do it.

Disability planning includes signing advance directives. These are legal documents that are created while you still have all of your mental faculties. Naming people who will make decisions on your behalf, if and when you become incapacitated, gives those you love the ability to take care of you without having to apply for guardianship or other legal proceedings. Advance directives include powers of attorney, health care proxies, durable powers of attorney and living wills.

Your power of attorney will make all and any legal and financial decisions on your behalf.  With a health care proxy, a person is named who can make medical decisions. In a living will, you have the ability to convey your wishes for end-of-life care, including resuscitation and artificial feeding.

When advance directives are in place, you spare your family the need to have a judge appoint a legal guardian to manage your affairs. That saves time, money and keeps the judiciary out of your life. Your children can act on your behalf when they need to, during what will already be a very difficult time.

Goal number two is protecting assets from the cost of long-term care. Losing the family home and retirement savings to unexpected nursing costs is devasting and may be avoided with the right planning. The first and best option is to purchase long-term care insurance. If you don’t have or can’t obtain a policy, the next best is the Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT) that is used to protect assets in the trust from nursing home costs after the assets have been in the trust for five years.

The third thing that will make your adult children’s lives easier is to have a will. This lets you leave assets to the family as you want, with the least amount of court costs, legal fees, taxes and family battles over inheritances. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will created.  If your attorney advises it, you can also consider having trusts created so your assets can be placed into the trusts and avoid probate (which is a public process). A trust can be easier for children because estates settle more quickly.

Think of estate planning as part of your legacy of taking care of your family ensuring that your hard-earned assets are passed to the next generation. You can’t avoid your own death, or that of your spouse, but you can prepare so those you love are helped by thoughtful and proper planning.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (July 13, 2019) “Three ways for seniors to make things easier for their kids”

 

Avoiding a Family Feud When Choosing a Power of Attorney

The challenge in tasking a family member or trusted friend is not just making sure they have the necessary skills, but to navigate family dynamics so that no fights occur says Considerable.com in the article “How to assign power of attorney without sparking a family feud.” Every family situation is different, but in almost all cases, transparency is the best bet.

Start by understanding exactly what is meant by power of attorney, how it functions within the estate plan, and how siblings can all be involved to some degree with the family’s decision-making process.

Power of attorney is a term that gives an individual, or sometimes, individuals, the legal authority to act on behalf of someone else. It is usually used when a person, usually a parent or a spouse, is unable to make decisions for themselves because of illness or injury. It must be noted that power of attorney relates to financial and legal decisions. There are methods to address making decisions for another person for their health care or end-of-life decisions, but they are not accomplished by the power of attorney (POA).

It should be noted that there is a distinct difference between power of attorney and executor of the estate. Power of attorney is in effect while the person who has granted the authority is alive, but unable to act on their own behalf. The executor of the estate assumes responsibility for managing the estate through the probate process. While they are two different roles, they are often held by the same person, usually an adult child who is responsible and has good decision-making skills.

There are different types of power of attorney roles. The most common is the general power of attorney, followed by the health care. The general power of attorney refers to the person who has the authority to handle financial, business or private affairs. If a parent grants power of attorney to one of their children, that child then has the authority to act on behalf of the parent.

Trouble starts if the relationship between siblings is rocky, or if major decisions are made without discussions with siblings.

It’s not easy for siblings when one of them has been granted the power of attorney. That means they must accept the inherent authority of the chosen sibling to make all decisions for their parent. The sibling with the power of authority will have a smoother path if they can be sensitive to how this makes the others feel.

“Mom always liked you best,” is not a sentence that should come from a 50 year old, but often childhood dynamics can reappear during these times.

Remember that the power of attorney is also a fiduciary obligation, meaning that the person who holds it is required to act in the best interest of the parent and not their own. If the relationship between siblings is not good, or there’s no transparency when decisions are made, things can get bumpy.

Here are some tips for parents to bear in mind when deciding who should be their power of attorney:

  • Understand the great power that is being given to another person.
  • Make sure the person who is to be named POA understands the entire range of responsibilities they will have.
  • The siblings who have not been named will need to understand and respect the arrangement. They should also be aware of the potential for problems, keeping their eyes open and being watchful without being suspicious.

Parents should discuss these appointments with their estate planning attorney. Their years of experience in navigating family issues and dynamics give the attorneys insights that will be helpful with assigning these important tasks.

Reference: Considerable.com (July 10, 2019) “How to assign power of attorney without sparking a family feud”

 

What Debts Must Be Paid Before and After Probate?

Everything that must be addressed in settling an estate becomes more complicated, when there is no will and no estate planning has taken place before the person dies. Debts are a particular area of concern for the estate and the executor. What has to be paid, and who gets paid first? These are explained in the article “Dealing with Debts and Mortgages in Probate” from The Balance.

Probate is the process of gaining court approval of the estate and paying off final bills and expenses, before property can be transferred to beneficiaries. Dealing with the debts of a deceased person can be started, before probate officially begins.

Start by making a list of all of the decedent’s liabilities and look for the following bills or statements:

  • Mortgages
  • Reverse mortgages
  • Home equity loans
  • Lines of credit
  • Condo fees
  • Property taxes
  • Federal and state income taxes
  • Car and boat loans
  • Personal loans
  • Loans against life insurance policies
  • Loans against retirement accounts
  • Credit card bills
  • Utility bills
  • Cell phone bills

Next, divide those items into two categories: those that will be ongoing during probate—consider them administrative expenses—and those that can be paid off after the probate estate is opened. These are considered “final bills.” Administrative bills include things like mortgages, condo fees, property taxes and utility bills. They must be kept current. Final bills include income taxes, personal loans, credit card bills, cell phone bills and loans against retirement accounts and/or life insurance policies.

The executors and heirs should not pay any bills out of their own pockets. The executor deals with all of these liabilities in the process of settling the estate.

For some of the liabilities, heirs may have a decision to make about whether to keep the assets with loans. If the beneficiary wants to keep the house or a car, they may, but they have to keep paying down the debt. Otherwise, these payments should be made only by the estate.

The executor decides what bills to pay and which assets should be liquidated to pay final bills.

A far better plan for your beneficiaries, is to create a comprehensive estate plan that includes a will that details how you want your assets distributed and addresses what your wishes are. If you want to leave a house to a loved one, your estate planning attorney will be able to explain how to make that happen, while minimizing taxes on your estate.

Reference: The Balance (March 21, 2019) “Dealing with Debts and Mortgages in Probate”

 

Top Four Facts to Know about Estate Planning

Estate planning can save your family the stress of court cases and family feuds before the process of settling your estate begins. A plan that you create will provide tremendous peace of mind to those who are left behind. The sorrow of losing a loved one is more than enough for a family to experience, says NewsGram, in the article 4 Things You Must Know About Estate Planning.” You had better to have a plan to ensure that your estate is executed with as little acrimony as possible.

Estate planning focuses on planning for how an individual’s assets will be preserved, managed and distributed after their death. It also addresses how the person’s financial life, including their property, is to be managed, in the event they become incapacitated because of an accident or an illness. This is done with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

The core of estate planning while you are living, is to protect your assets, protect your estate from having to pay unnecessary taxes and protects you and your wishes, if you are incapacitated or pass away. Here are four key things everyone should keep in mind while preparing their estate plan.

Age should not be a factor. Anyone who is of legal age and owns anything has an estate. An estate refers to anything of value that you own. It does not mean a $10 million mansion. A home, a car, bank accounts, retirement accounts and personal possessions make up an estate, regardless of their size or value. Once you have assets, you need an estate plan. We don’t know when we are going to die, but we can be sure that if you have no estate plan, the state will determine who receives your assets. You may want to make those decisions for yourself. That’s what an estate plan does.

You need an estate planning attorney. Estate planning crosses into several different legal practice areas. Asset management, tax planning, real estate, guardianship and other areas need to be addressed by a legal professional who understands how these elements all work together. An estate planning attorney has a professional responsibility to help you document your wishes for incapacity and death.

However, they do more than that. The estate planning attorney will help you fine-tune your wishes, gain clarity on what you want to happen during life and death and translate that into the legal language that ensures that your wishes are achieved.

Planning helps avoid or minimize probate. Depending on where you live, probate can be a simple process or one that takes a long time. The estate planning attorney will help you plan to pass your assets to your spouse or the next generation to avoid going through the court process known as probate. This is a process of authenticating your will, verifying that the assets in the will are correctly named, paying off any outstanding tax balances and approving the distribution of the assets. With a good estate plan, you can make this a simple process.

An estate plan works to minimize family squabbles. Disagreements over estates, including personal possessions as well as money, routinely tears families apart. You don’t have to be wealthy or even a celebrity to have a family that is fractured over a misunderstanding or someone feeling like they were not treated fairly. This is another area where an experienced estate planning attorney can help bring you through the process of distributing assets, with a deep dive into how your decisions may be received by various family members.

To get started, contact an experienced estate planning attorney in your community. If you have an estate plan but haven’t reviewed it in more than four years, it’s time for an update. A number of laws have changed on the federal level that may require some changes to your estate plan. If you have had any major life events, you also need a review.

Reference: NewsGram (June 5, 2019) 4 Things You Must Know About Estate Planning.”

 

An Estate Plan Directs Assets According to Your Wishes

Anyone who has any assets they want distributed should have an estate plan, regardless of the size of their estate. Having a will and an estate plan created by an experienced estate planning attorney is the easiest place to start, says the Observer-Reporter in the article “Set up an estate plan so your assets go where you want.” Without a will, the state will decide what happens to your assets, and it may not be what you wanted.

If your will was done more than four years ago and was never updated, it may lead to some unwanted results. If people you named as beneficiaries or executors have died, or if there were divorces in your family, these are examples of changes that should be addressed in the estate plan.

Many people don’t know that insurance policies, annuities, 401(k), or IRA accounts that have a designated beneficiary are going to the designated beneficiary, regardless of what is in the will. If the will says everything in the estate should be divided equally between children, but one child was named the beneficiary on the life insurance policy, then only the named child will inherit the insurance policy.

Another part of an estate plan that is needed to ensure that your wishes are followed, is a financial power of attorney and a health care power of attorney. The financial power of attorney gives the person you name the legal ability to make financial decisions for you, if you are incapacitated. The health care power of attorney, similarly, gives the person you name the power to make health care decisions for you, if you cannot do so for yourself. A living will is another part of planning for incapacity that is a part of a comprehensive estate plan. The living will lets your wishes for end of life care be known to others.

Assets that pass to heirs through beneficiary designations do not go through the probate process. However, assets distributed through your will do so. Probate administration of an estate takes some time to complete, depending upon where you live. In some states, probate is more involved and time consuming than in others.

Another reason why people like to avoid probate is that documents, including your will, are filed with the court and become part of the public record. That’s why many people who lose a family member find themselves receiving direct mail and phone calls about buying insurance policy or selling their home.

There are ways to minimize the number of assets that pass through probate, which your estate planning attorney will be able to explain. Trusts are used for this purpose. There are a variety of trusts that can be used, depending upon your circumstances. Some are used to protect inheritances, if a person has an opiate addiction or cannot manage her own affairs. Others are used, so individuals with special needs do not receive inheritances that would make them ineligible for government benefits.

An experienced estate planning attorney can advise you in creating an estate plan that fits your unique circumstances.

Reference: Observer-Reporter (April 19, 2019) “Set up an estate plan so your assets go where you want”

 

What Happens When Unmarried Couples Don’t Have Wills?

There can be serious problems when people live together without the benefit of marriage. One is that they don’t have any legal right to make medical decisions for each other. Another is that without any will or estate plan in place, the surviving spouse has no legal right to any of the decedent’s property. That’s just for starters, explains the article “Longtime unmarried couple hasn’t planned for future” from the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

The couple may be pleased with their decision to live on their own terms.  However, by refusing to plan for the inevitable, they are creating an unnecessary difficulty for their loved ones. The children and grandchildren of the couple are likely going to end up having to sort out the mess, after one of the couple dies. They may end up in court, battling over the house or other assets.

If the couple wants their property to end up in the hands of their children when they pass away, having no estate plan is not the way to make that happen. When one spouse dies, any assets they own in joint tenancy will go to the surviving partner. When the surviving partner passes, those assets will go to their children, and nothing will be passed to the other family.

The surviving partner will have no legal right to the assets of the deceased partner, other than any that have been titled to joint tenancy. There is no community property between cohabitating couples, unless they have registered as domestic partners. This is how the law works in California, and every state has its own rules. Assets owned by the deceased partner that are titled in his or her name only, belong to the decedent’s probate estate and will pass to their children. If the gentleman dies first, in this example, will his companion be left homeless?

This is a situation that can be easily remedied with an estate plan, creating wills and trusts that clearly spell out how they want their assets to be distributed upon death. There are many different ways to make this happen, but they will need to work with an estate planning attorney. Where the surviving non-homeowner will live after the homeowner dies is a serious issue, unless other plans have been made. One way to do this is to leave a life estate in the home in his will, or by creating a trust that holds the home for her use. When she dies, the home can then pass to his children. In that case, a series of agreements about how the home will be maintained may need to be created.

Taking the time and making the investment in an estate plan, is for the benefit of the individual and the family. An indifferent attitude about the future is hurtful to those who are left behind. Contact a local, reputable estate planning attorney.

Reference: Santa Cruz Sentinel (April 7, 2019) “Longtime unmarried couple hasn’t planned for future”