Why Everyone Needs an Estate Plan

Many people think you have to be a millionaire to need an estate plan and investing in an estate plan is too costly for an average American. Not true! People of modest means actually need an estate plan more than the wealthy to protect what they have. A recent article from TAPinto.net explains the basics in “Estate Planning–Getting Your Affairs in Order Does Not Need to be Complicated or Expensive.”

Everyone needs an estate plan consisting of the following documents: a Last Will and Testament, a General Durable Power of Attorney and an Advance Medical Directive or Living Will.

Unless your estate is valued at more than $11.58 million, you may not be as concerned about federal estate taxes right now, but this may change in the near future. Some states, like New Jersey, don’t have any state estate tax at all. There are states, like Pennsylvania, which have an “inheritance” tax determined based on the relationship the person has with the decedent. However, taxes aren’t the only reason to have an estate plan.

If you have young children, your will is the legal document used to tell your executor and the court who you want to care for your minor children by naming their guardian. The will is also used to explain how your minor children’s inheritance should be managed by naming trustees.

Why do you need a General Power of Attorney? This is the document that you need to name a person to be in charge of your affairs, if you become incapacitated and can’t make or communicate decisions. Without a POA in place, no one, not even your spouse, has the legal authority to manage your financial and legal affairs. Your family would have to go to court and file a guardianship action, which can be expensive, take time to complete and create unnecessary stress for the family.

An Advance Medical Directive, also known as a Living Will, is used to let a person of your choice make medical decisions, if you are unable to do so. This is a very important document to have, especially if you have strong feelings about being kept alive by artificial means. The Advance Medical Directive gives you an opportunity to express your wishes for end of life care, as well as giving another person the legal right to make medical decisions on your behalf. Without it, a guardianship may need to be established, wasting critical time if an emergency situation occurs.

Most people of modest means need only these three documents, but they can make a big difference to protect the family. If the family includes disabled children or individuals, owns a business or real estate, there are other documents needed to address these more complex situations. However, simple or complex, your estate and your family deserve the protection of an estate plan.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to create your estate planning package.

Reference: TAPinto.net (Sep. 23, 2020) “Estate Planning–Getting Your Affairs in Order Does Not Need to be Complicated or Expensive”

 

There Is a Difference between Probate and Trust Administration

Many people get these two things confused as there is a difference between probate and trust administration.   A recent article, “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration,” from Lake County News clarifies the distinctions.

Let’s start with probate, which is a court-supervised process. To begin the probate process, a legal notice must be published in a newspaper and court appearances are needed. However, to start trust administration, a letter of notice is mailed to the decedent’s heirs and beneficiaries. Trust administration is far more private, which is why many people chose this path.  In the probate process, the last will and testament and any documents in the court file are available to the public. While the general public may not have any specific interest in your will, estranged relatives, relatives you never knew you had, creditors and scammers have easy and completely legal access to this information.

If there is no will, the court documents that are created in intestacy (the heirs inherit according to state law), are also available to anyone who wants to see them.

In trust administration, the only people who can see trust documents are the heirs and beneficiaries.

There are cost differences. In probate, a court filing fee must be paid for each petition. There are also at least two petitions from start to finish in probate, plus the newspaper publication fee. The fees vary, depending upon the jurisdiction. Add to that the attorney’s and personal representative’s fees, which also vary by jurisdiction. Some are on an hourly basis, while others are computed as a sliding scale percentage of the value of the estate under management. For example, each may be paid 4% of the first $100,000, 3% of the next $100,000 and 2% of any excess value of the estate under management. The court also has the discretion to add fees, if the estate is more time consuming and complex than the average estate.

For trust administration, the trustee and the estate planning attorney are typically paid on an hourly basis, or however the attorney sets their fee structure. Expenses are likely to be far lower, since there is no court involvement.

There are similarities between probate and trust administration. Both require that the decedent’s assets be collected, safeguarded, inventoried and appraised for tax and/or distribution purposes. Both also require that the decedent’s creditors be notified, and debts be paid. Tax obligations must be fulfilled, and the debts and administration expenses must be paid. Finally, the decedent’s beneficiaries must be informed about the estate and its administration.

The use of trusts in estate planning can be a means of minimizing taxes and planning for family assets to be passed to future generations in a private and controlled fashion. This is the reason for the popularity of trusts in estate planning.  It should be noted that a higher level of competency—mental comprehension—must be possessed by an individual to execute a trust than to execute a will. A person whose capacity may be questionable because of Alzheimer’s or another illness may not be legally competent enough to execute a trust. Their heirs may face challenges to the estate plan in that case.

In both instances, you will need the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Lake County News (July 4, 2020) “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration”

 

Your Estate Plan Decides or the State Decides

It’s something that everyone needs, but often gets overlooked. Estate planning makes some people downright uncomfortable. There’s no law that says you must have an estate plan—just laws that will impact how your property is distributed and who will raise your children, if you don’t have a will. Planning is important, says WMUR 9 in a recent article “Money Matters: Estate planning,” if you want to be the one making those decisions.

An estate plan can be simple if you only own a few assets, or complicated if you have significant assets, more than one home and multiple investments. Some strategies are easier to implement like a last will and testament. Others can be simple or complex like trusts. Whatever your needs, an estate planning attorney will be able to give you the guidance that your unique situation requires. Your estate planning attorney may work with your financial advisor and accountant to be sure that your financial and legal plans work together to benefit you and your family.

There are circumstances that require special estate planning:

  • If your estate is valued at more than the federal gift and/or estate tax exclusion, which is $11.4 million per person in 2019
  • You have minor children
  • There are family members with special needs who rely on your support
  • You own a business
  • You own property in more than one state
  • You want to leave a charitable legacy
  • Your property includes artwork or other valuable collectables
  • You have opinions about end-of-life healthcare
  • You want privacy for your family

The first step for any estate plan is a thorough review of the family finances, dynamics and assets. Who are your family members? How do you want to help them? What do they need? What is your tax picture like? How old are you, and how good is your health? These are just a few of the things an estate planning attorney will discuss with you. Once you are clear on your situation, you’ll discuss overall goals and objectives. The attorney will be able to outline your options, whether you are concerned with passing wealth to the next generation, avoiding family disputes, preparing for a disability or transferring ownership of a business.

A last will and testament will provide clear, legal direction as to how your assets should be distributed and who will care for any minor children.

A trust is used to address more complex planning concerns. A trust is a legal entity that holds assets to be used for the benefit of one or more individuals. It is overseen by a trustee or trustees, who can be individuals you name or professionals.

If you create trusts, it is important that assets be retitled so the trust owns the assets and not you personally. If the assets are not retitled the trust will not achieve your goals.

Some property typically has its own beneficiary designations, like IRAs, retirement accounts and life insurance. These assets pass directly to heirs according to the designation, but only if you make the designations on the appropriate forms.

Once you’re done with your estate plan, make a note on your calendar. Estate plans and beneficiary designations need to be reviewed every three or four years. Lives change, laws change and your estate plan needs to keep pace.

Reference: WMUR 9 (Aug. 1, 2019) “Money Matters: Estate planning”

 

Should My Estate Plan Include a Trust?

There are as many types of trusts, as there are reasons to have trusts. They all have benefits and drawbacks. What type of trust is best for you? The answer is best discussed in person with an estate planning attorney. However, an article from U.S. News & World Report titled “8 Things to Know About Trusts,” gives a good overview.

Revocable or Irrevocable? Revocable trusts are usually established for a person (the grantor) during their lifetime, and then pass assets to the named beneficiaries, when the grantor dies. The revocable trust allows for a fair amount of flexibility during the grantor’s lifetime. An irrevocable trust is harder to change, and in some cases cannot be changed or amended. Some states do allow the option of “decanting” trusts, that is, pouring over assets from one trust to another. You’ll want to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to be sure trusts are set up correctly and achieve the goals you want.

Trusts can protect assets. Irrevocable trusts are often used, when a grantor must go into a nursing home and the goal is to protect assets. However, this means that the grantor no longer has access to the money and has fundamentally given it away to the trust. Putting assets into an irrevocable trust is commonly done to preserve assets, when a person needs to become eligible for Medicaid.  The trust must be created and funded five years before applying for benefits. Irrevocable trusts can also be used to obtain veteran’s benefits, if they are asset-based. VA benefits have a three-year look-back period, as compared to Medicaid’s five-year look-back period.

Trusts can’t own retirement accounts. Trusts can own non-retirement bank accounts, life insurance policies, property and securities. However, retirement accounts become taxable immediately, if they are owned by a trust.

Trusts help avoid probate after the grantor’s death. Most people think of trusts for this purpose. Assets in a trust do not pass through probate, which is the process of settling an estate through the courts. Having someone named as a trustee, a trusted family member, friend or a financial institution, means that the assets can be managed for the beneficiaries, if they are not deemed able to manage the assets. Another good part about trusts: you can direct how and when the funds are to be distributed.

Trusts offer privacy. When a will is filed in the courthouse, it becomes part of the public record. Trusts are not, and that keeps assets and distribution plans private. A grantor could put real estate and other personal property into a trust and title of ownership would remain private.

Tax savings. Before the federal estate tax exemptions became so high, people would put assets into trusts to avoid taxation. However, state taxes may still be avoided, if the assets don’t reach state tax levels. You can also transfer funds into an irrevocable trust to transfer it to others, without making it become part of a taxable estate. This is something to discuss in detail with an estate planning attorney.

Irrevocable Trusts can be expensive. If you are considering an irrevocable trust as a means of controlling the cost of an estate, this is not the solution you are looking for. Trusts require careful administration, annual tax filings and other fees. You may also lose the advantage of long-term capital gains by putting assets into trusts, since they are taxed upon withdrawal, and usually based upon current market value. The marginal rates for trust income of all kinds apply at much lower levels, so that the highest marginal taxes will be paid on very low levels of income.

Work with an experienced trusts and estates lawyer. Trusts and their administration can be complex. Seek the help of a trusts and estates attorney, who will be able to factor in tax liability and the impact of the trusts on the rest of your estate plan. Remember that every state has its own laws about trusts. Finally, an estate plan needs to be updated every few years. For example, trusts that were set up for a far lower federal estate tax exemption several years ago are now out of date, and may not work to achieve their intended goal. The laws changes, and the role of trusts also changes.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (March 29, 2019) “8 Things to Know About Trusts”

 

When Should You Have Your Estate Plan Done?

But don’t pat yourself too much — you’re not done yet. A will is not a static instrument, says The Item in its recent article “Don’t wait until high noon.” If laws change, which happens regularly, or your life changes, you need to review your will and be aware of any significant changes that may have an impact on your will and its goals.

Marriage, divorce, birth, adoption and death are some of the key trigger events in life that call for a review of your will. Some of these events seem very obvious, but others aren’t. That is when problems can arise. For instance, if a widow or widower remarries, the will needs to be updated to clarify how the new spouse and the children from prior marriages are to be provided for.

Welcoming a new child into the family is an event to celebrate, whether by birth or adoption. The will needs to add the new child. However, there’s another step that may be even more important. A will is used to name a guardian for the child, so the parents may name a person to rear their child in their absence. If a guardian is not named, then the court will select someone who might have not been the parent’s first (or even second) choice.

The death of an executor, beneficiary, guardian or trustee named in the will also means that the will needs to be updated. If the person who has died is a beneficiary, their name needs to be removed.  You may want to reconsider how assets are distributed. For executors, guardians or trustees, remember to add a secondary person for each role.

What if you inherit an unexpected fortune? You’ll definitely need to review your will, since your estate tax liability may have changed. Even if you don’t owe federal estate taxes, there may be state estate taxes to plan for. If you suffer a large financial loss, you’ll need to review your will, since the generous gift you had planned on leaving to a nonprofit. may no longer be available.

Some changes to wills occur because people change their minds about how they want to distribute their assets, or who they want to handle their post-mortem responsibilities. If you have a falling out with an executor, for instance, that change needs to be made in a timely manner.

If you have not reviewed the beneficiaries who are named on your life insurance policies and retirement accounts, and any other accounts where beneficiaries are named, you’ll want to do that too. If your will says cousin Andrew gets your life insurance policy proceeds, but his sister Stella is the one named as the beneficiary, then only Stella receives the proceeds. The named beneficiary is a contract that cannot be challenged or changed, regardless of what your will says.

If you don’t yet have a will, now is the time to make an appointment to meet with an estate planning attorney in your community. Remember that estate laws are set by the state of your residence, so an experienced estate planning attorney in your area is your best source.

Reference: The Item (Feb. 15, 2019) “Don’t wait until high noon”