What Should Same-Sex Couples Know about Estate Planning?

Proper estate planning can help ensure that your wishes are carried out exactly as intended in the event of a death or a serious illness, says Insurance Net News’ recent article entitled “What Same-Sex Partners Need to Know About Estate Planning.” Having a clearly stated plan in place can give clear instructions and potentially avoid any fights that otherwise might occur. For same-sex couples, this may be even more crucial.

Your estate plan should include a will or trust, beneficiary forms, powers of attorney, a living will and a letter of intent. It’s also smart to include a secure document with a list of your accounts, debts, assets and contact info for any key people involved in those accounts. This list should contain passwords for locked accounts and any other relevant information.

A will is a central component of an estate plan which ensures that your wishes are followed after you pass away. This alleviates your family from the responsibility of determining how to divide your property and takes the guessing and stress out of how to pass along belongings. A will or trust might also state the way in which to transfer your financial assets to your children. You should also make sure your beneficiary forms are up to date with your spouse for life insurance policies, bank accounts and retirement accounts.

For same-sex couples, it is particularly important to create a clear medical power of attorney and create a living will that states your medical directives, if you aren’t able to make those decisions on your own. If you aren’t married, this will give your partner the legal protection he or she needs to make those decisions. It is important for you to take time to have those conversations with your partner, so the plans and directives are clear. You can also draft a letter of intent, which is a written, personal note that can be included to help detail your wishes and provide reasoning for the decisions.

Protecting Your Minor Children. Name a legal guardian for them in your will, in the event both parents die. Same-sex couples must make sure that both parents have equal rights, especially in a case where one parent is the biological parent. If the surviving spouse or partner isn’t the biological parent and hasn’t legally adopted the children, don’t assume they’ll automatically be named guardian.  These laws vary from state to state.

Dissolve Old Unions. There could be challenges, if you entered into a civil union or domestic partnership before your marriage was legalized. Prior to the 2015 marriage equality ruling, some same-sex couples married in states where it was legal but resided in states where the marriage wasn’t recognized. If you and your partner broke up, but didn’t legally dissolve the union, it may still be legally binding. Moreover, some states converted civil unions and domestic partnerships to legal marriages, so you and a former partner could be legally married without knowing it. If a former union wasn’t with your current partner, make certain that you legally unbind yourself to avoid any future disputes on your estate.

Review Your Real Estate Documents. Check your real estate documents to confirm that both partners are listed and have equal rights to home ownership, especially if the home was purchased prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage or if you aren’t married. There are a few ways to split ownership of their property. This includes tenants in common, where both partners share ownership of the property, but allows each individual to leave their shares to another person in their will. There’s also joint tenants with rights to survivorship. This is when both partners are property owners but if one dies, the remaining partner retains sole ownership.

Estate planning can be a complex process, and same-sex couples may have more stress to make certain that they have a legally binding plan. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the estate planning process to put a solid plan to help provide peace of mind knowing your family is protected.

Reference: Insurance Net News (June 30, 2021) “What Same-Sex Partners Need to Know About Estate Planning”

 

What Not to Do when Creating an Estate Plan

Having a good estate plan is critical to ensure that your family is well taken care of after you are gone. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney remains the best way to be sure that your assets are distributed as you want and in the most tax-efficient way possible. A recent article titled “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid” from Urology Times looks at the fine points.

An out-of-date estate plan. Life is all about change. Your estate plan needs to reflect those changes. Just as you prepare taxes every year, your estate plan should be reviewed every year. Here are trigger events that should also spur a review:

  • Parents die and can no longer be beneficiaries or guardians of minor children.
  • Children marry or divorce or have children of their own.
  • Your own remarriage or divorce.
  • A significant change in your asset levels, good or bad.
  • Buying or selling real estate or other large transactions.

Neglecting to update an estate plan correctly. Scratching out a provision in a will and initialing it does not make the change valid. This never works, no matter what your know-it-all brother-in-law says. If you want to make a change, visit an estate planning attorney.

Relying on joint tenancy to avoid probate. When you bought your home, someone probably advised you to title the home using joint tenancy to avoid probate. That only works when the first spouse dies. When the surviving spouse dies, they own the home entirely. The home goes through probate.

Failing to coordinate your will and trusts. All your wills and trusts and any other estate planning documents need to be reviewed to be sure they work together. If you create a trust and transfer assets to it, but your will states that the asset now held in the trust should be gifted to a nephew, then you’ve opened the door to delays, family dissent and possibly litigation.

Not titling assets correctly. How assets are titled reflects their ownership. If your home, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, vehicles and other properties are titled properly, you’ve done your homework. Next, check on beneficiary designations for any asset. Beneficiary designations allow assets to pass directly to the beneficiary. Review these designations annually. If your will says one thing and the beneficiary designation says another, the beneficiary designation wins.

Not naming successor or contingent beneficiaries. If you’ve named a beneficiary on an account—such as your life insurance—and the beneficiary dies, the proceeds could go to your estate and become taxable. Naming an alternate and successor for all the key roles in your estate plan, including beneficiaries, trustees and guardians, offers another layer of certainty to your estate plan.

Neglecting to address health care directives. It may be easier to decide who gets the family vacation home than who will decide to keep you on or take you off life-support systems. However, this is necessary to protect your wishes and prevent family disasters. Health care proxy, advance care directive and end-of-life planning documents tell your loved ones what your wishes are. Without them, the family may be left guessing what to do.

Forgetting to update Power of Attorney. Review this critical document to be sure of two things: the person you named to manage your affairs is still the person you want, and the documents are relatively recent. Some financial institutions balk at older POA forms, and others will outright refuse to accept them. Some states, like New York, have changed POA rules to make it harder for POAs to be denied, but in other states there still can be problems, if the POA is old.

Reference: Urology Times (July 29, 2021) “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid”

Checklist for Estate Plan’s Success

We know why estate planning for your assets, family and legacy falls through the cracks. It’s not the thing a new parent wants to think about while cuddling a newborn, or a grandparent wants to think about as they prepare for a family get-together. However, this is an important thing to take care of, advises a recent article from Kiplinger titled “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?

Every four years, or every time a trigger event occurs—birth, death, marriage, divorce, relocation—the estate plan needs to be reviewed. Reviewing an estate plan is a relatively straightforward matter and neglecting it could lead to undoing strategic tax plans and unnecessary costs.

Moving to a new state? Estate laws are different from state to state, so what works in one state may not be considered valid in another. You’ll also want to update your address, and make sure that family and advisors know where your last will can be found in your new home.

Changes in the law. The last five years have seen an inordinate number of changes to laws that impact retirement accounts and taxes. One big example is the SECURE Act, which eliminated the Stretch IRA, requiring heirs to empty inherited IRA accounts in ten years, instead of over their lifetimes. A strategy that worked great a few years ago no longer works. However, there are other means of protecting your heirs and retirement accounts. It is recommended that you speak with a qualified estate planning attorney to periodically review your estate plan to coincide with changes in the law.

Do you have a Power of Attorney? A POA gives a person you authorize the ability to manage your financial, business, personal and legal affairs, if you become incapacitated. If the POA is old, a bank or investment company may balk at allowing your representative to act on your behalf. If you have one, make sure it’s up to date and the person you named is still the person you want. If you need to make a change, it’s very important that you put it in writing and notify the proper parties.

Health Care Power of Attorney needs to be updated as well. Marriage does not automatically authorize your spouse to speak with doctors, obtain medical records or make medical decisions on your behalf. If you have strong opinions about what procedures you do and do not want, the Health Care POA can document your wishes.

Last Will and Testament is Essential. Your last will needs regular review throughout your lifetime. Has the person you named as an executor four years ago remained in your life, or moved to another state? A last will also names an executor for your property and a guardian for minor children. It also needs to have trust provisions to pay for your children’s upbringing and to protect their inheritance.

Speaking of Trusts. If your estate plan includes trusts, review trustee and successor appointments to be sure they are still appropriate. You should also check on estate and inheritance taxes to ensure that the estate will be able to cover these costs. If you have an irrevocable trust, confirm that the trustee is still ready and able to carry out the duties, including administration, management and tax returns.

Gifting in the Estate Plan. Laws concerning charitable giving also change, so be sure your gifting strategies are still appropriate for your estate. An estate plan review is also a good time to review the organizations you wish to support.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 28, 2021) “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?

What are My Best Estate Planning Moves?

Tickertape’s recent article “5 Estate Planning Tips That Aren’t Just for the Wealthy” explains that a common misconception is that estate planning isn’t necessary if your estate assets amount to less than the 2021 federal estate tax exemption of $11.7 million per individual.

But most of us can benefit from estate planning. This can help protect your assets for your heirs. Estate planning includes creating a last will or revocable living trust, making certain that you have the right beneficiaries, and creating a health care directive. Creating a solid estate plan can decrease the odds that your family will have to deal with a problematic probate and reduce the amount of money because of unneeded taxes.

Create a Will. A last will is one way to let people know how you want your assets taken care of after you die. Plus, a last will should include information about who should act as guardians for minor children and care for any pets. Talk to an estate planning attorney about the specific laws for probate to make sure you do it correctly.

Name Your Beneficiaries. Review your beneficiary designations and make sure they’re up to date. When there’s a major life change, you should look at your beneficiary designations (e.g., life insurance and retirement funds), update your last will, and make sure everything matches. This includes charities as well as individuals. There are estate planning strategies designed to help you pass your assets on, but none of these will help if you don’t have your beneficiaries properly designated and assets aligned with your estate plan.

Ask Your Attorney About a Trust. A fully funded revocable living trust can be great tool to pass your assets on while potentially helping your heirs avoid probate. There are many different types of trusts that can be used to provide a variety of benefits. Much depends on your situation, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Power of Attorney. Estate planning also includes documents in the event you become incapacitated. Signing a power of attorney allows an agent to make decisions on your behalf if you’re incapacitated. Find a person you trust to handle these decisions and have an estate planning attorney prepare the legal documents to ensure that everything is correct.

Think About Giving Now. You don’t need to wait until you’re gone to provide resources to your family. In 2021, you can give up to $15,000 to each recipient without paying the gift tax. If you’re married, each spouse can give $15,000. When you give to charity now, instead of waiting until you pass, you may claim a tax deduction, whether you donate directly, give stock, or set up a donor-advised fund. This allows you to benefit now—along with your beneficiaries.

Reference: Tickertape (June 25, 2021) “5 Estate Planning Tips That Aren’t Just for the Wealthy”

 

Do Singles Need Estate Planning?

Pauls Valley Democrat’s recent article entitled “Even ‘singles’ need estate plans” tells us what might happen if you die intestate (without a last will and testament). In that case, your any assets without a surviving joint owner or designated beneficiary or titled in a revocable living trust may be required to pass through the probate process. As a result, they’ll be distributed by the court, according to the state’s intestate succession laws.

Even if you don’t have children, you may have nephews or nieces, or even children of cousins or friends, to whom you’d like to leave some of your assets. However, if everything you own goes through probate, there’s no guarantee that these people will get what you wanted them to have. Therefore, if you want to leave something to family members or close friends, state this in your last will and testament.

However, you may also want to provide support to some charities. You can just name these charities in your will. However, there may be options that could provide you with additional benefits. One such possibility is a charitable remainder trust. With this trust, you’d transfer appreciated assets, such as stocks, mutual funds or other securities, into an irrevocable trust. Your named trustee could then sell the assets at full market value, avoiding the capital gains taxes you’d have to pay if you sold them yourself, outside a trust.

Moreover, if you itemize, you may be able to claim a charitable deduction on your taxes. With the proceeds, the trust can purchase income-producing assets and provide you with an income stream for the rest of your life. At your death, the remaining trust assets will go to the charities that you’ve named.

A single person also should have as part of his or her estate planning, a durable power of attorney and a health care proxy. A durable power of attorney allows you to designate an individual to manage your finances, if you become incapacitated. This is really important, if you don’t have a spouse to step in.

If you become incapacitated, your health care proxy – also known as a health care surrogate or medical power of attorney – allows you to name another person to legally make health care decisions for you, if you are unable to do so yourself.

Estate planning can be complex, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (June 24, 2021) “Even ‘singles’ need estate plans”

 

Do You Need a Revocable Trust or Irrevocable Trust?

There are important differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts. One of the biggest differences is the amount of control you have over assets, as explained in the article “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust” from Kiplinger. A revocable trust is often referred to as the Swiss Army knife of estate planning because it has so many different uses. The irrevocable trust is also a multi-use tool, only different.

Trusts are legal entities that own assets like real estate, investment accounts, cars, life insurance and high value personal belongings, like jewelry or art. Ownership of the asset is transferred to the trust, typically by changing the title of ownership. The trust documents also contain directions regarding what should happen to the asset when you die.

There are three key parties to any trust: the grantor, the person creating and depositing assets into the trust; the beneficiary, who will receive the trust assets and income; and the trustee, who is in charge of the trust, files tax returns as needed and distributes assets according to the terms of the trust. One person can hold different roles. The grantor could set up a trust and also be a trustee and even the beneficiary while living. The executor of a will can also be a trustee or a successor trustee.

If the trust is revocable, the grantor has the option of amending or revoking the trust at any time. A different trustee or beneficiary can be named, and the terms of the trust may be changed. Assets can also be taken back from a revocable trust. Pre-tax retirement funds, like a 401(k) cannot be placed inside a trust, since the transfer would require the trust to become the owner of these accounts. The IRS would consider that to be a taxable withdrawal.

There isn’t much difference between owning the assets yourself and a revocable trust. Assets still count as part of your estate and are not sheltered from estate taxes or creditors. However, you have complete control of the assets and the trust. So why have one? The transition of ownership if something happens to you is easier. If you become incapacitated, a successor trustee can take over management of trust assets. This may be easier than relying on a Power of Attorney form and some believe it offers more legal authority, allowing family members to manage assets and pay bills.

In addition, assets in a trust don’t go through probate, so the transfer of property after you die to heirs is easier. If you own homes in multiple states, heirs will receive their inheritance faster than if the homes must go through probate in multiple states. Any property in your revocable trust is not in your will, so ownership and transfer status remain private.

An irrevocable trust is harder to change, as befits its name. To change an irrevocable trust while you are living takes a little more effort but is not impossible. Consent of all parties involved, including the beneficiary and trustee, must be obtained. The benefits from the irrevocable trust make the effort worthwhile. By giving up control, assets in the irrevocable trust may not be part of your taxable estate. While today’s federal estate exemption is historically high right now, it’s expected to go much lower in the future.

Contact and experienced estate planning attorney to discuss you estate planning needs.

 

Reference: Kiplinger (July 14, 2021) “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust”

 

What Should Not Be Included in Will?

A last will and testament is the basic document of an estate plan, which is how you direct assets according to your wishes after you have died. However, there are certain things that do not belong in a will, and it’s important to know what they are. Mistakes can lead to expensive and worrisome complications, says the article “Things you should never put in your will” from msn.com.

Your will can get very specific about who receives what in the way of your personal possessions. For example, you can give your car to a family member of your choice. What you can’t do is tell the family member how they can use the car, or if she should never sell the car. Enforcing conditional wishes through a will isn’t legal, nor is it practical.

If you want to control aspects of an inheritance, the best way to this is through a trust, which allows you to set terms that are enforceable, even after you have died. A trust is a legal entity with a trustee and the law to enforce its terms. You can set goals or milestones for heirs best with a trust.

Leaving assets out of your will actually benefits family members in many regards. First, they’ll receive their inheritance faster. Upon death, your will must be reviewed and validated in a court of law in a process known as probate. Depending on your jurisdiction and the complexity of your estate, this can take months and, in some cases, years. Papers have to be filed, judges have to review your will and determinations must be made. Wills can also be contested in court, further tying up assets and slowing the process of distribution.

Putting property in a trust or having accounts that are Payable On Death (POD) will speed up the process for heirs.

Don’t put anything in a will that you don’t own outright. If you are a co-owner with someone, upon your death, the other owner will become the owner, with no need for court involvement.

Trusts are a key tool in estate planning, used to avoid probate and increase control of assets. Once property is titled into the trust, it becomes subject to the rules and directions of the trust, which are explained in detail in the trust documents. Nothing placed in a trust should be included in a will to avoid any confusion and delays.

Certain accounts and assets are payable or transferable on death. They are distributed directly to heirs, so putting them in a will is not necessary. These are accounts with beneficiary designations, typically brokerage or investment accounts, retirement accounts, pension plans and life insurance policies.

Business interests can be given through a will, but you don’t want to do this. Succession could be contested, and your business partners may be left with a big headache, instead of focusing on transitioning the business to the next generation of owners. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help create a succession plan that will align with your estate plan. The two need to work together.

Once deemed valid by the probate court, your last will and testament becomes a public document.  Anyone who wants to read it, can do so. Your will should not include any account numbers, account values, login information, passwords, or any information you would not want to be shared in public.

Reference: msn.com (July 11, 2021) “Things you should never put in your will”

 

Can I Set Up a Trust for an Adult Child?

If you are the parent or guardian of an adult who depends upon you financially, estate planning is critical. When you can’t care for your child, an estate plan which includes funding and guidance protects your dependent and ensures that they will receive the care they need, reports Parents in the article “Wills and Trusts for Adult Dependents.”

First, you need a will. This fundamental estate planning document lets you be very specific about what you want to happen after your death. It also nominates guardians for minor and adult children and pets. Wills can be used to manage decisions that apply to everyone. If there is no will, the laws of your state and a court make all of the decisions, not you.

If you have dependents, the will lets you choose who you want to serve as a guardian for your children. If you are already the legal guardian of a dependent adult, the will can be used to name the person to take over for you. Choose guardians who are up to the responsibilities that come with caring for a dependent adult.

The will is used to manage assets after your death. However, in the case of a dependent adult, you may also need a Special Needs Trust. If you pass assets directly to a dependent adult and they are receiving certain government benefits, the inheritance may make them ineligible for benefits and services.

A Special Needs Trust allows you to earmark a certain amount of money for their care. An estate planning elder lawyer will be familiar with this type of trust and help you create it.

If your dependent adult does not receive any means-tested benefits but is not able to manage an inheritance, then a trust can be used to hold assets to be controlled by a trustee, who might also be a guardian or caretaker.

A will and trusts are central to a well-prepared estate plan. Working with an estate planning attorney will give you the opportunity to consider how you want to distribute assets while you are living and after you have died. It also gives you the opportunity to name a personal representative, or executor, who will manage your estate after your death and be in charge of making sure that your wishes, as expressed in your will, are followed.

Trusts are more complex than wills and allow for a greater degree of control over assets. The trust is a legal entity to benefit others, and a trustee is the person named to be in charge of the trust.

Bear in mind that anything passed through a will has to go through a court process known as probate. The will has to be validated and the executor has to be approved by the court. Any assets in the trust are already outside of your estate and do not go through probate.

Reference: Parents (July 7, 2021) “Wills and Trusts for Adult Dependents.”

 

What are Typical Estate Planning Documents?

For many people, eight documents form the foundation of an estate plan. It’s not that difficult a project as it seems, explains the article “8 Documents That Are Essential to Planning Your Estate” from msn.com. When you’ve completed your estate plan, you’ll also gain the peace of mind of knowing that you’ve done what was needed to protect your family. It’s well worth the effort.

Last will and testament. This is the basic document that gives you the ability to tell your family what you want to happen with your assets. It is used to name an executor—a person who will be in charge of managing your estate. Your will is also where you name a guardian who will be in charge of raising minor children. You can use the will to convey funeral instructions, but you may want to do that in a separate document, in case your will isn’t found right away. Your estate planning attorney will help you figure out the best way to handle that.

What happens if you don’t have a will? In that case, a probate court will determine who will be your executor. It might be a spouse, a grown child, or someone you don’t know or would not want to handle your estate. It’s best to have a will and select your executor yourself. When your estate goes through probate, all of the information in your will becomes part of the public record, so don’t put anything in your will, like passwords or account numbers.

Revocable living trust. Trusts are used to pass assets and property without going through probate. Your estate planning attorney will help create the trust and you’ll decide who will be in charge of it upon your death. You can be the trustee while you are living, but then you lose any estate tax benefits. If you have substantial property or wealth, trusts are a good tool to control assets and save on estate taxes.

Beneficiary designations. Any time you purchase a new insurance policy or a retirement plan, you are asked to name a beneficiary. If your first job came with a retirement plan, you likely also named a beneficiary for that plan. These designations allow the assets to pass directly to the beneficiary upon your death. They aren’t included in your will and they don’t go through probate. The biggest problem with beneficiary designations? Neglecting to update them through the many changes in life. Review and update your beneficiary designations on a regular basis.

Durable power of attorney. This document allows you to name the person to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated because of illness or injury. They can manage your legal and financial affairs. Here’s an important point: if you become incapacitated, you cannot assign this role to someone. It needs to be done when you are legally competent.

Health care power of attorney and living will. The health care power of attorney lets someone else make medical decisions on your behalf, if you are too sick to do so yourself. The living will gives you the opportunity to explain what kind of care you do or do not want if you are close to death. If the idea of staying alive on a heart machine makes you unhappy, for instance, you can document your wishes, so loved ones don’t have to wonder what you want.

Digital assets. Much of our lives are lived online, and we have assets that won’t be found in a search of the attic or basement. Each online platform that you use may have a directive process, where you can clearly state who you want to have access to your digital assets and what you would like to have happen to them upon your death.

A letter of intent. Writing a letter of intent is a way to convey your wishes to loved ones for what you’d like to happen after you die. It may not be legally enforceable, like a will or a trust, but your loved ones will appreciate knowing what you want for funeral planning or a memorial service.

List of important documents. Sparing your family a post-mortem scavenger hunt is a gift to the living. Make a list of documents and make sure they know where important documents can be found. Include a list of routine bills, the professionals you rely on, including contact information and account numbers. Some families use a briefcase to store the important papers, but a fireproof and waterproof safe is more secure.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney if you have not prepared your estate plan.

Reference: msn.com (June 19, 2021) “8 Documents That Are Essential to Planning Your Estate”

 

What Is Probate and How Does It Work?

Probate is a legal process created long ago to protect the interests of a person after their death. It establishes a documented, validated, formal court procedure to establish title (ownership) and transfer ownership of a deceased person’s assets, as described in a recent article “Probate still gets lots of questions” from the Pauls Valley Democrat.

Probate accomplishes several goals. One is to fulfill the intentions of the decedent and follow the directions expressed in a written valid will. Another is to prevent the improper acquisition of assets by self-serving heirs or claimants. It provides a formal process to capture and control assets and document them. It also provides for the distribution of all assets in the estate, as directed by the decedent.

A petition is typically filed with the local district court in the county where the person resided at death. It confirms the jurisdiction of the court and defines the scope of the estate. This includes:

  • Fact of death and name of the decedent, included in the original copy of the death certificate
  • Residency of the decedent
  • Whether there was a will (original will is filed with the court)
  • Name of the executor or personal representative
  • Names of all potential heirs
  • The approximate size and scope of the estate

After documents are filed, a hearing takes place and formal notice is provided to all known heirs and to the public. This is where probate becomes problematic. Any known heirs who are notified may not always be named in the will and could bring claims against the estate. Any person who wishes to find out the size and scope of the estate may do so. This often brings creditors and predators into the process. Many scammers rely on probate notices to find fresh victims.

While the traditional goals of providing an open and fair opportunity to gain notice of the person’s death may have worked well in the past, today they often provide an opportunity for disgruntled relatives and thieves.

For this reason, many families prefer to take some or all assets from the estate and place them within the protection of a revocable living trust. Assets placed in a trust do not go through probate and will not be mentioned in a will. The trustee is charged with administering and distributing assets in a trust. There is no court involvement. Trusts may also be used during a person’s lifetime, as well as after they have died.

Other assets not governed by probate are those with beneficiary designations. Insurance policies, retirement accounts and investment accounts are among the types of assets distributed directly to the beneficiary without court involvement.

An estate planning attorney takes the best of these old English laws and blends them with our modern realities and current tax laws.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (June 3, 2021) “Probate still gets lots of questions”