Why You Need an Estate Plan, Especially Now

Estate planning is an all-encompassing term that refers to the entire process of gathering and organizing assets and making preparations for when you die, including caring for minor children and heirs. It also includes putting protections into place if you should become incapacitated, says an article that covers estate planning basics from c|net titled “Estate planning 101: Your guide to wills, trusts and all your end-of-life documents.” Your estate plan involves writing a will, power of attorney and funeral arrangements and especially now,  why you need an estate plan.

Here are some of the key steps:

Distributing assets. Your estate includes more than just real estate. It includes everything you own, including your car, jewelry, sentimental belongings and intangible assets, like investments and insurance. If you own a business, that is also part of your estate.

Preparing for family life without you. An estate plan sets out how you want to care for loved ones. A will is used to name a guardian for minor children, and to name someone to be in charge of their finances. One person can have both roles, but it is generally advised to name one person for each role. If you fail to name a guardian, the court will select one for your children.

Assign the tasks of handling the estate or your health, if you are incapacitated. An estate plan includes a Health Care Proxy or medical power of attorney and a financial power of attorney, so decisions can be made on your behalf, if you are incapacitated. You’ll also name an executor. This is the person who will be in charge of following the directions you leave in your will and distributing assets. Depending on your estate, the person may also be in charge of selling your home, negotiating with creditors, or managing the sale of your business. It’s a big assignment and requires someone who is organized and trustworthy.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney. An estate planning lawyer will save you a lot of time, energy and effort in creating an estate plan. The attorney will also be able to help you manage estate, inheritance and gift taxes to minimize the impact of federal and state laws on your beneficiaries.

Document everything properly. Just stating your wishes won’t solve anything. You need an estate plan with all of the right documents prepared in accordance with the laws of your state. An invalid will could create just as many problems as no will at all. You’ll need a last will and testament to appoint an executor, outline how you want assets to be distributed and see your will through the probate process.

If you want to avoid probate court, you may want your estate plan to include a trust. A “funded” revocable trust can be adjusted while you are living. When you die, the trust is managed by trustees of your trust.

A living will details your healthcare preferences, in case you are not able to communicate or make decisions on your own. If you require life support, or life saving measures, the living will specifically outlines what you want to have done—or not done—rather than having children or relatives guess at your wishes.

Having an estate plan is not a set-it-and-forget-it plan. As you proceed through life, getting married, having children, divorcing, buying property, etc., the estate planning documents need to be revised, so they continue to reflect your wishes. Whenever there are big changes to the law, you may also need to revise the will, so you don’t miss out on any planning opportunities. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney if you need to get your affairs in order.

Reference: c|net (June 8, 2020) “Estate planning 101: Your guide to wills, trusts and all your end-of-life documents”

Suggested Key Terms: Estate Planning Attorney, Wills, Trusts, End-of-Life, Revocable, Probate, Living Will, Executor, Health Care Power of Attorney, Guardian,

What If Grandma Didn’t Have a Will and Died from COVID-19?

The latest report shows about 1.87 million reported cases and at least 108,000 COVID-19-related deaths were reported in the U.S., according to data released by Johns Hopkins University and Medicine.

Here’s a question that is being asked a lot these days: What happens if someone dies “intestate,” or without having established a will or estate plans?

If you die without a will in California and many other states, your assets will go to your closest relatives under state “intestate succession” statutes.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “My loved one died without a will – now what?” explains that there are laws in each state that will dictate what happens, if you die without a will.

In Pennsylvania, the laws list the order of who receives upon your death, if you die without a will: your spouse, your children, and then your parents (if still alive), your siblings, and then on down the line to cousins, aunts and uncles, and the like. Typically, first on every state’s list is the spouse and the children.

You may also have some valuable assets that will not pass via your will and aren’t affected by your state’s intestate succession laws. Here are some of the common ones:

  • Any property that you’ve transferred to a living trust
  • Your life insurance proceeds
  • Funds in an IRA, 401(k), or other retirement accounts
  • Any securities held in a transfer-on-death account
  • A payable-on-death bank account
  • Your vehicles held by transfer-on-death registration; or
  • Property you own with someone else in joint tenancy or as community property with the right of survivorship.

These types of assets will pass to the surviving co-owner or to the beneficiary you named, whether or not you have a will.

It’s quite unusual for the government to claim a deceased person’s estate. While it might be allowed in some states, it’s considered a last resort. Typically, we all have some relatives.

If you have a loved one who has died without a will, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about your next steps.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (June 1, 2020) “My loved one died without a will – now what?”

What If the Coronavirus Leaves Me Critically Ill?

The smartest time to get your affairs in order, is when you’re healthy, regardless of a pandemic, advises NBC Bay Area’s recent article entitled “3 Steps to Take Now in Case COVID-19 Leaves You Critically Ill.”

You should talk to an estate planning attorney and think about these three steps to consider taking yourself before you meet:

  • Prepare your end-of-life care
  • Decide what your wishes are for your assets; and
  • Plan your funeral or memorial service if one is desired.

Prepare End-of-Life Care. For end-of-life care, many people have what’s sometimes called a “living will”. In California, it’s often a six-page form called the Advanced Health Care Directive. With it, you can set forth your wishes about your end-of-life care and designate a decision-maker.

In California, you can download an advanced health care directive form for free, via the California Courts website. It’s actually pretty easy to read. Note: you’ll need two witnesses to sign it with you.

Decide what your wishes are for your assets. This is where an attorney can really be key. You can discuss who you’ll want as an executor to coordinate your estate and probate. You can also think about who you want to receive your home, vehicles, funds in your bank accounts and other assets.

There are a number of important legal aspects to consider, and you can talk to your legal counsel about the process.

Your Funeral Plans. You also need to be certain that the details of your final wishes are known. It’s a good idea to write down exactly what you want or don’t want.

It’s not uncommon for families to have a hard time with these choices, when someone dies without a plan. Prevent conflict and stress, by writing your wishes down now.

It’s best to work with an attorney who specializes in estate planning, wills and trusts.

Reference: NBC Bay Area (April 15, 2020) “3 Steps to Take Now in Case COVID-19 Leaves You Critically Ill”

What You Need to Do after a Loved One Dies

The Dallas Morning News’ recent article entitled “Three things to do on the death of a loved one” explains the steps you should take if you are responsible for a family member’s assets after they die.

Be sure the property is secured. A deceased person’s property becomes a risk in some instances. Friends and family will help themselves to what they think they should get, including the deceased’s personal property. Once it is gone, it is hard to get it back and into the hands of the individual who’s legally entitled to receive it.

Criminals also look at the obituaries and while everyone is at the funeral or otherwise unoccupied, burglars can break into the house and steal property. Assign security or ask someone to stay at the house to protect the property. You can also change the locks. Credit cards, debit cards, and checks need to be protected. The deceased’s mail must be collected, and cars should be locked up.

Make funeral plans. If you’re lucky, the deceased left a written Appointment of Burial Agent with detailed instructions, which can make your job much easier.

For example, Texas law lets a person appoint an agent to be in charge of funeral arrangements and to describe the arrangements. An estate planning attorney can  draft this document as part of an estate plan. You should see if this document was included. If you’re listed as the agent, present the paper to the funeral home and follow the instructions. If there are no written instructions, the law will say who has the authority to make arrangements for the disposition of the body and to plan the funeral.

Talk to an experienced attorney. When a person dies, there is often a lapse in authority. The decedent’s power of attorney is no longer in effect, and the executor designated in the will doesn’t have any authority to act, until the will is admitted to probate and the executor is appointed by the probate judge and qualifies by taking the oath of office and filing a bond, if required. Direction is needed earlier rather than later, on what you’re permitted to do. The probate of a will takes time.

It is best to get started promptly, so that there’s an executor in place with power to handle the affairs of the decedent.

Reference: Dallas Morning News (April 10, 2020) “Three things to do on the death of a loved one”

 

Do You have an Estate Plan Blueprint?

Your assets can go to one of four places: family, friends, charity or the government. You should work with a qualified estate planning attorney to make certain that you have the instructions set up correctly in your will and perhaps a trust and create an estate plan for yourself.

Forbes’s recent article entitled “How To Create An Estate Planning Blueprint” emphasizes that you need to make sure your plan is optimized, so your beneficiaries can sidestep the pain of probate and you can be certain that you make the most of the gifts you plan to leave them.

Let’s look at some tips on how to make sure your estate is as planned as best as it possibly can be.

Conduct Regular Check-ups. You should review your estate plan every few years. Things change, like laws and regulations, family situations, wealth and more. This needs to be reflected in your planning.

Think of the Future. Failing to plan now, can mean headaches in the future for your family after you’re gone.

Look at Your Options. If you and your estate planning attorney decide to set up a trust, know your options and discuss them, along with their tax implications.

Plan Your Charitable Gifts. Ask your estate planning attorney whether lifetime gifting makes sense. The unified exemption amount is at $23.16 million per couple, when it comes to lifetime and at-death gifts. If you have an estate valued in excess of that per-couple threshold, consider making lifetime gifts now before the possible future decrease in this exemption!

Inform Your Beneficiaries of Your Wishes. Let you family know what you’re planning to do with your estate to avoid hurt feelings and fighting after you’re gone. That way, there will be no surprises. You do not need to spell out all the financial details. However, you should provide a general summary of what you anticipate, as well as details about who will be the trustees and executors of your estate.

When planning your estate plan strategy, paying for the services of a legal professional now can help you avoid problems in the future. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Forbes (April 1, 2020) “How To Create An Estate Planning Blueprint”

 

Estate Planning Options to Consider in Uncertain Times

Now is a good time to reach out to an estate planning attorney to review and update beneficiaries, named executors, financial and healthcare powers of attorney, wills and trusts, advises the article “Planning Strategies During Market Uncertainty & Volatility: Estate Planning and Debt Usage” from Traders Magazine. There are also some strategic estate planning options to consider in the current environment.

Intentionally Defective Grantor Trusts (IDGTs): These are irrevocable trusts that are structured to be “intentionally defective.” They are gifts to grantor trusts for non-grantor beneficiaries that allow contributed assets to appreciate outside of the grantor’s estate, while the income produced by the trust is taxed to the grantor, and not the trust. The external appreciation requires the grantor to use non-trust assets to pay the trust’s income taxes, which equals a tax-free gift to the beneficiaries of the trust, while reducing the grantor’s estate. Trust assets can grow tax-free, which creates additional appreciation opportunities for trust beneficiaries. IDGTs are especially useful to owners of real estate, closely held businesses or highly-appreciating assets that are or will likely be exposed to estate tax.

Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs): GRATs allow asset owners to put assets irrevocably into trusts to benefit others while receiving fixed annuity payments for a period of time. GRATs are especially effective in situations where low asset values and/or interest rates are present, because the “hurdle rate” of the annuity payment will be lower, while the price appreciation is potentially greater. GRATs are often used by asset owners with estate tax exposure who want to transfer assets out of their estate and retain access to cash flow from those assets, while they are living.

Debt strategies: Debt repayment represents an absolute and/or risk-adjusted rate of return that is often the same or better than savings rates or bond yields. Some debt strategies that are now useful include:

Mortgage refinancing: Interest rates are likely to be low for the foreseeable future. People with long-term debt may find refinancing right now an advantageous option.

Opportunistic lines of credit: The low interest rates may make tapping available lines of credit or opening new lines of credit attractive for investment opportunities, wealth transfer, or additional liquidity.

Low-rate intra-family loans: When structured properly, loans between family members can be made at below-interest, IRS-sanctioned interest rates. An estate planning attorney will be able to help structure the intra-family loan, so that it will be considered an arms-length transaction that does not impose gift tax consequences for the lender.

High-rate intra-family or -entity loans: This sounds counter-intuitive, but if structured properly, a high-rate intra-family or -entity loan can charge a higher but tax-appropriate rate that increases a fixed income cash flow for the borrower, while avoiding gift and income tax.

All of these techniques should be examined with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that they align with the overall estate plan for the individual and the family.

Reference: Traders Magazine (May 6, 2020) “Planning Strategies During Market Uncertainty & Volatility: Estate Planning and Debt Usage”

 

What Can I Do to Plan for Incapacity?

Smart advance planning can help preserve family assets, provide for your own well-being and eliminate the stress and publicity of a guardianship hearing, which might be needed if you do nothing. These are just some thoughts to ponder when you are planning for incapacity.

A guardianship or conservatorship for an elderly individual is a legal relationship created when a judge appoints a person to care for an elderly person, who’s no longer able to care for herself.   The guardian has specific duties and responsibilities to the elderly person.

FEDweek’s recent article entitled “Guarding Against the Possibility of Your Incapacity” discusses several possible strategies.

Revocable (“living”) trust. Even after you transfer assets into the trust, you still have the ability to control those assets and collect any income they earn. If you no longer possess the ability to manage your own affairs, a co-trustee or successor trustee can assume management of trust assets on your behalf.

Durable power of attorney. A power of attorney (POA) document names an individual to manage your assets that aren’t held in trust. Another option is to have your estate planning attorney draft powers of attorney for financial institutions that hold assets, like a pension or IRA. Note that many financial firms are reticent to recognize powers of attorney that are not on their own forms.

Joint accounts. You can also establish a joint checking account with a trusted child or other relative. With her name on the account, your daughter can then pay your bills, if necessary. However, note that the assets held in the joint account will pass to the co-owner (daughter) at your death even if you name other heirs in your will.

There may also be health care expenses accompanying incompetency.  This would include your health insurance and also potentially disability insurance in the event your incapacity should happen when you are still be working, and long-term care insurance, to pay providers of custodial care, at home or in a specialized facility, such as a nursing home.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to review the do’s and dont’s of estate planning.

Reference: FEDweek (March 5, 2020) “Guarding Against the Possibility of Your Incapacity”

 

How Do I Start My Estate Plan?

The decision to start an estate plan is critical for all families but it can also be a challenge. In many cases, the greatest impediment families face initially is discussing death, especially the deaths of family members. Forbes’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning 101: Tackling Your Estate Plan” suggests several life events that will trigger the need to start an estate plan for your family or business.

The article also reminds us that it’s important to think about what might happen to you or someone in your family, in the event of a substantial life change. Here are some life events that can necessitate the need for an estate plan and a visit with your attorney:

  • A marriage;
  • The birth or adoption of a child or grandchild
  • The start of a new business
  • A significant increase in net worth
  • Changes in the tax laws
  • The death of a spouse or family member
  • Receiving an inheritance
  • A divorce
  • The sale of a business or property

There is no exact standard for when you should start creating your estate plan but if any of these events happen to you or your family it would be wise to start the conversation. While planning your estate may feel overwhelming, laborious, or expensive, not having a plan can be financially devastating, and can add stress to the situation.

Estate planning is a continuous process that should be tracked and reviewed annually. Let’s look at the steps for creating an estate plan:

Understand the Basics. First, learn the basics of estate planning and understand how the gift and estate tax laws may have an effect on your assets. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney. It is not wise to prepare your documents from an online source as those forms are generic and not specific to the state you live in.

Identify Your Objectives. Map out your objectives and select possible guardians, executors, trustees, heirs and other details with your attorney. You should also draft a personal financial statement, detailing a breakdown of your assets and liabilities.

Look at Your Insurance. Third, you should review what you have for life insurance to be certain that it’s aligned with and structured appropriately for your objectives. You may need to look into life insurance as a way to protect your family and income, if you haven’t done so already.

Finalize the Design Of Your Estate Plan. Finalize your estate planning design with the help of your estate planning attorney. Review your fiduciaries and your will, powers of attorney, trusts, healthcare proxy and a living will.

Sign your Documents. Next, you need to sign the documents.

Visit Your Plan Periodically. Finally, review your plan every few years or when there is a life event in your family.

Now that you have the basics under your belt, it should feel easier to address this important task.

Reference: Forbes (March 11, 2020) “Estate Planning 101: Tackling Your Estate Plan”

 

When Should I Update My Estate Plan?

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Do You Need A Trust? 8 Important Goals A Trust Can Help You Achieve” discusses eight ways a trust can help you achieve specific legacy planning goals. The first step is to meet with an experienced estate planning attorney and ask when you should update your estate plan.

Everybody needs a will but not everyone requires a trust. A trust provides greater flexibility and control over how your property and assets are distributed. Many people create a trust to avoid probate. As a result, it’s faster and easier for your named trustee(s) to distribute your assets to your heirs. There are a many different types of trusts with advantages and disadvantages. Talk about what will be best for you with your estate planning attorney.

  1. No probate. This process can take months or more to complete, and it can be very expensive. A trust is designed to settle your estate in a timely and relatively inexpensive manner.
  2. Privacy and confidentiality. Probate is public so your will and other private financial and business info is available to everyone. However, a trust maintains privacy and confidentiality.
  3. Protection for beneficiaries. A trust can shield beneficiaries from lawsuits, creditors, or divorce. A trust can also protect the interests of a minor, by including direction for when distributions are made.
  4. Provide for children with special needs. This type of trust provides for the health care and personal needs of a minor child or adult who has special needs and won’t impact their eligibility for Medicaid benefits.
  5. Flexibility. As the creator of the trust, you determine the terms of the trust, and can put restrictions on how trust assets are managed. For instance, the trust could state that assets may only be used by the beneficiary to purchase a home or to pay medical bills but may not be distributed directly to the beneficiary.
  6. Preserve family wealth. Divorce and remarriage can result in assets that were supposed to stay in the family wind up leaving with the ex-spouse. A trust can make certain that your estate is preserved for grandchildren.
  7. Family values. A trust can be a wonderful way to pass down family values concerning education, home ownership, land conservation, community service, religious beliefs and other topics.
  8. Lessening family conflict. Challenging a trust is difficult and costly. Having a trust in place that clearly articulates your wishes for your family reduces the potential for misunderstanding.

Whether you have a trust in place or are thinking about creating one, it’s important to meet regularly with your estate planning attorney to be certain your strategy and estate planning documents reflect any new state and federal tax laws, as well as any changes in your goals and circumstances.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 24, 2020) “Do You Need A Trust? 8 Important Goals A Trust Can Help You Achieve”

 

What Should I know about Financial Powers of Attorney?

A financial power of attorney is a document allowing an “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” to act on the principal’s behalf and answers the question of what you should know about Financial Powers of Attorney. It  alsousually allows the agent to pay the principal’s bills, access her accounts, pay her taxes and buy and sell investments. This person, in effect, assumes the responsibilities of the principal and can act for the principal in all areas detailed in the document.

Kiplinger’s recent article from April entitled “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?” acknowledges that these responsibilities may sound daunting, and it’s only natural to feel a little overwhelmed initially. Here are some facts that will help you understand what you need to do.

Read and don’t panic. Review the power of attorney document and know the extent of what the principal has given you power to handle in their stead.

Understand the scope. Make a list of the principal’s assets and liabilities. If the individual for whom you’re caring is organized, then that will be simple. Otherwise, you will need to find these items:

  • Brokerage and bank accounts
  • Retirement accounts
  • Mortgage papers
  • Tax bills
  • Utility, phone, cable, and internet bills
  • Insurance premium invoices

Take a look at the principal’s spending patterns to see any recurring expenses. Review their mail for a month to help you to determine where the money comes and goes. If your principal is over age 72 and has granted you the power to manage her retirement plan, don’t forget to make any required minimum distributions (RMDs). If your principal manages her finances online, you’ll need to contact their financial institutions and establish that you have power of attorney, so that you can access these accounts.

Guard the principal’s assets. Make certain that her home is secure. You might make a video inventory of the residence. If it looks like your principal will be incapacitated for a long time, you might stop the phone and newspaper. Watch out for family members taking property and saying that it had been promised to them (or that it belonged to them all along).

Pay bills. Be sure to monitor your principal’s bills and credit card statements for potential fraud. You might temporarily suspend credit cards that you won’t be using on the principal’s behalf. Remember that they may have monthly bills paid automatically by credit card.

Pay taxes. Many powers of attorney give the agent the power to pay the principal’s taxes. If so, you’ll be responsible for filing and paying taxes during the principal’s lifetime. If the principal dies, the executor of the principal’s will is responsible and will prepare the final taxes.

Ask about estate planning. See if there is an estate plan and ask a qualified estate planning attorney for help. If the principal resides in a nursing home paid by Medicaid, talk to an elder law attorney as soon as possible to save the principal’s estate at least some of the costs of their care.

Keep records. Track your expenditures made on your principal’s behalf. This will help you demonstrate that you have upheld your duties and acted in the principal’s best interests, as well as for reimbursement for expenses.

Always act in the principal’s best interest. If you don’t precisely know the principal’s expectations, then always act with their best interests in mind. Contact the principal’s estate planning attorney who prepared the power of attorney for guidance.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 22, 2020) “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?”