Why Do I Need a Will, Like Yesterday?

A recent Gallup poll found that fewer than half of Americans (46%) have a last will that states the way in which their assets are to be handled after their death.

Surprisingly, the results of this survey have been nearly unchanged since 1990 at between 44% and 51%.

Real Simple’s recent article “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now” says that one of the most common myths is that a last will isn’t needed if you want all of your assets to go to your family.

  1. While the state has laws on what happens if you die without a last will, what if that’s not exactly how you want your estate to be distributed?
  2. Another major reason for creating a last will is to make certain that someone is named to care for your minor children.
  3. A last will lets you designate guardians to care for your children after your death. Without a guardian in a last will, a judge will decide who raises your children if you pass away. That judge likely would be someone who does not know you or your children or your family and friends. Without a last will, you will be allowing this “stranger” to make this life-changing decision for your children.
  4. Also, there are taxes. If you have a last will in place, it will minimize estate taxes your family may have to deal with. A comprehensive estate plan created with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney can reduce tax exposure by as much as 40%. This move alone can help avoid having to pay taxes on your income a second time.
  5. A last will isn’t just for your benefit. Your family will ultimately be most impacted by whether you took the time to draft up this important document. Creating a last will can give them some peace and comfort during a difficult time. In contrast, not having a last will leaves them with no guidance as to your wishes and can add to their burdens and stress during their grieving.
  6. Care and maintenance of pets. The law says that pets are just property. If you regard your pets as members of the family, then you can leave money to an individual whom you designate as the caregiver for your pet if it survives you. A last will lets you to give your pet to a chosen loved one. This simple step alone can help prevent your pet from going to a shelter.
  7. Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your will.

Reference: Real Simple (June 25, 2021) “6 Reasons You Need to Make a Will Now”

 

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”

 

What Is a Testamentary Trust?

Trusts are created to hold assets, and money in a trust is managed according to the instructions of the person who created it. A testamentary trust is a trust that’s created by a will after death, explains WTOP’s article entitled “What Is a Testamentary Trust and How Do I Create One?” Once the trust has been created, assets are placed into it and then distributed, as designated by its legal documentation.

There is also something called a revocable trust, which is a living trust created prior to a person’s death. A revocable trust is created outside of probate, which means that the heirs do not have to go through probate to receive assets from a living trust. Instead, a trustee can distribute funds directly to beneficiaries. Both testamentary trusts and living trusts are used for estate planning. However, a living trust allows for more flexibility and can have lower long-term costs. Living trusts are not only created outside probate but managed outside the court system as well. In contrast, testamentary trusts are administered through probate for as long as they are in effect.

A testamentary trust is frequently used to manage money for minor children, but it can protect assets in other situations too. The good thing is that there is a lot more court oversight. The bad part is court oversight is not cheap.

For example, a testamentary trust could be used to manage money for an 8-year-old beneficiary until age 25. But that means 17 years of probate. So, while testamentary trusts may be less expensive than living trusts to set up, they could cost more in the long run. These trusts are rare, and the one time a testamentary trust may have an advantage over a living trust is if someone involved in the estate is prone to taking legal action, in which case court management may be the better option.

You should ask an attorney to draft the documents. It should be an attorney who specializes in trusts and estates. Having an experienced estate planning attorney draw up will and trust documents will make certain that they meet the state’s requirements and are written so that your assets are distributed according to your instructions.

When the creator of the trust dies, the testamentary trust will be created, and assets moved into it as stipulated in the deceased’s will. Distributions will then occur from the trust, as instructed in the trust documents.

Reference: WTOP (July 19, 2021) “What Is a Testamentary Trust and How Do I Create One?”

 

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.”

 

Can I Write a Perfect Will?

The Good Men Project’s recent article entitled “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will” says that writing a perfect will is hard but not impossible. The article provides some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Include Everything. If you have items that are very important to you, make sure they are in the right hands after your death.
  2. Consult an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney. It is a challenge to write a will, especially when you do not know all the legal processes that will take place after your death. An estate planning lawyer can educate you on how your estate is being distributed after your death and how to address specific circumstances.
  3. Name an Executor. An executor will manage and distribute your assets after you die. Select a trustworthy person and be sure it is someone who will respect you and your will.
  4. Name the Beneficiaries. These people will get your assets after you pass away. Name them all and include their full names, so there is no confusion.
  5. Say Where Everything Can Be Found. Your executor should know where all of your property and assets can be found. If there is any safe place where you keep things, add it to your will.
  6. Describe Residual Legacies. This is what remains in your estate, once all the other legacies and bequests are completed. If you fail to do this, it will be a partial intestacy. No matter that the legacies would be distributed according to the will, the intestacy laws will control the residue, which may not be to your liking.
  7. Name Guardians for Your Minor Children. Appoint a guardian to take care of any minor children or the court will appoint their guardians, again this may not be to your liking.
  8. Be Specific. An ambiguous will creates issues for the executor and may require court intervention. Be specific and include heirs’ full names. Account numbers, security boxes and anything of the sort should also be included in your will for easy access.
  9. Keep it Updated. If you experience a major life event, update your will accordingly.
  10. Get Signatures from Witnesses. Once your will is completed, you need witnesses who are at least 18 and are not beneficiaries. Sign and date the will in front of these witnesses, and then ask them to date and sign it too.

If you have any questions about wills, speak to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: The Good Men Project (May 28, 2021) “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will”

 

Can I Create a Stress-free Asset Transfer?

We can all agree that end-of-life planning is a sensitive topic. Nonetheless, taking the time to consider a loved one’s estate and distribution of wealth can set the family at ease and also make certain that there is a smooth transition of assets, without unnecessary legal hurdles or headaches.

MarketWatch’s article entitled “3 tips for navigating estate planning with loved ones” explains that, if you’re thinking about starting the process of estate planning with a close family member, like an elderly parent or a new spouse, read these recommendations:

  1. Stress the ultimate benefit of peace of mind. Estate planning helps the transfer of assets in an efficient and less stressful manner. It also minimizes estate tax liability of your assets when you die. Most of all, your loved ones will benefit with the peace of mind.
  2. Be as open as you can. Be honest and communicate openly about your loved one’s wishes on how they would like to distribute their estate and wealth either during life or death. Many assumptions can be made about end-of-life financial planning, like parents who assume their children will not fight when dividing their assets. This can put a lot of stress on surviving siblings, so communicate clear expectations during the planning process. It is also important to take some time to consider trustees and executors, and to encourage your parent or spouse to name an executor who is organized and thorough. Once this individual is named, be sure he or she understands the location of all of your loved one’s assets.
  3. Use care with beneficiary selections. Naming beneficiaries can have important tax implications. It is common to name a trust as the beneficiary of an IRA account, when your children are young. However, as they grow up, this can be an issue. When an IRA is distributed to a trust, it triggers taxes. The assets will be taxed immediately before being distributed to beneficiaries. Name children as direct beneficiaries of their IRA, so that they have other options available to them. Many of these may provide significant tax savings.

One more thought: using “transfer on death” designations for individual accounts is similar to a beneficiary designation for a retirement account. However, it permits your parent or spouse to name beneficiaries when they pass and prevents their money from going through a lengthy and expensive probate.

The best time to discuss estate planning with your parents is now. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to guide you through this process.

Reference: MarketWatch (June 5, 2021) “3 tips for navigating estate planning with loved ones”

 

Will the Girlfriend Get the Life Insurance or the Wife?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Who will get my boyfriend’s property if he dies? Me or his wife?” says that a couple that’s lived together for some time where one is still married to another can create some issues. If the boyfriend has a life insurance policy and 401(k) with the girlfriend as beneficiary, they should draft a will to make certain that the estranged wife does not get that money.

Despite the fact that the girlfriend is the named beneficiary of the life insurance and the 401(k), there is more you need to think about.

Without a will, probate assets (the assets held by individuals in their own name without a beneficiary designation or assets held in joint names as tenants in common) will be transferred by the laws of intestacy.

The laws of intestacy provide first to a spouse and/or children of the deceased, without regard to whether the couple are living together.  If the deceased had no spouse or children, state intestacy laws say that property passes to parents then siblings.

As far as the life insurance policy and 401(k), absent a valid waiver, the boyfriend’s spouse will certainly have a legal right to the 401(k) and may have a contractual claim on the life insurance either through a premarital agreement or a property settlement agreement.

Therefore, even if the assets are paid out to the girlfriend, the contractual claim may provide the spouse with a successful action against her.

A spouse may also have rights to the policy or part of the 401(k) as a result of the marriage in a future divorce proceeding.

Contact an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare your estate planning documents.

Reference: nj.com (June 21, 2021) “Who will get my boyfriend’s property if he dies? Me or his wife?”

 

What are the Most Popular Estate Planning Scams?

The Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Beware of These Common Estate Planning Scams” advises you to avoid these common estate planning scams.

  1. Cold Calls Offering to Prepare Estate Plans. Scammers call and email purporting to be long lost relatives who’ve had their wallets stolen and are stranded in a foreign country. Seniors fall prey to this and will pay for estate planning documents. Any cold call from someone asking that money be wired to a bank account, in exchange for estate planning documents should be approached with great skepticism.
  2. Paying for Estate Planning Templates. For a one-time fee, some scammers will offer estate planning documents that may be downloaded and modified by an individual. While this may look like a great deal, avoid using these pro forma templates to draft individual estate plans. Such templates are rarely tailored to meet state-specific requirements and often fail to incorporate contingencies that are necessary for a comprehensive and complete estate plan. Instead, work with an experienced estate planning attorney.
  3. Not Requiring an Estate Plan. Although less of a scheme, some people think they do not need an estate plan. However, proper estate planning entails deciding who can make health care and financial decisions during life, in the event of incapacity. These documents help to minimize the need for family members to petition the Probate Court in certain situations.
  4. Paying High Legal Fees. Like many things in life, with an estate plan, you may get what you pay for. Paying money upfront to have your intentions memorialized in writing can minimize the expense. Heirs should be on guard if an attorney hired to administer an estate is charging exorbitant fees for what looks to be a well-prepared estate plan. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion in these situations.
  5. Signing Estate Planning Documents You Don’t Understand. Estate planning documents are designed to prepare for potential incapacity and for death. It is critical that your estate planning documents represent your intentions. However, if you don’t read them or don’t understand what you’ve read, you will have no idea if your goals are accomplished. Make certain that you understand what you’re signing. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to explain these documents to you clearly and will make sure that you understand each of them before you sign.

You can avoid these common scams, by establishing a relationship with an experienced attorney you trust.

Reference: The Wealth Advisor (June 7, 2021) “Beware of These Common Estate Planning Scams”

 

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”