Should a Trust Be Part of My Estate Plan?

A revocable trust can be a wise choice for managing your assets, says nj.com’s recent article entitled “What are the advantages of putting assets into a trust?”

A revocable trust is a type of trust that can be changed once it is executed by the creator of the trust, known as the grantor. During the life of the trust, income earned is distributed to the grantor. After his or her death, the trust assets transfer to the beneficiaries of the trust.

A revocable trust can be advantageous because it has flexibility and provides this income stream and full access to the trust principal by the living grantor (also known as the trustor).

If you are the grantor, you can act as trustee, by yourself or with another as co-trustee.

When you no longer want to manage, or when you’re unable to manage your affairs, the co-trustee or a successor trustee can take over all of the duties.

If you didn’t put your assets in a revocable trust, you’d need to appoint an agent under a durable power of attorney to handle your financial affairs, if you become incapacitated.

However, some financial institutions would rather do business with a trustee instead of an agent under a power of attorney.

At your death, if all of your assets are in trust, your family can avoid the probate process. The trustee continues to manage the trust assets pursuant to the terms of the trust document. Those instructions do not need to be recorded any court in most jurisdictions.

Unlike a will, which is recorded with the government once it is probated, a trust is not a public document in most jurisdictions. Therefore, privacy is another advantage of a trust.

Finally, in states where an inheritance tax return is required, a revocable trust also avoids the need to obtain tax waivers, which are issued by the state to release any tax liens, upon death.

However, there are some downsides to putting assets into a trust.

First, the expense of creating a trust will be more than a simple will, and you would still need a will in the event you did not place everything in the trust during your lifetime or upon your death by a beneficiary designation.

Sometimes, having all of your assets in trust can also be more costly or cumbersome. For instance, insurance may be more expensive when an asset is in the trust.

Reference: nj.com (March 17, 2021) “What are the advantages of putting assets into a trust?”

What Paperwork Is Needed after Someone Dies?

Tax return issues, family matters, business associates, partners, trustees, bankers, investment advisors and tax collectors from the IRS to state and local taxing authorities all require attention after someone has died. There is a lot of work, and often a grieving family member finds it helpful to enlist the aid of a professional to lighten the load. A recent article, “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate” from Accounting Web, contains a list of the tasks to be completed.

General administration and legal tasks. At the very earliest, the executor should create a timetable with the known tasks. If you’ve never done this before, there’s no shame in enlisting help from a qualified professional. Be realistic about your familiarity with tax and legal issues and your organizational skills.

Determine with your estate planning attorney whether probate is necessary. Is the estate small enough for your state’s laws to allow you to expedite the process? Some jurisdictions can do this, others do not.

If an estate plan was created and executed properly, many assets may not need to go through probate. Assets like IRAs, joint tenancies, accounts that are POD, or Payable on Death and any assets with named beneficiaries do not require probate.

Gather information about family owners or others who may have a claim to the estate and who may have useful information about the assets. You’ll need to locate and notify heirs of the decedent’s passing.

Others who need to be notified, include charities named in the will. You’ll need to identify prior transfers to charities that were partial transfers, such as Charitable Remainder Trusts. If there is a charitable remainder trust with a retained lifetime income interest, it will need to be in the estate tax return, albeit with an offsetting estate tax charitable deduction.

Locate the important documents, including the will, any correspondence relating to the will, any letters explaining the decedent’s wishes, deeds, trusts, bank and brokerage statements, partnership agreements, prior tax returns, federal and state tax forms and any gift tax returns.

An estate planning attorney will be able to help determine ownership issues, including identifying assets and liabilities. This includes deeds, vehicle titles, club memberships, personal possessions and business assets, including copyrights and patents.

Social Security will need to be notified, as will Medicare, pension administrators, Department of Veteran Affairs, the post office, trustees, and any service providers.

Filing taxes for the last year of the person’s life and their estate tax filing needs to happen on a timely basis. Even if an estate tax return may not be required, it is useful to file to establish date of death values for assets. It is important to resolve income tax statute of limitation issues and any IRS or state examination issues.

Estate administration is a big job, especially if you’ve never done it before. Having the help of an experienced estate lawyer can alleviate much of the worry that comes with settling an estate.

Reference: Accounting Web (March 19, 2021) “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate”

Can I Revoke a Power of Attorney?
An concept Image of a power of attorney

Can I Revoke a Power of Attorney?

Spouses and partners chosen by adult children often lead to estate planning challenges. In one case, a parent worries that a second husband may be a poor influence and wants to revoke the power of attorney originally granted to a daughter. How to do that legally and without any hurt feelings is examined in the article Estate Planning: Revoking a power of attorney” from nwi.com.

A Power of Attorney is a document that allows another person to act on your behalf. The person designated is referred to as the “Attorney in Fact” or the “Agent.”

The problem this family faces, is that any revocation of a POA must be in writing, must identify the person who is to be revoked as the POA and must be signed by the person who is revoking the POA. Here’s where the hurt feelings come in: the revocation is not legal, until and unless the agent has actual knowledge of the revocation.

You can’t slip off to your estate planning lawyer’s office, revoke the POA and hope the family member will never know.

Another way to revoke a POA is to execute a new one. In most states, most durable POAs include a provision that the new POA revokes any prior POAs. By executing a new POA that revokes the prior ones, you have a valid revocation that is in writing and signed by the principal.

However, a daughter who is duly appointed must be notified. If she is currently acting under the POA and has a copy of it, there’s no way to avoid her learning of the parent’s decision.

If, however, the daughter has never seen a copy of the POA and she is not currently acting on it, then you may be able to make a new POA without notifying her. However, it may create a sticky situation in the future. Notification may be your only option.

If the POA has been recorded for any reason, the revocation must reference the book, page and instrument number assigned by the recorder’s office and be recorded. If the POA has been provided to any individuals or financial institutions, such as banks, life insurance companies, financial advisors, etc., they will need to be properly notified that it has been revoked or replaced.

Two cautions: not telling the daughter and having her find out after the parent has passed or is incapacitated might be a painful blow, with no resolution. Telling the daughter while the parent can discuss the change may be challenging but reaching an understanding will at least be possible. A diplomatic approach is best: the parent wishes to adjust her estate plan and the attorney made some recommendations, this revocation among them, should suffice.

Not revoking the power of attorney correctly could also lead to an estate planning disaster, with the daughter challenging whoever was named as the POA without her knowledge.

Talk with your estate planning lawyer to ensure that the POA is changed properly, and that all POAs have been updated.

Reference: nwi.com (March 7, 2021) “Estate Planning: Revoking a power of attorney”

How Do Special Needs Trusts Work?

A trust of any kind is a document that expresses your wishes while you are alive and after you have passed. The need for a dedicated trust for loved ones differs with the situations or issues of the family. Getting this wrong can lead to financial devastation, explains the article “Take special care with Special Needs trusts” from the Herald Bulletin.

A Special Needs Trust or supplemental trust provides protection and management for assets for specific beneficiaries. The trustee is in charge of the assets in the trust during the grantor’s life or at his death and distributes to the beneficiary as directed by the trust.

The purpose of a Special Needs or supplemental trust is to help people who receive government benefits because they are physically or mentally challenged or are chronically ill. Most of these benefits are means-tested. The rules about outside income are very strict. An inheritance would disqualify a Special Needs person from receiving these benefits, possibly putting them in dire circumstances.

The value of assets placed in a Special Needs trust does not count against the benefits. However, this area of the law is complex, and requires the help of an experienced elder law estate planning attorney. Mistakes could have lifelong consequences.

The trustee manages assets and disperses funds when needed, or at the direction of the trust. Selecting a trustee is extremely important, since the duties of a Special Needs trust could span decades. The person in charge must be familiar with the government programs and benefits and stay up to date with any changes that might impact the decisions of when to release funds.

These are just a few of the considerations for a trustee:

  • How should disbursements be made, balancing current needs and future longevity?
  • Does the request align with the rules of the trust and the assistance program requirements?
  • Will anyone else benefit from the expenditure, family members or the trustee? The trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the beneficiary, first and foremost.

Parents who leave life insurance, stocks, bonds, or cash to all children equally may be putting their Special Needs child in jeopardy. Well-meaning family members who wish to take care of their relative must be made aware of the risk of leaving assets to a Special Needs individual. These conversations should take place, no matter how awkward.

An experienced elder law estate planning attorney will be able to create a Special Needs trust that will work for the individual and for the family.

Reference: Herald Bulletin (March 13, 2021) “Take special care with Special Needs trusts”

Why Would I Need a Living Trust?

EIN Presswire’s recent article “Advantages of a Living Trust” explains that, if you have not prepared a will, your state of residence dictates the distribution of your estate by default.

A living trust is a legal document that is created during a person’s lifetime where a named person (the trustee) is given responsibility for managing the trustmaker’s assets for the benefit of the beneficiary. A living trust is designed to provide an easy transfer of the trustmaker’s assets, while bypassing the probate process.

If you fail to plan for your estate, it can result in the government—not your heirs—inheriting the majority of your assets. That is because the top estate tax rate is an 40%.

Moreover, probate costs can take from 5% to 25% of the gross value of your estate, and the probate process can take a year or longer. It can be a very difficult and frustrating experience for your surviving family.

You can’t just think you’re doing effective estate planning by putting everything you own into joint title or having a will leaving everything to your spouse. You need to review your circumstances with an experienced estate planning attorney. Let’s see what you can do with a living trust:

  1. Avoid probate delays and expenses.
  2. Reduce the emotional stress on your family.
  3. Eliminate or reduce taxes.
  4. Enjoy total flexibility, since a living trust can be changed or canceled at any time.
  5. Keep control of your assets, even in the event of your incompetency and after your death.
  6. Avoid a conservatorship at physical or mental incapacity.
  7. Keep your privacy, as a trust is completely confidential.
  8. Allow for a fast distribution of assets to beneficiaries; and
  9. Save time, money, and future headaches for your family.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney, if a living trust fits into your comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: EIN Presswire (March 12, 2021) “Advantages of a Living Trust”

Remind Me Why I Need a Will

There are a number of reasons to draft a will as soon as possible. If you die without a will (intestate), you leave decisions up to your state of residence according to its probate and intestacy laws. Without a will, you have no say as to who receives your assets or properties. Not having a will could also make it difficult for your family.

Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “Top 7 Reasons to Fill Out a Will” reminds us that, before it is too late, consider these reasons why a will is essential.

Avoid Family Disputes. This process occasionally will lead to disagreements among family members, if there’s no will or your wishes aren’t clear. A contested will can be damaging to relationships within your family and can be costly.

Avoid Costly and Lengthy Probate. A will expedites the probate process and tells the court the way in which you want your estate to be divided. Without a will, the court will decide how your estate will be divided, which can lead to unnecessary delays.

Deciding What Happens to Your Assets. A will is the only way you can state exactly to whom you want your assets to be given. Without a will, the court will decide.

Designating a Guardian for Your Children. Without a will, the court will determine who will take care of your minor children.

Eliminate Stress for Your Family. Most estates must go to probate court to start the process. However, if you have no will, the process can be complicated. The court must name personal representatives to administer your estate.

Protect Your Business. A will allows you to pass your business to your co-owners or heirs.

Provide A Home For Your Pets. If you have a will, you can make certain that someone will care for your pets if you die. The law considers pets as properties, so you are prohibited from leaving assets to your pets in your will. However, you can name beneficiaries for your pets, leaving them to a trusted person, and you can name people to serve as guardians of your pets and leave them funds to meet their needs.

Drafting a will with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney can give you and your family peace of mind and convenience in the future.

Reference: Legal Reader (Jan. 28, 2021) “Top 7 Reasons to Fill Out a Will”

What’s Happening to the Estate Tax?

Proposals now being considered by President Biden may expand the number of Americans who will need to pay the federal estate tax in one of two ways: raising rates and lowering qualifying thresholds on estates and increasing the liability for inheriting and selling assets. It is likely that these changes will raise revenues from the truly wealthy, while also imposing estate taxes on Americans with more modest assets, according to a recent article “It May Be Time to Start Worrying About the Estate Tax” from The New York Times.

Inheritance taxes are paid by the estate of a person who died. Some states have estate taxes of their own, with lower asset thresholds. As of this writing, a married couple would need to have assets of more than $23.4 million before they had to plan for federal estate taxes. This historically high exemption may be ending sooner than originally anticipated.

One of the changes being considered is a common tax shelter. Known as the “step-up in basis at death,” this values the assets in an estate at the date of death and disregards any capital gains in a deceased person’s portfolio. Eliminating the step-up in basis would require inheritors to pay capital gains whenever they sold assets, including everything from the family home to stock portfolios.

If you’re lucky enough to inherit wealth, this little item has been an accounting gift for many years. A person who inherits stock doesn’t have to think twice about what their parents or grandparents paid decades ago. All of the capital gains in those shares or any other inherited investment are effectively erased, when the owner dies. There are no capital gains to calculate or taxes to pay.

However, those capital gains taxes are lost revenue to the federal government. Eliminating the step-up rules could potentially generate billions in taxes from the very wealthy but is likely to create financial pain for people who have lower levels of wealth. A family that inherited a home, for instance, would have a much bigger tax burden, even if the home was not a multi-million-dollar property but simply one that gained in value over time.

Reducing the estate tax exemption could lead to wealthy people having to revise their estate plans sooner rather than later. Twenty years ago, the exemption was $675,000 per person and the tax rate was 55%. Over the next two decades, the exemption grew and the rates fell. The exemption is now $11.7 million per person and the tax rate above that amount is 40%.

Lowering the exemption, possibly back to the 2009 level, would dramatically increase tax revenue.

What is likely to occur and when, remains unknown, but what is certain is that there will be changes to the federal estate tax. Stay up to date on proposed changes and be prepared to update your estate plan accordingly.

Reference: The New York Times (March 12, 2021) “It May Be Time to Start Worrying About the Estate Tax”

Roth IRA has a 5-Year Rule

Roth IRAs are popular for their flexibility and the simplicity of putting after-tax dollars in and not paying taxes on withdrawals during retirement. However, making the most of a Roth IRA requires paying attention to the details, according to a recent article “What is the Roth IRA 5-Year Rule?” from U.S. News & World Report.

More specifically, there are certain five-year rules that can undo all the good that comes from using a Roth, if you don’t know them. Avoid paying penalties or fees, by understanding how the Roth IRA rules work.

The Roth IRA five-year rule applies to investment earnings, and not to initial contributions. If you make withdrawals of investment earnings before the five-year time period, you’ll get hit with taxes and penalties, no matter how old you are. Many people think that once they turn 65 or 70, they can tap their Roth IRA whenever they want, but that’s not true.

Once you’ve opened and funded a Roth IRA, you’ll have to wait five years until you can start taking tax-free withdrawals of your investment earnings. The clock starts ticking on the date you open the account and make your very first contribution.

After five years, there are still certain requirements that must be met to take out earnings without a penalty. Before you can take out tax-free withdrawals, you will need to be at least 59½ or older.

That’s even if your first contribution was made the year you celebrated your 58th birthday. You’ll need to wait until age 63 before you may take qualified distributions from the account. The five-year rule applies, even if you opened the Roth IRA at age 70.

How is this time frame calculated? The IRS does it based on tax years. A tax year runs from January 1 to December 31. The deadline for contributions is the same as the deadline for filing taxes. Let’s say you funded a Roth IRA in April 2021 for the calendar year of 2020. The five-year rule begins on January 1, 2020. Apply the five-year rule, and you could begin taking withdrawals from the account on or after January 1, 2025.

What happens if you need to make withdrawals before the account hits that five-year mark? In that case, withdraw contributions to the account and not investment earnings.

If you’ve contributed money to a Roth IRA account, you can take that money out with no tax or penalty, no matter how old you are. However, make sure you meet all of the requirements. Remember that to avoid any taxes or penalties, you’ll need to leave the earnings in the account.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (March 10, 2021) “What is the Roth IRA 5-Year Rule?”

Trusts can Work for ‘Regular’ People

A trust fund is an estate planning tool that can be used by anyone who wishes to pass their property to individuals, family members or nonprofits. They are used by wealthy people because they solve a number of wealth transfer problems and are equally applicable to people who aren’t mega-rich, explains this recent article from Forbes titled “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy.”

A trust is a legal entity in the same way that a corporation is a legal entity. A trust is used in estate planning to own assets, as instructed by the terms of the trust. Terms commonly used in discussing trusts include:

  • Grantor—the person who creates the trust and places assets into the trust.
  • Beneficiary—the person or organization who will receive the assets, as directed by the trust documents.
  • Trustee—the person who ensures that the assets in the trust are properly managed and distributed to beneficiaries.

Trusts may contain a variety of property, from real estate to personal property, stocks, bonds and even entire businesses.

Certain assets should not be placed in a trust, and an estate planning attorney will know how and why to make these decisions. Retirement accounts and other accounts with named beneficiaries don’t need to be placed inside a trust, since the asset will go to the named beneficiaries upon death. They do not pass through probate, which is the process of the court validating the will and how assets are passed as directed by the will. However, there may be reasons to designate such accounts to pass to the trust and your attorney will advise you accordingly.

Assets are transferred into trusts in two main ways: the grantor transfers assets into the trust while living, often by retitling the asset, or by using their estate plan to stipulate that a trust will be created and retain certain assets upon their death.

Trusts are used extensively because they work. Some benefits of using a trust as part of an estate plan include:

Avoiding probate. Assets placed in a trust pass to beneficiaries outside of the probate process.

Protecting beneficiaries from themselves. Young adults may be legally able to inherit but that doesn’t mean they are capable of handling large amounts of money or property. Trusts can be structured to pass along assets at certain ages or when they reach particular milestones in life.

Protecting assets. Trusts can be created to protect inheritances for beneficiaries from creditors and divorces. A trust can be created to ensure a former spouse has no legal claim to the assets in the trust.

Tax liabilities. Transferring assets into an irrevocable trust means they are owned and controlled by the trust. For example, with a non-grantor irrevocable trust, the former owner of the assets does not pay taxes on assets in the trust during his or her life, and they are not part of the taxable estate upon death.

Caring for a Special Needs beneficiary. Disabled individuals who receive government benefits may lose those benefits, if they inherit directly. If you want to provide income to someone with special needs when you have passed, a Special Needs Trust (sometimes known as a Supplemental Needs trust) can be created. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to do this properly.

Reference: Forbes (March 15, 2021) “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy”