What You Need to Know about Trusts

Some people still think that trusts and estate planning are just for wealthy people. However, that’s simply not true. Many people are good candidates for trusts, used to protect their assets and their families. Trusts can also be used to avoid probate, says the article “Common misconceptions about trusts” from the Rome Sentinel.

Who controls my property? The grantor, or the person setting up the trust, has the option of being a trustee, if they are setting up a revocable trust or an irrevocable trust. There are tax differences, so you’ll want to do this with an estate planning attorney. The grantor names co-trustees, if you wish. They are usually a spouse, adult child, or trusted adult. Successor trustees, that is, people who will take over the trust if the primary trustee becomes incapacitated or dies.

Only rich people need trusts. Anyone who owns a home, has life insurance and other assets worth more than $150,000 can benefit from the protection that a trust provides. The type of trust depends the grantor’s age, health status, and the amount, variety, and location of assets. A healthy person who owns a lot of life insurance or other assets would probably want either a Revocable Living Trust or a Will that includes a Testamentary Trust. However, a person who is over 55 and is planning for nursing home care, is more likely to have an Irrevocable Medicaid Trust to protect assets, avoid probate and minimize tax liability.

Can I access assets in a trust? A properly prepared trust takes your lifestyle and spending into account. Certain types of trusts are more flexible than others, and an estate planning attorney will be able to make an appropriate recommendation.

For instance, if you have an Irrevocable Medicaid Trust, you will be restricted from taking the principal asset back directly. The assets in this type of trust can be used to fund costs and expenses of real property, including mortgage payments, taxes, furnace and roof repairs. An IMT needs to be set up with enough assets outside of it, so you can have an active retirement and enjoy your life. Assets outside of the trust are your spendable money.

Can my children or any others take assets from the trust? No, and that’s also the point of trusts. Unless you name someone as a Trustee with the power to take assets out of the trust, they cannot access the funds. The grantor retains control over what assets may be gifted during their lifetime. They can also impose restrictions on how assets are restricted after death. Some trusts are created to set specific ages or milestones, when beneficiaries receive all or some of the assets in the trust.

Trusts are not one size-fits all. Trusts need to be created to serve each family’s unique situation. An experienced estate planning attorney will work with the family to determine their overall goals, and then determine how trusts can be used as part of their estate plan to achieve goals.

Reference: Rome Sentinel (May 31, 2020) “Common misconceptions about trusts”

Social Security Issues, if You’re Self-Employed

Did you know that when you’re self-employed, you’re thought of by the IRS as both the employee and the employer? Therefore, it’s your job to withhold Social Security from your earnings—contributing the employer’s matching portion of Social Security and the individual’s portion. Instead of withholding Social Security taxes from each paycheck and, because many self-employed people don’t get regular paychecks, you pay all the Social Security taxes on your earnings, when you file your annual federal income tax return. This is both your personal contribution and your business’ contribution.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “How Social Security Works for the Self-Employed” explains how to calculate the Social Security taxes you owe, if you’re self-employed.

IRS Schedule SE is where you report your business’ net profit or loss as calculated on Schedule C. The federal government uses this information to calculate the Social Security benefits you’ll be entitled to in the future. Self-employment tax consists of both the employee and employer portion of Social Security (6.2% + 6.2% = 12.4%), as well as the employee and employer portion of Medicare (1.45% + 1.45% = 2.9%). Therefore, the total the self-employment tax rate is 15.3%.

If you are self-employed, what you pay in Social Security taxes is derived from your net income. On Schedule SE, you multiply your business’ net profit or loss as calculated on Schedule C by 92.35%, then you see how much self-employment tax you owe.

Note that the CARES (Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security) Act lets employers defer employee Social Security taxes through Dec. 31, 2020—50% of the deferred amount will be due Dec. 31, 2021, and the other half by Dec. 31, 2022. Good news: this break also applies to the self-employed.

There are many business expenses that the self-employed can use to decrease their tax liability, in addition to the Social Security tax deductions you can take when you’re self-employed. Business expenses reduce your overall tax, which ultimately lowers your Social Security taxes. These tax deductions are a way of minimizing self-employment tax and Social Security taxes. However, you should know that this can be a negative as far as your Social Security benefit calculations. That’s because these are based in part on your taxable earnings. The more deductions you have, the lower your Schedule C income. Lowering your Schedule C income is a good way to reduce how much federal, state, and local income tax you owe, but that lower amount will be part of your Social Security earnings history. As a result, you may receive lower benefits in retirement, than if you didn’t take those deductions.

There’s no Social Security taxes on your wages that exceed a certain earnings threshold. The wage base for 2020 is $137,700 (up from $132,900 in 2019), and you don’t owe Social Security taxes on your earnings that are greater than that amount.

Social Security really isn’t much different whether you’re self-employed or work for someone else. Self-employed individuals earn Social Security work credits the same way employees do and qualify for benefits based on their work credits and earnings. It’s the business tax deductions that are the biggest difference. If you work for someone else, you pay Social Security taxes on all of your earnings, up to the $137,700 limit in 2020. However, if you work for yourself, deductions you claim on Schedule C can make your taxable income substantially lower. That may decrease your Social Security taxes today, but also may decrease your Social Security benefits later.

Reference: Investopedia (April 29, 2020) “How Social Security Works for the Self-Employed”

Update Will at These 12 Times in Your Life

Estate planning lawyers hear it all the time—people meaning to update their will, but somehow never getting around to actually getting it done. The only group larger than the ones who mean to “someday,” are the ones who don’t think they ever need to update their documents, says the article “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will” from Kiplinger. The problems become abundantly clear when people die, and survivors learn that their will is so out-of-date that it creates a world of problems for a grieving family.

There are some wills that do stand the test of time, but they are far and few between. Families undergo all kinds of changes, and those changes should be reflected in the will. Here are one dozen times in life when wills need to be reviewed:

Welcoming a child to the family. The focus is on naming a guardian and a trustee to oversee their finances. The will should be flexible to accommodate additional children in the future.

Divorce is a possibility. Don’t wait until the divorce is underway to make changes. Do it beforehand. If you die before the divorce is finalized, your spouse will have marital rights to your property. Once you file for divorce, in many states you are not permitted to change your will, until the divorce is finalized. Make no moves here, however, without the advice of your attorney.

Your divorce has been finalized. If you didn’t do it before, update your will now. Don’t neglect updating beneficiaries on life insurance and any other accounts that may have named your ex as a beneficiary.

When your child(ren) marry. You may be able to mitigate the lack of a prenuptial agreement, by creating trusts in your will, so anything you leave your child won’t be considered a marital asset, if his or her marriage goes south.

Your beneficiary has problems with drugs or money. Money left directly to a beneficiary is at risk of being attached by creditors or dissolving into a drug habit. Updating your will to includes trusts that allow a trustee to only distribute funds under optimal circumstances protects your beneficiary and their inheritance.

Named executor or beneficiary dies. Your old will may have a contingency plan for what should happen if a beneficiary or executor dies, but you should probably revisit the plan. If a named executor dies and you don’t update the will, then what happens if the second executor dies?

A young family member grows up. Most people name a parent as their executor, then a spouse or trusted sibling. Two or three decades go by. An adult child may now be ready to take on the task of handling your estate.

New laws go into effect. In recent months, there have been many big changes to the law that impact estate planning, from the SECURE Act to the CARES act. Ask your estate planning attorney every few years, if there have been new laws that are relevant to your estate plan.

An inheritance or a windfall. If you come into a significant amount of money, your tax liability changes. You’ll want to update your will, so you can do efficient tax planning as part of your estate plan.

Can’t find your will? If you can’t find the original will, then you need a new will. Your estate planning attorney will make sure that your new will has language that states revokes all prior wills.

Buying property in another country or moving to another country. Some countries have reciprocity with America. However, transferring property to an heir in one country may be delayed, if the will needs to be probated in another country. Ask your estate planning attorney, if you need wills for each country in which you own property.

Family and friends are enemies. Friends have no rights when it comes to your estate plan. Therefore, if families and friends are fighting, the family member will win. If you suspect that your family may push back to any bequests to friends, consider adding a “No Contest” clause to disinherit family members who try to elbow your friends out of the estate.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 26, 2020) “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will”

What Should I Keep in My Safety Deposit Box?

A safe deposit box isn’t a smart choice for everything. Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “9 Things You’ll Regret Keeping in a Safe Deposit Box” advises that there are some items you might not want to lock up in your bank, which isn’t open nights, holidays, or weekends. zin this pandemic, hours of operation for many businesses are reduced. In fact, some financial institutions, like Bank of America, have temporarily closed some locations. There are other banks that require an appointment for in-branch services, like accessing your safe deposit box. This would create a headache for you in your attempt to retrieve important documents or items when you need them.

Here are some important items you should store elsewhere, because you’ll need to access more often or on short notice. Maybe they should be in a fireproof safe that’s secured to the floor in your home.

Cash. Keeping a wad of cash in a safe deposit box, isn’t a good idea because if you need it in a pinch and the bank is closed, you’re out of luck. In addition, that cash will lose its buying power over time because of inflation and some banks don’t allow cash in a safe deposit box. Finally, cash in a safe deposit box isn’t protected by the FDIC. To have FDIC insurance (covering up to $250,000 per depositor per insured bank), your cash needs to be deposited in a qualifying deposit account, such as a checking account, savings account, or CD.

Your Passport. OK, most of us don’t need your passport in hand at a moment’s notice. However, you may need to take an emergency trip, which will happen during non-banking hours. Without your passport handy, there’s not much you can do about those calls in the middle of the night requiring you to dash.

The Original Copy of Your Will. You may want to keep a copy of your own will, your spouse’s and any in which you’re named the executor in a safe deposit box. However, don’t store the original copy of your will there, particularly if you’re the only owner of the safe deposit box. That’s because after your death, the bank will seal the safe deposit box, until your executor can prove she has the legal right to access it. This could mean a long and potentially expensive delay before your will is executed and your assets can be disbursed to the intended heirs. Keep the original copy of your will with your estate planning attorney or in a location where your executor can get to it without any legal hassles.

Letters of Instruction. Many people write a letter of instruction to accompany their will. This letter can describe whether you want to be buried or cremated and the type of service you want. This letter can include details on specific bequests of sentimental items, but it’s no help if its’ locked in your safe deposit box.

Durable Power of Attorney (POA). This document gives a trusted friend, family member, or professional adviser the authority to financial make decisions on your behalf. However, if your POA is in a safe deposit box that no one can access, the person you’re depending on to protect you at your time of need could find her hands tied. Keep the original POA with the original copy of your will and give copies to those who may need it one day.

Advance Directives. A living will and a health care proxy are sometimes collectively known as advance directives, but each has a unique purpose. A living will states your wishes for end-of-life care, and a health care proxy (also known as a health care power of attorney) names a person to make medical decisions for you, if you can’t make them yourself. Neither is any good locked away in an inaccessible safe deposit box.

Uninsured Jewelry and Collectibles. Heirloom jewelry and your valuable stamp collection and rare coins are good candidates for a safe deposit box, but they must be properly insured. The FDIC doesn’t insure safe deposit box contents, and neither does the bank, unless it’s stated in your agreement.

Any Illegal or Dangerous Items. Your bank should provide you with a list of items that are not permissible to keep in a safe deposit box. This will include things like firearms, illegal drugs and hazardous materials.

Reference: Kiplinger (June 1, 2020) “9 Things You’ll Regret Keeping in a Safe Deposit Box”

Are You Making the Most of the SECURE and CARES Acts?
Coronavirus Aid, Relief, And Economic Security Act: Letter Tiles CARES Act On US Flag, 3d illustration

Are You Making the Most of the SECURE and CARES Acts?

The SECURE Act made a number of changes to IRAs, effective January 1, 2020. It was followed by the CARES Act, effective March 27, 2020, which brought even more changes. A recent article from the Milwaukee Business Journal, titled “IRA planning tips for changes associated with the SECURE and CARES acts,” explains what account owners need to know.

Setting Every Community Up for Retirement (SECURE) Act

The age when you have to take your RMD increased from 70½ to 72, if you turned 70½ on or before December 31, 2019. Younger than 70½ before 2020? You still must take your RMDs. But, if you can, consider deferring any distributions from your RMD, until you must. This gives your IRA a chance to rebound, rather than locking in any losses from the current market.

Beneficiary rules changed. The “stretch” feature of the IRA was eliminated. Any non-spousal beneficiary of an IRA owner who dies after Dec. 31, 2019, must take the entire amount of the IRA within 10 years after the date of death. The exceptions are those who fall into the “Eligible Designated Beneficiary” category. That includes the surviving spouse, a child under age 18, a disabled or chronically ill beneficiary, or a beneficiary who is not more than ten years younger than the IRA owner. The Eligible Designated Beneficiary can take distributions over their life expectancy, starting in the year after the death of the IRA holder. If your estate plan intended any IRA to be paid to a trust, the trust may include a “conduit IRA” provision. This may not work under the new rules. Talk with your estate planning attorney.

IRA contributions can be made at any age, as long as there is earned income. If you have earned income and are 70 or 71, consider continuing to contribute to a Roth IRA. These assets grow tax free and qualified withdrawals are also tax free. If you plan on making Qualified Charitable Distributions (QCD), you’ll be able to use that contribution (up to $100,000 per year) from the IRA to offset any RMDs for the year and not be treated as a taxable distribution.

Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act

The deadline for contributions for traditional or Roth IRAs this year is July 15, 2020. The 2019 limit is $6,000 if you are younger than 50 and $7,000 if you are 50 and older.

RMDs have been waived for 2020. This applies to life expectancy payments. It may be possible to “undo” an RMD, if it meets these qualifications:

  • The RMD must have been taken between February 1—May 15 and must be recontributed or rolled over prior to July 15.
  • RMDs taken in January or after May 15 are not eligible.
  • Only one rollover per person is permitted within the last 12 months.
  • Life expectancy payments may not be rolled over.

Individuals impacted by coronavirus may be permitted to take out $100,000 from an IRA with no penalties. They are eligible if they have:

  • Been diagnosed with SARS-Cov-2 or COVID-19
  • A spouse or dependent has been diagnosed
  • Have experienced adverse consequences as a result of being quarantined, furloughed or laid off or having work hours reduced due to the virus, are unable to work because of a lack of child care, closed or reduced hours of a business owned or operated by the individual or due to other factors, as determined by the Secretary of the Treasury.
  • Note that these distributions are still taxable, but the income taxes can be spread ratably over a three-year period and are not subject to the 10% early distribution penalty.

Keep careful records, as it is not yet known how any of these distributions/redistributions will be accounted for through tax reporting.

Reference: Milwaukee Business Journal (June 1, 2020) “IRA planning tips for changes associated with the SECURE and CARES acts”

Why are Medicare Scams Increasing in the COVID-19 Pandemic?

Medicare scams are increasing in the COVID-19 pandemic. Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “Seniors, Be Wary of These Medicare Scams During COVID-19” discusses some red flags you should look out for to avoid being a victim.

  1. Callers requesting your Medicare number. Medicare typically won’t call beneficiaries and randomly ask them to verify their benefits. If someone calls you and requests your Medicare ID number, don’t give them your information.
  2. Callers requesting your Social Security number. If a bad guy gets your Social Security number, he can do a number of things with that information, any of which will create headaches for you. This includes opening a credit card in your name and charging a lot of expenses on it. If you get a caller who says he’s a Medicare representative who needs your Social Security number to process a health claim, don’t give it to him.
  3. Email or phone calls asking you to send money. Medicare doesn’t sell prescriptions over the phone or ask seniors to pre-pay for services. If someone calls asking you to send money or give out credit card information, it’s a bogus caller.
  4. A promise for early access to a COVID-19 treatment or vaccine. Right now, there is no COVID-19 vaccine. There is also no mail-order treatment that you can stock up on to protect yourself in case you’re struck with the virus. Therefore, don’t believe a caller who says he’s from Medicare and is offering you a chance to get in on a groundbreaking medication. Don’t pay him or share your Medicare ID number during that conversation. When an effective vaccine is available, Medicare will pay for it and let you know how to get it.
  5. Someone at your door claiming to be from Medicare. Medicare doesn’t have sales reps. Therefore, if someone says they’re from Medicare, lock the door and demand that that person leave immediately. Call the police, if you need help.

When a lot of seniors are worried, isolated, and in financial straits, they don’t need to fall victim to a scam. Be prepared and be aware of what common fraud attempts look like. That way, you’ll be in a good position to protect yourself.

If you receive a suspicious email or phone call, report it at 1-800-MEDICARE. This might prevent another senior from falling victim to what could be an extremely dangerous trap.

Reference: Motley Fool (May 25, 2020) “Seniors, Be Wary of These Medicare Scams During COVID-19”

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”

How Do I Talk about End-Of-Life Decisions?

With the coronavirus pandemic motivating people to think about what they prioritize in their lives, experts say you should also take the time to determine your own end-of-life plans.

Queens News Service’s recent article entitled “How to have the hardest conversation: Making end-of-life decisions” reports that in this coronavirus pandemic, some people are getting scared and are realizing that they don’t have a will. They also haven’t considered what would happen, if they became extremely ill.

They now can realize that this is something that could have an impact upon them.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), 70% of Americans say they’d prefer to die at home, while 70% of people die in a hospital, nursing home, or a long-term care facility. This emphasizes the importance of discussing end-of-life plans with family members.

According to a survey of Californians taken by the state Health Care Foundation, although 60% of people say that not burdening their loved ones with extremely tough decisions is important, 56% have failed to talk to them about their final wishes.

“Difficult as they may be, these conversations are essential,” says American Bar Foundation (ABF) Research Professor Susan P. Shapiro, who authored In Speaking for the Dying: Life-and-Death Decisions in Intensive Care.

“Now is a good time to provide loved ones with the information, reassurance and trust they need to make decisions,” Shapiro says.

Odds are the only person who knows your body as well as you do, is your doctor.

When thinking about your end-of-life plans, talk with your doctor and see what kind of insight she or he can provide. They’ve certainly had experience with other older patients.

If you want to make certain your wishes are carried out as you intend, detail all of your plans in writing. That way it will be very clear what your loved ones should do, if a decision needs to be made. This will eliminate some stress in a very stressful situation.

Even after the COVID-19 pandemic is over, everyone will still need a will.

Talk with an experienced elder law or estate planning attorney to make certain that you have all of the necessary legal documents for end-of-life decisions.

Reference: Queens News Service (May 22, 2020) “How to have the hardest conversation: Making end-of-life decisions”

What Should My Estate Plan Include?

The Huffington Post’s recent article entitled “A Guide To Estate Planning During The Coronavirus Pandemic” says that almost everyone should have an estate plan—even if there’s no major health threat. If you don’t have one, right now is a great time to put it together.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, the two most critical documents to have are medical and financial powers of attorney. You should name someone to do your banking or make your medical decisions, if you are quarantined in your home, admitted to the hospital, or become incapacitated. When you have those in place, you need to create a comprehensive estate plan. Let’s look at the documents you should have and what they mean.

  1. A Financial Power of Attorney. This is a legal document that gives your agent authority to take care of your financial affairs and protect your assets by acting on your behalf. For example, your agent can pay bills, write checks, make deposits, sell or purchase assets, or file your tax returns. Without an FPOA, there’s no one who can act on your behalf. Family members will have to petition the probate court to appoint a guardian to have these powers, and this can be a time-consuming and expensive process.
  2. A Health Care Power of Attorney. Like a financial power of attorney, this legal document gives an agent the power to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you become incompetent or incapacitated. If you’re over the age of 18 and don’t have an HCPOA, your family members will have to ask the probate court to again appoint a guardian with these powers.
  3. A Living Will (Advance Health Care Directive). This allows you to legally determine the type of end-of-life treatment you want to receive, in the event you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious and cannot survive without life support. Without a living will, the decision to remove life support is thrust upon your health care agent or family members, and it can be an extremely stressful decision. If you draft a living will, you detail your wishes and take that decision out of their hands.
  4. A HIPAA Waiver. An advance health care directive will likely contain language that allows your agent to access your medical records, but frequently hospitals will refuse access to medical information without a separate HIPAA waiver. This lets your agents and family members access your medical data so they can speak freely with your physicians, if there is a medical emergency or you become incapacitated.
  5. A Will. A last will and testament is a legal document through which you direct how you want your assets disbursed when you pass away. It also allows you to name an executor to oversee the distribution of your assets. Without a will, the distribution of your assets will be dictated by state law, and the court will name someone to oversee the administration of your estate. A will also lets you name a guardian to take care of your minor children.
  6. A Living Trust. A revocable living trust is a legal tool whereby you create an entity to hold title to your assets. You can change your trust at any time, and you can set it up to outlive you. In the event you become incapacitated or are unable to manage your estate, your trust will bypass a court-appointed conservatorship. A trust also gives you privacy concerning the details of your estate, because it avoids probate, which is a public process. A living trust can also help provide for the care, support, and education of your children, by releasing funds or assets to them at an age you set. A living trust can also leave your assets to your children in a way that will lessen the ability of their creditors or ex-spouses to take your children’s inheritance from them.

Reference: The Huffington Post (April 7, 2020) “A Guide To Estate Planning During The Coronavirus Pandemic”