Why Professionals and High Net Worth Families Need Estate Planning

Even those whose daily tasks bring them close to death on a daily basis can be reluctant to consider having an estate plan done. However, any high-income earner needs to plan their estate to protect assets and prepare for incapacity. Estate planning also makes matters easier for loved ones, explains a recent article titled “Physician estate planning guide” from Medical Economics. An estate plan gets your wishes honored, minimizes court expenses and maintains family harmony.

Having an estate plan is needed by anyone, at any age or stage of life. A younger professional may be less inclined to consider estate planning. However, it’s a mistake to put it off.

Start by meeting with an experienced estate planning attorney in your home state. Have a power of attorney drafted to give a trusted person the ability to make decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated. Not having this legal relationship leads to big problems. Your family will need to go to court to have a conservatorship or guardianship established to do something as simple as make a mortgage payment. Having a POA is a far better solution.

Next, talk with your estate planning attorney about a last will and testament and any trusts you might need. A will is a simpler method. However, if you have substantial assets, you may benefit from the protection a trust affords.

A will names your executor and expresses your wishes for property distribution. The will doesn’t become effective until after death when it’s reviewed by the court and verified during probate. The executor named in the will is then appointed to act on the directions in the will.

Most states don’t require an executor to be notified in advance. However, people should discuss this role with the person who they want to appoint. It’s not always a welcome surprise, and there’s no requirement for the named person to serve.

A trust is created to own property outside of the estate. It’s created and becomes effective while the person is still living and is often described as “kinder” to beneficiaries, especially if the grantor owns their practice and has complex business arrangements.

Trusts are useful for people who own assets in more than one state. In some cases, deeds to properties can be added into one trust, streamlining and consolidating assets and making it simpler to redirect after death.

Irrevocable trusts are especially useful to any doctor concerned about being sued for malpractice. An irrevocable trust helps protect assets from creditors seeking to recover assets.

Not being prepared with an estate plan addressing incapacity and death leads to a huge burden for loved ones. Once the plan is created, it should be updated every three to five years. Updating the plan is far easier than the initial creation and reflects changes in one’s life and in the law.

Reference: Medical Economics (Nov. 30, 2022) “Physician estate planning guide”

Should Spouses Use the Same Estate Planning Lawyer?

It’s a question that some couples should ask. For many, their estate is their estate together, right? Not always. There are benefits to using the same estate planning attorney. However, there may be reasons to use different attorneys, as discussed in the article “Should My Spouse and I Hire the Same Estate Lawyer?” from The Street.

If your estates are relatively simple and your interests are the same, it does make sense to use the same estate planning attorney. If there’s no need for sophisticated tax planning, yours is a first marriage with no children, or you own one piece of property, one attorney can represent both partners.

It’s important to understand joint representation. This means both partners and the attorney agree to share all information learned from one spouse with the other spouse. These terms are often outlined in the engagement letter signed when the attorney is retained.

However, life and marriages are not always so simple. Let’s say that one spouse owns property or a share of property in another state purchased before the marriage and not co-owned with the spouse. This often occurs when property is owned by members of the spouse’s immediate family, like a business property or a vacation home they own jointly with siblings or parents. It may also be property one spouse is likely to inherit with the expectation the property ownership remains solely with bloodline family members.

Note that owning property in another state will likely also require the services of another estate planning attorney who is familiar with the local laws. The out-of-state attorney can advise if there are any special planning considerations needed, such as placing property in a family-controlled entity, like a limited liability company or other family partnership.

Coordinating communication between the out-of-state attorney and the primary in-state attorney will be important, since there may be interrelated planning considerations to be addressed in wills or trusts.

What if you and your spouse have different communication styles? One wants a talkative attorney who wants to dive into long-term planning goals, engaging in discussions about building a legacy, while the other wants documents prepared, signed and executed, minus any big picture conversations.

A simple solution would be for each spouse to identify an attorney at the same firm who matches their personal style.

Another reason for using different estate planning attorneys is if one wants to use a “floating spouse” provision, which can cause some feelings to arise. This is a provision defining a “spouse” as the person you are married to at the time of death. If there’s a divorce and the prior spouse would have had a vested interest in property, the floating spouse provision affords another layer of protection to keep assets to the spouse at the time of death.

There are non-divorce related reasons for the floating spouse provision. If an irrevocable trust is created to benefit the spouse, the ability to make changes to the trust can be challenging, time consuming and costly. With a floating spouse provision, the prior spouse is removed as a beneficiary and the new spouse could be easily substituted. In this case, independent counsel is advised, as interests are considered legally adverse.

Estate planning is a personal process and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. If any part of the estate creates adverse interests, joint representation may not work. However, when the estate is relatively simple and the couple’s goals are the same, having a spouse by your side during the planning procress could give each of you the incentive to take care of this very important task.

Reference: The Street (Nov. 30, 2022) “Should My Spouse and I Hire the Same Estate Lawyer?”

Can I Leave Money to My School in My Estate Plan?

Mahlon “Jack” Kohler passed away in September 2021, at the age of 96. In his will, he left $40,000 to Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska for nursing and optometry scholarships. The gift has been placed in an endowment as a charitable donation and will provide assistance for nursing students in perpetuity.

News Channel Nebraska’s recent article entitled “Norfolk man leaves $40,000 to Northeast Community College for nursing scholarships” reports that, prior to graduating high school, Mr. Kohler was called to duty by the United States Navy in 1943.

After basic training, he was sent to the Pacific Theatre where he was stationed at Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Russell and Amerilites Islands. He then returned to the Brooklyn, New York Naval Base in 1945. He received an honorable discharge on May 6, 1946.

After his discharge from the Navy, Mr. Kohler moved back to Norfolk and worked for American Optical Company for 33 years. He was recognized as a World War II Honorary Sentinel in front of over 86,000 fans at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln during a Cornhusker football game just after celebrating his 95th birthday.

“Jack lived in the Norfolk area for many years and was always fond of education,” said his stepson, Ronald Kotrous. “He decided to choose nursing (for his benevolence) because of the people. In the last few years, they were really good to Jack and to my mom, so they wanted to give back to that community.”

“Endowed scholarships are a great way to create a legacy,” said Dr. Tracy Kruse, vice president of development and external affairs at Northeast and executive director of the Northeast Foundation. “The principal of an endowment is invested, and scholarships are paid from the earnings.”

Kruse encouraged others to consider Northeast Community College in their estate planning.

“Planned giving provides an opportunity to make a large gift while still caring for your loved ones,” she said. “An estate gift is probably the largest charitable donation you will ever make, and the best opportunity to leave a lasting legacy.”

Reference: News Channel Nebraska (Nov. 29, 2022) “Norfolk man leaves $40,000 to Northeast Community College for nursing scholarships”

Is an Estate Plan Battle Looming?

Some people don’t create an estate plan before they die. Or, if they do, they failed to have an estate plan created with an experienced estate planning attorney and their will is unclear, or even invalid. They might die with debts conflicting with their wishes. These and other situations can lead to a long and expensive probate period, as described in the article “In-fighting Families, Wills, Laws & Other Things That Could Hold Up Probate” from yahoo!.

How long does it take for an estate to move through the probate process? It depends upon the complexity of the estate and how well—or poorly—the estate plan was created.

What is probate? Probate is the process where the court oversees the settlement of an estate after the owner dies. If there is a will, the court authenticates the will and accepts or denies the executor named in the will to carry out its instructions. The executor is usually the decedent’s spouse or closest living relative.

How does probate work? Probate is governed by state law, so different states have slightly different processes. The first thing is authenticating the will and appointing an executor. The court then locates and accesses all of the property owned by the decedent. If there are any debts, the estate must first pay off the debts. When the debts have been paid, the court can distribute the remaining assets in the estate to heirs.

If there is no will, the person is said to have died intestate. The court may then appoint an administrator to carry out the necessary tasks of paying debts and distributing assets. The administrator is paid from the estate.

How long does it take? It depends. If the decedent had placed most of their assets in trust, those assets are not subject to probate and are distributed according to the terms of the trust. If there are multiple properties in multiple states, probate has to be conducted in all states where property is owned. In other words, probate could be six months or three years.

Estate size matters. Certain states use the total value of the estate to determine its size, rather than examine individual properties. Possessions subject to probate usually include personal property, cash and cash accounts, transferable accounts with no named beneficiaries, assets with shared ownership or tenancy in common and real estate.

Possessions not typically subject to probate include insurance proceeds, accounts owned as Joint Tenant with Rights of Survivorship, accounts with a beneficiary designation and assets owned in trusts.

Probate varies from state to state. Probate is not nationally regulated, and state-level laws vary. An estate could be swiftly completed in one state and take a few months in another. Some states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), designed to streamline the probate process by creating standardized laws. However, only 18 states have adopted this code to date.

Fighting among heirs makes probate take longer. Even small disputes can extend the probate process. If there are estranged family members, or someone feels they deserve a larger share of the estate, conflicts can lead to probate coming to a full stop.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help structure an estate plan to minimize the amount of assets passing through probate, while ensuring that your wishes are followed and loved ones are protected.

Reference: yahoo! (Nov. 21, 2022) “In-fighting Families, Wills, Laws & Other Things That Could Hold Up Probate”

Do I Need a Last Will and Testament?

Estate planning encompasses everything from planning for property distribution at death to preparing for incapacity, tax planning and guardian planning for minor children. An experienced estate planning attorney is involved with far more than a last will and testament. However, this is what most people think of when they sit down for their first meeting.

A recent article titled “Last Will and Testament” from mondaq examines what the last will and testament does and how it differs from trusts. These two are only part of a comprehensive estate plan.

A will is only effective upon death. Its directions are not followed while living or if a person becomes incapacitated. A will does not avoid probate, rather it ensures assets go to the people as directed by the person making the will. Without a will, assets are distributed according to the laws of the state, usually determined by kinship. A certain percentage will go to a spouse and another percentage will go to biological children. Unmarried partners and stepchildren have no legal right of inheritance.

The will is also the legal document used to name an executor, the person responsible for carrying out the directions in the will and managing the estate. The executor has a long list of duties, from making sure the will is validated by the court during probate to applying for an estate tax identification number with the IRS, opening an estate bank account, notifying Social Security of the decedent’s passing, paying debts, paying taxes for the individual and for the estate and distributing property,

The will is used to name a guardian for minor children. When planning has been done correctly, the guardian is provided with information about the children’s lives and financial planning has been done for the children’s support and for their education. A trust is usually used to hold assets for the benefit of the children, with a trustee named to manage funds.

Wills go through probate, which varies by state. Once the will is filed in court, it becomes a public document. Heirs must be notified, even those not included in the will. An alternative is creating and placing assets in a trust to protect privacy and manage and distribute property.

Trusts are not just for wealthy people. They are used to maintain privacy, as the assets in the trust do not pass through probate. The trustee is in charge of the trust and making distributions to beneficiaries. There are many different types of trusts; an experienced estate planning attorney will be able to recommend the optimal one for each client based on their situation.

The trust is effective upon its creation and is a separate legal entity and is also used to protect assets from creditors. Trusts are more complicated than traditional bank accounts. However, their ability to protect assets and maintain privacy make them a valuable part of any estate plan.

If a person becomes incapacitated, the trust remains in effect. If the trust is a revocable trust, meaning the grantor is able to change its terms as long as they are living and the grantor becomes incapacitated, a successor trustee can step in and manage the trust without court intervention.

Trusts do require diligence to create. Trust must be funded, meaning assets need to be retitled so they are owned by the trust. New accounts may need to be open, if retitling is not possible. Beneficiaries need to be established and terms need to be set. The trust can be created to fund a college education or for general use. However, terms need to be established.

A comprehensive estate plan protects the individual while they are living and protects the family after they have passed. It is a gift to those you love.

Reference: mondaq (Nov. 16, 2022) “Last Will and Testament”

Can Executor Take the Money and Run?
Living trust and estate planning form on a desk.

Can Executor Take the Money and Run?

What if your executor or trustee decides to run off to the Bahamas with all your assets, leaving heirs with nothing? Ohio Farmer’s recent article entitled “What if trustee runs off with assets?” says that safeguards should be in place to protect the heirs of an estate.

The most common way to protect against this possibility is a fiduciary bond. An executor, trustee, or guardian would get a bond early in a probate case and file it with the court. The bond would remain in place while the fiduciary is serving his or her role. If the fiduciary absconds with estate assets, the bond is there to help the beneficiaries.

This expense would be covered by the fiduciary, who would need to find a bond company willing to issue it. The bond amount is connected to the value of personal property, such as financial accounts, vehicles and personal effects.

Do you need a bond to cover the value of land? No. The primary difference is that land can’t be picked up easily and moved, making a bond unnecessary. It’s also very hard to transfer land without extensive safeguards. In some cases, court permission is required for a transfer. To sell a farm or ranch, a title company might raise suspicion. Real estate-related actions are also often public record. In some cases, a court action can correct issues or order damages.

It’s possible to waive the requirement of a bond. That’s a default setting for bonds with estates, trusts, or guardianships. Most estate planning documents waive the bond requirement, because family members often serve as fiduciaries.

State law may also describe several situations where a bond isn’t required. However, if a party motions the court, and the judge thinks there’s good cause for a bond, one can be required for a fiduciary.

While a bond can provide some important protections for heirs, the likelihood of a fiduciary running off with assets is low. As a result, most administrations view the bond as an unnecessary step and expense.

However, if a family is concerned about the trustworthiness of a fiduciary, the bond requirement should be reinstated.

If an administration is pending, the family can petition the court to require a bond. Consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to determine the role of bonds for your estate plan.

Reference: Ohio Farmer (Nov. 22, 2022) “What if trustee runs off with assets?”

Giving to My Favorite Charity in Estate Plan

If you’d like to leave some or all of your money to a charity, Go Banking Rates’ recent article entitled “How To Leave Your Inheritance to an Organization” provides what you need to know about a charitable donation as part of your estate plan.

  1. Make Sure the Organization Accepts Donations. Unless you have a formal agreement with the charity stating they’ll accept the inheritance, the confirmation isn’t a binding commitment. As a result, you should ask the organization if there’s any form language that they may want you to add to your will or trust as part of a specific bequest. If the charity isn’t currently able to accept this kind of donation, look at what they will accept or if other charities with a similar mission will accept it.
  2. Set the Amount You Want the Charity To Receive. Some people want to leave the estate tax exemption — the maximum amount that can pass without tax — to individuals and leave the rest to charity. Because the estate tax exemption is subject to change and the value of your assets will change, the amount the charity will get will probably change from when the planning is completed.
  3. Have a Plan B in the Event that the Charity Doesn’t Exist After Your Death. Meet with your estate planning attorney and decide what happens to the bequest if the organization you’re donating to no longer exists. You may plan ahead to pass along the inheritance to another organization and make sure it receives the funds. You could also have the inheritance go back into the general distributions in your will.
  4. State How You Want Your Gift to Be Used. If there is a certain way that you’d like the charity to use the inheritance, you can certainly inquire with the organization and learn more. Find out if the charity accepts this type of restriction, how long it may last and what happens if the charity no longer uses it for this purpose.

As you draft charitable planning provisions, make sure you do so alongside an experienced estate planning attorney.

The provisions in your will should be specific about your desires and provide enough flexibility to your personal representative, executor, or trustee to be modified based on the conditions at the time of your death.

Reference: Go Banking Rates (August 26, 2022) “How To Leave Your Inheritance to an Organization”

Why Would I Need a Post-Nup?

Vigour Times’ recent article entitled “Here’s Why Married Couples Might Want To Sign A Postnuptial Agreement” looks at the situations that might prompt a couple to prepare a postnuptial agreement.

For example, married couples may need to adjust a pre-nup they signed before they were married. They want to make certain the new terms are based on the things that have occurred since that time.

Changes in marital dynamics can trigger a change in the terms of a pre-nup. For instance, couples may not have thought that one spouse would begin to earn a lot more than the other or that, as the marriage endured over time, greater trust grew between the partners.

A post-nup may also come into play when a couple is thinking about divorce but still trying to work things out. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, over 10 years as many as 43% of first marriages can fail.

Because divorcing sooner rather than later could be more advantageous to one of the spouses, their agreement may say the marriage ended as of the date of the post-nup for purposes of calculating alimony and property division, should efforts to repair a marriage be unsuccessful.

There are circumstances when a post-nup is needed to work around state laws to allow one spouse to leave the other one less than what is required by state law.

Many people don’t know that once they’re married, state law usually gives their spouse a minimum percentage of the estate, even if the deceased spouse tried to leave it to someone else. One example of this is where a person in a second marriage wants to leave all their assets to children from a previous marriage.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure the plan is consistent with the estate documents, especially as to trusts.

There also may be external forces, such as a future change in wealth that trigger a post-nup. For instance, in the event of a potential inheritance, for example, an heir — or the relatives leaving the assets — may insist on a post-nup, so the wealth will stay on their side of the family and not be included in any possible divorce negotiations.

Reference: Vigour Times (Nov. 27, 2022) “Here’s Why Married Couples Might Want To Sign A Postnuptial Agreement”

What Trust Documents are Needed in an Emergency?

Most people don’t have any idea where to start when it comes to their emergency documents.  This often keeps them from going anywhere near their estate planning. This is a big mistake, says a recent article, “3 tasks your family needs to complete to ease any anxiety over unexpected emergencies,” from MarketWatch.

Estate planning is not just about wealthy people putting assets into trusts to avoid paying taxes. Estate planning includes preparing for life as well as death. This includes a parent preparing for surgery, for instance, who needs to have the right documents in place so family members can make emergency medical or financial decisions on their behalf. Estate planning also means being prepared for the unexpected.

Power of Attorney. Everyone over age 18 should have a POA, so a trusted person can take over their financial decisions. The POA can be as specific or broad as desired and must follow the laws of the person’s state of residence.

Medical Directives. This includes a Medical Power of Attorney, HIPAA authorization and a Living Will. The Medical POA allows you to appoint an agent to make health care decisions on your behalf. A HIPAA authorization allows someone else to gain access to medical records—you need this so your agent can talk with all medical and health insurance personnel. A living will is used to convey your wishes concerning end of life care. It’s a serious document, and many people prefer to avoid it, which is a mistake.

All of these documents are part of an estate plan. They answer the hard questions in advance, rather than putting family members in the terrible situation of having to guess what a loved one wanted.

An estate plan includes a will, and it might also include a trust. The will covers the distribution of property upon death, names an executor to be in charge of the estate and, if there are minor children, is used to name a guardian who will raise them.

A list of important information is not required by law. However, it should be created when you are working on your estate plan. This includes the important contacts from doctors to CPAs and financial advisors. Even more helpful would be to include a complete health profile with dates of previous surgeries, current medications with dosage information and pharmacy information.

Don’t overlook information about your digital life. Names of financial institutions, account numbers, usernames and passwords are all needed if your agent needs to access funds. Do not place any of this information in your will, as you’ll be handing the keys to the vault to thieves. Create a separate document with this information and tell your agent where to find the information if they need it.

Reference: MarketWatch (Nov. 19, 2022) “3 tasks your family needs to complete to ease any anxiety over unexpected emergencies”

Should You Agree to Being a Guardian?

Yes, it is an honor to be asked to be the guardian of someone’s children. However, you’ll want to understand the full responsibilities involved before agreeing to this life-changing role. A recent article from Kiplinger, “3 Key Things to Consider Before Agreeing to Be A Guardian in a Trust,” explains.

For parents, this is one of the most emotional decisions they have to make. Assuming a family member will step in is not a plan for your children. Naming a guardian in your will needs to be carefully and realistically thought out.

For instance, people often first think of their own parents. However, grandparents may not be able to care for a child for one or two decades. If the grandparent’s own future plan includes downsizing to a smaller home or moving to a 55+ community, they may not have the room for children. In a 55+ community, they may also not be permitted to have minor children as permanent residents.

What about siblings? A trusted aunt or uncle might be able to be a guardian. However, do they have children of their own, and will they be able to manage caring for your children as well as their own? You’ll also have to be comfortable with their parenting styles and values.

Other candidates may be a close friend of the family, who does not have children of their own. An “honorary” aunt or uncle who is willing to embark on raising your children might be a good choice.  However, it requires careful thought and discussion.

Financial Considerations. What resources will be available to raise the children to adulthood? Do the parents have life insurance to pay for their needs, and if so, how much? Are there other assets available for the children? Will you be in charge of managing assets and children, or will someone else be in charge of finances? You’ll need to be very clear about the money.

Legal Arrangements. Is there a family trust? If so, who is the successor trustee of the trust? What are the terms of the trust? Most revocable trusts include language stating they must be used for the “health, education, maintenance, and support of beneficiaries.” However, sometimes there are conditions for use of the funds, or some funds are only available for milestones, like graduating college or getting married.

Lifestyle Choices. You’ll want to have a complete understanding of how the parents want their children to be raised. Do they want the children to remain in their current house, and has an estate plan been made to allow this to happen? Will the children stay in their current schools, religious institutions or stay in the neighborhood?

In frank terms, simply loving someone else’s children is not enough to take on the responsibility of being their guardian. Financial resources need to be discussed and lifestyle choices must be clarified. At the end of the discussion, all parties need to be completely satisfied and comfortable. This kind of preparedness provides tremendous peace of mind.

Reference: Kiplinger (Nov. 17, 2022) “3 Key Things to Consider Before Agreeing to Be A Guardian in a Trust”