How to Protect an Estate from a Rotten Son-in-Law

If you’ve been working for a while, you have an estate. If you’ve been working for a long time, you may even have a sizable estate, and between your home, insurance and growing retirement funds, your estate may reach the million dollar mark. That’s the good news. But the bad news might be an adult child with a drug or drinking problem, or a child who married a person who doesn’t deserve to inherit any part of your estate. Not to mention an ex-spouse or two. What will happen when you aren’t there to protect your estate?

There are steps to protect your estate and your family members, as described in the recent article “Is your son-in-law a jerk? Armor plate your estate” from Federal News Network.

Don’t overlook beneficiary designations. Most employer-sponsored retirement and savings accounts have beneficiary designations to identify the people you wish to receive these assets when you die. Here’s an important fact to know: the beneficiary designation overrides any language in your last will and testament. If your beneficiary designation on an account names a child but your will gives your estate to your spouse, your child will receive assets in the account, and your spouse will not receive any proceeds from the account.

Don’t try to sell a property for below-market value. The same goes for trying to remove assets from your ownership to qualify for Medicaid to cover long-term care costs. Selling your home to an adult child for $1 will not pass unnoticed. Estate taxes, gift taxes, income taxes and eligibility for government benefits can’t be avoided by this tactic.

A common estate planning mistake is to name specific investments in a will. A will becomes part of the public record when it is probated. Providing details in a will is asking for trouble, especially if a nefarious family member is looking for assets. And if the sale or other disposition of the named asset before your death impacts bequests, your estate may be vulnerable to litigation.

How will you leave real estate assets to heirs? Real estate assets can be problematic and need special consideration. Are you leaving shares to a vacation home or the family home? If kids or their spouses don’t get along, or one person wants to live in the home while others want to sell it, this could cause years of family fights.

Making a bequest to a grandchild instead of to a troubled adult child. Minor children may not legally inherit property, so leaving assets to a grandchild does not avoid giving assets to an adult child. The most likely guardian will be their parent, undoing the attempt to keep assets out of the parent’s control.

Include a residuary clause in a will or trust. Residuary clauses are used to dispose of assets not specifically mentioned in a will or trust. Your estate planning attorney will create the residuary clauses most appropriate for your unique situations.

Prepare for the unexpected. Your estate plan can be designed to address the unexpected. If a primary beneficiary like a daughter or son divorces their spouse, a trust could prevent the ex from gaining access to your assets.

An effective estate plan, prepared with an experienced estate planning attorney, can plan for all of the “what ifs” to protect loved ones after you have passed.

Reference: Federal News Network (Sep. 1, 2021) “Is your son-in-law a jerk? Armor plate your estate”

No Kids? What Happens to My Estate?

Just because you don’t have children or heirs doesn’t mean you should not write a will. If you decide to have children later on, a will can help protect their financial future. However, even if you die with no children, a will can help you ensure that your assets will go to the people, institutions, or organizations of your own choosing. As a result, estate planning is necessary for everyone.

Claremont Portside’s recent article entitled “What Happens to Your Estate If You Die With No Children” says that your estate will go to your spouse or common-law partner, unless stated otherwise in your will. If you don’t have any children or a spouse or common-law partner, your estate will go to your living parents. Typically, your estate will be divided equally between them. If you don’t have children, a spouse, or living parents, your estate will go to your siblings. If there are any deceased siblings, their share will go to their children.

The best way to make certain your estate goes to the right people, and that your loved ones can divide your assets as easily as possible, is to write a will. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you. As part of this process, you must name an executor. This is a person you appoint who will have the responsibility of administering your estate after you die.

It’s not uncommon for people to appoint one of their children as the executor of their will. But if you don’t have children, you can appoint another family member or a friend. Select someone who’s trustworthy, responsible, impartial and has the mental and emotional resources to take on this responsibility while mourning your death.

You should also be sure to update your will after every major event in your life, like a marriage, the death of one of your intended beneficiaries and divorce. In addition, specifically designating beneficiaries and indicating what they will receive from your estate will help prevent any disputes or contests after your death. If you have no children, you might leave a part (or your entire) estate to friends, and you can also name charities and other organizations as beneficiaries.

It’s important to name who should receive items of sentimental value, such as family heirlooms, and it’s a good idea to discuss this with your loved ones, in case there are any disputes in the future.

Even without children, estate planning can be complicated, so plan your estate well in advance. That way, when something happens to you, your assets will pass to the right people and your last wishes will be carried out. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney for assistance in creating a comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: Claremont Portside “What Happens to Your Estate If You Die with No Children”

Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?

Given a choice, most people will opt to do almost anything rather than talk about death and life for others after they are gone. However, estate planning is essential to ensure that your life and life’s work will be cared for correctly after you’ve passed, advises the article “Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?” from NASDAQ.com. If you own any assets, have a family, loved ones, pets or belongings you’d like to give to certain people or organizations, you need an estate plan.

Estate planning is not a set-it-and-forget it process. Every few years, your estate plan needs to be reviewed to be sure the information is accurate. Big life changes, from birth and death to marriage and divorce—and everything in between—usually also indicate it’s time for an update. Changes in tax laws also require adjustments to an estate plan, and this is something your estate planning attorney will keep you apprised of.

Reviewing and updating an estate plan is a straightforward process, once your estate planning attorney has created an initial plan. Keeping it updated protects your wishes and your loved ones’ futures. Here are some things to keep in mind when reviewing your estate plan:

Have you moved? Changes in residence require an update, since estate laws vary by state. You also should keep your advisors, including estate planning attorney, financial advisor and tax professional, informed about any changes of residence. You’d be surprised how many people move and neglect to inform their professional advisors.

Changes in tax law. The last five years have seen big changes in tax laws. Estate plans created years ago may no longer work as originally intended.

Power of Attorney documents. A Power of Attorney authorizes a person to act on your behalf to make business, personal, legal and financial decisions. If this document is old, or no longer complies with your state’s laws, it may not be accepted by banks, investment companies, etc. If the person you designed as your POA decades ago can’t or won’t serve, you need to choose another person. If you need to revoke a power of attorney, speak with your estate planning attorney to do this effectively.

Health Care Power of Attorney and HIPAA Releases. Laws concerning who may speak with treating physicians and health care providers have become increasingly restrictive. Even spouses do not have automatic rights when it comes to health care. You’ll also want to put your wishes about being resuscitated or placed on artificial life support in writing.

Do you have an updated last will and testament? Review all the details, from executor to guardian named for minor children, the allocation of assets and your estate tax costs.

What about a trust? If you have minor children, you need to ensure their financial future with a trust. Your estate planning attorney will know which type of trust is best for your situation.

A regular check-up for your estate plan helps avoid unnecessary expenses, delays and costs for your loved ones. Don’t delay taking care of this very important matter. You can then return to selecting a color for the nursery or planning your next exciting adventure. However, do this first.

Reference: NASDAQ.com (July 28, 2021) “Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?”

What Kind of Trust Is Right for You?

Everyone wins when estate planning attorneys, financial advisors and accounting professionals work together on a comprehensive estate plan. Each of these professionals can provide their insights when helping you make decisions in their area. Guiding you to the best possible options tends to happen when everyone is on the same page, says a recent article “Choosing Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts” from U.S. News & World Report.

What is a trust and what do trusts accomplish? Trusts are not just for the wealthy. Many families use trusts to serve different goals, from controlling distributions of assets over generations to protecting family wealth from estate and inheritance taxes.

There are two basic kinds of trust. There are also many specialized trusts in each of the two categories: the revocable trust and the irrevocable trust. The first can be revoked or changed by the trust’s creator, known as the “grantor.” The second is difficult and in some instances and impossible to change, without the complete consent of the trust’s beneficiaries.

There are pros and cons for each type of trust.

Let’s start with the revocable trust, which is also referred to as a living trust. The grantor can make changes to the trust at any time, from removing assets or beneficiaries to shutting down the trust entirely. When the grantor dies, the trust becomes irrevocable. Revocable trusts are often used to pass assets to adult children, with a trustee named to manage the trust’s assets until the trust documents direct the trustee to distribute assets. Some people use a revocable trust to prevent their children from accessing wealth too early in their lives, or to protect assets from spendthrift children with creditor problems.

Irrevocable trusts are just as they sound: they can’t be amended once established. The terms of the trust cannot be changed, and the grantor gives up any control or legal right to the assets, which are owned by the trust.

Giving up control comes with the benefit that assets placed in the trust are no longer part of the grantor’s estate and are not subject to estate taxes. Creditors, including nursing homes and Medicaid, are also prevented from accessing assets in an irrevocable trust.

Irrevocable trusts were once used by people in high-risk professions to protect their assets from lawsuits. Irrevocable trusts are used to divest assets from estates, so people can become eligible for Medicaid or veteran benefits.

The revocable trust protects the grantor’s wishes, if the grantor becomes incapacitated. It also avoids probate, since the trust becomes irrevocable upon death and assets are outside of the probated estate. The revocable trust may include qualified assets, like IRAs, 401(k)s and 403(b)s.

However, there are drawbacks. The revocable trust does not provide tax benefits or creditor protection while the grantor is living.

Your estate planning attorney will know which type of trust is best for your situation, and working with your financial advisor and accountant, will be able to create the plan that minimizes taxes and maximizes wealth transfers for your heirs.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Aug. 26, 2021) “Choosing Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts”

Common Estate Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Every family has one: the brother-in-law or aunt who knows everything about, well, everything. When the information is wrong, expensive problems are created, especially when it comes to estate planning. Estate planning attorneys devote a good deal of time to education to help prevent unnecessary and costly mistakes, as described in the article “Misinformation, poor assumptions result in major planning mistakes” from The News-Enterprise.

The most common is the idea of a “simple” estate plan. What does “simple” mean? For most people, the idea of “simple” is appealing—they don’t want to deal with long and complicated documents with legal phrases they don’t understand. However, those complex phrases are necessary, if the estate plan is to protect your interests and loved ones.

Another mistake is thinking an estate plan is a one-and-done affair. Just as people’s lives and fortunes change over time, so should their estate plan. An estate plan created for a young family with small children won’t work for a mature couple with grown children and significant savings.

Change also comes to family dynamics. The same cousin who was like a sister during your teen years may not be as close in values or geography, when you both have elementary school children. Do you still want her to be your child’s guardian? An updated estate plan takes into account the changing relationships within the family, as well as the changing members of the family. A beloved brother-in-law isn’t so beloved, if he divorces your favorite sister. When families change, estate plans need to be updated.

Here is a huge mistake rarely articulated: somehow not thinking about death or incapacity might prevent either event from happening. We know that death is inevitable, and incapacity is statistically probable. Planning for both events in no way increases or decreases their likelihood of occurring. What planning does, is provide peace of mind in knowing you have prepared for both events.

No one wants to be in a nursing home but telling loved ones you want to remain at home “no matter what happens” is not a plan for the future. It is devastating to move a loved one into a nursing home. However, people with medical needs need to be there to receive proper care and treatment. Planning for the possibility is better than a family making arrangements, financial and otherwise, on an emergency basis.

Do you remember that all-knowing family member described in the start of this article? Their advice, however well-intentioned, can be disastrous. Alternatives to estate planning take many shapes: putting the house in the adult child’s name or adding the adult child’s name to the parent’s investment accounts. If the beneficiary has a future tax liability, debt or divorce, the parent’s assets are there for the taking.

Properly done, with the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney, your estate plan protects you and those you love, as well as the assets you’ve gained over a lifetime. Don’t fall for the idea of “simple” or back-door alternatives. Formalize your goals, so your plans and wishes will be followed.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Aug. 24, 2021) “Misinformation, poor assumptions result in major planning mistakes”

States with the Best Tax Rates for Retirees

For the moment, fewer Americans are concerned about the federal estate tax. However, if your goal is to leave as much as possible to heirs, then it’s wise to consider all the taxes of the state you choose for retirement. That’s all detailed in the article “33 States with No Estate Taxes or Inheritance Taxes” from Kiplinger.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia have their own estate taxes, which some call “death taxes.” Their exemption levels are far lower than the federal government’s. There are also six states with inheritance taxes, where heirs pay taxes based on their relationship to the deceased. Maryland has both: an estate tax and an inheritance tax.

The most tax friendly states of all are Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina and Delaware. In Colorado, taxpayers 55 and older get a retirement income exclusion from state taxes that gets better when they reach 65. Colorado also has one of the lowest median tax rates and seniors may qualify for an exemption of up to 50% of the first $200,00 of property value. Colorado also has a flat income tax rate of 4.55%, and up to $24,000 of Social Security benefits, along with other retirement income, can be excluded for income tax purposes.

Next in line for retiree tax friendliness are Montana, Idaho, California, Kentucky, Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Let’s look at the Sunshine State, which has no state income tax and also a low sales tax rate. Property taxes are low in Florida, and residents 65 and older who meet certain income, property-value and length-of-ownership standards also receive a homestead exemption of up to $50,000 from some city and county governments and meet other requirements. Social Security benefits are not taxed in Florida and the state has no income tax, making it extremely attractive to retirees.

Coming in third place with a mixed tax picture are Washington, Oregon, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Oklahoma, Missouri, West Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and the District of Columbia.  Many people are moving to North Carolina, where Social Security benefits are not taxed, but tax breaks for other kinds of retirement income are far and few between. Property taxes are low and there are no estate or inheritance taxes. State income is taxed at a flat 5.25% percent, making North Carolina competitive, when compared to high state income taxes. Then there’s Oklahoma, which doesn’t tax Social Security benefits and allows residents to exclude up to $10,000 per person ($20,000 for couples) in retirement income. However, the Sooner State has one of the highest combined state and local sales tax rates in the nation. Property taxes also fall right in the middle, when the median property taxes for all 50 states are compared.

Looking for a state to avoid when it comes to taxes? The fourth place in taxes goes to New Mexico, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Indiana may not tax Social Security benefits, but it taxes IRAs, 401(k) plans and private pension income. And counties are authorized to levy their own income taxes on top of the state’s flat tax. Sales and property taxes are in the middle of the road. Illinois also spares retirees from taxes on Social Security and income from most retirement plans, but property taxes in are the second highest in the nation. Sales tax rates are high in Illinois. The state also levies an estate tax on heirs. Pennsylvania has an inheritance tax and high property taxes (the 12th highest in the country). However, it has a flat income tax rate of 3.07%, although school districts and municipalities may levy their own taxes.

Lowest on the list for retirees seeking to minimize tax expenses are New York State, Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. Everyone knows about taxes in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, but Texas? How does a state with no income tax at all end up on the “least tax friendly for retirees” list? Texas has the seventh-highest median property tax rate in the country. There are some exemptions for retirees, but not enough to make the state tax friendly. Sales taxes are high, with the average combined state and local taxes in the state hitting 8.19%.

Taxes are not the only factor in deciding where to retire. Where you ultimately retire also considers where your loved ones live, what level of healthcare you need now and may need in the future and whether you want to move or remain in your community.

Reference: Kiplinger (Aug. 25, 2021) “33 States with No Estate Taxes or Inheritance Taxes”

Should I Sign a Prenup before I Get Married again at 60?

A “prenup” can spell out which expenses will belong to each individual and which will be for the couple. In addition, a prenup can state where marital assets will go in case of death or divorce, says FedWeek’s recent article entitled “A Prenup May Be Prudent for Later-Life Marriages.”

In some states, a prenuptial agreement is called an “antenuptial agreement” or a “premarital agreement.”

Sometimes the word “contract” is used rather than “agreement,” as in “prenuptial contract.”

An agreement made during marriage, rather than before, is known as a “postnuptial,” “post-marital,” or “marital” agreement.

For a prenup to be valid, each party should seek the advice of an attorney. These attorneys should be independent of each other, so one attorney shouldn’t represent both parties. The agreement should fully disclose each spouse-to-be assets and liabilities.

Here are some reasons that some people want a prenup:

  • Pass separate property to children from your prior marriages. A marrying couple with children from prior marriages may sign a prenup to state what will occur to their assets when they die, so that they can pass on separate property to their children and still provide for each other, if necessary. Without a prenup, a surviving spouse may have the right to claim a large piece of the other spouse’s property, resulting in much less for the stepchildren.
  • Clarify financial rights. Couples with or without children may just want to clarify their financial rights and responsibilities during marriage.
  • Avoid disagreements in a divorce. A couple may want to avoid potential arguments if they divorce, by stating in advance the way in which their property will be divided, and whether or not either spouse will receive alimony (some states won’t allow a spouse to give up the right to alimony).
  • Protection from debts. These agreements can also be used to protect spouses from each other’s debts, and they may also speak to a number of other issues.

To implement a prenup, don’t wait until the last minute.

Some prenups have been ruled invalid by the courts, when one spouse appears to have pressured the other to sign the contract right before the wedding.

Reference: FedWeek (Aug. 25, 2021) “A Prenup May Be Prudent for Later-Life Marriages”

What Should Same-Sex Couples Know about Estate Planning?

Proper estate planning can help ensure that your wishes are carried out exactly as intended in the event of a death or a serious illness, says Insurance Net News’ recent article entitled “What Same-Sex Partners Need to Know About Estate Planning.” Having a clearly stated plan in place can give clear instructions and potentially avoid any fights that otherwise might occur. For same-sex couples, this may be even more crucial.

Your estate plan should include a will or trust, beneficiary forms, powers of attorney, a living will and a letter of intent. It’s also smart to include a secure document with a list of your accounts, debts, assets and contact info for any key people involved in those accounts. This list should contain passwords for locked accounts and any other relevant information.

A will is a central component of an estate plan which ensures that your wishes are followed after you pass away. This alleviates your family from the responsibility of determining how to divide your property and takes the guessing and stress out of how to pass along belongings. A will or trust might also state the way in which to transfer your financial assets to your children. You should also make sure your beneficiary forms are up to date with your spouse for life insurance policies, bank accounts and retirement accounts.

For same-sex couples, it is particularly important to create a clear medical power of attorney and create a living will that states your medical directives, if you aren’t able to make those decisions on your own. If you aren’t married, this will give your partner the legal protection he or she needs to make those decisions. It is important for you to take time to have those conversations with your partner, so the plans and directives are clear. You can also draft a letter of intent, which is a written, personal note that can be included to help detail your wishes and provide reasoning for the decisions.

Protecting Your Minor Children. Name a legal guardian for them in your will, in the event both parents die. Same-sex couples must make sure that both parents have equal rights, especially in a case where one parent is the biological parent. If the surviving spouse or partner isn’t the biological parent and hasn’t legally adopted the children, don’t assume they’ll automatically be named guardian.  These laws vary from state to state.

Dissolve Old Unions. There could be challenges, if you entered into a civil union or domestic partnership before your marriage was legalized. Prior to the 2015 marriage equality ruling, some same-sex couples married in states where it was legal but resided in states where the marriage wasn’t recognized. If you and your partner broke up, but didn’t legally dissolve the union, it may still be legally binding. Moreover, some states converted civil unions and domestic partnerships to legal marriages, so you and a former partner could be legally married without knowing it. If a former union wasn’t with your current partner, make certain that you legally unbind yourself to avoid any future disputes on your estate.

Review Your Real Estate Documents. Check your real estate documents to confirm that both partners are listed and have equal rights to home ownership, especially if the home was purchased prior to the legalization of same-sex marriage or if you aren’t married. There are a few ways to split ownership of their property. This includes tenants in common, where both partners share ownership of the property, but allows each individual to leave their shares to another person in their will. There’s also joint tenants with rights to survivorship. This is when both partners are property owners but if one dies, the remaining partner retains sole ownership.

Estate planning can be a complex process, and same-sex couples may have more stress to make certain that they have a legally binding plan. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the estate planning process to put a solid plan to help provide peace of mind knowing your family is protected.

Reference: Insurance Net News (June 30, 2021) “What Same-Sex Partners Need to Know About Estate Planning”

Should I Try Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning?

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “6 Common Myths About Estate Planning explains that the coronavirus pandemic has made many people face decisions about estate planning. Many will use a do-it-yourself solution. Internet DIY websites make it easy to download forms. However, there are mistakes people make when they try do-it-yourself estate planning.

Here are some issues with do-it-yourself that estate planning attorneys regularly see:

You need to know what to ask. If you’re trying to complete a specific form, you may be able to do it on your own. However, the challenge is sometimes not knowing what to ask. If you want a more comprehensive end-of-life plan and aren’t sure about what you need in addition to a will, work with an experienced estate planning attorney. If you want to cover everything, and are not sure what everything is, that’s why you see them.

More complex issues require professional help. Take a more holistic look at your estate plan and look at estate planning, tax planning and financial planning together, since they’re all interrelated. If you only look at one of these areas at a time, you may create complications in another. This could unintentionally increase your expenses or taxes. Your situation might also include special issues or circumstances. A do-it-yourself website might not be able to tell you how to account for your specific situation in the best possible way. It will just give you a blanket list, and it will all be cookie cutter. You won’t have the individual attention to your goals and priorities you get by sitting down and talking to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Estate laws vary from state to state. Every state may have different rules for estate planning, such as for powers of attorney or a health care proxy. There are also 17 states and the District of Columbia that tax your estate, inheritance, or both. These tax laws can impact your estate planning. Eleven states and DC only have an estate tax (CT, HI, IL, ME, MA, MN, NY, OR, RI, VT and WA). Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have only an inheritance tax. Maryland has both an inheritance tax and an estate tax.

Setting up health care directives and making end-of-life decisions can be very involved. It’s too important to try to do it yourself. If you make a mistake, it could impact the ability of your family to take care of financial expenses or manage health care issues. Don’t do it yourself.

Reference: US News & World Report (July 5, 2021) “6 Common Myths About Estate Planning”

How Does Probate Work?

Having a good understanding of how wills are used, how probate works and what other documents are needed to protect yourself and loved ones is key to creating an effective estate plan, explains the article “Understanding probate helps when drafting will” from The News Enterprise.

A last will and testament expresses wishes for property distribution after death. It’s different from a living will, which formalizes choices for end-of-life decisions. The last will and testament also includes provisions for care of minor children, disabled dependents and sometimes, for animal companions.

The will does not become effective until after death. However, before death, it is a useful tool in helping family members understand your goals and wishes, if you are ever incapacitated by illness or injury.

The will has roles for specific people. The “testator” is the person creating the will. “Beneficiaries” are heirs receiving assets after the testator has died. The “executor” is the person who oversees the estate, ensuring that directions in the will are followed.

If there is no will, the court will appoint someone to manage the estate, usually referred to as the “administrator.” There is no guarantee the court will appoint a family member or relative, even if there are willing and qualified candidates in the family. Having a will precludes a court appointing a stranger to make serious decisions about a treasured possession and the future of your loved ones.

A will is usually not filed with the court until after the testator dies and the executor takes the will to the court in the county where the testator lived to open a probate case. If the person owned real estate in other counties or states, probate must take place in all other such locations. The will is recorded by the county clerk’s office and becomes part of the public record for anyone to see.

Assets with named beneficiaries, like life insurance proceeds, retirement funds and property owned jointly are distributed to beneficiaries outside of probate. However, any property owned solely by the decedent is part of the probate action and is vulnerable to creditors and anyone who wishes to make a claim against the estate.

The best way to protect your family and your assets is to have a complete estate plan that includes a will and a thorough review of how assets are titled so they can, if possible, go directly to beneficiaries and not be subject to probate.

Reference: The News Enterprise (Aug. 17, 2021) “Understanding probate helps when drafting will”