What You Need to Know about Drafting Your Will

A last will and testament is just one of the legal documents that you should have in place to help your loved ones know what your wishes are, if you can’t say so yourself, advises CNBC’s recent article entitled, “Here’s what you need to know about creating a will.” In this pandemic, the coronavirus may have you thinking more about your mortality.

Despite COVID-19, it’s important to ponder what would happen to your bank accounts, your home, your belongings or even your minor children, if you’re no longer here. You should prepare a will, if you don’t already have one. It is also important to update your will, if it’s been written.

If you don’t have a valid will, your property will pass on to your heirs by law. These individuals may or may not be who you would have provided for in a will. If you pass away with no will —dying intestate — a state court decides who gets your assets and, if you have children, a judge says who will care for them. As a result, if you have an unmarried partner or a favorite charity but have no legal no will, your assets may not go to them.

The courts will typically pass on assets to your closest blood relatives, despite the fact that it wouldn’t have been your first choice.

Your will is just one part of a complete estate plan. Putting a plan in place for your assets helps ensure that at your death, your wishes will be carried out and that family fights and hurt feelings don’t make for destroyed relationships.

There are some assets that pass outside of the will, such as retirement accounts, 401(k) plans, pensions, IRAs and life insurance policies.

Therefore, the individual designated as beneficiary on those accounts will receive the money, despite any directions to the contrary in your will. If there’s no beneficiary is listed on those accounts, or the beneficiary has already passed away, the assets automatically go into probate—the process by which all of your debt is paid off and then the remaining assets are distributed to heirs.

If you own a home, be certain that you know the way in which it should be titled. This will help it end up with those you intend, since laws vary from state to state.

Ask an estate planning attorney in your area — to ensure familiarity with state laws—for help with your will and the rest of your estate plan.

Reference: CNBC (June 1, 2020) “Here’s what you need to know about creating a will”

How Should I Take My Pension?

The number of pension plans decreased to just 46,700 in 2017, from 103,000 in 1975. At the same time, defined-contribution plans, such as the 401(k) grew to 662,800, from 207,700, says CNBC’s recent article entitled “Pandemic creates pension plan tension: Take the lump sum or trust lifetime payments.”

With so many companies trying to regain their financial footing in the coronavirus pandemic, a retiring employee’s decision to take either a lump sum or lifetime payments from their pension might end up in one simple question: whether they believe that the company will be able to meet its long-term commitments. It’s one of the primary considerations that employees have, when doing this kind of analysis.

A tricky part of making a decision about how to receive your pension benefits is that retirees typically like the idea of guaranteed income for life, which makes electing continuing payments more appealing than a lump sum.

If you want to stay on as a plan participant, make sure you have confidence in the company’s ability to make those future payments. While the federal Pension Benefit Guaranty Corporation (PBGC) would step in if the company failed to meet its obligations, it may pay only a portion of promised benefits.

If you’re thinking about a lump sum, due to fear of your employer folding or otherwise struggling to meet its pension obligations, know that the amount offered is usually less in comparison to the amount you’re promised to get, over time, if you were to stay in the plan. However, because interest rates are generally low, lump sum offers have been bigger than they’d be if rates were high. Consequently, when interest rates go up, the guaranteed-income option is higher, and the lump sums go down.

If you opt to remain in the pension plan rather than taking the lump sum, the amount you’ll get may be fixed for life, because pensions typically don’t have a cost-of-living adjustment. While some pensions offer spousal benefits (when you die, your spouse would continue getting a continuing, but reduced amount of your payments), there’s nothing left for heirs. Therefore, death ends the plan’s obligations to you, your family and your heirs.

Alternatively, if you take the lump sum, you might have some money remaining at the end of your life that could be left to non-spousal heirs.

Any decision should be made with regard for the rest of your financial plan. It is worth making certain you believe in the company’s long-term viability. The counsel of an experienced financial advisor should be sought when evaluating your options.

Reference: CNBC (June 8, 2020) “Pandemic creates pension plan tension: Take the lump sum or trust lifetime payments”

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”

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”

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”

Can You Place a Life Insurance Policy in a Trust?

Trusts are frequently used in the estate planning process. They help with in the distribution of assets, making certain that everything is distributed to the right people and entities. A trust can also reduce estate taxes, because it lets you remove assets from your estate, so more wealth can be passed to beneficiaries.

Many people don’t know that you can even place a life insurance policy within a trust. Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Can You Trust Your Trustee?” explains that life insurance in a trust is called trust-owned life insurance (TOLI). A TOLI is like bank-owned and company-owned life insurance. Trustees often do a good job of completing basic tasks, but conflicts and problems can pop up when trustees don’t understand where their loyalties should be and how to deal with complex financial issues.

A trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of a trust. The trustee is required to manage the trust assets pursuant to the instructions of the trust for the beneficiaries.

TOLI beneficiaries usually have a desire to maximize the amount of wealth they will receive, when the trust assets are distributed. The trustee must, therefore, actively manage the insurance policy, or policies, that are owned by the trust. This includes determining if the policy is performing up to the projections reflected in the original life insurance illustration. It also requires the trustee to try to identify alternative policies that may be more in line with the desires of the beneficiaries. New life insurance products have made some policies sold in the past obsolete. An old under-performing policy can often be replaced. However, some trustees don’t possess the skills necessary to oversee trust-owned life insurance. A trustee should understand and be aware of:

  • The policy’s performance relative to expectations
  • The last time the life insurance policy was reviewed
  • If there are other policies that may do a better job of meeting wishes and stipulations expressed in the trust document
  • Whether the credit rating of the insurance company that issued the policy has decreased and
  • If the allocation of the sub-accounts is still aligned with the investment policy statement.

Trust-owned life insurance can have an important role in the estate plans of many people, but not all trustees have the bandwidth when it comes to insurance and estate planning to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney for assistance.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2019) “Can You Trust Your Trustee?”

What Do I Do If I’m Named Financial Power of Attorney?

A financial power of attorney (POA) is a document whereby the “principal” appoints a trusted someone known as the “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” to act on behalf of the principal, especially when the principal is incapacitated. It typically permits the attorney-in-fact to pay the principal’s bills, access his accounts, pay his taxes and buy and sell investments or even real estate. In effect, the attorney-in-fact steps into the shoes of the principal and is able to act for him in all matters, as described in the POA document.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?” says these responsibilities may sound overwhelming, and it’s only natural to feel this way initially. Let’s look at the steps to take to do this important job:

  1. Don’t panic but begin reading. Review the POA document and determine what the principal has given you power to do on his behalf. A POA will typically include information addressed to the agent that explains the legal duties he or she owes to the principal.
  2. See what you have to handle for the principal. Create a list of the principal’s assets and liabilities. If the principle is organized, it’ll be easy. If not, you will need to find their brokerage and bank accounts, 401(k)s/IRAs/403(b)s, the mortgage, taxes, insurance and other bills (utilities, phone, cable and internet).
  3. Protect the principal’s property. Be sure the principal’s home is secure and make a video inventory of the home. If it looks like your principal will be incapacitated for an extended period of time, you may cancel the phone and newspaper subscriptions. You may need to change the locks on the principal’s home. If you have control of the principal’s investments and their incapacitation may continue for a long time, review their brokerage statements for high-risk positions that you don’t understand, like options, puts and calls, or commodities. Get advice on liquidating positions you don’t have the know-how to handle.
  4. Pay all bills, as necessary. Look at your principal’s bills and credit card statements for potential fraud. Perhaps you should suspend their credit cards that you won’t be using on the principal’s behalf. Note that they may have bills automatically paid by credit card and plan accordingly.
  5. Pay the taxes. Many powers of attorney give the agent the power to pay the principal’s taxes. If so, you’ll be responsible for filing and paying taxes during the principal’s lifetime. If the principal passes away, the executor of the principal’s last will is responsible for preparing any final taxes.
  6. Keep meticulous records. Track every expenditure you make and every action you take on the principal’s behalf. You’ll be asked to demonstrate that you have upheld your duties and acted in the principal’s best interests. It will also be important for you to receive reimbursement for expenses, and (if the power of attorney provides for it) the time you spent acting as agent.

Finally, you must always act in the principal’s best interest.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 22, 2020) “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?”

Should I Give My Kid the House Now or Leave It to Him in My Will?

Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death. However, gifting a home also can result in a big, unnecessary tax burden and put your house at risk, if your children are sued or file for bankruptcy.

Further, you also could be making a big mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being used for your nursing home bills.

MarketWatch’s recent article entitled “Why you shouldn’t give your house to your adult children” advises that there are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since passed away.

If you bequeath a house to your children so that they get it after your death, they get a “step-up in tax basis.” All the appreciation that occurred while the parent owned the house is never taxed. However, when a parent gives an adult child a house, it can be a tax nightmare for the recipient. For example, if the mother paid $16,000 for her home in 1976, and the current market value is $200,000, none of that gain would be taxable, if the son inherited the house.

Families who see this mistake in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

Sometimes people transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, the government program that pays health care and nursing home bills for the poor. However, any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for the program can result in a penalty period, when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.

In addition, giving your home to someone else also can expose you to their financial problems. Their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, get some or most of its value. In a divorce, the house could become an asset that must be sold and divided in a property settlement.

However, Tax Code says that if the parent retains a “life interest” or “life estate” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift.

There are specific rules for what qualifies as a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills. To make certain, a child, as executor of his mother’s estate, could file a gift tax return on her behalf to show that he was given a “remainder interest,” or the right to inherit when his mother’s life interest expired at her death.

There are smarter ways to transfer a house. There are other ways around probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let people leave their homes to beneficiaries without having to go through probate. Another option is a living trust.

Reference: MarketWatch (April 16, 2020) “Why you shouldn’t give your house to your adult children”

How Do Farmers Start an Estate Plan?

The Bangor Daily News explains in its article “How farmers can start an estate plan” that we all know we’re going to die, but it’s not our favorite thing to talk about. However, it’s important to start these conversations.

The article helps aging farmers who want to get started with the estate planning process, by sharing some tips to clear up some of the confusion, eliminate questions in the process and motivate you to begin your estate planning journey.

One expert described the process as a business transition. It is not unlike retirement decisions that somebody might make for a job. However, it is much more complicated, because there are many more resources to address (and perhaps many more people).

Clearly defined goals will make that transition much easier for everyone involved. Memorialize your goals by writing them down, along with your dreams for the transfer of the farm. Don’t forget to include your fears.

A basic estate plan can be as simple as a will, a medical directive and a power of attorney. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to facilitate the various elements of estate planning.

Make a complete inventory of all assets you own, including the deeds to all the tracts of land in your possession.

Identify a successor, so you know who will take over the farm when you die. It’s essential to ensuring the longevity of the farm business you worked so hard to create. As far as transferring your assets in family farm businesses, inter-generational politics can be dicey, when it comes to estate planning. It really boils down to the succession of your farm from one generation to another.

You must be certain to do this in an orderly way to make sure the needs of both generations are met.

If you don’t have a family member interested in taking over the farm, there are local agencies that can help you find young farmers to whom you can sell and who would be able to take over the business.

When it comes to estate planning, it is never too early to begin.

Reference: Bangor Daily News (March 5, 2020) “How farmers can start an estate plan”

Should I Use Life Insurance in My Estate Planning?

With proper planning, insurance money can pay expenses like estate taxes. It will help keep other assets intact.

For example, Hector passes away and leaves his rather large estate to his daughter, Isabella. Because of the size of the estate, there’s a hefty estate tax due. However, unfortunately, most of Hector’s assets are tied up in real estate and an IRA. Isabella may not be keen on a quick forced sale of the real estate to free up some cash for the taxes. If Isabella taps the inherited IRA to raise cash, she’ll have to pay income tax on the withdrawal and lose a valuable opportunity for extended tax deferral.

FedWeek’s recent article entitled “Using Life Insurance to Protect Your Estate” that in this scenario, Hector could plan ahead. Anticipating such a result, he could buy insurance on his own life. The proceeds of that policy could be used to pay the estate tax bill. Isabella can then keep the real estate, while taking only the Required Minimum Distributions (RMD) that are warranted by law from the inherited IRA. If the insurance policy is owned by Isabella or by a trust, the proceeds most likely won’t be included in Hector’s estate, and the money won’t increase the estate tax liability she has.

However, some common life insurance mistakes can sabotage your estate plan:

  • Designating your estate as the beneficiary. This will place the policy proceeds in your estate, which exposes the funds to estate tax and your creditors. Your executor will also have more paperwork, if your estate is the beneficiary. Instead, name the appropriate people, trust or charities.
  • Naming just a single beneficiary. Name at least two “backup” beneficiaries to decrease confusion, in the event the main beneficiary should die before you.
  • Placing your policy in the “file and forget” drawer. Review your policies at least once every three years, make the appropriate changes and get a confirmation, in writing, from the insurance company.
  • Inadequate insurance. In the event of your untimely death, if you have a young child, in all likelihood it will take hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay all her expenses, such as college tuition. Failing to purchase adequate insurance coverage may hurt your family. This also shouldn’t be a hardship with term insurance costs so low.

Reference: FedWeek (Feb. 6, 2020) “Using Life Insurance to Protect Your Estate”