That Last Step: Trust Funding

Neglecting to fund trusts is a surprisingly common mistake, and one that can undo the best estate and tax plans. Many people put it on the back burner, then forget about it, says the article “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” from Forbes.

Done properly, trust funding helps avoid probate, provides for you and your family in the event of incapacity and helps save on estate taxes.

Creating a revocable trust gives you control. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust while you are living, including funding. Think of a trust like an empty box—you can put assets in it now, or after you pass. If you transfer assets to the trust now, however, your executor won’t have to do it when you die.

Note that if you don’t put assets in the trust while you are living, those assets will go through the probate process. While the executor will have the authority to transfer assets, they’ll have to get court approval. That takes time and costs money. It is best to do it while you are living.

A trust helps if you become incapacitated. You may be managing the trust while you are living, but what happens if you die or become too sick to manage your own affairs? If the trust is funded and a successor trustee has been named, the successor trustee will be able to manage your assets and take care of you and your family. If the successor trustee has control of an empty, unfunded trust, a conservatorship may need to be appointed by the court to oversee assets.

There’s a tax benefit to trusts. For married people, trusts are often created that contain provisions for estate tax savings that defer estate taxes until the death of the second spouse. Income is provided to the surviving spouse and access to the principal during their lifetime. The children are usually the ultimate beneficiaries. However, the trust won’t work if it’s empty.

Depending on where you live, a trust may benefit you with regard to state estate taxes. Putting money in the trust takes it out of your taxable estate. You’ll need to work with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the assets are properly structured. For instance, if your assets are owned jointly with your spouse, they will not pass into a trust at your death and won’t be outside of your taxable estate.

Move the right assets to the right trust. It’s very important that any assets you transfer to the trust are aligned with your estate plan. Taxable brokerage accounts, bank accounts and real estate are usually transferred into a trust. Some tangible assets may be transferred into the trust, as well as any stocks from a family business or interests in a limited liability company. Your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and insurance broker should be consulted to avoid making expensive mistakes.

You’ve worked hard to accumulate assets and protecting them with a trust is a good idea. Just don’t forget the final step of funding the trust.

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”

Estate Planning and Probate Planning

The nature of the probate process varies from state to state, and even varies from county to county. However, the nature of the process is the same. A court has to validate a will to ensure that it meets the legal requirements of the state before assets can be distributed, explains the article “Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money” from the Baker City Herald. A typical will in some states can take nine to twelve months, and court shutdowns related to COVID-19 means that the wait could be longer. Probate is also expensive.

When does probate make sense? When a person dies with a lot of debt, probate can be helpful by limiting the amount of time creditors have to make their claims against the estate. If there’s not enough to pay everyone, the probate court makes the decision about how much each creditor gets. Without probate, creditors may surface long after assets have been distributed, and depending upon the amount owed, may sue heirs or the executor.

The court supervision provided by probate can be helpful, if there are any concerns about the instructions in the will not being carried out. However, the will and the details of the estate become public, which is bad not just for privacy reasons. If there are any greedy or litigation-happy family members, they’ll be able to see how assets were distributed. All assets, debts and costs paid by the estate are disclosed, and the court approves each distribution. This much oversight can be protective in some situations.

What’s the alternative? Some states have simplified probate for smaller estates, which can reduce the time and cost of probate. However, it varies by state. In Delaware, it is estates worth no more than $30,000, but in Seattle, small means estates valued at $275,000 or less.

These limits don’t include assets that go directly to heirs, like accounts with beneficiaries or jointly owned assets. Most retirement funds and life insurance policies have named beneficiaries. The same is often true for bank and investment accounts. Just remember not to name your estate as a beneficiary, which defeats the purpose of having a beneficiary.

Are there any other ways to avoid probate? Here’s where trusts come in. Trusts are legal documents that allow you to place your assets into ownership by the trust. A living trust takes effect while you are still alive, and you can be a trustee. Once created, property needs to be transferred into the trust, which requires managing details: changing titles and deeds and account names. This type of trust is revocable, which means you can change it any time. As a trustee, you have complete control over the property. A successor trustee is named to take over, if you die or become incapacitated.

An estate planning attorney will know other legal strategies to avoid probate for part or all of your estate.

Reference: Baker City Herald (July 16, 2020) “Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money”

When Should You Have ‘The Talk’ with Your Kids?

Talking about who will control your assets is always a tricky thing, says AARP.org in a recent article “Do Your Kids Know Where to Find All Your Money if Tragedy Strikes?” The risk of adult children being caught unawares or without access to a parental funds could lead to big problems, if the parents should die or become incapacitated unexpectedly. Experienced estate planning attorneys know the conversation is better had now, than pushed into the background with a giant surprise in the future.

When a parent’s finances are revealed only after their death, or if dementia strikes, the unexpected responsibility can create a lot of stress. However, there are also reasons not to tell. If a child has a substance abuse problem, or is in a bad marriage, this information may be best kept under wraps. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, there are some universal rules to consider.

Short on cash? Don’t make a secret of it. If you might end up needing help during retirement, it’s best to tell your children early on. Family members have helped each other since there were families, but the earlier you involve them, the more time they have to help you find more resources and make plans.

Dealing with big numbers? You might want to wait. The amount of money you have worked a lifetime to save may look like an endless supply to a 22-year old. When young adults learn there’s a pot of gold, things can go south, fast. If you have a spouse and are relatively young and healthy, then all the children need to know, is that you are well set for retirement. By the time you’re closer to 80, then your children and/or a trusted financial representative and your estate planning attorney will need to know where your money is and how to access it.

How to share the details? Start by making a complete list of all of your assets, including account numbers, key contacts and any other details your executor or agents will need to handle your affairs. Put that information into an envelope and make sure that your children or your estate planning lawyer know where it is. If the information is kept on your computer or on an online portal, make sure the right people have access to the passwords, so they can access the information.

How to share the big picture? Estate planning attorneys often recommend a family meeting in their offices, with all of the children present. It’s helpful to have this meeting happen in neutral territory, and even children who tend to squabble among themselves behave better in a lawyer’s conference room. You can explain who the executor will be, and why.

Introduce them to your team. Chances are you have a long-standing relationship with your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and accountant. These are the people your children will be working with after you have passed. Having them meet before you die or become incapacitated, will be better for a working relationship that will likely occur during a stressful time.

Reference: AARP.org (April 24, 2020) “Do Your Kids Know Where to Find All Your Money if Tragedy Strikes?”

What Is a ‘Survivorship’ Period?

A survivorship clause in a will or a trust says that beneficiaries can inherit, only if they live a certain number of days after the person who made the will or trust dies. The goal is to avoid situations where assets pass under your beneficiary’s estate plan, and not yours, if they outlive you only by a short period of time. While these situations are rare, they do occur, according to the article “How Survivorship Periods Work” from kake.com.

Many wills and trusts contain a survivorship period. Most estates won’t rise to the level of today’s very high federal estate tax exemption ($11.58 million for an individual), so a long survivorship period is not necessary. However, if the surviving spouse must wait too long to receive property under the will—six months or more—it might harm their eligibility for the marital deduction, even if they are made in a qualifying trust or an outright gift.

Even if a will does not contain a survivorship clause, many states require one. Some states require at least a five-day or 120-hour survivorship period. That law might apply to beneficiaries who inherit property under a will, trust or, if there is no will, under state law. This usually does not apply to those who are beneficiaries of an insurance policy, a POD bank account (Payable on Death), or a surviving co-owner of property held in joint tenancy. To learn what states have a set of laws, known as the Uniform Probate Code or the revised version of the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act, speak with a local estate planning lawyer.

Survivorship requirements are put into place in case of simultaneous or close to simultaneous deaths of the estate owners and the estate beneficiaries. This is to avoid having the distribution of assets from an estate owner’s estate distributed according to the beneficiary’s estate plan, and not the estate owner’s plan.

For an example, let’s say Jeff dies and leaves his estate to his sister Judy. Jeff has named his favorite charity as an alternative beneficiary. Jeff’s assets would normally go to his sister Judy. They would only go to his favorite charity, if Judy were not alive at the time of his death. However, if Jeff dies and then Judy dies 14 days later, Jeff’s assets could go to Judy’s beneficiaries under the terms of her will. The charity, Jeff’s intended beneficiary, would receive nothing.

The family would also have the burden of dealing with not one but two probate proceedings at the same time.

However, if a 30-day survivorship clause was in place, the assets would pass to his favorite charity, as originally intended. Jeff’s estate plan would be carried out, according to his wishes.

These are the types of details that make estate planning succeed as the estate owner wishes. Having a complete and secure—and properly prepared—estate plan in place is worth the effort.

Reference: kake.com (March 31, 2020) “How Survivorship Periods Work”

What Are the Rules About an Inheritance Received During Marriage?

A good add-on to that sentence is something like, “provided that it is kept separate from marital assets.” To say it another way, when an inheritance or any other exempt asset (like a premarital asset) is “commingled” with marital assets, it can lose its exempt status.

Trust Advisor’s recent article asks, “Do I Have To Divide The Inheritance I Received During My Marriage?” As the article explains, this is the basic rule, but it’s not iron-clad.

A few courts say that an inheritance was exempt, even when it was left for only a short time in a joint account. This can happen after a parent’s death. The proceeds of a life insurance policy that an adult child beneficiary receives, are put into the family account to save time in a stressful situation. You may be too distraught to deal with this issue when the insurance check arrives, so you or your spouse might deposit it into a joint account. However, in one case, the wife took the check and opened an investment account with the money. That insurance money deposited in the investment account was never touched, but the wife still wanted half of it when the couple divorced a few years later. However, in that case, the judge ruled that the proceeds from the insurance policy were the husband’s separate property.

The law generally says that assets exempt from equitable distribution (like insurance proceeds) may become subject to equitable distribution, if the recipient intends them to become marital assets. The comingling of these assets with marital assets may make them subject to a division in a divorce. However, if there’s no intent for the assets to become martial property, the assets may remain the recipient spouse’s property.

Courts will look at “donative intent,” which asks if the spouse had the intent to gift the inheritance to the marriage, making it a marital asset. Courts may look at a commingled inheritance for donative intent, but also examine other factors. This can include the proximity in time between the inheritance and the divorce. Therefore, if a spouse deposited an inheritance into a joint account a year before the divorce, she could argue that there should be a disproportionate distribution in her favor or that she should get back the whole amount. Of course, the longer amount of time between the inheritance and the divorce, the more difficult this argument becomes.

Be sure to speak with your estate planning attorney about the specific laws in your state. If there is a hint of trouble in the marriage, it might be wiser to simply open a new account for the inheritance.

Reference: Trust Advisor (October 29, 2019) “Do I Have To Divide The Inheritance I Received During My Marriage?”

What Are The Essential Estate Planning Documents?
Two Wills documents with an Estate Tax form.

What Are The Essential Estate Planning Documents?

Forbes’ recent article, “Retirement, Estate Planning: Documents You Should Have,” says that in this time of life, while emotions are running high, it’s critical to be make sure your financial and legal matters are in order.

Putting together a well thought out financial plan and creating an estate plan lets you be certain that personal, financial, and health wishes will be carried out the way you want. Managing your estate, regardless of the size, starts with working with an experienced estate planning attorney who will help give you greater control, privacy and security of your legacy. Here are the documents you need to get started:

Will. This is a legal document that is used to detail your wishes regarding the distribution of your assets and property, as well as the care of any minor children, by naming a guardian in the event your pass away while they’re still young.

Power of Attorney. This is a written authorization that gives a trusted family or friend the authority to act on your behalf in business, legal, and financial matters, if you’re unable to act for yourself due to a mental or physical disability. The requirements are different in each state, so ask your attorney about the right form and language to include.

Health Care Directive. This is also known as a living will. It is another legal document that states your health-care preferences, in case you become incapacitated or unable to speak for yourself. It also allows you to say how you’d like your end-of-life care to be handled.

Information Document. Another important part of your estate plan is a document that contains bank account information, passwords, insurance policies, contact information for attorneys, financial planners and any other significant data regarding your personal estate and final wishes. It’s also called a Letter of Last Instruction that provides this important information to family in the event of an emergency.

Plan for the future, by making certain that your loved ones know and are able to carry out your final wishes.

Reference: Forbes (August 28, 2019) “Retirement, Estate Planning: Documents You Should Have”

Don’t Forget to Update Your Estate Plan

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There are some people who sign their will once in their life and never change it. They may have executed their estate plan late in life, or after they were diagnosed with a serious disease. However, even if your family life and finances are pretty basic, there are still changes in the law that you may need to incorporate into your estate plan.  Some of the people that you named in your will could also have died or moved away.

Forbes’ recent article, “Why You Should Change Your Will Now,” warns us that if you’ve taken the “one and done” approach to your estate plan, think again. In addition to the reasons already mentioned, your assets may have changed dramatically since you signed your will. The plan you put in place years ago, may not have considered new federal and state estate taxes. Now that you’ve accumulated significant wealth that will be passed on to your children, you might need to review your plans for that wealth for your children.

You may want to include grandchildren to help pay for their college education.

It is also not uncommon for parents to want to protect their children from themselves. This can be because of addiction issues or a lack of financial literacy. If that’s an issue, some parents elect to hold monies in trust for adult children, as a way to ensure that the funds will be there throughout the child’s lifetime.

A person’s estate plan should grow with them over time. An estate plan for a twenty-something may be very basic, but a newly-married couple will want to include provisions for their spouse. Parents need to think about providing for and protecting their children. Adult children have another set of concerns and you need prepare for the possibility of divorcing spouses, poor life choices, addiction issues and just poor money management. There are many stages in life when you may need to readjust the provisions for your children in your estate planning documents.

If you haven’t looked at your will in a while, do it now.

Reference: Forbes (August 27, 2019) “Why You Should Change Your Will Now”

Feeling Squeezed? You Might be a Sandwich

The phrase “sandwich generation” is used to describe people who are caring for their parents and their children at the same time. The number of people who fall into this category is growing, according to an article from The Motley Fool, “How to Help Your Parents Retire Without Derailing Your Own Retirement.” A survey found that about 16% of Americans are currently caring for an elderly relative, and this number is expected to double within the next five years.

What’s worse, very few people are planning for this situation.

Planning is the only way to stop what has been called a self-perpetuating cycle. Without planning, caring for parents could derail your own retirement, making you need the support of your children when you get older, and while your kids are trying to save for their children’s college educations and preparing for their own retirement. Sound familiar?

What can you do to prevent this cycle?

See if your parents qualify for any assistance programs. There are government and private programs to help with housing, food, utilities and healthcare. The programs vary by location and the situation of the people who are seeking help, but there is help, if you know where to find it.

If parents are over 65, there is something called Supplemental Social Security Income, or SSI. This is in addition to the regular Social Security benefits and might be enough to close the finance gap. In 2019, SSI provides up to $771 per month for an individual or $1,157 for a couple, if the requirements are met.

Cost cutting. If your parents don’t have a budget, help them create one so you can all be aware of how much money is coming in and how much is going out of the household. Could they tighten their discretionary spending? They could also consider a reverse mortgage on their home, if they have enough equity. Are you willing or able to have them come live with you?

Selling items could also free up cash for living expenses. If they have a house filled with memorabilia, or valuable antiques, and are willing to do so, they can combine downsizing with making some income.

Creating a plan. Get everyone in the room—parents, siblings and spouses. Discuss the challenges ahead and make sure that everyone is clear on what expenses everyone can help with. Housing and healthcare are necessary. Luxury cars and vacations are not.

If the adult siblings need to adjust their own spending to help the parents, be realistic with each other. How much are you able to contribute, and how much are you willing to contribute? No one sibling should have to shoulder the burden themselves, unless they are wildly wealthy, and it won’t make a dent in their lifestyle.

Along with the financial planning, make sure that your parents have an estate plan. They’ll need a will, a power of attorney for finances and a healthcare power of attorney. The cost of working with an estate planning attorney to ensure that this is in place, is far less than dealing with court proceedings, if you need to pursue guardianship or settle the estate without a will.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Aug. 25, 2019) “How to Help Your Parents Retire Without Derailing Your Own Retirement”

Can I Keep a Loved One’s Inheritance From Their Spouse?

A recent nj.com article asks, “How do I protect my niece’s inheritance from her husband?” The article says that in a scenario where someone plans to leave most of her estate to her niece but doesn’t want her estranged husband to get his hands on the money, she must be proactive to make sure the funds go where she intends them to go.

If this happens in New Jersey, the niece’s inheritance will be subject to the New Jersey inheritance tax. The tax is levied based on the relationship of the deceased to the beneficiary. In this case, the niece’s inheritance would be subject to an inheritance tax of 15 to 16%.

This inheritance tax is assessed, because the aunt is a New Jersey resident. It doesn’t matter where the beneficiary resides.

One option is for the aunt to leave the assets to the niece outright or in trust.

The laws in many states, like Missouri, South Carolina, and New Jersey, say that unless the parties otherwise agree, upon divorce there will be equitable distribution of their marital property. Marital property generally doesn’t include the property received by gift or inheritance, as long as that person didn’t co-mingle it with the marital property.

Therefore, the most economical way to transfer property to the niece, is to leave it to her in the testator’s will, with instructions for her to keep it separate and apart from her marital property.

An outright bequest may not be the best way to leave property to the niece, even though it’s probably the most economical method for the aunt.

However, if the aunt leaves the inheritance in trust, she’ll make certain the property isn’t commingled with marital assets.

Further, if the trust is properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney, the income from the trust will likely not be used to decrease any support to which the niece may otherwise be entitled from her spouse, in the event that they divorce down the road. The trust can also protect against other events, by instructing to whom funds should be paid upon the premature death of the niece. That would further prevent her estranged husband from ever being able to make a claim against the funds.

Reference: nj.com (August 21, 2019) “How do I protect my niece’s inheritance from her husband?”

Succession Planning For Business Owners
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Succession Planning For Business Owners

A business owner without an estate plan, is a business owner whose business and personal estate are both in jeopardy, says the Augusta Free Press in an article that asks “Own a business? 5 reasons you need an estate plan.”

You need more than a will to plan for incapacity. If you become ill or incapacitated, a will isn’t the estate planning tool that will help you and your family. What you need is a power of attorney (POA). This document names another individual or individuals to manage your finances and your business dealings, while you are unable to do so. Your estate planning attorney can create a power of attorney that limits what the named person, known as an “agent” may do on your behalf, or make it a broad POA so they can do anything they deem necessary.

Your state’s estate plan may not align with your wishes. Every state has its own laws about property distribution in the event a person does not have an estate plan. A popular joke among estate planning attorneys is that if you don’t have an estate plan, your state has one for you—but you may not like it. This is particularly important for business owners. If you have a sibling who you haven’t spoken to in decades, depending upon the laws of your state, that sibling may be first in line for your assets and your business. If that makes you worried, it should.

Caring for a disabled family member. A family that includes individuals with special needs who receive government benefits requires a specific type of estate planning, known as Special Needs Planning. This includes the use of trusts, so a trust owns assets the assets for the benefit of such a family member without putting government benefits at risk.

 

Help yourself and heirs with tax liability. If your future plan includes leaving your business to your children or another family member, there will be taxes due. What if they don’t have the resources to pay taxes on the business and have to sell it in a fire sale just to satisfy the tax bill? An estate plan, worked out with an experienced estate planning attorney who regularly works with family-owned businesses, will include a comprehensive tax plan. Make sure your heirs understand this plan—you may want to bring them with you to a family meeting with the attorney, so everyone is on the same page.

Avoid fracturing your own family. An unhappy truth is that when there is no estate plan, it impacts not just the family business. If some children or family members are involved in the business and others are not, the ones who work in the business may resent having to share any of the business. How to divide your business is up to the business owner. However, making a good plan in advance with the guidance of an experienced advisor and communicating the plan to family members will prevent the family from falling apart.

There’s no way to know how family members will respond when a parent dies. Sometimes death brings out the best in people, and sometimes it brings out the worst. However, by having an estate plan and business plan for the future, you can preclude some of the stresses and strains on the family.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (August 13, 2019) “Own a business? 5 reasons you need an estate plan.”