Why You Need an Estate Plan

Did you think you had to be rich to have an estate? Think again! From a legal perspective, your estate includes everything you own, from tangible property like a car, house, furniture, as well as intangible assets like insurance policies, bank accounts, retirement and investment accounts. You don’t have to be rich to have an estate, says the recent article “How to Plan Your Estate” from The Military Wallet. However, you do need to have an estate plan, and the best time to start planning is right now.

An estate plan is more than simply passing your property along to heirs. It is also how you prepare for the unpleasantries of life, including becoming incapacitated or being unable to make decisions on your own.

Your estate plan protects you and your beneficiaries. Without a will, the court will determine who will get your assets subject to probate, following the laws of your state. With a will, you determine who should receive your probated property, from family members to charities.

Your estate plan protects your children. Your will nominates a guardian who will care for your children if you die before they turn age 18, or, if you have a disabled child with special needs, who will care for them for the rest of their life. Without a will nominating a guardian, the court will make these decisions.

Your estate plan protects your family by preventing conflict. Your wishes are made clear in a will and in other estate planning documents. The more details, the better. No one can say they knew what you really wanted, because what you really wanted is documented and memorialized in your estate plan.

Getting ready to meet with an estate planning attorney will be easier if you take it step by step.

Make an inventory of all assets, including

  • House, land and any real estate property
  • Cars, boats and any other vehicles
  • Bank, investment and retirement accounts
  • Life insurance policies
  • Health savings accounts
  • Jewelry, valuables and collectibles
  • Digital assets, including website URL, username and password
  • Cryptocurrency, including all information for an executor to be able to access accounts

Create a plan for the different scenarios in your life. Who would you want to raise your children if you and your spouse die while children are minors or are unable to care for them because of illness or injury? How will your spouse pay the mortgage if you die unexpectedly?

Make a list of all accounts with designated beneficiaries. This typically includes life insurance, retirement plans and annuities. Any time you have a major life event like marriage, divorce, birth or death, these designations should be reviewed.

You’re now ready to meet with an estate planning attorney. Your estate plan should include a last will and testament, outlining who should receive your property, who will distribute your estate (your executor) and who should raise your children if you die while they are under legal age.

A Health Care Proxy is used to name a person who can make decisions about your healthcare if you cannot. A Living Will outlines the details for medical treatment you want or don’t want when you are near death.

Power of Attorney is a document giving someone else the power to take care of your finances at any point, if you can’t because of illness or incapacity. This avoids your family members having to go to court to obtain a guardianship, which takes time and is a costly proceeding.

Reference: The Military Wallet (Aug. 25, 2022) “How to Plan Your Estate”

Is it Important to have an Estate Plan?

Everyone needs to have an estate plan to ensure that their family can take part in medical care, assets will pass to the heirs they want and to protect minor children, as explained in a recent article titled “Estate Planning Considerations That Apply to Nearly Everyone” from mondaq.com. An estate plan does all this, and more. Having an estate plan can also protects privacy; any assets moved into a trust do not become part of the public record.

Here are the documents making up the foundation of an estate plan.

Last Will and Testament. This is used to direct the disposition of assets and appoints an executor to handle final affairs after your death. If there is no will, the state law controls how your estate is distributed.

Revocable Trust. Trusts permit more control of the management and disposition of assets in a more private and tax-efficient way during your lifetime and after death.

General Durable Power of Attorney. This document usually names a spouse, adult child or trusted individual who can take over your legal and financial affairs, especially if you should become incapacitated.

Health Care Power of Attorney. Everyone over age 18 should have this document. This nominates a person you choose to make health care decisions. Without it, parents of teenagers and young adults may not be involved in their care. Treating physicians will not be able to discuss your loved one’s care, or you may need to petition the court for guardianship.

Living Will. This document allows you to express your wishes with regard to end-of-life care and medical treatment decisions. It alleviates the emotional burden of guessing what you would have wanted by family members.

HIPAA Authorization. Your medical and health insurance records are protected from being released to third parties without the patient’s consent. While this is helpful for patients seeking to maintain their privacy, it also means parents or loved ones will not have any access to medical records and healthcare providers will not discuss the patient’s medical condition with family members. Fines and penalties for professionals and facilities are strict.

Asset and Beneficiary Designations. Part of an estate plan includes ensuring that assets are in alignment with your wishes. Your will does not control how assets with a beneficiary designation or those with joint ownership titles will be inherited. For your estate to achieve the outcome you want, you’ll need to dig deep into your records and ensure that all assets are properly titled, including insurance policies, investment accounts, retirement accounts, property and any other assets.

If you have an estate plan in place and have not updated it in recent years, or failed to get one or more of the above-mentioned documents, there is no time like the present to do so. Unexpected events are always around the corner and being prepared in advance helps ensure your wishes will be achieved and your family will be protected.

Reference: mondaq.com (July 29, 2022) “Estate Planning Considerations That Apply to Nearly Everyone”

Can Trusts Help Create Wealth?

Trusts are the Swiss Army Knife of estate planning, perfect tools for specific directions on how your assets should be managed while you are living and after you have passed. A recent article titled “This Trust Can Help You Create a Financial Dynasty from yahoo! finance explains how qualified perpetual trusts (also known as dynasty trusts) can offer more control over assets than other types of trusts.

What is a Dynasty Trust?

Called a Qualified Perpetual Trust or a Dynasty Trust, this trust is designed to let the grantor pass assets along to beneficiaries in perpetuity. Technically speaking, a dynasty trust could last for a century. They don’t end until several years after the death of the last surviving beneficiary.

Why Would You Want a Trust to Last 100 Years?

Perpetual trusts are often used to keep family wealth out of probate for a long time. During probate, the court reviews the will, approves the executor and reviews an inventory of assets. Probate can be time consuming and costly. the will and all the information it contains becomes part of the public record, meaning that anyone can find out all about your wealth.

A trust is created by an experienced estate planning attorney. Assets are then transferred into the trust and beneficiaries are named. There should be at least one beneficiary and a secondary beneficiary, in case the first beneficiary predeceases the second. A trustee is named to oversee the assets. The language of the trust is where you set the terms for when and how assets are to be distributed to beneficiaries.

Directions for the trust can be as specific as you wish. Terms may be set requiring certain goals, stages of life, or ages for beneficiaries to receive assets. This amount of control is part of the appeal of trusts. You can also set terms for when beneficiaries are not to receive anything from the trust.

Let’s say you have two adult children in their 30s. You could set a condition for them to receive monthly payments from trust earnings and nothing from the principal during their lifetimes. The next generation, your grandchildren, can be directed to receive only earnings as well, further preserving the trust principal and ensuring its future for generations to come.

Dynasty trusts are irrevocable, meaning that once assets are transferred, the transfer is permanent. Be certain that any assets going into the trust won’t be needed in the short or long run.

Be mindful if you chose to leave assets directly to grandchildren, skipping one generation, you risk the Generation Skipping Tax. There is no GST with a dynasty trust.

Assets in a trust are still subject to income tax, if they generate income. If you transfer assets creating little or no income, you can minimize this tax.

Not all states allow qualified perpetual trusts, while other states have used perpetual trusts to create a cottage industry for trusts. Your estate planning attorney will be able to advise the best perpetual trust for your situation.

Reference: yahoo! finance (July 12, 2022) “This Trust Can Help You Create a Financial Dynasty

Can You Leave an IRA to a Beneficiary?

Conversations about death and legacies aren’t always easy. However, defining what matters most to a person is a good way to start estate planning. IRAs can play an important role in estate planning and legacy creation, as discussed in a recent article entitled “IRA Gifts at Death” from The Street.

Let’s say someone has a large portion of their assets in an investment account, a Roth IRA and a traditional IRA. If they want to avoid having their estate go through probate but aren’t in love with the idea of building trusts, they need to be sure their IRAs have beneficiaries. At their passing, the assets will flow directly to the beneficiaries.

Make sure that at least one living beneficiary is on the account. If the primary beneficiary is a spouse, be sure to also have contingent beneficiaries, or designate the beneficiary as “per stirpes,” which means if the named beneficiary passes before the account owner, their share of the assets automatically passes to their lineal descendants.

If there’s no valid beneficiary, the contents of an IRA of any kind could end up in the probate estate, creating a nightmare for heirs.

If an intended beneficiary is a charitable organization, passing an IRA is a powerful giving strategy. The organization must be a 501(c)(3), a tax-exempt organization. When IRAs are passed to the charity, the charity doesn’t pay taxes on the gift.

Individual beneficiaries do have to pay taxes on assets received from traditional IRAs, and when and how much they pay depends upon their relationship to the IRA owner. If the recipient is not the spouse, not a minor and not a disabled adult, the heir will need to take taxable withdrawals from the traditional IRA over the course of ten years from the date of death of the original account owner. Some people take a set amount annually, so they can plan for the taxes due. For others, a low-income year is the time to take withdrawals, since their tax bracket may be lower.

Another IRA distribution strategy is to divide IRAs into separate accounts, allowing for increased control over the amount of assets passing to a specific beneficiary. One IRA could be used for your charitable giving, while another IRA could be used to benefit family members.

Changing beneficiaries on your IRA is relatively easy. Checking on beneficiary names should be done every time you review your estate plan, which should happen every three to five years. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help determine the best strategy for your IRAs. Generally speaking, traditional IRAs are best to gift for charities. Roth IRAs are best to gift to family or loved ones. This is because the money in a Roth IRA is inherited tax free and can remain tax free for a number of years.

Reference: The Street (July 17, 2022) “IRA Gifts at Death”

Who Should Be Your Executor?

While the executor is usually a spouse or close family member, you can name anyone you wish to be your executor. A bank, estate planning attorney, or professional trustee at a trust company may also serve as the executor, according to a recent article from Twin Cities-Pioneer Press titled “Your Money: What you need to know about naming an executor.”

Regardless of who you select, the person has a legal duty to be honest, impartial, financially responsible and to put your interests ahead of their own. This person and one or two backup candidates should be named in your will, just in case the primary executor declines or is unable to serve.

How does someone become an executor? When your will is entered into probate, the court checks to be sure the person you name meets all of your state’s legal requirements. Once the court approves (and usually the court does), then their role is official and you executor can get to work.

The executor has many responsibilities. You can help your executor do a better job by making sure that financial and personal business documents are organized and readily available. Here are some, but not all, of the executor’s tasks:

  • Making an inventory of all assets and liabilities
  • Giving notice to creditors: credit card companies, banks, mortgage companies, etc.
  • Filing a final personal tax return and filing the estate tax return
  • Paying any debts and taxes
  • Distributing assets according to the directions in the will and in compliance with state law
  • Preparing and submitting a detailed report to the court of how the estate was settled

If there is no will, or if no executor is named in the will, or if the executor can’t serve, the court will appoint a professional administrator to settle your estate. It won’t be someone you know. Your family may not like all of the decisions made on your behalf, but there won’t be any options available.

Does an executor get paid? A family member may or may not wish to be paid. However, given how much time it takes to settle an estate, you might feel it’s fair for them to be compensated. The amount varies depending on where you live, but you can leave the person between 1% to 8% of your total estate. A professional administrator will likely cost considerably more.

How do you document your estate to help out the executor? If you think this task is too onerous, imagine how a family member will feel if they have to conduct a scavenger hunt to identify assets and debts. If a professional administrator ends up doing this work, it will take a bigger bite out of your estate and leave loved ones with a smaller inheritance.

Start by making a list of all of your assets and liabilities, plus a list of all advisors who help with the business side of your life. Recent tax returns will be helpful, as will contact information for your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor. You should include retirement accounts, life insurance policies and any assets without beneficiary designations.

Reference: Twin Cities-Pioneer Press (June 25, 2022) “Your Money: What you need to know about naming an executor”

What Happens to Stock Options when Someone Dies?

Once your business grows, so does the pressure to make good financial decisions in the short and long term. When you think about the future, estate and succession planning emerge as two major concerns. You’re not just considering balance sheets, profits and losses, but your family and what will happen to them and your business when you’re not around. This thinking leads to what seems like a great idea: transferring stock or LLC membership units to one or more of your adult children.

There are benefits, especially the ability to avoid a 40% estate tax and other benefits. However, there are also lots of ways this can go sideways, fast.

Executing due diligence and creating an exit plan to minimize taxes and successfully transfer the business takes planning and, even harder, removing emotions from the plan to make a good decision.

An outright transfer of stock or ownership units can expose you and your business to risk. Even if your children are Ivy-league MBA grads, with track records of great decision making and caring for you and your spouse, this transaction offers zero protection and all risk for you. What could go wrong?

  • An in-law (one you may not have even met yet) could try to place a claim on the business and move it away from the family.
  • Creditors could seize assets from the children, entirely likely if their future holds legal or financial problems—or if they have such problems now and haven’t shared them with you.
  • Assets could go into your children’s estates, which reintroduces exposure to estate taxes.

No family is immune from any of these situations, and if you ask your estate planning attorney, you’ll hear as many horror stories as you can tolerate.

Trusts are a solution. Thoughtfully crafted for your unique situation, a trust can help avoid exposure to some estate and other taxes, allocating effective ownership to your children, in a protected manner. Your ultimate goal: keeping ownership in the family and minimizing tax exposure.

A Beneficiary Defective Inheritance Trust (BDIT) may be appropriate for you. If you’ve already executed an outright transfer of the stock, it’s not too late to fix things. The BDIT is a grantor trust serving to enable protection of stock and eliminate any “residue” in your childrens’ estates.

If you haven’t yet transferred stock to children, don’t do it. The risk is very high. If you’ve already completed the transfer, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about how to reverse the transfer and create a plan to protect the business and your family.

Bottom line: business interests are better protected when they are held not by individuals, but by trusts for the benefit of individuals. Your estate planning attorney can draft trusts to achieve goals, minimize estate taxes and, in some situations, even minimize state income taxes.

Reference: The Street (June 27, 2022) “Should I Transfer Company Stock to My Kids?”

Estate Planning Tips for Solo Seniors

The people who typically think the most about estate planning are those in a traditional nuclear family unit, with spouses, adult children, grandchildren and a clear idea of how they want to pass along assets and who can be trusted to carry out their wishes. It’s easier to plan ahead, reports a recent article titled “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own” from The Sentinel, when the right person to put in charge is easy to identify.

When more and more families do not fall into the traditional nuclear family unit, how should they proceed with estate planning?

This can be a challenging scenario, especially if the person is not married and has no children. It’s hard to know who to name for important roles, like who will take charge if the person becomes ill or dies.

Some single people may think it doesn’t matter, because they don’t care about who inherits their possessions. However, estate planning is not just about distributing property. Planning for incapacity may be the most important part of estate planning—making legally enforceable decisions about medical care, end-of-life care and managing the business aspect of your life if you are incapacitated.

Two of the most important documents for a person who cannot speak for themselves are a Financial Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These are the critical documents giving the person you designate the ability to manage your affairs and be involved in your medical care.

Without them, someone will need to take over for you. Who will it be? The process begins in the court, with a legal proceeding called guardianship. There are any number of reasons to avoid this. First, it takes a long time and any actions or decisions requiring a legal guardian will not be made with any speed. Second, guardianships are expensive. The process of having a guardian named and the fees paid to the guardian will be paid by you, whether you are conscious or not. While many people who act as guardians for others are trustworthy and kind-hearted, there are many horror stories—including several true stories made into movies—where guardians are more focused on enriching themselves than their ward’s best interests.

Guardianship can be easily avoided. Meeting with an estate planning attorney to prepare your last will and testament, Power of Attorney and Power of Health Care Attorney gives you control over who will be in charge of your life if you are incapacitated. Having these documents properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney ensures that you can be admitted to a hospital or facility offering the care you need, your bills will be paid and if your situation requires filing for long-term care benefits or disability, someone can do it for you.

If you don’t have a spouse or children, you probably have a healthy network of friends and extended family members you trust and are your “family by choice.” If you don’t feel these people are trustworthy or capable, think further afield—someone from your community, a neighbor who you respect and trust, etc.

If possible, name a few people in succession (your estate planning attorney will know how to do this) so if one person cannot serve, then there will be a next-in-line to help.

The next step is to speak with these individuals and explain what you are asking them to do. They need to be comfortable with the responsibility you’re asking them to undertake. You’ll also want to tell them your wishes, perhaps drafting a letter of intent, so they will know what to do in different circumstances. Make sure they know where these documents are located, so they can find them easily.

Once your estate plan is in place, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, knowing the future is taken care of.

Reference: The Sentinel (June 17, 2022) “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own”

Do You Want to Be an Executor?

Taking on the role of executor should be considered carefully before accepting or refusing. These decisions are usually made based on relationships and willingness to help the family after a loved one has died. Knowing certain processes are in place and many are standard procedures may make the decision easier, according to the useful article “Planning Ahead: Should you agree to serve as an executor?” from Daily Local News.

A family member or friend is very often asked to serve as executor when the surviving spouse is the only or primary beneficiary and not able to manage the necessary tasks. In other instances, estates are complex, involving multiple beneficiaries, charities and real estate in several states. The size of the estate is actually less of a factor when it comes to complexity. Small estates with debt can be more challenging than well-planned large estates, where planning has been done and there are abundant resources to address any problems.

Prepare while the person is alive. This is the time to learn as much as you can. Ask to get a copy of the will and read it. Who are the beneficiaries? Speak with the person about the relationships between beneficiaries and other family members. Do they get along, and if not, why? Be prepared for conflict.

Find out what the person wants for their funeral. Do they want a traditional memorial service, and have they paid for the funeral already? Any information they can provide will make this difficult time a little easier.

What are your responsibilities as executor? Depending on how the will is prepared, you may be responsible for everything, or your responsibilities may be limited. At the very least, the executor is responsible for:

  • Locating and preparing an inventory of assets
  • Getting a tax ID number and establishing an estate account
  • Paying final bills, including funeral and related bills
  • Notifying beneficiaries
  • Preparing tax returns, including estate and/or inheritance tax returns
  • Distributing assets and submitting a final accounting

If the person has an estate planning attorney, financial advisor and CPA, meeting with them while the person is alive and learning what you can about the plans for assets will be helpful. These three professional advisors will be able to provide help as you move forward with the estate.

These tasks may sound daunting but being asked to serve as a person’s executor demonstrates the complete trust they have in your abilities and judgment. Yes, you will breathe a sigh of relief when you complete the task. However, you’ll also have the satisfaction of knowing you did a great service to someone who matters to you.

Reference: Daily Local News (June19, 2022) “Planning Ahead: Should you agree to serve as an executor?”

How Do Special Needs Trusts Work?

Parents with disabled children worry about how their offspring will manage when parents are no longer able to care for them. Leaving money directly to a child receiving means-tested government benefits, like Social Security Supplemental Income or Medicaid, could make them ineligible for these programs, explains an article from Kiplinger titled “Estate Planning: A Special Trust for a Special Need.” In most states, beneficiaries of either program are only allowed to have a few thousand dollars in assets, with the specific amount varying by state. However, the financial support from government programs only goes so far. Many families opt to have their own family member with special needs live at home, since the benefit amount is rarely enough.

The solution is a Special Needs Trust, which provides financial support for a disabled individual. The SNT owns the assets, not the individual. Therefore, the assets are excluded from asset limit tests. The funds in the trust can be used to enhance quality of life, such as a cell phone, a vacation or a private room in a group living facility. The SNT is a means of making sure that a vulnerable family member receives the money and other relatives, such as a sibling, don’t have a financial burden.

SNTs can only be created for those who are younger than age 65 and are meant for individuals with a mental or physical disability so severe they cannot work and require ongoing support from government agencies. A disabled person who can and does work isn’t eligible to receive government support and isn’t eligible for an SNT, although an estate planning attorney will be able to create a trust for this scenario also.

Each state has its own guidelines for SNTs, with some requiring a verification from a medical professional. There are challenges along the way. A child with autism may grow up to be an adult who can work and hold a job, for instance. However, estate planning attorneys recommend setting up the SNT just in case. If your family member qualifies, it will be there for their benefit. If they do not, it will operate as an ordinary trust and give the person the income according to your instructions.

SNTs require a trustee and successor trustee to be responsible for managing the trust and distributing assets. The beneficiary may not have the ability to direct distributions from the trust. The language of the trust must state explicitly the trustee has sole discretion in making distributions.

Because every state has its own system for administering disability benefits, the estate planning attorney will tailor the trust to meet the state’s requirements. The SNT also must be reported to the state. If the beneficiary moves to another state, the SNT may be subjected to two different sets of laws and the trustee will need to confirm the trust meets both state’s requirements.

SNTs operate as pass-through entities. Tax treatment favors ongoing distributions to beneficiaries. Any earned investment income goes to the beneficiary in the same year, with distributions taxed at the beneficiaries’ income tax rate. Trust assets may be used to pay for the tax bill.

As long as all annual income from the trust is distributed in a given year, the trust will not owe any tax. However, a return must be filed to report income. For any undistributed annual investment income, the trust is taxed at one of four levels of tax rates. These range from 10% and can go as high as 37%, depending on the trust income.

An SNT can be named as the beneficiary of a traditional IRA on the death of the parent. Investments grow tax deferred, as long as they remain in the retirement account and the SNT collects the required minimum distributions for the retirement account each year, with the money passing as income. However, any undistributed amount of the required distribution will be taxed at the trust’s highest tax rate.

Reference: Kiplinger (June 8, 2022) “Estate Planning: A Special Trust for a Special Need”

What Happens to Investment Accounts when Someone Dies?

Taking responsibility for a decedent’s probate or trust estate often involves managing significant amounts of wealth, whether they are brokerage accounts or cash assets. Today’s volatile markets add another level of complexity to this responsibility. The article “Estate Planning: Investments during administration of decedent’s estate” from Lake County News explains what estate administrators, executors and trustees need to know as they take on these tasks.

Investment account values are in a constant state of change and may include assets now considered too risky because they are owned by the estate and not the individual. The administrator will need to evaluate the accounts in light of debts owed by the decedent, the costs in administering the estate and any gifts to be made before the estate will be closed.

At the same time, too much cash on hand could mean unproductive assets earning less than they could, losing value to inflation. If there is a long time between the death of the owner and the date of distribution, depending on markets and interest rates, having too much cash could be detrimental to the beneficiaries.

The personal representative or trustee, as relevant, may determine that the cash should be invested, shift how existing investments are managed, or decide to sell investments to generate cash needed for debts, expenses and distributions to beneficiaries.

A personal representative is not expected or required to be a stock market expert. Their duties are to manage estate assets as a person making prudent decisions for the betterment of the estate and heirs. They must put the interest of the estate above their own and not make any speculative investments. With the exception of checking accounts, the expectation is for estate accounts to earn something, even if it is only interest.

If the personal representative has the authority to do so, they may invest in very low-risk debt assets. If the will includes investment powers and if certain conditions safeguarding payment of the decedent’s debts and expenses are satisfied, the personal representatives may invest using those powers. In some instances, a court order may be needed. An estate planning attorney will be able to advise based on the laws of the state in which the decedent resided.

For a trust, the trustee has a fiduciary duty to invest and manage trust assets for beneficiaries. Assets should be made productive, unless the trust includes specific directions for the use of assets prior to distribution. The longer the trust administration takes and the larger the value of the trust, the more important this becomes.

In all scenarios, investment decisions, including balancing risk and reward, must be made in the context of an overall investment strategy for the benefit of heirs. Investments may be delegated to a professional investment advisor, but the selection of the advisor must be made cautiously. The advisor must be selected prudently and the scope and terms of the selection of the advisor must be consistent with the purposes and terms of the trust. The trustee or executor must personally monitor the advisor’s performance and compliance with the overall strategy.

Reference: Lake County News (June 11, 2022) “Estate Planning: Investments during administration of decedent’s estate”