Why Is It Important to have an Estate Plan?

Right now, the federal estate tax exemption is so high as to be a non-issue for most taxpayers, but this will not always be the case, and there are also state estate taxes to consider. Regardless of taxes, there are other reasons why everyone needs to have an estate plan, affirms a recent article from mondaq titled “Do I Really Need an Estate Plan?” The short answer is yes, you definitely do.

The first thing a will does is distribute your assets according to your directions. If you have grandchildren, there are ways for you to gift them assets and minimize taxes, but you’ll need to plan for generation skipping taxes.

If you own a business, you will need a succession plan to align with your estate plan. Will family members become owners, or will the business be sold?

Does the family include a disabled or individual with special needs? A special needs trust can add an extra layer of resources. Guardianship planning needs to be done for the parents and guardians be named for when the parents are no longer able to care for the person.

The will is also used to name an executor, the person to handle all the decisions you express in the will and carry them out.

Gifting is another part of your estate plan. If you have any charitable organizations or individuals outside of your family who you’d like to make a gift to, this can be done through your will or through a number of gifting strategies.

The current federal estate tax exemption is set to end in 2025 and revert back to 2017 levels. Tax planning should be done well in advance to protect your estate and heirs.

A review of life insurance should be part of your estate plan. Do you know who your named beneficiary is on your life insurance policies? If your estate is the beneficiary, your estate’s value may exceed the federal or state estate tax limits.

Many people today create an ethical will. This is not a legally binding document; instead, it is used to express your values and your wishes for heir’s futures. It may also be used to give them insight into how your will was structured and why. If there is controversy in the family, an ethical will or statement of intentions may help bolster your will if there are any legal challenges.

Your retirement benefits and any workplace benefits have beneficiaries named in the event of your death. Do you know who they are, and do you still wish for those named to be your beneficiaries?

Estate planning includes addressing incapacity and illness. You’ll want a Power of Attorney for someone to act on your behalf if you are sick or injured and cannot handle your personal finances. You’ll also need a Health Care Proxy for someone who will be empowered to speak with healthcare personnel and make care decisions for you if you cannot.

Without a comprehensive estate plan, the difficulties facing your loved ones upon your illness and upon your death will be magnified. Yes, you need an estate plan. The sooner, the better. Speak with an estate planning attorney to get the process started.

Reference: mondaq (Aug. 24, 2022) “Do I Really Need an Estate Plan?”

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”

What Jackie Kennedy Knew about CLATs and Estate Planning

What most people don’t know about Jackie Kennedy was her role as an innovative steward of her family’s wealth and philanthropic legacy, reports a recent article from Forbes titled “Elevating Your Estate And Legacy: A Lesson From Jackie Kennedy.” After her husband’s assassination, she was in charge of a $44 million plus estate and her actions spoke volumes about her values and view for the future.  Jackie Kennedy initiated a Charitable Lead Annuity Trust (CLAT), which today many refer to as the Jackie Onassis Trust.

She created a CLAT receptacle through her will, so her children could elect to transfer some or all of their inherited assets in exchange for significant charitable, tax and non-tax benefits. They were not required to do this. However, it was an option for assets including stock, real estate and other capital. The CLAT offered her children three possible benefits: avoiding federal estate tax on all and any assets transferred to the CLAT, tax-efficient philanthropic giving for a limited number of years and continued investment of CLAT assets, which could be ultimately returned to the child or gifted to future generations at the end of the CLAT’s charitable period.

In addition, during the charitable term, the annual payments required to be distributed via the CLAT to charities would have created income tax deductions against the CLAT’s taxable income.

Despite their mother’s recommendations, the first lady’s children opted against funding the CLAT.

According to an article from The New York Times in 1996, if the Jackie Onassis Trust was worth $100 million and if the beneficiaries had executed the CLAT, the family would have inherited approximately $98 million tax-free in 2018, with charities receiving $192 million.

Instead, the children paid $23 million in estate taxes, leaving the estate with $18 million.

Besides the clear adage of “Mother knows best,” this is an example of the potential power of a CLAT to satisfy the charitable and family wealth transfer of the trust creator and individual beneficiaries. Since the 1960s, more sophisticated trust variants have been created to improve on the original CLAT.

One of these is the Optimized CLAT, a tax-planning trust which accomplishes four goals. It generates a dollar-for-dollar tax deduction in the year of funding, returns an expected 1x-5x of the initial contribution back to the contributor, immediately exempts contributed assets from the 40% federal gift and estate tax and exempts the transferred assets from the contributor’s personal creditors.

These complex estate planning strategies will become increasingly popular as federal estate taxes return to lower levels in near future. Your estate planning attorney will guide you as to which type of trust works best for you and your family, for now and for generations to follow.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 19, 2022) “Elevating Your Estate And Legacy: A Lesson From Jackie Kennedy”

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

What are Alternatives to Guardianship?

Guardianships are drastic and very invasive. They strip individuals of their legal autonomy and establish the guardian as the sole decision maker. To become a guardian requires strong evidence of legal incapacity, and approval by a judge, explains an article titled “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort–Consider These Less Draconian Options First” from Kiplinger. They should not be undertaken unless there is a serious need to do so. Once they’re in place, guardianships are difficult to undo.

If an elderly person with dementia failed to make provisions durable powers of attorney for health care and for financial matters before becoming ill, a guardianship may be the only ways to protect the person and their estate. There are also instances where an aging parent is unable to care for themselves properly but refuses any help from family members.

Another scenario is an aging grandparent who plans to leave funds for minor beneficiaries. Their parents will need to seek guardianships, so they can manage the money until their children reach the age of majority.

Laws vary from state to state, so if you might need to address this situation, you’ll need to speak with an estate planning attorney in the elderly parent or family member’s state of residence. For the most part, each state requires less restrictive alternatives to be attempted before guardianship proceedings are begun.

Alternatives to guardianship include limited guardianship, focused on specific aspect of the person’s life. This can be established to manage the person’s finances only, or to manage only their medical and health care decisions. Limited guardianships need to be approved by a court and require evidence of incapacity.

Powers of attorney can be established for medical or financial decisions. This is far less burdensome to achieve and equally less restrictive. A Healthcare Power of Attorney will allow a family member to be involved with medical care, while the Durable General Power of Attorney is used to manage a person’s personal financial affairs.

Some families take the step of making a family member a joint owner on a bank, home, or an investment account. This sounds like a neat and simple solution, but assets are vulnerable if the co-owner has any creditor issues or risk exposure. A joint owner also doesn’t have the same fiduciary responsibility as a POA.

An assisted decision-making agreement creates a surrogate decision-maker who can see the incapacitated person’s financial transactions. The bank is notified of the arrangement and alerts the surrogate when it sees a potentially suspicious or unusual transaction. This doesn’t completely replace the primary account holder’s authority. However, it does create a limited means of preventing exploitation or fraud. The bank is put on notice and required to alert a second person before completing potentially fraudulent transactions.

Trusts can also be used to protect an incapacitated person. They can be used to manage assets, with a contingent trustee. For an elderly person, a co-trustee can step in if the grantor loses the capacity to make good decisions.

Planning in advance is the best solution for incapacity. Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect loved ones from having to take draconian actions to protect your best interests.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 7, 2022) “Guardianships Should Be a Last Resort–Consider These Less Draconian Options First”

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?”

Does Estate Administration Need to Be Supervised?

Probate is the legal process where the court approves the will and the executor so the estate may be distributed after a person dies. Probate is a familiar term to many, but supervised or unsupervised administration is less well known. The article “Estate Planning: Supervised and unsupervised probate administrations” from nwi.com explains how estate administration works.

Generally speaking, there are two different types of probate administration, as inferred by the article’s title: supervised and unsupervised. Depending on who you ask, there may also be a third, known as “informal probate.”

Not all assets are passed through probate. Bank accounts owned jointly pass directly to the other owner. A home owned with a Transfer on Death (TOD) deed is also considered a non-probate asset. This is not to say that non-probate assets cannot be brought into probate. There are instances where they can. However, it takes a bit of an effort and is pretty unlikely to occur.

Probate assets are assets with no surviving joint owner and no beneficiary designation. These types of assets require a proceeding to ensure that the correct person or entity receives it after the original owner dies.

A supervised probate administration requires extensive court involvement. Every action taken by the executor has to be approved. If the home is to be sold or a distribution made to beneficiaries, the executor has to obtain a court order authorizing it.

An unsupervised probate administration, just as it sounds, involves far less court involvement. The personal representative or executor is recognized as valid, creates an inventory of the assets and files the inventory with the court. Once the inventory is reviewed, the executor is told to administer the distribution of assets according to the terms of the will.

Beneficiaries have 90 days to object to the executor’s actions; although this may vary by state. Check with your estate planning attorney. If no one objects, the final account is approved and the executor is done.

With less court involvement, asset distribution proceeds at a faster rate, which is why many wills provide for it.

The “informal probate” mentioned earlier is an outlier. Its use varies by state and by jurisdiction. There’s no court involvement at all. This is mostly used for very, very small estates. Some argue it’s still probate, even if it’s informal, while others maintain it exists solely to avoid probate.

The nature of probate depends on many factors, including where the decedent lives, the size and complexity of the estate and whether or not there are many family members or others who might challenge the estate’s distribution. In some communities, probate is a quick and painless process. In others, it is long, expensive and stressful. Your estate planning attorney will know what your situation will be and help you and your family plan accordingly.

Reference: nwi.com (April 10, 2022) “Estate Planning: Supervised and unsupervised probate administrations”

What are Benefits of Putting Money into a Trust?

For the average person, knowing how a revocable trust, irrevocable trust and testamentary trust work will help you start thinking of how a trust might help achieve your estate planning goals. A recent article from The Street, “3 Powerful Types of Trusts that Can Work for You,” provides a good foundation.

The Revocable Trust is one of the more flexible trusts. The person who creates the trust can change anything about the trust at any time. You may add or remove assets, beneficiaries or sell property owned by the trust. Most people who create these trusts, grantors, name themselves as the trustee, allowing themselves to use their property, even though it is owned in the trust.

A Revocable Trust needs to have a successor trustee to manage the assets in the trust for when the grantor dies or becomes incapacitated. The transfer of ownership of the trust and its assets from the grantor to the successor trustee is a way to protect assets in case of disability.

At death, a revocable trust becomes an Irrevocable Trust, which cannot be easily revoked or changed. The successor trustee follows the instructions in the trust document to manage assets and distribute assets.

The revocable trust provides flexibility. However, assets in a revocable trust are considered part of the taxable estate, which means they are subject to estate taxes (both federal and state) when the owner dies. A revocable trust does not offer any protection against creditors, nor will it shield assets from lawsuits.

If the revocable trust’s owner has any debts or legal settlements when they die, the court could award funds from the value of the trust and beneficiaries will only receive what’s left.

A Testamentary Trust is a trust created in connection with instructions contained in a last will and testament. A good example is a trust for a child outlining when assets will be distributed to them by the trustee and for what purposes the trustee is permitted to make the distribution. Funds in this kind of trust are usually used for health, education, maintenance and supports, often referred to as “HEMS.”

For families with relatively modest estates, a trust can be a valuable tool to protect children’s futures. Assets held in trust for the lifetime of a child are protected in the event of the child’s going through a divorce because the child’s inheritance is not subject to equitable distribution when not comingled.

Many people buy life insurance for their families, but they don’t always know that proceeds from the life insurance policy may be subject to estate taxes. An insurance trust, known as an ILIT (Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust) is a smart way to remove life insurance from your taxable estate.

Whether you can have an ILIT depends on policy ownership at the time of the insured’s death. In most cases, the insurance trust must be the owner and the insurance trust must be named as the beneficiary. If the trust is not drafted before the application for and purchase of the life insurance policy, it may be possible to transfer an existing policy to the trust. However, if this is done after the purchase, there may be some challenges and requirements. The owner must live more than three years after the transfer for the policy proceeds to be removed from the taxable estate.

Trusts may seem complex and overwhelming. However, an estate planning attorney will draft them properly and make sure that they are used appropriately to protect your assets and your family.

Reference: The Street (May 13, 2022) “3 Powerful Types of Trusts that Can Work for You”

The Most Common Estate Planning Mistakes

Estate administration is the process of managing the estate when a loved one has passed. For the inexperienced executor, there are pitfalls to be avoided, warns the article “Top 5 Probate and Estate Administration Mistakes” from Long Island Press.

The biggest mistake is creating an estate plan from generic documents on the internet. Wills must meet many technical legal requirements to be valid. All wills are admitted to probate and the court scrutinizes wills carefully to be certain the wishes of the person who died (the testator) have been followed. A will created without the guidance of a skilled estate planning attorney is more likely to be found invalid and more easily challenged.

Neglecting to deal with Medicaid liens before distributing an inheritance can create huge financial problems for family members. Medicaid is required by law to attempt to clawback assets to recover the cost of care. Some states are more aggressive than others. Medicaid may attach a lien to any real estate owned by the Medicaid recipient and collect it at the time of their death.

The value of asset protection planning, including the use of a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT), in a timely manner, cannot be understated.

Leaving heirs and beneficiaries in the dark about the estate plan and distribution wishes often creates a sense of something bad being planned. Surprise revelations about the estate are only good in movies. In real life, this can lead to litigation and family fights. Litigation can take the form of a will contest, a trust contest, a contested accounting, or an action to remove the executor.

Talk with the family about your plans, so there is less tension created over the future of your estate.

Taxes can undermine your wishes, if your estate plan does not include tax planning. There are numerous methods used to minimize tax liabilities. However, they must be put into place in advance.

The executor has to file a final income tax return on behalf of the decedent for the year of death and also file an estate tax return. The executor is also responsible to obtain an estate tax identification number (EIN) from the IRS and open an estate bank account used to pay taxes and debts.

Will your executor, spouse or heirs be able to locate your critical information? If your legal, financial and online information is not organized, your executor may spend a long time digging through old paperwork, most of which is likely to be out of date and irrelevant. Spare your executor the time and emotional impact of wasted hours reviewing old records. No one needs your checking accounts from the 1970s!

Information on everything from assets, tax returns, funeral and burial arrangements, life insurance policies, Social Security and Medicaid or Medicare cards, deed for home and title for your cars, should all be organized to help your family find the information they need.

While you are alive, your family will need access to documents like your Power of Attorney, Health Care Power of Attorney, and Advance Health Care Directives.

By planning and making an effort in advance to manage your affairs, you enhance your legacy. Leaving a mess behind will be remembered, perhaps more so than organized documents.

Reference: Long Island Press (May 4, 2022) “Top 5 Probate and Estate Administration Mistakes”

Why Have a Joint Revocable Trust?

If you’re married, you are eligible to use a joint trust instead of having individual trusts. This recent article, “Joint Revocable Trust: Estate Planning” from aol.com, looks at the pros and cons to see if it makes sense for your estate plan.

A trust is a legal entity where a grantor, the person creating the trust, gives a trustee control over assets in the trust, usually to distribute them when the grantor has died. The person receiving the trust is the beneficiary. They have no control over the assets until they are distributed. In the case of a revocable living trust, the grantor and the trustee are often the same person.

A revocable trust, also known as a revocable living trust, can be changed many times, or even dissolved whenever the grantor wants. However, when the grantor dies or becomes incapacitated, the trust becomes irrevocable, meaning it cannot easily be changed. It also becomes inaccessible to creditors.

Why would you need a “joint” revocable trust? As its name implies, a joint trust has multiple co-trustees. This is a commonly used trust for spouses, especially when the wish is for the surviving spouse to receive 100% of the couple’s assets when the first spouse dies. The joint trust is revocable while both spouses are living and, depending on the trust terms, may continue to be revocable after the first spouse dies.

When one spouse dies, the surviving spouse becomes the sole trustee. On the death of the second spouse, the trust becomes an irrevocable trust. This is when an appointed successor trustee takes control of the trust, including distributing assets to beneficiaries as directed in the trust documents.

To decide whether you and your spouse need a joint revocable trust, you’ll want to discuss the pros and cons with an estate planning attorney.

The joint trust is practical and easy to fund and maintain. You and your spouse can both transfer assets into the same trust and you both own it. Assets in the joint trust don’t go through probate, which can get assets distributed faster and easier. The assets in the joint trust and the terms of the trust remain private, since the trust documents don’t become part of the public record. Your will does, through probate. Finally, a joint trust does not need to file a separate tax return, as long as one spouse is still living.

However, there are some disadvantages to a joint trust. It’s harder to leave any assets in the joint trust to non-spousal beneficiaries, like children from a prior marriage. The surviving spouse retains control over all assets in the trust. If there is no language in the trust concerning children, they will not inherit anything from the trust.

In a small number of states, there are state estate taxes with thresholds far lower than the current federal estate tax exemption of $12.06 million per individual. Your estate planning attorney will know what taxes will be due in your state of residence.

A joint trust may offer less protection from creditors than separate trusts, if one of the spouses has financial issues. If spouses combine their assets in a joint revocable trust, assets in both trusts would be vulnerable to creditors.

For couples whose finances are not overly complex, a joint revocable trust may be a great choice. Your estate planning attorney will be able to look at your entire estate and see what tools will serve you best.

Reference: aol.com (May 2, 2022) “Joint Revocable Trust: Estate Planning”