Should You Update Your Estate Plan?

Some reasons to update your will are more obvious than others, like marriage, divorce, remarriage, births and deaths. However, those aren’t the only reasons your estate plan needs to be reviewed, explains a recent article appropriately titled “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it” from CNBC.

Think of your estate plan like your home. They both need regular updates and maintenance. If your house starts to get rundown or the roof springs a leak, you know you need to get it fixed. Your estate plan is not as visible. However, it is still in need of ongoing maintenance.

Health events should be a trigger, yours or people named in your will. If the person you named as your executor becomes ill or dies, you’ll need to name a new person to replace them. The same goes for a guardian named to care for any minor children, especially if you named a grandparent for this role.

If you move, your estate plan must ‘move’ with you. Each state has different laws regarding how estates are administered. In one state, an executor living out of state may be okay. However, in another, it may make the executor ineligible to serve. Inheritance tax laws also vary.

Any time there is a large change to your personal wealth, whether it’s good or bad, your estate planning attorney should review your will.

The same goes for a change in parental status. The birth of additional children seems like it might not require a review. However, it does. More than a few celebrities failed to update their estate plans and accidentally disinherited children. The same person who may be willing to be a guardian for one child, may find taking on two or three children to be too much of a challenge. If you want to change the guardianship, your estate plan needs to be updated.

A change in your relationship with fiduciaries also merits an update. Someone you named ten years ago to be your executor may no longer be a part of your life, or they may have died. Family members age, retire and move and siblings have changes in their own lives. Reviewing the executor regularly is important.

If a family member becomes disabled, you may need special needs planning.

A commonly overlooked trigger concerns mergers and acquisitions of financial institutions. If your bank is the executor of your estate and the bank is bought or sold, you likely have a new executor. Do you know who the person is, and do you trust their judgment?

Beneficiaries need to be checked every few years to be sure they are still correct. If your life includes a divorce and remarriage, you could be like one man whose life insurance proceeds and property went to his new spouse. His daughter was disinherited because he failed to update his will.

It doesn’t take long to review an estate plan or beneficiaries. However, the impact of not doing so could be long-lasting and cast a negative light on your legacy.

Reference: CNBC (March 1, 2022) “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it”

Is Bitcoin Part of an Estate?

Few bitcoin owners have seriously considered what will happen to their bitcoin when they die. A recent article titled “The Importance of Having an Estate Plan for Your Bitcoin” from Bitcoin Magazine, strongly urges owners to create a legally sound plan of action ensuring both the sovereignty and privacy of these holdings. However, many owners don’t expect to die very soon, and even those who have an estate plan haven’t considered the nuances of estate planning for digital assets. Among all digital assets, there’s no asset requiring more planning for custody and conveyance as bitcoin.

Can you use an irrevocable trust for bitcoin? This type of trust is an excellent tool for your estate plan and beneficiaries. However, for bitcoin, a revocable trust may be the better alternative. The revocable trust does not protect your assets from creditors, but it provides complete control to the grantor, the person creating the trust.

Bitcoin cannot be treated like dollars in your estate plan. If your crypto is held on an exchange like Coinbase or Gemini, your executor may not have as much of a battle to uncover and access your money. However, what if they are not? Would your executor know what to do with the seed phrases buried in the backyard, or “how to interpret BIP39 punched into steel?” These are things known only to bitcoin owners.

Digital asset estate planning requires a level of technical competence and understanding.

Most states have adopted the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA) or plan to in the near future. RUFADAA, in most instances, empowers the executor of your estate with the authority to request access to most digital assets, taking into account your privacy interests and the terms of service agreements with big tech companies. However, when it comes to decentralized money like bitcoin, RUFADAA will be of little use.

In many cases, a living or revocable trust is the best choice. This will allow you to maintain access to your assets in the same way you do while living, but if the unexpected occurs, like death or incapacity, the assets won’t be lost, forgotten or misused.

With a revocable trust, you may act as the trustee of your digital assets. As both the grantor and trustee, you can make as many changes as you want to the trust. The property is not protected from creditors and does not receive any special tax treatment while you are living. However, the revocable living trust can be created to convey bitcoin to your heirs without limiting your own use of the assets while you are living.

How you store bitcoin during your lifetime is your choice. Many use a non-custodial cold storage solution, which provides great privacy but requires technical competency to manage. The bitcoin you wish to pass to your heirs needs to be documented correctly legally and technically. Talk with your estate planning attorney to be sure your digital assets are as protected as your traditional assets.

Reference: Bitcoin Magazine (April 17, 2022) “The Importance of Having an Estate Plan for Your Bitcoin”

Just What Is in an Estate Plan?

Getting your affairs in order may not be on anyone’s top ten fun list for a weekend. However, once it is done, you can relax, knowing your loved ones will be cared for. Is estate planning more or less painful than doing taxes once a year? The answer depends on who you ask, but a recent article titled “Estate Planning Checklist: 12 Things to Get in Order” from South Florida Reporter breaks it down into easy-to-manage steps.

A last will and testament outlines how your assets will be distributed after your death. They include personal property, real estate, bank accounts, etc. You can name a guardian for minor children, and name an executor, the person who will be in charge of managing your estate.

Proof of identity. Your executor will need information including a valid birth certificate, Social Security card, marriage or divorce certificates, a prenuptial agreement, or military service discharge papers.

Digital asset information. With so much of our lives lived online, everyone needs a digital vault, an integrated password manager or some kind of system for managing your digital assets. Without this, your traditional and digital assets are vulnerable to identity theft and fraud.

Property deeds and titles. You have titles for cars, homes, or real estate property. They need to be gathered and kept in a safe place, then one or two highly trusted individuals need to be told where these documents are located.

Revocable living trust. Creating a trust with an experienced estate planning attorney can help loved ones avoid the time and cost of having your estate go through probate. The trust creates a legal entity allowing you to control property while you are alive but preparing for the future. If you are living and become incapacitated, the successor trustee controls the assets owned by the trust.

Debts. These do not disappear when you die. Your executor will need to know what debts exist because they will need to address them. Compile a list of your debts, which may include mortgages, auto loans, credit cards, personal loans and student loans. Add contact information for the lender, account number, login information and approximate amount of the debt. If you have credit cards you rarely use, include those also, so they can be closed out before identity theft occurs.

Non-Probate Assets and Beneficiaries. Assets with named beneficiary designations can be transferred directly to beneficiaries. However, this does not happen automatically. Your executor will need to provide beneficiaries with the information for the assets, including the name of the insurance company or financial institution, the location of policies, account numbers and the value of the asset. The beneficiary may need to provide a death certificate and identification information before the assets are released.

Financial information. Let your executor skip the scavenger hunt. Create a detailed list information including bank accounts, car insurance, credit cards, health, home and life insurance, pension plans, retirement plans and tax returns.

Advanced Health Care Directive. This document is an opportunity for you to tell health care providers how you want medical decisions to be made, if you cannot communicate your wishes. The AHCD typically has two parts: Health Care Power of Attorney (also known as a health care proxy) and a living will.

The Living Will outlines your wishes, if you are unable to communicate. It describes your preferences for end-of-life requests, medications, resuscitation, surgeries, or other invasive procedures.

Power of Attorney is a document to give someone else the power to act on your behalf regarding financial and legal affairs. The scope of power can be as broad as managing everything or limited to selling your classic car collection. Your estate planning attorney will help you clarify what responsibilities you wish to give in a POA.

Funeral Wishes. If you want to save your family a lot of stress during a very difficult time, outline what you would want to happen. Do you want a cremation or embalming and burial? Should it be a full-on faith-based memorial service, or a few poems read at graveside? Make sure that your wishes are communicated and shared with loved ones, so everyone knows what you want.

Meet with an Estate Planning Attorney. Make an appointment to meet with an estate planning attorney to put all of this information in the appropriate legal documents. They may have recommendations for options that you may not know about.

Reference: South Florida Reporter (April 2, 2022) “Estate Planning Checklist: 12 Things to Get in Order”

Do Most People Need a Living Trust?
Living trust and estate planning form on a desk.

Do Most People Need a Living Trust?

Avoiding the costs and extensive time needed to settle an estate through probate is one reason people like to use trusts in estate planning. This type of trust allows you to designate a trustee to manage the assets in the trust after you have passed.  This is especially important if heirs are minor children or adults who cannot manage a large inheritance. A living trust, as explained in the article titled “The Lowdown on Living Trusts” from Kiplinger, has additional benefits. However, there are some pitfalls to be cautious about, especially concerning transferring assets.

Certain assets do not belong in a living trust. Regardless of their size, some assets should never be placed in a living trust, including IRAs, 401(k)s, tax deferred annuities, health savings accounts, and medical savings accounts and others .

Placing these assets in a trust requires changing the ownership on the accounts. Don’t do it! The IRS will treat the transfer as a distribution. You will be required to pay income taxes and penalties, if any are triggered, on the entire value of the account.

You may be able to make the trust a beneficiary of the retirement accounts. However, it is not appropriate for everyone. Changes to IRA distribution rules from the SECURE Act may make this a dangerous move, since the trustee may be required to empty the IRA within ten years of your death.

For practical purposes, assets like cars, boats or motorcycles do not belong in a trust. To transfer ownership to the trust, you will need to retitle them. This would result in fees and taxes. You would also have to change the insurance, since the insurance company may not cover assets owned by trusts. The cost may outweigh the benefits.

Assets belonging in a trust include real estate, especially your primary residence. Placing your home in a trust will minimize the hassle of transferring the home to heirs, if this is your plan. If you own property in another state, transferring the title to a living trust allows your estate to avoid probate in more than one state. Remember to get a new deed to transfer ownership to the trust. If you refinance or take a home equity line of credit, you may need to transfer the property out of the trust and into your name to get the loan. You will then need to transfer the property back into the trust.

Financial assets can be placed in a trust. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds, CDs, money market funds, bank savings accounts and even safe deposit boxes can be placed in a trust. There may be a lot of paperwork, and in some cases, you may need to open a new account in the name of the trust.

Once the trust has been created, do not neglect to fund it by transferring assets. Retitling assets requires attention to detail to make sure all of the desired assets have been retitled. The trust needs to be reviewed every few years, just as your estate plan needs to be reviewed. Be sure to have a secondary trustee named, if you are the primary trustee.

Trusts are an excellent option if you live in a state where probate is onerous and expensive. Assets placed in the trust can be distributed with a high degree of specificity, which also provides great peace of mind. If you believe your oldest son will benefit from receiving a large inheritance when he is 40 and not 30, you can do so through a trust. The level of control, avoidance of probate and protection of assets makes the living trust a powerful estate planning tool.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 24, 2022) “The Lowdown on Living Trusts”

How Does a Trust Fund Work?

To maximize the benefits of a trust fund, you’ll need to understand how trusts funds work and how to create a trust fund the right way, advises this recent article from Yahoo! Money titled “How to Start a Trust Fund the Easy Way.” You don’t have to be a millionaire to start a trust fund, by the way. “Regular” people benefit just as much as millionaires from using trusts to protect assets and minimize taxes.

A trust fund is an independent legal entity created to own assets and ensure money and property are used to benefit loved ones. They are commonly used to transfer assets to family members.

Trust funds are created by grantors, the person who sets up the trust and transfers money or assets into it. An experienced estate planning attorney will be essential, since creating a trust is not like going to the bank and opening an account. You need the assistance of a professional who can create a trust to reflect your wishes and comply with your state’s laws.

When assets are moved into a trust, the trust becomes the legal owner of the property. Part of creating the trust is naming a trustee, who manages the trust and is legally bound to follow the wishes of the trust following the grantor’s wishes. A successor trustee should always be named, in case the primary trustee becomes unwilling to serve or dies.

Subject to compliance with specific requirements, assets owned by an irrevocable trust are not countable towards Medicaid, if someone in the family needs long-term care and is concerned about qualifying. Any transfer must be done at least five years in advance of applying for Medicaid. An elder law attorney can help in preparation for this application and to ensure eligibility. This is a very complex area of law. Do not attempt it alone without the assistance of an elder law attorney.

Trusts can have a long or short life. Some trusts are held for a child until the child reaches age 25, while others are structured to distribute a portion of the assets throughout the beneficiary’s lifetime or when the beneficiary reaches certain milestones, such as finishing college, starting a family, etc.

A revocable trust allows the grantor to have the most control over the assets in the trust, but at a cost. The revocable trust may be changed at any time, and property can be moved in and out of it. However, the assets are available to creditors and are countable towards long-term care because they are in the control of the grantor.

The irrevocable trust requires the grantor to give up control, in exchange for the benefits the trust provides.

There are as many types of trusts as there are situations for trusts. Charitable Remainder Trusts reduce estate taxes and allow beneficiaries to receive an income stream for a designated period of time, at the end of which the remainder of the trust’s assets go to the charity. Special Needs Trusts are created for disabled persons who are receiving means-tested government benefits. There are strict rules about SNTs, so speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that your loved one continues to be eligible, if you want them to receive assets from you.

Trusts are often used so assets will pass through the trust and not through the probate process. Assets owned by a trust pass directly to beneficiaries and information about the assets does not become part of the public record, which is part of what occurs during the probate process.

Your estate planning attorney will help ensure your trusts are appropriate for your situation, achieve your specific wishes and are in compliance with your state’s laws. A boilerplate template could present more problems than it solves. For trusts, the experienced professional is the best option.

Reference: Yahoo! Money (March 18, 2022) “How to Start a Trust Fund the Easy Way”

What Can I Do Instead of a Stretch IRA?

The idea of leaving a large inheritance to loved ones is a dream for some parents. However, without careful planning, heirs may end up with a large tax bill. When Congress passed the SECURE Act in December 2019, one of the changes was the end of the stretch IRA, as reported by Kiplinger in a recent article titled “Getting Around the Stretch IRA Block.”

Before the SECURE Act, people who inherited traditional IRAs needed to only take a minimum distribution annually, based on their own life expectancy. The money could grow tax-deferred for the rest of their lives. The tax impact was mild, because withdrawals could be spread out over many years, giving the new owner control over their taxable income. The rules were the same for an inherited Roth IRA. Distributions were based on the heirs’ life expectancy. Roth IRA heirs had the added benefit of not having to pay taxes on withdrawals, since Roth IRAs are funded with post-tax dollars.

After the SECURE Act, inherited traditional and Roth IRAs need to be emptied within ten years. Heirs can wait until the 10th year and empty the account all at once—and end up with a whopping tax bill—or take it out incrementally. However, it has to be emptied within ten years.

There are some exceptions: spouses, disabled or chronically ill individuals, or those who are not more than ten years younger than the original owner can stretch out the distribution of the IRA funds. If an underage minor inherits a traditional IRA, they can stretch it until they reach legal age. At that point, they have to withdraw all the funds in ten years—from age 18 to 28. This may not be the best time for a young person to have access to a large inheritance.

These changes have left many IRA owners looking for alternative ways to leave inheritances and find a work-around for their IRAs to protect their heirs from losing their inheritance to taxes or getting their inheritance at a young age.

For many, the solution is converting their traditional IRA to a Roth, where the IRA owner pays the taxes for their heirs. The strategy is generous and may be more tax efficient if the conversion is done during a time in retirement when the IRA owner’s income is lower, and they may be in a lower tax bracket. The average person receiving an IRA inheritance is around 50, typically peak earning years and the worst time to inherit a taxable asset.

Another way to avoid the stretch IRA is life insurance. Distributions from the IRA can be used to pay premiums on a life insurance policy, with beneficiaries receiving death benefits. The proceeds from the policy are tax-free, although the proceeds are considered part of the policy owner’s estate. With the current federal exemption at $12.06 million for individuals, the state estate tax is the only thing most people will need to worry about.

A Charitable Remainder Trust can also be used to mimic a stretch IRA. A CRT is an irrevocable split-interest trust, providing income to the grantor and designated beneficiaries for up to twenty years or the lifetime of the beneficiaries. Any remaining assets are donated to charity, which must receive at least 10% of the trust’s initial value. If the CRT is named as the IRA beneficiary, the IRA funds are distributed to the CRT upon the owner’s death and the estate gets a charitable estate tax deduction (and not an income tax deduction) for the portion expected to go to the charity. Assets grow within the charitable trust, which pays out a set percentage to beneficiaries each year. The distributions are taxable income for the beneficiaries. There are two types of CRTs: Charitable Remainder Unitrust and a Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust. An estate planning attorney will know which one is best suited for your family.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 3, 2022) “Getting Around the Stretch IRA Block”

Do You Have to Pay Taxes on Inherited IRAs?

If you’ve inherited an IRA, you won’t have to pay a penalty on early withdrawals if you take money out before age 59½. However, you may have to make those withdrawals earlier than you’d wanted. Doing so may trigger additional income taxes, and even push you into a higher tax bracket. The IRA has always been a complicated retirement account. While changes from the SECURE Act have simplified some things, it’s made others more stringent.

A recent article titled “How Do I Avoid Paying Taxes on an Inherited IRA?” from Aol.com explains how the traditional IRA allows tax-deductible contributions to be made to the account during your working life. If the IRA includes investments, they grow tax—free. Taxes aren’t due on contributions or earnings, until you make withdrawals during retirement.

A Roth IRA is different. You fund the Roth IRA with after-tax dollars, earnings grow tax free and there are no taxes on withdrawals.

With a traditional inherited IRA, distributions are taxable at the beneficiary’s ordinary income tax rate. If the withdrawals are large, the taxes will be large also—and could push you into a higher income tax bracket.

If your spouse passes and you inherit the IRA, you may take ownership of it. It is treated as if it were your own. Howwever, if you inherited a traditional IRA from a parent, you have just ten years to empty the entire account and taxes must be paid on withdrawals.

There are exceptions. If the beneficiary is disabled, chronically ill or a minor child, or ten years younger than the original owner, you may treat the IRA as if it is your own and wait to take Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) at age 72.

Inheriting a Roth IRA is different. Funds are generally considered tax free, as long as they are considered “qualified distributions.” This means they have been in the account for at least five years, including the time the original owner was alive. If they don’t meet these requirements, withdrawals are taxed as ordinary income. Your estate planning attorney will know whether the Roth IRA meets these requirements.

If at all possible, always avoid immediately taking a single lump sum from an IRA. Wait until the RMDs are required. If you inherited an IRA from a non-spouse, use the ten years to stretch out the distributions.

If you need to empty the account in ten years, you don’t have to withdraw equal amounts. If your income varies, take a larger withdrawal when your income is lower and take a bigger withdrawal when your income is higher. This can result in a lower overall tax liability.

If you’ve inherited a Roth IRA and funds were deposited less than five years ago, wait to take those funds out for at least five years. When the five years have elapsed, withdrawals will be treated as tax-free distributions.

One of the best ways for heirs to avoid paying taxes on an IRA is for the original owner, while still living, to convert the traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, paying taxes on contributions and earnings. This reduces the taxes paid if the owner is in a lower tax bracket than beneficiaries, and lets the beneficiaries withdraw funds as they want with no income tax burden.

Reference: Aol.com (Feb. 25, 2022) “How Do I Avoid Paying Taxes on an Inherited IRA?”

When Can Estate Assets Be Distributed?

Just as an individual pays taxes, so do estates. An estate is required to file an annual income tax return for each calendar year it is open, even if only for part of the year. This is in addition to the estate tax return and the decedent’s final tax return, explains a recent article “The Dangers Of Distributing Estate Assets Too Soon” from Forbes.

The estate tax return is based on the assets in the estate, the income received and deductible expenses paid during the calendar year. Only one estate tax return is required. However, as long as the estate is open, an annual estate income tax return needs to be filed.

To minimize income, many executors distribute income to beneficiaries shortly after it comes into the estate. The estate takes a deduction for the income distributed to beneficiaries in the same year it is received by the estate. Beneficiaries are required to include the distribution in their gross income.

However, if the estate does not distribute income before the end of the year, the estate will owe income taxes. There are further complexities to be aware of, including what happens if an executor receives unexpected income or does not know the tax impact of certain transactions. The estate has to pay taxes, but what happens if all assets have been distributed?

The estate still owes those taxes.

The executor may be personally liable for paying the taxes.

If some of the expenses the estate pays are not deductible, but the executor thinks they are, then the estate will have an income tax liability, possibly without the cash to pay it.

The estate often receives property taxable as income if it is not distributed to beneficiaries, like a stock dividend. The estate receives the stock, and its taxable income based on the value at the date of the distribution.

If the estate does not distribute the stock to beneficiaries until later in the year and the stock’s value declines, the estate is still required to recognize the income equal to the stock’s value on the date it was received. If the executor deducts the lower value of the stock, then the estate will be liable for the income tax on the difference.

In some cases, these kinds of issues can be prevented by maintaining a certain level of cash in the estate account until the final estate tax return is filed. The beneficiaries receive distributions once all of the taxes—estate income, estate and final individual or final joint—are paid.

For larger or more complex estates, it is wise to have a discussion with the estate planning attorney, the family CPA and the executor, so all parties are prepared for tax liabilities in advance.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 16, 2022) “The Dangers Of Distributing Estate Assets Too Soon”

Can You Set Up a Trust After Death?

If you want the power of a trust without the work of maintaining it, a testamentary trust may be the right solution for your estate plan. Estate planning attorneys rely on many trusts, but two categories are most common: inter vivos trusts, trusts set up during your lifetime to offer the most flexibility, and testamentary trusts, as described in the article “Trusts can be created after death” from The News-Enterprise.

For an inter vivos trust, the grantor (the person making the trust) places property into the trust. These assets are thereby removed from the probate estate and pass directly to beneficiaries. Placing property into the trust requires having assets retitled and some trusts pay taxes. Not everyone wants to do the work. However, it is not onerous unless the estate is large, in which case an estate planning attorney can manage the details.

The testamentary trust is quite simple. The terms and directions for the trust are the same as in inter vivos trust but are inside the last will and testament. There is no separate trust document. The trust is located within the will.

The costs of creating a testamentary trust are lower, since the trust does not exist until the person dies. Your executor is responsible for transferring assets into the trust. Many wills contain “trigger” trusts, which only become effective if pre-determined circumstances of the beneficiary occur to trigger the trust. If a beneficiary becomes disabled, for instance, the provisions become active.

There are some disadvantages to be aware of, which your estate planning attorney can explain if they pertain to your situation.

Testamentary trusts must by their nature go through probate before they are created. People use trusts to protect their privacy. However, a testamentary trust becomes part of the public record as part of the probate estate. With a testamentary trust, trust documents are private during your life and after you have died.

If dependents require funds from the trust because they are disabled or dependent, they must wait until the grantor dies and probate is completed, since the trust does not exist until after probate. As most people know, probate does not always occur in a timely manner.

Other issues: some life insurance companies may not permit a testamentary trust to be a beneficiary. The trust may only be funded with assets left after creditors have been paid. If there is a home to be sold, assets may not be available for a year or more.

Testamentary trusts do not shield assets during your lifetime, another key benefit for using a trust.

Testamentary trusts offer certain means of controlling distribution of assets after death, but should be considered with all factors in mind, benefits and drawbacks. In estate planning, as in life, it is always best to prepare for the unexpected.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 8, 2022) “Trusts can be created after death”