What are the Biggest Estate Planning Errors to Avoid?

Nobody likes to plan for events like aging, incapacity, or death. However, failing to do so can cause families burdens and grief, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours.

Fox Business’ recent article, “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid,” says that planning for life’s unexpected events is critical. However, it can often be a hard process to navigate. Let’s look at the top estate planning mistakes to avoid, according to industry experts:

  1. Failing to sign a will (or one that can be located). The biggest mistake is simply not having a will. Estate planning is critically important to protect you, your family and your hard-earned assets—during your lifetime, in the event of your incapacity, and upon your death. We all need estate planning, no matter the amount of assets you have. In addition to having a will, it needs to be findable. The Wall Street Journal says that the biggest estate planning error is simply losing a will. Make sure your family has access to your estate planning documents.
  2. Failing to name and update beneficiaries. An asset with a beneficiary designation supersedes any terms in a will. Review your 401(k), IRA, life insurance, and any other accounts with beneficiaries after any significant life event. If you don’t have the proper beneficiary designations, income tax on retirement accounts may have to be paid sooner. This may lead to increased income tax liability, and the designation of a beneficiary on a life insurance policy can affect whether the proceeds are subject to creditors’ claims.

There’s another mistake that impacts people with minor children, which is naming a guardian for minor children and then naming that person as beneficiary of their life insurance, instead of leaving it to a trust for the child. A minor child can’t receive that money. It also exposes the money to the beneficiary’s creditors and spouse.

  1. Failing to consider powers of attorney for adult children. When your children reach age 18, they’re adults in the eyes of the law. If something unfortunate happens to them, you may be left without any say in their treatment. In the event that an 18-year-old becomes ill or has an accident, a hospital won’t consult with their parents if a power of attorney for health care isn’t in place. Unless a power of attorney for property is signed, a parent may not be able to take care of bills, make investment decisions and pay taxes without the child’s signature. This could create an issue when your child is in college—especially if he or she is attending school abroad. It is very important that when your child turns 18 that you have powers of attorney put into place.

Reference: Fox Business (October 15, 2019) “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid”

Don’t Ask Heirs to Guess What You Wanted—Have an Estate Plan
Table with wooden houses, calculator, magnifying glass with the word Estate planning. Property insurance. Mortgage. Investing. Living trust. Write a will. Woman sits at the table and writes plans

Don’t Ask Heirs to Guess What You Wanted—Have an Estate Plan

With an estate plan, you can distribute your assets according to your own wishes. Without one, your heirs may spend years and a good deal of money trying to settle your estate, reports U.S. News & World Report in the article “5 Reasons to Make an Estate Plan.”

If there is no estate plan in place, including a will, living trust, advance directives and other documents, people you love will be put in a position of guessing what you wanted for any number of things, from what your final wishes would be in a medical crisis, to what kind of a funeral would like to have. That guessing can cause strife between family members and worry, for a lifetime, that they didn’t do what you wanted.

Think of your estate plan as a love letter, showing that you care enough about those you love to do right by them.

What is estate planning? Estate planning is the process of legally documenting what you want to happen when you die. It also includes planning for your wishes in case of incapacity, that is, when you are not legally competent to make decisions for yourself because of illness or an injury. This is done through the use of wills, trusts, advance directives and beneficiary designations on accounts and life insurance policies.

Let’s face it, people don’t like to think about their passing, so they postpone making an appointment with an estate planning attorney. There’s also the fear of the unknown: will they have to share a lot of information with the attorney? Will it become complicated? Will they have to make decisions that they are not sure they can make?

Estate planning attorneys are experienced with the issues that come with planning for incapacity and death, and they are able to guide clients through the process.

The power of putting wishes down on paper can provide a great deal of relief to the people who are making the plan and to their family members. Here are five reasons why everyone should have an estate plan:

Avoid Probate. Without a will, the probate court decides how to distribute your estate. In some states, it can take at least seven months to allow creditors to put through claims. The estate is also public, with your information available to the public. Probate can also be expensive.

Minimize Taxes. There are a number of strategies that can be used to minimize taxes being imposed on your heirs. While the federal estate tax exemption is $11.4 million per individual, states have estate taxes and some states impose an inheritance taxes. An estate planning attorney can help you minimize the tax impact of your estate.

Care for Minor Children. Families with minor children need a plan for care, if both parents should pass away. Without a will that names a guardian for young children, the court will appoint a guardian to raise a child. With a will, you can prevent the scenario of relatives squabbling over who should get custody of minor children.

Distributing Assets. If you have a will, you can say who you want to get what assets. If you don’t, the laws of your state will determine who gets what. You can also use trusts to control how and when assets are distributed, in case there are heirs who are unable to manage money.

Plan for Pets. In many states, you can create a Pet Trust and name a trustee to manage the money, while naming someone in your will who will be in charge of caring for your pet. Seniors are often reluctant to get a pet, because they are concerned that they will die before the pet. However, with an estate plan that includes a pet trust, you can protect your pet.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (October 18, 2019) “5 Reasons to Make an Estate Plan”

Do Name Changes Need to Be Reflected in Estate Planning Documents?

When names change, executing documents with the person’s prior name can become problematic. For example, what about a daughter who was named as a health care representative by her parents several years ago, who marries and changes her name? Then, to make matters more complicated, add the fact that the couple’s daughter-in-law has the same first name, but a different middle name. That’s the situation presented in the article “Estate Planning: Name changes and the estate plan” from nwi.com.

When a person’s name changes, many documents need to be changed, including items like driver’s licenses, passports, insurance policies, etc. The change of a name isn’t just about the person who created the estate plan but also to their executors, heirs, beneficiaries and those who have been named with certain legal powers through power of attorney (POA) and health care power of attorney.

It’s not an unusual situation, but it does have to be addressed. It’s pretty common to include additional identifiers in the documents. For example, let’s say the will says I leave my house to my daughter Samantha Roberts. If Samantha gets married and changes her last name, it can be reasonably assumed that she can be identified. In some cases, the document may be able to stay the same.

In other instances, the difference will be incorporated through the use of the acronym AKA—Also Known As. That is used when a person’s name is different for some reason. If the deed to a home says Mary Green, but the person’s real name is Mary G. Jones, the term used will be Mary Green A/K/A Mary G. Jones.

Sometimes when a person’s name has changed completely, another acronym is use: N/K/A, or Now Known As. For example, if Jessica A. Gordon marries or divorces and changes her name to Jessica A. Jones, the phrase Jessica A. Gordon N/K/A Jessica A. Jones would be used.

However, in the situation noted above, most attorneys to want to have the documents changed to reflect the name change. First, there are two people in the family with similar names. It is possible that someone could claim that the person wished to name the other person. It may not be a strong case, but challenges have been made over smaller matters.

Second is that the document being discussed is a healthcare designation. Usually when a health care power of attorney form is being used, it’s in an emergency. Would a doctor make a daughter prove that she is who she says she is? It seems unlikely, but the risk of something like that happening is too great. It is much easier to simply have the document updated.

In most matters, when there is a name change, it’s not a big deal. However, in estate planning documents, where there are risks about being able to make decisions in a timely manner or to mitigate the possibility of an estate challenge, a name change to update documents is an ounce of prevention worth a pound of trouble in the future.

Reference: nwi.com (October 20, 2019) “Estate Planning: Name changes and the estate plan”

How Do I Calculate My Executor’s Fee?

An executor’s fee is the amount of money that’s charged by the individual who’s been named or appointed as the executor of the probate estate for handling all of the necessary tasks in the probate administration.

If you’ve been appointed an executor of someone’s estate, you may be entitled to a fee for your services.

The executor or personal representative fee could be based upon a variety of factors. Some of these factors may be dependent upon the law in your state, says nj.com’s recent article, “Both of my parents died. How do I calculate the executor fee?”

In most states, the executor fee is set by statute. For example, in New Jersey, it is 5% of the first $200,000 of assets taken in by the executor, 3.5% of the next $800,000 of assets, and 2% on anything in excess of $1 million. Likewise, California has a sliding scale based on the amount of the estate.

However, in Minnesota and Nebraska, the law states that the fee should be “reasonable.”

The amount of work involved is determined by the specific estate. The executor is generally responsible for collecting the estate assets, paying the debts and taxes (if any) and then giving what’s remaining to the heirs.

If you elect to take the commission, it’s taxable income which must be shown on your personal income tax return.

In New Jersey, if there are co-executors, the statute says that an additional 1% can be included to the commission. However, any one executor cannot receive more than the amount to which a sole executor is entitled.

Note that the executor only receives a commission on what he or she takes control of as executor.

This means that the executor doesn’t get a commission on assets that have beneficiary designations on death or that are jointly owned with right of survivorship. These assets pass outside of the will and the executor doesn’t take possession of these assets.

In many instances, the probate estate of the first spouse to die is less than the second. That’s because many of the assets were held jointly with right of survivorship. As a result, they aren’t probate assets and are not subject to the commission.

If that’s the case, the commission on the first spouse’s estate would be much less than the commission on the second estate.

Reference: nj.com (October 10, 2019) “Both of my parents died. How do I calculate the executor fee?”

How Can Beneficiary Designations Wreck My Estate Plan?

It’s not uncommon for the intent of an individual’s will and trust to be overridden by beneficiary designations that weren’t chosen carefully.

Some people think that naming a beneficiary should be a simple job, and they try to do it themselves. Others don’t want to bother their attorney with what seems like a straightforward issue. A well-intentioned financial advisor could also complete the change of beneficiary form incorrectly.

Beneficiary designations are often used for life insurance and retirement benefits, but more frequently, they’re also being used for brokerage and bank accounts. People trying to avoid probate may name a “payable on death” beneficiary of an account. However, they don’t know that doing this may undermine their existing estate plan. It’s best to consult with your attorney to make certain that your named beneficiaries are consistent with your estate planning documents.

Wealth Advisor’s “7 Ways That Beneficiary Designations Can Mess Up Your Estate Plan” lists seven issues you need to think about, when making your beneficiary designations.

Cash. If your will leaves cash to various people or charities, you need to make certain that sufficient money comes into your estate, so your executor can pay these gifts.

Estate tax liability. If assets do pass outside your estate to a named beneficiary, make certain there will be sufficient money in your estate and trust to pay your estate tax lability. If all your assets pass by beneficiary designation, your executor may not have enough money to pay the estate taxes that may be due at your death.

Protect your tax savings. If you have created trusts for estate tax purposes, make sure that sufficient assets flow into your trusts to maximize the estate tax savings. Designating individuals as beneficiaries instead of your trusts may defeat the purpose of your estate tax planning. If there aren’t enough assets in your trust, the estate tax provisions may not work. As a result, your heirs may eventually end up paying more in taxes.

Accurate records. Be sure the information you have on the change of beneficiary form is accurate. This is particularly important if the beneficiary is a trust—the trust name, trustee information and tax identification number all need to be right.

Spouses as beneficiaries. Many people name their spouse as the primary beneficiary of their life insurance policy, followed by their trust as the secondary beneficiary. However, this may defeat your estate planning, especially if you have children from a first marriage, or if you don’t want your spouse to control the assets. If your trust provides for your surviving spouse on your death, he or she will be taken care of from the trust.

No last minute changes. Some people change their beneficiary designations at the last minute, because they’re nervous about assets flowing into a trust. This could lead to increased estate tax payments and litigation from heirs who were left out.

Qualified accounts. Don’t name a trust as the beneficiary of qualified accounts, like an IRA, without consulting with your attorney. Trusts that receive such qualified money need to contain special provisions for income tax purposes.

Be sure that your beneficiary designations work with your estate planning, rather than against it.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (October 8, 2019) “7 Ways That Beneficiary Designations Can Mess Up Your Estate Plan”

Have Your Will Done? Be Aware, That’s Not An Estate Plan~

A last will and testament is an important part of an estate plan, and every adult should have one. However, there is only so much that a will can do, according to the article “Estate planning involves more than a will” from The News-Enterprise.

First, let’s look at what a will does. During your lifetime, you have the right to transfer property. If you have a Power of Attorney, or POA, it gives someone you name the authority to transfer your property or manage your affairs, while you are alive. In most states, this document expires upon your death.

When you die, a will is used to transfer your property, according to your wishes. If you do not have a will, the court must determine who receives the property, as determined by your state’s law. However, only certain property passes through a will.

Individually owned property that does not have a designated beneficiary must be transferred though the process of probate. This includes real property, like house or a land, if there is no right of survivorship provision within the deed. The deed to the property determines the type of ownership each person has.

Couples who purchase property after they are married, usually own the property with the right of survivorship. This means that the surviving owner continues to own the property without it going through probate.

However, when deeds do not have this provision, each owner owns only a portion of the property. When one owner dies, the remaining owner’s portion must be passed through probate to the beneficiaries of the decedent.

Assets that do not have a designated beneficiary do not pass through probate, but are paid directly to the beneficiary. These are usually life insurance policies, retirement accounts, investment and/or bank accounts. Your will does not control these assets.

Beneficiaries through the will only receive whatever property is left over, after all reasonable expenses and debts are paid.

If you wish to ensure that beneficiaries receive assets over time, that can be done through a trust. The trust can be the beneficiary of a payable-on-death account. A revocable trust avoids property going through the probate process and can be established with your directions for distribution.

A will is a good start to an estate plan, but it is not the whole plan. Speak with an estate planning attorney about your situation and they will be able to create a plan that addresses distribution of your assets, as well as protect you from incapacity.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (September 30, 2019) “Estate planning involves more than a will”

Am I Too Young to Think About Estate Planning?

It’s wise for younger generations to consider estate planning, advises The Cleveland Jewish News in the recent article “Younger generations should focus on estate planning, too.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that an estate plan is only for older people or the ultra-wealthy. Many younger adults have been financially successful and also have experienced changes with marriage and families.

A young married couple should talk about their vision and goals for their legal affairs, in case something happens to one of them or within their family.

Estate plans provide some certainty into an otherwise uncertain life. There are many reasons to start early. One reason is that you never know what’s going to happen. You want to make certain that all of your assets are in place.

When creating an estate plan, there are a few things that younger people should consider, such as making sure all their accounts have named a beneficiary. This includes life insurance, retirement, and checking and savings accounts. These beneficiaries need to be updated for life and family changes.

Many younger adults will be fine with a will and a health care power of attorney. However, marriage is a time when people have more complexity in their professional lives. This can include starting a business, becoming leaders at companies and needing more complex and protective plans.

While younger generations are known to be independent and to try to meet all their needs online, estate plans should be treated differently. There are numerous online tools or ‘do-it-yourself’ strategies, but professional legal assistance can make it an easier and a more thorough process.

Start as early as you can and set the foundation for more complex planning that will come in the future. This preparation will mean less stress for those left behind, after you pass away.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (September 19, 2019) “Younger generations should focus on estate planning, too”

Americans Still Aren’t Planning for The After Life

Think Advisor reported on a survey conducted by a financial services firm that revealed good news and bad news about Americans and estate planning. In the article “Americans, Even Advisory Clients, Have a Big Estate Planning Problem: Survey,” the firm Edward Jones found that two-thirds of those with an advisor have not discussed estate goals and legacy plans. That’s the bad news. The good news is that 77% said estate and legacy strategies are important for everyone, not just wealthy individuals.

Most people do understand how a properly prepared estate plan puts them in control of what happens to the people that matter most to them, including minor children, their spouses and partners. It also indicates that they recognize how estate planning is necessary to protect themselves. That means having documents, like Power of Attorney and Medical Health Care Power of Attorney.

However, the recognition does not follow with the necessary steps to put a plan into place. That is the part that is worrisome.

Without a will, assets could be subject to the costly and time-consuming process of probate, where the entire will becomes a public document that anyone can look at. Nosy neighbors, creditors and relatives all having access to personal and financial information, is not something anyone wants to happen. However, by failing to plan, that’s exactly what happens.

The survey of 2,007 adults showed little sense of urgency to having legacy conversations. Only about a third of millennials and Gen Xers said they’d spoken with their advisors about the future. Surprisingly, only 38% of baby boomers had done so—and they are the generation most likely to need these plans in place in the immediate future.

Where do you start? Begin with the beneficiary designations. Check all investment accounts, bank accounts, insurance policies and retirement accounts. Most, if not all, of these financial documents should have a place to name a beneficiary, and some may permit a secondary beneficiary to be named. Make sure that you name a person you want to receive these assets, and that the person named is still in your life.

The beneficiary designation is more powerful than your will. The person named in the beneficiary designation will receive the asset, no matter what your will says. If you don’t want an ex to receive life insurance policy proceeds, make sure to check the names on your life insurance beneficiary designations.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan. If you haven’t updated your estate plan in three or four years, it’s time for an update. It’s equally important if you should become incapacitated and you want someone else to make financial and medical decisions on your behalf, to have up to date Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy forms.

Reference: Think Advisor (September 16, 2019) “Americans, Even Advisory Clients, Have a Big Estate Planning Problem: Survey”

Still Waiting to Update Your Estate Plan?

If you are wondering if Franklin’s handwritten wills are valid, join the club. With an estate valued at least $80 million, it’s good news that some kind of will was found to divide up her assets. However, says Daily Reckoning in the article “Urgent: Your Will May Need Updates,” there’s no guarantee that those wills are going to hold up in court.

The problem with Aretha’s family? It proves how important it is to have a properly executed will and one that is also up to date. It’s different for every family and every person, but if you’ve done any of the following, you need to update your will.

Moved to a different state. The laws that govern estate law are set by each state, so if you move to a different state, your entire will or parts of it may not work. If your estate is deemed invalid, then your wishes won’t necessarily be followed. Your family will suffer the consequences. For example, if your old state required only one witness for a will to be valid and you move to a state that requires two witnesses, then your executor is going to have an uphill battle. Some states also allow self-written wills but have very specific rules about what is and is not permitted.

Bought new property. People make this mistake all the time. They assume that because their will says they are gifting their home to their children, updating the new address doesn’t matter. However, it does. Your will must specify exactly what home and what address you are gifting. If you have a second property or a new property, update the information on your will.

Downsized your stuff. Sometimes people get excited about getting rid of their possessions and accidentally discard or donate something they had promised to someone in their will. If your will doesn’t reflect your new, more minimal lifestyle, your heirs won’t get what you promised to them. Instead, they may get nothing. Therefore, review your will and distribute the possessions you do have.

Gifting something early and forgetting what was in your will. If your will specifies that your oldest son gets your mother’s mahogany desk, but you gave it to your niece two months ago, you may create some awkward moments for your family. Whenever gifting something with great sentimental or financial value, be sure to review your will.

Having a boom or a bust. If your finances take a dramatic turn, for better or worse, you may create problems for heirs, if your will is not revised to reflect the changes. Let’s say one account has grown with the market, but another has taken a nosedive. Did you give your two children a 50/50 split, or does one child now stand to inherit a jumbo-sized pension, while the other is going to get little or nothing?

Had a change of heart. Has your charity of choice changed? Or did a charity you dedicated years to change its mission or close? Again, review your will.

Had a death in the family. If a spouse dies before you, your will may list alternative recipients. However, you probably want to review your will. You may want to make changes regarding how certain assets are titled. If a family member who was a beneficiary or executor dies, then you’ll need to update your will.

Your estate planning attorney will review your will and talk about the various changes in your life. Life changes over the course of time, and your will needs to reflect those changes.

Reference: Daily Reckoning (Sep. 12, 2019) “Urgent: Your Will May Need Updates”

Ignoring Beneficiary Designations Is a Risky Business

Ignore beneficiary forms at your and your heirs’ own peril, especially when there are minor children, is the message from TAPintoChatham.com’s recent article “Are You Read to Deal with Your Beneficiary Forms?” The knee-jerk reaction is to name the spouse as a primary beneficiary and then name the minor children as contingent beneficiaries. However, this is not always the best way to deal with retirement assets.

Remember that retirement assets are different from taxable accounts. When distributions are made from retirement accounts, they are treated as Ordinary Income (OI) and are subject to the OI tax rate. Retirement plans have beneficiary forms, which overrule whatever your will documents may state. Because they have beneficiary forms, these accounts pass outside of your estate and are governed by their own rules and regulations.

Here are a few options for beneficiary designations when there are minors:

Name your spouse as the primary beneficiary and minor children as the contingent beneficiaries. This is the usual response (see above), but there is a problem. If the minor children inherit a retirement asset, they will need a guardian for that asset. The guardian named for their care and well-being in the will does not apply, because this asset passes outside of the estate. Therefore, the court may appoint a Guardian Ad Litem to represent the child’s interest for this asset. That could be a paid stranger appointed by the court, until the child reaches the age of majority, usually 18 in most states.

Elect a guardian in the retirement plan beneficiary form. Some custodians have a section of their beneficiary form to choose a guardian for minor. Most forms, unfortunately, do not provide this option.

Make your estate the contingent beneficiary of the retirement account. While this would solve the problem of not having a guardian for the minor children, because it would kick the retirement plan into the estate, it may lead to adverse tax consequences. An estate does not have a measuring life, so the retirement asset would need to be fully distributed in five years.

Leave the assets to the minor children in a trust. This is the most effective means of leaving retirement assets to minor children without terrible tax consequences or needing to have the court appoint a stranger to oversee the child’s funds. Your attorney would either create a separate trust for the minor child or build a conduit trust under your will or a revocable trust to hold this specific asset. You would then change your beneficiary form to make said trust or sub-trusts for each minor child the contingent beneficiary of your retirement plan. This way you control who the guardian is for this asset for your minor child and are tax efficient.

Whichever way you decide to go, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to determine which is the best plan for your family.

Reference: TAPintoChatham.com (Sep. 8, 2109) “Are You Read to Deal with Your Beneficiary Forms?”

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