How Can I Minimize My Probate Estate?

Having a properly prepared estate plan is especially important if you have minor children who would need a guardian, are part of a blended family, are unmarried in a committed relationship or have complicated family dynamics—especially those with drama. There are things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones, as described in the article “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate” from the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Probate is the process through which debts are paid and assets are divided after a person passes away. There will be probate of an estate whether or not a will and estate plan was done, but with no careful planning, there will be added emotional strain, costs and challenges left to your family.

Dying with no will, known as “intestacy,” means the state’s laws will determine who inherits your possessions subject to probate. Depending on where you live, your spouse could inherit everything, or half of everything, with the rest equally divided among your children. If you have no children and no spouse, your parents may inherit everything. If you have no children, spouse or living parents, the next of kin might be your heir. An estate planning attorney can make sure your will directs the distribution of your property.

Probate is the process giving someone you designate in your will—the executor—the authority to inventory your assets, pay debts and taxes and eventually transfer assets to heirs. In an estate, there are two types of assets—probate and non-probate. Only assets subject to the probate process need go through probate. All other assets pass directly to new owners, without involvement of the court or becoming part of the public record.

Many people embark on estate planning to avoid having their assets pass through probate. This may be because they don’t want anyone to know what they own, they don’t want creditors or estranged family members to know what they own, or they simply want to enhance their privacy. An estate plan is used to take assets out of the estate and place them under ownership to retain privacy.

Some of the ways to remove assets from the probate process are:

Living trusts. Assets are moved into the trust, which means the title of ownership must change. There are pros and cons to using a living trust, which your estate planning attorney can review with you.

Beneficiary designations. Retirement accounts, investment accounts and insurance policies are among the assets with a named beneficiary. These assets can go directly to beneficiaries upon your death. Make sure your named beneficiaries are current.

Payable on Death (POD) or Transferable on Death (TOD) accounts. It sounds like a simple solution to own many accounts and assets jointly. However, it has its own challenges. If you wished any of the assets in a POD or TOD account to go to anyone else but the co-owner, there’s no way to enforce your wishes.

An experienced, local estate planning attorney will be the best resource to prepare your estate for probate. If there is no estate plan, an administrator may be appointed by the court and the entire distribution of your assets will be done under court supervision. This takes longer and will include higher court costs.

Reference: Indianapolis Business Journal (Aug. 26,2022) “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate”

Is it Important to have an Estate Plan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney Now That I Am a Widow?” describes some situations where an experienced estate planning attorney is really required:

Estates with many types of complicated assets. Hiring an experienced estate planning attorney is a must for more complicated estates. These are estates with multiple investments, numerous assets, cryptocurrency, hedge funds, private equity, or a business. Some estates also include significant real estate, including vacation homes, commercial properties and timeshares. Managing, appraising and selling a business, real estate and complex investments are all jobs that require some expertise and experience. In addition, valuing private equity investments and certain hedge funds is also not straightforward and can require the services of an expert.

The estate might owe federal or state estate tax. In some estates, there are time-sensitive decisions that require somewhat immediate attention. Even if all assets were held jointly and court involvement is unnecessary, hiring a knowledgeable trust and estate lawyer may have real tax benefits. There are many planning strategies from which testators and their heirs can benefit. For example, the will or an estate tax return may need to be filed to transfer the deceased spouse’s unused Federal Estate Unified Tax Credit to the surviving spouse. The decision whether to transfer to an unused unified tax credit to the surviving spouse is not obvious and requires guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney.

Many states also impose their own estate taxes, and many of these states impose taxes on an estate valued at $1 million or more. Therefore, when you add the value of a home, investments and life insurance proceeds, many Americans will find themselves on the wrong side of the state exemption and owe estate taxes.

The family is fighting. Family disputes often emerge after the death of a parent. It’s stressful, and emotions run high. No one is really operating at their best. If unhappy family members want to contest the will or are threatening a lawsuit, you’ll also need guidance from an experienced estate planning attorney. These fights can result in time-intensive and costly lawsuits. The sooner you get legal advice from a probate attorney, the better chance you have of avoiding this.

Complicated beneficiary plans. Some wills have tricky beneficiary designations that leave assets to one child but nothing to another. Others could include charitable bequests or leave assets to many beneficiaries.

Talk to an experienced attorney, whose primary focus is estate and trust law.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 5, 2022) “Should I Hire an Estate Planning Attorney Now That I Am a Widow?”

Who Should Be Your Executor?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Is a TOD Beneficiary?

You can name anyone as a TOD beneficiary. However, if you’re married, your spouse may have special rights over your assets that take precedence over your named TOD beneficiaries. These laws vary by state, though, so ask an experienced estate planning attorney.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Who Can Be a Transfer on Death (TOD) Beneficiary?” explains that, if you name TOD beneficiaries, it’s very clear who you want to receive your assets when you pass away.

A TOD instruction allows your heirs to avoid probate for these assets. This will take precedence over anything in your will. This can make the legal process of distributing assets much faster than it otherwise would be.

It’s important to know that naming TOD beneficiaries may not achieve everything you would like to achieve in your inheritance settlement. Passing on assets to a TOD beneficiary won’t provide much creditor protection. In that case, a trust may be a better option.

Your TOD beneficiaries will also be responsible for paying taxes on the money they receive. This will complicate their tax situation and may also mean a large tax bill for them.

Remember that a transfer on death (TOD) beneficiary can be a person, charity, business, or trust. If the beneficiary is a person, they can be a relative, child, spouse, friend, or anyone else you happen to know. But again, if you’re married, your spouse may have special rights over your assets that take precedence over your named TOD beneficiaries, according to state law.

Contact your account provider to see if you can add a TOD beneficiary. It’s available for many account types—not only retirement accounts but also certificates of deposit (CDs), savings accounts and brokerage accounts.

Naming a TOD beneficiary (or several) can have advantages during the inheritance process, since this makes it very clear who you would like to inherit your assets. These funds can then be distributed without passing through the potentially costly process of probate. It can make the inheritance process much simpler because your named beneficiary will automatically receive the assets in the account—bypassing probate as a result.

Reference: Investopedia (May 19, 2022) “Who Can Be a Transfer on Death (TOD) Beneficiary?”

Does ‘Gray Divorce’ Fit into Estate Planning?

According to the Pew Research Center, the divorce rate has more than doubled for people over 50 since the 1990s. The Pandemic is also adding to the uptick, says AARP’s recent article entitled “Getting Divorced? It’s Time to Update Your Caregiving Plan.”

A divorce can be financially draining. Moreover, later-in-life divorces frequently impact women’s finances more than men’s. That is because in addition to depressed earnings from time spent out of the workforce raising children, women find themselves more financially vulnerable post-divorce and more likely to serve as caregivers again in the future. Even so, for partners of all genders, it is important to consider the longer-term financial outlook, not just the financial situation you’re in when you are actually dissolving the marriage.

You and your spouse will be dividing assets and liabilities and the responsibilities regarding spousal support. How one of you will live if the other gets sick or passes away should also be part of this conversation.

Consider where you’ll need to make changes. One may be removing your spouse from beneficiary designations on all your accounts. (In some states, this is automatic.) Your divorce agreement may also include buying life insurance or maintaining a trust or beneficiary designations for one another.

Create or update your estate plan immediately. You should also ask your estate planning attorney to review your marital agreement. They will have suggestions about how to align your estate plan with your divorce obligations. If you and your ex are co-parenting children, your estate plan should address who their guardians will be, if both biological parents pass away. It is also important to address who will manage any inheritance, if you don’t want your ex-spouse handling assets you may leave to your children.

Create your life care plan, which means naming health care proxies or surrogates (who will take care of your medical affairs, if you’re in need of caregiving), designating a financial power of attorney (who will take care of your finances and legal affairs), and naming a guardian for yourself if you’re incapacitated.

Consider the way in which your divorce will impact your children and extended family if you need caregiving. At a minimum, agree between yourselves what level of contact you can manage and, if you share children and loved ones, know that your lives will cross along the way.

While your marriage may not last, the connections will, so make a wise plan.

Reference: AARP (Jan. 25, 2022) “Getting Divorced? It’s Time to Update Your Caregiving Plan”

Why Is Beneficiary Designation Important?

The beneficiary designation will always supersede language of your will. Neglecting to know which assets have beneficiary designations and failing to update the designations can undo even the best estate plan.

The beneficiary designation for your life insurance or retirement account custodian provides an opportunity to tell the company who is to receive life insurance proceeds or retirement savings upon your death, explains a recent article titled “This Important Estate Planning Step is Often Missed” from Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press. If these are not coordinated with a last will and testament, the results are problematic at best, and worse, financially, and emotionally devastating.

This epic fail comes in many different forms, but the most common is when a life insurance policy has never been updated and an ex-spouse receives the policy proceeds. The rules differ between retirement accounts and life insurance and can be impacted by various state and federal laws (and the divorce decree, if the life insurance policy was included). However, for the most part, the ex will receive the proceeds and litigation will not succeed.

Another common beneficiary designation mistake is when a person has created a living trust or revocable trust to prevent assets from going through probate when they die. Probate can take many months to complete and there are several strategies used to take assets out of the probate estate.

When the living trust is established and assets are transferred into the trust, those assets do not pass through probate.

However, if a person (or married couple) established a living trust and fails to list both primary and secondary beneficiaries for life insurance and/or retirement accounts, it is entirely possible that the assets will go through probate.

Take the time to make an inventory of all assets and accounts. Determine which ones have a beneficiary designation and find out who is named as the beneficiary. If your retirement accounts and life insurance policies were established decades ago, this is especially important.

Failing to coordinate beneficiary designations with your estate plan could undermine your wishes. Review these items with your estate planning attorney to avoid these and many other potential pitfalls.

Reference: Coeur d’Alene/Post Falls Press (May 23, 2022) “This Important Estate Planning Step is Often Missed”

What Happens Financially when a Spouse Dies?

Losing a beloved spouse is one of the most stressful events in life, so it’s one we tend not to talk about. However, planning for life after the passing of a spouse needs to be done, as it is an eventuality. According to a recent article from AARP Magazine, “The Financial Penalty of Losing Your Spouse,” the best time to plan for this is before your spouse dies.

You’ll have the most options while your spouse is still living. Estate plans, wills, trusts, and beneficiary designations can still be updated, as long as your spouse has legal capacity. You can make sure you’ll still have access to savings, retirement, and investment accounts. Create a list of assets, including information needed to access digital accounts.

Make sure that your credit cards will be available. Many surviving spouses only learn after a death whether credit cards are in the spouse’s name or their own name.

Get help from professionals. Review your new status with your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor. This includes which accounts need to be moved and which need to be renamed. Can you afford to maintain your home? An experienced professional who works regularly with widows or widowers can provide help, if you are open to asking.

A warning note: Be careful about new “friends.” Widows are key targets of scammers, and thieves are very good at scamming vulnerable people.

Be strategic about Social Security. If both partners were drawing benefits, the surviving spouse may elect the higher benefit going forward. If you haven’t claimed yet, you have options. You can take either a survivor’s benefit based on your spouse’s work history, or the retirement benefit based on your own work history. You will be able to switch to the higher benefit, if it ends up being higher, later on.

Be careful about your spouse’s 401(k) and IRA. If you’re in your 50s, you are allowed to roll your spouse’s 401(k) or IRA into your own account. However, don’t rush to move the 401(k). You can make a withdrawal from a late spouse’s 401(k) without penalty. However, it will be taxable as ordinary income. If you move the 401(k) to a rollover IRA, you’ll have to pay taxes plus a 10% penalty on any withdrawals taken from the IRA before you reach 59 ½. Your estate planning attorney can help with these accounts.

Use any advantages available to you. The IRS will still let you file jointly in the year of your spouse’s death. Tax rates are better for married filers than for singles. Any taxable withdrawals you’ll need to take from 401(k)s or IRAs may be taxed at a lower rate during this year. You may decide to use the money to create a rollover Roth IRA or to put some funds into a non-tax deferred account.

Don’t rush to do anything you don’t have to do. Selling your home, writing large checks to children, or moving are all things you should not do right now. Decisions made in the fog of grief are often regretted later on. Take your time to mourn, adjust to your admittedly unwanted new life and give yourself time for this major adjustment.

Reference: AARP Magazine (May 13, 2022) “The Financial Penalty of Losing Your Spouse”

What Should I Know about Estate Planning before ‘I Do’?

Romance is in the air. Spring is the time for marriages, and with America coming out of the pandemic, wedding calendars will be filled.

AZ Big Media’s recent article entitled “5 estate planning tips for newlyweds” gives those ready to walk down the aisle a few things to consider.

  1. Prenuptial Agreement. Commonly referred to as a prenup, this is a written contract that you and your spouse enter into before getting legally married. It provides details on what happens to finances and assets during your marriage and, of course, in the event of divorce. A prenup is particularly important if one of the spouses already has significant assets and earnings and wishes to protect them in the event of divorce or death.
  2. Review you restate plan. Even if you come into a marriage with an existing plan, it’s out of date as soon as you’re wed.
  3. Update your beneficiary designations. Much of an individual’s estate plan takes place by beneficiary designations. Decide if you want your future spouse to be a beneficiary of life insurance, IRAs, or other pay on death accounts.
  4. Consider real estate. A married couple frequently opts to live in the residence of one of the spouses. This should be covered in the prenup. However, in a greater picture, decide in the event of the death of the owner, if you’d want this real estate to pass to the survivor, or would you want the survivor simply to have the right to live in the property for a specified period of time.
  5. Life insurance. You want to be sure that one spouse is taken care of in the event of your death. A married couple often relies on the incomes of both spouses, but death will wreck that plan. Think about life insurance as a substitute for a spouse’s earning capacity.

If you are soon-to-be-married or recently married and want to discuss it with an expert, make an appointment with a skilled estate planning attorney.

Reference:  AZ Big Media (March 23, 2022) “5 estate planning tips for newlyweds”

What Assets are Not Considered Part of an Estate?

In many families, more assets pass outside the Last Will than through the Last Will. Think about non-probate assets: life insurance proceeds, investment accounts, jointly titled real estate assets, assuming they were titled as joint tenants with right of survivorship, and the like. These often add up to considerable sums, often more than the probate estate.

This is why a recent article from The Mercury titled “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets” strongly urges readers to pay close attention to accounts transferred by beneficiary.

Most retirement accounts like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s and others pass by beneficiary designation and not through the Last Will. Banks and investment accounts designated as Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) also do not pass through probate, but to the other person named on the account. Any property owned by a trust does not go through probate, one of the reasons it is placed in the trust.

Why is it important to know whether assets pass through probate or by beneficiary designation? Here’s an example. A man was promised half of this father’s estate. His dad had remarried, and the son didn’t know what estate plans had been made, if any, with the new spouse. When the father passed, the man received a single check for several thousand dollars. He knew his father’s estate was worth considerably more.

What is most likely to have happened is simple. The father probably retitled the house with his new spouse as tenants by the entireties–making it a non-probate asset. He probably retitled bank accounts with his new spouse. And if the father had a new Last Will created, he likely gave 50% to the son and 50% to the new spouse. The father’s car may have been the only asset not jointly owned with his new spouse.

A parent can also accidently disinherit an heir, if all of their non-probate assets are in one child’s name and no provision for the non-probate assets has been made for any other children. An estate planning attorney can work with the parents to find a way to make inheritances equal, if the intention is for all of the children to receive an equal share. One way to accomplish this would be to give the other children a larger share of probated assets.

Any division of inheritance should bear in mind the tax liability of assets. Non-probate does not always mean non-taxed. Depending upon the state of residence for the decedent and the heirs, there may be estate or inheritance tax on the assets.

Placing assets in an irrevocable trust is a commonly used estate planning method to ensure inheritances are received by the intended parties. The trust allows you to give very specific instructions about who gets what. Assets in the trust are outside of the probate estate, since the trust is not owned by the grantor.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to review probate and non-probate assets to determine the best way to achieve your wishes for your distribution of assets.

Reference: The Mercury (April 12, 2022) “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets”