What Estate Planning Documents Should Everyone Have?

This is the time of year when people start thinking about getting piles or files of paperwork in order in preparing for a new year and for taxes. A recent article “How to Prepare, Organize and Store Estate-Planning Documents” from The Street gives useful tips on how to do this.

First, the most important documents:

Estate Planning documents, including your Will, Power of Attorney (POA), Healthcare Proxy, Living Will (often called an Advance Care Directive). The will is for asset distribution after death, but other documents are needed to protect you while you’re alive.

The POA is used to name someone to act on your behalf, if you cannot. A POA can be created to be specific, for example, to have someone else pay your bills, or it can be general, letting someone do everything from paying bills to managing the sale of your home. Be cautious about using standard POA documents, since they don’t reflect every situation.

A Healthcare Proxy empowers someone you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf. The Living Will or Advance Care Directive outlines the type of care you do (or don’t) want when at the end of your life. This alleviates a terrible burden on your loved ones, who may not otherwise know what you would have wanted.

Add a Digital POA so someone will be able to access and manage your online accounts (subject to the terms and conditions of each digital platform).

Your Last Will and Testament conveys how you want your estate—that is, everything you own that does not have a surviving joint owner or a designated beneficiary—to be distributed after death. Your will is also used to name a guardian for minor children. It is also used to name an executor, the person who will be in charge of carrying out the instructions in the will.

A list of all of your assets, including bank accounts, retirement accounts, investments, savings and checking accounts, will make it easier for your executor to identify and distribute assets. Don’t forget to check to see which accounts allow you to name a beneficiary and make sure those names are correct.

Both wills and trusts are used to convey assets to beneficiaries, but unlike a will, “funded” trusts don’t go through the probate process. An experienced estate planning attorney can create a trust to distribute almost any kind of property and follow your specific directions. Do you want your children to gain access to the trust after they have reached a certain age? Or when they have married and had children of their own? A trust allows for greater control of your assets.

Finally, talk with your family members about your estate plan, your wishes for end-of-life medical care and what you want to happen after you die. Write a letter of intent if it’s too hard to have a face-to-face conversation about these topics, but find a way to let them know. Your estate planning attorney has worked with many families and will be able to provide you with suggestions and guidance.

Reference: The Street (Dec. 20, 2021) “How to Prepare, Organize and Store Estate-Planning Documents”

Why Should I Name a Beneficiary?
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Why Should I Name a Beneficiary?

For five years, Lewis, who was also trustee of the trust, distributed funds to Vivian, his daughter in law. However, shortly after Lewis passed away, Clark and Vivian divorced. Clark married Sophia, and the problems began, according to the article “Which spouse gets the benefit?” from Glen Rose Reporter.

As a successor trustee, Clark started making the annual distributions from the trust to his new spouse, Sophia, who was his beneficiary. Vivian filed suit, claiming these funds were intended for her. However, the trust directions only said, “his son’s spouse.” Did the phrase mean a particular person or the person who was Clark’s spouse? What did Lewis want to happen to the funds? For obvious reasons, his wishes could not be determined.

This fact pattern is from a real case, Ochse v. Ochse, filed in San Antonio, Texas. The trial court determined that Lewis’ wish was to benefit his son’s ex-spouse, who was his daughter-in-law when the trust was confirmed. An appellate court affirmed the decision.

Was the length of the first marriage part of the court’s decision? Clark had been married to Vivian for thirty years, which is likely to have been a part of the father’s decision. Clark had only been married to his second wife for seven years.

What if the father was alive and able to declare his intentions? It might not have made a difference. The court in this case found the term “son’s spouse” to unambiguously mean the spouse at the time the trust was created.

When a term is found to be unambiguous, there’s no evidence to question its meaning. So even if Lewis were alive and well, the court would not have let his intention be heard.

This kind of situation is seen often when a life insurance policy is left to a first spouse, the couple divorces and the beneficiary on the policy was never updated. Most of the time, the ex-spouse receives the proceeds from the life insurance.

In the case of Ochse v. Ochse, the matter would have been simplified if Lewis had named his daughter-in-law by name as the beneficiary of the trust. Clark might still have tried to change the terms, but it would have been clear who the intended beneficiary was.

No one likes to imagine their children divorcing, especially when the parents have a good relationship with the daughter or son-in-law. However, this needs to be taken into consideration when naming beneficiaries. If you adore your daughter-in-law and want her to receive an inheritance from you, then make sure to name her as a beneficiary. If you are concerned the marriage may not last, talk with an estate planning attorney about creating a trust to protect inheritances from being lost in a divorce.

Reference: Glen Rose Reporter (Dec. 17, 2021) “Which spouse gets the benefit?”

Does a TOD Supersede a Trust?

Many people incorporate a TOD, or “Transfer on Death” into their financial plan, thinking it will be easier for their loved ones than creating a trust. The article “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts—Which Is Better?” from Kiplinger explains how it really works.

The TOD account allows the account owner to name a beneficiary on an account who receives funds when the account owner dies. The TOD is often used for stocks, brokerage accounts, bonds and other non-retirement accounts. A POD, or “Payable on Death,” account is usually used for bank assets—cash.

The chief goal of a TOD or POD is to avoid probate. The beneficiaries receive assets directly, bypassing probate, keeping the assets out of the estate and transferring them faster than through probate. The beneficiary contacts the financial institution with an original death certificate and proof of identity.  The assets are then distributed to the beneficiary. Banks and financial institutions can be a bit exacting about determining identity, but most people have the needed documents.

There are pitfalls. For one thing, the executor of the estate may be empowered by law to seek contributions from POD and TOD beneficiaries to pay for the expenses of administering an estate, estate and final income taxes and any debts or liabilities of the estate. If the beneficiaries do not contribute voluntarily, the executor (or estate administrator) may file a lawsuit against them, holding them personally responsible, to get their contributions.

If the beneficiary has already spent the money, or they are involved in a lawsuit or divorce, turning over the TOD/POD assets may get complicated. Other personal assets may be attached to make up for a shortfall.

If the beneficiary is receiving means-tested government benefits, as in the case of an individual with special needs, the TOD/POD assets may put their eligibility for those benefits at risk.

These and other complications make using a POD/TOD arrangement riskier than expected.

A trust provides a great deal more protection for the person creating the trust (grantor) and their beneficiaries. If the grantor becomes incapacitated, trustees will be in place to manage assets for the grantor’s benefit. With a TOD/POD, a Power of Attorney would be needed to allow the other person to control of the assets. The same banks reluctant to hand over a POD/TOD are even more strict about Powers of Attorney, even denying POAs, if they feel the forms are out-of-date or don’t have the state’s required language.

Creating a trust with an experienced estate planning attorney allows you to plan for yourself and your beneficiaries. You can plan for incapacity and plan for the assets in your trust to be used as you wish. If you want your adult children to receive a certain amount of money at certain ages or stages of their lives, a trust can be created to do so. You can also leave money for multiple generations, protecting it from probate and taxes, while building a legacy.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 2, 2021) “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts—Which Is Better?”

Can You Refuse an Inheritance?

No one can be forced to accept an inheritance they don’t want. However, what happens to the inheritance after they reject, or “disclaim” the inheritance depends on a number of things, says the recent article “Estate Planning: Disclaimers” from NWI Times.

A disclaimer is a legal document used to disclaim the property. To be valid, the disclaimer must be irrevocable, in writing and executed within nine months of the death of the decedent. You can’t have accepted any of the assets or received any of the benefits of the assets and then change your mind later on.

Once you accept an inheritance, it’s yours. If you know you intend to disclaim the inheritance, have an estate planning attorney create the disclaimer to protect yourself.

If the disclaimer is valid and properly prepared, you simply won’t receive the inheritance. It may or may not go to the decedent’s children.

After a valid qualified disclaimer has been executed and submitted, you as the “disclaimor” are treated as if you died before the decedent. Whoever receives the inheritance instead depends upon what the last will or trust provides, or the intestate laws of the state where the decedent lived.

In most cases, the last will or trust has instructions in the case of an heir disclaiming. It may have been written to give the disclaimed property to the children of the disclaimor, or go to someone else or be given to a charity. It all depends on how the will or trust was prepared.

Once you disclaim an inheritance, it’s permanent and you can’t ask for it to be given to you. If you fail to execute the disclaimer after the nine-month period, the disclaimer is considered invalid. The disclaimed property might then be treated as a gift, not an inheritance, which could have an impact on your tax liability.

If you execute a non-qualified disclaimer relating to a $100,000 inheritance and it ends up going to your offspring, you may have inadvertently given them a gift according to the IRS. You’ll then need to know who needs to report the gift and what, if any, taxes are due on the gift.

Persons with Special Needs who receive means-tested government benefits should never accept an inheritance, since they can lose eligibility for benefits.

A Special Needs Trust might be able to receive an inheritance, but there are limitations regarding how much can be accepted. An estate planning attorney will need to be consulted to ensure that the person with Special Needs will not have their benefits jeopardized by an inheritance.

The high level of federal exemption for estates has led to fewer disclaimers than in the past, but in a few short years—January 1, 2026—the exemption will drop down to a much lower level, and it’s likely inheritance disclaimers will return.

Reference: NWI Times (Nov. 14, 2021) “Estate Planning: Disclaimers”

Why Is an Estate Plan Important?

There are a number of legal steps necessary to prepare your estate and your family for the future, including the use of a living trust. What is a living trust, and what kind of protection does it offer? The article “An important part of protecting your assets and those you love” from The Times explains how this estate planning tool works.

A living trust is a legal entity created to make it easier to transfer assets like real estate property and other assets after death. Assets held within trusts pass directly to beneficiaries according to the terms of the trust. They do not go through probate. Once a trust is created, it must be funded, which places assets within the protection of the trust. These can include bank accounts, investments, real estate, vehicles, jewelry and other personal property of value.

A living trust is managed by a designated trustee. You can be the trustee of your trust while you are living, and your spouse or partner may be a co-trustee. Every trust should also have a successor trustee to serve as your representative. This person will manage the trust and distribute assets after you die.

Living trusts are useful in real estate ownership, regardless of the size or number of properties owned. Any real estate property is subject to probate upon death if it is not placed inside a trust or other arrangements not taken if available under state law (e.g., transfer-on-death deeds). Dealing with real estate after death is challenging for heirs and executors.

Probate can take a long time. During that time, a building needs to be maintained, property taxes must be paid and insurance coverage needs to continue. Making changes to the property or even renting it out during probate may require permission from the court. If an expensive repair needs to be made, like a heating system or a new roof, and the estate is still in probate, someone has to make sure the repairs are done and pay for them.

Certain assets pass directly to beneficiaries. These include life insurance proceeds, Pay on Death (POD) bank accounts and retirement accounts, like IRAs and 401(k)s. Others, like the family home and personal property, could be bound up in probate for months, or years.

A living trust does more than bypass probate. It allows you to declare how you want your assets to be distributed and when. If you don’t want your children to receive a lot of money in one lump sum at a young age, it can break out the distribution over decades. A trust can also set life goals, like graduating from college, before funds are released.

A living trust and last will and testament are different legal documents and achieve different ends. The living trust is in effect, even when the grantor (person who creates the trust) is living. The will goes into effect only when the grantor dies.

Only assets subject to probate are controlled by a will, while assets in a trust skip probate. Trusts are private documents, while the will becomes part of the public record once it is filed with the court. Anyone can see the entire document, which may not be what you intended.

Assets without a surviving joint owner pass through probate. If you fail to designate a beneficiary to receive an asset, then it also will be subject to probate.

Just as every person is different, every person’s estate plan is different. Talk with an estate planning attorney to learn what options are available and what is best for your family.

Reference: The Times (Oct. 29, 2021) “An important part of protecting your assets and those you love”

How Much can You Inherit and Not Pay Taxes?

Even with the new proposed rules from Biden’s lowered exception, estates under $6 million won’t have to worry about federal estate taxes for a few years—although state estate tax exemptions may be lower. However, what about inheritances and what about inherited IRAs? This is explored in a recent article titled “Minimizing Taxes When You Inherit Money” from Kiplinger.

If you inherit an IRA from a parent, taxes on required withdrawals could leave you with a far smaller legacy than you anticipated. For many couples, IRAs are the largest assets passed to the next generation. In some cases they may be worth more than the family home. Americans held more than $13 trillion in IRAs in the second quarter of 2021. Many of you reading this are likely to inherit an IRA.

Before the SECURE Act changed how IRAs are distributed, people who inherited IRAs and other tax-deferred accounts transferred their assets into a beneficiary IRA account and took withdrawals over their life expectancy. This allowed money to continue to grow tax free for decades. Withdrawals were taxed as ordinary income.

The SECURE Act made it mandatory for anyone who inherited an IRA (with some exceptions) to decide between two options: take the money in a lump sum and lose a huge part of it to taxes or transfer the money to an inherited or beneficiary IRA and deplete it within ten years of the date of death of the original owner.

The exceptions are a surviving spouse, who may roll the money into their own IRA and allow it to grow, tax deferred, until they reach age 72, when they need to start taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). If the IRA was a Roth, there are no RMDs, and any withdrawals are tax free. The surviving spouse can also transfer money into an inherited IRA and take distributions on their life expectancy.

If you’re not eligible for the exceptions, any IRA you inherit will come with a big tax bill. If the inherited IRA is a Roth, you still have to empty it out in ten years. However, there are no taxes due as long as the Roth was funded at least five years before the original owner died.

Rushing to cash out an inherited IRA will slash the value of the IRA significantly because of the taxes due on the IRA. You might find yourself bumped up into a higher tax bracket. It’s generally better to transfer the money to an inherited IRA to spread distributions out over a ten-year period.

The rules don’t require you to empty the account in any particular order. Therefore, you could conceivably wait ten years and then empty the account. However, you will then have a huge tax bill.

Other assets are less constrained, at least as far as taxes go. Real estate and investment accounts benefit from the step-up in cost basis. Let’s say your mother paid $50 for a share of stock and it was worth $250 on the day she died. Your “basis” would be $250. If you sell the stock immediately, you won’t owe any taxes. If you hold onto to it, you’ll only owe taxes (or claim a loss) on the difference between $250 and the sale price. Proposals to curb the step-up have been bandied about for years. However, to date they have not succeeded.

The step-up in basis also applies to the family home and other inherited property. If you keep inherited investments or property, you’ll owe taxes on the difference between the value of the assets on the day of the original owner’s death and the day you sell.

Estate planning and tax planning should go hand-in-hand. If you are expecting a significant inheritance, a conversation with aging parents may be helpful to protect the family’s assets and preclude any expensive surprises.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 29, 2021) “Minimizing Taxes When You Inherit Money”

When Should You Fund a Trust?

If your estate plan includes a revocable trust, sometimes called a “living trust,” you need to be certain the trust is funded. When created by an experienced estate planning attorney, revocable trusts provide many benefits, from avoiding having assets owned by the trust pass through probate to facilitating asset management in case of incapacity. However, it doesn’t happen automatically, according to a recent article from mondaq.com, “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

For the trust to work, it must be funded. Assets must be transferred to the trust, or beneficiary accounts must have the trust named as the designated beneficiary. The SECURE Act changed many rules concerning distribution of retirement account to trusts and not all beneficiary accounts permit a trust to be the owner, so you’ll need to verify this.

The revocable trust works well to avoid probate, and as the “grantor,” or creator of the trust, you may instruct trustees how and when to distribute trust assets. You may also revoke the trust at any time. However, to effectively avoid probate, you must transfer title to virtually all your assets. It includes those you own now and in the future. Any assets owned by you and not the trust will be subject to probate. This may include life insurance, annuities and retirement plans, if you have not designated a beneficiary or secondary beneficiary for each account.

What happens when the trust is not funded? The assets are subject to probate, and they will not be subject to any of the controls in the trust, if you become incapacitated. One way to avoid this is to take inventory of your assets and ensure they are properly titled on a regular basis.

Another reason to fund a trust: maximizing protection from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance coverage. Most of us enjoy this protection in our bank accounts on deposits up to $250,000. However, a properly structured revocable trust account can increase protection up to $250,000 per beneficiary, up to five beneficiaries, regardless of the dollar amount or percentage.

If your revocable trust names five beneficiaries, a bank account in the name of the trust is eligible for FDIC insurance coverage up to $250,000 per beneficiary, or $1.25 million (or $2.5 million for jointly owned accounts). For informal revocable trust accounts, the bank’s records (although not the account name) must include all beneficiaries who are to be covered. FDIC insurance is on a per-institution basis, so coverage can be multiplied by opening similarly structured accounts at several different banks.

One last note: FDIC rules regarding revocable trust accounts are complex, especially if a revocable trust has multiple beneficiaries. Speak with your estate planning attorney to maximize insurance coverage.

Reference: mondaq.com (Sep. 10, 2021) “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

Can You Make Heirs Behave from the Grave?

Imposing strange or amusing conditions upon heirs may make for good novels. However, in the real world, terms and conditions are limited by the law. A last will or trust contains language specifying how you want assets to be distributed after your death. There are some conditions and terms included, but others should be left for fiction authors, according to a recent article titled “What Can You Force Your Heirs to Do To Get Your Wealth” from Forbes.

If something is illegal or against public policy, it is not acceptable in a last will. Defining public policy is not as easy as whether something is illegal, but it can be described effectively enough, or clarified by your estate planning lawyer. For example, making a gift of land to the town on the condition that an offensive statue be placed in the middle of the land would be against public policy. Requiring an individual to not marry a specific person or type of person before they can inherit is considered illegal in a last will. Beneficiaries are not to be prevented to live their lives freely through the force of a last will.

Whether a condition is valid also depends upon whether it is a precedent that existed at the date of your death or a condition that occurs after your death. For instance, a requirement for a beneficiary to live in a specific location at the time of your death might be considered valid by a court. However, a condition requiring a spouse to never remarry would not be valid.

Blatantly illegal terms of an inheritance are easy terminated. Leaving money to a known terrorist organization or requiring an heir to commit a crime is an easy no-go. However, sometimes things get murky. Restraints on getting married or selling or transferring property are two of the biggest problems, and often the stories behind the last wills are sad ones.

A condition of not marrying, divorcing, or remarrying is not legal. However, a condition that the beneficiary does not marry outside of the faith has been enforced as a valid last will condition. A complete prohibition of a second marriage by a surviving spouse has been deemed void. It should be noted that certain requests have been permitted, like having a surviving spouse lose payments from a trust when they remarry. As antiquated as it may sound, courts have affirmed the concept of the specific limitation to provide financial support only until the surviving spouse remarries and is, therefore, not void.

A probate court will not void a condition on a bequest automatically, even if it is clearly illegal. The beneficiary, or another interested party, must file with the probate court to have the condition voided. If you fail to do so, when the last will or trust is allowed, it is possible to lose your right to void the condition.

A better way to go: don’t try to control your heir’s behavior from the grave. It creates terrible ill will and may cloud a lifetime of happy memories. If you don’t want to give something to someone, your estate planning attorney will help you create an estate plan, and possibly a trust, to control how your assets are distributed.

Reference: Forbes July 21, 2021 “What Can You Force Your Heirs to Do To Get Your Wealth”

Do You Need Power of Attorney If You Have a Joint Account?

A person with Power of Attorney for their parents can’t actually “add” the POA to their bank accounts. However, they may change bank accounts to be jointly owned. There are some pros and cons of doing this, as discussed in the article “POAs vs. joint ownership” from NWI.com.

The POA permits the agent to access their parent’s bank accounts, make deposits and write checks.  However, it doesn’t create any ownership interest in the bank accounts. It allows access and signing authority.

If the person’s parent wants to add them to the account, they become a joint owner of the account. When this happens, the person has the same authority as the parent, accessing the account and making deposits and withdrawals.

However, there are downsides. Once the person is added to the account as a joint owner, their relationship changes. As a POA, they are a fiduciary, which means they have a legally enforceable responsibility to put their parent’s benefits above their own.

As an owner, they can treat the accounts as if they were their own and there’s no requirement to be held to a higher standard of financial care.

Because the POA does not create an ownership interest in the account, when the owner dies, the account passes to the surviving joint owners, Payable on Death (POD) beneficiaries or beneficiaries under the parent’s estate plan.

If the account is owned jointly, when one of the joint owners dies, the other person becomes the sole owner.

Another issue to consider is that becoming a joint owner means the account could be vulnerable to creditors for all owners. If the adult child has any debt issues, the parent’s account could be attached by creditors, before or after their passing.

Most estate planning attorneys recommend the use of a POA rather than adding an owner to a joint account. If the intent of the owners is to give the child the proceeds of the bank account, they can name the child a POD on the account for when they pass and use a POA, so the child can access the account while they are living.

One last point: while the parent is still living, the child should contact the bank and provide them with a copy of the POA. This, allows the bank to enter the POA into the system and add the child as a signatory on the account. If there are any issues, they are best resolved before while the parent is still living.

Reference: NWI.com (Aug. 15, 2021) “POAs vs. joint ownership”

What are Responsibilities of Trustees and Executors?

Being a fiduciary requires putting the interest of the beneficiary over your own interests, no matter what. The person in charge of managing a trust, the trustee, has a fiduciary duty to the beneficiary, which is described by the terms of the trust. This is explained in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: Executors, executrix and personal representatives” from nwitimes.com.

Understanding the responsibilities of the trust requires a review of the trust documents, which can be long and complicated. An estate planning attorney will be able to review documents and explain the directions if the trust is a particularly complex one.

If the trust is a basic revocable living trust used to avoid having assets in the estate go through probate, duties are likely to be similar to those of a personal representative, also known as the executor. This is the person in charge of carrying out the directions in a last will.

A simple explanation of executor responsibilities is gathering the assets, filing tax returns, and paying creditors. The executor files for an EIN number, which functions like a Social Security number for the estate. The executor opens an estate bank account to hold assets that are not transferred directly to named beneficiaries. And the executor files the last tax returns for the decedent for the last year in which he or she was living, and an estate tax return. There’s more to it, but those are the basic tasks.

A person tasked with administering a trust for the benefit of another person must give great attention to detail. The instructions and terms of the trust must be followed to the letter, with no room for interpretation. Thinking you know what someone else wanted, despite what was written in the trust, is asking for trouble.

If there are investment duties involved, which is common when a trust contains significant assets managed in an investment portfolio, it will be best to work with a professional advisor. Investment duties may be subject to the Prudent Investor Act, or they may include the name of a specific advisor who was managing the accounts before the person died.

If there is room for any discretion whatsoever in the trust, be careful to document every decision. If the trust says you can distribute principal based on the needs of the beneficiary, document why you did or did not make the distribution. Don’t just hand over funds because the beneficiary asked for them. Make decisions based on sound reasoning and document your reasons.

Being asked to serve as a trustee reflects trust. It is also a serious responsibility, and one to be performed with great care.

Reference: nwitimes.com (July 18, 2021) “Estate Planning: Executors, executrix and personal representatives”