Common Estate Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them

Every family has one: the brother-in-law or aunt who knows everything about, well, everything. When the information is wrong, expensive problems are created, especially when it comes to estate planning. Estate planning attorneys devote a good deal of time to education to help prevent unnecessary and costly mistakes, as described in the article “Misinformation, poor assumptions result in major planning mistakes” from The News-Enterprise.

The most common is the idea of a “simple” estate plan. What does “simple” mean? For most people, the idea of “simple” is appealing—they don’t want to deal with long and complicated documents with legal phrases they don’t understand. However, those complex phrases are necessary, if the estate plan is to protect your interests and loved ones.

Another mistake is thinking an estate plan is a one-and-done affair. Just as people’s lives and fortunes change over time, so should their estate plan. An estate plan created for a young family with small children won’t work for a mature couple with grown children and significant savings.

Change also comes to family dynamics. The same cousin who was like a sister during your teen years may not be as close in values or geography, when you both have elementary school children. Do you still want her to be your child’s guardian? An updated estate plan takes into account the changing relationships within the family, as well as the changing members of the family. A beloved brother-in-law isn’t so beloved, if he divorces your favorite sister. When families change, estate plans need to be updated.

Here is a huge mistake rarely articulated: somehow not thinking about death or incapacity might prevent either event from happening. We know that death is inevitable, and incapacity is statistically probable. Planning for both events in no way increases or decreases their likelihood of occurring. What planning does, is provide peace of mind in knowing you have prepared for both events.

No one wants to be in a nursing home but telling loved ones you want to remain at home “no matter what happens” is not a plan for the future. It is devastating to move a loved one into a nursing home. However, people with medical needs need to be there to receive proper care and treatment. Planning for the possibility is better than a family making arrangements, financial and otherwise, on an emergency basis.

Do you remember that all-knowing family member described in the start of this article? Their advice, however well-intentioned, can be disastrous. Alternatives to estate planning take many shapes: putting the house in the adult child’s name or adding the adult child’s name to the parent’s investment accounts. If the beneficiary has a future tax liability, debt or divorce, the parent’s assets are there for the taking.

Properly done, with the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney, your estate plan protects you and those you love, as well as the assets you’ve gained over a lifetime. Don’t fall for the idea of “simple” or back-door alternatives. Formalize your goals, so your plans and wishes will be followed.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Aug. 24, 2021) “Misinformation, poor assumptions result in major planning mistakes”

What can a Power of Attorney Do—or Not Do?

Power of attorney is an important tool in estate planning. The recent article “Top Ten Facts About Powers of Attorney” from My Prime Time News, explains how a POA works, what it can and cannot do and how it helps families with loved ones who are incapacitated.

The agent’s authority to powers of attorney (POA) is only effective while the person is living. It ends upon the death of the principal. At that point in time, the executor named in the last will or an administrator named by a court are the only persons legally permitted to act on behalf of the decent.

An incapacitated person may not sign a POA.

Powers of Attorney can be broad or narrow. A person may be granted POA to manage a single transaction, for example, the sale of a home. They may also be named POA to handle all of a person’s financial and legal affairs. In some states, such as Colorado, general language in a POA may not be enough to authorize certain transactions. A POA should be created with an estate planning attorney as part of a strategic plan to manage the principal’s assets. A generic POA could create more problems than it solves.

You can have more than one agent to serve under your POA. If you prefer that two people serve as POA, the POA documents will need to state that requirement.

Banks and financial institutions have not always been compliant with POAs. In some cases, they insist that only their POA forms may be used. This has created problems for many families over the years, when POAs were not created in a timely fashion.

In 2010, Colorado law set penalties for third parties (banks, etc.) that refused to honor current POAs without reasonable cause. A similar law was passed in New York State in 2009. Rules and requirements are different from state to state, so speak with a local estate planning attorney to ensure that your POA is valid.

Your POA is effective immediately, once it is executed. A Springing POA becomes effective when the conditions specified in the POA are met. This often includes having a treating physician sign a document attesting to your being incapacitated. An estate planning attorney will be able to create a POA that best suits your situation.

If you anticipate needing a trust in the future, you may grant your agent the ability to create a trust in your POA. The language must align with your state’s laws to achieve this.

Your agent is charged with reporting any financial abuse and taking appropriate action to safeguard your best interests. If your agent fails to notify you of abuse or take actions to stop the abuser, they may be liable for reasonably foreseeable damages that could have been avoided.

The agent must never use your property to benefit himself, unless given authority to do so. This gets sticky, if you own property together. You may need additional documents to ensure that the proper authority is granted, if your POA and you are in business together, for example.

Every situation is different, and every state’s laws and requirements are different. It will be worthwhile to meet with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the documents created will be valid and to perform as desired.

Reference: My Prime-Time News (April 10, 2021) “Top Ten Facts About Powers of Attorney”

What Is Family Business Succession Planning?

Many family-owned businesses have had to scramble to maintain ownership, when owners or heirs were struck by COVID-19. Lacking a succession plan may have led to disastrous results, or at best, less than optimal corporate structures and large tax bills. This difficult lesson is a wake-up call, says the article “Succession Planning for the Family-Owned Business—Keepin’ it ‘All in the Family’” from Bloomberg Tax.

Another factor putting family-owned businesses at risk is divorce. Contemplating the best way to transfer ownership to the next generation requires a candid examination of family dynamics and acknowledgment of outsiders (i.e., in-laws) and the possibility of divorce.

Before documents can be created, a number of issues need to be discussed:

Transfer timing. When will the ownership of the business transfer to the next generation? There are some who use life-events as prompts: births, marriages and/or the death of the owners.

How will the transfer take place? Corporate structures and estate planning tools provide many options limited only by the tax liabilities and wishes of the family. Be wary, since each decision for the structure may have unintended consequences. Short and long-term strategic planning is needed.

To whom will the business be transferred? Who will receive an ownership interest and what will be the rights of ownership? Will there be different levels of ownership, and will those levels depend upon the level of activity in the business? Will percentages be used, or shares, or another form?

In drafting a succession plan, it is wise to assume that the future owners will either marry or divorce—perhaps multiple times. The succession plan should address these issues to prevent an ex-spouse from becoming a shareholder, whose interest in the business needs to be bought out.

The operating agreement/partnership agreement should require all future owners to enter into a prenuptial agreement before marriage specifically excluding their interest in the family business from being distributed, valued, or deemed marital property subject to distribution, if there is a divorce.

An owner may even exact a penalty for a subsequent owner who fails to enter into a prenup prior to a marriage. The same corporate document should specifically bar an owner’s spouse from receiving an ownership interest under any circumstance.

A prenup is intended to remove the future value of the owner’s interest from the marital asset pool. This typically requires the owner to buy-out the future spouse’s legal claim to future value. This could be a costly issue, since the value of the future ownership interest cannot be predicted at the time of the marriage.

Many different strategies can be used to develop a succession plan that ideally works alongside the business owner’s estate plan. These are used to ensure that the business remains in the family and the family interests are protected.

Reference: Bloomberg Tax (April 5,2021) “Succession Planning for the Family-Owned Business—Keepin’ it ‘All in the Family’”

Some States Have No Estate or Inheritance Taxes

The District of Columbia already moved to reduce its exemption from $5.67 million in 2020 to $4 million for individuals who die on or after Jan. 1, 2021. A resident with a taxable estate of $10 million living in the District of Columbia will owe nearly $1 million in state estate tax, says the article “State Death Tax Hikes Loom: Where Not To Die In 2021” from Forbes. It won’t be the last change in state death taxes.

Seventeen states and D.C. levy their own inheritance or estate taxes in addition to the federal estate tax, which as of this writing is so high that it effects very few Americans. In 2021, the federal estate tax exemption is $11.7 million per person. In 2026, it will drop back to $5 million per person, with adjustments for inflation. However, that is only if nothing changes.

President Joseph Biden has already called for the federal estate tax to return to the 2009 level of $3.5 million per person. The increased tax revenue purportedly would be used to pay for the costs of fighting the “pandemic” and the “infrastructure improvements” he plans, but many believe such a move would potentially destroy family businesses, farms and ranches that drive and feed the economy in the first place. If that were not troubling enough, President Biden has threatened to eliminate the step up in basis on appreciated assets at death.

This change at the federal level is likely to push changes at the state level. States that don’t have a death tax may look at adding one as a means of increasing revenue, meaning that tax planning as a part of estate planning will become important in the near future.

States with high estate tax exemptions could reduce their state exemptions to the federal exemption, adding to the state’s income and making things simpler. Right now, there is a disconnect between the federal and the state tax exemptions, which leads to considerable confusion.

Five states have made changes in 2021, in a variety of forms. Vermont has increased the estate tax exemption from $4.25 million in 2020 to $5 million in 2021, after sitting at $2.75 million from 2011 to 2019.

Connecticut’s estate tax exemption had been $2 million for more than ten years, but in 2021 it will be $7.1 million. Connecticut has many millionaires that the state does not wish to scare away, so the Nutmeg state is keeping a $15 million cap, which would be the tax due on an estate of about $129 million.

Three states increased their exemptions because of inflation. Maine has slightly increased its exemption because of inflation to $5.9 million, up from $5.8 million in 2020. Rhode Island is at $1,595.156 in 2021, up from $1,579,922 in 2020. In New York, the exemption amount increased to $5.93 million in 2021, from $5.85 million in 2020.

The overall trend in the recent past had been towards reducing or eliminating state estate taxes. In 2018, New Jersey dropped the estate tax, but kept an inheritance tax. In 2019, Maryland added a portability provision to its estate tax, so a surviving spouse may carry over the unused predeceased spouse’s exemption amount. Most states do not have a portability provision.

Another way to grab revenue is targeting the richest estate with rate hikes, which is what Hawaii did. As of January 1, 2020, Hawaii boosted its state estate tax on estates valued at more than $10 million to 20%.

If you live in or plan to move to a state where there are state death taxes, talk with your estate planner to create a flexible estate plan that will address the current and future changes in the federal or state exemptions. Some strategies could include the use of disclaimer trusts or other estate planning techniques. While you’re at it, keep an eye on the state’s legislature for what they’re planning.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 15, 2021) “State Death Tax Hikes Loom: Where Not To Die In 2021”

What to Do First when Spouse Dies

Forbes’ recent article entitled ‘Checklist for Handling the Death of a Spouse” tells us what to do when your spouse passes away:

Get Organized. Create a list of what you need to do. That way, you can tick off the things you have done and see what still needs to be done. Spending the time to get organized is critical.

Do an Inventory. Review your spouse’s will and estate plan, and then collect the documents you will need. Use a tax return to locate various types of financial assets.

Identify the Executor. The executor is the individual tasked with carrying out the terms of deceased’s will.

Get a Death Certificate. Request multiple copies of the death certificate, maybe at least a dozen because every entity will need that document.

Contact Your Professional Advisors. You will need to tell some professionals that your spouse has passed away. This may be your CPA, your estate planning attorney, financial advisors and perhaps bankers. These contacts will probably know nearly everything that is required to be done. You will also need to contact the Social Security Administration and report the death.

Take a Step Back. Take a breath. You should take the time to process your emotions and grieve with the other members of your family. Check on everyone and make sure the loved ones remaining are doing all right.

Avoid Making Any Major Decisions. Do not make any major financial decisions for a year. This includes things such as selling a house or making a lump sum investment. After the death of a spouse, you are emotional and looking for advice. It is easy to be pressured into making a decision that might not be in your best interests. Allow yourself permission to be emotional and not make any decision because you recognize you are grieving.

Make Certain Your Spouse’s Wishes Are Carried Out. The best way to honor your spouse is to make sure their requests and wishes are carried out. You are the only individual who can do that. Your spouse expects you to take care of their last wishes the way they had intended.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 28, 2020) ‘Checklist for Handling the Death of a Spouse”

What States Make You Pay an Inheritance Tax?

Let’s start with defining “inheritance tax.” The answer depends on the laws of each state, so you’ll need to speak with an estate planning attorney to learn exactly how your inheritance will be taxed, says the article “States with Inheritance Tax” from yahoo! finance. There are six states that still have inheritance taxes: Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

In Iowa, you’ll need to pay an inheritance tax within nine months after the person dies, and the amount will depend upon how you are related to the decedent.

In Kentucky, spouse, parents, children, siblings and half-siblings do not have to pay inheritance taxes. Others need to act within 18 months after death but may be eligible for a 5% discount, if they make the payment within 9 months.

Timeframes are different county-by-county in Maryland, and the Registrar of Wills of the county where the decedent lived, or owned property determines when the taxes are due.

Only a spouse is exempt from inheritance taxes in Nebraska, and it has to be paid with a year of the decedent’s passing.

New Jersey gets very complicated, with a large number of people being exempted, as well as qualified religious institutions and charitable organizations.

In Pennsylvania, rates range from 4.5% to 15%, depending upon the relationship to the decedent. There’s a 5% discount if the tax is paid within three months of the death, otherwise the tax must be paid within nine months of the death.

As you can tell, there are many variations, from who is exempt to how much is paid. Pennsylvania exempts transfers to spouses and charities, but also to children under 21 years old. If one sibling is 20 and the other is 22, the older sibling would have to pay inheritance tax, but the younger sibling does not.

There’s also a difference as to which property is subject to inheritance taxes. In Nebraska, the first $40,000 inherited is exempt. Pennsylvania exempts certain transfers of farmland and agricultural property. All six exempt life insurance proceeds when they are paid to a named beneficiary, but if the policies are paid to the estate in Iowa, the proceeds are subject to inheritance tax.

Note that an inheritance tax is different than an estate tax. Both taxes are paid upon death, but the difference is in who pays the tax. For an inheritance tax, the tax is paid by heirs and the tax rate is determined by the beneficiary’s relationship to the deceased.

Estate tax is paid by the estate itself before any assets are distributed to beneficiaries. Estate taxes are the same, regardless of who the heirs are.

There are twelve states and the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.) that have their own estate taxes (in addition to the federal estate tax). Note that Maryland has an inheritance, state and federal estate taxes. The rest of the states with an estate tax are Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Vermont.

The large variations on estate and inheritance taxes are another reason why it is so important to work with an experienced estate planning lawyer who knows the estate laws in your state.

Reference: yahoo! finance (Jan. 6, 2021) “States with Inheritance Tax”

How to Avoid an Epic Fail of a Business Succession Plan

For the business owner, the success of their business impacts their daily lives. The success of their succession plans (say that five times fast!) is inexorably linked to having a well-conceived and properly prepared plan, that is coordinated with their estate plan. Both plans need to be built to withstand challenges, which are outlined in the article “Five events that can ruin a succession plan” from Kenosha News.

Let’s take a closer look at the “Five D’s of Succession Planning.”

Death. Believe it or not, businesses can succeed in the face of their owner’s death. However, this is only if all of the right steps are taken, and the right people are prepared to lead. If the business owner has named a successor, created a plan and purchased business interruption insurance and/or life insurance, the business has a shot at continuing. However, in most cases, the estate plan fails to address leadership succession, liquidity and leadership.

Disability or Disease. Sometimes disability and disease can be worse than death to a business. If the right advisors and plan is in place for death, the business may survive. However, a sick or disabled business owner, especially if they have been the only ones making key decisions, may be less likely to survive. If a disabled business owner has lost some cognitive function and is not able to make the best decisions on behalf of their business and their employees, the business may lose value.

Divorce. Nothing destroys a business, like extended litigation. This is often what happens when divorce occurs. A smart couple will work together, despite their personal acrimony to protect the value of the business and their joint assets. Tearing each other apart harms children and businesses. The best approach is to have a plan created for what would happen to the business, if the couple divorced. Think of it as a prenup for the business.

Drama. Our tendencies toward drama impact businesses. If there is a succession plan and those plans are communicated to the leaders, who make clear to middle management and employees that there are plans in place to continue the business, the company can remain stable. In their absence, rumors will impact everyone, from key employees to management, to vendors. Nothing hurts a business more when other companies in the same business are gossiping about its impending demise. The shining stars of the company will flee for more stable opportunities. Vendors may refuse credit. It spirals downward.

Drive. Most business owners are self-driven individuals who love to see their inspiration, ideas and energy grow into successful businesses. When it’s time to get into the weeds of details, or manage people, they’re not that interested. Or, they dig into the details and the company depends upon one person to succeed—rarely a good idea. When that drive is lost and there’s no plan to hand things over to the next generation or key employees, the business can slump, lose value and eventually, close its doors.

A strong succession plan does more than protect the owner. It protects the owner’s family, employees and their families and communities. An estate planning attorney who routinely works with business owners will be familiar with the strategies available to ensure that all the pieces are in place to continue the business and protect the family.

Reference: Kenosha News (August 25, 2019) “Five events that can ruin a succession plan”