Why Does Everyone Need an Estate Plan?

Twenty and thirty-year olds are busy building their lives, starting or growing careers, exploring personal goals, repaying student loans and maybe starting a family. They’re young and healthy and think nothing can happen to them—but that’s not true. A recent article from Kiplinger titled “You’re Not Too Young for an Estate Plan: 7 Essentials for Your 20s and 30s” explains why even a twenty-year old with student loans needs an estate plan.

Student loans. Federal student loans discharge upon death, so no further payments are needed, including any federal Parent PLUS loans parents may have taken out. However, for private student loans, the decision is up to the lender. If the private loan was taken out by the student, the institution may forgive the loan. However, if a parent or another adult co-signed the loan, they might be responsible for paying the entire loan. The exception: if the loan was made after November 20, 2018, the co-signer may be protected by the Economic Growth, Regulatory Relief and Consumer Protection Act. If you took out loans after getting married, the surviving spouse is likely to be required to pay the loan if they co-signed the loan or if you live in a community property state.

Health Care Directive and Health Care Power of Attorney. The Health Care Directive is used to tell your family what you would want if you were near death, whether by injury or illness. Healthcare providers are obligated to follow your directions if they are stated in this document. Without it, you could be kept on life support for many years, regardless of what your family wants.

A Health Care Power of Attorney is used to name someone you trust to act as your “agent,” if you become incapacitated. This document is focused on your care and medical treatments. It also lets your agent speak with your health insurance company, obtain access to medical records and discuss your care with healthcare providers.

Last Will and Testament. This document isn’t just for people with homes, families, and retirement accounts. Young people have property too—your car, your personal possessions, and whatever financial resources you may have accumulated. If you have a will, you can direct who you want to receive what you own. Without one, the court will decide who gets your possessions and your family won’t have any say about it. With a will, you can determine who receives your property, including your digital assets. You’ll also name an executor in the will—the person who is in charge of distributing your property. An estate planning attorney will create a document to comply with your state’s laws. It doesn’t have to be a complicated document, but it is a good way to ensure your loved ones know your wishes.

Retirement Accounts and Beneficiaries. These accounts may not be as robust as they will be later in your life. However, they are still yours. Make sure that you have named beneficiaries who you want to receive them if you die. Singles may name a sibling, parents, partner, or another family member to receive these assets.

Digital Assets. A digital life means you need a digital estate plan. Creating an inventory list of all of your digital accounts, usernames and passwords. If an account has two-factor authentication, indicate how another person might gain access to the account. Don’t include any of this information in your will, as it becomes a public document after being submitted to the court for probate. Tell a trusted family member where the inventory is located. If you own cryptocurrency, research how crypto assets are passed if the original owner dies.

Guardianship. Your will is used to name a guardian for minor children. Without it, the court will appoint a guardian, and it may not be the family member you wish it would be.

Don’t Forget Your Furry Friends. You can add a pet guardianship clause to a will to ensure that your pet stays with a trusted friend or family member who has agreed to care for your pet. You can also set up a pet trust to set aside funds for your pet’s care, including food, veterinary visits, toys, training and treats.

Reference: Kiplinger (Aug. 22, 2022) “You’re Not Too Young for an Estate Plan: 7 Essentials for Your 20s and 30s”

IRS Extends Portability Election Option Deadline from Two to Five Years

The Internal Revenue Service recently issued a change to the rules regarding portability of a deceased spouse’s unused exclusion (DSUE), expanding the time period from two years to five years. As explained in the recent article “IRS Extends Portability Election” from The National Law Review, portability allows spouses to combine their exemption from estate and gift tax. Here’s how it works.

A surviving spouse may use the unused estate tax exemption of the deceased spouse to lower their tax liability. Let’s say Spouse A dies in 2022, when the estate tax exemption is $12.06 million. If, during Spouse A’s lifetime, they had only used $1 million of their exemption amount, Surviving Spouse B may elect portability to claim $11.06 million DSUE, as long as they file for the exemption within five years of the decedent’s date of death.

Prior to the rule change, the surviving spouse only had two years to claim the DSUE. The due date of an estate tax return is still required to be filed nine months after the decedent’s death or on the last day of the period covered by an extension, if one had been secured.

The IRS had previously extended the deadline to file for portability to two years. However, over time, the taxing agency found itself managing a large number of requests for private letter rulings from estates failing to meet the two year deadline. It was noted many of these requests for portability relief occurred on or before the fifth anniversary of a decedent’s date of death, which led to the current change.

How do I Elect Portability?

To elect portability, the executor (or personal representative) of the estate must file an estate tax return on or before the fifth anniversary of the decedent’s date of death. This estate tax return is a Form 706. The executor must note at the top of Form 706 that it is filed pursuant to Rev. Proc. 2022-32 to elect portability under Sec. 2010(C)(5)(A).

Eligibility to elect portability is not overly burdensome for most people. The decedent must have been a U.S. citizen or resident on the date of their death and the executor must not have been otherwise required to file an estate tax return. This means the decedent was under the estate tax exemption at the time of their death. With the current estate tax exemption now at $12.06 million for an individual, most people will find themselves well under the limit.

This new regulation expands the number of people who will be able to take advantage of the exemption and will help families pass wealth on to the next generation without incurring the federal estate tax. Speak with your estate planning attorney to be sure to elect portability when the first spouse passes, in order not to lose this exemption.

Reference: The National Law Review (Aug. 1, 2022) “IRS Extends Portability Election”

What Happens to Investment Accounts when Someone Dies?

Taking responsibility for a decedent’s probate or trust estate often involves managing significant amounts of wealth, whether they are brokerage accounts or cash assets. Today’s volatile markets add another level of complexity to this responsibility. The article “Estate Planning: Investments during administration of decedent’s estate” from Lake County News explains what estate administrators, executors and trustees need to know as they take on these tasks.

Investment account values are in a constant state of change and may include assets now considered too risky because they are owned by the estate and not the individual. The administrator will need to evaluate the accounts in light of debts owed by the decedent, the costs in administering the estate and any gifts to be made before the estate will be closed.

At the same time, too much cash on hand could mean unproductive assets earning less than they could, losing value to inflation. If there is a long time between the death of the owner and the date of distribution, depending on markets and interest rates, having too much cash could be detrimental to the beneficiaries.

The personal representative or trustee, as relevant, may determine that the cash should be invested, shift how existing investments are managed, or decide to sell investments to generate cash needed for debts, expenses and distributions to beneficiaries.

A personal representative is not expected or required to be a stock market expert. Their duties are to manage estate assets as a person making prudent decisions for the betterment of the estate and heirs. They must put the interest of the estate above their own and not make any speculative investments. With the exception of checking accounts, the expectation is for estate accounts to earn something, even if it is only interest.

If the personal representative has the authority to do so, they may invest in very low-risk debt assets. If the will includes investment powers and if certain conditions safeguarding payment of the decedent’s debts and expenses are satisfied, the personal representatives may invest using those powers. In some instances, a court order may be needed. An estate planning attorney will be able to advise based on the laws of the state in which the decedent resided.

For a trust, the trustee has a fiduciary duty to invest and manage trust assets for beneficiaries. Assets should be made productive, unless the trust includes specific directions for the use of assets prior to distribution. The longer the trust administration takes and the larger the value of the trust, the more important this becomes.

In all scenarios, investment decisions, including balancing risk and reward, must be made in the context of an overall investment strategy for the benefit of heirs. Investments may be delegated to a professional investment advisor, but the selection of the advisor must be made cautiously. The advisor must be selected prudently and the scope and terms of the selection of the advisor must be consistent with the purposes and terms of the trust. The trustee or executor must personally monitor the advisor’s performance and compliance with the overall strategy.

Reference: Lake County News (June 11, 2022) “Estate Planning: Investments during administration of decedent’s estate”

What about House Contents when Someone Dies?

Probate law does not allow anyone to take items from a loved ones’ home after they die, until the will has been probated. Learning about probate, what it entails and how to prepare for it may make it a little easier when a family member dies, says a recent article titled “Can you empty a house before probate? from Augusta Free Press. Knowing what to expect can avoid common pitfalls and mistakes, some of which often lead to family fights and even litigation.

Probate is a court-supervised period when the estate of the decedent is on pause. Assets may not be distributed, including personal items in the home. The goal is to ensure that assets are distributed only after the will has been ruled valid by the court and following the instructions in the will.

Probate includes the legal appointment of the executor, who is named in the will with specific statutory responsibilities, to include ultimately distributing assets.

For many people, estate planning includes preparing assets to avoid the probate process. An estate plan includes a review of the entire estate to see which assets are best suited to be taken out of the estate. Living trusts, joint ownership, transfer-on-death (TOD) and many other estate planning strategies can be used, depending on the person’s finances.

Certain tasks can be accomplished during probate relating to the home and other property. This includes changing the locks on the home to protect it from criminals and unauthorized people who have keys. The decedent’s mail can be forwarded to the executor or another family member’s address. A review of the decedent’s bills, especially monthly payments, can take place. If there’s a mortgage on the home, the mortgage company needs to be contacted and the payments need to be made.

As the end of the probate period nears, it may be time to contact an appraiser to get an unbiased, professional appraisal of the home’s value. This will be needed if the home is to be sold, or if the estate plan needs a valuation of the home.

Probate is often a necessary process. It can create challenges for the family, especially if no estate planning has been done. In some jurisdictions, probate is quick and painless, while in others it is a long and expensive process. Prior planning by an experienced estate planning attorney prevents many of the issues presented by probate.

After probate has been completed, the executor distributes the assets, including the personal property in the home. Personal property with sentimental value often sparks more family fights than assets of greater value. Administering an estate when emotions are running high is a challenge for all concerned.

Another reason to have an estate plan in place is to delineate very specifically what you want to occur after your death. That way there is no room for family members to stake a claim and do something contrary to your wishes.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (May 13, 2022) “Can you empty a house before probate?

Does the Executor Control Bank Accounts?

Executors administering probate assets usually have to deal with several different financial institutions. If good planning has been done by the decedent, the executor has a list of assets, account numbers, website addresses and phone numbers. Otherwise, the personal representative or successor trustee starts by gathering information and identifying the accounts, as described in a recent article “Dealing with the back offices of banks and brokerages” from Lake Country News.

The accounts must be identified, retitled to become part of the estate, or liquidated and moved into the estate account.

If the decedent had a financial advisor who handled all of their investments, the process may be easier, since there will only be one person to deal with.

If there is no financial advisor who can or will personally manage the assets, the executor starts by contacting the back office department of the institution, often referred to as the “estates department.” The contact info can usually be found on the institutions’ website or on the paper statements, if there are any.

Expect to spend a lot of time on hold, especially in the beginning of the week. It may be better to call on a Wednesday or Thursday.

The first call is to introduce the executor, advise of the death of the decedent and learn about the company’s procedures for transferring, retitling, or otherwise gaining control of the account. The bank usually assigns a case number, to be used on all future communications.

If possible, obtain their name, direct dial, and direct email of whoever you speak with. It may only be with one assigned representative, or a different person every time. It depends upon the organization. Take careful notes on every interaction. You may need them.

Some of the documents needed to complete these transactions include an original death certificate, a court certified letter of administration or trustee’s certification of trust and a letter of authorization signed by the client to allow the institution to communicate with the executor or successor trustee.

Financial institutions will often only accept their own forms, which then need to be prepared for completion and signature. Expect to be asked to notarize some documents. In many cases, the institution will require a new account be opened and the assets transferred to the new account.

Be organized—you may find yourself needing to submit the documents multiple times, depending on the financial institution. If hard copy documents are sent, use registered or express mail requiring a signature on delivery. If documents are sent by email, they should only be sent via an encrypted portal to protect both estate and executor.

This is not a quick process and requires diligent follow up, with multiple emails and phone calls. If the value of the estate is large and the assets are complex, it may be better to have the estate planning attorney handle the process.

Reference: Lake Country News (Jan. 15, 2022) “Dealing with the back offices of banks and brokerages”

What Taxes Have to Be Paid When Someone Dies?

The last thing families want to think about after a loved one has passed are taxes, but they must be dealt with, deadlines must be met and challenges along the way need to be addressed. The article “Elder Care: Death and taxes, Part 1: Tax guidance for administering a loved one’s estate” from The Sentinel offers a useful overview, and recommends speaking with an estate planning attorney to be sure all tasks are completed in a timely manner.

Final income tax returns must be filed after a person passes. This is the tax return on income received during their last year of life, up to the date of death. When a final return is filed, this alerts federal and state taxing authorities to close out the decedent’s tax accounts. If a final return is not filed, these agencies will expect to receive annual tax payments and may audit the deceased. Even if the person didn’t have enough income to need to pay taxes, a final return still needs to be filed so tax accounts are closed out. The surviving spouse or executor typically files the final tax return. If there is a surviving spouse, the final income tax return is the last joint return.

Any tax liabilities should be paid by the estate, not by the executor. If a refund is due, the IRS will only release it to the personal representative of the estate. An estate planning attorney will know the required IRS form, which is to be sent with an original of the order appointing the person to represent the estate.

Depending on the decedent’s state of residence, heirs may have to pay an Inheritance Tax Return. This is usually based on the relationship of the heirs. The estate planning attorney will know who needs to pay this tax, how much needs to be paid and how it is done.

Income received by the estate after the decedent’s death may be taxable. This may be minimal, depending upon how much income the estate has earned after the date of death. In complex cases, there may be significant income and complex tax filings may be required.

If a Fiduciary Return needs to be filed, there will be strict filing deadline, often based on the date when the executor applied for the EIN, or the tax identification number for the estate.

The estate’s executor needs to know of any trusts that exist, even though they pass outside of probate. Currently existing trusts need to be administered. If there is a trust provision in the will, a new trust may need to be started after the date of death. Depending on how they are structured, trust income and distributions need to be reported to the IRS. The estate planning attorney will be able to help with making sure this is managed correctly, as long as they have access to the information.

The decedent’s tax returns may have a lot of information, but probably don’t include trust information. If the person had a Grantor Trust, you’ll need an experienced estate planning attorney to help. During the Grantor’s lifetime, the trust income is reported on the Grantor’s 1040 personal income tax return, as if there was no trust. However, when the Grantor dies, the tax treatment of the trust changes. The Trustee is now required to file Fiduciary Returns for the trust each year it exists and generates income.

An experienced estate planning attorney can analyze the trust and understand reporting and taxes that need to be paid, avoiding any unnecessary additional stress on the family.

Reference: The Sentinel (Dec. 3, 2021) “Elder Care: Death and taxes, Part 1: Tax guidance for administering a loved one’s estate”

Is It Better Not to Have a Will?

When a person dies, estate and probate law govern how assets are distributed. If the person who has died has a properly prepared will, they have set up a “testate inheritance.” Their last will and testament will guide the distribution of their assets. If they die without a legitimate will, they have an “intestate estate,” as explained in a recent article titled “Testate vs. Intestate: Estate Planning” from Yahoo! Finance.

In an “intestate estate,” assets are distributed according to the laws of inheritance in the specific legal jurisdiction. The decedent’s wishes, or the wishes of their spouse or children, are not considered. The law is the sole determining power. You have no control over what happens to your assets.

Having a will prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney who is familiar with the law and your family’s situation is the best solution. The will must follow certain guidelines, including how many witnesses must be present for it to be executed property. A probate court reviews the will to ensure that it was prepared properly and if there are any doubts, the will can be deemed invalid.

Having a will drafted by an attorney makes it more likely to be deemed valid and enforced by the probate court. It also minimizes the likelihood of illegal or unenforceable provisions in the will.

Debts become problematic. If you owned a home and had unpaid property taxes or a mortgage and gave the house to someone in your will, they must pay the property taxes and either take over the mortgage or get a new mortgage and pay off the prior mortgage before taking ownership of the property. Otherwise, the executor may sell the home, pay the debts and give any remaining money to the heir.

Liabilities reduce inheritances. If someone has a $50,000 debt and very kindly left you $100,000, you’ll only receive $50,000 because the debt must be satisfied before assets are distributed. If the debt is higher than the value of the estate, heirs receive nothing.

Note that a person may use their will to distribute debts in any way they wish. Family members erroneously believe they are “entitled” by their blood relationship to receive an inheritance. This is not true. Anything you own is yours to give in any manner you wish—if you have a will prepared.

Another common problem: estates having fewer assets than expected. Let’s say someone gives a donation of $500,000 to a local charity, but their entire estate is only worth $100,000. In that case, the $100,000 is distributed in a pro-rata basis according to the terms of the will. The generous gift will not be so generous.

If there is no will, the probate code governs distribution of assets, usually based on kinship. Close relatives inherit before distant relatives. The order is typically (but not always, local laws vary) the spouse, children, parents of the decedent, siblings of the decedent, grandparents of the decedent, then nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles and first cousins.

Another reason to have a will: estranged or unidentified heirs. Settling an estate includes notifying all and any potential heirs of a death and they may have legal rights to an inheritance even if they have never met the decedent. Lacking a will, an estate is more vulnerable to challenges from relatives. Relying on state probate law to distribute assets is hurtful to those you love, since it creates a world of trouble for them.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Sep. 22, 2021) “Testate vs. Intestate: Estate Planning”

Do You have to Go through Probate when Someone Dies?

Probate involves assets, debts and distribution. The administration of a probate estate involves gathering all assets owned by the decedent, all claims owed to the decedent and the payments of all liabilities owed by the decedent or the estate of the decedent and the distribution of remaining assets to beneficiaries. If this sounds complicated, that’s because it is, according to the article “The probate talk: Administrators, creditors and beneficiaries need to know” from The Dallas Morning News.

The admission of a decedent’s will to probate may be challenged for up to two years from the date it was admitted to probate. Many people dismiss this concern, because they believe they have done everything they could to avoid probate, from assigning beneficiary designations to creating trusts. Those are necessary steps in estate planning, but there are some possibilities that executors and beneficiaries need to know.

Any creditor can open a probate estate and sue to pull assets back into the estate. A disappointed heir can sue the executor/administrator and claim that designations and transfers were made when the decedent was incapacitated, unduly influenced or the victim of fraud.

It’s very important that the administrator handles estate matters with meticulous attention to detail, documenting every transaction, maintaining scrupulous records and steering clear of anything that might even appear to be self-dealing. The administrator has a fiduciary duty to keep the beneficiaries of the estate reasonably informed of the process, act promptly and diligently administer and settle the estate.

The administrator must also be in a position to account for all revenue received, money spent and assets sold. The estate’s property must not be mixed in any way with the administrator’s own property or funds or business interests.

The administrator may not engage in any self-dealing. No matter how easily it may be to justify making a transaction, buying any of the estate’s assets for their own benefit or using their own accounts to temporarily hold money, is not permitted.

The administrator must obtain a separate tax identification number from the IRS, known as an EIN, for the probate estate. This is the identification number used to open an estate bank account to hold the estate’s cash and any investment grade assets. The account has to be properly named, on behalf of the probate estate. Anything that is cash must pass through the estate account, and every single receipt and disbursement should be documented. There’s no room for fuzzy accounting in an estate administration, as any estate planning lawyer will advise.

Distributions don’t get made, until all creditors are paid. This may not win the administrator any popularity contests, but it is required. No creditors are paid until the taxes are paid—the last year’s taxes for the last year the decedent was alive, and the estate taxes. The administrator may be held personally liable, if money is paid out to creditors or beneficiaries and there’s not enough money in the estate to pay taxes.

If the estate contains multiple properties in different states, probate must be done in all of those different states. If it is a large complex estate, an estate planning attorney will be a valuable resource in helping to avoid pitfalls, minor or major.

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (May 16, 2021) “The probate talk: Administrators, creditors and beneficiaries need to know”

What Paperwork Is Needed after Someone Dies?

Tax return issues, family matters, business associates, partners, trustees, bankers, investment advisors and tax collectors from the IRS to state and local taxing authorities all require attention after someone has died. There is a lot of work, and often a grieving family member finds it helpful to enlist the aid of a professional to lighten the load. A recent article, “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate” from Accounting Web, contains a list of the tasks to be completed.

General administration and legal tasks. At the very earliest, the executor should create a timetable with the known tasks. If you’ve never done this before, there’s no shame in enlisting help from a qualified professional. Be realistic about your familiarity with tax and legal issues and your organizational skills.

Determine with your estate planning attorney whether probate is necessary. Is the estate small enough for your state’s laws to allow you to expedite the process? Some jurisdictions can do this, others do not.

If an estate plan was created and executed properly, many assets may not need to go through probate. Assets like IRAs, joint tenancies, accounts that are POD, or Payable on Death and any assets with named beneficiaries do not require probate.

Gather information about family owners or others who may have a claim to the estate and who may have useful information about the assets. You’ll need to locate and notify heirs of the decedent’s passing.

Others who need to be notified, include charities named in the will. You’ll need to identify prior transfers to charities that were partial transfers, such as Charitable Remainder Trusts. If there is a charitable remainder trust with a retained lifetime income interest, it will need to be in the estate tax return, albeit with an offsetting estate tax charitable deduction.

Locate the important documents, including the will, any correspondence relating to the will, any letters explaining the decedent’s wishes, deeds, trusts, bank and brokerage statements, partnership agreements, prior tax returns, federal and state tax forms and any gift tax returns.

An estate planning attorney will be able to help determine ownership issues, including identifying assets and liabilities. This includes deeds, vehicle titles, club memberships, personal possessions and business assets, including copyrights and patents.

Social Security will need to be notified, as will Medicare, pension administrators, Department of Veteran Affairs, the post office, trustees, and any service providers.

Filing taxes for the last year of the person’s life and their estate tax filing needs to happen on a timely basis. Even if an estate tax return may not be required, it is useful to file to establish date of death values for assets. It is important to resolve income tax statute of limitation issues and any IRS or state examination issues.

Estate administration is a big job, especially if you’ve never done it before. Having the help of an experienced estate lawyer can alleviate much of the worry that comes with settling an estate.

Reference: Accounting Web (March 19, 2021) “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate”

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”