Do Most People Need a Living Trust?
Living trust and estate planning form on a desk.

Do Most People Need a Living Trust?

Avoiding the costs and extensive time needed to settle an estate through probate is one reason people like to use trusts in estate planning. This type of trust allows you to designate a trustee to manage the assets in the trust after you have passed.  This is especially important if heirs are minor children or adults who cannot manage a large inheritance. A living trust, as explained in the article titled “The Lowdown on Living Trusts” from Kiplinger, has additional benefits. However, there are some pitfalls to be cautious about, especially concerning transferring assets.

Certain assets do not belong in a living trust. Regardless of their size, some assets should never be placed in a living trust, including IRAs, 401(k)s, tax deferred annuities, health savings accounts, and medical savings accounts and others .

Placing these assets in a trust requires changing the ownership on the accounts. Don’t do it! The IRS will treat the transfer as a distribution. You will be required to pay income taxes and penalties, if any are triggered, on the entire value of the account.

You may be able to make the trust a beneficiary of the retirement accounts. However, it is not appropriate for everyone. Changes to IRA distribution rules from the SECURE Act may make this a dangerous move, since the trustee may be required to empty the IRA within ten years of your death.

For practical purposes, assets like cars, boats or motorcycles do not belong in a trust. To transfer ownership to the trust, you will need to retitle them. This would result in fees and taxes. You would also have to change the insurance, since the insurance company may not cover assets owned by trusts. The cost may outweigh the benefits.

Assets belonging in a trust include real estate, especially your primary residence. Placing your home in a trust will minimize the hassle of transferring the home to heirs, if this is your plan. If you own property in another state, transferring the title to a living trust allows your estate to avoid probate in more than one state. Remember to get a new deed to transfer ownership to the trust. If you refinance or take a home equity line of credit, you may need to transfer the property out of the trust and into your name to get the loan. You will then need to transfer the property back into the trust.

Financial assets can be placed in a trust. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds, CDs, money market funds, bank savings accounts and even safe deposit boxes can be placed in a trust. There may be a lot of paperwork, and in some cases, you may need to open a new account in the name of the trust.

Once the trust has been created, do not neglect to fund it by transferring assets. Retitling assets requires attention to detail to make sure all of the desired assets have been retitled. The trust needs to be reviewed every few years, just as your estate plan needs to be reviewed. Be sure to have a secondary trustee named, if you are the primary trustee.

Trusts are an excellent option if you live in a state where probate is onerous and expensive. Assets placed in the trust can be distributed with a high degree of specificity, which also provides great peace of mind. If you believe your oldest son will benefit from receiving a large inheritance when he is 40 and not 30, you can do so through a trust. The level of control, avoidance of probate and protection of assets makes the living trust a powerful estate planning tool.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 24, 2022) “The Lowdown on Living Trusts”

When Can Estate Assets Be Distributed?

Just as an individual pays taxes, so do estates. An estate is required to file an annual income tax return for each calendar year it is open, even if only for part of the year. This is in addition to the estate tax return and the decedent’s final tax return, explains a recent article “The Dangers Of Distributing Estate Assets Too Soon” from Forbes.

The estate tax return is based on the assets in the estate, the income received and deductible expenses paid during the calendar year. Only one estate tax return is required. However, as long as the estate is open, an annual estate income tax return needs to be filed.

To minimize income, many executors distribute income to beneficiaries shortly after it comes into the estate. The estate takes a deduction for the income distributed to beneficiaries in the same year it is received by the estate. Beneficiaries are required to include the distribution in their gross income.

However, if the estate does not distribute income before the end of the year, the estate will owe income taxes. There are further complexities to be aware of, including what happens if an executor receives unexpected income or does not know the tax impact of certain transactions. The estate has to pay taxes, but what happens if all assets have been distributed?

The estate still owes those taxes.

The executor may be personally liable for paying the taxes.

If some of the expenses the estate pays are not deductible, but the executor thinks they are, then the estate will have an income tax liability, possibly without the cash to pay it.

The estate often receives property taxable as income if it is not distributed to beneficiaries, like a stock dividend. The estate receives the stock, and its taxable income based on the value at the date of the distribution.

If the estate does not distribute the stock to beneficiaries until later in the year and the stock’s value declines, the estate is still required to recognize the income equal to the stock’s value on the date it was received. If the executor deducts the lower value of the stock, then the estate will be liable for the income tax on the difference.

In some cases, these kinds of issues can be prevented by maintaining a certain level of cash in the estate account until the final estate tax return is filed. The beneficiaries receive distributions once all of the taxes—estate income, estate and final individual or final joint—are paid.

For larger or more complex estates, it is wise to have a discussion with the estate planning attorney, the family CPA and the executor, so all parties are prepared for tax liabilities in advance.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 16, 2022) “The Dangers Of Distributing Estate Assets Too Soon”

Can You Set Up a Trust After Death?

If you want the power of a trust without the work of maintaining it, a testamentary trust may be the right solution for your estate plan. Estate planning attorneys rely on many trusts, but two categories are most common: inter vivos trusts, trusts set up during your lifetime to offer the most flexibility, and testamentary trusts, as described in the article “Trusts can be created after death” from The News-Enterprise.

For an inter vivos trust, the grantor (the person making the trust) places property into the trust. These assets are thereby removed from the probate estate and pass directly to beneficiaries. Placing property into the trust requires having assets retitled and some trusts pay taxes. Not everyone wants to do the work. However, it is not onerous unless the estate is large, in which case an estate planning attorney can manage the details.

The testamentary trust is quite simple. The terms and directions for the trust are the same as in inter vivos trust but are inside the last will and testament. There is no separate trust document. The trust is located within the will.

The costs of creating a testamentary trust are lower, since the trust does not exist until the person dies. Your executor is responsible for transferring assets into the trust. Many wills contain “trigger” trusts, which only become effective if pre-determined circumstances of the beneficiary occur to trigger the trust. If a beneficiary becomes disabled, for instance, the provisions become active.

There are some disadvantages to be aware of, which your estate planning attorney can explain if they pertain to your situation.

Testamentary trusts must by their nature go through probate before they are created. People use trusts to protect their privacy. However, a testamentary trust becomes part of the public record as part of the probate estate. With a testamentary trust, trust documents are private during your life and after you have died.

If dependents require funds from the trust because they are disabled or dependent, they must wait until the grantor dies and probate is completed, since the trust does not exist until after probate. As most people know, probate does not always occur in a timely manner.

Other issues: some life insurance companies may not permit a testamentary trust to be a beneficiary. The trust may only be funded with assets left after creditors have been paid. If there is a home to be sold, assets may not be available for a year or more.

Testamentary trusts do not shield assets during your lifetime, another key benefit for using a trust.

Testamentary trusts offer certain means of controlling distribution of assets after death, but should be considered with all factors in mind, benefits and drawbacks. In estate planning, as in life, it is always best to prepare for the unexpected.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 8, 2022) “Trusts can be created after death”

Do I Need an Attorney for Probate?

Having an estate planning attorney manage the probate process can alleviate a great deal of stress for the family, says the recent article “Reasons to hire a lawyer for probate” from The Mercury.

For one thing, the attorney will know what your state requires in the way of executing the will. You may need to pay a state inheritance tax, or you may have to file certain documents specific to your state. Even if the surviving spouse is the only beneficiary and all assets are either jointly titled or are distributed through beneficiary designations, there are other details you may miss.

A surviving spouse will certainly appreciate not having to undertake a mountain of paperwork or electronic forms on their own, especially if there are no adult children living nearby to help. Which beneficiary form needs to be completed, and what will financial institutions need to change accounts to the proper ownership? It can be daunting, especially during mourning.

Depending upon the state, there may be exemptions, discounts and deductions from the estate. A layperson likely does not know if their state deducts the attorney’s fees and/or the executor fees. Even attorneys who do not practice estate law do not always know about these potential benefits.

An estate planning attorney will also know how long the probate process will take. If the surviving spouse is the executor and is unable to attend probate court, some cases accept a remote process. There are also COVID-specific procedures in some states, which a layperson may not know about.

If there are family disputes between beneficiaries regarding distribution, an estate planning attorney could be a very important resource. There may need to be a settlement agreement created that conforms to the state’s law. If it is not handled properly, the agreement could be deemed invalid if challenged in court.

What if the family home is being sold? Sometimes executors working without an attorney do not realize the requirements from title insurance companies regarding the sale of a property where one of the parties has passed. Failing to make sure that these requirements are met, could delay the settlement of the estate and put the property sale in jeopardy.

If there are health or creditor issues, or disputes over property, an estate planning attorney is invaluable in protecting the surviving spouse and/or executor. In many cases, the estate is left with substantial medical bills, Medicaid claims or related costs. Executors may not know their rights, or how to defend the estate. A knowledgeable estate planning attorney will.

Reference: The Mercury (Feb. 8, 2022) “Reasons to hire a lawyer for probate”

What Happens to IRAs and 401(k) when Spouse Dies?

For married couples who own large IRA and 401(k) accounts, the question is often whether the couple should consider paying all or a portion of their accounts to a bypass trust to benefit the surviving spouse. This takes the designated portion of the IRA or 401(k) proceeds out of the surviving spouse’s taxable estate and helps with asset distribution, according to the article “Estate Planning for Married Couples’ IRAs And 401(k)s” from Financial Advisor.

In 2013, the portability election became law. Portability allows the surviving spouse to use the unused federal estate tax exemption of the deceased spouse, thereby capturing not one but two estate tax exemptions. Why would a couple need a bypass trust?

The portability election does not remove appreciation in the value of the assets moved from the surviving spouse’s taxable estate. A bypass trust removes all appreciation. An estate planning attorney will review your entire situation to determine the optimal path.

There are also situations when the portability election does not apply. One is if the surviving spouse remarries and then the new spouse predeceases them. With a bypass trust, remarriage does not matter (although estate planning documents do need to be updated).

The portability election also does not apply for federal generation-skipping transfer tax purposes. In other words, the amount that could have passed to an estate and generation-skipping transfer tax-exempt bypass trust, including appreciated value, could now be subject to federal transfer tax in the heir’s estate.

If you use the portability election, those assets are subject to potential lawsuits against the surviving spouse and, if remarriage occurs, to any potential claims of a new spouse. A bypass trust provides better protection from lawsuits and claims.

Using the portability election may result in the first spouse to die losing the option to control where those assets go upon the death of the surviving spouse. A bypass trust provides more control for asset distribution.

The calculations for each situation must be considered, but the bypass trust can help reduce the taxable estate for children, after the surviving spouse has passed. It may also make sense for a portion of the IRA or 401(k) plan proceeds to go to the bypass trust and another portion to the surviving spouse outright. The use of the beneficiary designation may allow for a full or partial disclaimer by the surviving spouse. However, the bypass trust could provide more flexibility than keeping assets in the original accounts.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Jan. 7, 2022) “Estate Planning for Married Couples’ IRAs And 401(k)s”

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”

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”

Estate Battles Over Personal Property Distribution

Creating and probating a last will and testament is rarely a simple task, but one of the most challenging aspects is the distribution of personal property, warns the article “Be clear about personal property distribution in your will” from The News-Enterprise. The nature of personal property—that it is relatively low in market value but high in sentimental value—is just part of the problem.

You’d be surprised how many families fight over a favorite ceramic dish or an inexpensive oil painting. However, those fights slow down the process of settling the estate and can create unnecessary costs.

The distribution of personal property is usually part of the residual estate, that which is left over when other assets, like a home, bank accounts, etc., have been distributed. Some families don’t even have a chance to select items, and instead find themselves in irrational bidding wars at estate sales.

This issue may be avoided by having precise language in the last will and testament about these items. First, the testator, the person who is creating the will, should outline the specific items they want to be given to specific people. Promised items should be listed and removed from the general pool of personal property.

Next, the testator names who should be included in the distribution of remaining personal property. While some people list the same recipients of the full estate, this is not always the case, particularly if there are no children or if property is being left to charity. One option is to limit the beneficiaries of personal items to only close family members.

Third, provide clear directions for how the remaining items will be distributed. Will beneficiaries take turns in a defined order? Should the property be appraised, and values being divided equally by the executor? Be as specific as possible.

If there are any unclaimed items, provide instructions for those as well. Do you want a collection of expensive cookware to be sent to a charitable organization? Clothing, furniture, and other items should be either donated to charity or sold at an estate sale, with the proceeds distributed between the beneficiaries.

Another way to avoid conflicts over personal property is to give away items, while you are living. Sentimental gifts are a good alternative for holiday gifts, especially for seniors on a fixed budget. This way the items are clearly out of the estate.

A warning for those who are thinking about taking the “sticky note” system: it rarely goes off without a hitch. Attaching stickers to items with the name of the person who you want to receive them is vulnerable to someone else removing the stickers. Similarly, naming one person to distribute all personal items could lead to strife between family members. There’s no legally enforceable way to ensure that they will follow your wishes.

Address the issue of personal property with your estate planning attorney. They will be able to help determine the least acrimonious means of ensuring that the people you want will end up with the things you want.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Sep. 29, 2020) “Be clear about personal property distribution in your will”

Elder Financial Abuse Fraud Occurs, When No One’s Watching

The case of Nice vs. U.S. is a dramatic example of what can happen when there are no professionals involved in an elderly person’s finances and one person has the power to make transactions without supervision. In the article “Tax case reveals possible intrafamily fraud” from Financial Planning, a trusted son allegedly decimated his mother’s IRA and left her estate with $500,000 tax bill.

Mrs. Nice and her husband had been married for more than 60 years. Before he died in 2002, her husband arranged to leave significant assets for his wife’s care. Their son Chip was named executor of the husband’s estate and moved in with his mother. In 2007, she was diagnosed with dementia. As her condition deteriorated, Chip allegedly began fraudulent activities. He gained access to her IRAs, causing distributions to be made from the IRAs and then allegedly taking the funds for his own use.

Chip also filed federal income tax returns for his mother, causing her to execute a fraudulent power of attorney. The federal tax returns treated the IRA distributions as taxable income to Mrs. Nice. She not only lost the money in her IRA but got hit with a whopping tax bill.

In 2014, Mrs. Nice’s daughter Julianne applied for and received a temporary injunction against Chip, removing him from her mother’s home and taking away control of her finances. Chip died in 2015. A court found that Mrs. Nice was not able to manage her own affairs and Mary Ellen was appointed as a guardian. Julianne filed amended tax returns on behalf of her mother, claiming a refund for tax years 2006-07 and 2009-13. The IRS accepted the claim for 2009 but denied the claims for 2006 and 2010-2013. The appeal for 2009 was accepted, but the IRS never responded to the claim for 2007. Julianne appealed the denials, but each appeal was denied.

By then, Mrs. Nice had died. Julianne brought a lawsuit against the IRS seeking a refund of $519,502 in federal income taxes plus interest and penalties. The suit contended that because of her brother’s alleged fraudulent acts, Mrs. Nice never received the IRA distributions. Her tax returns for 2011-2014 overstated her actual income, the suit maintained, and she was owed a refund for overpayment. The court did not agree, stating that Julianne failed to show that her mother did not receive the IRA funds and denied the claim.

There are a number of harsh lessons to be learned from this family’s unhappy saga.

When IRA funds are mishandled or misappropriated, it may be possible for the amounts taken to be rolled over to an IRA, if a lawsuit to recover the losses occurs in a timely manner. In 2004, the IRS issued 11 private-letter rulings that allow lawsuit settlements to be rolled over to IRAs. The IRS allowed the rollovers and gave owners 60 days from the receipt of settlement money to complete the rollover.

Leaving one family member in charge of family wealth with no oversight from anyone else—a trustee, an estate planning attorney, or a financial planner—is a recipe for elder financial abuse. Even if the funds had remained in the IRA, a fiduciary would have kept an eye on the funds and any distributions that seemed out of order.

One of the goals of an estate plan is to protect the family’s assets, even from members of their own family. An estate plan can be devised to arrange for the care of a loved one, at the same time it protects their financial interests.

Reference: Financial Planning (March 6, 2020) “Tax case reveals possible intrafamily fraud”