Why You Need an Estate Plan

Did you think you had to be rich to have an estate? Think again! From a legal perspective, your estate includes everything you own, from tangible property like a car, house, furniture, as well as intangible assets like insurance policies, bank accounts, retirement and investment accounts. You don’t have to be rich to have an estate, says the recent article “How to Plan Your Estate” from The Military Wallet. However, you do need to have an estate plan, and the best time to start planning is right now.

An estate plan is more than simply passing your property along to heirs. It is also how you prepare for the unpleasantries of life, including becoming incapacitated or being unable to make decisions on your own.

Your estate plan protects you and your beneficiaries. Without a will, the court will determine who will get your assets subject to probate, following the laws of your state. With a will, you determine who should receive your probated property, from family members to charities.

Your estate plan protects your children. Your will nominates a guardian who will care for your children if you die before they turn age 18, or, if you have a disabled child with special needs, who will care for them for the rest of their life. Without a will nominating a guardian, the court will make these decisions.

Your estate plan protects your family by preventing conflict. Your wishes are made clear in a will and in other estate planning documents. The more details, the better. No one can say they knew what you really wanted, because what you really wanted is documented and memorialized in your estate plan.

Getting ready to meet with an estate planning attorney will be easier if you take it step by step.

Make an inventory of all assets, including

  • House, land and any real estate property
  • Cars, boats and any other vehicles
  • Bank, investment and retirement accounts
  • Life insurance policies
  • Health savings accounts
  • Jewelry, valuables and collectibles
  • Digital assets, including website URL, username and password
  • Cryptocurrency, including all information for an executor to be able to access accounts

Create a plan for the different scenarios in your life. Who would you want to raise your children if you and your spouse die while children are minors or are unable to care for them because of illness or injury? How will your spouse pay the mortgage if you die unexpectedly?

Make a list of all accounts with designated beneficiaries. This typically includes life insurance, retirement plans and annuities. Any time you have a major life event like marriage, divorce, birth or death, these designations should be reviewed.

You’re now ready to meet with an estate planning attorney. Your estate plan should include a last will and testament, outlining who should receive your property, who will distribute your estate (your executor) and who should raise your children if you die while they are under legal age.

A Health Care Proxy is used to name a person who can make decisions about your healthcare if you cannot. A Living Will outlines the details for medical treatment you want or don’t want when you are near death.

Power of Attorney is a document giving someone else the power to take care of your finances at any point, if you can’t because of illness or incapacity. This avoids your family members having to go to court to obtain a guardianship, which takes time and is a costly proceeding.

Reference: The Military Wallet (Aug. 25, 2022) “How to Plan Your Estate”

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”

Does Estate Administration Need to Be Supervised?

Probate is the legal process where the court approves the will and the executor so the estate may be distributed after a person dies. Probate is a familiar term to many, but supervised or unsupervised administration is less well known. The article “Estate Planning: Supervised and unsupervised probate administrations” from nwi.com explains how estate administration works.

Generally speaking, there are two different types of probate administration, as inferred by the article’s title: supervised and unsupervised. Depending on who you ask, there may also be a third, known as “informal probate.”

Not all assets are passed through probate. Bank accounts owned jointly pass directly to the other owner. A home owned with a Transfer on Death (TOD) deed is also considered a non-probate asset. This is not to say that non-probate assets cannot be brought into probate. There are instances where they can. However, it takes a bit of an effort and is pretty unlikely to occur.

Probate assets are assets with no surviving joint owner and no beneficiary designation. These types of assets require a proceeding to ensure that the correct person or entity receives it after the original owner dies.

A supervised probate administration requires extensive court involvement. Every action taken by the executor has to be approved. If the home is to be sold or a distribution made to beneficiaries, the executor has to obtain a court order authorizing it.

An unsupervised probate administration, just as it sounds, involves far less court involvement. The personal representative or executor is recognized as valid, creates an inventory of the assets and files the inventory with the court. Once the inventory is reviewed, the executor is told to administer the distribution of assets according to the terms of the will.

Beneficiaries have 90 days to object to the executor’s actions; although this may vary by state. Check with your estate planning attorney. If no one objects, the final account is approved and the executor is done.

With less court involvement, asset distribution proceeds at a faster rate, which is why many wills provide for it.

The “informal probate” mentioned earlier is an outlier. Its use varies by state and by jurisdiction. There’s no court involvement at all. This is mostly used for very, very small estates. Some argue it’s still probate, even if it’s informal, while others maintain it exists solely to avoid probate.

The nature of probate depends on many factors, including where the decedent lives, the size and complexity of the estate and whether or not there are many family members or others who might challenge the estate’s distribution. In some communities, probate is a quick and painless process. In others, it is long, expensive and stressful. Your estate planning attorney will know what your situation will be and help you and your family plan accordingly.

Reference: nwi.com (April 10, 2022) “Estate Planning: Supervised and unsupervised probate administrations”

The Most Common Estate Planning Mistakes

Estate administration is the process of managing the estate when a loved one has passed. For the inexperienced executor, there are pitfalls to be avoided, warns the article “Top 5 Probate and Estate Administration Mistakes” from Long Island Press.

The biggest mistake is creating an estate plan from generic documents on the internet. Wills must meet many technical legal requirements to be valid. All wills are admitted to probate and the court scrutinizes wills carefully to be certain the wishes of the person who died (the testator) have been followed. A will created without the guidance of a skilled estate planning attorney is more likely to be found invalid and more easily challenged.

Neglecting to deal with Medicaid liens before distributing an inheritance can create huge financial problems for family members. Medicaid is required by law to attempt to clawback assets to recover the cost of care. Some states are more aggressive than others. Medicaid may attach a lien to any real estate owned by the Medicaid recipient and collect it at the time of their death.

The value of asset protection planning, including the use of a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT), in a timely manner, cannot be understated.

Leaving heirs and beneficiaries in the dark about the estate plan and distribution wishes often creates a sense of something bad being planned. Surprise revelations about the estate are only good in movies. In real life, this can lead to litigation and family fights. Litigation can take the form of a will contest, a trust contest, a contested accounting, or an action to remove the executor.

Talk with the family about your plans, so there is less tension created over the future of your estate.

Taxes can undermine your wishes, if your estate plan does not include tax planning. There are numerous methods used to minimize tax liabilities. However, they must be put into place in advance.

The executor has to file a final income tax return on behalf of the decedent for the year of death and also file an estate tax return. The executor is also responsible to obtain an estate tax identification number (EIN) from the IRS and open an estate bank account used to pay taxes and debts.

Will your executor, spouse or heirs be able to locate your critical information? If your legal, financial and online information is not organized, your executor may spend a long time digging through old paperwork, most of which is likely to be out of date and irrelevant. Spare your executor the time and emotional impact of wasted hours reviewing old records. No one needs your checking accounts from the 1970s!

Information on everything from assets, tax returns, funeral and burial arrangements, life insurance policies, Social Security and Medicaid or Medicare cards, deed for home and title for your cars, should all be organized to help your family find the information they need.

While you are alive, your family will need access to documents like your Power of Attorney, Health Care Power of Attorney, and Advance Health Care Directives.

By planning and making an effort in advance to manage your affairs, you enhance your legacy. Leaving a mess behind will be remembered, perhaps more so than organized documents.

Reference: Long Island Press (May 4, 2022) “Top 5 Probate and Estate Administration Mistakes”

Why Have a Joint Revocable Trust?

If you’re married, you are eligible to use a joint trust instead of having individual trusts. This recent article, “Joint Revocable Trust: Estate Planning” from aol.com, looks at the pros and cons to see if it makes sense for your estate plan.

A trust is a legal entity where a grantor, the person creating the trust, gives a trustee control over assets in the trust, usually to distribute them when the grantor has died. The person receiving the trust is the beneficiary. They have no control over the assets until they are distributed. In the case of a revocable living trust, the grantor and the trustee are often the same person.

A revocable trust, also known as a revocable living trust, can be changed many times, or even dissolved whenever the grantor wants. However, when the grantor dies or becomes incapacitated, the trust becomes irrevocable, meaning it cannot easily be changed. It also becomes inaccessible to creditors.

Why would you need a “joint” revocable trust? As its name implies, a joint trust has multiple co-trustees. This is a commonly used trust for spouses, especially when the wish is for the surviving spouse to receive 100% of the couple’s assets when the first spouse dies. The joint trust is revocable while both spouses are living and, depending on the trust terms, may continue to be revocable after the first spouse dies.

When one spouse dies, the surviving spouse becomes the sole trustee. On the death of the second spouse, the trust becomes an irrevocable trust. This is when an appointed successor trustee takes control of the trust, including distributing assets to beneficiaries as directed in the trust documents.

To decide whether you and your spouse need a joint revocable trust, you’ll want to discuss the pros and cons with an estate planning attorney.

The joint trust is practical and easy to fund and maintain. You and your spouse can both transfer assets into the same trust and you both own it. Assets in the joint trust don’t go through probate, which can get assets distributed faster and easier. The assets in the joint trust and the terms of the trust remain private, since the trust documents don’t become part of the public record. Your will does, through probate. Finally, a joint trust does not need to file a separate tax return, as long as one spouse is still living.

However, there are some disadvantages to a joint trust. It’s harder to leave any assets in the joint trust to non-spousal beneficiaries, like children from a prior marriage. The surviving spouse retains control over all assets in the trust. If there is no language in the trust concerning children, they will not inherit anything from the trust.

In a small number of states, there are state estate taxes with thresholds far lower than the current federal estate tax exemption of $12.06 million per individual. Your estate planning attorney will know what taxes will be due in your state of residence.

A joint trust may offer less protection from creditors than separate trusts, if one of the spouses has financial issues. If spouses combine their assets in a joint revocable trust, assets in both trusts would be vulnerable to creditors.

For couples whose finances are not overly complex, a joint revocable trust may be a great choice. Your estate planning attorney will be able to look at your entire estate and see what tools will serve you best.

Reference: aol.com (May 2, 2022) “Joint Revocable Trust: Estate Planning”

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”