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”

Can a Vacation Home Be Kept in the Family for Generations?

Many family traditions include gatherings at vacation homes. However, leaving these properties to the next generation is not always in the best interest of the family. Some people try to make a simple solution work for a complex problem, leading to more challenges, as explained in the article “Succession planning for the family lakehouse” from NH Business Review.

Joint ownership among siblings can lead to disputes about how the home is used, operated and maintained. Some children want to continue using the house, while others may see it as an income stream for a rental property. There may be siblings who cannot afford to participate in the house’s upkeep and need the cash more than the tradition. When joint ownership is presented as a surprise in a will, the adult children may find themselves fighting about the vacation home, with no parent around to tell them to knock it off.

Making matters more complicated, if the siblings live in different states and the house is in a neighboring state, ownership of the real estate at death may subject the decedent’s estate to estate taxes where the property is located. As a result, the property may need to go through probate in an additional state. Every state has its own tax rules, so the transfer of joint property will have to be analyzed by an estate planning attorney knowledgeable about the laws in each state involved.

A sensible alternative is creating a Limited Liability Corporation, ideally while the original owners—the parents—are still living. The organizational documents include a certificate of organization to file with the Secretary of State and an operating agreement. The LLC will need its own taxpayer identification number, or EIN.

The operating agreement governs the management of the property and addresses the operating expenses and maintenance of the property. It should also address the process for a child to cash in on their ownership to other children. LLC operating agreements often include these items:

  • Responsibilities for operating expenses
  • Process to transfer member units or interests
  • Duties for regular maintenance, budgeting and approval of property improvements
  • Development of a property use schedule
  • Establishing rules for the home’s use

There are some costs associated with creating an LLC, including annual filing requirements. However, these will be small, when compared to the cost of family fights and untangling joint ownership.

An LLC can also offer personal liability protection from lawsuits brought by renters, creditors, or any litigants. If there is an accident resulting from work being done on the property, the owners may be shielded from the liability because they do not personally own the property, the LLC does.

In the case of divorce, bankruptcy filing, or a large judgement being filed against one of the children, the LLC will protect their interest in the property.

The real estate owned by the LLC is not part of the owner’s probate estate. This avoids the need for a second probate in the state where the property is located. Some states have adopted the Uniform Transfer on Death Security Registration Act, and the LLC membership interest can be assigned along to the terms of the beneficiary designation.

Planning for what will happen to a vacation home after death provides peace of mind for all in the family. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that the property and the family’s peace is preserved.

Reference: NH Business Review (March 23, 2022) “Succession planning for the family lakehouse”

How Does Cryptocurrency Work in an Estate Plan?

Crypto-assets, including cryptocurrencies and non-currency blockchain tokens, hold significant family wealth today and present challenges to securing, transferring, protecting and gifting, as explained in the article “What Holding Crypto Means for Your Estate Plan” from U.S. News & World Report.

Traditional estate planning is evolving to include this new asset class, as digital asset investors embrace a market worth more than $1 trillion. Experienced investors who use digital assets to expand their asset diversification are more likely to understand the importance of protecting their investment through estate planning. However, first time investors who own a small amount of cryptocurrency or the early adapters who bought Bitcoins at the very start and now are worth millions, may not be as aware of the importance of digital asset estate planning.

Unlike traditional bank accounts, controlled through a centralized banking system and a legacy system of reporting, digital assets are by their very nature decentralized. An owner has access through a private key, usually a series of numbers and letters known only to the asset’s owner and stored in a digital wallet. Unless an executor knows about digital wallets and what a private key is and how to use them, the assets can and often do evaporate.

It can be challenging for executors to obtain access to traditional accounts, like 401(k)s or brokerage accounts. Mistakes are made and documents go astray, even in straightforward estates. In a new asset class, with new words like private keys, seed phrases, hardware wallets and more, the likelihood of a catastrophic loss increases.

A last will and testament is necessary for every estate. It’s needed to name an executor, a guardian for minor children and to set forth wishes for wealth distribution. However, a will becomes part of the public record during court proceedings after death, so it should never include detailed information, like bank account numbers. The same goes for information about cryptocurrency. Specific information in a will can be used to steal digital assets.

Loved ones need to know the crypto-assets exist, where to find them and what to do with them. Depending on the amount of the assets and what kind of assets are held, such information needs to be included and addressed in the estate plan.

If the assets are relatively small and owned through an exchange (Coinbase, Biance, or Kraken are a few examples), it is possible to list the crypto asset on a schedule of trust assets and ensure that the trustee has all the login information and knows how to access them.

For complex cases with significant wealth in digital assets, establishing a custodian and trustee may be necessary. A plan must be created that establishes both a custodian and trustee of digital assets. Steps include sharing private keys with a family member or trusted friend or splintering the private keys among multiple trusted individuals, so no one person has complete control.

This new asset class is here for the foreseeable future, and as more investors get involved with cryptocurrency, their estate plan needs to address and protect it.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Oct. 5, 2021) “What Holding Crypto Means for Your Estate Plan”

When Should an Estate Plan Be Reviewed?
Businessman looking through a magnifying glass to documents

When Should an Estate Plan Be Reviewed?

If your parents don’t remember when they last reviewed their estate plan, then chances are it’s time for a review. Over the years, wishes, relationships and circumstances change, advises the recent article, “5 Reasons To Have Your Parents’ Estate Plan Reviewed,” from Forbes. An out-of-date estate plan may not achieve your parent’s wishes, or be declared invalid by the court. Having an estate planning attorney review the estate plan may save you money in the long run, not to mention the stress and worry created by an estate disaster. If you need reasons, here are five to consider.

Financial institutions are wary of dated documents. Banks and other financial institutions look twice at documents that are not recent. Trying to use a Power of Attorney that was created twenty years ago is bound to create problems. One person tried to use a document, but the bank insisted on getting an affidavit from the attorney who prepared it to be certain it was valid. While the son was trying to solve this, his mother died, and the account had to be probated. A “fresh” power of attorney would have solved the problem.

State laws change. Things that seem small become burdensome in a hurry. For example, if someone wants to leave a variety of personal effects to many different people, each and every one of the people listed would need to be located and notified. Many states now allow a separate writing to dispose of personal items, making the process far easier. However, if the will is out of date, you may be stuck with a house-sized task.

Legal document language changes. The SECURE Act changed many aspects of estate planning, particularly with regard to retirement accounts. If your parents have retirement accounts that are payable to a trust, the trust language must be changed to comply with the law. Not having these updates in the estate plan could result in an increase in income taxes or costly fees to fix the situation.

Estate tax laws change. In recent years, there have been many changes to federal tax laws. If your parents have not updated their estate plan within the last five years, they have missed many changes and many opportunities. It is likely that your parents’ assets have also changed over the years, and the documents need to reflect how the estate taxes will be paid. Are their assets titled so that there are enough funds in the estate or trust to cover the cost of any liability? Here’s another one—if all of the assets pass directly to beneficiaries via beneficiary designations, who is going to pay for the tax bills –and with what funds?

Older estate plans may contain wishes from decades ago. For one family, an old will led to a situation where a son did not inherit his father’s entire estate. His late sister’s children, who had been estranged from him for decades, received their mother’s share. If the father and son had reviewed the will earlier, a new will could have been created and signed that would have given the son what the father intended.

These types of problems are seen daily in your estate planning attorney’s office. Take the time to get a proper review of your parent’s estate plan, to prevent stress and unnecessary costs in the future.

Reference: Forbes (May 25, 2021) “5 Reasons To Have Your Parents’ Estate Plan Reviewed”

What Is Family Business Succession Planning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Happens when Homeowner Dies without Will?

When parents die suddenly, in this case due to COVID-19, and there is no will and no discussions have taken place, siblings are placed in an awkward, expensive and emotionally fraught situation. The article titled “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?” from MarketWatch sums up the situation, but the answer is complicated.

When there is no will, or “intestacy,” there aren’t a lot of choices.

These parents had a few bank accounts, owned their home outright and left no debts. They had six adult children, including one that died and is survived by two living sons. None of the siblings agrees upon anything, so nothing has been done.

One of the siblings lives in the house rent free. Another brother was loaned $35,000 for a down payment on a mobile home. He now claims that the loan was a gift and does not have to pay it back. There are receipts, but the money was paid directly to the escrow company from the mother’s bank account.

How do you determine if this brother received a loan or a gift? What do you do about the brother who lives rent-free in the family home? How does the family now move the estate into probate without losing the house and the bank accounts, while maintaining a sense of family?

For starters, an administrator needs to be appointed to begin the probate process and act as a mediator among the siblings. In some states, the administrator also requires a family tree, so they can know who the descendants are. Barring some huge change of heart among the siblings, this is the only option.

If the parents failed to name a personal representative and the siblings cannot agree on who should serve, an estate administration lawyer is the sensible choice. The court may name someone, if there is concern about possible conflicts of interests or the rights of creditors or other beneficiaries.

A warning to all concerned about how the appointment of an administrator works, or sometimes, does not work. Working with an estate planning attorney that the siblings can agree upon is better, as the attorney has a fiduciary and ethical obligation to the estate. While state laws usually hold the administrator responsible to the standard of care of a “reasonable, prudent” individual, not all will agree what is reasonable and prudent.

One note about the loan/gift: if the mother helped a brother to qualify for a mortgage, it is possible that a “Gift Letter” was created to satisfy the bank or the resident’s association. Assuming this was not a notarized loan agreement, the administrator may rule that the $35,000 was a gift. Personal loans should always be recorded in a notarized agreement.

This family’s disaster serves as a good lesson for anyone who does not have an estate plan. Siblings rarely agree, and a properly prepared estate plan protects more than your assets. It also protects your children from losing each other in a fight over your property.

Reference: MarketWatch (April 4, 2021) “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?”

What’s Happening to the Estate Tax?

Proposals now being considered by President Biden may expand the number of Americans who will need to pay the federal estate tax in one of two ways: raising rates and lowering qualifying thresholds on estates and increasing the liability for inheriting and selling assets. It is likely that these changes will raise revenues from the truly wealthy, while also imposing estate taxes on Americans with more modest assets, according to a recent article “It May Be Time to Start Worrying About the Estate Tax” from The New York Times.

Inheritance taxes are paid by the estate of a person who died. Some states have estate taxes of their own, with lower asset thresholds. As of this writing, a married couple would need to have assets of more than $23.4 million before they had to plan for federal estate taxes. This historically high exemption may be ending sooner than originally anticipated.

One of the changes being considered is a common tax shelter. Known as the “step-up in basis at death,” this values the assets in an estate at the date of death and disregards any capital gains in a deceased person’s portfolio. Eliminating the step-up in basis would require inheritors to pay capital gains whenever they sold assets, including everything from the family home to stock portfolios.

If you’re lucky enough to inherit wealth, this little item has been an accounting gift for many years. A person who inherits stock doesn’t have to think twice about what their parents or grandparents paid decades ago. All of the capital gains in those shares or any other inherited investment are effectively erased, when the owner dies. There are no capital gains to calculate or taxes to pay.

However, those capital gains taxes are lost revenue to the federal government. Eliminating the step-up rules could potentially generate billions in taxes from the very wealthy but is likely to create financial pain for people who have lower levels of wealth. A family that inherited a home, for instance, would have a much bigger tax burden, even if the home was not a multi-million-dollar property but simply one that gained in value over time.

Reducing the estate tax exemption could lead to wealthy people having to revise their estate plans sooner rather than later. Twenty years ago, the exemption was $675,000 per person and the tax rate was 55%. Over the next two decades, the exemption grew and the rates fell. The exemption is now $11.7 million per person and the tax rate above that amount is 40%.

Lowering the exemption, possibly back to the 2009 level, would dramatically increase tax revenue.

What is likely to occur and when, remains unknown, but what is certain is that there will be changes to the federal estate tax. Stay up to date on proposed changes and be prepared to update your estate plan accordingly.

Reference: The New York Times (March 12, 2021) “It May Be Time to Start Worrying About the Estate Tax”

What Is an Ethical Will?
Mother's Day in elegant type surrounded by pink flowers. ** Note: Shallow depth of field

What Is an Ethical Will?

Scenes like this have taken place across the country since March, and many patients and loved ones have had strained conversations over phone or video calls, struggling to find the right words and hoping that their words can be heard. However, it’s impossible to share all of the family’s thoughts during this most trying of times, says a recent article “The Importance of Writing an Ethical Will—for You and to Those You Love” from The Wall Street Journal.

The increasing interest in estate planning during the pandemic has seen many Americans waking up to the realization they must get their estate plans in order. They focus on preparing wills, health care proxies and powers of attorney, which are important. However, there is another document that needs to be completed. It’s called an “ethical will.”

The ethical will is a statement used to transmit an individual’s basic values, history and legacy they would like to leave behind. It’s usually directed to children and grandchildren, but it can have a larger audience as well, and be shared with the friends who have become like family over a lifetime, or to communities, like houses of worship or civic groups.

The act of writing an ethical will reveals things the writer may not have even been aware of or leads to connections being made that had never been imagined. It is a chance to preserve parts of the person’s history, as well as the history of their ancestors. It is a wonderful gift to share your deepest wishes with those who are so important to you. An ethical will can bond people and generations, whether the letter is shared while you are living or after you have passed and lead to a sense of belonging to something bigger than each individual.

One of the most famous ethical wills was written by Shalom Aleichem, the famous Yiddish writer, and was printed in The New York Times after his death in 1916. While prepared as a last will and testament, it was a wonderful story that shared his values. He suggested that family and friends meet every year on the anniversary of his death, select a joyous story from the many he had written and read it aloud and “let my name be mentioned by them with laughter rather than not be mentioned at all.”

Even those of us who are not skilled writers have thoughts and wishes and history to share with our loved ones. Here are some questions to consider, when preparing your ethical will:

  • Who is it directed to?
  • Were there specific people and events who influenced your life?
  • What family history or stories would you want to pass on to the next generation?
  • What ethical or religious values are important to you?

While you work on completing a new estate plan, or updating an existing plan, take a moment to consider your ethical will and what you would like to share with your loved ones. The time to complete your estate plan and your ethical will is now.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 17, 2020) “The Importance of Writing an Ethical Will—for You and to Those You Love”

Make Sure Your Estate Plan Protects Digital Assets
shows tablet

Make Sure Your Estate Plan Protects Digital Assets

Today’s estate plan needs to expressly declare an “agent” or a “fiduciary” to gain access and control of “digital assets” in case of incapacity or death. If your estate plan has not been updated in the last four or five years, it’s likely that your digital assets are unprotected, advises the article “Properly addressing digital assets on your estate plan” from Southern Nevada Business Weekly.

Digital assets have value not only to owners, but to family members, beneficiaries and heirs. Some assets have sentimental value, like videos and photos, while others, like business records, URLs and gaming accounts, have financial value. Failing to address these issues in an estate plan could result in your executor and heirs being denied access and control of digital assets during incapacity or death.

Here are some examples of digital assets:

  • Email accounts–contain communications and history, including information about other digital assets.
  • Social media accounts/apps: Facebook, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, etc.
  • Photo Sharing Accounts: Instagram, Shutterfly, Snapfish, Flickr, etc.
  • Gaming and Gambling Accounts/Apps: DraftKings, Esports Entertainment
  • E-Commerce Accounts/Apps: Amazon, PayPal, Etsy, PayPal, Venmo, etc.
  • Financial Accounts/Apps: Banks, Scottrade, E*Trade
  • Retail Accounts: Any store, online shopping that has a username and a password
  • Security Information: Two factor authentication, mobile phone PIN/PW, facial recognition, etc.

Here’s a little-known fact: without the proper legal authority to access these assets, the “agent” or “fiduciary” could be committing a crime. The Consumer Fraud and Abuse Act provides that it is a federal crime to access a computer and obtain information without authorization or when exceeding authorized access.

Most states have adopted the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA 2017). The Act contains specific language to be used in wills, trusts or power of attorney to name a “designated recipient” or “fiduciary” to access, control, transfer, or close digital assets upon incapacity or after death. RUFADDA also provides specific procedures for companies to disclose digital assets to a designated recipient or fiduciary.

If your estate planning assets do not address the issue of digital assets or do not use the specific language of RUFADDA, or generally if your estate planning documents were created before 2017, it’s time for a review that includes digital assets.

Even if all you have is a personal email account, you have digital assets to protect. It’s not a big problem to address them in your estate plan but can become a bigger program if they are neglected.

Reference: Southern Nevada Business Weekly (Sep. 17, 2020)“Properly addressing digital assets on your estate plan”