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 An out-of-date estate plan may not achieve your parent’s wishes, or be declared invalid by the court.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 However, if the will is out of date, you may be stuck with a house-sized task.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”

Why Everyone Needs an Estate Plan

Financial planners know that most people need to have estate plans, no matter how much or even how little money they have, as explained in this recent article “I’m a financial planner, and there are 3 reasons everyone needs an estate plan no matter how much money you have” from Business Insider. An estate plan includes healthcare directives and identifies guardians for minor children in the event you and your spouse die unexpectedly. It also can be created to avoid your family from having to go through probate court.

Skipping this part of your overall financial and legal life could put you, your assets and your family members at risk. Estate planning is done to protect you and your loved ones. That’s just one reason why everyone needs an estate plan. Having an estate plan protects you while you are living.

An estate plan is more than just a will or a trust. The two most common tools in an estate plan are a will and trust, but that’s just the beginning. A will, or last will and testament, is the document that provides the instructions for your heirs and beneficiaries to follow after you die. Trusts are used to protect assets and enforce your wishes, after you’re gone. However, a good estate plan should also include these documents:

  • An advance healthcare directive or healthcare proxy. These documents stipulate how you want to be treated, if you are alive but so sick or injured that you can’t provide directions. You may want to have a Do Not Resuscitate Order (DNR).
  • Powers of attorney. This legal document outlines who can represent you in legal, medical or financial matters, if you are not able to do so.

The right documents help avoid probate court. If you don’t have a will, any property or possessions must go through the probate system. Your documents and information about your assets become part of the public record and can be seen by anyone. Going through probate opens the door to litigation and disputes, which can further delay settling your estate. Having a will and the proper trusts gives clarity to heirs about what you want.

An estate plan protects your children. If you don’t have a will, a court names the guardian who will raise your children. Instead, decide who you would want. Make sure the person you want to care for your children will accept this responsibility. Trusts are a way to preserve assets for your children. The trust is managed by a trustee after you die and can stipulate specific rules and uses for the assets. For instance, you can provide a certain amount of money for the children, until they reach age 18. At that point, your trust could instruct the trustee to use the money for college expenses. You can be as specific as you wish.

Meet with an estate planning attorney familiar with the laws of your state. An estate planning attorney will know the estate and tax laws that apply to you and your family.

Reference: Business Insider (June 12, 2020) “I’m a financial planner, and there are 3 reasons everyone needs an estate plan no matter how much money you have”

Your Estate Plan Needs to Be Customized

The only thing worse than having no estate plan, is an estate plan created from a ‘fill-in-the-blank’ form, according to the recent article “Don’t settle for a generic estate plan” from The News-Enterprise. Compare having an estate plan created to buying a home. Before you start packing, you think about the kind of house you want and how much you can spend. You also talk with real estate agents and mortgage brokers to get ready.

Even when you find a house you love, you don’t write a check right away. You hire an engineer to inspect the property. You might even bring in contractors for repair estimates. At some point, you contact an insurance agent to learn how much it will cost to protect the house. You rely on professionals, because buying a home is an expensive proposition and you want to be sure it will suit your needs and be a sound investment.

The same process goes for your estate plan. You need the advice of a skilled professional–the estate planning lawyer. Sometimes you want input from trusted family members or friends. There other times when you need the estate planning lawyer to help you get past the emotions that can tangle up an estate plan and anticipate any family dynamics that could become a problem in the future.

An estate planning attorney will also help you to avoid problems you may not anticipate. If the family includes a special needs individual, leaving money to that person could result in their losing government benefits. Giving property to an adult child to try to avoid nursing home costs could backfire, making you ineligible for Medicaid coverage and cause your offspring to have an unexpected tax bill.

Your estate planning lawyer should work with your team of professional advisors, including your financial advisor, accountant and, if you own a business, your business advisor. Think of it this way—you wouldn’t ask your real estate agent to do a termite inspection or repair a faulty chimney. Your estate plan needs to be created and updated by a skilled professional: the estate planning lawyer.

Once your estate plan is completed, it’s not done yet. Make sure that the people who need to have original documents—like a power of attorney—have original documents or tell them where they can be found when needed. Keep in mind that many financial institutions will only accept their own power of attorney forms, so you may need to include those in your estate plan.

Medical documents, like advance directives and healthcare powers of attorney, should be given to the people you selected to make decisions on your behalf. Make a list of the documents in your estate plan and where they can be found.

Preparing an estate plan is not just signing a series of fill-in-the-blank forms. It is a means of protecting and passing down the estate that you have devoted a lifetime to creating, no matter its size.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (June 23, 2020) “Don’t settle for a generic estate plan”

Update Will at These 12 Times in Your Life

Estate planning lawyers hear it all the time—people meaning to update their will, but somehow never getting around to actually getting it done. The only group larger than the ones who mean to “someday,” are the ones who don’t think they ever need to update their documents, says the article “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will” from Kiplinger. The problems become abundantly clear when people die, and survivors learn that their will is so out-of-date that it creates a world of problems for a grieving family.

There are some wills that do stand the test of time, but they are far and few between. Families undergo all kinds of changes, and those changes should be reflected in the will. Here are one dozen times in life when wills need to be reviewed:

Welcoming a child to the family. The focus is on naming a guardian and a trustee to oversee their finances. The will should be flexible to accommodate additional children in the future.

Divorce is a possibility. Don’t wait until the divorce is underway to make changes. Do it beforehand. If you die before the divorce is finalized, your spouse will have marital rights to your property. Once you file for divorce, in many states you are not permitted to change your will, until the divorce is finalized. Make no moves here, however, without the advice of your attorney.

Your divorce has been finalized. If you didn’t do it before, update your will now. Don’t neglect updating beneficiaries on life insurance and any other accounts that may have named your ex as a beneficiary.

When your child(ren) marry. You may be able to mitigate the lack of a prenuptial agreement, by creating trusts in your will, so anything you leave your child won’t be considered a marital asset, if his or her marriage goes south.

Your beneficiary has problems with drugs or money. Money left directly to a beneficiary is at risk of being attached by creditors or dissolving into a drug habit. Updating your will to includes trusts that allow a trustee to only distribute funds under optimal circumstances protects your beneficiary and their inheritance.

Named executor or beneficiary dies. Your old will may have a contingency plan for what should happen if a beneficiary or executor dies, but you should probably revisit the plan. If a named executor dies and you don’t update the will, then what happens if the second executor dies?

A young family member grows up. Most people name a parent as their executor, then a spouse or trusted sibling. Two or three decades go by. An adult child may now be ready to take on the task of handling your estate.

New laws go into effect. In recent months, there have been many big changes to the law that impact estate planning, from the SECURE Act to the CARES act. Ask your estate planning attorney every few years, if there have been new laws that are relevant to your estate plan.

An inheritance or a windfall. If you come into a significant amount of money, your tax liability changes. You’ll want to update your will, so you can do efficient tax planning as part of your estate plan.

Can’t find your will? If you can’t find the original will, then you need a new will. Your estate planning attorney will make sure that your new will has language that states revokes all prior wills.

Buying property in another country or moving to another country. Some countries have reciprocity with America. However, transferring property to an heir in one country may be delayed, if the will needs to be probated in another country. Ask your estate planning attorney, if you need wills for each country in which you own property.

Family and friends are enemies. Friends have no rights when it comes to your estate plan. Therefore, if families and friends are fighting, the family member will win. If you suspect that your family may push back to any bequests to friends, consider adding a “No Contest” clause to disinherit family members who try to elbow your friends out of the estate.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 26, 2020) “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will”