What are the Biggest Estate Planning Errors to Avoid?

Nobody likes to plan for events like aging, incapacity, or death. However, failing to do so can cause families burdens and grief, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours.

Fox Business’ recent article, “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid,” says that planning for life’s unexpected events is critical. However, it can often be a hard process to navigate. Let’s look at the top estate planning mistakes to avoid, according to industry experts:

  1. Failing to sign a will (or one that can be located). The biggest mistake is simply not having a will. Estate planning is critically important to protect you, your family and your hard-earned assets—during your lifetime, in the event of your incapacity, and upon your death. We all need estate planning, no matter the amount of assets you have. In addition to having a will, it needs to be findable. The Wall Street Journal says that the biggest estate planning error is simply losing a will. Make sure your family has access to your estate planning documents.
  2. Failing to name and update beneficiaries. An asset with a beneficiary designation supersedes any terms in a will. Review your 401(k), IRA, life insurance, and any other accounts with beneficiaries after any significant life event. If you don’t have the proper beneficiary designations, income tax on retirement accounts may have to be paid sooner. This may lead to increased income tax liability, and the designation of a beneficiary on a life insurance policy can affect whether the proceeds are subject to creditors’ claims.

There’s another mistake that impacts people with minor children, which is naming a guardian for minor children and then naming that person as beneficiary of their life insurance, instead of leaving it to a trust for the child. A minor child can’t receive that money. It also exposes the money to the beneficiary’s creditors and spouse.

  1. Failing to consider powers of attorney for adult children. When your children reach age 18, they’re adults in the eyes of the law. If something unfortunate happens to them, you may be left without any say in their treatment. In the event that an 18-year-old becomes ill or has an accident, a hospital won’t consult with their parents if a power of attorney for health care isn’t in place. Unless a power of attorney for property is signed, a parent may not be able to take care of bills, make investment decisions and pay taxes without the child’s signature. This could create an issue when your child is in college—especially if he or she is attending school abroad. It is very important that when your child turns 18 that you have powers of attorney put into place.

Reference: Fox Business (October 15, 2019) “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid”

Sharing Legal Documents and Passwords

While parents are alive and well is the time to prepare for the future, when they begin to decline. An adult child who is a primary agent and also executor has questions about organizing documents and managing storage in a digital format, as well as how to secure their passwords for online websites. The advice from the article “Safe sharing of passwords and legal documents” from my San Antonio is that these two issues are evolving and the best answers today may be different as time passes.

Safe and shareable password storage is a part of today’s online life. However, passwords used to access bank and investment accounts, file storage platforms, emails, online retailers and thousands of other tools used on a desktop are increasingly required to be strong and complex and are difficult to remember. In some cases, facial recognition is used instead of a password.

Many rely on their internet browsers, like Chrome, Safari, etc., to remember passwords. This leaves accounts vulnerable, as many of these and other browsers have been hacked.

The best password solutions are stand-alone password managers. They offer the option of sharing the passwords with others, so parents would provide their executor with access to their list. However, there are also new laws regarding digital assets, so check with your estate planning attorney. You may need to create directives for your accounts that specify who you want to have access to the accounts and the data that they contain.

Storage of legal documents is a separate concern from password-sharing. Shared legal documents need to be private, reasonably priced and secure.

Some password managers include document storage as part of the account. The documents can be uploaded in an encrypted format that can be accessed by a person, who is assigned by the account owner.

Document vault websites are also available. You will have to be extremely careful about selecting which one to use. Some of the websites resell data, which is not why you are storing documents with them. One company claims to offer a “universal advance digital directive,” which they say can provide digital access worldwide to documents, including an emergency, critical and advance care plan.

The problem? This company is located in a state that does not permit the creation of a legally binding advance directive, unless it is in writing, includes state-specific provisions and is signed in front of either two qualified witnesses or a notary.

Talk with your estate planning attorney about securing estate planning documents and how to protect digital assets. Their knowledge of the laws in your state will provide the family with the proper protection now and in the future.

Reference: my San Antonio (October 14, 2019) “Safe sharing of passwords and legal documents”

Why A Health Care Power of Attorney Makes Sense

Having a Health Care Power of Attorney in place before it is needed, is one of the best ideas of estate planning, along with having a Power of Attorney in place before it is needed. Why? This is because taking a pro-active approach to both of these documents, means that when the unexpected occurs and that is exactly how things occur—unexpectedly—the person or persons you have named for these important roles will be able to step in quickly and made decisions.

Time is often of the essence, when these documents are needed.

According to the article “Medical guardianship versus power of attorney” from The News Enterprise, a health care power of attorney is a document that grants another person the power to make medical decisions for you, when you no longer have the ability to make those decisions for yourself. It is known by a few other names, depending on the state where you live: health care proxy, a medical power of attorney or a health care surrogate.

It needs to have HIPAA-compliant language, which will allow the person you name the ability to review medical information and discuss protected health information with your health care providers.

A health care power of attorney may also include language for an advance medical directive, which gives instructions for end-of-life decisions. This is often called a “living will,” and is your legal right to reject medical treatment, decisions about feeding tubes and the number of doctors required to determine the probability of recovery and pain management.

A health care power of attorney does not generally empower another person to make decisions, until you are unable to do so. Unlike a general durable power of attorney, which permits another person to make financial or business decisions with you while you are living, as long as you are able to understand your medical situation, you are still in charge of your medical decisions.

A guardianship is completely different from these documents. A guardian may only be appointed, if a judge or jury finds you wholly or partially disabled in such a way that you cannot manage your own finances or your health. The appointment of a guardian is a big deal. Once someone has been appointed your guardian, you do not have any legal right to make decisions for yourself. A court will also appoint a legal fiduciary, who will make your financial decisions.

There are record-keeping requirements with a guardianship that do not exist for a power of attorney. The court-appointed representative is responsible for reporting to the court any actions that they have taken on your behalf.

To have power of attorney documents executed, the person must be capable of understanding what they are signing. This means that someone receiving a diagnosis of dementia needs to have these documents prepared, as soon as they learn that their capacity will diminish in the near future.

If the documents are not prepared and executed in a timely fashion, a guardianship proceeding may be the only option. Planning in advance is the best way to ensure that the people you trust are the ones making decisions for you. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney now to have these documents in place.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Oct. 13, 2019) “Medical guardianship versus power of attorney”

You Can Protect Pets after You’re Gone

Many of us consider our pets members of the family, but the law does not. In Arizona, pets are considered property, reports the East Valley Tribune in the article “Trusts can help provide for a pet’s future.” That means you can’t leave them your house, or open a bank account in their name.

However, you can take measures to protect your pets from what could happen to them after you pass away.

The simple thing to do is to make arrangements with a trusted family member or friend to take care of your pet and leave some money for their care. The problem is, there’s no way to enforce this, and it’s all based on trust. What happens if something unexpected happens to your trusted family member or friend, and they can’t care for your pet?

You’ve also given them funds that they are not legally required to spend on your pet.

Another choice is to leave your pet to a no-kill animal shelter. However, shelters, even no-kill shelters, can be stressful for animals who are used to a family home. There’s also no way to know when your pet will be adopted, since most people come to shelters to adopt puppies and kittens. There is also the issue of the shelter. Will it continue to operate after you are gone?

The best way that many people care for their pets, is by having a pet trust created. An estate planning attorney in your state will know if your state is among the many that allow a pet trust to be created to benefit your pet.

Start by naming a guardian for your pets, including instructions on whether your pets should be kept together. If you are not sure about a guardian, name additional guardians, in case one does not wish to serve. Then determine how much money you need to leave for the pet’s care. This will depend upon the animal’s age, health and life expectancy. There will need to be adequate funding for any medical issues. The trust can specify whether you want your pet to undergo expensive surgeries or whether they should be kept comfortable at any cost.

You’ll want to make sure to name a guardian who you are confident will care for your pet or pets in the same manner as you would.

A pet trust will require you to name a trustee, who will be in charge of disbursing the funds as they are needed and can also check on the pet to be sure they are well, and your instructions are being followed. The money in the trust must only be used by person for the care of the pets.

A pet trust will give you the peace of mind of knowing that your beloved companion animals are being cared for, even when you are not here to care for them. Speak with an estate planning attorney to learn how to make a pet trust part of your overall estate plan.

Reference: East Valley Tribune (Oct. 14, 2019) “Trusts can help provide for a pet’s future”

Planning for Care in Advance

An aging parent’s health can fail suddenly, or they can have a fall that will unexpectedly put them into a precarious state. Therefore, it is vitally important that legal and medical arrangements be made, while they are still well enough to be an active participant in decisions, advises TAP into Roxbury in the article “Putting Together a Plan of Care.” Here are the steps to get you started:

Advance Directive: This document spells out their wishes regarding future medical care and treatment, if they are no longer able to speak or make decisions on their own behalf.

A Living Will is used to state in advance whether or not they want to have medical treatment, like a feeding tube, ventilator, or heart machine to prolong life, when death is inevitable.

A Durable Health Care Power of Attorney appoints another person to make medical decisions, if the person becomes incapacitated.

A Power of Attorney names someone who will be able to make decisions about their finances, pay bills, and manage real estate and other assets.

A Last Will and Testament provides information about what they would like to happen to their assets upon their demise and names an executor who will be in charge of carrying out their wishes.

Copies of medical insurance cards and any other insurance information, if emergency treatment is needed.

A Do Not Resuscitate (DNR), if they do not wish to be brought back to life during a medical emergency.

A list of medications they are currently taking, as well as doctor’s names and contact information.

A list of professionals, including their estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor, and all contact information.

Having all these documents prepared in advance of any emergency will be helpful, if they are ever needed. Keeping them in a safe and accessible location where they can be obtained quickly in an emergency is also important. Do not put them in a safe deposit box, which may be sealed upon their death.

Some seniors are reluctant to have these discussions, although they may be more comfortable having them with a person outside the family, like an estate planning attorney.

Reference: TAP Into Roxbury (October 7, 2019) “Putting Together a Plan of Care”

How Can Beneficiary Designations Wreck My Estate Plan?

It’s not uncommon for the intent of an individual’s will and trust to be overridden by beneficiary designations that weren’t chosen carefully.

Some people think that naming a beneficiary should be a simple job, and they try to do it themselves. Others don’t want to bother their attorney with what seems like a straightforward issue. A well-intentioned financial advisor could also complete the change of beneficiary form incorrectly.

Beneficiary designations are often used for life insurance and retirement benefits, but more frequently, they’re also being used for brokerage and bank accounts. People trying to avoid probate may name a “payable on death” beneficiary of an account. However, they don’t know that doing this may undermine their existing estate plan. It’s best to consult with your attorney to make certain that your named beneficiaries are consistent with your estate planning documents.

Wealth Advisor’s “7 Ways That Beneficiary Designations Can Mess Up Your Estate Plan” lists seven issues you need to think about, when making your beneficiary designations.

Cash. If your will leaves cash to various people or charities, you need to make certain that sufficient money comes into your estate, so your executor can pay these gifts.

Estate tax liability. If assets do pass outside your estate to a named beneficiary, make certain there will be sufficient money in your estate and trust to pay your estate tax lability. If all your assets pass by beneficiary designation, your executor may not have enough money to pay the estate taxes that may be due at your death.

Protect your tax savings. If you have created trusts for estate tax purposes, make sure that sufficient assets flow into your trusts to maximize the estate tax savings. Designating individuals as beneficiaries instead of your trusts may defeat the purpose of your estate tax planning. If there aren’t enough assets in your trust, the estate tax provisions may not work. As a result, your heirs may eventually end up paying more in taxes.

Accurate records. Be sure the information you have on the change of beneficiary form is accurate. This is particularly important if the beneficiary is a trust—the trust name, trustee information and tax identification number all need to be right.

Spouses as beneficiaries. Many people name their spouse as the primary beneficiary of their life insurance policy, followed by their trust as the secondary beneficiary. However, this may defeat your estate planning, especially if you have children from a first marriage, or if you don’t want your spouse to control the assets. If your trust provides for your surviving spouse on your death, he or she will be taken care of from the trust.

No last minute changes. Some people change their beneficiary designations at the last minute, because they’re nervous about assets flowing into a trust. This could lead to increased estate tax payments and litigation from heirs who were left out.

Qualified accounts. Don’t name a trust as the beneficiary of qualified accounts, like an IRA, without consulting with your attorney. Trusts that receive such qualified money need to contain special provisions for income tax purposes.

Be sure that your beneficiary designations work with your estate planning, rather than against it.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (October 8, 2019) “7 Ways That Beneficiary Designations Can Mess Up Your Estate Plan”

How Can I Make Amendments to an Estate Plan?

If you want to make changes to your estate plan, don’t think you can just scratch out a line or two and add your initials. For most people, it’s not that simple, says the Lake County Record-Bee’s recent article “Amending estate planning documents.” If documents are not amended correctly, the resulting disappointment and costs can add up quickly.

If you live in California, for example, a trust can be amended using the method that is stated in the trust, or alternatively by using a document—but not the will—that is signed both by the settlor or the other person holding the power to revoke the trust and then delivered to the trustee. If the trust states that this method is not acceptable, then it cannot be used.

In a recent case, the deceased settlor made handwritten notes—he crossed out existing trust language and hand wrote his revisions to a recently executive amendment to his trust. Then he mailed this document, along with a signed post-it note stuck on the top of the document, to his attorney, requesting that his attorney draft an amendment.

Unfortunately, he died before the new revision could be signed. His close friend, the one he wanted to be the beneficiary of the change, argued that his handwritten comments, known as “interlineations,” were as effective as if his attorney had actually completed the revision and the document had been signed properly. He further argued that the post-it note that had a signature on it, satisfied the requirement for a signature.

The court did not agree, not surprisingly. A trust document may not be changed, just by scribbling out a few lines and adding a few new lines without a signature. A post-it note signature is also not a legal document.

Had he signed and dated an attachment affirming each of his specific changes made to the trust, that might have been considered a legally binding amendment to his trust.

A better option would be going to the attorney’s office and having the documents prepared and executed.

What about changes to a will? Changing a will is done either through executing a codicil or creating and executing a new will that revokes the old will. A codicil is executed just the same way as a will: it is signed by the testator with at least two witnesses, although this varies from state to state. Your estate planning attorney will make sure that the law of your state is taken into consideration, when preparing your estate plan.

If you live in a state where handwritten or holographic wills are accepted, no witnesses are required and changes to the will can be made by the testator directly onto the original without a new signature or date. Be careful about a will like this. Even if legal, it can lead to estate challenges and family battles.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you decide that your will needs to be changed. Having the documents properly executed in a timely manner ensures that your wishes will be followed.

Reference: Lake County Record-Bee (October 5, 2019) “Amending estate planning documents.”

If My Mom Wants to Give Me Her House, Is It Better to Inherit or Buy It?

Say that your mom owns a house without a mortgage, and she’d like to transfer the house to her adult son and daughter. The issue is whether it’s a better strategy to make the transfer via gift or a sale. Let’s throw in the fact that the son is a U.S. citizen, but the mom and sister are citizens of France.

Some major tax consequences need to be considered, advises nj.com in its recent post, “What happens when a non-citizen wants to transfer a home to an heir?”

First, understand that if the son, a U.S. citizen, receives a gift of money or other property from a foreign person, he may need to report these gifts on Form 3520, Annual Return to Report Transactions with Foreign Trusts and Receipt of Certain Foreign Gifts.

Note the difference: this an information return—not a tax return. However, there are significant penalties for not filing it. The IRS says that U.S. persons (and executors of estates of U.S. decedents) must file Form 3520 to report:

  • Certain transactions with foreign trusts;
  • Ownership of foreign trusts under the rules of Internal Revenue Code §§ 671 through 679; or
  • Receipt of certain large gifts or bequests from certain foreign persons.

As to whether a gift or a sale is better off for the adult child and his mother, consider that the children keep the parent’s cost basis on lifetime transfers of property made by the parents.

That means that if the mom’s home was purchased for $100,000 and it now has a current market value of $250,000, the cost basis of $100,000 becomes the child’s cost basis. When you sell the property, the capital gains tax on the difference between the sale price and the cost basis—$150,000—would have to be paid.

However, if the sister and brother inherit the property, they will receive a “step up” in the cost basis. Thus, if at the Mom’s death, the property is worth $250,000 and it is sold by the child for that amount, there’s no gain on which to pay a capital gains tax.

If you’re in this situation, it’s wise is to talk with an estate planning attorney to help your family with sound planning strategies. They will be able to help work out the best possible solution.

Reference: nj.com (September 24, 2019) “What happens when a non-citizen wants to transfer a home to an heir?”

Do you have Kids in College? Are you aware of the Estate Planning Documents they should have?

Kiplinger’s recent article, “Documents that Parents and College Students Need,” explains that many parental rights are no longer applicable, when a child legally reaches adulthood (age 18 in most states).

However, with a few estate planning documents, you can still be involved in your child’s medical and financial affairs. Many parents don’t know that they need these documents. They think they can access a child’s medical and other information, because their son or daughter is still on the family’s insurance plan and the parents are paying the medical and tuition bills.

Here are four documents you and your son or daughter will need:

HIPAA Authorization Form. This is a federal law that protects the privacy of medical records. You child must sign a HIPAA authorization form to let you to receive information from health care providers, such as the college’s health clinic, about their health and treatment. If your son or daughter doesn’t want to share her entire medical record, he or she can set restrictions on what information you can receive.

Medical Power of Attorney. This lets your son or daughter name a person to make medical decisions, if they are incapacitated and unable to make medical decisions. Your child should select both a primary agent and a secondary agent, in the event the first one is unavailable.

Durable Power of Attorney. This lets your son or daughter authorize a person to handle financial or legal matters on his or her behalf. A durable power of attorney is usually written, so it takes effect when a person becomes incapacitated. However, if your child would like you to manage his or her financial accounts or file tax returns while away at school, they can make the document effective immediately.

Family Education Rights and Privacy Act Waiver. Once your child is an adult, you’re no longer entitled to see their grades without express permission. It seems a bit crazy that you can be paying for tuition, but you don’t have access to their academic records. This waiver signed by your child will allow you permission to receive his or her academic record. Many colleges provide this form, or you can find it online.

Once you get these documents, make sure you have ready access to them, if required.

Reference: Kiplinger (September 24, 2019) “Documents that Parents and College Students Need”

Have Your Will Done? Be Aware, That’s Not An Estate Plan~

A last will and testament is an important part of an estate plan, and every adult should have one. However, there is only so much that a will can do, according to the article “Estate planning involves more than a will” from The News-Enterprise.

First, let’s look at what a will does. During your lifetime, you have the right to transfer property. If you have a Power of Attorney, or POA, it gives someone you name the authority to transfer your property or manage your affairs, while you are alive. In most states, this document expires upon your death.

When you die, a will is used to transfer your property, according to your wishes. If you do not have a will, the court must determine who receives the property, as determined by your state’s law. However, only certain property passes through a will.

Individually owned property that does not have a designated beneficiary must be transferred though the process of probate. This includes real property, like house or a land, if there is no right of survivorship provision within the deed. The deed to the property determines the type of ownership each person has.

Couples who purchase property after they are married, usually own the property with the right of survivorship. This means that the surviving owner continues to own the property without it going through probate.

However, when deeds do not have this provision, each owner owns only a portion of the property. When one owner dies, the remaining owner’s portion must be passed through probate to the beneficiaries of the decedent.

Assets that do not have a designated beneficiary do not pass through probate, but are paid directly to the beneficiary. These are usually life insurance policies, retirement accounts, investment and/or bank accounts. Your will does not control these assets.

Beneficiaries through the will only receive whatever property is left over, after all reasonable expenses and debts are paid.

If you wish to ensure that beneficiaries receive assets over time, that can be done through a trust. The trust can be the beneficiary of a payable-on-death account. A revocable trust avoids property going through the probate process and can be established with your directions for distribution.

A will is a good start to an estate plan, but it is not the whole plan. Speak with an estate planning attorney about your situation and they will be able to create a plan that addresses distribution of your assets, as well as protect you from incapacity.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (September 30, 2019) “Estate planning involves more than a will”

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