Should You Update Your Estate Plan?

Some reasons to update your will are more obvious than others, like marriage, divorce, remarriage, births and deaths. However, those aren’t the only reasons your estate plan needs to be reviewed, explains a recent article appropriately titled “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it” from CNBC.

Think of your estate plan like your home. They both need regular updates and maintenance. If your house starts to get rundown or the roof springs a leak, you know you need to get it fixed. Your estate plan is not as visible. However, it is still in need of ongoing maintenance.

Health events should be a trigger, yours or people named in your will. If the person you named as your executor becomes ill or dies, you’ll need to name a new person to replace them. The same goes for a guardian named to care for any minor children, especially if you named a grandparent for this role.

If you move, your estate plan must ‘move’ with you. Each state has different laws regarding how estates are administered. In one state, an executor living out of state may be okay. However, in another, it may make the executor ineligible to serve. Inheritance tax laws also vary.

Any time there is a large change to your personal wealth, whether it’s good or bad, your estate planning attorney should review your will.

The same goes for a change in parental status. The birth of additional children seems like it might not require a review. However, it does. More than a few celebrities failed to update their estate plans and accidentally disinherited children. The same person who may be willing to be a guardian for one child, may find taking on two or three children to be too much of a challenge. If you want to change the guardianship, your estate plan needs to be updated.

A change in your relationship with fiduciaries also merits an update. Someone you named ten years ago to be your executor may no longer be a part of your life, or they may have died. Family members age, retire and move and siblings have changes in their own lives. Reviewing the executor regularly is important.

If a family member becomes disabled, you may need special needs planning.

A commonly overlooked trigger concerns mergers and acquisitions of financial institutions. If your bank is the executor of your estate and the bank is bought or sold, you likely have a new executor. Do you know who the person is, and do you trust their judgment?

Beneficiaries need to be checked every few years to be sure they are still correct. If your life includes a divorce and remarriage, you could be like one man whose life insurance proceeds and property went to his new spouse. His daughter was disinherited because he failed to update his will.

It doesn’t take long to review an estate plan or beneficiaries. However, the impact of not doing so could be long-lasting and cast a negative light on your legacy.

Reference: CNBC (March 1, 2022) “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it”

Can You Inherit a House with a Mortgage?

Inheriting a home with a mortgage adds another layer of complexity to settling the estate, as explained in a recent article from Investopedia titled “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage.” The lender needs to be notified right away of the owner’s passing and the estate must continue to make regular payments on the existing mortgage. Depending on how the estate was set up, it may be a struggle to make monthly payments, especially if the estate must first go through probate.

Probate is the process where the court reviews the will to ensure that it is valid and establish the executor as the person empowered to manage the estate. The executor will need to provide the mortgage holder with a copy of the death certificate and a document affirming their role as executor to be able to speak with the lending company on behalf of the estate.

If multiple people have inherited a portion of the house, some tough decisions will need to be made. The simplest solution is often to sell the home, pay off the mortgage and split the proceeds evenly.

If some of the heirs wish to keep the home as a residence or a rental property, those who wish to keep the home need to buy out the interest of those who don’t want the house. When the house has a mortgage, the math can get complicated. An estate planning attorney will be able to map out a way forward to keep the sale of the shares from getting tangled up in the emotions of grieving family members.

If one heir has invested time and resources into the property and others have not, it gets even more complex. Family members may take the position that the person who invested so much in the property was also living there rent free, and things can get ugly. The involvement of an estate planning attorney can keep the transfer focused as a business transaction.

What if the house has a reverse mortgage? In this case, the reverse mortgage company needs to be notified. You’ll need to find out the existing balance due on the reverse mortgage. If the estate does not have the funds to pay the balance, there is the option of refinancing the property to pay off the balance due, if the wish is to keep the house. If there’s not enough equity or the heirs can’t refinance, they typically sell the house to pay off the reverse mortgage.

Can heirs take over the existing loan? Your estate planning attorney will be able to advise the family of their rights, which are different than rights of homeowners. Lenders in some circumstances may allow heirs to be added to the existing mortgage without going through a full loan application and verifying credit history, income, etc. However, if you chose to refinance or take out a home equity loan, you’ll have to go through the usual process.

Inheriting a house with a mortgage or a reverse mortgage can be a stressful process during an already difficult time. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to guide the family through their options and help with the rest of the estate.

Reference: Investopedia (April 12, 2022) “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage”

What Assets are Not Considered Part of an Estate?

In many families, more assets pass outside the Last Will than through the Last Will. Think about non-probate assets: life insurance proceeds, investment accounts, jointly titled real estate assets, assuming they were titled as joint tenants with right of survivorship, and the like. These often add up to considerable sums, often more than the probate estate.

This is why a recent article from The Mercury titled “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets” strongly urges readers to pay close attention to accounts transferred by beneficiary.

Most retirement accounts like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s and others pass by beneficiary designation and not through the Last Will. Banks and investment accounts designated as Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) also do not pass through probate, but to the other person named on the account. Any property owned by a trust does not go through probate, one of the reasons it is placed in the trust.

Why is it important to know whether assets pass through probate or by beneficiary designation? Here’s an example. A man was promised half of this father’s estate. His dad had remarried, and the son didn’t know what estate plans had been made, if any, with the new spouse. When the father passed, the man received a single check for several thousand dollars. He knew his father’s estate was worth considerably more.

What is most likely to have happened is simple. The father probably retitled the house with his new spouse as tenants by the entireties–making it a non-probate asset. He probably retitled bank accounts with his new spouse. And if the father had a new Last Will created, he likely gave 50% to the son and 50% to the new spouse. The father’s car may have been the only asset not jointly owned with his new spouse.

A parent can also accidently disinherit an heir, if all of their non-probate assets are in one child’s name and no provision for the non-probate assets has been made for any other children. An estate planning attorney can work with the parents to find a way to make inheritances equal, if the intention is for all of the children to receive an equal share. One way to accomplish this would be to give the other children a larger share of probated assets.

Any division of inheritance should bear in mind the tax liability of assets. Non-probate does not always mean non-taxed. Depending upon the state of residence for the decedent and the heirs, there may be estate or inheritance tax on the assets.

Placing assets in an irrevocable trust is a commonly used estate planning method to ensure inheritances are received by the intended parties. The trust allows you to give very specific instructions about who gets what. Assets in the trust are outside of the probate estate, since the trust is not owned by the grantor.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to review probate and non-probate assets to determine the best way to achieve your wishes for your distribution of assets.

Reference: The Mercury (April 12, 2022) “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets”

Can I Protect My Inheritance from Divorce?

Even if divorce is the last thing on your mind, when an inheritance is received, it’s wise to treat it differently from your joint assets, advises a recent article “Revocable Inheritance Trust: Inexpensive Divorce Protection” from Forbes. After all, most people don’t expect to be divorced. However, the numbers have to be considered—many do divorce, even those who least expect it.

Maintaining separate property is the most important step to take. If you deposit a spouse’s paycheck into the account with your inheritance, even if it was by accident, you’ve now commingled the funds.

You might get lucky and have a forensic accountant who can dissect that amount and make the argument it was a mistake, as long as it only happened once, but the Court might not agree.

Long before the Court gets to consider this point, if your ex-spouse’s attorney is aggressively pursuing this one act of commingling as enough to make the property jointly owned, you could lose half of your inheritance in a divorce.

You might also try to mount a defense of the particular account or asset being separate property, by identifying the means of transfer. Was there a deed for real estate gifted to you from a parent or a wire transfer for securities? This information will need to be carefully identified and safeguarded as soon as the inheritance comes to you, in case of any future upheavals.

To spare yourself any of this grief, there are steps to be taken now to avoid commingling. Document the source of wealth involved as a gift or inheritance, maintain the property in a wholly separate account and consider keeping it in a different financial institution than any other accounts to avoid commingling.

Another way to safeguard gifts and inherited property against a 50% divorce rate is to use a revocable trust. Creating a revocable trust to own this separate property allows you to make changes to it any time but maintains its separate nature, by serving as a wholly separate accounting entity. The trust will own the property, while you as grantor (creator of the trust) and trustee (responsible for managing the trust) maintain control.

For a turbo-charged version of this concept, you could go with a self-settled domestic asset protection trust. This is a more complex trust and may not be necessary. Your estate planning attorney will be able to explain the difference between this trust and a revocable trust.

One clear warning: if you have already created a revocable trust to protect your estate and it is not funded, you may feel like it would be most convenient to use this already-existing trust for your inheritance. That would not be wise. You should have a completely different trust created for the inherited property, and this would also be a wise time to remember to fund the existing trust.

Using a revocable trust this way will also require customized language in your Last Will, as you’ll want standard language in the Last Will to reflect the trust being separate from your other marital property.

Reference: Forbes (April 13, 2022) “Revocable Inheritance Trust: Inexpensive Divorce Protection”

What Is Federal Estate Tax Exemption, and Does It Matter?

Why should most of us be worried about losing an estate tax exemption, when most people’s estates are nowhere near $12.06 million? This recent article, “Don’t Throw Away a $12.06M Estate Tax Exemption By Accident” from Kiplinger explains it all.

Despite the Congressional gridlock over many estate tax issues, whether Congress moves forward or not, on January 1, 2026, the federal estate tax exemption will sink from $12.06 million to approximately $6 million. There was a Democrat proposal during the presidential campaign to reduce it even less, to $3.5 million.

Suddenly, the federal estate tax exemption will matter again to a lot more people. However, don’t wait for that 2026 date, since you could miss a big exemption.

If you are married and your spouse passes, you could take advantage of the current $12.06 million estate tax exemption, even if your estate is nowhere near this value. The exemption is a “use it or lose it” tax planning alternative. Use it.

In most estate plans, one partner leaves most or all of their estate to the surviving spouse. Assets left to a surviving spouse qualify for what is known as “an unlimited marital deduction.” If there is no taxable estate on the death of the first spouse because all assets have gone to the surviving spouse, who qualifies for the marital deduction, the deceased spouse’s unused exemption does not have to be lost.

A deceased spouse may transfer any unused portion of their exemption to the surviving spouse, known as “portability.” Many families may find themselves with an unnecessary tax burden in the near future, if they fail to take advantage of this because they think it won’t apply to them.

Consider a family with a $10 million estate, owned as community property, where each spouse owns one half. If one spouse dies tomorrow, the family probably thinks they don’t need to worry about the federal estate tax, as there’s $12.06 million exemption for the wife and $12.06 million exemption for the husband. However, this would be an expensive mistake.

If the family files a portability election on the timely—filed estate tax return for the first spouse to die, the second spouse’s lifetime exemption of $12.06 million goes to the second to die spouse’s estate.

If the second spouse lives to at least January 1, 2026, and the estate is worth $10 million, the taxable estate after the exemption is $4 million. With an estate tax of 40%, the estate tax liability is $1.6 million, which needs to be paid in full nine months after the date of death. The portability exemption could have prevented this tax liability.

A portability-only estate tax return can be filed up to two years from the date of death, which your estate planning attorney will be able to help you with. There is a fee for the filing, but the savings to be had make this a worthwhile fee to pay. Consider this a form of tax insurance. Any families with a net worth of $2 million or more should be talking now with their estate planning attorney about how to manage the changing estate tax exemption.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 14, 2022) “Don’t Throw Away a $12.06M Estate Tax Exemption By Accident”

Is Bitcoin Part of an Estate?

Few bitcoin owners have seriously considered what will happen to their bitcoin when they die. A recent article titled “The Importance of Having an Estate Plan for Your Bitcoin” from Bitcoin Magazine, strongly urges owners to create a legally sound plan of action ensuring both the sovereignty and privacy of these holdings. However, many owners don’t expect to die very soon, and even those who have an estate plan haven’t considered the nuances of estate planning for digital assets. Among all digital assets, there’s no asset requiring more planning for custody and conveyance as bitcoin.

Can you use an irrevocable trust for bitcoin? This type of trust is an excellent tool for your estate plan and beneficiaries. However, for bitcoin, a revocable trust may be the better alternative. The revocable trust does not protect your assets from creditors, but it provides complete control to the grantor, the person creating the trust.

Bitcoin cannot be treated like dollars in your estate plan. If your crypto is held on an exchange like Coinbase or Gemini, your executor may not have as much of a battle to uncover and access your money. However, what if they are not? Would your executor know what to do with the seed phrases buried in the backyard, or “how to interpret BIP39 punched into steel?” These are things known only to bitcoin owners.

Digital asset estate planning requires a level of technical competence and understanding.

Most states have adopted the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA) or plan to in the near future. RUFADAA, in most instances, empowers the executor of your estate with the authority to request access to most digital assets, taking into account your privacy interests and the terms of service agreements with big tech companies. However, when it comes to decentralized money like bitcoin, RUFADAA will be of little use.

In many cases, a living or revocable trust is the best choice. This will allow you to maintain access to your assets in the same way you do while living, but if the unexpected occurs, like death or incapacity, the assets won’t be lost, forgotten or misused.

With a revocable trust, you may act as the trustee of your digital assets. As both the grantor and trustee, you can make as many changes as you want to the trust. The property is not protected from creditors and does not receive any special tax treatment while you are living. However, the revocable living trust can be created to convey bitcoin to your heirs without limiting your own use of the assets while you are living.

How you store bitcoin during your lifetime is your choice. Many use a non-custodial cold storage solution, which provides great privacy but requires technical competency to manage. The bitcoin you wish to pass to your heirs needs to be documented correctly legally and technically. Talk with your estate planning attorney to be sure your digital assets are as protected as your traditional assets.

Reference: Bitcoin Magazine (April 17, 2022) “The Importance of Having an Estate Plan for Your Bitcoin”

What Estate Planning Documents are Used to Plan for Incapacity?
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What Estate Planning Documents are Used to Plan for Incapacity?

The chief reason for a Power of Attorney (POA) is to appoint an agent who can make decisions about business and financial matters if you become incapacitated, according to an article “Estate planning in case of incapacity” from The Sentinel-Record. For most people, the POA becomes effective at a later date, when the person signs a written authorization to act under the document, or when the person is determined to be incapacitated. This often involves having the person’s treating physician sign a notarized statement declaring the person to be incapacitated. This type of POA is referred to as a “Springing POA,” since it springs from a future event.

The challenge with a springing POA is that it requires reaching a point in the person’s life where it is clinically clear they are incapacitated. If the person has not yet been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, but it is making poor decisions or not able to care for themselves, it becomes necessary to go through the process of documenting their incapacity and going through the state’s process to activate the POA.

For a more immediate POA, your estate planning attorney may recommend creating and signing a Durable Power of Attorney. This allows you to appoint someone to manage personal and business affairs immediately. For this reason, it is extremely important that the person you name be 100% trustworthy, since they will have instant legal access to all of your property.

A Power of Attorney can be customized to include broad powers or limited to a specific transaction, like selling your home.

This is not the only way to allow another person to take over your affairs in the event of incapacity.  However, it is easier than seeking guardianship or conservatorship. Another method is to place assets in a revocable trust, which allows you to maintain control of the assets while alive and of legal capacity. The trust includes a successor trustee, who takes over in the event you become incapacitated or die.

The successor trustee only has control of the assets owned by the trust, so if the purpose of the trust is planning for incapacity, many, if not all, of your assets will need to be retitled and put into the trust.

A properly created estate plan will often use both the Durable Power of Attorney and a Revocable Living Trust, when preparing for incapacity.

Sadly, many people fail to have these legal tools created. As a result, when they are incapacitated, the family must go to court to have a person appointed to manage their affairs. This is usually referred to as a “legal guardianship.” The proceeding to obtain a guardianship is lengthy and complicated. Once the guardianship is established, the guardian must file annual accountings with the court documenting how all of the funds are used. The guardian must also post a surety bond, designed to protect assets in case of improper use.

Guardianship and its costs and time-consuming tasks can all be avoided with a properly prepared estate plan, including planning for incapacity.

Reference: The Sentinel-Record (March 27, 2022) “Estate planning in case of incapacity”

When are You Required to File a Gift Tax Return?

The IRS wants to know how much you’re gifting over the course of your lifetime. This is because while gifts may be based on generosity, they are also a strategy for avoiding taxes, including estate taxes, reports The Street in a recent article “Do I Need to File a Gift Tax Return?”

Knowing whether you need to file a gift tax return is relatively straightforward. The IRS has guidelines about who needs to file and who does not. Your estate planning attorney will also be able to guide you, since gifting is part of your estate and tax planning.

If you give a gift worth more than $16,000, it is likely you need to file a gift tax return. Let’s say you gave your son your old car. The value of used cars today is higher than ever because of limited supply. Therefore, you probably need to file a gift tax return. If the car title is held by you and your spouse, then the car is considered a gift from both of you. The threshold for a gift from a married couple is $32,000. Make sure that you have the right information on how the car is titled.

What if you added a significant amount of cash to an adult child’s down payment on a new home? If you as a member of a married couple gave more than $32,000, then you will need to file a gift tax return. If you are single, anything over $16,000 requires a gift tax return.

529 contributions also fall into the gift tax return category. Gifts to 529 plans are treated like any other kind of gift and follow the same rules: $16,000 for individuals, $32,000 for married couples.

What about college costs? It depends. If you made payments directly to the educational institution, no gift tax return is required. The same goes for paying medical costs directly to a hospital or other healthcare provider. However, any kind of educational expense not paid directly to the provider is treated like any other gift.

Do trusts count as gifts? Good question. This depends upon the type of trust. A conversation with your estate planning attorney is definitely recommended in this situation. If the trust is a “Crummey” trust, which gives the beneficiary a right to immediately withdraw the gift put into the trust, then you may not need to file a gift tax return.

A Crummey trust is not intended to give the beneficiary the ability to make an immediate withdrawal. However, the withdrawal right makes the gift in the trust a “current gift” and it qualifies for the annual exclusion limit. Recategorizing the gift can potentially exempt the person giving the gift from certain tax obligations. Check with your estate planning attorney.

Even when filing a gift tax return, the amount of tax being paid is usually zero. This is because the gifts are offset by each person’s lifetime exemption. The IRS wants these returns filed to keep track of how much each individual has gifted over time. Unless you are very wealthy and making gift transfers from a family trust or to family members, it is not likely you will ever end up paying a tax. You are, however, required to keep the IRS informed.

Reference: The Street (March 31, 2022) “Do I Need to File a Gift Tax Return?”

Special Needs Planning
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Special Needs Planning

When a family includes a disabled individual, sometimes referred to as a “person with special needs,” estate planning needs to address the complexities, as described in a recent article titled “Customize estate plan to account for disabled beneficiaries” from The News-Enterprise. Failing to do so can have life-long repercussions for the individual.

This often occurs because the testator, the person creating the estate plan, does not know the implications of failing to take the disabled person’s situation into consideration, or when there is no will.

The most common error is leaving the disabled beneficiary receiving an outright inheritance. With a simple will, or no will, the beneficiary receives the inheritance and becomes ineligible for public benefits they may be receiving. The disruption can impact their medical care, housing, work and social programs. It may also lead to the loss of their inheritance.

If the disabled beneficiary does not currently receive benefits, it does not mean they will never need them. After the death of a parent, for instance, they may become completely reliant on public benefits. An inheritance will put them in jeopardy.

A second common error is naming the caregiver as the beneficiary, rather than the disabled individual. This causes numerous problems. The caregiver has the right to do whatever they want with the assets. If they no longer wish to care for the beneficiary, they are under no legal obligation to do so.

If the caregiver has any liabilities of their own, or when the caregiver becomes incapacitated or dies, the assets intended for the disabled individual will be subject to any estate taxes or creditors of the caregiver. If the caregiver has any children of their own, they will inherit the assets and not the disabled person.

The caregiver does not enjoy any kind of estate tax protection, so the estate may end up paying taxes on assets intended for the beneficiary.

The third major planning mistake is using a will instead of a trust as the primary planning method. A Special Needs Trust is designed to benefit a disabled individual to protect the assets and protect the individual’s public benefits. The trust assets can be used for continuity of care, while maintaining privacy for the individual and the family.

Planning for individuals with special needs requires great care, specifically for the testator and their beneficiaries. Families who appear to be similar on the outside may have very different needs, making a personalized estate plan vital to ensure that beneficiaries have the protection they deserve and need.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (March 15, 2022) “Customize estate plan to account for disabled beneficiaries”

Just What Is in an Estate Plan?

Getting your affairs in order may not be on anyone’s top ten fun list for a weekend. However, once it is done, you can relax, knowing your loved ones will be cared for. Is estate planning more or less painful than doing taxes once a year? The answer depends on who you ask, but a recent article titled “Estate Planning Checklist: 12 Things to Get in Order” from South Florida Reporter breaks it down into easy-to-manage steps.

A last will and testament outlines how your assets will be distributed after your death. They include personal property, real estate, bank accounts, etc. You can name a guardian for minor children, and name an executor, the person who will be in charge of managing your estate.

Proof of identity. Your executor will need information including a valid birth certificate, Social Security card, marriage or divorce certificates, a prenuptial agreement, or military service discharge papers.

Digital asset information. With so much of our lives lived online, everyone needs a digital vault, an integrated password manager or some kind of system for managing your digital assets. Without this, your traditional and digital assets are vulnerable to identity theft and fraud.

Property deeds and titles. You have titles for cars, homes, or real estate property. They need to be gathered and kept in a safe place, then one or two highly trusted individuals need to be told where these documents are located.

Revocable living trust. Creating a trust with an experienced estate planning attorney can help loved ones avoid the time and cost of having your estate go through probate. The trust creates a legal entity allowing you to control property while you are alive but preparing for the future. If you are living and become incapacitated, the successor trustee controls the assets owned by the trust.

Debts. These do not disappear when you die. Your executor will need to know what debts exist because they will need to address them. Compile a list of your debts, which may include mortgages, auto loans, credit cards, personal loans and student loans. Add contact information for the lender, account number, login information and approximate amount of the debt. If you have credit cards you rarely use, include those also, so they can be closed out before identity theft occurs.

Non-Probate Assets and Beneficiaries. Assets with named beneficiary designations can be transferred directly to beneficiaries. However, this does not happen automatically. Your executor will need to provide beneficiaries with the information for the assets, including the name of the insurance company or financial institution, the location of policies, account numbers and the value of the asset. The beneficiary may need to provide a death certificate and identification information before the assets are released.

Financial information. Let your executor skip the scavenger hunt. Create a detailed list information including bank accounts, car insurance, credit cards, health, home and life insurance, pension plans, retirement plans and tax returns.

Advanced Health Care Directive. This document is an opportunity for you to tell health care providers how you want medical decisions to be made, if you cannot communicate your wishes. The AHCD typically has two parts: Health Care Power of Attorney (also known as a health care proxy) and a living will.

The Living Will outlines your wishes, if you are unable to communicate. It describes your preferences for end-of-life requests, medications, resuscitation, surgeries, or other invasive procedures.

Power of Attorney is a document to give someone else the power to act on your behalf regarding financial and legal affairs. The scope of power can be as broad as managing everything or limited to selling your classic car collection. Your estate planning attorney will help you clarify what responsibilities you wish to give in a POA.

Funeral Wishes. If you want to save your family a lot of stress during a very difficult time, outline what you would want to happen. Do you want a cremation or embalming and burial? Should it be a full-on faith-based memorial service, or a few poems read at graveside? Make sure that your wishes are communicated and shared with loved ones, so everyone knows what you want.

Meet with an Estate Planning Attorney. Make an appointment to meet with an estate planning attorney to put all of this information in the appropriate legal documents. They may have recommendations for options that you may not know about.

Reference: South Florida Reporter (April 2, 2022) “Estate Planning Checklist: 12 Things to Get in Order”