Estate Planning and Cryptocurrency

The increase of people investing in digital assets has not been matched by an increase in the number of people preparing to pass on these assets, which can be of considerable value. This new class of assets requires a new kind of estate planning, according to the article “Cryptocurrency and Estate Planning: What Digital Investors Should Know” from Forbes.

Cryptocurrency is digital currency used to buy online goods and services and traded in several markets. Cryptocurrency is not issued by any government. Instead, it’s created and managed through blockchain, a technology comprised of decentralized computers used to record and manage transactions. Users claim cryptocurrency is extremely secure. Sometimes, cryptocurrency is so secure that a lost password can cause the owner to lose millions.

The most popular cryptocurrencies are Bitcoin, Ethereum, Dogecoin and Binance Coin, although there are many others, and it seems like a new cryptocurrency is always being introduced. The total value is estimated at $1.35 trillion.

Another digital asset class gaining in popularity is the NFT, or non-fungible token, used to buy and sell digital art. Each NFT, which is also supported by blockchain technology, can be anything digital, like music or artwork files. The buyer of an NFT owns the exclusive original and the artist, in some cases, retains proprietary rights to feature the artwork or make copies of it. Numerous NFTs have already sold for millions.

Owning digital assets without a plan for passing them along to the next generation, could leave heirs empty handed.

Even if your family knows you own cryptocurrency, and even if they know your passwords or have access to the digital wallet where you keep your passwords, they still may not be able to access your accounts. Probate for digital assets is still very new to the courts, and if you can avoid probate for this asset class, you should.

Blockchain technology, the system behind cryptocurrency and NFTs, requires a private key to access each account, typically in the form of a long passcode. Just as you would not put account numbers into a will, you should never put passcodes or usernames in a last will and testament to prevent them from becoming part of the public record. However, only by understanding how each currency works after the original owner dies and preparing to provide the information to your executor, can your heirs receive these assets.

The nature of cryptocurrency is decentralization. There is no governing body that oversees or regulates cryptocurrency. Laws around cryptocurrency are still evolving, so your estate plan may benefit from a trust to protect digital assets.

Don’t neglect to have the necessary discussion with your heirs, including a knowledge transfer of the step-by-step process they’ll need to know to access your digital assets. An estate planning attorney with experience with digital assets and your state’s laws about digital assets will help protect these assets and ensure they are passed to the next generation without evaporating into cyberspace.

Reference: Forbes (July 21, 2021) “Cryptocurrency and Estate Planning: What Digital Investors Should Know”

Is It Better Not to Have a Will?

When a person dies, estate and probate law govern how assets are distributed. If the person who has died has a properly prepared will, they have set up a “testate inheritance.” Their last will and testament will guide the distribution of their assets. If they die without a legitimate will, they have an “intestate estate,” as explained in a recent article titled “Testate vs. Intestate: Estate Planning” from Yahoo! Finance.

In an “intestate estate,” assets are distributed according to the laws of inheritance in the specific legal jurisdiction. The decedent’s wishes, or the wishes of their spouse or children, are not considered. The law is the sole determining power. You have no control over what happens to your assets.

Having a will prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney who is familiar with the law and your family’s situation is the best solution. The will must follow certain guidelines, including how many witnesses must be present for it to be executed property. A probate court reviews the will to ensure that it was prepared properly and if there are any doubts, the will can be deemed invalid.

Having a will drafted by an attorney makes it more likely to be deemed valid and enforced by the probate court. It also minimizes the likelihood of illegal or unenforceable provisions in the will.

Debts become problematic. If you owned a home and had unpaid property taxes or a mortgage and gave the house to someone in your will, they must pay the property taxes and either take over the mortgage or get a new mortgage and pay off the prior mortgage before taking ownership of the property. Otherwise, the executor may sell the home, pay the debts and give any remaining money to the heir.

Liabilities reduce inheritances. If someone has a $50,000 debt and very kindly left you $100,000, you’ll only receive $50,000 because the debt must be satisfied before assets are distributed. If the debt is higher than the value of the estate, heirs receive nothing.

Note that a person may use their will to distribute debts in any way they wish. Family members erroneously believe they are “entitled” by their blood relationship to receive an inheritance. This is not true. Anything you own is yours to give in any manner you wish—if you have a will prepared.

Another common problem: estates having fewer assets than expected. Let’s say someone gives a donation of $500,000 to a local charity, but their entire estate is only worth $100,000. In that case, the $100,000 is distributed in a pro-rata basis according to the terms of the will. The generous gift will not be so generous.

If there is no will, the probate code governs distribution of assets, usually based on kinship. Close relatives inherit before distant relatives. The order is typically (but not always, local laws vary) the spouse, children, parents of the decedent, siblings of the decedent, grandparents of the decedent, then nieces, nephews, aunts, uncles and first cousins.

Another reason to have a will: estranged or unidentified heirs. Settling an estate includes notifying all and any potential heirs of a death and they may have legal rights to an inheritance even if they have never met the decedent. Lacking a will, an estate is more vulnerable to challenges from relatives. Relying on state probate law to distribute assets is hurtful to those you love, since it creates a world of trouble for them.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Sep. 22, 2021) “Testate vs. Intestate: Estate Planning”

Estate Planning for Special Needs Children

Part of providing comprehensive estate planning for families includes being prepared to address the needs of family members with special needs. Some of the tools used are trusts, guardianship and tax planning, according to the article “How to Help Clients With Special Needs Children” from Accounting Web. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan for the future that addresses both legal and financial protections.

A survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that 12.8 percent of children in our country have special health care needs, while 20 percent of all American households include a child with special needs. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) estimates that 26% of adults in America have some type of disability. In other words, some 61 million Americans have some kind of disability.

Providing for a child with special needs can be expensive, depending upon the severity of the disability. The first step for families is to have a special needs trust created through an estate planning attorney with experience in this area. The goal is to have money for the support and care of the child available, but for it not to be in the child’s name. While there are benefits available to the child through the federal government, almost all programs are means-tested, that is, the child or adult with special needs may not have assets of their own.

For many parents, a good option is a substantial life insurance policy, with the beneficiary of the policy being the special needs trust. Depending on the family’s situation, a “second to die” policy may make sense. Both parents are listed as the insured, but the policy does not pay until both parents have passed. Premiums may be lower because of this option.

It is imperative for parents of a child with special needs to have their will created to direct their assets to go to the special needs trust and not to the child directly. This is done to protect the child’s eligibility to receive government benefits.

Parents of a child with special needs also need to consider who will care for their child after they have died. A guardian needs to be named as early as possible in the child’s life, in case something should occur to the parents. The guardianship may end at age 18 for most children, but for an individual with special needs, more protection is needed. The guardian and their role need to be spelled out in documents. It is a grave mistake for parents to assume a family member or sibling will care for their child with special needs. The need to prepare for guardianship cannot be overstated.

The special needs trust will also require a trustee and a secondary trustee, if at some point the primary trustee cannot or does not want to serve.

It may seem easier to name the same person as the trustee and the guardian, but this could lead to difficult situations. A better way to go is to have one person paying the bills and keeping an eye on costs and a second person taking care of the individual.

Planning for the child’s long-term care needs to be done as soon as possible. A special needs trust should be established and funded early on, wills need to be created and/or updated, and qualified professionals become part of the family’s care for their loved one.

Having a child with special needs is a different kind of parenting. A commonly used analogy is for a person who expected to be taking a trip to Paris but finds themselves in Holland. The trip is not what they expected, but still a wonderful and rewarding experience.

Reference: Accounting Web (Sep. 13, 2021) “How to Help Clients With Special Needs Children”

Is My Will Void If I Get Divorced?

If you neglect to update your estate plan after a divorce, everything you gave to your ex in your original will could very well add up to a nice post-divorce inheritance. Even in the most amicable divorces, it’s probably not what you had intended. Yet, as reported in the article “Rewriting Your Will After Divorce” from Investopedia, people do this.

Depending on where you live, there might be a law that automatically revokes gifts to a former spouse listed in a will. In Florida, there is a statute addressing this. In Texas, a law revokes gifts to the former spouse and their relatives. However, unless you know the laws of your state as well as an estate planning attorney, it’s best to let the estate planning attorney protect your estate.

What happens if you die before you are legally divorced?

If your will leaves everything to your surviving spouse and you are currently in the process of separating and divorcing, it’s time for a new will, as soon as possible.

Don’t forget assets passing outside of the will. Assets with beneficiary designations, like life insurance, investment accounts and some retirement plans, go directly to the beneficiary listed on the account. If the beneficiary is your ex, you should also make those changes as soon as possible.

Your estate plan must also update any property gained or lost during the divorce. If any assets are specifically identified in your will, be sure to update them.

The executor (the person named in your will to oversee the distribution of assets) probably has to be changed as well. If you had previously named your ex-spouse, it’s time to name a new executor.

Your will is also used to name a guardian for minor children. If you have children with your ex, you will want to appoint a guardian in case both you and your ex are not alive to raise them. If you die unexpectedly, your spouse will raise them, but you should still name a guardian. If a surviving parent has a serious problem, like addiction, child abuse or incarceration, naming a guardian in your will and documenting the reasons you believe your ex is an unfit parent may be a deciding factor in how a judge awards custody.

A will can be updated by writing a codicil, which is an amendment to a previous or a prior will. However, since there may be many changes to a will in a divorce, it is better to tear up the old one—literally—and start over. A prior will is revoked by physically tearing up and destroying the original and including language in the new will that it will revokes all prior wills. Your attorney will know how to do this properly.

Your ex may have the legal right to challenge your will. This is why an estate planning attorney is so necessary to create a new will. There are provisions in some states that may give your ex more rights than in other states. In a divorce situation, the use of an experienced estate planning attorney can make the difference in your ex receiving a windfall and your new spouse or children receiving their rightful inheritance.

Reference: Investopedia (September 14, 2021) “Rewriting Your Will After Divorce”

When Should You Fund a Trust?

If your estate plan includes a revocable trust, sometimes called a “living trust,” you need to be certain the trust is funded. When created by an experienced estate planning attorney, revocable trusts provide many benefits, from avoiding having assets owned by the trust pass through probate to facilitating asset management in case of incapacity. However, it doesn’t happen automatically, according to a recent article from mondaq.com, “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

For the trust to work, it must be funded. Assets must be transferred to the trust, or beneficiary accounts must have the trust named as the designated beneficiary. The SECURE Act changed many rules concerning distribution of retirement account to trusts and not all beneficiary accounts permit a trust to be the owner, so you’ll need to verify this.

The revocable trust works well to avoid probate, and as the “grantor,” or creator of the trust, you may instruct trustees how and when to distribute trust assets. You may also revoke the trust at any time. However, to effectively avoid probate, you must transfer title to virtually all your assets. It includes those you own now and in the future. Any assets owned by you and not the trust will be subject to probate. This may include life insurance, annuities and retirement plans, if you have not designated a beneficiary or secondary beneficiary for each account.

What happens when the trust is not funded? The assets are subject to probate, and they will not be subject to any of the controls in the trust, if you become incapacitated. One way to avoid this is to take inventory of your assets and ensure they are properly titled on a regular basis.

Another reason to fund a trust: maximizing protection from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance coverage. Most of us enjoy this protection in our bank accounts on deposits up to $250,000. However, a properly structured revocable trust account can increase protection up to $250,000 per beneficiary, up to five beneficiaries, regardless of the dollar amount or percentage.

If your revocable trust names five beneficiaries, a bank account in the name of the trust is eligible for FDIC insurance coverage up to $250,000 per beneficiary, or $1.25 million (or $2.5 million for jointly owned accounts). For informal revocable trust accounts, the bank’s records (although not the account name) must include all beneficiaries who are to be covered. FDIC insurance is on a per-institution basis, so coverage can be multiplied by opening similarly structured accounts at several different banks.

One last note: FDIC rules regarding revocable trust accounts are complex, especially if a revocable trust has multiple beneficiaries. Speak with your estate planning attorney to maximize insurance coverage.

Reference: mondaq.com (Sep. 10, 2021) “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

How Does Probate Work?

Probate is a court-directed process to examine the last will and testament, authorize the executor named in the last will and give the “all clear” to the executor to go ahead and carry out all of the directions in the last will. However, it’s not always that simple—and sometimes, it can get extremely complicated.

A probate judge also oversees cases when there is no last will, explains the article “How Do Probate Judges Administer Estates?” from Yahoo! Finance. If there is no last will, the estate is considered “intestate,” and the court appoints an administrator to manage the estate.

Most probate cases are decided using the laws of the state. The probate judge may also be involved in guardianship and mental competency cases. In some states, the probate court oversees adoption cases instead of a family court. However, the main responsibility of the probate judge is overseeing estates.

Probate includes the process of determining the last will’s validity, ensuring that bills and taxes are paid and property is distributed according to the deceased’s wishes. However, if there is no last will and no family member petitions the court to contest the last will, the probate judge’s involvement in the estate (and the family’s life) becomes far more extensive.

Here’s how it works.

The executor of the estate files the last will with the probate court. The probate court has to be sure there are no objections to the last will, like a possibility that someone may claim that the last will was not knowing and voluntarily made by the decedent. In the most intense cases, the judge may have to declare the need for litigation. However, if there are no objections, the executor is approved. The next step is for the executor to get a tax ID number from the IRS and open an estate bank account.

The executor next notifies all interested parties about the last will. This is done by placing classified ads in local newspapers. All possible heirs must be notified, whether they are mentioned in the last will or not, and if they can be found. Creditors have a specific time period to submit claims against the estate through the probate court.

Inventory of all assets must be done, and a total value assigned to the estate on the date of death. The inventory is filed with the probate court and provided to heirs. This is a lot of work, and the executor must be diligent. It may be necessary to hire professionals to value assets, like real estate. Many people work with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the estate is properly valued.

If the last will is contested, the probate judge reviews evidence and hears arguments. The process can take years, depending on the complexity of the estate. The probate judge issues rulings and opinions.

If there is no last will, the judge appoints an administrator of the estate to conduct the duties of the executor as described above. With no last will, the probate judge invokes the law of intestate succession, which in most states, means that the order of inheritance is based on the relationship between the deceased and the next of kin. If there are estranged family members, they may end up inheriting most of the estate, regardless of their relationship with the decedent.

Having a last will prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney permits you to make the decisions about your property, spares your family from potentially losing everything you have worked to attain and saves your loved one’s time, money and emotional hardship.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Aug. 31, 2021) “How Do Probate Judges Administer Estates?”

Can You Make Heirs Behave from the Grave?

Imposing strange or amusing conditions upon heirs may make for good novels. However, in the real world, terms and conditions are limited by the law. A last will or trust contains language specifying how you want assets to be distributed after your death. There are some conditions and terms included, but others should be left for fiction authors, according to a recent article titled “What Can You Force Your Heirs to Do To Get Your Wealth” from Forbes.

If something is illegal or against public policy, it is not acceptable in a last will. Defining public policy is not as easy as whether something is illegal, but it can be described effectively enough, or clarified by your estate planning lawyer. For example, making a gift of land to the town on the condition that an offensive statue be placed in the middle of the land would be against public policy. Requiring an individual to not marry a specific person or type of person before they can inherit is considered illegal in a last will. Beneficiaries are not to be prevented to live their lives freely through the force of a last will.

Whether a condition is valid also depends upon whether it is a precedent that existed at the date of your death or a condition that occurs after your death. For instance, a requirement for a beneficiary to live in a specific location at the time of your death might be considered valid by a court. However, a condition requiring a spouse to never remarry would not be valid.

Blatantly illegal terms of an inheritance are easy terminated. Leaving money to a known terrorist organization or requiring an heir to commit a crime is an easy no-go. However, sometimes things get murky. Restraints on getting married or selling or transferring property are two of the biggest problems, and often the stories behind the last wills are sad ones.

A condition of not marrying, divorcing, or remarrying is not legal. However, a condition that the beneficiary does not marry outside of the faith has been enforced as a valid last will condition. A complete prohibition of a second marriage by a surviving spouse has been deemed void. It should be noted that certain requests have been permitted, like having a surviving spouse lose payments from a trust when they remarry. As antiquated as it may sound, courts have affirmed the concept of the specific limitation to provide financial support only until the surviving spouse remarries and is, therefore, not void.

A probate court will not void a condition on a bequest automatically, even if it is clearly illegal. The beneficiary, or another interested party, must file with the probate court to have the condition voided. If you fail to do so, when the last will or trust is allowed, it is possible to lose your right to void the condition.

A better way to go: don’t try to control your heir’s behavior from the grave. It creates terrible ill will and may cloud a lifetime of happy memories. If you don’t want to give something to someone, your estate planning attorney will help you create an estate plan, and possibly a trust, to control how your assets are distributed.

Reference: Forbes July 21, 2021 “What Can You Force Your Heirs to Do To Get Your Wealth”

Choose Wisely and Protect Yourself When Naming a Power of Attorney

Deciding who to name as your power of attorney, or “agent” is not an easy decision. However, it is a necessary appointment, says this article “Ways to protect yourself when appointing a power of attorney” from The Mercury. Disaster and disability strike without advance notice, so it’s important to make this decision while you are well and can think it through.

If you don’t have a power of attorney in place and the unexpected occurs, the only way for your family to obtain legal authority to act on your behalf is through a guardianship procedure. Even when not contested, guardianship is expensive, time consuming and can limit personal freedom. Not every court will award guardianship to a family member, so the end result could be a stranger taking control of your decisions and property.

Having a power of attorney is a far better alternative, but there are seniors who are concerned about the power of a POA and how it might be abused. Here are some tips to keep you in control of your life even with a POA:

Choose wisely when you are well. Choose your agent when you are of sound mind and body. A common “test” is the checkbook test: could you, right now, hand this person your checkbook without a second thought? Do you believe this person would act responsibly, in your own best interest, follow through in paying bills, ask for help in areas they may not understand, record transactions and be scrupulously honest? If you hesitate to give them your checkbook today, you aren’t likely to trust them to run your life in the future.

Many people choose an agent based on whether the person is the oldest child or if there would be hurt feelings if the person was named. These are not good reasons. A person who has problems managing money, for whatever reason, is not a good candidate. Their own stress might make access to your funds too great to resist.

Name a secondary Power of Attorney. There should always be a back-up person named, if the person you name is not able to serve. The same goes for trustees and beneficiaries. Discuss these alternatives with your estate planning attorney to ensure the attorney knows the identities of the primary and secondary choices.

Have a Power of Attorney customized to your personal needs. Not all Powers of Attorney are the same, and one that is great for a friend may be a disaster for you. Limited powers, unlimited powers, powers to gift or powers only for a specific task or period of time are all options when creating a Power of Attorney. You may have a business to run or a partnership to dissolve. Gifting might be permitted to limit estate taxes, if that is your wish. Limited gifting generally means $15,000 a year, although your estate planning attorney can provide guidance on how to best structure gifting for you. If you own life insurance policies, you may want to permit your agent to cash in insurance policies but not allow the agent to change the named beneficiaries.

Two agents or one agent? Not all banks or investment companies will accept two agents. If they do, will the two people you select be able to work together? If not, naming two could create a financial and legal firestorm.

Financial Power of Attorney and Health Care Power of Attorney can be two separate roles. One person might be terrific with managing money, while another could be better at understanding and managing healthcare providers. Naming different people for each task will allow both to participate in caring for you and draw on their unique skillsets.

Fire when necessary. You always have the right to remove someone from their role as your agent. Your attorney will know how to do this properly to protect you and other agents.

Reference: The Mercury (Aug. 3, 2021) “Ways to protect yourself when appointing a power of attorney”

How to Protect an Estate from a Rotten Son-in-Law

If you’ve been working for a while, you have an estate. If you’ve been working for a long time, you may even have a sizable estate, and between your home, insurance and growing retirement funds, your estate may reach the million dollar mark. That’s the good news. But the bad news might be an adult child with a drug or drinking problem, or a child who married a person who doesn’t deserve to inherit any part of your estate. Not to mention an ex-spouse or two. What will happen when you aren’t there to protect your estate?

There are steps to protect your estate and your family members, as described in the recent article “Is your son-in-law a jerk? Armor plate your estate” from Federal News Network.

Don’t overlook beneficiary designations. Most employer-sponsored retirement and savings accounts have beneficiary designations to identify the people you wish to receive these assets when you die. Here’s an important fact to know: the beneficiary designation overrides any language in your last will and testament. If your beneficiary designation on an account names a child but your will gives your estate to your spouse, your child will receive assets in the account, and your spouse will not receive any proceeds from the account.

Don’t try to sell a property for below-market value. The same goes for trying to remove assets from your ownership to qualify for Medicaid to cover long-term care costs. Selling your home to an adult child for $1 will not pass unnoticed. Estate taxes, gift taxes, income taxes and eligibility for government benefits can’t be avoided by this tactic.

A common estate planning mistake is to name specific investments in a will. A will becomes part of the public record when it is probated. Providing details in a will is asking for trouble, especially if a nefarious family member is looking for assets. And if the sale or other disposition of the named asset before your death impacts bequests, your estate may be vulnerable to litigation.

How will you leave real estate assets to heirs? Real estate assets can be problematic and need special consideration. Are you leaving shares to a vacation home or the family home? If kids or their spouses don’t get along, or one person wants to live in the home while others want to sell it, this could cause years of family fights.

Making a bequest to a grandchild instead of to a troubled adult child. Minor children may not legally inherit property, so leaving assets to a grandchild does not avoid giving assets to an adult child. The most likely guardian will be their parent, undoing the attempt to keep assets out of the parent’s control.

Include a residuary clause in a will or trust. Residuary clauses are used to dispose of assets not specifically mentioned in a will or trust. Your estate planning attorney will create the residuary clauses most appropriate for your unique situations.

Prepare for the unexpected. Your estate plan can be designed to address the unexpected. If a primary beneficiary like a daughter or son divorces their spouse, a trust could prevent the ex from gaining access to your assets.

An effective estate plan, prepared with an experienced estate planning attorney, can plan for all of the “what ifs” to protect loved ones after you have passed.

Reference: Federal News Network (Sep. 1, 2021) “Is your son-in-law a jerk? Armor plate your estate”

Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan?

Given a choice, most people will opt to do almost anything rather than talk about death and life for others after they are gone. However, estate planning is essential to ensure that your life and life’s work will be cared for correctly after you’ve passed, advises the article “Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?” from NASDAQ.com. If you own any assets, have a family, loved ones, pets or belongings you’d like to give to certain people or organizations, you need an estate plan.

Estate planning is not a set-it-and-forget it process. Every few years, your estate plan needs to be reviewed to be sure the information is accurate. Big life changes, from birth and death to marriage and divorce—and everything in between—usually also indicate it’s time for an update. Changes in tax laws also require adjustments to an estate plan, and this is something your estate planning attorney will keep you apprised of.

Reviewing and updating an estate plan is a straightforward process, once your estate planning attorney has created an initial plan. Keeping it updated protects your wishes and your loved ones’ futures. Here are some things to keep in mind when reviewing your estate plan:

Have you moved? Changes in residence require an update, since estate laws vary by state. You also should keep your advisors, including estate planning attorney, financial advisor and tax professional, informed about any changes of residence. You’d be surprised how many people move and neglect to inform their professional advisors.

Changes in tax law. The last five years have seen big changes in tax laws. Estate plans created years ago may no longer work as originally intended.

Power of Attorney documents. A Power of Attorney authorizes a person to act on your behalf to make business, personal, legal and financial decisions. If this document is old, or no longer complies with your state’s laws, it may not be accepted by banks, investment companies, etc. If the person you designed as your POA decades ago can’t or won’t serve, you need to choose another person. If you need to revoke a power of attorney, speak with your estate planning attorney to do this effectively.

Health Care Power of Attorney and HIPAA Releases. Laws concerning who may speak with treating physicians and health care providers have become increasingly restrictive. Even spouses do not have automatic rights when it comes to health care. You’ll also want to put your wishes about being resuscitated or placed on artificial life support in writing.

Do you have an updated last will and testament? Review all the details, from executor to guardian named for minor children, the allocation of assets and your estate tax costs.

What about a trust? If you have minor children, you need to ensure their financial future with a trust. Your estate planning attorney will know which type of trust is best for your situation.

A regular check-up for your estate plan helps avoid unnecessary expenses, delays and costs for your loved ones. Don’t delay taking care of this very important matter. You can then return to selecting a color for the nursery or planning your next exciting adventure. However, do this first.

Reference: NASDAQ.com (July 28, 2021) “Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?”