Estate Planning for Asset Distribution

Without proper planning, your will determines who inherits your property—everything from your home, car, bank accounts and personal possessions. Your spouse may not necessarily be your heir—and that’s just one of many reasons to have an estate plan.

An estate plan avoids a “default” distribution of your possessions, says the recent article “Asset distribution when we die” from LimaOhio.com.

Let’s say someone names a nephew as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. The life insurance company has a contractual legal responsibility to pay the nephew, when the policy owner dies. In turn, the nephew will be required to provide a death certificate and prove that he is indeed the nephew. This is an example of an asset governed by a contract, also described as a named beneficiary.

Assets that are not governed by a contract are distributed to whoever a person directs to get the asset in their will, aka their last will and testament. If there is no will, the state law will determine who should get the assets in a process known as “intestate probate.”

In this process, when there is a last will, the executor is in charge of the assets. The executor is overseen by the probate court judge, who reviews the will and must give approval before assets can be distributed. However, the probate court’s involvement comes with a price, and it is not always a fast process. It is always faster and less costly to have an asset be distributed through a contract, like a trust or by having a beneficiary named to the asset.

If a will only provides limited instructions, the state’s law will fill in the gaps. Therefore, any assets that pass-through contracts will be distributed directly, assets noted in the will go through probate and anything else will go usually to the next of kin.

A better course of action is to have an estate attorney review all of your assets, determine who you want to receive your property and make up a plan to make this happen in a smooth, tax-efficient manner.

Reference: LimaOhio.com (Aug. 22, 2020) “Asset distribution when we die”

Planning for Nursing Home Expenses
Side view of mixed race nurse talking with senior mixed race female patient at nursing home. Senior female sits in a wheelchair.

Planning for Nursing Home Expenses

The question raised in the article “Fact or Fiction: I Can Protect My Assets from a Nursing Home with a Revocable Trust” from New Hampshire Business Review is frequency asked, and the reason for it is understandable. Any form of long-term home care is costly and can quickly decimate a lifetime of savings. There are ways to protect assets, but a revocable trust is not one of them.

There are some reasons why a person might find a revocable trust attractive. For one thing, if the grantor (the person who creates the trust and is also the trustee (i.e., the person in charge of the trust)), there is no loss of control. It is as if you still own the assets that are in the trust. However, when you die, the assets in the trust don’t go through the probate process. Instead, they go directly to the beneficiaries named in the trust documents. A revocable trust also lets you make specific provisions for beneficiaries and beneficiaries with special needs.

There is a trust that can be used to protect assets from the cost of long-term care. It is the irrevocable trust, which must be properly prepared by an estate planning attorney and done in a timely fashion: five years before the person needs to go to a nursing home.

The difference is in the name: the irrevocable trust is irrevocable. Once it is created, you (the grantor) may not change it. Once an asset is placed in the trust, you don’t own it. The trust is the owner. You can’t change your mind. The grantor may also not serve as the trustee of the trust.

You have to be prepared to give up complete control of the assets that go into the trust.

Some people think simply by handing over their assets in the trust to their children, they’ve solved everything. However, there are problems. If your children are sued or run into debt problems, that lifetime of saving which is now in their control is also subject to creditors or claims. If you need to enter a nursing home within five years of your handing over the assets, you also won’t be eligible for Medicaid.

The best course of action is to meet with an estate planning attorney and discuss your overall estate plan. You should have a frank conversation about your wishes, what kind of a legacy you want to leave behind and your bigger picture for the world after you’ve passed. The attorney will help work out a plan that will protect you, your spouse, your assets and your family.

Remember that an estate plan is not a one-and-done document. Every three or four years, or as “life happens” and changes occur in your life, you should touch base with your attorney. A new family member by marriage, birth or adoption, may call for some changes to your estate plan. It might also be affected by the sadder events of life; death, divorce, or a significant health change. All require a phone call and a discussion to ensure that your estate plan still achieves your goals and protects those you love.

Reference: New Hampshire Business Review (July 30, 2020) “Fact or Fiction: I Can Protect My Assets from a Nursing Home with a Revocable Trust”

How to Make Beneficiary Designations Better
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How to Make Beneficiary Designations Better

Beneficiary designations supersede all other estate planning documents, so getting them right makes an important difference in achieving your estate plan goals. Mistakes with beneficiary designations can undo even the best plan, says a recent article “5 Retirement Plan Beneficiary Mistakes to Avoid” from The Street. Periodically reviewing beneficiary forms, including confirming the names in writing with plan providers for workplace plans and IRA custodians, is important.

Post-death changes, if they can be made (which is rare), are expensive and generally involve litigation or private letter rulings from the IRS. Avoiding these five commonly made mistakes is a better way to go.

1—Neglecting to name a beneficiary. If no beneficiary is named for a retirement plan, the estate typically becomes the beneficiary. In the case of IRAs, language in the custodial agreement will determine who gets the assets. The distribution of the retirement plan is accelerated, which means that the assets may need to be completely withdrawn in as little as five years, if death occurs before the decedent’s required beginning date for taking required minimum distributions (RMDs).

With no beneficiary named, retirement plans become probate accounts and transferring assets to heirs becomes subject to delays and probate fees. Assets might also be distributed to people you didn’t want to be recipients.

2—Naming the estate as the beneficiary. The same issues occur here, as when no beneficiary is named. The asset’s distributions will be accelerated, and the plan will become a probate account. As a general rule, estates should never be named as a beneficiary.

3—Not naming a spouse as a primary beneficiary. The ability to stretch out the distribution of retirement plans ended when the SECURE Act was passed. It still allows for lifetime distributions, but this only applies to certain people, categorized as “Eligible Designated Beneficiaries” or “EDBs.” This includes surviving spouses, minor children, disabled or special needs individuals, chronically ill people and individuals who are not more than ten years younger than the retirement plan’s owner. If your heirs do not fall into this category, they are subject to a ten-year rule. They have only ten years to withdraw all assets from the account(s).

If your goal is to maximize the distribution period and you are married, the best beneficiary is your spouse. This is also required by law for company plans subject to ERISA, a federal law that governs employee benefits. If you want to select another beneficiary for a workplace plan, your spouse will need to sign a written spousal consent agreement. IRAs are not subject to ERISA and there is no requirement to name your spouse as a beneficiary.

4—Not naming contingent beneficiaries. Without contingency, or “backup beneficiaries,” you risk having assets being payable to your estate, if the primary beneficiaries predecease you. Those assets will become part of your probate estate and your wishes about who receives the asset may not be fulfilled.

5—Failure to revise beneficiaries when life changes occur. Beneficiary designations should be checked whenever there is a review of the estate plan and as life changes take place. This is especially true in the case of a divorce or separation.

Any account that permits a beneficiary to be named should have paperwork completed, reviewed periodically and revised. This includes life insurance and annuity beneficiary forms, trust documents and pre-or post-nuptial agreements.

Reference: The Street (Aug. 11, 2020) “5 Retirement Plan Beneficiary Mistakes to Avoid”

When Exactly Do I Need to Update My Will?

Many people say that they’ve been meaning to update their last will and testament for years but never got around to doing it.

Kiplinger’s article entitled “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will” gives us a dozen times you should think about changing your last will:

  1. You’re expecting your first child. The birth or adoption of a first child is typically when many people draft their first last will. Designate a guardian for your child and who will be the trustee for any trust created for that child by the last will.
  2. You may divorce. Update your last will before you file for divorce, because once you file for divorce, you may not be permitted to modify your last will until the divorce is finalized. Doing this before you file for divorce ensures that your spouse won’t get all of your money, if you die before the divorce is final.
  3. You just divorced. After your divorce, your ex no longer has any rights to your estate (unless it’s part of the terms of the divorce). However, even if you don’t change your last will, most states have laws that invalidate any distributive provisions to your ex-spouse in that old last will. Nonetheless, update your last will as soon as you can, so your new beneficiaries are clearly identified.
  4. Your child gets married. Your current last will may speak to issues that applied when your child was a minor, so it may not address your child’s possible divorce. You may be able to ease the lack of a prenuptial agreement, by creating a trust in your last will and including post-nuptial requirements before you child can receive any estate assets.
  5. A beneficiary has issues. Last wills frequently leave money directly to a beneficiary. However, if that person has an addiction or credit issues, update your last will to include a trust that allows a trustee to only distribute funds under specific circumstances.
  6. Your executor or a beneficiary die. If your estate plan named individuals to manage your estate or receive any remaining funds, but they’re no longer alive, you should update your last will.
  7. Your child turns 18. Your current last will may designate your spouse or a parent as your executor, but years later, these people may be gone. Consider naming a younger family member to handle your estate affairs.
  8. A new tax or probate law is enacted. Congress may pass a bill that wrecks your estate plan. Review your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney every few years to see if there have been any new laws relevant to your estate planning.
  9. You come into a chunk of change. If you finally get a big lottery win or inherit money from a distant relative, update your last will so you can address the right tax planning. You also may want to change when and the amount of money you leave to certain individuals or charities.
  10. You can’t find your original last will. If you can’t locate your last will, be sure that you replace the last will with a new, original one that explicitly states it invalidated all prior last wills.
  11. You purchase property in another country or move overseas. Many countries have treaties with the U.S. that permit reciprocity of last wills. However, transferring property in one country may be delayed, if the last will must be probated in the other country first. Ask your estate planning attorney about having a different last will for each country in which you own property.
  12. Your feelings change for a family member. If there’s animosity between people named in your last will, you may want to disinherit someone. You might ask your estate planning attorney about a No Contest Clause that will disinherit the aggressive family member, if he or she attempts to question your intentions in the last will.

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

Estate Planning Different for Business Owners and Top-Level Executives

Do you need an estate plan? If you have children, ownership shares in a business, or even in more than one business, a desire to protect your family and business if you became disabled, or charitable giving goals, then you need an estate plan. The recent article “Estate planning for business owners and executives” from The Wealth Advisor explains why business owners, parents and executives need estate plans.

An estate plan is more than a way to distribute wealth. It can also:

  • Establish a Power of Attorney, if you can’t make decisions due to an illness or injury.
  • Identify a guardianship plan for minor children, naming a caregiver of your choice.
  • Ensure that assets are controlled through beneficiary designations rather than simply through a will and pass privately when owned through trusts. This includes retirement plans, life insurance, annuities and some jointly owned property.
  • Create trusts for beneficiaries who are younger, disabled, or others you feel need some kind of protection.
  • Identify professional management for assets in those trusts.
  • Minimize taxes and maximize privacy through the use of planning techniques.
  • Create a structure for your philanthropic goals.

An estate plan ensures that fiduciaries are identified to oversee and distribute assets as you want. Business owners, in particular, need estate plans to manage ownership assets, which requires more sophisticated planning. Ideally, you have a management and ownership succession plan for your business, and both should be well-documented and integrated with your overall estate plan.

Some business owners choose to separate their Power of Attorney documents, so one person or more who know their business well, as well as the POA holder or co-POA, are able to make decisions about the business, while family members are appointed POA for non-business decisions.

Depending on how your business is structured, the post-death transfer of the business may need to be a part of your estate plan. A current buy-sell agreement may be needed, especially if there are more than two owners of the business.

An estate plan, like a succession plan, is not a set-it-and-forget it document. Regular reviews will ensure that any changes are documented, from the size of your overall estate to the people you choose to make key decisions.

Reference: The Wealth Advisor (July 28, 2020) “Estate planning for business owners and executives”

That Last Step: Trust Funding

Neglecting to fund trusts is a surprisingly common mistake, and one that can undo the best estate and tax plans. Many people put it on the back burner, then forget about it, says the article “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” from Forbes.

Done properly, trust funding helps avoid probate, provides for you and your family in the event of incapacity and helps save on estate taxes.

Creating a revocable trust gives you control. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust while you are living, including funding. Think of a trust like an empty box—you can put assets in it now, or after you pass. If you transfer assets to the trust now, however, your executor won’t have to do it when you die.

Note that if you don’t put assets in the trust while you are living, those assets will go through the probate process. While the executor will have the authority to transfer assets, they’ll have to get court approval. That takes time and costs money. It is best to do it while you are living.

A trust helps if you become incapacitated. You may be managing the trust while you are living, but what happens if you die or become too sick to manage your own affairs? If the trust is funded and a successor trustee has been named, the successor trustee will be able to manage your assets and take care of you and your family. If the successor trustee has control of an empty, unfunded trust, a conservatorship may need to be appointed by the court to oversee assets.

There’s a tax benefit to trusts. For married people, trusts are often created that contain provisions for estate tax savings that defer estate taxes until the death of the second spouse. Income is provided to the surviving spouse and access to the principal during their lifetime. The children are usually the ultimate beneficiaries. However, the trust won’t work if it’s empty.

Depending on where you live, a trust may benefit you with regard to state estate taxes. Putting money in the trust takes it out of your taxable estate. You’ll need to work with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the assets are properly structured. For instance, if your assets are owned jointly with your spouse, they will not pass into a trust at your death and won’t be outside of your taxable estate.

Move the right assets to the right trust. It’s very important that any assets you transfer to the trust are aligned with your estate plan. Taxable brokerage accounts, bank accounts and real estate are usually transferred into a trust. Some tangible assets may be transferred into the trust, as well as any stocks from a family business or interests in a limited liability company. Your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and insurance broker should be consulted to avoid making expensive mistakes.

You’ve worked hard to accumulate assets and protecting them with a trust is a good idea. Just don’t forget the final step of funding the trust.

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”

Estate Planning and Probate Planning

The nature of the probate process varies from state to state, and even varies from county to county. However, the nature of the process is the same. A court has to validate a will to ensure that it meets the legal requirements of the state before assets can be distributed, explains the article “Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money” from the Baker City Herald. A typical will in some states can take nine to twelve months, and court shutdowns related to COVID-19 means that the wait could be longer. Probate is also expensive.

When does probate make sense? When a person dies with a lot of debt, probate can be helpful by limiting the amount of time creditors have to make their claims against the estate. If there’s not enough to pay everyone, the probate court makes the decision about how much each creditor gets. Without probate, creditors may surface long after assets have been distributed, and depending upon the amount owed, may sue heirs or the executor.

The court supervision provided by probate can be helpful, if there are any concerns about the instructions in the will not being carried out. However, the will and the details of the estate become public, which is bad not just for privacy reasons. If there are any greedy or litigation-happy family members, they’ll be able to see how assets were distributed. All assets, debts and costs paid by the estate are disclosed, and the court approves each distribution. This much oversight can be protective in some situations.

What’s the alternative? Some states have simplified probate for smaller estates, which can reduce the time and cost of probate. However, it varies by state. In Delaware, it is estates worth no more than $30,000, but in Seattle, small means estates valued at $275,000 or less.

These limits don’t include assets that go directly to heirs, like accounts with beneficiaries or jointly owned assets. Most retirement funds and life insurance policies have named beneficiaries. The same is often true for bank and investment accounts. Just remember not to name your estate as a beneficiary, which defeats the purpose of having a beneficiary.

Are there any other ways to avoid probate? Here’s where trusts come in. Trusts are legal documents that allow you to place your assets into ownership by the trust. A living trust takes effect while you are still alive, and you can be a trustee. Once created, property needs to be transferred into the trust, which requires managing details: changing titles and deeds and account names. This type of trust is revocable, which means you can change it any time. As a trustee, you have complete control over the property. A successor trustee is named to take over, if you die or become incapacitated.

An estate planning attorney will know other legal strategies to avoid probate for part or all of your estate.

Reference: Baker City Herald (July 16, 2020) “Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money”

There Is a Difference between Probate and Trust Administration

Many people get these two things confused. A recent article, “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration,” from Lake County News clarifies the distinctions.

Let’s start with probate, which is a court-supervised process. To begin the probate process, a legal notice must be published in a newspaper and court appearances are needed. However, to start trust administration, a letter of notice is mailed to the decedent’s heirs and beneficiaries. Trust administration is far more private, which is why many people chose this path.

In the probate process, the last will and testament and any documents in the court file are available to the public. While the general public may not have any specific interest in your will, estranged relatives, relatives you never knew you had, creditors and scammers have easy and completely legal access to this information.

If there is no will, the court documents that are created in intestacy (the heirs inherit according to state law), are also available to anyone who wants to see them.

In trust administration, the only people who can see trust documents are the heirs and beneficiaries.

There are cost differences. In probate, a court filing fee must be paid for each petition. There are also at least two petitions from start to finish in probate, plus the newspaper publication fee. The fees vary, depending upon the jurisdiction. Add to that the attorney’s and personal representative’s fees, which also vary by jurisdiction. Some are on an hourly basis, while others are computed as a sliding scale percentage of the value of the estate under management. For example, each may be paid 4% of the first $100,000, 3% of the next $100,000 and 2% of any excess value of the estate under management. The court also has the discretion to add fees, if the estate is more time consuming and complex than the average estate.

For trust administration, the trustee and the estate planning attorney are typically paid on an hourly basis, or however the attorney sets their fee structure. Expenses are likely to be far lower, since there is no court involvement.

There are similarities between probate and trust administration. Both require that the decedent’s assets be collected, safeguarded, inventoried and appraised for tax and/or distribution purposes. Both also require that the decedent’s creditors be notified, and debts be paid. Tax obligations must be fulfilled, and the debts and administration expenses must be paid. Finally, the decedent’s beneficiaries must be informed about the estate and its administration.

The use of trusts in estate planning can be a means of minimizing taxes and planning for family assets to be passed to future generations in a private and controlled fashion. This is the reason for the popularity of trusts in estate planning.

It should be noted that a higher level of competency—mental comprehension—must be possessed by an individual to execute a trust than to execute a will. A person whose capacity may be questionable because of Alzheimer’s or another illness may not be legally competent enough to execute a trust. Their heirs may face challenges to the estate plan in that case.

Reference: Lake County News (July 4, 2020) “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration”

Estate Planning Is a Gift and a Legacy for Loved Ones

Without an end of life plan, a doctor you’ve never even met might decide how you spend your last moments, and your loved ones may live with the burden of not knowing what you would have wished. These are just a few reasons why “End-Of-Life Planning is a ‘Lifetime Gift’ To Your Loved Ones,” as discussed in a recent article from npr.org.

It’s important to recognize that planning for the end of your life is actually not all about you. It’s about the ones you love: your parents, spouse or your children. They are the ones who will benefit from the decisions you make to prepare for the end of your life, and life after you are gone. It is a gift to those you love.

So, what should you do?

Start by preparing to have an estate plan created. If you have an estate plan but haven’t reviewed it in the last three or four years, find it and review it. If you can’t find it, then you definitely need a new one. An estate planning attorney can help you create an estate plan, including a will and other documents.

In the will, you name an executor, someone who you trust completely to carry out your directions. Some people choose a spouse or adult child to be their executor. It’s a lot of work, so pick someone who is smart, organized and trustworthy. They’ll be in charge of all of your financial assets and communicating how the estate is distributed to everyone in your will.

Create an inventory. This includes things that are of financial and sentimental value. People fight over sentimental things, so giving your family specific directions may avoid squabbles.

If you have children under age 18, name a guardian for them. This should be a person who knows your children and will raise them with same values as you would.

Pets are often overlooked in estate planning. If you want to protect your pet, in many states you can create a pet trust. It includes funds that are to be used specifically for care for your pet, and a trustee who will be responsible for ensuring that the funds are used as you intended.

Digital accounts are also part of your property, including social media, online photos, everything in your online cloud storage, credit card rewards, email, frequent flyer miles and digital assets.

Make sure your will is executed and in compliance with the laws of your state. If your will is found to be invalid, then it is as if you never made a will, and all your planning will be undone.

You also need an advance directive, a legal document that covers health care and protects your wishes at the end of life. One part of an advance directive gives a person medical power of attorney, so they can make decisions for you if you cannot. The other part is a living will, where you share how you want to be cared for and what interventions you do or don’t want if you are near death.

Reference: npr.org (June 30, 2020) “End-Of-Life Planning is a ‘Lifetime Gift’ To Your Loved Ones”

Elder Financial Abuse Risk Increasing for Seniors Isolated by Pandemic

The extended isolation and loneliness during the coronavirus pandemic is creating the perfect storm for financial exploitation of seniors, who are unable to visit with family members and friends, reports Fredericksburg Today in the article “SCC urges awareness of investment fraud among seniors due to increased pandemic isolation.” The unprecedented need to forgo socializing makes seniors who are already at risk, even more vulnerable.

In the past, scammers would deliberately strike during a health crisis or after the death of a loved one. By gathering data from obituaries and social media, even establishing relationships with support and social groups, scammers can work their way into seniors’ lives.

Social distancing and the isolation necessary to protect against the spread of the coronavirus has left many seniors vulnerable to people posing as their new friends. The perpetrators may not just be strangers: family members are often the ones who exploit the elderly. The pandemic has also led to changes in procedures in care facilities, which can lead to increased confusion and dependence for the elderly, who do not always do well with changes.

Here are a few key markers for senior financial abuse:

  • A new friend or caregiver who is overly protective and has gotten the person to surrender control of various aspects of their life, including but not limited to finances.
  • Fear or a sudden change in how they feel towards family members and/or friends.
  • A reluctance to discuss financial matters, especially if they say the new friend told them not to talk about their money with others.
  • Sudden changes in spending habits, or unexplained changes to wills, new trustees, or changes to beneficiary designations.
  • Large checks made out to cash, or the disappearance of assets.
  • Signatures on checks or estate planning documents that appear different than past signatures.

Not being able to visit in person makes it harder for family members to discern what is happening.  However, there are a few steps that can be taken by concerned family members. Stay in touch with the family member, by phone, video calls, texts or any means possible. Remind loved ones that scammers are always looking for an opportunity and may try to exploit them during the pandemic.

Every community has resources that can help, if elder financial abuse is a concern. An elder law estate planning attorney will be able to direct concerned family members or friends to local resources to protect their loved ones.

Reference: Fredericksburg Today (June 20, 2020) “SCC urges awareness of investment fraud among seniors due to increased pandemic isolation”