What are the Biggest Estate Planning Errors to Avoid?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sharing Legal Documents and Passwords

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do I Need to Know About an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust?
Revocable trust on a wooden desk.

What Do I Need to Know About an Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust?

An irrevocable life insurance trust (ILIT) is a trust that can’t be rescinded, amended, or modified after it’s created. ILITs are made with a life insurance policy as the asset owned by the trust. Once the grantor places property or life insurance death benefits into the trust, she can’t alter the terms of the trust or reclaim any of the properties held by it.

As an alternative to designating an individual beneficiary, ILITs offer several legal and financial advantages to heirs. This includes favorable tax treatment, asset protection, and the assurance that the benefits will be used in a manner concurrent with the benefactor’s wishes.

Investopedia’s recent article, “When Is It a Good Idea to Use ILIT Trust?” says that there are several advantages to ILITs, including state tax considerations, the protection of fiscally-careless beneficiaries from squandering their payouts and the prevention of courts and creditors from accessing the assets.

An ILIT is often used to set aside assets for certain purposes, like paying estate taxes, because these assets themselves aren’t taxable. To do this, the selected assets must be moved into the life insurance trust at least three years before they’re used. If you use a qualified estate planning attorney to create this, the death benefits paid to the ILIT won’t be included in the gross estate of the insured. This is different than when life insurance death benefits are paid to an individual, because the proceeds are included in the taxable estate of the decedent.

The ILIT also has asset protection for the beneficiaries, if they are involved in a lawsuit. That’s because ILITs aren’t considered to be owned by the beneficiaries. This makes it hard for courts to connect the assets to the beneficiary, making them nearly impossible for creditors to access.

There are some drawbacks to using an ILIT, so carefully consider the pros and cons of creating one. Changes to an ILIT can only be made by the beneficiaries. As a result, the benefactor loses control of the assets prior to death.  ILIT assets also are not taxed as part of the estate, but they are taxed as part of the beneficiaries’ estates, leaving a bigger tax burden to their descendants.

Preparing an ILIT is a sophisticated matter, with strict guidelines that must be followed to ensure that it conforms with IRS guidelines. Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney to be sure that it is prepared properly, and that it aligns with your overall estate plan.

Reference: Investopedia (August 5, 2019) “When Is It a Good Idea to Use ILIT Trust?”

How Do I Calculate My Executor’s Fee?

An executor’s fee is the amount of money that’s charged by the individual who’s been named or appointed as the executor of the probate estate for handling all of the necessary tasks in the probate administration.

If you’ve been appointed an executor of someone’s estate, you may be entitled to a fee for your services.

The executor or personal representative fee could be based upon a variety of factors. Some of these factors may be dependent upon the law in your state, says nj.com’s recent article, “Both of my parents died. How do I calculate the executor fee?”

In most states, the executor fee is set by statute. For example, in New Jersey, it is 5% of the first $200,000 of assets taken in by the executor, 3.5% of the next $800,000 of assets, and 2% on anything in excess of $1 million. Likewise, California has a sliding scale based on the amount of the estate.

However, in Minnesota and Nebraska, the law states that the fee should be “reasonable.”

The amount of work involved is determined by the specific estate. The executor is generally responsible for collecting the estate assets, paying the debts and taxes (if any) and then giving what’s remaining to the heirs.

If you elect to take the commission, it’s taxable income which must be shown on your personal income tax return.

In New Jersey, if there are co-executors, the statute says that an additional 1% can be included to the commission. However, any one executor cannot receive more than the amount to which a sole executor is entitled.

Note that the executor only receives a commission on what he or she takes control of as executor.

This means that the executor doesn’t get a commission on assets that have beneficiary designations on death or that are jointly owned with right of survivorship. These assets pass outside of the will and the executor doesn’t take possession of these assets.

In many instances, the probate estate of the first spouse to die is less than the second. That’s because many of the assets were held jointly with right of survivorship. As a result, they aren’t probate assets and are not subject to the commission.

If that’s the case, the commission on the first spouse’s estate would be much less than the commission on the second estate.

Reference: nj.com (October 10, 2019) “Both of my parents died. How do I calculate the executor fee?”

How Can Beneficiary Designations Wreck My Estate Plan?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Am I Too Young to Think About Estate Planning?

It’s wise for younger generations to consider estate planning, advises The Cleveland Jewish News in the recent article “Younger generations should focus on estate planning, too.”

Don’t be fooled into thinking that an estate plan is only for older people or the ultra-wealthy. Many younger adults have been financially successful and also have experienced changes with marriage and families.

A young married couple should talk about their vision and goals for their legal affairs, in case something happens to one of them or within their family.

Estate plans provide some certainty into an otherwise uncertain life. There are many reasons to start early. One reason is that you never know what’s going to happen. You want to make certain that all of your assets are in place.

When creating an estate plan, there are a few things that younger people should consider, such as making sure all their accounts have named a beneficiary. This includes life insurance, retirement, and checking and savings accounts. These beneficiaries need to be updated for life and family changes.

Many younger adults will be fine with a will and a health care power of attorney. However, marriage is a time when people have more complexity in their professional lives. This can include starting a business, becoming leaders at companies and needing more complex and protective plans.

While younger generations are known to be independent and to try to meet all their needs online, estate plans should be treated differently. There are numerous online tools or ‘do-it-yourself’ strategies, but professional legal assistance can make it an easier and a more thorough process.

Start as early as you can and set the foundation for more complex planning that will come in the future. This preparation will mean less stress for those left behind, after you pass away.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (September 19, 2019) “Younger generations should focus on estate planning, too”

Managing an Aging Parent’s Financial and Legal Life

As parent’s age, it becomes more important for their children or another trusted adult to start helping them with their finances and their legal documents, especially an estate plan. In “Six tips for managing an elderly parent’s finances,” ABC7 On Your Side presents the important tasks that need to be done.

Make sure the family knows where important personal and financial documents are in an emergency. Start with a list that includes:

  • Bank, brokerage and credit card statements
  • Original wills, power of attorney, healthcare directive and living will
  • Insurance policies
  • Social Security information
  • Pension records
  • Medicare information

They’ll need a list of all accounts, safe deposit boxes, financial institutions and contact information for their estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisors. Even if they don’t want to share this information until an emergency occurs, make sure it is somewhere a family member can find it easily.

Set up direct deposit for any incoming funds. Automating the deposit of pension and benefit checks is far more secure and convenient for everyone. This prevents a delay in funds being deposited and checks can’t be stolen in the mail or lost at home.

Set up automatic bill payment or at least online bill payment. Making these payments automatic will save a lot of time and energy for all concerned. If your parents are not comfortable with an automatic payment, and many are not, try setting up the accounts so they can be paid online. Work with your parents, so they are comfortable with doing this. They will appreciate how much easier it is and saving themselves a trip to the post office.

Have a “Durable Power of Attorney” prepared. This is a legal document prepared by an estate planning attorney that gives one or more people the legal authority to handle finances or other matters, if they become mentally or physically incapacitated.

Have a “Living Will” and a “Healthcare Power of Attorney” prepared. The Healthcare Power of Attorney allows a person to make health care decisions for another person, if they are mentally or physically incapacitated. The Living Will allows a person to express their wishes about end-of-life care, if they are terminally ill and unable to express their wishes.

Take precautions to guard against fraud. Seniors are the chief targets of many scams, for two reasons. If they have any kind of cognitive decline, no matter how slight, they are more likely to comply with a person posing as an authority figure. They have a lifetime of assets and are a “rich” target.

An estate planning attorney can work with your parents to assist in preparing an estate plan and advising the family on how to help their parents as they age. Most estate planning attorneys have access to a large network of related service providers.

Reference: ABC7 On Your Side (Sep. 5, 2019) “Six tips for managing an elderly parent’s finances,”

Estate Planning Is for Everyone, at Every Age

As we go through the many milestones of life, it’s important to plan for what’s coming, and also plan for the unexpected. An estate planning attorney works with individuals, families and businesses to plan for what lies ahead, says the Cincinnati Business Courier in the article “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.” For younger families, having an estate plan is like having life insurance: it is hoped that the insurance is never needed, but having it in place is comforting.

For others, in different stages of life, an estate plan is needed to ensure a smooth transition for a business owner heading to retirement, protecting a spouse or children from creditors or minimizing tax liability for a family.

Here are some milestones in life when an estate plan is needed:

Becoming an adult. It is true, for most 18-year-olds, estate planning is the last thing on their minds. However, at 18 most states consider them legal adults, and their parents no longer control many things in their lives. If parents want or need to be involved with medical or financial matters, certain estate planning documents are needed. All new adults need a general power of attorney and health care directives to allow someone else to step in, if something occurs.

That can be as minimal as a parent talking with a doctor during an office appointment or making medical decisions during a crisis. A HIPAA release should also be prepared. A simple will should be considered, especially if assets are to pass directly to siblings or a significant person in their life, to whom they are not married.

Getting married. Marriage unites individuals and their assets. For newly married couples, estate planning documents should be updated for each spouse, so their estate plans may be merged, and the new spouse can become a joint owner, primary beneficiary and fiduciary. In addition to the wills, power of attorney, healthcare directive and beneficiary designations also need to be updated to name the new spouse or a trust. This is also a time to start keeping a list of assets, in case someone needs to access accounts.

When children join the family. Whether born or adopted, the entrance of children into the family makes an estate plan especially important. Choosing guardians who will raise the children in the absence of their parents is the hardest thing to think about, but it is critical for the children’s well-being. A revocable trust may be a means of allowing the seamless transfer and ongoing administration of the family’s assets to benefit the children and other family members.

Part of business planning. Estate planning should be part of every business owner’s plan. If the unexpected occurs, the business and the owner’s family will also be better off, regardless of whether they are involved in the business. At the very least, business interests should be directed to transfer out of probate, allowing for an efficient transition of the business to the right people without the burden of probate estate administration.

If a divorce occurs. Divorce is a sad reality for more than half of today’s married couples. The post-divorce period is the time to review the estate plan to remove the ex-spouse, change any beneficiary designations, and plan for new fiduciaries. It’s important to review all accounts to ensure that any controlling-on-death accounts are updated. A careful review by an estate planning attorney is worth the time to make sure no assets are overlooked.

Upon retirement. Just before or after retirement is an important time to review an estate plan. Children may be grown and take on roles of fiduciaries or be in a position to help with medical or financial affairs. This is the time to plan for wealth transfer, minimizing estate taxes and planning for incapacity.

Reference: Cincinnati Business Courier (Sep. 4, 2019) “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.”

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