Are 529 Plans Part of Your Estate?

Estate planning attorneys, accountants and CPAs say that 529s are more than good ways to save for college. They’re also highly flexible estate planning tools, useful far beyond education spending, that cost practically nothing to set up. In the very near future, the role of 529s could expand greatly, according to the article “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them” from Barron’s.

Most tactics to reduce the size of an estate are irrevocable and cannot be undone, but the 529 allows you to change the beneficiaries of a 529 account. Even the owners can be changed multiple times. Here’s how they work, and why they deserve more attention.

The 529 is funded with after tax dollars, and all money taken out of the account, including investment gains, is tax fre,e as long as it is spent on qualified education expenses. That includes tuition, room and board and books. What about money used for non-qualified expenses? Income taxes are due, plus a 10% penalty. Only the original contribution is not taxed, if used for non-qualified expenses.

Most states have their own 529 plans, but you can use a plan from any state. Check to see if there are tax advantages from using your state’s plan and know the details before you open an account and start making contributions.

Each 529 account owner must designate a single beneficiary, but money can be moved between beneficiaries, as long as they are in the same family. You can move money that was in a child’s account into their own child’s account, with no taxes, as long as you don’t hit gift tax exclusion levels.

In most states, you can contribute up to $15,000 per beneficiary to a 529 plan. However, each account owner can also pay up to five years’ worth of contributions without triggering gift taxes. A couple together may contribute up to $150,000 per beneficiary, and they can do it for multiple people.

There are no limits to the number of 529s a person may own. If you’re blessed with ten grandchildren, you can open a 529 account for each one of them.

For one family with eight grandchildren, plus one child in graduate school, contributions were made of $1.35 million to various 529 plans. By doing this, their estate, valued at $13 million, was reduced below the federal tax exclusion limit of $11.7 million per person.

Think of the money as a family education endowment. If it’s needed for a crisis, it can be accessed, even though taxes will need to be paid.

To create a 529 that will last for multiple generations, provisions need to be made to transfer ownership. Funding 529 plans for grandchildren’s education must be accompanied by designating their parents—the adult children—as successor owners, when the grandparents die or become incapacitated.

The use of 529s has changed over the years. Originally only for college tuition, room and board, today they can be used for private elementary school or high school. They can also be used to take cooking classes, language classes or career training at accredited institutions. Be mindful that some expenses will not qualify—including transportation costs, healthcare and personal expenses.

Reference: Barron’s (May 29, 2021) “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them”

How can I Revoke an Irrevocable Trust?

Is there a way to get a house deed out of the trust?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I dissolve an irrevocable trust to get my house out?” says that prior to finalizing legal documents, it is important to know the purpose and consequences of the plan.

An experienced estate planning attorney will tell you there are a variety of trust types that are used to achieve different objectives.

There are revocable trusts that can be created to avoid probate, and others trusts placed in a will to provide for minor children or loved ones with special needs.

Irrevocable trusts are often created to shield assets, including the home, in the event long-term nursing care is required.

Conveying assets to an irrevocable trust typically starts the five-year “look back” period for Medicaid purposes, if the trust is restricted from using the assets for, or returning assets to, the individual who created the trust (known as the “grantor”).

When you transfer assets to a trust, control of the assets is given to another person (the ‘trustee”).

This arrangement may protect assets in the event long-term care is required. However it comes with the risk that the trustee may not always act how the grantor intended.

For instance, the grantor can’t independently sell the house owned by the trust or compel the trustee to purchase a replacement residence, which may cause a conflict between the grantor and trustee. Because the trust is irrevocable, it could be difficult and expensive to unwind.

In light of this, it’s important to designate a trustee who will work with and honor the wishes of the grantor.

An experienced estate planning attorney retained for estate and asset planning should provide clear, understandable and thoughtful advice, so the client has the information needed to make an informed decision how to proceed.

Reference: nj.com (April 6, 2021) “Can I dissolve an irrevocable trust to get my house out?”

What Do I Need to Know about Estate Planning?

Your idea of planning for the future may include vacations and visits to family and friends—estate planning, not so much. However, it should, advises Real Simple in the article “Everything You Need to Know About Estate Planning—and Why You Should Start Now.” Estate planning concerns decisions about distributing your property when you die, and while that’s not as much fun as planning a trip to an adventure park, it’s become increasing important for adults of all ages.

A survey by caring.com found that the number of young adults with a last will (ages 18-34) increased by 63 percent since 2020. Many tough lessons were learned through the pandemic, and the importance of having an estate plan was one of them.

An estate plan is more than documents for when you die. There are also documents for what should happen, if you become disabled. The last will is one piece of the larger estate plan. An estate plan is also an opportunity to plan for wealth accumulation and building generational wealth, at any level.

Estate planning is for everyone, regardless of their net worth. People with lower incomes actually need estate planning more than the wealthy. There’s less room for error. Estate planning is everything from where you want your money to go, to who will be in charge of it and who will be in charge of your minor children, if you have a young family.

It may be rare for both parents to die at the same time, but it does happen. Your last will is also used to name a guardian to raise your minor children. With no last will, the court will decide who raises them.

If you’ve filled out 401(k) and life insurance paperwork at work, you’ve started estate planning already. Any document that asks you to name a beneficiary in case of your death is part of your estate plan. Be certain to update these documents. Young adults often name their parents and then neglect to change the beneficiaries, when they get married or have children.

For single people, estate planning is more important. If you have no estate plan and no children, everything you own will go to your parents. What if you have a partner or best friend and want them to receive your assets? Without an estate plan, they have no legal rights. An estate planning attorney will know how to plan, so your wishes are followed.

Estate planning includes planning for disability, also known as “incapacity.” If you become too sick to manage your affairs, bills still need to be paid. Who can do that for you? Without an estate plan, a family member will need to go to court to be assigned that role—or someone you don’t even know may be assigned that role. Your last will names an executor to manage your affairs after you die.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to have your last will, Power of Attorney, Medical Power of Attorney and other parts of your estate plan created. The court system and processes are complex, and the laws are different in every state. Trying to do it yourself or using a template that you download, could leave you with an invalid last will, which will cause more problems than it solves.

Reference: Real Simple (May 12, 2021) “Everything You Need to Know About Estate Planning—and Why You Should Start Now”

Should I Create a Trust?

Most people know that a will instructs your executor regarding where to transfer your assets when you die. You may also want to consider a trust.

Nbcnew25.com’s recent article entitled “Elder law and estate planning: What you need to know” explains that a trust can give you peace of mind that your wishes will be carried out when you pass away. Your property won’t need to go through the probate process, if it’s in a trust. Your family can focus on the grieving process without having any problems with wrapping up your estate.

In addition, financial and health care powers of attorney should also be part of your estate plan. Ask an experienced estate planning or elder law attorney to help you draft these documents to save your loved ones the worry, if you must be moved into a nursing home and are unable to make decisions for yourself.

Having the correct documents in place before you or a loved one goes into a nursing home is extremely important. With a financial power of attorney, an elder law attorney could design a Medicaid plan for someone entering a nursing home to help protect their assets.

If the correct documents aren’t in place when a loved one enters a nursing home, it could create issues—one of which is the inability to protect their assets. In that case, you may also be required to appear in front of a judge to get permission for an elder law attorney to assist in protecting assets. That request could even be denied by the judge.

For a married couple, 100% of cash assets, plus the home, can be protected, and Medicaid would cover most of the nursing home cost. This is big because the cost of nursing homes can exceed be tens of thousands of dollars every month.

For married couples, in many instances, the income of the spouse who is entering the nursing home may be able to be transferred to the spouse who still lives at home. That’s important because the spouse at home may depend on the other spouse’s income to help make ends meet.

For singles, at least 60% to 70% of cash assets, plus the home, can be protected, so that Medicaid would cover most of the nursing home cost.

Moving a loved one into a nursing home can be stressful enough, without having to worry about the cost. Help yourself and your family, by preparing the proper documents ahead of time to eliminate some of the stress.

Working with an elder law attorney who specializes in Medicaid planning is a wise move. Don’t wait until it is too late.

Have things in order, so you or a loved one can avoid any unnecessary stress and keep the assets that you’ve acquired during your lifetime.

Reference: nbcnew25.com (April 30, 2021) “Elder law and estate planning: What you need to know”

What is not Covered by a Will?

A last will and testament is one part of a holistic estate plan used to direct the distribution of property after a person has died. A recent article titled “What you can’t do with a will” from Ponte Vedra Recorder explains how wills work, and the types of property not distributed through a will.

Wills are used to inform the probate court regarding your choice of guardians for any minor children and the executor of your estate. Without a will, both of those decisions will be made by the court. It’s better to make those decisions yourself and to make them legally binding with a will.

Lacking a will, an estate will be distributed according to the laws of the state, which creates extra expenses and sometimes, leads to life-long fights between family members.

Property distributed through a will necessarily must be processed through a probate, a formal process involving a court. However, some assets do not pass through probate. Here’s how non-probate assets are distributed:

Jointly Held Property. When one of the “joint tenants” dies, their interest in the property ends and the other joint tenant owns the entire property.

Property in Trust. Assets owned by a trust pass to the beneficiaries under the terms of the trust, with the guidance of the trustee.

Life Insurance. Proceeds from life insurance policies are distributed directly to the named beneficiaries. Whatever a will says about life insurance proceeds does not matter—the beneficiary designation is what controls this distribution, unless there is no beneficiary designated.

Retirement Accounts. IRAs, 401(k) and similar assets pass to named beneficiaries. In most cases, under federal law, the surviving spouse is the automatic beneficiary of a 401(k), although there are always exceptions. The owner of an IRA may name a preferred beneficiary.

Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts. Some investment accounts have the ability to name a designated beneficiary who receives the assets upon the death of the original owner. They transfer outside of probate.

Here are some things that should NOT be included in your will:

Funeral instructions might not be read until days or even weeks after death. Create a separate letter of instructions and make sure family members know where it is.

Provisions for a special needs family member need to be made separately from a will. A special needs trust is used to ensure that the family member can inherit assets but does not become ineligible for government benefits. Talk to an elder law estate planning attorney about how this is best handled.

Conditions on gifts should not be addressed in a will. Certain conditions are not permitted by law. If you want to control how and when assets are distributed, you want to create a trust. The trust can set conditions, like reaching a certain age or being fully employed, etc., for a trustee to release funds.

Reference: Ponte Vedra Recorder (April 15, 2021) “What you can’t do with a will”

What’s a Living Will?

Living wills can be used to detail the type of healthcare you do or don’t want to receive in end-of-life situations or if you become permanently incapacitated or unconscious. A living will tells your healthcare providers and your family what type of care you prefer in these situations, explains Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “How to Make a Living Will.” These instructions may address topics, such as resuscitation, life support and pain management. If you don’t want to be on life support in a vegetative state, you can state that in your living will.

A living will can be part of an advance healthcare directive that also includes a healthcare power of attorney. This lets your chosen healthcare proxy make medical decisions on your behalf, when you’re unable. A living will typically only applies to situations where you’re close to death or you’re permanently incapacitated; an advance directive can cover temporary incapacitation.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney or elder care lawyer about the technical aspects of how to make a living will. You should consider what to include. Every state is different, so your attorney will help you with the specifics. However,  you’ll generally need to leave instructions on the following:

  • Life-prolonging care, like blood transfusions, resuscitation, or use of a respirator;
  • Intravenous feeding if you are incapacitated and cannot feed yourself; and
  • Palliative care can be used to manage pain, if you decide to stop other treatments.

You will want to be as thorough and specific as possible with your wishes, so there is no confusion or stress for your family when or if the day arrives. You next want to communicate these wishes to your loved ones. You should also give copies of your living will to your doctor. If you’re drafting a living will as part of an advance healthcare directive, be certain that you get a copy to your healthcare proxy.

Review your living well regularly to make sure it’s still accurate because you may change your mind about the type of care you’d like to receive.

Ask your attorney to help you draft a living will along with a healthcare power of attorney, so all of the bases are covered as far as healthcare decision-making. When choosing a healthcare proxy, select a person on whom you can rely, to execute your wishes.

A living will can be an important component of an estate plan and preparing your family for your death.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Feb. 18, 2021) “How to Make a Living Will”

Get Estate Plan in Order, If Spouse Is Dying from a Terminal Illness

Thousands of people are still dying from COVID-19 complications every day, and others are dealing with life-threatening illnesses like cancer, heart attack and stroke. If your spouse is ill, the pain is intensified by the anticipated loss of your life partner.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Your Spouse Is Dying: 5 Ways To Get Your Estate In Order Now,” says that it’s frequently the attending physician who suggests that your spouse get his affairs in order.

Your spouse’s current prognosis and whether he or she’s at home or in a hospital will determine whether updates can be made to your estate plan. If it has been some time since the two of you last updated your estate plan, you should review the planning with your elder law attorney or estate planning attorney to be certain that you understand it and to see if there are any changes that can and should be made. There are five issues on which to focus your attention:

A Fiduciary Review. See who’s named in your estate planning documents to serve as executor and trustee of your spouse’s estate. They will have important roles after your spouse dies. Be sure you are comfortable with the selected fiduciaries, and they’re still a good fit. If your spouse has been sick, you’ve likely reviewed his or her health care proxy and power of attorney. If not, see who’s named in those documents as well.

An Asset Analysis. Determine the effect on your assets when your partner dies. Get an updated list of all your assets and see if there are assets that are held jointly which will automatically pass to you on your spouse’s death or if there are assets in your spouse’s name alone with no transfer on death beneficiary provided. See if any assets have been transferred to a trust. These answers will determine how easily you can access the assets after your spouse’s passing.

A Trust Assessment. Any assets that are currently in a trust or will pass into a trust at death will be controlled by the trust document. See who the beneficiaries are, how distributions are made and who will control the assets.

Probate Prep. If there’s property solely in your spouse’s name with no transfer on death beneficiary, those assets will pass according to his or her will. Review the will to make sure you understand it and whether probate will be needed to settle the estate.

Beneficiary Designation Check. Make certain that beneficiaries of your retirement accounts and life insurance policies are current.

If changes need to be made, an experienced elder law or estate planning attorney can counsel you on how to best do this.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 26, 2021) “Your Spouse Is Dying: 5 Ways To Get Your Estate In Order Now”

How Much Tax Do You Pay on Inheritance?

Unfortunately, unless the person you love has an estate plan and has spoken with you about it, the time you are grieving will also be the time you have to get up to speed about both death and taxes. The tax questions are explored in an article from the Delaware Bulletin Review titled “What Taxes Do You Have to Pay on an Inheritance?”

First, there is no federal estate tax on property. Federal law does not impose inheritance taxes on the heir directly. This is similar to gifts, as gift recipients don’t pay federal gift taxes either. However, that does not mean heirs don’t pay taxes. It is actually the opposite. That’s why it’s good to have these conversations before a loved one passes.

Estate taxes apply at the federal level, and they are paid by the estate. The executor uses cash from the estate or sells estate assets to pay the tax.

Unless there is specific language in the will or trust staying otherwise, federal estate tax liability does not usually impact specific bequests of cash or property to beneficiaries. The heirs may receive less of an inheritance because taxes are being paid by the estate. As of this writing, the federal tax exemption is very high–$11.7 million—so very few Americans actually pay federal estate tax.

However, exemptions on state estate taxes are considerably lower. Some states also have inheritance taxes, which are paid by heirs, usually out of their inheritances.

Note: if the estate fails to pay any estate taxes, the IRS is empowered to collect taxes from heirs.

Six states have inheritance taxes. If you are a resident of Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, or Pennsylvania and expect to receive an inheritance, be mindful that there will be taxes taken from your inheritance. Each state has its own rules, so work with a local estate planning attorney to be certain that you are paying the correct amount to the correct governmental taxing agency.

There is no way for an heir to prevent this tax liability. The only person who can have an impact on inheritance taxes is for the person who is leaving the bequest to plan in advance for the taxes. This is usually done through the use of a trust or gifting while they are still living. Some states have rules that frown on gifting assets immediately before death. If gifts are given regularly for a number of years in advance of the death, they are less likely to be considered as being given “in contemplation of death” and, therefore, potentially subject to estate tax.

An experienced estate planning attorney will know the inheritance, federal estate and gift tax rules and can help guide the family, pre- and post-mortem, in managing the tax liabilities of an inheritance. If your aging parents live in one state and you live in another, you may owe estate taxes in their state and inheritance taxes in your state.

Reference: Delaware Bulletin Review (Jan. 19, 2021) “What Taxes Do You Have to Pay on an Inheritance?”

Why Is a Trust Smart Estate Planning for Farmers?

A will gives people the basic assurance of where farm and personal assets will go at an owner’s death. However, a trust can give you added detail and instruction, plus flexibility to transition your farm in the manner you intend.

The LeMars Daily Sentinel’s recent article entitled “Trusts can serve as important estate planning tool for farm families” says that a trust is a very useful and flexible tool for estate planning. However, it’s most likely the most underused estate management technique.

A trust is essentially the creation of another entity to hold title to assets and then writing the rules as to what should happen with those assets, while so held.

An experienced estate planning attorney will help you decide if a trust is necessary in your specific family situation. More complicated situations with multiple generations and rights of ownership and management can make a trust a wise choice.

Some of the common mistakes people make with trusts include forgetting to retitle assets into the trust now or by beneficiary designation, so they will become part of the trust at death, and making certain the parties comprehend the types of tax liabilities based on the type of trust that is created. There are two main types of trusts—living and testamentary trusts. A living trust is established by a living person, as opposed to a testamentary trust that is created in a will and goes into effect at the time of death. Living trusts can be revocable or irrevocable. Every trust has different stipulations on what the grantor can and can’t control, as well as different types of tax liability.

With the help of an experienced estate planning attorney, a trust can help keep a family member in farming and let the other family members receive ownership in the farm, land, money, or whatever assets the grantor chooses. Due to the fact that farm operations have so many moving parts and expenses, a trust can help make the transition as easy as possible and can accomplish the goals of the grantor.

You should be transparent with family members and tell each one where they stand concerning the estate. Sharing documents and holding family discussions can also help keep everyone on the same page.

Everyone should have a copy of these documents, including a will, power of attorney, or a trust because everyone in the family should know what is going on.

Reference: LeMars (IA) Daily Sentinel (Dec. 29, 2020) “Trusts can serve as important estate planning tool for farm families”

What to Do First when Spouse Dies

Forbes’ recent article entitled ‘Checklist for Handling the Death of a Spouse” tells us what to do when your spouse passes away:

Get Organized. Create a list of what you need to do. That way, you can tick off the things you have done and see what still needs to be done. Spending the time to get organized is critical.

Do an Inventory. Review your spouse’s will and estate plan, and then collect the documents you will need. Use a tax return to locate various types of financial assets.

Identify the Executor. The executor is the individual tasked with carrying out the terms of deceased’s will.

Get a Death Certificate. Request multiple copies of the death certificate, maybe at least a dozen because every entity will need that document.

Contact Your Professional Advisors. You will need to tell some professionals that your spouse has passed away. This may be your CPA, your estate planning attorney, financial advisors and perhaps bankers. These contacts will probably know nearly everything that is required to be done. You will also need to contact the Social Security Administration and report the death.

Take a Step Back. Take a breath. You should take the time to process your emotions and grieve with the other members of your family. Check on everyone and make sure the loved ones remaining are doing all right.

Avoid Making Any Major Decisions. Do not make any major financial decisions for a year. This includes things such as selling a house or making a lump sum investment. After the death of a spouse, you are emotional and looking for advice. It is easy to be pressured into making a decision that might not be in your best interests. Allow yourself permission to be emotional and not make any decision because you recognize you are grieving.

Make Certain Your Spouse’s Wishes Are Carried Out. The best way to honor your spouse is to make sure their requests and wishes are carried out. You are the only individual who can do that. Your spouse expects you to take care of their last wishes the way they had intended.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 28, 2020) ‘Checklist for Handling the Death of a Spouse”