Should I Create Estate Plan Myself?

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning Mistakes” provides some issues that do-it-yourself estate planners might encounter and why it is best to consult an experienced estate planning attorney.

What are the Right Questions to Ask?  Completing a simple and straightforward form—like a beneficiary designation for your IRA— is one thing, but what about tax consequences, probate law, new legislation and court procedures? Are you ready to take these on? The trick is that you may not know what you don’t know. That’s why it’s money well-spent to employ the services of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Is My Situation Complex? Likewise, you may have property and assets all over the country (or world) that require expert advice. You must be certain that your planning, tax planning and financial planning all work together because they’re all interrelated. If you only work on one of these areas at a time, you may create complications in another area and unintentionally increase your expenses or taxes. It can also create headaches and expense for your heirs. If you have a child with special needs, a blended family, or want to control how and where a beneficiary spends your money, a cookie cutter approach won’t do. Instead, you should see an experienced estate planning attorney.

What are the Probate Laws in My State? Estate planning laws and taxes are different in each state.  Your state will have different rules and legal procedures for creating and administering an estate. There are many different state laws that govern inheritance taxes. There are 17 states plus DC that tax your estate, inheritance or both, and the tax laws can affect your situation when planning. Eleven states plus DC have only an inheritance tax. One state taxes both inheritances and estates.

If you mess up your estate planning documents, if could cause significant problems for your family. You best bet is to work with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state.

Reference: US News & World Report (Dec. 18, 2020) “Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning Mistakes”

Should I Add that to My Will?

In general, a last will and testament is an easy and straightforward way to state who gets what when you die and designate a guardian for your minor children, if you (and your spouse) die unexpectedly.

MSN’s recent article entitled “Things you should never put in your will” explains that you can be specific about who receives what. However, attaching strings or conditions may not work because there’s no one to legally enforce the terms. If you have specific details about how a person should use their inheritance, whether they are a spendthrift or someone with special needs, a trust may be a better option because you’ll have more control, even from beyond the grave.

Keeping some assets out of your will can actually benefit your future heirs because they’ll get their inheritance faster. When you pass on, your will must be “proven” and validated in a probate court prior to distribution of your property. This process takes some time and effort, if there are issues—including something in your will that doesn’t need to be there. For example, property in a trust and payable-on-death accounts are two types of assets that can be distributed to your beneficiaries without a will.

Don’t put anything in a will that you don’t own outright. If you jointly own assets with someone, they will likely become the new owner. For example, this applies to a property acquired by married couples in community property states.

Property in a revocable living trust. This is a separate entity that you can use to distribute your assets which avoids probate. When you title property into the trust, it is subject to the trust’s rules.  Because a trust operates independently, you must avoid inconsistencies and not include anything in your will that the trust addresses.

Assets with named beneficiaries. Some financial accounts are payable-on-death or transferable-on-death. They are distributed or paid out directly to the named beneficiaries. That makes putting them in a will unnecessary (and potentially troublesome, if you’re inconsistent). However, you can add information about these assets in your letter of instruction (see below). As far as bank accounts, brokerage or investment accounts, retirement accounts and pension plans and life insurance policies, assign a beneficiary rather than putting these assets in your will.

Jointly owned property. Property you jointly own with someone else will almost always directly pass to the co-owner when you die, so do not put it in your will. A common arrangement is joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Other things you may not want to put in a will. Businesses can be given away in a will, but it’s not the best plan. Wills must be probated in court and that can create a rough transition after you die. Instead, work with an experienced estate planning attorney on a succession plan for your business and discuss any estate tax issues you may have as a business owner.

Adding your funeral instructions in your will isn’t optimal. This is because the family may not be able to read the will before making arrangements. Instead, leave a letter of instruction with any personal wishes and desires.

Reference: MSN (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

What Do I Need to Know about Creating a Will?

A simple or basic will allows you to specifically say the way in which you want your assets to be distributed among your beneficiaries after your death. This can be a good starting point for creating a comprehensive estate plan because you may need more than just a basic will.

KAKE’s recent article entitled “What Is a Simple Will and How Do You Make One?” explains that a last will and testament is a legal document that states what you want to happen to your property and “worldly goods” when you die. A simple will can be used to designate an executor for the will and a legal guardian for minor children and specify who (or which organizations) should inherit your assets when you die.

A will must be approved in the probate process when you pass away. After the probate court reviews the will to make sure it’s valid, your executor will take care of the collection and distribution of assets listed in the will. Your executor would also be responsible for paying any debts owed by your estate.

Whether you need a basic will or something more complex, usually depends on a few factors, including your age, the size of your estate and if you have children (and their ages).

Having a will in place can be a good starting point for estate planning. However, deciding if it should be simple or complex can depend on a number of factors, such as:

  • The size of your estate
  • The amount of estate tax you expect to owe
  • The type of assets and property you own
  • Whether you own a business
  • The number of beneficiaries you want to name
  • Whether the beneficiaries are individuals or organizations (like charities)
  • Any significant life changes you anticipate, like marriages, divorces, or having more children; and
  • Whether any of your children or beneficiaries have special needs.

With these situations, you may need a more detailed will to plan how you want your assets to be distributed. In any event, work with an experienced estate planning attorney. With life or financial changes, you may need to create a more complex will or consider a trust. It is smart to speak with an estate planning attorney, who can help you determine which components to include in your plan and help you keep it updated.

Reference: KAKE (Nov. 23, 2020) “What Is a Simple Will and How Do You Make One?”

What Do I Need to Know about Gift-Giving with the Biden Administration?

After the election, many people are wondering what will happen to the federal gift and estate tax exemption. Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Making a Gift This Year? Some Key Questions to Consider,” explains that the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act dramatically upped the lifetime gift, estate and generation-skipping tax exemption to $11.58 million per individual ($23.16 million per couple). This exemption, however, is set to expire at the end of 2025. Some observers say that Democrats could significantly shorten the time frame, ending it as early as 2021.

Some families may face the possibility of losing an opportunity to transfer wealth out of their estate and save on future estate taxes sooner than anticipated. No matter when the gift is made, here are some important issues to consider.

Can I afford to give? For couples who have a significant taxable estate, gifting assets and removing future appreciation could result in some substantial tax savings for their heirs. However, just because someone has the means to make a large gift, doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the right move. Some are so eager to take advantage of the tax benefits that they underestimate their own cost of living down the road. Look at whether the grantor has enough assets to maintain their desired lifestyle. Then, think about what can be transferred without negatively impacting goals and lifestyle choices.

How Do I Structure a Gift? There are many ways of distributing assets. Remember that any transfer is gift tax-free up to the annual exclusion amount ($15,000 per person per donor for 2020). Any gift over this will count against the donor’s lifetime exemption amount. Once that’s exhausted, the gift will be subject to gift tax.

Outright Cash Gifts. This may be the most uncomplicated way of gifting, but for families with significant wealth, this could have some drawbacks. Some recipients may not be prepared to manage money, and it may demotivate them to live off their inheritance rather than becoming productive on their own.

Trusts. These are frequently used for bigger gifts to provide for beneficiaries, while using some restrictions by the grantor to protect the assets from being squandered. One plan is to distribute the trust assets in stages, when the beneficiary reaches a certain age or achieves a specific goal. Another option is to leave assets in a discretionary lifetime trust, which would maintain the assets in a trust for the beneficiary’s entire lifetime. Drafted properly by an experienced estate planning attorney, this offers a high level of protection from divorcing spouses, lawsuits, bad decisions and outside influences. It also lets grantors create a lasting family legacy for many generations.

Gifts for Education Expenses. You can also make direct payments for education or for medical expenses with no gift tax consequences.

Uniform Trust to Minors Act (UTMA) and Uniform Gifts to Minors Act (UGMA). These custodial accounts are usually less restrictive than trusts and allow minor beneficiaries access to funds at age a specific age, depending on state law.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 30, 2020) “Making a Gift This Year? Some Key Questions to Consider”

Should a GRAT Be Part of My Estate Plan?

A Grantor-Retained Annuity Trust, or GRAT, is funded by the grantor, the person who creates the trust, in exchange for a stream of annuity payments at a predetermined interest rate—the IRS Section 7520 rate. The interest rate in December 2020 is 0.6%, as reported in the article “Transferring Wealth With This Trust Can Yield Big Tax Advantages” from Financial Advisor.

GRAT assets need only appreciate greater than the Section 7520 rate over the term of the trust, and any excess earnings will pass to beneficiaries, or to an ongoing trust for beneficiaries with no gift or estate tax.

Because the grantor takes back the amount equal to that which was transferred to the trust (often two or three years), which is set by the IRS when the trust is funded, future appreciation over and above the interest rate passes gift-tax free.

There’s little upkeep. Once the trust agreement is in place, a gift tax return needs to be filed once a year. If the trust is set up without a tax ID number, there’s no need to file an income tax return.

The grantor is responsible for the income generated by the asset in the GRAT, but that’s it. If the value of the property is increased following an audit, the gift won’t be increased but the annuity will. If the GRAT property decreases in value, the only out of pocket is the set-up costs.

Assets in a GRAT may be anything from an investment portfolio to shares in a closely held business.

Most GRATs are designed to have the value of the retained annuity be equal to the value of the property that is transferred to the GRAT. If the values are equal, then the amount of the gift for tax purposes is zero, since the value of the transfer less the annuity value is zero.

GRATs are not for everyone. The success of the GRAT depends upon the success of the underlying assets. If they don’t appreciate as expected, then there might not be a significant amount transferred out of the estate after paying for the legal, accounting and appraisal fees. If the grantor dies during the term of the GRAT before payments back to the grantor have ended, the GRAT will be unsuccessful.

Generation skipping transfers cannot utilize GRATS, since the generation skipping tax exemption may not be applied to a GRAT, until the grantor’s death.

Ask your estate planning attorney about whether a GRAT could benefit your family. If a GRAT is not a good fit, they will know about many other tools available.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Nov. 30, 2020) “Transferring Wealth With This Trust Can Yield Big Tax Advantages”

Is Transferring House to Children a Good Idea?

Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate. However, gifting a home also can mean a rather large and unnecessary tax bill. It also may place your house at risk, if your children get sued or file for bankruptcy.

You also could be making a mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being consumed by nursing home bills.

There are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since died, says Considerable’s recent article entitled “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

If a parent signs a quitclaim to give her son the house and then dies, it can potentially mean a tax bill of thousands of dollars for the son.

Families who see this error in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

People will also transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, but any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for Medicaid can result in a penalty period when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.

In addition, transferring your home to another person can expose you to their financial problems because their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, take some or most of its value. If the child divorces, the house could become an asset that must be divided as part of the marital estate.

Section 2036 of the Internal Revenue Code says that if the parent were to retain a “life interest” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift. However, there are rules for what constitutes a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills.

There are other ways to avoid probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let homeowners transfer their homes at death without probate.

Another option is a living trust, which can ensure that all assets avoid probate.

Many states also have simplified probate procedures for smaller estates.

Reference: Considerable (Sep. 18) “Should you transfer your house to your adult kids?”

Do I Really Need a Will?

No one enjoys pondering their own mortality, but we can all help unburden our loved ones after we’ve gone, by creating a will.

Bankrate’s recent article entitled “Why it’s important for every adult to get a will” explains why you need a will and how to protect what you most cherish after you pass away.

Many people think that a will must be a complicated document full of confusing legal jargon. However, the purpose of a will is really very simple despite its importance. A will is a legal document that disposes of your property at your death. In addition, wills address several issues required to be resolved after death, such as who will care for your children, who will make decisions about your estate and who will receive your assets? Every adult should have a will that speaks to these issues.

There are several types of wills which are customized based on your property and assets. Some people have specific instructions regarding special bequests at their death, and others pass everything to a surviving spouse and children.

Testamentary will. This will is prepared in advance and is signed in front of witnesses. This is the most common type of will.

Holographic will. This is a will that is written by hand and is frequently a last resort in emergency situations. It is not valid in all states.

Oral will. This is a verbal will that’s spoken in front of witnesses. However, most courts prefer instructions in writing. As a result, an oral will isn’t a form that is widely recognized or recommended.

Mutual will. A couple can create a joint will, so that when one spouse dies, the other remains bound by the existing will’s terms.

Pour-over will. This type of will is used when you plan to “pour” your assets into a previously established trust at your death.

There are many reasons why you should have a will. A will can:

  • Clearly identify ownership of your property
  • Name a legal guardian for your children
  • Shorten the legal process of assigning your assets
  • Make donations of assets to charitable organizations
  • Make specific gifts; and
  • Save on estate tax.

Speak to an experienced estate planning attorney about the right will for your situation.

Reference: Bankrate (Nov. 6, 2020) “Why it’s important for every adult to get a will”

What’s the Estate Tax Exemption for 2021?

The amount of the federal estate tax exemption is adjusted annually for inflation. Yahoo Sports’ recent article “Estate Tax Exemption Amount Goes Up for 2021” says that when you die your estate isn’t usually subject to the federal estate tax, if the value of your estate is less than the exemption amount. The 2021 exemption amount will be $11.7 million (up from $11.58 million for 2020). It is twice that amount for a married couple.

Just a small percentage of Americans die with an estate worth $11.7 million or more. However, for estates that do, the federal tax bill is can be taxed at a 40% rate. As the table below shows, the first $1 million is taxed at lower rates – from 18% to 39%. That results in a total tax of $345,800 on the first $1 million, which is $54,200 less than what the tax would be if the entire estate were taxed at the top rate. However, when you are beyond the first $1 million, everything else is taxed at the 40% rate.

Rate | Taxable Amount (Value of Estate Exceeding Exemption)

18% | $0 to $10,000

20% | $10,001 to $20,000

22% | $20,001 to $40,000

24% | $40,001 to $60,000

26% | $60,001 to $80,000

28% | $80,001 to $100,000

30% | $100,001 to $150,000

32% | $150,001 to $250,000

34% | $250,001 to $500,000

37% | $500,001 to $750,000

39% | $750,001 to $1 million

40% | Over $1 million

Note that the 2018 increase is temporary. The base exemption amount is set to drop back down to $5 million (adjusted for inflation) in 2026. There’s also a chance if Joe Biden is president, the federal estate tax exemption might go back down sooner. This is because he has called for a reduction of the exemption amount to pre-2018 levels.

Don’t Forget State Estate Taxes. While an estate isn’t subject to federal estate tax, the estate might be subject to a state estate tax. In fact, 12 states and DC impose their own estate tax. The state exemption amounts are also often much lower than the federal estate tax exemption. Six states also levy an inheritance tax, which is paid by the heirs. Maryland has both an estate tax and an inheritance tax.

Reference: Yahoo Sports (Oct. 27, 2020) “Estate Tax Exemption Amount Goes Up for 2021”

What Does an Estate Planning Attorney Actually Do?

It’s critical to understand what will happen to your estate after your death. That’s where the help of an experienced estate planning attorney comes in, says VENTS Magazine’s recent article entitled “What Does an Estate Lawyer Do Exactly?”

An experienced estate planning attorney is a legal professional, upon whom you can rely to help protect your estate after your death or in the event that you become incapacitated.

He or she will make certain that your assets and property are handled correctly.

In addition to assisting you with your estate, an estate planning attorney can help handle any family members trying to get involved in your legal affairs.

It may be difficult to please everyone when creating your will. Having an estate planning attorney will help you make the best decisions, when it comes to distributing your wealth.

Estate planning is critical—especially if you’re older, experiencing chronic illness, or just want to be smart about protecting your assets.

As we grow older, we can accumulate a long list of stressful issues and responsibilities. You may worry that your estate will be gobbled up by creditors once you pass away, or that your children will fail to distribute your assets as you intended.

Much of this stress is eliminated with the guidance and counsel of an experienced estate planning attorney. Having an estate plan allows you to enjoy a better quality of life, once you’re older. You won’t have to live every day with worry or stress about the future after you’re gone.

An experienced estate planning attorney is a valuable resource for your family, in the event someone tries to contest the will after your death.

Estate planning attorneys also aid in distributing the wealth, protecting your property from creditors and lowering estate taxes.

Reference: VENTS Magazine (Sep. 28, 2020) “What Does an Estate Lawyer Do Exactly?”

How Do I Keep Money in the Family?

That seems like an awfully large amount of money. You might think only the super wealthy need to worry about estate planning, but you’d be wrong to think planning is only necessary for the 1%.

US News and World Report’s recent article entitled “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family” reminds us that estate taxes may be only part of it. In many cases, there are income tax ramifications.

Your heirs may have to pay federal income taxes on retirement accounts. Some states also have their own estate taxes. You also want to make certain that your assets are transferred to the right people. Speaking with an experienced estate planning attorney is the best way to sort through complex issues surrounding estate planning. Here are some things you should cover:

Create a Will. This is a basic first step. However, 68% of Americans don’t take it. Many of those who don’t have a will (about a third) say it’s because they don’t have enough assets to make it worthwhile. This is not true. Without a will, your estate is governed by state law and will be divided in probate court. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you draft a will.  You should also review it on a regular basis because laws and family situations can change.

Review Your Beneficiaries. There are specific types of accounts, like retirement funds and life insurance in which the owners designate the beneficiaries, rather than this asset passing via the will. The named beneficiaries will also supersede any directions for the accounts in your will. Like your will, review your account beneficiaries after any major life change.

Consider a Trust. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about a trust for possible tax benefits and the ability to control when a beneficiary gets their money (after they graduate college or only for a first home, for example). If money is put in an irrevocable trust, the assets no longer belong to you. Instead, they belong to the trust. That money can’t be subject to estate taxes. In addition, a trust isn’t subject to probate, which keeps it private.

Convert to Roth’s. If you have a traditional 401(k) or IRA account, it might unintentionally create a hefty tax bill for your heirs. When your children inherit an IRA, they inherit the income tax liability that goes with it. Regular income tax must be paid on distributions from all traditional retirement accounts. In the past, non-spousal heirs, such as children could “stretch” those distributions over their lifetime to reduce the total amount of taxes due. However, now the account must be completely liquidated within 10 years after the death of the owner. If the account balance is substantial, it could necessitate major distributions that may be taxed at a higher rate. To avoid leaving beneficiaries with a large tax bill, you can gradually convert traditional accounts to Roth accounts that have tax-free distributions. The amount converted will be taxable on your income taxes, so the objective is to limit each year’s conversion, so it doesn’t move you into a higher tax bracket.

Make Gifts While You’re Alive. A great way to make certain that your money stays in the family, is to just give it to your heirs while you’re alive. The IRS allows individuals to give up to $15,000 per person per year in gifts. If you’re concerned about your estate being taxable, these gifts can decrease its value, and the money is tax-free for recipients.

Charitable Donations. You can also reduce your estate value, by making charitable donations. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about setting up a donor-advised fund, instead of making a one-time gift. This would give you an immediate tax deduction for money deposited in the fund and then let you make charitable grants over time. You could designate a child or grandchild as a successor in managing the fund.

Complicated strategies and a constantly changing tax code can make estate planning feel intimidating. However, ignoring it can be a costly mistake for your heirs. Talk to an estate planning attorney.

Reference:  US News and World Report (Sep. 30, 2020) “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family”