Start the New Year with Estate Planning To-Do’s

Families who wish their loved ones had not created an estate plan are far and few between. However, the number of families who have had to experience extra pain, unnecessary expenses and even family battles because of a lack of estate planning are many. While there are a number of aspects to an estate plan that take some time to accomplish, The Daily Sentinel recommends that readers tackle these tasks in the article “Consider These Items As Part of Your Year-End Plan.”

Review and update any beneficiary designations. This is one of the simplest parts of any estate plan to fix. Most people think that what’s in their will controls how all of their assets are distributed, but this is not true. Accounts with beneficiary designations—like life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and some bank accounts—are controlled by the beneficiary designation and not the will.

Proceeds from these assets are based on the instructions you have given to the institution, and not what your will or a trust directs. This is also true for real estate that is held in JTWROS (Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship) and any real property transferred through the use of a beneficiary deed. The start of a new year is the time to make sure that any assets with a beneficiary designation are aligned with your estate plan.

Take some time to speak with the people you have named as your agent, personal representative or successor trustee. These people will be managing all or a portion of your estate. Make sure they remember that they agreed to take on this responsibility. Make sure they have a copy of any relevant documents and ask if they have any questions.

Locate your original estate planning documents. When was the last time they were reviewed? New laws, and most recently the SECURE Act, may require a revision of many wills, especially if you own a large IRA. You’ll also want to let your executor know where your original will can be found. The probate court, which will review your will, prefers an original. A will can be probated without the original, but there will be more costs involved and it may require a few additional steps. Your will should be kept in a secure, fire and water-safe location. If you keep copies at home, make a note on the document as to where the original can be found.

Create an inventory of your online accounts and login data for each one. Most people open a new account practically every month, so keep track. That should include email, personal photos, social media and any financial accounts. This information also needs to be stored in a safe place. Your estate planning document file would be the logical place for this information but remember to update it when changing any information, like your password.

If you have a medical power of attorney and advance directive, ask your primary care physician if they have a means of keeping these documents, and explain how you wish the instructions on the documents to be carried out. If you don’t have these documents, make them part of your estate plan review process.

A cover letter to your executor and family that contains complete contact information for the various professionals—legal, financial, and medical—will be a help in the case of an unexpected event.

Remember that life is always changing, and the same estate plan that worked so well ten years ago, may be out of date now. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state who can help you create a plan to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Dec. 28, 2019) “Consider These Items As Part of Your Year-End Plan”

Life Insurance Is a Good Estate Planning Tool but Needs to Be Done Carefully

With proper planning and the help of a seasoned estate planning or probate attorney, insurance money can pay expenses, like estate tax and avoid the need to liquidate other assets, says FEDweek’s recent article entitled “Errors to Avoid in Using Life Insurance for Estate Planning.”

As an example, let’s say that Reggie passes away and leaves a large estate to his daughter Veronica. There’s a big estate tax that’s due. However, the majority of Reggie’s assets are tied up in real estate and an IRA. In light of this, Veronica might not want to proceed directly into a forced sale of the real estate. However, if she taps the inherited IRA to raise cash, she’ll be required to pay income tax on the withdrawal and forfeit a very worthwhile opportunity for extended tax deferral.

If Reggie plans ahead, he could purchase insurance on his own life. The proceeds could be used to pay the estate tax bill. As a result, Veronica can retain the real estate, while taking only minimum required distributions (RMDs) from the inherited IRA.

If the insurance policy is owned by Veronica or by a trust, the proceeds probably won’t be included in Reggie’s estate and won’t increase her estate taxes.

Along these same lines, here are some common life insurance errors to avoid:

Designating your estate as beneficiary. When you make this move, it puts the insurance policy proceeds into your estate, exposing it to estate tax and your creditors. Your executor will also have to deal with more paperwork, if your estate is the beneficiary. Instead, name the appropriate people or charities.

Designating just a single beneficiary. You should name at least two “backup” beneficiaries. This will decrease any confusion, if the primary beneficiary predeceases you.

Throwing the copy of your life insurance policy in the “file and forget” drawer. You should review your policies at least once every few years. If the beneficiary is an ex-spouse or someone who’s passed away, make the appropriate changes and get a confirmation from the insurance company in writing.

Failing to carry adequate insurance. If you have a youngster, it undoubtedly requires hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay all her expenses, such as college bills, in the event of your untimely death.

Talk to a qualified and experienced estate planning attorney about the particulars of your situation.

Reference: FEDweek (Dec. 12, 2019) “Errors to Avoid in Using Life Insurance for Estate Planning”

What Should I Know About Being an Executor?

You’re named executor because someone thinks you’d be good at collecting assets, settling debts, filing estate tax returns where necessary, distributing assets and closing the estate.

However, Investopedia’s article from last summer, “5 Surprising Hazards of Being an Executor,” explains that the person named as an executor isn’t required to accept the appointment. Prior to agreeing to act as an executor, you should know some of the hazards that can result, as well as how you can address some of these potential issues, so that being an executor can run smoothly.

  1. Conflicts with Co-Executors. Parents will frequently name more than one adult child as co-executor, so they don’t show favoritism. However, for those who are named, this may not work well because some children may live far way, making it difficult to coordinate the hands-on activities, like securing assets and selling a home. Some adult children may also not have the financial ability to deal with creditors, understand estate tax matters and perform effective accounting to satisfy beneficiaries that things have been properly handled. In addition, multiple executors mean additional paperwork. Instead, see if co-executors can agree to allow only one to serve, and the others will waive their appointment. Another option is for all of the children to decline and allow a bank’s trust department to handle the task. Employing a bank to serve instead of an individual as executor can alleviate conflicts among the children and relieves them from what could be a very difficult job.
  2. Conflicts with Heirs. It’s an executor’s job to gather the estate assets and distribute them according to the deceased person’s wishes. In some cases, heirs will land on a decedent’s home even before the funeral, taking mementos, heirlooms and other valuables. It’s best to secure the home and other assets as quickly as possible. Tell the heirs that this is the law and share information about the decedent’s wishes, which may be described in a will or listed in a separate document. This Letter of Last Instruction isn’t binding on the executor but can be a good guide for asset disbursements.
  3. Time-Consuming Responsibilities. One of the major drawbacks to be an executor is the amount of time it takes to handle responsibilities. For example, imagine the time involved in contacting various government agencies. This can include the Social Security Administration to stop Social Security benefits and, in the case of a surviving spouse, claim the $255 death benefit. However, an executor can permit an estate attorney to handle many of these matters.
  4. Personal Liability Exposure. The executor must pay taxes owed, before disbursing inheritances to heirs. However, if you pay heirs first and don’t have enough funds in the estate’s checking account to pay taxes, you’re personally liable for the taxes. Explain to heirs who are chomping at the bit to receive their inheritances that you’re not allowed to give them their share, until you’ve settled with creditors, the IRS and others with a claim against the estate. You should also be sure that you understand the extent of the funds needed to pay what’s owed.
  5. Out-of-Pocket Expenses. An executor can receive a commission for handling his duties. The amount of the commission is typically determined by the size of the estate (e.g., a percentage of assets). However, with many cases, particularly smaller estates and among families, an executor may waive any commission. You should pay the expenses of the estate from an estate checking account and record all out-of-pocket expenses, because some of these expenses may be reimbursable by the estate.

Being an executor can be a challenge, but somebody must do it. If that person’s you, be sure to know what you’re getting into before you agree to act as an executor.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2019) “5 Surprising Hazards of Being an Executor”

How Did Alzheimer’s Impact the Estate Planning of These Famous People?

Forbes’ recent article, “Top 7 Celebrity Estates Impacted By Alzheimer’s Disease” looks at seven celebrity estates that were affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

  1. Rosa Parks. The civil rights icon died at 92 in 2005. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Legal battles over her estate continue to this day. Her estate plan left her assets to a charitable institution she created. However, her nieces and nephews challenged the validity of her will and trust, due to her mental deficiencies and allegations of undue influence. That claim was settled, but there have been fights over broken deals and leaked secrets, claimed mismanagement of her estate and assets, allegations of bribery and corruption and a battle over Rosa’s missing coat that she wore at the time of her famous arrest at the Alabama bus stop in 1955.
  2. Gene Wilder. Wilder’s widow–his fourth wife, Karen–and his adopted daughter didn’t fight over Gene’s estate after he died, which shows good estate planning. Wilder makes the list because of how his widow used her husband’s struggle—which she kept private while he was alive—to bring attention to the terrible disease, including permitting his Willy Wonka character to be used in a campaign to raise awareness.
  3. Aaron Spelling. The Hollywood producer left behind a reported fortune worth $500 million. His death certificate listed Alzheimer’s disease as a contributing factor. Spelling changed his estate plan just two months before he died, reducing the share to his daughter, actress Tori, and his son, Randy, to $800,000 each.
  4. Etta James. Legendary blues singer Etta James passed away in 2012, at 73. Her family said she had been struggling with Alzheimer’s disease for several years, and her illness ignited an ugly court battle between her husband of more than 40 years and her son from a prior relationship, over the right to make her medical and financial decisions, including control of her $1 million account. Her husband, Artis Mills, alleged that the power of attorney she signed appointing her son as decision-maker was invalid, because she was incompetent when she signed it. Mills sued for control of the money to pay for Etta’s care. After some litigation, Etta’s leukemia was determined to be fatal, which led to a settlement. Mills was granted conservatorship and permitted to control sums up to $350,000 to pay for Etta’s care for the last few months of her life.
  5. Peter Falk. The Lieutenant Columbo actor died at 83 in 2011, after living with Alzheimer’s disease for years. His wife Shera and his adopted daughter Catherine fought in court for conservatorship to make his decisions. Shera argued that she had power of attorney and could already legally make Peter’s decisions for him, which included banning daughter Catherine from visits. The judge granted Shera conservatorship, but ordered a visitation schedule for Catherine. However, a doctor, who testified at the hearing, said that Falk’s memory was so bad that he probably wouldn’t even remember the visits.
  6. Tom Benson. The billionaire owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans was the subject of a lengthy and bitter court battle over control of his professional sports franchises, and hundreds of millions of dollars of other assets. Prior trusts, that he and his late wife established, left the sports franchises and other business interests to his daughter and two grandchildren. One of granddaughters operated the Saints as lead owner, until she was fired by her grandfather. Tom decided to take the controlling stock of the teams out of the trust and substitute other assets in their place, taking over control of the teams. However, his daughter and grandchildren fought the move. A 2015 court ruling declared Benson to be competent, despite allegations he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Benson then changed his will and trust and left everything to his third wife, Gayle. They all settled the dispute in 2017, leaving other assets to the daughter and grandchildren—but ultimately leaving Gayle in control of the Saints and Pelicans, after Benson’s death in 2018 at age 90.
  7. Glen Campbell. Campbell’s 2007 estate plan left out three of his adult children. They sued to challenge their disinheritance after he died. They dropped the case in 2018, without receiving a settlement. The fact that Campbell’s final will was drafted several years prior to his Alzheimer’s diagnosis was a critical factor in the outcome of the lawsuit.

The estate planning of these celebrities show the importance of proper estate planning, before it is too late. Wills and trusts that are created or changed after someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or similar conditions are more apt to be challenged in court.

Reference: Forbes (November 25, 2019) “Top 7 Celebrity Estates Impacted By Alzheimer’s Disease”

What Does Portability Mean, and How Do I Use It?

WMUR’s recent article, “Money Matters: Portability and estates,” explains that each taxpayer is typically permitted what is called an applicable exclusion amount. This is the amount of assets that, at your death, you can bequeath to others tax-free for estate tax purposes. Prior to the law change, spouses couldn’t share their exclusions. However, the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act increased this exclusion significantly. In 2019, the exclusion is $11.4 million per person.

The portion that’s not used by the deceased spouse can be transferred to the surviving spouse. The exclusion is indexed for inflation. However, this exemption level is only in effect until 2025. It will then again lower, probably to around half of its current level.

Before this tax law change, the most frequent way to maximize the exclusion was to set up a trust for each spouse—sometimes known an A/B trust. When the first spouse passes away, an amount equal to the exclusion would go to the B trust (also called a credit-shelter bypass trust).

The assets in this trust would be outside the surviving spouse’s estate and, because the exclusion was applied, were not subject to estate taxes. Anything remaining in the estate of the first to die, would be given to the survivor or could be placed in another trust. This trust is often called an A trust (or marital trust). Transfers to spouses aren’t usually subject to estate tax, so assets passing to the A marital trust would have no estate tax liability. At the surviving spouse’s death, his exclusion would be applied to the assets in the A trust. That way, both spouses would get the benefit of their exclusion.  However, this changed with the new tax law. The first spouse to die now uses the exclusion against assets in his estate. Any unused exclusion amounts can then be used by the surviving spouse with their own, at her death.

This would appear to simplify estate planning, for some, the use of two separate trusts will no longer be needed. However, remember these thoughts: (i) the unused applicable exclusion amount from an earlier marriage usually isn’t available, and you can use the amounts only from your last deceased spouse in your estate planning; (ii) these unused exclusion amounts aren’t indexed for inflation, so the property your spouse receives at your death may increase in value in the future, and its value could ultimately be greater than the unused exclusion; and (iii) to use portability, an estate tax return must be filed, so the estate executor must make an election to do so, by filing a return—even if the estate wouldn’t usually be required to do so.

Because of the tax law changes, estate documents drafted before 2010 may not accurately reflect your desire,s because portability and the increase in the exclusion amount can have an effect. Review the changes with your estate planning attorney.

Reference: WMUR (November 21, 2019) “Money Matters: Portability and estates”

In Estate Planning, Fair and Equal are Different

What may work fine when you are raising children does not always work in estate planning, as reported in The Press Enterprise’s article “Why ‘fair’ and ‘equal’ aren’t always the same.” Thinking that treating children in the exact same way will avoid children arguing about who got more, who deserved more, etc., doesn’t apply here. Trying to treat kids the same, often ends up with parents feeling guilty and questioning their parenting skills. Sibling rivalry doesn’t always end, when kids grow up.

Adult children can have an emotionally charged and surprisingly juvenile response, when their parent’s estate planning comes to light, before or after a death. Beneficiaries often equate the terms of the will with how much they were loved—or treated unfairly.

When the older sibling who “was always Mom’s favorite” is put in charge of the estate, other siblings may hear “Mom didn’t love me as much” instead of recognizing that their older sibling has always been better at being organized and working through problems.

One of the hardest decisions in estate planning is often who should be in charge of managing the estate. In fact, this often leads to the entire estate plan grinding to a halt. Some parents elect to name several adult children as co-executors. Sometimes this works, and other times it turns into a complete disaster.

If you don’t want your children doing battle with each other in court and want them to continue functioning as a family, it’s best to have conversations in advance about your wishes. If you want them to work together, be realistic.

It may be necessary to choose a family member or friend to manage the estate, so as to avoid choosing one child over another. If the trusted person is a legal professional with trust administration experience, that may avoid years of family strife. However, if that family friend or relative also has their favorites or if there is any animosity between the children and this person, it may become even more complicated.

If a parent’s sibling is selected, will that person be able to perform the duties of their role, or might they be too infirm?

Another option is to name a professional executor, such as an attorney or trusted accountant. Some people consider using an institutional trustee, like a bank or a trust company, but they may only represent large estates.

Your estate plan needs to have clear instructions. Talk with your estate planning attorney about your family dynamics. They may have recommendations that you have not considered. Talk with your children, so they understand your thinking. A little information in advance could go a long way towards preserving family unity.

Reference: The Press Enterprise (Sep. 14, 2019) “Why ‘fair’ and ‘equal’ aren’t always the same”

Still Waiting to Update Your Estate Plan?

If you are wondering if Franklin’s handwritten wills are valid, join the club. With an estate valued at least $80 million, it’s good news that some kind of will was found to divide up her assets. However, says Daily Reckoning in the article “Urgent: Your Will May Need Updates,” there’s no guarantee that those wills are going to hold up in court.

The problem with Aretha’s family? It proves how important it is to have a properly executed will and one that is also up to date. It’s different for every family and every person, but if you’ve done any of the following, you need to update your will.

Moved to a different state. The laws that govern estate law are set by each state, so if you move to a different state, your entire will or parts of it may not work. If your estate is deemed invalid, then your wishes won’t necessarily be followed. Your family will suffer the consequences. For example, if your old state required only one witness for a will to be valid and you move to a state that requires two witnesses, then your executor is going to have an uphill battle. Some states also allow self-written wills but have very specific rules about what is and is not permitted.

Bought new property. People make this mistake all the time. They assume that because their will says they are gifting their home to their children, updating the new address doesn’t matter. However, it does. Your will must specify exactly what home and what address you are gifting. If you have a second property or a new property, update the information on your will.

Downsized your stuff. Sometimes people get excited about getting rid of their possessions and accidentally discard or donate something they had promised to someone in their will. If your will doesn’t reflect your new, more minimal lifestyle, your heirs won’t get what you promised to them. Instead, they may get nothing. Therefore, review your will and distribute the possessions you do have.

Gifting something early and forgetting what was in your will. If your will specifies that your oldest son gets your mother’s mahogany desk, but you gave it to your niece two months ago, you may create some awkward moments for your family. Whenever gifting something with great sentimental or financial value, be sure to review your will.

Having a boom or a bust. If your finances take a dramatic turn, for better or worse, you may create problems for heirs, if your will is not revised to reflect the changes. Let’s say one account has grown with the market, but another has taken a nosedive. Did you give your two children a 50/50 split, or does one child now stand to inherit a jumbo-sized pension, while the other is going to get little or nothing?

Had a change of heart. Has your charity of choice changed? Or did a charity you dedicated years to change its mission or close? Again, review your will.

Had a death in the family. If a spouse dies before you, your will may list alternative recipients. However, you probably want to review your will. You may want to make changes regarding how certain assets are titled. If a family member who was a beneficiary or executor dies, then you’ll need to update your will.

Your estate planning attorney will review your will and talk about the various changes in your life. Life changes over the course of time, and your will needs to reflect those changes.

Reference: Daily Reckoning (Sep. 12, 2019) “Urgent: Your Will May Need Updates”

Will a No-Contest Clause Protect Your Estate from Squabbling Kids?

We may enjoy watching courtroom drama in movies, TV and on stage, but when it comes to our own lives, most people will do just about anything to avoid an estate battle. A “No Contest” provision is an attempt to preclude this and to give anyone who might be thinking about an estate battle a clear message, according to the article “Why courts enforce a ‘No Contest’ clause from The Daily Sentinel.

The simple answer to the question of “why would a court enforce a No Contest clause” is pretty straightforward. If that’s what you put in the will, that’s what the court wants to have happen.

An estate planning attorney will know the correct wording for your state, but the fundamental message in a No Contest clause is that anyone who attempts to contest or oppose the document will give up their share, lose any right or interest to the estate and will be treated as if they have died before the person who is signing the will.

You can have a will created without a No Contest clause, but if you want to make it very clear how you feel about anyone challenging your will, this is a good way to do it.

As you might imagine, it’s not always so cut and dried. There are limitations that courts need to consider, when they are being asked to enforce this type of clause. The red flag is whether there is “probable cause” to challenge provisions of the will or trust. Simply put, if there is language that either is against the law or against public policy, meaning it encourages behavior that is not legal or desired by our general society, then the court may accept a challenge to the will.

For instance, a provision of a will or trust that would result in discrimination or encourage deceitfulness could be challenged. If the language in the No Contest clause differs markedly from the language in the rest of the document, it could be open to challenge.

For the most part, courts are required to let people decide how they want their assets distributed. For someone who is considering making a statement with their will that may be a bit unconventional or that may not be received well by family members, a No Contest clause will enforce their wishes. It is highly recommended that if this is what someone has in mind, they consult with an estate planning attorney to be sure that their wish will be deemed valid by the court.

As with every part of your estate plan, it’s far better to have an estate plan in place with all your wishes carefully outlined, than to hope that your personal executive has the ability to handle your requests. If your will creates a mutiny, then the executor will bear the brunt of the plan. They’ll need to be fully supported by the law, if controversial wishes are going to stand firm.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (August 24, 2019) “Why courts enforce a ‘No Contest’ clause

Where Should I Keep My Estate Plan?

Many people ask their attorney to hold the original documents of their estate plan. This prevents the plan from being misplaced at home and keeps it away from prying family members.

Forbes’ recent article, “Keeping Your Estate Planning Documents Safe,” explains that because of the expense of storage and the move to paperless offices, some estate planning attorneys are now having their clients hold the original documents.

This saves money for the attorney, but it leaves the client with the problem of where to put the originals.

If you need a safe and secure place for them, here are some options.

No safe deposit boxes. Avoid placing the original documents in a safe deposit box, because the authority to get into the box is inside the box! If you pass away or are incapacitated—and nobody has access to the safe deposit box—they’ll need a court order to get access. For them to get the court order, they need the documents inside the box. It’s like the chicken and the egg.

Get a fireproof safe. A fireproof safe is a great place to keep these important documents.

Make copies. Get a set of hard copies in another location that is easily accessible. You can now use the safe deposit box to hold a set of copies of your documents. Your attorney should also have a set of hard copies.

E-records. Your estate planning attorney should also have an electronic copy of your estate plan and should send you an electronic version of the documents to keep with your e-records.

Don’t lose it, if the originals are misplaced or destroyed. If the original documents somehow vanish, your family may still be able to use a set of copies. For instance, a photocopy of a will can be probated, once the executor has attested that she has made a diligent search to find the original which hasn’t turned up.

Remember that this isn’t a “one and done” task. You should review your documents every few years to make certain the people you’ve named in them are still alive and your intentions haven’t changed.

Reference: Forbes (August 16, 2019) “Keeping Your Estate Planning Documents Safe”

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