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”

Estate Planning Is Best When Personalized

Just as a custom-tailored suit fits better than one off the rack, a custom-tailored estate plan works better for families. Making sure assets pass to the right person is more likely to occur when documents are created just for you, advises the article “Tailoring estate to specific needs leads to better plans” from the Cleveland Jewish News.

The most obvious example is a family with a special needs member. Generic estate planning documents typically will not suit that family’s estate planning.

Every state has its own laws about distributing property and money owned by a person at their death, in cases where people don’t have a will. Relying on state law instead of a will is a risky move that can lead to people you may not even know inheriting your entire estate.

In the absence of an estate plan, the probate court makes decisions about who will administer the estate and the distribution of property. Without a named executor, the court will appoint a local attorney to take on this responsibility. An appointed attorney who has never met the decedent and doesn’t know the family won’t have the insights to follow the decedent’s wishes.

The same risks can occur with online will templates. Their use often results in families needing to retain an estate planning attorney to fix the mistakes caused by their use. Online wills may not be valid in your state or may lead to unintended consequences. Saving a few dollars now could end up costing your family thousands to clean up the mess.

Estate plans are different for each person because every person and every family are different. Estate plan templates may not account for any of your wishes.

Generic plans are very limited. An estate plan custom created for you takes into consideration your family dynamics, how your individual beneficiaries will be treated and expresses your wishes for your family after you have passed.

Generic estate plans also don’t reflect the complicated families of today. Some people have family members they do not want to inherit anything. Disinheriting someone successfully is not as easy as leaving them out of the will or leaving them a small token amount.

Ensuring that your wishes are followed and that your will is not easily challenged takes the special skills of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (Dec. 9, 2020) “Tailoring estate to specific needs leads to better plans”

Will I Get A Bill as My Inheritance?
Inheritance paper note on hundred dollar bills

Will I Get A Bill as My Inheritance?

When someone dies and leaves debts, you may ask if you have any personal liability to pay them. The answer is typically no, even though those debts don’t automatically disappear. However, there are situations in which you may have to address issues with a loved one’s creditors after they are gone, says KAKE’s recent article entitled “Can I Inherit Debt?”

The responsibility for ensuring the estate’s debts are paid, is typically that of the executor. An executor performs several tasks to wrap up a person’s estate after death. They include:

  • Obtaining a copy of the deceased’s will, if they had one, and filing it with the probate court
  • Notifying creditors and other entities of the person’s death (like the Social Security Administration to stop benefits)
  • Creating an inventory of the deceased’s assets and their value
  • Liquidating assets to pay off any debts owed by the estate; and
  • Distributing the remaining property to the individuals or organizations named in the deceased’s will (if they had one) or according to inheritance laws, if they didn’t.

In terms of debt repayment, executors must notify creditors who may have a claim against the estate. Creditors are given a set period of time to make a financial claim against the estate’s assets for repayment of debts. It’s not that uncommon for a disreputable creditor to attempt to get paid by the deceased’s relatives.

Any assets in the estate that have a named beneficiary, such as a life insurance policy, a 401(k), individual retirement account, payable on death accounts or annuity, would be transferred to that beneficiary automatically and cannot be touched by creditors.

You typically don’t inherit debts of another like you might inherit property or other assets from them. Thus, if a debt collector tries get money from you, you’re under no legal obligation to pay.

However, if you cosigned a loan with the deceased or opened a joint credit card account or line of credit, those debts are legally yours, just as much as they are the person who died. If they pass away, you’d be solely responsible for repaying them.

You should also know that you may be liable for long-term care costs incurred by your parents, while they were alive. Many states require children to cover nursing home bills, although they aren’t always enforced.

As for spouses, the same rules of debt responsibility apply. However, for debts that are in one spouse’s name only, it’s important to understand how living in a community property state can impact your liability for marital debts. If you live in a community property state (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington and Wisconsin), debts incurred after the marriage by one spouse can be treated as a shared financial obligation.

Reference: KAKE (December 2, 2020) “Can I Inherit Debt?”

 

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 Kind of Estate Planning Do I Need During the Pandemic?

Having a valid will and a complete estate plan is important for everyone, but it’s crucial as you approach retirement.

Richmond Times-Dispatch’s recent article entitled “Estate planning during the pandemic” says that it’s because you’ll probably have more assets at this stage of your life, and it’s important to consider whom you’d like to inherit.

It is critical that you plan to be sure your spouse and family will be cared for financially, in the event that something happens to you. This can be accomplished with proper estate planning with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

If you die without a will or estate plan, state probate laws of succession may direct the way in which your assets are distributed. This can be an expensive process, but it can also be a significant burden on your family during a time of grieving and sadness.

Even with a will, going through the court-supervised probate process of passing assets through a will can be time consuming and expensive.

One way to avoid probate is to ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you set up a trust. A frequently used trust is a revocable living trust, which lets you modify the terms if you like.

Individuals with children or real estate can particularly benefit from setting up a trust. A trust allows you to avoid probate and makes certain that your assets are transferred to the intended people. It also lets you control exactly how the money can be used. You can also name someone to take control when you’re not available, known as a secondary trustee.

The executor of a will is really an administrator who transfers assets from one person to another. In contrast, a trustee is more of a decision-maker who will take your place and make decisions you would want to make, if you were still around to make them.

After you set up your estate plan, you should review it every few years.

Reference: Richmond Times-Dispatch (Nov. 19, 2020) “Estate planning during the pandemic”

How to Organize Digital Assets

Did you ever wonder what happens to old emails, videos, or photos when people die? Some family stories become headlines, when families battle with big tech firms to get their loved one’s photos or business records. Today, you need to plan for “digital assets,” as explained in a recent article “Don’t leave grieving relatives searching for your passwords: Here’s how to organize your digital life before you die” from USA Today.

Your digital life includes far more than your photos or business records. It includes financial accounts, like PayPal or Venmo, websites, videogames, online investment portfolios, social media, online video games and anything for which you need a password.

Social media accounts that are not closed down or deleted when someone dies, are at risk of being taken over by cybercriminals, who use the accounts to get access to financial accounts and use the decedent’s identity to commit crimes across the internet.

Start by making a list of all of your accounts, including account numbers, usernames and passwords. If the account has two-factor authentication, you’ll need to include that information as well. If the account uses biometrics, like a facial scan, you’ll need to find out from the platform itself how you can create a directive to allow another person to gain access to the account.

Your will needs to reflect the existence of digital assets and name a person who will be your digital executor. Many states have passed legislation concerning how digital assets are treated in estate planning, so check with your estate planning attorney to learn what your state’s requirements are.

In many cases, the best option is to use the platform’s own account tools for digital assets. Google, Facebook, PayPal, and a number of other sites offer the ability to name a legacy contact who will be able to gain some access to an account, to access the information and to delete the account in the event of your death.

One big issue in digital estate planning is that some platforms automatically delete accounts and their contents, if the account is inactive for a certain amount of time. Content may be lost forever, if the proper steps are not taken.

Some financial advisors maintain online portals, where their clients may store important documents that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. This may be an option, in addition to keeping a list of digital assets in the same location where you keep your estate planning documents.

We all live in a digital world now, and when a person dies, it’s challenging to locate all of their accounts and gain access to their contents. Your grandchildren may be able to figure out some workarounds, but it would be much easier if digital assets were part of the conversation you had with your children when discussing your estate plan.

Reference: USA Today (Nov. 25, 2020) “Don’t leave grieving relatives searching for your passwords: Here’s how to organize your digital life before you die”

How Do You Stop Family Fights Over an Inheritance?

More than two-thirds of all advisors surveyed by Key Private Bank said the hardest part of estate planning is navigating family dynamics, according to a 2019 survey. The sensitivities of simply talking about estate planning often present emotional challenges to putting a plan in place, especially when the family includes multiple marriages and blended families.

Advice is offered in a recent news article from CNBC, “Executor of a Family Estate? Here’s How to Avoid Infighting Over Inherited Wealth.”

Much of the problem, experts say, stems from poor communication. A dialogue needs to be open between generations that is a two-way conversation. In most instances, the older generation needs to invite the younger generation to get the ball rolling.

A lack of clarity and transparency can lead to problems. One example is a father leaving the family farm to his children, with a plan that also included money to help run the farm and legal documents to help the transition go smoothly. However, the children didn’t want the farm. They wanted to sell. Disagreements broke out between siblings, and the family was bogged down in a big fight.

Clearly Dad needed to talk with the children, while his estate plan was being created. The children needed to be upfront and honest about their plans for the future, and the issue could have been solved before the father’s death. The lesson: talk about your wishes and your children’s wishes while you are living.

After someone dies, they may leave behind an entire estate, with a lifetime of personal items that they want to gift to family members. However, if these items are not listed in the will, the heirs have to decide amongst themselves who gets what. This is asking for trouble, whether the items have sentimental or financial value. In fact, sentimental items often generate the most controversy.

When conflicts arise, the presence of a third party who doesn’t have emotional attachments and is not embroiled in the family dynamics can be helpful.

If the issue is not addressed before death, there are a few ways to move forward. An estate planning attorney who has seen many families go through this process can offer suggestions while the will is being prepared. There are facilitators or mediators who can help, if things get really rocky.

Heirs may wish to create a list of items that they would like to be reviewed by the executor. This option works best, if the executor is not a sibling, otherwise charges of favoritism and “Mom always liked you best” can spiral into family spats.

Some families group items into buckets of equal value, others set up a lottery to determine who picks first, second, etc., and some families literally roll the dice to make decisions.

Reference: CNBC (Nov. 12, 2020) “Executor of a Family Estate? Here’s How to Avoid Infighting Over Inherited Wealth”

No Time Like the Present Pandemic to Get the Estate Plan Going

The pandemic has made many people focus on depressing things, like death. Many of us are worth more dead than alive.

Federal News Network’s recent article entitled “It’s your estate, but who gets it?” says that lack of control is one of the frustrating things about this already terrifying pandemic. We can wear masks, keep our distance and avoid crowds, but then what?

There are some very important and valuable things that are still under your control. One of these is estate planning.

Any number of things could have occurred in 2020 that are off your radar because you’re still adjusting to the many changes the pandemic has brought to our everyday lives.

Many people see their estate plan as one of life’s necessary chores. Once it’s signed, they simply file it away and forget about it. However, an estate plan should be reviewed regularly to be certain that it continues to meet your needs. Here are just a few of the life events that make it essential for you to review and possibly revise your estate plan with an experienced estate planning attorney:

  • The birth or adoption of a child
  • You are contemplating divorce
  • You have recently divorced
  • Your child gets married
  • Your child develops substance abuse problems or has issues with managing finances
  • Those you’ve named as executor, trustee, or agents under a power of attorney have died, moved away, or are no longer able to fulfil these obligations
  • Your child faces financial challenges
  • Your minor children reach the age of majority
  • There has been a change in the law that impacts your estate plan
  • You get a sizeable inheritance or other windfall.
  • You have an estate plan but can’t locate it
  • You acquire property; or
  • You move to another state.

If any of these events occur, talk to your estate planning attorney to see if it is necessary to revise your estate plan to address these issues.

Reference: Federal News Network (Nov. 4, 2020) “It’s your estate, but who gets it?”

What are the Responsibilities of a Trustee?

Before accepting the role of a trustee, it is important to have a thorough understanding of what you will need to do and for how long. Trustees are often appointed to manage trust assets for a child or adult with special needs. This responsibility could be for a lifetime, so be sure that you are up for the task. Trustee duties are outlined in a recent article, “Trustee responsibilities,” from InsuranceNewsNet.com.

When the person who set up the trust, known as the “grantor,” dies, the trustee is in charge of settling the trust. That includes tasks like:

1–Locating and reviewing all of the documents of the grantor, especially any funeral and burial instructions.

2–If the grantor owned a home or an apartment, changing the locks for security, notifying the homeowner’s insurance company, if the house will be unoccupied for an extended period of time, and checking on auto insurance policies, if there are cars or other vehicles.

3–Unless the executor is taking care of this task, the trustee needs to obtain multiple originals of the death certificate. These are usually ordered by the funeral director.

4–Listing all assets with the Date of Death (DOD) values of any assets. This determines the “cost basis” of assets that are to be transferred to beneficiaries. If assets are later sold and used to distribute proceeds, the cost-basis is used to determine income tax liability.

5–Consolidate multiple financial accounts into one account. The check register will become a register of trust activities and beneficiaries may inspect it. The trustee’s first responsibility is to protect the trust’s funds.

6–Pay outstanding bills and debts. The trustee may be personally liable, if this is not handled correctly.

7–Meet with an estate planning attorney to determine if the trust must file income tax returns or if the estate of the grantor must file income tax returns.

8–File claims for life insurance, IRAs and annuities.

9–Create an accounting for all trust financial activity from the grantor’s DOD to be distributed to the beneficiaries.

10–Transfer assets to beneficiaries according to the terms of the trust and have an estate planning attorney send each beneficiary a receipt, release and waiver for any further responsibility and liability.

The responsibilities of a trustee are similar to the responsibilities of an executor, except that wills are used in probate court and trusts are created to avoid probate court. Another benefit of trusts is that they can help avoid litigation between beneficiaries and keep the estate’s affairs private.

Reference: InsuranceNewsNet.com (Oct. 19, 2020) “Trustee responsibilities”

How Do I Know If Mom Left Me Her IRA?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “I think my mother left a retirement account to me. How can I find out?” explains that retirement accounts typically are “non-probate” assets—they pass by beneficiary designation, rather than under the account owner’s will.

Each designated beneficiary can contact the financial institution where the account is held directly and request his or her share of the death benefit. The financial institution will need a copy of the account owner’s death certificate to move forward with the claim.

If the account owner doesn’t name a beneficiary, the agreement or contract governing the account may say who gets the death benefit. In many cases, the governing document says that the death benefit is payable to the account owner’s estate. However, some do have a breakdown of beneficiaries that may be close to the succession of heirs under intestacy.

If the mother didn’t name a beneficiary on her retirement account and, as a result, it’s payable to her estate, then it becomes a “probate” asset. Therefore, her will governs who receives it.

If her will doesn’t specifically bequeath that account to specified individuals, it will be a part of her residuary estate. The clause typically says, “I give the rest, residue and remainder of my estate to…”

Residuary beneficiaries are entitled to information about the estate—including the value of estate assets. In addition, there are laws that spell out their rights and remedies to make sure the executor is doing his or her fiduciary duty.

When an executor won’t provide reasonable information to the beneficiaries on the estate and the status of the administration, the beneficiaries should speak with an experienced estate planning attorney. One option may be to initiate a lawsuit to compel the executor to file an accounting and/or an inventory and appraisement of the estate assets. If a beneficiary thinks the executor has acted improperly and/or refuses to disclose estate information, he or she should demand that the executor provide an accounting and file an action with court for an accounting, if the executor refuses. Beneficiaries shouldn’t simply trust an executor, especially one who won’t give out basic information about the estate.

Reference: nj.com (Oct. 5, 2020) “I think my mother left a retirement account to me. How can I find out?”