How Do I Plan for Taxes after Death?

Let’s get this out of the way: preparing for death doesn’t mean it will come sooner. Quite the opposite is true. Most people find preparing and completing their estate plan leads to a sense of relief. They know if and when any of life’s unexpected events occur, like incapacity or death, they have done what was necessary to prepare, for themselves and their loved ones.

It’s a worthwhile task, says the recent article titled “Preparing for the certainties in life: death and taxes” from Cleveland Jewish News and doesn’t need to be overwhelming. Some attorneys use questionnaires to gather information to be brought into the office for the first meeting, while others use secure online portals to gather information. Then, the estate planning attorney and you will have a friendly, candid discussion of your wishes and what decisions need to be made.

Several roles need to be filled. The executor carries out the instructions in the will. A guardian is in charge of minor children, in the event both parents die. A person named as your attorney in fact (or agent) in your Power of Attorney (POA) will be in charge of the business side of your life. A POA can be as broad or limited as you wish, from managing one bank account to pay household expenses to handling everything. A Health Care Proxy is used to appoint your health care agent to have access to your medical information and speak with your health care providers, if you are unable to.

Your estate plan can be designed to minimize probate. Probate is the process where the court reviews your will to ensure its validity, approves the person you appoint to be executor and allows the administration of your estate to go forward.

Depending on your jurisdiction, probate can be a long, costly and stressful process. In Ohio, the law requires probate to be open for at least six months after the date of death, even if your estate dots every “i” and crosses every “t.”

Part of the estate planning process is reviewing assets to see how and if they might be taken out of your probate estate. This may involve creating trusts, legal entities to own property and allow for easier distribution to heirs. Charitable donations might become part of your plan, using other types of trusts to make donations, while preserving assets or creating an income stream for loved ones.

Minimizing taxes should be a part of your estate plan. While the federal estate tax exemption right now is historically high $12.06 million per person, on January 1, 2025, it drops to $5.49 million adjusted for inflation. While 2025 may seem like a long way off, if your estate plan is being done now, you might not see it again for three or five years. Planning for this lowered number makes sense.

Reviewing an estate plan should take place every three to five years to keep up with changes in the law, including the lowered estate tax. Large events in your family also need to prompt a review—trigger events like marriage, death, birth, divorce and the sale of a business or a home.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (May 13, 2022) “Preparing for the certainties in life: death and taxes”

What If You Don’t have a Will?

A will is a written document stating wishes and directions for dealing with the property you own after your death, also known as your “estate,” explains a recent article “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will” from Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The COVID pandemic has reinforced the importance of having an estate plan in place. With almost one million deaths attributed to COVID to date, many families have learned this lesson in the hardest possible way.

When someone dies without a will, property is distributed according to their state’s intestacy laws. If your next of kin is someone you loathe, or even just dislike, they may become an heir, whether you or the rest of your family likes it or not. If you are part of an unmarried couple, your partner has no legal rights, unless you’ve created a will and an estate plan to provide for them.

In general, intestacy laws distribute property to a surviving spouse or certain descendants. A much better solution: speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared to protect yourself and those you love.

Start by determining your goals and speaking with family members. You may be surprised to learn an adult child doesn’t need or want what you want to leave them. If you have a vacation home you want to leave to the next generation, ask to see if they want it.

A family meeting, attended by an objective person, like an estate planning attorney, may be helpful in clarifying your intentions and setting expectations for heirs. It may reveal new information about your family and change how you distribute your estate. A grandchild who has already picked out a Ferrari, for instance, might make you consider setting up a trust with distributions over time, so they can’t blow their inheritance in one purchase.

Determining who will be your executor is another important decision for your will. The executor is like the business manager of your estate after you have passed. They are a fiduciary, with a legal obligation to put the estate’s interest above their own. They need to be able to manage money, make sound decisions and equally important, stick to your wishes, even when your surviving loved ones have other opinions about “what you would have wanted.”

You’ll need to speak with this person to make sure they are willing to take on the task. If there is no one suitable or willing, your estate planning attorney will have some suggestions. Depending on the size of the estate, a bank or trust company may be able to serve as executor.

The will is just the first step. An estate plan includes planning for incapacity. With a Will, a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Living Will (also known as an Advance Directive), you and your loved ones will be better positioned to address the inevitable events of life.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (April 24, 2022) “Placing the puzzle pieces of long-term care and planning a will”

How Do I Protect Myself and My Children in a Second Marriage?

In first marriages, working together to raise children can solidify a marriage. However, in a second marriage, the adult children are in a different position altogether. If important estate planning issues are not addressed, the relationship between the siblings and the new spouses can have serious consequences, according to a recent article titled “Into the Breach; Getting Married Again?” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Chief among the issues center on inheritances and financial matters, especially if one of the parties has the bulk of the income and the assets. How will the household expenses be shared? Should they be divided equally, even if one spouse has a significantly higher income than the other?

Other concerns involve real estate. If both parties own their own homes, in which house will they live? Will the other home be used for rental income or sold? Will both names be on the title for the primary residence?

Planning for incapacity also becomes more complex. If a 90-year-old man marries a 79-year-old woman, will his children or his spouse be named as agents (i.e., attorneys in fact) under his Power of Attorney if he is incapacitated? Who will make healthcare decisions for the 79-year-old spouse—her children or her 90-year-old husband?

There are so many different situations and family dynamics to consider. Will a stepdaughter end up making the decision to withdraw artificial feeding for an elderly stepmother, if the stepmother’s own children cannot be reached in a timely manner? If stepsiblings do not get along and critical decisions need to be made, can they set aside their differences to act in their collective parent’s best interests?

The matter of inheritances for second and subsequent marriages often becomes the pivot point for family discord. If the family has not had an estate plan created with an experienced estate planning attorney who understands the complexities of multiple marriages, then the battles between stepchildren can become nasty and expensive.

Do not discount the impact of the spouses of adult children. If you have a stepchild whose partner feels they have been wronged by the parent, they could bring a world of trouble to an otherwise amicable group.

The attorney may recommend the use of trusts to ensure the assets of the first spouse to die eventually make their way to their own children, while ensuring the surviving spouse has income during their lifetime. There are several trusts designed to accomplish this exact scenario, including one known as SLAT—Spousal Lifetime Access Trust.

Discussions about health care proxies and power of attorney should take place well before they are needed. Ideally, all members of the family can gather peacefully for discussions while their parents are living, to avoid surprises. If the relationships are rocky, a group discussion may not be possible and parents and adult children may need to meet for one-on-one discussions. However, the conversations still need to take place.

Second marriages at any age and stage need to have a prenuptial and an estate plan in place before the couple walks down the aisle to say, “I do…again.”

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (March 1, 2022) “Into the Breach; Getting Married Again?”

What Estate Planning Documents Should Everyone Have?

This is the time of year when people start thinking about getting piles or files of paperwork in order in preparing for a new year and for taxes. A recent article “How to Prepare, Organize and Store Estate-Planning Documents” from The Street gives useful tips on how to do this.

First, the most important documents:

Estate Planning documents, including your Will, Power of Attorney (POA), Healthcare Proxy, Living Will (often called an Advance Care Directive). The will is for asset distribution after death, but other documents are needed to protect you while you’re alive.

The POA is used to name someone to act on your behalf, if you cannot. A POA can be created to be specific, for example, to have someone else pay your bills, or it can be general, letting someone do everything from paying bills to managing the sale of your home. Be cautious about using standard POA documents, since they don’t reflect every situation.

A Healthcare Proxy empowers someone you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf. The Living Will or Advance Care Directive outlines the type of care you do (or don’t) want when at the end of your life. This alleviates a terrible burden on your loved ones, who may not otherwise know what you would have wanted.

Add a Digital POA so someone will be able to access and manage your online accounts (subject to the terms and conditions of each digital platform).

Your Last Will and Testament conveys how you want your estate—that is, everything you own that does not have a surviving joint owner or a designated beneficiary—to be distributed after death. Your will is also used to name a guardian for minor children. It is also used to name an executor, the person who will be in charge of carrying out the instructions in the will.

A list of all of your assets, including bank accounts, retirement accounts, investments, savings and checking accounts, will make it easier for your executor to identify and distribute assets. Don’t forget to check to see which accounts allow you to name a beneficiary and make sure those names are correct.

Both wills and trusts are used to convey assets to beneficiaries, but unlike a will, “funded” trusts don’t go through the probate process. An experienced estate planning attorney can create a trust to distribute almost any kind of property and follow your specific directions. Do you want your children to gain access to the trust after they have reached a certain age? Or when they have married and had children of their own? A trust allows for greater control of your assets.

Finally, talk with your family members about your estate plan, your wishes for end-of-life medical care and what you want to happen after you die. Write a letter of intent if it’s too hard to have a face-to-face conversation about these topics, but find a way to let them know. Your estate planning attorney has worked with many families and will be able to provide you with suggestions and guidance.

Reference: The Street (Dec. 20, 2021) “How to Prepare, Organize and Store Estate-Planning Documents”

Should Young Adults have a Will?

Young adults are starting to get their affairs in order, contacting estate planning attorneys because they are concerned about dying unexpectedly. A study by Caring.com, a senior referral service, said that almost a third of young adults, ages 18—34, had a will in 2021, compared to 18% in 2019. The leap, according to a recent article in The Wall Street Journal titled “Millennials, Feeling Their Mortality During Covid-19, Start Writing Their Wills” can be directly attributed to the Covid-19 pandemic.

The concern over continued uncertainty regarding whether the young adults themselves or their family members will become sick, and die is all too real. Millennials also haven’t experienced another event: sharply rising inflation. The general sense of unease and instability is leading young adults to make sure they have wills and healthcare proxies in place to give some sense of control in the face of an unstable world. Those with young families are especially concerned, as new variants of Covid emerge.

Before the pandemic, young adults, even with those with children, didn’t feel the need to have an estate plan created. That’s changed.

Just under half of all Americans have a will, and people 65 and up have traditionally been more likely to have one, according to a May 2021 study by Gallup. This number has been relatively stable since about 1990.

If you die without a will, the state law determines how to distribute assets, under court supervision. The process is slower and far more costly for survivors. In many situations, not having a will can be catastrophic. If beneficiaries with special needs inherit funds outright, and not in a Supplemental Needs Trust (or a Special Needs Trust), they could lose government benefits necessary for their day-to-day lives.

Wills are also used to name a guardian to care for minor children. If both parents die and there is no will, a court will decide who should raise a child. The court may not necessarily name a family member, and the person may not be who the parents or grandparents might have wished.

Similarly, news about young celebrities dying unexpectedly also pushes the “go” button for millennials to get their wills completed. When Los Angeles Angels pitcher Tyler Skaggs died of a fentanyl overdose in 2019, calls to estate planning attorneys from millennial males increased in many law offices. At the same time, millennials who are aware of the importance of a will for themselves and their families are pressing their parents to get their wills prepared or updated.

In every case, having a will is far less costly than not having a will. The cost of preparing a will depends on many factors: the size of the estate, the complexity of the family situation, the nature of assets and where the will is being prepared. Other documents are necessary. For example, every adult should have a power of attorney, health care proxy, living will and possibly a trust.

The last gift you leave your heirs is a plan and organized documents, so they can grieve properly after you pass, rather than having to embark on a scavenger hunt through decades of paperwork and old files.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (Dec. 6, 2021) “Millennials, Feeling Their Mortality During Covid-19, Start Writing Their Wills”

How to Approach Parents about Estate Planning
Young doctor holding the old lady's hand

How to Approach Parents about Estate Planning

One of the lessons learned from the pandemic is not to wait for the “right time” to prepare for death or incapacity. Aging parents who don’t have a plan in place leave their children with a number of obstacles, says this recent article entitled “Why (and How) To Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning” from NASDAQ.

One is scrambling to unravel the family finances at a time when you are still grief-stricken. Another is managing costs associated with severe illness and death. Incapacity can be even more complicated. It is more so, if the family has to apply for guardianship to make medical and financial decisions for a parent who can’t speak for themselves or manage their financial affairs.

To prevent a host of problems and expenses, start talking with aging parents about estate planning.  They don’t have to live in an” estate” to have an estate. This is simply the term used to describe all assets owned by a couple or individual.

An estate plan is a tool to convey intentions about assets and health. The first step may be to create an inventory of all assets and belongings, from the family home to personal belongings and digital assets. Next, is to have some tough conversations about their wishes for end-of-life care and medical decisions.

A few questions to get started:

  • Who should be the primary caregiver and decision maker?
  • How will health care expenses be paid?
  • Who do you want to make medical decisions?
  • What do you want to happen to your property after you die?
  • Should the family sell the home, or should one of the children inherit it?
  • Do you have any estate planning documents, and where are they kept?

Estate planning is different for everyone, so be wary of downloading basic estate documents from the web and hoping they will be valid. An experienced estate planning attorney will create the necessary documents, as per the laws of your parents’ state of residence, and reflecting their wishes.

If there is no will, or if a will is deemed invalid by the court, the laws of the state will govern how assets are distributed. Making sure a will is properly prepared, along with other estate planning documents, is a more efficient and less costly way to go.

Estate planning includes tax planning, which occurs when property passes from one person to another. Estate and inheritance taxes are the most common concern. While most Americans don’t need to worry about the federal estate tax, individual states have their own rules and thresholds. Some states have both state estate taxes and inheritance taxes. There are ways to minimize taxes, from gifting during your parent’s lifetimes, to establishing trusts for beneficiaries.

An estate plan includes a will, a Power of Attorney for financial matters, a Health Care Proxy so someone can make health care decisions, a Living Will (also known as an Advance Care Directive) and usually some kind of trust. Each serves a different purpose, but all name a designated person to act in a legal manner to handle the affairs of the person, while they are living and after they have passed.

Some families are more comfortable than others about talking about death and money, so you probably already know what to expect from your parents when trying to have this conversation. Be mindful of their feelings, and those of your siblings. These are hard, but necessary, conversations.

Reference: NASDAQ (Nov. 10, 2021) “Why (and How) To Talk to Your Parents About Estate Planning”

Should I Try Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning?

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “6 Common Myths About Estate Planning explains that the coronavirus pandemic has made many people face decisions about estate planning. Many will use a do-it-yourself solution. Internet DIY websites make it easy to download forms. However, there are mistakes people make when they try do-it-yourself estate planning.

Here are some issues with do-it-yourself that estate planning attorneys regularly see:

You need to know what to ask. If you’re trying to complete a specific form, you may be able to do it on your own. However, the challenge is sometimes not knowing what to ask. If you want a more comprehensive end-of-life plan and aren’t sure about what you need in addition to a will, work with an experienced estate planning attorney. If you want to cover everything, and are not sure what everything is, that’s why you see them.

More complex issues require professional help. Take a more holistic look at your estate plan and look at estate planning, tax planning and financial planning together, since they’re all interrelated. If you only look at one of these areas at a time, you may create complications in another. This could unintentionally increase your expenses or taxes. Your situation might also include special issues or circumstances. A do-it-yourself website might not be able to tell you how to account for your specific situation in the best possible way. It will just give you a blanket list, and it will all be cookie cutter. You won’t have the individual attention to your goals and priorities you get by sitting down and talking to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Estate laws vary from state to state. Every state may have different rules for estate planning, such as for powers of attorney or a health care proxy. There are also 17 states and the District of Columbia that tax your estate, inheritance, or both. These tax laws can impact your estate planning. Eleven states and DC only have an estate tax (CT, HI, IL, ME, MA, MN, NY, OR, RI, VT and WA). Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have only an inheritance tax. Maryland has both an inheritance tax and an estate tax.

Setting up health care directives and making end-of-life decisions can be very involved. It’s too important to try to do it yourself. If you make a mistake, it could impact the ability of your family to take care of financial expenses or manage health care issues. Don’t do it yourself.

Reference: US News & World Report (July 5, 2021) “6 Common Myths About Estate Planning”

Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives
Book, pen and Power of Attorney document on a desktop

Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives

A medical crisis only gets worse, when you learn you don’t have legal authority to make medical decisions for a loved one, or find out after a loved one is incapacitated that you can’t gain access to assets in their trust. You need to have certain estate planning legal documents already in place, according to the article “Tips you should know for Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives” from seacoastonline.com.

Power of Attorney. The power of attorney (POA) allows one person, the “principal” to appoint another person as their “agent” (also known as an “attorney in fact”). The agent has the authority to act on behalf of the principal, depending on the powers described in the document. Each state has its own laws about who can be an agent, if more than one person can be appointed as agent and if there are any limits to what power can be given to an agent. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create a POA to suit your situation.

A POA can be created to give extremely broad powers to an agent. This is sometimes called a “general” POA, where agents can do everything that you would do, from accessing and managing bank accounts, applying for Social Security, to filing tax returns. A POA can also be limited in scope, known as “limited” POA. You could permit an agent to only sign a tax return or conduct a specific transaction.

In most estate planning scenarios, the POA is “durable,” meaning the named agent can continue to have authority to act, even if the principal is incapacitated after the documents have been executed. This makes sense: a durable POA generally avoids having to go to court and have a guardian appointed. The person you have selected will be the POA, not a court-appointed person.

Advance Directive. The advance directive allows a person to appoint another person to make medical decisions on their behalf if incapacitated. In some states, this is called a durable power of attorney for health care, and in others it is referred to as a health care proxy.

In most cases, the advance directive becomes effective when one or more treating physicians determine the person no longer has capacity to make or communicate health care decisions. Having this document in place avoids having to go to court to have a guardian appointed. If time is of the essence, any delay in decision-making could lead to a poor outcome. If there is no advance directive and physicians have decided you are unable to make these decisions, they go by a hierarchy of relatives to make the decisions for you. If you have an estranged adult child, for instance, but they are your next-of-kin, they could be the one making decisions for you.

If you have children who recently became legal adults (usually age 18), these documents will protect them as well, since just being their parent does not provide you with the right to make these decisions.

Reference: Seacoastonline.com (June 27, 2021) “Tips you should know for Powers of Attorney and Advance Directives”

Estate Planning Matters for Singles

If you’re not married and you have relatives or friends to whom you would like to pass certain assets, then you need an estate plan, says the article “Estate planning important even if you’re not married” from Rocky Mountain Telegram.

If you die without a last will and testament or other estate planning documents in place, a probate court will make the decisions about how to distribute assets according to the laws of your state. That may not be what you wanted, but it will be too bad—and too late.

If you want to leave assets to family members or close friends, you’ll need to plan for this with a last will and testament. The same goes for any donations you may wish to leave to one or more charitable organizations. You could just name organizations in your will, but there are many different ways to give to charity and some have tax benefits for you and your heirs.

One way to leave assets to charity is a Charitable Remainder Trust. Your estate planning attorney will help guide you through the steps. Appreciated assets, like stocks, mutual funds, or other investment securities, are transferred into an irrevocable trust. You get to name the trustee—you could be the trustee, if you prefer—and then you can sell the assets at full market value, avoiding any capital gains taxes that you’d pay if you sold them as an individual.

If you itemize your income taxes, you might be able to claim a charitable deduction on taxes. With the proceeds, the trust can purchase income-producing assets and provide an income stream for the rest of your life. When you die, the assets remaining in the trust will go to the charity or charities that you have named.

Family members and charities aren’t the only ones to consider in an estate plan for a single person. You need to prepare to protect yourself. With the absence of an immediate family, being protective of your financial and health care decisions requires a durable power of attorney and a health care proxy, among other documents.

The durable power of attorney authorizes a person of your choice to manage finances, if you were to become incapacitated. This is especially important when there is no spouse to take on this role. Your health care proxy, also known as a medical power of attorney, authorizes someone you name to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are unable.

Estate planning can be complex. An experienced estate planning attorney will be an invaluable resource as you go through the process. Who will be the best candidate to select as your power of attorney? What other documents do you need to ensure that your assets go to the people or charities you want? Once this is done, you’ll be prepared for the future—and protected.

Reference: Rocky Mountain Telegram (June 6, 2021) “Estate planning important even if you’re not married”

Why Do I Need a Will?

Estate planning attorneys aren’t the only professionals to advise anyone who is a legal adult and of sound mind to have a will. Financial advisors, CPAs and other professional advisors recognize that without a will, a person places themselves and their family in an unnecessarily difficult position. A recent article titled “One document everyone should have” from the Aiken Standard explains why this document is so important and what else is needed for an estate plan. A will is a “testamentary” document, meaning it becomes operative, only when the person who makes the will (the “testator”) dies.

The process of probate can only begin upon death. Each county or jurisdiction has a probate court, where the estate assets of deceased individuals are administrated. On the date a person dies, those assets must be identified. Some assets must be used to pay debts, if there are any, and the balance is distributed either according to the directions in the will or, if there is no will or the will has been deemed to be invalid, according to the laws of the state.

All this assumes, by the way, that the decedent did not arrange for his or her assets to pass without probate, by various non-probate transfer methods. For example, there is no probate required, if there is a surviving joint owner or designated beneficiary.

When there is no will and assets are subject to probate, then such assets are passed by intestacy, which usually means they are distributed along the lines of kinship. This may not always be the desired outcome, but with no will, the law controls asset distribution.

Why is a will important?

  • It allows you to leave specific property to specific loved ones, friends, or charities.
  • It may be used to provide funeral and burial instructions, although they can also be provided in a different document, so they are available to family or friends immediately.
  • A will can direct how you want assets to be used to pay debts, any taxes and payment of estate administration expenses, which include the cost of probate, legal fees and executor fees.
  • A will can be used to minimize estate taxes, which may be levied not just by the federal government but also by the state.
  • The will names the estate’s executor and the extent of his or her powers.
  • If there are minor children, the will is used to name a guardian to raise the children.
  • If you would like to disinherit any relative, the will provides the means to doing so.

Everyone needs a will, regardless of how large or small their personal assets may be. Every adult should also have an estate plan that includes other important documents, like a Power of Attorney to name another individual to act on your behalf, if you are unable to do so because of an injury or illness. A Healthcare Proxy and a Living Will are also important, so those who love you can follow your end of life care wishes.

Reference: Aiken Standard (March 13,2021) “One document everyone should have”