How Bad Can a Do-It-Yourself Estate Plan Be? Very!

Here’s a real world example of why what seems like a good idea backfires, as reported in The National Law Review’s article “Unintended Consequences of a Do-It-Yourself Estate Plan.”

Mrs. Ann Aldrich wrote her own will, using a preprinted legal form. She listed her property, including account numbers for her financial accounts. She left each item of property to her sister, Mary Jane Eaton. If Mary Jane Eaton did not survive, then Mr. James Aldrich, Ann’s brother, was the designated beneficiary.

A few things that you don’t find on forms: wills and trusts need to contain a residuary, and other clauses so that assets are properly distributed. Ms. Aldrich, not being an experienced estate planning attorney, did not include such clauses. This one omission became a costly problem for her heir that led to litigation.

Mary Jane Eaton predeceased Ms. Aldrich. As Mary Jane Eaton had named Ms. Aldrich as her beneficiary, Ms. Aldrich then created a new account to receive her inheritance from Ms. Eaton. She also, as was appropriate, took title to Ms. Eaton’s real estate.

However, Ms. Aldrich never updated her will to include the new account and the new real estate property.

After Ms. Aldrich’s death, James Aldrich became enmeshed in litigation with two of Ms. Aldrich’s nieces over the assets that were not included in Ms. Aldrich’s will. The case went to court.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that Ms. Aldrich’s will only addressed the property specifically listed to be distributed to Mr. James Aldrich. Those assets passed to Ms. Aldrich’s nieces.

Ms. Aldrich did not name those nieces anywhere in her will, and likely had no intention for them to receive any property. However, the intent could not be inferred by the court, which could only follow the will.

This is a real example of two basic problems that can result from do-it-yourself estate planning: unintended heirs and costly litigation.

More complex problems can arise when there are blended family or other family structure issues, incomplete tax planning or wills that are not prepared properly and that are deemed invalid by the court.

Even ‘simple’ estate plans that are not prepared by an estate planning lawyer can lead to unintended consequences. Not only was the cost of litigation far more than the cost of having an estate plan prepared, but the relationship between Ms. Aldrich’s brother and her nieces was likely damaged beyond repair.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 10, 2020) “Unintended Consequences of a Do-It-Yourself Estate Plan”

Gray Divorces Changing the Future for Many Senior Americans

Add “gray divorce” to the factors leading to strife in estate planning. Minimizing discord among beneficiaries is one of the top three reasons people decide to have estate plans created, but with more gray divorces, things become complicated.

A survey at the 54th Annual Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning conducted by TD Bank asked elder law attorneys, insurance advisors, wealth managers and other professionals on the biggest challenge to estate planning. An article in the Clare County Review titled “Rising Gray Divorce Rates Are Making Estate Planning Problems More Complicated” explains the problem, and presents some solutions.

Gray divorce, blended families, naming heirs and changing family structures are making it more complicated—and more necessary—to create an estate plan and review it with an estate planning attorney on a regular basis.

More than a third of the 112 professionals participating in the survey said that gray divorce has the biggest impact on retirement planning and funding. It also impacts naming who becomes a person’s power of attorney and how Social Security benefits are determined.

The biggest way to help avoid family conflict in a gray divorce is the same as in any other divorce: regular communication. The family members need to know what is being planned, including who will be the designated beneficiaries and who will be named as executor.

The divorce process is complicated at any age, but after 50, there are usually more assets involved. The spouse is usually listed as the beneficiary on most, if not all, assets. Each asset document must be changed to reflect the new beneficiaries. Dividing pension plans, IRAs, and other retirement funds entails more work than simply changing names on bank accounts (although that also has to happen).

Wills, trusts, life insurance, and titles on real estate must also be changed. Institutions and companies that have accounts must be contacted, with information updated and verified.

Trusts are growing in popularity as a means of leaving assets to heirs, since they can minimize costs and delays when property is transferred. Trusts make it easier to pass assets, if family conflict is expected.

Even when beneficiaries aren’t expecting any cash assets to be left to them, controversies can still erupt over other assets. Adult children may not care about IRAs or trusts, but often the family home has great sentimental value. Deciding what to do with it can lead to fighting among siblings.

For those considering a gray divorce, talking with an estate planning attorney, in addition to a matrimonial attorney, could make this large life change less stressful. The estate planning attorney will be able to work with the matrimonial attorney, to ensure that estate issues are handled properly.

Reference: Clare County Review (February 10, 2020) “Rising Gray Divorce Rates Are Making Estate Planning Problems More Complicated”

If My Mom Wants to Give Me Her House, Is It Better to Inherit or Buy It?

Say that your mom owns a house without a mortgage, and she’d like to transfer the house to her adult son and daughter. The issue is whether it’s a better strategy to make the transfer via gift or a sale. Let’s throw in the fact that the son is a U.S. citizen, but the mom and sister are citizens of France.

Some major tax consequences need to be considered, advises nj.com in its recent post, “What happens when a non-citizen wants to transfer a home to an heir?”

First, understand that if the son, a U.S. citizen, receives a gift of money or other property from a foreign person, he may need to report these gifts on Form 3520, Annual Return to Report Transactions with Foreign Trusts and Receipt of Certain Foreign Gifts.

Note the difference: this an information return—not a tax return. However, there are significant penalties for not filing it. The IRS says that U.S. persons (and executors of estates of U.S. decedents) must file Form 3520 to report:

  • Certain transactions with foreign trusts;
  • Ownership of foreign trusts under the rules of Internal Revenue Code §§ 671 through 679; or
  • Receipt of certain large gifts or bequests from certain foreign persons.

As to whether a gift or a sale is better off for the adult child and his mother, consider that the children keep the parent’s cost basis on lifetime transfers of property made by the parents.

That means that if the mom’s home was purchased for $100,000 and it now has a current market value of $250,000, the cost basis of $100,000 becomes the child’s cost basis. When you sell the property, the capital gains tax on the difference between the sale price and the cost basis—$150,000—would have to be paid.

However, if the sister and brother inherit the property, they will receive a “step up” in the cost basis. Thus, if at the Mom’s death, the property is worth $250,000 and it is sold by the child for that amount, there’s no gain on which to pay a capital gains tax.

If you’re in this situation, it’s wise is to talk with an estate planning attorney to help your family with sound planning strategies. They will be able to help work out the best possible solution.

Reference: nj.com (September 24, 2019) “What happens when a non-citizen wants to transfer a home to an heir?”

Use A Dynasty Trust to Protect Your Wealth

Using an irrevocable trust ensures a far smoother transition of assets than a will, and also offers significant tax savings and far more privacy, control and asset protection, begins the article “Dynasty Trusts: Best Way to Protect Family Wealth” from NewsMax.

Just as their name implies, a dynasty trust is king of all trust types. It gives the family the most benefits in all of these areas. Still not convinced? Here are a few reasons why the dynasty trust is the best estate planning strategy for families who want to preserve an estate across many generations.

Most trusts provide for the transfer of assets from one benefactor to the next generation, at most two or three generations. A dynasty trust can last for hundreds of years. This offers tax advantages that are far superior than others.

Under the new tax laws, an individual can gift or bequeath up to $11.4 million during their lifetime, tax free. After that limit, any further transfer of assets are subject to gift and estate taxes. That same transfer limit applies whether assets are left directly via a will or indirectly through a trust. However, in a direct transfer or trust, these assets may be subject to estate taxes multiple times.

If a grantor transfers assets into a dynasty trust, those assets become the property of the trust, not of the grantor or the grantor’s heirs. Because the trust is designed to last many generations, the estate tax is only assessed once, even if the trust gets to be worth many times more than the lifetime exclusion.

Not all states permit the use of dynasty trusts. However, five states do allow them, while six others allow trusts with lifespans of 360 years or more. An experienced estate planning attorney will know if your state permits dynasty trusts and will help you set one up in a state that does allow them, if yours does not. Nevada, Ohio and South Dakota provide especially strong asset protection for dynasty trusts.

Because dynasty trusts are passed down from generation to generation, trust assets are not subject to the generation-skipping transfer tax. This tax is notorious for complicating bequeathals to grandchildren and others, who are not immediate heirs.

When the dynasty trust is created, the grantor designates a trustee who will manage trust funds. Usually the trustee is a banker or wealth manager, not a trust beneficiary. The grantor can exert as much control as desired over the future of the trust, by giving specific instructions for distributions. The trustee may only give distributions for major life events, or each heir may have a lifetime limit on distributions.

With these kinds of safeguards in place, a benefactor can ensure that the family’s wealth extends to many generations. Speak with an estate planning attorney to learn about the laws concerning dynasty trusts in your state and see if your family can obtain the benefits it offers.

Reference: NewsMax (September 16, 2019) “Dynasty Trusts: Best Way to Protect Family Wealth”

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”

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