Estate Planning and Probate Planning

The nature of the probate process varies from state to state, and even varies from county to county. However, the nature of the process is the same. A court has to validate a will to ensure that it meets the legal requirements of the state before assets can be distributed, explains the article “Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money” from the Baker City Herald. A typical will in some states can take nine to twelve months, and court shutdowns related to COVID-19 means that the wait could be longer. Probate is also expensive.

When does probate make sense? When a person dies with a lot of debt, probate can be helpful by limiting the amount of time creditors have to make their claims against the estate. If there’s not enough to pay everyone, the probate court makes the decision about how much each creditor gets. Without probate, creditors may surface long after assets have been distributed, and depending upon the amount owed, may sue heirs or the executor.

The court supervision provided by probate can be helpful, if there are any concerns about the instructions in the will not being carried out. However, the will and the details of the estate become public, which is bad not just for privacy reasons. If there are any greedy or litigation-happy family members, they’ll be able to see how assets were distributed. All assets, debts and costs paid by the estate are disclosed, and the court approves each distribution. This much oversight can be protective in some situations.

What’s the alternative? Some states have simplified probate for smaller estates, which can reduce the time and cost of probate. However, it varies by state. In Delaware, it is estates worth no more than $30,000, but in Seattle, small means estates valued at $275,000 or less.

These limits don’t include assets that go directly to heirs, like accounts with beneficiaries or jointly owned assets. Most retirement funds and life insurance policies have named beneficiaries. The same is often true for bank and investment accounts. Just remember not to name your estate as a beneficiary, which defeats the purpose of having a beneficiary.

Are there any other ways to avoid probate? Here’s where trusts come in. Trusts are legal documents that allow you to place your assets into ownership by the trust. A living trust takes effect while you are still alive, and you can be a trustee. Once created, property needs to be transferred into the trust, which requires managing details: changing titles and deeds and account names. This type of trust is revocable, which means you can change it any time. As a trustee, you have complete control over the property. A successor trustee is named to take over, if you die or become incapacitated.

An estate planning attorney will know other legal strategies to avoid probate for part or all of your estate.

Reference: Baker City Herald (July 16, 2020) “Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money”

There Is a Difference between Probate and Trust Administration

Many people get these two things confused. A recent article, “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration,” from Lake County News clarifies the distinctions.

Let’s start with probate, which is a court-supervised process. To begin the probate process, a legal notice must be published in a newspaper and court appearances are needed. However, to start trust administration, a letter of notice is mailed to the decedent’s heirs and beneficiaries. Trust administration is far more private, which is why many people chose this path.

In the probate process, the last will and testament and any documents in the court file are available to the public. While the general public may not have any specific interest in your will, estranged relatives, relatives you never knew you had, creditors and scammers have easy and completely legal access to this information.

If there is no will, the court documents that are created in intestacy (the heirs inherit according to state law), are also available to anyone who wants to see them.

In trust administration, the only people who can see trust documents are the heirs and beneficiaries.

There are cost differences. In probate, a court filing fee must be paid for each petition. There are also at least two petitions from start to finish in probate, plus the newspaper publication fee. The fees vary, depending upon the jurisdiction. Add to that the attorney’s and personal representative’s fees, which also vary by jurisdiction. Some are on an hourly basis, while others are computed as a sliding scale percentage of the value of the estate under management. For example, each may be paid 4% of the first $100,000, 3% of the next $100,000 and 2% of any excess value of the estate under management. The court also has the discretion to add fees, if the estate is more time consuming and complex than the average estate.

For trust administration, the trustee and the estate planning attorney are typically paid on an hourly basis, or however the attorney sets their fee structure. Expenses are likely to be far lower, since there is no court involvement.

There are similarities between probate and trust administration. Both require that the decedent’s assets be collected, safeguarded, inventoried and appraised for tax and/or distribution purposes. Both also require that the decedent’s creditors be notified, and debts be paid. Tax obligations must be fulfilled, and the debts and administration expenses must be paid. Finally, the decedent’s beneficiaries must be informed about the estate and its administration.

The use of trusts in estate planning can be a means of minimizing taxes and planning for family assets to be passed to future generations in a private and controlled fashion. This is the reason for the popularity of trusts in estate planning.

It should be noted that a higher level of competency—mental comprehension—must be possessed by an individual to execute a trust than to execute a will. A person whose capacity may be questionable because of Alzheimer’s or another illness may not be legally competent enough to execute a trust. Their heirs may face challenges to the estate plan in that case.

Reference: Lake County News (July 4, 2020) “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration”

How Does a Spendthrift Trust Protect Heirs from Themselves?

This is not an unusual question for most estate planning lawyers—and in most cases, the children aren’t bad. They just lack self-control or have a history of making poor decisions. Fortunately, there are solutions, as described in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift” from NWI.com.

What needs to happen? Plan to provide for the child’s well-being but keep the actual assets out of their control. The best answer is the use of a trust. By leaving money to an heir in a trust, a responsible party can be in charge of the money. That person is known as the “trustee.”

People sometimes get nervous when they hear the word trust, because they think that a trust is only for wealthy people or that creating a trust must be very expensive. Not necessarily. In many states, a trust can be created to benefit an heir in the last will and testament. The will may be a little longer, but a trust can be created without the expense of an additional document. Your estate planning attorney will know how to create a trust, in accordance with the laws of your state.

In this scenario, the trust is created in the will, known as a testamentary trust. Instead of leaving money to Joe Smith directly, the money (or other asset) is left to the John Smith Testamentary Trust for the benefit of Joe Smith.

The terms of the trust are defined in the appropriate article in the will and can be created to suit your wishes. For instance, you can decide to distribute the money over a three or a thirty-year period. Funds could be distributed monthly, to create an income stream. They could also be distributed only when certain benchmarks are reached, such after a full year of employment has occurred. This is known as an incentive trust.

The opposite can be true: distributions can be withheld, if the heir is engaged in behavior you want to discourage, like gambling or using drugs.

If the funding for the trust will come from proceeds from a life insurance policy, it may be necessary to have your estate planning attorney contact the insurance company to be sure that the insurance company will permit a testamentary trust to be the beneficiary of the life insurance and avoid probate altogether.

Not all insurance companies will permit this. There may be some other changes that need to occur for this to work and be in compliance with your state’s laws. However, your estate planning attorney will be able to resolve the issue for you.

Reference: NWI.com (May 17, 2020) “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift”

Distributing Inherited Assets in Many Accounts

This generous individual may be facing a number of legal and logistical hurdles, before assets in eight separate accounts can be passed to three relatives, says the article “Sorting through multiple inheritance accounts” from the Houston Chronicle. Does the heir need to speak with each of the investment companies? Would it make sense to combine all the assets into one account for the estate and then divide and distribute them from that one account?

If all the accounts were payable to this person upon the death of the brother, then the first thing is for the heir to contact each company and have all funds transferred to one account. It might be an already existing account in their name, or it may need to be a new account opened just for this purpose. The account could be at any of the brother’s investment firms, or it could be with a different firm.

If the accounts are not payable to the heir, but they are to be inherited as part of the brother’s estate, the estate must be probated before the funds can be claimed. In this case, it would be very helpful if the sole beneficiary is also the executor. This would put one person in charge of all of the work that needs to be done.

However, the person eventually will become the owner of all eight accounts. Once everything is in the heir’s name, then the assets can be distributed to the three relatives. There are some tax issues that must be addressed.

First, if the estate is large enough, it may owe federal estate taxes, which will diminish the size of the estate. The limit, if the brother died in 2020, is $11.58 million. If he died in an earlier year, the exemption will be considerably lower, and the estate and the executor may already be late in making federal tax payments. Penalties may apply, so a conversation with an estate planning attorney should take place as soon as possible.

If the brother lived in another state, there may be state estate or inheritance taxes owed to that state. While Texas does not have a state estate or inheritance tax, other states, like Pennsylvania, do. A consultation with an estate planning attorney can also answer this question.

When gifts are ultimately made to the three relatives, the first $15,000 given to each of them during a calendar year will be treated as a non-taxable gift. However, if any of the gifts exceed $15,000, the person will be using up their own $11.58 million exemption from gift and estate taxes. A gift tax return will need to be filed to report the gifts. If the heir is married, those numbers will likely double.

It may be possible to disclaim the inheritance, with the assets passing to the three relatives to whom the heir wishes to make these gifts. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to work through the details to determine the best way to proceed with receiving and distributing the assets. Depending upon the size of the estate, there will be tax consequences that must be considered.

Reference: Houston Chronicle (March 24, 2020) “Sorting through multiple inheritance accounts”

Relocating for Retirement, Family … or Taxes?

When the current health crisis finally passes, many people will have spent time considering what they want to do with their remaining years. That may include relocating. For some people, taxes are a real reason to move to a new state, but some states are more tax-friendly than others, says the article “Best States to Die In…For Taxes” from Tucson.com.

No matter where you live, you have to pay federal estate taxes. However, there are eighteen states in the U.S. that require citizens to pay either estate taxes or inheritance taxes or both. The estate taxes are subtracted from an estate before its assets are distributed to heirs. Inheritance taxes are paid by heirs of the deceased, and it doesn’t matter if the heirs live in another state.

Here are the six states with inheritance taxes: Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The good news is that spouses are exempted from having to pay any inheritance taxes, and in New Jersey, it also applies to domestic partners. In some states, children and grandchildren are exempted, but not in Nebraska or Pennsylvania.

For people who live in Nebraska, immediate relatives must pay a 1% tax on inheritance amounts that are more than $40,000. In Pennsylvania, tax rates start at 4.5% for children and lineal heirs. Nebraska has the highest top inheritance tax rate of all the estates, at 18%. The others range from 10% to 16%.

Each state has certain exemptions, based on the amount of the inheritance and the heir’s relationship to the deceased. If you receive an inheritance from someone who lives in one of the inheritance tax states, speak with an estate planning attorney, so that you know what tax is due. State law categorizes heirs into types for the purposes of assigning exemptions and tax rates, and these vary by state.

The worst state to die in from an inheritance tax and estate tax perspective is Maryland, which imposes a 16% tax on inheritances above $5 million for persons who died in calendar year 2019. Until recently, New Jersey had a scaled estate tax that ranged from 0.8% to 16.0% on estates over $675,000, but the state no longer imposes any estate tax on the estate of decedents, who die on or after January 1, 2018.

Many inheritances pass through to spouses and children. The exemptions are generally fairly generous, so many people may not run into this issue with estate or inheritance taxes. However, if your estate includes a home within an expensive real estate market, your family may be in for some surprise taxes.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to learn what your state’s estate and inheritance tax rates are, and plan for the future. If you are in a high tax state, relocating may not be a bad idea. Your heirs will appreciate your planning.

Reference: Tucson.com (March 27, 2020) “Best States to Die In…For Taxes”

If Not Now, When? It is the Time for Estate Planning

What else could possibly go wrong? You might not want to ask that question, given recent events. A global pandemic, markets in what feels like free fall, schools closed for an extended period of time—these are just a few of the challenges facing our communities, our nation and our world. The time is now, in other words, to be sure that everyone has their estate planning completed, advises Kiplinger in the article “Coronavirus Legal Advice: Get Your Business and Estate in Order Now.”

Business owners from large and small sized companies are contacting estate planning attorney’s offices to get their plans done. People who have delayed having their estate plans done or never finalized their plans are now getting their affairs in order. What would happen if multiple family members got sick, and a family business was left unprotected?

Because the virus is recognized as being especially dangerous for people who are over age 60 or have underlying medical issues, which includes many business owners and CEOs, the question of “What if I get it?” needs to be addressed. Not having a succession plan or an estate plan, could lead to havoc for the company and the family.

Establishing a Power of Attorney is a key part of the estate plan, in case key decision makers are incapacitated, or if the head of the household can’t take care of paying bills, taxes or taking care of family or business matters. For that, you need a Durable Power of Attorney.

Another document needed now, more than ever: is an Advance Health Care Directive. This explains how you want medical decisions to be made, if you are too sick to make these decisions on your own behalf. It tells your health care team and family members what kind of care you want, what kind of care you don’t want and who should make these decisions for you.

This is especially important for people who are living together without the legal protection that being married provides. While some states may recognize registered domestic partners, in other states, medical personnel will not permit someone who is not legally married to another person to be involved in their health care decisions.

Personal information that lives only online is also at risk. Most bills today don’t arrive in the mail, but in your email inbox. What happens if the person who pays the bill is in a hospital, on a ventilator? Just as you make sure that your spouse or children know where your estate plan documents are, they also need to know who your estate planning attorney is, where your insurance policies, financial records and legal documents are and your contact list of key friends and family members.

Right now, estate planning attorneys are talking with clients about a “Plan C”—a plan for what would happen if heirs, beneficiaries and contingent beneficiaries are wiped out. They are adding language that states which beneficiaries or charities should receive their assets, if all of the people named in the estate plan have died. This is to maintain control over the distribution of assets, even in a worst-case scenario, rather than having assets pass via the rules of intestate succession. Without a Plan C, an entire estate could go to a distant relative, regardless of whether you wanted that to happen.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 16, 2020) “Coronavirus Legal Advice: Get Your Business and Estate in Order Now.”

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?”