What are Typical Estate Planning Documents?

For many people, eight documents form the foundation of an estate plan. It’s not that difficult a project as it seems, explains the article “8 Documents That Are Essential to Planning Your Estate” from msn.com. When you’ve completed your estate plan, you’ll also gain the peace of mind of knowing that you’ve done what was needed to protect your family. It’s well worth the effort.

Last will and testament. This is the basic document that gives you the ability to tell your family what you want to happen with your assets. It is used to name an executor—a person who will be in charge of managing your estate. Your will is also where you name a guardian who will be in charge of raising minor children. You can use the will to convey funeral instructions, but you may want to do that in a separate document, in case your will isn’t found right away. Your estate planning attorney will help you figure out the best way to handle that.

What happens if you don’t have a will? In that case, a probate court will determine who will be your executor. It might be a spouse, a grown child, or someone you don’t know or would not want to handle your estate. It’s best to have a will and select your executor yourself. When your estate goes through probate, all of the information in your will becomes part of the public record, so don’t put anything in your will, like passwords or account numbers.

Revocable living trust. Trusts are used to pass assets and property without going through probate. Your estate planning attorney will help create the trust and you’ll decide who will be in charge of it upon your death. You can be the trustee while you are living, but then you lose any estate tax benefits. If you have substantial property or wealth, trusts are a good tool to control assets and save on estate taxes.

Beneficiary designations. Any time you purchase a new insurance policy or a retirement plan, you are asked to name a beneficiary. If your first job came with a retirement plan, you likely also named a beneficiary for that plan. These designations allow the assets to pass directly to the beneficiary upon your death. They aren’t included in your will and they don’t go through probate. The biggest problem with beneficiary designations? Neglecting to update them through the many changes in life. Review and update your beneficiary designations on a regular basis.

Durable power of attorney. This document allows you to name the person to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated because of illness or injury. They can manage your legal and financial affairs. Here’s an important point: if you become incapacitated, you cannot assign this role to someone. It needs to be done when you are legally competent.

Health care power of attorney and living will. The health care power of attorney lets someone else make medical decisions on your behalf, if you are too sick to do so yourself. The living will gives you the opportunity to explain what kind of care you do or do not want if you are close to death. If the idea of staying alive on a heart machine makes you unhappy, for instance, you can document your wishes, so loved ones don’t have to wonder what you want.

Digital assets. Much of our lives are lived online, and we have assets that won’t be found in a search of the attic or basement. Each online platform that you use may have a directive process, where you can clearly state who you want to have access to your digital assets and what you would like to have happen to them upon your death.

A letter of intent. Writing a letter of intent is a way to convey your wishes to loved ones for what you’d like to happen after you die. It may not be legally enforceable, like a will or a trust, but your loved ones will appreciate knowing what you want for funeral planning or a memorial service.

List of important documents. Sparing your family a post-mortem scavenger hunt is a gift to the living. Make a list of documents and make sure they know where important documents can be found. Include a list of routine bills, the professionals you rely on, including contact information and account numbers. Some families use a briefcase to store the important papers, but a fireproof and waterproof safe is more secure.

Reference: msn.com (June 19, 2021) “8 Documents That Are Essential to Planning Your Estate”

Can I Be Sure My Estate Plan Works?

Most estate planning attorneys will tell you that the same mistakes recur with frequency whether the estate is worth a billion dollars, several hundred thousand dollars or anywhere in-between. Of course, the biggest mistake of all, reports the article “7 Steps To Ensure A Successful Estate Plan” from Forbes, is not having an estate plan at all. Having an outdated estate plan can be just as bad.

Everyone should have a complete estate plan and it should be reviewed every few years and revised as life and laws change. The estate plan should include a will, trusts, power of attorney, advance medical directives and other planning elements. However, there’s more to an estate plan success than documents.

Education and communication. If the next generation isn’t prepared for the contents of the estate plan, it’s going to be challenging for them to carry out your wishes. They may mismanage assets, or even lose them to scammers. At any age and stage, people who are not ready for an inheritance may easily go through their entire inheritance and find themselves at a loss for what happened.

One solution is to leave the estate in trusts and limit access. A better solution is to ensure your heirs are prepared and understand how to handle money. Children benefit from their parent’s teaching them about managing, accumulating and donating money.

Prepare for family conflict. Sometimes tensions are out in the open, but other times they hide below the surface until one or both parents die, or learning the details of the estate plan leads to family conflicts. Thinking the children will work things out on their own is asking for trouble. Siblings with very different economic situations or lifestyles respond differently to their parent’s estate plan. Don’t ignore these potential problems. Talk with your estate planning attorney. It’s likely that your estate planning attorney has seen just about every situation and will have good ideas for preserving family harmony.

Plan ahead for gifting. Gifting is often a large part of an estate plan. Gifts are a good way to get the next generation comfortable with inherited wealth. However, don’t just write checks. Create and execute a strategy. Know that cash gifts are definitely spent faster, while property gifts tend to be kept and held for the future.

Make sure you understand the plan. You’d be surprised how many smart and sophisticated people don’t actually understand their own estate plans. Meet with your estate planning attorney on a regular basis and ask questions – and keep asking until you understand everything. Take notes during your meeting, so you can go back and review to see if you have any other questions.

Get organized and prepare. The best estate plan in the world is at risk, if the executor doesn’t know where documents are located. Make sure the information is written down and the person you chose to serve as executor knows where things are. We should all be simplifying our lives and records as we age, both to make our lives easier as the inevitable cognitive decline occurs and to make the settlement process faster.

Create a business succession plan. Most business owners fail to do this. It makes it all but impossible for the next generation to keep the business going. The value of a small business declines rapidly and sometimes evaporates, when there is no plan for succession. If the intent is to sell or pass the business on, a succession plan needs to be prepared, long before it is needed.

Fund trusts. The most common mistake in estate planning is creating trusts and then failing to fund them. If the trust is created but assets are not retitled, the estate plan will fail. Real estate, vehicles, boats and financial accounts that are intended to be put into the trust need to be retitled.

Reference: Forbes (May 27, 2021) “7 Steps To Ensure A Successful Estate Plan”

What Is Benefit of a Roth IRA at the Time of Retirement?

It’s been called the gold medal of retirement accounts, and for good reason. The Roth IRA is an excellent tool for savers who want to make the most of money they’ve already paid taxes on to invest in assets to supercharge their investments, says a recent article from The Motley Fool titled “4 Incredible Benefits of a Roth IRA.”

Here’s how to maximize your use of the Roth IRA:

Gain potentially tax-free income during retirement. This is one of the major attractions of a Roth IRA. As long as your income falls below the limits and you’ve earned income during the year, you may continue to contribute to your account, generating more tax-free growth.

When contributions come directly out of a paycheck or are made by you later, you’ve already paid the taxes on the assets that fund the Roth IRA. The funds grow tax-free, and there’s no taxes on withdrawals.

There are, however, limits to your annual contributions. For 2021, the most you can deposit into a Roth is $6,000 for anyone under age 50 and $7,000 if you are 50 plus. You also can’t contribute more than you’ve earned for the year.

There is no tax or penalty to withdrawing, whenever you want. You don’t want to be careless with your retirement accounts, but the flexibility makes the Roth IRA compelling. Let’s say you contribute $5,000 to your Roth and the market soars. Your investment grows to $7,000. And for whatever reason, you’re a little tight on cash. You can take out the original $5,000, whenever you want, tax free. Withdrawing the earnings in the account would trigger taxes and penalties. But the original $5,000 is yours whenever you need it. One more detail: you can’t put that $5,000 back.

No Required Minimum Distributions. When you are in your 70s, and non-Roth accounts require that you take RMDs, you’ll appreciate this more. RMDs are mandated minimum amounts that must be taken from tax-deferred retirement plans. They are considered income and taxable. Too big a withdrawal could also push you into a higher tax bracket. If you are lucky enough to have multiple sources of income and don’t want to take out the withdrawals, well, too bad. That’s the tax law.

With a Roth, you can leave it in the account as long as you like. As long as you qualify, you’re good to save and let the money grow.

Roth IRAs are Easy to Pass to Heirs. If your estate plan includes leaving a legacy and assets to your beneficiaries, your Roth IRA is a solid choice. With no RMDs, you can let it grow for years or decades, and then leave it to heirs through the use of beneficiary designations.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about how the Roth IRA fits into your overall estate plan and complements the trusts and other tools used to maximize your legacy. If you don’t have an estate plan in place, save your heirs from a legal and financial disaster by making an appointment with an estate planning attorney as soon as possible.

Reference: The Motley Fool (April 24, 2021) “4 Incredible Benefits of a Roth IRA”

Can Estate Taxes Be Avoided with a Trust?

If the federal estate tax exemption is lowered, as is expected, it could go as low as $3 million, reports the article “How Trusts Can Be Used To Counter Tougher Estate Taxes” from Financial Advisor. For Americans who own a home and robust retirement accounts, this change presents an estate planning challenge—but one with several solutions. Trusts, giving and updating estate plans or creating wholly new estate plans should be addressed in the near future.

Not that these topics aren’t challenging for most people. Confronting the future, including death and incapacity, is difficult. Adult children and their parents may find it hard to talk about these matters; emotions, death and money are tough to talk about on their own, but estate planning includes conversations around all three.

Once those hurdles are overcome, an unemotional approach to the business of estate planning can accomplish a great deal, especially when guided by an experienced estate planning attorney. Here are a few suggestions for families to consider.

Estate and gift planning techniques include Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs) and Spousal Limited Access Trusts (SLATs). A SLAT is an irrevocable trust created when one spouse (the donor spouse) makes a gift into a trust to benefit their spouse (the beneficiary spouse), while retaining limited access to the assets at the same time they remove the asset from their combined estate. One spouse is permitted to indirectly benefit, as long as the couple remains married.

The indirect access disappears, if the spouses divorce or if the beneficiary spouse dies before the donor spouse. Be careful about creating SLATs for both spouses; the IRS does not like to see SLATs with the same date of origin and the same amount for both spouses.

The GRAT and sales to an Intentionally Defective Trust (IDGT) are useful tools in a low-interest rate environment. For a GRAT, property is transferred to a trust in exchange for an annual fixed payment. A sale to an IDGT is where property is sold to a trust in exchange for a balloon note.

Gifting is an important part of estate planning at any asset level. For 2020 and 2021, the annual gift-tax exclusion is $15,000 per donor, per recipient. The simple strategy of aggressive lifetime gifting using that $15,000 exclusion is a good way to get money out of a taxable estate.

Protect the estate plan by reviewing it every four or five years, and sooner if there are large changes to the tax law—which is coming soon—and changes in the family’s circumstances.

Thoughtful use of trusts and gifting strategies can avoid the probate of the will and ensure that assets go directly to heirs. Reviewing the estate plan regularly with an eye to changes in tax law will protect the legacy.

Reference: Financial Advisor (April 19, 2021) “How Trusts Can Be Used To Counter Tougher Estate Taxes”

What Paperwork Is Needed after Someone Dies?

Tax return issues, family matters, business associates, partners, trustees, bankers, investment advisors and tax collectors from the IRS to state and local taxing authorities all require attention after someone has died. There is a lot of work, and often a grieving family member finds it helpful to enlist the aid of a professional to lighten the load. A recent article, “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate” from Accounting Web, contains a list of the tasks to be completed.

General administration and legal tasks. At the very earliest, the executor should create a timetable with the known tasks. If you’ve never done this before, there’s no shame in enlisting help from a qualified professional. Be realistic about your familiarity with tax and legal issues and your organizational skills.

Determine with your estate planning attorney whether probate is necessary. Is the estate small enough for your state’s laws to allow you to expedite the process? Some jurisdictions can do this, others do not.

If an estate plan was created and executed properly, many assets may not need to go through probate. Assets like IRAs, joint tenancies, accounts that are POD, or Payable on Death and any assets with named beneficiaries do not require probate.

Gather information about family owners or others who may have a claim to the estate and who may have useful information about the assets. You’ll need to locate and notify heirs of the decedent’s passing.

Others who need to be notified, include charities named in the will. You’ll need to identify prior transfers to charities that were partial transfers, such as Charitable Remainder Trusts. If there is a charitable remainder trust with a retained lifetime income interest, it will need to be in the estate tax return, albeit with an offsetting estate tax charitable deduction.

Locate the important documents, including the will, any correspondence relating to the will, any letters explaining the decedent’s wishes, deeds, trusts, bank and brokerage statements, partnership agreements, prior tax returns, federal and state tax forms and any gift tax returns.

An estate planning attorney will be able to help determine ownership issues, including identifying assets and liabilities. This includes deeds, vehicle titles, club memberships, personal possessions and business assets, including copyrights and patents.

Social Security will need to be notified, as will Medicare, pension administrators, Department of Veteran Affairs, the post office, trustees, and any service providers.

Filing taxes for the last year of the person’s life and their estate tax filing needs to happen on a timely basis. Even if an estate tax return may not be required, it is useful to file to establish date of death values for assets. It is important to resolve income tax statute of limitation issues and any IRS or state examination issues.

Estate administration is a big job, especially if you’ve never done it before. Having the help of an experienced estate lawyer can alleviate much of the worry that comes with settling an estate.

Reference: Accounting Web (March 19, 2021) “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate”

Does a Trust Have to Be Funded to Be Valid?

Thinking you have divided assets equally between children by creating a trust that names all as equal heirs, while placing only one child’s name on other assets is not an equally divided estate plan. Instead, as described in the article “Estate Planning: Fund the trust” from nwi.com, this arrangement is likely to lead to an estate battle.

One father did just that. He set up a trust with explicit instructions to divide everything equally among his heirs. However, only one brother was made a joint owner on his savings and checking accounts and the title of the family home.

Upon his death, ownership of the savings and checking accounts and the home would go directly to the brother. Assets in the trust, if there are any, will be divided equally between the children. That’s probably not what the father had in mind, but legally the other siblings will have no right to the non-trust assets.

This is an example of why creating a trust is only one part of an estate plan. If it is not funded, that is if assets are not retitled, it will not work.

Many estate plans include what is called a “pour-over will” usually executed just after the trust is executed. It is a safety net that “catches” any assets not funded into the trust and transfers them into it. However, this transfer requires probate, and since probate avoidance is a goal of having a trust, it is not the best solution.

The situation as described above is confusing. Why would one brother be a joint owner of assets, if the father means for all of the children to share equally in the inheritance? When the father passes, the brother will own the assets. If the matter went to court, the court would very likely decide that the father’s intention was for the brother to inherit them. Whatever language is in the trust will be immaterial.

If the father’s intention is for the siblings to share the estate equally, the changes need to be made while he is living. The brother’s name needs to come off the accounts and the title to the home, and they all need to be re-titled in the name of the trust. The brother will need to sign off on removing his name. If he does not wish to do so, it’s going to be a legal challenge.

The family needs to address the situation as soon as possible with an experienced estate planning attorney. Even if the brother won’t sign off on changing the names of the assets, as long as the father is living there are options. Once he has passed, the family’s options will be limited. Estate battles can consume a fair amount of the estate’s value and destroy the family’s relationships.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 17, 2021) “Estate Planning: Fund the trust”

What States Make You Pay an Inheritance Tax?

Let’s start with defining “inheritance tax.” The answer depends on the laws of each state, so you’ll need to speak with an estate planning attorney to learn exactly how your inheritance will be taxed, says the article “States with Inheritance Tax” from yahoo! finance. There are six states that still have inheritance taxes: Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

In Iowa, you’ll need to pay an inheritance tax within nine months after the person dies, and the amount will depend upon how you are related to the decedent.

In Kentucky, spouse, parents, children, siblings and half-siblings do not have to pay inheritance taxes. Others need to act within 18 months after death but may be eligible for a 5% discount, if they make the payment within 9 months.

Timeframes are different county-by-county in Maryland, and the Registrar of Wills of the county where the decedent lived, or owned property determines when the taxes are due.

Only a spouse is exempt from inheritance taxes in Nebraska, and it has to be paid with a year of the decedent’s passing.

New Jersey gets very complicated, with a large number of people being exempted, as well as qualified religious institutions and charitable organizations.

In Pennsylvania, rates range from 4.5% to 15%, depending upon the relationship to the decedent. There’s a 5% discount if the tax is paid within three months of the death, otherwise the tax must be paid within nine months of the death.

As you can tell, there are many variations, from who is exempt to how much is paid. Pennsylvania exempts transfers to spouses and charities, but also to children under 21 years old. If one sibling is 20 and the other is 22, the older sibling would have to pay inheritance tax, but the younger sibling does not.

There’s also a difference as to which property is subject to inheritance taxes. In Nebraska, the first $40,000 inherited is exempt. Pennsylvania exempts certain transfers of farmland and agricultural property. All six exempt life insurance proceeds when they are paid to a named beneficiary, but if the policies are paid to the estate in Iowa, the proceeds are subject to inheritance tax.

Note that an inheritance tax is different than an estate tax. Both taxes are paid upon death, but the difference is in who pays the tax. For an inheritance tax, the tax is paid by heirs and the tax rate is determined by the beneficiary’s relationship to the deceased.

Estate tax is paid by the estate itself before any assets are distributed to beneficiaries. Estate taxes are the same, regardless of who the heirs are.

There are twelve states and the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.) that have their own estate taxes (in addition to the federal estate tax). Note that Maryland has an inheritance, state and federal estate taxes. The rest of the states with an estate tax are Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Vermont.

The large variations on estate and inheritance taxes are another reason why it is so important to work with an experienced estate planning lawyer who knows the estate laws in your state.

Reference: yahoo! finance (Jan. 6, 2021) “States with Inheritance Tax”

What Kind of Estate Planning Mistakes Do People Make?
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What Kind of Estate Planning Mistakes Do People Make?

Estate planning for any sized estate is an important responsibility to loved ones. Done correctly, it can help families flourish over generations, control how legacies are distributed and convey values from parents to children to grandchildren. However, a failed estate plan, says a recent article from Suffolk News-Herald titled “Estate planning mistakes to avoid,” can create bitter divisions between family members, become an expensive burden and even add unnecessary stress to a time of intense grief.

Here are some errors to avoid:

This is not the time for do-it-yourself estate planning.

An unexpected example comes from the late Chief Justice Warren Burger. Yes, even justices make mistakes with estate planning! He wrote a 176 word will, which cost his heirs more than $450,000 in estate taxes and fees. A properly prepared will could have saved the family a huge amount of money, time and anxiety.

Don’t neglect to update your will or trust.

Life happens and relationships change. When a new person enters your life, whether by birth, adoption, marriage or other event, your estate planning wishes may change. The same goes for people departing your life. Death and divorce should always trigger an estate plan review.

Don’t be coy with heirs about your estate plan.

Heirs don’t need to know down to the penny what you intend to leave them but be wise enough to convey your purpose and intentions. If you are leaving more money to one child than to another, it would be a great kindness to the children’s relationship, if you explained why you are doing so. If you want your family to remain a family, share your thinking and your goals.

If there are certain possessions you know your family members value, making a list those items and who should get what. This will avoid family squabbles during a difficult time. Often it is not the money, but the sentimental items that cause family fights after a parent dies.

Understand what happens if you are not married to your partner.

Unmarried partners do not receive many of the estate tax breaks or other benefits of the law enjoyed by married couples. Unless you have an estate plan and a valid will in place, your partner will not be protected. Owning property jointly is just one part of an estate plan. Sit down with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect each other. The same applies to planning for incapacity. You will want to have a HIPAA release form and Power of Attorney for Health Care, so you are able to speak with each other’s medical providers.

Don’t neglect to fund a trust once it is created.

It’s easy to create a trust and it’s equally easy to forget to fund the trust. That means retitling assets that have been placed in the trust or adding enough assets to a trust, so it may function as designed. Failing to retitle assets has left many people with estate plans that did not work.

Please don’t be naive about caregivers with designs on your assets or relatives, who appear after long periods of estrangement.

It is not pleasant to consider that people in your life may not be interested in your well-being, but in your finances. However, this must remain front and center during the estate planning process. Elder financial abuse and scams are extremely common. Family members and seemingly devoted caregivers have often been found to have ulterior motives. Be smart enough to recognize when this occurs in your life.

Reference: Suffolk News-Herald (Dec. 15, 2020) “Estate planning mistakes to avoid”