What Should I Know About Being an Executor?

You’re named executor because someone thinks you’d be good at collecting assets, settling debts, filing estate tax returns where necessary, distributing assets and closing the estate.

However, Investopedia’s article from last summer, “5 Surprising Hazards of Being an Executor,” explains that the person named as an executor isn’t required to accept the appointment. Prior to agreeing to act as an executor, you should know some of the hazards that can result, as well as how you can address some of these potential issues, so that being an executor can run smoothly.

  1. Conflicts with Co-Executors. Parents will frequently name more than one adult child as co-executor, so they don’t show favoritism. However, for those who are named, this may not work well because some children may live far way, making it difficult to coordinate the hands-on activities, like securing assets and selling a home. Some adult children may also not have the financial ability to deal with creditors, understand estate tax matters and perform effective accounting to satisfy beneficiaries that things have been properly handled. In addition, multiple executors mean additional paperwork. Instead, see if co-executors can agree to allow only one to serve, and the others will waive their appointment. Another option is for all of the children to decline and allow a bank’s trust department to handle the task. Employing a bank to serve instead of an individual as executor can alleviate conflicts among the children and relieves them from what could be a very difficult job.
  2. Conflicts with Heirs. It’s an executor’s job to gather the estate assets and distribute them according to the deceased person’s wishes. In some cases, heirs will land on a decedent’s home even before the funeral, taking mementos, heirlooms and other valuables. It’s best to secure the home and other assets as quickly as possible. Tell the heirs that this is the law and share information about the decedent’s wishes, which may be described in a will or listed in a separate document. This Letter of Last Instruction isn’t binding on the executor but can be a good guide for asset disbursements.
  3. Time-Consuming Responsibilities. One of the major drawbacks to be an executor is the amount of time it takes to handle responsibilities. For example, imagine the time involved in contacting various government agencies. This can include the Social Security Administration to stop Social Security benefits and, in the case of a surviving spouse, claim the $255 death benefit. However, an executor can permit an estate attorney to handle many of these matters.
  4. Personal Liability Exposure. The executor must pay taxes owed, before disbursing inheritances to heirs. However, if you pay heirs first and don’t have enough funds in the estate’s checking account to pay taxes, you’re personally liable for the taxes. Explain to heirs who are chomping at the bit to receive their inheritances that you’re not allowed to give them their share, until you’ve settled with creditors, the IRS and others with a claim against the estate. You should also be sure that you understand the extent of the funds needed to pay what’s owed.
  5. Out-of-Pocket Expenses. An executor can receive a commission for handling his duties. The amount of the commission is typically determined by the size of the estate (e.g., a percentage of assets). However, with many cases, particularly smaller estates and among families, an executor may waive any commission. You should pay the expenses of the estate from an estate checking account and record all out-of-pocket expenses, because some of these expenses may be reimbursable by the estate.

Being an executor can be a challenge, but somebody must do it. If that person’s you, be sure to know what you’re getting into before you agree to act as an executor.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2019) “5 Surprising Hazards of Being an Executor”

From Gentle Persuasion to a No-Nonsense Approach, Talking About Estate Plans

Sometimes the first attempt is a flop. Imaging this exchange: “So, do you want to talk about what happens when you die?” Answer: “Nope.” That’s what can happen, but it doesn’t have to, says The Wall Street Journal’s recent article “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans.”

Many people have successfully begun this conversation with their aging parents. The gentle persuasion method is deemed to be the most successful. Treating elderly parents as adults, which they are, and asking about their fears and concerns is one way to start. Educating, not lecturing, is a respectful way to move the conversation forward.

Instead of asking a series of rapid-fire questions, provide information. One family assembled a notebook with articles about how to find an estate planning attorney, when people might need a trust, or why naming someone as power of attorney is so important.

Others begin by first talking about less important matters than bank accounts and bequests. Asking a parent for a list of utility companies with the account number, phone number and if they are paying bills online, their password, is an easy entry to thinking about next steps. Sometimes a gentle nudge, is all it takes to unlock the doors.

For some families, a more direct, less gentle approach gets the job done. That includes being willing to tell parents that not having an estate plan or not being willing to talk about their estate plan is going to lead to disaster for everyone. Warn them about taxes or remind them that the state will disburse all of their hard-earned assets, if they don’t have a plan in place.

One son tapped into his father’s strong dislike of paying taxes. He asked a tax attorney to figure out how much the family would have to pay in estate taxes, if there were no estate plan in place. It was an eye-opener, and the father became immediately receptive to sitting down with an estate planning attorney.

A daughter had tried repeatedly to get her father to speak with an estate planning attorney. His response was the same for several decades: he didn’t believe that his estate was big enough to warrant doing any kind of planning. One evening the daughter simply threw up her hands in frustration and told him, “Fine, if your favorite charity is the federal government, do nothing…but if you’d rather benefit the church or a university, do something and make your desires known.”

For months after seeing an estate attorney and putting a plan in place, he repeated the same phrase to her: “I had no idea we were worth so much.”

Between the extremes is a third option: letting someone else handle the conversation. Aging parents may be more receptive to listening to a trusted individual, who is of their same generation. One adult daughter contacted her wealthy mother’s estate planning attorney and financial advisor. The mother would not listen to the daughter, but she did listen to her estate planning attorney and her financial advisor, when they both reminded her that her estate plan had not been reviewed in years.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (December 16, 2019) “Readers Offer Their Advice on Talking to Aging Parents About Estate Plans”

The Many Responsibilities of Inheriting a Home

When you inherit a home, there are three key factors to consider: the financial and legal responsibilities of the home, the tax liabilities of the home and what you’ll eventually do with the home. All of these different things relate to each other, explains Million Acres in “A Guide to What Happens When You Inherit a House.”

Let’s look at taxes first. There’s no federal tax associated with inheriting a house, but some states have inheritance taxes. For most situations, this inheritance does not lead to an immediate tax liability. When a property is inherited, the IRS establishes a fair market value for the property, which is the new basis for the property. This is a step-up basis. It is the valuation that is used to set future taxes, when the property is sold.

Capital gains are a tax relating to the profits generated from selling an asset, in this case, a house. The step up in basis means the heir only has to pay capital gains taxes, if the home is sold. The taxes will be the difference between the fair market value set at the time of the inheritance and the selling price.

If the property has a mortgage, heirs will need to know what type of mortgage it is and if it is assumable or due on sale. Most mortgage companies allow heirs to take over the payments, according to the original loan terms. However, if there is a reverse mortgage on the home, the unpaid balance is due when the person who took out the reverse mortgage dies. This usually requires the heirs to sell the home to settle the debt.

The condition of the inherited home often determines what heirs decide to do with the house. If it hasn’t been maintained and needs major work, it may be easier to sell it as-is, rather than undertake renovations. Heirs are responsible for taxes, insurance and maintenance. However, if the house is in good shape, it may make sense to keep it.

What happens when siblings inherit a house together? That can get complicated, if each person has a different idea about what to do with the house. One may want to sell now for cash, while another may want to rent it out for income. What ultimately happens to the property, may depend on how well the siblings communicate and make decisions together.

Often the best option is to simply sell the home, especially if multiple heirs are involved. Note that there are costs associated with the sale of the house. This includes any outstanding debts, like a mortgage, the cost of fixing up the home to prepare it for sale, closing costs and fees and real estate agent commissions. If there is a profit on the sale of the home from the tax basis at the time of inheritance, the heirs may need to pay short-term or long-term capital gains tax, depending on how long they held the property.

Talk with an estate planning attorney about managing the sale of the family home. They will be able to guide you, advise you about taxes and keep the family moving through the process of settling the estate.

Reference: Million Acres (December 4, 2019) “A Guide to What Happens When You Inherit a House”

How Did Alzheimer’s Impact the Estate Planning of These Famous People?

Forbes’ recent article, “Top 7 Celebrity Estates Impacted By Alzheimer’s Disease” looks at seven celebrity estates that were affected by Alzheimer’s disease.

  1. Rosa Parks. The civil rights icon died at 92 in 2005. She was suffering from Alzheimer’s disease. Legal battles over her estate continue to this day. Her estate plan left her assets to a charitable institution she created. However, her nieces and nephews challenged the validity of her will and trust, due to her mental deficiencies and allegations of undue influence. That claim was settled, but there have been fights over broken deals and leaked secrets, claimed mismanagement of her estate and assets, allegations of bribery and corruption and a battle over Rosa’s missing coat that she wore at the time of her famous arrest at the Alabama bus stop in 1955.
  2. Gene Wilder. Wilder’s widow–his fourth wife, Karen–and his adopted daughter didn’t fight over Gene’s estate after he died, which shows good estate planning. Wilder makes the list because of how his widow used her husband’s struggle—which she kept private while he was alive—to bring attention to the terrible disease, including permitting his Willy Wonka character to be used in a campaign to raise awareness.
  3. Aaron Spelling. The Hollywood producer left behind a reported fortune worth $500 million. His death certificate listed Alzheimer’s disease as a contributing factor. Spelling changed his estate plan just two months before he died, reducing the share to his daughter, actress Tori, and his son, Randy, to $800,000 each.
  4. Etta James. Legendary blues singer Etta James passed away in 2012, at 73. Her family said she had been struggling with Alzheimer’s disease for several years, and her illness ignited an ugly court battle between her husband of more than 40 years and her son from a prior relationship, over the right to make her medical and financial decisions, including control of her $1 million account. Her husband, Artis Mills, alleged that the power of attorney she signed appointing her son as decision-maker was invalid, because she was incompetent when she signed it. Mills sued for control of the money to pay for Etta’s care. After some litigation, Etta’s leukemia was determined to be fatal, which led to a settlement. Mills was granted conservatorship and permitted to control sums up to $350,000 to pay for Etta’s care for the last few months of her life.
  5. Peter Falk. The Lieutenant Columbo actor died at 83 in 2011, after living with Alzheimer’s disease for years. His wife Shera and his adopted daughter Catherine fought in court for conservatorship to make his decisions. Shera argued that she had power of attorney and could already legally make Peter’s decisions for him, which included banning daughter Catherine from visits. The judge granted Shera conservatorship, but ordered a visitation schedule for Catherine. However, a doctor, who testified at the hearing, said that Falk’s memory was so bad that he probably wouldn’t even remember the visits.
  6. Tom Benson. The billionaire owner of the New Orleans Saints and Pelicans was the subject of a lengthy and bitter court battle over control of his professional sports franchises, and hundreds of millions of dollars of other assets. Prior trusts, that he and his late wife established, left the sports franchises and other business interests to his daughter and two grandchildren. One of granddaughters operated the Saints as lead owner, until she was fired by her grandfather. Tom decided to take the controlling stock of the teams out of the trust and substitute other assets in their place, taking over control of the teams. However, his daughter and grandchildren fought the move. A 2015 court ruling declared Benson to be competent, despite allegations he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease. Benson then changed his will and trust and left everything to his third wife, Gayle. They all settled the dispute in 2017, leaving other assets to the daughter and grandchildren—but ultimately leaving Gayle in control of the Saints and Pelicans, after Benson’s death in 2018 at age 90.
  7. Glen Campbell. Campbell’s 2007 estate plan left out three of his adult children. They sued to challenge their disinheritance after he died. They dropped the case in 2018, without receiving a settlement. The fact that Campbell’s final will was drafted several years prior to his Alzheimer’s diagnosis was a critical factor in the outcome of the lawsuit.

The estate planning of these celebrities show the importance of proper estate planning, before it is too late. Wills and trusts that are created or changed after someone is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease, dementia, or similar conditions are more apt to be challenged in court.

Reference: Forbes (November 25, 2019) “Top 7 Celebrity Estates Impacted By Alzheimer’s Disease”

How Do I Reduce My Blended Family Fighting Concerning My Estate Plan?

The IRS recently announced that in 2020, the first $11.58 million of a taxable estate is free from federal estate taxes. Therefore, a vast majority of estates won’t have to pay federal estate taxes. However, a TD Wealth survey at the 53rd Annual Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning found that family conflict was identified as the leading threat to estate planning.

Investment News’ recent article, “Reducing potential family conflicts,” explains that a blended family can result from multiple marriages, children from a current or former marriage, or children involved in multiple marriages. There are more “blended families” in the U.S. than ever before. More fighting over estate planning occurs in blended families.

The key element in any conflict resolution is open and honest communication. It’s especially the case, when it involves a blended family. In many instances, it’s best to explain a proposed estate plan to the family in advance.

If anyone objects, listen to their point of view and try to be empathetic to their position. You may wind up with a compromise, or, if no changes are made, at least the family member had an opportunity to air their grievances.

One potential solution to minimize conflicts within a blended family may be a prenuptial agreement. The agreement is signed prior to the marriage and outlines the financial rights of each spouse, in the event of a divorce or death. Prenups are particularly useful in second marriages, especially when there is a disparity in age and wealth between the parties.

However, not every married couple in a blended family has a prenuptial agreement. Even if they do, blended families can still have family conflicts in estate planning.

It is important to remember communication, reducing the chances of a will contest with a “no-contest” clause, asking your attorney about a revocable living trust and compromise.

Estate planning can be particularly difficult for blended families. Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about the techniques that can help reduce potential family conflicts.

Reference: Investment News (December 9, 2019) “Reducing potential family conflicts”

What Should I Know about Estate and Inheritance Taxes with Property in Two States?

If you’re set to receive your full Social Security benefits next year, you may want to make sure you understand the estate and inheritances taxes of owning property, especially if it’s in more than one state.

Let’s say you own two co-ops in Manhattan and a home in New Jersey. All are all mortgage-free but you have a $69,000 home equity loan on the house. You may wonder if it’s better to continue to live in New Jersey with assets in New York or to move back to New York—or even somewhere else. This decision should be based at least in part on how your assets will be taxed, when you pass away. You also want to think about the beneficiaries of your property.

nj.com’s recent article asks, “Are estate and inheritances taxes worse in New York or New Jersey?” The article explains that estate and inheritance taxes are two different things, and it’s important to understand them.

An estate tax is levied on the estate of the decedent. An inheritance tax is paid by the beneficiary who gets the distribution from the estate. Few states have inheritances taxes. New Jersey abandoned their estate tax effective Jan. 1, 2018. However, New Jersey still has an inheritance tax. It is only applicable to non-Class A beneficiaries, which typically are heirs who are not lineal descendants. Children or grandchildren are Class A beneficiaries, so the inheritance tax would not apply to them.

There’s no inheritance tax in New York. However, the estate tax is imposed on taxable estates in excess of the state exemption. That’s $5.49 million in 2019 and will go up to $5.85 million in 2020. New York estate tax rates begin at 3.06% and increase to 16.0% for taxable estates in excess of $10.1 million.

An estate of a New York non-resident is required to file a New York State estate tax return, if the estate includes any real or tangible property in New York State and the amount of the non-resident’s federal gross estate, plus the amount of any “includable gifts,” is more than the state’s exclusion amount at the time of death. “Includable gifts” are gifts made while the decedent was a New York resident during the preceding three-year period ending on the date of death. These aren’t included in the decedent’s federal gross estate.

In the example above, it looks like New Jersey would be the better domicile in which to claim residency, because no estate or inheritance tax would be due. Depending on the value of the two co-ops in New York, he may owe New York estate tax, if the value exceeds the New York State estate exclusion amount. That’s true whether he’s a New York or New Jersey resident.

Under current New Jersey law, moving to another non-estate tax state, like Florida, won’t help him with any additional estate tax benefit. As always, talk with an estate planning attorney regarding the above specifics and to make certain that your estate plan is complete and follows your goals.

Reference: nj.com (December 4, 2019) “Are estate and inheritances taxes worse in New York or New Jersey?”

How Much Control from the Grave Can Parents Have?

Parents who want to protect their home from being sold by heirs can do so by way of a dynasty trust, but it gets complicated, explains the Santa Cruz Sentinel’s article “Not a good idea to keep home in ‘dynasty trust.’” Every situation is different, so every family considering this strategy should meet with an estate planning attorney to learn if this is a solution or an added complication.

Why would the parents want to make their children’s lives complicated? Perhaps they think the children are likely to end up in a bad situation, and they are attempting to provide a safe landing for what they believe is inevitable. Or they simply cannot manage the idea, that one day the house won’t be part of the family.

The house can be protected from a sale, through the use of a revocable trust. Instead of distributing the home in equal shares among their children, along with all of their other assets, the house can be put in the trust and their trust can continue after their deaths. The trust can include any restrictions they want, with respect to how they want the home to be maintained after their deaths.

They can even put their home into a dynasty trust. Done correctly, a dynasty trust can hold the property for the children, grandchildren and great-grandchildren. However, there are some issues.

First, if the home is held in trust, it means that the trust must be funded, since there will be expenses for the home, including maintenance and upkeep. Unless the home is used as a rental property, there won’t be any income to pay for these expenses. The parents will need to leave a significant amount of assets in the trust, so that big and small items can be paid for, or the children may be charged with paying for the expenses.

Next is the problem of capital gains taxes. When the parents pass, the home receives a stepped-up cost basis. That means that when the property is eventually sold, the amount of capital gains tax and in this case, California income tax due, will be based on the increase of the value of the property since the surviving spouses’ date of death.

If the home is held in trust until all of the siblings have died, the value of the house will likely have increased dramatically. Where is the money to pay the taxes coming from? Will the house need to be sold to pay the tax?

What if one of the children decides to move into the house and lets it get run down? The other two siblings may never receive their inheritance. There are so many different ways that this could lead to an endless series of family disputes.

Keeping a “spare” house may not be realistic. It may force the children to become rental property managers when they don’t want to. It may exhaust their finances. In other words, it may become a family burden, and not a place of refuge.

Talk with an estate planning attorney. It may be far better to distribute the home outright to the children along with other assets and let them decide what the best way forward will be.

Reference: Santa Cruz Sentinel (December 1, 2019) “Not a good idea to keep home in ‘dynasty trust.’”

Share Your Estate Plan Now to Protect Your Family When You Are Gone

If one child will receive more than his siblings, even though his need is obviously greater, will that shared info create fighting between the children? And should children even have advance knowledge that they are going to receive an inheritance? These are some of the questions examined in the article “Disclosing estate plans in advance can save strife later” from The Indiana Lawyer. In most situations, advance discussions between family members are better to ensure family harmony.

Many estate planning attorneys have the “fair does not always mean equal” discussion with their clients. For some families, there is one child who is in dire need, while the others have prospered and don’t really need help. Maybe one child has special needs, or just hasn’t been as successful in life. In other cases, one child has already received substantial property from the parents, so no portion of the estate will be left to them. Regardless of the circumstances, which vary widely, having a frank discussion with all of the children is better than a series of surprises.

Research from the Federal Reserve Board shows that more than half of any given inheritance equals $50,000 or less, and more than 80% of all inheritances are less than $250,000.

With only half of what most people inherit being generally used to invest or pay down debt, most of these inheritances are spent, invested, or donated.

Regardless of the size of the inheritance, most parents expect that the beneficiaries of their estate will protect and preserve their legacy and use the money wisely. That is not always the case. If the parents want heirs to be careful with inheritances, they need to have a plan that will prepare heirs to act as stewards of their inheritances. The plan may be as simple as a series of conversations about saving and investing, or making charitable donations. It might also be complex, like meeting with the parent’s financial advisor and estate planning attorney and discussing wealth transfer and the potential to grow the wealth for another generation.

Families with larger estates often involve their children in annual gifting to get them used to the experience of receiving significant assets and learning how to manage these gifts. This has the added impact of allowing the parents to see how their children will respond to windfalls, which may guide how they distribute wealth in their estate plan. If one child is a repeat spendthrift, for instance, a trust may be a better way to pass the wealth to the child, with a trustee who can determine when they receive assets.

Families who have worked hard to leave their children with an inheritance, regardless of the size, should prepare their children by teaching them, through the parent’s actions, how their values impact their wealth, and how to manage it for themselves and future generations.

Reference: The Indiana Lawyer (October 16, 2019) “Disclosing estate plans in advance can save strife later”

What Do I Need to Know About Owning Property with Someone Other than My Spouse?

Have you ever considered owning property jointly with a family member, friend, or a business associate? Inside Indiana Business’ recent article, “Risky: Property Owned with a Non-Spouse,” says that you should think about the negatives, such as loss of control, unknown creditor issues and tax consequences.

Loss of Control. When you choose to co-own an asset with another person, you can enter into a legal ownership agreement known as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship” or “JTWROS.” When one of the owners dies, the surviving owner automatically becomes sole owner of the property. However, you give up some control of ownership, when you own property in this way. For example, you can’t direct your portion to go to a spouse or a child after your death in your will or other estate planning documents. OK, you can, but your co-owner’s ownership title takes precedence over your estate documents. As a result, she will become the sole owner. You can also lose some control over the property, if the non-spouse co-owner transfers her interest in the property to another individual without your consent. It’s also tough to remove a co-owner from the property title without his or her full cooperation.

Creditors. Another issue with jointly held property is that it’s subject to creditors’ claims against both owners. If your brother, as a co-owner of your cabin, has financial troubles and files for bankruptcy, his ownership in the cabin could possibly be claimed by a creditor. He could also be forced to sell it to pay off his debts. So, unless you can buy out his ownership in the cabin, you may now own the property with a stranger.

Potentially Higher Taxes. Adding a non-spouse as co-owner of an asset, allows for a simple property transfer at your passing. However, it could also mean both a gift tax to you and an increased capital gain tax for your heir. By adding a non-spouse to the property title, you’re making a gift to the new joint owner. Therefore, based on the current value of the property being gifted, you could be liable for gift tax. In addition, the heir of the property may have to pay increased capital gain taxes. Property transferred at death receives a step-up in basis. This means the heir’s cost basis is equal to the fair market value of the property at your death, instead of your cost basis (the amount you paid for the property). Receiving a step-up in basis reduces the heir’s capital gain on the appreciation of the property when it’s sold. However, if you add a co-owner, only your interest in the asset has the benefit of stepped-up basis at your death, not the entire property. When the property is sold, this may mean a higher capital gain tax.

JTWROS vs. Tenants in Common. When deciding to co-own an asset with another person, you can also enter into an ownership agreement known as “tenants in common.” Here’s a key difference: holding property JTWROS with another person means that when one owner dies, the other owner receives the property outright and automatically. When owning property as tenants in common with another person, when one owner dies, the owner’s heirs receive his share in the property. A co-owner can again transfer his interest in the property without approval as the other co-owner. This loss of control may place you in a difficult position.

When considering property ownership with another party, look at the pros and cons of both JTWROS and tenants in common. The cons usually outweigh the pros. However, if owning property with a non-spouse is what you want, discuss this with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Inside Indiana Business (December 1, 2019) “Risky: Property Owned with a Non-Spouse”

Three Decades of Inheritances for Boomers

A report from wealth manager United Income says that about $36 trillion will transfer from one generation to the next over the next 30 years. The pace of bequests has already begun to increase. Americans inherited $427 billion in 2016, the most recent data available, an increase by 119% from 1989—and that’s with an adjustment for inflation.

That’s good news for boomers, says the article “Boomers are Thriving on an ‘Unprecedented’ $9 Trillion Inheritance” from Bloomberg. This unprecedented amount of wealth is equal to nearly two times the size of the U.S.’s GDP and is expected to be gifted to heirs and charities over the next few decades.

The study, which relied upon Federal Reserve and academic data, shows that from 1989 to 2016 American households inherited more than $8.5 trillion. The average age of recipients increased by ten years to 51. Today, more than a quarter of bequests go to adults 61 and older.

That means inheritances are being used for retirement and medical bills, rather than college funds.

Inheritances are part of the wealth gap between generations. Americans younger than age 50 held just 16% of all investable assets in 2016, down from 31% in 1989, according to the Survey of Consumer Finances from the Federal Reserve.

Age inequality is most dramatic, when the oldest and youngest adults are compared. In 1989, the median household age 65-75 held nearly eight times more wealth than families headed by 25-35-year-olds. However, by 2016, the median baby boomer had close to thirteen times more wealth than the typical millennial. These numbers come from an analysis by the St. Louis Federal Reserve Bank.

As more Americans live longer without the safety net of a company-provided pension, the data suggests they are living more frugally to make sure their assets last. As a result, more Americans are dying without spending all their savings.

Reference: Bloomberg (Nov. 19, 2019) “Boomers are Thriving on an ‘Unprecedented’ $9 Trillion Inheritance”

Image of Sigerson Book

Request a No-Cost, No-Obligation Consultation, and Receive a Complimentary Copy of our new book: The Family Estate Planning and Elder Law Guide