Can I Write a Perfect Will?

The Good Men Project’s recent article entitled “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will” says that writing a perfect will is hard but not impossible. The article provides some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Include Everything. If you have items that are very important to you, make sure they are in the right hands after your death.
  2. Consult an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney. It is a challenge to write a will, especially when you do not know all the legal processes that will take place after your death. An estate planning lawyer can educate you on how your estate is being distributed after your death and how to address specific circumstances.
  3. Name an Executor. An executor will manage and distribute your assets after you die. Select a trustworthy person and be sure it is someone who will respect you and your will.
  4. Name the Beneficiaries. These people will get your assets after you pass away. Name them all and include their full names, so there is no confusion.
  5. Say Where Everything Can Be Found. Your executor should know where all of your property and assets can be found. If there is any safe place where you keep things, add it to your will.
  6. Describe Residual Legacies. This is what remains in your estate, once all the other legacies and bequests are completed. If you fail to do this, it will be a partial intestacy. No matter that the legacies would be distributed according to the will, the intestacy laws will control the residue, which may not be to your liking.
  7. Name Guardians for Your Minor Children. Appoint a guardian to take care of any minor children or the court will appoint their guardians, again this may not be to your liking.
  8. Be Specific. An ambiguous will creates issues for the executor and may require court intervention. Be specific and include heirs’ full names. Account numbers, security boxes and anything of the sort should also be included in your will for easy access.
  9. Keep it Updated. If you experience a major life event, update your will accordingly.
  10. Get Signatures from Witnesses. Once your will is completed, you need witnesses who are at least 18 and are not beneficiaries. Sign and date the will in front of these witnesses, and then ask them to date and sign it too.

If you have any questions about wills, speak to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: The Good Men Project (May 28, 2021) “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will”

Who Receives an Inherited IRA after the Beneficiary Passes?

Which estate would get the IRA when a non-spouse beneficiary inherits an IRA account but dies before the money is put in her name with no contingent beneficiaries can be complicated, says nj.com in the recent article entitled “Who gets this inherited IRA after the beneficiary dies?”

IRAs are usually transferred by a decedent through a beneficiary designation form.

As a review, a designated beneficiary is an individual who inherits an asset like the balance of an IRA after the death of the asset’s owner. The Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act has restricted the rules for designated beneficiaries for required withdrawals from inherited retirement accounts.

Under the SECURE Act, a designated beneficiary is a person named as a beneficiary on a retirement account and who does not fall into one of five categories of individuals classified as an eligible designated beneficiary. The designated beneficiary must be a living person. While estates, most trusts, and charities can inherit retirement assets, they are considered to be a non-designated beneficiary for the purposes of determining required withdrawals.

Provided there is a named beneficiary, and the named beneficiary survived the owner of the IRA account, the named beneficiary inherits the account.

The executor or administrator of the beneficiary’s estate would be entitled to open an inherited IRA for the beneficiary because the beneficiary did not have the opportunity to open it before he or she passed away.

Next is the question of who would inherit the account from the named beneficiary because she died before naming her own beneficiary.

In that instance, the financial institution’s IRA plan documents would determine the beneficiary when no one is named. These rules usually say that it goes to the spouse or the estate of the deceased beneficiary.

Reference: nj.com (June 1, 2021) “Who gets this inherited IRA after the beneficiary dies?”

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”

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”

Tell Me again Why Estate Planning Is So Important

The Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “The Importance of Estate Planning” explains that estate planning is not just for the rich.

If you don’t have a comprehensive estate plan, it could mean headaches for your family left to manage things after you die, and it can be expensive and have long-lasting impact.

Here are four reasons why estate planning is critical, and you need the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Estate plan beneficiaries. Middle-class families must plan in the event something happens to the bread earner. You might be only leaving behind one second home, but if you don’t decide who is to receive it, things might become complicated. The main purpose of estate planning is to allocate heirs to the assets. If you have no estate plan when you die, the court decides who gets the assets.

Protection for minor children. If you have small children, you must prepare for the worst. To be certain that your children receive proper care if they are orphaned, you must name their guardians in your last will. If you don’t, the court will do it!

It can save on taxes. Estate planning can protect your loved ones from the IRS. A critical aspect of estate planning is the process of transferring assets to the heirs to generate the smallest tax burden for them. Estate planning can minimize estate taxes and state inheritance taxes.

Avoid fighting and headaches in the family. No one wants fighting when a loved one dies. There might be siblings who might think they deserve much more than the other children. The other siblings might also believe that they should be given the charge for financial matters, despite the fact that they aren’t good with debts and finances. These types of disagreements can get ugly and lead to court. Estate planning will help in creating individualized plans.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney and see how estate planning can help your specific situation.

Reference: The Legal Reader (May 10, 2021) “The Importance of Estate Planning”

What to Leave In, What to Leave Out with Retirement Assets

Depending on your intentions for retirement accounts, they may need to be managed and used in distinctly different ways to reach the dual goals of enjoying retirement and leaving a legacy. It’s all explained in a helpful article from Kiplinger, “Planning for Retirement Assets in Your Estate Plan”.

Start by identifying goals and dig into the details. Do you want to leave most assets to your children or grandchildren? Has philanthropy always been important for you, and do you plan to leave large contributions to organizations or causes?

This is not a one-and-done matter. If your intentions, beneficiaries, or tax rules change, you’ll need to review everything to make sure your plan still works.

How accounts are titled and how assets will be passed can create efficient tax results or create tax liabilities. This needs to be aligned with your estate plan. Check on beneficiary designations, asset titles and other documents to make sure they all work together.

Review investments and income. If you’ve retired, pensions, annuities, Social Security and other steady sources of income may be supplemented from your taxable investments. Required minimum distributions (RMDs) from tax deferred accounts are also part of the mix. Make sure you have enough income to cover regular and unanticipated medical, long term care or other expenses.

Once your core income has been determined, it may be wise to segregate any excess capital you intend to use for wealth transfer or charitable giving. Without being set apart from other accounts, these assets may not be managed as effectively for taxes and long-term goals.

Establish a plan for taxable assets. Children or individuals can be better off inheriting highly appreciable taxable investment accounts, rather than traditional IRAs. These types of accounts currently qualify for a step-up in cost basis. This step-up allows the beneficiary to sell the appreciated assets they receive as inheritance, without incurring capital gains.

Here’s an example: an heir receives 1,000 shares of a stock with a $20 per share cost basis valued at $120 per share at the time of the owner’s death. They will pay no capital gains taxes on the gain of $100 per share. However, if the same stock was sold while the retiree owner was living, the $100,000 gain in total would have been taxed. The post-death appreciation, if any, on such inherited assets, would be subject to capital gains taxes.

Retirees often try to preserve traditional IRAs and qualified accounts, while spending taxable accounts to take advantage of lower capital gains taxes as they take distributions. However, this sets heirs up for a big tax bill. Another strategy is to convert a portion of those assets to a Roth IRA and pay taxes now, allowing the assets to grow tax free for you and your heirs.

Segregate assets earmarked for charitable donations. If a charity is named as a beneficiary for a traditional IRA, the charity receives the assets tax free and the estate may be eligible for an estate deduction for federal and state estate taxes.

Your estate planning attorney can help you understand how to structure your assets to meet goals for retirement and to create a legacy. Saving your heirs from estate tax bills that could have been avoided with prior planning will add to their memories of you as someone who took care of the family.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 21, 2021) “Planning for Retirement Assets in Your Estate Plan”

If I Buy a House, Should I have an Estate Plan?

There’s been an unprecedented surge in home sales during the pandemic. A recent National Association of Realtors report revealed that since July, existing home sales have increased year over year reaching a pandemic high of over 25% in October. Forbes’s recent article entitled “Pandemic Home Buyers: Have You Set Up Your Estate Plan?” asks the important question: How has this past year’s surge in home sales impacted estate planning?

Estate planning is a way to protect your assets and your loved ones, no matter your age or income level. If you place your home into a trust, you ensure that the ownership of your home will be properly and efficiently transferred to a loved one, if anything happens to you unexpectedly. If your home isn’t included in your estate plan, it will go through probate. However, consider the potential pitfalls of a trust:

  1. Creating a trust, when you really only need a will. If you have less than $150,000 in assets and you don’t own a home, a trust likely isn’t really needed.
  2. Thinking that you automatically have asset protection. A trust can help to avoid probate. So, an irrevocable trust may be the right option for people who really need true asset protection.
  3. Not taking trust administration into account. The trustee must do many tasks when the creator of the trust dies. These aren’t much different from what an executor does, but it can be extra work.

If you already have an estate plan, you should review your estate planning documents every three to five years. Moreover, purchasing a home should also make you revisit your documents. When doing a review, take a look at the terms of the trust. Make certain that you have your house referenced by address and that you transfer the house to your spouse by name.

Most mortgages have a “due on sale” clause. This means if you terminate your ownership of your home, you have to immediately pay back the mortgage proceeds to the bank. If you place your home in a revocable trust, it lets you smoothly transfer ownership to your beneficiary. This prevents the bank from demanding payment, and your beneficiary would keep making the mortgage payments after you’re gone. However, it may be prudent to contact the lender in advance of the transfer, if you want to be sure.

If you bought a home in the pandemic and have not placed it in a trust yet, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney sooner rather than later.

Reference: Forbes (June 2, 2021) “Pandemic Home Buyers: Have You Set Up Your Estate Plan?”

What Happens If an Unmarried Partner Dies?

If you, like so many others, found yourself settling the affairs of a loved one in the last 18 months, you may be well aware of the challenges created when there is no estate plan. The lack of planning can create an enormous headache for loved ones, explains a recent article titled “3 Estate Planning Tips for Same-Sex Couples” from The Street. If this is true for married couples, then it’s even more important for unmarried couples.

Planning for incapacity and death is not fun, but unmarried couples in serious relationships need to plan for the unknown. Even married same-sex couples may face hostility from family members, including will contests and custody battles over children. There are three key issues to address: inheritance, incapacity and end-of-life care and beneficiary designations.

If a partner in an unmarried relationship dies and there is no will, assets belonging to the decedent pass to their family, which could leave their partner with nothing. With no will, the estate is subject to the laws of intestacy. These laws almost always direct the court to distribute the property based on kinship.

A will establishes an unmarried partner’s right to inherit property from the decedent. It is also used to name a guardian for any minor children. Concern about the will being contested by family members is often addressed by the use of trusts. When property is transferred to a trust, it no longer belongs to the individual, but to the trust. A trustee is named to be in charge of the trust. If the surviving partner is the trustee, he or she has access and control of the trust.

A trust helps to avoid probate, as property does not go through probate. A will also only goes into effect after the person who created the will passes away. A revocable living trust is effective as soon as it is established. Trusts allow for more control of assets before and after you pass. The trustee is legally bound to carry out the precise intentions in the trust document.

Establishing a trust is step one—the next step is funding the trust. If the trust is established but not funded, there is no protection from probate for the assets.

Incapacity and end-of-life planning allows you to make decisions about your care, while you are living. Without it, your unmarried partner could be completely shut out of any decision-making process. Here are the documents needed to convey your wishes in an enforceable manner:

Healthcare power of attorney (proxy). This document allows you to name the person you wish to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. You may be very specific about what treatments and care you want—and those you don’t want.

Healthcare directive. The healthcare directive lets you designate your wishes for end-of-life care or any potentially lifesaving treatments. Do you want to be resuscitated, or to have CPR performed?

Durable financial power of attorney. By designating someone in a financial power of attorney, you give that person the right to conduct all financial and legal matters on your behalf. Note that every state has slightly different laws, and the POA must adhere to your state’s guidelines. You may also make the POA as broad or narrow as you wish. It can give someone the power to handle everything on your behalf or confine them to only one part of your financial life.

Beneficiary designations. Almost all tax-deferred retirement accounts and pensions permit a beneficiary to be named to inherit the assets on the death of the original owner. These accounts do not go through probate. Check on each and every retirement account, insurance policies and even bank accounts. Any account with a beneficiary designation should be reviewed every few years to be sure the correct party is named. Estranged ex-spouses have received more than their fair share of happy surprises, when people neglect to update their beneficiaries after divorce.

Some accounts that may not have a clear beneficiary designation may have the option for a Transfer on Death designation, which helps beneficiaries avoid probate.

Review these steps with your estate planning attorney to ensure that your partner and you have made proper plans to protect each other, even without the legal benefits that marriage bestows.

Reference: The Street (June 2, 2021) “3 Estate Planning Tips for Same-Sex Couples”

A Trust can Protect Inheritance from Relatives

It’s always exciting to watch adult children build their lives and select spouses. However, even if we adore the person they love, it’s wise to prepare to protect our children, says a recent article titled “Worried about Your Child’s Inheritance If They Divorce? A Trust Can Be Your Answer” from Kiplinger.

After all, why would you want the assets and money that you accumulated over a lifetime to pass to any ex-spouse, if a divorce happens?

With the current federal estate tax exemptions still historically high (although that may change in the near future), setting up a trust to protect wealth from federal estate taxes isn’t the driving force in many estate plans. The bigger concern is how well your children will do, if and when they receive their inheritance.

Some people recognize that their children are simply not up to the task. They worry about potential divorces, or a spendthrift spouse. The answer is estate planning in general, and more specifically, a well-designed trust. By establishing a trust as part of an estate plan, these assets can be protected.

If an adult child receives an inheritance and commingles it with assets owned jointly with their spouse—like a joint bank account—depending upon the state where they live, the inheritance may become a marital asset and subject to marital property division, if the couple divorces.

If the inheritance remains in a trust account, or if the trust funds are used to pay for assets that are only owned in the child’s name, the inherited wealth can be protected. This permits the child to have assets as a financial cushion, if a divorce should happen.

Placing an inheritance in a trust is often done after a first divorce, when the family learns the hard way how combined assets are treated. Wiser still is to have a trust created when the child marries. In that way, there’s less of a learning curve (not to mention more assets to preserve).

Here are three typical situations:

Minor children. Children who are 18 or younger cannot inherit assets. However, when they reach the age of majority, they can. A sudden and large inheritance is best placed in the hands of a trustee, who can guide them to make smart decisions and has the ability to deny requests that may seem entirely reasonable to an 18-year-old, but ridiculous to a more mature adult.

Newlyweds. Most couples are divinely happy in the early years of a marriage. However, when life becomes more complicated, as it inevitably does, the marriage may be tested and might not work out. Setting up a trust after the couple has been together for five or ten years is an option.

Marriage moves into the middle years. After five or ten years, it’s likely you’ll have a clearer understanding of your child’s spouse and how their marriage is faring. If you have any doubts, talk with an estate planning attorney, and set up a trust for your child.

Estate plans should be reviewed every four or five years, as circumstances, relationships and tax laws change. A periodic review with your estate planning attorney allows you to ensure that your estate plan reflects your wishes.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 16, 2021) “Worried about Your Child’s Inheritance If They Divorce? A Trust Can Be Your Answer”

What Does Tax Proposal Mean for Estate Planning?

The president’s tax plan proposes to nearly double the top tax rate on capital gains and eliminate a tax benefit on appreciated assets, known as the “step-up in basis.”

CNBC’s recent article entitled “Wealthy may face up to 61% tax rate on inherited wealth under Biden plan” reports that the combined tax rate would be the highest in nearly a century.

Some more well-off families could face combined tax rates of as much as 61% on inherited wealth under President Biden’s tax plan.

It is not known if President Biden’s plan can get through Congress, even with changes. Many moderate Democrats are likely to resist his proposal to raise the capital gains rate to 39.6%, as well as the plan to eliminate the step-up. Moreover, just a small number of the wealthiest taxpayers would ever see a rate of 61%. Most of us others would try to avoid this hike with tax and estate planning.

According to analysis by the Tax Foundation, families who own a business or a large amount of stock and want to transfer the assets to heirs could see a dramatic tax change.

For instance, you are an entrepreneur who started a business decades ago, that is now worth $100 million. Under the current tax law, the business would pass to the family without a capital gains tax—the value of the business would be “stepped-up,” or adjusted to its current value and the heirs would only pay a capital gain, if they later sold at a higher valuation. However, under President Biden’s plan, the family would immediately owe a capital gains tax of $42.96 million upon death (capital gains rate of 39.6%, plus the net investment income tax of 3.8%, minus the $1 million exemption).

If the estate tax remains unchanged, the family would also have an estate tax of 40% on the $57.04 million of remaining value of the assets. Including exemptions, the estate tax would amount to $18.13 million.

The combined estate tax and capital gains tax liability would total $61.10 million, reflecting a combined effective tax rate of just over 61% on the original $100 million asset. The rate rises, when including potential state capital gains and estate taxes.

However, experts say that if the step-up is eliminated, Congress would likely eliminate or overhaul the estate tax.

Reference: CNBC (May 3, 2021) “Wealthy may face up to 61% tax rate on inherited wealth under Biden plan”