What are the Biggest Estate Planning Errors to Avoid?

Nobody likes to plan for events like aging, incapacity, or death. However, failing to do so can cause families burdens and grief, thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours.

Fox Business’ recent article, “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid,” says that planning for life’s unexpected events is critical. However, it can often be a hard process to navigate. Let’s look at the top estate planning mistakes to avoid, according to industry experts:

  1. Failing to sign a will (or one that can be located). The biggest mistake is simply not having a will. Estate planning is critically important to protect you, your family and your hard-earned assets—during your lifetime, in the event of your incapacity, and upon your death. We all need estate planning, no matter the amount of assets you have. In addition to having a will, it needs to be findable. The Wall Street Journal says that the biggest estate planning error is simply losing a will. Make sure your family has access to your estate planning documents.
  2. Failing to name and update beneficiaries. An asset with a beneficiary designation supersedes any terms in a will. Review your 401(k), IRA, life insurance, and any other accounts with beneficiaries after any significant life event. If you don’t have the proper beneficiary designations, income tax on retirement accounts may have to be paid sooner. This may lead to increased income tax liability, and the designation of a beneficiary on a life insurance policy can affect whether the proceeds are subject to creditors’ claims.

There’s another mistake that impacts people with minor children, which is naming a guardian for minor children and then naming that person as beneficiary of their life insurance, instead of leaving it to a trust for the child. A minor child can’t receive that money. It also exposes the money to the beneficiary’s creditors and spouse.

  1. Failing to consider powers of attorney for adult children. When your children reach age 18, they’re adults in the eyes of the law. If something unfortunate happens to them, you may be left without any say in their treatment. In the event that an 18-year-old becomes ill or has an accident, a hospital won’t consult with their parents if a power of attorney for health care isn’t in place. Unless a power of attorney for property is signed, a parent may not be able to take care of bills, make investment decisions and pay taxes without the child’s signature. This could create an issue when your child is in college—especially if he or she is attending school abroad. It is very important that when your child turns 18 that you have powers of attorney put into place.

Reference: Fox Business (October 15, 2019) “Here are the top estate planning mistakes to avoid”

What Will New Acts of Congress Mean for Stretch IRAs?
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What Will New Acts of Congress Mean for Stretch IRAs?

The SECURE and RESA acts are currently being considered in Congress. These acts may impact stretch IRAs. A stretch IRA is an estate planning strategy that extends the tax-deferred condition of an inherited IRA, when it is passed to a non-spouse beneficiary. This strategy lets the account continue tax-deferred growth over a long period of time.

If a parent doesn’t need her Required Minimum Distributions, does it make sense to do a gradual Roth IRA conversion and use the RMDs to pay taxes on the conversion? Or should the parent invest the RMDs in a brokerage account?

There are several options in this situation, according to nj.com’s recent article, “With Stretch IRAs on the way out, how can I plan for my children’s inheritance?”

Congress is considering legislation with the SECURE and RESA Acts, that would eliminate the ability of children to create a stretch IRA, one that would let them to stretch distributions from the inherited IRA over their lifetimes.

Under the proposed SECURE and RESA Acts under consideration, the maximum deferral period will be 10 years. If the beneficiary is a minor, the period would be 10 years or age 21.

The best planning strategy for a parent would depend on her overall finances and what she wants for her children’s inheritance.

The conversion to a Roth may be a good planning move, depending on her tax bracket. Putting the money in a brokerage account is also an option.

A parent may also want to think about using the RMD proceeds to purchase a life insurance policy held by an irrevocable trust for the benefit of her children.

It’s best to contact an experienced estate planning attorney, so he or she can review the details of the parent’s finances and help her choose the best options for her situation.

Reference: nj.com (October 15, 2019) “With Stretch IRAs on the way out, how can I plan for my children’s inheritance?”

How Do I Calculate My Executor’s Fee?

An executor’s fee is the amount of money that’s charged by the individual who’s been named or appointed as the executor of the probate estate for handling all of the necessary tasks in the probate administration.

If you’ve been appointed an executor of someone’s estate, you may be entitled to a fee for your services.

The executor or personal representative fee could be based upon a variety of factors. Some of these factors may be dependent upon the law in your state, says nj.com’s recent article, “Both of my parents died. How do I calculate the executor fee?”

In most states, the executor fee is set by statute. For example, in New Jersey, it is 5% of the first $200,000 of assets taken in by the executor, 3.5% of the next $800,000 of assets, and 2% on anything in excess of $1 million. Likewise, California has a sliding scale based on the amount of the estate.

However, in Minnesota and Nebraska, the law states that the fee should be “reasonable.”

The amount of work involved is determined by the specific estate. The executor is generally responsible for collecting the estate assets, paying the debts and taxes (if any) and then giving what’s remaining to the heirs.

If you elect to take the commission, it’s taxable income which must be shown on your personal income tax return.

In New Jersey, if there are co-executors, the statute says that an additional 1% can be included to the commission. However, any one executor cannot receive more than the amount to which a sole executor is entitled.

Note that the executor only receives a commission on what he or she takes control of as executor.

This means that the executor doesn’t get a commission on assets that have beneficiary designations on death or that are jointly owned with right of survivorship. These assets pass outside of the will and the executor doesn’t take possession of these assets.

In many instances, the probate estate of the first spouse to die is less than the second. That’s because many of the assets were held jointly with right of survivorship. As a result, they aren’t probate assets and are not subject to the commission.

If that’s the case, the commission on the first spouse’s estate would be much less than the commission on the second estate.

Reference: nj.com (October 10, 2019) “Both of my parents died. How do I calculate the executor fee?”

How Can Beneficiary Designations Wreck My Estate Plan?

It’s not uncommon for the intent of an individual’s will and trust to be overridden by beneficiary designations that weren’t chosen carefully.

Some people think that naming a beneficiary should be a simple job, and they try to do it themselves. Others don’t want to bother their attorney with what seems like a straightforward issue. A well-intentioned financial advisor could also complete the change of beneficiary form incorrectly.

Beneficiary designations are often used for life insurance and retirement benefits, but more frequently, they’re also being used for brokerage and bank accounts. People trying to avoid probate may name a “payable on death” beneficiary of an account. However, they don’t know that doing this may undermine their existing estate plan. It’s best to consult with your attorney to make certain that your named beneficiaries are consistent with your estate planning documents.

Wealth Advisor’s “7 Ways That Beneficiary Designations Can Mess Up Your Estate Plan” lists seven issues you need to think about, when making your beneficiary designations.

Cash. If your will leaves cash to various people or charities, you need to make certain that sufficient money comes into your estate, so your executor can pay these gifts.

Estate tax liability. If assets do pass outside your estate to a named beneficiary, make certain there will be sufficient money in your estate and trust to pay your estate tax lability. If all your assets pass by beneficiary designation, your executor may not have enough money to pay the estate taxes that may be due at your death.

Protect your tax savings. If you have created trusts for estate tax purposes, make sure that sufficient assets flow into your trusts to maximize the estate tax savings. Designating individuals as beneficiaries instead of your trusts may defeat the purpose of your estate tax planning. If there aren’t enough assets in your trust, the estate tax provisions may not work. As a result, your heirs may eventually end up paying more in taxes.

Accurate records. Be sure the information you have on the change of beneficiary form is accurate. This is particularly important if the beneficiary is a trust—the trust name, trustee information and tax identification number all need to be right.

Spouses as beneficiaries. Many people name their spouse as the primary beneficiary of their life insurance policy, followed by their trust as the secondary beneficiary. However, this may defeat your estate planning, especially if you have children from a first marriage, or if you don’t want your spouse to control the assets. If your trust provides for your surviving spouse on your death, he or she will be taken care of from the trust.

No last minute changes. Some people change their beneficiary designations at the last minute, because they’re nervous about assets flowing into a trust. This could lead to increased estate tax payments and litigation from heirs who were left out.

Qualified accounts. Don’t name a trust as the beneficiary of qualified accounts, like an IRA, without consulting with your attorney. Trusts that receive such qualified money need to contain special provisions for income tax purposes.

Be sure that your beneficiary designations work with your estate planning, rather than against it.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (October 8, 2019) “7 Ways That Beneficiary Designations Can Mess Up Your Estate Plan”

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?”

What Are The Essential Estate Planning Documents?
Two Wills documents with an Estate Tax form.

What Are The Essential Estate Planning Documents?

Forbes’ recent article, “Retirement, Estate Planning: Documents You Should Have,” says that in this time of life, while emotions are running high, it’s critical to be make sure your financial and legal matters are in order.

Putting together a well thought out financial plan and creating an estate plan lets you be certain that personal, financial, and health wishes will be carried out the way you want. Managing your estate, regardless of the size, starts with working with an experienced estate planning attorney who will help give you greater control, privacy and security of your legacy. Here are the documents you need to get started:

Will. This is a legal document that is used to detail your wishes regarding the distribution of your assets and property, as well as the care of any minor children, by naming a guardian in the event your pass away while they’re still young.

Power of Attorney. This is a written authorization that gives a trusted family or friend the authority to act on your behalf in business, legal, and financial matters, if you’re unable to act for yourself due to a mental or physical disability. The requirements are different in each state, so ask your attorney about the right form and language to include.

Health Care Directive. This is also known as a living will. It is another legal document that states your health-care preferences, in case you become incapacitated or unable to speak for yourself. It also allows you to say how you’d like your end-of-life care to be handled.

Information Document. Another important part of your estate plan is a document that contains bank account information, passwords, insurance policies, contact information for attorneys, financial planners and any other significant data regarding your personal estate and final wishes. It’s also called a Letter of Last Instruction that provides this important information to family in the event of an emergency.

Plan for the future, by making certain that your loved ones know and are able to carry out your final wishes.

Reference: Forbes (August 28, 2019) “Retirement, Estate Planning: Documents You Should Have”

Don’t Forget to Update Your Estate Plan

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There are some people who sign their will once in their life and never change it. They may have executed their estate plan late in life, or after they were diagnosed with a serious disease. However, even if your family life and finances are pretty basic, there are still changes in the law that you may need to incorporate into your estate plan.  Some of the people that you named in your will could also have died or moved away.

Forbes’ recent article, “Why You Should Change Your Will Now,” warns us that if you’ve taken the “one and done” approach to your estate plan, think again. In addition to the reasons already mentioned, your assets may have changed dramatically since you signed your will. The plan you put in place years ago, may not have considered new federal and state estate taxes. Now that you’ve accumulated significant wealth that will be passed on to your children, you might need to review your plans for that wealth for your children.

You may want to include grandchildren to help pay for their college education.

It is also not uncommon for parents to want to protect their children from themselves. This can be because of addiction issues or a lack of financial literacy. If that’s an issue, some parents elect to hold monies in trust for adult children, as a way to ensure that the funds will be there throughout the child’s lifetime.

A person’s estate plan should grow with them over time. An estate plan for a twenty-something may be very basic, but a newly-married couple will want to include provisions for their spouse. Parents need to think about providing for and protecting their children. Adult children have another set of concerns and you need prepare for the possibility of divorcing spouses, poor life choices, addiction issues and just poor money management. There are many stages in life when you may need to readjust the provisions for your children in your estate planning documents.

If you haven’t looked at your will in a while, do it now.

Reference: Forbes (August 27, 2019) “Why You Should Change Your Will Now”

Can I Keep a Loved One’s Inheritance From Their Spouse?

A recent nj.com article asks, “How do I protect my niece’s inheritance from her husband?” The article says that in a scenario where someone plans to leave most of her estate to her niece but doesn’t want her estranged husband to get his hands on the money, she must be proactive to make sure the funds go where she intends them to go.

If this happens in New Jersey, the niece’s inheritance will be subject to the New Jersey inheritance tax. The tax is levied based on the relationship of the deceased to the beneficiary. In this case, the niece’s inheritance would be subject to an inheritance tax of 15 to 16%.

This inheritance tax is assessed, because the aunt is a New Jersey resident. It doesn’t matter where the beneficiary resides.

One option is for the aunt to leave the assets to the niece outright or in trust.

The laws in many states, like Missouri, South Carolina, and New Jersey, say that unless the parties otherwise agree, upon divorce there will be equitable distribution of their marital property. Marital property generally doesn’t include the property received by gift or inheritance, as long as that person didn’t co-mingle it with the marital property.

Therefore, the most economical way to transfer property to the niece, is to leave it to her in the testator’s will, with instructions for her to keep it separate and apart from her marital property.

An outright bequest may not be the best way to leave property to the niece, even though it’s probably the most economical method for the aunt.

However, if the aunt leaves the inheritance in trust, she’ll make certain the property isn’t commingled with marital assets.

Further, if the trust is properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney, the income from the trust will likely not be used to decrease any support to which the niece may otherwise be entitled from her spouse, in the event that they divorce down the road. The trust can also protect against other events, by instructing to whom funds should be paid upon the premature death of the niece. That would further prevent her estranged husband from ever being able to make a claim against the funds.

Reference: nj.com (August 21, 2019) “How do I protect my niece’s inheritance from her husband?”

What Happens when Both Spouses Die at the Same Time?

There are any number of ways a person can inherit assets from another person. They may inherit assets from a trust, through a will or as a designated beneficiary of an insurance policy or retirement account. However, in each case, says Lake Country News in the article “Simultaneous and close together deaths,” the person inheriting the asset is living, while the person they inherited from has died.

What happens if spouses die either at the same exact time, or at a time that is very close to each other? The answer, as with so many estate planning questions, is that it depends.

The first question is, did both decedents have estate planning documents in place. If so, what directions do the wills give? Are there trusts, and if so, who are the trustees? If they served as trustees for each other’s trusts, did they name a secondary trustee?

If assets were owned as joint tenancy with right of survivorship, the estate of each deceased tenant receives an equal share of the asset, unless it can be proven that a joint tenant survived the other.

Here’s an example: if a parent dies without a will, is survived by two children, but one of the two children dies only four days after the parent’s death, i.e., fewer than 120 hours, in California, the law presumes that the deceased child did not survive the mother. The sole surviving child’s estate receives the entire parent’s intestate estate.

A beneficiary who survives long enough to inherit, however, might die before receiving complete distribution of his or her inheritance.

A trust may provide for distributions to alternative beneficiaries. This is another reason why it is wise to have primary and secondary beneficiaries on all accounts that permit secondary beneficiaries. Not all accounts permit this.

Similarly, a trust may provide for distribution to alternative beneficiaries. Otherwise, unless there has been advance planning, the undistributed inheritance becomes part of the deceased beneficiary’s estate, where it will be distributed either according to the beneficiary’s will, or according to the laws of intestacy of the decedent’s state of residence.

All of these instances are further reasons why it is so important for everyone to have a will and other estate planning documents prepared.

A probate of the beneficiary’s estate may be required, as a result of an undistributed inheritance.

The legal and factual analysis associated with the distribution of a couple who die at the same time or in close proximity to each other varies from case to case. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to have an estate plan prepared to avoid your family having to unravel the knotty mess that is created when there is no will, and no estate planning has been done.

Reference: Lake Country News (Aug. 10, 2019) “Simultaneous and close together deaths”

 

Can a Trust Be Amended?

A son has contacted an elder law estate planning attorney now that mom is in a nursing home and he’s unsure about many of the planning issues, as reported by the Daily Republic. The article, “Amending trust easier if parents can make informed decision,” describes the family’s situation.

There is one point to consider from the start. If the son been involved in the planning from the start, in a family meeting with the attorney and discussions with his parents, he might have less uncertainty about the plan and the details.

As for the details: the parents are in their 90s, with some savings, a few annuities, a CD and a checking account. They also have five acres of land, which has their home and a duplex on it and 12 additional acres, with a rental property on it. Everything they own has been placed in a family trust. The son wants to be able to pay her bills and was told that he needs to have a power of attorney and to be named trustee to their trust.

He reports that his parents are good with this idea, but he has a number of concerns. If they are sued, will he be personally liable? Would the power of attorney give him the ability to handle their finances and the real estate in the trust?

If his parents have a revocable or living trust, there are provisions that allow one or more persons to become the successor trustees, in the event that the parent becomes incapacitated or dies.

What happens when they die, as they each leave each other their share of the assets? The son would become the trustee, when the last parent passes.

Usually the power of attorney is created when the trust is created, so that someone has the ability to take control of finances for the person. See if the trust has any of these provisions—the son may already be legally positioned to act on his parents’ behalf. The trust should also show whether the successor trustee would be empowered to sell the real estate.

Trusts can be drafted in any way the client wants it written, and the successor trustee receives only the powers that are given in the document.

As for the liability, the trustee is not liable to a buyer during the sale of a property. There are exceptions, so he would need to speak with an estate planning attorney to help with the sale.

More specifically, assuming the trust does not name the son as a successor trustee and also does not give the son power of attorney, the bigger question is are the parents mentally competent to make important decisions about these documents?

Given the age of these parents, an attorney will be concerned, rightfully so, about their competency and if they can freely make an informed decision, or if the son might be exercising improper influence on them to turn over their assets to him.

There are a few different steps that can be taken. One is for the son, if he believes that his parents are mentally competent, to make an appointment for them with an estate planning attorney, without the son being present in the meeting, in order to determine their capacity and wishes. If the attorney is not sure about the influence of the son, he or she may want to refer the parents for a second opinion with another attorney.

If the parents are found not competent, then the son may need to become their conservator, which requires a court proceeding.

Planning in advance and discussing these issues are best done with an experienced estate planning attorney, long before the issues become more complicated and expensive to deal with.

Reference: Daily Republic (Aug. 10, 2019) “Amending trust easier if parents can make informed decision”

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