Why Is a Will So Important?

A 2020 Gallup poll found that less than half of Americans have a will or have made plans regarding how they would like their money and estate handled in the case of their death. The poll also showed that Americans ages 65 and up are the most likely to have one.

Yahoo News’ recent article entitled “How To Write A Will: The Importance Of A Will And Living Will” says that no matter your age, it’s important to have a will to be in control of what happens with your own assets. A will is a legal document that establishes a person’s wishes regarding the distribution of their assets — money, real estate, etc. — and the care of any minor children.

Without this type of legal document, the state law may control who gets your “probate” assets and when. Having one can save an enormous amount of time and money in estate administration and the process of having a guardian appointed for your minor children, if needed.

There’s a big difference between a will and a living will. A living will is a document that lets you state in advance how you want to be treated under certain medical situations, if you’re unable to make those decisions for yourself at a later time.

These differ by state law. However, they generally cover end-of-life decision-making and treatment options. General medical decisions unrelated to end of life care are typically covered in a health care power of attorney. Some states combine these two documents into one directive.

Unlike a living will, which specifically provides instructions for medical care during your lifetime, it lets you to decide in advance who you want to receive your assets upon your death, and who you want to be in charge of handling the administration of your estate. If you have minor children, it also allows you to nominate a guardian for them.

When creating a will, think about the “what,” the “who” and the “how.” To do so, ask yourself the following questions:

  • What assets do you have?
  • To whom do you want to leave them?
  • Who do you want to be in charge of making sure that happens?
  • Who do you want to be responsible for your minor children?
  • How do you want the assets transferred?

Reference: Yahoo News (Aug. 17, 2022) “How To Write A Will: The Importance Of A Will And Living Will”

Can Unequal Inheritances Be Fair?

Estate planning attorneys aren’t often asked to create estate plans treating heirs unfairly. However, when they do it, it is usually because a parent is estranged from one child and wishes to leave him or her nothing. When it comes to estate planning, equal isn’t the same as fair, explains the article “Are Unequal Inheritances Fair?” from Advisor Perspectives.

An example of this can be seen in the case of a widow with four adult children who asked an estate planning attorney how to approach distributing her assets. Three of her children were high-income earners, already building substantial net worth. A fourth child had mental health issues, limited education, had been in and out of jail and was unable to hold a job.

She understood that her fourth child needed the financial stability the others did not. She wanted to provide some support for him, but knew any money left directly to him would be gone quickly. She was considering leaving money for him in a trust to provide a monthly income stream, but also wanted to be fair to the other three children.

The trust would be the best option. However, there were problems to consider. If the estate were to be divided in four equal parts, the fourth child’s share of the estate would be small, so trustee fees would take a significant amount of the trust. If she left her entire estate for him, it would be more likely he’d have funding for most, if not all, of his adult life.

The worst thing the mother could do was to leave all the funds for the fourth child in a trust without discussing it with the other three siblings. Unequal inheritances can lead to battles between siblings, sometimes bad enough to lead them into a court battle. This is often the case where one child is believed by others to have unduly influenced a parent, when they have inherited all or the lion’s share of the estate.

Sibling fights can occur even when the children know about and understand the need for the unequal distribution. The children may suppress their emotions while the parent is living. However, after the parent dies and the reality sets in, emotions may fire at full throttle. Logically, in this case the three successful siblings may well understand why their troubled sibling needs the funds. However, grief is a powerful emotion and can lead to illogical responses.

In this case, the woman made the decision to leave her estate in equal shares to each child and giving the three successful siblings the options to share part of their inheritance with their brother. She did this by having her estate planning attorney add language in the will stating if any child wanted to disclaim or refuse any of their inheritance, it would pass to a trust set up for the troubled sibling. This gave each child the opportunity to help or not.

Was it a perfect solution? Perhaps not, but it was the best possible solution given the specific circumstances for this family.

Reference: Advisor Perspectives (Aug. 22, 2022) “Are Unequal Inheritances Fair?”

Another Reason Why You Need an Estate Planning Attorney

The saying ‘you don’t know what you don’t know’ is most apt in estate planning. A well-meaning person may create a will with the goal of leaving property to grandchildren, only for the children or their parents to learn after the grandparent’s passing the law does not permit property to be transferred. A recent article titled “The Arcane Law That Could Derail Your Inheritance Plans” from yahoo! entertainment is a good example of the importance of estate planning attorneys to create effective estate plans.

The rule against perpetuities may prevent a property from remaining in the family, if it takes too long for the will’s conditions to be met.

The rule against perpetuities creates a standard for when an interest in land or property must vest. The rule against perpetuities stipulates that a will, estate plan or other legal documents intending to transfer property ownership more than twenty-one years after the death of the primary (decedent) becomes void.

This rule means a person can’t legally guarantee their grandchildren, great-grandchildren or other heirs in the future may retain ownership of the grantor’s property. This may be an obscure law. However, the problem becomes real if and when someone should challenge the will, as this is a legitimate legal argument to be made.

This is an old law dating back to 17th century England, when courts wanted heirs and descendants to be able to buy and sell land without the influence of ancestors who tried to control property over many generations. The United States adopted this law and while many legal authorities see it as being outdated, only some states have drafted modifications or new laws to change it.

In 1986, thirty-one states addressed the problem by drafting a “wait and see” approach, meaning an interest in the property must vest within ninety years of the implementation of a will or life estate. This has alleviated the limit, meaning a will or other transfer of property has nine decades to vest before it becomes void.

If your estate plan includes leaving assets for grandchildren, including real estate property, speak with your estate planning attorney about this admittedly arcane law. If your state is one that has not adopted the “wait and see” approach, you will be glad you prepared.

Reference: yahoo! entertainment (Aug. 20, 2022) “The Arcane Law That Could Derail Your Inheritance Plans”

The Risks of Creating Your Own Estate Plan
Living trust and estate planning form on a desk.

The Risks of Creating Your Own Estate Plan

We call it the brother-in-law syndrome: your brother-in-law knows everything, even though he doesn’t. He tells anyone who’ll listen how much money he’s saved by doing things himself. Sadly, it’s the family who has to make things right after the do-it-yourself estate plan fails. This is the message from a recent article titled “Dangers of Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning” from Coastal Breeze News.

Online estate planning documents are dangerous for what they leave out. An estate plan prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney takes care of the individual while they are living, as well as taking care of distributing assets after they die. Many online forms are available. However, they are often limited to wills, and an estate plan is far more than a last will and testament.

An estate planning attorney knows you need a will, power of attorney, health care power of attorney, a living will and possibly trusts. These are essential protections needed but often overlooked by the do-it-yourselfer.

A Power of Attorney allows you to name a person to manage your personal affairs, if you are incapacitated. It allows your agent to handle your banking, investments, pay bills and take care of your property. There is no one-size-fits-all Power of Attorney. You may wish to give a spouse the power to take over most of your accounts. However, you might also want someone else to be in charge of selling your shares in a business. A Power of Attorney drafted by an estate planning attorney will be created to suit your unique needs. POAs also vary by state, so one purchased online may not be valid in your jurisdiction.

You also need a Health Care Power of Attorney or a Health Care Surrogate. This is a person named to make medical decisions for you, if you are too sick or injured to do so. These documents also vary by state,. There’s no guarantee that a general form will be accepted by a healthcare provider. An estate planning attorney will create a valid document.

A Living Will is, and should be, a very personalized document to reflect your wishes for end-of-life care. Some people don’t want any measures taken to keep them alive if they are in a vegetative state, for instance, while others want to be kept alive as long as there is evidence of brain activity. Using a standard form negates your ability to make your wishes known.

If the Power of Attorney, Health Care Power of Attorney or Living Will documents are not prepared properly, declared invalid or are missing, the family will need to go to court to obtain a guardianship, which is the legal right to make decisions on your behalf. Guardianships are expensive and intrusive. If your incapacity is temporary, you’ll need to undo the guardianship when you are recovered. Otherwise, you have no legal rights to conduct your own life.

DIYers are also fond of setting up property and accounts so they are Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) accounts. This only works if the beneficiaries outlive the original owner. If the beneficiary dies first, then the asset goes to the beneficiary’s children. Many financial institutions won’t actually allow certain accounts to be set up this way.

The other DIY disaster zone: real estate. Putting children on the title as owners with rights of survivorship sounds like a reasonable solution. However, if the children predecease the original owner, their children will be rightful owners. If one grandchild doesn’t want to sell the property and another grandchild does, things can turn ugly and expensive. If heirs of any generation have creditors, liens may be placed on the property and no sale can happen until the liens are satisfied.

With all of these sleight of hand attempts at DIY estate planning comes the end all of all problems: taxes.

When children are added to a title, it is considered a gift and the children’s ownership interest is taxed as if they bought into the property for what the parent spent. When the parent dies and the estate is settled, the children have to pay income taxes on the difference between their basis and what the property sells for. It is better if the children inherit the property, as they’d get a step-up in basis and avoid the income tax problem.

Finally, there’s the business of putting all the assets into one child’s name, with the handshake agreement they’ll do the right thing when the time comes. There’s no legal recourse if the child decides not to share according to the parent’s verbal agreement.

A far easier, less complicated answer is to make an appointment with an estate planning attorney, have the correct documents created properly and walk away when your brother-in-law starts talking.

Reference: Coastal Breeze News (Aug. 4, 2022) “Dangers of Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning”

What’s the Latest with the Queen of Soul’s Estate?

Clearing the Queen of Soul’s tax debts could clear the way for her four sons to finally take over her post-death affairs and fully benefit from revenues flowing into her estate — which could be millions of dollars.

The Detroit Free Press reports in its recent article entitled “Aretha Franklin estate says $7.8 million IRS bill is paid; could spell windfall for sons” reports that Franklin’s tax burden had been an immovable hurdle as her heirs sorted out other estate matters — sometimes combatively — in Oakland County Probate Court following her 2018 death.

The IRS debt prevented the sons from receiving money, even while the late star’s music and movie projects generated big revenue in her name. The remaining tax liability was paid off in June with delivery of a cashier’s check to the IRS.

The IRS said that the singer’s estate had nearly $8 million in unpaid taxes, penalties and interest that had piled up during the previous seven years. The estate at last struck a deal with the IRS in April 2021 with an accelerated payoff schedule that also set up limited but regular payments to Franklin’s sons.

The IRS deal earmarked 45% of incoming Aretha Franklin revenue to pay down the standing tax balance. Another 40% was directed to an escrow account to handle taxes on newly generated income.

With the tax debt now purportedly off its back, the estate contends that most of the incoming cash should get distributed equally among the four sons each month. From that point, income tax obligations would be on each individual. Oakland County (MI) Probate Judge Jennifer Callaghan would have to approve the request.

In the meantime, there’s still the issue of multiple wills that were apparently signed by Franklin. That includes three handwritten documents discovered in her home in 2019.

A fourth will draft suddenly was discovered last year — a typed document prepared by a Troy law firm in 2017 but left unsigned by the star.

The documents contain conflicting instructions about Franklin’s wishes for her estate, including which heirs were to get what, and their emergence exacerbated tensions among sons Clarence, Edward, Teddy and Kecalf.

A trial to clear up the situation was planned for 2020 but was delayed due to the pandemic.

Reference: Detroit Free Press (July 11, 2022) “Aretha Franklin estate says $7.8 million IRS bill is paid; could spell windfall for sons”

Some States Have Tough Estate and Inheritance Taxes

For now, most people don’t have to be scared of federal estate taxes. In 2022, only estates valued at $12.06 million or more for an individual ($24.12 million or more for a married couple) need to pay federal estate taxes. Even better for the very wealthy, there’s no federal inheritance tax for heirs who reside in such lofty economic brackets, notes the recent article titled “States with Scary Death Taxes” from Kiplinger.

By definition, estate taxes are paid by the estate and based on the estate’s overall value, while inheritance taxes are paid by the individual who inherits property, assets, or anything else of value. This isn’t to say “regular people” don’t need to worry about death taxes. We do, because states have their own estate taxes, and a few still have inheritance taxes.

A number of states eliminated estate taxes in the last ten years or so, in an effort to keep retirees from leaving and heading to places like Florida, where there’s no estate tax. However, a dozen states and the District of Columbia still have estate taxes, six states have an inheritance tax and one has both an estate and inheritance tax: Maryland.

Here’s how some state taxes look in 2022:

Connecticut has an estate tax, with an exemption level at $7.1 million. However, there is no inheritance tax. The Nutmeg state is the only state with a gift tax on assets gifted during one’s life.

The District of Columbia has an estate tax, with an exemption level of $4 million.

Hawaii’s estate tax exemption level is $5.49 million., one of the higher state estate tax exclusions, and is not adjusted for inflation.

Illinois’s estate tax is $4 million, but there’s no inheritance tax. It’s known as one of the least taxpayer friendly states in the country for retirees.

Iowa is phasing out inheritance taxes, but this doesn’t take effect until 2025. In the meantime, there’s no estate tax, and if the estate is valued at less than $25,000, there’s no inheritance tax. No taxes are due on property inherited by a lineal ascendent or descendent, but for other family members, the taxes range from 8%—12%.

There’s no estate tax in Kentucky. However, depending upon your relationship to the person who died and the value of the property, the inheritance tax is 4% to 16%.

Maine has an estate tax exemption of $5.87 million, but no inheritance tax.

Maryland’s has both an estate tax exemption of $5 million and a flat 10% inheritance tax.

Massachusetts has no inheritance tax and a $1 million estate tax exemption.

Minnesota has a low estate tax exemption of $3 million. Any taxable gifts made three years prior to death are included.

New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island, Oregon, Vermont and Washington have no inheritance taxes, while Pennsylvania has no estate tax but does have an inheritance tax.

It’s not necessary to move purely to avoid estate or inheritance taxes. An experienced estate planning attorney uses strategic tax planning as part of an estate plan, minimizing tax liability and preserving assets.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 29, 2022) “States with Scary Death Taxes”

What’s the Most Important Step in Farm Succession?

There are countless horror stories about grandchildren in tears, as they watch the family farmland auctioned off because their grandparents had to liquidate assets to satisfy the taxes.  Farm Succession planning is crucial.

Another tale is siblings who were once in business together and now don’t talk to each other after one felt slighted because they didn’t receive the family’s antique tractor.

Ag Web’s recent article entitled “Who Gets What? Take This Important Estate Planning Step” says that no matter where you are in the process, you can always take another step.

First, decide what you’re going to do with your assets. Each farmer operating today needs to be considering what happens, if he or she passes away tonight. Think about what would happen to your spouse or your children, and who will manage the operation.

The asset part is important because you can assign heirs to each or a plan to sell them. From a management perspective, farmers should then reflect on the wishes of your potential heirs.

Children who grew up on the farm will no longer have an interest in it. That’s because they’re successful in business in the city or they just don’t have an interest or the management ability to continue the operation.

After a farmer takes an honest assessment, he or she can look at several options, such as renting out the farmland or enlisting the service of a farmland management company.

Just remember to work out that first decision: What happens to the farm if I’m dead?

Once you work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create this basic framework for your Farm Succession planning, make a habit of reviewing it regularly.

You should, at a minimum, review the plan every two to three years and make changes based on tax or circumstance changes.

Reference: Ag Web (August 1, 2022) “Who Gets What? Take This Important Estate Planning Step”

Who will Receive Naomi Judd’s Estate?

Country music legend Naomi Judd, who died in April, named her husband Larry Strickland as executor of her estate. She was married to Strickland for 33 years. According to court documents, he’ll have “full authority and discretion” over her estate and won’t need to have the “approval of any court” or permission from any beneficiary.

The Los Angeles Times’ recent article entitled “Naomi Judd reportedly left daughters Wynonna and Ashley out of her final will” says that the 76-year-old Judd prepared the will on Nov. 20, 2017.

The will also provides that Strickland is entitled to receive compensation for his executor duties and that he would be reimbursed for legal fees, disbursements and other “reasonable expenses” in the administration of Judd’s estate. Judd‘s brother-in-law, Reginald Strickland, and Wiatr & Associates President Daniel Kris Wiatr will serve as the estate’s co-executors.

Reports say that Wynonna isn’t happy with her mother’s will and “believes she was a major force behind her mother’s success.”

Naomi died from suicide on April 30a day before she and her daughter Wynonna, known as “The Judds,” were to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

The daughters teamed up in their grief to tearfully accept the Hall of Fame honor for their late mother.

Wynonna later decided to tour despite her mother’s death. She enlisted some major stars to join her on the road.

In May, Ashley revealed that her mother had used a firearm and said she found her mother’s body when she was visiting her mom’s Tennessee home.

“Our mother couldn’t hang on to be recognized by her peers. That is the level of catastrophe of what was going on inside of her,” she told ABC’s Diane Sawyer. “Because the barrier between the regard in which they held her couldn’t penetrate into her heart and the lie the disease told her was so convincing.”

The Judds were known for songs including “Why Not Me,” “Love Can Build a Bridge” and “Mama He’s Crazy.”

Reference: Los Angeles Times (Aug. 1, 2022) “Naomi Judd reportedly left daughters Wynonna and Ashley out of her final will”

Did COVID Spark More Estate Planning?

Those who have had a serious bout with the coronavirus (COVID-19) are 66% more likely to have created a will than those who did not get as sick, according to Caring.com’s 2022 Wills and Estate Planning Study.

COVID has accounted for more than one million deaths in the United States thus far.

MSN’s recent article entitled “More Young Adults Are Making This Surprising and Smart Money Move” says that it may be even more surprising that the number of adults in the 18-to-34 age range who now have estate planning documents has jumped 50% in the pandemic era.

Nonetheless, many people of all ages continue to put off the process of creating this key estate planning document.

Two-thirds of Americans still don’t have a will.

Caring.com found that among those who don’t have a will, a third say they think they don’t have enough wealth to warrant one.

However, even if you don’t have an expensive home, a large IRA and other valuable assets to pass on, you can still benefit from creating a will.

There’s no minimum level of wealth needed to have an estate plan, and every adult should have a basic plan in place to care for their own needs and the needs of their family.

The Caring.com survey of more than 2,600 adults found that—you guessed it—good old-fashioned procrastination is the primary reason people don’t create a will. About 40% admit to this factor.

Not surprisingly, the survey also found that those with higher incomes are more likely to put off getting a will due to procrastination.

Those people with lower incomes don’t prioritize a will because they don’t feel they have the assets to justify this important legal document.

Reference: MSN (July 24, 2022) “More Young Adults Are Making This Surprising and Smart Money Move”

What If Your Spouse Refuses Estate Planning?

Blended families are quite common in the U.S.

A married couple may have a small child—but one spouse may also have children from a first marriage. The spouse may be concerned about assets and protecting those older children in estate planning.

A spouse on a second or third marriage may insist on a prenup with the other spouse relinquishing any rights. As compensation, many spouses will purchase life insurance with the other spouse as beneficiary. However, what if this plan never comes to fruition?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “My husband won’t make an estate plan. What can I do?” says that many spouses want to provide for children from a first marriage. However, second marriages can get messy when it comes to estate plans.

Even if the spouse doesn’t help, there are steps a recently married individual can take. One thing is having estate documents prepared by an experienced wills, trusts and estate attorney.

Another is to secure life insurance policies that designate the child or children of the second marriage as beneficiary and naming their mother or father as trustee.

A life insurance policy is a non-probate asset; as such, a beneficiary can receive the proceeds from the policy more quickly than if they had to wait for your estate to be settled through a probate court.

A person in this situation should speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about a will and the life insurance.

A will provides direction for what happens after a person dies and can distribute his or her property to their loved ones, name an executor to handle their affairs, name a guardian for any minor children and specifically state a person’s wishes for family and friends.

It may also be beneficial to look into a trust or other estate planning tools with an attorney to distribute the assets. Exploring these options early in the child’s life in the above example may make a parent feel more prepared for the future, and more secure with the circumstances of the second marriage.

If the spouse tells the other that he or she has an appointment with an estate planning attorney, they just might decide to attend.

Reference: nj.com (March 10, 2022) “My husband won’t make an estate plan. What can I do?”