What Assets are Not Considered Part of an Estate?

In many families, more assets pass outside the Last Will than through the Last Will. Think about non-probate assets: life insurance proceeds, investment accounts, jointly titled real estate assets, assuming they were titled as joint tenants with right of survivorship, and the like. These often add up to considerable sums, often more than the probate estate.

This is why a recent article from The Mercury titled “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets” strongly urges readers to pay close attention to accounts transferred by beneficiary.

Most retirement accounts like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s and others pass by beneficiary designation and not through the Last Will. Banks and investment accounts designated as Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) also do not pass through probate, but to the other person named on the account. Any property owned by a trust does not go through probate, one of the reasons it is placed in the trust.

Why is it important to know whether assets pass through probate or by beneficiary designation? Here’s an example. A man was promised half of this father’s estate. His dad had remarried, and the son didn’t know what estate plans had been made, if any, with the new spouse. When the father passed, the man received a single check for several thousand dollars. He knew his father’s estate was worth considerably more.

What is most likely to have happened is simple. The father probably retitled the house with his new spouse as tenants by the entireties–making it a non-probate asset. He probably retitled bank accounts with his new spouse. And if the father had a new Last Will created, he likely gave 50% to the son and 50% to the new spouse. The father’s car may have been the only asset not jointly owned with his new spouse.

A parent can also accidently disinherit an heir, if all of their non-probate assets are in one child’s name and no provision for the non-probate assets has been made for any other children. An estate planning attorney can work with the parents to find a way to make inheritances equal, if the intention is for all of the children to receive an equal share. One way to accomplish this would be to give the other children a larger share of probated assets.

Any division of inheritance should bear in mind the tax liability of assets. Non-probate does not always mean non-taxed. Depending upon the state of residence for the decedent and the heirs, there may be estate or inheritance tax on the assets.

Placing assets in an irrevocable trust is a commonly used estate planning method to ensure inheritances are received by the intended parties. The trust allows you to give very specific instructions about who gets what. Assets in the trust are outside of the probate estate, since the trust is not owned by the grantor.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to review probate and non-probate assets to determine the best way to achieve your wishes for your distribution of assets.

Reference: The Mercury (April 12, 2022) “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets”

Is Bitcoin Part of an Estate?

Few bitcoin owners have seriously considered what will happen to their bitcoin when they die. A recent article titled “The Importance of Having an Estate Plan for Your Bitcoin” from Bitcoin Magazine, strongly urges owners to create a legally sound plan of action ensuring both the sovereignty and privacy of these holdings. However, many owners don’t expect to die very soon, and even those who have an estate plan haven’t considered the nuances of estate planning for digital assets. Among all digital assets, there’s no asset requiring more planning for custody and conveyance as bitcoin.

Can you use an irrevocable trust for bitcoin? This type of trust is an excellent tool for your estate plan and beneficiaries. However, for bitcoin, a revocable trust may be the better alternative. The revocable trust does not protect your assets from creditors, but it provides complete control to the grantor, the person creating the trust.

Bitcoin cannot be treated like dollars in your estate plan. If your crypto is held on an exchange like Coinbase or Gemini, your executor may not have as much of a battle to uncover and access your money. However, what if they are not? Would your executor know what to do with the seed phrases buried in the backyard, or “how to interpret BIP39 punched into steel?” These are things known only to bitcoin owners.

Digital asset estate planning requires a level of technical competence and understanding.

Most states have adopted the Revised Uniform Fiduciary Access to Digital Assets Act (RUFADAA) or plan to in the near future. RUFADAA, in most instances, empowers the executor of your estate with the authority to request access to most digital assets, taking into account your privacy interests and the terms of service agreements with big tech companies. However, when it comes to decentralized money like bitcoin, RUFADAA will be of little use.

In many cases, a living or revocable trust is the best choice. This will allow you to maintain access to your assets in the same way you do while living, but if the unexpected occurs, like death or incapacity, the assets won’t be lost, forgotten or misused.

With a revocable trust, you may act as the trustee of your digital assets. As both the grantor and trustee, you can make as many changes as you want to the trust. The property is not protected from creditors and does not receive any special tax treatment while you are living. However, the revocable living trust can be created to convey bitcoin to your heirs without limiting your own use of the assets while you are living.

How you store bitcoin during your lifetime is your choice. Many use a non-custodial cold storage solution, which provides great privacy but requires technical competency to manage. The bitcoin you wish to pass to your heirs needs to be documented correctly legally and technically. Talk with your estate planning attorney to be sure your digital assets are as protected as your traditional assets.

Reference: Bitcoin Magazine (April 17, 2022) “The Importance of Having an Estate Plan for Your Bitcoin”

Do Single People Need Estate Planning?

In evaluating your needs for estate planning, look at what might happen if you die intestate – that is, without a last will and testament. Your assets will likely have to go through the probate process, which means they’ll be distributed by the court according to the state intestate succession laws, says Hood County News’ recent article entitled “Even ‘singles’ need estate plans.”

Even if you do not have children, you may have a few nephews or nieces—or children of cousins or friends— to whom you would like to leave some of your assets. This can include automobiles, collectibles and family memorabilia. However, if everything you own goes through probate, there is no guarantee that these individuals will end up with what you wanted them to have.

If you want to leave something to family members or close friends, you will need to say this in your will. However, you also may want to provide support to one or more charitable organizations. You can just name these charities in your will. However, there may be options that could provide you with more benefits.

One option is a charitable remainder trust. With this option, you would transfer appreciated assets – such as stocks, mutual funds or other securities – into an irrevocable trust. The trustee, whom you have named (note that you could serve as trustee yourself) can then sell the assets at full market value, avoiding the capital gains taxes you would have to pay if you sold them yourself, outside a trust. If you itemize, you may be able to claim a charitable deduction on your taxes. The trust can purchase income-producing assets with the proceeds and provide you with an income stream for the rest of your life. At your death, the remaining trust assets will pass to the charities you have named.

There is also a third entity that is part of your estate plans: you. Everyone should make arrangements to protect their interests. However, without an immediate family, you need to be especially mindful of your financial and health care decisions. That is why, as part of your estate planning, you may want to include these two documents: durable power of attorney and a health care proxy.

A durable power of attorney allows you to name a person to manage your finances, if you become incapacitated. This is especially important for anyone who does not have a spouse. If you become incapacitated, your health care proxy (health care surrogate or medical power of attorney) lets you name another person to legally make health care decisions for you, if you cannot do so yourself.

Reference: Hood County News (Dec. 17, 2021) “Even ‘singles’ need estate plans”

Do You Need a Revocable or an Irrevocable Trust?

Many seniors planning for the future may want to place their home in a trust for their children.

This is especially true if the house is paid off, and free and clear of a mortgage.

However, what would happen if the home were placed in a trust and the senior then decides to sell it?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I sell my house after I put it in a trust?” explains that there are two primary types of trusts: revocable and irrevocable. In this situation, placing the home in a revocable trust may be a wise option.

The assets in a revocable trust avoid probate but stay in the grantor’s control. That is because you can always change the terms of the trust or terminate the trust. With a revocable trust, the terms can be altered or canceled dependent on the grantor (also known as the trustmaker, settlor, or trustor) of the trust.

During the life of the trust, income earned is given to the grantor, and only after death does property transfer to the beneficiaries.

A grantor can be the trustee. In that way, the grantor is still able to live in the home and sell it and dispose of it as they want upon death.

Assets in a revocable trust are available to creditors and are subject to estate taxes upon death.

In contrast, an irrevocable trust cannot be changed or altered once it is established. In fact, the trust itself becomes a legal entity that owns the assets placed in it.

Because the grantor no longer controls those assets, there are certain tax advantages and creditor protections.

An irrevocable trust is best used for transferring high-value assets that could cause gift or estate tax issues in the future.

Trust are very complicated, so in any situation consult with an experienced estate planning attorney about whether to use a trust and to make certain that you create the best trust for your specific situation.

Reference: nj.com (Feb. 25, 2022) “Can I sell my house after I put it in a trust?”

What Can a Trust Do for Me and My Family?

A trust is defined as a legal contract that lets an individual or entity (the trustee) hold assets on behalf of another person (the beneficiary). The assets in the trust can be cash, investments, physical assets like real estate, business interests and digital assets. There is no minimum amount of money needed to establish a trust.

US News’ recent article entitled “Trusts Explained” explains that trusts can be structured in a number of ways to instruct the way in which the assets are handled both during and after your lifetime. Trusts can reduce estate taxes and provide many other benefits.

Placing assets in a trust lets you know that they will be managed through your instructions, even if you’re unable to manage them yourself. Trusts also bypass the probate process. This lets your heirs get the trust assets faster than if they were transferred through a will.

The two main types of trusts are revocable (known as “living trusts”) and irrevocable trusts. A revocable trust allows the grantor to change the terms of the trust or dissolve the trust at any time. Revocable trusts avoid probate, but the assets in them are generally still considered part of your estate. That is because you retain control over them during your lifetime.

To totally remove the assets from your estate, you need an irrevocable trust. An irrevocable trust cannot be altered by the grantor after it’s been created. Therefore, if you’re the grantor, you can’t change the terms of the trust, such as the beneficiaries, or dissolve the trust after it has been established.

You also lose control over the assets you put into an irrevocable trust.

Trusts give you more say about your assets than a will does. With a trust, you can set more particular terms as to when your beneficiaries receive those assets. Another type of trust is created under a last will and testament and is known as a testamentary trust. Although the last will must be probated to create the testamentary trust, this trust can protect an inheritance from and for your heirs as you design.

Trusts are not a do-it-yourself proposition: ask for the expertise of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: US News (Feb. 7, 2022) “Trusts Explained”

Should I Place My Home in a Trust?

Just like you protect your finances from debt or use home security to protect your belongings, estate planning with a living trust can be a way to provide your loved ones with a legacy and inheritance, says Yahoo Life’s recent article entitled “Why You Should Put Your House in a Living Trust.”

It’s important to know what will happen to your house, if you and/or a co-owner were to die. Even if your will gives your house to your children, the transfer can be delayed due to the rules of probate law. If you’re in an LGBTQ+ family or have special needs, there are also frequently special circumstances to consider and for which to plan when crafting your estate plan.

Similar to a will, a living trust is a legal document that can be a vital tool for planning and distributing your assets to your heirs. A living trust is active when it’s created and assigns a trustee to manage certain assets—such as your house—on behalf of the future beneficiary.

A trust can be either revocable or irrevocable. Revocable means you can modify the terms or control of the assets in the trust at any time. While this gives you flexibility, the trust assets will count as part of your estate when you die. An irrevocable trust allows your assets to no longer be counted as part of your estate. However, you have little control of the trust and the assets in it. The type of trust you use depends on your circumstances.

A will only becomes active after you die and must undergo probate. Trusts don’t need to go through probate and can’t be contested.

If you’re worried about leaving assets to young children or family members who aren’t good with money, you can structure your trust so that a responsible third party will manage the trust assets responsibly.

Depending on the type of trust you create, you can give protection creditor protection or protection in the event of a divorce. You can also place restrictions on the sale of your home—at least for a period of time.

Note that state laws differ on what creditor protection is available to a homeowner as to their home. Some states protect the debtor’s home from creditors outright, and some allow a home to be protected from creditors, if the debtor’s home is titled with a spouse (the spouse’s name is also on the home’s title) and the spouse is alive after the debtor’s death.

Reference: Yahoo Life (Jan. 10, 2022) “Why You Should Put Your House in a Living Trust”

Why Should I Name a Beneficiary?
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Why Should I Name a Beneficiary?

For five years, Lewis, who was also trustee of the trust, distributed funds to Vivian, his daughter in law. However, shortly after Lewis passed away, Clark and Vivian divorced. Clark married Sophia, and the problems began, according to the article “Which spouse gets the benefit?” from Glen Rose Reporter.

As a successor trustee, Clark started making the annual distributions from the trust to his new spouse, Sophia, who was his beneficiary. Vivian filed suit, claiming these funds were intended for her. However, the trust directions only said, “his son’s spouse.” Did the phrase mean a particular person or the person who was Clark’s spouse? What did Lewis want to happen to the funds? For obvious reasons, his wishes could not be determined.

This fact pattern is from a real case, Ochse v. Ochse, filed in San Antonio, Texas. The trial court determined that Lewis’ wish was to benefit his son’s ex-spouse, who was his daughter-in-law when the trust was confirmed. An appellate court affirmed the decision.

Was the length of the first marriage part of the court’s decision? Clark had been married to Vivian for thirty years, which is likely to have been a part of the father’s decision. Clark had only been married to his second wife for seven years.

What if the father was alive and able to declare his intentions? It might not have made a difference. The court in this case found the term “son’s spouse” to unambiguously mean the spouse at the time the trust was created.

When a term is found to be unambiguous, there’s no evidence to question its meaning. So even if Lewis were alive and well, the court would not have let his intention be heard.

This kind of situation is seen often when a life insurance policy is left to a first spouse, the couple divorces and the beneficiary on the policy was never updated. Most of the time, the ex-spouse receives the proceeds from the life insurance.

In the case of Ochse v. Ochse, the matter would have been simplified if Lewis had named his daughter-in-law by name as the beneficiary of the trust. Clark might still have tried to change the terms, but it would have been clear who the intended beneficiary was.

No one likes to imagine their children divorcing, especially when the parents have a good relationship with the daughter or son-in-law. However, this needs to be taken into consideration when naming beneficiaries. If you adore your daughter-in-law and want her to receive an inheritance from you, then make sure to name her as a beneficiary. If you are concerned the marriage may not last, talk with an estate planning attorney about creating a trust to protect inheritances from being lost in a divorce.

Reference: Glen Rose Reporter (Dec. 17, 2021) “Which spouse gets the benefit?”

Where Do You Score on Estate Planning Checklist?

Make sure that you review your estate plan at least once every few years to be certain that all the information is accurate and updated. It’s even more necessary if you experienced a significant change, such as marriage, divorce, children, a move, or a new child or grandchild. If laws have changed, or if your wishes have changed and you need to make substantial changes to the documents, you should visit an experienced estate planning attorney.

Kiplinger’s recent article “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?” gives us a few things to keep in mind when updating your estate plan:

Moving to Another State. Note that if you’ve recently moved to a new state, the estate laws vary in different states. Therefore, it’s wise to review your estate plan to make sure it complies with local laws and regulations.

Changes in Probate or Tax Laws. Review your estate plan with an experienced estate planning attorney to see if it’s been impacted by changes to any state or federal laws.

Powers of Attorney. A power of attorney is a document in which you authorize an agent to act on your behalf to make business, personal, legal, or financial decisions, if you become incapacitated.  It must be accurate and up to date. You should also review and update your health care power of attorney. Make your wishes clear about do-not-resuscitate (DNR) provisions and tell your health care providers about your decisions. It is also important to affirm any clearly expressed wishes as to your end-of-life treatment options.

A Will. Review the details of your will, including your executor, the allocation of your estate and the potential estate tax burden. If you have minor children, you should also designate guardians for them.

Trusts. If you have a revocable living trust, look at the trustee and successor appointments. You should also check your estate and inheritance tax burden with an estate planning attorney. If you have an irrevocable trust, confirm that the trustee properly carries out the trustee duties like administration, management and annual tax returns.

Gifting Opportunities. The laws concerning gifts can change over time, so you should review any gifts and update them accordingly. You may also want to change specific gifts or recipients.

Regularly updating your estate plan can help you to avoid simple estate planning mistakes. You can also ensure that your estate plan is entirely up to date and in compliance with any state and federal laws.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 28, 2021) “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?”

What Kind of Trust Is Right for You?

Everyone wins when estate planning attorneys, financial advisors and accounting professionals work together on a comprehensive estate plan. Each of these professionals can provide their insights when helping you make decisions in their area. Guiding you to the best possible options tends to happen when everyone is on the same page, says a recent article “Choosing Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts” from U.S. News & World Report.

What is a trust and what do trusts accomplish? Trusts are not just for the wealthy. Many families use trusts to serve different goals, from controlling distributions of assets over generations to protecting family wealth from estate and inheritance taxes.

There are two basic kinds of trust. There are also many specialized trusts in each of the two categories: the revocable trust and the irrevocable trust. The first can be revoked or changed by the trust’s creator, known as the “grantor.” The second is difficult and in some instances and impossible to change, without the complete consent of the trust’s beneficiaries.

There are pros and cons for each type of trust.

Let’s start with the revocable trust, which is also referred to as a living trust. The grantor can make changes to the trust at any time, from removing assets or beneficiaries to shutting down the trust entirely. When the grantor dies, the trust becomes irrevocable. Revocable trusts are often used to pass assets to adult children, with a trustee named to manage the trust’s assets until the trust documents direct the trustee to distribute assets. Some people use a revocable trust to prevent their children from accessing wealth too early in their lives, or to protect assets from spendthrift children with creditor problems.

Irrevocable trusts are just as they sound: they can’t be amended once established. The terms of the trust cannot be changed, and the grantor gives up any control or legal right to the assets, which are owned by the trust.

Giving up control comes with the benefit that assets placed in the trust are no longer part of the grantor’s estate and are not subject to estate taxes. Creditors, including nursing homes and Medicaid, are also prevented from accessing assets in an irrevocable trust.

Irrevocable trusts were once used by people in high-risk professions to protect their assets from lawsuits. Irrevocable trusts are used to divest assets from estates, so people can become eligible for Medicaid or veteran benefits.

The revocable trust protects the grantor’s wishes, if the grantor becomes incapacitated. It also avoids probate, since the trust becomes irrevocable upon death and assets are outside of the probated estate. The revocable trust may include qualified assets, like IRAs, 401(k)s and 403(b)s.

However, there are drawbacks. The revocable trust does not provide tax benefits or creditor protection while the grantor is living.

Your estate planning attorney will know which type of trust is best for your situation, and working with your financial advisor and accountant, will be able to create the plan that minimizes taxes and maximizes wealth transfers for your heirs.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Aug. 26, 2021) “Choosing Between Revocable and Irrevocable Trusts”

How Do I Sell a Home in an Irrevocable Trust?
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How Do I Sell a Home in an Irrevocable Trust?

A trustee who sells a home in irrevocable trust for a parent who died should know that generally, assets transferred to an irrevocable trust will be deemed a completed gift and will not be included in an estate for estate tax purposes.

Lehigh Valley Live’s recent article entitled “What happens to tax on a home sold from a trust?” explains that this means there wouldn’t be a step-up in basis to the fair market value upon the decedent’s death.

Remember that an irrevocable trust is a type of trust in which its terms can’t be modified, amended, or terminated without the permission of the grantor’s named beneficiary or beneficiaries.

Irrevocable trusts have tax-shelter benefits that revocable trusts to don’t.

However, an irrevocable trust can be created so that the settlor (the creator) of the trust keeps certain rights and powers, so that gifts to the trust are incomplete.

In that instance, the assets are included in the settlor’s estate upon death and obtain a step-up in basis upon the decedent’s death.

If the trust sells the asset in the trust, the trust may need to file Form 1041, U.S. Income Tax Return for Estates and Trusts, and the trust may be required to pay a tax.

If the trust distributes any income to the beneficiaries in the same tax year it receives that income, the income is passed through to the beneficiaries, and the beneficiaries must report it on the beneficiaries’ individual tax returns (Form 1040) and pay any tax due.

It’s generally a good idea to report and pay tax at the individual rate instead of at the trust or estate level.

That’s because the trust or estate will begin to pay tax at the highest rate at only $13,150. In comparison, an individual doesn’t pay tax at the highest rate until his or her income exceeds over $440,000.

Note that an irrevocable trust is a more complex legal arrangement than a revocable trust. As a result, there might be current income tax and future estate tax implications when using this type of trust. It’s wise to seek the assistance of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Lehigh Valley Live (Aug. 16, 2021) “What happens to tax on a home sold from a trust?”