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 about House Contents when Someone Dies?

Probate law does not allow anyone to take items from a loved ones’ home after they die, until the will has been probated. Learning about probate, what it entails and how to prepare for it may make it a little easier when a family member dies, says a recent article titled “Can you empty a house before probate? from Augusta Free Press. Knowing what to expect can avoid common pitfalls and mistakes, some of which often lead to family fights and even litigation.

Probate is a court-supervised period when the estate of the decedent is on pause. Assets may not be distributed, including personal items in the home. The goal is to ensure that assets are distributed only after the will has been ruled valid by the court and following the instructions in the will.

Probate includes the legal appointment of the executor, who is named in the will with specific statutory responsibilities, to include ultimately distributing assets.

For many people, estate planning includes preparing assets to avoid the probate process. An estate plan includes a review of the entire estate to see which assets are best suited to be taken out of the estate. Living trusts, joint ownership, transfer-on-death (TOD) and many other estate planning strategies can be used, depending on the person’s finances.

Certain tasks can be accomplished during probate relating to the home and other property. This includes changing the locks on the home to protect it from criminals and unauthorized people who have keys. The decedent’s mail can be forwarded to the executor or another family member’s address. A review of the decedent’s bills, especially monthly payments, can take place. If there’s a mortgage on the home, the mortgage company needs to be contacted and the payments need to be made.

As the end of the probate period nears, it may be time to contact an appraiser to get an unbiased, professional appraisal of the home’s value. This will be needed if the home is to be sold, or if the estate plan needs a valuation of the home.

Probate is often a necessary process. It can create challenges for the family, especially if no estate planning has been done. In some jurisdictions, probate is quick and painless, while in others it is a long and expensive process. Prior planning by an experienced estate planning attorney prevents many of the issues presented by probate.

After probate has been completed, the executor distributes the assets, including the personal property in the home. Personal property with sentimental value often sparks more family fights than assets of greater value. Administering an estate when emotions are running high is a challenge for all concerned.

Another reason to have an estate plan in place is to delineate very specifically what you want to occur after your death. That way there is no room for family members to stake a claim and do something contrary to your wishes.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (May 13, 2022) “Can you empty a house before probate?

Do You Have to Go through Probate When Someone Dies?

Probate is a required court proceeding under certain circumstances, although the rules surrounding probate are slightly different from state to state. In Hawaii, if a person dies owning real estate in their own name or if the total value of personal property is worth more than $100,000, their estate must be probated. In other states that threshold may be lower. Most states require probate regardless of the estate’s value, unless the estate assets are arranged to avoid probate.

This is explained in a recent article “Estate Planning Insights—Understanding Probate” from The Hawaii Herald.

Probate also requires written notice to be sent to the persons named in the will and to persons who would have inherited, if there had been no will. This is a big reason why many people use trusts and other alternative estate planning strategies. In addition, a will becomes part of the public record when it goes through probate, so creditors and others can see your will and learn all about your estate. So can estranged family members, ex-spouses, people looking for sales leads and thieves!

If there is no will, assets are distributed according to the state’s law of intestacy. These laws specify who receives inheritances, based on kinship. If a will is deemed invalid by the court, then the will is discarded, as are your wishes, and the laws of intestacy take over. This is another reason to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a properly prepared will and estate plan.

Probate can be a time-consuming process, delaying the distribution of assets. If the estate is complex, the process could take years.

Certain assets do not go through probate. These includes assets held by two or more people as “joint tenants” or “tenants by the entirety.” Real estate, checking accounts, saving accounts, and investment accounts can be owned this way. However, there can be pitfalls. If one person has debts, creditors may come after the assets, regardless of who the original owner may be.

Assets with a named beneficiary do not go through probate. This includes life insurance, IRAs, 401(k)s, annuities, savings bonds, “Transfer on Death (TOD accounts) and “Pay on Death” (POD accounts). It is very important to review all beneficiary designations every few years. Someone you may have named as a co-owner twenty years ago may no longer be in your life, or you may want to change the beneficiary. If you do not make any changes, whoever you originally named on the account will receive the assets.

Trusts are used to avoid probate, while directing what will happen to assets when you die. A Revocable Living Trust allows you to maintain control over the assets while living, but because you still have control over the assets in the trust, they are considered a countable asset by Medicaid.

To protect your assets from going through probate and to prepare for possible long-term care needs, an estate planning attorney can create a plan, possibly including a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT).

Reference: The Hawaii Herald (Jan. 21, 2022) “Estate Planning Insights—Understanding Probate”

What are the Most Common Estate Planning Mistakes?

There are so many estate planning horror mistakes, it’s hard to know which is the worst. One is the woman who had an estate plan created, but only named one guardian for her teenage daughter. When the guardian declined to serve, the girl was moved into foster care. Many estate planning attorneys recommend not one, but two alternate guardians, according to the article “Don’t get tripped up by these common estate planning pitfalls” from MarketWatch.

Joint ownership of bank accounts leads to a tangled mess. Seniors often add one of their adult children to ownership of their bank accounts, so the child can manage their affairs or keep an eye open for financial elder abuse. However, when the parent dies, the account is the sole property of the child, and siblings have no say over what the new owner does with the money. Even if the children agree to split the money evenly, the federal gift tax exemption is limited to an annual gift, gift tax returns have to be filed and a simple idea becomes expensive and time consuming.

If joint ownership of an account is necessary, it may be better to add all of the children or have in a separate writing the intention that this is an asset you want divided equally among the children. Easier still: create a new account dedicated to paying bills and maintain a small balance. Even better, if the institution allows you to arrange for the account to “pay on death,” then designate all of your children as beneficiaries. This approach will avoid probate, while treating all children equally and not exposing your account to any potential divorces, lawsuits, or bankruptcies during your lifetime.

Giving money to grandchildren directly. Putting a minor as a beneficiary of a percentage of an estate requires the involvement of a judge approving the bequest and the appointment of a custodian over the account until the minor becomes an adult. An estate planning attorney would likely recommend the use of a trust for the benefit of the minor. Alternatively, limit bequests to adult children and adult grandchildren.

An adult child or surviving spouse living in the house. A man created a property trust to allow his second wife to remain in the house he owned before their marriage. The couple had jointly paid off the mortgage. The man named his daughter from a prior marriage as the successor trustee. The daughter began making unreasonable demands on the surviving spouse to make expensive improvements. Years of bad blood between the two erupted into years of litigation. The parties finally agreed to revise the trust terms and name a professional trustee, but not after an expensive and stressful battle.

When one of the children is living in the house and the will says the home is to be divided among the siblings equally, what happens? Does the child who lives in the house get first right of refusal to buy out their sibling’s shares? Are they paying rent to siblings? What if the child living in the house decides to sell, after they personally have invested a lot of money improving the house?

Estate planning attorneys bring up these kinds of situations with clients not because they want to scare people, but because they have seen firsthand what happens when an estate plan fails to anticipate a variety of situations. The estate planning attorney needs to know about the family’s dynamics in detail, in order to create the best plan to achieve the desired outcome and prevent as many twists and turns as possible.

Reference: MarketWatch (Jan. 6, 2022) “Don’t get tripped up by these common estate planning pitfalls”

Do You Need Power of Attorney If You Have a Joint Account?

A person with Power of Attorney for their parents can’t actually “add” the POA to their bank accounts. However, they may change bank accounts to be jointly owned. There are some pros and cons of doing this, as discussed in the article “POAs vs. joint ownership” from NWI.com.

The POA permits the agent to access their parent’s bank accounts, make deposits and write checks.  However, it doesn’t create any ownership interest in the bank accounts. It allows access and signing authority.

If the person’s parent wants to add them to the account, they become a joint owner of the account. When this happens, the person has the same authority as the parent, accessing the account and making deposits and withdrawals.

However, there are downsides. Once the person is added to the account as a joint owner, their relationship changes. As a POA, they are a fiduciary, which means they have a legally enforceable responsibility to put their parent’s benefits above their own.

As an owner, they can treat the accounts as if they were their own and there’s no requirement to be held to a higher standard of financial care.

Because the POA does not create an ownership interest in the account, when the owner dies, the account passes to the surviving joint owners, Payable on Death (POD) beneficiaries or beneficiaries under the parent’s estate plan.

If the account is owned jointly, when one of the joint owners dies, the other person becomes the sole owner.

Another issue to consider is that becoming a joint owner means the account could be vulnerable to creditors for all owners. If the adult child has any debt issues, the parent’s account could be attached by creditors, before or after their passing.

Most estate planning attorneys recommend the use of a POA rather than adding an owner to a joint account. If the intent of the owners is to give the child the proceeds of the bank account, they can name the child a POD on the account for when they pass and use a POA, so the child can access the account while they are living.

One last point: while the parent is still living, the child should contact the bank and provide them with a copy of the POA. This, allows the bank to enter the POA into the system and add the child as a signatory on the account. If there are any issues, they are best resolved before while the parent is still living.

Reference: NWI.com (Aug. 15, 2021) “POAs vs. joint ownership”

Short-Cuts to Estate Planning can Lead to Costly Consequences

It seems like a simple way for the children to manage mom’s finances: add the grown children as owners to a bank account, brokerage account or make them joint owners of the home. However, these short-cut methods create all kinds of problems for the parent’s estate and the children themselves, says the article entitled “Estate planning: When you take the lazy way out, someone will pay the price” from Florida Today.

By adding an adult child as owner to the account, the child is being given 50% ownership. The same is true if the child is added to the title for the home as joint owner. If there is more than $30,000 in the account or if the asset is valued at more than $30,000, then the mother needs to file a gift tax return—even if no gift tax is due. If the gift tax return is not filed in a timely manner, there might be a gift tax due in the future.

There is also a carryover basis in the account or property when the adult child is added as an owner. If it’s a bank account, the primary issue is the gift tax return. However, if the asset is a brokerage account or the parent’s primary residence, then the child steps into the parent’s shoes for 50% of the amount they bought the property for originally.

Here is an example: let’s say a parent is in her 80s and you are seeing that she is starting to slow down. You decide to take an easy route and have her add you to her bank account, brokerage account and the deed (or title) to the family home. If she becomes incapacitated or dies, you’ll own everything and you can make all the necessary decisions, including selling the house and using the funds for funeral expenses. It sounds easy and inexpensive, doesn’t it? It may be easy, but it’s not inexpensive.

Sadly, your mom dies. You need some cash to pay her final medical bills, cover the house expenses and maybe a few of your own bills. You sell some stock. After all, you own the account. It’s then time to file a tax return for the year when you sold the stock. When reporting the stock sale, your basis in the stock is 50% step-up in value based on the value of the stock the day that your mom died, plus 50% of what she originally paid for the stock.

If your mom bought the stock for $100 twenty years ago, and the stock is now worth $10,500, when you were added to the account, you now step into her shoes for 50% of the stock—$50. You sold the stock after she died, so your basis in that stock is now $5,050—that’s $5,000 value of stock when she died plus $50: 50% of the original purchase. Your taxable gain is $5,450.

How do you avoid this? If the ownership of the brokerage account remained solely with your mother, but you were a Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) beneficiary, you would not have access to the account if your mom became incapacitated and had appointed you as her “attorney in fact” on her general durable power of attorney. What would be the result? You would get a step-up in basis on the asset after she died. The inherited stock would have a basis of $10,000 and the taxable gain would be $500, not $5,450.

A better alternative—talk with an estate planning attorney to create a will, a revocable trust, a general durable power of attorney and the other legal documents used to transfer assets and minimize taxes. The estate planning attorney will be able to create a way for you to get access or transfer the property without negative tax consequences.

Reference: Florida Today (May 20, 2021) , “Estate planning: When you take the lazy way out, someone will pay the price”

Does a Trust Have to Be Funded to Be Valid?

Thinking you have divided assets equally between children by creating a trust that names all as equal heirs, while placing only one child’s name on other assets is not an equally divided estate plan. Instead, as described in the article “Estate Planning: Fund the trust” from nwi.com, this arrangement is likely to lead to an estate battle.

One father did just that. He set up a trust with explicit instructions to divide everything equally among his heirs. However, only one brother was made a joint owner on his savings and checking accounts and the title of the family home.

Upon his death, ownership of the savings and checking accounts and the home would go directly to the brother. Assets in the trust, if there are any, will be divided equally between the children. That’s probably not what the father had in mind, but legally the other siblings will have no right to the non-trust assets.

This is an example of why creating a trust is only one part of an estate plan. If it is not funded, that is if assets are not retitled, it will not work.

Many estate plans include what is called a “pour-over will” usually executed just after the trust is executed. It is a safety net that “catches” any assets not funded into the trust and transfers them into it. However, this transfer requires probate, and since probate avoidance is a goal of having a trust, it is not the best solution.

The situation as described above is confusing. Why would one brother be a joint owner of assets, if the father means for all of the children to share equally in the inheritance? When the father passes, the brother will own the assets. If the matter went to court, the court would very likely decide that the father’s intention was for the brother to inherit them. Whatever language is in the trust will be immaterial.

If the father’s intention is for the siblings to share the estate equally, the changes need to be made while he is living. The brother’s name needs to come off the accounts and the title to the home, and they all need to be re-titled in the name of the trust. The brother will need to sign off on removing his name. If he does not wish to do so, it’s going to be a legal challenge.

The family needs to address the situation as soon as possible with an experienced estate planning attorney. Even if the brother won’t sign off on changing the names of the assets, as long as the father is living there are options. Once he has passed, the family’s options will be limited. Estate battles can consume a fair amount of the estate’s value and destroy the family’s relationships.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 17, 2021) “Estate Planning: Fund the trust”

How Do Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations Work in Estate Planning?

Most people think a will is the most important tool in the estate planning toolbox, but in many instances, it is not even used. Assets in the will go through probate, and wills control assets in your name only. If you don’t have a will, your state laws will provide one under its law of Intestate Succession. Instead of making a will, some people just name their spouses or children on joint accounts, says the article “Protecting Your Assets: Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations” from The Street. however, that can lead to big problems.

Let’s look at a typical family. They own a home, an IRA, life insurance and some bank and investment accounts. They have wills that leave everything to each other, and equally to their children upon their deaths. If a child predeceases them, they want the child’s share to go to the child’s children (their grandchildren). This is called per stirpes, meaning it goes to the next generation. The husband and wife have also listed each other as joint owners and beneficiaries and then listed their children as contingent beneficiaries on all financial accounts.

When the husband dies, all his assets go to his wife. When she dies, she had named her living children as beneficiaries. If she signed a quit claim deed putting the children’s names on the house before she died, the will and probate may be bypassed altogether.

Sounds like a great plan, doesn’t it? Except like most things that sound too good to be true, this one is not a great plan. Here’s what can and very often does go wrong.

Let’s say a daughter inherits a bank account and is sued, files for bankruptcy or divorces. Her entire inheritance is vulnerable, with no protection at all.

What if you say in your will that you want everything to go equally to all three children when you die, but you only put one son as a beneficiary on your accounts? When you die, only one son inherits everything. The will does not supersede the beneficiary designation. If the son wants to keep all your assets, he can, no matter what he may have promised you and his siblings.

If the wife dies first and the husband remarries, he may want to leave everything to his new wife. He’s hoping that when she dies, she’ll distribute the assets from his first marriage to his children. He even has a will and changes the beneficiary designations on his investment accounts to make sure that happens. However, when he dies, she owns the accounts and can name whoever she wants to inherit those accounts. She has the legal right to cut out anyone she wants. The husband may have avoided probate, but his children are left with no inheritance.

We all like to believe that our spouses and children will do the right thing upon our death, but the only way to ensure that this will happen is to have an estate plan created using trusts and other planning strategies. Avoiding probate may be a popular theme but making sure your assets go where you want to them to is far more important than avoiding probate. Meet with an estate planning attorney to ensure that your family is protected, the right way.

Reference: The Street (Oct. 30, 2020) “Protecting Your Assets: Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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