Estate Battles Over Personal Property Distribution

Creating and probating a last will and testament is rarely a simple task, but one of the most challenging aspects is the distribution of personal property, warns the article “Be clear about personal property distribution in your will” from The News-Enterprise. The nature of personal property—that it is relatively low in market value but high in sentimental value—is just part of the problem.

You’d be surprised how many families fight over a favorite ceramic dish or an inexpensive oil painting. However, those fights slow down the process of settling the estate and can create unnecessary costs.

The distribution of personal property is usually part of the residual estate, that which is left over when other assets, like a home, bank accounts, etc., have been distributed. Some families don’t even have a chance to select items, and instead find themselves in irrational bidding wars at estate sales.

This issue may be avoided by having precise language in the last will and testament about these items. First, the testator, the person who is creating the will, should outline the specific items they want to be given to specific people. Promised items should be listed and removed from the general pool of personal property.

Next, the testator names who should be included in the distribution of remaining personal property. While some people list the same recipients of the full estate, this is not always the case, particularly if there are no children or if property is being left to charity. One option is to limit the beneficiaries of personal items to only close family members.

Third, provide clear directions for how the remaining items will be distributed. Will beneficiaries take turns in a defined order? Should the property be appraised, and values being divided equally by the executor? Be as specific as possible.

If there are any unclaimed items, provide instructions for those as well. Do you want a collection of expensive cookware to be sent to a charitable organization? Clothing, furniture, and other items should be either donated to charity or sold at an estate sale, with the proceeds distributed between the beneficiaries.

Another way to avoid conflicts over personal property is to give away items, while you are living. Sentimental gifts are a good alternative for holiday gifts, especially for seniors on a fixed budget. This way the items are clearly out of the estate.

A warning for those who are thinking about taking the “sticky note” system: it rarely goes off without a hitch. Attaching stickers to items with the name of the person who you want to receive them is vulnerable to someone else removing the stickers. Similarly, naming one person to distribute all personal items could lead to strife between family members. There’s no legally enforceable way to ensure that they will follow your wishes.

Address the issue of personal property with your estate planning attorney. They will be able to help determine the least acrimonious means of ensuring that the people you want will end up with the things you want.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Sep. 29, 2020) “Be clear about personal property distribution in your will”

Protect Your Estate with Five Facts

It is true that a single person who dies in 2020 could have up to $11.58 million in personal assets and their heirs would not have to pay any federal estate tax. However, that doesn’t mean that regular people don’t need to worry about estate taxes—their heirs might have to pay state estate taxes, inheritance taxes or the estate may shrink because of other tax issues. That’s why U.S. News & World Report’s recent article “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family” is worth reading.

Without proper planning, any number of factors could take a bite out of your children’s inheritance. They may be responsible for paying federal income taxes on retirement accounts, for instance. You want to be sure that a lifetime of hard work and savings doesn’t end up going to the wrong people.

The best way to protect your family and your legacy, is by meeting with an estate planning attorney and sorting through all of the complex issues of estate planning. Here are five areas you definitely need to address:

  1. Creating a last will and testament
  2. Checking that beneficiaries are correct
  3. Creating a trust
  4. Converting traditional IRA accounts to Roth accounts
  5. Giving assets while you are living

A last will and testament. Only 32% of Americans have a will, according to a survey that asked 2,400 Americans that question. Of those who don’t have a will, 30% says they don’t think they have enough assets to warrant having a will. However, not having a will means that your entire estate goes through probate, which could become very expensive for your heirs. Having no will also makes it more likely that your family will challenge the distribution of assets. As a result, someone you may have never met could inherit your money and your home. It happens more often than you can imagine.

Checking beneficiaries. Once you die, beneficiaries cannot be changed. That could mean an ex-spouse gets the proceeds of your life insurance policy, retirement funds or any other account that has a named beneficiary. Over time, relationships change—make sure to check the beneficiaries named on any of your documents to ensure that your wishes are fulfilled. Your will does not control this distribution and is superseded by the named beneficiaries.

Set up a trust. Trusts are used to accomplish different goals. If a child is unable to manage money, for instance, a trust can be created, a trustee named and the account funded. The trust will include specific directions as to when the child receives funds or if any benchmarks need to be met, like completing college or staying sober. With an irrevocable trust, the money is taken out of your estate and cannot be subject to estate taxes. Money in a trust does not pass through probate, which is another benefit.

Convert traditional IRAs to Roth retirement accounts. When children inherit traditional IRAs, they come with many restrictions and heirs get the income tax liability of the IRA. Regular income tax must be paid on all distributions, and the account has to be emptied within ten years of the owner’s death, with limited exceptions. If the account balance is large, it could be consumed by taxes. By gradually converting traditional retirement accounts to Roth accounts, you pay the taxes as the accounts are converted. You want to do this in a controlled fashion, so as not to burden yourself. However, this means your heirs receive the accounts tax-free.

Gift with warm hands, wisely. Perhaps the best way to ensure that money stays in the family, is to give it to heirs while you are living. As of 2020, you may gift up to $15,000 per person, per year in gifts. The money is tax free for recipients. Just be careful when gifting assets that appreciate in value, like stocks or a house. When appreciating assets are inherited, the heirs receive a step-up in basis, meaning that the taxable amount of the assets are adjusted upon death, so some assets should only be passed down after you pass.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Sep. 30, 2020) “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family”

How Important Is Avoiding Probate?

Estate planning attorneys are often asked if one of the goals of an estate plan is to avoid probate, regardless of the cost. The answer to that question is no, but a better question is the more even-tempered “Should I try to avoid probate?” In that case, the answer is “It depends.” A closer look at this question is provided in the recent article from The Daily Sentinel, “Estate Planning: Is Probate Something to Avoid at All Costs?”

Probate is not always a nightmare, depending upon where a decedent lived. Probate is a court process conducted by judges, who usually understand the difficulty executors and families are facing, and their support staff who genuinely care about the families involved. This is not everywhere, but your estate planning attorney will know what your local probate court is like. With that in mind, there are certain pitfalls to probate and there are situations where avoiding probate does make sense for your family.

In the case where it makes sense to avoid probate, whatever planning strategy is being used to avoid probate must be carefully evaluated. Does it make sense, or does it create further issues? Here’s an example of how this can backfire. A person provided their estate planning attorney with a copy of a beneficiary deed, which is a deed that transfers property to a designated person (called a “grantee”) immediately upon the death of the person who signed the deed (called a “grantor”).

The deed had been signed and recorded properly with the recorder’s office, just as a typical deed would be during the sale of a home. Note that a beneficiary deed does not transfer the title of ownership, until the grantor dies.

Here’s where things went bad. No one knew about the beneficiary deed, except for the grantor and the grantee. The remainder of the estate plan did not mention anything about the beneficiary deed. When the grantor died, ownership of the property was transferred to the grantee. However, the will contained conflicting instructions about the property and who was to inherit it.

Instead of avoiding probate, the grantor’s estate was tied up in court for more than a year. The family was torn apart, and the costs to resolve the matter were substantial.

Had the deceased simply relied upon the probate process or coordinated the transfer of ownership with his estate planning attorney, the intended person would have received the property and the family would have been spared the cost and stress. Sticking with the use of a last will and testament and the probate process would have protected everyone involved.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help determine the best approach for the family, with or without probate.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Oct. 3, 2020) “Estate Planning: Is Probate Something to Avoid at All Costs?”

Why Everyone Needs an Estate Plan

Many people think you have to be a millionaire to need an estate plan and investing in an estate plan is too costly for an average American. Not true! People of modest means actually need an estate plan more than the wealthy to protect what they have. A recent article from TAPinto.net explains the basics in “Estate Planning–Getting Your Affairs in Order Does Not Need to be Complicated or Expensive.”

Everyone needs an estate plan consisting of the following documents: a Last Will and Testament, a General Durable Power of Attorney and an Advance Medical Directive or Living Will.

Unless your estate is valued at more than $11.58 million, you may not be as concerned about federal estate taxes right now, but this may change in the near future. Some states, like New Jersey, don’t have any state estate tax at all. There are states, like Pennsylvania, which have an “inheritance” tax determined based on the relationship the person has with the decedent. However, taxes aren’t the only reason to have an estate plan.

If you have young children, your will is the legal document used to tell your executor and the court who you want to care for your minor children by naming their guardian. The will is also used to explain how your minor children’s inheritance should be managed by naming trustees.

Why do you need a General Power of Attorney? This is the document that you need to name a person to be in charge of your affairs, if you become incapacitated and can’t make or communicate decisions. Without a POA in place, no one, not even your spouse, has the legal authority to manage your financial and legal affairs. Your family would have to go to court and file a guardianship action, which can be expensive, take time to complete and create unnecessary stress for the family.

An Advance Medical Directive, also known as a Living Will, is used to let a person of your choice make medical decisions, if you are unable to do so. This is a very important document to have, especially if you have strong feelings about being kept alive by artificial means. The Advance Medical Directive gives you an opportunity to express your wishes for end of life care, as well as giving another person the legal right to make medical decisions on your behalf. Without it, a guardianship may need to be established, wasting critical time if an emergency situation occurs.

Most people of modest means need only these three documents, but they can make a big difference to protect the family. If the family includes disabled children or individuals, owns a business or real estate, there are other documents needed to address these more complex situations. However, simple or complex, your estate and your family deserve the protection of an estate plan.

Reference: TAPinto.net (Sep. 23, 2020) “Estate Planning–Getting Your Affairs in Order Does Not Need to be Complicated or Expensive”

How to Protect Your Estate from Unintended Heirs

Disinheriting a child as an heir happens for a variety of reasons. There may have been a long-running dispute, estrangement over a lifestyle choice, or not wanting to give assets to a child who squanders money. What happens when a will or trust has left a child without an inheritance is examined in an article from Lake County News, “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children.”

Circumstances matter. Was the child born or adopted after the decedent’s estate planning documents were already created and executed? In certain states, like California, a child who was born or adopted after documents were executed, is by law entitled to a share in the estate. There are exceptions. Was it the decedent’s intent to omit the child, and is there language in the will making that clear? Did the decedent give most or all of the estate to the other parent? Did the decedent otherwise provide for the omitted child and was there language to that effect in the will? For example, if a child was the named beneficiary of a $1 million life insurance policy, it is likely this was the desired outcome.

Another question is whether the decedent knew of the existence of the child, or if they thought the child was deceased. In certain states, the law is more likely to grant the child a share of the estate.

Actor Hugh O’Brien did not provide for his children, who were living when his trust was executed. His children argued that he did not know of their existence, and had he known, he would have provided for them. His will included a general disinheritance provision that read “I am intentionally not providing for … any other person who claims to be a descendant or heir of mine under any circumstances and without regard to the nature of any evidence which may indicate status as a descendant or heir.”

The Appellate Court ruled against the children’s appeal for two reasons. One, the decedent must have been unaware of the child’s birth or mistaken about the child’s death, and two, must have failed to have provided for the unknown child solely because of a lack of awareness. The court found that his reason to omit them from his will was not “solely” because he did not know of their existence, but because he had no intention of giving them a share of his estate.

In this case, the general disinheritance provision defeated the claim by the children, since their claim did not meet the two standards that would have supported their claim.

This is another example of how an experienced estate planning attorney creates documents to withstand challenges from unintended outcomes. A last will and testament is created to defend the estate and the decedent’s wishes.

Reference: Lake County News (Aug. 22, 2020) “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children”

Estate Planning for Asset Distribution

Without proper planning, your will determines who inherits your property—everything from your home, car, bank accounts and personal possessions. Your spouse may not necessarily be your heir—and that’s just one of many reasons to have an estate plan.

An estate plan avoids a “default” distribution of your possessions, says the recent article “Asset distribution when we die” from LimaOhio.com.

Let’s say someone names a nephew as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. The life insurance company has a contractual legal responsibility to pay the nephew, when the policy owner dies. In turn, the nephew will be required to provide a death certificate and prove that he is indeed the nephew. This is an example of an asset governed by a contract, also described as a named beneficiary.

Assets that are not governed by a contract are distributed to whoever a person directs to get the asset in their will, aka their last will and testament. If there is no will, the state law will determine who should get the assets in a process known as “intestate probate.”

In this process, when there is a last will, the executor is in charge of the assets. The executor is overseen by the probate court judge, who reviews the will and must give approval before assets can be distributed. However, the probate court’s involvement comes with a price, and it is not always a fast process. It is always faster and less costly to have an asset be distributed through a contract, like a trust or by having a beneficiary named to the asset.

If a will only provides limited instructions, the state’s law will fill in the gaps. Therefore, any assets that pass-through contracts will be distributed directly, assets noted in the will go through probate and anything else will go usually to the next of kin.

A better course of action is to have an estate attorney review all of your assets, determine who you want to receive your property and make up a plan to make this happen in a smooth, tax-efficient manner.

Reference: LimaOhio.com (Aug. 22, 2020) “Asset distribution when we die”

There Is a Difference between Probate and Trust Administration

Many people get these two things confused. A recent article, “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration,” from Lake County News clarifies the distinctions.

Let’s start with probate, which is a court-supervised process. To begin the probate process, a legal notice must be published in a newspaper and court appearances are needed. However, to start trust administration, a letter of notice is mailed to the decedent’s heirs and beneficiaries. Trust administration is far more private, which is why many people chose this path.

In the probate process, the last will and testament and any documents in the court file are available to the public. While the general public may not have any specific interest in your will, estranged relatives, relatives you never knew you had, creditors and scammers have easy and completely legal access to this information.

If there is no will, the court documents that are created in intestacy (the heirs inherit according to state law), are also available to anyone who wants to see them.

In trust administration, the only people who can see trust documents are the heirs and beneficiaries.

There are cost differences. In probate, a court filing fee must be paid for each petition. There are also at least two petitions from start to finish in probate, plus the newspaper publication fee. The fees vary, depending upon the jurisdiction. Add to that the attorney’s and personal representative’s fees, which also vary by jurisdiction. Some are on an hourly basis, while others are computed as a sliding scale percentage of the value of the estate under management. For example, each may be paid 4% of the first $100,000, 3% of the next $100,000 and 2% of any excess value of the estate under management. The court also has the discretion to add fees, if the estate is more time consuming and complex than the average estate.

For trust administration, the trustee and the estate planning attorney are typically paid on an hourly basis, or however the attorney sets their fee structure. Expenses are likely to be far lower, since there is no court involvement.

There are similarities between probate and trust administration. Both require that the decedent’s assets be collected, safeguarded, inventoried and appraised for tax and/or distribution purposes. Both also require that the decedent’s creditors be notified, and debts be paid. Tax obligations must be fulfilled, and the debts and administration expenses must be paid. Finally, the decedent’s beneficiaries must be informed about the estate and its administration.

The use of trusts in estate planning can be a means of minimizing taxes and planning for family assets to be passed to future generations in a private and controlled fashion. This is the reason for the popularity of trusts in estate planning.

It should be noted that a higher level of competency—mental comprehension—must be possessed by an individual to execute a trust than to execute a will. A person whose capacity may be questionable because of Alzheimer’s or another illness may not be legally competent enough to execute a trust. Their heirs may face challenges to the estate plan in that case.

Reference: Lake County News (July 4, 2020) “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration”

Still Procrastinating about Your Estate Plan?

The continuing escalation of the COVID-19 pandemic has forced many people to finalize estate planning documents, even as their estate planning attorneys are working from home. People are coming to terms with the stark reality: they could be struck by the disease and need to have a plan in place, reports the article “Estate Planning In The Age Of Covid” from Financial Advisor.

Everyone should review their estate planning documents, including their wills, trusts and gifting techniques, to ensure that they are in line with their goals and the numerous tax law changes that have occurred in the last six months. The review of these estate planning documents is especially critical during these unpredictable times.

Here are the documents that may need to be updated:

Power of Attorney—This legal document gives a person you name the authority to handle financial affairs and protect property by acting on your behalf, if you become incapacitated.  Some of the typical tasks of your “agent” are paying bills, writing checks, selling or purchasing assets or signing tax returns.

You may name any competent adult you like. However, be certain to choose someone trusted who will put your interests above theirs. This person should possess common sense, ethics and financial acumen. Someone who lives near you, will be able to handle matters more expeditiously. Someone who is far away, may not be as effective. You should also name a back-up or secondary agent.

With no power of attorney, no one will be authorized to act on your behalf and your family will need to have the court appoint a conservator, which will take time and money.

Health-Care Proxy—This legal document gives an agent authority to make health-care decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so. Without one, the family of anyone over the age of 18 will need to go to court and have a guardian appointed.

Last Will and Testament—Your last will is the legal document that gives directions to how you want your property to be distributed after you die. It is used to appoint an executor to oversee the distribution of your assets. For parents of minor children, this is the document used to name a guardian to raise your children. If you don’t have a last will, the court will choose who will raise your child, who will distribute your assets and who will oversee your estate. It is much better to handle this in advance, so you are in control of these important decisions.

Living Trust—A revocable trust is a legal contract that creates an entity to hold title to your assets. As the grantor or creator of the trust, you can change it at any time. You can also set it to outlive you. If you become incapacitated, a successor trustee then steps in and manages your affairs without any court intervention. A trust also gives you privacy, since it avoids the probate process.

There are many estate planning tools that may be used to pass wealth to the next generation, minimize taxe, and ensure that your legacy continues, even during these unprecedented times.

Reference: Financial Advisor (June 16, 2020) “Estate Planning In The Age Of Covid”

Your Estate Plan is a “Dynamic Document”

One of the most common mistakes people make about their estate planning is neglecting to coordinate all of the moving parts, reports the Dayton Business Journal’s article “Baird expert gives estate planning advice.” The second most common mistake is not thinking of your estate plan as a dynamic document. Many people believe that once their estate plan is done, it’s done forever. That creates a lot of problems for the families and their heirs.

In the last few years, we have seen three major federal tax law changes, including an increase in the federal estate tax exemption amount from $3,500,000 to an enormous $11,580,000. The estate tax exemption is also now portable. Most recently, the SECURE Act has changed how IRAs are distributed to heirs. All of these changes require a fresh look at estate plans. The same holds true for changes within families: births, deaths, marriages and divorces all call for a review of estate plans.

For younger adults in their 20s, an estate plan includes a last will and testament, financial power of attorney, healthcare power of attorney and a HIPAA authorization form. People in their 40s need a deeper dive into an estate plan, with discussions on planning for minor children, preparing to leave assets for children in trusts, ensuring that the family has the correct amount of life insurance in place, and planning for unexpected incapacitation. This is also the time when people have to start planning for their parents, with discussions about challenging topics, like their wishes for end-of-life care and long-term care insurance.

In their 60s, the estate plan needs to reflect the goals of the couple, and expectations of what you both want to happen on your passing. Do you want to create a legacy of giving, and what tools will be best to accomplish this: a charitable remainder trust, or other estate planning tools? Ensuring that your assets are properly titled, that beneficiaries are properly named on assets like life insurance, investment accounts, etc., becomes more important as we age.

This is also the time to plan for how your assets will be passed to your children. Are your children prepared to manage an inheritance, or would they be better off having their inheritance be given to them over the course of several years via a trust? If that is the case, who should be the trustee?

Some additional pointers:

  • Revise your estate plan every three or five years with your estate planning attorney.
  • Evaluate solutions to provide tax advantages to your estate.
  • Review asset titling and beneficiary designations.
  • Make sure your charitable giving is done in a tax efficient way.
  • Plan for the potential tax challenges that may impact your estate

Regardless of your age and state, your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you through the process of creating and then reviewing your estate plan.

Reference: Dayton Business Journal (February 4, 2020) “Baird expert gives estate planning advice”