Can I Protect My Family after Death?

Estate planning involves a close look at personal and financial goals while you are living and after you have died, as explained in a recent article titled “Professional Advice: Secure your future with estate planning” from Northwest Indiana Business Magazine. Having a comprehensive estate plan ensures that your wishes will be carried out and loved ones protected.

Your last will and testament identifies the people who should receive an inheritance—heirs—who will manage your estate—executor—and who will take care of your minor children—guardian. Without a valid will, the state will rely on its own laws to distribute assets and assign a guardian to minor children. The state laws may not follow your wishes. However, there won’t be anything your family can do if you didn’t prepare a will.

Assets with beneficiary designations can be passed to heirs without going through probate. Certain assets, like life insurance policies and retirement accounts, allow a primary and secondary beneficiary to be named. These assets can be transferred to the intended beneficiaries swiftly and efficiently.

Many people use trusts to pass assets for a variety of reasons. For example, a trust can be created for a family member with special needs, protecting their eligibility to receive government benefits. Depending on the type of trust you create, you might be able to eliminate estate taxes. Certain trusts are also useful in protecting assets from creditors and lawsuits, and ensure that assets are distributed according to your wishes.

Revocable living trusts provide protection in case of incapacity, avoid probate and ancillary probate and may provide asset protection for beneficiaries. If you are the creator of a trust—grantor—you will need to appoint a successor trustee to manage the trust if you are the original trustee and become incapacitated. Upon death, a revocable trust usually becomes irrevocable. Assets placed in the trust avoid probate, the court proceeding used to settle an estate, which can be both time-consuming and costly.

A Power of Attorney allows you to name a person who will handle your financial affairs and protect assets in the event of incapacity. That person—your agent—may pay bills, sell assets and work with an elder law estate planning attorney on Medicaid planning. The POA should be customized to your personal situation. you may give the agent broad or narrow powers.

Everyone should also have a Health Care Proxy, which gives the person named the legal right to make health care decisions on your behalf if you are unable to. You’ll also want to have a HIPAA Release Form (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), so your agent can speak with all health care providers, access medical records and speak with the health insurance company on your behalf.

A Living Will is the document used to convey your wishes regarding end-of-life care if you are unable to do so yourself. It is certainly not pleasant to contemplate. However, it should be thought of as a kindness to your loved ones. Without knowing your wishes, they may be forced to make a decision and will never know if it was what you wanted. A Living Will also avoids conflicts between health care providers and family members and makes a stressful time a little less so.

Having a comprehensive estate plan provides protection for the individual and their family members. It avoids costly and stressful problems arising from the complex events accompanying illness and death. Every three to five years (or when life or financial circumstances warrant), meet with an estate planning attorney to keep your estate plan on track.

Reference: Northwest Indiana Business Magazine (Dec. 27, 2022) “Professional Advice: Secure your future with estate planning”

How Does a Trust Work?

You’ve worked hard to accumulate financial assets. You’ll need them to support your retirement. However, what if you also want to pass them on to loved ones? Trusts are used to pass assets to the next generation and have many benefits, says a recent article titled “Passing assets through a trust—What to know” from the Daily Bulldog.

“Funded” trusts don’t go through probate, which can be time-consuming, costly, and public. Your last will and testament becomes a public document when it is filed in the courthouse. Anyone can see it, from people wanting to sell your home to thieves looking for victims. Trust documents are not public, so no one outside of the grantor and the trustee knows what is in the trust and when distributions will be made. A trust also gives you the ability to be very specific about who will inherit assets in the trust, and when.

An estate planning attorney will help establish trusts, ensuring they are compliant with state law. There are three key questions to address during the trust creation process.

Who will serve as a trustee? There are several key roles in trusts. The person who creates the trust is the grantor of the trust. They name the trustee—the person or company charged with managing the trust’s assets and carrying out the instructions in the trust. You might choose a loved one. However, if they don’t have the knowledge or experience to manage the responsibilities, you could also name a corporate fiduciary, such as a bank or trust company. These entities charge for their services and usually require a minimum.

When will distributions be made? As the grantor, you get to decide when assets will be distributed and the amount of the distribution. You might want to keep the assets in the trust until the beneficiary reaches legal age. You could also structure the trust to make distributions at specific ages, i.e., at 30, 35 and 40. The trust could even hold the assets for the lifetime of the beneficiary and only distribute earned income. A large part of this decision has to do with how responsible you feel the beneficiaries will be with their inheritance.

What is the purpose of the trust? The grantor also gets to decide how trust assets should be used. The trust could designate broad categories, such as health, education, maintenance and support. The trust can be structured so the beneficiary needs to ask the trustee for a certain amount of assets. Other options are to structure the trust to provide mandatory income, once or twice a year, or tie distributions to incentives, such as finishing a college degree or purchasing a first home.

An estate planning attorney will explain the different types of trusts and which one is best for your unique situation. There are many different types of trusts. You’ll want to be sure to choose the right one to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Reference: Daily Bulldog (Dec. 24, 202) “Passing assets through a trust—What to know”

How Do You Stop a Sibling from Stealing an Inheritance?

If the parent does not have a will, there may be questions about which sibling should inherit what. This gets complicated fast. State law can define siblings’ rights after parents’ deaths, explains a recent article from yahoo!, “Can a Sibling Take Your Inheritance?”

An estate planning attorney can be a valuable resource, regardless of the size of the estate.

When a parent dies and there are multiple siblings, what they can inherit depends on a few factors:

  • Did the parent leave behind a will or were trusts created?
  • Is there a surviving spouse who can inherit?
  • What are the state’s inheritance laws?

For the most part, state inheritance laws give precedence to a surviving spouse ahead of any children. Some states grant children the legal right to inherit from a parent’s estate, even if they were not included in the will. However, most states allow parents to exclude children from their will, which can block them from inheriting anything.

How does a will determine siblings’ rights after the death of a parent? The will lets the person making the will specify how they want their assets to be distributed upon their death. The will, once deemed valid by the court, serves as the basis for dividing the estate.

If both parents died at the same time their estate would be divided among siblings according to the terms of the will. There are a few different ways this is done.

  • One child inherits the house and the contents, while the other siblings divide any remaining assets in the estate.
  • The executor sells the home and contents then splits the proceeds of the sale among siblings.
  • Each sibling receives specific property or assets from the estate
  • One child receives the entire contents of the estate, to the exclusion of others.

Estate planning becomes more complex when there are children from multiple marriages with different parents. Whether or not half-siblings receive the same inheritance as full siblings depends on state law.

If there is no will, state inheritance laws generally rely on a kinship order. In New York State, the first $50,000 in assets plus half of the remaining assets go to the surviving spouse first. The remainder is then distributed among any bloodline children.

Are siblings entitled to see the contents of wills or trusts? If they are beneficiaries, most states will permit a viewing of the will or trust documents. However, if someone is not listed in the will or a trust as a beneficiary, they don’t have an automatic right to review these documents.

If a sibling doesn’t agree with the terms of a will, or the distribution of assets, they could challenge a will in probate court. They can also petition the court to ask for a larger share of the estate. For instance, if one sibling was the primary caregiver for many years, providing financial and health care support, they would ask the court to take this into consideration.

An estate battle based on the distribution of property by a deceased parent can be avoided by having good communication between parents and siblings about the parent’s estate plan and their wishes. An experienced estate planning attorney creates plans for families to address their unique issues, and this can preclude sibling rivalry, which can sometimes get worse, not better, as the years go by.

Reference: yahoo! (November 30, 2022) “Can a Sibling Take Your Inheritance?”

Why Professionals and High Net Worth Families Need Estate Planning

Even those whose daily tasks bring them close to death on a daily basis can be reluctant to consider having an estate plan done. However, any high-income earner needs to plan their estate to protect assets and prepare for incapacity. Estate planning also makes matters easier for loved ones, explains a recent article titled “Physician estate planning guide” from Medical Economics. An estate plan gets your wishes honored, minimizes court expenses and maintains family harmony.

Having an estate plan is needed by anyone, at any age or stage of life. A younger professional may be less inclined to consider estate planning. However, it’s a mistake to put it off.

Start by meeting with an experienced estate planning attorney in your home state. Have a power of attorney drafted to give a trusted person the ability to make decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated. Not having this legal relationship leads to big problems. Your family will need to go to court to have a conservatorship or guardianship established to do something as simple as make a mortgage payment. Having a POA is a far better solution.

Next, talk with your estate planning attorney about a last will and testament and any trusts you might need. A will is a simpler method. However, if you have substantial assets, you may benefit from the protection a trust affords.

A will names your executor and expresses your wishes for property distribution. The will doesn’t become effective until after death when it’s reviewed by the court and verified during probate. The executor named in the will is then appointed to act on the directions in the will.

Most states don’t require an executor to be notified in advance. However, people should discuss this role with the person who they want to appoint. It’s not always a welcome surprise, and there’s no requirement for the named person to serve.

A trust is created to own property outside of the estate. It’s created and becomes effective while the person is still living and is often described as “kinder” to beneficiaries, especially if the grantor owns their practice and has complex business arrangements.

Trusts are useful for people who own assets in more than one state. In some cases, deeds to properties can be added into one trust, streamlining and consolidating assets and making it simpler to redirect after death.

Irrevocable trusts are especially useful to any doctor concerned about being sued for malpractice. An irrevocable trust helps protect assets from creditors seeking to recover assets.

Not being prepared with an estate plan addressing incapacity and death leads to a huge burden for loved ones. Once the plan is created, it should be updated every three to five years. Updating the plan is far easier than the initial creation and reflects changes in one’s life and in the law.

Reference: Medical Economics (Nov. 30, 2022) “Physician estate planning guide”

Is an Estate Plan Battle Looming?

Some people don’t create an estate plan before they die. Or, if they do, they failed to have an estate plan created with an experienced estate planning attorney and their will is unclear, or even invalid. They might die with debts conflicting with their wishes. These and other situations can lead to a long and expensive probate period, as described in the article “In-fighting Families, Wills, Laws & Other Things That Could Hold Up Probate” from yahoo!.

How long does it take for an estate to move through the probate process? It depends upon the complexity of the estate and how well—or poorly—the estate plan was created.

What is probate? Probate is the process where the court oversees the settlement of an estate after the owner dies. If there is a will, the court authenticates the will and accepts or denies the executor named in the will to carry out its instructions. The executor is usually the decedent’s spouse or closest living relative.

How does probate work? Probate is governed by state law, so different states have slightly different processes. The first thing is authenticating the will and appointing an executor. The court then locates and accesses all of the property owned by the decedent. If there are any debts, the estate must first pay off the debts. When the debts have been paid, the court can distribute the remaining assets in the estate to heirs.

If there is no will, the person is said to have died intestate. The court may then appoint an administrator to carry out the necessary tasks of paying debts and distributing assets. The administrator is paid from the estate.

How long does it take? It depends. If the decedent had placed most of their assets in trust, those assets are not subject to probate and are distributed according to the terms of the trust. If there are multiple properties in multiple states, probate has to be conducted in all states where property is owned. In other words, probate could be six months or three years.

Estate size matters. Certain states use the total value of the estate to determine its size, rather than examine individual properties. Possessions subject to probate usually include personal property, cash and cash accounts, transferable accounts with no named beneficiaries, assets with shared ownership or tenancy in common and real estate.

Possessions not typically subject to probate include insurance proceeds, accounts owned as Joint Tenant with Rights of Survivorship, accounts with a beneficiary designation and assets owned in trusts.

Probate varies from state to state. Probate is not nationally regulated, and state-level laws vary. An estate could be swiftly completed in one state and take a few months in another. Some states have adopted the Uniform Probate Code (UPC), designed to streamline the probate process by creating standardized laws. However, only 18 states have adopted this code to date.

Fighting among heirs makes probate take longer. Even small disputes can extend the probate process. If there are estranged family members, or someone feels they deserve a larger share of the estate, conflicts can lead to probate coming to a full stop.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help structure an estate plan to minimize the amount of assets passing through probate, while ensuring that your wishes are followed and loved ones are protected.

Reference: yahoo! (Nov. 21, 2022) “In-fighting Families, Wills, Laws & Other Things That Could Hold Up Probate”

Do I Need a Last Will and Testament?

Estate planning encompasses everything from planning for property distribution at death to preparing for incapacity, tax planning and guardian planning for minor children. An experienced estate planning attorney is involved with far more than a last will and testament. However, this is what most people think of when they sit down for their first meeting.

A recent article titled “Last Will and Testament” from mondaq examines what the last will and testament does and how it differs from trusts. These two are only part of a comprehensive estate plan.

A will is only effective upon death. Its directions are not followed while living or if a person becomes incapacitated. A will does not avoid probate, rather it ensures assets go to the people as directed by the person making the will. Without a will, assets are distributed according to the laws of the state, usually determined by kinship. A certain percentage will go to a spouse and another percentage will go to biological children. Unmarried partners and stepchildren have no legal right of inheritance.

The will is also the legal document used to name an executor, the person responsible for carrying out the directions in the will and managing the estate. The executor has a long list of duties, from making sure the will is validated by the court during probate to applying for an estate tax identification number with the IRS, opening an estate bank account, notifying Social Security of the decedent’s passing, paying debts, paying taxes for the individual and for the estate and distributing property,

The will is used to name a guardian for minor children. When planning has been done correctly, the guardian is provided with information about the children’s lives and financial planning has been done for the children’s support and for their education. A trust is usually used to hold assets for the benefit of the children, with a trustee named to manage funds.

Wills go through probate, which varies by state. Once the will is filed in court, it becomes a public document. Heirs must be notified, even those not included in the will. An alternative is creating and placing assets in a trust to protect privacy and manage and distribute property.

Trusts are not just for wealthy people. They are used to maintain privacy, as the assets in the trust do not pass through probate. The trustee is in charge of the trust and making distributions to beneficiaries. There are many different types of trusts; an experienced estate planning attorney will be able to recommend the optimal one for each client based on their situation.

The trust is effective upon its creation and is a separate legal entity and is also used to protect assets from creditors. Trusts are more complicated than traditional bank accounts. However, their ability to protect assets and maintain privacy make them a valuable part of any estate plan.

If a person becomes incapacitated, the trust remains in effect. If the trust is a revocable trust, meaning the grantor is able to change its terms as long as they are living and the grantor becomes incapacitated, a successor trustee can step in and manage the trust without court intervention.

Trusts do require diligence to create. Trust must be funded, meaning assets need to be retitled so they are owned by the trust. New accounts may need to be open, if retitling is not possible. Beneficiaries need to be established and terms need to be set. The trust can be created to fund a college education or for general use. However, terms need to be established.

A comprehensive estate plan protects the individual while they are living and protects the family after they have passed. It is a gift to those you love.

Reference: mondaq (Nov. 16, 2022) “Last Will and Testament”

Do I Need a Trust, or a Last Will and Testament?

Whether to have a will or a trust or both is often discussed when embarking on the estate planning process. Arriving at the answer, as discussed in a recent article, “Personal needs, preferences drive estate planning,” from The News-Enterprise, requires a closer look at each individual’s situation.

The last will and testament doesn’t take effect until two events occur: the person who created the will, the testator, has died, and the will has been filed with the local court. The will is used to distribute assets owned solely by the testator. Jointly owned property, property with a named beneficiary and trust-owned property passes to new owners outside of the will.

After the probate case is opened in the court, the will becomes a public record and is accessible in person and online. Other documents from the estate, which might include inventories of assets and information about property values, is also available to the public.

If it’s unsettling to think about strangers and scammers looking at these documents after you die, remember your estate planning attorney can explain your options, including trusts and beneficiary designations.

The executor is the person named in the will to distribute the estate. There are certain time restrictions to be aware of, depending on your state. All the necessary tasks, from distributing assets to selling a home and whatever instructions are in the will, need to be accomplished by a certain time. An estate planning attorney will help you map out a timeline.

A revocable will is not a purely testamentary document. It takes effect once it is established. A revocable trust can be thought of as in-between a will and a power of attorney. Trusts are not filed with the court, during life or after death, so their contents remain private.

The trustee—the person named to manage the trust—follows the directions in the trust documents to manage the property. If the trust directs that property be distributed immediately after death, the trustee does not have to wait for the will to be probated. The beneficiaries receive their inheritance as per the terms of the trust.

A grantor who is leaving property to children may find the advantages of a trust make it a better tool than a will. Funds can be allocated solely for college expenses or distributed only when certain milestones are reached. Note, however, that an inheritance trust can be created under a will, too. It is known as a “testamentary trust” in that case.

Estate planning is not a one-size-fits-all process. The best approach for one person may be completely wrong for another. An experienced estate planning attorney walks clients through the process, so they are able to make informed decisions and create an estate plan to work best for themselves and their loved ones.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Nov. 12, 2022) “Personal needs, preferences drive estate planning”

Could Your Estate Plan Be a Disaster?

You may think your estate plan is all set. However, it might not be. If you met with your attorney when your children were small, and your children are now grown and have children of their own, your estate could be a disaster waiting to happen, says a recent article “Today’s Business: Your estate plan—what could go wrong?” from the New Haven Register.

Most estate planning attorneys encourage their clients to revisit their estate plan every three to five years, with good reason. The size of your estate may have changed, you may have experienced a health issue, or you may have a new child or a grandchild. There may be tax law changes, statutes may have been updated and the plan you had three to five years ago may not accomplish what you want it to.

Many people say they “have nothing” and their estate is “simple.” They might also think “my spouse will get everything anyway.” This is wrong 99% of the time. There are unintended consequences of not having a will—accounts long forgotten, an untimely death of a joint owner, or a 40-year-old car with a higher value than anyone ever expected.

Your last will and testament designates who receives your assets and provides for any minors. A will can also help protect your wishes from a challenge by unwanted heirs after your passing.

The federal estate tax exemption today is $12.6 million, but if your will was created to minimize estate taxes when the exemption was $675,000, there may be unnecessary provisions in your plan. Heirs may be forced to set up inherited trusts or even sub-trusts. With today’s current exemption level, your plan may include trusts that no longer serve any purpose.

When was the last time you reviewed your will to see whether you still want the same people listed to serve as guardians for minor children, executors, or trustees? If those people are no longer in your family, or if the named person is now your ex, or if they’ve died, you have an ineffective estate plan.

Many adults believe they are too young to need an estate plan, or they’ve set up all of their assets to be owned jointly and, therefore, don’t need an estate plan. If one of the joint owners suffers a disability and is receiving government benefits, an inheritance could put all of their benefits at risk. Minor children might inherit your estate. However, the law does not permit minors to inherit assets, so someone needs to be named to serve as their conservator. If you don’t name someone, the court will, and it may not be the person you would choose.

What about using a template from an online website? Estate planning attorneys are called in to set things right from online wills with increasing frequency. The terms of a will are governed by state law and often these websites don’t explain how the document must be aligned with the statutes of the state where it is signed. Estate plans are not one-size-fits-all documents and a will deemed invalid by the court is the same as if there were no will at all.

If you don’t have an estate plan, if your estate plan is outdated, or if your estate plan was created using an online solution, your heirs may inherit a legal quagmire, in addition to your coin collection. Give yourself and them the peace of mind of knowing you’ve done the right thing and have your will updated or created with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: New Haven Register (Oct. 29, 2022) “Today’s Business: Your estate plan—what could go wrong?”

What Is the Point of a Trust?

A trust is an agreement made when a person, referred to as the trustor or grantor, gives a third party, known as the trustee, the authority to hold assets for the trust beneficiaries. The trustee is in charge of the trust and responsible for executing the trust’s instructions as per the language in the trust, explains a recent article from The Skim, “What is a Trust? (Spoiler: They’re Not Just for the Wealthy).”

Some examples of how trusts are used: if the grantor doesn’t want beneficiaries to have access to funds until they reach a certain age, the trustee will not distribute anything until the age as directed by the trust. The funds could also be solely used for the beneficiaries’ health care needs or education or whatever expense the grantor has named, the trustee decides when the funds should be released.

Trusts are not one-size-fits-all. There are many to choose from. For instance, if you wanted the bulk of your assets to go to your grandchildren, you might use a Generation-Skipping Trust. If you think your home’s value may skyrocket after you die, you might want to consider a Qualified Personal Residence Trust (QPRT) to reduce taxes.

Trusts fall into a few categories:

Testamentary Trust vs. Living Trust

A testamentary trust is known as a “trust under will” and is created based on provisions in the will after the grantor dies. A testamentary trust fund can be used to make gifts to charities or provide lifetime income for loved ones.

In most cases, trusts don’t have to go through the probate process, that is, being validated by the court before beneficiaries can receive their inheritance. However, because the testamentary trust is tied to the will, it is subject to probate. Your heirs may have to wait until the probate process is completed to receive their inheritance. This varies by state, so ask an estate planning attorney in your state.

Living trusts are created while you are living and are also known as revocable trusts. As the grantor, you may make as many changes as you like to the trust terms while living. Once you die, the trust becomes an irrevocable trust and the terms cannot be changed. There’s no need for the trust to go through probate and beneficiaries receive inheritances as per the directions in the trust.

What are the key benefits of creating a trust? A trust doesn’t always need to go through probate and gives you greater control over the assets. If you create an irrevocable trust and fund it while living, your assets are removed from your probate estate, which means whatever assets are moved into the trust are not subject to estate taxes.

Are there any reasons not to create a trust? There are costs associated with creating a trust. The trust must also be funded, meaning ownership documents like titles for a car or deeds for a house have to be revised to place the asset under the control of the trust. The same is true for stocks, bank accounts and any other asset used to fund the trust.

For gaining more control over your assets, minimizing estate taxes and making life easier for those you love after you pass, trusts are a valuable tool. Speak with your estate planning attorney to find out which trust works best for your situation. Your estate plan and any trusts should complement each other.

Reference: The Skim (Oct. 26, 2022) “What is a Trust? (Spoiler: They’re Not Just for the Wealthy)”