Should I Add that to My Will?

In general, a last will and testament is an easy and straightforward way to state who gets what when you die and designate a guardian for your minor children, if you (and your spouse) die unexpectedly.

MSN’s recent article entitled “Things you should never put in your will” explains that you can be specific about who receives what. However, attaching strings or conditions may not work because there’s no one to legally enforce the terms. If you have specific details about how a person should use their inheritance, whether they are a spendthrift or someone with special needs, a trust may be a better option because you’ll have more control, even from beyond the grave.

Keeping some assets out of your will can actually benefit your future heirs because they’ll get their inheritance faster. When you pass on, your will must be “proven” and validated in a probate court prior to distribution of your property. This process takes some time and effort, if there are issues—including something in your will that doesn’t need to be there. For example, property in a trust and payable-on-death accounts are two types of assets that can be distributed to your beneficiaries without a will.

Don’t put anything in a will that you don’t own outright. If you jointly own assets with someone, they will likely become the new owner. For example, this applies to a property acquired by married couples in community property states.

Property in a revocable living trust. This is a separate entity that you can use to distribute your assets which avoids probate. When you title property into the trust, it is subject to the trust’s rules.  Because a trust operates independently, you must avoid inconsistencies and not include anything in your will that the trust addresses.

Assets with named beneficiaries. Some financial accounts are payable-on-death or transferable-on-death. They are distributed or paid out directly to the named beneficiaries. That makes putting them in a will unnecessary (and potentially troublesome, if you’re inconsistent). However, you can add information about these assets in your letter of instruction (see below). As far as bank accounts, brokerage or investment accounts, retirement accounts and pension plans and life insurance policies, assign a beneficiary rather than putting these assets in your will.

Jointly owned property. Property you jointly own with someone else will almost always directly pass to the co-owner when you die, so do not put it in your will. A common arrangement is joint tenancy with rights of survivorship.

Other things you may not want to put in a will. Businesses can be given away in a will, but it’s not the best plan. Wills must be probated in court and that can create a rough transition after you die. Instead, work with an experienced estate planning attorney on a succession plan for your business and discuss any estate tax issues you may have as a business owner.

Adding your funeral instructions in your will isn’t optimal. This is because the family may not be able to read the will before making arrangements. Instead, leave a letter of instruction with any personal wishes and desires.

Reference: MSN (Dec. 8, 2020) “Things you should never put in your will”

How Do I Keep Money in the Family?

That seems like an awfully large amount of money. You might think only the super wealthy need to worry about estate planning, but you’d be wrong to think planning is only necessary for the 1%.

US News and World Report’s recent article entitled “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family” reminds us that estate taxes may be only part of it. In many cases, there are income tax ramifications.

Your heirs may have to pay federal income taxes on retirement accounts. Some states also have their own estate taxes. You also want to make certain that your assets are transferred to the right people. Speaking with an experienced estate planning attorney is the best way to sort through complex issues surrounding estate planning. Here are some things you should cover:

Create a Will. This is a basic first step. However, 68% of Americans don’t take it. Many of those who don’t have a will (about a third) say it’s because they don’t have enough assets to make it worthwhile. This is not true. Without a will, your estate is governed by state law and will be divided in probate court. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you draft a will.  You should also review it on a regular basis because laws and family situations can change.

Review Your Beneficiaries. There are specific types of accounts, like retirement funds and life insurance in which the owners designate the beneficiaries, rather than this asset passing via the will. The named beneficiaries will also supersede any directions for the accounts in your will. Like your will, review your account beneficiaries after any major life change.

Consider a Trust. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about a trust for possible tax benefits and the ability to control when a beneficiary gets their money (after they graduate college or only for a first home, for example). If money is put in an irrevocable trust, the assets no longer belong to you. Instead, they belong to the trust. That money can’t be subject to estate taxes. In addition, a trust isn’t subject to probate, which keeps it private.

Convert to Roth’s. If you have a traditional 401(k) or IRA account, it might unintentionally create a hefty tax bill for your heirs. When your children inherit an IRA, they inherit the income tax liability that goes with it. Regular income tax must be paid on distributions from all traditional retirement accounts. In the past, non-spousal heirs, such as children could “stretch” those distributions over their lifetime to reduce the total amount of taxes due. However, now the account must be completely liquidated within 10 years after the death of the owner. If the account balance is substantial, it could necessitate major distributions that may be taxed at a higher rate. To avoid leaving beneficiaries with a large tax bill, you can gradually convert traditional accounts to Roth accounts that have tax-free distributions. The amount converted will be taxable on your income taxes, so the objective is to limit each year’s conversion, so it doesn’t move you into a higher tax bracket.

Make Gifts While You’re Alive. A great way to make certain that your money stays in the family, is to just give it to your heirs while you’re alive. The IRS allows individuals to give up to $15,000 per person per year in gifts. If you’re concerned about your estate being taxable, these gifts can decrease its value, and the money is tax-free for recipients.

Charitable Donations. You can also reduce your estate value, by making charitable donations. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about setting up a donor-advised fund, instead of making a one-time gift. This would give you an immediate tax deduction for money deposited in the fund and then let you make charitable grants over time. You could designate a child or grandchild as a successor in managing the fund.

Complicated strategies and a constantly changing tax code can make estate planning feel intimidating. However, ignoring it can be a costly mistake for your heirs. Talk to an estate planning attorney.

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

Does My Estate Plan Need an Audit?

You should have an estate plan because every state has statutes that describe how your assets are managed, and who benefits if you don’t have a will. Most people want to have more say about who and how their assets are managed, so they draft estate planning documents that match their objectives.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Auditing Your Estate Plan” says the first question is what are your estate planning objectives? Almost everyone wants to have financial security and the satisfaction of knowing how their assets will be properly managed. Therefore, these are often the most common objectives. However, some people also want to also promote the financial and personal growth of their families, provide for social and cultural objectives by giving to charity and other goals. To help you with deciding on your objectives and priorities, here are some of the most common objectives:

  • Making sure a surviving spouse or family is financially OK
  • Providing for others
  • Providing now for your children and later
  • Saving now on income taxes
  • Saving on estate and gift taxes in the future
  • Donating to charity
  • Having a trusted agency manage my assets, if I am incapacitated
  • Having money for my children’s education
  • Having retirement income; and
  • Shielding my assets from creditors.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about the way in which you should handle your assets. If your plan doesn’t meet your objectives, your estate plan should be revised. This will include a review of your will, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms and real property titles.

Note that joint accounts, pay on death (POD) accounts, retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities and other assets will transfer to your heirs by the way you designate your beneficiaries on those accounts. Any assets in a trust won’t go through probate. “Irrevocable” trusts may protect assets from the claims of creditors and possibly long-term care costs, if properly drafted and funded.

Another question is what happens in the event you become mentally or physically incapacitated and who will see to your financial and medical affairs. Use a power of attorney to name a person to act as your agent in these situations.

If, after your audit, you find that your plans need to be revised, follow these steps:

  1. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a plan based on your objectives
  2. Draft and execute a will and other estate planning documents customized to your plan
  3. Correctly title your assets and complete your beneficiary designations
  4. Create and fund trusts
  5. Draft and sign powers of attorney, in the event of your incapacity
  6. Draft and sign documents for ownership interest in businesses, intellectual property, artwork and real estate
  7. Discuss the consequences of implementing your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney; and
  8. Review your plan regularly.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 23, 2020) “Auditing Your Estate Plan”

Consider Funding a Trust with Life Insurance

How would funding a trust with life insurance work, and could it be a good option for you? A recent article in Forbes “How to Fund a Trust With Life Insurance” explains how this works. Let’s start with the basics: a trust is a legal entity where one party, the trustee, holds legal title to the assets owned by the trust, which is managed for the good of the beneficiary. There can be more than one person who benefits from the trust (beneficiaries) and there can be a co-trustee, but we’ll keep this simple.

Trusts are often funded with a life insurance policy. The proceeds of the policy provide the beneficiary with assets that are used after the death of the insured. This is especially important when the beneficiaries are minor children and the life insurance has been purchased by their parents. Placing the insurance policy within a trust offers more control over how funds are used.

What kind of a trust should you consider? All trusts are either revocable or irrevocable. There are pros and cons to both. Irrevocable trusts are better for tax purposes, as they are not included as part of your estate. However, with an $11.58 million federal exemption in 2020, most people don’t have to worry about federal estate taxes. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust throughout your life, while with an irrevocable trust, only a trustee can make changes.

Note that, in addition to federal taxes, most states have estate taxes of their own, and a few have inheritance taxes. When working with an estate planning attorney, they’ll help you navigate the tax aspect as well as the distribution of assets.

Revocable trusts are the most commonly used trust in estate planning. Here’s why:

  • Revocable trusts avoid probate, which can be a costly and lengthy process. Assets left in the revocable trust pass directly to the heirs, far quicker than those left through the will.
  • Because they are revocable, the creator of the will can make changes to the trust as circumstances change. This flexibility and control make the revocable trust more attractive in estate planning.

If you are using life insurance to fund the trust, be sure the policy permits you to name beneficiaries, and be certain to name beneficiaries. Missing this step is a common and critical mistake. The beneficiary designations must be crystal clear. If there are two cousins who have the same name, there will need to be a clear distinction made as to who is the beneficiary. If someone changes their name, that change must be reflected by the beneficiary designation.

There are many other types of trusts, including testamentary trusts and special needs trusts. Your estate planning attorney will know which trust is best for your situation. Make sure to fund the trust and update beneficiary designations, so the trust will achieve your goals.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 17, 2020) “How to Fund a Trust With Life Insurance”

What’s Involved in the Probate Process?

SWAAY’s recent article entitled “What is the Probate Process in Florida?” says that while every state has its own laws, the probate process can be fairly similar. Here are the basic steps in the probate process:

The family consults with an experienced probate attorney. Those mentioned in the decedent’s will should meet with a probate lawyer. During the meeting, all relevant documentation like the list of debts, life insurance policies, financial statements, real estate title deeds, and the will should be available.

Filing the petition. The process would be in initiated by the executor or personal representative named in the will. He or she is in charge of distributing the estate’s assets. If there’s no will, you can ask an estate planning attorney to petition a court to appoint an executor. When the court approves the estate representative, the Letters of Administration are issued as evidence of legal authority to act as the executor. The executor will pay state taxes, funeral costs, and creditor claims on behalf of the decedent. He or she will also notice creditors and beneficiaries, coordinate the asset distribution and then close the probate estate.

Noticing beneficiaries and creditors. The executor must notify all beneficiaries of trust estates, the surviving spouse and all parties that have the rights of inheritance. Creditors of the deceased will also want to be paid and will make a claim on the estate.

Obtaining the letters of administration (letters testamentary) obtained from the probate court. After the executor obtains the letter, he or she will open the estate account at a bank. Statements and assets that were in the deceased name will be liquidated and sold, if there’s a need. Proceeds obtained from the sale of property are kept in the estate account and are later distributed.

Settling all expenses, taxes, and estate debts. By law, the decedent’s debts must typically be settled prior to any distributions to the heirs. The executor will also prepare a final income tax return for the estate. Note that life insurance policies and retirement savings are distributed to heirs despite the debts owed, as they transfer by beneficiary designation outside of the will and probate.

Conducting an inventory of the estate. The executor will have conducted a final account of the remaining estate. This accounting will include the fees paid to the executor, probate expenses, cost of assets and the charges incurred when settling debts.

Distributing the assets. After the creditor claims have been settled, the executor will ask the court to transfer all assets to successors in compliance with state law or the provisions of the will. The court will issue an order to move the assets. If there’s no will, the state probate succession laws will decide who is entitled to receive a share of the property.

Finalizing the probate estate. The last step is for the executor to formally close the estate. The includes payment to creditors and distribution of assets, preparing a final distribution document and a closing affidavit that states that the assets were adequately distributed to all heirs.

Reference: SWAAY (Aug. 24, 2020) “What is the Probate Process in Florida?”

How Do I Find a Good Estate Planning Attorney?

About 68% of Americans don’t have a will. With the threat of the coronavirus on everyone’s mind, people are in urgent need of an estate plan.

To make sure your plan is proper and legal, consult an experienced estate planning attorney. Work with a lawyer who understands your needs, has years of experience and knows the law in your state.

EconoTimes’ recent article entitled “Top 3 Estate Planning Tips When Seeing An Attorney” provides several tips for estate planning, when seeing an attorney.

Attorney Experience. An estate planning attorney will have the experience and specialized knowledge to help you, compared to a general practitioner. Look for an attorney who specializes in estate planning.

Inventory. List everything you have. Once you start the list, you may be surprised with the tangible and intangible assets you possess.

Tangible assets may include:

  • Cars and boats
  • Homes, land, and other real estate
  • Collectibles like art, coins, or antiques; and
  • Other personal possessions.

Your intangible assets may include:

  • Mutual funds, bonds, stocks
  • Savings accounts and certificates of deposit
  • Retirement plans
  • Health saving accounts; and
  • Business ownership.

Create Your Estate Planning Documents. Prior to seeing an experienced estate planning attorney, he or she will have you fill out a questionnaire and to bring a list of documents to the appointment. In every estate plan, the core documents often include a creating a last will and powers of attorney, as well as coordinating your Beneficiary Designations on life insurance and investment accounts. You may also want to ask about a trust and, if you haver minor children, selecting a guardian for their care, if you should pass away. You should also ask about estate taxes with the attorney.

Reference: EconoTimes (July 30, 2020) “Top 3 Estate Planning Tips When Seeing An Attorney”

Can I Protect My Estate with Life Insurance?

With proper planning, insurance money can pay expenses, such as estate tax and keep other assets intact, says FedWeek’s article entitled “Protect Your Estate With Life Insurance.”

The article provides the story of “Bill” as an example. He dies and leaves a large estate to his daughter Julia. There are significant estate taxes due. However, most of Bill’s assets are tied up in real estate and an IRA. Julia may not want to hurry into a forced sale of the real estate. If she taps the inherited IRA to raise cash, she’ll be forced to pay income tax on the withdrawal and lose a valuable opportunity for extended tax deferral.

A wise move for Bill would be to purchase life insurance on his own life. The policy’s proceeds could be used to pay the estate tax bill. Julia will then be able to keep the real estate, while taking only the Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) from the inherited IRA. If Julia owns the insurance policy or it’s owned by a trust, the proceeds probably will not be included in Bill’s estate and won’t help with the estate tax obligation.

However, there are a few common life insurance errors that can damage an estate plan:

Designating the estate as beneficiary. If you make this move, you put the policy proceeds in your estate, where the money will be exposed to estate tax and your creditors. Your executor will also have additional paperwork, if your estate is the beneficiary. Instead, be certain to name the appropriate people or charities.

Designating a single beneficiary. Name at least two “backup” or contingency beneficiaries. This will eliminate some confusion in the event the primary beneficiary should predecease you.

Placing your life insurance in the “file and forget” file. Be sure to review your policies at least once every three years. If the beneficiary is an ex-spouse or someone who has passed away, you need to make the appropriate change and get a confirmation, in writing, from your life insurance company.

Inadequate insurance. You may not have enough life insurance. If you have a young child, it may require hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay all of his or her expenses, such as college tuition and expenses, in the event of your untimely death. Skimping on insurance may hurt your surviving family. You also don’t need to be so thrifty, because today’s term insurance costs are very low.

Reference: FedWeek (June 11, 2020) “Protect Your Estate With Life Insurance”

What If Grandma Didn’t Have a Will and Died from COVID-19?

The latest report shows about 1.87 million reported cases and at least 108,000 COVID-19-related deaths were reported in the U.S., according to data released by Johns Hopkins University and Medicine.

Here’s a question that is being asked a lot these days: What happens if someone dies “intestate,” or without having established a will or estate plans?

If you die without a will in California and many other states, your assets will go to your closest relatives under state “intestate succession” statutes.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “My loved one died without a will – now what?” explains that there are laws in each state that will dictate what happens, if you die without a will.

In Pennsylvania, the laws list the order of who receives upon your death, if you die without a will: your spouse, your children, and then your parents (if still alive), your siblings, and then on down the line to cousins, aunts and uncles, and the like. Typically, first on every state’s list is the spouse and the children.

You may also have some valuable assets that will not pass via your will and aren’t affected by your state’s intestate succession laws. Here are some of the common ones:

  • Any property that you’ve transferred to a living trust
  • Your life insurance proceeds
  • Funds in an IRA, 401(k), or other retirement accounts
  • Any securities held in a transfer-on-death account
  • A payable-on-death bank account
  • Your vehicles held by transfer-on-death registration; or
  • Property you own with someone else in joint tenancy or as community property with the right of survivorship.

These types of assets will pass to the surviving co-owner or to the beneficiary you named, whether or not you have a will.

It’s quite unusual for the government to claim a deceased person’s estate. While it might be allowed in some states, it’s considered a last resort. Typically, we all have some relatives.

If you have a loved one who has died without a will, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about your next steps.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (June 1, 2020) “My loved one died without a will – now what?”

What You Need to Know about Drafting Your Will

A last will and testament is just one of the legal documents that you should have in place to help your loved ones know what your wishes are, if you can’t say so yourself, advises CNBC’s recent article entitled, “Here’s what you need to know about creating a will.” In this pandemic, the coronavirus may have you thinking more about your mortality.

Despite COVID-19, it’s important to ponder what would happen to your bank accounts, your home, your belongings or even your minor children, if you’re no longer here. You should prepare a will, if you don’t already have one. It is also important to update your will, if it’s been written.

If you don’t have a valid will, your property will pass on to your heirs by law. These individuals may or may not be who you would have provided for in a will. If you pass away with no will —dying intestate — a state court decides who gets your assets and, if you have children, a judge says who will care for them. As a result, if you have an unmarried partner or a favorite charity but have no legal no will, your assets may not go to them.

The courts will typically pass on assets to your closest blood relatives, despite the fact that it wouldn’t have been your first choice.

Your will is just one part of a complete estate plan. Putting a plan in place for your assets helps ensure that at your death, your wishes will be carried out and that family fights and hurt feelings don’t make for destroyed relationships.

There are some assets that pass outside of the will, such as retirement accounts, 401(k) plans, pensions, IRAs and life insurance policies.

Therefore, the individual designated as beneficiary on those accounts will receive the money, despite any directions to the contrary in your will. If there’s no beneficiary is listed on those accounts, or the beneficiary has already passed away, the assets automatically go into probate—the process by which all of your debt is paid off and then the remaining assets are distributed to heirs.

If you own a home, be certain that you know the way in which it should be titled. This will help it end up with those you intend, since laws vary from state to state.

Ask an estate planning attorney in your area — to ensure familiarity with state laws—for help with your will and the rest of your estate plan.

Reference: CNBC (June 1, 2020) “Here’s what you need to know about creating a will”

What You Need to Know about Trusts

Some people still think that trusts and estate planning are just for wealthy people. However, that’s simply not true. Many people are good candidates for trusts, used to protect their assets and their families. Trusts can also be used to avoid probate, says the article “Common misconceptions about trusts” from the Rome Sentinel.

Who controls my property? The grantor, or the person setting up the trust, has the option of being a trustee, if they are setting up a revocable trust or an irrevocable trust. There are tax differences, so you’ll want to do this with an estate planning attorney. The grantor names co-trustees, if you wish. They are usually a spouse, adult child, or trusted adult. Successor trustees, that is, people who will take over the trust if the primary trustee becomes incapacitated or dies.

Only rich people need trusts. Anyone who owns a home, has life insurance and other assets worth more than $150,000 can benefit from the protection that a trust provides. The type of trust depends the grantor’s age, health status, and the amount, variety, and location of assets. A healthy person who owns a lot of life insurance or other assets would probably want either a Revocable Living Trust or a Will that includes a Testamentary Trust. However, a person who is over 55 and is planning for nursing home care, is more likely to have an Irrevocable Medicaid Trust to protect assets, avoid probate and minimize tax liability.

Can I access assets in a trust? A properly prepared trust takes your lifestyle and spending into account. Certain types of trusts are more flexible than others, and an estate planning attorney will be able to make an appropriate recommendation.

For instance, if you have an Irrevocable Medicaid Trust, you will be restricted from taking the principal asset back directly. The assets in this type of trust can be used to fund costs and expenses of real property, including mortgage payments, taxes, furnace and roof repairs. An IMT needs to be set up with enough assets outside of it, so you can have an active retirement and enjoy your life. Assets outside of the trust are your spendable money.

Can my children or any others take assets from the trust? No, and that’s also the point of trusts. Unless you name someone as a Trustee with the power to take assets out of the trust, they cannot access the funds. The grantor retains control over what assets may be gifted during their lifetime. They can also impose restrictions on how assets are restricted after death. Some trusts are created to set specific ages or milestones, when beneficiaries receive all or some of the assets in the trust.

Trusts are not one size-fits all. Trusts need to be created to serve each family’s unique situation. An experienced estate planning attorney will work with the family to determine their overall goals, and then determine how trusts can be used as part of their estate plan to achieve goals.

Reference: Rome Sentinel (May 31, 2020) “Common misconceptions about trusts”