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”

Can You Place a Life Insurance Policy in a Trust?

Trusts are frequently used in the estate planning process. They help with in the distribution of assets, making certain that everything is distributed to the right people and entities. A trust can also reduce estate taxes, because it lets you remove assets from your estate, so more wealth can be passed to beneficiaries.

Many people don’t know that you can even place a life insurance policy within a trust. Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Can You Trust Your Trustee?” explains that life insurance in a trust is called trust-owned life insurance (TOLI). A TOLI is like bank-owned and company-owned life insurance. Trustees often do a good job of completing basic tasks, but conflicts and problems can pop up when trustees don’t understand where their loyalties should be and how to deal with complex financial issues.

A trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of a trust. The trustee is required to manage the trust assets pursuant to the instructions of the trust for the beneficiaries.

TOLI beneficiaries usually have a desire to maximize the amount of wealth they will receive, when the trust assets are distributed. The trustee must, therefore, actively manage the insurance policy, or policies, that are owned by the trust. This includes determining if the policy is performing up to the projections reflected in the original life insurance illustration. It also requires the trustee to try to identify alternative policies that may be more in line with the desires of the beneficiaries. New life insurance products have made some policies sold in the past obsolete. An old under-performing policy can often be replaced. However, some trustees don’t possess the skills necessary to oversee trust-owned life insurance. A trustee should understand and be aware of:

  • The policy’s performance relative to expectations
  • The last time the life insurance policy was reviewed
  • If there are other policies that may do a better job of meeting wishes and stipulations expressed in the trust document
  • Whether the credit rating of the insurance company that issued the policy has decreased and
  • If the allocation of the sub-accounts is still aligned with the investment policy statement.

Trust-owned life insurance can have an important role in the estate plans of many people, but not all trustees have the bandwidth when it comes to insurance and estate planning to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney for assistance.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2019) “Can You Trust Your Trustee?”

What Happens when Mom Refuses to Create an Estate Plan?

This is a tough scenario. It happens more often than you’d think. Someone owns a home, investment accounts and an inheritance, but doesn’t want to have an estate plan. They know they need to do something, but keep putting it off—until they die, and the family is left with an expensive and stressful mess. A recent article titled “How to Get a Loved One to Visit an Estate Planning Attorney Before It’s Too Late” from Kiplinger, explains how to help make things right.

Most people put off seeing an estate planning attorney, because they are afraid of death. They may also be overwhelmed by the thought of how much work is involved. They are also worried about what it all might cost. owever, if there is no estate plan, the costs will be far higher for the family.

How do you get the person to understand that they need to move forward?

Talk with the financial professionals the person already uses and trusts, like a CPA or financial advisor. Ask them for a referral to an estate planning attorney they think would be a good fit with the person who doesn’t have an estate plan. It may be easier to hear this message from a CPA, than from an adult child.

Work with that professional to promote the person, usually an older family member, to get comfortable with the idea to talk about their wishes and values with the estate planning attorney. Offer to attend the meeting, or to facilitate the video conference, to make the person feel more comfortable.

An experienced estate planning attorney will have worked with reluctant people before. They’ll know how to put the older person at ease and explore their concerns. When the conversation is pleasant and productive, the person may understand that the process will not be as challenging and that there will be a lot of help along the way.

If there is no trusted team of professionals, then offer to be a part of any conversations with the estate planning attorney to make the introductory discussion easier. Share your own experience in estate planning, and tread lightly.

Trying to force a person to engage in estate planning with a heavy hand, almost always ends up in a stubborn refusal. A gentle approach will always be more successful. Explain how part of the estate plan includes planning for medical decisions while the person is living and is not just about distributing their assets. You should be firm, consistent and kind.

Explaining what their family members will need to go through if there is no will, may or may not have an impact. Some people don’t care, and may simply shrug and say, “It’ll be their problem, not mine.” Consider what or who matters to the person. What if they could leave assets for a favorite grandchild to go to college? That might be more motivating.

One other thing to consider: if the person has an estate plan and it is out of date, that may be just as bad as not having an estate plan at all, especially when the person has been divorced and remarried. Just as many people refuse to have an estate plan, many people fail to update important documents, when they remarry. More than a few spouses come to estate planning attorney’s offices, when a loved one’s life insurance policy is going to their prior spouse. It’s too late to make any changes. A health care directive could also name a former brother-in-law to make important medical decisions. During a time of great duress, it is a bad time to learn that the formerly close in-law, who is now a sworn enemy, is the only one who can speak with doctors. Don’t procrastinate, if any of these issues are present.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 11, 2020) “How to Get a Loved One to Visit an Estate Planning Attorney Before It’s Too Late”

How Does a Spendthrift Trust Protect Heirs from Themselves?

This is not an unusual question for most estate planning lawyers—and in most cases, the children aren’t bad. They just lack self-control or have a history of making poor decisions. Fortunately, there are solutions, as described in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift” from NWI.com.

What needs to happen? Plan to provide for the child’s well-being but keep the actual assets out of their control. The best answer is the use of a trust. By leaving money to an heir in a trust, a responsible party can be in charge of the money. That person is known as the “trustee.”

People sometimes get nervous when they hear the word trust, because they think that a trust is only for wealthy people or that creating a trust must be very expensive. Not necessarily. In many states, a trust can be created to benefit an heir in the last will and testament. The will may be a little longer, but a trust can be created without the expense of an additional document. Your estate planning attorney will know how to create a trust, in accordance with the laws of your state.

In this scenario, the trust is created in the will, known as a testamentary trust. Instead of leaving money to Joe Smith directly, the money (or other asset) is left to the John Smith Testamentary Trust for the benefit of Joe Smith.

The terms of the trust are defined in the appropriate article in the will and can be created to suit your wishes. For instance, you can decide to distribute the money over a three or a thirty-year period. Funds could be distributed monthly, to create an income stream. They could also be distributed only when certain benchmarks are reached, such after a full year of employment has occurred. This is known as an incentive trust.

The opposite can be true: distributions can be withheld, if the heir is engaged in behavior you want to discourage, like gambling or using drugs.

If the funding for the trust will come from proceeds from a life insurance policy, it may be necessary to have your estate planning attorney contact the insurance company to be sure that the insurance company will permit a testamentary trust to be the beneficiary of the life insurance and avoid probate altogether.

Not all insurance companies will permit this. There may be some other changes that need to occur for this to work and be in compliance with your state’s laws. However, your estate planning attorney will be able to resolve the issue for you.

Reference: NWI.com (May 17, 2020) “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift”

Should I Use Life Insurance in My Estate Planning?

With proper planning, insurance money can pay expenses like estate taxes. It will help keep other assets intact.

For example, Hector passes away and leaves his rather large estate to his daughter, Isabella. Because of the size of the estate, there’s a hefty estate tax due. However, unfortunately, most of Hector’s assets are tied up in real estate and an IRA. Isabella may not be keen on a quick forced sale of the real estate to free up some cash for the taxes. If Isabella taps the inherited IRA to raise cash, she’ll have to pay income tax on the withdrawal and lose a valuable opportunity for extended tax deferral.

FedWeek’s recent article entitled “Using Life Insurance to Protect Your Estate” that in this scenario, Hector could plan ahead. Anticipating such a result, he could buy insurance on his own life. The proceeds of that policy could be used to pay the estate tax bill. Isabella can then keep the real estate, while taking only the Required Minimum Distributions (RMD) that are warranted by law from the inherited IRA. If the insurance policy is owned by Isabella or by a trust, the proceeds most likely won’t be included in Hector’s estate, and the money won’t increase the estate tax liability she has.

However, some common life insurance mistakes can sabotage your estate plan:

  • Designating your estate as the beneficiary. This will place the policy proceeds in your estate, which exposes the funds to estate tax and your creditors. Your executor will also have more paperwork, if your estate is the beneficiary. Instead, name the appropriate people, trust or charities.
  • Naming just a single beneficiary. Name at least two “backup” beneficiaries to decrease confusion, in the event the main beneficiary should die before you.
  • Placing your policy in the “file and forget” drawer. Review your policies at least once every three years, make the appropriate changes and get a confirmation, in writing, from the insurance company.
  • Inadequate insurance. In the event of your untimely death, if you have a young child, in all likelihood it will take hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay all her expenses, such as college tuition. Failing to purchase adequate insurance coverage may hurt your family. This also shouldn’t be a hardship with term insurance costs so low.

Reference: FedWeek (Feb. 6, 2020) “Using Life Insurance to Protect Your Estate”

What are the Main Estate Planning Blunders to Avoid?

There are a few important mistakes that can make an estate plan defective—most of these can be easily avoided by reviewing your estate plan periodically and keeping it up to date.

Investopedia’s article from a few years ago entitled “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning” lists these common blunders:

Not Updating Your Beneficiaries. Big events like a marriage, divorce, birth, adoption and death can all have an effect on who will receive your assets. Be certain that those you want to inherit your property are clearly detailed as such on the proper forms. Whenever you have a life change, update your estate plan, as well as all your financial, retirement accounts and insurance policies.

Forgetting Important Legal Documents. Your will may be just fine, but it won’t exempt your assets from the probate process in most states, if the dollar value of your estate exceeds a certain amount. Some assets are inherently exempt from probate by law, like life insurance, retirement plans and annuities and any financial account that has a transfer on death (TOD) beneficiary listed. You should also make sure that you nominate the guardians of minor children in your will, in the event that something should happen to you and/or your spouse or partner.

Lousy Recordkeeping. There are few things that your family will like less than having to spend a huge amount of time and effort finding, organizing and hunting down all of your assets and belongings without any directions from you on where to look. Create a detailed letter of instruction that tells your executor or executrix where everything is found, along with the names and contact information of everyone with whom they’ll have to work, like your banker, broker, insurance agent, financial planner, etc.. You should also list all of the financial websites you use with your login info, so that your accounts can be conveniently accessed.

Bad Communication. Telling your loved ones that you’ll do one thing with your money or possessions and then failing to make provisions in your plan for that to happen is a sure way to create hard feelings, broken relationships and perhaps litigation. It’s a good idea to compose a letter of explanation that sets out your intentions or tells them why you changed your mind about something. This could help in providing closure or peace of mind (despite the fact that it has no legal authority).

No Estate Plan. While this is about the most obvious mistake in the list, it’s also one of the most common. There are many tales of famous people who lost virtually all of their estates to court fees and legal costs, because they failed to plan.

These are just a few of the common estate planning errors that commonly happen. Make sure they don’t happen to you: talk to a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (Sep. 30, 2018) “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning”