What Should I Know about Estate Planning before ‘I Do’?

Romance is in the air. Spring is the time for marriages, and with America coming out of the pandemic, wedding calendars will be filled.

AZ Big Media’s recent article entitled “5 estate planning tips for newlyweds” gives those ready to walk down the aisle a few things to consider.

  1. Prenuptial Agreement. Commonly referred to as a prenup, this is a written contract that you and your spouse enter into before getting legally married. It provides details on what happens to finances and assets during your marriage and, of course, in the event of divorce. A prenup is particularly important if one of the spouses already has significant assets and earnings and wishes to protect them in the event of divorce or death.
  2. Review you restate plan. Even if you come into a marriage with an existing plan, it’s out of date as soon as you’re wed.
  3. Update your beneficiary designations. Much of an individual’s estate plan takes place by beneficiary designations. Decide if you want your future spouse to be a beneficiary of life insurance, IRAs, or other pay on death accounts.
  4. Consider real estate. A married couple frequently opts to live in the residence of one of the spouses. This should be covered in the prenup. However, in a greater picture, decide in the event of the death of the owner, if you’d want this real estate to pass to the survivor, or would you want the survivor simply to have the right to live in the property for a specified period of time.
  5. Life insurance. You want to be sure that one spouse is taken care of in the event of your death. A married couple often relies on the incomes of both spouses, but death will wreck that plan. Think about life insurance as a substitute for a spouse’s earning capacity.

If you are soon-to-be-married or recently married and want to discuss it with an expert, make an appointment with a skilled estate planning attorney.

Reference:  AZ Big Media (March 23, 2022) “5 estate planning tips for newlyweds”

How Do I Conduct an Estate Inventory?

When a loved one dies, it may be necessary for their estate to go through probate—a court-supervised process in which his or her estate is settled, outstanding debts are paid and assets are distributed to the deceased person’s heirs. An executor is tasked with overseeing the probate process. An important task for an executor is submitting a detailed inventory of the estate to the probate court.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?” looks at the estate inventory. During probate, the executor is charged with several duties, including collecting assets, estimating the fair market value of all assets in the estate, ascertaining the ownership status of each asset and liquidating assets to pay off outstanding debts, if needed. The probate court will need to see an inventory of the estate’s assets before distributing those assets to the deceased’s heirs.

An estate inventory includes all the assets of an estate belonging to the individual who’s passed away. It can also include a listing of the person’s liabilities or debts. In terms of assets, this would include:

  • Bank accounts, checking accounts, savings accounts, money market accounts and CDs
  • Investment accounts
  • Business interests
  • Real estate
  • Pension plans and workplace retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s and 457 plans
  • Life insurance, disability insurance, annuities and long-term care insurance
  • Intellectual property, such as copyrights, trademarks and patents
  • Household items
  • Personal effects; and

Here’s what’s included in an estate inventory on the liabilities side:

  • Home mortgages;
  • Outstanding business loans, personal loans and private student loans;
  • Auto loans associated with a vehicle included on the asset side of the inventory
  • Credit cards and open lines of credit
  • Any unpaid medical bills
  • Unpaid taxes; and
  • Any other outstanding debts, including unpaid court judgments.

There is usually no asset or liability that’s too small to be included in the estate inventory.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Feb. 15, 2022) “What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?”

Does Power of Attorney Perform the Same Way in Every State?

A power of attorney is an estate planning legal document signed by a person, referred to as the “principal,” who grants all or part of their decision-making power to another person, who is known as the “agent.” Power of attorney laws vary by state, making it crucial to work with an estate planning attorney who is experienced in the law of the principal’s state of residence. The recent article from limaohio.com, titled “When ‘anything and everything’ does not mean anything and everything,” explains what this means for agents attempting to act on behalf of principals.

When a global or comprehensive power of attorney grants an agent the ability to do everything and anything, it may seem to the layperson they may do whatever they need to do. However, each state has laws defining an agent’s role and responsibilities.

As a matter of state law, a power of attorney does not include everything.

In some states, unless certain powers are explicitly stated, the POA does not include the right to do the following:

  • Create, amend, revoke, or terminate a trust
  • Make a gift
  • Change a beneficiary designation on an account
  • Change a beneficiary designation on a life insurance policy.

If you want your agent to be able to do any of these things, consult with an experienced estate planning attorney, who will know what your state’s law allows.

You’ll also want to keep in mind any gifting empowered by the POA. If you want your agent to gift your property to other people or to the agent, the power to gift is limited to $16,000 of value to any person in one year, unless the POA explicitly states the power to gift may exceed $16,000. An estate planning attorney will know what your state’s limits are and the tax implications of any gifts in excess of $16,000.

These types of limitations are intended to give some common-sense parameters to the POA.

Most people don’t know this, but the power of attorney can be as narrow or as broad as the principal wishes. You may want your brother-in-law to manage the sale of your home but aren’t sure he’ll do a good job with your fine art collection. Your estate planning attorney can create a power of attorney excluding him from taking any role with the art collection and empowering him to handle everything else.

Reference: limaohio.com (April 30, 2022) “When ‘anything and everything’ does not mean anything and everything”

What Needs to Be Reviewed in Estate Plan?

When it comes to drafting a will and other estate planning documents, note that you probably should revisit them many times before they actually are needed, advises, CNBC’s recent article entitled “Be sure to keep your will or estate plan updated. Here are 3 key reasons why.”

You should give these end-of-life legal papers a review at least every few years, unless there are reasons to do it more often. Things like marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child should necessitate a review. Coming into a lot of money (i.e., inheritance, lottery win, etc.) or moving to another state where estate laws differ from the one where your will was drawn up, mean that you should review your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney.

About 46% of U.S. adults have a will, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. If you are among those who have a will or full-blown estate plan, here are some things to review and why.

Even though your will is all about you, there are other people you need to rely on to carry out your wishes. This makes it important to review who you have named to be executor. He or she must liquidate accounts, ensure your assets go to the proper beneficiaries, pay any debts not discharged (i.e., taxes owed), and sell your home. You should also be sure that the guardian you have named to care for your children is still the person you would want in that position.

As part of estate planning, you may create other documents related to end-of-life issues, such as powers of attorney. The person who is given this responsibility for decisions related to your health care is frequently different from whom you would name to handle your financial affairs. You should look at both of those choices.

Even if you have experienced no major life events, those you previously chose to handle certain duties may no longer be your best option.

Remember that some assets pass outside of the will, including retirement accounts like a 401(k) plan, IRAs and life insurance policies. This means the person named as a beneficiary on those accounts will generally receive the money no matter what your will states. Bank accounts can have beneficiaries listed on a pay-on-death form, which your bank can supply.

If a beneficiary is not listed on those non-will items or the named person has already passed away (and there is no contingent beneficiary listed), the assets automatically go into probate.

Reference: CNBC (Jan. 27, 2022) “Be sure to keep your will or estate plan updated. Here are 3 key reasons why”

Can I Avoid Probate?

If you have life insurance, lifetime survivor benefits, a home or other investments, who gets them and when depends on what you have done or should do: have an estate plan. This is how you legally protect your family and friends to be sure that they receive what you want after you die, says the article “How (and why) to avoid probate: A slap at your family!” from Federal News Network.

A common goal is to simplify your estate plan to make administering it as easy as possible for your loved ones. This usually involves structuring an estate plan to avoid probate, which can be time-consuming and, depending on where you live, add a considerable cost to settle your estate.

There are a number of ways to accomplish this through an estate plan, including jointly owned property, beneficiary designations and the use of trusts.

Many individuals hold property in joint names, also known as “tenant by the entirety” with a spouse. When one spouse dies, the other becomes the owner without probate. It should be noted that this supersedes the terms of a will or a trust.

Another type of joint ownership is “tenancy in common,” However, property held as tenants in common does not avoid probate. The distribution of property titled this way is governed by the will. If there is no will, the state’s estate laws will govern who receives the property on death of one of the owners.

Beware: property owned jointly is subject to any litigation or creditor issues of a joint owner. It can be risky.

Beneficiary designations are a seamless way to transfer property. This can take the form of a POD (payable on death) or TOD (transfer on death) account. Pensions, insurance policies and certain types of retirement accounts provide owners with the opportunity to name a beneficiary. Upon the death of the owner, the assets pass directly to the beneficiary. The asset is not subject to probate and the designations supersede the terms of a will or trust.

Review beneficiary designations every time you review your estate plan. If you opened a 401(k) account at your first job and have not reviewed the beneficiary designation in many years, you may be unwittingly giving someone you have not seen for years a nice surprise upon your passing.

If you own assets other than joint property or assets without beneficiary designation, an estate planning attorney can structure your estate plan to include trusts. A trust is a legal entity owning any property transferred into it. A trust can avoid probate and provide a great deal of control by the grantor as to what they want to happen to the property.

Reference: Federal News Network (March 30, 2022) “How (and why) to avoid probate: A slap at your family!”

How Do I Avoid Probate?

Probate can tie up the estate for months and be an added expense. Some states have a streamlined process for less valuable estates, but probate still has delays, extra expense and work for the estate administrator. A probated estate is also a public record anyone can review.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “7 Ways To Avoid Probate Without A Living Trust” says that avoiding probate often is a big estate planning goal. You can structure the estate so that all or most of it passes to your loved ones without this process.

A living trust is the most well-known way to avoid probate. However, retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, avoid probate. The beneficiary designation on file with the account administrator or trustee determines who inherits them. Likewise, life insurance benefits and annuities are distributed to the beneficiaries named in the contract.

Joint accounts and joint title are ways to avoid probate. Married couples can own real estate or financial accounts through joint tenancy with right of survivorship. The surviving spouse automatically takes full title after the other spouse passes away. Non-spouses also can establish joint title, like when a senior creates a joint account with an adult child at a financial institution. The child will automatically inherit the account when the parent passes away without probate. If the parent cannot manage his or her affairs at some point, the child can manage the finances without the need for a power of attorney.

Note that all joint owners have equal rights to the property. A joint owner can take withdrawals without the consent of the other. Once joint title is established you cannot sell, give or dispose of the property without the consent of the other joint owner.

A transfer on death provision (TOD) is another vehicle to avoid probate. You might come across the traditional term Totten trust, which is another name for a TOD or POD account (but there is no trust involved). After the original owner passes away, the TOD account is transferred to the beneficiary or changed to his or her name, once the financial institution gets the death certificate.

You can name multiple beneficiaries and specify the percentage of the account each will inherit. However, beneficiaries under a TOD have no rights in or access to the account while the owner is alive.

Reference: Forbes (March 28, 2022) “7 Ways To Avoid Probate Without A Living Trust”

What Can I Do Instead of a Stretch IRA?

The idea of leaving a large inheritance to loved ones is a dream for some parents. However, without careful planning, heirs may end up with a large tax bill. When Congress passed the SECURE Act in December 2019, one of the changes was the end of the stretch IRA, as reported by Kiplinger in a recent article titled “Getting Around the Stretch IRA Block.”

Before the SECURE Act, people who inherited traditional IRAs needed to only take a minimum distribution annually, based on their own life expectancy. The money could grow tax-deferred for the rest of their lives. The tax impact was mild, because withdrawals could be spread out over many years, giving the new owner control over their taxable income. The rules were the same for an inherited Roth IRA. Distributions were based on the heirs’ life expectancy. Roth IRA heirs had the added benefit of not having to pay taxes on withdrawals, since Roth IRAs are funded with post-tax dollars.

After the SECURE Act, inherited traditional and Roth IRAs need to be emptied within ten years. Heirs can wait until the 10th year and empty the account all at once—and end up with a whopping tax bill—or take it out incrementally. However, it has to be emptied within ten years.

There are some exceptions: spouses, disabled or chronically ill individuals, or those who are not more than ten years younger than the original owner can stretch out the distribution of the IRA funds. If an underage minor inherits a traditional IRA, they can stretch it until they reach legal age. At that point, they have to withdraw all the funds in ten years—from age 18 to 28. This may not be the best time for a young person to have access to a large inheritance.

These changes have left many IRA owners looking for alternative ways to leave inheritances and find a work-around for their IRAs to protect their heirs from losing their inheritance to taxes or getting their inheritance at a young age.

For many, the solution is converting their traditional IRA to a Roth, where the IRA owner pays the taxes for their heirs. The strategy is generous and may be more tax efficient if the conversion is done during a time in retirement when the IRA owner’s income is lower, and they may be in a lower tax bracket. The average person receiving an IRA inheritance is around 50, typically peak earning years and the worst time to inherit a taxable asset.

Another way to avoid the stretch IRA is life insurance. Distributions from the IRA can be used to pay premiums on a life insurance policy, with beneficiaries receiving death benefits. The proceeds from the policy are tax-free, although the proceeds are considered part of the policy owner’s estate. With the current federal exemption at $12.06 million for individuals, the state estate tax is the only thing most people will need to worry about.

A Charitable Remainder Trust can also be used to mimic a stretch IRA. A CRT is an irrevocable split-interest trust, providing income to the grantor and designated beneficiaries for up to twenty years or the lifetime of the beneficiaries. Any remaining assets are donated to charity, which must receive at least 10% of the trust’s initial value. If the CRT is named as the IRA beneficiary, the IRA funds are distributed to the CRT upon the owner’s death and the estate gets a charitable estate tax deduction (and not an income tax deduction) for the portion expected to go to the charity. Assets grow within the charitable trust, which pays out a set percentage to beneficiaries each year. The distributions are taxable income for the beneficiaries. There are two types of CRTs: Charitable Remainder Unitrust and a Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust. An estate planning attorney will know which one is best suited for your family.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 3, 2022) “Getting Around the Stretch IRA Block”

Why Is Estate Planning Review Important?

Maybe your estate plan was created when you were single, and there have been some significant changes in your life. Perhaps you got married or divorced.

You also may now be on better terms with children with whom you were once estranged.

Tax and estate laws can also change over time, requiring further updates to your planning documents.

WMUR’s recent article entitled “The ‘final’ estate-planning step” reminds us that change is a constant thing. With that in mind, here are some key indicators that a review is in order.

  • The value of your estate has changed dramatically
  • You or your spouse changed jobs
  • Changes to your income level or income needs
  • You are retiring and no longer working
  • There is a divorce or marriage in your family
  • There is a new child or grandchild
  • There is a death in the family
  • You (or a close family member) have become ill or incapacitated
  • Your parents have become dependent on you
  • You have formed, purchased, or sold a business;
  • You make significant financial transactions, such as substantial gifts, borrowing or lending money, or purchasing, leasing, or selling assets or investments
  • You have moved
  • You have purchased a vacation home or other property in another state
  • A designated trustee, executor, or guardian dies or changes his or her mind about serving; and
  • You are making changes in your insurance coverage.

Reference: WMUR (Feb. 3, 2022) “The ‘final’ estate-planning step”

Can You Set Up a Trust After Death?

If you want the power of a trust without the work of maintaining it, a testamentary trust may be the right solution for your estate plan. Estate planning attorneys rely on many trusts, but two categories are most common: inter vivos trusts, trusts set up during your lifetime to offer the most flexibility, and testamentary trusts, as described in the article “Trusts can be created after death” from The News-Enterprise.

For an inter vivos trust, the grantor (the person making the trust) places property into the trust. These assets are thereby removed from the probate estate and pass directly to beneficiaries. Placing property into the trust requires having assets retitled and some trusts pay taxes. Not everyone wants to do the work. However, it is not onerous unless the estate is large, in which case an estate planning attorney can manage the details.

The testamentary trust is quite simple. The terms and directions for the trust are the same as in inter vivos trust but are inside the last will and testament. There is no separate trust document. The trust is located within the will.

The costs of creating a testamentary trust are lower, since the trust does not exist until the person dies. Your executor is responsible for transferring assets into the trust. Many wills contain “trigger” trusts, which only become effective if pre-determined circumstances of the beneficiary occur to trigger the trust. If a beneficiary becomes disabled, for instance, the provisions become active.

There are some disadvantages to be aware of, which your estate planning attorney can explain if they pertain to your situation.

Testamentary trusts must by their nature go through probate before they are created. People use trusts to protect their privacy. However, a testamentary trust becomes part of the public record as part of the probate estate. With a testamentary trust, trust documents are private during your life and after you have died.

If dependents require funds from the trust because they are disabled or dependent, they must wait until the grantor dies and probate is completed, since the trust does not exist until after probate. As most people know, probate does not always occur in a timely manner.

Other issues: some life insurance companies may not permit a testamentary trust to be a beneficiary. The trust may only be funded with assets left after creditors have been paid. If there is a home to be sold, assets may not be available for a year or more.

Testamentary trusts do not shield assets during your lifetime, another key benefit for using a trust.

Testamentary trusts offer certain means of controlling distribution of assets after death, but should be considered with all factors in mind, benefits and drawbacks. In estate planning, as in life, it is always best to prepare for the unexpected.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 8, 2022) “Trusts can be created after death”

What Should Not Be Included in Trust?

Whether you have a will or not, assets may go through the probate process when you die. People use trusts to take assets out of their probate estate, but they don’t always understand the relationship between wills and trusts. This is explored in a recent article “What Assets Should be Included in Your Trust?” from Kiplinger.

Probate can be a long and expensive process for heirs, taking from a few months to a few years, depending on the size and complexity of the estate. Many people ask their estate planning attorney about using trusts to protect and preserve assets, while minimizing the amount of assets going through probate.

Revocable trusts are used to pass assets directly to beneficiaries, under the directions you determine as the “grantor,” or person making the trust. You can set certain parameters for assets to be distributed, like achieving goals or milestones. A trust provides privacy: the trust documents do not become part of the public record, as wills do, so the information about assets in the trust is known only to the trustees. If you become incapacitated, the trust is already in place, protecting assets and fulfilling your wishes.

Estate planning attorneys know there’s no way to completely avoid probate. Some assets cannot go into trusts. However, removing as many assets as possible (i.e., permitted by law) can minimize probate.

Once trust documents are signed and the trusts are created, the work of moving assets begins. If this is overlooked, the assets remain in the probate estate and the trust is useless. Assets are transferred to the trust by retitling or renaming the trust as the owner.

Assets placed in a trust include real estate, investment accounts, life insurance, annuity certificates, business interests, shareholders stock from privately owned businesses, money market accounts and safe deposit boxes.

Funding the trust with accounts held by financial institutions is a time-consuming process. However, it is necessary for the estate plan to achieve its goals. It often requires new account paperwork and signed authorizations to retitle or transfer the assets. Bond and stock certificates require a change of ownership, done through a stock transfer agent or bond issuer.

Annuities already have preferential tax treatment, so placing them in a trust may not be necessary. Read the fine print, since it’s possible that placing an annuity in a trust may void tax benefits.

Certificates of Deposit (CDs) are usually transferred to a trust by opening a new CD but be mindful of any early termination penalties.

Life insurance is protected if it is placed in a trust. However, there are risks to naming the living trust as a beneficiary of the insurance policy. If you are the trustee of your revocable trust, all assets in the trust are considered to be your property. Life insurance proceeds are included in the estate’s worth and could create a taxable situation, if you reach the IRS threshold. Speak with your estate planning attorney to determine the best strategy for your trust and your insurance policy.

Should you put a business into a trust? Transferring a small business during probate presents many challenges, including having your executor run the business under court supervision. For a sole proprietor, transfers to a trust behave the same as transferring any other personal asset. With partnerships, shares may be transferred to a living trust. However, if you hold an ownership certificate, it will need to be modified to show the trust as the shareowner instead of yourself.  Some partnership agreements also prohibit transferring assets to living trusts.

Retirement accounts may not be placed in a trust. Doing so would require a withdrawal, which would trigger income taxes and possibly, extreme penalties. It is better to name the trust as a primary or secondary beneficiary of the account. Funds will transfer upon your death. Health or medical savings accounts cannot be transferred to a living trust, but they can be named as a primary or secondary beneficiary.

Careful consideration needs to be made when determining which assets to place within a trust and which should remain as part of your probate estate. Your estate planning attorney will know what is permitted in your state and what best suits your situation.

Reference: Kiplinger (Jan. 16, 2022) “What Assets Should be Included in Your Trust?”