Don’t Miss Out on Estate Planning Opportunities

The recent article, “Rooting Out Estate Planning Opportunities,” from Financial Advisor offers a number of frequently missed opportunities in estate planning. Chief among them are failing to update estate plans, as changes to tax laws could mean that strategies used when your estate plan was initially created may no longer be relevant.

Before these opportunities can be discovered, it’s important to have a clear accounting of all of your assets, including a balance sheet of each “bucket” of resources: personal assets, trust assets, qualified plan assets, etc. The secret to success: meeting with your estate planning attorney every few years to review this entire picture to identify potential opportunities.

Once you have a sense of the whole picture, it’s easier to spot opportunities for your Estate Planning. For instance:

A Spousal Lifetime Access Trust, or SLAT, is an irrevocable trust used when a grantor wants to transfer part of their spousal exclusion into a SLAT to provide for their spouse and descendants. The SLAT keeps assets out of the donor’s estate and authorizes the trustee to make distributions to the grantor’s spouse, while at the same time it allows children or other heirs to be named as beneficiaries. Many couples use these trusts to protect assets from lawsuits.

There are some drawbacks to keep in mind. If one spouse is the beneficiary of the other spouse, all is well while both are living. However, if one spouse dies or becomes incapacitated and all assets are in the trust, the other may lose access to the trust created for the now deceased spouse.

The loss of access and the restrictions on SLAT distribution could be addressed by having both spouses purchase life insurance policies to fill the gap. At the same time, the couple would be well advised to look into disability and long-term care insurance.

Another situation is the use of a credit shelter trust, often called a bypass trust because it bypasses the surviving spouse’s estate. They are not as advantageous as they used to be because of today’s high estate tax exemption. They were also popular when the surviving spouse wasn’t able to use their deceased spouse’s estate tax exemption.

With the federal estate tax exemption up to more than $12 million, many who still have credit shelter trusts may find they don’t make sense in the short term. However, for now the federal estate exemption is set to drop down to $6 million when the Jobs and Tax Act sunsets. Depending upon your circumstances, it may be worthwhile to maintain this trust. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you.

Merging old trusts into new ones, or “decanting” them, makes sense in some situations. A new trust can be better crafted to align with the latest in tax laws and serve the same beneficiaries for as long as your state’s laws permit.

The two important takeaways here:

  • Estate planning requires a complete look at all of your assets and liabilities to make the best decisions on how to structure any estate and tax strategies; and
  • Estate planning needs to be reviewed on a regular basis—every three to five years at a minimum—to ensure the strategies still work, despite any changes in tax laws and your situation.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Nov. 1, 2022) “Rooting Out Estate Planning Opportunities”

Should I List Beneficiaries on my Life Insurance?

What are the primary benefits of having a life insurance policy? In exchange for a monthly or annual payment to a life insurance provider, your beneficiaries get a pre-determined sum of money after you die. CBS News’ recent article entitled “Choosing life insurance beneficiaries? Make these 3 smart moves says it’s important to have the right amount of coverage. However, it’s equally important to make certain that your beneficiaries are selected properly and added to your policy.

When you buy a policy for a significant sum, you may want to list a variety of people as beneficiaries.  However, you should remember why you initially got a plan.

If the policy is primarily to support your children after you have died, then name them first. If you want to leave it to your spouse to make up for lost income in your absence, he or she should be listed as the primary beneficiary. If you want the policy to be used to keep a family business going, then adjust the beneficiaries accordingly.

Note that you should also list contingent beneficiaries on your life insurance policy. This is a person (or multiple people) who will receive the policy proceeds, if the primary beneficiary is not around. Primary beneficiaries may be hard to find, may refuse the funds, or could have passed away. Therefore, make sure that you have someone else to receive those funds. If you have more than one contingent beneficiary, allocate the policy proceeds as you wish (provided they combine for 100%).

If you want to leave the plan to your spouse, list him or her them as the primary beneficiary. If you have children, list them as secondary beneficiaries.

However, take care when listing minors.

You can list minors on your policy. However, if you die, and your beneficiaries aren’t of legal age, they may face a long road to see the funds. Restrictions on how much money minors can access via a life insurance policy vary from state to state, so the transfer won’t be as clean and simple as it would be with an adult. In some cases, the court may even have to appoint a guardian to administer the funds.

It’s not that you have to avoid listing minors. However, you must understand what may happen if you do.

An adult you trust to administer the funds in your absence may be a better choice to make certain that your minor beneficiaries don’t have to fight for the money. However, do not list that trusted adult as the beneficiary if it is not your spouse. Why? If you die, then they die, the life insurance proceeds will be administered according to their estate plan and not yours! This is where estate planning kicks in to avoid such unintended consequences with legal strategies, like trusts.

When it comes to life insurance policies and protections, recommendations are specific to your individual personal financial situation, preferences and goals. Keep this in mind at all times.

Reference: CBS News (Oct. 6, 2022) “Choosing life insurance beneficiaries? Make these 3 smart moves”

Can a Trust Be Created to Protect a Pet?

For one woman in the middle of preparing for a no-contest divorce, the idea of a pet trust was a novel one. She was estranged from her sister and didn’t want her ex-husband to gain custody of her seven horses, three cats and five dogs if she died or became incapacitated. Who would care for her beloved animals?

The solution, as described in the article “Create a Pet Estate Plan for Your Fur Family” from AARP, was to form a pet trust, a legally sanctioned arrangement providing for the care and maintenance of companion animals in the event of a person’s disability or death.

Creating a pet trust and establishing a long-term plan requires state-specific paperwork and funding mechanisms, which are different from leaving property and assets to human family members. An experienced estate planning attorney is needed to ensure that the protections in place will work.

Shelters nationally are seeing a big increase in animals being surrendered because of COVID or people who are simply not able to take care of their pets. Suddenly, a companion pet accustomed to being near its human owner 24/7 is left alone in a shelter cage.

When pet parents have not made plans for their pets, more often than not these pets end up in shelters. However, not all animal shelters are no-kill shelters. In 2021, data from Best Friends Animal Society shows an increase in the number of pets euthanized in shelters for the first time in five years.

For pet owners who can’t identify a caregiver for their companions, the best option may be to find an animal sanctuary or a shelter providing perpetual care.

The woman described above had a pet trust created and funded it with a long-term care and life insurance policy. The trust was designed with a board of three trustees to check and balance one another to determine how the money will be allocated and what will happen to her assets. Her horse property could be sold, or a long-term student or trainer could be brought in to run her barn.

It is not legally possible to leave money directly to an animal, so setting up a trust with one trustee or a board is the best way to ensure that care will be given until the animals themselves pass away.

The stand-alone pet trust (which is a living trust) exists from the moment it is created. A dedicated bank account may be set up in the name of the pet trust or it could be named as the beneficiary of a life insurance or retirement plan.

A pet trust can also be set up within a larger trust, like a drawer within a dresser. The trust won’t kick in until death. These plans prevent the type of delays typical with probate but is problematic if the person becomes incapacitated.

If a trust is created as part of another trust, there can still be delays in accessing the month, if the pet trust is getting money from the larger trust.

With costlier animals likes horses and exotic birds, any delay in funding could be catastrophic.

How long will your pet live? A parrot could live for 80 years, which would need an endowment to invest assets and earn income over decades. A long-living pet also needs a succession of caregivers, as a tortoise with a 150 year lifespan will outlive more than one caregiver.

Reference: AARP (Sep. 14, 2022) “Create a Pet Estate Plan for Your Fur Family”

Why Is It Important to have an Estate Plan?

Right now, the federal estate tax exemption is so high as to be a non-issue for most taxpayers, but this will not always be the case, and there are also state estate taxes to consider. Regardless of taxes, there are other reasons why everyone needs to have an estate plan, affirms a recent article from mondaq titled “Do I Really Need an Estate Plan?” The short answer is yes, you definitely do.

The first thing a will does is distribute your assets according to your directions. If you have grandchildren, there are ways for you to gift them assets and minimize taxes, but you’ll need to plan for generation skipping taxes.

If you own a business, you will need a succession plan to align with your estate plan. Will family members become owners, or will the business be sold?

Does the family include a disabled or individual with special needs? A special needs trust can add an extra layer of resources. Guardianship planning needs to be done for the parents and guardians be named for when the parents are no longer able to care for the person.

The will is also used to name an executor, the person to handle all the decisions you express in the will and carry them out.

Gifting is another part of your estate plan. If you have any charitable organizations or individuals outside of your family who you’d like to make a gift to, this can be done through your will or through a number of gifting strategies.

The current federal estate tax exemption is set to end in 2025 and revert back to 2017 levels. Tax planning should be done well in advance to protect your estate and heirs.

A review of life insurance should be part of your estate plan. Do you know who your named beneficiary is on your life insurance policies? If your estate is the beneficiary, your estate’s value may exceed the federal or state estate tax limits.

Many people today create an ethical will. This is not a legally binding document; instead, it is used to express your values and your wishes for heir’s futures. It may also be used to give them insight into how your will was structured and why. If there is controversy in the family, an ethical will or statement of intentions may help bolster your will if there are any legal challenges.

Your retirement benefits and any workplace benefits have beneficiaries named in the event of your death. Do you know who they are, and do you still wish for those named to be your beneficiaries?

Estate planning includes addressing incapacity and illness. You’ll want a Power of Attorney for someone to act on your behalf if you are sick or injured and cannot handle your personal finances. You’ll also need a Health Care Proxy for someone who will be empowered to speak with healthcare personnel and make care decisions for you if you cannot.

Without a comprehensive estate plan, the difficulties facing your loved ones upon your illness and upon your death will be magnified. Yes, you need an estate plan. The sooner, the better. Speak with an estate planning attorney to get the process started.

Reference: mondaq (Aug. 24, 2022) “Do I Really Need an Estate Plan?”

What If Your Spouse Refuses Estate Planning?

Blended families are quite common in the U.S.

A married couple may have a small child—but one spouse may also have children from a first marriage. The spouse may be concerned about assets and protecting those older children in estate planning.

A spouse on a second or third marriage may insist on a prenup with the other spouse relinquishing any rights. As compensation, many spouses will purchase life insurance with the other spouse as beneficiary. However, what if this plan never comes to fruition?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “My husband won’t make an estate plan. What can I do?” says that many spouses want to provide for children from a first marriage. However, second marriages can get messy when it comes to estate plans.

Even if the spouse doesn’t help, there are steps a recently married individual can take. One thing is having estate documents prepared by an experienced wills, trusts and estate attorney.

Another is to secure life insurance policies that designate the child or children of the second marriage as beneficiary and naming their mother or father as trustee.

A life insurance policy is a non-probate asset; as such, a beneficiary can receive the proceeds from the policy more quickly than if they had to wait for your estate to be settled through a probate court.

A person in this situation should speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about a will and the life insurance.

A will provides direction for what happens after a person dies and can distribute his or her property to their loved ones, name an executor to handle their affairs, name a guardian for any minor children and specifically state a person’s wishes for family and friends.

It may also be beneficial to look into a trust or other estate planning tools with an attorney to distribute the assets. Exploring these options early in the child’s life in the above example may make a parent feel more prepared for the future, and more secure with the circumstances of the second marriage.

If the spouse tells the other that he or she has an appointment with an estate planning attorney, they just might decide to attend.

Reference: nj.com (March 10, 2022) “My husband won’t make an estate plan. What can I do?”

Does ‘Gray Divorce’ Fit into Estate Planning?

According to the Pew Research Center, the divorce rate has more than doubled for people over 50 since the 1990s. The Pandemic is also adding to the uptick, says AARP’s recent article entitled “Getting Divorced? It’s Time to Update Your Caregiving Plan.”

A divorce can be financially draining. Moreover, later-in-life divorces frequently impact women’s finances more than men’s. That is because in addition to depressed earnings from time spent out of the workforce raising children, women find themselves more financially vulnerable post-divorce and more likely to serve as caregivers again in the future. Even so, for partners of all genders, it is important to consider the longer-term financial outlook, not just the financial situation you’re in when you are actually dissolving the marriage.

You and your spouse will be dividing assets and liabilities and the responsibilities regarding spousal support. How one of you will live if the other gets sick or passes away should also be part of this conversation.

Consider where you’ll need to make changes. One may be removing your spouse from beneficiary designations on all your accounts. (In some states, this is automatic.) Your divorce agreement may also include buying life insurance or maintaining a trust or beneficiary designations for one another.

Create or update your estate plan immediately. You should also ask your estate planning attorney to review your marital agreement. They will have suggestions about how to align your estate plan with your divorce obligations. If you and your ex are co-parenting children, your estate plan should address who their guardians will be, if both biological parents pass away. It is also important to address who will manage any inheritance, if you don’t want your ex-spouse handling assets you may leave to your children.

Create your life care plan, which means naming health care proxies or surrogates (who will take care of your medical affairs, if you’re in need of caregiving), designating a financial power of attorney (who will take care of your finances and legal affairs), and naming a guardian for yourself if you’re incapacitated.

Consider the way in which your divorce will impact your children and extended family if you need caregiving. At a minimum, agree between yourselves what level of contact you can manage and, if you share children and loved ones, know that your lives will cross along the way.

While your marriage may not last, the connections will, so make a wise plan.

Reference: AARP (Jan. 25, 2022) “Getting Divorced? It’s Time to Update Your Caregiving Plan”

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”