Top 10 Success Tips for Estate Planning

Unless you’ve done the planning, assets may not be distributed according to your wishes and loved ones may not be taken care of after your death. These are just two reasons to make sure you have an estate plan, according to the recent article titled “Estate Planning 101: 10 Tips for Success” from the Maryland Reporter.

Create a list of your assets. This should include all of your property, real estate, liquid assets, investments and personal possessions. With this list, consider what you would like to happen to each item after your death. If you have many assets, this process will take longer—consider this a good thing. Don’t neglect digital assets. The goal of a careful detailed list is to avoid any room for interpretation—or misinterpretation—by the courts or by heirs.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to create wills and trusts. These documents dictate how your assets are distributed after your death. Without them, the laws of your state may be used to distribute assets. You also need a will to name an executor, the person responsible for carrying out your instructions.

Your will is also used to name a guardian, the person who will raise your children if they are orphaned minors.

Who is the named beneficiary on your life insurance policy? This is the person who will receive the death benefit from your policy upon your death. Will this person be the guardian of your minor children? Do you prefer to have the proceeds from the policy used to fund a trust for the benefit of your children? These are important decisions to be made and memorialized in your estate plan.

Make your wishes crystal clear. Legal documents are often challenged if they are not prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney or if they are vaguely worded. You want to be sure there are no ambiguities in your will or trust documents. Consider the use of “if, then” statements. For example, “If my husband predeceases me, then I leave my house to my children.”

Consider creating a letter of intent or instruction to supplement your will and trusts. Use this document to give more detailed information about your wishes, from funeral arrangements to who you want to receive a specific item. Note this document is not legally binding, but it may avoid confusion and can be used to support the instructions in your will.

Trusts may be more important than you think in estate planning. Trusts allow you to take assets out of your probate estate and have these assets managed by a trustee of your choice, who distributes assets directly to beneficiaries. You don’t have to have millions to benefit from a trust.

List your debts. This is not as much fun as listing assets, but still important for your executor and heirs. Mortgage payments, car payments, credit cards and personal loans are to be paid first out of estate accounts before funds can be distributed to heirs. Having this information will make your executor’s tasks easier.

Plan for digital assets. If you want your social media accounts to be deleted or emails available to a designated person after you die, you’ll need to start with a list of the accounts, usernames, passwords, whether the platform allows you to designate another person to have access to your accounts and how you want your digital assets handled after death. This plan should be in place in case of incapacity as well.

How will estate taxes be paid? Without tax planning properly done, your legacy could shrink considerably. In addition to federal estate taxes, some states have state estate taxes and inheritance taxes. Talk with your estate planning attorney to find out what your estate tax obligations will be and how to plan strategically to pay the taxes.

Plan for Long Term Care. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 70% of Americans will need some type of long-term care during their lifetimes. Some options are private LTC insurance, government programs and self-funding.

The more planning done in advance, the more likely your loved ones will know what to do if you become incapacitated and know what you wanted when you die.

Resource: Maryland Reporter (Sep. 27, 2022) “Estate Planning 101: 10 Tips for Success”

How Important Is It to have Long-Term Care Insurance?

It becomes especially important to plan for the future when the world around us seems so volatile and unpredictable. We can’t control future health care costs, but we can plan for them, says a recent article titled “Economic instability and the need to plan for long-term care” from The Indiana Lawyer. Failing to plan could mean lost assets and a lost legacy.

According to Genworth’s Cost of Care survey, from 2004 to 2021, the cost of long-term care has outpaced inflation by a large margin. Many of the increases were driven by supply and demand issues. There aren’t enough people to care for the growing population of people needing services, which will continue to be the case for at least the next decade. A total of 10,000 boomers turn 65 every day and 70% will require care and support services in their lifetimes.

How can assets be protected from long-term costs?

One of the most frequently used tools is an asset protection trust or an irrevocable trust. The irrevocable trust cannot be modified, amended, or terminated without permission of the grantor’s beneficiary or beneficiaries. Once the grantor transfers assets into the trust, the grantor no longer has the rights of ownership. The trust can be designed to minimize taxation, maximize access to long-term benefits and protect assets.

The trust must be drafted properly, so trust income and principal, if needed, can be accessed.

The timing is critical. Asset protection trusts must be created when there is no immediate health care crisis, and the grantor has no need for long-term care. The best trust is created when the person is in good health and of sound mind.

Those who are nearing retirement, passed retirement age or who may have health issues in the distant future and expect to need Medicaid in the future are best candidates for an asset protection trust.

Medicaid’s Five Year Look Back Period

Planning needs to be done at least five years in advance, as Medicaid looks at the applicant’s past five year’s finances to see if any assets were sold or gifted for under market value. Transferring assets to an irrevocable trust is treated as a gift and violates the five-year look back, making the person ineligible for Medicaid coverage. Nursing home care will have to be paid out-of-pocket until the person becomes eligible.

Asset protection strategies are available for those who need immediate protection of assets. However, they have to done quickly and correctly with an estate planning elder law attorney. People who have suffered a fall and have significant injuries or who have received a diagnosis of a difficult disease should speak with an elder law attorney in a timely manner. They’ll need to discuss preparing for a Medicaid application, what assets can be protected and steps they need to take. The earlier the plan is put into place, the better.

Reference: The Indiana Lawyer (Aug. 3, 2022) “Economic instability and the need to plan for long-term care”

Do You Have to Go through Probate When Someone Dies?

Probate is a required court proceeding under certain circumstances, although the rules surrounding probate are slightly different from state to state. In Hawaii, if a person dies owning real estate in their own name or if the total value of personal property is worth more than $100,000, their estate must be probated. In other states that threshold may be lower. Most states require probate regardless of the estate’s value, unless the estate assets are arranged to avoid probate.

This is explained in a recent article “Estate Planning Insights—Understanding Probate” from The Hawaii Herald.

Probate also requires written notice to be sent to the persons named in the will and to persons who would have inherited, if there had been no will. This is a big reason why many people use trusts and other alternative estate planning strategies. In addition, a will becomes part of the public record when it goes through probate, so creditors and others can see your will and learn all about your estate. So can estranged family members, ex-spouses, people looking for sales leads and thieves!

If there is no will, assets are distributed according to the state’s law of intestacy. These laws specify who receives inheritances, based on kinship. If a will is deemed invalid by the court, then the will is discarded, as are your wishes, and the laws of intestacy take over. This is another reason to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a properly prepared will and estate plan.

Probate can be a time-consuming process, delaying the distribution of assets. If the estate is complex, the process could take years.

Certain assets do not go through probate. These includes assets held by two or more people as “joint tenants” or “tenants by the entirety.” Real estate, checking accounts, saving accounts, and investment accounts can be owned this way. However, there can be pitfalls. If one person has debts, creditors may come after the assets, regardless of who the original owner may be.

Assets with a named beneficiary do not go through probate. This includes life insurance, IRAs, 401(k)s, annuities, savings bonds, “Transfer on Death (TOD accounts) and “Pay on Death” (POD accounts). It is very important to review all beneficiary designations every few years. Someone you may have named as a co-owner twenty years ago may no longer be in your life, or you may want to change the beneficiary. If you do not make any changes, whoever you originally named on the account will receive the assets.

Trusts are used to avoid probate, while directing what will happen to assets when you die. A Revocable Living Trust allows you to maintain control over the assets while living, but because you still have control over the assets in the trust, they are considered a countable asset by Medicaid.

To protect your assets from going through probate and to prepare for possible long-term care needs, an estate planning attorney can create a plan, possibly including a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT).

Reference: The Hawaii Herald (Jan. 21, 2022) “Estate Planning Insights—Understanding Probate”

Estate Planning for Special Needs Children

Part of providing comprehensive estate planning for families includes being prepared to address the needs of family members with special needs. Some of the tools used are trusts, guardianship and tax planning, according to the article “How to Help Clients With Special Needs Children” from Accounting Web. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan for the future that addresses both legal and financial protections.

A survey from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services revealed that 12.8 percent of children in our country have special health care needs, while 20 percent of all American households include a child with special needs. The CDC (Center for Disease Control) estimates that 26% of adults in America have some type of disability. In other words, some 61 million Americans have some kind of disability.

Providing for a child with special needs can be expensive, depending upon the severity of the disability. The first step for families is to have a special needs trust created through an estate planning attorney with experience in this area. The goal is to have money for the support and care of the child available, but for it not to be in the child’s name. While there are benefits available to the child through the federal government, almost all programs are means-tested, that is, the child or adult with special needs may not have assets of their own.

For many parents, a good option is a substantial life insurance policy, with the beneficiary of the policy being the special needs trust. Depending on the family’s situation, a “second to die” policy may make sense. Both parents are listed as the insured, but the policy does not pay until both parents have passed. Premiums may be lower because of this option.

It is imperative for parents of a child with special needs to have their will created to direct their assets to go to the special needs trust and not to the child directly. This is done to protect the child’s eligibility to receive government benefits.

Parents of a child with special needs also need to consider who will care for their child after they have died. A guardian needs to be named as early as possible in the child’s life, in case something should occur to the parents. The guardianship may end at age 18 for most children, but for an individual with special needs, more protection is needed. The guardian and their role need to be spelled out in documents. It is a grave mistake for parents to assume a family member or sibling will care for their child with special needs. The need to prepare for guardianship cannot be overstated.

The special needs trust will also require a trustee and a secondary trustee, if at some point the primary trustee cannot or does not want to serve.

It may seem easier to name the same person as the trustee and the guardian, but this could lead to difficult situations. A better way to go is to have one person paying the bills and keeping an eye on costs and a second person taking care of the individual.

Planning for the child’s long-term care needs to be done as soon as possible. A special needs trust should be established and funded early on, wills need to be created and/or updated, and qualified professionals become part of the family’s care for their loved one.

Having a child with special needs is a different kind of parenting. A commonly used analogy is for a person who expected to be taking a trip to Paris but finds themselves in Holland. The trip is not what they expected, but still a wonderful and rewarding experience.

Reference: Accounting Web (Sep. 13, 2021) “How to Help Clients With Special Needs Children”

Estate Planning for a Second Marriage and Blended Family

It takes a certain kind of courage to embark on second, third or even fourth marriages, even when there are no children from prior marriages. Regardless of how many times you walk down the aisle, the recent article “Establishing assets, goals when planning for a second marriage” from the Times Herald-Record advises couples to take care of the business side of their lives before saying “I do” again.

Full disclosure of each other’s assets, overall estate planning goals and plans for protecting assets from the cost of long-term care should happen before getting married. The discussion may not be easy, but it’s necessary: are they leaving assets to each other, or to children from a prior marriage? What if one wants to leave a substantial portion of their wealth to a charitable organization?

The first step recommended with remarriage is a prenuptial or prenup, a contract that the couple signs before getting married, to clarify what happens if they should divorce and what happens on death. The prenup typically lists all of each spouses’ assets and often a “Waiver of the Right of Election,” meaning they willingly give up any inheritance rights.

If the couple does not wish to have a prenup, they can use a Postnuptial Agreement (postnup). This document has the same intent and provisions as a prenup but is signed after they are legally wed. Over time, spouses may decide to leave assets to each other through trusts, owning assets together or naming each other as beneficiaries on various assets, including life insurance or investment accounts.

Without a pre-or postnup, assets will go to the surviving spouse upon death, with little or possibly nothing going to the children.

The couple should also talk about long-term care costs, which can decimate a family’s finances. Plan A is to have long-term care insurance. If either of the spouses has not secured this insurance and cannot get a policy, an alternate is to have their estate planning attorney create a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT). Once assets have been inside the trust for five years for nursing home costs and two-and-a-half years for home care paid by Medicaid, they are protected from long-term care costs.

When applying for Medicaid, the assets of both spouses are at risk, regardless of pre- or postnup documents.

Discuss the use of trusts with your estate planning attorney. A will conveys property, but assets must go through probate, which can be costly, time-consuming and leave your assets open to court battles between heirs. Trusts avoid probate, maintain privacy and deflect family squabbles.

Creating a trust and placing the joint home and any assets, including cash and investments, inside the trust is a common estate planning strategy. When the first spouse dies, a co-trustee who serves with the surviving spouse can prevent the surviving spouse from changing the trust and by doing so, protect the children’s inheritance. Let’s say one of the couple suffers from dementia, remarries or is influenced by others—a new will could leave the children of the deceased spouse with nothing.

Many things can very easily go wrong in second marriages. Prior planning with an experienced estate planning attorney can protect the couple and their children and provide peace of mind for all concerned.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Sep. 21, 2020) “Establishing assets, goals when planning for a second marriage”

Long Term Care Varies, State by State

What if your parents live in Oklahoma, you live in Nebraska and your brothers and sisters live in New York and California? Having the important conversation with your aging parents about what the future might hold if one of them should need long-term care is going to be a challenge, to say the least.

It’s not just about whether they want to leave their home, reports the article “What is the best state for long term care” from The Mercury. There are many more complications. Every state has different availability, levels of care and taxes. If the family is considering a continuing care retirement community, or if the parents already live in one, what are the terms of the contract?

The differences between states vary, and even within a state, there can be dramatic differences, depending upon whether the facility being considered is in a metropolitan, suburban or rural area. There’s also the question of whether the facility will accept Medicaid patients, if the parents have long-term care insurance or any other resources.

Here’s what often happens: you open up a glossy brochure of a senior community in a warm climate, like Florida or Arizona. There are golf courses, swimming pools and a great looking main house where clubs and other activities take place. However, what happens when the active phase of your life ends, slowly or suddenly? The questions to ask concern levels of care and quality of care. Where is the nearest hospital, and is it a good one? What kind of care can you receive in your own apartment? Are you locked into to your purchase, regardless of your wishes to sell and move to be closer to or live with your adult children?

And what happens if you or a “well” spouse runs out of money? That’s the question no one wants to think about, but it does have to be considered.

For people who move to Florida, which has a very generous homestead exemption for property taxes and no state tax, the incentives are strong. However, what if you become sick and need to return north?

For seniors who live in Pennsylvania and receive long-term care and other services, the well spouse’s retirement funds are exempt for Medicaid regardless of the amount. However, if you move over the state’s border to New Jersey, and those accounts will need to be spent down to qualify for Medicaid. The difference to the well spouse could be life changing.

Delaware and New Jersey have Medicaid available for assisted living/personal care. Pennsylvania does not. The Keystone State has strict income limitations regarding “at home” services through Medicaid, whereas California is very open in how it interprets rules about Medicaid gifting.

The answer of where to live when long-term care is in play depends on many different factors. Your best bet is to meet with an estate planning elder care attorney who understands the pros and cons of your state, your family’s  situation and what will work best for you and your spouse, or you as an individual.

Reference: The Mercury (March 4, 2020) “What is the best state for long term care”