Can My Ex Get Some of My Estate?

For many people, their will is their final communication to the world.

A will states how their property should be distributed upon their death. CNBC’s recent article entitled “Your ex-spouse could inherit your money. How to avoid this and other estate-planning mistakes” says that depending on how you plan, it may have a few some surprises for those who are close to you.

There are a couple of situations where you could inadvertently leave money to people you no longer intend as heirs, much to the surprise of other heirs.

An ex-spouse could get some of your money when you die, if you do not update your beneficiaries under a retirement plan.

Divorce does not automatically change a beneficiary designation, unless the divorce decree includes a stipulation to change it. IRAs are the same, so it is not uncommon for an IRA owner to die without having changed the beneficiary designation after a divorce. It’s usually just a simple oversight.

However, most state laws provide that once a married couple is divorced, ex-spouses lose all property rights.

However, pensions are governed by federal law, formally known as ERISA or the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. As a result, state rules do not apply.

Pensions are not the only accounts that people tend to forget to update. Bank account beneficiary designations are often hard to find, and circumstances may change from when you first set them up.

While it may be tempting to disinherit someone to whom you are no longer close, it can be a bad idea. That is because it can invite all kinds of issues, like a will challenge.

There is always the chance you may reconcile, even on your death bed, at which point it will be too late to update your will and estate plan. Therefore, leave something less to them and do not say anything bad.

To ensure your wishes are carried out the way you want, work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: CNBC (Jan. 9, 2022) “Your ex-spouse could inherit your money. How to avoid this and other estate-planning mistakes”

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!”

No Will? What Happens Now Can Be a Horror Show

Families who have lived through settling an estate without an estate plan will agree that the title of this article, “Preventing the Horrors of Dying Without a Will,” from Next Avenue, is no exaggeration. When the family is grieving is no time to be fighting, yet the absence of a will and an estate plan leads to this exact situation.

Why do people procrastinate having their wills and estate plans done?

Limited understanding about wealth transfers. People may think they do not have enough assets to require an estate plan. Their home, retirement funds or savings account may not be in the mega-millions, but this is actually more of a reason to have an estate plan.

Fear of mortality. We do not like to talk or think about death. However, talking about what will happen when you die or what may happen if you become incapacitated is very important. Planning so your children or other trusted family member or friends will be able to make decisions on your behalf or care for you alleviates what could otherwise turn into an expensive and emotionally disastrous time.

Perceived lack of benefits. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney who will put your interests first means you will have one less thing to worry about while you are living and towards the end of your life.

Estate planning documents contain the wishes and directives for your legacy and finances after you pass. They answer questions like:

  • Who should look after your minor children, if both primary caregivers die before the children reach adulthood?
  • If you become incapacitated, who should handle your financial affairs, who should be in charge of your healthcare and what kind of end-of-life care do you want?
  • What do you want to happen to your assets after you die? Your estate refers to your financial accounts, personal possessions, retirement funds, pensions and real estate.

Your estate plan includes a will, trusts (if appropriate), a durable financial power of attorney, a health care power of attorney or advanced directive and a living will. The will distributes your property and also names an executor, who is in charge of making sure the directions in the will are carried out.

If you become incapacitated by illness or injury, the POA gives agency to someone else to carry out your wishes while you are living. The living will provides an opportunity to express your wishes regarding end-of-life care.

There are many different reasons to put off having an estate plan, but they all end up in the same place: the potential to create family disruption, unnecessary expenses and stress. Show your family how much you love them, by overcoming your fears and preparing for the next generation. Meet with an estate planning attorney and prepare for the future.

Reference: Next Avenue (March 21, 2022) “Preventing the Horrors of Dying Without a Will”

Is It Important for Physicians to Have an Estate Plan?

When the newly minted physician completes their residency and begins practicing, the last thing on their minds is getting their estate plan in order. Instead, they should make it a priority, according to a recent article titled “Physicians, get your estate in order or the court will do it instead” from Medical Economics. Physicians accumulate wealth to a greater degree and faster than most people. They are also in a profession with a higher likelihood of being sued than most. They need an estate plan.

Estate planning does more than distribute assets after death. It is also asset protection. An estate planning attorney helps physicians, dentists and other medical professionals protect their assets and their legacies.

Basic estate planning documents include a last will and testament, financial power of attorney and a medical power of attorney. However, the physician’s estate is complex and requires an attorney with experience in asset protection and business succession.

During the process of creating an estate plan, the physician will need to determine who they would want to serve as a guardian, if there are minor children and what they would want to occur if all of their beneficiaries were to predecease them. A list should be drafted with all assets, debts, including medical school loans, life insurance documents and retirement or pension accounts, including the names of beneficiaries.

The will is the center of the estate plan. It will require naming a person, typically a spouse, to be the executor: the person in charge of administering the estate. If the physician is not married, a trusted relative or friend can be named. There should also be a second person named, in case the first is unable to serve.

If the physician owns their practice, the estate plan should be augmented with a business succession plan. The will’s executor may need to oversee decisions regarding the sale of the practice. A trusted friend with no business acumen or knowledge of how a medical practice works may not be the best executor. These are all important considerations. Special considerations apply when the “business” is a professional practice, so do not make any moves without expert estate planning assistance.

The will only controls assets in the individual’s name. Assets owned jointly, or those with a beneficiary designation, are not governed by the will.

Without a will, the entire estate may need to go through probate, which is a lengthy and expensive process. For one family, their father’s lack of a will and secrecy took 18 months and cost $30,000 in legal fees for the estate to be settled.

Trusts are an option for protecting assets. By placing assets in trust, they are protected from creditors and provide control in complex family situations. The goal is to create a trust and fund it before any legal actions occur. Transferring assets after a lawsuit has begun or after a creditor has attached an asset could lead to a physician being charged with fraudulent conveyance—where assets are transferred for the sole purpose of avoiding paying creditors.

Estate planning is never a one-and-done event. If a doctor starts a family limited partnership to transfer wealth to the next generation but neglects to properly maintain the partnership, some or all of the funds may be vulnerable.

An estate plan needs to be reviewed every few years and certainly every time a major life event occurs, including marriage, divorce, birth, death, relocation, or a significant change in wealth.

When consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney, a doctor should ask about the potential benefits of revocable living trust planning to avoid probate, maintain privacy and streamline the administration of the estate upon incapacity or at death.

Reference: Medical Economics (Feb. 22, 2022) “Physicians, get your estate in order or the court will do it instead”

Can You Keep Your Children from Inheriting Your Money?

What if you want to exclude your children and give your assets to a charity or a college after you pass away? You also don’t want your children to be able to contest your will.

Nj.com’s article entitled “My kids are brats. I don’t want them to inherit. What’s next?” explains that a person with this intention has a number of options for their estate.

First, you should understand that, unless there is a pre-existing contractual agreement or other obligation to do so, a person typically isn’t required to leave anyone other than their spouse anything in their estate.

A properly drafted will by an experienced estate planning attorney allows a person to name the beneficiaries of their estate. This can include charities. It also includes the amount or specific items and in what way each beneficiary will inherit.

You really can’t do much to prevent a child from challenging a will. However, your estate planning attorney can take steps to mitigate the risk that a challenge may be successful. This can include ensuring the testator — the person who establishes a will — has the requisite capacity to sign a will (“being of sound mind”) and that they’re signing it free of any undue influence or duress.

An experienced estate planning attorney will usually meet with a client several times to discuss the client’s assets and intention of disinheriting a child. The attorney will take notes that may be offered as evidence in the event of a will contest and even conduct the meeting in the presence of another attorney or staff member of the firm who could act as another witness.

A will should include specific language that it is the testator’s intent to disinherit a person, and that this individual should be treated as predeceasing the testator for purposes of the will. This helps ensure that the disinherited individual doesn’t somehow benefit.

Note that not all assets pass through the estate and pursuant to the terms of a will. Assets like retirement accounts, life insurance, annuities, and other financial accounts pass by beneficiary designation.

Real estate usually passes by operation of law, such by joint tenancy with right of survivorship.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 22, 2021) “My kids are brats. I don’t want them to inherit. What’s next?”

Will Moving to a New State Impact My Estate Planning?

Since the coronavirus pandemic hit the U.S., baby boomers have been speeding up their retirement plans. Many Americans have also been moving to new states. For retirees, the non-financial considerations often revolve around weather, proximity to grandchildren and access to quality healthcare and other services.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Thinking of Retiring and Moving? Consider the Financial Implications First” provides some considerations for retirees who may set off on a move.

  1. Income tax rates. Before moving to a new state, you should know how much income you’re likely to be generating in retirement. It’s equally essential to understand what type of income you’re going to generate. Your income as well as the type of income you receive could significantly influence your economic health as a retiree, after you make your move. Before moving to a new state, look into the tax code of your prospective new state. Many states have flat income tax rates, such as Massachusetts at 5%. The states that have no income tax include Alaska, Florida, Nevada, Texas, Washington, South Dakota and Wyoming. Other states that don’t have flat income tax rates may be attractive or unattractive, based on your level of income. Another important consideration is the tax treatment of Social Security income, pension income and retirement plan income. Some states treat this income just like any other source of income, while others offer preferential treatment to the income that retirees typically enjoy.
  2. Housing costs. The cost of housing varies dramatically from state to state and from city to city, so understand how your housing costs are likely to change. You should also consider the cost of buying a home, maintenance costs, insurance and property taxes. Property taxes may vary by state and also by county. Insurance costs can also vary.
  3. Sales taxes. Some states (New Hampshire, Oregon, Montana, Delaware and Alaska) have no sales taxes. However, most states have a sales tax of some kind, which generally adds to the cost of living. California has the highest sales tax, currently at 7.5%, then comes Tennessee, Rhode Island, New Jersey, Mississippi and Indiana, each with a sales tax of 7%. Many other places also have a county sales tax and a city sales tax. You should also research those taxes.
  4. The state’s financial health. Examine the health of the state pension systems where you are thinking about moving. The states with the highest level of unfunded pension debts include Connecticut, Illinois, Alaska, New Jersey and Hawaii. They each have unfunded state pensions at a level of more than 20% of their state GDP. If you’re thinking about moving to one of those states, you’re more apt to see tax increases in the future because of the huge financial obligations of these states.
  5. The overall cost of living. Examine your budget to see the extent to which your annual living expenses might increase or decrease in your new location because food, healthcare and transportation costs can vary by location. If your costs are going to go up, that should be all right, provided you have the financial resources to fund a larger expense budget. Be sure that you’ve accounted for the differences before you move.
  6. Estate planning considerations. If this is going to be your last move, it’s likely that the laws of your new state will apply to your estate after you die. Many states don’t have an estate or gift tax, which means your estate and gifts will only be subject to federal tax laws. However, a number of states, such as Maryland and Iowa, have a state estate tax.

You should talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the estate and gift tax implications of your move.

Reference: Forbes (Nov. 30, 2021) “Thinking of Retiring and Moving? Consider the Financial Implications First”

What’s the First Step in Estate Planning?

 

Forbes’ recent article entitled “A Love Letter to Your Heirs” explains that not having an estate plan is risky, almost like riding in a speeding car on the freeway without wearing a seatbelt. However, it’s never too late — or too early — to put one together.

The first step is to create a vision of your future. Consider the most important people in your life or your charitable goals. This should help with the distribution of your assets. Then, plan who gets what, both when and how.

Remember that you can modify your estate plan over time. You should also develop and implement a financial plan to provide ongoing guidance for your long-term wealth accumulation goals. This means reviewing your will regularly, especially if your investment portfolio becomes more complex and when your family situation changes, such as the birth of a child or even a divorce.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to implement tax mitigation strategies to reduce or eliminate taxes. Keep in mind that different types of assets can and should get different treatment. For instance, you should handle assets you own outright with care. Consider assigning ownership for each treasured heirloom, even as that can seem tedious. Another option is to allow heirs to place bids on items, using money allocated to them from the estate.

Based on the asset and how liquid it is, the executor could either sell it to raise cash or retain it and then distribute it to heirs under the terms of the will. Other assets, such as those held jointly, will go directly to the surviving joint tenant, while qualified retirement plan assets — like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s, profit-sharing plans, and pension plans will go directly to a named beneficiary. Similarly, life insurance proceeds pass directly to a named beneficiary.

In addition any assets subject to a lien can be sold to pay off outstanding debt, or your executor can use cash from the estate to pay off the debt and retain the asset.

Bequeathing your estate to your chosen beneficiary or contingent beneficiary can be one of the most important life decisions you can make for their future.

Even singles without children should have a will, so that you can pass your wealth to a relative or someone else about whom you care deeply.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 10, 2022) “A Love Letter to Your Heirs”

What Power Does an Executor Have?

Being asked to serve as an executor is a big compliment with potential pitfalls, advises the recent article “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate” from U.S. News & World Report. You are being asked because you are considered trustworthy and able to handle complex tasks. That’s flattering, of course, but there’s a lot to know before making a final decision about taking on the job.

An executor of an estate helps file paperwork, close accounts, distribute assets of the deceased, deal with probate and any court filings and navigate family dynamics. Some of the tasks include:

  • Locating critical documents, like the will, any trusts, deeds, vehicle titles, etc.
  • Obtaining death certificates.
  • Overseeing funeral arrangements and memorial services, if any.
  • Filing the will in probate court.
  • Creating an estate bank account, after obtaining an estate tax number (EIN).
  • Notifying organizations, including Social Security, pension accounts, etc.
  • Paying creditors.
  • Distributing assets.
  • Overseeing the sale or transfer of real estate
  • Filing estate tax returns and final tax returns.

If you are asked to become the executor of an estate for a loved one, it’s a good idea to gather as much information as possible while the person is still living. It will be far easier to tackle the tasks, if you have been set up to succeed. Find out where their estate planning documents are and read the documents to make sure you understand them. If you don’t understand, ask, and keep asking until you do. Similarly, obtain information about all assets, including joint assets. Find out if there are any family members who may pose a challenge to the estate.

Today’s assets include digital assets. Ask for a complete list of the person’s online accounts, usernames and passwords. You will also need access to their devices: desktop computer, laptop, tablet, phone and smart watch. Discuss what they want to happen to each account and see if there is an option for you to become a co-owner of the account or a legacy contact.

Many opt to have an estate planning attorney manage some or all of these tasks, as they can be very overwhelming. Frankly, it’s hard to administer an estate at the same time you’re grieving the loss of a loved one.

As executor, you are a fiduciary, meaning you’re legally required to put the deceased’s interests above your own. This includes managing the estate’s assets. If the person owned a home, you would need to secure the property, pay the mortgage and/or property taxes and maintain the property until it is sold or transferred to an heir. Financial accounts need to be managed, including investment accounts.

The amount of time this process will take, depends on the complexity and size of the estate. Most estates take at least twelve months to complete all of the administrative work. It is a big commitment and can feel like a second job.

A few things vary by state. Convicted felons are never permitted to serve as executors, regardless of what the will says. A sole executor must be a U.S. citizen, although a non-citizen can be a co-executor, if the other co-executor is a citizen. Rules also vary from state to state regarding being paid for your time. Most states permit a percentage of the size of the estate, which must be considered earned income and reported on tax returns.

Be very thorough and careful in documenting every decision made as the executor to protect yourself from any future challenges. This is one job where trying to do it on your own could have long-term effects on your relationship with the family and financial liability, so take it seriously. If it’s too much, an estate planning attorney can help.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Dec. 22, 2021) “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate” 

Should I Start Estate Planning Now?

The coronavirus has taken a toll on our finances, as well as our physical and mental health. As a result, it’s important to plan appropriately for your health care and financial needs in an estate plan to provide much-needed peace of mind, say Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning During a Pandemic – Quit Stalling.” The article lists the important components of a comprehensive estate plan:

Advance Health Care Directive. This is a written plan that states your wishes, in the event you can’t speak for yourself. Your wishes need to be in writing, and the document should be updated as your health changes. Review your advance health care directive with your doctor and the person you select as your health care proxy to be certain it’s completed correctly.

Health Care Power of Attorney. This legal document lets you name someone who can review your medical records and make decisions, such as how and where you should be treated. This would be applicable, if you were incapacitated and unable to make medical decisions for yourself.

Living Will. A living will is a type of advance health care directive that specifically states your end-of-life decisions in the event you are terminally ill or permanently unconscious. This covers specific medical treatments, like CPR, ventilation, pain management, tube feeding and organ and tissue donation.

Financial Power of Attorney. This document lets you name someone to help with your finances, if you become incapacitated and unable to do so. You can state how much control your power of attorney will have, like accessing accounts, selling stock and managing real estate.

Trusts. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a trust to protect your assets as you pass them down to your heirs. If your children or grandchildren aren’t old enough or mature enough to handle their inheritance, you can set up a trust that provides them with a small amount of money each year, increasing that amount as they get older. You can also direct that the money be specifically used for an adult child’s mortgage or student loans.

Beneficiaries. Many people forget to update their life insurance policies, bank, brokerage accounts and retirement plans. These all have beneficiary forms, which supersede a will. These should be updated, along with your estate plan, every few years and after every major life change. That’s something like a marriage, divorce, death, adoption, or birth.

Make certain that you are reviewing and updating your estate plan when you review your retirement plan each year or so.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Oct. 31, 2021) “Estate Planning During a Pandemic – Quit Stalling”