Should I Try Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning?

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “6 Common Myths About Estate Planning explains that the coronavirus pandemic has made many people face decisions about estate planning. Many will use a do-it-yourself solution. Internet DIY websites make it easy to download forms. However, there are mistakes people make when they try do-it-yourself estate planning.

Here are some issues with do-it-yourself that estate planning attorneys regularly see:

You need to know what to ask. If you’re trying to complete a specific form, you may be able to do it on your own. However, the challenge is sometimes not knowing what to ask. If you want a more comprehensive end-of-life plan and aren’t sure about what you need in addition to a will, work with an experienced estate planning attorney. If you want to cover everything, and are not sure what everything is, that’s why you see them.

More complex issues require professional help. Take a more holistic look at your estate plan and look at estate planning, tax planning and financial planning together, since they’re all interrelated. If you only look at one of these areas at a time, you may create complications in another. This could unintentionally increase your expenses or taxes. Your situation might also include special issues or circumstances. A do-it-yourself website might not be able to tell you how to account for your specific situation in the best possible way. It will just give you a blanket list, and it will all be cookie cutter. You won’t have the individual attention to your goals and priorities you get by sitting down and talking to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Estate laws vary from state to state. Every state may have different rules for estate planning, such as for powers of attorney or a health care proxy. There are also 17 states and the District of Columbia that tax your estate, inheritance, or both. These tax laws can impact your estate planning. Eleven states and DC only have an estate tax (CT, HI, IL, ME, MA, MN, NY, OR, RI, VT and WA). Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey and Pennsylvania have only an inheritance tax. Maryland has both an inheritance tax and an estate tax.

Setting up health care directives and making end-of-life decisions can be very involved. It’s too important to try to do it yourself. If you make a mistake, it could impact the ability of your family to take care of financial expenses or manage health care issues. Don’t do it yourself.

Reference: US News & World Report (July 5, 2021) “6 Common Myths About Estate Planning”

Do You Need Power of Attorney If You Have a Joint Account?

A person with Power of Attorney for their parents can’t actually “add” the POA to their bank accounts. However, they may change bank accounts to be jointly owned. There are some pros and cons of doing this, as discussed in the article “POAs vs. joint ownership” from NWI.com.

The POA permits the agent to access their parent’s bank accounts, make deposits and write checks.  However, it doesn’t create any ownership interest in the bank accounts. It allows access and signing authority.

If the person’s parent wants to add them to the account, they become a joint owner of the account. When this happens, the person has the same authority as the parent, accessing the account and making deposits and withdrawals.

However, there are downsides. Once the person is added to the account as a joint owner, their relationship changes. As a POA, they are a fiduciary, which means they have a legally enforceable responsibility to put their parent’s benefits above their own.

As an owner, they can treat the accounts as if they were their own and there’s no requirement to be held to a higher standard of financial care.

Because the POA does not create an ownership interest in the account, when the owner dies, the account passes to the surviving joint owners, Payable on Death (POD) beneficiaries or beneficiaries under the parent’s estate plan.

If the account is owned jointly, when one of the joint owners dies, the other person becomes the sole owner.

Another issue to consider is that becoming a joint owner means the account could be vulnerable to creditors for all owners. If the adult child has any debt issues, the parent’s account could be attached by creditors, before or after their passing.

Most estate planning attorneys recommend the use of a POA rather than adding an owner to a joint account. If the intent of the owners is to give the child the proceeds of the bank account, they can name the child a POD on the account for when they pass and use a POA, so the child can access the account while they are living.

One last point: while the parent is still living, the child should contact the bank and provide them with a copy of the POA. This, allows the bank to enter the POA into the system and add the child as a signatory on the account. If there are any issues, they are best resolved before while the parent is still living.

Reference: NWI.com (Aug. 15, 2021) “POAs vs. joint ownership”

What Not to Do when Creating an Estate Plan

Having a good estate plan is critical to ensure that your family is well taken care of after you are gone. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney remains the best way to be sure that your assets are distributed as you want and in the most tax-efficient way possible. A recent article titled “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid” from Urology Times looks at the fine points.

An out-of-date estate plan. Life is all about change. Your estate plan needs to reflect those changes. Just as you prepare taxes every year, your estate plan should be reviewed every year. Here are trigger events that should also spur a review:

  • Parents die and can no longer be beneficiaries or guardians of minor children.
  • Children marry or divorce or have children of their own.
  • Your own remarriage or divorce.
  • A significant change in your asset levels, good or bad.
  • Buying or selling real estate or other large transactions.

Neglecting to update an estate plan correctly. Scratching out a provision in a will and initialing it does not make the change valid. This never works, no matter what your know-it-all brother-in-law says. If you want to make a change, visit an estate planning attorney.

Relying on joint tenancy to avoid probate. When you bought your home, someone probably advised you to title the home using joint tenancy to avoid probate. That only works when the first spouse dies. When the surviving spouse dies, they own the home entirely. The home goes through probate.

Failing to coordinate your will and trusts. All your wills and trusts and any other estate planning documents need to be reviewed to be sure they work together. If you create a trust and transfer assets to it, but your will states that the asset now held in the trust should be gifted to a nephew, then you’ve opened the door to delays, family dissent and possibly litigation.

Not titling assets correctly. How assets are titled reflects their ownership. If your home, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, vehicles and other properties are titled properly, you’ve done your homework. Next, check on beneficiary designations for any asset. Beneficiary designations allow assets to pass directly to the beneficiary. Review these designations annually. If your will says one thing and the beneficiary designation says another, the beneficiary designation wins.

Not naming successor or contingent beneficiaries. If you’ve named a beneficiary on an account—such as your life insurance—and the beneficiary dies, the proceeds could go to your estate and become taxable. Naming an alternate and successor for all the key roles in your estate plan, including beneficiaries, trustees and guardians, offers another layer of certainty to your estate plan.

Neglecting to address health care directives. It may be easier to decide who gets the family vacation home than who will decide to keep you on or take you off life-support systems. However, this is necessary to protect your wishes and prevent family disasters. Health care proxy, advance care directive and end-of-life planning documents tell your loved ones what your wishes are. Without them, the family may be left guessing what to do.

Forgetting to update Power of Attorney. Review this critical document to be sure of two things: the person you named to manage your affairs is still the person you want, and the documents are relatively recent. Some financial institutions balk at older POA forms, and others will outright refuse to accept them. Some states, like New York, have changed POA rules to make it harder for POAs to be denied, but in other states there still can be problems, if the POA is old.

Reference: Urology Times (July 29, 2021) “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid”

What Should a Power of Attorney Include?

The pandemic has taught us how swiftly our lives can change, and interest in having a power of attorney (POA) has increased as a result. But you need to know how this powerful document is and what it’s limits are. A recent article from Forbes titled “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On” explains it all.

The agent acting under the authority of your POA only controls assets in your name. Assets in a trust are not owned by you, so your agent can’t access them. The trustee (you or a successor trustee, if you are incapacitated) appointed in your trust document would have control of the trust and its assets.

There are several different types of POAs. The Durable Power of Attorney goes into effect the moment it is signed and continues to be valid if you become incapacitated. The Springing Power of Attorney becomes valid only when you become incapacitated.

Most estate planning attorneys will advise you to use the Durable Power of Attorney, as the Springing Power of Attorney requires extra steps (perhaps even a court) to determine your capacity.

All authority under a Power of Attorney ceases to be effective when you die.

There are challenges to the POA. Deciding who will be your agent is not always easy. The agent has complete control over your financial life outside of assets held in trust. If you chose to appoint two different people to share the responsibility and they don’t get along, time-sensitive decisions could become tangled and delayed.

Determine gifting parameters. Will your agent be authorized to make gifts? Depending upon your estate, you may want your agent to be able to make gifts, which is useful if you want to reduce estate taxes or if you’ll need to apply for government benefits in the near future. You can also give directions as to who gets gifts and how much. Most people limit the size of gifts to the annual exclusion amount of $15,000.

Can the POA agent change beneficiary designations? Chances are a lot of your assets will pass to loved ones through a beneficiary designation: life insurance, investment, retirement accounts, etc. Do you want your POA agent to have the ability to change these? Most people do not, and the POA must specifically state this. Your estate planning attorney will be able to custom design your POA to protect your beneficiary designations.

Can the POA amend a trust? Depending upon your circumstances, you may or may not want your POA to have the ability to make changes to trusts. This would allow the POA to change beneficiaries and change the terms of the trust. Most folks have planned their trusts to work with their estate plan, and do not wish a POA agent to have the power to make changes.

The POA and the guardian. A POA may be used to name a guardian, who would be appointed by the court. This person is often the same person as the POA, with the idea that the same person you trust enough to be your POA would also be trusted to be your guardian.

The POA is a more powerful document than people think. Downloading a POA and hoping for the best can undo a lifetime of financial and estate planning. It’s best to have a POA created that is uniquely drafted for your family and your situation.

Reference: Forbes (July 19, 2021) “4 Power of Attorney Clauses You Need To Focus On”

What are My Best Estate Planning Moves?

Tickertape’s recent article “5 Estate Planning Tips That Aren’t Just for the Wealthy” explains that a common misconception is that estate planning isn’t necessary if your estate assets amount to less than the 2021 federal estate tax exemption of $11.7 million per individual.

But most of us can benefit from estate planning. This can help protect your assets for your heirs. Estate planning includes creating a last will or revocable living trust, making certain that you have the right beneficiaries, and creating a health care directive. Creating a solid estate plan can decrease the odds that your family will have to deal with a problematic probate and reduce the amount of money because of unneeded taxes.

Create a Will. A last will is one way to let people know how you want your assets taken care of after you die. Plus, a last will should include information about who should act as guardians for minor children and care for any pets. Talk to an estate planning attorney about the specific laws for probate to make sure you do it correctly.

Name Your Beneficiaries. Review your beneficiary designations and make sure they’re up to date. When there’s a major life change, you should look at your beneficiary designations (e.g., life insurance and retirement funds), update your last will, and make sure everything matches. This includes charities as well as individuals. There are estate planning strategies designed to help you pass your assets on, but none of these will help if you don’t have your beneficiaries properly designated and assets aligned with your estate plan.

Ask Your Attorney About a Trust. A fully funded revocable living trust can be great tool to pass your assets on while potentially helping your heirs avoid probate. There are many different types of trusts that can be used to provide a variety of benefits. Much depends on your situation, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Power of Attorney. Estate planning also includes documents in the event you become incapacitated. Signing a power of attorney allows an agent to make decisions on your behalf if you’re incapacitated. Find a person you trust to handle these decisions and have an estate planning attorney prepare the legal documents to ensure that everything is correct.

Think About Giving Now. You don’t need to wait until you’re gone to provide resources to your family. In 2021, you can give up to $15,000 to each recipient without paying the gift tax. If you’re married, each spouse can give $15,000. When you give to charity now, instead of waiting until you pass, you may claim a tax deduction, whether you donate directly, give stock, or set up a donor-advised fund. This allows you to benefit now—along with your beneficiaries.

Reference: Tickertape (June 25, 2021) “5 Estate Planning Tips That Aren’t Just for the Wealthy” 

Does Your Estate Have to Go Through Probate?

Probate is a court-supervised process intended to ensure the validity of a lasts will and to protect the distribution of assets after a person has died. If there is no last will, probate still takes place, according to the article “Probate—Courts protecting you after death” from Pauls Valley Democrat.

Every estate that owns property must be probated, unless the title or ownership of the property has been transferred before the person died by gift, if the property is owned jointly with another person, or if it passes by direct beneficiary designation. If a person died without a last will, probate still takes place, but the guidelines used are those of the state law where the person died.

In all cases, it’s better to have a last will and to decide for yourself how you want your assets distributed. For all you know, your state law may give everything you own to an estranged third cousin and her children, who are perfect strangers to you.

If you don’t have a last will, which is referred to as dying “intestate,” the court decides who is going to serve as your administrator. This person will be in charge of distributing all of your worldly goods and taking care of the business part of settling your estate, like paying taxes, selling your home, etc. Without a last will, the court picks a person, and it might not be the person you would have wanted.

Here are the basic steps in probating an estate, once the probate petition is filed:

Initial hearing. This is where the court affirms its jurisdiction and identifies all known heirs, and the personal representative is identified.

Letters Testamentary. This document is issued to the personal representative. This is a judge signed document proving to others, like banks and investment custodians, that the personal representative is legally permitted to handle your property and act on behalf of your estate. It’s similar to a Power of Attorney.

Probate. This court process collects, identifies, and accounts for all assets of a decedent. The representative must be mindful to document any money going in and out of the estate during the administrative process.

Written notice must be given to all and any known heirs. This can lead to relatives and others believing they have a claim on your estate and to then challenge the provisions of your last will with the court.

Notice is also provided to creditors, who have at least 60 days after notice is provided to make a claim on the estate. This timeframe varies by jurisdiction. In some jurisdictions, these notices are published in local newspapers, once a week for two or more consecutive weeks. Once they receive fair notice, general creditors who fail to file a claim lose their right to ever file a claim on the estate.

An estate plan is created with an eye to minimizing taxes, maximizing privacy for the family and heirs, and transferring ownership of assets with as little red tape as possible. Failing to properly plan can lead to a probate taking months, and in some cases, years.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (July 1, 2021) “Probate—Courts protecting you after death”

What are the Basics of a Successful Estate Plan?

Whether you have a whole lot of money or a little, an estate plan is an essential. It protects you and your loved ones, and can also minimize taxes, expenses, fees and the loss of your privacy. A solid estate plan is created by an experienced estate planning attorney who is familiar with the laws of your state, reports the recent article titled “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan” from Bankrate.com.

All good estate plans have three key elements: a will, power of attorney and an advance healthcare directive. Each serves a different purpose. Some estate plans also include trusts, but every situation is different. Your estate planning attorney will be able to create the right estate plan for you.

A Will. The will, also known as the last will and testament, is the foundation of all estate plans. It directs your assets to be distributed as you wish. Without an estate plan, the court decides who will receive your assets. That’s the biggest mistake you can make. It’s called dying intestate. Your heirs will be burdened with additional court costs, delays and the stress of not knowing what you might have wanted.

However, financial accounts and property aren’t the only valuable thing protected by your will. If you have a minor child or children, the will is used to name a guardian who will take care of them. It also names a conservator who will manage the child’s financial assets, until they are of legal age. The guardian and conservator may be the same person, or they might be two different people. If you opt to split the roles, be sure the two people work well together.

Power of Attorney. A power of attorney, or POA, is used to give another person legal authority to take care of financial and legal matters, while you are still living. If you are incapacitated, a POA gives someone else the ability to pay bills and manage your affairs. A medical POA gives another person the ability to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. The POA is completely customizable: you can use it to give someone else broad powers to do everything, or narrow powers so they are in charge of only one bank account, for instance. It is very important to have a detailed discussion with the person before you name them. It’s a big responsibility and you want to be certain they are comfortable carrying out all of the tasks.

The Advance Healthcare Directive. This document lays out in detail what you want to happen to you if you are not able to make decisions because of severe illness or injury. If you don’t want to be resuscitated after a heart attack, for instance, you would state that in your advance care directive. It includes a list of treatments you do and do not want. Your family will be able to use it as a guide to help them make difficult decisions regarding sustaining your life, managing pain and providing end-of-life care.

Trusts in Estate Planning. The three elements above form the base of an estate plan, but there are other tools used to achieve your goals. Depending on your circumstances, you will want to incorporate trusts, useful tools for transferring assets of all types. For example, when assets are placed in an irrevocable trust, they are no longer part of your estate, thereby minimizing your estate tax liability. Trusts are also used when parents wish to exert control over how and when money is distributed to children. If the parents should both die, a trust can prevent an entire inheritance coming into the hands of an 18-year-old who is legally old enough to inherit property, but likely not ready for the responsibility.

Trusts also transfer assets outside of the probate process, so they protect the family’s privacy. No one outside of the trustees know how much money is in the trust and how the money is being distributed. Trusts are not just for the very wealthy. They can help you protect assets from creditors, ex-spouses and litigious family members.

Reference: Bankrate.com (July 23, 2021) “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan”

Do Singles Need Estate Planning?

Pauls Valley Democrat’s recent article entitled “Even ‘singles’ need estate plans” tells us what might happen if you die intestate (without a last will and testament). In that case, your any assets without a surviving joint owner or designated beneficiary or titled in a revocable living trust may be required to pass through the probate process. As a result, they’ll be distributed by the court, according to the state’s intestate succession laws.

Even if you don’t have children, you may have nephews or nieces, or even children of cousins or friends, to whom you’d like to leave some of your assets. However, if everything you own goes through probate, there’s no guarantee that these people will get what you wanted them to have. Therefore, if you want to leave something to family members or close friends, state this in your last will and testament.

However, you may also want to provide support to some charities. You can just name these charities in your will. However, there may be options that could provide you with additional benefits. One such possibility is a charitable remainder trust. With this trust, you’d transfer appreciated assets, such as stocks, mutual funds or other securities, into an irrevocable trust. Your named trustee could then sell the assets at full market value, avoiding the capital gains taxes you’d have to pay if you sold them yourself, outside a trust.

Moreover, if you itemize, you may be able to claim a charitable deduction on your taxes. With the proceeds, the trust can purchase income-producing assets and provide you with an income stream for the rest of your life. At your death, the remaining trust assets will go to the charities that you’ve named.

A single person also should have as part of his or her estate planning, a durable power of attorney and a health care proxy. A durable power of attorney allows you to designate an individual to manage your finances, if you become incapacitated. This is really important, if you don’t have a spouse to step in.

If you become incapacitated, your health care proxy – also known as a health care surrogate or medical power of attorney – allows you to name another person to legally make health care decisions for you, if you are unable to do so yourself.

Estate planning can be complex, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Pauls Valley Democrat (June 24, 2021) “Even ‘singles’ need estate plans”

Does Estate Planning Vary by State?

Estate planning laws vary greatly from state to state and understanding the difference could have a significant impact on whether your estate plan is valid. It is best to get this straight shortly after moving, says The National Law Review in the recent article “Updating Your Estate Plan: What Michigan Residents Need to Know When Moving to Florida.”

It’s not just people from Michigan who move to Florida who need to have their estate plans reviewed, if they are snowbirds or making a full-time move—it’s anyone who moves to another state, from any state. However, Florida’s popularity makes it a good example to use.

Florida restricts who is permitted to serve as a Personal Representatives under a will. The personal representative, also known as an executor, must be a descendent or ancestor of the decedent, a spouse, brother, sister, aunt, uncle, nephew, niece or descendant or ancestor of any such person or a Florida resident.

Florida doesn’t recognize “no contest” clauses in trusts or wills. It also does not recognize unwitnessed testamentary documents, which are handwritten documents even if they are in your own handwriting. Michigan may accept them, but Florida courts do not.

Florida also has a special set of laws, known as the Homestead laws, designed to protect a decedent’s surviving spouse and children. You may have had other plans for your Florida home, but they may not be passed to the people you have designated in your non-Florida will, if they don’t follow the Sunshine State’s guidelines.

Power of Attorney laws differ from state to state, and this can create huge headaches for families. In Michigan, the Durable Power of Attorney can be “springing,” that is, it is effective only upon incapacity. In Florida, once a Durable Power of Attorney is signed, it is effective. Florida may accept a DPA from another state, but Florida law will be applied to the agent’s actions, and restrictions will be based on Florida law, not that of another state.

As for estate planning documents concerning medical and financial decisions while you are living, these are also different. A living will names a person, known as a “Patient Advocate” in Michigan or a “Health Care Surrogate” in Florida, who is authorized to make decisions regarding end of life care, including providing, withholding, or withdrawing life-sustaining treatment. In Michigan, you need two doctors to certify a patient’s incapacity for non-life-or-death decisions. In Florida, only one doctor is needed.

Whether you are traveling north for a cooler summer or planning to leave a northern home before the winter arrives, meet with your estate planning attorney to understand how any and all of your estate planning documents will work—or not—when you are in another state.

Reference: The National Law Review (June 30, 2021) “Updating Your Estate Plan: What Michigan Residents Need to Know When Moving to Florida”

Do You Need a Revocable Trust or Irrevocable Trust?

There are important differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts. One of the biggest differences is the amount of control you have over assets, as explained in the article “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust” from Kiplinger. A revocable trust is often referred to as the Swiss Army knife of estate planning because it has so many different uses. The irrevocable trust is also a multi-use tool, only different.

Trusts are legal entities that own assets like real estate, investment accounts, cars, life insurance and high value personal belongings, like jewelry or art. Ownership of the asset is transferred to the trust, typically by changing the title of ownership. The trust documents also contain directions regarding what should happen to the asset when you die.

There are three key parties to any trust: the grantor, the person creating and depositing assets into the trust; the beneficiary, who will receive the trust assets and income; and the trustee, who is in charge of the trust, files tax returns as needed and distributes assets according to the terms of the trust. One person can hold different roles. The grantor could set up a trust and also be a trustee and even the beneficiary while living. The executor of a will can also be a trustee or a successor trustee.

If the trust is revocable, the grantor has the option of amending or revoking the trust at any time. A different trustee or beneficiary can be named, and the terms of the trust may be changed. Assets can also be taken back from a revocable trust. Pre-tax retirement funds, like a 401(k) cannot be placed inside a trust, since the transfer would require the trust to become the owner of these accounts. The IRS would consider that to be a taxable withdrawal.

There isn’t much difference between owning the assets yourself and a revocable trust. Assets still count as part of your estate and are not sheltered from estate taxes or creditors. However, you have complete control of the assets and the trust. So why have one? The transition of ownership if something happens to you is easier. If you become incapacitated, a successor trustee can take over management of trust assets. This may be easier than relying on a Power of Attorney form and some believe it offers more legal authority, allowing family members to manage assets and pay bills.

In addition, assets in a trust don’t go through probate, so the transfer of property after you die to heirs is easier. If you own homes in multiple states, heirs will receive their inheritance faster than if the homes must go through probate in multiple states. Any property in your revocable trust is not in your will, so ownership and transfer status remain private.

An irrevocable trust is harder to change, as befits its name. To change an irrevocable trust while you are living takes a little more effort but is not impossible. Consent of all parties involved, including the beneficiary and trustee, must be obtained. The benefits from the irrevocable trust make the effort worthwhile. By giving up control, assets in the irrevocable trust may not be part of your taxable estate. While today’s federal estate exemption is historically high right now, it’s expected to go much lower in the future.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 14, 2021) “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust”