Just What Is in an Estate Plan?

Getting your affairs in order may not be on anyone’s top ten fun list for a weekend. However, once it is done, you can relax, knowing your loved ones will be cared for. Is estate planning more or less painful than doing taxes once a year? The answer depends on who you ask, but a recent article titled “Estate Planning Checklist: 12 Things to Get in Order” from South Florida Reporter breaks it down into easy-to-manage steps.

A last will and testament outlines how your assets will be distributed after your death. They include personal property, real estate, bank accounts, etc. You can name a guardian for minor children, and name an executor, the person who will be in charge of managing your estate.

Proof of identity. Your executor will need information including a valid birth certificate, Social Security card, marriage or divorce certificates, a prenuptial agreement, or military service discharge papers.

Digital asset information. With so much of our lives lived online, everyone needs a digital vault, an integrated password manager or some kind of system for managing your digital assets. Without this, your traditional and digital assets are vulnerable to identity theft and fraud.

Property deeds and titles. You have titles for cars, homes, or real estate property. They need to be gathered and kept in a safe place, then one or two highly trusted individuals need to be told where these documents are located.

Revocable living trust. Creating a trust with an experienced estate planning attorney can help loved ones avoid the time and cost of having your estate go through probate. The trust creates a legal entity allowing you to control property while you are alive but preparing for the future. If you are living and become incapacitated, the successor trustee controls the assets owned by the trust.

Debts. These do not disappear when you die. Your executor will need to know what debts exist because they will need to address them. Compile a list of your debts, which may include mortgages, auto loans, credit cards, personal loans and student loans. Add contact information for the lender, account number, login information and approximate amount of the debt. If you have credit cards you rarely use, include those also, so they can be closed out before identity theft occurs.

Non-Probate Assets and Beneficiaries. Assets with named beneficiary designations can be transferred directly to beneficiaries. However, this does not happen automatically. Your executor will need to provide beneficiaries with the information for the assets, including the name of the insurance company or financial institution, the location of policies, account numbers and the value of the asset. The beneficiary may need to provide a death certificate and identification information before the assets are released.

Financial information. Let your executor skip the scavenger hunt. Create a detailed list information including bank accounts, car insurance, credit cards, health, home and life insurance, pension plans, retirement plans and tax returns.

Advanced Health Care Directive. This document is an opportunity for you to tell health care providers how you want medical decisions to be made, if you cannot communicate your wishes. The AHCD typically has two parts: Health Care Power of Attorney (also known as a health care proxy) and a living will.

The Living Will outlines your wishes, if you are unable to communicate. It describes your preferences for end-of-life requests, medications, resuscitation, surgeries, or other invasive procedures.

Power of Attorney is a document to give someone else the power to act on your behalf regarding financial and legal affairs. The scope of power can be as broad as managing everything or limited to selling your classic car collection. Your estate planning attorney will help you clarify what responsibilities you wish to give in a POA.

Funeral Wishes. If you want to save your family a lot of stress during a very difficult time, outline what you would want to happen. Do you want a cremation or embalming and burial? Should it be a full-on faith-based memorial service, or a few poems read at graveside? Make sure that your wishes are communicated and shared with loved ones, so everyone knows what you want.

Meet with an Estate Planning Attorney. Make an appointment to meet with an estate planning attorney to put all of this information in the appropriate legal documents. They may have recommendations for options that you may not know about.

Reference: South Florida Reporter (April 2, 2022) “Estate Planning Checklist: 12 Things to Get in Order”

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!”

Do Most People Need a Living Trust?
Living trust and estate planning form on a desk.

Do Most People Need a Living Trust?

Avoiding the costs and extensive time needed to settle an estate through probate is one reason people like to use trusts in estate planning. This type of trust allows you to designate a trustee to manage the assets in the trust after you have passed.  This is especially important if heirs are minor children or adults who cannot manage a large inheritance. A living trust, as explained in the article titled “The Lowdown on Living Trusts” from Kiplinger, has additional benefits. However, there are some pitfalls to be cautious about, especially concerning transferring assets.

Certain assets do not belong in a living trust. Regardless of their size, some assets should never be placed in a living trust, including IRAs, 401(k)s, tax deferred annuities, health savings accounts, and medical savings accounts and others .

Placing these assets in a trust requires changing the ownership on the accounts. Don’t do it! The IRS will treat the transfer as a distribution. You will be required to pay income taxes and penalties, if any are triggered, on the entire value of the account.

You may be able to make the trust a beneficiary of the retirement accounts. However, it is not appropriate for everyone. Changes to IRA distribution rules from the SECURE Act may make this a dangerous move, since the trustee may be required to empty the IRA within ten years of your death.

For practical purposes, assets like cars, boats or motorcycles do not belong in a trust. To transfer ownership to the trust, you will need to retitle them. This would result in fees and taxes. You would also have to change the insurance, since the insurance company may not cover assets owned by trusts. The cost may outweigh the benefits.

Assets belonging in a trust include real estate, especially your primary residence. Placing your home in a trust will minimize the hassle of transferring the home to heirs, if this is your plan. If you own property in another state, transferring the title to a living trust allows your estate to avoid probate in more than one state. Remember to get a new deed to transfer ownership to the trust. If you refinance or take a home equity line of credit, you may need to transfer the property out of the trust and into your name to get the loan. You will then need to transfer the property back into the trust.

Financial assets can be placed in a trust. Stocks, bonds, mutual funds, CDs, money market funds, bank savings accounts and even safe deposit boxes can be placed in a trust. There may be a lot of paperwork, and in some cases, you may need to open a new account in the name of the trust.

Once the trust has been created, do not neglect to fund it by transferring assets. Retitling assets requires attention to detail to make sure all of the desired assets have been retitled. The trust needs to be reviewed every few years, just as your estate plan needs to be reviewed. Be sure to have a secondary trustee named, if you are the primary trustee.

Trusts are an excellent option if you live in a state where probate is onerous and expensive. Assets placed in the trust can be distributed with a high degree of specificity, which also provides great peace of mind. If you believe your oldest son will benefit from receiving a large inheritance when he is 40 and not 30, you can do so through a trust. The level of control, avoidance of probate and protection of assets makes the living trust a powerful estate planning tool.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 24, 2022) “The Lowdown on Living Trusts”

How Does a Trust Fund Work?

To maximize the benefits of a trust fund, you’ll need to understand how trusts funds work and how to create a trust fund the right way, advises this recent article from Yahoo! Money titled “How to Start a Trust Fund the Easy Way.” You don’t have to be a millionaire to start a trust fund, by the way. “Regular” people benefit just as much as millionaires from using trusts to protect assets and minimize taxes.

A trust fund is an independent legal entity created to own assets and ensure money and property are used to benefit loved ones. They are commonly used to transfer assets to family members.

Trust funds are created by grantors, the person who sets up the trust and transfers money or assets into it. An experienced estate planning attorney will be essential, since creating a trust is not like going to the bank and opening an account. You need the assistance of a professional who can create a trust to reflect your wishes and comply with your state’s laws.

When assets are moved into a trust, the trust becomes the legal owner of the property. Part of creating the trust is naming a trustee, who manages the trust and is legally bound to follow the wishes of the trust following the grantor’s wishes. A successor trustee should always be named, in case the primary trustee becomes unwilling to serve or dies.

Subject to compliance with specific requirements, assets owned by an irrevocable trust are not countable towards Medicaid, if someone in the family needs long-term care and is concerned about qualifying. Any transfer must be done at least five years in advance of applying for Medicaid. An elder law attorney can help in preparation for this application and to ensure eligibility. This is a very complex area of law. Do not attempt it alone without the assistance of an elder law attorney.

Trusts can have a long or short life. Some trusts are held for a child until the child reaches age 25, while others are structured to distribute a portion of the assets throughout the beneficiary’s lifetime or when the beneficiary reaches certain milestones, such as finishing college, starting a family, etc.

A revocable trust allows the grantor to have the most control over the assets in the trust, but at a cost. The revocable trust may be changed at any time, and property can be moved in and out of it. However, the assets are available to creditors and are countable towards long-term care because they are in the control of the grantor.

The irrevocable trust requires the grantor to give up control, in exchange for the benefits the trust provides.

There are as many types of trusts as there are situations for trusts. Charitable Remainder Trusts reduce estate taxes and allow beneficiaries to receive an income stream for a designated period of time, at the end of which the remainder of the trust’s assets go to the charity. Special Needs Trusts are created for disabled persons who are receiving means-tested government benefits. There are strict rules about SNTs, so speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that your loved one continues to be eligible, if you want them to receive assets from you.

Trusts are often used so assets will pass through the trust and not through the probate process. Assets owned by a trust pass directly to beneficiaries and information about the assets does not become part of the public record, which is part of what occurs during the probate process.

Your estate planning attorney will help ensure your trusts are appropriate for your situation, achieve your specific wishes and are in compliance with your state’s laws. A boilerplate template could present more problems than it solves. For trusts, the experienced professional is the best option.

Reference: Yahoo! Money (March 18, 2022) “How to Start a Trust Fund the Easy Way”

Can a Vacation Home Be Kept in the Family for Generations?

Many family traditions include gatherings at vacation homes. However, leaving these properties to the next generation is not always in the best interest of the family. Some people try to make a simple solution work for a complex problem, leading to more challenges, as explained in the article “Succession planning for the family lakehouse” from NH Business Review.

Joint ownership among siblings can lead to disputes about how the home is used, operated and maintained. Some children want to continue using the house, while others may see it as an income stream for a rental property. There may be siblings who cannot afford to participate in the house’s upkeep and need the cash more than the tradition. When joint ownership is presented as a surprise in a will, the adult children may find themselves fighting about the vacation home, with no parent around to tell them to knock it off.

Making matters more complicated, if the siblings live in different states and the house is in a neighboring state, ownership of the real estate at death may subject the decedent’s estate to estate taxes where the property is located. As a result, the property may need to go through probate in an additional state. Every state has its own tax rules, so the transfer of joint property will have to be analyzed by an estate planning attorney knowledgeable about the laws in each state involved.

A sensible alternative is creating a Limited Liability Corporation, ideally while the original owners—the parents—are still living. The organizational documents include a certificate of organization to file with the Secretary of State and an operating agreement. The LLC will need its own taxpayer identification number, or EIN.

The operating agreement governs the management of the property and addresses the operating expenses and maintenance of the property. It should also address the process for a child to cash in on their ownership to other children. LLC operating agreements often include these items:

  • Responsibilities for operating expenses
  • Process to transfer member units or interests
  • Duties for regular maintenance, budgeting and approval of property improvements
  • Development of a property use schedule
  • Establishing rules for the home’s use

There are some costs associated with creating an LLC, including annual filing requirements. However, these will be small, when compared to the cost of family fights and untangling joint ownership.

An LLC can also offer personal liability protection from lawsuits brought by renters, creditors, or any litigants. If there is an accident resulting from work being done on the property, the owners may be shielded from the liability because they do not personally own the property, the LLC does.

In the case of divorce, bankruptcy filing, or a large judgement being filed against one of the children, the LLC will protect their interest in the property.

The real estate owned by the LLC is not part of the owner’s probate estate. This avoids the need for a second probate in the state where the property is located. Some states have adopted the Uniform Transfer on Death Security Registration Act, and the LLC membership interest can be assigned along to the terms of the beneficiary designation.

Planning for what will happen to a vacation home after death provides peace of mind for all in the family. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that the property and the family’s peace is preserved.

Reference: NH Business Review (March 23, 2022) “Succession planning for the family lakehouse”

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 Set Up a Trust After Death?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Do I Need an Attorney for Probate?

Having an estate planning attorney manage the probate process can alleviate a great deal of stress for the family, says the recent article “Reasons to hire a lawyer for probate” from The Mercury.

For one thing, the attorney will know what your state requires in the way of executing the will. You may need to pay a state inheritance tax, or you may have to file certain documents specific to your state. Even if the surviving spouse is the only beneficiary and all assets are either jointly titled or are distributed through beneficiary designations, there are other details you may miss.

A surviving spouse will certainly appreciate not having to undertake a mountain of paperwork or electronic forms on their own, especially if there are no adult children living nearby to help. Which beneficiary form needs to be completed, and what will financial institutions need to change accounts to the proper ownership? It can be daunting, especially during mourning.

Depending upon the state, there may be exemptions, discounts and deductions from the estate. A layperson likely does not know if their state deducts the attorney’s fees and/or the executor fees. Even attorneys who do not practice estate law do not always know about these potential benefits.

An estate planning attorney will also know how long the probate process will take. If the surviving spouse is the executor and is unable to attend probate court, some cases accept a remote process. There are also COVID-specific procedures in some states, which a layperson may not know about.

If there are family disputes between beneficiaries regarding distribution, an estate planning attorney could be a very important resource. There may need to be a settlement agreement created that conforms to the state’s law. If it is not handled properly, the agreement could be deemed invalid if challenged in court.

What if the family home is being sold? Sometimes executors working without an attorney do not realize the requirements from title insurance companies regarding the sale of a property where one of the parties has passed. Failing to make sure that these requirements are met, could delay the settlement of the estate and put the property sale in jeopardy.

If there are health or creditor issues, or disputes over property, an estate planning attorney is invaluable in protecting the surviving spouse and/or executor. In many cases, the estate is left with substantial medical bills, Medicaid claims or related costs. Executors may not know their rights, or how to defend the estate. A knowledgeable estate planning attorney will.

Reference: The Mercury (Feb. 8, 2022) “Reasons to hire a lawyer for probate”

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”

Does the Executor Control Bank Accounts?

Executors administering probate assets usually have to deal with several different financial institutions. If good planning has been done by the decedent, the executor has a list of assets, account numbers, website addresses and phone numbers. Otherwise, the personal representative or successor trustee starts by gathering information and identifying the accounts, as described in a recent article “Dealing with the back offices of banks and brokerages” from Lake Country News.

The accounts must be identified, retitled to become part of the estate, or liquidated and moved into the estate account.

If the decedent had a financial advisor who handled all of their investments, the process may be easier, since there will only be one person to deal with.

If there is no financial advisor who can or will personally manage the assets, the executor starts by contacting the back office department of the institution, often referred to as the “estates department.” The contact info can usually be found on the institutions’ website or on the paper statements, if there are any.

Expect to spend a lot of time on hold, especially in the beginning of the week. It may be better to call on a Wednesday or Thursday.

The first call is to introduce the executor, advise of the death of the decedent and learn about the company’s procedures for transferring, retitling, or otherwise gaining control of the account. The bank usually assigns a case number, to be used on all future communications.

If possible, obtain their name, direct dial, and direct email of whoever you speak with. It may only be with one assigned representative, or a different person every time. It depends upon the organization. Take careful notes on every interaction. You may need them.

Some of the documents needed to complete these transactions include an original death certificate, a court certified letter of administration or trustee’s certification of trust and a letter of authorization signed by the client to allow the institution to communicate with the executor or successor trustee.

Financial institutions will often only accept their own forms, which then need to be prepared for completion and signature. Expect to be asked to notarize some documents. In many cases, the institution will require a new account be opened and the assets transferred to the new account.

Be organized—you may find yourself needing to submit the documents multiple times, depending on the financial institution. If hard copy documents are sent, use registered or express mail requiring a signature on delivery. If documents are sent by email, they should only be sent via an encrypted portal to protect both estate and executor.

This is not a quick process and requires diligent follow up, with multiple emails and phone calls. If the value of the estate is large and the assets are complex, it may be better to have the estate planning attorney handle the process.

Reference: Lake Country News (Jan. 15, 2022) “Dealing with the back offices of banks and brokerages”