Don’t Ask Heirs to Guess What You Wanted—Have an Estate Plan
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Don’t Ask Heirs to Guess What You Wanted—Have an Estate Plan

With an estate plan, you can distribute your assets according to your own wishes. Without one, your heirs may spend years and a good deal of money trying to settle your estate, reports U.S. News & World Report in the article “5 Reasons to Make an Estate Plan.”

If there is no estate plan in place, including a will, living trust, advance directives and other documents, people you love will be put in a position of guessing what you wanted for any number of things, from what your final wishes would be in a medical crisis, to what kind of a funeral would like to have. That guessing can cause strife between family members and worry, for a lifetime, that they didn’t do what you wanted.

Think of your estate plan as a love letter, showing that you care enough about those you love to do right by them.

What is estate planning? Estate planning is the process of legally documenting what you want to happen when you die. It also includes planning for your wishes in case of incapacity, that is, when you are not legally competent to make decisions for yourself because of illness or an injury. This is done through the use of wills, trusts, advance directives and beneficiary designations on accounts and life insurance policies.

Let’s face it, people don’t like to think about their passing, so they postpone making an appointment with an estate planning attorney. There’s also the fear of the unknown: will they have to share a lot of information with the attorney? Will it become complicated? Will they have to make decisions that they are not sure they can make?

Estate planning attorneys are experienced with the issues that come with planning for incapacity and death, and they are able to guide clients through the process.

The power of putting wishes down on paper can provide a great deal of relief to the people who are making the plan and to their family members. Here are five reasons why everyone should have an estate plan:

Avoid Probate. Without a will, the probate court decides how to distribute your estate. In some states, it can take at least seven months to allow creditors to put through claims. The estate is also public, with your information available to the public. Probate can also be expensive.

Minimize Taxes. There are a number of strategies that can be used to minimize taxes being imposed on your heirs. While the federal estate tax exemption is $11.4 million per individual, states have estate taxes and some states impose an inheritance taxes. An estate planning attorney can help you minimize the tax impact of your estate.

Care for Minor Children. Families with minor children need a plan for care, if both parents should pass away. Without a will that names a guardian for young children, the court will appoint a guardian to raise a child. With a will, you can prevent the scenario of relatives squabbling over who should get custody of minor children.

Distributing Assets. If you have a will, you can say who you want to get what assets. If you don’t, the laws of your state will determine who gets what. You can also use trusts to control how and when assets are distributed, in case there are heirs who are unable to manage money.

Plan for Pets. In many states, you can create a Pet Trust and name a trustee to manage the money, while naming someone in your will who will be in charge of caring for your pet. Seniors are often reluctant to get a pet, because they are concerned that they will die before the pet. However, with an estate plan that includes a pet trust, you can protect your pet.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (October 18, 2019) “5 Reasons to Make an Estate Plan”

Steps to Take as a Parent’s Condition Takes a Turn

An 80-year-old man had seizures several months ago. He was treated in the hospital and since then, has had some lapses in short-term memory. His long-term memory is okay, but he is not retaining day-to-day matters very well. His awareness of a loss of some functionality has left him frustrated and a little depressed, as described in the article “Dear Counselor: Need options as father’s condition worsens” from the Davis Enterprise. The use of some antidepressants and medication has been helpful, and he seems better. However, what should the children be doing, at this time, to prepare for what may come next?

The children should make arrangements to have their parents go see an estate planning attorney soon. The fact that only the wife is power of attorney, and that the forms have not been updated in many years is cause for serious concern. While their mom may be capable right now of handling his personal and financial affairs, the stress of caretaking for her husband is likely to take its toll on her. If the father’s condition deteriorates, she will likely need help. If for some reason she’s unable to act, then it will be far better if the children, or one of the children, has the legal right to step in.

The first question is whether the father has the legal capacity to create new powers of attorney for financial management and health care. To execute a power of attorney, a person must have mental capacity. The legal standard for this is the same as it is for someone signing a contract: the person must understand and appreciate the consequences of the document being signed.

There are four broad categories of mental deficits that impact a person’s capacity: alertness and attention, information processing, thought processes and the ability to modulate mood. Short-term memory problems and depression may be considered deficits in both information processing and mood. However, that is only one part of the analysis.

Most estate planning attorneys will suggest that any client whose mental capacity may be questionable, should obtain a note from their treating physician that they are capable of understanding and signing legal documents. This is not a legal requirement, but it will help if there is a challenge to the documents he signed, and someone claims that he lacked capacity.

If the father indeed has capacity to execute a new power of attorney, then the adult children can be identified as alternates to the wife. If she is not able to act as an agent, then the siblings will be able to step up. However, if he is unable to execute a new power of attorney, the previous power of attorney would be the operative document. If for some reason, the wife is unable to perform as his agent, there is no one to serve as a backup.

In that case, a petition would need to be filed in the probate court to have a child or children appointed conservator. While that would give the child(ren) the same power as a power of attorney, they will also need to report to the court on an on-going basis. Conservatorship proceedings are expensive and time-consuming and should be a last resort.

These problems rarely get better over time. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney as soon as possible to prepare for the future.

Reference: Davis Enterprise (Oct. 2019) “Dear Counselor: Need options as father’s condition worsens”

How Do I Calculate My Executor’s Fee?

An executor’s fee is the amount of money that’s charged by the individual who’s been named or appointed as the executor of the probate estate for handling all of the necessary tasks in the probate administration.

If you’ve been appointed an executor of someone’s estate, you may be entitled to a fee for your services.

The executor or personal representative fee could be based upon a variety of factors. Some of these factors may be dependent upon the law in your state, says nj.com’s recent article, “Both of my parents died. How do I calculate the executor fee?”

In most states, the executor fee is set by statute. For example, in New Jersey, it is 5% of the first $200,000 of assets taken in by the executor, 3.5% of the next $800,000 of assets, and 2% on anything in excess of $1 million. Likewise, California has a sliding scale based on the amount of the estate.

However, in Minnesota and Nebraska, the law states that the fee should be “reasonable.”

The amount of work involved is determined by the specific estate. The executor is generally responsible for collecting the estate assets, paying the debts and taxes (if any) and then giving what’s remaining to the heirs.

If you elect to take the commission, it’s taxable income which must be shown on your personal income tax return.

In New Jersey, if there are co-executors, the statute says that an additional 1% can be included to the commission. However, any one executor cannot receive more than the amount to which a sole executor is entitled.

Note that the executor only receives a commission on what he or she takes control of as executor.

This means that the executor doesn’t get a commission on assets that have beneficiary designations on death or that are jointly owned with right of survivorship. These assets pass outside of the will and the executor doesn’t take possession of these assets.

In many instances, the probate estate of the first spouse to die is less than the second. That’s because many of the assets were held jointly with right of survivorship. As a result, they aren’t probate assets and are not subject to the commission.

If that’s the case, the commission on the first spouse’s estate would be much less than the commission on the second estate.

Reference: nj.com (October 10, 2019) “Both of my parents died. How do I calculate the executor fee?”

How Can Beneficiary Designations Wreck My Estate Plan?

It’s not uncommon for the intent of an individual’s will and trust to be overridden by beneficiary designations that weren’t chosen carefully.

Some people think that naming a beneficiary should be a simple job, and they try to do it themselves. Others don’t want to bother their attorney with what seems like a straightforward issue. A well-intentioned financial advisor could also complete the change of beneficiary form incorrectly.

Beneficiary designations are often used for life insurance and retirement benefits, but more frequently, they’re also being used for brokerage and bank accounts. People trying to avoid probate may name a “payable on death” beneficiary of an account. However, they don’t know that doing this may undermine their existing estate plan. It’s best to consult with your attorney to make certain that your named beneficiaries are consistent with your estate planning documents.

Wealth Advisor’s “7 Ways That Beneficiary Designations Can Mess Up Your Estate Plan” lists seven issues you need to think about, when making your beneficiary designations.

Cash. If your will leaves cash to various people or charities, you need to make certain that sufficient money comes into your estate, so your executor can pay these gifts.

Estate tax liability. If assets do pass outside your estate to a named beneficiary, make certain there will be sufficient money in your estate and trust to pay your estate tax lability. If all your assets pass by beneficiary designation, your executor may not have enough money to pay the estate taxes that may be due at your death.

Protect your tax savings. If you have created trusts for estate tax purposes, make sure that sufficient assets flow into your trusts to maximize the estate tax savings. Designating individuals as beneficiaries instead of your trusts may defeat the purpose of your estate tax planning. If there aren’t enough assets in your trust, the estate tax provisions may not work. As a result, your heirs may eventually end up paying more in taxes.

Accurate records. Be sure the information you have on the change of beneficiary form is accurate. This is particularly important if the beneficiary is a trust—the trust name, trustee information and tax identification number all need to be right.

Spouses as beneficiaries. Many people name their spouse as the primary beneficiary of their life insurance policy, followed by their trust as the secondary beneficiary. However, this may defeat your estate planning, especially if you have children from a first marriage, or if you don’t want your spouse to control the assets. If your trust provides for your surviving spouse on your death, he or she will be taken care of from the trust.

No last minute changes. Some people change their beneficiary designations at the last minute, because they’re nervous about assets flowing into a trust. This could lead to increased estate tax payments and litigation from heirs who were left out.

Qualified accounts. Don’t name a trust as the beneficiary of qualified accounts, like an IRA, without consulting with your attorney. Trusts that receive such qualified money need to contain special provisions for income tax purposes.

Be sure that your beneficiary designations work with your estate planning, rather than against it.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (October 8, 2019) “7 Ways That Beneficiary Designations Can Mess Up Your Estate Plan”

Americans Still Aren’t Planning for The After Life

Think Advisor reported on a survey conducted by a financial services firm that revealed good news and bad news about Americans and estate planning. In the article “Americans, Even Advisory Clients, Have a Big Estate Planning Problem: Survey,” the firm Edward Jones found that two-thirds of those with an advisor have not discussed estate goals and legacy plans. That’s the bad news. The good news is that 77% said estate and legacy strategies are important for everyone, not just wealthy individuals.

Most people do understand how a properly prepared estate plan puts them in control of what happens to the people that matter most to them, including minor children, their spouses and partners. It also indicates that they recognize how estate planning is necessary to protect themselves. That means having documents, like Power of Attorney and Medical Health Care Power of Attorney.

However, the recognition does not follow with the necessary steps to put a plan into place. That is the part that is worrisome.

Without a will, assets could be subject to the costly and time-consuming process of probate, where the entire will becomes a public document that anyone can look at. Nosy neighbors, creditors and relatives all having access to personal and financial information, is not something anyone wants to happen. However, by failing to plan, that’s exactly what happens.

The survey of 2,007 adults showed little sense of urgency to having legacy conversations. Only about a third of millennials and Gen Xers said they’d spoken with their advisors about the future. Surprisingly, only 38% of baby boomers had done so—and they are the generation most likely to need these plans in place in the immediate future.

Where do you start? Begin with the beneficiary designations. Check all investment accounts, bank accounts, insurance policies and retirement accounts. Most, if not all, of these financial documents should have a place to name a beneficiary, and some may permit a secondary beneficiary to be named. Make sure that you name a person you want to receive these assets, and that the person named is still in your life.

The beneficiary designation is more powerful than your will. The person named in the beneficiary designation will receive the asset, no matter what your will says. If you don’t want an ex to receive life insurance policy proceeds, make sure to check the names on your life insurance beneficiary designations.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan. If you haven’t updated your estate plan in three or four years, it’s time for an update. It’s equally important if you should become incapacitated and you want someone else to make financial and medical decisions on your behalf, to have up to date Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy forms.

Reference: Think Advisor (September 16, 2019) “Americans, Even Advisory Clients, Have a Big Estate Planning Problem: Survey”

What is the significance of a Pour-Over Will?

If the goal of estate planning is to avoid probate, it seems counterintuitive that one would sign a will, but the pour-over will is an essential part of some estate plans, reports the Times Herald-Record’s article “Pour-over will a safety net for a living trust.”

If a person dies with assets in their name alone, those assets go through probate. The pour-over will names the trust as the beneficiary of probate assets, so the trust controls who receives the inheritance. The pour-over will works as a backup plan to the trust, and it also revokes past wills and codicils.

Living trusts became more widely used after a 1991 AARP study concluded that families should be using trusts rather than wills, and that wills were obsolete. Trusts were suddenly not just for the wealthy. Middle class people started using trusts rather than wills, to save time and money and avoid estate battles among family members. Trusts also served to keep financial and personal affairs private. Wills that are probated are public documents that anyone can review.

Even a simple probate lasts about a year, before beneficiaries receive inheritances. A trust can be settled in months. Regarding the cost of probate, it is estimated that between 2—4% of the cost of settling an estate can be saved by using a trust instead of a will.

When a will is probated, family members receive a notice, which allows them to contest the will. When assets are in a trust, there is no notification. This avoids delay, costs and the aggravation of a will contest.

Wills are not a bad thing, and they do serve a purpose. However, this specific legal document comes with certain legal requirements.

The will was actually invented more than 500 years ago, by King Henry VIII of England. Many people still think that wills are the best estate planning document, but they may be unaware of the government oversight and potential complications when a will is probated.

There are other ways to avoid probate on death. First, when a beneficiary is added to assets like bank accounts, IRAs, life insurance policies, or stock funds, those assets transfer directly to the beneficiary upon the death of the owner. Second, when an asset is owned JTWROS, or as “joint tenants with the right of survivorship,” the ownership interest transfers to the surviving owners.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to talk about how probate may impact your heirs and see if they believe the use of a trust and a pour-over will would make the most sense for your family.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Sep. 13, 2019) “Pour-over will a safety net for a living trust.”

Do It Yourself Estate Planning Leads to Bad Outcomes

While the attraction of simplicity and low cost is appealing, the results are all too often disastrous, affirms Insurance News in the article “Mind Your Mouse Clicks: DIY Estate Planning War Stories.” The increasing number of glitches that estate planning attorneys are seeing after the fact has increased, as much as the number of people using online estate planning forms. For estate planning attorneys who are concerned about their clients and their families, the disasters are troubling.

A few clumsy mouse clicks can derail an estate plan and adversely affect the family. Here are five real life examples.

Details matter. One of the biggest and most routinely made mistakes in DIY estate planning goes hand-in-hand with simple wills, where both spouses want to leave everything to each other. Except this typical couple neglected something. See if you can figure out what they did wrong:

John’s will: I leave everything to my wife Phyllis.

Phyllis’ will: I leave everything to my wife Phyllis.

Unless John dies and Phyllis marries someone named Phyllis, this will is not going to work. It seems like a simple enough error, but the courts are not forgiving of errors.

Life insurance mistakes. Jeff owns a life insurance policy and has been using its cash value as a “rainy day” fund. He had intended to swap the life insurance into his irrevocable grantor trust in exchange for low-basis stock held in the trust. The swap would remove the life insurance from Jeff’s estate without exposure to the estate tax three-year rule, and the stock would receive a stepped-up basis at death, leading to tax savings on both sides of the swap.

However, Jeff had a stroke recently, and he’s incapacitated. He planned ahead though, or so he thought. He downloaded a free durable power of attorney form from a nonprofit that helps the elderly. The POA specifically included the power to change ownership of his life insurance.

Jeff put his name in the space designated for the POA. As a result, the insurance company won’t accept the form, and the swap isn’t going to happen.

Incomplete documents. Ellen created an online will leaving her entire probate estate to her husband. It was fast, cheap and she was delighted. However, she forgot to click on the space where the executor is named. The website address for the website company is the default information in the form, which is what was created when she completed the will. The court is not likely to appoint the website as her executor. Her heirs are stuck, unless she corrects this, hoping the court will understand. Hope is a terrible estate plan.

Letting the form define the estate plan. Single parent Joan has a 6-year-old son. Her will includes a standard trust for minors, providing income and principal for her son until he turns 21, at which point he inherits everything. Joan met with a life insurance advisor and applied for a $1 million convertible 20–year term life insurance policy. It will be payable to the trust. However, her son has autism, and receives government benefits. There are no special needs provisions in her will, so her son is at risk of losing any benefits, if and when he inherits the policy proceeds.

Don’t set it and forget it. One couple created online wills, when the estate tax exclusion was $2 million. They created a credit shelter, or bypass, trust to reduce their estate taxes, by allowing each of them to use their estate tax exclusion amount. However, the federal estate tax exclusion today is $11.4 million per person. With $4 million in separate assets and a $2 million life insurance policy payable to children from a previous marriage, the husband’s separate assets will go into the bypass trust. None of it will go to his wife.

An experienced estate planning attorney who is licensed to practice in your state is the best source for creating and updating estate plans, preparing for incapacity and ensuring that tax planning is done efficiently.

Reference: Insurance News Net (Sep. 9, 2019) “Mind Your Mouse Clicks: DIY Estate Planning War Stories”

 

What Are The Essential Estate Planning Documents?
Two Wills documents with an Estate Tax form.

What Are The Essential Estate Planning Documents?

Forbes’ recent article, “Retirement, Estate Planning: Documents You Should Have,” says that in this time of life, while emotions are running high, it’s critical to be make sure your financial and legal matters are in order.

Putting together a well thought out financial plan and creating an estate plan lets you be certain that personal, financial, and health wishes will be carried out the way you want. Managing your estate, regardless of the size, starts with working with an experienced estate planning attorney who will help give you greater control, privacy and security of your legacy. Here are the documents you need to get started:

Will. This is a legal document that is used to detail your wishes regarding the distribution of your assets and property, as well as the care of any minor children, by naming a guardian in the event your pass away while they’re still young.

Power of Attorney. This is a written authorization that gives a trusted family or friend the authority to act on your behalf in business, legal, and financial matters, if you’re unable to act for yourself due to a mental or physical disability. The requirements are different in each state, so ask your attorney about the right form and language to include.

Health Care Directive. This is also known as a living will. It is another legal document that states your health-care preferences, in case you become incapacitated or unable to speak for yourself. It also allows you to say how you’d like your end-of-life care to be handled.

Information Document. Another important part of your estate plan is a document that contains bank account information, passwords, insurance policies, contact information for attorneys, financial planners and any other significant data regarding your personal estate and final wishes. It’s also called a Letter of Last Instruction that provides this important information to family in the event of an emergency.

Plan for the future, by making certain that your loved ones know and are able to carry out your final wishes.

Reference: Forbes (August 28, 2019) “Retirement, Estate Planning: Documents You Should Have”

Don’t Forget to Update Your Estate Plan

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There are some people who sign their will once in their life and never change it. They may have executed their estate plan late in life, or after they were diagnosed with a serious disease. However, even if your family life and finances are pretty basic, there are still changes in the law that you may need to incorporate into your estate plan.  Some of the people that you named in your will could also have died or moved away.

Forbes’ recent article, “Why You Should Change Your Will Now,” warns us that if you’ve taken the “one and done” approach to your estate plan, think again. In addition to the reasons already mentioned, your assets may have changed dramatically since you signed your will. The plan you put in place years ago, may not have considered new federal and state estate taxes. Now that you’ve accumulated significant wealth that will be passed on to your children, you might need to review your plans for that wealth for your children.

You may want to include grandchildren to help pay for their college education.

It is also not uncommon for parents to want to protect their children from themselves. This can be because of addiction issues or a lack of financial literacy. If that’s an issue, some parents elect to hold monies in trust for adult children, as a way to ensure that the funds will be there throughout the child’s lifetime.

A person’s estate plan should grow with them over time. An estate plan for a twenty-something may be very basic, but a newly-married couple will want to include provisions for their spouse. Parents need to think about providing for and protecting their children. Adult children have another set of concerns and you need prepare for the possibility of divorcing spouses, poor life choices, addiction issues and just poor money management. There are many stages in life when you may need to readjust the provisions for your children in your estate planning documents.

If you haven’t looked at your will in a while, do it now.

Reference: Forbes (August 27, 2019) “Why You Should Change Your Will Now”

Can I Keep a Loved One’s Inheritance From Their Spouse?

A recent nj.com article asks, “How do I protect my niece’s inheritance from her husband?” The article says that in a scenario where someone plans to leave most of her estate to her niece but doesn’t want her estranged husband to get his hands on the money, she must be proactive to make sure the funds go where she intends them to go.

If this happens in New Jersey, the niece’s inheritance will be subject to the New Jersey inheritance tax. The tax is levied based on the relationship of the deceased to the beneficiary. In this case, the niece’s inheritance would be subject to an inheritance tax of 15 to 16%.

This inheritance tax is assessed, because the aunt is a New Jersey resident. It doesn’t matter where the beneficiary resides.

One option is for the aunt to leave the assets to the niece outright or in trust.

The laws in many states, like Missouri, South Carolina, and New Jersey, say that unless the parties otherwise agree, upon divorce there will be equitable distribution of their marital property. Marital property generally doesn’t include the property received by gift or inheritance, as long as that person didn’t co-mingle it with the marital property.

Therefore, the most economical way to transfer property to the niece, is to leave it to her in the testator’s will, with instructions for her to keep it separate and apart from her marital property.

An outright bequest may not be the best way to leave property to the niece, even though it’s probably the most economical method for the aunt.

However, if the aunt leaves the inheritance in trust, she’ll make certain the property isn’t commingled with marital assets.

Further, if the trust is properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney, the income from the trust will likely not be used to decrease any support to which the niece may otherwise be entitled from her spouse, in the event that they divorce down the road. The trust can also protect against other events, by instructing to whom funds should be paid upon the premature death of the niece. That would further prevent her estranged husband from ever being able to make a claim against the funds.

Reference: nj.com (August 21, 2019) “How do I protect my niece’s inheritance from her husband?”

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