Why You Need an Estate Plan

Did you think you had to be rich to have an estate? Think again! From a legal perspective, your estate includes everything you own, from tangible property like a car, house, furniture, as well as intangible assets like insurance policies, bank accounts, retirement and investment accounts. You don’t have to be rich to have an estate, says the recent article “How to Plan Your Estate” from The Military Wallet. However, you do need to have an estate plan, and the best time to start planning is right now.

An estate plan is more than simply passing your property along to heirs. It is also how you prepare for the unpleasantries of life, including becoming incapacitated or being unable to make decisions on your own.

Your estate plan protects you and your beneficiaries. Without a will, the court will determine who will get your assets subject to probate, following the laws of your state. With a will, you determine who should receive your probated property, from family members to charities.

Your estate plan protects your children. Your will nominates a guardian who will care for your children if you die before they turn age 18, or, if you have a disabled child with special needs, who will care for them for the rest of their life. Without a will nominating a guardian, the court will make these decisions.

Your estate plan protects your family by preventing conflict. Your wishes are made clear in a will and in other estate planning documents. The more details, the better. No one can say they knew what you really wanted, because what you really wanted is documented and memorialized in your estate plan.

Getting ready to meet with an estate planning attorney will be easier if you take it step by step.

Make an inventory of all assets, including

  • House, land and any real estate property
  • Cars, boats and any other vehicles
  • Bank, investment and retirement accounts
  • Life insurance policies
  • Health savings accounts
  • Jewelry, valuables and collectibles
  • Digital assets, including website URL, username and password
  • Cryptocurrency, including all information for an executor to be able to access accounts

Create a plan for the different scenarios in your life. Who would you want to raise your children if you and your spouse die while children are minors or are unable to care for them because of illness or injury? How will your spouse pay the mortgage if you die unexpectedly?

Make a list of all accounts with designated beneficiaries. This typically includes life insurance, retirement plans and annuities. Any time you have a major life event like marriage, divorce, birth or death, these designations should be reviewed.

You’re now ready to meet with an estate planning attorney. Your estate plan should include a last will and testament, outlining who should receive your property, who will distribute your estate (your executor) and who should raise your children if you die while they are under legal age.

A Health Care Proxy is used to name a person who can make decisions about your healthcare if you cannot. A Living Will outlines the details for medical treatment you want or don’t want when you are near death.

Power of Attorney is a document giving someone else the power to take care of your finances at any point, if you can’t because of illness or incapacity. This avoids your family members having to go to court to obtain a guardianship, which takes time and is a costly proceeding.

Reference: The Military Wallet (Aug. 25, 2022) “How to Plan Your Estate”

Can You Inherit a House with a Mortgage?

Inheriting a home with a mortgage adds another layer of complexity to settling the estate, as explained in a recent article from Investopedia titled “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage.” The lender needs to be notified right away of the owner’s passing and the estate must continue to make regular payments on the existing mortgage. Depending on how the estate was set up, it may be a struggle to make monthly payments, especially if the estate must first go through probate.

Probate is the process where the court reviews the will to ensure that it is valid and establish the executor as the person empowered to manage the estate. The executor will need to provide the mortgage holder with a copy of the death certificate and a document affirming their role as executor to be able to speak with the lending company on behalf of the estate.

If multiple people have inherited a portion of the house, some tough decisions will need to be made. The simplest solution is often to sell the home, pay off the mortgage and split the proceeds evenly.

If some of the heirs wish to keep the home as a residence or a rental property, those who wish to keep the home need to buy out the interest of those who don’t want the house. When the house has a mortgage, the math can get complicated. An estate planning attorney will be able to map out a way forward to keep the sale of the shares from getting tangled up in the emotions of grieving family members.

If one heir has invested time and resources into the property and others have not, it gets even more complex. Family members may take the position that the person who invested so much in the property was also living there rent free, and things can get ugly. The involvement of an estate planning attorney can keep the transfer focused as a business transaction.

What if the house has a reverse mortgage? In this case, the reverse mortgage company needs to be notified. You’ll need to find out the existing balance due on the reverse mortgage. If the estate does not have the funds to pay the balance, there is the option of refinancing the property to pay off the balance due, if the wish is to keep the house. If there’s not enough equity or the heirs can’t refinance, they typically sell the house to pay off the reverse mortgage.

Can heirs take over the existing loan? Your estate planning attorney will be able to advise the family of their rights, which are different than rights of homeowners. Lenders in some circumstances may allow heirs to be added to the existing mortgage without going through a full loan application and verifying credit history, income, etc. However, if you chose to refinance or take out a home equity loan, you’ll have to go through the usual process.

Inheriting a house with a mortgage or a reverse mortgage can be a stressful process during an already difficult time. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to guide the family through their options and help with the rest of the estate.

Reference: Investopedia (April 12, 2022) “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage”

Can I Protect My Inheritance from Divorce?

Even if divorce is the last thing on your mind, when an inheritance is received, it’s wise to treat it differently from your joint assets, advises a recent article “Revocable Inheritance Trust: Inexpensive Divorce Protection” from Forbes. After all, most people don’t expect to be divorced. However, the numbers have to be considered—many do divorce, even those who least expect it.

Maintaining separate property is the most important step to take. If you deposit a spouse’s paycheck into the account with your inheritance, even if it was by accident, you’ve now commingled the funds.

You might get lucky and have a forensic accountant who can dissect that amount and make the argument it was a mistake, as long as it only happened once, but the Court might not agree.

Long before the Court gets to consider this point, if your ex-spouse’s attorney is aggressively pursuing this one act of commingling as enough to make the property jointly owned, you could lose half of your inheritance in a divorce.

You might also try to mount a defense of the particular account or asset being separate property, by identifying the means of transfer. Was there a deed for real estate gifted to you from a parent or a wire transfer for securities? This information will need to be carefully identified and safeguarded as soon as the inheritance comes to you, in case of any future upheavals.

To spare yourself any of this grief, there are steps to be taken now to avoid commingling. Document the source of wealth involved as a gift or inheritance, maintain the property in a wholly separate account and consider keeping it in a different financial institution than any other accounts to avoid commingling.

Another way to safeguard gifts and inherited property against a 50% divorce rate is to use a revocable trust. Creating a revocable trust to own this separate property allows you to make changes to it any time but maintains its separate nature, by serving as a wholly separate accounting entity. The trust will own the property, while you as grantor (creator of the trust) and trustee (responsible for managing the trust) maintain control.

For a turbo-charged version of this concept, you could go with a self-settled domestic asset protection trust. This is a more complex trust and may not be necessary. Your estate planning attorney will be able to explain the difference between this trust and a revocable trust.

One clear warning: if you have already created a revocable trust to protect your estate and it is not funded, you may feel like it would be most convenient to use this already-existing trust for your inheritance. That would not be wise. You should have a completely different trust created for the inherited property, and this would also be a wise time to remember to fund the existing trust.

Using a revocable trust this way will also require customized language in your Last Will, as you’ll want standard language in the Last Will to reflect the trust being separate from your other marital property.

Reference: Forbes (April 13, 2022) “Revocable Inheritance Trust: Inexpensive Divorce Protection”

What Estate Planning Documents Should Everyone Have?

This is the time of year when people start thinking about getting piles or files of paperwork in order in preparing for a new year and for taxes. A recent article “How to Prepare, Organize and Store Estate-Planning Documents” from The Street gives useful tips on how to do this.

First, the most important documents:

Estate Planning documents, including your Will, Power of Attorney (POA), Healthcare Proxy, Living Will (often called an Advance Care Directive). The will is for asset distribution after death, but other documents are needed to protect you while you’re alive.

The POA is used to name someone to act on your behalf, if you cannot. A POA can be created to be specific, for example, to have someone else pay your bills, or it can be general, letting someone do everything from paying bills to managing the sale of your home. Be cautious about using standard POA documents, since they don’t reflect every situation.

A Healthcare Proxy empowers someone you trust to make medical decisions on your behalf. The Living Will or Advance Care Directive outlines the type of care you do (or don’t) want when at the end of your life. This alleviates a terrible burden on your loved ones, who may not otherwise know what you would have wanted.

Add a Digital POA so someone will be able to access and manage your online accounts (subject to the terms and conditions of each digital platform).

Your Last Will and Testament conveys how you want your estate—that is, everything you own that does not have a surviving joint owner or a designated beneficiary—to be distributed after death. Your will is also used to name a guardian for minor children. It is also used to name an executor, the person who will be in charge of carrying out the instructions in the will.

A list of all of your assets, including bank accounts, retirement accounts, investments, savings and checking accounts, will make it easier for your executor to identify and distribute assets. Don’t forget to check to see which accounts allow you to name a beneficiary and make sure those names are correct.

Both wills and trusts are used to convey assets to beneficiaries, but unlike a will, “funded” trusts don’t go through the probate process. An experienced estate planning attorney can create a trust to distribute almost any kind of property and follow your specific directions. Do you want your children to gain access to the trust after they have reached a certain age? Or when they have married and had children of their own? A trust allows for greater control of your assets.

Finally, talk with your family members about your estate plan, your wishes for end-of-life medical care and what you want to happen after you die. Write a letter of intent if it’s too hard to have a face-to-face conversation about these topics, but find a way to let them know. Your estate planning attorney has worked with many families and will be able to provide you with suggestions and guidance.

Reference: The Street (Dec. 20, 2021) “How to Prepare, Organize and Store Estate-Planning Documents”

Can You Remove Someone from a Life Estate?

Parents often use life estates to leave the family home to children, while remaining in the house for the rest of their lives. However, sometimes things don’t work out as intended. If and how changes may be made to a life estate is the focus of a recent article “How to Remove Someone from a Life Estate” from Yahoo! Finance. For the life estate to be flexible, certain provisions must be in the document when it is first created. An experienced estate planning attorney is needed to do this right.

A life estate allows two or more people to jointly own real estate property. One person, referred to as the “life tenant” has ownership of the property for as long as they live. The other person, called the “remainderman,” takes possession only after the life tenant’s death. Multiple people can be named as life tenant and remainderman. However, the more people involved, the more complicated this arrangement becomes.

The remainderman has an unusual position. They don’t have full possession of the property until the life tenant dies, yet they have an interest in the property. The life tenant is not allowed to do certain things, like take out a mortgage or sell the property, without the consent of the remainderman.

The remainderman must agree to any changes in any person or persons named as other remainderman. If there’s more than one, which happens when there’s more than one adult child, for instance, all of the remaindermen must agree, before any names on the life estate can be removed or changed.

If one of the remainderman becomes heavily indebted, has a contentious divorce, or is sued for a considerable sum, their share of the property could be lost to creditors, ex-spouses, or adversaries. In that case, removing the problematic remainderman could protect the value of the home.

Most life estates are irrevocable, and the laws concerning life estates vary by state.

One way to work around the need for remainderman approval, is to use a Testamentary Power of Appointment, a clause in a will permitting the life tenant to change the person to whom the property will be left upon death. Invoking the Power of Appointment doesn’t make the life estate invalid, so the tenant is still constrained from selling the property or taking any other actions without permission from the remaindermen.

The testamentary power of appointment does give the life tenant some negotiating muscle but must be built into the documents from the start.

Another trust used in this situation is the Nominee Realty Trust. This is a revocable trust holding legal title to real estate. A property owner files a new deed transferring ownership to the nominee realty trust. The trust specifies who receives the property after the owner’s death. The grantor of the nominee trust can direct the actions of the trustee, so the life tenant has the legal ability to tell the trustee to change the names of the remaindermen. This flexibility may be desirable when the children are problematic. This has to be set up when the life estate is first established.

There are occasions when the remainderman wants to terminate the interest of the life tenant. This is actually easier than removing or changing the remainderman but requires the life tenant to do something particularly egregious or illegal. The life tenant has certain rights: to rent out the property, to change or improve the property—as long as the property is being improved. The life tenant is responsible for paying taxes, maintaining the property and avoiding any liens being placed on the property.

If the life tenant does not fulfill their responsibilities or allows the property to lose value, it may be possible for the remainderman to have the life tenant’s interest terminated. However, that depends upon the provisions in the life estate. This option should be discussed and planned for when the life estate is created.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Dec. 16, 2021) “How to Remove Someone from a Life Estate”

Why Is an Estate Plan Important?

There are a number of legal steps necessary to prepare your estate and your family for the future, including the use of a living trust. What is a living trust, and what kind of protection does it offer? The article “An important part of protecting your assets and those you love” from The Times explains how this estate planning tool works.

A living trust is a legal entity created to make it easier to transfer assets like real estate property and other assets after death. Assets held within trusts pass directly to beneficiaries according to the terms of the trust. They do not go through probate. Once a trust is created, it must be funded, which places assets within the protection of the trust. These can include bank accounts, investments, real estate, vehicles, jewelry and other personal property of value.

A living trust is managed by a designated trustee. You can be the trustee of your trust while you are living, and your spouse or partner may be a co-trustee. Every trust should also have a successor trustee to serve as your representative. This person will manage the trust and distribute assets after you die.

Living trusts are useful in real estate ownership, regardless of the size or number of properties owned. Any real estate property is subject to probate upon death if it is not placed inside a trust or other arrangements not taken if available under state law (e.g., transfer-on-death deeds). Dealing with real estate after death is challenging for heirs and executors.

Probate can take a long time. During that time, a building needs to be maintained, property taxes must be paid and insurance coverage needs to continue. Making changes to the property or even renting it out during probate may require permission from the court. If an expensive repair needs to be made, like a heating system or a new roof, and the estate is still in probate, someone has to make sure the repairs are done and pay for them.

Certain assets pass directly to beneficiaries. These include life insurance proceeds, Pay on Death (POD) bank accounts and retirement accounts, like IRAs and 401(k)s. Others, like the family home and personal property, could be bound up in probate for months, or years.

A living trust does more than bypass probate. It allows you to declare how you want your assets to be distributed and when. If you don’t want your children to receive a lot of money in one lump sum at a young age, it can break out the distribution over decades. A trust can also set life goals, like graduating from college, before funds are released.

A living trust and last will and testament are different legal documents and achieve different ends. The living trust is in effect, even when the grantor (person who creates the trust) is living. The will goes into effect only when the grantor dies.

Only assets subject to probate are controlled by a will, while assets in a trust skip probate. Trusts are private documents, while the will becomes part of the public record once it is filed with the court. Anyone can see the entire document, which may not be what you intended.

Assets without a surviving joint owner pass through probate. If you fail to designate a beneficiary to receive an asset, then it also will be subject to probate.

Just as every person is different, every person’s estate plan is different. Talk with an estate planning attorney to learn what options are available and what is best for your family.

Reference: The Times (Oct. 29, 2021) “An important part of protecting your assets and those you love”

How Much can You Inherit and Not Pay Taxes?

Even with the new proposed rules from Biden’s lowered exception, estates under $6 million won’t have to worry about federal estate taxes for a few years—although state estate tax exemptions may be lower. However, what about inheritances and what about inherited IRAs? This is explored in a recent article titled “Minimizing Taxes When You Inherit Money” from Kiplinger.

If you inherit an IRA from a parent, taxes on required withdrawals could leave you with a far smaller legacy than you anticipated. For many couples, IRAs are the largest assets passed to the next generation. In some cases they may be worth more than the family home. Americans held more than $13 trillion in IRAs in the second quarter of 2021. Many of you reading this are likely to inherit an IRA.

Before the SECURE Act changed how IRAs are distributed, people who inherited IRAs and other tax-deferred accounts transferred their assets into a beneficiary IRA account and took withdrawals over their life expectancy. This allowed money to continue to grow tax free for decades. Withdrawals were taxed as ordinary income.

The SECURE Act made it mandatory for anyone who inherited an IRA (with some exceptions) to decide between two options: take the money in a lump sum and lose a huge part of it to taxes or transfer the money to an inherited or beneficiary IRA and deplete it within ten years of the date of death of the original owner.

The exceptions are a surviving spouse, who may roll the money into their own IRA and allow it to grow, tax deferred, until they reach age 72, when they need to start taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). If the IRA was a Roth, there are no RMDs, and any withdrawals are tax free. The surviving spouse can also transfer money into an inherited IRA and take distributions on their life expectancy.

If you’re not eligible for the exceptions, any IRA you inherit will come with a big tax bill. If the inherited IRA is a Roth, you still have to empty it out in ten years. However, there are no taxes due as long as the Roth was funded at least five years before the original owner died.

Rushing to cash out an inherited IRA will slash the value of the IRA significantly because of the taxes due on the IRA. You might find yourself bumped up into a higher tax bracket. It’s generally better to transfer the money to an inherited IRA to spread distributions out over a ten-year period.

The rules don’t require you to empty the account in any particular order. Therefore, you could conceivably wait ten years and then empty the account. However, you will then have a huge tax bill.

Other assets are less constrained, at least as far as taxes go. Real estate and investment accounts benefit from the step-up in cost basis. Let’s say your mother paid $50 for a share of stock and it was worth $250 on the day she died. Your “basis” would be $250. If you sell the stock immediately, you won’t owe any taxes. If you hold onto to it, you’ll only owe taxes (or claim a loss) on the difference between $250 and the sale price. Proposals to curb the step-up have been bandied about for years. However, to date they have not succeeded.

The step-up in basis also applies to the family home and other inherited property. If you keep inherited investments or property, you’ll owe taxes on the difference between the value of the assets on the day of the original owner’s death and the day you sell.

Estate planning and tax planning should go hand-in-hand. If you are expecting a significant inheritance, a conversation with aging parents may be helpful to protect the family’s assets and preclude any expensive surprises.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 29, 2021) “Minimizing Taxes When You Inherit Money”

What is not Covered by a Will?

A last will and testament is one part of a holistic estate plan used to direct the distribution of property after a person has died. A recent article titled “What you can’t do with a will” from Ponte Vedra Recorder explains how wills work, and the types of property not distributed through a will.

Wills are used to inform the probate court regarding your choice of guardians for any minor children and the executor of your estate. Without a will, both of those decisions will be made by the court. It’s better to make those decisions yourself and to make them legally binding with a will.

Lacking a will, an estate will be distributed according to the laws of the state, which creates extra expenses and sometimes, leads to life-long fights between family members.

Property distributed through a will necessarily must be processed through a probate, a formal process involving a court. However, some assets do not pass through probate. Here’s how non-probate assets are distributed:

Jointly Held Property. When one of the “joint tenants” dies, their interest in the property ends and the other joint tenant owns the entire property.

Property in Trust. Assets owned by a trust pass to the beneficiaries under the terms of the trust, with the guidance of the trustee.

Life Insurance. Proceeds from life insurance policies are distributed directly to the named beneficiaries. Whatever a will says about life insurance proceeds does not matter—the beneficiary designation is what controls this distribution, unless there is no beneficiary designated.

Retirement Accounts. IRAs, 401(k) and similar assets pass to named beneficiaries. In most cases, under federal law, the surviving spouse is the automatic beneficiary of a 401(k), although there are always exceptions. The owner of an IRA may name a preferred beneficiary.

Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts. Some investment accounts have the ability to name a designated beneficiary who receives the assets upon the death of the original owner. They transfer outside of probate.

Here are some things that should NOT be included in your will:

Funeral instructions might not be read until days or even weeks after death. Create a separate letter of instructions and make sure family members know where it is.

Provisions for a special needs family member need to be made separately from a will. A special needs trust is used to ensure that the family member can inherit assets but does not become ineligible for government benefits. Talk to an elder law estate planning attorney about how this is best handled.

Conditions on gifts should not be addressed in a will. Certain conditions are not permitted by law. If you want to control how and when assets are distributed, you want to create a trust. The trust can set conditions, like reaching a certain age or being fully employed, etc., for a trustee to release funds.

Reference: Ponte Vedra Recorder (April 15, 2021) “What you can’t do with a will”

Trusts can Work for ‘Regular’ People

A trust fund is an estate planning tool that can be used by anyone who wishes to pass their property to individuals, family members or nonprofits. They are used by wealthy people because they solve a number of wealth transfer problems and are equally applicable to people who aren’t mega-rich, explains this recent article from Forbes titled “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy.”

A trust is a legal entity in the same way that a corporation is a legal entity. A trust is used in estate planning to own assets, as instructed by the terms of the trust. Terms commonly used in discussing trusts include:

  • Grantor—the person who creates the trust and places assets into the trust.
  • Beneficiary—the person or organization who will receive the assets, as directed by the trust documents.
  • Trustee—the person who ensures that the assets in the trust are properly managed and distributed to beneficiaries.

Trusts may contain a variety of property, from real estate to personal property, stocks, bonds and even entire businesses.

Certain assets should not be placed in a trust, and an estate planning attorney will know how and why to make these decisions. Retirement accounts and other accounts with named beneficiaries don’t need to be placed inside a trust, since the asset will go to the named beneficiaries upon death. They do not pass through probate, which is the process of the court validating the will and how assets are passed as directed by the will. However, there may be reasons to designate such accounts to pass to the trust and your attorney will advise you accordingly.

Assets are transferred into trusts in two main ways: the grantor transfers assets into the trust while living, often by retitling the asset, or by using their estate plan to stipulate that a trust will be created and retain certain assets upon their death.

Trusts are used extensively because they work. Some benefits of using a trust as part of an estate plan include:

Avoiding probate. Assets placed in a trust pass to beneficiaries outside of the probate process.

Protecting beneficiaries from themselves. Young adults may be legally able to inherit but that doesn’t mean they are capable of handling large amounts of money or property. Trusts can be structured to pass along assets at certain ages or when they reach particular milestones in life.

Protecting assets. Trusts can be created to protect inheritances for beneficiaries from creditors and divorces. A trust can be created to ensure a former spouse has no legal claim to the assets in the trust.

Tax liabilities. Transferring assets into an irrevocable trust means they are owned and controlled by the trust. For example, with a non-grantor irrevocable trust, the former owner of the assets does not pay taxes on assets in the trust during his or her life, and they are not part of the taxable estate upon death.

Caring for a Special Needs beneficiary. Disabled individuals who receive government benefits may lose those benefits, if they inherit directly. If you want to provide income to someone with special needs when you have passed, a Special Needs Trust (sometimes known as a Supplemental Needs trust) can be created. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to do this properly.

Reference: Forbes (March 15, 2021) “Trust Funds: They’re Not Just For The Wealthy”