What Do Farmers Need to Create an Estate Plan?

Planning for the end of life is intimidating for everyone, but when the plan includes a family business like a farm or ranch, things can get even more challenging. That’s why estate planning, that is, planning for the distribution of assets once you die, is especially important for aging farmers. The details are in the article “How farmers can start an estate plan” from Bangor Daily News.

Death and dying are not easy to talk about, but these conversations are necessary, especially if the family wants to continue as a farming or ranching family. For aging farmers and their families, here are a few tips to demystify the planning process and help get things started.

What are your goals? Think of estate planning as succession planning. This is about making decisions about retirement and handing down a business to the next generation. If you had a regular job, you’d have far less to consider. However, succession planning for a family business owner involves more resources and more people. Having a clear set of goals, makes that transition easier. Add to that list: your fears. What don’t you want to happen? If your children don’t know how much you want them to keep the farm in the family, they may take other actions after you die. Share your goals, hopes and yes, worst case scenarios.

Build a team of professionals. The number of moving pieces in a family farm means you’re going to need a strong team. That includes an estate planning attorney who has worked with other farm families, an accountant, a financial advisor and an insurance professional. Depending on your family’s communication skills, you might even consider bringing a counselor on board.

List out your assets. Don’t assume that anyone in the family knows the value of your assets. That includes deeds to land, titles of ownership for vehicles, information about any property mortgages or loans or leases. If you are leasing land to others, you’ll need the lease agreements as well as property titles. If your lease agreements are based on a handshake, your attorney may request that you formalize them. A verbal agreement may be fine while you are living, but if you should pass and your heirs don’t have the same relationship with your tenant, there could be trouble ahead.

Consider who will be in charge when you are not there. Whether you are planning to work until you die or making a retirement plan, one of the hardest decisions will be to name a successor. Inter-generational politics can be tricky. You’ll need an unbiased evaluation of who the best candidate will be to take things on. However, going into this now is better than hoping for the best. That’s when things go south.

Talk to your estate planning attorney. Just as people should start planning for their retirement as soon as they start working, planning for the transition of the family farm is something that should start when it is years in the future, not when the transition is a few months away. It’s a process that takes a long time to do right.

Reference: Bangor Daily News (March 5, 2020) “How farmers can start an estate plan”

Long Term Care Varies, State by State

What if your parents live in Oklahoma, you live in Nebraska and your brothers and sisters live in New York and California? Having the important conversation with your aging parents about what the future might hold if one of them should need long-term care is going to be a challenge, to say the least.

It’s not just about whether they want to leave their home, reports the article “What is the best state for long term care” from The Mercury. There are many more complications. Every state has different availability, levels of care and taxes. If the family is considering a continuing care retirement community, or if the parents already live in one, what are the terms of the contract?

The differences between states vary, and even within a state, there can be dramatic differences, depending upon whether the facility being considered is in a metropolitan, suburban or rural area. There’s also the question of whether the facility will accept Medicaid patients, if the parents have long-term care insurance or any other resources.

Here’s what often happens: you open up a glossy brochure of a senior community in a warm climate, like Florida or Arizona. There are golf courses, swimming pools and a great looking main house where clubs and other activities take place. However, what happens when the active phase of your life ends, slowly or suddenly? The questions to ask concern levels of care and quality of care. Where is the nearest hospital, and is it a good one? What kind of care can you receive in your own apartment? Are you locked into to your purchase, regardless of your wishes to sell and move to be closer to or live with your adult children?

And what happens if you or a “well” spouse runs out of money? That’s the question no one wants to think about, but it does have to be considered.

For people who move to Florida, which has a very generous homestead exemption for property taxes and no state tax, the incentives are strong. However, what if you become sick and need to return north?

For seniors who live in Pennsylvania and receive long-term care and other services, the well spouse’s retirement funds are exempt for Medicaid regardless of the amount. However, if you move over the state’s border to New Jersey, and those accounts will need to be spent down to qualify for Medicaid. The difference to the well spouse could be life changing.

Delaware and New Jersey have Medicaid available for assisted living/personal care. Pennsylvania does not. The Keystone State has strict income limitations regarding “at home” services through Medicaid, whereas California is very open in how it interprets rules about Medicaid gifting.

The answer of where to live when long-term care is in play depends on many different factors. Your best bet is to meet with an estate planning elder care attorney who understands the pros and cons of your state, your family’s  situation and what will work best for you and your spouse, or you as an individual.

Reference: The Mercury (March 4, 2020) “What is the best state for long term care”

Retirement and Estate Planning Work Better Together

So, you’ve been married for a while, and you’re both comfortable with which bank accounts, credit cards and investment accounts are shared and which other accounts are kept separate. However, where the big picture is concerned—like coordinating retirement plans, health coverage and tax planning—you both need to take an active role in planning and making good decisions. In fact, says the article “Couples and Money: When Together is Better” from Kiplinger, the decisions that work well for you as individuals may not be so hot, when they are looked at from a couple’s perspective.

Here’s an example. A man is working at a firm that doesn’t offer a match for his 401(k) contributions, but his wife’s employer does. Instead of contributing to his 401(k) plan, he uses the money to pay off a HELOC (Home Equity Line of Credit) that the couple had taken together to do some upgrades on their home. She contributes enough to her own 401(k) to get her company’s match every year. The goal is to cut their debt and save as much as possible. This worked at that time in the couple’s life.

Ten years later, they are both maxing out their 401(k) savings and working to build short-term savings to send kids to college through the use of 529 College Savings Accounts.

Retirement accounts can never be jointly owned. However, some couples fall into a trap of saving for themselves without considering the overall household. Dual earning couples often run into trouble, when one has a workplace plan and the other does not. The spouse with the workplace plan isn’t thinking that he or she needs to save enough for two people to retire. With two incomes, you might think that both are making retirement a savings priority, but without a 401(k) plan, it’s possible that only one person is saving and only saving enough for themselves.

A general recommendation is that both members of a couple save between 10-15% of their household earnings, rather than their personal earnings, in retirement accounts. Couples should review their respective retirement plans together and plan together. If one has a more generous match, access to a Roth option, or better investment opportunities, they should consider how much the person with the better plan should save.

Couples also need to examine other financial aspects of their lives. Coordinating retirement benefits, reviewing life insurance policies, planning a coordinated strategy for taking Social Security and making informed choices about health care coverage can make a big difference in the family’s financial well-being.

Equally important: making sure that an estate plan is in place. That includes a will that names a guardian for any minor children, a health care proxy and a financial power of attorney. Depending upon the family’s circumstances, that may include trusts or other wealth transfer strategies.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 23, 2019) “Couples and Money: When Together is Better”

What If Only One Parent Is Willing to Plan?

Making matters much worse for one family, is the fact that while the mother is willing to speak with an estate planning attorney and make a plan for the future, the father won’t even discuss it. What should this family do, asks the article from nwi.com titled “Estate Planning: Can one spouse plan?”

Planning for your eventual demise and distribution of your worldly goods isn’t as much fun as planning a vacation or buying a new car. For some people, it’s too painful, even when they know that it needs to be done. There’s nothing pleasant about the idea that one day you won’t be with your loved ones.

Although contemplating the reality is unpleasant, this is a task that creates all kinds of problems for those who are left behind, if it is not done.

Unfortunately, it is not unusual for one parent to recognize the importance of having an estate plan and the other parent does not consider it to be an important task or simply refuses. In that case, the estate planning attorney can work with the spouse who is willing to go forward.

Some attorneys prefer to represent only one of the spouses, especially in a case like this. Spouses’ interests aren’t always identical, and there are situations where conflicts can arise. When a couple goes to the estate planning attorney’s office and wishes the attorney to represent both of them, sometimes the lawyer will ask for an acknowledgment that the lawyer is representing both of them as a couple. In the event that a disagreement arises or if their interests are very different, some attorneys will withdraw their representation. This is not common, but it does happen.

The estate planning lawyer usually prefers, however, to represent both spouses. Married couple’s estates tend to be intertwined, with real property jointly owned as husband and wife, or husband and husband or wife and wife. Spouses are usually named beneficiaries of life insurance and retirement accounts. Even in blended family situations, this holds true.

If the father in the situation above won’t budge, the mother should meet with the attorney and create an estate plan. The problem is, she may not be able to plan effectively for the two most common and usually the most valuable assets: their jointly owned home and retirement accounts.

If the home is owned by the spouses as “entireties property,” that is, by the couple, she can’t make changes to the title, without her spouse’s consent. One spouse cannot sever entireties property, without both spouses agreeing. Some retirement plans are also subject to the federal law ERISA, which requires a spouse’s consent to change beneficiaries to someone other than the spouse.

Even with these issues, having a plan for one spouse is better than not having any plan at all.

The only last argument that may be made to the father, is that if he does not make a plan, the laws of the state will be used, and few people actually like the idea of the state taking care of their estate.

Reference: nwi.com (Nov. 17, 2019) “Estate Planning: Can one spouse plan?”

Estate Planning Is for Everyone, at Every Age

As we go through the many milestones of life, it’s important to plan for what’s coming, and also plan for the unexpected. An estate planning attorney works with individuals, families and businesses to plan for what lies ahead, says the Cincinnati Business Courier in the article “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.” For younger families, having an estate plan is like having life insurance: it is hoped that the insurance is never needed, but having it in place is comforting.

For others, in different stages of life, an estate plan is needed to ensure a smooth transition for a business owner heading to retirement, protecting a spouse or children from creditors or minimizing tax liability for a family.

Here are some milestones in life when an estate plan is needed:

Becoming an adult. It is true, for most 18-year-olds, estate planning is the last thing on their minds. However, at 18 most states consider them legal adults, and their parents no longer control many things in their lives. If parents want or need to be involved with medical or financial matters, certain estate planning documents are needed. All new adults need a general power of attorney and health care directives to allow someone else to step in, if something occurs.

That can be as minimal as a parent talking with a doctor during an office appointment or making medical decisions during a crisis. A HIPAA release should also be prepared. A simple will should be considered, especially if assets are to pass directly to siblings or a significant person in their life, to whom they are not married.

Getting married. Marriage unites individuals and their assets. For newly married couples, estate planning documents should be updated for each spouse, so their estate plans may be merged, and the new spouse can become a joint owner, primary beneficiary and fiduciary. In addition to the wills, power of attorney, healthcare directive and beneficiary designations also need to be updated to name the new spouse or a trust. This is also a time to start keeping a list of assets, in case someone needs to access accounts.

When children join the family. Whether born or adopted, the entrance of children into the family makes an estate plan especially important. Choosing guardians who will raise the children in the absence of their parents is the hardest thing to think about, but it is critical for the children’s well-being. A revocable trust may be a means of allowing the seamless transfer and ongoing administration of the family’s assets to benefit the children and other family members.

Part of business planning. Estate planning should be part of every business owner’s plan. If the unexpected occurs, the business and the owner’s family will also be better off, regardless of whether they are involved in the business. At the very least, business interests should be directed to transfer out of probate, allowing for an efficient transition of the business to the right people without the burden of probate estate administration.

If a divorce occurs. Divorce is a sad reality for more than half of today’s married couples. The post-divorce period is the time to review the estate plan to remove the ex-spouse, change any beneficiary designations, and plan for new fiduciaries. It’s important to review all accounts to ensure that any controlling-on-death accounts are updated. A careful review by an estate planning attorney is worth the time to make sure no assets are overlooked.

Upon retirement. Just before or after retirement is an important time to review an estate plan. Children may be grown and take on roles of fiduciaries or be in a position to help with medical or financial affairs. This is the time to plan for wealth transfer, minimizing estate taxes and planning for incapacity.

Reference: Cincinnati Business Courier (Sep. 4, 2019) “Estate planning considerations for every stage of life.”

Does My Business Need a Succession Plan?
Business Plan with Pencil Showing Written Strategy Vision and Goal

Does My Business Need a Succession Plan?

Succession plans are typically created to prepare for the owner’s retirement or untimely disability or death. Research shows that 78% of small business owners responded that they plan to use the sale of their business to fund their retirement. However, just 25% of private business owners say they have a succession plan in place.

The Houston Business Journal’s recent article, “Three tips to employing establishing a strong succession plan,” takes up this matter for discussion.

Applying a proactive succession plan may help your business successfully move to new leadership and keep operations running smoothly. Here are a few tips for establishing your succession plan.

Regardless of whether you’re going with a family member to succeed you or bringing in someone from the outside to take over, it’s important that the plan is communicated beforehand. You don’t want workers speculating or feeling blindsided by the decision.

Be sure that you have legal documents in place and clear expectations, guidelines, and rules, so there aren’t any gray areas when the time of transition comes.

If you are appointing a family member, set out details on how other family members will contribute to the company if they are interested. You could have more than one family member run the company, but it may be best to have one clear decision maker.

If you want to have an outside party come in to run the company or have a longtime employee assume leadership, be open to ideas. Don’t overlook someone who may be a good leader and a good fit for the position. As business climates shift, technologies advance and workplace skills change, make a selection of a leader who can adapt to those changes.

As you create your succession plan, leverage a team of experts, such as an estate planning lawyer and an accountant. You should also work with a business broker who can provide a realistic valuation of your company.

Reference: Houston Business Journal (September 3, 2019) “Three tips to employing establishing a strong succession plan”

Feeling Squeezed? You Might be a Sandwich

The phrase “sandwich generation” is used to describe people who are caring for their parents and their children at the same time. The number of people who fall into this category is growing, according to an article from The Motley Fool, “How to Help Your Parents Retire Without Derailing Your Own Retirement.” A survey found that about 16% of Americans are currently caring for an elderly relative, and this number is expected to double within the next five years.

What’s worse, very few people are planning for this situation.

Planning is the only way to stop what has been called a self-perpetuating cycle. Without planning, caring for parents could derail your own retirement, making you need the support of your children when you get older, and while your kids are trying to save for their children’s college educations and preparing for their own retirement. Sound familiar?

What can you do to prevent this cycle?

See if your parents qualify for any assistance programs. There are government and private programs to help with housing, food, utilities and healthcare. The programs vary by location and the situation of the people who are seeking help, but there is help, if you know where to find it.

If parents are over 65, there is something called Supplemental Social Security Income, or SSI. This is in addition to the regular Social Security benefits and might be enough to close the finance gap. In 2019, SSI provides up to $771 per month for an individual or $1,157 for a couple, if the requirements are met.

Cost cutting. If your parents don’t have a budget, help them create one so you can all be aware of how much money is coming in and how much is going out of the household. Could they tighten their discretionary spending? They could also consider a reverse mortgage on their home, if they have enough equity. Are you willing or able to have them come live with you?

Selling items could also free up cash for living expenses. If they have a house filled with memorabilia, or valuable antiques, and are willing to do so, they can combine downsizing with making some income.

Creating a plan. Get everyone in the room—parents, siblings and spouses. Discuss the challenges ahead and make sure that everyone is clear on what expenses everyone can help with. Housing and healthcare are necessary. Luxury cars and vacations are not.

If the adult siblings need to adjust their own spending to help the parents, be realistic with each other. How much are you able to contribute, and how much are you willing to contribute? No one sibling should have to shoulder the burden themselves, unless they are wildly wealthy, and it won’t make a dent in their lifestyle.

Along with the financial planning, make sure that your parents have an estate plan. They’ll need a will, a power of attorney for finances and a healthcare power of attorney. The cost of working with an estate planning attorney to ensure that this is in place, is far less than dealing with court proceedings, if you need to pursue guardianship or settle the estate without a will.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Aug. 25, 2019) “How to Help Your Parents Retire Without Derailing Your Own Retirement”

What Changes Will Be Made to Social Security This Year?

While Social Security now delivers benefit checks to more than 63 million people every month, the program is primarily designed to provide a financial foundation for our nation’s retired workers. Nearly 45 million retired workers (70% of all beneficiaries) receive a benefit check monthly, with more than 60% of these seniors expecting their payout to make up at least half of their income.

Motley Fool’s recent article, “5 Social Security Changes in 2020 That Could Affect Your Take-Home Income” explains that with the relative importance of Social Security, it should come as no shock that the second week of October holds considerable importance to these tens of millions of Americans. That’s because it’s when the Social Security Administration (SSA) announces changes to the program for the upcoming year. Any changes could directly affect what beneficiaries are paid on a monthly basis. These changes can also affect non-retirees who aren’t getting a Social Security benefit Let’s look at some of these changes.

  1. COLA. The most important figure in the October announcement from the Social Security Administration is the cost-of-living adjustment (COLA). Social Security’s COLA is measured by the Consumer Price Index for Urban Wage Earners and Clerical Workers (CPI-W). The average monthly CPI-W reading from the third quarter of the current year (July through September) is compared to the average monthly CPI-W reading from the third quarter of the previous year. If the average figure has risen from the previous year, then beneficiaries receive a “raise” that’s commensurate with the percentage increase year over year, rounded to the nearest 0.1%.
  2. Withholding thresholds. Early claimants who haven’t hit their full retirement age but are currently (or expected to begin) taking benefits, will be subject to the retirement earnings test. This test allows early filers to earn up to a certain amount of money, before the SSA is allowed to withhold a portion, or all, of their benefit. For those who won’t reach their full retirement age in 2019, $1 in benefits can be withheld for every $2 in earnings above $17,640 ($1,470 a month). For those who’ll reach their full retirement age this year but have yet to do so, are allowed to earn $46,920 before the SSA begins withholding $1 in benefits for every $3 in earnings above the limit. Note that these withheld benefits aren’t lost forever, because you get them back in the form of a higher monthly payout when you reach your full retirement age.
  3. Maximum monthly payout. If you’re currently claiming a retired worker benefit and have made a good deal of money on an annual basis over your working career, there’s a chance that you’ll be able to net more in monthly payouts in 2020. There’s a cap on the maximum monthly payout at full retirement age. In 2019, no individual at their full retirement age can take home more than $2,861 per month, even if they made millions of dollars each year throughout their working career.
  4. Disability income thresholds. Even though 7 of 10 program recipients are retired workers, about 10 million people each month also get a check from Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI). Approximately 8½ million are disabled workers, and the rest are spouses or children of these disabled workers. If the average CPI-W reading does increase on a year-over-year basis from the previous year (which appears likely), these SSDI income thresholds for the disabled and legally blind should go up a little in 2020.
  5. A warning to the wealthy. Lastly, Social Security’s changes for 2020 won’t just impact those receiving a benefit. Wealthy workers can also anticipate paying more into the program, provided that inflation rises on a year-over-year basis, as measured by the CPI-W.

Reference: Motley Fool (July 28, 2019) “5 Social Security Changes in 2020 That Could Affect Your Take-Home Income”