Has the Pandemic Made People More Aware of Estate Planning?

The COVID-19 pandemic has led many more Americans to pay attention to estate planning, but just a third of them have taken action, according to a recent report.

Financial Advisor IQ’s recent article entitled “More Americans Set Up Estate Plans Since Start of Pandemic” reports that more than 50% of Americans think estate planning is at least somewhat important, senior living referral service Caring.com found in a survey of more than 2,600 American adults. Caring.com didn’t disclose when the survey was conducted.

The number of those aged 18 to 34 with estate planning documents has increased 50% since the beginning of the pandemic, according to the survey. Americans who’ve suffered through a serious COVID case are also 66% more likely to have a will than those who haven’t, Caring.com found.

Roughly 48% who have had a serious case have estate planning in place, as do 41% of those who have loved ones who had one. That’s compared to 29% who have no experience with a serious COVID -19 case, according to the survey.

Overall, two out of three American adults don’t have a will — the percentage has only inched up from 32.1% in 2020 to 32.9% in 2021 to 33.1% this year.

More than 60% of those without a will have done nothing toward getting a will or any estate planning document, according to the survey.

The most cited reason for not having a will is simply not getting around to it. That’s cited by 40% of all Americans without one.

That’s particularly prevalent among those earning $80,000 a year or more and without a will, 63% of whom say they haven’t had time to do so, as well as those with postgraduate education, two out of three of whom say they haven’t got around to it, according to the survey.

On the other hand, 48% of those earning $80,000 or more say they do have a will or another estate planning document.

That represents a 7% increase since 2020, Caring.com says.

However, a third (33%) of Americans overall say they don’t have an estate plan because they don’t have enough to leave behind, according to the survey.

Meanwhile, 12% say they don’t know how to get a will or living trust, and about 13% believe it’s too expensive to set up. Another 6% think it takes too long, and 9% say they don’t have anyone to leave their assets to, Caring.com found.

Reference: Financial Advisor IQ (April 25, 2022) “More Americans Set Up Estate Plans Since Start of Pandemic”

What are the Most Important Estate Planning Documents?

Odds are that you know the benefits of having a last will and testament, and Forbes’ recent article entitled “Estate Documents You’ll Need Beyond A Last Will And Testament” says that, while this is a necessary aspect of your estate planning, it’s not the only documents you’ll want to have.

Let’s take a look at some of the other important estate planning documents.

A Living Trust. A living trust can limit the number of assets going through probate. Because a living trust is a revocable document, you can change it. A trust is designed to avoid or limit probate for the decedent’s assets, by creating a legally separate entity to hold property.

Living Will or Advance Directive. A living will or advance medical directive is often required by healthcare providers for certain medical procedures. However, this document should also be included within your estate plans. It tells your family and medical staff your wishes regarding lifesaving or life-prolonging medical procedures, in case you become unable to communicate with them.

Healthcare Power of Attorney. A power of attorney often consists of two documents. One is a healthcare power of attorney that lets you name someone to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. A power of attorney differs from the living will because your living will is only valid, if you’re unable to communicate your wishes.

Financial Power of Attorney. This document allows you to name a person to make financial decisions for you if you can’t and this doesn’t necessarily mean that you must be incapacitated. Many people use these when they are unavailable to sign documents.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 18, 2022) “Estate Documents You’ll Need Beyond A Last Will And Testament”

Should I have Revocable Living Trust in Estate Plan?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “What Assets Should Be Included in Your Trust?” says that a revocable living trust is a document that’s created to protect your assets during your lifetime. It also creates a way to seamlessly pass your assets at your death. The biggest benefit of creating a trust is avoiding probate. Placing your important assets in a trust can give you peace of mind knowing assets will be passed onto the beneficiary you designate, under the conditions you choose and without first undergoing a drawn-out probate process.

Many people think that once they sign the trust documents at their attorney’s office, they’re good to go. Setting up a trust is just half of the job. For a revocable living trust to take effect, it should be funded by transferring assets into the trust. You can fund a living trust with real estate, financial accounts, life insurance, annuity certificates, personal property, business interests and other assets.

People often ask if it’s wise to place their house in a trust. Considering that your home is potentially one of your largest assets, living trusts can be especially beneficial. A trust can transfer real estate quickly. They also help avoid the hassle of separate probate proceedings for land, commercial properties and homes that are owned out of state or held in different counties. However, property with a mortgage must be retitled in the name of the trust. Some lenders may be reluctant to do this.

There are several types of financial assets that can be owned by a trust, here are some examples:

  • Bonds
  • Stock certificates
  • Shareholders’ stock from closely-held corporations
  • Non-retirement brokerage and mutual fund accounts
  • Money market accounts
  • Cash
  • Checking and savings accounts
  • Annuities
  • Certificates of deposit (CD); and
  • Safe deposit boxes.

While creating a trust can seem to be costly and complex, it can make the inheritance process much easier on your beneficiaries. To ensure your trust performs as it is intended, work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Kiplinger (Jan. 16, 2022) “What Assets Should Be Included in Your Trust?”

What Estate Planning Documents are Used to Plan for Incapacity?
An concept Image of a power of attorney

What Estate Planning Documents are Used to Plan for Incapacity?

The chief reason for a Power of Attorney (POA) is to appoint an agent who can make decisions about business and financial matters if you become incapacitated, according to an article “Estate planning in case of incapacity” from The Sentinel-Record. For most people, the POA becomes effective at a later date, when the person signs a written authorization to act under the document, or when the person is determined to be incapacitated. This often involves having the person’s treating physician sign a notarized statement declaring the person to be incapacitated. This type of POA is referred to as a “Springing POA,” since it springs from a future event.

The challenge with a springing POA is that it requires reaching a point in the person’s life where it is clinically clear they are incapacitated. If the person has not yet been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease or another form of dementia, but it is making poor decisions or not able to care for themselves, it becomes necessary to go through the process of documenting their incapacity and going through the state’s process to activate the POA.

For a more immediate POA, your estate planning attorney may recommend creating and signing a Durable Power of Attorney. This allows you to appoint someone to manage personal and business affairs immediately. For this reason, it is extremely important that the person you name be 100% trustworthy, since they will have instant legal access to all of your property.

A Power of Attorney can be customized to include broad powers or limited to a specific transaction, like selling your home.

This is not the only way to allow another person to take over your affairs in the event of incapacity.  However, it is easier than seeking guardianship or conservatorship. Another method is to place assets in a revocable trust, which allows you to maintain control of the assets while alive and of legal capacity. The trust includes a successor trustee, who takes over in the event you become incapacitated or die.

The successor trustee only has control of the assets owned by the trust, so if the purpose of the trust is planning for incapacity, many, if not all, of your assets will need to be retitled and put into the trust.

A properly created estate plan will often use both the Durable Power of Attorney and a Revocable Living Trust, when preparing for incapacity.

Sadly, many people fail to have these legal tools created. As a result, when they are incapacitated, the family must go to court to have a person appointed to manage their affairs. This is usually referred to as a “legal guardianship.” The proceeding to obtain a guardianship is lengthy and complicated. Once the guardianship is established, the guardian must file annual accountings with the court documenting how all of the funds are used. The guardian must also post a surety bond, designed to protect assets in case of improper use.

Guardianship and its costs and time-consuming tasks can all be avoided with a properly prepared estate plan, including planning for incapacity.

Reference: The Sentinel-Record (March 27, 2022) “Estate planning in case of incapacity”

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”

Do You Need a Revocable or an Irrevocable Trust?

Many seniors planning for the future may want to place their home in a trust for their children.

This is especially true if the house is paid off, and free and clear of a mortgage.

However, what would happen if the home were placed in a trust and the senior then decides to sell it?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I sell my house after I put it in a trust?” explains that there are two primary types of trusts: revocable and irrevocable. In this situation, placing the home in a revocable trust may be a wise option.

The assets in a revocable trust avoid probate but stay in the grantor’s control. That is because you can always change the terms of the trust or terminate the trust. With a revocable trust, the terms can be altered or canceled dependent on the grantor (also known as the trustmaker, settlor, or trustor) of the trust.

During the life of the trust, income earned is given to the grantor, and only after death does property transfer to the beneficiaries.

A grantor can be the trustee. In that way, the grantor is still able to live in the home and sell it and dispose of it as they want upon death.

Assets in a revocable trust are available to creditors and are subject to estate taxes upon death.

In contrast, an irrevocable trust cannot be changed or altered once it is established. In fact, the trust itself becomes a legal entity that owns the assets placed in it.

Because the grantor no longer controls those assets, there are certain tax advantages and creditor protections.

An irrevocable trust is best used for transferring high-value assets that could cause gift or estate tax issues in the future.

Trust are very complicated, so in any situation consult with an experienced estate planning attorney about whether to use a trust and to make certain that you create the best trust for your specific situation.

Reference: nj.com (Feb. 25, 2022) “Can I sell my house after I put it in a trust?”

What Can a Trust Do for Me and My Family?

A trust is defined as a legal contract that lets an individual or entity (the trustee) hold assets on behalf of another person (the beneficiary). The assets in the trust can be cash, investments, physical assets like real estate, business interests and digital assets. There is no minimum amount of money needed to establish a trust.

US News’ recent article entitled “Trusts Explained” explains that trusts can be structured in a number of ways to instruct the way in which the assets are handled both during and after your lifetime. Trusts can reduce estate taxes and provide many other benefits.

Placing assets in a trust lets you know that they will be managed through your instructions, even if you’re unable to manage them yourself. Trusts also bypass the probate process. This lets your heirs get the trust assets faster than if they were transferred through a will.

The two main types of trusts are revocable (known as “living trusts”) and irrevocable trusts. A revocable trust allows the grantor to change the terms of the trust or dissolve the trust at any time. Revocable trusts avoid probate, but the assets in them are generally still considered part of your estate. That is because you retain control over them during your lifetime.

To totally remove the assets from your estate, you need an irrevocable trust. An irrevocable trust cannot be altered by the grantor after it’s been created. Therefore, if you’re the grantor, you can’t change the terms of the trust, such as the beneficiaries, or dissolve the trust after it has been established.

You also lose control over the assets you put into an irrevocable trust.

Trusts give you more say about your assets than a will does. With a trust, you can set more particular terms as to when your beneficiaries receive those assets. Another type of trust is created under a last will and testament and is known as a testamentary trust. Although the last will must be probated to create the testamentary trust, this trust can protect an inheritance from and for your heirs as you design.

Trusts are not a do-it-yourself proposition: ask for the expertise of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: US News (Feb. 7, 2022) “Trusts Explained”

Should I Place My Home in a Trust?

Just like you protect your finances from debt or use home security to protect your belongings, estate planning with a living trust can be a way to provide your loved ones with a legacy and inheritance, says Yahoo Life’s recent article entitled “Why You Should Put Your House in a Living Trust.”

It’s important to know what will happen to your house, if you and/or a co-owner were to die. Even if your will gives your house to your children, the transfer can be delayed due to the rules of probate law. If you’re in an LGBTQ+ family or have special needs, there are also frequently special circumstances to consider and for which to plan when crafting your estate plan.

Similar to a will, a living trust is a legal document that can be a vital tool for planning and distributing your assets to your heirs. A living trust is active when it’s created and assigns a trustee to manage certain assets—such as your house—on behalf of the future beneficiary.

A trust can be either revocable or irrevocable. Revocable means you can modify the terms or control of the assets in the trust at any time. While this gives you flexibility, the trust assets will count as part of your estate when you die. An irrevocable trust allows your assets to no longer be counted as part of your estate. However, you have little control of the trust and the assets in it. The type of trust you use depends on your circumstances.

A will only becomes active after you die and must undergo probate. Trusts don’t need to go through probate and can’t be contested.

If you’re worried about leaving assets to young children or family members who aren’t good with money, you can structure your trust so that a responsible third party will manage the trust assets responsibly.

Depending on the type of trust you create, you can give protection creditor protection or protection in the event of a divorce. You can also place restrictions on the sale of your home—at least for a period of time.

Note that state laws differ on what creditor protection is available to a homeowner as to their home. Some states protect the debtor’s home from creditors outright, and some allow a home to be protected from creditors, if the debtor’s home is titled with a spouse (the spouse’s name is also on the home’s title) and the spouse is alive after the debtor’s death.

Reference: Yahoo Life (Jan. 10, 2022) “Why You Should Put Your House in a Living Trust”

TOD and POD Accounts: What’s the Difference?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts – Which Is Better?” explains that a TOD account typically deals with distributing stocks, brokerage accounts or bonds to the named beneficiary, when the account holder dies. A POD account is similar to a TOD account. However, it handles a person’s bank assets (cash), not their securities.

Both TOD and POD accounts are quick and simple ways of avoiding probate. That can be slow, expensive, public and possibly messy. Financial institutions offer TOD and POD at their discretion, but almost all major brokerage houses and investment houses now have these types of accounts, as well as most banks for standard bank accounts. Many even let you handle this online.

The big benefit of using a POD or TOD account is probate avoidance. As mentioned, TOD and POD accounts avoid the probate process, by naming a beneficiary or beneficiaries to inherit the asset directly when the account owner passes away. These accounts can distribute assets quickly and seamlessly to the intended beneficiary.

However, when someone passes away, there can be creditors, expenses of administering the decedent’s estate and taxes owed. The person or persons responsible for administering the decedent’s estate are typically empowered under the law to seek contributions from the POD and TOD beneficiaries to pay those liabilities. If the beneficiaries don’t contribute voluntarily, there may be no choice but to file a lawsuit to obtain the contributions. The beneficiary may also have spent those assets or have other circumstances, such as involvement in a lawsuit or a divorce. Consequently, these situations will complicate turning over those assets.

A trust lets you to plan for incapacity, and if the creator of the trust becomes incapacitated, a successor or co-trustee can assume management of the account for the benefit of the creator. With a POD or TOD account, a durable power of attorney would be required to have another person handle the account. Note that financial institutions can be reluctant to accept powers of attorney, if the documents are old or don’t have the appropriate language.

A trust allows you to plan for your beneficiaries, and if your beneficiaries are minors, have special needs, have creditor issues, or have mental health or substance abuse issues, trusts can hold and manage assets to protect those assets for the beneficiary’s use. Inheritances can also be managed over long periods of time with a trust.

Although in some cases POD and TOD accounts can be appropriate for probate avoidance, their limitations at addressing other issues can cause many individuals to opt for a revocable trust. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to see what’s best for you and your family.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 2, 2021) “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts – Which Is Better?”

Do I Need a Living Trust?

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “What Is a Living Trust in Real Estate?” says that a living trust is a legal document that makes it easier for you to pass assets to your loved ones after you die. It allows property to be transferred directly to your designated beneficiaries without needing to go through probate. A living trust will be managed by a trustee, while you’re still living (that can be you).  You’ll name a successor trustee who will manage the trust, if you become incapacitated and distribute its assets after you pass away.

While the trust holds these assets, you’re still considered in possession of them while you’re alive (assuming you named yourself the trustee). Therefore, you can move assets in and out of the trust as you see fit. If you have a revocable trust, you can even cancel or change it at any time.

Creating a living trust can simplify the inheritance process for your family when you die. That’s because any property you own is subject to the probate process when you die. Probate can be a very lengthy process.

While waiting, your family may be unable to manage, use, or sell the property you left behind. Until probate is complete, your executor will be responsible for maintaining the property, including paying taxes, making repairs and paying the bills (like insurance).

A living trust is a beneficial financial product for many reasons. First, it bypasses the probate courts. There are some types of assets that will pass on to your beneficiaries directly, and others will need to clear the probate courts before they can be disbursed to your beneficiaries. This probate process can take months or even years and can be both costly and complicated.

Another benefit of a trust is that you keep control of your estate, even after you pass away. A living trust lets you set rules, timelines and stipulations for your estate. This may be something like keeping your children from getting a substantial sum of money in their early 20s. With a living trust, you can state instructions for your trustee as to when your kids receive that inheritance. For example, you may provide that they receive their inheritance in stages, like a third at 30, 35 and 40.

Finally, a trust is private. Unlike a will, your trust can be kept as private as you want. Once you pass away, and your will is filed with the probate court, it becomes public record. However, if you’d rather have your estate and your wishes kept out of the public eye, a trust can help you do so.  Because a trust skips the probate process, it’s also much harder for someone to challenge your directives.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Oct. 7, 2021) “What Is a Living Trust in Real Estate?”