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 a Will Can and Cannot Do

Having a will doesn’t avoid probate, the court-directed process of validating a will and confirming the executor. To avoid probate, an estate planning attorney can create trusts and other ways for assets to be transferred directly to heirs before or upon death. Estate planning is guided by the laws of each state, according to the article “Before writing your own will know what wills can, can’t and shouldn’t try to do” from Arkansas Online.

In some states, probate is not expensive or lengthy, while in others it is costly and time-consuming. However, one thing is consistent: when a will is probated, it becomes part of the public record and anyone who wishes to read it, like creditors, ex-spouses, or estranged children, may do so.

One way to bypass probate is to create a revocable living trust and then transfer ownership of real estate, financial accounts, and other assets into the trust. You can be the trustee, but upon your death, your successor trustee takes charge and distributes assets according to the directions in the trust.

Another way people avoid probate is to have assets retitled to be owned jointly. However, anything owned jointly is vulnerable, depending upon the good faith of the other owner. And if the other owner has trouble with creditors or is ending a marriage, the assets may be lost to debt or divorce.

Accounts with beneficiaries, like life insurance and retirement funds bypass probate. The person named as the beneficiary receives assets directly. Just be sure the designated beneficiaries are updated every few years to be current.

Assets titled “Payable on Death” (POD), or “Transfer on Death” (TOD) designate beneficiaries and bypass probate, but not all financial institutions allow their use.

In some states, you can have a TOD deed for real estate or vehicles. Your estate planning attorney will know what your state allows.

Some people think they can use their wills to enforce behavior, putting conditions on inheritances, but certain conditions are not legally enforceable. If you required a nephew to marry or divorce before receiving an inheritance, it’s not likely to happen. Someone must also oversee the bequest and decide when the inheritance can be distributed.

However, trusts can be used to set conditions on asset distribution. The trust documents are used to establish your wishes for the assets and the trustee is charged with following your directions on when and how much to distribute assets to beneficiaries.

Leaving money to a disabled person who depends on government benefits puts their eligibility for benefits like Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid at risk. An estate planning attorney can create a Special Needs Trust to allow for an inheritance without jeopardizing their services.

Finally, in certain states you can use a will to disinherit a spouse, but it’s not easy. Every state has a way to protect a spouse from being completely disinherited. In community property states, a spouse has a legal right to half of any property acquired during the marriage, regardless of how the property is titled. In other states, a spouse has a legal right to a third to one half of the estate, regardless of what is in the will. An experienced estate planning attorney can help draft the documents, but depending on your state and circumstances, it may not be possible to completely disinherit a spouse.

Reference: Arkansas Online (Dec. 27, 2021) “Before writing your own will know what wills can, can’t and shouldn’t try to do”

Does a TOD Supersede a Trust?

Many people incorporate a TOD, or “Transfer on Death” into their financial plan, thinking it will be easier for their loved ones than creating a trust. The article “TOD Accounts Versus Revocable Trusts—Which Is Better?” from Kiplinger explains how it really works.

The TOD account allows the account owner to name a beneficiary on an account who receives funds when the account owner dies. The TOD is often used for stocks, brokerage accounts, bonds and other non-retirement accounts. A POD, or “Payable on Death,” account is usually used for bank assets—cash.

The chief goal of a TOD or POD is to avoid probate. The beneficiaries receive assets directly, bypassing probate, keeping the assets out of the estate and transferring them faster than through probate. The beneficiary contacts the financial institution with an original death certificate and proof of identity.  The assets are then distributed to the beneficiary. Banks and financial institutions can be a bit exacting about determining identity, but most people have the needed documents.

There are pitfalls. For one thing, the executor of the estate may be empowered by law to seek contributions from POD and TOD beneficiaries to pay for the expenses of administering an estate, estate and final income taxes and any debts or liabilities of the estate. If the beneficiaries do not contribute voluntarily, the executor (or estate administrator) may file a lawsuit against them, holding them personally responsible, to get their contributions.

If the beneficiary has already spent the money, or they are involved in a lawsuit or divorce, turning over the TOD/POD assets may get complicated. Other personal assets may be attached to make up for a shortfall.

If the beneficiary is receiving means-tested government benefits, as in the case of an individual with special needs, the TOD/POD assets may put their eligibility for those benefits at risk.

These and other complications make using a POD/TOD arrangement riskier than expected.

A trust provides a great deal more protection for the person creating the trust (grantor) and their beneficiaries. If the grantor becomes incapacitated, trustees will be in place to manage assets for the grantor’s benefit. With a TOD/POD, a Power of Attorney would be needed to allow the other person to control of the assets. The same banks reluctant to hand over a POD/TOD are even more strict about Powers of Attorney, even denying POAs, if they feel the forms are out-of-date or don’t have the state’s required language.

Creating a trust with an experienced estate planning attorney allows you to plan for yourself and your beneficiaries. You can plan for incapacity and plan for the assets in your trust to be used as you wish. If you want your adult children to receive a certain amount of money at certain ages or stages of their lives, a trust can be created to do so. You can also leave money for multiple generations, protecting it from probate and taxes, while building a legacy.

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

How Do You Gift Your House to Your Children during Your Lifetime?

Whether you have a split level or a log cabin, your estate plan should be considered when passing property along to the next generation. How you structure the transaction has legal and tax implications, explains the article “How estate planning can help you pass down a house to your kids and give them a financial leg up” from USA Today.

For one family, which had been rental property landlords for more than two decades, parents set up a revocable trust and directed the trustee to be responsible for liquidating houses only when they became vacant, otherwise maintaining them as rental properties as long as tenants were in good standing. They did this when the wife was pregnant with their first child, with the goal to maximize the value to their children as beneficiaries. This was a long-term strategy.

Taxes must always be considered. When a home or any capital asset is given to children while the parents are alive, there may be a capital gains tax issue. It’s possible for the carryover cost basis to lead to a big cost. However, using a revocable trust avoids probate and gives them a step-up in basis to avoid capital gains taxes.

Many families use a traditional method: gifting the house to the children. The parents retain the ownership and benefit of the property during their lifetimes. When the last parent dies, the children get the home and the benefit of the stepped-up basis. However, many estate planning attorneys prefer to have a house pass to the next generation through a revocable trust. It not only avoids probate but having a trust allows the parents to dictate exactly what is to be done with the house. For example, the trust can be used to direct what happens if only one child wants the house. The one who wants the house can have it, but not without buying out the other children’s’ shares.

If the children are added onto the deed of the house, keep in mind whoever is added to the deed has all the rights and liabilities of an owner. If one child wants to live in the home and the others don’t, the others won’t be able to sell the house. The revocable trust mentioned above provides more control.

Selling the family home to an adult child may work, especially if the parents cannot afford to maintain the home and the child can. However, there are pitfalls here, since the parents lose control of the home. An alternative might be to deed the property to the children, have the children refinance the property and cash the parents out.

If parents sell the home below fair market value, they are giving up proceeds to finance their retirement. If they don’t need the money, great, but if not, this is a bad financial move. There are also taxable gains consequences, if the home is sold for more than they paid. A home’s sale might result in a dramatic increase in property taxes to the buyer.

However you decide to pass the family home or other real estate property to children, the transfer needs to be aligned with the rest of your estate plan to avoid any unexpected costs or complications. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help determine the best way to do this, for now and for the future.

Reference: USA Today (Dec. 3, 2021) “How estate planning can help you pass down a house to your kids and give them a financial leg up”

Do You Need a Revocable or Irrevocable Trust?

However, below the surface of estate planning and the world of trusts, things get complicated. Revocable trusts become irrevocable trusts, when the grantor becomes incapacitated or dies. It is just one of the many twists and turns in trusts, as reported in the article “What’s the difference between a revocable and irrevocable trust” from Market Watch.

For starters, the person who creates the trust is known as the “grantor.” The grantor can change the trust while living, or while the grantor has legal capacity. If the grantor becomes incapacitated, the grantor can’t change the trust. An agent or Power of Attorney for the grantor can make changes, if specifically authorized in the trust, as could a court-appointed conservator.

Despite the name, irrevocable trusts can be changed—more so now than ever before. Irrevocable trusts created for asset protection, tax planning or Medicaid planning purposes are treated differently than those becoming irrevocable upon the death of the grantor.

When an irrevocable trust is created, the grantor may still retain certain powers, including the right to change trustees and the right to re-direct who will receive the trust property, when the grantor dies or when the trust terminates (these don’t always occur at the same time). A “testamentary power of appointment” refers to the retained power to appoint or distribute assets to anyone, or within limitations.

When the trust becomes irrevocable, the grantor can give the right to change trustees or to change ultimate beneficiaries to other people, including the beneficiaries. A trust could say that a majority of the grantor’s children may hire and fire trustees, and each child has the right to say where his or her share will go, in the event he or she dies before receiving their share.

Asset protection and special needs trusts also appoint people in the role of trust protectors. They are empowered to change trustees and, in some cases, to amend the trust completely. The trust is irrevocable for the grantor, but not the trust protector. Another trust might have language to limit this power, typically if it is a special needs trust. This allows a trust protector to make necessary changes, if rules regarding government benefits change regarding trusts.

Irrevocable trusts have become less irrevocable over the years, as more states have passed laws concerning “decanting” trusts, reformation and non-judicial settlement of trusts. Decanting a trust refers to “pouring” assets from one trust into another trust—allowing assets to be transferred to other trusts. Depending on the state’s laws, there needs to be a reason for the trust to be decanted and all beneficiaries must agree to the change.

Trust reformation requires court approval and must show that the reformation is needed if the trust is to achieve its original purpose. Notice must be given to all current and future beneficiaries, but they don’t need to agree on the change.

The Uniform Trust Code permits trust reformation without court involvement, known as non-judicial settlement agreements, where all parties are in agreement. The law has been adopted in 34 states and the District of Columbia. Any change that doesn’t violate a material purpose of the trust is permitted, as long as all parties are in agreement.

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 8, 2021) “What’s the difference between a revocable and irrevocable trust”

When Should You Fund a Trust?

If your estate plan includes a revocable trust, sometimes called a “living trust,” you need to be certain the trust is funded. When created by an experienced estate planning attorney, revocable trusts provide many benefits, from avoiding having assets owned by the trust pass through probate to facilitating asset management in case of incapacity. However, it doesn’t happen automatically, according to a recent article from mondaq.com, “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

For the trust to work, it must be funded. Assets must be transferred to the trust, or beneficiary accounts must have the trust named as the designated beneficiary. The SECURE Act changed many rules concerning distribution of retirement account to trusts and not all beneficiary accounts permit a trust to be the owner, so you’ll need to verify this.

The revocable trust works well to avoid probate, and as the “grantor,” or creator of the trust, you may instruct trustees how and when to distribute trust assets. You may also revoke the trust at any time. However, to effectively avoid probate, you must transfer title to virtually all your assets. It includes those you own now and in the future. Any assets owned by you and not the trust will be subject to probate. This may include life insurance, annuities and retirement plans, if you have not designated a beneficiary or secondary beneficiary for each account.

What happens when the trust is not funded? The assets are subject to probate, and they will not be subject to any of the controls in the trust, if you become incapacitated. One way to avoid this is to take inventory of your assets and ensure they are properly titled on a regular basis.

Another reason to fund a trust: maximizing protection from the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation (FDIC) insurance coverage. Most of us enjoy this protection in our bank accounts on deposits up to $250,000. However, a properly structured revocable trust account can increase protection up to $250,000 per beneficiary, up to five beneficiaries, regardless of the dollar amount or percentage.

If your revocable trust names five beneficiaries, a bank account in the name of the trust is eligible for FDIC insurance coverage up to $250,000 per beneficiary, or $1.25 million (or $2.5 million for jointly owned accounts). For informal revocable trust accounts, the bank’s records (although not the account name) must include all beneficiaries who are to be covered. FDIC insurance is on a per-institution basis, so coverage can be multiplied by opening similarly structured accounts at several different banks.

One last note: FDIC rules regarding revocable trust accounts are complex, especially if a revocable trust has multiple beneficiaries. Speak with your estate planning attorney to maximize insurance coverage.

Reference: mondaq.com (Sep. 10, 2021) “Is Your Revocable Trust Fully Funded?”

Short-Cuts to Estate Planning can Lead to Costly Consequences

It seems like a simple way for the children to manage mom’s finances: add the grown children as owners to a bank account, brokerage account or make them joint owners of the home. However, these short-cut methods create all kinds of problems for the parent’s estate and the children themselves, says the article entitled “Estate planning: When you take the lazy way out, someone will pay the price” from Florida Today.

By adding an adult child as owner to the account, the child is being given 50% ownership. The same is true if the child is added to the title for the home as joint owner. If there is more than $30,000 in the account or if the asset is valued at more than $30,000, then the mother needs to file a gift tax return—even if no gift tax is due. If the gift tax return is not filed in a timely manner, there might be a gift tax due in the future.

There is also a carryover basis in the account or property when the adult child is added as an owner. If it’s a bank account, the primary issue is the gift tax return. However, if the asset is a brokerage account or the parent’s primary residence, then the child steps into the parent’s shoes for 50% of the amount they bought the property for originally.

Here is an example: let’s say a parent is in her 80s and you are seeing that she is starting to slow down. You decide to take an easy route and have her add you to her bank account, brokerage account and the deed (or title) to the family home. If she becomes incapacitated or dies, you’ll own everything and you can make all the necessary decisions, including selling the house and using the funds for funeral expenses. It sounds easy and inexpensive, doesn’t it? It may be easy, but it’s not inexpensive.

Sadly, your mom dies. You need some cash to pay her final medical bills, cover the house expenses and maybe a few of your own bills. You sell some stock. After all, you own the account. It’s then time to file a tax return for the year when you sold the stock. When reporting the stock sale, your basis in the stock is 50% step-up in value based on the value of the stock the day that your mom died, plus 50% of what she originally paid for the stock.

If your mom bought the stock for $100 twenty years ago, and the stock is now worth $10,500, when you were added to the account, you now step into her shoes for 50% of the stock—$50. You sold the stock after she died, so your basis in that stock is now $5,050—that’s $5,000 value of stock when she died plus $50: 50% of the original purchase. Your taxable gain is $5,450.

How do you avoid this? If the ownership of the brokerage account remained solely with your mother, but you were a Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) beneficiary, you would not have access to the account if your mom became incapacitated and had appointed you as her “attorney in fact” on her general durable power of attorney. What would be the result? You would get a step-up in basis on the asset after she died. The inherited stock would have a basis of $10,000 and the taxable gain would be $500, not $5,450.

A better alternative—talk with an estate planning attorney to create a will, a revocable trust, a general durable power of attorney and the other legal documents used to transfer assets and minimize taxes. The estate planning attorney will be able to create a way for you to get access or transfer the property without negative tax consequences.

Reference: Florida Today (May 20, 2021) , “Estate planning: When you take the lazy way out, someone will pay the price”

How can I Revoke an Irrevocable Trust?

Is there a way to get a house deed out of the trust?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I dissolve an irrevocable trust to get my house out?” says that prior to finalizing legal documents, it is important to know the purpose and consequences of the plan.

An experienced estate planning attorney will tell you there are a variety of trust types that are used to achieve different objectives.

There are revocable trusts that can be created to avoid probate, and others trusts placed in a will to provide for minor children or loved ones with special needs.

Irrevocable trusts are often created to shield assets, including the home, in the event long-term nursing care is required.

Conveying assets to an irrevocable trust typically starts the five-year “look back” period for Medicaid purposes, if the trust is restricted from using the assets for, or returning assets to, the individual who created the trust (known as the “grantor”).

When you transfer assets to a trust, control of the assets is given to another person (the ‘trustee”).

This arrangement may protect assets in the event long-term care is required. However it comes with the risk that the trustee may not always act how the grantor intended.

For instance, the grantor can’t independently sell the house owned by the trust or compel the trustee to purchase a replacement residence, which may cause a conflict between the grantor and trustee. Because the trust is irrevocable, it could be difficult and expensive to unwind.

In light of this, it’s important to designate a trustee who will work with and honor the wishes of the grantor.

An experienced estate planning attorney retained for estate and asset planning should provide clear, understandable and thoughtful advice, so the client has the information needed to make an informed decision how to proceed.

Reference: nj.com (April 6, 2021) “Can I dissolve an irrevocable trust to get my house out?”

Estate Planning Meets Tax Planning

Not keeping a close eye on tax implications, often costs families tens of thousands of dollars or more, according to a recent article from Forbes, “Who Gets What—A Guide To Tax-Savvy Charitable Bequests.” The smartest solution for donations or inheritances is to consider your wishes, then use a laser-focus on the tax implications to each future recipient.

After the SECURE Act destroyed the stretch IRA strategy, heirs now have to pay income taxes on the IRA they receive within ten years of your passing. An inherited Roth IRA has an advantage in that it can continue to grow for ten more years after your death, and then be withdrawn tax free. After-tax dollars and life insurance proceeds are generally not subject to income taxes. However, all of these different inheritances will have tax consequences for your beneficiary.

What if your beneficiary is a tax-exempt charity?

Charities recognized by the IRS as being tax exempt don’t care what form your donation takes. They don’t have to pay taxes on any donations. Bequests of traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, after-tax dollars, or life insurance are all equally welcome.

However, your heirs will face different tax implications, depending upon the type of assets they receive.

Let’s say you want to leave $100,000 to charity after you and your spouse die. You both have traditional IRAs and some after-tax dollars. For this example, let’s say your child is in the 24% tax bracket. Most estate plans instruct charitable bequests be made from after-tax funds, which are usually in the will or given through a revocable trust. Remember, your will cannot control the disposition of the IRAs or retirement plans, unless it is the designated beneficiary.

By naming a charity as a beneficiary in a will or trust, the money will be after-tax. The charity gets $100,000.

If you leave $100,000 to the charity through a traditional IRA and/or your retirement plan beneficiary designation, the charity still gets $100,000.

If your heirs received that amount, they’d have to pay taxes on it—in this example, $24,000. If they live in a state that taxes inherited IRAs or if they are in a higher tax bracket, their share of the $100,000 is even less. However, you have options.

Here’s one way to accomplish this. Let’s say you leave $100,000 to charity through your IRA beneficiary designations and $100,000 to your heirs through a will or revocable trust. The charity receives $100,000 and pays no tax. Your heirs also receive $100,000 and pay no federal tax.

A simple switch of who gets what saves your heirs $24,000 in taxes. That’s a welcome savings for your heirs, while the charity receives the same amount you wanted.

When considering who gets what in your estate plan, consider how the bequests are being given and what the tax implications will be. Talk with your estate planning attorney about structuring your estate plan with an eye to tax planning.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 26, 2021) “Who Gets What—A Guide To Tax-Savvy Charitable Bequests”

Trusts Make Sense Even When You Aren’t a Billionaire

Trusts are used to solve problems in estate planning, giving great flexibility in how assets are divided after your death, no matter how modest or massive the size of your estate, according to an article titled “3 Reasons a trust may make sense for your family even though your name isn’t Trump, Gates or Rockefeller” from Market Watch. Don’t worry about anyone thinking your children are “trust fund babies.” Using trusts in your estate plan is a smart move, for many reasons.

There are two basic types of trust. A Revocable Trust is flexible and can be changed at any time by the person who creates the trust, known as the “grantor.” These are commonly used because they allow a high degree of control, while you are living. It’s as if you owned the asset, but you don’t—the trust does.

Once the trust is created, homes, bank and investment accounts and any other asset you want to be owned by the trust are retitled in the name of the trust. This is a step that sometimes gets forgotten, with terrible consequences. Once that’s done, then any documents that need to be signed regarding the trust are signed by you as the trustee, not as yourself. You can continue to sell or manage the assets as you did before they were moved into the trust.

There are many kinds of trusts for particular situations. A Special Needs Trust, or “SNT,” is used to help a disabled person, without making them ineligible for government benefits. A Charitable Trust is used to leave money to a favorite charity, while providing income to a family member during their lifetime. A real estate trust can be used for real property.

Assets that are placed in trusts do not go through the probate process and can control how your assets are distributed to heirs, both in timing and conditions.

An Irrevocable Trust is permanent and once created, cannot be changed. This type of trust is often used to save on estate taxes, by taking the asset out of your taxable estate. Funds you want to take out of your estate and bequeath to grandchildren are often placed in an irrevocable trust.

If you have relationships, properties or goals that are not straightforward, talk with your estate planning attorney about how trusts might benefit you and your family. Here’s why this makes sense:

Reducing estate taxes. While the federal exemption is $11.58 million in 2020 and $11.7 million in 2021, state estate tax exemptions are far lower. New York excludes $6 million, but Massachusetts exempts $1 million. An estate planning attorney in your state will know what your state’s estate taxes are, and how trusts can be used to protect your assets.

If you own property in a second or third state, your heirs will face a second or third round of probate and estate taxes. If the properties are placed in a trust, there’s less management, paperwork and costs to settling your estate.

Avoiding family battles. Families are a bit more complicated now than in the past. There are second and third marriages, children born to parents who don’t feel the need to marry and long-term relationships that serve couples without being married. Trusts can be established for estate planning goals in a way that traditional wills do not. For instance, stepchildren do not enjoy any legal protection when it comes to estate law. If you die when your children are young, a trust can be set up so your children will receive income and/or principal at whatever age you determine. Otherwise, with a will, the child will receive their full inheritance when they reach the legal age set by the state. An 18- or 21-year-old is rarely mature enough to manage a sudden influx of money. You can control how the money is distributed.

Protect your assets while you are living. Having a trust in place prepares you and your family for the changes that often accompany aging, like Alzheimer’s disease. A trust also protects aging adults from predators who seek to take advantage of them. Elder financial abuse is an enormous problem, when trusting adults give money to unscrupulous people—even family members.

Talk with an estate planning attorney about your wishes and your worries. They will be able to create an estate plan and trusts that will protect you, your family and your legacy.

Reference: Market Watch (Dec. 4, 2020) “3 Reasons a trust may make sense for your family even though your name isn’t Trump, Gates or Rockefeller”