Could Your Estate Plan Be a Disaster?

You may think your estate plan is all set. However, it might not be. If you met with your attorney when your children were small, and your children are now grown and have children of their own, your estate could be a disaster waiting to happen, says a recent article “Today’s Business: Your estate plan—what could go wrong?” from the New Haven Register.

Most estate planning attorneys encourage their clients to revisit their estate plan every three to five years, with good reason. The size of your estate may have changed, you may have experienced a health issue, or you may have a new child or a grandchild. There may be tax law changes, statutes may have been updated and the plan you had three to five years ago may not accomplish what you want it to.

Many people say they “have nothing” and their estate is “simple.” They might also think “my spouse will get everything anyway.” This is wrong 99% of the time. There are unintended consequences of not having a will—accounts long forgotten, an untimely death of a joint owner, or a 40-year-old car with a higher value than anyone ever expected.

Your last will and testament designates who receives your assets and provides for any minors. A will can also help protect your wishes from a challenge by unwanted heirs after your passing.

The federal estate tax exemption today is $12.6 million, but if your will was created to minimize estate taxes when the exemption was $675,000, there may be unnecessary provisions in your plan. Heirs may be forced to set up inherited trusts or even sub-trusts. With today’s current exemption level, your plan may include trusts that no longer serve any purpose.

When was the last time you reviewed your will to see whether you still want the same people listed to serve as guardians for minor children, executors, or trustees? If those people are no longer in your family, or if the named person is now your ex, or if they’ve died, you have an ineffective estate plan.

Many adults believe they are too young to need an estate plan, or they’ve set up all of their assets to be owned jointly and, therefore, don’t need an estate plan. If one of the joint owners suffers a disability and is receiving government benefits, an inheritance could put all of their benefits at risk. Minor children might inherit your estate. However, the law does not permit minors to inherit assets, so someone needs to be named to serve as their conservator. If you don’t name someone, the court will, and it may not be the person you would choose.

What about using a template from an online website? Estate planning attorneys are called in to set things right from online wills with increasing frequency. The terms of a will are governed by state law and often these websites don’t explain how the document must be aligned with the statutes of the state where it is signed. Estate plans are not one-size-fits-all documents and a will deemed invalid by the court is the same as if there were no will at all.

If you don’t have an estate plan, if your estate plan is outdated, or if your estate plan was created using an online solution, your heirs may inherit a legal quagmire, in addition to your coin collection. Give yourself and them the peace of mind of knowing you’ve done the right thing and have your will updated or created with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: New Haven Register (Oct. 29, 2022) “Today’s Business: Your estate plan—what could go wrong?”

What Happens If a Trust Is Invalid?

Lessons about gifting, blended families, entity formalities, trusts and estate planning may all be found in the outcome of a tax case described in The Dallas Morning News’ article “The Smaldino case: Tax court opinion leads to estate planning angst.” The case involves gift taxes, and more particularly, a gift of LLC interest to a dynasty trust. The interest started out in the husband’s trust, transferred to the wife, who then transferred them to a dynasty trust, created to benefit some of the husband’s children from a prior marriage.

You may know that taxpayers are not required to report gifts between spouses. The husband’s gift to his spouse was, therefore, not reported to the IRS. The wife did report her gift to the IRS, but she didn’t need to pay any gift taxes because the reported value didn’t exceed her own lifetime gift tax exemption. Therefore, no gift taxes were due or paid on the transfer of the LLC interest to the trust.

The IRS assessed the husband a $1,154,000 gift tax deficiency, which was subsequently held up by the tax court. What was wrong?

The IRS and the tax court found a number of red flags. For starters, the wife held her LLC interest for only one day, before transferring it to the trust.

In testimony before the court, the wife said she had committed to transferring the shares to the trust even before she received the assignment of the shares. She clearly stated that she would have not changed her mind about transferring the assets, which were to benefit her stepchildren. Her timing was too hasty, however.

The husband, who was in control of the LLC, neglected to amend the LLC documents to reflect his wife’s owning an interest in the LLC. As a result, she was never recognized formally as a member of the LLC. The LLC documents made a clear distinction between the roles and duties of an assignee and a member. He executed the assignment of the interest, but she never became a member of the LLC.

The tax court also found a number of the corporate documents simply unbelievable. Several were undated. Others had an “effective date,” but lacked the date of signing.

One could say the IRS was being picky, but the IRS doesn’t have the ability to disregard documents, for two reasons. One is the doctrine of the tax court known as “substance over form.” The substance of a transaction, rather than the form it is presented in, determines the tax determination. The second is something families need to take seriously: when transactions involve family members, the IRS uses a fine-tooth comb to be sure transactions are legitimate.

When estate planning entities are created and transactions take place, consistency in actions is needed to demonstrate intent. All of the rules and practices must be followed, and when family members are involved, those involved must go above and beyond to avoid any appearance of impropriety.

An estate planning attorney with experience in creating LLCs, transferring interests and procedures required by the IRS, does more than create documents. He or she educates clients and explain how the transactions should be carried out to ensure that proper procedures are being followed. In this case, the mistakes far outweighed any benefits from the transaction.

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (Dec. 19, 2021) “The Smaldino case: Tax court opinion leads to estate planning angst”

Why Naming Beneficiaries Is Important to Your Estate Plan

For the loved ones of people who neglect to update the beneficiaries on their estate plan and assets with the option of naming beneficiaries, the cost in time, money and emotional stress is quite high, says the recent article “Five Mistakes To Avoid When Naming Beneficiaries” from The Chattanoogan.

The biggest mistake is failing to name a beneficiary on all of your accounts, including retirement, investment and bank accounts as well as insurance policies. What happens if you fail to name a beneficiary? Assets in the accounts and proceeds from life insurance policies will automatically become part of your estate.

Any planning you’ve done with your estate planning attorney to avoid probate will be undercut by having all of these assets go through probate. Beneficiaries may not see their inheritance for months, versus receiving access to the assets much sooner. It’s even worse for retirement accounts like IRAs. Any ability your heir might have had to withdraw assets over time will be lost.

Next is forgetting to name a contingency beneficiary. Most people name their spouse, an adult child, or a sibling as their primary beneficiary. However, if the primary beneficiary should predecease you and there is no contingency beneficiary, it is as if you didn’t have a beneficiary at all.

Having a contingency beneficiary has another benefit: the primary beneficiary has the option to execute a qualified disclaimer, so some assets may be passed along to the next-in-line heir. Let’s say your spouse doesn’t need the money or doesn’t want to take it because of tax implications. Someone else in the family can more easily receive the assets.

Naming beneficiaries without taking care to use their proper legal name or identify the person with specificity has led to more surprises than you can imagine. If there are three generations of Geoffrey Paddingtons in the family and the only name on the document is Geoffrey Paddington, who will receive the inheritance? Use the person’s full name, their relationship to you (“child,” “cousin,” etc.) and if the document requires a Social Security number for identification, use it.

When was the last time you reviewed beneficiary documents? The only time many people look at these documents is when they open the account, start a new job, or buy an insurance policy. Every few years, around the same time you review your estate plan, you should gather all of your financial and insurance documents and make sure the same people named two decades ago are still the ones you want to receive your assets on death.

Finally, talk with loved ones about your legacy and your wishes. Let them know that an estate plan exists and you’ve given time and thought to what you want to happen when you die. There’s no need to give exact amounts. However, a bird’s eye view of your plan will help establish expectations.

If naming beneficiaries is challenging because of a complex situation, your estate planning attorney will be able to help as a sounding board or with estate planning strategies to accomplish your goals.

Reference: The Chattanoogan (Dec. 6, 2021) “Five Mistakes To Avoid When Naming Beneficiaries”