Estate Planning Tips for Solo Seniors

The people who typically think the most about estate planning are those in a traditional nuclear family unit, with spouses, adult children, grandchildren and a clear idea of how they want to pass along assets and who can be trusted to carry out their wishes. It’s easier to plan ahead, reports a recent article titled “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own” from The Sentinel, when the right person to put in charge is easy to identify.

When more and more families do not fall into the traditional nuclear family unit, how should they proceed with estate planning?

This can be a challenging scenario, especially if the person is not married and has no children. It’s hard to know who to name for important roles, like who will take charge if the person becomes ill or dies.

Some single people may think it doesn’t matter, because they don’t care about who inherits their possessions. However, estate planning is not just about distributing property. Planning for incapacity may be the most important part of estate planning—making legally enforceable decisions about medical care, end-of-life care and managing the business aspect of your life if you are incapacitated.

Two of the most important documents for a person who cannot speak for themselves are a Financial Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These are the critical documents giving the person you designate the ability to manage your affairs and be involved in your medical care.

Without them, someone will need to take over for you. Who will it be? The process begins in the court, with a legal proceeding called guardianship. There are any number of reasons to avoid this. First, it takes a long time and any actions or decisions requiring a legal guardian will not be made with any speed. Second, guardianships are expensive. The process of having a guardian named and the fees paid to the guardian will be paid by you, whether you are conscious or not. While many people who act as guardians for others are trustworthy and kind-hearted, there are many horror stories—including several true stories made into movies—where guardians are more focused on enriching themselves than their ward’s best interests.

Guardianship can be easily avoided. Meeting with an estate planning attorney to prepare your last will and testament, Power of Attorney and Power of Health Care Attorney gives you control over who will be in charge of your life if you are incapacitated. Having these documents properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney ensures that you can be admitted to a hospital or facility offering the care you need, your bills will be paid and if your situation requires filing for long-term care benefits or disability, someone can do it for you.

If you don’t have a spouse or children, you probably have a healthy network of friends and extended family members you trust and are your “family by choice.” If you don’t feel these people are trustworthy or capable, think further afield—someone from your community, a neighbor who you respect and trust, etc.

If possible, name a few people in succession (your estate planning attorney will know how to do this) so if one person cannot serve, then there will be a next-in-line to help.

The next step is to speak with these individuals and explain what you are asking them to do. They need to be comfortable with the responsibility you’re asking them to undertake. You’ll also want to tell them your wishes, perhaps drafting a letter of intent, so they will know what to do in different circumstances. Make sure they know where these documents are located, so they can find them easily.

Once your estate plan is in place, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, knowing the future is taken care of.

Reference: The Sentinel (June 17, 2022) “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own”

Can a Vacation Home Be Kept in the Family for Generations?

Many family traditions include gatherings at vacation homes. However, leaving these properties to the next generation is not always in the best interest of the family. Some people try to make a simple solution work for a complex problem, leading to more challenges, as explained in the article “Succession planning for the family lakehouse” from NH Business Review.

Joint ownership among siblings can lead to disputes about how the home is used, operated and maintained. Some children want to continue using the house, while others may see it as an income stream for a rental property. There may be siblings who cannot afford to participate in the house’s upkeep and need the cash more than the tradition. When joint ownership is presented as a surprise in a will, the adult children may find themselves fighting about the vacation home, with no parent around to tell them to knock it off.

Making matters more complicated, if the siblings live in different states and the house is in a neighboring state, ownership of the real estate at death may subject the decedent’s estate to estate taxes where the property is located. As a result, the property may need to go through probate in an additional state. Every state has its own tax rules, so the transfer of joint property will have to be analyzed by an estate planning attorney knowledgeable about the laws in each state involved.

A sensible alternative is creating a Limited Liability Corporation, ideally while the original owners—the parents—are still living. The organizational documents include a certificate of organization to file with the Secretary of State and an operating agreement. The LLC will need its own taxpayer identification number, or EIN.

The operating agreement governs the management of the property and addresses the operating expenses and maintenance of the property. It should also address the process for a child to cash in on their ownership to other children. LLC operating agreements often include these items:

  • Responsibilities for operating expenses
  • Process to transfer member units or interests
  • Duties for regular maintenance, budgeting and approval of property improvements
  • Development of a property use schedule
  • Establishing rules for the home’s use

There are some costs associated with creating an LLC, including annual filing requirements. However, these will be small, when compared to the cost of family fights and untangling joint ownership.

An LLC can also offer personal liability protection from lawsuits brought by renters, creditors, or any litigants. If there is an accident resulting from work being done on the property, the owners may be shielded from the liability because they do not personally own the property, the LLC does.

In the case of divorce, bankruptcy filing, or a large judgement being filed against one of the children, the LLC will protect their interest in the property.

The real estate owned by the LLC is not part of the owner’s probate estate. This avoids the need for a second probate in the state where the property is located. Some states have adopted the Uniform Transfer on Death Security Registration Act, and the LLC membership interest can be assigned along to the terms of the beneficiary designation.

Planning for what will happen to a vacation home after death provides peace of mind for all in the family. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that the property and the family’s peace is preserved.

Reference: NH Business Review (March 23, 2022) “Succession planning for the family lakehouse”

What Is Family Business Succession Planning?

The importance of the family business in the U.S. can’t be overstated. Neither can the problems that occur as a direct result of a failure to plan for succession. Business succession planning is the development of a plan for determining when an owner will retire, what position in the company they will hold when they retire, who the eventual owners of the company will be and under what rules the new owners will operate, instructs a recent article, “Succession planning for family businesses” from The Times Reporter. An estate planning attorney plays a pivotal role in creating the plan, as the sale of the business will be a major factor in the family’s wealth and legacy.

  • Start by determining who will buy the business. Will it be a long-standing employee, partners, or family members?
  • Next, develop an advisory team of internal employees, your estate planning attorney, CPA, financial advisor and insurance agent.
  • Have a financial evaluation of the business prepared by a qualified and accredited valuation professional.
  • Consider taxes (income, estate and gift taxes) and income requirements to sustain the owner’s current lifestyle, if the business is being sold outright.
  • Review estate planning strategies to reduce income and estate tax liabilities.
  • Examine the financial impact of the sale on the family member, if a non-family member buys the business.
  • Develop the structure of the sale.
  • Create a timeline.
  • Get started on all of the legal and financial documents.
  • Meet with the family and/or the new owner on a regular basis to ensure a smooth transition.

Selling a business to the next generation or a new owner is an emotional decision, which is at the heart of most business owner’s utter failure to create a plan. The sale forces them to confront the end of their role in the business, which they likely consider their life’s work. It also requires making decisions that involve family members that may be painful to confront.

The alternative is far worse for all concerned. If there is no plan, chances are the business will not survive. Without leadership and a clear path to the future, the owner may witness the destruction of their life’s work and a squandered legacy.

Speak with your estate planning attorney and your accountant, who will have had experience helping business owners create and execute a succession plan. Talking about such a plan with family members can often create an emotional response. Working with professionals who benefit from a lack of emotional connection to the business will help the process be less about feelings and more about business.

Reference: The Times Reporter (March 7, 2021) “Succession planning for family businesses”

Estate Planning Different for Business Owners and Top-Level Executives

Do you need an estate plan? If you have children, ownership shares in a business, or even in more than one business, a desire to protect your family and business if you became disabled, or charitable giving goals, then you need an estate plan. The recent article “Estate planning for business owners and executives” from The Wealth Advisor explains why business owners, parents and executives need estate plans.

An estate plan is more than a way to distribute wealth. It can also:

  • Establish a Power of Attorney, if you can’t make decisions due to an illness or injury.
  • Identify a guardianship plan for minor children, naming a caregiver of your choice.
  • Ensure that assets are controlled through beneficiary designations rather than simply through a will and pass privately when owned through trusts. This includes retirement plans, life insurance, annuities and some jointly owned property.
  • Create trusts for beneficiaries who are younger, disabled, or others you feel need some kind of protection.
  • Identify professional management for assets in those trusts.
  • Minimize taxes and maximize privacy through the use of planning techniques.
  • Create a structure for your philanthropic goals.

An estate plan ensures that fiduciaries are identified to oversee and distribute assets as you want. Business owners, in particular, need estate plans to manage ownership assets, which requires more sophisticated planning. Ideally, you have a management and ownership succession plan for your business, and both should be well-documented and integrated with your overall estate plan.

Some business owners choose to separate their Power of Attorney documents, so one person or more who know their business well, as well as the POA holder or co-POA, are able to make decisions about the business, while family members are appointed POA for non-business decisions.

Depending on how your business is structured, the post-death transfer of the business may need to be a part of your estate plan. A current buy-sell agreement may be needed, especially if there are more than two owners of the business.

An estate plan, like a succession plan, is not a set-it-and-forget it document. Regular reviews will ensure that any changes are documented, from the size of your overall estate to the people you choose to make key decisions.

Reference: The Wealth Advisor (July 28, 2020) “Estate planning for business owners and executives”

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”

Succession Planning for Family Owned Farms

Succession planning is not thought of as fun, simple, or quick. That’s true. A recent article from Ag Web puts it clearly: “Succession Planning Takes Leadership.” It also takes time, knowledge and the guidance from smart professionals, including estate planning attorneys, financial advisors and accountants. Let’s look at these four important elements.

Clarity. Transitioning leaders need to answer a few questions. What do they want for themselves, for their operation and what do stakeholders want? Developing a successful plan by guessing what other family members want, rather than asking them directly can undo good planning. Having private conversations with individual members of the family will lead to more honest answers.

Certainty. Many times, families are not in perfect harmony about what succession looks like, which can lead to some uncertainty. Family leaders must step up and be decisive, and their decisions may not be popular with everyone. However, if a leader lets someone else make decisions, the situation becomes murky and confusing.

Continuity. It can take two or five years to create a succession plan, depending on the complexity of the operation and the number of family members involved. The actual succession itself can take ten years to unwind, depending on the time horizon for the transitioning leadership. A big problem for any process that takes so long, is the loss of focus and momentum. Your team of professionals should be able to help mitigate this challenge.

Communication. A strategy for communication needs to be built into the succession plan, although it is often overlooked. Develop a timeline and establish when you will communicate progress and/or milestones to stakeholders. Your professional team may be needed to help with both the timeline and the communication strategy. Family members need to know what is happening, even when it seems like nothing big is occurring.

With strong leadership in each of these four factors, the succession plan is more likely to succeed. With less stress and an increased level of trust and clear communication, the family will work together to achieve the leader’s goals.

Reference: Ag Web (December 5, 2019) “Succession Planning Takes Leadership”