What Not to Do when Creating an Estate Plan

Having a good estate plan is critical to ensure that your family is well taken care of after you are gone. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney remains the best way to be sure that your assets are distributed as you want and in the most tax-efficient way possible. A recent article titled “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid” from Urology Times looks at the fine points.

An out-of-date estate plan. Life is all about change. Your estate plan needs to reflect those changes. Just as you prepare taxes every year, your estate plan should be reviewed every year. Here are trigger events that should also spur a review:

  • Parents die and can no longer be beneficiaries or guardians of minor children.
  • Children marry or divorce or have children of their own.
  • Your own remarriage or divorce.
  • A significant change in your asset levels, good or bad.
  • Buying or selling real estate or other large transactions.

Neglecting to update an estate plan correctly. Scratching out a provision in a will and initialing it does not make the change valid. This never works, no matter what your know-it-all brother-in-law says. If you want to make a change, visit an estate planning attorney.

Relying on joint tenancy to avoid probate. When you bought your home, someone probably advised you to title the home using joint tenancy to avoid probate. That only works when the first spouse dies. When the surviving spouse dies, they own the home entirely. The home goes through probate.

Failing to coordinate your will and trusts. All your wills and trusts and any other estate planning documents need to be reviewed to be sure they work together. If you create a trust and transfer assets to it, but your will states that the asset now held in the trust should be gifted to a nephew, then you’ve opened the door to delays, family dissent and possibly litigation.

Not titling assets correctly. How assets are titled reflects their ownership. If your home, bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, vehicles and other properties are titled properly, you’ve done your homework. Next, check on beneficiary designations for any asset. Beneficiary designations allow assets to pass directly to the beneficiary. Review these designations annually. If your will says one thing and the beneficiary designation says another, the beneficiary designation wins.

Not naming successor or contingent beneficiaries. If you’ve named a beneficiary on an account—such as your life insurance—and the beneficiary dies, the proceeds could go to your estate and become taxable. Naming an alternate and successor for all the key roles in your estate plan, including beneficiaries, trustees and guardians, offers another layer of certainty to your estate plan.

Neglecting to address health care directives. It may be easier to decide who gets the family vacation home than who will decide to keep you on or take you off life-support systems. However, this is necessary to protect your wishes and prevent family disasters. Health care proxy, advance care directive and end-of-life planning documents tell your loved ones what your wishes are. Without them, the family may be left guessing what to do.

Forgetting to update Power of Attorney. Review this critical document to be sure of two things: the person you named to manage your affairs is still the person you want, and the documents are relatively recent. Some financial institutions balk at older POA forms, and others will outright refuse to accept them. Some states, like New York, have changed POA rules to make it harder for POAs to be denied, but in other states there still can be problems, if the POA is old.

Reference: Urology Times (July 29, 2021) “Estate Planning mistakes to avoid”

Checklist for Estate Plan’s Success

We know why estate planning for your assets, family and legacy falls through the cracks. It’s not the thing a new parent wants to think about while cuddling a newborn, or a grandparent wants to think about as they prepare for a family get-together. However, this is an important thing to take care of, advises a recent article from Kiplinger titled “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?

Every four years, or every time a trigger event occurs—birth, death, marriage, divorce, relocation—the estate plan needs to be reviewed. Reviewing an estate plan is a relatively straightforward matter and neglecting it could lead to undoing strategic tax plans and unnecessary costs.

Moving to a new state? Estate laws are different from state to state, so what works in one state may not be considered valid in another. You’ll also want to update your address, and make sure that family and advisors know where your last will can be found in your new home.

Changes in the law. The last five years have seen an inordinate number of changes to laws that impact retirement accounts and taxes. One big example is the SECURE Act, which eliminated the Stretch IRA, requiring heirs to empty inherited IRA accounts in ten years, instead of over their lifetimes. A strategy that worked great a few years ago no longer works. However, there are other means of protecting your heirs and retirement accounts.

Do you have a Power of Attorney? A POA gives a person you authorize the ability to manage your financial, business, personal and legal affairs, if you become incapacitated. If the POA is old, a bank or investment company may balk at allowing your representative to act on your behalf. If you have one, make sure it’s up to date and the person you named is still the person you want. If you need to make a change, it’s very important that you put it in writing and notify the proper parties.

Health Care Power of Attorney needs to be updated as well. Marriage does not automatically authorize your spouse to speak with doctors, obtain medical records or make medical decisions on your behalf. If you have strong opinions about what procedures you do and do not want, the Health Care POA can document your wishes.

Last Will and Testament is Essential. Your last will needs regular review throughout your lifetime. Has the person you named as an executor four years ago remained in your life, or moved to another state? A last will also names an executor for your property and a guardian for minor children. It also needs to have trust provisions to pay for your children’s upbringing and to protect their inheritance.

Speaking of Trusts. If your estate plan includes trusts, review trustee and successor appointments to be sure they are still appropriate. You should also check on estate and inheritance taxes to ensure that the estate will be able to cover these costs. If you have an irrevocable trust, confirm that the trustee is still ready and able to carry out the duties, including administration, management and tax returns.

Gifting in the Estate Plan. Laws concerning charitable giving also change, so be sure your gifting strategies are still appropriate for your estate. An estate plan review is also a good time to review the organizations you wish to support.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 28, 2021) “2021 Estate Planning Checkup: Is Your Estate Plan Up to Date?

Do You Need a Revocable Trust or Irrevocable Trust?

There are important differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts. One of the biggest differences is the amount of control you have over assets, as explained in the article “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust” from Kiplinger. A revocable trust is often referred to as the Swiss Army knife of estate planning because it has so many different uses. The irrevocable trust is also a multi-use tool, only different.

Trusts are legal entities that own assets like real estate, investment accounts, cars, life insurance and high value personal belongings, like jewelry or art. Ownership of the asset is transferred to the trust, typically by changing the title of ownership. The trust documents also contain directions regarding what should happen to the asset when you die.

There are three key parties to any trust: the grantor, the person creating and depositing assets into the trust; the beneficiary, who will receive the trust assets and income; and the trustee, who is in charge of the trust, files tax returns as needed and distributes assets according to the terms of the trust. One person can hold different roles. The grantor could set up a trust and also be a trustee and even the beneficiary while living. The executor of a will can also be a trustee or a successor trustee.

If the trust is revocable, the grantor has the option of amending or revoking the trust at any time. A different trustee or beneficiary can be named, and the terms of the trust may be changed. Assets can also be taken back from a revocable trust. Pre-tax retirement funds, like a 401(k) cannot be placed inside a trust, since the transfer would require the trust to become the owner of these accounts. The IRS would consider that to be a taxable withdrawal.

There isn’t much difference between owning the assets yourself and a revocable trust. Assets still count as part of your estate and are not sheltered from estate taxes or creditors. However, you have complete control of the assets and the trust. So why have one? The transition of ownership if something happens to you is easier. If you become incapacitated, a successor trustee can take over management of trust assets. This may be easier than relying on a Power of Attorney form and some believe it offers more legal authority, allowing family members to manage assets and pay bills.

In addition, assets in a trust don’t go through probate, so the transfer of property after you die to heirs is easier. If you own homes in multiple states, heirs will receive their inheritance faster than if the homes must go through probate in multiple states. Any property in your revocable trust is not in your will, so ownership and transfer status remain private.

An irrevocable trust is harder to change, as befits its name. To change an irrevocable trust while you are living takes a little more effort but is not impossible. Consent of all parties involved, including the beneficiary and trustee, must be obtained. The benefits from the irrevocable trust make the effort worthwhile. By giving up control, assets in the irrevocable trust may not be part of your taxable estate. While today’s federal estate exemption is historically high right now, it’s expected to go much lower in the future.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 14, 2021) “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust”

Are 529 Plans Part of Your Estate?

Estate planning attorneys, accountants and CPAs say that 529s are more than good ways to save for college. They’re also highly flexible estate planning tools, useful far beyond education spending, that cost practically nothing to set up. In the very near future, the role of 529s could expand greatly, according to the article “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them” from Barron’s.

Most tactics to reduce the size of an estate are irrevocable and cannot be undone, but the 529 allows you to change the beneficiaries of a 529 account. Even the owners can be changed multiple times. Here’s how they work, and why they deserve more attention.

The 529 is funded with after tax dollars, and all money taken out of the account, including investment gains, is tax fre,e as long as it is spent on qualified education expenses. That includes tuition, room and board and books. What about money used for non-qualified expenses? Income taxes are due, plus a 10% penalty. Only the original contribution is not taxed, if used for non-qualified expenses.

Most states have their own 529 plans, but you can use a plan from any state. Check to see if there are tax advantages from using your state’s plan and know the details before you open an account and start making contributions.

Each 529 account owner must designate a single beneficiary, but money can be moved between beneficiaries, as long as they are in the same family. You can move money that was in a child’s account into their own child’s account, with no taxes, as long as you don’t hit gift tax exclusion levels.

In most states, you can contribute up to $15,000 per beneficiary to a 529 plan. However, each account owner can also pay up to five years’ worth of contributions without triggering gift taxes. A couple together may contribute up to $150,000 per beneficiary, and they can do it for multiple people.

There are no limits to the number of 529s a person may own. If you’re blessed with ten grandchildren, you can open a 529 account for each one of them.

For one family with eight grandchildren, plus one child in graduate school, contributions were made of $1.35 million to various 529 plans. By doing this, their estate, valued at $13 million, was reduced below the federal tax exclusion limit of $11.7 million per person.

Think of the money as a family education endowment. If it’s needed for a crisis, it can be accessed, even though taxes will need to be paid.

To create a 529 that will last for multiple generations, provisions need to be made to transfer ownership. Funding 529 plans for grandchildren’s education must be accompanied by designating their parents—the adult children—as successor owners, when the grandparents die or become incapacitated.

The use of 529s has changed over the years. Originally only for college tuition, room and board, today they can be used for private elementary school or high school. They can also be used to take cooking classes, language classes or career training at accredited institutions. Be mindful that some expenses will not qualify—including transportation costs, healthcare and personal expenses.

Reference: Barron’s (May 29, 2021) “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them”

Just What Does an Executor Do?

Spending the least amount of time possible contemplating your death is what most people try to do. However, one part of the estate planning process needs time and reflection: deciding who should serve in important roles, including executor. Whatever the size of your estate, the people you name have jobs that will impact your life and your family’s future, says a recent article “How to get it right when naming an executor and filling other key roles in your estate plan” from CNBC. A quick decision now might have a bad outcome later.

First, let’s look at the executor. They are responsible for everything from filing your last will with the court to paying off debts, closing accounts and making sure that assets in your probate estate are distributed according to the directions in your last will. They need to be trustworthy, organized and able to manage financial decisions. They also need to be available to handle your estate, in addition to their other responsibilities.

Note that some of your assets, including retirement tax deferred accounts, life insurance proceeds and any other assets with a named beneficiary, will pass outside of your probate estate. These assets need to be identified and the custodian needs to be notified so the heir can receive the asset.

Settling an estate takes an average of 16 months, with smaller estates being settled more quickly. Larger estates, worth more than $5 million and up, can take as long as four years to settle.

Some people prefer to name co-executors as a means of spreading out the responsibilities. That ix fine, unless the two people have a history of not getting along, as is the case with many siblings. Sharing the duties sounds like a good idea, but it can lead to delays if the two don’t agree or can’t coordinate their estate tasks. Many estate planning attorneys recommend naming one person as the executor and a second as the contingency executor, in case the first cannot serve or decides he or she does not want to take on the responsibilities. The same applies to any trustees, if your estate plan includes a trust.

Make sure the people you are considering as executor, contingent executor, trustee or success or trustee are willing to take on these roles. If there is no one in your life who can take on these tasks, an option is to name an estate planning attorney, accountant, or trust company.

Another important role in your estate plan is the Power of Attorney. You’ll want one for financial decisions and another for healthcare decisions. They can be the same person or different people. Understand that the financial Power of Attorney will have complete control over your assets, including accounts, real estate, and personal property, if you are too incapacitated to make decisions or to communicate your wishes.

The healthcare Power of Attorney will be making medical decisions on your behalf. You will want to name a person you trust to carry out your wishes—even if they are not the same ones they would want, or if your family opposes your wishes. It’s not an easy task, so be sure to create a Living Will to express your wishes, if you are placed on life support or suffer from a terminal condition. This will help your healthcare Power of Attorney follow your wishes.

Finally, revisit your estate plan every three to five years. Life changes, laws change and your estate plan should continue to reflect your wishes. The lives of the people in key roles change, so the same person who was ready to serve as your executor today may not be five years from now. Confirm their willingness to serve every time you review your last will, just to be sure.

Reference: CNBC (March 5, 2021) “How to get it right when naming an executor and filling other key roles in your estate plan”

Is it Better to Have a Living Will or a Living Trust?

A living will and a living trust are part of an estate plan that achieves the goals of protecting you while you are living and your loved ones when you have passed. You may need both, but before you make any decision, first know what they are, says the article “Living Will vs. Living Trust” from Yahoo! Finance.

A living will is a legal document used in healthcare decision making. It offers a way for you to provide in exact terms what kind of medical care and treatment you want to receive in end-of-life situations. They are not fun to contemplate, but the alternative is leaving your spouse or children guessing what you would want and living with the consequences. By having a living will prepared properly with your estate planning attorney (to ensure that it is valid), you tell your loved ones what you want. They will not be left guessing or fighting among each other. The treating physicians will also know what you want.

This is different from an advance healthcare directive, which also deals with medical situation but from a different angle. The advance healthcare directive is used to name an agent who will act on your behalf to make medical decisions. It is used in situations other than end-of-life care. Let’s say you are incapacitated by an illness. That person is authorized to make medical care decisions on your behalf.

A trust is a legal entity that lets you transfer assets to the ownership of a trustee and has little to do with your healthcare. The trustee is a person named to be in charge of the trust. He is considered a fiduciary, a legal standard requiring him to put the interest of the trust above his own. A living trust is one of many different kinds of trusts.

Living trusts are also known as “inter vivos” trusts and take effect while you are alive. You (the grantor) are permitted to serve as your own trustee. You should name one or more successor trustees, who can take over just in case something happens to you. You can also name someone else to be the trustee. That is usually a trusted person or a financial institution.

Living trusts may be revocable or irrevocable. When they are revocable, assets transferred to the trust can be moved in and out of the trust as you like, as long as you are alive. You can add assets, remove assets, change the named beneficiaries, or even change the terms of how the assets are managed.

An irrevocable trust is just as it sounds—once it’s created and funded, those assets are permanently inside the trust. There are some states that permit “decanting” of a trust, that is, moving the assets inside a trust to another trust. Your estate planning attorney will know if that is an option for you.

So, do you need a living will or a living trust? You probably need both. The living will deals with your healthcare, while the living trust is all about your assets. Do you need a trust? Most estates will benefit from some kind of a trust. Depending on the type of trust, it may let you protect assets against creditors, give you control postmortem of how and when (or if!) your beneficiaries receive their inheritance, and removes the assets from your taxable estate. Both are important tools in a comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Feb. 18, 2021) “Living Will vs. Living Trust”

Preparing for an Estate Planning Meeting

Preparing to meet with an estate planning attorney for the first time is an opportunity to get organized and think about your wishes for the future. If you meet with your accountant every year to prepare tax returns, this may be a familiar process. It’s a chance to step away from day-to-day activities and focus on your life, as described in a recent article “Preparing for an Estate Planning Consultation: 10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney” from The National Law Journal.

Minor Children Need Guardians and Conservators. In most states, families with minor children need a last will to designate one or more guardians to raise the children in the event both parents die. A successor should be named in case the first named guardian is unable or unwilling to serve. Discuss your decision with the people you are naming; don’t leave this as a surprise. Choosing these people is a hard decision. However, don’t let it be a reason to delay creating your estate plan. It’s better that you name a guardian, rather than let the court make that decision.

Agents, Trustees, and Power of Attorney. With a Durable Power of Attorney, your assets can be managed by a named agent, if you become incapacitated. The person who manages your estate after death is the executor. They are named in your last will. If you have trusts, the documents that create the trust also name the trustees. It is possible for one person to act as a fiduciary for all of these roles, although the tasks can be divided.

Living Will and Patient Advocate Designation. If you are incapacitated, a Patient Advocate can make medical decisions on your behalf, including following the instructions of your Living Will.

Personal Property. Any items of personal property, whether their value is sentimental or monetary, should be specified in the will. A list of items and who you want to receive what, may spare your heirs from squabbles over your personal effects, large or small. If you own a business or real estate, they also need to be addressed in your will.

Charitable Donations. If you are charitably minded, your will is one way to make bequests and build a lasting legacy. Charitable donations can also be made to gain tax benefits for heirs.

Beneficiary Distributions. The beneficiary designation is the unsung hero of the estate plan. By managing beneficiary designations while you are living—updating beneficiary designations, assigning beneficiary designations to all accounts possible—you take assets out of your probate estate and smooth the asset distribution process. However, there are some wrinkles to consider.

Minor children may not receive assets until they become of age—18 in most cases. Do you want your children (or nieces or grandchildren) to receive an inheritance, while they are still in their teens? Proper estate planning includes trusts created, so a responsible adult can manage the trust on their behalf. Your trust can also be structured so the money may only be used for college expenses, or when the children reach certain ages.

Surviving Pets. You can plan for your pet’s care, if you pass away or become incapacitated before they die. Most states permit the creation of a pet trust, an enforceable means of providing assets to be used for the care and well-being of your pet.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to provide you with a list of the documents she will need to get started on your estate plan, but these are the major issues that you will be discussing at your first meeting.

Reference: The National Law Journal (Feb. 23, 2021) “Preparing for an Estate Planning Consultation: 10 Items to Consider Before Meeting Your Attorney”

Is an Irrevocable Trust a Good Idea?
Writing note shows the text irrevocable life insurance trust ILIT

Is an Irrevocable Trust a Good Idea?

An irrevocable trust is mainly used for tax planning, says a recent article from Think Advisor titled “10 Facts to Know About Irrevocable Trusts.” Its key purpose is to take assets out of an estate, reducing the chances of having to pay estate taxes. For estate planning purposes, placing assets inside the irrevocable trust is the same as giving it to an heir. If the estate exceeds the current limit of $11.7 million, then an irrevocable trust would be a smart move. Remember the $11.7 million includes life insurance policy proceeds. Many states with estate taxes also have far lower exemptions than the federal estate tax, so high income families still have to be concerned with paying estate taxes.

However, let’s not forget that beneficiaries must pay taxes on the income they receive from an irrevocable trust, usually at ordinary income tax rates. On the plus side, trusts are not subject to gift tax, so the trust can pay out more than the current gift tax limit of $15,000 every year.

If the trust itself generates income that remains inside the trust, then the trust will have to pay income taxes on the income.

Asset protection is another benefit from an irrevocable trust. If you are sued, any assets in the irrevocable trust are beyond the reach of a legal judgment, a worthwhile strategy for people who have a greater likelihood of being sued because of their profession. However, the irrevocable trust must be created long before lawsuits are filed.

A physician who transfers a million-dollar home into the trust on the eve of a malpractice lawsuit, for instance, may be challenged with having made a fraudulent transfer to the trust.

There is a cost to an irrevocable trust’s protection. You have to give up control of the assets and have no control over the trust. Legally you could be a trustee, but that means you have control over the trust, which means you will lose all tax benefits and asset protections.

Most people name a trusted family member or business associate to serve as the trustee. Consider naming a successor trustee, in case the original trustee is unable to fulfill their duties.

If you don’t want to give someone else control of your assets, you may wish to use a revocable trust and give up some of the protections of an irrevocable trust.

Despite the name, changes can be made to an irrevocable trust by the trustee. Trust documents can designate a “trust protector,” who is empowered to make certain changes to the trust. Many states have regulations concerning changes to the administrative aspects of a trust, and a court has the power to make changes to a trust.

An irrevocable trust can buy and sell property. If a house is placed into the irrevocable trust, the house can be sold, as long as the proceeds go into the trust. The trust is responsible for paying taxes on any profits from the sale. However, you can request that the trustee use the proceeds from selling a house to buy a different house. Be sure the new house is titled correctly: owned by the trust, and not you.

Asset swaps may be used to change irrevocable trusts. Let’s say you want to buy back an asset from the trust, but don’t want that asset to go back into your estate when you die. There are tax advantages for doing this. If the trust holds an asset that has become highly appreciated, swap cash for the asset and the basis on which the asset’s capital gains is calculated gets reset to its fair value, eliminating any capital gains on a later sale of the asset.

Loss of control is part of the irrevocable trust downside. Make sure that you have enough assets to live on before putting everything into the trust. You can’t sell assets in the trust to produce personal income.

Transferring assets to an irrevocable trust helps maintain eligibility for means-tested government programs, like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income. Assets and income sheltered within an irrevocable trust are not counted as personal assets for these kinds of program limits. However, Medicaid has a look-back period of five years, so the transfer of a substantial asset to an irrevocable trust must have taken place five years before applying for Medicaid.

Talk with your estate planning attorney first. Not every irrevocable trust satisfies each of these goals. It is also possible that an irrevocable trust may not fit your needs. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to create a plan that suits your needs best for tax planning, asset protection and legacy building.

Reference: Think Advisor (Dec. 16, 2020) “10 Facts to Know About Irrevocable Trusts”