The Risks of Creating Your Own Estate Plan
Living trust and estate planning form on a desk.

The Risks of Creating Your Own Estate Plan

We call it the brother-in-law syndrome: your brother-in-law knows everything, even though he doesn’t. He tells anyone who’ll listen how much money he’s saved by doing things himself. Sadly, it’s the family who has to make things right after the do-it-yourself estate plan fails. This is the message from a recent article titled “Dangers of Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning” from Coastal Breeze News.

Online estate planning documents are dangerous for what they leave out. An estate plan prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney takes care of the individual while they are living, as well as taking care of distributing assets after they die. Many online forms are available. However, they are often limited to wills, and an estate plan is far more than a last will and testament.

An estate planning attorney knows you need a will, power of attorney, health care power of attorney, a living will and possibly trusts. These are essential protections needed but often overlooked by the do-it-yourselfer.

A Power of Attorney allows you to name a person to manage your personal affairs, if you are incapacitated. It allows your agent to handle your banking, investments, pay bills and take care of your property. There is no one-size-fits-all Power of Attorney. You may wish to give a spouse the power to take over most of your accounts. However, you might also want someone else to be in charge of selling your shares in a business. A Power of Attorney drafted by an estate planning attorney will be created to suit your unique needs. POAs also vary by state, so one purchased online may not be valid in your jurisdiction.

You also need a Health Care Power of Attorney or a Health Care Surrogate. This is a person named to make medical decisions for you, if you are too sick or injured to do so. These documents also vary by state,. There’s no guarantee that a general form will be accepted by a healthcare provider. An estate planning attorney will create a valid document.

A Living Will is, and should be, a very personalized document to reflect your wishes for end-of-life care. Some people don’t want any measures taken to keep them alive if they are in a vegetative state, for instance, while others want to be kept alive as long as there is evidence of brain activity. Using a standard form negates your ability to make your wishes known.

If the Power of Attorney, Health Care Power of Attorney or Living Will documents are not prepared properly, declared invalid or are missing, the family will need to go to court to obtain a guardianship, which is the legal right to make decisions on your behalf. Guardianships are expensive and intrusive. If your incapacity is temporary, you’ll need to undo the guardianship when you are recovered. Otherwise, you have no legal rights to conduct your own life.

DIYers are also fond of setting up property and accounts so they are Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) accounts. This only works if the beneficiaries outlive the original owner. If the beneficiary dies first, then the asset goes to the beneficiary’s children. Many financial institutions won’t actually allow certain accounts to be set up this way.

The other DIY disaster zone: real estate. Putting children on the title as owners with rights of survivorship sounds like a reasonable solution. However, if the children predecease the original owner, their children will be rightful owners. If one grandchild doesn’t want to sell the property and another grandchild does, things can turn ugly and expensive. If heirs of any generation have creditors, liens may be placed on the property and no sale can happen until the liens are satisfied.

With all of these sleight of hand attempts at DIY estate planning comes the end all of all problems: taxes.

When children are added to a title, it is considered a gift and the children’s ownership interest is taxed as if they bought into the property for what the parent spent. When the parent dies and the estate is settled, the children have to pay income taxes on the difference between their basis and what the property sells for. It is better if the children inherit the property, as they’d get a step-up in basis and avoid the income tax problem.

Finally, there’s the business of putting all the assets into one child’s name, with the handshake agreement they’ll do the right thing when the time comes. There’s no legal recourse if the child decides not to share according to the parent’s verbal agreement.

A far easier, less complicated answer is to make an appointment with an estate planning attorney, have the correct documents created properly and walk away when your brother-in-law starts talking.

Reference: Coastal Breeze News (Aug. 4, 2022) “Dangers of Do-It-Yourself Estate Planning”

What Assets are Not Considered Part of an Estate?

In many families, more assets pass outside the Last Will than through the Last Will. Think about non-probate assets: life insurance proceeds, investment accounts, jointly titled real estate assets, assuming they were titled as joint tenants with right of survivorship, and the like. These often add up to considerable sums, often more than the probate estate.

This is why a recent article from The Mercury titled “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets” strongly urges readers to pay close attention to accounts transferred by beneficiary.

Most retirement accounts like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s and others pass by beneficiary designation and not through the Last Will. Banks and investment accounts designated as Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) also do not pass through probate, but to the other person named on the account. Any property owned by a trust does not go through probate, one of the reasons it is placed in the trust.

Why is it important to know whether assets pass through probate or by beneficiary designation? Here’s an example. A man was promised half of this father’s estate. His dad had remarried, and the son didn’t know what estate plans had been made, if any, with the new spouse. When the father passed, the man received a single check for several thousand dollars. He knew his father’s estate was worth considerably more.

What is most likely to have happened is simple. The father probably retitled the house with his new spouse as tenants by the entireties–making it a non-probate asset. He probably retitled bank accounts with his new spouse. And if the father had a new Last Will created, he likely gave 50% to the son and 50% to the new spouse. The father’s car may have been the only asset not jointly owned with his new spouse.

A parent can also accidently disinherit an heir, if all of their non-probate assets are in one child’s name and no provision for the non-probate assets has been made for any other children. An estate planning attorney can work with the parents to find a way to make inheritances equal, if the intention is for all of the children to receive an equal share. One way to accomplish this would be to give the other children a larger share of probated assets.

Any division of inheritance should bear in mind the tax liability of assets. Non-probate does not always mean non-taxed. Depending upon the state of residence for the decedent and the heirs, there may be estate or inheritance tax on the assets.

Placing assets in an irrevocable trust is a commonly used estate planning method to ensure inheritances are received by the intended parties. The trust allows you to give very specific instructions about who gets what. Assets in the trust are outside of the probate estate, since the trust is not owned by the grantor.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to review probate and non-probate assets to determine the best way to achieve your wishes for your distribution of assets.

Reference: The Mercury (April 12, 2022) “Planning Ahead: Pay attention to your non-probate assets”

What Needs to Be Reviewed in Estate Plan?

When it comes to drafting a will and other estate planning documents, note that you probably should revisit them many times before they actually are needed, advises, CNBC’s recent article entitled “Be sure to keep your will or estate plan updated. Here are 3 key reasons why.”

You should give these end-of-life legal papers a review at least every few years, unless there are reasons to do it more often. Things like marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child should necessitate a review. Coming into a lot of money (i.e., inheritance, lottery win, etc.) or moving to another state where estate laws differ from the one where your will was drawn up, mean that you should review your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney.

About 46% of U.S. adults have a will, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. If you are among those who have a will or full-blown estate plan, here are some things to review and why.

Even though your will is all about you, there are other people you need to rely on to carry out your wishes. This makes it important to review who you have named to be executor. He or she must liquidate accounts, ensure your assets go to the proper beneficiaries, pay any debts not discharged (i.e., taxes owed), and sell your home. You should also be sure that the guardian you have named to care for your children is still the person you would want in that position.

As part of estate planning, you may create other documents related to end-of-life issues, such as powers of attorney. The person who is given this responsibility for decisions related to your health care is frequently different from whom you would name to handle your financial affairs. You should look at both of those choices.

Even if you have experienced no major life events, those you previously chose to handle certain duties may no longer be your best option.

Remember that some assets pass outside of the will, including retirement accounts like a 401(k) plan, IRAs and life insurance policies. This means the person named as a beneficiary on those accounts will generally receive the money no matter what your will states. Bank accounts can have beneficiaries listed on a pay-on-death form, which your bank can supply.

If a beneficiary is not listed on those non-will items or the named person has already passed away (and there is no contingent beneficiary listed), the assets automatically go into probate.

Reference: CNBC (Jan. 27, 2022) “Be sure to keep your will or estate plan updated. Here are 3 key reasons why”

Can I Avoid Probate?

If you have life insurance, lifetime survivor benefits, a home or other investments, who gets them and when depends on what you have done or should do: have an estate plan. This is how you legally protect your family and friends to be sure that they receive what you want after you die, says the article “How (and why) to avoid probate: A slap at your family!” from Federal News Network.

A common goal is to simplify your estate plan to make administering it as easy as possible for your loved ones. This usually involves structuring an estate plan to avoid probate, which can be time-consuming and, depending on where you live, add a considerable cost to settle your estate.

There are a number of ways to accomplish this through an estate plan, including jointly owned property, beneficiary designations and the use of trusts.

Many individuals hold property in joint names, also known as “tenant by the entirety” with a spouse. When one spouse dies, the other becomes the owner without probate. It should be noted that this supersedes the terms of a will or a trust.

Another type of joint ownership is “tenancy in common,” However, property held as tenants in common does not avoid probate. The distribution of property titled this way is governed by the will. If there is no will, the state’s estate laws will govern who receives the property on death of one of the owners.

Beware: property owned jointly is subject to any litigation or creditor issues of a joint owner. It can be risky.

Beneficiary designations are a seamless way to transfer property. This can take the form of a POD (payable on death) or TOD (transfer on death) account. Pensions, insurance policies and certain types of retirement accounts provide owners with the opportunity to name a beneficiary. Upon the death of the owner, the assets pass directly to the beneficiary. The asset is not subject to probate and the designations supersede the terms of a will or trust.

Review beneficiary designations every time you review your estate plan. If you opened a 401(k) account at your first job and have not reviewed the beneficiary designation in many years, you may be unwittingly giving someone you have not seen for years a nice surprise upon your passing.

If you own assets other than joint property or assets without beneficiary designation, an estate planning attorney can structure your estate plan to include trusts. A trust is a legal entity owning any property transferred into it. A trust can avoid probate and provide a great deal of control by the grantor as to what they want to happen to the property.

Reference: Federal News Network (March 30, 2022) “How (and why) to avoid probate: A slap at your family!”

Is Estate Planning Affected by Property in Two States?

Cleveland Jewish News’ recent article titled “Use attorney when considering multi-state estate plan says that if a person owns real estate or other tangible property (like a boat) in another state, they should think about creating a trust that can hold all their real estate. You don’t need one for each state. You can assign or deed their property to the trust, no matter where the property is located.

Some inherited assets require taxes be paid by the inheritors. Those taxes are determined by the laws of the state in which the asset is located.

A big mistake that people frequently make is not creating a trust. When a person fails to do this, their assets will go to probate. Some other common errors include improperly titling the property in their trust or failing to fund the trust. When those things occur, ancillary probate is required.  This means a probate estate needs to be opened in the other state. As a result, there may be two probate estates going on in two different states, which can mean twice the work and expense, as well as twice the stress.

Having two estates going through probate simultaneously in two different states can delay the time it takes to close the probate estate.

There are some other options besides using a trust to avoid filing an ancillary estate. Most states let an estate holder file a “transfer on death affidavit,” also known as a “transfer on death deed” or “beneficiary deed” when the asset is real estate. This permits property to go directly to a beneficiary without needing to go through probate.

A real estate owner may also avoid probate by appointing a co-owner with survivorship rights on the deed. Do not attempt this without consulting an attorney.

If you have real estate, like a second home, in another state (and) you die owning that individually, you’re going to have to probate that in the state where it’s located. It is usually best to avoid probate in multiple jurisdictions, and also to avoid probate altogether.

A co-owner with survivorship is an option for avoiding probate. If there’s no surviving spouse, or after the first one dies, you could transfer the estate to their revocable trust.

Each state has different requirements. If you’re going to move to another state or have property in another state, you should consult with a local estate planning attorney.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (March 21, 2022) “Use attorney when considering multi-state estate plan”

What Is Considered an Asset in an Estate?

Estate planning attorneys are often asked if a particular asset will be included in an estate, from life insurance and real estate to employment contracts and Health Savings Accounts. The answer is explored in the aptly-titled article, “Will It (My Home, My Life Insurance, Etc.) Be in My Estate?” from Kiplinger.

When you die, your estate is defined in different ways for different planning purposes. You have a gross estate for federal estate taxes. However, there’s also the probate estate. You may also be thinking of whether an asset is part of your estate to be passed onto heirs. It depends on which part of your estate you’re focusing on.

Let’s start with life insurance. You’ve purchased a policy for $500,000, with your son as the designated beneficiary. If you own the policy, the entire $500,000 death benefit will be included in your gross estate for federal estate tax purposes. If your estate is big enough ($12.06 million in 2022), the entire death benefit above the exemption is subject to a 40% federal estate tax.

However, if you want to know if the policy will be included in your probate estate, the answer is no. Proceeds from life insurance policies are not subject to probate, since the death benefit passes by contract directly to the beneficiaries.

Next, is the policy an estate asset available for heirs, creditors, taxing authorities, etc.? The answer is a little less clear. Since your son was named the designated beneficiary, your estate can’t use the proceeds to fulfill bequests made to others through your will. Even if you disowned your son since naming him on the policy and changed your will to pass your estate to other children, the life insurance policy is a contract. Therefore, the money is going to your son, unless you change this while you are still living.

However, there’s a little wrinkle here. Can the proceeds of the life insurance policy be diverted to pay creditors, taxes, or other estate obligations? Here the answer is, it depends. An example is if your son receives the money from the insurance company but your will directs that his share of the probate estate be reduced to reflect his share of costs associated with probate. If the estate doesn’t have enough assets to cover the cost of probate, he may need to tap the proceeds to pay his share.

Another aspect of figuring out what’s included in your estate depends upon where you live. In community property states—Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, New Mexico, Nevada, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin—assets are treated differently for estate tax purposes than in states with what’s known as “common law” for married couples. Also, in most states, real estate owned on a fee simple basis is simply transferred on death through the probate estate, while in other states, an alternative exists where a Transfer on Death (TOD) deed is used.

This legal jargon may be confusing, but it’s important to know, because if property is in your probate estate, expenses may vary from 2% to 6%, versus assets outside of probate, which have no expenses.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state of residence to know what assets are included in your federal estate, what are part of your probate estate and what taxes will be levied on your estate from the state or federal governments and don’t forget, some states have inheritance taxes your heirs will need to pay.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 13, 2021) “Will It (My Home, My Life Insurance, Etc.) Be in My Estate?”

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?”

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?”

Does a Beneficiary on a Bank Account Override a Will?

You’ve named beneficiaries to accounts many times already, when you opened an IRA, bought an insurance annuity, a life insurance policy, started an investment account, signed up for a pension or bought shares in a mutual fund. These are the accounts that come to mind when people think about beneficiary designations. However, according to a recent article in Forbes titled “Do You Need a Beneficiary for Your Bank Account?,” they are not the only financial instruments with beneficiary designations.

When you open a bank account, most retail banks don’t ask you to name a beneficiary, but it’s not because you can’t. If the bank allows beneficiaries on their accounts, it’s usually a pretty simple process. In most cases, you’ll be asked to fill out a form or go through the bank’s process online.

Banks don’t push for beneficiary accounts because they are not required to do so. However, this is a smart move and can be a helpful part of your estate plan. The biggest benefit: funds in the account will be distributed directly to the beneficiary upon your death. They won’t have to go through probate and won’t be part of your estate. Otherwise, whatever assets you keep in your bank accounts will be counted as part of your estate and subject to probate.

Probate is a court process to validate the will and the named executor, supervising the distribution of assets from your estate. In some cases, it can be complicated, take months to complete and depending on the size of your estate, be expensive. If the money in your bank accounts does not go to a beneficiary, it can be used to pay off estate debts instead of going straight to a beneficiary.

For married people, bank account funds are treated differently. Half of the balance goes to your spouse upon death, the rest goes through probate.

Naming a beneficiary is a better alternative. The beneficiary may collect the money immediately. They’ll need to go to the bank with an original or certified copy of a death certificate, required identification (usually a driver’s license) and the money is transferred to them.

If you are married and don’t live in a community property estate, a surviving spouse may be able to dispute the terms of a beneficiary arrangement, but that will take time.

Another means of transferring assets in a bank account is to change your accounts to POD, or Payable On Death accounts. There are other names: In Trust For (ITF), Totten Trust or Transfer on Death (TOD). The named beneficiary is referred to as the POD beneficiary.

There is considerable flexibility when naming a POD beneficiary. It may be a living person, or it can be an organization, including a nonprofit charity or other trusts. You are not allowed to name a non-living legal entity, like a corporation, limited liability company (LLC) or partnership.

Beneficiary designations override wills, so if you forget to change them, the person named will still receive the money, even if that was not your intent. You should review beneficiaries for all of your accounts every year or so. Divorce, death, marriages, births and any other lifetime events are also reasons to check on beneficiary designations.

Reference: Forbes (July 9, 2021) “Do You Need a Beneficiary for Your Bank Account?”