Common Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Estate planning attorneys see them all the time: the mistakes that people make when they try to create an estate plan or a will by themselves. They learn about it, when families come to their offices trying to correct mistakes that could have been avoided just by seeking legal advice in the first place. That’s the message from the article “Five big estate planning ‘don’ts’” from Dedham Wicked Local.

Here are the five estate planning mistakes that you can easily avoid:

Naming minors as beneficiaries. Beneficiary designations are a simple way to avoid probate and be certain that an asset goes to your beneficiary at death. Most life insurance policies, retirement accounts, investment accounts and other financial accounts permit you to name a beneficiary. Many well-meaning parents (and grandparents) name a grandchild or a child as a beneficiary. However, a minor is not permitted to own an asset. Therefore, the financial institution will not name the minor child as the new owner. A conservator must be appointed by the court to receive the asset on behalf of the child and they must hold that asset for the minor’s benefit, until the minor becomes of legal age. The conservator must file annual accountings with the court reflecting activity in the account and report on how any funds were used for the minor’s benefit, until the minor becomes a legal adult. The time, effort, and expense of this are unnecessary. Handing a large amount of money to a child the moment they become of legal age is rarely a good idea. Leaving assets in trust for the benefit of a minor or young adult, without naming them directly as a beneficiary, is one solution.

Drafting a will without the help of an estate planning attorney. The will created at the kitchen table or from an online template is almost always a recipe for disaster. They don’t include administrative provisions required by the state’s laws, provisions are ambiguous or conflicting and the documents are often executed incorrectly, rendering them invalid. Whatever money or time the person thought they were saving is lost. There are court fees, penalties and other costs that add up fast to fix a DIY will.

Adding joint owners to bank accounts. It seems like a good idea. Adding an adult child to a bank account, allows the child to help the parent with paying bills, if hospitalized or lets them pay post-death bills. If the amount of money in the account is not large, that may work out okay. However, the child is considered an owner of any account they are added to. If the child is sued, gets divorced, files for bankruptcy or has trouble with creditors, that bank account is an asset that can be reached.

Joint ownership of accounts after death can be an issue, if your will does not clearly state what your intentions are for that account. Do those funds go to the child, or should they be distributed between heirs? If wishes are unclear, expect the disagreements and bad feelings to be directly proportionate to the size of the account. Thoughtful estate planning, that includes power of attorney and trust planning, will permit access to your assets when needed and division of assets after your death in a manner that is consistent with your intentions.

Failing to fund trusts. Funding a trust means changing the ownership of an asset, so the asset is owned by the trust or designating the trust as a beneficiary. When a trust is properly funded, assets funding the trust avoid probate at your death. If your trust includes estate tax planning provisions, the assets are sheltered from estate tax at death. You have to do this before you die. Once you’re gone, the benefits of funding the trust are gone. Work closely with your estate planning attorney to make sure that you follow the instructions to fund trusts.

Poor choices of co-fiduciaries. If your children have never gotten along, don’t expect that to change when you die. Recognize your children’s strengths and weaknesses and be realistic about their ability to work together, when deciding who will make financial decisions under a power of attorney, health care decisions under a health care proxy and who will best be able to settle your estate. If you choose two people who do not get along, or do not trust each other, it will take far longer and cost more to settle your estate. Don’t worry about birth order or egos.

The sixth biggest estate planning mistake people make, is failing to review their estate plan every few years. Estate laws change, tax laws change and lives change. If it’s been a while since your estate plan was reviewed, make an appointment to meet with your estate planning attorney for a review.

Reference: Dedham Wicked Local (May 17, 2019) “Five big estate planning ‘don’ts’”

 

Do I Need to Update My Estate Plan if I Relocate for Retirement?

Anyone who moves to another state, for retirement, a new job or to be closer to family, needs to have a look at their estate plan to make sure it is valid in their new state, advises the Boca Newspaper in the recent article “I’ve Relocated To Florida…Should I Update My Estate Plan?”

If an estate plan hasn’t been created, a relocation is the perfect opportunity to get this important task done. Think of it as preparation for your new life in your new home.

Because so many retirees do relocate to Florida, there are some general rules that make this easier. For one thing, most wills that are valid in another state are recognized in Florida. There’s a specific law in the Florida statutes that confirms that “other than a holographic or nuncupative will, executed by a nonresident of Florida… is valid as a will in this state if valid under the laws of the state or country where the will was executed.”

In other words, if the estate plan was prepared by an estate planning attorney and is legally valid in the prior state, it will be valid in Florida. Exceptions are a holographic will, which is a handwritten will that is signed by the person with no witnesses, or a nuncupative will, which is a verbal statement made in front of witnesses.

However, just because your will is recognized in Florida, does not mean that it doesn’t need a review.

There are distinctions in Florida law that may make certain provisions invalid or change their meaning. In one well-known case, a will was missing one sentence—known as a “residual clause,” a catch-all that distributes assets that are otherwise not specified. The maker of the will wanted everything to go to her brother. However, without that one clause, property acquired after the will was created was not included. The court determined that the property that was acquired after the will was created, would go to other relatives, despite the wishes of the decedent.

Little details mean a lot when it comes to estate plans.

It’s important to ensure that the last will and testament properly expresses intentions under the laws of your new home state. As you review or begin the process, this might be the time to speak with your estate planning attorney about whether any trusts are applicable to your estate. A revocable living trust, for example, would avoid the assets placed in the trust having to go through probate.

This is also the time to review your Durable Power of Attorney, designation of a Health Care Surrogate, Living Will and nomination of a pre-need Guardian.

Estate planning gives peace of mind, knowing that the legal side of your life is all taken care of. It avoids stress and unnecessary costs and delays to your family. It should be reviewed and updated, if needed, at big events in your life, including a relocation, the sale or purchase of a home or when you retire.

Reference: Boca Newspaper (May 1, 2019) “I’ve Relocated To Florida…Should I Update My Estate Plan?”

 

What You Need to Know about Trusts for Estate Planning

There are many different kinds of trusts used to accomplish a wide variety of purposes in creating an estate plan. Some are created by the operation of a will, and they are known as testamentary trusts—meaning that they came to be via the last will and testament. That’s just the start of a thorough look at trusts offered in the article “ON THE MONEY: A look at different types of trusts” from the Aiken Standard.

Another way to view trusts is in two categories: revocable or irrevocable. As the names imply, the revocable trust can be changed, and the irrevocable trust usually cannot be changed.

A testamentary trust is a revocable trust, since it may be changed during the life of the grantor. However, upon the death of the grantor, it becomes irrevocable.

In most instances, a revocable trust is managed for the benefit of the grantor, although the grantor also retains important rights over the trust during her or his lifetime. The rights of the grantor include the ability to instruct the trustee to distribute any of the assets in the trust to someone, the right to make changes to the trust and the right to terminate the trust at any time.

If the grantor becomes incapacitated, however, and cannot manage her or his finances, then the provisions in the trust document usually give the trustee the power to make discretionary distributions of income and principal to the grantor and, depending upon how the trust is created, to the grantor’s family.

Note that distributions from a living trust to a beneficiary other than the grantor, may be subject to gift taxes. Those are paid by the grantor. In 2019, the annual gift tax exclusion is $15,000. Therefore, if the distribution is under that level, no gift taxes need to be filed or paid.

When the grantor dies, the trust property is distributed to beneficiaries, as directed by the trust agreement.

Irrevocable trusts are established by a grantor and cannot be amended without the approval of the trustee and the beneficiaries of the trust. The major reason for creating such a trust in the past was to create estate and income tax advantages. However, the increase in the federal estate tax exemption means that a single individual’s estate won’t have to pay taxes, if the value of their assets is less than $11.4 million ($22.8 million for a married couple).

Once an irrevocable trust is established and assets are placed in it, those assets are not part of the grantor’s taxable estate, and trust earnings are not reported as income to the grantor.

The downside of an irrevocable trust is that the transfer of assets into the trust may be subject to gift taxes, if the amount that is transferred is greater than $15,000 multiplied by the number of trust beneficiaries. However, depending upon the size of the grantor’s estate, larger amounts may be transferred into an irrevocable trust without any gift tax liability to the grantor, if the synchronization between gift taxes and estate taxes is properly done. This is a complex strategy that requires an experienced trust and estate attorney.

Trusts are also used to address charitable giving and generating current income. These trusts are known as Charitable Remainder Trusts and are irrevocable in nature. There is a current beneficiary who is either the donor or another named individual and a remainder beneficiary, which is a qualified charitable organization. The trust document provides that the named beneficiary receives an income stream from the income produced by the trust assets, and when the grantor dies, the remaining assets of the trust pass to the charity.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about how trusts might be a valuable part of your estate plan. If your estate plan has not been reviewed since the new tax law was passed, there may be certain opportunities that you are missing.

Reference: Aiken Standard (May 17, 2019) “ON THE MONEY: A look at different types of trusts”

 

Special Needs Families and Special Needs Trust

If nothing prepares a person for parenting, consider how much harder it is to be prepared to raise a child with special needs. Parents often sink in uncharted waters. It’s not just a matter of negotiating all of the day-to-day details, says Newsday in the article “Be ‘biggest advocate’: Parents plan future for adult children with special needs.” Special needs families need to plan for what will happen as the parents age, become ill or die.

As an adult child with disabilities ages, eventually there will be medical issues. If the parents are gone, who will be able to make medical decisions? Where they live, who will oversee their finances and who will be there for them to rely on in a parenting role? There are many questions and they all need answering.

For one family, raising their special needs daughter was a full-time challenge. Their daughter, now 24, has autism. The couple sought out others in their same situation, noting that often even their own family members could not relate to their daily experiences.

It takes a village for special needs families to do more than survive. That includes estate planning and elder law attorneys with deep experience in special needs planning, social workers, therapists and medical professionals. Here’s what needs to be top-of-mind:

Don’t wait to plan. Families often think they have time, but you never know when unexpected events occur. Have a plan in place for legal guardianship, finances and health care.

Work with experienced legal help. You want to work with an attorney who has a great deal of experience and knowledge in special needs law and estate planning. Someone who dabbles on the side of a real estate practice is not the right professional for the task.

Stay in control. When children turn 18, they are adults. Parents and guardians will need to go through Surrogate’s Court to become the child’s guardian. Unless that is done, the parents and guardians will have no legal rights about the child’s medical, financial or other affairs. A successor guardian also needs to be named, so that when the parents are no longer able to serve, someone is in place to care for the child.

Create a Special Needs Trust. A trusts attorney with experience in Special Needs planning will be able to work with the family to create and structure a Special Needs Trust (SNT). A disabled person usually cannot earn enough to support himself, or the caregiver who remains at home to care for them and care-related expenses. The SNT helps to meet current needs and plan for future needs. The trust is used to preserve eligibility for any means-tested state and federal benefits. It allows the individual to have a better quality of life, by providing for expenses that are not covered by their benefits.

It’s very important that no assets be left to the child in an inheritance. Any assets must be placed in the trust. A well-meaning relative could put their eligibility for aid in jeopardy.

Parents and guardians also need to name a trustee and a successor trustee. The person needs to be competent, good with money management, organized and focused on caring for the loved one. It cannot be an emotional decision.

Parents of special needs children are advised to create a Letter of Intent, a narrative that outlines their child’s likes and dislikes, strengths and weaknesses, activities and friends they enjoy and other details that will help them to continue an enjoyable life, when their parents are gone.

Parent’s own estate planning must be done with an eye to maintaining the SNT and caring for their other children. This is a case when assets need to be distributed in a realistic and fair manner. If one sibling is the successor trustee, for example, they may need a larger portion of an estate to help care for their sibling.

Reference: Newsday (May 9, 2019) “Be ‘biggest advocate’: Parents plan future for adult children with special needs.”

 

Selling a Parent’s Home after They Pass

Family members who are overtaken with grief are often unable to move forward and make decisions. If a house was not being well maintained while the parent was ill or aging, it might fall into further disrepair. When siblings have emotional attachments to the family home, says the article “With proper planning, selling a parent’s house can be a relatively painless process,” from The Washington Post, things can get even more complicated.

The difficulty of selling a parent’s home after their passing, depends to a large degree on what kind of advance planning has taken place. Much also depends on the heir’s ability to ask for help and working with the right professionals in handling the sale of the home and managing the estate. The earlier the process begins, the better.

Parents can take steps while they are still living to ward off unnecessary complications. It may be a difficult conversation but having it will make the process easier and allow the family time to focus on their emotions, rather than the sale of property. Here are a few pointers:

Make sure your parents have a will. Many Americans do not. A survey from Caring.com found that only 42% of American adults had a will and other estate planning documents.

Be prepared to spend some money. Before a home is sold, there may be costs associated with maintaining the property and fixing any overdue repairs. Save all receipts and estimates.

Secure the property immediately. That may mean having the locks changed as soon as possible. Once an heir (or someone who believes they are or should be an heir) moves in, getting them out adds another layer of complications.

Get real about the value of the property. Have a real estate agent run a competitive market analysis on the property and consider an appraisal from a licensed appraisal. Avoid any accusations of impropriety—don’t hire a friend or family member. This needs to be all business.

Designate a contact person, usually the executor, to keep the heirs updated on how the sale of the house is progressing.

The biggest roadblock to selling the family house is often the emotional attachment of the children. It’s hard to clean out a family home, with all of the mementos, large and small. The longer the process takes, the harder it is.

This is not the time for any major renovations. There may be some cosmetic repairs that will make the house more marketable, but substantial improvements won’t impact the sale price. Remove all family belongings and show the house either empty or with professional staging to show its possibilities. Clean carpets, paint, if needed and have the landscaping cleaned up.

Keep tax consequences in mind. Depending on where the property is, where the heirs live and how much money is being inherited, there can be estate, inheritance and income taxes.  It is usually best to sell an inherited property, as soon as the rights to it are received. When a property is inherited at death, the property value is “stepped up” to fair market value at the time of the owner’s death. That means that you can sell a property that was purchased in 1970 but not pay taxes on the value gained over those years.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about what will happen when the home needs to be sold. It may be better for parents to create a revocable trust in advance, which will direct the sale, allow a child to continue living in the home for a certain period of time, or instruct the one child who loves the home so much to buy it from the trust. Trusts are typically easier to administer after parents pass away and can be very helpful in preventing family fights.

Reference: The Washington Post (May 16, 2019) “With proper planning, selling a parent’s house can be a relatively painless process”