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”

How Do I Talk to the Children about My Estate Planning?
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How Do I Talk to the Children about My Estate Planning?

Some $68 trillion will move between generations in the next two decades, reports U.S. News & World Report in the article “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children.” Having this conversation with your adult children, especially if they are members of Generation X, could have a profound impact on the quality of your relationship and your legacy.

Staying on top of your estate plan and having candid discussions with your children will also have an impact on how much of your estate is consumed by estate taxes. The historically high federal exemptions are not going to last forever—even without any federal legislation, they sunset in 2025, which isn’t far away.

One of the purposes of your estate plan is to transfer money as you wish. What most people do is talk with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan. They create trusts, naming their child as the trustee, or simple wills naming their child as the executor. Then, the parents drop the ball.

Talk with your children about the role of trustee and/or executor. Help them understand the responsibilities that these roles require and ask if they will be comfortable handling the decision making, as well as the money. Include the Power of Attorney role in your discussion.

What most parents refuse to discuss with their children is money, plain and simple. Children will be better equipped, if they know what financial institutions hold your accounts and are introduced to your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor.

You might at some point forget about some investments, or the location of some accounts as you age. If your children have a working understanding of your finances, estate plan and your wishes, they will be able to get going and you will have spared them an estate scavenger hunt.

If possible, hold a family meeting with your advisors, so everyone is comfortable and up to speed.

Most adult children do not have the same experience with taxes as parents who have acquired wealth over their lifetimes. They may not understand the concepts of qualified and non-qualified accounts, step-up in cost basis, life insurance proceeds, or a probate asset versus a non-probate asset. It is critical that they understand how taxes impact estates and investments. By explaining things like tax-free distributions from a Roth IRA, for instance, you will increase the likelihood that your life savings aren’t battered by taxes.

Even if your adult children work in finance, do not assume they understand your investments, your tax-planning, or your estate. Even the smartest people make expensive mistakes, when handling family estates.

Having these discussions is another way to show your children that you care enough to set your own ego aside and are thinking about their future. It’s a way to connect not just about your money or your taxes, but about their futures. Knowing that you purchased a life insurance policy specifically to provide them with money for a home purchase, or to fund a grandchild’s college education, sends a clear message. Don’t miss the opportunity to share that with them, while you are living.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Feb. 17, 2021) “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children”

How to Manage a Will and Trust

A last will and testament is used to point out the beneficiaries and trustees and the legal professionals you want to be involved with your estate when you have passed, explains this recent article What You Need To Know About Handling a Will and Trust from Your Dearly Departed Loved One” from North Forty News. If there are minor children in the picture, the last will is used to direct who will be their guardians.

A trust is different than the last will. A trust is a legal entity where one person places assets in the trust and names a trustee to be in charge of the assets in the trust on behalf of the beneficiaries. The assets are legally protected and must be distributed as per the instructions in the trust document. Trusts are a good way to reduce paperwork, save time and reduce estate taxes.

Don’t go it alone. If your loved one had a last will and trust, chances are they were prepared by an estate planning lawyer. The estate planning attorney can help you go through the legal process. The attorney also knows how to prepare for any possible disputes from relatives.

It may be more complicated than you expect. There are times when honoring the wishes of the deceased about how their property is distributed becomes difficult. Sometimes, there are issues between the beneficiaries and the last will and trust custodians. If you locate the attorney who was present at the time the last will was signed and the trusts created, she may be able to make the process easier.

Be prepared to get organized. There’s usually a lot of paperwork. First, gather all of the documents—an original last will, the death certificate, life insurance policies, marriage certificates, real estate titles, military discharge papers, divorce papers (if any) and any trust documents. Review the last will and trust with an estate planning attorney to understand what you will need to do.

Protect personal property and assets. Homes, boats, vehicles and other large assets will need to be secured to protect them from theft. Once the funeral has taken place, you’ll need to identify all of the property owned by the deceased and make sure they are property insured and valued. If a home is going to be empty, changing the locks is a reasonable precaution. You don’t know who has keys or feels entitled to its contents.

Distribution of assets. If there is a last will, it must be filed with the probate court and all beneficiaries—everyone mentioned in the last will has to be notified of the decedent’s passing. As the executor, you are responsible for ensuring that every person gets what they have been assigned. You will need to prepare a document that accounts for the distribution of all properties, which the court has to certify before the estate can be closed.

Taking on the responsibility of finalizing a person’s estate is not without challenges. An estate planning attorney can help you through the process, making sure you are managing all the details according to the last will and the state’s laws. There may be personal liability attached to serving as the executor, so you’ll want to make sure to have good guidance on your side.

Reference: North Forty News (Feb. 3, 2021) What You Need To Know About Handling a Will and Trust from Your Dearly Departed Loved One”

Does a Trust Have to Be Funded to Be Valid?

Thinking you have divided assets equally between children by creating a trust that names all as equal heirs, while placing only one child’s name on other assets is not an equally divided estate plan. Instead, as described in the article “Estate Planning: Fund the trust” from nwi.com, this arrangement is likely to lead to an estate battle.

One father did just that. He set up a trust with explicit instructions to divide everything equally among his heirs. However, only one brother was made a joint owner on his savings and checking accounts and the title of the family home.

Upon his death, ownership of the savings and checking accounts and the home would go directly to the brother. Assets in the trust, if there are any, will be divided equally between the children. That’s probably not what the father had in mind, but legally the other siblings will have no right to the non-trust assets.

This is an example of why creating a trust is only one part of an estate plan. If it is not funded, that is if assets are not retitled, it will not work.

Many estate plans include what is called a “pour-over will” usually executed just after the trust is executed. It is a safety net that “catches” any assets not funded into the trust and transfers them into it. However, this transfer requires probate, and since probate avoidance is a goal of having a trust, it is not the best solution.

The situation as described above is confusing. Why would one brother be a joint owner of assets, if the father means for all of the children to share equally in the inheritance? When the father passes, the brother will own the assets. If the matter went to court, the court would very likely decide that the father’s intention was for the brother to inherit them. Whatever language is in the trust will be immaterial.

If the father’s intention is for the siblings to share the estate equally, the changes need to be made while he is living. The brother’s name needs to come off the accounts and the title to the home, and they all need to be re-titled in the name of the trust. The brother will need to sign off on removing his name. If he does not wish to do so, it’s going to be a legal challenge.

The family needs to address the situation as soon as possible with an experienced estate planning attorney. Even if the brother won’t sign off on changing the names of the assets, as long as the father is living there are options. Once he has passed, the family’s options will be limited. Estate battles can consume a fair amount of the estate’s value and destroy the family’s relationships.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 17, 2021) “Estate Planning: Fund the trust”

Your Estate Planning Checklist for 2021

If you reviewed or created your estate plan in 2020, you are ahead of most Americans, but you’re not done yet. If you created a trust, gave gifts of real estate, business interest or other assets, you need to address the loose ends and do the follow up work to ensure that your planning goals will be met. That’s the advice from a recent article “Checklist 2020 Planning Follow Through: You Have More Work To Do” from Forbes.

Here are few to consider:

Did you loan money to heirs? If you made any loans to heirs or had any other loan transactions, you’ll need to calendar the interest payment dates and amounts and be sure that interest is paid promptly as described in the promissory notes. Correct interest payments are necessary for the IRS or creditors to treat the transaction as a real loan, otherwise you risk having the loan recharacterized or worse, being disregarded completely.

Did you create an irrevocable trust? If so, you need to be sure that gifts are made to the trust each year to fund insurance premiums. If the trust includes annual demand powers (known as “Crummey powers”) to allow gifts to qualify for the gift tax annual exclusion, written notices for 2020 gifts will need to be issued. This can be way more complicated than you expect: if you have transfers made to multiple trusts and outright gifts made directly to heirs, those gifts may need to be prioritized, based on the terms of the trusts and the dates of the gifts to determine which gifts qualify for the annual exclusion and which do not.

If you made gifts to a trust that is exempt from the generation skipping transfer tax (GST), you may have to file a gift tax return to allocate the GST exemption, so the trust remains GST exempt. Talk to your estate planning attorney to avoid any expensive mistakes.

Do you own life insurance? Or does a trust own life insurance for you? Either way, do not ignore your coverage after you’ve purchased a policy or policies. Your broker should review policy performance, the appropriateness of coverage for your plan, etc., every few years. If you didn’t do this in 2020, make it a priority for 2021. Many people create SLATS—Spousal Lifetime Access Trusts—so that their spouse benefits from the trusts. However, if your spouse dies prematurely, the SLAT no longer works.

Paying trustee fees. If you have institutional trustees, their fees need to be paid annually. If you pay the fees directly, the fee becomes an additional gift to the trust, requiring the filing of a gift tax for that year. If the trust pays the fee directly, there might not be a tax implication. Again, check with your estate planning attorney.

Did you make transfers to a trust with a disclaimer mechanism? If you made transfers to a trust that has a disclaimer mechanism and you want to reconsider the planning, it may be possible for beneficiaries or a trustee to disclaim gifts made to the trust within nine months of the transfer, thereby unwinding the planning.

Did you create any GRATs in 2020? If you created a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust, be certain that the trustee calendars the required annuity payments and that they are paid on a timely basis. Missing payments could put the GRAT status in jeopardy. You should also confirm also how the payment is calculated, which should be in the GRAT itself.

The best estate plan is one that is reviewed on a regular basis to ensure that it works, throughout changes that occur in law and life.

Reference: Forbes (Dec. 27, 2020) “Checklist 2020 Planning Follow Through: You Have More Work To Do”

Should a GRAT Be Part of My Estate Plan?

A Grantor-Retained Annuity Trust, or GRAT, is funded by the grantor, the person who creates the trust, in exchange for a stream of annuity payments at a predetermined interest rate—the IRS Section 7520 rate. The interest rate in December 2020 is 0.6%, as reported in the article “Transferring Wealth With This Trust Can Yield Big Tax Advantages” from Financial Advisor.

GRAT assets need only appreciate greater than the Section 7520 rate over the term of the trust, and any excess earnings will pass to beneficiaries, or to an ongoing trust for beneficiaries with no gift or estate tax.

Because the grantor takes back the amount equal to that which was transferred to the trust (often two or three years), which is set by the IRS when the trust is funded, future appreciation over and above the interest rate passes gift-tax free.

There’s little upkeep. Once the trust agreement is in place, a gift tax return needs to be filed once a year. If the trust is set up without a tax ID number, there’s no need to file an income tax return.

The grantor is responsible for the income generated by the asset in the GRAT, but that’s it. If the value of the property is increased following an audit, the gift won’t be increased but the annuity will. If the GRAT property decreases in value, the only out of pocket is the set-up costs.

Assets in a GRAT may be anything from an investment portfolio to shares in a closely held business.

Most GRATs are designed to have the value of the retained annuity be equal to the value of the property that is transferred to the GRAT. If the values are equal, then the amount of the gift for tax purposes is zero, since the value of the transfer less the annuity value is zero.

GRATs are not for everyone. The success of the GRAT depends upon the success of the underlying assets. If they don’t appreciate as expected, then there might not be a significant amount transferred out of the estate after paying for the legal, accounting and appraisal fees. If the grantor dies during the term of the GRAT before payments back to the grantor have ended, the GRAT will be unsuccessful.

Generation skipping transfers cannot utilize GRATS, since the generation skipping tax exemption may not be applied to a GRAT, until the grantor’s death.

Ask your estate planning attorney about whether a GRAT could benefit your family. If a GRAT is not a good fit, they will know about many other tools available.

Reference: Financial Advisor (Nov. 30, 2020) “Transferring Wealth With This Trust Can Yield Big Tax Advantages”

What are the Responsibilities of a Trustee?

Before accepting the role of a trustee, it is important to have a thorough understanding of what you will need to do and for how long. Trustees are often appointed to manage trust assets for a child or adult with special needs. This responsibility could be for a lifetime, so be sure that you are up for the task. Trustee duties are outlined in a recent article, “Trustee responsibilities,” from InsuranceNewsNet.com.

When the person who set up the trust, known as the “grantor,” dies, the trustee is in charge of settling the trust. That includes tasks like:

1–Locating and reviewing all of the documents of the grantor, especially any funeral and burial instructions.

2–If the grantor owned a home or an apartment, changing the locks for security, notifying the homeowner’s insurance company, if the house will be unoccupied for an extended period of time, and checking on auto insurance policies, if there are cars or other vehicles.

3–Unless the executor is taking care of this task, the trustee needs to obtain multiple originals of the death certificate. These are usually ordered by the funeral director.

4–Listing all assets with the Date of Death (DOD) values of any assets. This determines the “cost basis” of assets that are to be transferred to beneficiaries. If assets are later sold and used to distribute proceeds, the cost-basis is used to determine income tax liability.

5–Consolidate multiple financial accounts into one account. The check register will become a register of trust activities and beneficiaries may inspect it. The trustee’s first responsibility is to protect the trust’s funds.

6–Pay outstanding bills and debts. The trustee may be personally liable, if this is not handled correctly.

7–Meet with an estate planning attorney to determine if the trust must file income tax returns or if the estate of the grantor must file income tax returns.

8–File claims for life insurance, IRAs and annuities.

9–Create an accounting for all trust financial activity from the grantor’s DOD to be distributed to the beneficiaries.

10–Transfer assets to beneficiaries according to the terms of the trust and have an estate planning attorney send each beneficiary a receipt, release and waiver for any further responsibility and liability.

The responsibilities of a trustee are similar to the responsibilities of an executor, except that wills are used in probate court and trusts are created to avoid probate court. Another benefit of trusts is that they can help avoid litigation between beneficiaries and keep the estate’s affairs private.

Reference: InsuranceNewsNet.com (Oct. 19, 2020) “Trustee responsibilities”

Consider Funding a Trust with Life Insurance

How would funding a trust with life insurance work, and could it be a good option for you? A recent article in Forbes “How to Fund a Trust With Life Insurance” explains how this works. Let’s start with the basics: a trust is a legal entity where one party, the trustee, holds legal title to the assets owned by the trust, which is managed for the good of the beneficiary. There can be more than one person who benefits from the trust (beneficiaries) and there can be a co-trustee, but we’ll keep this simple.

Trusts are often funded with a life insurance policy. The proceeds of the policy provide the beneficiary with assets that are used after the death of the insured. This is especially important when the beneficiaries are minor children and the life insurance has been purchased by their parents. Placing the insurance policy within a trust offers more control over how funds are used.

What kind of a trust should you consider? All trusts are either revocable or irrevocable. There are pros and cons to both. Irrevocable trusts are better for tax purposes, as they are not included as part of your estate. However, with an $11.58 million federal exemption in 2020, most people don’t have to worry about federal estate taxes. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust throughout your life, while with an irrevocable trust, only a trustee can make changes.

Note that, in addition to federal taxes, most states have estate taxes of their own, and a few have inheritance taxes. When working with an estate planning attorney, they’ll help you navigate the tax aspect as well as the distribution of assets.

Revocable trusts are the most commonly used trust in estate planning. Here’s why:

  • Revocable trusts avoid probate, which can be a costly and lengthy process. Assets left in the revocable trust pass directly to the heirs, far quicker than those left through the will.
  • Because they are revocable, the creator of the will can make changes to the trust as circumstances change. This flexibility and control make the revocable trust more attractive in estate planning.

If you are using life insurance to fund the trust, be sure the policy permits you to name beneficiaries, and be certain to name beneficiaries. Missing this step is a common and critical mistake. The beneficiary designations must be crystal clear. If there are two cousins who have the same name, there will need to be a clear distinction made as to who is the beneficiary. If someone changes their name, that change must be reflected by the beneficiary designation.

There are many other types of trusts, including testamentary trusts and special needs trusts. Your estate planning attorney will know which trust is best for your situation. Make sure to fund the trust and update beneficiary designations, so the trust will achieve your goals.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 17, 2020) “How to Fund a Trust With Life Insurance”