Can I Protect My Family after Death?

Estate planning involves a close look at personal and financial goals while you are living and after you have died, as explained in a recent article titled “Professional Advice: Secure your future with estate planning” from Northwest Indiana Business Magazine. Having a comprehensive estate plan ensures that your wishes will be carried out and loved ones protected.

Your last will and testament identifies the people who should receive an inheritance—heirs—who will manage your estate—executor—and who will take care of your minor children—guardian. Without a valid will, the state will rely on its own laws to distribute assets and assign a guardian to minor children. The state laws may not follow your wishes. However, there won’t be anything your family can do if you didn’t prepare a will.

Assets with beneficiary designations can be passed to heirs without going through probate. Certain assets, like life insurance policies and retirement accounts, allow a primary and secondary beneficiary to be named. These assets can be transferred to the intended beneficiaries swiftly and efficiently.

Many people use trusts to pass assets for a variety of reasons. For example, a trust can be created for a family member with special needs, protecting their eligibility to receive government benefits. Depending on the type of trust you create, you might be able to eliminate estate taxes. Certain trusts are also useful in protecting assets from creditors and lawsuits, and ensure that assets are distributed according to your wishes.

Revocable living trusts provide protection in case of incapacity, avoid probate and ancillary probate and may provide asset protection for beneficiaries. If you are the creator of a trust—grantor—you will need to appoint a successor trustee to manage the trust if you are the original trustee and become incapacitated. Upon death, a revocable trust usually becomes irrevocable. Assets placed in the trust avoid probate, the court proceeding used to settle an estate, which can be both time-consuming and costly.

A Power of Attorney allows you to name a person who will handle your financial affairs and protect assets in the event of incapacity. That person—your agent—may pay bills, sell assets and work with an elder law estate planning attorney on Medicaid planning. The POA should be customized to your personal situation. you may give the agent broad or narrow powers.

Everyone should also have a Health Care Proxy, which gives the person named the legal right to make health care decisions on your behalf if you are unable to. You’ll also want to have a HIPAA Release Form (Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act), so your agent can speak with all health care providers, access medical records and speak with the health insurance company on your behalf.

A Living Will is the document used to convey your wishes regarding end-of-life care if you are unable to do so yourself. It is certainly not pleasant to contemplate. However, it should be thought of as a kindness to your loved ones. Without knowing your wishes, they may be forced to make a decision and will never know if it was what you wanted. A Living Will also avoids conflicts between health care providers and family members and makes a stressful time a little less so.

Having a comprehensive estate plan provides protection for the individual and their family members. It avoids costly and stressful problems arising from the complex events accompanying illness and death. Every three to five years (or when life or financial circumstances warrant), meet with an estate planning attorney to keep your estate plan on track.

Reference: Northwest Indiana Business Magazine (Dec. 27, 2022) “Professional Advice: Secure your future with estate planning”

How Does a Trust Work?

You’ve worked hard to accumulate financial assets. You’ll need them to support your retirement. However, what if you also want to pass them on to loved ones? Trusts are used to pass assets to the next generation and have many benefits, says a recent article titled “Passing assets through a trust—What to know” from the Daily Bulldog.

“Funded” trusts don’t go through probate, which can be time-consuming, costly, and public. Your last will and testament becomes a public document when it is filed in the courthouse. Anyone can see it, from people wanting to sell your home to thieves looking for victims. Trust documents are not public, so no one outside of the grantor and the trustee knows what is in the trust and when distributions will be made. A trust also gives you the ability to be very specific about who will inherit assets in the trust, and when.

An estate planning attorney will help establish trusts, ensuring they are compliant with state law. There are three key questions to address during the trust creation process.

Who will serve as a trustee? There are several key roles in trusts. The person who creates the trust is the grantor of the trust. They name the trustee—the person or company charged with managing the trust’s assets and carrying out the instructions in the trust. You might choose a loved one. However, if they don’t have the knowledge or experience to manage the responsibilities, you could also name a corporate fiduciary, such as a bank or trust company. These entities charge for their services and usually require a minimum.

When will distributions be made? As the grantor, you get to decide when assets will be distributed and the amount of the distribution. You might want to keep the assets in the trust until the beneficiary reaches legal age. You could also structure the trust to make distributions at specific ages, i.e., at 30, 35 and 40. The trust could even hold the assets for the lifetime of the beneficiary and only distribute earned income. A large part of this decision has to do with how responsible you feel the beneficiaries will be with their inheritance.

What is the purpose of the trust? The grantor also gets to decide how trust assets should be used. The trust could designate broad categories, such as health, education, maintenance and support. The trust can be structured so the beneficiary needs to ask the trustee for a certain amount of assets. Other options are to structure the trust to provide mandatory income, once or twice a year, or tie distributions to incentives, such as finishing a college degree or purchasing a first home.

An estate planning attorney will explain the different types of trusts and which one is best for your unique situation. There are many different types of trusts. You’ll want to be sure to choose the right one to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Reference: Daily Bulldog (Dec. 24, 202) “Passing assets through a trust—What to know”

Can Executor Take the Money and Run?
Living trust and estate planning form on a desk.

Can Executor Take the Money and Run?

What if your executor or trustee decides to run off to the Bahamas with all your assets, leaving heirs with nothing? Ohio Farmer’s recent article entitled “What if trustee runs off with assets?” says that safeguards should be in place to protect the heirs of an estate.

The most common way to protect against this possibility is a fiduciary bond. An executor, trustee, or guardian would get a bond early in a probate case and file it with the court. The bond would remain in place while the fiduciary is serving his or her role. If the fiduciary absconds with estate assets, the bond is there to help the beneficiaries.

This expense would be covered by the fiduciary, who would need to find a bond company willing to issue it. The bond amount is connected to the value of personal property, such as financial accounts, vehicles and personal effects.

Do you need a bond to cover the value of land? No. The primary difference is that land can’t be picked up easily and moved, making a bond unnecessary. It’s also very hard to transfer land without extensive safeguards. In some cases, court permission is required for a transfer. To sell a farm or ranch, a title company might raise suspicion. Real estate-related actions are also often public record. In some cases, a court action can correct issues or order damages.

It’s possible to waive the requirement of a bond. That’s a default setting for bonds with estates, trusts, or guardianships. Most estate planning documents waive the bond requirement, because family members often serve as fiduciaries.

State law may also describe several situations where a bond isn’t required. However, if a party motions the court, and the judge thinks there’s good cause for a bond, one can be required for a fiduciary.

While a bond can provide some important protections for heirs, the likelihood of a fiduciary running off with assets is low. As a result, most administrations view the bond as an unnecessary step and expense.

However, if a family is concerned about the trustworthiness of a fiduciary, the bond requirement should be reinstated.

If an administration is pending, the family can petition the court to require a bond. Consult with an experienced estate planning attorney to determine the role of bonds for your estate plan.

Reference: Ohio Farmer (Nov. 22, 2022) “What if trustee runs off with assets?”

Should I Need a Trust in My Estate Plan?

Fed Week’s recent article entitled “Considerations for Including a Trust in Your Estate Plan” describes what a trust can offer. This includes the following:

  • Protection against possible incompetency. To protect yourself, you can create a trust and move your assets into it. You can be the trustee, so you’ll control the assets and enjoy the income.
  • Probate avoidance. Assets held in trust also avoid probate. In the documents, you can state how the trust assets will be distributed at your death.
  • Protection for your heirs. After your death, a trustee can keep trust assets from being squandered or lost in a divorce.

If your heirs are young, you can set up a trust to stay in effect until they are older and can handle their own finances. Another option is to keep the trust in effect for the lives of the beneficiaries.

A trust can be revocable or irrevocable. A revocable trust must be created during your lifetime. If you change your mind, you can revoke the trust and reclaim the assets as your own.

A revocable trust can offer incapacity protection and probate avoidance but not tax reduction.

An irrevocable trust can be created while you’re alive or at your death. A revocable trust may become irrevocable at your death.

Assets transferred into an irrevocable trust during your lifetime will be beyond the reach of creditors and divorce settlements. The same is true of assets going into an irrevocable trust at your death.

Your family members can be the beneficiaries of an irrevocable trust, while a trustee or co-trustees you’ve named will be responsible for distributing funds to those trust beneficiaries.

The trustee will be responsible for protecting assets.

Reference:  Fed Week (Oct. 5, 2022) “Considerations for Including a Trust in Your Estate Plan”

What Is the Point of a Trust?

A trust is an agreement made when a person, referred to as the trustor or grantor, gives a third party, known as the trustee, the authority to hold assets for the trust beneficiaries. The trustee is in charge of the trust and responsible for executing the trust’s instructions as per the language in the trust, explains a recent article from The Skim, “What is a Trust? (Spoiler: They’re Not Just for the Wealthy).”

Some examples of how trusts are used: if the grantor doesn’t want beneficiaries to have access to funds until they reach a certain age, the trustee will not distribute anything until the age as directed by the trust. The funds could also be solely used for the beneficiaries’ health care needs or education or whatever expense the grantor has named, the trustee decides when the funds should be released.

Trusts are not one-size-fits-all. There are many to choose from. For instance, if you wanted the bulk of your assets to go to your grandchildren, you might use a Generation-Skipping Trust. If you think your home’s value may skyrocket after you die, you might want to consider a Qualified Personal Residence Trust (QPRT) to reduce taxes.

Trusts fall into a few categories:

Testamentary Trust vs. Living Trust

A testamentary trust is known as a “trust under will” and is created based on provisions in the will after the grantor dies. A testamentary trust fund can be used to make gifts to charities or provide lifetime income for loved ones.

In most cases, trusts don’t have to go through the probate process, that is, being validated by the court before beneficiaries can receive their inheritance. However, because the testamentary trust is tied to the will, it is subject to probate. Your heirs may have to wait until the probate process is completed to receive their inheritance. This varies by state, so ask an estate planning attorney in your state.

Living trusts are created while you are living and are also known as revocable trusts. As the grantor, you may make as many changes as you like to the trust terms while living. Once you die, the trust becomes an irrevocable trust and the terms cannot be changed. There’s no need for the trust to go through probate and beneficiaries receive inheritances as per the directions in the trust.

What are the key benefits of creating a trust? A trust doesn’t always need to go through probate and gives you greater control over the assets. If you create an irrevocable trust and fund it while living, your assets are removed from your probate estate, which means whatever assets are moved into the trust are not subject to estate taxes.

Are there any reasons not to create a trust? There are costs associated with creating a trust. The trust must also be funded, meaning ownership documents like titles for a car or deeds for a house have to be revised to place the asset under the control of the trust. The same is true for stocks, bank accounts and any other asset used to fund the trust.

For gaining more control over your assets, minimizing estate taxes and making life easier for those you love after you pass, trusts are a valuable tool. Speak with your estate planning attorney to find out which trust works best for your situation. Your estate plan and any trusts should complement each other.

Reference: The Skim (Oct. 26, 2022) “What is a Trust? (Spoiler: They’re Not Just for the Wealthy)”

Who Should I Name as a Co-Trustee?

If you’ve already created a revocable trust, congratulations—that means you’ve taken steps to protect the people important to you and eliminated concerns they may have about what will happen when you’re gone. A recent article, “3 Things to Consider when Naming Co-Trustees,” from The Street, asks if you should name an adult child as your co-trustee.

Most people name themselves as a trustee of a revocable living trust, allowing themselves to maintain control over how the funds are managed. As children become adults, you may start including them in your estate planning discussions, which may lead them to propose a relatively straightforward idea: letting them serve alongside you, by being named as co-trustees.

This might make sense. However, it may not. You need to ask some hard questions.

First, are you and your adult child in alignment on financial matters? If you are conservative when it comes to money and investing, but your child is a free-wheeling, come-what-may person, then you definitely don’t want to have them as a co-trustee. Not only will you disagree on how assets are to be used, you may also find yourself in a situation where your assets are funding a lot of fun, which is likely not what you have in mind for assets in a revocable trust.

As the primary trustee of the revocable trust, you have the legal power to fire a co-trustee. This presents another obstacle. Firing your child, especially if you’re firing one child and replacing them with another child, could lead to a lot of family friction. Many estate planning attorneys have seen what happens when parents are reluctant to act, even when it is crystal clear they need to be fired.

Second, does their logistical status make this person a good co-trustee candidate? Location and even time zones are not as confining as they used to be. However, there is a real benefit to being able to show up in person if something goes wrong. What if there’s an issue processing something and the bank will not accept a document sent by email or fax, but requires an in-person signature?

Your trust might include language allowing each co-trustee to act independently of the other. However, this opens the door to your co-trustee being able to act unilaterally. If you’re still able to manage your own finances, you may not want to give up this amount of control to an adult child.

Would a co-trustee role with a child require you to revise the entire estate plan? For some trust creators, making one adult child their revocable living trust co-trustee means they need to change their estate plan to be fair to their other children. Sometimes they feel that another child should be named as a Power of Attorney or Health Care Power of Attorney.

“Fairness” or “keeping the peace” should never, ever, be a reason for children or other individuals to be named for estate planning roles. Each agent has a task to do in carrying out your wishes as directed by your last will and testament, POAs and trust documents. Naming a kid who’s a financial disaster as a co-trustee is asking for trouble. Naming someone who doesn’t share your beliefs about end-of-life treatment means your wishes are not likely to be followed.

However, it is possible to have your estate planning attorney create a workable co-trustee arrangement between you and an adult child. If they live close by, you mainly agree on financial matters and they can be available to you on short notice, it’s likely the arrangement will work. If there is no one who could serve, speak with your estate planning attorney about alternatives. For instance, making an adult child a successor trustee will let them step in if and when you are not able to manage your affairs, while you retain full and complete authority while you are still able to do so.

Reference: The Street (Oct. 11, 2022) “3 Things to Consider when Naming Co-Trustees”

Factors to Consider when Picking Executor, Trustees and POAs

Having your estate planning documents created with an experienced professional is important, as is naming the people who will be putting your plan into action. A key sticking point is often deciding who is the right person for the role, says an article from Nasdaq titled “Estate Planning: 5 Tips to Pick Trustees, Executors and POAs.” It helps to stop thinking about how people will feel if they are not selected and focus instead on their critical thinking and decision making abilities.

Consider who will have the time to help. Having adult children who are highly successful in their professions is wonderful. However, if they are extremely busy running a business, leading an organization, etc., will their busy schedules allow the flexibility to help? A daughter with twins may love you to the moon and back. However, will she be able to handle the tasks of estate administration?

Take these appointments seriously. Selecting someone on an arbitrary basis is asking for trouble. Just because one child is older doesn’t necessarily mean they are capable of managing your estate. Making a decision based on gender can be equally flawed. Naming agents and executors with financial acumen is more important than giving your creative child the chance to learn how to manage money through your estate.

Don’t make the process more complicated. There are many families where parents name all the siblings to act on their behalf, so no one feels left out. This usually turns into an estate disaster. An odd number of siblings can lead to one group winning decisions by sheer numbers, while aggressive, win-at-all-costs siblings—even if it’s just two of them—can lead to delayed decisions and family divisions.

Name the right person for right now. Younger people who don’t yet have children often aren’t sure who their best agent might be. Picking a parent may become problematic, if the parent becomes sick or dies. Naming a close friend in your thirties may need updating if your friendship wanes. Make it simple: appoint the best person for today, with the caveat of updating your agents and documents as time goes on and circumstances change. Remember, circumstances always change.

Consider the value of a professional trustee or fiduciary. The best person to be a trustee, executor or power of attorney may not always be a family member or friend. If a trustee is one sibling and the beneficiary of the trust is another sibling who can’t manage money, the relationship could suffer. If a large estate includes generational trusts and complex ownership structures, a professional may be better suited to deal with management and tax issues.

The value of having an estate plan cannot be overstated. However, the importance of who will be appointed to oversee and administer the estate is equally important. The success of an estate plan often rests on the people who are assigned to handle their respective tasks.

Be candid when speaking with an experienced estate planning attorney about the people in your life and their abilities to manage the roles.

Reference: nasdaq (Sep. 4, 2022) “Estate Planning: 5 Tips to Pick Trustees, Executors and POAs”

Why are Trusts a Good Idea?

Estate planning attorneys know trusts are the Swiss Army knife of estate planning. Whatever the challenge is to be overcome, there is a trust to solve the problem. This includes everything from protecting assets from creditors to ensuring the right people inherit assets. There’s no hype about trusts, despite the title of this article, “Trusts—What Is The Hype?” from mondaq. Rather, there’s a world of benefits provided by trusts.

A trust protects assets from creditors. If the person who had the trust created, known as the “grantor,” is also the owner of the trust, it is best for the trust to be irrevocable. This means that it is not easily changed by the grantor. The trust also can’t be modified or terminated once it’s been set up.

This is the direct opposite of a revocable or living trust. With a revocable trust, the grantor has complete control of the trust, which comes with some downsides.

Once assets are transferred into an irrevocable trust, the grantor no longer has any ownership of the assets or the trust. Because the grantor is no longer in control of the asset, it’s generally not available to satisfy any claims by creditors.

However, this does not mean the grantor is free of any debts or claims in place before the trust was funded. Depending upon your state, there may be a significant look-back period. If this is the case, and if this is the reason for the trust to be created, it may voided and negate the protection otherwise provided.

Most people use trusts to protect assets for future generations, for a variety of reasons.

The “spendthrift” trust is created to protect heirs who may not be good at managing money or judging the character of the people they associate with. The spendthrift trust will protect against creditors, as well as protecting loved ones from losing assets in a divorce. The spouse may not be able to make a claim for a share of the trust property in a divorce settlement.

There are a few different types to be used in creating a spendthrift trust. However, the one thing they have in common is a “spendthrift clause.” This restricts the beneficiary’s ability to assign or transfer their interests in the trust and restricts the rights of creditors to reach the assets. However, the spendthrift clause will not avoid creditor claims, unless any interest in the trust assets is relinquished completely.

Greater protection against creditor claims may come from giving trustees more discretion over trust distribution. For instance, a trust may require a trustee to make distributions for a beneficiary’s support. Once those distributions are made, they are vulnerable to creditor claims. The court may also allow a creditor to reach the trust assets to satisfy support-related debts. Giving the trustee full and complete discretion over whether and when to make distributions will allow them to provide increased protection.

A trust requires the balance of having access to assets and preventing access from others. Your estate planning attorney will help determine which is best for your unique situation.

Reference: mondaq (Aug. 9, 2022) “Trusts—What Is The Hype?”

The Difference between Revocable and Irrevocable Trust

A living trust can be revocable or irrevocable, says Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Revocable vs. Irrevocable Trusts: Which Is Better?” And not everyone needs a trust. For some, a will may be enough. However, if you have substantial assets you plan to pass on to family members or to charity, a trust can make this much easier.

There are many different types of trusts you can establish, and a revocable trust is a trust that can be changed or terminated at any time during the lifetime of the grantor (i.e., the person making the trust). This means you could:

  • Add or remove beneficiaries at any time
  • Transfer new assets into the trust or remove ones that are in it
  • Change the terms of the trust concerning how assets should be managed or distributed to beneficiaries; and
  • Terminate or end the trust completely.

When you die, a revocable trust automatically becomes irrevocable and no further changes can be made to its terms. An irrevocable trust is permanent. If you create an irrevocable trust during your lifetime, any assets you transfer to the trust must stay in the trust. You can’t add or remove beneficiaries or change the terms of the trust.

The big advantage of choosing a revocable trust is flexibility. A revocable trust allows you to make changes, and an irrevocable trust doesn’t. Revocable trusts can also allow your heirs to avoid probate when you die. However, a revocable trust doesn’t offer the same type of protection against creditors as an irrevocable trust. If you’re sued, creditors could still try to attach trust assets to satisfy a judgment. The assets in a revocable trust are part of your taxable estate and subject to federal estate taxes when you die.

In addition to protecting assets from creditors, irrevocable trusts can also help in managing estate tax obligations. The assets are owned by the trust (not you), so estate taxes are avoided. Holding assets in an irrevocable trust can also be useful if you’re trying to qualify for Medicaid to help pay for long-term care and want to avoid having to spend down assets.

But again, you can’t change this type of trust and you can’t act as your own trustee. Once the trust is set up and the assets are transferred, you no longer have control over them.

Speak with an experienced estate planning or probate attorney to see if a revocable or an irrevocable trust is best or whether you even need a trust at all.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Sep. 10, 2022) “Revocable vs. Irrevocable Trusts: Which Is Better?”