How Do I Avoid the Three Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes?

After you die, your last will and testament must be approved by the local probate court. The judge will determine if the document is the last will of the deceased, review the inventory of the estate and confirm who will administer the estate proceeds. It’s known as “executing” a will.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Avoid these 3 estate-planning mistakes and make probate cheaper and easier for your loved ones” discusses some mistakes that people make and how to avoid them.

  1. You don’t have a will, or you have a will that was written in another state. You also should have a current will. Life changes, and you need a will for where you live in now. Residency is defined differently in each state, and an out-of-state will delays the probate process, because it fails to satisfy state requirements. Worse yet, it may even be declared invalid.

If there is no will, the deceased is said to have died “intestate,” and his estate must go through probate. However, an administrator will be named by the judge to distribute assets, according to state law. It can be a lengthy and often costly process.

Some people don’t want to hire an attorney to create their estate plan or write a will, because they believe it’s too expense or they never get around to doing it. However, if you die without a will, the legal costs will be even more and that will be paid by your estate—that decreases what’s left to give to your heirs.

  1. Mixing up estate taxes with probate. Your estate may be too small to be subject to federal tax, if it is less than the $11.58 million exemption. However, you still will be subject to probate and possibly a state estate tax. Therefore, you still need an estate plan.
  2. Disregarding easy things to keep some assets from probate. Most states have a “mini-probate” that is expedited for small estates. With this process, heirs may have fewer fees, less paperwork and shorter waiting.

You can also create a living trust (revocable trust) to avoid probate altogether, if done correctly. This is a legal vehicle to which all of your assets pass upon your death. Ask an estate planning lawyer to help you create a trust, because they can be complicated. Whether you need a trust, a will, or both, an experienced estate planning attorney has worked through a variety of situations and will have sound and creative ideas. Investing time and money with an attorney makes life easier for you now and for your family later.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Feb. 18, 2020) “Avoid these 3 estate-planning mistakes and make probate cheaper and easier for your loved ones”

What You Need to Know about Trusts

Some people still think that trusts and estate planning are just for wealthy people. However, that’s simply not true. Many people are good candidates for trusts, used to protect their assets and their families. Trusts can also be used to avoid probate, says the article “Common misconceptions about trusts” from the Rome Sentinel.

Who controls my property? The grantor, or the person setting up the trust, has the option of being a trustee, if they are setting up a revocable trust or an irrevocable trust. There are tax differences, so you’ll want to do this with an estate planning attorney. The grantor names co-trustees, if you wish. They are usually a spouse, adult child, or trusted adult. Successor trustees, that is, people who will take over the trust if the primary trustee becomes incapacitated or dies.

Only rich people need trusts. Anyone who owns a home, has life insurance and other assets worth more than $150,000 can benefit from the protection that a trust provides. The type of trust depends the grantor’s age, health status, and the amount, variety, and location of assets. A healthy person who owns a lot of life insurance or other assets would probably want either a Revocable Living Trust or a Will that includes a Testamentary Trust. However, a person who is over 55 and is planning for nursing home care, is more likely to have an Irrevocable Medicaid Trust to protect assets, avoid probate and minimize tax liability.

Can I access assets in a trust? A properly prepared trust takes your lifestyle and spending into account. Certain types of trusts are more flexible than others, and an estate planning attorney will be able to make an appropriate recommendation.

For instance, if you have an Irrevocable Medicaid Trust, you will be restricted from taking the principal asset back directly. The assets in this type of trust can be used to fund costs and expenses of real property, including mortgage payments, taxes, furnace and roof repairs. An IMT needs to be set up with enough assets outside of it, so you can have an active retirement and enjoy your life. Assets outside of the trust are your spendable money.

Can my children or any others take assets from the trust? No, and that’s also the point of trusts. Unless you name someone as a Trustee with the power to take assets out of the trust, they cannot access the funds. The grantor retains control over what assets may be gifted during their lifetime. They can also impose restrictions on how assets are restricted after death. Some trusts are created to set specific ages or milestones, when beneficiaries receive all or some of the assets in the trust.

Trusts are not one size-fits all. Trusts need to be created to serve each family’s unique situation. An experienced estate planning attorney will work with the family to determine their overall goals, and then determine how trusts can be used as part of their estate plan to achieve goals.

Reference: Rome Sentinel (May 31, 2020) “Common misconceptions about trusts”

Update Will at These 12 Times in Your Life

Estate planning lawyers hear it all the time—people meaning to update their will, but somehow never getting around to actually getting it done. The only group larger than the ones who mean to “someday,” are the ones who don’t think they ever need to update their documents, says the article “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will” from Kiplinger. The problems become abundantly clear when people die, and survivors learn that their will is so out-of-date that it creates a world of problems for a grieving family.

There are some wills that do stand the test of time, but they are far and few between. Families undergo all kinds of changes, and those changes should be reflected in the will. Here are one dozen times in life when wills need to be reviewed:

Welcoming a child to the family. The focus is on naming a guardian and a trustee to oversee their finances. The will should be flexible to accommodate additional children in the future.

Divorce is a possibility. Don’t wait until the divorce is underway to make changes. Do it beforehand. If you die before the divorce is finalized, your spouse will have marital rights to your property. Once you file for divorce, in many states you are not permitted to change your will, until the divorce is finalized. Make no moves here, however, without the advice of your attorney.

Your divorce has been finalized. If you didn’t do it before, update your will now. Don’t neglect updating beneficiaries on life insurance and any other accounts that may have named your ex as a beneficiary.

When your child(ren) marry. You may be able to mitigate the lack of a prenuptial agreement, by creating trusts in your will, so anything you leave your child won’t be considered a marital asset, if his or her marriage goes south.

Your beneficiary has problems with drugs or money. Money left directly to a beneficiary is at risk of being attached by creditors or dissolving into a drug habit. Updating your will to includes trusts that allow a trustee to only distribute funds under optimal circumstances protects your beneficiary and their inheritance.

Named executor or beneficiary dies. Your old will may have a contingency plan for what should happen if a beneficiary or executor dies, but you should probably revisit the plan. If a named executor dies and you don’t update the will, then what happens if the second executor dies?

A young family member grows up. Most people name a parent as their executor, then a spouse or trusted sibling. Two or three decades go by. An adult child may now be ready to take on the task of handling your estate.

New laws go into effect. In recent months, there have been many big changes to the law that impact estate planning, from the SECURE Act to the CARES act. Ask your estate planning attorney every few years, if there have been new laws that are relevant to your estate plan.

An inheritance or a windfall. If you come into a significant amount of money, your tax liability changes. You’ll want to update your will, so you can do efficient tax planning as part of your estate plan.

Can’t find your will? If you can’t find the original will, then you need a new will. Your estate planning attorney will make sure that your new will has language that states revokes all prior wills.

Buying property in another country or moving to another country. Some countries have reciprocity with America. However, transferring property to an heir in one country may be delayed, if the will needs to be probated in another country. Ask your estate planning attorney, if you need wills for each country in which you own property.

Family and friends are enemies. Friends have no rights when it comes to your estate plan. Therefore, if families and friends are fighting, the family member will win. If you suspect that your family may push back to any bequests to friends, consider adding a “No Contest” clause to disinherit family members who try to elbow your friends out of the estate.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 26, 2020) “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will”

What Should My Estate Plan Include?

The Huffington Post’s recent article entitled “A Guide To Estate Planning During The Coronavirus Pandemic” says that almost everyone should have an estate plan—even if there’s no major health threat. If you don’t have one, right now is a great time to put it together.

In the COVID-19 pandemic, the two most critical documents to have are medical and financial powers of attorney. You should name someone to do your banking or make your medical decisions, if you are quarantined in your home, admitted to the hospital, or become incapacitated. When you have those in place, you need to create a comprehensive estate plan. Let’s look at the documents you should have and what they mean.

  1. A Financial Power of Attorney. This is a legal document that gives your agent authority to take care of your financial affairs and protect your assets by acting on your behalf. For example, your agent can pay bills, write checks, make deposits, sell or purchase assets, or file your tax returns. Without an FPOA, there’s no one who can act on your behalf. Family members will have to petition the probate court to appoint a guardian to have these powers, and this can be a time-consuming and expensive process.
  2. A Health Care Power of Attorney. Like a financial power of attorney, this legal document gives an agent the power to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you become incompetent or incapacitated. If you’re over the age of 18 and don’t have an HCPOA, your family members will have to ask the probate court to again appoint a guardian with these powers.
  3. A Living Will (Advance Health Care Directive). This allows you to legally determine the type of end-of-life treatment you want to receive, in the event you become terminally ill or permanently unconscious and cannot survive without life support. Without a living will, the decision to remove life support is thrust upon your health care agent or family members, and it can be an extremely stressful decision. If you draft a living will, you detail your wishes and take that decision out of their hands.
  4. A HIPAA Waiver. An advance health care directive will likely contain language that allows your agent to access your medical records, but frequently hospitals will refuse access to medical information without a separate HIPAA waiver. This lets your agents and family members access your medical data so they can speak freely with your physicians, if there is a medical emergency or you become incapacitated.
  5. A Will. A last will and testament is a legal document through which you direct how you want your assets disbursed when you pass away. It also allows you to name an executor to oversee the distribution of your assets. Without a will, the distribution of your assets will be dictated by state law, and the court will name someone to oversee the administration of your estate. A will also lets you name a guardian to take care of your minor children.
  6. A Living Trust. A revocable living trust is a legal tool whereby you create an entity to hold title to your assets. You can change your trust at any time, and you can set it up to outlive you. In the event you become incapacitated or are unable to manage your estate, your trust will bypass a court-appointed conservatorship. A trust also gives you privacy concerning the details of your estate, because it avoids probate, which is a public process. A living trust can also help provide for the care, support, and education of your children, by releasing funds or assets to them at an age you set. A living trust can also leave your assets to your children in a way that will lessen the ability of their creditors or ex-spouses to take your children’s inheritance from them.

Reference: The Huffington Post (April 7, 2020) “A Guide To Estate Planning During The Coronavirus Pandemic”

Can You Place a Life Insurance Policy in a Trust?

Trusts are frequently used in the estate planning process. They help with in the distribution of assets, making certain that everything is distributed to the right people and entities. A trust can also reduce estate taxes, because it lets you remove assets from your estate, so more wealth can be passed to beneficiaries.

Many people don’t know that you can even place a life insurance policy within a trust. Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Can You Trust Your Trustee?” explains that life insurance in a trust is called trust-owned life insurance (TOLI). A TOLI is like bank-owned and company-owned life insurance. Trustees often do a good job of completing basic tasks, but conflicts and problems can pop up when trustees don’t understand where their loyalties should be and how to deal with complex financial issues.

A trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of a trust. The trustee is required to manage the trust assets pursuant to the instructions of the trust for the beneficiaries.

TOLI beneficiaries usually have a desire to maximize the amount of wealth they will receive, when the trust assets are distributed. The trustee must, therefore, actively manage the insurance policy, or policies, that are owned by the trust. This includes determining if the policy is performing up to the projections reflected in the original life insurance illustration. It also requires the trustee to try to identify alternative policies that may be more in line with the desires of the beneficiaries. New life insurance products have made some policies sold in the past obsolete. An old under-performing policy can often be replaced. However, some trustees don’t possess the skills necessary to oversee trust-owned life insurance. A trustee should understand and be aware of:

  • The policy’s performance relative to expectations
  • The last time the life insurance policy was reviewed
  • If there are other policies that may do a better job of meeting wishes and stipulations expressed in the trust document
  • Whether the credit rating of the insurance company that issued the policy has decreased and
  • If the allocation of the sub-accounts is still aligned with the investment policy statement.

Trust-owned life insurance can have an important role in the estate plans of many people, but not all trustees have the bandwidth when it comes to insurance and estate planning to fulfill their fiduciary responsibilities. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney for assistance.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2019) “Can You Trust Your Trustee?”

When Should I Update My Estate Plan?

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Do You Need A Trust? 8 Important Goals A Trust Can Help You Achieve” discusses eight ways a trust can help you achieve specific legacy planning goals. The first step is to meet with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Everybody needs a will, but not everyone requires a trust. A trust provides greater flexibility and control over how your property and assets are distributed. Many people create a trust to avoid probate. As a result, it’s faster and easier for your named trustee(s) to distribute your assets to your heirs. There are a many different types of trusts with advantages and disadvantages. Talk about what will be best for you with your estate planning attorney.

  1. No probate. This process can take months or more to complete, and it can be very expensive. A trust is designed to settle your estate in a timely and relatively inexpensive manner.
  2. Privacy and confidentiality. Probate is public, so your will and other private financial and business info is available to everyone. However, a trust maintains privacy and confidentiality.
  3. Protection for beneficiaries. A trust can shield beneficiaries from lawsuits, creditors, or divorce. A trust can also protect the interests of a minor, by including direction for when distributions are made.
  4. Provide for children with special needs. This type of trust provides for the health care and personal needs of a minor child or adult who has special needs and won’t impact their eligibility for Medicaid benefits.
  5. Flexibility. As the creator of the trust, you determine the terms of the trust, and can put restrictions on how trust assets are managed. For instance, the trust could state that assets may only be used by the beneficiary to purchase a home or to pay medical bills but may not be distributed directly to the beneficiary.
  6. Preserve family wealth. Divorce and remarriage can result in assets that were supposed to stay in the family wind up leaving with the ex-spouse. A trust can make certain that your estate is preserved for grandchildren.
  7. Family values. A trust can be a wonderful way to pass down family values concerning education, home ownership, land conservation, community service, religious beliefs and other topics.
  8. Lessening family conflict. Challenging a trust is difficult and costly. Having a trust in place that clearly articulates your wishes for your family, reduces the potential for misunderstanding.

Whether you have a trust in place or are thinking about creating one, it’s important to meet regularly with your estate planning attorney to be certain your strategy and estate planning documents reflect any new state and federal tax laws, as well as any changes in your goals and circumstances.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 24, 2020) “Do You Need A Trust? 8 Important Goals A Trust Can Help You Achieve”

What’s the Difference Between an Inter Vivos Trust and a Testamentary Trust?

Trusts can be part of your estate planning to transfer assets to your heirs. A trust created while an individual is still alive is an inter vivos trust, while one established upon the death of the individual is a testamentary trust.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Inter Vivos Trust vs. Testamentary Trust: What’s the Difference?” explains that an inter vivos or living trust is drafted as either a revocable or irrevocable living trust and allows the individual for whom the document was established to access assets like money, investments and real estate property named in the title of the trust. Living trusts that are revocable have more flexibility than those that are irrevocable. However, assets titled in or made payable to both types of living trusts bypass the probate process, once the trust owner dies.

With an inter vivos trust, the assets are titled in the name of the trust by the owner and are used or spent down by him or her, while they’re alive. When the trust owner passes away, the remainder beneficiaries are granted access to the assets, which are then managed by a successor trustee.

A testamentary trust (or will trust) is created when a person dies, and the trust is set out in their last will and testament. Because the creation of a testamentary trust doesn’t occur until death, it’s irrevocable. The trust is a created by provisions in the will that instruct the executor of the estate to create the trust. After death, the will must go through probate to determine its authenticity before the testamentary trust can be created. After the trust is created, the executor follows the directions in the will to transfer property into the trust.

This type of trust doesn’t protect a person’s assets from the probate process. As a result, distribution of cash, investments, real estate, or other property may not conform to the trust owner’s specific desires. A testamentary trust is designed to accomplish specific planning goals like the following:

  • Preserving property for children from a previous marriage
  • Protecting a spouse’s financial future by giving them lifetime income
  • Leaving funds for a special needs beneficiary
  • Keeping minors from inheriting property outright at age 18 or 21
  • Skipping your surviving spouse as a beneficiary and
  • Making gifts to charities.

Through trust planning, married couples may use of their opportunity for estate tax reduction through the Unified Federal Estate and Gift Tax Exemption. That’s the maximum amount of assets the IRS allows you to transfer tax-free during life or at death. It can be a substantial part of the estate, making this a very good choice for financial planning.

Reference: Investopedia (Aug. 30, 2019) “Inter Vivos Trust vs. Testamentary Trust: What’s the Difference?”

Do I Need a Revocable Living Trust?

A revocable living trust is created with a written agreement or declaration that names a trustee to manage and administer the property of the grantor. If you’re a competent adult, you can establish an RLT. As the grantor, or creator of the trust, you can name any competent adult as your trustee, or you can use a bank or a trust company for this role. The grantor can also act as trustee throughout his lifetime.

Investopedia’s article from last fall entitled “Should You Set up a Revocable Living Trust?” explains that after it’s created, you must retitled assets—like investments, bank accounts, and real estate—into the trust. You no longer “own” those assets directly. Instead, they belong to the trust and don’t have to go through probate at your death. However, with a revocable living trust, you retain control of the assets while you’re alive, even though they no longer belong to you directly. A revocable living trust can be changed, and any income earned by the trust’s assets passes to you and is taxable. However, the assets themselves don’t transfer from the trust to your beneficiaries until your death.

Avoiding probate is the big benefit of a living trust, but other benefits like privacy protection and flexibility make it a good choice. A living trust can be used to help control a guardian’s spending habits for the benefit of minor children. It can also instruct another individual to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated and need someone to make decisions for you. Should you become impaired or disabled, the trust can automatically appoint your trustee to oversee it and your financial affairs without a durable power of attorney.

Although there are several advantages to establishing a revocable living trust, there also some drawbacks:

Expense. Establishing a trust requires legal assistance, which is an expense.

Maintaining Records. Most of the time, you need to monitor it on an annual basis and make adjustments as needed (they don’t automatically adapt to changed circumstances, like a divorce or a new grandchild). There’s the trouble of ensuring that future assets are continuously registered to the trust.

Re-titling Property. When your RLT is established, property must be re-titled in the name of the trust, requiring additional time. Fees can apply to processing title changes.

Minimal Asset Protection. Despite the myth, a revocable living trust offers little asset protection beyond avoiding probate if you retain an ownership interest, such as naming yourself as trustee.

Administrative Expenses. There can also be additional professional fees, such as investment advisory and trustee fees, if you appoint a bank or trust company as the trustee.

There’s No Tax Break. Your assets in the RLT will continue to incur taxes on their gains or income and be subject to creditors and legal action.

Compared to wills, revocable trusts have more privacy, more control and flexibility over asset distribution. With a revocable living trust, you do most of the work up front, making the disposition of your estate easier and faster. However, an RLT requires more effort, and there is an expense in creating and maintaining it.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you are considering a revocable living trust.

Reference: Investopedia (Oct. 31, 2019) “Should You Set up a Revocable Living Trust?”

Your Estate Plan is a “Dynamic Document”

One of the most common mistakes people make about their estate planning is neglecting to coordinate all of the moving parts, reports the Dayton Business Journal’s article “Baird expert gives estate planning advice.” The second most common mistake is not thinking of your estate plan as a dynamic document. Many people believe that once their estate plan is done, it’s done forever. That creates a lot of problems for the families and their heirs.

In the last few years, we have seen three major federal tax law changes, including an increase in the federal estate tax exemption amount from $3,500,000 to an enormous $11,580,000. The estate tax exemption is also now portable. Most recently, the SECURE Act has changed how IRAs are distributed to heirs. All of these changes require a fresh look at estate plans. The same holds true for changes within families: births, deaths, marriages and divorces all call for a review of estate plans.

For younger adults in their 20s, an estate plan includes a last will and testament, financial power of attorney, healthcare power of attorney and a HIPAA authorization form. People in their 40s need a deeper dive into an estate plan, with discussions on planning for minor children, preparing to leave assets for children in trusts, ensuring that the family has the correct amount of life insurance in place, and planning for unexpected incapacitation. This is also the time when people have to start planning for their parents, with discussions about challenging topics, like their wishes for end-of-life care and long-term care insurance.

In their 60s, the estate plan needs to reflect the goals of the couple, and expectations of what you both want to happen on your passing. Do you want to create a legacy of giving, and what tools will be best to accomplish this: a charitable remainder trust, or other estate planning tools? Ensuring that your assets are properly titled, that beneficiaries are properly named on assets like life insurance, investment accounts, etc., becomes more important as we age.

This is also the time to plan for how your assets will be passed to your children. Are your children prepared to manage an inheritance, or would they be better off having their inheritance be given to them over the course of several years via a trust? If that is the case, who should be the trustee?

Some additional pointers:

  • Revise your estate plan every three or five years with your estate planning attorney.
  • Evaluate solutions to provide tax advantages to your estate.
  • Review asset titling and beneficiary designations.
  • Make sure your charitable giving is done in a tax efficient way.
  • Plan for the potential tax challenges that may impact your estate

Regardless of your age and state, your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you through the process of creating and then reviewing your estate plan.

Reference: Dayton Business Journal (February 4, 2020) “Baird expert gives estate planning advice”

 

The Latest on Kirk Douglas’ Estate

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Kirk Douglas Lived Well, Died Rich And May Trigger $200M Los Angeles Range War” explains that Douglas worked steadily in a four-decade period but slowed down after the early 1980s. Since that’s almost 40 years ago, one might think that what would be considered a modest legacy by modern standards would be whittled down considerably. However, Kirk Douglas died extremely rich, despite a long life and decades of semi-retirement.

Douglas was one of the first to ask to participate in the profit of his movies and was one of the first stars to form his own production company. For example, Spartacus was big enough to gross $30 million on its $12 million budget. When he started his company, he refused to pay himself for that film. Instead he took 60% of the profit and wound up about $3 million ahead. His company owned the films and sold off distribution rights.

His widow Anne is now the only shareholder of record. She’s rolled the money into a family trust that over the decades created numerous tiers of holding companies and joint ventures. One of those joint ventures ended up owning half the land under Marina Del Rey’s high-rise Shores apartment complex, a property that cost a reported $165 million to build. The land is nearly priceless.

Now that it’s only Anne, the successor trustees will one day need to decide what to do with the land. She called the shots on the accounting side. Kirk remarked that he didn’t even know where the money was. However, when he found out, he got eager to give it all away. Tens of millions have already been committed to hospitals, schools and theaters.

Estate tax won’t be an issue because Kirk and Anne conducted thorough estate planning so that any wealth that goes to the family will transfer via a trust. That way, they’ll get a portion of the income without triggering estate tax concerns.

Thanks to all of Kirk’s films—many of which he owned like Spartacus—he compiled tens of millions of dollars in cash and stock during his lifetime. In almost 70 years of marital bliss, his planning added up to a lot of marital property. It was good life with good things yet to come.

It’s a testament to the power of long-term thinking. Kirk Douglas’ fortune has remained intact for generations and will undoubtedly keep helping the world for many years to come.

Reference:  Wealth Advisor (Feb. 4, 2020) “Kirk Douglas Lived Well, Died Rich And May Trigger $200M Los Angeles Range War”