How Do I Find a Good Estate Planning Attorney?

About 68% of Americans don’t have a will. With the threat of the coronavirus on everyone’s mind, people are in urgent need of an estate plan.

To make sure your plan is proper and legal, consult an experienced estate planning attorney. Work with a lawyer who understands your needs, has years of experience and knows the law in your state.

EconoTimes’ recent article entitled “Top 3 Estate Planning Tips When Seeing An Attorney” provides several tips for estate planning, when seeing an attorney.

Attorney Experience. An estate planning attorney will have the experience and specialized knowledge to help you, compared to a general practitioner. Look for an attorney who specializes in estate planning.

Inventory. List everything you have. Once you start the list, you may be surprised with the tangible and intangible assets you possess.

Tangible assets may include:

  • Cars and boats
  • Homes, land, and other real estate
  • Collectibles like art, coins, or antiques; and
  • Other personal possessions.

Your intangible assets may include:

  • Mutual funds, bonds, stocks
  • Savings accounts and certificates of deposit
  • Retirement plans
  • Health saving accounts; and
  • Business ownership.

Create Your Estate Planning Documents. Prior to seeing an experienced estate planning attorney, he or she will have you fill out a questionnaire and to bring a list of documents to the appointment. In every estate plan, the core documents often include a creating a last will and powers of attorney, as well as coordinating your Beneficiary Designations on life insurance and investment accounts. You may also want to ask about a trust and, if you haver minor children, selecting a guardian for their care, if you should pass away. You should also ask about estate taxes with the attorney.

Reference: EconoTimes (July 30, 2020) “Top 3 Estate Planning Tips When Seeing An Attorney”

What are Power of Attorney Options?

FedWeek’s recent article entitled The Options in Granting Powers of Attorney” explains that a power of attorney designates someone else to handle your affairs, if you can’t.

Here are the major types:

  • Limited power of attorney. This allows an agent to act on your behalf under specific circumstances, like a home sale closing that you can’t attend, and/or for a defined period of time.
  • General power of attorney. Gives broad authority to your agent, who at any time can write checks to pay your bills, sign contracts on your behalf and take distributions from your IRA.
  • Springing power of attorney. This isn’t effective when you execute it, but rather “springs” into effect upon certain circumstances, such as your becoming incompetent. You can say in the document what’s needed to verify your incompetency, like letters from two physicians stating that you no longer can manage your own affairs.

A power of attorney is important because your agent can act, if you become incapacitated. To serve this purpose, a power should be “durable,” so it will remain in effect if you become incompetent. Other powers of attorney may not be recognized, if a judge determines that you no longer can manage your affairs.

Without a power of attorney, your family may have to ask a judge to name a guardian to act in your best interests. A guardianship proceeding can be expensive and contentious. You might also wind up with an unwelcome interloper managing your finances. To avoid this situation, designate a person you trust as agent on your durable power.

A health care power of attorney, also known as a health care proxy or a medical power of attorney, should be a component of a complete estate plan. This document names a trusted agent to make decisions about your medical treatment, if you become unable to do so.

The person you name in your health care power doesn’t have to be the same person that you name as agent for a “regular” power of attorney (the POA that affects your finances).

For your health care power, chose a person in your family who is a medical professional or someone you trust to see that you get all necessary care.

Depending on state law, it may go into effect when a doctor (whom you can name in the POA) determines in writing that you no longer have the ability to make or communicate health care decisions.

Reference: FedWeek (Aug. 26, 2020) “The Options in Granting Powers of Attorney”

Estate Planning for Asset Distribution

Without proper planning, your will determines who inherits your property—everything from your home, car, bank accounts and personal possessions. Your spouse may not necessarily be your heir—and that’s just one of many reasons to have an estate plan.

An estate plan avoids a “default” distribution of your possessions, says the recent article “Asset distribution when we die” from LimaOhio.com.

Let’s say someone names a nephew as the beneficiary of his life insurance policy. The life insurance company has a contractual legal responsibility to pay the nephew, when the policy owner dies. In turn, the nephew will be required to provide a death certificate and prove that he is indeed the nephew. This is an example of an asset governed by a contract, also described as a named beneficiary.

Assets that are not governed by a contract are distributed to whoever a person directs to get the asset in their will, aka their last will and testament. If there is no will, the state law will determine who should get the assets in a process known as “intestate probate.”

In this process, when there is a last will, the executor is in charge of the assets. The executor is overseen by the probate court judge, who reviews the will and must give approval before assets can be distributed. However, the probate court’s involvement comes with a price, and it is not always a fast process. It is always faster and less costly to have an asset be distributed through a contract, like a trust or by having a beneficiary named to the asset.

If a will only provides limited instructions, the state’s law will fill in the gaps. Therefore, any assets that pass-through contracts will be distributed directly, assets noted in the will go through probate and anything else will go usually to the next of kin.

A better course of action is to have an estate attorney review all of your assets, determine who you want to receive your property and make up a plan to make this happen in a smooth, tax-efficient manner.

Reference: LimaOhio.com (Aug. 22, 2020) “Asset distribution when we die”

Different Trusts for Different Estate Planning Purposes

There are a few things all trusts have in common, explains the article “All trusts are not alike,” from the Times Herald-Record. They all have a “grantor,” the person who creates the trust, a “trustee,” the person who is in charge of the trust, and “beneficiaries,” the people who receive trust income or assets. After that, they are all different. Here’s an overview of the different types of trusts and how they are used in estate planning.

“Revocable Living Trust” is a trust created while the grantor is still alive, when assets are transferred into the trust. The trustee transfers assets to beneficiaries, when the grantor dies. The trustee does not have to be appointed by the court, so there’s no need for the assets in the trust to go through probate. Living trusts are used to save time and money, when settling estates and to avoid will contests.

A “Medicaid Asset Protection Trust” (MAPT) is an irrevocable trust created during the lifetime of the grantor. It is used to shield assets from the grantor’s nursing home costs but is only effective five years after assets have been placed in the trust. The assets are also shielded from home care costs after assets are in the trust for two and a half years. Assets in the MAPT trust do not go through probate.

The Supplemental or Special Needs Trust (SNT) is used to hold assets for a disabled person who receives means-tested government benefits, like Supplemental Security Income and Medicaid. The trustee is permitted to use the trust assets to benefit the individual but may not give trust assets directly to the individual. The SNT lets the beneficiary have access to assets, without jeopardizing their government benefits.

An “Inheritance Trust” is created by the grantor for a beneficiary and leaves the inheritance in trust for the beneficiary on the death of the trust’s creator. Assets do not go directly to the beneficiary. If the beneficiary dies, the remaining assets in the trust go to the beneficiary’s children, and not to the spouse. This is a means of keeping assets in the bloodline and protected from the beneficiary’s divorces, creditors and lawsuits.

An “Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust” (ILIT) owns life insurance to pay for the grantor’s estate taxes and keeps the value of the life insurance policy out of the grantor’s estate, minimizing estate taxes. As of this writing, the federal estate tax exemption is $11.58 million per person.

A “Pet Trust” holds assets to be used to care for the grantor’s surviving pets. There is a trustee who is charge of the assets, and usually a caretaker is tasked to care for the pets. There are instances where the same person serves as the trustee and the caretaker. When the pets die, remaining trust assets go to named contingent beneficiaries.

A “Testamentary Trust” is created by a will, and assets held in a Testamentary Trust do not avoid probate and do not help to minimize estate taxes.

An estate planning attorney in your area will know which of these trusts will best benefit your situation.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (August 1,2020) “All trusts are not alike”

When Exactly Do I Need to Update My Will?

Many people say that they’ve been meaning to update their last will and testament for years but never got around to doing it.

Kiplinger’s article entitled “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will” gives us a dozen times you should think about changing your last will:

  1. You’re expecting your first child. The birth or adoption of a first child is typically when many people draft their first last will. Designate a guardian for your child and who will be the trustee for any trust created for that child by the last will.
  2. You may divorce. Update your last will before you file for divorce, because once you file for divorce, you may not be permitted to modify your last will until the divorce is finalized. Doing this before you file for divorce ensures that your spouse won’t get all of your money, if you die before the divorce is final.
  3. You just divorced. After your divorce, your ex no longer has any rights to your estate (unless it’s part of the terms of the divorce). However, even if you don’t change your last will, most states have laws that invalidate any distributive provisions to your ex-spouse in that old last will. Nonetheless, update your last will as soon as you can, so your new beneficiaries are clearly identified.
  4. Your child gets married. Your current last will may speak to issues that applied when your child was a minor, so it may not address your child’s possible divorce. You may be able to ease the lack of a prenuptial agreement, by creating a trust in your last will and including post-nuptial requirements before you child can receive any estate assets.
  5. A beneficiary has issues. Last wills frequently leave money directly to a beneficiary. However, if that person has an addiction or credit issues, update your last will to include a trust that allows a trustee to only distribute funds under specific circumstances.
  6. Your executor or a beneficiary die. If your estate plan named individuals to manage your estate or receive any remaining funds, but they’re no longer alive, you should update your last will.
  7. Your child turns 18. Your current last will may designate your spouse or a parent as your executor, but years later, these people may be gone. Consider naming a younger family member to handle your estate affairs.
  8. A new tax or probate law is enacted. Congress may pass a bill that wrecks your estate plan. Review your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney every few years to see if there have been any new laws relevant to your estate planning.
  9. You come into a chunk of change. If you finally get a big lottery win or inherit money from a distant relative, update your last will so you can address the right tax planning. You also may want to change when and the amount of money you leave to certain individuals or charities.
  10. You can’t find your original last will. If you can’t locate your last will, be sure that you replace the last will with a new, original one that explicitly states it invalidated all prior last wills.
  11. You purchase property in another country or move overseas. Many countries have treaties with the U.S. that permit reciprocity of last wills. However, transferring property in one country may be delayed, if the last will must be probated in the other country first. Ask your estate planning attorney about having a different last will for each country in which you own property.
  12. Your feelings change for a family member. If there’s animosity between people named in your last will, you may want to disinherit someone. You might ask your estate planning attorney about a No Contest Clause that will disinherit the aggressive family member, if he or she attempts to question your intentions in the last will.

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

How Do I Incorporate Cryptocurrency into My Estate Planning?

Planning for cryptocurrency has been neglected. It means that, in some cases, the cryptocurrency has been lost. There have been people who tossed their computer hard drives with thousands of bitcoins (now worth millions). They then spend days sifting through tons of garbage. To save your family from this trouble and embarrassment after you die, add your cryptocurrency into your estate plan to preserve the benefits and avoid the risks of cryptocurrency.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning When You Own Cryptocurrency” says, first, you must preserve the benefits of your cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrency is highly secure. However, that security is in danger, if the private key is carelessly recorded or discarded. With the private key, anyone can access the cryptocurrency. As a result, your planning and procedures must address how to secure this information. Just like cash, cryptocurrency isn’t traceable. In fact, there’s no electronic or paper trail connecting the parties in a transaction involving cryptocurrency. Therefore, in order to preserve that privacy, you’ll need to plan so the other documentation in the transaction doesn’t reveal these identities, or at least keep that information privileged. Remember that transferring cryptocurrency takes only seconds.

Because cryptocurrency, like precious metals and other commodities, can fluctuate wildly in value even during the course of a day, it must be treated like stock in a private company and other assets that are volatile in nature. Cryptocurrency also isn’t subject to government regulation, so no government is responsible for losses from fraud, theft or other malfeasance.

Trusts and other planning devices have a tough time with cryptocurrency, especially if the Prudent Investor Rule applies. Without specific language, the trust won’t be capable of holding cryptocurrency. If that language is written too broadly, the trustee may be exempt from damages due to willful neglect.

Cryptocurrency is also taxed as property not as currency by the IRS, which means that the fair market value is set by conversion into U.S. dollars at “a reasonable exchange rate” and transactions involving cryptocurrency are subject to the capital gains tax regulations. As a result, you must have specific tax provisions in trusts, partnerships, LLCs, and other entities. Therefore, if you, or your business, own bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency, your estate, business succession, and financial plans need to address it specifically. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney for help.

Reference:  Wealth Advisor (August 4, 2020) “Estate Planning When You Own Cryptocurrency”

Do I Qualify as an Eligible Designated Beneficiary under the SECURE Act?

An eligible designated beneficiary (EDB) is a person included in a unique classification of retirement account beneficiaries. A person may be classified as an EDB, if they are classified as fitting into one of five categories of individuals identified in the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act. The bill passed in December 2019 and is effective for all inherited retirement accounts, as of the first of this year.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Eligible Designated Beneficiary” explains that these people get special treatment and greater flexibility to withdraw funds from their inherited accounts than other beneficiaries.

With the SECURE Act, there are now three types of beneficiaries. It is based on the individual’s connection to the original account owner, the beneficiary’s age, and his or her status as either an individual or a non-person entity. However, an EDB is always an individual. On the other hand, an EDB can’t be a trust, an estate, or a charity, which are considered not designated beneficiaries. There are five categories of individuals included in the EDB classification. These are detailed below.

In most instances, except for the exceptions below, an EDB must withdraw the balance from the inherited IRA account over the beneficiary’s life expectancy. There is optional special treatment allowed only for surviving spouses, which is explained below. When a minor child reaches the age of majority, he or she is no longer considered to be an EDB, and the 10-year rule concerning withdrawal requirements for a designated beneficiary applies.

Here are the five categories of EDBs.

Owner’s surviving spouse. Surviving spouses get special treatment, which lets them step into the shoes of the owner and withdraw the balance from the IRA over the original owner’s life expectancy. As another option, they can roll an inherited IRA into their own IRA and take withdrawals at the point when they’d normally take their own required minimum distributions (RMDs).

Owner’s minor child. A child who isn’t yet 18 can make withdrawals from an inherited retirement account using their own life expectancy. However, when he or she turns 18, the 10-year rule for designated beneficiaries (who aren’t EDBs) applies. At that point, the child would have until December 31 of the 10th year after their 18th birthday to withdraw all funds from the inherited retirement account. A deceased retirement account owner’s minor child can get an extension, up until age 26, for the start of the 10-year rule, if he or she is pursuing a specified course of education.

An individual who is disabled. The tax code says that an individual is considered to be disabled if he or she is “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or to be of long continued and indefinite duration.” A disabled person who inherits a retirement account can use their own life expectancy to calculate RMDs.

An individual who is chronically ill. The tax code states that “the term ‘chronically ill individual’ means any individual who has been certified by a licensed healthcare practitioner as—

  • being unable to perform (without substantial assistance from another individual) at least two activities of daily living for a period of at least 90 days, due to a loss of functional capacity,
  • having a level of disability similar (as determined under regulations prescribed by the Secretary in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services) to the level of disability described in clause (i), or
  • requiring substantial supervision to protect such individual from threats to health and safety due to severe cognitive impairment.”

A chronically ill individual who inherits a retirement account can use their own life expectancy to determine the RMDs.

Any other person who’s less than 10 years younger than the decedent. This is a catch-all that includes certain friends and siblings (depending on age), who are identified as beneficiaries of a retirement account. This also excludes most adult children (who aren’t disabled or chronically ill) from the five categories of EDBs. A person in this category who inherits a retirement account is permitted to use their own life expectancy to calculate RMDs.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2020) “Eligible Designated Beneficiary” 

Why Everyone Needs an Estate Plan

Financial planners know that most people need to have estate plans, no matter how much or even how little money they have, as explained in this recent article “I’m a financial planner, and there are 3 reasons everyone needs an estate plan no matter how much money you have” from Business Insider. An estate plan includes healthcare directives and identifies guardians for minor children in the event you and your spouse die unexpectedly. It also can be created to avoid your family from having to go through probate court.

Skipping this part of your overall financial and legal life could put you, your assets and your family members at risk. Estate planning is done to protect you and your loved ones. That’s just one reason why everyone needs an estate plan. Having an estate plan protects you while you are living.

An estate plan is more than just a will or a trust. The two most common tools in an estate plan are a will and trust, but that’s just the beginning. A will, or last will and testament, is the document that provides the instructions for your heirs and beneficiaries to follow after you die. Trusts are used to protect assets and enforce your wishes, after you’re gone. However, a good estate plan should also include these documents:

  • An advance healthcare directive or healthcare proxy. These documents stipulate how you want to be treated, if you are alive but so sick or injured that you can’t provide directions. You may want to have a Do Not Resuscitate Order (DNR).
  • Powers of attorney. This legal document outlines who can represent you in legal, medical or financial matters, if you are not able to do so.

The right documents help avoid probate court. If you don’t have a will, any property or possessions must go through the probate system. Your documents and information about your assets become part of the public record and can be seen by anyone. Going through probate opens the door to litigation and disputes, which can further delay settling your estate. Having a will and the proper trusts gives clarity to heirs about what you want.

An estate plan protects your children. If you don’t have a will, a court names the guardian who will raise your children. Instead, decide who you would want. Make sure the person you want to care for your children will accept this responsibility. Trusts are a way to preserve assets for your children. The trust is managed by a trustee after you die and can stipulate specific rules and uses for the assets. For instance, you can provide a certain amount of money for the children, until they reach age 18. At that point, your trust could instruct the trustee to use the money for college expenses. You can be as specific as you wish.

Meet with an estate planning attorney familiar with the laws of your state. An estate planning attorney will know the estate and tax laws that apply to you and your family.

Reference: Business Insider (June 12, 2020) “I’m a financial planner, and there are 3 reasons everyone needs an estate plan no matter how much money you have”

That Last Step: Trust Funding

Neglecting to fund trusts is a surprisingly common mistake, and one that can undo the best estate and tax plans. Many people put it on the back burner, then forget about it, says the article “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” from Forbes.

Done properly, trust funding helps avoid probate, provides for you and your family in the event of incapacity and helps save on estate taxes.

Creating a revocable trust gives you control. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust while you are living, including funding. Think of a trust like an empty box—you can put assets in it now, or after you pass. If you transfer assets to the trust now, however, your executor won’t have to do it when you die.

Note that if you don’t put assets in the trust while you are living, those assets will go through the probate process. While the executor will have the authority to transfer assets, they’ll have to get court approval. That takes time and costs money. It is best to do it while you are living.

A trust helps if you become incapacitated. You may be managing the trust while you are living, but what happens if you die or become too sick to manage your own affairs? If the trust is funded and a successor trustee has been named, the successor trustee will be able to manage your assets and take care of you and your family. If the successor trustee has control of an empty, unfunded trust, a conservatorship may need to be appointed by the court to oversee assets.

There’s a tax benefit to trusts. For married people, trusts are often created that contain provisions for estate tax savings that defer estate taxes until the death of the second spouse. Income is provided to the surviving spouse and access to the principal during their lifetime. The children are usually the ultimate beneficiaries. However, the trust won’t work if it’s empty.

Depending on where you live, a trust may benefit you with regard to state estate taxes. Putting money in the trust takes it out of your taxable estate. You’ll need to work with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the assets are properly structured. For instance, if your assets are owned jointly with your spouse, they will not pass into a trust at your death and won’t be outside of your taxable estate.

Move the right assets to the right trust. It’s very important that any assets you transfer to the trust are aligned with your estate plan. Taxable brokerage accounts, bank accounts and real estate are usually transferred into a trust. Some tangible assets may be transferred into the trust, as well as any stocks from a family business or interests in a limited liability company. Your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and insurance broker should be consulted to avoid making expensive mistakes.

You’ve worked hard to accumulate assets and protecting them with a trust is a good idea. Just don’t forget the final step of funding the trust.

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”

Why Is Trust Funding Important in Estate Planning?

Trust funding is a crucial part of estate planning that many people forget to do. If done properly with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney, trust funding will avoid probate, provide for you in the event of your incapacity and save on estate taxes, says Forbes’ recent article entitled “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding.”

If you have a revocable trust, you have control over the trust and can modify it during your lifetime. You can also fund the trust while you’re alive. This will save your family time and aggravation after your death.

You can also protect yourself and your family, if you become incapacitated. Your revocable trust likely provides for you and your family during your lifetime. You are able to manage your assets yourself, while you are alive and in good health. However, who will manage the assets in your place, if your health declines or if you are incapacitated?

If you go ahead and fund the trust now, your successor trustee will be able to manage the assets for you and your family if you’re not able. However, if a successor trustee doesn’t have access to the assets to manage on your behalf, a conservator may need to be appointed by the court to oversee your assets, which can be expensive and time consuming.

If you’re married, you may have created a trust that has terms for estate tax savings. These provisions will often defer estate taxes until the death of the second spouse, by providing income to the surviving spouse and access to principal during her lifetime. The ultimate beneficiaries are your children.

You’ll need to fund your trust to make certain that these estate tax provisions work properly.

Any asset transfer will need to be consistent with your estate plan. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about transferring taxable brokerage accounts, bank accounts and real estate to the trust.

You may also want to think about transferring tangible items to the trust and a closely held business interests, like stock in a family business or an interest in a limited liability company (LLC).

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”