Can I Avoid Probate?

If you have life insurance, lifetime survivor benefits, a home or other investments, who gets them and when depends on what you have done or should do: have an estate plan. This is how you legally protect your family and friends to be sure that they receive what you want after you die, says the article “How (and why) to avoid probate: A slap at your family!” from Federal News Network.

A common goal is to simplify your estate plan to make administering it as easy as possible for your loved ones. This usually involves structuring an estate plan to avoid probate, which can be time-consuming and, depending on where you live, add a considerable cost to settle your estate.

There are a number of ways to accomplish this through an estate plan, including jointly owned property, beneficiary designations and the use of trusts.

Many individuals hold property in joint names, also known as “tenant by the entirety” with a spouse. When one spouse dies, the other becomes the owner without probate. It should be noted that this supersedes the terms of a will or a trust.

Another type of joint ownership is “tenancy in common,” However, property held as tenants in common does not avoid probate. The distribution of property titled this way is governed by the will. If there is no will, the state’s estate laws will govern who receives the property on death of one of the owners.

Beware: property owned jointly is subject to any litigation or creditor issues of a joint owner. It can be risky.

Beneficiary designations are a seamless way to transfer property. This can take the form of a POD (payable on death) or TOD (transfer on death) account. Pensions, insurance policies and certain types of retirement accounts provide owners with the opportunity to name a beneficiary. Upon the death of the owner, the assets pass directly to the beneficiary. The asset is not subject to probate and the designations supersede the terms of a will or trust.

Review beneficiary designations every time you review your estate plan. If you opened a 401(k) account at your first job and have not reviewed the beneficiary designation in many years, you may be unwittingly giving someone you have not seen for years a nice surprise upon your passing.

If you own assets other than joint property or assets without beneficiary designation, an estate planning attorney can structure your estate plan to include trusts. A trust is a legal entity owning any property transferred into it. A trust can avoid probate and provide a great deal of control by the grantor as to what they want to happen to the property.

Reference: Federal News Network (March 30, 2022) “How (and why) to avoid probate: A slap at your family!”

No Will? What Happens Now Can Be a Horror Show

Families who have lived through settling an estate without an estate plan will agree that the title of this article, “Preventing the Horrors of Dying Without a Will,” from Next Avenue, is no exaggeration. When the family is grieving is no time to be fighting, yet the absence of a will and an estate plan leads to this exact situation.

Why do people procrastinate having their wills and estate plans done?

Limited understanding about wealth transfers. People may think they do not have enough assets to require an estate plan. Their home, retirement funds or savings account may not be in the mega-millions, but this is actually more of a reason to have an estate plan.

Fear of mortality. We do not like to talk or think about death. However, talking about what will happen when you die or what may happen if you become incapacitated is very important. Planning so your children or other trusted family member or friends will be able to make decisions on your behalf or care for you alleviates what could otherwise turn into an expensive and emotionally disastrous time.

Perceived lack of benefits. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney who will put your interests first means you will have one less thing to worry about while you are living and towards the end of your life.

Estate planning documents contain the wishes and directives for your legacy and finances after you pass. They answer questions like:

  • Who should look after your minor children, if both primary caregivers die before the children reach adulthood?
  • If you become incapacitated, who should handle your financial affairs, who should be in charge of your healthcare and what kind of end-of-life care do you want?
  • What do you want to happen to your assets after you die? Your estate refers to your financial accounts, personal possessions, retirement funds, pensions and real estate.

Your estate plan includes a will, trusts (if appropriate), a durable financial power of attorney, a health care power of attorney or advanced directive and a living will. The will distributes your property and also names an executor, who is in charge of making sure the directions in the will are carried out.

If you become incapacitated by illness or injury, the POA gives agency to someone else to carry out your wishes while you are living. The living will provides an opportunity to express your wishes regarding end-of-life care.

There are many different reasons to put off having an estate plan, but they all end up in the same place: the potential to create family disruption, unnecessary expenses and stress. Show your family how much you love them, by overcoming your fears and preparing for the next generation. Meet with an estate planning attorney and prepare for the future.

Reference: Next Avenue (March 21, 2022) “Preventing the Horrors of Dying Without a Will”

Is Estate Planning Affected by Property in Two States?

Cleveland Jewish News’ recent article titled “Use attorney when considering multi-state estate plan says that if a person owns real estate or other tangible property (like a boat) in another state, they should think about creating a trust that can hold all their real estate. You don’t need one for each state. You can assign or deed their property to the trust, no matter where the property is located.

Some inherited assets require taxes be paid by the inheritors. Those taxes are determined by the laws of the state in which the asset is located.

A big mistake that people frequently make is not creating a trust. When a person fails to do this, their assets will go to probate. Some other common errors include improperly titling the property in their trust or failing to fund the trust. When those things occur, ancillary probate is required.  This means a probate estate needs to be opened in the other state. As a result, there may be two probate estates going on in two different states, which can mean twice the work and expense, as well as twice the stress.

Having two estates going through probate simultaneously in two different states can delay the time it takes to close the probate estate.

There are some other options besides using a trust to avoid filing an ancillary estate. Most states let an estate holder file a “transfer on death affidavit,” also known as a “transfer on death deed” or “beneficiary deed” when the asset is real estate. This permits property to go directly to a beneficiary without needing to go through probate.

A real estate owner may also avoid probate by appointing a co-owner with survivorship rights on the deed. Do not attempt this without consulting an attorney.

If you have real estate, like a second home, in another state (and) you die owning that individually, you’re going to have to probate that in the state where it’s located. It is usually best to avoid probate in multiple jurisdictions, and also to avoid probate altogether.

A co-owner with survivorship is an option for avoiding probate. If there’s no surviving spouse, or after the first one dies, you could transfer the estate to their revocable trust.

Each state has different requirements. If you’re going to move to another state or have property in another state, you should consult with a local estate planning attorney.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (March 21, 2022) “Use attorney when considering multi-state estate plan”

Is It Important for Physicians to Have an Estate Plan?

When the newly minted physician completes their residency and begins practicing, the last thing on their minds is getting their estate plan in order. Instead, they should make it a priority, according to a recent article titled “Physicians, get your estate in order or the court will do it instead” from Medical Economics. Physicians accumulate wealth to a greater degree and faster than most people. They are also in a profession with a higher likelihood of being sued than most. They need an estate plan.

Estate planning does more than distribute assets after death. It is also asset protection. An estate planning attorney helps physicians, dentists and other medical professionals protect their assets and their legacies.

Basic estate planning documents include a last will and testament, financial power of attorney and a medical power of attorney. However, the physician’s estate is complex and requires an attorney with experience in asset protection and business succession.

During the process of creating an estate plan, the physician will need to determine who they would want to serve as a guardian, if there are minor children and what they would want to occur if all of their beneficiaries were to predecease them. A list should be drafted with all assets, debts, including medical school loans, life insurance documents and retirement or pension accounts, including the names of beneficiaries.

The will is the center of the estate plan. It will require naming a person, typically a spouse, to be the executor: the person in charge of administering the estate. If the physician is not married, a trusted relative or friend can be named. There should also be a second person named, in case the first is unable to serve.

If the physician owns their practice, the estate plan should be augmented with a business succession plan. The will’s executor may need to oversee decisions regarding the sale of the practice. A trusted friend with no business acumen or knowledge of how a medical practice works may not be the best executor. These are all important considerations. Special considerations apply when the “business” is a professional practice, so do not make any moves without expert estate planning assistance.

The will only controls assets in the individual’s name. Assets owned jointly, or those with a beneficiary designation, are not governed by the will.

Without a will, the entire estate may need to go through probate, which is a lengthy and expensive process. For one family, their father’s lack of a will and secrecy took 18 months and cost $30,000 in legal fees for the estate to be settled.

Trusts are an option for protecting assets. By placing assets in trust, they are protected from creditors and provide control in complex family situations. The goal is to create a trust and fund it before any legal actions occur. Transferring assets after a lawsuit has begun or after a creditor has attached an asset could lead to a physician being charged with fraudulent conveyance—where assets are transferred for the sole purpose of avoiding paying creditors.

Estate planning is never a one-and-done event. If a doctor starts a family limited partnership to transfer wealth to the next generation but neglects to properly maintain the partnership, some or all of the funds may be vulnerable.

An estate plan needs to be reviewed every few years and certainly every time a major life event occurs, including marriage, divorce, birth, death, relocation, or a significant change in wealth.

When consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney, a doctor should ask about the potential benefits of revocable living trust planning to avoid probate, maintain privacy and streamline the administration of the estate upon incapacity or at death.

Reference: Medical Economics (Feb. 22, 2022) “Physicians, get your estate in order or the court will do it instead”

Why Is Estate Planning Review Important?

Maybe your estate plan was created when you were single, and there have been some significant changes in your life. Perhaps you got married or divorced.

You also may now be on better terms with children with whom you were once estranged.

Tax and estate laws can also change over time, requiring further updates to your planning documents.

WMUR’s recent article entitled “The ‘final’ estate-planning step” reminds us that change is a constant thing. With that in mind, here are some key indicators that a review is in order.

  • The value of your estate has changed dramatically
  • You or your spouse changed jobs
  • Changes to your income level or income needs
  • You are retiring and no longer working
  • There is a divorce or marriage in your family
  • There is a new child or grandchild
  • There is a death in the family
  • You (or a close family member) have become ill or incapacitated
  • Your parents have become dependent on you
  • You have formed, purchased, or sold a business;
  • You make significant financial transactions, such as substantial gifts, borrowing or lending money, or purchasing, leasing, or selling assets or investments
  • You have moved
  • You have purchased a vacation home or other property in another state
  • A designated trustee, executor, or guardian dies or changes his or her mind about serving; and
  • You are making changes in your insurance coverage.

Reference: WMUR (Feb. 3, 2022) “The ‘final’ estate-planning step”

How Do I Give Assets to Minor Grandchildren in My Will?

If a married couple is creating its estate plan, then how does the couple leave the estate to non-adult grandchildren?

However, what if something were to happen to them before the grandchildren become adults? Can this couple make sure the minor grandchildren do not get control of any inheritance until they’re adults?

Can arrangements be made for any unborn grandchildren to be included?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “How can I leave my money to my minor grandchildren when I die?” says that one way to solve these issues is to create a testamentary trust to provide for young beneficiaries whether they’re children, grandchildren, step-children, or unrelated beneficiaries. The terms of a testamentary trust are in your will. It is only established and funded after you pass away.

The terms of the trust generally provide instructions to the trustee about the ages at which distributions must be made, if any. These instructions also allow the trustee to make discretionary distributions of income and principal to the beneficiaries.

Beneficiaries do not need to be identified by name or need to be born at the time the will is written.  However, they must be able to be identified upon your death. As a result, you can provide a bequest to all of your grandchildren, whether or not they are born yet.

It doesn’t matter where your grandchildren live as far as estate planning is concerned. However, if they live outside the United States and the bequest is considerable, the laws of their home country should be addressed. This is because a big gift may cause adverse tax implications to the recipient.

For children, some states’ laws allow you to add a term in your will that penalizes any interested person — like an heir or beneficiary — for contesting the will.

However, if there’s probable cause initiating a proceeding concerning the estate, then the clause will not be enforced.

When a person names another as primary beneficiary, they should also name one or more contingent beneficiaries, so that if the first person predeceases him or her, they will not have to revise the will.

If you do not designate a contingent beneficiary, and an heir predeceases, the assets pass according to the state’s intestacy statute rather than according to the will.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 9, 2021) “How can I leave my money to my minor grandchildren when I die?”

How to Protect Valuable Assets in Estate Planning

If you fail to take the necessary measures, you can lose your assets and property, which might cause financial challenges when you will not be working in retirement.

Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “How to Legally Protect Your Assets” says there are different strategies you can use to protect your personal assets.

This will help you to prepare for any eventuality. Let’s look at some of them:

A Family Trust. This may be one of the best strategies to protect your personal assets. A trust will help protect your assets when you lose all your money. A family trust can also provide tax benefits to family members in lower tax brackets. However, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney before setting up the trust to make the right decisions.

Start a Company. This may be an alternative to setting up a family trust, since your property will be more secure than when operating a sole proprietorship or a partnership business. This gives you a more secure future, even when you face financial challenges. However, there are many legalities in starting a company, so talk to an attorney.

Register Your Most Valuable Assets in the Name of the Low-risk Spouse. This tactic will make it difficult for a trustee or liquidator to gain access to the property in case of bankruptcy. However, ask an attorney to help you to structure the purchase to make certain that the low-risk partner’s name appears on the legal documents. An experienced estate planning attorney can also help you access benefits, such as Social Security and Medicaid.

These laws keep changing. You might miss an opportunity of getting long-term care planning, if you keep postponing a review with an experienced estate planning attorney.

As you spend your hard-earned cash, take some time to learn how to protect what you buy.  You should also use the legal strategies above to keep your property secure.

Reference: Legal Reader Jan. 26, 2022) “How to Legally Protect Your Assets” 

What are the Most Common Estate Planning Mistakes?

There are so many estate planning horror mistakes, it’s hard to know which is the worst. One is the woman who had an estate plan created, but only named one guardian for her teenage daughter. When the guardian declined to serve, the girl was moved into foster care. Many estate planning attorneys recommend not one, but two alternate guardians, according to the article “Don’t get tripped up by these common estate planning pitfalls” from MarketWatch.

Joint ownership of bank accounts leads to a tangled mess. Seniors often add one of their adult children to ownership of their bank accounts, so the child can manage their affairs or keep an eye open for financial elder abuse. However, when the parent dies, the account is the sole property of the child, and siblings have no say over what the new owner does with the money. Even if the children agree to split the money evenly, the federal gift tax exemption is limited to an annual gift, gift tax returns have to be filed and a simple idea becomes expensive and time consuming.

If joint ownership of an account is necessary, it may be better to add all of the children or have in a separate writing the intention that this is an asset you want divided equally among the children. Easier still: create a new account dedicated to paying bills and maintain a small balance. Even better, if the institution allows you to arrange for the account to “pay on death,” then designate all of your children as beneficiaries. This approach will avoid probate, while treating all children equally and not exposing your account to any potential divorces, lawsuits, or bankruptcies during your lifetime.

Giving money to grandchildren directly. Putting a minor as a beneficiary of a percentage of an estate requires the involvement of a judge approving the bequest and the appointment of a custodian over the account until the minor becomes an adult. An estate planning attorney would likely recommend the use of a trust for the benefit of the minor. Alternatively, limit bequests to adult children and adult grandchildren.

An adult child or surviving spouse living in the house. A man created a property trust to allow his second wife to remain in the house he owned before their marriage. The couple had jointly paid off the mortgage. The man named his daughter from a prior marriage as the successor trustee. The daughter began making unreasonable demands on the surviving spouse to make expensive improvements. Years of bad blood between the two erupted into years of litigation. The parties finally agreed to revise the trust terms and name a professional trustee, but not after an expensive and stressful battle.

When one of the children is living in the house and the will says the home is to be divided among the siblings equally, what happens? Does the child who lives in the house get first right of refusal to buy out their sibling’s shares? Are they paying rent to siblings? What if the child living in the house decides to sell, after they personally have invested a lot of money improving the house?

Estate planning attorneys bring up these kinds of situations with clients not because they want to scare people, but because they have seen firsthand what happens when an estate plan fails to anticipate a variety of situations. The estate planning attorney needs to know about the family’s dynamics in detail, in order to create the best plan to achieve the desired outcome and prevent as many twists and turns as possible.

Reference: MarketWatch (Jan. 6, 2022) “Don’t get tripped up by these common estate planning pitfalls”

Does My State Have an Inheritance Tax?

Real Simple’s recent article entitled “Here’s Which States Collect Zero Estate or Inheritance Taxes” explains that inheritance taxes are levies paid by the living beneficiary who gets the inheritance. And both federal and state governments can apply estate taxes, which are levied against the assets that are bequeathed.

Just five states apply an inheritance tax: New Jersey, Nebraska, Iowa, Kentucky and Pennsylvania. There are 12 states that have an estate tax: Washington, Oregon, Minnesota, Illinois, New York, Maine, Vermont, Rhode Island, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Hawaii and the District of Columbia. Maryland collects both. As a result, there are 32 states that don’t collect death-related taxes: Alabama, Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Delaware, Florida, Georgia, Hawaii, Idaho, Indiana, Kansas, Louisiana, Michigan, Mississippi, Missouri, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Mexico, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oklahoma, South Carolina, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, Wisconsin and Wyoming.

To better estimate and project the possible outcomes, you should consider an intergenerational planning meeting. There are some families that like the transparency of establishing a trust. This can minimize fighting and avoid probate. Trusts are also taxed differently than individuals. There’s more certainty about who will bear the costs.

There are families that gift assets, while an elderly or chronically ill person is still alive. These gifts can be subject to taxation, but there are exceptions for tuition and medical expenses. Gifts to children may also be excluded.

There’s no one-size-fits-all approach to transferring valuable or sentimental assets. You can list the most important people and causes in your life. If that list has people in other states, it will be even more important to prepare everyone for their role and responsibilities with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

If inheritance tax sounds intimidating, start small with updating the beneficiary forms on your bank accounts and employer-led retirement accounts. Organize documents, such as insurance information and house titles and deeds. Make them secure but accessible to those who might need them, if you’re unavailable.

Even if you’re socially distancing, many estate planning attorneys offer consultations via video conferencing. There’s no reason to delay another year to clarify your inheritance and estate plans.

Reference: Real Simple (Nov. 24, 2021) “Here’s Which States Collect Zero Estate or Inheritance Taxes”

Why Do I Need an Estate Planning Attorney?

Pennsylvania News Today’s recent article entitled “Top 7 Reasons You Need An Estate Lawyer says that when you think about hiring a real estate lawyer, it might seem a little unsettling. However, let’s look at these reasons and why you might require them.

Estate Planning. You might want to consider this, but everyone passes away. It’s important that your family is ready for this. An experienced estate planning attorney can help you through this process and make certain everything is prepared. You should have a will. This document says what should happen with your assets when you pass away.

Trusts. A trust helps manage assets before someone dies. If you only have one or two assets you want given to someone, a will is adequate. However, if you own extensive property, ask an experienced estate planning attorney about setting up a trust. This will help your family keep living in your home, even after you’re gone without worrying about it being sold out from under them.

Probate. The probate court oversees the distribution of a person’s estate according to the instructions in their will. Probate can be a lengthy and expensive process, depending on where you live and the complexity of your assets or family situation. An estate planning attorney can help you with strategies to avoid it. A probate attorney can help you, so your family doesn’t have to worry about dealing with that stress or spending a vast amount of money necessary to do this correctly.

Guardianship. Guardianships are used when parents pass away and leave minor children behind. You can designate a guardian for your minor children in your will.

Elder Law Services. Seniors frequently need help managing finances and health care decisions. An experienced estate planning attorney or elder law attorney can help your loved ones through these complicated matters.

Estate Investments. An experienced attorney can also advise you on how to make smart investments for your family and can make certain that the transaction goes smoothly, and that any moves work with your estate planning objectives.

Tax Issues. Taxes may be owed on estates worth more than five million dollars. This can make it hard for heirs who don’t have access to this much money upfront. An estate planning attorney can help you avoid taxes, so your family doesn’t have to deal with this problem.

Estate planning is a process that should be started as soon as possible. You’ll need an estate planning lawyer who is knowledgeable and experienced to help.

Reference: Pennsylvania News Today (Nov. 11, 2021) “Top 7 Reasons You Need An Estate Lawyer”