What to Do When a Spouse Dies

The death of a spouse is one of life’s most stressful events and is an overwhelming experience. Having to deal with life’s legal and financial aspects while grieving is a challenge, says a recent article, “What To Do After The Death Of A Spouse,” from Forbes. One thing to note: all tasks don’t have to be done at once.

What does need to be done promptly is making funeral arrangements, notifying family and friends and alerting your estate planning attorney. Other immediate steps include:

  • Obtaining multiple copies of the death certificate
  • Asking a friend or relative to watch the house during the funeral. Burglaries often occur during funerals, when burial plans are public.
  • Arrange for any pets to be cared for.

There are a number of things to avoid as well. Letting grief and fear delay important actions can lead to larger estate problems. Don’t neglect to contact Social Security to report the death and monitor tax and other deadlines. Don’t start giving away assets, whatever persistent family members may say. You’ll need to go through the estate process properly. Assets are not distributed until all other tasks have been completed.

Legal and financial documents must be gathered and reviewed, including bank statements, investment accounts, retirement accounts and beneficiary designations, life insurance policies, estate planning documents and outstanding debts or liabilities.

Bills need to be paid. This can become problematic. For example, were the bills paid from joint accounts, your or your spouse’s account? Do you have a list of all accounts? Is it okay to pay a joint bill from your bank account? Do you need to change regularly made payments formerly made from your deceased spouse’s account to your account?

Hopefully, you and your spouse had the right estate planning documents completed beforehand. Next, contact your estate planning attorney to discuss the will and any trusts. Assets owned by your spouse only will likely go through probate. Assets with beneficiary designations, like retirement accounts or life insurance policy proceeds, will go directly to the beneficiaries.

The surviving spouse needs to file taxes for themselves and the deceased spouse by April 15 of the following year. Discuss with your estate planning attorney whether or not you’ll need to file a federal or state estate tax return, which is due nine months after death. Note that these may need to be filed even if no tax is due.

Reference: Forbes (April 20, 2023) “What To Do After The Death Of A Spouse”

Do Heirs Have to Pay Debts from an Estate?

Part of estate planning is considering how future repayment of debts, both owed to the person and debts they are responsible for, will impact inheritances received by beneficiaries. A recent article from Lake County News, “Estate Planning: Debts and Estate Planning,” explains how the process works.

Assets passing to a beneficiary directly, outside of probate, are not typically subject to paying a decedent’s debts. These are life insurance proceeds, joint tenancy assets, Payable on Death (POD) and Transfer on Death (TOD), to name a few.

The estate plan must consider how much debt exists and how it might be paid. One approach is to purchase life insurance made payable to the trust estate.

A person may specifically gift real property, which would be subject to repaying an outstanding debt, like a mortgage.

If the beneficiary who would otherwise receive the residence takes it subject to repaying the secured debt, other assets in the estate would need to be reduced to pay the debt.

This should be addressed when the estate plan is created and must be expressly documented. If not addressed, the default rule is that any secured debt goes with the gift. It’s not likely to have been the plan. However, this is how the law works.

Third, parents and children may loan money between themselves. This is usually between parent and child.

Such family debts merit attention during estate planning. For example, parents may wish to loan money to a child to pay higher education costs, to buy a home, or to launch a business.

Upon the death of the parent, should any unpaid balance be repaid by the child to the parent’s estate, or should the child’s debt be forgiven? This must also be clearly stated in the will or trust, whatever is relevant.

If the parent wishes the child to pay the unpaid balance, the debt obligation and its payment history must be in writing and updated. The debt may be assigned to the parent’s trust and enforced by the successor trustee.

At death, the unpaid balance would need to be added back into the estate’s value to arrive at the correct gross value necessary to assess each share of the total estate.

The unpaid balance is usually subtracted from the debtor’s share.

Children might also be owed money from a parent. For example, the adult child might provide at-home personal care services to their parent, or money may be lent to help with the parent’s cost of living. The debt and repayment history also needs to be in writing and updated regularly.

Debt must be acknowledged, and the means of repaying the debt must be made clear. An estate planning attorney will help document and build repayment into the estate plan.

Reference: Lake Country News (April 29, 2023) “Estate Planning: Debts and Estate Planning”

Use Estate Planning to Prepare for Cognitive Decline

Since 2000, the national median age in the U.S. has increased by 3.4 years, with the largest single year gain of 0.3 years in 2021, when the median age reached 38.8 years. This may seem young compared to the life expectancies of older Americans. However, the median age in 1960 was significantly lower, at 29.5 years, according to the article “Don’t Let Cognitive Decline Derail Well-Laid Financial Plans” from Think Advisor.

An aging population brings many challenges to estate planning attorneys, who are mindful of the challenges of aging, both mental, physical and financial. Experienced estate planning attorneys are in the best position to help clients prepare for these challenges by taking concrete steps to protect themselves.

Individuals with cognitive decline become more vulnerable to potentially negative influences at the same time their network of trusted friends and family members begins to shrink. As people become older, they are often more isolated, making them increasingly susceptible to scams. The current scam-rich environment is yet another reason to use estate planning.

When a person is diagnosed with Alzheimer’s or any other form of dementia, an estate plan must be put into place as soon as possible, as long as the person is still able express their wishes. A diagnosis can lead to profound distress. However, there is no time to delay.

While typically, the person may state they wish their spouse to be entrusted with everything, this has to be properly documented and is only part of the solution. This is especially the case if the couple is close in age. A secondary and even tertiary agent needs to be made part of the plan for incapacity.

The documents needed to protect the individual and the family are a will, financial power of attorney, durable power of attorney and health care documentation. In addition, for families with more sophisticated finances and legacy goals, trusts and other estate and tax planning strategies are needed.

A common challenge occurs when parents cannot entrust their children to be named as their primary or secondary agents. For example, suppose no immediate family members can be trusted to manage their affairs. In that case, it may be necessary to appoint a family friend or the child of a family friend known to be responsible and trustworthy.

The creation of power of attorney documents by an estate planning attorney is critical. This is because if no one is named, the court will need to step in and name a professional guardian. This person won’t know the person or their family dynamics and may not put their ward’s best interests first, even though they are legally bound to do so. There have been many reports of financial and emotional abuse by court-appointed guardians, so this is something to avoid if possible.

Reference: Think Advisor (April 21, 2023) “Don’t Let Cognitive Decline Derail Well-Laid Financial Plans”

Estate Planning for Blended Families

Blended families are now nearly as common as traditional families. However, they still face unique estate planning decisions, says a recent article, “Considerations For Financial And Estate Planning Professionals Who Work With Blended Families” from Forbes.

Estate planning starts with a will. Naming an impartial executor may require more consideration than in traditional families where the eldest child is the likely candidate. The will also needs to nominate a guardian for minor children and appoint a power of attorney and healthcare proxy in case of incapacity. Traditional wills used to provide instructions for asset distribution may have limitations regarding blended families. Trusts may provide more control for asset distribution.

Wills don’t dictate beneficiaries for life insurance policies, retirement plans, or jointly owned property. However, wills are also subject to probate, which can become a long and costly process that opens the door for wills to be challenged in court.

Wills also become public documents once they are entered into probate. Any interested party may request access to the will, which may contain information the family would prefer to have private.

Trusts allow greater control over how assets are managed and distributed. Their contents remain private. There are many different types of trusts used to accomplish specific goals. For instance, a Qualified Terminal Interest Property Trust (QTIP) can provide income for a surviving spouse, while passing the rest of the assets to a client’s children or grandchildren.

Another type of trust is designed to skip a generation and distribute trust assets to grandchildren or those at least 37.5 years younger than the grantor. Some may choose to use this Generation-Skipping Trust (GST) to keep wealth in the family, by bypassing children who have married.

An IRA legacy trust can be the beneficiary of an IRA instead of family members. This option lets owners maintain creditor protection only sometimes afforded to one who inherits an IRA. The account owner may also want to use an IRA’s required minimum distributions (RMDs) to benefit a second spouse during their lifetime and leave the remainder to their children.

Couples entering a second or third marriage need to be transparent about their expectations of what each spouse will receive upon their death or in the event of divorce and whether or not they agree to waive their right to contest these commitments. A prenuptial agreement is a legal contract spelling out the terms before marriage. For example, in some instances, the prenup requires each spouse to maintain life insurance on the other to ensure liquidity, either from the policy’s death benefit or its cash value.

A final consideration is ensuring that all documentation created is easy to understand, clear and concise. Make sure to spell out the full names of beneficiaries for wills, trusts and life insurance, and include their birthdates, so it is easy to identify them and they cannot be confused with someone else. Estate planning is an ongoing process requiring review regularly to keep the estate plan consistent with the family’s evolving needs and goals.

Reference: Forbes (April 19, 2023) “Considerations For Financial And Estate Planning Professionals Who Work With Blended Families”

Will Making a Gift Conflict with Medicaid?

People usually make gifts for three reasons—because they enjoy giving gifts, because they want to protect assets, or minimize tax liability. However, gifting in one’s elder years can have expensive and unintended consequences, as reported in the article “IRS standards for gifting differ from Medicaid” from The News-Enterprise.

The IRS gift tax becomes expensive, if gifts are large. However, each individual has a lifetime gift exemption and, as of this writing, it is $12.06 million, which is historically high. A married couple may make a gift of $24.12 million. Most people don’t get anywhere near these levels. Those who do are advised to do estate and tax planning to protect their assets.

The current lifetime gift tax exemption is scheduled to drop to $5.49 million per person after 2025, unless Congress extends the higher exemption, which seems unlikely.

The IRS also allows an annual exemption. For 2022, the annual exemption was $16,000 per person. Anyone can gift up to $16,000 per person and to multiple people, without reducing their lifetime exemption. Be sure to read our article, IRS Announces New Lifetime and Gift Tax Exemptions.

People often confuse the IRS annual exclusion with Medicaid requirements for eligibility. IRS gift tax rules are totally different from Medicaid rules.

Medicaid does not offer an annual gift exclusion. Medicaid penalizes any gift made within 60 months before applying to Medicaid, unless there has been a specific exception.

For Medicaid purposes, gifts include outright gifts to individuals, selling property for less than fair market value, transferring assets to a trust, or giving away partial interests.

The Veterans Administration may also penalize gifts made within 36 months before applying for certain VA programs based on eligibility.

Gifting can have serious capital gains tax consequences. Gifts of real estate property to another person are given with the giver’s tax basis. When real property is inherited, the property is received with a new basis of fair market value.

For gifting high value assets, the difference in tax basis can lead to either a big tax bill or big tax savings. Let’s say someone paid $50,000 for North Dakota land 40 years ago, and today the land is worth $650,000. The appreciation of the property is $600,000. If the property is gifted while the owner is alive, the recipient has a $50,000 tax basis. When the recipient sells the property, they will have to pay a capital gains tax based on the $50,000.

If the property was inherited, the tax would be either nothing or next to nothing.

Asset protection for Medicaid is complicated and requires the experience and knowledge of an elder law attorney. What worked for your neighbor may not work for you, as we don’t always know all the details of someone else’s situation. Therefore, it’s essential to work with our team of elder law specialists at Legacy Design Strategies with offices in Omaha, Iowa Falls, and Minot. Schedule a free call today to discuss how best to protect your property and still qualify for Medicaid.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Aug. 6, 2022) “IRS standards for gifting differ from Medicaid”

Protecting Assets with a Trust vs. Limited Liability Company

While trusts and Limited Liability Companies (LLCs) are very different legal vehicles, they are both used by business owners to protect assets. Understanding their differences, strengths and weaknesses will help determine which is best for your situation, as explained by the article “Trust Vs. LLC 2023: What Is The Difference?” from Business Report.

A trust is a fiduciary agreement placing assets under the control of a third-party trustee to manage assets, so they may be managed and passed to beneficiaries. Trusts are commonly used when transferring family assets to avoid probate.

A family home could be placed in a trust to avoid estate taxes on the owner’s death, if the goal is to pass the home on to the children. The trustee manages the home as an asset until the transfer takes place.

There are several different types of trusts:

A revocable trust is controlled by the grantor, the person setting up the trust, as long as they are mentally competent. This flexibility allows the grantor to hold ownership interest, including real estate, in a separate vehicle without committing to the trust permanently.

The grantor cannot change an irrevocable trust, nor can the grantor be a trustee. Once the assets are placed in the irrevocable trust, the terms of the trust may not be changed, with extremely limited exceptions.

A testamentary trust is created after probate under the provisions of a last will and testament to protect business assets, rental property and other personal and business assets. Nevertheless, it only becomes active when the trust’s creator dies.

There are several roles in trusts. The grantor or settlor is the person who creates the trust. The trustee is the person who manages the assets in the trust and is in charge of any distribution. A successor trustee is a backup to the original trustee who manages assets, if the original trustee dies or becomes incapacitated. Finally, the beneficiaries are the people who receive assets when the terms of the trust are satisfied.

An LLC is a business entity commonly used for personal asset protection and business purposes. A multi-or single-member LLC could be created to own your home or business, to separate your personal property and business property, reduce potential legal liability and achieve a simplified management structure with liability protection.

The most significant advantage of a trust is avoiding the time-consuming process of probate, so beneficiaries may receive their inheritance faster. Assets in a trust may also prevent or reduce estate taxes. Trusts also keep your assets and filing documents private. Unlike a will, which becomes part of the public record and is available for anyone who asks, trust documents remain private.

LLCs and trusts are created on the state level. While LLCs are business entities designed for actively run businesses, trusts are essentially pass-through entities for inheritances and to pass dividends directly to beneficiaries while retaining control.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to judge whether you need a trust or an LLC. If you own a small business, it may already be an LLC. However, there are likely other asset protection vehicles your estate planning attorney can discuss with you.

Reference: Business Report (April 14, 2023) “Trust Vs. LLC 2023: What Is The Difference?”

Protect Cryptocurrency in Your Estate Plan

The very nature of cryptocurrency as a secure digital asset is the result of the complete absence of any identifiable information associated with an individual crypto account. These types of assets are also not easily identifiable to executors or heirs, says a recent article, “Today’s Business: Cryptocurrency and estate planning” from CT Insider.

The only way an heir or designated fiduciary (like an executor) may gain access to crypto accounts after the owner’s death is to have the password or “private key.” Without it, there is no way to gain access.As a result, the cryptocurrency is worthless. Therefore, safeguarding the passwords, especially the crypto “seed” phrases, is critical.

The “key” to a person’s cryptocurrency must never exist only in the owner’s mind. The owner must never be the only person who knows where the passwords are printed, whether on a piece of paper, in an encrypted file on a thumb drive or laptop, or an online password manager.

At the same time, this critical information must be secure. How do you accomplish both?

Start by telling your estate planning attorney that you own cryptocurrency. Just as they wouldn’t be able to help protect a traditional asset if they didn’t know it existed, they will need to know you own cryptocurrency, so they can incorporate it into your estate plan.

To safeguard seed phrases and other passwords for estate planning purposes, consider these options:

A straightforward way of storing passwords and seed phrases is to write them down (legibly) on a piece of paper and store the paper in a secure location, such as a personal safe or safe deposit box.

Using a password manager can work. This is software used to store all passwords in an encrypted format. It allows the storage of secret seed phrases, passwords and other sensitive information, accessible through a single password. Be careful to select only a high-rated password manager from a recognized company. You should also never store seed phrases or passwords with the cryptocurrency wallet address to minimize the chances of hackers accessing your digital wallet.

Because of the importance of securing information from physical and digital threats, you may want to invest in a fire and water-proof safe and give a trusted friend or relative a means of accessing the stored information. In addition, as the security landscape continues to change, it’s essential to regularly change passwords and seed phrases to ensure digital assets remain secure and loved ones can access them if you become incapacitated or pass away.

Properly securing seed phrases and other passwords is a part of today’s estate planning. You and your estate planning attorney need to plan for digital assets to ensure that they are properly managed and passed on to loved ones without compromising sensitive information in a last will and testament.

Reference: CT Insider (March 18, 2023) “Today’s Business: Cryptocurrency and estate planning”

Revocable Trusts Must Be Funded to Make Estate Plan Work

Revocable assets simplify asset management during life and facilitate private asset transfers at death. Therefore, you might think your estate planning is done when you sign the revocable trust agreement. Nevertheless, it’s not done until you fund the trust, advises a recent article, “’It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over’ – Use of a Funded Revocable Trust in Estate Planning” from The National Law Review.

A trust is a legal agreement allowing one person—the trustee—to hold and manage property to benefit one or more beneficiaries. The person who creates the trust—the grantor—can create a trust during their lifetime and modify or terminate the agreement at any time. The grantor is the initial trustee and the initial beneficiary. These dual roles allow the grantor to control the trust assets during their lifetime.

Upon death, the revocable trust becomes irrevocable. The trust agreement directs the distribution of assets and appoints the trustee to manage and distribute assets. Unlike a will, the revocable trust works during your lifetime to hold assets.

Funding the trust is critical for it to perform. Assets must be transferred, with an asset-by-asset review conducted to determine which assets should go into the trust. The assets should then be transferred—usually by title or deed changes—which your estate planning attorney can help with.

A funded revocable trust avoids having the assets go through probate. State statutes and regulations require several steps to be completed, adding time, effort and cost to estate administration. Suppose that the revocable trust at death owns the assets. In that case, the trust owns the legal title to the assets, and assets can be distributed to beneficiaries without court intervention.

Avoiding probate also reduces expenses. The expense of probate administration arises from two sources: probate fees and attorney fees. These vary by state and jurisdiction. However, they can add up quickly. A funded revocable trust minimizes both types of fees.

Unlike the will, which becomes a public document once it goes through probate, revocable trust assets and beneficiaries remain confidential, known only to the trustee and beneficiaries. Anyone who wants to can request and review your will and obtain information about assets and beneficiaries. However, the trust is a private document, protecting your loved ones from scammers, overly aggressive salespeople, and nosy relatives.

Privacy can be essential for business owners. For example, suppose you die owning a business interest as an individual. In that case, the description and value of business interests must be reported on the public record during the probate process and is available to potential purchasers to use as leverage against your estate. Transferring business interests to a revocable trust during your lifetime can keep that information private.

Trusts are also used for asset protection for assets with beneficiary designations, including life insurance, IRAs and retirement plans. For instance, if a life insurance policy is paid to your estate, creditors of your estate may have access to the proceeds. If it is paid to the trust, it is protected from creditors.

Reference: The National Law Review (March 3, 2023) “’It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over’ – Use of a Funded Revocable Trust in Estate Planning”

What You Need to Know About Estate Taxes

Most Americans don’t have to worry about federal estate and gift taxes. However, if you’re even moderately wealthy and want to transfer wealth to your children and grandchildren, you’ll want to know how to protect your ability to pass wealth to the next generation. A recent article from Woman’s World, “If You’re Rich, Read This—Your Estate Taxes Could Be at Stake (And Your Kids at Risk of Losing Their Inheritance” provides a good overview of estate taxes. If any of these issues are relevant to you, meet with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn how your state’s tax laws may impact your children’s inheritance.

A well-created estate plan can help you achieve your goals and minimize tax liability. There are three types of taxes the IRS levies on gifts and inheritances.

Few families worry about federal estate taxes for now. However, this will change in the future, and planning is always wiser. In 2023, the federal estate tax exemption is $12.92 million. Estates valued above this level have a tax rate of 40% on assets. People at this asset level usually have complex estate plans designed to minimize or completely avoid paying these taxes.

An estate not big enough to trigger federal estate taxes may still owe state estate taxes. Twelve states and the District of Columbia impose their own state taxes on residents’ estates, ranging from 0.8 percent to 20 percent, and some have a far lower exemption level than the federal estate tax. Some begin as low as $one million.

Six states impose an inheritance tax ranging between 10 percent and 18 percent. The beneficiary pays the tax, even if you live out of state. Spouses are typically exempt from inheritance taxes, which are often determined by kinship—sons and daughters pay one amount, while grandchildren pay another.

Taxpayers concerned about having estates big enough to trigger estate or inheritance taxes can make gifts during their lifetime to reduce the estate’s tax exposure. In 2023, the federal government allows individuals to make tax-free gifts of up to $17,000 in cash or assets to as many people as they want every year.

A couple with three children could give $17,000 to each of their children, creating a tax-free transfer of $102,000 to the next generation ($17,000 x 3 children x 2 individuals). The couple could repeat these gifts yearly for as long as they wished. Over time, these gifts could substantially reduce the size of their estate before it would be subject to an estate tax. It also gives their heirs a chance to enjoy their inheritance while their parents are living.

It should be noted that gifts over $17,000 in 2023 count against the individual estate tax limit. Therefore, your federal estate tax exemption will decline if you give more than the limit. This is why it’s essential to work with an estate planning attorney who can help you structure these gifts and discuss other estate tax and asset protection strategies.

Reference: Woman’s World (April 5, 2023) “If You’re Rich, Read This—Your Estate Taxes Could Be at Stake (And Your Kids at Risk of Losing Their Inheritance”

What’s Going on with Larry King’s Estate?

Larry King’s widow Shawn has accused the firm Blouin & Company of helping Larry King Jr. as part of the fight over the late broadcaster’s estate.

Radar Online’s recent article entitled, “Larry King’s Widow Shawn SUES HER OWN SISTER Claiming He Spent Millions On Her While They Had Secret Affair,” says that Larry Sr. died in January 2021.

Larry King Jr. asked the court to be named special administrator of his father’s estate. He presented a handwritten will that Larry Sr. had reportedly signed before his death. The amended will left his fortune to his child and not Shawn. Shawn objected to the will claiming Larry Sr. was not in the right mind to sign the amendment to the will. A settlement was eventually reached between the two.

But a few months later, Shawn sued Blouin & Company, claiming it had led a “fraudulent and malicious conspiracy to steal money from their client, Mrs. King, and deprive Mrs. King of her rights and interests in the estate of her late husband.”

Shawn brought claims against Blouin & Company and her sister Shannon Engemann Grossman, a named defendant. She claims that Shannon “received a substantial number of improper and unauthorized transfers of” her community assets. Moreover, she alleges that her sister received “unauthorized goods and services worth millions of dollars (or more subject to further investigation), including airfare, clothing and accessories, furniture, limousine services, healthcare services, dental implants, luxury automobiles, luxury hotel accommodations and numerous other goods and services.”

During their marriage, Shawn and Larry were close to divorce multiple times after marrying in 1997. In 2010, they both filed their petitions in Los Angeles Superior Court. Shawn believed Larry and her sister were having an affair.

At the time, Shannon denied having an affair with Larry. She admitted Larry was generous with gifts but said he was like that with everyone. Shannon said, “I’m tired of taking the rap for things. I did not have an affair with Larry. He’s been like a father to me.”

Blouin & Company denied all allegations of wrongdoing in their response and noted that Larry had a secret bank account that they were unaware of that he used to fund his lavish lifestyle. The firm filed a countersuit against Shawn for unpaid invoices.

Reference: Radar Online (Jan. 9, 2023) “Larry King’s Widow Shawn SUES HER OWN SISTER Claiming He Spent Millions On Her While They Had Secret Affair”