Estate Planning Is Best When Personalized

Just as a custom-tailored suit fits better than one off the rack, a custom-tailored estate plan works better for families. Making sure assets pass to the right person is more likely to occur when documents are created just for you, advises the article “Tailoring estate to specific needs leads to better plans” from the Cleveland Jewish News.

The most obvious example is a family with a special needs member. Generic estate planning documents typically will not suit that family’s estate planning.

Every state has its own laws about distributing property and money owned by a person at their death, in cases where people don’t have a will. Relying on state law instead of a will is a risky move that can lead to people you may not even know inheriting your entire estate.

In the absence of an estate plan, the probate court makes decisions about who will administer the estate and the distribution of property. Without a named executor, the court will appoint a local attorney to take on this responsibility. An appointed attorney who has never met the decedent and doesn’t know the family won’t have the insights to follow the decedent’s wishes.

The same risks can occur with online will templates. Their use often results in families needing to retain an estate planning attorney to fix the mistakes caused by their use. Online wills may not be valid in your state or may lead to unintended consequences. Saving a few dollars now could end up costing your family thousands to clean up the mess.

Estate plans are different for each person because every person and every family are different. Estate plan templates may not account for any of your wishes.

Generic plans are very limited. An estate plan custom created for you takes into consideration your family dynamics, how your individual beneficiaries will be treated and expresses your wishes for your family after you have passed.

Generic estate plans also don’t reflect the complicated families of today. Some people have family members they do not want to inherit anything. Disinheriting someone successfully is not as easy as leaving them out of the will or leaving them a small token amount.

Ensuring that your wishes are followed and that your will is not easily challenged takes the special skills of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (Dec. 9, 2020) “Tailoring estate to specific needs leads to better plans”

The Importance of a Will

Even during a pandemic, few people want to spend time thinking about death. However, having an estate plan means having some of the most important documents you’ll ever create. Having a will is a gift that alleviates the burden placed on loved ones after we are gone, says this recent article “Why it’s important for every adult to get a will” from Bankrate. In a time of sorrow, the family and friends will be spared the stress that makes grieving more complicated when there is no will, no guidance and no path forward.

What is a will?

In its most simple form, a will is a legal document that serves to transfer property at your death to the people you choose. It is revocable, which means you have the legal ability to make changes to it, as long as you are alive and have the mental capacity to do so. However, wills do more than distribute property. The will is your chance to state your wishes for who will care for your children, what happens to your physical remains and who will take care of your pets.

Are Wills Pretty Much the Same?

There’s a good reason why the best wills are those created with an estate planning attorney: they are created to suit your specific needs. Just as every person is different, everyone’s will must reflect their life. Some people want to name a recipient for every single asset they have, while others prefer simply to give their entire estate to a spouse, their children, a trust, or a charity. However, there are also different kinds of wills.

A Testamentary Will is a will signed in the presence of witnesses. It is the best choice to protect your family.

A Holographic Will is a handwritten will, which is not acceptable in many states and could lead your family into all kinds of expensive and stressful battles, in and out of court.

An Oral Will is a verbal will that is declared in front of witnesses, but don’t count on anything you say being considered a legally valid will.

A Mutual Will is also known as a “I love you Will,” when partners create a joint will leaving everything to each other. There can be some tricky things about these wills, since when one person dies, the other is still legally bound to the terms of this will. If the surviving spouse remarries, it can become complicated.

A Pour Over Will is the ideal choice, when your plan is to pour assets into an established trust at your death.

What does a will do and not do?

Wills are used to determine guardianship for minor children and distribute assets and real property. Wills don’t control jointly owned assets, or contracts, like life insurance policies and retirement accounts. These are controlled by beneficiary designation forms. It won’t matter if your will says that your current spouse should inherit your retirement account and you never changed the beneficiary from your first spouse. This is why estate planning attorneys always tell clients to check on beneficiary designations when large life events, like divorce and remarriage, occur.

What happens if there is no will?

Without a will, the state’s laws will determine what happens and your wishes don’t count. That includes who inherits your property, and even who raises your minor children. The court will make all of these decisions. The stress that this creates cannot be underestimated. When there is no will, the chances of litigation between family members and trouble from distant relatives seeking a claim against your estate rises.

Reference: Bankrate (Nov. 6, 2020) “Why it’s important for every adult to get a will”

Act Quickly to Protect an Estate

For most families, the process of estate administration or the probate of a will starts weeks after the death of a loved one.  However, before that time, there are certain steps that need to be taken immediately after death, according to a recent article “Protecting an estate requires swift action” from The Record-Courier. It is not always easy to keep a clear head and stay on top of these tasks but pushing them aside could lead to serious losses and possible liability.

The first step is to secure the deceased’s home, cars and personal property. The residence needs to be locked to prevent unauthorized access. It may be wise to bring in a locksmith, so that anyone who had been given keys in the past will not be able to go into the house. Cars should be parked inside garages and any personal property needs to be securely stored in the home. Nothing should be moved until the trust administration or probate has been completed. Access to the deceased’s digital assets and devices also need to be secured.

Mail needs to be collected and retrieved to prevent the risk of unauthorized removal of mail and identity theft. If there is no easy access to the mailbox, the post office needs to be notified, so mail can be forwarded to an authorized person’s address.

Estate planning documents need to be located and kept in a safe place. The person who has been named as the executor in the will needs to have those documents. If there are no estate planning documents or if they cannot be located, the family will need to work with an estate planning attorney. The estate may be subjected to a probate proceeding.

One of the responsibilities that most executors don’t know about, is that when a person dies, their will needs to be admitted to the court, regardless whether they had trusts. If the deceased left a will, the executor or the person who has possession of the will must deliver it to the court clerk. Failing to do so could result in large civil liability.

At least five and as many as ten original death certificates should be obtained. The executor will need them when closing accounts. As soon as possible, banks, financial institutions, credit card companies, pension plans, insurance companies and others need to be notified of the person’s passing. The Social Security Administration needs to be notified, so direct deposits are not sent to the person’s bank account. Depending on the timing of the death, these deposits may need to be returned. The same is true if the deceased was a veteran—the Veteran’s Affairs (VA) need to be notified. There may be funeral benefits or survivor benefits available.

It is necessary, even in a time of grief, to protect a loved one’s estate in a timely and thorough manner. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help through this process.

Reference: The Record-Courier (Oct. 17, 2020) “Protecting an estate requires swift action”

The Wrong Power of Attorney Could Lead to a Bad Outcome

There are two different types of advance directives, and they have very different purposes, as explained in the article that asks “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?” from Next Avenue. Less than a third of retirees have a financial power of attorney, according to a study done by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Most people don’t even understand what these documents do, which is critically important, especially during this Covid-19 pandemic.

Two types of Durable Power of Attorney for Finance. The power of attorney for finance can be “springing” or “immediate.” The Durable POA refers to the fact that this POA will endure after you have lost mental or physical capacity, whether the condition is permanent or temporary. It lists when the powers are to be granted to the person of your choosing and the power ends upon your death.

The “immediate” Durable POA is effective the moment you sign the document. The “springing” Durable POA does not become effective, unless two physicians examine you and both determine that you cannot manage independently anymore. In the case of the “springing” POA, the person you name cannot do anything on your behalf without two doctors providing letters saying you lack legal capacity.

You might prefer the springing document because you are concerned that the person you have named to be your agent might take advantage of you. They could legally go to your bank and add their name to your accounts without your permission or even awareness. Some people decide to name their spouse as their immediate agent, and if anything happens to the spouse, the successor agents are the ones who need to get doctors’ letters. If you need doctors’ letters before the person you name can help you, ask your estate planning attorney for guidance.

The type of impairment that requires the use of a POA for finance can happen unexpectedly. It could include you and your spouse at the same time. If you were both exposed to Covid-19 and became sick, or if you were both in a serious car accident, this kind of planning would be helpful for your family.

It’s also important to choose the right person to be your POA. Ask yourself this question: If you gave this person your checkbook and asked them to pay your bills on time for a few months, would you expect that they would be able to do the job without any issues? If you feel any sense of incompetence or even mistrust, you should consider another person to be your representative.

If you should recover from your incapacity, your POA is required to turn everything back to you when you ask. If you are concerned this person won’t do this, you need to consider another person.

Broad powers are granted by a Durable POA. They allow your representative to buy property on your behalf and sell your property, including your home, manage your debt and Social Security benefits, file tax returns and handle any assets not named in a trust, such as your retirement accounts.

The executor of your will, your trustee, and Durable POA are often the same person. They have the responsibility to manage all of your assets, so they need to know where all of your important records can be found. They need to know that you have given them this role and you need to be sure they are prepared and willing to accept the responsibilities involved.

Your advance directive documents are only as good as the individuals you name to implement them. Family members or trusted friends who have no experience managing money or assets may not be the right choice. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you to make a good decision.

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 5, 2020) “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?”

Reviewing Your Estate Plan Protects Goals, Family

Transferring the management of assets if and when you are unable to manage them yourself because of disability or death is the basic reason for an estate plan. This goes for people with $100 or $100 million. You already have an estate plan, because every state has laws addressing how assets are managed and who will inherit your assets, known as the Laws of Intestacy, if you do not have a will created. However, the estate plan created by your state’s laws might not be what you want, explains the article “Auditing Your Estate Plan” appearing in Forbes.

To take more control over your estate, you’ll want to have an estate planning attorney create an estate plan drafted to achieve your goals. To do so, you’ll need to start by defining your estate planning objectives. What are you trying to accomplish?

  • Provide for a surviving spouse or family
  • Save on income taxes now
  • Save on estate and gift taxes later
  • Provide for children later
  • Bequeath assets to a charity
  • Provide for retirement income, and/or
  • Protect assets and beneficiaries from creditors.

A review of your estate plan, especially if you haven’t done so in more than three years, will show whether any of your goals have changed. You’ll need to review wills, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms, insurance policies and joint accounts.

Preparing for incapacity is just as important as distributing assets. Who should manage your medical, financial and legal affairs? Designating someone, or more than one person, to act on your behalf, and making your wishes clear and enforceable with estate planning documents, will give you and your loved ones security. You are ready, and they will be ready to help you, if something unexpected occurs.

There are a few more steps, if your estate plan needs to be revised:

  • Make the plan, based on your goals,
  • Engage the people, including an estate planning attorney, to execute the plan,
  • Have a will updated and executed, along with other necessary documents,
  • Re-title assets as needed and complete any changes to beneficiary designations, and
  • Schedule a review of your estate plan every few years and more frequently if there are large changes to tax laws or your life circumstances.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 23, 2020) “Auditing Your Estate Plan”

Consider Funding a Trust with Life Insurance

How would funding a trust with life insurance work, and could it be a good option for you? A recent article in Forbes “How to Fund a Trust With Life Insurance” explains how this works. Let’s start with the basics: a trust is a legal entity where one party, the trustee, holds legal title to the assets owned by the trust, which is managed for the good of the beneficiary. There can be more than one person who benefits from the trust (beneficiaries) and there can be a co-trustee, but we’ll keep this simple.

Trusts are often funded with a life insurance policy. The proceeds of the policy provide the beneficiary with assets that are used after the death of the insured. This is especially important when the beneficiaries are minor children and the life insurance has been purchased by their parents. Placing the insurance policy within a trust offers more control over how funds are used.

What kind of a trust should you consider? All trusts are either revocable or irrevocable. There are pros and cons to both. Irrevocable trusts are better for tax purposes, as they are not included as part of your estate. However, with an $11.58 million federal exemption in 2020, most people don’t have to worry about federal estate taxes. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust throughout your life, while with an irrevocable trust, only a trustee can make changes.

Note that, in addition to federal taxes, most states have estate taxes of their own, and a few have inheritance taxes. When working with an estate planning attorney, they’ll help you navigate the tax aspect as well as the distribution of assets.

Revocable trusts are the most commonly used trust in estate planning. Here’s why:

  • Revocable trusts avoid probate, which can be a costly and lengthy process. Assets left in the revocable trust pass directly to the heirs, far quicker than those left through the will.
  • Because they are revocable, the creator of the will can make changes to the trust as circumstances change. This flexibility and control make the revocable trust more attractive in estate planning.

If you are using life insurance to fund the trust, be sure the policy permits you to name beneficiaries, and be certain to name beneficiaries. Missing this step is a common and critical mistake. The beneficiary designations must be crystal clear. If there are two cousins who have the same name, there will need to be a clear distinction made as to who is the beneficiary. If someone changes their name, that change must be reflected by the beneficiary designation.

There are many other types of trusts, including testamentary trusts and special needs trusts. Your estate planning attorney will know which trust is best for your situation. Make sure to fund the trust and update beneficiary designations, so the trust will achieve your goals.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 17, 2020) “How to Fund a Trust With Life Insurance”

How to Protect Your Estate from Unintended Heirs

Disinheriting a child as an heir happens for a variety of reasons. There may have been a long-running dispute, estrangement over a lifestyle choice, or not wanting to give assets to a child who squanders money. What happens when a will or trust has left a child without an inheritance is examined in an article from Lake County News, “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children.”

Circumstances matter. Was the child born or adopted after the decedent’s estate planning documents were already created and executed? In certain states, like California, a child who was born or adopted after documents were executed, is by law entitled to a share in the estate. There are exceptions. Was it the decedent’s intent to omit the child, and is there language in the will making that clear? Did the decedent give most or all of the estate to the other parent? Did the decedent otherwise provide for the omitted child and was there language to that effect in the will? For example, if a child was the named beneficiary of a $1 million life insurance policy, it is likely this was the desired outcome.

Another question is whether the decedent knew of the existence of the child, or if they thought the child was deceased. In certain states, the law is more likely to grant the child a share of the estate.

Actor Hugh O’Brien did not provide for his children, who were living when his trust was executed. His children argued that he did not know of their existence, and had he known, he would have provided for them. His will included a general disinheritance provision that read “I am intentionally not providing for … any other person who claims to be a descendant or heir of mine under any circumstances and without regard to the nature of any evidence which may indicate status as a descendant or heir.”

The Appellate Court ruled against the children’s appeal for two reasons. One, the decedent must have been unaware of the child’s birth or mistaken about the child’s death, and two, must have failed to have provided for the unknown child solely because of a lack of awareness. The court found that his reason to omit them from his will was not “solely” because he did not know of their existence, but because he had no intention of giving them a share of his estate.

In this case, the general disinheritance provision defeated the claim by the children, since their claim did not meet the two standards that would have supported their claim.

This is another example of how an experienced estate planning attorney creates documents to withstand challenges from unintended outcomes. A last will and testament is created to defend the estate and the decedent’s wishes.

Reference: Lake County News (Aug. 22, 2020) “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children”

How 401(K) Beneficiaries Work with Your Estate Plan

For anyone who thinks that their will or trust can be used to distribute assets in a 401(k) after they pass, think again. The beneficiaries listed in a 401(k), insurance policy or any account with the option to name a beneficiary supersede whatever directions are placed in a will or a trust. If you’re not careful, warns the article “What You Should Know About 401(k) Beneficiaries” from The Motley Fool, your assets could end up in the wrong hands.

Here are some basics about beneficiaries that you need to know.

After you die, your estate goes through probate, which can be a costly and lengthy process. However, assets like 401(k) plans that have named beneficiaries are typically passed to heirs outside of probate. The asset goes directly to the beneficiary.

When you opened a 401(k), you were almost certainly directed to name a beneficiary in the paperwork used to establish the account. That person is usually a spouse, child or a domestic partner.  The beneficiary is sometimes a trust (a legal entity that manages assets for the benefit of beneficiaries).

If no beneficiary was named and you were married when you established the account, most 401(k) plans designate your spouse as the default beneficiary. The surviving spouse is allowed to treat the account as if it is their own when they inherit it—they can delay withdrawing money until they are 72, when the IRS requires withdrawals to begin. The surviving spouse uses their own life expectancy, when calculating future withdrawals.

If someone other than a spouse was listed as the beneficiary, the assets are to be transferred into an inherited 401(k) and the amounts received are based on the percentage listed on the beneficiary designation form. Most plans give the beneficiaries the option to roll over an inherited 401(k) into an inherited IRA. This gives the account owners greater control over what they can do with their inheritance.

Once you have named a beneficiary on these accounts, it’s wise to list contingent beneficiaries, who will inherit the accounts, if the primary beneficiary is deceased. For most families, the children are the contingent beneficiaries and the spouse is the primary beneficiary.

The list of mistakes made when naming beneficiaries is a long one, but here are a few:

  • Setting up a trust to keep IRA or 401(k) assets from going to a minor or to protect services for a special needs child, then failing to list the trust as a beneficiary.
  • Not naming anyone as a beneficiary on an IRA or 401(k) plan.
  • Neglecting to check beneficiary names every few years or after big life changes.

If you set up a trust for your beneficiaries, you must list the trust as the beneficiary. If you don’t specifically list the trust, the account will pass to any person listed as a beneficiary, or the accounts will go through probate.

If you have had more than a few jobs and have more than a few 401(k) accounts, it can be challenging to track the accounts and the beneficiaries. Consolidating the accounts into one 401(k) account makes it easier for you and for your heirs.

If you do list a trust as a beneficiary, talk with your estate planning attorney about how to do this correctly. The trust’s language must take into consideration how taxes will be handled. This could have big costs for your heirs.

Reference: The Motley Fool (Aug. 24, 2020) “What You Should Know About 401(k) Beneficiaries”

What Must I Decide before Retirement?

Many of retirement decisions are uncomfortable because they involve changing aspects of one’s life that may have been routine for years or facing the prospect of one’s deterioration in health or death.

Forbes’ article “5 Crucial Planning Steps To Take Before You Retire” lists several planning steps to take as you plan for a less stressful and much more enjoyable retirement.

Downsize. Owning a big home requires numerous financial expenditures, including higher property taxes, insurance coverage, upkeep costs and more. There is also the mental stress that comes with the upkeep of your home.

Practical solutions to housing for retirees should focus on the financial cost, safety, mental health, physical limitations and being around people on whom you can rely. The sooner you make the decision to downsize, the more trouble you can save yourself in the future.

Investments. Determine a proper asset allocation, an appropriate withdrawal strategy and coordinate various income streams.

Estate Plan. It’s critical to have an updated estate plan as you get older, accumulate more wealth and need to plan for the transition of that money to the next generation.

The main documents for a proper estate plan include a will, power of attorney for finances, power of attorney for health and a health care directive. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Long-Term Care. A person turning 65 today has a 70% chance of needing some type of long-term care services in their lifetime. As we continue to live longer, this care will be a reality for many people.

Activities. Very few people have a strategy for how they will spend their time in retirement. You may want to work part-time, volunteer and to have regularly scheduled visits with family and friends. These activities help provide daily structure, social interaction and intellectual stimulation, which are all essential for preventing rapid physical and mental decline.

Don’t procrastinate! Start thinking about these issues today.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 3, 2020) “5 Crucial Planning Steps To Take Before You Retire”