Coronavirus News Should Make You Think about Estate Planning

The global Coronavirus (COVID-19) outbreak has many of us thinking about what could happen, if the disease spreads more fully across the general population. We all need to plan for what could possibly happen. To protect yourself and your family, it’s smart to be certain that you have the following these documents prepared and updated, says Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “The Coronavirus Should Have You Thinking About These 4 Things.”

  1. A will or revocable trust. Be sure that your assets will pass to those who you want to receive them after your death. This is critical during crisis times. You don’t want to make things any harder than they need to be. Create an estate plan to avoid potentially expensive and time-consuming processes like probate, which will have greater importance, if your family is confined to their homes in a quarantine situation.

A simple will can cover what happens to your assets at death. This typically works well, especially for modest estates. State laws differ on how complicated a probate process would be with a basic will. Some people opt to use a fully funded revocable trust that doesn’t require probate. For either a will or a revocable trust, make sure that it’s up to date and reflects your current preferences and family circumstances.

  1. Updated beneficiary designations. If you have an IRA, 401(k) account, or life insurance policy, those you name as beneficiaries of that account will receive the proceeds, despite a totally different from arrangement in your will or trust. Many of us also don’t designate any beneficiary for these accounts, which means added complications in the event of death.
  2. Healthcare power of attorney. When we’re in the midst of this Coronavirus, it’s even more urgent that you’ll be able to get the healthcare you need, if you’re hit with this illness. A durable power of attorney for healthcare will give the individuals you choose the ability to make whatever medical decisions you specify on your behalf. An estate planning attorney can help you draft documents that match your specific wishes.
  3. Financial power of attorney. You can designate an agent to help take care of your finances, if you become incapacitated or otherwise unable to handle your financial affairs. A general durable power of attorney for financial matters is another document that lets you delegate responsibility and authority to make financial transactions to the person you name.

Estate planning may not be the highlight of your week, but the Coronavirus outbreak has more people thinking about what they need to do. Make sure your family will have what they need even if something happens to you.

Reference: Motley Fool (March 8, 2020) “The Coronavirus Should Have You Thinking About These 4 Things”

Why Do I Need to Have Up-to-Date Beneficiaries on My Accounts?

When a family member passes away, it can be a very unsettling time. There are many tasks that need to be accomplished in a short amount of time. One way that you can lessen that burden for your heirs by clearly telling them your preferences for your assets. One element of this is making certain that you have accurate beneficiaries to your retirement and investment accounts.

Nerd Wallet’s recent article entitled “5 Reasons to Add Beneficiaries to Your Investment Accounts Now” says taking the time to do this will help save your heirs and family time, money and energy when they need it most. Let’s take a look at some of the compelling reasons to do this.

  1. Your beneficiaries get to keep more money (and get it faster). When your beneficiaries are assigned to your investment and retirement accounts, the assets will pass directly to them. However, if they are not, those accounts may have to go through the probate process to settle an estate after someone dies. A typical probate case can drag on for a year or longer, and during that time, your beneficiaries are unable to access their inheritance. “Court” also means expenses, time, effort and added stress—all of which are things they’d rather avoid.
  2. Less stress for your heirs. When you make certain that you designate the beneficiaries for your accounts, it can relieve your family of a heavy burden, so they’re not trying to figure out your finances while they’re grieving.
  3. Your beneficiaries will supersede your will. If you have beneficiaries named, those choices will typically override what is written in your will. Therefore, you can see that keeping your beneficiaries up-to-date is extremely important.
  4. It’s easy and painless. If you have a retirement account, such as a 401(k) or an IRA, your account will typically have its own beneficiary form within the account itself. With this, you are able to choose your beneficiaries when you open your account or review them later. With a regular investment account, you’ll need to ask for a transfer on death (TOD) form to make beneficiary elections.
  5. You recently experienced a change in your circumstances. If you experience a big life change, like getting married or having a child, it’s critical to update or add beneficiary elections immediately. It’s best to be prepared for the unexpected.

Remember that in community property states, spouses may be entitled to half of the assets in an IRA — even if another beneficiary is listed — unless you have written consent. Ask a qualified estate planning attorney about state laws to be sure your money goes to whom you want.

Reference: Nerd Wallet (January 22, 2020) “5 Reasons to Add Beneficiaries to Your Investment Accounts Now”

How Bad Can a Do-It-Yourself Estate Plan Be? Very!

Here’s a real world example of why what seems like a good idea backfires, as reported in The National Law Review’s article “Unintended Consequences of a Do-It-Yourself Estate Plan.”

Mrs. Ann Aldrich wrote her own will, using a preprinted legal form. She listed her property, including account numbers for her financial accounts. She left each item of property to her sister, Mary Jane Eaton. If Mary Jane Eaton did not survive, then Mr. James Aldrich, Ann’s brother, was the designated beneficiary.

A few things that you don’t find on forms: wills and trusts need to contain a residuary, and other clauses so that assets are properly distributed. Ms. Aldrich, not being an experienced estate planning attorney, did not include such clauses. This one omission became a costly problem for her heir that led to litigation.

Mary Jane Eaton predeceased Ms. Aldrich. As Mary Jane Eaton had named Ms. Aldrich as her beneficiary, Ms. Aldrich then created a new account to receive her inheritance from Ms. Eaton. She also, as was appropriate, took title to Ms. Eaton’s real estate.

However, Ms. Aldrich never updated her will to include the new account and the new real estate property.

After Ms. Aldrich’s death, James Aldrich became enmeshed in litigation with two of Ms. Aldrich’s nieces over the assets that were not included in Ms. Aldrich’s will. The case went to court.

The Florida Supreme Court ruled that Ms. Aldrich’s will only addressed the property specifically listed to be distributed to Mr. James Aldrich. Those assets passed to Ms. Aldrich’s nieces.

Ms. Aldrich did not name those nieces anywhere in her will, and likely had no intention for them to receive any property. However, the intent could not be inferred by the court, which could only follow the will.

This is a real example of two basic problems that can result from do-it-yourself estate planning: unintended heirs and costly litigation.

More complex problems can arise when there are blended family or other family structure issues, incomplete tax planning or wills that are not prepared properly and that are deemed invalid by the court.

Even ‘simple’ estate plans that are not prepared by an estate planning lawyer can lead to unintended consequences. Not only was the cost of litigation far more than the cost of having an estate plan prepared, but the relationship between Ms. Aldrich’s brother and her nieces was likely damaged beyond repair.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 10, 2020) “Unintended Consequences of a Do-It-Yourself Estate Plan”

How Can I Move On after a Loved One Dies?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Moving Forward Financially After the Loss of a Loved One” says that there really are no rules about how you should feel or how long it will take you to regain your energy and ability to move forward. Grief is difficult to avoid, but there are many financial and legal tasks that will require your immediate attention. Here are some of the actions that can ease this process and help you to get back on track financially.

Here’s a breakdown of what you will need to address in the near future:

  • Gather important information, such as the deceased’s Social Security number, birth certificate, marriage certificate and military discharge papers.
  • Obtain at least 10 copies of the death certificates, because each claim will need to have an original copy of the death certificate attached.
  • Inform the Social Security office about the death and file a Social Security benefits claim form to qualify for the death benefit.
  • Find the title to any automobiles
  • Print out up-to-date statements for bank, brokerage and retirement accounts.
  • The executor should file the deceased’s will (if there is one) with the Probate Court.
  • The executor should obtain letters testamentary from the court.
  • File a death claim with the deceased’s life insurance company, if applicable.
  • Contact the Employer’s Benefits department about survivorship pension, health insurance, unpaid salary and life insurance benefits, if applicable.
  • Prepare a preliminary monthly budget and income summary.

You should seek the advice of an experienced estate planning or probate attorney. You should also retitle any joint accounts into your name and transfer any inherited IRA into your name and take out a required minimum distribution (RMD), if applicable. New beneficiaries should also be named and deeds for any real estate jointly held with rights of survivorship updated.

You need to file a federal estate tax return within nine months.

Don’t face these challenges alone. Contact an experienced estate planning lawyer for help.

Reference: Kiplinger (Jan. 8, 2020) “Moving Forward Financially After the Loss of a Loved One”

When Do I Need an Elder Law Attorney?

Elder law is different from estate law, but they frequently address many of the same issues. Estate planning contemplates your finances and property to best provide for you and your family while you’re still alive but incapacitated. It also concerns itself with the estate you leave to your loved ones when you die, minimizing probate complications and potential estate tax bills. Elder law contemplates these same issues but also the scenario when you may need some form of long-term care, even your eligibility for Medicaid should you need it.

A recent article from The Balance’s asks “Do You or a Family Member Need to Hire an Elder Law Attorney?” According to the article there are a variety of options to adjust as economically and efficiently as possible to plan for all eventualities. An elder law attorney can discuss these options with you.

Medicaid is a complicated subject, and really requires the assistance of an expert. The program has rigid eligibility guidelines in the event you require long-term care. The program’s benefits are income- and asset-based. However, you can’t simply give everything away to qualify, if you think you might need this type of care in the near future. There are strategies that should be implemented because the “spend down” rules and five-year “look back” period reverts assets or money to your ownership for qualifying purposes, if you try to transfer them to others. An elder law attorney will know these rules well and can guide you.

You’ll need the help and advice of an experienced elder law attorney to assist with your future plans, if one or more of these situations apply to you:

  • You’re in a second (or later) marriage;
  • You’re recently divorced;
  • You’ve recently lost a spouse or another family member;
  • Your spouse is incapacitated and requires long-term care;
  • You own one or more businesses;
  • You have real estate in more than one state;
  • You have a disabled family member;
  • You’re disabled;
  • You have minor children or an adult “problem” child;
  • You don’t have children;
  • You’d like to give a portion of your estate to charity;
  • You have significant assets in 401(k)s and/or IRAs; or
  • You have a taxable estate for estate tax purposes.

If you have any of these situations, you should seek the help of an elder law attorney.

If you fail to do so, you’ll most likely give a sizeable percentage of your estate to the state, an ex-spouse, or the IRS.

State probate laws are very detailed as to what can and can’t be included in a will, trust, advance medical directive, or financial power of attorney. These laws control who can and can’t serve as a personal representative, trustee, health care surrogate, or attorney-in-fact under a power of attorney.

Hiring an experienced elder law attorney can help you and your family avoid simple but expensive mistakes, if you or your family attempt this on your own.

Reference: The Balance (Jan. 21, 2020) “Do You or a Family Member Need to Hire an Elder Law Attorney?”

Some Estate Planning Actions for 2020

Many of us set New Year’s resolutions to improve our quality of life. While it’s often a goal to exercise more or eat more healthily, you can also resolve to improve your financial well-being. It’s a great time to review your estate plan to make sure your legacy is protected.

The Tennessean’s recent article entitled “Five estate-planning steps to take in the new year” gives us some common updates for your estate planning.

Schedule a meeting with your estate planning attorney to discuss your situation and to help the attorney create your estate plan.

You should also regularly review and update all your estate planning documents.

Goals and priorities change, so review your estate documents annually to make certain that your plan continues to reflect your present circumstances and intent. You may have changes to family or friendship dynamics or a change in assets that may impact your estate plan. It could be a divorce or remarriage; a family member or a loved one with a disability diagnosis, mental illness, or addiction; a move to a new state; or a change in a family business. If there’s a change in your circumstances, get in touch with your estate planning attorney to update your documents as soon as possible.

Federal and state tax and estate laws change, so ask your attorney to look at your estate planning documents every few years in light of any new legislation.

Review retirement, investment, and trust accounts to make certain that they achieve your long-term financial goals.

A frequent estate planning error is forgetting to update the beneficiary designations on your retirement and investment accounts. Thoroughly review your accounts every year to ensure everything is up to snuff in your estate plan.

Communicate your intent to your heirs, who may include family, friends, and charities. It is important to engage in a frank discussion with your heirs about your legacy and estate plan. Because this can be an emotional conversation, begin with the basics.

Having this type of conversation now, can prevent conflict and hard feelings later.

Reference: Tennessean (Jan. 3, 2020) “Five estate-planning steps to take in the new year”

What Should I Know About Being an Executor?

You’re named executor because someone thinks you’d be good at collecting assets, settling debts, filing estate tax returns where necessary, distributing assets and closing the estate.

However, Investopedia’s article from last summer, “5 Surprising Hazards of Being an Executor,” explains that the person named as an executor isn’t required to accept the appointment. Prior to agreeing to act as an executor, you should know some of the hazards that can result, as well as how you can address some of these potential issues, so that being an executor can run smoothly.

  1. Conflicts with Co-Executors. Parents will frequently name more than one adult child as co-executor, so they don’t show favoritism. However, for those who are named, this may not work well because some children may live far way, making it difficult to coordinate the hands-on activities, like securing assets and selling a home. Some adult children may also not have the financial ability to deal with creditors, understand estate tax matters and perform effective accounting to satisfy beneficiaries that things have been properly handled. In addition, multiple executors mean additional paperwork. Instead, see if co-executors can agree to allow only one to serve, and the others will waive their appointment. Another option is for all of the children to decline and allow a bank’s trust department to handle the task. Employing a bank to serve instead of an individual as executor can alleviate conflicts among the children and relieves them from what could be a very difficult job.
  2. Conflicts with Heirs. It’s an executor’s job to gather the estate assets and distribute them according to the deceased person’s wishes. In some cases, heirs will land on a decedent’s home even before the funeral, taking mementos, heirlooms and other valuables. It’s best to secure the home and other assets as quickly as possible. Tell the heirs that this is the law and share information about the decedent’s wishes, which may be described in a will or listed in a separate document. This Letter of Last Instruction isn’t binding on the executor but can be a good guide for asset disbursements.
  3. Time-Consuming Responsibilities. One of the major drawbacks to be an executor is the amount of time it takes to handle responsibilities. For example, imagine the time involved in contacting various government agencies. This can include the Social Security Administration to stop Social Security benefits and, in the case of a surviving spouse, claim the $255 death benefit. However, an executor can permit an estate attorney to handle many of these matters.
  4. Personal Liability Exposure. The executor must pay taxes owed, before disbursing inheritances to heirs. However, if you pay heirs first and don’t have enough funds in the estate’s checking account to pay taxes, you’re personally liable for the taxes. Explain to heirs who are chomping at the bit to receive their inheritances that you’re not allowed to give them their share, until you’ve settled with creditors, the IRS and others with a claim against the estate. You should also be sure that you understand the extent of the funds needed to pay what’s owed.
  5. Out-of-Pocket Expenses. An executor can receive a commission for handling his duties. The amount of the commission is typically determined by the size of the estate (e.g., a percentage of assets). However, with many cases, particularly smaller estates and among families, an executor may waive any commission. You should pay the expenses of the estate from an estate checking account and record all out-of-pocket expenses, because some of these expenses may be reimbursable by the estate.

Being an executor can be a challenge, but somebody must do it. If that person’s you, be sure to know what you’re getting into before you agree to act as an executor.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2019) “5 Surprising Hazards of Being an Executor”

Disinheriting Loved Ones is A Common Mistake

It happens way more often than you’d ever expect. The account owner dies, the assets go directly to the beneficiaries on the account, and the heirs learn for the first time that whatever is in the will doesn’t override the beneficiary designation. They can argue and even go to court, but it won’t do them much good, says the recent article “Don’t accidentally leave your estate to the wrong person” from The News-Enterprise.

One of many examples, is the widower who remarries after his first wife passes away. He neglects to change his IRA beneficiary form, so when he dies, his second wife does not receive any funds. The case of what happens to the funds has to go to court, because the assets obviously cannot go to his deceased first wife.

Many different kinds of accounts now have beneficiary designations. They include:

  • S. Savings Bonds
  • Bank Accounts
  • Certificates of Deposits
  • Investment Accounts
  • Life Insurance
  • Annuities
  • Retirement Accounts

Some of these accounts can be titled “Payable on Death” or “Transferable on Death,” so that they can more easily be distributed to heirs without going through probate.

If you’ve changed jobs, remember that beneficiary designations do not transfer over, when you roll your 401(k) over to a new plan or IRA.

Here’s another thing most people don’t know about beneficiary designations: they don’t have to be individuals. Beneficiaries can be trusts, charities, organizations, your estate, or, no one at all (although that’s not recommended). Be careful, though, if you are thinking about being creative, like saying “All of my living grandchildren.” What if someone who your family has never met, comes forward and claims to be a grandchild? It’s best to discuss this with an estate planning lawyer.

There are situations where you don’t want to name someone as a beneficiary. You don’t want to leave assets outright to minors, since they cannot inherit property. A court-appointed guardian would have to be named to care for the assets, until the child reaches age 18. Then the 18 year old inherits everything at once and goes on a wild spending spree, and the money is gone. A better approach is to set up a trust, so the trust is the beneficiary of the assets and the trust pays money to heirs over an extended period of time.

Caution must be taken, when considering Special Needs Individuals. If they are receiving government benefits, an inheritance could cause them to lose all benefits. Instead, speak with your estate planning attorney about the use of a Special Needs Trust or Supplemental Needs Trust.

Updating the beneficiary form is simple. Contact the financial company that holds the accounts, ask for a copy of your current beneficiary form, and a blank copy so that you can make changes, if needed. Keep a copy of all current beneficiary forms. You should also speak with your estate planning attorney to make sure that your estate plan and your beneficiary designations work together.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (November 30, 2019) “Don’t accidentally leave your estate to the wrong person”

What Do I Need to Know About Owning Property with Someone Other than My Spouse?

Have you ever considered owning property jointly with a family member, friend, or a business associate? Inside Indiana Business’ recent article, “Risky: Property Owned with a Non-Spouse,” says that you should think about the negatives, such as loss of control, unknown creditor issues and tax consequences.

Loss of Control. When you choose to co-own an asset with another person, you can enter into a legal ownership agreement known as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship” or “JTWROS.” When one of the owners dies, the surviving owner automatically becomes sole owner of the property. However, you give up some control of ownership, when you own property in this way. For example, you can’t direct your portion to go to a spouse or a child after your death in your will or other estate planning documents. OK, you can, but your co-owner’s ownership title takes precedence over your estate documents. As a result, she will become the sole owner. You can also lose some control over the property, if the non-spouse co-owner transfers her interest in the property to another individual without your consent. It’s also tough to remove a co-owner from the property title without his or her full cooperation.

Creditors. Another issue with jointly held property is that it’s subject to creditors’ claims against both owners. If your brother, as a co-owner of your cabin, has financial troubles and files for bankruptcy, his ownership in the cabin could possibly be claimed by a creditor. He could also be forced to sell it to pay off his debts. So, unless you can buy out his ownership in the cabin, you may now own the property with a stranger.

Potentially Higher Taxes. Adding a non-spouse as co-owner of an asset, allows for a simple property transfer at your passing. However, it could also mean both a gift tax to you and an increased capital gain tax for your heir. By adding a non-spouse to the property title, you’re making a gift to the new joint owner. Therefore, based on the current value of the property being gifted, you could be liable for gift tax. In addition, the heir of the property may have to pay increased capital gain taxes. Property transferred at death receives a step-up in basis. This means the heir’s cost basis is equal to the fair market value of the property at your death, instead of your cost basis (the amount you paid for the property). Receiving a step-up in basis reduces the heir’s capital gain on the appreciation of the property when it’s sold. However, if you add a co-owner, only your interest in the asset has the benefit of stepped-up basis at your death, not the entire property. When the property is sold, this may mean a higher capital gain tax.

JTWROS vs. Tenants in Common. When deciding to co-own an asset with another person, you can also enter into an ownership agreement known as “tenants in common.” Here’s a key difference: holding property JTWROS with another person means that when one owner dies, the other owner receives the property outright and automatically. When owning property as tenants in common with another person, when one owner dies, the owner’s heirs receive his share in the property. A co-owner can again transfer his interest in the property without approval as the other co-owner. This loss of control may place you in a difficult position.

When considering property ownership with another party, look at the pros and cons of both JTWROS and tenants in common. The cons usually outweigh the pros. However, if owning property with a non-spouse is what you want, discuss this with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Inside Indiana Business (December 1, 2019) “Risky: Property Owned with a Non-Spouse”

What Should I Keep in Mind, When I Remarry?

Before you remarry, discuss any past financial issues with your fiancé, and plan for success, by considering some important ideas.

U.S. News & World Report’s recent article, “6 Financial Considerations for Remarriage,” lists six financial considerations and crucial steps to take before you remarry:

  1. Revise Your Budget. Whether this is your first, second, or third marriage, couples need to create a budget for daily spending, monthly expenses and big-ticket purchases. You should also talk about your household expenses and costs related to children from a prior marriage. If you have to pay alimony, let your new spouse know. It’s also a good time to talk about credit card debt, past investments you’ve made and retirement accounts. You may want to draft a prenuptial agreement.
  2. Inform your Fiancé of Any Financial Obligations, Including Child Support. Before getting married, review the laws to see how child support may be impacted by marriage to a new person. While it’s unlikely that you would lose your child support if you remarry, the family court may reduce the amount. If a person paying the child support is remarrying, they should talk to their partner prior to the marriage to make certain they understand the amount of the payments.
  3. Check Insurance and Benefits. A frequent mistake when remarrying, is not updating the beneficiaries of life insurance policies. You also may have to look at other updates to your coverage, like who will be on your health plan, and you may need to modify your homeowner’s insurance with a spouse and children in residence. Understand that if you get government benefits, like Medicaid or Social Security, you could forfeit your Medicaid eligibility when you remarry if your spouse’s income is too high to be eligible. You might also discover that your Social Security benefits from an ex-spouse will stop, after you remarry.

A second marriage may also increase a parent’s income for federal financial aid purposes for college. If a parent is the custodial parent for the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), their income now may include their new spouse’s income. It is important to discuss saving for college and tuition costs, as well as if either partner has children from a prior marriage, whether each spouse will save money for tuition costs.

  1. Estate Planning Is Critical. Check your estate planning before remarrying. That includes a will, medical powers of attorney, do not resuscitate orders, durable powers of attorney, designations of guardianship or consent to adoption and various trusts, including trusts for special needs children. If you have children from a prior relationship, hire a qualified estate planning attorney.
  2. Create an Inheritance Plan. If you have children from a prior relationship, you need to put the right estate planning documents in place to protect them from being disinherited. In some states, a last will and testament may be enough, but in others it may make sense to also have a revocable living trust.

The biggest mistake that couples commit when entering their second marriage, is thinking that their own children will inherit any of their estate, if they die first. Perhaps the adult children will inherit some of the estate, but you should speak to an estate attorney to create a customized strategic plan. In many instances, the living spouse will change the plan and leave everything to their children and nothing to yours.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (November 18, 2019) “6 Financial Considerations for Remarriage”

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