What Needs to Be Reviewed in Estate Plan?

When it comes to drafting a will and other estate planning documents, note that you probably should revisit them many times before they actually are needed, advises, CNBC’s recent article entitled “Be sure to keep your will or estate plan updated. Here are 3 key reasons why.”

You should give these end-of-life legal papers a review at least every few years, unless there are reasons to do it more often. Things like marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child should necessitate a review. Coming into a lot of money (i.e., inheritance, lottery win, etc.) or moving to another state where estate laws differ from the one where your will was drawn up, mean that you should review your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney.

About 46% of U.S. adults have a will, according to a 2021 Gallup poll. If you are among those who have a will or full-blown estate plan, here are some things to review and why.

Even though your will is all about you, there are other people you need to rely on to carry out your wishes. This makes it important to review who you have named to be executor. He or she must liquidate accounts, ensure your assets go to the proper beneficiaries, pay any debts not discharged (i.e., taxes owed), and sell your home. You should also be sure that the guardian you have named to care for your children is still the person you would want in that position.

As part of estate planning, you may create other documents related to end-of-life issues, such as powers of attorney. The person who is given this responsibility for decisions related to your health care is frequently different from whom you would name to handle your financial affairs. You should look at both of those choices.

Even if you have experienced no major life events, those you previously chose to handle certain duties may no longer be your best option.

Remember that some assets pass outside of the will, including retirement accounts like a 401(k) plan, IRAs and life insurance policies. This means the person named as a beneficiary on those accounts will generally receive the money no matter what your will states. Bank accounts can have beneficiaries listed on a pay-on-death form, which your bank can supply.

If a beneficiary is not listed on those non-will items or the named person has already passed away (and there is no contingent beneficiary listed), the assets automatically go into probate.

Reference: CNBC (Jan. 27, 2022) “Be sure to keep your will or estate plan updated. Here are 3 key reasons why”

Special Needs Planning
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Special Needs Planning

When a family includes a disabled individual, sometimes referred to as a “person with special needs,” estate planning needs to address the complexities, as described in a recent article titled “Customize estate plan to account for disabled beneficiaries” from The News-Enterprise. Failing to do so can have life-long repercussions for the individual.

This often occurs because the testator, the person creating the estate plan, does not know the implications of failing to take the disabled person’s situation into consideration, or when there is no will.

The most common error is leaving the disabled beneficiary receiving an outright inheritance. With a simple will, or no will, the beneficiary receives the inheritance and becomes ineligible for public benefits they may be receiving. The disruption can impact their medical care, housing, work and social programs. It may also lead to the loss of their inheritance.

If the disabled beneficiary does not currently receive benefits, it does not mean they will never need them. After the death of a parent, for instance, they may become completely reliant on public benefits. An inheritance will put them in jeopardy.

A second common error is naming the caregiver as the beneficiary, rather than the disabled individual. This causes numerous problems. The caregiver has the right to do whatever they want with the assets. If they no longer wish to care for the beneficiary, they are under no legal obligation to do so.

If the caregiver has any liabilities of their own, or when the caregiver becomes incapacitated or dies, the assets intended for the disabled individual will be subject to any estate taxes or creditors of the caregiver. If the caregiver has any children of their own, they will inherit the assets and not the disabled person.

The caregiver does not enjoy any kind of estate tax protection, so the estate may end up paying taxes on assets intended for the beneficiary.

The third major planning mistake is using a will instead of a trust as the primary planning method. A Special Needs Trust is designed to benefit a disabled individual to protect the assets and protect the individual’s public benefits. The trust assets can be used for continuity of care, while maintaining privacy for the individual and the family.

Planning for individuals with special needs requires great care, specifically for the testator and their beneficiaries. Families who appear to be similar on the outside may have very different needs, making a personalized estate plan vital to ensure that beneficiaries have the protection they deserve and need.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (March 15, 2022) “Customize estate plan to account for disabled beneficiaries”

Can My Ex Get Some of My Estate?

For many people, their will is their final communication to the world.

A will states how their property should be distributed upon their death. CNBC’s recent article entitled “Your ex-spouse could inherit your money. How to avoid this and other estate-planning mistakes” says that depending on how you plan, it may have a few some surprises for those who are close to you.

There are a couple of situations where you could inadvertently leave money to people you no longer intend as heirs, much to the surprise of other heirs.

An ex-spouse could get some of your money when you die, if you do not update your beneficiaries under a retirement plan.

Divorce does not automatically change a beneficiary designation, unless the divorce decree includes a stipulation to change it. IRAs are the same, so it is not uncommon for an IRA owner to die without having changed the beneficiary designation after a divorce. It’s usually just a simple oversight.

However, most state laws provide that once a married couple is divorced, ex-spouses lose all property rights.

However, pensions are governed by federal law, formally known as ERISA or the Employee Retirement Income Security Act of 1974. As a result, state rules do not apply.

Pensions are not the only accounts that people tend to forget to update. Bank account beneficiary designations are often hard to find, and circumstances may change from when you first set them up.

While it may be tempting to disinherit someone to whom you are no longer close, it can be a bad idea. That is because it can invite all kinds of issues, like a will challenge.

There is always the chance you may reconcile, even on your death bed, at which point it will be too late to update your will and estate plan. Therefore, leave something less to them and do not say anything bad.

To ensure your wishes are carried out the way you want, work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: CNBC (Jan. 9, 2022) “Your ex-spouse could inherit your money. How to avoid this and other estate-planning mistakes”

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!”

Do Single People Need Estate Planning?

In evaluating your needs for estate planning, look at what might happen if you die intestate – that is, without a last will and testament. Your assets will likely have to go through the probate process, which means they’ll be distributed by the court according to the state intestate succession laws, says Hood County News’ recent article entitled “Even ‘singles’ need estate plans.”

Even if you do not have children, you may have a few nephews or nieces—or children of cousins or friends— to whom you would like to leave some of your assets. This can include automobiles, collectibles and family memorabilia. However, if everything you own goes through probate, there is no guarantee that these individuals will end up with what you wanted them to have.

If you want to leave something to family members or close friends, you will need to say this in your will. However, you also may want to provide support to one or more charitable organizations. You can just name these charities in your will. However, there may be options that could provide you with more benefits.

One option is a charitable remainder trust. With this option, you would transfer appreciated assets – such as stocks, mutual funds or other securities – into an irrevocable trust. The trustee, whom you have named (note that you could serve as trustee yourself) can then sell the assets at full market value, avoiding the capital gains taxes you would have to pay if you sold them yourself, outside a trust. If you itemize, you may be able to claim a charitable deduction on your taxes. The trust can purchase income-producing assets with the proceeds and provide you with an income stream for the rest of your life. At your death, the remaining trust assets will pass to the charities you have named.

There is also a third entity that is part of your estate plans: you. Everyone should make arrangements to protect their interests. However, without an immediate family, you need to be especially mindful of your financial and health care decisions. That is why, as part of your estate planning, you may want to include these two documents: durable power of attorney and a health care proxy.

A durable power of attorney allows you to name a person to manage your finances, if you become incapacitated. This is especially important for anyone who does not have a spouse. If you become incapacitated, your health care proxy (health care surrogate or medical power of attorney) lets you name another person to legally make health care decisions for you, if you cannot do so yourself.

Reference: Hood County News (Dec. 17, 2021) “Even ‘singles’ need estate plans”

How Do I Avoid Probate?

Probate can tie up the estate for months and be an added expense. Some states have a streamlined process for less valuable estates, but probate still has delays, extra expense and work for the estate administrator. A probated estate is also a public record anyone can review.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “7 Ways To Avoid Probate Without A Living Trust” says that avoiding probate often is a big estate planning goal. You can structure the estate so that all or most of it passes to your loved ones without this process.

A living trust is the most well-known way to avoid probate. However, retirement accounts, such as IRAs and 401(k)s, avoid probate. The beneficiary designation on file with the account administrator or trustee determines who inherits them. Likewise, life insurance benefits and annuities are distributed to the beneficiaries named in the contract.

Joint accounts and joint title are ways to avoid probate. Married couples can own real estate or financial accounts through joint tenancy with right of survivorship. The surviving spouse automatically takes full title after the other spouse passes away. Non-spouses also can establish joint title, like when a senior creates a joint account with an adult child at a financial institution. The child will automatically inherit the account when the parent passes away without probate. If the parent cannot manage his or her affairs at some point, the child can manage the finances without the need for a power of attorney.

Note that all joint owners have equal rights to the property. A joint owner can take withdrawals without the consent of the other. Once joint title is established you cannot sell, give or dispose of the property without the consent of the other joint owner.

A transfer on death provision (TOD) is another vehicle to avoid probate. You might come across the traditional term Totten trust, which is another name for a TOD or POD account (but there is no trust involved). After the original owner passes away, the TOD account is transferred to the beneficiary or changed to his or her name, once the financial institution gets the death certificate.

You can name multiple beneficiaries and specify the percentage of the account each will inherit. However, beneficiaries under a TOD have no rights in or access to the account while the owner is alive.

Reference: Forbes (March 28, 2022) “7 Ways To Avoid Probate Without A Living Trust”

Why Shouldn’t I Wait to Draft my Will?

There are countless reasons why people 50 and over fail to write a will, update a previous one, or make other estate planning decisions. Market Watch’s recent article entitled “We beat up 6 of your excuses for not writing a will (or updating an old one)” takes a closer look at those six reasons, and how to help overcome them.

Excuse No. 1: You have plenty of time. Sure, you know you need to do it. However, it’s an easy thing to move down on your priority list. We all believe we have time and that we’ll live to be 100. However, that’s not always the case. Set up an appointment with an experienced estate planning lawyer ASAP because what gets scheduled gets done.

Excuse No. 2: You don’t have a lot of money. Some think they have to have a certain amount of assets before estate planning matters. That isn’t true. Drafting these documents is much more than assigning your assets to your heirs: it also includes end-of-life decisions and deciding who would step in, if you were unable to make financial decisions yourself. It’s also wise to have up-to-date documents like a power of attorney and a living will in case you can’t make decisions for yourself.

Excuse No. 3: You don’t want to think about your death. This is a job that does require some time and energy. However, think about what could happen without an up-to-date estate plan. Older people have seen it personally, having had friends pass without a will and seeing the children fighting over their inheritance.

Excuse No. 4: It takes too much time. There’s a misconception about how time-consuming writing a will is. However, it really can be a fairly quick process. It can take as little as 2½ hours. First, plan on an hour to meet with the lawyer; an hour to review the draft; and a half-hour to sign and execute your documents. That is not a hard-and-fast time requirement. However, it is a fair estimate.

Excuse No. 5: You’d rather avoid making difficult decisions. People get concerned about how to divide their estate and aren’t sure to whom they should leave it. While making some decisions in your estate plan may seem final, you can always review your choices another time.

Excuse No. 6: You don’t want to pay an attorney. See this as investment in your loved ones’ futures. Working with an experienced estate planning attorney helps you uncover and address the issues you don’t even know you have. Maybe you don’t want your children to fight. However, there can be other issues. After all, you didn’t go to law school to learn the details of estate planning.

Reference: Market Watch (March 12, 2022) “We beat up 6 of your excuses for not writing a will (or updating an old one)”

What are Biggest Estate Planning Mistakes?

The Huffington Post’s recent article entitled “The Biggest Mistakes People Make In Their Wills, According To Estate Lawyers” explains that your last will and testament is one of the most important legal documents you’ll ever have. A will lets you state where you want your property, minor children and debts to go after you die. It also allows you to appoint an executor to carry out your wishes. The lack of a will is a common tragic mistake. Just about everyone over the age of 18 needs some estate planning. The following are some of the major estate planning mistakes:

  1. Assigning co-executors. You should name only one executor, with alternate executors. Many testators want to make all their children responsible for administering the estate. However, that’s a really bad idea. If you have two executors, and they don’t agree, who gets the final say? However, if you’re set on naming more than one, make it an odd number so it’s majority-rule.
  2. Thinking a will is all you need to avoid probate. Probate is the legal process of administering a person’s estate whether they die with a will or without one (i.e., “intestate”). Although a valid will can say where assets are allocated, it will likely not avoid the probate process if there are assets titled solely in your name. If you have a will in place, but a bank account doesn’t have a beneficiary designation, the assets likely have to go through the probate process before being distributed according to the terms of your will.
  3. Being too vague about items with sentimental value. When people pass away, relationships change. Money can change people. Children who got along so well when you were alive may not get along as well when you’re gone and not there to mediate between them. If you’re too general, a term may be based on interpretation. If people interpret it differently, there’s a problem. If you know that someone wants a specific item, write it down.
  4. Failing to update your will to reflect life changes. The biggest mistake people make when it comes to doing wills or estate plans is their failure to update those documents. There are a number of life events that require the documents to be updated, such as marriage, divorce and births of children. It is recommended that your estate plan be revisited every few years.
  5. Failing to hire an experienced estate planning attorney. It’s important to get your estate planning documents correct. This is because when the documents are executed, the difference between a good set of documents and those drafted by a non-attorney (or one who doesn’t practice in this area of law) can mean considerably more time, money and stress.

Reference: Huffington Post (March 8, 2022) “The Biggest Mistakes People Make in Their Wills, According to Estate Lawyers”

What are My Responsibilities if I’m Named an Executor?

An executor is the person who helps finalize the finances and assets for a deceased person. As executor of an estate, you will need to get copies of the death certificate, notify authorities, such as Social Security, to stop benefits and may be involved in arranging the funeral.

You will also need to follow the instructions in the will to administer the estate.

You will organize the assets, pay off any debts, close accounts like utilities and cable or phone plans and distribute money and possessions to beneficiaries.

US News’ recent article entitled “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate” takes a look at the responsibilities.

If you are asked and accept the position, start by finding the important documents, like the will. As executor, you are acting in a fiduciary capacity, and your efforts are directed toward the interests of the beneficiaries of the decedent’s the estate.

The time required to be an executor can be extensive. If you are asked to be the executor before the person passes away, ask to locate the original will. Read it and make certain that you understand it.

There are also requirements that must be met to be an executor of an estate. Anyone convicted of a felony is not allowed to be an executor, even if they are named in the decedent’s will. The exact rules vary, depending on the state, so ask an estate planning attorney.

After the death, it typically takes at least six months or more to carry out all the administrative work related to the estate. Therefore, if you do not have the time, do not agree to serve as executor.

Finally, executors may be compensated for their work. Some states have commission schedules listed in their statutes that the executor can collect, while other states require that you keep track of your time and the judge will authorize “reasonable” compensation for your actual efforts.

Ask for help if tasks seem overwhelming or you do not understand certain instructions on accounts or the will. An experienced estate planning attorney can assist.

Reference: US News (Dec. 22, 2021) “How to Prepare to Be an Executor of an Estate”

How Do I Talk to My Parents About Estate Planning?

Failing to draft an estate plan can mean a pair of obstacles after a parent’s death. First, it can leave you scrambling to unravel their financial picture while trying to grieve. Second, it can be expensive.

MarketWatch’s recent article entitled “It’s easy to put it off, but here’s why you should talk to your parents about estate planning, and how to start the conversation” says that a wise way to avoid both scenarios is to begin talking with your parents about estate planning. While this can sound like a job just for the uber-rich, it is really an essential process that ensures clear directives exist for all sorts of situations that accompany the end of life.

An estate plan is a chance to set mindful intentions about life’s inevitabilities.  It is, therefore, a great idea to ask your parents to take account of their assets and belongings. This is not just about the numbers and paperwork—it is a chance to gauge preparedness.

Start by asking your parent(s) the following:

  • Who do you want as your primary caregiver?
  • How will we pay for health care expenses?
  • What are your medical care preferences?
  • Which of us should make medical decisions on your behalf?
  • How should we handle your property when you die?
  • Do you have any valuable items that you want to be handled in a special way?
  • Where are your most important documents and do we have access to all of your digital records?

Inheritance often require probate. However, if the right legal documents are in place, it can be a relatively quick and painless process. When someone dies intestate (without a will), it can sticky and get tricky. Understand that the state has its own rules for dying without a will. Depending on the situation, you might need to hire a probate attorney because there will be legal proceedings. Therefore, make certain that your parents have a will and that beneficiaries are clearly stated in all policies and documents. It is a preventative measure that can pay dividends.

Remember that when wealth is transferred (or assets are passed from one person to another), taxes are often inevitable. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to minimize liability.

Reference: MarketWatch (Dec. 29, 2021) “It’s easy to put it off, but here’s why you should talk to your parents about estate planning, and how to start the conversation”