Can I Keep a Loved One’s Inheritance From Their Spouse?

A recent nj.com article asks, “How do I protect my niece’s inheritance from her husband?” The article says that in a scenario where someone plans to leave most of her estate to her niece but doesn’t want her estranged husband to get his hands on the money, she must be proactive to make sure the funds go where she intends them to go.

If this happens in New Jersey, the niece’s inheritance will be subject to the New Jersey inheritance tax. The tax is levied based on the relationship of the deceased to the beneficiary. In this case, the niece’s inheritance would be subject to an inheritance tax of 15 to 16%.

This inheritance tax is assessed, because the aunt is a New Jersey resident. It doesn’t matter where the beneficiary resides.

One option is for the aunt to leave the assets to the niece outright or in trust.

The laws in many states, like Missouri, South Carolina, and New Jersey, say that unless the parties otherwise agree, upon divorce there will be equitable distribution of their marital property. Marital property generally doesn’t include the property received by gift or inheritance, as long as that person didn’t co-mingle it with the marital property.

Therefore, the most economical way to transfer property to the niece, is to leave it to her in the testator’s will, with instructions for her to keep it separate and apart from her marital property.

An outright bequest may not be the best way to leave property to the niece, even though it’s probably the most economical method for the aunt.

However, if the aunt leaves the inheritance in trust, she’ll make certain the property isn’t commingled with marital assets.

Further, if the trust is properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney, the income from the trust will likely not be used to decrease any support to which the niece may otherwise be entitled from her spouse, in the event that they divorce down the road. The trust can also protect against other events, by instructing to whom funds should be paid upon the premature death of the niece. That would further prevent her estranged husband from ever being able to make a claim against the funds.

Reference: nj.com (August 21, 2019) “How do I protect my niece’s inheritance from her husband?”

Succession Planning For Business Owners
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Succession Planning For Business Owners

A business owner without an estate plan, is a business owner whose business and personal estate are both in jeopardy, says the Augusta Free Press in an article that asks “Own a business? 5 reasons you need an estate plan.”

You need more than a will to plan for incapacity. If you become ill or incapacitated, a will isn’t the estate planning tool that will help you and your family. What you need is a power of attorney (POA). This document names another individual or individuals to manage your finances and your business dealings, while you are unable to do so. Your estate planning attorney can create a power of attorney that limits what the named person, known as an “agent” may do on your behalf, or make it a broad POA so they can do anything they deem necessary.

Your state’s estate plan may not align with your wishes. Every state has its own laws about property distribution in the event a person does not have an estate plan. A popular joke among estate planning attorneys is that if you don’t have an estate plan, your state has one for you—but you may not like it. This is particularly important for business owners. If you have a sibling who you haven’t spoken to in decades, depending upon the laws of your state, that sibling may be first in line for your assets and your business. If that makes you worried, it should.

Caring for a disabled family member. A family that includes individuals with special needs who receive government benefits requires a specific type of estate planning, known as Special Needs Planning. This includes the use of trusts, so a trust owns assets the assets for the benefit of such a family member without putting government benefits at risk.

 

Help yourself and heirs with tax liability. If your future plan includes leaving your business to your children or another family member, there will be taxes due. What if they don’t have the resources to pay taxes on the business and have to sell it in a fire sale just to satisfy the tax bill? An estate plan, worked out with an experienced estate planning attorney who regularly works with family-owned businesses, will include a comprehensive tax plan. Make sure your heirs understand this plan—you may want to bring them with you to a family meeting with the attorney, so everyone is on the same page.

Avoid fracturing your own family. An unhappy truth is that when there is no estate plan, it impacts not just the family business. If some children or family members are involved in the business and others are not, the ones who work in the business may resent having to share any of the business. How to divide your business is up to the business owner. However, making a good plan in advance with the guidance of an experienced advisor and communicating the plan to family members will prevent the family from falling apart.

There’s no way to know how family members will respond when a parent dies. Sometimes death brings out the best in people, and sometimes it brings out the worst. However, by having an estate plan and business plan for the future, you can preclude some of the stresses and strains on the family.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (August 13, 2019) “Own a business? 5 reasons you need an estate plan.”

Can a Trust Be Amended?

A son has contacted an elder law estate planning attorney now that mom is in a nursing home and he’s unsure about many of the planning issues, as reported by the Daily Republic. The article, “Amending trust easier if parents can make informed decision,” describes the family’s situation.

There is one point to consider from the start. If the son been involved in the planning from the start, in a family meeting with the attorney and discussions with his parents, he might have less uncertainty about the plan and the details.

As for the details: the parents are in their 90s, with some savings, a few annuities, a CD and a checking account. They also have five acres of land, which has their home and a duplex on it and 12 additional acres, with a rental property on it. Everything they own has been placed in a family trust. The son wants to be able to pay her bills and was told that he needs to have a power of attorney and to be named trustee to their trust.

He reports that his parents are good with this idea, but he has a number of concerns. If they are sued, will he be personally liable? Would the power of attorney give him the ability to handle their finances and the real estate in the trust?

If his parents have a revocable or living trust, there are provisions that allow one or more persons to become the successor trustees, in the event that the parent becomes incapacitated or dies.

What happens when they die, as they each leave each other their share of the assets? The son would become the trustee, when the last parent passes.

Usually the power of attorney is created when the trust is created, so that someone has the ability to take control of finances for the person. See if the trust has any of these provisions—the son may already be legally positioned to act on his parents’ behalf. The trust should also show whether the successor trustee would be empowered to sell the real estate.

Trusts can be drafted in any way the client wants it written, and the successor trustee receives only the powers that are given in the document.

As for the liability, the trustee is not liable to a buyer during the sale of a property. There are exceptions, so he would need to speak with an estate planning attorney to help with the sale.

More specifically, assuming the trust does not name the son as a successor trustee and also does not give the son power of attorney, the bigger question is are the parents mentally competent to make important decisions about these documents?

Given the age of these parents, an attorney will be concerned, rightfully so, about their competency and if they can freely make an informed decision, or if the son might be exercising improper influence on them to turn over their assets to him.

There are a few different steps that can be taken. One is for the son, if he believes that his parents are mentally competent, to make an appointment for them with an estate planning attorney, without the son being present in the meeting, in order to determine their capacity and wishes. If the attorney is not sure about the influence of the son, he or she may want to refer the parents for a second opinion with another attorney.

If the parents are found not competent, then the son may need to become their conservator, which requires a court proceeding.

Planning in advance and discussing these issues are best done with an experienced estate planning attorney, long before the issues become more complicated and expensive to deal with.

Reference: Daily Republic (Aug. 10, 2019) “Amending trust easier if parents can make informed decision”

Selling a Parent’s Home after They Pass

Family members who are overtaken with grief are often unable to move forward and make decisions. If a house was not being well maintained while the parent was ill or aging, it might fall into further disrepair. When siblings have emotional attachments to the family home, says the article “With proper planning, selling a parent’s house can be a relatively painless process,” from The Washington Post, things can get even more complicated.

The difficulty of selling a parent’s home after their passing, depends to a large degree on what kind of advance planning has taken place. Much also depends on the heir’s ability to ask for help and working with the right professionals in handling the sale of the home and managing the estate. The earlier the process begins, the better.

Parents can take steps while they are still living to ward off unnecessary complications. It may be a difficult conversation but having it will make the process easier and allow the family time to focus on their emotions, rather than the sale of property. Here are a few pointers:

Make sure your parents have a will. Many Americans do not. A survey from Caring.com found that only 42% of American adults had a will and other estate planning documents.

Be prepared to spend some money. Before a home is sold, there may be costs associated with maintaining the property and fixing any overdue repairs. Save all receipts and estimates.

Secure the property immediately. That may mean having the locks changed as soon as possible. Once an heir (or someone who believes they are or should be an heir) moves in, getting them out adds another layer of complications.

Get real about the value of the property. Have a real estate agent run a competitive market analysis on the property and consider an appraisal from a licensed appraisal. Avoid any accusations of impropriety—don’t hire a friend or family member. This needs to be all business.

Designate a contact person, usually the executor, to keep the heirs updated on how the sale of the house is progressing.

The biggest roadblock to selling the family house is often the emotional attachment of the children. It’s hard to clean out a family home, with all of the mementos, large and small. The longer the process takes, the harder it is.

This is not the time for any major renovations. There may be some cosmetic repairs that will make the house more marketable, but substantial improvements won’t impact the sale price. Remove all family belongings and show the house either empty or with professional staging to show its possibilities. Clean carpets, paint, if needed and have the landscaping cleaned up.

Keep tax consequences in mind. Depending on where the property is, where the heirs live and how much money is being inherited, there can be estate, inheritance and income taxes.  It is usually best to sell an inherited property, as soon as the rights to it are received. When a property is inherited at death, the property value is “stepped up” to fair market value at the time of the owner’s death. That means that you can sell a property that was purchased in 1970 but not pay taxes on the value gained over those years.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about what will happen when the home needs to be sold. It may be better for parents to create a revocable trust in advance, which will direct the sale, allow a child to continue living in the home for a certain period of time, or instruct the one child who loves the home so much to buy it from the trust. Trusts are typically easier to administer after parents pass away and can be very helpful in preventing family fights.

Reference: The Washington Post (May 16, 2019) “With proper planning, selling a parent’s house can be a relatively painless process”

 

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