Common Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Estate planning attorneys see them all the time: the mistakes that people make when they try to create an estate plan or a will by themselves. They learn about it, when families come to their offices trying to correct mistakes that could have been avoided just by seeking legal advice in the first place. That’s the message from the article “Five big estate planning ‘don’ts’” from Dedham Wicked Local.

Here are the five estate planning mistakes that you can easily avoid:

Naming minors as beneficiaries. Beneficiary designations are a simple way to avoid probate and be certain that an asset goes to your beneficiary at death. Most life insurance policies, retirement accounts, investment accounts and other financial accounts permit you to name a beneficiary. Many well-meaning parents (and grandparents) name a grandchild or a child as a beneficiary. However, a minor is not permitted to own an asset. Therefore, the financial institution will not name the minor child as the new owner. A conservator must be appointed by the court to receive the asset on behalf of the child and they must hold that asset for the minor’s benefit, until the minor becomes of legal age. The conservator must file annual accountings with the court reflecting activity in the account and report on how any funds were used for the minor’s benefit, until the minor becomes a legal adult. The time, effort, and expense of this are unnecessary. Handing a large amount of money to a child the moment they become of legal age is rarely a good idea. Leaving assets in trust for the benefit of a minor or young adult, without naming them directly as a beneficiary, is one solution.

Drafting a will without the help of an estate planning attorney. The will created at the kitchen table or from an online template is almost always a recipe for disaster. They don’t include administrative provisions required by the state’s laws, provisions are ambiguous or conflicting and the documents are often executed incorrectly, rendering them invalid. Whatever money or time the person thought they were saving is lost. There are court fees, penalties and other costs that add up fast to fix a DIY will.

Adding joint owners to bank accounts. It seems like a good idea. Adding an adult child to a bank account, allows the child to help the parent with paying bills, if hospitalized or lets them pay post-death bills. If the amount of money in the account is not large, that may work out okay. However, the child is considered an owner of any account they are added to. If the child is sued, gets divorced, files for bankruptcy or has trouble with creditors, that bank account is an asset that can be reached.

Joint ownership of accounts after death can be an issue, if your will does not clearly state what your intentions are for that account. Do those funds go to the child, or should they be distributed between heirs? If wishes are unclear, expect the disagreements and bad feelings to be directly proportionate to the size of the account. Thoughtful estate planning, that includes power of attorney and trust planning, will permit access to your assets when needed and division of assets after your death in a manner that is consistent with your intentions.

Failing to fund trusts. Funding a trust means changing the ownership of an asset, so the asset is owned by the trust or designating the trust as a beneficiary. When a trust is properly funded, assets funding the trust avoid probate at your death. If your trust includes estate tax planning provisions, the assets are sheltered from estate tax at death. You have to do this before you die. Once you’re gone, the benefits of funding the trust are gone. Work closely with your estate planning attorney to make sure that you follow the instructions to fund trusts.

Poor choices of co-fiduciaries. If your children have never gotten along, don’t expect that to change when you die. Recognize your children’s strengths and weaknesses and be realistic about their ability to work together, when deciding who will make financial decisions under a power of attorney, health care decisions under a health care proxy and who will best be able to settle your estate. If you choose two people who do not get along, or do not trust each other, it will take far longer and cost more to settle your estate. Don’t worry about birth order or egos.

The sixth biggest estate planning mistake people make, is failing to review their estate plan every few years. Estate laws change, tax laws change and lives change. If it’s been a while since your estate plan was reviewed, make an appointment to meet with your estate planning attorney for a review.

Reference: Dedham Wicked Local (May 17, 2019) “Five big estate planning ‘don’ts’”

 

What You Need to Know about Trusts for Estate Planning

There are many different kinds of trusts used to accomplish a wide variety of purposes in creating an estate plan. Some are created by the operation of a will, and they are known as testamentary trusts—meaning that they came to be via the last will and testament. That’s just the start of a thorough look at trusts offered in the article “ON THE MONEY: A look at different types of trusts” from the Aiken Standard.

Another way to view trusts is in two categories: revocable or irrevocable. As the names imply, the revocable trust can be changed, and the irrevocable trust usually cannot be changed.

A testamentary trust is a revocable trust, since it may be changed during the life of the grantor. However, upon the death of the grantor, it becomes irrevocable.

In most instances, a revocable trust is managed for the benefit of the grantor, although the grantor also retains important rights over the trust during her or his lifetime. The rights of the grantor include the ability to instruct the trustee to distribute any of the assets in the trust to someone, the right to make changes to the trust and the right to terminate the trust at any time.

If the grantor becomes incapacitated, however, and cannot manage her or his finances, then the provisions in the trust document usually give the trustee the power to make discretionary distributions of income and principal to the grantor and, depending upon how the trust is created, to the grantor’s family.

Note that distributions from a living trust to a beneficiary other than the grantor, may be subject to gift taxes. Those are paid by the grantor. In 2019, the annual gift tax exclusion is $15,000. Therefore, if the distribution is under that level, no gift taxes need to be filed or paid.

When the grantor dies, the trust property is distributed to beneficiaries, as directed by the trust agreement.

Irrevocable trusts are established by a grantor and cannot be amended without the approval of the trustee and the beneficiaries of the trust. The major reason for creating such a trust in the past was to create estate and income tax advantages. However, the increase in the federal estate tax exemption means that a single individual’s estate won’t have to pay taxes, if the value of their assets is less than $11.4 million ($22.8 million for a married couple).

Once an irrevocable trust is established and assets are placed in it, those assets are not part of the grantor’s taxable estate, and trust earnings are not reported as income to the grantor.

The downside of an irrevocable trust is that the transfer of assets into the trust may be subject to gift taxes, if the amount that is transferred is greater than $15,000 multiplied by the number of trust beneficiaries. However, depending upon the size of the grantor’s estate, larger amounts may be transferred into an irrevocable trust without any gift tax liability to the grantor, if the synchronization between gift taxes and estate taxes is properly done. This is a complex strategy that requires an experienced trust and estate attorney.

Trusts are also used to address charitable giving and generating current income. These trusts are known as Charitable Remainder Trusts and are irrevocable in nature. There is a current beneficiary who is either the donor or another named individual and a remainder beneficiary, which is a qualified charitable organization. The trust document provides that the named beneficiary receives an income stream from the income produced by the trust assets, and when the grantor dies, the remaining assets of the trust pass to the charity.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about how trusts might be a valuable part of your estate plan. If your estate plan has not been reviewed since the new tax law was passed, there may be certain opportunities that you are missing.

Reference: Aiken Standard (May 17, 2019) “ON THE MONEY: A look at different types of trusts”