Should I Use a DIY Will?

Sure, many of us would prefer to fill in the blanks on our computer at home, than have to talk to anyone about our questions. However, it’s better to get professional advice instead of using an online DIY will.

DIY Will
DIY estate planning packages often cause more trouble than they’re worth.

MarketWatch’s recent article, “Online wills may save you money, but they can lay these estate-planning traps,” says that if you prepare your taxes yourself and you make a mistake, you may need to meet with the IRS. However, you may never know the results of your work when it comes to a DIY will. Who will be the ones to find out if you made any mistakes, and need to pay the price? Your family.

You can find many DIY options for completing your own estate plan. With the ease and availability of these programs, along with lower prices, one would think more people would have an up-to-date estate plan. According to the AARP article, Haven’t Done a Will Yet?, only 4 in 10 American adults have a will or living trust.

The four basic estate planning documents are a will, a trust, power of attorney for financial matters and an advance health care directive. If you try to produce any or all of them through a DIY site, expect to be offered a fill-in-the-blank approach. However, each state has its own probate code and the program you use may have different names for the documents. They also may not address state-specific questions.

Some DIY sites have all these documents, but you must buy their higher-end packages to access them. Others offer what they call a “limited attorney consultation” in the form of a drop-down menu of questions with pre-written responses, not an actual conversation with an attorney.

The range of DIY services also has a range of prices. Some claim it’s $69 for just a will, and others charge hundreds of dollars for what may be described as a “complete plan.” Some sites have more information than others about their options, so you must dig through the website to be certain you’re getting a legally binding will or other estate planning document. It is important to read the fine print with care.

Most of these websites presume you already know what you want, but most people have no idea what they want or need. When you get into the complexities of family dynamics and trust language specific to your state and situation, these DIY estate planning packages can cause more challenges than working with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Remember: you don’t know what you don’t know. You may not know the case law and legislation that have evolved into your state’s probate code.

Play it safe and use an attorney who specializes in estate planning. Your family will be grateful that you did.

Reference: MarketWatch (May 3, 2019) “Online wills may save you money, but they can lay these estate-planning traps”

Singles Need Two Key Estate Planning Documents

eA woman is shopping, when suddenly she is struck by abdominal pains that are so severe she passes out in the store. When she comes to, an EMT is asking her questions. One of those questions is “Do you have a living will or a medical power of attorney?” That was a wake-up call for her that she needs these key estate planning documents, and should be for other singles too, says Morningstar in the article “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider.” 

Key estate planning documents
There are two key estate planning documents that all single adults need to have.

People who are unmarried and don’t have children often think they don’t need any kind of estate plan. However, the truth is, they do. For singles, power of attorney, medical power of attorney and a living will are especially important.

What is a Living Will? A living will is sometimes called an advance medical directive. It details your wishes, if you are in a situation where life-sustaining treatment is the only way to keep you alive. Would you want to remain on a respirator, have a feeding tube or have other extreme measures used? It’s not pleasant to think about. However, this is an opportunity for you to make this decision on your own behalf, for a possible future date when you won’t be able to convey your wishes. Some people want to stay alive, no matter what. Others would prefer to turn off any artificial means of life support and be allowed to pass away naturally.

Having a Living Will spares your loved ones from having to guess about what you might want to happen.

A Durable Power of Attorney for Healthcare? This is a legal estate planning document that gives a person you name the ability to make healthcare decisions for you, if you can’t speak for yourself. To some people, this matters more than a living will, because the durable power of attorney for healthcare can convey your wishes in situations, where you are not terminally ill, but incapacitated.

Find someone you trust, whose judgment you respect and have a long, serious talk with them. Talk about your preferences for blood transfusions, organ transplants, disclosure about your medical records and more. Doctors have a hard time when a group of relatives and friends are all trying to help, if there is no one person who has been named as your power of attorney for healthcare.

What else does a single person need? The documents listed above are just part of an estate plan, not the whole thing. A single person should have a will, so that they can determine who they want to receive their assets upon death. They should also check on their beneficiary designations from time to time, so any insurance policies, investment accounts, retirement accounts, and any other assets that allow beneficiary designations are going to the correct person. Some accounts also do not permit non-spouses as beneficiaries. As unfair as this is, it does exist.

The takeaway here is that to protect yourself in a health care emergency situation, you should have these key estate planning documents in place. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney. This is not a complicated matter, but it is an important one.

Reference: Morningstar (April 23, 2019) “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider”

Should Elder Care Benefits Be Part of Employees’ Compensation?

As employees’ parents and family members grow older, many are asked to be caregivers. More than one in six Americans working full-time or part-time report assisting with the care of an elderly or disabled family member, relative or friend. Of this group, nearly 50% say they have no choice about taking on these responsibilities. That’s why many struggle in silence, deciding not to share their situation with employers out of fear for the impact on their career or a desire for privacy.

Elder Care Benefits
Some employers offer employee assistance programs that include elder care benefits.

Benefits Pro reports in the article “Elder care benefits: A growing need for the U.S. workforce” that under the federal Family and Medical Leave Act (FMLA), “family leave for seriously ill family members” is required by law. However, the law offers unpaid job protection and the definition of family member is restricted to spouse, child or parent. This has resulted in an increase in demand for elder care benefits. There are a variety of options that businesses can offer.

Many employers now offer an employee assistance program (EAP), which provides employees and household members with educational and referral services for elder care. These services often include free and confidential assessments, short-term counseling, referrals and follow-up services. These EAPs also address a broad body of mental and emotional well-being issues, like alcohol and substance abuse, stress, grief, family problems and psychological disorders.

In addition, some employers also have Dependent Care Assistance Plans (DCAP), commonly referred to as the “day care benefit,” allowing employees to set aside tax-free dollars for qualified elder care. While DCAPs don’t cover the entire cost of elder care, they can provide up to $5,000 per calendar year in assistance and lessen employees’ federal tax burden.

Respite care is an important elder care benefit and provides short-term relief for primary caregivers and can be arranged for just an afternoon or for several days.

Caregiving has shown to reduce employee work productivity by 18.5% and increase the likelihood of employees leaving the workplace. Offering elder care benefits to employees can help with retention and efficiency, as well as with businesses’ bottom line. A study by the Center for American Progress found that turnover costs are often estimated to be 100 to 300% of the base salary of the replaced employee.

As the demand for these benefits continues to increase, employers are recognizing the diverse needs of their workforce and are creating programs that have benefits to help at all stages of life.

Reference: Benefits Pro (April 30, 2019) “Elder care benefits: A growing need for the U.S. workforce”

Entertainer Prince’s Estate Battle May Take Decades to Resolve

Three years later and the “Purple Rain’s” estate remains as unsettled as it was on the day he died in his beloved Paisley Park mansion, located just outside of Minneapolis, says the New York Post’s Page Six in the article “Fight over Prince’s $200 M estate could go on for years.”

The estate, which includes a 10,000 square foot Caribbean villa in addition to Paisley Park and master tapes of his recordings, has been estimated by some to be worth in the neighborhood of $200 million. But what will be left after all the battles between heirs and the consultants (whose fees are adding up)?

The heirs are now in a court-battle with the estate’s administrator, which has already blown through $45 million in administrative expenses. That’s from a probate-court petition filed by Prince’s heirs. They’ve asked the court for a transition plan and a new administrator, which is scheduled for the end of June.

One observer noted that this estate may take decades to resolve, all because there was no will.

A judge had to determine who Prince’s heirs were. More than 45 people stepped up to claim inheritance rights, when the Purple One died in 2016. Some said they were wives, others said they were siblings and one said he was the artist’s son. DNA testing debunked that claim.

The list of heirs has been narrowed down to six: his full sister, Tyka Nelson, and half siblings Norrine Nelson, Sharon Nelson, John Nelson, Alfred Jackson and Omarr Baker.

Until fairly recently, the heirs were divided and quarrelling among themselves. For now, they have come together to challenge the court appointed bank that became the estate’s administrator, Comerica. The estate was being run by Bremer Trust at first, but that was a temporary appointment.

The statement said they don’t agree with Comerica’s cash flow projections, accounting, or inventory of estate assets. They also claim that Comerica is not being responsive to their concerns. What is even worse, they say that Comerica is the reason that the estate is $31 million behind on estate taxes, which are continuing to accumulate interest.

The company stated that it was the best possible administrator of the estate and insisted it is making all tax payments necessary to settle the estate.

Everyone needs to have a will (even with a small estate), so that heirs are not left battling over assets. While Prince may have thought of himself as too young to die, a will and a plan for his estate would have preserved his assets for his heirs and let him determine what happens to his music and his artistic legacy.

Reference: New York Post’s Page Six (April 19, 2019) “Fight over Prince’s $200 M estate could go on for years.”

Why Do Singles Need These Two Estate Planning Tools?

Morningstar’s article, “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider” explains that a living will, or advance medical directive, is a legal document that details your wishes for life-sustaining treatment. It’s a document that you sign when you’re of sound mind and says you want to be removed from life supporting measures, if you become terminally ill and incapacitated.

Powers of Attorney for healthcare and finances are often overlooked as critical estate planning documents for singles.

If you’re on life support with no chance of getting better, you’d choose to have your family avoid the expense and stress of keeping you alive artificially.

Like a living will, a durable power of attorney for healthcare is a legal document that names an agent to make healthcare decisions for you, if you are unable to make them yourself.

A durable power of attorney for healthcare can provide your instructions in circumstances in which you’re not necessarily terminally ill, but you are incapacitated.

When selecting an agent, find a person you trust enough to act on your behalf when you’re unable. Let this person know exactly how you feel about blood transfusions, organ transplants, disclosure of your medical information and other sensitive topics that may arise, if you’re incapacitated.

A power of attorney eliminates any confusion, especially if this person is someone other than your spouse. Your doctors will know exactly who the decision-maker is among your relatives and friends.

These two documents aren’t all that comprise a fully comprehensive estate plan. Singles should regularly make certain that the beneficiary designations on their checking and retirement accounts are up to date.

You should also consider your life insurance needs, especially if you have children and/or a mortgage.

It is also important to understand that a living will doesn’t address the issues of a will. A will ensures that your property is distributed after your death, in accordance with your wishes. Ask for help from an experienced estate planning attorney.

These two documents—a living will and a durable power of attorney—can help ensure that in a healthcare emergency, any medical and financial decisions made on your behalf are in accordance with what you really want. Speak with to an estate-planning attorney in your state to get definitive answers to your questions.

Reference: Morningstar (April 23, 2019) “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider”

What Are the Six Most Frequent Estate Planning Mistakes?

It’s a grim topic, but it is an important one. Without a legal will in place, your loved ones may spend years stuck in court proceedings and spend a lot on legal fees and court costs to settle your estate.

The San Diego Tribune writes in its recent article, 6 estate-planning mistakes to avoid, that without a plan, everything is more stressful and expensive. Let’s look at the top six estate-planning mistakes that people need to avoid:

Estate Planning Mistakes
Estate planning is tricky to get right without the help of a trained professional.

No Plan. Regardless of your age or financial status, it’s critical to have a basic estate plan. This includes crafting powers of attorney for both healthcare and finances and a living will.

No Discussion. Once you create your plan, tell your family. Those you’ve named to take care of you, need to know what you’ve decided and where to find your plan.

Focusing Only on Taxes. Estate planning can be much more than just about tax avoidance. There are many other reasons to create an estate plan that have nothing to do with taxes, like charitable giving, special needs planning for a family member, succession planning in the event of incapacity and planning for children of a prior marriage, to name just a few.

Leaving Assets Directly to Children. If you leave assets directly to your children or grandchildren under age 18, it can cause unintended custodian or guardianship issues. Minors can’t own legal property, so a guardian will be appointed by the court to manage the property for them, until they reach age 18. If you don’t name a guardian, the court will appoint one for you and that person may have very different ideas about how your children should be raised.

Making Mistakes with Ownership and Property Titles. With many blended families, you may want to preserve assets from an inheritance as your own separate property or from a prior marriage for your children. There are many tax consequences and control issues in blended families about which you may not be aware.

Messing Up Your Trust. Many people don’t properly fund or update their trusts. An unfunded trust doesn’t do anyone any good. Assets that aren’t titled in the name of the trust don’t avoid probate.

Finally, the easiest way to avoid these frequent estate planning mistakes is by reviewing your estate plan regularly, as your circumstances change.

Reference: San Diego Tribune (April 18, 2019) “6 estate-planning mistakes to avoid”

Estate Planning Documents and Medicaid Planning

The conversation that you have with an estate planning attorney, when you are in your thirties with a new house, young children, and many years ahead of you is different than the one you’ll have when you are much older, maybe just before you retire. The estate planning attorney will know that you are about to enter a time in your life, when the legal documents you prepare are more likely to be used, says the article “Learn about legal documents and Medicaid” from the Houston Chronicle.

The need for long term care increases as we age.

It should be noted that everyone needs an estate plan at any time of life, so they can state their wishes for how assets are distributed and name a person who will speak on their behalf in the event of incapacity because of an illness or injury.

An estate plan also includes a power of attorney, so someone you chose can serve as your agent to transact business and handle your financial matters. There should also be a declaration of guardian, in the event of later incapacity and a HIPAA medical authorization document. In some instances, a designation of remains is prepared in order to name an individual who will be the appointed agent to care for the body at the time of death.

However, there’s another reason why you’ll need to meet with an attorney at this time. As we get older, the need to address long term care becomes more important. Making the right decisions now, could have a big impact on the quality of your retirement and your later in life medical care.

If you have not updated your will or your powers of attorney, specifically a durable power of attorney for property, it would be wise to do so now. You will need a document to clearly authorize your agent to deal with assets. Any documents that are out of date, or in which named agents have predeceased you, won’t be effective, leading to problems for you and your heirs.

The document may also need to include a broad gifting power for your named agent, so assets can be transferred out of the estate. If this detail is overlooked, the agent may not be able to protect your assets.

This is the time when you may want to take steps to protect your children upon your death or upon the death of the second parent. If your goal is to eliminate assets to be eligible for Medicaid coverage, this planning needs to be done well in advance. In numerous states, there are state administered programs that pursue recovery of assets when a person has received Medicaid benefits.

Your attorney will be able to work with you and your family to address your specific situation. It may be that your estate plan will include trusts, or that certain assets need to be retitled. Meet with an estate planning attorney who is familiar with your state’s laws. And don’t procrastinate.

Reference: The Houston Chronicle (April 19, 2019) “Learn about legal documents and Medicaid”

Property Transfers and Gift Taxes: Estate Planning Basics

As we age, our needs change. That includes our needs for the property that we own. For one person, the family home was rented to the daughter and her spouse as a “rent-to-own” property. This is generous, since it gives the daughter an opportunity to build equity in a home. The parent had questions about what kind of a deed would be needed for this transaction, and if any gift taxes need to be paid on the gift of the house and a separate parcel of land. The answers to these estate planning basics are presented in the article “Dealing with property transfers and gift taxes” from Chicago Tribune.

Estate Planning Basics
Property transfers and gift taxes are basic components of estate planning that everyone should consider.

For starters, there are tax advantages while the person is living, since the home is an investment for the owner, as described above. On the day that the home is deeded over to the daughter, she will own the home at the cost basis of the parent. Here is why. The IRS defines the “cost basis” of a real estate property as the price that the owner paid for it, plus the cost of purchase and any fees associated with the sale plus the cost of any new materials or structural improvements.

When you give someone a home, they receive it at the price that was paid for it plus these costs.

Let’s say this person paid $50,000 for the family home, and it’s now worth $100,000. If you give the home to a family member, it’s as if she paid $50,000 for it, not $100,000. There may be tax consequences when she goes to sell it, but that’s in the distant future.

It’s different if the home is inherited. In that case, if the house was valued at $100,000 on the date that the owner died, the heir’s cost basis would be $100,000. However, if the heir sold the property on the exact same day (this is an unlikely scenario), there would be no tax owed on the sale for the heir.

This is a very simplified explanation of how a home can be passed from one generation to the next. It would be best to speak with a good estate attorney, who can evaluate all the factors, since every situation is different. One simple suggestion might be to put the property into a living trust, in which case the daughter will still pay rent to the parent, but then would inherit the property when the parent died.

The estate planning attorney could use the same living trust for the separate parcel of land. Once the home and the land are deeded into the living trust, the owner can state her wishes for how the properties are to be used.

As for the basic estate planning question of gift taxes, anyone can give anyone else $15,000 per year, with no need to file any forms with the IRS or pay any taxes. If you give someone more than $15,000 in one year, the IRS requires a gift tax form with the federal income tax return.

A meeting with an estate planning attorney is the best way to ensure that the transfer of a family home to a family member is handled correctly and that there are no surprises.

Reference: Chicago Tribune (April 23, 2019) “Dealing with property transfers and gift taxes”

Why Do Even the Middle Class Need Estate Planning?

When it comes to estate planning, you may think that you don’t have the wealth that would require you to engage in extensive estate planning. If you have a will, you might think that’s good enough.  Forbes’ recent article, “Why Estate Planners Aren’t Just for the Ultra-Rich,” says that nothing could be further from the truth.

estate planning for middle class
Estate planning for middle class families is important for many reasons.

Although some estate plans are more complicated than others, just about everyone can benefit from having one. Let’s examine the main reasons why:

Avoiding probate. This is a big reason why the importance of estate planning is for everyone. You don’t have to be part of the 1% to want to avoid putting your family through the stress and expense of probate. Creating a trust and strategically placing assets within its control, eliminates many headaches.

Naming a Guardian for Your Children.  Naming a Guardian for your children can only be done through estate planning documents.  In most states a will is the only document where you can legally name a guardian to raise your children.  If your estate planning documents don’t name a Guardian, the courts will name on for you, and it may not be the person you would have chosen.

Protecting your legacy. When you consider leaving a legacy for the next generation, it may have lofty pursuits. However, those aren’t necessarily reasonable goals for everyone. Leaving a legacy can also mean making certain that heirs properly respect all the effort and sacrifice that it took to save and create a retirement fund—whatever its size.

Creating a business succession plan. Among the countless small businesses in the U.S., most will continue to remain viable after the legacy owner dies. A business owner can plan for this within an estate plan, which details exactly what they want to happen, if they die unexpectedly. That could include outlining specific roles and responsibilities for surviving heirs or putting into place a buy-sell agreement with a business partner and directing the distribution the proceeds of the sale.

Be sure to revisit your estate plan regularly, especially if your life includes big events, like a birth of a child, a divorce, or an irreconcilable difference with a loved one.

It’s a myth that estate planning is something only wealthy people do. The middle class need estate planning too.  It’s for everyone.

Reference: Forbes (April 15, 2019) “Why Estate Planners Aren’t Just For The Ultra-Rich”

What is a Transfer on Death (TOD) Account?

Transfer on Death accounts allow for assets to avoid probate and be transferred directly to a beneficiary after the death of the account holder.

Most married couples share a bank account from which either spouse can write checks and add or withdraw funds without approval from the other. When one spouse dies, the other owns the account. The deceased spouse’s will can’t change that.

This account is wholly owned by both spouses while they’re both alive. As a result, a creditor of one spouse could make a claim against the entire account, without any approval or say from the other spouse. Either spouse could also withdraw all the money in the account and not tell the other. This basic joint account offers a right of survivorship, but joint account holders can designate who gets the funds, after the second person dies.

Kiplinger’s recent article, “How Transfer-on-Death Accounts Can Fit Into Your Estate Planning,” explains that the answer is transfer on death (TOD) accounts (also known as Totten trusts, in-trust-for accounts, and payable-on-death accounts).

In some states, this type of account can allow a TOD beneficiary to receive an auto, house, or even investment accounts. However, retirement accounts, like IRAs, Roth IRAs, and employer plans, aren’t eligible. They’re controlled by federal laws that have specific rules for designated beneficiaries.

After a decedent’s death, taking control of the account is a simple process. What is typically required, is to provide the death certificate and a picture ID to the account custodian. Because TOD accounts are still part of the decedent’s estate (although not the probate estate that the will establishes), they may be subject to income, estate, and/or inheritance tax. TOD accounts are also not out of reach for the decedent’s creditors or other relatives.

Account custodians (such as financial institutions) are often cautious, because they may face liability if they pay to the wrong person or don’t offer an opportunity for the government, creditors, or the probate court to claim account funds. Some states allow the beneficiary to take over that responsibility, by signing an affidavit. The bank will then release the funds, and the liability shifts to the beneficiary.

If you’re a TOD account owner, you should update your account beneficiaries and make certain that you coordinate your last will and testament and TOD agreements, according to your intentions. If you fail to do so, you could unintentionally add more beneficiaries to your will and not update your TOD account. This would accidentally disinherit those beneficiaries from full shares in the estate, creating probate issues.

TOD joint account owners should also consider that the surviving co-owner has full authority to change the account beneficiaries. This means that individuals whom the decedent owner may have intended to benefit from the TOD account (and who were purposefully left out of the Last Will) could be excluded.

If the decedent’s will doesn’t rely on TOD account planning, and the account lacks a beneficiary, state law will govern the distribution of the estate, including that TOD account. In many states, intestacy laws provide for spouses and distant relatives and exclude any other unrelated parties. This means that the TOD account owner’s desire to give the account funds to specific beneficiaries or their descendants would be thwarted.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney, if a TOD account is suitable to your needs and make sure that it coordinates with your overall estate plan.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 18, 2019) “How Transfer-on-Death Accounts Can Fit Into Your Estate Planning”

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