Estate Planning

When Did You Last Review Beneficiary Designation Forms?

For many people, naming beneficiaries occurs when they first set up an account, and it’s rarely given much thought after that. The Street’s recent article entitled “Secure your IRA – Review Your Beneficiary Forms Now” says that many account holders aren’t aware of how important the beneficiary document is or what the consequences would be if the information is incorrect or is misplaced. Many people are also surprised to hear that wills don’t cover these accounts because they pass outside the will and are distributed pursuant to the beneficiary designation form.

If one of these accounts does not have a named beneficiary, it will likely be paid to your estate. If so, the IRS says that the account has to be fully distributed within five years if the account owner passes before their required beginning date (April 1 of the year after they turn age 72). This may create a massive tax bill for your heirs.

Get a copy of your current beneficiaries from every institution where you have your accounts, and don’t assume they have the correct information. Review the forms and make sure all beneficiaries are named and designated not just the primary beneficiary but secondary or contingent beneficiary. It is also important tomake certain that the form states clearly their percentage of the share and that it adds up to 100%. You should review these forms at any life change, like a marriage, divorce, birth or adoption of a child, or the death of a loved one.

Note that the SECURE Act changed the rules for anyone who dies after 2019. If you don’t heed these changes, it could result in 87% of your hard-earned money to go towards taxes. For retirement accounts that are inherited after December 31, 2019, there are new rules that necessitate review of beneficiary designations:

  1. The SECURE Act created multiple “classes” of beneficiaries, and each has its own set of complex distribution rules. Make sure you understand the definition of each class of beneficiary and the effect the new rules will have on your family.
  2. Some trusts that were named as beneficiaries of IRAs or retirement plans may no longer serve their original purpose. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to review this.
  3. The stretch IRA has been eliminated for most non-spouse beneficiaries. As such, most non-spouse beneficiaries will need to “empty” the IRA or retirement account within 10 years and they can’t “stretch” out their distributions over their lifetimes. Failure to comply is a 50% penalty of the amount not distributed and taxes due.

For many, beneficiary forms are their most important estate planning document but the most overlooked.

Reference: The Street (Dec. 28, 2020) “Secure your IRA – Review Your Beneficiary Forms Now”

Should Unmarried Couples have an Estate Plan?

For unmarried couples, having an estate plan might be even more important than for married couples, especially if there are children in the family. The unmarried couple does not enjoy all of the legal protection afforded by marriage, but many of these protections can be had through a well-prepared estate plan. unmarried couple estate plan

A recent article “Planning for unmarried couples” from nwi.com explains that in states that do not recognize common law marriages, like Florida, the state will not recognize the couple as being married. However, even if you learn that your state does recognize a common law marriage, you still want to have an estate plan.

A will is the starting point of an estate plan, and for an unmarried couple, having it professionally prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney is very important. An agreement between two people as to how they want their assets distributed after death sounds simple, but there are many laws. Each state has its own laws, and if the document is not prepared correctly, it could very easily be invalid. That would make the couple’s agreement useless.

There are also things that need to be prepared, so an unmarried couple can take care of each other while they are living, which they cannot legally do without being married.

A cohabitating couple has no right to direct medical care for each other, including speaking with the healthcare provider or even seeing their partner as a visitor in a healthcare facility. If a decision needs to be made by one partner because the other partner is incapacitated, their partner will not have the legal right to make any medical decisions or even speak with a healthcare provider.

If the couple owns vehicles separately, the vehicles have their own titles. If they want to add their partner’s name to the vehicle, the title needs to be reissued by the state to reflect that change.

If the couple owns a home together, they need to confirm how the home is titled. If they are joint tenants with rights of survivorship or tenants in common, that might be appropriate for their circumstances. However, if one person bought the home before they lived together or was solely responsible for paying the mortgage and for upkeep, they will need to make sure the title and their will establishes ownership and what the owner wants to happen with they die.

If the wish is for the surviving partner to remain in the home, that needs to be properly and legally documented. An estate planning attorney will help the couple create a plan that addresses this large asset and reflect the couple’s wishes for the future.

Unmarried cohabitating adults need to protect each other while they are living and after they pass. A local estate planning attorney will be able to help accomplish this.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 24, 2021) “Planning for unmarried couples”

Some States Have No Estate or Inheritance Taxes

The District of Columbia already moved to reduce its estate tax exemption from $5.67 million in 2020 to $4 million for individuals who die on or after Jan. 1, 2021. A resident with a taxable estate of $10 million living in the District of Columbia will owe nearly $1 million in state estate tax, says the article “State Death Tax Hikes Loom: Where Not To Die In 2021” from Forbes. It won’t be the last change in state death taxes. estate taxes

Seventeen states and D.C. levy their own death taxes in addition to the federal estate tax, which as of this writing is so high that it effects very few Americans. Florida isn’t one of those states.  In fact, Florida doesn’t have an estate tax or an inheritance tax, which is one of the many reasons it’s such a popular place for older Americans to live.

In 2021, the federal estate tax exemption is $11.7 million per person. But in 2026, it will drop back to $5 million per person, with adjustments for inflation. However, that is only if nothing changes.

President Biden has already called for the federal estate tax to return to the 2009 level of $3.5 million per person. The increased tax revenue purportedly would be used to pay for the costs of fighting the “pandemic” and “infrastructure improvements”.  It remains to be seen whether this will actually happen because many law makers believe such a move would potentially destroy the family businesses, farms and ranches that drive and feed the economy. President Biden has also proposed eliminating the step up in basis on appreciated assets at death.

Changes that take place at the federal level are likely to drive changes at the state level. States that don’t have a death tax may look at adding one as a means of increasing revenue, meaning that estate planning may become even more important in the near future.  States with high estate tax exemptions could also reduce their state exemptions to the federal exemption, adding to the state’s income and making things simpler. Right now, there is a disconnect between the federal and the state tax exemptions, which leads to considerable confusion.

Five states have already made changes in 2021, in a variety of forms. Vermont has increased the exemption to $5 million in 2021.  Connecticut’s exemption will be increased $7.1 million. And the states of Maine, Rhode Island and New York have increased their exemptions because of inflation.

The overall trend in the recent past had been towards reducing or eliminating state estate taxes. In 2018, New Jersey dropped their estate tax, but kept the inheritance tax. In 2019, Maryland added a portability provision to its estate tax, so a surviving spouse may carry over the unused predeceased spouse’s exemption amount.

As mentioned above, Florida doesn’t have an estate tax or an inheritance tax, so your clients living (and dying) here in the Sun Shine State, and their families, won’t be subject to these taxes.  However, if you live in or plan to move to a state where there are state death taxes, talk with an estate planner to create a flexible estate plan that will address the current and future changes in the federal or state exemptions. While you’re at it, keep an eye on the state’s legislature for what they’re planning.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 15, 2021) “State Death Tax Hikes Loom: Where Not To Die In 2021”

Am I Named in a Will? How Would I Know?

Imagine a scenario where three brothers’ biological father passed away a decade ago. The father wasn’t married to their mother, and, he had another family with three children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. The father never publicly acknowledged that the three boys were his children. They’ve now heard rumors that he left them something in his will—which may or may not exist. The father’s wife has also passed away.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “How can we find out if our father left us something in his will?” explains that a parent isn’t required to leave his or her adult children an inheritance.

If a person doesn’t leave a will when they die, the intestacy laws of the state in which he or she dies will dictate how the decedent’s property is divided.

For example, if you die without a will in Kansas, your assets will go to your closest relatives. If there were children but no spouse, the children inherit everything. If there is a spouse and children, the spouse inherits one-half of your intestate property, and your children inherit the other one-half of your property.

In Illinois, if you’re married and you pass away without a will, the portion given to your spouse is based upon whether you have living descendants, such as children and grandchildren.

In New Jersey, if the decedent is survived by a spouse and children—this includes any children who are not children of the surviving spouse—the surviving spouse gets the first 25% of the intestate estate, but not less than $50,000 nor more than $200,000, plus one-half of the balance of the intestate estate. In that state, the descendants of the decedent would receive the remainder.

Note that an intestate estate doesn’t include property that’s in the joint name of the decedent and another person with rights of survivorship or payable upon death to another beneficiary. In our problem above, the issue would be whether the three boys would’ve been entitled to a percentage of the property permitted under the state intestacy statute, or under a will if you could prove there was one.

However, the time for the three boys to make a claim against their father’s estate would have been at his death. A 10-year delay is a problem. It may prevent a recovery because there are time limitations for bringing legal actions. However, they may have other claims, and there may be reasons you are not too late.

Litigation is very fact-specific, and the rules are state-specific. The boys should talk to an estate litigation attorney, if they think there are enough assets to make at it worth their while.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 29, 2020) “How can we find out if our father left us something in his will?”

Who Can Witness a Will?

For a will to be binding, there are a number of requirements that must be met, including having a qualified person witness the will. While state laws on wills vary, most require you to be of legal adult age to make a will and have testamentary capacity (i.e., that you be “of sound mind”).

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Who Can and Cannot Witness a Will?” explains that you usually must have your will witnessed.

witness a will
Knowing who can (and can’t) witness a will is critically important

Witnesses to your will are significant in the event that someone disputes its validity later or if there is a will contest. If one of your heirs challenges the terms of your will, a witness may be asked by the probate court to attest that they watched you sign the will and that you appeared to be of sound mind when you did so. Witnesses provide you with another layer of validity to a will, and it makes it more difficult for someone to dispute its legality.

When drafting a will, it’s important to understand several requirements, including who can witness a will. Generally, but depending on applicable state law, anyone can witness a will, as long as they meet two requirements: (i) they are of legal adult age; and (ii) they have the mental capacity to sign the will. Therefore, the types of people who could act on your behalf include your friends, a neighbor, co-workers and any of your relatives.  Some states also require that witnesses are not receiving anything in the will.

If you’ve hired an experienced estate planning attorney to help you draft your will, he or she can also act as a witness, provided they’re not named as a beneficiary.

Witnesses don’t need to review the entire will document in order to sign it. They only need to be able to verify that the document exists, that you have signed it in their presence and that they have signed it in front of you.

When you sign the will, get both witnesses together at the same time. You’ll need to sign, initial and date the will in ink, then have your witnesses do the same. Some states require you to attach a self-proving affidavit or have the will notarized.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Dec. 28, 2020) “Who Can and Cannot Witness a Will?”

Do We Need Estate Planning?

Estate planning is not just about making a will, nor is it just for people who live in mansions. Estate planning is best described in the title of this article “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan” from Business Insider. Estate planning is a plan for the future, for you, your spouse and those you love.

There are a number of reasons for estate planning:

  • Avoiding paying more federal and state taxes than necessary
  • Ensuring that assets are distributed as you want
  • Naming the people you choose for your own care, if you become incapacitated; and/or
  • Naming the people you choose to care for your minor children, if something should happen to you and your spouse.

If that sounds like a lot to accomplish, you’re right. However, with the help of a trusted estate planning attorney, an estate plan can provide you with the peace of mind that comes with having all of the above.

If those decisions and designations are not made by you while you are alive and legally competent, the state law and the courts will determine who will get your assets, raise your children and how much your estate will pay in death taxes to the government. You can avoid that with an estate plan.

Here are the five key things about estate planning:

It’s more than a will. The estate plan includes creating Durable Powers of Attorney to appoint individuals who will make medical and/or financial decisions, if you are not able to do so. The estate plan also contains Medical Directives to communicate your wishes about what kind of care you do or do not want, if you are so sick you cannot do so for yourself. The estate plan is where you can create Trusts to control how property passes from one person or one generation to the next.

Estate planning saves time, money, and angst. If you have a surviving spouse, they are usually the ones who serve as your executor. However, if you do not and if you do not have an estate plan, the court names a public administrator to distribute assets according to state law. While this is happening, no one can access your assets. There’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of legal fees. With a will, you name an executor who will take care of and gain access to most, if not all, of your assets and administer them according to your instructions.

Estate planning includes being sure that investment and retirement accounts with a beneficiary designation have been completed. If you don’t name a beneficiary, the asset goes through the probate court. If you fail to update your beneficiary designations, your ex or a person from your past may end up with your biggest assets.

Estate planning is also tax planning. While federal taxes only impact the very wealthy right now, that is likely to change in the future. States also have estate taxes and inheritance taxes of their own, at considerably lower exemption levels than federal taxes. If you wish your heirs to receive more of your money than the government, tax planning should be part of your estate plan.

The estate plan is also used to protect minor children. No one expects to die prematurely, and no one expects that two spouses with young children will die. However, it does happen, and if there is no will in place, then the court makes all the decisions: who will raise your children, and where, how their upbringing will be financed, or, if there are no available family members, if the children should become wards of the state and enter the foster care system. That’s probably not what you want.

The estate plan includes the identification of the person(s) you want to raise your children, and who will be in charge of the assets left in trust for the children, like proceeds from a life insurance policy. This can be the same person, but often the financial and child-rearing roles are divided between two trustworthy people. Naming an alternate for each position is also a good idea, just in case the primary people cannot serve.

Estate planning, finally, also takes care of you while you are living, with a power of attorney and healthcare proxy. That way someone you know, and trust can step in, if you are unable to take care of your legal and financial affairs.

Once your estate plan is in place, remember that it is like your home: it needs to be updated every three or four years, or when there are big changes to tax law or in your life.

Reference: Business Insider (Jan. 14, 2021) “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan”

Do I Assume My Parents’ Timeshare when They Die?

Ridding yourself of a timeshare can be difficult. Frequently, heirs of a timeshare owner don’t want to take on the liability and the responsibility.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I leave a timeshare to the timeshare company in my will?” explains that as a general rule, unless it’s in an attempt to defraud creditors, a beneficiary may always renounce or disclaim a bequest made to him or her in a will.

However, if you write a provision in your will, it doesn’t mean that it’s legal, needs to be followed, or can be carried out.

As an example, a beneficiary designation on a bank account or certificate of deposit (CD) to your brother Dirk would take precedence over a specific bequest in your will that the same account or CD goes to your brother Chris. In that instant, the bank will pay the bank account or CD to your brother Dirk—no matter what your will says.

Likewise, with shares in a closely held business. If there is a contract between the shareholders dictating what happens to shares of the business if someone dies, that agreement will also override a provision in your will.

A timeshare is a contract. That means the terms of that contract control what happens. Your will doesn’t.

If the will doesn’t contradict the contract, like bequeathing the timeshare to a third-party who will continue to pay the contract obligations, both documents can co-exist.

A timeshare owner can’t avoid contractual obligations by just giving back the unit back to the corporation, unless that’s permitted in the contract.

The timeshare corporation isn’t required to take back a timeshare unit whether it is returned by the terms of the will or by the executor in administrating the estate, unless the signed timeshare agreement provides for this, or terms of the return are negotiated.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 24, 2020) “Can I leave a timeshare to the timeshare company in my will?”

How do I Settle an Estate if I’m Named Executor?

If you are the named executor of an estate, you should learn some of the basics of the job before any work will need to be completed. An executor is the individual named to distribute a decedent’s property that passes under his or her will. The executor also arranges for the payment of debts and expenses.

named executor
Working with an experienced probate attorney makes the job of a named executor much easier

WMUR’s recent article entitled “Settling an estate” explains that if the named executor is not willing or able to do the job, there’s usually an alternate executor appointed in the will. If there’s no alternate, the court will designate an executor for the estate.

Depending on the estate, it can be a consuming and stressful task to address all of the issues. Sometimes, a decedent will leave a letter of instruction which can make the process easier. This letter may address things like the decedent’s important documents, contact info, a list of creditors, login information for important web sites and final burial wishes.

One of the key documents is a will. The executor must get a hold of a copy and review it. You can work with an estate planning attorney to determine the type of probate (a process that begins with getting a court to approve the validity of the will) is needed.

The named executor should conduct an inventory of the decedent’s assets, some of which may need to be appraised. If the decedent had a safe deposit box, the contents must be secured. Once the inventory of assets has been compiled, assets then may be sold or distributed according to the will.

Asset protection is critical and may mean changing the locks on property. The named executor may be required to pay mortgages, utility bills and maintenance costs on any property. Any brokerage accounts will need to be re-titled. The final expenses also need to be paid.

The funeral home or coroner will provide death certificates that will be needed in the probate process, and for filing life insurance claims.

If the decedent was collecting benefits, such as Social Security, the named executor will need to notify the agency of the decedent’s death so they can stop benefits. Any checks received after death must be returned. The executor will file a final federal and state tax return for the decedent, if necessary. There also may be an estate and gift tax return to be filed.

There’s a lot for a named executor to do. It can be made easier with the help an estate planning attorney.

Reference: WMUR (Dec. 23, 2020) “Settling an estate”

Which States Make You Pay an Inheritance Tax?

Let’s start by defining “inheritance tax.” The answer depends on the laws of each state, so you’ll need to speak with an estate planning attorney to learn exactly how your inheritance will be taxed, says the article “States with Inheritance Tax” from yahoo! finance. There are six states that still have inheritance taxes: Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

inheritance tax
Not all states have an inheritance tax

In Iowa, you’ll need to pay the tax within nine months after the person dies, and the amount will depend upon how you are related to the decedent.

In Kentucky, spouse, parents, children, siblings and half-siblings do not have to pay inheritance taxes. Others need to act within 18 months after death but may be eligible for a 5% discount, if they make the payment within 9 months.

Timeframes are different county-by-county in Maryland, and the Registrar of Wills of the county where the decedent lived, or owned property determines when the taxes are due.

Only a spouse is exempt from inheritance taxes in Nebraska, and it has to be paid with a year of the decedent’s passing.

New Jersey gets very complicated, with a large number of people being exempted, as well as qualified religious institutions and charitable organizations.

In Pennsylvania, rates range from 4.5% to 15%, depending upon the relationship to the decedent. There’s a 5% discount if the tax is paid within three months of the death, otherwise the tax must be paid within nine months of the death.

As you can tell, there are many variations, from who is exempt to how much is paid. Pennsylvania exempts transfers to spouses and charities, but also to children under 21 years old. If one sibling is 20 and the other is 22, the older sibling would have to pay the tax, but the younger sibling does not.

There’s also a difference as to which property is subject to inheritance taxes. In Nebraska, the first $40,000 inherited is exempt. Pennsylvania exempts certain transfers of farmland and agricultural property. All six states exempt life insurance proceeds when they are paid to a named beneficiary, but if the policies are paid to the estate in Iowa, the proceeds are subject to the tax.

Note that an inheritance tax is different than an estate tax. Both taxes are paid upon death, but the difference is in who pays the tax. For an inheritance tax, the tax is paid by heirs and the tax rate is determined by the beneficiary’s relationship to the deceased.

Estate tax is paid by the estate itself before any assets are distributed to beneficiaries. Estate taxes are the same, regardless of who the heirs are.

There are twelve states and the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.) that have their own estate taxes (in addition to the federal estate tax). Note that Maryland has an inheritance, state and federal estate taxes. The rest of the states with an estate tax are Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Vermont.

The large variations on estate and inheritance taxes are another reason why it is so important to work with an experienced estate planning lawyer who knows the estate laws in your state.

Reference: yahoo! finance (Jan. 6, 2021) “States with Inheritance Tax”

How Much Should We Tell the Children About Our Estate Plan?

Congratulations, if you have finished your estate plan. You and your estate planning attorney created a plan that is suited for your family, you have checked on beneficiary designations, signed all of the necessary documents and named an executor to carry out your directions when you pass away. However, have you talked about your estate plan with your adult children? That is the issue explored in the recent article entitled “What to tell your adult kids when planning your estate” from CNBC. It can be a tricky one.

There are certain parts of estate plans that should be shared with adult children, even if money is not among them. Family conflict is common, whether the estate is worth $50,000 or $50 million. So, even if your estate plan is perfect, it might hold a number of surprises for your children, if you don’t speak with them about your plan while you are living.

Even the best estate plan can bequeath resentment and family conflicts, if family members don’t have a head’s up about what you’ve planned and why.

If you die without a will, there can be even more problems for the family. With no will—called dying “intestate”—it is up to the courts in your state to decide who inherits what. This is a public process, so your life’s work is on display for all to see. If your heirs have a history of arguing (especially over who deserves what), dying without a will can make a bad family situation worse.

Not everything about an estate plan has to do with distribution of possessions. Much of an estate plan is concerned with protecting you, while you are alive.

For starters, your estate planning attorney can help you with a Power of Attorney. You’ll name a person who will handle your finances, if you become unable to do so because of illness or injury. A Healthcare Power of Attorney is used to empower a trusted person to act as a surrogate and make medical decisions for you, if you are incapacitated. Some estate planning attorneys recommend having a Living Will, also called an Advance Healthcare Directive, to convey end-of-life wishes, if you don’t want to be kept alive through artificial means.

These documents do not require you to name a family member. A friend or colleague you trust and know to be responsible can carry out your wishes and can be named to any of these positions.

All of these matters should be discussed with your children. Even if you don’t want them to know about the assets in your estate, they should be told who will be responsible for making decisions on your finances and health care.

Consider if you want your children to learn about your finances during your lifetime, when you are able to discuss your choices with them, or if they will learn about them after you have passed, possibly from a stranger or from reading court documents.

Many of these decisions depend upon your family’s dynamics. Do your children work well together, or are there deep-seated hostilities that will lead to endless battles? You know your own children best, so this is a decision only you can make.

It is also important to take into consideration that an unexpected large inheritance can create emotional turbulence for many people. If heirs have never handled any sizable finances before, or if they have a marriage on shaky ground, an unexpected inheritance could create very real problems—and a divorce could put their inheritance at risk.

Talk with your children, if at all possible. Erring on the side of over-communicating might be a better mistake than leaving them in the dark.

Reference: CNBC (Nov. 11, 2020) “What to tell your adult kids when planning your estate”

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