Estate Planning

How Do Transfer on Death Accounts Work?

Almost all estates with wills go to probate court. This is not a major issue in some states and an expensive headache in others. By learning how Transfer on Death accounts work, and using them as an additional estate planning tool, you can avoid some assets going through probate, says Yahoo! Finance in the article “Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts for Estate Planning.”  

How Do Transfer on Death Accounts Work
Assets in a Transfer on Death account avoid probate court in Florida.

So, how do Transfer on Death accounts work?

A TOD account automatically transfers the assets to a named beneficiary, when the account holder dies. Let’s say you have a savings account with $100,000 in it. Your son is the beneficiary for the TOD account. When you die, the account’s assets are transferred directly to him without having to go through probate.

A more formal definition: a TOD is a provision of an account that allows the assets to pass directly to an intended beneficiary.  This is the equivalent of a beneficiary designation. (Note that the laws that govern estate planning vary from state to state, but most banks, investment accounts and even real estate deeds can become TOD accounts.)  If you own part of a TOD property, only your ownership share will be transferred.

TOD account holders can name multiple beneficiaries and split up assets any way they wish. You can open a TOD account to be split between two children, for instance, and they’ll each receive 50% of the holdings, when you pass away.

A couple of additional benefits to keep in mind: the beneficiaries have no right or access to the TOD account, while the owner is living. And the beneficiaries can be changed at any time, as long as the TOD account owner is mentally competent. Just as assets in a will can’t be accessed by heirs until you die, beneficiaries on a TOD account have no rights or access to a TOD account, until the original owner dies.

Simplicity is one reason why people like to use the TOD account. When you have a properly prepared will and estate plan, the process is far easier for your family members and beneficiaries. The will includes an executor, who is the person who takes care of distributing your assets and a guardian to take care of any minor children. Absent a will, the probate court will determine who the next of kin is and distribute your property, according to the laws of your state.

A TOD account usually requires only that a death certificate be sent to an agent at the account’s bank or brokerage house. The account is then re-registered in the beneficiary’s name.

Whatever is in your will does not impact how the Transfer on Death account works. If your will instructs your executor to give all of your money to your sister, but the TOD account names your brother as a beneficiary, any money in that account is going to your brother. Your sister will get any other assets.

Speak with an estate planning attorney about how a Transfer on Death account works and whether one might be useful for your purposes.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (June 26, 2019) “Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts for Estate Planning”

What Are the Basics About Trusts?

Forbes’s recent article, “A Beginner’s Guide To Reading A Trust,” says that as much as attorneys have tried to simplify documents, there’s some legalese that just can’t be avoided. Let’s look at the basics about trusts and a few tips in reviewing your trust.

Basis about trusts
Understanding basic trust terms is essential.

First, familiarize yourself with the terms. There are basic terms of the trust that you’ll need to know. Most of this can be found on its first page, such as the person who created the trust. He or she is usually referred to as the Donor, Grantor or Settlor (here in Florida we use the term Settlor). It is also necessary to identify the Trustee and any successor trustees, who will hold the trust assets and administer them for the benefit of the Beneficiaries.

You should next see who the Beneficiaries are and then look at the important provisions concerning asset distribution. See if the trustee is required to distribute the assets all at once to a specific beneficiary, or if she can give the money out in installments over time.

It is also important to determine if the distributions are completely left to the discretion of the trustee, so the beneficiary doesn’t have a right to withdraw the trust assets.  You’ll also want to check to see if the trustee can distribute both income and principal.

The next step is to see when the trust ends. Trusts usually end at a specific date or at the death of a beneficiary.

Other important basic trust provisions include whether the beneficiaries can remove and replace a trustee, if the trustee has to provide the beneficiaries with accountings and whether the trust is revocable or irrevocable. If the trust is revocable and you’re the settlor, you can change it at any time.

If the trust is irrevocable, you won’t be able to make any changes without court approval. If your uncle was the donor and he passed away, the trust is most likely now irrevocable.

In addition, you should review the basic trust boilerplate language, as well as the tax provisions.

Talk to an estate planning attorney about any questions you may have and to help you interpret the basic trust terms.

Reference: Forbes (June 17, 2019) “A Beginner’s Guide To Reading A Trust”

Why Would I Need to Update My Will?

OK, great!! You’ve created your will! Now you can it stow away and check off a very important item on your to-do list. Well, that’s mostly correct.  You’ll still need to update your will from time-to-time.

Update your will
Your will should be reviewed every 3 to 5 years and updated as your life changes.

Thrive Global’s recent article, “7 Reasons Why You Need to Review your Will Right Now,” says it’s extremely important that you regularly update your will to avoid any potential confusion and extra stress for your family at a very emotional time. As circumstances change and major life events take place (like the birth of a child or grandchild, the purchase of a home, or retirement, to name just a few), you need to update your will reflect changes in your life. As time passes and your situation changes, your will may become outdated, obsolete or even create confusion when the time comes for your will to be administered.

New people in your life. If you do have more children after you’ve created your will, review your estate plan to make certain that the wording accounts for your new children. You may also marry or re-marry, and grandchildren may be born that you want to include. Make a formal update to your estate plan to include the new people who play an important part in your life and to remove those with whom you lose touch.

A beneficiary or other person passes away. If a person you had designated as a beneficiary or personal representative of your will has died, you must make a change or it could result in confusion, when the time comes for your estate to be distributed. You need to update your will, if an individual named in your estate passes away before you.

Divorce. If your will was created prior to a divorce, and you want to remove your ex from your estate plan, talk to an estate planning attorney about the changes you need to make.

Your spouse dies. Wills should be written in such a way as to always have a backup plan in place. For example, if your husband or wife dies before you do, their portion of your estate might go to another family member or another named individual. If this happens, you may want to redistribute your assets to other people.

A child becomes an adult. When a child turns 18 and comes of age, she is no longer a dependent.  Therefore, you may need to update your will in any areas that provided additional funds for any dependents.

You experience a change in your financial situation. This is a great opportunity to update your will to protect your new financial situation.

You change your mind. It’s your will, and you can change your mind whenever you like.

Reference: Thrive Global (June 17, 2019) “7 Reasons Why You Need to Review your Will Right Now”

Leaving a Legacy Isn’t Just About Money

A legacy is not necessarily about money, says a survey that was conducted by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Ave Wave. More than 3,000 adults (2,600 of them were 50 and older) were surveyed and focus groups were asked about end-of-life planning and leaving a legacy. The article, “How to leave a legacy no matter how much money you have” from The Voice, shared a number of the participant’s responses.

Leaving a Legacy
Most people would rather be remembered for how they lived their life instead of how much money they made.

A total of 94% of those surveyed said that a life well-lived, is about “having friends and family that love me.” 75% said that a life well-lived is about having a positive impact on society. A mere 10% said that a life well-lived is about accumulating a lot of wealth.

People want to be remembered for how they lived, not what they did at work or how much money they saved. Nearly 70% said they most wanted to be remembered for the memories they shared with loved ones. And only nine percent said career success was something they wanted to be remembered for.

While everyone needs to have their affairs in order, especially people over age 55, only 55% of those surveyed reported having a will. Only 18% have what are considered the three key essentials for leaving a legacy: a will, a health care directive and a durable power of attorney.

The will addresses how property is to be distributed, names a personal representative of the estate and, if there are minor children, names who should be their guardian. The health care directive gives specific directions as to end-of-life preferences and designates someone to make health care decisions for you, if you can’t speak for yourself. A power of attorney designates an agent to make financial decisions on your behalf if you’re unable to do so, because of illness or incapacity.

An estate plan is often only considered when a trigger event occurs, like a loved one dying without the proper documents in place. That is a wake-up call for the family, once they see how difficult it is when there is no estate plan.

Parents age 55 and older had interesting views on leaving inheritances and who should receive their estate. Only about a third of boomers surveyed and 44% of Gen Xers said that it’s a parent’s duty to leave some kind of inheritance to their children. A higher percentage of millennials surveyed—55%–said that this was a duty of parents to their children.

The biggest surprise of the survey: 65% of people 55 and older reported that they would prefer to give away some of their money, while they are still alive. A mere 8% wanted to give away all their assets, before they died. Only 27% wanted to give away all their money after they died.

Reference: The Voice (June 16, 2019) “How to leave a legacy no matter how much money you have”

What Will Anderson Cooper Inherit From his Mother Gloria Vanderbilt?

The 95-year-old Gloria Vanderbilt was “a vestige of another era, reminiscent of Brooke Astor in her longevity and tangible connection to the Gilded Age of railroad and oil barons, who left their mark on New York society,” said Trust Advisor in its recent article, “Does A Long Island Landscaper (And Not Anderson Cooper) Inherit Gloria Vanderbilt’s Fortune?”  

However, unlike Brooke Astor, Vanderbilt was born in the limelight. Her long life started in the center of dynastic politics that got both messy and public. She and her trust fund became commodities in her parents’ divorce.

It’s reported that she had to sell off a few houses to pay the tax bills. Anything left behind is well-hidden in some estate planning documents. With her family fortune dwindling over time, Vanderbilt’s fashion empire came and went. However, the distributions kept coming to fill the holes. The old Vanderbilt fortune may be gone.

Her children and grandchildren built the careers they wanted, investing their inheritances into passion projects, with little or no immediate payday. Some are novelists, filmmakers and TV journalists. Gloria built a fashion empire of her own.

As the baby, Anderson was closest to his mother. He has probably accumulated the most personal wealth after years on CNN, so he doesn’t need his mom’s money. Her oldest son Stan probably doesn’t need the money either.

Stan has a successful landscaping business in Long Island. Any Vanderbilt money he inherited along the way, is probably well invested.

There’s also a third son, Stan’s brother Chris. He walked out years ago and never really came back, at least publicly. It’s assumed that he was disinherited at the time. Now, no one is sure if Gloria wrote him out of the will. She may have written him back in. There was allegedly a bit of a thaw in the last few years.

Reference: Trust Advisor (June 17, 2019) “Does A Long Island Landscaper (And Not Anderson Cooper) Inherit Gloria Vanderbilt’s Fortune?”

Which Debts Must Be Paid Before and After Probate?

Everything that has to be addressed in settling an estate becomes more complicated when there is no will and no estate planning has taken place before someone passes away. Debts are a particular area of concern for the estate and the personal representative. What has to be paid, and who gets paid first? These are explained in the article “Dealing with Debts and Mortgages in Probate” from The Balance.

probate
Knowing which debts have to be paid before and after probate is important.

Probate is the process of gaining court approval of the estate and paying off final bills and expenses, before property can be transferred to beneficiaries. The process of paying the debts of a deceased person can typically begin before probate officially starts.

Making a list of all of the decedent’s liabilities and looking for the following bills or statements is the best way to begin:

  • Mortgages (and reverse mortgages)
  • Home equity loans
  • Lines of credit
  • Condo fees
  • Property taxes
  • Federal and state income taxes
  • Car and boat loans
  • Personal loans
  • Loans against life insurance policies
  • Loans against retirement accounts
  • Credit card bills
  • Utility bills
  • Cell phone bills

Next, divide those items into two categories: those that will be ongoing during probate—consider them administrative expenses—and those that can be paid off after the probate estate is opened. These are considered “final bills.” Administrative bills include things like mortgages, condo fees, property taxes and utility bills. They must be kept current. Final bills include income taxes, personal loans, credit card bills, cell phone bills and loans against retirement accounts and/or life insurance policies.

The personal representative and heirs should not pay any bills out of their own pockets. The personal representative deals with all of these liabilities in the process of settling the estate.

For some of the liabilities, heirs may have a decision to make about whether to keep the assets with loans. If the beneficiary wants to keep the house or a car, they may, but they have to keep paying down the debt. Otherwise, these payments should be made only by the estate.

The personal representative decides which bills to pay and which assets should be liquidated to pay final bills.

A far better plan for your beneficiaries, is to create a comprehensive estate plan that includes a will that details how you want your assets distributed and addresses what your wishes are. If you want to leave a house to a loved one, your estate planning attorney will be able to explain how to make that happen, while minimizing taxes on your estate.

Reference: The Balance (March 21, 2019) “Dealing with Debts and Mortgages in Probate”

What Happens If I Write a Handwritten Will?

Aretha Franklin died last August, and it was first reported that she didn’t have a will.

However, recent news reports from Detroit say that, as her estate is being thoroughly reviewed, relatives have discovered a total of three different wills—one of which was located under some seat cushions!

Each of Aretha’s wills is handwritten. The three documents have been submitted as part of the probate process to have the court determine if any of them will have legal standing.

Aretha Franklin’s actions—or her lack of the right actions—may could cost her heirs a considerable amount of money in legal fees. It also will make the probate process longer and more stressful. In addition, the ultimate court decision concerning her estate may not be consistent with her wishes.

Fox Business’ recent article, “Aretha Franklin’s handwritten wills found: Big estate planning no-no,” asks what can we learn from the Queen of Soul’s Estate Planning blunders?

First, do it right and ask an estate planning attorney to help you draft your will. He or she will make sure that your will and estate plan comply with the laws on your state. Probate and estate laws may be slightly different in every state, so be certain your will reflects your location and circumstances to be valid.

Don’t make a handwritten or “holographic” will. A handwritten will is valid in a surprisingly large number of states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. However, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney in your state, if you have questions about a holographic will.

Spend the money and do it right. Hire a qualified estate planning attorney to make certain that everything is done correctly, so it’s the way you want it, and it will be upheld if questioned in court after you’re gone. That includes having the will witnessed and/or notarized.

Of course, while you can download a free form from the internet or pay $50 to buy a package, you should invest the extra funds to hire a legal professional to help can save your family a big expense in future extra legal fees.

Further, you should review your will at least every few years to make sure it accurately reflects your current wishes and to be certain that everything is consistent between the will and other documents, like beneficiaries listed on your insurance policies or investment accounts.

You also need to make sure your heirs can find the will. Hiding it in the sofa isn’t the recommended procedure, because who’s to say that Franklin didn’t stash a fourth or fifth handwritten will in a wardrobe or in the food pantry!

Lastly, be sure you let your family and loved ones know your wishes as you prepare these documents. Be proactive about estate planning and do it right.

Reference: Fox Business (May 22, 2019) “Aretha Franklin’s handwritten wills found: Big estate planning no-no”

How Do I Choose a Guardian in My Estate Plan?

Selecting a guardian to care for your minor child after you die isn’t a lot of fun. Who wants to think about a situation where their young children are left without their parents and live with friends or relatives? However, choosing a guardian in your estate plan to raise your children and manage their inheritance is crucial. If you don’t do it, the courts will make the decision for you.

choose a guardian in my estate plan
Choosing a guardian for your children is one of the most important decisions a parent will ever make.

U.S. News and World Report’s recent article “How to Choose a Guardian for Your Child” says that, at worst, forgetting to name a guardian can mean a long court proceeding. This can be expensive, cause stress in family relationships and put your children in guardianship limbo.

There are two types of guardianship to consider when deciding who will care for your children: guardian of the estate and guardian of the person.  The guardian of the estate is a person who’ll manage the minor child’s inheritance on their behalf. It’s a fiduciary responsibility, and this guardian must make sure he or she carefully and appropriately manages accounts, keeps receipts, reports back to the court and doesn’t comingle the child’s assets with his or her own. Another option is for a parent is to set up a trust and have a trustee manage the funds for the child. This can allow the parent more control over how and when money is distributed, especially if you anticipate leaving a substantial inheritance.

The guardian of the person is the daily caretaker who’ll make sure your child gets health care, educational, housing and has all other needs met.

These two guardians can be the same person or different people, depending on the skills and abilities of your family members and friends. A separate person managing the estate can provide a series of checks and balances that can help, if you are concerned about the misuse of your child’s funds.

You may want the guardian of the estate to have good money-management skills. The guardian of the person may be someone who shares your same values, has the energy to raise a child, and is close by so that your child doesn’t have to lose the familiar comforts of their school and neighborhood.

You should also name backup guardians, in the event that the primary guardian is unable or unwilling to take on the responsibility. You should also be sure to speak with your guardians ahead of time and make certain they understand the responsibility and are willing to take on the task of helping care for your children, if you pass away.

In most states, you’ll need to name your guardian or guardians as part of your will.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney with any questions and draft a legal will with the terms of guardianship included, along with a power of attorney and health care proxy. If you need to create a trust for your child(ren), don’t forget to fund it.

Reference: U.S. News and World Report (June 4, 2019) “How to Choose a Guardian for Your Child”

Here’s Why a Basic Form Doesn’t Work for Estate Planning

It’s true that an effective estate plan should be simple and straightforward, if your life is simple and straightforward. However, few of us have those kinds of lives. For many families, the discovery that a will that was created using a basic form is invalid leads to all kinds of expenses and problems, says The Daily Sentinel in an article that asks “What is wrong with using a form for my will or trust?”  

Basic Estate Planning Forms
Online estate planning forms often lead to more problems and expense that they’re worth.

If the cost of an estate plan is measured only by the cost of a document, a basic form will, of course, be the least expensive option — on the front end. On the surface, it seems simple enough. What would be wrong with using a basic estate planning form like a will or a power of attorney?

Actually, a lot is wrong. The same things that make a do-it-yourself, basic form seem to be attractive, are also the things that make it very dangerous for your family. A basic estate planning form does not take into account the special circumstances of your life. If your estate is worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars, that form could end up putting your estate in the wrong hands. That’s not what you had intended.

Another issue: any form that is valid in all 50 states is probably not going to serve your purposes. If it works in all 50 states (and that’s highly unlikely), then it is extremely general, so much so that it won’t reflect your personal situation. It’s a great sales strategy, but it’s not good for an estate plan.

If you take into consideration the amount of money to be spent on the back end after you’ve passed, that $100 will becomes a lot more expensive than what you would have invested in having a proper estate plan created by an estate planning attorney.

What you can’t put into dollars and cents, is the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your estate plan, including a will, power of attorney, and health care power of attorney, has been properly prepared, that your assets will go to the individuals or charities that you want them to go to, and that your family is protected from the stress, cost and struggle that can result when wills are deemed invalid.

Here’s one of many examples of how the basic, inexpensive estate planning form created chaos for one family. After the father died, the will was unclear, because it was not prepared by a professional. The father had properly filled in the blanks but used language that one of his beneficiaries felt left him the right to significant assets. The family became embroiled in expensive litigation, and became divided. The litigation has ended, but the family is still fractured. This couldn’t have been what their father had intended.

Other issues that are created when basic estate planning forms are used: naming the proper executor, guardians and conservators, caring for companion animals, dealing with blended families, addressing Payable-on-Death (POD) accounts and end-of-life instructions, to name just a few.

Avoid the “repair” costs and meet with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state to create an estate plan that will suit your needs.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (May 25, 2019) “What is wrong with using a form for my will or trust?”

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