Trusts

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”

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?”

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?”

What Should I Keep in Mind in Estate Planning as a Single Parent?

Most estate planning conversation eventually come to center upon the children, regardless of whether they’re still young or adults.  So what should you keep in mind in estate planning as a single parent?

Talk to a qualified estate planning attorney and let him or her know your overall perspective about your children, and what you see as their capabilities and limitations. This information can frequently determine whether you restrict their access to funds and how long those limitations should be in place, in the event you’re no longer around.

Kiplinger’s recent article, “Estate Planning for Single Parents” explains that when one parent dies, the children typically don’t have to leave their home, school and community. However, when a single parent passes, a child may be required to move from that location to live with a relative or ex-spouse.

After looking at your children’s situation with your estate planning attorney to understand your approach to those relationships, you should then discuss your support network to see if there’s anyone who could serve in a formal capacity, if necessary. A big factor in planning decisions is the parent’s relationship with their ex. Most people think that their child’s other parent is the best person to take over full custody, in the event of incapacity or death. For others, this isn’t the case. As a result, their estate plan must be designed with great care. These parents should have a supportive network ready to advocate for the child.

Your estate planning attorney may suggest a trust with a trustee. This fund can accept funds from your estate, a retirement plan, IRA and life insurance settlement. This trust should be set up, so that any court that may be involved will have sound instructions to determine your wishes and expectations for your kids. The trust tells the court who you want to carry out your wishes and who should continue to be an advocate and influence in your child’s life.

Your will should also designate the child’s intended guardian, as well as an alternate, in case the surviving parent can’t serve for some reason. The trust should detail how funds should be spent, as well as the amount of discretion the child may be given and when, and who should be involved in the child’s life.

A trust can be drafted in many ways, but a single parent should discuss all of their questions with an estate planning attorney.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 20, 2019) “Estate Planning for Single Parents”

Your Will Isn’t the End of Your Estate Planning

Even if your financial life is pretty simple, you should have a will. And once you have a will, that’s not the end of your estate planning.  There’s still some work to be done to make sure your family isn’t left with an expensive mess to clean up.  Assets must be properly titled, so that assets are distributed as intended upon death.

Your Will is only one piece of your estate planning.

Forbes’ recent article, “For Estate Plan To Work As Intended, Assets Must Be Properly Titled” notes that with the exception of the choice of potential guardians for children, the most important function of a will is to make certain that the transfer of assets to beneficiaries is the way you intended.

However, not all assets are disposed of by a will—they pass to beneficiaries regardless of the intentions stated in the will. Your will only controls the disposition of assets that fall within your probated estate.

An example of when a designated beneficiary controls the disposition of a financial asset is life insurance. Other examples are retirement accounts, such as a 401(k) or an IRA. When there’s a named beneficiary, assets will be distributed accordingly, which may be different than the intentions stated in a will.

The title of real estate controls its disposition. When property is jointly owned, how it is titled determines if the decedent’s interest in the property passes to the surviving partner, becomes part of the decedent’s estate, or passes to a third party. Titling of jointly owned property can be complicated in community property states.

In the same light, a revocable trust is an inter vivos or living trust that’s created during the grantor’s life, as part of an estate plan.

Such a trust can be used to ensure privacy, avoid the expenses and delays in the probate process and provide for continuity of asset management. A critical part of the planning is that the grantor must transfer (or retitle) assets to the trust.

Wills are very important in estate planning. To ensure that your estate plan fulfills your intentions, talk to an estate planning attorney about the proper titling of your assets.

Reference: Forbes (May 20, 2019) “For Estate Plan To Work As Intended, Assets Must Be Properly Titled”

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 for estate planning offered in the article “ON THE MONEY: A look at different types of trusts” from the Aiken Standard.

trusts for estate planning
The two most common types of trusts for estate planning are revocable trusts and irrevocable trusts.

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

A testamentary trust is a type of revocable trust, since it may be changed during the life of the testator. However, upon the death of the testator, 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 revocable 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 using irrevocable trusts for estate planning 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 for estate planning are also used to address charitable giving and generating current income. These trusts are known as Charitable Remainder Trusts and are irrevocable in nature. In this type of trust 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 during the grantor’s lifetime, 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”

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”

Scroll to Top