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”

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”

Common Mistakes with Beneficiary Designations

Questions about beneficiary designations are among the most common we hear from new clients in our law practice.  This is a topic that should be among those discussed by an estate planning attorney during your first meeting.

Many people don’t understand that their will doesn’t control who inherits all of their assets when they pass away. Some of a person’s assets pass by beneficiary designation. That’s accomplished by completing a form with the company that holds the asset and naming who will inherit the asset, upon your death.

Estate Planning Attorney
Assets with a beneficiary designation will not be distributed according to your will.

Kiplinger’s recent article, “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid,” explains that assets including life insurance, annuities and retirement accounts (think 401(k)s, IRAs, 403bs and similar accounts) all pass by beneficiary designation. Many financial companies also let you name beneficiaries on non-retirement accounts, known as TOD (transfer on death) or POD (pay on death) accounts.

Naming a beneficiary can be a good way to make certain your family will get assets directly. However, these beneficiary designations can also cause a host of problems. Make sure that your beneficiary designations are properly completed and given to the financial company, because mistakes can be costly. The article looks at five critical mistakes to avoid when dealing with your beneficiary designations:

  1. Failing to name a beneficiary. Many people never name a beneficiary for their retirement accounts. If you don’t name a beneficiary for retirement accounts, the financial company has it owns rules about where the assets will go after you die. For retirement benefits, if you’re married, your spouse will most likely get the assets. If you’re single, the retirement account will likely be paid to your estate, which has negative tax ramifications and may need to be handled through the costly and time-consuming probate courts. When an estate is the beneficiary of a retirement account, the assets must be paid out of the retirement account within five years of death. This means an acceleration of the deferred income tax—which must be paid earlier, than would have otherwise been necessary.
  2. Failing to consider special circumstances. Not every person should receive an asset directly. These are people like minors, those with specials needs, or people who can’t manage assets or who have creditor issues. Minor children aren’t legally competent, so they can’t claim the assets. A court-appointed conservator will claim and manage the money, until the minor turns 18. Those with special needs who get assets directly, will lose government benefits because once they receive the inheritance directly, they’ll own too many assets to qualify. People with financial issues or creditor problems can lose the asset through mismanagement or debts. Ask your estate planning attorney about creating a trust to be named as the beneficiary.
  3. Designating the wrong beneficiary. Sometimes a person will complete beneficiary designation forms incorrectly. For example, there can be multiple people in a family with similar names, and the beneficiary designation form may not be specific. People also change their names in marriage or divorce. Assets owners can also assume a person’s legal name that can later be incorrect. These mistakes can result in delays in payouts, and in a worst-case scenario of two people with similar names, can mean litigation.
  4. Failing to update your beneficiaries. Since there are life changes (like marriage and divorce for example), make sure your beneficiary designations are updated on a regular basis.
  5. Failing to review beneficiary designations with your estate planning attorney. Beneficiary designations are part of your overall financial and estate plan. Speak with your estate planning attorney to determine the best approach for your specific situation.

Beneficiary designations are designed to make certain that you have the final say over who will get your assets when you die. Take the time to carefully and correctly choose your beneficiaries and periodically review those choices and make the necessary updates to stay in control of your money.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 5, 2019) “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid”

What Happens When Unmarried Couples Don’t Have Wills?

Estate planning for unmarried couples is even more important than for married couples.

There can be serious problems when people live together without the benefit of marriage. One is that they don’t have any legal right to make medical decisions for each other. Another is that without any will or estate plan in place, the surviving partner has no legal right to any of the decedent’s property. That’s just for starters, explains the article “Longtime unmarried couple hasn’t planned for future” from the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

The unmarried couple may be pleased with their decision to live on their own terms.  However, by not creating an estate plan an unmarried couple is creating unnecessary difficulty for their loved ones. The children and grandchildren of the couple are likely going to end up having to sort out the mess, after one of the couple dies. They may end up in court, battling over the house or other assets.

If the couple wants their property to end up in the hands of their children when they pass away, having no estate plan is not the way to make that happen. When one spouse dies, any assets they own in joint tenancy will go to the surviving partner. When the surviving partner passes, those assets will go to their children, and nothing will be passed to the other family.

The surviving partner will have no legal right to the assets of the deceased partner, other than any that have been titled to joint tenancy. There is no community property between cohabitating couples, unless they have registered as domestic partners. This is how the law works in California, and every state has its own rules. Assets owned by the deceased partner that are titled in his or her name only, belong to the decedent’s probate estate and will pass to their children. If the gentleman dies first, in this example, will his companion be left homeless?

This is a situation that can be easily remedied with thoughtful estate planning for unmarried couples by creating wills and trusts that clearly spell out how they want their assets to be distributed upon death. There are many different ways to make this happen, but they will need to work with an estate planning attorney. Where the surviving non-homeowner will live after the homeowner dies is a serious issue, unless other plans have been made. One way to do this is to leave a life estate in the home in his will, or by creating a trust that holds the home for her use. When the survivor passes away, the home can then pass to the homeowner’s children. In that case, a series of agreements about how the home will be maintained may need to be created.

Taking the time and making the investment in an estate plan, is for the benefit of the individual and the family. An indifferent attitude about the future is hurtful to those who are left behind.

Reference: Santa Cruz Sentinel (April 7, 2019) “Longtime unmarried couple hasn’t planned for future”

What If My Beneficiary Isn’t Ready to Handle an Inheritance?

A recent Kiplinger article asks: “Is Your Beneficiary Ready to Receive Money?” In fact, not everyone will be mentally or emotionally prepared for the money you wish to leave them. Here are some things estate planning attorney’s suggest you consider:

inheritance
Even the most responsible young adults aren’t likely ready to handle an inheritance.

The Beneficiary’s Age. Children under 18 years old cannot sign legal contracts. Without some planning, the court will take custody of the funds on the child’s behalf. This could occur via custody accounts, protective orders or conservatorships. If this happens, there’s little control over how the money will be used. The conservatorship will usually end and the funds be paid to the child, when they become an adult. Giving significant financial resources to a young adult who’s not ready for the responsibility, often ends in disaster. Work with an estate planning attorney to find a solution to avoid this result.

The Beneficiary’s Lifestyle. There are many other circumstances for which you need to consider and plan. These include the following:

  • A beneficiary with a substance abuse or gambling problem;
  • A beneficiary and her inheritance winds up in an abusive relationship;
  • A beneficiary is sued;
  • A beneficiary is going through a divorce;
  • A beneficiary has a disability; and
  • A beneficiary who’s unable to manage assets.

All of these issues can be addressed, with the aid of an estate planning attorney. A testamentary trust can be created to make certain that minors (and adults who just may not be ready) don’t get money too soon, while also making sure they have funds available to help with school, health care and life expenses.

Who Will Manage the Trust? Every trust must have a trustee. Find a person who is willing to do the work. You can also engage a professional trust company for larger trusts. The trustee will distribute funds, only in the ways you’ve instructed. Conditions can include getting an education, or using the money for a home or for substance abuse rehab.

Estate Plan Review. Review your estate plan after major life events or every few years. Talk to a qualified estate planning attorney to make the process easier and to be certain that your money goes to the right people at the right time.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 1, 2019) “Is Your Beneficiary Ready to Receive Money?”

Forgot to Update Your Beneficiary Designations? Your Ex Will be Delighted

Your will does not control who inherits all your assets when you die. This is an aspect of estate planning that many people do not know. Instead, many of your assets will pass by beneficiary designations, says Kiplinger in the article “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid.”

The beneficiary designation is the form that you fill out, when opening many different types of financial accounts. You select a primary beneficiary and, in most cases, a contingency beneficiary, who will inherit the asset when you die.

estate planning beneficiary
If you don’t update your beneficiaries after a divorce your ex will receive some of your assets.

Typical accounts with beneficiary designations are retirement accounts, including 401(k)s, 403(b)s, IRAs, SEPs, life insurance, annuities and investment accounts. Many financial institutions allow beneficiaries to be named on non-retirement accounts, which are most commonly set up as Transfer on Death (TOD) or Pay on Death (POD) accounts.

It’s easy to name a beneficiary and be confident that your loved one will receive the asset, without having to wait for probate or estate administration to be completed. However, there are some problems that occur and mistakes get expensive.

Here are mistakes you don’t want to make:

Failing to name a beneficiary. It’s hard to say whether people just forget to fill out the forms or they don’t know that they have the option to name a beneficiary. However, either way, not naming a beneficiary becomes a problem for your survivors. Each company will have its own rules about what happens to the assets when you die. Life insurance proceeds are typically paid to your probate estate, if there is no named beneficiary. Your family will need to go to court and probate your estate.

When it comes to retirement benefits, your spouse will most likely receive the assets. However, if you are not married, the retirement account will be paid to your probate estate. Not only does that mean your family will need to go to court to probate your estate, but taxes could be levied on the asset. When an estate is the beneficiary of a retirement account, all the assets must be paid out of the account within five years from the date of death. This acceleration of what would otherwise be a deferred income tax, must be paid much sooner.

Neglecting special family considerations. There may be members of your family who are not well-equipped to receive or manage an inheritance. A family member with special needs who receives an inheritance, is likely to lose government benefits. Therefore, your planning needs to include a SNT — Special Needs Trust. Minors may not legally claim an inheritance, so a court-appointed person will claim and manage their money until they turn 18. This is known as a conservatorship. Conservatorships are costly to set up. They must also make an annual accounting to the court. Conservators may need to file a bond with the court, which is usually bought from an insurance company. This is another expensive cost.

If you follow this course of action, at age 18 your heir may have access to a large sum of money. That may not be a good idea, regardless of how responsible they might be. A better way to prepare for this situation is to have a trust created.  The trustee would be in charge of the money for a period of time that is determined by the personality and situation of your heirs.

Using an incorrect beneficiary name. This happens quite frequently. There may be several people in a family with the same name. However, one is Senior and another is Junior. The person might also change their name through marriage, divorce, etc. Not only can using the wrong name cause delays, but it could lead to litigation, especially if both people believe they were the intended recipient.

Failing to update beneficiaries. Just as your will must change when life changes occur, so must your beneficiaries. It’s that simple, unless you really wanted to give your ex a windfall.

Failing to review beneficiaries with your estate planning attorney. Beneficiary designations are part of your overall estate plan and financial plan. For instance, if you are leaving a large insurance policy to one family member, it may impact how the rest of your assets are distributed.

Take the time to review your beneficiary designations, just as you review your estate plan. You have the power to determine how your assets are distributed, so don’t leave that to someone else.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 5, 2019) “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid”

What’s the Best Way to Pass the Family Vacation Home to the Next Generation?

The generous exclusion that allows wealthy individuals to gift up to $11.4 million and not get hit with federal estate taxes, came from the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017. However, it’s not expected to last forever, according to the article “What to Know When Gifting the Family Vacation Home” from Barron’s Penta. Those who can, may want to take advantage of this window to be extra-magnanimous before the exemption sunsets to about $5 million (adjusted for inflation) in 2025.

At issue is that when someone transfers property, the recipients must account for it, according to the original price paid for the property. This is known as the basis. For example, shares of stock valued at $5 million today that were originally purchased for $1 million 10 years ago, would be subject to income taxes only on $4 million, if the recipient were to sell the stock.

Advice given to wealthy individuals is to make use of that higher estate tax exclusion while it’s still in place, and that may include property that they expect to gift to beneficiaries. The most likely asset would be the family vacation home, whether it’s a ski chalet or a beach house.

First, make sure your children want the property. There’s no sense going through all the processes, unless they plan on enjoying the vacation home. Next, figure out the best way to gift the home, while making the most of the high exclusion.

A nice point: you won’t have to give up the use or control of the house during this process. Experts advise not making an outright gift. This can lead to less control or the loss of a share to a child’s spouse, in the event of a marital split.

Another option: transfer the property into a trust. There are several kinds that would work for this purpose. Another is to consider a Limited Liability Corporation, which also serves to protect the family’s assets against any claims, if someone were to be injured on the property. The parents would transfer the property into the LLC and give children interests in the company.

A fairly common structure for vacation home ownership is called a Qualified Personal Residence Trust (QPRT). These are used by families who want to retain the right to continue using the home, usually for the rest of their lives. The property is transferred to the designated beneficiaries at death. If it is set up properly, a QPRT avoids any income or estate taxes.

A trust also lets an individual or a couple be very specific in how the property will be used, who can use it and any rules about how they want the home maintained. Making sure that a beloved family vacation home is well-cared for and not rented out for college parties, for instance, can provide a lot of comfort for a couple who have poured their hearts into creating a lovely vacation home.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn how you can take advantage of the current federal estate tax exemption to pass your family’s vacation home on to the next generation.

Reference: Barron’s Penta (March 31, 2019) “What to Know When Gifting the Family Vacation Home”

Should My Estate Plan Include a Trust?

There are as many types of trusts, as there are reasons to have trusts. They all have benefits and drawbacks. What type of trust is best for you? The answer is best discussed in person with an estate planning attorney. However, an article from U.S. News & World Report titled “8 Things to Know About Trusts,” gives a good overview.

Estate Plan
Determining whether your estate plan should include a trust is best done by consulting with an estate planning attorney.

Revocable or Irrevocable? Revocable trusts are usually established for a person (the grantor) during their lifetime, and then pass assets to the named beneficiaries, when the grantor dies. The revocable trust allows for a fair amount of flexibility during the grantor’s lifetime. An irrevocable trust is harder to change, and in some cases cannot be changed or amended. Some states do allow the option of “decanting” trusts, that is, pouring over assets from one trust to another. You’ll want to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to be sure trusts are set up correctly and achieve the goals you want.

Trusts can protect assets. Irrevocable trusts are often used, when a grantor must go into a nursing home and the goal is to protect assets. However, this means that the grantor no longer has access to the money and has fundamentally given it away to the trust. Putting assets into an irrevocable trust is commonly done to preserve assets, when a person will need to become eligible for Medicaid.  The trust must be created and funded five years before applying for benefits. Irrevocable trusts can also be used to obtain veteran’s benefits, if they are asset-based. VA benefits have a three-year look-back period, as compared to Medicaid’s five-year look-back period.

Trusts can’t own retirement accounts. Trusts can own non-retirement bank accounts, life insurance policies, property and securities. However, retirement accounts become taxable immediately, if they are owned by a trust.

Trusts help avoid probate after the grantor’s death. Most people think of trusts for this purpose. Assets in a trust do not pass through probate, which is the process of settling an estate through the courts. Having someone named as a trustee, a trusted family member, friend or a financial institution, means that the assets can be managed for the beneficiaries, if they are not deemed able to manage the assets. Another good part about trusts: you can direct how and when the funds are to be distributed.

Trusts offer privacy. When a will is filed in the courthouse, it becomes part of the public record. Trusts are not, and that keeps assets and distribution plans private. A grantor could put real estate and other personal property into a trust and title of ownership would remain private.

Tax savings. Before the federal estate tax exemptions became so high, people would put assets into trusts to avoid taxation. However, state taxes may still be avoided, if the assets don’t reach state tax levels. You can also transfer funds into an irrevocable trust to transfer it to others, without making it become part of a taxable estate. This is something to discuss in detail with an estate planning attorney.

Irrevocable Trusts can be expensive. If you are considering an irrevocable trust as a means of controlling the cost of an estate, this is not the solution you are looking for. Trusts require careful administration, annual tax filings and other fees. You may also lose the advantage of long-term capital gains by putting assets into trusts, since they are taxed upon withdrawal, and usually based upon current market value. The marginal rates for trust income of all kinds apply at much lower levels, so that the highest marginal taxes will be paid on very low levels of income.

Work with an experienced trusts and estates lawyer. Trusts and their administration can be complex. Seek the help of a trusts and estates attorney, who will be able to factor in tax liability and the impact of the trusts on the rest of your estate plan. Remember that every state has its own laws about trusts. Finally, an estate plan needs to be updated every few years. For example, trusts that were set up for a far lower federal estate tax exemption several years ago are now out of date, and may not work to achieve their intended goal. The laws changes, and the role of trusts also changes.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (March 29, 2019) “8 Things to Know About Trusts”

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