Trusts

What Happens to Credit Card Debts After You Die?

Can you imagine what people would do, if they knew that credit card debt ended when they passed away? Run up enormous balances, pay for grandchildren’s college costs and buy luxury cars, even if they couldn’t drive! However, that’s not how it works, says U.S. News & World Report in the article that asks “What Happens to Credit Card Debt When You Die?” 

What Happens to Credit Card Debt When You Die?
A common misconception is that your debts are wiped out when you die.

The personal representative of your estate, the person you name in your last will and testament, is in charge of distributing your assets and paying off your debts. If your credit card debt is so big that it depletes all of your assets, your heirs may be left with little or no inheritance.

If you’re concerned about loved ones being left holding the credit card bag, here are a few things you’ll need to know. (Note that some of these steps require the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.)

Who pays for those credit card debts after you die? Relatives don’t usually have to pay for the debts directly, unless they are entwined in your finances. Some examples:

  • Co-signer for a credit card or a loan
  • Jointly own property or a business
  • Lives in a community property state (Alaska, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington or Wisconsin)
  • Are required by state law to pay a debt, such as health care costs, or to resolve the estate.

A spouse who has a joint credit card account must continue to make on-time payments. A surviving spouse does not need the shock of learning that their spouse was carrying a massive credit card debt, since they are liable for the payments. A kinder approach would be to clear up the debt.

How do debts get paid? The probate process addresses debts, unless you have a living trust or make other arrangements. The probate court will determine the state of your financial affairs, and the personal representative named in your will (or if you die without a valid will, the administrator named by the court), will be responsible for clearing up your estate.

An unmarried person who dies with debt and no assets, is usually a loss for the credit card company, if there’s no source of assets.

If you have assets and they are left unprotected, they may be attached by the creditor. For instance, if there is a life insurance policy, proceeds will go to beneficiaries, before debts are repaid. However, with most other types of assets, the bills get paid first, and then the beneficiaries can be awarded their inheritance.

How can you protect loved ones? A good estate plan that prepares for this situation is the best strategy. Having assets placed in trusts protects them from probate. A trust also allows beneficiaries to save time and money that might otherwise be devoted to the probate process. It also puts them in a better position, if the personal representative needs to negotiate with the credit card company.

Talk candidly with your estate planning attorney and your loved ones about your debts, so that a plan can be put into place to protect everyone.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (August 19, 2019) “What Happens to Credit Card Debt When You Die?”

Can a Trust Be Amended?

A son has contacted an elder law estate planning attorney now that mom is in a nursing home and he’s unsure about many of the planning issues, as reported by the Daily Republic. The article, “Amending trust easier if parents can make informed decision,” describes the family’s situation, but what it really boils down to is, can a trust be amended?

Can a trust be amended?
Almost all revocable living trusts contain provisions allowing them to be amended.

There is one point to consider from the start. If the son been involved in the planning from the start, in a family meeting with the attorney and discussions with his parents, he might have less uncertainty about the details of the plan.

As for the details: the parents are in their 90s, with some savings, a few annuities, a CD and a checking account. They also have five acres of land, which has their home and a duplex on it and 12 additional acres, with a rental property on it. Everything they own has been placed in a family trust. The son wants to be able to pay her bills and was told that he needs to have a power of attorney and to be named trustee to their trust.

He reports that his parents agree with this idea, but he has a number of concerns. If they are sued, will he be personally liable? Would the power of attorney give him the ability to handle their finances and the real estate in the trust?

If his parents have a revocable or living trust, there are provisions that allow one or more persons to become the successor trustees, in the event that the parent becomes incapacitated or dies.

What happens when they die, as they each leave each other their share of the assets? The son would become the trustee, when the last parent passes.

Usually the power of attorney is created when the trust is created, so that someone has the ability to take control of finances for the person. If the trust has any of these provisions, the son may already be legally positioned to act on his parents’ behalf. The trust should also show whether the successor trustee would be empowered to sell the real estate.

Trusts can be drafted in any way the client wants it written, and the successor trustee receives only the powers that are given in the document.

As for the liability, the trustee is not liable to a buyer during the sale of a property. There are exceptions, so he would need to speak with an estate planning attorney to help with the sale.

Assuming the trust does not name the son as a successor trustee and also does not give the son power of attorney, the bigger question is are the parents mentally competent to make important decisions about these documents?

Given the age of these parents, an attorney will be concerned, rightfully so, about their competency and if they can freely make an informed decision, or if the son might be exercising improper influence on them to turn over their assets to him.

If the parents are competent, they can amend their trust freely as long as the trust document contains provisions allowing them to do so.  Almost all revocable living trusts contain such provisions.  If, however, they lack capacity, then making amendments to the trust will be considerable more difficult.

There are a few different steps that can be taken. One is for the son, if he believes that his parents are mentally competent, to make an appointment for them with an estate planning attorney, without the son being present in the meeting, in order to determine their capacity and wishes. If the attorney is not sure about the influence of the son, he or she may want to refer the parents for a second opinion with another attorney.

If the parents are found not competent, then the son may need to become their conservator, which requires a court proceeding.

Planning in advance and discussing these issues are best done with an experienced estate planning attorney, long before the issues become more complicated and expensive to deal with.

Reference: Daily Republic (Aug. 10, 2019) “Amending trust easier if parents can make informed decision”

What Goes into an Estate Plan?

The thought of creating an estate plan can be intimidating, but this article from Brainerd Dispatch, “Navigating your estate plan,” wisely advises breaking down the process into smaller pieces, making it more manageable. By taking it step by step, it’s more likely that you’ll be comfortable getting started with the process.  The first step is understanding what goes into an estate plan.

What goes into an estate plan?
Deciding what goes into an estate plan that fits your life and accomplishes your goals should be done with the help of an estate planning attorney.

Start with Beneficiaries. This may be the easiest way to start. If you have retirement accounts, like IRAs, 401(k)s, 403(b)s or other retirement accounts, chances are you have already written down the name of the people you want to receive your assets after you pass away. The same goes for life insurance policies. The beneficiary designation tells who receives the assets on your death. You should also note that there are tax ramifications, if you don’t have a beneficiary. Your assets could become taxable five years after you die, without a named beneficiary.

Be aware that no matter what your will says, the name on your beneficiary designations on these accounts determines who gets those assets. You need to check on these from time-to-time to be sure the people you have named are still the people who you want to receive your accounts. You should review the designations every time you review your estate plan, which should be every three or four years.

You should also name a contingent beneficiary on all accounts that allow it.  The contingent beneficiary is the person who will receive the asset is the primary beneficiary is unable to receive it for any reason.

Where There’s a Will, There’s a Way. The will is a key ingredient that goes into an estate plan. It can be used to ensure that your family has the management assistance they need, and, if you have minor children, establish who will raise them is you’re unable to (in fact, a will is the only way you can name a guardian for your children.)

Not having a will leaves your family in a terrible position, where they will have to endure unnecessary expenses and added stress. Your assets will be distributed according to the laws of your state, and not according to your own wishes.

Directives for Difficult Times. Health care directives give your loved ones direction when a difficult situation occurs. If you become incapacitated, through an accident or serious illness, the health care directive tells your family members what kind of care you want—or do not want. You should also name a health care surrogate, so that a person can make medical decisions on your behalf if you’re unable to speak for yourself. Working with an estate planning attorney who is licensed in your state is is important for this item because different states have different laws concerning naming a healthcare surrogate and the decisions they can make.

In addition, you’ll need a financial power of attorney. This allows you to designate someone to step in and manage your finances in the case of incapacity. This is especially important if you are single, because otherwise a court may have to name someone to be your financial guardian.

What About Trusts? If you own a lot of assets or if your estate is complicated, a trust may be helpful. Trusts are legal entities that hold assets on behalf of your beneficiaries. There are many different types of trusts that are used to serve different purposes, from Special Needs Trusts that are designed to help families plan for an individual with special needs, to revocable trusts used to avoid probate and testamentary trusts, which are created only when you die. An estate planning attorney will know which trusts are appropriate for your individual situation.

Working with a qualified and experienced estate planning attorney will help you understand what goes into an estate plan that makes the most sense for you and accomplishes your goals.

Reference: Brainerd Dispatch (Aug. 11, 2019) “Navigating your estate plan”

Will the State Decide Who Gets Your Assets?

It’s something that everyone needs, but often gets overlooked. Estate planning makes some people downright uncomfortable. There’s no law that says you must have an estate plan—just laws that will determine how your property is distributed and who will raise your children if you don’t have a will.  So, will the state decide who gets your assets?

Will the state decide who gets your assets?
If you don’t have a will when you pass away, state laws will determine who gets your assets.

If you don’t at least have a last will and testament, state statutes will decide who gets your assets after you pass away.  Thats one of the biggest reasons planning is important, says WMUR 9 in a recent article “Money Matters: Estate planning,” if you want to be the one making those decisions.

An estate plan can be simple if you only own a few assets, or complicated if you have significant assets, more than one home or multiple investments. Some strategies are easier to implement, like a last will and testament. Others can be more complex, like trusts. Whatever your needs, an estate planning attorney will be able to give you the guidance that your unique situation requires. Your estate planning attorney may work with your financial advisor and accountant to be sure that your financial and legal plans work together to benefit you and your family.

The first step for any estate plan is to review your family finances, dynamics and assets.

  • Who are your family members?
  • How do you want to help them?
  • What do they need?
  • What is your tax picture like?
  • How old are you, and how good is your health?
  • Do you have minor children?  If so, who will care for them?

These are just a few of the things an estate planning attorney will discuss with you. Once you are clear on your situation, you’ll discuss overall goals and objectives. The attorney will be able to outline your options, whether you are concerned with passing wealth to the next generation, avoiding family disputes, preparing for a disability or transferring ownership of a business.

A last will and testament will provide clear, legal direction as to how your assets should be distributed and who will care for your minor children.

A trust is used to address more complex planning concerns. A trust is a legal entity that holds assets to be used for the benefit of one or more individuals. It is overseen by a trustee or trustees, who can be individuals you name or professionals.

If you create trusts, it is important that assets be retitled so the trust owns the assets and not you personally. If the assets are not retitled, the trust will not achieve your goals.

Some property typically has its own beneficiary designations, like IRAs, retirement accounts and life insurance. These assets pass directly to heirs according to the designation, but only if you make the designations on the appropriate forms.

Once you’re done with your estate plan, make a note on your calendar. Estate plans and beneficiary designations need to be reviewed every three to five years. Lives change, laws change and your estate plan needs to keep pace.

Don’t be left asking yourself whether the state will decide who gets your assets.  Take charge and work with an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure you are the one deciding who gets your assets and who will raise your children.

Reference: WMUR 9 (Aug. 1, 2019) “Money Matters: Estate planning”

Why Do I Need an Attorney to Help Me with Estate Planning?

Your estate plan can be simple or complicated. The New Hampshire Union Leader’s recent article, “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional,” says that some strategies are definitely easier to implement—like having a will, for example. Others are more complex, like creating a trust. Whatever your needs, most strategies will probably necessitate that you hire a qualified attorney to help with your estate planning.

do i need an attorney to help me with my estate planning
There is a range of legal issues that should be considered when putting your estate plan together.

Here are some situations that may require special planning attention that an attorney can help you with:

  • Your estate is valued at more than the federal gift and/or estate tax applicable exclusion amount ($11.4 million per person in 2019);
  • You have minor children;
  • You have loved ones with special needs who depend on you;
  • You own a business;
  • You have property in more than one state;
  • You want to donate to charities;
  • You own valuable artwork or collectibles;
  • You have specific thoughts concerning your own health care; or
  • You want privacy and want to avoid the probate process.

First, you need to understand your situation, and that includes factors like your age, health and wealth. Your thoughts about benefitting family members and taxes also need to be considered. You’ll also want to have plans in place should you become incapacitated.

Next, think about your goals and objectives. Some common goals are:

  • Making sure your family is taken care of when the time comes;
  • Providing financial security for your family;
  • Avoiding disputes among family members or business partners;
  • Giving to a charity;
  • Managing your affairs, if you become disabled;
  • Having sufficient liquidity to pay the expenses of your estate; and
  • Transferring ownership of your property or business interests.

Ask your attorney about a will. If you have minor children, you must have a will to name a guardian to raise your children if you can’t be there for them, unless your state provides an alternative legal means to do so. Some people many need a trust to properly address their planning concerns. Some of your assets will also have their own beneficiary designations. Once you have you a plan, review it every few years or when there’s a birth, adoption, death, or divorce in the family.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (July 27, 2019) “Estate planning is important and may require help from a professional”

Estate Planning is a Necessity for Small Business Owners

Just as the small business owner must plan for their own personal estate to be passed onto the next generation, they must also plan for the future of their business. This is why your estate plan needs to comprehensively address both you personal life and your business, says grbj.com’s recent article “Estate planning for small businesses.”  

Estate Planning for Business Owners
A succession plan for your business should be included in your estate plan.

Here are the basic estate planning strategies you’ll need as a small business owner:

A will. A last will and testament allows you to name someone who will receive your assets, including your business, when you die. If you don’t have a will, you leave your heirs a series of problems, expenses and stress. In the absence of a will, everything you’ve worked to attain will be distributed depending on the laws of the state. That includes your assets as well as your business. It’s far better to have a will, so you make these decisions instead of leaving it to the state laws.

A Living Trust. A living trust is similar to a will in that it allows you to name who will receive your assets when you die. However, there are certain advantages to having a trust. For one thing, a trust is a private document, and assets controlled by the trust can bypass probate. Assets controlled by a will must first go through probate, which is a public proceeding. If you’ve ever had a family member die and wonder why all those companies seemed to know that your loved one had passed, it’s because they get the information that is available to the public.

If your business is owned by a trust, the transition of ownership to your intended beneficiaries can be a much smoother process.

A financial durable power of attorney. This document lets you appoint an agent to act on your behalf, if you are incapacitated by illness or injury. This is a powerful legal document, so take the time to consider who you want to give this power to. Your agent can manage your finances, pay your bills and manage the day-to-day operations of your business.

A succession plan. Here is where many small business owners fall short in their planning. It takes a long time to create a succession plan for a business. Sometimes a buy-out agreement is part of a succession plan, or a partner in the business or key employee wishes to become the new owner. If a family member wishes to take over the business, will they inherit your entire ownership interest, or will there be a payment required? Will more than one family member take over the business? If a non-family member is going to take over the business, you’ll need an agreement documenting the obligation to purchase the business and the terms of the purchase.

If you would prefer to have the business sold upon your death, you’ll need to plan for that in advance so that family members will be able to receive the best possible price.

A buy-sell agreement. If you are not the sole owner, it’s important that you have a buy-sell agreement with your partners. This agreement requires your ownership interest to be purchased by the business or other owners, if and when a triggering event occurs, like death or disability. This document must set forth how the value of ownership interest is to be determined and how it is to be paid to your family. Without this kind of document, your ownership interest in the business will pass to your spouse or other family members. If that is not your intention, you’ll need to do prior planning.

The right type of life insurance. This is an important part of planning for the future for the small business owner. The death benefit may be needed to provide income to the family, until a business is sold, if that is the ultimate goal. If a family member takes over the business, proceeds from the life insurance policy may be needed to cover payroll or other expenses, until the business gets going under new leadership. Life insurance proceeds may also be used to buy out the other partners in the business.

Failing to plan through the use of basic estate planning and succession planning can create significant costs and stress for a small business owner. An experienced estate planning attorney can review the strategies and documents that are appropriate for your situation. You’ll want to ensure a smooth transition for your business and your family, as that too will be part of your legacy.

Reference: grbj.com (Grand Rapids Business Journal) (July 19, 2019) “Estate planning for small businesses”

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?”

Scroll to Top