Estate Plan

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”

Leaving a Legacy Isn’t Just About Money

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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?”

Power of Attorney: Why You’re Never Too Young

When that time comes, having a power of attorney is a critical document to have. The power of attorney is among a handful of estate planning documents that help with decision making, when a person is too ill, injured or lacks the mental capacity to make their own decisions. The article, “Why you’re never too young for a power of attorney” from Lancaster Online, explains what these documents are, and what purpose they serve.

Everyone over the age of 18 needs to have a Power of Attorney in place.

There are three basic power of attorney documents: financial, limited and health care.

You’re never too young or too old to have a power of attorney. If you don’t, a guardian must be appointed in a court proceeding, and they will make decisions for you. If the guardian who is appointed does not know you or your family, they may make decisions that you would not have wanted. Everyone over the age of 18 should have a power of attorney.

It’s never too early, but it could be too late. If you become incapacitated, you cannot sign a POA. Then your family is faced with needing to pursue a guardianship and will not have the ability to make decisions on your behalf, until that’s in place.

You’ll want to name someone you trust implicitly and who is also going to be available to make decisions when time is an issue.

For a medical or healthcare power of attorney, it is a great help if the person lives nearby and knows you well. For a financial power of attorney, the person may not need to live nearby, but they must be trustworthy and financially competent.

Always have back-up agents, so if your primary agent is unavailable or declines to serve, you have someone who can step in on your behalf.

You should also work with an estate planning attorney to create the power of attorney you need. You may want to assign select powers to a POA, like managing certain bank accounts but not the sale of your home, for instance. An estate planning attorney will be able to tailor the POA to your exact needs. They will also make sure to create a document that gives proper powers to the people you select. You want to ensure that you don’t create a POA that gives someone the ability to exploit you.

Any of the POAs you have created should be updated on a fairly regular basis. Over time, laws change, or your personal situation may change. Review the documents at least annually to be sure that the people you have selected are still the people you want taking care of matters for you.

Most important of all, don’t wait to have a POA created. It’s an essential part of your estate plan, along with your last will and testament.

Reference: Lancaster Online (May 15, 2019) “Why you’re never too young for a power of attorney”

What is the Best Way to Leave an Inheritance to a Grandchild?

Leaving an inheritance to a grandchild requires careful handling, usually under the guidance of an estate planning attorney. Specially if your grandchild is under the age of 18.  The same is true for money awarded by a court, when a minor has received property for other reasons, like a settlement for a personal injury matter.

Use trusts when leaving an inheritance to your grandchild
Leaving an inheritance to your grandchild in a trust will protect the child and the inheritance.

According to the article “Gifts from Grandma, and other problems with children owning property” from the Cherokee-Tribune & Ledger News, if a child under age 18 receives money as an inheritance through a trust, or if the trust states that the asset will be “held in trust” until the child reaches age 18, then the trustee named in the will or trust is responsible for managing the money.

Until the child reaches a stated age (say, 25 or 30 years old), the trustee is to use the money only for the child’s benefit. The terms of the trust will detail what the trustee can or cannot do with the money. In any situation, the trustee may not benefit from the money in any way.

The child does not have free access to the money. Children may not legally hold assets in their own names. However, what happens if there is no will, and no trust?

A child could be entitled to receive property under the laws of intestacy, which defines what happens to a person’s assets, if there is no will. Another way a child might receive assets, would be from the proceeds of a life insurance policy, or another asset where the child has been named a beneficiary and the asset is not part of the probate estate. However, children may not legally own assets. What happens next?

The answer depends upon the value of the asset. State laws vary but generally speaking, if the assets are below a certain threshold, the child’s parents may receive and hold the funds in a custodial account. The custodian has a duty to manage the child’s money, but there isn’t any court oversight.

If the asset is valued at more than the state threshold, the probate court will exercise its oversight. If no trust has been set up, then an adult will need to become a conservator, a person responsible for managing a child’s property. This person needs to apply to the court to be named conservator, and while it is frequently the child’s parent, this is not always the case.

The conservator is required to report to the probate court on the child’s assets and how they are being used. If monies are used improperly, then the conservator will be liable for repayment. The same situation occurs, if the child receives money through a court settlement.

Making parents go through a conservatorship appointment and report to the probate court is a bit of a burden for most people. A properly created estate plan can avoid this issue and prepare a trust, if necessary, and name a trustee to be in charge of the asset.

Another point to consider: turning 18 and receiving a large amount of money is rarely a good thing for any young adult, no matter how mature they are. An estate planning attorney can discuss how the inheritance can be structured, so the assets are used for college expenses or other important expenses for a young person. The goal is to not distribute the funds all at once to a young person, who may not be prepared to manage a large inheritance.

For more information about leaving assets to children, download Mastry Law’s free book or estate planning reports.

To learn more about how to transfer assets to your grandchildren using a trust, schedule a complementary consultation with Mastry Law.

Reference: Cherokee-Tribune & Ledger News (March 1, 2019) “Gifts from Grandma, and other problems with children owning property”

Estate Planning for Parents with Young Children

Attorneys who focus their practices on estate planning, know that not every story has a happy ending. For some of them, estate planning for parents with minor children is a professional mission to make sure that young families are prepared for the unthinkable, says KTVO in the article “Family 411: Thinking about estate planning while your kids are young.”

It’s a very easy thing to forget, because it’s so unpleasant to consider. The idea of becoming seriously ill or even dying while your children are young, is every parent’s worst fear. But putting off having an estate plan that prepares for this possibility is so important. Doing it will provide peace of mind, and a road forward for those who survive you, if your worst fears were to come true.

Estate Planning for Parents with Young Children
Taking care of estate planning is one of the most important things parents with young children can do.

Estate planning for parents with young children should start with a will. In a will, you’ll name a guardian. The guardian is the person who would be in charge of raising your children and have physical custody of them. Don’t assume that your parents will take over, or that your husband’s parents will. What if both sets of parents want to be the custodians? The last thing you want is for your in-laws and parents to end up in a court battle over custody of your children.

Another important document: a trust. You should have life insurance that will be the source for paying for the children’s education, including college, summer camps, after-school activities and their overall cost of living. The proceeds from a life insurance policy cannot be given directly to a minor.  The guardian will hold proceeds until your child becomes an adult.

However, what if your son or daughter turned 18 and were suddenly awarded $500,000? At that age, would they know how to handle such a large sum of money? Many adults don’t. A trust allows you to give clear directions regarding how old the child must be before receiving a set amount of money. You can also stipulate that the child must reach certain milestones (like completing college) before receiving funds.

Estate planning for parents with young children should also include a Healthcare Power of Attorney for medical decisions. That allows a named person to make important medical decisions on behalf of the child. For medical decisions, it is best to have one primary person named. In that way, any care decisions in an emergency can be made swiftly.

While you are creating an estate plan with your children in mind, make sure your estate plan has the same documents for you and your spouse: Durable Power of Attorney, Healthcare Power of Attorney, a HIPAA Release and a Living Will.

Speak with a local estate planning attorney who has experience in estate planning for parents with young children.

Reference: KTVO.com (Feb. 6, 2019) “Family 411: Thinking about estate planning while your kids are young”

Why You Need to Review Your Estate Plan

One of the most common mistakes in estate planning is thinking of the estate plan as being completed and never needing to review your estate plan again after the documents are signed. That is similar to taking your car in for an oil change and then simply never returning for another oil change. The years go by, your life changes and you need an estate plan review.

Review your estate plan periodically to insure that it will work the way you want it to

The question posed by the New Hampshire Union Leader in the article “It’s important to periodically review your estate plan” is not if you need to have your estate plan reviewed, but when.

Most people get their original wills and other documents from their estate planning attorney, put them into their safe deposit box or a fire-safe file drawer and forget about them. There are no laws governing when these documents should be reviewed, so whether or when to review the estate plan is completely up to the individual. That often leads to unintended consequences that can cause the wrong person to inherit assets, fracture the family, and leave heirs with a large tax liability.

A better idea: review your estate plan on a regular basis. For some people with complicated lives and assets, that means once a year. For others, every four or five years works just fine. Some reviews are triggered by major life events, including:

  • Marriage or divorce
  • Death
  • Large changes in the size of the estate
  • A significant increase in debt
  • The death of an executor, guardian or trustee
  • Birth or adoption of children or grandchildren
  • Change in career, good or bad
  • Retirement
  • Health crisis
  • Changes in tax laws
  • Changes in relationships to beneficiaries and heirs
  • Moving to another state or purchasing property in another state
  • Receiving a sizable inheritance

What should you be thinking about, as you review your estate plan? Here are some suggestions:

Have there been any changes to your relationships with family members?

Are any family members facing challenges or does anyone have special needs?

Are there children from a previous marriage and what do their lives look like?

Are the people you named for various roles—power of attorney, executor, guardian and trustees—still the people you want making decisions and acting on your behalf?

Does your estate plan include a durable power of attorney for healthcare, a valid living will, or if you want this, a DNR (Do Not Resuscitate) order?

Do you know who your beneficiary designations are for your accounts and are your beneficiary designations still correct? (Your beneficiaries will receive assets outside of the will and nothing you put in the will can change the distribution of those assets.)

Have you aligned your assets with your estate plan? Do certain accounts pass directly to a spouse or an heir? Have you funded any trusts?

Finally, have changes in the tax laws changed your estate plan? Your estate planning attorney should look at your state, as well as federal tax liability.

Just as you can’t plant a garden once and expect it to grow and bloom forever, you need to review your estate plan so it can protect your interests as your life and your family’s life changes over time.

Reference: New Hampshire Union Leader (Jan. 12, 2019) “It’s important to periodically review your estate plan”

Market Volatility Got You Worried? Here’s Something You Can Control

When investors are faced with turbulent markets, there’s a human response to want to do something—sometimes, anything. We’re hardwired to try to take control. That doesn’t always help us make the best investment decisions. However, as reported in this Daily Camera’s article, there is something that you can do that may make you feel better: “Freaked out about the market? Resolve to get your estate in order.”

If you care about your health care, financial affairs, minor children and even your beloved pets, this is an important task to take care of. An estate plan includes legal documents that help you, when you are living and helps your heirs, when you die. In addition to a will, powers of attorney that will give your loved ones the ability to manage your affairs, if you become incapacitated. An updated will ensures that your assets go to the inheritors you chose. Don’t forget your beneficiaries.

Your beneficiaries are the people who are named on several accounts and life insurance policies. You may have named people on investment accounts, life insurance policies, IRAs, bank accounts, annuities and other assets. If you have not done a full review of those documents in a while, you want to take care of this right away. Life and relationships change over time, and the people you originally named as your beneficiaries, may no longer be the ones you would select today. Note that any changes must be made while you are living—when you are passed, the beneficiaries receive the asset, regardless of what is written in your will.

If you’re not sufficiently motivated to make an appointment with an estate planning attorney, you should be aware that if you don’t have a will, the laws of your state will determine who gets your assets and even, lacking a will that names a guardian, who rears your minor children. You may or may not be a fan of court proceedings, but if you don’t have a properly prepared will, the court is going to be making a lot of decisions on your behalf.

Contact an estate planning attorney to begin the process of putting your affairs in order. An attorney whose practice focuses in this area of the law, is most likely a better choice than one who does wills on the side. There are many complex laws in estate planning, and there are many opportunities available to make the most out of your assets and grow your legacy. An estate planning attorney will know what will work best for you and your family.

Reference: Daily Camera (Jan. 6, 2019) “Freaked out about the market? Resolve to get your estate in order”

Here’s Why You Need a Will

Many celebrities die without wills. This past year saw a host of celebrity estate snafus. It’s as if they were sending a message from beyond that they didn’t care about how much turmoil and family fights would take place over their money and assets. Some of these battles go on for decades. However, as reported in Press Republican’s article “The Law and You: Important to make a will,” even if you think you don’t have enough property to make it necessary to have a will, you’re wrong. It’s not just wealthy or famous people who need wills.

Do you really want other people making those decisions on your behalf? Would you want the laws of your state making these decisions? Your family will do better, if you have a will and an estate plan.

For example, in New York State, if you don’t have a will, your surviving spouse will receive the first $50,000 plus one half of remaining property. Your children, whether they are minors or adults, will get an equal share of the other half.

If you have a spouse but no children, your spouse will inherit everything. If you have children and no spouse, then the children get everything, divided equally.

If you have no spouse, no children and living parents, then your parents will inherit everything you own.

If your parents are not alive, your siblings will get it all.

Adopted children are treated by the courts the same as biological children, when there is no will. Stepchildren and foster children do not inherit, unless they are specifically named in the will.

If you have been in a long-term relationship with someone and never married, even if they qualify for health care benefits from your employer under the “domestic partner” provision, they are not considered a spouse when it comes to inheritance. At the same time, if you are not legally married and your partner dies, you have no legal right to inherit from your partner’s estate. No matter how long you have been together, how many children you have together, if you are not legally married, you have no inheritance rights.

Check your state’s laws for the rights of “common law marriages;” New York State does not recognize these as a legal union. In very limited cases, New York State has been known to recognize common law marriages from other states where they are legal, but that is the exception and not the rule. There are limits here as well: both parties will have to agree to be married, must represent to others that they are married and may not be married to anyone else.

If you want someone who is not your legal spouse to receive your assets, you need to meet with an estate planning attorney and have a will drawn up that meets the requirements of the laws of your state. An estate planning attorney will be able to explain how your state laws work and what provisions are and are not acceptable in your estate.

An estate planning attorney will also help you consider other issues. Do you want to leave anything to a charity that matters to you? Do you want anyone else besides your children to receive something after you pass? Is there anyone who needs a trust, because they are unable to manage their finances, or you are concerned about their marriage ending in divorce? Making these decisions in a properly prepared will, can protect your family and lessen the chances of your wishes being challenged.

Reference: Press Republican (Dec. 18, 2018) “The Law and You: Important to make a will”

Estate Planning Checklist

A will is just one of a handful of documents every adult should have in place to protect themselves while they are living, and their heirs and families after they have passed away. Here are the “5 estate planning must-haves,” according to an article from the Augusta Free Press:

  1. Wills and Trusts. Your will directs the distribution of your assets. Without a will, the court will determine who gets your possessions, real property and any other assets, following the laws of your state. Depending on your situation, you and your heirs may benefit from setting up trusts to protect your assets from the probate process, maintain your privacy and possibly avoid some taxes. Keep in mind that if the will or trust is not created properly or doesn’t follow your state’s laws, it could be challenged or deemed invalid. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to protect your family.
  2. Many of your accounts—bank accounts, investment accounts, retirement accounts, insurance policies—may already have a named beneficiary, who will inherit the account upon your death. However, if you have not updated those names recently, you may find the wrong person inheriting your assets. Once that occurs, there is no legal means of transferring the assets to another person. Always make sure you have a contingent (or secondary) beneficiary named, so if the primary beneficiary dies before you, or for some reason declines to accept the asset, you will have had an opportunity to choose another person to receive the asset. If there is no contingent beneficiary, the court will make that decision.
  3. Letter of Intent. It must be said that this is not a legally binding document. However, the information it could provide to your loved ones might be very helpful, as they move through the process of settling your estate. It can explain why you structured your asset distribution the way you did, why you would want a given family heirloom passed to a specific family member, or what you would like to have happen at your funeral. If you are not able to discuss these matters in a face-to-face conversation with your loved ones, this is a useful alternative.
  4. Power of Attorney. Planning for incapacity is an important part of estate planning. If you become incapacitated, you’ll need to have already given someone the power to manage your financial affairs. If you do not have a power of attorney, your family will need to turn to the court system, which will create delays and added stress. You’ll also want to have a healthcare power of attorney in place. Most people assume their spouses will immediately take on this role, but not everyone is capable of making the hard decisions, especially during an emergency situation.
  5. Legal Advice. Estate planning laws are governed by your state of residence. Your best option is to make an appointment with a local estate planning attorney to learn whether there are any other documents and plans you need to put into place. Some law firms provide a means of documenting assets to ensure that, at the time of death, your family isn’t on a scavenger hunt to identify assets. In certain states, you can assign a funeral representative to make sure your funeral, burial or cremation and memorial service wishes are carried out. Your attorney will know what you and your family need.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (Nov. 27, 2018) “5 estate planning must-haves”

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