Estate Planning Attorney

Did You Inherit a House with a Mortgage?

When a loved one dies, there are always questions about wills, inheritances and how to manage all of their legal and financial affairs. It’s worse if there’s no will and no estate planning has been done. This recent Bankrate article, “Does the home you inherited include a mortgage?,” says that things can get even more complicated when you inherit a house with a mortgage.

inherit a house with a mortgage
There are several options available to anyone who inherits a house with a mortgage.

Heirs often inherit the family home. However, if it comes with a mortgage, you’ll want to work with an estate planning attorney. If there are family members who could become troublesome, if houses are located in different states or if there’s a lot of money in the estate, it’s better to have the help of an experienced professional.

Death does not mean the mortgage goes away. Heirs need to decide how to manage the loan payments, even if their plan is to sell the house. If there are missing payments, there may be penalties added onto the late payment. Worse, you may not know about the mortgage until after a few payments have gone unpaid.

Heirs who inherit a house with a mortgage have several options:

If the plan is for the heirs to move into the home, they may be able to assume the mortgage and continue paying it. There may also be an option to do a cash-out refinance and pay that way.

If the plan is to sell the home, which might make it easier if no one in the family wants to live in the home, paying off the mortgage by using the proceeds from the sale is usually the way to go. If there is enough money in the estate account to pay the mortgage while the home is on the market, that money will come out of everyone’s share. Here again, the help of an estate planning attorney will be valuable.

Heirs who inherit a house with a mortgage also have certain leverage when dealing with a mortgage bank in an estate situation. There are protections available that will provide some leeway as the estate is settling. More good news—the chance of owing federal estate taxes right now is pretty small. An estate must be worth at least $11.58 million, before the federal estate tax is due.

There are still 17 states and Washington D.C. that will want payment of a state estate tax, an inheritance tax or both (Florida is not one of them). There also might be capital gains tax liability from the sale of the home.

If you decide to take over the loan, the lender should be willing to work with you. The law allows heirs who inherit a house with a mortgage to assume a loan, especially when the transfer of property is to a relative. Surviving spouses have special protections to ensure that they can keep an inherited home, as long as they can afford it. In many states, this is done by holding title by “tenancy by the entireties” or “joint tenants with right of survivorship.”

When there is a reverse mortgage on the property, options include paying off or refinancing the balance and keeping the home, selling the home for at least 95% of the appraised value, or agreeing to a deed in lieu of foreclosure. There is a window of time for the balance to be repaid, which may be extended, if the heir is actively engaged with the lender to pay the debt. However, if a year goes by and the reverse mortgage is not paid off, the lender must begin the foreclosure process.

Nothing changes if the heir is a surviving spouse, but if the borrower who dies had an unmarried partner, they have limited options, unless they are on the loan.

What if you inherit a house with a mortgage that is “underwater,” meaning that the value of the inherited home is less than the outstanding mortgage debt? If the mortgage is a non-recourse loan, meaning the borrower does not have to pay more than the value of the home, then the lender has few options outside of foreclosure. This is also true with a reverse mortgage. Heirs are fully protected, if the home isn’t worth enough to pay off the entire balance.

If there is no will, things get extremely complicated. Contact an estate planning attorney as soon as possible.

Reference: Bankrate (Oct. 22, 2020) “Does the home you inherited include a mortgage?”

Prince’s Estate Hits the IRS with a Million Dollar Lawsuit

Filing probate documents was just the beginning of process that still hasn’t ended the bad news from the Prince estate. He did not have a spouse or children, but Prince had half-brothers and half-sisters, says a recent article from Forbes titled “Prince’s Estate Sues IRS Over Claimed $135 Million Tax Value.” There were a number of claims against the estate, and claims by the estate as well, including a wrongful death action that was eventually dismissed. Prince Sues IRS

However, just like anyone else who dies without a will, probate takes a long time and is expensive. Things also get complicated quickly, especially with an estate of this size.

One of Prince’s half-sisters, Tyka Nelson, sold a portion of her share of the estate to Primary Wave, a music publisher. So did another sibling. And then the tax troubles began. Cash poor or not, estates must pay a federal estate tax of 40%. A federal estate tax return needs to be filed, and while audits are rare, almost every estate of this magnitude is audited by the IRS. The estate reported a taxable value of $82 million, but the IRS isn’t satisfied.

Estate tax fights with the IRS can go on for a long time. Michael Jackson’s estate battle with the IRS is still going on—and he died in 2009.

Papers filed by Prince’s estate in the U.S. Tax Court show that the estate reported a taxable value of $82 million, but the IRS claims that the value is really $163 million and wants an additional $38.7 million. In every case, Prince’s estate has obtained appraisals to support its reported values, but the IRS has its own appraisers who disagree.

Even if Prince had a will, there still could have been problems. Heath Ledger had a will, but it was five years old when he died and there was no provision made for his daughter. James Gandolfini had a will, but his estate gave the IRS $30 million of his $70 million. These stories make estate planning attorneys cringe. Seymour Hoffman, Heath Ledger, and James Gandolfini’s estates all ended up with wills in probate, which is public, expensive, time-consuming and unnecessary. A will does have to go through the court process, but the use of a revocable trust could have disposed of their assets outside of probate. A simple pour-over will would have given everything to the revocable trust, simply, and privately in terms of the ultimate inheritance disposition.

Estate planning attorneys advise clients to update wills and trusts every time there is a birth, marriage, divorce, etc. It is good advice for both celebrities and regular people.

You can give an unlimited amount to your spouse during life or on death. Prince’s estate may face a 40% estate tax, but if he had been married and left his estate to his spouse, there would not have been any federal estate tax until the death of the spouse.

A lesson for the rest of us: have an estate plan, including a will and make sure that it includes tax planning.

Reference: Forbes (Oct. 7, 2020) “Prince’s Estate Sues IRS Over Claimed $135 Million Tax Value”

Reviewing Your Estate Plan Protects Goals, Family

Regularly reviewing your estate plan and transferring the management of assets if and when you are unable to manage them yourself because of disability or death are basic components of estate plan maintenance. This goes for people with $100 or $100 million. Maintaining your estate plan can be simple, explains the article “Auditing Your Estate Plan” appearing in Forbes.

reviewing your estate plan
You should have your estate plan reviewed every three to five years to ensure it is aligned with your goals.

To take more control over your estate, you’ll want to have an estate planning attorney create and review an estate plan to ensure it continues to achieve your goals. To do so, you’ll need to start by defining your estate planning objectives. What are you trying to accomplish?

  • Provide for a surviving spouse or family
  • Save on income taxes now
  • Save on estate and gift taxes later
  • Provide for children later
  • Bequeath assets to a charity
  • Provide for retirement income, and/or
  • Protect assets and beneficiaries from creditors.

A review of your estate plan, especially if you haven’t done so in more than three years, will show whether any of your goals have changed. You’ll need to review wills, trusts, powers of attorney, healthcare proxies, beneficiary designation forms, insurance policies and joint accounts.

Preparing for incapacity is just as important as distributing assets. Who should manage your medical, financial and legal affairs? Designating someone, or more than one person, to act on your behalf, and making your wishes clear and enforceable with estate planning documents, will give you and your loved ones security. You are ready, and they will be ready to help you, if something unexpected occurs.

There are a few more steps, if your estate plan needs to be revised:

  • Make the plan, based on your goals
  • Engage the people, including an estate planning attorney, to execute the plan
  • Have a will updated and executed, along with other necessary documents
  • Re-title assets as needed and complete any changes to beneficiary designations, and
  • Schedule a review of your estate plan every few years and more frequently if there are large changes to tax laws or your life circumstances.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 23, 2020) “Auditing Your Estate Plan”

Can I Revoke a Power of Attorney?

Sometimes it may become necessary to revoke a Power of Attorney, like in the following story, which takes an unpleasant twist after Cindy’s stepsister Charlotte suggests that she be given power of attorney to help Cindy with her business matters. When Cindy agrees, Charlotte’s attorney creates a Durable Power of Attorney that names Charlotte as her agent. What happened next, according to the Glen Rose Reporter in the article “Guarding against the evil stepsister,” was a nightmare.

Revoke a Power of Attorney
A power of attorney can be revoked at any time.

A few weeks later, Cindy’s brother Prince found that Charlotte had moved money from Cindy’s personal bank accounts into a completely different bank, setting up joint accounts in Cindy and Charlotte’s names and granting Charlotte right of survivorship (ROS). This made Charlotte the legal owner of the account at the time of Cindy’s passing. Charlotte had also contacted Cindy’s former employer and was attempting to wrest control of Cindy’s pension. It wasn’t clear whether she was attempting to obtain the entire amount in a lump sum, but she was attempting to gain control.

Cindy realized that Charlotte was not to be trusted. However, Charlotte had the power of attorney, and all of these actions were legal. Could Cindy revoke the power of attorney that she had signed? The answer is yes, which is important to know.

There were two paths available to Cindy: she could immediately execute a revocation of the Durable Power of Attorney that had been used to give Charlotte authority, or have her attorney create a new power of attorney granting power of agency to another person. Either way, Charlotte would be stripped of the legal authority to act on Cindy’s behalf.

Cindy had a new POA created, naming her brother Prince as her agent. The new POA had to immediately be presented to all of the financial institutions she deals with. She contacted her former employer and gave them proper notice that Charlotte no longer had authority to represent her. The new joint accounts that Charlotte had opened were then closed and individual accounts in her name only were open, which also ended the ROS.

Cindy had to anticipate another challenge—that Charlotte might attempt to have Cindy declared incompetent and have herself named as Cindy’s legal guardian. To protect herself, Cindy’s estate planning attorney drew up documents stating that in the event Cindy ever needed someone to be her guardian, she did not want Charlotte to be named. In addition, she named the person she would want to be her guardian, if that is necessary in the future. While a judge ultimately has final discretion, the courts generally prefer naming a guardian as requested by an individual.

Your estate planning attorney can revoke a power of attorney at any time you’d like, especially if it becomes clear that the person you’ve named is not acting in your best interests. Having an estate plan in place in advance of any medical or mental challenges is always better, so that you are less vulnerable to anyone trying to take advantage of you during a difficult time.

Reference: Glen Rose Reporter (Sep. 10, 2020) “Guarding against the evil stepsister”

What Does an Executor Do?

Being asked to serve as the executor of a loved one’s estate is flattering, but it is also a big responsibility and a lot of work. So, what does an executor do? As the executor, you are responsible for taking care of all of the financial and legal matters of the estate, explains the article “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate” from Review Times. The job will require a lot of time and, depending upon the complexity of the estate and the family situation, could be challenging.

What does an executor do
The job of being an executor has many aspects.

Some of the tasks include:

  • Filing court papers to start the probate process to determine whether the will is valid.
  • Making a complete inventory of everything in the estate.
  • Obtaining an estate tax ID number, opening an estate bank account and using the estate funds to pay bills, including funeral costs and medical bills.
  • If the estate includes a home, maintaining the home and paying the mortgage, taxes, etc.
  • Terminating credit cards, notifying banks and government agencies—including Social Security—and the post office.
  • Preparing and filing income tax returns for the last year of the person’s life, unless they filed them already, and for the estate.
  • Distributing assets, as directed by the will.

Your first task is to locate the will and any important documents and financial information. You will need the will, deeds, titles, brokerage statements, insurance policies, etc.

If the estate is complicated, you will want to work with an estate planning attorney, who can guide you through the process. The estate pays for the attorney, and you work closely with them. Every state has its own laws and timetables for the executor’s responsibilities, which the attorney will be familiar with.

If possible, find out if there are any family conflicts, before the loved one passes. If there are potential problems, it may be better for the loved one to tell who will be inheriting what before they die. If there is no plan for asset distribution, the person who is asking you to be the executor needs to meet with an estate planning attorney as soon as possible and have a plan created, with all of the documents necessary for your state.

The executor is entitled to be paid a fee, which is paid by the estate. In most states, that fee is set at a percentage of the estate’s value, depending on the size and complexity of the estate. If you are both an executor and a beneficiary, you may want to forgo the fee, because fees are taxable, but in most states, inheritances are not.

Reference: Review Times (Sep. 6, 2020) “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate”

Protect Your Estate from Unintended Heirs

Protecting your estate from unintended heirs is an important consideration in any estate plan.  Disinheriting a child as an heir could happen for a variety of reasons. There may have been a long-running dispute, estrangement over a lifestyle choice, or not wanting to give assets to a child who squanders money. What happens when a will or trust has left a child without an inheritance is examined in an article from Lake County News, “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children.”  

protect your estate from unintended heirs
Protecting your estate from unintended heirs is an important consideration when putting together an estate plan.

Circumstances matter. Was the child born or adopted after the decedent’s estate planning documents were already created and executed? In certain states, like California, a child who was born or adopted after documents were executed, is by law entitled to a share in the estate. There are exceptions. Was it the decedent’s intent to omit the child, and is there language in the will making that clear? Did the decedent give most or all of the estate to the other parent? Did the decedent otherwise provide for the omitted child and was there language to that effect in the will? For example, if a child was the named beneficiary of a $1 million life insurance policy, it is likely this was the desired outcome.

Another question is whether the decedent knew of the existence of the child, or if they thought the child was deceased. In certain states, the law is more likely to grant the child a share of the estate.

Actor Hugh O’Brien did not provide for his children, who were living when his trust was executed. His children argued that he did not know of their existence, and had he known, he would have provided for them. His will included a general disinheritance provision that read “I am intentionally not providing for … any other person who claims to be a descendant or heir of mine under any circumstances and without regard to the nature of any evidence which may indicate status as a descendant or heir.”

The Appellate Court ruled against the children’s appeal for two reasons. One, the decedent must have been unaware of the child’s birth or mistaken about the child’s death, and two, must have failed to have provided for the unknown child solely because of a lack of awareness. The court found that his reason to omit them from his will was not “solely” because he did not know of their existence, but because he had no intention of giving them a share of his estate.

In this case, the general disinheritance provision defeated the claim by the children, since their claim did not meet the two standards that would have supported their claim.

This is another example of how an experienced estate planning attorney creates documents to withstand challenges from unintended outcomes. A last will and testament is created to defend the estate and the decedent’s wishes.

Reference: Lake County News (Aug. 22, 2020) “Estate Planning: Disinherited and omitted children”

How Do I Keep My Son-in-Law from Getting the Money I Give my Daughter in My Estate?

Say that you were to name your daughter as the beneficiary on your Roth IRA and 401(k) accounts, as well as your house and other investments. Her husband would not be a beneficiary.

His only source of income is a monthly stipend that he receives from a trust and income he earns from being a rideshare driver.

Can you use a trust to prevent her son-in-law from inheriting or getting her money when she dies?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I protect my daughter’s inheritance from her husband?” explains that trusts are very effective at accomplishing this goal.

Note first that retirement assets can’t be re-titled to a trust. However, a home can be, and investments can be, if they’re not tax deferred.

For assets that can’t be re-titled to the bloodline trust during your lifetime, you can name the trust as the payable-on-death (POD) beneficiary of those assets.

You also should take care in deciding on who you choose as a trustee.

In the situation above, depending on applicable law for your state, your daughter may not be the sole trustee and the sole beneficiary under this form of trust arrangement. However, in all instances, a bank or attorney can be a co-trustee.

This trust arrangement ensures that assets distributed to your daughter aren’t commingled with the assets of her husband with extravagant tastes and an open checkbook. In addition, those assets would not be subject to equitable distribution in the event of a divorce.

If the daughter is the sole trustee over a trust, then all the planning will be out the window, if the daughter does not agree to this set-up.

For example, if she takes distributions from the trust and deposits them in a joint account with her husband, the money is available for equitable distribution.

This means the daughter arguably has indicated that she does not think of her inheritance as a non-marital asset.

A divorce court would see it the same way and award a portion to the husband in a break-up.

Reference: nj.com (July 21, 2020) “Can I protect my daughter’s inheritance from her husband?”

Trusts: The Swiss Army Knife of Estate Planning

Trusts serve many different purposes in estate planning. They all have the intent to protect the assets. The type of trust determines what those protections will be, and from whom assets are protected, says the article “Trusts are powerful tools which can come in many forms,” from The News Enterprise. To understand how trusts protect assets, start with the roles involved.

Trusts
The versatility of a trust makes it one of the most powerful estate planning tools available.

The person who creates the trust is called a “grantor” or “settlor.” The individuals or organizations receiving the benefit of its property or assets are the “beneficiaries.” There are two basic types of beneficiaries: present interest beneficiaries and “future interest” beneficiaries. The beneficiary, by the way, can be the same person as the grantor, for their lifetime, or it can be other people or entities.

The person who is responsible for managing the property within the trust is the “trustee.” This person is responsible for overseeing the assets and following the instructions in the document. The trustee can be the same person as the grantor, as long as a successor is in place when the grantor/initial trustee dies or becomes incapacitated. However, a grantor cannot gain asset protection through a trust, where the grantor controls the assets and is the principal beneficiary.

One way to establish asset protection during the lifetime of the grantor is with an irrevocable trust. Someone other than the grantor must be the trustee, and the grantor should not have any control over the assets. The less power a grantor retains, the greater the asset protection.

One additional example is if a grantor seeks lifetime asset protection but also wishes to retain the right to income from property and provide a protected home for an adult child upon the grantor’s death. Very specific provisions within the document can be drafted to accomplish this particular task.

There are many other options that can be created to accomplish the specific goals of the grantor.

Some trusts are used to protect assets from taxes, while others ensure that an individual with special needs will be able to continue to receive needs-tested government benefits and still have access to funds for costs not covered by government benefits.

An estate planning attorney will have a thorough understanding of the many different types of trusts and which one would best suit each individual situation and goals.

Reference: The News Enterprise (July 25, 2020) “Trusts are powerful tools which can come in many forms”

How to Improve Beneficiary Designations

Beneficiary designations supersede all other estate planning documents, so getting them right makes an important difference in achieving your estate planning goals. Mistakes with beneficiary designations can undo even the best plan, says a recent article from The Street, “5 Retirement Plan Beneficiary Mistakes to Avoid”. Periodically reviewing beneficiary forms, including confirming the names in writing with plan administrators for workplace plans and IRA custodians, is important.

Beneficiary Designations
Keeping your beneficiary designations up to date is one of the most important (and easy) things you can do.

Post-death changes, if they can be made (which is rare), are expensive and generally involve litigation or private letter rulings from the IRS. Avoiding these five commonly made mistakes is a much better way to go.

1—Neglecting to name a beneficiary. If no beneficiary is named for a retirement plan, the estate typically becomes the beneficiary. In the case of IRAs, language in the custodial agreement will determine who gets the assets. The distribution of the retirement plan is accelerated, which means that the assets may need to be completely withdrawn in as little as five years, if death occurs before the decedent’s required beginning date for taking required minimum distributions (RMDs).

With no beneficiary named, retirement plans become probate accounts and transferring assets to heirs becomes subject to delays and probate fees. Assets might also be distributed to people you didn’t want to be recipients.

2—Naming the estate as the beneficiary. The same issues occur here, as when no beneficiary is named. The asset’s distributions will be accelerated, and the plan will become a probate account. As a general rule, estates should never be named as a beneficiary.

3—Not naming a spouse as a primary beneficiary. The ability to stretch out the distribution of retirement plans ended when the SECURE Act was passed. It still allows for lifetime distributions, but this only applies to certain people, categorized as “Eligible Designated Beneficiaries” or “EDBs.” This includes surviving spouses, minor children, disabled or special needs individuals, chronically ill people and individuals who are not more than ten years younger than the retirement plan’s owner. If your heirs do not fall into this category, they are subject to a ten-year rule. They have only ten years to withdraw all assets from the account(s).

If your goal is to maximize the distribution period and you are married, the best beneficiary is your spouse. This is also required by law for company plans subject to ERISA, a federal law that governs employee benefits. If you want to select another beneficiary for a workplace plan, your spouse will need to sign a written spousal consent agreement. IRAs are not subject to ERISA and there is no requirement to name your spouse as a beneficiary.

4—Not naming contingent beneficiaries. Without contingency, or “backup beneficiaries,” you risk having assets being payable to your estate, if the primary beneficiaries predecease you. Those assets will become part of your probate estate and your wishes about who receives the asset may not be fulfilled.

5—Failure to revise beneficiaries when life changes occur. Beneficiary designations should be checked whenever there is a review of the estate plan and as life changes take place. This is especially true in the case of a divorce or separation.

Any account that permits a beneficiary to be named should have paperwork completed, reviewed periodically and revised. This includes life insurance and annuity beneficiary forms, trust documents and pre-or post-nuptial agreements.

Reference: The Street (Aug. 11, 2020) “5 Retirement Plan Beneficiary Mistakes to Avoid”

What Happens to Debt when You Die?

When a person dies, it’s not unusual for them to leave behind some unpaid debt. What happens to that debt depends upon how their estate was organized, says the article “This is how your unpaid debts are handled if you pass away” from CNBC.com. The estate consists of whatever is owned, whether the person was wealthy or not. It includes financial accounts, real estate and personal possessions.

For surviving spouses, this can be worrisome. In most instances, they are not responsible for their spouse’s debt, but there are some exceptions. Here’s how it works.

Paying off all debts and then distributing the remaining assets is part of the probate process. Every state has its own laws regarding how long creditors have to make a claim against the estate. In some states, it’s a few months, in others it can last a few years. An estate planning attorney in your state will know how long the estate is vulnerable to creditors.

In most states, funeral expenses take priority, then the cost of administering the estate, followed by taxes and hospital and medical bills. However, not all assets are necessarily part of the estate, and this is where estate planning is important.

Life insurance policies, qualified retirement accounts and other assets with named beneficiaries go directly to the beneficiaries and do not pass through probate. The same goes for assets placed in trusts, as does jointly owned property, as long as it has been properly titled.

With the right planning, it is possible that an entire estate, including one that is insolvent, could be passed on to heirs outside of probate, leaving creditors high and dry. However, there are a handful of states that have “community property laws” that make debt more complicated.

The law in these states views both assets and certain debt accumulated during the marriage as being owned by both spouses, even if it is only in the decedent’s name. That includes debt like medical expenses or a mortgage. However, that’s not the final word. A well-structured letter with a copy of the death certificate can sometimes lead to the debt being discharged. During the probate process, the company holding the debt should be advised that the estate has little or no assets to cover the debt and ask that it be forgiven.

This does not apply to co-signing on a loan. Although the request can be made, it is not likely to be honored. Federal student loans are forgiven if the student dies, which seems a matter of kindness. Parent PLUS loans, which are loans taken out by parents to help pay for education, are usually discharged, if the student or parent dies.

Your estate planning attorney can help structure your estate to protect your surviving spouse and family members from creditors.

Reference: CNBC.com (July 31, 2020) “This is how your unpaid debts are handled if you pass away”

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