Estate Planning

Why Do I Need Estate Planning If I’m Not Rich?

Most people spend more time planning a vacation than they do thinking about who will inherit their assets after they pass away. Although estate planning isn’t the most enjoyable activity, without it, you don’t get to direct who gets the things you’ve worked so hard for after you pass away.

Estate Planning isn't only for the rich
An Estate Plan will protect your assets and your loved ones

Investopedia asks you to consider these four reasons why you should have an estate plan to avoid potentially devastating results for your heirs in its article “4 Reasons Estate Planning Is So Important.”

Wealth Won’t Go to Unintended Beneficiaries. Estate planning may have been once considered something only rich people needed, but that’s changed. Everyone now needs to plan for when something happens to a family’s breadwinner(s). The primary part of estate planning is naming heirs for your assets and a guardian for your minor children. Without an estate plan, the courts will decide who will receive your property and raise your kids.

Protection for Families With Young Children. If you are the parent of small children, you need to have a will to ensure that your children are taken care of. You can designate their guardians, if both parents die before the children turn 18. Without a will with a guardianship clause, a judge will decide this important issue, and the results may not be what you would have wanted.

Avoid Taxes. Estate planning is also about protecting your loved ones from the IRS. Estate planning is transferring assets to your family, with an attempt to create the smallest tax burden for them as possible. A little estate planning can reduce much or even all of their federal and state estate taxes or state inheritance taxes. There are also ways to reduce the income tax that beneficiaries might have to pay. However, without an estate plan, the amount your heirs will owe the government could be substantial.

No Family Fighting (or Very Little). One sibling may believe he or she deserves more than another. This type of fighting happens all the time, and it can turn ugly and end up in court, pitting family members against each other. However, an estate plan enables you to choose who controls your finances and assets, if you’re unable to manage your own assets or after you die. It also will go a long way towards settling any family conflict and ensuring that your assets are handled in the way you wanted.

To protect your assets and your loved ones when you no longer can do it, you’ll need an estate plan. Without one, your family could see large tax burdens, and the courts could say how your assets are divided, or even who will care for your children.

Reference: Investopedia (May 25, 2018) “4 Reasons Estate Planning Is So Important”

Estate Planning for Blended Families: The Importance of Updating Your Estate Plan

A recent Massachusetts case highlights the importance of estate planning for blended families, especially the need to update an estate plan after remarriage.

Estate Planning for Blended Families
An outdated will could wreak havoc in estate planning for blended families.

The Massachusetts Supreme Judicial Court recently unanimously ruled for the second wife of a man who demanded her share of the real estate her husband had willed to his four adult children. The Boston Globe reports in the article “SJC says spouses are entitled to part of significant other’s estate when they are left out of will” that the ruling written by Justice Elspeth B. Cypher says that widow Susan Ciani was protected by the law and has the right to cancel out the estate plan her husband approved before he died. The court held that the law was clear that “the Legislature intended for the surviving spouse to have an ownership interest in the real property for life, not merely an interest in the income produced by the real property.”

The husband, Raymond Ciani, created a will in 2000 that left his estate to his first wife, Mary. Under the will, after her death, his four children were to be sole beneficiaries of the estate, which was worth an estimated $675,000. But Mary died before her husband. Raymond then married Susan in 2013 and died in 2015 without changing his will.

After her husband’s death, Susan challenged the will in court and remained in the family home. Both Susan and the children went into Probate and Family Court and agreed to sell the family home and other assets, while judges decide who gets what.

The attorney for the four children, Maria L. Remillard, said the Court has created what could become a legal problem for blended families, because the law is obscure.

“It’s a rude awakening for a lot of people,’’ Remillard said of the law and the SJC’s endorsement of it. “It isn’t until someone passes away that the parties and surviving spouses realize the impact . . . After a second marriage, the second spouse could, in fact, totally disrupt the estate plan.”

The Supreme Judicial Court’s decision allows Susan to get one-third of the value of her husband’s real estate holdings and a similar share in the estate. If both sides had not agreed to sell the family home, Susan also would have been allowed to live there for the rest of her life.

Some states adhere to community property laws that permit a spouse to keep half ownership of all property in a marriage. However, Massachusetts follows an elective share law to protect spouses against disinheritance.

The decision emphasizes the importance of keeping your estate plan up to date, especially if you have remarried.

Reference: The Boston Globe (January 8, 2019) “SJC says spouses are entitled to part of significant other’s estate when they are left out of will”

Theft Reported in Aretha Franklin’s Estate

Careful estate planning can prevent heirs from stealing assets from your estate. Aretha Franklin’s estate is a sad example.

Careful Estate Planning
Aretha Franklin’s estate woes highlight the need for careful estate planning.,

Detroit area police told the Free Press that an active theft investigation was ongoing, involving Aretha Franklin’s suburban mansion. However, the investigation began prior to her death.

The 76-year-old Queen of Soul passed away from pancreatic cancer in August in her Detroit riverfront apartment. When she died, she still owned her 4,100-square-foot Colonial-style home in Bloomfield Township, Michigan, which is in the sights of the IRS.

Wealth Advisor says in its article, “Police investigate theft from Aretha Franklin’s estate,” that the theft investigation was first reported by The Blast, a celebrity news website claiming Franklin’s estate is fighting with Franklin’s 61-year-old son, Edward, who was born when Aretha was only 14.

Her son Edward has been attempting to get a court order to force the estate to provide monthly financial documents to his mother’s heirs. However, the estate won’t turn over the information because it contends such information could negatively impact the criminal investigation involving stolen estate property.

Late last year, the IRS filed a claim in the County Probate Court, alleging that the Franklin estate owed millions in back taxes and penalties. An attorney for the estate stated that it had repaid more than $3 million in back taxes, since Franklin’s death. It’s believed that Franklin owed more than $6.3 million in back taxes from 2012 to 2018 and $1.5 million in penalties.

The Oakland County court documents did not state the exact value of her estate, which is believed to be in the tens of millions.

Immediately after her death, Franklin’s mansion, which is part of a gated community, was listed for sale at $800,000. However, it was then taken off the market. The custom-built home features six bedrooms, seven bathrooms, white marble floors and floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking two small ponds and a lap pool. The mansion also sports a sauna, a three-car garage and a jetted tub.

Franklin is said to have purchased the mansion for $1.2 million in 1997, according to The Detroit News. The home was built in 1990 and remodeled in 2002.

You can read more about asset protection on our website.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (January 11, 2019) “Police investigate theft from Aretha Franklin’s estate”

Thinking about Giving It All Away? Here’s What You Need to Know

There are some individuals who just aren’t interested in handing down their assets to the next generation when they die. Perhaps their children are so successful, they don’t need an inheritance. Or, according to the article “Giving your money away when you die: 10 questions to ask” from MarketWatch, they may be more interested in the kind of impact they can have on the lives of others.

If you haven’t thought about charitable giving or estate planning, these 10 questions should prompt some thought and discussion with family members:

Should you give money away now? Don’t give away money or assets you’ll need to pay your living expenses, unless you have what you need for retirement and any bumps that may come up along the way. There are no limits to the gifts you can make to a charity.

Do you have the right beneficiaries listed on retirement accounts and life insurance policies? If you want these assets to go to the right person or place, make sure the beneficiary names are correct. Note that there are rules, usually from the financial institution, about who can be a beneficiary—some require it be a person and do not permit the beneficiary to be an organization.

Who do you want making end-of-life decisions, and how much intervention do you want to prolong your life? A health care power of attorney and living will are used to express these wishes. Without these documents, your family may not know what you want. Healthcare providers won’t know and will have to make decisions based on law, and not your wishes.

Do you have a will? Many Americans do not, and it creates stress, adds costs and creates real problems for their family members. Make an appointment with an estate planning attorney to put your wishes into a will.

Are you worried about federal estate taxes? Unless you are in the 1%, your chances of having to pay federal taxes are slim to none. However, if your will was created to address federal estate taxes from back in the days when it was a problem, you may have a strategy that no longer works. This is another reason to meet with your estate planning attorney.

Does your state have estate or inheritance taxes? This is more likely to be where your heirs need to come up with the money to pay taxes on your estate. A local estate planning attorney will be able to help you make a plan, so that your heirs will have the resources to pay these costs.

Should you keep your Roth IRA for an heir? Leaving a Roth IRA for an heir, could be a generous bequest. You may also want to encourage your heirs to start and fund Roth IRAs of their own, if they have earned income. Even small sums, over time, can grow to significant wealth.

Are you giving money to reputable charities? Make sure the organizations you are supporting, while you are alive or through your will, are using resources correctly. Good online sources include GuideStar.org or CharityNavigator.org.

Could you save more on taxes? Donating appreciated assets might help lower your taxes. Donating part or all your annual Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) can do the same, as long as you are over 70½ years old.

Does your family know what your wishes are? To avoid any turmoil when you pass, talk with family members about what you want to happen when you are gone. Make sure they know where your estate planning documents are and what you want in the way of end-of-life care. Having a conversation about your legacy and what your hopes and dreams are for family members, can be eye-opening for the younger members of the family and give you some deep satisfaction.

Reference: MarketWatch (Oct. 30, 2018) “Giving your money away when you die: 10 questions to ask”

Get Estate Planning Details Done in 2019

Are you ready to resolve some of the things in 2019 that you really, really, did plan on doing in 2018? This article from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “As a new year closes in, resolve to get those pesky estate details resolved,” offers to act as a reminder—or a kick in the pants—to get you to take care of these frequently overlooked estate planning details.

Health Care Plans. If you’ve got health care issues or a chronic condition, get your advance directive for health care done. The name of the documents vary by state (in Florida they’re called a Designation of Healthcare Surrogate and a Living Will), but whatever you call it, work with your estate planning attorney to create the documents that convey your wishes, if and when you are not able to communicate them yourself. That means your end of life wishes, so if you end up in the hospital’s intensive care unit your family or health care providers aren’t making decisions based on what they think you might have wanted, but what you have actually declared that you want.

Power of Attorney for Financial Affairs. You’re not giving up any power or control over your finances in having this created. Instead, you are preparing to allow someone to act on your behalf for financial matters, if for some reason you are unable to. Let’s say you become injured in an accident and are in the hospital for an extended period of time. How will your bills be paid? Who will pay the mortgage?

For both of these documents, talk with the people you want to name first, and make sure you are both clear on their responsibilities. Have at least one backup, just in case.

A will and if appropriate, trusts. If you don’t have a will or a trust, why not? Without a will, the state’s laws determine who will receive your assets. Your family may not like the decisions, but it will be too late. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to get your will and other documents properly prepared.

Check how your assets are titled. Are they in your name only, jointly titled, etc.? If you have trusts, have you retitled your assets to conform to the trusts? If you have beneficiaries on certain accounts, like life insurance policies and 401(k)s, when was the last time you reviewed your beneficiaries? Don’t be like the doctor who did everything but check beneficiaries. His ex-wife was very happy to receive a large 401(k) account, and there was no recourse for his second wife of 30 years.

Make a list so assets can be located. To finalize these details, you’ll need a list of assets, account numbers and what financial institution holds them. The information will need to be gathered and then organized in a way so key people in your life—your spouse, children, etc.—can find them. Some people put them on a spreadsheet in their home computer, but if your executor does not have a password, they won’t be able to access them. If they are in a safe deposit box that only has your name, they won’t be accessible.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Dec. 24, 2018) “As a new year closes in, resolve to get those pesky estate details resolved”

estate planning for married couples

Getting Married Again? Protect Your Spouse and Your Children

One of the goals in estate planning when one spouse moves into the home of another spouse, is to ensure that if the owner spouse dies first, the new spouse will be permitted to remain in the home, while preserving the value of the home for the owner spouse’s children. It’s not always an easy situation to resolve, according to an article in the Times Herald-Record, titled “How to preserve your home’s value when remarrying,” but with good planning and a solid estate plan, it can be done.

With poor planning, however, your assets could go to your second spouse and then, to his or her own children, leaving your own children empty-handed.

A common approach is to leave the surviving spouse the right to use and occupy the residence, with a provision in a trust or a will that the surviving spouse pays taxes and home insurance costs and maintains the house. The right to live in the house can be for a limited number of months or years or until they pass away or enter a care facility. When the surviving spouse dies, or the time limit is reached, he or she leaves the house, the house is sold and the proceeds are divided among the children of the owner.

There are other ways to provide more flexibility to the surviving spouse. If the house is too large or expensive to maintain, he or she may be given the right to use and occupy a substituted property, which may be purchased with the proceeds from the owner spouses’ home. Another arrangement allows the owner spouse’s home to be sold with the surviving spouse using the income from the proceeds of the sale of the house to pay for a rental. When the surviving spouse dies (or when the term expires), the children of the first spouse inherit what is left.

A few important things to consider:

  • How well the surviving spouse will be able to maintain the house, either for financial or physical reasons.
  • If the surviving spouse is not taking care of the house and it falls into disrepair, the children may have to file an eviction proceeding.
  • If the trust or will does not specifically instruct the surviving spouse to pay for home maintenance, the children of the owner spouse could be responsible for those costs, and depending on how long the surviving spouse lives, that could be a large burden for a long period of time.

This situation requires thoughtful planning, with many “what if’s” to be asked. An experienced estate planning attorney, who has worked with second marriages and home ownership issues, will be able to provide an objective view of the issues and the solutions.

In addition, bringing family members in for a meeting to discuss the situation, may go along way to prevent, or at least attempt to prevent, larger issues in the future.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Sep. 22, 2018) “How to preserve your home’s value when remarrying”

Own Guns? Don’t Leave Your Heirs This Problem

The NY Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act, enacted in response to the Sandy Hook shootings, amended many of New York’s laws to provide strict regulations, including guidelines and a timeframe for safeguarding firearms after a gun owner dies.  However, do the new laws leave family members and heirs at risk of criminal liability?

The New York Law Journal considered this issue recently in an article titled “Death of a Gun Owner: Criminal Liability for an Heir?” The article examines how the act works and what happens to heirs when a gun owner dies.

The SAFE Act created a statewide database that tracks people who were issued gun licenses, closed some loopholes regarding private gun sales, required stricter gun storage retirements and created more strict penalties for people who are found guilty of using a gun.

In the estates world, the act also amended the New York Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (SCPA) that requires estate fiduciaries to file a firearms inventory with the Surrogate’s Court to settle the estate of a decedent who owned guns. The inventory must be filed with the Division of Criminal Justice Services as a way of ensuring that the state knows where guns are located and about any transfer of ownership. There are also very specific time limitations for when the inventory must be filed.

What if your heirs don’t even know you own guns?

When a licensed gun owner dies, the person in charge of the decedent’s personal property is technically in illegal possession of the gun and guilty of criminal possession of a weapon. The law does provide an exemption from criminal liability for an executor or administrator or any other lawful possessor of a decedent’s firearm if, within 15 days of the death of the gun owner, the person either disposes of the gun lawfully or turns the gun over to the police.

Failure to do so could result in criminal charges, including a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail or three years of probation and a $1,000 fine.

Fifteen days is a very short time in which to require that the gun is turned over to the police or “disposed of lawfully.” People who are not gun owners may not know what they should do. In some states, the law requires that the disposal of firearms must be conducted by a licensed firearms dealer.  However, there is an exception for transfers between immediate family members. That means spouses, domestic partners, children and stepchildren.  However, those receiving the gun must have a valid license to possess a firearm.

Each state has different laws regarding the possession of firearms, in addition to federal requirements. An experienced estate planning attorney will know the laws of your state and help you properly prepare for the transfer of any firearms. This is one headache you don’t want to leave your heirs to face.

Reference: New York Law Journal (Sep. 7, 2018) “Death of a Gun Owner: Criminal Liability for an Heir?”

Common Estate Planning Mistakes That You Can Avoid

The number one estate planning mistake is failing to have or to update an estate plan, says the Times Herald in the article “Top six estate planning mistakes.” Therefore, start by working with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan, and you’ll be way ahead of most Americans. Why does this matter?

An estate plan allows you to stay in control of your assets while you are alive, provide for your loved ones and for yourself in the event you become mentally or physically incapacitated, and when you die, give what you have worked to achieve to those you wish. It costs far less to take care of all of this while you are alive. It’s a gift to those you love, who are spared a lot of stress and costs if it must be figured out after you have passed.

Once you have a plan in place, you have to keep it updated. An estate plan is like a car: it needs gas, oil changes, and regular maintenance. If your family experiences significant changes, then your estate plan needs to be reviewed. If you change jobs, have a change in your financial status, or if you receive an inheritance, it’s time for a review. When there are changes to the law, regarding taxes or non-tax matters, you’ll want to make sure your plan still works.

The second biggest mistake we make is failing to plan for retirement. If you start thinking about retirement when it is five or 10 years away, you’re probably going to be working for a long time. When you are in your twenties, it is the ideal time to start saving for retirement. Most people don’t start thinking about retirement until their thirties, and many don’t plan at all.

There are many different “rules” for how to save for retirement and how to calculate how much income you’ll need to live during retirement. However, not all of them work for every situation. Advisors are now telling Americans they need to plan for living until and past their ninetieth birthday. That means you could be living in retirement for four decades.

Mistake number three—failing to fund trusts. Trust funding is completely and correctly aligning your assets with your trust. If you don’t fund the trust, which means putting assets into the trust by retitling assets that include bank accounts, investment accounts, real estate, insurance policies and other assets, adding the trust as an additional insured to home and auto insurance policies and have every change verified, you have an incomplete estate plan. Your heirs will have to clean up the mess left behind.

Fourth, failing to communicate your estate plan to your executor, beneficiaries and heirs is a common and easily avoidable mistake. Talk with everyone who is a part of your estate plan and explain what their roles are. Speak with the person you have named as Power of Attorney and Healthcare Proxy on a regular basis. Make sure they continue to be willing and able to perform the tasks you need them to do on your behalf. Make sure they know where your documents are.

Fifth, don’t neglect to make arrangements for bills to be paid and financial matters to be handled, when you are not able to do so. There are many studies which show that after age 60, our financial abilities decrease about 1% per year. Expect to need help at some point during your later years and put a plan in place to protect yourself and your spouse. If you are the main bill-payer, make sure your spouse can take care of everything as well as you, before any emergency strikes.

Finally, talk with your successors about what you would like to happen if and when you become mentally unable to make good decisions, including caregiving options. As we age, the likelihood of needing to be in a nursing home or other care facility increases. You can’t necessarily rely on your spouse living long enough to take care of you. Make sure that your financial power of attorney contains the appropriate gifting language, your assets are titled properly, and your successor financial agents know about the plan you have created. If you don’t have a long-term care policy now, try to buy one. They are less expensive than having to pay for care.

Protect yourself, your family and your loved ones by addressing these steps. You’ll be giving yourself, your spouse and your loved ones peace of mind.

Reference: Times Herald (Dec. 14, 2018) “Top six estate planning mistakes”

Why Do I Need an Estate Plan?

Investopedia’s recent article, “4 Reasons Estate Planning Is So Important,” says you should think about the following four reasons you should have an estate plan. According to the article, doing so can help avoid potentially devastating consequences for your family.

  1. An Estate Plan Keeps Your Assets from Going to Unintended Beneficiaries. A primary part of estate planning is choosing heirs for your assets. Without an estate plan, a judge will decide who gets your assets. This process can take years and can get heated. There’s no guarantee the judge will automatically rule that the surviving spouse gets everything.
  2. An Estate Plan Protects Your Young Children. If you are the parent of minor children, you need to name their guardians, in the event that both parents die before the children turn 18. Without including this in your will, the courts will make this decision.
  3. An Estate Plan Eliminates a Large Tax Burden for Your Heirs. Estate planning means protecting your loved ones—that also entails providing them with protection from the IRS. Your estate plan should transfer assets to your heirs and create the smallest tax burden as possible for them. Without a plan, the amount your heirs may owe the government could be substantial.
  4. An Estate Plan Reduces Family Headaches After You’ve Passed. There are plenty of horror stories about how the family starts fighting after the death of a loved one. You can avoid this. One way is to carefully choose who controls your finances and assets, if you become mentally incapacitated or after you die. This goes a long way towards eliminating family strife and making certain that your assets are handled in the way you want.

If you want to protect your assets and your loved ones after you’re gone, you need an estate plan. Without one, your heirs could face large tax burdens and the courts could decide how your assets are divided or even who will care for your children.

Reference: Investopedia (May 25, 2018) “4 Reasons Estate Planning Is So Important”

Avoid These Three Big Estate Planning Mistakes

The Street lists the “3 Worst Estate Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them.” These are issues that frequently derail an estate plan:

Lack of Information. Unwinding the various pieces of your estate can be a monumental task. Some folks leave this all to chance. They fail to leave their personal representative and loved ones with a complete and updated list of where everything is located and how to get to it.

Think about all the assets you’ve accumulated in a lifetime: real property, brokerage accounts, bank accounts, mutual fund holdings, IRAs, pensions and others. They’re hopefully all protected by a host of user names and passwords and maybe even by the answers to questions, like your first pet’s name.

While things like insurance policies are likely online, some of your holdings are not available electronically. In addition, other possessions are totally digital, and you should guard against cyber-theft and hacking. Create a list of all your user names and passwords for investment accounts and other financial holdings.

Beneficiary Designations Issues. It’s not uncommon for people to forget that they’re required to name beneficiaries for their retirement accounts, annuity contracts and insurance policies. Messing this up is a guarantee that your assets will wind up in probate. It can be an expensive and time-consuming legal process, where your wishes may be disregarded.

Outdated Plans. Sometimes, decades pass after estate documents are signed and put away. In the meantime, divorces and other life events happen, radically impacting the original estate planning objectives. In addition, changes in tax laws might impact your initial intentions. It’s smart to periodically review what is in your will and your beneficiary designations.

Reference: The Street (November 29, 2018) “3 Worst Estate Planning Mistakes and How to Avoid Them”

Scroll to Top