Probate Court

Your Will Isn’t the End of Your Estate Planning

Even if your financial life is pretty simple, you should have a will. And once you have a will, that’s not the end of your estate planning.  There’s still some work to be done to make sure your family isn’t left with an expensive mess to clean up.  Assets must be properly titled, so that assets are distributed as intended upon death.

Your Will is only one piece of your estate planning.

Forbes’ recent article, “For Estate Plan To Work As Intended, Assets Must Be Properly Titled” notes that with the exception of the choice of potential guardians for children, the most important function of a will is to make certain that the transfer of assets to beneficiaries is the way you intended.

However, not all assets are disposed of by a will—they pass to beneficiaries regardless of the intentions stated in the will. Your will only controls the disposition of assets that fall within your probated estate.

An example of when a designated beneficiary controls the disposition of a financial asset is life insurance. Other examples are retirement accounts, such as a 401(k) or an IRA. When there’s a named beneficiary, assets will be distributed accordingly, which may be different than the intentions stated in a will.

The title of real estate controls its disposition. When property is jointly owned, how it is titled determines if the decedent’s interest in the property passes to the surviving partner, becomes part of the decedent’s estate, or passes to a third party. Titling of jointly owned property can be complicated in community property states.

In the same light, a revocable trust is an inter vivos or living trust that’s created during the grantor’s life, as part of an estate plan.

Such a trust can be used to ensure privacy, avoid the expenses and delays in the probate process and provide for continuity of asset management. A critical part of the planning is that the grantor must transfer (or retitle) assets to the trust.

Wills are very important in estate planning. To ensure that your estate plan fulfills your intentions, talk to an estate planning attorney about the proper titling of your assets.

Reference: Forbes (May 20, 2019) “For Estate Plan To Work As Intended, Assets Must Be Properly Titled”

Why Do Singles Need These Two Estate Planning Tools?

Morningstar’s article, “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider” explains that a living will, or advance medical directive, is a legal document that details your wishes for life-sustaining treatment. It’s a document that you sign when you’re of sound mind and says you want to be removed from life supporting measures, if you become terminally ill and incapacitated.

Powers of Attorney for healthcare and finances are often overlooked as critical estate planning documents for singles.

If you’re on life support with no chance of getting better, you’d choose to have your family avoid the expense and stress of keeping you alive artificially.

Like a living will, a durable power of attorney for healthcare is a legal document that names an agent to make healthcare decisions for you, if you are unable to make them yourself.

A durable power of attorney for healthcare can provide your instructions in circumstances in which you’re not necessarily terminally ill, but you are incapacitated.

When selecting an agent, find a person you trust enough to act on your behalf when you’re unable. Let this person know exactly how you feel about blood transfusions, organ transplants, disclosure of your medical information and other sensitive topics that may arise, if you’re incapacitated.

A power of attorney eliminates any confusion, especially if this person is someone other than your spouse. Your doctors will know exactly who the decision-maker is among your relatives and friends.

These two documents aren’t all that comprise a fully comprehensive estate plan. Singles should regularly make certain that the beneficiary designations on their checking and retirement accounts are up to date.

You should also consider your life insurance needs, especially if you have children and/or a mortgage.

It is also important to understand that a living will doesn’t address the issues of a will. A will ensures that your property is distributed after your death, in accordance with your wishes. Ask for help from an experienced estate planning attorney.

These two documents—a living will and a durable power of attorney—can help ensure that in a healthcare emergency, any medical and financial decisions made on your behalf are in accordance with what you really want. Speak with to an estate-planning attorney in your state to get definitive answers to your questions.

Reference: Morningstar (April 23, 2019) “2 Estate-Planning Tools That Singles Should Consider”

What Are the Six Most Frequent Estate Planning Mistakes?

It’s a grim topic, but it is an important one. Without a legal will in place, your loved ones may spend years stuck in court proceedings and spend a lot on legal fees and court costs to settle your estate.

The San Diego Tribune writes in its recent article, 6 estate-planning mistakes to avoid, that without a plan, everything is more stressful and expensive. Let’s look at the top six estate-planning mistakes that people need to avoid:

Estate Planning Mistakes
Estate planning is tricky to get right without the help of a trained professional.

No Plan. Regardless of your age or financial status, it’s critical to have a basic estate plan. This includes crafting powers of attorney for both healthcare and finances and a living will.

No Discussion. Once you create your plan, tell your family. Those you’ve named to take care of you, need to know what you’ve decided and where to find your plan.

Focusing Only on Taxes. Estate planning can be much more than just about tax avoidance. There are many other reasons to create an estate plan that have nothing to do with taxes, like charitable giving, special needs planning for a family member, succession planning in the event of incapacity and planning for children of a prior marriage, to name just a few.

Leaving Assets Directly to Children. If you leave assets directly to your children or grandchildren under age 18, it can cause unintended custodian or guardianship issues. Minors can’t own legal property, so a guardian will be appointed by the court to manage the property for them, until they reach age 18. If you don’t name a guardian, the court will appoint one for you and that person may have very different ideas about how your children should be raised.

Making Mistakes with Ownership and Property Titles. With many blended families, you may want to preserve assets from an inheritance as your own separate property or from a prior marriage for your children. There are many tax consequences and control issues in blended families about which you may not be aware.

Messing Up Your Trust. Many people don’t properly fund or update their trusts. An unfunded trust doesn’t do anyone any good. Assets that aren’t titled in the name of the trust don’t avoid probate.

Finally, the easiest way to avoid these frequent estate planning mistakes is by reviewing your estate plan regularly, as your circumstances change.

Reference: San Diego Tribune (April 18, 2019) “6 estate-planning mistakes to avoid”

Why Do Even the Middle Class Need Estate Planning?

When it comes to estate planning, you may think that you don’t have the wealth that would require you to engage in extensive estate planning. If you have a will, you might think that’s good enough.  Forbes’ recent article, “Why Estate Planners Aren’t Just for the Ultra-Rich,” says that nothing could be further from the truth.

estate planning for middle class
Estate planning for middle class families is important for many reasons.

Although some estate plans are more complicated than others, just about everyone can benefit from having one. Let’s examine the main reasons why:

Avoiding probate. This is a big reason why the importance of estate planning is for everyone. You don’t have to be part of the 1% to want to avoid putting your family through the stress and expense of probate. Creating a trust and strategically placing assets within its control, eliminates many headaches.

Naming a Guardian for Your Children.  Naming a Guardian for your children can only be done through estate planning documents.  In most states a will is the only document where you can legally name a guardian to raise your children.  If your estate planning documents don’t name a Guardian, the courts will name on for you, and it may not be the person you would have chosen.

Protecting your legacy. When you consider leaving a legacy for the next generation, it may have lofty pursuits. However, those aren’t necessarily reasonable goals for everyone. Leaving a legacy can also mean making certain that heirs properly respect all the effort and sacrifice that it took to save and create a retirement fund—whatever its size.

Creating a business succession plan. Among the countless small businesses in the U.S., most will continue to remain viable after the legacy owner dies. A business owner can plan for this within an estate plan, which details exactly what they want to happen, if they die unexpectedly. That could include outlining specific roles and responsibilities for surviving heirs or putting into place a buy-sell agreement with a business partner and directing the distribution the proceeds of the sale.

Be sure to revisit your estate plan regularly, especially if your life includes big events, like a birth of a child, a divorce, or an irreconcilable difference with a loved one.

It’s a myth that estate planning is something only wealthy people do. The middle class need estate planning too.  It’s for everyone.

Reference: Forbes (April 15, 2019) “Why Estate Planners Aren’t Just For The Ultra-Rich”

What is a Transfer on Death (TOD) Account?

Transfer on Death accounts allow for assets to avoid probate and be transferred directly to a beneficiary after the death of the account holder.

Most married couples share a bank account from which either spouse can write checks and add or withdraw funds without approval from the other. When one spouse dies, the other owns the account. The deceased spouse’s will can’t change that.

This account is wholly owned by both spouses while they’re both alive. As a result, a creditor of one spouse could make a claim against the entire account, without any approval or say from the other spouse. Either spouse could also withdraw all the money in the account and not tell the other. This basic joint account offers a right of survivorship, but joint account holders can designate who gets the funds, after the second person dies.

Kiplinger’s recent article, “How Transfer-on-Death Accounts Can Fit Into Your Estate Planning,” explains that the answer is transfer on death (TOD) accounts (also known as Totten trusts, in-trust-for accounts, and payable-on-death accounts).

In some states, this type of account can allow a TOD beneficiary to receive an auto, house, or even investment accounts. However, retirement accounts, like IRAs, Roth IRAs, and employer plans, aren’t eligible. They’re controlled by federal laws that have specific rules for designated beneficiaries.

After a decedent’s death, taking control of the account is a simple process. What is typically required, is to provide the death certificate and a picture ID to the account custodian. Because TOD accounts are still part of the decedent’s estate (although not the probate estate that the will establishes), they may be subject to income, estate, and/or inheritance tax. TOD accounts are also not out of reach for the decedent’s creditors or other relatives.

Account custodians (such as financial institutions) are often cautious, because they may face liability if they pay to the wrong person or don’t offer an opportunity for the government, creditors, or the probate court to claim account funds. Some states allow the beneficiary to take over that responsibility, by signing an affidavit. The bank will then release the funds, and the liability shifts to the beneficiary.

If you’re a TOD account owner, you should update your account beneficiaries and make certain that you coordinate your last will and testament and TOD agreements, according to your intentions. If you fail to do so, you could unintentionally add more beneficiaries to your will and not update your TOD account. This would accidentally disinherit those beneficiaries from full shares in the estate, creating probate issues.

TOD joint account owners should also consider that the surviving co-owner has full authority to change the account beneficiaries. This means that individuals whom the decedent owner may have intended to benefit from the TOD account (and who were purposefully left out of the Last Will) could be excluded.

If the decedent’s will doesn’t rely on TOD account planning, and the account lacks a beneficiary, state law will govern the distribution of the estate, including that TOD account. In many states, intestacy laws provide for spouses and distant relatives and exclude any other unrelated parties. This means that the TOD account owner’s desire to give the account funds to specific beneficiaries or their descendants would be thwarted.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney, if a TOD account is suitable to your needs and make sure that it coordinates with your overall estate plan.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 18, 2019) “How Transfer-on-Death Accounts Can Fit Into Your Estate Planning”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

When Do I Need a Revocable Trust?

A will is a legal document that states how your property should be distributed when you die.  It also names guardians for any minor children. Whatever the size of your estate, without a will, there’s no guarantee that your assets will be distributed, according to your wishes. For those with a desire to simplify asset transfers after death and avoid probate, those with substantial assets, more complicated situations, or concerns of diminished capacity in later years, a revocable trust might also be considered, in addition to a will.

Revocable trusts have many benefits
A revocable trust is useful for anyone who wants to simplify the transfer of their assets or avoid probate.

Forbes’ recent article, “Revocable Trusts And Why Should You Consider One,” explains that a revocable trust, also called a “living trust” or an inter vivos trust, is created during your lifetime. On the other hand, a “testamentary trust” is created at death through a will. A revocable trust, like a will, details dispositive provisions upon death, successor and co-trustees, and other instructions. Upon the grantor’s passing, the revocable trust functions in a similar manner to a will.

A revocable trust is a flexible vehicle with few restrictions during your lifetime.  You usually designate yourself as the trustee and maintain control over the trust’s assets. You can move assets into or out of the trust, by retitling them. This movement has no income or estate tax consequences, nor is it a problem to distribute income or assets from the trust to fund your current lifestyle.

A living trust has some advantages over having your entire estate flow through probate. The primary advantages of having the majority of your assets avoid probate, is the ease of asset transfer and the lower costs. Another advantage of a trust is privacy, because a probated will is a public document that anyone can view.

Even with a revocable trust, you still need a will. A “pour over will” controls the decedent’s assets that haven’t been titled to the revocable trust, intentionally or by oversight. These assets may include personal property. This pour-over will generally names the revocable trust—which at death becomes irrevocable—as the beneficiary.

Another reason for creating a revocable trust is the possibility of future diminished legal capacity, when it may be better for another person, like a spouse or child, to help with your financial affairs. A co-trustee can pay bills and otherwise control the trust’s assets. This can also give you financial protection, by obviating the need for a court-ordered guardianship.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the best options for your situation to protect your estate and provide the peace of mind that your family will receive what you intended for them to inherit, with the least possible costs and stress.

Reference: Forbes (March 11, 2019) “Revocable Trusts And Why Should You Consider One”

As a New Parent, Have You Updated (or Created) Your Estate Plan?

You just had a baby. As a new parent you’re sleep-deprived, overwhelmed, and frazzled. Having a child dramatically changes one’s legacy and makes having an estate plan all the more necessary, says ThinkAdvisor’s recent article, “5 Legacy Planning Basics for New Parents.”

If you have a baby, estate planning is a must
After you have a baby, putting an estate plan in place is one of the most important and effective things you can do to protect your child.

Take time to talk through two high-priority items. Create a staggered checklist—starting with today—and set attainable dates to complete the rest of the tasks. Here are five things to put on that list:

  1. Will. This gives the probate court your instructions on who will care for your children, if something happens to both you and your spouse. A will also should name a guardian to be responsible for the children. Parents also should think about how they want to share their personal belongings and financial assets. Without a will, the state decides what goes to whom. Lastly, a will must name an executor.
  2. Beneficiaries. Review your beneficiary designations when you create your will, because you don’t want your will and designations (on life insurance policies and investments) telling two different stories. If there’s an issue, the beneficiary designation overrides the will. All accounts with a beneficiary listed automatically avoid probate court.
  3. Trust. Created by an experienced estate planning attorney, a trust has some excellent benefits, particularly if you have young children. Everything in a trust is shielded from probate court, including property. This avoids court fees and hassle. A trust also provides some flexibility and customization to your plan. You can instruct that your children get a sum of money at 18, 25 or 30, and you can say that the money is for school, among other conditions. The trustee will distribute funds, according to your instructions.
  4. Power of Attorney and Health Care Proxy. These are two separate documents, but they’re both used in the event of incapacitation. Their power of attorney and health care proxy designees can make important financial and medical decisions, when you’re incapable of doing so.
  5. Life Insurance. Most people don’t think about purchasing life insurance, until they have children. Therefore, if you haven’t thought about it, you’re not alone. If you are among the few who bought a policy pre-child, consider increasing the amount so your child is covered, if something should happen.

Reference: ThinkAdvisor (March 7, 2019) “5 Legacy Planning Basics for New Parents”

Why Is a Revocable Trust So Valuable in Estate Planning?

There’s quite a bit that a revocable trust can do to solve big estate planning problems for many families.

As Forbes explains in its recent article, “Revocable Trusts: The Swiss Army Knife Of Financial Planning,” trusts are a critical component of a proper estate plan. There are three parties to a trust: the owner of some property (settler or grantor) turns it over to a trusted person or organization (trustee) under a trust arrangement to hold and manage for the benefit of someone (the beneficiary). A written trust document will spell out the terms of the arrangement.

One of the most useful trusts is a revocable trust (inter vivos) where the grantor creates a trust, funds it, manages it by herself, and has unrestricted rights to the trust assets (corpus). The grantor has the right at any point to revoke the trust, by simply tearing up the document and reclaiming the assets, or perhaps modifying the trust to accomplish other estate planning goals.

Revocable Trust
A Revocable Trust is one of the most useful estate planning tools

After discussing trusts with your attorney, he or she will draft the trust document and re-title property to the trust. The grantor has unrestricted rights to the property and assets transferred to a revocable trust and can be reclaimed at any time. During the life of the grantor, the trust provides protection and management, if and when it’s needed.

Let’s examine the potential lifetime and estate planning benefits that can be incorporated into the trust:

  • Lifetime Benefits. If the grantor is unable or uninterested in managing the trust, the grantor can hire an investment advisor to manage the account in one of the major discount brokerages, or he can appoint a trust company to act for him.
  • Incapacity. A trusted spouse, child, or friend can be named to care for and represent the needs of the grantor/beneficiary. They will manage the assets during incapacity, without having to declare the grantor incompetent and petitioning for a guardianship. After the grantor has recovered, she can resume the duties as trustee.
  • Guardianship. This can be a stressful legal proceeding that makes the grantor a ward of the state. This proceeding can be expensive, public, humiliating, restrictive and burdensome. However, a well-drafted trust (along with powers of attorney) avoids this.

The revocable trust is a great tool for estate planning because it bypasses probate, which can mean considerably less expense, stress and time.

In addition to a trust, ask your attorney about the rest of your estate plan: a will, powers of attorney, medical directives and other considerations.

Any trust should be created by a very competent trust attorney, after a discussion about what you want to accomplish.

Reference: Forbes (February 20, 2019) “Revocable Trusts: The Swiss Army Knife Of Financial Planning”

What Parents of Minor Children Need to Know About Writing a Will?

Who wants to think about their own mortality? No one. However, it’s a fact of life. Failing to plan for your eventual passing by preparing a will — especially for parents of minor children — can result in issues for your loved ones. If you die without a will, it can mean conflict among your survivors, as they attempt to see how best to divide up your assets.

Naming a guardian is the most important thing you can do

Fatherly’s recent article, “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know” says that families can battle over big assets like cars to small assets like a collection of supposedly rare books. They can fight over anything and everything. So, remember to prepare and sign a last will and testament to dispose of your property the way you want.

Dying without a will means your estate will be disposed of according to the intestacy laws in your state. That could leave your loved ones in the lurch that you may have wanted to provide for. For instance, in some states, your spouse may only get half your estate, with the remainder going to your children.

Writing a will is essential, and you should not try to do it yourself. Instead, hire an experienced estate planning lawyer. Along with this, keep these items in mind.

Plan for Every Scenario. When doing your estate planning, consider the various scenarios and contingencies that can happen after you’re gone. A well prepared will includes when and where you want your assets to go. Be wise in how to distribute your assets, to whom they will be going and the timing.

Family Dynamics. You must be very specific when drafting up a will, especially if family circumstances are unique, such when there are children from previous marriages who aren’t legally adopted by a spouse. They could be disinherited. Work with an attorney to make sure they receive what you intend with specific details. If you and your partner aren’t legally married, your significant other could find himself or herself disinherited from your assets after you’re dead.

Designating Your Children’s Guardian. Naming a guardian is the single most important thing that parents of minor children can do.  If you don’t name a guardian for your children (in cases of either single parenthood or where both parents pass away), the state will determine who will raise your children.

Specificity. Your will is a chance to say who gets what. If you want your brother to get the baseball card collection, you should write it down in your will or it’s not enforceable. In some states, including Florida, you can attach a written list of these personal items to your will.

Health Care. Begin planning your will when you’re healthy so that, in the event of disaster, you will have a financial power of attorney and a health care agent in place. If you become too ill to make decisions yourself, you’ll need to appoint someone to make those decisions for you.

Rules for Parents of Minors. Minors can own property, but they’ll have no control over it until they turn 18. If parents leave their home to their minor child, the surviving spouse will have issues if they want to sell it. Likewise, if a child is named the beneficiary of a life insurance policy, IRA, or 401(k), those assets will go into a protected account.

Don’t Do It Yourself. This cannot be over-emphasized. It’s tempting to create a will from a generic form online. But this may be a recipe for disaster. If your will is drafted poorly, your family will suffer the consequences. Generic forms found online are just that—generic. Families are not generic. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to help you address your unique family needs.

Visit the Mastry Law website for a free copy of our report A Parent’s Guide to Protecting Your Children Through Estate Planning.

Reference: Fatherly (February 6, 2019) “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know”

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