Probate

How to Use Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations

A will is a very important part of your estate plan, but it’s not the only tool in your estate planning toolbox, explains the article “Protecting Your Assets: Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations” from The Street. Because the will goes through probate, wills control assets that are in your name only, and if you don’t have a will, the laws of your state will determine who receives your assets. Beneficiary Designations

As an alternative to a will and probate, some people name their children as beneficiaries for assets. Sometimes this can work, but it’s not always the best solution.

Here’s an example. A family includes two spouses and three children. They own a house, a bank account, IRAs and life insurance policies. The spouses have individual wills, leaving everything to each other and equally to their children upon both of their deaths.

The wills also state that, if a child predeceases them, that child’s share goes to the child’s children. This is known as “per stirpes,” and means that the child’s share of the parent’s estate is passed to the next generation. The spouses also list each other as joint owners and beneficiaries and then their children as contingent beneficiaries on all of their financial accounts. Then the husband dies.

His will does not come into play, because his wife was listed on everything as a joint owner, so all of the assets pass to her. Then the wife dies. The will won’t come into play here either, since all of her living children were named as beneficiaries. If the wife had signed a quit claim deed, giving the children ownership of the family home, before she died, the will and probate are bypassed altogether.

However, it’s never so simple. What if the adult daughter was on the bank account and she is sued? The assets are now vulnerable to the party suing her. If she files for bankruptcy, the assets could be attached by the bankruptcy court. If she gets divorced, they are marital assets and could be taken by her spouse.

This arrangement becomes more complicated when people attempt workarounds, like putting the good son who isn’t yet married and takes excellent care of his finances as the sole beneficiary. If the parents die and the son is the only beneficiary, there’s no law that says he has to share his inheritance with his siblings. This scenario is likely to lead to litigation and lasting family discord.

If you need another situation to convince you of the perils of alternatives to using a will, try remarriage.

If the wife dies and the husband remarries, he may want to leave his assets to his new wife. However, then when she dies, he wants his estate to go to his children. What if he dies and she decides she doesn’t want to name his children as beneficiaries on the accounts that she now owns? She is well within her legal rights to put her own children on the accounts, and when she dies, the husband’s children will get nothing.

People with the best intentions often create terrible financial and legal situations for loved ones that could easily be avoided, by simply working with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan and making sure beneficiary designations have not been overlooked.

Reference: The Street (Oct. 30, 2020) “Protecting Your Assets: Joint Accounts and Beneficiary Designations”

Zappos CEO had No Will and That Is a Mistake

Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh, who built the giant online retailer Zappos based on “delivering happiness,” died at age 46 from complications of smoke inhalation from a house fire. He left an estate worth an estimated $840 million and no will, according to the article “Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died without a will, reports say. Here’s why you should plan for your own death” from CNBC. Zappos CEO

Without a will or an estate plan, his family will never know exactly how he wanted his estate to be distributed. The family has asked a judge to name Hsieh’s father and brother as special administrators of his estate.

How can someone with so much wealth not have an estate plan? Hsieh probably thought he had plenty of time to “get around to it.” However, we never know when we are going to pass away, and unexpected accidents and illnesses happen all the time.

Why would someone who is not wealthy need to have an estate plan? It is even more important when there are fewer assets to be distributed. When a person dies with no will, the family may be faced with unexpected and overwhelming expenses.

Putting an estate plan in place, including a will, power of attorney and health care proxy, makes it far easier for a family that might otherwise become ensnared in fights about what their loved one might have wanted.

An estate plan is about making things easier for your loved ones, as much as it is about distributing your assets.

What Does a Will Do? A will is the document that explains who you want to receive your assets when you die. It can be extremely specific, detailing what items you wish to leave to an individual, or more general, saying that your surviving spouse should get everything.

If you have no will, state statutes determine who receives your assets, and if you have minor children, the court will decide who will be appointed as the guardian to raise your children.

Some assets pass outside the will, including accounts with beneficiary designations. That can include tax deferred retirement accounts, life insurance policies and property owned jointly. The person named as the beneficiary will receive the assets in the accounts, regardless of what your will says. The law requires your current spouse to receive the assets in your 401(k) account, unless your spouse has signed a document that agrees otherwise.

If there are no beneficiaries listed on these non-will items, or if the beneficiary is deceased and there is no contingent beneficiary, then those assets automatically go into probate. The process can take months or a year or more under state law, depending on how complicated your estate is.

Naming an Executor. Part of making a will includes selecting a person who will carry out your instructions—the executor. This can be a big responsibility, depending upon the size and complexity of the estate. They are in charge of making sure assets go to beneficiaries, paying outstanding debts, paying taxes for you and your estate and even selling your home if necessary. Select someone who is trustworthy, reliable and good with finances.

Your estate plan should also include a power of attorney for someone to handle financial and legal affairs, if you become incapacitated. An advance health-care directive, or living will, is used to explain your wishes, if you are being kept alive by life support. Otherwise, your loved ones will not know if you want to be kept alive or if you would prefer to be allowed to pass away.

Having an estate plan is a kindness to your family. Don’t wait until it’s too late to take care of it.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 3, 2020) “Former Zappos CEO Tony Hsieh died without a will, reports say. Here’s why you should plan for your own death”

Is Probate Required If There Is a Surviving Spouse?

Probate, also called “estate administration,” is the management and final settlement of a person’s estate after they pass away. It is conducted by an executor, also known as a personal representative, who is nominated in the will and approved by the court. Estate administration needs to be done when there are assets subject to probate, regardless of whether there is a will, says the article “Probating your spouse’s will” from The Huntsville Item.

Probate is the formal process of administering a person’s estate. In the absence of a will, probate also establishes heirship. In some regions, this is a quick and easy process, while in others it is a lengthy, complex and expensive process. The complexity depends upon the size and value of the estate, whether a proper estate plan was prepared by the decedent prior to death and if there are family members or others who might contest the will.

Family dynamics can cause a tremendous amount of complications and delays, especially if the family has blended children from prior marriages or if a child has predeceased their parents.

There are some exceptions, when the estate is extremely small and when probate is not required. However, in most cases, it is required.

A recent District Court case ruled that a will not admitted to probate is not effective for proving title and thereby ownership, to real estate. A title company was sued for defamation after the title company issued a title report that included the statement that the decedent had died intestate, that is, without a will.

The decedent’s son, who was her executor, sued the title company because his mother did indeed have a will and the title report was defamatory. The court rejected this theory, and the case was brought to the Appellate Court to seek relief for the family. The Appellate Court ruled that until a will has been admitted to probate, it is not effective for the purpose of proving title to real property.

If a person owns real estate, they must have an estate plan to ensure that their property can be successfully transferred to heirs. When there is no estate plan, heirs find out how big a problem this can be when someone decides they want to sell the property or divide it up among family members.

Problems also arise when the family finds that they must pay taxes on the property or that there are expenses that must be paid to maintain the property. Without a will, the disposition of the property is determined by the state’s estate law. Things can become complicated quickly, when there is no will.

If the deceased spouse has children from outside the most recent marriage, those children may have rights to the property and end up owning a portion of the property along with the surviving spouse. However, neither the children nor the surviving spouse can sell the property without each other’s approval. This is a common occurrence.

An estate planning attorney can help the family move through the probate process more efficiently when there is no will. A better situation would be for the family to speak with their parents about having a will and estate plan created before it’s too late.

Reference: The Huntsville Item (Nov. 22, 2020) “Probating your spouse’s will”

How Does Probate Affect Real Estate Transactions?

For a family whose 91-year-old mother lives in her home, has a will and has appointed two sisters as Power of Attorney and executors of her estate, the question of handling the transfer of the home is explored in a recent article from the Herald Tribune, “Transfer title now or go through probate in the future?”

The family wasn’t sure if it made more sense to transfer the title to her two daughters and son while she was still living, or let the children handle the transfer as part of the probated estate. The brother may wish to purchase the home after the mother passes, as he lives with his mother.

Probate can have an affect on real estate transactions

If nothing is done, the house will be part of the probated estate. A case will have to be opened, a representative will be appointed by the court (usually the personal representative named in the will) and then the personal representative can sell assets in the estate, close accounts and deal with the IRS and the Social Security Administration. The probate process can be time-consuming and expensive, depending on where the mother lives.

There are a number of steps that could be taken to simplify things. The mom’s assets can be held jointly, so they pass to the surviving owner, or a trust can be created, and her assets be titled to the trust, so they pass automatically to beneficiaries.

Depending on the state’s laws, the children might be able to use a Life Estate Deed or an Enhanced Life Estate Deed that would let the property transfer automatically to heirs upon the mother’s death. The siblings then inherit the property at the stepped-up value.

Here’s another question to consider: how does the cost of setting up trusts and transfer on death deeds compare to the estimated cost of probating the estate?

This family, and others in the same situation, should speak with an estate planning attorney to evaluate their options. The siblings in this case need to clarify whether their brother wants to buy the house and if he is able to do so. The mom then needs to make a decision, while she is still able to do so, because after all, it’s still her home.

Reference: Herald-Tribune (Nov. 7, 2020) “Transfer title now or go through probate in the future?”

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”

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”

There Is a Difference between Probate and Trust Administration

Many people get these two things confused. A recent article, “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration,” from Lake County News clarifies the distinctions.

Let’s start with probate, which is a court-supervised process. To begin the probate process, a legal notice must be published in a newspaper and court appearances may be needed. However, to start trust administration, a letter of notice is mailed to the decedent’s heirs and beneficiaries. Trust administration is far more private, which is why many people chose this path.

In the probate process, the last will and testament and most other documents in the court file are available to the public. While the general public may not have any specific interest in your will, estranged relatives, relatives you never knew you had, creditors and scammers have easy and completely legal access to this information.

If there is no will, the court documents that are created in intestacy (the heirs inherit according to state law), are also available to anyone who wants to see them.

In trust administration, the only people who can see trust documents are the heirs and beneficiaries.

There are cost differences. In probate, a court filing fee must be paid for each petition, plus the newspaper publication fee. The fees vary, depending upon the jurisdiction. Add to that the attorney’s and personal representative’s fees, which also vary by jurisdiction. Some are on an hourly basis, while others are computed as a sliding scale percentage of the value of the estate under management. For example, each may be paid 4% of the first $100,000, 3% of the next $100,000 and 2% of any excess value of the estate under management. The court also has the discretion to add fees, if the estate is more time consuming and complex than the average estate.

For trust administration, the trustee and the estate planning attorney are typically paid on an hourly basis, or however the attorney sets their fee structure. Expenses are likely to be far lower, since there is no court involvement.

There are similarities between probate and trust administration. Both require that the decedent’s assets be collected, safeguarded, inventoried and appraised for tax and/or distribution purposes. Both also require that the decedent’s creditors be notified, and debts be paid. Tax obligations must be fulfilled, and the debts and administration expenses must be paid. Finally, the decedent’s beneficiaries must be informed about the estate and its administration.

The use of trusts in estate planning can be a means of minimizing taxes and planning for family assets to be passed to future generations in a private and controlled fashion. This is the reason for the popularity of trusts in estate planning.

Reference: Lake County News (July 4, 2020) “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration”

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