Will

When Should I Review My Estate Plan?

As life changes, you need to periodically review your estate-planning documents and discuss your situation with your estate planning attorney.

WMUR’s recent article, “Money Matters: Reviewing your estate plan,” says a common question is “When should I review my documents?”

Estate Plan Review
You should review your estate plan each time a major life event occurs or every 5 years, whichever comes first.

Every few years is the quick answer, but a change in your life may also necessitate a review. Major life events can be related to a marriage, divorce, or death in the family; a substantial change in estate size; a move to another state and/or acquisition of property in another state; the death of an executor, trustee or guardian; the birth or adoption of children or grandchildren; retirement; and a significant change in health, to name just a handful.

When you conduct your review, consider these questions:

  • Does anyone in your family have special needs?
  • Do you have any children from a previous marriage?
  • Is your choice of executor, guardian, or trustee still okay?
  • Do you have a valid living will, durable power of attorney for health care, or a do-not-resuscitate to manage your health care, if you’re not able to do so?
  • Do you need to plan for Medicaid?
  • Are your beneficiary designations up to date on your retirement plans, annuities, payable-on-death bank accounts and life insurance?
  • Do you have charitable intentions and if so, are they mentioned in your documents?
  • Do you own sufficient life insurance?

In addition, review your digital presence and take the necessary efforts to protect your online information, after your death or if you’re no longer able to act.

It may take a little time, effort, and money to review your documents, but doing so helps ensure your intentions are properly executed. Your planning will help to protect your family during a difficult time.

Reference: WMUR (January 24, 2019) “Money Matters: Reviewing your estate plan”

Why You Need to Review Your Estate Plan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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 These Three Estate Planning Documents In 2019

These may not be the first things you are thinking about as we launch into a brand-new year, but the idea is not to wait until you’re not thinking clearly or when it’s too late and you don’t have what you need to protect yourself, your family and your property. The details, from the Fox Business news article, “3 financial documents everyone needs,” are straightforward. Put this on your to-do list today.

A Will. The essential function of a will is to ensure that your wishes are carried out, when you are no longer alive. It’s not just for rich people. Everyone should have a will. It can include everything from your financial assets to life insurance, family heirlooms, artwork and any real estate property.

A will can also be used to protect your business, provide for charities and ensure lifelong care for your pets.

If you have children, a will is especially important. Your will is used to name a guardian for your minor children. Otherwise, the state will decide who should raise your children.

Your will is also used to name your executor (referred to as the Personal Representative in Florida). That is the person who has the legal responsibility for making sure your financial obligations are honored and your assets are distributed according to your wishes. Without an executor, the state will appoint a person to handle those tasks.

An Advanced Medical Directive. What would happen if you became ill or injured and could not make medical decisions for yourself? An advanced medical directive and health care proxy are the documents you need to assign the people you want to make decisions on your behalf. The advanced medical directive, also called a living will, explains your wishes for care, including end-of-life care. The healthcare proxy appoints a person to make healthcare decisions for you. As long as you have legal capacity, these documents aren’t used, but once they are needed, you and your family will be glad they are in place.

A Durable Power of Attorney. This document is used to name someone who will make financial decisions if you are not able to do so. Be careful to name a person you trust implicitly to make good decisions on your behalf. That may be a family member, an adult child or an attorney.

Once you’ve had these documents prepared as part of your estate plan they documents should be reviewed and updated every now and then. Life changes, laws change and what was a great tax strategy at one point may not be effective, if there’s a change to the law. Your estate planning attorney will help create and update your estate plan.

Reference: Fox Business (Dec. 19, 2018) “3 financial documents everyone needs”

Here’s Why You Need a Will

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Do I Need to Do To Get Financially Fit in My 30s?

Whether you’re 30 or 39, retirement will come up faster than you think. Many people are surprised when they see how much they need to put away to keep their current standard of living in retirement.

Once you decide when you want to retire, you need to calculate how much money you’ll need and how you’ll get there. Of course, you should take advantage of company matching and various tax deductions, when saving for retirement. But, don’t wait until your 40s or 50s to try to catch up. That will be painful, or worse, impossible.

Forbes’s recent article, “3 Steps To Financial Fitness In Your Thirties,” advises that when you start to accumulate wealth, be sure someone is watching your investments and that those investments are suitable for your time frames and financial goals.

Working with a fiduciary advisor can help improve your situation. This should be someone you trust, and most important of all, who you feel has your best interests at heart.

If you are accumulating assets, make sure they’re protected. Be certain you and your family are covered by having the correct insurance policies. Of course, in a perfect world nothing would happen. For instance, most people on disability would much rather be healthy. They’d love to be able to joke and say that having that disability insurance was a “bad investment”. However, those who are disabled and aren’t covered with a disability insurance policy, most likely wish they’d made sure they had this income protection in place.

Another form of protection is an emergency fund. If you don’t have one, start by regularly putting some amount of money into a non-retirement account. Even if it’s a small amount, something is better than nothing. If you were to be laid off, chances are that your unemployment benefits would not be enough to pay the rent or make a mortgage payment.

If you’re single, you should protect yourself—even more so than someone who has a partner to rely on. Many life insurance policies have living benefits that can protect you, if an emergency happens.  You may also be able to use cash value life insurance to partially fund your retirement.

Finally, it’s critical that you think about estate planning. You should have an estate plan, including a will, Powers of Attorney, health care power of attorney and, if you have minor children, a guardian should be named in your will.

Let’s say you’re living with someone. If something happens to either of you, the living partner will most likely be treated as a roommate—and have no legal rights to your property. An estate plan can be prepared to provide your partner with legal protection.

Reference: Forbes (December 17, 2018) “3 Steps To Financial Fitness In Your Thirties”

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”

Here’s a Happy Way to Start the New Year – A Gift of Estate Planning

If you think of estate planning as a gift to your loved ones, and not an obligation, then you will understand why the start of a new year is the perfect time to give your family the peace of mind that an estate plan can bring. The article “Give the gift of estate planning to loved ones this holiday season” from the Brainerd Dispatch describes how stress and guilt for the family can be alleviated just by having a good estate plan in place.

Your estate plan will provide your family with clear directions on where you want your assets to go when you have passed, but that’s just for starters. They will be dealing with many moving parts when you pass: funeral arrangements, notifying family members and grief, which can be overwhelming.

If you don’t have a will or haven’t done any planning, the process for your family to gain access to your assets becomes extremely problematic. The process is called probate, and it can take months and cost a great deal to unlock real estate ownership, account information or other assets for your spouse, children and grandchildren.

There’s also no way to ensure that your assets will be distributed as you wanted, if you do not have a will or an estate plan. Let’s say you have a non-traditional family. You’ve lived with your partner for decades, even raised children together, but never married. Your partner and your children may find themselves completely without any voice in your estate, and no right to any assets. Without a will, the state’s laws will determine who receives your assets, and that may be a sibling or a parent, if still living.

Your estate plan becomes your legacy, and it’s not just for family members. If there are causes or organizations that have meaning for you, they can be included in your estate plan. Lifetime giving or giving “with warm hands” is rewarding, because you get to see the impact of your generosity. However, you can use an estate plan to make a gift to an organization, which serves a dual purpose. It decreases the value of your estate, and can lessen the tax burden of your estate, giving your family more money.

There are many ways to make planned giving part of your estate. Donor advised funds are increasingly popular, or you may want to use a charitable trust or fund a scholarship. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you determine the best way to structure your giving.

An experienced estate planning attorney has worked with families of all different types and will have the knowledge and skills to help you create an estate plan that works best for your family. The attorney will also encourage you to talk with your family members to make sure they know that you have put a plan into place. You may wish to have a family meeting with your estate planning attorney, to ensure that everyone understands why you made the decisions you did and ensure that the family understands that your estate plan is a gift from the heart.

Reference: Brainerd Dispatch (Dec. 8, 2018) “Give the gift of estate planning to loved ones this holiday season”

Can I Disinherit a Family Member?

This is never a decision to be made lightly, but we do live in a world where families aren’t always as perfect as their holiday cards. Some blended families never really blend, opioid addictions create huge challenges for families and some individuals are family in name only. In that case, says Next Avenue in the article “How to Disinherit a Family Member,” you may choose to disinherit someone.

The first step is to work with an experienced estate planning attorney, who practices in your state. This is a complicated process, and if you don’t do it right, it’s entirely possible the person you want to disinherit can appeal your action in court after you’ve died—and win.

A living trust may work better than passing all your assets through a will, when you want to disinherit someone. A will is easier to challenge. He or she may say you were being influenced by someone else when you had your will written, and, therefore, the disinheritance does not reflect your real wishes.  They could also claim that you signed the will without understanding what you were signing, and that you were not mentally competent and could not make legal decisions at that time. This is a charge of fraud.

After you die, your will becomes a public document, and anyone can find out who you decided to disinherit. They may be angry or embarrassed and feel the need to set the record straight, challenging your will to prove their worth.

A living trust, when prepared correctly, remains a totally private document. In some states—check with your estate planning attorney—it can only be challenged by the beneficiaries of the trust.

There can always be charges of fraud, as a result of your being mentally incompetent to sign the trust. However, most people who create living trusts do so several years before their death. Wills are often written or revised shortly before death. Therefore, the person who created the trust has likely opened accounts in the name of the trust, used the accounts, paid bills, etc. That activity makes it hard to prove incompetence.

What if you want to leave someone only a partial inheritance? Your best bet is to ensure that your estate includes a strong “No Contest” provision, technically termed “In Terrorem.” It’s a little harsh, but the general idea is that whoever challenges the will, gets nothing. Courts don’t always like it, but heirs may think twice about challenging your will.

Remember that many of your assets are in accounts with beneficiary designations: IRAs, SEPs, investment accounts, life insurance policies, etc. Review the names on your accounts to make sure the person you want to disinherit does not appear on those accounts. You can also use Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) on accounts to keep that “disinherited” person from knowing about assets moved to other heirs outside of your will.

Blended families face unique challenges. Friction between stepparents and stepchildren can explode, when one parent dies and the second spouse is left without the other parent as a buffer. Tensions that were kept under the surface, may bubble up quickly. Make sure that all the children know what your plans are for your estate, to avoid breaking up the blended family.

Disinheriting someone, for whatever reason, can create hard feelings that remain for generations. If you feel you have no choice, speak with your estate planning attorney to be sure it’s done correctly and lessen the chances of any challenges.

Reference: Next Avenue (Dec. 11, 2018) “How to Disinherit a Family Member”

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