Wills

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”

Complete Your Financial Plan with Estate Planning

Here at Mastry Law we’ve always referred to estate planning as the final piece of your financial planning puzzle.  If you are among those who haven’t put together a basic estate plan, you should make every effort to accomplish this in 2019. Your family and friends will thank you.

The Minneapolis Star-Tribune’s recent article, “No financial plan is complete without a basic estate plan” reports that, while Americans are living longer, it was emphasized in a session at the American Society on Aging’s 2019 conference in New Orleans that 56% of Americans don’t have a will.

Estate Planning is the final piece of your financial planning puzzle.

The basic list isn’t particularly daunting. Talk to an experienced estate planning lawyer to create a will to get your affairs in order.

You should also sign a health care directive and a durable power of attorney. It is also important to decide where you want to be buried or cremated.

You should discuss your late-life goals and desires with your family, relatives and close friends. This gives everyone a better idea about your values and thinking. An estate plan makes things much less stressful on your family.

Many people want to leave at least some money to their loved ones. However, instead of waiting for death to pass on assets, more people are now deciding to “give while living.”

For example, grandparents can help to fund their grandchildren’s education expenses. Nearly two-thirds of people 50 years and older are giving some financial support to family members, according to a survey by the financial services firm Merrill Lynch and demographic consulting firm Age Wave.

Since you are already thinking about your life while devising an estate plan, it is important to understand that far more valuable than your money and assets is your accumulated experience, knowledge and skills. You can tap into your experience later in life to help others succeed.  Your experience and judgment can help family members decide how to have both purpose and a paycheck.

Perhaps you can serve as a mentor for those in your community in areas where you have some expertise?

The desire to leave our families with a legacy is powerful. Don’t leave them without an estate plan.  Remember that giving of our experience can make a significant difference to the community around us.

Reference: Minneapolis Star-Tribune (May 4, 2019) “No financial plan is complete without a basic estate plan”

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”

Common Mistakes with Beneficiary Designations

Questions about beneficiary designations are among the most common we hear from new clients in our law practice.  This is a topic that should be among those discussed by an estate planning attorney during your first meeting.

Many people don’t understand that their will doesn’t control who inherits all of their assets when they pass away. Some of a person’s assets pass by beneficiary designation. That’s accomplished by completing a form with the company that holds the asset and naming who will inherit the asset, upon your death.

Estate Planning Attorney
Assets with a beneficiary designation will not be distributed according to your will.

Kiplinger’s recent article, “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid,” explains that assets including life insurance, annuities and retirement accounts (think 401(k)s, IRAs, 403bs and similar accounts) all pass by beneficiary designation. Many financial companies also let you name beneficiaries on non-retirement accounts, known as TOD (transfer on death) or POD (pay on death) accounts.

Naming a beneficiary can be a good way to make certain your family will get assets directly. However, these beneficiary designations can also cause a host of problems. Make sure that your beneficiary designations are properly completed and given to the financial company, because mistakes can be costly. The article looks at five critical mistakes to avoid when dealing with your beneficiary designations:

  1. Failing to name a beneficiary. Many people never name a beneficiary for their retirement accounts. If you don’t name a beneficiary for retirement accounts, the financial company has it owns rules about where the assets will go after you die. For retirement benefits, if you’re married, your spouse will most likely get the assets. If you’re single, the retirement account will likely be paid to your estate, which has negative tax ramifications and may need to be handled through the costly and time-consuming probate courts. When an estate is the beneficiary of a retirement account, the assets must be paid out of the retirement account within five years of death. This means an acceleration of the deferred income tax—which must be paid earlier, than would have otherwise been necessary.
  2. Failing to consider special circumstances. Not every person should receive an asset directly. These are people like minors, those with specials needs, or people who can’t manage assets or who have creditor issues. Minor children aren’t legally competent, so they can’t claim the assets. A court-appointed conservator will claim and manage the money, until the minor turns 18. Those with special needs who get assets directly, will lose government benefits because once they receive the inheritance directly, they’ll own too many assets to qualify. People with financial issues or creditor problems can lose the asset through mismanagement or debts. Ask your estate planning attorney about creating a trust to be named as the beneficiary.
  3. Designating the wrong beneficiary. Sometimes a person will complete beneficiary designation forms incorrectly. For example, there can be multiple people in a family with similar names, and the beneficiary designation form may not be specific. People also change their names in marriage or divorce. Assets owners can also assume a person’s legal name that can later be incorrect. These mistakes can result in delays in payouts, and in a worst-case scenario of two people with similar names, can mean litigation.
  4. Failing to update your beneficiaries. Since there are life changes (like marriage and divorce for example), make sure your beneficiary designations are updated on a regular basis.
  5. Failing to review beneficiary designations with your estate planning attorney. Beneficiary designations are part of your overall financial and estate plan. Speak with your estate planning attorney to determine the best approach for your specific situation.

Beneficiary designations are designed to make certain that you have the final say over who will get your assets when you die. Take the time to carefully and correctly choose your beneficiaries and periodically review those choices and make the necessary updates to stay in control of your money.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 5, 2019) “Beneficiary Designations: 5 Critical Mistakes to Avoid”

What Happens When Unmarried Couples Don’t Have Wills?

Estate planning for unmarried couples is even more important than for married couples.

There can be serious problems when people live together without the benefit of marriage. One is that they don’t have any legal right to make medical decisions for each other. Another is that without any will or estate plan in place, the surviving partner has no legal right to any of the decedent’s property. That’s just for starters, explains the article “Longtime unmarried couple hasn’t planned for future” from the Santa Cruz Sentinel.

The unmarried couple may be pleased with their decision to live on their own terms.  However, by not creating an estate plan an unmarried couple is creating unnecessary difficulty for their loved ones. The children and grandchildren of the couple are likely going to end up having to sort out the mess, after one of the couple dies. They may end up in court, battling over the house or other assets.

If the couple wants their property to end up in the hands of their children when they pass away, having no estate plan is not the way to make that happen. When one spouse dies, any assets they own in joint tenancy will go to the surviving partner. When the surviving partner passes, those assets will go to their children, and nothing will be passed to the other family.

The surviving partner will have no legal right to the assets of the deceased partner, other than any that have been titled to joint tenancy. There is no community property between cohabitating couples, unless they have registered as domestic partners. This is how the law works in California, and every state has its own rules. Assets owned by the deceased partner that are titled in his or her name only, belong to the decedent’s probate estate and will pass to their children. If the gentleman dies first, in this example, will his companion be left homeless?

This is a situation that can be easily remedied with thoughtful estate planning for unmarried couples by creating wills and trusts that clearly spell out how they want their assets to be distributed upon death. There are many different ways to make this happen, but they will need to work with an estate planning attorney. Where the surviving non-homeowner will live after the homeowner dies is a serious issue, unless other plans have been made. One way to do this is to leave a life estate in the home in his will, or by creating a trust that holds the home for her use. When the survivor passes away, the home can then pass to the homeowner’s children. In that case, a series of agreements about how the home will be maintained may need to be created.

Taking the time and making the investment in an estate plan, is for the benefit of the individual and the family. An indifferent attitude about the future is hurtful to those who are left behind.

Reference: Santa Cruz Sentinel (April 7, 2019) “Longtime unmarried couple hasn’t planned for future”

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”

Scroll to Top