What Happens When Unmarried Couples Don’t Have Wills?

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 couple may be pleased with their decision to live on their own terms.  However, by refusing to plan for the inevitable, they are creating an 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 unmarried 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 partner 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 unmarried 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 an estate plan, 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 she dies, the home can then pass to his 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 Are Some Good Tips for Business Succession Planning in The Internet Age?

When considering how to make sure your business continues to thrive, it’s important to remember that if you do nothing, your business already has a default plan in place: if no additional planning is done, your business is an asset of your estate and will be subject to probate.

Forbes’ article, “Business Succession Planning In The Internet Age,” says that there are a few issues with this default plan. First, it can take years for a court to probate your estate. In that time, your business can dry up, when probate is finalized. Next, if you do not have an estate plan, your heirs may fight over who will inherit the business. Whoever inherits the business under the state’s intestate succession laws may also not be the best person to make sure your business will continue to grow and be successful. Finally, if you have co-owners, they might not like your heirs and could get into disputes with the new owners that harm the business.

There are two legal tools to look at when reviewing your options: a buy-sell agreement and good estate planning.

A Buy-Sell Agreement. This is a contract between the co-owners of a company that addresses a variety of business-changing events, such as when an owner dies. Rather than the deceased owner’s equity being a part of the assets distributed during probate, the buy-sell agreement can include an agreed-upon amount that will be paid to the estate, in exchange for the business repurchasing the equity. The purchase is often financed with a life insurance policy on each owner of the business.

Estate Planning. Instead of allowing your business to be subject to probate, a business owner can work with an estate planning attorney to make the business an asset of the owner’s trust.

With either option, be sure you note the important digital assets for the continued operation of your business. Your business’s digital assets may include customer lists, intellectual property, and creative products. It is important to remember these tips on considering your digital assets:

  1. Understand the policies that impact your tools. Review your software provider’s policies on what happens if your company needs to name a new point of contact, pay bills differently, or be transferred to a different company, in case the unexpected happens.
  2. Security and redundancy. A company’s success requires owners and employees to keep proprietary information and client information secure. However, the concern for safety must be balanced with redundancy that considers which people will have access to digital assets and an understanding of what to do with them, if the owner or main management team is unable to tend to business as usual.
  3. Add digital assets in legal documents. Include an inventory of digital assets in your buy-sell agreement or estate plan. Be specific about who should get access to digital assets.

Creating a detailed plan as to who should have access to your business’s digital assets in case of your incapacitation or death, is an important part of succession planning.

Reference: Forbes (April 8, 2019) “Business Succession Planning In The Internet Age”

 

Should I Try Using a DIY Will Online?

Although using a DIY site to draft a will can save money and time, sometimes doing it this way could lead to expensive and unpleasant estate planning mistakes.

Next Avenue’s article, “The Problems With Do-It-Yourself Online Wills” reported that one DIY estate planning service had typos on its site, and its estate-planning “packages” had the same document labeled with three different names. Even worse, some of these packages were missing a key estate planning document about which very few users would know to ask.

Many DIY estate planning sites have attorneys on staff, but access to specific help for your personal documents is rarely available. If personal advice is offered, it may cost much more to get it.

It is true that many of us would prefer to fill in the blanks in silence, then have to talk to anyone about our doubts or concerns. However, sometimes it helps—a great deal—to get professional advice.

If you prepare your taxes yourself and they end up incorrect, you and the IRS may end up working things out. However, if you decide to do your estate planning by yourself, you will never know the results of your DIY handiwork. Your loved ones will. And it may not be pleasant.

You need to have customized estate planning documents to avoid court involvement, to decrease administrative issues and to know that the job is done. The four basic estate planning documents are a will, a trust, power of attorney for financial matters and an advance health care directive. If you use any of these on a DIY site, you’ll be offered a fill-in-the-blank approach. However, each state has its own probate code, and the software package you use may have different names for these documents.

Some DIY websites have all of these documents for you, but only if you purchase their higher-end packages. Some offer limited attorney consultation, but it can be just a set of drop-down of questions with pre-written responses, rather than an actual conversation with an attorney.

The benefit of using a DIY service is that you’ll have a plan, quickly and cheaply as possible—which may be better than having no plan at all. Many programs presume that you already know what you want. The reality is that many people have no clue what they want or need. When you get into the complexities of family dynamics, with legal terms specific to your state and situation, DIY estate planning can cause more challenges than working with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Next Avenue (March 29, 2019) “The Problems With Do-It-Yourself Online Wills”

 

How Do I Estate Plan for a Child with Special Needs?

Estate planning is important for everyone, but it’s even more crucial for a family with a child who has special needs. It’s difficult to create an estate plan for children with special needs, because you don’t know what type of care he will need, or the type of government benefits for which she’ll be eligible, when she turns 18. People frequently become overwhelmed about special needs planning, because they don’t have a clear picture of what their children will need in the future.

A recent Forbes article, “Special Needs Kids Require Specialized Estate Planning,” says that if you have a child with special needs, it’s critical that you look at your planning options with your estate planning attorney and discuss your child’s health, capabilities and prognosis. You can then customize a plan that works for your child, with as much flexibility as possible.

Those with enough assets often would rather not to have their child get any government benefits and will set aside an amount to cover all the child’s living expenses in trust. Since the parents aren’t concerned with government benefits, the trust can be a discretionary trust that will distribute income and principal at the trustee’s discretion for the benefit of the child throughout the child’s life.

If there is a good chance the child will get government benefits, many parents create special needs trust to supplement (not replace) the government benefits that the child will receive. The trust must be drafted, so the child doesn’t become ineligible for the government benefits. These benefits provide for the child’s basic needs like a place to live, so the special needs trust will defray the cost of extras such as trips and entertainment.

If the parents can’t determine if their child will be eligible for government benefits, another option is for the parents to give their current trustees the authority to create a separate special needs trust at the time of the surviving parent’s death. Therefore, if the child is receiving benefits, the trustee can create the trust at that time, with the goal of preserving the child’s benefits.

All these trusts can be funded now. The parents can establish the trust and transfer cash or other assets to it, or the trust can be created now and left empty until a parent passes away. At that point, money can move into the trust from the parent’s estate, another trust or from a life insurance policy.

Some parents elect not to create a trust for their child and to disinherit him completely. The thinking is that the child can be supported solely by government benefits. Others go with a combination approach. They disinherit the special needs child and leave more assets to their other children, with the understanding that the other children will care for the special needs child. However, this isn’t a great idea. The siblings have no legal obligation to care for his or her sibling with special needs, just a moral one. If the child who inherited the bulk of the estate gets divorced, the assets are also susceptible to division upon divorce. Finally, the assets are liable to a creditor’s claim, if the child is sued.

Estate planning for a child with special needs can be hard, so get a flexible plan in place that will provide peace of mind.

Reference: Forbes (March 27, 2019) “Special Needs Kids Require Specialized Estate Planning”

 

Why Should I Start a Roth IRA Now?

When you’re younger, contributing to an IRA sounds a bit crazy, making it that much easier to delay starting.

CNBC’s article, “The one thing no one tells you about investing in a Roth IRA,” says that what you almost never hear, is the regret retirees have that they didn’t start saving sooner. It’s wise to start investing as early as possible, so your investments will have more time to grow.

Millennials seem to really like Roth IRAs, which show an across-the-board increase in all age groups.

In looking at investor data, Fidelity concluded that more than 50% of IRA contributions go into Roth IRAs, especially from people age 23 to 38. Millennials opened 41% of new Roth IRA accounts in 2018, and 74% of their contribution dollars are going into Roth’s. These accounts are especially valuable when they’re the sole source of retirement savings.

For younger people, 30 or 40 years seems like a super long time to not be able to use that money.  However, because Roth contributions are made with after-tax dollars, that’s not a big concern.

The benefit is that you can use the contributions you’ve made without taxes or a penalty. You have to forfeit the immediate tax break, but you’ll receive something better in return: the contributions and years of earnings that will be tax-free in retirement.

Fidelity believes that this year millennials are estimated to be a larger population than boomers. Older millennials are in their 30s, stable in their careers and saving.

Since the IRS has upped IRA contribution limits, you can contribute $6,000 annually. If you are over age 50 and making catch-up contributions, you can add in an additional $1,000, for a total of $7,000 per year.

The income cutoff for contributing to a Roth IRA is $137,000 for single filers, up from $135,000 for single filers in 2018.

If you’re still unsure which type of IRA to choose, go with a traditional IRA, which has instant gratification because of the upfront tax refund. However, if you’re thinking long term, and what will be better for you and your family many years from now, select a Roth IRA. But make sure you ask your financial advisor what is best for your individual situation before making any financial decisions.

Reference: CNBC (March 31, 2019) “The one thing no one tells you about investing in a Roth IRA”

 

What’s the Best Way to Pass the Family Vacation Home to the Next Generation?

The generous exclusion that allows wealthy individuals to gift up to $11.4 million and not get hit with federal estate taxes, came from the Tax Cut and Jobs Act of 2017. However, it’s not expected to last forever, according to the article “What to Know When Gifting the Family Vacation Home” from Barron’s Penta. Those who can, may want to take advantage of this window to be extra-magnanimous before the exemption sunsets to about $5 million (adjusted for inflation) in 2025. The family vacation home is one of the assets that you may want to consider transferring to the next generation.

At issue for potentially giving, is that when someone transfers property, the recipients must account for it, according to the original price paid for the property. This is known as the basis. For example, shares of stock valued at $5 million today that were originally purchased for $1 million 10 years ago, would be subject to income taxes only on $4 million, if the recipient were to sell the stock.

The advice given to wealthy individuals is to make use of that higher estate tax exclusion while it’s still in place, and that may include property that they expect to gift to beneficiaries. The most likely asset would be the family vacation home, whether it’s a ski chalet or a beach house.

First, make sure your children want the property. There’s no sense going through all the processes unless they plan on enjoying the vacation home. Next, figure out the best way to gift the home, while making the most of the high exclusion.

A nice point: you won’t have to give up the use or control of the house during this process. Experts advise not making an outright gift. This can lead to less control or the loss of a share to a child’s spouse, in the event of a marital split.

Another option: transfer the property into a trust. There are several kinds that would work for this purpose. Another is to consider a Limited Liability Corporation, which also serves to protect the family’s assets against any claims if someone were to be injured on the property. The parents would transfer the property into the LLC and give children interests in the company.

A fairly common structure for vacation home ownership is called a Qualified Personal Residence Trust (QPRT). These are used by families who want to retain the right to continue using the home, usually for the rest of their lives. The property is transferred to the designated beneficiaries at death. If it is set up properly, a QPRT avoids any income or estate taxes.

A trust also lets an individual or a couple be very specific in how the property will be used, who can use it and any rules about how they want the home maintained. Making sure that a beloved family vacation home is well-cared for and not rented out for college parties, for instance, can provide a lot of comfort for a couple who have poured their hearts into creating a lovely vacation home.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to learn how you can take advantage of the current federal estate tax exemption to pass your family’s vacation home on to the next generation.

Reference: Barron’s Penta (March 31, 2019) “What to Know When Gifting the Family Vacation Home”

Spring is Financial Cleaning Season

It’s time to clean out, tidy up and purge our homes of things we don’t use, don’t need and haven’t worn in five years. This is also the season where we gather up all of our financial documents and do our taxes, says The Press Enterprise in the article “Add this to Kondo-spring cleaning list: Organize your finances.” While cleaning out paperwork may not feel as rewarding as piling up clothing to donate to a local charity, the time and energy saved will be appreciated in years to come.

Start by making a monthly payment schedule with company name, due date and amount due. Include estimated taxes, property taxes, insurance premiums and any other bills that you receive on a routine basis. Use this to help budget and plan for the coming year.

Set up electronic bill paying through your bank for recurring bills. You can make your mortgage payments, insurance and all predictable expenses occur automatically. Keep all paper bills that arrive by mail, like property tax and insurance premium notices, until they are paid.

Schedule a set time to pay your bills. That may be weekly, biweekly, or monthly, but make an appointment for yourself and stick to it. During this time, review your monthly payment schedule, review statements for accuracy, pay and then either file or toss.

Set up systems for your important documents. Don’t just stuff them in a file cabinet. Use a manual filing system, a three-ring binder, electronic scanning and storage or a combination of a few different methods. If you go all digital, make sure you have an encrypted and automatic back-up system.

If you don’t already have one, open a safe deposit box or purchase a highly-rated fireproof safe to store documents like birth certificates, marriage licenses, deeds, car registrations, estate planning documents and passports. Tell family members where these documents are located and provide instructions so they can be accessed in an emergency. In addition to yourself and your spouse, give a family member the ability to access your safe deposit box.

Consolidate your accounts. If you have more than one checking, savings, retirement or brokerage account, try to simplify your life by combining like accounts. Fewer accounts mean fewer statements, less paperwork and less hassle, when filing taxes.

The same goes for credit cards. If you can’t close cards because of outstanding balances, create a spreadsheet of outstanding balances, the interest rates you are paying and payment dates for each. Get serious about paying them off, attacking the ones with the highest interest rates first. Check your credit score before canceling any credit cards as the longevity of credit is a factor in your score.

If you haven’t reviewed your estate plan or your beneficiary designations, review all your accounts and estate planning documents. This is a good time to make an appointment with your estate planning attorney, especially if you haven’t reviewed your estate plan in three or four years.

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (March 30, 2019) “Add this to Kondo-spring cleaning list: Organize your finances”

What’s a Revival Trust?

Have you ever thought of having your body scientifically frozen when you die, on the chance you’ll be revived one day with cryonics? If it happens, you’ll need to have ready access to funds when you’re thawed.

There’s an estate planning answer for self-preservation called a revival trust, also known as a future income trust that can help.

Next Avenue’s recent article, “To Freeze Yourself at Death, There’s an Estate Planning Trust for That,” explains that a revival trust sets aside your assets, usually under supervision of an attorney, so if science progresses to the point that you can live a second time, you’ll have money for you to re-live on.

There are about 400 people that have been cryonically preserved, since the technology begin in the late 1960s. A total of 1,500 individuals have made arrangements to do so upon their death. There are two cryonics centers that do most of the freezing in America: the Cryonics Institute in Clinton Township, Michigan and the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Scottsdale, Arizona.

There is a bit of uncertainty about how a future IRS would view a revival trust. So far, the IRS hasn’t said if it would treat a revived person as his or her former self for tax purposes, or as a new taxpayer. In that scientific future, the issue could arise of “double taxation”: taxes imposed twice on the same income—first at preservation, then at revival.

One of the reasons futurists think about revival after a medical advancement is because at death, the body ceases to function as a whole, but some cells are still alive. They hope for a future world free of disease, death, and aging.

However, there’s one problem, which is that the preservation of a body requires toxic chemicals like sodium pentobarbital, Narcan, metocurine, SoluMedrol, potassium chloride and chlorpromazine. That creates a problem in how to dispose of the hazardous waste left over in the cryonics process.

Since a scientific breakthrough making revitalization possible may be decades or hundreds of years away (if ever), you should add a termination date on a revival trust and hold the document at a financial institution that has been around for some time.

Reference: Next Avenue (March 8, 2019) “To Freeze Yourself at Death, There’s an Estate Planning Trust for That”

How Do I Get My Mom’s Affairs in Order?

What can you do to make sure your mother’s financial affairs are in proper order?

The Monterey Herald’s recent article, “Financial planning: Making sure Mom is taken care of,” says to first make sure that she has her basic estate planning documents in place. She should have a will and an Advance Health Care Directive. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney to make sure these documents fully reflect your mother’s desires. An Advance Health Care Directive lets her name a person to make health care decisions on her behalf, if she becomes incapacitated. This decision-making authority is called a Power of Attorney for Health Care, and the person receiving the authority is known as the agent.

Based on the way in which the form is written, the agent can have broad authority, including the ability to consent to or refuse medical treatment, surgical procedures and artificial nutrition or hydration. The form also allows a person to leave instructions for health care, such as whether or not to be resuscitated, have life prolonged artificially, or to receive treatment to alleviate pain, even if it hastens death. To limit these instructions in any specific way, talk to an attorney.

Another option is to create a living trust, if the value of her estate is significant. In some states, (including California) estates worth more than a certain amount are subject to probate—a costly, lengthy and public process. Smaller value estates usually can avoid probate. When calculating the value of an estate, you can exclude several types of assets, including joint tenancy property, property that passes outright to a surviving spouse, assets that pass outside of probate to named beneficiaries (such as pensions, IRAs, and life insurance), multiple party accounts or pay on death (POD) accounts and assets owned in trust, including a revocable trust.  You should also conduct a full inventory of your parent’s accounts, including where they’re held and how they’re titled. Your parents should update the named beneficiaries on IRAs, retirement plans and life insurance policies.

Some adult children will have their parent name them as a joint owner on their checking account. This allows you greater flexibility to settle outstanding obligations, when she passes away. But, it is important not to put a large account in joint tenancy for tax reasons. Also, a joint owner automatically becomes the owner, on the other joint tenant’s death. Remember that a financial power of attorney won’t work here, because it will lapse upon your mother’s death. However, note that any asset held by joint owners are subject to the creditors of each joint owner. Do not add your daughter as a joint owner, if she has current or potential marital, financial, or legal problems!

You also shouldn’t put your name as a joint owner of a brokerage account—especially one with low-cost basis investments. One of the benefits of transferring wealth, is the step-up in cost basis assets receive at time of death. Being named as the joint owner of an account will give you control over the assets in the account—but you won’t get the step up in basis, when your mother passes.

Reference: Monterey Herald (March 20, 2019) “Financial planning: Making sure Mom is taken care of”

What You Need to Know, If the Next Generation Is Inheriting the Family Farm

Understanding the tax liabilities for inheriting, buying or being gifted the family farm, is critical to avoid a costly financial misstep, says Capital Press in the article “The family farm is coming to you: What’s next?” You’ll need to work closely with your estate planning attorney and CPA to make sure you understand the basis in the real estate, especially if the property is sold and taxes will need to be paid. How you inherit the property, makes a big difference in the tax bill.

If you receive the property as a gift from parents while they are alive, then you retain their income tax basis in the property. If they inherited it also, they likely have a low tax basis. Farms with a basis of $50,000 that are now worth $2 million are not unusual. If the farm is sold, there will be a capital gains tax on the difference between the basis and the present value, which could be more than $600,000.

If you inherit the farm from a parent and then sell it for $2 million, its value at the time of their death, you would not have to pay a capital gains tax. That saves $600,000.

The estate tax may not be so bad, depending upon your state’s estate tax, which is probably lower than the highest capital gains rate. If you live in California, there are no estate taxes in this state. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you plan for and manage these taxes.

If you bought the farm from a parent’s trust or estate for $2 million, then you have a $2 million basis in the property and will probably not owe any property gains tax, if you eventually sell it for $2 million.

If you own the farm without other family members, you should start planning your next steps. To whom do you want to pass the farm? If you want to keep the farm in the family, work with an attorney who is familiar with farm families, so that you can keep working the land and reduce any disputes.

Farmers often separate business operations from the land, with the operations held by one business and the land held by another entity. This allows the estate planning attorney to plan for succession in how operations and land are transferred to the next generation. It also provides asset protection, while you are alive.

Make sure that your farm succession plan and your estate plan are aligned. A common issue is finding that buy-sell documents don’t align with the will or trust. Some farmers use a revocable living trust as a will, so they can incorporate estate tax planning and transition the farm privately upon death.

Reference: Capital Press (March 24, 2019) “The family farm is coming to you: What’s next?”