Do You Want to Decide or Do You Want the State to Decide?

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A will allows you to direct your assets to the people you want to receive them, rather than the alternative, which is relying on the laws of your state to direct who receives your assets, says the article “Will you plan now or pay later?” from the Chron.com.

A will is also the document used to name an independent executor with successors, in the unlikely chance that the first executor fails, refuses or becomes unable to serve. Your estate planning attorney will discuss the use of special trusts to provide for family members who are disabled, trusts for minors or special needs family members or even adult children.

There are three big considerations you may not have even considered that would require you to have an estate plan created in recent years to be reviewed or revised. Years ago, the federal tax exemption, which allows a person to leave a certain amount of money to beneficiaries, was much smaller than it is now.

This was a “use it or lose it” exemption. Here’s an example of how things have changed. In 1987, when the exemption was $600,000 per taxpayer, a couple would use a by-pass trust to shelter the first $600,000 upon the first to die to take advantage of the exemption. In 2020, the exemption is $11.58 million. The “use it or lose it” law is different. Therefore, if your will/trust still has a by-pass trust for this reason, it may be best to discuss it with your estate planning attorney. It is likely that you don’t need it anymore.

You also want a will to have some control over what happens to your assets when you die. Let’s say Betty and Bob have three children. Bob dies, leaving his assets to Betty, then Betty dies and leaves all of her assets to her three children. One of the children, Bea, dies shortly after Betty dies. Bea’s will leaves all of her assets to her husband Bruce.

Bruce remarries. When Bruce dies, the share of the family’s assets that Bruce inherited from his wife Bea may be left to Bruce’s second wife or the couple may spend them all during their marriage. If Bruce divorces his second wife, she may win those assets in a divorce settlement. Would Betty and Bob have wanted their assets to go to their grandchildren, instead of their son-in-law’s second wife and children?

An estate plan can be created to protect those assets, so they remain within the family, going to grandchildren or to the children of Betty and Bob.

While most people think of an estate plan as a plan for death, it’s also a plan for illness and incapacity. A perfectly healthy person is injured in a car accident or suffers a stroke. Without having documents like a power of attorney, power of attorney for health care, living will and medical privacy documents, the family will spend a great deal of time and money trying to establish legal control over the estate.

Speak with an estate planning attorney today to update your current will or create a will and the necessary documents to protect yourself and your family.

Reference: Chron.com (January 16, 2020) “Will you plan now or pay later?”

Avoiding Probate with a Trust

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Privacy is just one of the benefits of having a trust created as part of an estate plan. That’s because assets that are placed in a trust are no longer in the person’s name, and as a result, do not need to go through probate when the person dies. An article from The Daily Sentinel asks, “When is a trust worth the cost and effort?” The article explains why a trust can be so advantageous, even when the assets are not necessarily large.

Let’s say a person owns a piece of property. They can put the property in a trust, by signing a deed that will transfer the title to the trust. That property is now owned by the trust and can only be transferred when the trustee signs a deed. Because the trust is the owner of the property, there’s no need to involve probate or the court when the original owner dies.

Establishing a trust is even more useful for those who own property in more than one state. If you own property in a state, the property must go through probate to be distributed from your estate to another person’s ownership. Therefore, if you own property in three states, your executor will need to manage three probate processes.

Privacy is often another problem when estates pass from one generation to the next. In most states, heirs and family members must be notified that you have died and that your estate is being probated. The probate process often requires the executor, or personal representative, to create a list of assets that are shared with certain family members. When the will is probated, that information is available to the public through the courts.

Family members who were not included in the will but were close enough kin to be notified of your death and your assets, may not respond well to being left out. This can create problems for the executor and heirs.

Having greater control over how and when assets are distributed is another benefit of using a trust rather than a will. Not all young adults are prepared or capable of managing large inheritances. With a trust, the inheritance can be distributed in portions: a third at age 28, a third at age 38, and a third at age 45, for instance. This kind of control is not always necessary, but when it is, a trust can provide the comfort of knowing that your children are less likely to be irresponsible about an inheritance.

There are other circumstances when a trust is necessary. If the family includes a member who has special needs and is receiving government benefits, an inheritance could make them ineligible for those benefits. In this circumstance, a special needs trust is created to serve their needs.

Another type of trust growing in popularity is the pet trust. Check with a local estate planning lawyer to learn if your state allows this type of trust. A pet trust allows you to set aside a certain amount of money that is only to be used for your pet’s care, by a person you name to be their caretaker. In many instances, any money left in the trust after the pet passes can be donated to a charitable organization, usually, one that cares for animals.

Finally, the person creating the trust can decide if they want it to be “irrevocable” and therefore permanent and very difficult to change, or if they want it to be “revocable” with the flexibility to amend and alter it at a later date. Once an irrevocable trust is created, it cannot be changed. Trusts should be created with the help of an experienced trusts and estate planning attorney, who will know how to create the trust and what type of trust will best suit your needs.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Jan. 23, 2020) “When is a trust worth the cost and effort?”

Why Is a Power of Attorney Important?

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A son who is preparing to help his mother with her legal and financial affairs asks what legal documents he needs to obtain in the article “Tips for becoming a power of attorney” in Hometown Life. He is concerned about a sibling who is estranged from the family and could cause problems in the future. Can he protect his mother and himself?

The first thing he needs to do is obtain a medical power of attorney and a durable power of attorney for his mother. These are two separate powers of attorney that will give the son the legal right to handle both her financial affairs and her medical care.

With these documents, he will be able to speak directly to her healthcare providers, including her doctors, and to make end-of-life decisions on her behalf. An unhappy family member could indeed cause problems, especially when it comes to major decisions. When medical staff and institutions see fighting in the family, they will not act unless they see a legal document granting authority to make these decisions.

The durable power of attorney, in contrast, is created for legal or financial issues, including handling the mother’s day-to-day money tasks and making decisions about her investments and assets, including the family home. With a power of attorney, he will be able to move money when needed, and even assist with selling assets or stocks, if necessary.

Having both of these documents gives the son the ability to do what is necessary for his mother, while also protecting him from an uncooperative family member. However, there are more tasks to be done.

First, he needs to find out if she has an estate plan, including a will, a trust or even any other powers of attorney. He should find out if they are current, and if they still reflect her wishes.

If she has an estate plan, he’ll need to find out when it was last updated and see if it needs to be revised. If there are no documents, or existing documents need to be updated, she needs to meet with an experienced estate planning attorney to create a plan to distribute assets according to her wishes and create any needed trusts.

He should also collect her medical information, so he knows who her doctors are and what medications she is taking. He also needs to understand her medical insurance coverage and see if she has the protection that she needs from health care costs.

For her financial affairs, the son needs to gather up information about her accounts, including passwords and login information. The mother should add the son as a signatory to her bank and brokerage accounts.

He should also get the names and contact information of any financial professionals she works with. That includes financial advisors, insurance agents and CPAs. It would also be wise to get the last two years of her tax returns. This could be invaluable in helping to understand her assets.

Reference: Hometown Life (Dec. 6, 2019) “Tips for becoming a power of attorney”

Tips for Choosing a Fiduciary

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One of the important tasks in creating a complete estate plan is selecting people (or financial institutions) to represent you, in case of incapacity or death. Most people think of naming an executor in their will, but there are many more roles, advises the article “What to consider when appointing a fiduciary?” from The Ledger.

Here are the most common roles that an estate planning attorney will ask you to select:

  • Executor or personal representative: a person named in your will and appointed by the court to administer your estate.
  • Agent-in-fact (under a durable power of attorney): a person who manages your financial affairs while you are living, if you are unable to do so.
  • Health care surrogate or agent: a person who makes health care decisions on your behalf while you are living, if you are incapacitated.
  • Trustee of a trust document: administers the trust that you have created.
  • Guardian or conservator: a person who makes health care and financial decisions on your behalf, if the court determines that other roles, like health care surrogate or agent-in-fact, are not sufficient.
  • Guardian for minor children: person(s) who make decisions for your children, if you are not able to because of death or a loss of capacity before the children reach adulthood.

The individuals or financial institutions who take on financial roles are considered fiduciaries; that is, they have a legal duty to put your well-being first. Their responsibilities may include applying for government benefits, managing and invest your assets and income, deciding where you will live, working with your attorneys, financial advisors, and accountants.

Many people name their spouse or eldest child to take on these roles. However, that’s not the only option. A few questions to consider before making this important decision include:

  • Does this person have the experience, skill, and maturity to manage my financial affairs?
  • Does this person have the time to serve as a fiduciary?
  • Would this person make the same health care decisions that I would make?
  • Can this person make a difficult decision for my health care?
  • Does this person live near enough to arrive quickly, if necessary?
  • How old is this person, and will they be living when I may need them?
  • What kind of response will my family have to this person being named?
  • Are my assets substantial enough to require a financial institution or accountant to manage?

These are just a few of the questions to consider when choosing fiduciaries or health care agents in your estate plan. Speak with your estate planning attorney to help determine the best decision for you and your family.

Reference: The Ledger (Oct. 16, 2019) “What to consider when appointing a fiduciary?”

Do Name Changes Need to Be Reflected in Estate Planning Documents?

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When names change, executed documents with the person’s prior name can become problematic. For example, what about a daughter who was named as a health care representative by her parents several years ago, who marries and changes her name? Then, to make matters more complicated, add the fact that the couple’s daughter-in-law has the same first name, but a different middle name. That’s the situation presented in the article “Estate Planning: Name changes and the estate plan” from nwi.com.

When a person’s name changes, many documents need to be changed, including items like driver’s licenses, passports, insurance policies, etc. The change of a name isn’t just about the person who created the estate plan but also their executors, heirs, beneficiaries and those who have been named with certain legal powers through power of attorney (POA) and health care power of attorney.

It’s not an unusual situation, so there are some different solutions that can address this situation. It’s pretty common to include additional identifiers in the documents. For example, let’s say the will says, “I leave my house to my daughter Samantha Roberts.” If Samantha gets married and changes her last name, it can be reasonably assumed that she can be identified. In some cases, the document may be able to stay the same.

In other instances, the difference will be incorporated through the use of the acronym AKA—Also Known As. That is used when a person’s name is different for some reason. If the deed to a home says Mary Green, but the person’s real name is Mary G. Jones, the term used will be Mary Green A/K/A Mary G. Jones.

Sometimes when a person’s name has changed completely, another acronym is used: N/K/A, or Now Known As. For example, if Jessica A. Gordon marries or divorces and changes her name to Jessica A. Jones, the phrase Jessica A. Gordon N/K/A Jessica A. Jones would be used.

However, in the situation where the sisters-in-law had such similar names, most attorneys want to have the documents changed to reflect the name change. First, the names are too similar, as are their relationships with the testator. It is possible that someone could claim that the person wished to name the other person. It may not be a strong case, but challenges have been made over smaller matters.

Second, the document being discussed in the case above is a healthcare designation. Usually, when a health care power of attorney form is being used, it’s in an emergency. Would a doctor make a daughter prove that she is who she says she is? It seems unlikely, but the risk of something like that happening is too great. It is much easier to simply have the document updated.

In most matters, when there is a name change, it’s not a big deal. However, in estate planning documents, where there are risks about being able to make decisions in a timely manner or to mitigate the possibility of an estate challenge, a name change to update documents is an ounce of prevention worth a pound of trouble in the future.

Reference: nwi.com (October 20, 2019) “Estate Planning: Name changes and the estate plan”

Spare Family Fights: Make a Will

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Thinking about your own mortality can be something frightening that many people would rather not do, which makes something like creating a will a difficult thing to do. But if for no other reason than to avoid fracturing the family, everyone needs a will. Otherwise, the family might end up spending all their time fighting over who gets Aunt Nina’s sideboard or Uncle Bruno’s collection of baseball cards.

But whether we want to think about it or not, having an estate plan in place – and that includes a will – is a gift of peace we can give to our loved ones and ourselves. It’s peace of mind that our family is being told exactly what we want them to do after we pass, and peace of mind to ourselves that we’ve put our plan into place.

A recent article from Fatherly, “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know,” starts with the basic premise that a will prevents family squabbles. Families fight when they don’t have a clear direction of what the deceased wanted. That’s just one reason to have a last will and testament. However, there are other reasons.

A will is one way to ensure that your property is eventually distributed as you wish. Without a will, your estate is administered as an “intestate estate,” which means the state’s laws will determine who receives your assets after you pass. In some states, that means your spouse gets half of your estate, with your parents getting the rest (if there are no children). If the parents have died and there are no children, the rest of the estate may go to your siblings.

Most people—some studies say as many as 60% of Americans—don’t have a will. It’s hard to say why they don’t: maybe they don’t want to accept the possibility of their own death, maybe they don’t understand what will happen when they die without a will, or perhaps they want to wreak havoc on their families. However, having a will is essential.

Don’t delay. If you don’t have a will in place, stop putting it off. Creating a will gives you the opportunity to effectuate your wishes, not that of the state. What if you don’t want your long-lost brother showing up just to receive a portion of your estate? If you don’t want someone to receive any of your assets, you need to have a will. Otherwise, there’s no way to know how the distribution will play out.

Not only should you think about who will get your assets, you should also be thoughtful about how you distribute your assets. If you have children and your will gives them your assets when they reach 18, will they be prepared to manage without blowing their inheritance in a month? A qualified estate planning attorney will be able to help you create a plan for distributing your wealth to children or other heirs in a way that will match their financial abilities. You may want to create a trust that will hold the assets, with a trustee who can ensure that assets are distributed in a wise and timely manner.

Every family is different, and today’s families, which often include children from prior marriages, require special planning. If you have remarried and have not legally adopted your spouse’s children from a previous marriage, they are not your legal heirs. If you want to make sure they inherit money or a specific asset, you’ll need to state that clearly in your will. If you are not married to your partner, they will not have any rights to your estate, unless a will is created that directs the assets you want them to inherit.

The will can also provide reassurance and protection in case you need to appoint a guardian for your children. Because of this, parents of young children absolutely need a will. If you do not and both parents pass away at the same time, their future will be determined by the court. They could end up in foster care while awaiting a court decision. Battling grandparents may create a tumultuous situation with long-lasting and detrimental effects on your children and their relationships with their other family members. The court could also name a guardian who you would never have chosen. A will lets you tell the court what you want.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure you have a will that is properly prepared and follows the laws of your state. You also want to have a power of attorney and a health care agent named. Only if you have these plans in advance can you express your wishes in a way that can be legally enforced when you actually need them.

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

What Happens When There’s No Will or the Will Is Invalid?

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The Queen of Soul’s lack of a properly executed estate plan isn’t the first time a celebrity died without a will, and it surely will not be the last says The Bulletin in the article “Aretha Franklin and other celebrities died without an estate plan. Will you?”

The Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Howard Hughes, and Prince all died without a valid will and estate plan. When actor Heath Ledger died, his will left everything to his parents and three sisters. The will had been written before his daughter was born and left nothing to his daughter or her mother (it should be noted that if Ledger lived in California he would have needed a trust to avoid probate). Ledger’s family later gave all the money from the estate to his daughter.

Getting started on a will is not that challenging if you work with an experienced estate planning attorney. They often start clients out with a simple information gathering form, sometimes in an online process or on paper. They’ll ask a lot of questions, like if you have life insurance, a prenup, who you want to be your executor and who should be the guardian of your children.

Don’t overlook your online presence. If you die without a plan for your digital assets, you have a problem known as “cyber intestacy.” Plan for who will be able to access and manage your social media, online properties, etc., in addition to your tangible assets, like investment accounts and real property.

Automatic bill payments and electronic bank withdrawals continue after death, and heirs may struggle to access photographs and email. When including digital estate plans in your will, provide a name for the person who should have access to your online accounts. Check with your estate planning attorney to see if they are familiar with digital assets. Do a complete inventory, including frequent flyer miles, PayPal and other accounts.

Remember that if you don’t make a will or trust, the state where you live has laws that will decide for you. Each state has different statutes determining who gets your assets. They may not be the people you wanted, so that’s another reason why you need to have a will or trust.

Life insurance policies, IRAs, and other accounts that have beneficiaries are handled separately from the will. Beneficiaries receive assets directly and that bypasses anything written in a will, so you should confirm and keep documentation that specifies who your beneficiaries are. This is especially important for unmarried millennials, Gen Xers, divorced people, single individuals, and widows and widowers, who may not have designated someone as a beneficiary.

Don’t forget your pets. Your heirs may not want your furry family members, and they could end up in a shelter and euthanized if there’s no plan for them. You can sign a “pet protection” agreement or set up a pre-funded pet trust. Some states allow them; others do not. Your estate planning attorney will be able to help protect your beloved pets as well as your family.

Reference: The Bulletin (Sep. 14, 2019) “Aretha Franklin and other celebrities died without an estate plan. Will you?”

Leaving a Legacy Is Not Just about Money

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A legacy is not necessarily about money, says a survey that was conducted by Bank of America/Merrill Lynch Ave Wave. The study surveyed more than 3,000 adults, with 2600 of them being 50 or older. The study also incorporated focus groups where participants were asked about end-of-life planning and leaving a legacy. The article, “How to leave a legacy no matter how much money you have” from The Voice, shared a number of the participant’s responses.

A total of 94% of those surveyed said that a life well-lived is about “having friends and family that love me.” 75% said that a life well-lived is about having a positive impact on society. A mere 10% said that a life well-lived is about accumulating a lot of wealth.

The study highlights that people want to be remembered for how they lived, not what they did at work or how much money they saved. Nearly 70% said they most wanted to be remembered for the memories they shared with loved ones. And only 9% said career success was something they wanted to be remembered for.

While everyone needs to have their affairs in order, especially people over age 55, only 55% of those surveyed reported having a will. Only 18% have what are considered the three key essentials for legacy planning: a will, a health care directive and a durable power of attorney.

The will addresses how property is to be distributed, names an executor of the estate and, if there are minor children, names who should be their guardian. The health care directive gives specific directions as to end-of-life preferences and designates someone to make health care decisions for you if you can’t. A power of attorney designates someone to make financial decisions on your behalf when you can’t do so because of illness or incapacity.

An estate plan is often only considered when a triggering event occurs, like a loved one dying without an estate plan. This is often a wake-up call for the family once they see how difficult it is when there is no estate plan.

Parents aged 55 and older had interesting views on leaving inheritances and who should receive their estate. Only about a third of boomers surveyed and 44% of Gen Xers said that it’s a parent’s duty to leave some kind of inheritance to their children. A higher percentage of millennials surveyed—55%—said that this was a duty of parents to their children.

The biggest surprise of the survey: 65% of people 55 and older reported that they would prefer to give away some of their money while they are still alive. A mere 8% wanted to give away all their assets, before they died. Only 27% wanted to give away all their money after they died.

Reference: The Voice (June 16, 2019) “How to leave a legacy no matter how much money you have”

Second Marriage? Make Sure Your Estate Plan Is Ready

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It’s always a good idea to review your estate plan, especially when a major life event, like a second marriage, is taking place. The use of pre-nuptial agreements gives prospective spouses the opportunity to discuss one another’s rights of inheritance and clarify a great many issues, says nwi.com in the article “Estate Planning: Planning for second marriages.”

There’s a second opportunity to sign an agreement detailing inheritance rights after the wedding takes place, called a “post-nuptial agreement.” The problem is that once the wedding has occurred and you are both legally married, you might get stuck with some surprises and, well, you’re married. For most people, it’s better to set things out before the wedding, rather than after.

Having the discussion prior to marriage can also help with financially planning your life together. There may have been dissolution decrees in one or both of the couple’s prior divorces that have requirements which must be satisfied, such as maintaining a life insurance policy with the ex-spouse as a beneficiary. This can have an impact on the couple’s estate plan. Because of arrangements like this, it is recommended that you have everything discussed upfront in the pre-nup.

There are also additional steps that should be followed for any estate review upon a marriage. First, make sure that the last will and testament reflects your new spouse. For second marriages in particular, you want to make sure any mention of the prior spouse lists them as just that, a prior spouse only.

Next, verify and confirm how all of the assets are owned. Will they continue to be owned by just one spouse, or converted to jointly owned? Does your estate plan have a trust, and if so, are assets owned by the trust? Does there need to be a change made to your trustees?

Many people don’t remember how their bank accounts are titled. Fewer still can tell you who their beneficiaries are on their retirement accounts, life insurance policies and bank accounts. Remember: the beneficiary designations are going to determine who receives these assets, regardless of any language in your last will and testament. Once you die, there is no way to contest that distribution. Review your accounts and make sure that the beneficiaries are up to date, especially if you want to remove your prior spouse from your designations.

Part of your pre-nup and estate plan review should include a discussion of inheritance rights for any children in the blended family. Do you want to leave assets only for your children, or do you want to leave assets for all the children? It’s not an easy conversation to have, especially at the start of the blending process.

Remember also that blended family dynamics can change over the years. When you review your estate plan next—in three to four years—you’ll have the opportunity to make changes that hopefully will reflect deepening bonds between all of the family members. Your estate planning attorney will help create and revise estate plans as your life circumstances evolve.

Reference: nwi.com (May 5, 2019) “Estate Planning: Planning for second marriages”

A Love Letter to Your Family

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For the 70% of Americans who do not have an estate plan, the article “Senior Spotlight: Composing the ‘family love letter’” from the Lockport Journal should help you understand why it is so important to set one up. One reason why people don’t take care of this seemingly simple task is because they don’t fully understand why estate planning is needed. They think it’s only for the wealthy, or that it’s only for old people, or that it’s only about death and taxes.

Consider this idea: an estate plan is actually about protecting yourself while you are alive, protecting your family when you have passed, and leaving a legacy for those you have left behind.

The main elements of an estate plan are: 1) create and execute documents that provide for incapacity and death, and 2) provide information about and guidance to help navigate your assets, liabilities and wishes.

You’ve spent a lifetime accumulating assets. It is now time to sit down with family members and have a heart-to-heart talk about the details of the estate and what your intentions are with respect to its distribution. The subject of death can be challenging for all. However, discussing your estate plan is vital if you want to protect your family from what might come after you are gone. Each family has its own goals, so it’s a good idea to talk about it frankly while you still can.

Even though these topics may be hard to bring up, not having those discussions significantly increases the chances of your family having conflict and choosing sides, assets not going where you had intended, and unnecessarily higher costs in taxes and legal fees.

If speaking about this is too hard, you may want to write your family a love letter. It would contain all the information that your family would need at the time of your death or your incapacity due to illness or injury. That includes a power of attorney, a health care directive, and maybe other documents depending on your situation.

Ideally, all this information will be located in one convenient place. Don’t put it on a computer where you use a password. If the family cannot access your computer, all your hard work will be useless to them. Put it in a folder or a notebook, that is clearly labeled and tell family members where it is.

They’ll need this information:

  • A list of your important contacts — your estate planning attorney, financial advisor, CPA, insurance broker and medical professionals.
  • Credit card information, frequent flier miles.
  • Insurance and benefits including all health, life, disability, long-term care, Medicare, property deeds, employment and any military benefits.
  • Documents including your trust, will, power of attorney, birth certificates, military papers, divorce decrees, and citizenship papers.

Think of these materials and discussions as your opportunity to make a statement for the future generation. If you don’t have an estate plan in place already or if you have not reviewed your estate plan in more than a few years, it’s time to make an appointment for a review. Your life may have not changed, but tax laws have, and you’ll want to be sure your estate is not entangled in old strategies that no longer benefit your family.

Reference: Lockport Journal (Feb. 16, 2019) “Senior Spotlight: Composing the ‘family love letter’”