Second Marriages Need A Plan to Protect Children and New Spouses

There are a number of issues in estate planning that are more important in second and subsequent marriages, as discussed in the article “Estate planning documents for second marriages” from the Cleveland Jewish News. A couple who each have children from a prior marriage are planning to marry again and blend their families. Consequently, the couple needs to address income taxes, a prenuptial agreement, pension and 401(k) benefits, Social Security, college funding, cost-sharing, and estate planning documents.

Here’s an example of how important estate planning is for blended families. A couple who each have children from their prior marriages get married. Twenty years later, the husband dies. He had wanted to provide for his second wife, so his will stated that all his assets went to his wife. They had the understanding that on her death, those assets would go back to his children.

What actually occurred was that his wife lived a long time after he passed, and she simply combined their assets. When she died, the money went to her children, and her husband’s children received nothing. The husband’s children didn’t believe that he meant to do that, but because of the lack of planning, that’s exactly what happened.

What were the alternatives? He could have set up a marital trust that would have held the assets for his second wife on his death, but upon the wife’s passing, would have gone back to his children. The trust document could prohibit the wife from transferring the assets in the marital trust to her children, and instead, guarantee that any assets remaining at her death would go to his children.

It’s wonderful to have a verbal agreement with your spouse, but if you don’t set up a formal legal plan, there’s no way to be sure that assets will be distributed as intended.

Another way to ensure that children from a blended family receive what they are intended is to have an independent person or entity, like a bank or a trust company, oversee a marital trust.

Other important documents include a durable financial power of attorney, durable health care power of attorney and a living will declaration.

Just as important as remarriage, anyone who has been divorced needs to review their estate planning documents to ensure that they reflect their new marital status, especially when they marry again. That is also the time to review beneficiary designations that appear on insurance policies, 401(k)s, pensions, retirement accounts, and investment accounts.

There’s no “set it and forget” plan for estate documents, so before you walk down the aisle a second time, or shortly after you do so, speak with an estate planning attorney to clarify your goals and put them into the appropriate estate planning documents.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (May 7, 2019) “Estate planning documents for second marriages”

Remaining Fair in Estate Distribution

Treating everyone equally in estate planning can get complicated, even with the best of intentions. What if a family wants to leave their home to their daughter, who lives locally, but wants to be sure that their son, who lives far away, receives his fair share of their estate? It takes some planning, says the Davis Enterprise in the article “Keeping things even for the kids.” The most important thing to know is that if the parents want to make their distribution equitable, they can.

If the daughter takes the family home, she’ll need to have an appraisal of the home done by a certified real estate appraiser. Then, she has options. She can either pay her brother his share in cash, or she can obtain a mortgage in order to pay him.

Property taxes are another concern. The taxes vary because the amount of the tax is based on the assessed value of the real property. That is the amount of money that was paid for the property, plus certain improvements. In California, property taxes are paid to the county on one percent of the property’s “assessed value,” also known as the “base year value” along with any additional parcel taxes that have become law. The base year value increases annually by two percent every year. This was created in the 1970s, under California’s Proposition 13.

Here’s the issue: the overall increase in the value of real property has outpaced the assessed value of real property. Longtime residents who purchased a home years ago still enjoy low taxes, while newer residents pay more. If the property changes ownership, the purchase could reset the “base year value,” and increase the taxes. However, there is an exception when the property is transferred from a parent to a child. If the child takes over ownership of the home, they will have the same adjusted base year value as their parents.

If the house is going from the parents to their daughter, it seems like it should be a simple matter. However, it is not. Here’s where you need an experienced estate planning attorney. If the estate planning documents say that each child should receive “equal shares” in the home, each child receives a one-half interest in the home. If the daughter takes the house and equalizes the distribution by buying out the son’s share, she can do that. However, the property tax assessor will see that acquisition of her brother’s half interest in the property as a “sibling to sibling” transfer. There is no exclusion for that. The one-half interest in the property will then be reassessed to the fair market value of the home at the time of the transfer—when the siblings inherit the property. The property tax will go up.

There may be a solution, depending upon the laws of your state. One attorney discovered that the addition of certain language to estate planning documents allowed one sibling to buy out the other sibling and maintain the parent-child exclusion from reassessment. The special language gives the child the option to purchase the property from the other. Make sure your estate planning attorney investigates this thoroughly, since the rules in your jurisdiction may be different.

Reference: Davis Enterprise (Oct. 27, 2019) “Keeping things even for the kids”

Sharing Legal Documents and Passwords

While parents are alive and well is the time to prepare for the future, when they begin to decline. An adult child who is a primary agent may have questions about organizing documents and managing storage in a digital format, as well as how to secure their passwords for online websites. The advice from the article “Safe sharing of passwords and legal documents” from my San Antonio is that these two issues are evolving and the best answers today may be different as time passes.

Safe and shareable password storage is a part of today’s online life. However, passwords used to access bank and investment accounts, file storage platforms, emails, online retailers and thousands of other tools used on a desktop require passwords that are increasingly complex and are difficult to remember. In some cases, facial recognition is used instead of a password.

Many rely on their internet browsers, like Chrome, Safari, etc., to remember passwords. However, this leaves accounts vulnerable, as many of these and other browsers have been hacked.

The best password solutions are stand-alone password managers. They offer the option of sharing the passwords with others, so parents can provide their agents and executors with access to their list. However, there are also new laws regarding digital assets, so check with your estate planning attorney. You may need to create directives for your accounts that specify who you want to have access to the accounts and the data that they contain.

Storage of legal documents is a separate concern from password-sharing. Shared legal documents need to be private, reasonably priced and secure.

Some password managers include document storage as part of the account. The documents can be uploaded in an encrypted format that can be accessed by another person, who is assigned by the account owner.

Document vault websites are also available. You will have to be extremely careful about selecting which one to use. Some of the websites resell data, which is not why you are storing documents with them. One company claims to offer a “universal advance digital directive,” which they say can provide digital access worldwide to documents, including an emergency, critical and advance care plan.

The problem? This company is located in a state that does not permit the creation of a legally binding advance directive, unless it is in writing, includes state-specific provisions and is signed in front of either two qualified witnesses or a notary.

Talk with your estate planning attorney about securing estate planning documents and how to protect digital assets. Their knowledge of the laws in your state will provide the family with the proper protection now and in the future.

Reference: my San Antonio (October 14, 2019) “Safe sharing of passwords and legal documents”

When Selecting Beneficiaries Gets Overlooked

Here’s one way to mess up your estate plan: naming beneficiaries not by name, but by the generic term “children.” If yours is a blended family, your stepchildren may be out of luck, according to the article “Five mistakes to avoid when naming beneficiaries” from Delco Times. In many states, stepchildren aren’t recognized if the word “children” is used. Use their full names.

Here are more mistakes that people make about beneficiaries:

Failing to name a beneficiary on every account. The great thing about beneficiary designations as that they do not go through probate and beneficiaries receive assets directly from the custodian of the account. However, if you fail to name a beneficiary, the asset, whether they are life insurance proceeds or the entire balance of a 401(k) account, will go to your estate. If it exceeds the statutory limit, then it will need to go through probate.  For retirement accounts, your heirs will also lose the ability to stretch withdrawals over their lifetime.

Failing to name a contingent beneficiary. What if the first person passes away before you do and there’s no contingency beneficiary named? The asset will be treated as if there were no beneficiaries named at all, and it goes through probate.  If both the sole beneficiary and the owner die at the same time, all of the funds must similarly go through probate.

Neglecting to review beneficiary selections on a regular basis. Beneficiary designations override a will, so it’s very important to keep them current. Every few years, review the accounts that you own and see what your beneficiary designation choices are. This is especially necessary if you have been divorced, widowed or remarried. If you fail to take your ex-spouse off an insurance policy, for instance, there’s little that can be done when you die—even if you put your wishes that a new spouse or children receive the proceeds in your will. This will likely cause the issue to go to court, which will soak up precious time, resources, and anxiety.

Not communicating with your partner and family members. Talking with family members and loved ones about your wishes for your legacy and asset distribution is an important way to let them know what to expect when you die. It’s not an easy conversation, but it will be helpful to all. Knowing you have a plan will alleviate them from the worry of the unknown, and it prevents unexpected surprises. There’s no need to talk specific dollar amounts unless you want to. Instead, give them a high-level overview of what your intentions are.

Some families find these conversations easier in the presence of an objective third party, like your estate planning attorney. If your estate plan includes trusts or any complex planning strategies, a family meeting provides a means of explaining the plan and the processes involved.

Reference: Delco Times (October 6, 2019) “Five mistakes to avoid when naming beneficiaries”

Your Spouse Just Died … Now What?

There are several steps to take while both spouses are alive and well, to help reduce the chance of the surviving spouse finding themselves in a “financial deadlock” situation, or worse. The preparations require the non-financially dominant partner to be involved as much as possible, says Barron’s in the article “How to Avoid Financial Deadlock—or Worse—After One Spouse Dies”

Step one is to prepare the financial equivalent of a “go-bag,” like the ones people are supposed to have when they must leave their home in a crisis. That means a list of all financial contacts, advisors, estate planning attorney, accountants, insurance professionals and copies of all beneficiary designations. There should also be a list or a spreadsheet of all the couple’s assets and liabilities, including digital assets and passwords to these accounts. The spouse should also note the location of financial records and critical legal documents, including insurance policies, wills, and trusts.

Each partner must have access to checking and cash independently of the other, and the spouses need to review together how assets and accounts are titled.

It is especially important for both spouses to be on the deed to their home with right of survivorship, so that the surviving spouse can easily prove that they are the sole owner of the home after the spouse dies. Otherwise, they may not be able to communicate with the mortgage company. If a surviving spouse must go to court and file probate in order to deal with the home, it can become costly and more stressful.

It’s not emotionally easy to go through all this information but it is critical for the surviving spouse’s financial security.

Any information that will be needed by the surviving spouse should be documented in a way that is easily accessible and understandable for the spouse. Even if someone is very organized and has a well-developed description of their assets and estate plan, it may not be as easily understood for someone whose mind works differently. This is especially true if the couple has had years where the non-financial spouse was not involved with the family’s assets and is suddenly digesting a lot of new information.

It is wise for the non-financial spouse to be in meetings with key advisors and take on some of the tasks like bill paying, reviewing insurance policies and reconciling accounts well before either spouse experiences any kind of cognitive decline. Ideally, the financially dominant partner takes the time to train the other spouse and then also have them handle the finances independently to the extent possible until they are both comfortable managing all the details.

Each spouse needs to understand how the death of the other will impact the household income. If one spouse has a pension without survivor benefits and that spouse is the first to die, the surviving spouse may find themselves struggling to replace that income. They also need to consider daily aspects of their lives, like if one spouse is highly dependent upon the other for caregiving.

Spouses are advised not to make any big financial or life decisions within a year or so of a spouse’s death. The surviving spouse is often not in a good emotional state to make smart decisions, and that is the time they are most at risk for senior financial abuse.

Both spouses should sit down with their estate planning attorney and discuss what will happen if either of them is widowed. It is a difficult topic but planning ahead will make the transition less traumatic from a financial and legal perspective.

Reference: Barron’s (Sep. 15, 2019) “How to Avoid Financial Deadlock—or Worse—After One Spouse Dies”

Protect Your Pets After You’re Gone

Currently, 67% of American households own at least one pet, and many people now consider long-term planning for them to be just as important as for two-legged family members, says The Atlanta Journal Constitution in the article “When you’re gone, what happens to your pets?” Pets are viewed as valued members of the family in many homes. They provide companionship, and there have been studies showing that their presence helps to reduce stress. They often sleep in the same bed as their owners and go on vacations with their human family.

If you think about it, our animal companions are completely vulnerable if we die. They can’t take care of themselves. If something happens to their owners, it is possible that they could be taken to a shelter and euthanized. If you don’t want to be kept up at night worrying about this, a pet trust should be part of your conversation with an estate planning attorney.

A 2018 Realtor.com survey found that 79% of millennials who purchased a home said that they would pass on a home and find another one, no matter how perfect, if it did not meet the needs of their pets. This all highlights how important it is for many people to ensure their pet’s needs are met.

So the question is: How can you protect your pets?

Understand that pets are considered property and have no legal rights. It’s entirely up to their owners to plan for their care. With a pet trust, an owner can be sure that some of those needs are met and addressed. In setting up a trust, there are some questions to consider:

  • What’s the difference between a pet trust and a will?
  • What are the pet trust laws in my state?
  • How much money do I need to put into the pet trust?
  • What happens to any funds left over, when the pet dies?
  • Can you tap 401(k) or other retirement funds to care for a pet?

After you have decided to create a pet trust, the first thing to consider is how much money it would need. To calculate that, look at the life expectancy of each pet and factor the average vet bill, food bill and any additional money in case of an emergency. The ASPCA says that the annual cost to care for a dog is between $737 to $1,404. Caring for a cat averages about $800. Of course, the specific cost depends on the age, breed, weight and other features of your pet, such as whether the animal has any medical needs. You should then calculate how many years your pet will likely need care. Some pets can live a very long time, like horses and birds.

Next, identify caregivers who will commit to caring for your pets. You should then talk with your estate planning attorney about the features you want in your pet trust. A pet trust allows you to leave money to a loved one or friend to care for the pet in a trust that is legally binding. That means the money must be used for the pet’s care. It can be very specific, including how often the pet should go to the vet and what its standard of living should be. The executor or lawyer could go to court to enforce the contract, which protects your pets.

Typically, the trustee holds property “in trust” for the benefit of the pet. Payments to a designated caregiver are made on a regular basis. The trust, depending upon the state in which it is established, continues for the life of the pet or 21 years, whichever comes first. Some states allow pet trusts to continue beyond 21 years.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about protecting your pet. If you rely on an informal plan, your pet may be out of luck, if something happens to the caregivers, or if they have a change of heart. You’ll feel better knowing that you’ve put a plan into place for your beloved furry friends.

Reference: The Atlanta Journal Constitution (September 24, 2019) “When you’re gone, what happens to your pets?”

What is a Durable Power of Attorney?

Those who have heard of a power of attorney generally understand that it gives another person the power to manage your money, but how does it work exactly? A durable power of attorney document must follow the statutory requirements, must delegate proper authority, must consider the timing of when the agent may act and a host of other issues that must be addressed, warns My San Antonio in the article “Guide to managing someone else’s money.” A durable power of attorney document can be so far-reaching that a form downloaded from the Internet is asking for major trouble.

Start by speaking with an experienced estate planning attorney to provide proper advice and draft a legally valid document that is appropriate for your situation.

Once a proper durable power of attorney has been drafted, talk with the agent you have selected and with the successor agents, you want to name, about their roles and responsibilities. For instance:

When will the agent’s power commence? Depending on the document, it may start immediately, or it may not become active until the person becomes incapacitated.

If the power is postponed, how will the agent prove that the person has become incapacitated? Will he or she need to go to court?

What is the extent of the agent’s authority? This is very important. Do you want the agent to be able to talk with the IRS about your taxes? With your investment advisor? Will the agent have the power to make gifts on your behalf, and to what extent? May the agent set up a trust for your benefit? Can the agent change beneficiary designations? What about caring for your pets? Can they talk with your lawyer or accountant?

When does the agent’s authority end? Unless the document sets an earlier date, it ends either when you revoke it, when you die, when a court appoints a guardian for you, or, if your agent is your spouse, when you divorce.

What does the agent need to report to you? What are your expectations for the agent’s role? Do you want immediate assistance from the agent, or will you continue to sign documents for yourself?

Does the agent know how to avoid personal exposure? If the agent signs a contract for you by signing his or her own name, the agent is now liable for the contract. Legally, that means that the cost of the services provided could be taken out of the agent’s wallet. Does the agent understand how to sign a contract to avoid personal liability?

All of these questions need to be addressed long before any power of attorney papers are signed. Both you and the agent need to understand the role of a power of attorney. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to explore all the issues inherent in a durable power of attorney and make sure that it is the correct document.

Reference: My San Antonio Life (Aug. 26, 2019) “Guide to managing someone else’s money”

What You Need to Know If Asked to Be a Trustee

“Would you be willing to be my trustee?” Being asked to be a trustee is a question that deserves serious consideration. First, because there are so many different types of trustees, the answer to the question posed above will vary greatly, says The Mercury in a recent article that asks “Should you be a trustee?”

At the very simplest level, a trustee is appointed when a trust is established. The most common type is for a person and their spouse. The person’s assets are retitled to be owned by the trust. The couple continues to file the same tax returns, using the same Social Security number and the income from the trust assets is treated as the couples’ income. This is often called a revocable trust or a living trust. In this case, the trustees are the same as the people making the trust. When you are trustee of your own trust, you retitle the assets into the name of the trust, but you continue to file income tax returns as if you owned that property directly.

When one of the couples dies, the other person usually becomes the defaulting trustee. If the property is being given to another person, it is generally treated as if the deceased person passed it directly to the person receiving the property. So, for instance, if the couple lives in a state with an inheritance tax, the spouse receiving property from the deceased spouse will be taxed based on your relationship as a spouse.

In most cases, the trust document names one successor trustee. That person is typically one of the couple’s adult children, although it could also be a bank or a financial institution. The successor trustee is responsible for managing the trust assets, dealing with banks, financial institutions and others on behalf of the person if they became disabled or incapacitated.

After the person dies, the successor trustee would continue in their role, and details of their responsibilities should be outlined clearly in the trust document.

Another type of trust is a simple trust that is part of a will, called a testamentary trust. It is often created to provide support for a minor beneficiary who might inherit assets. Usually, parents or the surviving parent of a minor beneficiary or an executor is named as a trustee for the child’s funds, until the child reaches a certain age.

Regardless of what kind of trustee a person is, they have a fiduciary responsibility, meaning that they are held to a high standard of accountability and must always put the needs of the trust before their own. The trustee is required to maintain accurate documents and cannot take funds for their own use. A trustee can be paid a reasonable fee unless the trust documents have other directions.

In most cases, the trust document gives the trustee the right to retain others, such as attorneys, accountants, or financial advisors to help fulfill their responsibilities. Sometimes that’s as simple as setting up a bank account, but other times it is more complicated.

When do you stop being a trustee? It is usually when the trust says the trust is to end, which is sometimes at a certain date, when the beneficiaries reach a certain age, or when the trust fund is empty. A court order can be made to the Court to either terminate or modify the trust.

For more complicated trusts, the help of an estate planning attorney will be needed to protect the trust and the beneficiaries. There are Special Needs Trusts (SNTs), created for an individual with special needs, who often receive help from government programs like Social Security Disability Insurance (SSDI) or Medicaid. There are different kinds of SNTs, depending on the needs of the individual and their family.

While the trusts listed above provide a brief overview of the most common type of trust, there are many others: irrevocable income-only trusts, intentionally defective grantor trusts, non-grantor trusts, qualified personal residence trusts and even more beyond that. Your estate planning attorney will be able to explain what kind of trust would be optimal for your family, while you are living and after you have passed. An attorney can also help you make sure you are protected while serving as a trustee.

Reference: The Mercury (July 17, 2019) “Should you be a trustee?”

 

How to Choose an Estate Planning Attorney

Estate planning is a critical part of financial planning, but it is something that many Americans prefer to procrastinate about. However, drafting a will, health care proxy, and power of attorney are too important to leave to chance, says Next Avenue in the article “How to Find a Good Estate Planner.” An experienced estate planning attorney can help prevent critical mistakes and help you adjust your plan as circumstances change.

Here are a few tips:

Look for an estate planning attorney. This is not the same as a real estate attorney. An attorney who practices real estate law is not going to be up to date on all of the latest changes to estate and tax laws. You should also determine if the attorney deals with families who are in similar situations as yours. An attorney who works with family-owned businesses, for instance, will be more helpful in creating an estate plan that includes tax and succession planning for small business owners, whereas an attorney who works with special needs trusts will be more informed on drafting those.

Experience matters in this area of the law. The laws of your state are just one of the many parts that the attorney needs to know by heart. The estate planning attorney who has been practicing for many years will have a better sense of how families work, what problems crop up when it comes time to execute these plans, and tips on how to avoid them.

Ask about costs. Don’t be shy. You want to be clear from the start what you should expect to be spending on an estate plan. The attorney should be comfortable having this discussion with you and your spouse or family member. Remember that the attorney will be able to understand the scope of work only after they speak with you about your situation. What may seem simple to you, may be more complicated than you think.

If a trust is added, the fees are likely to increase. A trust can be used to avoid or minimize estate taxes, avoid probate, save on time and court fees and create conditions for the distribution of assets after you die.

A full plan includes incapacity documents. Don’t neglect to have the attorney create a Power of Attorney form and any other advance directives you need. These vary by state, and you don’t want them to get too old, or they may become out of date.

Recognize that this is an ongoing relationship. Make sure that you are comfortable with the attorney, how the practice is run and the people who work there—receptionist, paralegals and other associates at the firm are all people you may be working with at one point or another during the process. You will be sharing very personal information with the entire team, so be sure it’s a good fit.

This is not a one-and-done event. Having an estate plan is a lot like having a home—it requires maintenance. Every four years or so, or when large events occur in your life, you’ll need to have your estate plan reviewed.

Your estate planning attorney should become a trusted advisor who works hand in hand with your accountant and financial advisor. Together, they should all be looking out for you and your family.

Reference: Next Avenue (September 10, 2019) “How to Find a Good Estate Planner”

Dividing Property for Married or Maybe-Not-So-Married Spouses

When a marriage doesn’t work out, the couple that wishes to become “un-married” must undergo the legal process of divorce. While a legal separation and divorce can sever the legal ties that bind a couple, very often couples neglect to tidy up and make the separation or divorce final. In that case, says The Pasadena / San Gabriel Valley Journal’s article “Ties that Bind,” they are still married.

The couple may be married in name only, or even estranged from each other, but legally, they are still married, which means that the law still sees them as a married couple as it relates to their rights and obligations towards each other and their property.

Surprisingly, there are many instances where a person dies and after the funeral, when the estate is being settled, it is revealed that the couple was still married. The decedent may have separated from his or her spouse years ago, but they never got legally divorced. Sometimes this is because neither party really wants to bring things to a conclusion. In other instances, they may not want to devote the time or resources to the divorce process, which can be both expensive and painful.

Many of us have also heard of cases where the couple was contemplating divorce, after recognizing that the marriage was no longer working, and one of the spouses died before the legal separation or divorce was obtained.

It is important to remember that marriage is a key factor when it comes to inheritance rights.

The law does not make a distinction between couples who been have separated for decades and those who are happily married. The only question that matters in the eyes of the courts is what the deceased spouse’s status was on the day that she or he died. There are only three answers to that question:

  • Married
  • Divorced
  • Legally Separated

Unless a person has done estate planning and has a will and trust, the spouse is entitled to receive a certain amount of their property. If the decedent lived in a state with community property, like California, the spouse is entitled to receive all the community property (which includes anything earned or acquired during the course of the marriage) and a portion of the separate property.

One of the first things a couple contemplating divorce should do immediately is have their estate plan done, especially in a community property state. This will allow them to make decisions about inheritance, just in case one of them dies before the proceedings are completed.

Marital status is also something that matters in the case of life and death decisions. If a person has a serious accident or becomes ill, a not-yet-divorced spouse may be the only person that the medical team will speak with. When divorce is on the horizon, part of estate plan concerning incapacity must also be addressed: an Advanced Care Directive, also known as a Living Will.

It often takes years to complete a divorce, and many things can happen in the interim. Unless you want your estranged spouse or someday-to-be ex-spouse making decisions and sharing property with you, sit down with an estate planning attorney to outline your wishes and make sure you are protected, even before the divorce is finalized.

Reference: The Pasadena / San Gabriel Valley Journal (Aug. 7, 2019) “Ties that Bind”