How Joint Tenancy Creates Problem for Seniors

How Joint Tenancy Creates Problem for Seniors
cheerful young woman helping an old person doing paperwork and telephone call

Parents putting children or other family members as joint owners of their assets is another example of what seems like a simple solution for a complex problem. It doesn’t work, even though it seems like it should.

As explained in the article “Beware the joint tenancy trap” from Monterey Herald, putting another person on an account, even a trusted child or life-long friend, can create serious problems for the individual, their estate, and their heirs. Before going down that path, there are several issues to consider.

When another individual is placed as an owner on an account or on the title to real property, they have legal ownership in that property equal to that of the original owner. This is called joint tenancy. If a child is made a joint tenant on a parent’s accounts, they would be entirely within their rights to withdraw every single asset from those accounts and do whatever they wanted with them. They would not need the original owner’s consent, counsel, or knowledge.

Giving anyone that power is a serious decision.

Making a child a joint owner of assets also exposes those assets to claims by the child’s creditors. If they file for bankruptcy, the original asset owner may have to buy back one-half of the asset at its current market value. Another example: if the child is in an accident and a judgment is recorded against the child, you may have to buy back one-half of your joint tenant property at its current market value to settle the claims.

There are other complications that come with the title. If one joint owner of the asset dies, joint tenancy provides for the right of survivorship. The property transfers to the surviving joint tenant without going through probate and with no reference to a will. Even though it can bypass the probate process, it means that the distribution won’t necessarily follow what the parent intended in his estate plan. If the parent dies and the asset transfers directly to the joint tenant—let’s say a daughter—but the will says the assets are to be split between all of the children, her claim on the asset is “senior” to the rest of the children. That means she has the right to keep all of the assets that were held in joint tenancy and all four siblings split the remaining assets.

If there is any friction between siblings, not having equal inheritances could create a fracture in the family that can’t easily be resolved.

Tax exposure is another risk of joint tenancy. When someone is named a joint owner, they have the original owner’s cost basis. When one owner dies, the remaining owner gets a step up in basis only on the proportion of the assets the deceased person owned at death.

Let’s say a son and father are joint owners on an account. When the father dies, the son gets a step-up in basis on one-half of the assets—the assets that the father owned. However, the son’s half retains the original basis. In contrast, if that account was owned solely by the father, all the heirs will inherit the property with a full step-up in basis on the father’s death.

Given the complexities that joint tenancy creates, parents need to think very carefully before putting children’s names on their assets and real property. A better plan is to make an appointment to speak with an estate planning attorney and find out how to protect the parent’s assets through other means, which may include trusts and other estate planning tools.

Reference: Monterey Herald (Sep. 11, 2019) “Beware the joint tenancy trap”

How Do I Deed My Home into a Trust?

Say that a husband used his inheritance to purchase the family home outright. The wife signed a quitclaim deed to him to put the property into his individual living trust with the condition that if he died before his wife, she could live in the home until her death.

But what if the husband or the creator of the trust never signed the living trust? In that case, what would happen to the property if the husband were to die before the wife?

This can quickly become even more complicated if it’s a second marriage for each of the spouses and they have adult children from prior marriages.

The Herald Tribune’s recent article, “Home ownership complications need guidance from estate planning attorney,” says that in this situation it’s important to know if the quitclaim deed was to the husband personally or to his living trust. If the wife quitclaimed the home to her husband personally, he then owns her share of the home, subject to any marital interests she may still have in the home. However, if the wife quitclaimed the home to his living trust, and the trust was never created, the deed may be invalid. The wife may still own the her original interest in the home.

It’s common for a couple to own a home as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. This would have meant that if the wife died, her husband would own the entire property automatically. If he died, she’d own the entire home automatically.

If the wife signed a quitclaim deed over to him or his trust, and the deed was recorded, then she would have transferred her ownership rights to her husband and he would be the sole owner of the home.  If the deed was never even filed or recorded, the wife could simply destroy the document and keep the status of the title as it was.

If the trust doesn’t exist, her quitclaim deed transfer to an entity that doesn’t exist would create a situation where she could claim that she still owned her interest in the home. However, the home may now be owned by the spouses as tenants in common, rather than as joint tenants with rights of survivorship.

To complicate things further, if the husband fully owned the home at the time of his death and the wife has marital rights in the home, then she may still be entitled to a share of the home under her husband’s will, if he has one, or by the laws of intestacy. However, the husband’s children would also own a share of his share of the home. At that point, the wife would co-own the home with his children.

You can see how crazy this can get. It’s best to seek the advice of a qualified estate planning attorney to guide you through the process and make sure that the proper documents get signed and filed or recorded.

Reference: The (Sarasota, FL) Herald Tribune (September 8, 2019) “Home ownership complications need guidance from estate planning attorney”

Can the Golden Girls Model Work for Families?

Multi-generational living is not exactly new, and as people are living longer, it may start becoming more common. Shared households bring many benefits, including convenience. Why should a nurse’s daughter travel 20 miles a day to take her mom’s blood pressure when living together works better, asks The Mercury’s article “Do shared living arrangements make sense?”

There’s also the benefit of increased financial security. Two households merged into one can share expenses, including mortgages, property taxes, utilities and more.

Whether this works in each case depends upon the situation and the relationships of the individuals involved. If there is flexibility and the relationships are good, it can be a blessing. Imagine grandparents and grandchildren who are part of each other’s lives on a daily basis, rather than a twice-a-year visit. That’s a gift.

The arrangement needs to start with a lot of discussions and understanding the wants and needs of each participant. It needs to be based on reasonable expectations. A happy joint living arrangement can swiftly be derailed, for instance, if parents assume that grandparents are willing to be 24/7 babysitters, or if grandparents consider household chores something only for their children and grandchildren to do.

Joining living arrangements must also address financial considerations, estate planning and everyone’s personal experiences and convictions. What works for one family may not work at all for another. Each family must work through their own details.

Here are some examples where a joint living arrangement works.

Parents and children buy a house together. When parents and children live too far away, and the parent’s house would require too much modification for them to continue to live there, both sell their homes and buy a much bigger home that can be made handicapped accessible. The parents make most of the down payment. The house is titled in joint names. Titling is critical. One half is owned by the father and mother, the other half is owned by the adult child and their spouse. Each half would be tenants by entireties (in states where that form of ownership between spouses is available) as between the spouses, but joint tenants with rights of survivorship as to the whole.

Parent moves in with adult child. A widow or widower comes to live with a son or daughter and their family. The parent makes contributions to the monthly expenses. There is a written agreement, which is very important for Medicaid rules regarding gifting. If modifications need to be made to the house—a mother-in-law suite—a written agreement details who contributed what, so that it is not considered a “gift” by Medicaid.

Adult child moves in with parent. This is a “buy-in,” where an adult child obtains a home equity line of credit to purchase an interest as a joint tenant with right of survivorship. The house can be inherited by paying one-half of the value.

None of these strategies should be done without the help of an elder law attorney who is knowledgeable about Medicaid, estate planning and real estate ownership. When it works, this arrangement can benefit everyone in the family.

Reference: The Mercury (AuG. 28, 2019) “Do shared living arrangements make sense?”

Surviving Spouse Needs An Estate Plan

When one spouse dies after meticulously titling assets to pass through joint tenancy to the surviving spouse, estate planning attorneys flinch. There are occasions when everything works smoothly, but they are the exception. As this article from the Santa Cruz Sentinel warns “After husband’s death, wife needs to create revocable trust.” Actually, she needs more than a revocable trust: she needs an estate plan.

Most of the assets in the plan created by her husband, in this case, did pass to the wife outside of probate. However, there are a number of details that remain. She needs to obtain date-of-death values for any non-IRA securities the couple owned, and she should also have their home’s value determined, so that a new cost basis for the house will be established. She also needs an appointment with an estate planning attorney to create a will and an estate plan.

If the surviving spouse dies without a will, her children will inherit the estate in equal shares by intestate succession. However, if any of her children pass before she does, the estate could be distributed to her grandchildren. If they are of legal age, there is no control over how the assets will be managed.  Making matters worse, if a child or grandchild is disabled and receiving government benefits, an inheritance could make them ineligible for Social Security and Medicaid benefits, unless the inheritance is held within a Special Needs Trust.

Another reason for an estate plan: a will details exactly how assets are distributed, from the set of pearls that great aunt Sarah has kept in the family for decades to the family home. A durable power of attorney is also part of an estate plan, which lets a named family member or trusted friend make financial decisions on your behalf, if you become incapacitated. An estate plan also includes an advance health care directive, so a loved one can make medical decisions on your behalf if you are not able.

These are the basics of an estate plan. They protect loved ones from having to go to court to obtain the power to make decisions on your behalf, as well as protect your family from outsiders making claims on your estate.

A revocable trust is one way to avoid probate. An estate planning attorney will be able to evaluate your own unique situation and determine what the best type of trust would be for your situation, or if you even need a trust.

You may be thinking of putting your home, most families’ biggest asset, into joint tenancy with your children. What if one or more of your children have a divorce, lawsuit or bankruptcy? This will jeopardize your control of your home. A revocable trust will allow your assets to remain in your control.

The last piece in this estate is the IRA. If you are the surviving spouse, you’ll want to roll over your spouse’s IRA into your own. Make sure to update the beneficiary designation. If you neglect this step and the IRA pays into your estate when you pass, then the IRA has to be cashed in within five years of your death. Your children will lose the opportunity to stretch IRA distributions over their lifetimes.

An estate planning attorney can help guide you through this entire process, working through all the details. If your goal is to avoid probate, they can make that happen, while protecting you and your loved ones at the same time.

Reference: Santa Cruz Sentinel (March 24, 2019) “After husband’s death, wife needs to create revocable trust”

What are Some Common Mistakes in Titling Real Property?

Title to real property must be transferred, when the asset is sold and must be cleared (free of liens or encumbrances) for the transfer to occur. Unlike other real property assets, real estate ownership can take several forms. Each of these forms has implications on how ownership can be transferred and can affect how they can be financed, improved or used as collateral.

Investopedia’s article, “5 Common Methods of Holding Titles on Real Property,” looks at the ways in which to hold title to real estate property.

Joint Tenancy. This is when two or more people hold title to real estate jointly, with equal rights to enjoy the property during their lives. When one dies, their rights of ownership pass to the surviving tenant(s). The parties in the ownership need not be married or related, but any financing or use of the property for financial gain must be approved by all parties and cannot be transferred by will after one passes. Another disadvantage is that a creditor with a legal judgment to collect a debt from one of the owners, can also petition the court to divide the property and force a sale in order to collect on the judgment.

Tenancy In Common. In this situation, two or more persons hold title to real estate jointly with equal rights to enjoy the property during their lives. However, unlike joint tenancy, tenants in common hold title individually for their respective part of the property and can dispose of or encumber as they chose. Ownership can be willed to other parties, and in the event of death, ownership will transfer to that owner’s heirs undivided. An owner can use the wealth created by their portion of the property, as collateral for financial transactions, and creditors can place liens only against one owner’s specific portion of the property. Any liens must be cleared for a total transfer of ownership to take place.

Tenants by Entirety. This can only be used, when the owners are legally married. This is ownership in real estate under the assumption that the couple is one person for legal purposes. The title transfers to the other in entirety, if one of the couple dies. The advantage is that no legal action is required at the death of a spouse. There’s no need for a will, and probate or other legal action isn’t necessary. Conveyance of the property must be done in total, and the property can’t be subdivided. In the case of divorce, the property converts to a tenancy in common, and one owner can transfer ownership of their respective part of the property to whomever they want. This form of title ownership is not available in California.

Sole Ownership. This is ownership by an individual or entity legally capable of holding title. The main advantage of holding title as a sole owner is the ease with which transactions can be accomplished, since no other party needs to authorize the transaction. The disadvantage is the potential for legal issues regarding the transfer of ownership if the sole owner dies or become incapacitated. Unless there’s a will, the transfer of ownership upon death can be an issue.

Community Property. This form of ownership is by husband and wife during their marriage for property they intend to own together. Under community property, either spouse has the right to dispose of one half of the property or will it to another party. Anyone who’s lived with another person as a common-law spouse and doesn’t specifically change title to the property as sole ownership (which is legally transacted with approval by the significant other) takes the risk of having to share ownership of the property, in the absence of a legal marriage. Common law marriages do not exist in California.

Community Property With the Right of Survivorship. This is a way for married couples to hold title to property. However, it is only available in Arizona, California, Nevada, Texas, and Wisconsin. It lets one spouse’s interest in community-property assets pass probate-free to the surviving spouse, in the event of death, and receive a step up in basis on the first death.

Entities other than individuals can hold title to real estate in its entirety. Ownership in real estate can be done as a corporation. The legal entity is a company owned by shareholders but regarded under the law as having an existence separate from those shareholders. Real estate can also be owned as a partnership, which is an association of two or more people to carry on business for profit as co-owners. Real estate also can be owned by a trust. These legal entities own the properties and are managed by a trustee on behalf of the beneficiaries. There are many benefits, such as managerial influence, financial and legal liability and tax considerations.

Reference: Investopedia (April 10, 2018) “5 Common Methods of Holding Titles on Real Property”

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”

How Do I Plan for a Blended Family?

A blended family (or stepfamily) can be thought of as the result of two or more people forming a life together (married or not) that includes children from one or both of their previous relationships, says The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in a recent article, “You’re in love again, but consider the legal and financial issues before it’s too late.”

Research from the Pew Research Center study reveals a high remarriage rate for those 55 and older—67% between the ages 55 and 64 remarry. Some of the high remarriage percentage may be due to increasing life expectancies or the death of a spouse. In addition, divorces are increasing for older people who may have decided that, with the children grown, they want to go their separate ways.

It’s important to note that although 50% of first marriages end in divorce, that number jumps to 67% of second marriages and 80% of third marriages end in divorce.

So if you’re remarrying, you should think about starting out with a prenuptial agreement. This type of agreement is made between two people prior to marriage. It sets out rights to property and support, in case there’s a divorce or death. Both parties must reveal their finances. This is really helpful, when each may have different income sources, assets and expenses.

You should discuss whose name will be on the deed to your home, which is often the asset with the most value, as well as the beneficiary designations of your life insurance policies, 401(k)s and individual retirement accounts.

It is also important to review the agents under your health care directives and financial powers of attorney. Ask yourself if you truly want your stepchildren in any of these agent roles, which may include “pulling the plug” or ending life support.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about these important documents that you’ll need, when you say “I do” for the second (or third) time.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (February 24, 2019) “You’re in love again, but consider the legal and financial issues before it’s too late”

What Do I Do First After the Death of My Spouse?

There is no doubt that the stress can be all-consuming when a spouse passes away. It’s not a good time to make financial decisions. You should also avoid making any major changes for at least a year if you’re able. Allow your emotions to settle, prior to doing anything that could drastically impact your taxes and finances.

U.S. News & World Report recently published an article, “Don’t Make These Mistakes When Your Spouse Passes Away,” that warns us to take care to avoid these mistakes after the death of a spouse:

Taxes. Your tax-filing status will change after a spouse passes away. That could move you into a higher tax bracket or cause you to lose tax breaks. You can’t file married filing jointly and no longer have two exemptions. Check with your tax preparer before December if you need to make any adjustments prior to the close of the tax year.

Social Security and Annuity Income. You may also lose your deceased partner’s Social Security income. Widows and widowers can claim a Social Security survivor’s payment that’s equal to the amount the higher earning spouse received. However, there will now be just one Social Security check coming in, not two. In some instances, pension or annuity payments might also cease. You may see significant changes in your income.

Unplanned Withdrawals from Tax-Deferred Accounts. Many people seek to make up lost income, by taking retirement account withdrawals. However, a mistake can trigger both taxes and penalties. Income tax is due on each traditional 401(k) or IRA withdrawal because when you withdraw tax-deferred money, there are tax consequences. When you make a withdrawal from a spouse’s IRA, taxes are due. If you’re not 59½ or older, you could also pay a 10% early withdrawal penalty. Surviving spouses should try to minimize taxes on retirement account withdrawals to help the money last as long as possible.

Paying Taxes on Retirement Account Withdrawals Too Early. A surviving spouse can transfer tax-deferred retirement account assets into his or her name. That frequently lets a person further delay taxation. If you are under 70½, you can defer taxes into the future.

Paying a 10% Early Withdrawal Penalty. If the surviving spouse isn’t yet 59½ and needs some of the money in a retirement account, you can transfer the money into an inherited spousal IRA. If you need money, the IRS will let you take distributions. You’ll have to pay taxes, but you avoid the 10% penalty.

Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). Distributions from retirement accounts are required after age 70½—even in the year when the spouse passes away. If the decedent was in payout mode and past 70½, make certain that between the decedent and beneficiary, you still take the required minimum distribution. If you forget, there’s a possible penalty of up to 50% of what you should have taken.

Advice. It’s not easy or practical to delve into your finances, right after losing a loved one. Don’t make any big money moves without advice. Remember to also incorporate tax planning with your estate planning, and work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (February 15, 2019) “Don’t Make These Mistakes When Your Spouse Passes Away”

Do I Have All the Beneficiaries Set Up Correctly on My Assets?

Pretty much everything you own, transfers in one of three ways:  1) by title; 2) by will/trust; or 3) by contract.

When’s the last time you’ve reviewed your beneficiaries? This question was explored in a recent InsideNoVa article, “Naming Beneficiaries: A Quick Tip to Reduce the Surprise Factor.”

For example, if your checking account is titled in your spouse’s and your name “with rights of survivorship” (WROS), you effectively co-own the account. That one should be all set, at least until the surviving spouse dies.

Your will or trust instructs your executor on the transfer of any assets that aren’t transferred by title or contract. That’s probably at least some of your estate. Therefore, if you don’t have a will and/or a trust, make an appointment with an estate planning attorney to make sure you have this important document.

Next, the beneficiary designation contacts for assets like your retirement accounts, pension plans, and insurance policies should be reviewed when there’s a life event, like birth or adoption of a child, a divorce, or a marriage.

Start the process by identifying all the accounts you own, including life insurance policies, annuities, and the like that will pass by beneficiary designation. You should then see who the primary and contingent (secondary) beneficiaries are for each. You can usually assign percentages to your beneficiaries. Therefore, you could name your spouse as primary beneficiary, 100%. Your siblings could then be secondary beneficiaries in equal shares.

Some contracts allow you to have your funds be distributed “per stirpes.” In that case, if you name your three children as primary beneficiaries, they each would receive a third. However, if your eldest son dies with you, with per stirpes, his share will go to his children.

In addition, there may be situations when you might designate a trust as a beneficiary. This can get complicated, so work with an experienced trust and estate attorney.

In any situation, if it’s been a long time (or never) since you reviewed your beneficiary designations, do it right away.

Reference: InsideNoVa (October 26, 2018) “Naming Beneficiaries: A Quick Tip to Reduce the Surprise Factor”