Estate Planning Blog Articles

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What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?

The executor’s job includes gathering all of the assets, determining the value and ownership of real estate, securities, bank accounts and any other assets and filing a formal inventory with the probate court. Every state has its own rules, forms and deadline for the process, says a recent article from yahoo! Finance titled “What Do I Need to Do to Prepare an Estate Inventory for Probate,” which recommends contacting a local estate planning attorney to get it right.

The inventory is used to determine the overall value of the estate. It’s also used to determine whether the estate is solvent, when compared to any claims of creditors for taxes, mortgages, or other debts. The inventory will also be used to calculate any estate or inheritance taxes owed by the estate to the state or federal government.

What is an estate asset? Anything anyone owned at the time of their death is the short answer. This includes:

  • Real estate: houses, condos, apartments, investment properties
  • Financial accounts: checking, savings, money market accounts
  • Investments: brokerage accounts, certificates of deposits, stocks, bonds
  • Retirement accounts: 401(k)s, HSAs, traditional IRAs, Roth IRAs, pensions
  • Wages: Unpaid wages, unpaid commissions, un-exercised stock options
  • Insurance policies: life insurance or annuities
  • Vehicles: cars, trucks, motorcycles, boats
  • Business interests: any business holdings or partnerships
  • Debts/judgments: any personal loans to people or money received through court judgments

Preparing an inventory for probate may take some time. If the decedent hasn’t created an inventory and shared it with the executor, which would be the ideal situation, the executor may spend a great deal of time searching through desk drawers and filing cabinets and going through the mail for paper financial statements, if they exist.

If the estate includes real property owned in several states, this process becomes even more complex, as each state will require a separate probate process.

The court will not accept a simple list of items. For example, an inventory entry for real property will need to include the address, legal description of the property, copy of the deed and a fair market appraisal of the property by a professional appraiser.

Once all the assets are identified, the executor may need to use a state-specific inventory form for probate inventories. When completed, the executor files it with the probate court. An experienced estate planning attorney will be familiar with the process and be able to speed the process along without the learning curve needed by an inexperienced layperson.

Deadlines for filing the inventory also vary by state. Some probate judges may allow extensions, while other may not.

The executor has a fiduciary responsibility to the beneficiaries of the estate to file the inventory without delay. The executor is also responsible for paying off any debts or taxes and overseeing the distribution of any remaining assets to beneficiaries. It’s a large task, and one that will benefit from the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: yahoo! finance (Dec. 3, 2022) “What Do I Need to Do to Prepare an Estate Inventory for Probate”

Can I Contest Dad’s Will While He’s Still Living?

The Maryland Daily Record’s recent article entitled “Wills cannot be challenged until testator dies, Md. appeals court says” explains the Court of Special Appeals said a will or revocable trust is only a draft document until its drafter, or testator, has died.

As a result, those challenging a living person’s will or trust would be merely “presumptive heirs” who have no legal standing to challenge a legal document that’s not yet final.

“Pre-death challenges to wills may be a waste of time – the testator might replace the will with a new one, die without property, or the challenger might die before the testator,” Judge Andrea M. Leahy wrote for the Court of Special Appeals.

The appellate court’s decision was the second defeat for Amy Silverstone, whose legal challenge to her mother Andrea Jacobson’s will was dismissed by a Montgomery County Circuit Court judge for lack of standing.

Silverstone argued that the will should be declared void based on her claim that her aunt unduly influenced her mother. The mother suffers from dementia and memory impairment.

This undue influence led Silverstone’s mother, Andrea Jacobson, to change her will in 2018 to expressly “disinherit” Silverstone and her son, Silverstone alleged.

The mother’s new will stated that Silverstone and her son shall not “in any way be a beneficiary of or receive any portion of the trust or the grantor’s estate.”

The disinheritance came amid a falling out between mother and daughter, according to court documents.

Silverstone’s challenge to the will and related trust is premature while her mother is alive, the court held.

Reference: The Maryland Daily Record (Dec. 12, 2022) “Wills cannot be challenged until testator dies, Md. appeals court says”

What’s Is the Best Way to Give to Charity?

Charitable giving plays a valuable role in estate and tax planning. A well-planned donation can also provide a healthy income tax deduction, along with a reduction of estate taxes. Your generous donation could help to maintain financial security, exert control over assets during life and after death and provide for heirs, as explained in a recent article titled “Charitable giving good for heart, 1040” from the Valdosta Daily Times.

To accomplish any of these objectives, you’ll want to work with an experienced estate planning attorney who can help tailor an estate plan to your individual circumstances. Here are some strategies to consider.

Gifts of appreciated property might allow you to avoid capital gains tax owed when the asset is sold and, if planned properly, might allow you to receive an income tax deduction, usually worth the fair market value of the asset.

Removing any assets from your estate reduces the potential estate tax liability.

If you want to make a donation to a charity but you’d like to maintain some control over it, a Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT) might be a good fit. A CRT works best when funded by an appreciated asset, such as real estate or stock in a family owned business.

Once the property is transferred to the CRT, the CRT can sell the appreciated assets it holds without paying capital gains taxes. It then continues to provide income generated by the CRT to the beneficiaries for a period of time, as instructed by the CRT. At the end of this period, the remainder of the CRT is donated to the charity. You avoid capital gains on the assets you donated, an income stream and you also receive a tax deduction.

Another strategy is to use a Charitable Lead Trust or CLT. With a CLT, you give the charity the use of the asset and the right to any income generated for a predetermined time. When the time period ends, the asset reverts to you or is given to whoever you designate in the CLT. Appropriate assets for a CLT could be income-producing stocks and bonds, a valued collection or a painting transferred to a museum for a certain period of time.

You likely receive a current income tax deduction for the value to the charity. However, you receive no other direct benefit during the term. If a CLT is created upon your death, estate tax liability could be reduced.

Early tax planning can help make the most of any charitable giving opportunities and let you take full advantage of any additional benefits. Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney to receive guidance appropriate to your unique situation.

Reference: Valdosta Daily Times (Dec. 4, 2022)  “Charitable giving good for heart, 1040”

Will I Live Longer If I Walk Every Day?

In a study of more than 25,000 older adults who didn’t regularly exercise, engaging in three sets of vigorous activity for up to two minutes each at some point during the day was connected with a 39% lower risk for all-cause mortality versus no activity at all, according to Emmanuel Stamatakis, PhD, of the University of Sydney in Australia, and colleagues.

MedPage Today’s recent article entitled “Can Just Minutes of Daily Activity Prolong Life?” reports that even the minimum of 1½ minute-long sessions of exercise daily reaped mortality benefits compared with not engaging in any activity at all. However, those at the top of the range in this study — getting 11 short bursts of vigorous activity daily (about 16 minutes total) — saw all-cause mortality risk drop by even more.

Engaging in just a few minutes of vigorous intermittent lifestyle physical activity (VILPA) throughout the day was also protective against cardiovascular disease-related mortality, the group reported in Nature Medicine. Engaging in three one-minute bouts per day was linked with a 49% lower cardiovascular mortality risk. Those that engaged in the maximum frequency again saw the greatest benefit. Nonetheless, even engaging in the minimum was still significantly protective against heart-related death.

The researchers also found the same pattern for cancer-related mortality risk.

“We found that as little as 3 to 4 minutes of VILPA per day was associated with substantially reduced mortality risk compared to doing no VILPA,” Stamatakis told MedPage Today, noting how these were “very sizeable effect sizes.”

“We were not surprised that we detected beneficial associations; we knew that vigorous physical activity is very potent, especially when it is intermittent and repeated,” he said. “But the large magnitude of the associations was quite surprising, considering how little daily physical activity we are talking about.”

“Interestingly, is not unlikely that participants in this study did not know that they were doing vigorous physical activity,” Stamatakis remarked.

These short bursts of vigorous-intensity physical activity were considered a part of daily life. They included instances of short bursts of fast walking during a commute or climbing a set of stairs.

Reference: MedPage Today (Dec. 8, 2022) “Can Just Minutes of Daily Activity Prolong Life?”

Does My Estate Plan Need an ‘ePlan’?

Modern estate plans should include what’s known as an “ePlan” to manage online accounts and online data. There are four specific steps to creating an effective ePlan, says American Legion’s recent article entitled “Estate planning and online accounts.”

  1. Create a List of Accounts and How to Access Them. Your list should specify the username, password account number and a description of what’s included in each account. Make sure to keep this list up to date.
  2. Store and Protect Your Info. Develop a plan for storing information, including saving the list you compiled and backing up important data files and account information. Since an ePlan account list contains sensitive information, such as usernames and passwords, it’s important to maintain the security and confidentiality of this list.
  3. Designate a Digital Executor. The laws of many states give access to online accounts to the executor of an estate. However, in some cases, state law may restrict access, if the executor doesn’t have the password or an estate plan does not clearly grant powers to the executor to access these accounts.
  4. Give Your Executor “Digital Directions.” Draft a letter of instruction to the digital executor and tell him or her how to manage your online accounts and digital assets. It may also include suggestions on the distribution of accounts, assets, files and information to family.

Note that Google, Facebook, Twitter, Apple and other companies have policies for when an account holder dies. These policies may permit an account holder to designate a “Legacy Contact” to manage the account; require specific documentation before a deceased person’s account can be closed, such as a copy of a death certificate; or automatically close an account after an extended period of inactivity, such as three months.

Digital estate planning is a new and dynamic field. By adding an ePlan to your estate plan, you can be certain your executor will take the right steps to preserve and protect these accounts and that valuable and sentimental data can be passed on to family and loved ones.

Reference: American Legion (Dec. 13, 2022) “Estate planning and online accounts”

How to Talk to Parents about Estate Planning

Research from the National Alliance for Caregiving (NAC) and AARP shows that more than 50 million Americans currently serve as unpaid caregivers. This number has increased by nearly 25% since 2015. Statistically, baby boomers and women take on the biggest caregiving burden when it comes to providing care for aging family members. As life expectancy increases, and baby boomers advance well into senior years of their own, the need for caregiving will only continue to rise.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Holiday Season Tips For Caregivers” says that as the number of seniors in America continues to grow, we find ourselves on the verge of the largest transfer of wealth in history. It is estimated that 45 million Americans will transfer some $68 trillion over the next 25 years.

As a result, having estate planning conversations has become more important than ever.

Discussions about money and mortality can be challenging and emotional. Here are some tips on how to broach this sensitive subject with family and loved ones.

Schedule a time: This can be an overwhelming topic, but don’t ignore it. Scheduling dedicated time to open the dialogue and creating a timeline to complete the basic estate planning documents can make the process more manageable and keep everyone involved accountable.

Share your wealth of knowledge: Share your knowledge about what the documents mean, how and when they come into play, as well as what happens if there’s no estate plan in place. Remind them that this is their chance to ensure that their wishes are carried out.

Ask questions: Provided the person is in a sound state of mind, they’re in a position to be involved in the decision-making. Ask open-ended questions like what steps have already been taken and document as much as possible without judgment.

Share your plan: Sharing your ideas and discussing your own plans can ease tension and help eliminate fears. It shows others that they’re not alone in the planning process.

Leave the conversation open-ended: The key to these planning conversations is empathy because many seniors are experiencing a variety of emotions. Reassure them that you’re available for future conversations and will plan to check back in at the times set forth in the timeline you created together.

You should also ask an experienced estate planning attorney for assistance.

Reference: Forbes (Nov. 29, 2022) “Holiday Season Tips For Caregivers”

Are My Children Entitled to My Money?

Let’s say that one of your children hasn’t had contact with you since COVID in 2019. She’s been off the radar and never calls. You may not feel obligated to give them an inheritance.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “We want to cut one child out of our will. Can we?” says that adult children aren’t legally entitled to an inheritance.

Unfortunately, will contests generally happen where a child who’s left less, or disinherited, thinks that a sibling has wrongly influenced a parent to leave more to him or her.

This is particularly problematic if the parent is elderly and/or in ill health and completely reliant on that child for assistance.

A will contest is a probate proceeding where interested parties dispute the validity of a will.

The most common legal grounds for disputing the validity of a will are undue influence, duress, mistake and the decedent’s lack of capacity when they signed the will.

To properly avoid a will contest, you should work with a qualified estate planning attorney who will document his or her file and prepare a will for you with appropriate language.

Note that it isn’t necessary or advisable to provide an explanation as to why you’re disinheriting a child. That’s because if you give a reason, that reason may cause controversy.

If avoiding litigation is a priority, as an alternative to totally disinheriting a child, your attorney can also talk with you about the different forms of “no-contest” clauses that can be placed in a will.

This clause, also called an `in terrorem’ clause, indicates that if a beneficiary raises a claim with respect to the will, he or she will lose his or her inheritance.

There’s also typically a time limit to contesting a will. For example, in Minnesota, those with standing who want to contest a will must do so within a year after the death of the deceased person.

For a no-contest clause to be effective, a child must be a beneficiary of some amount in your will.

The courts will uphold this clause, unless it finds there is probable cause for bringing a court action.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 2, 2022) “We want to cut one child out of our will. Can we?”

Can I Leave Money to My School in My Estate Plan?

Mahlon “Jack” Kohler passed away in September 2021, at the age of 96. In his will, he left $40,000 to Northeast Community College in Norfolk, Nebraska for nursing and optometry scholarships. The gift has been placed in an endowment and will provide assistance for nursing students in perpetuity.

News Channel Nebraska’s recent article entitled “Norfolk man leaves $40,000 to Northeast Community College for nursing scholarships” reports that, prior to graduating high school, Mr. Kohler was called to duty by the United States Navy in 1943.

After basic training, he was sent to the Pacific Theatre where he was stationed at Guadalcanal, New Guinea, Russell and Amerilites Islands. He then returned to the Brooklyn, New York Naval Base in 1945. He received an honorable discharge on May 6, 1946.

After his discharge from the Navy, Mr. Kohler moved back to Norfolk and worked for American Optical Company for 33 years. He was recognized as a World War II Honorary Sentinel in front of over 86,000 fans at Memorial Stadium in Lincoln during a Cornhusker football game just after celebrating his 95th birthday.

“Jack lived in the Norfolk area for many years and was always fond of education,” said his stepson, Ronald Kotrous. “He decided to choose nursing (for his benevolence) because of the people. In the last few years, they were really good to Jack and to my mom, so they wanted to give back to that community.”

“Endowed scholarships are a great way to create a legacy,” said Dr. Tracy Kruse, vice president of development and external affairs at Northeast and executive director of the Northeast Foundation. “The principal of an endowment is invested, and scholarships are paid from the earnings.”

Kruse encouraged others to consider Northeast Community College in their estate planning.

“Planned giving provides an opportunity to make a large gift while still caring for your loved ones,” she said. “An estate gift is probably the largest charitable donation you will ever make, and the best opportunity to leave a lasting legacy.”

Reference: News Channel Nebraska (Nov. 29, 2022) “Norfolk man leaves $40,000 to Northeast Community College for nursing scholarships”

It Is Important to Update Your Estate Plan

Individuals who have a will, a power of attorney for health care, a financial power of attorney and a living will might believe they are done with estate planning. They’re only half right. There are many reasons an estate plan needs to be revised or updated, as explained in the recent article “10 reasons to update your estate plan” from American Legion.

New children, grandchildren, or a change in heirs. Most estate plans make provisions for children and heirs who are living when you die. If you have a specific transfer in your estate plan, a new child or one who has not been included in your will may receive a smaller inheritance, or no inheritance at all.

Here’s an example: Jane Doe has a $1 million estate and left a home valued at $400,000 to her first-born son Jason. She divided the rest of her estate, with 1/6 of the balance going to Jason and 5/6 to Justin. If a third child is born, depending on the laws of her state, the third child might receive nothing. Family strife or litigation could easily be the legacy she leaves. Thus, the arrival of a new heir is a reason to update your estate plan.

If you are married and move to a different state, there may be laws impacting ownership and inheritance. Some states are “common law” property states, others are “community property” states. If you move, clarify the ownership of your property as either separate or jointly owned.

Some states still have state inheritance or estate taxes. Many have taxes applied at lower levels than the federal exemption per person. Depending on who your heirs are and the state, you may be giving heirs a large tax liability, in addition to an inheritance.

Power of Attorney laws also vary from state to state, as do living wills or advance directives. You’ll want to be sure your medical planning documents reflect your state’s laws.

Selling or buying a major asset can change your plan and its results. If you transfer a property which has appreciated in value and a large estate tax is to be paid from your estate, beneficiaries could receive less than you intended.

Most estates contain cash, cash equivalents, stocks, real estate and retirement accounts. If your retirement accounts, including 401(k)s, IRAs, pensions, or other accounts, have become the largest portion of your estate, you should review the accounts and their tax impacts on heirs.

Families with unmarried brothers and sisters often receive an inheritance and remember their surviving siblings with an inheritance. However, if there are two or three unmarried siblings, one will inevitably become the survivor and hold most of the assets. If you have included a sibling in your estate plan, there is also the chance they will die before you.

Single people have different estate plans than married couples. A single person who transfers assets to a former spouse will not qualify for the unlimited marital deduction. If there is a divorce and beneficiary designations on retirement plans and insurance policies are not updated, the named person will receive the assets.

When a will is created, it names an executor and a successor executor. If the primary executor predeceases the person making the will, a new executor will need to be added. It’s always better to have two candidates for a position than one.

Estate plans are impacted by changes in asset value, changes in the family and changes in federal and estate law. Every three to five years, meet with your estate planning attorney to review your plan and be sure it still accomplishes what you want.

Reference: American Legion (Nov. 28, 2022) “10 reasons to update your estate plan”

What Games are Best for Brain Health?

Researchers at Columbia University in New York City and Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, recently found that older participants — with an average age of 71 — who were trained to complete computerized crossword puzzles showed more of a cognitive improvement compared with those who were trained to use web-based cognitive video games, reports Money Talks News’ recent article entitled, “Crossword Puzzles or Video Games: Which Better Protects Your Brain?”

In a summary of the study’s findings, Dr. D.P. Devanand, professor of psychiatry and neurology at Columbia, remarked:

“This is the first study to document both short-term and longer-term benefits for home-based crossword puzzles training compared to another intervention. The results are important in light of difficulty in showing improvement with interventions in mild cognitive impairment.”

The researchers explain that mild cognitive impairment is a stage between the cognitive decline that is normal with aging and full-blown dementia. Those with mild cognitive impairment may struggle with memory, language, thinking or judgment.

The researchers went on to note that those with mild cognitive impairment are at a significant risk for dementia, including Alzheimer’s disease.

As part of the study, 107 participants with mild cognitive impairment were trained for 12 weeks in either crossword puzzles or cognitive games.

Follow-up “booster sessions” were then held for up to 78 weeks.

While both forms of training were equally effective early in the course of disease, crossword puzzles were better in the later stages. Those who used crossword puzzles showed less brain shrinkage at 78 weeks.

Dr. Devanand says the study results show that further research on developing a home-based digital therapeutic for delaying Alzheimer’s disease “should be a priority for the field.”

Reference: Money Talks News (Nov. 5, 2022) “Crossword Puzzles or Video Games: Which Better Protects Your Brain?”