Estate Planning Blog Articles

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financial windfall

How to Be Smart about a Financial Windfall

Few would complain about a financial windfall, but many people report feeling feelings of anxiety, guilt and stress about what to do with new-found wealth, and even more importantly, how to not blow it. Making a plan, says the article “Handling a financial windfall” from MSN Money.com, is the best way to start.

Treat yourself. Finding a balance between being cautious about the money and enjoying it is not easy, especially if you’ve never handled large sums of money before. One way to do this, is to set aside a certain percentage of the money for fun. Depending on your situation, that might be 5% or less.

What is the tax liability? Some windfalls come with taxes, and some don’t. Life insurance proceeds are not taxable, but an inherited IRA is. Gambling winnings are definitely taxable, as is income realized from the sale of a home or stocks. If you don’t know what the taxes on your windfall will be, find out before you spend anything.

Time for a team approach. If you don’t already have an estate planning attorney, a CPA or financial advisor, now is the time. Ask well-off friends, whose business acumen you respect, who they recommend. Speak with these professionals to learn about what they do, and don’t be shy about asking what they charge for their services.

Create financial and life goals. You may have choices now that you’ve never had. Knowing what matters to you, can help determine how you use the money. It’s very personal. Some of your choices:

  • Buying or upgrading a home
  • Investing in financial markets
  • Buying life insurance
  • Creating an emergency fund
  • Paying for education
  • Saving for retirement
  • Paying off credit card debt

These are just a few—the choices are limitless. Think about this from a long and short-term perspective. What matters today—buying a luxury car, for example—may become an expensive loss in ten years.

This is also the time to have an estate plan created, or if you have an estate plan, this is the time to update your plan. A big change in your financial situation may require changes to protect your assets, which can be done through your estate plan.

Enjoy the windfall but also be smart about protecting it.

Reference: MSN.Money.com (July 31, 2020) “Handling a financial windfall”

 

update a will

When Exactly Do I Need to Update My Will?

Many people say that they’ve been meaning to update their last will and testament for years but never got around to doing it.

Kiplinger’s article entitled “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will” gives us a dozen times you should think about changing your last will:

  1. You’re expecting your first child. The birth or adoption of a first child is typically when many people draft their first last will. Designate a guardian for your child and who will be the trustee for any trust created for that child by the last will.
  2. You may divorce. Update your last will before you file for divorce, because once you file for divorce, you may not be permitted to modify your last will until the divorce is finalized. Doing this before you file for divorce ensures that your spouse won’t get all of your money, if you die before the divorce is final.
  3. You just divorced. After your divorce, your ex no longer has any rights to your estate (unless it’s part of the terms of the divorce). However, even if you don’t change your last will, most states have laws that invalidate any distributive provisions to your ex-spouse in that old last will. Nonetheless, update your last will as soon as you can, so your new beneficiaries are clearly identified.
  4. Your child gets married. Your current last will may speak to issues that applied when your child was a minor, so it may not address your child’s possible divorce. You may be able to ease the lack of a prenuptial agreement, by creating a trust in your last will and including post-nuptial requirements before you child can receive any estate assets.
  5. A beneficiary has issues. Last wills frequently leave money directly to a beneficiary. However, if that person has an addiction or credit issues, update your last will to include a trust that allows a trustee to only distribute funds under specific circumstances.
  6. Your executor or a beneficiary die. If your estate plan named individuals to manage your estate or receive any remaining funds, but they’re no longer alive, you should update your last will.
  7. Your child turns 18. Your current last will may designate your spouse or a parent as your executor, but years later, these people may be gone. Consider naming a younger family member to handle your estate affairs.
  8. A new tax or probate law is enacted. Congress may pass a bill that wrecks your estate plan. Review your plan with an experienced estate planning attorney every few years to see if there have been any new laws relevant to your estate planning.
  9. You come into a chunk of change. If you finally get a big lottery win or inherit money from a distant relative, update your last will so you can address the right tax planning. You also may want to change when and the amount of money you leave to certain individuals or charities.
  10. You can’t find your original last will. If you can’t locate your last will, be sure that you replace the last will with a new, original one that explicitly states it invalidated all prior last wills.
  11. You purchase property in another country or move overseas. Many countries have treaties with the U.S. that permit reciprocity of last wills. However, transferring property in one country may be delayed, if the last will must be probated in the other country first. Ask your estate planning attorney about having a different last will for each country in which you own property.
  12. Your feelings change for a family member. If there’s animosity between people named in your last will, you may want to disinherit someone. You might ask your estate planning attorney about a No Contest Clause that will disinherit the aggressive family member, if he or she attempts to question your intentions in the last will.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 26, 2020) “12 Different Times When You Should Update Your Will”

estate plan mistakes

Two Words Could Undo Your Entire Estate Plan

No one relishes the idea of planning for their own death, but the alternative of not planning and leaving your family members to sort out an expensive mess is a poor way to be remembered. According to a recent article from Kiplinger, titled These 2 Words Could Send Your Retirement Money to the Wrong Beneficiary,” this information could save you from accidentally cutting someone out of your will.

First, always be sure the beneficiary designations on your retirement accounts, insurance accounts and any other accounts that permit you to have a named beneficiary, match up with your will and your wishes. Property and assets outside of your retirement accounts will be distributed by other estate planning tools, like trusts, or TODs (Transfer on Death) for jointly held assets. If you don’t make plans otherwise, most of your estate will go through probate. It’s can be expensive and time consuming, but with the right planning, it can be avoided.

Most people name their spouse as the primary beneficiary on their retirement account. If you don’t wish to do this, you may have to fill out paperwork and have your spouse sign a waiver agreeing to this. Federal law protects spouses, when it comes to certain types of retirement accounts, and ensuring that spouses receive each other’s retirement accounts is important, unless waived. After naming your primary beneficiary, you name contingent beneficiaries. If you are married and have children, it’s likely that your children will be your contingent beneficiaries. No children? In that case, a niece or nephew or other family member is usually named. By the way, if you want to give to charity, then retirement funds are the perfect asset to give.

The next decision to make is the key one: per stirpes or per capita. This step is often missed, because it’s not used on every asset form. Per stirpes is a Latin legal term that simply means if your primary beneficiary dies before you die, their next of kin inherits your assets. The alternative is per capita. By choosing per capita, your money only goes to your primary beneficiaries.

Here’s an example of how per capita might work.

Imagine a grandmother, daughter and granddaughter. The daughter is the primary beneficiary on the grandmother’s retirement account, but the grandmother forgets to name a contingent beneficiary.

If the daughter dies before the grandmother and the daughter is still listed as the primary beneficiary when the grandmother dies, the money won’t go the granddaughter. The money will go through probate and the court would decide who receives the money. Had the grandmother selected per stirpes, the money would have gone straight to the granddaughter, even if she were not listed as a contingent beneficiary. When you choose per stirpes, the next of kin to your primary beneficiary (or your heir’s heirs) receive their share of your property.

This is how per capita works. Per capita ensures that your money goes to your primary beneficiaries only. Per capita is also typically the default option most retirement savers have in place right now.

Depending on how you want your inheritance handled, it’s easy to see how this could be a costly estate planning mistake.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 30, 2020)These 2 Words Could Send Your Retirement Money to the Wrong Beneficiary

cryptocurrency in estate planning

How Do I Incorporate Cryptocurrency into My Estate Planning?

Planning for cryptocurrency has been neglected. It means that, in some cases, the cryptocurrency has been lost. There have been people who tossed their computer hard drives with thousands of bitcoins (now worth millions). They then spend days sifting through tons of garbage. To save your family from this trouble and embarrassment after you die, add your cryptocurrency into your estate plan to preserve the benefits and avoid the risks of cryptocurrency.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning When You Own Cryptocurrency” says, first, you must preserve the benefits of your cryptocurrency.

Cryptocurrency is highly secure. However, that security is in danger, if the private key is carelessly recorded or discarded. With the private key, anyone can access the cryptocurrency. As a result, your planning and procedures must address how to secure this information. Just like cash, cryptocurrency isn’t traceable. In fact, there’s no electronic or paper trail connecting the parties in a transaction involving cryptocurrency. Therefore, in order to preserve that privacy, you’ll need to plan so the other documentation in the transaction doesn’t reveal these identities, or at least keep that information privileged. Remember that transferring cryptocurrency takes only seconds.

Because cryptocurrency, like precious metals and other commodities, can fluctuate wildly in value even during the course of a day, it must be treated like stock in a private company and other assets that are volatile in nature. Cryptocurrency also isn’t subject to government regulation, so no government is responsible for losses from fraud, theft or other malfeasance.

Trusts and other planning devices have a tough time with cryptocurrency, especially if the Prudent Investor Rule applies. Without specific language, the trust won’t be capable of holding cryptocurrency. If that language is written too broadly, the trustee may be exempt from damages due to willful neglect.

Cryptocurrency is also taxed as property not as currency by the IRS, which means that the fair market value is set by conversion into U.S. dollars at “a reasonable exchange rate” and transactions involving cryptocurrency are subject to the capital gains tax regulations. As a result, you must have specific tax provisions in trusts, partnerships, LLCs, and other entities. Therefore, if you, or your business, own bitcoin or any other cryptocurrency, your estate, business succession, and financial plans need to address it specifically. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney for help.

Reference:  Wealth Advisor (August 4, 2020) “Estate Planning When You Own Cryptocurrency”

estate planning mistakes

Which Stars Made the Biggest Estate Planning Blunders?

Mistakes in the estate planning of high-profile celebrities are one very good way to learn the lessons of what not to do.

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Eight Lessons From Celebrity Estates” discussed some late celebrities who made some serious experienced estate planning blunders. Hopefully, we can learn from their errors.

James Gandolfini. The “Sopranos” actor left just 20% of his estate to his wife. If he’d left more of his estate to her, the estate tax on that gift would have been avoided in his estate. But the result of not maximizing the tax savings in his estate was that 55% of his total estate went to pay estate taxes.

James Brown. One of the hardest working men in show business left the copyrights to his music to an educational foundation, his tangible assets to his children and $2 million to educate his grandchildren. Because of ambiguous language in his estate planning documents, his girlfriend and her children sued and, years later and after the payment of millions in estate taxes, his estate was finally settled.

Michael Jackson.  Jackson created a trust but never funded the trust during his lifetime. This has led to a long and costly battle in the California Probate Court over control of his estate.

Howard Hughes. Although he wanted to give his $2.5 billion fortune to medical research, there was no valid written will found at his death. His fortune was instead divided among 22 cousins. The Hughes Aircraft Co. was bequeathed to the Hughes Medical Institute before his death and wasn’t included in his estate.

Michael Crichton. The author was survived by his pregnant second wife, so his son was born after his death. However, because his will and trust didn’t address a child being born after his death, his daughter from a previous marriage tried to cut out the baby boy from his estate.

Doris Duke. The heir to a tobacco fortune left her $1.2 billion fortune to her foundation at her death. Her butler was designated as the one in charge of the foundation. This led to a number of lawsuits claiming mismanagement over the next four years, and millions in legal fees.

Casey Kasem. The famous DJ’s wife and the children of his prior marriage fought over his end-of-life care and even the disposition of his body. It was an embarrassing scene that included the kidnapping and theft of his corpse.

Prince and Aretha Franklin. Both music legends died without a will or intestate. This has led to a very public, and in the case of Prince, a very contentious and protracted settlement of their estates.

So, what did we learn? Even the most famous (and the richest) people fail to carefully plan and draft a complete estate plan. They make mistakes with tax savings (Gandolfini), charities (Brown and Hughes), providing for family (Crichton), whom to name as the manager of the estate (Duke) and failing to prevent family disputes, especially in mixed marriages (Kasem).

If you have an estate plan, be sure to review your existing documents to make certain that they still accomplish your wishes. Get the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Forbes (July 16, 2020) “Eight Lessons From Celebrity Estates”

change home title

Is It Easy to Change My Home’s Title from Tenants in Common to Joint Tenants?

Many couples may have purchased a home years ago with the original deed titled as “William Smith and Wilhelmina Smith”. In some states, like Georgia, this defaults to tenants in common. With Wilhelmina being William’s wife for decades, they thought it was time to think about changing the title to William Smith and Wilhelmina Smith, joint tenants with right of survivorship.

The Washington Post’s recent article entitled “Changing a home title from ‘tenants in common’ to ‘joint tenants’” looks at whether this would result in any adverse consequences, such as issues with the title insurance or taxes issues.

When you own a home in joint tenancy, should either of the owners die, that owner’s interest automatically goes to the surviving joint tenant. However, when people own a home as tenants in common, each person owns a specific share of that home. Therefore, our hypothetical couple William Smith and Wilhelmina Smith each owns a 50% interest in the home. If either of them were to die, his or her 50% interest in the home would be distributed, as provided in his or her will or as provided by state probate statute.

If people purchase a home but don’t specify how they want to own the property, in most situations, the state law will say how the parties take title to the property when the deed is silent.

You can typically record a new document that puts both William Smith and Wilhelmina Smith on the title to the home, as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. When it’s a simple change in the title from tenants in common to joint tenants, most state tax authorities will ignore that change.

To be sure you should ask an experienced estate planning attorney or the office that collects or assesses values in your location for more information. However, it’s a pretty safe bet that the change won’t affect a home’s value.

As far as the title insurance policy, after so many years, it would be doubtful there would be any problems. That’s because the original title insurance policy named William Smith and Wilhelmina Smith as the insured. If they change the ownership from tenants in common to joint tenants, the Smiths are still the owners of the home and still named on that policy.

Reference: Washington Post (July 6, 2020) “Changing a home title from ‘tenants in common’ to ‘joint tenants’”

estate plan check up

A Non-Medical Check Up – For Your Estate Plan

An estate plan isn’t just for you—it’s for those you love. It should include a will and possibly, trusts, a power of attorney for financial affairs and a health care directive. As many as 60% of all Americans don’t have a will. However, the COVID-19 crisis has highlighted for everyone the need to have those documents. For those who have an estate plan, the need for a tune-up has become very clear, says the article “Time for a non-medical checkup? Review your will” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

With any significant change in your life, a review of your estate plan is in order. Keep in mind that none of your estate planning documents are written in stone. They should be changed when your life does. COVID-19 has also changed many of our lives. Let’s take a look at how.

Has anyone you named as a beneficiary died, or become estranged from you? Will everyone who is a beneficiary in your current estate plan still receive what you had wanted them to receive? Are there new people in your life, family members or otherwise, with whom you want to share your legacy?

The same applies to the person you selected as your executor. As you have aged over the years, so have they. Are they still alive? Are they still geographically available to serve as an executor? Do they still want to take on the responsibilities that come with this role? Family members or trusted friends move, marry, or make other changes in their lives that could cause you to change your mind about their role.

Over time, you may want to change your wishes for your children, or other beneficiaries. Maybe ten years ago you wanted to give everyone an equal share of an inheritance, but perhaps circumstances have changed. Maybe one child has had career success and is a high-income earner, while another child is working for a non-profit and barely getting by. Do you want to give them the same share?

Here’s another thought—if your children have become young adults (in the wink of an eye!), do you want them to receive a large inheritance when they are young adults, or would you want to have some control over when they inherit? Some people stagger inheritances through the use of trusts, and let their children receive significant funds, when they reach certain ages, accomplishments or milestones.

Have you or your children been divorced, since your estate plan was last reviewed? In that case, you really need to get that appointment with an estate planning attorney! Do you want your prior spouse to have the same inheritance you did when you were happily married? If your children are married to people you aren’t sure about, or if they are divorced, do you want to use estate planning to protect their inheritance? That is another function of estate planning.

Taking out your estate plan and reviewing it is always a good idea. There may be no need for any changes—or you may need to do a major overhaul. Either way, it is better to know what needs to be done and take care of it, especially during a times like the one we are experiencing right now.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (July 27, 2020) “Time for a non-medical checkup? Review your will”

visiting grandparent during pandemic

Visiting Grandma at the Nursing Home

In spots where visits have resumed, they’re much changed from those before the pandemic. Nursing homes must take steps to minimize the chance of further transmission of COVID-19. The virus has been found in about 11,600 long-term care facilities, causing more than 56,000 deaths, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

AARP’s recent article entitled “When Can Visitors Return to Nursing Homes?” explains that the federal Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services (CMS) has provided benchmarks for state and local officials to use, in deciding when visitors can return and how to safeguard against new outbreaks of COVID-19 when they do. The CMS guidelines are broad and nonbinding, and there will be differences, from state to state and nursing home to nursing home, regarding when visits resume and how they are handled. Here are some details about the next steps toward reuniting with family members in long-term care.

When will visits resume? As of mid-July, 30 states permitted nursing homes to proceed with outdoor visits with strict rules for distancing, monitoring and hygiene. The CMS guidelines suggest that nursing homes continue prohibiting any visitation, until they have gone at least 28 days without a new COVID-19 case originating on-site (as opposed to a facility admitting a coronavirus patient from a hospital). CMS says that these facilities should also meet several additional benchmarks, which include:

  • a decline in cases in the surrounding community
  • the ability to provide all residents with a baseline COVID-19 test and weekly tests for staff
  • enough supplies of personal protective equipment (PPE) and cleaning and disinfecting products; and
  • no staff shortages.

Where visits are permitted, it should be only by appointment and in specified hours. In some states, only one or two people can visit a particular resident at a time. Even those states allowing indoor visits are suggesting that families meet loved ones outdoors. Research has shown that the virus spreads less in open air.

Health checks on visitors. The federal guidelines call for everyone entering a facility to undergo 100% screening. However, the CMS recommendations don’t address testing visitors for COVID-19.

Masks. The federal guidelines say visitors should be required to “wear a cloth face covering or face mask for the duration of their visit,” and states that allow visitation are doing so. The guidelines also ask nursing homes to make certain that visitors practice hand hygiene. However, it doesn’t say whether facilities should provide masks or sanitizer.

Social distancing. The CMS guidelines call on nursing homes that allow visitors to ensure social distancing, but they don’t provide details. States that have permitted visits, state that facilities enforce the 6-foot rule.

Virtual visits. Another option is to make some visits virtual. Videoconferencing and chat platforms have become lifelines for residents and families during the pandemic. Continued use after the lockdowns can minimize opportunities for illness to spread.

Reference: AARP (July 22, 2020) “When Can Visitors Return to Nursing Homes?”

tax laws

Take Advantage of Tax Laws Now

The pundits are saying that the if Democrats win the White House and possibly Congress, expect changes to income, gift generation skipping transfer and estate taxes. This recent article from Forbes, “Use It Or Lose It: Locking In the $11.58 Million Unified Credit” says that the time to act is now.

Since 2000, the estate and gift tax exemption has taken a leap from $675,000 and a top marginal rate of 55% to an exemption of $11.58 million and a top marginal rate of 40%. However, it’s not permanent. If Congress does nothing, the tax laws go back in 2026 to a $5.6 million exemption and a top marginal rate of 55%. The expectation is that if Biden wins in November, and if Congress enacts the changes published in his tax plan, the exemption will fall to $3.5 million, and the top marginal rate will jump to 70%.

The current exemption and tax rate may be as good as it gets.

If you make a taxable gift today, you can effectively make the current tax laws permanent for you and your family. The gift will be reported in the year it is made, and the tax laws that are in effect when the gift is made will permanently applicable. Even if the tax laws change in the future, which is always a possibility, there have been proposed regulations published by the IRS that say the new tax laws will not be imposed on taxable gifts made in prior years.

Let’s say you make an outright taxable gift today of $11.58 million, or $23.16 million for a married couple. That gift amount, and any income and appreciation from the date of the gift to the date of death will not be taxed later in your estate. The higher $11.58 million exemption from the Generation Skipping Transfer Tax (GSTT) can also be applied to these gifts.

Of course, you’ll need to have enough assets to make a gift and still be financially secure. Don’t give a gift, if it means you won’t be able to support your spouse and family. To take advantage of the current exemption amount, you’ll need to make a gift that exceeds the reversionary exemption of $3.5 million. One way to do this is to have each spouse make a gift of the exemption amount to a Spousal Lifetime Access Trust (SLAT), a trust for the benefit of the other spouse for that spouse’s lifetime.

Be mindful that such a trust may draw attention from the IRS, because when two people make gifts to trusts for each other, which leaves each of them in the same economic position, the gifts are ignored and the assets in the trusts are included in their estate. The courts have ruled, however, that if the trusts are different from each other, based on the provisions in the trusts, state laws and even the timing of the creation and funding of the trusts may be acceptable.

These types of trusts need to be properly administered and aligned with the overall estate plan. Who will inherit the assets, and under what terms?

A word of caution: these are complex trusts and take time to create. Time may be running out. Speak with a skilled estate planning attorney with knowledge of tax law.

Reference: Forbes (July 17, 2020) “Use It Or Lose It: Locking In the $11.58 Million Unified Credit”

estate planning

How Do I Make Sure My Wife Gets the House?

Nj.com’s article “Will my wife get my house when I die?” explains that many of life’s transitions and big events, such as marriage, divorce, new job, birth or adoption of a child and others, are the triggers to address in your estate and financial plan.

It’s not uncommon for a person’s decisions made before marriage as a bachelor, not to match up with a future with a new spouse.

As far as making certain that a house with a sister on the deed passes to the spouse, depends on how the house was titled at purchase. The titling of an asset can affect the way in which it would be transferred at death.

With real estate, most frequently, a person would have titled it either as Tenancy in Common (TIC) or Joint Tenancy with Rights of Survivorship (JTWROS).

If a person elects to go with JTWROS, then at his death, the house will avoid probate and pass entirely to the sister.

The law stipulates that the sister would be the full owner of the house, in which the man and his new wife had been living.

If you select to title as TIC, upon the man’s death, his half of the house would go to his estate. This doesn’t avoid probate. Therefore, the rights of the estate will be determined according to the decedent’s will.

However, neither scenario is too great for the wife. This potentially leaves her in a stressful situation upon her husband’s death.

A wise approach is for the man to begin a dialog with the sister and an experienced estate planning attorney, who can help draft an agreement or help to change the titling of the house.

His will and beneficiaries should also be updated at the same time.

Another recommendation is to consider life insurance to provide for the wife after his death.

Reference: nj.com (June 18, 2020) “Will my wife get my house when I die?”