Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Am I Named in a Will? How Would I Know?

Imagine a scenario where three brothers’ biological father passed away a decade ago. The father wasn’t married to the brothers’ mother, plus, he had another family with three children, grandchildren, and great grandchildren. The father never publicly acknowledged that the three boys were his children. They’ve now heard rumors that he left them something in his will—which may or may not exist. The father’s wife has also passed away.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “How can we find out if our father left us something in his will?” explains that a parent isn’t required to leave his or her adult children an inheritance.

If a person doesn’t leave a will when they die, the intestacy laws of the state in which he or she dies will dictate how the decedent’s property is divided.

For example, if you die without a will in Kansas, your assets will go to your closest relatives. If there were children but no spouse, the children inherit everything. If there is a spouse and descendants, the spouse inherits one-half of your intestate property, and your descendants inherit the other one-half of your intestate property.

In Illinois, if you’re married and you pass away without a will, the portion given to your spouse is based upon whether you have living descendants, such as children and grandchildren.

In New Jersey, if the decedent is survived by a spouse and children—this includes any children who are not children of the surviving spouse—the surviving spouse gets the first 25% of the intestate estate, but not less than $50,000 nor more than $200,000, plus one-half of the balance of the intestate estate. In that state, the descendants of the decedent would receive the remainder.

Note that an intestate estate doesn’t include property that’s in the joint name of the decedent and another person with rights of survivorship or payable upon death to another beneficiary. In our problem above, the issue would be whether the three boys would’ve been entitled to a percentage of the property permitted under the state intestacy statute, or under a will if you could prove there was one.

However, the time for the three boys to make a claim against their father’s estate would have been at his death. A 10-year delay is a problem. It may prevent a recovery because there are time limitations for bringing legal actions. However, they may have other claims, and there may be reasons you are not too late.

Litigation is very fact-specific, and the rules are state-specific. The boys should talk to an estate litigation attorney, if they think there are enough assets to make at it worth their while.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 29, 2020) “How can we find out if our father left us something in his will?”

Some States Have No Estate or Inheritance Taxes

The District of Columbia already moved to reduce its exemption from $5.67 million in 2020 to $4 million for individuals who die on or after Jan. 1, 2021. A resident with a taxable estate of $10 million living in the District of Columbia will owe nearly $1 million in state estate tax, says the article “State Death Tax Hikes Loom: Where Not To Die In 2021” from Forbes. It won’t be the last change in state death taxes.

Seventeen states and D.C. levy their own inheritance or estate taxes in addition to the federal estate tax, which as of this writing is so high that it effects very few Americans. In 2021, the federal estate tax exemption is $11.7 million per person. In 2026, it will drop back to $5 million per person, with adjustments for inflation. However, that is only if nothing changes.

President Joseph Biden has already called for the federal estate tax to return to the 2009 level of $3.5 million per person. The increased tax revenue purportedly would be used to pay for the costs of fighting the “pandemic” and the “infrastructure improvements” he plans, but many believe such a move would potentially destroy family businesses, farms and ranches that drive and feed the economy in the first place. If that were not troubling enough, President Biden has threatened to eliminate the step up in basis on appreciated assets at death.

This change at the federal level is likely to push changes at the state level. States that don’t have a death tax may look at adding one as a means of increasing revenue, meaning that tax planning as a part of estate planning will become important in the near future.

States with high estate tax exemptions could reduce their state exemptions to the federal exemption, adding to the state’s income and making things simpler. Right now, there is a disconnect between the federal and the state tax exemptions, which leads to considerable confusion.

Five states have made changes in 2021, in a variety of forms. Vermont has increased the estate tax exemption from $4.25 million in 2020 to $5 million in 2021, after sitting at $2.75 million from 2011 to 2019.

Connecticut’s estate tax exemption had been $2 million for more than ten years, but in 2021 it will be $7.1 million. Connecticut has many millionaires that the state does not wish to scare away, so the Nutmeg state is keeping a $15 million cap, which would be the tax due on an estate of about $129 million.

Three states increased their exemptions because of inflation. Maine has slightly increased its exemption because of inflation to $5.9 million, up from $5.8 million in 2020. Rhode Island is at $1,595.156 in 2021, up from $1,579,922 in 2020. In New York, the exemption amount increased to $5.93 million in 2021, from $5.85 million in 2020.

The overall trend in the recent past had been towards reducing or eliminating state estate taxes. In 2018, New Jersey dropped the estate tax, but kept an inheritance tax. In 2019, Maryland added a portability provision to its estate tax, so a surviving spouse may carry over the unused predeceased spouse’s exemption amount. Most states do not have a portability provision.

Another way to grab revenue is targeting the richest estate with rate hikes, which is what Hawaii did. As of January 1, 2020, Hawaii boosted its state estate tax on estates valued at more than $10 million to 20%.

If you live in or plan to move to a state where there are state death taxes, talk with your estate planner to create a flexible estate plan that will address the current and future changes in the federal or state exemptions. Some strategies could include the use of disclaimer trusts or other estate planning techniques. While you’re at it, keep an eye on the state’s legislature for what they’re planning.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 15, 2021) “State Death Tax Hikes Loom: Where Not To Die In 2021”

What are the Issues with COVID Vaccinations Sign-ups for Seniors?

With states across the U.S. providing the COVID-19 vaccine to people 65 and older, seniors are trying to determine how to make an appointment to receive their shots. Many government agencies ask people to make appointments online. However, website errors, overwhelmed phone lines and a collection of changing rules are frustrating seniors who are frequently less tech-savvy, may live farther from vaccination sites and are less likely to have Internet access—especially minority populations and the poor.

ABC News’ recent article entitled “Online sign-ups complicate vaccine rollout for older people” reports that almost 9.5 million seniors (16.5% of Americans 65 and older) lack internet access, according to U.S. Census Bureau data. Moreover, the access is worse for minority seniors, with more than 25% of Black people, about 21% of Hispanic people and over 28% of Native Americans age 65 and older have no way to get online. Compare that with 15.5% of white seniors.

In the San Francisco Bay Area, Dr. Rebecca Parish has been saddened by the bureaucratic red tape and continued calls for help from seniors. An 83-year-old patient called her in tears, unable to navigate the online appointment system at her local drugstore. After several of these types of calls, Dr. Parish took action. She contacted Contra Costa County and acquired 500 doses to vaccinate people at a middle school in Lafayette, California. She’s also working with nonprofits to identify seniors who don’t live in nursing homes and risk falling through the cracks. All her appointments have been taken, but she’ll begin adding more when more doses are available.

Many health officials have been trying to find other solutions to ease the confusion and help senior citizens sign up, as the Trump administration asked states to make the nation’s 57.6 million seniors eligible for the COVID-19 vaccine.

Some spots have discovered that simple ideas can work. For example, in Morgantown, West Virginia, county health officials used a large road construction sign to list the phone number for seniors to call to make an appointment. Some are looking at working with community groups or setting up mobile clinics for more remote populations.

Some medical systems, like UCHealth in Colorado, are trying to partner with community groups to get vaccines to underserved populations, like seniors. Local doctors are volunteering at a clinic hosted by a church that brings in the vaccine and helps build trust between health care workers and residents.

For now, UCHealth schedules appointments online, but a COVID-19 hotline is in the works because of the volume of calls from seniors. Howwever, even a Colorado health provider setting up vaccine clinics for underserved communities, Salud Family Health Centers, said their phone lines aren’t equipped to handle the number of calls they’re getting and encouraged people to go online.

Reference: ABC News (Jan. 15, 2021) “Online sign-ups complicate vaccine rollout for older people”

Can Mom Live in the Backyard?

When one Georgia senior thought about moving closer to her daughter in an Atlanta suburb, she realized she couldn’t afford to buy a home.

Therefore, her daughter researched building a cottage in her own backyard. This fall, they made a deposit on a Craftsman-style design by a local architect who will manage the project from permits to completion. The 429-square-foot home will have one bedroom and bathroom, a galley kitchen and living area and a covered porch.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “A Retirement Home Is a Tiny House in the Kids’ Backyard” reports that driven by an aging population and a scarcity of affordable housing, accessory dwelling units (ADUs) are a new trend in multigenerational living. These units are also known as in-law suites, garage apartments, carriage houses, casitas and “granny flats.” Freddie Mac found the share of for-sale listings with an ADU rose 8.6% year-over-year since 2009.

Homes such as these can be created by finishing a basement or attic, converting a garage, reconfiguring unused space, adding on, custom-building a detached unit, or installing a prefab. This unit can also be a source of rental income. A homeowner could also use it to house a parent, child or caregiver; downsize into it themselves to rent the main house; or make it into an office or guest quarters.

Converting existing space is less expensive than building a detached unit. A prefab ADU is cheaper and quicker to install than one built on site. However, a custom project allows you to include aging-in-place features, like a step-free entry, wider doorways and a handicapped accessible shower.

An ADU also allows seniors some privacy, so they’ll feel at home, rather than a visitor or intruder. You might add a private entrance and soundproofing to the shared walls of an in-law suite. Sitting areas indoors and outdoors will let you or a parent enjoy solitude, entertain friends without asking for permission and avoid feeling locked in.

Prior to using your nest egg to create an ADU on a child’s property, think about the way in which you’ll pay for the care you will inevitably need someday. You can’t sell the ADU to raise funds and renting it out after you’ve moved elsewhere is unlikely to cover the cost of your care.

In addition, note that if a parent gives a child money to build an ADU within the look-back period when applying for Medicaid, they may be penalized with delayed coverage.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 31, 2020) “A Retirement Home Is a Tiny House in the Kids’ Backyard”

Do I Assume My Parents’ Timeshare when They Die?

Ridding yourself of a timeshare can be difficult. Frequently, heirs of a timeshare owner don’t want to take on the liability and the responsibility.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Can I leave a timeshare to the timeshare company in my will?” explains that as a general rule, unless it’s in an attempt to defraud creditors, a beneficiary may always renounce or disclaim a bequest made to him or her in a will.

However, if you write a provision in your will, it doesn’t mean that it’s legal, needs to be followed, or can be carried out.

As an example, a beneficiary designation on a bank account or certificate of deposit (CD) to your brother Dirk would take precedence over a specific bequest in your will that the same account or CD goes to your brother Chris. In that instant, the bank will pay the bank account or CD to your brother Dirk—no matter what your will says.

Likewise, with shares in a closely held business. If there is a contract between the shareholders dictating what happens to shares of the business if someone dies, that agreement will also override a provision in your will.

A timeshare is a contract. That means the terms of that contract control what happens. Your will doesn’t.

If the will doesn’t contradict the contract, like bequeathing the timeshare to a third-party who will continue to pay the contract obligations, both documents can co-exist.

A timeshare owner can’t avoid contractual obligations by just giving back the unit back to the corporation, unless that’s permitted in the contract.

The timeshare corporation isn’t required to take back a timeshare unit whether it is returned by the terms of the will or by the executor in administrating the estate, unless the signed timeshare agreement provides for this, or terms of the return are negotiated.

Reference: nj.com (Dec. 24, 2020) “Can I leave a timeshare to the timeshare company in my will?”

What Estate Planning Documents Should I Have when I Retire?

Research shows that most retirees (53%) have a last will and testament. However, they don’t have six other crucial legal documents.

Money Talks News’ recent article entitled “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have” says in fact, in this pandemic, 30% of retirees have none of these crucial documents — not even a will — according to the 20th annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Retirees.

In addition, the Transamerica survey found the following among retirees:

  • 32% have a power of attorney or medical proxy, which allows a designated agent to make medical decisions on their behalf
  • 30% have an advance directive or living will, which states their end-of-life medical preferences to health care providers
  • 28% have designated a power of attorney to make financial decisions in their stead
  • 19% have written funeral and burial arrangements
  • 18% have filled out a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) waiver, which allows designated people to talk to their health care and insurance providers on their behalf; and
  • 11% have created a trust.

The study shows there is a big gap that retirees need to fill, if they want to be properly prepared for the end of their lives.

The coronavirus pandemic has created an even more challenging situation. Retirees can and should be taking more actions to protect their health and financial well-being. However, they may find it hard while sheltering in place.

Now more than ever, seniors may need extra motivation and support from their families and friends.

The Transamerica results shouldn’t shock anyone. That is because we have a long history of disregarding death, and very important estate planning questions. No one really wants to ponder their ultimate demise, when they can be out enjoying themselves.

However, planning your estate now will give you peace of mind. More importantly, this planning can save your heirs and loved ones a lot of headaches and stress, when you pass away.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney today to get your plan going.

Reference: Money Talks News (Dec. 16, 2020) “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have”

How will an Apple Watch Help Study Dementia?

AI’s recent article entitled “Biogen will use Apple Watch to study symptoms of dementia,” says that this study will last for multiple years, and will launch later this year. People from a wide gamut of ages and cognitive performance levels will be asked to take part by Biogen.

They hope to find out if wearable devices like the Apple Watch could be used for long-term cognitive performance monitoring.

The ultimate objective is to develop digital biomarkers for cognitive performance monitoring over time, which may help identify early signs of mild cognitive impairment (MCI).

There are now serious delays in recognizing declines in cognitive health. This impacts about 15 to 20% of adults over the age of 65. The subtle onset of symptoms, including being easily distracted and memory loss, may take months or even years before it is observed as a cognitive decline by healthcare providers.

“The successful development of digital biomarkers in brain health would help address the significant need to accelerate patient diagnoses and empower physicians and individuals to take timely action,” said Biogen CEO Michel Vounatsos. “For healthcare systems, such advancements in cognitive biomarkers from large-scale studies could contribute significantly to prevention and better population-based health outcomes, and lower costs to health systems.”

Apple believes that this study “can help the medical community better understand a person’s cognitive performance, by simply having them engage with their Apple Watch and iPhone,” said Apple COO Jeff Williams. “We’re looking forward to learning about the impact our technology can have in delivering better health outcomes through improved detection of declining cognitive health,” he said.

The Apple Watch has been used for a number of health studies in the past, which are done with the research app. There have been studies to detect heart issues before they become an issue, as well as a hearing study monitoring ambient sound volumes, and activity and movement.

The dementia study is designed to ensure consumer privacy, control and transparency. It will emphasize data security.

The participants must complete a detailed consent from listing the collected data types and how they are used and shared before taking part. They can withdraw at any time.

Reference: AI (Jan. 11, 2021) “Biogen will use Apple Watch to study symptoms of dementia”

Estate of Charles Schulz Still Making Money

Charles Schulz’s estate made $32.5 million in the past year. That placed third on the list of the highest-paid dead celebrities. Michael Jackson is number one and fellow cartoonist Theodor Geisel aka Dr. Seuss is number two.

Some of Schulz’s income is from the new Apple TV+ show “Snoopy in Space,” as well as classics like “A Charlie Brown Christmas.”

Wealth Advisor’s recent article “Decades After His Death The Estate Of Charles Schulz Is Still Making A TON Of Money” reports the Peanuts creator is consistently one of the highest-earning dead celebrities. Schulz himself is thought to have earned more than $1 billion during the comic strip’s unprecedented 50-year run.

Schulz was born in 1922 in Minneapolis. He knew he wanted to be a cartoonist in kindergarten when he started drawing Popeye. By high school, he was submitting his original cartoons to his school paper, as well as local magazines. After his service in Europe during World War II, Schulz created a cartoon called “Li’l Folks” for the St. Paul Pioneer Press. His cartoons were noticed by United Feature Syndicate, a newspaper syndication company. They offered to syndicate Schulz’s cartoons to their national network of newspapers with one condition: they wanted him to change the name of his comic strip to Peanuts. Schulz hated that, but United Feature Syndicate was already running a comic with a very similar name, and this wasn’t an opportunity he could pass up.

The first Peanuts cartoon ran in 1950, when Schulz was 28 years old. That first year, just seven newspapers ran Peanuts. However, by 1953, Peanuts was a hit, and Schulz was earning $30,000 a year (about $292,000 today). At its zenith, Peanuts was syndicated to more than 2,600 newspapers in 71 countries and 21 languages every day. The comic strip characters also made a fortune with merchandise and endorsements. In the 1980s, Schulz was the highest-paid celebrity in the world by a wide margin. He made $30 million in royalties (about $65 million today). From 1990 until his death in 2000, he earned $40 million a year.

Over nearly 50 years, Schulz drew 17,897 published Peanuts strips. The last of his cartoons was published on Feb. 12, 2000, one day after he died. Remarkably, Schulz wrote and drew every single comic himself. When he died, his will said that no new Peanuts comic strips could be drawn by another cartoonist. So far, his wishes have been honored.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Dec. 8, 2020) “Decades After His Death The Estate Of Charles Schulz Is Still Making A TON Of Money”

How Does a Trust Work for a Farm Family?

There are four elements to a trust, as described in this recent article “Trust as an Estate Planning Tool,” from Ag Decision Maker: trustee, trust property, trust document and beneficiaries. The trust is created by the trust document, also known as a trust agreement. The person who creates the trust is called the trustmaker, grantor, settlor, or trustor. The document contains instructions for management of the trust assets, including distribution of assets and what should happen to the trust, if the trustmaker dies or becomes incapacitated.

Beneficiaries of the trust are also named in the trust document, and may include the trustmaker, spouse, relatives, friends and charitable organizations.

The individual who creates the trust is responsible for funding the trust. This is done by changing the title of ownership for each asset that is placed in the trust from an individual’s name to that of the trust. Failing to fund the trust is an all too frequent mistake made by trustmakers.

The assets of the trust are managed by the trustee, named in the trust document. The trustee is a fiduciary, meaning they must place the interest of the trust above their own personal interest. Any management of trust assets, including collecting income, conducting accounting or tax reporting, investments, etc., must be done in accordance with the instructions in the trust.

The process of estate planning includes an evaluation of whether a trust is useful, given each family’s unique circumstances. For farm families, gifting an asset like farmland while retaining lifetime use can be done through a retained life estate, but a trust can be used as well. If the family is planning for future generations, wishing to transfer farm income to children and the farmland to grandchildren, for example, a granted life estate or a trust document will work.

Other situations where a trust is needed include families where there is a spendthrift heir, concerns about litigious in-laws or a second marriage with children from prior marriages.

Two main types of trust are living or inter-vivos trusts and testamentary trusts. The living trust is established and funded by a living person, while the testamentary trust is created in a will and is funded upon the death of the willmaker.

There are two main types of living trusts: revocable and irrevocable. The revocable trust transfers assets into a trust, but the grantor maintains control over the assets. Keeping control means giving up any tax benefits, as the assets are included as part of the estate at the time of death. When the trust is irrevocable, it cannot be altered, amended, or terminated by the trustmaker. The assets are not counted for estate tax purposes in most cases.

When farm families include multiple generations and significant assets, it’s important to work with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that the farm’s property and assets are protected and successfully passed from generation to generation.

Reference: Ag Decision Maker (Dec. 2020) “Trust as an Estate Planning Tool”

States with Most Affordable Long-Term Care?

Seven in 10 people 65 and older will require some type of long-term care during their lifetime. This expense will vary based on the patient’s required level of care, care setting and geographic location, says Think Advisor’s recent article entitled “15 Cheapest States for Long-Term Care: 2020.”

A recent study by Genworth found that the cost for facility and in-home care services increased on average from 1.9% to 3.8% per year from 2004 to 2020. That amounts to $797 annually for home care and as much as $2,542 annually for a private room in a nursing home.

At the current rate, some care costs are more than the 1.8% U.S. inflation rate, Genworth said.

These findings were taken from 14,326 surveys completed this summer by long-term care providers at nursing homes, assisted living facilities, adult day health facilities and home care providers. The survey encompassed 435 regions based on the 384 U.S. Metropolitan Statistical Areas, as defined by the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.

In a follow-up study, Genworth also found that these factors are contributing to rate increases for long-term care:

  • Labor shortages
  • Personal protective equipment (PPE) costs
  • Regulatory changes, such as updated CDC guidelines
  • Employee recruitment and retention issues
  • Wages demands; and
  • Supply and demand.

Here are the 15 cheapest states for long-term care, according to Genworth with their average annual cost:

15. Utah: $59,704

14. Kansas: $57,766

13. Iowa: $57,735

12. Kentucky: $57,540

11. South Carolina: $57,413

10. Tennessee: $56,664

9. North Carolina: $56,512

8. Georgia: $53,708

7. Mississippi: $52,461

6. Arkansas: $50,835

5. Oklahoma: $50,641

4. Texas: $48,987

3. Missouri: $48,753

2. Alabama: $48,240

1. Louisiana: $44,811

Reference: Think Advisor (Dec. 14, 2020) “15 Cheapest States for Long-Term Care: 2020”