Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Elderly Woman Thanks Firefighters for Ride to Visit Husband at Nursing Home

An senior in San Diego was so grateful for the help of local firefighters, she wanted to thank them in person with a big bag of sweets, reports NBC San Diego’s recent article entitled “Stranded La Jolla Woman, 87, Brings Treats to Firefighters Who Gave Her a Lift.”

“It was a long time I was waiting for that cab. If it wasn’t for you, I’d be there all night,” La Jolla resident Sandy Lightman recalled telling San Diego Fire-Rescue Department Captain Jordan Buller on May 10, the night of her “rescue.”

The article said that Mrs. Lightman may have needed a fire engine to haul the three dozen cookies and four cheesecakes to Captain Buller and the Station 35 crew.

The 87-year-old explained that she’d just ended one of her daily trips to a nursing facility, where she cares for her husband who’s living with dementia.

She started requesting a cab around 8:20 p.m., but it didn’t show. So, she kept calling.

Hours later at 11 p.m., while on another call to the facility, Captain Buller and his crew recognized Lightman’s distress.

“She was frantically trying to call family and call a cab and we could tell she was distraught,” he said.

“I can’t walk that well, and I was only two-and-a-half blocks from where I live but I was afraid to go on the street by myself. I didn’t know if I’d make it home,” she said.

Since the cab wasn’t coming, the San Diego fire firefighters loaded Lightman into the cab of their engine.

They strapped her into the jump seat—and even gave her headphones to wear for the trip.

“It felt so secure, it made me feel so good because they were helping me and I knew I was safe, because I was afraid,” said Mrs. Lightman.

Back home safely, the grateful woman says she’s thankful to the local news outlet that was able to help track down the station who treated her with such kindness, so she could spoil them with some sweet treats.

Lightman and her husband will celebrate 40 years of marriage next week.

Reference: NBC San Diego (May 24, 2022) “Stranded La Jolla Woman, 87, Brings Treats to Firefighters Who Gave Her a Lift”

How Do I Conduct an Estate Inventory?

When a loved one dies, it may be necessary for their estate to go through probate—a court-supervised process in which his or her estate is settled, outstanding debts are paid and assets are distributed to the deceased person’s heirs. An executor is tasked with overseeing the probate process. An important task for an executor is submitting a detailed inventory of the estate to the probate court.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?” looks at the estate inventory. During probate, the executor is charged with several duties, including collecting assets, estimating the fair market value of all assets in the estate, ascertaining the ownership status of each asset and liquidating assets to pay off outstanding debts, if needed. The probate court will need to see an inventory of the estate’s assets before distributing those assets to the deceased’s heirs.

An estate inventory includes all the assets of an estate belonging to the individual who’s passed away. It can also include a listing of the person’s liabilities or debts. In terms of assets, this would include:

  • Bank accounts, checking accounts, savings accounts, money market accounts and CDs
  • Investment accounts
  • Business interests
  • Real estate
  • Pension plans and workplace retirement accounts, such as 401(k)s, 403(b)s and 457 plans
  • Life insurance, disability insurance, annuities and long-term care insurance
  • Intellectual property, such as copyrights, trademarks and patents
  • Household items
  • Personal effects; and

Here’s what’s included in an estate inventory on the liabilities side:

  • Home mortgages;
  • Outstanding business loans, personal loans and private student loans;
  • Auto loans associated with a vehicle included on the asset side of the inventory
  • Credit cards and open lines of credit
  • Any unpaid medical bills
  • Unpaid taxes; and
  • Any other outstanding debts, including unpaid court judgments.

There is usually no asset or liability that’s too small to be included in the estate inventory.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Feb. 15, 2022) “What Is Included in an Estate Inventory?”

Is a Roth Conversion a Good Idea when the Market Is Down?

A stock market downturn may be a prime time for a Roth IRA conversion, reports CNBC’s recent article titled “Here’s why a Roth individual retirement account conversion may pay off in a down market.” This is especially true if you were considering a Roth conversion and never got around to it.

A Roth conversion allows higher earners to sidestep earnings limits for Roth IRA contributions, which are capped at $144,00 MAGI (Modified Adjusted Gross Income) for singles and $214,000 for married couples filing jointly in 2022.

Investors make non-deductible contributions to a pre-tax IRA, before converting funds to a Roth IRA. The tradeoff is the upfront tax bill created by contributions and earnings. The bigger the pre-tax balance, the more taxes you’ll pay on the conversion. However, the current market may make this a perfect time for a Roth conversion.

Let’s say you own a traditional IRA worth $100,000, and its value drops to $65,000. Ouch! However, you can save money by converting $65,000 to a Roth instead of $100,000. You’ll pay taxes on the $65,000, not $100,000.

According to Fidelity Investments, the first quarter of 2022 saw Roth conversions increase by 18%, compared to the first quarter of 2021. That was before the second quarter’s market volatility, which has been more dramatic.

The decision to do a Roth conversion can’t take place in a vacuum. Consider how many years of tax savings it will take to break even on the upfront tax bill. Weigh combined balances across any other IRA accounts, because of the “pro-rata rule,” which factors in your total pre-tax and after-tax funds to determine your tax costs.

Attractive features of the Roth IRA are the freedom to take—or not take—distributions when you want, and there are no taxes on the withdrawals. However, there is an exception, and it pertains to conversions—the five year rule.

If you do a conversion from a traditional IRA to a Roth IRA, you have to wait five years before making any withdrawals of the converted balance, regardless of your age. It’s an expensive mistake, with a 10% penalty. The clock begins running on January 1 of the year of the conversion. If you are close to retirement and will need funds within that timeframe, you’ll need other assets to live on.

However, there’s more. If the conversion increases your Adjusted Gross Income (AGI), it may create other issues. Medicare Part B calculates monthly premiums using Modified Adjusted Gross Income (MAGI) from two years prior, which means a higher income in 2022 will lead to higher Medicare bills in 2024.

Before doing a Roth conversion, evaluate your entire financial and retirement situation.

Reference: CNBC (May 10, 2022) “Here’s why a Roth individual retirement account conversion may pay off in a down market”

What about House Contents when Someone Dies?

Probate law does not allow anyone to take items from a loved ones’ home after they die, until the will has been probated. Learning about probate, what it entails and how to prepare for it may make it a little easier when a family member dies, says a recent article titled “Can you empty a house before probate? from Augusta Free Press. Knowing what to expect can avoid common pitfalls and mistakes, some of which often lead to family fights and even litigation.

Probate is a court-supervised period when the estate of the decedent is on pause. Assets may not be distributed, including personal items in the home. The goal is to ensure that assets are distributed only after the will has been ruled valid by the court and following the instructions in the will.

Probate includes the legal appointment of the executor, who is named in the will with specific statutory responsibilities, to include ultimately distributing assets.

For many people, estate planning includes preparing assets to avoid the probate process. An estate plan includes a review of the entire estate to see which assets are best suited to be taken out of the estate. Living trusts, joint ownership, transfer-on-death (TOD) and many other estate planning strategies can be used, depending on the person’s finances.

Certain tasks can be accomplished during probate relating to the home and other property. This includes changing the locks on the home to protect it from criminals and unauthorized people who have keys. The decedent’s mail can be forwarded to the executor or another family member’s address. A review of the decedent’s bills, especially monthly payments, can take place. If there’s a mortgage on the home, the mortgage company needs to be contacted and the payments need to be made.

As the end of the probate period nears, it may be time to contact an appraiser to get an unbiased, professional appraisal of the home’s value. This will be needed if the home is to be sold, or if the estate plan needs a valuation of the home.

Probate is often a necessary process. It can create challenges for the family, especially if no estate planning has been done. In some jurisdictions, probate is quick and painless, while in others it is a long and expensive process. Prior planning by an experienced estate planning attorney prevents many of the issues presented by probate.

After probate has been completed, the executor distributes the assets, including the personal property in the home. Personal property with sentimental value often sparks more family fights than assets of greater value. Administering an estate when emotions are running high is a challenge for all concerned.

Another reason to have an estate plan in place is to delineate very specifically what you want to occur after your death. That way there is no room for family members to stake a claim and do something contrary to your wishes.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (May 13, 2022) “Can you empty a house before probate?

What Should I Know about Estate Planning before ‘I Do’?

Romance is in the air. Spring is the time for marriages, and with America coming out of the pandemic, wedding calendars will be filled.

AZ Big Media’s recent article entitled “5 estate planning tips for newlyweds” gives those ready to walk down the aisle a few things to consider.

  1. Prenuptial Agreement. Commonly referred to as a prenup, this is a written contract that you and your spouse enter into before getting legally married. It provides details on what happens to finances and assets during your marriage and, of course, in the event of divorce. A prenup is particularly important if one of the spouses already has significant assets and earnings and wishes to protect them in the event of divorce or death.
  2. Review you restate plan. Even if you come into a marriage with an existing plan, it’s out of date as soon as you’re wed.
  3. Update your beneficiary designations. Much of an individual’s estate plan takes place by beneficiary designations. Decide if you want your future spouse to be a beneficiary of life insurance, IRAs, or other pay on death accounts.
  4. Consider real estate. A married couple frequently opts to live in the residence of one of the spouses. This should be covered in the prenup. However, in a greater picture, decide in the event of the death of the owner, if you’d want this real estate to pass to the survivor, or would you want the survivor simply to have the right to live in the property for a specified period of time.
  5. Life insurance. You want to be sure that one spouse is taken care of in the event of your death. A married couple often relies on the incomes of both spouses, but death will wreck that plan. Think about life insurance as a substitute for a spouse’s earning capacity.

If you are soon-to-be-married or recently married and want to discuss it with an expert, make an appointment with a skilled estate planning attorney.

Reference:  AZ Big Media (March 23, 2022) “5 estate planning tips for newlyweds”

What are the Most Important Estate Planning Documents for Seniors?

Thinking about death is unpleasant. However, when it comes to guarantees in life, it’s one of the few. A properly prepared estate plan can take some of the uncertainty out of your money’s future.

Estate planning needs differ a lot between individuals. However, most Americans can benefit from having these four documents in place, says The Ascent’s recent article entitled “4 Estate Planning Documents Everyone Should Have.”

  1. Last will and testament. A will directs the disposition of your assets and allows for specific bequests, such as a gift of sentimental value. For those with minor children, guardianship is established in the will in the event both parents die.
  2. Financial power of attorney. Powers of attorney typically spring into effect upon incapacitation. This document lets someone represent an incapacitated person in certain financial matters. For example, just because you are incapacitated does not mean you get out of filing your tax return!
  3. Healthcare power of attorney. This document gives an attorney-in-fact the right to make healthcare-related decisions for you, in case you become incapacitated. Rights given to an attorney-in-fact through a healthcare power of attorney include speaking to medical professionals about your care, deciding on treatment—even deciding to stop your treatment in a vegetative state. Appointing an attorney-in-fact is a big decision, and a large responsibility for the attorney-in-fact. As a result, it’s important to establish a living will to guide their decision making.
  4. Living will. This is also called an advance directive. This document provides guidance to both healthcare professionals and those appointed as attorneys-in-fact. Supplementing an estate plan with a living will can ensure that your final wishes are known and executed and can prevent a great deal of agony for those making decisions regarding your health care.

Some states allow individuals to draft and execute estate documents. However, it’s still always advisable to hire a legal professional.

An experienced attorney will speak with you about your personal and financial circumstances and draft a will in accordance with your wishes.

Reference: The Ascent (May 13, 2022) “4 Estate Planning Documents Everyone Should Have”

What Is the Purpose of a Pet Trust?

You don’t have to be a billionaire to want to protect your pets. However, you do need to plan for their well-being, if something happens to you. Since pets are considered property, they can’t inherit money to be used for their care. Instead, as explained in a recent article from Barron’s Penta “Future Returns: Why Fido Needs a Trust” titled owners can create pet trusts to protect them, if something happens to their humans. With close to 70% of American households having pets, pet trusts have now become mainstream.

Owners need to designate a reliable caregiver, just as they would designate a guardian for minor children. If you don’t have family members or friends who love animals, contact a local animal rescue group to learn if they have a life-long care program for animals. Many do, with programs incorporating Charitable Remainder Trusts to cover the cost of the pet’s care.

If you want a friend or relative to care for your pet, make sure they are willing and able to do so.  You should have another person as a back-up, in case something happens to them. Circumstances change, and someone who wants to take care of your pet now may not be able to in future years. How long you need to plan for depends upon the lifespan of your pet.

An experienced estate planning attorney can create a pet trust. Because state law enforces conditional distributions from the trust, the care of your pet can be enforced in court, if necessary. The pet owner names a beneficiary, the caregiver and funds the trust with enough assets to care for the pet.

The pet owner also names a trustee. They are a responsible person who will be in charge of distributing funds and making sure they are used for the pet’s well-being. The trustee also makes sure that the pet is healthy and being properly cared for, following the directions of the trust.

Your estate planning attorney will know what your state’s laws are regarding pet trusts, which varies from state to state. For instance, Pennsylvania requires a pet trust to end when the last pet in the trust dies, while other states may limit the trust’s length to 21 years. For dogs and cats, 21 years is a reasonable period of time. However, for other pets, like birds who can live to 100 years, this won’t be long enough.

You’ll need to fund the trust, making sure that there’s enough money to cover the pet’s needs throughout their lifetime. You may also consider the caregiver’s needs, depending on circumstances. How much is reasonable will depend upon the type of pet and the lifestyle of the caretaker. An apartment dweller caring for an elderly cat will need a different level of resources than a person tasked to care for a young horse.

Some states limit the amount of money in a pet trust and will penalize overfunding. Making sure your pet trust is appropriately funded may limit the likelihood of its being challenged.

Reference: Barron’s Penta (April 18, 2022) “Future Returns: Why Fido Needs a Trust”

What’s the VA Doing about Long Wait Times?

In his recent testimony before the House Appropriations Committee, Veterans Affairs Secretary Denis McDonough said he’s concerned about delivering accurate information on appointment timeliness to veterans as they seek to resume care that was deferred or canceled in recent years, reports Military Times’ recent article entitled “VA secretary promises improvements in medical wait time data.”

“If you look at our average wait times across the system, they’re good, but it’s a big system and we’re coming out of a pandemic,” he said. “So, I fear that there are outliers where people are waiting too long.”

Wait times at VA facilities made headlines in 2014, after whistleblowers revealed that officials were manipulating data to cover up long delays in care to meet performance metrics. During President Trump’s administration, the department began posting wait-time data online for all VA hospitals and clinics in an attempt to show more transparency into how long veterans have to wait for routine or specialty appointments.

However, in a report released Thursday, the VA Inspector General’s office said much of that data remains confusing and misleading.

“The Veterans Health Administration] has sometimes presented wait times with different methodologies, using inconsistent start dates that affect the overall calculations without clearly and accurately presenting that information to the public,” officials wrote.

In response to similar concerns raised by lawmakers, Secretary McDonough said that “we have to do a better job with that” and said he expects an announcement on changes related to the wait time issues in coming months. We’re working really hard on it because I am frustrated with it myself.”

Broad legislation has been stalled in the Senate over concerns about cost and potential workload burdens on Veterans Affairs workers. That’s raised concerns about pressure on the VA health care system, and if veterans could see a significant increase in the time it takes to schedule appointments.

Health officials have touted new pandemic telehealth options within the department as a way to help ease the burden on facilities facing increased requests.

However, lawmakers said that in rural areas — locations with some of the longest wait times already — a lack of reliable internet access may restrict the availability of those services.

Reference: Military Times (April 8, 2022) “VA secretary promises improvements in medical wait time data”

Is Putting a Home in Trust a Good Estate Planning Move?

A typical estate at death will include a personal residence. It’s common for a large estate to also include a vacation home, or family retreat. Leaving real property in trust is common.

Estate plans that include a revocable trust will fund the trust by a pour-over, says Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Should You Own Your Home in Your Trust?”

A settlor (the person establishing a trust) often will title their home to the revocable trust, which becomes irrevocable at death.

Another option is a Qualified Personal Residence Trust, which is irrevocable, to gift a valuable home to a trust for the settlor’s children. With a QPRT, the house is passed over a term of years while the original owner continues to live there, so the gift passes with little or no gift or estate tax.

Some trusts arising from a decedent estate will hold the home belonging to the settlor without any instructions for its disposal or retention. Outside of very large trusts, a requirement to actually purchase homes for beneficiaries in the trust is far less common.

It is more common in a large trust to have terms that let the trustee buy a home for a beneficiary outside the trust or keep the settlor’s home in the trust for a beneficiary’s use, including purchasing a replacement home when requested.

The trustee will hopefully propose a plan that will satisfy the beneficiary without undue risk to the trust estate or exceeding the trustee’s powers. The most relevant considerations for homeownership in a trust are:

  • The competing needs of other trust beneficiaries
  • The purchase price and costs of maintaining the home
  • The size of the trust as compared to those costs
  • Other sources of income and resources available to the beneficiary; and
  • The interests of the remaindermen (beneficiaries who will take from the trust when the current beneficiaries’ interests terminate).

The terms of the trust may require the trustee to ignore some of these considerations.

Each situation requires a number of decisions that could expose the trustee to a charge that it has acted imprudently.

Those who want to create a trust should work with an experienced estate planning attorney to avoid any issues.

Reference: Kiplinger (Feb. 8, 2022) “Should You Own Your Home in Your Trust?”

Does Power of Attorney Perform the Same Way in Every State?

A power of attorney is an estate planning legal document signed by a person, referred to as the “principal,” who grants all or part of their decision-making power to another person, who is known as the “agent.” Power of attorney laws vary by state, making it crucial to work with an estate planning attorney who is experienced in the law of the principal’s state of residence. The recent article from limaohio.com, titled “When ‘anything and everything’ does not mean anything and everything,” explains what this means for agents attempting to act on behalf of principals.

When a global or comprehensive power of attorney grants an agent the ability to do everything and anything, it may seem to the layperson they may do whatever they need to do. However, each state has laws defining an agent’s role and responsibilities.

As a matter of state law, a power of attorney does not include everything.

In some states, unless certain powers are explicitly stated, the POA does not include the right to do the following:

  • Create, amend, revoke, or terminate a trust
  • Make a gift
  • Change a beneficiary designation on an account
  • Change a beneficiary designation on a life insurance policy.

If you want your agent to be able to do any of these things, consult with an experienced estate planning attorney, who will know what your state’s law allows.

You’ll also want to keep in mind any gifting empowered by the POA. If you want your agent to gift your property to other people or to the agent, the power to gift is limited to $16,000 of value to any person in one year, unless the POA explicitly states the power to gift may exceed $16,000. An estate planning attorney will know what your state’s limits are and the tax implications of any gifts in excess of $16,000.

These types of limitations are intended to give some common-sense parameters to the POA.

Most people don’t know this, but the power of attorney can be as narrow or as broad as the principal wishes. You may want your brother-in-law to manage the sale of your home but aren’t sure he’ll do a good job with your fine art collection. Your estate planning attorney can create a power of attorney excluding him from taking any role with the art collection and empowering him to handle everything else.

Reference: limaohio.com (April 30, 2022) “When ‘anything and everything’ does not mean anything and everything”