Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Top 10 Success Tips for Estate Planning

Unless you’ve done the planning, assets may not be distributed according to your wishes and loved ones may not be taken care of after your death. These are just two reasons to make sure you have an estate plan, according to the recent article titled “Estate Planning 101: 10 Tips for Success” from the Maryland Reporter.

Create a list of your assets. This should include all of your property, real estate, liquid assets, investments and personal possessions. With this list, consider what you would like to happen to each item after your death. If you have many assets, this process will take longer—consider this a good thing. Don’t neglect digital assets. The goal of a careful detailed list is to avoid any room for interpretation—or misinterpretation—by the courts or by heirs.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to create wills and trusts. These documents dictate how your assets are distributed after your death. Without them, the laws of your state may be used to distribute assets. You also need a will to name an executor, the person responsible for carrying out your instructions.

Your will is also used to name a guardian, the person who will raise your children if they are orphaned minors.

Who is the named beneficiary on your life insurance policy? This is the person who will receive the death benefit from your policy upon your death. Will this person be the guardian of your minor children? Do you prefer to have the proceeds from the policy used to fund a trust for the benefit of your children? These are important decisions to be made and memorialized in your estate plan.

Make your wishes crystal clear. Legal documents are often challenged if they are not prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney or if they are vaguely worded. You want to be sure there are no ambiguities in your will or trust documents. Consider the use of “if, then” statements. For example, “If my husband predeceases me, then I leave my house to my children.”

Consider creating a letter of intent or instruction to supplement your will and trusts. Use this document to give more detailed information about your wishes, from funeral arrangements to who you want to receive a specific item. Note this document is not legally binding, but it may avoid confusion and can be used to support the instructions in your will.

Trusts may be more important than you think in estate planning. Trusts allow you to take assets out of your probate estate and have these assets managed by a trustee of your choice, who distributes assets directly to beneficiaries. You don’t have to have millions to benefit from a trust.

List your debts. This is not as much fun as listing assets, but still important for your executor and heirs. Mortgage payments, car payments, credit cards and personal loans are to be paid first out of estate accounts before funds can be distributed to heirs. Having this information will make your executor’s tasks easier.

Plan for digital assets. If you want your social media accounts to be deleted or emails available to a designated person after you die, you’ll need to start with a list of the accounts, usernames, passwords, whether the platform allows you to designate another person to have access to your accounts and how you want your digital assets handled after death. This plan should be in place in case of incapacity as well.

How will estate taxes be paid? Without tax planning properly done, your legacy could shrink considerably. In addition to federal estate taxes, some states have state estate taxes and inheritance taxes. Talk with your estate planning attorney to find out what your estate tax obligations will be and how to plan strategically to pay the taxes.

Plan for Long Term Care. The Department of Health and Human Services estimates that about 70% of Americans will need some type of long-term care during their lifetimes. Some options are private LTC insurance, government programs and self-funding.

The more planning done in advance, the more likely your loved ones will know what to do if you become incapacitated and know what you wanted when you die.

Resource: Maryland Reporter (Sep. 27, 2022) “Estate Planning 101: 10 Tips for Success”

Can a Trust Be Created to Protect a Pet?

For one woman in the middle of preparing for a no-contest divorce, the idea of a pet trust was a novel one. She was estranged from her sister and didn’t want her ex-husband to gain custody of her seven horses, three cats and five dogs if she died or became incapacitated. Who would care for her beloved animals?

The solution, as described in the article “Create a Pet Estate Plan for Your Fur Family” from AARP, was to form a pet trust, a legally sanctioned arrangement providing for the care and maintenance of companion animals in the event of a person’s disability or death.

Creating a pet trust and establishing a long-term plan requires state-specific paperwork and funding mechanisms, which are different from leaving property and assets to human family members. An experienced estate planning attorney is needed to ensure that the protections in place will work.

Shelters nationally are seeing a big increase in animals being surrendered because of COVID or people who are simply not able to take care of their pets. Suddenly, a companion pet accustomed to being near its human owner 24/7 is left alone in a shelter cage.

When pet parents have not made plans for their pets, more often than not these pets end up in shelters. However, not all animal shelters are no-kill shelters. In 2021, data from Best Friends Animal Society shows an increase in the number of pets euthanized in shelters for the first time in five years.

For pet owners who can’t identify a caregiver for their companions, the best option may be to find an animal sanctuary or a shelter providing perpetual care.

The woman described above had a pet trust created and funded it with a long-term care and life insurance policy. The trust was designed with a board of three trustees to check and balance one another to determine how the money will be allocated and what will happen to her assets. Her horse property could be sold, or a long-term student or trainer could be brought in to run her barn.

It is not legally possible to leave money directly to an animal, so setting up a trust with one trustee or a board is the best way to ensure that care will be given until the animals themselves pass away.

The stand-alone pet trust (which is a living trust) exists from the moment it is created. A dedicated bank account may be set up in the name of the pet trust or it could be named as the beneficiary of a life insurance or retirement plan.

A pet trust can also be set up within a larger trust, like a drawer within a dresser. The trust won’t kick in until death. These plans prevent the type of delays typical with probate but is problematic if the person becomes incapacitated.

If a trust is created as part of another trust, there can still be delays in accessing the month, if the pet trust is getting money from the larger trust.

With costlier animals likes horses and exotic birds, any delay in funding could be catastrophic.

How long will your pet live? A parrot could live for 80 years, which would need an endowment to invest assets and earn income over decades. A long-living pet also needs a succession of caregivers, as a tortoise with a 150 year lifespan will outlive more than one caregiver.

Reference: AARP (Sep. 14, 2022) “Create a Pet Estate Plan for Your Fur Family”

What Is a QTIP Trust?

A Qualified Terminable Interest Property Trust, or QTIP, is a trust allowing the person who makes the trust (the grantor) to provide for a surviving spouse while maintaining control of how the trust’s assets are distributed once the surviving spouse passes, as explained in the article “QTIP Trusts” from Investopedia.

QTIPs are irrevocable trusts, commonly used by people who have children from prior marriages. The QTIP allows the grantor to take care of their spouse and ensure assets in the trust are eventually passed to beneficiaries of their own choosing. Beneficiaries could be the grantor’s offspring from a prior marriage, grandchildren, other family members or friends.

In addition to providing the surviving spouse with income, the QTIP also limits applicable estate and gift taxes. The property within the QTIP trust provides income to the surviving spouse and qualifies as a marital deduction, meaning the value of the trust is not taxable after the death of the first spouse. Rather, the property in the QTIP trust will be included in the estate of the surviving spouse and subject to estate taxes depending on the value of their own assets and the estate tax exemption in effect at the time of death.

The QTIP can also assert control over how assets are handled when the surviving spouse dies, as the spouse never assumes the power of appointment over the principal. This is especially important when there is more than one marriage and children from more than one family. This prevents those assets from being transferred to the living spouse’s new spouse if they should re-marry.

A minimum of one trustee must be appointed to manage the trust, although there may be multiple trustees named. The trustee is responsible for controlling the trust and has full authority over assets under management. The surviving spouse, a financial institution, an estate planning attorney or other family member or friend may serve as a trustee.

The surviving spouse named in a QTIP trust usually receives income from the trust based on the trust’s income, similar to stock dividends. Payments may only be made from the principal if the grantor allows it when the trust was created, so it must be created to suit the couple’s needs.

Payments are made to the spouse as long as they live. Upon their death, the payments end, and they are not transferable to another person. The assets in the trust then become the property of the listed beneficiaries.

The marital trust is similar to the QTIP, but the is a difference in how the assets are controlled. A QTIP allows the grantor to dictate how assets within the trust are distributed and requires at least annual distributions. A marital trust allows the surviving spouse to dictate how assets are distributed, regular distributions are not required, and new beneficiaries can be added. The marital trust is more flexible and, accordingly, more common in first marriages and not in blended families.

Your estate planning attorney will explain further how else these two trusts are different and which one is best for your situation. There are other ways to create trusts to control how assets are distributed, how taxes are minimized and to set conditions on benefits. Each person’s situation is different, and there are trusts and strategies to meet almost every need imaginable.

Reference: Investopedia (Aug. 14, 2022) “QTIP Trusts”

Pay Attention to Income Tax when Creating Estate Plans

While estate taxes may only be of concern for mega-rich Americans now, in a relatively short time, the federal exemption rate is scheduled to drop precipitously. Estate planning underway now should include consideration of income tax issues, especially basis, according to a recent article titled “Be Mindful of Income Tax in Estate Planning, Particularly Basis” from National Law Journal.

Because of these upcoming changes, plans and trusts put into effect under current law may no longer efficiently work for income tax and tax basis issues.

Planning to avoid taxes has become less critical in recent years, when the federal estate tax exemption is $10 million per taxpayer indexed to inflation. However, the new tax laws have changed the focus from estate tax planning to coming tax planning and more specifically, to “basis” planning. Ignore this at your peril—or your heirs may inherit a tax disaster.

“Basis” is an oft-misunderstood concept used to determine the amount of taxable income resulting when an asset is sold. The amount of taxable income realized is equal to the difference between the value you received at the sale of the asset minus your basis in the asset.

There are three key rules for how basis is determined:

Purchased assets: the buyer’s basis is the investment in the asset—the amount paid at the time of purchase. Here’s where the term “cost basis” comes from

Gifts: The recipient’s basis in the gift property is generally equal to the donor’s basis in the property. The giver’s basis is viewed as carrying over to the recipient. This is where the term “carry over basis” comes from, when referring to the basis of an asset received by gift.

Inherited Assets: The basis in inherited property is usually set to the fair market value of the asset on the date of the decedent’s death. Any gains or losses after this date are not realized. The heir could conceivably sell the asset immediately and not pay income taxes on the sale.

The adjustment to basis for inherited assets is usually called “stepped up basis.”

Basis planning requires you to review each asset on its own, to consider the expected future appreciation of the asset and anticipated timeline for disposing the asset. Tax rates imposed on income realized when an asset is sold vary based on the type of asset. There is an easy one-size-fits-all rule when it comes to basis planning.

Estate planning requires adjustments over time, especially in light of tax law changes. Speak with your estate planning attorney, if your estate plan was created more than five years ago. Many of those strategies and tools may or may not work in light of the current and near-future tax environment.

Reference: National Law Review (July 22, 2022) “Be Mindful of Income Tax in Estate Planning, Particularly Basis”

What Happens to Stock Options when Someone Dies?

Once your business grows, so does the pressure to make good financial decisions in the short and long term. When you think about the future, estate and succession planning emerge as two major concerns. You’re not just considering balance sheets, profits and losses, but your family and what will happen to them and your business when you’re not around. This thinking leads to what seems like a great idea: transferring stock or LLC membership units to one or more of your adult children.

There are benefits, especially the ability to avoid a 40% estate tax and other benefits. However, there are also lots of ways this can go sideways, fast.

Executing due diligence and creating an exit plan to minimize taxes and successfully transfer the business takes planning and, even harder, removing emotions from the plan to make a good decision.

An outright transfer of stock or ownership units can expose you and your business to risk. Even if your children are Ivy-league MBA grads, with track records of great decision making and caring for you and your spouse, this transaction offers zero protection and all risk for you. What could go wrong?

  • An in-law (one you may not have even met yet) could try to place a claim on the business and move it away from the family.
  • Creditors could seize assets from the children, entirely likely if their future holds legal or financial problems—or if they have such problems now and haven’t shared them with you.
  • Assets could go into your children’s estates, which reintroduces exposure to estate taxes.

No family is immune from any of these situations, and if you ask your estate planning attorney, you’ll hear as many horror stories as you can tolerate.

Trusts are a solution. Thoughtfully crafted for your unique situation, a trust can help avoid exposure to some estate and other taxes, allocating effective ownership to your children, in a protected manner. Your ultimate goal: keeping ownership in the family and minimizing tax exposure.

A Beneficiary Defective Inheritance Trust (BDIT) may be appropriate for you. If you’ve already executed an outright transfer of the stock, it’s not too late to fix things. The BDIT is a grantor trust serving to enable protection of stock and eliminate any “residue” in your childrens’ estates.

If you haven’t yet transferred stock to children, don’t do it. The risk is very high. If you’ve already completed the transfer, speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about how to reverse the transfer and create a plan to protect the business and your family.

Bottom line: business interests are better protected when they are held not by individuals, but by trusts for the benefit of individuals. Your estate planning attorney can draft trusts to achieve goals, minimize estate taxes and, in some situations, even minimize state income taxes.

Reference: The Street (June 27, 2022) “Should I Transfer Company Stock to My Kids?”

What Happens to Investment Accounts when Someone Dies?

Taking responsibility for a decedent’s probate or trust estate often involves managing significant amounts of wealth, whether they are brokerage accounts or cash assets. Today’s volatile markets add another level of complexity to this responsibility. The article “Estate Planning: Investments during administration of decedent’s estate” from Lake County News explains what estate administrators, executors and trustees need to know as they take on these tasks.

Investment account values are in a constant state of change and may include assets now considered too risky because they are owned by the estate and not the individual. The administrator will need to evaluate the accounts in light of debts owed by the decedent, the costs in administering the estate and any gifts to be made before the estate will be closed.

At the same time, too much cash on hand could mean unproductive assets earning less than they could, losing value to inflation. If there is a long time between the death of the owner and the date of distribution, depending on markets and interest rates, having too much cash could be detrimental to the beneficiaries.

The personal representative or trustee, as relevant, may determine that the cash should be invested, shift how existing investments are managed, or decide to sell investments to generate cash needed for debts, expenses and distributions to beneficiaries.

A personal representative is not expected or required to be a stock market expert. Their duties are to manage estate assets as a person making prudent decisions for the betterment of the estate and heirs. They must put the interest of the estate above their own and not make any speculative investments. With the exception of checking accounts, the expectation is for estate accounts to earn something, even if it is only interest.

If the personal representative has the authority to do so, they may invest in very low-risk debt assets. If the will includes investment powers and if certain conditions safeguarding payment of the decedent’s debts and expenses are satisfied, the personal representatives may invest using those powers. In some instances, a court order may be needed. An estate planning attorney will be able to advise based on the laws of the state in which the decedent resided.

For a trust, the trustee has a fiduciary duty to invest and manage trust assets for beneficiaries. Assets should be made productive, unless the trust includes specific directions for the use of assets prior to distribution. The longer the trust administration takes and the larger the value of the trust, the more important this becomes.

In all scenarios, investment decisions, including balancing risk and reward, must be made in the context of an overall investment strategy for the benefit of heirs. Investments may be delegated to a professional investment advisor, but the selection of the advisor must be made cautiously. The advisor must be selected prudently and the scope and terms of the selection of the advisor must be consistent with the purposes and terms of the trust. The trustee or executor must personally monitor the advisor’s performance and compliance with the overall strategy.

Reference: Lake County News (June 11, 2022) “Estate Planning: Investments during administration of decedent’s estate”

Estate Planning Tips for Solo Seniors

The people who typically think the most about estate planning are those in a traditional nuclear family unit, with spouses, adult children, grandchildren and a clear idea of how they want to pass along assets and who can be trusted to carry out their wishes. It’s easier to plan ahead, reports a recent article titled “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own” from The Sentinel, when the right person to put in charge is easy to identify.

When more and more families do not fall into the traditional nuclear family unit, how should they proceed with estate planning?

This can be a challenging scenario, especially if the person is not married and has no children. It’s hard to know who to name for important roles, like who will take charge if the person becomes ill or dies.

Some single people may think it doesn’t matter, because they don’t care about who inherits their possessions. However, estate planning is not just about distributing property. Planning for incapacity may be the most important part of estate planning—making legally enforceable decisions about medical care, end-of-life care and managing the business aspect of your life if you are incapacitated.

Two of the most important documents for a person who cannot speak for themselves are a Financial Power of Attorney and a Health Care Power of Attorney. These are the critical documents giving the person you designate the ability to manage your affairs and be involved in your medical care.

Without them, someone will need to take over for you. Who will it be? The process begins in the court, with a legal proceeding called guardianship. There are any number of reasons to avoid this. First, it takes a long time and any actions or decisions requiring a legal guardian will not be made with any speed. Second, guardianships are expensive. The process of having a guardian named and the fees paid to the guardian will be paid by you, whether you are conscious or not. While many people who act as guardians for others are trustworthy and kind-hearted, there are many horror stories—including several true stories made into movies—where guardians are more focused on enriching themselves than their ward’s best interests.

Guardianship can be easily avoided. Meeting with an estate planning attorney to prepare your last will and testament, Power of Attorney and Power of Health Care Attorney gives you control over who will be in charge of your life if you are incapacitated. Having these documents properly prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney ensures that you can be admitted to a hospital or facility offering the care you need, your bills will be paid and if your situation requires filing for long-term care benefits or disability, someone can do it for you.

If you don’t have a spouse or children, you probably have a healthy network of friends and extended family members you trust and are your “family by choice.” If you don’t feel these people are trustworthy or capable, think further afield—someone from your community, a neighbor who you respect and trust, etc.

If possible, name a few people in succession (your estate planning attorney will know how to do this) so if one person cannot serve, then there will be a next-in-line to help.

The next step is to speak with these individuals and explain what you are asking them to do. They need to be comfortable with the responsibility you’re asking them to undertake. You’ll also want to tell them your wishes, perhaps drafting a letter of intent, so they will know what to do in different circumstances. Make sure they know where these documents are located, so they can find them easily.

Once your estate plan is in place, you’ll breathe a sigh of relief, knowing the future is taken care of.

Reference: The Sentinel (June 17, 2022) “Elder Care: Estate planning when you are on your own”

What Sparks the Contesting of a Will?

A last will and testament is the document used to direct your executor to distribute assets and property according to your wishes. However, it’s not uncommon for disgruntled or distant family members or others to dispute the validity of the will. A recent article titled “5 Reasons A Law Will May Be Contested” from Vents Magazine explains the top five factors to keep in mind when preparing your will.

Undue influence is a commonly invoked reason for a challenge. If a potential beneficiary can prove the person making the will (the testator) was influenced by another person to make decisions they would not have otherwise made, a will challenge could be brought to court. Undue influence means the testator’s decision was significantly affected by a person who stood to gain something by the outcome of the will and made a concerted effort to change the testator’s mind.

Even if there was no evidence of fraud, any suspicion of the testator’s being influenced is enough for a court to accept a case. If you think someone unduly influenced a loved one, especially if they suffer from any mental frailties or dementia, you may have cause to bring a case.

Outright fraud or forgery is another reason for the will to be contested. If there have been many erasures or signature styles appear different from one document to another, there may have been fraud. An estate planning attorney should examine documents to evaluate whether there is enough cause for suspicion to challenge the will.

Improper witnesses. The testator is required to sign the will with witnesses present. In some states, only one witness is required. In most states, two witnesses must be present to sign the will in front of the testator. A beneficiary may not be a witness to the signing of the will. Some states have changed laws to allow for remote signings in response to COVID. If the rules have not been followed, the will may be invalid.

Mistaken identity seems farfetched. However, it is a common occurrence, especially when someone has a common name or more than one person in the family has the same name, and the document has not been properly signed or witnessed. This could create confusion and make the document vulnerable to a challenge. An experienced estate planning attorney will know how to prepare documents to withstand any challenges.

Capacity in the law means someone is able to understand the concept of a will and contents of the document they are signing, along with the identities of the people to whom they are leaving their assets. The person doesn’t need to have perfect mental health, so people with mild cognitive impairments, such as depression or anxiety, may make and sign a will. A medical opinion may be needed, if there might be any doubt as to whether a person had testamentary capacity when the will is signed.

A will contest can be time-consuming and expensive, so keep these issues in mind, especially if the family includes some litigious individuals.

Reference: Vents Magazine (May 6, 2022) “5 Reasons A Law Will May Be Contested”

What are Benefits of Putting Money into a Trust?

For the average person, knowing how a revocable trust, irrevocable trust and testamentary trust work will help you start thinking of how a trust might help achieve your estate planning goals. A recent article from The Street, “3 Powerful Types of Trusts that Can Work for You,” provides a good foundation.

The Revocable Trust is one of the more flexible trusts. The person who creates the trust can change anything about the trust at any time. You may add or remove assets, beneficiaries or sell property owned by the trust. Most people who create these trusts, grantors, name themselves as the trustee, allowing themselves to use their property, even though it is owned in the trust.

A Revocable Trust needs to have a successor trustee to manage the assets in the trust for when the grantor dies or becomes incapacitated. The transfer of ownership of the trust and its assets from the grantor to the successor trustee is a way to protect assets in case of disability.

At death, a revocable trust becomes an Irrevocable Trust, which cannot be easily revoked or changed. The successor trustee follows the instructions in the trust document to manage assets and distribute assets.

The revocable trust provides flexibility. However, assets in a revocable trust are considered part of the taxable estate, which means they are subject to estate taxes (both federal and state) when the owner dies. A revocable trust does not offer any protection against creditors, nor will it shield assets from lawsuits.

If the revocable trust’s owner has any debts or legal settlements when they die, the court could award funds from the value of the trust and beneficiaries will only receive what’s left.

A Testamentary Trust is a trust created in connection with instructions contained in a last will and testament. A good example is a trust for a child outlining when assets will be distributed to them by the trustee and for what purposes the trustee is permitted to make the distribution. Funds in this kind of trust are usually used for health, education, maintenance and supports, often referred to as “HEMS.”

For families with relatively modest estates, a trust can be a valuable tool to protect children’s futures. Assets held in trust for the lifetime of a child are protected in the event of the child’s going through a divorce because the child’s inheritance is not subject to equitable distribution when not comingled.

Many people buy life insurance for their families, but they don’t always know that proceeds from the life insurance policy may be subject to estate taxes. An insurance trust, known as an ILIT (Irrevocable Life Insurance Trust) is a smart way to remove life insurance from your taxable estate.

Whether you can have an ILIT depends on policy ownership at the time of the insured’s death. In most cases, the insurance trust must be the owner and the insurance trust must be named as the beneficiary. If the trust is not drafted before the application for and purchase of the life insurance policy, it may be possible to transfer an existing policy to the trust. However, if this is done after the purchase, there may be some challenges and requirements. The owner must live more than three years after the transfer for the policy proceeds to be removed from the taxable estate.

Trusts may seem complex and overwhelming. However, an estate planning attorney will draft them properly and make sure that they are used appropriately to protect your assets and your family.

Reference: The Street (May 13, 2022) “3 Powerful Types of Trusts that Can Work for You”

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?