Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Does the Way I Title My Assets Have an Impact on My Estate?

FedWeek’s recent article entitled “How Assets Are Titled Can Make a Big Difference discusses the different ways property may be titled, and the significance of each one.

The way in which you take title to assets can affect your estate, taxes and perhaps the disposition of the asset if a couple divorces. Many couples want assets to be titled simply in the event something happens to one, so the other spouse can take possession immediately without taxes or complications. Joint ownership may be the simplest way to meet most of these objectives. However, this can get complicated if any number of things happen, such as divorce, second marriage, children from multiple marriages, adoption and blended families of all types.

It’s critical to be educated on the different types of ownership, so you know when a change may be needed. Here are the main options:

Holding Assets in Your Own Name is simple and inexpensive. However, if you become incompetent, those assets might be mismanaged. At your death, individually owned assets may have to go through probate.

Joint Tenants with Right of Survivorship is when one co-owner dies, all assets held this way automatically pass to the survivor. One joint owner can take over if the other is incapacitated, and jointly held assets don’t go through probate.

Tenants in Common means there’s a divided interest, although none of the owners may claim to own a specific part of the property. At the death of one of the joint owners, the share owned by the deceased must pass through their will to determine ownership. The surviving joint owner doesn’t automatically own the entirety of assets.

Tenancy by the Entirety is a type of joint ownership similar to rights of survivorship for married couples. It lets spouses own property together as a single legal entity. Ownership can’t be separated, which means creditors of an individual spouse may not attach and sell the property. Only creditors of the couple may make claims against the property.

With Entity Ownership, you might create a trust, a partnership (such as a family limited partnership), or a limited liability company (LLC) to hold assets. These entities may provide protection from creditors and tax benefits.

Community Property may only be used by married couples in community property states (Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin). Each person owns an undivided interest in the entire property. When a spouse dies, the survivor automatically receives the entire interest, so there’s no need for probate. Community property can’t be controlled by a person’s will or trust.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to review your estate plan and how assets are titled.

Reference: FedWeek (July 27, 2022) “How Assets Are Titled Can Make a Big Difference”

Does Marriage have an Impact on a Will?

It is very difficult to challenge a marriage once it has occurred, since the capacity needed to marry is relatively low. Even a person who is under conservatorship because they are severely incapacitated may marry, unless there is a court order stating otherwise, says the article “Estate Planning: On Being Married, estate planning and administration” from Lake Country News. This unfortunate fact allows scammers to woo and wed their victims.

What about individuals who think they are married when they are not? A “putative” spouse is someone who genuinely believed they were married, although the marriage is invalid, void, or voidable because of a legal defect. An example of a legal defect is bigamy, if the person is already married when they marry another person.

Once a couple is married, they owe each other a duty to treat each other fairly. In certain states, they are prohibited from taking unfair advantage of each other. Depending on the state of residence, property is also owned in different ways. In a community property state, such as California, marital earnings and anything acquired while married is presumed to be community property.

In a community property state, debts incurred before or during the marriage are also shared. In a number of states, marriage is sufficient reason for a creditor to come after the assets of a spouse, if they married someone with pre-marital debts.

There are exceptions. If a married person puts their earnings during marriage into a separate bank account their spouse is not able to access, then those deposited earnings are not available for debtor spouse’s debts incurred before the marriage took place.

If a married person dies without a will, also known as “intestate,” the surviving spouse is the next of kin.  In most cases, they will inherit the assets of the decedent. If the decedent had children from a prior marriage, they may end up with nothing.

These are all reasons why couples should have frank discussions about finances, including assets and debts, before marrying. Coming into the marriage with debt may not be a problem for some people, but they should be advised beforehand.

A pre-nuptial agreement can state the terms of the couple’s financial health as individuals and declare their intentions. An experienced estate planning attorney can create a pre-nuptial to align with the couple’s estate plan, so the estate plan and the pre-nuptial work together.

Marriage brings rights and responsibilities which impact life and death for a couple. Starting a marriage based on full disclosure and proper planning clears the way for a focus on togetherness, and not solely the business side of marriage.

Reference: Lake Country News (Feb. 12, 2022) “Estate Planning: On Being Married, estate planning and administration”

How Do You Keep Inheritance Money Separate?

Families with concerns about the durability of a child’s marriage are right to be concerned about protecting their children’s assets. For one family, where a mother wishes to give away all of her assets in the next year or two to her children and grandchildren, giving money directly to a son with an unstable marriage can be solved with the use of estate planning strategies, according to the article “Husband should keep inheritance in separate account” from The Reporter.

Everything a spouse earns while married is considered community property in most states. However, a gift or inheritance is usually considered separate property. If the gift or inheritance is not kept totally separate, that protection can be easily lost.

An inheritance or gift should not only be kept in a separate account from the spouse, but it should be kept at an entirely different financial institution. Since accounts within financial institutions are usually accessed online, it would be very easy for a spouse to gain access to an account, since they have likely already arranged for access to all accounts.

No other assets should be placed into this separate account, or the separation of the account will be lost and some or all of the inheritance or gift will be considered belonging to both spouses.

The legal burden of proof will be on the son in this case, if funds are commingled. He will have to prove what portion of the account should be his and his alone.

Here is another issue: if the son does not believe that his spouse is a problem and that there is no reason to keep the inheritance or gift separate, or if he is being pressured by the spouse to put the money into a joint account, he may need some help from a family member.

This “help” comes in the form of the mother putting his gift in an irrevocable trust.

If the mother decides to give away more than $15,000 to any one person in any one calendar year, she needs to file a gift tax return with her income tax returns the following year. However, her unified credit protects the first $11.7 million of her assets from any gift and estate taxes, so she does not have to pay any gift tax.

The mother should consider whether she expects to apply for Medicaid. If she is giving her money away before a serious illness occurs because she is concerned about needing to spend down her life savings for long term care, she should work with an elder law attorney. Giving money away in a lump sum would make her ineligible for Medicaid for at least five years in most states.

The best solution is for the mother to meet with an estate planning attorney who can work with her to determine the best way to protect her gift to her son and protect her assets if she expects to need long term care.

People often attempt to find simple workarounds to complex estate planning issues, and these DIY solutions usually backfire. It is smarter to speak with an experienced elder law attorney, who can help the mother and protect the son from making an expensive and stressful mistake.

Reference: The Reporter (Dec. 20, 2020) “Husband should keep inheritance in separate account”

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