Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Can a Vacation Home Be Kept in the Family for Generations?

Many family traditions include gatherings at vacation homes. However, leaving these properties to the next generation is not always in the best interest of the family. Some people try to make a simple solution work for a complex problem, leading to more challenges, as explained in the article “Succession planning for the family lakehouse” from NH Business Review.

Joint ownership among siblings can lead to disputes about how the home is used, operated and maintained. Some children want to continue using the house, while others may see it as an income stream for a rental property. There may be siblings who cannot afford to participate in the house’s upkeep and need the cash more than the tradition. When joint ownership is presented as a surprise in a will, the adult children may find themselves fighting about the vacation home, with no parent around to tell them to knock it off.

Making matters more complicated, if the siblings live in different states and the house is in a neighboring state, ownership of the real estate at death may subject the decedent’s estate to estate taxes where the property is located. As a result, the property may need to go through probate in an additional state. Every state has its own tax rules, so the transfer of joint property will have to be analyzed by an estate planning attorney knowledgeable about the laws in each state involved.

A sensible alternative is creating a Limited Liability Corporation, ideally while the original owners—the parents—are still living. The organizational documents include a certificate of organization to file with the Secretary of State and an operating agreement. The LLC will need its own taxpayer identification number, or EIN.

The operating agreement governs the management of the property and addresses the operating expenses and maintenance of the property. It should also address the process for a child to cash in on their ownership to other children. LLC operating agreements often include these items:

  • Responsibilities for operating expenses
  • Process to transfer member units or interests
  • Duties for regular maintenance, budgeting and approval of property improvements
  • Development of a property use schedule
  • Establishing rules for the home’s use

There are some costs associated with creating an LLC, including annual filing requirements. However, these will be small, when compared to the cost of family fights and untangling joint ownership.

An LLC can also offer personal liability protection from lawsuits brought by renters, creditors, or any litigants. If there is an accident resulting from work being done on the property, the owners may be shielded from the liability because they do not personally own the property, the LLC does.

In the case of divorce, bankruptcy filing, or a large judgement being filed against one of the children, the LLC will protect their interest in the property.

The real estate owned by the LLC is not part of the owner’s probate estate. This avoids the need for a second probate in the state where the property is located. Some states have adopted the Uniform Transfer on Death Security Registration Act, and the LLC membership interest can be assigned along to the terms of the beneficiary designation.

Planning for what will happen to a vacation home after death provides peace of mind for all in the family. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to ensure that the property and the family’s peace is preserved.

Reference: NH Business Review (March 23, 2022) “Succession planning for the family lakehouse”

Is Prince’s Estate Settled Yet?

The long-running estate battle over Prince’s estate may be coming to a close, according to a recent article from Yahoo! News, “Minnesota probate court set to discuss ‘final distribution’ of Prince estate in February.” The Carver County probate court has set a date to start talking about Prince’s assets with heirs and beneficiaries.

Prince died of a fentanyl overdose in April 2016, with no estate plan. Administering the estate and coming up with a plan for its distribution among heirs has cost tens of millions of dollars, in an estate estimated at more than $100 million. One of many obstacles in settling the estate: a complicated dispute with the IRS over the value of Prince’s assets.

The estate will be almost evenly split between a music company—Primary Wave—and the three oldest of the pop icon’s eldest six heirs or their families.

Primary Wave bought out all or most of the interests of Prince’s three youngest siblings, one of whom died in August 2019. Three older siblings, including one who died in September 2021, rejected the offers from Primary Wave.

Comerica Bank & Trust, the administrator of the estate, settled with the IRS over the value of the estate, according to a late November filing in the U.S. Tax Court. The Carver County probate court has to approve this agreement.

Another tax dispute, this one between Prince’s estate and the state of Minnesota, has not yet been resolved.

Last year, the IRS set a value of $163.2 million on Prince’s estate. Comerica valued the estate at $82.3 million—nearly half of the IRS value. The value was so low the IRS penalized the estate with a $6.4 million “accuracy-related penalty.” Comerica followed by suing the IRS in U.S. Tax Court, saying the IRS calculations were loaded with mistakes. With the settlement now underway, the tax trial has been cancelled. The estate and the IRS have been ordered to file a status report on the case in February 2022.

The IRS and Comerica agreed on the value of Prince’s real estate holdings at $33 million. The harder task was to place a value on intangible assets, like Prince’s music rights.

The full IRS settlement most likely led to the probate court setting a date for a hearing. With the settlement, certain parts of the estate may move forward.

However, don’t expect it to be quick. It may be months before the court approves any distributions.

The lesson from Prince’s estate: everyone needs an estate plan, whether the estate is modest or includes multi-million assets and multiple heirs. Tens of millions in legal fees plus a $6.4 million penalty from the IRS adds up, even when the estate is this big.

Reference: Yahoo! News (Dec. 22, 2021) “Minnesota probate court set to discuss ‘final distribution’ of Prince estate in February”

Can Cryptocurrency Be Inherited?

Cryptocurrency accounts are not like any traditional investment accounts. However, their growing prevalence and value means they need to be considered for more and more estate plans, especially when they take an enormous leap in value. These accounts are more vulnerable, according to the recent article “Millennial Money: What happens to your crypto if you die?” from The Indiana Gazette, and in most cases, there’s no way to name a beneficiary for your crypto accounts.

If you store your cryptocurrency on a physical device at home and a few friends know your key—the crypto password that grants access to a crypto wallet—one of those friends could very easily wander into your home and steal your crypto without you even noticing.

On the flip side, if you don’t share your key with anyone and become incapacitated or die, your crypto assets could be lost forever. Knowing how to store these assets safely and communicate your wishes for loved ones is extremely important, more so than for traditional assets.

How is crypto stored? Crypto “wallets” are digital wallets, managed on an app or a website, or kept on a thumb drive (also known as a memory stick). How you store crypto depends in part on how you intend to use it.

A “Hot Wallet” is used to buy and sell crypto. They are usually free and convenient but may not be as secure as other methods because they are always connected to the internet.

“Cold Wallets” are used to store crypto for a longer period of time, like a deep freezer.

The Hot Wallet is more like a checking account, with money moving in and out. The Cold Wallet is like a savings account, where money is kept for a longer period of time. You can have both, just as you probably have both a checking and savings account.

Whoever holds the “keys” to the wallets—whoever has custody of the password, which is a series of randomly generated numbers and letters—has access to your cryptocurrency. It might be just you, a third-party crypto exchange, or a hybrid of the two. Consider the third-party exchange a temporary and risky solution, as you don’t have control of the keys and exchanges do get hacked.

Naming a beneficiary in your will and adding a document to your estate plan containing an inventory of cryptocurrency and any passwords, PINs, keys and instructions to find your cold wallet is part of an estate plan addressing this new digital asset class.

Do not under any circumstances include any of the crypto information in your will. This document becomes part of the public record when filed in court and giving this information is the same as sharing your checking, saving and investment account information with the general public.

Some platforms, like Coinbase, have a process in place for next of kin, when an owner dies. Others do not, so it’s up to the crypto owner to make plans, if they want assets to be preserved and passed to another family member.

Preparing for cryptocurrency is much the same as preparing for the rest of your estate plan. Keep the plan updated, especially after big life events, like marriage, divorce, birth, or death. Keep instructions up to date, so the executor and beneficiaries know what to do. Bear in mind that crypto wallets need occasional updates, like every other kind of digital platform.

Reference: The Indiana Gazette (Nov. 7, 2021) “Millennial Money: What happens to your crypto if you die?”

How Does Cryptocurrency Work in an Estate Plan?

Crypto-assets, including cryptocurrencies and non-currency blockchain tokens, hold significant family wealth today and present challenges to securing, transferring, protecting and gifting, as explained in the article “What Holding Crypto Means for Your Estate Plan” from U.S. News & World Report.

Traditional estate planning is evolving to include this new asset class, as digital asset investors embrace a market worth more than $1 trillion. Experienced investors who use digital assets to expand their asset diversification are more likely to understand the importance of protecting their investment through estate planning. However, first time investors who own a small amount of cryptocurrency or the early adapters who bought Bitcoins at the very start and now are worth millions, may not be as aware of the importance of digital asset estate planning.

Unlike traditional bank accounts, controlled through a centralized banking system and a legacy system of reporting, digital assets are by their very nature decentralized. An owner has access through a private key, usually a series of numbers and letters known only to the asset’s owner and stored in a digital wallet. Unless an executor knows about digital wallets and what a private key is and how to use them, the assets can and often do evaporate.

It can be challenging for executors to obtain access to traditional accounts, like 401(k)s or brokerage accounts. Mistakes are made and documents go astray, even in straightforward estates. In a new asset class, with new words like private keys, seed phrases, hardware wallets and more, the likelihood of a catastrophic loss increases.

A last will and testament is necessary for every estate. It’s needed to name an executor, a guardian for minor children and to set forth wishes for wealth distribution. However, a will becomes part of the public record during court proceedings after death, so it should never include detailed information, like bank account numbers. The same goes for information about cryptocurrency. Specific information in a will can be used to steal digital assets.

Loved ones need to know the crypto-assets exist, where to find them and what to do with them. Depending on the amount of the assets and what kind of assets are held, such information needs to be included and addressed in the estate plan.

If the assets are relatively small and owned through an exchange (Coinbase, Biance, or Kraken are a few examples), it is possible to list the crypto asset on a schedule of trust assets and ensure that the trustee has all the login information and knows how to access them.

For complex cases with significant wealth in digital assets, establishing a custodian and trustee may be necessary. A plan must be created that establishes both a custodian and trustee of digital assets. Steps include sharing private keys with a family member or trusted friend or splintering the private keys among multiple trusted individuals, so no one person has complete control.

This new asset class is here for the foreseeable future, and as more investors get involved with cryptocurrency, their estate plan needs to address and protect it.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Oct. 5, 2021) “What Holding Crypto Means for Your Estate Plan”

You Need a Buy-Sell Agreement for Your Business

Every business should have a buy-sell agreement to protect the owners, their families, employees and the company. Without a buy-sell agreement or succession plan, any company is at risk, notes a recent article titled “Why does your business need a buy-sell agreement?” from the Philadelphia Business Journal.

Many business owners are reluctant to recognize the possibility of their becoming disabled or dying, so they put off creating a buy sell agreement. However, as we all know, unexpected events happen and it’s always better to be prepared.

A buy-sell agreement offers protection first by establishing what type of triggering events could happen and defining the terms and conditions for how shareholders will enter and exit their ownership of the business.

Companies often have a buy-sell agreement stuck in a file drawer from ten or twenty years ago. Chances are that big changes have taken place in the business and the old agreement is no longer relevant. The day-to-day operations of a business are pressing, and there’s never enough time to get around to it. However, when the unexpected occurs, shareholders are left to negotiate among themselves during the worst possible time.

A well-drafted buy-sell agreement should address the most common events: death, disability, divorce, personal bankruptcy, voluntary termination, retirement and involuntary separation. The agreement should clearly state the percentage and type of ownership, how shares are valued and how any insurance proceeds are to be handled. Without knowledge of the value and terms of payment, there’s no way to provide protection for a triggering event.

Once the value of the company and its shareholders is defined, it may become clear that a business needs to close a valuation gap.

The intentions for the future of the business can also be clarified through this process. Some provisions to consider are:

  • How to notify other shareholders, in the event of a voluntary termination.
  • Trailer provisions to protect exiting shareholders, in the event of a subsequent liquidity event.
  • Discounts on value or extended payment terms for non-compliance of notification provisions.
  • Insurance portability provisions to allow existing shareholders to reassign beneficiary designations (once payments owed to the exiting shareholder have been made).

Businesses are dynamic entities with frequent changes, so buy-sell agreements should be reviewed and updated in the same way that an estate plan needs to be updated—every three or four years.

Reference: Philadelphia Business Journal (Sep. 1, 2021) “Why does your business need a buy-sell agreement?”

How to Prepare for Higher Taxes

Taxing the appreciation of property on gifting or at death as capital gains or ordinary income is under scrutiny as a means of raising significant revenue for the federal government. The Biden administration has proposed this but proposing and passing into law are two very different things, observes Financial Advisor in the article “How Rich Clients Should Prepare For A Biden Estate Tax Regime.”

The tax hikes are being considered as a means of paying for the American Jobs Act and the American Families Act. Paired with the COVID-19 relief bill, the government will need a total of $6.4 trillion over the course of a decade to cover those costs. Reportedly, both Republicans and Democrats are pushing back on this proposal.

A step-up in basis recalculates the value of appreciated assets for tax purposes when they are inherited, which is when the asset’s value usually is higher than when it was originally purchased. For the beneficiary, the step-up in basis at the death of the original owner reduces the capital gains tax on the asset. Taxes are reduced significantly, or in some cases, completely eliminated.

For now, taxpayers pay an estate tax on the value of the assets and the basis of appreciated assets is stepped up to fair market value. The plan under consideration would treat appreciated assets owned at the time of death as sold, which would trigger income tax and subject those assets to estate tax.

Biden’s proposal would also subject many families to the estate tax, which they would not otherwise face, since the federal estate tax exclusion is still historically high—$11.7 million for individuals and $23.4 million for married couples. Let’s say a widowed mother dies with a $3 million estate. Most of the value of the estate is the home she lived in with her spouse for the last four decades. Her estate would not owe any federal tax, but the deemed sale of a highly appreciated home would generate income tax liability.

The proposal allows a $1 million per individual and $2 million per married couple exclusion from gain recognition on property transferred by gift or owned at death. The $1 million per person exclusion is in addition to exclusions for property transfers of tangible personal property, transfers to a spouse, transfers to charity, capital gains on certain business stock and the current exclusion of $250,000 for capital gain on a personal residence.

How should people prepare for what sounds like an unsettling proposal but may end up at a completely different place?

For some, the right move is transferring properties now, if it makes sense with their overall estate plan. Regardless of what Congress does with this proposal, the estate tax exemption will sunset to just north of $5 million (due to inflation adjustments) from the current $11.7 million. However, the likelihood of the proposal passing in its present state is low. The best option may be to make any revisions focused on the change to the estate tax exemption levels.

Reference: Financial Advisor (June 28, 2021) “How Rich Clients Should Prepare For A Biden Estate Tax Regime”

When Should an Estate Plan Be Reviewed?

If your parents don’t remember when they last reviewed their estate plan, then chances are it’s time for a review. Over the years, wishes, relationships and circumstances change, advises the recent article, “5 Reasons To Have Your Parents’ Estate Plan Reviewed,” from Forbes. An out-of-date estate plan may not achieve your parent’s wishes, or be declared invalid by the court. Having an estate planning attorney review the estate plan may save you money in the long run, not to mention the stress and worry created by an estate disaster. If you need reasons, here are five to consider.

Financial institutions are wary of dated documents. Banks and other financial institutions look twice at documents that are not recent. Trying to use a Power of Attorney that was created twenty years ago is bound to create problems. One person tried to use a document, but the bank insisted on getting an affidavit from the attorney who prepared it to be certain it was valid. While the son was trying to solve this, his mother died, and the account had to be probated. A “fresh” power of attorney would have solved the problem.

State laws change. Things that seem small become burdensome in a hurry. For example, if someone wants to leave a variety of personal effects to many different people, each and every one of the people listed would need to be located and notified. Many states now allow a separate writing to dispose of personal items, making the process far easier. However, if the will is out of date, you may be stuck with a house-sized task.

Legal document language changes. The SECURE Act changed many aspects of estate planning, particularly with regard to retirement accounts. If your parents have retirement accounts that are payable to a trust, the trust language must be changed to comply with the law. Not having these updates in the estate plan could result in an increase in income taxes or costly fees to fix the situation.

Estate tax laws change. In recent years, there have been many changes to federal tax laws. If your parents have not updated their estate plan within the last five years, they have missed many changes and many opportunities. It is likely that your parents’ assets have also changed over the years, and the documents need to reflect how the estate taxes will be paid. Are their assets titled so that there are enough funds in the estate or trust to cover the cost of any liability? Here’s another one—if all of the assets pass directly to beneficiaries via beneficiary designations, who is going to pay for the tax bills –and with what funds?

Older estate plans may contain wishes from decades ago. For one family, an old will led to a situation where a son did not inherit his father’s entire estate. His late sister’s children, who had been estranged from him for decades, received their mother’s share. If the father and son had reviewed the will earlier, a new will could have been created and signed that would have given the son what the father intended.

These types of problems are seen daily in your estate planning attorney’s office. Take the time to get a proper review of your parent’s estate plan, to prevent stress and unnecessary costs in the future.

Reference: Forbes (May 25, 2021) “5 Reasons To Have Your Parents’ Estate Plan Reviewed”

What Happens when Homeowner Dies without Will?

When parents die suddenly, in this case due to COVID-19, and there is no will and no discussions have taken place, siblings are placed in an awkward, expensive and emotionally fraught situation. The article titled “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?” from MarketWatch sums up the situation, but the answer is complicated.

When there is no will, or “intestacy,” there aren’t a lot of choices.

These parents had a few bank accounts, owned their home outright and left no debts. They had six adult children, including one that died and is survived by two living sons. None of the siblings agrees upon anything, so nothing has been done.

One of the siblings lives in the house rent free. Another brother was loaned $35,000 for a down payment on a mobile home. He now claims that the loan was a gift and does not have to pay it back. There are receipts, but the money was paid directly to the escrow company from the mother’s bank account.

How do you determine if this brother received a loan or a gift? What do you do about the brother who lives rent-free in the family home? How does the family now move the estate into probate without losing the house and the bank accounts, while maintaining a sense of family?

For starters, an administrator needs to be appointed to begin the probate process and act as a mediator among the siblings. In some states, the administrator also requires a family tree, so they can know who the descendants are. Barring some huge change of heart among the siblings, this is the only option.

If the parents failed to name a personal representative and the siblings cannot agree on who should serve, an estate administration lawyer is the sensible choice. The court may name someone, if there is concern about possible conflicts of interests or the rights of creditors or other beneficiaries.

A warning to all concerned about how the appointment of an administrator works, or sometimes, does not work. Working with an estate planning attorney that the siblings can agree upon is better, as the attorney has a fiduciary and ethical obligation to the estate. While state laws usually hold the administrator responsible to the standard of care of a “reasonable, prudent” individual, not all will agree what is reasonable and prudent.

One note about the loan/gift: if the mother helped a brother to qualify for a mortgage, it is possible that a “Gift Letter” was created to satisfy the bank or the resident’s association. Assuming this was not a notarized loan agreement, the administrator may rule that the $35,000 was a gift. Personal loans should always be recorded in a notarized agreement.

This family’s disaster serves as a good lesson for anyone who does not have an estate plan. Siblings rarely agree, and a properly prepared estate plan protects more than your assets. It also protects your children from losing each other in a fight over your property.

Reference: MarketWatch (April 4, 2021) “My parents died of COVID-19 and left no will. My brother lives rent-free in their home and borrowed $35,000. What now?”

What Is Family Business Succession Planning?

Many family-owned businesses have had to scramble to maintain ownership, when owners or heirs were struck by COVID-19. Lacking a succession plan may have led to disastrous results, or at best, less than optimal corporate structures and large tax bills. This difficult lesson is a wake-up call, says the article “Succession Planning for the Family-Owned Business—Keepin’ it ‘All in the Family’” from Bloomberg Tax.

Another factor putting family-owned businesses at risk is divorce. Contemplating the best way to transfer ownership to the next generation requires a candid examination of family dynamics and acknowledgment of outsiders (i.e., in-laws) and the possibility of divorce.

Before documents can be created, a number of issues need to be discussed:

Transfer timing. When will the ownership of the business transfer to the next generation? There are some who use life-events as prompts: births, marriages and/or the death of the owners.

How will the transfer take place? Corporate structures and estate planning tools provide many options limited only by the tax liabilities and wishes of the family. Be wary, since each decision for the structure may have unintended consequences. Short and long-term strategic planning is needed.

To whom will the business be transferred? Who will receive an ownership interest and what will be the rights of ownership? Will there be different levels of ownership, and will those levels depend upon the level of activity in the business? Will percentages be used, or shares, or another form?

In drafting a succession plan, it is wise to assume that the future owners will either marry or divorce—perhaps multiple times. The succession plan should address these issues to prevent an ex-spouse from becoming a shareholder, whose interest in the business needs to be bought out.

The operating agreement/partnership agreement should require all future owners to enter into a prenuptial agreement before marriage specifically excluding their interest in the family business from being distributed, valued, or deemed marital property subject to distribution, if there is a divorce.

An owner may even exact a penalty for a subsequent owner who fails to enter into a prenup prior to a marriage. The same corporate document should specifically bar an owner’s spouse from receiving an ownership interest under any circumstance.

A prenup is intended to remove the future value of the owner’s interest from the marital asset pool. This typically requires the owner to buy-out the future spouse’s legal claim to future value. This could be a costly issue, since the value of the future ownership interest cannot be predicted at the time of the marriage.

Many different strategies can be used to develop a succession plan that ideally works alongside the business owner’s estate plan. These are used to ensure that the business remains in the family and the family interests are protected.

Reference: Bloomberg Tax (April 5,2021) “Succession Planning for the Family-Owned Business—Keepin’ it ‘All in the Family’”