Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Have You Considered Estate Planning for Fido?

In Montana, a pet is “any domesticated animal normally maintained in or near the household of its owner.” In Kansas, the statutes define an “animal” as “any live dog, cat, rabbit, rodent, nonhuman primate, bird or other warm blooded vertebrate or any fish, snake, or other cold-blooded vertebrate.”

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning For Pets” explains that a pet is tangible personal property—just like guns, cars, or jewelry. When a pet owner passes away, pets pass to beneficiaries by provisions in an owner’s will, by directives in an owner’s trust document, or by a priority list of heirs contained in the state probate laws, if an owner does not have a will or a trust.

Pet owners should select a willing care giver and make a care plan for their pet that will lower the pet’s stress in the first days after you are gone. Writing down your wishes can help your heirs avoid potential problems, if there is a need to cover expenses for food, medical requirements and transportation of the pet to the beneficiary.

For example, in Montana, an honorary trust for pets is valid for only 21 years, no matter if a pet owner writes a longer term in the trust document. As a result, the trust terminates the earlier of 21 years or when the pet dies. Unless indicated in the trust document, the trustee may not use any portion of the principal or income from the trust for any other use than for the pet’s care.

Pet owners have options, when funding a pet trust. Funds could come from a payable on death (POD) designation on financial accounts to the pet trust. Another option is a transfer on death (TOD) registration with the pet trust as beneficiary for stocks, bonds, mutual funds and annuities. The pet owner could also direct the trustee in the pet trust document to sell assets, like a vehicle, house, or  boat, and place those funds in the trust for the care of the pet.

Life insurance is perhaps another option for funding for a pet’s care. States typically do not consider a pet to be a “person,” so Puffball cannot be a beneficiary of a life insurance policy. A pet owner can fund a living or testamentary pet trust, by naming the trustee of the trust as the beneficiary of a life insurance policy. As an alternative, a pet owner may have a certain percentage of an existing policy payable to the pet trust.

Pet owners should talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the best way of naming the trustee of a pet trust as a beneficiary of a life insurance policy.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (June 14, 2021) “Estate Planning For Pets”

What are the 411 on 529 College Savings Plans?

There are two basic types of 529 plans, says Texas News Today’s recent article entitled “What you need to know about the “529” Education Savings Account.” The more common type is the 529 College Savings Plan. This allows parents, grandparents and others to invest money to cover eligible education for beneficiaries. The less common type is the 529 prepaid tuition program, in which tuition is paid at a set price.

Contributions to the 529 Plan aren’t tax deductible at the federal level. However, many states offer state income tax deductions or credits. Your money grows tax-free and withdrawals to pay tuition and other eligible expenses are free of federal taxes and, in many instances, state income taxes.

529 plans can be used to pay for various college fees like tuition, room, food, books, and technology. You can pay up to $10,000 a year for K-12 tuition. You can also transfer the money in your account to other recipients. There are more pluses than minuses. However, you should note that you may face tax impacts and penalties for withdrawals that aren’t considered eligible costs. Your child’s college needs financial assistance may also be reduced, and you cannot purchase individual stocks within the 529 plan. However, you can select a number of investment options. Even so, you have fewer options than if you were designing your own portfolio.

You can transfer some or all of the existing funds in your account to another investment option twice in a calendar year or after changing beneficiaries. You can also select a different investment option whenever you join the plan. You can switch to another state’s plan once every 12 months. However, there are a few states that exclude such shifts from their plans.

Each state has set a total contribution limit of $235,000 to $542,000 per beneficiary. When an account hits the limit, you will not be able to make any more donations. However, revenue will continue to accumulate. There’s no annual donation limit, but donations are considered gifts for federal tax purposes. Therefore, this year, you could donate $15,000 per donor and per recipient with no federal gift tax. You can also make a $75,000 tax-exempt 529 plan donation and evenly distribute it to your tax return for the next five years, which is an option that some grandparents use as a tool for real estate planning.

The benefits of saving for college through the 529 plan are likely to outweigh the potential impact on financial assistance. Assets in an account owned by either a student or their parents are considered parental assets for federal financial assistance purposes, and typically only 5.64% of accounts are considered annually in the FAFSA (Federal Student Assistance Free Application) calculation. This is an advantage over being counted as a student asset because distribution under this ownership structure doesn’t disqualify the university for financial assistance. The assets of the grandparents’ account don’t impact the student’s FAFSA, but the distribution counts as the student’s income and affects aid.

Reference: Texas News Today (June 8, 2021) “What you need to know about the “529” Education Savings Account”

Can I Write a Perfect Will?

The Good Men Project’s recent article entitled “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will” says that writing a perfect will is hard but not impossible. The article provides some tips to keep in mind:

  1. Include Everything. If you have items that are very important to you, make sure they are in the right hands after your death.
  2. Consult an Experienced Estate Planning Attorney. It is a challenge to write a will, especially when you do not know all the legal processes that will take place after your death. An estate planning lawyer can educate you on how your estate is being distributed after your death and how to address specific circumstances.
  3. Name an Executor. An executor will manage and distribute your assets after you die. Select a trustworthy person and be sure it is someone who will respect you and your will.
  4. Name the Beneficiaries. These people will get your assets after you pass away. Name them all and include their full names, so there is no confusion.
  5. Say Where Everything Can Be Found. Your executor should know where all of your property and assets can be found. If there is any safe place where you keep things, add it to your will.
  6. Describe Residual Legacies. This is what remains in your estate, once all the other legacies and bequests are completed. If you fail to do this, it will be a partial intestacy. No matter that the legacies would be distributed according to the will, the intestacy laws will control the residue, which may not be to your liking.
  7. Name Guardians for Your Minor Children. Appoint a guardian to take care of any minor children or the court will appoint their guardians, again this may not be to your liking.
  8. Be Specific. An ambiguous will creates issues for the executor and may require court intervention. Be specific and include heirs’ full names. Account numbers, security boxes and anything of the sort should also be included in your will for easy access.
  9. Keep it Updated. If you experience a major life event, update your will accordingly.
  10. Get Signatures from Witnesses. Once your will is completed, you need witnesses who are at least 18 and are not beneficiaries. Sign and date the will in front of these witnesses, and then ask them to date and sign it too.

If you have any questions about wills, speak to an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: The Good Men Project (May 28, 2021) “10 Tips to Writing the Perfect Will”

What are the Most Popular Estate Planning Scams?

The Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Beware of These Common Estate Planning Scams” advises you to avoid these common estate planning scams.

  1. Cold Calls Offering to Prepare Estate Plans. Scammers call and email purporting to be long lost relatives who’ve had their wallets stolen and are stranded in a foreign country. Seniors fall prey to this and will pay for estate planning documents. Any cold call from someone asking that money be wired to a bank account, in exchange for estate planning documents should be approached with great skepticism.
  2. Paying for Estate Planning Templates. For a one-time fee, some scammers will offer estate planning documents that may be downloaded and modified by an individual. While this may look like a great deal, avoid using these pro forma templates to draft individual estate plans. Such templates are rarely tailored to meet state-specific requirements and often fail to incorporate contingencies that are necessary for a comprehensive and complete estate plan. Instead, work with an experienced estate planning attorney.
  3. Not Requiring an Estate Plan. Although less of a scheme, somepeople think they do not need an estate plan. However, proper estate planning entails deciding who can make health care and financial decisions during life, in the event of incapacity. These documents help to minimize the need for family members to petition the Probate Court in certain situations.
  4. Paying High Legal Fees. Like many things in life, with an estate plan, you may get what you pay for. Paying money upfront to have your intentions memorialized in writing can minimize the expense. Heirs should be on guard if an attorney hired to administer an estate is charging exorbitant fees for what looks to be a well-prepared estate plan. Don’t be afraid to get a second opinion in these situations.
  5. Signing Estate Planning Documents You Don’t Understand. Estate planning documents are designed to prepare for potential incapacity and for death. It is critical that your estate planning documents represent your intentions. However, if you don’t read them or don’t understand what you’ve read, you will have no idea if your goals are accomplished. Make certain that you understand what you’re signing. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to explain these documents to you clearly and will make sure that you understand each of them before you sign.

You can avoid these common scams, by establishing a relationship with an experienced attorney you trust.

Reference: The Wealth Advisor (June 7, 2021) “Beware of These Common Estate Planning Scams”

What Taxes are Due When Children Inherit Home?

The first issue to address is whether the will addresses how inheritance taxes will be paid, says nj.com recent article entitled “My adult kids inherited a home. What taxes are due?” The mortgage may say the estate itself will pay it before anything is paid out to beneficiaries, or it may not mention anything.

Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania are the only states that impose an inheritance tax, which is a tax on what you receive as the beneficiary of an estate.

Maryland is the one state that has both an inheritance tax and an estate tax. Its inheritance tax is up to 10%. As to the others, Nebraska’s inheritance tax can be as high as 18%. Kentucky and New Jersey both taxes inheritances at up to 16%. Iowa’s inheritance tax is up to 15%, as is Pennsylvania’s.

Spouses and certain other heirs are usually excluded by the state from paying inheritance taxes.

A child may have an issue if there’s not enough liquidity in the estate, separate from the house to pay the taxes. If the beneficiaries plan to keep the home, they’d need to take an additional mortgage.  They’d also need to find enough cash to pay the inheritance taxes due.

In the example above, if the deed is transferred to a niece and nephew, the executor should hire a licensed real estate appraiser and pay for a date of death appraisal on the property. That appraisal will determine how much capital gains was exempted at the sister’s passing. It will also establish a new basis for capital gains purposes for the niece and nephew.

If the heirs simply do nothing and move into the house, the inheritance tax will come due. In New Jersey, it’s due eight months from the date of death.

If the inheritance tax isn’t paid, liability for the unpaid tax will attach to the executor personally, often in the form of a certificate of debt attached to some asset belonging to the executor, like his or her house.

To make sure this is handled correctly, consider speaking to an experienced estate planning attorney, who can walk you through the process.

Reference: nj.com (June 14, 2021) “My adult kids inherited a home. What taxes are due?”

If I Buy a House, Should I have an Estate Plan?

There’s been an unprecedented surge in home sales during the pandemic. A recent National Association of Realtors report revealed that since July, existing home sales have increased year over year reaching a pandemic high of over 25% in October. Forbes’s recent article entitled “Pandemic Home Buyers: Have You Set Up Your Estate Plan?” asks the important question: How has this past year’s surge in home sales impacted estate planning?

Estate planning is a way to protect your assets and your loved ones, no matter your age or income level. If you place your home into a trust, you ensure that the ownership of your home will be properly and efficiently transferred to a loved one, if anything happens to you unexpectedly. If your home isn’t included in your estate plan, it will go through probate. However, consider the potential pitfalls of a trust:

  1. Creating a trust, when you really only need a will. If you have less than $150,000 in assets and you don’t own a home, a trust likely isn’t really needed.
  2. Thinking that you automatically have asset protection. A trust can help to avoid probate. So, an irrevocable trust may be the right option for people who really need true asset protection.
  3. Not taking trust administration into account. The trustee must do many tasks when the creator of the trust dies. These aren’t much different from what an executor does, but it can be extra work.

If you already have an estate plan, you should review your estate planning documents every three to five years. Moreover, purchasing a home should also make you revisit your documents. When doing a review, take a look at the terms of the trust. Make certain that you have your house referenced by address and that you transfer the house to your spouse by name.

Most mortgages have a “due on sale” clause. This means if you terminate your ownership of your home, you have to immediately pay back the mortgage proceeds to the bank. If you place your home in a revocable trust, it lets you smoothly transfer ownership to your beneficiary. This prevents the bank from demanding payment, and your beneficiary would keep making the mortgage payments after you’re gone. However, it may be prudent to contact the lender in advance of the transfer, if you want to be sure.

If you bought a home in the pandemic and have not placed it in a trust yet, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney sooner rather than later.

Reference: Forbes (June 2, 2021) “Pandemic Home Buyers: Have You Set Up Your Estate Plan?”

What to do If Someone Wants to Buy Your Business

Forbes’ recent article entitled, “What Should You Do When You Receive An Unsolicited Offer For Your Company?” suggests that it’s important to follow a structured three-step process to make certain you make the right decision and get the most successful outcome.

Is it the right time to sell? You need to see if this is the right time to sell your business. Examine your company and your personal readiness. Determine if the business is performing at a high level and is poised for rapid future growth. Look for any unaddressed issues that might harm value. On the personal side, think about whether you know how much you need to receive to fulfill your financial obligations and secure your future. It is also important to make sure that you have done needed tax and estate planning, so that you do not overpay taxes.

Is it the right buyer? If you are still thinking about selling, next determine if this is the right buyer. Think about what they will do with your company after the acquisition, and whether they will retain your staff or combine it with other operations. Will you have an ongoing role? You must also determine if the buyer will pay the best price and whether it is all cash or if you will retain equity in your company or the buyer’s company.  You should also ask if there are earn-outs that depend on the future performance.

Do you have a strong advisory team? Some business owners prefer to use their business attorney but consider using an experienced mergers and acquisitions attorney who knows “market” terms, where to advocate strongly and when to agree to the other side’s requirements to move the deal ahead. An inexperienced deal lawyer may negotiate hard on terms to “prove value,” which may, in effect, only obstruct the deal. The deal might go south, if an inexperienced lawyer makes you hold fast on terms the buyer needs to get the deal done. An experienced M&A attorney can also frequently move to a good deal in less time, by clearly setting parameters and getting buy-in on early drafts rather than a continuing series of drafts back and forth.

Reference: Forbes (May 11, 2021) “What Should You Do When You Receive An Unsolicited Offer For Your Company?”

Tell Me again Why Estate Planning Is So Important

The Legal Reader’s recent article entitled “The Importance of Estate Planning” explains that estate planning is not just for the rich.

If you don’t have a comprehensive estate plan, it could mean headaches for your family left to manage things after you die, and it can be expensive and have long-lasting impact.

Here are four reasons why estate planning is critical, and you need the help of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Estate plan beneficiaries. Middle-class families must plan in the event something happens to the bread earner. You might be only leaving behind one second home, but if you don’t decide who is to receive it, things might become complicated. The main purpose of estate planning is to allocate heirs to the assets. If you have no estate plan when you die, the court decides who gets the assets.

Protection for minor children. If you have small children, you must prepare for the worst. To be certain that your children receive proper care if they are orphaned, you must name their guardians in your last will. If you don’t, the court will do it!

It can save on taxes. Estate planning can protect your loved ones from the IRS. A critical aspect of estate planning is the process of transferring assets to the heirs to generate the smallest tax burden for them. Estate planning can minimize estate taxes and state inheritance taxes.

Avoid fighting and headaches in the family. No one wants fighting when a loved one dies. There might be siblings who might think they deserve much more than the other children. The other siblings might also believe that they should be given the charge for financial matters, despite the fact that they aren’t good with debts and finances. These types of disagreements can get ugly and lead to court. Estate planning will help in creating individualized plans.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney and see how estate planning can help your specific situation.

Reference: The Legal Reader (May 10, 2021) “The Importance of Estate Planning”

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”