Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Can You Inherit a House with a Mortgage?

Inheriting a home with a mortgage adds another layer of complexity to settling the estate, as explained in a recent article from Investopedia titled “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage.” The lender needs to be notified right away of the owner’s passing and the estate must continue to make regular payments on the existing mortgage. Depending on how the estate was set up, it may be a struggle to make monthly payments, especially if the estate must first go through probate.

Probate is the process where the court reviews the will to ensure that it is valid and establish the executor as the person empowered to manage the estate. The executor will need to provide the mortgage holder with a copy of the death certificate and a document affirming their role as executor to be able to speak with the lending company on behalf of the estate.

If multiple people have inherited a portion of the house, some tough decisions will need to be made. The simplest solution is often to sell the home, pay off the mortgage and split the proceeds evenly.

If some of the heirs wish to keep the home as a residence or a rental property, those who wish to keep the home need to buy out the interest of those who don’t want the house. When the house has a mortgage, the math can get complicated. An estate planning attorney will be able to map out a way forward to keep the sale of the shares from getting tangled up in the emotions of grieving family members.

If one heir has invested time and resources into the property and others have not, it gets even more complex. Family members may take the position that the person who invested so much in the property was also living there rent free, and things can get ugly. The involvement of an estate planning attorney can keep the transfer focused as a business transaction.

What if the house has a reverse mortgage? In this case, the reverse mortgage company needs to be notified. You’ll need to find out the existing balance due on the reverse mortgage. If the estate does not have the funds to pay the balance, there is the option of refinancing the property to pay off the balance due, if the wish is to keep the house. If there’s not enough equity or the heirs can’t refinance, they typically sell the house to pay off the reverse mortgage.

Can heirs take over the existing loan? Your estate planning attorney will be able to advise the family of their rights, which are different than rights of homeowners. Lenders in some circumstances may allow heirs to be added to the existing mortgage without going through a full loan application and verifying credit history, income, etc. However, if you chose to refinance or take out a home equity loan, you’ll have to go through the usual process.

Inheriting a house with a mortgage or a reverse mortgage can be a stressful process during an already difficult time. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to guide the family through their options and help with the rest of the estate.

Reference: Investopedia (April 12, 2022) “Inheriting a House With a Mortgage”

Storing Passwords in Case of Death

Despite having the resources to hire IT forensic experts to help access accounts, including her husband’s IRA, it’s been three years and Deborah Placet still hasn’t been able to gain access to her husband’s Bitcoin account. Placet and her late husband were financial planners and should have known better. However, they didn’t have a digital estate plan. Her situation, according to the Barron’s article “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare” offers cautionary tale.

Our digital footprint keeps expanding. As a result, there’s no paper trail to follow when a loved one dies. In the past, an executor or estate administrator could simply have mail forwarded and figure out accounts, assets and values. Not only don’t we have a paper trail, but digital accounts are protected by passwords, multifactor authentication processes, fingerprints, facial recognition systems and federal data privacy laws.

The starting point is to create a list of digital accounts. Instructions on how to gain access to the accounts must be very specific, because a password alone may not be enough information. Explain what you want to happen to the account: should ownership be transferred to someone else, who has permission to retrieve and save the data and whether you want the account to be shut down and no data saved, etc.

The account list should include:

  • Social media platforms
  • Traditional bank, retirement and investment accounts
  • PayPal, Venmo and similar payment accounts
  • Cryptocurrency wallets, nonfungible token (NFT) assets
  • Home and utilities accounts, like mortgage, electric, gas, cable, internet
  • Insurance, including home, auto, flood, health, life, disability, long-term care.
  • Smart phone accounts
  • Online storage accounts
  • Photo, music and video accounts
  • Subscription services
  • Loyalty/rewards programs
  • Gaming accounts

Some accounts may be accessed by using a username and password. However, others are more secure and require biometric protection. This information should all be included in a document, but the document should not be included in the Last Will, since the Last Will becomes public information through probate and is accessible to anyone who wants to see it.

Certain platforms have created a process to allow heirs to access assets. Typically, death certificates, a Last Will or probate documents, a valid photo ID of the deceased and a letter signed by those named in the probate records outlining what is to be done with assets are required. However, not every platform has addressed this issue.

Compiling a list of digital assets is about as much fun as preparing for tax season. However, without a plan, digital assets are likely to be lost. Identity theft and fraud occurs when assets are unprotected and unused.

Just as a traditional estate plan protects heirs to avoid further stress and expense, a digital estate plan helps to protect the family and loved ones. Speak with your estate planning attorney as you are working on your estate plan to create a digital estate plan.

Reference: Barron’s (Dec. 15, 2021) “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare”

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”

States with the Best Tax Rates for Retirees

For the moment, fewer Americans are concerned about the federal estate tax. However, if your goal is to leave as much as possible to heirs, then it’s wise to consider all the taxes of the state you choose for retirement. That’s all detailed in the article “33 States with No Estate Taxes or Inheritance Taxes” from Kiplinger.

Twelve states and the District of Columbia have their own estate taxes, which some call “death taxes.” Their exemption levels are far lower than the federal government’s. There are also six states with inheritance taxes, where heirs pay taxes based on their relationship to the deceased. Maryland has both: an estate tax and an inheritance tax.

The most tax friendly states of all are Nevada, Arizona, Wyoming, Colorado, Arkansas, Tennessee, South Carolina and Delaware. In Colorado, taxpayers 55 and older get a retirement income exclusion from state taxes that gets better when they reach 65. Colorado also has one of the lowest median tax rates and seniors may qualify for an exemption of up to 50% of the first $200,00 of property value. Colorado also has a flat income tax rate of 4.55%, and up to $24,000 of Social Security benefits, along with other retirement income, can be excluded for income tax purposes.

Next in line for retiree tax friendliness are Montana, Idaho, California, Kentucky, Virginia, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia and Florida. Let’s look at the Sunshine State, which has no state income tax and also a low sales tax rate. Property taxes are low in Florida, and residents 65 and older who meet certain income, property-value and length-of-ownership standards also receive a homestead exemption of up to $50,000 from some city and county governments and meet other requirements. Social Security benefits are not taxed in Florida and the state has no income tax, making it extremely attractive to retirees.

Coming in third place with a mixed tax picture are Washington, Oregon, North Dakota, South Dakota, Utah, Oklahoma, Missouri, West Virginia, North Carolina, Maryland and the District of Columbia.  Many people are moving to North Carolina, where Social Security benefits are not taxed, but tax breaks for other kinds of retirement income are far and few between. Property taxes are low and there are no estate or inheritance taxes. State income is taxed at a flat 5.25% percent, making North Carolina competitive, when compared to high state income taxes. Then there’s Oklahoma, which doesn’t tax Social Security benefits and allows residents to exclude up to $10,000 per person ($20,000 for couples) in retirement income. However, the Sooner State has one of the highest combined state and local sales tax rates in the nation. Property taxes also fall right in the middle, when the median property taxes for all 50 states are compared.

Looking for a state to avoid when it comes to taxes? The fourth place in taxes goes to New Mexico, Minnesota, Michigan, Indiana, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Maine, New Hampshire and Massachusetts. Indiana may not tax Social Security benefits, but it taxes IRAs, 401(k) plans and private pension income. And counties are authorized to levy their own income taxes on top of the state’s flat tax. Sales and property taxes are in the middle of the road. Illinois also spares retirees from taxes on Social Security and income from most retirement plans, but property taxes in are the second highest in the nation. Sales tax rates are high in Illinois. The state also levies an estate tax on heirs. Pennsylvania has an inheritance tax and high property taxes (the 12th highest in the country). However, it has a flat income tax rate of 3.07%, although school districts and municipalities may levy their own taxes.

Lowest on the list for retirees seeking to minimize tax expenses are New York State, Vermont, New Jersey, Connecticut, Wisconsin, Illinois, Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas and Texas. Everyone knows about taxes in New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, but Texas? How does a state with no income tax at all end up on the “least tax friendly for retirees” list? Texas has the seventh-highest median property tax rate in the country. There are some exemptions for retirees, but not enough to make the state tax friendly. Sales taxes are high, with the average combined state and local taxes in the state hitting 8.19%.

Taxes are not the only factor in deciding where to retire. Where you ultimately retire also considers where your loved ones live, what level of healthcare you need now and may need in the future and whether you want to move or remain in your community.

Reference: Kiplinger (Aug. 25, 2021) “33 States with No Estate Taxes or Inheritance Taxes”

Do You Need a Revocable Trust or Irrevocable Trust?

There are important differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts. One of the biggest differences is the amount of control you have over assets, as explained in the article “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust” from Kiplinger. A revocable trust is often referred to as the Swiss Army knife of estate planning because it has so many different uses. The irrevocable trust is also a multi-use tool, only different.

Trusts are legal entities that own assets like real estate, investment accounts, cars, life insurance and high value personal belongings, like jewelry or art. Ownership of the asset is transferred to the trust, typically by changing the title of ownership. The trust documents also contain directions regarding what should happen to the asset when you die.

There are three key parties to any trust: the grantor, the person creating and depositing assets into the trust; the beneficiary, who will receive the trust assets and income; and the trustee, who is in charge of the trust, files tax returns as needed and distributes assets according to the terms of the trust. One person can hold different roles. The grantor could set up a trust and also be a trustee and even the beneficiary while living. The executor of a will can also be a trustee or a successor trustee.

If the trust is revocable, the grantor has the option of amending or revoking the trust at any time. A different trustee or beneficiary can be named, and the terms of the trust may be changed. Assets can also be taken back from a revocable trust. Pre-tax retirement funds, like a 401(k) cannot be placed inside a trust, since the transfer would require the trust to become the owner of these accounts. The IRS would consider that to be a taxable withdrawal.

There isn’t much difference between owning the assets yourself and a revocable trust. Assets still count as part of your estate and are not sheltered from estate taxes or creditors. However, you have complete control of the assets and the trust. So why have one? The transition of ownership if something happens to you is easier. If you become incapacitated, a successor trustee can take over management of trust assets. This may be easier than relying on a Power of Attorney form and some believe it offers more legal authority, allowing family members to manage assets and pay bills.

In addition, assets in a trust don’t go through probate, so the transfer of property after you die to heirs is easier. If you own homes in multiple states, heirs will receive their inheritance faster than if the homes must go through probate in multiple states. Any property in your revocable trust is not in your will, so ownership and transfer status remain private.

An irrevocable trust is harder to change, as befits its name. To change an irrevocable trust while you are living takes a little more effort but is not impossible. Consent of all parties involved, including the beneficiary and trustee, must be obtained. The benefits from the irrevocable trust make the effort worthwhile. By giving up control, assets in the irrevocable trust may not be part of your taxable estate. While today’s federal estate exemption is historically high right now, it’s expected to go much lower in the future.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 14, 2021) “What to Consider When Deciding Between a Revocable and Irrevocable Trust”

What Happens If You Inherit a House with a Mortgage?

Nothing in life is certain, except death and taxes, says the old adage. The same could be said about mortgages. Did you know that the word “mortgage” is taken from a French term meaning “death pledge?” A recent article titled “What happens to your mortgage when you die?” from bankrate.com explains the options for homeowners who wonder what might happen to their home, mortgage and loved ones, after they die.

When a homeowner dies, their mortgage lives on. The mortgage lender still needs to be repaid, or the lender could foreclose on the home when payments stop, regardless of the reason. The same is true if there are outstanding home equity loans or lines of credit attached to the property.

If there is a co-borrower or co-signer, the other person must continue making payments on the mortgage. If there is no co-signer, the executor of the estate is responsible for making mortgage payments from estate assets.

If the home is left to an heir through a will, it’s up to the heir to decide what to do with the home and the mortgage. If the lender and the terms of the mortgage allow it, the heir can assume the mortgage and make payments. The heir might also arrange for the property to be sold.

A sole heir should reach out to the mortgage company and discuss their options, after conferring with the family’s estate planning attorney. To assume the loan, the mortgage must be transferred to the heir. If the property is sold, proceeds from the sale are used to pay off the loan.

Heirs do not need to requalify for the mortgage on a loan they inherited. This can be a good opportunity for someone with bad credit to repair that credit, if they can stay current on the mortgage. If the heir wants to change the terms of the mortgage, they will need to qualify for a new loan and meet all of the lending institution’s eligibility requirements.

Proof that a person is the rightful inheritor of the property or executor of the estate may be required. The mortgage lender will typically have a process to specify what documents are needed. If the lender is not cooperative or balks at any requests, the estate planning attorney will be able to help.

If you own a home, it is very important to plan for the future and that includes making decisions about what you want to happen to your home, if you are too ill to manage your affairs or for when you die. You’ll need to document your wishes,

Reference: Bankrate.com (July 9, 2021) “What happens to your mortgage when you die?”

What Paperwork Is Needed after Someone Dies?

Tax return issues, family matters, business associates, partners, trustees, bankers, investment advisors and tax collectors from the IRS to state and local taxing authorities all require attention after someone has died. There is a lot of work, and often a grieving family member finds it helpful to enlist the aid of a professional to lighten the load. A recent article, “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate” from Accounting Web, contains a list of the tasks to be completed.

General administration and legal tasks. At the very earliest, the executor should create a timetable with the known tasks. If you’ve never done this before, there’s no shame in enlisting help from a qualified professional. Be realistic about your familiarity with tax and legal issues and your organizational skills.

Determine with your estate planning attorney whether probate is necessary. Is the estate small enough for your state’s laws to allow you to expedite the process? Some jurisdictions can do this, others do not.

If an estate plan was created and executed properly, many assets may not need to go through probate. Assets like IRAs, joint tenancies, accounts that are POD, or Payable on Death and any assets with named beneficiaries do not require probate.

Gather information about family owners or others who may have a claim to the estate and who may have useful information about the assets. You’ll need to locate and notify heirs of the decedent’s passing.

Others who need to be notified, include charities named in the will. You’ll need to identify prior transfers to charities that were partial transfers, such as Charitable Remainder Trusts. If there is a charitable remainder trust with a retained lifetime income interest, it will need to be in the estate tax return, albeit with an offsetting estate tax charitable deduction.

Locate the important documents, including the will, any correspondence relating to the will, any letters explaining the decedent’s wishes, deeds, trusts, bank and brokerage statements, partnership agreements, prior tax returns, federal and state tax forms and any gift tax returns.

An estate planning attorney will be able to help determine ownership issues, including identifying assets and liabilities. This includes deeds, vehicle titles, club memberships, personal possessions and business assets, including copyrights and patents.

Social Security will need to be notified, as will Medicare, pension administrators, Department of Veteran Affairs, the post office, trustees, and any service providers.

Filing taxes for the last year of the person’s life and their estate tax filing needs to happen on a timely basis. Even if an estate tax return may not be required, it is useful to file to establish date of death values for assets. It is important to resolve income tax statute of limitation issues and any IRS or state examination issues.

Estate administration is a big job, especially if you’ve never done it before. Having the help of an experienced estate lawyer can alleviate much of the worry that comes with settling an estate.

Reference: Accounting Web (March 19, 2021) “Checklist for Working With a Decedent’s Estate”

What States Make You Pay an Inheritance Tax?

Let’s start with defining “inheritance tax.” The answer depends on the laws of each state, so you’ll need to speak with an estate planning attorney to learn exactly how your inheritance will be taxed, says the article “States with Inheritance Tax” from yahoo! finance. There are six states that still have inheritance taxes: Iowa, Kentucky, Nebraska, New Jersey, Maryland and Pennsylvania.

In Iowa, you’ll need to pay an inheritance tax within nine months after the person dies, and the amount will depend upon how you are related to the decedent.

In Kentucky, spouse, parents, children, siblings and half-siblings do not have to pay inheritance taxes. Others need to act within 18 months after death but may be eligible for a 5% discount, if they make the payment within 9 months.

Timeframes are different county-by-county in Maryland, and the Registrar of Wills of the county where the decedent lived, or owned property determines when the taxes are due.

Only a spouse is exempt from inheritance taxes in Nebraska, and it has to be paid with a year of the decedent’s passing.

New Jersey gets very complicated, with a large number of people being exempted, as well as qualified religious institutions and charitable organizations.

In Pennsylvania, rates range from 4.5% to 15%, depending upon the relationship to the decedent. There’s a 5% discount if the tax is paid within three months of the death, otherwise the tax must be paid within nine months of the death.

As you can tell, there are many variations, from who is exempt to how much is paid. Pennsylvania exempts transfers to spouses and charities, but also to children under 21 years old. If one sibling is 20 and the other is 22, the older sibling would have to pay inheritance tax, but the younger sibling does not.

There’s also a difference as to which property is subject to inheritance taxes. In Nebraska, the first $40,000 inherited is exempt. Pennsylvania exempts certain transfers of farmland and agricultural property. All six exempt life insurance proceeds when they are paid to a named beneficiary, but if the policies are paid to the estate in Iowa, the proceeds are subject to inheritance tax.

Note that an inheritance tax is different than an estate tax. Both taxes are paid upon death, but the difference is in who pays the tax. For an inheritance tax, the tax is paid by heirs and the tax rate is determined by the beneficiary’s relationship to the deceased.

Estate tax is paid by the estate itself before any assets are distributed to beneficiaries. Estate taxes are the same, regardless of who the heirs are.

There are twelve states and the District of Columbia (Washington D.C.) that have their own estate taxes (in addition to the federal estate tax). Note that Maryland has an inheritance, state and federal estate taxes. The rest of the states with an estate tax are Connecticut, Hawaii, Illinois, Maine, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Washington and Vermont.

The large variations on estate and inheritance taxes are another reason why it is so important to work with an experienced estate planning lawyer who knows the estate laws in your state.

Reference: yahoo! finance (Jan. 6, 2021) “States with Inheritance Tax”