Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Can We Prevent the Elderly from Being Scammed?

Just as parents guide their children through adulthood and teach them about finances and how to manage their money, adult children of aging parents need to be alert for their parents before they fall victim to those preying on the elderly. It’s become all too common, according to the article “The Best Way to Protect a Parent from Scammers” from Kiplinger.

There are a few common scams seen across the country. One is to call an elderly person and tell them their beloved grandchild has been arrested and cash needs to be sent immediately to get them out of jail. The grandparents are told the child has told the police not to call the parents, so the call is secret. No police department calls grandparents with a demand for cash, but in the stress of the moment, flustered people often comply.

Another is a thief posing as an IRS agent and telling a surviving spouse that their deceased spouse owed thousands in back taxes and penalties. The senior is told to make a payment or risk being arrested.  There is also the scammer claiming to be from the DEA and warning the person their Social Security number and credit card were used to rent a car found abandoned near the Mexican border with suitcases stuffed with drugs. The person is told they need to verify their information to clear their record, or they’ll be arrested for drug trafficking. The voice is always very convincing.

Elderly victims are vulnerable for several reasons. One, the generation preceding the boomers was taught to trust others, especially people in positions of authority. As people age, their ability to think clearly when a dramatic and unexpected piece of bad news is easily shaken. Someone who would otherwise never have given out their personal information or sent cash or purchased gift cards becomes overwhelmed and complies with the scammer.

Taking control of a parent’s financial life is a hard step for both the aging parents and the adult children. No one wants to lose their independence and freedom, nor do adult children want to see their parents becoming vulnerable to thieves. However, at a certain point, adult children need to become involved to protect their parents.

A General Durable Power of Attorney (POA) is a legal document giving another person, typically an adult child, the power to act on behalf of another person immediately, once the document has been signed. It may not be effective in stopping a parent from giving money to a scammer, since the parents still have control of their money. fI transactions are done online, the bank may not have an alert set up for questionable transactions.

That said, having a POA in place and alerting the bank to its use will give the financial institution more freedom to be in touch with an adult child about their parent’s accounts, if fraud is suspected.

Guardianship or conservator is another way to address this issue, although it is far more invasive and brings the court system into the life of the person who becomes a “ward” and requires regular reporting. Guardianship is usually sought when the aging parent is incapacitated.

While we often think of trusts as a means of passing wealth to the next generation, they are also useful for protecting people in general and seniors in particular from scammers. When an adult child or other trusted person becomes the trustee, they gain complete control of the assets in the trust. If the aging parent is a trustee, they have control but someone else can step in if necessary. The co-trustee can see any changes in spending habits or unusual activity and take immediate action, without the delay that applying for guardianship would create.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about your unique situation to learn which of these solutions would be appropriate for your loved ones.

Reference: Kiplinger (July 25, 2022) “The Best Way to Protect a Parent from Scammers”

Cryptocurrency and Estate Planning: What Executors Need to Know

Millennials are not the only ones investing in cryptocurrency. In a recent article titled “Help! My dad is investing in cryptocurrency” from Monterey Herald, a woman is worried about her elderly father investing in this new type of money. She is concerned for both his financial well-being and for what she may have to address when it is time to distribute his estate to her siblings.

Crypto, or cryptocurrency, is more than a passing fad. It has become an alternative purchasing and investment tool, with more than 8,000 different types of crypto available, representing billions in assets. You can use crypto to buy a Tesla automobile, an airplane or real estate. Regulations have recently been issued to permit banks to take custody of digital currency. One credit card company is even developing a card to allow consumers to spend digital cash using a credit or debit card.

Perhaps the ultimate recognition of this new currency comes from the IRS, which now requires owners to report income and capital gains earned on the sale of crypto and assess taxes on it, the same as other traditional types of investments.

As the executor of her father’s will, the woman mentioned above will be responsible for distributing her father’s entire estate, including the cryptocurrency. As a fiduciary, she will have to learn what it is and how to manage it.

When people buy crypto, they receive a digital key. This is usually a string of numbers, symbols and letters representing the asset on a secure ledger. The key cannot be replaced, and if it is lost, so are the crypto holdings. There are many different ways to store this key, so the daughter needs to know where the key is stored and how to access it.

The best way forward would be for the daughter to spend time with her father learning about cryptocurrency, what types he owns and how they are secured. Their conversation should also address his wishes for the investment. Does he want his grandchildren to receive it as crypto, or would he prefer to liquidate it before he dies and place it in a trust? Does he want her to liquidate it after he dies, and have it become part of his estate?

When it is time to settle the estate, if the crypto has not been liquidated into cash, she will need to value the assets at his date of death, like any other investment and may either sell the currency or distribute it to his beneficiaries. If the estate is valued at more than $12.06 million, federal estate taxes will need to be paid on all assets, including the cryptocurrency. There may also be state estate taxes due.

She should also speak with an estate planning attorney about cryptocurrency, and also read his will to learn if the cryptocurrency is included. If he does not have a will or an estate plan, now is the time to make an appointment with an estate planning attorney and get that in order.

Being an executor used to require learning about possessions like art or jewelry collections or fine rugs. Today, the executor needs to add a cryptocurrency education to their task list.

Reference: Monterey Herald (Feb. 19, 2022) “Help! My dad is investing in cryptocurrency”

How Does a Charitable Trust Help with Estate Planning?

Simply put, a charitable trust holds assets and distributes assets to charitable organizations. The person who creates the trust, the grantor, decides how the trust will manage and invest assets, as well as how and when donations are made, as described in the article “How a Charitable Trust Works” from yahoo! finance. An experienced estate planning attorney can help you create a charitable trust to achieve your estate planning goals and create tax-savings opportunities.

Any trust is a legal entity, legally separate from you, even if you are the grantor and a trustee. The trust owns its assets, pays taxes and requires management. The charitable trust is created with the specific goal of charitable giving, during and after your lifetime. Many people use charitable trusts to create ongoing gifts, since this type of trust grows and continues to make donations over extended periods of time.

Sometimes charitable trusts are used to manage real estate or other types of property. Let’s say you have a home you’d like to see used as a community resource after you die. A charitable trust would be set up and the home placed in it. Upon your death, the home would transfer to the charitable organization you’ve named in the trust. The terms of the trust will direct how the home is to be used. Bear in mind while this is possible, most charities prefer to receive cash or stock assets, rather than real estate.

The IRS defines a charitable trust as a non-exempt trust, where all of the unexpired interests are dedicated to one or more charitable purposes, and for which a charitable contribution deduction is allowed under a specific section of the Internal Revenue Code. The charitable trust is treated like a private foundation, unless it meets the requirements for one of the exclusions making it a public charity.

There are two main kinds of charitable trusts. One is a Charitable Remainder Trust, used mostly to make distributions to the grantor or other beneficiaries. After distributions are made, any remaining funds are donated to charity. The CRT may distribute its principal, income, or both. You could also set up a CRT to invest and manage money and distribute only earnings from the investments. A CRT can also be set up to distribute all holdings over time, eventually emptying all accounts. The CRT is typically used to distribute proceeds of investments to named beneficiaries, then distribute its principal to charity after a certain number of years.

The Charitable Lead Trust (CLT) distributes assets to charity for a defined amount of time, and at the end of the term, any remaining assets are distributed to beneficiaries. The grantor may be included as one of the trust’s beneficiaries, known as a “Reversionary Trust.”

All Charitable Trusts are irrevocable, so assets may not be taken back by the grantor. To qualify, the trust may only donate to charities recognized by the IRS.

An estate planning attorney will know how to structure the charitable trust to maximize its tax-savings potential. Depending upon how it is structured, a CT can also impact capital gains taxes.

Reference: yahoo! finance (Dec. 16, 2021) “How a Charitable Trust Works”

What are the Negatives of Investing in Cryptocurrency?

When Matthew Mellon died suddenly in 2018, he was worth almost $200 million. He owned nine sports cars, a watch worth more than most American’s annual income and left one daughter the priceless collection of Mellon family silver. However, he also left an estate mess for heirs, according to a recent article “How a cryptocurrency fortune crippled a deceased billionaire’s estate” from the daily dot.

Aside from the sports cars, watch and the family silver, most of Mellon’s assets, estimated at more than $193 million, were in a cryptocurrency known as XRP, managed by the company Ripple. One court document noted the cryptocurrency made up 97% of the entire estate. Mellon’s estate disaster was unlike most situations when assets can’t be accounted for. His multi-million cryptocurrency assets were secured by digital keys in a digital wallet. No one in the family knew where any of this was.

The online community and attorneys assumed the XRP assets were lost forever. However, there were a few twists to the story.

Matthew Mellon was a member of two powerful banking families, the Mellons and the Drexels. He reportedly inherited $25 million as a young man and served as chair of the New York Republican Party Finance Committee, to which he’d made a six-figure donation. He was married to Tamara Mellon, founder of the Jimmy Choo shoe brand. The marriage was one of two, both ending in divorce.

His investment in cryptocurrency began with a $2 million investment in XRP in late 2017, after testing the cryptocurrency concept with Bitcoin. He became a global “ambassador” for XRP. According to Forbes, at one point his investment was worth nearly $1 billion, but the rally ended, and the currency depreciated rapidly during 2018.

The family was doubtful about his involvement in XRP because Mellon struggled with substance abuse. The day he died of a heart attack, was the day he was scheduled to check into a drug rehabilitation facility to treat an OxyContin addition.

Left behind after his death were two ex-wives, three young children and an outdated will. There was no mention of the estimated $193 million in XRP. The keys to the cryptocurrency were allegedly kept on devices under other people’s names in locations across the country. This secrecy led estate lawyers scrambling to gain control of his XRP, which fluctuated up and down by as much as 30% in the weeks after his death. Every day they did not have the ability to sell, increased the risk of not being able to liquidate his biggest asset.

Based on his relationship with Ripple, his attorneys were able to get in contact with the right people at the company and gain access to his XRP. However, this does not happen for regular people, no matter how much the cryptocurrency is worth.

Gaining access to the digital currency was just the start. Mellon had an agreement with Ripple that he could only sell off a small amount of XRP daily. The attorneys were able to negotiate a slightly higher number but could not move fast enough to generate the cash needed to pay off the estate’s debts. This made sense for Ripple—a big sell-off would have an extremely negative impact on XRP’s value, just as wide-scale dumping of a stock would cut its value.

Mellon was also years behind on income tax returns, and the IRS wanted a piece of his multi-million dollar estate. In addition, two dozen entities, mostly private individuals, claimed he owed them money, ranging from a few hundred to nearly six million. There was a posthumous sexual harassment claim filed against him by a housekeeper. The estate paid $60 million in federal estate tax, and debts were settled in January 2021, almost three years after his death because of the inability to sell the cryptocurrency.

Most people don’t lead such a complicated personal or financial life. However, in this case, an updated will would have spared the family all the drama and stress of a high-stakes estate disaster. Proper estate planning could have protected the estate from a big tax bite and kept the Mellon’s family business private.

Reference: daily dot (Dec. 23, 2021) “How a cryptocurrency fortune crippled a deceased billionaire’s estate”

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”

What Taxes Have to Be Paid When Someone Dies?

The last thing families want to think about after a loved one has passed are taxes, but they must be dealt with, deadlines must be met and challenges along the way need to be addressed. The article “Elder Care: Death and taxes, Part 1: Tax guidance for administering a loved one’s estate” from The Sentinel offers a useful overview, and recommends speaking with an estate planning attorney to be sure all tasks are completed in a timely manner.

Final income tax returns must be filed after a person passes. This is the tax return on income received during their last year of life, up to the date of death. When a final return is filed, this alerts federal and state taxing authorities to close out the decedent’s tax accounts. If a final return is not filed, these agencies will expect to receive annual tax payments and may audit the deceased. Even if the person didn’t have enough income to need to pay taxes, a final return still needs to be filed so tax accounts are closed out. The surviving spouse or executor typically files the final tax return. If there is a surviving spouse, the final income tax return is the last joint return.

Any tax liabilities should be paid by the estate, not by the executor. If a refund is due, the IRS will only release it to the personal representative of the estate. An estate planning attorney will know the required IRS form, which is to be sent with an original of the order appointing the person to represent the estate.

Depending on the decedent’s state of residence, heirs may have to pay an Inheritance Tax Return. This is usually based on the relationship of the heirs. The estate planning attorney will know who needs to pay this tax, how much needs to be paid and how it is done.

Income received by the estate after the decedent’s death may be taxable. This may be minimal, depending upon how much income the estate has earned after the date of death. In complex cases, there may be significant income and complex tax filings may be required.

If a Fiduciary Return needs to be filed, there will be strict filing deadline, often based on the date when the executor applied for the EIN, or the tax identification number for the estate.

The estate’s executor needs to know of any trusts that exist, even though they pass outside of probate. Currently existing trusts need to be administered. If there is a trust provision in the will, a new trust may need to be started after the date of death. Depending on how they are structured, trust income and distributions need to be reported to the IRS. The estate planning attorney will be able to help with making sure this is managed correctly, as long as they have access to the information.

The decedent’s tax returns may have a lot of information, but probably don’t include trust information. If the person had a Grantor Trust, you’ll need an experienced estate planning attorney to help. During the Grantor’s lifetime, the trust income is reported on the Grantor’s 1040 personal income tax return, as if there was no trust. However, when the Grantor dies, the tax treatment of the trust changes. The Trustee is now required to file Fiduciary Returns for the trust each year it exists and generates income.

An experienced estate planning attorney can analyze the trust and understand reporting and taxes that need to be paid, avoiding any unnecessary additional stress on the family.

Reference: The Sentinel (Dec. 3, 2021) “Elder Care: Death and taxes, Part 1: Tax guidance for administering a loved one’s estate”

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”

Fraudsters Continue to Target Elderly

The National Council on Aging reports that seniors lose an estimated $3 billion to financial scams, which is the worst possible time in life to lose money. There’s simply no time to replace the money. Why scammers target the elderly is easy to understand, as reported in the article “Scam Alert: 4 Types of Fraud That Target the Elderly (and How to Beat Them)” from Kiplinger. People who are 50 years and older hold 83% of the wealth in America, and households headed by people 70 years and up have the highest median net worth. That is where the money is.

The other factor: seniors were raised to mind their manners. An older American may feel it’s rude to hang up on a fast-talking scammer, who will take advantage of their hesitation. Lonely seniors are also happy to talk with someone. Scammers also target widows or divorced older women, thinking they are more vulnerable.

Here are the most common types of scams today:

Imposter scams. The thief pretends to be someone you can trust to trick you into giving them your personal information like a password, access to a bank account or Social Security number. This category includes phone calls pretending to be from the Social Security Administration or the IRS. They often threaten arrest or legal action. Neither the IRS nor the SSA ever call people to ask for personal information. Hang up!

Medicare representative. A person calls claiming to be a representative from Medicare to get older people to provide personal information. Medicare won’t call to ask for your Social Security number or to obtain bank information to give you new benefits. Phone scammers are able to “spoof” their phone numbers—what may appear on your caller ID as a legitimate office is not actually a call coming from the agency. Before you give any information, hang up. If you have questions, call Medicare yourself.

Lottery and sweepstakes scams. These prey on the fear of running out of money during retirement. These scams happen by phone, email and snail mail, congratulating the recipient with news that they have won a huge lottery or sweepstakes, but the only way to access the prize is by paying a fee. The scammers might even send a paper check to cover the cost of the fee, but that check will bounce. Once you’ve sent the fee money, they’ll pocket it and be gone.

What can you do to protect yourself and your loved ones? Conversations between generations about money become even more important as we age. If an elderly parent talks up a new friend who is going to help them, a red flag should go up. If they are convinced that they are getting a great deal, or a windfall of money from a contest, talk with them about how realistic they are being. Make sure they know that the IRS, Medicare and Social Security does not call to ask for personal information.

For those who have not been able to see elderly parents because of the pandemic, this summer may reveal a lot of what has occurred in the last year. If you are concerned that they have been the victims of a scam, start by filing a report with their state’s attorney general office.

Reference: Kiplinger (June 10, 2021) “Scam Alert: 4 Types of Fraud That Target the Elderly (and How to Beat Them)”