Estate Planning Blog Articles

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Should You Add Someone to Your Bank Account?

Adding another person to your bank account provides both of you with complete access to the account. A person can be a power of attorney and a joint account holder, but the two are very different roles, explains the article “What are my rights when someone adds me to a bank account?” from Lehigh Valley Live.

A joint account is a bank or investment account shared by two individuals, although more than two people may be on an account. They have equal access to funds, as well as equal responsibilities for any fees or expenses associated with the account. If there are transactions, depending upon the rules of the institution, all owners may be required to sign documents. The key is how the account is titled. That’s the controlling factor in determining how the assets in the account are divided, if one of the owners dies. There are several different types of joint ownership.

One is “Joint Tenants with Rights of Survivorship,” or JTWROS. If one of the account owners should die, the assets in the account go directly to the surviving account holder. These assets do not go through probate.

Then there’s “Tenants in Common,” or TIC. With TIC, each individual account owner has the right to designate a beneficiary for their portion of the assets upon their death. The assets might not be split 50/50. How the account is titled lets the account owners divide ownership however they want.

Another one: “Joint Tenants by the Entirety.” This describes a married couple who own real estate or a financial account as a legal entity with equal ownership. Neither person may transfer their half of the property during their lifetime or through a will or a trust. When one spouse dies, the entire account goes to the surviving spouse and it transfers without passing through probate.

In the example given at the start of the article, the establishment of a joint account gives both the father and son equal access to the account. If the father is unable to handle the account at any time in the future, for whatever reason, the son will be able to step in.

Power of Attorney or POA is a completely different thing. A POA is a legal document giving a person the authority to act on behalf of another person for a specific transaction or general legal and financial matters. Just as there are numerous types of joint ownership, there are numerous types of POA.

A general POA gives a person the power to act on behalf of the principal for all legal, property and financial matters, as long as the principal’s mental capacity is sound. The Durable POA gives authority to a person to act on behalf of the principal, even after the principal becomes mentally incapacitated. Special or limited power of attorney gives authority to act only for specific matters or transactions. A Springing Durable POA provides authority to act only under certain events or levels of incapacitation, which is defined in detail in the document.

You can be both a joint owner of an account and a power of attorney. These are two different ways to help a parent with financial and legal activities. An estate planning attorney can help create the POA that best fits the situation.

Reference: Lehigh Valley Live (June 10, 2021) “What are my rights when someone adds me to a bank account?”

Can You Increase Your Social Security Benefits?

The desire to get the largest possible benefits from Social Security is a relatively new phenomenon. For decades, people received their monthly benefit check and that was it. However, in the late 1990s, a new law let seniors over age 66 work without any reduction in benefits, says the article “Social Security & You: Seniors obsess over ‘maximizing’ their Social Security” from Tuscon.com. The law led to loopholes that became known as “file and suspend” and “file and restrict.” In a nutshell, they allowed retirees to collect dependent spousal benefits on a spouse’s Social Security record, while delaying their own benefits until age 70.

Congress eventually realized that these loopholes violated the basic concept of the program. Benefits to spouses were always known as “dependent” benefits. To claim benefits as a spouse, you had to prove that you were financially dependent upon the other spouse to collect benefits on their record. However, the loophole let people who were the primary wage earner in the family claim benefits as a “dependent” of the other spouse. Five years ago, Congress closed that loophole.

More specifically, Congress closed the ability to file-and-suspend. It also put file-and-restrict on notice. If you turned 66 before January 2020, you could still wiggle through that loophole, and there are some people who are still eligible. That’s where the term “maximizing your benefits” originated.

Can you get a bigger Social Security check, if you don’t fit into the exception noted above? The only real strategy to maximizing your benefits is simply to wait. The equation is pretty simple. If you wait until your Full Retirement Age (FRA), you will receive 100% of your benefit rate. If you can wait until age 70, you’ll receive 132% of your benefit.

In some households, the higher income earner waits until age 70 to file for retirement, so that the surviving spouse will one day receive higher surviving spouse benefits.

But that’s not the best advice for everyone. If you or your spouse suffer from a chronic illness, it may not make sense to wait.

If you or your spouse have lost your jobs, as so many have because of the pandemic, then Social Security may be the safety net that you need, until you are able to return to some kind of paid employment.

There may be other reasons why you might need to take your benefits earlier, even earlier than your FRA. Some households start taking their Social Security benefits at age 62, as a way to augment other income.

If you don’t already have a “My Social Security” account set up on the Social Security Administration’s portal, now is the time to do so. The Social Security Administration stopped sending annual statements years ago, but you can go into your account and download the statements yourself and start planning for your future.

Reference: Tuscon.com (Feb. 10, 2021) “Social Security & You: Seniors obsess over ‘maximizing’ their Social Security”

Some States Have No Estate or Inheritance Taxes

The District of Columbia already moved to reduce its exemption from $5.67 million in 2020 to $4 million for individuals who die on or after Jan. 1, 2021. A resident with a taxable estate of $10 million living in the District of Columbia will owe nearly $1 million in state estate tax, says the article “State Death Tax Hikes Loom: Where Not To Die In 2021” from Forbes. It won’t be the last change in state death taxes.

Seventeen states and D.C. levy their own inheritance or estate taxes in addition to the federal estate tax, which as of this writing is so high that it effects very few Americans. In 2021, the federal estate tax exemption is $11.7 million per person. In 2026, it will drop back to $5 million per person, with adjustments for inflation. However, that is only if nothing changes.

President Joseph Biden has already called for the federal estate tax to return to the 2009 level of $3.5 million per person. The increased tax revenue purportedly would be used to pay for the costs of fighting the “pandemic” and the “infrastructure improvements” he plans, but many believe such a move would potentially destroy family businesses, farms and ranches that drive and feed the economy in the first place. If that were not troubling enough, President Biden has threatened to eliminate the step up in basis on appreciated assets at death.

This change at the federal level is likely to push changes at the state level. States that don’t have a death tax may look at adding one as a means of increasing revenue, meaning that tax planning as a part of estate planning will become important in the near future.

States with high estate tax exemptions could reduce their state exemptions to the federal exemption, adding to the state’s income and making things simpler. Right now, there is a disconnect between the federal and the state tax exemptions, which leads to considerable confusion.

Five states have made changes in 2021, in a variety of forms. Vermont has increased the estate tax exemption from $4.25 million in 2020 to $5 million in 2021, after sitting at $2.75 million from 2011 to 2019.

Connecticut’s estate tax exemption had been $2 million for more than ten years, but in 2021 it will be $7.1 million. Connecticut has many millionaires that the state does not wish to scare away, so the Nutmeg state is keeping a $15 million cap, which would be the tax due on an estate of about $129 million.

Three states increased their exemptions because of inflation. Maine has slightly increased its exemption because of inflation to $5.9 million, up from $5.8 million in 2020. Rhode Island is at $1,595.156 in 2021, up from $1,579,922 in 2020. In New York, the exemption amount increased to $5.93 million in 2021, from $5.85 million in 2020.

The overall trend in the recent past had been towards reducing or eliminating state estate taxes. In 2018, New Jersey dropped the estate tax, but kept an inheritance tax. In 2019, Maryland added a portability provision to its estate tax, so a surviving spouse may carry over the unused predeceased spouse’s exemption amount. Most states do not have a portability provision.

Another way to grab revenue is targeting the richest estate with rate hikes, which is what Hawaii did. As of January 1, 2020, Hawaii boosted its state estate tax on estates valued at more than $10 million to 20%.

If you live in or plan to move to a state where there are state death taxes, talk with your estate planner to create a flexible estate plan that will address the current and future changes in the federal or state exemptions. Some strategies could include the use of disclaimer trusts or other estate planning techniques. While you’re at it, keep an eye on the state’s legislature for what they’re planning.

Reference: Forbes (Jan. 15, 2021) “State Death Tax Hikes Loom: Where Not To Die In 2021”

estate plan

Despite Pandemic, Many Still Don’t Have an Estate Plan

It’s true—many people still believe that they don’t have enough assets so they don’t need a will, or that their money will automatically go to a next of kin. Both of these beliefs are wrong. While the title of this CNBC article is “More people are creating wills amid the pandemic,” the story’s focus is on the fact that most Americans don’t have a will. If you belong to this group, here’s what happens when you die.

The state you live in has laws about who will receive your assets if you die without a will, known as intestacy. Let’s say you live in New York. Your surviving spouse and children will receive your assets. However, in Texas, your assets will be entered into the state’s intestacy probate process, and your relatives will divide up your assets. Want to be in charge of who inherits your property? Have a will created with an experienced estate attorney.

Young adults think they don’t need a will, but Covid-19 has taken the lives of many healthy, young people. Every adult over age 18 needs a will. If you don’t have one, your loved ones—even if it’s your parents—will inherit a legal mess that will take time and money to fix.

If you have children and no will, there’s no way to be sure who will raise your children. The court will decide. Choose your guardians, name them in your will and be sure to name additional choices just in case the first guardian can’t or won’t serve. You should also appoint someone to be in charge of your children’s money.

What if you had a will created 10 or twenty years ago? That’s another big mistake. Your life changes, the law changes, and so do relationships. Life insurance policies, retirement plans, and transfer-on-death instruments are all legally binding contracts. The last will you made will be used, and if you haven’t updated your will or other documents, then the old decisions will stand. Remember that contracts supersede wills, so no matter how much you don’t want your ex to receive your life insurance proceeds, failing to change that designation won’t help your second spouse. You should review and update all documents.

Doing it yourself is risky. You won’t know if your will is valid and enforceable, if you do it from an online template. Your heirs will have to fix things, which can be expensive. The cost of an estate plan depends on the complexity of your situation. You may only need a will, power of attorney and advance directive. You may also need trusts to pass property along with minimal taxes. An estate planning attorney will be able to give you an idea of how much your estate plan will cost.

Talking about death and planning for it is a difficult topic for everyone, but a well-planned estate plan is one of the most thoughtful gifts you can give to your loved ones.

Reference: CNBC (Oct. 5, 2020) “More people are creating wills amid the pandemic”

trust funding

That Last Step: Trust Funding

Neglecting to fund trusts is a surprisingly common mistake, and one that can undo the best estate and tax plans. Many people put it on the back burner, then forget about it, says the article “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding” from Forbes.

Done properly, trust funding helps avoid probate, provides for you and your family in the event of incapacity and helps save on estate taxes.

Creating a revocable trust gives you control. With a revocable trust, you can make changes to the trust while you are living, including funding. Think of a trust like an empty box—you can put assets in it now, or after you pass. If you transfer assets to the trust now, however, your executor won’t have to do it when you die.

Note that if you don’t put assets in the trust while you are living, those assets will go through the probate process. While the executor will have the authority to transfer assets, they’ll have to get court approval. That takes time and costs money. It is best to do it while you are living.

A trust helps if you become incapacitated. You may be managing the trust while you are living, but what happens if you die or become too sick to manage your own affairs? If the trust is funded and a successor trustee has been named, the successor trustee will be able to manage your assets and take care of you and your family. If the successor trustee has control of an empty, unfunded trust, a conservatorship may need to be appointed by the court to oversee assets.

There’s a tax benefit to trusts. For married people, trusts are often created that contain provisions for estate tax savings that defer estate taxes until the death of the second spouse. Income is provided to the surviving spouse and access to the principal during their lifetime. The children are usually the ultimate beneficiaries. However, the trust won’t work if it’s empty.

Depending on where you live, a trust may benefit you with regard to state estate taxes. Putting money in the trust takes it out of your taxable estate. You’ll need to work with an estate planning attorney to ensure that the assets are properly structured. For instance, if your assets are owned jointly with your spouse, they will not pass into a trust at your death and won’t be outside of your taxable estate.

Move the right assets to the right trust. It’s very important that any assets you transfer to the trust are aligned with your estate plan. Taxable brokerage accounts, bank accounts and real estate are usually transferred into a trust. Some tangible assets may be transferred into the trust, as well as any stocks from a family business or interests in a limited liability company. Your estate planning attorney, financial advisor and insurance broker should be consulted to avoid making expensive mistakes.

You’ve worked hard to accumulate assets and protecting them with a trust is a good idea. Just don’t forget the final step of funding the trust.

Reference: Forbes (July 13, 2020) “Don’t Overlook Your Trust Funding”

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