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Blog Articles

What are Three Areas of Giving Not to Skip?

It may be important to you that your family and the charities in which you believe, benefit from your success. Giving lets you practice your core values. However, for your giving to be meaningful, you need a plan to maximize your generosity.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Gifting: 3 Areas You Shouldn’t Overlook” advises that there are many things to think about before gifting, and although there are benefits to estate planning, there are other issues to consider.

Think about your gifting goals. Any amount given to a family member, friend, or organization will no doubt be treasured, but ask yourself if the recipient really wants or values the gift, or it only satisfies your personal goals.

As far as giving to a charity, you should be certain that your donation is going to the right organization and will be used for your intended purpose. Your giving goals, objectives and motivations should match the recipient’s best interests.

If gifting straight to a family member is not a goal for you now, but you want to engage your family in your giving strategy and decision making, there are several gifting vehicles you can employ, like annual gifts, estate plans and trusts. Whichever one you elect to use, it will let you place an official process in the works for your strategy. Family engagement and a formalized structure can help your gift make the greatest impact.

There is more to gifting than just determining who and how much. It’s critical to be educated on the numbers, in order to maximize your gift value and decrease your tax exposure.

You can now gift up to $11.58 million to others ($23.16 million for a married couple) while alive, without any federal gift taxes. The amount of gift tax exemption used during your life also decreases your federal estate tax exemption. You should also be aware that this amount will fall back to $5 million (and $10 million for a married couple) indexed for inflation after 2025, unless renewed.

If you transfer your wealth to heirs and beneficiaries early and letting it compound over time, you can avoid significant estate taxes. In addition, note the annual gift exemption because with it, you can gift up to $15,000 ($30,000 as a married couple) to anyone or any kind of trust every year without taxes.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help you create a giving strategy to achieve success for you and those you are benefiting.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 19, 2020) “Gifting: 3 Areas You Shouldn’t Overlook”

 

What Do I Do If I’m Named Financial Power of Attorney?

A financial power of attorney (POA) is a document whereby the “principal” appoints a trusted someone known as the “attorney-in-fact” or “agent” to act on behalf of the principal, especially when the principal is incapacitated. It typically permits the attorney-in-fact to pay the principal’s bills, access his accounts, pay his taxes and buy and sell investments or even real estate. In effect, the attorney-in-fact steps into the shoes of the principal and is able to act for him in all matters, as described in the POA document.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?” says these responsibilities may sound overwhelming, and it’s only natural to feel this way initially. Let’s look at the steps to take to do this important job:

  1. Don’t panic but begin reading. Review the POA document and determine what the principal has given you power to do on his behalf. A POA will typically include information addressed to the agent that explains the legal duties he or she owes to the principal.
  2. See what you have to handle for the principal. Create a list of the principal’s assets and liabilities. If the principle is organized, it’ll be easy. If not, you will need to find their brokerage and bank accounts, 401(k)s/IRAs/403(b)s, the mortgage, taxes, insurance and other bills (utilities, phone, cable and internet).
  3. Protect the principal’s property. Be sure the principal’s home is secure and make a video inventory of the home. If it looks like your principal will be incapacitated for an extended period of time, you may cancel the phone and newspaper subscriptions. You may need to change the locks on the principal’s home. If you have control of the principal’s investments and their incapacitation may continue for a long time, review their brokerage statements for high-risk positions that you don’t understand, like options, puts and calls, or commodities. Get advice on liquidating positions you don’t have the know-how to handle.
  4. Pay all bills, as necessary. Look at your principal’s bills and credit card statements for potential fraud. Perhaps you should suspend their credit cards that you won’t be using on the principal’s behalf. Note that they may have bills automatically paid by credit card and plan accordingly.
  5. Pay the taxes. Many powers of attorney give the agent the power to pay the principal’s taxes. If so, you’ll be responsible for filing and paying taxes during the principal’s lifetime. If the principal passes away, the executor of the principal’s last will is responsible for preparing any final taxes.
  6. Keep meticulous records. Track every expenditure you make and every action you take on the principal’s behalf. You’ll be asked to demonstrate that you have upheld your duties and acted in the principal’s best interests. It will also be important for you to receive reimbursement for expenses, and (if the power of attorney provides for it) the time you spent acting as agent.

Finally, you must always act in the principal’s best interest.

Reference: Kiplinger (April 22, 2020) “What Are the Duties for Financial Powers of Attorney?”

 

Should I Give My Kid the House Now or Leave It to Him in My Will?

Transferring your house to your children while you’re alive may avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death. However, gifting a home also can result in a big, unnecessary tax burden and put your house at risk, if your children are sued or file for bankruptcy.

Further, you also could be making a big mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being used for your nursing home bills.

MarketWatch’s recent article entitled “Why you shouldn’t give your house to your adult children” advises that there are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since passed away.

If you bequeath a house to your children so that they get it after your death, they get a “step-up in tax basis.” All the appreciation that occurred while the parent owned the house is never taxed. However, when a parent gives an adult child a house, it can be a tax nightmare for the recipient. For example, if the mother paid $16,000 for her home in 1976, and the current market value is $200,000, none of that gain would be taxable, if the son inherited the house.

Families who see this mistake in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

Sometimes people transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, the government program that pays health care and nursing home bills for the poor. However, any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for the program can result in a penalty period, when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.

In addition, giving your home to someone else also can expose you to their financial problems. Their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, get some or most of its value. In a divorce, the house could become an asset that must be sold and divided in a property settlement.

However, Tax Code says that if the parent retains a “life interest” or “life estate” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift.

There are specific rules for what qualifies as a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills. To make certain, a child, as executor of his mother’s estate, could file a gift tax return on her behalf to show that he was given a “remainder interest,” or the right to inherit when his mother’s life interest expired at her death.

There are smarter ways to transfer a house. There are other ways around probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let people leave their homes to beneficiaries without having to go through probate. Another option is a living trust.

Reference: MarketWatch (April 16, 2020) “Why you shouldn’t give your house to your adult children”

 

Do Beneficiaries of a Will Get Notified?

In most instances, a will is required to go through probate to prove its validity.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “When the Beneficiaries of a Will Are Notified” explains that there are exceptions to the requirement for probate, if the assets of the diseased are below a set dollar amount. This dollar amount depends on state law.

For example, in Alabama, the threshold is $3,000, and in California, the cut-off is an estate with assets valued at less than $150,000. If the assets are valued below those limits, the family can divide any property as they want with court approval.

The beneficiaries of a will must be notified after the will is filed in the probate court, and in addition, probated wills are placed in the public record. As a result, anyone who wants to look, can find out the details. When the will is proved to be valid, anyone can look at the will at the courthouse where it was filed, including anyone who expects to be a beneficiary.

However, if the will is structured to avoid probate, there are no specific notification requirements.  This is pretty uncommon.

As a reminder, probate is a legal process that establishes the validity of a will. After examining the will, the probate judge collects the decedent’s assets with the help of the executor. When all of the assets and property are inventoried, they are then distributed to the heirs, as instructed in the will.

Once the probate court declares the will to be valid, all beneficiaries are required to be notified within a certain period established by state probate law.

There are devices to avoid probate, such as setting up joint tenancy or making an asset payable upon death. In these circumstances, there are no formal notification requirements, unless specifically stated in the terms of the will.

In addition, some types of assets are not required to go through probate. These assets include accounts, such as pension assets, life insurance proceeds and individual retirement accounts (IRAs).

The county courthouse will file its probated wills in a department, often called the Register of Wills.

A will is a wise plan for everyone. Ask a qualified estate planning attorney to help you draft yours today.

Reference: Investopedia (Nov. 21, 2019) “When the Beneficiaries of a Will Are Notified”

 

Prevent Estate Administration Problems Before They Occur

Estate administration, that is, when the executor gets busy with paying debts, taxes and distributing assets, is often the time when any missing steps in an estate plan are revealed. The best legal problems are the ones that don’t happen, advises the article “Practical tips for estate administration, pre-planning advice, and a Coronavirus update” from the Winston-Salem Journal. Here are tips to avoid problems:

Do you need a trust to avoid probate fees and simplify estate administration?

Think of a trust as a secret box or bank account. If you own property in another state, want adult heirs to receive their inheritance over a period of time, have a beneficiary with special needs, or simply don’t want the public to learn about your assets, then a stand-alone trust that works in conjunction with your will is something to consider. However, you may be able to achieve some of these goals through beneficiary designations. A big advantage of a trust is that it is not subject to probate; assets in a probate estate become public record. If privacy is an issue, you’ll want a trust.

Is your estate plan out of date?

If your estate plan has not been updated in the last three or four years, it is likely that you have extra expenses that are no longer necessary. It’s also likely that you are missing out on tax savings opportunities. There have recently been a huge number of changes to estate and tax laws. If your will was signed before 2013, it is time to simplify your will.

Did you inherit real estate with your siblings?

If the sale of the property is still pending, get it wrapped up as soon as possible. If one of your siblings dies, or moves away, managing the disposition of real estate can become complicated and expensive.

When was the last time you reviewed Power of Attorney documents?

If you are not competent and critical steps need to be taken for your care, your agents may find themselves unable to act on your behalf, if your POA and related documents are “outdated.” They may need court intervention to make even simple decisions.

How has coronavirus impacted choices in long-term planning documents?

If your will, POA, medical power of attorney and HIPAA release forms have not been updated recently, decisions may be made without any discussion with the people you trust most.

Speak with an estate planning attorney now to get your legal and financial affairs in order. Many states have granted attorneys the ability to have documents executed and witnessed remotely, so there is no reason not to go forward now.

Reference: Winston-Salem Journal (May 3, 2020) “Practical tips for estate administration, pre-planning advice, and a Coronavirus update”

 

How Does Planning for a Special Needs Child Work?

Funding a Special Needs Trust is just the start of the planning process for families with a family member who has special needs. Strategically planning how to fund the trust, so the parents and child’s needs are met, is as important as the creation of the SNT, says the article “Funding Strategies for Special Needs Trusts” from Advisor Perspectives. Parents need to be mindful of the stability and security of their own financial planning, which is usually challenging.

Parents should keep careful records of their expenses for their child now and project those expenses into the future. Consider what expenses may not be covered by government programs. You should also evaluate the child’s overall health, medical conditions that may require special treatment and the possibility that government resources may not be available. This will provide a clear picture of the child’s needs and how much money will be needed for the SNT.

Ultimately, how much money can be put into the SNT, depends upon the parent’s ability to fund it.

In some cases, it may not be realistic to count on a remaining portion of the parent’s estate to fund the SNT. The parents may need the funds for their own retirement or long-term care. It is possible to fund the trust during the parent’s lifetime, but many SNTs are funded after the parents pass away. Most families care for their child with special needs while they are living. The trust is for when they are gone.

The asset mix to fund the SNT for most families is a combination of retirement assets, non-retirement assets and the family home. The parents need to understand the tax implications of the assets at the time of distribution. An estate planning attorney with experience in SNTs can help with this. The SECURE Act tax law changes no longer allow inherited IRAs to be stretched based on the child’s life expectancy, but a person with a disability may be able to stretch an inherited retirement asset.

Whole or permanent life insurance that insures the parents, allows the creation of an asset on a leveraged basis that provides tax-free death proceeds.

Since the person with a disability will typically have their assets in an SNT, a trust with the correct language—“see-through”—will be able to stretch the assets, which may be more tax efficient, depending on the individual’s income needs.

Revocable SNTs become irrevocable upon the death of both parents. Irrevocable trusts are tax-paying entities and are taxed at a higher rate. Investing assets must be managed very carefully in an irrevocable trust to achieve the maximum tax efficiency.

It takes a village to plan for the secure future of a person with a disability. An experienced elder law attorney will work closely with the parents, their financial advisor and their accountant.

Reference: Advisor Perspectives (April 29, 2020) “Funding Strategies for Special Needs Trusts”

 

Steps to Take When a Loved One Dies

This year, more families than usual are finding themselves grappling with the challenge of managing the affairs of a loved one who has died. Handling these tasks while mourning is hard, and often families do not have time to prepare, says the article “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die” from Business Insider. The following are some tips to help get through this difficult time.

Someone has to be in charge. If there is a will, there should be a person named who is responsible for administering the estate, usually called the executor or personal representative. If there is no will, it will be best if one person has the necessary skills to take the lead.

When one member of a married couple dies, the surviving spouse is the usual choice. Otherwise, a family member who lives closest to the deceased is the next best choice. That person will need to get documents from the local court and take care of the residence until it is sold. Being physically nearby can make many tasks easier.

It is always better if these decisions are made before the person dies. Wills should be kept up to date, as should power of attorney documents, trusts and advance directives. When naming an executor or trustee, let them know what you are asking of them. For instance, don’t name someone who hates pets and children to be your children’s guardian or be responsible for your beloved dogs when you die.

Don’t delay. Grief is a powerful emotion, especially if the death was unexpected. It may be hard to get through the regular tasks of your day, never mind the additional work of managing an estate. However, there are risks to delaying, including becoming a target of scammers.

Get more death certificates than seems necessary. Make your life easier by getting at least a dozen certified copies, so you don’t have to keep going back to the source. Banks, brokerage houses, phone companies, utilities, credit card companies, etc., will all want to see the death certificate. While there are instances where a copy will be accepted, in many cases you will need an original, with a raised seal. In fact, in some states it is a crime to photocopy a death certificate.

Who to notify? The first call needs to be to the Social Security Administration. You may also want to send an email. If Social Security benefits continue to be paid, returning the money can turn into a time-consuming ordeal. If there are any other recurring payments, like VA benefits or a pension, those institutions need to be notified. The same is true when it comes to insurance companies, banks and credit card companies. Fraud on the credit cards of the deceased is quite common. When a notice of death is published, criminals look for the person’s credit card and Social Security numbers on the dark web. Act fast to prevent fraud.

Protect the physical property. Secure the home right away. Are there plants to be watered or pets that need care? Take pictures, create an inventory and consider changing locks. Take any valuables out of the house and place in a secure location. If the house is going to be empty, make sure to take care of the property to avoid any deterioration.

Paying the bills. Depending on the person’s level of organization, you’ll have to identify where the money is and if anything is being paid automatically. Old tax returns can be helpful to identify income sources. Figure out what accounts need payment, like utilities.

Some accounts are distributed directly to beneficiaries, like transfer-on-death accounts like 401(k)s, IRAs and life insurance policies. Joint bank accounts and real property held in joint tenancy will pass directly to the joint owner. The executor’s role is to inform the institutions of the death, but not to distribute funds.

File tax returns. You’ll have to do the final taxes, due on April 15 of the year after death. If taxes weren’t filed for any prior years, the executor has to do those as well.

Consider getting help. An estate planning lawyer can help with the administration of an estate, if it becomes overwhelming. Regardless of who handles this process, expect the tasks to take anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the complexity of the estate.

Reference: Business Insider (May 2, 2020) “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die”

 

Are My Beneficiary Designations Trouble for My Heirs?

There are many account types that are governed by beneficiary designation, such as life insurance, 401(k)s, IRAs and annuities. These are the most common investment accounts people have with contractual provisions to designate who receives the asset upon the death of the owner.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Beneficiary Designations – The Overlooked Minefield of Estate Planning” provides several of the mistakes that people make with beneficiary designations and some ideas to avoid problems for you or family members.

Believing that Your Will is More Power Than It Really Is. Many people mistakenly think that their will takes precedent over any beneficiary designation form. This is not true. Your will controls the disposition of assets in your “probate” estate. However, the accounts with contractual beneficiary designations aren’t governed by your will, because they pass outside of probate. That is why you need to review your beneficiary designations, when you review your will.

Allowing Accounts to Fall Through the Cracks. Inattention is another thing that can lead to unintended outcomes. A prior employer 401(k) account can be what is known as “orphaned,” which means that the account stays with the former employer and isn’t updated to reflect the account holder’s current situation. It’s not unusual to forget about an account you started at your first job and fail to update the primary beneficiary, which is your ex-wife.

Not Having a Contingency Plan. Another thing people don’t think about, is that a beneficiary may predecease them. This can present a problem with the family, if the beneficiary form does not indicate whether it is a per stirpes or per capita election. This is the difference between a deceased beneficiary’s family getting the share or it going to the other living beneficiaries.

It’s smart to retain copies of all communications when updating beneficiary designations in hard copy or electronically. These copies of correspondence, website submissions and received confirmations from account administrators should be kept with your estate planning documents in a safe location.

Remember that you should review your estate plan and beneficiary designations every few years. Sound estate planning goes well beyond a will but requires periodic review. If this is overlooked, something as simple as a beneficiary designation could create major issues in your family after you pass away.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 4, 2020) “Beneficiary Designations – The Overlooked Minefield of Estate Planning”

 

What Is a Testamentary Trust and Do You Need One?

A couple doing some retirement planning has an updated will and a medical power of attorney in place, prepared with the help of an estate planning attorney. They own some rental property, a small business and life insurance, but their estate is not large enough for them to worry about the federal estate tax.

Do they need or want a trust to be part of their estate plan? That’s question from a recent article titled “It’s the law: Testamentary trusts provide protection for assets” from the Post Register.

First, there are many different types of trusts. A living trust, also known as a revocable trust, irrevocable trusts and testamentary trusts are just three types. The testamentary trust only comes into effect at death under a last will and testament, and in some cases, depending on how they are structured, they may never come into effect, because they are designed for certain circumstances.

If you leave everything to your spouse in a will or through a revocable trust, your spouse will receive everything with no limitations. The problem is, those assets are subject to claims by your spouse’s creditors, such as business issues, a car accident, or bankruptcy. The surviving spouse may use the money any way he or she wishes, during their lifetime or through a will at death.

Consider if your spouse remarried after your death. What happens if they leave assets that they have inherited from you to a new spouse? If the new spouse dies, do the new spouses’ children inherit assets?

By using a trust, assets are available for the surviving spouse. At the death of the surviving spouse, assets in the trust must be distributed as directed in the language of the trust. This is especially important in blended families, where there may be children from other marriages.

Trusts are also valuable to distribute assets, if there are beneficiaries with an inability to manage money, undue spousal interference or a substance abuse problem.

Note that the trust only protects the decedent’s assets, that is, their separate property and half of the community property, if they live in a community property state.

The best solution to the issue of how to distribute assets, is to meet with an estate planning attorney and determine the goal of each spouse and the couple’s situation. People who own businesses need to protect their assets from litigation. It may make sense to have significant assets placed in trust to control how they pass to family members and shield them from possible lawsuits.

Reference: Post Register (April 26, 2020) “It’s the law: Testamentary trusts provide protection for assets”

 

How to Keep the Family Vacation Home in the Family

If this winter-like weather plus pandemic have left you wondering about how to get started on passing the family vacation home to the family or preparing to sell it in the future, you’ll need to understand how property is transferred. The details are shared in a useful article titled “Exit strategy for keeping the cabin in the family” from The Spokesman Review.

Two options to consider: an outright sale to the adult children or placing the cabin in a qualified personal residence trust. Selling the vacation home and renting it back from the children, is one way that parents can keep it in the family, enjoy it without owning it, and help the children out with rental income.

One thing to bear in mind: the sale of the vacation home will not escape a capital gains tax. It’s likely that the vacation home has appreciated in value, especially if you’ve owned it for a long time. If you have made capital improvements over that time period, you may be able to offset the capital gains.

The actual gain is the difference between the adjusted sales price (that is, the selling price minus selling expenses) and their adjusted basis. What is the adjusted basis? That is the original cost, plus capital improvements. These are the improvements to the property with a useful life of more than one year and that increase the value of the property or extend its life. A new roof, a new deck, a remodeled kitchen or basement or finished basement are examples of what are considered capital improvements. New curtains or furniture are not.

Distinguishing the difference between a capital improvement and a maintenance cost is not always easy. An estate planning attorney can help you clarify this, as you plan for the transfer of the property.

Another way to transfer the property is with the use of a qualified personal residence trust (QPRT). In this situation, the vacation home is considered a second residence, and is placed within the trust for a specific time period. You decide what the amount of time would be and continue to enjoy the vacation home during that time. Typical time periods are ten or fifteen years. If you live beyond the time of the trust, then the vacation home passes to the children and your estate is reduced by the value of the vacation home. If you should die during the term of the trust, the vacation home reverts back to your estate, as if no trust had been set up.

A QPRT works for families who want to reduce the size of their estate and have a property they pass along to the next generation, but the hard part is determining the parent’s life expectancy. The longer the terms of the trust, the more estate taxes are saved. However, if the parents die earlier than anticipated, benefits are minimized.

The question for families considering the sale of their vacation home to the children, is whether the children can afford to maintain the property. One option for the children might be to rent out the property, until they are able to carry it on their own. However, that opens a lot of different issues. They should do so for period of one year at a time, so they receive the tax benefits of rental property, including depreciation.

Talk with a qualified estate planning attorney about what solution works best for your estate plan and your family’s future. There are other means of conveying the property, in addition to the two mentioned above, and every situation is different.

Reference: The Spokesman Review (April 19, 2020) “Exit strategy for keeping the cabin in the family”