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Blog Articles

Do I Need an Estate Plan with a New Child in the Family?

When a child is born or adopted, the parents are excited to think about what lies ahead. However, in addition to all the other new-parent tasks on the list, parents must also address a more depressing task: making an estate plan.

When a child comes into the picture, it’s important for new parents to take the responsible step of making a plan, says Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “As a New Parent, I Took These 3 Estate Planning Steps.”

Life insurance. To be certain that there’s money available for your child’s care and to fund a college education, parents can buy life insurance. You can purchase a term life insurance policy that’s less expensive than a whole-life policy and you’ll only need the coverage until the child is grown.

Create a will. A will does more than just let you direct who should inherit if you die. It gives you control over what happens to the money you leave to your child. If you were to pass and he wasn’t yet an adult, someone would need to manage the money left to him or her. If you don’t have a will, the court may name a guardian for the funds, and the child might inherit with no strings attached at 18. How many 18-year-olds are capable of managing money that’s designed to help them in the future?

Speak to an experienced lawyer to get help making sure your will is valid and that you’re taking a smart approach to protecting your child’s inheritance.

Designate a guardian. If you don’t name an individual to serve as your child’s guardian, a custody fight could happen. As a result, a judge may decide who will raise your children. Be sure that you name someone, so your child is cared for by people you’ve selected, not someone a judge assigns. Have your attorney make provisions in your will to name a guardian, in case something should happen. This is one step as a new parent that’s critical. Be sure to speak with whomever you’re asking to be your child’s guardian and make sure he or she is okay with raising your children if you can’t.

Estate planning may not be exciting, but it’s essential for parents.

Contact a qualified estate planning attorney to create a complete estate plan to help your new family.

Reference: Motley Fool (Feb. 23, 2020) “As a New Parent, I Took These 3 Estate Planning Steps”

 

How Family Businesses Can Prepare Now for Future Tax Changes

The upcoming presidential election is giving small to mid-sized business owners concerns regarding changes in their business and the legacy they leave to family members. The recent article “How family businesses can come out on top in presidential election uncertainty,” from the St. Louis Business Journal looks at what’s at stake.

Tax breaks. The current estate tax threshold of $11.58 million is scheduled to sunset at the end of 2025, when it will revert to the pre-2018 exemption level of $5 million (as indexed for inflation) for individuals. If that law is changed after the election, it’s possible that the exemption could be phased out before the current levels end.

Increased tax liability. These possible changes present a problem for business owners. Making gifts now can use the full exemption, but future gifts may not enjoy such a generous tax exemption. Some transfers, if the exemption changes, could be subject to gift taxes as high as 40%.

Missed opportunity with lower valuations. Properly structured gifts to family members, which benefit from lower valuations (that is, before value appreciation due to capital gains) and current allowable valuation discounts give families an opportunity to pass a great amount of their businesses to heirs tax free.

Here’s what this might look like: a family business owner gifts $1 million in the business to one heir, but at the time of the owner’s passing, that share appreciates to $10 million. Because the gift was made early, the business owner only uses up $1 million of the estate tax exemption. That’s a $9 million savings at 40%; saving the estate from paying $3.6 million in taxes. If the laws change, that’s a costly missed opportunity.

It’s better to protect a business from the “Three D’s”—death, divorce, disability or a serious health issue, by preparing in advance. That means the appropriate estate protection, prepared with the help of an estate planning attorney who understands the needs of business owners.

Consider reorganizing the business. If you own an S-corporation, you know how complicated estate planning can be. One strategy is to reorganize your business, so you have both voting and non-voting shares. Gifting non-voting shares might provide some relief to business owners, who are not yet ready to give up complete control of their business.

Preparing for future ownership alternatives. What kind of planning will offer the most flexibility for future cash flow and, if necessary, being able to use principal? Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs), entity freezes, and sales are three ways the owner might retain access to cash flow, while transferring future appreciation of assets out of the estate.

Know your gifting options. Your estate planning attorney will help determine what gifting scenario may work best. Some business owners establish irrevocable trusts, providing asset protection for the family and allowing the trust to have control of distributions.

Reference: St. Louis Business Journal (April 3, 2020) “How family businesses can come out on top in presidential election uncertainty”

 

Naming an Advance Designee for Social Security

For many years, people have had the right to designate an agent to handle a number of different legal, business and medical matters. That includes finances, medical decisions, wills and even funerals. What Americans have not been able to do until now, says the article “Social Security and you: New Advance Designation for Representative Payee” from The Dallas Morning News, is designate an agent to handle Social Security benefits.

As of April 6, 2020, the Social Security Administration announced that there is a new option that lets a recipient make an Advance Designation that names a person to serve as your “representative payee.” This is a really big deal, but it hasn’t received too many headlines.

Maybe that’s because under this law, anyone could apply to be a representative payee, receiving someone else’s Social Security payment and using it to pay the recipient’s living expenses. There’s a lot of room for abuse.

The best way forward? Make a decision and name a person while you have capacity. The Advance Designation option is only available to “capable” adults and emancipated minors who are applying for or receiving Social Security benefits, Supplemental Security Income (SSI) or Special Veterans Benefits.

A Social Security recipient can name as many as three people, who could serve as a representative payee if the need arises. There’s a lot of flexibility: you can withdraw your choices, change the order of the three people and name new people at any time. Just in case anyone forgets who they named, Social Security is going to send a notice each year, listing advance designees for review.

How will it work? When the SSA believes a person needs help managing benefits, they will contact the advance designees. The SSA reserves the right to discard your choices and make its own appointment.

How do you make the designation? Go online to the SSA website, especially now when phone, in-person and in writing are all either backlogged or not possible to do right now. After you’ve created and successfully logged into the mysocialsecurity website, you’ll see a box titled “Advance Designation of Representative Payee.” It will be towards the bottom of the page. You’ll need the name, phone number and a description of the relationship you have with the person.

Who should you name? The SSA prefers family members, friends or qualified organizations. Your choices should be made carefully. The people you name need to be trustworthy, good with finances, organized and have no prior felonies. They will need to be able to maintain good records and receipts and be available and responsive, if the SSA requests an audit or an in-person visit.

When should you do this? How about now? Like having a will and an estate plan, this is not something that you should put off. And as you are likely at home, there’s no reason not to!

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (April 19, 2020) “Social Security and you: New Advance Designation for Representative Payee”

 

What Is a ‘Survivorship’ Period?

A survivorship clause in a will or a trust says that beneficiaries can inherit, only if they live a certain number of days after the person who made the will or trust dies. The goal is to avoid situations where assets pass under your beneficiary’s estate plan, and not yours, if they outlive you only by a short period of time. While these situations are rare, they do occur, according to the article “How Survivorship Periods Work” from kake.com.

Many wills and trusts contain a survivorship period. Most estates won’t rise to the level of today’s very high federal estate tax exemption ($11.58 million for an individual), so a long survivorship period is not necessary. However, if the surviving spouse must wait too long to receive property under the will—six months or more—it might harm their eligibility for the marital deduction, even if they are made in a qualifying trust or an outright gift.

Even if a will does not contain a survivorship clause, many states require one. Some states require at least a five-day or 120-hour survivorship period. That law might apply to beneficiaries who inherit property under a will, trust or, if there is no will, under state law. This usually does not apply to those who are beneficiaries of an insurance policy, a POD bank account (Payable on Death), or a surviving co-owner of property held in joint tenancy. To learn what states have a set of laws, known as the Uniform Probate Code or the revised version of the Uniform Simultaneous Death Act, speak with a local estate planning lawyer.

Survivorship requirements are put into place in case of simultaneous or close to simultaneous deaths of the estate owners and the estate beneficiaries. This is to avoid having the distribution of assets from an estate owner’s estate distributed according to the beneficiary’s estate plan, and not the estate owner’s plan.

For an example, let’s say Jeff dies and leaves his estate to his sister Judy. Jeff has named his favorite charity as an alternative beneficiary. Jeff’s assets would normally go to his sister Judy. They would only go to his favorite charity, if Judy were not alive at the time of his death. However, if Jeff dies and then Judy dies 14 days later, Jeff’s assets could go to Judy’s beneficiaries under the terms of her will. The charity, Jeff’s intended beneficiary, would receive nothing.

The family would also have the burden of dealing with not one but two probate proceedings at the same time.

However, if a 30-day survivorship clause was in place, the assets would pass to his favorite charity, as originally intended. Jeff’s estate plan would be carried out, according to his wishes.

These are the types of details that make estate planning succeed as the estate owner wishes. Having a complete and secure—and properly prepared—estate plan in place is worth the effort.

Reference: kake.com (March 31, 2020) “How Survivorship Periods Work”

 

Which Takes Priority in a Conflict: a Will or a Trust?

A will and a trust are separate legal documents that usually have a common goal of coordinating a comprehensive estate plan. The two documents ideally work in tandem, but because they’re separate and distinct documents, they sometimes can conflict with one another. This conflict can be accidental or on purpose.

A revocable trust is a living trust established during the life of the grantor. It can be changed at any time, while the grantor is still alive. Since revocable trusts become operative before the will takes effect at death, the trust takes precedence over the will, in the event that there are issues between the two.

An Investopedia article from 2019, “What Happens When a Will and a Revocable Trust Conflict?” reminds us that a will has no power to decide who receives a living trust’s assets, such as cash, equities, bonds, real estate and jewelry because a trust is a separate entity. It’s a separate entity from an individual. When the grantor dies, the assets in the trust don’t go into the probate process with a decedent’s personal assets. They remain trust property.

When a person dies, their will must be probated, and the deceased individual’s property is distributed according to the terms in the will. However, probate doesn’t apply to property held in a living trust, because those assets are not legally owned by the deceased. As such, the will has no authority over a trust’s assets, which may include cash, real estate, cars, jewelry, collectibles and other tangible items.

Let’s say that the family patriarch named Christopher Robin has two children named Pooh and Roo. Let’s also assume that Chris places his home into a living trust, which states that Pooh and Roo are to inherit the home. Several years later, Chris remarries and just before he dies, he executes a new will that purports to leave his house to his new wife, Kanga. In such an illustration, Chris would have needed to amend the trust to make the transfer to Kanga effective, because the house is trust property, and Chris no longer owns it to give away. That home becomes the property of the children, Pooh and Roo.

This can be a complex and confusing area, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney to be sure you don’t end up like Kanga with nowhere to live.

Remember a revocable trust is a separate entity and doesn’t follow the provisions of a person’s will upon his or her death.  It is wise to seek the advice of a trust and estate planning attorney to make sure proceedings go as you intend.

While a revocable trust supersedes a will, the trust only controls those assets that have been placed into it. Therefore, if a revocable trust is formed, but assets aren’t moved into it, the trust provisions have no effect on those assets, at the time of the grantor’s death. If Christopher Robin created the trust but he failed to retitle the home as a trust asset, Kanga would have been able to take possession under the will. Oh bother!

Reference: Investopedia (August 5, 2019) “What Happens When a Will and a Revocable Trust Conflict?”

 

Would an Early Retirement and Early Social Security Be Smart?

For older employees who are laid off as a result of the pandemic, the idea of an early retirement and taking Social Security benefits early may seem like the best or only way forward. However, cautions Forbes in the article “Should You Take Social Security Earlier Than Planned If You’re Laid Off Due to COVID-19?,” this could be a big mistake with long-term repercussions.

In the recession that began in 2008, there were very few jobs for older workers. As a result, many had no choice but to take Social Security early. The problem is that taking benefits early means a smaller benefit.

In 2009, one year after the market took a nosedive, as many as 42.4 percent of 62-year-olds signed up for Social Security benefits. By comparison, in 2008, the number of 62-year-olds who took Social Security benefits was 37.6 percent.

You can start taking Social Security early and then stop it later. However, there are other options for those who are strapped for cash.

There is a new tool from the IRS that allows taxpayers to update their direct deposit information to get their stimulus payment faster and track when to expect it. There is also a separate tool for non-tax filers.

Apply for unemployment insurance. Yes, the online system is coping with huge demand, so it is going to take more than a little effort and patience. However, unemployment insurance is there for this very same purpose. Part of the economic stimulus package extends benefits to gig workers, freelancers and the self-employed, who are not usually eligible for unemployment.

Consider asking a family member for a loan, or a gift. Any individual is allowed to give someone else up to $15,000 a year with no tax consequences. Gifts that are larger require a gift tax return, but no tax is due. The amount is simply counted against the amount that any one person can give tax free during their lifetime. That amount is now over $11 million. By law, you can accept a loan from a family member up to $10,000 with no paperwork. After that amount, you’ll need a written loan agreement that states that interest will be charged – at least the minimum AFR—Applicable Federal Rate. An estate planning attorney can help you with this.

Tap retirement accounts—gently. The stimulus package eases the rules around retirement account loans and withdrawals for people who have been impacted by the COVID-19 downturn. The 10% penalty for early withdrawals before age 59½ has been waived for 2020.

If you must take Social Security, you can do so starting at age 62. In normal times, the advice is to tap retirement accounts before taking Social Security, so that your benefits can continue to grow. The return on Social Security continues to be higher than equities, so this is still good advice.

Reference: Forbes (April 15, 2020) “Should You Take Social Security Earlier Than Planned If You’re Laid Off Due to COVID-19?”

 

Digital Assets Need to Be Protected In Estate Plans

Most people have an extensive network of digital relationships with retailers, financial institutions and even government agencies. Companies and institutions, from household utilities to grocery delivery services have invested millions in making it easier for consumers to do everything online—and the coronavirus has made our online lives take a giant leap. As a result, explains the article “Supporting Your Clients’ Digital Legacy” from Bloomberg Tax, practically all estates now include digital assets, a new class of assets that hold both financial and sentimental value.

In the last year, there has been a growing number of reports of the number of profiles of people who have died but whose pages are still alive on Facebook, Linked In and similar platforms. Taking down profiles, preserving photos and gaining access to URLs are all part of managing a digital footprint that needs to be planned for as part of an estate plan.

There are a number of laws that could impact a user’s digital estate during life and death. Depending upon the asset and how it is used, determines what happens to it after the owner dies. Fiduciary access laws outline what the executor or attorney is allowed to do with digital assets, and the law varies from one country to another. In the US, almost all states have adopted a version of RUFADAA, the law created by the U.S. Uniform Law Commission. However, all digital assets are also subject to the Terms of Service Agreement (TOSAs) that we click on when signing up for a new app or software. The TOSA may not permit anyone but the account owner to gain access to the account or the assets in the account.

Digital assets are virtual and may be difficult to find without a paper trail. Leaving passwords for the fiduciary seems like the simple solution, but passwords don’t convey user wishes. What if the executor tries to get into an account and is blocked? Unauthorized access, even with a password, is still violating the terms of the TOSAs.

People need to plan for digital assets, just as they do any other asset. Here are some of the questions to consider:

  • What will happen to digital assets with financial value, like loyalty points, travel rewards, cryptocurrency, gaming tokens or the digital assets of a business?
  • Who will be able to get digital assets with sentimental value, like photos, videos and social media accounts?
  • What about privacy and cybersecurity concerns, and identity theft?

What will happen to your digital assets? Facebook and Google offer Legacy Contact and Inactive Manager, online tools they provide to designate third-party account access. Some, but not many, other online platforms have similar tools in place. The best way, for now, may be to make a list of all of your digital accounts and look through them for death or incapacity instructions. It may not be a complete solution, but it’s at least a start.

Reference: Bloomberg Tax (April 10, 2020) “Supporting Your Clients’ Digital Legacy”

Suggested Key Terms: Digital Assets, Legacy, Incapacity, Gaming Tokens, Estate Plan, Cybersecurity, RUFADAA

Is Long-Term Care Insurance Really a Good Idea?

Forbes’ recent article entitled “Is Long-Term Care Insurance Right For You?” says that a big drawback for many, is the fact that LTCI is expensive. However, think about the costs of long-term care. For example, the current median annual cost for assisted living is $43,539, and for a private room in a nursing home, it’s more than $92,000.

Another issue is that there’s no way to accurately determine if in fact you’ll even need long-term care. Much of it depends on your own health and family history. However, planning for the possibility is key.

Remember that Medicare and other types of health insurance don’t cover most of the cost of long-term care—what are known as “activities of daily living,” like bathing, dressing, eating, using the bathroom and moving. Medicare will only pay for medically necessary skilled nursing and home care, such as giving shots and changing dressings and not assisted-living costs, like bathing and eating. Supplemental insurance policies generally don’t pay for this type of care.

Those with a low net worth might qualify for long-term care provided under Medicaid.

Shop around, because policies and prices are different. Check the policy terms and be sure you understand:

  • The things that are covered, such as skilled nursing, custodial care, and assisted living
  • If Alzheimer’s disease is covered as it’s a leading reason for needing long-term care
  • If there are any limitations on pre-existing conditions.
  • The maximum payouts
  • If the payments are adjusted for inflation
  • The lag time until benefits begin
  • How long benefits will last
  • If there’s a waiver of premium benefit, which suspends premiums when you are collecting long-term care benefits
  • If there’s a non-forfeiture benefit, which offers limited coverage even if you cancel the policy
  • If the current premiums are guaranteed in future years, or if there are limits on future increases
  • How many times rates have increased in the past 10 years
  • If you purchase a group policy through an employer, see if it is portable (if you can take it with you if you change jobs).

Typically, when you are between 50 to 65 is the most cost-effective time to buy LTCI, if you’re in good health. The younger you buy, the lower the cost. However, you will be paying premiums longer. Premiums usually increase as you get older and less healthy. There’s a possibility that you’ll be denied coverage, if your health becomes poor. Therefore, while it’s not inexpensive, buying LTCI sooner rather than later may be the best move.

Reference: Forbes (April 17, 2020) “Is Long-Term Care Insurance Right For You?”

Suggested Key Terms: Elder Law Attorney, Medicare, Medicaid, Paying for a Nursing Home, Long-Term Care Planning, Long-Term Care Insurance, Assisted Living, Nursing Home Care, Disability, Elder Care

Does Your Estate Plan Need a Will or a Trust—Or Both?

Having a structure in place that clearly directs who is in charge and who gets what assets, gives most people a sense of relief about their estate plan. It’s important to understand how a will works, how a trust works and when to use each of these planning tools, reports the article “Revocable trust vs. will: A guide to estate planning in the age of coronavirus” from Bankrate. In many cases, using both achieves the ultimate goal of protecting the family assets and their privacy.

The will process is more complex than its typical portrayal in film or fiction. The will directs who is to receive the property of the deceased. Without a will, property may be distributed by the courts, following the “intestate succession” law of the state. That’s usually the next of kin—not always who you want to inherit your estate.

If property is owned jointly, then it passes to the surviving owner. Accounts and assets with a named beneficiary go directly to that beneficiary. Any assets held in a trust are subject to the directions in the trust. That is one reason to check all accounts you own and make sure they have two named beneficiaries—primary and contingent. That applies to retirement and investment accounts, as well as life insurance policies.

The probate court appoints an executor— who should be chosen by the decedent and nominated in the will—to carry out the directions in the will, pay any outstanding debts, take care of taxes and oversee the distribution of assets. The process of administering the will can be lengthy, depending upon the size and the complexity of the estate. During probate, the will becomes a public document. Predatory creditors are able to see the will, including the amount of assets and their distribution. In many jurisdictions, there are court fees associated with probate that can take a bite (or a nibble) out of the estate.

Trusts are used to circumvent some of the issues created when assets are passed via a will. Trusts are legal structures that provide protection for assets. The assets in a trust do not belong to the individual, they belong to the trust.  Therefore, they are not subject to probate. When the trust is created, a trustee is named whose job it is to manage the affairs of the trust. A successor trustee is named to manage the trust, if the trustee cannot or will not serve.

The revocable trust is used to take assets out of the estate, while allowing the asset owner to maintain control. Assets can be moved in or out of the trust, or the trust can be dissolved, and the assets taken back. However, there are no tax benefits, since the trust owner is the trust maker, the trustee, and the beneficiary, as long as the owner is alive. On the owner’s passing, the designated successor trustee takes over.

With an irrevocable trust, there are significant tax benefits. However, there is also a loss of control of the assets.

Trusts do cost more to establish than wills, but they offer a number of advantages. The use of a trust means that less or none of your assets will go through probate, speeding up the distribution process. Trusts also protect the family’s privacy, since the details in the trusts do not become part of the public record. There is less involvement by the court in distributing assets, so fees may be lower.

Speak with an estate planning attorney about how trusts may play a useful part in your estate plan and for passing wealth down to multiple generations.

Reference: Bankrate (April 17, 2020) “Revocable trust vs. will: A guide to estate planning in the age of coronavirus”

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How a Letter to Your Executor Conveys Your Wishes

A detailed, informative letter can be invaluable to your executor to make your wishes known, says the article “Why You Should Write a Letter to Your Executor—and What to Say in It” from The Wall Street Journal. Your last will and testament does have many directions. However, there may be things you want your executor to know that may not be included in your will. This is especially important if death is sudden. The letter, which you should sign and date, can help prevent potential disputes, by minimizing any confusion around your intentions, priorities and goals.

Here are some things to consider when drafting a letter to your executor.

Your thoughts about wealth. Share your story about how you came to the assets that you are leaving in your will. How was your wealth created, what do you value and what are your long-term goals for your wealth? Do you want family members to invest the assets, so they grow over generations, or do you want them used for college education costs for grandchildren?

Describe key players in the family. It is best if your executor knows the members of your family.  However, they may not know the family dynamics or history. Giving them your insights, may help them anticipate issues. Does one child tend to take over and speak for everyone, without being asked? Are there substance abuse issues in the family that need to be considered? Present your executor with your concerns, so they can be mindful of how the family works (or doesn’t) as a unit.

What matters to you? This is especially important, if you don’t want your heirs to be dependent upon their inheritance, instead of becoming self-reliant. Share your values to encourage their earned success. Make it clear if you want to protect the family wealth, so it can be used to empower future generations and for family members to be responsible for their own financial well-being.

Give your executor the power to made decisions, even when that means saying no. Considering the size of your wealth and the family members who are your heirs, you probably have a good idea of who would do what with their inheritance. If you don’t want your wealth to be used for a start-up by a son who always bets on the wrong horse, say so in the letter to your executor. If you are hopeful that a daughter will use her inheritance for a down payment on a home for her family, you should also express that.

Some wishes for your wealth can be expressed through the use of trusts and other wealth planning tools. Your estate planning attorney will help create a plan that incorporates asset protection, tax planning and tools to distribute wealth in the way that you wish. An experienced estate planning attorney has worked with many families and understands the challenges and pitfalls that are presented any time wealth is transferred from one generation to the next.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (April 8, 2020) “Why You Should Write a Letter to Your Executor—and What to Say in It”