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Blog Articles

What Should I Know about Guardianship?

In a perfect world, a child would be raised by its parents. However, this isn’t always possible, and legally enforceable decisions must sometimes be made to name the person who is best positioned to look after a child.

Guardianship is generally only needed when a person is incapable—whether legally or practically—of looking after their own affairs, says VENTS Magazine in the article “Legal Guardianship 101: What You Need to Know.”

Courts have the power to appoint guardians for adults and children. This is usually a person who is unable to make decisions for themselves.

It may be a disabled person, and guardians are appointed for children when parents consent to it, when their parental rights are removed by a court, or when both parents are dead or permanently incapacitated.

Guardians have duties as to both the protected person and their estate. The duties to the person include providing necessities, education and appropriate medical treatment, where necessary. As far as the estate of the protected person, the duties are to manage any funds properly and to spend them, pursuant to the protected person’s needs. Guardians must prepare an inventory of assets within 60 days of their appointment to the role.

Custody is only granted for children. When appointed, a custodian is given parental rights over the child. Guardianship does not bestow these rights.

A guardian is appointed to take care of a protected person and to safeguard their estate. Biological parents, if alive, keep their parental rights over the child.

To become a guardian, you must file a petition with the court. There will be a hearing on your application. You must present proof (from a doctor, for example) that guardianship is necessary under the circumstances.

Guardianship litigation can eb stressful, but it is frequently necessary, so engage an attorney to help you.

Reference: VENTS Magazine (April 13, 2020) “Legal Guardianship 101: What You Need to Know”

 

Distributing Inherited Assets in Many Accounts

This generous individual may be facing a number of legal and logistical hurdles, before assets in eight separate accounts can be passed to three relatives, says the article “Sorting through multiple inheritance accounts” from the Houston Chronicle. Does the heir need to speak with each of the investment companies? Would it make sense to combine all the assets into one account for the estate and then divide and distribute them from that one account?

If all the accounts were payable to this person upon the death of the brother, then the first thing is for the heir to contact each company and have all funds transferred to one account. It might be an already existing account in their name, or it may need to be a new account opened just for this purpose. The account could be at any of the brother’s investment firms, or it could be with a different firm.

If the accounts are not payable to the heir, but they are to be inherited as part of the brother’s estate, the estate must be probated before the funds can be claimed. In this case, it would be very helpful if the sole beneficiary is also the executor. This would put one person in charge of all of the work that needs to be done.

However, the person eventually will become the owner of all eight accounts. Once everything is in the heir’s name, then the assets can be distributed to the three relatives. There are some tax issues that must be addressed.

First, if the estate is large enough, it may owe federal estate taxes, which will diminish the size of the estate. The limit, if the brother died in 2020, is $11.58 million. If he died in an earlier year, the exemption will be considerably lower, and the estate and the executor may already be late in making federal tax payments. Penalties may apply, so a conversation with an estate planning attorney should take place as soon as possible.

If the brother lived in another state, there may be state estate or inheritance taxes owed to that state. While Texas does not have a state estate or inheritance tax, other states, like Pennsylvania, do. A consultation with an estate planning attorney can also answer this question.

When gifts are ultimately made to the three relatives, the first $15,000 given to each of them during a calendar year will be treated as a non-taxable gift. However, if any of the gifts exceed $15,000, the person will be using up their own $11.58 million exemption from gift and estate taxes. A gift tax return will need to be filed to report the gifts. If the heir is married, those numbers will likely double.

It may be possible to disclaim the inheritance, with the assets passing to the three relatives to whom the heir wishes to make these gifts. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to work through the details to determine the best way to proceed with receiving and distributing the assets. Depending upon the size of the estate, there will be tax consequences that must be considered.

Reference: Houston Chronicle (March 24, 2020) “Sorting through multiple inheritance accounts”

 

Why Gifting during Volatile Markets Makes Sense

Gifting assets to a trust for children or grandchildren is often an important part of an estate plan. The recent article “Is Now a Good Time to Make a Gift?” from The National Law Review takes a close look into the strategy of placing non-cash assets into a trust, without exceeding the annual gift tax exclusion amount or the Federal Gift Tax Exemption. If those assets increase in value later, the increases will further enhance the gift for beneficiaries.

Taxes on gifts made to a trust to benefit children and grandchildren are based primarily on the value of the gift. Annual exclusion gifts, that is, transfers of assets or cash that do not exceed the annual gift tax exclusion, are currently set at $15,000 per recipient per year. A married couple may give up to $30,000 per person in any calendar year. Many annual exclusion gifts do not require a Federal Gift Tax Return (Form 709), although it would be wise to speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure that this applies to you, since every situation is different.

Annual exclusion gifts are one way to reduce the overall value of the estate, but they do not reduce the Federal Estate Tax Exemption of the person making the gift.

Gifts in excess of the annual exclusion amount may still avoid gift taxes, if the person making the gift applies their gift tax exemption by filing IRS Form 709. The gift tax exemption is unified with the estate tax exemption, at $11.58 million per person in 2020. Gifts that are bigger than the annual exclusion of $15,000 per year, reduce the $11.58 million exemption for purposes of both the gift tax and the estate tax.

For example, if a person were to make taxable gifts of $1.0 million to a child in 2020, their lifetime gift tax and estate tax exemption will be reduced to $10.58 million. If that person were to die in 2020 when the applicable estate tax exemption is $10.58 million, then only estate assets in excess of the exemption will be subject to estate tax.

Given the uncertainly of the gift and estate tax exemptions, management and timing of these gifts is particularly important. If no legislative action occurs, these generous estate and gift tax exemptions will sunset at the end of 2025. They will return to the 2010 level of $5.0 million, indexed for inflation.

The exemptions need to be carefully used and budgeted, because federal estate tax starts at 18% and rises to 40% on all amounts over the exemption. Like the exemption, these rate rates may be changed by future elections and/or tax law changes.

If you are concerned about an estate becoming taxable, the current decline in asset values makes this a good opportunity to transfer more of the estate into trust for beneficiaries. The transfers can decrease the impact of a reduction in the exemption amount, as well as any changes to the tax rates. The currently reduced value of stocks and many other investments may also present an opportunity to reduce future taxes.

The best way forward would be to have a conversation with an estate planning attorney to review your overall estate plan and how moving assets into trusts during a time of lowered value could benefit the estate and its beneficiaries.

Reference: The National Law Review (April 10, 2020) “Is Now a Good Time to Make a Gift?”

 

Coronavirus Stimulus Allows Retirees to Tap Funds Early, With Little or No Penalties

For a limited time, Americans will now be able to withdraw money from tax-deferred accounts without penalties, under the Coronavirus Stimulus law. Rules on taking loans from 401(k)s will also be loosened up, and some retirees will be able to avoid Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) that otherwise would have been costly, says the article “Coronavirus stimulus lets struggling Americans tap retirement accounts early” from the Los Angeles Times.

In some cases, these changes reflect what has been done for retirement savers in previous disasters. However, for the most part, these are more intense than in other events. The chief government affairs officer of the American Retirement Association, Will Hansen, says that we are now in uncharted territory as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic. The numbers of people filing for unemployment make it likely that many people will be tapping their retirement accounts.

One provision in the bill would allow investors of any age to take as much as $100,000 from their retirement accounts without any early withdrawal penalties. If the money is put back in the account within three years, there won’t be any taxes due. If the money is not put back, taxes can be paid over the course of three years. The law says that the money must be a “coronavirus-related distribution,” but the rules are loose.

People who test positive for the virus, along with anyone who experiences adverse financial consequences as a result of the pandemic, including being unable to find work or childcare, are permitted to make these withdrawals.

The bill also makes it easier to borrow money from 401(k) accounts, raising the limit on these loans from $50,000 to $100,000. The payment dates for any loans due in 2020 are extended for a year.

Retirees in their early 70s were previously required to start taking money out of tax-deferred accounts and start paying taxes on those distributions. The bill also waives these rules.

U.S. individual retirement accounts held nearly $20 trillion in assets at the end of 2019. While those amounts have certainly dropped due to market volatility, Americans still hold a lot of money in retirement accounts.

However, pre- and post-retirees need to think carefully about withdrawing large sums of money now. For pre-retirees, this should only be a last resort. Some professionals think the 401(k)-loan amount is too high and that people will jump to take out too much money, which will never find its way back.

According to a U.S. Government Accountability Office report from 2019, Americans ages 25-55 take approximately $69 billion a year from their retirement accounts. Once the money is gone, it’s not able to earn future tax-deferred returns.

Reference: Los Angeles Times (March 27, 2020) “Coronavirus stimulus lets struggling Americans tap retirement accounts early”

 

Retirement Planning and Declining Abilities

Whether the reason is Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s or any of a number of illnesses that lead to dementia, it’s hard for families to think about legal or financial concerns, when a diagnosis is first made. This can lead to serious problems in the near future, warns the article “Cognitive Decline Shouldn’t Derail Retirement Planning. Here are Some Tips to Prepare Your Finances” from Barron’s. The time to act is as soon as the family realizes their loved one is having a problem—even before the diagnosis is official.

Here are some useful tips for navigating cognitive decline:

Take an inventory. Families should create a detailed list of assets and liabilities, including information on who has access to each of the accounts. Don’t leave out assets that have gone paperless, like online checking, savings, credit card and investment accounts. Without a paper trail, it may be impossible to identify assets. Try to do this while the person still has some ability to be actively involved. This can be difficult, especially when adult children have not been involved with their parent’s finances. Ask about insurance policies, veterans’ benefits, retirement accounts and other assets. One person in the family should be the point person.

Get an idea of what future costs will be. This is the one that everyone wants to avoid but knowing what care costs will be is critical. Will the person need adult day care or in-home care at first, then full-time medical care or admission to a nursing facility? Costs vary widely, and many families are completely in the dark about the numbers. Out-of-pocket medications or uncovered expenses are often a surprise. The family needs to review any insurance policy documents and find out if there are options to add or amend coverage to suit the person’s current and future needs.

Consider bringing in a professional to help. An elder law estate planning attorney, financial planner, or both, may be needed to help put the person’s legal and financial affairs in order. There are many details that must be considered, from how assets are titled, trusts, financial powers of attorney, advance health care directives and more. If Medicaid planning was not done previously, there may be some tools available to protect the spouse, but this must be done with an experienced attorney.

Automate any finances if possible. Even if the person might be able to stay in their own home, advancing decline may make tasks, like bill paying, increasingly difficult. If the person can sign up for online banking, with an adult child granted permission to access the account, it may be easier as time goes by. Some monthly bills, such as insurance premiums, can be set up for automatic payment to minimize the chances of their being unpaid and coverage being lost. Social Security or Supplemental Security Income benefits are now required to be sent via direct deposit or prepaid debit card. If a family member is still receiving a paper check, then now is the time to sign up for direct deposit, so that checks are not lost. Pension checks, if any, should also be made direct deposit.

Have the correct estate planning documents been prepared? A health care representative and a general durable power of attorney should be created, if they don’t already exist. The durable power of attorney needs to include the ability to take action in “what if” cases, such as the need to enroll in Medicaid, access digital assets and set up any trusts. A durable power of attorney should be prepared before the person loses cognitive capacity. Once that occurs, they are not legally able to sign any documents, and the family will have to go through the guardianship process to become a legal guardian of the family member.

Reference: Barron’s (Jan. 11, 2020) “Cognitive Decline Shouldn’t Derail Retirement Planning. Here are Some Tips to Prepare Your Finances”

Requests for Estate Plans Reflect Fears about Coronavirus

Estate planning lawyers have always known that estate planning is not about “if,” but about “when.” The current health pandemic has given many people a wake-up call. They realize there’s no time to procrastinate, reports the article “Surge on wills: Fearing death by coronavirus, people ask lawyers to write their last wishes” from InsuranceNews.net. Legal professionals urge everyone, not just the elderly or the wealthy, to put their end-of-life plans in writing.

The last time estate planning attorneys saw this type of surge was in 2012, when wealthy people were worried that Congress was about to lower the threshold of the estate tax. Today, everyone is worried.

Top priorities are creating a living will stating your wishes if you become incapacitated, designating a surrogate or a proxy to make medical decisions on your behalf, granting power of attorney to someone who can make legal and financial decisions and preparing advance directives, such as “Do Not Resuscitate” orders.

An estate plan, including a last will and testament (and often trusts) that detail what you want to happen to assets and who will be guardian to minor children upon your death, spares your family the fights, legal costs and hours in court that can result when there is no estate plan.

The coronavirus has created a new problem for families. In the past, a health care surrogate would be in the hospital with you, talking to healthcare providers and making decisions on your behalf. However, now there are no visitors allowed in hospitals and patients are completely isolated. Estate planning attorneys are recommending that specific language be added to any end of life documents that authorize a surrogate to give instructions by phone, email or during an online conference.

Any prior documents that may have prohibited intubation need to be revised, since intubation is part of treatment for COVID-19 and not necessarily just an end-of-life stage.

Attorneys are finding ways to ensure that documents are properly witnessed and signed. In some states, remote signings are being permitted, while other states, Florida in particular, still require two in-person witnesses, when a will or other estate planning documents are being signed.

There are many stories of people who have put off having their wills prepared, figuring out succession plans that usually take years to plan and people coming to terms with what they want to happen to their assets.

Equally concerning are seniors in nursing homes who have not reviewed their wills in many years and are not able to make changes now. Older adults and relatives are struggling with awkward and urgent circumstances, when they are confined to nursing homes or senior communities with no visitors.

Reference: InsuranceNews.net (April 3, 2020) “Surge on wills: Fearing death by coronavirus, people ask lawyers to write their last wishes”

 

Rules for the HIPAA Waiver Relaxed?

The United States Department of Health and Human Services has announced that it won’t enforce penalties for violations of certain provisions of the HIPAA privacy rule against healthcare providers or their business associates for good-faith disclosures of protected health information (PHI) for public health purposes during the COVID-19 emergency.

The HHS Office for Civil Rights said that it was exercising its “enforcement discrimination” in announcing its change in policy during the coronavirus pandemic, a declared emergency period, reports Modern Healthcare in its article “HHS eases HIPAA enforcement on data releases during COVID-19.”

A HIPAA waiver of authorization is a legal document that permits an individual’s protected health information (PHI) to be used or disclosed to a third party. This waiver is part of a series of patient-privacy measures set forth in the Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) of 1996.

PHI covered under HIPAA is information that can be connected to a specific individual and is held by a covered entity, like a healthcare provider. HIPAA has set out 18 specific identifiers that create PHI, when linked to health information.

The notification was issued to support federal and state agencies, including the CMS and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, that require access to COVID-19 related data, including protected health information.

“The CDC, CMS, and state and local health departments need quick access to COVID-19 related health data to fight this pandemic,” OCR director Roger Severino said in a statement. “Granting HIPAA business associates greater freedom to cooperate and exchange information with public health and oversight agencies, can help flatten the curve and potentially save lives.”

HIPAA’s privacy rule only permits business associates of HIPAA-covered entities to disclose protected health information for certain purposes, under explicit terms of a written agreement.

The moratorium enforcement doesn’t extend to other requirements or prohibitions under the privacy rule, nor to any obligations under the HIPAA security and breach notification rules, OCR said.

Reference: Modern Healthcare (April 2, 2020) “HHS eases HIPAA enforcement on data releases during COVID-19”

 

What’s the Difference Between an Inter Vivos Trust and a Testamentary Trust?

Trusts can be part of your estate planning to transfer assets to your heirs. A trust created while an individual is still alive is an inter vivos trust, while one established upon the death of the individual is a testamentary trust.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Inter Vivos Trust vs. Testamentary Trust: What’s the Difference?” explains that an inter vivos or living trust is drafted as either a revocable or irrevocable living trust and allows the individual for whom the document was established to access assets like money, investments and real estate property named in the title of the trust. Living trusts that are revocable have more flexibility than those that are irrevocable. However, assets titled in or made payable to both types of living trusts bypass the probate process, once the trust owner dies.

With an inter vivos trust, the assets are titled in the name of the trust by the owner and are used or spent down by him or her, while they’re alive. When the trust owner passes away, the remainder beneficiaries are granted access to the assets, which are then managed by a successor trustee.

A testamentary trust (or will trust) is created when a person dies, and the trust is set out in their last will and testament. Because the creation of a testamentary trust doesn’t occur until death, it’s irrevocable. The trust is a created by provisions in the will that instruct the executor of the estate to create the trust. After death, the will must go through probate to determine its authenticity before the testamentary trust can be created. After the trust is created, the executor follows the directions in the will to transfer property into the trust.

This type of trust doesn’t protect a person’s assets from the probate process. As a result, distribution of cash, investments, real estate, or other property may not conform to the trust owner’s specific desires. A testamentary trust is designed to accomplish specific planning goals like the following:

  • Preserving property for children from a previous marriage
  • Protecting a spouse’s financial future by giving them lifetime income
  • Leaving funds for a special needs beneficiary
  • Keeping minors from inheriting property outright at age 18 or 21
  • Skipping your surviving spouse as a beneficiary and
  • Making gifts to charities.

Through trust planning, married couples may use of their opportunity for estate tax reduction through the Unified Federal Estate and Gift Tax Exemption. That’s the maximum amount of assets the IRS allows you to transfer tax-free during life or at death. It can be a substantial part of the estate, making this a very good choice for financial planning.

Reference: Investopedia (Aug. 30, 2019) “Inter Vivos Trust vs. Testamentary Trust: What’s the Difference?”

 

Relocating for Retirement, Family … or Taxes?

When the current health crisis finally passes, many people will have spent time considering what they want to do with their remaining years. That may include relocating. For some people, taxes are a real reason to move to a new state, but some states are more tax-friendly than others, says the article “Best States to Die In…For Taxes” from Tucson.com.

No matter where you live, you have to pay federal estate taxes. However, there are eighteen states in the U.S. that require citizens to pay either estate taxes or inheritance taxes or both. The estate taxes are subtracted from an estate before its assets are distributed to heirs. Inheritance taxes are paid by heirs of the deceased, and it doesn’t matter if the heirs live in another state.

Here are the six states with inheritance taxes: Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The good news is that spouses are exempted from having to pay any inheritance taxes, and in New Jersey, it also applies to domestic partners. In some states, children and grandchildren are exempted, but not in Nebraska or Pennsylvania.

For people who live in Nebraska, immediate relatives must pay a 1% tax on inheritance amounts that are more than $40,000. In Pennsylvania, tax rates start at 4.5% for children and lineal heirs. Nebraska has the highest top inheritance tax rate of all the estates, at 18%. The others range from 10% to 16%.

Each state has certain exemptions, based on the amount of the inheritance and the heir’s relationship to the deceased. If you receive an inheritance from someone who lives in one of the inheritance tax states, speak with an estate planning attorney, so that you know what tax is due. State law categorizes heirs into types for the purposes of assigning exemptions and tax rates, and these vary by state.

The worst state to die in from an inheritance tax and estate tax perspective is Maryland, which imposes a 16% tax on inheritances above $5 million for persons who died in calendar year 2019. Until recently, New Jersey had a scaled estate tax that ranged from 0.8% to 16.0% on estates over $675,000, but the state no longer imposes any estate tax on the estate of decedents, who die on or after January 1, 2018.

Many inheritances pass through to spouses and children. The exemptions are generally fairly generous, so many people may not run into this issue with estate or inheritance taxes. However, if your estate includes a home within an expensive real estate market, your family may be in for some surprise taxes.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to learn what your state’s estate and inheritance tax rates are, and plan for the future. If you are in a high tax state, relocating may not be a bad idea. Your heirs will appreciate your planning.

Reference: Tucson.com (March 27, 2020) “Best States to Die In…For Taxes

What are the Blind Spots in Social Security?

The SimplyWise survey also found that there are five areas that are especially confusing to people., Only one in 300 of those who took a five-question quiz answered all the questions correctly, reports Think Advisor in the article entitled “5 Common Blind Spots on Social Security.”

Here are some Social Security questions that might be relevant and not knowing the answers could cost you thousands of dollars a year in income.

  1. What age do I claim to maximize my monthly earned Social Security benefit? The age is 70, although 62 years is when an individual can first make a claim. However, your benefits grow each year you wait—up to age 70. According to SimplyWise, only 42% of quiz takers got this answer right.
  2. What’s the earliest age non-disabled people can get survivor benefits? A mere 9% answered this correctly. It’s age 60. Many think it is age 62, the age people can begin claiming Social Security.That is correct for earned benefits and spousal benefits.
  3. Is a current spouse required to be getting Social Security benefits, for the other spouse to qualify for spousal benefits? Yes. Just 20% of respondents got this answer correct. It is important to understand that if both spouses are claiming Social Security, one can either receive their own benefit or 50% of their spouse’s amount, whichever is more.
  4. Is a divorced spouse able to get survivor benefits? Yes, and just 38% of people got this answer right. The criteria is somewhat different than for married people. The marriage must have lasted at least 10 years, and there are certain rules that apply to remarrying. However, divorced spouses can collect survivor benefits under a deceased ex-spouse.
  5. Can divorced spouses get spousal benefits? Yes, and 67% got this answer correct. Divorced spouses who were married for at least 10 years and haven’t remarried can claim spousal benefits.

Reference: Think Advisor (Feb. 13, 2020) “5 Common Blind Spots on Social Security”