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Blog Articles

Do I Need a Revocable Living Trust?

A revocable living trust is created with a written agreement or declaration that names a trustee to manage and administer the property of the grantor. If you’re a competent adult, you can establish an RLT. As the grantor, or creator of the trust, you can name any competent adult as your trustee, or you can use a bank or a trust company for this role. The grantor can also act as trustee throughout his lifetime.

Investopedia’s article from last fall entitled “Should You Set up a Revocable Living Trust?” explains that after it’s created, you must re-title assets—like investments, bank accounts, and real estate—into the trust. You no longer “own” those assets directly. Instead, they belong to the trust and don’t have to go through probate at your death. However, with a revocable living trust, you retain control of the assets while you’re alive, even though they no longer belong to you directly. A revocable living trust can be changed, and any income earned by the trust’s assets passes to you and is taxable. However, the assets themselves don’t transfer from the trust to your beneficiaries until your death.

Avoiding probate is the big benefit of a living trust, but other benefits like privacy protection and flexibility make it a good choice. A living trust can be used to help control a guardian’s spending habits for the benefit of minor children. It can also instruct another individual to act on your behalf, if you become incapacitated and need someone to make decisions for you. Should you become impaired or disabled, the trust can automatically appoint your trustee to oversee it and your financial affairs without a durable power of attorney.

Although there are several advantages to establishing a revocable living trust, there also some drawbacks:

Expense. Establishing a trust requires legal assistance, which is an expense.

Maintaining Records. Most of the time, you need to monitor it on an annual basis and make adjustments as needed (they don’t automatically adapt to changed circumstances, like a divorce or a new grandchild). There’s the trouble of ensuring that future assets are continuously registered to the trust.

Re-titling Property. When your RLT is established, property must be re-titled in the name of the trust, requiring additional time. Fees can apply to processing title changes.

Minimal Asset Protection. Despite the myth, a revocable living trust offers little asset protection beyond avoiding probate if you retain an ownership interest, such as naming yourself as trustee.

Administrative Expenses. There can also be additional professional fees, such as investment advisory and trustee fees, if you appoint a bank or trust company as the trustee.

There’s No Tax Break. Your assets in the RLT will continue to incur taxes on their gains or income and be subject to creditors and legal action.

Compared to wills, revocable trusts have more privacy, more control and flexibility over asset distribution. With a revocable living trust, you do most of the work up front, making the disposition of your estate easier and faster. However, an RLT requires more effort, and there is an expense in creating and maintaining it.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney, if you are considering a revocable living trust.

Reference: Investopedia (Oct. 31, 2019) “Should You Set up a Revocable Living Trust?”

 

What are the Main Estate Planning Blunders to Avoid?

There are a few important mistakes that can make an estate plan defective—most of these can be easily avoided by reviewing your estate plan periodically and keeping it up to date.

Investopedia’s article from a few years ago entitled “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning” lists these common blunders:

Not Updating Your Beneficiaries. Big events like a marriage, divorce, birth, adoption and death can all have an effect on who will receive your assets. Be certain that those you want to inherit your property are clearly detailed as such on the proper forms. Whenever you have a life change, update your estate plan, as well as all your financial, retirement accounts and insurance policies.

Forgetting Important Legal Documents. Your will may be just fine, but it won’t exempt your assets from the probate process in most states, if the dollar value of your estate exceeds a certain amount. Some assets are inherently exempt from probate by law, like life insurance, retirement plans and annuities and any financial account that has a transfer on death (TOD) beneficiary listed. You should also make sure that you nominate the guardians of minor children in your will, in the event that something should happen to you and/or your spouse or partner.

Lousy Recordkeeping. There are few things that your family will like less than having to spend a huge amount of time and effort finding, organizing and hunting down all of your assets and belongings without any directions from you on where to look. Create a detailed letter of instruction that tells your executor or executrix where everything is found, along with the names and contact information of everyone with whom they’ll have to work, like your banker, broker, insurance agent, financial planner, etc.. You should also list all of the financial websites you use with your login info, so that your accounts can be conveniently accessed.

Bad Communication. Telling your loved ones that you’ll do one thing with your money or possessions and then failing to make provisions in your plan for that to happen is a sure way to create hard feelings, broken relationships and perhaps litigation. It’s a good idea to compose a letter of explanation that sets out your intentions or tells them why you changed your mind about something. This could help in providing closure or peace of mind (despite the fact that it has no legal authority).

No Estate Plan. While this is about the most obvious mistake in the list, it’s also one of the most common. There are many tales of famous people who lost virtually all of their estates to court fees and legal costs, because they failed to plan.

These are just a few of the common estate planning errors that commonly happen. Make sure they don’t happen to you: talk to a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (Sep. 30, 2018) “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning”

 

C19 UPDATE: IRS Postpones Gift and GST Tax Filing Deadline to July 15

The IRS has expanded the list of deadline extensions for federal taxes and tax returns to include gift and generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax returns. An earlier notice had applied only to federal income tax returns and payments (including self-employment tax payments) due April 15, 2020, for 2019 tax years, and to estimated income tax payments due April 15, 2020, for 2020 tax years.

Notice 2020-20 updates earlier guidance to include the gift and GST deadline extensions.

What Are Gift and GST Taxes?

Gift Taxes. The Internal Revenue Code imposes a gift tax on property or cash you give to any one person, but only if the value of the gift exceeds a certain threshold called the annual gift tax exclusion, currently $15,000 per person. You can give away the amount of the exclusion each year without incurring a tax. The giver is responsible for paying this tax, not the recipient.

GST Taxes. The generation-skipping transfer (GST) tax can be incurred when grandparents directly transfer money or property to their grandchildren without first leaving it to their parents. These types of transfers share the same lifetime exemption as the federal estate and gift taxes, and are also subject to an annual exclusion limit of $15,000 per person.

Resource: Financial Planning, IRS postpones deadline for gift and GST taxes due to coronavirus, https://www.financial-planning.com/news/irs-offers-relief-on-gift-and-generation-skipping-transfer-taxes-due-to-coronavirus

 

The Second Most Powerful Estate Planning Document: Power of Attorney

All too often, people wait until it’s too late to execute a power of attorney. It’s uncomfortable to think about giving someone full access to our finances, while we are still competent. However, a power of attorney can be created that is fully exercisable only when needed, according to a useful article “Power of attorney can be tailored to circumstances” from The News-Enterprise. Some estate planning attorneys believe that the power of attorney, or POA, is actually the second most important estate planning document after a will. Here’s what a POA can do for you.

The term POA is a reference to the document, but it also is used to refer to the person named as the agent in the document.

Generally speaking, any POA creates a fiduciary relationship, for either legal or financial purposes. A Medical or Healthcare POA creates a relationship for healthcare decisions. Sometimes these are for a specific purpose or for a specific period of time. However, a Durable POA is created to last until death or until it is revoked. It can be created to cover a wide array of needs.

Here’s the critical fact: a POA of any kind needs to be executed, that is, agreed to and signed by a person who is competent to make legal decisions. The problem occurs when family members or spouse do not realize they need a POA, until their loved one is not legally competent and does not understand what they are signing.

Incompetent or incapacitated individuals may not sign legal documents. Further, the law protects people from improperly signing, by requiring two witnesses to observe the individual signing.

The law does allow those with limited competency to sign estate planning documents, so long as they are in a moment of lucidity at the time of the signing. However, this is tricky and can be dangerous, as legal issues may be raised for all involved, if capacity is challenged later on.

If someone has become incompetent and has not executed a valid power of attorney, a loved one will need to apply for guardianship. This is a court process that is expensive, takes several months and leads to the court being involved in many aspects of the person’s life. The basics of this process: three professionals are needed to personally assess the “respondent,” the person who is said to be incompetent. The respondent loses all rights to make decisions of any kind for themselves. They also lose the right to vote.

A power of attorney can be executed quickly and does not require the person to lose any rights.

The biggest concern to executing a power of attorney, is that the person is giving an agent the control of their money and property. This is true, but the POA can be created so that it does not hand over this control immediately.

This is where the “springing” power of attorney comes in. Springing POA means that the document, while executed immediately, does not become effective for use by the agent, until a certain condition is met. The document can be written that the POA becomes in effect, if the person is deemed mentally incompetent by a doctor. The springing clause gives the agent the power to act if and when it is necessary for someone else to take over the individual’s affairs.

Having an estate planning attorney create the power of attorney that is best suited for each individual’s situation is the most sensible way to provide the protection of a POA, without worrying about giving up control while one is competent.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Feb. 24, 2020) “Power of attorney can be tailored to circumstances”

 

How Do I Revoke a Revocable Trust?

A revocable trust is a flexible legal vehicle that lets the creator (known as the grantor) manage trust assets, as well as to alter the trust itself or its beneficiaries at any time in her lifetime. Also called a “living trust,” this trust is frequently used to transfer assets to heirs to avoid the time and expenses of probate. It is much different than if assets were simply bequeathed in a will. During the life of the trust, income earned is distributed to the grantor, and only after her death does its property transfer to the beneficiaries.

A recent Investopedia article asks “How exactly does one go about revoking a revocable trust?” According to the article, people might revoke a trust for several reasons, but typically it involves a life change. A common reason for revoking a trust, is a divorce when the trust was created as a joint document with one’s soon-to-be ex-spouse.

A trust might also be revoked because the grantor wants to make changes that are so extensive that it would be simpler to dissolve the trust and create a new one. A revocable trust may also be revoked, if the grantor wants to appoint a new trustee or totally change the provisions of the trust.

Note that while they avoid probate, revocable trusts aren’t exempt from estate taxes. Because of the fact that the grantor has control of the assets during his or her lifetime, the property is considered part of the taxable estate.

When dissolving a revocable trust, first remove all the assets that have been transferred into it. This means changing titles, deeds, or other legal documents to transfer ownership from the assets of the trust back to the trust’s grantor directly. Next, have a legal document created that states the trust’s creator, having the right to revoke the trust, does want to revoke all terms and conditions of the trust and dissolve it completely. This is often called a “trust revocation declaration” or “revocation of living trust.” As a seasoned estate planning attorney to create this document for you to be sure that it is correctly worded and meets all the qualifications of your state’s laws. If the trust has a variety of assets, it is also often smarter to let an experienced attorney make certain that everything has been properly transferred out of the trust.

The dissolution document should be signed, dated, witnessed and notarized. If the trust being dissolved was registered with a specific court, the dissolution document should be filed with the same court. Otherwise, you can just attach it to your trust papers and store it with your will or new trust documents.

Reference: Investopedia (Jan. 13, 2020) “How exactly does one go about revoking a revocable trust?”

 

How to Plan for Nursing Home Care for Parents

The median annual cost of care in a skilled nursing facility in South Carolina is $42,000, according to a cost of care survey by long-term care insurance company Genworth. You can’t expect Medicare to cover it. Medicaid coverage doesn’t start in, until the value of your assets is reduced to $2,000, says The Columbia Regional Business Report’s recent article entitled “Nursing home care requires advance planning.”

Many people don’t know that to qualify for Medicaid, your assets have to be spent down to almost nothing. Planning for long-term care includes both insurance and financial planning. However, the long-term care insurance options are limited. There are only a few providers remaining in the industry, but it’s worth the effort to see what they have.

Long-term care insurance is a plan that lets you pay a premium in exchange for coverage for a stay in an assisted care facility, full-scale care facility, or even at home. Without a policy, those financial costs can be catastrophic.

Because the cost of long-term care is so high, begin planning for your later years as soon as possible. It’s likely that in the next few decades, when the baby boomer generation starts requiring long-term or assisted living care, paying for it could become a crisis.

For people who are starting to save for future care needs, financial planners earmark 10% to 15% of your income. If you’re older and see that you don’t have enough money saved, put away at least 20% of your income. IRS guidelines include catch-up provisions for people older than 50 for IRAs and 401(k)s.

Some group insurance plans offer long-term care options. There are some additions for life insurance policies that could extend living benefits for elder care. You should plan on paying for three years of long-term care.

How to pay for skilled care is just one of the issues a family may face in later years. You also should have a will, advance directives, medical or health care power of attorney and durable power of attorney in place to help your family with difficult decisions. Remember to make sure the beneficiaries on your insurance plans are up-to-date.

Talk to an attorney about late-life concerns.

It’s never too soon to develop some kind of plan that can ease the financial burden for you and your family.

Reference:  Columbia Regional Business Report (March 10, 2020) “Nursing home care requires advance planning”

 

Charitable Giving and Your Estate Plan

Americans are a country of generous people. We give to organizations that we feel connected to, and we give to charities that we feel are important. We also give to honor our loved ones, to make life better in our communities and to help when disaster strikes.

Most people don’t give to charity purely for the tax benefits, but charitable giving has long been a benefit of lowering income taxes during our lifetimes, as well as helping minimize estate taxes when we die, says the article “5 Ways to Incorporate Charitable Giving into Your Estate Plan” from Kiplinger. Therefore, if you are charitably minded, why not achieve the most tax-savings you can? Here are five ways to do this.

Appreciated Stock. Gifts of publicly traded stock that has grown or appreciated in value is a good way to support a charity while you are living. If you sell appreciated stock, you will need to pay capital gains tax on the appreciation. However, if you donate appreciated stock to a charity, you’ll receive a charitable income tax deduction equal to the full market value of the stock at the time of the gift. That avoids capital gains taxes. You get the benefit on the appreciated amount, without having to sell it. The charity can, if it wants, sell the stock without paying any capital gains taxes, because registered nonprofits are tax exempt.

Charitable Rollovers. If you are older than 70 ½, you may donate up to $100,000 per year to charities directly from your IRA. This is known as a Qualified Charitable Rollover, or a QCD. The QCD counts towards any Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) that you need to take from your IRA annually. Under the recently passed SECURE Act, in the future RMDs must be taken by December 31, 2020, after the account owner celebrates their 72nd birthday. Because RMDs are taxable income, they are taxed at ordinary income rates.

By donating through a QCD, you can support a charity, fulfill your RMD requirement and exclude the amount that you donate from your taxable income. For those who don’t need their RMDs, that’s a win-win situation.

Bequest by Will or Revocable Trust. A more traditional way to support a charity, is to leave an amount in your will or revocable trust. The bequest is language in your will or trust that states the amount you want to leave to the charity, clearly identifying the charity you want to receive the funds, and if you want, stating the purpose that you’d want the charity to use the funds. An important point: make sure that you use the legally accurate name of the charity to avoid any confusion. This is a common error that causes no many problems for charities.

Consider also giving a donation that can be used for a charity’s “general purpose.” This lets the charity decide where to best allocate your donation, rather than tying the money to a specific program. If you chose to list a specific purpose, meet with the development office or the executive director at the charity to ensure that they are able to fulfill that desire. Otherwise, the charity may need to refuse the bequest.

Name a Charity as the Beneficiary of Retirement Accounts. This can be done by naming the charity as a beneficiary on the account documents. Be sure to use the legally correct name of the charity. The charity will be able to withdraw funds from the retirement account without paying taxes. People who receive funds from retirement accounts pay income tax rates on distributions, but charities do not. You may want to donate retirement account funds to charities, and non-taxable assets to heirs.

Charitable Remainder Trusts. This is a way to help the charity and provide for heirs. Your estate planning attorney would create a Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT) and names the CRT as the beneficiary of an IRA. A CRT is a “split interest trust,” where a person receives annual payments for the CRT for a set period of time. When the person or charitable organization’s interest in the CRT ends, the remaining funds are distributed to the charity of your choosing. There are very strict rules about how CRTs are structured, including the percentages that the charity must receive. An estate planning attorney will be able to create this for you.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 2, 2020) “5 Ways to Incorporate Charitable Giving into Your Estate Plan”

 

C19 UPDATE: Beware the Rush to Make Your Own Will Online

With COVID-19 affecting more and more Americans, people across the country are scrambling to set up wills and end-of-life directives. Over the last two weeks, online will companies have seen an explosion in users, according to the article, “Coronavirus Pandemic Triggers Rush by Americans to Make Online Wills,” published by CNBC.com.

However, as online wills grow in popularity, estate and elder lawyers increasingly caution against using them, for several reasons.

  • Will the documents be legally valid? Since most of these do-it-yourself wills are created and executed without any oversight from an attorney, a larger number of wills may not be executed in compliance with the proper will formalities, and that could end up invalidating the will.
  • Do you fully understand the questions and consequences of your answers? There are many nuances in estate planning, as well as a good bit of legal jargon. Confusion over the question or the consequences of a decision can result in costly mistakes … and could even mean your will won’t hold up to a challenge in court.
  • What about asset protection? There is more to estate planning than just giving your stuff away after you die. How you transfer ownership of your assets can mean the difference between a protected inheritance and legacy for many generations … or the squandering or loss of a person’s life’s work within a few years … or months … after they pass away.
  • Is there any planning for long-term care? It’s estimated that more than half of people turning age 65 who will need some type of long-term care services in their lifetimes. Proper estate planning should balance the possibility that you will need assistance paying for nursing home care (Medicaid), with other estate planning goals. Mistakes in this area could disqualify you from receiving assistance should you need it.

As COVID-19 keeps people home, meeting with a lawyer to create a will could not be easier. In most states, a lawyer’s services have been deemed “essential,” even during stay-at-home orders. We are doing everything we can to make our services as easy and convenient for you as possible, including meeting over telephone, online video services and other innovative ways to ensure you get the planning you need while complying with all safety measures.

Resource: Coronavirus Pandemic Triggers Rush by Americans to Make Online Wills, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/25/coronavirus-pandemic-triggers-rush-by-americans-to-make-online-wills.html

 

What is the Difference between Guardianship and Power of Attorney?

Protecting yourself or a loved one can take many different forms, since aging takes a toll on the ability to handle financial and medical decisions. In most situations, guardianship or a power of attorney does the trick, says the article “Guardianships vs. Powers of Attorney” from the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.  How to know which is the best one to use?

A guardianship is a court-authorized assignment of surrogate decision-making power for the benefit of a person who has lost the ability to make informed decisions on their own, often described as a person who has become incapacitated. The decisions that another person can make on their behalf can be very broad, or they can be very specific.

If a person becomes incapacitated, either through a slowly progressing illness like dementia or quickly, as the result of an accident, a judge will appoint a person or sometimes an organization to handle health care and financial decisions. The court-appointed guardian or organization could be a person or agency you have never heard of and would not know your family or anything about you.

Yes, that is scary. However, guardianship takes place when families do not plan in advance to appoint a surrogate decision maker, also known as an “agent.”

Here’s even more scary news: once the court has appointed a guardian, that relationship may continue for the rest of the incapacitated person’s life. That means annual accountings and involvement with the court, legal fees and other professional fees the guardian or court deems necessary.

There are some guardians who have made headlines for stealing money and making care decisions that the individual and their families did not want.

Meeting with an estate planning attorney to prepare for incapacity as part of an overall estate plan is a far better way. Why don’t more people do it?

  • They aren’t aware of the importance of power of attorney.
  • They don’t want to spend the money.
  • They don’t know who to choose as their power of attorney
  • They don’t want to think about incapacity or death.

In contrast to a court-supervised lifetime guardianship, a properly drafted power of attorney can provide for an agent to make a variety of financial and medical decisions. The person named as a power of attorney (the agent) can serve for the person’s lifetime, just like a guardian.

This is the most fundamental estate planning document, after the last will and testament. Once it’s prepared, you can always change your mind and you or your agent never need to go to court.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Feb. 24, 2020) “Guardianships vs. Powers of Attorney”

 

Surprising Ways Beneficiary Designations Can Damage an Estate Plan

Naming a beneficiary on a non-retirement account can result in an unintended consequence—it can even topple an entire estate plan—reports The National Law Review in the article “Overuse of Beneficiary Designations: How They Can Derail a Client’s Estate Plan.” How is that possible?

In most cases, retirement accounts and life insurance policies pass to beneficiaries as a result of the beneficiary designation form that is completed when someone opens a retirement account or purchases a life insurance plan. Most people don’t even think about those designations again, until they embark on the estate planning process, when they are reviewed.

The beneficiary designations are carefully tailored to allow the asset to pass through to the heir, often via trusts that have been created to achieve a variety of benefits. The use of beneficiary designations also allows the asset to remain outside of the estate, avoiding probate after death.

Apart from the beneficiary designations on retirement accounts and life insurance policies, beneficiary designations are also available through checking and savings accounts, CDs, U.S. Savings Bonds or investment accounts. The problem occurs when these assets are not considered during the estate planning process, potentially defeating the tax planning and distribution plans created.

The most common way this happens, is when a well-meaning bank employee or financial advisor asks if the person would like to name a beneficiary and explains to the account holder how it will help their heirs avoid probate. However, if the estate planning lawyer, whose goal is to plan for the entire estate, is not informed of these beneficiary designations, there could be repercussions. Some of the unintended consequences include:

Loss of tax saving strategies. If the estate plan uses funding formulas to optimize tax savings by way of a credit shelter trust, marital trust or generation-skipping trust, the assets are not available to fund the trusts and the tax planning strategy may not work as intended.

Unintentional beneficiary exclusion. If all or a large portion of the assets pass directly to the beneficiaries, there may not be enough assets to satisfy bequests to other individuals or trust funds created by the estate plan.

Loss of creditor protection/asset management. Many estate plans are created with trusts intended to protect assets against creditor claims or to provide asset management for a beneficiary. If the assets pass directly to heirs, any protection created by the estate plan is lost.

Estate administration issues. If a large portion of the assets pass to beneficiaries directly, the administration of the estate—that means taxes, debts, and expenses—may be complicated by a lack of funds under the control of the executor and/or the fiduciary. If estate tax is due, the beneficiary of an account may be held liable for paying the proportionate share of any taxes.

Before adding a beneficiary designation to a non-retirement account, or changing a bank account to a POD (Payable on Death), speak with your estate planning attorney to ensure that the plan you put into place will work if you make these changes. When you review your estate plan, review beneficiary designations. The wrong step here could have a major impact for your heirs.

Reference: The National Law Review (Feb. 28, 2020) “Overuse of Beneficiary Designations: How They Can Derail a Client’s Estate Plan”