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creating a letter of last instruction

Distribution of Personal Property in Your Estate

Creating and probating a last will and testament is rarely a simple task, but one of the most challenging aspects is the distribution of personal property in your estate, warns the article “Be clear about personal property distribution in your will” from The News-Enterprise. The nature of personal property—that it is relatively low in market value but high in sentimental value—is just part of the problem.

You’d be surprised how many families fight over a favorite ceramic dish or an inexpensive oil painting. However, those fights slow down the process of settling the estate and can create unnecessary costs.

The distribution of personal property is usually part of the residual estate, that which is left over when other assets, like a home, bank accounts, etc., have been distributed. Some families don’t even have a chance to select items, and instead find themselves in irrational bidding wars at estate sales.

This issue may be avoided by having precise language in the last will and testament about these items. First, the testator, the person who is creating the will, should outline the specific items they want to be given to specific people. Promised items should be listed and removed from the general pool of personal property.

Next, the testator names who should be included in the distribution of remaining personal property. While some people list the same recipients of the full estate, this is not always the case, particularly if there are no children or if property is being left to charity. One option is to limit the beneficiaries of personal items to only close family members.

Third, provide clear directions for how the remaining items will be distributed. Will beneficiaries take turns in a defined order? Should the property be appraised, and values being divided equally by the executor? Be as specific as possible.

If there are any unclaimed items, provide instructions for those as well. Do you want a collection of expensive cookware to be sent to a charitable organization? Clothing, furniture, and other items should be either donated to charity or sold at an estate sale, with the proceeds distributed between the beneficiaries.

Another way to avoid conflicts over personal property is to give away items, while you are living. Sentimental gifts are a good alternative for holiday gifts, especially for seniors on a fixed budget. This way the items are clearly out of the estate.

A warning for those who are thinking about taking the “sticky note” system: it rarely goes off without a hitch. Attaching stickers to items with the name of the person who you want to receive them is vulnerable to someone else removing the stickers. Similarly, naming one person to distribute all personal items could lead to strife between family members. There’s no legally enforceable way to ensure that they will follow your wishes.

Address the issue of personal property with your estate planning attorney. They will be able to help determine the least acrimonious means of ensuring that the people you want will end up with the things you want.

If you would like to learn more about distributing assets in your estate planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Sep. 29, 2020) “Be clear about personal property distribution in your will”

 

creating a letter of last instruction

Benefit from a Roth IRA and Social Security

When originally created, Social Security was designed to prevent the elderly and infirm from sinking into dire poverty. When most working Americans enjoyed a pension from their employer, Social Security was an additional source of income and made for a comfortable retirement. However, with an average monthly benefit just over $1,500 and few pensions, today’s Social Security is not enough money for most Americans to maintain a middle-class standard of living, says the article “3 Reasons a Roth IRA Is a Perfect Supplement to Social Security” from Tuscon.com. It’s important to plan for additional income streams and one to consider is the Roth IRA. So how do you benefit from a Roth IRA and Social Security?

Roth IRAs can be funded at any age. Many seniors today are continuing to work to generate income or to continue a fulfilling life. Their earnings can be put into a Roth IRA, regardless of age. If you are still working but don’t need the paycheck, that’s a perfect way to fund the Roth IRA.

Withdrawals from a Roth won’t trigger taxes on Social Security benefits. If your only income is Social Security, you probably won’t have to worry about federal taxes. However, if you are working while you are collecting benefits, once your earnings reach a certain level, those benefits will be taxed.

To calculate taxes on Social Security benefits, you’ll need to determine your provisional income, which is the non-Social Security income plus half of your early benefit. If you earn between $25,000 and $44,000 as a single tax filer or between $32,000 and $44,000 as a married couple, you could be taxed as much as 50% of your Social Security benefits. If your single income goes past $34,000 and married income goes past $44,000, you could be taxed on up to 85% of your benefits.

If you put money into a Roth IRA, withdrawals don’t count towards your provisional income. That could leave you with more money from Social Security.

A Roth IRA is flexible. The Roth IRA is the only tax-advantaged retirement savings plan that does not impose Required Minimum Distributions or RMDs. That’s because you’ve already paid taxes when funds went into the account. However, the flexibility is worth it. You can leave the money in the account for as long as you want, so savings continue to grow tax-free. You can also leave money to your heirs.

While you don’t have to put your savings into a Roth IRA, doing so throughout your career—or starting at any age—will allow you to benefit from a Roth IRA and Social Security throughout retirement.

If you would like to learn more about Social Security and retirement accounts, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Tuscon.com (Oct. 5, 2020) “3 Reasons a Roth IRA Is a Perfect Supplement to Social Security”

 

creating a letter of last instruction

Two different types of Durable Power of Attorney

There are two different types of durable power of attorney, and they have very different purposes, as explained in the article that asks “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?” from Next Avenue. Less than a third of retirees have a financial power of attorney, according to a study done by the Transamerica Center for Retirement Studies. Most people don’t even understand what these documents do, which is critically important, especially during this Covid-19 pandemic.

There are two different types of Durable Power of Attorney for Finance. The power of attorney for finance can be “springing” or “immediate.” The Durable POA refers to the fact that this POA will endure after you have lost mental or physical capacity, whether the condition is permanent or temporary. It lists when the powers are to be granted to the person of your choosing and the power ends upon your death.

The “immediate” Durable POA is effective the moment you sign the document. The “springing” Durable POA does not become effective, unless two physicians examine you and both determine that you cannot manage independently anymore. In the case of the “springing” POA, the person you name cannot do anything on your behalf without two doctors providing letters saying you lack legal capacity.

You might prefer the springing document because you are concerned that the person you have named to be your agent might take advantage of you. They could legally go to your bank and add their name to your accounts without your permission or even awareness. Some people decide to name their spouse as their immediate agent, and if anything happens to the spouse, the successor agents are the ones who need to get doctors’ letters. If you need doctors’ letters before the person you name can help you, ask your estate planning attorney for guidance.

The type of impairment that requires the use of a Durable POA for finance can happen unexpectedly. It could include you and your spouse at the same time. If you were both exposed to Covid-19 and became sick, or if you were both in a serious car accident, this kind of planning would be helpful for your family.

It’s also important to choose the right person to be your POA. Ask yourself this question: If you gave this person your checkbook and asked them to pay your bills on time for a few months, would you expect that they would be able to do the job without any issues? If you feel any sense of incompetence or even mistrust, you should consider another person to be your representative.

If you should recover from your incapacity, your Durable POA is required to turn everything back to you when you ask. If you are concerned this person won’t do this, you need to consider another person.

Broad powers are granted by a Durable POA. They allow your representative to buy property on your behalf and sell your property, including your home, manage your debt and Social Security benefits, file tax returns and handle any assets not named in a trust, such as your retirement accounts.

The executor of your will, your trustee, and Durable POA are often the same person. They have the responsibility to manage all of your assets, so they need to know where all of your important records can be found. They need to know that you have given them this role and you need to be sure they are prepared and willing to accept the responsibilities involved.

Your advance directive documents are only as good as the individuals you name to implement them. Family members or trusted friends who have no experience managing money or assets may not be the right choice. Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you to make a good decision.

If you would like to learn more about powers of attorney and their role in estate planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Market Watch (Oct. 5, 2020) “Does your estate plan use the right type of Power of Attorney for you?”

 

creating a letter of last instruction

Talk to Your Parents about Estate Planning

It is difficult to talk to your parents about estate planning. No matter how you slice it, it’s a touchy subject to bring up.

You don’t want to come off as greedy when asking your parents about their estate planning.  However, you need answers to certain questions to ensure that their financial wishes are carried out and there is a smooth transition of wealth and assets.

Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate Plan (Without Making It Awkward)” shows us how to approach this touchy subject and get the info that you need.

Begin by asking your parents about whether they have an estate plan. You can tell them that they don’t need to share the numbers and that you just want to be able to follow their instructions. A good way to start this conversation, is to acknowledge how awkward and difficult this conversation is for you. You should emphasize that you don’t want to think about their deaths but are just trying to sort things out.

Experts say that you’ll likely get a better reception from your parents, if you let the conversation happen organically and not schedule a time to talk. No matter how you approach the topic of an inheritance from your parents, the objective of the discussion is to make certain they have a plan in place, so there will be a clear path for whomever is left behind to go forward. You can start by asking if they have these key legal documents:

  • A will
  • A power of attorney; and
  • A living will or health care directive.

Ask where your parents keep these documents and how you can access them, if necessary.

Talking to your parents about estate planning can bring up other other end-of-life issues. You should also ask if your parents have written funeral or burial instructions. You also need to ask them to give you other important information, so you can handle their finances if they are unable to or when they die. This includes account numbers and passwords, insurance policies, information on their retirement plan or pension administrator, as well as the contact information for their accountant, attorney, financial planner, or other financial professional.

If you would like to learn more about estate planning and other end-of-life planning, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Oct. 7, 2020) “How To Talk to Your Parents About Their Estate Plan (Without Making It Awkward)”

 

creating a letter of last instruction

What Medicare Doesn’t Cover

Medicare Part A and Part B, also known as Original Medicare or Traditional Medicare, cover a big part of your medical expenses after you turn age 65. It is important to understand what Medicare doesn’t cover. Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “7 Things Medicare Doesn’t Cover” reviews what isn’t covered by Medicare, plus information about supplemental insurance policies and strategies that can help cover the additional costs, so you don’t end up with unexpected medical bills in retirement.

Prescription Drugs. Medicare doesn’t provide coverage for outpatient prescription drugs. However, you can buy a separate Part D prescription-drug policy that does, or a Medicare Advantage plan that covers both medical and drug costs.

Long-Term Care. One of the biggest possible expenses in retirement is the cost of long-term care. However, you can purchase long-term-care insurance or a combination long-term-care and life insurance policy to cover these costs.

Deductibles and Co-Pays. Medicare Part A covers hospital stays, and Part B covers doctors’ services and outpatient care. However, you’re on the hook for deductibles and co-payments. In 2020, you’ll have to pay a Part A deductible of $1,408 before coverage begins, and you’ll also have to pay some of the cost of long hospital stays – $352 per day for days 61-90 in the hospital and $704 per day after that. Over your lifetime, Medicare will only help pay for a total of 60 days beyond the 90-day limit, called “lifetime reserve days,” and thereafter you’ll pay the full hospital cost.

Dental Care. Medicare doesn’t provide coverage for routine dental visits, teeth cleanings, fillings, dentures or most tooth extractions. There are some Medicare Advantage plans that cover basic cleanings and X-rays, but they generally have an annual coverage cap of about $1,500. Look at coverage from a separate dental insurance policy or a dental discount plan.

Routine Vision Care. Medicare doesn’t cover routine eye exams or glasses (exceptions include an annual eye exam, if you have diabetes or eyeglasses after having certain kinds of cataract surgery). However, there are Medicare Advantage plans that have vision coverage, or you may be able to buy a separate supplemental policy that provides vision care alone or includes both dental and vision care.

Hearing Aids. Medicare doesn’t provide coverage for routine hearing exams or hearing aids, which can cost as much as $3,250 per ear. However, a few Medicare Advantage plans cover hearing aids and fitting exams, and some discount programs provide lower-cost hearing aids.

Medical Care Overseas. Medicare doesn’t cover care you get while outside of the U.S., except for very limited circumstances (such as on a cruise ship within six hours of a U.S. port). Medigap plans C through G, M and N, however, cover 80% of the cost of emergency care abroad, with a lifetime limit of $50,000. Some Medicare Advantage plans cover emergency care abroad.

If you would like to learn more about Medicare, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 1, 2020) “7 Things Medicare Doesn’t Cover”

 

creating a letter of last instruction

Estate Planning for a Second Marriage

It takes a certain kind of courage to embark on second, third or even fourth marriages, even when there are no children from prior marriages. Regardless of how many times you walk down the aisle, the recent article “Establishing assets, goals when planning for a blended family” from the Times Herald-Record advises couples to take care of estate planning for a second marriage before saying “I do” again.

Full disclosure of each other’s assets, overall estate planning goals and plans for protecting assets from the cost of long-term care should happen before getting married. The discussion may not be easy, but it’s necessary: are they leaving assets to each other, or to children from a prior marriage? What if one wants to leave a substantial portion of their wealth to a charitable organization?

The first step recommended in estate planning for a second marriage is a prenuptial or prenup, a contract that the couple signs before getting married, to clarify what happens if they should divorce and what happens on death. The prenup typically lists all of each spouses’ assets and often a “Waiver of the Right of Election,” meaning they willingly give up any inheritance rights.

If the couple does not wish to have a prenup in their estate planning prior to the second marriage, they can use a Postnuptial Agreement (postnup). This document has the same intent and provisions as a prenup but is signed after they are legally wed. Over time, spouses may decide to leave assets to each other through trusts, owning assets together or naming each other as beneficiaries on various assets, including life insurance or investment accounts.

Without a pre-or postnup, assets will go to the surviving spouse upon death, with little or possibly nothing going to the children.

The couple should also talk about long-term care costs, which can decimate a family’s finances. Plan A is to have long-term care insurance. If either of the spouses has not secured this insurance and cannot get a policy, an alternate is to have their estate planning attorney create a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT). Once assets have been inside the trust for five years for nursing home costs and two-and-a-half years for home care paid by Medicaid, they are protected from long-term care costs.

When applying for Medicaid, the assets of both spouses are at risk, regardless of pre- or postnup documents.

Discuss the use of trusts with your estate planning attorney. A will conveys property, but assets must go through probate, which can be costly, time-consuming and leave your assets open to court battles between heirs. Trusts avoid probate, maintain privacy and deflect family squabbles.

Creating a trust and placing the joint home and any assets, including cash and investments, inside the trust is a common estate planning strategy. When the first spouse dies, a co-trustee who serves with the surviving spouse can prevent the surviving spouse from changing the trust and by doing so, protect the children’s inheritance. Let’s say one of the couple suffers from dementia, remarries or is influenced by others—a new will could leave the children of the deceased spouse with nothing.

Many things can very easily go wrong in second marriages. Prior planning with an experienced estate planning attorney can protect the couple and their children and provide peace of mind for all concerned.

If you would like to learn more about estate planning for large, blended families, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Sep. 21, 2020) “Establishing assets, goals when planning for a blended family”

 

creating a letter of last instruction

What are an Attorney’s Obligations after You Die?

One of the hardest parts of an estate planning attorney’s jobs is managing the death of a client. Estate planning attorneys are highly skilled at creating plans, while clients are living and at administering the plans after their client passes. However, most attorneys become friendly with their clients, and they do grieve when clients pass. What are an attorney’s obligations after you die?

Attorneys can provide the best counsel to their clients, when they are completely honest and upfront with them, explains the article “Attorney-client privilege after a client dies” from LimaOhio.com. While there are some things the attorney doesn’t need to know—like the client’s neighbor’s recent divorce—the more information a client provides their attorney, the better the attorney can help the client and their family.

To encourage a high degree of honesty, there are ethics rules that attorneys are required to follow, including the well-known doctrine of attorney-client privilege.

The attorney-client privilege requires that attorneys keep any confidences and secrets from their clients to themselves. This includes sensitive topics about the clients which the attorney learns from someone other than their client. In other words, the attorney may not share any secrets from the client and about the client.

The attorney-client privilege is designed to protect all aspects of the client’s life, even those parts they may not be proud of.

In some cases, the client’s very identity needs to be kept confidential. If a client wishes to pass an asset on to another person but does not want that person to know who their benefactor was, that secret must not be revealed. If a client has won a multimillion-dollar lottery and wishes to remain private, the attorney is required to keep their identity secret.

This attorney-client privilege applies to the staff in the attorney’s practice also. Something shared with an attorney’s paralegal or secretary must remain confidential, as something that was told directly to the attorney.

To strengthen this privilege further, the attorney-client privilege survives the client’s death. When a client passes, the attorney may not share those secrets.

There are a few exceptions to the rule of the attorney-client privilege that survive a client’s death. Attorneys may discuss their client’s competency to sign documents. The executor of a deceased client’s estate or the spouse of a deceased client has the right to waive this privilege. However, if the client’s secret concerns their spouse or the executor, the attorney may not share that secret in order to allow the executor or spouse to waive that privilege.

If you would like to learn more about documents such as a Will or Trust that manages your estate, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: LimaOhio.com (Oct. 3, 2020) “Attorney-client privilege after a client dies”

 

creating a letter of last instruction

How Important Is Avoiding Probate?

Estate planning attorneys are often asked if one of the goals of an estate plan is to avoid probate, regardless of the cost. The answer to that question is no, but a better question is “How important is avoiding probate?” In that case, the answer is “It depends.” A closer look at this question is provided in the recent article from The Daily Sentinel, “Estate Planning: Is Probate Something to Avoid at All Costs?”

Probate is not always a nightmare, depending upon where a decedent lived. Probate is a court process conducted by judges, who usually understand the difficulty executors and families are facing, and their support staff who genuinely care about the families involved. This is not everywhere, but your estate planning attorney will know what your local probate court is like. With that in mind, there are certain pitfalls to probate and there are situations where avoiding probate does make sense for your family.

In the case where it makes sense to avoid probate, whatever planning strategy is being used to avoid probate must be carefully evaluated. Does it make sense, or does it create further issues? Here’s an example of how this can backfire. A person provided their estate planning attorney with a copy of a beneficiary deed, which is a deed that transfers property to a designated person (called a “grantee”) immediately upon the death of the person who signed the deed (called a “grantor”).

The deed had been signed and recorded properly with the recorder’s office, just as a typical deed would be during the sale of a home. Note that a beneficiary deed does not transfer the title of ownership, until the grantor dies.

Here’s where things went bad. No one knew about the beneficiary deed, except for the grantor and the grantee. The remainder of the estate plan did not mention anything about the beneficiary deed. When the grantor died, ownership of the property was transferred to the grantee. However, the will contained conflicting instructions about the property and who was to inherit it.

Instead of avoiding probate, the grantor’s estate was tied up in court for more than a year. The family was torn apart, and the costs to resolve the matter were substantial.

Had the deceased simply relied upon the probate process or coordinated the transfer of ownership with his estate planning attorney, the intended person would have received the property and the family would have been spared the cost and stress. Sticking with the use of a last will and testament and the probate process would have protected everyone involved.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help determine the best approach for the family, whether that is avoiding probate or not. If you would like to learn more about probate and trust administration, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Oct. 3, 2020) “Estate Planning: Is Probate Something to Avoid at All Costs?”

 

creating a letter of last instruction

How Do I Keep Money in the Family?

That seems like an awfully large amount of money. You might think only the super wealthy need to worry about estate planning, but you’d be wrong to think planning is only necessary for the 1%. So how do I keep money in the family?

US News and World Report’s recent article entitled “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family” reminds us that estate taxes may be only part of it. In many cases, there are income tax ramifications.

Your heirs may have to pay federal income taxes on retirement accounts. Some states also have their own estate taxes. You also want to make certain that your assets are transferred to the right people. Speaking with an experienced estate planning attorney is the best way to sort through complex issues surrounding estate planning. When trying to keep money in the family, here are some things you should cover:

Create a Will. This is a basic first step. However, 68% of Americans don’t take it. Many of those who don’t have a will (about a third) say it’s because they don’t have enough assets to make it worthwhile. This is not true. Without a will, your estate is governed by state law and will be divided in probate court. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you draft a will.  You should also review it on a regular basis because laws and family situations can change.

Review Your Beneficiaries. Perhaps the simplest way to keep money in the family. There are specific types of accounts, like retirement funds and life insurance in which the owners designate the beneficiaries, rather than this asset passing via the will. The named beneficiaries will also supersede any directions for the accounts in your will. Like your will, review your account beneficiaries after any major life change.

Consider a Trust. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about a trust for possible tax benefits and the ability to control when a beneficiary gets their money (after they graduate college or only for a first home, for example). If money is put in an irrevocable trust, the assets no longer belong to you. Instead, they belong to the trust. That money can’t be subject to estate taxes. In addition, a trust isn’t subject to probate, which keeps it private.

Convert to Roth’s. If you have a traditional 401(k) or IRA account, it will help keep money in the family, but it might unintentionally create a hefty tax bill for your heirs. When your children inherit an IRA, they inherit the income tax liability that goes with it. Regular income tax must be paid on distributions from all traditional retirement accounts. In the past, non-spousal heirs, such as children could “stretch” those distributions over their lifetime to reduce the total amount of taxes due. However, now the account must be completely liquidated within 10 years after the death of the owner. If the account balance is substantial, it could necessitate major distributions that may be taxed at a higher rate. To avoid leaving beneficiaries with a large tax bill, you can gradually convert traditional accounts to Roth accounts that have tax-free distributions. The amount converted will be taxable on your income taxes, so the objective is to limit each year’s conversion, so it doesn’t move you into a higher tax bracket.

Make Gifts While You’re Alive. A great way to make certain that your money stays in the family, is to just give it to your heirs while you’re alive. The IRS allows individuals to give up to $15,000 per person per year in gifts. If you’re concerned about your estate being taxable, these gifts can decrease its value, and the money is tax-free for recipients.

Charitable Donations. You can also reduce your estate value, by making charitable donations. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about setting up a donor-advised fund, instead of making a one-time gift. This would give you an immediate tax deduction for money deposited in the fund and then let you make charitable grants over time. You could designate a child or grandchild as a successor in managing the fund.

Complicated strategies and a constantly changing tax code can make keeping money in the family feel intimidating. However, ignoring estate planning can be a costly mistake for your heirs. Talk to an estate planning attorney. If you would like to learn more about estate tax planning, please visit our previous posts.

Reference:  US News and World Report (Sep. 30, 2020) “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family”