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Category: Assets

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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”

 

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

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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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?”