Category: Assets

Blended Families

Poor Estate Planning Decisions can be Costly

Poor estate planning decisions can be costly. The dispute over Larry King’s estate shines a harsh spotlight on what happens when an elderly person makes major changes late in life to his or her estate plan, especially when the person has become physically weakened and possibly mentally affected, due to aging and illness. A recent article from The National Law Journal, “Larry King Will Contest—Key Takeaways,” examines lessons to be learned from the Larry King will contest.

A handwritten will is most likely to be probated. King’s handwritten will was witnessed by two individuals and may rise to the standards of California’s rules for probate. California was likely King’s residence at the time of his death. However, even if King’s won’t satisfy one section of California estate law referring to probate, it appears to satisfy another addressing requirements for a holographic will.

Holographic will requirements vary from state to state, but it is generally a will that is handwritten by the testator and may or may not need to be witnessed.

The battle over the will is just a starting point. Most of King’s assets were in revocable trusts and will be conveyed through the trusts. He did not seek to revoke or amend the trusts before he died. News reports claim that the probate estate to be conveyed by the will is only $2 million, compared to non-probate assets estimated at $50 million—$144 million, depending upon the source.

Passing assets through trusts has the advantage of keeping the assets out of probate and maintaining privacy for the family. The trust does not become a matter of public record and there is no inventory of assets to be filed with the court.

Any pre- or post-nuptial agreements will have an impact on how King’s assets will be distributed. This is an issue for anyone who marries as often as King did. Apparently, he did not have a prenuptial agreement with his 7th wife, Shawn Southwick King. They were married for 22 years and separated in 2019. While Larry had filed for divorce, the couple had not reached a financial settlement. California is a community property state, so Southwick will have a legal claim to 50% of the assets the couple acquired during their long marriage, regardless of the will.

It is yet unclear whether there was a post-nuptial agreement. There are reports that the couple separated in 2010 after tabloid reports of a relationship between King and Southwick’s sister, and that there was a post-nuptial agreement declaring all of King’s $144 million assets to be community property. Southwick filed for divorce in 2010, and King sought to have the post-nup nullified. They reconciled for a few years and King was reported to have updated his estate plan in 2015.

The claim of undue influence on the will may not be easy to challenge. Southwick is claiming that Larry King Jr., King’s oldest son, exerted undue influence on his father to change the will. They were not close for most of Larry Jr.’s life, but in the later years of his life, King made a transfer of $250,000 to his son. Southwick wishes to have those transfers set aside on the basis of undue influence. She claims that when King executed his handwritten will, he was highly susceptible to outside influences and had questionable mental capacity.

Poor estate planning decisions can be costly. Expect this will contest to continue for a while, with the possibility that the probate court dispute extends to other litigation between King’s last wife and his oldest son.

If you are interested in learning more about costly mistakes in estate planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: The National Law Review (March 15, 2021) “Larry King Will Contest—Key Takeaways”

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Understanding How Special Needs Trusts Work

A trust of any kind is a document that expresses your wishes while you are alive and after you have passed. The need for a dedicated trust for loved ones differs with the situations or issues of the family. It is vital to have an understanding of how Special Needs Trusts work. Getting this wrong can lead to financial devastation, explains the article “Take special care with Special Needs trusts” from the Herald Bulletin.

A Special Needs Trust or supplemental trust works to provide protection and management of assets for specific beneficiaries. The trustee is in charge of the assets in the trust during the grantor’s life or at his death and distributes to the beneficiary as directed by the trust.

The purpose of a Special Needs or supplemental trust is to help people who receive government benefits because they are physically or mentally challenged or are chronically ill. Most of these benefits are means-tested. The rules about outside income are very strict. An inheritance would disqualify a Special Needs person from receiving these benefits, possibly putting them in dire circumstances.

The value of assets placed in a Special Needs trust does not count against the benefits. However, this area of the law is complex, and requires the help of an experienced elder law estate planning attorney. Mistakes could have lifelong consequences.

The trustee manages assets and disperses funds when needed, or at the direction of the trust. Selecting a trustee is extremely important, since the duties of a Special Needs trust could span decades. The person in charge must be familiar with the government programs and benefits and stay up to date with any changes that might impact the decisions of when to release funds.

These are just a few of the considerations for a trustee:

  • How should disbursements be made, balancing current needs and future longevity?
  • Does the request align with the rules of the trust and the assistance program requirements?
  • Will anyone else benefit from the expenditure, family members or the trustee? The trustee has a fiduciary responsibility to protect the beneficiary, first and foremost.

Parents who leave life insurance, stocks, bonds, or cash to all children equally may be putting their Special Needs child in jeopardy. Well-meaning family members who wish to take care of their relative must be made aware of the risk of leaving assets to a Special Needs individual. These conversations should take place, no matter how awkward.

An experienced elder law estate planning attorney will be able give you an understanding of how Special Needs Trusts work for the individual and for the family.

If you would like to learn more about Special Needs issues, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Herald Bulletin (March 13, 2021) “Take special care with Special Needs trusts”

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Roth IRAs are an ideal planning tool

Potential Changes to the Estate Tax

Potential changes to the estate tax that are now being considered by President Biden may expand the number of Americans who will need to pay the federal estate tax in one of two ways: raising rates and lowering qualifying thresholds on estates and increasing the liability for inheriting and selling assets. It is likely that these changes will raise revenues from the truly wealthy, while also imposing estate taxes on Americans with more modest assets, according to a recent article “It May Be Time to Start Worrying About the Estate Tax” from The New York Times.

Inheritance taxes are paid by the estate of a person who died. Some states have estate taxes of their own, with lower asset thresholds. As of this writing, a married couple would need to have assets of more than $23.4 million before they had to plan for federal estate taxes. This historically high exemption may be ending sooner than originally anticipated.

One of the changes being considered is a common tax shelter. Known as the “step-up in basis at death,” this values the assets in an estate at the date of death and disregards any capital gains in a deceased person’s portfolio. Eliminating the step-up in basis would require inheritors to pay capital gains whenever they sold assets, including everything from the family home to stock portfolios.

If you’re lucky enough to inherit wealth, this little item has been an accounting gift for many years. A person who inherits stock doesn’t have to think twice about what their parents or grandparents paid decades ago. All of the capital gains in those shares or any other inherited investment are effectively erased, when the owner dies. There are no capital gains to calculate or taxes to pay.

However, those capital gains taxes are lost revenue to the federal government. Eliminating the step-up rules could potentially generate billions in taxes from the very wealthy but is likely to create financial pain for people who have lower levels of wealth. A family that inherited a home, for instance, would have a much bigger tax burden, even if the home was not a multi-million-dollar property but simply one that gained in value over time.

Reducing the estate tax exemption could lead to wealthy people having to revise their estate plans sooner rather than later. Twenty years ago, the exemption was $675,000 per person and the tax rate was 55%. Over the next two decades, the exemption grew and the rates fell. The exemption is now $11.7 million per person and the tax rate above that amount is 40%.

Lowering the exemption, possibly back to the 2009 level, would dramatically increase tax revenue.

What is likely to occur and when, remains unknown, but what is certain is that potential changes to the estate tax will require your attention. Stay up to date on proposed changes and be prepared to update your estate plan accordingly. If you are interested in learning more about the estate tax, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: The New York Times (March 12, 2021) “It May Be Time to Start Worrying About the Estate Tax”

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Charitable Contribution Deductions from an Estate

The interest in charitable giving increased in 2020 for two reasons. One was a dramatic increase in need as a result of the COVID pandemic, reports The Tax Advisor’s article “Income tax deductions for trusts and estates.” The other was more pragmatic from a tax planning perspective. The CARES Act increased the amounts of charitable contributions that may be deducted from taxes by individuals and corporations. What if a person wishes to make a donation from the assets that are held in trust? Is that still an income tax deduction? It depends. The rules for charitable contribution deductions from an estate are substantially different than those for individuals and corporations.

The IRS code allows an estate or nongrantor trust to make a deduction which, if pursuant to the terms of the governing instrument, is paid for a purpose specified in Section 170(c). For trusts created on or before October 9, 1969, the IRS code expands the scope of the deduction to allow for a deduction of the gross income set aside permanently for charitable purposes.

If the trust or estate allows for payments to be made for charity, then donations from a trust are allowed and may be tax deductions. Otherwise, they cannot be deducted.

If the trust or estate allows distributions for charity, the type of asset contributed and how it was acquired by the trust or estate determines whether a tax deduction for a charitable donation is permitted. Here are some basic rules, but every situation is different and requires the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Cash donations. A trust or estate making cash donations may deduct to the extent of the lesser of the taxable income for the year or the amount of the contribution.

Noncash assets purchased by the trust/estate: If the trust or estate purchased marketable securities with income, the cost basis of the asset is considered the amount contributed from gross income. The trust or estate cannot avoid recognizing capital gain on a noncash asset that is donated, while also deducting the full value of the asset contributed. The trust or estate’s deduction is limited to the asset’s cost basis.

Noncash assets contributed to the trust/estate: If the trust or estate acquired an asset it wants to donate to charity as part of the funding of the fiduciary arrangement, no charity deduction is permitted. The asset that is part of the trust or estate’s corpus, the principal of the estate, is not gross income.

The order of charitable deductions, compared to distribution deductions, can cause a great deal of complexity in tax planning and reporting. Required distributions to noncharitable beneficiaries must be accounted for first, and the charitable deduction is not taken into account in calculating distributable net income. The recipients of the distributions do not get the benefit of the deduction. The trust or the estate does.

Charitable distributions are considered next, which may offset any remaining taxable income. Last are discretionary distributions to noncharitable beneficiaries, so these beneficiaries may receive the largest benefit from any charitable deduction.

If there are charitable contribution deductions from an estate, it must file form 1041A for the relevant tax year, unless it meets any of the exceptions noted in the instructions in the form.

These are complex estate and tax matters, requiring the guidance of an experienced estate planning attorney for optimal results. If you would like to learn more about charitable giving in your estate planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: The Tax Advisor (March 1, 2021) “Income tax deductions for trusts and estates”

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how the probate process works

How the Probate Process Works

Probate is a court-supervised process occurring after your death. It takes place in the state where you were a resident at the time of your death and addresses your estate—all of your financial assets, real estate, personal belongings, debts and unpaid taxes. If you have an estate plan, your last will names an executor, the person who takes charge of your estate and settles your affairs, explains the article “Understanding Probate” from Pike County Courier. It is important to have a firm understanding of how the probate process works.

If your estate is subject to probate, your estate planning attorney files an application for the probate of your last will with the local court. The application, known as a petition, is brought to the probate court, along with the last will. That is also usually when the petitioner files an application for the appointment of the executor of your estate.

First, the court must rule on the validity of the last will. Does it meet all of the state’s requirements? Was it witnessed properly? If the last will meets the state’s requirements, then the court deems it valid and addresses the application for the executor. That person must also meet the legal requirements of your state. If the court agrees that the person is fit to serve, it approves the application.

The executor plays a very important role in settling your estate. The executor is usually a spouse or a close family member. However, there are situations when naming an attorney or a bank is a better option. The person needs to be completely trustworthy. Your fiduciary will have a legal responsibility to be honest, impartial and put your estate’s well-being above the fiduciary’s own. If they do not have a good grasp of financial matters, the fiduciary must have the common sense to ask for expert help when needed.

Here are some of the tasks the fiduciary must address:

  • Finding and gathering assets and liabilities
  • Inventorying and appraising assets
  • Filing the estate tax return and your last tax return
  • Paying debts, managing creditors and paying taxes
  • Distributing assets
  • Providing a detailed report of the estate settlement to the court and any other parties

What is the probate court’s role in this part of the process? It depends upon the state. The probate court is more involved in some states than in others. If the state allows for a less formal process, it’s simpler and faster. If the estate is complicated with multiple properties, significant assets and multiple heirs, probate can take years.

If there is no executor named in your last will, the court will appoint an administrator. If you do not have a last will, the court will also appoint an administrator to settle your estate following the laws of the state. This is the worst possible scenario, since your assets may be distributed in ways you never wished.

Does all of your estate go through the probate process? With proper estate planning, many assets can be taken out of your probate estate, allowing them to be distributed faster and easier. How assets are titled determines whether they go through probate. Any assets with named beneficiaries pass directly to those beneficiaries and are outside of the estate. That includes life insurance policies and retirement plans with named beneficiaries. It also includes assets titled “jointly with rights of survivorship,” which is how most people own their homes.

Your estate planning attorney will discuss how the probate process works in your state and how to prepare a last will and any needed trusts to distribute your assets as efficiently as possible.

If you would like to learn more about probate and trust administration, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Pike County Courier (March 4, 2021) “Understanding Probate”

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It is important to talk to your children about your estate planning

Talk to Your Children about Your Estate Planning

It is important to talk to your children about your estate planning. Some $68 trillion will move between generations in the next two decades, reports U.S. News & World Report in the article “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children.” Having this conversation with your adult children, especially if they are members of Generation X, could have a profound impact on the quality of your relationship and your legacy.

Staying on top of your estate plan and having candid discussions with your children will also have an impact on how much of your estate is consumed by estate taxes. The historically high federal exemptions are not going to last forever—even without any federal legislation, they sunset in 2025, which isn’t far away.

One of the purposes of your estate plan is to transfer money as you wish. What most people do is talk with an estate planning attorney to create an estate plan. They create trusts, naming their child as the trustee, or simple wills naming their child as the executor. Then, the parents drop the ball.

Talk with your children about the role of trustee and/or executor. Help them understand the responsibilities that these roles require and ask if they will be comfortable handling the decision making, as well as the money. Include the Power of Attorney role in your discussion.

What most parents refuse to discuss with their children is money, plain and simple. Children will be better equipped, if they know what financial institutions hold your accounts and are introduced to your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor.

You might at some point forget about some investments, or the location of some accounts as you age. If your children have a working understanding of your finances, estate plan and your wishes, they will be able to get going and you will have spared them an estate scavenger hunt.

If possible, hold a family meeting with your advisors, so everyone is comfortable and up to speed.

Most adult children do not have the same experience with taxes as parents who have acquired wealth over their lifetimes. They may not understand the concepts of qualified and non-qualified accounts, step-up in cost basis, life insurance proceeds, or a probate asset versus a non-probate asset. It is critical that they understand how taxes impact estates and investments. By explaining things like tax-free distributions from a Roth IRA, for instance, you will increase the likelihood that your life savings aren’t battered by taxes.

Even if your adult children work in finance, do not assume they understand your investments, your tax-planning, or your estate. Even the smartest people make expensive mistakes, when handling family estates.

Having these discussions is another way to show your children that you care enough to set your own ego aside and are thinking about their future. It’s a way to connect not just about your money or your taxes, but about their futures. Knowing that you purchased a life insurance policy specifically to provide them with money for a home purchase, or to fund a grandchild’s college education, sends a clear message. So talk to your children about your estate planning. Don’t miss the opportunity to share that with them, while you are living.

If you would like to learn more about family communication and estate planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Feb. 17, 2021) “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children”

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Donor Advised Fund is a Win-Win for All Concerned

Many Americans are feeling charitable these days, and with good reasons. It’s a hard time for many, and if you are financially able, making donations may help you feel you are making a difference for others during uncertain times. There are many options when making donations, and the recent article “Choosing Charity: How Donor-Advised Funds Benefit Your Contributions” from Fort Worth Magazine explains your choices. A Donor Advised Fund is a win-win situation for all concerned.

Donor Advised Funds (DAFs) can be opened for varying amounts, that are set by the sponsoring organizations. Smaller community foundations would welcome a DAF for $5,000, for instance. DAFs can be funded with cash or other assets, but once the donation is made, the asset no longer belongs to you. However, you may be able to decide when donations are distributed, and which charities receive funding. There are no required distribution dates, so the funds could go unused for a long time, while you receive the tax write-off right away.

You may also determine the investments within the fund, level of risk and overall investment strategy.

Another good reason to use DAFs: the sponsoring organization becomes the donor of record. Therefore, DAFs are an excellent way to make anonymous contributions.

There are also DAFs that involve active involvement from an advisor, if that is of value to you.

Why is now a great time to use a Donor-Advised Fund?

Some investors have highly appreciated assets that could lead to a significant tax liability, if they were sold right now. DAF offers an alternative—rather than sell the assets and pay taxes, putting them into a DAF can achieve the following:

  • You receive a tax deduction,
  • There are no capital gains taxes, and
  • Your chosen the charity that fully benefits from the funds.

The pandemic has left many people facing uncertainty. Therefore, now isn’t the right time for everyone to open their wallets and a DAF. However, if you are charitably-minded and in a financial position to benefit, a Donor Advised Fund is a win-win for all concerned. If you would like to learn more about charitable giving, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Fort Worth Magazine (Feb. 3, 2021) “Choosing Charity: How Donor-Advised Funds Benefit Your Contributions”

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Extend IRA distributions with a Charitable Remainder Trust

Since the mid-1970s, saving in a tax-deferred employer-sponsored retirement plan has been a great way to save for retirement, while also deferring current income tax. Many workers put some of their paychecks into 401(k)s, which can later be transferred to a traditional Individual Retirement Account (IRA). Others save directly in IRAs. You may also extend IRA distributions with a Charitable Remainder Trust.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Worried about Passing Down a Big IRA? Consider a CRT” says that taking lifetime IRA distributions can give a retiree a comfortable standard of living long after he or she gets their last paycheck. Another benefit of saving in an IRA is that the investor’s children can continue to take distributions taxed as ordinary income after his or her death, until the IRA is depleted.

Saving in a tax-deferred plan and letting a non-spouse beneficiary take an extended stretch payout using a beneficiary IRA has been a significant component of leaving a legacy for families. However, the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement Act of 2019 (the SECURE Act), which went into effect on Jan. 1, 2020, eliminated this.

Under the new law (with a few exceptions for minors, disabled beneficiaries, or the chronically ill), a beneficiary who isn’t the IRA owner’s spouse is required to withdraw all funds from a beneficiary IRA within 10 years. Therefore, the “stretch IRA” has been eliminated.

However, there is an option for extending IRA distributions to a child beyond the 10-year limit imposed by the SECURE Act: it’s a Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT). This trust provides for distributions of a fixed percentage or fixed amount to one or more beneficiaries for life or a term of less than 20 years. The remainder of the assets will then be paid to one or more charities at the end of the trust term.

Charitable Remainder Trusts can provide that a fixed percentage of the trust assets at the time of creation will be given to the current individual beneficiaries, with the remainder being given to charity, in the case of a Charitable Remainder Annuity Trust (CRAT). There is also a Charitable Remainder Unitrust (CRUT), where the amount distributed to the individual beneficiaries will vary from year to year, based on the changing value of the trust. With both trusts, the amount of the charity’s remainder interest must be at least 10% of the value of the trust at its inception.

Implementing a CRT to extend distributions from a traditional IRA can have tax advantages and can complement the rest of a comprehensive estate plan. It can be very effective when your current beneficiary has taxable income from other sources and resources, in addition to the beneficiary IRA.  It can also be effective in protecting the IRA assets from a beneficiary’s creditors or for planning with potential marital property, while providing the beneficiary a lengthy predictable income stream.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney, if one of these trusts might fit into your comprehensive estate plan. If you would like to learn more about Charitable Remainder Trusts, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Kiplinger (Feb. 8, 2021) “Worried about Passing Down a Big IRA? Consider a CRT”

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A Trust Must Be Funded to Work

Thinking you have divided assets equally between children by creating a trust that names all as equal heirs, while placing only one child’s name on other assets is not an equally divided estate plan. A trust must be funded to work. Instead, as described in the article “Estate Planning: Fund the trust” from nwi.com, this arrangement is likely to lead to an estate battle.

One father did just that. He set up a trust with explicit instructions to divide everything equally among his heirs. However, only one brother was made a joint owner on his savings and checking accounts and the title of the family home.

Upon his death, ownership of the savings and checking accounts and the home would go directly to the brother. Assets in the trust, if there are any, will be divided equally between the children. That’s probably not what the father had in mind, but legally the other siblings will have no right to the non-trust assets.

This is an example of why creating a trust is only one part of an estate plan. A trust must be funded to work. If it is not funded, that is if assets are not retitled, it will not work.

Many estate plans include what is called a “pour-over will” usually executed just after the trust is executed. It is a safety net that “catches” any assets not funded into the trust and transfers them into it. However, this transfer requires probate, and since probate avoidance is a goal of having a trust, it is not the best solution.

The situation as described above is confusing. Why would one brother be a joint owner of assets, if the father means for all of the children to share equally in the inheritance? When the father passes, the brother will own the assets. If the matter went to court, the court would very likely decide that the father’s intention was for the brother to inherit them. Whatever language is in the trust will be immaterial.

If the father’s intention is for the siblings to share the estate equally, the changes need to be made while he is living. The brother’s name needs to come off the accounts and the title to the home, and they all need to be re-titled in the name of the trust. The brother will need to sign off on removing his name. If he does not wish to do so, it’s going to be a legal challenge.

The family needs to address the situation as soon as possible with an experienced estate planning attorney. Even if the brother won’t sign off on changing the names of the assets, as long as the father is living there are options. Once he has passed, the family’s options will be limited. A trust must be funded to work. Estate battles can consume a fair amount of the estate’s value and destroy the family’s relationships. If you would like to learn more about funding a trust, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 17, 2021) “Estate Planning: Fund the trust”

 

how the probate process works

What to Do First when Your Spouse Dies

Forbes’ recent article entitled ‘Checklist for Handling the Death of a Spouse” tells us what to do first when your spouse dies:

Get Organized. Create a list of what you need to do. That way, you can tick off the things you have done and see what still needs to be done. Spending the time to get organized is critical.

Do an Inventory. Review your spouse’s will and estate plan, and then collect the documents you will need. Use a tax return to locate various types of financial assets.

Identify the Executor. The executor is the individual tasked with carrying out the terms of deceased’s will.

Get a Death Certificate. Request multiple copies of the death certificate, maybe at least a dozen because every entity will need that document.

Contact Your Professional Advisors. You will need to tell some professionals that your spouse has passed away. This may be your CPA, your estate planning attorney, financial advisors and perhaps bankers. These contacts will probably know nearly everything that is required to be done. You will also need to contact the Social Security Administration and report the death.

Take a Step Back. Take a breath. You should take the time to process your emotions and grieve with the other members of your family. Check on everyone and make sure the loved ones remaining are doing all right.

Avoid Making Any Major Decisions. Do not make any major financial decisions for a year. This includes things such as selling a house or making a lump sum investment. After the death of a spouse, you are emotional and looking for advice. It is easy to be pressured into making a decision that might not be in your best interests. Allow yourself permission to be emotional and not make any decision because you recognize you are grieving.

Make Certain Your Spouse’s Wishes Are Carried Out. The best way to honor your spouse is to make sure their requests and wishes are carried out. You are the only individual who can do that. So take the time to consider what to do first when your spouse dies. Your spouse expects you to take care of their last wishes the way they had intended.

If you are interested in learning more about planning after your loved one passes away, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 28, 2020) ‘Checklist for Handling the Death of a Spouse”

 

Information in our blogs is very general in nature and should not be acted upon without first consulting with an attorney. Please feel free to contact The Wiewel Law Firm to schedule a complimentary consultation.
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