Austin – 512-480-8828 | *Georgetown – 512-869-1435 | *Highland Lakes – 830-598-1700 | *San Antonio – 210-510-4143 | *All other areas – 877-545-8828 | *By Appointment Only | Principal Office: 1601 Rio Grande, Suite 550, Austin, Texas 78701
The Wiewel Law Firm, an estate planning law firm in Austin, Texas
The Peace of Mind People®

Category: Estate Planning

You need to review beneficiary designations

Pay for Your Debts at Death

When you pass away, your assets become your estate, and the process of dividing up debt after your death is part of probate. Creditors only have a certain amount of time to make a claim against the estate (usually three months to nine months). So how do you pay for your debts at death?

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Debt After Death: What You Should Know” explains that beyond those basics, here are some situations where debts are forgiven after death, and some others where they still are required to be paid in some fashion:

  1. The beneficiaries’ money is partially protected if properly named. If you designated a beneficiary on an account — such as your life insurance policy and 401(k) — unsecured creditors typically can’t collect any money from those sources of funds. However, if beneficiaries weren’t determined before death, the funds would then go to the estate, which creditors tap.
  2. Credit card debt depends on what you signed. Most of the time, credit card debt doesn’t disappear when you die. The deceased’s estate will typically pay the credit card debt at death from the estate’s assets. Children won’t inherit the credit card debt, unless they’re a joint holder on the account. Likewise, a surviving spouse is responsible for their deceased spouse’s debt, if he or she is a joint borrower. Moreover, if you live in a community property state, you could be responsible for the credit card debt of a deceased spouse. This is not to be confused with being an authorized user on a credit card, which has different rules. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney, if a creditor asks you to pay the credit card debt at death. Don’t just assume you’re liable, just because someone says you are.
  3. Federal student loan forgiveness. This applies both to federal loans taken out by parents on behalf of their children and loans taken out by the students themselves. If the borrower dies, federal student loans are forgiven. If the student passes away, the loan is discharged. However, for private student loans, there’s no law requiring lenders to cancel a loan, so ask the loan servicer.
  4. Passing a mortgage to heirs. If you leave a mortgage behind for your children, under federal law, lenders must let family members assume a mortgage when they inherit residential property. This law prevents heirs from having to qualify for the mortgage. The heirs aren’t required to keep the mortgage, so they can refinance or pay for your debt entirely. For married couples who are joint borrowers on a mortgage, the surviving spouse can take over the loan, refinance, or pay it off.
  5. Marriage issues. If your spouse passes, you’re legally required to pay any joint tax owed to the state and federal government. In community property states, the surviving spouse must pay off any debt your partner acquired while you were married. However, in other states, you may only be responsible for a select amount of debt, like medical bills.

You may want to purchase more life insurance to pay for your debts at death or pay off the debts while you’re alive. If you would like to learn more about debts and other vital issues to address when someone dies, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Kiplinger (Nov. 2, 2020) “Debt After Death: What You Should Know”

 

You need to review beneficiary designations

Using Trusts in Your Planning is a Smart Move

Trusts are used to solve problems in estate planning, giving great flexibility in how assets are divided after your death, no matter how modest or massive the size of your estate, according to an article titled “3 Reasons a trust may make sense for your family even though your name isn’t Trump, Gates or Rockefeller” from Market Watch. Don’t worry about anyone thinking your children are “trust fund babies.” Using trusts in your planning is a smart move, for many reasons.

There are two basic types of trust. A Revocable Trust is flexible and can be changed at any time by the person who creates the trust, known as the “grantor.” These are commonly used because they allow a high degree of control, while you are living. It’s as if you owned the asset, but you don’t—the trust does.

Once the trust is created, homes, bank and investment accounts and any other asset you want to be owned by the trust are retitled in the name of the trust. This is a step that sometimes gets forgotten, with terrible consequences. Once that’s done, then any documents that need to be signed regarding the trust are signed by you as the trustee, not as yourself. You can continue to sell or manage the assets as you did before they were moved into the trust.

There are many kinds of trusts for particular situations. A Special Needs Trust, or “SNT,” is used to help a disabled person, without making them ineligible for government benefits. A Charitable Trust is used to leave money to a favorite charity, while providing income to a family member during their lifetime. A real estate trust can be used for real property.

Assets that are placed in trusts do not go through the probate process and can control how your assets are distributed to heirs, both in timing and conditions.

An Irrevocable Trust is permanent and once created, cannot be changed. This type of trust is often used to save on estate taxes, by taking the asset out of your taxable estate. Funds you want to take out of your estate and bequeath to grandchildren are often placed in an irrevocable trust.

If you have relationships, properties or goals that are not straightforward, talk with your estate planning attorney about how trusts might benefit you and your family. Here’s why this makes sense:

Reducing estate taxes. While the federal exemption is $11.58 million in 2020 and $11.7 million in 2021, state estate tax exemptions are far lower. New York excludes $6 million, but Massachusetts exempts $1 million. An estate planning attorney in your state will know what your state’s estate taxes are, and how trusts can be used to protect your assets.

If you own property in a second or third state, your heirs will face a second or third round of probate and estate taxes. If the properties are placed in a trust, there’s less management, paperwork and costs to settling your estate.

Avoiding family battles. Families are a bit more complicated now than in the past. There are second and third marriages, children born to parents who don’t feel the need to marry and long-term relationships that serve couples without being married. Trusts can be established for estate planning goals in a way that traditional wills do not. For instance, stepchildren do not enjoy any legal protection when it comes to estate law. If you die when your children are young, a trust can be set up so your children will receive income and/or principal at whatever age you determine. Otherwise, with a will, the child will receive their full inheritance when they reach the legal age set by the state. An 18- or 21-year-old is rarely mature enough to manage a sudden influx of money. You can control how the money is distributed.

Protect your assets while you are living. Having a trust in place prepares you and your family for the changes that often accompany aging, like Alzheimer’s disease. A trust also protects aging adults from predators who seek to take advantage of them. Elder financial abuse is an enormous problem, when trusting adults give money to unscrupulous people—even family members.

Using trusts in your planning is a smart move. Talk with an estate planning attorney about your wishes and your worries. They will be able to create an estate plan and trusts that will protect you, your family and your legacy.

If you would like to learn more about how trusts work, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Market Watch (Dec. 4, 2020) “3 Reasons a trust may make sense for your family even though your name isn’t Trump, Gates or Rockefeller”

 

You need to review beneficiary designations

How to Organize Digital Assets

Did you ever wonder what happens to old emails, videos, or photos when people die? Some family stories become headlines, when families battle with big tech firms to get their loved one’s photos or business records. Today, you need to plan for how to organize digital assets, as explained in a recent article “Don’t leave grieving relatives searching for your passwords: Here’s how to organize your digital life before you die” from USA Today.

Your digital life includes far more than your photos or business records. It includes financial accounts, like PayPal or Venmo, websites, videogames, online investment portfolios, social media, online video games and anything for which you need a password.

Social media accounts that are not closed down or deleted when someone dies, are at risk of being taken over by cybercriminals, who use the accounts to get access to financial accounts and use the decedent’s identity to commit crimes across the internet.

Start by making a list of all of your accounts, including account numbers, usernames and passwords. If the account has two-factor authentication, you’ll need to include that information as well. If the account uses biometrics, like a facial scan, you’ll need to find out from the platform itself how you can create a directive to allow another person to gain access to the account.

Your will needs to reflect the existence of digital assets and name a person who will be your digital executor. Many states have passed legislation concerning how digital assets are treated in estate planning, so check with your estate planning attorney to learn what your state’s requirements are.

In many cases, the best option is to use the platform’s own account tools for digital assets. Google, Facebook, PayPal, and a number of other sites offer the ability to name a legacy contact who will be able to gain some access to an account, to access the information and to delete the account in the event of your death.

One big issue in digital estate planning is that some platforms automatically delete accounts and their contents, if the account is inactive for a certain amount of time. Content may be lost forever, if the proper steps are not taken.

Some financial advisors maintain online portals, where their clients may store important documents that can be accessed from anywhere in the world. This may be an option, in addition to keeping an organized list of digital assets in the same location where you keep your estate planning documents.

We all live in a digital world now, and when a person dies, it’s challenging to locate all of their accounts and gain access to their contents. Your grandchildren may be able to figure out some workarounds, but it would be much easier if you organize digital assets and make them a part of the conversation you had with your children when discussing your estate plan.

If you would like to learn more about digital assets and how to protect them, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: USA Today (Nov. 25, 2020) “Don’t leave grieving relatives searching for your passwords: Here’s how to organize your digital life before you die”

 

You need to review beneficiary designations

Elder Financial Abuse on the Rise during the Pandemic

The same isolation that is keeping seniors safe during the pandemic is also making them easier targets for scammers, reports WKYC in a news report “Northeast Ohio family warns of elder financial exploitation.” While this report concerns a family in Ohio, seniors and families across the country are seeing elder financial abuse on the rise during the pandemic.

Two brothers enjoyed spending their time together throughout their lives. However, for the last three years, one of them, Michael Pekar, has been trying to undo a neighbor’s theft of his brother Ronnie’s estate. A few months before Ronnie died from cancer, a neighbor got involved with his finances, gained Power of Attorney and began stealing Ronnie’s life savings.

The money, more than a million dollars, had been saved for the sons by their mother. Pekar went to see an attorney, who helped uncover a sum of about $1.6 million that had been transferred from Ronnie into other accounts. A civil complaint was filed against the woman and $700,000 was eventually recovered, but nearly $1 million will never be recovered.

How can you prevent this from happening to your loved ones, especially those who are isolated during the COVID-19 pandemic?

An elderly person who is isolated is vulnerable. Long stretches of time without family contact make them eager for human connection. If someone new suddenly inserts themselves into your loved one’s life, consider it a red flag. Are new people taking over tasks of bill paying, or driving them to a bank, lawyer, or financial professional’s office? It might start out as a genuine offer of help but may not end that way.

The person committing the elder financial abuse does not have to be a stranger. In most cases, family members, like nieces, nephews or other relatives, prey on the isolated elderly person. The red flag is a sudden interest that was never there before.

Changes to legal or financial documents are a warning sign, especially if those documents have gone missing. Unexpected trips to attorneys you don’t know or switching financial advisors without discussing changes with children are another sign that something is happening. So are changes to email addresses and phone numbers. If your elderly aunt who calls every Thursday at 3 pm stops calling, or you can’t reach her, someone may be controlling her communications.

According to the CDC, about one in ten adults over age 60 are abused, neglected, or financially exploited.

With elder financial abuse on the rise during the pandemic, be sure to check in more frequently on elderly family members. Increased isolation can lead them to rely on others, making them vulnerable. I you would like to learn more about elder abuse, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: WKYC (Nov. 19, 2020) “Northeast Ohio family warns of elder financial exploitation.”

 

You need to review beneficiary designations

Ethical Will Should Be Part of Your Planning

Scenes like this have taken place across the country since March, and many patients and loved ones have had strained conversations over phone or video calls, struggling to find the right words and hoping that their words can be heard. However, it’s impossible to share all of the family’s thoughts during this most trying of times, says a recent article “The Importance of Writing an Ethical Will—for You and to Those You Love” from The Wall Street Journal. The increasing interest in estate planning during the pandemic has seen many Americans waking up to the realization they must get their estate plans in order. They focus on preparing wills, health care proxies and powers of attorney, which are important. However, there is another document that needs to be completed. An ethical will should be part of your planning.

The ethical will is a statement used to transmit an individual’s basic values, history and legacy they would like to leave behind. It’s usually directed to children and grandchildren, but it can have a larger audience as well, and be shared with the friends who have become like family over a lifetime, or to communities, like houses of worship or civic groups.

The act of writing an ethical will as part of your planning reveals things the writer may not have even been aware of or leads to connections being made that had never been imagined. It is a chance to preserve parts of the person’s history, as well as the history of their ancestors. It is a wonderful gift to share your deepest wishes with those who are so important to you. An ethical will can bond people and generations, whether the letter is shared while you are living or after you have passed and lead to a sense of belonging to something bigger than each individual.

One of the most famous ethical wills was written by Shalom Aleichem, the famous Yiddish writer, and was printed in The New York Times after his death in 1916. While prepared as a last will and testament, it was a wonderful story that shared his values. He suggested that family and friends meet every year on the anniversary of his death, select a joyous story from the many he had written and read it aloud and “let my name be mentioned by them with laughter rather than not be mentioned at all.”

Even those of us who are not skilled writers have thoughts and wishes and history to share with our loved ones. Here are some questions to consider, when preparing your ethical will:

  • Who is it directed to?
  • Were there specific people and events who influenced your life?
  • What family history or stories would you want to pass on to the next generation?
  • What ethical or religious values are important to you?

While you work on completing a new estate plan, or updating an existing plan, take a moment to consider your ethical will and what you would like to share with your loved ones. The time to complete your estate plan and your ethical will should be part of your planning.

If you would like to learn more about different parts of a comprehensive estate plan, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: The Wall Street Journal (Nov. 17, 2020) “The Importance of Writing an Ethical Will—for You and to Those You Love”

 

You need to review beneficiary designations

Should a GRAT Be Part of Your Estate Plan?

A Grantor-Retained Annuity Trust, or GRAT, is funded by the grantor, the person who creates the trust, in exchange for a stream of annuity payments at a predetermined interest rate—the IRS Section 7520 rate. The interest rate in December 2020 is 0.6%, as reported in the article “Transferring Wealth With This Trust Can Yield Big Tax Advantages” from Financial Advisor. Should a GRAT be part of your estate plan?

GRAT assets need only appreciate greater than the Section 7520 rate over the term of the trust, and any excess earnings will pass to beneficiaries, or to an ongoing trust for beneficiaries with no gift or estate tax.

Because the grantor takes back the amount equal to that which was transferred to the trust (often two or three years), which is set by the IRS when the trust is funded, future appreciation over and above the interest rate passes gift-tax free.

There’s little upkeep. Once the trust agreement is in place, a gift tax return needs to be filed once a year. If the trust is set up without a tax ID number, there’s no need to file an income tax return.

The grantor is responsible for the income generated by the asset in the GRAT, but that’s it. If the value of the property is increased following an audit, the gift won’t be increased but the annuity will. If the GRAT property decreases in value, the only out of pocket is the set-up costs.

Assets in a GRAT may be anything from an investment portfolio to shares in a closely held business.

Most GRATs are designed to have the value of the retained annuity be equal to the value of the property that is transferred to the GRAT. If the values are equal, then the amount of the gift for tax purposes is zero, since the value of the transfer less the annuity value is zero.

GRATs are not for everyone. The success of the GRAT depends upon the success of the underlying assets. If they don’t appreciate as expected, then there might not be a significant amount transferred out of the estate after paying for the legal, accounting and appraisal fees. If the grantor dies during the term of the GRAT before payments back to the grantor have ended, the GRAT will be unsuccessful.

Generation skipping transfers cannot utilize GRATS, since the generation skipping tax exemption may not be applied to a GRAT, until the grantor’s death.

Ask your estate planning attorney about whether a GRAT should be a part of your estate plan. If a GRAT is not a good fit, they will know about many other tools available.

If you would like to learn more about how GRATS can play a role in your estate planning, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Financial Advisor (Nov. 30, 2020) “Transferring Wealth With This Trust Can Yield Big Tax Advantages”

 

You need to review beneficiary designations

How to Balance Homeownership and Medicaid

You own your home but are facing the prospect of needing Medicaid to pay for long term nursing home care. You will now have to figure out how to balance homeownership and Medicaid. The challenges begin when homeowners don’t do any Medicaid planning and decide the best answer is simply to gift their home to their children. It doesn’t always work out well for the homeowners or their children, warns the article “Owning real estate without jeopardizing Medicaid paying for nursing home” from limaohio.com.

A key tax avoidance opportunity is usually missed, when real property is gifted outright. The IRS says that if someone owns real estate, when that person passes, the heirs may eliminate a large portion of the taxable gains, if the real estate ends up being sold by an heir for more than the original owner paid for the property.

Let’s walk through an example of how homeownership and Medicaid works. Let’s say Terry buys a farm for $1,000. The cost to buy the farm is referred to as a “tax basis.”

If the family is planning for the possibility of nursing home costs, Terry might want to give that farm away to her children Ted and Zach. She needs to do it at least five years before she thinks she’ll need Medicaid to pay for long-term nursing care, because of a five-year lookback.

When Terry gifts the farm to Ted and Zach, the two children acquire Terry’s tax basis of $1,000. Ted gets $500 of the tax basic credit, and so does Zach.

The years go by and Ted wants to buy out Zach’s half of the farm. The farm is now worth $5,000. So, Ted pays Zach $2,500 for Zach’s half of the farm. Zach now has a tax basis of $500, which is not subject to tax. And Ted receives $2,000 more than his $500 tax basis, and Ted will need to pay capital gains on that $2,000 gain.

It could be handled smarter from a tax perspective. If Terry owns the farm when she dies, then Ted and Zach get the farm through her will, trust or whatever estate planning method is used. If the farm is worth $3,000 when Terry dies, then Ted and Zach will get a higher tax basis: $3,000 in total, or $1,500 each. By owning the farm when Terry dies, she gives them the opportunity to have their tax basis (and amount that won’t be taxed if they sell to each other or to anyone else) adjusted to the value of the property when Terry dies. In most cases, the value of real estate property is higher at the time of death than when it was purchased initially.

There’s another way to transfer ownership of the farm that works even better for everyone concerned. In this method, Terry continues to own the farm, helping Zach and Ted avoid taxes, and keeps the property out of her countable assets for Medicaid. The solution is for Terry to keep a specific type of life estate in the farm. This needs to be prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney, so that Terry won’t have to sell the farm if she eventually needs to apply for Medicaid for long term care.

Your estate planning attorney can assist you in deciding how to balance homeownership and Medicaid. He or she will help your family navigate protecting your home and other assets, while benefiting from smart tax strategies.

If you would like to learn more about nursing home costs and Medicaid, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: limaohio.com (Nov. 7, 2020) “Owning real estate without jeopardizing Medicaid paying for nursing home”

 

You need to review beneficiary designations

Probate Is Required For A Surviving Spouse

Probate, also called “estate administration,” is the management and final settlement of a deceased person’s estate. It is conducted by an executor, also known as a personal representative, who is nominated in the will and approved by the court. Probate is required for a surviving spouse. Estate administration needs to be done when there are assets subject to probate, regardless of whether there is a will, says the article “Probating your spouse’s will” from The Huntsville Item.

Probate is the formal process of administering a person’s estate. Probate is required for a surviving spouse. In the absence of a will, probate also establishes heirship. In some regions, this is a quick and easy process, while in others it is a lengthy, complex and expensive process. The complexity depends upon the size and value of the estate, whether a proper estate plan was prepared by the decedent prior to death and if there are family members or others who might contest the will.

Family dynamics can cause a tremendous amount of complications and delays, especially if the family has blended children from prior marriages or if a child has predeceased their parents.

There are some exceptions, when the estate is extremely small and when probate is not required. However, in most cases, it is required.

A recent District Court case ruled that a will not admitted to probate is not effective for proving title and thereby ownership, to real estate. A title company was sued for defamation after the title company issued a title report that included the statement that the decedent had died intestate, that is, without a will.

The decedent’s son, who was her executor, sued the title company because his mother did indeed have a will and the title report was defamatory. The court rejected this theory, and the case was brought to the Appellate Court to seek relief for the family. The Appellate Court ruled that until a will has been admitted to probate, it is not effective for the purpose of proving title to real property.

If a person owns real estate, they must have an estate plan to ensure that their property can be successfully transferred to heirs. When there is no estate plan, heirs find out how big a problem this can be when someone decides they want to sell the property or divide it up among family members.

Problems also arise when the family, or surviving spouse, finds that they must pay taxes on the property, or that there are expenses that must be paid to maintain the property. Without a will, the disposition of the property is determined by the state’s estate law. Things can become complicated quickly, when there is no will.

If the deceased spouse has children from outside the most recent marriage, those children may have rights to the property and end up owning a portion of the property along with the surviving spouse. However, neither the children nor the surviving spouse can sell the property without each other’s approval. This is a common occurrence.

There are also limitations as to how probate can be used to distribute and manage an estate. In some states, the time limit is four years from the date of death.

If you are a surviving spouse and required to go through probate when there is no will, an estate planning attorney can help you move through the probate process more efficiently. A better situation would be for the family to speak with their parents about having a will and estate plan created before it’s too late.

If you would like to learn more about probate, and how to protect your spouse and children, please visit our previous posts.

Reference: The Huntsville Item (Nov. 22, 2020) “Probating your spouse’s will”

https://www.texastrustlaw.com/read-our-books/

You need to review beneficiary designations

Deciding Between Separate or Joint Trusts

Deciding between separate or joint trusts is not as straightforward a choice as you might think. Sometimes, there is an obvious need to keep things separate, according to the recent article “Joint Trusts or Separate Trusts: Advice for Married Couples” from Kiplinger. However, it is not always the case.

A revocable living trust is a popular way to pass assets to heirs. Assets titled in a revocable living trust don’t go through probate and information about the trust remains private. It is also a good way to plan for incapacity, avoid or reduce the likelihood of a death tax and make sure the right people inherit the trust.

There are advantages to Separate Trusts:

They offer better protection from creditors. When the first spouse dies, the deceased spouse’s trust becomes irrevocable, which makes it far more difficult for creditors to access, while the surviving spouse can still access funds.

If assets are going to non-spouse heirs, separate is better. If one spouse has children from a previous marriage and wants to provide for their spouse and their children, a qualified terminable interest property trust allows assets to be left for the surviving spouse, while the balance of funds are held in trust until the surviving spouse’s death. Then the funds are paid to the children from the previous marriage.

Reducing or eliminating the death tax with separate trusts. Unless the couple has an estate valued at more than $23.16 million in 2020 (or $23.4 million in 2021), they won’t have to worry about federal estate taxes. However, there are still a dozen states, plus the District of Columbia, with state estate taxes and half-dozen states with inheritance taxes. These estate tax exemptions are considerably lower than the federal exemption, and heirs could get stuck with the bill. Separate trusts as part of a credit shelter trust would let the couple double their estate tax exemption.

When is a Joint Trust Better?

If there are no creditor issues, both spouses want all assets to go to the surviving spouse and state estate tax and/or inheritance taxes aren’t an issue, then a joint trust could work better because:

Joint trusts are easier to fund and maintain. There is no worrying about having to equalize the trusts, or consider which one should be funded first, etc.

There is less work at tax time. The joint trust doesn’t become irrevocable, until both spouses have passed. Therefore, there is no need to file an extra trust tax return. With separate trusts, when the first spouse dies, their trust becomes irrevocable and a separate tax return must be filed every year.

Joint trusts are not subject to higher trust tax brackets, because they do not become irrevocable until the first spouse dies. However, any investment or interest income generated in an account titled in a deceased spouse’s trust, now irrevocable, will be subject to trust tax brackets. This will trigger higher taxes for the surviving spouse, if the income is not withdrawn by December 31 of each year.

In a joint trust, after the death of the first spouse, the surviving spouse has complete control of the assets. When separate trusts are used, the deceased spouses’ trust becomes irrevocable and the surviving spouse has limited control over assets.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to help you decide between separate or joint trusts based on which is best for your situation. This is a complex topic, and this is just a brief introduction.

If you would like to learn more about estate planning for married couples, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: Kiplinger (Nov. 20, 2020) “Joint Trusts or Separate Trusts: Advice for Married Couples”