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Category: Surviving Spouse

Should you sell your life insurance policy?

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”

 

Should you sell your life insurance policy?

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”

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Should you sell your life insurance policy?

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”

 

Should you sell your life insurance policy?

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”

 

Should you sell your life insurance policy?

Consider Planning Your Own Funeral

Making your way through the process of the death of a family member is an extremely personal journey, as well as a very big business that can put a financial strain on the surviving family. Save your family stress and consider planning your own funeral.

Rate.com’s recent article entitled “Plan Your Own Funeral, Cheaply, and Leave Behind a Happier Family”  notes that on an individual basis, it can be a significant cost for a family dealing with grief. The National Funeral Directors Association found that the median cost for a traditional funeral, with a basic casket that also includes a vault (the casket liner most cemeteries require) can cost more than $9,000. With the cost of a (single) plot and the services of the cemetery to take care of the burial and ongoing maintenance and other expenses,  it can total more than $15,000.

Instead, if you opt for cremation and a simple service, it will run only $2,000 or less. That would save your estate or your family $13,000. Think of the amount of legacy that can grow from your last wishes.

If you want to research it further, it can be difficult. Without your directions, your grieving family is an easy mark for a death care industry that’s run for profit. Even with federal disclosure rules, most states make it impossible to easily comparison shop among funeral service providers, and online price lists aren’t required. However, you can do the legwork to make it easier on your family, when you pass.

Funeral homes also aren’t usually forthright about costs that are required rather than optional. The median embalming cost is $750.However, there’s no regulation requiring embalming. Likewise, a body need not be placed in a casket for cremation. The median cost for a cremation casket is $1,200 but an alternative “container” might cost less than $200.

The best thing you can do for your family is to write it down your wishes and plans and make it immediately discoverable.

It can be a great relief to tell your family everything you want (and don’t want). However, if that’s not feasible with your family dynamics, be certain that you detail of all your wishes in writing. You should also make sure that the document can be easily located by your executor.

Here’s a simple option: Write everything out, place your instructions in a sealed envelope and let your children and the executor know the location of the letter.

The elementary step of planning your own funeral can be the start to helping their decision-making when you pass away, and potentially provide some extra money to help them reach their goals.

Reference: rate.com (June 21, 2020) “Plan Your Own Funeral, Cheaply, and Leave Behind a Happier Family”

 

Brad Wiewel talks about estate planning tips

Brad Wiewel discusses Surviving Texas Probate

In the second part of our video series, Brad Wiewel discussed his new book, Surviving Texas Probate, on KXAN.  Brad and host Rosie Newberry talked about how the Probate process works in Texas.  The conversation addressed what makes the system in Texas different from other states, some of the common mistakes in planning that complicate the Probate process, and how proper planning can avoid Probate all together.

Brad’s discussion of his new book, Surviving Texas Probate, is also available on KXAN’s website: https://www.kxan.com/studio-512/surviving-texas-probate-with-the-wiewel-law-firm/

Should you sell your life insurance policy?

Protecting a Digital Legacy

There’s never an easy time to talk about end-of-life planning, and a pandemic that has everyone thinking about death can make it harder, says the article “Wannabe Wired: Preparing your digital legacy,” from The Lawton Constitution. Most of us think about creating a will, making burial plans and ensuring that our loved ones are cared for when we are gone. However, planning to protect a digital legacy is often neglected.

You don’t have to be Bill Gates or own billions in bitcoins to have a digital legacy. In fact, most people don’t even recognize their digital assets as a new type of property. If you have bank accounts, social media, own any websites or have original music, artwork, or videos online, you have digital assets.

Prior planning can help your loved ones protect your digital legacy, as well as your traditional property.

Different online platforms have different policies about what happens to accounts owned by people who have passed. Sometimes there is an option to delete or deactivate a profile, if the owners have checked the right box. However, that’s not always the case. Many digital giants won’t allow someone who is not the owner, to gain access to their accounts or the data.

Start by making a list of user names and passwords. If you can, go through all of your accounts one by one to see if they allow users to make a plan for what happens if the owner dies. Some, like Facebook, allow the account owner to name a Legacy Contact. That person is permitted to manage tribute posts on your profile, deciding who can and who cannot post on your account and request the removal of your account. Just go to General Account Settings and click on the “Memorialization Setting.” You also have the option to have your account deleted after you die.

Not every platform makes this process so easy. Some will delete accounts, if there is no activity after a certain number of months or years. If you have a business that relies on a free email service like Yahoo!, this could cause your family to lose access to valuable information.

Once you’ve made a thorough list of all of your online accounts and passwords, talk with a trusted family member about your wishes for your digital accounts. Do not include the document with online accounts and passwords in your will! Remember that your will is likely to be a probated document, meaning that it will be entered into the public record. You don’t want people accessing your online accounts—it’s an invitation to identity theft.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about protecting your digital and traditional legacy. It will spare your loved ones a lot of trouble and provide you with peace of mind.

Reference: The Lawton Constitution (May 12, 2020) “Wannabe Wired: Preparing your digital legacy”

Should you sell your life insurance policy?

Prevent Estate Administration Problems Before They Occur

Estate administration, that is, when the executor gets busy with paying debts, taxes and distributing assets, is often the time when any missing steps in an estate plan are revealed. The best legal problems are the ones that don’t happen, advises the article “Practical tips for estate administration, pre-planning advice, and a Coronavirus update” from the Winston-Salem Journal. Here are tips to avoid problems:

Do you need a trust to avoid probate fees and simplify estate administration?

Think of a trust as a secret box or bank account. If you own property in another state, want adult heirs to receive their inheritance over a period of time, have a beneficiary with special needs, or simply don’t want the public to learn about your assets, then a stand-alone trust that works in conjunction with your will is something to consider. However, you may be able to achieve some of these goals through beneficiary designations. A big advantage of a trust is that it is not subject to probate; assets in a probate estate become public record. If privacy is an issue, you’ll want a trust.

Is your estate plan out of date?

If your estate plan has not been updated in the last three or four years, it is likely that you have extra expenses that are no longer necessary. It’s also likely that you are missing out on tax savings opportunities. There have recently been a huge number of changes to estate and tax laws. If your will was signed before 2013, it is time to simplify your will.

Did you inherit real estate with your siblings?

If the sale of the property is still pending, get it wrapped up as soon as possible. If one of your siblings dies, or moves away, managing the disposition of real estate can become complicated and expensive.

When was the last time you reviewed Power of Attorney documents?

If you are not competent and critical steps need to be taken for your care, your agents may find themselves unable to act on your behalf, if your POA and related documents are “outdated.” They may need court intervention to make even simple decisions.

How has coronavirus impacted choices in long-term planning documents?

If your will, POA, medical power of attorney and HIPAA release forms have not been updated recently, decisions may be made without any discussion with the people you trust most.

Speak with an estate planning attorney now to get your legal and financial affairs in order. Many states have granted attorneys the ability to have documents executed and witnessed remotely, so there is no reason not to go forward now.

Reference: Winston-Salem Journal (May 3, 2020) “Practical tips for estate administration, pre-planning advice, and a Coronavirus update”

 

Should you sell your life insurance policy?

Steps to Take When a Loved One Dies

This year, more families than usual are finding themselves grappling with the challenge of managing the affairs of a loved one who has died. Handling these tasks while mourning is hard, and often families do not have time to prepare, says the article “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die” from Business Insider. The following are some tips to help get through this difficult time.

Someone has to be in charge. If there is a will, there should be a person named who is responsible for administering the estate, usually called the executor or personal representative. If there is no will, it will be best if one person has the necessary skills to take the lead.

When one member of a married couple dies, the surviving spouse is the usual choice. Otherwise, a family member who lives closest to the deceased is the next best choice. That person will need to get documents from the local court and take care of the residence until it is sold. Being physically nearby can make many tasks easier.

It is always better if these decisions are made before the person dies. Wills should be kept up to date, as should power of attorney documents, trusts and advance directives. When naming an executor or trustee, let them know what you are asking of them. For instance, don’t name someone who hates pets and children to be your children’s guardian or be responsible for your beloved dogs when you die.

Don’t delay. Grief is a powerful emotion, especially if the death was unexpected. It may be hard to get through the regular tasks of your day, never mind the additional work of managing an estate. However, there are risks to delaying, including becoming a target of scammers.

Get more death certificates than seems necessary. Make your life easier by getting at least a dozen certified copies, so you don’t have to keep going back to the source. Banks, brokerage houses, phone companies, utilities, credit card companies, etc., will all want to see the death certificate. While there are instances where a copy will be accepted, in many cases you will need an original, with a raised seal. In fact, in some states it is a crime to photocopy a death certificate.

Who to notify? The first call needs to be to the Social Security Administration. You may also want to send an email. If Social Security benefits continue to be paid, returning the money can turn into a time-consuming ordeal. If there are any other recurring payments, like VA benefits or a pension, those institutions need to be notified. The same is true when it comes to insurance companies, banks and credit card companies. Fraud on the credit cards of the deceased is quite common. When a notice of death is published, criminals look for the person’s credit card and Social Security numbers on the dark web. Act fast to prevent fraud.

Protect the physical property. Secure the home right away. Are there plants to be watered or pets that need care? Take pictures, create an inventory and consider changing locks. Take any valuables out of the house and place in a secure location. If the house is going to be empty, make sure to take care of the property to avoid any deterioration.

Paying the bills. Depending on the person’s level of organization, you’ll have to identify where the money is and if anything is being paid automatically. Old tax returns can be helpful to identify income sources. Figure out what accounts need payment, like utilities.

Some accounts are distributed directly to beneficiaries, like transfer-on-death accounts like 401(k)s, IRAs and life insurance policies. Joint bank accounts and real property held in joint tenancy will pass directly to the joint owner. The executor’s role is to inform the institutions of the death, but not to distribute funds.

File tax returns. You’ll have to do the final taxes, due on April 15 of the year after death. If taxes weren’t filed for any prior years, the executor has to do those as well.

Consider getting help. An estate planning lawyer can help with the administration of an estate, if it becomes overwhelming. Regardless of who handles this process, expect the tasks to take anywhere from six months to two years, depending on the complexity of the estate.

Reference: Business Insider (May 2, 2020) “How to manage a loved one’s finances after they die”

 

Should you sell your life insurance policy?

What Is a Testamentary Trust and Do You Need One?

A couple doing some retirement planning has an updated will and a medical power of attorney in place, prepared with the help of an estate planning attorney. They own some rental property, a small business and life insurance, but their estate is not large enough for them to worry about the federal estate tax.

Do they need or want a trust to be part of their estate plan? That’s question from a recent article titled “It’s the law: Testamentary trusts provide protection for assets” from the Post Register.

First, there are many different types of trusts. A living trust, also known as a revocable trust, irrevocable trusts and testamentary trusts are just three types. The testamentary trust only comes into effect at death under a last will and testament, and in some cases, depending on how they are structured, they may never come into effect, because they are designed for certain circumstances.

If you leave everything to your spouse in a will or through a revocable trust, your spouse will receive everything with no limitations. The problem is, those assets are subject to claims by your spouse’s creditors, such as business issues, a car accident, or bankruptcy. The surviving spouse may use the money any way he or she wishes, during their lifetime or through a will at death.

Consider if your spouse remarried after your death. What happens if they leave assets that they have inherited from you to a new spouse? If the new spouse dies, do the new spouses’ children inherit assets?

By using a trust, assets are available for the surviving spouse. At the death of the surviving spouse, assets in the trust must be distributed as directed in the language of the trust. This is especially important in blended families, where there may be children from other marriages.

Trusts are also valuable to distribute assets, if there are beneficiaries with an inability to manage money, undue spousal interference or a substance abuse problem.

Note that the trust only protects the decedent’s assets, that is, their separate property and half of the community property, if they live in a community property state.

The best solution to the issue of how to distribute assets, is to meet with an estate planning attorney and determine the goal of each spouse and the couple’s situation. People who own businesses need to protect their assets from litigation. It may make sense to have significant assets placed in trust to control how they pass to family members and shield them from possible lawsuits.

Reference: Post Register (April 26, 2020) “It’s the law: Testamentary trusts provide protection for assets”