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: Surviving Spouse

selling a home after the death of a parent

Selling a Home after the Death of a Parent

The first thing you’ll need to know about selling a home after the death of a parent, is how your parents held title, or owned, the home, begins the recent article “Home ownership after the death of a spouse” from nwi.com. In most cases, the home is owned by a couple as “joint tenants with rights of survivorship” or as “tenants by the entirety.” The latter is less common.

Tenancy by the entirety is a form of ownership available only to married people in a limited number of states and offers several advantages to the owners. It creates an ownership interest where the spouses own property jointly and not as individuals. It also creates the rights of survivorship, so that the surviving spouse owns the property by law when the first spouse dies.

Joint tenancy with rights of survivorship is similar to tenants by the entirety, in that they both convey rights of survivorship. However, joint tenancy does not treat the owners as a single unit. If you own entireties property with a spouse, you may not transfer your interest without your spouse’s permission because you own it as a unit.

In joint tenants, if one of the tenants want to transfer their interest in the property, he or she may do so at any time—and do not need the permission of the other tenant. This has led to some sticky situations, which is why tenants by the entirety is preferred in many situations.

If your parents own their home as tenants by the entireties or as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, the surviving spouse owns the home as a matter of law, and legally, ownership begins at the moment that first spouse dies.

Different states record this change of ownership differently, so you’ll need to speak with an estate planning attorney in your community (or the state where your parents lived, if it was different than where you live).

To notify the recorder’s office of the death, some state laws require the submission of a surviving spouse affidavit, which puts the recorder and the community on notice that one of the owners has died and the survivor now owns the home individually. Here again, an estate planning attorney will know the laws that apply in your situation.

There was a time when people recorded a death certificate, but this does not occur often. The affidavit makes a number of recitals that are important, and the recorded document proves the change of title.

In most cases, there is no need for a new deed, since the surviving spouse owns the property at the time of death, and the affidavit itself demonstrates proof of the transfer of title in lieu of a deed. If you are selling a home after the death of a parent, be sure to know how the home was deeded and what steps you will need to take. If you would like to learn more about probate and managing property after the death of a loved one, please visit our previous posts. 

Reference: nwi.com (March 14, 2021) “Home ownership after the death of a spouse”

Read our books

 

wise to revise your planning with a second marriage

Maximize Your Social Security Benefits

The desire to maximize your Social Security benefits is a relatively new phenomenon. For decades, people received their monthly benefit check and that was it. However, in the late 1990s, a new law let seniors over age 66 work without any reduction in benefits, says the article “Social Security & You: Seniors obsess over ‘maximizing’ their Social Security” from Tuscon.com. The law led to loopholes that became known as “file and suspend” and “file and restrict.” In a nutshell, they allowed retirees to collect dependent spousal benefits on a spouse’s Social Security record, while delaying their own benefits until age 70.

Congress eventually realized that these loopholes violated the basic concept of the program. Benefits to spouses were always known as “dependent” benefits. To claim benefits as a spouse, you had to prove that you were financially dependent upon the other spouse to collect benefits on their record. However, the loophole let people who were the primary wage earner in the family claim benefits as a “dependent” of the other spouse. Five years ago, Congress closed that loophole.

More specifically, Congress closed the ability to file-and-suspend. It also put file-and-restrict on notice. If you turned 66 before January 2020, you could still wiggle through that loophole, and there are some people who are still eligible. That’s where the term “maximizing your Social Security benefits” originated.

Can you get a bigger Social Security check, if you don’t fit into the exception noted above? The only real strategy to maximize your social security benefits is simply to wait. The equation is pretty simple. If you wait until your Full Retirement Age (FRA), you will receive 100% of your benefit rate. If you can wait until age 70, you’ll receive 132% of your benefit.

In some households, the higher income earner waits until age 70 to file for retirement, so that the surviving spouse will one day receive higher surviving spouse benefits.

But that’s not the best advice for everyone. If you or your spouse suffer from a chronic illness, it may not make sense to wait.

If you or your spouse have lost your jobs, as so many have because of the pandemic, then Social Security may be the safety net that you need, until you are able to return to some kind of paid employment.

There may be other reasons why you might need to take your benefits earlier, even earlier than your FRA. Some households start taking their Social Security benefits at age 62, as a way to augment other income.

If you don’t already have a “My Social Security” account set up on the Social Security Administration’s portal, now is the time to do so. The Social Security Administration stopped sending annual statements years ago, but you can go into your account and download the statements yourself and start planning for your future. There are ways to maximize your Social Security benefits, but you will need to take advantage now. Work with your financial advisor and estate planning attorney to see if you qualify.

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

Reference: Tuscon.com (Feb. 10, 2021) “Social Security & You: Seniors obsess over ‘maximizing’ their Social Security”

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

charitable contribution deductions from an estate

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”

 

charitable contribution deductions from an estate

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/

charitable contribution deductions from an estate

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”

 

charitable contribution deductions from an estate

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”

 

charitable contribution deductions from an estate

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/

charitable contribution deductions from an estate

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”

charitable contribution deductions from an estate

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”