Changes to Estate Tax Laws? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

This New York Times Article from January 2021 is a good summary of the potential changes to the estate tax laws under President Biden.  In addition to the possibility of a reduction in the federal estate tax exemption to $5 million or $3.5 million, the article also summarizes the possible increase in the estate tax rate from 40% to 55%, as well as significant changes to the capital gains tax rules.

Reference: NYTimes.com (Jan. 15, 2021) “The Estate Tax May Change Under Biden, Affecting Far More People”

 

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Do You have to Go through Probate when Someone Dies? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Probate involves assets, debts and distribution. The administration of a probate estate involves gathering all assets owned by the decedent, all claims owed to the decedent and the payments of all liabilities owed by the decedent or the estate of the decedent and the distribution of remaining assets to beneficiaries. If this sounds complicated, that is because it is, according to the article “The probate talk: Administrators, creditors and beneficiaries need to know” from The Dallas Morning News.

The admission of a decedent’s will to probate may be challenged for up to two years from the date it was admitted to probate. Many people dismiss this concern, because they believe they have done everything they could to avoid probate, from assigning beneficiary designations to creating trusts. Those are necessary steps in estate planning, but there are some possibilities that executors and beneficiaries need to know.

Any creditor can open a probate estate and sue to pull assets back into the estate. A disappointed heir can sue the executor/administrator and claim that designations and transfers were made when the decedent was incapacitated, unduly influenced or the victim of fraud.

It is very important that the administrator handles estate matters with meticulous attention to detail, documenting every transaction, maintaining scrupulous records and steering clear of anything that might even appear to be self-dealing. The administrator has a fiduciary duty to keep the beneficiaries of the estate reasonably informed of the process, act promptly and diligently administer and settle the estate.

The administrator must also be in a position to account for all revenue received, money spent and assets sold. The estate’s property must not be mixed in any way with the administrator’s own property or funds or business interests.

The administrator may not engage in any self-dealing. No matter how easily it may be to justify making a transaction, buying any of the estate’s assets for their own benefit or using their own accounts to temporarily hold money, is not permitted.

The administrator must obtain a separate tax identification number from the IRS, known as an EIN, for the probate estate. This is the identification number used to open an estate bank account to hold the estate’s cash and any investment grade assets. The account has to be properly named, on behalf of the probate estate. Anything that is cash must pass through the estate account, and every single receipt and disbursement should be documented. There is no room for fuzzy accounting in an estate administration, as any estate planning lawyer will advise.

Distributions do not get made, until all creditors are paid. This may not win the administrator any popularity contests, but it is required. No creditors are paid until the taxes are paid—the last year’s taxes for the last year the decedent was alive, and the estate taxes. The administrator may be held personally liable, if money is paid out to creditors or beneficiaries and there is not enough money in the estate to pay taxes.

If the estate contains multiple properties in different states, probate must be done in all of those different states. If it is a large complex estate, an estate planning attorney will be a valuable resource in helping to avoid pitfalls, minor or major.

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (May 16, 2021) “The probate talk: Administrators, creditors and beneficiaries need to know”

 

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Are 529 Plans Part of Your Estate? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Estate planning attorneys, accountants and CPAs say that 529s are more than good ways to save for college. They are also highly flexible estate planning tools, useful far beyond education spending, that cost practically nothing to set up. In the very near future, the role of 529s could expand greatly, according to the article “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them” from Barron’s.

Most tactics to reduce the size of an estate are irrevocable and cannot be undone, but the 529 allows you to change the beneficiaries of a 529 account. Even the owners can be changed multiple times. Here is how they work, and why they deserve more attention.

The 529 is funded with after tax dollars, and all money taken out of the account, including investment gains, is tax free, as long as it is spent on qualified education expenses. That includes tuition, room and board and books. What about money used for non-qualified expenses? Income taxes are due, plus a 10% penalty. Only the original contribution is not taxed, if used for non-qualified expenses.

Most states have their own 529 plans, but you can use a plan from any state. Check to see if there are tax advantages from using your state’s plan and know the details before you open an account and start making contributions.

Each 529 account owner must designate a single beneficiary, but money can be moved between beneficiaries, as long as they are in the same family. You can move money that was in a child’s account into their own child’s account, with no taxes, as long as you do not hit gift tax exclusion levels.

In most states, you can contribute up to $15,000 per beneficiary to a 529 plan. However, each account owner can also pay up to five years’ worth of contributions without triggering gift taxes. A couple together may contribute up to $150,000 per beneficiary, and they can do it for multiple people.

There are no limits to the number of 529s a person may own. If you are blessed with ten grandchildren, you can open a 529 account for each one of them.

For one family with eight grandchildren, plus one child in graduate school, contributions were made of $1.35 million to various 529 plans. By doing this, their estate, valued at $13 million, was reduced below the federal tax exclusion limit of $11.7 million per person.

Think of the money as a family education endowment. If it is needed for a crisis, it can be accessed, even though taxes will need to be paid.

To create a 529 that will last for multiple generations, provisions need to be made to transfer ownership. Funding 529 plans for grandchildren’s education must be accompanied by designating their parents—the adult children—as successor owners, when the grandparents die or become incapacitated.

The use of 529s has changed over the years. Originally only for college tuition, room and board, today they can be used for private elementary school or high school. They can also be used to take cooking classes, language classes or career training at accredited institutions. Be mindful that some expenses will not qualify—including transportation costs, healthcare and personal expenses.

Reference: Barron’s (May 29, 2021) “A Loophole Makes ‘529’ Plans Good Wealth Transfer Tools. Here’s How to Use Them”

 

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Are Roth IRAs Smart for Estate Planning? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Think Advisor’s recent article entitled “Secure Act 2.0, Biden Tax Hike Plans Make Roth IRAs a Crucial Tool” says that Roth IRAs offer an great planning tool, and that the Secure Act 2.0 retirement bill (which is expected to pass) will create an even wider window for Roth IRA planning.

With President Biden’s proposed tax increases, it is wise to leverage Roth conversions and other strategies while tax rates are historically low—and the original Secure Act of 2019 made Roth IRAs particularly valuable for estate planning.

Roth Conversions and Low Tax Rates. Though tax rates for some individuals may increase under the Biden tax proposals, rates for 2021 are currently at historically low levels under the Tax Cuts and Jobs Act passed at the end of 2017. This makes Roth IRA conversions attractive. You will pay less in taxes on the conversion of the same amount than you would have prior to the 2017 tax overhaul. It can be smart to make a conversion in an amount that will let you “fill up” your current federal tax bracket.

Reduce Future RMDs. The money in a Roth IRA is not subject to RMDs. Money contributed to a Roth IRA directly and money contributed to a Roth 401(k) and later rolled over to a Roth IRA can be allowed to grow beyond age 72 (when RMDs are currently required to start). For those who do not need the money and who prefer not to pay the taxes on RMDs, Roth IRAs have this flexibility. No RMD requirement also lets the Roth account to continue to grow tax-free, so this money can be passed on to a spouse or other beneficiaries at your death.

The Securing a Strong Retirement Act, known as the Secure Act 2.0, would gradually raise the age for RMDs to start to 75 by 2032. The first step would be effective January 1, 2022, moving the starting age to 73. If passed, this provision would provide extra time for Roth conversions and Roth contributions to help retirees permanently avoid RMDs.

Tax Diversification. Roth IRAs provide tax diversification. For those with a significant amount of their retirement assets in traditional IRA and 401(k) accounts, this can be an important planning tool as you approach retirement. The ability to withdraw funds on a tax-free basis from your Roth IRA can help provide tax planning options in the face of an uncertain future regarding tax rates.

Estate Planning and the Secure Act. Roth IRAs have long been a super estate planning vehicle because there is no RMD requirement. This lets the Roth assets continue to grow tax-free for the account holder’s beneficiaries. Moreover, this tax-free status has taken on another dimension with the inherited IRA rules under the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (Secure) Act. The legislation eliminates the stretch IRA for inherited IRAs for most non-spousal beneficiaries. As a result, these beneficiaries have to withdraw the entire amount in an inherited IRA within 10 years of inheriting the account. Inherited Roth IRAs are also subject to the 10-year rule, but the withdrawals can be made tax-free by account beneficiaries, if the original account owner met the 5-year rule prior to his or her death. This makes a Roth IRA an ideal estate planning tool in situations where your beneficiaries are non-spouses who do not qualify as eligible designated beneficiaries.

Reference: Think Advisor (May 11, 2021) “Secure Act 2.0, Biden Tax Hike Plans Make Roth IRAs a Crucial Tool”

 

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What are Top ‘To-Dos’ in Estate Planning? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Spotlight News’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning To-Dos” says that with the potential for substantial changes to estate and gift tax rules under the Biden administration, this may be an opportune time to create or review our estate plan. If you are not sure where to begin, look at these to-dos for an estate plan.

See an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your plans. The biggest estate planning mistake is having no plan whatsoever. The top triggers for estate planning conversations can be life-altering events, such as a car accident or health crisis. If you already have a plan in place, visit your estate planning attorney and keep it up to date with the changes in your life.

Draft financial and healthcare powers of attorney. Estate plans contain multiple pieces that may overlap, including long-term care plans and powers of attorney. These say who has decision-making power in the event of a medical emergency.

Draft a healthcare directive. Living wills and other advance directives are written to provide legal instructions describing your preferences for medical care, if you are unable to make decisions for yourself. Advance care planning is a process that includes quality of life decisions and palliative and hospice care.

Make a will. A will is one of the foundational aspects of estate planning, However, this is frequently the only thing people do when estate planning. A huge misconception about estate planning is that a will can oversee the distribution of all assets. A will is a necessity, but you should think about estate plans holistically—as more than just a will. For example, a modern aspect of financial planning that can be overlooked in wills and estate plans is digital assets.  It is also recommended that you ask an experienced estate planning attorney about whether a trust fits into your circumstances, and to help you with the other parts of a complete estate plan.

Review beneficiary designations. Retirement plans, life insurance, pensions and annuities are independent of the will and require beneficiary designations. One of the biggest estate planning mistakes is having outdated beneficiary designations, which only supports the need to review estate plans and designated beneficiaries with an experienced estate planning attorney on a regular basis.

Reference: Spotlight News (May 19, 2021) “Estate Planning To-Dos”

 

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Do QTIP Trusts Help avoid Estate Taxes? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Using a QTIP trust allows one spouse to create a trust to benefit the surviving spouse, while providing the surviving spouse with up to nine months to decide how to treat the gift for tax purposes, explains a recent article “How Certain Trusts Soften The Blow Of Estate Tax Increases” from Financial Advisor. This flexibility is just one reason for this trust’s popularity. However, while the QTIP election can be made on the 2021 gift tax return, which is filed in 2022, the choice as to how much of the transfer will be subject to tax can be made in 2022.

The current estate and gift tax exemption of $11.7 per individual is slated to sunset in 2025, but the current legislative mood may curtail that legislation sooner. Right now, flexibility is paramount.

The surviving spouse is named as the primary beneficiary of the trust and must be the only beneficiary of the trust during the lifetime of the surviving spouse, in terms of both receiving income or principal from the trust.

If the decision is made to treat the trust as a QTIP trust, a gift to the trust is eligible for the marital deduction and is not taxable. It does not use up any of the donor’s gift tax exclusion. That flexibility to make a transfer today and decide later whether it uses any lifetime exemption is something most people don’t know about. A QTIP can also protect the recipient spouse and the principal from any creditors.

There are conditions and limitations to this strategy. If the QTIP election is not made, all net trust income must be distributed to the beneficiary spouse. There is also no flexibility for the trust income to be accumulated or distributed directly to descendants.

The property over which the QTIP election is made is included in the estate of the surviving spouse.

The election can be made over the entire asset or only a portion of the asset transferred to the trust. The option to apply only a portion of the transfer makes it more tax efficient. For generation skipping-trust purposes, an election can be made to use the transferor spouse’s GST exemption when the decision about the QTIP election is made.

QTIPs are not the solution for everyone, but they may be the best option for many people while the people in Washington, D.C. determine the immediate future of the estate tax.

There are many Americans who are moving forward with making gifts using the current gift tax exclusion, using spousal lifetime access trusts (SLATs). However, the QTIP elections remain a way to hedge against the risk of being on the hook for a substantial gift tax, if there is a reduction in the federal estate tax exemptions.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to learn if a QTIP or another type of trust is appropriate for you. Note that these are complex planning strategies, and they must work in tandem with the rest of your estate plan.

Reference: Financial Advisor (May 24, 2021) “How Certain Trusts Soften The Blow Of Estate Tax Increases”

 

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Why Is Estate Planning So Important? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

Big Easy Magazine’s recent article “Estate Planning Is Essential and Here’s Why” says that writing a Last Will and Testament is not limited to what happens to your house, car, company, or other assets after you die. It also states who will take care of your minor children, if they are orphaned.

Your instructions for burial and other smaller things can be included.

If you fail to provide specific instructions, the state intestacy laws will apply upon your death. Here is a glimpse of the consequences of not writing your last will:

  • Your burial preferences may not be honored.
  • Your properties may be managed by an individual you do not necessarily trust. Without a named executor to your Will, some other family member may be asked to file taxes, make transfers and manage your estate.
  • Family members may not get an inheritance. Under intestacy laws, same-sex relationships and common-law marriages may not be recognized. So, your partner may not get a portion of your estate.
  • Your favorite charity may be left out. If you are committed to leaving a legacy, your charity, religious organization, or other organization of choice should be mentioned in the Will.
  • The government will name the guardians for your minor children.

With a Will, you can designate a guardian for your children and avoid additional taxes. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about developing a comprehensive estate plan.

Aside from this, estate planning can also save your loved ones considerable angst and money.

A detailed Will with your instructions will avoid complications and provide comfort, while your loved ones recover emotionally from their loss.

Reference: Big Easy Magazine (May 17, 2021) “Estate Planning Is Essential and Here’s Why”

 

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How Can I Be a Super Executor? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Executors are frequently relatives or friends designated in a Last Will and Testament as the final administrator of a deceased person’s estate. If you agreed to serve as an executor, you likely are aware of some of the tasks you will face, closing accounts, inventorying assets and distributing bequests. Even when it is a relatively simple situation — one spouse dies and leaves everything to the other — there can be a lot of paperwork involved. It certainly can get more complicated when a widow dies, and there are several children and numerous assets.

AARP’s recent article entitled “How to Be a Good Executor of a Will or Estate” says being an executor is a tough job. So, heed these steps to make certain that when the time comes for you to serve, you honor the decedent, serve his or her heirs and do your job as efficiently as possible.

Communicate. Be sure that you understand the Will writer’s wishes. You can request that he or she be specific about what he or she truly wants to happen with the estate after his or her death. The Will writer can give an explanation in a last letter of instruction. It is an informal document to be read after he dies that explains his or her decisions.

Do the paperwork. When the person passes away, you must find the Will (the original, not a copy). The Will and the death certificate must be filed with the probate court to get letters testamentary. This authorizes the executor to take any actions required to administer the estate. Get at least a dozen extra certified copies of the death certificate because you will need these to cancel credit cards, sell a home, transfer title to a car and turn off the utilities.

Safeguard property. A vacant house may attract thieves who scan the obituaries, as well as relatives and neighbors who think they are entitled to help themselves. After the death, lock up and secure the property. Move jewelry and other valuables to a safe place. Also, take pictures of the home’s interior to document its contents.

Get organized. The executor must maintain and sell an unoccupied house, stop Social Security payments, pay debts, close financial accounts and file taxes. Start a detailed to-do list, keep good records and create a list of assets and liabilities.

Get a thick skin. Closing out an estate entails managing the emotions of heirs. They also may be your siblings who are resentful of the authority you have been given. If so, give them regular updates to smooth bad feelings that may arise. Total transparency is best.

Distribute personal items. This can be a difficult process, so put a system in place to fairly divide the possessions. Even the most ordinary item may have deep sentimental value to an heir and could cause stress for the executor without your guidance.

Educate the heirs. Heirs and beneficiaries cannot be paid, until all taxes and debts of the estate are settled. Let them know that it may take many months before they will receive payment.

Final steps. Lastly, the executor must pay any debts and taxes owed by the estate, distribute the estate property and give an accounting for the estate to the beneficiaries.

If you have questions, ask an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: AARP (May 7, 2021) “How to Be a Good Executor of a Will or Estate”

 

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Your Will and Estate Planning Checklist – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Dying without a Last Will and Testament creates additional costs and eliminates any chance your wishes for loved ones will be followed after your death. Typically, people think about Wills when they marry or have children, and then do not think about Wills or estate plans until they retire. While a Will is important, there are other estate planning documents that are just as important, says the recent article “10 Steps to Writing a Will” from U.S. News & World Report.

Most assets, including retirement accounts and insurance policy proceeds, can be transferred to heirs outside of a Will, if they have designated beneficiaries. However, the outcome of an estate may be more impacted by Power of Attorney for financial matters and Medical Power of Attorney documents.

Here are ten specific tasks that need to be completed for your Will to be effective. Remember, if the Will does not comply with your state’s estate law, it can be declared invalid.

  1. Find an estate planning attorney who is experienced with the laws of your state.
  2. Select beneficiaries for your Will.
  3. Check beneficiaries on non-probate assets to make sure they are current.
  4. Decide who will be the executor of your Will.
  5. Name a guardian for minor children, if yours are still young.
  6. Make a letter describing possessions and who you want to receive them. Be very specific.

There are also tasks for your own care while you are living, in case of incapacity:

  1. Name a person for the Power of Attorney role. They will be your representative for legal and financial matters, but only while you are living.
  2. Name a person for the Medical Power of Attorney to make decisions on your behalf, if you cannot.
  3. Create an Advance Directive, also known as a Living Will, to explain your wishes for medical care, particularly concerning end-of-life care.
  4. Discuss these roles and their responsibilities with the people you have chosen, and make sure they are willing to serve.

Be realistic about the people you are naming to receive your property. If you have a child who is not good with managing money, a trust can be set up to distribute assets according to your wishes: by age or accomplishments, like finishing college, going to rehab, or maintaining a steady work history.

Do not forget to tell family members where they can find your Will and other estate documents. You should also talk with them about your digital assets. If accounts are protected by passwords or facial recognition, find out if the digital platform has a process for your executor to legally obtain access to your digital assets.

Finally, do not neglect updating your Will every three to four years or anytime you have a major life event. An estate plan is like a house: it needs regular maintenance. Old Wills can disinherit family members or lead to the wrong person being in charge of your estate. An experienced estate planning attorney will make the process easier and straightforward for you and your loved ones.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (May 13, 2021) “10 Steps to Writing a Will”

 

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What Do I Need to Know about Estate Planning? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Your idea of planning for the future may include vacations and visits to family and friends—estate planning, not so much. However, it should, advises Real Simple in the article “Everything You Need to Know About Estate Planning—and Why You Should Start Now.” Estate planning concerns decisions about distributing your property when you die, and while that is not as much fun as planning a trip to an adventure park, it has become increasingly important for adults of all ages.

A survey by caring.com found that the number of young adults with a last will (ages 18-34) increased by 63 percent since 2020. Many tough lessons were learned through the pandemic, and the importance of having an estate plan was one of them.

An estate plan is more than documents for when you die. There are also documents for what should happen if you become disabled. The last will is one piece of the larger estate plan. An estate plan is also an opportunity to plan for wealth accumulation and building generational wealth, at any level.

Estate planning is for everyone, regardless of their net worth. People with lower incomes actually need estate planning more than the wealthy. There is less room for error. Estate planning is everything from where you want your money to go, to who will be in charge of it and who will be in charge of your minor children, if you have a young family.

It may be rare for both parents to die at the same time, but it does happen. Your last will is also used to name a guardian to raise your minor children. With no last will, the court will decide who raises them.

If you have filled out 401(k) and life insurance paperwork at work, you have started estate planning already. Any document that asks you to name a beneficiary in case of your death is part of your estate plan. Be certain to update these documents. Young adults often name their parents and then neglect to change the beneficiaries when they get married or have children.

For single people, estate planning is more important. If you have no estate plan and no children, everything you own will go to your parents. What if you have a partner or best friend and want them to receive your assets? Without an estate plan, they have no legal rights. An estate planning attorney will know how to plan, so your wishes are followed.

Estate planning includes planning for disability, also known as “incapacity.” If you become too sick to manage your affairs, bills still need to be paid. Who can do that for you? Without an estate plan, a family member will need to go to court to be assigned that role—or someone you do not even know may be assigned that role. Your last will names an executor to manage your affairs after you die.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to have your last will, power of attorney, medical power of attorney and other parts of your estate plan created. The court system and processes are complex, and the laws are different in every state. Trying to do it yourself or using a template that you download, could leave you with an invalid last will, which will cause more problems than it solves.

Reference: Real Simple (May 12, 2021) “Everything You Need to Know About Estate Planning—and Why You Should Start Now”

 

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Do You Have to Do Probate when Someone Dies? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Probate is a Latin term meaning “to prove.” Legally, a deceased person may not own property, so the moment a person dies, the property they owned while living is in a legal state of limbo. The rightful owners must prove their ownership in court, explains the article “Wills and Probate” from Southlake Style. Probate refers to the legal process that recognizes a person’s death, proves whether or not a valid last will exists and who is entitled to assets the decedent owned while they were living.

The probate court oversees the payment of the decedent’s debts, as well as the distribution of their assets. The court’s role is to facilitate this process and protect the interests of all creditors and beneficiaries of the estate. The process is known as “probate administration.”

Having a last will does not automatically transfer property. The last will must be properly probated first. If there is a last will, the estate is described as “testate.” The last will must contain certain language and have been properly executed by the testator (the decedent) and the witnesses. Every state has its own estate laws. Therefore, to be valid, the last will must follow the rules of the person’s state. A last will that is valid in one state may be invalid in another.

The court must give its approval that the last will is valid and confirm the executor is suited to perform their duties. Texas is one of a few states that allow for independent administration, where the court appoints an administrator who submits an inventory of assets and liabilities. The administration goes on with no need for probate judge’s approval, as long as the last will contains the specific language to qualify.

If there was no last will, the estate is considered to be “intestate” and the laws of the state determine who inherits what assets. The laws rely on the relationship between the decedent and the genetic or bloodline family members. An estranged relative could end up with everything. The estate distribution is more likely to be challenged if there is no last will, causing additional family grief, stress and expenses.

The last will should name an executor or administrator to carry out the terms of the last will. The executor can be a family member or a trusted friend, as long as they are known to be honest and able to manage financial and legal transactions. Administering an estate takes time, depending upon the complexity of the estate and how the person managed the business side of their lives. The executor pays bills, may need to sell a home and also deals with any creditors.

The smart estate plan includes assets that are not transferrable by the last will. These are known as “non-probate” assets and go directly to the heirs, if the beneficiary designation is properly done. They can include life insurance proceeds, pensions, 401(k)s, bank accounts and any asset with a beneficiary designation. If all of the assets in an estate are non-probate assets, assets of the estate are easily and usually quickly distributed. Many people accomplish this through the use of a Living Trust.

Every person’s life is different, and so is their estate plan. Family dynamics, the amount of assets owned and how they are owned will impact how the estate is distributed. Start by meeting with an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare for the future.

Reference: Southlake Style (May 17, 2021) “Wills and Probate”

 

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