How Long Is Probate? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Yahoo Finance’s article entitled “How Long Does Probate Take?” gives us an overview of the main things you need to understand about the probate process, so you can prepare.

During probate, a judge determines the way in which to distribute assets to heirs. The court will also authenticate the will (if there is one) and appoint an executor of the estate to supervise the probate process. Probate procedures depend to a large part on the state the decedent lived in and the type of estate he or she had.

After authenticating the decedent’s will and appointing an executor, the executor locates and assesses all the property owned by the deceased. If there are any debts, the executor uses estate assets to pay these. The remaining estate is then distributed to the heirs.

The probate process takes time to make certain that everything is done according to the law. As a result, it can take from a few months up to over a year. There is a long list of variables that can contribute to the duration. A few of the common factors are discussed below.

Estate Size. An estate’s size contributes significantly to the time in probate. Most states use the total value of the estate to determine its size. This depends on state laws and the type of assets included in the estate. Many states now have a small estate probate process, and some waive it altogether for low-value properties. The state may have a small estate limit of a certain dollar amount. The executor or beneficiaries can complete a Small Estate Claim Form or an Affidavit for Transfer of Personal Property to avoid probate for estates below that value.

Multiple beneficiaries. If an estate has a number of heirs, it may gum up the works. Multiple beneficiaries can slow down the probate proceedings because disputes can drag out an otherwise smooth legal process. Disagreements among family members or other heirs can result in delays or even a total halt.

No Will. If a person dies without a will, it means that there is no guidance from the decedent. As a result, the court and executor have to work through the estate and distribution from scratch.

Debts. Taxes and debts are major factors in the time needed to close an estate. Creditors must be paid before the beneficiaries can receive anything. When a person dies, his or her creditors must receive formal notice. They have a deadline to make a claim for money the estate owed. The longer the claims period, the longer the delay in the probate process.

Taxes. Taxes on an estate also can take a while to process. The estate must receive a closing letter from the IRS and the state taxing authority to close out the probate process. This can take up to six months.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Sep. 27, 2021) “How Long Does Probate Take?”

 

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Do Gifts Count Toward Estate Taxes? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

With all of the talk about changes to estate taxes, estate planning attorneys have been watching and waiting as changes were added, then removed, then changed again, in pending legislation. The passage of the infrastructure bill in early November may mark the start of a calmer period, but there are still estate planning moves to consider, says a recent article “Gift money now, before estate tax laws sunset in 2025” from The Press-Enterprise.

Gifts are used to decrease the taxes due on an estate but require thoughtful planning with an eye to avoiding any unintended consequences.

The first gift tax exemption is the annual exemption. Basically, anyone can give anyone else a gift of up to $15,000 every year. If giving together, spouses may gift $30,000 a year. After these amounts, the gift is subject to gift tax. However, there is another exemption: the lifetime exemption.

For now, the estate and gift tax exemption is $11.7 million per person. Anyone can gift up to that amount during life or at death, or some combination, tax-free. The exemption amount is adjusted every year. If no changes to the law are made, this will increase to roughly $12,060,000 in 2022.

However, the current estate and gift tax exemption law sunsets in 2025. This will bring the exemption down from historically high levels to the prior level of $5 million. Even with an adjustment for inflation, this would make the exemption about $6.2 million. This will dramatically increase the number of estates required to pay federal estate taxes.

For households with net worth below $6 million for an individual and $12 million for a married couple, federal estate taxes may be less of a worry. However, there are state estate taxes, and some are tied to federal estate tax rates. Planning is necessary, especially as some in Congress would like to see those levels set even lower.

Let us look at a fictional couple with a combined net worth of $30 million. Without any estate planning or gifting, if they live past 2025, they may have a taxable estate of $18 million: $30 million minus $12 million. At a taxable rate of 40%, their tax bill will be $7.2 million.

If the couple had gifted the maximum $23.4 million now under the current exemption, their taxable estate would be reduced to $6.6 million, with a tax bill of $2,520,000. Even if they were to die in a year when the exemption is lower than it was at the time of their gift, they would save nearly $5 million in taxes.

There are a number of estate planning gifting techniques used to leverage giving, including some which provide income streams to the donor, while allowing the donor to maintain control of assets. These include:

Discounted Giving. When assets are transferred into an entity (commonly a limited partnership or limited liability company), a gift of a minority interest in the entity is generally given a discounted value, due to the lack of control and marketability.

Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts. The donor transfers assets to the trust and retains right to a payment over a period of time. At the end of that period, beneficiaries receive the assets and all of the appreciation. The donor pays income tax on the earnings of the assets in the trust, permitting another tax-free transfer of assets.

Intentionally Defective Grantor Trusts. A donor sets up a trust, makes a gift of assets and then sells other assets to the trust in exchange for a promissory note. If this is done correctly, there is a minimal gift, no gain on the sale for tax purposes, the donor pays the income tax and appreciation is moved to the next generation.

These strategies may continue to be scrutinized as Congress searches for funding sources, but in the meantime, they are still available and may be appropriate for your estate. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney to see if these or other strategies should be put into place.

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (Nov. 7, 2021) “Gift money now, before estate tax laws sunset in 2025”

 

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Can Cryptocurrency Be Inherited? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Cryptocurrency accounts are not like any traditional investment accounts. However, their growing prevalence and value means they need to be considered for more and more estate plans, especially when they take an enormous leap in value. These accounts are more vulnerable, according to the recent article “Millennial Money: What happens to your crypto if you die?” from The Indiana Gazette, and in most cases, there is no way to name a beneficiary for your crypto accounts.

If you store your cryptocurrency on a physical device at home and a few friends know your key—the crypto password that grants access to a crypto wallet—one of those friends could very easily wander into your home and steal your crypto without you even noticing.

On the flip side, if you do not share your key with anyone and become incapacitated or die, your crypto assets could be lost forever. Knowing how to store these assets safely and communicate your wishes for loved ones is extremely important, more so than for traditional assets.

How is crypto stored? Crypto “wallets” are digital wallets, managed on an app or a website, or kept on a thumb drive (also known as a memory stick). How you store crypto depends in part on how you intend to use it.

A “Hot Wallet” is used to buy and sell crypto. They are usually free and convenient but may not be as secure as other methods because they are always connected to the internet.

“Cold Wallets” are used to store crypto for a longer period of time, like a deep freezer.

The Hot Wallet is more like a checking account, with money moving in and out. The Cold Wallet is like a savings account, where money is kept for a longer period of time. You can have both, just as you probably have both a checking and savings account.

Whoever holds the “keys” to the wallets—whoever has custody of the password, which is a series of randomly generated numbers and letters—has access to your cryptocurrency. It might be just you, a third-party crypto exchange, or a hybrid of the two. Consider the third-party exchange a temporary and risky solution, as you do not have control of the keys and exchanges do get hacked.

Naming a beneficiary in your will and adding a document to your estate plan containing an inventory of cryptocurrency and any passwords, PINs, keys and instructions to find your cold wallet is part of an estate plan addressing this new digital asset class.

Do not under any circumstances include any of the crypto information in your will. This document becomes part of the public record when filed in court and giving this information is the same as sharing your checking, saving and investment account information with the general public.

Some platforms, like Coinbase, have a process in place for next of kin, when an owner dies. Others do not, so it is up to the crypto owner to make plans, if they want assets to be preserved and passed to another family member.

Preparing for cryptocurrency is much the same as preparing for the rest of your estate plan. Keep the plan updated, especially after big life events, like marriage, divorce, birth, or death. Keep instructions up to date, so the executor and beneficiaries know what to do. Bear in mind that crypto wallets need occasional updates, like every other kind of digital platform.

Reference: The Indiana Gazette (Nov. 7, 2021) “Millennial Money: What happens to your crypto if you die?”

 

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Do College Kids Need Estate Planning? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The topic of estate planning is frequently overlooked in the craze to get kids to college.

When your child leaves home, it is important to understand that legally you may not hold the same rights in your relationship that you did for the first 18 years of your child’s life.

Wealth Advisor’s article entitled “Estate Planning Documents Every College Student Should Have in Place” says that it is crucial to have these discussions as soon as possible with your college student about the plans they should put into place before going out on their own or heading to college. An experienced estate planning attorney can give counsel on the issues concerning your child’s physical health and financial well-being.

When your child turns 18, you are no longer your child’s legal guardian. Therefore, issues pertaining to his or her health cannot be disclosed to you without your child’s consent. For instance, if your child is in an accident and becomes temporarily incapacitated, you could not make any medical decisions or even give consent. As a result, you would likely be denied access to his or her medical information. Ask your child to complete a HIPAA release. This is a medical form that names the people allowed to get information about an individual’s medical status, when care is needed. If you are not named on their HIPAA release, it is a major challenge to obtain any medical updates about your adult child, including information like whether they have been admitted to a hospital.

In addition, your child also needs to determine the individual who will manage their healthcare decisions, if they are unable to do so on their own. This is done by designating a healthcare proxy or agent. Without this document, the decision about who makes choices regarding your child’s medical matters may be uncertain.

Your child should ensure his or her financial matters are addressed if he or she cannot see to them, either due to mental incapacity or physical limitations, such as studying abroad. Ask that you or another trusted relative or friend be named agent under your child’s financial power of attorney, so that you can help with managing things like financial aid, banking and tax matters.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Sep. 24, 2021) “Estate Planning Documents Every College Student Should Have in Place”

 

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How Much can You Inherit and Not Pay Taxes? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Even with the new proposed rules from Biden’s lowered exemption, estates under $6 million will not have to worry about federal estate taxes for a few years—although state estate tax exemptions may be lower. However, what about inheritances and what about inherited IRAs? This is explored in a recent article titled “Minimizing Taxes When You Inherit Money” from Kiplinger.

If you inherit an IRA from a parent, taxes on required withdrawals could leave you with a far smaller legacy than you anticipated. For many couples, IRAs are the largest assets passed to the next generation. In some cases they may be worth more than the family home. Americans held more than $13 trillion in IRAs in the second quarter of 2021. Many of you reading this are likely to inherit an IRA.

Before the SECURE Act changed how IRAs are distributed, people who inherited IRAs and other tax-deferred accounts transferred their assets into a beneficiary IRA account and took withdrawals over their life expectancy. This allowed money to continue to grow tax free for decades. Withdrawals were taxed as ordinary income.

The SECURE Act made it mandatory for anyone who inherited an IRA (with some exceptions) to decide between two options: take the money in a lump sum and lose a huge part of it to taxes or transfer the money to an inherited or beneficiary IRA and deplete it within ten years of the date of death of the original owner.

The exceptions are a surviving spouse, who may roll the money into their own IRA and allow it to grow, tax deferred, until they reach age 72, when they need to start taking Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs). If the IRA was a Roth, there are no RMDs, and any withdrawals are tax free. The surviving spouse can also transfer money into an inherited IRA and take distributions on their life expectancy.

If you are not eligible for the exceptions, any IRA you inherit will come with a big tax bill. If the inherited IRA is a Roth, you still have to empty it out in ten years. However, there are no taxes due as long as the Roth was funded at least five years before the original owner died.

Rushing to cash out an inherited IRA will slash the value of the IRA significantly because of the taxes due on the IRA. You might find yourself bumped up into a higher tax bracket. It is generally better to transfer the money to an inherited IRA to spread distributions out over a ten-year period.

The rules do not require you to empty the account in any particular order. Therefore, you could conceivably wait ten years and then empty the account. However, you will then have a huge tax bill.

Other assets are less constrained, at least as far as taxes go. Real estate and investment accounts benefit from the step-up in cost basis. Let us say your mother paid $50 for a share of stock and it was worth $250 on the day she died. Your “basis” would be $250. If you sell the stock immediately, you will not owe any taxes. If you hold onto to it, you will only owe taxes (or claim a loss) on the difference between $250 and the sale price. Proposals to curb the step-up have been bandied about for years. However, to date they have not succeeded.

The step-up in basis also applies to the family home and other inherited property. If you keep inherited investments or property, you will owe taxes on the difference between the value of the assets on the day of the original owner’s death and the day you sell.

Estate planning and tax planning should go hand-in-hand. If you are expecting a significant inheritance, a conversation with aging parents may be helpful to protect the family’s assets and preclude any expensive surprises.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 29, 2021) “Minimizing Taxes When You Inherit Money”

 

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What Is the First Thing an Executor of a Will Should do? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Serving as an executor can be like having a second job. The size of the estate and your relationship to the deceased can make it a bit overwhelming, especially for adult children handling the estate of their last surviving parent. Those executors typically distribute not only financial assets, but decades of personal property, says the article “What to Do When You’re the Executor” from Yahoo! Finance. If the family is prone to arguments, or the estate is large, or both, the job of the executor can be even more challenging.

The first thing to do is obtain the death certificate. Depending on your state, the funeral home or state’s records department in the location where the death occurred will have them. Get five to ten originals, with the raised seal. You will need them to gain control of assets.

Next, file the will and the death certificate with the county probate court. The deadline for filing the will varies by state. However, it can range from ten to ninety days to six months to one year after the date of death. If probate is necessary, you will also need to obtain a “Letter of Testamentary.” This court-created document says you are the legally authorized person to manage the estate. Until you have this letter, you cannot move forward with any of the assets.

Build your team of professional advisors. An experienced estate planning attorney will help navigate probate court. You may also need a CPA and a financial planner. If possible, contact the estate planning attorney who drew up the will, because they are probably familiar with the will, the estate and possibly with the deceased.

Inventory assets. After death is when we learn a lot about those we loved. Were they hyper-organized, keeping records in an easily understood system? Did they file insurance policies under the name of the insurance company, or leave papers in a stack in no order whatsoever? Go through every box and file cabinet to make sure you do not miss anything.

Protect personal property. If the estate included a home, you must make sure that mortgage and tax payments are made. If you do not know who had keys to the house, investing in the services of a locksmith and a new set of locks and keys could save you from unscrupulous family members who believe certain items belong to them. If a car is sitting in the garage, it will need to be cared for and the title of ownership will need to be dealt with.

Obtain a federal EIN number from the IRS and use it to open an estate bank account. Until the estate is settled, the executor needs to pay bills and make deposits. A separate bank account prevents co-mingling funds, makes it easier to track transactions and is useful, if there are any challenges to your decisions as executor.

Pay any outstanding debts. The executor may be personally liable if debts from the estate are not paid before the estate assets are distributed. You are also responsible for filing state and federal tax returns for the last year the person was alive, as well as a federal tax return for the estate.

To head off potential animosity, stay in touch with beneficiaries. Let them know what you are doing, especially if the process is taking a while. Keep excellent records to reflect your activities.

Distributing assets may require court approval, depending on where the decedent lived. If the will contains specific directions for personal items, you will be in better shape than if there are no directions. If not, review the inventory of assets to see how things can be equitably distributed. Do not underestimate the emotional response to this part of the process. Families have battled over items of little monetary value.

It is a good idea to get a release from beneficiaries acknowledging they have received their inheritance. An estate planning attorney can help with preparing the language to help minimize any challenges in the future.

Reference: Yahoo! Finance (Oct. 29, 2021) “What to Do When You’re the Executor”

 

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Who Pays Mortgage When I Pass Away? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

No one automatically assumes your mortgage after your death, says Credible’s recent article entitled “What Happens to Your Mortgage When You Die?”

Your estate executor—the individual you name to carry out your will and manage your estate after you die—will continue to make payments using funds from the estate, while everything is being settled. Later, the person who inherits the home might be able to assume the loan.

If you are a co-borrower or co-signer with the decedent, you do not have to do anything to take over the mortgage because you are already responsible for paying it.

Mortgage loans have a due-on-sale clause, also called an acceleration clause. This requires the loan to be paid in full, if it transfers to a new owner. However, federal law prohibits lenders from accelerating a loan in the event of a borrower’s death.

Those who acquire ownership this way are considered “successors in interest,” and lenders must treat them as if they were the borrower. A successor in interest can assume the loan without having to apply or qualify, and continue making the payments. You also can modify the mortgage to avoid foreclosure, if you want to keep the home.

A significant step in estate planning is drafting a will stating exactly how you want your estate handled after you die and naming an executor.

When planning to bequeath a mortgaged home, you should disclose the mortgage to your executor and close relatives. If you fail to do so, they will not know how to make payments. As a result, the home could be inadvertently lost to foreclosure.

Finally, think about whether the person who inherits your home will be able to afford mortgage payments and upkeep.

An experienced estate planning attorney can help you devise a strategy to keep your gift from becoming a burden to your loved ones.

Reference: Credible (Sep. 24, 2021) “What Happens to Your Mortgage When You Die?”

 

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Will Gift to Heir Be a Benefit or Burden? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Research shows that getting a lot of money can have harmful consequences. According to MarketWatch, a study found that a third of people who received an inheritance had negative savings within two years of the event.

Watertown Public Opinion’s recent article “How to make sure you leave inheritances that are helpful, not harmful” says that, on average, an inheritance is gone in about five years because of careless debts and bad investment behaviors.

However, a minority of heirs do not mishandle their inheritances. Nonetheless, it is good to explore exactly what you intend the gift to accomplish, prior to leaving money or property to someone. It is also important to consider the possible negative consequences of a gift.

Determine if the gift will actually cost the recipient time or money. As an example, leaving the family home, vacation property, land, or a ranch to someone can often cost them money they may not have in maintenance or taxes.

You should also consider if it results in causing difficult emotional issues between siblings, and whether it might encourage bad financial behavior. If a beneficiary has not developed healthy financial behaviors, a significant inheritance might actually create new financial troubles instead of addressing existing ones.

A good way to make certain that your bequests are helpful is to explore your own intentions. Ask yourself if you want to leave enough money for the beneficiary to become financially independent and if you would you like your bequest used in a specific way, like to pay off debt or fund education.

Do you care how they spend the money?

Another way to provide for thoughtful, conscious inheritances, is to speak with the intended recipients.

Ask them directly whether someone would want a bequest, such as a valuable art or coin collection or perhaps an expensive vacation home. Discuss the options and possibilities and do not simply take for granted what your heirs might want or what they might do with an inheritance.

Leaving a family member an inheritance can be helpful in some instances, but may be exceedingly destructive in others. No two situations are alike, and if you want to increase the chances that your bequests will be helpful, explore and improve your own relationship with money. Examining that relationship can help make sure that what you leave to heirs will be a benefit not a burden.

Reference: Watertown Public Opinion (Nov. 1, 2021) “How to make sure you leave inheritances that are helpful, not harmful”

 

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Can My Power of Attorney Change My Will? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A power of attorney cannot change a properly written will. But note that an agent can make many changes to the assets in the estate, says Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Can a Power of Attorney Change a Will?”

A power of attorney is a document that grants a person, known as the attorney in fact or agent, the authority to make legally binding decisions on your behalf. This can mean managing financial assets, making choices regarding medical care, signing contracts and other commitments.

Your attorney in fact can access confidential materials and their decisions are as binding as if you had made them yourself. In some instances, you may want your power of attorney to be broad and at other times you may want to limit the authority under your power of attorney by time, scope, or both.

Provided a will is valid, an attorney in fact under a power of attorney cannot modify or rewrite it. It is not within their scope of authority, even if it specifically says otherwise in their power of attorney assignment.

A will written by a power of attorney is invalid on its face.

The authority of a power of attorney typically ends once the principal (the person granting authority) dies. At that point, the principal’s legal rights transfer to their estate. The executor of the estate takes over and manages all of the deceased’s affairs from that point forward.

Thus, an attorney in fact appointed under a power of attorney cannot change a will while the principal is alive because they do not have the authority to do so. In addition, they cannot change an estate once the principal dies because their role as attorney in fact under the power of attorney ends with his or her death.

It is important to understand that a person with a general power of attorney can still change the circumstances surrounding a will. He or she can make changes to your estate—essentially, before it becomes your estate. For example, an attorney in fact can make significant financial decisions on your behalf. As a result, they may be able to restructure your personal finances according to their own best judgment. The effect is that it may invalidate sections of your will if the power of attorney dissolves or changes assets that you had assigned to various heirs. This does not always require bad faith and unfair dealing, but that can also occur.

If you include a general power of attorney as part of your elder care plan, you should discuss your estate wishes with your attorney in fact in advance. Remember that issues such as power of attorney and estate law are highly specific to each state. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about a power of attorney.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Sep. 17, 2021) “Can a Power of Attorney Change a Will?”

 

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What Do I Do with Estate Plan after Divorce? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

If you forget to update your will after a divorce, you risk your assets being distributed to your ex-spouse when you pass away.

Investopedia’s recent article “Here’s what you need to remove and add to your will when your marriage is over,” says that many states have laws that, after a divorce, automatically revoke gifts to a former spouse listed in a will. There are states that also revoke gifts to family members of a former spouse. If you are in a state that has such a law, gifts to former stepchildren would also be revoked after your divorce.

Most married people leave everything in their will to their surviving spouse. If that is the way that your will currently reads, be certain that you change your ex as a beneficiary and add a new beneficiary. Remember that many types of assets are passed outside of a will, such as life insurance, 401k’s and other investments. Therefore, you must change the beneficiary designation on those documents.

Property Transfers. Update your will for any property gained or lost during the divorce. If you have assets that are specifically identified in your will, be sure to update them for any changes that may have happened because of the divorce.

The Executor of your Will. If your ex-spouse is named in your will as your executor, you should change this.

A Guardian for Minor Children. If you have children with your ex-spouse, you will want to update your will to appoint a guardian, if you and your ex-spouse pass expectantly at the same time. If you die, your children will likely be raised by your ex-spouse.

The Best Way to Change Your Will After Divorce. It is easy: tear up your old will (literally) and begin again because you probably left everything or almost everything to your spouse in your original will. Just because you are legally married until a judge signs a divorce decree, you can still modify your will or estate plan at any time. Ask an estate planning attorney because there are some actions you cannot take until the divorce is final.

Can an Ex Challenge Your Will? An ex-spouse or even ex-de facto partner can challenge the will of a former spouse or partner. Whether the challenge will be successful will depend on the court’s interpretation of a number of factors.

Reference: Investopedia (Sep. 14, 2021) “Here’s what you need to remove and add to your will when your marriage is over”

 

Sims & Campbell, LLC – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys