What Is Involved with Serving as an Executor? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Serving as the executor of a relative’s estate may seem like an honor, but it can also be a lot of work, says The (Fostoria, OH) Review Times’ recent article entitled “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate.”

As an executor of a will, you are tasked with settling her affairs after she dies. This may sound rather easy, but you should be aware that the job can be time consuming and difficult, depending on the complexity of the decedent’s financial and family situation. Here are some of the required duties:

  • Filing court papers to initiate the probate process
  • Taking inventory of the decedent’s estate
  • Using the decedent’s estate funds to pay bills, taxes, and funeral costs
  • Taking care of canceling her credit cards and informing banks and government offices like Social Security and the post office of her death
  • Readying and filing her final income tax returns; and
  • Distributing assets to the beneficiaries named in the decedent’s will.

Every state has specific laws and deadlines for an executor’s responsibilities. To help you, work with an experienced estate planning attorney and take note of these reminders:

Get organized. Make certain that the decedent has an updated will and locate all her important documents and financial information. Quickly having access to her deeds, brokerage statements and insurance policies after she dies, will save you a lot of time and effort. With a complex estate, you may want to hire an experienced estate planning attorney to help you through the process. The estate will pay that expense.

Avoid conflicts. Investigate to see if there are any conflicts between the beneficiaries of the decedent’s estate. If there are some potential issues, you can make your job as executor much easier, if everyone knows in advance who is getting what, and the decedent’s rationale for making those decisions. Ask your aunt to tell her beneficiaries what they can expect, even with her personal items because last wills often leave it up to the executor to distribute heirlooms. If there is no distribution plan for personal property, she should write one.

Executor fees. You are entitled to an executor’s fees paid by the estate. In most states, executors are allowed to take a percentage of the estate’s value, which can be from 1-5%, depending on the size of the estate. However, if you are a beneficiary, it may make sense for you to forgo the fee because fees are taxable, and it could cause rancor among the other beneficiaries.

Reference: The (Fostoria, OH) Review Times (Aug. 19, 2020) “An executor’s guide to settling a loved one’s estate”

 

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Is there a Better Plan than a Reverse Mortgage? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

If you are 62 or older, one way to get a bit more cash, is to use the equity in your home in a reverse mortgage. It is a type of loan that allows you to borrow against the equity in your home and receive a set monthly payment or line of credit (or a combination of the two). The repayment is deferred until you move out, sell the home, become delinquent on property taxes or insurance, the home falls into disrepair, or you pass away. At that point, the house is sold and any excess funds after repayment belong to you or your heirs.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Alternatives to a Reverse Mortgage” explains that reverse mortgages can be troublesome, if you do not set it up right. They also require careful consideration for the rights of the surviving spouse, if you are married. Ultimately, with a reverse mortgage, you or your heirs give up your home, unless you are able to buy it back from the bank. There are some less than stellar reverse mortgage companies out there, so it can be risky.

There are a few other ways to generate cash for your living expenses in retirement.

Refinance Your Mortgage. You may be able to refinance your existing mortgage to lower your monthly payments and free up some cash. It is wise to lower the interest rate on your mortgage, which can save you money over the life of the loan, decrease the size of your monthly payments and help you build equity in your home more quickly. If you refinance rather than going with a reverse mortgage, your home remains as an asset for you and your heirs.

Get a Home-Equity Loan. This loan or second mortgage allows you to borrow money against the equity in your home. Note that the new Tax Cuts and Jobs Act restricted the eligibility for a home-equity loan interest deduction. For tax years 2018 through 2025, you will not be able to deduct home-equity loan interest, unless the loan is used specifically for qualified purposes. Like refinancing, your home remains an asset for you and your heirs. Remember that because your home is collateral, there is a risk of foreclosure, if you default on the loan.

Use a Home Equity Line of Credit. A home-equity line of credit (HELOC) lets you borrow up to your approved credit limit on an as-needed basis. Unlike a home-equity loan, where you pay interest on the entire loan amount whether you are using the money or not, with a HELOC you pay interest only on the amount of money you actually take out. These are adjustable loans, so your monthly payment will change with fluctuating interest rates.

Downsize. The options previously discussed let you keep your existing home. However, if you are willing and able to move, selling your home allows you to tap into your equity. Many people downsize, because they are in a home that is much larger than they need without children around. Your current home also may be too difficult or costly to maintain. When you sell, you can use the proceeds to purchase a smaller, more affordable home or you might just rent, and you will have extra money to save, invest or spend as you want.

Sell Your Home to Your Children. Another alternative to a reverse mortgage, is to sell your home to your children. You might think about a sale-leaseback. In this situation, you would sell the house, then rent it back using the cash from the sale. As landlords, your children get rental income and can take deductions for depreciation, real estate taxes and maintenance. You could also consider a private reverse mortgage. This works like a reverse mortgage, except the interest and fees stay in the family: your children make regular payments to you, and when it is time to sell the house, they recoup their contributions (and interest).

Reverse mortgages may be a decent option for people who are house rich and cash poor, with lots of home equity but not enough income for retirement. However, this article lays out some other options, that let you to tap into the equity you have built up in your home. Before making any decisions, do some research on your options, shop around for the best rates (where applicable) and speak with an experienced elder law attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2020) “Alternatives to a Reverse Mortgage”

 

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Do I Qualify as an Eligible Designated Beneficiary under the SECURE Act? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

An eligible designated beneficiary (EDB) is a person included in a unique classification of retirement account beneficiaries. A person may be classified as an EDB, if they are classified as fitting into one of five categories of individuals identified in the Setting Every Community Up for Retirement Enhancement (SECURE) Act. The bill passed in December 2019 and is effective for all inherited retirement accounts, as of the first of this year.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “Eligible Designated Beneficiary” explains that these people get special treatment and greater flexibility to withdraw funds from their inherited accounts than other beneficiaries.

With the SECURE Act, there are now three types of beneficiaries. It is based on the individual’s connection to the original account owner, the beneficiary’s age, and his or her status as either an individual or a non-person entity. However, an EDB is always an individual. On the other hand, an EDB cannot be a trust, an estate, or a charity, which are considered not designated beneficiaries. There are five categories of individuals included in the EDB classification. These are detailed below.

In most instances, except for the exceptions below, an EDB must withdraw the balance from the inherited IRA account over the beneficiary’s life expectancy. There is optional special treatment allowed only for surviving spouses, which is explained below. When a minor child reaches the age of majority, he or she is no longer considered to be an EDB, and the 10-year rule concerning withdrawal requirements for a designated beneficiary applies.

Here are the five categories of EDBs.

Owner’s surviving spouse. Surviving spouses get special treatment, which lets them step into the shoes of the owner and withdraw the balance from the IRA over the original owner’s life expectancy. As another option, they can roll an inherited IRA into their own IRA and take withdrawals at the point when they would normally take their own required minimum distributions (RMDs).

Owner’s minor child. A child who is not yet 18 can make withdrawals from an inherited retirement account using their own life expectancy. However, when he or she turns 18, the 10-year rule for designated beneficiaries (who are not EDBs) applies. At that point, the child would have until December 31 of the 10th year after their 18th birthday to withdraw all funds from the inherited retirement account. A deceased retirement account owner’s minor child can get an extension, up until age 26, for the start of the 10-year rule, if he or she is pursuing a specified course of education.

An individual who is disabled. The tax code says that an individual is considered to be disabled if he or she is “unable to engage in any substantial gainful activity by reason of any medically determinable physical or mental impairment which can be expected to result in death or to be of long continued and indefinite duration.” A disabled person who inherits a retirement account can use their own life expectancy to calculate RMDs.

An individual who is chronically ill. The tax code states that “the term ‘chronically ill individual’ means any individual who has been certified by a licensed healthcare practitioner as—

  • being unable to perform (without substantial assistance from another individual) at least two activities of daily living for a period of at least 90 days, due to a loss of functional capacity,
  • having a level of disability similar (as determined under regulations prescribed by the Secretary in consultation with the Secretary of Health and Human Services) to the level of disability described in clause (i), or
  • requiring substantial supervision to protect such individual from threats to health and safety due to severe cognitive impairment.”

A chronically ill individual who inherits a retirement account can use their own life expectancy to determine the RMDs.

Any other person who is less than 10 years younger than the decedent. This is a catch-all that includes certain friends and siblings (depending on age), who are identified as beneficiaries of a retirement account. This also excludes most adult children (who are not disabled or chronically ill) from the five categories of EDBs. A person in this category who inherits a retirement account is permitted to use their own life expectancy to calculate RMDs.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2020) “Eligible Designated Beneficiary”

 

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How Is the Inheritance Tax on My Estate Paid? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

If your state has an inheritance tax, you should have an idea how it will be paid when you pass away.

Financial institutions may not withhold the tax before the inheritances are paid, and if there will not be enough in the residue of your estate to pay the tax, you need some options.

Nj.com’s recent article entitled, “How can I be sure the inheritance tax is paid when I die?” says that, while it is admirable to try to avoid trouble for your executors, there is a simple solution.

The article suggests that you can remove all beneficiary designations from your financial accounts. When you add beneficiary designations to your financial accounts, you create non-probate assets, or assets that are not distributed pursuant to your will.

If you do this, those assets will become probate assets, or assets that pass through your will. As a result, you can then state in your will how these assets should be distributed.

For instance, it can be based on percentages of your estate or based on which financial institution holds the assets, or another method.

With these assets now being probate assets, the executor of your will is now able to withhold the inheritance tax on each of the distributions, before distributing the rest.

The amount of inheritance tax paid by the beneficiary is the same whether the distribution is made as a probate asset or a non-probate asset, except for life insurance.

However, if the financial account is a retirement account, by having it paid to the estate instead of directly to a beneficiary, the payout period may be lessened. Therefore, you should speak with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: nj.com (May 5, 2020) “How can I be sure the inheritance tax is paid when I die?”

 

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Possible Pitfalls for Special Needs Planning for Parents – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Public benefits for disabled individuals include health care, supplemental income, and resources, like day programs and other vital services. Some benefits are based on the individual’s disability status, but others are “needs tested,” where eligibility is determined based on financial resources, as explained in the article “Planning for loved ones with special needs” from NWTimes.com.

Needs testing” is something that parents must address as part of special needs planning, in concert with their own estate planning. This ensures that the individual’s government benefits will continue, while their family has the comfort of knowing that after the parents die, their child may have access to resources to cover additional costs and maintain a quality of life they may not otherwise have.

Families must be very careful to make informed planning decisions, otherwise their loved ones may lose the benefits they rely upon.

A variety of special planning tools may be used, and the importance of skilled help from an elder law estate planning attorney cannot be overstated.

One family received a “re-determination” letter from the Social Security Administration. This is the process whereby the SSA scrutinizes a person’s eligibility for benefits, based on their possible access to other non-governmental resources. Once the process begins, the potential exists for a disabled person to lose benefits or be required to pay back benefits if they were deemed to have wrongfully received them.

In this case, a woman who lived in California, engaged in a periodic phone call with California Medicaid. California is known for aggressively pursuing on-going benefits eligibility. The woman mentioned a trust that had been created as a result of estate planning done by her late father. The brief mention was enough to spark an in-depth review of planning. The SSA requested no less than 15 different items, including estate documents, account history and a review of all disbursements for the last two years.

The process has created a tremendous amount of stress for the woman and for her family. The re-determination will also create expenses, as the attorney who drafted the original trust in Indiana, where the father lived, will need to work with a special needs attorney in California, who is knowledgeable about the process in the state.

Similar to estate planning, the special needs process required by Medicaid and the SSA is a constantly evolving process, and not a “one-and-done” transaction. Special needs and estate planning documents created as recently as three or four years ago should be reviewed.

Reference: NWTimes.com (June 21, 2020) “Planning for loved ones with special needs”

 

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Save Your Family Stress and Plan Your Funeral – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

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.

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 is 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 are not required. However, you can do the legwork to make it easier on your family, when you pass.

Funeral homes also are not usually forthright about costs that are required rather than optional. The median embalming cost is $750.However, there is 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 do not want). However, if that is 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 is 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.

This elementary step 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”

 

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Is a Life Insurance Policy Beneficiary Required to Pay for a Funeral with Insurance Proceeds? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

It is not that uncommon for a close family member to be named as the executor of a parent’s will. Let us say that rather than your brother, it is your stepsister who is the executor of your father’s estate.

This person has failed to provide any documentation about where Dad’s assets and money have gone.

Add to this the fact that sis has asked all of the siblings to forfeit their life insurance proceeds to her to pay for Dad’s funeral—a funeral that no one can attend because of the coronavirus.

What can the siblings do about the actions of their stepsister as executor of their father’s will?

A recent nj.com article asks “Do we have to pay for a funeral with life insurance proceeds?” According to the article, it is becoming more frequent that estate beneficiaries are hiring their own attorneys to make certain the executor administers the estate properly.

Hiring a private probate attorney is especially common when stepsiblings and multiple marriages are involved.

In most states, the appointed executor is obligated to account in detail to all estate beneficiaries what she has done.

In addition, there is absolutely no requirement that a named beneficiary of a life insurance policy must hand over their pay-out to pay for the decedent’s funeral or estate debts—unless there was some sort of agreement to do this.

Beneficiaries of an estate are entitled to an accounting and should demand one in writing.

The beneficiaries could also ask to review the bank statements of the estate that show all transactions, if they are unable to get an accounting from the executor.

If an executor is not complying with the law and her duties under it, it can be extremely hard for beneficiaries to see results without hiring an elder law attorney or probate attorney who knows how to get this accomplished.

Reference: nj.com (June 16, 2020) “Do we have to pay for a funeral with life insurance proceeds?”

 

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

Should I Have an Advance Directive in the Pandemic? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Advance directive is a term that includes living wills and health care proxies or powers of attorney. These are legal documents we all should have. A living will allows you to tell your family and doctors the types of medical care you want at the end of your life. Health care proxies or powers of attorney let you name someone to make medical decisions for you, if you cannot communicate.

WTOP’s recent article entitled “Advance medical directives vital during COVID-19 pandemic” says that you need both because not all medical situations will trigger a living will. In fact, a living will is only really applicable, if you have an end stage process, a persistent vegetative state, or a terminal illness. People often run into a situation where they have a health event, but it is not something that is going to end in their death.

An estate planning attorney can draw up advance directives, when they are creating your estate plan.

When selecting the individual to grant the power to make decisions for you, consider who would be most capable of advocating for what you want, rather than what they, other family members or a medical provider might want. You should also name a backup in the event your first choice cannot serve and make sure these advocates understand your wishes. Give copies of the documents to them and go through what you want.

Your attorney will follow your state’s rules about how to make these documents valid, such as having witnesses sign or getting the paperwork notarized.

Next, keep the originals in a safe place at home, along with your will, and tell your family where to locate them. Your physician and attorney should also have copies.

Tell your doctor to add the forms in your electronic health record. That way, other medical providers can access it in an emergency. You should also carry a card in your wallet that has your health care agent’s name and contact information, as well as where you keep the originals and copies.

If your choices could cause stress for your family, consider including a note explaining your thinking. Even if they disagree with your decisions, it is more comforting to hear it directly from you, rather than the person you named to act on your behalf.

Reference: WTOP (June 1, 2020) “Advance medical directives vital during COVID-19 pandemic”

 

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What Is a Power of Attorney? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A power of attorney is a legal document that permits an agent or attorney-in-fact to make financial and legal decisions on your behalf, if you are unable to do so.

WTOP’s recent article “How to Set Up a Power of Attorney” says that the rules for designating power of attorney vary from state to state. Because of this, you should speak to an experienced estate planning attorney about your state’s laws.

Power of attorney is revocable. Therefore, if you are mentally competent and believe you can no longer count on the person you designated as your agent, you can update your documents and select another person.

The individual you choose as your attorney-in-fact will depend to a large extent on the type of power you are granting — whether it is general or limited — and your relationship. For general power of attorney, people often go with their spouses or sometimes their children. However, you can choose anyone, as long as it is someone you trust.

In many cases, designating general power of attorney is a component of a larger estate plan, so when you talk to your estate planning lawyer about your estate plan, you can add this to the conversation.

You may want to have your attorney draft a limited or special power of attorney. This lets your agent complete restricted transactions, like selling a piece of property. It is limited in scope. In contrast, a general power of attorney lets your agent do about anything you could do. A general power of attorney is usually part of an estate plan, in the event you’re unable to handle your own financial matters as you age or become incapacitated.

A springing power of attorney goes into effect in a predetermined situation, and it will specify the circumstances under which the power takes effect. An immediately effective or non-springing power of attorney is in place once the paperwork is signed.

Powers of attorney typically end when the principal is unable to make decisions on his or her own. However, for some, becoming incapacitated is just the type of circumstances when they want someone they trust to have power of attorney.

A durable power of attorney continues after the individual is incapacitated. Therefore, if you are unable to make financial or medical decisions on your own after an accident or illness, the POA will remain in effect.

You are generally also able to name a medical power of attorney. That is a person who knows your wishes and can make health care decisions for you as a proxy. It is also known as a health care proxy. If you cannot make decisions on your own, the health care proxy kicks in. Your health care proxy should know your wishes, as far as how you would like doctors to treat you, if you cannot make decisions on your own. This may also accompany a living will, which expresses your wishes on continuing life support, if you are terminally ill or being kept alive by machines.

Reference: WTOP (May 21, 2020) “How to Set Up a Power of Attorney”

 

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Should I Give My Kid the House Now or Leave It to Him in My Will? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Transferring your house to your children while you are alive may avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death. However, gifting a home also can result in a big, unnecessary tax burden and put your house at risk, if your children are sued or file for bankruptcy.

Further, you also could be making a big mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being used for your nursing home bills.

MarketWatch’s recent article entitled “Why you shouldn’t give your house to your adult children” advises that there are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since passed away.

If you bequeath a house to your children so that they get it after your death, they get a “step-up in tax basis.” All the appreciation that occurred while the parent owned the house is never taxed. However, when a parent gives an adult child a house, it can be a tax nightmare for the recipient. For example, if the mother paid $16,000 for her home in 1976, and the current market value is $200,000, none of that gain would be taxable, if the son inherited the house.

Families who see this mistake in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

Sometimes people transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, the government program that pays health care and nursing home bills for the poor. However, any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for the program can result in a penalty period, when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.

In addition, giving your home to someone else also can expose you to their financial problems. Their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, get some or most of its value. In a divorce, the house could become an asset that must be sold and divided in a property settlement.

However, Tax Code says that if the parent retains a “life interest” or “life estate” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift.

There are specific rules for what qualifies as a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills. To make certain, a child, as executor of his mother’s estate, could file a gift tax return on her behalf to show that he was given a “remainder interest,” or the right to inherit when his mother’s life interest expired at her death.

There are smarter ways to transfer a house. There are other ways around probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let people leave their homes to beneficiaries without having to go through probate. Another option is a living trust.

Reference: MarketWatch (April 16, 2020) “Why you shouldn’t give your house to your adult children”

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