Tips for Choosing a Fiduciary – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

One of the important tasks in creating a complete estate plan is selecting people (or financial institutions) to represent you, in case of incapacity or death. Most people think of naming an executor, but there are many more roles, advises the article “What to consider when appointing a fiduciary?” from The Ledger.

Here are the most common roles that an estate planning attorney will ask you to select:

  • Executor or personal representative, who is named in your will and appointed by the court to administer your estate.
  • Agent-in-fact (under a durable power of attorney) who manages your financial affairs while you are living, if you are unable to do so.
  • Health care surrogate who makes health care decisions on your behalf while you are living, if you are incapacitated.
  • Trustee of a trust document; administers the trust that you have created.
  • Guardian: a person who makes health care and financial decisions on your behalf, if the court determines that other roles, like health care surrogate or agent-in-fact, are not sufficient.
  • Guardian for minor children: person(s) who make decisions for your children, if you are not able to because of death or a loss of capacity before the children reach adulthood.

The individuals or financial institutions who take on financial roles are considered fiduciaries; that is, they have a legal duty to put your well-being first. Their responsibilities may include applying for government benefits, managing and investing your assets and income, deciding where you will live and working with your attorneys, financial advisors and accountants.

Many people name their spouse or eldest child to take on these roles. However, that’s not the only option. A few questions to consider before making this important decision include:

  • Does this person have the experience, skill and maturity to manage my financial affairs?
  • Does this person have the time to serve as a fiduciary?
  • Would this person make the same health care decisions that I would make?
  • Can this person make a difficult decision for my health care?
  • Does this person live near enough to arrive quickly, if necessary?
  • How old is this person, and will they be living when I may need them?
  • What kind of response will my family have to this person being named?
  • Are my assets substantial enough to require a financial institution or accountant to manage?

These are just a few of the questions to consider when choosing fiduciaries or health care agents in your estate plan. Speak with your estate planning attorney to help determine the best decision for you and your family.

Reference: The Ledger (Oct. 16, 2019) “What to consider when appointing a fiduciary?”

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

Should I Use a Bank as My Executor Instead of a Family Member? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

You can choose anybody you like to be the executor of your will but consider who will do the best job.

Executors are legally responsible for several tasks, including identifying everything in the estate, collecting all the assets and paying the debts and liabilities. Finally, the executor makes distributions to beneficiaries, in accordance with the terms of the will.

nj.com’s recent article on this topic asks “Should I choose a bank to be the executor of my will?” The article explains that there are a few advantages to designating a bank as an executor.

Banks are in the business of managing money and are experienced in administering estates.

This typically means they may be able to settle the estate more quickly and efficiently than a family member.

Banks have policies and procedures in place to make certain that the assets are protected from mismanagement and theft.

Banks are impartial parties that cannot be influenced by beneficiaries. This can be a big headache for a family member asked to be executor. Relationships can deteriorate over the enforcement of the terms of a will, especially when one sibling is named executor and has the authority over the administration of the estate—perhaps to the detriment of her brothers and sisters.

One distinction from using a family member is that while an executor is entitled to compensation, family members frequently waive this. However, banks charge fees for serving as executors, and these fees may be higher than you’d expect.

For example, the bank’s fee might be up to 4% of the first $100,000, then decrease incrementally until it’s just 0.5% of values over $9 million.

One other note to keep in mind is that many banks won’t serve as executor, unless the estate is substantial enough to meet the minimum fees charged by the bank to serve as the executor.

Reference: nj.com (November 5, 2019) “Should I choose a bank to be the executor of my will?”

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

What Is Probate and How to Prepare for It? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The word probate is from the Latin word, meaning “to prove.” It is the court-supervised process of authenticating the last will and testament of a person who has died and then taking a series of steps to administer their estate. The typical situation, according to the article “Some helpful hints to aid in navigating the probate process” from The Westerly Sun, is that someone passes away and their heirs must go to the Probate Court to obtain the authority to handle their final business and settle their affairs.

Many families work with an estate planning attorney to help them go through the probate process.

Regardless of whether there is a will, someone, usually a spouse or adult child, asks the court to be appointed as the executor of the estate. This person must accomplish a number of tasks to make sure the decedent’s wishes are followed, as documented by their will.

People often think that just being the legally married spouse or child of the deceased person is all anyone needs to be empowered to handle their estate, but that’s not how it works. There must be an appointment by the court to manage the assets and deal with the IRS, the state, creditors and all of the person’s outstanding personal affairs.

If there is a will, once it is validated by the court, the executor begins the process of identifying and valuing the assets, which must be reported to the court. The last bills and funeral costs must be paid, the IRS must be contacted to obtain an estate taxpayer identification number and other financial matters will need to be addressed. Estate taxes may need to be paid, at the state or federal level. Final tax returns, from the last year the person was alive, must be paid.

It takes several months and sometimes more than a year to settle an estate. That includes distributing the assets and making gifts of tangible personal property to the heirs. Once this task is completed, the executor (or their legal representative) contacts the court. When everything has been done and the judge is satisfied that all business on behalf of the decedent has been completed, the executor is released from their duty and the estate is officially closed.

When there is no will, the process is different. The laws of the state where the deceased lived will be used to guide the distribution of assets. Kinship, or how people are related, will be used, regardless of the relationship between the decedent and family members. This can often lead to fractures within a family, or to people receiving inheritances that were intended for other people.

Reference: The Westerly Sun (Nov. 16, 2019) “Some helpful hints to aid in navigating the probate process”

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

Death Is Very Taxing — What you Need to Know – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

When a person dies, their assets are gathered, their debts are paid, business affairs are settled and assets are distributed, as directed by their will. If there is no will, the intestate laws of their state will be used to determine how to distribute their assets. A big part of the process of settling an estate is dealing with taxes. A recent article from Wicked Local Westwood, titled “Five things to know about taxes after death,” explains the key things an executor or personal representative needs to know.

The Deceased Final Income Tax Returns. Yes, the dead pay taxes. The personal representative is responsible for filing the deceased final income tax return for both the year of death and prior year, if those returns have not been filed. The final income tax return includes any income earned or received by the decedent from January 1 of the year of death through the date of death. It’s common for a deceased person who is ill during the last months or year of their life to fail to file tax returns, so the executor needs to find out about the decedent’s tax status. Failure to do so, could lead to the representative being personally liable for paying those taxes.

Filing a Federal Estate Tax Return. The personal representative must file a federal estate tax return, if the value of the estate assets exceeds the federal estate tax exemption, which is $11.4 million in 2019. Even if the value of the estate does not exceed the federal estate tax exemption amount, a federal estate tax return should be filed if the decedent is survived by a spouse. This way, the deceased’s unused exemption can be used by the spouse at their death. Note that the filing deadline for the federal estate tax return is nine months after the date of death. An estate planning attorney can help with this.

Fiduciary income tax returns. A personal representative and trustee may have to file fiduciary income tax returns for an estate or a trust. The estate is a taxpayer and the representative must get a tax identification number and file a fiduciary income tax return for the estate, if income is earned on estate assets or received during the administration of the estate. A revocable trust becomes irrevocable after the death of the trust creator. A tax identification number must be obtained, and a fiduciary income tax return must be filed for any income earned by trust assets.

Estate taxes and trust taxes can become complex and confusing for people who don’t do this on a regular basis. An estate planning attorney can be a valuable resource, so that taxes are properly paid and to make the most of any tax planning opportunities for estates, trusts and their beneficiaries.

Reference: Wicked Local Westwood (Nov. 5, 2019) “Five things to know about taxes after death”

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

Why Would I Need to Revise My Will? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

OK, great!! You’ve created your will! Now you can it stow away and check off a very important item on your to-do list. Well, not entirely.

Thrive Global’s recent article, “7 Reasons Why You Need to Review your Will Right Now,” says it’s extremely important that you regularly update your will to avoid any potential confusion and extra stress for your family at a very emotional time. As circumstances change, you need to have your will reflect changes in your life. As time passes and your situation changes, your will may become invalid, obsolete or even create added confusion when the time comes for your will to be administered.

New people in your life. If you do have more children after you’ve created your will, review your estate plan to make certain that the wording is still correct. You may also marry or re-marry, and grandchildren may be born that you want to include. Make a formal update to your estate plan to include the new people who play an important part in your life and to remove those with whom you lose touch.

A beneficiary or other person dies. If a person you had designated as a beneficiary or executor of your will has died, you must make a change or it could result in confusion when the time comes for your estate to be distributed. You need to update your will if an individual named in your estate passes away before you.

Divorce. If your will was created prior to a divorce and you want to remove your ex from your estate plan, talk to an estate planning attorney about the changes you need to make.

Your spouse dies. Wills should be written in such a way as to always have a backup plan in place. For example, if your husband or wife dies before you, their portion of your estate might go to another family member or another named individual. If this happens, you may want to redistribute your assets to other people.

A child becomes an adult. When a child turns 18 and comes of age, she is no longer a dependent.  Therefore, you may need to update your will in any areas that provided additional funds for any dependents.

You experience a change in your financial situation. This is a great opportunity to update your will to protect your new financial situation.

You change your mind. It’s your will and you can change your mind whenever you like.

Reference: Thrive Global (June 17, 2019) “7 Reasons Why You Need to Review your Will Right Now”

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

Filing Taxes for a Deceased Family Member – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

If you are the executor of a loved one’s estate, and if they were well-off, there are several tax issues that you’ll need to deal with. The article “How to file a loved one’s taxes after they’ve passed away” from Market Watch gives a general overview of estate tax liabilities.

Winding down the financial aspects of the estate is one of the tasks done by the executor. That person will most likely be identified in the decedent’s will. If the family trust holds the assets on behalf of the deceased, the trust document will name a trustee. If the person died without a will, also known as “intestate,” the probate court will appoint an administrator.

The executor is responsible for filing the federal income tax for the decedent’s estate if a return needs to be filed. Income generated by the estate is taxed. The estate’s first federal income tax year starts immediately after the date of death. The tax year-end date can be December 31 or the end of any other month that results in a first tax year of 12 months or less. The IRS form 1041 is used for estates and trusts and the due date is the 15th day of the fourth month after the tax year-end.

For example, if a person died in 2019, the estate tax return deadline is April 15, 2020 if the executor chooses the December 31 date as the tax year-end. An extension is available, but it’s only for five and a half months. In this example, an extension could be given to September 30.

There is no need to file a Form 1041 if all of the decedent’s income producing assets are directly distributed to the spouse or other heirs and bypass probate. This is the case when property is owned as joint tenants with right of survivorship, as well as with IRAs and retirement plan accounts and life insurance proceeds with designated beneficiaries.

Unless the estate is valued at more than $11.2 million for a person who passed in 2018 or $11.4 million in 2019, no federal estate tax will be due.

The executor needs to find out if there were large gifts given. That means gifts larger than $15,000 in 2018-2019 to a single person, $14,000 for gifts in 2013-2017; $13,000 in 2009-2012, $12,000 for 2006-2008; $11,000 for 2002-2005 and $10,000 for 2001 and earlier. If these gifts were made, the excess over the applicable threshold for the year of the gift must be added back to the estate, to see if the federal estate tax exemption has been surpassed. Check with the estate attorney to ensure that this is handled correctly.

The unlimited marital deduction privilege permits any amount of assets to be passed to the spouse, as long as the decedent was married, and the surviving spouse is a U.S. citizen. However, the surviving spouse will need good estate planning to pass the family’s wealth to the next generation without a large tax liability.

While the taxes and tax planning are more complex where significant assets are involved, an estate planning attorney can strategically plan to protect family assets when the assets are not so grand. Estate planning is more important for those with modest assets as there is a greater need to protect the family and less room for error.

Reference: Market Watch (June 17, 2019) “How to file a loved one’s taxes after they’ve passed away”

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

What Debts Must Be Paid Before and After Probate? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Everything that must be addressed in settling an estate becomes more complicated when there is no will and no estate planning has taken place before the person dies. Debts are a particular area of concern for the estate and the executor. What has to be paid and who gets paid first? These are explained in the article “Dealing with Debts and Mortgages in Probate” from The Balance.

Probate is the process of gaining court approval of the estate and paying off final bills and expenses before property can be transferred to beneficiaries. Dealing with the debts of a deceased person can be started before probate officially begins.

Start by making a list of all of the decedent’s liabilities and look for the following bills or statements:

  • Mortgages
  • Reverse mortgages
  • Home equity loans
  • Lines of credit
  • Condo fees
  • Property taxes
  • Federal and state income taxes
  • Car and boat loans
  • Personal loans
  • Loans against life insurance policies
  • Loans against retirement accounts
  • Credit card bills
  • Utility bills
  • Cell phone bills

Next, divide those items into two categories: those that will be ongoing during probate—consider them administrative expenses—and those that can be paid off after the probate estate is opened. These are considered “final bills.” Administrative bills include things like mortgages, condo fees, property taxes and utility bills. They must be kept current. Final bills include income taxes, personal loans, credit card bills, cell phone bills and loans against retirement accounts and/or life insurance policies.

The executors and heirs should not pay any bills out of their own pockets. The executor deals with all of these liabilities in the process of settling the estate.

For some of the liabilities, heirs may have a decision to make about whether to keep the assets with loans. If the beneficiary wants to keep the house or a car, they may, but they have to keep paying down the debt. Otherwise, these payments should be made only by the estate.

The executor decides what bills to pay and which assets should be liquidated to pay final bills.

A far better plan for your beneficiaries is to create a comprehensive estate plan that includes a will that details how you want your assets distributed and addresses what your wishes are. If you want to leave a house to a loved one, your estate planning attorney will be able to explain how to make that happen while minimizing taxes on your estate.

Reference: The Balance (March 21, 2019) “Dealing with Debts and Mortgages in Probate”

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

Here’s Why a Basic Form Doesn’t Work for Estate Planning – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

It’s true that an effective estate plan should be simple and straightforward, if your life is simple and straightforward. However, few of us have those kinds of lives. For many families, the discovery that a will that was created using a basic form is invalid leads to all kinds of expenses and problems, says The Daily Sentinel in an article that asks “What is wrong with using a form for my will or trust?”

If the cost of an estate plan is measured only by the cost of a document, a basic form will, of course, be the least expensive option — on the front end. On the surface, it seems simple enough. What would be wrong with using a form?

Actually, a lot is wrong. The same things that make a do-it-yourself, basic form seem to be attractive, are also the things that make it very dangerous for your family. A form does not take into account the special circumstances of your life. If your estate is worth several hundreds of thousands of dollars, that form could end up putting your estate in the wrong hands. That’s not what you had intended.

Another issue: any form that is valid in all 50 states is probably not going to serve your purposes. If it works in all 50 states (and that’s highly unlikely), then it is extremely general, so much so that it won’t reflect your personal situation. It’s a great sales strategy, but it’s not good for an estate plan.

If you take into consideration the amount of money to be spent on the back end after you’ve passed, that $100 will becomes a lot more expensive than what you would have invested in having a proper estate plan created by an estate planning attorney.

What you can’t put into dollars and cents, is the peace of mind that comes with knowing that your estate plan, including a will, power of attorney, and health care power of attorney, has been properly prepared, that your assets will go to the individuals or charities that you want them to go to, and that your family is protected from the stress, cost and struggle that can result when wills are deemed invalid.

Here’s one of many examples of how the basic, inexpensive form created chaos for one family. After the father died, the will was unclear, because it was not prepared by a professional. The father had properly filled in the blanks but used language that one of his sons felt left him the right to significant assets. The family became embroiled in expensive litigation and became divided. The litigation has ended, but the family is still fractured. This was not what their father had intended.

Other issues that are created when forms are used: naming the proper executor, guardians and conservators, caring for companion animals, dealing with blended families, addressing Payable-on-Death (POD) accounts and end-of-life instructions, to name just a few.

Avoid the “repair” costs and meet with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state to create an estate plan that will suit your needs.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (May 25, 2019) “What is wrong with using a form for my will or trust?”

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

Is it Wise to Have Three Grown Children Named Co-Executors of Your Will? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Is it a good idea to have your three grown children listed as co-executors of your will? This may get somewhat confusing when probating a will if there are multiple executors.

What are the pros and cons to choosing one child to act as your executor instead of selecting all three of your children to act together?

nj.com’s recent article asks “I’m planning my will. Is it bad to have more than one executor?”

The article explains that the duty of the executor is to gather all the decedent’s assets, pay any outstanding debts and liabilities and then account for and distribute the remaining estate to the beneficiaries according to the instructions in the decedent’s will.

The executor is allowed to hire professionals and others to help with tasks, like completing a decedent’s final income tax return or preparing the home for sale.

When you have multiple executors appointed, these tasks can be assigned to each person to lessen the burden of the many duties and responsibilities that an executor has.

On the downside, if those appointed can’t work together easily and without strife, appointing multiple siblings can make the administration of an estate much more difficult due to arguments, conflicts of interest, one sibling taking the lead to the resentment of the others or one executor undermining another executor’s actions.

The problem is, in situations where the siblings don’t get along, designating one of them as executor can cause hard feelings and conflict. It’s not uncommon for those siblings who aren’t named as executor to complain about every decision made by the named executor or delay in the administration of the estate.

If there are multiple executors, the majority rules. That can avoid deadlock. Simple math in this case says that you want to avoid naming an even number of executors or name a person who can act as the tiebreaker.

Even with a “majority rules” agreement among the executors, there are some financial institutions and other entities that may require all the executors to sign documents and/or checks on behalf of the estate. This can become burdensome and inefficient, if there are multiple executors.

Speak with your estate planning attorney about your family dynamics and get their opinion about what would be best in your personal situation.

Reference: nj.com (May 22, 2019) “I’m planning my will. Is it bad to have more than one executor?”

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

What If Your Executor Doesn’t Want to Serve? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

When you’ve finally come to determine who you trust enough to serve as your executor, you’ll need to take the next step. It involves having a conversation with the person about what you are asking them to do. You’ll need to ask if they are willing, says the Pocono Record in the article Don’t assume person is willing to be your executor.” People are often flattered at first when they are asked about this role, but if they don’t fully understand the responsibilities, they may decide not to serve just when you need them the most.

Once your executor has agreed to act on your behalf and you have a last will and testament prepared by an estate attorney, tell your executor where your will is stored. Remember that they need to have access, in addition to knowing where the document is. If the will is kept at home in a fire-proof box or a document box that is locked, make sure to tell them where the key is located.

If you feel that the will would be safer in a bank’s safe deposit vault, you have a few additional tasks to complete. One is to make sure that your executor will be able to access the safe deposit box. That may mean adding them to the list of people who have access. They may be technically permitted to enter the box with a bank representative solely for the purpose of obtaining the last will and testament.  However, you should check with your branch first.

Once they have the last will and testament and it is filed for probate, the Register of Wills issues Letters Testamentary, which says that the executor has the authority to open the safe deposit box to inventory its contents, after proper notice is given to the state’s authorities. The executor must complete an inventory form for the authorities and any personal property in the safe deposit box must be appraised for fair market value as of the date of death. Inheritance tax will need to be paid on the value, if there is any due.

Communication is very important in the executor’s role. You may or may not want to allow them to see the will before you pass, but they will need to know where the original document can be found.

To make the next part of the executor’s job easier, create an inventory of your assets and include information they will need to complete their task. They’ll also need to know contact information and account numbers for homeowners and car insurance, veterans’ benefits, credit cards, mortgage, pensions, retirement accounts and any other assets.

Some people store their information on their computer. However, if the executor cannot access your computer or cannot get into the computer because they don’t have your password, you may want to create a hard copy document, as well as keeping information on your computer.

Taking on the role of an executor is a big job. You can show your appreciation, even after you are gone, by making all preparations for the information needed.

Reference: Pocono Record (May 1, 2019) “Don’t assume person is willing to be your executor”

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