Be Aware of Probate – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Probate is the legal process that happens after a person dies. The court accepts the deceased’s last will, and then the executor can carry out the instructions for the deceased’s estate. However, first he or she must pay any debts and sell assets before distributing any remaining property to the heirs.

If the deceased does not have a will, the probate court will appoint an administrator to manage the probate process, and the court will supervise the process. The Million Acres article entitled asks, “Probate Explained: What Is Probate, and How Does It Work?”

When the will is proven to be legal, the probate judge will grant the executor legal rights to carry out the instructions in the will.

When there is no will, the probate process can be complicated, because there is no paper trail that shows what assets belong to what heirs. Tracking down heirs can also be challenging, especially if there is no surviving spouse and the next of kin is located in a different state or outside the U.S.

Many executors will partner with a probate attorney to help them through the probate process, as well as to assist in filing the required paperwork, notifying creditors, filing taxes and distributing assets. The deceased’s assets must first be located and then formally appraised to determine their value.  Creditors must also be notified after death within a specified period of time.

After the creditors, taxes and fees have been paid on behalf of the estate, any leftover money or assets are distributed to the heirs.

The probate process can be lengthy. Things that can lengthen the process include the state when the deceased was a resident, whether there is a will and whether it is contested by the heirs. The more detailed the will, the simpler the probate process.

The probate process can be expensive, because of court filing fees, creditor notice fees, appraisal fees, tax preparation and filing fees and attorney fees. All of these fees are subtracted from the proceeds of the estate.

Estate planning with a qualified estate planning or elder law attorney involves taking the proper actions to avoid probate. This can reduce the burden for the surviving heir(s) and reduce costs, fees and taxes. Ask your attorney about some of the steps you can take before death to avoid probate.

Reference: Million Acres (Jan. 17, 2020) “Probate Explained: What Is Probate, and How Does It Work?”

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Do You Want to Decide or Do You Want the State to Decide? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A will allows you to direct your assets to the people you want to receive them, rather than the alternative, which is relying on the laws of your state to direct who receives your assets, says the article “Will you plan now or pay later?” from the Chron.com.

A will is also the document used to name an independent executor with successors, in the unlikely chance that the first executor fails, refuses or becomes unable to serve. Your estate planning attorney will discuss the use of special trusts to provide for family members who are disabled, trusts for minors or special needs family members or even adult children.

There are three big considerations you may not have even considered that would require you to have an estate plan created in recent years to be reviewed or revised. Years ago, the federal tax exemption, which allows a person to leave a certain amount of money to beneficiaries, was much smaller than it is now.

This was a “use it or lose it” exemption. Here is an example of how things have changed. In 1987, when the exemption was $600,000 per taxpayer, a couple would use a by-pass trust to shelter the first $600,000 upon the first to die to take advantage of the exemption. In 2020, the exemption is $11.58 million. The “use it or lose it” law is different. Therefore, if your will still has a by-pass trust for this reason, it may be best to discuss it with your estate planning attorney. It is likely that you don’t need it anymore.

You also want a will to have some control over what happens to your assets when you die. Let us say Betty and Bob have three children. Bob dies, leaving his assets to Betty, then Betty dies and leaves all of her assets to her three children. One of the children, Bea, dies shortly after Betty dies. Bea’s will leaves all of her assets to her husband Bruce.

Bruce remarries. When Bruce dies, the share of the family’s assets that Bruce inherited from his wife Bea may be left to Bruce’s second wife, or the couple may spend them all during their marriage. If Bruce divorces his second wife, she may win those assets in a divorce settlement. Would Betty and Bob have wanted their assets to go to their grandchildren, instead of their son-in-law’s second wife and children?

An estate plan can be created to protect those assets, so they remain within the family, going to grandchildren or to the children of Betty and Bob.

While most people think of an estate plan as a plan for death, it is also a plan for illness and incapacity. A perfectly healthy person is injured in a car accident or suffers a stroke. Without having documents like a power of attorney, power of attorney for health care, living will and medical privacy documents, the family will spend a great deal of time and money trying to establish legal control over the estate.

Speak with an estate planning attorney today to update your current will or create a will and the necessary documents to protect yourself and your family.

Reference: Chron.com (January 16, 2020) “Will you plan now or pay later?”

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Why a Will Is the Foundation of an Estate Plan – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

An estate planning lawyer has many different tools to achieve clients’ estate planning goals. However, at the heart of any plan is the will, also known as the “last will and testament.” Even people who are young or who have modest levels of assets should have a will—one that is legally valid and up to date. For parents of young children, this is especially important, says the article “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan” from the Sparta Independent. Why? Because in most states, a will is the only way that parents can name guardians for their children.

Having a will means that your estate will avoid being “intestate,” that is, having your assets distributed according to the laws of your state. With a will, you get to determine who is to receive your property. That includes your home, car, bank and investment accounts and any other assets, including those with sentimental value.

Without a will, your property will be distributed to your closest blood relatives, depending upon how closely related they are to you. Few individuals want to have the state making these decisions for their property. Most people would rather make these decisions for themselves.

Property can be left to anyone you choose—including a spouse, children, charities, a trust, other relatives, a college or university, or anyone you want. There are some limits imposed by law that you should know about: a spouse has certain rights to your property, and they cannot be reversed based on your will.

For parents of young children, the will is used to name a legal guardian for children. A personal guardian, who takes personal custody of the children, can be named, as well as a property guardian, who is in charge of the children’s assets. This can be the same person, but is often two different people. You may also want to ask your estate planning attorney about using trusts to fund children’s college educations.

The will is also a means of naming an executor. This is the person who acts as your legal representative after your death. This person will be in charge of carrying out all of your estate settlement tasks, so they need to be someone you trust, who is skilled with managing property and the many tasks that go into settling an estate. The executor must be approved by the probate court, before they can start taking action for you.

There are also taxes and expenses that need to be managed. Unless the will provides directions, these are determined by state law. To be sure that gifts you wanted to give to family and loved ones are not consumed by taxes, the will needs to indicate that taxes and expenses are to be paid from the residuary estate.

A will can be used to create a “testamentary trust,” which comes into existence when your will is probated. It has a trustee, beneficiaries and directions on how distributions should be made. The use of trusts is especially important, if you have young children who are not able to manage assets or property.

Note that any assets distributed through a will are subject to probate, the court-supervised process of administering and proving a will. Probate can be costly and time-consuming, and the records are available to the public, which means anyone can see them. Many people chose to distribute their assets through trusts to avoid having large assets pass through probate.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about creating a will and the many different functions that the will plays in settling your estate. You’ll also want to explore planning for incapacity, which includes having a Power of Attorney, Health Care Proxy, and Medical Directives. Estate planning attorneys also work on tax issues to minimize the taxes paid by the estate.

Reference: Sparta Independent (Dec. 19, 2019) “Wills: The Cornerstone of Your Estate Plan”

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

Start the New Year with Estate Planning To-Do’s – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Families who wish their loved ones had not created an estate plan are far and few between. However, the number of families who have had to experience extra pain, unnecessary expenses and even family battles because of a lack of estate planning are many. While there are a number of aspects to an estate plan that take some time to accomplish, The Daily Sentinel recommends that readers tackle these tasks in the article “Consider These Items As Part of Your Year-End Plan.”

Review and update any beneficiary designations. This is one of the simplest parts of any estate plan to fix. Most people think that what’s in their will controls how all of their assets are distributed, but this is not true. Accounts with beneficiary designations—like life insurance policies, retirement accounts, and some bank accounts—are controlled by the beneficiary designation and not the will.

Proceeds from these assets are based on the instructions you have given to the institution, and not what your will or a trust directs. This is also true for real estate that is held in JTWROS (Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship) and any real property transferred through the use of a beneficiary deed. The start of a new year is the time to make sure that any assets with a beneficiary designation are aligned with your estate plan.

Take some time to speak with the people you have named as your agent, personal representative or successor trustee. These people will be managing all or a portion of your estate. Make sure they remember that they agreed to take on this responsibility. Make sure they have a copy of any relevant documents and ask if they have any questions.

Locate your original estate planning documents. When was the last time they were reviewed? New laws, and most recently the SECURE Act, may require a revision of many wills, especially if you own a large IRA. You’ll also want to let your executor know where your original will can be found. The probate court, which will review your will, prefers an original. A will can be probated without the original, but there will be more costs involved and it may require a few additional steps. Your will should be kept in a secure, fire and water-safe location. If you keep copies at home, make a note on the document as to where the original can be found.

Create an inventory of your online accounts and login data for each one. Most people open a new account practically every month, so keep track. That should include email, personal photos, social media and any financial accounts. This information also needs to be stored in a safe place. Your estate planning document file would be the logical place for this information but remember to update it when changing any information, like your password.

If you have a medical power of attorney and advance directive, ask your primary care physician if they have a means of keeping these documents, and explain how you wish the instructions on the documents to be carried out. If you don’t have these documents, make them part of your estate plan review process.

A cover letter to your executor and family that contains complete contact information for the various professionals—legal, financial, and medical—will be a help in the case of an unexpected event.

Remember that life is always changing, and the same estate plan that worked so well ten years ago, may be out of date now. Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney in your state who can help you create a plan to protect yourself and your loved ones.

Reference: The Daily Sentinel (Dec. 28, 2019) “Consider These Items As Part of Your Year-End Plan”

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What Should I Know About Being an Executor? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

You’re named executor because someone thinks you’d be good at collecting assets, settling debts, filing estate tax returns where necessary, distributing assets and closing the estate.

However, Investopedia’s article from last summer, “5 Surprising Hazards of Being an Executor,” explains that the person named as an executor isn’t required to accept the appointment. Prior to agreeing to act as an executor, you should know some of the hazards that can result, as well as how you can address some of these potential issues, so that being an executor can run smoothly.

  1. Conflicts with Co-Executors. Parents will frequently name more than one adult child as co-executor, so they don’t show favoritism. However, for those who are named, this may not work well because some children may live far way, making it difficult to coordinate the hands-on activities, like securing assets and selling a home. Some adult children may also not have the financial ability to deal with creditors, understand estate tax matters and perform effective accounting to satisfy beneficiaries that things have been properly handled. In addition, multiple executors mean additional paperwork. Instead, see if co-executors can agree to allow only one to serve, and the others will waive their appointment. Another option is for all of the children to decline and allow a bank’s trust department to handle the task. Employing a bank to serve instead of an individual as executor can alleviate conflicts among the children and relieves them from what could be a very difficult job.
  2. Conflicts with Heirs. It’s an executor’s job to gather the estate assets and distribute them according to the deceased person’s wishes. In some cases, heirs will land on a decedent’s home even before the funeral, taking mementos, heirlooms and other valuables. It’s best to secure the home and other assets as quickly as possible. Tell the heirs that this is the law and share information about the decedent’s wishes, which may be described in a will or listed in a separate document. This Letter of Last Instruction isn’t binding on the executor but can be a good guide for asset disbursements.
  3. Time-Consuming Responsibilities. One of the major drawbacks to be an executor is the amount of time it takes to handle responsibilities. For example, imagine the time involved in contacting various government agencies. This can include the Social Security Administration to stop Social Security benefits and, in the case of a surviving spouse, claim the $255 death benefit. However, an executor can permit an estate attorney to handle many of these matters.
  4. Personal Liability Exposure. The executor must pay taxes owed, before disbursing inheritances to heirs. However, if you pay heirs first and don’t have enough funds in the estate’s checking account to pay taxes, you’re personally liable for the taxes. Explain to heirs who are chomping at the bit to receive their inheritances that you’re not allowed to give them their share, until you’ve settled with creditors, the IRS and others with a claim against the estate. You should also be sure that you understand the extent of the funds needed to pay what’s owed.
  5. Out-of-Pocket Expenses. An executor can receive a commission for handling his duties. The amount of the commission is typically determined by the size of the estate (e.g., a percentage of assets). However, with many cases, particularly smaller estates and among families, an executor may waive any commission. You should pay the expenses of the estate from an estate checking account and record all out-of-pocket expenses, because some of these expenses may be reimbursable by the estate.

Being an executor can be a challenge, but somebody must do it. If that person’s you, be sure to know what you’re getting into before you agree to act as an executor.

Reference: Investopedia (June 25, 2019) “5 Surprising Hazards of Being an Executor”

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

Simple Mistakes to Avoid in Estate Planning – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

There’s so much information available today, good and bad, that it is not always easy to know which is which. Just as we should not perform surgery on ourselves, we are asking for problems if we try to manage our estate planning without professional help. That’s the good advice from the article “Examining three common mistakes of estate planning” from The News-Enterprise.

For one thing, the roles of power of attorney agent and executor are often confused. The power of attorney agent acts in accordance with a document that is used when a person is living. The power of attorney appointment is made by you for someone to act on your behalf, when you cannot do so. The power of attorney expires upon your death.

The executor is a person who you name to handle matters for your estate after your death, as instructed in your last will and testament. The executor is nominated by you but is not in effect, until that person is appointed through a court order. Therefore, the executor cannot act on your behalf, until you have died and a court has reviewed your will and appointed them to handle your estate.

Too many people opt for the easy way out, when it comes to estate planning. We hear that someone wants a “simple will.” This is planning based on a document, rather than planning for someone’s goals. Every estate plan needs to be prepared with the consideration of a person’s health, family relationships, and finances.

Many problems that arise in the probate process could have been prevented, had good estate planning been done.

Another mistake is not addressing change. This can lead to big problems while you are living and after you die. If you are healthy, that’s great—but you may not always enjoy good health. Your health and the health of your loved ones may change.

Family dynamics also change over time. If you only plan for your current circumstances, without planning for change, then you may need to make many updates to your will.

The other thing that will occur, is that your estate plan may fail. Be realistic, and work with your estate planning attorney to plan for the many changes that life brings. Plan for incapacity and for long-term care. Make sure that your documents include secondary beneficiaries, disability provisions, and successor fiduciaries.

Create an estate plan that works with today’s circumstances, but also anticipates what the future may bring.

Reference: The News-Enterprise (Nov. 18, 2019) “Examining three common mistakes of estate planning”

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

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