What Happens When a Will Is Challenged? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

What happens when estate planning does not go according to plan? A last will and testament is a legally binding contract that determines who will get a person’s assets. However, according to the article “Can you prevent someone from challenging your will?” in the Augusta Free Press, it is possible for someone to bring a legal challenge.

Most will contests are centered around five key reasons:

  • The deceased had a more recent will.
  • The will was not signed voluntarily.
  • The deceased was incapacitated, when she signed the will.
  • The will was not signed in front of the right number of witnesses.
  • The will was signed under some kind of duress or mental impairment.

What is the best way to lessen the chances of someone challenging your will? Take certain steps when the will is created, including:

Be sure your will is created by an estate planning attorney. Just writing your wishes on a piece of paper and signing and dating the paper is not the way to go. Certain qualifications must be met, which they vary by state. In some states, one witness is enough for a will to be properly executed. In others, there must be two and they can’t be beneficiaries.

The will must state the names of the intended beneficiaries. If you want someone specific to be excluded, you will have to state their name and that you want them to be excluded. A will should also name a guardian, if your children are minors.  It should also contain the name of an alternate executor, in case the primary executor predeceases you or cannot serve.

What about video wills? First, make a proper paper will. If you feel the need to be creative, make a video. In many states, a video will is not considered to be valid. A video can also become confusing, especially if what you say in the paper will is not exactly the same as what is in the video. Discrepancies can lead to will contests.

Do not count on those free templates. Downloading a form from a website seems like a simple solution, but some of the templates online are not up to date. They also might not reflect the laws in your state. If you own property, or your estate is complex, a downloaded form could create confusion and lead to family battles.

Tell your executor where your will is kept. If no one can find your will, people you may have wanted to exclude from your estate will have a better chance of succeeding in a will challenge. You should also tell your executor about any trusts, insurance policies and any assets that are not listed in the will.

Don’t expect that everything will go as you planned. Prepare for things to go sideways, to protect your loved ones. It is costly, time-consuming and stressful to bring an estate challenge, but the same is true on the receiving end. If you want your beneficiaries to receive the assets you intend for them, a good estate planning attorney is the right way to go.

Reference: Augusta Free Press (July 12, 2020) “Can you prevent someone from challenging your will?”

 

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Estate Planning and Probate Planning – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The nature of the probate process varies from state to state, and even varies from county to county. However, the nature of the process is the same. A court has to validate a will to ensure that it meets the legal requirements of the state before assets can be distributed, explains the article “Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money” from the Baker City Herald. A typical will in some states can take nine to twelve months, and court shutdowns related to COVID-19 means that the wait could be longer. Probate is also expensive.

When does probate make sense? When a person dies with a lot of debt, probate can be helpful by limiting the amount of time creditors have to make their claims against the estate. If there is not enough to pay everyone, the probate court makes the decision about how much each creditor gets. Without probate, creditors may surface long after assets have been distributed, and depending upon the amount owed, may sue heirs or the executor.

The court supervision provided by probate can be helpful, if there are any concerns about the instructions in the will not being carried out. However, the will and the details of the estate become public, which is bad not just for privacy reasons. If there are any greedy or litigation-happy family members, they will be able to see how assets were distributed. All assets, debts and costs paid by the estate are disclosed, and the court approves each distribution. This much oversight can be protective in some situations.

What is the alternative? Some states have simplified probate for smaller estates, which can reduce the time and cost of probate. However, it varies by state. In Delaware, it is estates worth no more than $30,000, but in Seattle, small means estates valued at $275,000 or less.

These limits do not include assets that go directly to heirs, like accounts with beneficiaries or jointly owned assets. Most retirement funds and life insurance policies have named beneficiaries. The same is often true for bank and investment accounts. Just remember not to name your estate as a beneficiary, which defeats the purpose of having a beneficiary.

Are there any other ways to avoid probate? Here is where trusts come in. Trusts are legal documents that allow you to place your assets into ownership by the trust. A living trust takes effect while you are still alive, and you can be a trustee. Once created, property needs to be transferred into the trust, which requires managing details: changing titles and deeds and account names. This type of trust is revocable, which means you can change it any time. As a trustee, you have complete control over the property. A successor trustee is named to take over, if you die or become incapacitated.

An estate planning attorney will know other legal strategies to avoid probate for part or all of your estate.

Reference: Baker City Herald (July 16, 2020) “Probate workarounds can save heirs time, money”

 

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There Is a Difference between Probate and Trust Administration – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Many people get these two things confused. A recent article, “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration,” from Lake County News clarifies the distinctions.

Let us start with probate, which is a court-supervised process. To begin the probate process, a legal notice must be published in a newspaper and court appearances are needed. However, to start trust administration, a letter of notice is mailed to the decedent’s heirs and beneficiaries. Trust administration is far more private, which is why many people chose this path.

In the probate process, the last will and testament and any documents in the court file are available to the public. While the general public may not have any specific interest in your will, estranged relatives, relatives you never knew you had, creditors and scammers have easy and completely legal access to this information.

If there is no will, the court documents that are created in intestacy (the heirs inherit according to state law), are also available to anyone who wants to see them.

In trust administration, the only people who can see trust documents are the heirs and beneficiaries.

There are cost differences. In probate, a court filing fee must be paid for each petition. There are also at least two petitions from start to finish in probate, plus the newspaper publication fee. The fees vary, depending upon the jurisdiction. Add to that the attorney’s and personal representative’s fees, which also vary by jurisdiction. Some are on an hourly basis, while others are computed as a sliding scale percentage of the value of the estate under management. For example, each may be paid 4% of the first $100,000, 3% of the next $100,000 and 2% of any excess value of the estate under management. The court also has the discretion to add fees, if the estate is more time consuming and complex than the average estate.

For trust administration, the trustee and the estate planning attorney are typically paid on an hourly basis, or however the attorney sets their fee structure. Expenses are likely to be far lower, since there is no court involvement.

There are similarities between probate and trust administration. Both require that the decedent’s assets be collected, safeguarded, inventoried and appraised for tax and/or distribution purposes. Both also require that the decedent’s creditors be notified, and debts be paid. Tax obligations must be fulfilled, and the debts and administration expenses must be paid. Finally, the decedent’s beneficiaries must be informed about the estate and its administration.

The use of trusts in estate planning can be a means of minimizing taxes and planning for family assets to be passed to future generations in a private and controlled fashion. This is the reason for the popularity of trusts in estate planning.

It should be noted that a higher level of competency—mental comprehension—must be possessed by an individual to execute a trust than to execute a will. A person whose capacity may be questionable because of Alzheimer’s or another illness may not be legally competent enough to execute a trust. Their heirs may face challenges to the estate plan in that case.

Reference: Lake County News (July 4, 2020) “Appreciating the differences between probate and trust administration”

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What Exactly Does an Executor Do? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The job of the executor is an important one. The executor has a fiduciary responsibility to manage the assets and debts of the decedent and carry out instructions documented in his last will and testament. The executor is also responsible for distributing assets, explains the article “A Step-by-Step Guide to Being an Executor” from Kiplinger. If there are any claims against the estate, the executor might be facing personal responsibility, if funds are not handled properly.

The learning curve could be steep, especially if the executor does not know a lot about the person’s finances and possessions, or is new to the tasks of managing money, corralling heirs or the legal processes that occur after someone dies. If the decedent didn’t tell the executor where his records and important papers are kept, things can get even more challenging.

Here is what an executor needs to know, preferably before her services are needed:

Get informed and up to speed. Read the will and see if the decedent’s intentions are clear. That is not always the case. When one man became executor of his mother’s will, he and his sister had two different interpretations about what their mother wanted to happen to the family home. While they wrangled out the issue, there were property taxes to be paid and maintenance costs. A letter of direction explaining things clearly would have prevented many problems.

Sit down and talk about it. It is a kindness to heirs to share information and intentions, while you are still alive. Discuss the will with the immediate family to avoid any surprises or misunderstandings. Consider having an annual conference with children to ensure that they understand the estate, the will and what to expect. If you have an argumentative family, doing this in advance will not guarantee smooth sailing, but it may lessen the fighting.

Make an inventory. Managing an estate can be a long process, with many curves along the way. You will make it easier, if you create a list of all assets, accounts, debts and liabilities. Make a note of where tax records and insurance policies can be found. Include a list of all online accounts and digital assets, plus the names of your professional advisors, including the estate planning lawyer and CPA. Ideally, review the list with your executor.

Should the executor change the locks? In a word, yes. Two kinds of theft happen while people are attending funeral and memorial services. Some family members will outright take items and thieves may break into empty homes. Remove anything of value and have a reputable locksmith install good locks. If the executor is technically inclined, an inexpensive videocam system would be a good idea.

Get copies of the death certificate. Request multiple copies. Some institutions will require originals with a raised seal, while others will work with a copy or a scanned document. Better to have a few more than you need, so you do not have to keep buying new ones.

Speak with an estate planning attorney. There are legal forms and tax forms that will need to be prepared. In some states, probate is straightforward. In other states, it is a complex and time consuming process. You do not need to go it alone.

Open an estate account. The estate is a legal entity and requires a separate tax ID. The executor needs to apply for a separate tax ID, and then can use that to open a bank account. The estate funds the bank account, which is used to pay bills and deposit proceeds from assets.

Distribute assets. The executor is responsible for keeping heirs updated. Heirs receive assets, as designated in the will. If there are collections or a home, they will need to be professionally assessed, before they can be sold.

Reference: Kiplinger (May 12, 2020) “A Step-by-Step Guide to Being an Executor”

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How Does a Spendthrift Trust Protect Heirs from Themselves? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

This is not an unusual question for most estate planning lawyers—and in most cases, the children are not bad. They just lack self-control or have a history of making poor decisions. Fortunately, there are solutions, as described in a recent article titled “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift” from NWI.com.

What needs to happen? Plan to provide for the child’s well-being but keep the actual assets out of their control. The best answer is the use of a trust. By leaving money to an heir in a trust, a responsible party can be in charge of the money. That person is known as the “trustee.”

People sometimes get nervous when they hear the word trust, because they think that a trust is only for wealthy people or that creating a trust must be very expensive. Not necessarily. In many states, a trust can be created to benefit an heir in the last will and testament. The will may be a little longer, but a trust can be created without the expense of an additional document. Your estate planning attorney will know how to create a trust, in accordance with the laws of your state.

In this scenario, the trust is created in the will, known as a testamentary trust. Instead of leaving money to Joe Smith directly, the money (or other asset) is left to the John Smith Testamentary Trust for the benefit of Joe Smith.

The terms of the trust are defined in the appropriate article in the will and can be created to suit your wishes. For instance, you can decide to distribute the money over a three or a thirty-year period. Funds could be distributed monthly, to create an income stream. They could also be distributed only when certain benchmarks are reached, such after a full year of employment has occurred. This is known as an incentive trust.

The opposite can be true: distributions can be withheld, if the heir is engaged in behavior you want to discourage, like gambling or using drugs.

If the funding for the trust will come from proceeds from a life insurance policy, it may be necessary to have your estate planning attorney contact the insurance company to be sure that the insurance company will permit a testamentary trust to be the beneficiary of the life insurance and avoid probate altogether.

Not all insurance companies will permit this. There may be some other changes that need to occur for this to work and be in compliance with your state’s laws. However, your estate planning attorney will be able to resolve the issue for you.

Reference: NWI.com (May 17, 2020) “Estate Planning: What to do to protect trusts from a spendthrift”

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How Low-Interest Rates Create Estate Planning Opportunities – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

One result of the global health crisis is that interest rates are lower now than they have been in many, many years. The April 2020 AFRs (Applicable Federal Rates), which are used to determine the least amount of interest that has to be charged for below-market loans and are often used for intrafamily lending, have decreased to 0.91 percent for loans less than 36 months, 0.99 percent for loans of 36 months or more and less than nine years, and 1.44 percent for loans of nine years or longer.

The article, titled “Estate Planning in a Low Interest Rate Environment,” from The National Law Review Journal, explains that for families where intrafamily lending has already occurred, these low rates provide a chance to amend the terms of current promissory notes to obtain these rates.

There are two opportunities presented:

  • The amount that the borrower needs to repay is reduced, thereby easing the burden on a borrower who has a cash flow problem.
  • If a parent has already lent money to a child who will eventually inherit assets from the parent, this lower interest rate will help to facilitate wealth transfer. The parent will receive lower payments under the note, minimizing the assets that are added back to the lender’s taxable estate.

Here are a few situations where these loans are typically used:

  • Parents extend a loan to adult child, who is going through a challenging financial period.
  • Parent lends money to a child with the understanding that the child will invest the money at a higher rate of return than the interest charged under the note, thus allowing growth to occur in the child’s estate rather than in the parent’s estate.
  • Complex estate planning, where a sale is made to an intentionally defective trust, where the seller’s goal is to freeze the value of the estate for a price at which the asset was sold on an installment basis. This allows future growth to take place outside of the seller’s taxable estate.

These intrafamily loans are usually part of sophisticated estate planning. Other methods include Grantor Retained Annuity Trusts (GRATs), or Charitable Lead Trusts (CLTs), which also become more attractive in a low interest rate environment.

With a GRAT, there is a transfer of assets to a trust, in which the settlor retains an annuity payment for a certain number of years. At the end of the term, the remaining assets pass to the trust beneficiaries with no estate tax implication. The CLT operates in a similar way, except that the payment for a specified number of years is made to a charity.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney about how your estate could benefit from the current low interest rate environment.

Reference: The National Law Review (April 13, 2020) “Estate Planning in a Low Interest Rate Environment”

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Distributing Inherited Assets in Many Accounts – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

This generous individual may be facing a number of legal and logistical hurdles, before assets in eight separate accounts can be passed to three relatives, says the article “Sorting through multiple inheritance accounts” from the Houston Chronicle. Does the heir need to speak with each of the investment companies? Would it make sense to combine all the assets into one account for the estate and then divide and distribute them from that one account?

If all the accounts were payable to this person upon the death of the brother, then the first thing is for the heir to contact each company and have all funds transferred to one account. It might be an already existing account in their name, or it may need to be a new account opened just for this purpose. The account could be at any of the brother’s investment firms, or it could be with a different firm.

If the accounts are not payable to the heir, but they are to be inherited as part of the brother’s estate, the estate must be probated before the funds can be claimed. In this case, it would be very helpful if the sole beneficiary is also the executor. This would put one person in charge of all of the work that needs to be done.

However, the person eventually will become the owner of all eight accounts. Once everything is in the heir’s name, then the assets can be distributed to the three relatives. There are some tax issues that must be addressed.

First, if the estate is large enough, it may owe federal estate taxes, which will diminish the size of the estate. The limit, if the brother died in 2020, is $11.58 million. If he died in an earlier year, the exemption will be considerably lower, and the estate and the executor may already be late in making federal tax payments. Penalties may apply, so a conversation with an estate planning attorney should take place as soon as possible.

If the brother lived in another state, there may be state estate or inheritance taxes owed to that state. While Texas does not have a state estate or inheritance tax, other states, like Pennsylvania, do. A consultation with an estate planning attorney can also answer this question.

When gifts are ultimately made to the three relatives, the first $15,000 given to each of them during a calendar year will be treated as a non-taxable gift. However, if any of the gifts exceed $15,000, the person will be using up their own $11.58 million exemption from gift and estate taxes. A gift tax return will need to be filed to report the gifts. If the heir is married, those numbers will likely double.

It may be possible to disclaim the inheritance, with the assets passing to the three relatives to whom the heir wishes to make these gifts. An experienced estate planning attorney will be able to work through the details to determine the best way to proceed with receiving and distributing the assets. Depending upon the size of the estate, there will be tax consequences that must be considered.

Reference: Houston Chronicle (March 24, 2020) “Sorting through multiple inheritance accounts”

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Relocating for Retirement, Family … or Taxes? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

When the current health crisis finally passes, many people will have spent time considering what they want to do with their remaining years. That may include relocating. For some people, taxes are a real reason to move to a new state, but some states are more tax-friendly than others, says the article “Best States to Die In…For Taxes” from Tucson.com.

No matter where you live, you have to pay federal estate taxes. However, there are eighteen states in the U.S. that require citizens to pay either estate taxes or inheritance taxes or both. The estate taxes are subtracted from an estate before its assets are distributed to heirs. Inheritance taxes are paid by heirs of the deceased, and it does not matter if the heirs live in another state.

Here are the six states with inheritance taxes: Iowa, Kentucky, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, and Pennsylvania. The good news is that spouses are exempt from having to pay any inheritance taxes, and in New Jersey, it also applies to domestic partners. In some states, children and grandchildren are exempt, but not in Nebraska or Pennsylvania.

For people who live in Nebraska, immediate relatives must pay a 1% tax on inheritance amounts that are more than $40,000. In Pennsylvania, tax rates start at 4.5% for children and lineal heirs. Nebraska has the highest top inheritance tax rate of all the estates at 18%. The others range from 10% to 16%.

Each state has certain exemptions, based on the amount of the inheritance and the heir’s relationship to the deceased. If you receive an inheritance from someone who lives in one of the inheritance tax states, speak with an estate planning attorney, so that you know what tax is due. State law categorizes heirs into types for the purposes of assigning exemptions and tax rates, and these vary by state.

The worst state to die in from an inheritance tax and estate tax perspective is Maryland, which imposes a 16% tax on inheritance above $5 million for persons who died in calendar year 2019. Until recently, New Jersey had a scaled estate tax that ranged from 0.8% to 16.0% on estates over $675,000, but the state no longer imposes any estate tax on the estate of decedents, who die on or after January 1, 2018.

Many inheritances pass through to spouses and children. The exemptions are generally fairly generous, so many people may not run into this issue with estate or inheritance taxes. However, if your estate includes a home within an expensive real estate market, your family may be in for some surprise taxes.

Meet with an estate planning attorney to learn what your state’s estate and inheritance tax rates are, and plan for the future. If you are in a high tax state, relocating may not be a bad idea. Your heirs will appreciate your planning.

Reference: Tucson.com (March 27, 2020) “Best States to Die In…For Taxes”

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If Not Now, When? It is the Time for Estate Planning – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

What else could possibly go wrong? You might not want to ask that question, given recent events. A global pandemic, markets in what feels like free fall, schools closed for an extended period of time—these are just a few of the challenges facing our communities, our nation and our world. The time is now, in other words, to be sure that everyone has their estate planning completed, advises Kiplinger in the article “Coronavirus Legal Advice: Get Your Business and Estate in Order Now.”

Business owners from large and small sized companies are contacting estate planning attorney’s offices to get their plans done. People who have delayed having their estate plans done or never finalized their plans are now getting their affairs in order. What would happen if multiple family members got sick, and a family business was left unprotected?

Because the virus is recognized as being especially dangerous for people who are over age 60 or have underlying medical issues, which includes many business owners and CEOs, the question of “What if I get it?” needs to be addressed. Not having a succession plan or an estate plan, could lead to havoc for the company and the family.

Establishing a Power of Attorney is a key part of the estate plan, in case key decision makers are incapacitated, or if the head of the household cannot take care of paying bills, taxes or taking care of family or business matters. For that, you need a Durable Power of Attorney.

Another document needed now, more than ever: is an Advance Health Care Directive. This explains how you want medical decisions to be made, if you are too sick to make these decisions on your own behalf. It tells your health care team and family members what kind of care you want, what kind of care you do not want and who should make these decisions for you.

This is especially important for people who are living together without the legal protection that being married provides. While some states may recognize registered domestic partners, in other states, medical personnel will not permit someone who is not legally married to another person to be involved in their health care decisions.

Personal information that lives only online is also at risk. Most bills today do not arrive in the mail, but in your email inbox. What happens if the person who pays the bill is in a hospital, on a ventilator? Just as you make sure that your spouse or children know where your estate plan documents are, they also need to know who your estate planning attorney is, where your insurance policies, financial records and legal documents are and your contact list of key friends and family members.

Right now, estate planning attorneys are talking with clients about a “Plan C”—a plan for what would happen if heirs, beneficiaries and contingent beneficiaries are wiped out. They are adding language that states which beneficiaries or charities should receive their assets, if all of the people named in the estate plan have died. This is to maintain control over the distribution of assets, even in a worst-case scenario, rather than having assets pass via the rules of intestate succession. Without a Plan C, an entire estate could go to a distant relative, regardless of whether you wanted that to happen.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 16, 2020) “Coronavirus Legal Advice: Get Your Business and Estate in Order Now.”

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Charitable Giving and Your Estate Plan – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Americans are a country of generous people. We give to organizations that we feel connected to, and we give to charities that we feel are important. We also give to honor our loved ones, to make life better in our communities and to help when disaster strikes.

Most people do not give to charity purely for the tax benefits, but charitable giving has long been a benefit of lowering income taxes during our lifetimes, as well as helping minimize estate taxes when we die, says the article “5 Ways to Incorporate Charitable Giving into Your Estate Plan” from Kiplinger. Therefore, if you are charitably minded, why not achieve the most tax-savings you can? Here are five ways to do this.

Appreciated Stock. Gifts of publicly traded stock that has grown or appreciated in value is a good way to support a charity while you are living. If you sell appreciated stock, you will need to pay capital gains tax on the appreciation. However, if you donate appreciated stock to a charity, you will receive a charitable income tax deduction equal to the full market value of the stock at the time of the gift. That avoids capital gains taxes. You get the benefit on the appreciated amount, without having to sell it. The charity can, if it wants, sell the stock without paying any capital gains taxes, because registered nonprofits are tax exempt.

Charitable Rollovers. If you are older than 70 ½, you may donate up to $100,000 per year to charities directly from your IRA. This is known as a Qualified Charitable Rollover, or a QCD. The QCD counts towards any Required Minimum Distributions (RMDs) that you need to take from your IRA annually. Under the recently passed SECURE Act, in the future RMDs must be taken by December 31, 2020, after the account owner celebrates their 72nd birthday. Because RMDs are taxable income, they are taxed at ordinary income rates.

By donating through a QCD, you can support a charity, fulfill your RMD requirement and exclude the amount that you donate from your taxable income. For those who do not need their RMDs, that’s a win-win situation.

Bequest by Will or Revocable Trust. A more traditional way to support a charity, is to leave an amount in your will or revocable trust. The bequest is language in your will or trust that states the amount you want to leave to the charity, clearly identifying the charity you want to receive the funds, and if you want, stating the purpose that you would want the charity to use the funds. An important point: make sure that you use the legally accurate name of the charity to avoid any confusion. This is a common error that causes no many problems for charities.

Consider also giving a donation that can be used for a charity’s “general purpose.” This lets the charity decide where to best allocate your donation, rather than tying the money to a specific program. If you chose to list a specific purpose, meet with the development office or the executive director at the charity to ensure that they are able to fulfill that desire. Otherwise, the charity may need to refuse the bequest.

Name a Charity as the Beneficiary of Retirement Accounts. This can be done by naming the charity as a beneficiary on the account documents. Be sure to use the legally correct name of the charity. The charity will be able to withdraw funds from the retirement account without paying taxes. People who receive funds from retirement accounts pay income tax rates on distributions, but charities do not. You may want to donate retirement account funds to charities, and non-taxable assets to heirs.

Charitable Remainder Trusts. This is a way to help the charity and provide for heirs. Your estate planning attorney would create a Charitable Remainder Trust (CRT) and names the CRT as the beneficiary of an IRA. A CRT is a “split interest trust,” where a person receives annual payments for the CRT for a set period of time. When the person or charitable organization’s interest in the CRT ends, the remaining funds are distributed to the charity of your choosing. There are very strict rules about how CRTs are structured, including the percentages that the charity must receive. An estate planning attorney will be able to create this for you.

Reference: Kiplinger (March 2, 2020) “5 Ways to Incorporate Charitable Giving into Your Estate Plan”

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