What are Top ‘To-Dos’ in Estate Planning? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Spotlight News’ recent article entitled “Estate Planning To-Dos” says that with the potential for substantial changes to estate and gift tax rules under the Biden administration, this may be an opportune time to create or review our estate plan. If you are not sure where to begin, look at these to-dos for an estate plan.

See an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your plans. The biggest estate planning mistake is having no plan whatsoever. The top triggers for estate planning conversations can be life-altering events, such as a car accident or health crisis. If you already have a plan in place, visit your estate planning attorney and keep it up to date with the changes in your life.

Draft financial and healthcare powers of attorney. Estate plans contain multiple pieces that may overlap, including long-term care plans and powers of attorney. These say who has decision-making power in the event of a medical emergency.

Draft a healthcare directive. Living wills and other advance directives are written to provide legal instructions describing your preferences for medical care, if you are unable to make decisions for yourself. Advance care planning is a process that includes quality of life decisions and palliative and hospice care.

Make a will. A will is one of the foundational aspects of estate planning, However, this is frequently the only thing people do when estate planning. A huge misconception about estate planning is that a will can oversee the distribution of all assets. A will is a necessity, but you should think about estate plans holistically—as more than just a will. For example, a modern aspect of financial planning that can be overlooked in wills and estate plans is digital assets.  It is also recommended that you ask an experienced estate planning attorney about whether a trust fits into your circumstances, and to help you with the other parts of a complete estate plan.

Review beneficiary designations. Retirement plans, life insurance, pensions and annuities are independent of the will and require beneficiary designations. One of the biggest estate planning mistakes is having outdated beneficiary designations, which only supports the need to review estate plans and designated beneficiaries with an experienced estate planning attorney on a regular basis.

Reference: Spotlight News (May 19, 2021) “Estate Planning To-Dos”

 

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Do You Have to Do Probate when Someone Dies? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Probate is a Latin term meaning “to prove.” Legally, a deceased person may not own property, so the moment a person dies, the property they owned while living is in a legal state of limbo. The rightful owners must prove their ownership in court, explains the article “Wills and Probate” from Southlake Style. Probate refers to the legal process that recognizes a person’s death, proves whether or not a valid last will exists and who is entitled to assets the decedent owned while they were living.

The probate court oversees the payment of the decedent’s debts, as well as the distribution of their assets. The court’s role is to facilitate this process and protect the interests of all creditors and beneficiaries of the estate. The process is known as “probate administration.”

Having a last will does not automatically transfer property. The last will must be properly probated first. If there is a last will, the estate is described as “testate.” The last will must contain certain language and have been properly executed by the testator (the decedent) and the witnesses. Every state has its own estate laws. Therefore, to be valid, the last will must follow the rules of the person’s state. A last will that is valid in one state may be invalid in another.

The court must give its approval that the last will is valid and confirm the executor is suited to perform their duties. Texas is one of a few states that allow for independent administration, where the court appoints an administrator who submits an inventory of assets and liabilities. The administration goes on with no need for probate judge’s approval, as long as the last will contains the specific language to qualify.

If there was no last will, the estate is considered to be “intestate” and the laws of the state determine who inherits what assets. The laws rely on the relationship between the decedent and the genetic or bloodline family members. An estranged relative could end up with everything. The estate distribution is more likely to be challenged if there is no last will, causing additional family grief, stress and expenses.

The last will should name an executor or administrator to carry out the terms of the last will. The executor can be a family member or a trusted friend, as long as they are known to be honest and able to manage financial and legal transactions. Administering an estate takes time, depending upon the complexity of the estate and how the person managed the business side of their lives. The executor pays bills, may need to sell a home and also deals with any creditors.

The smart estate plan includes assets that are not transferrable by the last will. These are known as “non-probate” assets and go directly to the heirs, if the beneficiary designation is properly done. They can include life insurance proceeds, pensions, 401(k)s, bank accounts and any asset with a beneficiary designation. If all of the assets in an estate are non-probate assets, assets of the estate are easily and usually quickly distributed. Many people accomplish this through the use of a Living Trust.

Every person’s life is different, and so is their estate plan. Family dynamics, the amount of assets owned and how they are owned will impact how the estate is distributed. Start by meeting with an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare for the future.

Reference: Southlake Style (May 17, 2021) “Wills and Probate”

 

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What is not Covered by a Will? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A Last Will and Testament is one part of a holistic estate plan used to direct the distribution of property after a person has died.  A recent article titled “What you can’t do with a will” from Ponte Vedra Recorder explains how Wills work, and the types of property not distributed through a Will.

Wills are used to inform the probate court regarding your choice of Guardians for any minor children and the Executor of your estate. Without a Will, both of those decisions will be made by the court.  It is better to make those decisions yourself and to make them legally binding with a will.

Lacking a Will, an estate will be distributed according to the laws of the state, which creates extra expenses and sometimes, leads to life-long fights between family members.

Property distributed through a Will necessarily must be processed through a probate, a formal process involving a court.  However, some assets do not pass through probate.  Here is how non-probate assets are distributed:

Jointly Held Property. When one of the “joint tenants” dies, their interest in the property ends and the other joint tenant owns the entire property.

Property in Trust. Assets owned by a trust pass to the beneficiaries under the terms of the trust, with the guidance of the Trustee.

Life Insurance. Proceeds from life insurance policies are distributed directly to the named beneficiaries.  Whatever a Will says about life insurance proceeds does not matter—the beneficiary designation is what controls this distribution, unless there is no beneficiary designated.

Retirement Accounts. IRAs, 401(k) and similar assets pass to named beneficiaries.  In most cases, under federal law, the surviving spouse is the automatic beneficiary of a 401(k), although there are always exceptions.  The owner of an IRA may name a preferred beneficiary.

Transfer on Death (TOD) Accounts. Some investment accounts have the ability to name a designated beneficiary who receives the assets upon the death of the original owner.  They transfer outside of probate.

Here are some things that should NOT be included in your Will:

Funeral instructions might not be read until days or even weeks after death. Create a separate letter of instructions and make sure family members know where it is.

Provisions for a special needs family member need to be made separately from a Will.  A special needs trust is used to ensure that the family member can inherit assets but does not become ineligible for government benefits.  Talk to an elder law estate planning attorney about how this is best handled.

Conditions on gifts should not be addressed in a will. Certain conditions are not permitted by law.  If you want to control how and when assets are distributed, you want to create a trust. The trust can set conditions, like reaching a certain age or being fully employed, etc., for a Trustee to release funds.

Reference: Ponte Vedra Recorder (April 15, 2021) “What you can’t do with a will”

 

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Why are Beneficiary Designations Important in Estate Planning? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Not having your beneficiary designations set up correctly can cause a lot of trouble after you pass away.

A designated beneficiary is named on a life insurance policy or on a financial account as the person who will receive those assets, in the event of the account holder’s death.

This person usually must file a claim with a copy of the death certificate to receive the assets.

NJ Money Help’s recent article entitled “Beneficiary designation – specific or not?” says that naming a beneficiary takes a little consideration.

When naming the beneficiaries on your accounts or insurance policies, you should always consider a primary and secondary (or contingent) beneficiary.

The owner of a policy or account can name multiple beneficiaries. The proceeds or assets can be divided among more than one primary beneficiary. Likewise, there can also be more than one secondary beneficiary.

The primary beneficiary or beneficiaries are the first ones to receive the asset. The secondary beneficiary is next in line if the primary beneficiary dies before the owner of the asset, cannot be found, or refuses to accept the asset.

Note that simply naming beneficiaries in generic terms, such as “wife,” “spouse”’ or “children,” may create legal issues, if there is a divorce or in case someone becomes disenfranchised.

It is always best to name your beneficiaries specifically and if they are minors, make certain you have designated a guardian.

Because our lives are constantly changing, you should review your life insurance policies, IRAs, 401(k)s, and any other instruments that require beneficiary designations every couple of years to make certain that everything is exactly the way you want.

Reference: NJ Money Help (Oct. 2017) “Beneficiary designation – specific or not?”

 

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How Do You Plan for the Death of a Spouse? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The COVID pandemic has become a painful lesson in how important it is to having estate plans in order, especially when a spouse becomes sick, incapacitated, or dies unexpectedly. With more than 400,000 Americans dead from the coronavirus, not every one of them had an estate plan and a financial plan in place, leaving loved ones to make sense of their estate while grieving. This recent article from Market Watch titled “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying” offers five things to do before the worst occurs.

Start by gathering information. Make all of your accounts known and put together paperwork about each and every account. Look for documents that will become crucial, including a durable power of attorney, an advanced health care directive and a last will. Gather paperwork for life insurance policies, investment portfolios and retirement accounts. Create a list of contact information for your estate planning attorney, accountant, insurance agent, doctors and financial advisors and share it with the people who will be responsible for managing your life. In addition, call these people, so they have as much information as possible—this could make things easier for a surviving spouse. Consider making introductions, via phone or a video call, especially if you have been the key point person for these matters.

Create a hard copy binder for all of this information or a file, so your loved ones do not have to conduct a scavenger hunt.

If there is an estate plan in place, discuss it with your spouse and family members so everyone is clear about what is going to happen. If your estate plan has not been updated in several years, that needs to be done. There have been many big changes to tax law, and you may be missing important opportunities that will benefit those left behind.

If there is no estate plan, something is better than nothing. A trust can be done to transfer assets, as long as the trust is funded properly and promptly.

Confirm beneficiary designations. Check everything for accuracy. If ex-spouses, girlfriends, or boyfriends are named on accounts that have not been reviewed for decades, there will be a problem for the family. Problems also arise when no one is listed as a beneficiary. Beneficiary designations are used in many different accounts, including retirement accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, stock options, restricted stock and deferred compensation plans.

Many Americans die without a will, known as “intestate.” With no will, the court must rely on the state’s estate laws, which does not always result in the people you wanted receiving your property. Any immediate family or next of kin may become heirs, even if they were people you with whom you were not close or from whom you may even have been estranged. Having no will can lead to estate battles or having strangers claim part of your estate.

If there are minor children and no will to declare who their guardian should be, the court will decide that also. If you have minor children, you must have a will to protect them and a plan for their financial support.

Create a master list of digital assets. These assets range from photographs to financial accounts, utility bills and phone bills to URLs for websites. What would happen to your social media accounts, if you died and no one could access them? Some platforms provide for a legacy contact, but many do not. Prepare what information you can to avoid the loss of digital assets that have financial and sentimental value.

Gathering these materials and having these conversations is difficult, but they are a necessity if a family member receives a serious diagnosis. If there is no estate plan in place, have a conversation with an estate planning attorney who can advise what can be done, even in a limited amount of time.

Reference: Market Watch (Jan. 22, 2021) “How to get your affairs in order if your spouse is dying”

 

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What Happens If Trust Not Funded – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning Attorneys

Revocable trusts can be an effective way to avoid probate and provide for asset management, in case you become incapacitated. These revocable trusts — also known as “living” trusts — are very flexible and can achieve many other goals.

Point Verda Recorder’s recent article entitled “Don’t forget to fund your revocable trust” explains that you cannot take advantage of what the trust has to offer, if you do not place assets in it. Failing to fund the trust means that your assets may be required to go through a costly probate proceeding or be distributed to unintended recipients. This mistake can ruin your entire estate plan.

Transferring assets to the trust—which can be anything like real estate, bank accounts, or investment accounts—requires you to retitle the assets in the name of the trust.

If you place bank and investment accounts into your trust, you need to retitle them with words similar to the following: “[your name and co-trustee’s name] as Trustees of [trust name] Revocable Trust created by agreement dated [date].” An experienced estate planning attorney should be consulted.

Depending on the institution, you might be able to change the name on an existing account. If not, you will need to create a new account in the name of the trust, and then transfer the funds. The financial institution will probably require a copy of the trust, or at least of the first page and the signature page, as well as the signatures of all the trustees.

Provided you are serving as your own trustee or co-trustee, you can use your Social Security number for the trust. If you are not a trustee, the trust will have to obtain a separate tax identification number and file a separate 1041 tax return each year. You will still be taxed on all of the income, and the trust will pay no separate tax.

If you are placing real estate in a trust, ask an experienced estate planning attorney to make certain this is done correctly.

You should also consult with an attorney before placing life insurance or annuities into a revocable trust and talk with an experienced estate planning attorney, before naming the trust as the beneficiary of your IRAs or 401(k). This may impact your taxes.

Reference: Point Verda Recorder (Nov. 19, 2020) “Don’t forget to fund your revocable trust”

 

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Can I Fund a Trust with Life Insurance? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

A trust is a legal vehicle in which assets are legally titled and held for the benefit of another party, the beneficiary, explains Forbes’ recent article entitled “How To Fund A Trust With Life Insurance.” The article says that trusts are often funded with a life insurance policy. This will provide assets to be used after the death of the insured for the benefit of their family. If you are a parent of minor children, the combination of life insurance and a trust may be the best way to make certain that your children have their financial needs satisfied and also make sure the assets are used in ways you want.

Trusts are either revocable or irrevocable. A revocable living trust is the most frequently used type of trust. It has some major benefits, like the ability to avoid probate, which can be an expensive and lengthy process. Assets in a revocable trust are accessible much more quickly than those left through a will.  Because they are revocable, the person who creates the trust (the grantor) can also make adjustments to the trust, as their situation changes.

A grantor will fund the trust with assets for the trust beneficiaries. For parents of minor children, funding a trust using term life insurance is an inexpensive tactic to make certain that your children are cared for after your death. Typically, each parent buys a life insurance policy, and in a two-parent household, usually each spouse names the other as the primary beneficiary with a revocable living trust as the contingent beneficiary.

If the second parent was to die, the life insurance policies would pay to the trust. The trustee would manage the trust assets for the minor children. Funding a trust with life insurance also benefits heirs, because it provides liquidity right after your death. Other assets like investment accounts and real estate can be very illiquid or have tax consequences. As a result, it can take a while to get to that equity.

On the other hand, term life insurance is a fast and tax-free funding way to build a trust. Purchase a term life policy that will last until your children are adults and out of college. In making the life insurance paid to a trust with your children as beneficiaries, you also have some control over the assets. If you name minor children as beneficiaries on a life insurance policy, they will not be able to use the money until they are an adult. Some children may also not be financially responsible enough to manage money as young adults in their 20s.

If you already own a life insurance policy and want to create a trust, you can transfer ownership of the policy to the trust. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 17, 2020) “How To Fund A Trust With Life Insurance”

 

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What Should I Know about Beneficiaries? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

When you open almost any kind of financial account, like a bank account, life insurance, a brokerage account, or a retirement account – the institution will ask you to designate a beneficiary. You will also name beneficiaries when you create a will or other legal contracts that require you to specify someone to benefit. With some trusts, the beneficiary may even be you and your spouse while you are alive.

The beneficiary is typically a person, but it could be any number of individuals, as well as the trustee of your trust, your estate, or a charity.

When you are opening an account, many people forget to choose a beneficiary, mainly because it is not necessary to do so with many financial accounts. However, you should name your beneficiaries, because it ensures that your assets will pass to the people you intend. It also eliminates conflict and can decrease legal interference.

There are two basic types of beneficiaries: a primary beneficiary and a contingent beneficiary. A primary beneficiary (or beneficiaries) is first in line to get the distributions from your assets. You can assign different percentages of your account to this group. A contingent beneficiary will benefit, if one or more of the primary beneficiaries is unable to collect (typically upon death).

You should review the designations regularly, especially when there is a major life event, such as a death, divorce, adoption, or birth. This may change who you want to be your beneficiary.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you make certain that any language in your will, does not conflict with beneficiary designations. Beneficiary designations take precedence over your will.

You can have a minor child as a beneficiary, but a minor usually cannot hold property. Consequently, you will need to set up a structure, so the child receives the assets. You can appoint a guardian who will keep the assets in custody for the minor. You may also be able to use a trust to the same effect but with an added benefit: you can state that the assets be given to beneficiaries, only when they reach a certain age or for a certain purpose, like buying a first home or for college tuition.

With estate planning, ask an attorney to help you structure any legal documents, so they achieve your aims without creating further complications.

Reference: Bankrate (July 1, 2020) “What is a beneficiary?”

 

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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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Coronavirus Makes Estate and Tax Planning an Urgent Task – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The Covid-19 pandemic has brought estate planning front and center to many people who would otherwise dismiss it as something they would get to at some point in the future, says the article “Estate and Life Insurance Considerations During the Covid-19 Pandemic” from Bloomberg Tax. Many do not have a frame of reference to address the medical, legal, financial, and insurance questions that now need to be addressed promptly. They have never experienced anything like today’s world. The time to get your affairs in order is now.

What will happen if we get sick? Will we recover? Who will take care of us and make legal decisions for us? What if a family member is in an assisted living facility and is incapacitated? All of these “what if” questions are now pressing concerns. Now is the time to review all legal, insurance and financial plans, and take into consideration two new laws: the SECURE Act and the CARES Act.

An experienced estate planning attorney who focuses in estate planning will save you an immense amount of money. Bargain hunters be careful: a small mistake or oversight in an estate plan can lead to expensive consequences. A competent legal professional is the best investment.

Here is an example of what can go wrong: A person names two minor children—under age 18—as beneficiaries on their IRA account, life insurance policy or bank account. The person dies. Minors are not permitted to hold title to assets. Minors in New York are considered wards of the court in need of protection and court supervision. Therefore, in this state, the result of the beneficiary designation means that a special Surrogate’s Court proceeding will need to occur to have a pecuniary guardian appointed for the minors, even if the applicant is their custodial guardian.

Another “what if?” is the support for a disabled or special needs beneficiary who may be receiving government support. If the parents are gone, who will care for their disabled child? What if there are not enough assets in the estate to provide supplemental financial support, in addition to the government benefits? Life insurance can be used to fund a special needs trust to ensure that their child will not be dependent upon family or friends to care for their needs. However, if there is no special needs trust in place, an inheritance may put the child’s government support in jeopardy.

Here are the core estate planning documents to be prepared:

  • Last Will and Testament
  • Revocable Living Trust
  • Durable General Power of Attorney
  • Health Care Declaration

The SECURE Act changed the rules regarding inherited IRAs. With the exception of a surviving spouse and a few other exempt individuals, the required minimum distributions must be taken within a ten- year time period. This causes an additional income tax liability for future generations. There are strategies to reduce the impact, but they require advance planning with the help of an estate planning attorney.

Reference: Bloomberg Tax (June 18, 2020) “Estate and Life Insurance Considerations During the Covid-19 Pandemic”

 

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