What are Biggest Mistakes in Estate Planning? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Bankrate’s recent article entitled “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan” talks about five things to watch out for with an estate plan. Therefore, as you are making your estate plan, carefully consider everything, and that means it may take some time to complete your plan.  Let us look at five things to watch out for in that process:

  1. Plan your estate now. Of course, it is not just the old and infirm who need an estate plan. Everyone needs a last will so that their last wishes are respected, knowing that the unexpected can happen at any time.
  2. Say who will take care of your minor children. While last wills may typically focus on what happens to your financial assets, you will also want to specify what happens to any minor children on your passing, namely who takes care of them. If you have underage children, you must state who would be a guardian for that child and where that child will live. Without a last will, a judge will decide who will take care of your children. That could be a family member or a state-appointed guardian.
  3. 3. Ask executors if they are willing and able to take on the task. An executor carries out the instructions in your last will. This may be a complicated and time-consuming task. It involves distributing money in accordance with the stipulations of the document and ensuring that the estate is moved properly through the legal system. Make sure you designate an executor who is up to the task. That means you will need to speak with them and make certain that he or she is willing and able to act.
  4. Consider if you want to leave it all to your children. Many young families simply give all their assets to their children when they die. However, if the parents pass away when the children are young, and they do not establish a trust, they have access to all of the money when they reach the age of majority. This could be a great sum of money for a young adult to inherit with no rules on how to use it.
  5. Keep your estate plan up to date. You should review your estate plan regularly, at least every five years to be sure that everything is still how you intend it and that tax laws have not changed in the interim. Your plan could be vastly out of date, depending on changes since you first drafted it.

Estate planning can be a process where you demonstrate to your friends and family how much you care about them and how you have remembered them with certain assets or property.

It is a way to ensure that your loved ones do not have months of work trying to handle your estate.

Reference: Bankrate (July 23, 2021) “Estate planning checklist: 3 key steps to making a successful plan”

 

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No Kids? What Happens to My Estate? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Just because you do not have children or heirs does not mean you should not write a will. If you decide to have children later on, a will can help protect their financial future. However, even if you die with no children, a will can help you ensure that your assets will go to the people, institutions, or organizations of your own choosing. As a result, estate planning is necessary for everyone.

Claremont Portside’s recent article entitled “What Happens to Your Estate If You Die With No Children” says that your estate will go to your spouse or common-law partner, unless stated otherwise in your will. If you do not have any children or a spouse or common-law partner, your estate will go to your living parents. Typically, your estate will be divided equally between them. If you do not have children, a spouse, or living parents, your estate will go to your siblings. If there are any deceased siblings, their share will go to their children.

The best way to make certain your estate goes to the right people, and that your loved ones can divide your assets as easily as possible, is to write a will. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you. As part of this process, you must name an executor. This is a person you appoint who will have the responsibility of administering your estate after you die.

It is not uncommon for people to appoint one of their children as the executor of their will. But if you do not have children, you can appoint another family member or a friend. Select someone who is trustworthy, responsible, impartial and has the mental and emotional resources to take on this responsibility while mourning your death.

You should also be sure to update your will after every major event in your life, like a marriage, the death of one of your intended beneficiaries and divorce. In addition, specifically designating beneficiaries and indicating what they will receive from your estate will help prevent any disputes or contests after your death. If you have no children, you might leave a part (or your entire) estate to friends, and you can also name charities and other organizations as beneficiaries.

It is important to name who should receive items of sentimental value, such as family heirlooms, and it is a good idea to discuss this with your loved ones, in case there are any disputes in the future.

Even without children, estate planning can be complicated, so plan your estate well in advance. That way, when something happens to you, your assets will pass to the right people and your last wishes will be carried out. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney for assistance in creating a comprehensive estate plan.

Reference: Claremont Portside “What Happens to Your Estate If You Die with No Children”

 

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How Can I Be a Super Executor? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Executors are frequently relatives or friends designated in a Last Will and Testament as the final administrator of a deceased person’s estate. If you agreed to serve as an executor, you likely are aware of some of the tasks you will face, closing accounts, inventorying assets and distributing bequests. Even when it is a relatively simple situation — one spouse dies and leaves everything to the other — there can be a lot of paperwork involved. It certainly can get more complicated when a widow dies, and there are several children and numerous assets.

AARP’s recent article entitled “How to Be a Good Executor of a Will or Estate” says being an executor is a tough job. So, heed these steps to make certain that when the time comes for you to serve, you honor the decedent, serve his or her heirs and do your job as efficiently as possible.

Communicate. Be sure that you understand the Will writer’s wishes. You can request that he or she be specific about what he or she truly wants to happen with the estate after his or her death. The Will writer can give an explanation in a last letter of instruction. It is an informal document to be read after he dies that explains his or her decisions.

Do the paperwork. When the person passes away, you must find the Will (the original, not a copy). The Will and the death certificate must be filed with the probate court to get letters testamentary. This authorizes the executor to take any actions required to administer the estate. Get at least a dozen extra certified copies of the death certificate because you will need these to cancel credit cards, sell a home, transfer title to a car and turn off the utilities.

Safeguard property. A vacant house may attract thieves who scan the obituaries, as well as relatives and neighbors who think they are entitled to help themselves. After the death, lock up and secure the property. Move jewelry and other valuables to a safe place. Also, take pictures of the home’s interior to document its contents.

Get organized. The executor must maintain and sell an unoccupied house, stop Social Security payments, pay debts, close financial accounts and file taxes. Start a detailed to-do list, keep good records and create a list of assets and liabilities.

Get a thick skin. Closing out an estate entails managing the emotions of heirs. They also may be your siblings who are resentful of the authority you have been given. If so, give them regular updates to smooth bad feelings that may arise. Total transparency is best.

Distribute personal items. This can be a difficult process, so put a system in place to fairly divide the possessions. Even the most ordinary item may have deep sentimental value to an heir and could cause stress for the executor without your guidance.

Educate the heirs. Heirs and beneficiaries cannot be paid, until all taxes and debts of the estate are settled. Let them know that it may take many months before they will receive payment.

Final steps. Lastly, the executor must pay any debts and taxes owed by the estate, distribute the estate property and give an accounting for the estate to the beneficiaries.

If you have questions, ask an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: AARP (May 7, 2021) “How to Be a Good Executor of a Will or Estate”

 

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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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Should I Discuss Estate Planning with My Children? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

US News & World Report’s recent article entitled “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children” says that staying up-to-date with your estate plan and sharing your plans with your children could make a big impact on your legacy and what you will pay in estate taxes. Let us look at why you should consider talking to your children about estate planning.

People frequently create an estate plan and name their child as the trustee or executor. However, they fail to discuss the role and what is involved with them. Ask your kids if they are comfortable acting as the executor, trustee, or power of attorney. Review what each of the roles involves and explain the responsibilities. The estate documents state some critical responsibilities but do not provide all the details. Having your children involved in the process and getting their buy-in will be a big benefit in the future.

Share information about valuables stored in a fireproof safe or add their name to the safety deposit box. Tell them about your accounts at financial institutions and the titling of the various accounts, so that these accounts are not forgotten, and bills get paid when you are not around.

Parents can get children involved with a meeting with their estate planning attorney to review the estate plan and pertinent duties of each child. If they have questions, an experienced estate planning attorney can answer them in the context of the overall estate plan.

If children are minors, invite the successor trustee to also be part of the meeting.

Explain what you own, what type of accounts you have and how they are treated from a tax perspective.

Discussing your estate plan with your children provides a valuable opportunity to connect with your loved ones, even after you are gone. An individual’s attitudes about money says much about his or her values.

Sharing with your children what your money means to you, and why you are speaking with them about it, will help guide them in honoring your memory.

There are many personal reasons to discuss your estate plans with your children. While it is a simple step, it is not easy to have this conversation. However, the pandemic emphasized the need to not procrastinate when it comes to estate planning. It has also provided an opportunity to discuss these estate plans with your children.

Reference: US News & World Report (Feb. 17, 2021) “Discuss Your Estate Plan With Your Children”

 

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How Much Power Does an Executor Have? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The Pauls Valley Daily Democrat’s recent article entitled “It doesn’t end with the will” explains that there is constant confusion about wills. This misunderstanding involves the scope of power of those named in the will as the personal representative (or executor) of the decedent’s estate. Let us try to straighten out some of these myths or pieces of bad information about wills and probate.

The Executor Does Not Need Court Permission. False. An estate executor or personal representative cannot distribute a decedent’s assets to themselves or to any heirs, until okayed by the court. Many people think that a will provides immediate authorization to distribute the assets of an estate.

If He Had A Will, We Do Not Need Probate. Another incorrect belief is that if a person dies with a will, probate is not needed or required. If a person has a will, the will and the distributions named in it can only be made valid by the probate court. There are ways to avoid the probate process. However, the fact that a person had a will does not do it.

The Executor Can Start Giving Away Stuff ASAP. This is also false. Some people think that as soon as a person receives appointment as the personal representative or executor from the probate court, they can begin distributing assets from the decedent’s estate. Nope. If this were true, it would defeat the objectives of probate, which is court oversight and control.

The Court Does Not Monitor The Executor’s Actions. This statement is also incorrect. The entire probate process is structured to provide a court monitored coordination of a decedent’s estate to make certain that his or her wishes are followed. This also helps to prevent unauthorized distributions or “raids” on a decedent’s assets by improper persons.

Remember, the executor’s Letters Testamentary authorize that person to act for the estate—they do not permit any distributions before court approval or final probate court order.

What Does Probate Do? Probate fulfills these purposes:

  • At death, the deceased’s property is subject to control and monitoring by the court.
  • The court then starts to see what the decedent’s wishes were for distribution and who was named to administer the estate.
  • The court must also review the scope of the estate, define all assets in the estate and determine all debts of the estate.
  • Probate requires a notice to creditors, so the executor has a complete list of debts of the estate and to give each creditor the opportunity to be paid.
  • The court watches any transfers, sales of assets or payments during probate.
  • The executor is authorized to receive money and manage the assets of the estate, but he cannot withdraw or transfer assets from the estate.
  • At a final hearing and after notice to interested parties, the court determines who should get distributions.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about the probate process and how to devise a complete estate plan.

Reference: Pauls Valley Daily Democrat (Oct. 1, 2020) “It doesn’t end with the will”

 

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Why Is Estate Planning more Complicated with a ‘Gray Divorce’? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The increasing divorce rates among Americans over the age of 50 is a problem, because minimizing discord among beneficiaries is one of the top three reasons why people engage in estate planning.

The Clare County Review’s recent article entitled “Rising Gray Divorce Rates Are Making Estate Planning Problems More Complicated” notes that along with prolonged life expectancy and rising healthcare costs, this upward trend in couples divorcing after the age of 50 has created activity and interest in estate planning.

According to the CDC, the divorce rate in the United States is 3.2 per 1,000 people. The ‘first divorce rate,’ or the number of marriages that ended in divorce per 1,000 first marriages for women 18 and older, was 15.4 in 2016, according to research by the National Center for Family and Marriage Research at the Bowling Green State University. As noted earlier, black women experience divorce at the highest rate, 26.1 per 1,000, and the rate is lowest for Asian women at 9.2 per 1,000.  In Michigan, the current divorce rate is 9%, but Tennessee is way up at 43%.

Gray divorce is adding another level of complexity to estate planning that already happens with blended families, designation of heirs and changing domestic structures. Therefore, it is more crucial than ever to proactively review and discuss the estate plans with your estate planning attorney on an ongoing basis.

According to the TD Wealth survey, 39% of respondents said that divorce effects the costs of retirement planning and funding the most. Another 7% said that divorce impacts those responsible for enacting a power of attorney and 6% said divorce impacts how Social Security benefits will be determined.

It is important to communicate the estate plan with family members to reduce family conflict during the divorce process.

The divorce process is complicated at any age. However, for divorcing couples over the age of 50, the process can be especially tough because the spouse is frequently designated as a beneficiary on many, if not all, documents. Each of these documents will need to change to show new beneficiaries after the divorce has been finalized. It means that wills, trusts, retirement accounts, life insurance policies and listed assets will need to be revised.

Reference: Clare County Review (Feb. 10, 2020) “Rising Gray Divorce Rates Are Making Estate Planning Problems More Complicated”

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How Bad Will Your Estate’s Taxes Be? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The federal estate tax has been a small but steady source of federal revenue for nearly 100 years. The tax was first imposed on wealthy families in America in 1916. They were paid by families whose assets were previously passed down through multiple generations completely and utterly untaxed, says the article “Will the government tax your estate when you die, seizing home and assets?” from The Orange County Register.

The words “Death Tax” do not actually appear anywhere in the federal tax code, but was the expression used to create a sympathetic image of the grieving families of farmers and small business owners who were burdened by big tax bills at a time of personal loss, i.e., the death of a parent. The term was made popular in the 1990s by proponents of tax reform, who believed that estate and inheritance taxes were unfair and should be repealed.

Fast forward to today—2020. Will the federal government tax your estate when you die, seize your home and everything you had hoped to hand down to your children? Not likely. Most Americans do not have to worry about estate or death taxes. With the new federal exemptions at a record high of $11,580,000 for singles and twice that much for married couples, only very big estates are subject to a federal estate tax. Add to that, the 100% marital deduction means that a surviving spouse can inherit from a deceased spouse and is not required to pay any estate tax, no matter how big the estate.

However, what about state estate taxes? To date, thirteen states still impose an estate tax, and many of these have exemptions that are considerably lower than the federal tax levels. Six states add to that with an inheritance tax. That is a tax that is levied on the beneficiaries of the estate, usually based upon their relationship to the deceased.

Many estates will still be subject to state estate taxes and income taxes.

The personal representative or executor is responsible and legally authorized to file returns on a deceased person’s behalf. They are usually identified in a person’s will as the executor of the estate. If a family trust holds the assets, the trust document will name a trustee. If there was no will or trust, the probate court will appoint an administrator. This person may be a professional administrator and likely someone who never knew the person whose estate they are now in charge of. This can be very difficult for family members.

If the executor fails to file a return or files an inaccurate or incomplete return, the IRS may assess penalties and interest payments.

The final individual income tax return is filed in just the same way as it would be when the deceased was living. All income up to the date of death must be reported, and all credits and deductions that the person is entitled to can be claimed. The final 1040 should only include income earned from the start of the calendar year to the date of their death. The filing for the final 1040 is the same as for living taxpayers: April 15.

Even if taxes are not due on the 1040, a tax return must be filed for the deceased if a refund is due. To do so, use the Form 1310, Statement of a Person Claiming Refund Due to a Deceased Taxpayer. Anyone who files the final tax return on a decedent’s behalf must complete IRS Form 56, Notice Concerning Fiduciary Relationship, and attach it to the final Form 1040.

If the decedent was married, the widow or widower can file a joint return for the year of death, claiming the full standard deduction and using joint-return rates, as long as they did not remarry in that same year.

An estate planning attorney can help with these and the many other details that must be taken care of, before the estate can be finalized.

Reference: The Orange County Register (March 1, 2020) “Will the government tax your estate when you die, seizing home and assets?”

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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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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