How Can I Minimize My Probate Estate? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Having a properly prepared estate plan is especially important if you have minor children who would need a guardian, are part of a blended family, are unmarried in a committed relationship or have complicated family dynamics—especially those with drama. There are things you can do to protect yourself and your loved ones, as described in the article “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate” from the Indianapolis Business Journal.

Probate is the process through which debts are paid and assets are divided after a person passes away. There will be probate of an estate whether or not a will and estate plan was done, but with no careful planning, there will be added emotional strain, costs and challenges left to your family.

Dying with no will, known as “intestacy,” means the state’s laws will determine who inherits your possessions subject to probate. Depending on where you live, your spouse could inherit everything, or half of everything, with the rest equally divided among your children. If you have no children and no spouse, your parents may inherit everything. If you have no children, spouse or living parents, the next of kin might be your heir. An estate planning attorney can make sure your will directs the distribution of your property.

Probate is the process of giving someone you designate in your will—the executor—the authority to inventory your assets, pay debts and taxes and eventually transfer assets to heirs. In an estate, there are two types of assets—probate and non-probate. Only assets subject to the probate process need go through probate. All other assets pass directly to new owners, without involvement of the court or becoming part of the public record.

Many people embark on estate planning to avoid having their assets pass through probate. This may be because they don’t want anyone to know what they own, they don’t want creditors or estranged family members to know what they own, or they simply want to enhance their privacy. An estate plan is used to take assets out of the estate and place them under ownership to retain privacy.

Some of the ways to remove assets from the probate process are:

Living trusts. Assets are moved into the trust, which means the title of ownership must change. There are pros and cons to using a living trust, which your estate planning attorney can review with you.

Beneficiary designations. Retirement accounts, investment accounts and insurance policies are among the assets with a named beneficiary. These assets can go directly to beneficiaries upon your death. Make sure your named beneficiaries are current.

Payable on Death (POD) or Transferable on Death (TOD) accounts. It sounds like a simple solution to own many accounts and assets jointly. However, it has its own challenges. If you wished any of the assets in a POD or TOD account to go to anyone else but the co-owner, there’s no way to enforce your wishes.

Contact us to speak with one of our experienced estate planning attorneys.  An experienced, local estate planning attorney will be the best resource to prepare your estate for probate. If there is no estate plan, an administrator may be appointed by the court and the entire distribution of your assets will be done under court supervision. This takes longer and will include higher court costs.

Reference: Indianapolis Business Journal (Aug. 26,2022) “Try these steps to minimize your probate estate”

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Estate Planning for Blended Families – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Today, a blended family is more common than ever, with stepfamily members, half-siblings, former spouses, new spouses and every combination of parents, children and partners imaginable. Traditional estate planning, including wills and non-probate tools like transfer on death (TOD) documents, as valuable as they are, may not be enough for the blended family, advises a recent article titled “Legal-Ease: Hers, his and ours—blended family estate planning” from limaohio.com.

Not too long ago, when most people didn’t take advantage of the power of trusts, couples often went for estate plans with “mirror” wills, even those with children from prior marriages. Their wills basically said each spouse would leave the other spouse everything. This will would be accompanied by a contract stating neither would change their will for the rest of their lives. If there was a subsequent marriage after one spouse passed, this led to problems for the new couple, since the surviving spouse was legally bound not to change their will.

As an illustration, Bob has three children from his first marriage and Sue has two kids from her first marriage. They marry and have two children of their own. Their wills stipulate they’ll leave each other everything when the first one dies. There may have been some specific language about what would happen to the children from the first marriages, but just as likely this would not have been addressed.

It sounds practical enough, but in this situation, the children from the first spouse to die were at risk of being disinherited, unless plans were made for them to inherit from their biological parent.

Todays’ blended family benefits from the use of trusts, which are designed to protect each spouse, their children and any child or children they have together. There are a number of different kinds of trusts for use by spouses only to protect children and surviving spouses.

Trust law requires the trustee—the person who is in charge of administering the trust—to give a copy of the trust to each beneficiary. The trustee is also required to provide updates to beneficiaries about the assets in the trust.

A surviving spouse will most likely serve as the trustee when the first spouse passes and will have a legal responsibility to honor the shared wishes of the first spouse to pass.

If you would like to learn more about the many different types of spousal trusts, and which is best for your situation, contact us and schedule a time to speak with one of our experienced estate planning attorneys.

Reference: limaohio.com (Aug. 20, 2022) “Legal-Ease: Hers, his and ours—blended family estate planning”

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Is Estate Planning Affected by Property in Two States? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Cleveland Jewish News’ recent article titled “Use attorney when considering multi-state estate plan says that if a person owns real estate or other tangible property (like a boat) in another state, they should think about creating a trust that can hold all their real estate. You do not need one for each state. You can assign or deed their property to the trust, no matter where the property is located.

Some inherited assets require taxes be paid by the inheritors. Those taxes are determined by the laws of the state in which the asset is located.

A big mistake that people frequently make is not creating a trust. When a person fails to do this, their assets will go to probate. Some other common errors include improperly titling the property in their trust or failing to fund the trust. When those things occur, ancillary probate is required.  This means a probate estate needs to be opened in the other state. As a result, there may be two probate estates going on in two different states, which can mean twice the work and expense, as well as twice the stress.

Having two estates going through probate simultaneously in two different states can delay the time it takes to close the probate estate.

There are some other options besides using a trust to avoid filing an ancillary estate. Most states let an estate holder file a “transfer on death affidavit,” also known as a “transfer on death deed” or “beneficiary deed” when the asset is real estate. This permits property to go directly to a beneficiary without needing to go through probate.

A real estate owner may also avoid probate by appointing a co-owner with survivorship rights on the deed. Do not attempt this without consulting an attorney.

If you have real estate, like a second home, in another state (and) you die owning that individually, you are going to have to probate that in the state where it is located. It is usually best to avoid probate in multiple jurisdictions, and also to avoid probate altogether.

A co-owner with survivorship is an option for avoiding probate. If there is no surviving spouse, or after the first one dies, you could transfer the estate to their revocable trust.

Each state has different requirements. If you are going to move to another state or have property in another state, you should consult with a local estate planning attorney.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (March 21, 2022) “Use attorney when considering multi-state estate plan”

 

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What a Will Won’t Accomplish – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Everyone needs a will. A last will and testament is how an executor is named to manage your estate, how a guardian is named to care for any minor children and how you give directions for distribution of property. However, not all property passes via your will. You will want to know what a will can and cannot do, as well as how assets are distributed outside of a will. This was the topic of “The Legal Limits of Your Will” from AARP Magazine.

Retirement and Pension Accounts

The beneficiaries named on retirement accounts, including 401(k)s, pensions, and IRAs, receive these assets directly. Some states have laws about requiring spouses to receive some or all assets. However, if you do not keep these beneficiary names updated, the wrong person may receive the asset, like it or not. Do not expect anyone to willingly give up a surprise windfall. If a primary beneficiary has died and no contingency beneficiary was named, the recipient may also be determined by default terms, which may not be what you have in mind.

Life Insurance Policies.

The beneficiary designations on an insurance policy determine who will receive proceeds upon your death. Laws vary by state, so check with an estate planning attorney to learn what would happen if you died without updating life insurance policies. A simpler strategy is to create a list of all of your financial accounts, determine how they are distributed and update names as necessary.

Note there are exceptions to all rules. If your divorce agreement includes a provision naming your ex as the sole beneficiary, you may not have an option to make a change.

Financial Accounts

Adding another person to your bank account through various means—Payable on Death (POD), Transfer on Death (TOD), or Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship (JTWROS)—may generally override a will, but may not be acceptable for all accounts, or to all financial institutions. There are unanticipated consequences of transferring assets this way, including the simplest: once transferred, assets are immediately vulnerable to creditors, divorce proceedings, etc.

Trusts

Trusts are used in estate planning to remove assets from a personal estate and place them in safekeeping for beneficiaries. Once the assets are properly transferred into the trust, their distribution and use are defined by the trust document. The flexibility and variety of trusts makes this a key estate planning tool, regardless of the value of the assets in the estate.

Reference: AARP Magazine (Sep. 29, 2021) “The Legal Limits of Your Will”

 

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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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Can I Add Real Estate Investments in My Will? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Motley Fool’s recent article entitled “How to Include Real Estate Investments in Your Will” details some options that might make sense for you and your intended beneficiaries.

A living trust. A revocable living trust allows you to transfer any deeds into the trust’s name. While you are still living, you would be the trustee and be able to change the trust in whatever way you wanted. Trusts are a little more costly and time consuming to set up than wills, so you will need to hire an experienced estate planning attorney to help. Once it is done, the trust will let your trustee transfer any trust assets quickly and easily, while avoiding the probate process.

A beneficiary deed. This is also known as a “transfer-on-death deed.” It is a process that involves getting a second deed to each property that you own. The beneficiary deed will not impact your ownership of the property while you are alive, but it will let you to make a specific beneficiary designation for each property in your portfolio. After your death, the individual executing your estate plan will be able to transfer ownership of each asset to its designated beneficiary. However, not all states allow for this method of transferring ownership. Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney about the laws in your state.

Co-ownership. You can also pass along real estate assets without probate, if you co-own the property with your designated beneficiary. You would change the title for the property to list your beneficiary as a joint tenant with right of survivorship. The property will then automatically by law pass directly to your beneficiary when you die. Note that any intended beneficiaries will have an ownership interest in the property from the day you put them on the deed. This means that you will have to consult with them, if you want to sell the property.

Wills and estate plans can feel like a ghoulish topic that requires considerable effort. However, it is worth doing the work now to avoid having your estate go through the probate process once you die. The probate process can be expensive and lengthy. It is even more so, when real estate is involved.

Reference: Motley Fool (June 22, 2020) “How to Include Real Estate Investments in Your Will”

 

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Should I Give My Kid the House Now or Leave It to Him in My Will? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Transferring your house to your children while you are alive may avoid probate, the court process that otherwise follows death. However, gifting a home also can result in a big, unnecessary tax burden and put your house at risk, if your children are sued or file for bankruptcy.

Further, you also could be making a big mistake, if you hope it will help keep the house from being used for your nursing home bills.

MarketWatch’s recent article entitled “Why you shouldn’t give your house to your adult children” advises that there are better ways to transfer a house to your children, as well as a little-known potential fix that may help even if the giver has since passed away.

If you bequeath a house to your children so that they get it after your death, they get a “step-up in tax basis.” All the appreciation that occurred while the parent owned the house is never taxed. However, when a parent gives an adult child a house, it can be a tax nightmare for the recipient. For example, if the mother paid $16,000 for her home in 1976, and the current market value is $200,000, none of that gain would be taxable, if the son inherited the house.

Families who see this mistake in time can undo the damage, by gifting the house back to the parent.

Sometimes people transfer a home to try to qualify for Medicaid, the government program that pays health care and nursing home bills for the poor. However, any gifts or transfers made within five years of applying for the program can result in a penalty period, when seniors are disqualified from receiving benefits.

In addition, giving your home to someone else also can expose you to their financial problems. Their creditors could file liens on your home and, depending on state law, get some or most of its value. In a divorce, the house could become an asset that must be sold and divided in a property settlement.

However, Tax Code says that if the parent retains a “life interest” or “life estate” in the property, which includes the right to continue living there, the home would remain in her estate rather than be considered a completed gift.

There are specific rules for what qualifies as a life interest, including the power to determine what happens to the property and liability for its bills. To make certain, a child, as executor of his mother’s estate, could file a gift tax return on her behalf to show that he was given a “remainder interest,” or the right to inherit when his mother’s life interest expired at her death.

There are smarter ways to transfer a house. There are other ways around probate. Many states and DC permit “transfer on death” deeds that let people leave their homes to beneficiaries without having to go through probate. Another option is a living trust.

Reference: MarketWatch (April 16, 2020) “Why you shouldn’t give your house to your adult children”

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What are the Main Estate Planning Blunders to Avoid? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

There are a few important mistakes that can make an estate plan defective—most of these can be easily avoided by reviewing your estate plan periodically and keeping it up to date.

Investopedia’s article from a few years ago entitled “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning” lists these common blunders:

Not Updating Your Beneficiaries. Big events like a marriage, divorce, birth, adoption and death can all have an effect on who will receive your assets. Be certain that those you want to inherit your property are clearly detailed as such on the proper forms. Whenever you have a life change, update your estate plan, as well as all your financial, retirement accounts and insurance policies.

Forgetting Important Legal Documents. Your will may be just fine, but it will not exempt your assets from the probate process in most states, if the dollar value of your estate exceeds a certain amount. Some assets are inherently exempt from probate by law, like life insurance, retirement plans and annuities and any financial account that has a transfer on death (TOD) beneficiary listed. You should also make sure that you nominate the guardians of minor children in your will, in the event that something should happen to you and/or your spouse or partner.

Lousy Recordkeeping. There are few things that your family will like less than having to spend a huge amount of time and effort finding, organizing and hunting down all of your assets and belongings without any directions from you on where to look. Create a detailed letter of instruction that tells your executor or executrix where everything is found, along with the names and contact information of everyone with whom they will have to work, like your banker, broker, insurance agent, financial planner, etc.. You should also list all of the financial websites you use with your login info, so that your accounts can be conveniently accessed.

Bad Communication. Telling your loved ones that you will do one thing with your money or possessions and then failing to make provisions in your plan for that to happen is a sure way to create hard feelings, broken relationships and perhaps litigation. It is a good idea to compose a letter of explanation that sets out your intentions or tells them why you changed your mind about something. This could help in providing closure or peace of mind (despite the fact that it has no legal authority).

No Estate Plan. While this is about the most obvious mistake in the list, it is also one of the most common. There are many tales of famous people who lost virtually all of their estates to court fees and legal costs, because they failed to plan.

These are just a few of the common estate planning errors that commonly happen. Make sure they do not happen to you: talk to a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (Sep. 30, 2018) “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning”

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Estate Planning for Unmarried Couples – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

For some couples, getting married just does not feel necessary. However, they do not enjoy the automatic legal rights and protections that legally wed spouses do, especially when it comes to death. There are many spousal rights that come with a marriage certificate, reports CNBC in the article “Here is what happens to your partner if you are not married and you die.” Without the benefit of marriage, extra planning is necessary to protect each other.

Taxes are a non-starter. There is no federal or state income tax form that will permit a non-married couple to file jointly. If one of the couple’s employers is the source of health insurance for both, the amount that the company contributes is taxable to the employee. A spouse does not have to pay taxes on health insurance.

More important, however, is what happens when one of the partners dies or becomes incapacitated. A number of documents need to be created, so should one become incapacitated, the other is able to act on their behalf. Preparations also need to be made, so the surviving partner is protected and can manage the deceased’s estate.

In order to be prepared, an estate plan is necessary. Creating a plan for what happens to you and your estate is critical for unmarried couples who want their commitment to each other to be protected at death. The general default for a married couple is that everything goes to the surviving spouse. However, for unmarried couples, the default may be a sibling, children, parents or other relatives. It will not be the unmarried partner.

This is especially true, if a person dies with no will. The courts in the state of residence will decide who gets what, depending upon the law of that state. If there are multiple heirs who have conflicting interests, it could become nasty—and expensive.

However, a will is not all that is needed.

Most tax-advantaged accounts—Roth IRAs, traditional IRAs, 401(k) plans, etc.—have beneficiaries named. That person receives the assets upon death of the owner. The same is true for investment accounts, annuities, life insurance and any financial product that has a beneficiary named. The beneficiary receives the asset, regardless of what is in the will. Therefore, checking beneficiaries need to be part of the estate plan.

Checking, savings and investment accounts that are in both partner’s names will become the property of the surviving person, but accounts with only one person’s name on them will not. A Transfer on Death (TOD) or Payable on Death (POD) designation should be added to any single-name accounts.

Unmarried couples who own a home together need to check how the deed is titled, regardless who is on the mortgage. The legal owner is the person whose name is on the deed. If the house is only in one person’s name, it will not become part of the estate. Change the deed so both names are on the deed with rights of survivorship, so both are entitled to assume full ownership upon the death of the other.

To prepare for incapacity, an estate planning attorney can help create a durable power of attorney for health care, so partners will be able to make medical decisions on each other’s behalf. A living will should also be created for both people, which states wishes for end of life decisions. For financial matters, a durable power of attorney will allow each partner to have control over each other’s financial affairs.

It takes a little extra planning for unmarried couples, but the peace of mind that comes from knowing that you have prepared to care for each other, until death do you part, is priceless.

Reference: CNBC (Dec. 16, 2019) “Here is what happens to your partner if you are not married and you die”

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Can I Add an Adult Daughter to the Title of a Home? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

It is surprising that the lender would not allow this 77-year-old widowed woman to add her daughter to the title of her your home, says The Ledger’s recent article “Leaving your home to a family member? Consider these options.” Typically, the mortgage lender likes to make sure that the borrower on the loan is the same as the owners on the title to the property. However, if a senior wanted to add her daughter, it is not uncommon for a lender to allow a non-borrower spouse or child to be on the title but not on the loan. When the lender permits this, all the loan documents are signed by the borrower and a few documents would also be signed by the non-borrowing owner of the home.

In this situation where the mother closed on the loan, and the lender refused to put the daughter on the title to the home, there are a few options. One option is to do nothing but be certain sure that there is a valid will in place with instructions that the home is to go to the daughter. When the mother passes away, the daughter would have to wait while the will is probated, then transfer the title to her name or sell the place. The probate process will increase some costs and can be a little stressful, especially if someone is grieving the loss of a family member.

A second option is for the mother to create a living trust and transfer the title of the home to the trust—she would be the owner and trustee. The mother would name her daughter as the successor beneficiary and trustee of the trust. Upon the mother’s death, the daughter would assume the role of trustee.

The next option is a transfer on death (or “TOD”) instrument. Some real estate professionals do not like to use this document. It may not be acceptable depending on state law, but the TOD would allow the mother to record a document now that would state that upon her death the home would go to her daughter.

Finally, the mother could transfer ownership of the home to her daughter and herself with a quitclaim deed to hold the home as joint tenants with rights of survivorship. Upon mother’s death, the home would automatically become the daughter’s home. However, this type of transfer of the home might trigger the lender’s “due on sale” requirement in the mortgage. Thus, if the lender wanted to be a stickler, they could argue that the mother violated the terms of that loan and is in default.

It is also worth mentioning that there may be tax consequences for the daughter. If the mother goes with the last option and puts her daughter on the title to the property, she is in effect gifting her half of the value of the home. This may cause tax issues in the future, because the daughter will forfeit her ability to get a stepped-up basis. However, if the daughter gets title to the home through a will, the living trust or the transfer on death instrument, she will inherit the home at the home’s value at or around the time of the mother’s death (the stepped-up basis). You should work with an experienced estate planning attorney to get the best advice.

Reference: The Ledger (Jan. 11, 2020) “Leaving your home to a family member? Consider these options”

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