Should I Create a Trust? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Just 40% of adults in the United States have any kind of estate planning documents in place. That leaves 60% of adults who don’t have their property and other assets protected in the event of death.

Without planning, their family and loved ones will have trouble trying to determine what to do next.

Frequently, when thinking of estate planning, we think of a will. However, there are other options. Creating a living trust may be a better option for you and your family, advises kake.com’s recent article entitled “What Are the Advantages of Creating a Living Trust for My Family?”

The article provides some of the major benefits of a living trust.

It can save your family money. When a person with a living trust passes, the trustee takes possession and control over the trust property, according to the instructions provided by the trustor. It can be less expensive, because there are no fees that may be incurred in probate. Everything also moves faster.

Protection of your privacy. A living trust is much more private, because it does not have to go through the probate court and will not become public record. In contrast, a will becomes public record, that anyone can request to view as a court record.

A trust is for more than death. A living trust can be invoked at other times before death. The creator can add specific stipulations and conditions to the living trust to designate when the trustee can take over the management of property and finances.

More difficult to challenge. A will can be contested in court, if a family member thinks that he or she is entitled to more of your assets than was outlined in the will. A judge can rule that your will is not valid, and the contesting family member can possibly get more than you intended. With a living trust, there is much less chance that this will happen.

Creating a living trust takes legal expertise, so work with an experienced estate planning attorney. You can then discuss an entire estate planning strategy.

Reference: kake.com (April 20, 2020) “What Are the Advantages of Creating a Living Trust for My Family?”

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Do I Need to Be Wealthy to Set Up a Trust? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Trust funds are intended to let a person’s money continue to be useful, after they pass away. However, they are not only useful for ultra-high-net-worth individuals. Many people can benefit from the use of a trust.

Investopedia’s recent article entitled “How to Set Up a Trust Fund if You’re Not Rich” says that you can place cash, stock, real estate, or other valuable assets in your trust. Work with a trust attorney, decide on the beneficiaries, and set any instructions or restrictions. With an irrevocable trust, you do not have the ability to dissolve the trust, if you change your mind later on. Once you place property in the trust, it is no longer yours but is under the care of a trustee. Because the assets are no longer yours, you do not have to pay income tax on any money made from the assets, and with an estate planning attorney’s guidance, the assets can be exempt from estate and gift taxes.

Tax exemptions are a main reason that some people set up an irrevocable trust. If you, the trustor (the person establishing the trust) is in a higher income tax bracket, creating an irrevocable trust lets you remove these assets from your net worth and move into a lower tax bracket.

If you do not want to set up a trust, there are other options. However, they do not give you as much control over your property. As an alternative or in addition to a trust, you can have an attorney draft your will. With a will, your property is subject to more taxes, and its terms can easily be contested in probate. You also will not have much control over how your assets are used.

Similar to a 529 college-savings plan, UGMA/UTMA custodial accounts are designed to let a person use the funds for education-related expenses. You can use an account like this to gift a certain amount up to the maximum gift tax or fund maximum to reduce your tax liability, while setting aside funds that can only be used for education-related expenses. The downside to UGMA/UTMA Custodial Accounts and 529 plans is that money in the minor’s custodial account is considered an asset. This may make them ineligible to receive need-based financial aid.

For those who do not have a high net-worth but want to leave money to children or grandchildren and control how that money is used, a trust may be a good option. Talk it over with a qualified estate planning attorney.

Reference: Investopedia (Dec. 12, 2019) “How to Set Up a Trust Fund if You’re Not Rich”

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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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What’s the Best Way to Provide for My Family when I’m Gone? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The estate planning process should begin when you are at least 18 years old, of sound mind and as free as possible from emotional stress, suggests Essence’s recent article entitled “Death And Money: How To Protect And Provide For The Loved Ones You Leave Behind.” You do not want to do this kind of planning when you are on your sickbed or when your mental capabilities are in decline.

If you are new to estate planning, here are the necessary steps to ensure you start the process on the right foot. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to be certain that your plan is correct and legal.

A will. This is a legal document that details how to distribute your property and other assets upon death. A will can also nominate guardians for minor children. Without this, the state will dictate how to distribute your assets to your beneficiaries, according to the laws of intestate succession. If you already have a will, be sure it is updated to reflect an accurate listing of assets and beneficiaries that may be changed with a divorce, financial changes, or the birth or adoption of a child.

Life insurance. This is a great idea to protect and provide for your family when you are gone. Life insurance pays out money either upon your death or after a set period. Even if you have a life insurance policy as an employee benefit, this coverage is not portable, which means it does not follow you when you switch jobs. This can result in gaps in coverage at times when you may need it most.

Work with a legal professional. Estate planning is not a DIY project, like cleaning the garage. You should have the counsel and assistance of an experienced estate planning attorney to help you create a comprehensive estate plan. An estate planning attorney can also coordinate with your financial advisor to manage your estate’s finances, such as making recommendations and funding investment, retirement and trust accounts.

An estate planning attorney also can make sure that all of your beneficiaries and secondary beneficiaries are up-to-date on your investment accounts, pensions and insurance policies. An estate planning attorney will also help you with the best options for maintaining your estate after death or in the event of incapacity. In addition to preparing a will, your attorney can create a living trust that details your desires regarding your assets, your dependents and your heirs while you are still alive. He can also draw up your power of attorney for your health care, verify property titles and create legal document to ensure a succession plan for your business.

Finally, an estate planning attorney or probate attorney can help the personal representative or executor of an estate with closing responsibilities setting up an estate account, tax filings and paying the final distributions to beneficiaries.

A key to estate planning is to get (and stay) organized. Know the location and passwords (if applicable) of all your important legal and financial documents. You should also communicate the location of these files to trusted family members and to your estate planning or probate attorney.

Reference: Essence (Jan. 29, 2020) “Death And Money: How To Protect And Provide For The Loved Ones You Leave Behind”

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How Do I Reduce My Blended Family Fighting Concerning My Estate Plan? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The IRS recently announced that in 2020, the first $11.58 million of a taxable estate is free from federal estate taxes. Therefore, a vast majority of estates won’t have to pay federal estate taxes. However, a TD Wealth survey at the 53rd Annual Heckerling Institute on Estate Planning found that family conflict was identified as the leading threat to estate planning.

Investment News’ recent article, “Reducing potential family conflicts,” explains that a blended family can result from multiple marriages, children from a current or former marriage, or children involved in multiple marriages. There are more “blended families” in the U.S. than ever before. More fighting over estate planning occurs in blended families.

The key element in any conflict resolution is open and honest communication. It’s especially the case, when it involves a blended family. In many instances, it’s best to explain a proposed estate plan to the family in advance.

If anyone objects, listen to their point of view and try to be empathetic to their position. You may wind up with a compromise, or, if no changes are made, at least the family member had an opportunity to air their grievances.

One potential solution to minimize conflicts within a blended family may be a prenuptial agreement. The agreement is signed prior to the marriage and outlines the financial rights of each spouse, in the event of a divorce or death. Prenups are particularly useful in second marriages, especially when there is a disparity in age and wealth between the parties.

However, not every married couple in a blended family has a prenuptial agreement. Even if they do, blended families can still have family conflicts in estate planning.

It is important to remember communication, reducing the chances of a will contest with a “no-contest” clause, asking your attorney about a revocable living trust and compromise.

Estate planning can be particularly difficult for blended families. Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about the techniques that can help reduce potential family conflicts.

Reference: Investment News (December 9, 2019) “Reducing potential family conflicts”

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How Can I Make Amendments to an Estate Plan? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

If you want to make changes to your estate plan, don’t think you can just scratch out a line or two and add your initials. For most people, it’s not that simple, says the Lake County Record-Bee’s recent article “Amending estate planning documents.” If documents are not amended correctly, the resulting disappointment and costs can add up quickly.

If you live in California, for example, a trust can be amended using the method that is stated in the trust, or alternatively by using a document—but not the will—that is signed both by the settlor or the other person holding the power to revoke the trust and then delivered to the trustee. If the trust states that this method is not acceptable, then it cannot be used.

In a recent case, the deceased settlor made handwritten notes—he crossed out existing trust language and handwrote his revisions to a recently executed amendment to his trust. Then he mailed this document, along with a signed post-it note stuck on the top of the document, to his attorney, requesting that his attorney draft an amendment.

Unfortunately, he died before the new revision could be signed. His close friend, the one he wanted to be the beneficiary of the change, argued that his handwritten comments, known as “interlineations,” were as effective as if his attorney had actually completed the revision and the document had been signed properly. He further argued that the post-it note that had a signature on it, satisfied the requirement for a signature.

The court did not agree, not surprisingly. A trust document may not be changed just by scribbling out a few lines and adding a few new lines without a signature. A post-it note signature is also not a legal document.

Had he signed and dated an attachment affirming each of his specific changes made to the trust, that might have been considered a legally binding amendment to his trust.

A better option would be going to the attorney’s office and having the documents prepared and executed.

What about changes to a will? Changing a will is done either through executing a codicil or creating and executing a new will that revokes the old will. A codicil is executed just the same way as a will: it is signed by the testator with at least two witnesses, although this varies from state to state. Your estate planning attorney will make sure that the law of your state is taken into consideration when preparing your estate plan.

If you live in a state where handwritten or holographic wills are accepted, no witnesses are required and changes to the will can be made by the testator directly onto the original without a new signature or date. Be careful about a will like this. Even if legal, it can lead to estate challenges and family battles.

Speak with an experienced estate planning attorney if you decide that your will needs to be changed. Having the documents properly executed in a timely manner ensures that your wishes will be followed.

Reference: Lake County Record-Bee (October 5, 2019) “Amending estate planning documents.”

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What Does a Probate Attorney Really Do? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

If you’ve recently experienced the death of a loved one, you may have spent a lot of time and money dealing with their estate and trying to get their assets out of probate.

KAKE.com’s recent article, “Do I Need to Hire a Probate Lawyer?: The Top Signs You Should Lawyer Up” says that trying to do this on your own can often be time-consuming and expensive. That’s why it’s smart to have a probate lawyer working with you.

A probate or estate planning lawyer is one who specializes in issues related to a deceased person’s estate. They have a broad range of responsibilities, which includes the following:

  • Guiding people through the probate process;
  • Advising the beneficiaries of an estate;
  • Representing beneficiaries if they become involved in lawsuits related to the estate; and
  • Helping with challenges to the validity of the deceased’s will.

If you’re unsure about hiring a lawyer, consider whether you’re dealing with any of these issues in your case:

A Will Contest. This is when another beneficiary challenges the will. If someone contests the will, it will drag out the process and could put you at risk of losing what your loved one wanted for you to have.

Divided Assets. When split assets are part of an estate, things get complicated, especially when you have intangible assets. To avoid trouble, hire a lawyer who can help navigate the division of these assets and make certain that everything is handled in a fair manner.

An Estate Doesn’t Qualify for the Simple Probate Process. Probate can be extremely complicated. Depending on the size of the estate, it may qualify for simpler procedures that are completed relatively quickly. If this isn’t the case for the estate at issue, you should get a probate attorney to help you.

There’s Considerable Debt. If your loved one died with many debts, the estate will need to be used to pay those off. This can be tricky to manage on your own. An experienced attorney will help you make sure everything gets paid off and can negotiate debts to ensure you and the other beneficiaries receive as much from the estate as possible.

There’s Estate Tax Due. While most estates don’t have to pay any federal taxes, some states have their own estate taxes that apply to estates worth $1 million or more. It’s not an easy process, so it’s a good idea to work with an experienced estate planning attorney.

There’s a Business in the Estate. You need to ask an attorney to you sort this out because this will include the process of appraising, managing and selling a business of the deceased owner.

If any of these situations apply to you, hire an attorney with the necessary qualifications to deal with estates and the probate process.

Reference: KAKE.com (August 9, 2019) “Do I Need to Hire a Probate Lawyer?: The Top Signs You Should Lawyer Up”

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

Should You Contest a Will? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

The cases that generate headlines are just the high-profile ones, and they don’t include the hundreds, if not thousands, of inheritance claims being brought every year that never make it to the courtroom, says FT Advisor in the article “When and how clients can contest a will?” What we don’t read about are the family fights, the settlements and the eventual distribution of a loved one’s estate.

What’s behind this uptick in inheritance disputes?

One answer has to do with the increased complexity of families. Having a second, or even a third, family is no longer as unusual as it once was. The division of assets when there are children and stepchildren create more chances for someone to feel wronged. A second reason is that the value of individual property overall has increased. Relatively modest estates with a home that’s now worth half a million dollars, means there’s more to fight over.

Add to that a generally more litigious society, and you have an increase in estate battles.

There are two general areas of estate battles: one concerns wanting a greater portion of an estate, and the second centers on whether the will is valid. The second can bring allegations of undue influence, lack of capacity to create a will and even forgery.

Challenging the validity of a will is difficult, since the person who made the will has passed and they can’t speak for themselves. However, there are certain presumptions in favor of upholding a will that helps the courts. For one thing, the will must be in writing and there must be two people witnessing the signing.

Taking the position that the person was incapacitated and not legally able to create a will is another way that wills are challenged. The older the person is when the will was created, the more likely this is. One way to address this in advance, is to have a medical opinion documenting the person’s mental capacity.

While it is impossible to make any will completely immune to any challenges, there are a few things that can be done to make it less likely that the will is contested.

Write a letter or have a video made that speaks to the family, explaining what your wishes are for your property and for the family. This is not legally binding but could be used to show that you were thinking clearly when you had your estate plan done.

Communicate openly and with great transparency to all members of the family, so there are no surprises. If everyone knows what you have in mind and an opportunity to voice their opinions, there may be less potential for fighting.

Finally, be sure to work with an estate planning attorney who will know the laws of your state, so there are no legal errors that would lead to the will being deemed invalid by the courts.

Reference: FT Adviser (July 3, 2019) “When and how clients can contest a will?”

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Inheritance, Meet Technology: Estate Claims May Be Challenged – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Between off-the-shelf DNA testing kits and online genealogical searches, family members who may have never known of each other’s existence are coming to light more often than ever before. So is the news that one’s parent may not be a biological parent, according to the article “Discovering long-lost family: Inheritance laws cover surprise relatives, but changes possible,” from The Indiana Lawyer.

This is yet another reason that wills and estate plans must be carefully drafted by an estate planning attorney. Language in the will must make it very clear that assets are only to be distributed to the known children of the married couple, unless that is not the person’s wish.

An inheritance may be left for a child who was given up through adoption or, if a previously unknown child shows up at the doorstep, the family may wish to bequeath a share of their estate to that child. There may be no legal claim, but the family may feel a moral obligation, which is entirely up to them.

Since technology is streamlining the search for lost relatives into a few keyboard clicks, the drafting of wills has become more complex. It’s not just filling out names on a form, because the will has to be drafted to prevent any unforeseen problems that may result when new relatives appear.

The search for unknown relatives usually comes from positive motives. Family members usually want to connect with long-lost cousins, aunts, uncles and siblings, out of a desire for connection and not financial gain. However, a properly prepared will should be drafted, according to the testator’s wishes.

Families are changing, with more openness, and estate plans are being adjusted accordingly.

One couple wrote a will to leave an inheritance to a grandson, even though he had been adopted by another man. Their son had died after fathering the child without marrying the child’s mother. The mother married, and her husband adopted the grandchild, but the grandparents had maintained a relationship with the family and left their son’s heir a portion of their estate.

People are more aware that family members may arrive unexpectedly. Occasionally, spouses want language in the will restricting assets only to the children who are the product of their marriage. That can spur some uncomfortable, but necessary, conversations.

When you sit down with an estate planning lawyer to discuss your will and distribution of assets, you’ll need to be honest and discuss any possible heirs who might appear that were previously unknown to the family. The more details and information you can provide to the attorney, the better prepared your will can be to withstand a challenge from a ‘new relative.’ If the wish is to take care of a previously unknown family member, that can be accomplished also.

Reference: The Indiana Lawyer (May 29, 2019) “Discovering long-lost family: Inheritance laws cover surprise relatives, but changes possible”

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Will Contests May Be Rare, but They Do Happen – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

In an ideal world, wills and estate plans are created when people are of sound mind and body, just as the familiar legal phrase describes. The best way to avoid a will contest is to have a well-written will, prepared by a qualified estate planning attorney who can help avoid legal contest. However, there are times when this is not the case, says The Huntsville Item in the article Legal Corner: Will contests while rare are messy.”

A will is contested, when the person challenging the will believes that it does not represent the true intent of the testator to pass the estate to the people he wanted.

A will must be written in the correct form and executed according to the law in order to be valid. This is why it is necessary to work with an estate planning attorney to create a will. A person may try to do it on their own, typing it out, downloading a form or copying a form, but because the law is very strict about the form and execution, many of these do-it-yourself wills end up being deemed invalid by the courts.

When the will is not valid, the laws of intestacy are applied to the person’s estate. This is rarely in accordance with the person’s wishes, but at this point, it’s too late.

To make a will, the person must have “testamentary capacity.” That means that he or she knows what they are doing, what their estate includes and who the recipients of the estate will be. They also must not have been subject to undue influence. That means that the person making the will is so controlled and dominated by another person, that they were not able to make the will that they wanted.

When the sad day comes that a loved one passes, the family grieves. Each member will deal with the loss in their own way. For some people, the intense level of emotions can bring about conflicts. Sometimes these are the result of old battles that were never resolved. Sibling rivalry that’s been simmering for decades can emerge.

One of the goals of a properly prepared will, is to prevent any family fights after a loved one has passed.

Studies have found that the struggle over mom’s necklace or dad’s watch are not about the material items themselves, but over the symbolic meaning of those items. When families fight over inheritances, it’s rarely because of the actual item or even the money.

As the family’s older member, you want to do anything you can to avoid fracturing the family after you’ve gone.

Unless you take the steps to create a will and a strong estate plan, your loved ones could be entrenched in a long inheritance conflict that lasts years and consumes more resources than anyone can spare.  However, with careful planning, you can avoid inheritance conflicts. After all, estate planning is more for those you love than for you.

Rely on the skill and knowledge of an experienced estate planning attorney and leave your family intact.

Reference: The Huntsville Item (May 26, 2019) “Legal Corner: Will contests while rare are messy”

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