Does an Estate Plan Need to Change because of the New Administration? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Changes in the White House and the Senate have many people wondering how federal estate and gift tax laws may change and when those changes will occur, as reported in an article “Estate planning in light of a new presidential administration: What should you do now?” from the St. Louis Business Journal.

While campaigning, Joe Biden pledged to undo many of the prior administration’s tax policies, promising a progressive approach to taxation focusing on shifting the burden of taxes to high-income individuals and businesses.

The Tax Cuts and Jobs Act (TCJA) temporarily doubled the federal estate and gift tax exemption to $10 million (adjusted annually for inflation) until 2025. For 2021, the exemption stands at $11.7 million for individuals and $23.4 million for married couples. These amounts were set to expire after 2025 to $5 million for individuals and $10 million for married couples, but changes are expected to arrive sooner.

Biden also said he would end the “step-up” in basis that spares beneficiaries from having to pay income taxes for capital gains on inherited assets that appreciated in value, typically stocks, mutual funds and real estate. If a beneficiary sells an inherited asset now, the capital gains generated is the difference between the asset’s fair market value at the time of the sale minus the stepped-up basis, i.e., the fair market value of the asset at the date of the deceased’s death, rather than the basis at the date of the original purchase.

Without the step-up in basis, the capital gains generated upon the sale of the inherited assets would be far higher, increasing capital gains taxes paid by heirs.

Does it make sense to prepare or review your estate plan now, in light of the potential changes ahead? Having an outdated estate plan might be a bigger risk. When it comes to big changes in future tax laws, there are two things to keep in mind:

Making changes out of fear of tax law changes that have not occurred yet, could have lasting effects, and not always good ones. It is prudent to remain informed and prepared, but not to anticipate changes that have not become law yet.

What is more important is to be prepared for change, by understanding your current estate plan and being sure that it still works to minimize taxes and accomplish goals.

A few questions to consider:

  • Do you fully understand your current estate plan?
  • Do you know the total value of your assets and liabilities?
  • Do you know if federal and state estate taxes will be an issue for your heirs?
  • Have you reviewed your beneficiary designations recently?
  • When was your estate plan last updated? That includes your last will, revocable living trust, power of attorney and health care directives.

Changes are coming to estate law, but what they are and when they will occur are still unknown. Having an experienced estate planning attorney create or review your estate plan right now is more important than waiting to see what the future will bring.

Reference: St. Louis Business Journal (Jan. 27, 2021) “Estate planning in light of a new presidential administration: What should you do now?”

 

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

How Do I Disinherit My Child? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Disinheriting a child or any person trying to gain access to your assets after you have died requires skilled estate planning. The things that can be done before you die to protect your estate are the subjects of a recent article “Disinheriting a child” from Westfair Online. It should be noted that if you anticipate a challenge to your will, or if you suspect claims will emerge after you pass, it will be wise to prepare your estate and family members for the legal, financial and emotional aspects of an estate battle.

Here are some of the steps to consider.

Avoiding probate. The probate estate includes assets that are controlled by your Last Will and Testament on the day you die. It does not include assets where there are named beneficiaries. Such assets pass directly to beneficiaries.

Before a will can be executed, it must go through probate. Part of the probate process is the notification of any individuals who may be entitled to receive assets. If you pass away without a will, the estate still needs to be probated and those individuals must still be provided with a notice of your passing and the distribution of your assets. If you had intended to disinherit someone and did not take the necessary steps, it is as if you have issued an invitation to them.

Using a revocable trust. Trusts are used to remove assets from probate estates. A revocable trust is a trust that allows you to maintain complete control over the assets in the trust, while you are living. When you die, the trust does not go through probate and no one needs to be notified of the trust’s existence or its terms, if you so specify and state law permits. Your wishes and assets may remain private. This is especially useful, if you want to disinherit someone.

The revocable trust is not immune from contest, but it makes the challenging more difficult.

Changing titles to joint ownership and naming beneficiaries. Changing your bank, investment and real estate property ownership to joint ownership is a way to avoid probate and have assets pass directly to your intended beneficiaries. However, there are complications to this strategy. If the person you add to an account has money problems, your assets are now available to their creditors. If the person on the account goes through a divorce, your assets are legally available to their spouse. And if the joint owner should die before you, any protection you may have obtained is gone. A trust may be a better solution.

Review your retirement plans and any other assets that allow you to name a beneficiary to ensure that the person who will receive these assets is still the person you want.

What about a no-contest clause? It seems like a simple solution—by including a no-contest clause, often referred to as an “in terrorem” clause, anyone who seeks to contest the will immediately forfeits any distribution to that person, if they are not successful in the will contest. However, what if they are successful in the will contest?

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney about these and other strategies to defuse a disinherited person’s potential claims. Disinheriting a child sparks many estate battles, so preparations need to be made to protect the family and the estate.

Reference: Westfair Online (Jan. 26, 2021) “Disinheriting a child”

 

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What’s the Difference between Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita in Estate Planning? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

When creating an estate plan, one of the basic documents you need is a will. In estate planning, it is important to distinguish between per stirpes and per capita distributions. These are two terms you are likely to come across when creating your estate plan, says Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita in Estate Planning.”

Per stirpes is Latin and means “by branch” or “by class.” When this term is used in estate planning, it refers to the equal distribution of assets among the different branches of a family and their surviving descendants. This lets the descendants of a beneficiary keep inherited assets within that branch of their family, even if the original beneficiary passes away. The assets would be equally divided between the survivors. Per stirpes distributions essentially create a “trickle-down” effect: assets can be passed on to future generations if a primary beneficiary passes away.

In contrast, “per capita” is also a Latin term that means “by head.” When you use a per capita distribution method for estate planning, any assets you have would pass equally to the beneficiaries who are still living when you pass. The share portions would adjust accordingly, if one of your children or grandchildren were to die before you.

Whether it makes sense to use a per stirpes or per capita distribution in your estate plan can depend for the most part, the way in which you want your assets to be distributed after you are gone.

Per stirpes allows you to keep asset distributions within the same branch of the family and eliminates the need to amend or update wills and trusts when a child is born to one of your beneficiaries or a beneficiary passes away. This method can also help to minimize the potential for infighting among beneficiaries, since asset distribution takes a linear approach. However, an unwanted person could take control of your assets.

With per capita, you can state precisely who you want to name as beneficiaries and receive part of your estate. The assets are distributed equally among beneficiaries, based on the value of your estate at the time you pass away.

Per stirpes and per capita distribution rules can help you determine how your assets are distributed after you die.

Talk with an experienced estate planning attorney to fully understand the implications of each one for your beneficiaries, including how they may be affected from a tax perspective.

Reference: Yahoo Finance (Jan. 7, 2021) “Per Stirpes vs. Per Capita in Estate Planning”

 

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

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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Does a Trust Have to Be Funded to Be Valid? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Thinking you have divided assets equally between children by creating a trust that names all as equal heirs, while placing only one child’s name on other assets is not an equally divided estate plan. Instead, as described in the article “Estate Planning: Fund the trust” from nwi.com, this arrangement is likely to lead to an estate battle.

One father did just that. He set up a trust with explicit instructions to divide everything equally among his heirs. However, only one brother was made a joint owner on his savings and checking accounts and the title of the family home.

Upon his death, ownership of the savings and checking accounts and the home would go directly to the brother. Assets in the trust, if there are any, will be divided equally between the children. That is probably not what the father had in mind, but legally the other siblings will have no right to the non-trust assets.

This is an example of why creating a trust is only one part of an estate plan. If it is not funded, that is if assets are not retitled, it will not work.

Many estate plans include what is called a “pour-over will” usually executed just after the trust is executed. It is a safety net that “catches” any assets not funded into the trust and transfers them into it. However, this transfer requires probate, and since probate avoidance is a goal of having a trust, it is not the best solution.

The situation as described above is confusing. Why would one brother be a joint owner of assets, if the father means for all of the children to share equally in the inheritance? When the father passes, the brother will own the assets. If the matter went to court, the court would very likely decide that the father’s intention was for the brother to inherit them. Whatever language is in the trust will be immaterial.

If the father’s intention is for the siblings to share the estate equally, the changes need to be made while he is living. The brother’s name needs to come off the accounts and the title to the home, and they all need to be re-titled in the name of the trust. The brother will need to sign off on removing his name. If he does not wish to do so, it’s going to be a legal challenge.

The family needs to address the situation as soon as possible with an experienced estate planning attorney. Even if the brother will not sign off on changing the names of the assets, as long as the father is living there are options. Once he has passed, the family’s options will be limited. Estate battles can consume a fair amount of the estate’s value and destroy the family’s relationships.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 17, 2021) “Estate Planning: Fund the trust”

 

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Do We Need Estate Planning? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Estate planning is not just about making a will, nor is it just for people who live in mansions. Estate planning is best described in the title of this article “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan” from Business Insider. Estate planning is a plan for the future, for you, your spouse and those you love.

There are a number of reasons for estate planning:

  • Avoiding paying more federal and state taxes than necessary
  • Ensuring that assets are distributed as you want
  • Naming the people you choose for your own care, if you become incapacitated; and/or
  • Naming the people you choose to care for your minor children, if you and your spouse left them orphaned.

If that sounds like a lot to accomplish, it is. However, with the help of a trusted estate planning attorney, an estate plan can provide you with the peace of mind that comes with having all of the above.

If those decisions and designations are not made by you while you are alive and legally competent, the state law and the courts will determine who will get your assets, raise your children and how much your estate will pay in death taxes to state and federal governments. You can avoid that with an estate plan.

Here are the five key things about estate planning:

It is more than a will. The estate plan includes creating Durable Powers of Attorney to appoint individuals who will make medical and/or financial decisions, if you are not able to do so. The estate plan also contains Medical Directives to communicate your wishes about what kind of care you do or do not want, if you are so sick you cannot do so for yourself. The estate plan is where you can create Trusts to control how property passes from one person or one generation to the next.

Estate planning saves time, money, and angst. If you have a surviving spouse, they are usually the ones who serve as your executor. However, if you do not and if you do not have an estate plan, the court names a public administrator to distribute assets according to state law. While this is happening, no one can access your assets. There is a lot of paperwork and a lot of legal fees. With a will, you name an executor who will take care of and gain access to most, if not all, of your assets and administer them according to your instructions.

Estate planning includes being sure that investment and retirement accounts with a beneficiary designation have been completed. If you do not name a beneficiary, the asset goes through the probate court. If you fail to update your beneficiary designations, your ex or a person from your past may end up with your biggest assets.

Estate planning is also tax planning. While federal taxes only impact the very wealthy right now, that is likely to change in the future. States also have estate taxes and inheritance taxes of their own, at considerably lower exemption levels than federal taxes. If you wish your heirs to receive more of your money than the government, tax planning should be part of your estate plan.

The estate plan is also used to protect minor children. No one expects to die prematurely, and no one expects that two spouses with young children will die. However, it does happen, and if there is no will in place, then the court makes all the decisions: who will raise your children, and where, how their upbringing will be financed, or, if there are no available family members, if the children should become wards of the state and enter the foster care system. That is probably not what you want.

The estate plan includes the identification of the person(s) you want to raise your children, and who will be in charge of the assets left in trust for the children, like proceeds from a life insurance policy. This can be the same person, but often the financial and child-rearing roles are divided between two trustworthy people. Naming an alternate for each position is also a good idea, just in case the primary people cannot serve.

Estate planning, finally, also takes care of you while you are living, with a power of attorney and healthcare proxy. That way someone you know, and trust can step in, if you are unable to take care of your legal and financial affairs.

Once your estate plan is in place, remember that it is like your home: it needs to be updated every three or four years, or when there are big changes to tax law or in your life.

Reference: Business Insider (Jan. 14, 2021) “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan”

 

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

What Estate Planning Documents Should I Have when I Retire? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Research shows that most retirees (53%) have a last will and testament. However, they do not have six other crucial legal documents.

Money Talks News’ recent article entitled “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have” says in fact, in this pandemic, 30% of retirees have none of these crucial documents — not even a will — according to the 20th annual Transamerica Retirement Survey of Retirees.

In addition, the Transamerica survey found the following among retirees:

  • 32% have a power of attorney or medical proxy, which allows a designated agent to make medical decisions on their behalf;
  • 30% have an advance directive or living will, which states their end-of-life medical preferences to health care providers;
  • 28% have designated a power of attorney to make financial decisions in their stead;
  • 19% have written funeral and burial arrangements;
  • 18% have filled out a Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA) waiver, which allows designated people to talk to their health care and insurance providers on their behalf; and
  • 11% have created a trust.

The study shows there is a big gap that retirees need to fill, if they want to be properly prepared for the end of their lives.

The coronavirus pandemic has created an even more challenging situation. Retirees can and should be taking more actions to protect their health and financial well-being. However, they may find it hard while sheltering in place.

Now more than ever, seniors may need extra motivation and support from their families and friends.

The Transamerica results should not shock anyone. That is because we have a long history of disregarding death, and very important estate planning questions. No one really wants to ponder their ultimate demise, when they can be out enjoying themselves.

However, planning your estate now will give you peace of mind. More importantly, this planning can save your heirs and loved ones a lot of headaches and stress, when you pass away.

Talk to an experienced estate planning attorney today to get your plan going.

Reference: Money Talks News (Dec. 16, 2020) “6 Legal Documents Retirees Need — but Don’t Have”

 

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

Estate Planning Is Best When Personalized – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Just as a custom-tailored suit fits better than one off the rack, a custom-tailored estate plan works better for families. Making sure assets pass to the right person is more likely to occur when documents are created just for you, advises the article “Tailoring estate to specific needs leads to better plans” from the Cleveland Jewish News.

The most obvious example is a family with a special needs member. Generic estate planning documents typically will not suit that family’s estate planning.

Every state has its own laws about distributing property and money owned by a person at their death, in cases where people don’t have a will. Relying on state law instead of a will is a risky move that can lead to people you may not even know inheriting your entire estate.

In the absence of an estate plan, the probate court makes decisions about who will administer the estate and the distribution of property. Without a named executor, the court will appoint a local attorney to take on this responsibility. An appointed attorney who has never met the decedent and does not know the family will not have the insights to follow the decedent’s wishes.

The same risks can occur with online will templates. Their use often results in families needing to retain an estate planning attorney to fix the mistakes caused by their use. Online wills may not be valid in your state or may lead to unintended consequences. Saving a few dollars now could end up costing your family thousands to clean up the mess.

Estate plans are different for each person because every person and every family are different. Estate plan templates may not account for any of your wishes.

Generic plans are very limited. An estate plan custom created for you takes into consideration your family dynamics, how your individual beneficiaries will be treated and expresses your wishes for your family after you have passed.

Generic estate plans also do not reflect the complicated families of today. Some people have family members they do not want to inherit anything. Disinheriting someone successfully is not as easy as leaving them out of the will or leaving them a small token amount.

Ensuring that your wishes are followed and that your will is not easily challenged takes the special skills of an experienced estate planning attorney.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (Dec. 9, 2020) “Tailoring estate to specific needs leads to better plans”

 

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Do You Know Your Job as Executor, Agent or Trustee? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

It is not uncommon for a named executor or trustee to have some anxiety when they discover that they were named in a family member’s estate planning documents.

With the testator or grantor dead or incapacitated, the named individual is often desperate to learn what their responsibilities are.

It may seem like they are asked to put together pieces in a puzzle without a picture, especially when there is limited information to start with, says The Sentinel-Record’s recent article entitled “You’re an executor or trustee … Now what?”

Here is a quick run-down of the responsibilities of each of these types of agents:

An executor of an estate. This is a court-appointed person (or corporate executor) who administers the estate of a deceased person, after having been nominated for the role in the decedent’s last will and testament.

A trustee. This is an individual (or corporate trustee) who maintains and administers property or assets for the benefit of a beneficiary under a trust.

An agent named under a power of attorney. This person (or corporate agent) has the legal authority to act for the benefit of another person during that person’s disability or incapacity.

Each of these roles has different duties and responsibilities. For example, an executor, in most cases, is responsible for filing the original last will and testament of the testator with the probate court and then to be formally appointed by the court as the executor.

A trustee and executor both must provide notice to the beneficiaries of their role and a copy of the documents.

An agent named under a power of attorney may have authority to act immediately or only when the creator of the documents becomes disabled or incapacitated. This is often referred to as a “springing” power of attorney.

Each of these individuals is responsible for managing and preserving assets for the benefit of the beneficiary.

They also must pay bills out of the assets of the estate or trust, such as burial and funeral expenses.

Finally, they settle the estate or trust and make distributions.

Reference: The Sentinel-Record (Nov. 24, 2020) “You’re an executor or trustee … Now what?”

 

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Is Probate Required If There Is a Surviving Spouse? – Annapolis and Towson Estate Planning

Probate, also called “estate administration,” is the management and final settlement of a deceased person’s estate. It is conducted by an executor, also known as a personal representative, who is nominated in the will and approved by the court. Estate administration needs to be done when there are assets subject to probate, regardless of whether there is a will, says the article “Probating your spouse’s will” from The Huntsville Item.

Probate is the formal process of administering a person’s estate. In the absence of a will, probate also establishes heirship. In some regions, this is a quick and easy process, while in others it is a lengthy, complex and expensive process. The complexity depends upon the size and value of the estate, whether a proper estate plan was prepared by the decedent prior to death and if there are family members or others who might contest the will.

Family dynamics can cause a tremendous amount of complications and delays, especially if the family has blended children from prior marriages or if a child has predeceased their parents.

There are some exceptions, when the estate is extremely small and when probate is not required. However, in most cases, it is required.

A recent District Court case ruled that a will not admitted to probate is not effective for proving title and thereby ownership, to real estate. A title company was sued for defamation after the title company issued a title report that included the statement that the decedent had died intestate, that is, without a will.

The decedent’s son, who was her executor, sued the title company because his mother did indeed have a will and the title report was defamatory. The court rejected this theory, and the case was brought to the Appellate Court to seek relief for the family. The Appellate Court ruled that until a will has been admitted to probate, it is not effective for the purpose of proving title to real property.

If a person owns real estate, they must have an estate plan to ensure that their property can be successfully transferred to heirs. When there is no estate plan, heirs find out how big a problem this can be when someone decides they want to sell the property or divide it up among family members.

Problems also arise when the family finds that they must pay taxes on the property or that there are expenses that must be paid to maintain the property. Without a will, the disposition of the property is determined by the state’s estate law. Things can become complicated quickly, when there is no will.

If the deceased spouse has children from outside the most recent marriage, those children may have rights to the property and end up owning a portion of the property along with the surviving spouse. However, neither the children nor the surviving spouse can sell the property without each other’s approval. This is a common occurrence.

There are also limitations as to how probate can be used to distribute and manage an estate. In some states, the time limit is four years from the date of death.

An estate planning attorney can help the family move through the probate process more efficiently when there is no will. A better situation would be for the family to speak with their parents about having a will and estate plan created before it is too late.

Reference: The Huntsville Item (Nov. 22, 2020) “Probating your spouse’s will”

 

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