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Short-Cuts to Estate Planning

It seems like a simple way for the children to manage mom’s finances: add the grown children as owners to a bank account, brokerage account or make them joint owners of the home. However, these short-cuts to estate planning create all kinds of problems for the parent’s estate and the children themselves, says the article entitled “Estate planning: When you take the lazy way out, someone will pay the price” from Florida Today.

By adding an adult child as owner to the account, the child is being given 50% ownership. The same is true if the child is added to the title for the home as joint owner. If there is more than $30,000 in the account or if the asset is valued at more than $30,000, then the mother needs to file a gift tax return—even if no gift tax is due. If the gift tax return is not filed in a timely manner, there might be a gift tax due in the future.

Short-cuts to estate planning can cause other problems.  There is also a carryover basis in the account or property when the adult child is added as an owner. If it’s a bank account, the primary issue is the gift tax return. However, if the asset is a brokerage account or the parent’s primary residence, then the child steps into the parent’s shoes for 50% of the amount they bought the property for originally.

Here is an example: let’s say a parent is in her 80s and you are seeing that she is starting to slow down. You decide to take an easy route and have her add you to her bank account, brokerage account and the deed (or title) to the family home. If she becomes incapacitated or dies, you’ll own everything and you can make all the necessary decisions, including selling the house and using the funds for funeral expenses. It sounds easy and inexpensive, doesn’t it? It may be easy, but it’s not inexpensive.

Sadly, your mom dies. You need some cash to pay her final medical bills, cover the house expenses and maybe a few of your own bills. You sell some stock. After all, you own the account. It’s then time to file a tax return for the year when you sold the stock. When reporting the stock sale, your basis in the stock is 50% step-up in value based on the value of the stock the day that your mom died, plus 50% of what she originally paid for the stock.

If your mom bought the stock for $100 twenty years ago, and the stock is now worth $10,500, when you were added to the account, you now step into her shoes for 50% of the stock—$50. You sold the stock after she died, so your basis in that stock is now $5,050—that’s $5,000 value of stock when she died plus $50: 50% of the original purchase. Your taxable gain is $5,450.

As has been shown short-cuts to estate planning can cause problems, but how do you avoid this? If the ownership of the brokerage account remained solely with your mother, but you were a Payable on Death (POD) or Transfer on Death (TOD) beneficiary, you would not have access to the account if your mom became incapacitated and had appointed you as her “attorney in fact” on her general durable power of attorney. What would be the result? You would get a step-up in basis on the asset after she died. The inherited stock would have a basis of $10,000 and the taxable gain would be $500, not $5,450.

A better alternative—talk with an estate planning attorney to create a will, a revocable trust, a general durable power of attorney and the other legal documents used to transfer assets and minimize taxes. The estate planning attorney will be able to create a way for you to get access or transfer the property without negative tax consequences.

Reference: Florida Today (May 20, 2021) , “Estate planning: When you take the lazy way out, someone will pay the price”

 

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

estate planning faqEstate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, and many may ask can family members contest a will.  The article referenced explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.  The types of things discussed in this paragraph help determine if a family member can contest a will?

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”

 

Should an Estate Plan Be Reviewed?

Fiduciary duties for trusteesIf your parents don’t remember when they last reviewed their estate plan, then chances are it’s time for a review. Over the years, wishes, relationships and circumstances change, advises the recent article, “5 Reasons To Have Your Parents’ Estate Plan Reviewed,” from Forbes. An out-of-date estate plan may not achieve your parent’s wishes, or be declared invalid by the court. Having an estate planning attorney review the estate plan may save you money in the long run, not to mention the stress and worry created by an estate disaster. If you need reasons, here are five to consider.

Financial institutions are wary of dated documents. Banks and other financial institutions look twice at documents that are not recent. Trying to use a Power of Attorney that was created twenty years ago is bound to create problems. One person tried to use a document, but the bank insisted on getting an affidavit from the attorney who prepared it to be certain it was valid. While the son was trying to solve this, his mother died, and the account had to be probated. A “fresh” power of attorney would have solved the problem.

State laws change. Things that seem small become burdensome in a hurry. For example, if someone wants to leave a variety of personal effects to many different people, each and every one of the people listed would need to be located and notified. Many states now allow a separate writing to dispose of personal items, making the process far easier. However, if the will is out of date, you may be stuck with a house-sized task.

Legal document language changes. The SECURE Act changed many aspects of estate planning, particularly with regard to retirement accounts. If your parents have retirement accounts that are payable to a trust, the trust language must be changed to comply with the law. Not having these updates in the estate plan could result in an increase in income taxes or costly fees to fix the situation.

Estate tax laws change. In recent years, there have been many changes to federal tax laws. If your parents have not updated their estate plan within the last five years, they have missed many changes and many opportunities. It is likely that your parents’ assets have also changed over the years, and the documents need to reflect how the estate taxes will be paid. Are their assets titled so that there are enough funds in the estate or trust to cover the cost of any liability? Here’s another one—if all of the assets pass directly to beneficiaries via beneficiary designations, who is going to pay for the tax bills –and with what funds?

Older estate plans may contain wishes from decades ago. For one family, an old will led to a situation where a son did not inherit his father’s entire estate. His late sister’s children, who had been estranged from him for decades, received their mother’s share. If the father and son had reviewed the will earlier, a new will could have been created and signed that would have given the son what the father intended.

These types of problems are seen daily in your estate planning attorney’s office. Take the time to get a proper review of your parent’s estate plan, to prevent stress and unnecessary costs in the future.

Reference: Forbes (May 25, 2021) “5 Reasons To Have Your Parents’ Estate Plan Reviewed”

 

Do I Need an Estate Plan If I’m Single?

Heartland Legacy Planning blog articlesDo I need an estate plan if I’m single?  The County 17 recent article entitled “Even ‘Singles’ Need Estate Plans” says if you die intestate (i.e., without a last will and testament), your assets could be subject to the probate process. Translation? Your assets would be distributed by the court according to your state’s intestate succession laws. That means it’s done without any regard for your wishes. Even if you don’t have children, you may have nephews or nieces, or even children of cousins or friends, to whom you would like to leave some of your assets. This might include not just money but also cars, collectibles, or family memorabilia. However, if everything you own goes through probate, there is no guarantee that these people will get what you want them to have.

When answering the question do I need an estate plan if I’s single, one must think about what they want do do with their things at death.  If you want to leave something to family members or close friends, you will need to make this instruction in your last will. You also may want to provide support to some charitable organizations. You can just name these charities in your last will, but there may be options that could provide you with more benefits.

One is a charitable remainder trust. With this, you would transfer appreciated assets, like stocks, mutual funds, or other securities, to an irrevocable trust. The trustee, whom you’ve named (you could serve as trustee yourself) can then sell the assets at full market value, avoiding the capital gains taxes you’d have to pay if you sold them yourself, outside a trust. If you itemize, you may be able to claim a charitable deduction on your taxes. With the proceeds, the trust can purchase income-producing assets and provide you with an income stream for the rest of your life. At death, the remaining trust assets will pass to the charities you have designated.

Aside from family members and charitable groups, there’s a third entity that’s critical to your estate plans: you. You should make arrangements to protect their interests, but, in the absence of an immediate family, as a single person, you need to be especially watchful of your financial and health care decisions. As a result, as part of your estate planning, you may want to include these two documents: durable power of attorney and a health care proxy.

A durable power of attorney lets you name a trusted individual to manage your finances, if you become incapacitated. This is especially important for anyone who doesn’t have a spouse. If you become incapacitated, your health care proxy (also known as a health care surrogate or medical power of attorney) lets you name another person to legally make health care decisions, if you are unable to do so.

Estate planning moves can be complex, so you’ll need help from an experienced estate planning attorney. While you may not have an immediate family, you still need to take steps to protect your legacy.

Reference: County 17 (May 24, 2021) “Even ‘Singles’ Need Estate Plans”

 

Why Is Estate Planning So Important?

estate planning faqMany may ask why is estate planning so important?  Big Easy Magazine’s recent article “Estate Planning Is Essential and Here’s Why” says that writing a last will isn’t limited to what happens to your house, car, company, or other assets after you die. It also states who will take care of your minor children, if they are orphaned.

Your instructions for burial and other smaller things can be included.

If you fail to provide specific instructions, the state intestacy laws will apply upon your death, and your wishes will probably not be met creating problems for your heirs.  Here is a glimpse of the consequences of not writing your last will:

  • Your burial preferences may not be honored.
  • Your properties may be managed by an individual you don’t necessarily trust. Without a named executor to your last will, some other family member may be asked to file taxes, make transfers and manage your estate.
  • Family members may not get an inheritance. Under intestacy laws, same-sex relationships and common-law marriages may not be recognized. So, your partner may not get a portion of your estate.
  • Your favorite charity may be left out. If you are committed to leaving a legacy, your charity, religious organization, or other organization of choice should be mentioned in the last will.
  • The government will name the guardians for your minor children.

With a last will, you can designate a guardian for your children and avoid additional taxes. Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about developing a comprehensive estate plan.

Aside from this, estate planning can also save your loved ones considerable angst and money.

A detailed last will with your instructions will avoid complications and provide comfort, while your loved ones recover emotionally from their loss.

Reference: Big Easy Magazine (May 17, 2021) “Estate Planning Is Essential and Here’s Why”

 

Your Will and Estate Planning Checklist

Fiduciary duties for trusteesDying without a last will creates additional costs and eliminates any chance your wishes for loved ones will be followed after your death. Typically, people think about last wills when they marry or have children, and then do not think about last wills or estate plans until they retire. While a last will is important, there are other estate planning documents that are just as important, says the recent article “10 Steps to Writing a Will” from U.S. News & World Report.  In order to simplify the estate planning process your will and estate planning checklist can help.

Most assets, including retirement accounts and insurance policy proceeds, can be transferred to heirs outside of a will, if they have designated beneficiaries. However, the outcome of an estate may be more impacted by Power of Attorney for financial matters and Medical Power of Attorney documents.

There are several things that should be included on your will and estate planning checklist.  Here are ten specific tasks that need to be completed for your last will to be effective. Remember, if the will does not comply with your state’s estate law, it can be declared invalid.

  1. Find an estate planning attorney who is experienced with the laws of your state.
  2. Select beneficiaries for your last will.
  3. Check beneficiaries on non-probate assets to make sure they are current.
  4. Decide who will be the executor of your last will.
  5. Name a guardian for minor children, if yours are still young.
  6. Make a letter describing possessions and who you want to receive them. Be very specific.

There are also tasks for your own care while you are living, in case of incapacity:

  1. Name a person for the Power of Attorney role. They will be your representative for legal and financial matters, but only while you are living.
  2. Name a person for the Medical Power of Attorney to make decisions on your behalf, if you cannot.
  3. Create an Advance Directive, also known as a Living Will, to explain your wishes for medical care, particularly concerning end-of-life care.
  4. Discuss these roles and their responsibilities with the people you have chosen, and make sure they are willing to serve.

Be realistic about the people you are naming to receive your property. If you have a child who is not good with managing money, a trust can be set up to distribute assets according to your wishes: by age or accomplishments, like finishing college, going to rehab, or maintaining a steady work history.

Do not forget to tell family members where they can find your last will and other estate documents. You should also talk with them about your digital assets. If accounts are protected by passwords or facial recognition, find out if the digital platform has a process for your executor to legally obtain access to your digital assets.

Finally, do not neglect updating your last will every three to four years or anytime you have a major life event. An estate plan is like a house: it needs regular maintenance. Old last wills can disinherit family members or lead to the wrong person being in charge of your estate. An experienced estate planning attorney will make the process easier and straightforward for you and your loved ones.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (May 13, 2021) “10 Steps to Writing a Will”

 

What are Early Signs of Dementia?

Asset protection in Edmond OklahomaDementia can diminish focus, the ability to pay attention, language skills, problem-solving and visual perception. It can make it hard for a senior to control his or her emotions and lead to personality changes, says AARP’s recent article entitled “7 Early Warning Signs of Dementia You Shouldn’t Ignore.”

The article provides some of the warning signs identified by dementia experts and mental health organizations:

  • Difficulty with everyday tasks. Those with dementia may find it increasingly tough to do things, like keep track of monthly bills or follow a recipe while cooking. They also may find it hard to concentrate on tasks, take much longer to do them, or have difficulty completing them.
  • Repetition. Asking a question, hearing the answer, then repeating the same question a few minutes later, or telling the same story about a recent event multiple times, are causes for concern.
  • Communication issues. See if a senior has trouble joining in conversations or following along with them, stops abruptly in the middle of a thought, or struggles to think of words or the name of objects.
  • Getting lost. Those with dementia may have difficulty with visual and spatial abilities.
  • Changes in personality. A senior who starts acting unusually anxious, confused, fearful or suspicious; becomes upset easily; or loses interest in activities and appears depressed is cause for concern.
  • Confusion about time and place. Those who forget where they are or can’t remember how they got there should raise a red flag. You should also be concerned if a person becomes disoriented about time (asking on a Friday if it is Monday or Tuesday).
  • Troubling behavior. If a senior appears to have greater poor judgment when handling money or neglects grooming and cleanliness, it’s a concern.

Here are some of the methods that doctors use to diagnose dementia:

  • Cognitive and neuropsychological tests assess language and math skills, memory, problem-solving and other kinds of mental functioning.
  • Lab tests can help rule out non-dementia causes for the symptoms.
  • Brain scans like a CT, MRI, or PET imaging can detect changes in brain structure and function. They can identify strokes, tumors and other problems that can cause dementia.
  • Psychiatric evaluation can determine if a mental health condition is causing or impacting symptoms.
  • Genetic tests are critical, especially if someone is showing symptoms before age 60. The early onset form of Alzheimer’s is strongly associated with a person’s genes.

Reference: AARP (May 4, 2021) “7 Early Warning Signs of Dementia You Shouldn’t Ignore”

 

How to Simplify Estate Planning

estate planning faqFor most people, estate planning and preparation doesn’t rank very high on their “to do” list. There are a number of reasons, but frequently it comes down these three: (i) cost; (ii) they believe it’s just for the rich; and (iii) it’s too complicated, so it is necessary to learn how to simplify estate planning.

Fort Worth’s recent article entitled “3 Tips to Help Simplify Estate Planning,” explains that an estate plan really is not about you. It’s about taking care of your loved ones and charities.

Without an estate plan or last will, state intestacy law determines who gets your assets. You lose control of how your wealth will be distributed.

Let’s look at three tips to make it easier and to help you prepare for the future:

  1. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney. Estate planning is not something you ask your buddy to do. “Hey, Jimmy, help me write my will.” No way. Partner with an experienced estate planning attorney, so you are confident your documents comply with state law and that the plan’s language clearly details how your wealth should be managed.
  2. Review your estate planning documents regularly. We all have planned and unexpected events in our lives, like new grandchildren, illnesses, or significant increases or decreases in your net worth that could impact wealth and how it should be distributed. Meet regularly with your estate planning attorney and review your plan to make sure it still meets your needs and intentions.
  3. Organize important documents. Make certain important documents have been created and can be located quickly, if something happens to you. Here is a list of documents you should have on file that can be accessed by your spouse or family members in case of an emergency:
  • Wills, trusts, and other important estate planning documents
  • A list of tangible and intangible property
  • A list of financial accounts and insurance policies; and
  • Email accounts, logins, or other log-in information to your PC and phone.

Estate planning is not a DIY project. You need the expertise of an experienced estate planning attorney to make certain that your wishes are carried out and that your estate plan can withstand any legal challenge.

Reference: Fort Worth (May 6, 2021) “3 Tips To Help Simplify Estate Planning”

 

When Is Probate Required?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Every person’s life is different, and so is their estate plan. Family dynamics, the amount of assets owned and how they are owned will impact how the estate is distributed. In order to answer the question of when is probate required one should start by meeting with an experienced estate planning attorney to prepare for the future.

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

 

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