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Wednesday, May 8, 2013

What is Estate Tax Portability and How does it Affect Me?

 

What is Estate Tax Portability and How Does it Affect Me?

At the end of 2012, the entire country watched as major changes were made to income tax  laws with the adoption of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (ATRA). The act also made significant changes in estate tax laws.

Estate Tax Portability

One important change is that the estate tax portability law is now permanent.  Estate tax portability means that the unused portion of the first-to-die spouse’s estate tax exemption passes to the surviving spouse.  The current estate tax exemption is $5.25 million ($5 million with adjustments for inflation).  This means that a married couple’s total estate tax exemption is currently $10.5 million.  For example, a husband dies with $2 million in separate assets.  He has $3.25 million remaining in his estate tax exemption, which passes to his wife, giving her a total of $7.5 million in estate tax exemption.  Without portability, the husband’s remaining exemption might have been forfeited if the couple had not implemented special tax planning techniques as part of their estate plans.

How Do You Claim the Portability?

This is where married couples and estate executors can get into trouble.  The estate tax portability rule is not automatic.  In order to claim the remainder of the first-to-die spouse’s estate tax exemption, the surviving spouse or the deceased spouse’s estate executor must file an estate tax return soon after the death, usually within nine months.

If this filing deadline is missed, then the couple will not get the benefit of estate tax portability.  Missing the estate tax filing deadline can result in hundreds of thousands of unnecessary and avoidable estate taxes.

In a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, estate planning experts expressed concern that executors of small estates may be unaware of the estate tax return filing requirement and may believe that an estate tax return is unnecessary if the deceased spouse’s assets fall under the $5.25 million exemption amount. To preserve portability, however, the estate tax return must be filed after the first spouse’s death.  Alternatively, married couples can utilize a special trust, referred to as a “credit shelter trust” or “bypass trust” to prevent forfeiture of their individual exemptions.  This planning technique must be undertaken when both spouses are still alive.

The Consequences of Failing to File an Estate Tax Return

As a simple example, consider a husband and wife who have a total of $7.5 million in assets, $6 million in a business the husband owns and the remaining $1.5 million owned by the wife.  Upon the wife’s death, the estate’s executor files a timely estate tax return and the wife’s remaining $3.75 million in estate tax exemptions passes to the husband.  When the husband dies, his entire $6 million business passes to his heirs tax free, even though his personal estate tax exemption is only $5.25 million.  If portability is not claimed, then $1 million of the husband’s business will be taxed (the current rate is 40 percent).  The husband’s heirs would be required to pay approximately $400,000 in estate taxes which could have been avoided if the wife’s estate executor had filed an estate tax return within the time limit.

Even if both spouses together have assets under the current $5.25 million exemption, it is still a good idea to file an estate tax return after the death of the first spouse.  Filing the estate tax return and preserving the portability benefit protects the surviving spouse’s heirs in the event the surviving spouse receives a windfall during his or her lifetime that raises his or her assets above the $5.25 million exemption level.


Tuesday, February 5, 2013

2013 Changes to Federal Estate Tax Laws

 

2013 Changes to Federal Estate Tax Laws

Changes to income taxes grabbed the lion’s share of the attention as the President and Congress squabbled over how to halt the country’s journey towards the “fiscal cliff.”  However, negotiations over exemptions and tax rates for estate taxes, gift taxes and generation-skipping taxes also occurred on Capitol Hill, albeit with less fanfare.

The primary fear was that Congress would fail to act and the estate tax exemption would revert back down to $1 million.  This did not happen.  The ultimate legislation that was enacted, American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, maintains the $5 million exemption for estate taxes, gift taxes and generation-skipping taxes.  The actual amount of the exemption in 2013 is $5.25 million, due to adjustments for inflation.

The other fear was that the top estate tax rate would revert to 55 percent from the 2012 rate of 35 percent.  The top tax rate did rise, but only 5 percent from 35 percent to 40 percent.

The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 also makes permanent the portability provision of estate tax law.  Portability means that the unused portion of the first-to-die spouse’s estate tax exemption passes to the surviving spouse to be used in addition to the surviving spouse’s individual $5.25 million exemption.

Some Definitions and Additional Explanations
The federal estate tax is imposed when assets are transferred from a deceased individual to surviving heirs.  The federal estate tax does not apply to estates valued at less than $5.25 million.  It also does not apply to after-death transfers to a surviving spouse, as well as in a few other situations.  Many states also impose a separate estate tax.

 

The federal gift tax applies to any transfers of property from one individual to another for no return or for a return less than the full value of the property. The federal gift tax applies whether or not the giver intends the transfer to be a gift.  In 2013, the lifetime exemption amount is $5.25 million at a rate of 40 percent.  Gifts for tuition and for qualified medical expenses are exempt from the federal gift tax as are gifts under $14,000 per recipient per year.

The federal generation-skipping tax (GST) was created to ensure that multi-generational gifts and bequests do not escape federal taxation.  There are both direct and indirect generation-skipping transfers to which the GST may apply.  An example of a direct transfer is a grandmother bequeathing money to her granddaughter.  An example of an indirect transfer is a mother bequeathing a life estate for a house to her daughter, requiring that upon her death the house is to be transferred to the granddaughter.


Sunday, January 13, 2013

"The Sandwich Generation" -- Taking Care of Your Kids While Taking Care of Your Parents

The ‘Sandwich Generation’ – Taking Care of Your Kids While Taking Care of Your Parents

“The sandwich generation” is the term given to adults who are raising children and simultaneously caring for elderly or infirm parents.  Your children are one piece of “bread,” your parents are the other piece of “bread,” and you are “sandwiched” into the middle.

Caring for parents at the same time as you care for your children, your spouse and your job is exhausting and will stretch every resource you have.  And what about caring for yourself? Not surprisingly, most sandwich generation caregivers let self-care fall to the bottom of the priorities list which may impair your ability to care for others.

Following are several tips for sandwich generation caregivers.

  • Hold an all-family meeting regarding your parents. Involve your parents, your parents’ siblings, and your own siblings in a detailed conversation about the present and future.  If you can, make joint decisions about issues like who can physically care for your parents, who can contribute financially and how much, and who should have legal authority over your parents’ finances and health care decisions if they become unable to make decisions for themselves.  Your parents need to share all their financial and health care information with you in order for the family to make informed decisions.  Once you have that information, you can make a long-term financial plan.
  • Hold another all-family meeting with your children and your parents.  If you are physically or financially taking care of your parents, talk about this honestly with your children.  Involve your parents in the conversation as well.  Talk – in an age-appropriate way – about the changes that your children will experience, both positive and challenging.
  • Prioritize privacy.  With multiple family members living under one roof, privacy – for children, parents, and grandparents – is a must.  If it is not be feasible for every family member to have his or her own room, then find other ways to give everyone some guaranteed privacy.  “The living room is just for Grandma and Grandpa after dinner.”  “Our teenage daughter gets the downstairs bathroom for as long as she needs in the mornings.”
  • Make family plans.  There are joys associated with having three generations under one roof.  Make the effort to get everyone together for outings and meals.  Perhaps each generation can choose an outing once a month.
  • Make a financial plan, and don’t forget yourself.  Are your children headed to college?  Are you hoping to move your parents into an assisted living facility?  How does your retirement fund look?  If you are caring for your parents, your financial plan will almost certainly have to be revised.  Don’t leave yourself and your spouse out of the equation.  Make sure to set aside some funds for your own retirement while saving for college and elder health care.
  • Revise your estate plan documents as necessary.  If you had named your parents guardians of your children in case of your death, you may need to find other guardians.  You may need to set up trusts for your parents as well as for your children.  If your parent was your power of attorney, you may have to designate a different person to act on your behalf.
  • Seek out and accept help.  Help for the elderly is well organized in the United States.  Here are a few governmental and nonprofit resources:
    • www.benefitscheckup.org – Hosted by the National Council on Aging, this website is a one-stop shop for determining which federal, state and local benefits your parents may qualify for
    • www.eldercare.gov – Sponsored by the U.S. Administration on Aging
    • www.caremanager.org  -- National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers
    • www.nadsa.org – National Adult Day Services Association

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Important Steps to Plan for the Future of a Special Needs Child

Important Steps to Plan for the Future of a Special Needs Child

#1 Establish a Comprehensive Plan
Most estate planning attorneys will say that no person should use a “do-it-yourself” will kit to establish their estate plan.  If you have a child with special needs, it is extremely important to seek competent legal counsel from an estate planning lawyer with special needs planning experience before and during the process of writing your will.

In your estate plan, make sure that any bequests to your child are left to his or her trust (see #2, below) instead of to the child directly.  Your will should also name the person or persons you want to serve as guardian of your child (see #3, below).

Once your estate plan is complete you should give copies to all the guardians and executors named in the will.

#2 Establish a Special Needs Trust
A special needs trust is the most important legal document you will prepare for your child.  In order to preserve your child’s eligibility for federal financial benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid, all financial assets for your child should be placed into this trust instead of being held in your child’s name.  This is because federal benefit programs restrict the amount of income and assets the recipient may have.  If your child has too many financial assets, he or she could lose his eligibility for important federal assistance programs.

You can use this trust as a depository for any money you save for your child’s future, money others give as a gift, funds awarded in a legal settlement or successful lawsuit, and other financial assets.

Should you create a special needs trust if your child doesn’t currently have any financial assets?  Yes.  Once you create the special needs trust, then the trust can immediately become the named beneficiary of any life insurance policies or planned bequests, either yours or family members’.

#3 Appoint a guardian and complete necessary guardianship papers
Like any parent, you worry about who will care for your child if you were to die before the child becomes an adult.  Unlike other parents, you worry about who will care for your child and provide guidance even after he or she is an adult.

A legal guardian is the person who will care for your child after your death and until the child turns 18.  If your child is unable to live independently, then you can either make arrangements for adult care or discuss your preferences with the appointed guardian.

As you consider choices of a guardian for your special needs child, consider how much time is required to raise a child with special needs.  Who do you know who can respond to the challenge?  Who do you know who has already formed a bond with your child?

After you make a choice, ask the individual if he or she will accept the responsibility of serving as your child’s named, legal guardian.  It is never wise to keep this decision a secret.  Also, discuss with your selected guardian how he or she will probably still have responsibilities toward your child even after his or her 18th birthday.

#4 Apply for an adult guardianship
Even if your child is still a minor, you can start planning now for when he or she reaches the age of majority.  When children turn 18, the law considers them adults and able to make their own financial and medical decisions.  If your special needs child will be incapable of managing his or her own health and finances, consider a legal guardianship.

#5 Prioritize your savings account
Parents of special needs children quickly learn that their children need many resources and equipment that insurance and school systems do not cover.  The more financial assistance you can give your child, the better.  Start saving as early as possible for your child’s lifetime needs – just remember to not open the savings account in your child’s name

Savings can help pay for therapies, equipment, an attorney to advocate for your child in the school system, or a special education expert who can help you make sure your child is getting access to all the programs he or she qualifies for.

#6 Plan for your child’s adulthood
Early planning for your child’s adult years will help you bring the legal and financial picture into sharper focus.  Will your child continue to live with you?  If so, will he or she need in-home assistance?  How often?  Do adult day care programs for people with special needs exist in your community?  How are they rated?

Is your goal for your child to live independently?  If so, what support will he or she need?  Will your child live in a group home, an assisted living community, an apartment with on-site nursing care, or another type of situation?  The earlier you research available options in your community, the sooner you can add your child’s name to the waiting list for the living situation you both prefer.

#7 Write a letter of intent
A letter of intent is not a formal legal document.  It is more like a manual of instruction, containing your wishes for your child’s upbringing.  In the best case scenario, you would give this letter of intent to your child’s chosen guardian and to anyone else who will play a significant role in his or her life after your death. 

  • What is your child’s daily routine?  What kind of weekly and monthly routine does she have?
  • What does he find especially comforting?  What frightens her?  What are favorite foods, books and movies?  Be as detailed as you wish.
  • List all of your child’s health care and educational providers.
  • List all current medications, doses and schedules.
  • List all allergies.
  • Are there people you don’t want your child to spend time with? Be specific.
  • Are there people you want your child to spend time with? Who?
  • Are there activities you especially want your child to try, such as sports or arts and crafts?

Update this letter at least once a year.  Keep a copy wherever you keep copies of your will.  And be sure to give a copy to your child’s appointed guardian.

#8 Talk with family members
Either in person or in writing, explain the major decisions you have made to important family members.  It is especially important to explain to generous grandparents and other relatives why they must not leave gifts of money – or inheritances – directly to your child.  Give relatives the information about your child’s special needs trust and instruct them to leave any financial gifts to the trust.  Similarly, explain that family members should designate the trust – not the child – as the beneficiary of life insurance policies and so forth.

If you have made decisions you fear will be unpopular (such as naming a guardian), consider explaining your reasons directly to family members whom you fear will be unhappy.  You could also consider including the named guardian in these difficult conversations.

The process of planning for your special needs child’s future may seem long and arduous at times, but you will experience a great relief when the major pieces of the plan are in place.  Creating a plan for the future will allow you to relax and enjoy the present with your child and family.


Friday, January 11, 2013

Advance Planning Can Help Relieve the Worries of Alzheimer's Disease

Advance Planning Can Help Relieve the Worries of Alzheimer’s Disease

The “ostrich syndrome” is part of human nature; it’s unpleasant to observe that which frightens us.  However, pulling our heads from the sand and making preparations for frightening possibilities can provide significant emotional and psychological relief from fear.

When it comes to Alzheimer’s disease and other forms of dementia, more Americans fear being unable to care for themselves and burdening others with their care than they fear the actual loss of memory.  This data comes from an October 2012 study by Home Instead Senior Care, in which 68 percent of 1,200 survey respondents ranked fear of incapacity higher than the fear of lost memories (32 percent).

Advance planning for incapacity is a legal process that can lessen the fear that you may become a burden to your loved ones later in life.

What is advance planning for incapacity?

Under the American legal system, competent adults can make their own legally binding arrangements for future health care and financial decisions.  Adults can also take steps to organize their finances to increase their likelihood of eligibility for federal aid programs in the event they become incapacitated due to Alzheimer’s disease or other forms of dementia.

The individual components of advance incapacity planning interconnect with one another, and most experts recommend seeking advice from a qualified estate planning or elder law attorney.

What are the steps of advance planning for incapacity?

Depending on your unique circumstances, planning for incapacity may include additional steps beyond those listed below.  This is one of the reasons experts recommend consulting a knowledgeable elder law lawyer with experience in your state.
 

  1. Write a health care directive, or living will.  Your living will describes your preferences regarding end of life care, resuscitation, and hospice care.  After you have written and signed the directive, make sure to file copies with your health care providers.
     
  2. Write a health care power of attorney.  A health care power of attorney form designates another person to make health care decisions on your behalf should you become incapacitated and unable to make decisions for yourself.  You may be able to designate your health care power of attorney in your health care directive document, or you may need to complete a separate form.  File copies of this form with your doctors and hospitals, and give a copy to the person or persons whom you have designated.
     
  3. Write a financial power of attorney.  Like a health care power of attorney, a financial power of attorney assigns another person the right to make financial decisions on your behalf in the event of incapacity.  The power of attorney can be temporary or permanent, depending on your wishes.  File copies of this form with all your financial institutions and give copies to the people you designate to act on your behalf.
     
  4. Plan in advance for Medicaid eligibility.  Long-term care payment assistance is among the most important Medicaid benefits.  To qualify for Medicaid, you must have limited assets.  To reduce the likelihood of ineligibility, you can use certain legal procedures, like trusts, to distribute your assets in a way that they will not interfere with your eligibility.  The elder law attorney you consult with regarding Medicaid eligibility planning can also advise you on Medicaid copayment planning and Medicaid estate recovery planning.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Estate Planning: Leaving Assets to a "Troubled" Heir

Estate Planning: Leaving Assets to a ‘Troubled’ Heir

If you have a child who is addicted to drugs or alcohol, or who is financially irresponsible, you already know the heartbreak associated with trying to help that child make healthy decisions.  Perhaps your other adult children are living independent lives, but this child still turns to you to bail him out – either figuratively or literally – of trouble.

If these are your circumstances, you are probably already worrying about how to continue to help your child once you are gone.  You predict that your child will misuse any lump sum of money left to him or her via your will.  You don’t want to completely cut this child out of your estate plan, but at the same time, you don’t want to enable destructive behavior or throw good money after bad.

Trusts are an estate planning tool you can use to provide an inheritance to a worrisome heir while maintaining control over how, when, where, and why the heir accesses the funds.  This type of trust is sometimes called a spendthrift trust.  

As with all trusts, you designate a trustee who controls the funds that will be left to the heir.  This trustee can be an independent third party (there are companies that specialize in this type of work) or a member of the family.  It is often wise to opt for a third party as a trustee, to prevent accusations among family members about favoritism.

The trust can specify the exact circumstances under which money will be disbursed to the heir.  Or, more simply, the trust can specify that the trustee has complete and sole discretion to disburse funds when the heir applies for money.  Most parents in these circumstances discover that they wish to impose their own incentives and restrictions, rather than rely on the judgment of an unknown third party.

The types of conditions or incentives that can be used with a trust include:

  • Drug or alcohol testing before funds are released
  • Payments directly to landlords, colleges, etc., rather than payment to the heir
  • Disbursement of a specified lump sum if the heir graduates from university or keeps the same job for a certain time period
  • Payment only to a drug or alcohol rehab center if the child is in an active period of addiction
  • Disbursement of a lump sum if the child remains drug free
  • Payments that match the child’s earned income

If you are considering writing this type of complex trust, it is advisable to seek assistance from a qualified and experienced estate planning attorney who can help you devise a plan that best accomplishes your wishes with respect to your child.
 


Sunday, December 9, 2012

Preparing to Meet with an Estate Planning Attorney

Preparing to Meet With an Estate Planning Attorney

A thorough and complete estate plan must take into account a significant amount of information about your assets, your family, your property, and your wishes during and after your life.  When you make your first appointment with an estate planning attorney, ask the attorney or the paralegal if they can provide a written list of important information and documents that you should bring to the meeting.  

Generally speaking, you should gather the following information before your first appointment with your estate planning lawyer.

Family Information
List the names, birth dates, death dates, and ages of all immediate family members, specifically current and former spouses, all children and stepchildren, and all grandchildren.

If you have any young or adult children with special needs, gather all information you have about their lifetime financial needs.

Property Information
For all real property you own or can reasonably expect to acquire, gather the property description, your ownership interest information, the address, market value, any outstanding mortgage balance, and the most recent tax assessment.

For any personal property of value (such as vehicles, jewelry, coins, antiques, stamps, and art), compile a list that includes a description, the physical location of each item, your ownership interest information, the market value, and any liens against the property.

Business Information
If you have an ownership interest in a business, make sure you have documents showing your ownership interest in the business, the business location, the names and contact information of other owners, and 2-3 years of past profit and loss statements.

Financial Information
Compile a list of all your financial accounts, including: checking accounts, savings accounts, investment accounts, stocks and bonds, and U.S. Treasury notes.  If any of these accounts currently have designated beneficiaries, bring that information as well.

Gather all retirement savings information, including 401(k) plans, 403(b) plans, IRAs, life insurance policies, Social Security statements, and pension information.  Make sure you have the account names, account numbers, current balances, outstanding loan balances, and currently named beneficiaries.

If any family members owe you debts, compile that information.

Questions to Think About
The following are some of the first questions your estate planning attorney will ask.  You are not required to have answers ready for all these questions, but because some of them are complex, it is a good idea to think through these issues before your appointment.

  • Who will be beneficiaries of your property?
  • Do you want to bequeath any specific items of property to specific individuals?
  • Is there anyone you do not want to be a beneficiary of any of your property?
  • Do you plan to make any bequests to any nonprofit organizations – university, church, charity, or other organization?
  • Do you know who you want to act as executor of your will?
  • Do you know who you want to act as trustee of any trusts you establish?
  • If you have minor children, who do you want to appoint as guardian?
  • Do you want to make arrangements for your health and financial well-being in the event you become unable to make decisions for yourself?
  • Do you have specific wishes for your funeral?
  • Are you a registered organ donor?

During your initial consultation, your estate planning attorney will review your family and financial situation, discuss your wishes, answer your questions and suggest strategies to protect your family, wealth and legacy.
 


Friday, October 5, 2012

Estate Planning Don'ts

Estate Planning Don’ts

Preparing for the future is an uncertain business, but there are steps you can take during your lifetime to simplify matters for your loved ones after you pass, and to ensure your final wishes are carried out. Planning for what happens to your property, or who cares for your family members, upon your death can be a complicated process. To simplify things, we’ve created the following list to help you avoid some of the pitfalls you may encounter before, or even long after, you create your estate plan.

Don’t assume you can plan your estate by yourself. Get help from an estate planning attorney whose training and experience can ensure that you minimize tax implications and simplify the process of settling your estate.

Don’t put off your estate planning needs because of finances. To be sure, there are upfront costs for establishing the estate plan; however establishing your estate plan is an investment in the future well-being of your family, and one which will result in a far greater cash savings over the long term.

Don’t make changes to your estate plan without consulting your attorney. Changes in one area of your estate plan could impact other provisions you have made, triggering legal or tax implications you never intended.

Don’t assume your children will intuitively know your wishes, and handle the situation appropriately upon your death. Money and sentimental items can cause a rift between even the most agreeable siblings, and they will be especially vulnerable as they deal with the emotional impact of your passing.

Don’t assume that once you’ve prepared your estate plan it’s set in stone. Estate planning documents regularly need to be revised, often due to a change in marital status, birth or death of a family member, or a significant change in the value of your estate. Beneficiary designations should be periodically reviewed to ensure they are up to date.

Don’t forget to notify your family members, friends or other beneficiaries of your estate plan. Make sure your executor and successor trustee have access to your end-of-life documents.

Don’t assume your spouse will handle everything if something happens to you. It’s possible your spouse may be incapacitated at the same time, for example if you both are injured in the same accident. A proper estate plan appoints alternate representatives to handle your affairs if both you and your spouse are unable to do so.

Don’t use the same person as your agent under both the financial and healthcare powers of attorney. Using the same individual gives that person an incredible amount of influence over your future and it may be a good idea to split up the decision-making authority.

Don’t forget to name alternate agents, executors or successor trustees. You may name a family member to fill one of these roles, and forget to revise the document if that person dies or becomes incapacitated. By adding alternates, you ensure there is no question regarding who has the authority to act on your or the estate’s behalf.


Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Beware of Simple Estate Plans

Beware of “Simple” Estate Plans

“I just need a simple will.”  It’s a phrase estate planning attorneys hear practically every other day.   From the client’s perspective, there’s no reason to do anything complicated, especially if it might lead to higher legal fees.  Unfortunately, what may appear to be a “simple” estate is all too often rife with complications that, if not addressed during the planning process, can create a nightmare for you and your heirs at some point in the future.   Such complications may include:

Probate - Probate is the court process whereby property is transferred after death to individuals named in a will or specified by law if there is no will. Probate can be expensive, public and time consuming.  A revocable living trust is a great alternative that allows your estate to be managed more efficiently, at a lower cost and with more privacy than probating a will.  A living trust can be more expensive to establish, but will avoid a complex probate proceeding. Even in states where probate is relatively simple, you may wish to set up a living trust to hold out of state property or for other reasons.

Minor Children - If you have minor children, you not only need to nominate a guardian, but you also need to set up a trust to hold property for those children. If both parents pass away, and the child does not have a trust, the child’s inheritance could be held by the court until he or she turns 18, at which time the entire inheritance may be given to the child. By setting up a trust, which doesn’t have to come into existence until you pass away, you are ensuring that any money left to your child can be used for educational and living expenses and can be administered by someone you trust.  You can also protect the inheritance you leave your beneficiaries from a future divorce as well as creditors.

Second Marriages - Couples in which one or both of the spouses have children from a prior relationship should carefully consider whether a “simple” will is adequate. All too often, spouses execute simple wills in which they leave everything to each other, and then divide the property among their children. After the first spouse passes away, the second spouse inherits everything. That spouse may later get remarried and leave everything he or she received to the new spouse or to his or her own children, thereby depriving the former spouse’s children of any inheritance.  Couples in such situations should establish a special marital trust to ensure children of both spouses will be provided for.

Taxes - Although in 2011 and 2012, federal estate taxes only apply to estates over $5 million for individuals and $10 million for couples, that doesn’t mean that anyone with an estate under that amount should forget about tax planning. Many states still impose a state estate tax that should be planned around. Also, in 2013 the estate tax laws are slated to change, possibly with a much lower exemption amount.

Incapacity Planning – Estate planning is not only about death planning.  What happens if you become disabled?  You need to have proper documents to enable someone you trust to manage your affairs if you become incapacitated.  There are a myriad of options that you need to be aware of when authorizing someone to make decisions on your behalf, whether for your medical care or your financial affairs.  If you don’t establish these important documents while you have capacity, your loved ones may have to go through an expensive and time-consuming guardianship or conservatorship proceeding to petition a judge to allow him or her to make decisions on your behalf.  

By failing to properly address potential obstacles, over the long term, a “simple” will can turn out to be incredibly costly.   An experienced estate planning attorney can provide valuable insight and offer effective mechanisms to ensure your wishes are carried out in the most efficient manner possible while providing protection and comfort for you and your loved ones for years to come.


Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Remarried? Protect Your Children With Proper Planning.

Remarried? Protect Your Children With Proper Planning

If you are married for the first time and are working on your estate plan, the decisions about where the assets go are usually easy. Most parents in that situation want their entire estate to go to the surviving spouse, and upon the death of the surviving spouse, equally to their children. There may be difficult decisions about who will serve as guardians of the children or trustees over the children’s property, but typically it’s easy to decide where the property will go.

However, in today’s society, there are ever-increasing numbers of blended families. There may be children from several marriages involved, making estate planning more complex.  Couples may bring an unequal number of children into the marriage, as well as unequal assets. A spouse may want to ensure that his or her spouse is provided for at death, but may be afraid to leave everything to that spouse out of fear that at the death of the second spouse, that spouse will leave everything to his or her biological children.

Planning can also be complicated when a couple gets married and either of them brings very young children into the marriage. The non-biological parent may raise those children, but unless formally adopted, for estate planning purposes, they are not considered the children of the non-biological parent. Therefore, if that parent dies without a will, the children will not inherit from the stepparent.

There are many options for estate planning for blended families that will treat everyone fairly. First, it’s imperative that parents of blended families have a will in place. If they don’t, it’s almost inevitable that someone will be treated unfairly. Also, it’s tempting for parents of blended families to create wills in which half of everything is left to the husband’s children and half is left to the wife’s children. However, as explained earlier, this approach can also lead to problems.  Moreover, it’s not at all uncommon for a surviving spouse to change his or her will at the death of the first spouse and cut the stepchildren out of the estate plan.

There are two options often recommended for blended families when doing estate planning. The first is to use a trust. Under this plan, all family assets are usually held in trust. Upon the death of the first spouse, the surviving spouse has the right to use the assets in the trust for support, with certain limits, such as rights to income or limited use of the trust principal for living expenses. However, the surviving spouse will not be able to change the beneficiaries of the trust, and hence stepchildren could not be disinherited. A second option is for a certain amount of money to be left to children at the death of the first spouse. In that situation, the children will not have to wait for the death of the stepparent in order to inherit. This works well in situations when the children are mature adults and there is sufficient money for the surviving spouse to support herself without relying on the extra funds that are inherited by the children.  One way to accomplish this is through a life insurance policy payable to the children.

Estate planning with blended families can be complex and each situation is unique. It’s important to keep the lines of communication open and to be aware that it can be a sticky situation for many families. However, with proper planning, many issues that could arise on the death of a stepparent can be avoided completely.
 


Monday, August 6, 2012

Living Trusts and Probate Avoidance

Living Trusts & Probate Avoidance

You want your money and property to go to your loved ones when you die, not to the courts, lawyers or the government. Unfortunately, unless you’ve taken proper estate planning, procedures, your heirs could lose a sizable portion of their inheritance to probate court fees and expenses. A properly-crafted and “funded” living trust is the ideal probate-avoidance tool which can save thousands in legal costs, enhance family privacy and avoid lengthy delays in distributing your property to your loved ones

What is probate, and why should you avoid it? Probate is a court proceeding during which the will is reviewed, executors are approved, heirs, beneficiaries, debtors and creditors are notified, assets are appraised, your debts and taxes are paid, and the remaining estate is distributed according to your will (or according to state law if you don’t have a will). Probate is costly, time-consuming and very public.

A living trust, on the other hand, allows your property to be transferred to your beneficiaries, quickly and privately, with little to no court intervention, maximizing the amount your loved ones end up with.

A basic living trust consists of a declaration of trust, a document that is similar to a will in its form and content, but very different in its legal effect. In the declaration, you name yourself as trustee, the person in charge of your property. If you are married, you and your spouse are co-trustees. Because you are trustee, you retain total control of the property you transfer into the trust. In the declaration, you must also name successor trustees to take over in the event of your death or incapacity.

Once the trust is established, you must transfer ownership of your property to yourself, as trustee of the living trust. This step is critical; the trust has no effect over any of your property unless you formally transfer ownership into the trust. The trust also enables you to name the beneficiaries you want to inherit your property when you die, including providing for alternate or conditional beneficiaries. You can amend your trust at any time, and can even revoke it entirely.

Even if you create a living trust and transfer all of your property into it, you should also create a back-up will, known as a “pour-over will”. This will ensure that any property you own – or may acquire in the future – will be distributed to whomever you want to receive it. Without a will, any property not included in your trust will be distributed according to state law.

After you die, the successor trustee you named in your living trust is immediately empowered to transfer ownership of the trust property according to your wishes. Generally, the successor trustee can efficiently settle your entire estate within a few weeks by filing relatively simple paperwork without court intervention and its associated expenses. The successor trustee can solicit the assistance of an attorney to help with the trust settlement process, though such legal fees are typically a fraction of those incurred during probate.
 

 

 


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