How Can I Goof Up My Estate Plan?

There are several critical errors you can make that will render an estate plan invalid. Many of these can be easily avoided, by examining your plan periodically and keeping it up to date.

Investopedia’s article, “5 Ways to Mess Up Estate Planning” gives us a list of these common issues.

Not Updating Beneficiary Designations. Be certain those to whom you intend to leave your assets are clearly named on the proper forms. Whenever there’s a life change, update your financial, retirement, and insurance accounts and policies, as well as your estate planning documents.

Forgetting Key Legal Documents. Revocable living trusts are the primary vehicle used to keep some assets from probate. However, having only trusts without a will can be a mistake—the will is the document where you designate the guardian of your minor children, if something should happen to you and/or your spouse.

Bad Recordkeeping. Leaving a mess is a headache. Your family won’t like having to spend time and effort finding, organizing and locating your assets. Draft a letter of instruction that tells your executor where everything is located, the names and contact information of your banker, broker, insurance agent, financial planner, attorney etc.. Make a list of the financial websites you use with their login information, so your accounts can be accessed.

Faulty Communication. Telling your heirs about your plans can be made easier with a simple letter of explanation that states your intentions, or even tells them why you changed your mind about something. This could help give them some closure or peace of mind, even though it has no legal authority.

Not Creating a Plan. This last one is one of the most common. There are plenty of stories of extremely wealthy people who lose most, if not all, of their estate to court fees and legal costs, because they didn’t have an estate plan.

These are just a few of the common estate planning errors that happen. For more information on how to be certain your assets will be dispersed according to your wishes, talk with a qualified estate planning attorney.

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

 

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Four Common Myths about Estate Planning

1) Myth: My spouse can make all of my healthcare and financial decisions because he/she is my spouse.

Reality: This is not always the case. To make sure your spouse can indeed make important medical decisions on your behalf, you should sign a durable power of attorney and a medical advance directive.

2) Myth: I’ve told my family how I want my affairs handled after I die. They’ll divide everything the way I want it divided.

Reality: Informal discussions about your affairs have no legal enforceability. Even if your immediate family does carry out your wishes, if  here is a remarriage or divorce, for instance, your estate could end up in the hands of people you never intended to be beneficiaries. A properly executed will and other estate planning documents are the only way you can ensure your estate ends up where you want it to go.

3) Myth: I signed a will before, so I don’t need to do it again.

Reality: An old will may not reflect your current goals. You or your children may have married or remarried. Your property holdings may have changed. A trust may now be the preferred method to safeguard your legacy because of changes in your circumstances and needs. The only way to know for sure is to have a comprehensive estate plan review.

4) Myth: I am not wealthy enough to need an estate plan.

Reality: Almost everyone will benefit from estate planning, which addresses non-wealth aspects of your legacy along with the financial aspects. Estate planning can ensure someone you trust will care for your children and pets after your death, and make sure treasured family heirlooms end up where you want them to go. Estate planning also can help you pass along your values.
Moreover, trusts are not just for the wealthy: In states that practice Medicaid recovery, for instance, your survivors may receive a large bill for Medicaid-funded nursing home care after your death, which can force the sale of assets like the family home. Some states even seize life insurance proceeds. Depending on your situation, a trust can prevent this from happening. The only way to know for sure is to visit with an estate planning attorney to obtain personalized advice for your situation.
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Should I Use an Online Will Service?

More than 50% of Americans don’t have a will, according to a 2017 survey by Caring.com. Spelling out how your assets should be divided, is an essential start to estate planning that can be easily overlooked.

A U.S. News & World Report’s article asks “Should You Make a Free Will Online?” According to the article, before writing your will or using an online service, you need to know the legal requirements in your area. In many instances, this is best left to a legal professional in your state.

There are plenty of online tools that will help you create a will. However, before clicking on a website’s promise, you need to evaluate the available options. There are three main ways to write a will:

  1. Do it yourself;
  2. Use a do-it-yourself program; or
  3. Get help from a qualified estate planning attorney.

If you draft a will on your own, you’ll need to be absolutely certain you understand all of the applicable probate, tax and property laws. People who’ve written their own wills are usually those with very basic estates, like a person with a single piece of real estate and a small amount in basic checking accounts.

If you use an online service, you’ll have access to software that walks you through the process. In this case, you’ll need to be sure that the software company has all the applicable laws covered, as required for your state. You also want a program that lets you make updates later, if your situation changes.

However, if you engage the assistance of an experienced estate planning attorney, you’ll have the opportunity to have an expert help you think through the details. This result will be a well-drafted comprehensive estate plan. Yes, it will cost a bit more, but for many situations—like those with blended families, complex investments, or property in several states—it’s worth it.

Remember that the probate laws can vary widely from state to state. For example, the basic form requirements may allow a handwritten will in some states, but in other states the will must be typewritten. Some states require only two witnesses, and others require that the will be witnessed, notarized and typed.

If you have a larger estate or heirs with medical conditions, it may be wise to work with an attorney who can counsel you on the best solutions for your situation. For example, if you have a child with special needs receiving government benefits, you should have an attorney create a trust so their inheritance doesn’t negatively impact their benefits.

You should also use an attorney if you want to reduce your exposure to probate fees. Some people transfer their assets into a revocable living trust, so they are not subject to probate fees. An online service can’t give you this type of attention or personalized service.

If you have a complex situation, you may end up paying less by using an attorney. An experienced estate planning attorney has helped numerous families. He or she can offer insight into setting up guardians for minor children or appointing an individual to be in charge of the distribution of the estate. There are frequently estate and gift tax considerations about which the average person doesn’t know or monitor.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (January 9, 2019) “Should You Make a Free Will Online?”

 

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Self Employed People Get to Retire Too–If they Plan Well

People who work for companies have access to perks like 401(k) plans, with automatic deductions that let them put retirement savings on autopilot. However, when you work for yourself, it’s all up to you, says Zing! in the aptly-titled article “Saving for Retirement When You’re Self-Employed? It Takes Planning and Commitment.” If you have the discipline and self-motivation to run a business, you should be able to apply those skills to your retirement.

Here are some tips for self-employed people who are concerned with building their retirement savings.

Embrace a budget. One of the biggest challenges is income that fluctuates. It’s hard to save when one month has you earning $10,000 and $3,000 the next month. You’ll need to create a budget and stick with it, including budgeting a percentage of your income for retirement. While you’re creating a budget, set goals for short- and long-term objectives to keep your budgeting focused.

A budget should include necessary expenses for each month, including mortgage or rent, car loans and credit card payments. Include groceries, transportation, and health care costs. Some self-employed people pay for some items like transportation or entertainment out of their business accounts. If you do that, just work with one budget, so you can measure spending. There is no need to split things out for yourself. You should then look at discretionary items like vacations, entertainment, gym memberships, clothing and things that are not basic necessities.

Now see what’s left at the end of the month. If there’s no regular stream of money going into retirement savings because there’s not enough after spending, you may need to make some changes.

Create an item in your expense budget for retirement savings. Make it automatic. Set a fixed amount of your income, by dollar amount or percentage of monthly income, and put it away every month for your retirement. This takes discipline at first and then becomes a habit. Once you see how the account grows, you’ll be more inclined to continue.

Talk with your accountant about the best savings vehicle for you. Some self-employed individuals use a “solo” 401(k) account, known as a SEP or Self-Employed 401(k). Designed for employers who have no employees other than themselves (or their spouses), it offers the same benefits as traditional 401(k)s. In 2019, you can contribute up to $19,000 when contributing as an employee, or up to $24,500 if you are 50 and older. As an employer, you can contribute up to 25% of your compensation – not counting catch-up contributions for those 50 and older, you can go as high as $55,000 in 2019.

Another factor if you are self-employed is your estate plan. Entrepreneurs are often so busy working on their business, that they forget about the legal side of their personal lives. You need a will, power of attorney, health care power of attorney and, depending on your business and life situation, a succession plan.

Reference: Zing! (Jan. 7, 2019) “Saving for Retirement When You’re Self-Employed? It Takes Planning and Commitment”

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Legacy Planning for Farm and Ranch Families

An inheritance is more than money or property, especially when it comes to family farms, ranches and businesses. Many survive for multiple generations, says the Woodward News in the article “Plenty to consider in legacy planning,” but it takes planning.

Knowing that one day your grandchildren, and hopefully their children, will walk the land their great-grandparents did, and take the same satisfaction in knowing that the work they do, is a part of our country’s economy. Every family’s situation is different but one thing they all share in common, is that succession goals need to be evaluated critically, even though there is great emotion involved in passing on a legacy.

Dividing assets, sharing control and management decisions and transferring ownership are all things that must be examined and formalized as part of a succession plan.

For starters, determine the overall goal. Every family’s goals are different. Should assets be held for end-of-life-care for aging parents, passed on to children, donated to charity or are they needed to ensure the successful transition of the business to the next generation?

People work hard their whole lives to accumulate assets, so it’s important to have a legacy plan.  In this way, everything you’ve worked for is preserved for the next generation or available for your needs as you age.

In 2019, gift and estate tax exemptions are up dramatically, but strategic planning still needs to be done.

For farm families, the Farm Journal Legacy Project offers printable downloads, including a succession planning action guide, family meeting agenda, conversation starters and a goals clarification worksheet.

Family meetings will need to tackle some topics that may benefit from the presence of an estate planning attorney, who is experienced with family farms and succession planning.

  • How will the transfer of property, including farm equipment, property, and livestock, be done with minimal taxes due?
  • How can the non-farming members of the family receive their fair share of their inheritance, without taking away valuable resources needed to keep the farm or ranch going?
  • What resources will be available for the older parents to live on, when they retire?
  • Can the farm support multiple generations?

Succession planning that works best, begins long before the farm family is thinking about retirement. Determining roles and responsibilities and setting accountability for those roles must start happening long before the oldest generation steps away from the day-to-day operations of the farm or ranch.

Reference: Woodward News (Jan. 2, 2019) “Plenty to consider in legacy planning”

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Am I Too Young to Start Thinking About Estate Planning?
Protect your children with an estate plan

Am I Too Young to Start Thinking About Estate Planning?

Many people believe they’re too young to begin thinking about estate planning. Others say they don’t have significant enough assets to make the process of planning worthwhile.

However, the truth is that everyone needs estate planning. If you have any assets, and you intend to give those assets to a loved one, you need to have a plan.

Forbes’s article, “Reviewing Your Financial And Estate Planning Checklist,” examines some important topics in estate planning.

The first of topic is a durable power of attorney for property, finances and health care. This document allows you to designate a trusted individual to make decisions and take action on your behalf with matters relating to each of the three areas above.

In addition to the importance of having all powers of attorney readily available, in case you become incapable of making decisions, beneficiary designations should also be looked at frequently to update any changes to family situations, like a birth or adoption, death, marriage or divorce.

Another topic to address is a living trust. A trust will give direction regarding where and how the assets are dispersed when you die. A great reason to use a living trust is that the assets in a trust do not pass through probate court, which can be an expensive and time-consuming process.

Another area is digital assets. It’s critical for your heirs to have access to digital files, passwords and documents. This can be easy to overlook. Create a list of your digital assets, including social media accounts, online banking accounts and home utilities you manage online. Include all email and communications accounts, shopping accounts, photo and video sharing accounts, video gaming accounts, online storage accounts, and websites and blogs that you manage. This list should be clear and updated for your heirs to access.

If we fail to plan for these somewhat uncomfortable topics, the outcome will be stressful and expensive for our heirs.

Reference: Forbes (January 4, 2019) “Reviewing Your Financial And Estate Planning Checklist”

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What Should I Think About Before the Baby Comes?

Prince William Living’s recent article, “Baby on the Way? Here’s How You Can Prepare Financially,” says that as you plan to welcome your child, consider these seven tips that can help you decide how to provide your family with the lifestyle you desire.

Examine your career. A new baby may cause you to think differently about your career goals—you may seek a promotion, a job with a higher salary or better benefits, or more education. Perhaps you or your spouse want to decrease your hours or become a stay-at-home parent. If you are thinking about changing your job status, examine the effect it may have on your take-home pay, retirement nest egg and benefits.

Lifestyle changes. Look at how your baby will affect your day-to-day activities. If your perfect lifestyle involves a new car or home, talk to a financial professional about whether to make the move now or in the future.

Childcare expenses. Nearly one-third of parents spend 20% or more of their income on childcare. In some states, the cost for a year of care can be more than one year of college!

Tuition. Private elementary or secondary school often costs money, and the price of a college education continues to rise at a pace faster than inflation. The 2017 tax reform expanded the use of 529 plans, so you can now withdraw up to $10,000 federal income tax-free per beneficiary, per year to pay for kindergarten through 12th grade tuition at a public, private or religious school.

Review your financial position. Unanticipated events can impact your finances at any time. Resolve to build or maintain an emergency fund that could cover three to six months of expenses.  You should also prioritize your retirement savings. After your baby arrives, update your estate plan and insurance coverage as needed.

Consider family values. Consider how you want to teach your child about financial responsibility. Being intentional early, can help create clear expectations and ensure that you and your spouse are on the same page.

The family bucket list. Look at what activities matter to you and add them into your financial plan. Taking an annual vacation or having a vacation home are common goals for many families.

Adding a new member to your family has a way of putting your priorities into perspective. Use these reminders to plan accordingly. Don’t forget that you’ll need an estate plan now that your family is growing. Your will should name a guardian in case something happens to you and your spouse. If there is no will, or no guardian named, the state will decide who will raise your child. Talk with an estate planning attorney to make sure that your planning for the future is complete.

Reference: Prince William Living (December 2018) “Baby on the Way? Here’s How You Can Prepare Financially”

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How Do I Contest a Will?
Will contest

How Do I Contest a Will?

The ways that children of a first marriage can contest a will fall into several scenarios. However, in order to do so, a person must have “standing.” Typically, a person has standing in two situations, explains nj.com in its recent article, “Can children from a first marriage contest a will?”

One way is when the individual is the decedent’s heir at law and would inherit under the laws of intestacy if the will were declared invalid. Another way a person could have standing, is if there were a prior will in which the person is a named beneficiary, and the prior will would be reinstated, if the subsequent will were set aside.

For example, in Mississippi, probate laws take blended families into consideration. If a person dies without a will and has descendants, like children or grandchildren who are not descendants of the surviving spouse, then several things would happen. The surviving spouse would inherit a child’s share of the estate. The descendants from outside the marriage would then inherit the remainder of the estate in equal shares.

Let’s say George and Gracie were married and had baby Benny. After George and Gracie divorce, George marries Phyllis. If George dies intestate—without a will—then Benny would inherit one-half of his estate. If George dies with a will, Benny has standing to challenge the validity of the will.

As a practical matter, Benny should only challenge the will, if he’d stand to inherit more under intestacy than under the will, and he has a valid challenge justifying that the will be set aside.

The four most common challenges to a will are lack of capacity, improper execution, fraud and undue influence/duress.

It’s not uncommon for will contests to be successful. However, it really depends on the facts and circumstances of each specific case. For example, Benny would have a much tougher time proving undue influence, if John and Phyllis were similar in age and married for 30 years prior to George’s death, than if Phyllis was 50 years younger than George, and he had some level of dementia.

Reference: nj.com (December 11, 2018) “Can children from a first marriage contest a will?”

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Why are Heirlooms the Source of Family Conflict in Probate?
Family jewelry and guns are often the source of controversy after a parent dies.

Why are Heirlooms the Source of Family Conflict in Probate?

When a family member dies, personal items and heirlooms can be the cause of significant conflict among family members, The Guardian says in its recent article, “When It Comes To Heirlooms, It’s Personal.” Many of these hotly-disputed items may have little to no monetary value. However, that doesn’t make them any less important to those family members who treasure their “priceless” emotional value.

A person can typically leave his estate to whomever he wants, provided that it satisfies the obligations to a spouse and dependents. There are several ways to ensure that an estate is equitably distributed, according to the wishes of the deceased. However, making decisions on personal effects and family heirlooms is often one of the hardest parts of the estate planning process.

Here’s what can you do to make sure the cherished personal property you wish to leave to your heirs doesn’t become the focal point for future disputes:

  • Avoid any surprises. Avoid potential conflicts by sharing with your family the contents of your will and your reasons for the way that you’ve decided to distribute your assets, so there are no surprises after you are gone.
  • Know what “fairness” means. Fairness doesn’t always mean “equal.” That is especially true when it comes to your personal items and heirlooms. Decide what “fairness” means to each of your family members, and if you agree, distribute your items accordingly.
  • Talk about your special assets. Create a list of the items you want to bequeath and ask your family who should get what.
  • Get appraisals and consultations. Have your personal property appraised and consult with your heirs to be certain that the items you bequeath are appropriately valued–both monetarily and emotionally.
  • Create a list. Attach to your will a letter that lists your personal property items and the heirs you want to receive them. The letter won’t be enforceable as part of your will, unless you incorporate it into the terms of the will.
  • Make choice now. While you’re still alive, list your personal items and have your heirs take turns choosing what they want.
  • Choose later. If you don’t want your heirs to select your personal items in advance but still prefer they are the ones who chose, leave a direction in your will that your heirs are to take turns, until all of the items have been chosen.

Reference: The Guardian (December 23, 2018) “When It Comes To Heirlooms, It’s Personal”

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What Do I Need to Do To Get Financially Fit in My 30s?

Whether you’re 30 or 39, retirement will come up fast. Many people are surprised when they see how much they need to put away to keep their current standard of living in retirement.

Once you decide when you want to retire, you need to calculate how much money you’ll need and how you’ll get there. Of course, you should take advantage of company matching and various tax deductions, when saving for retirement. Don’t wait until your 40s or 50s to try to catch up. That will be painful, or worse, impossible.

Forbes’s recent article, “3 Steps To Financial Fitness In Your Thirties,” advises that when you start to accumulate wealth, be sure someone is watching your investments and that those investments are suitable for your time frames and financial goals.

Work with a financial advisor you think can help improve your situation. This should be someone you trust, and most important of all, who you feel has your best interests at heart.

If you are accumulating assets, make sure they’re protected. Be certain you and your family are covered by having the correct insurance policies. Of course, in a perfect world nothing would happen. For instance, most people on disability would much rather be healthy. They’d love to be able to joke and say that having that disability insurance was a “bad investment”. However, those who are disabled and aren’t covered with a disability insurance policy, most likely wish they’d made sure they had this income protection in place.

Another form of protection is an emergency fund. If you don’t have one, start by regularly putting some amount of money into a non-retirement account. Even if it’s a small amount, something is better than nothing. If you were to be laid off, chances are that your unemployment benefits would not be enough to pay the rent or make a mortgage payment.

If you’re single, you should protect yourself—even more so than someone who has a partner to rely on. Many life insurance policies have living benefits that can protect you, if an emergency happens.  You may also be able to use cash value life insurance to partially fund your retirement.

Finally, it’s critical that you think about estate planning. You should have an estate plan, including a will, Powers of Attorney, health care power of attorney and, if you have minor children, a guardian should be named in your will.

Let’s say you’re living with someone. If something happens to either of you, the living partner will most likely will be treated as a roommate—and have no legal rights to your property. An estate plan can be prepared to provide your partner with legal protection.

Reference: Forbes (December 17, 2018) “3 Steps To Financial Fitness In Your Thirties”

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