When Should I Review My Estate Plan?

As life changes, you need to periodically review your estate-planning documents and discuss your situation with your estate planning attorney.

WMUR’s recent article, “Money Matters: Reviewing your estate plan,” says a common question is “When should I review my documents?”

Every few years is the quick answer, but a change in your life may also necessitate a review. Major life events can be related to a marriage, divorce, or death in the family; a substantial change in estate size; a move to another state and/or acquisition of property in another state; the death of an executor, trustee or guardian; the birth or adoption of children or grandchildren; retirement; and a significant change in health, to name just a handful.

When you conduct your review, consider these questions:

  • Does anyone in your family have special needs?
  • Do you have any children from a previous marriage?
  • Is your choice of executor, guardian, or trustee still okay?
  • Do you have a valid living will, durable power of attorney for health care, or a do-not-resuscitate to manage your health care, if you’re not able to do so?
  • Do you need to plan for Medicaid?
  • Are your beneficiary designations up to date on your retirement plans, annuities, payable-on-death bank accounts and life insurance?
  • Do you have charitable intentions and if so, are they mentioned in your documents?
  • Do you own sufficient life insurance?

In addition, review your digital presence and take the necessary efforts to protect your online information, after your death or if you’re no longer able to act.

It may take a little time, effort, and money to review your documents, but doing so helps ensure your intentions are properly executed. Your planning will help to protect your family during a difficult time.

Reference: WMUR (January 24, 2019) “Money Matters: Reviewing your estate plan”

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Is Will Planning the Same as Estate Planning?

Will planning and estate planning are very different processes. Both provide family members with instructions on how assets should be distributed after death, but estate planning goes beyond that, to provide instructions on your health, finances and more while you are living, according to an article from Lexology titled “The Differences Between Will Planning & Estate Planning.”

An estate planning lawyer can help you determine exactly what kind of planning you need, help you create the documents that will support your needs and give you and your family guidance in more complex matters.

Will planning is a relatively simple process that involves creating a document known as a last will and testament. It conveys instructions for after you have died. That may include naming a guardian to rear your children or who should take over your business, who should be in charge of your estate, the executor and who will receive your assets.

Everyone needs a will. It avoids family disputes about property, saves money on legal expenses that occur when there is no will and makes many decisions about your estate much easier. It is a kindness to your loved ones, to have a will.

Estate planning is a little different. It is more detailed and involves tax planning and certain protections for you while you are living. A living will is used to convey your wishes about what kind of medical care you want, if you should become unable to speak on your own behalf. The living will includes end-of-life care, the use of extraordinary measures, like a respirator or feeding tube and more. This is also a kindness to your loved ones, since it spares them from having to guess what your wishes might be.

You’ll also want to have a financial Power of Attorney created to instruct a named person regarding how to handle your money, your business and your investments, if you are unable to function. This person can do anything you could do, from transacting business to moving money into accounts, etc.

A living trust can be used to outline your wishes regarding your property and finances. An estate planning attorney will be able to review your assets and determine whether you need a living trust or if there are other trusts that may be more appropriate for your situation.

Beneficiaries are the individuals named on various accounts. They will receive assets directly from the institution that holds the assets, like insurance policies, retirement accounts, investment accounts and the like. It’s very important to understand that when there is a beneficiary named in a document, that beneficiary will get the assets, regardless of what your will says. These should be updated on a regular basis and if possible, you should always have a primary beneficiary and a secondary beneficiary.

An estate planning attorney will review your situation and talk with you about your goals for your family and your assets after your death. They will create a comprehensive plan with the necessary documents.

Reference: Lexology (January 28, 2019) “The Differences Between Will Planning & Estate Planning”

 

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Does Anyone Really Need a Trust?

The simplest definition of a trust is a three-party fiduciary relationship between the person who created the trust and the fiduciary for the benefit of a third party. The person who created the trust is known as the “Settlor” or “Trustor.” The fiduciary, known as the “Trustee,” is the person or organization with the authority to handle the asset(s). The trustee owes the duty of good faith and trust to the third party, known as the “Beneficiary.”

That is accurately described by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in the article titled “Do I need a trust?”

Trusts are created by the preparation of a trust document by an estate planning attorney. The trust can be made to take effect while the Trustor is alive — referred to as inter vivos or after the person’s death — testamentary.

The document can be irrevocable, meaning it can never be changed, or revocable, which means it can change from one type of trust to another, under certain circumstances.

Whether you even need a trust, has nothing to do with your level of assets. People work with estate planning attorneys to create trusts for many different reasons. Here are a few:

  • Consolidating assets during lifetime and for ease of management upon disability or death.
  • Avoiding probate so assets can be transferred with privacy.
  • Protecting a beneficiary with cognitive or physical disabilities.
  • Setting forth the rules of use for a jointly shared asset, like a family vacation home.
  • Tax planning reasons, especially when IRAs valued at more than $250,000 are being transferred to the next generation.
  • Planning for death, disability, divorce or bankruptcy.

There is considerable misinformation about trusts and how they are used. Let’s debunk a few myths:

An irrevocable trust means I can’t ever change anything. Ever. Even with an irrevocable trust, the settlor typically reserves options to control trust assets. It depends upon how the trust is prepared. That may include, depending upon the state, the right to receive distributions of principal and income, the right to distribute money from the trust to third parties at any time and the right to buy and sell real estate owned by the trust, among others. Depending upon where you live, you may be able to “decant” a trust into another trust. Ask your estate planning attorney, if this is an option.

I don’t have enough assets to need a trust. This is not necessarily so. Many of today’s retirees have six figure retirement accounts, while their parents and grandparents didn’t usually have that much saved. They had pensions, which were controlled by their employers. Today’s worker owns more assets with complex tax issues.

You don’t have to be a descendent of an ancient Roman family to need a trust. You must just have enough factors that makes it worthwhile doing. Talk with your estate planning attorney to find out if you need a trust. While you’re at it, make sure your estate plan is up to date. If you don’t have an estate plan, there’s no time like the present to tackle this necessary personal responsibility.

Reference: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (Jan. 28, 2019) “Do I need a trust?”

 

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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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Why Do I Need Estate Planning If I’m Not Rich?

Many people spend more time planning a vacation than they do thinking about who will inherit their assets after they pass away. Although estate planning isn’t an enjoyable activity, without it, you don’t get to direct who gets everything for which you’ve worked so hard.

Investopedia asks you to consider these four reasons why you should have an estate plan to avoid potentially devastating results for your heirs in its article “4 Reasons Estate Planning Is So Important.”

Wealth Won’t Go to Unintended Beneficiaries. Estate planning may have been once considered something only rich people needed, but that’s changed. Everyone now needs to plan for when something happens to a family’s breadwinner(s). The primary part of estate planning is naming heirs for your assets. Without an estate plan, the courts will decide who will receive your property.

Protection for Families With Young Children. If you are the parent of small children, you need to have a will to ensure that your children are taken care of. You can designate their guardians, if both parents die before the children turn 18. Without a will and guardianship clause, a judge will decide this important issue.

Avoid Taxes. Estate planning is also about protecting your loved ones from the IRS. Estate planning is transferring assets to your family, with an attempt to create the smallest tax burden for them as possible. A little estate planning can reduce much or even all of their federal and state estate taxes or state inheritance taxes. There are also ways to reduce the income tax beneficiaries might have to pay. However, without an estate plan, the amount your heirs will owe the government could be substantial.

No Family Fighting (or Very Little). One sibling may believe she deserves more than another. This type of fighting can turn ugly and end up in court, pitting family members against each other. However, an estate plan enables you to choose who controls your finances and assets, if you become mentally incapacitated or after you die. It also will go a long way towards settling any family conflict and ensuring that your assets are handled in the way you wanted.

To protect your assets and your loved ones when you no longer can do it, you’ll need an estate plan. Without one, your family could see large tax burdens, and the courts could say how your assets are divided, or even who will care for your children.

Reference: Investopedia (May 25, 2018) “4 Reasons Estate Planning Is So Important”

 

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No Matter How Young—Or Young at Heart—You Need End-of-Life Planning

Two out of every five people over 45 years old don’t have a prepared will. Many of them have not thought about estate planning. It doesn’t take that much to do the planning necessary to help family members who survive you, according to the Lebanon Democrat’s article “End-of-life planning beneficial no matter your age.”

The planning you do will also help your family avoid the nasty disagreements that so often happen, when no one has been told what is going to occur after a parent dies. It will help your loved ones who may not know what you would have wanted after you pass: a funeral, a big memorial service, graveside services only or even cremation.

If you die without a will, which is known as dying “intestate,” all of your assets, from bank accounts to your favorite table saw could be awarded to someone, based on the judgment of a court-appointed administrator. This person won’t know that you had a nephew who you’d promised your woodworking tools and that would include the table saw.

Start by meeting with an estate planning attorney in your community. The laws that govern estate planning are based on your state’s law, so an attorney from another state may not be familiar with the big or small differences in your state versus another state. The same goes for online wills: unless they are reviewed by an attorney in your state, you won’t know if they are valid. Your family will find out, after you have passed, and they can’t make changes. That’s probably not how you want to be remembered.

If there’s a senior citizen in the family, ask them if they have prepared a will. It’s best to do this, while they are still competent. You never know what tomorrow might bring–and that holds true for people of all ages. Many people become incapacitated unexpectedly, at all ages and stages of life. Prior planning prevents a bad situation from becoming much worse.

Here’s what your estate planning attorney will speak with you about:

Who do you want to be in charge of your estate? It should be someone who you trust without reservation. That person will become your executor, when you die.

Who do you want to receive certain possessions? We tend to think about who will inherit a house or a car, but many families argue over sentimental possessions, like jewelry or art. Epic battles have occurred over items with little monetary value.

Your estate planning attorney will ensure that you also have a living will, since you’ll need this, if you have to go to the hospital or long-term care facility and are not able to speak up for yourself.

Update your will as time goes on. Families grow and shrink, and your will needs to reflect your changing life. What if the person you named as executor dies, or moves far away? You’ll want to make sure there are people who can carry out the responsibilities you want.

Don’t forget to tell your executors that they have been named and make sure they are up for the tasks. If you have an argumentative family, will your executor be able to stand up to them? Personality is as important as understanding legal and financial issues.

Your estate planning attorney will be able to guide you through any rough spots, or issues you might be struggling with. It is better for you and the ones you love to have an estate plan, regardless of your age or health. Life changes come quickly, and it’s best to be prepared.

Reference: The Lebanon Democrat (Jan. 18, 2019) “End-of-life planning beneficial no matter your age”

 

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Without a Plan, Your Estate Could be at Risk

The unknown events of life include financial perils. They don’t disappear just because you try to ignore them. There are more threats to your financial future and personal health than an estate tax, says Newsmax Finance in its article “Your Estate is at Risk.” There is also legal liability, which is a commonplace event in our increasingly litigious society.

For many people, the first experience with litigation is a divorce. Even in the best of circumstances, it’s a difficult situation. In a bad situation, it’s a nightmare for all concerned. What would happen if you became disabled? It’s more likely that someone will become disabled during the course of their life than that they will die prematurely.

Do you have a health care power of attorney, so someone you trust is empowered to make decisions on your behalf if you became disabled? What about a durable power of attorney so a person you trust, who also has some financial savvy, can take over for you if you can’t do things, like pay bills or manage your business?

If you don’t have these documents in place, a court-appointed person will be assigned as your guardian. That is not something you want to happen.

If you’ve created a private business, you also need to plan for succession. Too many business owners let their businesses die along with them, leaving families, employees and clients stranded. Transitioning a business for succession or to be managed in your absence takes planning.

All of these issues can be dealt with in an estate plan, which you should have created for you by an estate planning attorney. The attorney should be someone you trust, who has experience helping people with the same challenges as your situation, whether that’s a blended family or a privately held family business.

Estate planners know how to use certain methods to help individuals and families make the most of their assets, limit their tax liabilities and plan for the future. There are many different tools available, from different types of trusts to the basics, like a will, power of attorney, and health care power of attorney, to make sure you and your family have the correct protection in place.

Going through the estate planning process is a useful experience, since it gives you and your spouse a chance to review your life’s accomplishments from a long-term perspective, prepare for events like retirement or funding a child or grandchild’s college education and taking care of this important element of adulthood.

Reference: Newsmax Finance (Jan. 14, 2019) “Your Estate is at Risk”

 

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What Do I Need to Know About Estate Planning After a Divorce?

The recent changes in the tax laws created increased year-end activity for those trying to finalize their divorces by December 31—prior to the effective date of the new rules.

The new tax laws stipulate that alimony is no longer deductible by the payor, and it’s no longer taxable by the receiver—this creates a negative impact on both parties. The payor no longer receives a tax deduction, and the receiver will most likely wind up with less alimony because the payor has more taxes to pay.

Forbes’ recent article, “9 Things You Need To Know About Estate Planning After Divorce” suggests that if you were one of those whose divorce was finalized last year, it’s time to revise your estate plan. It’s also good idea for those people who divorced in prior years and never updated their estate plans. Let’s look at some of the issues about which you should be thinking.

See your estate planning attorney. Right off the bat, send your divorce agreement to your estate planning attorney, so he or she can see what obligations you have to your ex-spouse in the event of your death.

Health care proxy. This document lets you designate someone to make health care decisions for you, if you were incapacitated and not able to communicate.

Power of attorney. If you had an old POA that named your ex-spouse, it should be revoked, and you should execute a new POA naming a friend, relative, or trusted advisor to act as your agent regarding your finances and assets.

Your will and trust. Ask your attorney to remove the provisions for your ex-spouse and remove your ex-spouse as the executor and trustee.

Guardianship. If you have minor children, you can still name your ex-spouse as the guardian in your will. Even if you don’t, your ex-spouse will probably be appointed guardian if you pass away, unless he or she is determined by the judge to be unfit. While you can select another responsible person, be sure to leave enough cash in a joint bank account (with the trusted guardian you name) to fund the litigation that will be necessary to prove your ex-spouse is unfit.

A trust for your minor children. If you don’t have a trust set up for your minor children, and your ex-spouse is the children’s guardian, he or she will have control of the children’s finances until they turn 18. You may ask your estate planning attorney about a revocable trust that will name someone else you select as the trustee to access and control these funds for your children, if you pass away.

Life insurance. You may have an obligation to maintain life insurance under the divorce agreement. Review this with your estate planning attorney and with your divorce attorney.

Beneficiary designations. Be certain that your 401K and IRA beneficiary designations are consistent with the terms of your divorce agreement. Have the beneficiary designations updated. If you still want to name your ex-spouse as the beneficiary, execute a new beneficiary designation dated after the divorce. It’s also wise to leave a letter of intent with your attorney, so your intentions are clear.

Prenuptial agreement. If you’re thinking about getting remarried, be certain you have a prenuptial agreement.

It’s a great time to settle these outstanding issues from your divorce and get your estate plan in order.

Reference: Forbes (January 8, 2019) “9 Things You Need To Know About Estate Planning After Divorce”

 

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Got a Will? Put it on Your Schedule for 2019

A Power of Attorney is just one part of your estate plan. Don’t have an estate plan? Instead of making the same old New Year’s resolutions, try making a will and an estate plan your top priority in 2019, says the Toronto Sun in the article “Where there’s a will, there’s a way.” We are reminded that when we do select a person to serve as our Power of Attorney (POA), we better make sure to appoint someone we trust.

Many people insist that they are fine and not old enough to need a POA. However, life holds surprises. Parents whose adult children are injured in a sport or accident, discover they can’t manage their kid’s finances because there was no POA in place.

Anyone over the age of 18 needs a POA and a will. The POA is used while you are alive, if you should become incapacitated and the will is used after you die. You’ll want to speak with an estate planning attorney to create both documents and an overall plan, since this is a complex area of the law and every person’s situation is different. There is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all document. The problem is, you won’t know that until it’s too late.

Another reason for an estate plan is to protect the emotional integrity of a family. Estate battles don’t just happen to celebrities. They happen to “regular” people as well. Families often fracture, when grandparents or parents neglect to share details of their financial situation or reasons for their estate plan.

Let’s say you come home from the hospital after a serious operation and find that a member of your family, without your knowing it, has decided to prepare all your belongings for your demise.

Everything in the house has a sticker on it, bearing either the name of a person who was expecting to inherit the item, or a price for an estate sale. No plans about your will were ever discussed with your children, so they had no idea what you wanted. From their perspective, they were expecting you to pass and just making sure things were properly taken care of.

Those kids probably won’t get a penny, since their eagerness was excessive. They were concerned more about possessions than their parents.

A better way to go is to work with an estate planning attorney to create a holistic plan that addresses your wishes, while you are living and the distribution of your assets when you have passed. You might want to consider holding a few family meetings with the attorney, so that everyone’s on the same page. You don’t want to come home from a hospital stay, to find your home ready for a yard sale!

Reference: Toronto Sun (Dec. 30, 2019) “Where there’s a will, there’s a way”

 

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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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