Being an Adult Means You Need an Estate Plan

Estate planning has a purpose while you are alive, with medical directives and power of attorney, as well as when you have passed. That is something most people don’t understand. As described in a recent article in Forbes, “6 Reasons Why You Need an Estate Plan,” most people continue to neglect to put a plan in place. A recent survey from caring.com found that less than half of American adults have estate planning documents, such as a will or a trust. Here are a few reasons why that’s a big mistake:

Plan for your needs. If you should become incapacitated or unable to make your own decisions, an estate plan will protect you, your assets and your family. Part of your estate plan is preparing for this type of scenario. What kind of cash flow will you need and is there insurance missing from your plan? You should designate a healthcare proxy or a power of attorney who can make medical and financial decisions on your behalf, if necessary. Speak with the people who you want to name to these key roles, so they are prepared and understand your wishes in advance.

Dispose of your assets. With no will, your state will decide how to distribute your assets. At the very least, check your beneficiary designations on accounts so your financial and investment accounts and insurance proceeds go to the right people. A will clearly defines how you want your assets distributed at your death and saves your family from the time, expense and frustration of trying to figure out what you wanted, and what the law allows.

Minimize taxes. If there’s a substantial amount of wealth involved, that you want to transfer it to other family members or loved ones, the estate planning process can help you do this in the most tax-efficient way possible. Speak with your estate planning attorney about different types of taxes to consider: the estate tax, gift tax and generation-skipping transfer taxes. Since the IRS places limits on how much money can be transferred and to whom without being taxed, an estate plan outlines a wealth transfer strategy.

Create a philanthropic legacy. How do you want to be remembered after you die? Do you want to create a family foundation, endow a scholarship or participate in a donor-advised fund to support a cause that is important to you? There’s also the question of giving while you are alive, to enjoy seeing the results of your generosity.

Protect the wealth of the family. Your assets can come under pressure in many different ways, while you are living. Frivolous lawsuits can become an expensive nuisance. Estate planning can remove your name from assets and put them into legally-protected vehicles, such as trusts or limited liability entities. Insurance is also a part of estate plans, with certain types of insurance used to protect you against a variety of legal challenges.

Prepare future generations. For families that have accumulated large amounts of assets, instilling and preserving the family values over generations is a difficult but do-able task. Families that are successful in building long-lasting legacies devote time to teaching children about stewardship, civic and fiscal responsibilities and their role as part of a family that takes its achievements seriously.

An estate planning attorney can help you to create an estate plan that will protect your family and your legacy across generations.

Reference: Forbes (Sep. 13, 2018) “6 Reasons Why You Need an Estate Plan”

Own Guns? Don’t Leave Your Heirs This Problem

The NY Secure Ammunition and Firearms Enforcement (SAFE) Act, enacted in response to the Sandy Hook shootings, amended many of New York’s laws to provide strict regulations, including guidelines and a time frame for safeguarding firearms after a gun owner dies.  However, do the new laws leave family members and heirs at risk of criminal liability?

The New York Law Journal considered this issue recently in an article titled “Death of a Gun Owner: Criminal Liability for an Heir?” The article looks examines how the act works and what happens to heirs, when a gun owner dies.

The SAFE Act created a statewide database that tracks people who were issued gun licenses, closed some loopholes regarding private gun sales, required stricter gun storage retirements and created more strict penalties for people who are found guilty of using or owning a gun.

In the estates world, the act also amended the New York Surrogate’s Court Procedure Act (SCPA) that requires estate fiduciaries to file a firearms inventory with the Surrogate’s Court to settle the estate of a decedent who owned guns. The inventory must be filed with the Division of Criminal Justice Services as a way of ensuring that the state knows where guns are located and about any transfer of ownership. There are also very specific time limitations for when the inventory must be filed.

What if your heirs don’t even know you own guns?

When a licensed gun owner dies, the person in charge of the decedent’s personal property is technically in illegal possession of the gun and guilty of criminal possession of a weapon. The law does provide an exemption from criminal liability for an executor or administrator or any other lawful possessor of a decedent’s firearm if, within 15 days of the death of the gun owner, the person either disposes of the gun lawfully or turns the gun over to the police.

Failure to do so could result in criminal charges, including a class A misdemeanor punishable by up to one year in jail or three years of probation and a $1,000 fine.

Fifteen days is a very short time in which to require that the gun is turned over to the police or “disposed of lawfully.” People who are not gun owners may not know what they should do. In some states, the law requires that the disposal of firearms must be conducted by a licensed firearms dealer.  However, there is an exception for transfers between immediate family members. That means spouses, domestic partners, children and stepchildren.  However, those receiving the gun must have a valid license to possess a firearm.

Each state has different laws regarding the possession of firearms, in addition to federal requirements. An experienced estate planning attorney will know the laws of your state and help you properly prepare for the transfer of any firearms. This is one headache you don’t want to leave your heirs to face.

Reference: New York Law Journal (Sep. 7, 2018) “Death of a Gun Owner: Criminal Liability for an Heir?”

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?”