Surviving Spouse Needs An Estate Plan

When one spouse dies after meticulously titling assets to pass through joint tenancy to the surviving spouse, estate planning attorneys flinch. There are occasions when everything works smoothly, but they are the exception. As this article from the Santa Cruz Sentinel warns “After husband’s death, wife needs to create revocable trust.” Actually, she needs more than a revocable trust: she needs an estate plan.

Most of the assets in the plan created by her husband, in this case, did pass to the wife outside of probate. However, there are a number of details that remain. She needs to obtain date-of-death values for any non-IRA securities the couple owned, and she should also have their home’s value determined, so that a new cost basis for the house will be established. She also needs an appointment with an estate planning attorney to create a will and an estate plan.

If she dies without a will, her children will inherit the estate in equal shares by intestate succession. However, if any of her children pass before she does, the estate could be distributed to her grandchildren. If they are of legal age, there is no control over how the assets will be managed.  Making matters worse, if a child or grandchild is disabled and receiving government benefits, an inheritance could make them ineligible for Social Security and Medicaid benefits, unless the inheritance is held within a Special Needs Trust.

Another reason for an estate plan: a will details exactly how assets are distributed, from the set of pearls that great aunt Sarah has kept in the family for decades to the family home. A durable power of attorney is also part of an estate plan, which lets a named family member or trusted friend make financial decisions on your behalf, if you become incapacitated. An estate plan also includes an advance health care directive, so a loved one can make medical decisions on your behalf if you are not able.

These are the basics of an estate plan. They protect loved ones from having to go to court to obtain the power to make decisions on your behalf, as well as protect your family from outsiders making claims on your estate.

A revocable trust is one way to avoid probate. An estate planning attorney will be able to evaluate your own unique situation and determine what the best type of trust would be for your situation, or if you even need a trust.

You may be thinking of putting your home, most families’ biggest asset, into joint tenancy with your children. What if one or more of your children have a divorce, lawsuit or bankruptcy? This will jeopardize your control of your home. A revocable trust will allow your assets to remain in your control.

The last piece in this estate is the IRA. If you are the surviving spouse, you’ll want to roll over your spouse’s IRA into your own. Make sure to update the beneficiary designation. If you neglect this step and the IRA pays into your estate when you pass, then the IRA has to be cashed in within five years of your death. Your children will lose the opportunity to stretch IRA distributions over their lifetimes.

An estate planning attorney can help guide you through this entire process, working through all the details. If your goal is to avoid probate, they can make that happen, while protecting you and your loved ones at the same time.

Reference: Santa Cruz Sentinel (March 24, 2019) “After husband’s death, wife needs to create revocable trust”

What is the Best Way to Leave an Inheritance to a Grandchild?

Leaving money or real estate to a child under the age of 18 requires careful handling, usually under the guidance of an estate planning attorney. The same is true for money awarded by a court, when a child has received property for other reasons, like a settlement for a personal injury matter.

According to the article “Gifts from Grandma, and other problems with children owning property” from the Cherokee-Tribune & Ledger News, if a child under age 18 receives money as an inheritance through a trust, or if the trust states that the asset will be “held in trust” until the child reaches age 18, then the trustee named in the will or trust is responsible for managing the money.

Until the child reaches age 18, the trustee is to use the money only for the child’s benefit. The terms of the trust will detail what the trustee can or cannot do with the money. In any situation, the trustee may not benefit from the money in any way.

The child does not have free access to the money. Children may not legally hold assets in their own names. However, what happens if there is no will, and no trust?

A child could be entitled to receive property under the laws of intestacy, which defines what happens to a person’s assets, if there is no will. Another way a child might receive assets, would be from the proceeds of a life insurance policy, or another asset where the child has been named a beneficiary and the asset is not part of the probate estate. However, children may not legally own assets. What happens next?

The answer depends upon the value of the asset. State laws vary but generally speaking, if the assets are below a certain threshold, the child’s parents may receive and hold the funds in a custodial account. The custodian has a duty to manage the child’s money, but there isn’t any court oversight.

In Georgia, the threshold is $15,000. Check with a local estate planning attorney to determine your state’s limitations.

If the asset is valued at more than $15,000, or whatever the threshold is for the state, the probate court will exercise its oversight. If no trust has been set up, then an adult will need to become a conservator, a person responsible for managing a child’s property. This person needs to apply to the court to be named conservator, and while it is frequently the child’s parent, this is not always the case.

The conservator is required to report to the probate court on the child’s assets and how they are being used. If monies are used improperly, then the conservator will be liable for repayment. The same situation occurs, if the child receives money through a court settlement.

Making parents go through a conservatorship appointment and report to the probate court is a bit of a burden for most people. A properly created estate plan can avoid this issue and prepare a trust, if necessary, and name a trustee to be in charge of the asset.

Another point to consider: turning 18 and receiving a large amount of money is rarely a good thing for any young adult, no matter how mature they are. An estate planning attorney can discuss how the inheritance can be structured, so the assets are used for college expenses or other important expenses for a young person. The goal is to not distribute the funds all at once to a young person, who may not be prepared to manage a large inheritance.

Reference: Cherokee-Tribune & Ledger News (March 1, 2019) “Gifts from Grandma, and other problems with children owning property”

Estate Planning for Parents with Young Children

Attorneys who focus their practices on estate planning, know that not every story has a happy ending. For some of them, it’s a professional mission to make sure that young parents are prepared for the unthinkable, says KTVO in the article “Family 411: Thinking about estate planning while your kids are young.”

It’s a very easy thing to forget, because it’s so unpleasant to consider. The idea of becoming seriously ill or even dying while your children are young, is every parent’s worst fear. But putting off having an estate plan with a will that prepares for this possibility is so important. Doing it will provide peace of mind, and a road forward for those who survive you, if your worst fears were to come true.

Start with a will. In a will, you’ll name a guardian, the person who would be in charge of rearing your children and have physical custody of them. Don’t assume that your parents will take over, or that your husband’s parents will. What if both sets of parents want to be the custodians? The last thing you want is for your in-laws and parents to end up in a court battle over custody of your children.

Another important document: a trust. You should have life insurance that will be the source for paying for the children’s education, including college, summer camps, after-school activities and their overall cost of living. In addition, proceeds from a life insurance policy cannot be given to a minor.

However, what if your son or daughter turned 18 and were suddenly awarded $500,000? At that age, would they know how to handle such a large sum of money? Many adults don’t. A trust allows you to give clear directions regarding how old the child must be, before receiving a set amount of money. You can also stipulate that the child must complete college before receiving funds or reach certain milestones.

An estate plan with young children in mind, must have a Power of Attorney for financial decisions and one for medical decisions. That allows a named person to make important financial and medical decisions on behalf of the child. You may not want to have their legal guardian in charge of their finances; by dividing up the responsibilities, a checks and balances system is set into place.

However, for medical decisions, it is best to have one primary person named. In that way, any care decisions in an emergency can be made swiftly.

While you are creating an estate plan with your children in mind, make sure your estate plan has the same documents for you and your spouse: Power of Attorney, medical Power of Attorney, a HIPAA release form and a living will.

Speak with a local estate planning attorney who has experience in planning for young families.

Reference: KTVO.com (Feb. 6, 2019) “Family 411: Thinking about estate planning while your kids are young”

Plan Before a Health Crisis Strikes

A woman wakes up to hear her husband gasping for breath, unresponsive and in full cardiac arrest. He was only 55, he biked 25 to 50 miles every day, he ate right and was one of the healthiest people she knew. Yet, he was having a heart attack. He did not have a health care directive in place, and she did not know what his wishes were in the case of a health emergency.

The story, as related in “START WITH A PLAN (not a heart attack)” from OakPark.com, is not as unusual as one would think. What does make it unusual, was that both of these individuals are attorneys. They had never had an estate plan created or drafted documents.

As the woman sat by his hospital bed in the critical care unit after his surgery, she started thinking about the practical realities. If he remained unconscious for some time, how would she access his individual finances, his paycheck or pay the monthly bills? She would need to hire an attorney and seek guardianship from the court to handle his financial affairs. If he died, she’d have to hire an attorney and open a probate case.

Without a will in place, her husband’s estate would be deemed intestate, and the laws of the state, in her case, Illinois, would be applied to distribute his property. Half of his property would be distributed to his children and the other half to her.

That might mean she would have to borrow money from her own children to pay bills and cover their college tuition.

Her husband responded well to the surgery, but at one point he needed to be transferred to another hospital. As they travelled by ambulance to another hospital, a terrible thought occurred to her: what if the ambulance were in an accident and they were both killed? Who would rear their children? How long would it take to settle the estate, with no will?

Thankfully, the ambulance arrived safely at the hospital, her husband recovered from his heart attack and the first thing they attended to when he recovered was their estate plan.

It’s a dramatic story, but a telling one: everyone, no matter how healthy, needs to have an estate plan in place. That means a will, power of attorney, healthcare proxy, HIPAA release form and any other planning tools that each family’s situation may need.

Make an appointment to meet with an estate planning attorney to put your plan in place. Don’t wait until you have time, because you never know when you may run out of time.

Reference: Oak Park.com (Feb. 27, 2019) “START WITH A PLAN (not a heart attack)”

Spare Your Family From a Feud: Make Sure You Have a Will

If for no other reason than to avoid fracturing the family, as they squabble over who gets Aunt Nina’s sideboard or Uncle Bruno’s collection of baseball cards, everyone needs a will. It is true that having an estate plan created does require us to consider what we want to happen after we have died, which most of us would rather not think about.

However, whether we want to think about it or not, having an estate plan in place, and that includes a will, is a gift of peace we give to our loved ones and ourselves. It’s peace of mind that our family is being told exactly what we want them to do after we pass, and peace of mind to ourselves that we’ve put our plan into place.

A recent article from Fatherly, “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know,” starts with the basic premise that a will prevents family squabbles. Families fight, when they don’t have clear direction of what the deceased wanted. That’s just one reason to have a last will and testament. However, there are other reasons.

A will is one way to ensure that your property is eventually distributed as you wish. Without a will, your estate is administered as an “intestate estate,” which means the state’s laws will determine who receives your assets after you pass. In some states, that means your spouse gets half of your estate, with your parents getting the rest (if there are no children). If the parents have died and there are no children, the rest of the estate may go to your siblings.

Most people—some studies say as many as 60% of Americans—don’t have a will. It’s hard to say why they don’t: maybe they don’t want to accept their own mortality, maybe they don’t understand what will happen when they die without a will, or perhaps they want to wreak havoc on their families. However, having a will is essential.

Don’t delay. If you don’t have a will in place, stop putting it off. Creating a will gives you the opportunity to effectuate your wishes, not that of the state. What if you don’t want your long-lost brother showing up just to receive a portion of your estate? If you don’t want someone to receive any of your assets, you need to have a will. Otherwise, there’s no way to know how the distribution will play out.

Be thoughtful about how you distribute your assets. If you have children and your will gives them your assets when they reach 18, will they be prepared to manage without blowing their inheritance in a month? A qualified estate planning attorney will be able to help you create a plan for distributing your wealth to children or other heirs in a sequence that will match their financial abilities. You may want to create a trust that will hold the assets, with a trustee who can ensure that assets are distributed in a wise and timely manner.

Every family is different, and today’s families, which often include children from prior marriages, require special planning. If you have remarried and have not legally adopted your spouse’s children from a previous marriage, they are not your legal heirs. If you want to make sure they inherit money or a specific asset, you’ll need to state that clearly in your will. If you are not married to your partner, they will not have any rights to your estate, unless a will is created that directs the assets you want them to inherit.

Parents of young children absolutely need a will. If you do not, and both parents pass away at the same time, their future will be determined by the court. They could end up in foster care, while awaiting a court decision. Battling grandparents may create a tumultuous situation. The court could also name a guardian who you would never have chosen. A will lets you decide.

Speak with an estate planning attorney to make sure you have a will that is properly prepared and follows the laws of your state. You also want to have a power of attorney and a health care agent named. Having these plans made before you need them, gives you the ability to express your wishes in a way that can be legally enforced.

Reference: Fatherly (Feb. 6, 2019) “How to Write a Will: 8 Tips Every Parent Needs to Know”

Planning for the Sad Truth of Growing Old Together

If it’s any comfort, there are now some 20 million widows and widowers in America, according to a study from Merrill Lynch and Age Wave that focuses on widowhood, as reported by CBS News’ Moneywatch in “A retirement planning must-do for married couples.” The study, “Widowhood: The Loss Couples Rarely Plan for—and Should” takes a detailed look at what happens, when the first spouse dies.

It should be noted that women are three times as likely as men to be the surviving spouse, since women historically tend to live longer. Widowers tend to marry younger women, leaving many older women to need to learn how to live as senior singles.

More than half of all of those surveyed who had lost a spouse, said they had not planned for it.  More than three-quarters of married retirees said they would not be financially prepared for retirement, if their spouse passed away.

Losing a spouse is the hardest thing for married people, particularly if they have never been single. Some 75% of those who had lost a spouse, said it was the single hardest thing they’d ever had to deal with. Half of them experience a household decline in income of 50%—or more. Adjusting to that loss of income is a big concern.

When the first spouse passes, the surviving spouses report that they were overwhelmed with paperwork and didn’t know how to begin.

You can plan for this unpleasant eventuality, and you should. Just as having an estate plan in place will help loved ones, planning for one of you to become widowed will help the other.

What should couples do in advance?

  • Know what all your assets and accounts are and how to access all accounts.
  • Make sure both names are on all accounts and deeds.
  • Be able to access cash.
  • Keep credit card debt separate.

Here’s some advice from the surviving spouses:

  • Avoid making big decisions, until at least a year has passed.
  • Find all important documents and pay bills on time.
  • Notify banks, financial advisors and employers.
  • Reevaluate your retirement strategy, following a financial audit of your new situation.
  • Update your estate plan and check all beneficiary designations.

Losing a spouse is a difficult and painful experience.  However, many people report that afterwards they found courage and strength they never knew they had and are living a full and rewarding life.

Reference: CBS Moneywatch (Sep. 12, 2018) “A retirement planning must-do for married couples”

Good Planning Avoids the Devastating Costs of Long-Term Care

If you don’t have a plan for long-term care, welcome to the club. However, you may not want to be a member of this club, if and when you need long-term care. A recent report from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services found that people age 65 and older have a very good chance—70%—of needing long-term care. Despite this, most people are not putting plans in place, according to an article from Westfair Online titled Keybank poll reveals clients aren’t planning for long term care.”

This is true for people with assets exceeding $1 million and for people with more modest assets. In a study by Keybank, fewer than a quarter of high net-worth clients had plans in place for long-term care. This poses real financial risks, to the individuals and their families.

Consider the costs of long-term health care. One study from Genworth Financial reports that in 2017, the national median cost of a home health aide was roughly $49,000 a year, assisted living facilities could cost $45,000 (that’s not including medical services), and a private room in a nursing home came close to $100,000 annually. Costs vary by region, so if you live in an expensive area, those costs could easily go much higher.

Why don’t people plan ahead for long-term care? Perhaps they think they will never become ill, which is not the case. They may think their health insurance will cover all the cost, which is rarely the case.  They may believe that Medicare will cover everything, which is also not true.  We have seen cases come in the office where mom or dad didn’t plan and ended up spending all of their assets on long-term care.  No legacy was left to the kids.  Very sad.

Everyone’s hope is that they are able to be at home during a long illness, or during their last illness. However, that’s often not a choice we get. This is a topic that families should discuss well in advance of any illness. Talking with family about potential end-of-life care and decisions is important for setting expectations, delegating responsibilities and avoiding unpleasant surprises.

The other part of a long-term care discussion with family members needs to be about estate plans and decisions about the disposition of assets. Everyone should have a will, and all information including deeds, trusts, bank and investment accounts and digital assets should be discussed with the family. You’ll also need a power of attorney and health care proxy to carry out your wishes. An experienced estate planning attorney can help create an estate plan and facilitate discussions with family members.

Long-term planning is an on-going event. Life changes, and so should your long-term care plan, as well as your estate plan. You should also keep communications open with your family. They will appreciate your looking out for them before and after any illness.

Reference: Westfair Online (Sep. 7, 2018) Keybank poll reveals clients aren’t planning for long term care