What’s Better, A Living Trust or a Will?
A Living Trust Usually is Better Than a Will

What’s Better, A Living Trust or a Will?

Everyone knows what a last will and testament is. However, a will is not always the best way to distribute your assets, explains the Times Herald-Record in the article “Living trusts are better choice than wills.” Most people think that by having a will alone, they will make it clear who they want to receive their assets when they die. However, wills are used by the court in a proceeding called “probate,” if the only estate plan you have is a will. The court proceeding is to establish that the will is valid. Depending upon where you live, probate can take a year before assets are distributed to beneficiaries.

Certain family members must receive notifications, when a will is submitted to probate. Some people will receive notices, even if they are not mentioned in the will. This can lead to all kinds of awkward situations, especially from estranged or unknown relatives. The person who is the executor of the will is required to locate these relatives, and until they are found and notified, the probate process comes to a standstill.

There are instances where a judge will allow a legal notice to be published in a local newspaper, after valid attempts to find relatives aren’t successful. If there is a disabled beneficiary, a minor beneficiary, a relative or beneficiary who can’t be located, or a relative who has been incarcerated, the judge often appoints lawyers to represent these parties’ interests and the estate pays for the attorney’s fees.

Depending on the situation, the executor may be required to furnish a family tree, or a friend of the decedent must sign an affidavit attesting that the person never had any children.

Thinking of disinheriting a child? Anyone who is disinherited in a will, receives a notice about that and is legally permitted to contest the will. That can lead to years of expensive litigation, including discovery demands, depositions, motions and possibly a trial. Like most litigation, will contests usually end in a settlement. The disinherited relative often gets a share of the inheritance, even when the decedent didn’t want them to get anything.

For many families, a living trust is a better alternative. They also serve as disability planning, naming people who will manage the assets of the trust, in case of incapacity. They are private documents, so their information does not become public knowledge, like the details of a will.

A qualified estate planning attorney will help you determine what estate planning tools will work best to achieve your goals, while maintaining your privacy and ensuring that assets pass to heirs in a discrete manner.

In many situations a living trust should be part of an estate plan.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Oct. 26, 2019) “Living trusts are better choice than wills”

Joint Tenancy With Children Creates Problems for Parents
Joint Tenancy Creates Problems

Joint Tenancy With Children Creates Problems for Parents

Parents putting children or other family members as joint owners of their assets. is another example of a simple solution for a complex problem. Joint tenancy doesn’t work, even though it seems as if it should.

As explained in the article “Beware the joint tenancy trap” from Monterey Herald, putting another person on an account, even a trusted child or life-long friend, can create serious problems for the individual, their estate and their heirs. Before going down that path, there are several issues to consider.

When another individual is placed as an owner on an account or on the title to real property, they have a legal ownership in that property equal to that of the original owner. This is called joint tenancy. If a child is made a joint tenant on a parent’s accounts, they would be entirely within their rights to withdraw every single asset from those accounts and do whatever they wanted with them. They would not need the original owner’s consent, counsel, or knowledge.

Giving anyone that power is a serious decision.

Making a child a joint owner of assets also exposes those assets to claims by the child’s creditors. If they file for bankruptcy, the original asset owner may have to buy back one-half of the asset at its current market value. Another example: if the child is in an accident and a judgment is recorded against the child, you may have to buy back one-half of your joint tenant property at its current market value to settle the claims.

There are other complications. If one joint owner of the asset dies, joint tenancy provides for the right of survivorship. The property transfers to the surviving joint tenant without going through probate and with no reference to a will. That’s what people focus on when they try this method as an end-run around estate planning. What they don’t realize, is that if the parent dies and the asset transfers directly to the joint tenant—let’s say a daughter—but the will says the assets are to be split between all of the children, her claim on the asset is “senior” to the rest of the children. That means she gets the assets and the four siblings split the remaining assets.

If there is any friction between siblings, not having equal inheritances could create a fracture in the family that can’t easily be resolved.

Tax exposure is another risk of joint tenancy. When someone is named a joint owner, they have an equal ownership interest in those assets, as the original owner’s cost basis. When one owner dies, the remaining owner gets a step up in basis on the proportion of the assets the deceased person owned at death.

Let’s say a son and father are joint owners on an account. When the father dies, the son gets a step up in basis on one-half of the assets—the assets that the father owned. His half of the assets retains the original basis. But if that account was owned solely by the father, all the heirs will get the full step up in basis on the father’s death.

Given the complexities that joint tenancy creates, parents need to think very carefully before putting children’s names on their assets and real property. A better plan is to make an appointment to speak with an estate planning attorney and find out how to protect the parent’s assets through other means, which may include trusts and other estate planning tools.

See how joint tenancy creates problems.

Reference: Monterey Herald (Sep. 11, 2019) “Beware the joint tenancy trap”

Think of Estate Planning as Stewardship for the Future
Good Estate Planning Involves Stewardship

Think of Estate Planning as Stewardship for the Future

Despite our love of planning, the one thing we often do not plan for, is the one thing that we can be certain of. Our own passing is not something pleasant, but it is definite. Estate planning is seen as an unpleasant or even dreaded task, says The Message in the article “Estate planning is stewardship.” However, think of estate planning as a message to the future and stewardship of your life’s work.

Some people think that if they make plans for their estate, their lives will end. They acknowledge that this doesn’t make sense, but still they feel that way. Others take a more cavalier approach and say that “someone else will have to deal with that mess when I’m gone.”

However, we should plan for the future, if only to ensure that our children and grandchildren, if we have them, or friends and loved ones, have an easier time of it when we pass away.

A thought-out estate plan is a gift to those we love.

Start by considering the people who are most important to you. This should include anyone in your care during your lifetime, and for whom you wish to provide care after your death. That may be your children, spouse, grandchildren, parents, nieces and nephews, as well as those you wish to take care of with either a monetary gift or a personal item that has meaning for you.

This is also the time to consider whether you’d like to leave some of your assets to a house of worship or other charity that has meaning to you. It might be an animal shelter, community center, or any place that you have a connection to. Charitable giving can also be a part of your legacy.

Your assets need to be listed in a careful inventory. It is important to include bank and investment accounts, your home, a second home or any rental property, cars, boats, jewelry, firearms and anything of significance. You may want to speak with your heirs to learn whether there are any of your personal possessions that have great meaning to them and figure out to whom you want to leave these items. Some of these items have more sentimental than market value, but they are equally important to address in an estate plan.

There are other assets to address: life insurance policies, annuities, IRAs and other retirement plans, along with pension accounts. Note that these assets likely have a beneficiary designation and they are not distributed by your will. Whoever the beneficiary is listed on these documents will receive these assets upon your death, regardless of what your will says.

If you have not reviewed these beneficiary designations in more than three years, it would be wise to review them. The IRA that you opened at your first job some thirty years ago may have designated someone you may not even know now! Once you pass, there will be no way to change any of these beneficiaries.

Work with an experienced estate planning attorney to create your last will and testament. For most people, a simple will can be used to transfer assets to heirs.

Many people express concern about the cost of estate planning. Remember that there are important and long-lasting decisions included in your estate plan, so it is worth the time, energy and money to make sure these plans are created properly.

Compare the cost of an estate plan to the cost of buying tires for a car. Tires are a cost of owning a car, but it’s better to get a good set of tires and pay the price up front, than it is to buy an inexpensive set and find out they don’t hold the road in a bad situation. It’s a good analogy for estate planning.

Learn how a trust can prevent a child from getting too much too fast.

Reference: The Message (June 14, 2019) “Estate planning is stewardship.”

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