Use a Will to Communicate Your Wishes

Without a will or other estate planning documents, your property is distributed according to the law of intestate succession in the state where you live at the time of your death. That means any wishes you might have as to how your assets are distributed will not be considered, says the article “Make Your Wishes Known” from the Concord Monitor. Having a good last will and testament in place solves this problem.

If you want to have a say in what happens to your property, including financial accounts and personal items, you need a will. However, that’s not the only document you need. Here’s a list of the documents that are part of an estate plan.

Last will and testament. This transfers property through the probate process. It ensures that you get to tell others how you want your assets distributed. It may include naming a guardian to be responsible for a minor or incapacitated heir’s personal care and assets.

If you have minor children, you may wish to include a testamentary trust so assets can be managed, and their distribution controlled. If your family includes an individual with special needs, you’ll want a Special Needs Trust (SNT), so they do not lose their eligibility for government benefits.

There are many different types of trusts, and they serve different purposes.

Revocable Trust. This can distribute property without going through probate. It also preserves privacy, since documents do not become public. To avoid probate, the trust must be funded during your lifetime, by changing the title on assets from your name to the name of your revocable trust. That may include bank and investment accounts, personal property and real estate. Income, dividends, gains and losses continue to be reported on your tax returns, while you are living.

If you own a business, talk with your estate planning attorney about whether the ownership of the business should be transferred to a trust.

Married couples should speak with their estate planning attorney about having a joint trust together, or if they should each have separate trusts for estate tax planning, creditor protection, protecting children from prior marriages, or ensuring the continuation of a family business.

You may need a pour-over will with your revocable trust, so assets may be transferred into the revocable trust that are outside of the trust at the time of your death. Your estate planning attorney will be able to discuss this in detail, to see if it is a good option.

Joint ownership. If assets are owned in joint tenancy, property automatically transfers upon death to the surviving joint owner. It is not affected by your will and is a way to avoid probate. However, there may be a loss of control and there may be gift, estate, or income tax consequences.

Beneficiary designations. Life insurance, retirement assets, annuities and other Pay on Death accounts all have a person named to receive the asset upon the death of the owner. Every asset you own with a beneficiary designation should be checked every few years to make sure the right person is set to receive the asset. The beneficiary designation supersedes anything written in your will. There should always be a primary and a secondary beneficiary named, just in case the primary predeceases you or does not want to accept the asset.

Power of Attorney. Everyone should have a Power of Attorney, in the event of incapacity. This permits someone to act as your agent in any financial matters. There is also the Health Care Power of Attorney, which gives another person the authority to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are not able to communicate your wishes.

Power of Attorney and Trust are Meant for the Living, Not Just Heirs
Power of Attorney and Trust are Meant for the Living, Not Just Heirs

All these documents should be the foundation of your estate plan. Each person’s situation is different, but an experienced estate planning attorney will help determine what you need.

Find out why you need an estate plan.

Reference: Concord Monitor (April 22, 2019) “Make Your Wishes Known”

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”

Using Trusts to Maintain Control of Inheritances

Trusts, like estate plans, are not just for the wealthy. They are used to provide control, in how assets of any size are passed to another person. Leaving an inheritance to a beneficiary in a trust, according to the article from Times Herald-Record titled “Leaving inheritances to trusts puts you in control,” can protect the inheritance and the asset from being mishandled.

For many parents, the inheritance equation is simple. They leave their estate to their children “per stirpes,” which in Latin translates to “by roots.” In other words, the assets are left to children according to the roots of the family tree. The assets go to the children, but if they predecease you, the assets go to their children. The assets remain in the family. If the child dies after the parent, they leave the inheritance to their spouse.

An alternative is to create inheritance trusts for children. They may spend the money as they wish, but any remaining assets goes to their children (your grandchildren) and not to the surviving spouse of your child. The grandchildren won’t gain access to the money, until you so provide. However, someone older, a trustee, may spend the money on them for their health, education and general welfare. The inheritance trust also protects the assets from any divorces, lawsuits or creditors.

This is also a good way for parents, who are concerned about the impact of their wealth on their children, to maintain some degree of control. One strategy is a graduated payment plan. A certain amount of money is given to the child at certain ages, often 20% when they reach 35, half of the remainder at age 40 and the balance at age 45. Until distributions are made to the heirs, a trustee may use the money for the person’s benefit at the trustee’s discretion.

The main concern is that money not be wasted by spendthrift heirs. In that situation, a spendthrift trust restricts payments to or for the beneficiary and may only be used at the trustee’s discretion. A lavish lifestyle won’t be funded by the trust.

If money is being left to a disabled individual who receives government benefits, like Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI), you may need a Special Needs Trust. The trustee can pay for services or items for the beneficiary directly, without affecting government benefits. The beneficiary may not receive any money directly.

If an older person is a beneficiary, you also have the option to leave them an “income only trust.” They have no right to receive any of the trust’s principal. If the beneficiary requires nursing home care and must apply for Medicaid, the principal is protected from nursing home costs.

An estate planning attorney will be able to review your family’s situation and determine which type of trust would be best for your family.

Reference: Times Herald-Record (Feb. 16, 2019) “Leaving inheritances to trusts puts you in control”