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Thursday, June 5, 2014

Your Wishes in Your Own Words

During the estate planning process, your attorney will draft a number of legal documents such as a will, trust and power of attorney which will help you accomplish your goals. While these legal documents are required for effective planning, they may not sufficiently convey your thoughts and wishes to your loved ones in your own words. A letter of instruction is a great compliment to your “formal” estate plan, allowing you to outline your wishes with your own voice.

This letter of instruction is typically written by you, not your attorney. Some attorneys may, however, provide you with forms or other documents that can be helpful in composing your letter of instruction. Whether your call this a "letter of instruction" or something else, such a document is a non-binding document that will be helpful to your family or other loved ones.

There is no set format as to what to include in this document, though there are a number of common themes.

First, you may wish to explain, in your own words, the reasoning for your personal preferences for medical care especially near the end of life. For example, you might explain why you prefer to pass on at home, if that is possible. Although this could be included in a medical power of attorney, learning about these wishes in a personalized letter as opposed to a sterile legal document may give your loved ones greater peace of mind that they are doing the right thing when they are charged with making decisions on your behalf. You might also detail your preferences regarding a funeral, burial or cremation. These letters often include a list of friends to contact upon your death and may even have an outline of your own obituary.

You may also want to make note of the following in your letter to your loved ones:

  • an updated list of your financial accounts with account numbers;
  • a list of online accounts with passwords;
  • a list of important legal documents and where to find them;
  • a list of your life insurance and where the actual policies are located;
  • where you have any safe deposit boxes and the location of any keys;
  • where all car titles are located; the
  • names of your CPA, attorney, banker, insurance advisor and financial advisor;
  • your birth certificate, marriage license and military discharge papers;
  • your social security number and card;
  • any divorce papers; copies of real estate deeds and mortgages;
  • names, addresses, and phone numbers of all children, grandchildren, or other named beneficiaries.

In drafting your letter, you simply need to think about what information might be important to those that would be in charge of your affairs upon your death. This document should be consistent with your legal documents and updated from time to time.


Friday, May 30, 2014

Bankruptcy and Its Impact on Your Children

Filing for bankruptcy often represents the last gasp following a period of mounting stress and emotional turmoil. If you have reached the point of seeking relief in bankruptcy court, you have probably investigated and exhausted every available option to keep your finances intact.  In addition to financial considerations, you should carefully think through how filing bankruptcy will affect your children.

Who Owns What?

The line between your assets and your child’s assets can become blurred in the context of your bankruptcy case. If you established a bank account for your child, but did not take the necessary steps to set it up correctly, it may not be protected from creditors during your bankruptcy because the money in that account may be deemed your money and not your child’s. Parents typically encounter this problem if the account was established only in the parents’ names, and not the child’s name, or if the parents have used the account to pay their own bills. To protect your children’s account from your bankruptcy, the account should be established under the Uniform Gifts to Minors Act or the Uniform Transfers to Minors Act.

College Tuition Assistance

If you are currently contributing money toward your child’s college fund or tuition payments, your bankruptcy filing could put a stop to it. When a debtor files for bankruptcy, creditors and the court strive to limit how much your monthly expenses are, to preserve as much “disposable” income for repayment as possible, and may place a higher priority on debt repayment than your child’s education. Bankruptcy courts allow for “necessary” expenses, including housing, food and utilities; however, your child’s educational expenses may not be considered essential. The amount of any such payments may be added to your disposable income available to repay your debts under Chapter 13, or may disqualify you for Chapter 7 under the means test calculation.

Bankruptcy and Child Support

Child support payment obligations are not eligible for bankruptcy discharge, and children are protected from bankruptcy regardless of whether a parent is behind in making the payments. Under Chapter 7 bankruptcy, child support payments are considered a top priority when assets are liquidated to raise cash for creditors. Under Chapter 13, the required child support payments are addressed in the repayment plan. Ideally, the bankruptcy itself will make it easier for the parent to keep current with support obligations by reducing other payment obligations.
 


Thursday, May 15, 2014

Paying for Your Grandchildren’s Education

The bond between a grandparent and grandchild is a very special one based on respect, trust and unconditional love. When preparing one’s estate plan, it’s not at all uncommon to find grandparents who want to leave much or all of their fortune to their grandchildren. With college tuition costs on the rise, many seniors are looking to ways to help their grandchildren with these costs long before they pass away. Fortunately, there are ways to “gift” an education with minimal consequences for your estate and your loved ones.

The options for your financial support of your heirs’ education may vary depending upon the age of the grandchild and how close they are to actually entering college. If your grandchild is still quite young, one of the best methods to save for college may be to make a gift into a 529 college savings plan. This type of plan was approved by the IRS in Section 529 of the Internal Revenue Code. It functions much like an IRA in that the appreciation of the investments grows tax deferred within the 529 account. In fact, it is likely to be "tax free" if the money is eventually used to pay for the college expenses. Another possible bonus is that you may get a tax deduction or tax credit on your state income tax return for making such an investment. You should consult your own tax advisor and your state's rules and restrictions.

If your granddaughter or grandson is already in college, the best way to cover their expenses would be to make a payment directly to the college or university that your grandchild attends. Such a "gift" would not be subject to the annual gift tax exemption limits of $14,000 which would otherwise apply if you gave the money directly to the grandchild. Thus, as long as the gift is for education expenses such as tuition, and if the payment is made directly to the college or university, the annual gift tax limits will not apply.

As with all financial gifts, it’s important to consult with your estate planning attorney who can help you look at the big picture and identify strategies which will best serve your loved ones now and well into the future.


Monday, May 5, 2014

Affidavits: Avoiding Potential Problems

You may have signed several affidavits over the years, without fully knowing what they are.  You might have signed one to register to vote or obtain some government benefit.  An affidavit can also be used as evidence in a lawsuit.

An affidavit is a written document.  The person signing it (the “affiant”) declares under oath that he or she is making voluntary and truthful statements.  Requirements for an affidavit vary based on the circumstances and jurisdiction.  In most jurisdictions, an affidavit must contain the affiant’s name, physical address and the affiant’s signature.  

The contents need to be voluntary and limited to what the affiant knows to be true because of direct observation or experience.  Before signing an affidavit, be certain of the basis of your knowledge.  Do you know these statements to be true or just think that they’re true?

Most jurisdictions require the affiant swear under oath that the statements are true before signing the document.  That signature needs to be witnessed and certified by a notary public, attorney or other public official authorized to take oaths.  The affiant must understand the content of the affidavit, the importance of an oath and the consequences for violating an oath.  A person who lies on an affidavit may be deemed to have committed perjury and face considerable penalties. Given the significant consequences, anyone who is not mentally competent shouldn’t sign an affidavit or be asked to sign an affidavit.

You may be asked to sign an affidavit if you witnessed an incident that may lead to, or has already resulted in, legal action.  Parties, or their attorneys, may want a formalized, written statement of what you saw.  If you’re in this position, make sure the affidavit is complete and accurate.  Consult your own legal counsel before signing.  The party contacting you may want an affidavit that puts them in the best light, not one that tells the whole story.

Be very careful about what’s stated in the affidavit, as opposing counsel may focus in on the document and investigate every aspect of it during litigation.  In a deposition or during a trial, opposing counsel may press you on the contents of affidavits to impeach your credibility.  

Is this the first affidavit on this topic?  If not, review the previous affidavit(s).  If something you previously stated was true, but you now know is false, you need to discuss with your attorney how this should be addressed.  
 
Before signing on the dotted line of an affidavit, think it through and make sure the information presented is accurate.  If you have any questions about an affidavit you’ve been asked to sign, or want to sign for your own purposes, consult with an attorney who can review it to ensure it is optimally drafted and does not end up getting you in hot water.  
 
 
 

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Removal of a Trustee

In creating a trust, the trustmaker must name a trustee who has the legal obligation to administer it in accordance with the trustmaker’s wishes and intentions. In some cases, after the passing of the trustmaker, loved ones or beneficiaries may want to remove the designated trustee.

The process to remove a trustee largely depends on two factors: 1) language contained with the trust and 2) state law. When determining your options, there are a number of issues and key considerations to keep in mind.

First, it is possible that the trust language grants you the specific right to remove the named trustee. If it does, it likely will also outline how you must do so and whether you must provide a reason you want to remove them. Second, if the trust does not grant you the right to remove the trustee, it may grant another person the right to remove. Sometimes that other person may serve in the role of what is known as a "trust protector" or "trust advisor." If that is in the trust document you should speak to that person and let them know why you want the trustee removed. They would need to decide if they should do so or not. Finally, if neither of those is an option, your state law may have provisions that permit you to remove a trustee. However, it may be that you will have to file a petition with a court and seek a court order. You should hire an attorney to research this for you and advise you of the likelihood of success.

Another option may be to simply ask the named trustee to resign. They may do so voluntarily.

Assuming the trustee is removed, whether by you, a trust protector, or by court order, or if the trustee resigns, the next issue is who is to serve as the successor trustee. Again, looking at the terms of the trust should answer that question. Perhaps a successor is specifically named or perhaps the trust provides the procedure to appoint the successor. Before proceeding, you will want to make certain you know who will step-in as the new trustee.


Tuesday, April 15, 2014

Overview of Life Estates

Establishing a Life Estate is a relatively simple process in which you transfer your property to your children, while retaining your right to use and live in the property. Life Estates are used to avoid probate, maximize tax benefits and protect the real property from potential long-term care expenses you may incur in your later years. Transferring property into a Life Estate avoids some of the disadvantages of making an outright gift of property to your heirs. However, it is not right for everyone and comes with its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Life Estates establish two different categories of property owners: the Life Tenant Owner and the Remainder Owner. The Life Tenant Owner maintains the absolute and exclusive right to use the property during his or her lifetime. This can be a sole owner or joint Life Tenants. Life Tenant(s) maintain responsibility for property taxes, insurance and maintenance. Life Tenant(s) are also entitled to rent out the property and to receive all income generated by the property.

Remainder Owner(s) automatically take legal ownership of the property immediately upon the death of the last Life Tenant. Remainder Owners have no right to use the property or collect income generated by the property, and are not responsible for taxes, insurance or maintenance, as long as the Life Tenant is still alive.

Advantages

  • Life Estates are simple and inexpensive to establish; merely requiring that a new Deed be recorded.
  • Life Estates avoid probate; the property automatically transfers to your heirs upon the death of the last surviving Life Tenant.
  • Transferring title following your death is a simple, quick process.
  • Life Tenant’s right to use and occupy property is protected; a Remainder Owner’s problems (financial or otherwise) do not affect the Life Tenant’s absolute right to the property during your lifetime.
  • Favorable tax treatment upon the death of a Life Tenant; when property is titled this way, your heirs enjoy a stepped-up tax basis, as of the date of death, for capital gains purposes.
  • Property owned via a Life Estate is typically protected from Medicaid claims once 60 months have elapsed after the date of transfer into the Life Estate. After that five-year period, the property is protected against Medicaid liens to pay for end-of-life care.

Disadvantages

  • Medicaid; that 60-month waiting period referenced above also means that the Life Tenants are subject to a 60-month disqualification period for Medicaid purposes. This period begins on the date the property is transferred into the Life Estate.
  • Potential income tax consequences if the property is sold while the Life Tenant is still alive; Life Tenants do not receive the full income tax exemption normally available when a personal residence is sold. Remainder Owners receive no such exemption, so any capital gains tax would likely be due from the Remainder Owner’s proportionate share of proceeds from the sale.
  • In order to sell the property, all owners must agree and sign the Deed, including Life Tenants and Remainder Owners; Life Tenant’s lose the right of sole control over the property.
  • Transfer into a Life Estate is irrevocable; however if all Life Tenants and Remainder Owners agree, a change can be made but may be subject to negative tax or Medicaid consequences.

Saturday, April 5, 2014

How to Ask Your Partner for a Prenuptial Agreement

Discussing your desire to establish a prenuptial agreement with your future spouse has the potential to be a complete disaster, but approaching the topic with the comfort of your partner in mind can help alleviate much of the stress associated with the process of creating a premarital agreement.

A prenuptial agreement is a legal document drafted and signed before marriage that lays the groundwork for the distribution of assets should the marriage fail. Although these agreements aren't a requirement for engaged couples, many attorneys agree they are an important part of the pre-marriage process, as they provide a binding agreement that each partner must adhere to in the event of a divorce. Many are sensitive to the idea that signing an agreement of this kind means one partner thinks the marriage will fail, but prenuptial contracts are really just meant to serve as a contingency plan.

Below are three ways to make the discussion easier.

Know the basics of a prenuptial agreement.

You likely have an inkling as to how your partner will react to you bringing up the subject of a premarital agreement. Whether you think they will be neutral or get defensive at the very mention of the idea, explain that drafting the agreement as a couple gives you the ability to design it in a way that could financially protect both of you in the event that your marriage fails. Make sure your partner is aware that their feelings during this process are of the utmost importance to you. It's best to seek the guidance of an experienced family law attorney prior to discussing a prenuptial agreement with your future spouse in order to gather all the information you need to have a thorough discussion on the subject. These small preparations can help the conversation flow more smoothly between you and your partner, hopefully resulting in a relaxed and honest discussion about what you both expect from your marriage.

Don't wait until the last minute to tell your fiancé you want a premarital agreement.

Both of you should be involved in the process of drafting the prenuptial agreement. It shouldn't be one of you presenting the other with a contract at the rehearsal dinner right before the wedding. Not only are last-minute agreements on "shaky ground" legally speaking, but you're more likely to upset your partner if you expect them to read and sign this type of contract without any warning. Prenups that are signed shortly before the wedding aren't necessarily lawfully invalid, but they are much more likely to be legally argued than agreements that were signed well before a couple says "I do." In order to avoid inflicting massive pre-wedding jitters on your partner, talk about your desire to have a prenup as soon as possible following your engagement. Working together to draft the agreement provides both of you with a chance to state how you feel "work" will be divided throughout your marriage, which can make you more secure with your decision to marry than before. The prenuptial agreement takes the guesswork out of a divorce, as it determines who owns what property.

Consider working with a mediator to draft your premarital agreement.

Working with a mediator allows you, the couple, to draft a contract that combines both of your best interests. Before meeting with a mediator, couples should come up with some issues they would like to address in their prenuptial agreement. Discussing what key points you want the agreement to include beforehand ensures that you are on the same page as a couple, and it will make the meeting with the mediator more productive. In addition to providing you with unbiased advice, a mediator can offer couples guidance on the legalities involved in such contracts. This method is a smart way to guarantee each spouse equal bargaining power. As a matter of protection and precaution, each spouse may also hire their own individual attorney to review the agreement.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

Prenup Considerations Before You Say I Do

Most people think of marriage as a declaration of love and commitment, not as a legal contract that defines the financial and familial obligations of each party. That is, until they start negotiating a divorce settlement and discover their state’s policy on the division of marital property and spousal support. Although not every couple establishes a prenuptial agreement, there are several good reasons for having a smart prenup in place before saying those magical words, “I do.”


What is a Prenup?
A prenuptial agreement is a legal document that allows the couple to make decisions about their finances and marital property should they eventually decide to part ways. You cannot circumvent the child custody statutes in your state through a prenuptial agreement, although you can decide who gets to keep the family dog. The terms of the prenup must be legal and should be fair to both parties. For instance, an agreement that would leave one spouse homeless with no source of income would not be enforceable.

A prenup is particularly useful when one, or both parties, enter into the marriage with valuable assets or has children from a previous relationship. Older couples are more likely to consider a prenup because they have more assets to lose. Those who are exchanging matrimonial vows for a second or third time recognize that having a customized financial game plan in place can make divorce proceedings less stressful.

A prenup can eliminate later disputes over assets during a divorce and save the couple from acrimonious, time consuming and stressful litigation. 

When Should You Consider a Prenup?
A prenup might be a good idea if you have any of the following concerns:

 

  • Providing peace of mind for the partner who has significantly more income or wealth
  • Making sure your business remains intact, in your name
  • Defining assets such as property, a retirement fund or investments as separate property, not marital property
  • Retaining possession of family property, heirlooms or an anticipated inheritance after a divorce
  • Looking after the long-term interests of children from a previous marriage
  • Worrying that changing your career plan to raise children will leave you at a financial disadvantage
  • Avoiding interference with an estate plan
  • Financing long-term care for elderly parents or relatives

Starting Your Marriage the Right Way
The divorce laws in most states work on the assumption that both partners in a marriage have agreed to pool their tangible and intangible assets, and the courts generally attempt to make an equitable and fair division of these assets following a divorce.  A prenuptial agreement gives you and your intended spouse the opportunity to consider potential areas of disagreement regarding your financial future and address them in a forthright and realistic manner.

 


Wednesday, March 5, 2014

No Longer Spouses, But Still Partners

Workplace romances are never advisable, but sometimes co-workers and business partners fall in love and get married. Unfortunately, they also sometimes fall out of love and get divorced. What happens next?


For some couples, the end of the marriage parallels the end of their working relationship—and possibly the end of the business itself. There are a number of options in such cases. The couple can sell the business and split the proceeds as part of the divorce settlement, or one partner can buy out the interest of the ex-spouse.  Or they can try to split the business, with each taking half. Speak with an experienced business lawyer about the pros and cons of these options for your situation.

However, some former spouses do figure out a way to maintain their business partnership after the divorce. The personal relationship may have hit a dead-end, but the investment involved in building and growing a successful company can make it hard to walk away—and unless the business is wildly successful, with plenty of prospective buyers waiting in the wings, it is feasible that neither party can afford to walk away.

Overcoming the Challenges


There are challenges in every business partnership, and ex-spouses can adopt some basic business strategies to cultivate and maintain a healthy working relationship:

  • Sign a partners agreement. Be clear about your separate and joint responsibilities, and matters of liability. Make a contingency plan outlining how assets will be divided in case either partner decides to leave.
  • If necessary, divide up responsibilities or tasks you once did together so you each have more autonomy.
  • Establish a board of directors. Trustworthy business people may have valuable perspectives about the direction and goals of your company.
  • Keep the company finances transparent. Money is often one of the most difficult issues in a divorce. Get help if necessary to streamline your accounting processes.
  • Be professional around other staff members and employees. It is not fair to put employees in a position where they feel pressured to take sides or respond to inappropriate complaints about their other boss. A toxic work environment is never good for business.

Thinking Outside the Box

Even with the best intentions, a divorced couple may keep falling back into their old patterns at the workplace. If you still think that the business is viable and worth the effort to make a go of it, get professional help. A good marriage therapist is trained to help couples understand the point of view of the other person and gain insight into their dynamics, and this can be valuable information post-divorce, as well. 

Most entrepreneurs have a knack for thinking outside the box. Maybe you and your ex- can alternate day and night shifts for a few months.  Build a partition between your desks. It might take a while before you move from being unhappy exes to friendly partners - but it just might be worth it.
 


Friday, February 28, 2014

When to Involve Adult Children in the Estate Planning Process

Individuals who are beginning the estate planning process may assume it's best to have their adult child(ren) join them in the initial meeting with an estate planning attorney, but this may cause more harm than good.

This issue comes up often in the estate planning and elder law field, and it's a matter of client confidentiality. The attorney must determine who their client is- the individual looking to draft an estate plan or their adult children- and they owe confidentiality to that particular client.

The client is the person whose interests are most at stake. In this case, it is the parent. The attorney must be certain that they understand your wishes, goals and objectives. Having your child in the meeting could cause a problem if your child is joining in on the conversation, which may make it difficult for the attorney to determine if the wishes are those of your child, or are really your wishes.

Especially when representing elderly clients, there may be concerns that the wishes and desires of a child may be in conflict with the best interests of the parent. For example, in a Medicaid and long-term care estate planning context, the attorney may explain various options and one of those may involve transferring, or gifting, assets to children. The child's interest (purely from a financial aspect) would be to receive this gift. However, that may not be what the parent wants, or feels comfortable with. The parent may be reluctant to express those concerns to the attorney if the child is sitting right next to the parent in the meeting.

Also, the attorney will need to make a determination concerning the client's competency. Attorneys are usually able to assess a client's ability to make decisions during the initial meeting. Having a child in the room may make it more difficult for the attorney to determine competency because the child may be "guiding" the parent and finishing the parents thoughts in an attempt to help. 

The American Bar Association has published a pamphlet on these issues titled "Why Am I Left in the Waiting Room?" that may be helpful for you and your child to read prior to meeting with an attorney. 


Saturday, February 15, 2014

What Does the Term "Funding the Trust" Mean in Estate Planning?

If you are about to begin the estate planning process, you have likely heard the term "funding the trust" thrown around a great deal. What does this mean? And what will happen if you fail to fund the trust?

The phrase, or term, "funding the trust" refers to the process of titling your assets into your revocable living trust. A revocable living trust is a common estate planning document and one which you may choose to incorporate into your own estate planning. Sometimes such a trust may be referred to as a "will substitute" because the dispositive terms of your estate plan will be contained within the trust instead of the will. A revocable living trust will allow you to have your affairs bypass the probate court upon your death, using a revocable living trust will help accomplish that goal.

Upon your death, only assets titled in your name alone will have to pass through the court probate process. Therefore, if you create a trust, and if you take the steps to title all of your assets in the name of the trust, there would be no need for a court probate because no assets would remain in your name. This step is generally referred to as "funding the trust" and is often overlooked. Many people create the trust but yet they fail to take the step of re-titling assets in the trust name. If you do not title your trust assets into the name of the trust, then your estate will still require a court probate.

A proper trust-based estate plan would still include a will that is sometimes referred to as a "pour-over" will. The will acts as a backstop to the trust so that any asset that is in your name upon your death (instead of the trust) will still get into the trust. The will names the trust as the beneficiary. It is not as efficient to do this because your estate will still require a probate, but all assets will then flow into the trust.

Another option: You can also name your trust as beneficiary of life insurance and retirement assets. However, retirement assets are special in that there is an "income" tax issue. Be sure to seek competent tax and legal advice before deciding who to name as beneficiary on those retirement assets.


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