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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.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Getting Married to Someone with Bad Credit? Issues to Consider When it comes to Marriage and Debt

Marriage is a commitment, but in theory, it’s supposed to be a long and happy commitment. In order to give yourself the best chance at future marital bliss, you should have a frank “money matters” conversation with your partner-to-be before you tie the knot.


Marrying someone with substantial debts can impact major life decisions like buying a house, raising a family and even the type of wedding you can afford. It’s therefore essential that you sit down with your future spouse and get an idea of the condition of their credit and any hidden monstrous debts that may be lurking in the background, prepared to spoil your honeymoon.

Types of Debt

Debt can generally be divided into two categories?good debt and bad debt. Good debt is usually long-term low interest debt and is often backed by a government guarantee?think student loans, mortgage loans and even some small business loans. If your future husband or wife just finished their residency in endocrinology, they probably have some intimidating student loan debt from med-school. You should be aware of that debt, but it’s not the kind of thing that should scare you away from saying, “I do.”

Bad debt, on the other hand, is the type of short-term, high-interest debt that has the potential to cause serious problems?think credit cards, personal loans and some car loans. If your beloved has been earning a middle-class income but dresses in enough designer apparel to impress even the red carpet crowd, there might be some nasty high-interest credit card debt just waiting to cause some added wedding day stress. Some credit card companies can charge interest rates up to 34% in addition to high fees and enormous penalties. This type of debt can really put a dent in your monthly income and lead to the kind of lover’s quarrels you want to avoid.

To Delay or Not to Delay

Once you know where your future partner’s finances lie, you can make an informed decision about whether it makes sense to get married now or delay for a while. For the most part, you won’t be personally responsible for the debts your partner incurred before the marriage. There are some exceptions to this rule (the comingling of funds or assumption of debts) but they can be avoided with careful planning.

However, just because you’re not personally responsible for the debt doesn’t mean it won’t present problems. Most married couples operate their household as a single unit. That is, they contribute their earnings and assets to make ends meet. If a substantial portion of your partner’s income is diverted to old debts, there will be less money in the “pot” for things like rent, fuel, entertainment and food. Also, it will be difficult, if not impossible, to apply for a mortgage together if your partner’s credit is in the gutter. If you’re fine with these prospects, and head over heels in love, then by all means go forward with the wedding?at least you, unlike thousands of other couples, will have an understanding of the challenges you are facing.

If, however, you’re not comfortable with your partner’s finances, there are a few things you can do. First, you can delay the marriage and work together with your partner at restoring their credit and paying down their debts. You can still set a wedding date. In fact, the certainty of the wedding date is often an impetus to get down to the brass tacks type of financial sacrifice it takes to properly repair a credit rating and pay off those bad debts. In some cases, it takes only a year or less to get things in good shape.

 


Thursday, January 30, 2014

What to Do after a Loved One Passes Away

The loss of a loved one is a difficult time, often made more stressful when one has to handle the affairs of the deceased. This may be a great undertaking or rather minimal work, depending upon the level of estate planning done prior to death.

Tasks that have to be performed after the passing of a loved one will vary based on whether the departed individual had a will or not. In determining whether probate (a court-managed process where the assets of the deceased are managed and distributed) is needed, the assets owned by the individual, and whether these assets were titled, must be considered. It’s important to understand that assets titled jointly with another person are not probate assets and will normally pass to the surviving joint owner. Also, assets such as life insurance and retirement assets that name a beneficiary will pass to the named beneficiaries outside of the court probate process. If the deceased relative had formed a trust and during his life retitled his assets into that trust, those trust assets will also not pass through the probate process.

Each state’s rules may be slightly different so it is important to seek proper legal advice if you are charged with handling the affairs of a deceased family member or friend. Assuming probate is required, there will be a process that you must follow to either file the will and ask to be appointed as the executor (assuming you were named executor in the will) or file for probate of the estate without a will (this is referred to as dying "intestate" which simply means dying without a will). Also, there will be a process to publish notice to creditors and you may be required to send each creditor specific notice of the death. Those creditors will have a certain amount of time to file a claim against the estate assets. If a legitimate creditor files a claim, the claim can be paid out of the estate assets. Depending on your state's laws, there may also be state death taxes (sometimes referred to as "inheritance taxes") that have to be paid and, if the estate is large enough, a federal estate tax return may also have to be filed along with any taxes which may be due.

Only after the estate is fully administered, creditors paid, and tax returns filed and taxes paid, can the estate be fully distributed to the named beneficiaries or heirs. Given the many steps, and complexities of probate, you should seek legal counsel to help you through the process.


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Life Insurance and Medicaid Planning

Many people purchase a life insurance policy as a way to ensure that their dependents are protected upon their passing. Generally speaking, there are two basic types of life insurance policies: term life and whole life insurance. With a term policy, the holder pays a monthly, or yearly, premium for the policy which will pay out a death benefit to the beneficiaries upon the holder’s death so long as the policy was in effect. A whole life policy is similar to a term, but also has an investment component which builds cash value over time. This cash value can benefit either the policy holder during his or her lifetime or the beneficiaries.

During the Medicaid planning process, many people are surprised to learn that the cash value of life insurance is a countable asset. In most cases, if you have a policy with a cash value, you are able to go to the insurance company and request to withdraw that cash value. Thus, for Medicaid purposes, that cash value will be treated just like a bank account in your name. There may be certain exceptions under your state law where Medicaid will not count the cash value. For example, if the face value (which is normally the death benefit) of the policy is a fairly small amount (such as $10,000 or less) and if your "estate" is named as a beneficiary, or if a "funeral home" is named as a beneficiary, the cash value may not be counted. However, if your estate is the beneficiary then Medicaid likely would have the ability to collect the death proceeds from your estate to reimburse Medicaid for the amounts they have paid out on your behalf while you are living (this is known as estate recovery). Generally, the face value ($10,000 in the example) is an aggregate amount of all life insurance policies you have. It is not a per policy amount.

Each state has different Medicaid laws so it’s absolutely essential that you seek out a good elder law or Medicaid planning attorney in determining whether your life insurance policy is a countable asset.


Sunday, January 5, 2014

Can I Get In Trouble With the IRS for Trying to Reduce the Amount of Estate Tax That I Owe?

You’ve likely heard that one of the many benefits of estate planning is reducing the amount of federal, and state, taxes owed upon your passing. While it may seem like estate tax planning must run afoul of IRS rules, with the proper strategies, this is far from the case.

It is very common for an individual to take steps to try to reduce the amount of federal estate taxes that his or her "estate" will be responsible for after the person's death. As you may know, you may pass an unlimited amount of assets to your spouse without incurring any federal estate taxes. You may pass $5.25 million to non-spouse beneficiaries without incurring federal estate tax and if your spouse died before you, and if you have taken certain steps to add your spouse's $5.25 million exemption to your own, you may have $10.5 million that you can pass tax free to non-spouse beneficiaries.

If your estate is still larger than these exemption amounts you should seek out a qualified estate planning attorney. There may be legal, legitimate planning techniques that will help reduce the taxable value of your estate in order to pass more assets to your loved ones upon your death and lessen the impact of the estate taxes. After your death, the duty normally falls on your executor (or perhaps a successor trustee) to file the appropriate tax returns and pay the necessary taxes. Failure to properly plan for potential estate taxes will significantly limit what your executor/trustee will be able to accomplish after your passing.

If you have taken steps to try to reduce the taxes owed, it is possible that the IRS may challenge the reported value or try to throw out the method you used. This does not mean that the executor/trustee will be in trouble; it just means that they will need to be prepared to support their position with the IRS and take it through an audit or even a tax court (or other appropriate court system). In the event of a challenge, a good attorney will be critical to ensure all of the necessary steps are taken.


Sunday, December 15, 2013

Is a copy of a will sufficient?

Many people keep their important documents at home where they are easily accessible. It’s not at all uncommon to find people with a filing cabinet or even a shoe box containing passports, account statements, deeds, tax returns, birth certificates and social security cards. Wills are often added to these files once the estate planning process is completed. In choosing to store your important estate planning documents at home, however, you risk having the originals lost or destroyed in the case of fire, flooding or theft. So what happens if the original version of your will is lost or ruined?

Generally when a person dies, state law determines what must happen in the state probate proceeding. In most cases, the "original" of the will must be submitted to the probate court in the county where the person resided. If the original of the will cannot be located and provided to the court, there likely is a provision in your state's probate code that would permit the submission of a photocopy of that signed will.

In many cases, the attorney who prepared the will maintains a copy of the estate planning documents. Assuming, that the copy your attorney has could be submitted to the probate court, additional steps may need to be taken, and additional pleadings prepared in order to submit a copy.

Should you lose the original copy of your will, the best practice would be for you to execute a new will which would make things easier for your family and loved ones upon your death. In that case there would be better assurances that your wishes were followed and carried out. Preparing a new will should not take much time for your attorney. He or she likely still has the word processing file on his or her computer, and could easily modify it for you to execute again. If for some reason this is not done, you may wish to execute a document stating the original was destroyed in a flood or fire but that you did not intend to revoke it. However, it’s important to note that this may not be effective in every instance as many states have very strict requirements in terms of requiring originals and execution formalities.

To keep the originals of your estate planning documents safe, even in the face of disaster, you might consider purchasing a fireproof/waterproof safe for your home or rent a safe deposit box with a local bank where you can still easily access your documents but keep them secure off-site.


Thursday, December 5, 2013

(Grand)Parenting 2.0

According to the National Census Bureau, grandparent-headed homes are among the fastest growing household types in the United States. Grandparent-headed homes are defined as living arrangements where the primary financial and caregiving responsibilities are held by one or more grandparents rather than a parent. Though the reasons that lead to this type of arrangement vary, many speculate that a difficult job market and bleak economy has led to an increase in the past few years.

At the height of the financial crisis, the Wall Street Journal published an article describing the financial strain placed on grandparent-headed households. For grandparents who have already retired, finding a job at an advanced age can be next to impossible. The unemployment rates for this demographic are disproportionately high as are levels of ‘discouragement,’ or the part of the population so frustrated with trying to find work that they are driven from workforce. The degree of financial hardship is exacerbated by the increase in the price of everyday goods and necessities, like food and clothing.

Beyond the financial strain, taking care of a young child can also have a significant impact on a grandparent’s mental and physical well-being. If an infant is placed in the grandparent’s care, he or she may have disrupted sleep due to nightly feedings. Grandparents raising young children are also frequently exposed to diseases and infections common in childhood. Depression and anxiety disorders are not uncommon and for children with developmental delays or behavioral problems, the demands placed on caregivers are that much greater.

In some cases, grandparents may become the head of a household even when parents are present. In situations where a parent has become unemployed or otherwise cannot care for the children, he or she may move the entire family into his or her parents’ home. In addition to grandparent-headed homes, other types of arrangements where the parent is not the primary caregiver are on the rise. These may include instances where an aunt or uncle takes responsibility for a nephew or niece.

Fortunately, many federal and state governments have started to recognize this trend and are putting resources in place to assist non-parent-headed homes. The American Association of Retired Persons has also created a comprehensive guide and resource center for grandparents parenting a child.


Saturday, November 30, 2013

What is Estate Recovery?

Medicaid is a federal health program for individuals with low income and financial resources that is administered by each state. Each state may call this program by a different name. In California, for example, it is referred to as Medi-Cal. This program is intended to help individuals and couples pay for the cost of health care and nursing home care.

Most people are surprised to learn that Medicare (the health insurance available to all people over the age of 65) does not cover nursing home care. The average cost of nursing home care, also called "skilled nursing" or "convalescent care," can be $8,000 to $10,000 per month. Most people do not have the resources to cover these steep costs over an extended period of time without some form of assistance.

Qualifying for Medicaid can be complicated; each state has its own rules and guidelines for eligibility. Once qualified for a Medicaid subsidy, Medicaid will assign you a co-pay (your Share of Cost) for the nursing home care, based on your monthly income and ability to pay.

At the end of the Medicaid recipient's life (and the spouse's life, if applicable), Medicaid will begin "estate recovery" for the total cost spent during the recipient's lifetime. Medicaid will issue a bill to the estate, and will place a lien on the recipient's home in order to satisfy the debt. Many estate beneficiaries discover this debt only upon the death of a parent or loved one. In many cases, the Medicaid debt can consume most, if not all, estate assets.

There are estate planning strategies available that can help you accelerate qualification for a Medicaid subsidy, and also eliminate the possibility of a Medicaid lien at death. However, each state's laws are very specific, and this process is very complicated. It is very important to consult with an experienced elder law attorney in your jurisdiction.


Friday, November 15, 2013

A Simple Will Is Not Enough

A basic last will and testament cannot accomplish every goal of estate planning; in fact, it often cannot even accomplish the most common goals.  This fact often surprises people who are going through the estate planning process for the first time.  In addition to a last will and testament, there are other important planning tools which are necessary to ensure your estate planning wishes are honored.

Beneficiary Designations
Do you have a pension plan, 401(k), life insurance, a bank account with a pay-on-death directive, or investments in transfer-on-death (TOD) form?

When you established each of these accounts, you designated at least one beneficiary of the account in the event of your death.  You cannot use your will to change or override the beneficiary designations of such accounts.  Instead, you must change them directly with the bank or company that holds the account.

Special Needs Trusts
Do you have a child or other beneficiary with special needs?

Leaving money directly to a beneficiary who has long-term special medical needs may threaten his or her ability to qualify for government benefits and may also create an unnecessary tax burden.  A simple vehicle called a special needs trust is a more effective way to care for an adult child with special needs after your death.

Conditional Giving with Living or Testamentary Trusts
Do you want to place conditions on some of your bequests?

 

If you want your children or other beneficiaries to receive an inheritance only if they meet or continually meet certain prerequisites, you must utilize a trust, either one established during your lifetime (living trust) or one created through instructions provided in a will (testamentary trust).

Estate Tax Planning
Do you expect your estate to owe estate taxes?

A basic will cannot help you lower the estate tax burden on your assets after death.  If you think your estate will be liable to pay taxes, you can take steps during your lifetime to minimize that burden on your beneficiaries.  Certain trusts operate to minimize estate taxes, and you may choose to make some gifts during your lifetime for tax-related reasons.  

Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship
Do you own a house with someone “in joint tenancy”?

“Joint tenancy” is the most common form of house ownership with a spouse.  This form of ownership is also known as “joint tenancy with right of survivorship,” “tenancy in the entirety,” or “community property with right of survivorship.”  When you die, your ownership share in the house passes directly to your spouse (or the other co-owner).  A provision in your will bequeathing your ownership share to a third party will not have any effect.

Pet Trusts
Do you want to leave money to your pets or companion animals?

Pets are generally considered property, and you cannot use your will to leave property (money) to other property (pets).  Instead, you can use your will to name a caretaker for your animals and to leave a sum of money to that person for the animals’ care. 


Tuesday, November 5, 2013

How to Keep Your Affluent Children From Turning Into … Well, … Brats

Congratulations are in order—you have accumulated enough wealth to be concerned about eventually passing it along to your children and grandchildren in a manner that will encourage them to lead positive and productive lives.  Like many, your objective is to allow your children to enjoy the rewards of wealth without becoming irresponsible, overindulgent or feeling entitled to anything money can buy.

When it comes to sharing one’s wealth with adult children, there are some general principles that may help you guide your children as they shape their values.  Two quotes about sharing wealth with children are an excellent starting point:

I wanted my children to have “enough money so that they would feel they could do anything, but not so much that they could do nothing.” – Warren Buffett

“It’s better to give with warm hands than with cold ones.” – Unknown

Establish Inter Vivos Trusts for Your Children, And Use Restrictions Creatively

You can establish inter vivos trusts (trusts that go into effect during your lifetime) and appoint professional trustees during your lifetime.  Consider some combination of the following restrictions on the trust funds to help your children develop into competent, capable adults:

  • Make receipt of funds dependent on employment
  • Use trust funds to match income from employment
  • Prohibit distribution of trust earnings until the child reaches a certain age (it is not unheard of to distribute trust earnings to children once they reach age 65)
  • Make attaining a certain level of education a prerequisite to distribution of trust income
  • Consider establishing a charitable trust or family foundation, with room for employment of your adult child in the foundation’s management

Consider a generation-skipping trust, so that your wealth is shared directly with grandchildren

Make Gifts or Loans During Your Lifetime—And Not Just Gifts of Money

This is the meaning behind the quotation above regarding warm hands and cold ones.  It is better, in so many ways, to give gifts during your lifetime rather than after your death.  In addition to gifts, consider making strategic, interest-free loans to your children to help them achieve certain goals without losing a lot of their own income to interest payments:

  • Interest-free loans for higher education
  • Interest-free loans for private education for grandchildren
  • Interest-free loans for home purchases

In addition to giving gifts of money or making strategic loans, there are other “gifts” you can give your children to help them learn to live with wealth.  Consider the following suggestions,:

  • Hire a professional to teach your children how to manage their money, instead of banking on your children listening to your own lessons.
  • Pay for family vacations that serve a philanthropic purpose, such as travel to Africa to deliver medical equipment to a remote town or travel to South America to help clean a national park.
  • Begin or continue a family tradition of local volunteer work with disadvantaged people in your own community to ensure that your children get firsthand knowledge of how fortunate they are to have the resources your family has accrued.

In general, experts agree that families fare better when their wealth is used to enrich their lives and to help others less fortunate.  Give your children opportunities to learn to use money in responsible ways, from as early in their lives as possible.  Show them the difference between buying a new sports car and donating the same amount of money to a program that sends food to people in need.  That isn’t to say a new sports car shouldn’t be on the shopping list – but perhaps it shouldn’t be the only thing on the shopping list.


Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Young and Ill, without Advance Directives

When you are a child, your parents serve as your decision makers. They have ultimate say in where you go to school, what extracurricular activities you partake in and where, and how, you should be treated in the event of a medical emergency. While most parents continue to play a huge role in their children’s lives long after they reach adulthood, they lose legal decision-making authority on that 18th birthday. Most young adults don't contemplate who can act on their behalf once this transfer of power occurs, and consequently they fail to prepare advance directives.

In the event of a medical emergency, if a young adult is conscious and competent to make decisions, the doctors will ask the patient about his or her preferred course of treatment. Even if the individual is unable to speak, he or she may still be able to communicate by using hand signals or even blinking one’s eyes in response to questions.

But what happens in instances where the young adult is incapacitated and unable to make decisions? Who will decide on the best course of treatment? Without advance directives, the answer to this question can be unclear, often causing the family of the incapacitated person emotional stress and financial hardship.

In instances of life threatening injury or an illness that requires immediate care, the doctors will likely do all they can to treat the patient as aggressively as possible, relying on the standards of care to decide on the best course of treatment. However, if there is no "urgent" need to treat they will look to someone else who has authority to make those decisions on behalf of the young individual. Most states have specific statutes that list who has priority to make decisions on behalf of an incapacitated individual, when there are no advance directives in place. Many states favor a spouse, adult children, and parents in a list of priority. Doctors will generally try to get in touch with the patient’s "next of kin" to provide the direction necessary for treatment.

A number of recent high-profile court cases remind us of the dangers of relying on state statues to determine who has the authority to make healthcare decisions on behalf of the ill. What happens if the parents of the incapacitated disagree on the best course of treatment? Or what happens if the patient is estranged from her spouse but technically still married- will he have ultimate say? For most, the thought is unsettling.

To avoid the unknown, it’s highly recommended that all adults, regardless of age, work with an estate planning attorney to prepare advance directives including a health care power of attorney (or health care proxy) as well as a living will which outline their wishes and ensure compliance with all applicable state statutes.


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