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Estate Planning

Monday, February 5, 2018

What are Letters Testamentary?

An individual who has been named as a personal representative or executor in a will has a number of important duties. These include gathering the deceased person's property and transferring it to the beneficiaries through a court-supervised process known as probate. In order to initiate this proceeding, the executor must first obtain what are referred to as letters testamentary. This document gives the executor the legal authority to administer the deceased person's estate.

While the process varies from state to state, the executor must petition the probate court in the county in which the decedent lived. This typically requires submitting the death certificate and completing a short application. The application includes a sworn statement that the person has been named as the executor in the will, as well as an estimate of the estate's property and debts.

The probate court will then hold a hearing to verify that the individual meets the qualifications to act as executor. Generally he or she must be a mentally competent adult and not be a convicted felon. If approved, the court will issue letters testamentary and officially open probate.

In short, the letters allow the executor to collect the assets of the deceased which may be held by  another person or an institution such as a bank. Since banks and other institutions may want to keep the document on file, it is necessary to obtain multiple certified copies. The executor can also carry out his or her other duties such as inventorying and appraising assets, paying debts, and transferring property to beneficiaries, according to the terms of the will.

Letters of Administration

In the event a person dies without a valid will in place, an heir of the decedent, typically a legal relative, needs to petition the probate court for letters of administration. In this situation, the court will hold a hearing to appoint this individual to act as the estate administrator, issue the letters and open probate. The administrator then manages and distributes the assets according to the state's intestacy laws which generally give priority to spouses, children and parents.

 


Monday, January 29, 2018

Things to Consider When Picking an Executor

The role of an executor is to effectuate a deceased person’s wishes as declared in a will after he or she has passed on. The executor’s responsibilities include the distribution of assets according to the will, the maintenance of assets until the will is settled, and the paying of estate bills and debts. An old joke says that you should choose an enemy to perform the task because it is such a thankless job, even though the executor may take a percentage of the estate’s assets as a fee. The following issues should be considered when choosing an executor for one's estate.

Competency: The executor of an estate will be going through financial and legal documents and transferring documents from the testator to the beneficiaries. If there are legal proceedings, the executor must make all necessary court appearances. There is no requirement that a testator have any financial or legal training, but familiarity with these areas does avoid the intimidation felt by lay people, and potentially saves money on professional fees.

Trustworthiness: The signature of an executor is equivalent to that of the testator of an estate. The executor has full control over all of an estate’s assets. He or she will be required to go through all of the papers of the deceased to confirm what assets are available to be distributed. The temptation to transfer assets into the executor's own name always exists, particularly when there is a large estate. It is important to choose a person with integrity who will resist this temptation. It makes sense to utilize an individual who is an heir to fill the role to alleviate this concern.

Availability: The work of collecting rents, maintaining property, and paying debts can take more than a few hours a week. Selecting an executor with significant obligations to work or family may cause problems if he or she does not have the time available to devote to the task. If an executor must travel great distances to address issues that arise, there will be more of a time commitment necessary, not to mention greater expenses for the estate.

Family dynamics: Selection of the wrong person to act as executor can create resentment and hostility among an estate’s heirs. A testator should be aware of how family members interact with one another and avoid picking someone who may provoke conflict. Even the perception of impropriety can lead to a lawsuit, which will serve to take money out of the estate’s coffers and delay the legitimate distribution of the estate. 


Monday, January 15, 2018

How to Leave Gifts to Step-Children

Today, blended families have become increasingly common, and many individuals have step-children, that is, children of a spouse or partner. In situations where step-children have not been legally adopted, however, they do not have a legal right to an inheritance from a step-parent. For those who wish to leave step-children part of their estate , it is necessary to include them in an estate plan.

The easiest way to leave gifts to step-children is to name them in a will. As with any other gift, they can be given a percentage of the estate, or specific gifts. If there are other children involved, it is important to avoid confusion by naming each child and step-child by using their individual names, rather than terms such as "descendants," "heirs," or "children."

There are also a number of estate planning tools that can be utilized to include step-children in an inheritance. If the objective is to avoid probate, for example, a revocable living trust can be established in which a step-child is named as a beneficiary. Moreover, it may be necessary to provide for a disabled step-child who is eligible for public benefits by establishing a special needs trust. Lastly, a step-child can also be named as a beneficiary in a life insurance policy or a pay-on-death financial account.

While there is no legal obligation to leave step-children an inheritance, it may be the best choice for those who have a close relationship, or played a significant role, in raising them. However, this will reduce the amount of assets available to other children and beneficiaries. Because blended family relationships are complex and subject to emotional challenges, it is important to explain these decisions with all family members.

By engaging in an open and honest dialogue, you can minimize the potential for strife and the possibility of a will contest. In particular, it is important to clarify why you gave each recipient a gift, the selection of your executor, and your thoughts about the family.  Lastly, you are well advised to engage the services of an estate planning attorney who can help ensure your wishes regarding step-children are carried out.


Monday, December 11, 2017

What would happen if another child is born after establishing an estate plan?

This question presents a fairly common issue posed to estate planning attorneys. The solution is also pretty easy to address in your will, trust and other estate planning documents, including any guardianship appointment for your minor children.

First, its important to note that you should not delay establishing an estate plan pending the birth of a new child.  In fact, if your planning is done right you most likely will not need to modify your estate plan after a new child is born.  The problem with waiting is that you cannot know what tomorrow will bring and you could die, or become incapacitated and not having any type of plan is a bad idea. 

In terms of how an estate plan can provide for “after-born” children, there are a few drafting techniques that can address this issue.  For example, in your will, it would refer to your current children typically by name and their date of birth. Then, your will would provide that any reference to the term "your children" would include any children born to you, or adopted by you, after the date you sign your will.

In addition, in the section or article of your will that provides how your estate and assets will be divided, it could simply provide that your estate and assets will be divided into separate and equal shares, one each for "your children." That would mean that whatever children you have at the time of your death would receive a share and thus the will would work as you intend, even if you did not amend it after having a new child. 

On a side note, you should make certain that your plan does not give the children their share of your estate outright while they are still young.  Rather, your will or living trust should provide that the assets and money are held in a trust structure until they are reach a certain age or achieve certain milestones such as college graduation or marriage. Any good estate planning attorney should be able to advise you about this and help walk you through the various options you have available to you.


Monday, September 18, 2017

How to Calculate Estate Tax

In order to predict how much your estate will have to pay in taxes, one must first determine the value of the estate. To determine this, many assets might have to be appraised at fair market value. The estate includes all assets including real estate, cash, securities, stocks, bonds, business interests, loans receivable, furnishings, jewelry, and other valuables.

Once your net worth is established, you can subtract liabilities like mortgages, credit cards, other legitimate debts, funeral expenses, medical bills, and the administrative cost to settle your estate including attorney, accounting and appraisal fees, storage and shipping fees, insurances, and court fees. The administrative expenses will likely total roughly 5% of the total estate. Any assets that is bequeathed to charity through a trust escapes taxation, and the value of those assets must be subtracted from the total. Any assets transferred to a surviving spouse are not subject to taxation as long as your spouse is a US citizen.

If the net worth of an estate is less than the Federal and state exemptions, no taxes must be paid. However, the value of assets over the exemptions will be taxed. The amount over the exemptions is referred to as the taxable estate. A testator’s assets are taxed by the state in which the will is probated. Taxes paid by the estate to the state may be deducted for Federal tax purposes. The Federal exemption was $5.43 million in 2015 and is slated to increase in 2016. The top Federal estate tax rate in 2015 was 40%.

If an estate earns money while it is being administered and distributed, for example, if real estate is rented or businesses continue to operate, it will be necessary for the estate to complete a tax return and pay taxes on the income it receives. The net income of the estate can be added to the taxable portion of the estate if it is over the federal or state exemption. It is important to be aware that the laws surrounding estate taxes change frequently and require seasoned professionals to navigate, and to notify you if changes in the laws will affect your estate plan. 


Monday, July 24, 2017

Why New Parents Need an Estate Plan

Becoming a new parent is a life changing experience, and caring for a child is an awesome responsibility as well as a joy. This is also the time to think about your child's future by asking an important question: who will care for your child if you become disabled or die? The best way to put your mind at ease is by having an estate plan.

The most basic estate planning tool is a will, which enables a person to determine how his or her assets will be distributed after death. Without this important estate planning tool, the state's intestacy laws will govern how these assets will be distributed. In addition, decisions about who will care for any minor children will be made by the court. For this reason, it is crucial for new parents to have a will as this is the only way to name guardians for minor children.

In this regard, selecting guardians involves a number of important considerations. Obviously, it is important to name individuals who are emotionally and financially capable of raising a child. At the same time, a will can also establish a trust that provides funds to be used to provide for the child's needs. Ultimately, guardians should share the same moral and spiritual values, and childrearing philosophy of the parents.

In addition to naming guardians in a will, it is also critical to plan for the possibility of incapacity by creating powers of attorney and advance medical directives. A durable power of attorney allows a new parent to name a spouse, or other trusted relative or friend, to handle personal and financial affairs. Further, a power of attorney for healthcare, or healthcare proxy, designates a trusted person to make medical decisions in accordance with the parent's preferences.

Finally, new parents should also obtain adequate life insurance to protect the family. The proceeds from an insurance policy can replace lost income, pay household and living expenses, as well as any debts that may have been owed by the deceased parent. It is also important to ensure that beneficiary designations on any retirement accounts are up to date so that these assets can be transferred expediently.

In the end, having a child is a time of joy, but also one that requires careful planning. The best way to protect your family is by consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney who can help you navigate the process.

 


Monday, July 10, 2017

Things to Consider Establishing a Charitable Giving Plan

For many individuals, leaving a legacy of charity is an important component of estate planning, but there are many factors involved in creating a charitable giving plan.

First, it is important to select causes that you believe in such as environmental, educational, religious or medical, or those dedicated to providing food and shelter to the poor. The number of charities you wish to give to depends on your available resources, as well as other beneficiaries of your estate. Many people opt to limit their selections to a handful of charities that are most important to them.

Once charities have been selected, it is crucial to do some homework to make sure the charities are legitimate, and that your gift will be used for the intended purpose, rather than to pay salaries or administrative costs. A good place to start is with the charity's website, and there are many publicly available resources that evaluate charities.

Further, it is important to be realistic about how much of our assets can be dedicated to gift giving, and how those donations should be allocated to the designated charities. Proceeds can either be divided equally, or more money can be provided to the charity you deem most worthy.

Lastly, it is important to avoid the common mistakes many make when planning charitable gifts. It is crucial to ensure that you are donating to a legitimate charity by thoroughly evaluating the agency. In addition, your gift should not be overly restricted since this could make it difficult for the charity to use.If your assets are in stocks, they should not be sold and the profits donated, rather the stocks should be gifted directly to the charity.  

In sum, your gift needs to be helpful to the charity, but also take advantage of tax benefits to which you may be entitled, and these objectives can be achieved by establishing a trust. For example, a charitable remainder trust is one into which property is transferred with a charity named as the final beneficiary. In this arrangement, another individual receives income from the trust for a set period of time and then the remainder is given to the charity. In the end, if your objective is to become a sophisticated donor, it is essential to engage the services of an experienced trusts and estates attorney.


Monday, June 12, 2017

A Primer on Irrevocable Trusts

Many individuals are aware that a will is one way to plan for the distribution of their assets after death. However, a comprehensive estate plan also considers other objectives such as planning for long-term care and asset protection. For this reason, it is essential to consider utilizing an irrevocable trust.

This estate planning tool becomes effective during a person's lifetime, but it cannot be amended or modified. The person making the trust, the grantor, transfers property into the trust permanently. In so doing, the grantor no longer owns property, and a designated trustee owns and manages the assets for the benefit of the beneficiaries.

In short, irrevocable trust provide a number of advantages. First, the property is not subject to estate taxes because the grantor no longer owns it. Moreover, unlike a will, an irrevocable trust is not probated in court. Finally, assets are protected from creditors.

Common Irrevocable Trusts

There are a variety of irrevocable trusts, including:

  • Bypass Trusts -  utilized by married couples to reduce estate taxes when the second spouse dies. In this arrangement, the property of the spouse who dies first is transferred into the trust for the benefit of the surviving spouse. Because he or she does not own it, the property does not become part of this spouse's estate when he or she dies.

  • Charitable Trusts - created to reduce income and estate taxes through a combination of gifting and charitable donations.  For example, charitable remainder trust transfers property into a trust and names a charity as the final beneficiary, but another individual receives income before,  for a certain time period.

  • Life Insurance Trusts - proceeds of life insurance are removed from the estate and ownership of the policy is transferred into the trust. While insurance passes outside of the estate, it is factored into the value of the estate for tax purposes, so this vehicle is designed to minimize estate taxes.

  • Spendthrift Trusts – designed to protect those who may not be able to manage finances on their own. A trustee is named to manage and distribute the funds to the beneficiary or directly to creditors, depending on the terms of the trust.

  • Special needs trusts - designed to protect the public benefits that many special needs individuals receive. Since an inheritance could disqualify a beneficiary from Medicaid, for example, this estate planning tool provides money for additional day to day expenses while preserving the government benefits.

The Takeaway

Irrevocable trusts are essential estate planning tools that can protect an individual's assets, minimize taxes and provide for loved ones. In the end, these objectives can be accomplished with the advice and counsel of an experienced estate planning attorney.

 


Monday, May 29, 2017

Disinheritance

Inheritance laws involve legal rights to property after a death and such laws differ from state-to-state.   Heirs usually consist of close family members and exclude estranged relatives.  Depending on the wording of a will, an individual can be intentionally, or even unintentionally, disinherited.

In most cases, spouses may not be legally disinherited.  Certain contracts, however, allow for a legitimate disinheritance, such as prenuptial agreements or postnuptial agreements.  These contracts are typically valid methods of disinheritance because the presumed-to-be inheriting spouse has agreed to the arrangement by signing the document.  

If there is no prenuptial arrangement, then the state’s elective share statute or “equitable distribution” laws protect the surviving spouse.  Pursuant to the elective share statute, he or she may collect a certain percentage of the estate. 

In states that follow “community property” or “common law” rules, however, the outcome may be different.   An attorney should be consulted for clarification of the differences in the law.  Divorces affect spousal inheritance rights.  Post-divorce, it is prudent to consult an attorney to draft a fresh will, in order to prevent confusion and unintentional dissemination of assets.

If the will is unambiguous, it is usually possible for a child to be disinherited.   It should be noted, however, that it is highly likely that close relatives will challenge or contest a will in which they have been disinherited.  Fighting such a lawsuit may put a great financial strain on the estate's assets.  Depending on how time-consuming and expensive it is to defend the will, less money may be available for distribution to the intended beneficiaries. 

There are ways to protect estate assets from such problems, for example through trusts.  It is essential for an individual to receive the counsel of a licensed lawyer in order to effectively protect his or her estate as inexpensively as possible.


Monday, May 8, 2017

Top Five Estate Planning Mistakes

In spite of the vast amount of financial information that is currently available in the media and via the internet, many people either do not understand estate planning or underestimate its importance. Here's a look at the top five estate planning mistakes that need to be avoided.

1. Not Having an Estate Plan

The most common mistake is not having an estate plan, particularly not creating a will - as many as 64 percent of Americans don't have a will. This basic estate planning tool establishes how an individual's assets will be distributed upon death, and who will receive them. A will is especially important for parents with minor children in that it allows a guardian to be named to care for them if both parents were to die unexpectedly. Without a will, the courts will make decisions according to the state's probate laws, which may not agree with a person's wishes.

2. Failing to Update a Will

For those who have a will in place, a common mistake is to tuck it away in a drawer and be done with it. Creating a will is not a "once and done" matter as it needs to updated periodically, however. There are changes that occur during a person's lifetime, such as buying a home, getting married, having children, getting divorced - and remarried, that need to be accurately reflected in an updated will. Depending on the circumstances, a will should be reviewed every two years.

3. Not Planning for Disability

While no one likes to think about becoming ill or getting injured, an unexpected long-term disability can have devastating consequences on an individual's financial and personal affairs. It is essential to create a durable power of attorney to designate an individual to manage your finances if you are unable to do so. In addition, a power of attorney for healthcare  - or healthcare proxy, allows you to name a trusted relative or friend to make decisions about the type of care you prefer to receive when you cannot speak for yourself.

4. Naming Incapable Heirs

People often take for granted that their loved ones are capable of managing an inheritance. There are cases, however, when a beneficiary may not understand financial matters or be irresponsible with money. In these situations, a will can appoint an professional to supervise these assets, or in the alternative a "spendthrift trust" can be put in place.

5. Choosing the Wrong Executor

Many individuals designate a close relative or trusted friend to act as executor, but fail to consider whether he or she has the capacity and integrity to take on this role. By choosing the wrong executor, your will could be contested, leading to unnecessary delays, costs and lingering acrimony among surviving family members.

The Takeaway

In the end, estate planning is really about getting your affairs in order. By engaging the services of an experienced trusts and estates attorney, you can avoid these common mistakes, protect your assets and provide for your loved ones.

 


Monday, April 10, 2017

Making Decisions About End of Life Medical Treatment

While advances in medicine allow people to live longer, questions are often raised about life-sustaining treatment terminally ill patients may or may not want to receive. Those who fail to formally declare these wishes in writing to family members and medical professionals run the risk of having the courts make these decisions.

For this reason, it is essential to put in place advance medical directives to ensure that an individual's preferences for end of life medical care are respected. There are two documents designed for these purposes, a Do Not Resuscitate Order (DNR) and a Physician Order for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST).

What is a DNR?

A Do Not Resuscitate Oder alerts doctors, nurses and emergency personnel that cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) should not be used to keep a person alive in case of a medical emergency. A DNR is frequently used along with other advance medical directives by those who are critically ill and prefer not to receive life sustaining treatment.

What is a Physician Order for Life Sustaining Treatment (POLST)?

A Physician Order for Life Sustaining Treatment is similar to a DNR,  however a POLST is prepared by a patient's doctor after discussing end of life treatment options. This is not a legal document prepared by an attorney, but rather a binding doctor's order that is kept with a patient's medical records. A POLST declares a patient's preference for receiving certain life sustaining treatments, as well as treatment options the patient does not want to receive or to be continued.

Examples of these treatments include, but are not limited to, artificial nutrition and hydration, intubation and antibiotic use. These decisions should be made when there is no medical crisis that can affect an individual's decision making, after various treatment options have been discussed with his or her doctor. In short, a POLST ensures that a patient will receive appropriate treatments, but not be subjected to life sustaining measures the patient does not want.

By having these advance medical directives in place, a person can have peace of mind knowing that he or she will receive end of life treatment according to his or her wishes, and loved ones will not be forced to go to court to obtain the right make these decisions.

 


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