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Friday, March 28, 2014

Testamentary Trusts vs. Inter Vivos Trusts

The world of estate planning can be complex. If you have just started your research or are in the process of setting up your estate plan, you’ve likely encountered discussions of wills and trusts. While most people have a very basic understanding of a last will and testament, trusts are often foreign concepts. Two of the most common types of trusts used in estate planning are testamentary trusts and inter vivos trusts.

A testamentary trust refers to a trust that is established after your death from instructions set forth in your will. Because a will only has legal effect upon your death, such a trust has no existence until that time. In other words, at your death your will provides that the trusts be created for your loved ones whether that be a spouse, a child, a grandchild or someone else.

An inter vivos trust, also known as a revocable living trust, is created by you while you are living. It also may provide for ongoing trusts for your loved ones upon your death. One benefit of a revocable trust, versus simply using a will, is that the revocable trust plan may allow your estate to avoid a court-administered probate process upon your death. However, to take advantage this benefit you must "fund" your revocable trust with your assets while you are still living. To do so you would need to retitle most assets such as real estate, bank accounts, brokerage accounts, CDs, and other assets into the name of the trust.

Since one size doesn’t fit all in estate planning, you should contact a qualified estate planning attorney who can assess your goals and family situation, and work with you to devise a personalized strategy that helps to protect your loved ones, wealth and legacy.


Sunday, March 16, 2014

Your wishes in 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.


Tuesday, March 4, 2014

When will I receive my inheritance?

If you’ve been named a beneficiary in a loved one’s estate plan, you’ve likely wondered how long it will take to receive your share of the inheritance after his or her passing.  Unfortunately, there’s no hard or and fast rule that allows an estate planning attorney to answer this question. The length of time it takes to distribute assets in an estate can vary widely depending upon the particular situation.

Some of the factors that will be involved in determining how long it takes to fully administer an estate include whether the estate must be probated with the court, whether assets are difficult to value, whether the decedent had an ownership interest in real estate located in a state other than the state they resided in, whether your state has a state estate (or inheritance) tax, whether the estate must file a federal estate tax return, whether there are a number of creditors that must be dealt with, and of course, whether there are any disputes about the will or trust and if there may be disagreements among the beneficiaries about how things are being handled by the executor or trustee.

Before the distribution of assets to beneficiaries, the executor and trustee must also make certain to identify any creditors because they have an obligation to pay any legally enforceable debts of the decedent with those assets. If there must be a court filed probate action there may be certain waiting periods, or creditor periods, prescribed by state law that may delay things as well and which are out of the control of the executor of the estate.

In some cases, the executor or trustee may make a partial distribution to the beneficiaries during the pending administration but still hold back sufficient assets to cover any income or estate taxes and other administrative fees. That way the beneficiaries can get some benefit but the executor is assured there are assets still in his or her control to pay those final taxes and expenses. Then, once those are fully paid, a final distribution can be made. It is not unusual for the entire process to take 9 months to 18 months (sometime more) to fully complete.

If you’ve been named a beneficiary and are dealing with a trustee or executor who is not properly handling the estate and you have yet to receive your inheritance, you should contact a qualified estate planning attorney for knowledgeable legal counsel.


Tuesday, February 25, 2014

A Living Will or Health Care Power of Attorney?

A Living Will or Health Care Power of Attorney? Or Do I Need Both?

Many people are confused by these two important estate planning documents. It’s important to understand the functions of each and ensure you are fully protected by incorporating both of these documents into your overall estate plan.

A “living will,” often called an advance health care directive, is a legal document setting forth your wishes for end-of-life medical care, in the event you are unable to communicate your wishes yourself. The safest way to ensure that your own wishes will determine your future medical care is to execute an advance directive stating what your wishes are. In some states, the advance directive is only operative if you are diagnosed with a terminal condition and life-sustaining treatment merely artificially prolongs the process of dying, or if you are in a persistent vegetative state with no hope of recovery.

A durable power of attorney for health care, also referred to as a healthcare proxy, is a document in which you name another person to serve as your health care agent. This person is authorized to speak on your behalf in order to consent to – or refuse – medical treatment if your doctor determines that you are unable to make those decisions for yourself. A durable power of attorney for health care can be operative at any time you designate, not just when your condition is terminal.

For maximum protection, it is strongly recommended that you have both a living will and a durable power of attorney for health care. The power of attorney affords you flexibility, with an agent who can express your wishes and respond accordingly to any changes in your medical condition. Your agent should base his or her decisions on any written wishes you have provided, as well as familiarity with you. The advance directive is necessary to guide health care providers in the event your agent is unavailable. If your agent’s decisions are ever challenged, the advance directive can also serve as evidence that your agent is acting in good faith and in accordance with your wishes.  


Friday, February 14, 2014

Utilizing Family Limited Partnerships

Utilizing Family Limited Partnerships as Part of Your Estate Plan

Designed to preserve family businesses for future generations, Family Limited Partnerships (FLPs) and Family Limited Liability Companies (FLLCs) can help shelter your assets and reduce overall estate and gift taxes.   FLPs are also utilized as an integral part of business succession planning.

A Family Limited Partnership is typically established by married couples who place assets in the FLP and serve as its general partners. They may then grant limited-partnership interests to their children, of up to 99% of the value of the FLP’s assets. When this occurs, two things happen: a) the value of the partnership interests transferred to the children is deemed to be lower than the respective pro-rata value because of minority and marketability discounts and b) the assets are removed from the general partners’ estates.  This allows a transfer of significant assets to the children at lower valuation which results in reduced estate taxes. The general partners continue to maintain control of the FLP and its assets, even though they may own as little as just 1% of the partnership’s valuation.

Limited partners may receive distributions from the FLP which can serve to transfer additional assets from the older generation to younger beneficiaries at more favorable income tax rates.

How Minority and Marketability Interest Discounts Work

Since limited partners do not have the ability to direct or control the day-to-day operations of the partnership, a minority discount can be applied to reduce the value of the limited partnership interests that are transferred.  Furthermore, because the partnership is a closely-held entity and not publicly-traded, a discount can be applied based upon the lack of marketability of the limited partnership interests.  This allows the older generation to leverage the FLP as a vehicle to transfer more wealth to its beneficiaries, while retaining control of the underlying assets.  

With these significant tax benefits, it’s no surprise that many FLPs have attracted scrutiny from the IRS. Many family partnerships have run into issues with tax authorities due to mistakes or outright abuse. Care must be taken to ensure your FLP is properly established and operated.  Specifically, the IRS may look at the following issues when assessing the viability of the FLP:

  • Whether the establishment of the FLP was created solely for tax mitigation objectives. You stand a better chance of avoiding – or surviving – a challenge from the IRS if you can show a legitimate non-tax-related reason the FLP was created. 
     
  • Whether the partnership functions like a business.  Keep your personal assets out of the FLP. You can reasonably expect to transfer closely held stock or interests in commercial real estate into a Family Limited Partnership. However, personal property such as cars or residences may not fare well against an IRS challenge. Similarly, the FLP’s assets should not be used to pay for any personal expenses. The FLP must be a legitimate business entity operated to fulfill business purposes.
     
  • Whether the valuations are based on objective criteria.  Rather than have a partner or family member determine the valuations or discounts for any assets transferred into the FLP, you should have your FLP professionally appraised. A qualified appraiser has a much better chance of withstanding IRS scrutiny.

An FLP can be a powerful planning tool to enable business owners to transfer their stake to the younger generation, while allowing the senior generation to continue conducting operations and mentoring and grooming the young owners.  However, an FLP can be incredibly complex and should only be established with the help of a qualified team of estate planning attorneys, accountants and appraisers.  


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Issues to Consider When Setting Up Your Estate Plan

Important Issues to Consider When Setting Up Your Estate Plan

Often estate planning focuses on the “big picture” issues, such as who gets what, whether a living trust should be created to avoid probate and tax planning to minimize gift and estate taxes. However, there are many smaller issues, which are just as critical to the success of your overall estate plan. Below are some of the issues that are often overlooked by clients and sometimes their attorneys.

Cash Flow
Is there sufficient cash? Estates incur operating expenses throughout the administration phase. The estate often has to pay state or federal estate taxes, filing fees, living expenses for a surviving spouse or other dependents, cover regular expenses to maintain assets held in the estate, and various legal expenses associated with settling the estate.

Taxes
How will taxes be paid? Although the estate may be small enough to avoid federal estate taxes, there are other taxes which must be paid. Depending on jurisdiction, the state may impose an estate tax. If the estate is earning income, it must pay income taxes until the estate is fully settled. Income taxes are paid from the liquid assets held in the estate, however estate taxes could be paid by either the estate or from each beneficiary’s inheritance if the underlying assets are liquid.

Assets
What, exactly, is held in the estate? The owner of the estate certainly knows this information, but estate administrators, successor trustees and executors may not have certain information readily available. A notebook or list documenting what major items are owned by the estate should be left for the estate administrator. It should also include locations and identifying information, including serial numbers and account numbers.

Creditors
Your estate can’t be settled until all creditors have been paid. As with your assets, be sure to leave your estate administrator a document listing all creditors and account numbers. Be sure to also include information regarding where your records are kept, in the event there are disputes regarding the amount the creditor claims is owed.

Beneficiary Designations
Some assets are not subject to the terms of a will. Instead, they are transferred directly to a beneficiary according to the instruction made on a beneficiary designation form. Bank accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, retirement plans, IRAs and most motor vehicles departments allow you to designate a beneficiary to inherit the asset upon your death. By doing so, the asset is not included in the probate estate and simply passes to your designated beneficiary by operation of law.

Fund Your Living Trust
Your probate-avoidance living trust will not keep your estate out of the probate court unless you formally transfer your assets into the trust. Only assets which are legally owned by the trust are subject to its terms. Title to your real property, vehicles, investments and other financial accounts should be transferred into the name of your living trust.
 


Monday, January 27, 2014

Veterans’ Non-Service Connected Pension Benefits

Veterans’ Non-Service Connected Pension Benefits

The Veterans’ Administration’s non-service connected pension program can help supplement the income of elderly or disabled veterans. The VA deems any veteran age 65 or older to be permanently and totally disabled. This “disabled” classification entitles senior citizens who are veterans, or their widows, to tax-free pension payments regardless of their actual physical condition, provided they meet the needs-based criteria.

One significant advantage of this program is that, unlike a traditional service-connected pension, there is no requirement that your injury or disability be tied to your time in service. On the other hand, this is a needs-based assistance program, so many veterans may not qualify for benefits.

To qualify for benefits under the program, you must have served on active duty for at least 90 days, and at least one of those days must have been during a time of war. Additionally, you must not have had a dishonorable discharge from the military.

Periods of war time are determined by the U.S. Congress as follows:

  • Mexican Border Period: May 9, 1916 through April 5, 1917, only if you served in Mexico, on its borders or in adjacent waters
  • World War I: April 6th, 1917 through November 11, 1918, or through April 1, 1920 if you served in Russia
  • World War II: December 7, 1941 through December 31, 1946    
  • Korean Conflict: June 27, 1950 through January 31, 1955
  • Vietnam Era: August 5, 1964 through May 7, 1965, or beginning February 28, 1961 you served in Vietnam
  • Persian Gulf War: August 2, 1990 through the present

Once qualifying military service is established, you must also pass the income and asset tests. The VA must determine that your net worth is not enough to adequately support you during your lifetime. Your vehicle and primary residence are not counted when determining your net worth.  The VA generally caps net worth, exclusive of your car and primary residence, at $80,000 for a married veteran, or $40,000 for a single person.

Additionally, your countable income must be lower than the available pension amount. Fortunately, countable income is offset by your unreimbursed, recurring health care costs, including prescriptions, insurance premiums or assisted living expenses.
 


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Special Needs Trusts

Self-Settled vs. Third-Party Special Needs Trusts

Special needs trusts allow individuals with disabilities to qualify for need-based government assistance while maintaining access to additional assets which can be used to pay for expenses not covered by such government benefits. If the trust is set up correctly, the beneficiary will not risk losing eligibility for government benefits such as Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because of income or asset levels which exceed their eligibility limits.

Special needs trusts generally fall within one of two categories: self-settled or third-party trusts. The difference is based on whose assets were used to fund the trust. A self-settled trust is one that is funded with the disabled person’s own assets, such as an inheritance, a personal injury settlement or accumulated wealth. If the disabled beneficiary ever had the legal right to use the money without restriction, the trust is most likely self-settled.

On the other hand, a third-party trust is established by and funded with assets belonging to someone other than the beneficiary.

Ideally, an inheritance for the benefit of a disabled individual should be left through third-party special needs trust. Otherwise, if the inheritance is left outright to the disabled beneficiary, a trust can often be set up by a court at the request of a conservator or other family member to hold the assets and provide for the beneficiary without affecting his or her eligibility for government benefits.

The treatment and effect of a particular trust will differ according to which category the trust falls under.

A self-settled trust:

  • Must include a provision that, upon the beneficiary’s death, the state Medicaid agency will be reimbursed for the cost of benefits received by the beneficiary.
  • May significantly limit the kinds of payments the trustee can make, which can vary according to state law.
  •  May require an annual accounting of trust expenditures to the state Medicaid agency.
  • May cause the beneficiary to be deemed to have access to trust income or assets, if rules are not followed exactly, thereby jeopardizing the beneficiary’s eligibility for SSI or Medicaid benefits.
  • Will be taxed as if its assets still belonged to the beneficiary.
  • May not be available as an option for disabled individuals over the age of 65.


A third-party settled special needs trust:

  • Can pay for shelter and food for the beneficiary, although these expenditures may reduce the beneficiary’s eligibility for SSI payments.
  • Can be distributed to charities or other family members upon the disabled beneficiary’s death.
  • Can be terminated if the beneficiary’s condition improves and he or she no longer requires the assistance of SSI or Medicaid, and the remaining balance will be distributed to the beneficiary.
     

Monday, January 6, 2014

Common Estate Planning Myths

Common Estate Planning Myths

Estate planning is a powerful tool that among other things, enables you to direct exactly how your assets will be handled upon your death or disability. A well-crafted estate plan will ensure you and your family avoid the hassles of guardianship, conservatorship, probate or unpleasant estate tax surprises. Unfortunately, many individuals have fallen victim to several persistent myths and misconceptions about estate planning and what happens if you die or become incapacitated.

Some of these misconceptions about living trusts and wills cause people to postpone their estate planning – often until it is too late. Which myths have you heard? Which ones have you believed?

Myth: I’m not rich so I don’t need estate planning.
Fact: Estate planning is not just for the wealthy, and provides many benefits regardless of your income or assets. For example, a good estate plan includes provisions for caring for a minor or disabled child, caring for a surviving spouse, caring for pets, transferring ownership of property or business interests according to your wishes, tax savings, and probate avoidance.

Myth: I’m too young to create an estate plan.
Fact: Accidents happen. None of us knows exactly when we will die or become incapacitated. Even if you have no assets and no family to support, you should have a power of attorney and health care directive in place, in case you ever become disabled or incapacitated.

Myth: Owning property in joint tenancy is an easier, more affordable way to avoid probate than placing it in a revocable living trust.
Fact: It is true that property held in joint tenancy will pass to the other owner(s) outside of the probate process. However, it is a usually a very bad idea. Placing property in joint tenancy constitutes a gift to the joint tenant, and may result in a sizable gift tax being owed. Furthermore, once the deed is executed, the property is legally owned by all joint tenants and may be subject to the claims of any joint tenant’s creditors. Transferring a property into joint tenancy is irrevocable, unless all parties consent to a future transfer; whereas property owned in a living trust remains under your control and the transfer is fully revocable until your death.

Myth: Keeping property out of probate saves money on federal estate taxes.
Fact: Probate, and probate avoidance, are governed by state law and address how property passes upon your death; they have nothing to do with federal estate taxes, which are set forth in the Internal Revenue Code. Estate planning can reduce estate taxes, but that has nothing to do with a discussion regarding probate avoidance.

Myth: I don’t need a living trust if I have a will.
Fact: A properly drafted trust contains provisions addressing what happens to your property if you become incapacitated. On the other hand, a will only becomes effective upon your death and specifies who will inherit the property. If you own real property, or have more than $100,000 in assets, both a will and a living trust are generally recommended.

Myth: With a living trust, a surviving spouse need not take any action after the other spouse’s death.
Fact: Failure to adhere to the proper legal formalities following a death could result in significant administrative and tax implications. While a properly drafted and funded living trust will avoid probate, there are still many tasks that have to be performed such as filing documents, sending notices and transferring assets.  
 


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

Trusts & Probate Avoidance

Living Trusts & Probate Avoidance

You want your money and property to go to your loved ones when you die, not to the courts, lawyers or the government. Unfortunately, unless you’ve taken proper estate planning, procedures, your heirs could lose a sizable portion of their inheritance to probate court fees and expenses. A properly-crafted and “funded” living trust is the ideal probate-avoidance tool which can save thousands in legal costs, enhance family privacy and avoid lengthy delays in distributing your property to your loved ones

What is probate, and why should you avoid it? Probate is a court proceeding during which the will is reviewed, executors are approved, heirs, beneficiaries, debtors and creditors are notified, assets are appraised, your debts and taxes are paid, and the remaining estate is distributed according to your will (or according to state law if you don’t have a will). Probate is costly, time-consuming and very public.

A living trust, on the other hand, allows your property to be transferred to your beneficiaries, quickly and privately, with little to no court intervention, maximizing the amount your loved ones end up with.

A basic living trust consists of a declaration of trust, a document that is similar to a will in its form and content, but very different in its legal effect. In the declaration, you name yourself as trustee, the person in charge of your property. If you are married, you and your spouse are co-trustees. Because you are trustee, you retain total control of the property you transfer into the trust. In the declaration, you must also name successor trustees to take over in the event of your death or incapacity.

Once the trust is established, you must transfer ownership of your property to yourself, as trustee of the living trust. This step is critical; the trust has no effect over any of your property unless you formally transfer ownership into the trust. The trust also enables you to name the beneficiaries you want to inherit your property when you die, including providing for alternate or conditional beneficiaries. You can amend your trust at any time, and can even revoke it entirely.

Even if you create a living trust and transfer all of your property into it, you should also create a back-up will, known as a “pour-over will”. This will ensure that any property you own – or may acquire in the future – will be distributed to whomever you want to receive it. Without a will, any property not included in your trust will be distributed according to state law.

After you die, the successor trustee you named in your living trust is immediately empowered to transfer ownership of the trust property according to your wishes. Generally, the successor trustee can efficiently settle your entire estate within a few weeks by filing relatively simple paperwork without court intervention and its associated expenses. The successor trustee can solicit the assistance of an attorney to help with the trust settlement process, though such legal fees are typically a fraction of those incurred during probate.
 


Monday, December 16, 2013

Preparing Your Family for an Emergency

Preparing Your Family for an Emergency during School Hours

Every family should establish a clear plan to handle an emergency that occurs during school hours. Unfortunately, many parents mistakenly believe that filling out the school’s emergency card is sufficient. Sadly, this practice falls far short of what is truly necessary to protect your children in the event something tragic happens to you during the school day.

Even with a fully-completed school emergency card, your children could still spend time “in the system.” The emergency card only gives permission for certain named individuals to pick up your children if they are sick, but does not authorize them to take short-term custody if one or both parents are killed or become incapacitated. Without having alternate arrangements in place, children in this situation would likely end up spending at least some time with social services.

Parents should create an emergency plan, to avoid confusion and ensure their children are in the right hands if tragedy strikes. With just a few simple steps, parents can rest easy knowing their children will be cared for in the manner they choose.

Name Temporary Guardians
Parents should name short-term guardians who have legal permission to care for their children until a parent or other long-term guardian is available to take over. This individual should be someone who lives nearby and can aid and comfort your child in an emergency. You can establish this temporary guardianship arrangement by completing a temporary guardianship agreement or authorization, preferably, with the assistance of a qualified attorney.

Make Sure the Temporary Guardians are Also Named on the School Emergency Card
In addition to listing neighbors or friends who are authorized to pick up your children from school, .it is also vital that you list the full contact information for your authorized temporary guardians. In the event of a true emergency, this guardian can step in immediately to care for your children. Otherwise, your kids may wind up in the custody of social services until a parent or other named legal guardian can be located.

Ensure the Babysitter Knows the Plan if You Don’t Return Home
Make sure you give your babysitters detailed instructions regarding who to call or what to do in the event you are unexpectedly absent. Without this information, many babysitters will panic and contact the police. Involving law enforcement will also involve social services who may step in and take temporary custody of your children until a long-term guardian or parent arrives.

These three simple steps will make all the difference for your children and their caregivers in the event the unthinkable happens. In times of tragedy, the last thing you want is for your little ones to end up in the system, rather than the loving arms of a trusted friend or relative.
 


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