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Friday, October 4, 2013

Retirement Accounts and Estate Planning

Retirement Accounts and Estate Planning

For many Americans, retirement accounts comprise a substantial portion of their wealth. When planning your estate, it is important to consider the ramifications of tax-deferred retirement accounts, such as 401(k) and 403(b) accounts and traditional IRAs. (Roth IRAs are not tax-deferred accounts and are therefore treated differently). One of the primary goals of any estate plan is to pass your assets to your beneficiaries in a way that enables them to pay the lowest possible tax.

Generally, receiving inherited property is not a transaction that is subject to income tax. However, that is not the case with tax-deferred retirement accounts, which represent income for which the government has not previously collected income tax. Money cannot be kept in an IRA indefinitely; it must be distributed according to federal regulations. The amount that must be distributed annually is known as the required minimum distribution (RMD). If the distributions do not equal the RMD, beneficiaries may be forced to pay a 50% excise tax on the amount that was not distributed as required.

After death, the beneficiaries typically will owe income tax on the amount withdrawn from the decedent’s retirement account. Beneficiaries must take distributions from the account based on the IRS’s life expectancy tables, and these distributions are taxed as ordinary income. If there is more than one beneficiary, the one with the shortest life expectancy is the designated beneficiary for distribution purposes. Proper estate planning techniques should afford the beneficiaries a way to defer this income tax for as long as possible by delaying withdrawals from the tax-deferred retirement account.

The most tax-favorable situation occurs when the decedent’s spouse is the named beneficiary of the account. The spouse is the only person who has the option to roll over the account into his or her own IRA. In doing so, the surviving spouse can defer withdrawals until he or she turns 70 ½; whereas any other beneficiary must start withdrawing money the year after the decedent’s death.

Generally, a revocable trust should not be the beneficiary of a tax-deferred retirement account, as this situation limits the potential for income tax deferral. A trust may be the preferred option if a life expectancy payout option or spousal rollover are unimportant or unavailable, but this should be discussed in detail with an experienced estate planning attorney. Additionally, there are situations where income tax deferral is not a consideration, such as when an IRA or 401(k) requires a lump-sum distribution upon death, when a beneficiary will liquidate the account upon the decedent’s death for an immediate need, or if the amount is so small that it will not result in a substantial amount of additional income tax.

The bottom line is that trusts typically should be avoided as beneficiaries of tax-deferred retirement accounts, unless there is a compelling non-tax-related reason that outweighs the lost income tax deferral of using a trust. This is a complex area of law involving inheritance and tax implications that should be fully considered with the aid of an experienced estate planning lawyer.


Wednesday, September 25, 2013

Overlooked Issues in Estate Planning

Top 5 Overlooked Issues in Estate Planning

In planning your estate, you most likely have concerned yourself with “big picture” issues. Who inherits what? Do I need a living trust? However, there are numerous details that are often overlooked, and which can drastically impact the distribution of your estate to your intended beneficiaries. Listed below are some of the most common overlooked estate planning issues.

Liquid Cash: Is there enough available cash to cover the estate’s operating expenses until it is settled? The estate may have to pay attorneys’ fees, court costs, probate expenses, debts of the decedent, or living expenses for a surviving spouse or other dependents. Your estate plan should estimate the cash needs and ensure there are adequate cash resources to cover these expenses.

Tax Planning: Even if your estate is exempt from federal estate tax, there are other possible taxes that should be anticipated by your estate plan. There may be estate or death taxes at the state level. The estate may have to pay income taxes on investment income earned before the estate is settled. Income taxes can be paid out of the liquid assets held in the estate. Death taxes may be paid by the estate from the amount inherited by each beneficiary. 

Executor’s Access to Documents: The executor or estate administrator must be able to access the decedent’s important papers in order to locate assets and close up the decedent’s affairs. Also, creditors must be identified and paid before an estate can be settled. It is important to leave a notebook or other instructions listing significant assets, where they are located, identifying information such as serial numbers, account numbers or passwords. If the executor is not left with this information, it may require unnecessary expenditures of time and money to locate all of the assets. This notebook should also include a comprehensive list of creditors, to help the executor verify or refute any creditor claims.

Beneficiary Designations: Many assets can be transferred outside of a will or trust, by simply designating a beneficiary to receive the asset upon your death. Life insurance policies, annuities, retirement accounts, and motor vehicles are some of the assets that can be transferred directly to a beneficiary. To make these arrangements, submit a beneficiary designation form to the financial institution, retirement plan or motor vehicle department. Be sure to keep the beneficiary designations current, and provide instructions to the executor listing which assets are to be transferred in this manner.

Fund the Living Trust: Unfortunately, many people establish living trusts, but fail to fully implement them, thereby reducing or eliminating the trust’s potential benefits. To be subject to the trust, as opposed to the probate court, an asset’s ownership must be legally transferred into the trust. If legal title to homes, vehicles or financial accounts is not transferred into the trust, the trust is of no effect and the assets must be probated.


Monday, September 16, 2013

Considering Online Estate Planning?

Considering Online Estate Planning? Think Twice

The recent proliferation of online estate planning document services has attracted many do-it-yourselfers who are lured in by what appears to be a low-cost solution. However, this focus on price over value could mean your wishes will not be carried out and, unfortunately, nobody will know there is a problem until it is too late and you are no longer around to clean up the mess.

Probate, trusts and intestate succession (when someone dies without leaving a will) are governed by a network of laws which vary from state to state, as well as federal laws pertaining to inheritance and tax issues. Each jurisdiction has its own requirements, and failure to adhere to all of them could invalidate your estate planning documents. Many online document services offer standardized legal forms for common estate planning tools including wills, trusts or powers of attorney. However, it is impossible to draft a legal document that covers all variations from one state to another, and using a form or procedure not specifically designed to comply with the laws in your jurisdiction could invalidate the entire process.

Another risk involves the process by which the documents you purchased online are executed and witnessed or notarized. These requirements vary, and if your state’s signature and witness requirements are not followed exactly at the time the will or other documents are executed, they could be found to be invalid. Of course, this finding would only be made long after you have passed, so you cannot express your wishes or revise the documents to be in compliance.

Additionally, the online document preparation process affords you absolutely no specific advice about what is best for you and your family. An estate planning attorney can help your heirs avoid probate altogether, maximize tax savings, and arrange for seamless transfer of assets through other means, including titling property in joint tenancy or establishing “pay on death” or “transfer on death” beneficiaries for certain assets, such as bank accounts, retirement accounts or vehicles. In many states, living trusts are the recommended vehicle for transferring assets, allowing the estate to avoid probate. Trusts are also advantageous in that they protect the privacy of you and your family; they are not public records, whereas documents filed with the court in a probate proceeding are publicly viewable. There are other factors to consider, as well, which can only be identified and addressed by an attorney; no online resource can flag all potential concerns and provide you with appropriate recommendations.

By implementing the correct plan now, you will save your loved ones time, frustration and potentially a great deal of money. In most cases, proper estate planning that is tailored to your specific situation can avoid probate altogether, and ensure the transfer of your property happens quickly and with a minimum amount of paperwork. If your estate is large, it may be subject to inheritance tax unless the proper estate planning measures are put in place. A qualified estate planning attorney can provide you with recommendations that will preserve as much of your estate as possible, so it can be distributed to your beneficiaries. And that’s something no website can deliver.


Thursday, September 5, 2013

Guardianships & Conservatorships

Guardianships & Conservatorships and How to Avoid Them

If a person becomes mentally or physically handicapped to a point where they can no longer make rational decisions about their person or their finances, their loved ones may consider a guardianship or a conservatorship whereby a guardian would make decisions concerning the physical person of the disabled individual, and conservators make decisions about the finances.

Typically, a loved one who is seeking a guardianship or a conservatorship will petition the appropriate court to be appointed guardian and/or conservator. The court will most likely require a medical doctor to make an examination of the disabled individual, also referred to as the ward, and appoint an attorney to represent the ward’s interests. The court will then typically hold a hearing to determine whether a guardianship and/or conservatorship should be established. If so, the ward would no longer have the ability to make his or her own medical or financial decisions.  The guardian and/or conservator usually must file annual reports on the status of the ward and his finances.

Guardianships and conservatorships can be an expensive legal process, and in many cases they are not necessary or could be avoided with a little advance planning. One way is with a financial power of attorney, and advance directives for healthcare such as living wills and durable powers of attorney for healthcare. With those documents, a mentally competent adult can appoint one or more individuals to handle his or her finances and healthcare decisions in the event that he or she can no longer take care of those things. A living trust is also a good way to allow someone to handle your financial affairs – you can create the trust while you are alive, and if you become incompetent someone else can manage your property on your behalf.

In addition to establishing durable powers of attorney and advanced healthcare directives, it is often beneficial to apply for representative payee status for government benefits. If a person gets VA benefits, Social Security or Supplemental Security Income, the Social Security Administration or the Veterans’ Administration can appoint a representative payee for the benefits without requiring a conservatorship. This can be especially helpful in situations in which the ward owns no assets and the only income is from Social Security or the VA.

When a loved one becomes mentally or physically handicapped to the point of no longer being able to take care of his or her own affairs, it can be tough for loved ones to know what to do. Fortunately, the law provides many options for people in this situation.  
 


Sunday, August 25, 2013

Gifting to Grandchildren

Issues to Consider When Gifting to Grandchildren

Many grandparents who are financially stable love the idea of making gifts to their grandchildren. However, they are usually not aware of the myriad of issues that surround what they may consider to be a simple gift. If you are considering making a significant gift to a grandchild, you should consult with a qualified attorney to guide you through the myriad of legal and tax issues that are involved in making such gifts.

Making a Lifetime Gift or a Bequest:  Before making a gift, you should consider whether you want to make the gift during your lifetime or leave the gift in your will. If you make the gift as a bequest in your will, you will not experience the joy of seeing your grandchild’s appreciation and use of the gift. However, there’s always the possibility that you will need the money to live on during your lifetime, and in reality, once a gift is made it cannot be taken back. Also, if you anticipate needing Medicaid or other government programs to pay for a nursing home or other benefits at some point in your life, any gifts you make in the prior five years can be considered as part of your assets when determining your eligibility.

What Form Gift Should Take:  You may consider making a gift outright to a grandchild. However, once such a gift is made, you give up control over how the funds can be used. If your grandchild decides to purchase a brand-new sports car or take an extravagant vacation, you will have no legal right to stop the grandchild. The grandchild’s parents could also in some cases access the money without your approval.

You could consider making a gift under the Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) or the Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA), depending on which state you live in. The accounts are easy to open, but once the grandchild reaches the age of majority, he or she will have unfettered access to the funds. You could also consider depositing money into a 529 plan, which is specifically designed for education purposes. Finally, you could consider establishing a trust with an estate planning attorney, which can be more expensive to set up, but can be customized to fit your needs. Such a trust can provide for spendthrift, divorce and creditor protection while allowing for more flexibility for expenditures such as education or purchase of a first home.

Tax Consequences: If you have a large estate, giving gifts to grandchildren may be a great way to get money out of your estate in order to reduce your future estate tax liability. In 2011 and 2012, a single person can pass $5 million at death free of estate tax, and a couple can pass a combined $10 million without paying estate taxes. In addition, a person can give $13,000 in 2011 to any number of individuals without incurring any gift taxes. A grandparent with 10 grandchildren could give $130,000 per year to all grandchildren (and a married couple could give $260,000), thereby removing that property from his or her estate.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Medicare vs. Medicaid

Medicare vs. Medicaid: Similarities and Differences

With such similar sounding names, many Americans mistake Medicare and Medicaid programs for one another, or presume the programs are as similar as their names. While both are government-run programs, there are many important differences. Medicare provides senior citizens, the disabled and the blind with medical benefits. Medicaid, on the other hand, provides healthcare benefits for those with little to no income.

Overview of Medicare
Medicare is a public health insurance program for Americans who are 65 or older. The program does not cover long-term care, but can cover payments for certain rehabilitation treatments. For example, if a Medicare patient is admitted to a hospital for at least three days and is subsequently admitted to a skilled nursing facility, Medicare may cover some of those payments. However, Medicare payments for such care and treatment will cease after 100 days or if the patient stops improving.

Nursing home patients often find their Medicare payments are terminated much sooner than 100 days. If a patient’s condition stops improving, Medicare coverage will be discontinued. For example, many older Americans are suffering from diseases with no known cure, such as Parkinson’s or Alzheimer’s Disease. Accordingly, it is simply impossible to “rehabilitate” these patients so Medicare typically denies skilled nursing facility coverage in these types of situations.

In summary:

  • Medicare provides health insurance for those aged 65 and older
  • Medicare is regulated under federal law, and is applied uniformly throughout the United States
  • Medicare pays for up to 100 days of care in a skilled nursing facility
  • Medicare pays for hospital care and medically necessary treatments and services
  • Medicare does not pay for long-term care
  • To be eligible for Medicare, you generally must have paid into the system

Overview of Medicaid
Medicaid is a state-run program, funded by both the federal and state governments. Because Medicaid is administered by the state, the requirements and procedures vary across state lines and you must look to the law in your area for specific eligibility rules. The federal government issues Medicaid guidelines, but each state gets to determine how the guidelines will be implemented.

In summary:

  • Medicaid is a health care program based on financial need
  • Medicaid is regulated under state law, which varies from state to state
  • Medicaid will cover long-term care
     

Monday, August 5, 2013

Paying Off Loved One’s Debts

Do Heirs Have to Pay Off Their Loved One’s Debts?

The recent economic recession, and staggering increases in health care costs have left millions of Americans facing incredible losses and mounting debt in their final years. Are you concerned that, rather than inheriting wealth from your parents, you will instead inherit bills? The good news is, you probably won’t have to pay them.

As you are dealing with the emotional loss, while also wrapping up your loved one’s affairs and closing the estate, the last thing you need to worry about is whether you will be on the hook for the debts your parents leave behind. Generally, heirs are not responsible for their parents’ outstanding bills. Creditors can go after the assets within the estate in an effort to satisfy the debt, but they cannot come after you personally. Nevertheless, assets within the estate may have to be sold to cover the decedent’s debts, or to provide for the living expenses of a surviving spouse or other dependents.

Heirs are not responsible for a decedent’s unsecured debts, such as credit cards, medical bills or personal loans, and many of these go unpaid or are settled for pennies on the dollar. However, there are some circumstances in which you may share liability for an unsecured debt, and therefore are fully responsible for future payments. For example, if you were a co-signer on a loan with the decedent, or if you were a joint account holder, you will bear ultimate financial responsibility for the debt.

Unsecured debts which were solely held by the deceased parent do not require you to reach into your own pocket to satisfy the outstanding obligation. Regardless, many aggressive collection agencies continue to pursue collection even after death, often implying that you are ultimately responsible to repay your loved one’s debts, or that you are morally obligated to do so. Both of these assertions are entirely untrue.

Secured debts, on the other hand, must be repaid or the lender can repossess the underlying asset. Common secured debts include home mortgages and vehicle loans. If your parents had any equity in their house or car, you should consider doing whatever is necessary to keep the payments current, so the equity is preserved until the property can be sold or transferred. But this must be weighed within the context of the overall estate.

Executors and estate administrators have a duty to locate and inventory all of the decedent’s assets and debts, and must notify creditors and financial institutions of the death. Avoid making the mistake of automatically paying off all of your loved one’s bills right away. If you rush to pay off debts, without a clear picture of your parents’ overall financial situation, you run the risk of coming up short on cash, within the estate, to cover higher priority bills, such as medical expenses, funeral costs or legal fees required to settle the estate.


Thursday, July 25, 2013

Filial Responsibility Laws

Filial Responsibility Laws

Filial responsibility laws impose a legal obligation on adult children to take care of their parents’ basic needs and medical care. Although most people are not aware of them, 30 states in the U.S. have some type of filial responsibility laws in place. The states that have such laws on the books are Alaska, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia.

Filial responsibility laws and their enforcement vary greatly from state to state. Eleven states have never enforced their laws, and most other states rarely enforce the laws. Currently, Pennsylvania is the only state to aggressively enforce its filial responsibility laws.

One of the main reasons why filial responsibility laws are not widely enforced is due to the fact that in the context of needs-based government programs such as Medicaid, federal law has prohibited states from considering the financial responsibility of any person other than a spouse in determining whether an applicant is eligible. However, as many local programs aimed at helping the elderly continue to struggle with insolvency, many states may consider more aggressive enforcement of their filial responsibility laws.

Twenty-one states allow lawsuits to recover financial support. Parties who are allowed to bring such a lawsuit vary state by state. In some states, only the parents themselves can file a claim. In other states, the county, state public agencies or the parent’s creditors can file the lawsuit. In 12 states, criminal penalties may be imposed upon the adult children who fail to support their parents. Three states allow both civil and criminal penalties.

In some states, children are excused from their filial responsibility if they don’t have enough income to help out, or if they were abandoned as children by the parent. However, the abandonment defense can be difficult to prove, especially if the parent had a good reason to abandon the child, like serious financial difficulties. Sometimes, children’s filial responsibility can be reduced if prior bad behavior on the part of the parent can be proven.


Monday, July 15, 2013

Bank Accounts and Medicaid Eligibility

Joint Bank Accounts and Medicaid Eligibility

Like most governmental benefit programs, there are many myths surrounding Medicaid and eligibility for benefits. One of the most common myths is the belief that only 50% of the funds in a jointly-owned bank account will be considered an asset for the purposes of calculating Medicaid eligibility.

Medicaid is a needs-based program that is administered by the state.  Therefore, many of its eligibility requirements and procedures vary across state lines.  Generally, when an applicant is an owner of a joint bank account the full amount in the account is presumed to belong to the applicant. Regardless of how many other names are listed on the account, 100% of the account balance is typically included when calculating the applicant’s eligibility for Medicaid benefits.    

Why would the state do this? Often, these jointly held bank accounts consist solely of funds contributed by the Medicaid applicant, with the second person added to the account for administrative or convenience purposes, such as writing checks or discussing matters with bank representatives. If a joint owner can document that both parties have contributed funds and the account is truly a “joint” account, the state may value the account differently. Absent clear and convincing evidence, however, the full balance of the joint bank account will be deemed to belong to the applicant.  


Friday, July 5, 2013

6 Events Which May Require a Change in Your Estate Plan

6 Events Which May Require a Change in Your Estate Plan

Creating a Will is not a one-time event. You should review your will periodically, to ensure it is up to date, and make necessary changes if your personal situation, or that of your executor or beneficiaries, has changed. There are a number of life-changing events that require your Will to be revised, including:

Change in Marital Status: If you have gotten married or divorced, it is imperative that you review and modify your Will. With a new marriage, you must determine which assets you want to pass to your new spouse or step-children, and how that may relate to the beneficiary interest of your own children. Following a divorce it is a good practice to revise your Will, to formally remove the ex-spouse as a beneficiary. While you’re at it, you should also change your beneficiary on any life insurance policies, pensions, or retirement accounts. Estate planning is complicated when there are children from multiple marriages, and an attorney can help you ensure everyone is protected, which may include establishing a trust in addition to the revised Will.

Depending on jurisdiction, this may also apply to couples who have established or revoked a registered domestic partnership.

If one of your Will’s beneficiaries experiences a change in marital status, that may also trigger a need to revise your Will.

Births: Upon the birth of a new child, the parents should amend their Wills immediately, to include the names of the guardians who will care for the child if both parents die. Also, parents or grandparents may wish to modify the distribution of assets provided in their Wills, to include the new addition to the family.

Deaths or Incapacitation: If any of the named executors or beneficiaries of a Will, or the named guardians for your children, pass away or become incapacitated, your Will should be revised accordingly.

Change in Assets: Your Will may need to be changed if the value of your assets has significantly increased or decreased, or if you dispose of an asset. You may want to modify the distribution of other assets in your estate, to account for the changed value or disposition of the asset.

Change in Employment: A change in the amount and/or source of income means your Will should be examined to see if any changes must be made to that document. Retirement or changing jobs could entail moving to another state, thus subjecting your estate to the laws of that state when you die. If the change in income modifies your investing, saving or spending habits, it may be time to review your Will and make sure the distribution to your beneficiaries will be as you intended.

Changes in Probate or Tax Laws: Wills should be drafted to maximize tax benefits, and to ensure the decedent’s wishes are carried out. If the laws regarding taxation of the estate, distribution of assets, or provisions for minor children have changed, you should have your Will reviewed by an estate planning attorney to ensure your family is fully protected and your wishes will be fully carried out.


Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Property Ownership and Your Estate Plan

Coordinating Property Ownership and Your Estate Plan

When planning your estate, you must consider how you hold title to your real and personal property. The title and your designated beneficiaries will control how your real estate, bank accounts, retirement accounts, vehicles and investments are distributed upon your death, regardless of whether there is a will or trust in place and potentially with a result that you never intended.

One of the most important steps in establishing your estate plan is transferring title to your assets. If you have created a living trust, it is absolutely useless if you fail to transfer the title on your accounts, real estate or other property into the trust. Unless the assets are formally transferred into your living trust, they will not be subject to the terms of the trust and will be subject to probate.

Even if you don’t have a living trust, how you hold title to your property can still help your heirs avoid probate altogether. This ensures that your assets can be quickly transferred to the beneficiaries, and saves them the time and expense of a probate proceeding. Listed below are three of the most common ways to hold title to property; each has its advantages and drawbacks, depending on your personal situation.

Tenants in Common: When two or more individuals each own an undivided share of the property, it is known as a tenancy in common. Each co-tenant can transfer or sell his or her interest in the property without the consent of the co-tenants. In a tenancy in common, a deceased owner’s interest in the property continues after death and is distributed to the decedent’s heirs. Property titled in this manner is subject to probate, unless it is held in a living trust, but it enables you to leave your interest in the property to your own heirs rather than the property’s co-owners.

Joint Tenants:  In joint tenancy, two or more owners share a whole, undivided interest with right of survivorship. Upon the death of a joint tenant, the surviving joint tenants immediately become the owners of the entire property. The decedent’s interest in the property does not pass to his or her beneficiaries, regardless of any provisions in a living trust or will. A major advantage of joint tenancy is that a deceased joint tenant’s interest in the property passes to the surviving joint tenants without the asset going through probate. Joint tenancy has its disadvantages, too. Property owned in this manner can be attached by the creditors of any joint tenant, which could result in significant losses to the other joint tenants. Additionally, a joint tenant’s interest in the property cannot be sold or transferred without the consent of the other joint tenants.

Community Property with Right of Survivorship: Some states allow married couples to take title in this manner. When property is held this way, a surviving spouse automatically inherits the decedent’s interest in the property, without probate.

Make sure your estate planning attorney has a list of all of your property and exactly how you hold title to each asset, as this will directly affect how your property is distributed after you pass on. Automatic rules governing survivorship will control how property is distributed, regardless of what is stated in your will or living trust.


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