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Estate Planning Blog

Serving Clients Throughout North Central Missouri

estate planning newsletter

What Happens Financially when a Spouse Dies?

Losing a beloved spouse is one of the most stressful events in life, so it’s one we tend not to talk about. However, planning for life after the passing of a spouse needs to be done, as it is an eventuality. According to a recent article from AARP Magazine, “The Financial Penalty of Losing Your Spouse,” the best time to plan for this is before your spouse dies.

You’ll have the most options while your spouse is still living. Estate plans, wills, trusts, and beneficiary designations can still be updated, as long as your spouse has legal capacity. You can make sure you’ll still have access to savings, retirement, and investment accounts. Create a list of assets, including information needed to access digital accounts.

Make sure that your credit cards will be available. Many surviving spouses only learn after a death whether credit cards are in the spouse’s name or their own name.

Get help from professionals. Review your new status with your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor. This includes which accounts need to be moved and which need to be renamed. Can you afford to maintain your home? An experienced professional who works regularly with widows or widowers can provide help, if you are open to asking.

A warning note: Be careful about new “friends.” Widows are key targets of scammers, and thieves are very good at scamming vulnerable people.

Be strategic about Social Security. If both partners were drawing benefits, the surviving spouse may elect the higher benefit going forward. If you haven’t claimed yet, you have options. You can take either a survivor’s benefit based on your spouse’s work history, or the retirement benefit based on your own work history. You will be able to switch to the higher benefit, if it ends up being higher, later on.

Be careful about your spouse’s 401(k) and IRA. If you’re in your 50s, you are allowed to roll your spouse’s 401(k) or IRA into your own account. However, don’t rush to move the 401(k). You can make a withdrawal from a late spouse’s 401(k) without penalty. However, it will be taxable as ordinary income. If you move the 401(k) to a rollover IRA, you’ll have to pay taxes plus a 10% penalty on any withdrawals taken from the IRA before you reach 59 ½. Your estate planning attorney can help with these accounts.

Use any advantages available to you. The IRS will still let you file jointly in the year of your spouse’s death. Tax rates are better for married filers than for singles. Any taxable withdrawals you’ll need to take from 401(k)s or IRAs may be taxed at a lower rate during this year. You may decide to use the money to create a rollover Roth IRA or to put some funds into a non-tax deferred account.

Don’t rush to do anything you don’t have to do. Selling your home, writing large checks to children, or moving are all things you should not do right now. Decisions made in the fog of grief are often regretted later on. Take your time to mourn, adjust to your admittedly unwanted new life and give yourself time for this major adjustment.

Reference: AARP Magazine (May 13, 2022) “The Financial Penalty of Losing Your Spouse”

 

Retirement Planning

What Does Portability Mean in Estate Planning?

When one spouse dies, the surviving spouse can choose to make a portability election. This means that any unused federal gift or estate tax exemption can be transferred from the deceased spouse to the surviving spouse. This does not happen automatically, says the recent article “It’s So Important to Elect ‘Portability’ For Your Farm Estate” from Ag Web Farm Journal, but it is worth doing.

Your estate planning attorney will explain how you can take advantage of this opportunity, which must be done at the latest within two years of death. In most cases, no taxes are due, but you must file a form to obtain the exemption.

Before portability was an option, spouses each owned about the same amount of assets, or the amount of assets which would use up each other’s exemptions. For many farm and ranch families, the family’s property is titled one-half to each spouse. Now, however, because of portability, the assets can flow through to the surviving spouse.

At the first spouses’ death, the survivor files for the portability election and then has two exemptions to cover assets.

Here’s an example. A family owns assets jointly and their net worth is about $11 million. They have one son, who also farms. When the husband dies, the wife owns everything. However, she neglects to speak with the family’s estate planning lawyer. No estate taxes are due at this time because of the unlimited marital deduction between the two spouses.

When the wife dies in 2026, when the current federal estate tax exemption is set to drop back to $6 million, their son has to pay $2 million in federal estate taxes. There was $11 million in original assets, but only $6 million for the wife’s exemption. Had she filed for portability when the higher estate tax exemption enacted into law under President Trump, then the $5 million taxable estate would have been reduced by the husband’s exemption by $6 million. No federal estate tax would be due.

Farmers, ranchers and any family business owners need to take into consideration the potential estate taxes in future years. In addition, 17 states still have state estate taxes, and usually the amounts taxed are higher than the federal amount.

An experienced estate planning attorney can work with the family to evaluate their tax liability and see if portability will be sufficient, or if a bypass trust or other tools are needed to protect their legacy.

Reference: Ag Web Farm Journal (April 18, 2022) “It’s So Important to Elect ‘Portability’ For Your Farm Estate”

 

estate planning

The Most Common Estate Planning Mistakes

Estate administration is the process of managing the estate when a loved one has passed. For the inexperienced executor, there are pitfalls to be avoided, warns the article “Top 5 Probate and Estate Administration Mistakes” from Long Island Press.

The biggest mistake is creating an estate plan from generic documents on the internet. Wills must meet many technical legal requirements to be valid. All wills are admitted to probate and the court scrutinizes wills carefully to be certain the wishes of the person who died (the testator) have been followed. A will created without the guidance of a skilled estate planning attorney is more likely to be found invalid and more easily challenged.

Neglecting to deal with Medicaid liens before distributing an inheritance can create huge financial problems for family members. Medicaid is required by law to attempt to clawback assets to recover the cost of care. Some states are more aggressive than others. Medicaid may attach a lien to any real estate owned by the Medicaid recipient and collect it at the time of their death.

The value of asset protection planning, including the use of a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT), in a timely manner, cannot be understated.

Leaving heirs and beneficiaries in the dark about the estate plan and distribution wishes often creates a sense of something bad being planned. Surprise revelations about the estate are only good in movies. In real life, this can lead to litigation and family fights. Litigation can take the form of a will contest, a trust contest, a contested accounting, or an action to remove the executor.

Talk with the family about your plans, so there is less tension created over the future of your estate.

Taxes can undermine your wishes, if your estate plan does not include tax planning. There are numerous methods used to minimize tax liabilities. However, they must be put into place in advance.

The executor has to file a final income tax return on behalf of the decedent for the year of death and also file an estate tax return. The executor is also responsible to obtain an estate tax identification number (EIN) from the IRS and open an estate bank account used to pay taxes and debts.

Will your executor, spouse or heirs be able to locate your critical information? If your legal, financial and online information is not organized, your executor may spend a long time digging through old paperwork, most of which is likely to be out of date and irrelevant. Spare your executor the time and emotional impact of wasted hours reviewing old records. No one needs your checking accounts from the 1970s!

Information on everything from assets, tax returns, funeral and burial arrangements, life insurance policies, Social Security and Medicaid or Medicare cards, deed for home and title for your cars, should all be organized to help your family find the information they need.

While you are alive, your family will need access to documents like your Power of Attorney, Health Care Power of Attorney, and Advance Health Care Directives.

By planning and making an effort in advance to manage your affairs, you enhance your legacy. Leaving a mess behind will be remembered, perhaps more so than organized documents.

Reference: Long Island Press (May 4, 2022) “Top 5 Probate and Estate Administration Mistakes”

 

Approaching Retirement

How Do I Create a Trust?

A trust fund is a legal entity you create that takes ownership of your assets and ensures that the assets are used in a way that’s beneficial to your loved ones, explains Yahoo Finance’s recent article entitled “How to Start a Trust Fund the Easy Way.”

Trust funds are created by a grantor, who sets up the trust and transfers money or property into it. The trust is created for a beneficiary who will benefit from the property held within the trust. However, the trust is the legal owner of that property. The grantor will name a trustee who will have a legal obligation to effectively manage the trust property following the grantor’s instructions.

There are many benefits of setting up a trust to protect your family’s finances. You can use a trust to transfer assets outside of probate, and certain trusts arrangements may also help ensure that you don’t lose your money paying nursing home costs toward the end of your life.

You can also use a trust to make sure money is appropriately managed for your children or grandchildren. This can be especially helpful when leaving money to younger adults, as well as for older beneficiaries who don’t know how to invest money effectively.

The specific advantages of a trust depend on the type of trust you create. There are many varieties.

A trust is typically created when a grantor decides that having a separate legal arrangement for managing property is needed. He or she will work will an estate planning attorney to complete the legal paperwork needed to establish the trust and will designate a trustee to manage trust assets and the beneficiaries who will receive those assets. If the trust is a “revocable living trust,” one of the most common, then that trustee likely will be the grantor.

The grantor will transfer the legal ownership of money, property, or other assets to the trust.

The trustee is responsible for managing the trust assets responsibly and making distributions of assets to beneficiaries, when appropriate and according to the instructions of the grantor. This might be something like when a grantor created a trust to pay for college costs for his children, the trustee will distribute the money to cover tuition bills.

Trusts can sometimes be changed, but in other types, they’re irrevocable and changes can’t easily be made once they are created. Expert legal advice and counsel is needed to get this right.

Reference:  Yahoo Finance (March 18, 2022) “How to Start a Trust Fund the Easy Way”

 

Is Estate Planning for Everyone?

When Should I Update My Will?

CNBC’s recent article entitled “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it” says that your will should be updated when your personal circumstances change,  could happen at any time. Some frequent triggers include:

  • Changes in health, including that of executors and guardians
  • Changes in laws, which may impact tax and legal strategies; and
  • Changes in state residence, which can also impact planning.

Every state has different laws as to the administration of a will. They will vary regarding the required residence of an executor, inheritance tax laws and whether a child can be disinherited by omission.

It’s wise to review your will every few years with an estate planning attorney, who likely will say that documents should also be reviewed when these events happen:

  • A substantial change in your financial status
  • A change of parental status, like the birth of a child
  • A change of guardians
  • Changes in designations of fiduciaries, such as the executor of the will, successor trustee of a revocable trust, attorney-in-fact, or health-care agent; and
  • Changes in a family member’s situation, such as if a child develops special needs and will need appropriate planning.

The article says that an overlooked trigger to updating your will is consolidation in the banking industry. If you named a bank as the executor of your estate and the bank has been bought or sold recently, you may now have a new executor.

Make certain that you know who that person or institution is – and that you trust its judgment.

It’s also important to revisit your beneficiaries after marriage or divorce.

Reference: CNBC (March 1, 2022) “When it comes to a will or estate plan, don’t just set it and forget it”

 

elder care

Can I Avoid Disagreements in My Family about Mom’s Caregiving?

According to the “Caregiving in the U.S. 2020” report by AARP and the National Alliance for Caregiving, “about one in five caregivers report experiencing high financial strain as a result of providing care.” This is especially true for those involved in high-intensity caregiving for over 21 hours a week, who often deplete their savings and go into debt.

However, AARP’s recent article entitled “How Caregivers Can Stop Arguing About Money” says caregiving-related money conflicts are only partially about dollars and cents. Some are predicated on differences in priorities:

  • Should the family’s finite resources be directed to the care recipient or spread among all family members?
  • Should the cost of something like a front door ramp for a parent’s house be borne equally by all the adult siblings or solely by the primary caregiver who lives with that parent?
  • Should a declining parent give all her assets to the adult child committed to caregiving or divide them among her children?

Caregivers, care recipients and other family members may have different answers to such questions and then can get into heated discussions. This can mean hard feelings that can destroy family relationships during the caregiving years and beyond. Here are a few ideas on how to avoid such conflicts:

One strategy to help caregiving families avoid constant financial conflict is to handle little and big questions differently. For the little decisions that need to be made every day, such as which pharmacy to use, family members should defer to the primary caregiver’s judgment. However, for more consequential decisions like selling the family home to help pay for a parent’s nursing home care, all family members should feel their opinions are sought out and respected.  It is typically the family members who feel like their voices aren’t heard, who protest the most loudly and cause the fiercest debates.

If caregiving family members still can’t find a way to stop arguing about money, then they should consider meeting with a member of the clergy, a family therapist, or elder mediator. A pro is trained to manage emotions, clarify points and frame acceptable compromises. They help prevent further damage to already damaged family relationships.

Reference: AARP (Feb. 8, 2022) “How Caregivers Can Stop Arguing About Money”

 

estate planning newsletter

Why Have a Joint Revocable Trust?

If you’re married, you are eligible to use a joint trust instead of having individual trusts. This recent article, “Joint Revocable Trust: Estate Planning” from aol.com, looks at the pros and cons to see if it makes sense for your estate plan.

A trust is a legal entity where a grantor, the person creating the trust, gives a trustee control over assets in the trust, usually to distribute them when the grantor has died. The person receiving the trust is the beneficiary. They have no control over the assets until they are distributed. In the case of a revocable living trust, the grantor and the trustee are often the same person.

A revocable trust, also known as a revocable living trust, can be changed many times, or even dissolved whenever the grantor wants. However, when the grantor dies or becomes incapacitated, the trust becomes irrevocable, meaning it cannot easily be changed. It also becomes inaccessible to creditors.

Why would you need a “joint” revocable trust? As its name implies, a joint trust has multiple co-trustees. This is a commonly used trust for spouses, especially when the wish is for the surviving spouse to receive 100% of the couple’s assets when the first spouse dies. The joint trust is revocable while both spouses are living and, depending on the trust terms, may continue to be revocable after the first spouse dies.

When one spouse dies, the surviving spouse becomes the sole trustee. On the death of the second spouse, the trust becomes an irrevocable trust. This is when an appointed successor trustee takes control of the trust, including distributing assets to beneficiaries as directed in the trust documents.

To decide whether you and your spouse need a joint revocable trust, you’ll want to discuss the pros and cons with an estate planning attorney.

The joint trust is practical and easy to fund and maintain. You and your spouse can both transfer assets into the same trust and you both own it. Assets in the joint trust don’t go through probate, which can get assets distributed faster and easier. The assets in the joint trust and the terms of the trust remain private, since the trust documents don’t become part of the public record. Your will does, through probate. Finally, a joint trust does not need to file a separate tax return, as long as one spouse is still living.

However, there are some disadvantages to a joint trust. It’s harder to leave any assets in the joint trust to non-spousal beneficiaries, like children from a prior marriage. The surviving spouse retains control over all assets in the trust. If there is no language in the trust concerning children, they will not inherit anything from the trust.

In a small number of states, there are state estate taxes with thresholds far lower than the current federal estate tax exemption of $12.06 million per individual. Your estate planning attorney will know what taxes will be due in your state of residence.

A joint trust may offer less protection from creditors than separate trusts, if one of the spouses has financial issues. If spouses combine their assets in a joint revocable trust, assets in both trusts would be vulnerable to creditors.

For couples whose finances are not overly complex, a joint revocable trust may be a great choice. Your estate planning attorney will be able to look at your entire estate and see what tools will serve you best.

Reference: aol.com (May 2, 2022) “Joint Revocable Trust: Estate Planning”

 

alzheimer's diagnosis

What are the Most Important Estate Planning Documents?

Odds are that you know the benefits of having a last will and testament, and Forbes’ recent article entitled “Estate Documents You’ll Need Beyond A Last Will And Testament” says that, while this is a necessary aspect of your estate planning, it’s not the only documents you’ll want to have.

Let’s take a look at some of the other important estate planning documents.

A Living Trust. A living trust can limit the number of assets going through probate. Because a living trust is a revocable document, you can change it. A trust is designed to avoid or limit probate for the decedent’s assets, by creating a legally separate entity to hold property.

Living Will or Advance Directive. A living will or advance medical directive is often required by healthcare providers for certain medical procedures. However, this document should also be included within your estate plans. It tells your family and medical staff your wishes regarding lifesaving or life-prolonging medical procedures, in case you become unable to communicate with them.

Healthcare Power of Attorney. A power of attorney often consists of two documents. One is a healthcare power of attorney that lets you name someone to make healthcare decisions on your behalf. A power of attorney differs from the living will because your living will is only valid, if you’re unable to communicate your wishes.

Financial Power of Attorney. This document allows you to name a person to make financial decisions for you if you can’t and this doesn’t necessarily mean that you must be incapacitated. Many people use these when they are unavailable to sign documents.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 18, 2022) “Estate Documents You’ll Need Beyond A Last Will And Testament”

Probate

Senior Second Marriages and Estate Planning

For seniors enjoying the romance and vitality of an unexpected late-in-life engagement, congratulations! Love is a wonderful thing, at any age. However, anyone remarrying for the second, or even third time, needs to address their estate planning as well as financial plans for the future. Pre-wedding planning can make a huge difference later in life, advises a recent article from Seniors Matter titled “Your senior parent is getting remarried—just don’t ignore key areas.”

A careful review of your will, powers of attorney, healthcare proxy, living will and any other advance directives should be made. If you have new dependents, your estate planning attorney will help you figure out how your children from a prior marriage can be protected, while caring for new members of the family. Failing to adjust your estate plan could easily result in disinheriting your own offspring.

Deciding how to address finances is best done before you say, “I do.” If one partner has more assets than the other, or if one has more debts, there will be many issues to resolve. Will the partner with more assets want to help resolve the debts, or should the debts be cleared up before the wedding? How will bills be paid? If both partners own homes, where will the newlyweds live?

Do you need a prenuptial agreement? This document is especially important when there are significant assets owned by one or both partners. One function of a prenup is to prevent one partner from challenging the other person’s will and trusts. There are a number of trusts designed to protect loved ones including the new spouse, among them the Qualified Terminable Interest Property Trust, known as a QTIP. This trust provides support for the new spouse. When the spouse dies, the entire trust is transferred to the persons named in the trust, usually children from a first marriage.

Most estate planning attorneys recommend two separate wills for people who wed later in life. This makes distribution of assets easier. Don’t neglect updating Powers of Attorney and any health care documents.

Before walking down the aisle, make an inventory, if you don’t already have one, of all accounts with designated beneficiaries. This should include life insurance policies, pensions, IRAs, 401(k)s, investment accounts and any other property with a beneficiary designation. Make sure that the accounts reflect your current circumstances.

Sooner or later, one or both spouses may need long-term care. Do either of you have long-term care insurance? If one of you needed to go into a nursing home or have skilled care at home, how would you pay for it? An estate planning attorney can help you create a plan for the future, which is necessary regardless of how healthy you may be right now.

Once you are married, Social Security needs to be updated with your new marital status and any name change. If a parent marries after full retirement age and their new spouse’s benefit is higher than their own, they may be able to increase their benefits to 50% of the new spouse’s benefits. If they were receiving divorced spousal benefits, those will end. The same goes for survivor benefits, if the person marries before age 60. If they’re disabled, they may still receive those benefits after age 60.

Setting up an appointment with an estate planning attorney at least a few months before a senior wedding is a good idea for all concerned. It provides an opportunity to review important legal and financial matters, while giving both spouses time to focus on the “business” side of love.

Reference: Seniors Matter (April 29, 2022) “Your senior parent is getting remarried—just don’t ignore key areas”

 

Retirement Planning

When Should I Update My Estate Plan?

Estate planning documents, including wills, trusts, power of attorney and related documents, are designed to reflect life, which inevitably includes a steady stream of changes. Tax laws change, as do families and relationships. A recent article from The Press-Enterprise titled “Avoid probate and audit an estate plan regularly” recommends a review with your estate planning attorney every three to five years. A lot happens in three to five years, including national elections and federal tax legislation.

Start by considering the people you have named to serve after you are incapacitated or after death, including your executor, guardian for minor children, trustee, power of attorney, healthcare proxy and successor trustee. Do you still want those people in their respective roles? Are they still willing to act on your behalf? If they have moved away or have died, you will need to identify new people and update your estate plan.

Has your estate plan stayed current? Some attorneys take a walk down memory lane when they review estate plans, as planning strategies change over the years, reflecting tax laws and social expectations. An old trust might have a provision requiring a division of the trust into two shares at the first spouse’s death. This was done so both spouses’ estate tax exemptions were used. However, the law changed in 2011 and now the surviving spouse automatically preserves the deceased spouses’ estate tax exemption for later use. Dividing the assets into two separate trusts is no longer necessary.

Depending upon your situation, there may be reasons to retain this or other out-of-date provisions.  However, you will not know until you review the documents with an experienced estate planning attorney.

Do your trusts accomplish your current goals? If your trusts were created to protect a spendthrift heir who has now become a model fiscal citizen, you may want to make changes. If you have left your assets outright to beneficiaries and one has entered into a questionable marriage, it is time to protect your beneficiary by having a trust created.

Beneficiary designations should be reviewed every time an estate plan is reviewed. It is likely that you own several assets controlled by beneficiary designations. These may include annuities, life insurance, IRAs, Roth IRAs, investment accounts and many other assets. The beneficiary designation always supersedes the will. Estate planning attorneys, insurance agents and financial advisers see this go wrong all the time.

No matter what your will says, if the name on the beneficiary designation is alive, they will receive the asset. It does not matter if you have not spoken to them in twenty years, or the divorce was ten years ago. This issue is not just about keeping your ex’s hands out of your estate. Here is a good example: a spouse names a now-deceased husband as the beneficiary of an IRA. No contingent beneficiary was named, and no new beneficiary form was updated after the husband died. When the second spouse dies, the default beneficiary of the IRA, worth around $500,000, is the estate. Instead of being distributed directly to a beneficiary, the funds are now part of the probate estate. The IRA will end up in the living trust through a pour-over will stating “I leave everything to my trust.” A simple update could have avoided legal fees, executor fees and delays.

Your estate plan is only as good as its last review. Getting comfortable with the concept of reviewing it every three to five years will protect your goals and your family.

Reference: The Press-Enterprise (Feb. 6, 2022) “Avoid probate and audit an estate plan regularly”