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Estate Planning Blog

Serving Clients Throughout North Central Missouri

Probate

Do We Need Estate Planning?

Estate planning is not just about making a will, nor is it just for people who live in mansions. Estate planning is best described in the title of this article “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan” from Business Insider. Estate planning is a plan for the future, for you, your spouse and those you love.

There are a number of reasons for estate planning:

  • Avoiding paying more federal and state taxes than necessary
  • Ensuring that assets are distributed as you want
  • Naming the people you choose for your own care, if you become incapacitated; and/or
  • Naming the people you choose to care for your minor children, if you and your spouse left them orphaned.

If that sounds like a lot to accomplish, it is. However, with the help of a trusted estate planning attorney, an estate plan can provide you with the peace of mind that comes with having all of the above.

If those decisions and designations are not made by you while you are alive and legally competent, the state law and the courts will determine who will get your assets, raise your children and how much your estate will pay in death taxes to state and federal governments. You can avoid that with an estate plan.

Here are the five key things about estate planning:

It’s more than a will. The estate plan includes creating Durable Powers of Attorney to appoint individuals who will make medical and/or financial decisions, if you are not able to do so. The estate plan also contains Medical Directives to communicate your wishes about what kind of care you do or do not want, if you are so sick you cannot do so for yourself. The estate plan is where you can create Trusts to control how property passes from one person or one generation to the next.

Estate planning saves time, money, and angst. If you have a surviving spouse, they are usually the ones who serve as your executor. However, if you do not and if you do not have an estate plan, the court names a public administrator to distribute assets according to state law. While this is happening, no one can access your assets. There’s a lot of paperwork and a lot of legal fees. With a will, you name an executor who will take care of and gain access to most, if not all, of your assets and administer them according to your instructions.

Estate planning includes being sure that investment and retirement accounts with a beneficiary designation have been completed. If you don’t name a beneficiary, the asset goes through the probate court. If you fail to update your beneficiary designations, your ex or a person from your past may end up with your biggest assets.

Estate planning is also tax planning. While federal taxes only impact the very wealthy right now, that is likely to change in the future. States also have estate taxes and inheritance taxes of their own, at considerably lower exemption levels than federal taxes. If you wish your heirs to receive more of your money than the government, tax planning should be part of your estate plan.

The estate plan is also used to protect minor children. No one expects to die prematurely, and no one expects that two spouses with young children will die. However, it does happen, and if there is no will in place, then the court makes all the decisions: who will raise your children, and where, how their upbringing will be financed, or, if there are no available family members, if the children should become wards of the state and enter the foster care system. That’s probably not what you want.

The estate plan includes the identification of the person(s) you want to raise your children, and who will be in charge of the assets left in trust for the children, like proceeds from a life insurance policy. This can be the same person, but often the financial and child-rearing roles are divided between two trustworthy people. Naming an alternate for each position is also a good idea, just in case the primary people cannot serve.

Estate planning, finally, also takes care of you while you are living, with a power of attorney and healthcare proxy. That way someone you know, and trust can step in, if you are unable to take care of your legal and financial affairs.

Once your estate plan is in place, remember that it is like your home: it needs to be updated every three or four years, or when there are big changes to tax law or in your life.

Reference: Business Insider (Jan. 14, 2021) “Estate planning is an important strategy for arranging financial affairs and protecting heirs—here are five reasons why everyone needs an estate plan”

 

estate planning

Did Larry King have an Estate Plan?

Larry King’s health was not good the past few years before he died in the hospital last week. He was 87, with a history of heart trouble, a stroke and then he got sick with the coronavirus. He was also paying spousal support as part of a lengthy divorce negotiation.

This was his seventh wife who outlasted all the others. Since the divorce wasn’t final, she’ll inherit much of his estimated $50 million estate, says Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “Two Bankruptcies, Seven Wives: Larry King’s Estate Planning Miracle.”

The King of Talk wasn’t an early success. He was bankrupt before he was 30 and filed again at 45, when most successful people start eying early retirement. However, Larry had large gambling debts, grand larceny charges for defrauding a business partner and many professional setbacks.

By the time he really became a household name on CNN, he’d already had five divorces to four women as well as one youthful annulment.

Under normal circumstances, this would mean depleted bank accounts, since the households multiplied, and income continues to be split among the exes. However, King continued to work, and while each bankruptcy reset his official net worth to zero, every contract negotiation kept the income flowing.

Since he died before finalizing the divorce, his current wife Shawn is believed to receive everything not otherwise assigned in his will.

If the divorce were a done deal, she would have gotten a lump sum payment and $300,000 in annual support. Shawn had argued that she needed $1 million a year, but now it looks like she inherits everything.

Shawn lists $7 million in assets in her own name, including a house in Utah. That’s usually a good start to a divorce settlement division of property, but she wanted more because Larry was still working.

In fact, only last year, he signed a trial podcast deal worth at least $5 million.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (Jan. 25, 2021) “Two Bankruptcies, Seven Wives: Larry King’s Estate Planning Miracle”

Near Retirement Planning

Can Unmarried Couples have an Estate Plan?

For unmarried couples, having an estate plan might be even more important than for married couples, especially if there are children in the family. The unmarried couple does not enjoy all of the legal protection afforded by marriage, but many of these protections can be had through a well-prepared estate plan.

A recent article “Planning for unmarried couples” from nwi.com explains that in states that do not recognize common law marriages, like Indiana, the state will not recognize the couple as being married. However, even if you learn that your state does recognize a common law marriage, you still want to have an estate plan.

A will is the starting point of an estate plan, and for an unmarried couple, having it professionally prepared by an experienced estate planning attorney is very important. An agreement between two people as to how they want their assets distributed after death sounds simple, but there are many laws. Each state has its own laws, and if the document is not prepared correctly, it could very easily be invalid. That would make the couple’s agreement useless.

There are also things that need to be prepared, so an unmarried couple can take care of each other while they are living, which they cannot legally do without being married.

A cohabitating couple has no right to direct medical care for each other, including speaking with the healthcare provider or even seeing their partner as a visitor in a healthcare facility. If a decision needs to be made by one partner because the other partner is incapacitated, their partner will not have the legal right to make any medical decisions or even speak with a healthcare provider.

If the couple owns vehicles separately, the vehicles have their own titles (i.e., the legal document establishing ownership). If they want to add their partner’s name to the vehicle, the title needs to be reissued by the state to reflect that change.

If the couple owns a home together, they need to confirm how the home is titled. If they are joint tenants with rights of survivorship or tenants in common, that might be appropriate for their circumstances. However, if one person bought the home before they lived together or was solely responsible for paying the mortgage and for upkeep, they will need to make sure the title and their will establishes ownership and what the owner wants to happen with they die.

If the wish is for the surviving partner to remain in the home, that needs to be properly and legally documented. An estate planning attorney will help the couple create a plan that addresses this large asset and reflect the couple’s wishes for the future.

Unmarried cohabitating adults need to protect each other while they are living and after they pass. A local estate planning attorney will be able to help accomplish this.

Reference: nwi.com (Jan. 24, 2021) “Planning for unmarried couples”

 

blended families

Divorce, Death and Details: Missteps can Create Estate Planning Disasters

This estate battle shows how small details can become huge headaches. Four courts and several years after this estate battle began, a family won a case that could have been easily prevented, as reported in The Dallas Morning News article “The way out of the ERISA trap: A tale of divorce, death and money.”

A couple married and then divorced. The divorce decree clearly stated that Mike was awarded all of his employee benefits, including his life insurance. However, when Mike logged into his employer’s benefits systems, it would not allow him to delete his ex-wife as the beneficiary of his life insurance. It may have been programmed that way. There are laws concerning removing spouses from employee benefits. Or it was a glitch. However, Mike did not pursue it.

When Mike died, he was survived by his parents, who claimed his estate, but the $377,000 life insurance policy was not part of his estate because his ex-wife was still the beneficiary.

His parents filed a claim with the insurance company for the proceeds of the insurance policy.

The first court they filed in was the probate court, so they could be properly recognized as Mike’s heirs. The probate court found in their favor and named Mike’s dad as the independent administrator of his estate.

The second court was federal court. That’s because employee benefits are governed by a federal law ERISA—the Employee Retirement Income Security Act—that controls employee benefits, including employer-provided life insurance. These matters can only be dealt with by a federal court.

The federal court ruled that because Mike’s ex was on the beneficiary form, she was the rightful owner.

However, Wendy had waived her rights to the insurance benefits when she signed off on the divorce decree. Mike’s parents were determined to win this battle.

Their legal team took the argument next to court three—the original divorce court. Mike’s dad, in the position of the estate administrator, argued that while Wendy did have a right to receive the money under ERISA, she did not have a right under state law to keep it. She had waived that right in the divorce decree. The divorce court agreed and found that Mike’s estate owned the proceeds. The money was to be turned over to Mike’s parents.

Court number four came when Wendy petitioned the state appellate court to overturn the award. She lost.

What were the factors that allowed Mike’s parents to win this case? The divorce decree contained clear language regarding the life insurance policy. If it had been poorly drafted, the results could have been different. Mike’s parents went through all the correct procedural courts—establishing heirship, then probate, then divorce enforcement case.

One step could have been added: a restraining order so that the ex could not squander the money between the time that she received the proceeds and when the final judgement was rendered.

Reference: The Dallas Morning News (Jan. 24, 2021) “The way out of the ERISA trap: A tale of divorce, death and money”

 

alzheimer's diagnosis

What Steps to Take when Diagnosed with Alzheimer’s

A diagnosis of Alzheimer’s or any serious progressive disease takes some time to absorb. However, during the days and weeks after the diagnosis, it is important to take quick steps to protect the person’s health as well as their legal and financial lives, advises the recent article “What to do after an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis?” from The Indiana Lawyer.

Here are the legal steps that need to be taken, before the person is too incapacitated to legally conduct their own affairs:

General Durable Power of Attorney—A person needs to be appointed to perform legal and financial duties when the time comes. This can be a family member, trusted friend or a professional.

Health Care Power of Attorney—A person must be entrusted with making health care decisions, when the patient is no longer able to communicate their wishes.

HIPAA Authorization—Without this document, medical care providers will not be able to discuss the person’s illness or share reports and test results. An authorized person will be able to speak with doctors, pick up prescriptions and obtain medical reports. It is not a decision-making authorization, however.

Living Will—The living will explains wishes for end-of-life medical care, including whether to prolong life using artificial means.

Funeral Plans—Some states permit the creation of a legally enforceable document stating wishes for funerals, burials or cremation and memorial services. If a legal document is not permitted, then it is a kindness to survivors to state wishes, and be as specific as possible, to alleviate the family’s stress about what their loved one would have wanted.

Medicaid Planning—Care for Alzheimer’s and other dementias becomes extremely costly in the late stages. A meeting with an elder law attorney is important to see if the family’s assets can be protected, while obtaining benefits to pay for long-term and dementia care.

After the patient dies, there may be a claim against it from the state to recover Medicaid costs. By law, states must recover assets for long-term care and related drug and hospital benefits. All assets in the recipient’s probate estate are subject to recovery, except if surviving spouse, minor children, blind or disabled child is living or where recovery would cause hardship.

With good planning and the help of an experienced elder law attorney, the family may be able to mitigate claims by the government against the estate.

Reference: The Indiana Lawyer (Jan. 6, 2020) “What to do after an Alzheimer’s disease diagnosis?”

 

mountains

What to Do First when Spouse Dies

Forbes’ recent article entitled ‘Checklist for Handling the Death of a Spouse” tells us what to do when your spouse passes away:

Get Organized. Create a list of what you need to do. That way, you can tick off the things you have done and see what still needs to be done. Spending the time to get organized is critical.

Do an Inventory. Review your spouse’s will and estate plan, and then collect the documents you will need. Use a tax return to locate various types of financial assets.

Identify the Executor. The executor is the individual tasked with carrying out the terms of deceased’s will.

Get a Death Certificate. Request multiple copies of the death certificate, maybe at least a dozen because every entity will need that document.

Contact Your Professional Advisors. You will need to tell some professionals that your spouse has passed away. This may be your CPA, your estate planning attorney, financial advisors and perhaps bankers. These contacts will probably know nearly everything that is required to be done. You will also need to contact the Social Security Administration and report the death.

Take a Step Back. Take a breath. You should take the time to process your emotions and grieve with the other members of your family. Check on everyone and make sure the loved ones remaining are doing all right.

Avoid Making Any Major Decisions. Do not make any major financial decisions for a year. This includes things such as selling a house or making a lump sum investment. After the death of a spouse, you are emotional and looking for advice. It is easy to be pressured into making a decision that might not be in your best interests. Allow yourself permission to be emotional and not make any decision because you recognize you are grieving.

Make Certain Your Spouse’s Wishes Are Carried Out. The best way to honor your spouse is to make sure their requests and wishes are carried out. You are the only individual who can do that. Your spouse expects you to take care of their last wishes the way they had intended.

Reference: Forbes (Aug. 28, 2020) ‘Checklist for Handling the Death of a Spouse”

 

estate planning

Marilyn Monroe’s Estate Makes Money 50 Years after Her Death

Screen siren Marilyn Monroe starred in 23 films in her career. She created the first female-owned production studio. Marilyn Monroe Productions first film produced was The Prince and the Showgirl with Laurence Olivier.

Cheat Sheet’s recent article entitled “Marilyn Monroe’s Estate Is Still Making Millions but Not Because of Her Movies” says that as she became more famous, she saw bigger paydays.

Monroe died at the age of 36 in 1962, at the peak of her fame. However, Marilyn’s star would only continue to rise. More than 58 years after her fatal overdose, she’s still one of the most famous women in history. Her face and name are instantly recognizable, and public perception around her acting abilities have only improved in the years since her death.

According to Forbes, Monroe’s estate earned $8 million this year, making her the 13th highest-paid dead celebrity, and also the only woman on the list. Marilyn Monroe’s likeness makes her millions. Even today, Monroe is still the world’s biggest sex symbol.

Forbes reported that Monroe’s likeness is used by nearly 100 brands around the world, including high-end fashion houses like Dolce & Gabbana. Her famous face is still her biggest money-maker, but her films still bring in cash to her estate. Some Like It Hot made her estate $4.5 million in 1999 alone.

Monroe never had children and she was not married at the time of her death, so she left most of her money to her acting coach, Lee Strasberg. Marilyn also left money for her mother, half-sister, and close friends. Strasberg’s second wife, Anna, inherited the estate when Lee died in 1982. It was Anna who signed the deal with CMG Worldwide to license official Marilyn Monroe products, which contributed greatly to her estate.

While Monroe wanted her personal items to be left with friends, items like the dress she wore to sing “Happy Birthday” to President Kennedy and her beloved white baby grand piano were sold by the estate. The dress was sold for $4.8 million in 2016, and singer Mariah Carey bought the piano for more than $600,000.

Reference: Cheat Sheet (Dec. 21, 2020) “Marilyn Monroe’s Estate Is Still Making Millions but Not Because of Her Movies”

 

Retirement Planning

How do I Settle an Estate if I’m Named Executor?

If you are asked to be an executor, you should learn some of the basics of the job before agreeing to the task. An executor is the individual named to distribute a decedent’s property that passes under his or her will. The executor also arranges for the payment of debts and expenses.

WMUR’s recent article entitled “Settling an estate” explains that if the executor is not willing or able to do the job, there’s usually an alternate executor named in the will. If there’s no alternate, the court will designate an executor for the estate.

Depending on the estate, it can be a consuming and stressful task to address all of the issues. Sometimes, a decedent will leave a letter of instruction which can make the process easier. This letter may address things like the decedent’s important documents, contact info, a list of creditors, login information for important web sites and final burial wishes.

One of the key documents is a will. The executor must get a hold of a copy and review it. You can work with an estate planning attorney to determine the type of probating (a process that begins with getting a court to approve the validity of the will) is needed.

The executor should conduct an inventory of the decedent’s assets, some of which may need to be appraised. If the decedent had a safe deposit box, the contents must be secured. Once the probate process is finished, assets then may be sold or distributed according to the will.

Asset protection is critical and may mean changing the locks on property. The executor may be required to pay mortgages, utility bills and maintenance costs on any property. He or she must change the name of the insurance on home and auto policies. Any brokerage accounts will need to be re-titled. The final expenses also need to be paid.

The funeral home or coroner will provide death certificates that will be needed in the probate process, and for filing life insurance claims.

If the decedent was collecting benefits, such as Social Security, the agency will need to know of the decedent’s death to stop benefits. Checks received after death must be returned. The executor will file a final federal and state tax return for the decedent, if necessary. There also may be an estate and gift tax return to be filed.

There’s a lot for an executor to do. It can be made easier with the help an estate planning attorney.

Reference: WMUR (Dec. 23, 2020) “Settling an estate”

 

elder care

Can I Recognize Signs of Dementia?

More than 50 million people around the world have dementia, and 10 million more are diagnosed each year, according to the World Health Organization. In fact, one in 10 Americans 65 and older has Alzheimer’s dementia, according to the Alzheimer’s Association.

KSL.com’s recent article titled “11 signs of dementia everyone should know” says that with numbers like these, the odds are good someone you know will be impacted by dementia at some point in your life. Let’s look at 11 signs you should look for in your aging loved ones:

  1. Memory loss that impacts daily life. The most commonly recognized sign of dementia is memory loss. However, this is more than mere forgetfulness. It is the type of memory loss that makes it hard to learn new information or remember important dates or events. Those with dementia-related memory loss will remember items they’ve previously forgotten, and it will disrupt their daily life in many ways.
  2. Issues with planning or solving problems. Deficits in executive functioning is a symptom of dementia. This can include a wide range of things, such as planning and problem-solving. People who have dementia might experience trouble with regular work tasks, trouble problem solving with minor issues, or difficulty planning a schedule. Some memory loss is expected in old age. However, impairment in problem-solving or with planning isn’t.
  3. Difficulty completing familiar tasks. A person may have trouble doing tasks they ordinarily do, like using the computer, making coffee, or following their normal work routine.
  4. New problems with words in speaking or writing. At first, it might be amusing to hear your loved one call a banana a donut or something else, but continued incidents of this behavior is worrisome and may be a symptom of dementia.
  5. Confusion as to time or place. Forgetting their location or how to get to or from familiar places is another common early signal of dementia. These can lead to danger for someone with dementia to run an errand or live on their own.
  6. Trouble with visual images and spatial relationships. Visuospatial abilities are the ability to understand what we see around us and interpret spatial relationships. Dementia can bring on a decline in visuospatial abilities, such as reading, judging distance, or trouble with depth perception.
  7. Misplacing things and losing the ability to retrace steps. People with dementia increasingly put things in strange locations and can’t find them. In fact, they may accuse others of stealing the items.
  8. Changing moods, personality, and judgment. These changes are due to damage in vital areas of the brain which can lead to depression, manic-like behaviors and frequent changes in emotions called emotional lability. Dementia causes damage to the frontal lobe systems, and it can result in a loss in the ability to make sound judgments about insignificant or substantial issues.
  9. Social withdrawal. While we all like some quiet time, with dementia, it’s important to recognize if there’s a change of behavior and withdrawal from social activities they’re enjoyed in the past.
  10. Difficulty concentrating. Background noise and loud environments can make it difficult for a person suffering from dementia to concentrate. It makes them frustrated and makes conversations difficult. There’s not much you can do about the concentration problems, but you can help make their environment less stimulating. Reducing distractions and using the person’s name often as you speak to him or her.
  11. Hallucinations. Finally, hallucinations are a symptom worth discussing with a healthcare provider. If you notice your loved one becoming upset about events that didn’t happen, talk with their doctor.

Reference: KSL.com (Dec. 29, 2020) “11 signs of dementia everyone should know”

 

Approaching Retirement

How to Plan for ‘Black Sheep’ Kid in Will

Every family has unique circumstances as far as wealth, financial planning and plans for the future. Therefore, it is critical that you consider your individual beneficiaries’ circumstances, when it comes to estate planning.

Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “Estate Planning for ‘Black Sheep’ Beneficiaries” explains that this may take the shape of child with a substance abuse issue, a lack of financial acumen and responsibility, or a mental illness. You also may want to reward certain behaviors in the future. All these situations can be addressed thoughtfully and effectively in your estate planning documents with the help of an experienced estate planning attorney. Let’s dispel some of the common myths surrounding these issues:

Myth #1: You are required to split your estate evenly among your children. Disinheriting a beneficiary happens a lot. It can occur for a variety of reasons that have nothing to do with disapproval of a potential beneficiary’s lifestyle choices. Regardless of the reason for disinheriting completely or making unequal distributions, it’s best to discuss this in your estate documents or in a separate letter. Give the reasons for your decision to head off any possible claim against the estate or even just hard feelings among family members.

Myth #2: Once you’ve disinherited your black sheep, it’s irreversible. Not so. You should review your estate planning choices regularly because situations change (hopefully for the better), and you can revise your estate plan to provide incentives for your beneficiary to continue making progress.

Myth #3: You have no control of the issue after you pass away. While there’s no direct control after you die, you can, however, make specific instructions in your trust to reward and motivate your black sheep to behave in a certain fashion. You can also treat the share of inheritance for one beneficiary differently than others. Therefore, a financially responsible child may be allowed to access such a share of the estate in one lump sum; but you create a trust for the second child who has issues.

Myth #4: Trusts are huge hassle. Certain trusts permit you to name a person to help your beneficiary manage their inheritance. This can be a family member or friend, as well as a professional trustee who will assume the administrative responsibilities of a trust.

Don’t avoid the subject of estate planning. Work with an experienced estate planning attorney and discuss the options available.

Reference: Kiplinger (Dec. 8, 2020) “Estate Planning for ‘Black Sheep’ Beneficiaries”