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Estate Planning Blog

Serving Clients Throughout North Central Missouri

OLoughlin Office

When Can Estate Assets Be Distributed?

Just as an individual pays taxes, so do estates. An estate is required to file an annual income tax return for each calendar year it is open, even if only for part of the year. This is in addition to the estate tax return and the decedent’s final tax return, explains a recent article “The Dangers Of Distributing Estate Assets Too Soon” from Forbes.

The estate tax return is based on the assets in the estate, the income received and deductible expenses paid during the calendar year. Only one estate tax return is required. However, as long as the estate is open, an annual estate income tax return needs to be filed.

To minimize income, many executors distribute income to beneficiaries shortly after it comes into the estate. The estate takes a deduction for the income distributed to beneficiaries in the same year it is received by the estate. Beneficiaries are required to include the distribution in their gross income.

However, if the estate does not distribute income before the end of the year, the estate will owe income taxes. There are further complexities to be aware of, including what happens if an executor receives unexpected income or does not know the tax impact of certain transactions. The estate has to pay taxes, but what happens if all assets have been distributed?

The estate still owes those taxes.

The executor may be personally liable for paying the taxes.

If some of the expenses the estate pays are not deductible, but the executor thinks they are, then the estate will have an income tax liability, possibly without the cash to pay it.

The estate often receives property taxable as income if it is not distributed to beneficiaries, like a stock dividend. The estate receives the stock, and its taxable income based on the value at the date of the distribution.

If the estate does not distribute the stock to beneficiaries until later in the year and the stock’s value declines, the estate is still required to recognize the income equal to the stock’s value on the date it was received. If the executor deducts the lower value of the stock, then the estate will be liable for the income tax on the difference.

In some cases, these kinds of issues can be prevented by maintaining a certain level of cash in the estate account until the final estate tax return is filed. The beneficiaries receive distributions once all of the taxes—estate income, estate and final individual or final joint—are paid.

For larger or more complex estates, it is wise to have a tax discussion with the estate planning attorney, the family CPA and the executor, so all parties are prepared for tax liabilities in advance.

Reference: Forbes (Feb. 16, 2022) “The Dangers Of Distributing Estate Assets Too Soon”

 

Near Retirement Planning

Can I Avoid Password Problems for My Family in Estate Planning?

Barron’s recent article entitled “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare” explains that even financial planners may not consider until too late, how difficult it can be to recover and access a loved one’s accounts after they pass away. Since we are much more paperless with our finances, getting access to these accounts can be extremely hard for heirs, if they don’t have the right information. That’s because digital accounts are protected by encryption, multifactor authentication and federal data privacy laws.

Create a list of digital accounts and instructions on how to access them. The list should include not only financial assets but social media and other accounts. Digital accounts that loved ones or advisors may need to access following a death include:

  • Traditional financial accounts
  • Cryptocurrency accounts
  • Home payment and utilities accounts
  • Health insurance benefits
  • Email accounts
  • Social media
  • Smartphone accounts
  • Storage and file-sharing
  • Photo, music and video accounts
  • E-commerce accounts
  • Subscriptions to streaming services, such as Netflix, newspapers, music services; and
  • Loyalty/rewards programs for airlines and hotels.

Create a list of accounts, passwords and access information, keeping it up to date as information changes and letting a trusted person, such as an executor or estate planning attorney, know its location. Without a password list, it can be a nightmare.

Note that with every digital account, there’s a specific process that heirs must undertake to gain access, which should then be communicated clearly in your estate plan. Make a list of all digital assets and their access information, but don’t include this in the will itself, since the document is part of the public record in probate.

Being prepared well ahead of time can help your family avoid additional stress and delays as they probate your estate. It also ensures that they don’t forfeit significant financial assets concealed behind an impenetrable digital wall.

Reference: Barron’s (Dec. 15, 2021) “How to Ensure Heirs Avoid a Password-Protected Nightmare”

 

estate planning newsletter

What Does the Role of Estate Executor Entail?

Being named as the executor of a will is an honor and an obligation. However, depending on the size of the estate and your relationship to the deceased, performing the duties of an executor can feel like a second job, says Kiplinger’s recent article entitled “What to Do When You’re the Executor.”

This can be a real challenge for adult children who are responsible for executing the estate of the last surviving parent. These executors are often required to distribute assets among several beneficiaries, sell the family home and look over all the family belongings. If the family is a bit dysfunctional, if it’s a big estate, or if their parents’ estate planning was poor (or nonexistent), it’s even more time-consuming. Let’s look at some basic steps most executors should follow:

Get a dozen copies of the death certificate and file the will. Copies of the death certificate are usually available from the funeral home. You must then file the will and death certificate with the county probate court. If probate is required, you must get a letter from the court, known as a letter of testamentary. This gives you legal authority over the estate.

Assemble your pro team. In most instances, you’ll need an experienced estate planning attorney to help you navigate the probate court. The attorney who helped the decedent draw up his or her will is a good choice, as he or she is most likely familiar with the estate.

Create an inventory of assets. If the deceased didn’t keep good records of bank and brokerage accounts, insurance policies, tax returns, and other documents, you may need to track down some of these accounts.

Protect personal property. If the estate includes a home, the executor is responsible for maintaining the property and paying the mortgage, taxes and insurance until it’s sold.

Set up a separate bank account. An executor will need to pay bills and make deposits on behalf of the estate, so set up a bank account in the name of the decedent’s estate. This will also provide you a record of transactions that will prove useful if anyone challenges your administration of the estate.

Pay the decedent’s debts. This is a crucial action. If the decedent’s unpaid bills and other debts aren’t paid before the estate is distributed to heirs, creditors could sue. The executor is also responsible for filing a state and federal tax return to pay any taxes owed (or claim a refund).

Communicate with the beneficiaries on a regular basis. Don’t leave the heirs in the dark.

Distribute the assets. Finally, you can distribute the assets after all debts are paid, which may first require court approval.

If this sounds like more than you can handle, you can decline to act as an executor. Sometimes that’s the right choice.

Reference: Kiplinger (Oct. 29, 2021) “What to Do When You’re the Executor”

 

blended families

Do Grandchildren Get Some of the Estate If Their Dad Dies before Me?

It’s not that uncommon that a child dies before a parent. The question then arises about who gets that share. Is it the children of the decedent child (the will maker’s grandchildren), or do the will maker’s other children split the share of the decedent child?

Nj.com’s recent article entitled “Who gets this inheritance if a beneficiary dies?” explains that the language of the will itself governs what happens with each beneficiary’s share in the event one of the adult children dies before his or her parents.

Some wills divide the remainder among the will maker’s children who are still living. With this, the surviving siblings would receive the entire estate.

This is called “per capita,” which is a Latin phrase that translates literally to “by head.” In a per capita distribution, each designated beneficiary receives an inheritance only if they’re living when the inheritance vests (at the will maker’s death).

If a beneficiary dies before this, that beneficiary’s share is divided among the surviving named beneficiaries. As a result, the children of the decedent beneficiary get nothing, unless they are specifically designated as beneficiaries.

However, the more common approach is for a will to state: “I give, devise and bequeath my residuary estate to my descendants, per stirpes.”

Per stirpes is a Latin phrase that translates literally to “by roots” or “by branch.” A per stirpes distribution means that a beneficiary’s share passes to their lineal descendants if the beneficiary dies before the inheritance vests. Per stirpes effectively designates a class of beneficiaries to receive estate property, rather than designating only specific individuals to inherit property.

Therefore, providing this language in the will means that if a child predeceases the testator and the predeceased child has surviving descendants, that predeceased child’s share will go to that predeceased child’s descendants … that would be the will maker’s grandchildren.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney about how each of these designations would work in your specific situation, when you draft or update your will.

Reference: nj.com (Oct. 28, 2021) “Who gets this inheritance if a beneficiary dies?”

 

estate planning law firm

Can You Refuse an Inheritance?

No one can be forced to accept an inheritance they don’t want. However, what happens to the inheritance after they reject, or “disclaim” the inheritance depends on a number of things, says the recent article “Estate Planning: Disclaimers” from NWI Times.

A disclaimer is a legal document used to disclaim the property. To be valid, the disclaimer must be irrevocable, in writing and executed within nine months of the death of the decedent. You can’t have accepted any of the assets or received any of the benefits of the assets and then change your mind later on.

Once you accept an inheritance, it’s yours. If you know you intend to disclaim the inheritance, have an estate planning attorney create the disclaimer to protect yourself.

If the disclaimer is valid and properly prepared, you simply won’t receive the inheritance. It may or may not go to the decedent’s children.

After a valid qualified disclaimer has been executed and submitted, you as the “disclaimor” are treated as if you died before the decedent. Whoever receives the inheritance instead depends upon what the last will or trust provides, or the intestate laws of the state where the decedent lived.

In most cases, the last will or trust has instructions in the case of an heir disclaiming. It may have been written to give the disclaimed property to the children of the disclaimor, or go to someone else or be given to a charity. It all depends on how the will or trust was prepared.

Once you disclaim an inheritance, it’s permanent and you can’t ask for it to be given to you. If you fail to execute the disclaimer after the nine-month period, the disclaimer is considered invalid. The disclaimed property might then be treated as a gift, not an inheritance, which could have an impact on your tax liability.

If you execute a non-qualified disclaimer relating to a $100,000 inheritance and it ends up going to your offspring, you may have inadvertently given them a gift according to the IRS. You’ll then need to know who needs to report the gift and what, if any, taxes are due on the gift.

Persons with Special Needs who receive means-tested government benefits should never accept an inheritance, since they can lose eligibility for benefits.

A Special Needs Trust might be able to receive an inheritance, but there are limitations regarding how much can be accepted. An estate planning attorney will need to be consulted to ensure that the person with Special Needs will not have their benefits jeopardized by an inheritance.

The high level of federal exemption for estates has led to fewer disclaimers than in the past, but in a few short years—January 1, 2026—the exemption will drop down to a much lower level, and it’s likely inheritance disclaimers will return.

Reference: NWI Times (Nov. 14, 2021) “Estate Planning: Disclaimers”

 

estate planning and elder law

What Taxes Have to Be Paid When Someone Dies?

The last thing families want to think about after a loved one has passed are taxes, but they must be dealt with, deadlines must be met and challenges along the way need to be addressed. The article “Elder Care: Death and taxes, Part 1: Tax guidance for administering a loved one’s estate” from The Sentinel offers a useful overview, and recommends speaking with an estate planning attorney to be sure all tasks are completed in a timely manner.

Final income tax returns must be filed after a person passes. This is the tax return on income received during their last year of life, up to the date of death. When a final return is filed, this alerts federal and state taxing authorities to close out the decedent’s tax accounts. If a final return is not filed, these agencies will expect to receive annual tax payments and may audit the deceased. Even if the person didn’t have enough income to need to pay taxes, a final return still needs to be filed so tax accounts are closed out. The surviving spouse or executor typically files the final tax return. If there is a surviving spouse, the final income tax return is the last joint return.

Any tax liabilities should be paid by the estate, not by the executor. If a refund is due, the IRS will only release it to the personal representative of the estate. An estate planning attorney will know the required IRS form, which is to be sent with an original of the order appointing the person to represent the estate.

Depending on the decedent’s state of residence, heirs may have to pay an Inheritance Tax Return. This is usually based on the relationship of the heirs. The estate planning attorney will know who needs to pay this tax, how much needs to be paid and how it is done.

Income received by the estate after the decedent’s death may be taxable. This may be minimal, depending upon how much income the estate has earned after the date of death. In complex cases, there may be significant income and complex tax filings may be required.

If a Fiduciary Return needs to be filed, there will be strict filing deadline, often based on the date when the executor applied for the EIN, or the tax identification number for the estate.

The estate’s executor needs to know of any trusts that exist, even though they pass outside of probate. Currently existing trusts need to be administered. If there is a trust provision in the will, a new trust may need to be started after the date of death. Depending on how they are structured, trust income and distributions need to be reported to the IRS. The estate planning attorney will be able to help with making sure this is managed correctly, as long as they have access to the information.

The decedent’s tax returns may have a lot of information, but probably don’t include trust information. If the person had a Grantor Trust, you’ll need an experienced estate planning attorney to help. During the Grantor’s lifetime, the trust income is reported on the Grantor’s 1040 personal income tax return, as if there was no trust. However, when the Grantor dies, the tax treatment of the trust changes. The Trustee is now required to file Fiduciary Returns for the trust each year it exists and generates income.

An experienced estate planning attorney can analyze the trust and understand reporting and taxes that need to be paid, avoiding any unnecessary additional stress on the family.

Reference: The Sentinel (Dec. 3, 2021) “Elder Care: Death and taxes, Part 1: Tax guidance for administering a loved one’s estate”

 

healthcare

What to Do with Estate Plan when Loved One Dies

There are a few things a family needs to address immediately after a death, says Cleveland Jewish News’ recent article entitled “Funeral arrangements, estate planning take education.”

It is important that the decedent have a last will and testament to say to how their assets will be distributed. In addition, a trust in combination with a will can give the creator more control over how, when and where the assets go. A fully-funded revocable living trust does not go through probate, like a testamentary trust created under a will to administer the inheritance. A trust can help to avoid probate.

As for funeral arrangements, this can be challenging, if families have not started the planning process quickly. Trying to make decisions on a cemetery, a casket, a funeral home and a service can be daunting. There are a number of decisions to be made in a short amount of time.

As far as reviewing the documents and assets the decedent left behind, do this one at a time and organize as you go to avoid some stress. A family that is grieving can be overwhelmed very quickly.

When a family and loved ones have too much on their plates, nothing will get done because it is too much. Instead, look at one asset at a time, go through it and see how it is titled and if they think the beneficiary designation is appropriate.

Review each asset and make sure you have covered each one, especially if your goal is to avoid probate.

While still living, a person should make a list of where everything is located, details on their accounts and the account numbers and their estate planning attorney. This will ease the family’s burden when going through your assets and other documents, after you pass away.

Although it is not necessary that a parent disclose everything about his or her finances, a parent should have that information available somewhere. That way children will know where all the assets and important documents are located when needed.

Reference: Cleveland Jewish News (June 22, 2021) “Funeral arrangements, estate planning take education”

 

estate planning for singles

How Do I Stop Heirs from Foolishly Wasting Inheritance?

This is a problem solved by a trust—a “spendthrift” trust. With a spendthrift provision in a testamentary trust created under a will or an inheritance trust created under a revocable living trust, the trustee makes all decisions about distributions. This can be an effective means of controlling the flow of money.

A spendthrift trust, according to the article “Possible to spendthrift-proof a trust” from Record Courier, is created for the benefit and protection of a financially irresponsible person.

For a spendthrift trust, it may be better not to choose a family member or trusted friend to serve as the trustee. Such person might not live long enough or have the capacity to serve as trustee for as long as required, especially if the heir is a young adult. Conflicts among family members are common, when money is involved. An independent and well-established trust company or bank may be a better choice as a trustee. Large estates often go this route, since their services can be expensive. However, some retail banks do have a private wealth division. All options need to be explored.

Another benefit to a spendthrift trust—funds are protected against current or future creditors of the beneficiary. Let’s say a parent wants to leave money to a child, but knows the child has credit card debt already. Unless they are co-signers, the parent and their estate do not have a duty to pay an adult child’s debts. The spendthrift trust will not be accessible to the credit card company.

It is difficult to set up a spendthrift trust to protect one’s own money from creditors. This is something that must be approached only with an experienced estate planning attorney. This is because the rules are complex and there are significant limitations. If you wanted to create a spendthrift trust for yourself, you would have to completely give over control of assets to the trustee. There is no way to predict whether a court will consider the person to have relinquished enough control to make the trust valid.

This type of spendthrift trust may not be created with an intent to defraud, delay or hinder creditors. Doing so may make the trust invalid and any possible protection will be lost.

A spendthrift provision in a will is a clause used to protect a beneficiary from a creditor attaching prior debts against the beneficiary’s future inheritance. This means that the creditor may not force an heir or the estate’s executor to pay the beneficiary’s inheritance to the creditor, instead of the beneficiary. It also prevents the beneficiary from procuring a debt based on a future inheritance.

It is important to be aware that a spendthrift provision in a will or a spendthrift trust has limitations. The assets are only protected when they are in the trust or in the estate. Once a distribution is received, creditors can seek payment from the assets owned by the beneficiary.

Another qualifying factor: the spendthrift provision in the will must prevent both the voluntary and involuntary transfer of a beneficiary’s interest. The beneficiary may not transfer their interest to someone else.

The spendthrift trust and clause are mainly intended to protect a beneficiary’s interests from present and future creditors. They are not valid if their intent is to defraud others and may not be created to avoid paying any IRS debts.

Reference: Record Courier (July 10, 2021) “Possible to spendthrift-proof a trust”

 

estate planning

Can Family Members Contest a Will?

Estate planning documents, like wills and trusts, are enforceable legal documents, but when the grantor who created them passes, they can’t speak for themselves. When a loved one dies is often when the family first learns what the estate plans contain. That is a terrible time for everyone. It can lead to people contesting a will. However, not everyone can contest a will, explains the article “Challenges to wills and trusts” from The Record Courier.

A person must have what is called “standing,” or the legal right to challenge an estate planning document. A person who receives property from the decedent, and was designated in their will as a beneficiary, may file a written opposition to the probate of the will at any time before the hearing of the petition for probate. An “interested person” may also challenge the will, including an heir, child, spouse, creditor, settlor, beneficiary, or any person who has a legal property right in or a claim against the estate of the decedent.

Wills and trusts can be challenged by making a claim that the person lacked mental capacity to make the document. If they were sick or so impaired that they did not know what they were signing, or they did not fully understand the contents of the documents, they may be considered incapacitated, and the will or trust may be successfully challenged.

Fraud is also used as a reason to challenge a will or trust. Fraud occurs when the person signs a document that didn’t express their wishes, or if they were fooled into signing a document and were deceived as to what the document was. Fraud is also when the document is destroyed by someone other than the decedent once it has been created, or if someone other than the creator adds pages to the document or forges the person’s signature.

Alleging undue influence is another reason to challenge a will. This is considered to have occurred if one person overpowers the free will of the document creator, so the document creator does what the other person wants, instead of what the document creator wants. Putting a gun to the head of a person to demand that they sign a will is a dramatic example. Coercion, threats to other family members and threats of physical harm to the person are more common occurrences.

It is also possible for the personal representative or trustee’s administration of a will or trust to be challenged. If the personal representative or trustee fails to follow the instructions in the will or the trust, or does not report their actions as required, the court may invalidate some of the actions. In extreme cases, a personal representative or a trustee can be removed from their position by the court.

An estate plan created by an experienced estate planning lawyer should be prepared with an eye to the family situation. If there are individuals who are likely to challenge the will, a “no-contest” clause may be necessary. Open and candid conversations with family members about the estate plan may head off any surprises that could lead to the estate plan being challenged.

One last note: just because a family member is dissatisfied with their inheritance does not give them the right to bring a frivolous claim, and the court may not look kindly on such a case.

Reference: The Record-Courier (May 16, 2021) “Challenges to wills and trusts”

 

Ann Kellogg

Just What Does an Executor Do?

Spending the least amount of time possible contemplating your death is what most people try to do. However, one part of the estate planning process needs time and reflection: deciding who should serve in important roles, including executor. Whatever the size of your estate, the people you name have jobs that will impact your life and your family’s future, says a recent article “How to get it right when naming an executor and filling other key roles in your estate plan” from CNBC. A quick decision now might have a bad outcome later.

First, let’s look at the executor. They are responsible for everything from filing your last will with the court to paying off debts, closing accounts and making sure that assets in your probate estate are distributed according to the directions in your last will. They need to be trustworthy, organized and able to manage financial decisions. They also need to be available to handle your estate, in addition to their other responsibilities.

Note that some of your assets, including retirement tax deferred accounts, life insurance proceeds and any other assets with a named beneficiary, will pass outside of your probate estate. These assets need to be identified and the custodian needs to be notified so the heir can receive the asset.

Settling an estate takes an average of 16 months, with smaller estates being settled more quickly. Larger estates, worth more than $5 million and up, can take as long as four years to settle.

Some people prefer to name co-executors as a means of spreading out the responsibilities. That ix fine, unless the two people have a history of not getting along, as is the case with many siblings. Sharing the duties sounds like a good idea, but it can lead to delays if the two don’t agree or can’t coordinate their estate tasks. Many estate planning attorneys recommend naming one person as the executor and a second as the contingency executor, in case the first cannot serve or decides he or she does not want to take on the responsibilities. The same applies to any trustees, if your estate plan includes a trust.

Make sure the people you are considering as executor, contingent executor, trustee or success or trustee are willing to take on these roles. If there is no one in your life who can take on these tasks, an option is to name an estate planning attorney, accountant, or trust company.

Another important role in your estate plan is the Power of Attorney. You’ll want one for financial decisions and another for healthcare decisions. They can be the same person or different people. Understand that the financial Power of Attorney will have complete control over your assets, including accounts, real estate, and personal property, if you are too incapacitated to make decisions or to communicate your wishes.

The healthcare Power of Attorney will be making medical decisions on your behalf. You will want to name a person you trust to carry out your wishes—even if they are not the same ones they would want, or if your family opposes your wishes. It’s not an easy task, so be sure to create a Living Will to express your wishes, if you are placed on life support or suffer from a terminal condition. This will help your healthcare Power of Attorney follow your wishes.

Finally, revisit your estate plan every three to five years. Life changes, laws change and your estate plan should continue to reflect your wishes. The lives of the people in key roles change, so the same person who was ready to serve as your executor today may not be five years from now. Confirm their willingness to serve every time you review your last will, just to be sure.

Reference: CNBC (March 5, 2021) “How to get it right when naming an executor and filling other key roles in your estate plan”