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Estate Planning Blog

Serving Clients Throughout North Central Missouri

estate planning and elder law

Are Testamentary Trusts a Good Idea?

Not everyone wants to leave everything to their heirs without restrictions. Some want to protect money inherited from their own parents for their children or want to keep an irresponsible child from squandering an inheritance. For people who want more control over their assets, a testamentary trust might be useful, according to the recent article “What Is a Testamentary Trust and How Do I Create One? from U.S. News & World Report. A testamentary trust can also be used to leave assets to minor children, who may not legally inherit wealth directly.

However, your estate planning attorney may have some other, better tools for you.

A testamentary trust is a trust created to hold assets created in a last will and testament. It does not become active until after a person dies and the will has been validated by probate court. Once this has happened, the trust is activated and the decedent’s assets are placed into the trust. At this point, the trustee is in charge of the trust’s management and asset distribution.

A testamentary trust is different from a living trust. The living trust, also known as a revocable trust, is created while the grantor (the person making the trust) is still living. When the person dies, the revocable living trust doesn’t go through probate and assets are distributed according to the directions in the trust.

Both testamentary and living or revocable trusts are used in estate planning. However, the living trust may have far more flexibility and be easier to manage for a very simple reason: testamentary trusts are part of the probate process, administered through probate for as long as they are in effect.

There are advantages and disadvantages to both kinds of trusts. The testamentary trust is often used to manage assets for minor children. It’s also a good tool if you’re worried about an adult child getting divorced and keeping the family money in the family. The long-term court oversight is more protective, which may be desirable, but it can also be more expensive.

The best reason for a testamentary estate? They are faster to set up.  However, after death they create more work for the remaining family members.

Your will must contain specific directions for what assets go into the testamentary trust. Assets with beneficiary designations, such as life insurance policies and retirement accounts, don’t go into any trusts, unless a trust is designated as the beneficiary of the policy or account. They are instead distributed directly to beneficiaries outside of the probate estate.

Changing or annulling a testamentary trust is relatively easy while you are living—simply update your will to reflect your new wishes.  However, once you have passed, the testamentary trust becomes irrevocable and may not be changed.

Which is best for your situation? Your estate planning attorney will evaluate these and other estate planning tools to find the best solutions to protect you and your family.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (July 14, 2022) “What Is a Testamentary Trust and How Do I Create One?

 

IMS-Logo-Sig

How Do I Contest a Will?

As a beneficiary of a will, if you don’t agree with how the assets are being distributed, you may have grounds for contesting the will. MSN’s recent article entitled “Contesting a Will? You Might Not Need a Lawyer” says to do this you must have a legitimate legal reason to challenge the will, such as one of the most common arguments:

  • Lack of mental capacity. If the person making the will (the “testator”) wasn’t “of sound mind,” he or she may not understand their decisions. The testator must be able to understand what they own, who their natural heirs are and what they are giving and to whom.
  • Fraud, undue influence, or forgery. Some people are tricked into signing a will, are forced to create a will under duress, or have their signature forged.
  • Multiple wills. In this situation, the one that was made most recently is often the one that the courts will decide is valid. However, wills created immediately before death may be contested due to undue influence, lack of mental capacity, or other reasons.
  • The state requirements aren’t met. Every state has specific requirements as to what must be in a will, the way in which it’s signed and the number of witnesses required. If these elements aren’t met, then the will may not be valid.
  • Location. Some states may not recognize wills created in another state.

To contest the will, you must have legal standing, which means you must meet one of these requirements:

  • A prior will designates you as a beneficiary;
  • The current will designates you as a beneficiary;
  • You’re the beneficiary of a more recent will made after the one in question; or
  • You would be an heir if there was no will, and the state’s laws of intestacy were applied.

Your attorney will next file a petition in the state probate court where the estate is under probate. This tells the probate court and the estate that you are contesting the will. If your case is not settled, it goes to court where you’ll make your argument as to why the will should be changed. The court will decide the outcome of your case.

A way to keep family members  from fighting over an estate is add a no-contest clause into the will. This disinherits anyone who challenges a will, if their challenge fails. In order words, if you don’t win your challenge, you get nothing from the estate.

Reference: MSN (May 30, 2022) “Contesting a Will? You Might Not Need a Lawyer”

 

estate planning for singles

Who Should Be Your Executor?

While the executor is usually a spouse or close family member, you can name anyone you wish to be your executor. A bank, estate planning attorney, or professional trustee at a trust company may also serve as the executor, according to a recent article from Twin Cities-Pioneer Press titled “Your Money: What you need to know about naming an executor.”

Regardless of who you select, the person has a legal duty to be honest, impartial, financially responsible and to put your interests ahead of their own. This person and one or two backup candidates should be named in your will, just in case the primary executor declines or is unable to serve.

How does someone become an executor? When your will is entered into probate, the court checks to be sure the person you name meets all of your state’s legal requirements. Once the court approves (and usually the court does), then their role is official and you executor can get to work.

The executor has many responsibilities. You can help your executor do a better job by making sure that financial and personal business documents are organized and readily available. Here are some, but not all, of the executor’s tasks:

  • Making an inventory of all assets and liabilities
  • Giving notice to creditors: credit card companies, banks, mortgage companies, etc.
  • Filing a final personal tax return and filing the estate tax return
  • Paying any debts and taxes
  • Distributing assets according to the directions in the will and in compliance with state law
  • Preparing and submitting a detailed report to the court of how the estate was settled

If there is no will, or if no executor is named in the will, or if the executor can’t serve, the court will appoint a professional administrator to settle your estate. It won’t be someone you know. Your family may not like all of the decisions made on your behalf, but there won’t be any options available.

Does an executor get paid? A family member may or may not wish to be paid. However, given how much time it takes to settle an estate, you might feel it’s fair for them to be compensated. The amount varies depending on where you live, but you can leave the person between 1% to 8% of your total estate. A professional administrator will likely cost considerably more.

How do you document your estate to help out the executor? If you think this task is too onerous, imagine how a family member will feel if they have to conduct a scavenger hunt to identify assets and debts. If a professional administrator ends up doing this work, it will take a bigger bite out of your estate and leave loved ones with a smaller inheritance.

Start by making a list of all of your assets and liabilities, plus a list of all advisors who help with the business side of your life. Recent tax returns will be helpful, as will contact information for your estate planning attorney, CPA and financial advisor. You should include retirement accounts, life insurance policies and any assets without beneficiary designations.

Reference: Twin Cities-Pioneer Press (June 25, 2022) “Your Money: What you need to know about naming an executor”

 

Caring-Hands

What Should I Know About Buying Funeral Services?

People usually don’t buy funeral services frequently, so they’re unfamiliar with the process. Add to this the fact that they’re typically bereaved and stressed, which can affect decision-making, explains Joshua Slocum, executive director of the Funeral Consumers Alliance, an advocacy group. In addition, people tend to associate their love for the dead person with the amount of money they spend on the funeral, says The Seattle Times’ recent article entitled “When shopping for funeral services, be wary.”

“Grieving people really are the perfect customer to upsell,” Slocum said.

The digital age has also made it easier to contact grieving customers. Federal authorities recently charged the operator of two online cremation brokerages of fraud. The operator misled clients and even withheld remains to force bereaved families to pay inflated prices.

The Justice Department, on behalf of the Federal Trade Commission, sued Funeral & Cremation Group of North America and Legacy Cremation Services, which operates under several names and the companies’ principal, Anthony Joseph Damiano. The companies, according to a civil complaint, sell their funeral services through the websites Legacy Cremation Services and Heritage Cremation Provider.

These companies pretend to be local funeral homes offering low-cost cremation services. Their websites use search engines that make it look like consumers are dealing with a nearby business. However, they really act as middlemen, offering services and setting prices with customers, then arranging with unaffiliated funeral homes to perform cremations.

The lawsuit complaint says these companies offered lower prices for cremation services than they ultimately required customers to pay and arranged services at locations that were farther than advertised, forcing customers to travel long distances for viewings and to obtain remains.

“In some instances when consumers contest defendants’ charges,” the complaint said, the companies “threaten not to return or actually refuse to return” remains until customers pay up.

Mr. Slocum of the Funeral Consumers Alliance recommends contacting several providers — in advance, if possible, so you can look at the options without pressure. And ask for the location of the cremation center and request a visit. Also note that cremation sites in the U.S. are frequently not located in the same place as the funeral home and may not be designed for consumer tours.

Note that the FTC’s Funeral Rule predates the internet and doesn’t require online price disclosure. Likewise, most states don’t require this either.

Last year during the pandemic, the government issued a warning about fraud related to the funeral benefits. They said FEMA had reports of people receiving calls from strangers offering to help them “register” for benefits.

Reference: Seattle Times (May 15, 2022) “When shopping for funeral services, be wary”

 

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”