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  • Archive for February, 2011

    Where Should You Live to Escape the Estate Tax?

    Monday, February 28th, 2011

    Do you live in a state that has a friendly attitude toward the estate tax or inheritance tax? You may think you do, but according to this article in Forbes some states made changes to their estate or inheritance tax policies in 2010 as a response to the lengthy uncertainty over the federal estate tax: “Congress took so long to agree on what to do about the federal estate tax, allowing it to lapse in 2010, and many states take their lead from the federal system.”

    The federal estate tax is set (for now) but you may still expect some states to continue making changes to their own estate tax. The fact is that state governments are caught between a rock and a hard place; “The changing state landscape… reflects a lot of ambivalence by state officials themselves. They want the estate tax revenue, but worry about chasing wealthy seniors across state borders.”

    If you’re looking for an estate-tax-friendly state to which to retire you can check out the link to the map in the Forbes article; but before you move be sure to do your research. Just because a state has no estate tax (or a high exemption amount) one year doesn’t mean it won’t change the next. The best strategy is to be familiar with the state’s history. How long has their estate tax been in place? Has there been any legislation proposed recently regarding the tax? How likely is it that their tax policies will remain the same as they are when you move?

    Illinois recently made changes to the state laws regarding estate tax, and other states that are most likely to make changes in the future include Hawaii, Ohio, Connecticut and Vermont. “But don’t count on these efforts… even if you get relief one year, the levy can go up again the next.”

    As always, the best strategy is to plan ahead, review your plan often, and have a knowledgeable estate planning attorney on your side.

    How a Special Needs Trust Can Help Your Child

    Friday, February 25th, 2011

    You know how important it is to protect your family with an estate plan, but if you have a child with special needs then taking steps to protect them if something should happen to you is essential. Unfortunately, for families which include special needs children, knowing exactly the best way to protect your child(ren) isn’t always so clear. As Joe Perez, the widowed father of 14 year old Danny, and the subject of this article on the ABC News website found out, it’s not as simple as leaving your child with a good guardian and decent inheritance—special needs children need a little more planning than that.

    You know what you want for your child, you want him to live as contentedly as possible, with loving guardians and engaged in activities which will bring pleasure and peace. But how can this dream be achieved on the limited assets that Medicaid recipients are allowed to have without losing their government benefits? How can responsible parents safely leave an inheritance to their special needs child? For many parents, part of the answer to that question is having a special needs trust.

    Unfortunately, not all parents are aware of the benefits of a special needs trust, or how easy it can be to create one—with the right help. A special needs trust is the vessel that will hold your child’s inheritance (from you or from another source) without disrupting that child’s government benefits. It gives your child the funds they need beyond the basic living expenses provided by SSI or Medicaid.

    If your family could benefit from a special needs trust, please contact our office for more information. A special needs trust is not the kind of document that can be found in a software package or created from a standard trust template. The needs of your child are unique, and should be addressed as such.

    The Tax-Man Cometh

    Wednesday, February 23rd, 2011

    It’s that time of year again; the time of year when everyone starts gathering receipts, assessing income and expenses, and making appointments with tax advisors. Tax time can be a very stressful time for many families, but—with the help of this article from MSN Money—perhaps tax season can be made a little bit easier. The article lists 13 tax breaks from 2010 that can help save you money, including:

    • The tax credit for first time homebuyers (if you’re not a first time homebuyer don’t give up, there’s a credit for existing homeowners too.)
    • The parking and transit credit
    • The college tuition tax credit
    • The credit for energy-saving home improvements

    And then of course there are the two we’ve been mentioning here on our blog for the past few months:

    • The estate tax exemption, and
    • The annual gift tax exemption

    Of course, not every item on the list is going to apply to every reader, but if even one or two credits apply to you or your family it can be a huge help.

    Don’t rely only on this article to ease your 2010 tax burden, your own advisors and tax planners—who know more about your family’s personal and business finances—will be able to give you much more in-depth advice on how best to address your own tax situation. In addition, talking to a professional advisor right now provides the perfect opportunity to tackle any issues in 2011, hopefully making this time next year a much happier and less stressful time for everybody.

    A Will Reveals More About You Than Just Assets and Distribution

    Friday, February 18th, 2011

    We tell our readers quite often that a will is one of the most important documents in your estate plan—an essential document, to be quite honest—but sometimes we like to remind our readers that wills are interesting family and historical documents as well.

    Genealogists will often use an ancestor’s last will and testament to determine important details about family members: names and birthdates of siblings or children, extent of property, last known address, etc. Additionally, these are the documents in which we make our final wishes known. This is often where our true selves come out; who we liked best and what we valued most.

    A last will and testament can be very revealing indeed. In honor of President’s Day we offer these interesting tidbits relating to the wills of the leaders of our nation:

    • George Washington was concerned with the future of our young nation to the very end, and gave some of his estate toward establishing the first American Institutions of higher education, an attempt to prevent young Americans from being “sent to foreign Countries for the purpose of Education, often before their minds were formed, or they had imbibed any adequate ideas of the happiness of their own; contracting, too frequently, not only habits of dissipation and extravagance, but principles unfriendly to Republican Government & to the true and genuine liberties of mankind.”
    • Interestingly, President Abraham Lincoln left no will—and he was a prominent lawyer who should have known better!
    • President Harry S. Truman included careful tax planning in his last will and testament.
    • President Warren G. Harding must have had some kind of premonition when he conveniently decided to write his will 6 weeks before his sudden death.
    • The will of President Calvin Coolidge was just 23 words long: “Not unmindful of my son John, I give all my estate, both real and personal, to my wife, Grace Coolidge, in fee simple.”
    • President John F. Kennedy was a bit poetical in his will, and included this haunting phrase, “being of sound and disposing mind and memory, and mindful of the uncertainty of life…”

    Estate Tax Laws Aren’t the Only Things That Change

    Wednesday, February 16th, 2011

    We’ve written before about the importance of reviewing and updating your estate plan, but it’s a topic worth mentioning again—especially in light of the many recent changes to estate tax law. The plain truth is that no matter how perfect your estate plan is when you create it, change is inevitable, and when your life (or the tax law) changes, it’s important that your estate plan change with it.

    Reviewing your estate plan every 2-5 years is essential to keeping it up to date and working the way you intended it to work. Luckily, reviewing your estate plan can be quick and easy if you know what you’re looking for. Here are 5 key components you’ll want to review:

    1. Fiduciaries-How have the people in your life moved or changed?
    2. Assets-Are your finances different than they were a few years ago?
    3. Distribution and Beneficiaries-Are there any new members of your family?
    4. Health Care-What changes have you experienced in your health recently?
    5. Legal Updates-Have the laws changed?

    If we’re lucky, our lives are constantly changing—our families evolve, our finances improve or decline, we meet and form strong relationships with knowledgeable friends and professionals. It only makes sense that your estate plan should change too. What seemed best for your family 4 years ago might not be the ideal situation now. By reviewing and updating these 5 components on a regular basis, and touching base with your attorney, you will insure that your estate plan will continue to protect yourself and your family the way you intended it to when you first created it.

    Retirement Advice for EVERY Age

    Monday, February 14th, 2011

    “Retirement”—It’s a word that goes hand-in-hand with “Baby Boomer” these days. After all, as has been pointed out over and over again, retirement is the issue of the hour as the first round of Baby Boomers hits that magic age. But what about the younger set? Is there anything that twenty- or thirty-somethings should be considering regarding retirement at this point in their lives?

    Actually, according to this article by Steve Vernon at MoneyWatch.com, it is never too early to start thinking about retirement; and there is plenty for adults in their twenties or thirties to consider right now that can help them get a jump on retirement a couple decades down the line.

    According to the article, “The challenge facing most people in their 20s and 30s is juggling competing priorities — usually there isn’t enough money in the budget to do it all… ‘Should I save money for retirement, a down payment on a house, or for my kid’s college education?’… How do you prioritize?” While all of these things are important, Vernon suggests that your first priority in your twenties should be yourself. He suggests that the best investments you can make at this time are in your career, your home, your health, and your spending habits.

    What our firm would like to point out is that a large part of investing in those things mentioned above is protecting those things. An estate planner can help you decide how to best protect your home from taxes, lawsuits, or divorce; an estate planner can also help you protect your health with a living will or healthcare directive. Additionally, many young adults (frustrated with the current state of the job market) have decided to take employment into their own hands by starting their own businesses—and many have been very successful! An estate planner can help you with the overwhelming but necessary task of protecting and planning for the future of your small business.

    The news may be flush with stories about (and advice for) Baby Boomers entering or nearing retirement, but we know that everybody can use help and advice when it comes to planning for the future. Our office can help you prepare for your best future—regardless of your age. Call us today.

    Long-Term Care; Be Prepared in an Area of Uncertain Options

    Friday, February 11th, 2011

    It’s flu season again, and the strain going around this year has been a difficult one, mainly because of how long it keeps its victims out of commission. So the article we recently found on Time.com about Long-Term Care seems particularly timely and relevant, if only because this year’s flu could be seen as an omen of what’s to come as Baby Boomers age into their golden years.

    According to the article, “A huge wave of baby boomers may need long-term care in their golden years — and yet fewer than half have taken steps to prepare for it… two-thirds of Americans believe it’s important to plan for long-term care, but only 44% have taken steps to protect themselves.” Part of the reason for this lack of preparedness is that Baby Boomers underestimate the likelihood that they’ll need long-term care, or they overestimate the likelihood that their children or families will be able (or willing) to provide that care.

    But there’s another reason why Baby Boomers are statistically unprepared for the crisis of old age; to put it simply, there aren’t any clear avenues to solid and reliable financial preparedness. “While it’s clear that not enough people are thinking about preparing for their long-term-care needs, it’s not at all clear what, if any, the best solutions are.”

    Some think that extra savings in the bank will cover the cost of long-term care; others believe that government programs such as Medicaid or Medicare will take care of them. Unfortunately, both of these beliefs are mistaken. “The average cost of a nursing home ranges from $85,000 to $120,000 a year, while hiring an aide to spend six hours a day on average in the home starts around $40,000 a year… Medicare, meanwhile, only covers up to 100 days of long-term care and often involves co-payments. Medicaid will cover long-term nursing-home care but only after the person has drained his or her savings account.”

    The only other obvious solution is long-term care insurance; but even with long-term care insurance, nothing is clear cut, and too many people have found themselves paying into a policy and ending up with no return on their investment. This isn’t to say that long-term care insurance shouldn’t be an option, only that it’s one to be well-researched. Long-term care insurance is still one of the best options out there, but “There have been horror stories of people paying premiums on long-term-care insurance policies for years, only to find the benefits won’t cover their needs 20 or 30 years down the road when health care and long-term-care costs are significantly higher.”

    The best advice we can give is to do your research and ask for the help of an advisor with experience in elder law, elder care, and senior financial planning. Whatever you do, don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater—we may have no clear and easy answers yet, but that’s no excuse to remain completely unprepared.

    Estate Tax Lessons from 2010 and Things to Watch Out for in 2011

    Monday, February 7th, 2011

    We all know from the many news stories of last  year that estate tax laws are not set in stone, they can fluctuate and change both at the state and the federal level; and as this article in Forbes points out, keeping up with those fluctuations can be of the utmost importance to you and your loved ones.

    The many celebrity news stories we saw last year provide all the examples we need of what can happen when you plan well (as was the case with Brittany Murphy’s estate plan) or when you neglect your estate plan—or even worse, when you fail to plan at all. Here are some celebrity examples of common estate planning pitfalls and mistakes:

    Failing to update your estate plan. We tell all of our clients how important it is to review and update your estate plan every 2 to 5 years; Gary Coleman provides a prime example of what can happen if you neglect to follow through on those updates and reviews. “[Coleman] created a handwritten codicil to his will in 2007 leaving much of his estate to his wife, Shannon Price. After they divorced, however, Coleman never updated his will or created a new one. That led to a court fight after he died about whether Coleman was still married to Price. Even though they never officially tied the knot for a second time, Price claimed they had a ‘common-law marriage,’ which would mean that the handwritten will would be valid.”

    Failing to fund your estate plan. A revocable living trust is a wonderful tool, but it’s just an empty vessel until you fund it by re-titling your assets in the name of your trust.  Michael Jackson created what is most likely a wonderful living trust, but his failure to fund it properly means that 2010 saw “The estate of Michael Jackson… dragged on with no end in sight.”

    Waiting too long to create your plan. If you are a senior citizen, waiting too long to create your plan leaves you open to the exploitation or undue influence of acquaintances or family members who might try to take advantage of you.  Even if nothing of the sort has taken place, just the suspicion of undue influence can land your estate in a lengthy court battle. “Does the Anna Nicole Smith case come to mind? The United States Supreme Court ruled in 2010 that it will hear her case for the second time. Did she wrongly take advantage of her 90-year old husband, or did his son use fraud and other improper means to stop the billionaire from leaving money to Anna Nicole?”

    We can all benefit from the very public airings of these celebrity estates.  Our office can help you avoid the mistakes listed here, plus many more.  The new laws of 2011 provide the perfect opportunity to create a plan (or update your existing plan), and ensure that your family will be well protected now, and in the future.

    Minnesota Health Care Dispute Raises Fears for Everyone

    Wednesday, February 2nd, 2011

    As estate planning attorneys we help our clients plan ahead. We help them create the documents and take the legal action they need to protect themselves and those they love. We help them talk through painful possibilities, and support them as they make difficult decisions. We work to ensure that our clients and their families will be prepared for any eventuality—but deep down we hope that they will never really need to make use of some of these documents and plans.

    One of the situations that estate planners (or any compassionate advisor) dreads is one that is happening right now in Minnesota. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune the family and friends of 85 year old Al Barnes are struggling to make a difficult decision about his end-of-life care—a decision made no easier by the fact that not all family members (or Mr. Barnes doctors and health care providers) can agree on the next course of action.

    “Numerous doctors have assessed Barnes in the past year, and agree on his prognosis. According to court records, Barnes suffers from a level of dementia so profound that doctors believe it is pointless to treat his kidney failure and respiratory failure.” But this isn’t the whole story. Al Barnes’ wife Lana Barnes believes that “her husband suffers from chronic Lyme disease, and that antibiotic treatment of the tick-borne bacterial infection would reverse his dementia — and necessitate treatment for his other conditions as well.”

    Mr. Barnes does have a Health Care Directive which lists his wife Lana as his agent, but it apparently goes no further than that, giving no specific instructions or information about what his wishes for end-of-life care would be. And herein lies the dispute. “A Methodist Hospital doctor wants to take decisionmaking rights from [Mrs. Barnes] because he believes she is demanding hopeless and painful treatments. The 56-year-old wife is accusing the doctor and others of misdiagnosis that has left Barnes substantially — but not irreversibly — incapacitated.”

    The Minneapolis Probate Courts temporarily took away Mrs. Barnes’ authority over her husband’s care earlier this month after the disagreements between wife and doctors came to a head. “Lana and doctors from Methodist Hospital [are] due to resume arguments over his medical care Wednesday in Hennepin County Probate Court… After Wednesday’s hearing, a judge will decide whether Lana Barnes remains in charge.”

    This is exactly the kind of situation we hope to help our clients avoid by encouraging a little bit of forethought, conversations between family members and loved ones, and by preparing a thorough, decisive, and well-thought-out health care directive.