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  • Archive for September, 2011

    When “Equal” is not Always “Fair”

    Friday, September 30th, 2011

    Every parent wants to be fair to their children; avoid showing favoritism, give each the same advantages, and eventually leaving each a fair and equal inheritance. But every parent also knows that there are times when equal is not always fair—a dilemma that is often faced by parents drawing up their will or estate plan. This is exactly the issue that is addressed in this recent article in the Wall Street Journal entitled Wills: How to Give One Child Less.

    The article mentions that there are a number of different reasons why parents may want to give seemingly unequal financial distributions in their wills, “Many parents want to support children who need more financial help, while others want to repay children who have provided important support or caregiving. Some parents already may have helped one child considerably more than another during his or her lifetime, such as paying for a pricey graduate-school education or providing money for a down payment for a house. Other parents are reluctant to reward a particularly difficult or problematic child.”

    There is absolutely nothing wrong with choosing to leave more to one child than another, but problems may arise when children are caught by surprise and feel neglected or betrayed; this happens most often when children don’t understand the reasons for their parents’ seeming favoritism, and can result in one child choosing to contest your will in court.

    The WSJ article recommends a few strategies to avoid these hurt feelings and expensive court proceedings, but the first and best strategy is to talk to your children about it ahead of time, if possible. Hearing the news (and the reasons behind it) from mom and dad themselves can be much less hurtful than hearing about it from an attorney. Furthermore, telling your children yourself gives you the opportunity to explain your decision in a sensitive and loving manner.

    If you still worry that your decision might be contested there are a number of precautions you can take to help ensure your planning documents will hold, including taking steps to prove your mental capacity is sound, creating what the WSJ calls “serial wills,” including a no-contest clause in your will, and more. Which method you may choose to employ will depend completely on your unique situation, and your estate planning attorney will be able to help you decide which is best.

    We all know logically that “equal” is not always “fair,” but the heart does not always understand what seems logical to the head. Breaking the news gently to your kids ahead of time can go a long way toward avoiding hurt feelings later.

    Three Estate Planning Documents You Need During Your Lifetime

    Wednesday, September 28th, 2011

    There are a number of very important documents in your estate plan which come into play after your death, but as this article in Forbes reminds us, there are two or three estate planning documents that are of the utmost importance while you are still alive: your Healthcare Proxy, your Advance Directive (also called a Living Will), and your Power of Attorney. Together, these three documents ensure that your medical and financial affairs will be taken care of and that your wishes will be followed should you somehow become incapacitated.

    Healthcare Proxy: This document nominates the person (or people) who will interact with medical staff, have access to your medical records, and make healthcare decisions for you if you are ever unable to do so yourself. This can be a standalone document, but it can also be wrapped up as part of the next document;

    Advance Healthcare Directive (or Living Will): This is the document that describes in as great or as little detail as you wish your preferences for medical treatment, your wishes for resuscitation (or lack thereof) and even your wishes for the disposition of your remains. An Advance Healthcare Directive also often includes a section nominating a healthcare agent (or healthcare proxy) to make decisions for you if you cannot.

    Financial Power of Attorney: If you ever become incapacitated you will still have bills to be paid, investments to be monitored, and financial decisions to be made; the Financial Power of Attorney gives the person you nominate the power to keep all those various financial balls up in the air. The person named as your power of attorney will have the power to access your bank (and other financial) accounts, so be sure the person you choose is someone you trust.

    The Forbes article mentions that “One in eight baby boomers will get Alzheimer’s after they turn 65. Sure, you hope you won’t be one of them. But the risk of a slow decline and incapacity, meaning that you don’t know what assets you have, what you want to do with them and who your family members are, lurks for us all.” Having the three above-mentioned documents ensures that you—and your family—will be ready for whatever the future may hold.

    “The Little Things:” Leaving Cherished Personal Items to Heirs

    Monday, September 26th, 2011

    When most people think about estate planning they think about how to leave financial assets—savings, retirement accounts, investment assets, or large assets such as a home—to their children, grandchildren or other loved ones. But our firm knows that estate planning is about much more than just money. In fact, once clients get beyond the big-ticket financial items and start considering the other assets or items they’d like to leave to their loved ones they often find that these “smaller items” involve far more concern and consideration than the finances.

    Consider for a moment which items have meaning for you. What will happen to these items when you’re gone? The first things that come to mind are often family heirlooms: Your grandmother’s china, the engagement ring your father gave your mother; but what about items of significance to you in particular—a home library with antique books, a classical guitar collection, your personal inventory of artwork, or perhaps a valuable coin or stamp collection.

    All too often these items of personal value are given only a vague mention as part of “the estate.” These personal items can end up either given away for a pittance at a yard sale, or they may cost hundreds of dollars in legal fees when siblings fight over them. Siblings often end up fighting and disowning each other over a disagreement about small items of personal value from mom or dad.

    Luckily, you don’t have to leave the distribution of these items to chance. Our firm will work with you to create an estate plan that will not only pass your financial assets to your heirs, but also your beloved personal items as well. Perhaps you’d like to leave that home library to your literary niece along with a modest sum to help her buy bookshelves. Your classical guitar collection might be most appreciated by your local music center, along with a financial donation to put toward a musical scholarship program.

    Artwork, coin collections, stamp collections—these “small” items can be the Achilles’ heel of an estate plan if not given the consideration they deserve; but it doesn’t have to be that way. With the right planning you can leave your cherished personal items in the hands of appreciative people who will care for them. Contact our office today and let us help you provide for the people—and things—you love most.

    There’s More than One Way to Name IRA Beneficiaries

    Friday, September 23rd, 2011

    Do you know the best way to pass your IRA savings on to your loved ones when you die? It sounds like a simple question, but naming beneficiaries for your IRA is not always as straightforward as it sounds. This article in CBS MoneyWatch explains: “Without proper estate planning, you may be reducing your family’s future wealth potential. That’s because improper planning can mean not only a premature end to your IRA at your death, but also assets being inherited by the wrong individuals or entities.”

    Deciding who should inherit your retirement savings is fairly simple (although it is not uncommon for an ex-spouse to receive IRA benefits because beneficiary designation forms are not updated after significant life events such as a divorce,) it’s figuring out how the assets should be distributed that poses the problem. If done correctly, inherited IRA assets can be rolled over and stretched out by beneficiaries for years. But without the correct planning your heirs may find themselves paying significant taxes on their inheritance or worse yet, unable to access the funds at all.

    The article explains that each of the many options for IRA beneficiaries requires a different kind of planning. Naming a spouse as a beneficiary is fairly straightforward, your spouse can either “Roll the funds into his or her own IRA” or “Open an inherited IRA and take distributions based upon his or her remaining life expectancy.” Planning to leave your IRA to a single child is somewhat similar to planning to leave it to a spouse.

    But if you would like to leave your IRA to more than one child, or to a trust for the benefit of multiple individuals or charities, you’ll likely want to contact an attorney or accountant for more significant planning. As beneficial as these options can be, there are regulations and requirements involved with multiple beneficiaries, and “there are a lot of complexities with naming trusts as beneficiaries, so seek a competent estate planner for assistance.”

    Is Planning for the Future Easier if You’re Single?

    Wednesday, September 21st, 2011

    “The grass is always greener on the other side of the fence.” It seems that this old adage is appropriate for married people planning for retirement, who look over the fence at their single counterparts and imagine how much easier it must be for them. According to a recent article in the New York Times, “More than half of married Americans, and more than two-thirds of singles, say they believe it is easier to make major financial decisions for retirement when there is no spouse in the picture.”

    We all know, however, that the wisdom of this adage comes from the fact that things are not always as they appear. The same is true, it seems, when it comes to perceptions about the difficulty of retirement planning for married couples vs. single individuals. The findings of the Charles Schwab & Company survey quoted by the NY Times article reveal that “85 percent of married Americans were saving for retirement, compared with 67 percent of singles, across all age groups. Thirty-eight percent of married Americans expressed confidence in their retirement readiness, compared with 32 percent of those who were single.”

    The numbers aren’t all that surprising when you consider that while it may be easier to make decisions about money when you’re on your own, it’s easier to sock money away in a savings or retirement account when you have two incomes to draw from.

    Furthermore, having a second person in the picture can actually serve as an incentive to stick to your savings plan. “While everyone wishes they didn’t have to compromise, a spouse is also a sort of ‘buddy system,’ in terms of staying on track for savings… If one person tends to be a spender, a spouse who has the opposite tendency may help the couple stay on track toward savings goals.”

    The important thing—whether you’re single or married—is that you’re ready for whatever the future may be. Having a retirement savings plan, and protecting that plan for yourself and your family, is of the utmost importance.

    How Important Is Religion When Planning Your Estate?

    Monday, September 19th, 2011

    In a multi-cultural, multi-religious country such as ours the subject of personal faith or religious beliefs is one that many advisors are reluctant to bring up. Some advisors are afraid of offending their clients, other advisors may simply feel that religion has no bearing on the financial service they provide; but a recent article in the Wall Street Journal questions this assumption and asks is there a circumstance under which business and religion should mix?

    The WSJ article takes the view that yes, there are circumstances when religious beliefs do have a bearing on financial matters. For example, “Making sure a client’s living will and health-care proxy are in line with his or her religious beliefs—or lack of belief—should be a priority for advisers.” Additionally, creating a “‘family values and mission statement,’ which typically includes a section about the family’s ‘spiritual values’… [can help a client] gain clarity about their family’s priorities.”

    When it comes to estate planning, religious beliefs and values are often a very large part of the planning process. Parents and grandparents hope that they can leave a moral and financial legacy, and how you choose to do this will have a significant effect on your estate plan. In order to serve their client to the fullest an estate planning attorney has to know which questions to ask and how to listen with an open mind in order to ascertain the complete scope of a client’s goals and help our client achieve those goals.

    Including religious beliefs in an estate plan won’t be a priority for everyone. But for those who do wish to address the subject, they may find it’s not so easy to jump right into the topic with a relative stranger. The most natural place to start is often with a healthcare directive or living will, where you will want to include your end-of-life wishes and memorial instructions. Discussing values in this context can often lead to a greater discussion of how to pass your values on to your heirs through your will or trust as well.

    How To Give An Inheritance To A Child Who Might Squander Or Abuse It

    Friday, September 16th, 2011

    Giving your children an inheritance can be one of the most generous, most loving things a parent can do… Unfortunately, under certain circumstances it can also be the most dangerous. A recent article in the New York Times addresses a question asked by many parents in estate planning offices all over the country: How to give an inheritance to a problem child who might squander or abuse it?

    It is not unusual for estate planners to hear concerns from parents or families about one child or sibling who is not quite as mature, not quite as responsible as the others. In some cases the concern is not with a child or sibling, but with an untrustworthy spouse of a child or sibling. In both cases the estate planning challenge is the same—how to provide for the one you love without feeding any dangerous habits or predatory relationships.

    There are actually a great number of ways parents can use estate planning to either protect or motivate an irresponsible child. The one your family chooses will depend on your unique circumstances. The article mentions a few of these strategies, including:

    Eliminate temptation by restricting access to large sums of money. “Money does not cause problems, but it can sure accelerate them. The simplest strategy is to choke off that fuel.” Parents can do this through annuities, through specific instructions in trusts, or through a trusted and like-minded trustee. What is not recommended is putting another sibling in charge of the estate and asking that sibling to “parent” the less responsible one. This is a recipe for disaster.

    Use your estate plan to give your child incentives to improve. “Incentive trusts can set hurdles for children to receive money or make payments only for set reasons. Pretty much anything can be a trigger, from being admitted to a certain college or matching money children earn on their own to being clean from drugs for a certain number of years.” Your estate planner can tell you how to best set this up.

    Keep something in reserve for future years and generations. If your goal is to encourage children and grandchildren to lead productive lives and contribute to future generations then your estate planner can help you design a plan that will last for decades or generations. Recent tax developments have made this an especially good time to create a lasting legacy. “People with substantial wealth may want to take advantage of the $5 million exemption from taxes and 35 percent tax rate over that amount.”

    IRS Announces Another Extension for Estate Tax Filing Deadline

    Wednesday, September 14th, 2011

    Just a few weeks ago the IRS announced the November 15, 2011 estate tax filing deadline for large estates of decedents who passed away in 2010; but some executors might be relieved to know that the IRS recently extended the deadline to January 17, 2012.

    This extension gives executors of large estates more time to determine whether or not its in the best interests of the heirs to take advantage of the 2010 estate tax repeal. The decision facing executors of the 2010 estates is this:

    * Choose not to pay estate taxes, but subject the assets of the estate to carryover basis rules (meaning heirs will pay capital gains taxes based on the price of an asset when it was initially acquired by the decedent); or

    * Pay estate taxes under the 2011 rules, with a $5 million per-person exemption and a 35 percent top rate, but with a stepped-up income tax basis (meaning heirs will pay capital gains taxes on the price of an asset when it was inherited.)

    For any executors who haven’t already made the decision, they can now take more time to weigh the pros and cons, and maybe even enlist the advice of an estate planner, tax planner, or probate attorney to help walk them through any possible unexpected consequences. If you are an executor or an heir faced with this particular and time-sensetive issue, please don’t hesitate to contact our office for assistance.

    The Dangers of Joint Ownership As An Estate Planning Strategy

    Monday, September 12th, 2011

    Estate planning does not consist of a single, uniform goal or strategy. Instead, estate planning exists on a spectrum, with a simple will on one end and a comprehensive and interconnected series of documents and/or entities on the other. But as this recent article in Forbes points out, joint ownership by itself does not constitute an estate planning strategy.

    All too often we see parents in their later years choose to simply add the name of one of their adult children to their bank account, instead of creating a will. “This is often done to help with bill paying, as a will-substitute to avoid probate court (often called a “poor-man’s will”), or simply to help an elderly loved one who needs assistance managing his or her assets. This is a big no-no!”

    While adding a child’s name to a bank account can seem like an easy way to give that child power of attorney, it is simply too risky as an estate planning or a financial planning strategy. As the Forbes article points out, there are too many things that can go wrong. For example, even if you trust your adult child completely, adding another person as a joint owner on a bank account not only gives that person access to your money, but also gives other (perhaps less trustworthy) people such as creditors, litigants, or ex-spouses access to your money as well.

    Family fighting is another tragic and common result of using joint ownership as an estate planning strategy, because it leaves the parent’s true intentions for the distribution of wealth in doubt. Mom may have wanted her account to be shared equally between many siblings, but “if Johnny won’t share, his siblings can sue him and claim that Mom’s actual intent was not for him to keep the money, but she only added his name as a convenience. The siblings have to prove what her actual intent was, and that’s not very easy to do.”

    The bottom line is that joint ownership, while it may seem like a quick and easy estate planning strategy, is just too ambiguous, too exposed, and too dangerous to be practical. For other estate planning strategies that will provide your family with strong and lasting protection please contact our office today.

    How Does Your State Rank on the Long-Term Care Scorecard?

    Friday, September 9th, 2011

    One of the primary concerns of the aging population is long-term care. As the life expectancy of Americans goes up so does the expectation that they will someday need some form of long-term care. You may not know whether that care will happen in a hospital, a nursing home, or in your own home, but you can be sure that it will be expensive.

    How expensive will long term care be? It turns out the answer to this question depends a great deal on where you live. The AARP, The Commonwealth Fund, and The SCAN Foundation recently released a report which they call “The Long Term Scorecard,” which compares states and ranks them according to categories. The website Web MD has an article explaining how to use the scorecard and what it means.

    The article in Web MD states that “Long-term care is unaffordable for middle income families, according to [The Long Term Scorecard report.] Even in states where nursing home care is most affordable, such care averages 171% of an older person’s household income. The national average is 241%.”

    Some states, however, have been making the issue of long-term care a priority, and have been wrestling with questions such as how to make it more affordable to residents and how to provide support to family caregivers. According to the article in Web MD, they’ve broken down the information in “The Scorecard” to help readers understand which states provide the best support (either financial, social, emotional or legal) for the elderly and their caregivers.

    The article “ranks states’ performance according to four categories: 1. Affordability and access, 2. Patient choice of both provider and setting, 3. Quality of life and care, and 4. Support for family caregivers.” The states ranked highest overall were Minnesota, Washington, Oregon, Hawaii and Wisconsin; while the lowest ranking states turned out to be Mississippi, Alabama, West Virginia, Oklahoma and Indiana. (For more information on how the states were ranked and what each ranking means please read the article here.)

    Perhaps the most important lesson to take from all this is that no matter where you live, or what your health is like right now, it is very likely that you will need some kind of long-term care in the future, and that that care will be expensive. Burying your head in the sand or choosing to “think about it when the time comes” will only make things worse for you and for your family. Call our office and let us help you prepare now for whatever the future may bring.