- April 2013
- July 2012
- April 2012
- March 2012
- February 2012
- January 2012
- December 2011
- November 2011
- October 2011
- September 2011
- August 2011
- July 2011
- June 2011
- May 2011
- April 2011
- March 2011
- February 2011
- January 2011
- December 2010
- November 2010
- October 2010
- September 2010
- August 2010
- July 2010
- June 2010
- May 2010
- April 2010
- March 2010
- February 2010
- January 2010
- December 2009
Archive for the ‘Wills and Trusts’ Category
We often tell our clients that there is far more to a legacy than money. A will and a trust are essential documents to have—but there’s more to protecting your loved ones than just those documents. With these important documents (plus the lesser-known but just as important ancillary documents) you’ve provided for your loved ones financially, but what about emotionally? What happens during those difficult months when your dependents must learn to live without you? You’ve worked hard to build a full, comfortable and happy life for your loved ones; preserving (as much as possible) the comfort and stability of that life is at least as important as preserving your financial estate.
One of the best ways to do this is with a memorandum of intent. A memorandum of intent is a letter that you write to the guardians of your children, or to the caretaker of your special needs relative or elderly parent. A memorandum of intent is a document that details the crucial minutia of your daily life. In it you can express the things that might be considered too small, or the things that change too frequently, to include in your trust—but are essential to the daily fabric of your life. This includes details such as:
* An overview of daily schedule and activities
* Names and phone numbers of friends
* Your family’s religious beliefs (if applicable)
* Unique holidays and traditions celebrated by your family
* Name and phone number for primary physician (or other health-care providers)
* Favorite foods, comfort objects, books, etc.
* And much more.
These things may all seem small right now, but it is these comfortable people, places and activities that will help your family through a difficult transition should tragedy strike. You can’t be sure that you will always be there to provide comfort and care for your loved ones, but you can ensure you do your best for them now, to ease their suffering during difficult times later.
If you follow current events at all it is impossible to ignore the fact that we are now in the thick of the Republican primary race—and that the Presidential election will not be far behind. With the political machine in full swing there have been quite a few news stories about the candidates’ financial backgrounds, and more than a little talk of “blind trusts.”
Many of our readers will already know that a blind trust is a vehicle which holds the wealth of a candidate (or a politician serving in office) in an effort to avoid any conflicts of interest. We thought this might be a good opportunity, however, to discuss trusts in general: Which trusts are out there, what are the differences between them, and what purposes do they serve?
Revocable Trust: A revocable trust is one of the most commonly used trusts because it is able to be revoked or changed so long as the grantor (the person who created the trust) is still living. There are many other trusts that fall under the category of “revocable trust”, including a pet trust (which addresses the physical and financial care of your pets), an education trust (which provides for your child’s educational expenses), and many more.
Irrevocable Trust: An irrevocable trust, logically, is one which cannot be revoked or changed after it has been signed. The irrevocability is what makes these trusts useful for tax planning and asset protection. Some types of trusts which fall under the category of “irrevocable trust” include life insurance trusts (which save the beneficiary on the policy from paying exorbitant estate taxes), spendthrift trusts (which reduce the beneficiaries’ estate taxes and protect trust assets from creditors’ claims), and more. It is important to note that any revocable trust becomes irrevocable upon the death of the grantor.
Charitable Trust: A charitable trust is one in which at least one of the beneficiaries is a charity or non-profit. These trusts allow the grantor to claim a portion of their contribution as a charitable deduction under income tax laws. A charitable trust can be either revocable or irrevocable to begin with, but if distributions will be made during the grantor’s lifetime the trust must be irrevocable.
Special Needs Trust: Sometimes also called a “Supplemental Needs Trust”, is a trust created for the benefit of a person receiving government benefits—this usually includes someone with a physical or mental handicap—and its purpose is to allow outside sources to provide the beneficiary with supplemental funds without endangering their right to receive government benefits. A special needs trust can be either revocable or irrevocable, but usually includes a clause instructing that the trust be dissolved if its existence disqualifies the beneficiary for government benefits.
We have only discussed some of the most commonly used trusts here, but there are many, many different kinds of trust which can be valuable for estate planning or asset protection. If you have any questions about trusts or estate planning, please contact our office.
Losing a spouse may be one of the most difficult life events that any of us have to deal with. A spouse is a parenting partner, a co-CFO, a best friend and a beloved soul mate. Losing the person who supports you in so many ways can create an emptiness which can be almost paralyzing.
This is why it’s so important after the death of a loved one to have the support you need to get through the detail-oriented and often emotionally draining probate process, which includes tasks such as sorting through a financial history, submitting legal documents to the probate court, contacting creditors and family members, and more. Some people have family or friends to help with these time-consuming tasks, others enlist the help of an estate planning or probate attorney, but one thing is clear: no one should do it alone.
Every family or couple will have a different experience with the probate process, but our firm would like to offer a basic list of universal “to-do” items to remember after the death of a spouse. We hope this will help give our readers a little bit of security during a very emotional and stressful time.
* Obtain multiple copies of the death certificate
* Gather any and all estate planning documents
* Contact an estate planning attorney. Even if you don’t plan to retain an attorney, a brief initial consultation can help you understand the task ahead and prevent you from skipping important steps
* Notify the person named as executor or trustee
* Notify the necessary institutions or agencies (the deceased’s employer, social security administration, insurance company, creditors, post office, etc.)
* Remove spouse’s name from all joint accounts or ventures, such as bank accounts, utility companies, credit card accounts, etc.
* Pay final bills
* Cancel accounts, subscriptions, etc.
Depending on your situation and location, there may be many more tasks to be done. Additionally, if you are serving as executor or trustee (as many spouse’s do) there will be a great number of administrative tasks to be performed in addition to the ones on this list. Under these circumstances even the strongest and most capable people can feel overwhelmed. Remember that you don’t have to go through the process alone.
If you are looking for a reliable way to leave financial gifts to family members you may find that a Crummey trust is the right estate planning strategy for your family. A recent article in the Wall Street Journal explains that “Crummey trusts are used in many circumstances, but are best suited for making gifts to minors—especially when a parent is giving money to a young child who isn’t ready to handle a large sum.”
While it’s true that Crummey trusts can be a very convenient and reliable estate planning tool, they do require a certain amount of annual attention and maintenance, and may not be the right strategy for everyone.
Crummey trusts can be used for many different kinds of assets, but they are most commonly used to protect life insurance policies from estate taxes. Your estate planner can help you set up the Crummey trust and use it to purchase a life insurance policy. Then you “fund the premiums with annual gifts… That gets money out of the estate while skirting the gift tax. Since the trust owns the policy, the death benefit ultimately goes to the trust, shielding it from federal estate taxes.”
Once the initial work of setting up the trust and buying the insurance policy is done, “The trustee must send out ‘Crummey letters’ each year, informing beneficiaries that they can withdraw the gifted amount during a window of time, say 30 days. Usually, the beneficiary leaves the money in the trust. But the IRS considers it a tax-free gift only if the person has the right to take it in the short term, and the Crummey letter proves that he has that right.”
Sending letters once a year isn’t a difficult task, but forgetting even once can lead to consequences with the IRS. Our advice is to be very careful to select a trustee you can count on to be timely and detail-oriented with the Crummey letters. Alternatively, the estate planner who set up your trust will often be willing to take over the administrative task of sending annual Crummey letters as well. Contact our office for more information.
What is probate?
Probate is defined as “the legal process of administering the estate of a deceased person by resolving all claims and distributing the deceased person’s property under the valid will. A probate interprets the instructions of the deceased, decides the executor as the personal representative of the estate, and adjudicates the interests of heirs and other parties who may have claims against the estate.”
The definition doesn’t sound too bad, but probate can be a very trying process. Even in the best of circumstances there are procedures that must be followed to the letter, and the actual process (depending on the size of the estate and the laws of the state in which the property is being probated) can take anywhere from 6 months to a few years.
Do I need a lawyer to help probate an estate?
As a rule it is not necessary to have a lawyer help you probate an estate. However, if you have been named as executor, probate can often become an overwhelming maze of deadlines, notifications and potential liabilities. This is why many executors do choose to hire a probate lawyer to help them through the process.
You may want to think about hiring an attorney if you are serving as an executor under any of the following circumstances:
- There are a number of beneficiaries who are not on friendly terms, or are receiving varying sizes of inheritance.
- The decedent had large estate with many different assets, especially if the assets are not commonly held.
- The decedent was a resident in a different state than your own home state.
- A large number of creditors are making claims on the estate.
- There is a disagreement about the will, or if more than one will was found.
- The will is challenged or contested.
Do Life Insurance or Retirement Benefits Have to Go Through Probate?
The answer to the question above is generally “no”; life insurance and retirement benefits do not have to go through probate if the account has a named beneficiary. Benefits from life insurance accounts can be paid directly to the named beneficiary, and money from IRAs, Keoghs, and 401(k) accounts transfer automatically to the named beneficiaries of those accounts as well. The persons named as beneficiary, however, will most likely want to consult with a financial advisor to determine what needs to be done with the proceeds from these accounts. Another type of account that may not be subject to probate is a pay on death (or POD) account, the money from which can pass directly to the named beneficiary upon the death of the owner.
Probate is a subject most people don’t want to spend much time considering, not only because the rules and requirements can be convoluted and confusing, but also because of the close association between probate and death. If you have any questions at all about the probate process please don’t hesitate to contact our office—or your own local attorney who specializes in probate—for more information.
Administering the estate of a deceased loved one can be complicated and emotional under the best of circumstances, but executors who take on this overwhelming task may find themselves facing more than just the demands of relatives and heirs—they may also find themselves facing the illegitimate demands of creditors. This article on the New York Times’ New Old Age Blog warns readers to “Be wary of collection agencies that try to convince you that you are responsible for payment on a card owned solely by a deceased parent.”
After the death of a parent, children and heirs often receive calls from debt collectors looking for someone—anyone!—to pay off the debts of the deceased, even if the heirs have no obligation to do so. In most situations relatives are not required to pay the debts of the deceased from their own assets. “Spouses, children or other loved ones don’t ‘inherit’ credit card debt unless they co-signed the card… When someone dies, credit card companies have to wait near the back of the line to receive payment. If what’s left over after settling the estate isn’t enough to pay the bill, credit card debt is written off.”
Probate or administration of an estate is a process which follows established steps; heirs and credit card companies alike must wait their turn in line. “Administrative fees (like executors’ fees, filing fees, appraisals of property and tax-preparer fees), mortgages, reverse mortgages, taxes and even funeral expenses have to be paid off before heirs can inherit anything from the estate.” Unfortunately, most bereaved relatives aren’t aware of the laws on this subject, and debt collectors take advantage of that ignorance.
The best way to avoid this painful interaction is to have a proper estate plan. “Most of the headache can be avoided with a will… If you make it well known who owns what, both in terms of assets as well as liabilities, you can prevent a lot of this from taking place outside of your control.” The article also recommends taking preemptive action. “After the death of a parent, send a letter or call the banks and credit card companies to cancel cards and let them know that the cardholder has died.”
Serving as executor or trustee of a will or a trust is an honor… but it’s also a job—a BIG job—and not one to be taken lightly. The role of executor or trustee can be one of great financial power, but it carries with it a heavy fiduciary obligation. Fiduciary obligation means that an executor or trustee must act in the best interests of the beneficiaries; it means that although the executor or trustee may be doing all the work, he or she may see very little return on that work, which is all for the benefit of the named beneficiaries.
If you have been nominated (or are currently serving) as an executor or trustee there are a few things you’ll want to remember as you go about your duties:
1. The will or trust is your guide, the mission statement by which you should operate; read and understand the document completely, and have an attorney help you, if necessary.
2. You need to be pro-active—to an extent. If you are managing a large amount of money or assets over a period of time it is probably not in the best interests of the beneficiary to let those funds sit in a savings account. Create (with an advisor, if necessary) a financial plan for the trust assets.
3. Although you may be handling the estate assets, you should not have any personal financial dealings with the trust. You should under no circumstances borrow from or lend money to the trust. Keep your finances separate!
4. Communication and transparency is key! Keep detailed records of all of your actions and transactions regarding the will or trust, and send regular reports to the beneficiaries. Regular communication prevents unhappy surprises or angry lawsuits in the future.
5. You don’t have to do it alone. If you were picked as a trustee because of your financial knowledge and experience—great! But if you were picked because you are the oldest, or the most responsible, or the favorite you may feel overwhelmed by the job ahead of you. Don’t try to muddle through alone, get the help and support of an experienced attorney or advisor.
With all the recent news about what will happen with estate taxes, the process of probate has come up quite a bit. Sometimes probate is mentioned in a low-key, matter-of-fact kind of way; at other times it is presented as something scary, and to be avoided at all costs. We know our readers have seen the term often enough here in our blog, but under the circumstances we thought it a good idea to go back to basics, and have a discussion of exactly what is probate, and what’s all the fuss?
Probate is the process by which the court determines the legal property of a person who has died, and facilitates the distribution of those assets. It sounds like it should be simple, but even in the best of circumstances there are procedures that must be followed to the letter, and the actual process (depending on the size of the estate and the laws of the state in which the property is being probated) can take anywhere from 6 months to a few years.
You may wonder why probate can take so long, especially if the deceased person has left a will making their wishes clear. A good will can certainly make the process easier, but even with a will, there are certain steps that must be followed to complete the probate process, some of which can be very time consuming. Some of these steps include:
- The appointment of an executor or personal representative
- Verification of the will
- Taking an inventory of assets belonging to the deceased
- Giving notice to creditors
- Paying valid claims against the estate
- Preparing and paying taxes
- Notifying beneficiaries
- Distributing the assets to the beneficiaries or heirs
If you think that just reading the above paragraph takes your breath away, imagine the confusion of having to actually go through all of those steps—and possibly more!
Whether or not your estate will eventually be subject to a lengthy or expensive probate often depends on a number of factors: the size of your estate, how your assets are held, and how cooperative your next of kin may be. But one way to increase your chances of avoiding probate is to have clear (and clearly valid) estate planning documents, including a will, power of attorney, and possibly a revocable living trust.
If you are concerned about probate, or would like to know more about how you can protect your assets and help your loved ones avoid a lengthy probate, contact our office—or a qualified estate planning attorney in your home state—to discuss your options.
Many clients are shocked when they see the sheer volume of paper in a truly well-done estate plan. A trust by itself can be hundreds of pages, not to mention the other 6 to 16 documents you may or may not have—depending on your family situation. You may find that the “simple” estate plan you thought you were getting has turned into something of a size that would rival War and Peace!
It didn’t always used to be this way. The last will and testament of the great Jane Austen, for example, was only one paragraph long:
I Jane Austen of the Parish of Chawton do by this my last will I testament give and bequeath to my dearest sister Cassandra Elizabeth everything of which I may die possessed, or which may be hereafter due to me, subject to the payment of my Funeral expences, & to a Legacy of £50. to my Brother Henry, & £50 to Mde de Bigeon – which I request may be paid as soon as convenient. And I appoint my said dear sister the executrix of this my last will & testament.
April 27 1817
Although this simplicity may have worked in 1817 England, it isn’t practical in the here and now. Things just aren’t that simple anymore. First of all, although Austen appoints her sister Cassandra as the executrix of her will, the will itself neglects to specify what powers are included in that appointment, leaving Cassandra effectively unable to carry out Austen’s wishes. Secondly, the will neglects to make alternative provisions—what if Cassandra had unexpectedly died before Jane? Also notably lacking (from our contemporary perspective) are any provisions for estate taxes. And finally, discerning readers may notice that the will does not include the signatures of any witnesses, something which is absolutely necessary in order to execute a valid will today (with the exception of holographic wills, which are often created in emergency situations, are entirely hand written, and do not require the signatures of witnesses.)
We all may long for simpler times, especially when it comes to something most people think will only benefit their heirs and not themselves; but many of the rules and regulations that are dismissively thought of as “hoops to jump through” are there for your best interest. They exist to protect your heirs and your legacy from fraud, misuse, greed and neglect. Far from being a chore, creating a thoughtful and legally valid will these days is actually an act of love… One might even say it’s a matter of sense and sensibility.