Monday, November 28, 2011
How to Cope After the Death of a Spouse
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/probate 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.)
* Discuss with your attorney before you remove spouse’s name from all joint accounts or ventures, such as bank accounts, utility companies, credit card accounts, etc.
* Discuss with your attorney before you pay final bills, and 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.
Friday, September 09, 2011
Executors of 2010 Estates Have Until Nov. 15 to Make Estate Tax Decisions
Everyone will remember the “wonderful boon” that was the 2010 estate tax repeal, which (in theory) allowed decedents to pass on their assets free of any estate taxes. However, the situation was complicated in December of 2010 when, as this article in Bloomberg puts it, “Congress extended the tax retroactively [giving] executors of estates of people who died that year a choice. They could decide to skip the estate tax or pay the tax with a $5 million per-person exemption and a 35 percent top rate, the same as in 2011.”
Executors have had almost a year to consider their options, but now it is just about time to make the decision, because “the Internal Revenue Service is giving executors of estates of people who died in 2010 until Nov. 15 to opt out of the estate tax.” According to the IRS the forms and instructions for 2010 estate tax returns will be made available early this fall.
But executors don’t have to wait until the forms are available to consider which tax option might be the most profitable one. Many financial planners and estate planning attorneys have already done their research, and they’ve found that opting not to pay estate taxes may end up costing you more in the long run. This article in Forbes explains: “Opting out of the estate tax regime means opting out of stepped-up basis (for income tax purposes)… and opting into the modified carryover basis rule… One of the main plusses about estate tax is that it is paired with a stepped-up income tax basis. You should not be paying both estate tax and income tax on the same assets.”
Of course, each estate will be different depending on a number of factors, including the size of the estate, the nature of the assets, the preferences of the beneficiaries, and any previous planning the decedent may have done. Executors should consider their options carefully, and consult with an experienced estate planning attorney and CPA before deciding whether opting out of the estate tax is really in their best interest.
Friday, March 04, 2011
Tough Decisions Await Executors of 2010 Estates
If you are the executor of the estate of a decedent who died in 2010 you may think you’re in the clear. After all, there was no estate tax in 2010 right? Making distributions should be a piece of cake. Wrong. Because of the estate tax election available on the estates of 2010 decedents, administering those estates will actually be more work than you may think.
The repeal of the estate tax in 2010 also brought with it a repeal of the “step up in basis,” meaning that heirs selling inherited assets were taxed based on the original acquisition cost of the assets, not on their value as of the date of the taxpayer’s death. This generally resulted in a higher tax paid on assets than the normal estate tax rate—not good for taxpayers. But 2010 estates don’t have to go by these rules. The legislation passed in December of 2010 gave 2010 estates the opportunity to elect whether they wanted to use the 2010 estate tax laws, or the new laws for 2011. This article in Forbes explains what this means:
“The 2010 Tax Relief Act restored the estate tax for individuals dying in 2010 with a $5 million per person exemption and a maximum rate of 35%. It also repealed the modified carryover basis rules for property acquired from a decedent who died in 2010. However, estates of individuals dying in 2010 can elect zero estate tax and the modified carryover basis rules that would have applied before they were repealed. That means the basis of assets acquired from the decedent would be the lesser of the decedent’s adjusted basis (carryover basis) or the fair market value of the property on the date of the decedent’s death.”
In general this tax election is a good thing, it allows executors to choose which tax formula will cost the beneficiaries the least in taxes; but it does mean a lot more paperwork and a lot more attention to detail. If you are the executor of an estate of a decedent who died in 2010, don’t hesitate to call us. We can answer your questions and help you explore your options.
Wednesday, January 26, 2011
5 Essential Tips for Executors or Trustees
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.
Friday, November 12, 2010
The Ins and Outs of Incapacity
Most people think that having a trust is about controlling (to an extent) what happens to your assets after you die. This is true, but a trust actually has a much broader scope: a trust can also protect and provide for your loved ones—and more importantly, it can protect and provide for you—if you should ever become incapacitated.
In basic terms, incapacity means that you are no longer able to make decisions for yourself. Sometimes it is easy to determine incapacity: the person is in a coma or unconscious and obviously unable to make decisions. But sometimes it’s more difficult. What about whether or not a person is able to make rational decisions? What if someone is suffering from Alzheimer’s, Dementia, or even a severe mental illness... should that person be making important financial decisions?
It is important to include a discussion of incapacity in your trust, because this one word carries a lot of weight. It is when you are incapacitated that your successor trustee will take over, when the agent nominated in your Healthcare Directive will get the authority to make health care decisions for you, and when your financial Power of Attorney will go into effect. With so much hanging on a single word, it’s important to know exactly what that word means.
Every standard trust should have a definition of incapacity as determined by a court of law. This means that you are deemed incapacitated when a court of competent jurisdiction determines that you are unable to legally handle your own affairs. A really good trust will also include a definition of incapacity as determined by two physicians; which means that two independent, licensed physicians have examined you and have determined that in their opinion you are unable to effectively manage your property or financial affairs.
There are many reasons why you want to have more than just the standard definition of incapacity, the primary reason being that court proceedings can be lengthy and filled with red tape. While your agent is spending days or weeks going through the legal process, your estate is languishing and your financial agent is powerless to take action on your behalf. Giving two physicians the power to determine your incapacity will circumvent the red tape and prevent lengthy delays.
Call or come into our office for more information about incapacity and what it means in your trust or Healthcare Directive.
Law Offices of Elyssa M. Schnurr focus their practice on Estate Planning, Wills and Trusts of all degrees of complexity, Probate, Estate Administration & Business Entity Formation. They are also available to assist with Uncontested Divorces and Mediation. They serve clients throughout the greater Houston area, including, but not limited to Houston, Bellaire, West University, Sugar Land, Missouri City, Richmond, Rosenberg, Katy, Cypress, The Woodlands, Kingwood, League City, Webster, Clear Lake, Pearland, Angleton, and throughout Harris County, Fort Bend County, Montgomery County, Brazoria County and Galveston County.