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Houston Estate Planning and Probate Blog

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

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


Thursday, February 3, 2011

It’s Never Too Early to Make Your First Will

We’d like to share with our readers a recent article in Forbes entitled How To Write Your First Estate Plan.  This article supports something we’ve been saying in our blog all along: That everyone needs a will—whether you’re a young couple just starting out, an established family with valuable assets to protect, or an entrepreneurial business owner with succession on your mind. The article reminds us that a will “is the cornerstone of an [estate] plan,” and at whatever stage of life you may be is not too early to make your first will.

“There's a lot more to an estate plan than just a will, even for folks who don't need a more complicated estate-tax oriented version. You might have pieces of it already--a living will signed when you had elective surgery or a beneficiary form filled out for a 401(k) when you got your first job. You need to make sure the pieces fit together.”

Many couples or individuals are first motivated to create a will when they have young children, and the primary purpose of their will is to ensure that their minor children will be cared for and provided for should anything happen to the parents. This is certainly one of the best reasons to create your will or estate plan, but it is not the only reason, not by a long shot.  If you drafted your will when your children were young and haven’t looked at it since—or if you never created a will because you don’t have kids and therefore didn’t think you needed one—it’s time to revisit the subject.

An estate plan not only ensures that minor children will be provided for, but also that:

  • Older children have the means to continue their education if something happens to you
  • Your spouse or children are the recipients of your life insurance or retirement proceeds, and not the tax man or (even worse) an ex-spouse or ex-boyfriend or girlfriend.
  • You have someone trustworthy distributing your assets as you wish after you pass away.
  • Your business will transfer smoothly if you aren’t able to run it anymore.
  • And much more.

“Whatever motivates you, fine. The point is--whether you're in estate tax territory or not, if you don't have an estate plan, you need one. (And if you have a really old one, you probably need a whole new one.)” Any opportunity is the perfect opportunity to start planning to protect your loved ones.  Call our office (or your own trusted attorney) to learn what steps you can take toward protecting your loved ones right now.


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.


Wednesday, January 19, 2011

No More Excuses, It’s Time To Plan Your Estate

The dust surrounding all the estate tax law “remodeling” is finally settling, and it’s time now for families to give their old (or future) estate plans some serious scrutiny. For all of you who were waiting until Congress made some firm decisions on the estate tax laws—there are no more excuses. Forbes writers Janet Novack and Ashlea Ebeling explain in their recent article why—now that the estate tax is no longer in flux—it is so important to move quickly on your estate plan. 

Many first time planners will be ready to take advantage of the new laws, now that the “hefty $5 million exemption, combined with a new portability provision, should allow many affluent couples to simplify their planning.” Couples with estate plans already in place will be able to take advantage of the new laws as well, but the motivation to update their existing plans may have more to do with the need to undo outdated formulas in wills and trusts that, with the new laws in place, may now do more harm than good.

“Many couples have old wills designed mainly to preserve the estate tax exemption of the first spouse to die, something the law now does. Under these old "formula" wills, when the first spouse dies assets equal to his or her federal estate exemption go into a "bypass trust" for their kids. The surviving spouse has access to the trust's earnings and, if need be, principal, but what's in the trust "bypasses" the survivor's estate. Problem is, with the exemption jumping to $5 million (it was only $2 million in 2008) the survivor could be left with nothing outside the trust.”

The new estate tax laws are much friendlier to middle-income families, but don’t let that fool you into thinking you don’t need to plan at all.  “Whatever your age, marital status or net worth, you need a will (saying who gets your stuff); a living will (stating your wishes about end-of-life care); a health care proxy (naming someone to make medical decisions for you if you can't); and a durable power of attorney (designating someone to act on your behalf in financial and legal matters if you can't).” Not to mention you still may have state taxes to contend with in your estate plan.

Now is the time to call your attorney and talk about estate planning in the New Year. There is no more reason to procrastinate, and it’s your family’s legacy that’s on the line.


Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Government Rescinds Medicare Coverage of End-Of-Life Planning

Apparently the suspicion surrounding end-of-life planning is not as far in the past as we might have hoped.  The recent Medicare regulation which would have allowed the government to pay doctors who advise patients on options for end-of-life care was rescinded only days after it was enacted.

Why such an abrupt turnaround?  The reason is probably not too difficult to guess.  Most people know that Medicare-covered end-of-life planning has a tempestuous history both in politics and in the media.  This article in the New York Times stated that “while administration officials cited procedural reasons for changing the rule, it was clear that political concerns were also a factor.”

The alteration of the rule may be disappointing, but it shouldn’t stop you from thinking—or talking to your doctor—about your choices for your own end-of-life care.  After all, this administrative change of heart does not alter the fact that having these discussions with your doctor (as well as with your health care agent and loved ones) preserve patient autonomy at a time when events may seem to spiral out of control.  As National Public Radio pointed out in their article, “it remains perfectly legal for physicians to talk with patients during annual visits paid for by Medicare about how much or little care they want when facing a terminal illness.”

Media firestorms and political debate notwithstanding, your decisions about your end-of-life care are important.  When you have these discussions with your doctor and loved ones, and when you have a living will or healthcare directive in place, you are far more likely to get the care you want at the end of your life, regardless of how invasive or restrained you want that care to be.

If you have reservations about what a health care directive might mean to your future medical care, or if you have any questions about this issue, please don’t hesitate to call our office.  Your peace of mind is our first priority.


Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Resolutions to Last You Through the Year

What are your resolutions for 2011? A majority of New Year’s resolutions have to do with money and health—or more specifically, with saving money and losing weight.  Unfortunately, most New Year’s resolutions don’t last through the first month of the year.  But what if there were steps you could take in that first month, when you’re still feeling inspired and motivated, that would pay-off throughout the rest of the year when all your good intentions fall by the wayside?

Luckily, there are steps you can take right now that will help you save money throughout the rest of the year. This article in USA Today lists 5 steps you can take right now to help you save money in 2011:

1.      Order your free credit report

2.      Get a medical exam

3.      Update your beneficiaries

4.      Increase your 401(k) contributions

5.      Rebalance your portfolio

All of these will help you keep your 2011 resolutions throughout the entire year, but the ones we’re most concerned with are #s 2 and 3.  Too many people “take care of business” pertaining to beneficiaries and 401(k)s when they first get hired (or open a new account or life insurance policy) and then never think of it again. But lives change over the years, and the people you listed, or the amount you contributed 5 or 10 years ago is probably not what’s best for your family right now.

The New Year brings with it new beginnings... and new hopes.  Why not take advantage of this feeling of optimistic euphoria by taking steps now that will carry you through the entire year?


Monday, December 27, 2010

Taking Time for End-Of-Life Planning

Advance Health Care Directives (legal documents which include a nomination of your health care agent, and your preferences for end-of-life care) saw a lot of press in 2009 when the Obama administration sought to include end-of-life planning in the new healthcare overhaul.  The option was dropped after a media firestorm about “death panels,” but according to this article in the New York Times Medicare-funded end-of-life discussions may be back.

According to the new regulation, Medicare will pay for “voluntary advance care planning” as part of patients’ annual visits with their doctor.  “Under the new policy, outlined in a Medicare regulation, the government will pay doctors who advise patients on options for end-of-life care, which may include advance directives to forgo aggressive life-sustaining treatment.”

The reasoning behind the new regulation is simple, and something estate planning lawyers have known for a long time; “research [has] shown the value of end-of-life planning. ‘Advance care planning improves end-of-life care and patient and family satisfaction and reduces stress, anxiety and depression in surviving relatives.’”  Additionally, “end-of-life discussions between doctor and patient help ensure that one gets the care one wants.”

So why does end-of-life planning make so many people uncomfortable when research has shown just how beneficial it can be?  Paula Span, author of this post on the New Old Age blog thinks it might simply be a matter of semantics, especially when it involved the term “Do Not Resuscitate.”   Ms. Span argues that a more friendly term such as “Allow Natural Death” could make all the difference in the world.

“The phrase “do not resuscitate” signals an intent to withhold or refuse... ‘It says you’re not going to do something.’ To “allow natural death,” on the other hand, connotes permission. ‘It doesn’t sound so overwhelming or scary.’”

Whatever term you use, or however you choose to talk about it, the important thing is that you DO talk about it—with your family and loved ones, with the person you choose as your agent, with your doctor… and even with your lawyer.  End-of-life planning is about personal and medical preferences, but the document itself is a legal one; your lawyer can help ensure that your Advance Health Care Directive will hold up in a court of law as well as in the hospital.


Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Technology for the Older Generation

There is a common complaint among Baby Boomers when it comes to aging parents and grandparents: It’s hard to keep in touch with them. Most communication among the middle and younger generations now takes place on the computer—e-mail, Facebook, electronic photo-sharing and more.  Very rarely do we pick up the phone for a good old-fashioned chat; and when we do it’s usually on the go, in the form of a quick call or text message from our cell phones.  Unfortunately, where all this technology helps us to be more connected to friends and family in our own cohort, it ends up leaving our elderly loved ones out of the conversation.

Karen Stabiner, in her article “Elder Tech: What’s Important” argues that it doesn’t have to be this way.  Stabiner states that the key to getting elderly relatives involved in high-tech  communication is to get out of our own heads and look at it from their point of view. “For technology to become ‘sticky’ with the older generation, we have to get into their heads and understand what would make them think this is fun… The bells and whistles that might attract us are too often counterintuitive [for them.]”

The younger, tech-savvy generations tend to look for high-tech devices that do everything, but that’s not necessarily what’s going to be appealing to grandma or grandpa.  This article in GrayTimes.com suggests that single-purpose gadgets—devices designed only for e-mail or only for sharing photos—are more intuitive for elderly users.

New high-tech devices may be harder for parents or grandparents to use, but being able to connect with their loved ones can be a huge motivating factor.  Being able to communicate with family makes our elderly parents and grandparents happy, but it also helps keep them safe.  Adult children who communicate with their parents on a regular basis are better able to recognize and respond when mom or dad suddenly have trouble caring for themselves.


Monday, December 20, 2010

At Long Last: What to Expect from Estate Taxes in 2011

It has been a long and uncertain year for anybody interested in the future of the estate tax, filled with a few ups, a few downs, and a lot of speculation.  But after the recent passage of the new bipartisan tax bill all of the confusion and speculation is finally at an end, and it’s very close to what we anticipated early last week.  The bill is good news for most taxpayers; the Wall Street Journal says there are “many winners, a few losers,” and according to the New York Times “Almost no one will have to worry about paying the estate tax under the tax legislation just approved by Congress.”

Here is a brief overview of what you can expect in 2011:

New Estate Tax Exemptions and Rates:The new bill sets the estate tax exemption at $5 million per individual ($10 million per married couple), with amounts over the exemption taxed at a 35% rate.  This is opposed to the $3.5 million exemption and 45% rate some lawmakers were hoping for.

Tax Election Option for 2010 Estates:As mentioned in a previous post, this is one of the biggest parts of the new bill. There may have been no estate tax in 2010, but there was also no “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, as is usually the case.  This led to a higher tax paid on the assets if and when they were sold, in spite of the lack of estate tax. Tax election gives 2010 estates the choice of whether to use 2010 or 2011 tax rules—a happy option for 2010 heirs.

Estate, Gift, and Generation-Skipping Taxes: In recent years these three levies have had varying exemption levels, making gift giving and succession planning and challenging exercise at best. The unification of all three makes tax planning and giving gifts to grandchildren much easier than it used to be.

Individual Income and Payroll Taxes: The new bill wasn’t just about estate taxes; it also extends the Bush-era income tax rates; this is good news as it prevents a rise for nearly all taxpayers.

How Long Will It Last? We’re all glad that the waiting is over and we finally know what to expect, but the new law is only effective through 2012, at which point the provisions will “sunset.” This new tax package sets our minds at ease now, but the estate tax issue is far from over.  It looks as if we may have to revisit the issue in 2012-2013.

With the threat of high estate taxes out of the way does any reason remain to create (or update) your estate plan? Absolutely!

Estate planning is about more than just planning for taxes, it’s about taking control of your assets and choosing how your estate will be distributed.  Divorce, second marriages, planning for college, charitable gifts—these are just a few of the reasons why estate planning is essential regardless of the state of the estate tax.

At the very least, the recent fluctuation of the law means that you’ll want to call our office and make an appointment to have your existing plan reviewed and updated to ensure you don’t have any outdated clauses that could negatively affect your heirs.


Monday, December 13, 2010

Estate Tax Update: The End Is Near

It looks as if the long and weary road to estate tax clarity may soon be at an end.  Especially if Washington lawmakers vote to approve the tax package negotiated between President Obama and Republican leaders without making too many changes.

Laura Saunders of the Wall Street Journal claims in her recent article that everything looks to be coming up roses, “it seems estate planners got everything they wanted and nothing they didn't.” Good news for estate planners translates into good news for our clients. We recommend you read the entire article for the full story, but here are some of the highlights of what estate taxes may have in store for us in 2011:

Tax Election for 2010 Estates:This is one of the biggest parts of the deal. “The bill gives 2010 estates the choice of whether to use 2010 or 2011 tax rules.” This is good news because “the tax on heirs who sell assets of those who died in 2010 is based on the original acquisition cost of the assets, not on their value as of the date of the taxpayer's death, as is usually the case,” meaning that “taxes were higher if they died in 2010 than 2009 or 2011.”

Unification of the Estate, Gift, and Generation-Skipping Taxes: “In recent years the exemptions for the three levies have been out of synch, complicating succession planning for family businesses and other matters.” With the new deal, however, there would be a simple $5 million per-individual exemption for all three.

And of course we can’t have a conversation about estate taxes without discussing Effective Date and Duration: The effective date of the new provisions is set to be January 1, 2011. As for duration, “The Senate's bill makes this regime effective only for 2011 and 2012, at that point the provisions ‘sunset.’” What this means is that the new tax package may be only a temporary reprieve, and we could be going through all of this again in 2012-2013.


Friday, December 10, 2010

Adult Children and Elderly Parents: Caring for Each Other

The idea of adult children caring for aging parents or grandparents is not a new one. In fact, with the aging Baby-Boomer population, adult children giving up free time or extra hours at work to care for relatives is a growing trend. But recently families have begun creating “caregiver compensation agreements,” something which can end up benefiting both parties in a number of ways.

According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “the high unemployment rate, the rising cost of nursing-home care, an aging population, and a 2006 change in Medicaid law that makes it harder for people who wish to qualify to give away assets” are all contributing factors to the growing trend of these compensation agreements among family members.

How can it help you?

If you’re a caregiver the benefits of a caregiver compensation agreement are fairly self explanatory. “Some 37% of caregivers surveyed by the NAC in 2007 said they had quit a job or reduced their hours to accommodate their responsibilities,” some kind of compensation seems only fair.  And if you feel uncomfortable taking “wages” from your parents, there are other ways to arrange for compensation. “Attorneys say many families pay an hourly wage. As an estate-planning tactic, others opt for annual gifts or a lump-sum payment designed to cover services over an extended period. Some arrange for the caregiver to receive a larger inheritance.” It will all depend on what works best for your family.

If you’re the one receiving the care, compensation agreements can benefit you as well. Paying a family caregiver can help you deplete your savings and qualify for Medicaid, it can also help you reduce your taxable estate, as well as give a gift of sorts to younger family members who may be in need. Remember that Medicaid rules vary from state to state, so enlist the help of your attorney before signing any contracts.

However you may decide to structure your compensation agreement, disclosure can be of the utmost importance. Make other family members aware of the agreement up front to avoid suspicion or hurt feelings later on.


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