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Houston Estate Planning and Probate Blog

Monday, March 31, 2014

Removal of a Trustee

In creating a trust, the trustmaker must name a trustee who has the legal obligation to administer it in accordance with the trustmaker’s wishes and intentions. In some cases, after the passing of the trustmaker, loved ones or beneficiaries may want to remove the designated trustee.

The process to remove a trustee largely depends on two factors: 1) language contained with the trust and 2) state law. When determining your options, there are a number of issues and key considerations to keep in mind.

First, it is possible that the trust language grants you the specific right to remove the named trustee. If it does, it likely will also outline how you must do so and whether you must provide a reason you want to remove them. Second, if the trust does not grant you the right to remove the trustee, it may grant another person the right to remove. Sometimes that other person may serve in the role of what is known as a "trust protector" or "trust advisor." If that is in the trust document you should speak to that person and let them know why you want the trustee removed. They would need to decide if they should do so or not. Finally, if neither of those is an option, your state law may have provisions that permit you to remove a trustee. However, it may be that you will have to file a petition with a court and seek a court order. You should hire an attorney to research this for you and advise you of the likelihood of success.

Another option may be to simply ask the named trustee to resign. They may do so voluntarily.

Assuming the trustee is removed, whether by you, a trust protector, or by court order, or if the trustee resigns, the next issue is who is to serve as the successor trustee. Again, looking at the terms of the trust should answer that question. Perhaps a successor is specifically named or perhaps the trust provides the procedure to appoint the successor. Before proceeding, you will want to make certain you know who will step-in as the new trustee.


Tuesday, March 25, 2014

No Longer Spouses, But Still Partners

Workplace romances are never advisable, but sometimes co-workers and business partners fall in love and get married. Unfortunately, they also sometimes fall out of love and get divorced. What happens next?

For some couples, the end of the marriage parallels the end of their working relationship—and possibly the end of the business itself. There are a number of options in such cases. The couple can sell the business and split the proceeds as part of the divorce settlement, or one partner can buy out the interest of the ex-spouse. Or they can try to split the business, with each taking half. Speak with an experienced business lawyer about the pros and cons of these options for your situation.

However, some former spouses do figure out a way to maintain their business partnership after the divorce. The personal relationship may have hit a dead-end, but the investment involved in building and growing a successful company can make it hard to walk away—and unless the business is wildly successful, with plenty of prospective buyers waiting in the wings, it is feasible that neither party can afford to walk away.

Overcoming the Challenges

There are challenges in every business partnership, and ex-spouses can adopt some basic business strategies to cultivate and maintain a healthy working relationship:

  • Sign a partnership agreement. Be clear about your separate and joint responsibilities, and matters of liability. Make a contingency plan outlining how assets will be divided in case either partner decides to leave.
  • If necessary, divide up responsibilities or tasks you once did together so you each have more autonomy.
  • Establish a board of directors. Trustworthy business people may have valuable perspectives about the direction and goals of your company.
  • Keep the company finances transparent. Money is often one of the most difficult issues in a divorce. Get help if necessary to streamline your accounting processes.
  • Be professional around other staff members and employees. It is not fair to put employees in a position where they feel pressured to take sides or respond to inappropriate complaints about their other boss. A toxic work environment is never good for business.

Thinking Outside the Box

Even with the best intentions, a divorced couple may keep falling back into their old patterns at the workplace. If you still think that the business is viable and worth the effort to make a go of it, get professional help. A good marriage therapist is trained to help couples understand the point of view of the other person and gain insight into their dynamics, and this can be valuable information post-divorce, as well.

Most entrepreneurs have a knack for thinking outside the box. Maybe you and your ex- can alternate day and night shifts for a few months. Build a partition between your desks. It might take a while before you move from being unhappy exes to friendly partners - but it just might be worth it.

 


Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Can I Get In Trouble With the IRS for Trying to Reduce the Amount of Estate Tax That I Owe?

You’ve likely heard that one of the many benefits of estate planning is reducing the amount of federal and state taxes owed upon your passing. While it may seem like estate tax planning must run afoul of IRS rules, with the proper strategies, this is far from the case.

It is very common for an individual to take steps to try to reduce the amount of federal estate taxes that his or her "estate" will be responsible for after the person's death. As you may know, you may pass an unlimited amount of assets to your spouse without incurring any federal estate taxes. In 2014, you may pass $5.34 million to non-spouse beneficiaries without incurring federal estate tax and if your spouse died before you, and if you have taken certain steps to add your spouse's $5.34 million exemption (or whatever it was at time of death) to your own, you may have $10.68 million that you can pass tax free to non-spouse beneficiaries.

If your estate is still larger than these exemption amounts you should seek a qualified estate planning attorney. There may be other legal, legitimate planning techniques that will help reduce the taxable value of your estate in order to pass more assets to your loved ones upon your death and lessen the impact of the estate taxes. After your death, the duty normally falls on your executor (or perhaps a successor trustee) to file the appropriate tax returns and pay the necessary taxes. Failure to properly plan for potential estate taxes will significantly limit what your executor/trustee will be able to accomplish after your passing.

 


Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Turning Over the Keys: Helping older drivers make the tough decision

We all want to be in control, to go where we want at our leisure. As we age, however, our senses and reaction times begin to slow which can make getting behind the wheel increasingly hazardous. It is important to be realistic about the driving abilities of loved ones as they reach a certain stage and to prepare accordingly. Not only will it keep seniors safe, but planning ahead will help them financially as they make other arrangements for transportation.

The first step is to reduce the need to drive. Find ways to bring the things they need right to them, like ordering groceries online for delivery and encouraging in-home appointments. Suggest that they invite friends and family over for regular visits instead of going out. They may be surprised by how many things are possible from the comfort of their own home.

For the times your loved ones need to, or want to, venture elsewhere, look into other transportation options. Although there is usually no need to quit driving all at once, look to family, friends, taxis, and public transportation when you can, especially for longer trips. Use the money you’ve been saving, along with what would have been spent on gas, on alternate modes of transportation. Their town may even have designated senior transportation services.

The time to start making this transition may be sooner than you or your loved ones think. Don’t wait until an accident leaves them with no alternative. It may be time to start talking about limiting driving if they report noticing subtle difficulties, like trouble reading traffic signs or delayed breaking. Keep an eye out for small dings in your loved one’s car or surrounding items, like the mailbox or garage door, along with slower response time or difficulty finding their way around familiar territory. Ask them to watch for these things as well.

Asking a loved one to turn over their keys can be tough but with an open dialogue, the right support system and reasonable alternatives in place to ensure that they can continue to live an active lifestyle, a smooth transition is feasible.


Friday, February 21, 2014

Young and Ill, without Advance Directives

When you are a child, your parents serve as your decision makers. They have ultimate say in where you go to school, what extracurricular activities you partake in and where, and how, you should be treated in the event of a medical emergency. While most parents continue to play a huge role in their children’s lives long after they reach adulthood, they lose legal decision-making authority on that 18th birthday. Most young adults don't contemplate who can act on their behalf once this transfer of power occurs, and consequently they fail to prepare advance directives.

In the event of a medical emergency, if a young adult is conscious and competent to make decisions, the doctors will ask the patient about his or her preferred course of treatment. Even if the individual is unable to speak, he or she may still be able to communicate by using hand signals or even blinking one’s eyes in response to questions.

But what happens in instances where the young adult is incapacitated and unable to make decisions? Who will decide on the best course of treatment? Without advance directives, the answer to this question can be unclear, often causing the family of the incapacitated person emotional stress and financial hardship.

In instances of life threatening injury or an illness that requires immediate care, the doctors will likely do all they can to treat the patient as aggressively as possible, relying on the standards of care to decide on the best course of treatment. However, if there is no "urgent" need to treat they will look to someone else who has authority to make those decisions on behalf of the young individual. Most states have specific statutes that list who has priority to make decisions on behalf of an incapacitated individual, when there are no advance directives in place. Many states favor a spouse, adult children, and parents in a list of priority. Doctors will generally try to get in touch with the patient’s "next of kin" to provide the direction necessary for treatment.

A number of recent high-profile court cases remind us of the dangers of relying on state statues to determine who has the authority to make healthcare decisions on behalf of the ill. What happens if the parents of the incapacitated disagree on the best course of treatment? Or what happens if the patient is estranged from her spouse but technically still married- will he have ultimate say? For most, the thought is unsettling.

To avoid the unknown, it’s highly recommended that all adults, regardless of age, work with an estate planning attorney to prepare advance directives including a health care/medical power of attorney as well as a Directive to Physicians and Family or Surrogates/Living Will which outline their wishes and ensure compliance with all applicable state statutes.


Monday, February 17, 2014

8 Things to Consider When Selecting a Caregiver for Your Senior Parent

As a child of a senior citizen, you are faced with many choices in helping to care for your parent. You want the very best care for your mother or father, but you also have to take your personal needs, family obligations and finances into consideration.

When choosing a caregiver for a loved one, there are a number of things to keep in mind during the selection process:

  1. Time. Do you require part- or full-time care for your parent? Are you looking for a caregiver to come into your home? Will your parent live with the caregiver or will your parent live in a senior care facility? According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, 58 percent of care recipients live in their own home and 20 percent live with the caregiver. You should consider your current arrangement but also take time to identify some alternatives in the event that the requirements of care should change in the future.
  2. Family ties. If you have siblings, they probably want to be involved in the decision of your parent’s care. If you have a sibling who lives far away, sharing in the care responsibilities or decision-making process may prove to be a challenge. It’s important that you open up the lines of communication with your parents and your siblings so everyone is aware and in agreement about the best course of care.
  3. Specialized care. Some caregivers and care facilities specialize in specific conditions or treatments. For instance, there are special residences for those with Alzheimer’s and others for those suffering from various types of cancer. If your parent suffers from a disease or physical ailment, you may want to take this into consideration during the selection process
  4. Social interaction. Many seniors fear that caregivers or care facilities will be isolating, limiting their social interaction with friends and loved ones. It’s important to keep this in mind throughout the process and identify the activities that he or she may enjoy such as playing games, exercising or cooking. Make sure to inquire about the caregiver’s ability to allow social interaction. Someone who is able to accommodate your parent’s individual preferences or cultural activities will likely be a better fit for your mother or father.
  5. Credentials. Obviously, it is important to make sure that the person or team who cares for your parent has the required credentials. Run background checks and look at facility reviews to ensure you are dealing with licensed, accredited individuals. You may choose to run an independent background check or check references for added peace of mind.
  6. Scope of care. If you are looking for a live-in caregiver, that person is responsible for more than just keeping an eye on your mother or father—he or she may be responsible for preparing meals, dispensing medication, transporting your parent, or managing the home. Facilities typically have multidisciplinary personnel to care for residents, but an individual will likely need to complete a variety of tasks and have a broad skill set to do it all.
  7. Money. Talk to your parent about the financial arrangements that he or she may have in place. If this isn’t an option, you will likely need to discuss the options with your siblings or your parent’s lawyer—or check your mother’s or father’s estate plan—to find out more about available assets and how to make financial choices pertaining to your parent’s care.
  8. Prepare. Upon meeting the prospective caregiver or visiting a facility, it is important to have questions prepared ahead of time so you can gather all of the information necessary to make an informed choice. Finally, be prepared to listen to your parent’s concerns or observations so you can consider their input in the decision. If he or she is able, they will likely want to make the choice themselves.

Choosing a caregiver for your parent is an important decision that weighs heavily on most adult children but with the right planning and guidance, you can make the best choice for your family. Once you find the right person, make sure to follow up as care continues and to check in with your mother or father to ensure the caregiver is the perfect fit.


Friday, January 31, 2014

What is Estate Recovery?

Medicaid is a federal health program for individuals with low income and financial resources that is administered by each state. Each state may call this program by a different name. In California, for example, it is referred to as Medi-Cal. This program is intended to help individuals and couples pay for the cost of health care and nursing home care.

Most people are surprised to learn that Medicare (the health insurance available to all people over the age of 65) does not cover nursing home care. The average cost of nursing home care, also called "skilled nursing" or "convalescent care," can be $6,000 to $10,000 per month, depending on the facility. Many people do not have the resources to cover these steep costs over an extended period of time without some form of assistance.

Qualifying for Medicaid can be complicated; each state has its own rules and guidelines for eligibility. Once qualified for a Medicaid subsidy, Medicaid will assign you a co-pay (your Share of Cost) for the nursing home care, based on your monthly income and ability to pay.

At the end of the Medicaid recipient's life (and the spouse's life, if applicable), Medicaid may begin "estate recovery" for the total cost spent during the recipient's lifetime. Medicaid may issue a bill to the estate, and place a lien on the recipient's home in order to satisfy the debt. Many estate beneficiaries discover this debt only upon the death of a parent or loved one. In many cases, the Medicaid debt can consume most, if not all, estate assets.

There are estate planning strategies available that can help you accelerate qualification for a Medicaid subsidy, and also eliminate the possibility of a Medicaid lien at death. However, each state's laws are very specific, and this process is very complicated. It is very important to consult with an experienced elder law attorney in your jurisdiction.


Monday, January 27, 2014

Protecting Your Vacation Home with a Cabin Trust

Many people own a family vacation home--a lakeside cabin, a beachfront condo--a place where parents, children and grandchildren can gather for vacations, holidays and a bit of relaxation. It is important that the treasured family vacation home be considered as part of a thorough estate plan. In many cases, the owner wants to ensure that the vacation home remains within the family after his or her death, and not be sold as part of an estate liquidation.

There are generally two ways to accomplish this goal. Within a revocable living trust, a popular option is to create a separate sub-trust called a "Cabin Trust" that will come into existence upon the death of the original owner(s). The vacation home would then be transferred into this Trust, along with a specific amount of money that will cover the cost of upkeep for the vacation home for a certain period of time. The Trust should also designate who may use the vacation home (usually the children or grandchildren). Usually, when a child dies, his/her right to use the property would pass to his/her children.

The Cabin Trust should also name a Trustee, who would be responsible for the general management of the property and the funds retained for upkeep of the vacation home. The Trust can specify what will happen when the Cabin Trust money runs out, and the circumstances under which the vacation property can be sold. Often the Trust will allow the children the first option to buy the property.

Another method of preserving the family vacation home is the creation of a Limited Liability Company or Partnership to hold the house. The parents can assign interests or shares to their children, and provide for a mechanism to determine how to pay for the vacation home taxes and upkeep. An LLC or LLP provides protection from liability, in case someone is injured on the property.

It is always wise to consult with an estate planning attorney about how to best protect and preserve a vacation home for future generations.


Friday, January 24, 2014

What to Do after a Loved One Passes Away

The loss of a loved one is a difficult time, often made more stressful when one has to handle the affairs of the deceased. This may be a great undertaking or rather minimal work, depending upon the level of estate planning done prior to death.

Tasks that have to be performed after the passing of a loved one will vary based on whether the departed individual had a will or not. In determining whether probate (a court-managed process where the assets of the deceased are managed and distributed) is needed, the assets owned by the individual, and whether/how these assets were titled, must be considered. It’s important to understand that assets titled jointly with another person as joint tenants with rights of survivorship, are not probate assets and will normally pass to the surviving joint owner. Also, assets such as life insurance and retirement assets that name a beneficiary will pass to the named beneficiaries outside of the court probate process. If the deceased relative had formed a trust and during his life retitled his assets into that trust, those trust assets will also not pass through the probate process - they would pass pursuant to the trust provisions.

Each state’s rules may be slightly different so it is important to seek proper legal advice if you are charged with handling the affairs of a deceased family member or friend. Assuming probate is required, there will be a process that you must follow to either file the will and ask to be appointed as the executor (assuming you were named executor in the will) or file for probate of the estate without a will (this is referred to as dying "intestate" which simply means dying without a will). Also, there will be a process to publish notice to creditors and you may be required to send each creditor specific notice of the death. Those creditors will have a certain amount of time to file a claim against the estate assets. If a legitimate creditor files a claim, the claim can be paid out of the estate assets. Depending on your state's laws, there may also be state death taxes (sometimes referred to as "inheritance taxes") that have to be paid and, under certain circumstances, if the estate is large enough, a federal estate tax return may also have to be filed along with any taxes which may be due. In Texas, there is no state death tax, just the federal estate tax, if applicable.

Only after the estate is fully administered, creditors paid, and tax returns filed and taxes paid, can the estate be fully distributed to the named beneficiaries or heirs. Given the many steps, and complexities of probate, you should seek legal counsel to help you through the process.


Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Moving to Another State and How it Affects Estate Planning

In general, wills or living trusts that are valid in one state should be valid in all states. However, if you’ve recently moved, it’s highly recommended that you consult an estate planning attorney in your new state. This is because states can have very different laws regarding all aspects of estate planning. For example, some states may allow you to disinherit a spouse if certain language is used, while other states may not allow it.

Another event that can cause problems with moving and estate planning is moving from a community property state to a common law state or vice versa. In community property states, all property earned or acquired during marriage is generally owned in equal halves by each spouse, with some exceptions of separate property, such as any property received by only one of them through gift or inheritance. The property that is considered community property includes income, anything acquired with income during the marriage, and any separate property that is transformed into community property. Separate property includes anything owned by either spouse before marriage, property received by only one spouse by gift or inheritance, and certain types of personal injury recoveries. One spouse is not required in community property states to leave his or her half of the community property to another spouse, although many do.

In common law states, property acquired during a marriage is not automatically owned by both spouses. In common law states, the spouse who earns money and acquires property owns it by himself or herself, unless he or she chooses to share it with his or her spouse. Common law states usually have rules to protect a surviving spouse from being disinherited.

Whether a couple lives in a community property state or a common law state is important for estate planning purposes, because that can directly affect what each spouse is considered to own at death.

If a couple moves from a common law state to a community property state, there are different rules about what happens depending on where you move. Typically, if a couple moves from a community property state to a common law state, each spouse retains a one-half interest in property accumulated during marriage while they lived in the community property state.

The laws of different states vary significantly with respect to incapacity planning, estate planning and inheritance rights. Therefore, it’s important to contact an estate planning attorney in your new area, especially if you are moving from a community property state to a common law state, or vice versa.


Friday, December 27, 2013

Important Issues to Consider When Setting Up Your Estate Plan

Often estate planning focuses on the “big picture” issues, such as who gets what, whether a living trust should be created to avoid probate and tax planning to minimize gift and estate taxes. However, there are many smaller issues, which are just as critical to the success of your overall estate plan. Below are some of the issues that are often overlooked by clients and sometimes their attorneys.

Cash Flow
Is there sufficient cash? Estates incur operating expenses throughout the administration phase. Sometimes, the estate has to pay state or federal estate taxes, filing fees, living expenses for a surviving spouse or other dependents, cover regular expenses to maintain assets held in the estate, and various legal expenses associated with settling the estate.

Taxes
How will taxes be paid? Although the estate may be small enough to avoid federal estate taxes, there are other taxes which must be paid. Depending on jurisdiction, the state may impose an estate tax. If the estate is earning income, it must pay income taxes until the estate is fully settled. Income taxes are paid from the liquid assets held in the estate, however estate taxes could be paid by either the estate or from each beneficiary’s inheritance if the underlying assets are liquid.

Assets
What, exactly, is held in the estate? The owner of the estate certainly knows this information, but estate administrators, successor trustees and executors may not have certain information readily available. A notebook or list documenting what major items are owned by the estate should be left for the estate administrator. It should also include locations and identifying information, including serial numbers and account numbers.

Creditors
Your estate can’t be settled until all creditors have been paid. As with your assets, be sure to leave your estate administrator a document listing all creditors and account numbers. Be sure to also include information regarding where your records are kept, in the event there are disputes regarding the amount the creditor claims is owed.

Beneficiary Designations
Some assets are not subject to the terms of a will or living trust. Instead, they are transferred directly to a beneficiary according to the instruction made on a beneficiary designation form. Bank accounts, life insurance policies, annuities, retirement plans, IRAs and some motor vehicles departments allow you to designate a beneficiary to inherit the asset upon your death. By doing so, the asset is not included in the probate estate or trust estate and instead, simply passes to your designated beneficiary by operation of law.

Fund Your Living Trust
Your probate-avoidance living trust will not keep your estate out of the probate court unless you formally transfer your non-retirement assets into the trust. Only assets which are legally owned by the trust are subject to its terms. Title to your real property, vehicles, investments and other financial accounts should be transferred into the name of your living trust.


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