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Houston Estate Planning and Probate Blog

Thursday, September 12, 2013

Planning Pitfall: Probate vs. Non-Probate Property

Transfer of property at death can be rather complex. Many are under the impression that instructions provided in a valid will are sufficient to transfer their assets to the individuals named in the will. However, there are a myriad of rules that affect how different types of assets transfer to heirs and beneficiaries, often in direct contradiction of what may be clearly stated in one’s will.

The legal process of administering property owned by someone who has passed away with a will is called probate. Prior to his passing, a deceased person, or decedent, usually names an executor to oversee the process by which his wishes, outlined in his Will, are to be carried out. Probate property, generally consists of everything in a decedent’s estate that was directly in his name. For example, a house, vehicle, monies, stocks or any other asset in the decedent’s name is probate property. Any real or personal property that was in the decedent’s name can be defined as probate property.

The difference between non-probate property and probate centers around whose name is listed as owner. Non-probate property consists of property that lists both the decedent and another as the joint owner (with right of survivorship) or where someone else has already been designated as a beneficiary, such as life insurance or a retirement account. In these cases, the joint owners and designated beneficiaries supersede conflicting instructions in one’s will. Other examples of non-probate property include property owned by trusts, which also have beneficiaries designated. At the decedent’s passing, the non-probate items pass automatically to whoever is the joint owner or designated beneficiary.

Why do you need to know the difference? Simply put, the categories of probate and non-probate property will have a serious effect on how plan your estate. If you own property jointly with right of survivorship with another individual, that individual will inherit your share, regardless of what it states in your will. Estate and probate law can be different from state-to-state, so it’s best to have an attorney handle your estate plan and property ownership records to ensure that your assets go to the intended beneficiaries.


Monday, August 26, 2013

Common Estate Planning Mistakes Regarding Individual Retirement Accounts (IRAs)

For many people, retirement savings accounts are among the largest assets they have to bequeath to their children and grandchildren in their estate plans.  Sadly, without professional and personally tailored advice about how best to include IRAs in one’s estate plan, there may be a failure to take advantage of techniques that will maximize the amount of assets that will be available for future generations.

Failure to Update Contingent Beneficiaries

Assets in an IRA account usually transfer automatically to the named beneficiaries upon the death of the account holder, outside of the probate process.  If the account holder’s desired beneficiaries change, due to marriage, divorce, or other major life events, it is critically important to update the named beneficiaries as quickly as possible to prevent the asset from passing to an outdated beneficiary.  When updating beneficiaries, account holders should not neglect contingent beneficiaries – those individuals named to receive the asset if the primary named beneficiary is already deceased when the account holder dies.

Example:  Sarah’s IRA documents name her husband, Harold, as the primary beneficiary of her IRA.  The contingent beneficiary is Harold’s son, George, from Harold’s first marriage.  Sarah and Harold divorce.  Harold dies.  If Sarah dies before changing her IRA beneficiaries, George will receive the IRA.  This may no longer be the result Sarah would have wanted.

Failure to Consider a Trust as the Contingent Beneficiary of an IRA

There are three main advantages of naming a trust as the contingent beneficiary of your IRA: 

  1. It avoids the problem described above of having incorrect contingent beneficiaries named at death.
  2. It protects the IRA if the desired beneficiary is a minor, has debt or marital troubles, or is irresponsible with money.
  3. It protects the IRA from intentional or unintentional withdrawal.

Since 2005, the IRS has allowed a type of trust created specifically to be the beneficiary of an IRA.  The IRA Beneficiary Trust is also known as an IRA trust, an IRA stretch trust, an IRA protection trust, or a standalone IRA trust.

The main advantage of using an IRA Beneficiary Trust is that the IRA trust can restrict distributions to ensure compliance with tax rules and minimum distribution requirements – thus maximizing the amount of tax-free growth of the investments. 

Another advantage is that the IRA stretch trust has a framework that allows it to be structured in a way that guarantees protection of the distributions from the IRA as well as protection of the principal of the IRA.  When you first establish the IRA protection trust, you structure the trust as either a conduit trust or an accumulation trust.  A conduit trust will pass the required minimum distributions directly to your named beneficiaries, maximizing the tax deferral benefits.  An accumulation trust passes the required minimum distributions into another trust over which a named trustee has discretion to accumulate the funds, resulting in greater asset protection for the benefit of the beneficiary.

During your lifetime, the IRS allows you to switch between the conduit trust and accumulation trust for each of your beneficiaries, as circumstances change.  Furthermore, you may name a “trust protector” who may change the type of trust one last time after your death.  This change may be made on a beneficiary-by-beneficiary basis, so that some of your intended heirs have accumulation trusts for their portion of the IRA and others have conduit trusts.

IRA Beneficiary Trusts are complicated legal documents with intricate IRS rules and tremendous implications for your family’s wealth accumulation for future generations.  It is wise to seek advice specific to your family’s unique circumstances when considering the establishment of this powerful type of trust.


Thursday, August 15, 2013

Family Foundations: What, Why, and How

Families with significant net worth who have a tradition of philanthropy often consider establishing a charitable foundation as part of their estate plans.   While there are a number of advantages to using family foundations as a philanthropic vehicle, families need to seek guidance from estate planning and tax professionals to ensure it is the best option for achieving their objectives.

According to The Foundation Center, there are over 35,000 family foundations in the US, responsible for more than $20 billion in gifts per year.   While some foundations have tens of millions in assets, more than half report holdings totaling less than $1 million.  

Advantages

Minimizing various tax burdens is one benefit of creating a family foundation.  However, if tax issues are your primary concern, then a different asset management and distribution vehicle will probably better suit your needs.  While it is true that family foundations offer certain tax advantages—both in terms of current income tax obligations and future estate tax burdens—family foundations are also under many legal and regulatory obligations. These ongoing obligations mean that your family should choose to build a family foundation only if ongoing philanthropic giving is an enduring family goal.

Non-tax-related benefits of a family foundation include the following:

  • Managing the foundation may provide employment for one or more family members
  • A family foundation allows founders to involve family members in family wealth management, especially those who lack interest in the family business
  • The foundation founder can maintain influence over recipients of charitable giving for generations to come
  • A family foundation makes an excellent repository for all charitable giving requests.  A formal process can be established to ensure grant applicants are not arbitrary.
  • A family foundation can serve as a formal manifestation of a family’s philanthropic culture.

Types of Family Foundations

There are many different types of family foundations, each with certain advantages, disadvantages, and tax and regulatory obligations.  The main types of family foundations include:

  • Private non-operating family foundations which receive charitable donations from the family, invests those funds and makes gifts to other charitable organizations or individuals.
  • Private operating family foundations which actively engage in one or more philanthropic activities, as opposed to making donations to other foundations that perform active charitable work.
  • Supporting organizations which are designed to provide financial support to one or more specific public charities
  • Publicly supported charities can be seeded with family philanthropic funds but then also take donations from the public. Publicly supported charities must meet specific Internal Revenue Service requirements to maintain their status as publicly supported charities.

Issues to Consider when Establishing a Family Foundation 

  1. How much money do you plan to give to the foundation at its inception?
  2. Do you anticipate volunteer help from your family to run the foundation, or will the foundation need to pay one or more salaries?
  3. Does your family wish to support one or more specific charities, or do you want to fund a foundation which can ultimately choose among other charities in specific fields of philanthropic work?
  4. Does your family want to actively engage in philanthropic work or make gifts to other organizations that are already engaged in such work?
  5. Does the foundation founder prefer to exert strict control over gifts the foundation makes, or only to generally specify the types of philanthropic work he or she wishes the foundation to support?

Once you and your family have carefully thought through these considerations, you should consult with an estate planning attorney and other tax advisors to determine which type of family foundation most effectively meets your family’s giving objectives.


Tuesday, August 6, 2013

8 Reasons Young People Should Write a Last Will and Testament

Imagine if writing a last will and testament were a pre-requisite to graduating from high school.  The graduate walks across the stage, hands the completed will to the principal, and gets the diploma in return.   It might sound strange because most 18 year olds have little in terms of assets but it’s a good idea for all adults to draft a last will and testament.

Graduation from college is another good milestone to use as a reminder to create an estate plan.  If you haven’t created a will by the time you marry – or are living with a partner in a committed relationship – then it’s fair to say you are overdue.

Think you don’t need an estate plan because you’re broke?  Not true.  Here are eight excellent reasons for young people to complete a last will and testament.  And they have very little to do with money.

You are entering the military.  Anyone entering the military, at 18 or any other age, should make sure his or her affairs are in order.  Even for an 18-year-old, that means creating a will and other basic estate planning documents like a health care directive and powers of attorney.

You received an inheritance.  You may not think of the inheritance as your asset, especially if it is held in trust for you. But, without an estate plan, the disposition of that money may be a slow and complicated process for your surviving family members.

You own an animal.  It is common for people to include plans for their pets in their wills or trusts.  If the unthinkable were to happen and you died unexpectedly, what would happen to your beloved pet?  Better to plan ahead for your animals in the event of your death.  You can even direct the sale of specific assets, with the proceeds going to your pet’s new caregiver for upkeep expenses, or you can create a pet trust which provides that one person, the caregiver (beneficiary) cares for your pet and another person, the trustee, manages the money in the trust and distributes it to the caregiver according to the instructions in the trust.

You want to protect your family from red tape.  If you die without a will, your family will have to take your “estate” (whatever money and possessions you have at the time of your death) through a long court process known as probate. If you had life insurance payable to your estate, for example, your family would not be able to access those funds until the probate process was well under way.  A couple of basic estate planning documents can keep your estate out of the probate court and get your assets into the hands of your chosen beneficiaries much more quickly.

You have social media accounts.  Many people spend a great deal of time online, conversing with friends, storing important photos and documents and even managing finances. Without instructions from you, will your family know what to do with your Facebook account, your LinkedIn account, and so forth?

You want to give money or possessions to friends or charities.  When someone dies without a will, there are laws that dictate who will receive any assets.  These recipients will include immediate family members like parents, siblings, and a spouse.  If you want to give assets to friends or to a charity, you must protect your wishes with a will.

You care about what happens to you if you are in a coma or persistent vegetative state.  We all see the stories on the news – ugly fights within families over the prostrate bodies of critically ill children or siblings or spouses.  When you write your will, write a health care directive (also called a living will) and a financial power of attorney as well.  This is especially important if you have a life partner to whom you are not married so they can make decisions on your behalf


Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Preventing a Will Contest & Preserving Peace in the Family

The purpose of writing a Last Will and Testament is to make sure that you – and not an anonymous probate court judge – have control over the distribution of your property after your death.  If one or more family members disputes the instructions in your Will, however, then it is possible  that a probate court judge may decide how your assets will be distributed.

Protect yourself, your family members and your last wishes by taking steps to prevent a Will contest after your death.  Will contests (this is the legal term used to describe a family member’s challenge to the contents of a will) can be based on one or more of these claims:

  • The Will was not properly executed
  • The Willmaker (Testator or Testatrix) was under improper or undue influence from a beneficiary
  • The Willmaker or another person committed fraud
  • The Willmaker lacked the mental capacity to make the will

There are a number of steps that you can take to help prevent will contests based on any of those claims.  It is important to remember, though, that different states have different laws regarding wills and probate.  What is advisable in one state may be inadvisable in another, which is why the first suggestion for preventing a will contest is:

  1. Obtain qualified legal advice regarding your estate plan.  Estate planning has become a popular “do it yourself” legal task, but you should at least consider having your will reviewed – if not written – by a qualified estate planning lawyer.  Writing your will with the help of an estate planning attorney will also ensure that your will is a properly executed and valid legal document.
     
  2. Don’t delay estate planning.  Plan your estate while you are in good health – “of sound mind and body.”  If you create your will while your physical or mental health is failing, your will becomes potentially vulnerable to claims that it is invalid due to your lack of mental capacity.
     
  3. Consider a no-contest clause.  A no-contest clause (also called an in terrorem clause) in a Last Will and Testament disinherits anyone who contests the will.  Keep in mind, though, that no-contest clauses are valid in some states but not in others.
     
  4. Consider using trusts.  Trusts are becoming more widely used in estate planning , and are useful for various situations.  A will is a public document once it is filed in probate court, and the public nature of the document can give rise to disputes and will contests.  In contrast, a revocable living trust is a personal and private document that does not have to be filed as a public record.  Furthermore, lifetime trusts can be used to provide financially for “troublesome” beneficiaries who might otherwise spend through their inheritance.  Lifetime trusts are flexible and can link financial inheritance to the accomplishment of goals that you set forth in the trust documents.
     
  5. Write your will independently.  To avoid claims of undue influence after your death, make sure you write your will in circumstances that are clearly free from interference by family members or other beneficiaries.  Do not have beneficiaries serve as witnesses, and consider not allowing beneficiaries to attend your meetings with your estate planning attorney.  This is especially important if you are under the care of a family member who is also a beneficiary and you think other family members might try to say you were influenced by the beneficiary who attended the meeting.
     
  6. Be of sound mind and body.  At the time you write and sign your will, you can ask your physician to perform a physical examination and certify that you are mentally competent to execute your will.  Another option is for your attorney to ask you a series of questions before you sign your will and document that the questions were asked and answered.
     
  7. Answer your family’s questions.  Consider sharing your intentions with your family and other beneficiaries.  If you explain the reasons for the decisions you made regarding bequests, you may help prevent will contests after your death.  Instead or in addition, you may write a letter to your beneficiaries that will be read at the same time your will is read.
     
  8. Keep your will dust-free.  Once your Last Will and Testament and other estate planning documents are complete, don’t just file and forget them.  Review your will with an attorney at least once every couple of years and make any necessary changes in a timely manner.

Monday, July 8, 2013

Think Treasure Hunts are Fun and Games? Think Again

You’ve had an attorney draft your estate planning documents, including your living trust and will. Probate avoidance and tax saving strategies have been implemented. Your documents are signed, notarized and witnessed in accordance with all applicable laws, and are stored in a location known to your chosen executor or estate administrator. Your work is done, right? Not exactly.

Although treasure hunts may be fun for youngsters, the fiduciaries of your estate will not find inventorying your assets to be nearly as exciting. When it comes time to settle your affairs, your estate representatives will be charged with the responsibility to gather and manage your assets, pay off debts and taxes, and distribute your assets to your named beneficiaries. This can be a tall order for an outsider who is likely unaware of the full scope of your assets. 

If your fiduciaries cannot determine exactly what property you own, and its value and location, you are setting up your loved ones for a frustrating treasure hunt that can delay the settlement of your estate and rack up additional estate-related expenses. You may be remembered for the frustration of locating your assets, rather than the gifts made upon your death – not a legacy many wish to leave. 

Instead, as you are establishing your estate plan take the extra time to record a comprehensive asset inventory and make sure those who will be responsible for settling your estate know where that inventory is stored. Do not presume that everything is handled once you meet with a lawyer and sign your documents. The legal instruments you have gone to the time, trouble and expense to prepare may not serve their purpose if your assets cannot be identified, located and transferred to your beneficiaries. However, creating a thoughtful asset inventory will aid your loved ones in closing your estate and honoring your memory.

Nobody knows better what assets you own than you. And who better than you to know an item’s value, age or location? Your fiduciaries may not have the benefit of tax or registration renewal notices for titled assets, and certainly won’t have copies of the titles or deeds – unless you provide them. It’s a good idea to include copies of the following items with your asset inventory:

  • Deeds to real property
  • Titles to personal property
  • Statements for bank, brokerage, credit card and retirement accounts
  • Stock certificates
  • Life insurance policy
  • Tax notices

For each of the above assets you should also list names and contact information for individuals who can assist with each the underlying assets, such as attorneys, brokers, financial planners and accountants.

If your estate includes unique objects or valuable family heirlooms, a professional appraisal can help you plan your estate, and help your representatives settle your estate. If you have any property appraised, include a copy of the report with your asset inventory.

Care should be taken to continually update your asset inventory as things change. There will likely be many years between the time your estate plan is created and the day your fiduciaries must step in and settle your estate. Properties may be bought or sold, and these changes should be reflected in your asset inventory on an ongoing basis.


Wednesday, June 26, 2013

Important Steps to Plan for the Future of a Special Needs Child

#1 Establish a Comprehensive Plan
Most estate planning attorneys will say that no person should use a “do-it-yourself” will kit to establish their estate plan.  If you have a child with special needs, it is extremely important to seek competent legal counsel from an estate planning lawyer with special needs planning experience before and during the process of writing your will and/or living trust.

In your estate plan, make sure that any bequests to your child are left to his or her trust (see #2, below) instead of to the child directly.  Your will or a separate Designation of Guardian document should also name the person or persons you want to serve as guardian of your child (see #3, below).

Once your estate plan is complete you should give copies to all the guardians and executors/trustees named in the will.

#2 Establish a Special/Supplemental Needs Trust
A special or supplemental needs trust is the most important legal document you will prepare for your child.  In order to preserve your child’s eligibility for federal financial benefits like Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid, all financial assets for your child should be placed into this trust instead of being held in your child’s name.  This is because federal benefit programs restrict the amount of income and assets the recipient may have.  If your child has too many financial assets, he or she could lose his/her eligibility for important federal assistance programs.

You can use this trust as a depository for any money you save for your child’s future, money others give as a gift, funds awarded in a legal settlement or successful lawsuit, and other financial assets.

Should you create a special/supplemental needs trust if your child doesn’t currently have any financial assets?  Yes.  Once you create the special needs trust, then the trust can immediately become the named beneficiary of any life insurance policies or planned bequests, either yours or family members’.

#3 Appoint a guardian and complete necessary guardianship papers
Like any parent, you worry about who will care for your child if you were to die before the child becomes an adult.  You also worry about who will care for your child and provide guidance even after he or she is an adult.

A legal guardian is the person who will care for your child after your death and until the child turns 18.  If your child is unable to live independently, then you can either make arrangements for adult care or discuss your preferences with the appointed guardian.

As you consider choices of a guardian for your special needs child, consider how much time is required to raise a child with special needs.  Who do you know who can respond to the challenge?  Who do you know who has already formed a bond with your child?

After you make a choice, ask the individual if he or she will accept the responsibility of serving as your child’s legal guardian.  It is never wise to keep this decision a secret.  Also, discuss with your selected guardian how he or she will probably still have responsibilities toward your child even after his or her 18th birthday.

#4 Apply for an adult guardianship
Even if your child is still a minor, you can start planning now for when he or she reaches the age of majority.  When children turn 18, the law considers them adults and able to make their own financial and medical decisions.  If your special needs child will be incapable of managing his or her own health and finances, consider a legal guardianship.

#5 Prioritize your savings account
Parents of special needs children quickly learn that their children need many resources and equipment that insurance and school systems do not cover.  The more financial assistance you can give your child, the better.  Start saving as early as possible for your child’s lifetime needs – just remember to not open the savings account in your child’s name

Savings can help pay for therapies, equipment, an attorney to advocate for your child in the school system, or a special education expert who can help you make sure your child is getting access to all the programs he or she qualifies for.

#6 Plan for your child’s adulthood
Early planning for your child’s adult years will help you bring the legal and financial picture into sharper focus.  Will your child continue to live with you?  If so, will he or she need in-home assistance?  How often?  Do adult day care programs for people with special needs exist in your community?  How are they rated?

Is your goal for your child to live independently?  If so, what support will he or she need?  Will your child live in a group home, an assisted living community, an apartment with on-site nursing care, or another type of situation?  The earlier you research available options in your community, the sooner you can add your child’s name to the waiting list for the living situation you both prefer.

#7 Write a letter of intent
A letter of intent is not a formal legal document.  It is more like a manual of instruction, containing your wishes for your child’s upbringing.  In the best case scenario, you would give this letter of intent to your child’s chosen guardian and to anyone else who will play a significant role in his or her life after your death.

  • What is your child’s daily routine?  What kind of weekly and monthly routine does she have?
  • What does he find especially comforting?  What frightens her?  What are favorite foods, books and movies?  Be as detailed as you wish.
  • List all of your child’s health care and educational providers.
  • List all current medications, doses and schedules.
  • List all allergies.
  • Are there people you don’t want your child to spend time with? Be specific.
  • Are there people you want your child to spend time with? Who?
  • Are there activities you especially want your child to try, such as sports or arts and crafts?

Update this letter at least once a year.  Keep a copy wherever you keep copies of your will and other estate planning documents.  And be sure to give a copy to your child’s appointed guardian.

#8 Talk with family members
Either in person or in writing, explain the major decisions you have made to important family members.  It is especially important to explain to generous grandparents and other relatives why they must not leave gifts of money – or inheritances – directly to your child.  Give relatives the information about your child’s special needs trust and instruct them to leave any financial gifts to the trust.  Similarly, explain that family members should designate the trust – not the child – as the beneficiary of life insurance policies and so forth.

If you have made decisions you fear will be unpopular (such as naming a guardian), consider explaining your reasons directly to family members whom you fear will be unhappy.  You could also consider including the named guardian in these difficult conversations.

The process of planning for your special needs child’s future may seem long and arduous at times, but you will experience a great relief when the major pieces of the plan are in place.  Creating a plan for the future will allow you to relax and enjoy the present with your child and family.
 


Friday, June 21, 2013

What is Estate Tax Portability and How Does it Affect Me?

At the end of 2012, the entire country watched as major changes were made to income tax  laws with the adoption of the American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 (ATRA). The act also made significant changes in estate tax laws.

Estate Tax Portability

One important change is that the estate tax portability law is now permanent.  Estate tax portability means that the unused portion of the first-to-die spouse’s estate tax exemption passes to the surviving spouse.  The current 2013 estate tax exemption is $5.25 million ($5 million with adjustments for inflation).  This means that a married couple’s total estate tax exemption is currently $10.5 million.  For example, a husband dies with $2 million in separate assets.  He has $3.25 million remaining in his estate tax exemption, which passes to his wife, giving her a total of $7.5 million in estate tax exemption.  Without portability, the husband’s remaining exemption might have been forfeited if the couple had not implemented special tax planning techniques as part of their estate plans.

How Do You Claim the Portability?

This is where married couples and estate executors can get into trouble.  The estate tax portability rule is not automatic.  In order to claim the remainder of the first-to-die spouse’s estate tax exemption, the surviving spouse or the deceased spouse’s estate executor must file an estate tax return soon after the death, usually within nine months.

If this filing deadline is missed, then the couple will not get the benefit of estate tax portability.  Missing the estate tax filing deadline can result in the possibility of hundreds of thousands of unnecessary and avoidable estate taxes.

In a recent report in The Wall Street Journal, estate planning experts expressed concern that executors of small estates may be unaware of the estate tax return filing requirement and may believe that an estate tax return is unnecessary if the deceased spouse’s assets fall under the $5.25 million exemption amount. To preserve portability, however, the estate tax return must be filed after the first spouse’s death.  

Alternatively, married couples can utilize a special trust, referred to as a “credit shelter trust” or “bypass trust” to prevent forfeiture of their individual exemptions.  This planning technique must be undertaken when both spouses are still alive, and if this strategy is implemented, the preservation of the deceased spouse’s exemption is accomplished and an estate tax return may not be necessary at all.

The Consequences of Failing to File an Estate Tax Return

As a simple example, consider a husband and wife who have a total of $7.5 million in assets, $6 million of husband’s assets (separate and community) and the remaining $1.5 million owned by the wife (her share of the community).  Upon the wife’s death, the estate’s executor files a timely estate tax return and the wife’s remaining $3.75 million in estate tax exemptions pass to the husband.  The husband then has a total of $9 million in exemptions. When the husband dies, his entire $6 million passes to his heirs tax free, even though his personal estate tax exemption is only $5.25 million (in 2013).  If portability is not claimed, then $750,000 of the husband’s assets will be taxed (the current rate is 40 percent).  The husband’s heirs would be required to pay approximately $300,000 in estate taxes which could have been avoided if the wife’s estate executor had filed an estate tax return within the time limit.

Even if both spouses together have assets under the current $5.25 million exemption, it is still a good idea to file an estate tax return after the death of the first spouse.  Filing the estate tax return and preserving the portability benefit protects the surviving spouse’s heirs in the event the surviving spouse receives a windfall during his or her lifetime that raises his or her assets above the $5.25 million exemption level.
 


Thursday, June 6, 2013

People. The Essential Component of Your Estate Plan’s Success

Properly drafted estate planning documents are integral to the success of your legacy and end-of-life wishes.  Iron-clad estate planning documents, written by a knowledgeable attorney can make the difference between the success and failure of having your wishes carried out.  However, there’s more to estate planning than paperwork.  For your wishes to have the best chance of being honored, it is important to carefully choose the people who will carry them out.

Your estate plan can assign different responsibilities to different people.  The person who you most trust to raise your children, for example, may not be the person you’d designate to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated.  Before naming individuals to carry out your various estate and incapacity planning wishes, you should carefully consider the requirements of each role and the attributes which each individual has that will allow him or her to perform the duties effectively.

Executor.  You name the executor, (also known as a personal representative), in your will.  This person is responsible for carrying out all the terms of your will and guiding your will through probate, if necessary.  The executor usually works closely with a probate or estate administration attorney, especially in situations where will contests arise and your estate becomes involved in litigation.  You may appoint co-executors, or name a professional – such as a lawyer or accountant – as the co-executor.

Health care agent.  Your health care agent is the person you name to make medical decisions for you in the event you are incapacitated and unable to do so yourself.  In addition to naming a health care agent (sometimes called a health care power of attorney or medical power of attorney), most people also create a living will (or health care directive or directive to physicians), in which they directly state their wishes for medical care and end-of-life care in the event of incapacity.  When choosing a health care agent, select a person who you know understands your wishes regarding medical care, and who you trust to carry out those wishes, even if other family members disagree.  You should also consider individuals who have close geographic proximity to you as well as persons you believe can make difficult decisions under pressure.

Power of attorney.  A financial power of attorney (or simply power of attorney) is different from a health care or medical power of attorney in that it gives another person the authority to act on your behalf in financial, property and legal matters.  You can limit the areas in which the person may act, or you may grant unlimited authority.  A power of attorney may also be limited for a specific time, or it may be a durable power of attorney, in which case it will continue even after the onset of incapacity (until your death).  A power of attorney can take effect immediately or “spring” into effect in the event of incapacity.

Guardians.  If you have minor children or other dependents (disabled adult children or other disabled adults for whom you are the named guardian), then your estate plan should name a person or persons to take over the parental role in the event of your death.  The guardian may also have control over any assets that you leave directly to your minor children or other dependents.  If you create a trust for the benefit of your minor children, then the trust’s trustee(s) will have control over those assets and their distribution.  Important considerations include age of the guardian, compatibility with his or her personality and moral values as well as the extent and quality of the existing relationship with your children.

Trustee.  If you place any assets in trust as part of your estate plan, then you must designate one or more trustees, who will act as the legal owners of the trust.  If you do not wish to appoint someone you know personally, you may appoint a corporate trustee – often a bank or trust company – to play this role.  Some clients choose corporate trustees because they are financial professionals and neutral, objective third parties.  It’s important you select individuals who are not only trustworthy but also organized, diligent and detail oriented.
 
 


Thursday, February 14, 2013

The ‘Sandwich Generation’ – Taking Care of Your Kids While Taking Care of Your Parents

“The sandwich generation” is the term given to adults who are raising children and simultaneously caring for elderly or infirm parents.  Your children are one piece of “bread,” your parents are the other piece of “bread,” and you are “sandwiched” into the middle.

Caring for parents at the same time as you care for your children, your spouse and your job is exhausting and will stretch every resource you have.  And what about caring for yourself? Not surprisingly, most sandwich generation caregivers let self-care fall to the bottom of the priorities list which may impair your ability to care for others.

Following are several tips for sandwich generation caregivers.

  • Hold an all-family meeting regarding your parents. Involve your parents, your parents’ siblings, if any, and your own siblings in a detailed conversation about the present and future.  If you can, make joint decisions about issues like who can physically care for your parents, who can contribute financially and how much, and who should have legal authority over your parents’ finances and health care decisions if they become unable to make decisions for themselves.  Your parents need to share all their financial and health care information with you in order for the family to make informed decisions.  Once you have that information, you can make a long-term financial plan.
     
  • Hold another all-family meeting with your children and your parents.  If you are physically or financially taking care of your parents, talk about this honestly with your children.  Involve your parents in the conversation as well.  Talk – in an age-appropriate way – about the changes that your children will experience, both positive and challenging.
     
  • Prioritize privacy.  With multiple family members living under one roof, privacy – for children, parents, and grandparents – is a must.  If it is not feasible for every family member to have his or her own room, then find other ways to give everyone some guaranteed privacy.  “The living room is just for Grandma and Grandpa after dinner.”  “Our teenage daughter gets the downstairs bathroom for as long as she needs in the mornings”, etc. etc.
     
  • Make family plans.  There are joys associated with having three generations under one roof.  Make the effort to get everyone together for outings and meals.  Perhaps each generation can choose an outing once a month.
     
  • Make a financial plan, and don’t forget yourself.  Are your children headed to college?  Are you hoping to move your parents into an assisted living facility?  How does your retirement fund look?  If you are caring for your parents, your financial plan will almost certainly have to be revised.  Don’t leave yourself, and your spouse, if you are married,  out of the equation.  Make sure to set aside some funds for your own retirement while saving for college and elder health care.
     
  • Revise your estate plan documents as necessary.  If you had named your parents guardians of your children in case of your death, you may need to find other guardians.  You may need to set up trusts for your parents as well as for your children.  If your parent was your power of attorney, you may have to designate a different person to act on your behalf.
     
  • Seek out and accept help.  Help for the elderly is well organized in the United States.  Here are a few governmental and nonprofit resources:
    • www.benefitscheckup.org – Hosted by the National Council on Aging, this website is a one-stop shop for determining which federal, state and local benefits your parents may qualify for
    • www.eldercare.gov – Sponsored by the U.S. Administration on Aging
    • www.caremanager.org  -- National Association of Professional Geriatric Care Managers
    • www.nadsa.org – National Adult Day Services Association
       

Monday, January 21, 2013

2013 Changes to Federal Estate Tax Laws

Changes to income taxes grabbed the lion’s share of the attention as the President and Congress squabbled over how to halt the country’s journey towards the “fiscal cliff.”  However, negotiations over exemptions and tax rates for estate taxes, gift taxes and generation-skipping taxes also occurred on Capitol Hill, albeit with less fanfare.

The primary fear was that Congress would fail to act and the estate tax exemption would revert back down to $1 million.  This did not happen.  The ultimate legislation that was enacted, American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012, maintains the $5 million exemption for estate taxes, gift taxes and generation-skipping taxes.  The actual amount of the exemption in 2013 is $5.25 million, due to adjustments for inflation.

The other fear was that the top estate tax rate would revert to 55 percent from the 2012 rate of 35 percent.  The top tax rate did rise, but only 5 percent from 35 percent to 40 percent.

The American Taxpayer Relief Act of 2012 also makes permanent the portability provision of estate tax law.  Portability means that the unused portion of the first-to-die spouse’s estate tax exemption passes to the surviving spouse to be used in addition to the surviving spouse’s individual $5.25 million exemption.

Some Definitions and Additional Explanations

The federal estate tax is imposed when assets are transferred from a deceased individual to surviving heirs.  The federal estate tax does not apply to estates valued at less than $5.25 million.  It also does not apply to after-death transfers to a surviving spouse, as well as in a few other situations.  Many states also impose a separate estate tax, but Texas does not.

The federal gift tax applies to any transfers of property from one individual to another for no return or for a return less than the full value of the property. The federal gift tax applies whether or not the giver intends the transfer to be a gift.  In 2013, the lifetime exemption amount is $5.25 million at a rate of 40 percent.  Gifts for tuition and for qualified medical expenses are exempt from the federal gift tax as are gifts under $14,000 per recipient per year.

The federal generation-skipping tax (GST) was created to ensure that multi-generational gifts and bequests do not escape federal taxation.  There are both direct and indirect generation-skipping transfers to which the GST may apply.  An example of a direct transfer is a grandmother bequeathing money to her granddaughter.  An example of an indirect transfer is a mother bequeathing a life estate for a house to her daughter, requiring that upon her death the house is to be transferred to the granddaughter.


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