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Estate Planning Blog

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Young and Ill, without Advance Directives

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 power of attorney (or health care proxy) as well as a living will which outline their wishes and ensure compliance with all applicable state statutes.


Monday, March 31, 2014

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

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. You may pass $5.25 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 $5.25 million exemption to your own, you may have $10.5 million that you can pass tax free to non-spouse beneficiaries.

If your estate is still larger than these exemption amounts you should seek out a qualified estate planning attorney. There may be 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.

If you have taken steps to try to reduce the taxes owed, it is possible that the IRS may challenge the reported value or try to throw out the method you used. This does not mean that the executor/trustee will be in trouble; it just means that they will need to be prepared to support their position with the IRS and take it through an audit or even a tax court (or other appropriate court system). In the event of a challenge, a good attorney will be critical to ensure all of the necessary steps are taken.


Saturday, March 15, 2014

What is Estate Recovery?

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 $8,000 to $10,000 per month. Most 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 will begin "estate recovery" for the total cost spent during the recipient's lifetime. Medicaid will issue a bill to the estate, and will 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.


Sunday, March 2, 2014

Protecting Your Vacation Home

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 do this: 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 Partnership to hold the house. The parents can assign shares to their children, and provide for a mechanism to determine how to pay for the vacation home taxes and upkeep. An 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.


Sunday, February 23, 2014

Removal of a Trustee

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.


Monday, February 17, 2014

A Shared Home but Not a Joint Deed

A Shared Home but Not a Joint Deed

Many people erroneously assume that when one spouse dies, the other spouse receives all of the remaining assets; this is often not true and frequently results in unintentional disinheritance of the surviving spouse.

In cases where a couple shares a home but only one spouse’s name is on it, the home will not automatically pass to the surviving pass, if his or her name is not on the title. Take, for example, a case of a husband and wife where the husband purchased a home prior to his marriage, and consequently only his name is on the title (although both parties resided there, and shared expenses, during the marriage). Should the husband pass away before his wife, the home will not automatically pass to her by “right of survivorship”. Instead, it will become part of his probate estate. This means that there will need to be a court probate case opened and an executor appointed. If the husband had a will, the executor would be the person he nominated in his will who would carry out the testator’s instructions regarding disposition of the assets. If he did not have a will, state statutes, known as intestacy laws, would provide who has priority to inherit the assets.

In our example, if the husband had a will then the house would pass to whomever is to receive his assets pursuant to that will. That may very well be his wife, even if her name is not on the title.

If he dies without a will, state laws will determine who is entitled to the home. Many states have rules that would provide only a portion of the estate to the surviving spouse. If the deceased person has children, even if children of the current marriage, local laws might grant a portion of the estate to those children. If this is a second marriage, children from the prior marriage may be entitled to more of the estate. If this is indeed the case, the surviving spouse may be forced to leave the home, even if she had contributed to home expenses during the course of the marriage.

Laws of inheritance are complex, and without proper planning, surviving loved ones may be subjected to unintended expense, delays and legal hardships. If you share a residence with a significant other or spouse, you should consult with an attorney to determine the best course of action after taking into account your unique personal situation and goals. There may be simple ways to ensure your wishes are carried out and avoid having to probate your partner’s estate at death.


Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Life Insurance and Medicaid Planning

Life Insurance and Medicaid Planning

Many people purchase a life insurance policy as a way to ensure that their dependents are protected upon their passing. Generally speaking, there are two basic types of life insurance policies: term life and whole life insurance. With a term policy, the holder pays a monthly, or yearly, premium for the policy which will pay out a death benefit to the beneficiaries upon the holder’s death so long as the policy was in effect. A whole life policy is similar to a term, but also has an investment component which builds cash value over time. This cash value can benefit either the policy holder during his or her lifetime or the beneficiaries.

During the Medicaid planning process, many people are surprised to learn that the cash value of life insurance is a countable asset. In most cases, if you have a policy with a cash value, you are able to go to the insurance company and request to withdraw that cash value. Thus, for Medicaid purposes, that cash value will be treated just like a bank account in your name. There may be certain exceptions under your state law where Medicaid will not count the cash value. For example, if the face value (which is normally the death benefit) of the policy is a fairly small amount (such as $10,000 or less) and if your "estate" is named as a beneficiary, or if a "funeral home" is named as a beneficiary, the cash value may not be counted. However, if your estate is the beneficiary then Medicaid likely would have the ability to collect the death proceeds from your estate to reimburse Medicaid for the amounts they have paid out on your behalf while you are living (this is known as estate recovery). Generally, the face value ($10,000 in the example) is an aggregate amount of all life insurance policies you have. It is not a per policy amount.

Each state has different Medicaid laws so it’s absolutely essential that you seek out a good elder law or Medicaid planning attorney in determining whether your life insurance policy is a countable asset.


Tuesday, January 28, 2014

When to Involve Adult Children in the Estate Planning Process

When to Involve Adult Children in the Estate Planning Process

Individuals who are beginning the estate planning process may assume it's best to have their adult child(ren) join them in the initial meeting with an estate planning attorney, but this may cause more harm than good.

This issue comes up often in the estate planning and elder law field, and it's a matter of client confidentiality. The attorney must determine who their client is- the individual looking to draft an estate plan or their adult children- and they owe confidentiality to that particular client.

The client is the person whose interests are most at stake. In this case, it is the parent. The attorney must be certain that they understand your wishes, goals and objectives. Having your child in the meeting could cause a problem if your child is joining in on the conversation, which may make it difficult for the attorney to determine if the wishes are those of your child, or are really your wishes.

Especially when representing elderly clients, there may be concerns that the wishes and desires of a child may be in conflict with the best interests of the parent. For example, in a Medicaid and long-term care estate planning context, the attorney may explain various options and one of those may involve transferring, or gifting, assets to children. The child's interest (purely from a financial aspect) would be to receive this gift. However, that may not be what the parent wants, or feels comfortable with. The parent may be reluctant to express those concerns to the attorney if the child is sitting right next to the parent in the meeting.

Also, the attorney will need to make a determination concerning the client's competency. Attorneys are usually able to assess a client's ability to make decisions during the initial meeting. Having a child in the room may make it more difficult for the attorney to determine competency because the child may be "guiding" the parent and finishing the parents thoughts in an attempt to help. 

The American Bar Association has published a pamphlet on these issues titled "Why Am I Left in the Waiting Room?" that may be helpful for you and your child to read prior to meeting with an attorney. 


Wednesday, January 15, 2014

How Certificates of Shares Are Passed Down

Estate Planning: How Certificates of Shares Are Passed Down

How is the funding handled if you decide to use a living trust?

Certificates represent shares of a company. There are generally two types of company shares: those for a publicly traded company, and those for a privately held company, which is not traded on one of the stock exchanges.

Let's assume you hold the physical share certificates of a publicly held company and the shares are not held in a brokerage account. If, upon your death, you own shares of that company's stock in certificated form, the first step is to have the court appoint an executor of your estate.

Once appointed, the executor would write to the transfer agent for the company, fill out some forms, present copies of the court documents showing their authority to act for your estate, and request that the stock certificates be re-issued to the estate beneficiaries.

There could also be an option to have the stock sold and then add the proceeds to the estate account that later would be divided among the beneficiaries. If the stock is in a privately held company there would still be the need for an executor to be appointed to have authority. However, the executor would then typically contact the secretary or other officers of the company to inquire about the existence of a shareholder agreement that specifies how a transfer is to take place after the death of a shareholder.  Depending on the nature of the agreement, the company might reissue the stock in the name(s) of the beneficiaries, buy out the deceased shareholder’s shares (usually at some pre-determined formula) or other mechanism.   

If you set up a revocable living trust while you are alive you could request the transfer agent to reissue the stock titled into the name of the trust. However, once you die, the "trustee" would still have to take similar steps to get the stock re-issued to the trust beneficiaries.

If you open a brokerage account with a financial advisor, the advisor could assist you in getting the account in the name of your trust, and the process after death would be easier than if you still held the actual stock certificate.


Monday, January 13, 2014

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.

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.


Wednesday, December 25, 2013

The Basics of Conservatorships

The Basics of Conservatorships

Sometimes, bad things happen to good people. A tragic accident. A sudden, devastating illness. Have you ever wondered what would happen if a loved one became incapacitated and unable to take care of himself? While many associate incapacity with a comatose state, an individual, while technically functioning, may be considered incapacitated if he cannot communicate through speech or gestures and is unable sign a document, even with a mark. In some cases, an individual may have no trouble communicating, but may not be able to fully appreciate the consequences of their decisions and hence may be deemed to lack capacity. With proper incapacity planning which includes important legal documents such as a durable power of attorney, healthcare proxy and living will, the individuals named in such documents are empowered to make necessary financial and medial decisions on behalf of the incapacitated person without obtaining additional legal authorization.  Without proper incapacity planning documents, even a spouse or adult child cannot make financial and healthcare decisions on behalf of an incapacitated individual.  In such cases, a conservatorship (or guardianship) proceeding is necessary so that loved ones are able to provide for their financial and medical healthcare needs.

A conservatorship is a court proceeding where a judge appoints a responsible individual to take care of the adult in question and manage his or her finances and make medical decisions. The court appointed conservator will take over the care of the conservatee (disabled adult).  When appropriate, the court may designate an individual “conservator of the estate” to handle the disabled person’s financial needs and another person “conservator of the person” to manage his healthcare needs. One person can also serve as both. If you are planning to serve as someone’s financial conservator, be prepared to possibly post a bond that serves as a safeguard for the conservatee’s estate. Individual states have their own guidelines for conservators, so check your local rules for more information.  

To minimize the incidence of mismanagement or fraud, the court holds the conservator legally responsible for providing it with regular reports, called an accounting. Additionally, the conservator may not be able to make any major life or medical decisions without the court’s approval and consent. For example, if you have been named the conservator for a relative, you may not be able to sell his or her house without the approval of the court.

The best safeguard to avoid going through court to get a conservatorship, however, would be to establish a durable financial power of attorney, a power of attorney for healthcare, each authorizing a family member or trusted individual to act on your behalf in case of incapacity.  While your agents have a legal obligation to act in your best interest they won’t have to post an expensive bond either.  Make sure the power of attorney clearly states that it will be effective even if the principal becomes incapacitated.


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