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Estate Planning Blog

Monday, April 11, 2016

How does life insurance fit into my estate plan?

Life insurance can be an integral part of an estate plan. Policies can be set up to be paid directly to the beneficiary, without the need to pass through the estate, and without the need for any taxes to be paid. Having a life insurance policy ensures that some assets will be liquid, so that debts and expenses can be paid quickly and easily without the need to dispose of assets. Beneficiaries can be changed at any time as can the benefit amount. The policy can be used to accumulate savings if the plan is surrendered before death. Life insurance policies, especially those purchased later in life, can pay out significantly more than what was invested into them. There are many benefits to purchasing a life insurance policy as part of an estate plan.

An attorney can set up a life insurance trust to help avoid estate taxes. A life insurance trust must be irrevocable, cannot be managed by the policy holder, and must be in place at least three years before the death of the policy holder. Any money received from the life insurance trust is not a part of the taxable estate. The need for this is rare as the exemption for estate taxes is currently almost five and a half million dollars, but it is a useful tool for some nonetheless.

There is a limit to how much life insurance an individual is permitted to purchase. A person may carry a multiple of his or her gross income which reduces with age. A twenty five year old can buy a policy worth thirty times his or her annual income. A sixty five year old may only purchase ten times his or her annual income worth of life insurance. This is an important factor to consider when deciding whether life insurance should be a part of your estate plan.

Life insurance as a part of estate planning is a complicated issue. It makes sense to consult with an estate attorney and a tax professional before meeting with an insurance broker. Both can help an individual understand the benefits of insurance over other means of transferring assets.


Monday, March 28, 2016

When is a person unfit to make a will?

Testamentary capacity refers to a person’s ability to understand and execute a will. As a general rule, most people who are over the age of eighteen are thought to be competent to make and sign the will. They must be able to understand that they are signing the will, they must understand the nature of the property being affected by the will, and they must remember and understand who is affected by the will. These are simple burdens to meet. However, there are a number of reasons a person might challenge a will based on testamentary capacity.

If the testator of a will suffers from paranoid delusions, he or she may make changes to a testamentary document based on beliefs that have no basis in reality. If a disinherited heir can show that a testator suffered from such insane delusions when the changes were made, he or she can have the will invalidated. Similarly a person suffering from dementia or Alzheimer’s disease may be declared unfit to make a will. If a person suffers from a mental or physical disability that prevents them from understanding from understanding that a will is an instrument that is meant to direct how assets are to be distributed in the event of his or her death, that person is not capable of executing a valid will.

It is not entirely uncommon that disinherited heirs complain that a caretaker or a new acquaintance brainwashed the testator into changing his or her will. This is not an accusation of incapacity to make the will, but rather a claim of undue influence. If the third party suggested making the changes, if the third party threatened to withhold care if the will was not changed, or if the third party did anything at all to produce a will that would not be the testator’s intent absent that influence, the will may be set aside for undue influence. Regardless of the reason for the challenge, these determinations will only be made after the testator’s death if the will is presented to a court and challenged. For this reason, it is especially important for the testator to be as thorough as possible in making an estate plan and making sure that any changes are made with the assistance of an experienced estate planning attorney.


Monday, March 21, 2016

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, March 14, 2016

Overview: Buy-Sell Agreements and Your Small Business

If you co-own a business, you need a buy-sell agreement. Also called a buyout agreement, this document is essentially the business world’s equivalent of a prenup. An effective buy-sell agreement helps prevent conflict between the company’s owners, while also preserving the company’s closely held status. Any business with more than one owner should address this issue upfront, before problems arise.

With a proper buy-sell agreement, all business owners are protected in the event one of the owners wishes to leave the company. The buy-sell agreement establishes clear procedures that must be followed if an owner retires, sells his or her shares, divorces his or her spouse, becomes disabled, or dies. The agreement will establish the price and terms of a buyout, ensuring the company continues in the absence of the departing owner.

A properly drafted buy-sell agreement takes into consideration exactly what the owners wish to happen if one owner departs, whether voluntarily or involuntarily.  Do the owners want to permit a new, unknown partner, should the departing owner wish to sell to an uninvolved third party? What happens if an owner’s spouse is involved in the business and that owner gets a divorce or passes away? How are interests valued when a triggering event occurs?

In crafting your buy-sell agreement, consider the following issues:

  • Triggering Events - What events trigger the provisions of the agreement?  These normally include death, disability, bankruptcy, divorce and retirement.
     
  • Business Valuation - How will the value of shares being transferred be determined? Owners may determine the value of shares annually, by agreement, appraisal or formula.  The agreement may require that the appraisal be performed by a business valuation expert at the time of the triggering event.  Some agreements may also include a “shotgun provision” in which one party proposes a price, giving the other party the obligation to accept or counter with a new offer.
     
  • Funding - How will the departing owner be paid?  Many business owners will obtain insurance coverage, including life, disability, or business continuation insurance on the life or disability of the other owners.  With respect to life insurance, the agreement may provide that the company redeem the departing owner’s shares (“redemption”).  Alternatively, each of the owners may purchase life insurance on the lives of the other owners to provide the liquidity needed to purchase the departing owner’s shares (“cross purchase agreement”).   The agreement may also authorize the company to use it’s cash reserves to buy-out the departing owners.  
     

Monday, February 29, 2016

Filial Responsibility Laws

Filial responsibility laws impose a legal obligation on adult children to take care of their parents’ basic needs and medical care. Although most people are not aware of them, 30 states in the U.S. have some type of filial responsibility laws in place, including: Alaska, Arkansas, California, Connecticut, Delaware, Georgia, Idaho, Indiana, Iowa, Kentucky, Louisiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Montana, Nevada, New Hampshire, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Tennessee, Utah, Vermont, Virginia and West Virginia.

Filial responsibility laws and their enforcement vary greatly from state to state. Eleven states have never enforced their laws, and most other states rarely enforce the laws. Currently, Pennsylvania is the only state to aggressively enforce its filial responsibility laws.

One of the main reasons why filial responsibility laws are not widely enforced is due to the fact that in the context of needs-based government programs such as Medicaid, federal law has prohibited states from considering the financial responsibility of any person other than a spouse in determining whether an applicant is eligible. However, as many local programs aimed at helping the elderly continue to struggle with insolvency, many states may consider more aggressive enforcement of their filial responsibility laws.

Twenty-one states allow lawsuits to recover financial support. Parties who are allowed to bring such a lawsuit vary state by state. In some states, only the parents themselves can file a claim. In other states, the county, state public agencies or the parent’s creditors can file the lawsuit. In 12 states, criminal penalties may be imposed upon the adult children who fail to support their parents. Three states allow both civil and criminal penalties.

In some states, children are excused from their filial responsibility if they don’t have enough income to help out, or if they were abandoned as children by the parent. However, the abandonment defense can be difficult to prove, especially if the parent had a good reason to abandon the child, like serious financial difficulties. Sometimes, children’s filial responsibility can be reduced if prior bad behavior on the part of the parent can be proven.


Monday, February 15, 2016

Costs Associated with Dying Without a Will

 

When someone dies without a will, it is known as dying intestate.  In such cases, state law (of the state in which the person resides) governs how the person's estate is administered. In most states, the individual's assets are split -- with one third of the estate going to the spouse and all surviving children splitting the rest. For people who leave behind large estates, unless they have established trusts or other tax avoidance protections, there may be a tremendous tax liability, including both estate and inheritance tax.

For just about everyone, the cost of having a will prepared by a skilled and knowledgeable attorney is negligible when compared to the cost of dying intestate,  since there are a number of serious consequences involved in dying without a proper will in place.

Legal Consequences

The larger your estate, the more catastrophic the consequences of dying intestate will be. If you die without a will, the freedom to decide how your property will be divided will be taken from you and the state in which you reside will divide your assets.

Not only will you not be able to decide on the distribution of your property, but a stranger will be making personal, familial decisions. This may be divisive among your family members; instead of leaving your loved ones in peace, you may leave them engaged in bitter disputes over a family heirloom or even a simple memento. This can be especially true in situations where there are children from a previous marriage.

Tax Consequences

In addition to the legal and personal problems associated with dying intestate, the tax results can be severe as well. This is particularly true for clients who have not consulted with an estate planning attorney in order to protect themselves through tax avoidance methods. Both the state and federal governments can tax the transfer of property and an inheritance tax may be imposed on the property you have left to your heirs.

The most effective way to avoid all of these negative tax consequences is to create a will with a competent attorney. Your lawyer will help you to choose a proper executor (the person who will administer your estate, distribute your property and pay your debts), and will assist you in finding ways to limit your tax liability. There are several ways your attorney can help you to do this:

  • By gifting some of those you want to inherit before you die
  • By creating one or several trusts
  • By purchasing a life insurance policy
  • By buying investments in your loved one's name

These methods will ensure that your loved ones receive the assets you desire them to have, while simultaneously protecting them from possibly enormous tax burdens after you pass.

For those who have no family, dying without a will can be even more troublesome and costly, since their entire fortunes can be left to the state. If a genealogical search doesn't turn up any blood relatives, all of your assets will be claimed by the government. This means that any individual, group, organization or charity you wished to endow will receive nothing.

It is never easy to think of one's own mortality, but it is even more painful to contemplate leaving a messy, uncomfortable situation behind when you pass. By engaging the services of an excellent estate planning attorney, who will help you fashion a legally binding, precisely designed document,  you can make sure that your loved ones are well taken care of and that your final wishes are respected and implemented.


Tuesday, February 9, 2016

Things to Consider When Picking an Executor

The role of an executor is to effectuate a deceased person’s wishes as declared in a will after he or she has passed on. The executor’s responsibilities include the distribution of assets according to the will, the maintenance of assets until the will is settled, and the paying of estate bills and debts. An old joke says that you should choose an enemy to perform the task because it is such a thankless job, even though the executor may take a percentage of the estate’s assets as a fee. The following issues should be considered when choosing an executor for one's estate.

Competency: The executor of an estate will be going through financial and legal documents and transferring documents from the testator to the beneficiaries. If there are legal proceedings, the executor must make all necessary court appearances. There is no requirement that a testator have any financial or legal training, but familiarity with these areas does avoid the intimidation felt by lay people, and potentially saves money on professional fees.

Trustworthiness: The signature of an executor is equivalent to that of the testator of an estate. The executor has full control over all of an estate’s assets. He or she will be required to go through all of the papers of the deceased to confirm what assets are available to be distributed. The temptation to transfer assets into the executor's own name always exists, particularly when there is a large estate. It is important to choose a person with integrity who will resist this temptation. It makes sense to utilize an individual who is an heir to fill the role to alleviate this concern.

Availability: The work of collecting rents, maintaining property, and paying debts can take more than a few hours a week. Selecting an executor with significant obligations to work or family may cause problems if he or she does not have the time available to devote to the task. If an executor must travel great distances to address issues that arise, there will be more of a time commitment necessary, not to mention greater expenses for the estate.

Family dynamics: Selection of the wrong person to act as executor can create resentment and hostility among an estate’s heirs. A testator should be aware of how family members interact with one another and avoid picking someone who may provoke conflict. Even the perception of impropriety can lead to a lawsuit, which will serve to take money out of the estate’s coffers and delay the legitimate distribution of the estate. 


Monday, January 25, 2016

Why shouldn't I use a form from the internet for my will?

In this computer age, when so many tasks are accomplished via the internet -- including banking, shopping, and important business communications -- it may seem logical to turn to the internet when creating a legal document such as a will . Certainly, there are several websites advertising how easy and inexpensive it is to do this. Nonetheless, most of us know that, while the internet can be a wonderful tool, it also contains a tremendous amount of erroneous, misleading, and even dangerous information.

In most cases, as with so many do-it-yourself projects, creating a will most often ends up being a more efficient, less expensive process if you engage the services of a qualified attorney.  Just as most of us are not equipped to do our own plumbing repairs or automotive repairs, most of us do not have the background or experience to create our own legal documents, even with the help of written directions.

Situations that Require an Attorney for Will Creation

 In certain cases, the need for an estate planning attorney is inarguable. These include situations in which:

  • Your estate is large enough to make estate planning guidance necessary
  • You want to disinherit your legal spouse
  • You have concerns that someone may contest your will
  • You worry that someone will claim your mind wasn't sound at the signing

Mistakes and Omissions 

It has always been possible to write a will all by yourself, even before the advent of the typewriter, let alone the computer.  Such a document, however, is unlikely to deal with the complexities of modern life.  Many estate planning attorneys have seen, and often been asked to repair, wills that have mistakes or significant omissions. These experts have also become aware of situations in which the survivors of the deceased wind up in court, spending thousands of dollars to contest ambiguously worded or incomplete wills. Without legal guidance from a competent estate planning attorney, creating a "boxtop" will can result in tremendous financial and emotional risk.

Evidence that Online Wills Are Not Foolproof

Evidence that many other complications can arise when an individual creates a will using generalized online directions can be found in the following facts: 

  • Each state has its own rules (e.g. requiring differing numbers of disinterested party signatures)
  • Even uncontested wills can remain in probate if not executed in an exacting fashion
  • Estate planning attorneys find legal software programs inadequate
  • Even legal websites themselves recommend bringing in an attorney in all but the very simplest cases
  • Some legal websites provide inexpensive monthly legal consultations with attorneys to protect their client and themselves

 

Areas that Frequently Cause Problems 

Self-constructed wills often become problematic when the testator:

  • Names an executor who has no financial or legal knowledge
  • Leaves a bequest to a pet  (legally, you must leave the bequest to an appointed caretaker)
  • Puts conditions on payouts to an that are difficult, or impossible, to enforce
  • Makes unusual end-of-life decisions or puts living will information into the will
  • Designates guardians for children, but neglects to name successor guardians
  • Neglects to coordinate beneficiary designations where, for example, the will and  insurance policy designations contradict one another
  • Leaves funeral instructions into the will since the document will most likely not be read until after the funeral has taken place
  • Leaves inexact or ambiguous instructions dealing with blended families
  • Neglects to mention small items in the will which, though of small financial value, are meaningful to loved ones and may cause contention

In order to ensure that you leave your assets in the hands of those you wish, and to avoid leaving your loved ones with bitter disputes and expensive probate costs, it  is always wise to consult with an experienced estate planning attorney when making a will.  In this area, as in so many others, it is best, and safest, to make use of those with expertise in the field.


Tuesday, January 19, 2016

What is an Estate Tax?

While the terms "estate tax" and "inheritance tax" are often used interchangeably, they are not synonymous. Let's try to clarify the difference.

Estate Tax

Estate tax is based on the net value of the deceased owner's property.  An estate tax is applied to these assets when they are transferred to the beneficiary. It is important to remember that an estate tax doesn't have anything to do with the beneficiary or that person's resources.

Federal estate tax only affects individuals who die with more than $5.45[s1]  million in assets and individuals with such large estates can leave that amount to their beneficiaries without being subjected to a  tax liability. Ninety-nine percent of the population will not owe federal estate tax upon their death.

In most circumstances, no federal estate tax is levied against spouses. As of the Supreme Court's recent ruling, this includes gay married couples as well as heterosexual couples. Federal estate taxes can, however, be charged if the spouse who is the beneficiary is not a citizen of the U.S. In such cases, though, a personal estate tax exemption can be used.  Even where remaining spouses have no liability for federal estate tax, they may be charged with state taxes in some states, taxes which cannot be avoided unless the couple relocates.

Inheritance Tax

Inheritance tax, as distinguished from estate tax, is imposed by state governments and the tax rate depends on the person receiving the property, and, in some locations, on how much that person receives. Inheritance tax can also vary depending upon the relationship between the testator and the benefactor. In Pennsylvania, for example, a spouse is not taxed at all; a lineal descendant (the child of the deceased) is taxed at 4.5 percent; a sibling is taxed at 12 percent, and anyone else must pay 15 percent.

Exemptions

There are exemptions that can reduce the amount of inheritance tax owed by significant amounts, but it is important that there be proper documentation of such exemptions for them to be applicable. Any part of the inheritance that is donated to charity does not require inheritance tax payment on the part of the beneficiary. Because of the inherent complexities of tax law and the variations from state to state, working with a tax attorney who has expertise with state tax laws s the best way to make sure you take advantage of any possible tax exemptions or avoidance.

 

Monday, January 11, 2016

What Your Loved Ones Absolutely Need to Know About Your Estate Plan

The conversation about a person’s last wishes can be an awkward one for both the individual who is the topic of conversation and his or her loved ones. The end of someone’s life is not a topic anyone looks forward to discussing. It is, however, an important conversation that must be had so that the family understands  the testator’s final wishes before he or she passes away. If a significant sum is being left to someone or some entity outside of the family, an explanation of this action may go a long way to avoiding a contested will. In a similar vein, if one heir is receiving a larger share of the estate than the others, it is prudent to have this action explained. If funds are being placed in a trust instead of given directly to the heirs, it makes sense for the testator to advise his or her loved ones in advance.

When a loved one dies, people are often in a state of emotional turmoil. Each deals with grief differently and, often, unpredictably. Anger is a common reaction to loss, one of the five stages postulated to apply to everyone dealing with such a tragedy. Simply by talking to loved ones ahead of time, a testator can preempt any anger misdirected at the estate plan and avoid an unnecessary dispute, be it a small family tiff or a prolonged legal battle.

The executor of the estate must be privy to a significant amount of information before a testator passes on. It is helpful for the executor to know that he or she has been chosen for this role  and to have accepted the appointment in advance. The executor should know the location of the original will. Concerns of fraud mean that only the original copy of a will can be entered into probate. The executor should be aware of all bank accounts, assets, and debts in a testator’s name. This will avoid a tedious search for documents after the decedent passes on and will ensure that all assets are included as part of the estate. The executor of an estate should be aware of all memberships, because it will be the executor’s responsibility to cancel them. An up-to-date accounting of all assets and debts will simplify the settlement of the estate for an executor significantly.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

What is a tax basis and how will it affect my estate plan?

A tax basis is essentially the purchase price of a piece of property. Whenever that property is sold, the seller must pay taxes on the difference between the sale price and the original purchase price. This concept applies to all property, including stocks, bonds, vehicles, mechanical equipment, and real estate. If debts are assumed along with the purchase price, the principal amount of the debt will be included in the basis. The basis can be adjusted downwards when a person deducts depreciation costs on his or her income tax returns, and may be increased for capital investments towards improving the property that are not deducted for income tax purposes. Selling a property that has been held for a long time can carry a serious tax burden because of inflation, particularly when real estate prices have increased.

When an individual receives property as an inheritance, the tax basis is reset to whatever the fair market value is at the time of the transfer of title. This means that the heir would pay significantly less taxes if that property is sold by the beneficiary than if the original owner were to sell it and devise the money to his beneficiaries. Most simple wills provide that all of a testator’s assets are placed into a residual estate to be divided equally among the heirs. This means that an executor must liquidate the assets of the estate and divide the proceeds among the heirs. However, because there is no transfer of title before the property is sold, the heirs are stuck with the grantor’s basis and they lose an opportunity for a sizeable tax break.

A person planning his or her estate may also reset the basis in his or her property by giving it as a gift directly to his or her heirs or by gifting the property to an inter vivos trust. These actions can have their own tax related consequences, or create other unintended problems for the beneficiaries. Only an experienced estate planning attorney can advise you on the most efficient way to pass your assets on to your heirs.


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