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Estate Planning Blog

Monday, September 14, 2015

Avoiding Common Mistakes in Estate Planning

Estate planning is designed to fulfill the wishes of a person after his or her death. Problems can easily arise, however, if the estate plan contains unanswered questions that can no longer be resolved after the person's demise. This can, and frequently does, lead to costly litigation counter-productive to the goals of the estate. It is important that will be written in language that is clear and that the document has been well proofread because something as simple as a misplaced comma can significantly alter its meaning.

Planning for every possible contingency is a significant part of estate planning. Tragic scenarios in which an estate planner’s loved ones predecease him or her, though uncomfortable, must be considered during the preparation of a will to avoid otherwise unforeseen conflicts. 

Even trained professionals can make significant mistakes if they are not well versed in estate planning. An attorney who practices general law, while perfectly capable of preparing simple wills, may not understand the intricacies of trusts and guardianships. A great many attorneys, not aware of the tax consequences of bequests involving IRAs, may leave heirs with unnecessary financial obligations. If an attorney is not knowledgeable enough to ask the proper questions, he or she will be unable to prepare an estate plan that functions efficiently and ensures the proper distribution of the estate's assets.

In spite of the wealth of an individual, the estate may be cash deficient if that wealth is tied up in assets at the time of the individual's death. Problems can also result if an estate planner has distributed assets into joint bank accounts or accounts with pay on death provisions. If the executor of the estate does not have access to funds to pay the estate's bills or taxes, the heirs of the estate may run into trouble.

Even if estate planning is handled well from a logistical point of view, lack of communication with loved ones can interfere with a will's desired execution. A tragedy that incapacitates the testator can occur suddenly, so it is imperative that a savvy estate planner confers with loved ones as soon as possible, making them aware of any future obligations, such as life insurance premiums that must be paid and informing them of the location of any probate documents and inventories of assets. Such conversations ensure that the individual's wishes will be carried out without complications or delay in the event of an unexpected incapacity.

In addition to communicating logistical information, it is also essential to schedule a personal conversation with loved ones that makes clear any sentimental bequests or large gifts that require explanation. This avoids the shock or discomfort that may arise after one's death during which a well-thought-out decision is questioned as impulsive or irrational. Such direct communication of one's plans avoids unnecessary envy, arguments or rivalry among family and friends.

Consulting with attorneys who specialize in estate planning is the cornerstone of creating a plan to ensure that one's desires are carried out and that all the bases are covered. Estate planning attorneys serve as invaluable repositories of all information necessary to strategizing a plan that not only meets one's personal needs and desires, but is legally binding.


Monday, September 7, 2015

Glossary of Estate Planning Terms

Will - a written document specifying a person’s wishes concerning his or her property distribution upon his or her death.

In order to be enforced by a court of law, a will must be signed in accordance with the applicable wills act.

Testator/Testatrix - the person who signs the will.

Heirs - beneficiaries of an estate.

Executor/Executrix - the individual given authority by the testator to make decisions to put the testator’s written directions into effect.

Once the will is entered into probate, the executor’s signature is equivalent to the testator’s. The executor has a legal duty to the heirs of the estate to act in the best interest of the estate, and may collect a fee for performing such service.

Administrator/Administratrix - the person who assumes the role of the executor when a person dies without a will (intestate).

The Administrator must apply with the local probate office and may be required to provide a bond to be held in escrow as collateral for control over the assets of the estate.

Codicil - an amendment to a will.

In order to be valid, a codicil must comply with all the requirements of the applicable wills act.

Holographic Will- a handwritten will. 

Holographic wills are often exempt from requirements of the applicable wills act.

Bequest - a gift given by the testator to his or her heirs through a will.

Residual Estate - the balance of a testator’s belongings after debts have been paid and specific bequests have been distributed. 

Intestate - not having signed a will before one dies; a person who dies without having signed a will.

Life Estate - a bequest that gives an heir the right to have exclusive use of a property for the remainder of his or her life, but without the power to transfer such property upon the death of that heir.

The property will transfer to the heirs of the residual estate after the death of the beneficiary of the life estate.

Per stirpes - a Latin phrase precisely translated as “by the branch” meaning that, if an heir named in the will dies before the testator, that heir’s share will be divided equally among that beneficiary’s own heirs.

 An alternative to per capita, described below.

Per capita - a Latin phrase precisely translated as “by the head” meaning that, if an heir named in the will dies before the testator, that heir’s share will be divided among the testator’s remaining heirs.

 An alternative to per stirpes, described above.

While it is a good idea to have a basic understanding of fundamental estate planning vocabulary, this cannot serve as a substitute for the services of an experienced attorney.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Would transferring your home to your children help avoid estate taxes?

Before transferring your home to your children, there are several issues that should be considered. Some are tax-related issues and some are none-tax issues that can have grave consequences on your livelihood. 

The first thing to keep in mind is that the current federal estate tax exemption is currently over $5 million and thus it is likely that you may not have an estate tax issue anyway. If you are married you and your spouse can double that exemption to over $10 million. So, make sure the federal estate tax is truly an issue for you before proceeding.

Second, if you gift the home to your kids now they will legally be the owners. If they get sued or divorced, a creditor or an ex- in-law may end up with an interest in the house and could evict you. Also, if a child dies before you, that child’s interest may pass to his or her spouse or child who may want the house sold so they can simply get their money.

Third, if you give the kids the house now, their income tax basis will be the same as yours is (the value at which you purchased it) and thus when the house is later sold they may have to pay a significant capital gains tax on the difference. On the other hand if you pass it to them at death their basis gets stepped-up to the value of the home at your death, which will reduce or eliminate the capital gains tax the children will pay.

Fourth, if you gift the house now you likely will lose some property tax exemptions such as the homestead exemption because that exemption is normally only available for owner-occupied homes.

Fifth, you will still have to report the gift on a gift tax return and the value of the home will reduce your estate tax exemption available at death, though any future appreciation will be removed from your taxable estate. 

Finally, there may be more efficient ways to do this through the use of a special qualified personal residence trust.  Given the multitude of tax and practical issues involved, it would be best to seek the advice of an estate planning attorney before making any transfers of your property.


Monday, August 17, 2015

Top 5 Overlooked Issues in Estate Planning

In planning your estate, you most likely have concerned yourself with “big picture” issues. Who inherits what? Do I need a living trust? However, there are numerous details that are often overlooked, and which can drastically impact the distribution of your estate to your intended beneficiaries. Listed below are some of the most common overlooked estate planning issues.

Liquid Cash: Is there enough available cash to cover the estate’s operating expenses until it is settled? The estate may have to pay attorneys’ fees, court costs, probate expenses, debts of the decedent, or living expenses for a surviving spouse or other dependents. Your estate plan should estimate the cash needs and ensure there are adequate cash resources to cover these expenses.

Tax Planning: Even if your estate is exempt from federal estate tax, there are other possible taxes that should be anticipated by your estate plan. There may be estate or death taxes at the state level. The estate may have to pay income taxes on investment income earned before the estate is settled. Income taxes can be paid out of the liquid assets held in the estate. Death taxes may be paid by the estate from the amount inherited by each beneficiary. 

Executor’s Access to Documents: The executor or estate administrator must be able to access the decedent’s important papers in order to locate assets and close up the decedent’s affairs. Also, creditors must be identified and paid before an estate can be settled. It is important to leave a notebook or other instructions listing significant assets, where they are located, identifying information such as serial numbers, account numbers or passwords. If the executor is not left with this information, it may require unnecessary expenditures of time and money to locate all of the assets. This notebook should also include a comprehensive list of creditors, to help the executor verify or refute any creditor claims.

Beneficiary Designations: Many assets can be transferred outside of a will or trust, by simply designating a beneficiary to receive the asset upon your death. Life insurance policies, annuities, retirement accounts, and motor vehicles are some of the assets that can be transferred directly to a beneficiary. To make these arrangements, submit a beneficiary designation form to the financial institution, retirement plan or motor vehicle department. Be sure to keep the beneficiary designations current, and provide instructions to the executor listing which assets are to be transferred in this manner.

Fund the Living Trust: Unfortunately, many people establish living trusts, but fail to fully implement them, thereby reducing or eliminating the trust’s potential benefits. To be subject to the trust, as opposed to the probate court, an asset’s ownership must be legally transferred into the trust. If legal title to homes, vehicles or financial accounts is not transferred into the trust, the trust is of no effect and the assets must be probated.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Living Trusts & Probate Avoidance

You want your money and property to go to your loved ones when you die, not to the courts, lawyers or the government. Unfortunately, unless you’ve taken proper estate planning, procedures, your heirs could lose a sizable portion of their inheritance to probate court fees and expenses. A properly-crafted and “funded” living trust is the ideal probate-avoidance tool which can save thousands in legal costs, enhance family privacy and avoid lengthy delays in distributing your property to your loved ones

What is probate, and why should you avoid it? Probate is a court proceeding during which the will is reviewed, executors are approved, heirs, beneficiaries, debtors and creditors are notified, assets are appraised, your debts and taxes are paid, and the remaining estate is distributed according to your will (or according to state law if you don’t have a will). Probate is costly, time-consuming and very public.

A living trust, on the other hand, allows your property to be transferred to your beneficiaries, quickly and privately, with little to no court intervention, maximizing the amount your loved ones end up with.

A basic living trust consists of a declaration of trust, a document that is similar to a will in its form and content, but very different in its legal effect. In the declaration, you name yourself as trustee, the person in charge of your property. If you are married, you and your spouse are co-trustees. Because you are trustee, you retain total control of the property you transfer into the trust. In the declaration, you must also name successor trustees to take over in the event of your death or incapacity.

Once the trust is established, you must transfer ownership of your property to yourself, as trustee of the living trust. This step is critical; the trust has no effect over any of your property unless you formally transfer ownership into the trust. The trust also enables you to name the beneficiaries you want to inherit your property when you die, including providing for alternate or conditional beneficiaries. You can amend your trust at any time, and can even revoke it entirely.

Even if you create a living trust and transfer all of your property into it, you should also create a back-up will, known as a “pour-over will”. This will ensure that any property you own – or may acquire in the future – will be distributed to whomever you want to receive it. Without a will, any property not included in your trust will be distributed according to state law.

After you die, the successor trustee you named in your living trust is immediately empowered to transfer ownership of the trust property according to your wishes. Generally, the successor trustee can efficiently settle your entire estate within a few weeks by filing relatively simple paperwork without court intervention and its associated expenses. The successor trustee can solicit the assistance of an attorney to help with the trust settlement process, though such legal fees are typically a fraction of those incurred during probate.
 


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

Own a business with a spouse? What happens after a divorce?

Given that this situation encompasses various areas of law, you should consult both a matrimonial and a business law attorney. Depending upon the type of business the division between you and your soon-to-be ex-wife may be straightforward. However, more than likely, it may take significant work to be able to divide the business. If you and your wife intend to continue to own and/or operate the business together, you could simply divide the ownership between the two of you.

Otherwise, the two of you have to continue to work together until the business is actually sold or dissolved. If the business is such that it has two distinct areas you could spin off one of those into a separate entity that can be owned by one of you.  If the business owns real estate, perhaps some of the real estate could be transferred into a new entity to be owned by one of you with the other of you retaining the ownership of the original entity. If the business is such that it is almost impossible to divide, then perhaps one of you becomes the sole owner of the business and has to pay the other over some period of time for the value of one half of that business. Instead of paying the other of you perhaps an outside loan from a bank or other lending institution could be obtained to provide the funding for the purchase price.

A final option may be that the business has to be sold to an outside third party and the proceeds would be divided between you and your wife in accordance with any agreement between the two of you that have been approved by the divorce court or pursuant to an order.


Friday, July 17, 2015

Mediation: Is It Right For You?

Mediation: Is It Right For You?

Mediation is one form of alternative dispute resolution (ADR) that allows parties to seek a remedy for their conflict without a court trial. Parties work with a mediator, who is a neutral third party. Usually, mediators have received some training in negotiation or their professional background provides that practical experience.

Unlike a judge, a mediator does not decide who wins; rather, a mediator facilitates communication between the parties and helps identify issues and solutions. The goal is for parties to reach an acceptable agreement.

Mediation can be an appealing option because it is less adversarial. This might be important when the relationship between the parties has to continue in the future, such as between a divorcing couple with children. The process is also less formal than court proceedings.

Mediation often costs less than litigation, which is another benefit. Another advantage to using mediation is that it generally takes much less time than a traditional lawsuit. Litigation can drag on for years, but mediation can typically be completed within a few months. Court systems are embracing mediation and other forms of ADR in an effort to clear their clogged dockets. There are some programs that are voluntary, but in some jurisdictions, pursuing ADR is a mandatory step before a lawsuit can proceed.

Mediation can be used in a variety of cases, and it is sometimes required by a contract between the parties. Mediators can be found through referrals from courts or bar associations, and there are companies that specifically provide ADR services. Ideally, a mediator will have some training or background in the area of law related to your dispute.

Mediation is often a successful way to reach a settlement. If parties fail to resolve their conflict, information learned during mediation might be protected as confidential under state law.

Contact our law firm today to help determine if mediation would be a valuable tool to resolve your case.


Monday, July 6, 2015

Estate Planning for the Chronically Ill

There are certain considerations that should be kept in mind for those with chronic illnesses.   Before addressing this issue, there should be some clarification as to the definition of "chronically ill." There are at least two definitions of chronically ill. The first is likely the most common meaning, which is an illness that a person may live with for many years. Diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, hepatitis C and asthma are some of the more familiar chronic illnesses. Contrast that with a legal definition of chronic illness which usually means that the person is unable to perform at least two activities of daily living such as eating, toileting, transferring, bathing and dressing, or requires considerable supervision to protect from crisis relating to health and safety due to severe impairment concerning mind, or having a level of disability similar to that determined by the Social Security Administration for disability benefits. Having said all of that, the estate planning such a person may undertake will likely be similar to that of a healthy person, but there will likely be a higher sense of urgency and it will be much more "real" and less "hypothetical."

Most healthy individuals view the estate planning they establish as not having any applicability for years, perhaps even decades. Whereas a chronically ill person more acutely appreciates that the planning he or she does will have real consequences in his or her life and the life of loved ones. Some of the most important planning will center around who the person appoints as his or her health care decision maker and also who is appointed to handle financial affairs. a will and/or revocable living trust will play a central role in the person's planning as well.  Care should also be taken to address possible Medicaid planning benefits.  A consultation with an estate planning and elder law attorney is critical to ensuring all necessary planning steps are contemplated and eventually implemented. 


Monday, June 8, 2015

Planning for Your Final Sendoff

Although most people don’t like to think about it, death is inevitable. It’s imperative that you have an estate plan in place that outlines your end of life wishes and how you would like your assets distributed upon your passing. As part of your planning, it’s important that you consider and make arrangements for your funeral. By planning this event before your passing, you can spare your family difficult decisions and ensure that your send off is exactly as you’d like it.

Here are a few things to consider:

Location
Funerals are not limited to churches or temples. If you’re not religious or if you want something different, you might ask that your relatives instead hold a memorial service in your honor at the park or even at the family vacation home.

Burial
Perhaps you hate the idea of being buried at the local cemetery and would prefer to be cremated. There are many options and having your relatives all agree upon one can be challenging. Be sure to make these wishes known as part of your funeral planning.  

Details    
You wouldn’t want someone picking the song for the first dance at your wedding so why would you want someone else deciding all of the details of an event to celebrate your life? As part of your funeral planning, list songs you might want played or poems which should be recited. If your favorite vacation was to Hawaii, you might want to brighten up the event with tropical flowers from Maui.

Obituary
It can be difficult to write about your life but for many writing their own obituary can help them reflect on the important things while giving them a chance to highlight their proudest moments. If you aren’t a writer or find this task daunting, consider writing a few bullet points for your loved ones so the information they share is accurate and provide a list of publications where it should be featured. Sure, your children may know that you belong to the church book group but they may have no idea that that same group has a newsletter which should share this information with fellow members.

Virtual Passwords
Traditionally when a person died, his or her children had the task of going through the old phone book and calling contacts to inform them of the news. Today, many of us connect with friends and relatives online. To help your heirs effectively communicate information about your passing, be sure to store your online passwords in a place where your relatives can find them and access the appropriate accounts accordingly.

Paying in Advance
Funerals can be very expensive and a huge burden for many families dealing with the loss of a loved one. Luckily, with the right planning, you can prepay for your funeral and save your family the expense. Generally an attorney or a funeral director can help you to determine how much money will be needed and help you to establish a trust where it will be stored until your passing.

While planning your funeral may seem to be a depressing thought at first, it is actually empowering—allowing you determine how you will say farewell to your loved ones and leaving you with peace of mind knowing that you’ve taken care of every last detail so your family can celebrate your life without the added stress of planning your funeral.  


Monday, May 25, 2015

What Employers Should Not Ask In An Interview

Most employers know that their workers are protected from discrimination while they are employed.  Surprisingly, some are unaware that prospective employees are protected throughout the application and hiring process as well.  Title VII of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, Title I of the Americans with Disabilities Act, the Pregnancy Discrimination Act and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act of 1967, as well as other Federal and state laws, are all applicable to prospective employees.  Therefore, employers must be extremely careful about the questions they ask individuals applying for a position.

Employers should shy away from asking any questions that might give a prospective employee reason to believe they were not selected for a position due to discrimination.  Employers should not inquire about an applicant’s race, unless it is for an Equal Employment Opportunity Commission purpose (which should be noted).  They should also not ask about an applicant’s citizenship status and instead should inquire as to whether the individual has authorization to work in the United States.

Employers should also be sensitive to discrimination based on gender and sexual orientation when conducting interviews.  They should not ask gender-related questions or anything regarding pregnancy or children.  It is also not a good idea to ask a prospective employee about marital status or religion.  An employer might be concerned that a prospective employee will miss work due to young children or religious holidays.  But, if they are concerned about an applicant’s attendance, they should only ask about attendance records at previous places of employment.  Now, many states have laws relating to discrimination based on sexual orientation and employers should be careful not to inquire about this detail as well.

Individuals with disabilities are protected under Federal and state law.   An employer should never ask about a disability.  All that matters is that the individual is able to perform job duties, so an employer should only inquire about functioning in that respect.  For example, if the applicant is interested in an inventory position that requires standing for the entire 8 hour shift and lifting heavy boxes, but the applicant suffers from a disability, the employer should only ask whether their disability prohibits them from performing these duties.  Many states now have or are in the process of passing laws that prohibit discrimination based on criminal convictions, so employers should be aware not to ask about an applicant’s criminal history unless they are sure it is allowed under their state’s law.  For the same reason, employers should not ask about credit history or personal finances unless these characteristics have a direct affect on the applicant’s ability to do their job. 

If you are a business owner, it is in your best interest to put together a list of interview questions for prospective employees and to review that list with an experienced attorney.  You should also be sure that all of the parties conducting interviews are aware of the rules relating to interview questions and abide by them.


Monday, May 18, 2015

Refusing a Bequest

Most people develop an estate plan as a way to transfer wealth, property and their legacies on to loved ones upon their passing. This transfer, however, isn’t always as seamless as one may assume, even with all of the correct documents in place. What happens if your eldest son doesn’t want the family vacation home that you’ve gifted to him? Or your daughter decides that the classic car that was left to her isn’t worth the headache?

When a beneficiary rejects a bequest it is technically, or legally, referred to as a "disclaimer." This is the legal equivalent of simply saying "I don't want it." The person who rejects the bequest cannot direct where the bequest goes. Legally, it will pass as if the named beneficiary died before you. Thus, who it passes to depends upon what your estate planning documents, such as a will, trust, or beneficiary form, say will happen if the primary named beneficiary is not living.

Now you may be thinking why on earth would someone reject a generous sum of money or piece of real estate? There could be several reasons why a beneficiary might not want to accept such a bequest. Perhaps the beneficiary has a large and valuable estate of their own and they do not need the money. By rejecting or disclaiming the bequest it will not increase the size of their estate and thus, it may lessen the estate taxes due upon their later death.

Another reason may be that the beneficiary would prefer that the asset that was bequeathed pass to the next named beneficiary. Perhaps that is their own child and they decide they do not really need the asset but their child could make better use of it. Another possible reason might be that the asset needs a lot of upkeep or maintenance, as with a vacation home or classic car, and the person may decide taking on that responsibility is simply not something they want to do. By rejecting or disclaiming the asset, the named beneficiary will not inherit the "headache" of caring for, and being liable for, the property.

To avoid this scenario, you might consider sitting down with each one of your beneficiaries and discussing what you have in mind. This gives your loved ones the chance to voice their concerns and allows you to plan your gifts accordingly.


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