Estate, Will and Probate Contests
Friday, February 14, 2014
Estate Planning Don’ts
Preparing for the future is an uncertain business, but there are steps you can take during your lifetime to simplify matters for your loved ones after you pass, and to ensure your final wishes are carried out. Planning for what happens to your property, or who cares for your family members, upon your death can be a complicated process. To simplify things, we’ve created the following list to help you avoid some of the pitfalls you may encounter before, or even long after, you create your estate plan.
Don’t assume you can plan your estate by yourself. Get help from an estate planning attorney whose training and experience can ensure that you minimize tax implications and simplify the process of settling your estate.
Don’t put off your estate planning needs because of finances. To be sure, there are upfront costs for establishing the estate plan; however establishing your estate plan is an investment in the future well-being of your family, and one which will result in a far greater cash savings over the long term.
Don’t make changes to your estate plan without consulting your attorney. Changes in one area of your estate plan could impact other provisions you have made, triggering legal or tax implications you never intended.
Don’t assume your children will intuitively know your wishes, and handle the situation appropriately upon your death. Money and sentimental items can cause a rift between even the most agreeable siblings, and they will be especially vulnerable as they deal with the emotional impact of your passing.
Don’t assume that once you’ve prepared your estate plan it’s set in stone. Estate planning documents regularly need to be revised, often due to a change in marital status, birth or death of a family member, or a significant change in the value of your estate. Beneficiary designations should be periodically reviewed to ensure they are up to date.
Don’t forget to notify your family members, friends or other beneficiaries of your estate plan. Make sure your executor and successor trustee have access to your end-of-life documents.
Don’t assume your spouse will handle everything if something happens to you. It’s possible your spouse may be incapacitated at the same time, for example if you both are injured in the same accident. A proper estate plan appoints alternate representatives to handle your affairs if both you and your spouse are unable to do so.
Don’t use the same person as your agent under both the financial and healthcare powers of attorney. Using the same individual gives that person an incredible amount of influence over your future and it may be a good idea to split up the decision-making authority.
Don’t forget to name alternate agents, executors or successor trustees. You may name a family member to fill one of these roles, and forget to revise the document if that person dies or becomes incapacitated. By adding alternates, you ensure there is no question regarding who has the authority to act on your or the estate’s behalf.
Tuesday, January 28, 2014
Beware of “Simple” Estate Plans
“I just need a simple will.” It’s a phrase estate planning attorneys hear practically every other day. From the client’s perspective, there’s no reason to do anything complicated, especially if it might lead to higher legal fees. Unfortunately, what may appear to be a “simple” estate is all too often rife with complications that, if not addressed during the planning process, can create a nightmare for you and your heirs at some point in the future. Such complications may include:
Probate - Probate is the court process whereby property is transferred after death to individuals named in a will or specified by law if there is no will. Probate can be expensive, public and time consuming. A revocable living trust is a great alternative that allows your estate to be managed more efficiently, at a lower cost and with more privacy than probating a will. A living trust can be more expensive to establish, but will avoid a complex probate proceeding. Even in states where probate is relatively simple, you may wish to set up a living trust to hold out of state property or for other reasons.
Minor Children - If you have minor children, you not only need to nominate a guardian, but you also need to set up a trust to hold property for those children. If both parents pass away, and the child does not have a trust, the child’s inheritance could be held by the court until he or she turns 18, at which time the entire inheritance may be given to the child. By setting up a trust, which doesn’t have to come into existence until you pass away, you are ensuring that any money left to your child can be used for educational and living expenses and can be administered by someone you trust. You can also protect the inheritance you leave your beneficiaries from a future divorce as well as creditors.
Second Marriages - Couples in which one or both of the spouses have children from a prior relationship should carefully consider whether a “simple” will is adequate. All too often, spouses execute simple wills in which they leave everything to each other, and then divide the property among their children. After the first spouse passes away, the second spouse inherits everything. That spouse may later get remarried and leave everything he or she received to the new spouse or to his or her own children, thereby depriving the former spouse’s children of any inheritance. Couples in such situations should establish a special marital trust to ensure children of both spouses will be provided for.
Taxes - Although in 2011 and 2012, federal estate taxes only apply to estates over $5 million for individuals and $10 million for couples, that doesn’t mean that anyone with an estate under that amount should forget about tax planning. Many states still impose a state estate tax that should be planned around. Also, in 2013 the estate tax laws are slated to change, possibly with a much lower exemption amount.
Incapacity Planning – Estate planning is not only about death planning. What happens if you become disabled? You need to have proper documents to enable someone you trust to manage your affairs if you become incapacitated. There are a myriad of options that you need to be aware of when authorizing someone to make decisions on your behalf, whether for your medical care or your financial affairs. If you don’t establish these important documents while you have capacity, your loved ones may have to go through an expensive and time-consuming guardianship or conservatorship proceeding to petition a judge to allow him or her to make decisions on your behalf.
By failing to properly address potential obstacles, over the long term, a “simple” will can turn out to be incredibly costly. An experienced estate planning attorney can provide valuable insight and offer effective mechanisms to ensure your wishes are carried out in the most efficient manner possible while providing protection and comfort for you and your loved ones for years to come.
Saturday, December 14, 2013
Avoid Family Feuds through Proper Estate Planning
A family feud over an inheritance is not a game and there is no prize package at the end of the show. Rather, disputes over who gets your property after your death can drag on for years and deplete your entire estate. When most people are preparing their estate plans, they execute wills and living trusts that focus on minimizing taxes or avoiding probate. However, this process should also involve laying the groundwork for your estate to be settled amicably and according to your wishes. Communication with your loved ones is key to accomplishing this goal.
Feuds can erupt when parents fail to plan, or make assumptions that prove to be untrue. Such disputes may evolve out of a long-standing sibling rivalry; however, even the most agreeable family members can turn into green-eyed monsters when it comes time to divide up the family china or decide who gets the vacation home at the lake.
Avoid assumptions. Do not presume that any of your children will look out for the interests of your other children. To ensure your property is distributed to the heirs you select, and to protect the integrity of the family unit, you must establish a clear estate plan and communicate that plan – and the rationale behind certain decisions – to your loved ones.
In formulating your estate plan, you should have a conversation with your children to discuss who will be the executor of your estate, or who wants to inherit a specific personal item. Ask them who wants to be the executor, or consider the abilities of each child in selecting who will settle your estate, rather than just defaulting to the eldest child. This discussion should also include provisions for your potential incapacity, and address who has the power of attorney.
Do not assume any of your children want to inherit specific items. Many heirs fight as much over sentimental value as they do monetary items. Cash and investments are easily divided, but how do you split up Mom’s engagement ring or the table Dad built in his woodshop? By establishing a will or trust that clearly states who is to receive such special items, you avoid the risk that your estate will be depleted through costly legal proceedings as your children fight over who is entitled to such items.
Take the following steps to ensure your wishes are carried out:
- Discuss your estate planning with your family. Ask for their input and explain anything “unusual,” such as special gifts of property or if the heirs are not inheriting an equal amount.
- Name guardians for your minor children.
- Write a letter, outside of your will or trust, that shares your thoughts, values, stories, love, dreams and hopes for your loved ones.
- Select a special, tangible gift for each heir that is meaningful to the recipient.
- Explain to your children why you have appointed a particular person to serve as your trustee, executor, agent or guardian of your children.
- If you are in a second marriage, make sure your children from a prior marriage and your current spouse know that you have established an estate plan that protects their interests.
Wednesday, November 20, 2013
Retirement Accounts and Estate Planning
For many Americans, retirement accounts comprise a substantial portion of their wealth. When planning your estate, it is important to consider the ramifications of tax-deferred retirement accounts, such as 401(k) and 403(b) accounts and traditional IRAs. (Roth IRAs are not tax-deferred accounts and are therefore treated differently). One of the primary goals of any estate plan is to pass your assets to your beneficiaries in a way that enables them to pay the lowest possible tax.
Generally, receiving inherited property is not a transaction that is subject to income tax. However, that is not the case with tax-deferred retirement accounts, which represent income for which the government has not previously collected income tax. Money cannot be kept in an IRA indefinitely; it must be distributed according to federal regulations. The amount that must be distributed annually is known as the required minimum distribution (RMD). If the distributions do not equal the RMD, beneficiaries may be forced to pay a 50% excise tax on the amount that was not distributed as required.
After death, the beneficiaries typically will owe income tax on the amount withdrawn from the decedent’s retirement account. Beneficiaries must take distributions from the account based on the IRS’s life expectancy tables, and these distributions are taxed as ordinary income. If there is more than one beneficiary, the one with the shortest life expectancy is the designated beneficiary for distribution purposes. Proper estate planning techniques should afford the beneficiaries a way to defer this income tax for as long as possible by delaying withdrawals from the tax-deferred retirement account.
The most tax-favorable situation occurs when the decedent’s spouse is the named beneficiary of the account. The spouse is the only person who has the option to roll over the account into his or her own IRA. In doing so, the surviving spouse can defer withdrawals until he or she turns 70 ½; whereas any other beneficiary must start withdrawing money the year after the decedent’s death.
Generally, a revocable trust should not be the beneficiary of a tax-deferred retirement account, as this situation limits the potential for income tax deferral. A trust may be the preferred option if a life expectancy payout option or spousal rollover are unimportant or unavailable, but this should be discussed in detail with an experienced estate planning attorney. Additionally, there are situations where income tax deferral is not a consideration, such as when an IRA or 401(k) requires a lump-sum distribution upon death, when a beneficiary will liquidate the account upon the decedent’s death for an immediate need, or if the amount is so small that it will not result in a substantial amount of additional income tax.
The bottom line is that trusts typically should be avoided as beneficiaries of tax-deferred retirement accounts, unless there is a compelling non-tax-related reason that outweighs the lost income tax deferral of using a trust. This is a complex area of law involving inheritance and tax implications that should be fully considered with the aid of an experienced estate planning lawyer.
Friday, October 4, 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.
Thursday, October 3, 2013
Wise Guy's Estate Plan Not So Wise
Most memorably known as mob boss Tony Soprano on the
HBO series The Sopranos, actor James Gandolfini died in
June at age 51. He left behind an estate worth an estimated
$70 million. But to many advisors, the way he divided his
estate would have gotten the fictional wise guy knocked
off for not shielding his millions from the IRS.
In Gandolfini’s will, he left $1.6 million to various friends
and relatives. (http://tinyurl.com/knyhf4w) He also left a
$7 million life insurance policy to a teenage son from a
previous marriage. He split the remainder among four
people: 30 percent each to his two sisters, 20 percent to his
11-month-old daughter and 20 percent to his wife.
It’s the combined 80 percent that didn’t go to his wife that
has experts calling Gandolfini’s planning clumsy because
of a possible tax hit. Up to $30 million could be taken
through federal and state estate taxes, says Forbes,.
Whether these figures are true, only time will tell. But in
the meantime, Gandolfini’s example offers a cautionary
tale for your clients when it comes to planning.
Impact on Widow
Gandolfini’s widow's portion is safe from federal estate
taxes because federal law allows unlimited tax-free
transfers to surviving spouses, according to NBC News
Business. (http://tinyurl.com/kdn3o23) But other estate
bequests more than the $5.25 million lifetime exemption
are subject to federal estate taxes. The distribution to his
sisters and daughter with his second wife could be subject
to a combined federal and state tax rate of 55 percent.
Family drama due to Blended Family?
Besides tax ramifications, there are other considerations
clients should take into account. One potential problem is
treating children differently, The Wall Street Journal says.
(http://tinyurl.com/mz9zerc) By leaving different
inheritances for children in a blended family — without an
explanation— it could cause tension down the road.
To clear misconceptions, clients can draw up an “ethical
will,” or “legacy letter” that spells out what they want to
happen when they’re gone. It isn’t legally binding, but it
can provide insight into the reasoning of an estate plan.
Another red flag in Gandolfini’s will: He left his Italian
estate to his two children together, The Journal says. They
are allowed to sell it after they both turn 25, but the will
doesn't mention how it will be maintained. How could
anyone reasonably expect a 25-year-old — let alone two
children — to effectively maintain a lavish Italian estate?
One last issue, The Journal says, is that the actor’s will
gave his baby daughter control of her share when she turns
21. That’s too young. Our suggestion to clients is to name
children as beneficiaries of a trust that's managed by a
financial professional. Control can be handed over when
they are older or accomplish certain goals (i.e. a degree).
Gandolfini's missteps could have been avoided if he had:
• Kept it private. If it doesn’t need to go to probate,
keep it that way. If Gandolfini had planned better,
then his estate probably wouldn’t have hit news
sites, tabloids — or this newsletter!
• Used a revocable trust. Placing assets into a trust
avoids probate, helps with privacy and improves
control and protection issues we've mentioned.
• Used tax-efficient gifts and transfers. Poor
planning might cost the actor's estate over 30
million in taxes. His assets could have been
redirected to beneficiaries with better planning.
We hope this information was useful to you and your
clients. As always, if you have questions, call our office.
Thomas H. Keating has
actively practiced law for more than 30
years, focusing on business
and estate planning, with
emphasis on the automotive
and construction industries.
Mr. Keating belongs to the
State Bar of Michigan, the
American Bar Association
Section on Real Property,
Probate and Trust Law, the
State Bar of Michigan
Section on Probate and Estate Planning, NAIFA, and the
Michigan Forum of Estate Planning Attorneys. He is the
founder of the Financial and Estate Planning Keeping
Current Series as well as the East Side Business and
Financial Forum and is a member of the Financial and
Estate Planning Council of Detroit. Mr. Keating is a
member of WealthCounsel, a national forum of estate and
business planning professionals, multiple chambers of
commerce, and industry associations, and is a frequent
speaker at estate planning forums around Michigan. Mr.
Keating is co-author of Strictly Business, book written for
those facing business and succession planning challenges.