Estate Planning Fast Facts
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Estate Planning Fast Facts

It is true that a single person who dies in 2020 could have up to $11.58 million in personal assets and their heirs would not have to pay any federal estate tax. However, that doesn’t mean that regular people don’t need to worry about estate taxes—their heirs might have to pay state estate taxes, inheritance taxes or the estate may shrink because of other tax issues. That’s why U.S. News & World Report’s recent article “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family” is worth reading.

Without proper estate planning, any number of factors could take a bite out of your children’s inheritance. They may be responsible for paying federal income taxes on retirement accounts, for instance. You want to be sure that a lifetime of hard work and savings doesn’t end up going to the wrong people.

The best way to protect your family and your legacy, is by meeting with an estate planning attorney and sorting through all of the complex issues of estate planning. Here are five areas you definitely need to address:

  1. Creating a last will and testament
  2. Checking that beneficiaries are correct
  3. Creating a trust
  4. Converting traditional IRA accounts to Roth accounts
  5. Giving assets while you are living

A last will and testament. It is a fact that only 32% of Americans have a will, according to a survey that asked 2,400 Americans that question. Of those who don’t have a will, 30% says they don’t think they have enough assets to warrant having a will. However, not having a will means that your entire estate goes through probate, which could become very expensive for your heirs. Having no will also makes it more likely that your family will challenge the distribution of assets. As a result, someone you may have never met could inherit your money and your home. It happens more often than you can imagine.

Checking beneficiaries. Once you die, beneficiaries cannot be changed. That could mean an ex-spouse gets the proceeds of your life insurance policy, retirement funds or any other account that has a named beneficiary. Over time, relationships change—make sure to check the beneficiaries named on any of your documents to ensure that your wishes are fulfilled. Your will does not control this distribution and is superseded by the named beneficiaries.

Set up a trust. Trusts are used to accomplish different goals. If a child is unable to manage money, for instance, a trust can be created, a trustee named and the account funded. The trust will include specific directions as to when the child receives funds or if any benchmarks need to be met, like completing college or staying sober. With an irrevocable trust, the money is taken out of your estate and cannot be subject to estate taxes. Money in a trust does not pass through probate, which is another benefit. Trusts are an important part of any estate planning toolkit.

Convert traditional IRAs to Roth retirement accounts. When children inherit traditional IRAs, they come with many restrictions and heirs get the income tax liability of the IRA. Regular income tax must be paid on all distributions, and the account has to be emptied within ten years of the owner’s death, with limited exceptions. If the account balance is large, it could be consumed by taxes. Through careful estate planning and by gradually converting traditional retirement accounts to Roth accounts, you pay the taxes as the accounts are converted. You want to do this in a controlled fashion, so as not to burden yourself. However, this means your heirs receive the accounts tax-free.

Gift with warm hands, wisely. Perhaps the best way to ensure that money stays in the family, is to give it to heirs while you are living. As of 2020, you may gift up to $15,000 per person, per year in gifts. The money is tax free for recipients. Just be careful when gifting assets that appreciate in value, like stocks or a house. When appreciating assets are inherited, the heirs receive a step-up in basis, meaning that the taxable amount of the assets are adjusted upon death, so some assets should only be passed down after you pass.

Reference: U.S. News & World Report (Sep. 30, 2020) “5 Estate Planning Tips to Keep Your Money in the Family”

When Do We Need an Elder Law Attorney?

Kiplinger’s article “When Elder Care Requires Legal Advice” explains that this is when a lot of panicked calls are made to elder law attorneys. These elder law attorneys specialize in planning for the legal complications that can arise in old age. However, seldom do people think to consult one preemptively to avoid making that panicked phone call in the first place.

Elder law attorneys work in the best interests of the older person, although how that is accomplished may differ. If the senior is competent and contacts the attorney, it can be fairly straightforward. However, if an adult family member or friend is an agent or has power of attorney for an elderly person—and asks for help, the attorney is representing the agent. In any event, anyone who has power of attorney has a fiduciary responsibility to do what is best for the elderly person granting them that authority.

If a power of attorney isn’t in place and the elderly parent is incapable of giving it, the family is required to go to court to have someone appointed as a guardian, which can be a time-consuming option. If a parent is cognitively capable and doesn’t want help, there’s nothing an attorney can do about it.

Although state laws vary, elder law primarily concerns these topics:

  • The client’s wishes and health
  • Family dynamics; and
  • The client’s financial assets and income.

An elder law attorney will also make sure that all important documents are in place and up-to-date, according to state laws. This includes a will, a trust, a power of attorney and an advance directive that includes a health care proxy.

Elder law attorneys also help moderate tough decisions, like when family members can’t agree about how a loved one wanted to be buried.

In addition, elder care lawyers understand the complex laws for Medicaid and VA benefits. An elder care lawyer can speak to many other issues, ranging from long-term care insurance to capital gains taxes.

A key when meeting with an elder law attorney is that you feel comfortable, that you’re not rushed and that your questions are answered.

Reference: Kiplinger (Sep. 15, 2020) “When Elder Care Requires Legal Advice”

How Does My Estate Plan Change After Divorce?

Estate planning after a divorce involves adopting a different type of arithmetic. Without a spouse to anchor an estate plan, the trustees, guardians or health care proxies will have to be chosen from a wider pool of those that are connected to you. As with all significant life changes, a recent divorce requires immediate changes to your estate plan.

Wealth Advisor’s recent article entitled “How to Revise Your Estate Plan After Divorce” explains that beneficiary forms tied to an IRA, 401(k), 403(b) and life insurance are just some of the key documents that will need to change, reflecting the dissolution of the marriage.

It is important to note that there are usually estate planning terms that are included in agreements created during separation and divorce. These may call for the removal of both spouses from each other’s estate planning documents and retirement accounts. For example, in New York, bequests to an ex-spouse in a will prepared during the marriage are voided after the divorce. Even though the old will is still valid, a new will has the benefit of realigning the estate assets with the intended recipients.

However, any trust created while married is treated differently. Revocable trusts can be revoked, and the assets held by those trusts can be part of the divorce. Irrevocable trusts involving marital property are less likely to be dissolved, and after the death of the grantor, distributions may be made to an ex-spouse as directed by the trust.

A big task in the post-divorce estate planning process is changing beneficiaries. Ask for a change of beneficiary forms for all retirement accounts. Without a stipulation in the divorce decree ending their interest, an ex-spouse still listed as beneficiary of an IRA or life insurance policy may still receive the proceeds at your death.

Divorce presents changes to your children in terms of planning your estate. For one, divorce makes children assume responsibility at an earlier age. Adult children in their 20s or early 30s typically assume the place of the ex-spouse as fiduciaries and health care proxies, as well as agents under powers of attorney, executors and trustees. Further, if the divorcing parents have minor children, they must choose a guardian in their wills to care for the children, in the event that both parents pass away.

Ask an experienced estate planning attorney to help you with the issues that are involved in estate planning after a divorce.

Reference: Wealth Advisor (July 7, 2020) “How to Revise Your Estate Plan After Divorce”

Is Your Estate Plan COVID-19-Ready?

 

Even if you have done comprehensive estate planning with the guidance of a qualified attorney, you may want to re-evaluate certain elements of your plan now, through the lens of the COVID-19 pandemic.  Reviewing your estate plan with an attorney will provide guidance and piece of mind that your affairs are in order.

Why make changes? There are two uniquely challenging aspects of this pandemic that your current plan may not adequately address.

  1. Medical treatment for severe cases of COVID-19 frequently involves intubation and ventilator therapy to combat respiratory failure, and
  2. Quarantine and isolation orders blocking hospital visitors create some communication barriers between patients, doctors and family members.

So, how might these unique challenges impact your estate plan?

Living Wills. If your living will contains a blanket prohibition on intubation, you may want to reconsider that decision.

Durable Powers of Attorney (DPOA). Given the communication difficulties that may arise when a patient is hospitalized during the COVID-19 pandemic, you may want to revisit the terms of your DPOA to make it easier for your agent to act on your behalf.

Health Care Power of Attorney. A health care power of attorney allows you to appoint someone else to act as your agent for medical decisions. Under normal circumstances, this person would likely confer with your attending physicians in person and again, these in-person communications may be difficult right now. You want to add language to expressly authorize electronic communication with your agent.

The attorneys of the Law Office of Michael T. Huguelet, P.C. focus primarily in this area of the law and can advise you on whether your current estate plan accurately represents your wishes during this uniquely challenging time.  Our offices are open and ready to assist you with preparing a new estate plan or tailoring an update to your estate plan during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Resource: ElderLawAnswers, Three Changes You May Want to Make to Your Estate Plan Now Due to the Pandemic, April 30, 2020