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Boca Raton Estate Planning & Probate Blog

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

What would happen if another child is born after establishing an estate plan?

This question presents a fairly common issue posed to estate planning attorneys. The solution is also pretty easy to address in your will, trust and other estate planning documents, including any guardianship appointment for your minor children.

First, its important to note that you should not delay establishing an estate plan pending the birth of a new child.  In fact, if your planning is done right you most likely will not need to modify your estate plan after a new child is born.  The problem with waiting is that you cannot know what tomorrow will bring and you could die, or become incapacitated and not having any type of plan is a bad idea. 

In terms of how an estate plan can provide for “after-born” children, there are a few drafting techniques that can address this issue.  For example, in your will, it would refer to your current children typically by name and their date of birth. Then, your will would provide that any reference to the term "your children" would include any children born to you, or adopted by you, after the date you sign your will.

In addition, in the section or article of your will that provides how your estate and assets will be divided, it could simply provide that your estate and assets will be divided into separate and equal shares, one each for "your children." That would mean that whatever children you have at the time of your death would receive a share and thus the will would work as you intend, even if you did not amend it after having a new child. 

On a side note, you should make certain that your plan does not give the children their share of your estate outright while they are still young.  Rather, your will or living trust should provide that the assets and money are held in a trust structure until they are reach a certain age or achieve certain milestones such as college graduation or marriage. Any good estate planning attorney should be able to advise you about this and help walk you through the various options you have available to you.


Monday, January 11, 2016

What is a Life Estate?

A life estate is a special designation in probate law referring to a gift to a family member that lasts as long as the life of the recipient. If an individual uses a life estate as part of his or her estate plan, whatever is bequeathed under the life estate will revert back to the residual estate upon the death of the life estate recipient. It is most common in scenarios where an individual starts a new family without children later in life and wants to ensure that the present spouse is taken care of for the remainder of her or his life. The owner of a life estate is called a life tenant. A life estate is often used as an alternative to a trust because it provides the life tenant with more control over the transferred asset.

A life tenant may treat an asset as his or her own. A home may be rented to tenants for income. The life tenant may sell his or her interest in the property to the heirs of the residual estate or to third parties. If the property is sold to a third party, that third party must surrender the property to the residual heirs upon the death of the life tenant.

Though the property belongs to the life tenant, the life tenant has a duty to the residual heirs to keep the property reasonably maintained and in good condition. He or she has an obligation to avoid mortgage arrearages and tax liens while in possession of the property. Exploiting natural resources on the property may be restricted during a life tenancy. A life tenant may not bequeath his or her interest in a life estate through a will because that interest immediately terminates upon the life tenant’s death. Significant changes to the property need to be agreed upon by all parties.

Though there are benefits, there are also drawbacks to establishing a life estate as part of an estate plan. The action could create estate tax issues for the tenant’s estate. In addition, creditors of the tenant may attach liens on the property, creating complicated legal issues for the heirs of the residual estate.


Wednesday, December 30, 2015

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, December 21, 2015

Can an individual be held repsonsible for his or her deceased loved one's debts?

When a loved one dies, an already difficult experience can be made much more stressful if that loved one held a significant amount of debt. Fortunately, the law addresses how an individual’s debts can be paid after he or she is deceased.

When a person dies, his or her assets are gathered into an estate. Some assets are not included in this process. Assets owned jointly between the deceased and another person pass directly to the other person automatically. If there are liens on the property at that time, they will stay on the property, but no new liens can be placed on the property for debts in the name of the deceased. Similarly, debt jointly in the name of the deceased and another party may continue to be collected from the other party. In community property states, all assets and debts are the joint property of both spouses and pass automatically from one to the other. The community property states are Alaska, Arizona, California, Idaho, Louisiana, Nevada, New Mexico, Texas, Washington, and Wisconsin. 

From the pool of assets in the estate, an executor is required to pay all just debts. This means that, before a beneficiary may receive anything, all debts must be satisfied. Property might be sold to create liquidity in order to accomplish this. If there are more debts than there are assets, the estate must sell of as many assets as possible to pay off the creditors. If there is no money in the estate, the creditor can not collect anything. Rather than force people into this tiresome process, many creditors will agree to discharge a debt upon receipt of a copy of a death certificate or obituary. This is particularly true of small, unsecured debts. Life insurance proceeds were never owned by the decedent and should pass to a beneficiary without consequence to the estate. Proceeds of a retirement account may also be exempt from debts.

If creditors continue harassing the beneficiaries of debtors, they may be violating federal regulations under the FDCPA. They can be held accountable by their actions, either by the FTC, the state attorney general, or a private consumer law attorney.


Thursday, December 10, 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.


Monday, November 30, 2015

Is There Anyway a Disinherited Child Could Receive an Inheritance From an Estate?

If your estate plan and related documents are properly and carefully drafted, it is highly unlikely that the court will disregard your wishes and award the excluded child an inheritance.  As unlikely as it may be, there are certain situations where this child could end up receiving an inheritance depending upon a variety of factors.

To understand how a disinherited child could benefit, you must understand how assets pass after death.  How a particular asset passes at death depends upon the type of asset and how it is titled. For example, a jointly titled asset will pass to the surviving joint owner regardless of what a will or a trust says. So, in the unlikely event that the disinherited child was a joint owner, that child would still inherit the asset because of how it was titled.

Similarly, if you left that disinherited child as a named beneficiary on a life insurance policy or retirement plan asset, such as an IRA or 401k, that child would still receive some of the benefits as the named beneficiary even if your will stated they were to take nothing. Another way such a "disinherited" child might receive a benefit is if all other named beneficiaries died before you.

So, assume you have three children and you wish to disinherit one of them and you state you want all of your assets to go to the other two, and if they are not alive, then to their descendants.  If those other two children die before you and do not have any descendants, there may be a provision that in such a case your "heirs at law" are to take your entire estate and that would include the child you intended to disinherit.

If you wish to disinherit a child, all of these issues can be addressed with proper and careful drafting by a qualified estate planning lawyer.  


Monday, November 16, 2015

Choosing a Guardian for Minor Children

If you are a parent and you are considering estate planning, one of the most difficult decisions you will have to make is choosing a guardian for your minor children.  It is not easy to think of anyone else, no matter how loving, raising your child. Yet, you can make a tremendous difference in your child’s life by planning ahead. 

The younger your child, the more crucial this choice is, because very young children cannot form or express their own preferences about caregivers. Yet young children are not the only ones who benefit from careful parental attention to guardianship. Children close to 18 years old will be legal adults soon, but, as you well know, may still need assistance of a parental figure after the fact.

By naming and talking about your choice of guardian, you can encourage a lifelong bond with a caring family. The nomination of guardians is a straightforward aspect of any family’s estate plan. It can be as basic or detailed as you want. You can simply name the guardian who would act if both you and your spouse were unable to or you can provide detailed guidance about your children and the sort of experiences and family environment you would like for them. Your state court, then, can give strong weight to your expressed wishes.

There are essentially four steps to this process. First, make a list of anyone you know that might be a candidate for guardian of your children.  It is important to think beyond your sisters and brothers and consider cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, child-care providers and business partners. You might also want to consider long-time friends and those you’ve gotten to know at parenting groups as they may share similar philosophies about child-rearing. Second, make a list of factors that are most important to you. Here are some to consider:

  • Maturity
  • Patience
  • Stamina
  • Age
  • Child-rearing philosophy
  • Presence of children in the home already
  • Interest in and relationship with your children
  • Integrity
  • Stability
  • Ability to meet the physical demands of child care
  • Presence of enough “free” time to raise children
  • Religion or spirituality
  • Marital or family status
  • Potential conflicts of interest with your children
  • Willingness to serve
  • Social and moral habits and values
  • Willingness to adopt your children

You might find that all or none of these factors are important to you or that there are others that make more sense in your particular situation.  The third step is to, match people with priorities. Use the factors you chose in step two to narrow your list of candidates to a handful.

For many families, it is as easy as it looks. For others, however, these three steps are fraught with conflict. One common source of difficulty is disagreement between spouses. But, consensus is important. Explore the disagreements to see what information about values and people is important to one another and use all of your strongest communications skills to understand each other’s position before you try to find a solution that you can both feel good about. Step four is to make it positive. For some parents, getting past this decision quickly is the best way to achieve peace of mind and happiness. For others, choosing a guardian can be the start of an intensive relationship-building process. An attorney who understands where you and your spouse fall on that spectrum can counsel you appropriately. 


Monday, November 2, 2015

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.


Wednesday, October 28, 2015

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.


Tuesday, October 20, 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.


Saturday, October 10, 2015

Five Common Reasons a Will Might Be Invalid

There are several reasons that a will may prove invalid. It is important for testators to be aware of these pitfalls in order to avoid them.

Improper Execution

The requirements vary from state to state, but most states require a valid will to be witnessed by two people not named in the will. Some jurisdictions require the document to be notarized as well. Although these restrictions may be relaxed if the will is holographic (handwritten), it is best to satisfy these requirements to ensure that the testamentary document will be honored by the probate court.

Lack of Testamentary Capacity

Anyone over the age of 18 is presumed to understand what a will is. At the end of life, individuals are often not in the best state of mind. If court finds that an individual is suffering from dementia, is under the influence of drugs or alcohol, or is incapable of understanding the document being executed for some other reason, the court may invalidate the will on the grounds that the individual does  not have testamentary capacity.

Replacement by a Later Will

Whenever an individual writes a new will, it invalidates all wills made previously. This means that a will might be believed to be valid for months until a more recently executed document surfaces. The newest will always takes precedence, controlling how assets should be distributed.

Lack of Required Content

Every will is required to contain certain provisions to carry out its purpose. These provisions, ensure that the testator understands the reason for executing the document.  Although these provisions vary from state to  state, some are common to all jurisdictions. It should be clear that the document is intended to be a will. The document  should demonstrate an individual’s wishes in regard to what should happen to his or her property after death. A proper will should also include a provision to appoint an executor to act as an agent for the estate and enforce the terms of the will. If the document  lacks any of these provisions, the will may be declared invalid. 

Undue influence or fraud

A will that was executed under undue influence, coercion or fraud will be invalidated by a court. If a will has been presented to a testator for a signature as if it were any other document, like a power of attorney or a business contract, the court will find that the will was fraudulently obtained and will not honor it. If an individual providing end of life care with exclusive access to the testator threatens to stop care unless a will is modified, that modification is considered to be the result of undue influence and the court will not accept it.


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