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Boca Raton Estate Planning & Probate Blog

Monday, March 23, 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.
 


Monday, March 16, 2015

Spendthrift Trusts

Unfortunately, not everyone in the world is responsible with money. Even those who are moneywise can run into bad luck in life which could cause them financial hardship. So when planning your estate, you should think twice about leaving a large sum of money to someone who can’t handle it. For those beneficiaries for whom you have concerns, a spendthrift trust may be an ideal solution.

If a person who is “bad with money”, or who is going through a rough time, gets a large inheritance, odds are that the inheritance will be gone in a matter of a few months or a year or two, with very little to show for it. A spendthrift trust is a trust that is designed to limit a beneficiary’s ability to waste the principal of a trust. The beneficiary of a spendthrift trust is a person who can’t handle money, or is addicted to drugs, alcohol, or another negative behavior. A spendthrift trust could even be used for someone in a destructive relationship.

In a spendthrift trust, a sum of money is set aside in a trust account. The beneficiary is never the trustee of a spendthrift trust. Instead, the trustee can be another family member, a family friend, or even a corporate trustee like a bank. The trustee will spend the money for the beneficiary’s needs or could make payments directly to the beneficiary, as the trust document allows. However, the beneficiary has no right to spend the principal of the trust. The beneficiary also doesn’t have the legal right to pledge the trust as security for a loan.

In some spendthrift trusts, the trustee could have the power to cut off benefits to a beneficiary who becomes self-destructive, such as with the use of drugs or alcohol. The money could then be accumulated for the beneficiary’s use later, or it could be paid to another beneficiary. Another option would be to give the trustee the option to only make payments on behalf of a beneficiary who has become self-destructive, but to withhold cash from that beneficiary.

Spendthrift trusts are a great tool to help potential beneficiaries who cannot handle money for various reasons. However, they aren’t perfect. They may be too strict in situations where the beneficiary may have a legitimate need for more money. If the spendthrift trust isn’t strict enough about what money is allowed to be spent on, that leaves a lot of control in the trustee’s hands, and he may find himself in the difficult position of standing between an erratic beneficiary and his or her money.

If you’re concerned about a particular beneficiary and his or her ability to manage money, be sure to consult with a qualified trust attorney to evaluate whether a spendthrift trust would be an effective tool for your estate plan.


Monday, March 9, 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.


Monday, February 23, 2015

Estate Planning: The Medicaid Asset Protection Trust

The irrevocable Medicaid Asset Protection Trust has proven to be a highly effective estate planning tool for many older Americans. There are many factors to consider when deciding whether a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is right for you and your family. This brief overview is designed to give you a starting point for discussions with your loved ones and legal counsel.

A Medicaid Asset Protection Trust enables an individual or a married couple to transfer some of their assets into a trust, to hold and manage the assets throughout their lifetime. Upon their deaths, the remainder of the assets will be transferred to the heirs in accordance with the provisions of the trust.

This process is best explained by an example. Let’s say Mr. and Mrs. Smith, both retired, own stocks and savings accounts valued at $300,000. Their current living expenses are covered by income from these investments, plus Social Security and their retirement benefits. Should either one of them ever be admitted to a skilled nursing facility, the Smiths likely will not have enough money left over to cover living and medical expenses for the rest of their lives.

Continuing the above example, the Smiths can opt to transfer all or a portion of their investments into a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust. Under the terms of the trust, all investment income will continue to be paid to the Smiths during their lifetimes. Should one of them ever need Medicaid coverage for nursing home care, the income would then be paid to the other spouse. Upon the deaths of both spouses, the trust is terminated and the remaining assets are distributed to the Smiths’ children or other heirs as designated in the trust. As long as the Smiths are alive, their assets are protected and they enjoy a continued income stream throughout their lives.

However, the Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is not without its pitfalls. Creation of such a trust can result in a period of ineligibility for benefits under the Medicaid program. The length of time varies, according to the value of the assets transferred and the date of the transfer. Following expiration of the ineligibility period, the assets held within the trust are generally protected and will not be factored in when calculating assets for purposes of qualification for Medicaid benefits. Furthermore, transferring assets into an irrevocable Medicaid Asset Protection Trust keeps them out of both spouses’ reach for the duration of their lives.

Deciding whether a Medicaid Asset Protection Trust is right for you is a complex process that must take into consideration many factors regarding your assets, income, family structure, overall health, life expectancy, and your wishes regarding how property should be handled after your death. An experienced elder law or Medicaid attorney can help guide you through the decision making process.
 


Monday, February 16, 2015

Is a Copy of a Will Sufficient?

Many people keep their important documents at home where they are easily accessible. It’s not at all uncommon to find people with a filing cabinet or even a shoe box containing passports, account statements, deeds, tax returns, birth certificates and social security cards. Wills are often added to these files once the estate planning process is completed. In choosing to store your important estate planning documents at home, however, you risk having the originals lost or destroyed in the case of fire, flooding or theft. So what happens if the original version of your will is lost or ruined?

Generally when a person dies, state law determines what must happen in the state probate proceeding. In most cases, the "original" of the will must be submitted to the probate court in the county where the person resided. If the original of the will cannot be located and provided to the court, there likely is a provision in your state's probate code that would permit the submission of a photocopy of that signed will.

In many cases, the attorney who prepared the will maintains a copy of the estate planning documents. Assuming, that the copy your attorney has could be submitted to the probate court, additional steps may need to be taken, and additional pleadings prepared in order to submit a copy.

Should you lose the original copy of your will, the best practice would be for you to execute a new will which would make things easier for your family and loved ones upon your death. In that case there would be better assurances that your wishes were followed and carried out. Preparing a new will should not take much time for your attorney. He or she likely still has the word processing file on his or her computer, and could easily modify it for you to execute again. If for some reason this is not done, you may wish to execute a document stating the original was destroyed in a flood or fire but that you did not intend to revoke it. However, it’s important to note that this may not be effective in every instance as many states have very strict requirements in terms of requiring originals and execution formalities.

To keep the originals of your estate planning documents safe, even in the face of disaster, you might consider purchasing a fireproof/waterproof safe for your home or rent a safe deposit box with a local bank where you can still easily access your documents but keep them secure off-site.


Monday, February 9, 2015

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.
     

Monday, January 26, 2015

Self-Settled vs. Third-Party Special Needs Trusts

Special needs trusts allow individuals with disabilities to qualify for need-based government assistance while maintaining access to additional assets which can be used to pay for expenses not covered by such government benefits. If the trust is set up correctly, the beneficiary will not risk losing eligibility for government benefits such as Medicaid or Supplemental Security Income (SSI) because of income or asset levels which exceed their eligibility limits.

Special needs trusts generally fall within one of two categories: self-settled or third-party trusts. The difference is based on whose assets were used to fund the trust. A self-settled trust is one that is funded with the disabled person’s own assets, such as an inheritance, a personal injury settlement or accumulated wealth. If the disabled beneficiary ever had the legal right to use the money without restriction, the trust is most likely self-settled.

On the other hand, a third-party trust is established by and funded with assets belonging to someone other than the beneficiary.

Ideally, an inheritance for the benefit of a disabled individual should be left through third-party special needs trust. Otherwise, if the inheritance is left outright to the disabled beneficiary, a trust can often be set up by a court at the request of a conservator or other family member to hold the assets and provide for the beneficiary without affecting his or her eligibility for government benefits.

The treatment and effect of a particular trust will differ according to which category the trust falls under.

A self-settled trust:

  • Must include a provision that, upon the beneficiary’s death, the state Medicaid agency will be reimbursed for the cost of benefits received by the beneficiary.
  • May significantly limit the kinds of payments the trustee can make, which can vary according to state law.
  •  May require an annual accounting of trust expenditures to the state Medicaid agency.
  • May cause the beneficiary to be deemed to have access to trust income or assets, if rules are not followed exactly, thereby jeopardizing the beneficiary’s eligibility for SSI or Medicaid benefits.
  • Will be taxed as if its assets still belonged to the beneficiary.
  • May not be available as an option for disabled individuals over the age of 65.


A third-party settled special needs trust:

  • Can pay for shelter and food for the beneficiary, although these expenditures may reduce the beneficiary’s eligibility for SSI payments.
  • Can be distributed to charities or other family members upon the disabled beneficiary’s death.
  • Can be terminated if the beneficiary’s condition improves and he or she no longer requires the assistance of SSI or Medicaid, and the remaining balance will be distributed to the beneficiary.
     

Monday, January 12, 2015

What’s Involved in Serving as an Executor?

An executor is the person designated in a Will as the individual who is responsible for performing a number of tasks necessary to wind down the decedent’s affairs. Generally, the executor’s responsibilities involve taking charge of the deceased person’s assets, notifying beneficiaries and creditors, paying the estate’s debts and distributing the property to the beneficiaries. The executor may also be a beneficiary of the Will, though he or she must treat all beneficiaries fairly and in accordance with the provisions of the Will.

First and foremost, an executor must obtain the original, signed Will as well as other important documents such as certified copies of the Death Certificate.  The executor must notify all persons who have an interest in the estate or who are named as beneficiaries in the Will. A list of all assets must be compiled, including value at the date of death. The executor must take steps to secure all assets, whether by taking possession of them, or by obtaining adequate insurance. Assets of the estate include all real and personal property owned by the decedent; overlooked assets sometimes include stocks, bonds, pension funds, bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, annuity payments, holiday pay, and work-related life insurance or survivor benefits.

The executor is responsible for compiling a list of the decedent’s debts, as well. Debts can include credit card accounts, loan payments, mortgages, home utilities, tax arrears, alimony and outstanding leases. All of the decedent’s creditors must also be notified and given an opportunity to make a claim against the estate.

Whether the Will must be probated depends on a variety of factors, including size of the estate and how the decedent’s assets were titled. An experienced probate or estate planning attorney can help determine whether probate is required, and assist with carrying out the executor’s duties. If the estate must go through probate, the executor must file with the court to probate the Will and be appointed as the estate’s legal representative.  Once the executor has this legal authority, he or she must pay all of the decedent’s outstanding debts, provided there are sufficient assets in the estate. After debts have been paid, the executor must distribute the remaining real and personal property to the beneficiaries, in accordance with the wishes set forth in the Will. Because the executor is accountable to the beneficiaries of the estate, it is extremely important to keep complete, accurate records of all expenditures, correspondence, asset distribution, and filings with the court and government agencies.

The executor is also responsible for filing all tax returns for the deceased person including federal and state income tax returns and estate tax filings, if applicable. Additional tasks may include notifying carriers for homeowner’s and auto insurance policies and initiating claims on life insurance policies.

The executor is entitled to compensation for his or her services.  This fee varies according to the estate’s size and may be subject to review depending on the complexity as well as the time and effort expended by the executor.

   


Monday, January 5, 2015

Changing Uses for Bypass Trusts

Every year, each individual who dies in the U.S. can leave a certain amount of money to his or her heirs before facing any federal estate taxes. For example, in 2013, a person who died could leave $5.25 million to his or her heirs (or a charity) estate tax free, and everything over that amount would be taxable by the federal government. Transfers at death to a spouse are not taxable.

Therefore, if a husband died owning $8 million in assets in 2013 and passed everything to his wife, that transfer was not taxable because transfers to spouses at death are not taxable. However, if the wife died later that year owning that $8 million in assets, everything over $5.25 million (her exemption amount) would be taxable by the federal government. Couples would effectively have the use of only one exemption amount unless they did some special planning, or left a chunk of their property to someone other than their spouse.

Estate tax law provided a tool called “bypass trusts” that would allow a spouse to leave an inheritance to the surviving spouse in a special trust. That trust would be taxable and would use up the exemption amount of the first spouse to die. However, the remaining spouse would be able to use the property in that bypass trust to live on, and would also have the use of his or her exemption amount when he or she passed. This planning technique effectively allowed couples to combine their exemption amounts.

For the year 2013, each person who dies can pass $5.25 million free from federal estate taxes.  This exemption amount is adjusted for inflation every year.  In addition, spouses can combine their exemption amounts without requiring a bypass trust (making the exemptions “portable” between spouses). This change in the law appears to make bypass trusts useless, at least until Congress decides to remove the portability provision from the estate tax law.

However, bypass trusts can still be valuable in many situations, such as:

(1)  Remarriage or blended families. You may be concerned that your spouse will remarry and cut the children out of the will after you are gone. Or, you may have a blended family and you may fear that your spouse will disinherit your children in favor of his or her children after you pass. A bypass trust would allow the surviving spouse to have access to the money to live on during life, while providing that everything goes to the children at the surviving spouse’s death.

(2)  State estate taxes. Currently, 13 states and the District of Columbia have state estate taxes. If you live in one of those states, a bypass trust may be necessary to combine a couple’s exemptions from state estate tax.

(3)  Changes in the estate tax law. Estate tax laws have been in flux over the past several years. What if you did an estate plan assuming that bypass trusts were unnecessary, Congress removed the portability provision, and you neglected to update your estate plan? You could be paying thousands or even millions of dollars in taxes that you could have saved by using a bypass trust.

(4)  Protecting assets from creditors. If you leave a large inheritance outright to your spouse and children, and a creditor appears on the scene, the creditor may be able to seize all the money. Although many people think that will not happen to their family, divorces, bankruptcies, personal injury lawsuits, and hard economic times can unexpectedly result in a large monetary judgment against a family member.

Although it may appear that bypass trusts have lost their usefulness, there are still many situations in which they can be invaluable tools to help families avoid estate taxes.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Your Wishes in Your Words

During the estate planning process, your attorney will draft a number of legal documents such as a will, trust and power of attorney which will help you accomplish your goals. While these legal documents are required for effective planning, they may not sufficiently convey your thoughts and wishes to your loved ones in your own words. A letter of instruction is a great compliment to your “formal” estate plan, allowing you to outline your wishes with your own voice.

This letter of instruction is typically written by you, not your attorney. Some attorneys may, however, provide you with forms or other documents that can be helpful in composing your letter of instruction. Whether your call this a "letter of instruction" or something else, such a document is a non-binding document that will be helpful to your family or other loved ones.

There is no set format as to what to include in this document, though there are a number of common themes.

First, you may wish to explain, in your own words, the reasoning for your personal preferences for medical care especially near the end of life. For example, you might explain why you prefer to pass on at home, if that is possible. Although this could be included in a medical power of attorney, learning about these wishes in a personalized letter as opposed to a sterile legal document may give your loved ones greater peace of mind that they are doing the right thing when they are charged with making decisions on your behalf. You might also detail your preferences regarding a funeral, burial or cremation. These letters often include a list of friends to contact upon your death and may even have an outline of your own obituary.

You may also want to make note of the following in your letter to your loved ones:

  • an updated list of your financial accounts with account numbers;
  • a list of online accounts with passwords;
  • a list of important legal documents and where to find them;
  • a list of your life insurance and where the actual policies are located;
  • where you have any safe deposit boxes and the location of any keys;
  • where all car titles are located; the
  • names of your CPA, attorney, banker, insurance advisor and financial advisor;
  • your birth certificate, marriage license and military discharge papers;
  • your social security number and card;
  • any divorce papers; copies of real estate deeds and mortgages;
  • names, addresses, and phone numbers of all children, grandchildren, or other named beneficiaries.

In drafting your letter, you simply need to think about what information might be important to those that would be in charge of your affairs upon your death. This document should be consistent with your legal documents and updated from time to time.


Monday, December 15, 2014

What is a Pooled Income Trust and Do I Need One?

A Pooled Income Trust is a special type of trust that allows individuals of any age (typically over 65) to become financially eligible for public assistance benefits (such as Medicaid home care and Supplemental Security Income), while preserving their monthly income in trust for living expenses and supplemental needs. All income received by the beneficiary must be deposited into the Pooled Income Trust which is set up and managed by a not-for-profit organization.

In order to be eligible to deposit your income into a Pooled Income Trust, you must be disabled as defined by law. For purposes of the Trust, "disabled" typically includes age-related infirmities. The Trust may only be established by a parent, a grandparent, a legal guardian, the individual beneficiary (you), or by a court order.

Typical individuals who use a Pool Income Trust are: (a) elderly persons living at home who would like to protect their income while accessing Medicaid home care; (2) recipients of public benefit programs such as Supplemental Security Income (SSI) and Medicaid; (3) persons living in an Assisted Living Community under a Medicaid program who would like to protect their income while receiving Medicaid coverage.

Medicaid recipients who deposit their income into a Pool Income Trust will not be subject to the rules that normally apply to "excess income," meaning that the Trust income will not be considered as available income to be spent down each month. Supplemental payments for the benefit of the Medicaid recipient include: living expenses, including food and clothing; homeowner expenses including real estate taxes, utilities and insurance, rental expenses, supplemental home care services, geriatric care services, entertainment and travel expenses, medical procedures not provided through government assistance, attorney and guardian fees, and any other expense not provided by government assistance programs.

As with all long term care planning tools, it’s imperative that you consult a qualified estate planning attorney who can make sure that you are in compliance with all local and federal laws.


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Mangines Law, P.A. is located in Boca Raton and serves clients throughout Palm Beach County, including West Palm Beach, Delray Beach, Boynton Beach, Palm Springs, Lake Worth, Deerfield Beach and Pompano Beach.



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