Articles Posted in Estate Planning

Planning for, and then executing, inheritances is often fraught with emotion.

Most families choose to leave the inheritance “to my children in equal shares, per stirpes.”  Per stirpes is Latin meaning “by the roots” so that if a child dies before the parent, their share goes to their children (if any) in equal shares.  If there are no children, then generally the inheritance is disregarded and their share goes to their surviving siblings in equal shares.

What about gifts to grandchildren?  Let’s say one child has five children and the other has two children — seven grandchildren altogether. When a significant gift is given to grandchildren equally, it is not uncommon for the child with two children to say “well it was my brother’s choice to have five children, why do I have to pay for it?”  Good estate planning also looks at inheritances from the heirs’ point of view as well.

Revocable living trusts, where the grantor (creator) and the trustee (manager) are the same person, use the grantor’s social security number and are not required to file an income tax return. All income and capital gains taxes are reported on the individual’s Form 1040.

Irrevocable living trusts come in two main varieties, “grantor” and “non-grantor” trusts. Non-grantor trusts are often used by the wealthy to give assets away during their lifetime and for all income and capital gains taxes to be paid either by the trust or the trust beneficiary but not by them. Gifts to non-grantor trusts are reported to the IRS but are rarely taxable. Currently, the annual exclusion is $17,000 per person per year to as many people as you wish. However, if you go over the $17,000 to any one person you must report the gift to Uncle Sam, but they merely subtract the excess gift from the $12,920,000 each person is allowed to give at death. Most of our clients are “comfortably under” as we like to say. These gifts then grow estate tax-free to the recipient.

Grantor trusts, such as the Medicaid Asset Protection Trust (MAPT), are designed to get the assets out of your name for Medicaid purposes but keep them in your name for tax purposes. You continue to receive income from the MAPT and pay income tax the same as before. The MAPT files an “informational return” (Form 1041) telling the IRS that all the income is passing through to you.  Gifts to non-grantor trusts take the grantor’s “basis” for calculating capital gains taxes on sale, i.e. what the grantor originally paid and, if real estate, plus any capital improvements.

New York law prevents spouses from being disinherited. Instead, a spouse who is disinherited may go to court and claim their “elective share” which is the greater of fifty thousand dollars or one-third of the estate.

Questions often arise as what the “estate” of the deceased spouse consists of. Naturally, any assets in the decedent’s name only and listed in the estate court proceeding apply. Other assets, known as “testamentary substitutes” because they do not pay by will, and is against which the spouse may make their claim are: bank accounts, investment accounts and retirement accounts with named beneficiaries other than the spouse or, similarly, those same asset if they have a joint owner other than the spouse. An exception would be if the other joint owner had made contributions to the joint account and then as to the contributions only.

Gifts made within one year of death are also available for the elective share claim. Oddly enough, life insurance is not considered a testamentary substitute however annuities are.

Estate planning is not written in stone.  Instead, estate plans should be revised and reconsidered when various major life events occur.

Marriage may or may not involve a prenuptial agreement.  Regardless, it may call for adding your new spouse’s name as beneficiary on insurance policies, on a will or trust, power of attorney, health care proxy and deeds.

Serious illness requires that you give thought to appointing someone to handle your affairs and making sure they have the documents needed to discharge the responsibility. You may want to add a second person to share the load or as a back-up. It is also the time to consider asset protection strategies should long-term care be needed one day, either at home or in a facility. One of the biggest mistakes we see, as elder law attorneys, is that the family becomes so focused on the medical side of things that they fail to focus on the legal side until it is too late.

In order to contest a will, the objectant must have “standing”, meaning they would legally be entitled to a share or a greater share of the estate if the will was declared invalid. “Standing” alone, however, is insufficient. There must also be grounds for contesting as provided below.

1. Undue Influence: Independent caregivers and caregiver children who end up being named primary beneficiaries under the will are often scrutinized for having prevailed upon the decedent to leave them the lion’s share of the estate. The various means alleged may be physical or mental abuse, threats and isolation of the disabled person. Even non-caregivers who had influence over mom or dad may be challenged where they end up with more than their fair share. As with any court proceedings, proof of the claim will need to be made.

2. Improper Execution: The formalities for executing a will must be strictly observed. The formalities include that the witnesses believed the decedent was of sound mind, memory and understanding. There must be two witnesses who signed in the presence of the testator and of each other. The testator must declare in front of the witnesses that they read the will, understood it, declare that it is their last will and testament and approve of the two witnesses to act as witnesses to the will.

So many people who come in to see us do not understand the estate plan they have or do not know what is in their current plan. Some of the reasons for this are (1) time has inevitably blurred their memories, (2) the plan may be written in legalese and was never properly explained to them, (3) they may have misconceptions and misunderstandings of what their plan is; and (4) their lawyer may have lacked the knowledge required to find the right solution for their family in the event of death and disability. To this we say, “if you don’t understand the plan, you don’t have a plan.”

Ettinger Law Firm developed a process, in use for over thirty years, to avoid these problems. First, we offer a free initial consultation to go over the pros and cons of having a will or a trust and the differences between revocable and irrevocable trusts. So many people have misconceptions about trusts based on what friends have said or what they have read on the internet. For example, many clients are afraid to create an irrevocable trust because they think they will lose control. We explain why that is incorrect and how you can still change the trustee, change who you leave it to, take money out and even how you can revoke an irrevocable trust!

After the overview provided in the initial consultation, we give you a copy of our plain English book, “Elder Law Estate Planning”, and advise which chapters apply to your situation — maybe an hour or so of reading. We also invite you to watch the thirty minute estate planning video at trustlaw.com.

At Ettinger Law Firm, we are fond of saying “trusts create order out of chaos” — for three major reasons:

First, as noted in previous columns, an ever-increasing number of Americans suffer a period of legal disability later in life.  Without your own private plan for disability, consisting of a trust and a “prescription strength” elder law power of attorney, you run the risk of a state appointed legal guardian.  Do you want the people you choose to be in charge in the event of your disability, with the freedom to act immediately in your best interests, or do you want the state to appoint someone who will require court permission to protect your assets and your family — which permission is sometimes denied. A guardianship proceeding is expensive, time-consuming and stressful — in other words, chaotic. Trusts create an orderly process whereby your appointed trustees consult with your elder law attorney and are free to act immediately without court interference.

Secondly, trusts avoid probate court proceedings on death whereby wills, even though supervised by an attorney, with two witnesses and a notary, must first be proven to be valid in court proceedings.  The client has no control over probate court proceedings – the time they will take or the amount they will cost.  Typically, it takes months and, not unusually, one to two years or more.  Meantime, property cannot be sold and assets cannot be reached to pay bills.  In other words, chaos.  With a trust, the trustee may act immediately upon death, list property for sale and access investments and bank accounts.

Ask most people if they’ve done their estate planning and a common answer is, “Yes, I have a will.” However, estate planning is not just a plan for death. It’s a plan for life that addresses what happens if you become disabled. About half of us will eventually becoming disabled. You can choose ahead of time who will be in charge of your affairs if you become disabled through a power of attorney, health care proxy, and a trust.

A will cannot provide for disability. A will tells the world where you want your assets to go when you die. A will is probated, which means proven, in court, and becomes a public document. Those without their own living trust plan, with their personal choices for who will be in charge if they become disabled, risk getting the state’s plan of guardianship proceedings where the court chooses who will handle your affairs if you become disabled.

Probate court proceedings can go smoothly but they may also be complicated, such as having a special needs child or disinheriting a child. Also, if you own property in another state, a trust makes more sense than a will because you may deed the out-of-state property into the name of your trust, and avoid both a New York probate and a probate in the other state.

 

    1. Makes sure your estate goes to whom you want, when you want, the way you want. Most estate plans leave the assets to the next generation outright (i.e., in their hands) in equal shares. However, with a little bit of thought on your part, and some guidance from an experienced elder law estate planning attorney, you may dramatically improve the way your estate is ultimately distributed. For example, you may delay large bequests until children or grandchildren are older or give it to them in stages so that they have the chance to make some mistakes with the money without jeopardizing the whole inheritance. Similarly, you may place conditions on receipt of money such as “only upon graduation with a bachelor’s degree” or “only to be used to purchase an annuity to provide a lifetime income for the beneficiary”. The possibilities, of course, are endless.
    1. Allows you to give back to the people and places that have helped you. Again, most people leave their assets to their children in equal shares. Yet time and again we see children who really don’t need the money or, unfortunately, don’t deserve it. Even when they do need and deserve it, there is a place for remembering those people and institutions who have helped make you what you are today.
    1. It proves stewardship by showing your family that you cared enough to plan for them. When you put time, thought and effort into planning your affairs it sends a powerful message to your loved ones. You are saying that you handled the matter with care and diligence. This will reflect itself in how the money is received, invested and spent by your heirs.

What happens if you have an accident or an illness whereby you are unable to handle your legal and financial affairs?  Many people incorrectly believe their spouse is legally able to handle their affairs. Similarly, a parent has no legal authority to handle the affairs of a child, once the child attains the age of majority – eighteen years.

Without a power of attorney, you would have to apply to a court to be named a legal guardian.  These proceedings are expensive, time-consuming and fraught with peril.  The judge has no obligation to name the spouse or parent as legal guardian and may appoint a stranger.  For example, the judge may feel that the spouse or parent has a conflict in that they are the beneficiary of the incapacitated person’s assets, or the judge may decide that someone else has more knowledge and experience in handling such matters.

Who should you choose as your “agent”?  In our experience, the vast majority of powers of attorney name the spouse first and one or more of the children second.  While on its face this seems reasonable, experience has shown it may not be a good idea.  We often need to use the power of attorney when the client is quite elderly and infirm.  Often, so is the spouse at that time.  Son or daughter wants to step in and help out with bill paying, etc. only to find they are unable to use the power of attorney for dad unless they can prove that mom can’t.

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