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Miami FL Estate Planning & Elder Law Blog

Monday, January 4, 2016

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 28, 2015

Role of the Successor Trustee

When creating a trust, it is common practice that the person doing the estate planning will name themselves as trustee and will appoint a successor trustee to handle matters once they pass on.  If you have been named successor trustee for a person that has died, it is important that you hire a wills, trusts and estates attorney to assist you in carrying out your duties. Although the attorney that originally created the estate plan would most likely be more familiar with the situation, you are not legally required to hire that same attorney. You can hire any attorney that you please in order to determine what your obligations are.

 If the decedent had a will it is common that the successor trustee is also named as the executor.  Although the role of executor is similar to that of trustee, there are technical differences. If there was a will, you should consult with an attorney to determine if a court probate process will be required to administer the estate. If all assets were titled in the trust prior to the person’s death, or passed by beneficiary designation, such as in the case of life insurance and retirement plan assets (such as 401ks, IRAs, etc.), then a court probate may not be needed. However, if there were accounts or real estate in the person’s name alone that were not covered by the trust, a court probate may be necessary.

During the probate process, all of the deceased person’s assets must be collected and accounted for. This includes all bank accounts, stocks, bonds, mutual funds, investment accounts, retirement assets, life insurance, cars, personal belongings and real estate. All of these assets should be valued and listed on one or more inventories. Depending upon the value of the assets, an estate tax return may be needed. You should be aware of any final expenses, the person’s final income tax returns, and any creditors. Although this process is lengthy, once all of the appropriate steps are taken, the assets will be distributed and the estate will come to a close. 

If you have been named a successor trustee, an experienced estate planning attorney can help you through this process and make sure you carry out your legal duties as required.  Contact us for a consultation today.


Monday, December 14, 2015

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, December 7, 2015

Glossary of Estate Planning Terms

Will - a written document specifying a person’s wishes concerning his or her property distribution upon his or her death.

In order to be enforced by a court of law, a will must be signed in accordance with the applicable wills act.

Testator/Testatrix - the person who signs the will.

Heirs - beneficiaries of an estate.

Executor/Executrix - the individual given authority by the testator to make decisions to put the testator’s written directions into effect.

Once the will is entered into probate, the executor’s signature is equivalent to the testator’s. The executor has a legal duty to the heirs of the estate to act in the best interest of the estate, and may collect a fee for performing such service.

Administrator/Administratrix - the person who assumes the role of the executor when a person dies without a will (intestate).

The Administrator must apply with the local probate office and may be required to provide a bond to be held in escrow as collateral for control over the assets of the estate.

Codicil - an amendment to a will.

In order to be valid, a codicil must comply with all the requirements of the applicable wills act.

Holographic Will- a handwritten will. 

Holographic wills are often exempt from requirements of the applicable wills act.

Bequest - a gift given by the testator to his or her heirs through a will.

Residual Estate - the balance of a testator’s belongings after debts have been paid and specific bequests have been distributed. 

Intestate - not having signed a will before one dies; a person who dies without having signed a will.

Life Estate - a bequest that gives an heir the right to have exclusive use of a property for the remainder of his or her life, but without the power to transfer such property upon the death of that heir.

The property will transfer to the heirs of the residual estate after the death of the beneficiary of the life estate.

Per stirpes - a Latin phrase precisely translated as “by the branch” meaning that, if an heir named in the will dies before the testator, that heir’s share will be divided equally among that beneficiary’s own heirs.

 An alternative to per capita, described below.

Per capita - a Latin phrase precisely translated as “by the head” meaning that, if an heir named in the will dies before the testator, that heir’s share will be divided among the testator’s remaining heirs.

 An alternative to per stirpes, described above.

While it is a good idea to have a basic understanding of fundamental estate planning vocabulary, this cannot serve as a substitute for the services of an experienced attorney.


Monday, November 30, 2015

Avoiding Common Mistakes in Estate Planning

Estate planning is designed to fulfill the wishes of a person after his or her death. Problems can easily arise, however, if the estate plan contains unanswered questions that can no longer be resolved after the person's demise. This can, and frequently does, lead to costly litigation counter-productive to the goals of the estate. It is important that will be written in language that is clear and that the document has been well proofread because something as simple as a misplaced comma can significantly alter its meaning.

Planning for every possible contingency is a significant part of estate planning. Tragic scenarios in which an estate planner’s loved ones predecease him or her, though uncomfortable, must be considered during the preparation of a will to avoid otherwise unforeseen conflicts. 

Even trained professionals can make significant mistakes if they are not well versed in estate planning. An attorney who practices general law, while perfectly capable of preparing simple wills, may not understand the intricacies of trusts and guardianships. A great many attorneys, not aware of the tax consequences of bequests involving IRAs, may leave heirs with unnecessary financial obligations. If an attorney is not knowledgeable enough to ask the proper questions, he or she will be unable to prepare an estate plan that functions efficiently and ensures the proper distribution of the estate's assets.

In spite of the wealth of an individual, the estate may be cash deficient if that wealth is tied up in assets at the time of the individual's death. Problems can also result if an estate planner has distributed assets into joint bank accounts or accounts with pay on death provisions. If the executor of the estate does not have access to funds to pay the estate's bills or taxes, the heirs of the estate may run into trouble.

Even if estate planning is handled well from a logistical point of view, lack of communication with loved ones can interfere with a will's desired execution. A tragedy that incapacitates the testator can occur suddenly, so it is imperative that a savvy estate planner confers with loved ones as soon as possible, making them aware of any future obligations, such as life insurance premiums that must be paid and informing them of the location of any probate documents and inventories of assets. Such conversations ensure that the individual's wishes will be carried out without complications or delay in the event of an unexpected incapacity.

In addition to communicating logistical information, it is also essential to schedule a personal conversation with loved ones that makes clear any sentimental bequests or large gifts that require explanation. This avoids the shock or discomfort that may arise after one's death during which a well-thought-out decision is questioned as impulsive or irrational. Such direct communication of one's plans avoids unnecessary envy, arguments or rivalry among family and friends.

Consulting with attorneys who specialize in estate planning is the cornerstone of creating a plan to ensure that one's desires are carried out and that all the bases are covered. Estate planning attorneys serve as invaluable repositories of all information necessary to strategizing a plan that not only meets one's personal needs and desires, but is legally binding.


Monday, November 16, 2015

When Will I Receive My Inheritance?

If you’ve been named a beneficiary in a loved one’s estate plan, you’ve likely wondered how long it will take to receive your share of the inheritance after his or her passing.  Unfortunately, there’s no hard or and fast rule that allows an estate planning attorney to answer this question. The length of time it takes to distribute assets in an estate can vary widely depending upon the particular situation.

Some of the factors that will be involved in determining how long it takes to fully administer an estate include whether the estate must be probated with the court, whether assets are difficult to value, whether the decedent had an ownership interest in real estate located in a state other than the state they resided in, whether your state has a state estate (or inheritance) tax, whether the estate must file a federal estate tax return, whether there are a number of creditors that must be dealt with, and of course, whether there are any disputes about the will or trust and if there may be disagreements among the beneficiaries about how things are being handled by the executor or trustee.

Before the distribution of assets to beneficiaries, the executor and trustee must also make certain to identify any creditors because they have an obligation to pay any legally enforceable debts of the decedent with those assets. If there must be a court filed probate action there may be certain waiting periods, or creditor periods, prescribed by state law that may delay things as well and which are out of the control of the executor of the estate.

In some cases, the executor or trustee may make a partial distribution to the beneficiaries during the pending administration but still hold back sufficient assets to cover any income or estate taxes and other administrative fees. That way the beneficiaries can get some benefit but the executor is assured there are assets still in his or her control to pay those final taxes and expenses. Then, once those are fully paid, a final distribution can be made. It is not unusual for the entire process to take 9 months to 18 months (sometime more) to fully complete.

If you’ve been named a beneficiary and are dealing with a trustee or executor who is not properly handling the estate and you have yet to receive your inheritance, you should contact a qualified estate planning attorney for knowledgeable legal counsel.


Monday, November 2, 2015

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.


Monday, October 26, 2015

Protecting Your Vacation Home with a Cabin Trust

Many people own a family vacation home--a lakeside cabin, a beachfront condo--a place where parents, children and grandchildren can gather for vacations, holidays and a bit of relaxation. It is important that the treasured family vacation home be considered as part of a thorough estate plan. In many cases, the owner wants to ensure that the vacation home remains within the family after his or her death, and not be sold as part of an estate liquidation.

There are generally two ways to do this: Within a revocable living trust, a popular option is to create a separate sub-trust called a "Cabin Trust" that will come into existence upon the death of the original owner(s). The vacation home would then be transferred into this Trust, along with a specific amount of money that will cover the cost of upkeep for the vacation home for a certain period of time. The Trust should also designate who may use the vacation home (usually the children or grandchildren). Usually, when a child dies, his/her right to use the property would pass to his/her children.

The Cabin Trust should also name a Trustee, who would be responsible for the general management of the property and the funds retained for upkeep of the vacation home. The Trust can specify what will happen when the Cabin Trust money runs out, and the circumstances under which the vacation property can be sold. Often the Trust will allow the children the first option to buy the property.

Another method of preserving the family vacation home is the creation of a Limited Liability Partnership to hold the house. The parents can assign shares to their children, and provide for a mechanism to determine how to pay for the vacation home taxes and upkeep. An LLP provides protection from liability, in case someone is injured on the property.

It is always wise to consult with an estate planning attorney about how to best protect and preserve a vacation home for future generations.


Monday, October 12, 2015

Should I Transfer My Home to My Children?

Most people are aware that probate should be avoided if at all possible. It is an expensive, time-consuming process that exposes your family’s private matters to public scrutiny via the judicial system. It sounds simple enough to just gift your property to your children while you are still alive, so it is not subject to probate upon your death, or to preserve the asset in the event of significant end-of-life medical expenses.

This strategy may offer some potential benefits, but those benefits are far outweighed by the risks. And with other probate-avoidance tools available, such as living trusts, it makes sense to view the risks and benefits of transferring title to your property through a very critical lens.

Potential Advantages:

  • Property titled in the names of your heirs, or with your heirs as joint tenants, is not subject to probate upon your death.
  • If you do not need nursing home care for the first 60 months after the transfer, but later do need such care, the property in question will not be considered for Medicaid eligibility purposes.
  • If you are named on the property’s title at the time of your death, creditors cannot make a claim against the property to satisfy the debt.
  • Your heirs may agree to pay a portion, or all, of the property’s expenses, including taxes, insurance and maintenance.


Potential Disadvantages:

  • It may jeopardize your ability to obtain nursing home care. If you need such care within 60 months of transferring the property, you can be penalized for the gift and may not be eligible for Medicaid for a period of months or years, or will have to find another source to cover the expenses.
  • You lose sole control over your property. Once you are no longer the legal owner, you must get approval from your children in order to sell or refinance the property.
  • If your child files for bankruptcy, or gets divorced, your child’s creditors or former spouse can obtain a legal ownership interest in the property.
  • If you outlive your child, the property may be transferred to your child’s heirs.
  • Potential negative tax consequences: If property is transferred to your child and is later sold, capital gains tax may be due, as your child will not be able to take advantage of the IRS’s primary residence exclusion. You may also lose property tax exemptions. Finally, when the child ultimately sells the property, he or she may pay a higher capital gains tax than if the property was inherited, since inherited property enjoys a stepped-up tax basis as of the date of death.

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to estate planning. Transferring ownership of your property to your children while you are still alive may be appropriate for your situation. However, for most this strategy is not recommended due to the significant risks. If your goal is to avoid probate, maximize tax benefits and provide for the seamless transfer of your property upon your death, a living trust is likely a far better option.


Monday, October 5, 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.
     

Tuesday, September 29, 2015

Protecting Your Legacy with Estate Tax Planning

You spend your whole life building your legacy but sadly, that is not always enough. Without careful estate tax planning, much of it could be lost to taxes or misdirected. While a will or living trust is essential for dividing your estate as you wish, an estate tax plan ensures you pass on as much of your legacy as possible.

Understanding estate tax laws

For the past decade, estate tax laws have been a sort of political football with significant changes occurring every few years.  The good news is that the 2013 tax act made the basic $5 million estate tax exemption “permanent,” but at a higher rate of 40%, though the law continues to adjust the exemption level for inflation. With this adjustment the 2015 exclusion $5.43 million ($10.86 million per married couple). The law also retained exclusion “portability” which means that if one spouse dies in 2014 or 2015, the surviving spouse may pass on the unused portion of the deceased spouse’s exclusion. This portability is not automatic, however. The unused portion needs to be transferred by the executor to the surviving spouse, and a special tax return must be filed within nine months. The surviving spouse does not have to pay estate taxes at this time, they only become due after both spouses have died.

Optimizing your estate plan

One way to maximize the amount you can pass on is through annual gifting while you are alive. An individual is allowed to give $14,000 each year to another individual, tax-free. If you give more than that, it will reduce your basic lifetime exclusion. So, if you give a child $50,000 this year, your basic $5.43 million exclusion will be reduced by $36,000 at the time of your death. You can gift as much as your full $5.43 million exclusion before incurring taxes, although doing so would “exhaust” your estate tax exemption at death. Gift taxes are paid by the giver, not the recipient.

An experienced estate tax planning attorney can help minimize potential gift and estate taxes by:

  • Identifying taxable assets
  • Transforming your wishes into a will or living trust
  • Keeping you apprised of federal and state tax law changes
  • Establishing an annual gifting plan
  • Creating family and charitable trusts
  • Setting up IRA charitable rollovers
  • Setting up 529 education savings plans
  • Helping you create a succession plan for your family business

It’s never pleasant to consider the end of your life, but planning for it will help ensure that the things you care about are cared for. It is one of the greatest gifts you can give your loved ones.


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