5 Missteps That Can Sabotage Your Estate Plan
April 27, 2011
When it comes to protecting your wealth and your family creating an estate plan is one of the most important things you can do. An estate plan is your key to ensuring that your hard-earned assets are distributed (or saved or invested) as you designate. An estate plan is your family’s safety net. Unfortunately, too many people attempt to take shortcuts with their plan, and find themselves with a safety net that is falling apart just when they need it most. Below are 5 of the most common missteps that can sabotage your estate plan, and how you can avoid them.
1. Neglecting to fund your trust. A trust can be a wonderful tool for protecting your assets; flexible and customizable, a useful trust can be created for just about every situation. But a trust is like a strongbox—if you don’t fill it up it has nothing to protect. Accounts and assets must be put in the name of your trust for it to work as you’ve designed it to.
2. Not enlisting the help of an estate planning attorney. There are a number of Do-It-Yourself will and estate planning programs out there that promise you a full estate plan for a cheaper price; but estate plans are complicated things, requirements change depending on your state of residence, the size of your estate, the age and situation of your beneficiaries, and much more. If you aren’t able to work with an attorney to create your plan, at the very least we urge you to have an attorney review your plan before you sign it.
3. Neglecting to mention previous estate planning documents, or making unofficial changes in the margins of documents that have already been signed. When creating a will or a trust or any other common estate planning document it is usually necessary to revoke any previous documents so there is no confusion about which document is current and valid. Neglecting to do this can end with your assets tied up in probate court for months or years—or even worse, invalidating both documents completely.
4. Putting your plan somewhere safe—somewhere so “safe”, in fact, that nobody can find or access it! People recognize that estate planning documents are things of value, and as such should be protected in a locked filing cabinet or safe deposit box. Wherever you choose to store your documents, be sure one or two trusted individuals have not only the knowledge of where the documents are, but also the ability to access them. An estate plan does no good if it cannot be accessed when it’s needed.
5. And finally, one of the most common missteps that can sabotage your estate plan is failing to update your plan regularly. Not only do federal and state laws change periodically (as we have recently experienced) but you will undoubtedly experience changes in your own life and fortune. Failing to update your plan to keep up with the law or with your own life can result in an estate plan that is as useful as a car you neglected to maintain—it may look fine on the outside, but it simply won’t run anymore.
Royal Couple Has Many Asking “How Effective Are Prenuptial Agreements?”
April 12, 2011
It’s all over the news lately that Prince William and his fiancé Kate Middleton will likely not sign a prenuptial agreement before the royal wedding on April 29th. Although many reasons have been given as to why the couple will forgo signing a prenup, one of the reasons is that “while prenuptial agreements are common in the United States, they are far less prevalent in the UK. Only in the last year have British courts agreed to recognize such deals.” This is a statement that has some Americans asking exactly how legally binding are prenuptial agreements here in the States?
The answer to that question depends on a number of factors: your state of residence, the terms of your prenuptial agreement, how long you stay married, and more. Fortunately, the longer prenuptial agreements are around, and the more common they become, the more respect they get from the courts. But if you’re worried that your prenuptial agreement won’t hold up in court, here are few tips to help ensure the validity of your agreement.
Neither party must be signing under duress. The more time each party has to review the agreement before the wedding the better. Any prenuptial agreement signed the day of or the day before the wedding could be looked upon as being signed under duress.
The agreement should include full disclosure of income and assets. If you live in a state where it is possible to waive full disclosure of assets then BOTH parties should specify that they do so knowingly.
Each party should have their own legal representation. In order to be sure that neither party is being taken advantage of, each party should have their own independent attorney review the document before it is signed.
Details regarding children or child support in a prenuptial agreement may not be enforced by most courts. Partners my want to include details about possible custody or child support arrangements in a prenuptial agreement, but keep in mind that any court will always give the best interests of a child the highest priority, even if it means disregarding those sections of the agreement between spouses.
Waivers of Spousal Support (alimony) Will Be Carefully Construed by California Courts. Any attempt to waive spousal support in the pre-nup will be carefully construed in the event of divorce, and may or may not later hold up, so just beware.
Seniors with children from prior relationshps, who remarry later in life, often consider pre-nups as a way to ensure the inheritance of their own children. So, its not just above divorce. Hopefully, these tips can help ensure that your agreement will be considered valid by a court should the need for enforcement arise down the road.
It’s Never Too Early to Make Your First Will
February 3, 2011
We’d like to share with our readers a recent article in Forbes entitled How To Write Your First Estate Plan. This article supports something we’ve been saying in our blog all along: That everyone needs a will—whether you’re a young couple just starting out, an established family with valuable assets to protect, or an entrepreneurial business owner with succession on your mind. The article reminds us that a will “is the cornerstone of an [estate] plan,” and at whatever stage of life you may be is not too early to make your first will.
“There’s a lot more to an estate plan than just a will, even for folks who don’t need a more complicated estate-tax oriented version. You might have pieces of it already–a living will signed when you had elective surgery or a beneficiary form filled out for a 401(k) when you got your first job. You need to make sure the pieces fit together.”
Many couples or individuals are first motivated to create a will when they have young children, and the primary purpose of their will is to ensure that their minor children will be cared for and provided for should anything happen to the parents. This is certainly one of the best reasons to create your will or estate plan, but it is not the only reason, not by a long shot. If you drafted your will when your children were young and haven’t looked at it since—or if you never created a will because you don’t have kids and therefore didn’t think you needed one—it’s time to revisit the subject.
An estate plan not only ensures that minor children will be provided for, but also that:
- Older children have the means to continue their education if something happens to you
- Your spouse or children are the recipients of your life insurance or retirement proceeds, and not the tax man or (even worse) an ex-spouse or ex-boyfriend or girlfriend.
- You have someone trustworthy distributing your assets as you wish after you pass away.
- Your business will transfer smoothly if you aren’t able to run it anymore.
- And much more.
“Whatever motivates you, fine. The point is–whether you’re in estate tax territory or not, if you don’t have an estate plan, you need one. (And if you have a really old one, you probably need a whole new one.)” Any opportunity is the perfect opportunity to start planning to protect your loved ones. Call our office (or your own trusted attorney) to learn what steps you can take toward protecting your loved ones right now.
Adult Children and Elderly Parents: Caring for Each Other
December 24, 2010
The idea of adult children caring for aging parents or grandparents is not a new one. In fact, with the aging Baby-Boomer population, adult children giving up free time or extra hours at work to care for relatives is a growing trend. But recently families have begun creating “caregiver compensation agreements,” something which can end up benefiting both parties in a number of ways.
According to a recent article in the Wall Street Journal, “the high unemployment rate, the rising cost of nursing-home care, an aging population, and a 2006 change in Medicaid law that makes it harder for people who wish to qualify to give away assets” are all contributing factors to the growing trend of these compensation agreements among family members. Note: Medicaid is called “Medi-Cal” in California.
How can it help you?
If you’re a caregiver the benefits of a caregiver compensation agreement are fairly self explanatory. “Some 37% of caregivers surveyed by the NAC in 2007 said they had quit a job or reduced their hours to accommodate their responsibilities,” some kind of compensation seems only fair. And if you feel uncomfortable taking “wages” from your parents, there are other ways to arrange for compensation. “Attorneys say many families pay an hourly wage. As an estate-planning tactic, others opt for annual gifts or a lump-sum payment designed to cover services over an extended period. Some arrange for the caregiver to receive a larger inheritance.” It will all depend on what works best for your family.
If you’re the one receiving the care, compensation agreements can benefit you as well. Paying a family caregiver can help you deplete your savings and qualify for Medi-Cal, which might then help if you later need a nursing home subsidy. Doing so can also help you reduce your taxable estate, as well as give a gift of sorts to younger family members who may be in need. Remember the Medi-Cal rules are tricky, so best to enlist the help of an Elder Law attorney before creating any care contracts.
However you may decide to structure your compensation agreement, disclosure can be of the utmost importance. Make other family members aware of the agreement up front to avoid suspicion or hurt feelings later on.
Estate Planning Through the Ages
December 5, 2010
Can you remember what you were doing in your early 20s? Can you imagine what kind of life you’ll be living in your 70s or 80s? We experience incredible changes as the decades roll by—not just to ourselves, but in the world at large. With our lives changing so much, our estate planning documents and strategies should hardly remain static. Here is a guide to how your estate plan may or may not evolve through the decades.
In Your 20s: You’re young, just finishing school and starting in your career, unlikely to be married yet… the last thing you’re thinking about is estate planning! At this time of life, who gets your “stuff” may not be as important as who will make your decisions. Choosing your financial and healthcare agents and creating your power of attorney and healthcare directive are the important things to do at this time.
In Your 30s: Marriage, children, home ownership—most of these things happen in your 30s, and your estate plan should reflect that. Now is the time to choose guardians for your young children, decide with your spouse how your joint property will be distributed, and get serious about life insurance.
In Your 40s: This is when your strategy may switch from simple direction of inheritance to more serious asset protection. You’ve worked hard and saved, and you’ll want to think about the best way to maximize your assets with trusts and tax planning. Consider investing in long-term care insurance.
In Your 50s: As your children start to become independent you may have more freedom with your income. Some people choose to create charitable trusts, some prefer to invest for retirement, and still others decide it’s time to take a risk and start over with a second career. Your estate planner can advise and help with all of these.
In Your 60s: Ah retirement! Making the big change from work to retirement means making changes to your estate plan as well. If you’ve been keeping up with your planning through the decades all that is required now will be some basic maintenance; changes to account for marriages of your children, the birth of grandchildren, and your own relocation to someplace warm and sunny. But beyond the basic maintenance, you may want to start doing some basic planning for long-term care —just in case.
In your 70s and Beyond: Health is the key word now. Our life-spans are getting longer, but so are our illnesses. You need to be ready. Tighten up your estate plan, and although it may sound morbid, talk to your doctors and family about your end-of-life decisions. Consult with an Elder Law Attorney about options for funding long term care expenses, and seek assistance in revising your estate plan to coordinate with those options. You may be surprised to learn that you may be able to qualify for a government subsidy under the Medi-Cal program while still preserving your assets for your loved ones, providing that appropriate authorizations are in place.
The life alterations that come over a span of decades are difficult enough; you don’t want to have to find a new lawyer every time your circumstances change. Our firm makes it our business to keep up with you at every stage.
Prepare Now for an Uncertain Future
October 14, 2010
There’s a useful saying that goes something like this: “Expect the best, but prepare for the worst.” Never has that saying been as useful as it is right now in regards to asset protection and estate planning. As Laura Lallos mentions in her article in the Morningstar Advisor, “Estate attorneys are trained to prepare for every contingency. But how do you plan for the unimaginable? Who would have predicted a U.S. tax system with no estate tax at all–and no certainty about what the estate tax will look like in 2011?”
Planning for the future when the future is so foggy is a challenge at best, but this unique year for taxes offers some once-in-a-lifetime opportunities for giving and saving as well. This seems to be a time of contradictions. As the article points out, “The best strategy that financial advisors and attorneys can pursue now is to prepare their clients for the worst. On the bright side, some clients can also seize opportunities created by the gaping holes in the tax law for 2010.”
The article suggests a number of strategies that you can implement now to prepare for an uncertain future. Some of these include:
Give monetary gifts now, when the gift tax rate is a low 35%, in order to lessen your taxable estate. Better still, gift away assets, such as real estate, that are likely to appreciate in the future.
Take advantage of the one-year-only lapse in the Generation Skipping Transfer Tax.
Create a Grantor Retained Annuity Trust before the end of October to take advantage of the currently very low Section 7520 rate.
See your estate planner and make sure your estate and asset protection plans truly are “prepared for the worst.” We may not yet know what next year will bring, but that doesn’t mean we can‘t take steps to ensure our clients are prepared for whatever the future may hold.
You’re Never Too Young to Need a Financial Planner
September 4, 2010
Most people don’t think about visiting a financial planner until they’re old enough to have some money to manage, but if your child is a recent college graduate, or in his or her final year, you may want to consider a joint trip to your financial planner. A recent article in the Boston Globe lists a number of very compelling reasons why even young adults with little or no savings can benefit from a little bit of planning.
1. A visit to a financial planner can help young adults learn early the importance of budgeting: “If you are living on your own for the first time you haven’t had the responsibility yet of paying bills and learning to make your paycheck last until the next payday… One of the basic tenets of financial planning is to know where your money is going.”
2. Start planning for retirement while you’re still young. The earlier you start, the better off you’ll be. “A financial planner can go over the various fund choices in your 401(k) or other retirement plan and help you choose one or more funds that suit your needs.”
3. Learn how to turn big dreams for the future into a reality. Whether you plan to get married, buy a house, or start your own business, “A Certified Financial Planner® can figure out how much you need to save and create a plan to make saving painless.”
4. And finally, a financial planner can help young adults learn the basic tenets and terminology of borrowing, lending, saving smart and paying off loans with interest. “Learn about interest rates and how they work, whether they are for credit cards, auto loans, student loan or other borrowing. See how compound interest can help you reach goals faster.” An early trip to a knowledgeable professional can ensure that your child doesn’t get taken in by persuasive credit card companies.
Planning to Live Through the 2010 Estate Tax Repeal? You Can Still Save on Taxes
September 2, 2010
It is common knowledge that 2010 is a great year for heirs. If you didn’t know about the 2010 estate tax repeal, all the media coverage of George Steinbrenner’s recent death (and his heirs’ lucky tax break) probably alerted you. Everybody is saying that 2010 is a good year to die… But what about those of us who plan to live through 2010?
According to the New York Times even hale and hearty individuals can save on their taxes in 2010—it just takes a little more planning. “A bigger issue [than the estate tax]… has become the gift tax, which is linked to the estate tax to prevent people from giving away their fortune in life to avoid taxes at death. It now stands at 35 percent, the lowest rate since the 1930s.” The gift tax is a tax on money or property that you give to another individual while you are still living. Currently an individual may give up to $13,000 per year per recipient (or up to $26,000 if you give as a married couple) without incurring gift tax.
If you’re a wealthy parent or grandparent trying to decrease your taxable estate through gift-giving, this is the year to do it for a number of reasons. First, of course, is the historically low 35% gift tax rate. Second, “in addition to the historically low rate, another reason to make sizable gifts this year is that the values of many assets are still depressed. Long-held stocks, real estate and shares in private businesses could all increase in value, and giving them away now will allow them to appreciate with your heirs and not in your estate.” A final reason to consider giving your large gifts before the year is over is that the 35% rate won’t last forever; the gift tax is expected to rise to 55% next year.
How can you take advantage of this lucky confluence of events? Well, as always when you’re dealing with large sums of money (not to mention dealing with the IRS), you’ll want to be careful. We do NOT recommend that you simply write a check for $13,000+. Contact your estate planner or your financial planner to find out how you can safely reduce your taxable estate while giving security to the people you love. A very important caution however: if you believe you may need long term care in the near future, gifting away assets now could make you ineligible for a government long term care subsidy under the Medi-Cal program. Talk to your Elder Law attorney about this before you make the gifts.