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Southern California Estate Planning, Probate, Trust & Litigation Law Blog

Monday, July 24, 2017

How to Leave Gifts to Step-Children

Today, blended families have become increasingly common, and many individuals have step-children, that is, children of a spouse or partner. In situations where step-children have not been legally adopted, however, they do not have a legal right to an inheritance from a step-parent. For those who wish to leave step-children part of their estate , it is necessary to include them in an estate plan.

The easiest way to leave gifts to step-children is to name them in a will. As with any other gift, they can be given a percentage of the estate, or specific gifts. If there are other children involved, it is important to avoid confusion by naming each child and step-child by using their individual names, rather than terms such as "descendants," "heirs," or "children."

There are also a number of estate planning tools that can be utilized to include step-children in an inheritance. If the objective is to avoid probate, for example, a revocable living trust can be established in which a step-child is named as a beneficiary. Moreover, it may be necessary to provide for a disabled step-child who is eligible for public benefits by establishing a special needs trust. Lastly, a step-child can also be named as a beneficiary in a life insurance policy or a pay-on-death financial account.

While there is no legal obligation to leave step-children an inheritance, it may be the best choice for those who have a close relationship, or played a significant role, in raising them. However, this will reduce the amount of assets available to other children and beneficiaries. Because blended family relationships are complex and subject to emotional challenges, it is important to explain these decisions with all family members.

By engaging in an open and honest dialogue, you can minimize the potential for strife and the possibility of a will contest. In particular, it is important to clarify why you gave each recipient a gift, the selection of your executor, and your thoughts about the family.  Lastly, you are well advised to engage the services of an estate planning attorney who can help ensure your wishes regarding step-children are carried out.


Monday, July 17, 2017

How a Prenuptial Agreement Can Protect Your Estate

There are many circumstances that can impact an estate plan, not the least of which is divorce. While ending a marriage is complicated, it is not only crucial to arrive at a fair and equitable distribution of the marital assets, but to preserve your estate as well.

While the laws vary from state to state, it is important to understand the difference between separate and marital property. Generally, separate property includes any property owned by either spouse before the marriage, as well as gifts or inheritances received by either party prior to or after the marriage.

Marital property, on the other hand, is any property that is acquired during the marriage such as houses, cars, retirement plans, 401(k)s, IRAs, life insurance, investments and closely held business, regardless of who owns or holds title to the property.

One way to protect an estate in the event of a divorce is to put in place a prenuptial agreement. This legal document specifies each party's property ownership and clarifies their respective property rights should they end the marriage. A prenuptial agreement can reduce the conflict that is normally associated with divorce, avoid court intervention regarding questions of property division and also serve as an effective estate planning tool.

In short, a well designed agreement will distinguish separate property from marital property so that those assets are not misclassified if one of the spouses dies. Moreover, a prenuptial agreement is beneficial to those who are entering into second marriages because it will help to preserve the rights of children from prior relationships. In addition, for those who marry later in life and acquire significant assets, a prenuptial agreement can protect the estate from claims by former spouses.

In the end, a prenuptial agreement can enable each spouse to protect their assets and provide for their loved ones in the event of divorce or death. If you are considering marriage, it is essential to put a comprehensive estate place that includes a prenuptial agreement.

 


Monday, July 10, 2017

The Difference Between Equal and Equitable Inheritances

When it comes to estate planning, many individuals believe that dividing assets equally among adult children is the best choice. However, there are situations in which leaving each child the same amount might not be practical. For this reason, it is important to know the difference between an equal inheritance and an equitable inheritance, in which each child receives a fair share based on his or her circumstances.

What is an equal inheritance?

In this situation, each child gets the same amount of the remaining estate after both parents have died.

This option works well when the needs of each child are the same, or the parents provided similar support to each child in the past. Moreover, each child must be mentally or emotionally capable and financially responsible.

It is important to note that cases in which an estate includes real property and other tangible assets, it may be necessary to determine the differences in value of these assets in order to leave each child an appropriate amount. Lastly, leaving an equal inheritance may be the best way to avoid the emotional and financial costs of disputes.

What is an equitable inheritance?

In some cases, leaving each child and equal inheritance may not be the right thing to do. For example, it may be wise to reward a child who has taken on the role of caregiver for an aging parent or to compensate him or her for lost time and wages. There are also circumstances in which children may have been given different amounts of money while the parents were alive either for a wedding, educational expenses or a down payment on a home.

Lastly, for those who have a disabled child who receives public benefits, it may be necessary to provide for living expenses and medical needs in a special needs trust. In all of these situations, an equitable distribution of the estate assets is the best option.

The Bottom Line

In the end, determinations about the distribution of an estate to surviving children should be made in a way that will preserve family harmony. For this reason, it is important to discuss your decisions with your children and engage the services of an experienced estate planning attorney.




Monday, June 26, 2017

Why New Parents Need an Estate Plan

Becoming a new parent is a life changing experience, and caring for a child is an awesome responsibility as well as a joy. This is also the time to think about your child's future by asking an important question: who will care for your child if you become disabled or die? The best way to put your mind at ease is by having an estate plan.

The most basic estate planning tool is a will, which enables a person to determine how his or her assets will be distributed after death. Without this important estate planning tool, the state's intestacy laws will govern how these assets will be distributed. In addition, decisions about who will care for any minor children will be made by the court. For this reason, it is crucial for new parents to have a will as this is the only way to name guardians for minor children.

In this regard, selecting guardians involves a number of important considerations. Obviously, it is important to name individuals who are emotionally and financially capable of raising a child. At the same time, a will can also establish a trust that provides funds to be used to provide for the child's needs. Ultimately, guardians should share the same moral and spiritual values, and childrearing philosophy of the parents.

In addition to naming guardians in a will, it is also critical to plan for the possibility of incapacity by creating powers of attorney and advance medical directives. A durable power of attorney allows a new parent to name a spouse, or other trusted relative or friend, to handle personal and financial affairs. Further, a power of attorney for healthcare, or healthcare proxy, designates a trusted person to make medical decisions in accordance with the parent's preferences.

Finally, new parents should also obtain adequate life insurance to protect the family. The proceeds from an insurance policy can replace lost income, pay household and living expenses, as well as any debts that may have been owed by the deceased parent. It is also important to ensure that beneficiary designations on any retirement accounts are up to date so that these assets can be transferred expediently.

In the end, having a child is a time of joy, but also one that requires careful planning. The best way to protect your family is by consulting with an experienced estate planning attorney who can help you navigate the process.

 


Monday, June 19, 2017

Things to Consider in Establishing a Charitable Giving Plan

For many individuals, leaving a legacy of charity is an important component of estate planning, but there are many factors involved in creating a charitable giving plan.

First, it is important to select causes that you believe in such as environmental, educational, religious or medical, or those dedicated to providing food and shelter to the poor. The number of charities you wish to give to depends on your available resources, as well as other beneficiaries of your estate. Many people opt to limit their selections to a handful of charities that are most important to them.

Once charities have been selected, it is crucial to do some homework to make sure the charities are legitimate, and that your gift will be used for the intended purpose, rather than to pay salaries or administrative costs. A good place to start is with the charity's website, and there are many publicly available resources that evaluate charities.

Further, it is important to be realistic about how much of our assets can be dedicated to gift giving, and how those donations should be allocated to the designated charities. Proceeds can either be divided equally, or more money can be provided to the charity you deem most worthy.

Lastly, it is important to avoid the common mistakes many make when planning charitable gifts. It is crucial to ensure that you are donating to a legitimate charity by thoroughly evaluating the agency. In addition, your gift should not be overly restricted since this could make it difficult for the charity to use.If your assets are in stocks, they should not be sold and the profits donated, rather the stocks should be gifted directly to the charity.  

In sum, your gift needs to be helpful to the charity, but also take advantage of tax benefits to which you may be entitled, and these objectives can be achieved by establishing a trust. For example, a charitable remainder trust is one into which property is transferred with a charity named as the final beneficiary. In this arrangement, another individual receives income from the trust for a set period of time and then the remainder is given to the charity. In the end, if your objective is to become a sophisticated donor, it is essential to engage the services of an experienced trusts and estates attorney.


Monday, June 12, 2017

A Primer on Irrevocable Trusts

Many individuals are aware that a will is one way to plan for the distribution of their assets after death. However, a comprehensive estate plan also considers other objectives such as planning for long-term care and asset protection. For this reason, it is essential to consider utilizing an irrevocable trust.

This estate planning tool becomes effective during a person's lifetime, but it cannot be amended or modified. The person making the trust, the grantor, transfers property into the trust permanently. In so doing, the grantor no longer owns property, and a designated trustee owns and manages the assets for the benefit of the beneficiaries.

In short, irrevocable trust provide a number of advantages. First, the property is not subject to estate taxes because the grantor no longer owns it. Moreover, unlike a will, an irrevocable trust is not probated in court. Finally, assets are protected from creditors.

Common Irrevocable Trusts

There are a variety of irrevocable trusts, including:

  • Bypass Trusts -  utilized by married couples to reduce estate taxes when the second spouse dies. In this arrangement, the property of the spouse who dies first is transferred into the trust for the benefit of the surviving spouse. Because he or she does not own it, the property does not become part of this spouse's estate when he or she dies.

  • Charitable Trusts - created to reduce income and estate taxes through a combination of gifting and charitable donations.  For example, charitable remainder trust transfers property into a trust and names a charity as the final beneficiary, but another individual receives income before,  for a certain time period.

  • Life Insurance Trusts - proceeds of life insurance are removed from the estate and ownership of the policy is transferred into the trust. While insurance passes outside of the estate, it is factored into the value of the estate for tax purposes, so this vehicle is designed to minimize estate taxes.

  • Spendthrift Trusts – designed to protect those who may not be able to manage finances on their own. A trustee is named to manage and distribute the funds to the beneficiary or directly to creditors, depending on the terms of the trust.

  • Special needs trusts - designed to protect the public benefits that many special needs individuals receive. Since an inheritance could disqualify a beneficiary from Medicaid, for example, this estate planning tool provides money for additional day to day expenses while preserving the government benefits.

The Takeaway

Irrevocable trusts are essential estate planning tools that can protect an individual's assets, minimize taxes and provide for loved ones. In the end, these objectives can be accomplished with the advice and counsel of an experienced estate planning attorney.

 


Monday, May 22, 2017

8 Things to Consider When Selecting a Caregiver for Your Senior Parent

As a child of a senior citizen, you are faced with many choices in helping to care for your parent. You want the very best care for your mother or father, but you also have to take into consideration your personal needs, family obligations and finances.

When choosing a caregiver for a loved one, there are a number of things to take into consideration.

  1. Time. Do you require part- or full-time care for your parent? Are you looking for a caregiver to come into your home? Will your parent live with the caregiver or will you put your parent into a senior care facility? According to the National Alliance for Caregiving, 58 percent of care recipients live in their own home and 20 percent live with the caregiver. You should consider your current arrangement but also take time to identify some alternatives in the event that the requirements of care should change in the future.

  2. Family ties. If you have siblings, they probably want to be involved in the decision of your parent’s care. If you have a sibling who lives far away, sharing in the care responsibilities or decision-making process may prove to be a challenge. It’s important that you open up the lines of communication with your parents and your siblings so everyone is aware and in agreement about the best course of care.

  3. Specialized care. Some caregivers and care facilities specialize in specific conditions or treatments. For instance, there are special residences for those with Alzheimer’s and others for those suffering from various types of cancer. If your parent suffers from a disease or physical ailment, you may want to take this into consideration during the selection process

  4. Social interaction. Many seniors fear that caregivers or care facilities will be isolating, limiting their social interaction with friends and loved ones. It’s important to keep this in mind throughout the process and identify the activities that he or she may enjoy such as playing games, exercising or cooking. Make sure to inquire about the caregiver’s ability to allow social interaction. Someone who is able to accommodate your parent’s individual preferences or cultural activities will likely be a better fit for your mother or father.

  5. Credentials. Obviously, it is important to make sure that the person or team who cares for your parent has the required credentials. Run background checks and look at facility reviews to ensure you are dealing with licensed, accredited individuals. You may choose to run an independent background check or check references for added peace of mind.

  6. Scope of care. If you are looking for a live-in caregiver, that person is responsible for more than just keeping an eye on your mother or father—he or she may be responsible for preparing meals, distributing medication, transporting your parent, or managing the home. Facilities typically have multidisciplinary personnel to care for residents, but an individual will likely need to complete a variety of tasks and have a broad skill set to do it all.

  7. Money.Talk to your parent about the financial arrangements that he or she may have in place. If this isn’t an option, you will likely need to discuss the options with your siblings or your parent’s lawyer—or check your mother’s or father’s estate plan—to find out more about available assets and how to make financial choices pertaining to your parent’s care.

  8. Prepare. Upon meeting the prospective caregiver or visiting a facility, it is important to have questions prepared ahead of time so you can gather all of the information necessary to make an informed choice. Finally, be prepared to listen to your parent’s concerns or observations so you can consider their input in the decision. If he or she is able, they will likely want to make the choice themselves.

Choosing a caregiver for your parent is an important decision that weighs heavily on most adult children but with the right planning and guidance, you can make the best choice for your family. Once you find the right person, make sure to follow up as care continues and to check in with your mother or father to ensure the caregiver is the perfect fit.

 


Monday, May 15, 2017

People. The Essential Component of Your Estate Plan’s Success

Properly drafted estate planning documents are integral to the success of your legacy and end-of-life wishes.  Iron-clad estate planning documents, written by a knowledgeable attorney can make the difference between the success and failure of having your wishes carried out.  However, there’s more to estate planning than paperwork.  For your wishes to have the best chance of being honored, it is important to carefully choose the people who will carry them out.

Your estate plan can assign different responsibilities to different people.  The person who you most trust to raise your children, for example, may not be the person you’d designate to make health care decisions on your behalf, if you are incapacitated.  Before naming individuals to carry out your various estate and incapacity planning wishes, you should carefully consider the requirements of each role and the attributes which each individual has that will allow him or her to perform the duties effectively.

Executor.  You name the executor, (also known as a personal representative), in your will.  This person is responsible for carrying out all the terms of your will and guiding your will through probate, if necessary.  The executor usually works closely with a probate or estate administration attorney, especially in situations where will contests arise and your estate becomes involved in litigation.  You may appoint co-executors, or name a professional – such as a lawyer or accountant – as the co-executor.

Health care proxy
.  Your health care proxy is the person you name to make medical decisions for you in the event you are incapacitated and unable to do so yourself.  In addition to naming a health care proxy (sometimes called a health care power of attorney), most people also create a living will (or health care directive), in which they directly state their wishes for medical care and end-of-life care in the event of incapacity.  When choosing a health care proxy, select a person who you know understands your wishes regarding medical care, and who you trust to carry out those wishes, even if other family members disagree.  You should also consider individuals who have close geographic proximity to you as well as persons you believe can make difficult decisions under pressure.

Power of attorney
.  A financial power of attorney (or simply power of attorney) is different from a health care power of attorney in that it gives another person the authority to act on your behalf in financial matters including banking, investments and taxes.  You can limit the areas in which the person may act, or you may grant unlimited authority.  A power of attorney may also be limited for a specific time, or it may be a durable power of attorney, in which case it will continue even after the onset of incapacity (until your death).  A power of attorney can take effect immediately or “spring” into effect in the event of incapacity.

Guardians.  If you have minor children or other dependents (disabled adult children or other disabled adults for whom you are the named guardian), then your estate plan should name a person or persons to take over the parental role in the event of your death.  The guardian may also have control over any assets that you leave directly to your minor children or other dependents.  If you create a trust for the benefit of your minor children, then the trust’s trustee(s) will have control over those assets and their distribution.  Important considerations include age of the guardian, compatibility with his or her personality and moral values as well as the extent and quality of the existing relationship with your children.

Trustee.  If you place any assets in trust as part of your estate plan, then you must designate one or more trustees, who will act as the legal owners of the trust.  If you do not wish to appoint someone you know personally, you may appoint a corporate trustee – often a bank – to play this role.  Corporate trustees are often an excellent choice, since they are financial professionals and neutral, objective third parties.  Its important you select individuals who are not only trustworthy but also organized, diligent and detail oriented.

 


Monday, May 8, 2017

What is Estate Recovery?

Medicaid is a federal health program for individuals with low income and financial resources that is administered by each state. Each state may call this program by a different name. In California, for example, it is referred to as Medi-Cal. This program is intended to help individuals and couples pay for the cost of health care and nursing home care.

Most people are surprised to learn that Medicare (the health insurance available to all people over the age of 65) does not cover nursing home care. The average cost of nursing home care, also called "skilled nursing" or "convalescent care," can be $8,000 to $10,000 per month. Most people do not have the resources to cover these steep costs over an extended period of time without some form of assistance.

Qualifying for Medicaid can be complicated; each state has its own rules and guidelines for eligibility. Once qualified for a Medicaid subsidy, Medicaid will assign you a co-pay (your Share of Cost) for the nursing home care, based on your monthly income and ability to pay.

At the end of the Medicaid recipient's life (and the spouse's life, if applicable), Medicaid will begin "estate recovery" for the total cost spent during the recipient's lifetime. Medicaid will issue a bill to the estate, and will place a lien on the recipient's home in order to satisfy the debt. Many estate beneficiaries discover this debt only upon the death of a parent or loved one. In many cases, the Medicaid debt can consume most, if not all, estate assets.

There are estate planning strategies available that can help you accelerate qualification for a Medicaid subsidy, and also eliminate the possibility of a Medicaid lien at death. However, each state's laws are very specific, and this process is very complicated. It is very important to consult with an experienced elder law attorney in your jurisdiction.


Monday, April 24, 2017

Young and Ill, without Advance Directives

When you are a child, your parents serve as your decision makers. They have ultimate say in where you go to school, what extracurricular activities you partake in and where, and how, you should be treated in the event of a medical emergency. While most parents continue to play a huge role in their children’s lives long after they reach adulthood, they lose legal decision-making authority on that 18th birthday. Most young adults don't contemplate who can act on their behalf once this transfer of power occurs, and consequently they fail to prepare advance directives.

In the event of a medical emergency, if a young adult is conscious and competent to make decisions, the doctors will ask the patient about his or her preferred course of treatment. Even if the individual is unable to speak, he or she may still be able to communicate by using hand signals or even blinking one’s eyes in response to questions.

But what happens in instances where the young adult is incapacitated and unable to make decisions? Who will decide on the best course of treatment? Without advance directives, the answer to this question can be unclear, often causing the family of the incapacitated person emotional stress and financial hardship.

In instances of life threatening injury or an illness that requires immediate care, the doctors will likely do all they can to treat the patient as aggressively as possible, relying on the standards of care to decide on the best course of treatment. However, if there is no "urgent" need to treat they will look to someone else who has authority to make those decisions on behalf of the young individual. Most states have specific statutes that list who has priority to make decisions on behalf of an incapacitated individual, when there are no advance directives in place. Many states favor a spouse, adult children, and parents in a list of priority. Doctors will generally try to get in touch with the patient’s "next of kin" to provide the direction necessary for treatment.

A number of recent high-profile court cases remind us of the dangers of relying on state statues to determine who has the authority to make healthcare decisions on behalf of the ill. What happens if the parents of the incapacitated disagree on the best course of treatment? Or what happens if the patient is estranged from her spouse but technically still married- will he have ultimate say? For most, the thought is unsettling.

To avoid the unknown, it’s highly recommended that all adults, regardless of age, work with an estate planning attorney to prepare advance directives including a health care power of attorney (or health care proxy) as well as a living will which outline their wishes and ensure compliance with all applicable state statutes.


Monday, April 17, 2017

A Simple Will Is Not Enough

A basic last will and testament cannot accomplish every goal of estate planning; in fact, it often cannot even accomplish the most common goals.  This fact often surprises people who are going through the estate planning process for the first time.  In addition to a last will and testament, there are other important planning tools which are necessary to ensure your estate planning wishes are honored.

Beneficiary Designations
Do you have a pension plan, 401(k), life insurance, a bank account with a pay-on-death directive, or investments in transfer-on-death (TOD) form?

When you established each of these accounts, you designated at least one beneficiary of the account in the event of your death.  You cannot use your will to change or override the beneficiary designations of such accounts.  Instead, you must change them directly with the bank or company that holds the account.

Special Needs Trusts
Do you have a child or other beneficiary with special needs?

Leaving money directly to a beneficiary who has long-term special medical needs may threaten his or her ability to qualify for government benefits and may also create an unnecessary tax burden.  A simple vehicle called a special needs trust is a more effective way to care for an adult child with special needs after your death.

Conditional Giving with Living or Testamentary Trusts
Do you want to place conditions on some of your bequests?

 

If you want your children or other beneficiaries to receive an inheritance only if they meet or continually meet certain prerequisites, you must utilize a trust, either one established during your lifetime (living trust) or one created through instructions provided in a will (testamentary trust).

Estate Tax Planning
Do you expect your estate to owe estate taxes?

A basic will cannot help you lower the estate tax burden on your assets after death.  If you think your estate will be liable to pay taxes, you can take steps during your lifetime to minimize that burden on your beneficiaries.  Certain trusts operate to minimize estate taxes, and you may choose to make some gifts during your lifetime for tax-related reasons.  

Joint Tenancy with Right of Survivorship
Do you own a house with someone “in joint tenancy”?

“Joint tenancy” is the most common form of house ownership with a spouse.  This form of ownership is also known as “joint tenancy with right of survivorship,” “tenancy in the entirety,” or “community property with right of survivorship.”  When you die, your ownership share in the house passes directly to your spouse (or the other co-owner).  A provision in your will bequeathing your ownership share to a third party will not have any effect.

Pet Trusts
Do you want to leave money to your pets or companion animals?

Pets are generally considered property, and you cannot use your will to leave property (money) to other property (pets).  Instead, you can use your will to name a caretaker for your animals and to leave a sum of money to that person for the animals’ care. 


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