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

Monday, September 7, 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.


Wednesday, August 26, 2015

Would transferring your home to your children help avoid estate taxes?

Before transferring your home to your children, there are several issues that should be considered. Some are tax-related issues and some are none-tax issues that can have grave consequences on your livelihood. 

The first thing to keep in mind is that the current federal estate tax exemption is currently over $5 million and thus it is likely that you may not have an estate tax issue anyway. If you are married you and your spouse can double that exemption to over $10 million. So, make sure the federal estate tax is truly an issue for you before proceeding.

Second, if you gift the home to your kids now they will legally be the owners. If they get sued or divorced, a creditor or an ex- in-law may end up with an interest in the house and could evict you. Also, if a child dies before you, that child’s interest may pass to his or her spouse or child who may want the house sold so they can simply get their money.

Third, if you give the kids the house now, their income tax basis will be the same as yours is (the value at which you purchased it) and thus when the house is later sold they may have to pay a significant capital gains tax on the difference. On the other hand if you pass it to them at death their basis gets stepped-up to the value of the home at your death, which will reduce or eliminate the capital gains tax the children will pay.

Fourth, if you gift the house now you likely will lose some property tax exemptions such as the homestead exemption because that exemption is normally only available for owner-occupied homes.

Fifth, you will still have to report the gift on a gift tax return and the value of the home will reduce your estate tax exemption available at death, though any future appreciation will be removed from your taxable estate. 

Finally, there may be more efficient ways to do this through the use of a special qualified personal residence trust.  Given the multitude of tax and practical issues involved, it would be best to seek the advice of an estate planning attorney before making any transfers of your property.


Monday, August 17, 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.


Thursday, August 6, 2015

Estate Planning for the Chronically Ill

There are certain considerations that should be kept in mind for those with chronic illnesses.   Before addressing this issue, there should be some clarification as to the definition of "chronically ill." There are at least two definitions of chronically ill. The first is likely the most common meaning, which is an illness that a person may live with for many years. Diseases such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease, lupus, multiple sclerosis, hepatitis C and asthma are some of the more familiar chronic illnesses. Contrast that with a legal definition of chronic illness which usually means that the person is unable to perform at least two activities of daily living such as eating, toileting, transferring, bathing and dressing, or requires considerable supervision to protect from crisis relating to health and safety due to severe impairment concerning mind, or having a level of disability similar to that determined by the Social Security Administration for disability benefits. Having said all of that, the estate planning such a person may undertake will likely be similar to that of a healthy person, but there will likely be a higher sense of urgency and it will be much more "real" and less "hypothetical."

Most healthy individuals view the estate planning they establish as not having any applicability for years, perhaps even decades. Whereas a chronically ill person more acutely appreciates that the planning he or she does will have real consequences in his or her life and the life of loved ones. Some of the most important planning will center around who the person appoints as his or her health care decision maker and also who is appointed to handle financial affairs. a will and/or revocable living trust will play a central role in the person's planning as well.  Care should also be taken to address possible Medicaid planning benefits.  A consultation with an estate planning and elder law attorney is critical to ensuring all necessary planning steps are contemplated and eventually implemented. 


Wednesday, July 29, 2015

What Does the Term "Funding the Trust" Mean in Estate Planning?

If you are about to begin the estate planning process, you have likely heard the term "funding the trust" thrown around a great deal. What does this mean? And what will happen if you fail to fund the trust?

The phrase, or term, "funding the trust" refers to the process of titling your assets into your revocable living trust. A revocable living trust is a common estate planning document and one which you may choose to incorporate into your own estate planning. Sometimes such a trust may be referred to as a "will substitute" because the dispositive terms of your estate plan will be contained within the trust instead of the will. A revocable living trust will allow you to have your affairs bypass the probate court upon your death, using a revocable living trust will help accomplish that goal.

Upon your death, only assets titled in your name alone will have to pass through the court probate process. Therefore, if you create a trust, and if you take the steps to title all of your assets in the name of the trust, there would be no need for a court probate because no assets would remain in your name. This step is generally referred to as "funding the trust" and is often overlooked. Many people create the trust but yet they fail to take the step of re-titling assets in the trust name. If you do not title your trust assets into the name of the trust, then your estate will still require a court probate.

A proper trust-based estate plan would still include a will that is sometimes referred to as a "pour-over" will. The will acts as a backstop to the trust so that any asset that is in your name upon your death (instead of the trust) will still get into the trust. The will names the trust as the beneficiary. It is not as efficient to do this because your estate will still require a probate, but all assets will then flow into the trust.

Another option: You can also name your trust as beneficiary of life insurance and retirement assets. However, retirement assets are special in that there is an "income" tax issue. Be sure to seek competent tax and legal advice before deciding who to name as beneficiary on those retirement assets.


Friday, July 17, 2015

Preventing a Will Contest & Preserving Peace in the Family

The purpose of writing a Last Will and Testament is to make sure that you – and not an anonymous probate court judge – have control over the distribution of your property after your death.  If one or more family members disputes the instructions in your will, however, then it is possible  that a probate court judge may decide how your assets will be distributed.


Protect yourself, your family members and your last wishes by taking steps to prevent a will contest after your death.  Will contests (this is the legal term used to describe a family member’s challenge to the contents of a will) can be based on one or more of these claims:

  • The will was not properly executed
  • The willmaker was under improper or undue influence from a beneficiary
  • The willmaker or another person committed fraud
  • The willmaker lacked the mental capacity to make the will

There are a number of steps that you can take to help prevent will contests based on any of those claims.  It is important to remember, though, that different states have different laws regarding wills and probate.  What is advisable in one state may be inadvisable in another, which is why the first suggestion for preventing a will contest is:

  1. Obtain qualified legal advice regarding your estate plan.  Estate planning has become a popular “do it yourself” legal task, but you should at least consider having your will reviewed – if not written – by a qualified estate planning lawyer.  Writing your will with the help of an estate planning attorney will also ensure that your will is a properly executed and valid legal document.
     
  2. Don’t delay estate planning.  Plan your estate while you are in good health – “of sound mind and body.”  If you create your will while your physical or mental health is failing, your will becomes vulnerable to claims that it is invalid due to your lack of mental capacity.
     
  3. Consider a no-contest clause.  A no-contest clause (also called an in terroreum clause) in a Last Will and Testament disinherits anyone who contests the will.  Keep in mind, though, that no-contest clauses are valid in some states but not in others.
     
  4. Consider using trusts.  Trusts are becoming more widely usedin estate planning , and are useful for various situations.  A will is a public document once it is filed in probate court, and the public nature of the document can give rise to disputes and will contests.  In contrast, a revocable living trust is a personal and private document that does not have to be filed as a public record.  Furthermore, lifetime trusts can be used to provide financially for “troublesome” beneficiaries who might otherwise spend through their inheritance.  Lifetime trusts are flexible and can link financial inheritance to the accomplishment of goals that you set forth in the trust documents.
     
  5. Write your will independently.  To avoid claims of undue influence after your death, make sure you write your will in circumstances that are clearly free from interference by family members or other beneficiaries.  Avoid having beneficiaries serve as witnesses, for example, and don’t allow beneficiaries to attend your meetings with your estate planning attorney.  This is especially important if you are under the care of a family member who is also a beneficiary.
     
  6. Be of sound mind and body.  At the time you write and sign your will, you can ask your physician to perform a physical examination and certify that you are mentally competent to execute your will.  Another option is for your attorney to ask you a series of questions before you sign your will and document that the questions were asked and answered.  It may also be a good idea to make a video recording of the process of signing your will, as another way to prove mental competency.
     
  7. Answer your family’s questions.  Consider sharing your intentions with your family and other beneficiaries.  If you explain the reasons for the decisions you made regarding bequests, you may help prevent will contests after your death.  Instead or in addition, you may write a letter to your beneficiaries that will be read at the same time your will is read.
     
  8. Keep your will dust-free.  Once your Last Will and Testament and other estate planning documents are complete, don’t just file and forget them.  Review your will with an attorney at least once a year and make any necessary changes in a timely manner.
     

Monday, July 6, 2015

Common Estate Planning Myths

Estate planning is a powerful tool that among other things, enables you to direct exactly how your assets will be handled upon your death or disability. A well-crafted estate plan will ensure you and your family avoid the hassles of guardianship, conservatorship, probate or unpleasant estate tax surprises. Unfortunately, many individuals have fallen victim to several persistent myths and misconceptions about estate planning and what happens if you die or become incapacitated.

Some of these misconceptions about living trusts and wills cause people to postpone their estate planning – often until it is too late. Which myths have you heard? Which ones have you believed?

Myth: I’m not rich so I don’t need estate planning.
Fact: Estate planning is not just for the wealthy, and provides many benefits regardless of your income or assets. For example, a good estate plan includes provisions for caring for a minor or disabled child, caring for a surviving spouse, caring for pets, transferring ownership of property or business interests according to your wishes, tax savings, and probate avoidance.

Myth: I’m too young to create an estate plan.
Fact: Accidents happen. None of us knows exactly when we will die or become incapacitated. Even if you have no assets and no family to support, you should have a power of attorney and health care directive in place, in case you ever become disabled or incapacitated.

Myth: Owning property in joint tenancy is an easier, more affordable way to avoid probate than placing it in a revocable living trust.
Fact: It is true that property held in joint tenancy will pass to the other owner(s) outside of the probate process. However, it is a usually a very bad idea. Placing property in joint tenancy constitutes a gift to the joint tenant, and may result in a sizable gift tax being owed. Furthermore, once the deed is executed, the property is legally owned by all joint tenants and may be subject to the claims of any joint tenant’s creditors. Transferring a property into joint tenancy is irrevocable, unless all parties consent to a future transfer; whereas property owned in a living trust remains under your control and the transfer is fully revocable until your death.

Myth: Keeping property out of probate saves money on federal estate taxes.
Fact: Probate, and probate avoidance, are governed by state law and address how property passes upon your death; they have nothing to do with federal estate taxes, which are set forth in the Internal Revenue Code. Estate planning can reduce estate taxes, but that has nothing to do with a discussion regarding probate avoidance.

Myth: I don’t need a living trust if I have a will.
Fact: A properly drafted trust contains provisions addressing what happens to your property if you become incapacitated. On the other hand, a will only becomes effective upon your death and specifies who will inherit the property. If you own real property, or have more than $100,000 in assets, both a will and a living trust are generally recommended.

Myth: With a living trust, a surviving spouse need not take any action after the other spouse’s death.
Fact: Failure to adhere to the proper legal formalities following a death could result in significant administrative and tax implications. While a properly drafted and funded living trust will avoid probate, there are still many tasks that have to be performed such as filing documents, sending notices and transferring assets.  
 


Monday, June 29, 2015

Choosing a Guardian for Minor Children

If you are a parent and you are considering estate planning, one of the most difficult decisions you will have to make is choosing a guardian for your minor children.  It is not easy to think of anyone else, no matter how loving, raising your child. Yet, you can make a tremendous difference in your child’s life by planning ahead. 

The younger your child, the more crucial this choice is, because very young children cannot form or express their own preferences about caregivers. Yet young children are not the only ones who benefit from careful parental attention to guardianship. Children close to 18 years old will be legal adults soon, but, as you well know, may still need assistance of a parental figure after the fact.

By naming and talking about your choice of guardian, you can encourage a lifelong bond with a caring family. The nomination of guardians is a straightforward aspect of any family’s estate plan. It can be as basic or detailed as you want. You can simply name the guardian who would act if both you and your spouse were unable to or you can provide detailed guidance about your children and the sort of experiences and family environment you would like for them. Your state court, then, can give strong weight to your expressed wishes.

There are essentially four steps to this process. First, make a list of anyone you know that might be a candidate for guardian of your children.  It is important to think beyond your sisters and brothers and consider cousins, aunts and uncles, grandparents, child-care providers and business partners. You might also want to consider long-time friends and those you’ve gotten to know at parenting groups as they may share similar philosophies about child-rearing. Second, make a list of factors that are most important to you. Here are some to consider:

  • Maturity
  • Patience
  • Stamina
  • Age
  • Child-rearing philosophy
  • Presence of children in the home already
  • Interest in and relationship with your children
  • Integrity
  • Stability
  • Ability to meet the physical demands of child care
  • Presence of enough “free” time to raise children
  • Religion or spirituality
  • Marital or family status
  • Potential conflicts of interest with your children
  • Willingness to serve
  • Social and moral habits and values
  • Willingness to adopt your children

You might find that all or none of these factors are important to you or that there are others that make more sense in your particular situation.  The third step is to, match people with priorities. Use the factors you chose in step two to narrow your list of candidates to a handful.

For many families, it is as easy as it looks. For others, however, these three steps are fraught with conflict. One common source of difficulty is disagreement between spouses. But, consensus is important. Explore the disagreements to see what information about values and people is important to one another and use all of your strongest communications skills to understand each other’s position before you try to find a solution that you can both feel good about. Step four is to make it positive. For some parents, getting past this decision quickly is the best way to achieve peace of mind and happiness. For others, choosing a guardian can be the start of an intensive relationship-building process. An attorney who understands where you and your spouse fall on that spectrum can counsel you appropriately. 


Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Problems with Using Joint Accounts as a Vehicle for Inheritance

When deciding who will inherit your assets after you die, it is important to consider that you might outlive the beneficiary you choose.  If you have added someone to your financial accounts to ensure that he or she receives this asset after you die, you might be concerned about what will happen should you outlive this person.

What happens to a joint asset in this situation depends upon the specific circumstances. For example, if a co-owner that was meant to inherit dies first, the account will automatically become the property of the other co-owners and will not be included in the decedent’s estate.  However, whether it is somehow included in this person’s taxable estate, and is therefore subject to state death tax, also depends on state law. Assuming the other co-owners were the only ones to contribute to this account, and that the decedent did not put any of his or her money into the account, there may be state laws that provide that these funds are not taxed.  The other co-owners might have to sign an affidavit to that effect and submit it to the state department of revenue with the tax return. Also, if the decedent’s estate was large enough to require the filing of a federal estate tax return ($5,340,000 in 2014) the same thing may be needed in order to exclude this money from his or her taxable estate. You would generally state that this person’s name was placed on the account for convenience, and that the money was contributed by the other co-owners.

If you are considering adding someone to your financial accounts so that they inherit it when you die, you should contact an experienced estate planning attorney to discuss your options. 


Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Leaving a Timeshare to a Loved One

Many of us have been lucky enough to acquire timeshares for the purposes of vacationing on our time off.  Some of us would like to leave these assets to our loved ones.  If you have a time share, you might be able to leave it to your heirs in a number of different ways. 

One way of leaving your timeshare to a beneficiary after your death is to modify your will or revocable trust.  The modification should include a specific section in the document that describes the time share and makes a specific bequest to the designated heir or heirs. After your death, the executor or trustee will be the one that handles the documents needed to transfer title to your heir. If the time share is outside your state of residence and is an actual real estate interest, meaning that you have a deed giving you title to a certain number of weeks, a probate in the state where the time share is located, called ancillary probate, may be necessary. Whether ancillary probate is needed will depend upon the value of the time share and the state law.

Another way you could accomplish this goal is to execute what is called a "transfer on death" deed. However, not all states have legislation that permits this so it is imperative that you check state law or consult with an attorney in the state where the time share is located. A transfer on death deed is basically like a beneficiary designation for a piece of real estate. Your beneficiary would submit a survivorship affidavit after your death to prove that you have died. Once this document is recorded the beneficiary would become the title owner.

It is also important to investigate what documents the time share company requires in order to leave your interest to a third party. They may require that additional forms be completed so that they can bill the beneficiary for the annual maintenance fees or other charges once you have died.

If you want to do your best to ensure that your loved ones inherit your time share, you should consult with an experienced estate planning attorney today. 

 


Monday, May 25, 2015

Utilizing Family Limited Partnerships as Part of Your Estate Plan

Designed to preserve family businesses for future generations, Family Limited Partnerships (FLPs) and Family Limited Liability Companies (FLLCs) can help shelter your assets and reduce overall estate and gift taxes.   FLPs are also utilized as an integral part of business succession planning.

A Family Limited Partnership is typically established by married couples who place assets in the FLP and serve as its general partners. They may then grant limited-partnership interests to their children, of up to 99% of the value of the FLP’s assets. When this occurs, two things happen: a) the value of the partnership interests transferred to the children is deemed to be lower than the respective pro-rata value because of minority and marketability discounts and b) the assets are removed from the general partners’ estates.  This allows a transfer of significant assets to the children at lower valuation which results in reduced estate taxes. The general partners continue to maintain control of the FLP and its assets, even though they may own as little as just 1% of the partnership’s valuation.

Limited partners may receive distributions from the FLP which can serve to transfer additional assets from the older generation to younger beneficiaries at more favorable income tax rates.

How Minority and Marketability Interest Discounts Work

Since limited partners do not have the ability to direct or control the day-to-day operations of the partnership, a minority discount can be applied to reduce the value of the limited partnership interests that are transferred.  Furthermore, because the partnership is a closely-held entity and not publicly-traded, a discount can be applied based upon the lack of marketability of the limited partnership interests.  This allows the older generation to leverage the FLP as a vehicle to transfer more wealth to its beneficiaries, while retaining control of the underlying assets.  

With these significant tax benefits, it’s no surprise that many FLPs have attracted scrutiny from the IRS. Many family partnerships have run into issues with tax authorities due to mistakes or outright abuse. Care must be taken to ensure your FLP is properly established and operated.  Specifically, the IRS may look at the following issues when assessing the viability of the FLP:

  • Whether the establishment of the FLP was created solely for tax mitigation objectives. You stand a better chance of avoiding – or surviving – a challenge from the IRS if you can show a legitimate non-tax-related reason the FLP was created. 
     
  • Whether the partnership functions like a business.  Keep your personal assets out of the FLP. You can reasonably expect to transfer closely held stock or interests in commercial real estate into a Family Limited Partnership. However, personal property such as cars or residences may not fare well against an IRS challenge. Similarly, the FLP’s assets should not be used to pay for any personal expenses. The FLP must be a legitimate business entity operated to fulfill business purposes.
     
  • Whether the valuations are based on objective criteria.  Rather than have a partner or family member determine the valuations or discounts for any assets transferred into the FLP, you should have your FLP professionally appraised. A qualified appraiser has a much better chance of withstanding IRS scrutiny.

An FLP can be a powerful planning tool to enable business owners to transfer their stake to the younger generation, while allowing the senior generation to continue conducting operations and mentoring and grooming the young owners.  However, an FLP can be incredibly complex and should only be established with the help of a qualified team of estate planning attorneys, accountants and appraisers.  


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