Common Estate Planning Mistakes to Avoid

Estate planning attorneys see them all the time: the mistakes that people make when they try to create an estate plan or a will by themselves. They learn about it, when families come to their offices trying to correct mistakes that could have been avoided just by seeking legal advice in the first place. That’s the message from the article “Five big estate planning ‘don’ts’ from Dedham Wicked Local.

Here are the five estate planning mistakes that you can easily avoid:

Naming minors as beneficiaries. Beneficiary designations are a simple way to avoid probate and be certain that an asset goes to your beneficiary at death. Most life insurance policies, retirement accounts, investment accounts and other financial accounts permit you to name a beneficiary. Many well-meaning parents (and grandparents) name a grandchild or a child as a beneficiary. However, a minor is not permitted to own an asset. Therefore, the financial institution will not name the minor child as the new owner. A conservator must be appointed by the court to receive the asset on behalf of the child and they must hold that asset for the minor’s benefit, until the minor becomes of legal age. The conservator must file annual accountings with the court reflecting activity in the account and report on how any funds were used for the minor’s benefit, until the minor becomes a legal adult. The time, effort, and expense of this are unnecessary. Handing a large amount of money to a child the moment they become of legal age is rarely a good idea. Leaving assets in trust for the benefit of a minor or young adult, without naming them directly as a beneficiary, is one solution.

Drafting a will without the help of an estate planning attorney. The will created at the kitchen table or from an online template is almost always a recipe for disaster. They don’t include administrative provisions required by the state’s laws, provisions are ambiguous or conflicting and the documents are often executed incorrectly, rendering them invalid. Whatever money or time the person thought they were saving is lost. There are court fees, penalties and other costs that add up fast to fix a DIY will.

Adding joint owners to bank accounts. It seems like a good idea. Adding an adult child to a bank account, allows the child to help the parent with paying bills, if hospitalized or lets them pay post-death bills. If the amount of money in the account is not large, that may work out okay. However, the child is considered an owner of any account they are added to. If the child is sued, gets divorced, files for bankruptcy or has trouble with creditors, that bank account is an asset that can be reached.

Joint ownership of accounts after death can be an issue, if your will does not clearly state what your intentions are for that account. Do those funds go to the child, or should they be distributed between heirs? If wishes are unclear, expect the disagreements and bad feelings to be directly proportionate to the size of the account. Thoughtful estate planning, that includes power of attorney and trust planning, will permit access to your assets when needed and division of assets after your death in a manner that is consistent with your intentions.

Failing to fund trusts. Funding a trust means changing the ownership of an asset, so the asset is owned by the trust or designating the trust as a beneficiary. When a trust is properly funded, assets funding the trust avoid probate at your death. If your trust includes estate tax planning provisions, the assets are sheltered from estate tax at death. You have to do this before you die. Once you’re gone, the benefits of funding the trust are gone. Work closely with your estate planning attorney to make sure that you follow the instructions to fund trusts.

Poor choices of co-fiduciaries. If your children have never gotten along, don’t expect that to change when you die. Recognize your children’s strengths and weaknesses and be realistic about their ability to work together, when deciding who will make financial decisions under a power of attorney, health care decisions under a health care proxy and who will best be able to settle your estate. If you choose two people who do not get along, or do not trust each other, it will take far longer and cost more to settle your estate. Don’t worry about birth order or egos.

The sixth biggest estate planning mistake people make, is failing to review their estate plan every few years. Estate laws change, tax laws change and lives change. If it’s been a while since your estate plan was reviewed, make an appointment to meet with your estate planning attorney for a review.

If you would like more information on how estate planning can help you protect your assets from incapacity or other threats, contact our Fort Myers law firm to schedule your free consultation.

Reference: Dedham Wicked Local (May 17, 2019) “Five big estate planning ‘don’ts’”

 

How To Avoid Senior Financial Abuse

How To Avoid Senior Financial Abuse:  Medical research has demonstrated a clear link between accelerated cognitive aging to financial vulnerability, even without any kind of dementia. In other words, as described in the article “Be prepared to avoid financial exploitation” from SBJ, we may feel fine and we may be fine, but our cognitive abilities change as we age.

One of the first signs of cognitive decline is diminished financial capacity, or the progressive loss of a person’s ability to manage banking and investment decisions. If you have an aging parent, you may have seen them struggle with tasks that were previously easy for them to do, like balancing a checkbook or tracking investments.

It’s estimated that for every 44 cases of senior financial abuse, only one is reported to authorities.  In a 2010 study by a nonprofit, one in five adults 65 and older have been a victim of financial fraud or manipulation.

There are several actions that can be taken to mitigate the risk of financial fraud and exploitation. However, the first one is planning before signs of cognitive impairment are seen. Here’s how:

Financial preparation. First, designate a trusted emergency contact for all financial accounts to receive information, if the institution suspects exploitation. Have an estate planning attorney create a durable power of attorney to appoint a trusted individual to act on your behalf. “Durable” means that it will remain in effect, even if you become incapacitated.

Prepare a will to dispose of assets after your death.

Don’t discuss your will or any financial matters with people who are new in your life. That includes caregivers, the new neighbor down the street or people who call claiming some distant connection.

Monitor your credit report and stay up to date with the latest in scams. Seniors are now being targeted by thieves presenting themselves as calling from the Social Security Administration and threatening to cut off benefits. The SSA does not call to threaten individuals, and it never asks for payment in gift cards.

Plan how to transition your financial accounts. That may mean having a professional manage your finances, but make sure they are a licensed fiduciary, so that your interests must come first. Your estate planning attorney may know of these services.

Not all financial institutions have addressed the issue of safeguarding customers from financial fraud and exploitation. Find out what your bank, financial advisor and investment companies are doing. Do they monitor accounts for unusual transactions? What tools are available to account holders to detect suspicious activity?

Speak with your estate planning attorney about making sure all  your legal documents are properly prepared for any cognitive decline, to protect yourself and your family.

Reference: SBJ (June 10, 2019) “Be prepared to avoid financial exploitation”

 

Protecting Kids from Too Much, Too Fast, Too Soon

Protecting your children from frittering away an inheritance, is often done through a spendthrift trust but that trust can also be used to protect them from divorce and other problems that can come their way, according to Kiplinger in “How to Keep Your Heirs from Blowing Their Inheritance.”

We all want the best for our kids, and if we’ve been fortunate, we are happy to leave them with a nice inheritance that makes for a better life. However, regardless of how old they are, we know our  children best and what they are capable of. Some adults are simply not prepared to handle a significant inheritance. They may have never learned how to manage money or may be involved with a significant other who you fear may not have their best interests in mind. If there’s a problem with drug or alcohol use, or if they are not ready for the responsibility that comes with a big inheritance, there are steps you can take to help them.

Don’t feel bad if your children aren’t ready for an inheritance. How many stories do we read about lottery winners who go through all their winnings and end up filing for bankruptcy?

An inheritance of any size needs to be managed with care.

A spendthrift trust protects heirs, by providing a trustee with the authority to control how the beneficiary can use the funds. A trust becomes a spendthrift trust, when the estate planning attorney who creates it uses specific language indicating that the trust qualifies as such, and by including limitations to the beneficiary’s control of the funds.

A spendthrift trust also protects assets from creditors, because the heir does not own the assets. The trust owns the assets. This also protects the assets from divorces, lawsuits and bankruptcies. It’s a good way to keep the money out of the hands of manipulative partners, family members and friends.

Once the money is paid from the trust, the protections are gone. However, while the money is in the trust, it enjoys protection.

The trustee in a spendthrift trust has a level of control that is granted by you, the grantor of the trust. You can stipulate that the trustee is to make a set payment to the beneficiary every month, or that the trustee decides how much money the beneficiary receives.

For instance, if the money is to be used to pay college tuition, the can write a check for tuition payments every semester, or they can put conditions on the heir’s academic performance and only pay the tuition, if those conditions are met.

For a spendthrift trust, carefully consider who might be able to take on this task. Be realistic about the family dynamics. A professional firm, bank, or investment company may be a better, less emotionally involved trustee than an aunt or uncle.

An estate planning attorney can advise you on creating an estate plan that fits your unique circumstances.

Reference: Kiplinger (June 5, 2019) “How to Keep Your Heirs from Blowing Their Inheritance.”

 

What Happens If I Write a Handwritten Will?

Aretha Franklin died last August, and it was first reported that she didn’t have a will. However, recent news reports from Detroit say that, as her estate is being thoroughly reviewed, relatives have discovered a total of three different wills—one of which was located under some seat cushions! What Happens If I Write a Handwritten Will?

Each of Aretha’s wills is handwritten. The three documents have been submitted as part of the probate process to have the court determine if any of them will have legal standing.

Aretha Franklin’s actions—or her lack of the right actions—may could cost her heirs a considerable amount of money in legal fees. It also will make the probate process longer and more stressful. In addition, the ultimate court decision concerning her estate may not be consistent with her wishes.

Fox Business’ recent article, “Aretha Franklin’s handwritten wills found: Big estate planning no-no,” asks what can we learn from the Queen of Soul’s Estate Planning blunders?

First, do it right and ask an estate planning attorney to help you draft your will. He or she will make sure that your will and estate plan comply with the laws on your state. Probate and estate laws may be slightly different in every state, so be certain your will reflects your location and circumstances to be valid.

Don’t make a handwritten or “holographic” will. A handwritten will is valid in a surprisingly large number of states: Alaska, Arizona, Arkansas, California, Colorado, Idaho, Kentucky, Maine, Michigan, Mississippi, Montana, Nebraska, Nevada, New Jersey, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, Pennsylvania, South Dakota, Tennessee, Texas, Utah, Virginia, West Virginia, and Wyoming. However, talk to an experienced estate planning attorney in your state, if you have questions about a holographic will.

Spend the money and do it right. Hire a qualified estate planning attorney to make certain that everything is done correctly, so it’s the way you want it, and it will be upheld if questioned in court after you’re gone. That includes having the will witnessed and/or notarized.

Of course, while you can download a free form from the internet or pay $50 to buy a package, you should invest the extra funds to hire a legal professional to help can save your family a big expense in future extra legal fees.

Further, you should review your will at least every few years to make sure it accurately reflects your current wishes and to be certain that everything is consistent between the will and other documents, like beneficiaries listed on your insurance policies or investment accounts.

You also need to make sure your heirs can find the will. Hiding it in the sofa isn’t the recommended procedure, because who’s to say that Franklin didn’t stash a fourth or fifth handwritten will in a wardrobe or in the food pantry!

Lastly, be sure you let your family and loved ones know your wishes as you prepare these documents. Be proactive about estate planning and do it right.

Reference: Fox Business (May 22, 2019) “Aretha Franklin’s handwritten wills found: Big estate planning no-no”

 

How Should Military Families Plan Their Estates?

How Should Military Families Plan Their Estates? About 50% of service members are under the age of 25, and most are married with children. They don’t get paid very much, and they have to deploy repeatedly to hot spots, where their lives are on the line. Do you need to have a conversation with an Estate Planning Attorney?

A recent CNBC article, “For military families living on the financial edge, money matters are complicated,” explains that setting up a new household in a new location can be difficult, even more so overseas. All those moves make it tough for military spouses to obtain and retain a job. Those spouses, who find it necessary to work to cover expenses, must deal with bosses who understand they might move to a new location tomorrow, which can mean the employer is hesitant to hire them at all.

A big benefit is that the military members receive housing and food allowances and health-care coverage. They may get health care on base, or they may go to use local doctors and health-care facilities. This can all change each time a military family moves, and they do move frequently.

Here’s what they need to do to stay financially ready for both the military life and after they leave.

First, they need to establish an emergency fund. A service member isn’t getting laid off, so three months of expenses is a good target. However, they do live on the financial edge and getting into debt could happen easily.

It’s important that service members stay out of serious debt. It can spell trouble in their careers. Service members with significant debt are considered vulnerable security risks. If their position involves security risk and they lose it because of a financial issue, their careers can be over. Fast.

It’s critical for those in the military to start on their retirement savings as early as possible, like with the Thrift Savings Plan, which is the federal government’s version of a 401(k). Uncle Sam will match up of 5% of their savings. The current military retirement system is what’s called a “defined retirement system.” This means that you get a set retirement, based on the number of years you’re on active duty. There are currently three existing retirement systems, depending on when you entered the service.

Service members need insurance coverage. Service members’ Group Life Insurance is low-cost term insurance for members of the uniformed services. It’s a group life insurance policy purchased by the Department of Veterans Affairs from a life insurance company.

It’s also extremely important to have an estate plan. The Staff Judge Advocate General’s Office provides the basics for free. That includes a will, power of attorney, health-care proxy and may include other documents, depending upon the individual service person’s situation.

Estate planning concerns making decisions about how property will be used, maintained and distributed, if you become incapacitated or die.

Reference: CNBC (May 23, 2019) “For military families living on the financial edge, money matters are complicated”