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John Baker's Elder Law and Estate Planning Blog

Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Living Trusts & Probate Avoidance

Living Trusts & Probate Avoidance

You want your money and property to go to your loved ones when you die, not to the courts, lawyers or the government. Unfortunately, unless you’ve taken proper estate planning, procedures, your heirs could lose a sizable portion of their inheritance to probate court fees and expenses. A properly-crafted and “funded” living trust is the ideal probate-avoidance tool which can save thousands in legal costs, enhance family privacy and avoid lengthy delays in distributing your property to your loved ones

What is probate, and why should you avoid it? Probate is a court proceeding during which the will is reviewed, executors are approved, heirs, beneficiaries, debtors and creditors are notified, assets are appraised, your debts and taxes are paid, and the remaining estate is distributed according to your will (or according to state law if you don’t have a will). Probate is costly, time-consuming and very public.

A living trust, on the other hand, allows your property to be transferred to your beneficiaries, quickly and privately, with little to no court intervention, maximizing the amount your loved ones end up with.

A basic living trust consists of a declaration of trust, a document that is similar to a will in its form and content, but very different in its legal effect. In the declaration, you name yourself as trustee, the person in charge of your property. If you are married, you and your spouse are co-trustees. Because you are trustee, you retain total control of the property you transfer into the trust. In the declaration, you must also name successor trustees to take over in the event of your death or incapacity.

Once the trust is established, you must transfer ownership of your property to yourself, as trustee of the living trust. This step is critical; the trust has no effect over any of your property unless you formally transfer ownership into the trust. The trust also enables you to name the beneficiaries you want to inherit your property when you die, including providing for alternate or conditional beneficiaries. You can amend your trust at any time, and can even revoke it entirely.

Even if you create a living trust and transfer all of your property into it, you should also create a back-up will, known as a “pour-over will”. This will ensure that any property you own – or may acquire in the future – will be distributed to whomever you want to receive it. Without a will, any property not included in your trust will be distributed according to state law.

After you die, the successor trustee you named in your living trust is immediately empowered to transfer ownership of the trust property according to your wishes. Generally, the successor trustee can efficiently settle your entire estate within a few weeks by filing relatively simple paperwork without court intervention and its associated expenses. The successor trustee can solicit the assistance of an attorney to help with the trust settlement process, though such legal fees are typically a fraction of those incurred during probate.


Thursday, December 20, 2012

Year End Gifts

Year End Gifts

If you’re like most people, you want to make sure you and your loved ones pay the least amount of tax possible. Many use year-end gift giving as a way to transfer wealth to younger generations and also reduce the overall potential estate tax that will be due upon their death. Below are some steps you can take to make gifts to your heirs without triggering any gift tax liability. Some of these techniques may also reduce your own income tax liability.

A combination of estate and gift tax exemptions can be used to significantly reduce the overall tax liability of your estate. Upon your death, federal estate tax may be owed. A portion of your estate is exempt from the tax. That exemption amount is set by Congress and can change from year to year. For deaths that occur in 2011, the exemption amount is $5 million and the value of an estate in excess of that amount is subject to estate tax.

Many taxpayers make annual gifts to loved ones during their lifetimes, to reduce the overall value of the estate so that it does not exceed the exemption amount in effect at the time of death. It is important to consider that gifts made during your lifetime are subject to a gift tax (equal to the estate tax). However, certain gifts or transfers are not subject to the gift tax, enabling you to make tax-free gifts that benefit your loved ones and reduce the overall taxable value of your estate upon your death.

The annual gift tax exclusion allows each individual to make annual gifts of up to $13,000 to each recipient. There is no limit to the number of recipients who may each receive up to $13,000 totally tax-free. Married couples may gift up to $26,000 to each recipient without triggering any tax liability. This annual exclusion expires on December 31 of each year, and larger gifts may be made by splitting it up into two payments. By making a payment in December and one the following January, you can take advantage of the gift tax exclusion for both years. Keeping annual gifts below $13,000 per recipient ensures that no gift tax return must be filed, and that there is no reduction in the estate tax exemption amount available upon your death.

Annual gifts may also be made in the form of contributions to a §529 College Savings Plan. These, too, are subject to the $13,000 annual gift tax exclusion. Additionally, such contributions may afford the giver with a state tax deduction.

Payment of a beneficiary’s medical expenses is also excluded from the gift tax. There is no limit to the amount of medical expense payments that may be excluded from tax. To qualify, the payment must be made directly to the health care provider and must be the type of expenses that would qualify for an income tax deduction.

If you have a large estate that may be subject to taxes upon your death, making annual gifts during your lifetime can be a simple way to reduce the size of your estate while avoiding negative tax consequences.


Monday, December 10, 2012

What’s Involved in Serving as an Executor?

What’s Involved in Serving as an Executor?

An executor is the person designated in a Will as the individual who is responsible for performing a number of tasks necessary to wind down the decedent’s affairs. Generally, the executor’s responsibilities involve taking charge of the deceased person’s assets, notifying beneficiaries and creditors, paying the estate’s debts and distributing the property to the beneficiaries. The executor may also be a beneficiary of the Will, though he or she must treat all beneficiaries fairly and in accordance with the provisions of the Will.

First and foremost, an executor must obtain the original, signed Will as well as other important documents such as certified copies of the Death Certificate.  The executor must notify all persons who have an interest in the estate or who are named as beneficiaries in the Will. A list of all assets must be compiled, including value at the date of death. The executor must take steps to secure all assets, whether by taking possession of them, or by obtaining adequate insurance. Assets of the estate include all real and personal property owned by the decedent; overlooked assets sometimes include stocks, bonds, pension funds, bank accounts, safety deposit boxes, annuity payments, holiday pay, and work-related life insurance or survivor benefits.

The executor is responsible for compiling a list of the decedent’s debts, as well. Debts can include credit card accounts, loan payments, mortgages, home utilities, tax arrears, alimony and outstanding leases. All of the decedent’s creditors must also be notified and given an opportunity to make a claim against the estate.

Whether the Will must be probated depends on a variety of factors, including size of the estate and how the decedent’s assets were titled. An experienced probate or estate planning attorney can help determine whether probate is required, and assist with carrying out the executor’s duties. If the estate must go through probate, the executor must file with the court to probate the Will and be appointed as the estate’s legal representative.  Once the executor has this legal authority, he or she must pay all of the decedent’s outstanding debts, provided there are sufficient assets in the estate. After debts have been paid, the executor must distribute the remaining real and personal property to the beneficiaries, in accordance with the wishes set forth in the Will. Because the executor is accountable to the beneficiaries of the estate, it is extremely important to keep complete, accurate records of all expenditures, correspondence, asset distribution, and filings with the court and government agencies.

The executor is also responsible for filing all tax returns for the deceased person including federal and state income tax returns and estate tax filings, if applicable. Additional tasks may include notifying carriers for homeowner’s and auto insurance policies and initiating claims on life insurance policies.

The executor is entitled to compensation for his or her services.  This fee varies according to the estate’s size and may be subject to review depending on the complexity as well as the time and effort expended by the executor.


Saturday, December 1, 2012

Senior Citizens Comprise Growing Demographic of Bankruptcy Filers

Senior Citizens Comprise Growing Demographic of Bankruptcy Filers

It’s called your “golden years” but for many seniors and baby boomers, there is no gold and retirement savings are too often insufficient to maintain even basic living standards of retirees. In fact, a recent study by the University of Michigan found that baby boomers are the fastest growing age group filing for bankruptcy. And even for those who have not yet filed for bankruptcy, a lack of retirement savings greatly troubles many who face their final years with fear and uncertainty.

Another study, conducted by Financial Engines revealed that nearly half of all baby boomers fear they will be in the poor house after retirement. Adding insult to injury, this anxiety also discourages many from taking the necessary steps to establish and implement a clear, workable financial plan. So instead, they find themselves with mounting credit card debt, and a shortfall when it comes time to pay the bills.

In fact, one in every four baby boomers have depleted their savings during the recession and nearly half face the prospect of running out of money after they retire. With the depletion of their savings, many seniors are resorting to the use of credit cards to maintain their standard of living.  This is further exacerbated by skyrocketing medical costs, and the desire to lend a helping hand to adult children, many of whom are also under financial distress.  These circumstances have led to a dramatic increase in the number of senior citizens finding themselves in financial trouble and turning to the bankruptcy courts for relief.

In 2010, seven percent of all bankruptcy filers were over the age of 65. That’s up from just two percent a decade ago. For the 55-and-up age bracket, that number balloons to 22 percent of all bankruptcy filings nationwide.

Whether filing for bankruptcy relief under a Chapter 7 liquidation, or a Chapter 13 reorganization, senior citizens face their own hurdles. Unlike many younger filers, senior citizens tend to have more equity in their homes, and less opportunity to increase their incomes. The lack of well-paying job prospects severely limits older Americans’ ability to re-establish themselves financially following a bankruptcy, especially since their income sources are typically fixed while their expenses continue to increase.


Tuesday, November 20, 2012

Issues to Consider When Gifting to Grandchildren

Issues to Consider When Gifting to Grandchildren

Many grandparents who are financially stable love the idea of making gifts to their grandchildren. However, they are usually not aware of the myriad of issues that surround what they may consider to be a simple gift. If you are considering making a significant gift to a grandchild, you should consult with a qualified attorney to guide you through the myriad of legal and tax issues that are involved in making such gifts.

Making a Lifetime Gift or a Bequest:  Before making a gift, you should consider whether you want to make the gift during your lifetime or leave the gift in your will. If you make the gift as a bequest in your will, you will not experience the joy of seeing your grandchild’s appreciation and use of the gift. However, there’s always the possibility that you will need the money to live on during your lifetime, and in reality, once a gift is made it cannot be taken back. Also, if you anticipate needing Medicaid or other government programs to pay for a nursing home or other benefits at some point in your life, any gifts you make in the prior five years can be considered as part of your assets when determining your eligibility.

What Form Gift Should Take:  You may consider making a gift outright to a grandchild. However, once such a gift is made, you give up control over how the funds can be used. If your grandchild decides to purchase a brand-new sports car or take an extravagant vacation, you will have no legal right to stop the grandchild. The grandchild’s parents could also in some cases access the money without your approval.

You could consider making a gift under the Uniform Gift to Minors Act (UGMA) or the Uniform Transfer to Minors Act (UTMA), depending on which state you live in. The accounts are easy to open, but once the grandchild reaches the age of majority, he or she will have unfettered access to the funds. You could also consider depositing money into a 529 plan, which is specifically designed for education purposes. Finally, you could consider establishing a trust with an estate planning attorney, which can be more expensive to set up, but can be customized to fit your needs. Such a trust can provide for spendthrift, divorce and creditor protection while allowing for more flexibility for expenditures such as education or purchase of a first home.

Tax Consequences: If you have a large estate, giving gifts to grandchildren may be a great way to get money out of your estate in order to reduce your future estate tax liability. In 2011 and 2012, a single person can pass $5 million at death free of estate tax, and a couple can pass a combined $10 million without paying estate taxes. In addition, a person can give $13,000 in 2011 to any number of individuals without incurring any gift taxes. A grandparent with 10 grandchildren could give $130,000 per year to all grandchildren (and a married couple could give $260,000), thereby removing that property from his or her estate.


Saturday, November 10, 2012

Beware of “Simple” Estate Plans

Beware of “Simple” Estate Plans

“I just need a simple will.”  It’s a phrase estate planning attorneys hear practically every other day.   From the client’s perspective, there’s no reason to do anything complicated, especially if it might lead to higher legal fees.  Unfortunately, what may appear to be a “simple” estate is all too often rife with complications that, if not addressed during the planning process, can create a nightmare for you and your heirs at some point in the future.   Such complications may include:

Probate - Probate is the court process whereby property is transferred after death to individuals named in a will or specified by law if there is no will. Probate can be expensive, public and time consuming.  A revocable living trust is a great alternative that allows your estate to be managed more efficiently, at a lower cost and with more privacy than probating a will.  A living trust can be more expensive to establish, but will avoid a complex probate proceeding. Even in states where probate is relatively simple, you may wish to set up a living trust to hold out of state property or for other reasons.

Minor Children - If you have minor children, you not only need to nominate a guardian, but you also need to set up a trust to hold property for those children. If both parents pass away, and the child does not have a trust, the child’s inheritance could be held by the court until he or she turns 18, at which time the entire inheritance may be given to the child. By setting up a trust, which doesn’t have to come into existence until you pass away, you are ensuring that any money left to your child can be used for educational and living expenses and can be administered by someone you trust.  You can also protect the inheritance you leave your beneficiaries from a future divorce as well as creditors.

Second Marriages - Couples in which one or both of the spouses have children from a prior relationship should carefully consider whether a “simple” will is adequate. All too often, spouses execute simple wills in which they leave everything to each other, and then divide the property among their children. After the first spouse passes away, the second spouse inherits everything. That spouse may later get remarried and leave everything he or she received to the new spouse or to his or her own children, thereby depriving the former spouse’s children of any inheritance.  Couples in such situations should establish a special marital trust to ensure children of both spouses will be provided for.

Taxes - Although in 2011 and 2012, federal estate taxes only apply to estates over $5 million for individuals and $10 million for couples, that doesn’t mean that anyone with an estate under that amount should forget about tax planning. Many states still impose a state estate tax that should be planned around. Also, in 2013 the estate tax laws are slated to change, possibly with a much lower exemption amount.

Incapacity Planning – Estate planning is not only about death planning.  What happens if you become disabled?  You need to have proper documents to enable someone you trust to manage your affairs if you become incapacitated.  There are a myriad of options that you need to be aware of when authorizing someone to make decisions on your behalf, whether for your medical care or your financial affairs.  If you don’t establish these important documents while you have capacity, your loved ones may have to go through an expensive and time-consuming guardianship or conservatorship proceeding to petition a judge to allow him or her to make decisions on your behalf.  

By failing to properly address potential obstacles, over the long term, a “simple” will can turn out to be incredibly costly.   An experienced estate planning attorney can provide valuable insight and offer effective mechanisms to ensure your wishes are carried out in the most efficient manner possible while providing protection and comfort for you and your loved ones for years to come.


Thursday, November 1, 2012

Do Heirs Have to Pay Off Their Loved One’s Debts?

Do Heirs Have to Pay Off Their Loved One’s Debts?

The recent economic recession, and staggering increases in health care costs have left millions of Americans facing incredible losses and mounting debt in their final years. Are you concerned that, rather than inheriting wealth from your parents, you will instead inherit bills? The good news is, you probably won’t have to pay them.

As you are dealing with the emotional loss, while also wrapping up your loved one’s affairs and closing the estate, the last thing you need to worry about is whether you will be on the hook for the debts your parents leave behind. Generally, heirs are not responsible for their parents’ outstanding bills. Creditors can go after the assets within the estate in an effort to satisfy the debt, but they cannot come after you personally. Nevertheless, assets within the estate may have to be sold to cover the decedent’s debts, or to provide for the living expenses of a surviving spouse or other dependents.

Heirs are not responsible for a decedent’s unsecured debts, such as credit cards, medical bills or personal loans, and many of these go unpaid or are settled for pennies on the dollar. However, there are some circumstances in which you may share liability for an unsecured debt, and therefore are fully responsible for future payments. For example, if you were a co-signer on a loan with the decedent, or if you were a joint account holder, you will bear ultimate financial responsibility for the debt.

Unsecured debts which were solely held by the deceased parent do not require you to reach into your own pocket to satisfy the outstanding obligation. Regardless, many aggressive collection agencies continue to pursue collection even after death, often implying that you are ultimately responsible to repay your loved one’s debts, or that you are morally obligated to do so. Both of these assertions are entirely untrue.

Secured debts, on the other hand, must be repaid or the lender can repossess the underlying asset. Common secured debts include home mortgages and vehicle loans. If your parents had any equity in their house or car, you should consider doing whatever is necessary to keep the payments current, so the equity is preserved until the property can be sold or transferred. But this must be weighed within the context of the overall estate.

Executors and estate administrators have a duty to locate and inventory all of the decedent’s assets and debts, and must notify creditors and financial institutions of the death. Avoid making the mistake of automatically paying off all of your loved one’s bills right away. If you rush to pay off debts, without a clear picture of your parents’ overall financial situation, you run the risk of coming up short on cash, within the estate, to cover higher priority bills, such as medical expenses, funeral costs or legal fees required to settle the estate.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Tennessee Repeals Gift Tax

Effective for gifts on or after January 1, 2012, the Tennessee Legislature has repealed the Tennessee gift tax. Connecticut is the only remaining state with a gift tax.

There is still a federal gift tax. However, because of the federal lifetime exemption ($5,120,000 in 2012, and $1,000,000 in 2013 and thereafter, unless Congress acts to change the law), most gifts will not result in a federal gift tax.

There are other issues when making gifts that warrant caution and careful planning. 

  1. Capital Gains Tax: Loss of Step Up in Basis. Property inherited at death receives a step up in basis. However, for lifetime gifts, the donee receives the basis of the donor. For example, if your father gifts you land that he purchased for $10,000, and the property is worth $100,000 at the time of the gift to you, then you receive his basis of $10,000. When you sell the same land later for $100,000, you will incur a taxable gain of $90,000. Had you inherited the property af your father's death, then your basis would be the value of the property at his death. If the property was worth $100,000 at his death, and you sold it for $100,000, the taxable gain would be 0. 
  2. Can't Undo the Gift. A completed gift generally cannot be undone. The donee has control of the gift, and the property is subject to the donee's liabilities and creditors. Gifts can be made in trust for the intended beneficiary of the property to protect the property from the beneficiary's creditors and to provide parameters of beneficiary control. However, outright gifts to individual donees have no similar protection.
  3. Medicaid Ineligibility.  Gifts may cause a Medicaid long term care Ineligilbity period for the donor. Medicaid has strict gifting rules that generally apply to gifts made within five years of the Medicaid application. The federal annual exemption for gifts does not apply to Medicaid. Under Medicaid, there is no annual exemption amount.

As you can see, even though the Tennessee gift tax has been repealed, there remain complex legal and tax issues when making gifts. The above information is general in nature and is not intended to be legal advice for particular facts or circumstances. If you intend to make a gift of real property or any other signficant gift, your should consult an attorney knowlegable of this subject matter.


Saturday, May 12, 2012

Tennessee Phases Out Inheritance Tax

The Tennessee Legislature has passed legislation to phase out the Tennessee Inheritance Tax. Effective 2016, the tax is complete repealed. In 2012, the exemption amount is $1,000,000. In 2013, the exemption increases to $1,250,000. In 2014, the exemption increases to $2,000,000. In 2015, the exemption increases to $5,000,000. The inheritance tax is repealed for 2016 and thereafter.

Now we will have to wait and see what the U.S. Congress does with the federal estate tax. The exemption amount for the federal estate tax is $5,120,000 in 2012, but is reduced to $1,000,000 in 2013 and beyond, unless legislation is passed to change the law. The tax rate of 35% in 2012 will increase to 55% in 2013 and beyond, unless legislation is passed to change the law.

I have given up on making predictions on this topic except to say that I do not believe that there will be a complete elmination of the federal estate tax. There was such talk a few years back before the economic meltdown in 2008. But with the large national debt, the expenses of two simultaneous wars and a sluggish economy, complete repeal does not appear realistic no matter who wins the White House in November. 

Even if Congress changes the law to provide an increased exemption and/or lower tax rate, there is nothing to say that Congress won't change it again in the future to a less favorable exemption and/or tax rate.

Bottom line: for estates in excess of $1,000,000, estate tax planning may still be prudent in light of the uncertain times we live in.


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The Elder and Special Needs Law Center - Murfreesboro, Tennessee, is a service of attorney John H. Baker III, of counsel with the law firm of Bullock, Fly, Hornsby & Evans. Offices are located at 307 Hickerson Drive, Murfreesboro (Rutherford County), TN 37129. Surrounding communities include Smyrna and LaVergne (Rutherford County), Franklin and Brentwood (Williamson County), Woodbury (Cannon County), Manchester and Tullahoma (Coffee County), Lebanon (Wilson County) and Shelbyville (Bedford County).